Monday, December 27, 2010

Sermon: - Acts 6:8 - 7:2a, 51-60

Acts 6:8-7:2a, 51-60
Feast of St. Stephen
December 26th, 2010
“In His Footsteps”

The Christian Church today marks a special remembrance for the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen. Chosen as one of the 7 deacons to assist the 12 apostles in distributing food to the needy, we read how Stephen's bold proclamation of Christ leads to his untimely demise at the hands of angry Jewish opponents. After holding their ears and shouting so as not to hear his message, they stone him to death.

Perhaps because St. Stephen was a martyr whose main service was to help the poor – we have a more recent story about a Christian ruler around 900 A.D., King Wenceslas – who is also remembered for helping the poor. The Christmas hymn in his honor (from the late 1800s) begins:

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even

I won't sing the whole thing... but the hymn goes on to tell of a supposed miracle involving the king, when he went walking through the snow on his way to help a poor peasant. The king's servant found warmth as he followed the king through the snow. The legend tells that the king's footprints radiated heat and kept his servant warm in the bitter cold.

Tradition then tells us that Wenceslas was murdered by his brother, partly because Wenceslas was a proponent of Christianity, and did things like defending priests from persecution. So perhaps, one could say, by helping the poor and dying for his faith, King Wenceslas followed in St. Stephen's footsteps.

Stephen, for his part, is regarded as the first Christian martyr. His symbol – the one printed in our bulletin – includes three stones and a palm branch. Of course, because he was stoned to death, and a palm branch reminding us of how the martyrs are pictured in Revelation – waving palm branches – a symbol of victory even though their blood was shed.

Some might say that we too, should follow in the footsteps of Stephen and Wenceslas, and of course, of Jesus. That the lesson here is for us to feed the poor, do good for the kingdom, proclaim God's word, whatever – to follow in their footsteps. To learn from their example. And while certainly these are good things to do, there's a bit of a problem.

We're not so good at following in those kinds of footsteps. In fact, we more often fall on our faces. Rather than boldly proclaiming God's word, we more often find our foot in our mouth. Think about it.

You feel good about yourself because you made a point of saying Merry Christmas to a store cashier. But then you go home and gossip about your friend. You put a dollar in the red pot with the bell-ringer, but you speak unkindly and think in anger toward your own family. You may blame it on stress, or a long to-do list with little time to do it, but the real problem is that all of us are tripped up by our own sins. And rather than fancy ourselves graceful footstep followers, we should be honest about our clumsy and wandering ways.

What a wonder that Christ walks in OUR footsteps. His walk is graceful, and it is full of grace for us. He becomes a human, takes on human flesh, body, eyes, ears, hands, feet. He walks a perfect walk of the law, something we could never do. And he walks the way of the cross – a path to face God's wrath, so we don't have to. Whatever we do for him, imperfect as it may be, is only because of what he has done for us.

Stephen did follow in the footsteps of Christ, but by the power of the Holy Spirit. And if we do anything well or good, it is to God's credit and not to ours.

First of all, take Stephen's bold proclamation. No fear stood in the way of his witness. He plainly laid out his proclamation, no matter the consequences. And consequences there were. He followed Christ in this way – who paid the consequences for speaking truth to those same powerful men. Like Christ, Stephen commended his spirit to God, even with his dying breath – and so may we follow in those footsteps in our last hour.

But best of all for Stephen, he trusted in Christ. And here is the best example to follow. That even in the face of death at the hands of evil men, we belong to Christ. That nothing, not even death, can separate us from Christ's love. That our sins are forgiven. Our filthy feet, our guilty hands, indeed our whole body is washed in baptismal water and divine blood

For Stephen's prayer, following in the footsteps of Christ, is answered. “Do not hold this sin against them”. Jesus prayed, “Father forgive them.” Jesus makes that prayer a reality.

So it is for us. Forgive us our trespasses, Lord, as we forgive those who trespass against us. May we follow in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ. Forgive as we have been forgiven. Love as we have been loved. Give as we have received. And even carry our own crosses.

Following in his footsteps isn't always easy or without pain. Stephen and so many other martyrs found this out the hardest way. But Christ and his cross make even this suffering worthwhile. For we know where the path leads. Our forerunner went from cross to tomb to life again. And so shall we – from this world of sorrows, to a blessed death, commending ourselves to his care, to a resurrection in glory and life eternal with him.

Sermon - Isaiah 9:2 - Christmas Eve

Isaiah 9:2
Christmas Eve
December 24th, 2010
“A Great Light”

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shined

Grace and peace to you this holy night from Christ our Lord, the Light of the World. Amen.

Perhaps you saw the article earlier this week about the Lunar Eclipse that happened to fall on the Winter Solstice. December 21st is the shortest day of the year – the day with the most darkness. So to have a full moon darkened on that same night... is a notable coincidence. Something that doesn't happen too often. Some even called it the “darkest day in 456 years”.

We learn very early about darkness, and often we learn to fear it. Things that go bump in the night – you can't see them when it's dark. In the darkness is the unknown, and the unknown brings fear.

But even as adults darkness is a universal metaphor for uncertainty, hopelessness, and when you get down to it – death and sin. What is darker than the grave? What is darker than the sins that bring us there?

The people of Isaiah's day knew darkness – the Assyrians and Babylonians would wreak havoc on Israel and Judah. Terrible times that brought not only war and bloodshed, but also a great crisis of faith for God's people. Where was he in all this? Where were his promises? Didn't he say that Abraham's descendants would inherit this land? Didn't he promise that David's house would reign forever? Didn't he promise us a land flowing with milk and honey? But now we are stripped from our land, exiled far away, and living as aliens in a land of pagans and foreigners. Dark days for God's people, indeed.

It's that time of year now when we look back and reflect on the year gone by. We too, might wonder where God was in our lives, especially if 2010 brought more “darkness” than most years. Perhaps you've lost a job, or a loved one. Perhaps you've battled some illness or condition. Maybe you saw a relationship fall apart – or just become more and more strained. Certainly it wasn't the Assyrians and Babylonians that troubled you, but each life brings darkness.

Or maybe you continued to struggle with the darkness of your own soul. What dark deeds have haunted you? What sinful lusts or selfish desires? What bitterness do you carry? Or is your darkness a jaded cynicism? Nothing is good or worth bothering with. The darkness can have its way. The world is done for. I'm done for.

But God breaks into our darkness. The same God who hovered over the dark waters of his creation and said, “let there be light”. The same God who set the Sun and Moon and Stars in their places. The same God who spoke to Moses in a burning bush and led his people through the wilderness in a fiery pillar. He brings light. He brings light to people lost and wandering in the dark. He brings a dawn to those who believe the night will never end. He brings joy to those in misery, hope to those in despair. Even to the dead he brings life.

To the people of Isaiah's day, a promise was given. That a child would be born, a son would be given. This Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.... he would bring end to the warfare, release to the captive, and righteousness and justice for all. He, the promised deliverer, would bring light to the people who walked in darkness and dwelt in deep darkness.

We know him too. He is Christ, our Lord. He is the Light of the World. He is the Light of Light, God of God, Very God of Very God. He is the agent of creation – by him all things were made – even light itself. And now this Light from God has dawned upon our world. He shines through the darkness of the dark Judean night. He shines through the millenia and still brings us light today.

What better light for our darkness than the light of Christ? His dark day of suffering on the cross, and his bright morning of Easter resurrection bring wash us in the light of God's love and forgiveness. In Christ, a new day dawns for his people – the darkness has no more say in our lives. We need never wonder or worry or fear – for he has shined even into the darkness of hell itself – declaring his victory over the dark dreaded foe.

On this holy night – tune in, for a bit, to the darkness. Remember the darkness from whence he calls you – the darkness of this world, the darkness of your sins. And then look to the light. Bask in the Light of Light who brightens it . Christ dawns on your soul – in his word – in his true body and blood – by his Spirit. He enlightens and sanctifies you in his grace and truth.

And we share that light. As is our tradition here, we will use these candles to spread a flame – a light – from the Christ candle and to everyone here. Let this light remind you of the true Light that is Jesus Christ. The child born to us to bring us out of the darkness, now and forever. We receive him, and we share him with those around us, we share his light and love with family, friends, neighbors, even our enemies.

For he is the Son of God, Love's Pure light. Born for us, died for us, and lives for us forever. In His Name, Amen.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Sermon - Matthew 1:18-25 - Advent 4

Matthew 1:18-25
Advent 4
December 19th, 2010
“He will Save His People”

You will call his name Jesus, because he will teach his people how to live holy lives? No. You will call him Jesus, because he will be a great example of righteousness for people to follow? No. You will call him Jesus, because he will show you the way to please God and earn your salvation? No. You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sin. That's it!

We've heard from John the Baptist – proclaiming Christ in boldness, and questioning him from prison – We've seen Mary and Elizabeth and Zechariah – all part of the unfolding story of Jesus' birth. And now we hear what the angel said to Joseph.

You can imagine, perhaps, what Joseph was going through. He was just beginning this new phase of his life. He had been betrothed to Mary – a fellow descendant of David and a godly woman. Betrothal, in those days, was much more than what we know as being “engaged”. Joseph and Mary were legally married – but in this initial stage of marriage, there was no consummation. That would usually happen after about a year of betrothal.

