Sunday, September 30, 2012

Sermon - St. Michael and All Angels

St. Michael and All Angels (Observed)
Our Redeemer, Newark, DE
September 30th, 2012

Grace, mercy and peace.... Introductions, etc...

Today we observe an unusual day in the church calendar, St. Michael and All Angels day. We are in some ways, perhaps well acquainted with angels. At least culturally speaking:

We have “Touched by an Angel” and “It's a wonderful life”, books and movies, and a song by Aerosmith. We have angelic precious moments figures, and a guardian angel motorist club. Angels are all around us, but just how biblical are these cultural images and uses?

Scripturally speaking, an angel is a heavenly being which speaks and acts as an agent of God. The good angels are numerous and powerful, and they are ministering servants sent to help God's people in various ways. They are not to be worshiped, nor do we become angels when we die.

But perhaps the most important thing to know about angels, is simply what the word angel means – literally, “messenger”. It's the same word which makes up the ev-angel of evangelism – the good-message or good news. Angels are messengers. And as such, it's not so important who and what they are as it is what they do and especially what they say.

Especially in the New Testament, when God's plan of salvation in Christ takes a major step forward, angels make an appearance, as if by their very presence to highlight the importance of the message: “Glory to God in the highest, for born this day to you in the city of David is the savior, Christ the Lord.” Angels minister to Jesus in the toughest moments of his work for us, in wilderness and garden. Angels bookend the empty tomb and proclaim the Easter message, “He is not here. He is risen, as he said!” And the voice of the archangel and the trumpet call of God will announce Christ's second coming, when all his angels accompany him, and the final victory celebration is announced.

To be sure, there are false angels, with false messages. Satan himself, a fallen angel, is the father of lies. He wants nothing more than to distort and pervert the true word of God, and turn the good news into bad news. He would tell you that your salvation isn't sure. That it depends on your own good works. And that your sins are too terrible even for God to forgive. He would pollute the Christian message with all sorts of mixed messages to unfix our eyes from Jesus. And his goal is ultimately to drive you to despair and unbelief. Preserve us from the evil foe, oh Lord! Send your angels to strengthen us, and keep us steadfast in your word.

If an angel is a messenger, and what's important is not so much the messenger, but the message, then there's another way to think of angels.

Pastors, are God's angels – his messengers, to you, his people. In fact there is some good reason to think that when John writes, in the book of Revelation, to the angels of the seven churches – he is really addressing their pastors. Now, I've known Pastor Loesch long enough to tell you that he is certainly no angel, but I also know the message he preaches is Christ crucified for sinners like you and me. I know you hear that message week in and week out, a message of Law and Gospel, sin and Grace. A message which keeps Christ always before you, and which points you to Christ's means of grace: word, baptism, supper. He is your minister, your servant, in this place, to bring you a crystal clear, life-saving, life-changing message of salvation in Christ alone.

But others need to hear this message, too. Some who live in far away places, other continents, even in Singapore. There God also sends messengers so that Christ's message can be proclaimed. The same message to people who have the same problem of sin and death. The same savior crucified and risen for all.

And you people of Our Redeemer, like all of God's people, also bear the message. You do it in a different way than a pastor or missionary or heavenly angel – but you witness and give answer for the hope that is within you. You speak a message when you confess your faith with other Christians, kneel to receive Christ's body and blood (you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes). And your actions of Christian love and service speak sometimes louder than words about the love that you have first known in Jesus. God has called you to various stations and roles in life – parent, friend, worker, citizen, spouse. In all these callings you are God's agents and messengers to bring his message and his gifts to your neighbor. In this sense, you are angelic. Thanks be to God.

But there would be no angels were it not for Christ, the chief messenger of God. The agent of creation, the living word of God, the original (though uncreated) angel. He appears in the Old Testament as the “Angel of the Lord”, and accomplishes God's purposes. In Jesus Christ, the word, the message, is made flesh and dwells among us. Thus he is both the messenger and the message, the author and fulfiller of our faith, the content and the conveyer of our salvation. It's all about Jesus. And Jesus is all about procuring and proclaiming our salvation.

What a joy to share this message with you today. What a blessing to know we believe and proclaim the same message. That together with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven... with pastors and missionaries and all the people of God on earth.... and through the blood of the one who is both messenger and message, even Jesus Christ himself, we have heard, and we believe, and we will live and praise him forever. In Jesus Christ our Lord, amen.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Sermon - Trinity 16 - Luke 7:11-17

Trinity 16
Trinity Lutheran Church, Cumberland, MD
September 23rd, 2012
Luke 7:11-17

Grace, mercy and peace.... Introductions, etc...

