Sunday, August 18, 2013

Sermon - Pentecost 13 - Luke 12:49-53

Luke 12:49–53
Pentecost 13
Good Shepherd, Two Rivers, WI

A pastor friend of mine was looking ahead to these upcoming readings from Luke’s Gospel, and jokingly lamented, “oh great, here comes ‘mean Jesus’!

Certainly there is much in today’s reading from Luke that strikes us as odd, at least goes against our typical conception of who Jesus is.  
We often think of Jesus from the paintings - welcoming the little children, lovingly caring for the sheep, maybe even smiling and laughing.  Or we think of Jesus humbly dying on the cross, praying the Father to forgive even his tormentors.  Or maybe Jesus all bright and shiny and seated at the right hand of the Father - watching out for us, hearing our prayers.  And of course, this isn’t all bad.  But there’s more to Jesus than all this.  Especially when we come across a reading like this.

It might even seem hard to find much good news in Jesus’ words this morning.  He’s certainly not sugar-coating the hard truths, or painting a rosy picture of what he is about.  “I come to bring not peace, but division.  Fire!  Family strife!”  This is the gospel of the Lord.  Thanks be to God?

But a closer look reveals that yes, even in what sounds harsh, Jesus is about the business of saving and cleansing and promising good things to those who have ears to hear.  And it’s ok for us to bring in other scriptures, to remind us that He is just but also the one that justifies.  He is holy, but he makes us holy.  He brings a fire that destroys but also purifies, a water that washes away the wicked, and also our wickedness.  And he does divide people, even families.  But promises those who believe in him will never be separated from him, or from the Father.

He begins, “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled!”

You know, there are different kinds of preachers.  Some tell lots of stories - like from Readers’ Digest.  Some like to share personal anecdotes about their kids.  There are dynamic preachers and expository preachers, and preachers that always seem to be talking right to you.  Some When you hear about someone who is a “fire and brimstone” preacher, it’s usually not a compliment.  It usually means they come off angry, and are harsh and perhaps even cruel, holier than thou - not a real pleasure to listen to. But here comes Jesus, cracking out the fire himself.

Any true student of scripture knows that Jesus is not all pillows and puppies, but that he can make a whip and overturn tables.  He can call out the pharisees just as harshly as John the Baptist.  He can preach the fire and brimstone.  But this is no ordinary fire, and certainly not an uncontrolled blaze.  When Jesus speaks in these harsh terms, he brings the fire of God’s wrath, his righteous wrath over sin.

We may want to believe in a God who is always nice, and never says or does anything unpleasant.  A God who is always, only, love, and never scolds or judges.  But the problem is there is no such God.  God is holy and righteous and hates sin and punishes sin.  And we don’t get to create a God to our liking.  Nor should we ignore what we says of himself and imagine him in a more palatable fashion.

And the thought of the righteous Son of God casting fire on earth should make us quake and tremble, for we are sinners, and deserve to be burnt up like stubble.  We are guilty as sin, and deserve the punishments of sin, death and hell.

But all is not lost.  Yes, our God is a consuming fire, but there is also a baptism.... there is cleansing.... Jesus continues:

“I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!”

Jesus had already been baptized by John in the Jordan.  So he’s not talking about that here.  But in that baptism by John, Jesus did do something important.  He identified with us sinners.  He who had no sin of his own, took on our sin, became the stand-in for all sinners.  And the baptism he was about to undergo - would be truly distressing.  It is the baptism of the cross.  The baptism of suffering and death.  The baptism of bearing God’s wrath for all sin, being consumed in his body to pay the debt for us all.

The same Jesus who will one day come to judge the living and the dead, who will destroy this corrupt creation in fire, and cast those who reject him into the eternal lake of fire....  is the same Jesus who stands between you and the fire of God’s wrath.  And instead of you, he is consumed.  He takes the heat, for you.

And so there is peace with God.  For in his resurrection from the dead, he proves stronger than death, and paves the way for your resurrection.  So baptized into his death, we are also raised in our baptism - raised to life in Christ who lives.  So our baptism is only distressing to the Old Adam, who there is drowned, and buried.  The New Man in us, the new creation in Christ, lives in Christ forever.

