Monday, May 24, 2010

Sermon - Genesis 11:1-9 - Pentecost Sunday

Pentecost Sunday (Youth Confirmation)
Genesis 11:1-9
May 23, 2010
“Reaching Heaven”

What were they thinking, when they decided to build that tower? Really, I mean, did they think they could actually reach heaven? Sooner or later, the laws of physics and nature would have made this tower project come to an end.... even today our tallest buildings reach only 2000 feet or so.

And surely God knew that they would get nowhere. Was there really a threat they would come knocking on his pearly gates?

But it wasn't that God was feeling threatened. It wasn't that he needed some space. He didn't come down in judgment because their rebellious act would actually be successful. It was what was behind the action that was more troubling. It was the sinful pride – the attitude – not the tower itself.

“Look what we can do” “Look how great we are” “Let's make a name for ourselves”. Sinful pride. The opposite of humility. Another expression of that impulse born and bred into all of us – the desire to be our own little gods.

To be like God – knowing good and evil. Better yet, to set the rules of good and evil. Good is what I want to do, evil is that evil that I don't think I'm doing. To be like God – and to receive worship and adulation from others. And perhaps worst of all – our sinful impulse to be like God is the thought that we can be our own savior. That we can make it to heaven on our own.

God knocks all that down. But not without due process. He “comes down to see”. Not because he needed to – he's omniscient, after all. But there is a formal judgment to be rendered – and God plays by the rules. He is not fickle or whimsical. He is not hasty in his judgment. He always gives us more time than we deserve. But he does not wait forever.

We are not, after all, like God. We are not patient and fair and just and righteous. We are not in heaven, and we cannot get to heaven. In fact, we deserve to be somewhere quite worse.

God is merciful. It could have been so much worse. Here, even in his judgment, as he so often is – he is merciful. This punishment is for their own good. He confuses the languages. He scatters the people. To keep them out of trouble, or at least mitigate the damage they can do together. For sinful people united in sinful pride is bad news. Merciful God makes it difficult for us to work together, and thus our human pride is kept in check. He makes it difficult for us to communicate with one another, and so divides us – nation against nation.

How confused and angry and grief-stricken those tower builders must have been, when God's verdict took effect. Do we feel the same emotions when life doesn't go the way we plan? When we can't get along with others? When our projects and dreams come crashing down? When our pride is stripped away and we are laid bare in the embarrassment of our failures? When the illusion of our never-ending health and life is shaken when the doctor tells us the test results?

Why does God do this to us, or at least let it happen to us? Confusing, frustrating, downright maddening are his ways. There isn't always an answer that satisfies us. But know this, that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.

The law hurts. But it prepares us to be healed. Suffering and pain are temporary, but peace and joy in Christ are eternal. Death comes for us all, and brings grief. But life comes for all who are in Christ, and in him is our hope.

God confused the languages and scattered the people for their good. And God uses the troubles of this life for our good. God pronounced judgment on their sinful pride for their good. And the condemning word of God's law is for our good. The law keeps us humble. It shows us our sin. It reminds us of our need.

And the Gospel gives us hope. Hope for a true tower, or stairway to heaven. Not one that we build up, but one which God extends down to us in Christ.

In Christ, heaven comes down to earth. In his cross, forgiveness, life and salvation are won. A better way to reach heaven – a cross. Humility, not pride. Bending down, not reaching up. The only way to heaven, is through Jesus Christ and his cross.

And in his word, and here at font and altar, forgiveness life and salvation are distributed. The means of grace. The places to go and look for heavenly blessings. In our daily reading of his word – and in our weekly gathering around the proclaimed word. The word of God is the beating heart of the Christian's life. And heaven comes daily to us in that word.
Heaven comes daily to us, through the water of baptism. Though we were baptized long ago, though we confirmed that baptism long ago, we daily confirm it as we return to its promises. As we repent and are forgiven in Christ, heaven is opened to us, again and again.

And in this meal – the body and blood of Christ – he who sits on heaven's high throne – is given to you, for you. Think about that – the ruler of the universe – God of God – comes down to be here, for you, not just to see from afar – but to touch, to eat, to drink. Heaven on earth. And you get to be there.

Permit me a few words to the confirmands....
You have been instructed now for years. As your parents have raised you in the faith, and as you've finished your formal training in class with me. Today is a highpoint for you – I'm sure you've looked forward to this day (if for nothing else to be done with sermon reports). But in this mountaintop moment, a word of warning to you – don't fall for the sinful pride.

