Sunday, March 31, 2013

Sermon - Easter Sunday - Luke 24:1-12

Easter Sunday
Luke 24:1-12
“Why do you seek the living among the dead?”

“Why do you seek the living among the dead?” There's a good question.

On its face, the question the angels ask of the women at the tomb seems fairly rhetorical. Jesus is alive, just like he said. This is a grave. Why would someone alive stay here? As we say in America, “duh!”

But there is more to this question than meets the eye. It's a helpful question for framing the meaning of Easter. Christ is ineed risen from the dead. The grave is empty. Thanks be to God, Alleluia! But what does this mean for you and me? How does his resurrection affect us? And what promise does it hold even for our own future? In other words, why is Easter such a big deal?

Who are the living, and who are the dead? We usually think of life and death in biological terms. Life is breathing and having a pulse. Eating, converting energy, reproducing. And death is the opposite of that, and the onset of decay. Death is the deterioration of the body, non-functioning. It's the end.

But in spiritual terms, and perhaps this is even more important, what is life, and what is death? The Bible teaches us that the wages of sin is death. That in the very day Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, death came into the world. Indeed, God said, “in the day you eat of it you shall die”. And yet it seems, Adam lived for many years after his fall into sin. So was God lying about death? Or are we missing something with such a narrow understanding as the biological one?

Death is separation from life. And life is found only in the Lord. The Holy Spirit, the Lord of life. The Father, the creator of all things, all life. And Jesus Christ – the resurrection and the Life. Life and death, you see, are far more than sitting up and taking nourishment, or pushing up daisies in the ground. Life and death are spiritual categories, spiritual realities, that our eyes may not always see so clearly. Therefore we must rely on the eyes and ears of faith. We must bend our understanding of life and death to the one that God presents in his Holy Word.

“Why do you seek the living among the dead?” The Living One, if there ever was life, is Jesus Christ himself. And why would he be among the dead? But he was – he was born into this dying world of sin. He took on human flesh, only to take it to the cross, and to death. He gave himself to death, no one took his life from him. And in a great mystery beyond all understanding, on a Friday afternoon outside of Jerusalem, 2000 years ago, the source of all life met death.

And there, death was defeated. It could not contain him. Sin and the devil and death itself were defeated in the cross of Christ. And in his resurrection from Death Jesus proves it.

Jesus had a lot to say about life and death. Like, “I am the way, the truth and the life” and “If anyone believes in me, even though he die, yet shall he live. And he who lives and believes in me will never die.” and “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”

You see, Jesus' resurrection is far more than a happy ending. It's more than just a feel-good conclusion or the moral to a story. He really lives, and his resurrection means something – for us!

We, by our sins, are dead. We are born dead, spiritually. We are dead men walking. We are separated from God, and separated from life. Not only destined for physical death, but eternal death. And already, in this life, subject to the effects of death – suffering, disease, decay.

But in our baptism, we are buried with Christ, so that just as Christ is raised from the dead, so do we arise anew from those waters. Now, here, even before our physical death, we are spiritually alive in Christ, by Christ, and connected to the Father in bonds of love that even death cannot separate. So even though we will die, we will live. And even when we die, we don't, really. And though our body dies, like Christ, we will rise in these same bodies, to live forever. All of this is wrapped up in Easter.

Corinthians calls Christ the “firstfruits” of those who have fallen asleep. But he is not the only or the last to rise. In Jesus' resurrection, we see our resurrection. In Jesus' victory over death, we see our own victory. In Jesus, the living one no longer among the dead – we see our own future. Though we die, yet shall we live!

It is hard to overstate the importance of this day. Paul says if Christ didn't rise from the dead, then we are the most pitiful of all men – that everything we believe is in vain. But if Jesus really did rise, just like he said, and if he really is alive, that means everything!

It means we can trust every other word he says. It means when he says your sins are forgiven, they truly are! It means when he promises his body and blood to you here – you can trust it fully. It means when he says you are clean, you are.

