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.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Definition #3?

Or, "Another 'Is Mormonism a Cult" Blog Post"

No one denies that Mormonism and Traditional Christianity are different.  But, perhaps because of some high-profile national political figures, many Christians have taken to calling Mormonism a "cult".  Is this true?  Is it good for us to do so?

I won't take time to build the case that Mormonism is far different from traditional Christianity.  Others have done that sufficiently well.  Check here, for one good summary.   So I guess we could say, it's fairly straightforward to define "what is a Mormon".  They have certain stated beliefs.
But the word that causes heartburn is "cult".  It's a loaded term with lots of pejorative connotations.  Is Mormonism a cult?

I think for most of us, we associate the term with some of the infamous cults, like Heaven's Gate, Jim Jones & co.  Small groups of brainwashed followers with a manipulative leader.  The cult leader abuses, even sexually abuses, his followers and cuts them off from family and the outside world.  He becomes the center of worship, the sole arbiter of truth - and often the cultists claim to be the only "true believers" while all other religion is corrupt. Sometimes suicide or self destructive behavior ensues.  David Koresh and the Branch Davidians.  But that's the picture in our minds.

Certainly modern, mainstream Mormonism doesn't fit this picture.  Honest Christians will note a distinction between the above paragraph and the "Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints".  Most Mormons are fully integrated members of society, fairly sane, decent people just like the rest of us.  They don't seclude themselves, and they are about to kill themselves and catch the next comet that passes by.

But not so fast.  A careful study of Mormonism's origins, and of its founder, Joseph Smith, tells a different story.  Smith's questionable character, polygamous lifestyle, dubious and conflicting accounts of his miraculous visions and experiences are just the beginning.  Early Mormonism matched the cult-like connotations we've described far better than it does today.  And honest Mormons should be willing to take a fair look at this history - from sources that don't simply parrot a white-washed party line.

So one might make the case, that while Mormonism began as a cult - under our working definition of such - it has grown into something -else.  Isn't it now a full-fledged religious system?

While thinking about the always helpful "definition of terms", I came to the dictionary definition of the word "cult".  You might be surprised to find several definitions, including:

1: formal religious veneration : worship
2: a system of religious beliefs and ritual; also : its body of adherents
3: a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious; also : its body of adherents 
By the dictionary definitions 1 and 2, even Christians would be considered a cult!  
But it's definition #3 that may be most applicable.  Here we could define any false-teaching religion.  Here we have to get into the nitty-gritty of what is false and what is true.  Here is where one's confession of faith and doctrinal assertions come to bear.  Is Mormonism a cult?  By definition #3, a right-teaching Christian would say, yes.  But is this really helpful?

And the related question - "Are Mormons Christians?"... well, likewise, it depends on your definition of terms.  Are they a religion that believes in Jesus?  Yes.  Do they follow his teachings?  They think they do.  And so they think of themselves as Christians.  Traditional Christians would disagree, and point to the many ways Mormons get Jesus wrong.  "You can't have the word Christian," we argue, "it's ours."

What I suggest is that neither of these arguments are fruitful in most public discourse.  Many people don't know what a "cult" is or isn't.  And which definition is in play?  Even Christians can't always agree on what it means to be a Christian.  
Do these arguments - whether they are a cult, and whether they are Christian - really help the discussion?  Are these the real issues?  Or do they amount to a form of name-calling that distract from the real issues?

I think the real issue is this:  Mormonism, whatever you call it, is different.  It is a distinctly different religion than traditional Christianity.  And that's a good enough starting point for me.  
Of course I think they get it wrong.  As a confessional Lutheran, I believe I get it right.  But maybe there are better ways for Christians to bring all this up in the public square - ways which don't needlessly offend with questionably applicable categories.  
It's offensive enough to tell someone they are wrong these days, without calling him a cultist.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Three Reactions to the Law

We've often talked about the three functions or uses of the law, Curb, Mirror and Guide.  I suppose this discussion would fall under function number 2, the Mirror.  In terms of how the law shows us our sin, or, what we see in the mirror when we look.  There are three ways of looking.

When the law is preached, or applied to the sinner, and it does not go in one ear and out the other, we can observe three distinct products or reactions:

1) Self-righteous hypocrisy
Some hear the law and say, "I have kept this", much like the rich young man (Mark 10) who questioned Jesus.  But wanting to justify himself, he couldn't see that he actually broke the law.  The law, to him, was a weak shadow of the true law.  This was not because of a lack in the preacher (Jesus), but the hardness of his heart and the rationalization of his mind kept him from hearing the law's perfect demands. 

To be sure, some preachers lend this kind of law all on their own, however.  A de-fanged, de-clawed law that doesn't kill but only roughs you up a bit before you dust yourself off and feel even more righteous.  This reaction to the law is poisonous to faith, because it obscures our need for a savior, it covers our true depravity with a fig leaf of supposed good works, and it leaves the sinner in self-deception that he is right with God on his own merits.

2) Despair and unbelief
Truly sad is the sinner who sees his sin, and perhaps even feels sorry for it, but sees no hope of remedy.  If we look only within ourselves, it's true, we are doomed.  We can't hope to repay God for our misdeeds.  We can't hope to straighten up from here on out.  We are blind, dead, and at war with our very creator.  Truly seeing behind the veneer of a self-righteous hypocrisy might lead one to utter despair.  The conscience bears down on you like a boulder on your heart, such a worm, so despicable. 

The hopelessness of this despair  reminds us of Judas, who felt sorry for his sin, but having no faith or hope in Christ, hanged himself.  Despair and unbelief are worse - a kind of spiritual suicide.

3) Contrition which seeks Christ for forgiveness
The great blessing of the law though, is that it drives us to despair - but in preparation for the hope and joy of the Gospel!  To die, only to know the life he brings.  Yes, without knowing our sin, how could we know our savior?  Without knowing the severity of our sin, how could we appreciate the depth of his forgiveness?  Without a daily, hard, cold look in the mirror, and a true view of the ugliness of our own sin, how can we daily know the forgiveness that flows from our baptism?  This is the great blessing of the law - that it prepares us for the Gospel.  It is the diagnosis before the treatment, the plowing of the dead field before the seed is planted and flourishes.  The law lowers us down into the grave and shovels on the dirt, only for the trumpet call of Christ to bust our tombs open and burst death open into life.

Here our biblical example is King David, who, called out for his sin with Bathsheba - confessed it and looked to God for mercy.  The words of Psalm 51, "create in me a clean heart, oh God, and renew a right spirit within me" are the words of a penitent but faithful man who looks to a merciful God for forgiveness.  In other words, a Christian.

Thanks be to God for the Law, holy and perfect, which shows us our sin, wretched and vile as it is.  And thanks be to God for the Gospel of Jesus Christ, whose holy and perfect life and death make us holy and perfect by grace through faith in him.