So you can see why, when Joseph finds out she's pregnant, he naturally assumes the worst – that Mary was unfaithful and – and decides to divorce her. Quietly – because he was a righteous man – but divorce her nonetheless.

But God intervenes. He sends a messenger, an angel, with an important explanation. Joseph is convinced. Like Mary, he receives the word of the angel in faith. And the marriage is saved. And all is now ready for the birth of the Christ.

God always tends to the details. He either guides the events of history from behind the scenes, uses the happenings of this life for his purposes, or even steps in noticeably when he needs to – miraculously, even – to make sure his will is done. And the important part of that will has to do with Christ.

Since man's exile from Eden, God had promised a savior. He preserved that promise through wars and famines and calamities of all kinds. He used the twists and turns of his people's lives, their relationships, even their sins – to preserve his promise and bring about this day – when His own son would be born of a woman. Everything fell into place just as he promised, and just as he planned.

It must have seemed to Joseph that the rug was pulled out from under him. His exciting new endeavor of marriage was tainted. Mary wasn't who he thought she was. What was pure had been polluted. But oh, how God sees things differently.

In Mary, who was a sinner like Jospeh and like all of us, nonetheless in her womb now grew the sinless Son of God. Joseph's life wasn't being ruined here, it was being saved in a more profound way than he even knew. And the marriage of Joseph and Mary would be saved even as True Bridegroom was about to visit his Bride in person – yes, Christ would come to his people. Immanuel – God with us.

But best of all, this long-expected child would save his people from their sin. That's why Jesus is born. That's why he came. That's why we celebrate Christmas. It's not even so much that in Christ, God is with us – it's that God is with us to save us from sin!

Whatever Joseph thought his problems were, the angel set him straight. Sin is the problem. Sin is always the problem, for all people. And Jesus, this child of the virgin, is the only answer.

There's no shortage of opinions today on what the birth of Christ meant or means. For some it's as shallow as a Hallmark card, peace, love and goodwill. For others it's as fleeting as a warm fuzzy feeling that, even for a moment, brings back fond childhood memories. And for others its a sense of self-satisfaction about being kind and generous to others.

But the Angel says it best. He's Jesus. He's here to save us from our sins! That's it! That's the point!

Listen to that angelic message closely today. Whatever is going on in your life – don't miss out on what God has done, and is doing for you in Christ. Don't forget who this child is and what he has done and what it means for you. He's Jesus!

Joseph and Mary had a tough road ahead of them – and I don't just mean the trek to Bethlehem. Joseph would work as a carpenter and earn his daily bread. Mary would endure the questions to her character, and the inconvenience of raising a child on the run, even to Egypt. And later, after Joseph is gone, she would suffer the horror of watching her own son die, crucified as a criminal. But even here, especially here, he is Jesus. He is saving his people from their sin.

It's not pretty. It's not soft and warm and sanitized. Salvation comes in the blood and sweat and anguish of God's Son and Mary's Son. It's all the ugliness of sin wrapped up into one body – and that body bearing the full force of sin's wages for all.

There is no Christmas without Christ. And there is no Christ without the cross. There's no manger scene apart from a crucifix. No Bethlehem without Jerusalem. No savior born unless he is born to die. And there is no salvation for sinners like you and me, without Christ crucified for sinners like you and me.

And of course, the cross of Christ means nothing without the resurrection of Christ. So Christmas and Good Friday and Easter – all speak the same to us: Jesus. He who saves us, his people, from our sins. And here is our true Christmas joy. Here Joseph's Savior, Mary's Savior, everyone's Savior – in Jesus. Immanuel. God with us.

Advent now closes. Christmas is almost here. And we are prepared to celebrate his birth because we know who he is. He is Jesus. He's our Savior from sin. Believe in him always! Amen.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Sermon - Matthew 11:2-15 - Advent 3

Matthew 11:2-15
Advent 3
December 12th, 2010
“Look, Listen”

Last week we saw John the Baptist at the peak of his ministry – baptizing crowds and calling out Pharisees. Today, we read a bit further in Matthew's Gospel, and John's in a much different place. Prison, in fact. He had criticized King Herod, who had taken his brother's wife, and didn't take kindly to John's finger-pointing. John's hopes for release were slim. And we all know what John's fate would soon be – beheaded at a grizzly birthday party for the king. In the valley of the shadow of death – John sends his followers to ask Jesus, “are you the one, or shall we look for another?”

Today, we light that pink candle in our Advent wreath. It's often called the “shepherds candle” or the candle of Joy. This season of preparation evokes in us many and varied responses – and joy should be one of them. For like the shepherds who first heard the news of Christ's birth, we too believe he is the one who is to come. The Savior who brings peace on earth and God's good will toward man. We have joy, even in our expectation of Christmas. But then there's John, sitting in prison....

John must have looked around his prison cell, and found it a rather joy-less place. We can only imagine what it was like. Probably not the clean and sterile institutional setting of today's prisons – you might imagine a rat scurrying here or there. It was probably a dark place without much sunlight – figurative or literal.

And if we think about what John might have heard in his prison, perhaps it was the moaning of other prisoners. The jingling of jailers' keys. The sharpening of their axes. Or even the silence of his own isolation. In any case, nothing to be joyful about. A man sitting, thinking, alone with his thoughts, and perhaps his doubts.

We can relate. As we look around, and listen – what do we hear this Advent season?

We might look around at the decorations, the bright lights and greenery. We might see the gleaming snow and the cheery red cheeks of well-wishers. We might see joy on the surface. But a closer look reveals that all is not right with this world. Sin doesn't stop for the holidays. People don't stop being people just because it's December. In some ways, the stress of the season makes us even more miserable – or makes us miserable to be around. We are busy and preoccupied. We are worried and harried. We'd like to take time to reflect on the deeper meaning of it all – but we're so easily distracted by the sights and sounds, or by the worries and cares.

Or perhaps you're more like John, sitting alone with his thoughts. Maybe loneliness or the grief of a lost loved one is your constant companion in this jingle-belled jailhouse. You sit there looking at everyone on the outside going on with life as usual – happy and cheerful it seems, but you're stuck in a place that seems hopeless and joyless.

Give John this. At least his unbelief still had some belief. In the depths of his doubt, in the dark hour of his coming demise, he reaches to Jesus through his disciples. He longs to hear a word of hope. He wants to be re-assured that Jesus really is the one.

And you can say, “What a doubter! Wasn't this the same John who boldly proclaimed Jesus the Lamb of God? Who baptized him and heard the voice and saw heaven open and the dove come down?” Yes. Isn't this the same John of whom Jesus said, “among those born of women, none is greater than John?” Yes. But even the greatest of us still needs the word of Christ. Even the most faithful, the most bold and the strongest Christians need the Gospel. We all face times of joy-less-ness in our messy prison of sin. We all need to be lifted up, to see and hear....

And Jesus delivers. He sends the message back. Not a promise of earthly deliverance. No get out of jail free card. But a better answer than John could have hoped for. “Look around, John. Listen, John”.

What you see – the signs of the Messiah. The miracles of Jesus point to who he is. Healings and wonders were his calling cards, meant to point to something even greater. Notice the climax of the answer isn't even the raising of the dead. It's that the good news is preached to the poor.

What do you see? What do you hear? When it comes to Jesus – what we see and hear is good news.

John must have found it hard to be joyful in prison, for what he saw and heard was so dismal. But take a look at Calvary. On that dark day, on a hill far away, with suffering and shame on display. Take a look at the bloody, beaten, humiliated man wearing a thorny crown and nailed to an instrument of death. And listen to them jeering and mocking and spitting. See his disciples deserting him, and the soldiers surrounding him, casting lots for his clothing. And hear the women weeping and the silence of God as his own Son suffers.

And then hear these words: “It is finished”.

And then look – and see what is not there. He has burst the bonds of death. The prison of his tomb is left, door wide open. And hear the words of angels, “He is risen!”.

If you're like John, stuck in the prison of your sins and the broken sinful prison of life around you. If you're looking for a word of encouragement – a word of joy. Look, and listen. Don't just look to the bright lights, and listen only to the carols piped into the shopping malls. Look to Jesus. Listen to Jesus. Look to his cross and empty tomb. Listen to his promising word, and hear his absolution.

You may not be set free from prison, healed, or granted a miracle. Indeed, like John, you may even face death. But you will know the good news of his truth. And even if you die, you will live. And even in your suffering, you will find joy in him.