Why do you seek the living among the dead? We don't. We seek him where he promises to be. In his word. In baptism. And at his altar, in his meal. And there, he who is living, gives us his life. Life that he gave at the cross. But life that death could not contain. Life that he has forever, and shares with us forever.

A Blessed Easter to you, in the One who is alive, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Sermon - Palm Sunday - John 12:12-19

Palm Sunday
John 12:12-19
“Christ Comes to Save Us Now”

Jesus came to His city. The city of His temple. The city of His people. Here is an event packed with significance in the saving work of Christ for us all. It had to happen. Isaiah had forseen it – the king is coming, riding on a donkey.

The people - they honored Him. And if they didn't, the stones would have cried out. They showed a foretaste of heaven, where John pictures the church in glory also waving palm branches, and singing praises to Christ. They shouted “Hosanna”. Which means, “Save us, now”.

Save us from what? The Romans, first of all. The ones who oppressed Israel and crucified any troublemakers. If Jesus can even raise Lazarus from the dead, then He can certainly lead the charge in saving His people from the Romans.

Save us from our troubles? Give us plenty to eat, all the comforts of life. Make our name great in the earth. We'll ride your coattail. Like the disciples who wanted thrones on His left and right. Glorify us, your people, for we surely deserve it.... but no. God will glorify Jesus, but not the way they thought. He's not the kind of Savior.

Save us from sin and death. Ah, yes, Lord. That's what you came to do. For no matter what wealth we accumulate in this life, we'll one day die and leave it behind. No matter what fame and glory before men, the grave is the great leveler of all. And no matter what other problems in life come and go – no matter how happy or fulfilled we think we are – there stands the grave. Its hungry mouth ready to devour us. It's inevitable. It's the wages of our sin. And they will come due.

Who can save us? Only Jesus can do it. Only Jesus is the Savior. These people got the words right, even if they got the interpretation wrong. “Save us, now, Hosanna” is the prayerful cry of all the people who trust in Christ for saving. Save us, now, today, it is urgent! Death breathes down our neck. Our sins weigh upon us. We can't stand it anymore. Save us. Take us from the trash heap, the wasteland, the sewer of stench where we wallow. And save, remake, reconcile, restore, renew us. Hosanna, Lord. Save us.

You and I are not Jesus Christ. We are not the Savior. Oh but we get to thinking we are.

We like to think we are the Savior. As if we can save someone. Do we think our contribution adds something to God's work when it doesn't? Do we think our good deeds or our sacrifice make it easier for Him in some way, though they don't? He will save whom He saves, quite without your help. God doesn't need you. You need Him. You need Christ.

We like to make other little saviors, to think we can save ourselves. That our own supposed good works earn some kind of credit in the heavenly ledger. “Oh look what I'm giving up for you, Lord. Oh, look at how hard I try. And especially compared to that fellow over there, I simply must be one of your favorites.” But no. Here again, only Christ can save. Your good works are filthy rags. They aren't bright and shiny, they stink to high heaven. You're not the savior. No, you can't even save yourself.

Only Jesus can save us now. And He does. He would soon hear those words from another crowd – the onlookers of his crucifixion. “If you are the Christ, save yourself! Come down from the cross!” And while bearing the inconceivable weight of the wrath of God for all sin of all time – what must that temptation have been like – to end his own suffering. To save himself, instead of us.

But Christ is our savior. And at the cross all “Hosannas” are fulfilled. All debts of sin from all time and place are paid. All God's righteous wrath at every murderous, theiving, betraying, corrupt and deviant little sinner – all that well deserved anger and justice is satisfied. The blood of Christ is sufficent. And when it is finished... we are saved.

And though that was then, and this is now, Christ still saves us now. What was done at the cross matters here and now, it is for us, here and now. In this little apartment, in a land far away from our home, the Christ answers our cry of “Hosanna!”. For he comes to save us – to save us from our sins – by giving us His own body and blood to eat and drink.

