Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Sermon - Matthew 5:21-26 - Lent Midweek 4

Matthew 5:21-26
Lent Midweek 4
March 30th, 2011

So far we've touched on the deadly sins of Pride, Covetousness, and Lust. And we've seen how these sins of thought are, indeed, deadly. And how the only treatment for such heart disease is the antidote of the Gospel – that Jesus Christ, our loving Savior, gave his life for us. He forgives and takes away deadly sin, and gives us his righteousness and life.

Today, our sin is Anger. And the Bible has much to say about anger. For starters, it is one of those sins of thought that bear just as much guilt as sins of deed. Jesus says as much in our reading from Matthew 5. Anger, he teaches, is a kind of murder committed in the heart. And like other thought-sins, it often leads to word-and-deed sins. Anger is a motivation for all kinds of cruelty, violence, and vengeance.

A survey of the many scriptural passages about anger will lead us to some other noteworthy conclusions about this deadly sin. But perhaps first a caveat: not all anger is sin.

Ecclesiastes tells us there's a time to love and a time to hate. Proverbs 15 commends the man who is slow to anger. James 1 tells us to be slow to anger. And Ephesians 4 teaches us to be “angry and do not sin”. There is such thing as righteous anger. A reaction of outrage or indignation at sin or evil. Even Jesus Christ became angry with the moneychangers in the temple.

But be careful. This can all too easily become an excuse for our sinful anger. It's tempting for us to want to justify all our anger. And even if we are rightly angry over some injustice, that doesn't free us to act on our anger. Proverbs 29 says, “A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back.” Ephesians 4 warns us to “give no opportunity to the Devil”.

Nevertheless, more often than not our anger is NOT righteous. Almost always, in fact. It is tainted by sin, steeped in sin, forged in the sinful heart.
In this sense, we don't have an “anger management problem”, we have a sin problem. And God's Holy Word calls us to repent!

For who are you, after all, to be angry? Think about it. Most of our anger comes when someone offends us in some way. They say something or do something that causes us to react. An unkind word. A thoughtless inconsideration. Who do they think they are? Don't they know who I am? What nerve that person has! We feel threatened, we feel attacked, and anger whispers, even shouts in our heart, “FIGHT BACK! Don't stand there and take this!”

Jesus says, turn the other check. Anger says, hit back and hit harder! Jesus says pray for your enemies. Anger says, get them, they deserve it! Jesus says anyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, but anger doesn't care about that. It's too busy being angry at the brother.

When our anger builds within us, and erupts in explosion, we often regret it. When it smolders and festers, it often grows into bitterness. When we carry those grudges, they only weigh us down with hot hatred, amplified by time and the twisted things we tell ourselves.

And so it goes, for us sinners. We don't get our way, someone does something we don't like, and our old nature throws its tantrum. Are we totally beyond help? Are we liable to the judgment fires that burn hotter than our rage and fury?

God could be, and should be righteously angry over our sin. God hates sin, and directs his holy anger at sin – and yes – sinners. In the end, it's not people's sins that will be thrown into hell, but the sinners themselves. And God is totally justified in doing so. In fact, he's the only one whose anger is ever entirely righteous. He has a right to be angry, and yes, even angry with you, and me.

But he is not.

God's anger has been put away, in Christ. God's cup of wrath that would hang over our head like a sword of Damocles, has instead been poured out on Christ. That's what the cross was all about. God punishing sin.

Christ became sin, and God hated him there. Despised him. Turned his back on him. “Why have you forsaken me?” Jesus cried in anguish. But he knew why. Because of your sin, and mine. Because of your hating, angry, spiteful, quarrelsome nature and thoughts and words. Because that person crossed you and you just can't let it go. Because someone pushes your buttons and you snap. Jesus died for all that angry sin – and more.

That's the cup that Jesus drank, that he wanted to pass from him, but “not my will but yours, Father”.

And now, the sun has gone down on his anger. Jesus is raised from the dead by the approving Heavenly Father. And the frown of Friday is turned upside down in Easter joy. But not just for Jesus – for you, too.