Don't think that you've reached the top and this is the end. Don't even be tempted to pridefully put God aside or behind you, “now that you're confirmed”. Don't neglect receiving his gifts here in worship. Don't stop listening to the sermons. And don't think that you've learned it all and know it all. For God has a way of knocking down such pride.

But also a word of encouragement: remember what Christ has done for you. Remember that here in worship he serves you. Remember that his body and blood is given and shed for you – for the forgiveness of your sins. Remember that the Gospel is about what he does for you – and that's what's most important. And you will be blessed here and for eternity. (And for all of us...)

The tower of Babel reminds us of the danger of sinful human pride. It shows us a God who often knocks us down a peg or two, for our own good. But it hints a God who brings himself even lower, in Christ, on the cross, to raise us up from death to life and eternal glory. He reaches down, lifts us up, and we reach heaven through him. Amen.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Sermon - Revelation 22:1-20 - Easter 7

Revelation 22:1-20
May 16, 2010
“The Last Word”

Are you one of those people who like to have the last word? Does it just stick in your craw if someone else gets in that last jab or snipe? You want to be the one to leave them with something to think about, right? You don't want them or anyone else thinking they won the argument. After all, you're right, right? Our sinful pride drives us to many childish ways of behaving, and always wanting to “have the last word” is just one in our long laundry list of flaws.

Of course, you don't get to have the last word when it comes to God. He always has the last word. Today, let's consider this passage from the very end of the very last chapter of the last book in our Bible. How does it end? God's last word....

Revelation ends on a high note. All of the plagues and devastation fade away, as the vision John sees of the end turns to the glory of the eternal city – the holy city of Jerusalem. Some of the most beautiful and comforting promises in all of Holy Scripture are found in these 2 chapters. No more darkness, pain or sorrow. God wipes every tear from our eyes. The nations are healed. We will see God's face.

In fact, much of what was lost in the Garden of Eden with our fall into sin – now is restored in the Holy City of Jerusalem. Even the Tree of Life reappears. All that has gone wrong is made right forevermore.

John is so impressed by this vision, so overcome with awe, that he falls down at the feet of the angel who showed it all to him. But the angel quickly corrects him – don't worship me, I'm just an angel. Worship God alone!

And then in verses 10 and following, we have some words about these words. We have some instructions from our Lord himself – the Alpha and Omega, Jesus Christ, concerning the words of the book we are reading.

Don't add anything, and don't take anything away from these words! Or else! That's the basic message. It echoes Moses' words from the end of Dueteronomy “Take to heart all the words by which I am warning you today, that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of this law.”
Here, we have similar last parting words from Jesus. And they apply first of all to the Book of Revelation. But we can also rightly apply them to all of Holy Scripture. For all of His Word is holy – set apart – and not to be tinkered or trifled with.

Perhaps you've heard of Thomas Jefferson's attempts to condense the New Testament. In his great arrogance this American forefather deleted large swaths of the New Testament – those he found supernatural, unbelievable, and those he simply didn't like. He wanted a bible ““the corruptions of reason among the ancients”, but he was not the first or the last to ignore Christ's warnings here. Many, even many Christians, would do the same – turning away from this or that portion of God's Word.

The threats and the promises must stand. Some would de-claw and de-fang the threats of Scripture. Oh yes, we believe in Heaven but not Hell – God, but not the Devil. We believe in forgiveness but not judgment, you see. God is all good and loving all the time and the parts about him hating evil – we'll just ignore those. But woe to you who take away from these words, Jesus warns.

Still, there are those who would take away the other words. The words of hope. They would turn Revelation into some roadmap of plagues and signs, all the while ignoring the promises of hope that are really the main thrust. Just as many turn all of Scripture into a playbook for life, a helpful hints from Heloise for the Soul. Martha Stewart's Spiritual Living. But the word of God's law – his “how to” - mostly shows us that we can't and we don't keep it. You can't follow his recipe for holy living, because you sin. You can't keep his law, do right, and be holy. You need that other word – the word of Gospel!

And so here it is – in Jesus. And between the Law and the Gospel, the Gospel is the last word.

Think about Jesus “last words” from the cross. We pondered them closely on Good Friday. Each one points us to his great love for us, and how his sacrifice at the cross accomplishes our salvation. With the words, “It is Finished” our Lord shows his death as the fulfillment of all things. The “filling up” or “completing” or “perfecting” of God's great plan for salvation.