And Christ would, Himself, be saved from death – only after passing through it. He would rise – but not for himself, but for us all. To pave the way out of the grave for us all – to save us, for all eternity.

And while God doesn't need you, and is quite capable of saving all He wishes to save without you – joy of joy – He calls you anyway. He calls you to serve Him by serving your neighbor. He gives you opportunities to share His love in word and deed. To tell others about the only One who can save us. To join with others who know this salvation, and offer our own songs of thanks and praise. And to love our neighbor, even as He has loved us, and given Himself for us.

You're not the Savior. But you, Christian, know His salvation. And He calls you to share it. Just like the crowds who witnessed the raising of Lazarus – they told what they had seen. So do we.

May the words of the Pharisees also continue to find an ironic fulfillment through the work that the Lord gives us here, in this place, in this time. That the whole world, even Singapore, would “go after Him”. That the people here would know Him, who answers all “Hosannas” with His cross. God grant it, for Jesus' sake. Amen.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Sermon - Lent 5 - Luke 20:9-19

Lent 5
Immanuel Lutheran Church, West Plains, MO
Luke 20:9-19
“Crazy Bad Tenants. Crazy Good Lord.”

Preparing for our move overseas, we've sold our home, and for the last few months we've been living in a rental home. It's had its ups and downs, but all in all we've tried to be good tenants. I try to keep my kids from trashing the place, getting dirt on the new carpet or freshly painted walls. Hopefully when we leave the country, we'll leave the place in good condition – as close to how we found it as possible.

In Luke 20 today we read about some decidedly bad tenants, or renters. It's not a home, but a vineyard, in Jesus' story. But the people living there don't own the place. When the sends messengers to collect the “rent”, or the fruit, they show just how bad they are. They treat those servants shamefully, violently, in escalating fashion. Finally when the owner sends his own son, they plot against him in the misguided notion that they will kill him and inherit the vineyard... what?

Obviously God is the owner of the vineyard, and the Jewish leaders are the tenants. The abused and rejected the prophets God had sent them over many years, in his long suffering patience. He wasn't looking for fruit but repentance and faith. Finally, God sends His own Son, Jesus, whom they plot against and finally kill. Thus far the paralells in the story.

One thing this teaches us right out of the gate is that Jesus knew exactly what would soon come to pass. Here it is, Tuesday of Holy Week, and he knows what's coming on Friday. But He had been predicting this for some time. He told His disciples He would be crucified, and rise on the third day. He knew His Old Testament scriptures, and He knew that the Messiah had to die.

While the people who heard His parable said, “May this never be!” Jesus responds with a prophecy, and shows that that it must come to pass. He knows the plan, and He knows His own part in it.

The parable also illustrates how little sense sin makes. In fact, it's crazy. OK, you might say, the tenants might have thought they could get away with it when they rejected the first few messengers. But when the owner sent his own son, their logic shows how twisted it is. Let's kill the son and become the heirs? In what world does that make sense?

But you, too, sinner, make as little sense in your own sins. Apart from the fact that sins bring consequences – and a man reaps what he sows. Apart from the fact that violence begets violence, hatred begets hatred, laziness, deceit, greed, pride... pick your sin – they all have a tendency to grow and escalate.... But add to that the silliness to think our sins will somehow escape judgment. That the omnipotent and omniscient judge will turn a blind eye to our wickedness, or that he'll let us off the hook because of some paltry offering of supposed good works.

Well who ever said sin made sense? It is as irrational and ridiculous as it is unholy and wicked. Sinners are constantly doing things we know are wrong, and doing them against our better judgment, to the detriment of ourselves and others. We simply can't help ourselves.

But the parable also illustrates another nonsensical actor, the owner of the vineyard. What parent in his right mind would see the escalation of violence against his servants, and then finally send his own son? But this is the logic of God the Father, who sends His own Son for us. In a divine reasoning that is far above and beyond our understanding – His mystifying plan is to do just that – full well knowing He sends His Son to die. And by the way, what Son in his right mind would obey such a father, and go to face certain death. But that is just what Jesus Christ does.