On that list of 7 sins remember each sin had a corresponding virtue. And the opposite of Anger is Kindness. That's how God is disposed to us, now, in Christ. The Hebrew word, “Hesed” is often translated, “loving-kindness”. It gets at that same thing. God's not just neutral to you now. He's not just “ok” with you. He loves you. He shows you kindness. The Lord makes his face to shine upon you – in Christ.

He sees you through Christ. He says of you what he says of Christ, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well-pleased”. There's not a whiff of anger left, only unfathomable, indescribable, eternal love.

Matthew 5 even teaches us to be concerned with those who are angry at us – who have something against us! Go and be reconciled with your brother. Do what is right. Ask for forgiveness. Give them no reason to be angry with you. And do it soon! Leave your gift at the altar! This Christian concern is even more important than our outward religious duties. It is yet another way for us to love our neighbor.

The next time you struggle with anger, perhaps it will help to check yourself. Remember the scriptural warnings. Speak a kind word instead. And repent. For God's anger, that you and I richly deserve, is put away in Christ. In his loving-kindess, we love one another – even those who wrong us. In Jesus' Name. Amen.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Sermon - Luke 11:14-26 - Lent 3

Luke 11:14-26
Lent 3
March 27th, 2011
“Stronger than the Strong Man”

Jesus' miracles were acts of compassion for those in need, sick, afflicted, cast out from society. Often we are told it is because he “has compassion on them” that he reaches out to heal. But these miracles are also his calling cards, if you will, bright flashing neon signs “The Messiah is Here!”

Some saw the signs and believed – at least to some extent. Others “kept seeking signs”, that is, they refused to believe even when they saw one or more for themselves. So the miraculous sign doesn't guarantee belief. In fact, sometimes Jesus wouldn't or couldn't do a miracle – whether it was for King Herod or the unbelievers in his own home town.

Nonetheless, here in Luke 11, our Gospel for today, Jesus has to defend his miracles of exorcism from unbelieving witnesses. Oh they believed in demons. They even believed that Jesus had cast them out. But they claimed Jesus was working for the Devil – casting out demons by the prince of demons.

Jesus defends his miracles – not with more miracles – but with his words. And his words are really the main thing, anyway. He has a point to make, and it's a simple one – similar to what he's said elsewhere. It's something like this: In spiritual terms – you are either with Jesus or you are against him. There's no middle ground.

If you are against Jesus, then you are under the power of the Devil – whether you are literally possessed by a demon or not – the Devil has hold of you. You are a captive of the “strong man” locked away in his palace, under heavy guard. And this is the condition we were all in. This is the place we were born – into sin. Slaves by birth to a terrible master. Possessed by the forces of darkness for all eternity.

Not that we are terribly opposed to that. Each time we sin, our old nature is gasping and grasping for its old master. There's a part of us that is quite comfortable with evil – to the point that we're numb to it. We can even cast our sins as virtues. You can paint the prison walls pretty, but it's still a prison. And you can pretend that the devil is irrelevant or a figment, and he's just fine with that as long as his hold on you is still strong.

But Jesus is the stronger man who comes to beat up the bully. He not only casts out demons from villagers and peasants – he destroys the prince of demons himself. He shatters the kingdom of the Devil with a cross – his own cross, descending to Hell to announce his victory. He's even stronger than death – rising from the grave to live forever.

All this to bring us to himself. All this to free us from our old master. To break the bonds of sin and death and hell. To create in us a new spirit. And to make us blessed.

When Jesus had finished explaining this to the doubters and the haters, a woman in the crowd shouts out a kind of a complement – blessing even the mother that gave him birth!

Not that Jesus denies it, but he redirects the woman's attention to where true blessing is found. “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it”. Yes, it's nice to be around Jesus, to see his miracles, to wonder at the wonders. It's great to see him kicking out demons and taking names, bullying the bully for our sake. But it's even better that we hear the word of God and keep it.