For you will look and listen with the eyes and ears of faith – and see a whole different reality. He who has eyes to see, let him see Jesus. He who has ears, let him hear Jesus. In his name, Amen.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Walther "Checklist"

Recently, a Lutheran discussion forum mentioned this document by C.F.W. Walther:

"The Proper Form of an Evangelical Lutheran Congregation Independent of the State"

I set out to create an even shorter outline, or "checklist" for evaluating congregational practice according to Walther's "purpose and form". Here it is:

Adapted from, “The Proper Form of an Evangelical Lutheran Congregation” by C.F.W. Walther

A. Congregational Meetings

B. The Word of God dwells richly

C. Purity of Doctrine/Life and Discipline

D. Temporal Welfare of Members

E. Decently and in Good Order

F. Unity with other Local Congregations

G. The Church at Large

More specifically:

A. Congregational Meetings
2.Encourage Participation
4.Proper Business – Doctrine, Officers, Discipline, Good Order
5.All decisions in accord with the Word. Adiaphora by vote
6.No shows don't vote – Major decisions are confirmed later
7.Careful minutes recorded
8.Opened and closed with prayer

B. The Word of God dwells richly
1.Establish/Maintain Office of Holy Ministry
2.Proper Call (process) of Pastor
3.Public Services of Worship
4.Baptism, Communion, Pastoral Care, Funerals
5.Establish a School
6.No Conventicles

C. Purity of Doctrine/Life and Discipline
1.All members strive to grow in the Word
2.Establish officers to assist the Pastor (Elders)
3.Use only pure books and ceremonies
4.Admits new members properly
5.Formal Church Discipline
6.Deposing Pastors – only properly!
7.No toleration of Syncretism or Unionism

D. Temporal Welfare of Members
1.Provide for the Pastor
2.Provide for the poor, widow, orphan, aged and infirm
3.Care for the sick
4.Bury the dead – even the poor

E. Decently and in Good Order
1.Pastor records membership and pastoral acts
2.Secretary keeps congregational documents
3.A Treasurer – monthly reports – auditing
4.Almoners appointed to care for poor
5.Acquire and maintain property
6.Items/Equipment necessary for Public Service
7.Meeting times strictly enforced
8.No precipitous votes
9.Majority should yield to minority in some cases
10.One speaker at a time
11.Proper voting procedures
12.Written reports
13.Written description of congregational offices
14.Constitutions may be amended, except regarding Word of God
15.Each member contributes according to conscience

F. Unity with other Local Congregations
1.Pray for all the saints
2.Endeavor to be at one with other true Lutheran congregations
3.Agree with other congregations regarding “territory”
4.Honor and issue transfers
5.Do not receive excommunicated members from orthodox congregations
6.Receive those wrongfully excommunicated
7.Consent to calling of pastors between congregations
8.Seek advice from and advise sister congregations
9.Assist sister congregations in distress
10.Allow its pastor to serve a sister congregation in vacancy

G. The Church at Large
1.Encourage young men to become pastors
2.Provide support for Gospel work “Bread of Life”
3.Distribution of Bibles
4.Join in mission work
5.Unite with Lutherans in our country to build the Kingdom

Monday, December 06, 2010

Sermon - Matthew 3:1-12 - Advent 2

Matthew 3:1-12
Advent 2
December 5th, 2010
“Sticks and Stones”

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” So the parental wisdom goes. Most of us have been called names at some point in our lives, and maybe it's not so easy to brush it off. Part of the reason we call people names is because it does hurt – and it often contains bitter truth. Whether they called you four-eyes or shorty or fatso, whether the names were a schoolyard taunt or a calculated adult insult.... in some ways, sticks and stones would hurt less than the names that we are called, and that we call each other.

It's not very nice, is it, to call someone a name? It's not very Christian-like, is it? Would someone tell that to John the Baptist? In our Gospel reading today, he calls those pharisees a “brood of vipers”. You're a bunch of slithering snakes! And he implies that they are withered old trees that are good for nothing except to be chopped down and burned. Yes, John makes no bones about calling them names. Not very nice. Not very politically correct. But very, very Christian.

Even Jesus was a name-caller. He called those same pharisees “hypocrites” and “white-washed tombs”. He continually called them out in his parables and his teaching. He was just as fierce as John the Baptist in pointing the accusing finger. And if the names don't hurt enough, Jesus even fashioned a whip to clear out the temple from the “den of thieves” as he called them.

John, I think, gets a bad rap as a fire-and-brimstone preacher. He was really, essentially, no different than Jesus in this way. Jesus, too, taught a harsh word of law. He called people the names they deserved. And the truth hurts.

And your pastors do the same. Maybe we're a little less brazen about it, but every Sunday when you come here, we call you names. We call you “sinner”. Of course, we call ourselves that, too. But that shouldn't blunt the force of the blow.

Perhaps we've grown so accustomed to that name, “sinner” that it doesn't hurt anymore. Perhaps it doesn't even phase us. Some people outside the church would bristle at such an accusation. “I am NOT a sinner! I'm a good person! I do what I'm supposed to do. God knows I mean well. Don't you judge me, you Christian.”
Well if you think like that too, all I can say is what John said. “Repent! The kingdom of Heaven is at hand!”

The truth hurts, and it should. We are sinners. We're no better than the brood of vipers, the white-washed tombs, the den of thieves. Are you a liar, a gossiper, a drunk, a cheater? A lazy, mean, pride-filled so-and-so? Pick the name that fits you, or have a few. It's not just “sinner” in general – it's the specific sins, too. You have yours, and I have mine.

And they hurt us more than sticks and stones. They kill us. They bring suffering and death. For all the excuses and justifications we bring, we can't escape the wages of our sin. We know our name – and it is mud. Sin has our number.

But then.... then there's that other name. The name that Jesus calls us. The name that is foreign to us, a new - adopted name. Not the name of our birth, but of our second birth. The name we receive when our sins our washed away. A Triune name that is upon us, and into which we are baptized. A name that matters more than the name of “sinner”. A name that makes our old name irrelevant.

The sticks and stones of sinful names hurt us, but life and salvation come in Jesus' name. Forgiveness comes in that new name – the new birth in him.

For he conquered our sin with two sticks – fashioned in the shape of a cross. And he vanquished death with a stone, rolled away from his tomb. And in his resurrection, we see our future – and in his reign from heaven he prepares a place for us. An inheritance – waiting with our name on it. A book of life, in which our names are written.

John prepares the way by calling sinners what they are – sinners. And by calling them to repent. And by washing their sins away. Jesus is the way who called sinners what they were, called them to repent, and won for them a new name.

Today, you are a sinner, and the pastor is calling you to confess your sins and repent. But he's also calling you to believe. Believe in the Christ who came to win you back from sin. Believe in the Christ who died and rose for you. Believe in the Christ who gives you a new name in Baptism.

Names can hurt you, especially when they are true. Sticks and stones can break your bones, and even kill you. But his gracious word of promise brings you forgiveness, life and salvation. Thank God for calling us by His name, in Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Sermon - Matthew 21:1-11 - Advent 1

Matthew 21:1-11
Advent 1
November 28, 2010
“Palm Sunday in Advent?”

If you just came to church today and heard our Gospel reading, you might think that someone had messed up the scheduled readings for the day. After all, Matthew 21 is the Palm Sunday reading – we usually hear that the week before Easter. Jesus makes his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, Holy Week begins, and soon his suffering and death are at hand. The crowds welcome him as the Son of David, but then turn on him and shout, “Crucify!”.

So what are we doing now, at the beginning of Advent, reading about Palm Sunday? Is this like “Christmas in July” only, backwards? What is our lectionary thinking today – beginning the Church Year with Jesus' donkey ride into Zion?

Perhaps it's best to review what Advent means – in a word, it means, “coming”. Jesus is coming. Jesus is coming as a little baby in Bethlehem. That's Christmas. He's also coming again in glory to judge the living and the dead. That's his second coming – and that's been a theme for us the past few weeks. Jesus is coming, and he's coming to Jerusalem in our reading today. He's coming to do what he came to do – to suffer and die, and save.

So it makes sense, really, that Advent begins with a very important beginning – the triumphal arrival of Christ to his people, to his city – marks the triumphal arrival of the Church Year anew. And so Advent begins in this way.

One theme of the Palm Sunday account is that it all took place in fulfillment of prophecy. Zechariah proclaims that the king would come humble on the foal of a donkey. And Jesus own words to his disciples – telling them where to find his ride – they also are fulfilled. But really, this is the fulfillment of God's longstanding promise of a Messiah – a king from the royal line of David. This is God's own appointed Savior – the Christ – coming to do what God promised he would.

He would suffer and die. That's not what many expected, or wanted. When Jesus comes, it's not always how we hope or the way we expect. God is full of surprises. But his word is always fulfilled, sooner or later – according to his will.

So what does it mean for us, today, 21st Century Lutherans standing at the turn of another Church Year – with Thanksgiving Day behind us and Christmas around the corner? What does Jesus coming to Jerusalem, or to Bethlehem, or in Glory on the Last Day... what does it have to do with your problems today?

Everything. For your problems come from sin. And Jesus comes to deal with sin. Your struggles and hardships, your sorrows and pains – all result from being a sinner in a sinful world. It's not that God isn't good, it's that we are evil – and evil is all around us. We should first blame ourselves. We have a hand in our troubles – our own sins of thought, word, and deed tell the story. From the garden of Eden to the place where you live – we humans sin, sin daily, and sin much. Sure we try to cover our sins like Adam and Eve covered themselves with fig leaves. But God knows what you do, he's not so easily fooled. So let's not fool ourselves.

An honest look at our own lives would show a mess that needs to be cleaned up. Like when holiday guests are coming and the house is a disaster – you do what you can to pick up, vacuum, make things look nice for company. But imagine someone just dumped a truckload of garbage in your living room and you have only minutes to clean the place. And the guest that's coming isn't just some family or friends – but the king! How will you hope to be ready? How will you be prepared for his coming?

You can't be. But the good news is that he prepares you. He prepares your heart and mind and spirit. He comes to you for that very reason. He comes to make you ready for his coming. He comes, to you, today.

Jesus comes to his people – not only as a baby, as a donkey-riding Son of David, and as a glorious omnipotent king – but he also comes to you today. He comes in his word of forgiveness. For when you hear his word proclaimed and preached – he is present, working his salvation. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.

He also comes in bread and wine that are his body and blood. Jesus is truly present here, in this place, in this simple meal, in accord with his word of promise. And with that promise, you who receive him receive his forgiveness, and life, and salvation.

And it is in these humble ways of word and sacrament - that he comes to prepare you for his glorious and final coming.

One of our advent hymns strikes many of these notes:
“Once he came in blessing, all our sins redressing:
came in likeness lowly, son of God most holy.
Bore the cross to save us, hope and freedom gave us”

but the hymn goes on – how does Jesus come today?
“Now he gently leads us, with himself he feeds us.
Precious food from heaven, pledge of peace here given.
Manna that will nourish souls that they may flourish.”

and then his final coming gets a verse:
“Soon will come that hour, when with mighty power,
Christ will come in splendor and will judgment render.
With the faithful sharing joy beyond comparing”.

Yes, Jesus came – to Bethlehem, to Jerusalem.
Yes, Jesus comes – in the Word, in the Sacrament.
Yes, Jesus will come – in Glory, to fulfill all things.

As he comes to us sinners, let us repent of our wicked ways, and receive him with thanksgiving, who came and lived and died for us, who comes to us and forgives us, and will come again to bring us to glory with himself.

Hosanna to the Son of David. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Sermon - Luke 21:5-36 - Pentecost 25

Luke 21:5-36
November 14th, 2010
“Words Enduring to the End”

It's that time of year again – that time of the church year, I mean. That time of year that we begin to speak about the end of time – the last days. The fancy theological word is “eschatology”. But you might think of it as judgment day, the second coming of Christ, or the beginning of the kingdom yet to come.

No matter what you call that day and its events, talk about the end gets people – even Christians – a little nervous. Maybe a lot nervous. Will there be gloom and doom and destruction and plagues and suffering and cataclysmic disasters? Will I, personally, have to stand before the throne of God and answer for all my sins? How will I be judged? These are the sorts of questions that make people want to read some other passage of the Bible. Let's just no think about it.

And some of what Jesus says today might bring us fear. For while he speaks, on the one hand about the end of days, he also weaves it together with predictions about the fall of Jerusalem. And still, he manages to include us and all believers in his warnings – and his promises – about the things to come.

Jesus knew it would be tough for his disciples, and for you. He knew that there would be all sorts of troubles and temptations. Persecution and pitfalls. He warns them, and us – of the difficulties – not just of living in this world, but as one of his disciples. The difficulty of avoiding false teachers who come in his name. The dangers posed by authorities who are hostile to his teaching and his people. There's a lot going against us. It could make us hang our heads.

But there's hope. Jesus says, "Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. In other words, when you see the signs, you know the end is coming. But that end is a day of joy for you, my people. So lift up your heads and look toward the heavens. I come with victory for you and all who belong to me.

For Christians living in this world, there is hardship, trouble, grief, pain.... but all these things are temporary.

Even the most permanent things in this world will melt away. The great and mighty temple of Herod, with huge stones built high and magnificent – that would be torn down not 40 years from Jesus' departure.

And then there's our very life. Yes, we know we will die. This corrupted body won't last – it can't. Sin takes its toll. Its wages come due. And the grave waits for us all. Whether it comes through sickness or accident or because someone takes our life away – no matter. Our earthly life may be taken, but our eternal life is secure. Our body may be destroyed, but not a hair on our head is harmed – not according to his promise. For we shall rise at the end, and stand, and live in perfected and glorified bodies – living with our Lord and all his people forever.

None of the troubles of this world will last forever. Even death itself is on the clock. But Christ says his words WILL endure forever. And we believe it by his grace!

All that terror and destruction the Bible describes – all the horrors of the end – are all consequences of sin. And while we bear them in part, even now, and while we may bear them more fully as the birth pangs of creation increase and the end hastens – only one bore all the suffering for sin. Jesus Christ.

His cross is the end of sin's hold on this world, and on you. His sacrifice there is the death of death, the source of your life. And the words he speaks, even there, will endure forever: “It is finished”. Sin, death, the power of the Devil – all are finished at the cross. Salvation is accomplished there on Calvary. It is confirmed at the empty tomb of his resurrection. And it will be completely fulfilled on the day that he has appointed. For the world, and for you.

We don't know when it will be. But we see the signs. The fig tree has sprouted. All around us we see the things Jesus is talking about – wars and rumors of wars. Earthquakes, famines, and pestilence. Persecution of Christians – we may even feel we are under siege like ancient Jerusalem. We look around and the world seems so messed up, our country is in turmoil, and our own personal lives are a disaster.

But fear not! His words endure forever. And he calls you to endure, by faith, and to remain strong in his word. It's a sure word of hope in the midst of all that is tumbling down around us. It's a sure word of promise that gets us through the dark days into that bright tomorrow of forever.

They can take away our life, goods, fame, child and wife – but the kingdom ours remaineth. His word fells the adversary. His promise never goes away. We belong to Jesus – that's the eternal truth that will never change, yesterday, today, tomorrow – even at the end. Amen.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sermon - John 8:31-36 - Reformation Day

Sermon- Reformation Day
John 8:31-36
October 31st, 2010
“Truth and Freedom and Christ”

A happy and blessed Reformation day to you all. Today, October 31st, marks the beginning of the great Reformation of the western Christian church. On this day, a monk named Martin Luther stirred up quite a debate with his 95 theses, posting them on a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. He wanted to debate the sale of indulgences – documents the church promised would forgive sins – but he ended up rediscovering the Gospel itself. And in the years that would follow, others who discovered this Good News about Jesus which had been obscured for so long – they would come to be known as Lutherans. There's more history to all this, of course, but those are the main points.

So today, many protestants and all Lutherans around the world mark and remember the Reformation. There's a danger here of course. We don't want to fall into the trap of triumphalism. One pastor puts it this way:

“Reformation Day is not simply a self-congratulatory, back-slapping day. It is not V-R Day. It is not "We got it right and everyone else is dumb" Day.

It is a day where we ought to be focused on one simple truth. Because the Church is full of sinners who will wish to twist and corrupt doctrine, who will want to turn away from the clear and pure Gospel and substitute things of their own devising, the Church is always, always in need of Reform.” (Rev. Eric Brown - “Confessional Gadfly”)

In short, the Reformation was and is still about the truth. Maybe that's why John 8 is our Gospel passage today, in which Jesus talks about the truth that sets us free. The truth that is his word – and he calls us to abide in it – to live and remain in it. The truth about us, and about him.

To the Jews who believed in him, Jesus spoke this strange saying about slavery and freedom. He wasn't talking about earthly slavery or temporal freedom. He was talking about slavery to sin.

It's a form of slavery we are all born into. There's nothing you can do to free yourself from it. Like bonds or shackles – sin is fastened tightly to you, corrupting your entire nature. Everything you do and say, even every thought you think is chained to sin.

What makes it all the more insidious is that it's hard to see. But Jesus says even if you simply commit ONE sin, you are a slave to sin! Amazing! We like to convince ourselves that we don't sin that much. Ah, maybe a little. Maybe we are “sinning under the influence” but we're not hard-core, full-bore sinners. We just have a little problem, not an addiction. It's like a cold, it'll go away on it's on. But we fail to see the depth and darkness of sin's hold on us. We fail to see the walls of the dungeon that hold us captive here in these corrupted sinful bodies. We are blind to our own blindness.

The Jews Jesus was talking to didn't see it. “We're Abraham's descendants and have never been slaves to anyone”. They didn't see it. They didn't even know they were slaves.

Perhaps they were also ignorant of their own history – and a lesson to draw here today is to know our own. For Abraham's descendants certainly were slaves to someone – named Pharaoh. God went to great trouble to bring them out of bondage in Egypt, sending signs and wonders, and working through the great deliverer, Moses. Throughout the Old Testament God continually reminded the people of these events – not to worship Moses, and not to think they were something in themselves – but to remind them of his great mercy and his mighty arm to save.

Do we know our own history? As Lutherans, we can look back to how God worked in mighty ways to deliver us from the bondage of false doctrine – man-made doctrine – under the power of pope instead of pharaoh. We can remember the man God used to bring about such freedom – a monk named Luther. But we should first and foremost give thanks to God the true deliverer who brings us to the truth, and frees us from error, so that we may see Jesus our Savior clearly.

He is the true deliverer, Jesus Christ. Abiding in his word, his truth, means keeping him central to our lives and our doctrine. Jesus Christ, born of a virgin, perfect and without sin, the Son of God who sets us free from our slavery by ransoming us in his perfect death on Calvary. This is the point of Reformation day – and of every other day we mark and observe. Christ was crucified for you, the slave to sin. Christ died to set you free from sin.