And this was always the plan! The Lamb of God was slain from the foundation of the world. Christ crucified for sinners – a scandal to Jews and foolishness to gentiles, but to us whom God has called, both Jew and Gentile, Christ the power and wisdom of God. Baptized for us to fulfill all righteousness, even though He had no sin. Crucified for us, made to become sin, that sin might die with His flesh.

And look at the rest of the foolishness we believe, that Christ rose from the dead and lives forever. That he is present here in the forms of bread and wine, and that receiving it forgives sins. What sense does it make that water can wash away sins? But with Christ's promise, it is so. Or that a pastor, a sinner himself, can forgive sins on earth and they are forgiven in heaven. Or that faith comes by hearing the word of God. Or that the Holy Spirit will raise us to life again on the last day. And the list goes on and on... but we believe these outlandish realities because of the nonsensical and amazing grace of the Father, in His Son Jesus Christ.

One commentator picks up on this theme in the parables, and puts it this way:

“A father who does not trade forgiveness for good behavior, but who kisses the prodigal son before he gets his confession out of his mouth. A vineyard owner who pays what he pleases, not what the laborers earn. A shepherd who allows no sensible business considerations to keep him from leaving ninety-nine sheep in jeopardy to bring home one safely. A wheat grower who runs his farm, not for profit, but for the sake of letting everything grow as it pleases till the end. An Incarnate Word who won't talk to Pilate; a Carpenter of Nazareth who saves the world by nailing down his own hands; a Risen Lord who runs everything by going away. A God, in other words, who does all things well by doing practically nothing right, whose wisdom is foolishness, whose strength is weakness - who runs this whole operation by being no operator at all and who makes no deals because, in the high Mystery of his being, he's got it made already.”

Can this crazy grace be, even for me, who sins like crazy? Yes. It can be, and it is. For all people, even for bad tenants, the Son has died, and paid the price. So also for you. Though you abuse and shame God's Word, and by your sins despise his message, and though it was your sins that Christ carried to death on the cross... rejoice... that Jesus in His wisdom did so... for you. That in his grace and love and mercy beyond comprehension, he forgives even you.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Sermon - Lent 4 (Laetare) - John 6:1-6

Sermon – Lent 4 “Laetare” - March 10th, 2013
St. Paul Lutheran Church, Hamel, IL
John 6:1-6
“The Lord Who Feeds”

I don't know how any Lutheran can honestly look at the feeding of the five thousand and not think about the Lord's Supper. Well, I guess I'm getting ahead of myself, but that's where we're going, of course, to the table. But first let's back up a bit.

Jesus is at the zenith of his popularity. He is well known and well liked. The crowds are following him. But largely for the wrong reasons. This crowd of 5000+ had followed him around the Sea of Galillee. They knew of his many miracles and healings, and were looking for more. The other Gospels tell us that yes, even here, he healed their sick. Our Lord Jesus is merciful.

He had also been teaching them all day. No doubt similar teachings to those in his other sermons – teaching about the kingdom of God and how it's not the kingdom you might think it is. A kingdom in which the king does things for the subjects, not the usual other way around. He would soon demonstrate this reality, as the true king, by feeding them. He knew what he had in mind.

Later, after the feeding, the crowd would try to make Jesus their king, their bread-king. But by doing so they show they miss the point of the kingdom, that Jesus comes to provide so much more than mere food. Some suggest that this crowd was on its way to Jerusalem for the Passover, where one year later, Jesus would also be – and where he would be sacrificed as the true Passover lamb for them, and for us.

The apostles, as usual, are the bumbling fools. Jesus tests them, “Where will we buy bread for these people to eat?” but they stand powerless. The task is overwhelming. They don't have what it takes to do it. Yes, but Jesus does.

