Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sermon - Sunday of the Passion - Luke 23:1-56

Luke 23:1-56
Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion
March 28th, 2009
“Every Little Word”

Every little word in the Passion account of our Lord is so rich, so important, so worthy of our meditation. Every verse, every phrase meant to point us to Christ's great work for us – his salvation.

There's the false accusations they bring against Jesus. Half truths. We're well familiar with them. Just as they sought to convict him with lies, we seek to justify ourselves with lies and half-truths. But only Jesus justifies.

Pilate said, “I find no guilt in this man”. But he ended up condemning him anyway. Surely our Lord finds guilt and sin in us, but ends up not condemning us. We are freed from judgment because of Christ.

Then Jesus goes before Herod, who seeks a sign or wonder. We are often the same, seeking from Jesus what he does not promise, but only what entertains or interests us. Is God's grace in Christ boring? To many modern Herods, it is. But it's what they need. It's what we need. Not fancy miracles and wonders, but the simple promise of salvation in Christ.

They mock Jesus so many ways – even by the clothing they put on him. Royal robes, in sarcastic tribute. But Christ truly clothes us with his righteousness, and takes our shabby rags. He makes us a royal priesthood – and wins for us the crown of life. For his part, it's a crown of thorns.

Herod and Pilate – enemies – become friends through their dealings over Jesus. The forces of the world are united in opposing Christ and his church. It's the same today. But it's also true that another set of enemies is united through Christ: God and man. We who, in our rebellion, hated God – we are made friends and even family by the saving work of Jesus.

Then there's Barabbas. Another teaching moment. “A murderer they save the Prince of Life they slay”. You and I are Barabbas. We are just as guilty of death. But innocent Jesus takes his place, our place, and the guilty go free.

The Jew persistently cry for Jesus' death, and Pilate finally relents. What a photo negative image – Christ persistently calls for our pardon, and God the righteous judge relents. Christ is finally condemned. We are finally justified.

Simon of Cyrene. He carried the burden of the cross for Jesus, when Jesus couldn't. But the deeper reality – Jesus carried the burden of the cross, the real burden, for Simon and all sinners.

Jesus tells the mourners not to weep. He knew the destruction that would come for unbelieving Jerusalem. Their city would be lain waste in just 40 years. The Romans would decimate the people. But even worse is the eternal destruction of a all who reject the Christ. Don't weep for Jesus. He will rise. Weep for those who have only the dark future of God's eternal punishment.

Speaking of punishment, there are the two thieves. Criminals on his right and left. He is numbered with them, so that we are numbered with the righteous.

The place of the Skull, Golgotha. A place of death, but also, ultimately, of life. For the moment he is crucified he cries out in forgiveness.

They cast lots for his clothing. Dividing up his few belongings. A few scraps of material. But he who dies here distributes his belongings – his blessings – to countless multitudes.

They jeered “he saved others, let him save himself.” All the while he was saving others. And he would be rescued from death – but only after three days.

They offer him sour wine, but he offers us the sweetest wine – his own blood, along with his body – in a sacramental promise of forgiveness.

The inscription identified him as “king of the Jews”. The same moniker first mentioned by the wise men from the East, “Where is he that is born king of the Jews”. He is the king, not of this world. He is the king, not only of the Jews, but of all the people under his protection and blessing. He is our king.

“Today you will be with me in paradise” he promises the repentant thief. His promise is sure and speedy to all repentant sinners.

The sun's light fails. Creation itself mourns the death of the creator. The light of our planet bows to the Light of Light now extinguishing.

The Temple curtain tears as the true temple of Christ's body is torn down in death. The threshold to the Holy of Holies is obsolete, for Christ is now our passage to God's presence.

He commits his spirit into God's hands, showing us the way to die faithfully. And even the centurion confesses and praises God.

