Monday, March 26, 2012
Lent 5, March 25th, 2012
“Game of Thrones”
There's a popular series of books and tv shows out there called “Game of Thrones”. In it, rulers and would-be rulers of various kingdoms jockey for position and influence. And you can imagine why our pop culture goes crazy for stories like this. We all have those desires for power and glory. We all have our own little game of thrones. It's part and parcel of our sinful nature to seek out power and control, to go after glory.
Take James and John, they come to Jesus with a request. And you know its going to be trouble when they try to get him to agree before they even say what it is. But they're gunning for their spot in the game of thrones. They want the best seats in the new kingdom. When Jesus conquers the Romans, they want to be at his left hand and his right hand – his #1 and #2 go-to-guys. They want the power and the glory and the influence that they deserve for being his faithful followers all this time. And they want to make sure it's them and not Peter or Matthew or God forbid, Judas.
Oh, but as the disciples usually do, they have it all wrong. Even though he continues telling them plain as day what's coming – suffering, death, cross.... As Jesus says, they don't know what they are asking. They think Jesus coming into his glory will be one thing, when it will be quite another.
“Can you drink the cup I am about to drink, or be baptized with the baptism I am about to undergo? Are you able to do such a thing?”
“Oh yes! We are able!” But they still don't know what he means.
Jesus has in mind his suffering and death. He has on his mind, the cross. “Drink the cup” reminds us of Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane, where he prays that this cup would pass, but not my will but yours be done, oh Father. That cup of suffering. That cup of God's wrath which is about to be poured out on him A bitter cup, indeed.
And a baptism – a cleansing – of sin. Jesus was already baptized by John. A baptism which identified him with us, showed him as the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Now the lamb of God was about to take those sins to another baptism. A baptism of suffering and death. A sacrifice of himself. A shedding of his blood. And there with him all sin would die. Can you do that, James and John? Of course not.
You don't know what you are asking. They will bow down before me, but in mockery. They'll dress me in fine robes of purple, only for a sadistic show. I'll have a scepter in my hand, but they'll beat me with it. And I won't be sitting on a jeweled throne of high honor, I'll be seated, rather, hung, on a cross, in shame. I won't be wearing a golden crown, but one of thorns. And while it will be written, “This is the king of the Jews”, that too will be further derision.
No, in my glory, it won't look very glorious. I'll be a pitiful picture, a stricken, smitten, afflicted wretch of a man. But there will be a place at my right and left hand – places for thieves. That's already been appointed.
In fact all of this has been appointed by the Father. It's his will. And it's good news!
See, life in Christ's kingdom is different. In the world, the greatest have servants. In his kingdom, the greatest serve. And the greatest is the servant, the slave of all. Who serves by giving his life as a ransom for many. Jesus is a king, but what a different kind of king he is. He is glorified, but his glory is in the suffering of the cross to forgive the sins of the world. Your sins, too.
We sinners are so concerned about our own little kingdoms, our own little thrones. We want to be our own masters, set our own rules. We re-define sin as what someone else does wrong, and not what I do wrong. Might as well make up your own commandments, but don't write them in stone, keep them flexible. You're in charge, remember.
And in our arrogance we would even make God the servant, that we could tell him how to do his job, and snap our fingers for him to do this that and the other thing for us. We want him on to act in our time, by our deadline. And that usually means, “right now”.
This calls for repentance. A turn-around, a change of mind. Jesus said, “you don't know what you're asking.” But they would learn.
James and John, and the other disciples, would soon see Christ in his glory, on the cross. They would seem him exalted in resurrection. And they would stand amazed as he ascended into heaven, to take back his heavenly throne. From there he rules his church in love, even today, seated at the right hand of the Father.
And from there he gives us his gifts, even today – a cup to drink, and a baptism to be baptized with. Gifts of grace and life. From there he would send his Holy Spirit, who empowered those power-hungry disciples with a different power – the power of the Gospel. The power of Christ's own message that the kingdom is at hand, and has now arrived.
But still, there is the cross we take up when we follow him. In Christ our own little thrones become our own little crosses. And it will be so until we too pass through the gate of death into the promise of life to come.
James would suffer his own cup and baptism – killed by the sword, the first of the 12 apostles to die. John would go on to die of old age, but still suffered persecution and imprisonment. For the apostles, and for us, glory is found not in a trouble-free life, but amidst the troubles and suffering.