So the Lord in his good order doesn't initiate a free-for-all, but has the disciples sit the people down and prepare for the meal. He takes the elements of the meal, gives thanks, and gives it to the disciples, whom He appoints to distribute the fish and loaves, and miraculously, somehow, without explanation, there is enough. All are fed and satisfied. There are even leftovers enough for the disciples to each fill a basket.

When the people saw this sign, they confessed Jesus as “the Prophet who is coming into the world”. But sadly, though they got the words right, their interpetation was all wrong. Jesus is indeed the One, but they, like so many others, miss the point of what he came to do. His popularity would soon wane. The bustling crowds would abandon him.

Now you and me. We come today to hear Jesus, and receive good things from him. We come with various hungers and needs. Perhaps a grumbling tummy – some earthly wants. But most importantly we come hungry and thirsting for righteousness. We are beggars before the king, far from home, nothing to bring to the table. Indeed nothing but our sins.

Still, we come in faith, knowing that the One who gathers us is One who joys to give. Our Lord Jesus is merciful.

First we hear Christ's teaching – his word, read, sung, proclaimed. We confess, same-say, what he has said about us and to us. We pray for daily bread, but also forgiveness of trespasses, using his own words. We acknowledge him as king, but also as Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. And he has mercy on us.

The pastor, or pastors, the bumbling fools that we are, nonetheless are charged with feeding the sheep. We don't have what it takes to do it. But Jesus does. And he gives freely. “Forgive their sins”, he tells his ministers, “and they are forgiven in heaven. Feed my sheep – do this often – in rememberance of me.”

And now we come to it, the sacrament itself. The Holy Supper, the feeding of far more than 5000. A greater miracle than multiplication of fish and loaves, but a bodily and bloody presence of the man who is God made flesh. Crucified and resurrected body, nonetheless. Here, now, for us to eat and drink.

In an orderly fashion, we come to receive this gift. We come at Christ's invitation. Being well prepared, examined, and confessing both our sins and our Savior's promise in the meal. In the fellowship of a people who rejoice in his teaching and proclaim it together – even proclaiming his death until he comes – by our very presence at his table.

We receive the body of Christ. Take and eat. It is given for you. Not some other sinner who sins less than you. But you, yes, you... who doesn't do what you should. You who break his commandments daily. You who love other gods, and love yourself before your neighbor. This sacrament is given for you – for the forgiveness of your sins. This wine is his blood, which was shed for you on the cross, and which now covers your sins in its crimson tide.

The point of it all – Christ our Lord delights to feed his people. He fed the 5000 in word and miraculous deed. And he still feeds his people today, in word and miraculous sacrament. He gives us always exactly what we need, and need the most. He gives us himself. Yes, he gives daily bread, too. But man does not live by bread alone. Man does live, by Christ alone. And in him, who we receive today, we live.

May we never abandon our Lord, or turn from his teaching. May we never look to him only for earthly goods, for he gives so much more. And may we follow him always, receive from him always, and be fed by him with all the good things he has to offer.

So come, gather at the rail, and be blessed to be fed by our Lord. What a miraculous meal! What a wonderful king! What a merciful Savior!


Sunday, March 03, 2013

Sermon - Lent 3 - Matthew 13:1-9

Sermon – Lent 3 - March 3rd, 2013
Village Lutheran Church, Ladue, MO
Matthew 13:1-9
“Repent or Perish”

Repent or perish! Well, happy Sunday morning to you, too, pastor. Repent or perish! Look, don't kill the messenger, these are the words of Jesus. Today – some hard words of Jesus regarding our need for repentance. But upon closer examination, some rich gospel promises, and a blessed assurance that in Christ, all is well. In Christ, there is hope. In Christ, we do not perish.

We sinners love to hear about the sins of others. Some of the most popular sermons are when the preacher really socks it to THOSE sinners. One of the comments a preacher dreads hearing is, “boy pastor, THEY really needed to hear that, today!” And why is that? When the law points its guns at someone else, we can rest easy. We can have this false sense of security while the spotlight is on some other, certainly far worse, sinner.

