Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Sermon - Pentecost 7 - Matthew 13:44-52

Grace, mercy and peace....

Dear friends in Christ, do you love the parables of Jesus like I do? Who can resist these stories which illustrate great truths about the kingdom of God? Some of them are longer – like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. And others are quite short – in fact today our Gospel reading groups four together. The “Hidden Treasure” and “Pearl of Great Value” - these two make the same point. Similar is the “Parable of the Net”, which extends the same point. Then there's the “Parable of New and Old Treasures” takes it in a different direction. Let's briefly examine these this morning.

For the parables of the treasure and pearl, let's first set aside a wrong interpretation. The point of the parable is NOT simply the First Commandment – love God above all things. Nor is it that you have found God and you should therefore put him first in your life. You're not the man who finds God and gives up everything to follow him. You don't sell all your possessions to posses Christ or his kingdom.

Sure, salvation is beyond value. Sure, we SHOULD value our faith and our Lord as more precious than all our worldly wealth. But the problem is, that's not how it works. We are sinful and selfish and dead in our sins. We are unable to come to Christ on our own, of ourselves. We confess in the Catechism, “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....”

No, to say that the believer is the man who finds the treasure in the field, or the pearl of great value – is to get this parable wrong. Instead, who is the one who gave up everything he had to acquire what he valued the most? Jesus Christ. He gave up his heavenly throne. He gave up his divine power and glory, at least for a time. He gave up being over all things to take the form of a servant, born in humble fashion, submitting to poverty, the derision of man, injustice, suffering and finally death on a cross. He who had no sin became sin for us. He gave up all that he had, why? Again in the words of the Catechism, “that I may be his own...”.

One of my favorite Christian artists, a Lutheran named Ed Riojas has tapped into this understanding of the parable, and painted a scene that expresses it beautifully. I'll show you this more closely on the way out of church. But the picture here is of a cemetery, with a church steeple in the background. And the main figure is Christ, who is doing something amazing. He's pulling a coffin out of a grave with his bare hands. And the banner at the bottom of the scene reads, “For joy he went and sold all that he had and bought that field”. Ed writes about his painting as follows:
The Parable of the Buried Treasure” painting explanation by Ed Riojas

...This small painting is something I started after pondering the parable of the buried treasure in light of Christ’s love for us.

I couldn’t get around the idea of the field being a cemetery, with its scattered stones, and the man -- Christ Jesus -- coming to claim his hidden treasure. “For joy, he sold all he had and bought that field.”

Holy Scripture sometimes contains the most understated truths. “All he had” was his very life, given for us, “Not with gold or silver,” as we are told, “but with His holy, precious blood.” So that man pulls out a treasure with His pierced hands. The wounds are permanent, but His crucifixion and death are not.

The painting points to Holy Scripture with another finger: It illustrates just how much we contribute to salvation -- nothing. We were dead. Not only were we dead, but we were dead in our trespasses. If that were not enough, we were bound in satan’s chains. We were in a box from which we could not escape.

Yet Christ calls us His treasure. The English language helps us in this scenario -- the words “coffin” and “casket” are derived from the same words that are used for containers of wealth. Furthermore, “vaults” are used to inter this wealth.

What points to Christ’s love for us is not only His payment for our sins through His sacrifice, but also the reality of what He considers valuable. He treasures not gold or silver, but the sinful, the lost, the dregs of humanity, the rotting, the forgotten, the discarded for convenience, the destroyed by design, the consumed by disease, the consumed by conflagration, the consumed by woe. This mess of ugliness He treasures. Not only did Christ Jesus give His all for it, but He also enfolds it in His arms and holds it to His breast.

This is what the kingdom of heaven is like.


Dear friends, there once was a man who found a treasure, and you are that treasure. Though you bring no merit or worthiness of your own, the Triune God, in his grace, has valued you. He has esteemed you worthy of the blood of Jesus Christ.

