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!