He reforms you by grace through faith, in the work of his Spirit, and not of yourself but this is God's gift. No one can boast of their own works of righteousness – but we do boast all the more about how good God is to all people in his Son.
Abiding in this truth, the truth of Jesus, the church is always being reformed. Because individual sinners are being reformed. By repentance and forgiveness, God renews and reforms us toward his own image. He makes slaves to sin into sons of righteousness. He makes helpless and hopeless, wretched and wicked men and women into holy and righteous children of God. He does this for you – in Jesus Christ.

So be free – from all the sin that would cling to you. In Jesus, be free from the guilt and shame of your wicked works. He died for those. They're gone. Be free from the devil's lies and man's deceptions – and cling to, hold to, abide in Jesus' word. A word which says, “I've done it all for you – it is finished!” A word of grace and mercy, and word of hope and faith. A word which bespeaks us righteous. A little word that can fell even the devil himself, and has, at cross and tomb, at font and rail, forevermore, in Jesus Christ, Amen.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Sermon - Luke 18:1-8 - Pentecost 21

Luke 18:1-8
October 17h, 2010
“Pester Me”

Once again we have Jesus telling a parable to illustrate the Kingdom of God – and Luke tells us the point out of the gate - “Always pray and do not lose heart”.

The persistent widow pestered the corrupt judge until he finally gave in – not for the sake of justice, but to be rid of this annoying woman. How much more will you heavenly Father, who is righteous and good, won't he do even better for you, his dear beloved child? So keep praying. Don't lose heart.

Easier said than done.

We might hear these words today, “Always pray and do not lose heart” with some degree of conviction. For we do not “always pray” and we sometimes “lose heart”.

Our prayers, like everything else in life, are subject to the failings of our sinful nature. We don't pray like we should. We don't pray as often as we should, for what or whom we should. We forget to give thanks, like the 9 lepers who were cleansed. We forget to pray for the spiritual as well as the physical needs. Perhaps when we do pray, it is thoughtless. Or perhaps it's really only on Sundays when we happen to be here in church. Pick your prayer poison – it's true none of us prays as we ought.

And we do lose heart. We get discouraged. We feel like our prayers fall on deaf ears. Why doesn't God hear? If he hears, why doesn't he answer? Is all this praying worth it? Nothing seems to change – things only get worse. I'm not seeing the results I want. I'm losing heart.

“Always pray and do not lose heart” We may hear those words as instruction of the law, and if we do we would stand convicted. We don't always pray and we do lose heart. We're not like the widow who never gives up until she gets what she wants. But we should be. So there. Now go home and pray more. Do better. Stop being such sinners. Sermon over. Right?

Wrong. For those words are not words of law. They are sweet Gospel. Even though they tell us what to do and how to do it, there is a beautiful invitation there to pray. To pray to the one who will hear us. To pray to the one who delights in our prayers, who can and will do something about them.

Our loving Father, our righteous judge, the generous giver of all good things.
When he says, “always pray and do not lose heart”, these are words of encouragement based on the promises he gives. Our prayers are best when they are firmly grounded on these promises, rooted deep in the blessings God gives us freely and abundantly.

We can pray to him – first of all – because of Jesus. Otherwise we'd have no standing, sinners that we are. We couldn't find him, and he wouldn't receive us. Sure he knows everything – but God would not consider us his dear children, he would not be lovingly inclined toward us, apart for Jesus Christ. Jesus says, “no one comes to the Father but by me”. But that means that by him, we can and do come to the Father! Jesus us the intermediary, the go-between, the one who takes us right to the top! He makes us acceptable, makes our prayers acceptable. He even prays for us, along with the Spirit, perfecting and adding to our imperfect and infrequent prayers.

He who prayed from his cross, “Father forgive them!” still prays for our forgiveness. He who suffered for our sins and died our death, conquered them all for us. He, Jesus, is the ultimate reason to persist and not lose heart. His work for us and promises to us are sure.

Is your prayer life not up to snuff? Are you a sinful prayer-maker? Then take heart, for Jesus Christ died for sinners like you – he perfects you by forgiving your sin, and he perfects what you do imperfectly – even your prayers!

Do not lose heart! A wonderful promise! When all seems hopeless and futile. When they've told you the diagnosis, and the chances are slim. When God says one thing, but all the evidence seems to the contrary. When you want peace but all around you is chaos. When you want security but the future seems so uncertain. When you're not sure how you'll make it through tomorrow, let alone today. Do not lose heart! For God our Father has made you his own child!

Through your baptism, you belong to him. You are in his heart, always, as a dear child. In the sacrament, he feeds you, strengthens and sustains you – to take heart for further and deeper reliance on him. Sins forgiven anew, we are encouraged and empowered to go – wherever it is we go from here.

Be persistent with God. Like an annoying little old lady. Like a bothersome child who won't stop bugging mom and dad. Persist in asking and pleading and looking to him for blessing – because he will give it – and more!

It's as if Jesus says to us in this parable today, “Pester me! Continue to look to me and rely on me and ask of me. Don't get discouraged when it seems I'm not answering. I hear you and will bring about good for you. Don't lose heart! It's all going to be ok.”

And in the end, it will be. For we have the promise of the Son of Man to come again in glory, to judge the living and the dead. To resurrect our bodies for the life everlasting. This great fulfillment is the end of all our prayers – the happily forever after.

Thanks be to God for this and all his promises, and may he grant us his Spirit to maintain and stretch our faith in Christ - so that we always pray and never lose heart, in Jesus name, Amen.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Future Science, Eternal Life, and Theology

I like to read the speculations of futurists - scientists and psuedo-scientists who opine as to what the future holds- and especially how technology will change our lives in the near and long term. You'll also see such topics on tv (I caught a recent series narrated by Jonathan Frakes which touched on this - "That's Impossible")

Ray Kurzweil is one of my favorites. But he also has some strange ideas that don't mesh well with my own Confessional Lutheran worldview. One of those ideas, shared by some other futurists, is that it's possible for humans to live forever.

The idea goes like this. At some point technology, including nanotech robots injected into our bodies, spare parts grown in a lab, genetic advances, cloning, and cybernetic enhancements - will allow us to combat the aging process, or perhaps even effectively stop it, so that we will be essentially able to live forever. In fact some of these futurists believe there are people alive today that stand a very good chance of living to age 1000 or beyond!

Given the rapid advances science has made recently, and the increasingly rapid rate of such advances, it's not too far of a stretch to imagine the widespread use of some or all of these technologies. But what does this mean for theology?

The Christian faith teaches that death is a consequence of sin. So how does the idea of avoiding or cheating death indefinitely square with that? I've been pondering the possibilities. Here are some thoughts:

1. "Getting around death" would really be a turning upside down of God's judgment, and it seems a frightful thought. That we would enjoy everlasting life of our own doing is an attempt at making ourselves divine - which is the same as the original sin. But where is the line between prolonging life and prolonging it indefinitely? Today we have all sorts of scientific advances that have extended our lifespan. At what point are we "playing God"? I don't know.

2. God might well nigh just prevent us from ever reaching such a state of affairs. So far there are certain problems that have science "stuck" and the advances aren't coming as fast as some have predicted. Perhaps aging and death will be an area we just can't crack.

3. Perhaps this final bit of tampering will be the last straw, and will coincide with the end of days. After all, we know that he is "coming soon".

4. Perhaps eternal life in sin would be its own punishment. God justly barred Adam and Eve from the tree of life, precisely because he didn't want them to eat of the tree and live forever in their sin. For the Christian, physical death is freedom from this fallen body, and we look forward to a resurrected, glorified body. Jesus uses the analogy of a seed that must be planted in the ground and die, so that the plan can arise and live. Maybe "eternal life" at man's own doing is a dream that will bring only tears, and therefore God will let people do it to themselves? Giving them over to their sin? I wonder...

5. As I understand it, every so often people just die. No cause is ever found. No illness can be blamed. People just sometimes "wake up dead". I wonder if the same won't eventually happen to all, even those who live to advanced ages, with all the help science can give, that God in mercy or in judgment will simply call a person's number and there they go.

6. Genesis 6:3 "his days shall be 120 years" Kretzmann says this means 120 years until the great flood of Noah. I tend to agree. But it's striking that 120 seems to be the upper age limit for man - at least since the days of the great patriarchs of old who lived even up to 969 years (Methuselah).

I also wonder about the implications of other scientific advances, especially as they relate to theology. For instance, how much can we tinker with the human genetic code before we get something that isn't human anymore? I'm all for switching off a disease gene here and there, but what if we get a hybrid "manimal". Or again, will God in mercy prevent us from such feats?

I am reminded of the scattering and confusing he did at Babel, to prevent us from doing the "impossible". Will he do the same again soon? It wouldn't surprise me.

The Church "Marries Up"

From this week's readings in the Treasury of Daily Prayer:

...As an entire race is brought to honor by a marriage, so the marriage of the Son of God with humanity has restored the human race to honor (Matt. 22:2), What wonder, then, that the angels serve us, since the Son of God, the Lord of the angels, came to earth that He might serve us? - Johann Gerhard

This made me think about someone of low social standing "marrying up" - which is a small picture of what happens with the lowly church and her glorious bridegroom, the Christ!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Sermon - Luke 16:19-31 - Pentecost 18

Luke 16:19-31
September 26th, 2010
“The Rich Man and Lazarus, Faith and the Word”

Once upon a time, we are told, there lived a rich man - dressed in the best and living high on the hog. And at his gate, poor Lazarus, begging for crumbs and getting none, licked by the dogs. No happy ending or just desserts in this world, Lazarus dies in poverty. Mr. Moneybags dies too, but apparently enjoyed his great wealth to the end.

