Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Sermon - Pentecost Sunday - Ezekiel 37:1-14

Ezekiel 37:1-14
Sunday of Pentecost

A blessed Pentecost Sunday to you. Today is an important day in the church calendar, perhaps the third most important. After Easter (including Holy Week), and Christmas, the Sunday of Pentecost is one of the chief festivals we observe each year.

Some have said that Good Friday and Easter, as a unit, especially correspond to the work of the Son, Jesus Christ. And that Christmas corresponds to the work of the Father, who sent his Son into the flesh. But Pentecost is certainly the day in which we highlight the work of the Holy Spirit.

It was on the first Christian Pentecost that the Spirit was poured out on the believers, empowering them to speak the Gospel in languages they never learned. And so it is also considered the birthday of the Christian Church, a major turning point in the New Testament, and in God's plan for his people.

We learn from God's Word that the Holy Spirit is a person, like the Father and Son, of the Godhead. He is associated with the forgiveness of sins, the creation of faith, and the calling and gathering of the church. He is sent by the Father and the Son as a helper, comforter, and to bring light or understanding. He is, in a way, mysterious, like the wind – you can't see him but you can see his working. But the Spirit's work is not apart from the Word and Sacraments. He doesn't simply work in us, out of the blue, apart from these promised means of grace.

And as we get toward our text from Ezekiel, we can see one more aspect of the Spirit's work: He is the Lord and Giver of Life, as we confess in the Nicene Creed. Yes, the word, “Spirit” means wind, or breath – and the same Spirit who breathed into Adam's nostrils the breath of life, the same Spirit who will breathe into our flesh the breath of eternal life on the last day, is the same Spirit here pictured in Ezekiel's vision of the dry bones.

Take a look at that valley with Ezekiel. A vast army of dead, very dead people. Not freshly slain soldiers, among whom you might find some living but injured survivors. No they are quite dead. Not merely dead, but really most sincerely dead. Dead and decayed, just bones left, and dry ones at that. They are not even close to alive.

Kind of like you, in your sins. In fact, just like you, in your sins. Sometimes visions like this paint an even truer picture of reality than our eyes do. Just like the Israelites of Ezekiel's day were a hopeless and defeated nation with no life left in them, exiled to Babylon, powerless, hopeless, as good as dead. So are you, and so is every sinner, who may look alive but is very much dead in sin.

That valley of dry bones is the human condition apart from God. Just as dead and hopeless. Just as far from life and breath as anything. Might as well be a rock or some dirt. Your everyday experience tells you you're alive and just fine. But God's word shows the true reality. Sin brings death. It clings to us. It infects every part of us. We are dead men and women walking. Because we are sinners who sin daily and sin much. And no matter how hard the skeleton tries, it can't come to life. No matter how hard, you, the sinner, try, you can't come to life. What we need is a miracle. A divine intervention.

And God is in the business of doing just that. From death he brings life. From the cross, first and foremost. There in the hopeless, helpless, death of Jesus on the cross, he brings help and hope and life to all people. There in the valley of the shadow of death, Jesus dies to bring the light that chases away death forever. And as his dead flesh would rise to life again, so does he bring life to dead sinners who die in him.

Ezekiel's vision wasn't without hope, because he had God's word. The prophet spoke, by God's command and promise, to the wind, that is, the Spirit. Who came and brought life to those lifeless bones. Just as the pastor speaks the word of God to lifeless sinners, and the Spirit works through that word to bring life to you again. The valley of dry bones is a vision of how God works in all times and places, bringing life to the dead, through word and spirit, because of the life from the dead won by his Son at the cross.

As a pastor, I could look out on you, the people in my care, and see a pile of bones – sinners who are hopeless and struggling with all their own faults and failings, grieved by the sorrows of living in a world where death reigns. You tell me your troubles, and I listen, but I usually can't do anything much about it. It's like Ezekiel looking at a femur and a skull. The troubles can be so much. And I am just a man.