It's found not in taking one's throne, but in putting others above you, before you. It means stooping down and washing feet. Just as the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve.... so do we his servants, come not to be served, but to serve. For his sake, in his name. Amen.
Tuesday, March 20, 2012
Lent 4, March 18th, 2012
Look, and Live!
Ungrateful. Maybe that's the best way to describe the people of Israel. After all God had done for them. They grumbled. But let's just remember:
He had sent not 1, but 10 miraculous plagues. He brought Pharaoh, the most powerful man in the world, to his knees. In all of the plagues, God protected the Israelites. Then he brought them out of Egypt. First they took spoils from the Egyptian people. Then he led them safely across the Red Sea, on dry ground. Oh, and destroyed their enemies who were right behind them. He brought them to his holy mountain, Sinai. He gave them his law, and a system of sacrifice for them to deal with their sins. Oh yes, and he was bringing them to the promised land, where the promised Messiah would be born and live and die for them.
But none of that mattered. Because they didn't like the food.
The food that God provided for them, each and every day without fail. The food that he sent from heaven to sustain them in the wilderness. The food that they didn't work and slave for, but just went out and picked up, free of charge. That food. It wasn't good enough. Waah.
So God sends the snakes. And people get bit, and die. You thought you were suffering before? A not so gentle reminder gives them some perspective. They repent. The confess their sin, in no uncertain terms. We were wrong. We're sorry. Please forgive us.
And no questions asked, God provides. He instructs his servant Moses to make the fiery bronze serpent and put it on the pole, and anyone who is bitten has only to look and live. God's forgiveness is immediate and free and as easy as looking in faith where he promises to give that forgiveness. By grace they were saved, not by works.
Now us. We grumble and complain. We are just as ungrateful. For how much more has he given us. What blessings we enjoy. Physical blessings like no other people in history. Greater wealth and health even though these are relatively tough economic times. God still provides our daily bread. Not manna from heaven, but gifts aplenty. If you counted all yours you probably couldn't finish, but still there's never enough.
And while he gave the Israelites his law on Mt. Sinai, he gives us his holy word in its revealed entirety. What people on earth have ever had such free and easy access to Bibles and preachers and teachers of his word? And yet, it's not enough. We don't get the answers there we want – we don't like the laws he gives – we don't get the promises we desire. We neglect its study. We pompously think we've learned all we need to, or that a sermon a week is roughly enough. Ungrateful for the word, for the most precious of gifts.
After all God has done for us – and we don't have time to rehearse it all – but let's just get to the crux of it. He gives us his own son, sends him in our flesh, lives for us, suffers for us, dies for us. He bears the sins of the world, indeed even becomes sin itself – and receives God's condemnation (a condemnation we all deserve). He suffers the unimaginable anguish of God's wrath, and pays the dearest price.
In light of all this, how can we complain about anything? When things don't go my way, what right do I have to grumble? When I don't get what I want, who am I to gripe? Even if death should come, don't I deserve it, and worse? Did Jesus complain when he hung on the tree for my sins? No, instead he said, “Father forgive them”.
But here is the good news. For as Moses held up the serpent that those bitten by the snake's venom could look and live, we who are bitten by the venom of Satan himself, mingled with the poison of our own sinful grumbling, we have only to look to Christ and his cross to live. It's that simple.
God provides our salvation, and he holds it up for us all to see. He speaks the eternal word of forgiveness through humble servants like Moses, and now pastors. He washes sins away in water and word. He gives and sustains life, by feeding us the true bread from heaven that is Christ's body and gives us his blood as our very lifeblood. Look and live. Even if you are dead in trespasses. See and hear and believe. Trust in the free and full forgiveness that comes to us from Christ, through word and sacrament. Not a pole with a serpent, but bread, wine, water, word. Delivering the goods that Jesus won on the cross, where he was held up for the world. Where he became sin to defeat sin and serpent. Where God so loved the world.
Whoever believes in him will not perish, but will have eternal life. We hear those familiar words again, and we believe. By his grace. In his name. Look, and live! Amen.
Monday, March 12, 2012
Lent 3, March 11th, 2012
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Get out of my house! He yells. He makes quite a scene. Overturns tables. Change goes jingling on the hard ground. Animals go scattering everywhere. Oh, and he's got a whip. Jesus takes charge of his Father's house. He puts the smack down on the money-changers. This is a house of prayer, not a swap meet. This is a place of God's holy presence in and among his people, not a den of thieves and robbers. Get. Out. Now.