But that doesn’t mean that everything is all a bed of roses for us yet.
On this earth, in this time in-between, as we wait for the return of Christ, the day of judgment and victory...  in these end times, there will be trouble.  Especially for us who are in Christ.  And even, yes, in the family.

“Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

For the word of Christ, by which we live, is a dividing word.  It divides truth from falsehood.  And sometimes the truth hurts.  The letter- the law- kills.  But the Spirit gives life.  Those who reject the truth, reject the Spirit, reject the life Christ brings, and are divided from you who receive it in faith.  There are believers, and there are unbelievers.  There are sheep and goats.  Yes, sometimes even in our own family.

That doesn’t mean we don’t love our parents and children (and yes even our in-laws) who are outside the church.  It doesn’t mean we write them off or scream that they are going to hell.  Nor, by the way, does it mean we can adjust the uncomfortable truth of God’s holy word to make us more at peace about the whole situation.

But it does mean we have some praying to do.  That God would call the unbeliever to faith, as he’s called us.  It does mean that we have some loving to do - for if Christ tells us to love even our enemies, then certainly there’s room to love even the unbeliever under our roof, or at our Thanksgiving Day gathering, or 

And it also means we have an opportunity, so share the hope that is within us.  To point to Christ in our actions and words, when the time is right, with great humility. 

Invite ‘em to church.  Pray for them.  Tell them you pray for them.  And be an example of faith yourself.  Maybe even tell them what a big sinner you are, and yet how much bigger is Christ’s forgiveness.

That Christ was baptized into death for you, and raised from death for you, and lives and rules all things for you, and for all.

And he does not promise peace on earth, but does promise peace with God for all who believe.  So trust in him, dear Christians, for that peace is yours.  That peace not as the world gives, he gives to you.  The peace that trusts in him, and in his truth, in spite of all trouble and persecution, in joy and in suffering. A peace that flows only from faith.

And that peace that passes understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, amen.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Sermon - Hebrews 11:1-16 - Pentecost 12

Hebrews 11:1-16
St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Cassopolis, MI
August 11th, 2013
Pentecost 12

“The righteous shall live by faith.”

“We hold that a man is justified by grace through faith.”

“Your faith has saved you, go in peace.”

Holy Scripture has a great deal to say about faith.  In our Old Testament reading we see Abraham, that great man of faith - whose faith has served as an example for some 4000 years.  We are children of Abraham, “by faith”.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus calls his people to trust God’s provision - and chides them for being “you of little faith.”

And here, Hebrews 11, sometimes called “The Great By Faith Chapter” of the bible.  We see this parade of Old Testament figures who lived by faith.  We hear this refrain about all their good deeds done “by faith”, and how they trusted in God despite what could be seen with worldly human eyes.

Perhaps here also the clearest scriptural definition of faith:  “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

The problem with believing in things we don’t see is that, well, we don’t see them.  And our Old Adam, our sinful nature, likes his eyeballs a little too much.

Of course I don’t mean just our sense of sight.  I mean our eyes and ears and all our senses, and our human reason, too.  When you have every earthly reason to believe something is one way, but someone points your nose to a passage of scripture that says just the opposite - here’s the rub.  Here’s where the devil works, to create doubt and despair.
Take creation - Hebrews says, “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.”  Ah, but my eyes say differently.  My ears hear all these smart people saying otherwise.  My textbook at school says it was evolution, and a purposeless big bang, and a godless process of randomness that brought about this creation.  They write books about this and make convincing TV documentaries.  And frankly, I’m a little embarrassed to admit I believe in creation sometimes, and well, maybe I doubt it, myself.

But the word is clear.  Genesis leaves no doubt, “in the beginning, God created...”  And Hebrews agrees.  And so, for that matter, does Jesus Christ.  Sin and Satan would have us doubt, but God calls us to believe what is not seen.