But I have one thing for you, and it is enough. Not my word, but his. Now hear this, you dried up and dried out dead people: Jesus Christ has died and Jesus Christ lives and Jesus Christ promises you new life. So hear the Gospel, now, and live! Hear the life-giving word of the Spirit, who creates life where there was only death. Hear the life-renewing hope and the sin-forgiving declaration. You are not dead. You are not lost. You are forgiven. You are in Christ, and Christ is alive. So, too, do you live through him!

You are baptized. There you first rose from the death of sin to new life in Christ. And one day your flesh will die, only to rise again because of the promise of Christ. The fanciful picture of dry bones coming back together, and breathing the breath of life again – is not so fanciful compared to the promise of the last day. That at the trumpet call of God the dead in Christ will rise and meet him face to face, in a glorified body, and see him as he is, being like him. This is our hope. This is our destiny.

Son of man, can these bones live? Yes. Can Christ conquer death and live? Yes. Can he, does he, promise the same for you? Yes. So believe it, and live in him always. Amen.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Sermon - Easter 6 - John 15:9-17

John 15:9-17
Sixth Sunday of Easter

Love. Love is in the air. With wedding season upon us, there's plenty of opportunity to talk about love. But Jesus isn't talking about romantic love here in John 15, but the self-sacrificing love he has for us, and calls us to have for each other.

Perhaps Mothers' Day, too, is a good day to thing about this kind of love. For mothers often sacrifice of themselves for the good of their children. We give thanks to God for the good gift of mothers, and we honor them especially today. But even more important that our love for mom or her love for us, is the love of Christ for all.

There's lots to love about our Gospel reading this morning... as we listen to Jesus' teaching about love.

Love begins with the Father. The Father and the Son, who love each other. Indeed, John tells us in his epistles that God is love. It's such a part of who he is and is part and parcel of his nature.

The Father loves the Son, and the Son, Jesus, loves us. And he commands us to love one another. As your teenagers might say, “how's that workin' out for ya?” Not too well, I suppose.

If your daily life is anything like mine, it's incredibly difficult – no, impossible - to love as Christ loves. Loving others takes a far back seat to the real priority, which is me. Aren't you the same? Call it selfishness, or self-absorption, most of us, most of the time are metaphysical navel-gazers, concerned mostly about how life affects us, first and foremost. We're not preoccupied with what we can do for others, how we can help others, what others need, how we can serve them. No, we're looking out for #1. How I feel. What I need. What I want.

Our culture encourages this self-absorption. Whitney Houston sang that learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all. Advertisers tell us to have it your way, you deserve a break today. We are taught to seek convenience and comfort and fulfillment in all the pleasures of life. And while no one would saying love is a bad thing, all this self-centeredness is the very opposite of what love truly is: self-sacrifice.

We see that, most perfectly, of course, in Jesus. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends”. And Jesus did just that. He wasn't the tragic victim of human injustice, if only he could have gotten away. No. He set his face toward Jerusalem. He handed himself over to his enemies. He laid down his own life. “no one takes it from me” he said, “but I lay it down of my own accord”. He is the ultimate self-sacrifice, the Lamb of God offered up on the altar of the cross. True love. Perfect love. Ultimate superlative, better-than-any-other-love – the real greatest love of all – is Jesus on the cross for you.

And it's his loving death for you that is the antidote for all your unloving-ness.

First of all, to forgive you. Yes, I am an unloving, self-absorbed sinner. What of it? Jesus died for me. Yes, I fumble and stumble and shatter his commandments every single day, but my debts are paid – Jesus died for me. Yes, you too are a poor, miserable sinner, turned in on your own sinful self, too, rebelling, wandering, resenting his law – but Christ laid down his life to forgive you. He loves you that much, even in your unlovingness.

Second, he calls you to abide in his love. To abide means to live in, to make it the center of your existence. To receive, continually, from his loving abundance. Abiding in his love means cherishing the word that he speaks to you – and gathering with others to hear it. Abiding in his love means daily repentance and faith by your baptism, living each day as a new creation in Christ. Abiding in his love means receiving his gifts of body and blood, given and shed for you – the very lifeblood of the Christian – and drawing your life from him alone. Abiding in Jesus' love doesn't mean doing good, so much as it means receiving his good gifts, and trusting in him constantly.