The disciples start to piece it together, “Wasn't there a prophecy about this? Zeal for your house will consume me?” Yes, disciples, all Scripture is about Jesus.
“And just who are you?” They ask, “What gives you the authority to do this? Who do you think you are?” Not that they argue the substance of the point. When you know you're in the wrong, shift the focus of attention. Let's not talk about our sin. Let's talk about you – what's your authority? Who are you to judge?
“Destroy this temple and I will build it up again in three days.” Oh yes, I have the authority. And you will see it when I show my ultimate authority over death. You will destroy this temple, this body, this place where God and man dwell together. But I will rebuild it, raise it up, and conquer death. That sign – the sign of Jonah – is the only sign this wicked generation will get, but it's the only sign he needed to give.
He fulfills all the scriptures, does everything perfectly. Only later do the disciples connect the dots. About the temple. About his crucifixion and resurrection. Hindsight is 20/20 they say, and spiritual hindsight perhaps all the more. “You do not understand now what I am doing, Peter, but later on you will understand”.
Jesus is rightly angry about the misuse of his and his Father's house. And while we're not changing money and swapping animal sacrifices in most churches today, I bet Jesus could still come into any church and turn over some tables. For in every church are sinners who want to make the house of God into a place of trade.
God, you give me what I want, and I'll do something nice for you. Or God, look at how good I am, and now in return give me your favor. And I'm not just talking about those other churches out there.
We do it too. We think our service to the church, our offerings, our weekly worship are so impressive to God. But there's only one thing that can be given in exchange for the price on our lives- there's only one currency that can purchase us from destruction – and that is the blood of Christ.
No, God doesn't deal with us in bargain fashion. He's not into the quid pro quo. You give me something, I'll return the favor, no. He's the giver. Out of his pure grace and mercy he gives Christ, who gives all, even his life, for ours. He turns the tables on our sin. Drives out the devil. Whips the enemy, ultimately, by taking the whipping we all deserve.
An English poet once wrote, “Wherever God erects a house of Prayer, The Devil always builds a Chapel there: And 'twill be found upon Examination, The latter has the largest Congregation.”
Whether it is a church that turns its focus from Christ and cross to growth and glory, or a temple that turns from the merciful presence of God for a mercantile enterprise of pseudo-religion. Or the individual believer, sitting in church, who turns his thoughts from Christ crucified for you to some other way of salvation. Any way the Devil is happy to distract us, and turn us away from the one to whom the house belongs.
But this is Jesus' house. His Father's house. The Spirit's house. The Triune God, in whose name we gather, in whose name we are called and baptized. In whose name our sins are forgiven. And we are built by Christ on the confession of his name, gathered by his Spirit around his word, strengthened and fed by his holy meal. This is where it all happens. Here, in his temple, his body, his church. The temple that took 46 years to build is only a shadow pointing to him, Jesus, the true temple, the dwelling of God with man.
And Jesus is angry – justifiably angry. Righteously angry at sin. He has no place for it, just like his Father. One day, he will cast the wicked, the goats, away from his presence forever. “I don't know you people. Depart from me”. This temple-cleansing foreshadows that final judgment. But he saves us from all that, making us sheep, and working through us to serve the least of these, our neighbors in need.
He is a zealot – a word that has a bad connotation today - But he's zealous when the place where he promised to forgive sins is being polluted. Because what he wants more than anything is for you to hear, loud and clear, his good news. He's driving away YOUR enemy with that whip. He's over turning the tables that would stand between you and his holy table. He wants you to have access to him, here, now, in his presence. For your eternal good.
No this is not your peaceful Jesus, the one we usually see depicted with a smile and open arms. This is angry Jesus, angry at sin. A terrifying sight if you're on the receiving end of his whip. But a blessed comfort for us who trust in him.
For we know the rest of the story – that he becomes the object of divine wrath, himself. He gives his own back to be scourged. He gives his own life as the ultimate bloody sacrifice to end all sacrifices. To put away God's anger at your sins. To cleanse what is impure and unholy in the temple of your body, and to make you into a temple of his spirit.
Wednesday, March 07, 2012
Lent 2, March 4th, 2012
A Lenten Epiphany
(Guest Preaching at St. James, Overlea, MD)
And greetings from your brothers and sisters at Grace Lutheran Church in Racine, WI. It's always an honor and privilege for me to return to St. James, where I grew up and was confirmed, and share the Gospel among you.