Of course, he speaks that word. It's a word of law – a rebuke of sin. Rules to keep that we don't. But his word is also a word of promise – a good word that cleanses and heals. And this word we keep when we treasure the promises and put our faith in them, and in him.

If we don't hear and don't treasure and don't keep that word – it won't matter what else he does for us. He could even cast out demons and the person who doesn't remain in his word will be taken in again, and be worse off than before.

But Jesus does clean house – when it comes to the temple of our body – the temple of the Holy Spirit. He creates in us a new spirit. He washes us clean with the holy waters of baptism. He continues to cleanse us with his holy body and blood. Christ dwells within us, his Spirit dwells within us – and so there simply is no room for an evil spirit. Christ is our master, how could we serve our old master, Satan? Christ is our strong champion – why should we ever worry about what the old serpent can do to us? For his head has been stomped on by the heel of the Savior. He is crushed.

Blessed are you, who hear his word, in this place. Blessed are you, even though each of us struggles with our own demons – literal or not. Blessed are you because the victory is yours in Christ, his word declares, “it is finished”.

Blessed are you who have been sealed in the water of promise – baptized into his name and kingdom. That gift and those words, are also to be kept – not forgotten – not kept on a shelf – but lived and used and remembered each day.

Blessed are you who keep his words of promise that this bread and wine is his body and blood – who remember these words and do what they say. Who receive these gifts in true faith.

Yes, we are weak but he is strong. Enemies surround us, but he protects us. The devil would have us, but we belong to Christ.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Sermon - Matthew 5:27-30 - Lent Midweek 3

Matthew 5:27-30
Lent Midweek 3
March 23rd, 2011

One of the benefits of this sermon series on seven deadly sins is we get to talk about things we don't often cover in the lectionary. We get to zero in on particular sins that trouble us, yes, even us Christians – sins that we might not say much about otherwise. We've already heard about pride and coveting. Today another sin of thought – lust.

Jesus makes it crystal clear that lust is a sin. It is a sin of the heart. And yet, it is to be taken seriously. Like all sins, it is deadly. In fact, Jesus speaks very harshly about this sin – likening it to an eye or a hand that causes sin and must be destroyed, lest the whole body be destroyed and thrown into hell. This should grab our attention!

Where we wish to minimize sins like lust, Jesus maximizes them! Or better yet, he unveils their true severity. Take this sin of lust. In our human way of thinking, it's no big deal. A glance. A look. The imagination runs on. To many of us, it's nothing to worry about and it doesn't hurt anyone. In fact, it's often encouraged. Our culture of consumerism uses it to sell countless products from cars and clothes to foods to pharmaceuticals. In a way, everywhere we look it seems lust is creeping, tempting, inviting us in to stay for a while.

But is a sin of thought a big deal? Isn't it better to just look and not touch? What's the harm? For one, we don't need to know the harm of a sin in order to see it as such. Just because something seems to harm no one doesn't make it fine to do. Our standard of law isn't based on the foreseeable damages. We look, instead, to the law. And while sin does have consequences, even if only spiritual consequences, that's not what makes it sin. It's God's command that matters. Thou shalt. Thou shalt not.

The sixth commandment – what does it mean? Here's what our catechism teaches us: We should fear and love God so that we lead a sexually pure and decent life in what we say and do, and husband and wife love and honor each other.

So he says you shall not commit adultery. And of course, we know the damage that sin can do. Tearing apart marriages. Shattering trust. Breaking homes and scarring the children. Divorce often follows. But long before the sins of deed come the sins of word and thought.

Take King David, in his sin with Bathsheba. Sure, he took another man's wife, and then committed murder to cover that sin. But even before it all happened – there was lust. He saw her from his rooftop and sinful thoughts led to sinful actions. Long before he committed adultery, he had committed adultery in his heart. And so it followed with his son Amnon, whose lust for his own sister led to more dark sins.

