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.