At Nain, life crashes into death, and life wins.

Jesus was traveling with a crowd, who had surely seen his miracles and perhaps were impressed with his teaching. There was something special about this man from Nazareth. He was more than the usual itinerant preacher. There must have been quite the buzz, as the messianic expectations charged the air around him. Could he be the one we've been waiting for?

Then, there is, coming from the other direction, a rather different crowd. A group of mourners. A funeral procession. And while no funeral is a joyous occasion, here the sadness was especially bitter. For the man who died left his mother, a widow, behind. On top of the grief and shock of losing her son, now she had no one to take care of her. No husband, and now, no son.

And not only do these two groups meet outside the city, but the Lord of Life here meets the dead man, and calls him to life. Jesus actually touches the funeral bier, which would have made a good Jew ritually unclean. But Jesus makes the unclean clean, and Jesus makes the dead alive. Miraculously, he raises the young man from death, who sits up and begins talking (I wonder what he was saying). And Jesus gives him back to his mother. He restores what was lost. He sets all things right.

This is more than just a miracle, however. The miracles of Jesus are always teaching moments. They are calling cards that point to who he is. In this case, the people who saw the miracle began to interpret its meaning – that Jesus is a prophet, and that God has visited his people. But did they know and hear and believe the prophetic message he spoke? And did they know just how God had visited them, that this Jesus was and is God of God in the flesh of man? And did they know what his visitation would mean?

We must also read and interpret the miracles of Jesus with the rest of the New Testament in mind. We know where this story is going, and how it ends. The same Jesus who raised the little girl, the young man, and his friend Lazarus would also himself rise from the dead. We must read this miracle through the cross and empty tomb of Christ, which were soon to come.

There, Jesus, another widow's son, would be condemned to death. Then he would go with a different crowd to the outskirts of a different city – Jerusalem, accompanied by others who would weep and mourn. But even then, Jesus redirects the weeping and mourning for those who would not receive him, would not believe in him, and would ultimately be destroyed. The real power of death, the sting of death is sin... and he had come to take that sting away.

But nevertheless, Jesus meets death, in his own body, in the most personal way. At the cross, he not only touches death, but he swallows it up forever, swallows it up in victory.

One day, perhaps sooner than you think, you may be the one on the funeral bier, taking up space in the casket. Your body will rest quiet, lifeless, and mourners will gather. Death comes for all of us who sin, and we all sin. It's a reality we often put out of our minds, but sometimes it crashes into our reality with a shock and awe that leaves us speechless.

But Jesus speaks to that. He first met you, and spoke to you, when you were dead in your sins. He met you, not outside the city, but a the font of baptism. When the pastor spoke those words, and baptized you into the name of God, it's as if Jesus said to you, “arise”. There your living death of sin became the new life, the eternal life, of a child of God.

St. Paul says, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:4).

And each day as we return to those waters of repentance and faith, life and death crash into each other again, and life wins. Jesus renews and forgives you, restores and revives you to live for him.

And just as Jesus touched death on the outskirts of Nain, so does he come, bodily, to touch you this day. He comes in bread and wine, with his body and blood, to touch your lips and bring you forgiveness and life.

One day, at the resurrection of the dead, Jesus will raise all those who rest in him. At the trumpet call of God, the dead in Christ will rise, in our bodies, glorified, in a resurrection like his. Then will be the ultimate fulfillment of the new life he brings. Then death will be forever cast away, along with all tears of mourning, sadness, and pain.

This is the only hope for all who walk in death. Jesus is the only one who can bring life from death. When I go to Singapore, well, I am not Jesus. But I will bring the words of Christ, the message of Christ, his Gospel. And that word is life. When I preach that word here, just as your pastor preaches it here, Jesus is again meeting sin and death with forgiveness and life, and in him, life wins. For in Christ, a prophet is truly among us. In Christ, God has visited you. In Christ, life touches death, and death is no more.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Sermon - Pentecost 16 - Mark 7:14-29

Pentecost 16
St. John's Lutheran Church, Edgerton
September 16th 2012
Mark 7:14-29

Grace and peace to you in Christ, friends in Christ...

“If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us”

“If you can! All things are possible for those who believe.”

“I believe. Help my unbelief.”