And yes, he calls you to love one another, as he has loved you. And remember what kind of love that is – self-sacrificing love. A love that lays down one's life for another. These disciples of Jesus would know that kind of love first hand, as they would in the coming years, lay down their lives for the sake of his Gospel, that is, for the sake of others. They knew and believed Christ's words and promises. They preached the cross, and lived it. Despite persecution and imprisonment and martyrdom, they remained rooted in his love and his self-sacrifice.

He calls you to love in the same way, with the same love that first loved you. And it's not easy. It means laying down your life for others. It means putting others ahead of yourself, your wants and desires. It means seeing the bigger picture of God's will for you and your life in the little moments and opportunities he sets before you. Love your spouse. Love your children. Love your co-workers, including that really annoying one. Love even your enemies. Speak the truth in love, even when it's a hard truth.

Hard to do, and we do it far from perfectly. We certainly don't die for others. The law convicts us all. But then we return to his forgiveness. And then we recall his promise from last week's reading earlier in this same chapter - “abide in me and you will bear much fruit”. Yes, God works through us to love people, over against our sinful, unloving nature. In spite of our self-absorption, his Spirit accomplishes his purposes.

If you want to love others, the trick isn't to first love yourself. The real way to know love is to know Christ's love. To abide in his love. To receive it constantly, to live and breathe it. Only then can we and will we truly love one another.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Sermon - John 15:1-8 - Easter 5

John 15:1-8
Fifth Sunday of Easter


In John's Gospel Jesus gives a number of speeches on his own identity. Sometimes these are call the great “I AM” passages of John – in fact we had one last week, in which Jesus declared, “I AM the Good Shepherd”. Today he uses another grand metaphor to illustrate who he is, and what is his relationship with us, his people.

Jesus is the true vine, and we are the branches. The Father is the gardener, and the fruit we bear is good works. Some vines, unbelievers, bear no fruit. They are condemned to the fire. Simple enough?

And yet there is much to learn from this teaching. There is great comfort in knowing Jesus the Vine, and know what it means to be a branch grafted into him.

But first a reminder – that apart from Christ, there is no fruit. Severed from the True Vine, there is no hope. These are the unbelievers, who have no connection to Christ, no faith or trust in him. Their destiny is destruction. And this would be you... if not for God's grace in Christ!

This takes faith to see. For the eyes of the world will see all sorts of “fruit” in our lives and the lives of unbelievers. You don't have to be a Christian to feed the poor, care for the sick, be a good citizen, or raise your children to be respectful. You don't have to believe in Jesus to be nice to people, or to be regarded as a “good person”. The world looks at the outward things, the surface, and sees what it considers good according to its own standard.

But don't be tempted to do the same! Jesus is quite clear. “Apart from me you can do nothing!” In other words, apart from Jesus, none of these so-called good works amount to a hill of beans. You could win all the accolades of man and affect the lives of millions of people for the better and it would still not be fruitful in the eyes of God. Your good works, even the best of them, would be filthy rags. Your towering moral achievements wouldn't stand the test of God's perfection. You are, after all, like all of us, sinful. And even your best is corrupt and wicked and stinks of death.

If I do good, am I not proud of it? Haven't I done it with some expectation of selfish gain? Am I doing it truly out of love for neighbor, or with some other motivation or agenda? Or perhaps I do it, but grudgingly, and only to avoid looking bad or some other punishment. Sinful man can appear to do all sorts of good things, when the fruit is rotten on the inside, and is really no fruit at all.

Apart from me you can do nothing” Nothing good, that is. Nothing but sin, rebel, and make your situation with God worse.

But Jesus is the true vine. And we are not apart from him, we are in him. We are in him by the grafting in of Holy Baptism, where we are made members of his kingdom. The word he speaks to us cleanses us. That word is his Gospel – the good news of salvation that comes by the fruits of his cross. His blood shed for you and me, his life given for you and me, there, is the source of our life. And we are in him, and we have that life, as we abide in his word, believing and trusting that what he says is true – even when it doesn't look to be.

