Monday, December 26, 2011

Sermon - Christmas Day - Isaiah 52:7-10

Christmas Day 2011
Isaiah 52:7–10
All I Want for Christmas are Beautiful Feet”

A blessed Christmas day to you, dear Christians. I hope and pray your celebration of our Lord's birth has been, and will be joyous. I hope you share some time with friends and family. I hope you get some good food to eat. Maybe we can even watch some good football tonight. But most of all I hope you got a nice gift this year. Yes, I know we all did. We always do.

Did you get any socks? Now there's a gift. What's more practical and boring than socks? What's more everyday? What says that special time of year less than socks? Something that goes on your feet – every day. Socks – not the pretty stockings with all the candy and goodies. Socks that cover a rather inglorious part of your body. I can't think of anything I'd rather get, anything less exciting than socks. Socks are boring. Feet are every-day. Except for a day like today.

Isaiah writes: How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness”

Picture this. Jerusalem has been at war. It's been a long fought battle. The enemy is relentless. The city is under the cloud of doom. The soldiers march off to battle. The outcome is unknown. The women and children wait in the safety of the city walls – waiting to hear word. Over the mountain, someone will appear. Will it be the enemy flag, raised high in conquering might? Will it be our own bedraggled and defeated soldiers, retreating for one last desperate stand? No.

It's a lone messenger. And he's running. He's exuberant and ebullient. His message is urgent. His news is good. He brings good tidings of great joy. Peace! Victory! The warfare is over. The people are safe. The champion has won! Death does not win the day.

The watchmen on the city walls see him, and they know what it means! They start to sing together – a song of joy – a song that hasn't been heard since this terrible war started. Soon the women and children join in and the whole city raises its voice together, “Our God reigns! He has given us the victory!”

But it all started with those feet. The feet of the messenger. When they crossed the mountaintop. Feet, which are usually dirty and dusty and smelly. But feet which bring good news are a blessed, beautiful sight for sore and weary and fearful eyes.

Jesus Christ is born. He takes on human flesh. He takes a human body. Eyes, ears, mouth, nose, hands, legs... feet. Those precious baby feet stick out of the manger, and they are such good news for us. More innocent than any human babe ever born, this holy one of God is the bearer of the best news ever to touch any mountain or valley. His arrival is the beginning of the good news. God has come to save. To comfort Jerusalem. To redeem his people.

But those baby feet would grow. They would walk the walk of a perfect life, treading where we cannot, though we stumble every day. The thong of his sandal John isn't worthy to untie. But still he walks into the river to be baptized for us. His feet carry him to the wilderness for us. He would go up to Jerusalem for us. His feet would be anointed with a woman's tears and perfume for burial. And those feet would be nailed to a cross for us. But they would also walk him out of the grave for us. And they would ascend in glory for us.

Yes, the serpent bruised his heel, but that same foot would crush the head of our old foe, destroying him and his power over us forever. The warfare is over. Jesus' feet bring peace. They are beautiful feet, indeed.

All I want for Christmas are the beautiful feet of him who brings good news. And that's just what I get, and so do you. All I want is the Gospel, the message of salvation in Jesus Christ, and that is enough. All the presents under the tree will pass away. Moth and rust will do their work. But the word of God stands forever, the promise of Christ stands forever, and we, with our humble but faithful feet, can always stand on that sure rock, forever.

Today we hear that word. Today, and each time we gather in his house, we hear the good news of great joy. We hear it from humble servants whose feet aren't anything special but the message they bring is so sweet. And whether it's the beautiful feet of pastors, teachers, parents or friend, God provides feet to keep his message coming. He sends the messengers to keep bringing that message of salvation in Jesus Christ our Lord. And no matter how gnarly and dirty and smelly the feet, the feet that bring Christ are beautiful feet indeed.

Our baptism washes us, and not just our filthy feet, but our head and hands, also. And the Lord's Supper feeds us – body and soul – giving strength to believe and live as Christ has promised. Forgiven and freed, we follow his example, and wash feet – serve our neighbor – love one another.

So maybe socks aren't so bad. Maybe feet aren't so everyday. For feet that bring good news like this are beautiful feet. This doesn't happen everyday. Christ is born for us. His work on earth began that day in Bethlehem, and would lead to Calvary and cross. But it is finished. Christ is risen. He has done all things well. So lift up your voices in the victory song, for our God reigns, and gives us all good things. Amen.

Friday, December 23, 2011

"Hallelujah" New Lyrics

A while ago I mentioned this song, "Hallelujah" as a favorite of mine.  My kids like it because it was in the movie "Shrek".  I like it because it's pretty and soulful, but the lyrics made no sense to me.  So I re-wrote my own version, the words below.  Here's an instrumental version of it the original song.
The serpent and forbidden tree
The fruit was good to eat, you see
You want to know both good and evil, do you?
She took a look; She took a bite
He ate along then dark as night
The shadow came upon them Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

As they fumbled for a leaf to hide
They heard the footsteps, heard him chide
You ate the fruit, you know you're naked do you?
To serpent then the Father said,
You'll bruise his heel, he'll crush your head
A promise ne'er forgotten Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Pharaoh let my people go
But you chased them to the sea to show
That pharaohs don't give up so easy, do you?
He raised his staff, he stretched his hand
My people walked upon dry land
Then I washed away the chariots Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

On a quiet night in Bethlehem
A baby born, the son of man,
But you don't even have a crib, now do you?
As she wrapped you in your swaddling clothes
The angels sang, the shepherds rose
To come and see and sing their Hallelujahs

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Hosanna, save us, so they sing,
Palm branches for the coming king,
In your city, Son of David, yeah, they knew you.
You came to bring a perfect lamb,
A sacrifice of your own hand,
Oh Lord Jesus Christ, Hosanna, Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

The crowd they chanted crucify,
The women wailed, the darkened sky,
The nails and spear the soldiers pierced right through you.
The bitter drink, the crown of thorns,
So Peter weeps and Mary mourns,
And you shouted “it is finished!” Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

They find a tomb to lay your clay
And seal it for the Sabbath day
But you don't plan to stay there too long, do you?
When Sunday comes, you've had your rest
The angel voice would say it best,
He isn't here, He's risen Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Sermon - Midweek Advent 4 - Luke 1:26-55

Advent Beginnings”
Midweek Advent 4, December 21st 2011
Luke 1:26-55
Jesus the Son of Mary and Son of God

We've heard from 3 of the 4 Gospels already in this Advent series, on the beginnings of the Jesus story. Mark begins abruptly, and emphasizes repentance. John begins profoundly, showing Jesus the Word made flesh. Matthew gives attention to prophecy – and Jesus as its fulfillment. Now finally, Luke. The most “Christmas-y” of the Gospels. We'll actually wait until Christmas Eve to hear Luke's nativity account, that well-loved text that tells of the census, the manger, the angels, the shepherds, and the birth of God's own Son in Bethlehem.