The heart of the exchange between the man whose son was beset by a demon, and the one who has authority to command unclean spirits, Jesus Christ, the Lord.

There are many ways to approach this text. We could focus on the power and authority of Jesus – which extends not only over the forces of nature, but also to things and beings supernatural. But demons are a small thing for our powerful Christ. He holds sway over death itself, because he has authority to forgive sins.

Or we could focus on the utter helplessness of the family, and how Jesus has compassion on those in trouble, and is the one, the only one, who can really help us. Other miracles echo this idea, “if you are willing, you can make me clean.” “I am willing, be clean”.

But as a pastor for 13 years, I've also come to appreciate the words of the man in this text. I've used this simple prayer of the frazzled father to comfort many Christians in doubt. For no one's faith is perfect. All are tinged with doubts and fears and, quite frankly, unbelief.

Take Peter. Witness to miracles and wonders, even to the transfiguration. He's willing to walk on the water, but wind and wave make him waver. He's ready to draw his sword and fight for Jesus, even chops off a man's ear.

But the accusation of the servant girl and the crow of the rooster cut through all his bravado, and he denies Jesus and calls down curses.

Or go back to Abraham, the paragon of faith – ready to sacrifice his son on the altar. Ready to pick up and move to a foreign land. He takes the worse land and gives the better land to his nephew, Lot. Abraham believed in God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. But even he had his moments. Oh, no, Pharaoh, don't kill me to marry my wife – she's just my sister, yeah, that's the ticket!

And then, there's you. You, the person in the pew at St. John's, here today. Now I've never met you before, but I'm fairly certain you can relate. You believe, and you need help with your unbelief.

Sure, you gather here, in faith, to hear the word of God. You listen to and regard your pastor, your God-given shepherd. He tells you about Jesus Christ, crucified for your sins, and you keep coming back to hear more. You gather at the rail here, and receive a blessed sacrament. It's the body and blood of Christ, pastor says, just like Jesus promises. And you receive it, for the forgiveness of your sins, just like Jesus promises. And this is all very good.

Someone looking at you on a Sunday morning might say, “Wow, what a wonderful Christian. What a paragon of faith! Others are sleeping in, but here you are. Others are out golfing or going to rummage sales or just catching up after a busy week, but you are a person of faith! You devote time to God! You must truly believe!”

If they only knew what sinners we Christians truly are. Show me a “good person” who doesn't sin much, and I will show you someone who's just good at hiding it. Show me a doer of good works, and I can poke holes in their motivations for doing them, and point to sinful pride when they're done. And if you tell me that a Christian is a believer, I can guarantee you that Christian, that person of faith, struggles to believe.

We all have our doubts and fears. We all have our moments. Like Peter, like Abraham, like your own pastor and this new missionary.

Often it's when your life is a mess, when the going gets tough. You may not have a demon possessed son, but you may be in the grips of some other demons. You made your bed of sin and now you have to lie in it. Or maybe it's the sinful world that has brought you trouble. Your world shatters at a sudden loss. It's hard to find God in the midst of the pain. Or you struggle to pay the bills, and wonder why God isn't helping. Isn't he listening? Doesn't he care?

Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief. I believe that Jesus Christ, true God and true man, is my Lord, and has redeemed me. Help, now, my unbelief. I believe that my Lord Jesus Christ lived and died and rose for me, and that he still lives and reigns, for me, but help my unbelief. I believe that now matter how dark the day in life's daily stomp through the sewer, there is light at the end of the tunnel, and a resurrection glory awaiting, but help my unbelief.

I believe that the cross of Christ is the help that I need, the help for my suffering, the help for my sin, and the help for my unbelief. For when I look at myself, and measure my own faith and works, I will always come up short, and so will you. But faith doesn't look to ourselves. We believe in someone else – the one who has the power, the compassion, and the will to do something for us. Jesus, the one who helps us.

“If you can!” he marvels. Of course he can. All things are possible for one who believes... in Christ.

So he commands the demon to go. He simply speaks, and it is so. His authoritative word does the job. His word does what it says. His promise delivers what if offers.

So does his word help you. That word, the means of his gifts. That word, attached to water, bread, wine. That word, in which we believe, by which we receive him who comes to help and rescue and save us all. Sins forgiven. Life renewed. Freed from death and the forces of evil.