So when he says, “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit”. We believe that too, even though it doesn't look like it. And here is great comfort. I know that, looking at myself, my good works amount to little. Against the perfect standard of the law, they don't stand up. But there is this promise of Jesus that we will bear much fruit. And so we believe it. No matter what it looks like, we know that in him, abiding in him, the fruit will come.

One commentator puts it this way, “From God's point of view the entire life of the Christian, by virtue of the fact that he is attached to Jesus, the Vine, is a good work. No wonder Jesus uses the expression "MUCH fruit" twice... It's either MUCH fruit or none.”

But he never says it's our job to assess our own fruitfulness. What branch does that anyway? That's the gardener's job. We are directed to trust in the word, to remain in Christ, and thus receive our life from the True Vine.

The fruitless branches he casts away and burns. And the fruitful branches, he makes even more fruitful – by pruning.

Here again we call on faith to trust the word where our eyes say different. The branch probably doesn't like being pruned. It's damaging. It probably feels like being cut off. Why would that crazy gardener come and cut off parts of me, the branch might think.

Martin Luther expanded the pruning metaphor, and imagined the gardener also applying manure. But it all starts with Christ himself. Here's how Luther said Christ could put it:

" (They) will throw manure at Me and will hack away at Me. They will shamefully revile and blaspheme Me, will torture, scourge, crucify, and kill Me in the most disgraceful manner, so that all the world will suppose that I must finally perish and be destroyed. But the fertilizing and pruning I suffer will yield a richer fruit: that is, through My cross and death I shall come to My glory, begin My reign, and be acknowledged and believed throughout the world.
Later on you will have the same experience. You, too, must be fertilized and cultivated in this way. The Father, who makes Me the Vine and you the branches, will not permit this Vine to lie unfertilized and unpruned."

And for Luther, the Devil is God's manure: "God takes him in hand and says: “Devil, you are indeed a murderer and an evildoer; but I will use you for My purpose. You shall be My hoe; the world and your following shall be My manure for the fertilization of My vineyard.”

So too, the believer, when God “prunes” us to make us more fruitful. He does things in our lives, allows troubles in our lives, that we don't always understand or like. He allows suffering, perhaps even sends it at times. But the purpose and end of it are his own – to make us more fruitful. Though it may be painful, though it may require endurance, God is in charge of his vineyard, and he knows better than we do. So trust. Endure. And abide in Christ.

One final comforting promise, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” Ah, but words that are often misunderstood and misapplied. This isn't Jesus as the wish-granting genie of the lamp, “your wish is my command”. It's not “Jesus make me rich”, “Jesus if you're real heal my disease” or even, “Jesus take my suffering away”.

He says whatever you ask, abiding in my word, it will be done for you. But what kind of prayers do we pray, abiding in his word? Prayers of faith. Prayers that trust him to do what is best. Prayers of thy will, not my will be done, Oh Lord. Prayers that know he will answer, in his way, at his time. Prayers that know and trust that in the end he will make all things new, and right, and good.

Prayers that are rooted in the true vine – the source of our life- Jesus Christ. Apart from him we can do nothing, no good works, not even pray. But in him is all hope and comfort and life. Even when we are pruned, we know it is for God's good purposes. We have the promise that more fruit will come.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Hymn - "Christ Is Alive!"

Christ Is Alive!
By Rev. Thomas Chryst
(tune, “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty”)

Christ is alive, no more suffering, for “it is finished!”
Christ is alive, love increasing, and sorrow diminished.
How great our joy!
Our highest praises employ!
Jesus our Savior is risen.

Christ is alive, his great sacrifice, God has accepted.
By his blood shed for us, we are no longer rejected.
Yes, now he lives!
And to his people he gives,
Life so renewed and perfected.

Christ is alive, he who laid in the tomb has arisen.
Hearken you foes: Sin and Satan, your kingdom is riven.
Death, you are dead!
Jesus was slain in our stead.
Now you have lost your dominion.

Christ is alive, and his people will share in his raising,
At the last trumpet, all flesh join together in praising,
Jesus our Lord,
Who has been true to his word,
His love and power displaying.