But justice is served, as the rich man goes to torment. Lazarus goes to paradise, even stands with Father Abraham. We could end the story right here, but Jesus doesn't. The real point isn't that the good and the poor go up, and the rich and the wicked go down. The real point is to come....

In torment, the rich man begs for mercy, but it is too late, and the chasm is too wide. What's done is done. Abraham respects God's judgment and won't change it. And this should rightly terrify every sinner. For sin brings suffering, and we deserve it now, and forever – temporal and eternal. And if we are sinners – the rich man is us!

But perhaps there is hope. Lazarus made it out from a living death to a life after death – a life in glory – a blessed hope. How is this done? Can we receive the same? Must we become poor and sick and live a life with the dogs? Take a vow of poverty and live in a monastery?

But wait, the patriarch Abraham was one of the wealthiest men of his day. He had kings paying tribute to him! So it can't just be that wealth is damnable, and that anyone well off is automatically doomed. There must be more...

Maybe if we just tried hard to be nice to people, or at least to poor people. Remember, Abraham was nice to Lot – he gave him his choice of the good land or the poor land. Abraham even risked his own life to save Lot when Lot was taken captive. But then again, Abraham wasn't so nice to poor Hagar and Ishmael – when he exiled them to the desert with few provisions.

It's worth us asking, how do we treat the poor? Must we automatically give to everyone with his hand out? Or are we so stingy that we never help another, give to one in need, or provide a morsel for the truly hungry? Surely we sin when it comes to our care of the poor. Surely there's a Lazarus at our gate from time to time that we fail to love as a neighbor. And for these sins let us repent, lest we share the fate of the rich man in torment!

But proper use of our wealth isn't what gets us to Abraham's bosom, or into God's good graces. Only faith saves, and only that faith in God's son.

Abraham had it. He believed God's promises of the Messiah, and God reckoned it to him as righteousness. Abraham was a rich man, but he was far richer in faith – as God gave him an astonishing trust in the promises of progeny, land and salvation.

Lazarus had it, or he would never have made it across the chasm. It wasn't his poverty that saved him, his lowly state. Though it isn't spelled out in the story, he too must have trusted in God's promises for an eternal dwelling. He had faith.

And we have it too... for the same God gives it to us. And there's only one way he promises to give it.

The rich man in torment finally showed concern for someone else. It's a testament to how terrible God's judgment is – that even this wicked man doesn't want anyone to suffer what he does. So he begs Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to scare his brothers into repentance.

But it won't work. Even if someone rises from the dead, they will not believe. Rises from the dead. Now there's a clue! Who in fact did rise from the dead? Jesus, telling this story, drops a not-so-subtle hint about his own destiny.

He would die. Powerless and humble like poor Lazarus. Thirty. Surrounded by dogs (that's what Jews called the Romans). Jesus would, however, suffer the torment of the Rich Man, indeed the wrath of God for all. And there was not even a drop of mercy to soothe that suffering. The full force of God's anger over all sin was upon him, Jesus.

But this is the good news for us. Jesus did rise from the dead. And this ultimate sign of his divinity, this ultimate proof of his authority, this ultimate seal of approval by the Father on his perfect sacrifice – the resurrection means everything for us believers. Paul says without it, our faith is in vain.

For the unbeliever, even a resurrection won't convince them. But for us the risen Christ is everything!
And Abraham points us in one final direction. He says that the rich man's brothers “have Moses and the prophets”. In other words, the Word of God.

If you don't hear the word and believe it, you won't even believe a miracle. But we are directed to the word. For faith comes by hearing. The Good News of Jesus gives the faith that it demands. So we hear, and so we believe!

Just as you have come to believe through the preaching and teaching you have heard – so do all believers in Christ.

Just as you received the gift of faith in the watery word of baptism, so do all who are sealed for eternity in Christ.

And as Jesus words of testament still stand promising grace in his body and blood, given with bread and wine, even today we hear the word, receive the word, and with it all the riches of his Grace.

He, Jesus, bridges the chasm between heaven and hell for all believers in him, through his word. He, Jesus, suffers and dies to free us from suffering and death. He becomes poor to make us rich – not in earthly riches – but with eternal blessings.

And then there's that other Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha – the one that Jesus did raise from the dead. Perhaps a good reminder that his promise is the same for us. At his return, we too will rise. At his coming, we will live with him in glorified bodies and souls.

Rich or poor, high or low, hear the good news of Jesus – believe in his word – and trust in his promises of life even though we die. Life with all the saints and with him forever. Amen.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Sermon - 1 Timothy 2:1-15 - Pentecost 17

1 Timothy 2:1-15
September 19th, 2010

Law and Gospel. The Sacraments. A Christ-centered approach to Scripture. Lutheran theology brings us many important and unique understandings, often missed by other Christians. One of those will be helpful for us today is the doctrine of Vocation. Your vocation, or your calling, is any role or station or office into which you have been called and in which you rightfully serve. Your vocation isn't simply your job – butcher, baker, candlestick maker. It's much more. What roles do you fill? Father, mother, husband, wife, child, student, employer, employee, citizen, office holder, pastor, parishioner, or even the calling of every Christian.

The fact is, God calls us to various places and stations in life, roles and tasks, relationships and offices. And we all have multiple vocations. And in each of those callings, God sets forth certain parameters and guidelines. Who do you answer to? Who do you serve, and how? What are your responsibilities? What are you NOT called to do? You might look at the “Table of Duties” in our catechism – it's on page 328 of they hymnal – for a brief reminder of some of these.

Understanding vocation is helpful especially when we come to a passage like 1 Timothy 2. A difficult passage for some, perhaps, in a cultural setting which has other ideas.

But God is a God of order. Just look how he created the world. First he formed the sky, the sea, the land. Then he filled the sky, the sea, the land. He created man in his own image. He created woman from the man. He set them in a garden and gave them a vocation – to tend to it and work in it. But even then, he had different roles in mind for husband and wife – even before the fall.

The husband was created first – and was the head of the wife. God still preserves this order today. Ephesians 5 tells us the husband is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the church. That doesn't mean he bosses her around, but that he does what Christ does for the church – he dies for her. His servant leadership puts her first. Still, he takes the initiative and holds the responsibility of headship.

Woman, created from the man, is called in Scripture the “helper”. She is called to submit to her husband as Christ submits to the church. While our culture bristles at even the word “submit”, a godly woman rejoices in her calling and honors the husband's God-given headship. This is how God created us to be – though we so often, male and female, fall short.

Eve transgressed and was deceived first – she took the leadership place she wasn't called to take. Adam shirked his role and followed his wife into sin. They both failed in their callings – failed God and each other.

And in a similar way, as we read here, 1 Timothy tells us that according to God's order, women are called to some things and not to others. They are called to dress modestly, and be self-controlled. Women are not called to be pastors – to hold the authoritative public office in the church. This is not a matter of power and honor, but simply what callings are given to whom.

Not even all men are called to preach. Certainly not all are called to apostleship, as Paul was appointed. But God gives such an order for our good. And he gives us all honorable callings, though they are different.

Paul goes on to quickly remind us that women are given the calling of motherhood. And it is an honorable calling as well, for it was through the birth of a child that all people are saved. But we'll get there in a minute.

Now, teachings like this might offend some of you. And if so, you need to repent. God's word is holy and it stands as our judge – we are not the judge of it. We may not like what he has to say and how he orders our lives, but that doesn't change what it is – the authoritative truth which teaches us all.

Likewise, you might agree with me that yes, this is God's word, but you might just be a little embarrassed about it. This too shows a need for repentance. If you're ashamed in the least to follow these clear instructions of God, will you be ashamed of his other hard teachings? Will you confess him or deny him before men?

Or perhaps you don't know exactly what to think about tough teachings like this. Maybe it just doesn't matter to you. Then you too have some repenting to do, for every word of God is not only useful for teaching and reproof, but when we ignore or neglect the teaching of his word, we despise him who speaks it. If you don't know what Scripture teaches, what God says, then you need to study harder and listen closer.

We all stand convicted. For we all struggle to hear and understand and live out the teachings of God – especially the tough ones. We all struggle to navigate the waters of a world that just doesn't get it – doesn't have ears to hear. A world which wants us to come along with them, and forsake the narrow path. And we all fall at times – perhaps much of the time.

We are called to pray and we fail. We are called to love our neighbor and we fail. We are called to not quarrel or be angry and we fail. We are called to work and serve and be humble and modest and decent and moral and we fail, fail, fail.

And so, we are all called to repent. We are all called to confess our sins. And we are all called to receive the forgiveness that comes to us in Jesus Christ.

Now here is one who knew his calling. He, the one true mediator between God and man. He, the one who was called to be born of a woman – so that all who are born in sin could be saved. He the one who was called to live and fulfill the law, so that all lawbreakers could be pardoned. He, the one who was called to die a sinners death so that sin and death would die forever, and sinners like you and me will live. Jesus Christ – called, anointed as our savior. He knew his calling, and he humbly submitted to it all, even death on a cross, scorning its shame, for you and me.

