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.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Sermon - Genesis 15:1-6 - Pentecost 11

Genesis 15:1-6
August 8th, 2010
“Counted as Righteous”

1 After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: "Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great."

God comes out of nowhere and makes Abraham a promise. Abraham did nothing to deserve this. When God called him to travel to Canaan and promised the land to him and his descendants, Abraham was nobody special. He did nothing to deserve God's repeated blessings and promises.

If anything, he did everything not to deserve it. Sure, he left his homeland in Ur of the Chaldeans, but as he traveled to Egypt he showed a cowardly faithlessness to his God and his wife. “Oh, please don't kill me, she's just my sister”.

But God would be his shield, his protector – from all that would harm him. And as we are Abraham's descendants by faith, so God is our shield and protector too. A mighty fortress who keeps us safe in the battle against our real enemies – the spiritual forces of evil – sin, death and the devil.

Likewise, Abraham's reward would be great. Not just earthly wealth – land, animals and influence, but a great multitude of offspring, many nations. And one particular offspring who would be born in Bethlehem and be a blessing to all nations. In this descendant of Abraham, we too receive a reward – an undeserved reward. A glorious inheritance.

2 But Abram said, "O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?"
3 And Abram said, "Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir."

Abraham doubted. He could have answered God's first promise with a simply thank you, or a song of praise. But he pressed God for more. Especially since it seemed what he really wanted the most – an heir – was out of the question. He didn't have a son. He wasn't getting any younger. And it appeared his servant Eliezer would be a makeshift heir to Abraham's estate.

Don't we doubt God just as easily? Don't we put his promises on trial – looking for evidence that they are real? God, you said you'd never leave me or forsake me, but it sure feels like I am alone now. God, you said you'd care for me more than the lilies of the field or the birds of the air, but right now it seems like you've forgotten all about me. God, you said my sins are separated from me as far as east from west, but they feel so near to me now, closing in on me with their heavy breath of guilt down my neck.

Man has a long history of doubting what God says. “Did God really say....?” is that old satanic question that lured Eve and Adam down the road to death.

We are tempted. We sometimes fall for the same tricks. We arrogantly think we know better than God. We foolishly fear rather than faithfully follow. We fail to listen and live by the simple and precious words of God, and instead follow our own way or the ways of the world.

But God does not leave us without hope. His word comes to us again, like it came to Abraham again and again:

4 And behold, the word of the LORD came to him: "This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir." 5 And he brought him outside and said, "Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them." Then he said to him, "So shall your offspring be."

Let me paint you a picture Abraham. Your offspring will be like the stars of the sky. You will have a son. And through that son, many more sons, daughters, people and nations. God reiterates and expounds on his original promise. Sometimes it takes patience for it to sink in when it comes to us humans. But God is unchanging in his grace and unswerving in his desire to bring Abraham blessing, and to bring many nations blessing through the offspring he promises here.

Still, none of this would mean anything without Christ. Abraham could have all the descendants in the world but they would all be lost without that one special descendant. The one born of a virgin, born to be king, born to die and rise and reign on high. Jesus Christ, whose death and resurrection make us heirs of eternal life. Jesus Christ, who by his blood shed for us makes us children of God. But how does this happen? Abraham shows us the way:

6 And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.

Faith. By faith we grasp onto the promises of God. By faith we receive and believe that his good news for us in Christ is true. By faith – just like all the saints who have gone before us – that we read about in Hebrews 11. By faith, not by sight. We don't see heaven – we've not touched Jesus wounds. We can't perceive these things with our eyes and ears. But faith gives us eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to believe the wonderful promises of God.

And this faith itself is a gift. God gives us the ability to hear him and trust him. He always takes the initiative, and gets all the credit. Just like he came to Abraham out of the blue, so he comes to me without any merit or worthiness in me.

But he also came to Abraham through his word. Look carefully, “The word of the Lord came to Abraham”. And here God may be found, coming to us just as certainly. Even in that word attached to water or bread and wine. The word is the thing, the carrier of the promises. The vehicle for God's grace. The pipeline of the Holy Spirit into our hearts.

Abraham believed, he had faith. And though he was not righteous, God “counted it him as righteousness”. And so God numbers us as well. All who are in Christ are one – counted righteous for Jesus' sake, just like Father Abraham. Are sins are not counted against us. God sees only, considers only our faith – and the merits of his Son, our savior.