Today, we look more closely at what happens right before this in Luke's Gospel. Luke, a physician, tells us in Chapter 1 that he undertook to carefully write an orderly account based on the eyewitness testimony from the beginning. He has a historian's sense, and you get the impression this was all very thorough and diligent of Luke. So in this Gospel we hear the most detail about Christ's birth and what led up to it. And especially important in this is a virgin from Nazareth named Mary.

In the three episodes from our reading today, we have the Annunciation, the Visitation, and the Magnificat. Each points us to Christ, tells who he is and will be. Each is an important part of the orderly account Luke writes. Each lays the groundwork for Christ's birth. So let's briefly survey these as we prepare to celebrate that blessed event.

The Annuciation was this past Sunday's Gospel reading. Pastor Poppe highlighted those words from the Angel Gabriel – that Mary, highly favored, would bear the savior, and that David's kingdom would be restored through his eternal reign. Yes, with God all things are possible. A virgin giving birth. The eternal, omnipotent God becoming a finite human being. That one man could die and save all people, that his life could count for theirs. It's even possible for Jesus to promise resurrection and then deliver. Not just possible, it all happened.

The Annuciation reminds us that God alone takes the initiative in our salvation. No man can claim the credit. God chooses Mary, God grants his favor. God establishes his kingdom. God brings salvation. And faith responds, “let it be to me as you have said”.

Jesus comes, without our asking, and he brings salvation. He takes it upon himself, takes our sin upon himself, and he dies, not asking our permission. He does the work, finishes the job, and proclaims “it is finished”. Let it be to us all as he has said.

The Visitation – when Mary then went to visit Elizabeth, herself pregnant with John the Baptist. And at Mary's greeting, the unborn John leapt for joy. Elizabeth, too, confesses faith – that the “mother of her Lord” should come and visit her. “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” We can learn from Elizabeth and John – to confess in words and actions our faith in the Son of Mary, and the Son of God. Jesus comes to visit us still, today, brought not in a womb, but by our mother the church – through the vehicles of word and sacrament. This brings us undeserving sinners great joy! This good news compels us to confess all he has done for us.

And for Mary's part, she sings a song. We call it the Magnificat, from the first word in Latin, “Magnify”. “My soul magnifies the Lord...”. Mary's song is worthy of repetition, and so the church echos it forth to this day, just as all generations call her blessed. In this song, she confesses her lowly standing, her humble estate. Mary knew she was a sinner. She needed a savior, too. But lowly Mary believed in the God who spoke to her through the angel and through the prophets of old. She believed the promise of her savior, her son yet unborn. He who is mighty and does great things for his people.

Luke's Gospel, all throughout, takes great care to show Jesus as savior of the whole world, and especially the lowly. Old barren Elizabeth. Humble Mary. Even unborn John the Baptist. The women, the poor, the widow and orphan, the leper and the Samaritan and Roman. All have a place in the kingdom of Christ, this Son of Mary and Son of God.

We are lowly, too. Oh maybe we're better off than others financially. And maybe our health is in better shape. Maybe we've been around the block enough to know many things in this world. But we're all, still, lowly. We are humble beggars who deserve nothing of God's goodness. Our best works are filthy rags. Our good deeds are tarnished and tainted. Our holiness is a thing of the past – we humans are born into sin and death. We can't reach up and grasp God, even if we wanted to. We are lowly. Poor. Humble. Pathetic. We are sinners. And we need a savior.

From his humble beginnings, we can see that he comes down to be lowly and save the lowly. Laid in a manger, no crib for a bed. He becomes sin to save the sinners. He bears God's wrath to save us from God's wrath. The Story of Jesus beginnings is the story of our beginning, in a way. The beginning of our salvation, and reunion with God.

The Annunciaiton – the Visitation – the Magnificat. In these short episodes Luke begins to tell the story of Jesus our savior. With Mary, we too confess faith in our magnificent God, who has done great things for us in Christ – Mary's Son, and Son of God, our savior.

And now with Advent coming to a close, and Christmas Eve just a couple days away, we take a breath and anticipate the celebration of his birth for us lowly sinners. May your soul also magnify the Lord this Christmas and always. In Jesus' holy name.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Sermon - Midweek Advent 3 - Matthew 1:1-25

“Advent Beginnings”
Midweek Advent 3, December 14th 2011
Matthew 1:1-25
Jesus the Fulfillment of Prophecy

Savior of the nations come, Virgin's son, make here your home. Marvel now, O heav'n and earth, that the Lord chose such a birth. Amen.

We've been looking at the beginning of each Gospel this Advent series, and examining how the evangelists begin their accounts about Jesus. Mark's beginning is abrupt, and he emphasizes the call to repentance preached by John the baptist. In John's Gospel, the deep and profound mystery of the Word made flesh is revealed, and we see Jesus' as divine with eternal origins.

Today we consider Matthew's beginning, and as Christmas draws nearer so does a more familiar Christmas Gospel. Matthew tells of the birth of Jesus, though not as extensively as Luke does. And as each Gospel writer brings a certain emphasis to the story, a unique perspective, we can see the same with Matthew. Here Jesus is presented as the fulfillment of messianic prophecy.

First Matthew offers a genealogy of Jesus. Luke contains a genealogy, too, which goes back to Adam, and to God. But Matthew's genealogy traces Jesus as far back as Abraham, Issac and Jacob. Matthew is likely written primarily to Jewish Christians, or at least to those early Christians who knew their Old Testament scriptures well. And so Matthew pays attention to show how Jesus is the promised Messiah, the seed of Abraham, the one whose coming has been so long awaited.

He is also descended from David, another giant of the Old Testament, a king and man after God's own heart. Jesus is later hailed as the Son of David, and rightly, for David's son is David's Lord. Though Jesus' kingdom is not of this world, King David pointed forward to the birth of this king of kings.

Why is all this important? Do we really need to know the names of Azor the father of Zadok, the father of Achim, etc? Well, for one, it sets Jesus in a real historical context. These things actually happened. But it also shows how faithful God is in keeping his promise to Abraham that all nations would be blessed through his offspring. And how faithful believers clung to that promise through the generations.

So for us. Though we are children of Adam, conceived and born in sin, we are children of Abraham, by faith in Christ, the promised and fulfilled offspring of Abraham. We are part of the “all nations” who have found blessing in Jesus Christ. And just as the Old Testament believers waited in faith for the fulfillment of God's promises, so do we hold fast to the promises we have yet to see come due. Jesus will come again. We will rise to live in glory. This broken world will pass away, and a new heaven and earth will come forth. These, and so many other promises, we can believe – because we've seen how God kept his promises all along.

And then take Matthew's narrative account of Jesus' birth. He summarizes the key points which we'll see fleshed out even more in Luke. But Matthew relates the virgin birth, and Joseph's dream about it. Very simply, Matthew shows again how Jesus fulfills the word of the prophet (from Isaiah chapter 7) that “the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).

Was it unbelievable that God could bring any descendants from old Abraham and Sarah? Sure. Even nations? More unbelievable. Even the savior of the world? Nigh impossible. Except with God, who keeps his promises.