And just as no word should be added or subtracted from God's word, no work should be or can be added or subtracted from Christ's Cross. His cross is all we need. We can't add any human work to it. We bring nothing to the table. And if we try, we're only taking away from what he did there. As if to say, “Oh Jesus, we appreciate your dying and all... but it wasn't quite enough. We have to finish the job by how we live” Are we really so foolish and insulting to add one little thing to the cross? But don't take anything away from it either, for there in the death of God's Son, there in the precious blood of the spotless lamb, is atonement for ALL sins of all time of all people.

Which reminds me of some other last words of Christ. His last will and testament. Where he gave us a word attached to something tangible – a promise bound up in bread and wine. Here at his meal we neither add nor take away from anything that he gives, but receive the bread and wine that is his Body and Blood for the forgiveness of our sins. Yes, here, each time we receive Him, He has the last word. Your sins are forgiven. Go in peace.

And the last words of scripture are also a promise. He who came and lived and suffered and died and rose and ascended – he who appeared to John in this great vision of things to come – he will come again. AND SOON!

The prayer of the church is that He would do just that – keep his promise and come soon. We look forward in great and eager expectation to the day when he keeps this last promise and comes, comes to judge the living and the dead, comes to call the dead to life again, comes to meet us and all believers, to take us home to that holy city, that paradise restored. There, your sins will haunt you no more. There, he will have the last word forever.

Until then, treasure his words... all of them. Don't cut and snip the words of the Law, those words you don't want to hear. You need to hear them. We all do. But don't neglect or ignore those precious words of Gospel – words which point you to Christ, to the cross, to the altar, and ultimately to heaven.

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with us all. Amen.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Sermon - Easter 6 - John 16:23-33

John 16:23-33
Easter 6
May 6th, 2010
“Sorrow to Joy”

Once again the disciples think they have it all figured out. Finally, finally Jesus is speaking plainly! No more parables and figures of speech. They get it. They understand. They believe. Or so they think.

The disciples boast to Jesus. Since he finally speaks plainly, now they can truly believe. But he goes on to speak plainly about the coming distress – in which they will scatter like scared little children, and leave him alone.

It's just so like Jesus. Just when we think we have everything all figured out and nailed down - God usually shakes us out of that sense of prideful satisfaction. It's when everything seems to be going well, and we start to believe we deserve God's favor, that the house of cards usually comes crashing down.

Do some think that because they have jumped through the hoops of Confirmation class, they are all done learning about their faith? Do some believe that because they come to church every week, they wouldn't get any benefit from further study of God's Word? Do our Bibles collect dust? Are our prayers missing in action? Is our love for fellow man cold? Since, after all, we have everything all set. Just so. Don't upset the applecart, now....

But that's what Jesus does. Again and again, he makes his disciples, and us, think a second time. He doesn't let them rest on the laurels of self-righteousness. But he shows them they do need a savior, after all. And so do we. They don't have all their ducks in a row. And neither do we.

The law shows us our sin, too. It leaves us without the security blanket of self-righteousness. It pokes and prods at the flimsy armor of our idea that everything is fine, and exposes the gaps and holes. There's a sin. There's another sin. An unkind word here. A hateful thought there. A moment of laziness. An excuse for this, blaming another for that. Selfishness here. Lust and greed there. We're a mess. We need help.

So ask! Jesus invites his disciples to ask him, to ask the Father through him.
Ask for forgiveness – and he will give it. After all your debts were paid in full at the cross. Ask for strength – and he will give it. Ask for deliverance – and it will come, in his time, in his way. Ask for God's love and favor, and know that in Christ you already have it. Ask for peace, and you'll get peace that passes understanding. And ask for joy. For he turns sorrow into joy.

That's the other side of the coin, you know. When things are going well – too well – the law knocks us down from our high horse. But when we feel trampled under the weight of our sins and failings, when we know how bad things are and admit it to ourselves and to our God, then he turns it around again.

Just as he took the sorrow of his disciples and turned it into joy, so he does for us. And just as that joy cannot be taken away – so it is for us.

That joy is a deep and lasting sense of satisfaction, peace, happiness and wonder. Like the peace that passes understanding, the joy Christ brings is above and beyond the happiness of the moment. It is rooted deeper, and it reaches further.