I wonder if every time Abraham gazed at the night sky, or at the sandy beach, he remembered God's promise. And so can we. May the word of this promise dwell in us richly. May the good news of Jesus Christ continue to strengthen our faith, even as we are counted righteous before God. And may the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds in Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Sermon - Luke 12:13-21 - Pentecost 10

Luke 12:13-21
August 1st, 2010
“Jesus and Stuff”

You and I have a problem with stuff. Things. Material possessions. You may think that the problem is that we don't have enough stuff. But that's not the problem. Maybe we don't have the right stuff, or the stuff we want. But that's not the problem either. The problem is us and our sin, not the stuff.

Today we read about some of Jesus' teaching on “stuff”. Treasures on earth. It all started when someone asked him to judge a dispute about an inheritance. Jesus balks at the request. “Who am I to judge such a thing?”

Interesting, isn't it? Who is Jesus to judge? Well he's God, of course. Now maybe the guy asking didn't know it, but anyway he had some kind of authority. He was someone important. And so Jesus was a handy way for this man to get what he wanted – to get his brother to give him part of the inheritance. He wanted Jesus to help him get stuff. Stuff he thought belonged to him. Perhaps at the expense of his brother.

But Jesus wants no part of it. That's not who Jesus is, and that's not why he came. Even though all authority in heaven and earth is ultimately his, Jesus isn't interested in helping feed people's greed for selfish gain. That's not this person's main problem anyway.

Don't get me wrong – we're not saying that God doesn't give us things. In fact, if you have something, anything good – it is a gift from God. Things you earn, things you are given, things you build or make. Things we eat or wear or enjoy – all of these are daily bread – physical blessings for which to give thanks. Blessings we don't really deserve. Blessings that come from our gracious God.

But it's just like us sinners to turn good gifts into objects of worship. It's just like us to be thankless for what we have, and always want something more. The commandments call it coveting. A sinful desire for what is not ours. And Jesus tells us, his people, to have no part of it. “be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions”

Not only do we covet, we fail to guard against coveting. And not only to we fail to guard against it, but like the man in the story, we often try to co-opt God in our coveting.

Maybe you've caught yourself trying to bargain with God. “If I do this for you, God, will you give me that thing I want?” Or maybe you've been tempted to turn God into some sort of giant pez dispenser, turning to him only for the physical needs and neglecting to ask him for what truly matters... forgiveness of sin, faith, and spiritual blessings.

Something you want? Some goodie or trinket or possession? Kick God a prayer or two, and maybe you can get it. But don't bother with him the rest of the time, so the thinking goes.

God does give us what we need – but seek ye first the kingdom of God. Jesus gives us what we need, but much, much more.

But let's repent of turning him into a Messiah he is not. He is not a bread-king. He didn't come just to heal and feed and cast out demons. He certainly didn't come to overthrow the Romans. And he doesn't promise to make your life easy today. Jesus might not get you a job. He probably won't make your children behave. He doesn't promise you'll always be healthy. He never says he'll guarantee your marriage will be perfect. Her certainly doesn't promise you will live high on the hog, that you can name it and claim it, and that wealth and prosperity will be yours.

But he did come to die. He did come to give his life as a ransom for many. To pay for our covetousness and materialism and selfish greed and worship of created things – to pay for it all and for every other sin. He paid for it with his holy precious blood, and his innocent suffering and death. That's the kind of Messiah he truly was, and is. A savior from sin, death and hell. A giver of grace, mercy and peace. A maker of promises that never fail. A friend of sinners like you and me.

And if we have nothing else but this Messiah, this Christ Jesus, then we are still wealthy beyond imagination. If we are bankrupt and destitute. If we are homeless, starving, begging and broke. We are still blesses beyond belief in Jesus, our priceless treasure.

Now, this doesn't mean Jesus is against us having things. It doesn't mean you have to sell your possessions and live in a cardboard box. Or that you can't have a savings account or prepare for retirement. But Jesus does put perspective on how we use these things, this stuff that we have.

May it not become a god to you. May it never confuse you about where true treasure is found. May you never care more about this world than the next. May you see earthly wealth as a gift, and use that gift in accord with God's will. Love God with all your heart – when it comes to your possessions. That means we don't love things more than God. That means we use our things in service, first of all, to God. And Love your neighbor likewise – so we don't put things before people. That we don't love things more than our neighbor. For life does not consist of things.

Where is life found, we might then ask? Only in Jesus Christ. Only in the one who gave his life for us. Only in the one who took his life back from the grave, never to die again. Life is found in his promise that “he who lives and believes in me will never die”.

Such life is found in the new life of baptism. Such life is sustained in the food of his table – given and shed for you – forgiveness, life and salvation. If you want the good life, if you want the life that matters. If you want the life that lasts forever – don't look to the stuff around you. But look to the things unseen – the promises of God in Jesus Christ. Life – abundant life – consists in these things.