Was it unbelievable that a virgin could conceive a child? Sure. That the child would be from the Holy Spirit? Amazing. But that the child would be the very son of God, God made flesh, God with us – Immanuel? Only possible if God keeps his promises, which he does.

Jesus, too, would fulfill all prophecies. Everything laid out for him to do, he did. Even down to his declaration, “I thirst”. Matthew's Gospel contains some 68 references to fulfillment of scripture, by one count. Maybe there's even more. The wise men, the flight to Egypt, the slaughter of the innocents, John the Baptist, Jesus ministry in the North, the many healings and miracles, even his triumphal entry to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. All of this was promised, and fulfilled. He foretells Peter's denial in dramatic fashion. He even foretold the destruction of the temple, which would happen within a generation from his prediction.

But best of all, was his primary work – also promised and fulfilled, by his own mouth. That the son of man would be handed over, that he would suffer, be crucified, and rise on the third day. All of this Jesus does, just as he promised, it is fulfilled. All of this, for you, dear sinner now saint.

And yes, his promises continue. He will come again, like a thief, with power and great glory. He will gather his elect from the four winds, he will welcome his people, the sheep, into their rest.
And Matthew's Gospel ends on another note of promise, “I will be with you always, to the end of the age”. That promise is fulfilled when he is with us in Baptism, when we gather around his word, and when we kneel together at his altar. He is with us, in real ways, fulfilling his promises, and strengthening us in faith to look for the fulfillment of them all.

Though he may seem far off, though he may seem deaf to your prayers, though it may appear that God has forgotten or cast you off – remember his promises. Remember how he brought them to fulfillment in Christ. Look to history, and see him working, for years, centuries, even – and he still did what he said he would. And know that he will not forget his promises to you in your short life.

Jesus was born. Son of Abraham. Child of a virgin. Fulfillment of prophecy. He would continue, and still continues to bring his promises to fruition. And one day he will bring them all to conclusion, when he comes again in glory. Come, Lord Jesus. Come and fulfill your promises in full. We await and watch in faith. Amen.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Sermon - Midweek Advent 2 - John 1:1-14

“Advent Beginnings”
Midweek Advent 2, December 7th 2011
John 1:1-14
Jesus the Word Made Flesh

If Mark's Gospel beginning is abrupt, then John's Gospel beginning is mysterious, ponderous, and profound. Neither Mark nor John offers us anything about Jesus' early life. But what John does is he goes back much further. Into eternity. He echoes the opening words of Genesis, “in the beginning” but brings to them even greater meaning. He shows how Jesus Christ is the eternal, living, word of God made flesh. This is a great and wonderful truth to ponder.

How can a word be alive? To us, words are just things – vessels of meaning thrown around and given little thought. According to one study, the average person speaks about 16,000 words per day. I'm not sure if pastors were included in that or not. But how often do we think about words. They are vessels of meaning. They are agents of our thoughts and intentions. They communicate. They inform. They sometimes even do things.

Ah, but the word of God is in its own class. Here is a perfect and powerful word. A word of creation – first of all. It's from John's Gospel that we learn of Jesus as the agent of all creation: “through him all things were made”. God spoke his word, and that living word was God, and was Christ. But it gets even more profound.

How a word can be alive is mind-bending enough. How can a word become flesh? Something invisible becomes visible. Something infinite becomes finite. This is God we're talking about, and he can do what he wants. So his will is this – to send his living word, his own son, to take on human flesh and “tabernacle' or pitch his tent among us.

One of the Christmas hymn-writers wrestled with this mystery, in the second verse of “What Child Is This”. You know the familiar words:

Why lies He in such mean estate
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear: for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.

The silent word – the word made flesh – the babe of Bethlehem. Yes, Jesus Christ our Lord is all of these and much more. But that same hymn verse gets to the even more profound truth behind this word becoming flesh:

Nails, spear shall pierce him through,
The Cross be borne for me, for you;
Hail, hail the Word Made Flesh,
The babe, the son of Mary!
The word became flesh to redeem all flesh. The word became flesh to sacrifice himself for us. The word became flesh to bring a word of comfort, hope and peace – a word of forgiveness – to lost sinners like you and me.
For our flesh is corrupt and dead. You don't have to be 80 or 90 to start with the aches and pains, the bumps and bruises of a flesh that is corrupted by sin. Disease and death don't just take the elderly among us. Even infants are subject to death's dread shadow – because all are conceived and born in sin. We are born into a sort of living death – separated from God, one foot in the grave and another on a banana peel, if you will. Life is short. Sin brings death. None of us can escape it.
And our words are false and failing. We don't say what we mean and mean what we say, so often are our words filled with half-truths and wholesale lies. We use our words for selfish purposes, to cut and hurt and destroy. We gossip under the guise of concern. We boast to inflate our own sense of self. We speak without thinking. We waste our words. And we don't say what we should, or pray as we should. There's a reason the epistle of James compares the tongue to a wild beast and a fire, that it's full of deadly poison.
But the Word made Flesh redeems our corrupt flesh with its wicked words. He proclaims a word of forgiveness, because he declared “it is finished”. He speaks his word even today, through his pastors, absolving sins in his stead and by his command. And his word of promise is our future hope – individually and together, for life forever with God.
A resurrection of the body. Our hope is not simply to die and go to heaven. The resurrection of his flesh shows the future of ours. Death has no hold over him, nor will it on us. When Christ comes in his second advent, and all flesh rises for judgment, and we are made to be like him in our resurrected bodies. Then these temples once profaned by sin will be finally swept clean forever, made holy forever, and will live with him forever in perfect bliss.
The word became flesh. Not just for a time, but forever. Jesus is still, to this day, true God and true man. He united himself with us for eternity.
He is also the true light, the light that enlightens all men. The light the darkness has not and will not overcome.
Such a simple word, light, an everyday thing. But yet so mysterious. Scientists are still struggling to figure out the mysteries of created light, but no one can fathom the fullness of the light of light. We simply bask in his glory, the glory of the one and only son of the Father. By his light alone can we see grace and truth.
Light. There's a Christmas theme, anyway. So let that bring us back. As we hang lights on houses and doors and trees, and prepare to celebrate the birth of the true light, may his word continue to enlighten our lives. He overcomes the darkness of sin and death, now and forever. For he became flesh and dwelt among us, and he offered that flesh on the cross for us. And in him there is and will be life for us, for his word of promise endures. After all, he is the living word. In Jesus' name, amen.

Monday, December 05, 2011

A Parent's Prayer

On my oldest daughter's 10th birthday, a prayer from Starck's Prayer Book:
Lord, almighty God, Father of mercies, among other gifts of Your grace You have given me my children, and for such a blessing I heartily praise and magnify You. Yet I regard these children of mine as precious pledges, and know that You have entrusted them to me and will require them at my hand. I regard them as souls that Jesus has purchased with His holy blood, the Holy Spirit has sanctified in Holy Baptism, and You have adopted as Your own children. I am, then, concerned lest any of them be lost through my own fault. You tell me and all parents: Take care of this child; if it is missed, your soul shall answer for its soul.