Not every sin of lust leads immediately to actual adultery, but lust still devalues the gifts God gives us as men and women. When we objectify others, when we see someone only for their sexuality, we treat the very image of God with dishonor. What's in it for me, instead of how can I serve my neighbor? Lust is antithetical to “husband and wife loving and honoring each other”. It seeks only for the self.

So how do we deal with this sin of lust that brings so much deadliness? Simply stop? Be good? Take a cold shower? No. We deal with the sin of lust like all other sins – with repentance and by receiving forgiveness. In this sense there is no distinction. All sins are deadly, and all are destroyed at the cross.

For we could even seek to cut off the hand that causes us to sin, or pluck out the eye – but if our very heart is sinful, how can we live? Instead, Jesus gave his whole self – eyes, hands, feet, pierced side, thorn-crowned head, scourged back – all of himself, for us. He was destroyed so we are not. He was cast away from God so we are not. He suffered hell to save us from hell.

Jesus Christ – the only one ever to lead a sexually pure and decent life – honors his bride the church by dying for her. For you, that is. He is the bridegroom who is preparing, even now, the great marriage feast in his kingdom which has no end. He is the faithful husband to his people Israel of Old, and to the New Israel which His Spirit gathers and sanctifies.

Lay your sins of lust – and all your sins – on him. His desire is to take them away forever. His desire is to make you righteous and holy, pure and decent.

After David had sinned with Bathsheba, a sin which began with lust and grew and grew.... he was confronted by Nathan the prophet. But instead of explaining away his sin, making excuses or minimizing it in any way, he confessed. And God forgave.

It was then that David wrote these familiar words of Psalm 51, words we know well today – words which take on even fuller meaning through Christ.

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!

3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
and blameless in your judgment.
5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
and in sin did my mother conceive me.
6 Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,
and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.

7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
11 Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Sermon - Proverbs 16:18 - Ash Wednesday

Proverbs 16:18
Ash Wednesday
March 9th, 2011

Pride goes before destruction,
and a haughty spirit before a fall. Prov. 16:18 (ESV)

And so it begins, our journey to Calvary called Lent. Our 40 days of fasting and contemplation to prepare us for a sober and meaningful observance of Good Friday, and the triumphant joy of Easter to follow. But for now, we put on the purple, put away the Alleluias, and focus all the more closely on our sin and our need for repentance, and for our Savior.

For our midweek series we'll be exploring seven deadly sins. And while the idea of “seven deadly sins” has become part of American culture, it has its roots in the catholic church as far back as the 4th century. So it was taught, and apparently still is, that these 7 sins are “mortal sins”, and that other sins aren't so deadly, but these are the ones you really have to watch out for....

Well not so fast. Lutheran theology sets us straight on sin. All sin is deadly. A biblical view of sin doesn't diminish its danger. “The soul that sins shall perish”, and so in a sense all sins are deadly sins. While some may hold more earthly consequences, and others may harm more obviously – we confess with with the church through all ages that sin is always a problem, a deadly and damnable problem. Sins of thought, word and deed, sins of omission and commission, sins against God and against neighbor and against self. And all sinners are called to repent of these, turning away from death – and turning in faith to Christ our only savior from sin.

With that major disclaimer in mind, still, it's worth exploring these seven sins – not because they are worse or more deadly – but because they are so common among us. It's worth venturing into the dark so that we can shine the light of God's Word on our souls. And and these deadly sins come scurrying out from within, may the Gospel of Jesus Christ stomp each and every one of them. Let these 40 days be a time of deep repentance and strengthening faith for us all. For though we have seven deadly sins – and more – we have one loving Savior, who dies to take them away.

Our first sin is pride. And you might even argue that THE first sin was pride. Proverbs tells us, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Wasn't it pride that the slippery serpent used to tempt Eve into sin? For after all, you eat that fruit and “you will be like God”. And so Eve and Adam and all of us fell – but the pride came first.

What is sinful pride? Perhaps we could define it as thinking more of yourself than you should. Paul says, “if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself”. And John says, “if we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us”. And yet how many people would pridefully claim to be without sin? How many would think so much of themselves that they believe they can pass the test of God's probing law and perfect judgment?