He was also called to life again – raised by the power of the Father. Called to take back his throne in majesty. And one day he will return to call forth the dead from their graves, and to call all his people to himself, and to an eternal rest prepared for them – for us.

He gives you your callings. And he knows your weakness and struggle. He is the ransom to free you, the captive, from your sin. Your first and highest calling as a Christian is to simply receive such a gift, believe it, trusting the giver to deliver on his promises.

Such a faith empowers you in your many callings to begin anew each day, doing what is given to you – living out your callings, for the one who has called us is faithful. And by his Spirit he will continue to enlighten you, sanctify you, until he finally calls you home in Christ.

We all have our callings, and they are from God. Let us listen not to our own voices, or those around us, but always only to him, who calls us also to repentance an faith in Christ. Amen.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Thanks, Friends

Scott Diekmann, an internet friend and fellow Lutheran blogger, recently posted a nice little piece thanking his friends (real and "virtual"). Thanks, Scott, for giving me the idea.

Here are some of the other friends I'd like to thank:

My wife, who keeps me humble and balances me out in so many ways - and is way more awesome than she'll ever realize.

Pastor Jim Roemke, who has become one of my best friends and always gets me to laugh.

Pastor Randal Poppe, for being an awesome partner in the Ministry, and being the "brake" to my "gas pedal". We're so different, but our theology is the same and that makes all the difference.

Along that line, everyone at Grace Lutheran Church, Racine - an absolutely awesome congregation - supportive of her pastors, hungry for the Word of God, not perfect - but growing in wisdom and the fear of the Lord all the time.

Jim Pierce of letting me virtually cry on his shoulder late one night when I was thinking of quitting.

Issues Etc. for just total awesomeness

obviously I can't thank everyone who I should so I'll just stop there...

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Sermon - Luke 14:25-33 - Pentecost 15

Luke 14:25-33
September 5th, 2010
“Counting the Cost”

Sometimes the teachings of Jesus are hard to swallow. For those with only a shallow view of our Lord, or a twisted understanding of what the Christian faith is about – an honest look at what Jesus actually says could be rather puzzling.

Take his teaching in our Gospel reading today. Hate your family? Renounce your very life? Carry your cross? This is not the self-help guru Jesus that many have come to believe in. This is not the love and peace Jesus that many think he is. “Count the cost of discipleship”, Jesus teaches today. And the cost is high.

It's worth noting, perhaps, that Jesus gave these hard words as his popularity was reaching a fever pitch. “Large crowds followed him”. And perhaps not for the right reasons. Whatever they were looking for, it wasn't what Jesus had come to do and be. I think it's much the same today.

You look at some of the largest churches, the fastest-growing with the big budgets. Their pastors are on TV and they buy old sports stadiums to hold the crowds. But if you listen to the message – it's empty. There is little talk of sin, and therefore no need for a savior. Jesus, if he's mentioned at all, is reduced to a rule maker, an example to follow, or just somebody who wants you to be happy with yourself.

And we can see why the temptation is so strong. Even though we are at a church which takes its doctrine seriously, which is well grounded in the gospel but not afraid to speak the law. Even though Grace Lutheran Church in Racine seeks to be faithful to our Lord and his teachings, and to all that we hold dear. Still, we are sinners. And our sinful nature wants success. It wants glory. It wants numbers.

We look at the bulletin and the numbers aren't what we want them to be. And this makes us uncomfortable. Anxious, maybe. Where is our faith that no matter what, the Lord will care for us? Aren't we tempted to measure our success by the outward growth we see here, and not by how faithful we are to the Word? What will happen to our congregation if it continues like this, we worry.

The same holds true for our personal lives. Living as a Christian means sometimes we don't have all the goodies, the success, the pleasures of our worldly counterparts. Sometimes it means trouble. It could even mean strife in your family, suffering, shame or loss. You might even have to die for your faith, as so many Christians have.

Jesus says to count the cost. If you want to be his disciple, it means an ordering of priorities that is at odds with the world. Seeking first his kingdom and his righteousness. All these other things, good gifts that they may be, come after that.

And so again, it's a matter of Law and Gospel. To those seeking glory and earthly success and worldly things – Jesus throws a roadblock. You better think twice. Being my disciple is no walk in the park. It's like a king going to war – he knows there will be bloodshed and turmoil, even death.

But for those who are already broken, suffering, and dying... For those who aren't so concerned about offending their earthly family as the offense they've given their heavenly Father... for those of us who bear the weight of our guilt, Jesus speaks a different word – the Gospel. A different way of counting.

So what really counts? Jesus calls us to count differently. He turns our corrupted wisdom on its head. The first shall be last. The least shall be the greatest. In death there is life. That's how God counts.

He reckons faith as righteousness. He gives his greatest riches as a gift. He sends his only son not to condemn as we deserve, but to die in our place, to take the punishment we deserve. God becomes man, to save man fromour own rebellion.

And certainly God knew the cost – when he sent Jesus to do the work of salvation. And Jesus knew the cost – blood, a cross, a tomb. The cup of God's wrath. A far cry from the glory of the crowds – but the cry of crowds for his blood – crucify him!

So Christianity is both easy and hard, depending how you count it. It's both costly and free.

If you would cling to the things of this world – your sins and the corrupted creation – even your family or your life – then it seems very costly indeed. Maybe too much so for some people. A burden, a chore, a downer and a drag. Who would want to be a Christian anyway? This is the way of the Law.

But to those who have ears to hear, the Gospel shows the true kingdom is free. Disciples are born, not graduated. We don't earn our way in, we are adopted as sons. And our Lord continues to do the work of discipling us, teaching us, strengthening us. He continues to give freely and without cost, according to this Gospel. Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, Holy Communion, the free and clear proclamation of His grace. All of these come at no cost to you, all for the sake of Jesus.

It's a wise person that knows that nothing in this life is truly free. The bigger the sign and the more exclamation marks, the more closely we should look at the fine print. But it's a wiser person who knows even better. That in Jesus there are no strings attached. In Jesus salvation is truly free for sinners. That in Jesus Christ our Lord, our cost is covered, and it's on him.

The free gifts of his kingdom bring us to count differently, too. By his Spirit we consider ourselves no longer #1, but our neighbor. We consider the things above as more precious than the things below. We even see suffering through the eyes of faith – and rejoice amidst our troubles, all for the sake of Christ. What really counts – he has already counted to us – righteousness in him forever. And we can always count on him.

In Jesus Name, Amen.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

What I Learned from the Big Conflict

It's been a year now since our congregation went through its most intense conflict in about 30 years. I haven't spoken much about it outside of our congregation, and I don't think I should. Those of you who are here know the details, and the tragedy of it all.

Now that we've had some time to "cool down" a bit, I thought I'd offer some reflections for the benefit of any others who go through such a fiasco. Some of these are quite obvious, some might not be. And some of these insights I knew in theory, but learned in a whole new way living through them - in much the same way I knew "lots about parenting" until I actually became a parent.

1) Always be faithful, no matter the cost. (Rev. 2:10)
There will be many competing interests and motivations in a church conflict, and temptations to take the easy way out. Remember you are called, above all, to be faithful. Seek God's will first in his revealed Word - and listen to it! The other voices, not so much. The worst thing that can happen in a church conflict is for the faithful to fold and cowardly back down.
Be sure, very sure, though, that if you are fighting this battle - the Lord is on your side. Don't fight a battle over opinions on which Scripture is silent, or worse, in which you are in the wrong. And if you are faithful, He will be with you no matter what comes of it.

2) Sometimes you have to choose sides. (Galatians 1:6-9; 1 Timothy 4:1)
We'd all like to be everyone's friend, especially as pastor. But sometimes this is not possible. Sometimes both "sides" are wrong, but sometimes one side is right. Often times, those who seem to be causing the trouble are really the ones following scripture, and the "innocent victims" are the ones ignoring it - or even seeking to distort and destroy the Gospel.

3) Be prepared to suffer. (Acts 9:16)
Who said any of this would be easy? Certainly not Jesus, who taught us about carrying crosses - or Paul who was no stranger to suffering. Few things are as stressful for a pastor as church conflict. When the sheep "bite and devour" each other, and their undershepherd, it is not pleasant. But think of all the saints before you who have suffered for the Gospel. Think of the prophets and apostles, so many who met a martyr's death. If your chruch conflict gets this bad, then talk to me about suffering! Nonetheless, even then they remained faithful, for their God did not forsake them. Nor will he forsake you in your suffering.

Be prepared, pastor, to be called names. Be prepared to have your integrity and motives questioned. Be prepared for even your family to come under fire. Gossip, lies, and bitterness will bubble up and seethe against the one who speaks the truth that people don't want to hear. But be steadfast and immovable. Fear God more than those who would trouble his Gospel.

4) Be prepared to be surprised. (1 Peter 5:8)
You never know what will happen, but that doesn't mean you can't prepare. While we tried to prepare for all sorts of variables (and often times it was helpful), a conflict is like a battle - and subject to the same "fog of war". You can't be ready for everything. Sometimes you'll be taken off balance, with your guard down. So just be ready to think on your feet, remember people are both sinners and saints, and you don't always know which side you'll see! The Devil has many tricks up his sleeve and he's not ashamed to use them against God's people.