And so, O Father of all grace, I come to You and in heartfelt prayer commend to you my children. I will do what I can: I will bring them up for Your honor, admonish them, correct them, instruct them, and pray for them. But, O Lord, in all my efforts You must perform the most important part. Immediately after their natural birth I placed them into the arms of Your mercy in Holy Baptism. Behold, I now do the same in my prayer. Bless my children. Attend them at their going out and their coming in. Keep them in Your holy fear, that they may never burden their conscience with sins, nor offend You, nor worst of all, fall from Your grace. Give them believing, humble, obedient and godly hearts, that, like the child Jesus, they may increase in stature, wisdom, and favor with God and men. Imprint on their hearts the image of Jesus in order that they may always keep, until their blessed end, a gracious God and an unstained conscience.

Let my children be devout at their prayers, well-grounded in their Christian faith, steadfast and zealous in worship, chaste in their living, godly in their conversation, so that by their words and actions they may give offense to no one and thus bring upon themselves a fearful judgment. Preserve them from temptations and evil company. By Your Holy Spirit keep them constantly in mind of Your most holy presence, so that they remember that You are with them at home and away, in their room, by day and by night, in company with others and when they are alone. Let Your holy angel be with them when they go out and when they come in. Let Your angel guard them when they travel, pursuing their business, or journeying to foreign lands. Give them Your holy angels as their companions, as You did to young Tobit. By their aid rescue them from dangers, as You did with Lot. Let them, like Jacob, live under the angels’ watchful care.

But if it should please You to make my children a cross to me, either by their sickness, or death, or any other calamity that I might have to see them suffer, grant me patience in such affliction, and remind me that nothing happens without Your divine direction, that my children were Yours before they were mine, and that You have sovereign power to take them again to Yourself. But if it is Your design by the suffering, misfortune, and death of my children to draw me to You, in order that I may recognize also in them that Your visible gifts are perishable, to stir me up to love You alone, the true and perfect Good, keep me while traveling this thorny path in firm confidence and hope in Your almighty power, which can end and mend all things, even the crosses of my children.

Impart Your blessing to them also in their temporal affairs. Care for them, provide for them, give them food and clothing, and deal with them as their mighty heavenly Father. Be their Helper in dangers and calamities, their Physician in sickness, and their Counselor whenever they are in need of good advice. Give to my children a pious soul, a healthy body, and a sound mind, and let them live in Your sight, in order that they may at all times honor and praise You. Implant in their hearts true godliness and continue Your blessing on them that I may have comfort and joy in them.

O God, hear my prayer, and remember that they are Your children as well as mine. Therefore be pleased to hear my supplication on their behalf at the throne of Your grace. Preserve me, O God, from being brought into shame by my children, either during my lifetime or after my death. On the last day let me stand at Your right hand with all my children and say to the praise of Your holy name: “Behold, here I am, my God, and the children which You have given to me; I have lost none of them.” Yes, my God, grant me Your divine favor to this end, that none of my children may be lost, but that they may all enter with me, and I with them, into Your glory.

 HT: Weedon's Blog

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Sermon - Midweek Advent 1 - Mark 1:1-15

“Advent Beginnings”
Midweek Advent 1, November 30th 2011
Mark 1:1-15

Abrupt. If I had to pick one word to describe the beginning of Mark's Gospel, it would be “Abrupt”. There's no baby Jesus. There's no background build-up. No Shepherds, wise men or star. No angels in the fields singing their praises. None of that. Just, “the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. And then we jump right in to John the Baptist.

John is the one written about in Isaiah, the messenger sent before the Lord, to prepare his way. And just as abruptly, Mark writes, “John appeared”. We know the back story from Luke's Gospel, but Mark is concerned with getting right to the main action. John prepares the way for Jesus.

And isn't this how God works? For a time it seems to us he is silent, far off, doing nothing. Then suddenly, he appears. The angels come out of nowhere and shake up the shepherds' silent night. It came upon a midnight clear, ya know? Or there was nothing, and then God spoke, and it was. Or there was a cold, quiet tomb, and then suddenly an earthquake and resurrection. Always at the right time, God acts. And so Christ's promise to return like a thief – suddenly, without warning. This is all very Advent-y type stuff.

So John appears in Mark's Gospel. Boom! Out of nowhere. And that's just fine. Because Mark isn't so concerned with where John came from as what John is doing. He's the forerunner of someone even more important. He prepares the way for the Christ. He brings a baptism and a message. But his most important point is to point to the greater one to come.

And so Jesus breaks onto the scene, just as suddenly. He is baptized. Immediately heaven is open to him. A voice from heaven declares, “You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”. It all happens so fast. And we are left to reflect on what just happened.

Then immediately, (Mark's favorite word), the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. There the action slows, as Jesus himself prepares for further action. 40 days of fasting and prayer. We know what happened there, but Mark doesn't mention it.

Finally, John is arrested, and Jesus re-appears, again abruptly his message is stated: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel."

Perhaps it's the message, too, that is a bit abrupt. “Shooting from the hip” as we might call it, today. Jesus speaks bluntly, as did John. He minces no words. He doesn't soften the blow. He doesn't smooth the rough edges. Repent. Repent! The kingdom of God is at hand! The time is now! Turn from your sin. Fall on your knees and beg God's forgiveness.

The truth is, it's always a good time to repent. We don't need to wait, nor should we. Turn from your sins, today, and confess them. God wouldn't have you wait until the time is right. “Oh, we'll just live together in sin until we have enough money to get married” Or, “Oh, I've been meaning to get around to taking better care of myself, but I'll wait till after the holidays”, or “Oh, I'll love my neighbor, but only when they start respecting me”, or “I'll stop being so greedy, once I get a better job” and so on, and so on. We sinners are great at finding excuses for putting off our repentance to a better time. But the time is always right. Repent, today, for the kingdom of God is at hand!

But know that repentance means more than just turning away from sin. Both Jesus and John say so. John preaches a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And Jesus proclaims, " repent and believe in the gospel."

See, it's not the turning from sin that is the thing. It's believing in the Gospel. It's trusting in his forgiveness. It's faith in the one whose blood was shed on the cross for you. Here is the victory over sin. Here is the slate wiped clean. Here Jesus drops the boom on sin, death, and devil. Not in your work of turning away, but in his work of turning you into something, someone new.

The cross, that one brief moment in time, on which all history turns. The cross, the plan of God from the foundation of the world, thousands of years to prepare, but a few short hours to execute. And just as suddenly as Adam told God to drop dead, Jesus did, and in him, it is finished.

And though your sins are many, and daily, and repentance is always the call – the proclamation of your forgiveness breaks in and sets things right. The name of God placed on you in baptism breaks death's hold, and grants new life. As abruptly as the cold water splashed upon you, so did God's grace wash over you, and new life supplant your death.