He is buried. No tomb of his own, but the tomb of a rich man. Now that the suffering is done, his body is treated with some honor and respect again. Again one of our hymns keys in, “Heav'n was his home, but mine the tomb wherein he lay”

And as the Sabbath came with nightfall on Friday, they rested according to custom. And Christ's body rested in the tomb. And soon, very soon, the Easter dawn would come.

As you meditate on Christ's passion this week, cherish every little word. Think on, pray on, and give thanks for every detail of our Lord's suffering and death for you. For he takes your place, and gives you all good things out of his great love and mercy.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Sermon - Lent 5 - Luke 20:9-20

Luke 20:9-20
Lent 5
March 21st, 2010
“Get Rid of Jesus?”

“Let's get rid of Jesus,” they said. The Pharisees were out to get him, and he knew it. To them, he was a threat.. To their people, their way of life, their religion.

Sometimes the Pharisees are cast as having petty motives. As if Jesus was winning the high school popularity contest, and they didn't like losing. But there was more to it than that. Jesus preached a message – that was the real scandal to them. It was a different religion. They were true believers in their religion, and so they saw Jesus as a liar, blasphemer, and a dangerous agent of Satan.

Their was a religion of good works. Where a man could please God by his actions. It's actually a pretty common religion, going by many different names, and sometimes no name at all.

It's all religion of the law. Sometimes the window-dressing changes, but the point rarely changes – you have to earn God's favor.

Oh, maybe you can do it by following rabbinical law like the Pharisees did. Or maybe you can do it by meditation and good karma. Or maybe you can do it by saving the environment and going green. Or maybe you can do it by being nice and tolerant and non-judgmental. Maybe you can be “spiritual but not religious”. Or maybe you can do it by just keeping your nose clean – no major commandment breaking. Or maybe you can do it by one big moral or spiritual achievement – “look what I've done for you, God”.

Or, maybe not. No, let's say definitely not. Not according to Scripture anyway. God's demand of perfection takes all of these off the table. His just law reminds us there is no one that is righteous, not one. Religion of the law, the religion of good works, is a man-made religion, oh and Satan's got his thumb in the pie too. It is a self-deception, a foolish and dangerous approach to God that gets it absolutely backward. We see man-made, religion of works for what it is: a fraud. No matter how much we tell ourselves our goodness measures up, it always falls short. No matter how hard we try, we always fail and fall. We sin, and sin, and sin some more. Man-made religion can't stop it. Man-made religion won't do.

What about God-made religion? What about that other religion that Jesus was preaching? Simple. Repent and believe. Repent of your sins, and believe in Jesus for your salvation.

Is it really that simple? That I can admit and confess my sins before God, simply ask to be forgiven, and he grants it? No strings attached? No fuss, no muss? It seems too easy. It seems so simple. Shouldn't it be harder than that? A little effort involved? Does God really give away his riches like a fool on a spending spree?

Think on this, “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also give us all good things?”

The religion of God is the Gospel. It's the good news of Jesus – that by his death on the cross and his rising from the tomb, yes, your sins are forgiven. Yes, your eternal life is secure. Yes, you are pleasing in God's sight, and yes, you live by his Holy Spirit – growing in faith and righteousness. It's all about God's work, not yours. It's all about his promises, not your pipe dreams of self-sufficiency.

But it doesn't happen without Jesus. And that's why people who want to have the religion of the law have to get rid of Jesus.

In the parable, the tenants of the vineyard had this idiotic idea, “if we kill the son, the vineyard will be ours!” Clearly Jesus knew what the Pharisees were up to, and what they would eventually do. His parable shows just how twisted their reasoning was. They really thought they could kill the author of life. They really thought this would solve the problem, and everyone could go back to their nice happy little self-deceptions. Another heretic swept into the dust-bin.

Except - getting rid of Jesus, by seeing him condemned and crucified – it didn't work at all. Death cannot contain him. He rose victorious, and paves the way for the resurrection of his faithful people. The cross only fulfilled his plan. Unwittingly, they had taken part. They truly knew not what they did.