That's what seems to have happened in our text, where in two situations people suffered tradgedies. In one, Pilate apparently killed some Jews while they were sacrificing at the temple. And in another, a tower fell and killed 18 people. Some in Israel would have reasoned that bad things like that only happen to really bad sinners, sinners who deserve it, sinners who must have done something that God would allow such suffering and death to befall them.

But Jesus knocks all that thinking down. First he corrects the misunderstanding – these things didn't happen because of some particular sin. He's not saying the victims weren't sinners at all, just that we can't go trying to connect the dots between sins and punishments. Sometimes bad things happen, out of the blue, for no good reason we can pinpoint. Except this. Our world is fallen. Corrupt, through and through. Adam's sin shattered the bliss, and now we are subject to all this suffering – pain and thorns, towers fall, children are shot by madmen, tyrants murder people of faith, hurricaines wipe out whole cities. It doesn't make sense, but sin never does, nor does this world bathed in sin and death.

And secondly, Jesus shifts the spotlight where it belongs. He says, effectively, “Hey! Stop your pious hypothesizing about the sins of others. Get off your high horse thinking you are without blame. You think just because it didn't happen to you, God must be so pleased with your goodness? Quit fooling yourself. You're just as much of a sinner. Death is breathing down your neck, too. Take a look at yourself. And repent. And unless you repent, you, too, will perish”

It's quite a wake up call. They came seeking a sort of affirmation or attaboy. He smacks them with a call to repentance. And so, for you. May we never seek God's Word, or the services of His house, to confirm our sense of self-righteousness. To reinforce for ourselves that we're the good church people, unlike those sinners over there. Instead, may we, too, hear our Lord's call to repent with open ears to hear. Confessing, same-saying, yes, Lord, I am a sinner – thought, word and deed. I deserve death and far worse. Confessing before God and man the worm that I am. But repentance doesn't stop there.

To repent means turn around. A change of mind or heart. And in as much as we would turn from our sins, we would also turn toward something, or rather, someone. Turn to Christ. Look to him, again, even today. For he brings the opposite of judgment and death. He brings forgiveness, life, salvation. Freely receive the gifts he brings – in word and washing, in bodily bread and wine that is his own blood. Repentance without faith is just despair and sorrow. But repentance with Christ is a movement from death to life. It is the only way to never perish.

You could even say, that in Christ, God repents when it comes to you. Our Psalm for the day, Psalm 85 puts it this way:

You withdrew all your wrath; you turned from your hot anger. Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us!

Because of Christ, God repents, turns, from his wrath toward you. Because Christ received that wrath, drank that cup, died that death, suffered all for you. The guilt of your sins was mixed with the blood of His sacrifice. The towering load of your sins fell on Him. At the cross, Jesus turned everything around, upside down, inside out. In death bringing life, for you and me and for all.

“Repent!” – means turn from your sin, and believe in Christ, who has done this all for you. And even this repentance is a gift in itself. God works it in us.

Take the parable of the fig tree which follows. God is patient with the tree, as he is patient with us. He plants, waters, fertilizes. Year in and year out, he tends it, looking for fruit. Again and again, he calls to repentance, shows you your sin in His holy law, and shows you your Savior in His blessed Gospel. We are slow learners, a thick-necked stubborn people. But God is patient and merciful, even persistent in his grace.

Sometimes the process is unpleasant – stinking like manure. But the fruit of faith is sweet indeed, when the sinner sees the grace of God in Jesus Christ. And the point is not so much, “get busy making fruit” as it is, “wonder at the patience of the gardener”, whose wrath at your fruitless tree is put away in the tree of the Cross, and the one who was there cut down for you.

Repent or perish! Perhaps a summary of the Christian faith itself. Repent or perish! Words to live by, for we only live in the words of Christ our Lord. Turn from sin, turn to Christ, and live. Amen.