Likewise, his word, just a word, an abrupt word - forgives. There's no monumental labors or 12 step process for spiritual renewal that you need to follow. There's no mountain for you to climb, or tower to build to God. In Jesus Christ, God comes to you, speaks to you, forgives you. Just like that. The time is now. You are forgiven in Christ.
Mark's story of Jesus' beginnings may be a bit abrupt. Jesus bursts onto the scene and the action never stops. But that's ok, because Jesus has burst into our lives, both in his call to repent, and in his promise to forgive. And though his work of salvation is finished, he still brings us the benefits of the cross each day.

As we wait and prepare, even at the beginning of this Advent season, it may seem God is far off from you, but he's not. He's at hand. He's pointing your to your baptism, and to his word – repent, and believe – in Jesus Christ, for his own sake, Amen.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Sermon - Advent 1 - 1 Corinthians 1:3-9

1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Advent 1, 2011
As You Wait”

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge— even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you— so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

We Americans don't like waiting. Waiting on the phone, waiting in line at the store, waiting in the doctor's office where they even have a room for waiting. But the church is always waiting. And Advent reminds us of this clearly.

The waiting has begun. Advent is a season of preparation, of expectation and even somewhat of penitence. But it is also a season of waiting. Waiting for Christmas, of course. Waiting to celebrate. But we also remember that Christians are waiting, still, for our Lord's second coming. We wait then, as they waited back then, in the first century, when St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians.

They waited for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. Revealing, perhaps, because in a way he is still with us, though, hidden. He is hidden in the word, in the water, and under the bread and wine. He is with us always, even though he has ascended to heaven. And so his second coming isn't as much of an entrance as a revealing, of him who was there all along. Christ as he truly is – all eyes will see him.

They waited. They waited for the bridegroom, thinking he'd return soon. And as they waited, especially in those early years of the church, you'd expect they were on their best behavior. Eagerly awaiting and expecting that day – and knowing that it would be soon – and knowing that it could be any day. You'd think they'd live holy lives and love one another and flee from sin, and act like Christians, etc, etc. But that's not really how it went.

By Paul's greeting here you'd think he was writing to a bunch of super-Christians. He thanks God for them. He says they've been enriched in speech and knowledge. That Christ's testimony was confirmed among them. That they lack no gift, and that they share in the fellowship of Christ. Sounds great. But something's rotten in Corinth.

They wrote to Paul about some of these problems: Questions about marriage, food sacrificed to idols, and spiritual gifts. Other problems Paul had heard about: Divisions in the church, boasting, immorality. Doctrinal problems - people the resurrection of the dead. And to top it off, they were taking each other to court. If you read all of Paul's letter to the Corinthians, they sound like a deeply troubled congregation. Not a church that you'd want to join. Not a place you'd expect when you hear Paul's greeting. Not a bunch of people waiting patiently, with their eyes fixed on Christ, and their hands busy serving one another.

And so, with us, even as we wait. One might look at Grace Lutheran Church, and see our congregation for who we appear to be. A gathering of people – various ages and backgrounds, but one thing in common. We aren't super-Christians either. We break the rules, we forget what's really important. We live like God doesn't care what we do, like Sunday is the only day he matters, but only for an hour or so. In fact, I bet for many of us it would be hard to tell, just by looking at our everyday life, that we are a “royal priesthood” and a “holy people”. We probably don't give the impression that we're eagerly awaiting Christ's revealing, and the conclusion of history. And we're certainly no super-Christians.

That may be who we appear to be, but that isn't who are. That's not how St. Paul would see us. And that's not what the Lord says about us. We're not too different from the church in Corinth, in its troubles, or in its gifts.

They weren't lacking any gift. And neither are we. But here Paul doesn't mean speaking in tongues or healing or miracles. Those were actually the lesser gifts. The greater gifts, given to all Christians, are found in Word and Sacrament, as the Spirit works faith and sustains faith. They had the gifts that mattered, as do we.

They were enriched in speech and knowledge. We too, have the treasure of God's word, and many opportunities to study it. The better we know that word, the better we know Christ. The more we hear his promises, the greater comfort and peace we have. And the more our speech is conformed to his will, as his words are on our lips, enriching them.

They knew the grace of God in Jesus Christ, and that's our greatest treasure, too. They were sustained by God, they were held guiltless by God, as are we. No sins are held against the sinner who trusts in Christ. No guilt can bear upon those whose savior has born all guilt. When his day comes, we will stand with them, stand before our Lord together, and stand on his merits alone.

They were called into the fellowship of God's Son, Jesus Christ, a fellowship of saints into which we also have been called. We participate in that same fellowship, that same communion, here at table, here in his gifts of himself. Here we gather with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, that is, all the saints who have gone before us. Even those troubled, yet gifted Corinthian Christians.

For the testimony about Christ is confirmed among us, again and again, as we hear his Gospel. That Jesus Christ, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried, and that on the third day he rose again from the dead. And all this, for us.

And so they waited, and so we wait. They looked forward to the fulfillment of all the promises, and so do we. They hoped in a God who is faithful, our very same Lord. And so they waited with hope, they waited in peace, they waited eagerly for the revealing of Christ who has done so much for us, and will do so much more. A blessed Advent, as we wait together.

In Jesus Christ, Amen.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Sermon - Thanksgiving Day - 1 Chronicles 16:34

1 Chronicles 16:34 (et al)
National Day of Thanksgiving, 2011
Giving Thanks for Hesed”

Oh give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good. His steadfast love endures forever.”

This simple and common prayer of thanks is found numerous times in the Old Testament – from 1 Chronicles to the Psalms to Isaiah and Jeremiah. Christians often use it today as a meal prayer. You've probably heard these words many times.

Oh give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good. His steadfast love endures forever.”

I want to focus on one word today – not so much the word “thanks”, but the word “Steadfast Love”. At least that's how it's often translated into English. But the Hebrew word behind it is “hesed”. Give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good. His “hesed” endures forever.

God's hesed, his steadfast love, is also translated as his loving-kindness, his goodness, or his mercy. God's hesed is the rationale for giving thanks in so many of these Old Testament prayers. They gave thanks because of his hesed.

God shows his hesed by what he does – saving his people from their enemies, from disaster, from famine and plague. He shows his hesed by bringing them into a good land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and promising it to them forever. And so they prayed,

Oh give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good. His steadfast love endures forever.”

God's hesed is undeserved. It is pure and free gift. Think about it, we don't really thank our employers for a wage – we earned it, and it is rightfully ours. You might thank your boss for your paycheck, but you'd just be polite. It's not expected. But a gift is a different story. A gift elicits thanks. Maybe a word, maybe a hand-written note. How much more does the free gift of God merit our thanks! We don't do anything to deserve his hesed.

In fact, we do the opposite. We deserve anything but loving-kindness, or steadfast love, or mercy or goodness. Our sins deserve punishment, now and forever.