They had rejected the stone, that is, Jesus, but instead of landing on the pile of refuse, he becomes the cornerstone. And a whole church is built upon him. He, Jesus, builds his church. He establishes his people, and the gates of hell will not even prevail against us. Connected to him, built on him, we are solid and sure and strong.

And with this chief cornerstone, Jesus Christ, one of two things happens. Either you fall on him, or he falls on you.

If you fall on him – you are broken to pieces. That is, you are brought to repentance and forgiveness. “a broken and contrite heart” is bound up and healed in him. It's not always the cake-walk some think it to be. And it means the pain of giving up the old ways, breaking the old life, burying the old sins. But it means life. It means blessings. Behind the suffering there is great joy and unspeakable peace. The Christian is quite content to be broken and rebuilt by the architect of our faith, Jesus Christ.

And it's far better than the alternative. For if the stone falls on you, you are crushed – pulverized, even. And this is what awaited the tenants who killed the Son. This is what awaited the Pharisees who killed the Christ. And this is what happens to all who reject the one who came as Savior but will come again as king and judge. He will judge. His justice and wrath will be poured out on the wicked. He will separate sheep from goats, believer from unbeliever. And woe to those who seek to fall back on their own good works, rather than Christ's good work for them. On that day, the religion of man will be exposed as a sham. On that day, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, as the wicked are rejected by God for eternity.

But you and I – we fall - by faith - on Jesus. We trust in him for salvation. We repent of our sins, and turn to him for mercy. And he grants it.

May we never, ever, “get rid of Jesus”. By rejecting him outright or by pushing him to the side. By neglecting his word or doubting his promises. May we never trust in our own works, our own religion, or our own false righteousness. May we always rest strong and secure on the Church's One Foundation, Jesus Christ our Lord. For he is the only sure place to stand. And in him, the inheritance is ours forever! Amen.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Sermon - Lent 4 - Luke 15:11-31

Luke 15:11-31
Lent 4
March 14th, 2009
“Reckless Love”

Reckless behavior. That's what sin is. It doesn't care about the consequences or whom it hurts. When you sin you even hurt yourself, but you aren't thinking about that usually. Sin doesn't make sense. It never has. But we do it anyway. It's reckless. Senseless. Foolish. Selfish and short-sighted.

Take the prodigal son. He squandered the inheritance in “reckless living”. Wine, women and song. Drinks are on me. Prostitutes. Gambling. Party hardy. But then it was gone. He hadn't saved for his retirement. He wasn't shopping for bargains. He thought only of himself and his momentary pleasures. He was reckless.

But the recklessness began long before he made it to the foreign land. How bold, how brazen, to ask for his inheritance – long before dad died! Father, I want my money and I want it now. I wish you were dead. Just give me what's coming to me. Reckless with his father's feelings, he cares only for himself.

Reckless – in setting off for a foreign land. Away from the protection of his father's house, to a strange place. He didn't care. All that was good about home and family – he must have thought it was a drag. It kept him from doing what he REALLY wanted to do. Living the high life. He didn't plan it out, he just goes. No GPS, no AAA maps. Reckless. Careless. No thought for tomorrow.

What a picture of sin. What a picture of our sin. We want what we want, and we want it now. We don't care who we hurt. We don't think about the consequences. Or maybe we do, and that doesn't stop us anyway.

Reckless living doesn't just mean sex, drugs and rock and roll. It means rolling the dice with our very soul. It means turning away from the true and sure and perfect word and will of God. It means biting the forbidden fruit and well, maybe God wasn't serious about that dying stuff. It means sin now and pay later. No thought or care for the wake of destruction that will follow.

But we all do it. And we can see what it brings.

The prodigal ended up in the pig-pen. And we too, wallowing in our filth, often find ourselves there too. How did it come to this? How did I get so low? Only at the rock-bottom do we see how good we had it. Only when our chickens come home to roost, only when our sins stand bare and bold before us can we clearly see what we have become. Worse than the pigs. More filthy and disgusting are our sins. We wish we could be those pigs instead. And the hunger begins.