Pride – it puffs us up with a false sense of security, or a false sense of our worth and value. It's a lie we tell ourselves to avoid the hard truth – that we really are sinners. That we really are nothing. That our best works are filthy rags. That our “goodness” is a sham. Pride, ultimately, wants to make us our own gods. And then who needs the real God?

The opposite of pride is humility. And many who follow this list of seven deadly sins also point to a list of seven heavenly virtues – opposites to these sins. The idea is that the solution to each sin is to just stop it! And do the opposite. Don't be proud, be humble. Don't be envious, but be kind. Don't be lustful, but be chaste. Etc. Well, easier said than done. In fact, easily said, impossible to do. The solution to deadly sins is not to simply “be good”. It is repentance and faith. It's a turning away from sin, yes, but a turning toward the only Savior from sin.

The only one who was ever truly humble. He even said so, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:29)

If I claimed to be humble you'd laugh at me, for the very claim negates it – but not when it comes to Jesus. He, who had every good and right reason to be proud – he who was without sin – he who was God Almighty – he was humble. He humbled himself, he came down to be less than he was, taking the flesh of a human being, born in a stable, raised in a backwater town, reviled by men, betrayed, deserted, convicted, crucified, dead, buried. It doesn't get any lower than Jesus gets. Forsaken by God – it doesn't get any more humble.

Sin was deadly to him, though. All sins were put upon him. He who had no sin became sin for us. And he died. But by his death he destroyed death. He brought haughty Satan to utter ruin. He laid proud death in the grave forever, and rose to life forevermore. And when he finished his course here, and many saw proof that he was alive, he took back his rightful place at the top. He ascended into heaven, and will come again to judge the living and the dead. But his kingdom will have no end.

If we are to be proud at all, in a scriptural sense, if we are to think highly of anyone or anything – it is Christ. “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.” For in ourselves we are nothing. But in him who is everything, we are everything. In ourselves there is only sin and death, nothing to be proud of. In him there is righteousness and life – and everything to revel in. Pride goes before destruction, but his destruction brings us back from our own. His humble service, in life and death, offers grace and peace and hope and promise to you – now and for all time.

In this Lenten season, repent. Repent of sinful pride. Remember that you are nothing – and to dust you will return. But also turn in faith the the Humble One, who was raised up, and who lifts us up – and one day will lift up even our bodies from the dust to live with him forever. Believe in him, Jesus, and you will have rest. Amen.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Sermon - Matthew 17:1-9 - Transfiguration

Matthew 17:1-9
The Transfiguration of our Lord
March 6th, 2011
“Just a Peek”

Transfiguration. Now there's some churchly insider lingo for you. What does it mean? Trans, as in, change – figure, as in figure or appearance. Jesus' appearance changes on the mountain. And we mark this unusual event every year with a special Sunday at the end of the Epiphany season and right before Lent.

So why the change? And what does this have to do with you and me? As the three apostles have front row seats to this miraculous sign, we sit and peek over their shoulder this morning, ponder the meaning of the Transfiguration. And be encouraged with them, for here we come to the mountain, yet we may not remain...

First, let's recall the context of this event. Jesus had less than a week before pointedly revealed to his disciples that he was the Christ! And he immediately started to tell them what that meant – that he would go to Jerusalem, that he would suffer and die. Mark tells us, “he spoke about this plainly”. But the disciples didn't want to hear it, and Peter tried to rebuke him. “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus told him, “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of man!”

And then he told them, “some standing here today will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom”.

With these words hanging in the air for just 6 days, the very next thing the Gospel writers detail is the Transfiguraiton.

In those six days, we can only wonder what ran through those disciples' minds. Was the truth about Jesus starting to sink in? That he was a suffering Messiah, not a triumphant conqueror? Were they perhaps becoming doubtful about him? What's this crazy talk about death and resurrection, anyway? And what did he mean by they will see him coming in his kingdom?