If you are like Peter, and Abraham, and all the other people of God, you can pray this prayer, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.” If your faith wavers, and it surely will, the answer isn't to look within. The solution isn't to try harder to believe. The answer is to look again to the object of your faith. To hear his word, and believe in him who can... and does help. Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief. In Jesus Christ, our Lord, Amen.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Sermon - Pentecost 14 - Mark 7:14-23

Pentecost 14
St. Paul Lutheran Church, Union Grove, WI
September 2nd, 2012
Mark 7:14–23

Grace, mercy and peace.... greetings to the people of St. Paul, etc.

Our liturgical calendar tells us it is the 14th Sunday after Pentecost. But our unofficial secular American calendar of seemingly endless days of honor named yesterday “international bacon day”. I, myself, observed it and partook.  Fittingly ironic, perhaps, since our Gospel reading today touches on foods that weren't always permitted in the diet of God's people.

Some people, back then, were very concerned with what goes into the body – that by eating certain foods they were made unclean. And while there were the Old Testament dietary laws, these were part of a liturgical system which meant to proclaim the coming Savior. The clean and unclean laws were shadows of the deeper realities of our own uncleanness, and of the one who comes to make us all clean.

But sinners twist stuff like this, and what was meant to be a blessing to them, because another point of confusion. Now, some thought that they were just fine and dandy with God as long as they followed the cleanliness rituals. Avoid certain foods, and you're fine. The unclean food will make you unclean, so just don't eat that food.

Our Lord Jesus Christ teaches us a great deal this morning about sin. We sinners have some funny ideas about sin. You'd think we know it well, but we don't. We have a twisted view of how twisted we are. Jesus sets us straight.

Some today would simply use a different cookbook for their own self-righteousness. As long as I do A, B, and C, I am good with God. And if I avoid X, Y and Z, then I am clean and pure. It's the self-deception of a sinner who thinks that what he does or doesn't do, or avoid doing, can make himself right with God.

Jesus knocks down this flimsy house of self-justifying cards, and cuts to the heart of uncleanness. It is the heart of man that is the cradle of filth and wickedness. What comes out of you defiles you, not what goes in. The food isn't what makes you hateful and lustful and immoral. It's your heart, corrupted by sin.

And who can avoid his own heart? Who can tame his own sinful thoughts? Here, as he often does, Jesus demonstrates how hard, even impossible it is for us to behave ourselves or save ourselves. Because in our very thoughts we are defiled, unclean. And these thoughts lead to unclean words, and unclean actions. We are, quite frankly, a mess. The problem is on the inside, and it runs through and through.

So from where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord. It comes from the outside of us, from Jesus.

We need a Savior. We need someone outside of ourselves. We need external assistance. We need someone who isn't corrupted like we are. We need somewhere to look besides our own fallen flesh. We need Jesus.

Jesus comes from outside of us – from heaven's high throne – and he comes down to be one of us, incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary. He is made man. He breaks into our broken world and brings with him all the righteousness and holiness of God, for that's who he is.

And he does what we cannot do, in and of ourselves. First, he lives a holy, perfect, sinless, obedient life – following the law of God down to the last little letter. He loves God perfectly. He loves his neighbor as himself. He never has a sinful thought, word or deed. He doesn't do anything forbidden, and he leaves no good work undone. He actively fulfills the law – not for his own sake, but for ours. So that we can have a righteousness that comes from outside of us, as a pure and free gift.

And he receives what we should receive – the punishment of God. In his passive obedience, Christ humbles himself to be arrested, tried, tortured and condemned for crimes he never committed. He bears the beam of the cross, loaded with the burden of the world's sins. He marches it outside of the Holy City, so that those in his Holy Jerusalem are spared. He is made an outsider to the Father, so that we are always welcomed before God's face. And he suffers the ultimate humiliation of death, the great leveler of all men, to turn death itself inside out.

It's not what comes from within a man that saves him, but it is he, Jesus, who comes from without. Who comes from the throne of heaven. Who lives perfectly and dies perfectly, and lives eternally.

You have heard his word, and believed it. That word, which came from without. You couldn't have done it yourself. Don't we confess, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength, believe in my Lord Jesus Christ or come to him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel..”?
It is his word of promise, that goes into your ears, and into your heart, renewing and restoring you, by the Spirit working in that word.

It is, now, what goes into a man, a Christian, that makes him clean. It is the body and blood of Christ, given and shed for you, that goes into your mouth, that forgives the mess of sin within. It is his promise, attached to external things, that goes into you, and cleanses and restores. It is Jesus, always Jesus, only Jesus from outside of you, for you, forever. In his holy name, Amen.