The prodigal son “came to himself” or “came to his senses”. He began to see what his recklessness had wrought. He began to turn, to change his heart and mind, to repent. He started out again for home, to a father he hoped would show him one last kindness – not even forgiveness, but at least a meager job. He didn't even deserve that. It was begging time.

But the prodigal son isn't the only one who is reckless.

The father – he too – reckless. Not in sin and selfishness, but in love and selfless-ness. For what father would grant such a request, “give me my inheritance so I can go spend it!” What father would welcome his son back after he spent it? What recklessness – he might do it again, hurt him again, dishonor him again!

But the father is reckless in his love. He “wastes his time” waiting for his son, and sees him coming from a distance. He must have neglected other duties around the estate. And when he sees him, he runs, recklessly – embraces and kisses his wayward boy. He doesn't care who sees him or what they think of him. He makes a fool of himself.

And he lavishes gifts on the poor boy. A ring, shoes, a robe, a feast. Reckless giving. The son's reckless living didn't matter anymore. He was home, safe and sound. In the loving arms of his father.

The parable is clear. God, our heavenly father, loves us with a reckless love. Though we are reckless in our sins, he loves us abundantly, egregiously, ridiculously. So much so that he gives us what is most precious. Not a ring or a robe, but his only begotten Son. He doesn't kill the fattened calf, he sends the Lamb of God for the sacrifice.

And he does prepare a feast for us prodigals. Each time we come to our senses, with repentant hearts... each time we approach our Lord in confession and faith – he feeds us. He gives us of himself. Body and blood, given and shed for you.
It's lent. Calvary approaches. The disciples say, Jesus, don't go to Jerusalem, it's too dangerous! The Jewish leaders are out to get you! Peter tries to rebuke Jesus. The others just don't get it.

But Jesus sets his face like flint. He his reckless love says, “I know I'll die. Better me than you. This is the plan. That I am about to be arrested and tried, condemned and crucified. And on the third day rise” No thought for himself. Only, always, for you.

His reckless love makes amends for your reckless living. God's own Son for every prodigal son and daughter that ever wallowed in the muck of sin. A love which forgives and forgets – no questions asked, no hoops to jump through. Jesus sinners will receive.

So celebrate with him, and with all of us, the foretaste of the feast to come. And live now as a son or daughter of the Father. All his blessings are for you, in Jesus Christ. Amen.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Sermon - Lent 3 - Luke 13:1-9

Luke 13:1-9
Lent 3
March 7th, 2009
“Righteous and Wicked”

Would you rather be righteous, or wicked? Without the context of Ezekiel 33, most of us would say “righteous”. But look carefully at the words of the prophet and you might want to rethink that.

Ezekiel spoke his words of prophecy to the Israelites in exile. They had seen the destruction of their beloved Jerusalem. They had watched the Babylonians bring down the very temple of God. And they themselves were carted off to a foreign land. It all seemed pretty hopeless.

As a people, this was a major blow. But how would they interpret these events? How would they make sense of the tragedy they had experienced? What would they do with it?

Such questions have vexed us all since the Garden of Eden. What to do with pain and suffering and tragedy. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why doesn't God seem to answer my prayer? Why did my loved one have to die? Why don't my children respect me? Why did I lose my job? How is our family going to make it? Is there any hope for my future? Or am I, are we, finally just lost?

You know, you're not the first, and you won't be the last human to ask those tough questions. But where and how do we find our answers, if there are any?

In our Gospel reading, some people thought they had it figured out. So they asked Jesus, “what about those people from Galillee who died in such a horrible way. You know, when Pilate killed then, and then added insult to injury by mixing their blood with their sacrifices?”

Jesus says, “do you think they were worse than others because they suffered this way? No, I tell you...”

Now let's be careful with our Lord's words. Surely Jesus isn't saying the victims of the tragedy are without sin. Jesus would never contradict such clear teaching of scripture which shows the entire corruption of all mankind. “In sin did my mother conceive me” is true of everyone.