Have you ever been put off by the word of God? Have you ever struggled to understand, or to believe what the holy scriptures teach? Has a sermon ever not sat that well with you, bothered you – made you churn and squirm? Does the law have its way with you? And are you sometimes not only confused about God, but also yourself – how you fit in with his plan?

Sometimes we get it right, like Peter, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!”. Sometimes we get it wrong like Peter, thinking we know better than our Lord. And sometimes, we just don't get it. Confusion reigns.

We look at ourselves and see something far afield from the glory that shines in Christ. We are bumbling fools in our sins, filthy and slimy. Dark and dull. Twisted and evil. We are are the opposite of the mountaintop, we are the depths and chasms, wallowing in the muck of our miserableness. Oh, to even be in the presence of such glory – we can see why Peter wanted to build some tents and stay awhile. But that wasn't the point either.

So then, the transfiguration. A high mountain, Peter, James and John. Jesus' appearance changes – dazzling white glory – they get a peek behind the veil of his humility. After all, he truly is God of God and Light of Light. Moses and Elijah, representing the law and the prophets, all the Old Testament scriptures testifying to Jesus as Lord. And best of all, the voice from heaven, God's own voice, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.” The same voice and the same remarks from Jesus' Baptism, only now he adds, “Listen to Him”. You may see a spectacle here. You may be startstruck by your Old Testament heroes. You may have the image seared on you forever – but listen! Listen to him!

And so what does he say? “The Son of man will go up to Jerusalem, and suffer and die, and be raised again.” He speaks the Gospel!

This great event, this mountaintop experience, this bright shining moment is great and all, but it's nothing compared to the glory yet to come. It's nothing compared to the day, the Friday that Jesus has in mind, and the Sunday morning to follow. There, on that mountain called Calvary, Jesus would come into his kingdom. And John, who had a front row seat to the transfiguration, will also stand at the foot of the cross.

There Jesus will be stripped of all earthly dignity, rather than clothed in glory. There Jesus will be flanked by common thieves, not great men of faith. There darkness will blot out the sun, rather than radiance shining forth. There no one would say, “it is good to be here, let's build some tents and stay a while”. There, God would not consider Jesus his beloved Son with whom he is well pleased, but instead, he would forsake him who was made to become sin for us.

But listen to him. What he says there, on the cross, matters even more. Forgive them. You will be with me in paradise. It is finished.

The transfiguration of our Lord – it shows Jesus glory. It gives the disciples, and us, just a peek of what our eyes cannot see – that this Jesus is indeed the Son of God. The voice of the Father confirms it. But this mountaintop experience isn't the goal. It simply prepares us for that other mountain, where Jesus does what he really came to do – die for sinners like us. Knowing his true identity is important to understanding that death – that the God made flesh dies for all people – it's foundational to our faith. It's the heart and center of it all.

What does the transfiguration mean to us? It means that Jesus Christ is the Light of Light and very God of very God - he has and deserves all the glory. But it means that the cross matters all the more – that his suffering and death for us are all the better – because he is who he is. The transfiguration reminds us that it's not just some guy who dies for us – but God's own Son. The transfiguration, a picture of glory, actually points us away from such glory to the darkness and scandal of the cross. There is God's kind of glory – a power made perfect in weakness – a salvation through suffering – sweet life for all won by bitter death for him.

And finally, the transfiguration gives us a hint of that kingdom that is yet to come – the kingdom of glory, when we will see Christ as he truly is, when he comes to raise us up forever. Then, we too will be like him, glorified. Then, we will be transfigured – changed – made perfect – body and soul forever. The transfiguration is Christ as he truly is – but it's also a glimpse of our future in him.

Until then, the glory remains hidden. The promise is heard but not seen. He comes to us humbly, still – under bread and wine, by the water, in the Gospel. His kingdom comes to you today – forgiving you, renewing you, and transfiguring you, by faith. So receive him, see him, listen to him. In Jesus' Name, Amen.