5) Be patient, but not too patient.
Here again a balance should be struck between forebearing patience and acting in accord with the Word. Sometimes the right amount of patience is a matter of applying Law and Gospel - and takes great wisdom. You can't allow some things to go unaddressed forever. Nor can you move with haste in every situation. Knowing when to act and when to wait is a delicate and difficult equation. One tip - if you are the kind of person who tends to act too soon - balance yourself with the counsel of a person who tends to wait too long - and vice versa.

6) Teach, teach, teach!
In a conflict situation that is clearly addressed in Scripture, we simply MUST teach what Scripture teaches about it. This is not 'brainwashing' people, but equipping the saints! It may be seen as a self-serving thing to study the Bible's teaching on the conflict in question - but only to those who have already determined you are the bad guy. Christians should never, even in a conflict, be afraid to study the Word. In fact, the worse the conflict, the more essential such study becomes. The more we need his clear teaching. And therefore the pastor must teach it.

This also means, "study, study, study!" I particularly appreciated Walther as a resource during the conflict - as applying Law and Gospel was at the center of the contraversy.

7) Trust God's promise to work for good. (Rom 8:28)
Romans 8:28 tells us that God works all things together for our good. "All things" is a great promise. That would include your present suffering, any conflict or disaster you might go through. Somewhere, somehow, God is working for the good in the midst of it. That doesn't mean that God causes every conflict (certainly we are sinners enough to take credit), but it does remind us of the mystery behind what seems to be only trouble. I'm reminded of the words to the hymn, "God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform.... behind a frowning countenance faith sees a smiling face".

8) Be forthright and open, but careful not to say too much. (Eccl. 3)
Talk to people! Don't avoid communicating, especially with those who are confused and troubled by the conflict. Confusion and ignorance are no friends of the Gospel, but keep the truth under a bushel basket. Darkness hates the light - so speak up! Be honest, even if it's difficult to talk about.
But be careful. Speak lovingly. This is hard, very hard, when emotions are high. Sometimes even hard things (the Law) must be spoken - but keep your anger out of it, and let the word do its own work.

Also, be careful not to say too much. Of course, keep confidences. Don't break the seal of the confessional. But also remember the 8th commandment's instruction to speak well of your neighbor - even the one who is causing you grief at the moment. Sometimes it also takes great wisdom to know when we must speak and when we must remain silent - Ecclesiastes tells us there is a time for both. Discern it well.

9) You will learn who your friends are.
Again, like a battlefield, nothing strengthens relationships more than people going through a difficult time together. With a church conflict, you will find out who your friends are. Those who wish to remain faithful, as you do, who treasure God's word, as you do, will become all the more precious to you. And you, as their pastor, will grow in their favor as well. You may also be surprised who turns up to stab you in the back or spit in your face. But even Jesus was denied and betrayed by those close to him - so should we be any better?
While conflict usually means a minor or major exodus from the congregation - and we had our share leave as well - it also can mean a deeper committment of those who remain. I've heard of other congregations which, after a similar conflict, and losing many members, actually saw an increase in offerings!

And who knows, maybe your reputation for faithfulness will draw even more souls searching for such steadfastness in the midst of the great American buffet of spineless Christianity. Perhaps, after a time of pruning, you will even see new growth, God willing.

10) There is calm after the storm.
More than anything, remember that no such suffering lasts forever - at least not for the child of God. You may even lose the battle, lose your call, your livelihood, many friends, reputation, whatever.... but you cannot lose the kingdom. A mighty fortress is our God, take they our life, goods, fame child and wife - the kingdom ours remaineth!
The conflict will end. There is calm after the storm. It may or may not be the kind of calm you are praying for, but peace will come.

11) Get on your knees, confess your sins, pray like crazy.
A time of conflict can be, and should be, a time of great spiritual growth - especially for the pastor! He should take it as an opportunity to repent, for he will surely sin in the midst of it in many ways. He should take it as an opportunity to pray - even more - and trust in God for rich supply. He should see it as a blessed time to receive forgiveness and preach it to all who would hear - but first to hear it himself. For that's what this is all about, right? Sinners forgiven by Christ crucified? Lose sight of him at your own peril. Instead, even in conflict, fix your eyes on Jesus (Hebrews 12:1-2). Laser beam focus. Jesus is everything, even in the worst of the worst.

I'm sure I'm forgetting many things. These couple of years have been a roller-coaster, and we're still figuring out what it all means. But the worst is now over, and with hindsight I can see the hand of God in it all that much clearer. He has been good to me and to our congregation. He is always good to his people.

I pray you find these reflections useful, too.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Sermon - Mark 6:14-29 - Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist

Mark 6:14-29
August 29th, 2010
“The Forerunner”

Today, August 29th, the Christian church observes a rather gruesome event in the New Testament accounts – the martyrdom of St. John. King Herod, more particularly his wife Herodias, had just about enough of John's pointing out her sin. So she sent her daughter Salome to dance for the king, and got what she wanted. To save face, the king would giver her John's head on a platter.

What's the point of focusing on this grizzly event, and observing it in our readings and hymns and prayers today? We may not want to think about something that's so – well – not nice. It's not a pretty picture. Even the artists who have depicted this event over the years usually try to make it neater and cleaner than it was.

But Holy Scripture is not about making nice. God's Word doesn't sugar coat things for us. Life is full of messy, bloody, even gruesome events and experiences. We are sinners, after all, in a sinful world. And sometimes we need to be reminded of that.

That's what got John in trouble – it was pointing out sin. Today Herodias would say to him, “don't judge me unless you know me” or “walk a mile in my shoes”. But John, the prophet of God, said only, “repent”. “Repent, Herodias. You're married to your uncle. Repent, for you divorced your former husband.” Just like John called on the Pharisees to repent, that “brood of vipers” and all others as well. “Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins”. That was his message. And what a powerful one it was.

What if someone pointed out your sins? How would you react? It happens from time to time with us. But we have lots of ways to avoid repenting – not as drastic as beheading someone. We can argue the point – come up with rationalizations and reasons that we had to sin, or that the sin isn't really that bad. We can say that everyone else is doing it, so it must not be a big deal. We can cop out to our sinful nature, or try and blame some other sinner. But the problem is our sins don't just go away when we do these things. They stick to us. And it takes a lot of work to deaden a conscience to the point we don't know our sins anymore. Call it a hardened heart.

So I'm going to assume that you, Christian, know your sin. You know not just your sins in general – but you know those pet sins with which you struggle day to day. It's probably nothing as scandalous as incest and murder. But in the darkeness of your heart, it's probably much the same. The wicked thoughts and selfish ideas you have can't be much different from mine. You may not have cut off anyone's head, but you've probably done much worse in your mind. And then there are the words and deeds that somehow slip through... you can't take them back – they're there for all to see.

What I'm suggesting here as that we read this account of John's martyrdom and ask ourselves, with whom do we identify? I think most of us want to be John in the story – the noble victim, the faithful martyr. But it would be better for us to think of ourselves as Herod or Herodias. The one who doesn't like the pointing finger of law. The one who would do anything to squelch that voice of accusation, and get out from under our own guilt and shame.

But don't do that. Don't react to the law like Herod and Herodias did. Instead, dear Christians, repent. Turn from your sin. Admit and confess it. Resolve to do better. Turn around. About face. Change.

And believe. Believe in Jesus Christ for the salvation of your souls. Remember your baptism, which washed and sealed you for eternity. Remember God's promises that in that baptism, you are dead and buried and raised with Christ!

Yes, remember the cross, and the one who suffered for you there – to win all blessings, to fulfill all righteousness, and to bear the brunt, no, the totality of God's wrath over sin. The pointing finger – all pointing fingers – were turned toward Jesus on the cross. And he took the punishment, we so richly deserve.

In many ways, John was the forerunner of Christ. He came to prepare the way, make the paths straight. He came to preach and baptize in the name of one who was greater to come. He pointed not only to sin, but also to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. And even in his death, John points us to Christ.

For Jesus too would meet a martyr's death at the hands of powerful enemies who could not stand to hear the truth. John, like his Lord, suffered the injustice of it all, and was put to death without crime, but precisely because he did what was right, and said what was true.
But the difference is important too. While Herod feared John had returned from the dead, Jesus really did rise from the dead. While John was a prophet, perhaps the greatest – Jesus was an even greater prophet of whom all the prophets foretold.

In fact, the great mystery is that in Christ, John will rise from the dead. For Jesus is the forerunner of us all – all who believe in him will rise and live, in our bodies – at the resurrection of the dead, and in the life of the world to come. It is for this day that the martyrs cry out and it is for this day that we too pray.

Life is hard and messy and sometimes cruel. That's the way it is for us sinners in a sinful world. Even for believers, and particularly for us, there is trouble and persecution. We may not have to shed our blood, but the world hates us because it hates Christ.

We are no better. Were it not for the Spirit making us Christians by the Gospel and in the Watery Word, we'd be more Herod than John. And our old nature still wants us to go that way. But John says, and Jesus says “Repent. Repent and believe and live” For there is a promise of hope in Jesus, even for sinners like us. In his blood, we are forgiven, and we live.