And this just sets the stage.  For there is so much more that is unbelievable about our faith - so much more in which to hope, so much more which is unseen.  The fact that he is creator means he sets the rules.  And where God sets a rule, a sinner will break it.  This too, we need to see:

That there is a God who judges sin.  Hard to believe that sometimes, in a culture that (if it admits there’s a god), believes in a god who doesn’t judge (and you better not, either!).  A smiling, almost senile grandfather in the sky who is either oblivious to our misdeeds, or just laughs them off like the antics of a toddler.  

But the Word of God paints a different picture entirely - one of a righteous judge who is righetous-ly angry over sin, for he is holy - and you are wicked.  He will punish the wicked, and damn the unbeliever.  He will judge the goats and say, “depart from me”.  And there, outside of his presence, will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  

Do we believe in Hell?  Do we believe in punishment for sin?  Do we believe that we are sinners?  What do we see?  Will we believe?  And yet still, believing in God’s wrath and the reality of his punishment - this isn’t really what we mean by “faith”.

But faith is needed for entirely this reason - that it trusts in what is not seen.  For faith lays hold of the promises of God in Jesus Christ.  Faith is  what grabs onto all the good things God has said - and which yet our eyes do not see.  Faith sees beyond what is seen.  Faith, your faith, a gift from God in itself... this faith saves you.   It is by faith  in Christ that we live.

This faith is rooted in Christ and his promises, that when your sin seems oh-so-great, his forgiveness is greater.  It’s faith that when you just can’t shake the guilt, the shame, you are baptized into Christ’s righteousness.  Faith - in his gifts - that you can’t see or hear or taste or smell - that in bread and wine he gives Christ’s body and blood for your forgiveness.  Faith that the blood of Christ is sufficient to cover sin - even your sin - even your deepest, darkest sin.  Washed in the blood of the lamb, even if you can’t see a speck of red on you.

Faith is especially important when life in this sinful world dumps its troubles in your lap.  When you feel so buried with sorrow and worry and calamity and when enemies surround you at every turn.  When it seems to your eyes that if there is a God, he has surely forsaken you - or has a sick sense of humor.  When despair is lurking at your door and satanic doubt twists your self-pity into anger at the Lord himself...

Have faith.  Remember to trust in what is true - even if it is not seen.
God is love.  And his love is for you.  He so loved the world, including you, that he sent Christ.  And Christ has died for you.  And Christ has won for you the victory, even over death itself!  Have faith.  He will not leave you or forsake you.  He will not treat you as you deserve.  He who has spared not his own son, how will he not also, graciously, give us all good things?

In our troubles, it is faith that chomps down on the promises of God in Christ like a bulldog clamps his jaws on a meaty bone.  Never let go of those precious promises.  They will sustain you in the fights of life, through wilderness and calamity, in the solitude of your pain, and in the din of a life with little outward peace.  In all things, God works for the good of those he loves, and who love him, in Jesus Christ.  We see it, by faith.

And for those of you who feel like you don’t have enough faith, pray with the centurion, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief”.  Remember that faith itself is unseen - a gift that is given by the Spirit (also unseen), through the Word and in the sacraments.

Be strengthened in your faith - as you hear his words and promises again and again.  Don’t be a stranger from this, his house.  Don’t ever let that baptismal water dry off for too long, but keep returning to those waters daily - in repentance, by faith.  By faith, gather at the rail, and receive the precious gifts of Christ - given and shed for you - to strengthen you in the true faith to life everlasting.

And stop looking inward to yourself.  For we do not have faith in faith.  But our faith is ultimately, and only, in Christ.  Look to Christ.  See him, by faith, in his word.  Hear him, by faith, in the words of his servant in this place - who stands in his stead and forgives your sins freely.

Those Old Testament heroes of faith - they died in that faith - never seeing the ultimate fulfillment of what was promised.  How great was their faith!  But we, too, though Christ has come, has died, has risen from the dead - we too, still look forward to a future day - a final hope, in faith.  That our Lord will return and grant us the promised homeland, that heavenly country, that city of eternal citizenship.