What's worse, is that we're not even all that thankful most of the time for what we do get. We take God's gifts, even his hesed, for granted. We act like we deserve them, like he owes all this to us. We are spoiled children, but the spoiling is our own fault, not his. We are ungrateful and selfish and thoughtless and, well, sinners.

But that's what makes hesed so much more amazing. Steadfast love would be a whole lot easier to give to people who deserved it. But to your enemies? To people who hate you? To people who want your job and want you dead? To love them?

For God so loved the world, that he sent his only Son. For God so loved you, that he sent Jesus. Jesus who is the ultimate expression of God's hesed. Jesus, to whom the law and the prophets testify. Jesus, who brings what the Old Testament calls hesed, and the New Testament calls grace.

Oh give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good. His grace endures forever.”

A bunch of Lutherans in 1919 thought that God's Grace was important enough to name a church after it. And ever since, we've been preaching God's grace in Jesus Christ here in this place. And like the hesed of the Old Testament, the grace of the New Testament, all rooted in and flowing from Jesus Christ, endures forever.

His hesed endures forever. Because he, Jesus, endures forever. Because his word of promise endures forever. Because his Gospel is eternal. Because his life, once given up, can never be taken again.

Oh give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good. His hesed endures forever.”

Hesed that endures over against your sins, and mine. Hesed that doesn't count all that against you. Hesed that points you to the cross of Jesus and says, here, sinner, is your salvation. Free and clear, it is finished. You don't bring anything to the table, Jesus did it all for you. You don't deserve this free gift, but receive it in faith and be thankful.

Of course, God's hesed is so great that he doesn't just stop with salvation. He gives and gives and gives – blessings too numerous to count. All these, just as undeserved. Food. Clothing. Shelter. Friends and family. Your health. Your earthly wealth. Your reasons and all your senses. Your reputation. Good government. Peace. And those are just for starters.

But hesed always brings you back to Christ, the greatest and fullest expression of God's undeserved love for you. The basis for these and all other gifts he gives. He's been giving them since word one of creation. And he'll be giving them into the countless ages of eternity. For even after this world passes away, after the judgment day and the glorious kingdom is ushered in, God's hesed will still endure, in Jesus Christ our Lord. He'll still be giving good things. Undeserved things. Steadfastly, forever.

And for that, we give him thanks, today and always.

Oh give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good. His steadfast love endures forever.”

In Jesus Christ, Amen.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Last image of Walther?

 These were given to me by one of our parishioners, a great-grandson of Rev. H. Ruhland.  Rev. Ruhland was a seminary student at the time when he made these sketches of his professors. 

Since the sketch of Walther is dated in 1886, it it likely the last picture of him since he died the following year. 

Originally printed in the Concordia Historical Institute Quarterly, the sketches also contain pictures of Craemer, Erdmann, and Stoeckhardt, among other notable LCMS theologians.


Sermon - Mark 10:46-52 - Pentecost 22

Mark 10:46-52
Pentecost 22
November 13th, 2011
“A Hard Man, A Generous Master”

The church calendar is winding down. With the beginning of December, and the season of Advent, we start our new year – but in these last few weeks of November, the lectionary brings into focus the last day – the second coming of Christ – the judgment day.

Today, a parable of Jesus concerning that day. The parable of the talents. And while a parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning, it's easy to get that heavenly meaning wrong. One bad interpretation goes something like this:

“When Jesus comes again, he will settle accounts, and those who have used their time, their talents, their money wisely – for things he'd endorse, will do well. You know, the people who give lots of money to church, the people who are always volunteering for this or that. And the people who generally do what God wants – be like them. Not those other people who just bury their talents, and keep everything to themselves. Don't be so selfish and fearful, or you will be condemned!” We might even think of the bumper sticker that says it succinctly, “Jesus is coming. Look busy!”

But there's all kinds of problems with this interpretation. For one, it makes your salvation about you and your works. But we know that salvation depends on Christ alone. That interpretation can't be so good, because who among us is a good steward and invests wisely? If you have any regrets in life whatsoever, or any small fear that God could call you out in the end – you know you're not a very good steward of his gifts. If the point of this parable is, “get to work!” then we are all on shaky ground at best, and lost at worst. If we look at ourselves, our own works, we'll surely despair.

But let me direct you instead, away from yourself. Consider the character of the Master in the parable. He is a hard man, to be sure. He reaps where he doesn't sow. He expects a lot of his servants! Perfect obedience, yes. And for such a small sin of just keeping his money safe and not losing it (and in today's economy, that's not so bad, is it?). But the Master isn't satisfied. He calls that servant wicked and lazy, and casts him into weeping and teeth-gnashing. And you think YOUR boss is bad?

But this is the same Master, who before he goes, gives generous, lavish, even crazy amounts of money to his servants. Without asking qualifications or interviewing them. Without collateral or contact. He throws his wealth around with abandon. He gives recklessly. And when his servants are faithful, in the end, he says, “that was only a drop in the bucket! You've been faithful with a little, I will set you over much” What's wrong with this master?

He is divine. The Master in the parable is, of course, God. He whose justice is perfect, whose righteousness is most righteous, who is holy, holy, holy. He who establishes the law – and holds sinners to it. He who decreed that sin means death, now and eternally, and who knows every sin you've committed in thought, word and deed. He is the ultimate, terrible, fearsome judge, whose harsh condemnation will stand forever against the objects of his wrath. God means business.

But He is also the one who gives. He who gives even more generously, freely, and fully than any character in a parable. He gives us life, and breath and health and wealth. He gives house and home, wife and children, land, animals and all I have. But most of all, and best of all, he gives salvation in Christ. He sends his son to live and die and rise for you.

He, Jesus, stands in the gap between you and the fire of God's wrath, and he, Jesus is consumed instead. He stands before the bench of God's jurisprudence and bears the sentence of death in your place. He suffers the punishment, the torments of hell for your sin and all sin of all time – at the cross. And. It. Is. Finished. He dies, but death cannot hold him. And his new life is your new life, too.

We in no way deserve all this. We're untrustworthy and unqualified and wicked and slothful servants – but by the working of the Spirit, and in the power of his Word, he makes us faithful. He looks at you and says, “Well done! Here's a reward!” because when he looks at you he sees only Christ.

So don't let this parable scare you. Only those who don't know the true character of the Master need fear. For while according to the Law, our God is a fearful judge – according to the Gospel, he is a kind and loving Father. So look to his Gospel promises in Christ.

And what about those talents? What about the gifts that he gives you!? You don't have to, but you get to – put them to work. But how? How does one “invest” the treasures of God?

For one, by faith. By the word and sacraments are our spiritual treasures. Don't bury them in the yard, but plant them deep in your heart. And there they will bear fruit that will not stay buried. The Confessions say, “cling to God's Word, pray diligently, abide in God's goodness and faithfully use the gifts...received.” Receive and cherish his gifts, and they will grow in you. Love God with all your heart.