But he says there was no particular sin, no worse sin that caused them to suffer.

If it were so, then the survivors might think they were less sinful, or better off. A sense of self-righteousness might be fed with such a false notion. “Oh, those people suffered because they were wicked. Since we're not suffering, we must be pretty good. God must be pleased with us”. It's the same sort of thinking that blames the people of Haiti for their recent disaster. Blame the victims. They must have deserved it somehow, a well-known preacher declares.

But watch out, Jesus says:

“unless you repent, you will all likewise perish”.

What do we deserve? Are we deserving of God's favor and gratitude? Are we so good and nice and righteous that God wants to reward us with long life, nice things, and little pain? Heavens, no. When tragedy strikes, and even when it doesn't, we're wise to remember what we truly deserve. Temporal and eternal punishment.

What don't we deserve? We certainly don't deserve God's kindness in Jesus Christ – but that's what he gives us. He sends Jesus to stand under the crushing burden of God's wrath. He sends Jesus to die under Pilate's judgment, and be dishonored and shamed before all – his blood shed in the company of real criminals. He didn't deserve any of this, but Jesus takes it all for us.

Jesus, too, calls us to repent. He calls not the healthy, but the sick. Like Elijah – he comes with words of hope and comfort for the wicked, not the righteous.

From the very moment that Adam and Eve sinned, they deserved death. God could have justly punished them immediately, sending them straight to hell, do not pass go. But he didn't. Nor does he punish us directly each and every time we sin. He is patient. He gives many opportunities for repentance.

Like that fig tree, God the owner of the gardener is patient with our lacking fruit of righteousness. He sends gardeners, workers into that field to fertilize and tend to the trees, time and again, that fruit might grow. He sends pastors and teachers to speak his word – aiming for repentance and faith – and the good works that flow from faith. He is a patient God, but his patience has a limit. There is a day of judgment.

So who are you? Which would you want to be? The self-assured righteous man? Someone who trusts in himself and his own goodness? That's a sham. There is no such person. God's law won't let you get away with it.

Or do you admit it? Would you count yourself among the wicked? Those who do what is wrong and evil and rebellious and sinful? Are we that bad? Yes. Repent, Jesus says.

But that's not his last word to the wicked. He who trusts in himself will perish – if not now, then someday. God's patience doesn't last forever. But he who repents will live. He who turns away from his sin and turns to Christ – he who believes in Jesus will live, even though he dies.

I'd rather be wicked, and let Christ bring the righteousness. I'd rather be repentant than to follow my sins to hell. I'd rather trust in Jesus and his cross than my own shabby righteousness, which really isn't impressive at all.

For the Christian, repentance is a daily process. It's a continual return to our baptism, drowning that Old Adam and his sinful desires – as the New Man arises again from the water.

May this Lenten season be a time in which you, too, grow in repentance – and faith. For in Jesus Christ we are called to repentance. And in Jesus Christ we don't get what we deserve. And in Jesus Christ is our true, and our only righteousness.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Sermon - Lent 2 - Philippians 3:7 - 4:1

Philippians 3:7 - 4:1
Lent 2
February 28th , 2009
“Us and Them”

There are certain aspects of our culture that promote an “us and them” mentality. Sports is one of them - who doesn't like to root for “us” and against “them” Then there's politics - Republicans and Democrats. And maybe in some other aspects of life we see that divide.

But there's also a stream of thought in our culture that runs against an “us and them” mentality. When it comes to American spirituality, many would balk at the “us and them” idea. “we're all God's children” we are told. “It doesn't matter what you believe, as long as you believe it.” We are discouraged from making distinctions between, “us and them” because it's judgmental and arrogant and, well, just not nice. “Coexist” the bumper sticker admonishes us.

But what does the Bible teach?