Live in that same faith, dear Christians.  For the hope of Abraham, and all the other men and women of faith - is the same hope we enjoy, the same one in whom we believe, and in whom we live, by faith.  In Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Sermon - Trinity 10 - Luke 19:41-48

Trinity 10
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Garfield, NJ
Luke 19:41-48

Jerusalem, 70 A.D.
Roman general Titus and his armies surround the walled city of Jerusalem and lay siege.  The Jewish historian Josephus tells us the details.  And it was brutal.

The city was overcrowded, as people had fled from the armies to the safety of its walls.  But now the city was surrounded by armies.  Food would no longer be brought in.  And the people could not escape. Josephus tells us the Jews became so desperate that they ate anything they could - leather, even straw - or resorted to cannibalism.

The Romans built a mound to encircle the city, and there they crucified attempted escapees - as many as 500 per day.  The siege lasted 5 months.

In the end, over 100,000 are said to have died of hunger and 600,000 total died in the siege, with another 97,000 taken captive.  Many of these were sold into slavery, sometimes sold for less than the price of an animal.  Many of those slaves were sent to Roman arenas around the empire to be killed in as spectacles by wild animals.

All of this suffering and misery.  All of this trouble and shame.  All of this, because they did not know the time of their visitation.  All of this, Jesus foresaw.  All of this, Jesus speaks of in our Gospel reading today.

But other than a shocking history lesson, what difference does this make to you and me?

For one, we need to realize that God’s judgment is real, and it is serious business.  And if you think that the judgment and wrath of 70 A.D. was bad - it’s child’s play compared to the final judgment day.  In fact the destruction of Jerusalem serves as a foreshadowing of the final judgment.  When Jesus speaks about one, he often weaves in talk of the other.  For on that day - which is yet to come - God will also deal with those who reject his Son.  He will separate sheep from goats, believers from unbelievers, the righteous from the wicked.  And woe to those on the receiving end of his punishment.

Jesus himself shows this aspect of God’s nature when he cleanses the temple in righteous anger.  A Jesus that some would be surprised to see - is he acting out of character?  Who is this Jesus making a whip and overturning tables?  But our loving God is also a just God.  He is merciful, but he is also the judge of all.  And his judgment is deadly serious.

Second, we must say of those who stand under God’s judgment - “there but for the grace of God go I”.  Indeed, apart from Christ, such judgment is our fate and future.  Apart from Christ - we would be wiped out with temporal and eternal punishment.  Apart from Christ, without Christ, were it not for Christ - we would be in ruin, destined for death and destruction and eternal separation from God.

But we are not apart from Christ.  And Christ has taken the punishment Jerusalem deserves, and then some.  He himself suffered and was crucified, but that wasn’t even the worst of it. In the midst of his dying agony, he cried out to God, “Why have you forsaken me?”  He bore the wrath of God, the punishments of Hell, and God the Father turned his back on his own son.  Whatever physical suffering Jesus endured, as terrible as it was, paled in comparison to this.

All this he does for you.  To save you from the wrath of God.  To save you from the punishment you deserve.  To rescue you from death and the devil, and win the victory over sin.  To purchase your place in paradise, and guarantee you mansions in heaven.

In fact there is another picture of Jerusalem we could consider.  It is the heavenly Jerusalem, the Bride of Christ in her glory.  It’s a picture that is described in the book of Revelation:

Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues and spoke to me, saying, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall,with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed—on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb....

And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life.

Dear Christians, in this tale of two cities, thank God that he has recused us from the Jerusalem of Destruction, from the place of unbelief, from the suffering and shame and death we so deserve - and has made us a part of the New Jerusalem, the Bride of Christ, glorious and holy.  

The difference is not in anything that you do, or anything you are in yourself - the difference is only Christ.  He who has died for you, whose Spirit calls you to faith, and who forgives your sins and clothes you in his own righteousness.  

So repent of your sins daily.  Give thanks and rejoice that he cleanses the temple of your body by baptism and absolution and in sacramental meal.  And live in the hope of that day when all nations who trust in Christ will gather in his presence forever.