But also love your neighbor. Love him by helping him in bodily needs. Love him by showing kindness and respect. Love him by telling him the truth, even sharing your faith. Love him, even if it means dying for him, for that's how you've been loved. Love him by using whatever gifts God has given you, time, talent, treasure. Love him, or her, or them... as best you can, even the least of these, and you do it unto Christ.

A tall order. We'll need God's continued grace all the while. But in Christ, we are blessed to love God and one another, empowered by his Spirit. And when he comes to settle accounts, we have nothing to fear. The gifts will keep on coming, as ever greater surprises are unveiled. For Christ is ours, and we are his, forever. Amen.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Lord, Save Us

Lord, save us from generic faith in generic God. Convict us of sin and grant forgiveness in Christ, specifically.
Lord, save us from "Jesus as example" and teach us Jesus crucified for sinners.
Lord, save us from the Bible as a rulebook for victorious living, and teach us your word of suffering, cross, and Christ victorious for us.
 Lord, save us from ourselves, our own ideas, our own words, our own works.  Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and fulfiller of our faith.
 Lord, save us from faith in ourselves, for our best is but filthy rags.  Clothe us with your righteousness in Christ.
Lord, save us from false teaching even in what we consider it unimportant.  Instill in us a keen ear for every word that proceeds from your mouth.
Lord, save us from mere feelings, which in sinful man so often deceive.  Give us ears to hear your word, both law and gospel, no matter the moment's emotions.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Dalai Lama on Google+

One of the "trending items" on Google+ was this blurb from the Dalai Lama:

"Human beings are not intrinsically selfish, which isolates us from others. We are essentially social animals who depend on others to meet our needs. We achieve happiness, prosperity and progress through social interaction. Therefore, having a kind and helpful attitude contributes to our own and others' happiness."
 Not selfish?  I first thought of original sin, and began to dismiss his blurb as just another sappy, idealistic sentiment.   But he's not talking about that, really.  When he says "selfish", he means, "to one's self".  And I think he's onto something.  Is it possible for false teachers, even non-Christians, to tap into truth?  Sure! 

Christians would affirm that Man was created to be in relationships.  It is "not good for man to be alone", God says in Genesis.  So he created woman, and so he places us in families, communities, etc.  Jesus Christ, true God and perfect man, demonstrated this himself with his many heartfelt and personal social interactions.  "The disciple whom Jesus loved", for instance, or the calling of the 12 disciples and the special place of the 3 - all these give us clues to the nature of human social relationships as God intends them.

Jesus goes on to teach about love for the neighbor, "Do unto others" and "Love one another as I have loved you"  and "Greater love has no one than that he lay down his life for his friend".  And here is the clue toward what the Dalai Lama is missing.

Just as we are not "intrinsically selfish", or isolated from other humans, we are not "intrinsically selfish" and isolated from our God.  We are not created to be apart from him, but with him.  We are meant to be together.  We are, after all, made in his image.  But sin breaks this connection, separates us from God, and shatters His image in us.  If we are "social animals" we are first and foremost "social" when it comes to the almighty.

In Jesus Christ, all this is made whole again.  Jesus restores the broken relationship to a right one.  He makes us, once more, who we were meant to be.  Children of the Heavenly Father.  And only Jesus can do it.

And He calls us into a "social network" known as the church.  In Christ, we join the communion of all the saints, in faith toward God and in love toward one another.  We receive his gifts together.  We bear one another's burdens.  We submit to one another out of love.
To the extent that a Christian has the right "attitude" toward others, is kind, loving or helpful to others - it is in response to the exceedingly great love God first had for us in Christ.  It is the working of God's Spirit within us that drives us to fulfill the law of love.  But we don't do it for our own benefit or happiness.  Indeed, sometimes we even die for one another - figuratively or literally.  But it's because Christ died for us first.  His love forms us, and reforms us.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Sermon - Matthew 11:12-19 - Reformation Day (observed)

Matthew 11:12-19
Reformation Day
October 30th, 2011
“Dirges and Flutes”

A blessed Reformation day to you. Today is that one day in the church year that we Lutherans, especially, highlight our heritage. Beginning in the 1500's, with the German monk Martin Luther, the Western church began to reform. We went back to the Bible as our only source and norm of faith and life. We saw the error of many of our ways. The abuses of Rome were corrected, the false practices that had crept in over the centuries were abolished. And most importantly, the doctrine – the truth – that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone!

This message, the Gospel, we still preach today! It is the good news of Jesus Christ, crucified for sinners like you and me. It is good news, but it's not particularly new. It is a good news, that has long been rejected.

Jesus teaches that the prophets had been preaching the word and God had been working in the world, establishing his kingdom, from the beginning. Even John the Baptist, the most recent prophet to appear – his message was nothing new. Nor was its rejection. It's always been this way. Whether John the Baptist or Jesus, Martin Luther or C.F.W. Walther, modern pastor, Old Testament prophet. Not all have ears to hear. Not all appreciate, receive and believe in this good news.

Well, part of the good news is the bad news. And John preached that well. In fact, he prepared the way for the good news of Jesus with a harsh word of law. “Repent!” John cried, “You brood of vipers!” Today we might call that a “downer”. Politically incorrect. Not the feel-good message that lifts your spirits and puts a spring in your step. John preached a fierce law, unfettered from niceties. He didn't care who he offended when he called out sin, and sinners. And if he were here today, he'd likely do the same. He'd point right out at you in the pews, and me in the pulpit. He'd rub your nose in your sin and make you smell it afresh. Such was John's preaching. And not all had ears to hear. Some rejected.

But as a preacher of the law, John had a greater goal in mind. He preached “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”. You see, John prepared the way. He showed, clearly, exposed and laid bare sin – so that we would rejoice all the more at the coming of the Messiah. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The one who John isn't worthy to stoop down and touch his sandals, the one who we are not worthy to worship or pray to or believe in.

But we do, by his own invitation and through his own Spirit. We who know our sin, know our savior. Jesus, the lamb who once was slain for us. The savior whose shed blood makes us clean. Who gives us gifts at font and altar, concrete grace and rock-solid promise. But not all have ears to hear. Some would hear of Jesus, and reject.

Jesus uses a children's rhyme to illustrate his point.

“We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.”

He's not talking about music styles here, how the church worships. He's lamenting that some would hear neither the law nor the gospel.

They won't mourn at the dirge – that is – they won't grieve over their sins. This is central to being a Christian – sorrow for sin. I don't know how many Christians today downplay the seriousness of sin. Some won't even say the word! They may think of it as a mere challenge, or problem, a hurdle to overcome. But sin is death! It's your funeral! It's worse! Sin separates you from God, and from him eternally. What a senseless, shameful, ugly thing is sin. Your sin is worth mourning. And since we sin daily, and sin much, the Christian lives in daily repentance. I pray that you have ears to hear the funeral dirge of the law – it's not someone else's, some other sinner's funeral – it's yours!