Philippians 3 is quite clear. There are many who “walk as enemies of the cross of Christ” yet, “our citizenship is in heaven.” Other portions of Holy Scripture teach the same. There are sheep and goats. There are the righteous and the wicked. The wise and the foolish. The distinction between “us and them” is often made.

Even in our Gospel reading we see the enemies of the kingdom, and of Christ hard at work. The Pharisees and King Herod, the powers that be in Jerusalem would have him killed. They are the enemies.

But doesn't God love everyone? Didn't Jesus die for the sins of the world? Doesn't he want disciples to be made of all nations? Why these distinctions? What's going on here? And more importantly, how do you and I fit in?

Let me first of all say this is not one of those sermons that is meant to build up the “us” by bashing the “them”. As I often say, one of the worst comments a preacher could hear about his sermon is, “boy, pastor, you really gave it to THEM today!”

Let's be clear. Without Jesus, “we” are “them”. You look at the description Paul gives of the enemies of Christ. And we look a lot like that don't we. We act as if our god is our belly. We sometimes glory in things that are shameful. And we certainly have our minds set on earthly things. In a word, we are sinners. We are “them”. The other team, playing against God, rebelling against his will. We cast our lot in with Satan each time we turn and do what is wrong. Any sermon that blasts sinners for sinning is going to blast each and every one of us. And it should. Paul says it well in Romans 3, “there is NO distinction. ALL have sinned... “

All the more, because we're supposed to be on the right side. We're disciples of Jesus after all. We're not like those unbelievers, those miserable people who have better things to do than worship God except when we are like them. We're not like those people who do whatever we want except we do whatever we want. We're not going around cursing and lying and stealing and hurting others, except, oh yes, we are.

If you don't think you're a sinner, scripture has something to say to you. Just take the 10 commandments, for instance. We're providing a little bulletin insert this Lent about self-examination. Looking at our lives, examining them for sin, in light of the 10 commandments. And a close look reveals much sin. A closer look reveals even more. We're full of wickedness. Like Luther said, “a bag of worms We are the “them” in the “us and them”. And our destiny is destruction. That is, without Christ....

And here's the wonderful paradox, the grand mystery of salvation. To all outward eyes, and to all close examination, there is no difference between us and them, between sinner and saint. The murderer and the holy man are the same - both fall short of God's glory.

But in Christ, the reality changes. In Christ, enemies become friends. In Christ, the wicked are righteous, the foolish become wise, and even the Pharisee becomes a disciple. Though our sins are as scarlet they are made white as snow. Though our body dies and rots and the memory of us fades, we who are in Christ are alive and well and eternally at peace. Our “lowly bodies” become like his “glorious body”

The “us” of the Holy Christian Church is a great place to be. The “us” of the body of Christ, the bride of Christ. There is a mystic sweet communion that we enjoy as members of this body. We are one with Christ, and one with each other. There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. We are all the same sinners, rotten to the core. Saints forgiven by the blood of the spotless lamb. And in that blessed unity we marvel and wonder.

The only reason “us and them” remains this side of heaven, is because sin still lingers. Though forgiven, though renewed and recreated we still contend with the Old Adam. Our sinful nature, the flesh it's still a part of us. But it's not the ultimate reality.

We are citizens of Heaven. So let's live like who we know we are. Let's take the encouragement of Paul and walk in his example, and in the example of so many faithful before us. That example is one of lifelong repentance of total dependence on the mercy of God in Christ. And yes, it is also an example of good works.... but works of love that flow from faith.

We sing the national anthem at the ball game. We get a little weepy when we see the U.S. Athlete win the gold, and they hang our flag, and play our song. We are citizens of this nation, and they are on our team. We're a part of that. They are “us”.

So let's also rejoice in those saints who have already won the victory, those citizens of heaven who've already set foot on its shores. Let's turn our eyes to that horizon, and eagerly hope for that day when we too join in the new song of eternity, when we receive the crown of righteousness. Let's stand firm all of us in Christ, who makes us one with himself and each other.