Then we have the parable of the Fish in the Net. Here again, Christ shows that those who belong to him are valued. But it also shows the separation between us and the unbeliever. Like fishermen separate the fish caught in the net – throwing away those not worth keeping, so the angels with separate the believers from the unbelievers on the last day. And what separates us from the unbelievers, but faith alone. Those who believe in Christ as savior and realize we can't win salvation for ourselves but receive it as free gift from him. He saves us from the weeping and gnashing of teeth, from the punishments we deserve, from being lost forever – and he makes us his treasured possessions. Here is hope for us – when it seems that the wicked prosper and the believers only suffer. When you see Christians persecuted here and abroad. When you feel like the liars and cheaters around you enjoy all the good things in life while your honesty and hard work never pay off. Take heart. For the one who assigns true value to men has esteemed you – and has your future secured.

Finally, Jesus commends the teachers who have learned these things well, that is, the truths of the kingdom. Those who have received from him the treasures of his grace. And those, who then, set these treasures before others. Your pastor is privileged to set these treasures before you week in and week out. To proclaim to you the grace and mercy of Christ, crucified for sinners like you. To show you in new and old ways the unchanging truth that the blood of Christ covers all, renews all, revives all. To set before you the precious gifts of Christ's body and blood, given and shed for you, precious treasures which renew and sustain you, his precious treasures.

And having been so treasured, and having received such treasure, each of us daily sets these treasures before the world by our witness and faith. As we fulfill our callings in life, and as we give answer for the hope within us. All in Christ, and Christ in all of us, until the last day when all true treasures are no longer hidden but revealed.

Got grant us faith to believe all these things, and the Spirit to enlighten us to such treasures, and the will to set them before us always, in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

You can view and purchase artwork by Ed Riojas here.  Great gift ideas for your favorite pastor!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Sermon - Trinity 5 - Luke 5:1-11

Called and Caught by Jesus

You know, I've been a pastor 15 years now. And in one sense I figure I know what I'm doing. I'm familiar with the liturgy, I can preach a passable sermon. I can give a decent off-the-cuff answer to a Bible question. I've done weddings and funerals, taught confirmation classes for years. I am certainly not perfect, but I know my trade. Just as you probably know yours.

Now imagine if someone tried to tell you how to do your own job. Someone with no experience whatsoever. Someone who didn't know the first thing about doing whatever it is you do day in and day out. And imagine if their unsolicited advice was just crazy. You've learned the hard way not to do it how they're suggesting. But here they are telling you the business. As if they have a clue.

So begins the scene in Luke 5 when a Carpenter tries to tell fishermen what to do. They are washing their nets – packing it in after a hard and disappointing night's labor. Their experience tells them the fish just aren't biting. Come back another time. Get some rest. Cut your losses. But this carpenter turned preacher is giving out fishing advice – and it makes no sense at all.

You or I might be offended at being told how to do our jobs. Especially by this – whoever he is. But he's not just some whoever-he-is. And he knows more about fishing and men that anyone can imagine.

Put out into the deep water. I don't care that you're tired. I pay no mind that the fish aren't biting. Take your nets, which you've just washed and put away, and get back in your boat and cast them there in the deep again.

And for some strange reason, that also makes no human sense, Simon Peter responds in faith. He trusts the word of this carpenter-turned-preacher, he takes the unsolicited fishing advice, and he is not disappointed. In fact, he's terrified.

But why? Shouldn't he be overjoyed at the miraculous catch of fish? Shouldn't his eyes light up with the ch-ching of the money he would make selling these fish? Shouldn't he jump up and hug Jesus, thanks for the miracle, my friend?

No, instead, Peter senses the fearful presence of holiness. He may not be sure exactly who he's dealing with, but he knows that he is a sinner, and not worthy. He says as much, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”

It's the same reaction Isaiah the prophet had when he beheld a vision of God's glory filling the temple. “Woe to me, I am ruined!” Isaiah said, “For I am a man of unclean lips...”

And it is the same reaction that you should have, as a sinner yourself, when confronted with the holiness of God. For you and I are also unworthy. You and I are also poor sinners. You and I are of unclean lips and hearts and minds and hands. And we don't deserve the miracles of God either. We think we know better than God's law, and act as if we are our own little gods. We'd so often rather play by our own rules, even though we can't win the game. But only when we admit it, when the law shows us our sin and we confess it, are we ready for the wisdom of God – the foolishness of the Gospel. I said I will confess my transgressions to the Lord...

Peter says, “Oh, I'm too sinful for you to be around me, