Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Bride

A friend of mine likes to say, “All men marry up!” In other words, all husbands are made better by their wives, whom they don't deserve. I think there's some worldly wisdom in that, but it made me think deeper. What about the great spiritual marriage of the Lamb and of his Bride the Church?

Jesus Christ is the Bridegroom, and we, the church, are his Bride. So Scripture paints the picture. In Revelation 21, for example, you have the Bride beautifully adorned and presented to her husband:

Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues and spoke to me, saying, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God... (Rev. 21:9-11a)

Here, the church in her glory is pictured not only as the Bride but also as the Holy City of Jerusalem, but in idealized form. Radiant like a jewel, 12 magnificent gates, streets paved of gold... but no temple. For the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb ARE the temple. There is such perfect union with God, that his people don't need a special place to meet Him. He is with them always, perfectly.

So it's really proper to say, in this case, the Bride “marries up”. He finds His Bride in the gutter, dirty and dead. With all the ugliness and impurity of our sin, helpless and hopeless. But the Bridegroom rescues us from all of that. He restores, renews, even resurrects us and takes us to the altar. He pledges Himself to us forever. Not even death will us part.

We, the church, marry up, not only to a far better bridegroom than we deserve, but we marry up to an blessed eternity and a glorious forever with our God. Because the Bridegroom died and rose. The dowry, the bridal price, is paid in His blood, more precious than all the gold in the world. And yet, like all His gifts, it is given freely.

In other words, YOU are blessed to be a part of that great spiritual marriage. You are part of the Body of Christ, connected to Him in Baptism, sustained at the rail with his own Body and Blood. You are blessed to hear His Word, that life-giving, life-sustaining word of Gospel. And in that Word, the promises abound. The future is bright. In that Word, Heaven is yours.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Sermon - Matthew 16:13-20 - Pentecost 10

Matthew 16:13-20
Pentecost 10
August 21st , 2011
“Son of the Living God”

Caeserea Phillipi, or what is left of it, is one of the many places we visited on our trip to Israel in 2007. What is left of it, is, frankly, not much.

In Jesus' day, it was a bustling city – the administrative center for Herod the Tetrarch. It was also heavily influenced by the Hellenization of Alexander the Great – who brought his Greek culture with him. Today, the city is gone, the people are all dead of course, and there is some architectural rubble and a tourist site.

There's also a few striking caves. Well, they probably started out as caves, but were long ago carved into squarish openings for purposes of pagan worship. This was a temple dedicated to the god “Pan”. One very large, and many smaller niches were carved out to display the statues of Pan and other pagan gods and goddesses. It was probably all pretty striking in its day.

Jesus takes his disciples to this region, perhaps even standing in front of that large temple, and asks them, “who do men say that I am?” And it's no accident he does that with the pagan gods as his backdrop.

“Who do men say that I am?” The answers are numerous, almost as numerous as the niches and statues of pagan gods. John the Baptist, Jeremiah, Elijah, one of the prophets... The options about Jesus are almost as many as the menu of pagan gods to worship.

Our backdrop today is just as bad, just as pagan, maybe worse. There's a menu of choices out there when it comes to religion. But there are rules to the game. You have to choose for yourself whatever your personal spirituality is about. You worship who you want when you want how you want (or don't worship at all). But the main thing is, you choose.

And the other main thing is – don't be a true Christian. Don't talk about Jesus, specifically. Don't talk about his birth. Certainly don't talk about his death and resurrection. Don't say what he says – that he, Jesus, is the only way to heaven. Don't repeat his offensive gospel. And don't, whatever you do, don't say that Jesus is the only true God, the Son of the Living God!

But that's what Peter did. He stood there looking at Jesus against all these statues and places of worship and false, pagan, inanimate idol gods. And when prompted, it came to him. “Jesus, you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!” Peter made the good confession. He said about Jesus what God had already said about him, at his baptism. “This is my Son”. He said about Jesus what was the reality from eternity. He said about Jesus what set Jesus apart from all these gods of stone and wood. Jesus is the Son of the Living God. He's different. He's for real. He's alive!

Peter is blessed. Not so much because he got it right, but because he was given this knowledge, this confession, this faith – by God. Like all good things when it comes to God, it was a gift. Even though Peter was a sinner. Even though in 2 minutes Peter would be telling Jesus to forget about all that crazy crucifixion talk. Even though Peter, and the other disciples, and you and I sin and sin and sin again. Still the Living God gives us blessings through his Son, Jesus Christ.

Oh we're all pagan enough. We don't live in Caeserea Phillipi, but we all have little niches carved out for the gods of our life. We give a place to sinful thoughts of pride and greed, a platform for sinful words of gossip and deception and anger, and a grand stand for our actual deeds of evil – and our failures to do good. Every time you depart from God's law and do what seems best to you at the time, you might as well bow down at the altar to Pan or Zeus or Baal.

Or more truthfully, you make yourself to be god. You take the throne, set the rules, call the shots. That's what sinners have wanted to do since Eden – be like God. But you're not God. And trying to be him only leads to death.

But the word of God, the true word of the Living God, calls us away from all of that death. He calls us to repent, to turn, and live. He sets before us Jesus. And Jesus is the Son of the Living God.

He does the Living God's business and brings life to the dead people. He wins that life by dying and rising to life again. He becomes the source of life for all who believe in him. Because he lives, and will never die, we live, and will never die. The Son of the Living God, and he makes us children of God and gives us a share in his eternal life.

And Jesus builds his church. Not hewn out of rock, or converted from a cave. He builds it by baptism and teaching, living stone by living stone, disciple by disciple. He, of course, is the chief cornerstone.

And to his church, he gives the keys to Heaven, the keys which unlock its gates. The authority to forgive sins in his name. The gates of Hell shudder at the thought, for they can never prevail against the church built on Christ.

Maybe in a couple thousand years some archaeologist will dig up the ruins of our civilization. And maybe they'll ponder our strange culture and unusual religious practices (or lack thereof). But long after the religions of man are gone, the Son of the Living God will be alive.

And long after this building crumbles, and Grace Lutheran Church is but a memory, if that, still... The People of God will still be confessing Jesus, the Son of the Living God. And his true church will remain, and will still be unlocking heaven for poor sinners like you and me.

Until that day he has appointed, when all will be changed, and all the fallen temples of our flesh are raised to stand for judgment. But even then, in Christ, we will live – forever. Hell will not prevail. Death will be no more. For Jesus is alive, the Son of the Living God, and his blood covers your sins, forever. Amen.

Sermon - Matthew 15:21-28 - Pentecost 9

Matthew 15:21-28
Pentecost 9
August 14th, , 2011
“Crumbs, Please!”

The woman's request was urgent. It's one thing to have a need for yourself, but this was for her daughter. Who knows what other avenues she had exhausted. Doctors. Shaman. Folk remedies. Probably just about everything. Nothing had helped so far. She was desperate. She needed help.

What about you? Are you aware of the problem? Do you know what's facing you? Or are you cruising on autopilot? If you do know it, you might even be desperate. Have you tried everything? Have you tried to fix yourself all by yourself? Solve your own problems? Oh the little things we can handle, but the big problem staring at all of us is our own sin. Why can't we just knuckle down and stop sinning? Can't we just think positive? Can't we try harder? No, none of that works. We go on doing the things we hate, breaking God's law. Failing to love him and our neighbor. The inescapable punishment, the wrath of God hangs over the heads of all sinners. That nagging sense of gloom is real. We deserve condemnation. We should be just as desperate as that woman. We need help.

But she had some strikes against her. She was a woman. She was a foreigner. She was a pagan Canaanite. Not even the religious half-blood Samaritan type the Jews so hated. She was entirely an outsider, and perhaps the least likely person to expect a blessing from the Jewish Messiah.

We too, don't have a leg to stand on. In fact our very problem of sin is the same reason we shouldn't expect anything but God's disapproval. He hates sin, and we have lots of it. We aren't a holy people by birth, but original sinners. We are more like Adam and Eve, who spat in God's face and broke the one law he gave. And nothing we can do makes it better. The harder we try to be good, the more we see our shortcomings. We are so far removed from His holiness. It's as hopeless as we are helpless. So we're stuck with sin, and all that sin brings, including its wages. We can sympathize with St. Paul who wondered, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” We can know how trapped this woman was with her demon possessed daughter. Her enemy was way out of her control. Her problem was way bigger than she was. So is ours.

But she knew who could help. The rumors were telling of a miracle worker. The scuttlebutt was that this Jesus had done all these wonderful things, and that now, for some reason, he was coming to her region, near her home. Hope began to flicker as the possibility of a miracle formed in her mind. All other avenues were exhausted. All other helpers had failed. If there was any hope for her, Jesus was that one last hope.

So she cried out as needy sinners often do to their Savior. But then something strange happens. Jesus puts her off.

We don't know why he does it. Was he teasing her? Was he testing her faith? Making some sort of point? Suffice it to say, while we don't know his motives, as is often the case with God. When you call to him, why doesn't he answer right away? Why does it sometimes seem like he's acting out of character? Why does it seem like he's not keeping his promises?

The only answer to this is faith. And the Canaanite woman has faith in abundance. She is not deterred by the outward appearance of Jesus shutting her down. She persists in trusting the only one who can help her. And he does not disappoint.

She also humbled herself. He calls her a dog – not a nice term by today's standards, and also back then, too. The dogs where the outsiders, the non-Jews, the low-life scum. A dog wasn't seen the way we often treat them – like a member of the family, you see, but was a filthy animal. Far less than human.

Rather than be insulted by such a designation, she embraces it. Rather than be put off by her dog-ness, her faith barks and yaps for table scraps. For even the crumbs from his table are far more precious than gold.

We too, must humble ourselves to receive his gifts. He says we are sinners, and we could act all indignant and offended. He says we deserve death, and we could argue with him how good and worthy we are. But let's not. Let's face the facts. Let's be what we are – poor miserable sinners worthy of temporal and eternal punishment. Let's be who we are, people who actually need help, actually need a Savior. And let him be who he is – the Savior. The one who does come to help, and save.

He could give us crumbs, and we'd be happy with that. But he gives us so much more. He could give us a rich feast, but he gives us so much more. He lives perfection and gives us all the credit. And he dies on the cross in ultimate humility to bring us from the lows to the highest high. To rescue us from sin, death, hell, all the forces of evil. To destroy the demon that possessed that little girl, and to defeat the prince of demons who holds all sinners in his clutches. Jesus give us everything he has – and more.

And he does give us a feast of forgiveness – his own body and blood. Far more than crumbs from the table, but only the best for us, his children.
Here according to his promise, he is present for us. Here, just as he says, we receive forgiveness. And where there is forgiveness, there is always life and salvation. Even for sinners. Even for dogs. For people who see the need, even the desperate. For people who are humble enough to see it, by faith, that we need what he gives. And he gives so much more than we could ask.

Monday, August 15, 2011

On Submitting to One's Husband...

Conservative Christians who take the Bible seriously and live in modern American society have to wrestle with what it means in Ephesians 5:22-24, where God says through St. Paul "Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord".

Most of us pastor types who teach this concept are good at pointing out what "submission" DOESN'T mean. It's not that a cowering wife whimpers in fear of her abusive and misogynistic husband. It's not, "honey, get me a beer and rub my feet", "Oh, yes, dear."

We're also pretty good at pointing to the overall principle of Christians submitting to one another (Eph 5:21) out of reverence for Christ.

The rest of the chapter goes on to talk about the Husband's particular role as Christ to his wife. And what does Christ do for his bride, the church? He loves her, protects, nourishes her, and ultimately dies for her. So there is an emphasis on self-sacrifice for the husband that isn't nearly as culturally upstream as the submission.

But none of that tells us directly what this principle of the submissive wife actually looks like in action.

Michelle Bachmann, when asked about submitting to her husband recently, said it basically means "we respect each other". Thus she dodged the question, really, and reinterpreted the distinction of spousal roles with the equalitarian (and oh-so-American) principle of mutual respect. Maybe a good political tactic, but a dreadful theological answer.

So what DOES it mean to submit? What are some positive examples? What kind of thing is a wife called to do that a husband isn't?

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Sermon - Matthew 14:22-33 - Pentecost 8

Matthew 14:22-33
Pentecost 8
August 7th, , 2011
“Why Did You Doubt?”

It all happened so fast. The disciples were probably still trying to figure out what had happened. Jesus fed 5000 men, plus the women and children, with just 5 loaves and 2 fish. And they had 12 baskets full of leftovers. A miracle. They must have been a-buzz.

Then Jesus dismisses the crowds, puts his disciples in a boat and sends them to the other side of the sea. He goes off alone, to pray. And when night falls, the disciples are probably not thinking about the miraculous feeding anymore. The wind is against them. The waves are lapping the boat. These experienced fishermen know that this isn't ideal sailing weather, but Jesus sent them out here anyway. It seems that one way or another, they usually find trouble out on the sea.

When Jesus sends us out, it is also into a world full of danger an trouble. But more than just wind and waves, and dark of night. We face spiritual forces of evil, the devil, the sinful world. Even the enemy within us. Yes, I believe I am my own worst enemy. My own dark heart provides quite enough for me to contend with, and more. I need more than an ally or a helper in this fight. I need a savior. You need a savior.

But Jesus knows what he's doing. And he miraculously comes to his struggling disciples. Why weren't they expecting him? Because he came in an unexpected way. People don't walk on water. But Jesus is also the Son of God, and the Lord of Creation. He comes to help his people, and he comes how he pleases. No laws of nature or forces of physics stand in his way.

So too, Jesus comes to us, as he pleases and also as he promises. He comes in the strong word of the Gospel, a word which cleanses and creates and gives life to dead sinners like you and me. A far greater miracle than mere water-walking. He comes in the water of holy baptism, a one time washing which lasts forever. And he comes, miraculously, in the bread and wine of his sacrament. He comes to help, to forgive, to bless, to give, and encourage and to save.

But we doubt it. Things get in the way. The disciples didn't think it was really him. They thought it was a ghost. Superstition got in the way. Fear blinded them. They didn't trust him.

Have you ever seen those “trust exercises”? Where someone in the group is told to fall backwards while someone else will catch them? I've never been a fan of those. You couldn't pay me to do it. Besides, the bigger they are, the harder they fall.

But you can always fall back on Jesus. You can always trust him to do what he says, and give what he requires. He asked Peter to do something impossible – walk on water. But he also gave him the ability to do it. Likewise, he calls us to do something impossible – to trust him with our lives, our very eternal lives. But he also gives us the faith to do it.

And when did Peter start to have problems? When he took his eyes off of Jesus. When instead of looking at Jesus, he looked at the wind and wave. When he began to trust rational logic, “uh, men don't walk on water” over the clear word of Jesus. When he doubted Christ and looked to his own devices, he began to fall, to sink, to die.

But his faith knew enough to call out, “Lord, save me!”

Just when it seems the darkest, the most fearful, the most overwhelming wind and wave are about to do you in. Jesus is standing right there, with his strong arm, grabbing you from death's clutches.

The same Jesus who brings Peter up from certain death to the safety of the boat brings us, his people, from certain death to the safety of his church. He pulls us, renewed, out of the water of Baptism. He calms the wind and storm and chases our fears away with his presence and his promise, given in his meal. With Jesus as our Savior, there is nothing to fear.

Even if you should sink down into the grave, it doesn't matter. His promise stands and his strong arm will prevail. This is our hope. This is our confidence. For he went down the the grave. He faced the depths of death for us. And he rose victorious. No small miracle. But even more, he promises us a resurrection like his. We will rise and live, because he is alive!

Jesus gently chides Peter, and us: “Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt?” Yes, we have little faith. We pray for more. We have far more fear and doubt than we want. We pray him to take them away. But more than a lecture, these gentle words of Jesus are a reminder that there's no need for doubt. With him right there, everything was always going to be ok. Why did you doubt? It's a rhetorical question. It's another way of saying, you don't need to doubt. You don't need to fear. I am with you always, to the end of the age.

Notice, the disciples see Jesus, and he's not how they expect him – so they fear. He says fear not. He tells them who he is. Dear, impetuous Peter asks for more proof, and is willing to go out and meet his Lord. But he, too, begins to fear. And Jesus does what Jesus does – he saves. He shows, and he tells – why there is no need for fear.

And so for you, dear Christian. There's no need to fear the wind and wave. There's no need to fear death and punishment. Jesus has already sunk down to the depths of death for you – only to raise you up with him. He has already faced our worst possible fears, and come out victorious. His strong arm will rescue you, too. When they lay your cold clay in the ground, and a doubting world would say you are a goner. Then the same Jesus will take you in his arms and welcome you to the safety oh his eternity. He'll wipe away every tear, and one day return to make all things new – restoring even your body to live and walk again. Maybe he'll even gently chide you, too. “Why did you doubt it?” In Jesus Name, Amen.

Friday, August 05, 2011

The Gentle Art of Eliciting Confession

A question of pastoral practice. How does one, in a counseling situation, bring someone who is caught in a sin, to confess it as such? Especially for your average church-goer who isn't accustomed to actually confessing his sins before a pastor in person (apart from corporate confession).

I believe it usually takes a gentle approach. It takes a keen sense of where the person is "at" in regard to his sin. Is he just fine with it? Does he even know it's a sin? Would he defend it? I believe this is what Luther meant when he said anyone who could rightly divide Law and Gospel deserved a doctorate in theology. He wasn't talking about in the sermon - but in dealing with the individual sinner.

Often times, however, there's a situation in which the sinner knows his sin, but doesn't know how to put it into words. This is where the pastor can help.

Start with the commandments. Explain, in humility, how all have sinned. But also, gently, show what commandment is being, or has been broken. Body language will often clue you in to the sinner's response to the law. Often times when they don't say anything, you can still see they are stricken. Experience will help the pastor to discern here.

It can be helpful to give them the words. "When I have sinned, I find it helpful to confess, by saying..." or "Would you say that you feel such-and-such?" Acknowledge the awkwardness of this kind of conversation. Be kind. Imagine yourself in the penitent's shoes.

In the end, I don't think we need to burden people by dragging out an actual, verbal, specific confession from THEIR lips (though it would be preferable). I think it's enough to ascertain that they agree with your assessment of it:

"This is how I see it. You have committed a sin. You are here today, having this awkward conversation with your pastor about it. But you seem sorry for it, and you want to do better. Right?" This sort of thing. Basically you're only asking them for an "amen". And if you can, give them the words of the rite of private confession and absolution. But even that won't happen all the time.

After all, the liturgy gives us the words to speak - when we speak our corporate confession. When we confess our faith. We are saying, "amen".

What a blessing it is to pronounce that absolution, "I forgive you your sins..." But an even greater blessing for the penitent to hear. May we help them to receive those words of absolution by helping them to articulate, to verbalize, even if only a little... to confess that sin.