Today, we are but a week or so into the season of Lent. Our preparations for Holy Week and Good Friday, and ultimately Easter Sunday – have begun. The paraments are purple. The Alelluias are gone for a while. And the Wednesday night services are back on. Maybe you've given up something for Lent. Or maybe you're taking some extra time to pray or read the Bible, or some other spiritual discipline.
Lent is a sober time, a serious business. But I have to admit, I like it anyway. Not that I don't like Epiphany, which we just finished. In Epiphany, we saw the unfolding revelation of Jesus – who he is, and what he is about. We heard, “This is my son” at his baptism and transfiguration. We saw him as the true bridegroom, and the one who preached with authority. He is the one Moses and the prophets wrote about. He's the stairway to heaven. He's the one who makes lepers, and us, clean.
But now it's Lent. And as the mood has turned, yet again we come to the question in our text today, “who is Jesus?” He asks it himself, of his own apostles. “Who do people say that I am?” And after all the speculation, then he presses them, “who do you say that I am?” Peter confesses, “You are the Christ!” But Jesus isn't done yet.
For the first time in Mark's Gospel it's made entirely clear that yes, Jesus is the Christ. He's the one. The Lord, the Savior, the Messiah. Not just any old prophet, but the one they've been waiting for. The one that was promised for so long. Now he's here. Here he is. The Christ. But...
What does this mean? A good Lutheran question, which Jesus means to answer.
Immediately he begins to teach them, plainly, what it means that he is the Christ. He tells them, straight out, this means suffering, and it means death. Oh, and resurrection, too.
And Peter's head almost explodes. He can't stomach it. He has other things in mind. Not suffering, shame, betrayal, death... he's thinking of self, and profit, and success and glory! But in this Lenten Epiphany, in this great moment of revelation Jesus shows them not only that he IS the Christ, but just what kind of Christ he will be. A suffering, bleeding, dying Christ. A Christ of the cross.
What kind of Jesus are you looking for? A Jesus of the easy button? Who takes all of life's troubles away and puts you on easy street? A rock-star Jesus, loved and admired by all? A Jesus who affirms you and tells you you're good enough and just believe in yourself? A Jesus who is a bright shining example of what to do, so that you can do like him and be all bright and shiny, too? Perfect little pious people who always smile and seem cheerful? As if we could...
Or do you want the real Jesus who gets down and dirty and bloody, and is hoisted up and humiliated and crucified – for all to see and mock. A man of sorrows. A man forsaken, even by God the Father. A worm of a man, surrounded by dogs, pierced hands and feet and bloody head and back. A Jesus condemned by Jew and Roman alike. A Jesus rejected by the crowd who called for his blood. Only a few women and one disciple stick around. And even that brings more bitterness. That may not be the Jesus we want, but he's the Jesus we get, and the Jesus we need. The Christ of the cross.
Because by all this, it is finished. By all this, your sins are put away. By his suffering and bleeding and dying, life is yours.
God has a strange and mysterious and wonderful way of doing things. He reveals his power in weakness. He brings glory through shame. He wins life by death. He kills death by dying. And he forgives sins by becoming sin.
St. James, you're not the biggest congregation. You don't have all the programs and glitz that some others do. People aren't busting down your doors in droves. Some would say you're not that successful, or even that you're failing. But they have in mind the things of men, not the things of God.
You are a faithful congregation. Sinners, yes, but forgiven sinners who proclaim the suffering servant Christ. People who know that it's not about you anyway, but always, only, about Christ. You are a group of believers gathered around what is most important – his Word and his Sacrament – his true Body and Blood, given and shed for you, according to his promise. You are his baptized and believing children, and that is enough.
Just as Christ himself had a different idea of what it meant to be the Christ, we Lutherans have a different idea of what it means be the church. It may not mean outward success or worldly glamor. Instead it means faithfulness to his truth. Sometimes it means suffering, and even dying. But that's ok, because that's what our Savior does for us. None of this makes you better than anyone, but in Christ, it does make you blessed.
The Lenten Epiphany – the great surprise – the big reveal – is not that Jesus is the Christ, but that the Christ came to suffer and die. And this is good news, no matter what Peter or the world thinks. This is the will of God, to save you, the sinner. This is his plan from the foundation of the world. This, the cross, is what Jesus is all about. And so it's what we're all about. A blessed Lent to you. In Jesus Christ, Amen.