It's a joy that comes from Christ's resurrection. For we, like the disciples, rejoice that Jesus lives even though he died. And we rejoice to know that death has no hold on him – that he will never die again. But even more, there is joy in knowing what it all means for us. His resurrection means our resurrection. His eternal life means our eternal life. Because he has conquered death, we will conquer death through him. So even life's greatest sorrow, death itself, has lost its sting and is subject to the joy he brings. The sorrow of Good Friday brings the joy of Easter Sunday.

Though Jesus would soon leave those disciples, he would soon see them again. After he died, he rose, and appeared to them. Talked with them. Ate with them. But again a time of departure would come, as he ascended into heaven. And again the promise of his return assured them, and us, that he will come again in glory on the last day. That promise also gives us great joy.

Are you like those disciples, so sure of yourself and your faith that everything is “just fine”? Do you say you have no sin, and deceive yourself? Or do you sorrow over sin, feel it, know it? Then ask for what you need from the Father, through the Son, by the power of the Spirit. And he will give it to you. And you will live. He will turn your sorrow into joy, a joy that you will know forever.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Christ at the Center

“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” John 5:39-40

I think sometimes people pass by these words of Jesus too quickly. Jesus is teaching the Pharisees, and us, about his authority, his identity, and the fact that he is the Messiah promised by the Old Testament scriptures. All well and good.

But he's not just saying, here, that the Old Testament mentions him. It's not like the Old Testament is about a bunch of stuff, and one of the things it happens to talk about is the Messiah. Sure there are those direct prophecies of the Messiah – what he would do, what he would be like. But it doesn't stop there!

What Jesus is really saying here is that ALL of the scriptures testify to him. That is, the entire Old Testament points to, revolves around, and is rooted in Him. He's not an appendix or sidebar. Jesus Christ is the beating heart of the Old Testament.

Or to put it another way (as John's Gospel does), Jesus is the living Word of God. The Word made flesh to dwell among us. And while you may be looking at the markings on the page, and reading the sounds out loud.... you will never know the Word of God unless you know Jesus. You will never rightly understand the Old Testament apart from him. Every book and story and point made in the Old Testament, sooner or later, drives us to Jesus.

The Pharisees and the other Jewish leaders couldn't see the forest through the trees. They searched and searched the scriptures, looking for life. Looking for life in the law is futile, of course. For as Paul tells us, the Law kills, but the Spirit gives life. And the Spirit is the one who points us and leads us to Christ. He enlightens us so that we can better understand the Word – and that Word is Christ!

This understanding of Christ at the center of the Old Testament – informs our interpretation of it. It is one of the chief principles to consider when taking up a text. One of the first questions we can ask is, “all right, what does this have to do with Christ?” And once you start to see the Old Testament this way, you will start to see Jesus everywhere.

You'll see him in the Garden of Eden – the promised seed of the woman. You'll seem him in the Exodus, the passover lamb. You'll see him in Leviticus, the great High Priest. In Melchizedek, Moses and David and Solomon – all who foreshadowed the Christ. You'll see him in the Angel of the Lord. You'll see him in the lives of the prophets, and in the Suffering Servant of Isaiah. He's the true temple. He's the true Israel. He's the Son of Man. He's the bridegroom in the Song of Solomon. He's the forgiving husband portrayed by Hosea. He's even in the fiery furnace with the three men in Daniel.

How many Christians today suffer with an impoverished view of the Old Testament, which doesn't show them Christ at every corner? How sad to be looking for life, and not find it, right in front of your face.

Now, this Christ-centered view of Scripture also applies to the New Testament as well. And that's pretty obvious. Still, even in the New Testament, many can read Christ right away from the pages of Scripture – by confusing Law and Gospel, by turning Jesus into a different kind of Savior. Instead of the one who atones for our sins on the cross – some would have “Example Jesus”, or “Inspiring Jesus” or “Cheap Grace Jesus”, “Repentance-free Jesus”, or a host of other impersonators.

But the Jesus of Scripture is the Jesus of all of Scripture, not just the parts we like. He's humble and meek, but he can also crack a whip and clear out a temple. He's forgiving and loving, but he can call a white-washed tomb when he sees one. He says “Peace be with you” but he also came to bring a sword. He raises the bar on the law – showing how sin not just in deeds but in words and even in thoughts. But he also makes known the Gospel, for he is the messenger and he is the message – Christ crucified for sinners like you and me.

It's in this Jesus that we have life. A Jesus of the Old and New Testaments. A Jesus of both Law and Gospel. A Jesus that fulfills all of Scripture, Alpha to Omega. He's not just a tree, he's the forest. He's not just a “by the way”. He's the point.