But also have ears for the gospel. Dance when that flute is played. Not literally, I mean, we are Lutherans after all. But rejoice in the good news of Jesus Christ – who danced on his own grave so that you will one day dance on yours. He is the author and fulfiller of your faith. He is the priest and the sacrifice for sin. He is the one who walked the walk you couldn't, died the death you should've, and promises you a blessed and glorious future forever. Friend, best friend, of tax collectors, prostitutes, gentiles, lepers, and all kinds of sinners, even sinners like you and me.

We are Lutherans. We sing the dirge, and we play the flute. We cherish both the Law of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We know our need for both.

If we tried to get by on just the law, there would be no hope. We'd either be lost on the endless treadmill of good works, or more honestly despair our inability to do enough, our constant failures. No the law alone will not do. It either leaves us self-righteous or just plain broken.

Nor will the Gospel alone suffice. Forgiveness is meaningless without sins to be forgiven. The Good News isn't that good, unless we clearly see what needs fixing. So the Gospel without the law is meaningless sentiment, an empty smile – or it morphs into another kind of law, the tyranny of love.
We need the righteousness apart from the law. We need the righteousness from outside ourselves, the salvation accomplished for us by Jesus, at the cross. Only this will do.

We are baptized by him. We are fed together at his meal, by him. We gather to hear him, receive him, and respond in faith to him by his spirit. But it is all by his grace, and no merit of our own.

We need to sing the dirge and play the flute – to hear John's call to repent, and Jesus' call to faith. To know our sin well, and also our Savior. To repent daily, and turn to Jesus in faith. To have ears to hear both important words of God.

That's what John the Baptist taught. That's what Luther taught. That's what Walther taught. That's what Jesus taught. And that's what we believe. On this Reformation Day and always, Amen.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Sermon - Matthew 22:15-22 - Pentecost 18

Matthew 22:15-22
Pentecost 18
October 16th, 2011
“Christ and Caesar”

The foolish Pharisees. Trying to ensnare Jesus in his words. He, the living Word of God, the creator of words. The arrogance. But if they could trip him up – maybe the Romans would take care of this Jesus problem and they wouldn't have to get their hands dirty.

So they send a delegation – with questions. But first, compliments. And the false praise here is plain blasphemous. For they neither consider him truthful or of God. If so, they would have listened to him long ago. They wouldn't be here to challenge him. But the question is still a good question. And Jesus answer is even better.

Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar? And in this short question is packed a load of dynamite. You see, the Romans were occupiers, outsiders, and their grip was as cold and cruel as it was strong. The Jews longed for the glory days when they governed themselves, chose their own way. When they could worship freely without the pollution of a pagan power. Purity! Freedom! Self-determination! They despised the Roman authorities, and rebelled here and there. And that coin with the emperor's likeness – no good Jew could suffer graven images, but to make it worse, the inscription hailed Caesar as the “Son of God”. Blasphemy. So to pay taxes to Caesar was not only economically uncomfortable, it was nauseating and repugnant to a good Jew.

We have our caesars today. We have our own governments and powers that be, to whom we must answer, and against whom we may feel powerless. Even in a nation which cherishes liberty and justice for all, and which extends rights and privileges to its citizens unique in the history of nations – still we are the same. The powerful are corrupted. The little guy feels left out. We choose our sides and work for what we think is best, and complain about what we think is wrong. Maybe we've even got some good points. And we'd love to be free of taxation, not only for the bottom line on our checkbook, but because it's our money, and we want it spent our way!

So it's a clever trap, by human standards, that the Pharisees lay for Jesus. If he says it it lawful to pay taxes, he risks offending the Jews. If he says not to pay, he surely brings down the wrath of the Romans.

But Jesus will not be fooled. His answer is so magnificent that it disarms his opponents instantly, and teaches us a valuable lesson even today. Render to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's. A simple principle. A beautiful way to understand God's proper ordering of things, even today. Let's unpack his meaning:

God gives us earthly government for our good. Jesus never supports anarchy, for that would only give sin freer reign. Good government brings order, keeps peace, and provides a measure of safety for God's people. Jesus commends soldiers for their faith, and never tells them to quit their jobs. He acknowledges the authorities as having true authority, though given from above. Yes, all rightful earthly authority falls under the 4th commandment – honor your father and mother – for we answer to authorities in all spheres of life.

Even though no human authority is without sin. But this is no excuse for us to be lawless. Caesar was due his taxes, and so is Uncle Sam. A Christian is to obey the authorities, even corrupt ones, to the extent that he can without sin. This is what we Lutherans call the teaching of the Left-Hand Kingdom. It's the idea that all earthly, even secular authority, is God's authority – a way in which he rules the world for our benefit.

And it is in our sinful, human nature to balk at authority. To rebel. To challenge and push and test those limits. We disdain those who are over us, thinking we could do a better job. We question our parents, ridicule our boss, and make snide remarks about our politicians. But those who are placed over us are over us for our good, and they serve God in that role. To despise authority, whether parent or government, or boss, or teacher... is to despise the ultimate authority. And we've been doing it as long as we've been sinners. Our old nature is a rebellious nature, set against God and those who rule as his representatives in our lives.

Yet there is another hand of God – the right hand. That hand which is not about justice, but mercy. Not physical force, but the power of the word and Spirit. And God is right-handed. Here, in the church, he deals with us according to his love and grace in Jesus Christ. Here the real power is not in punishing, but forgiving sins. Here God rules you by the Gospel – the good news of salvation in Jesus.

So render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's. Which begs the question. What is God's? If money is the tax we pay in the Left hand kingdom, and obedience to authority, then what does God expect of us in spiritual terms? What are our spiritual dues?

Some would say moral behavior, or upright living. That if we simply try hard not to sin, that's what God wants of us. And according to the law, that's true. But it's also impossible. It's a tax no one could pay. Our debt, too high. You think the IRS is bad?

No, like so many things in this right hand kingdom, God's ways are so different than the world. He knows our inability to pay, and so he pays for us. He sends the true Son of God. The true image of God, not in the form of a coin, but in the flesh of a man. His perfect life earns us a credit on the heavenly ledger. He restores us, by his holiness, to the perfect and holy image of God we shattered in the Garden of Eden.

And what's more, Jesus rendered unto Caesar his very life: suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. Jesus gave what was due for our sins, his blood for ours, the only currency that could cover it. And now he offers us his body and blood free, without price.

And what does he require of us? What should we render God? Simply, our faith and trust. Simply to believe his word of forgiveness and promise. Nothing, really, except to receive what he gives. To give God what is God's doesn't mean first to do, but to believe. This is the highest and truest worship of God. The doing follows. The works flow from that faith that is given.

That we have such a God, and such grace, makes it easier to render to Caesar. Jesus shows that the coin is worth little compared to the riches of God. Psh. Don't get so caught up in it. There's bigger and better things to think about.

So pay your taxes. Obey your leaders. Respect those in authority. But more than that, render to God what is God's. Trust in the author and perfecter of your faith, Jesus Christ. He is the king of kings, who serves you even to death. He gives you all good things, for free.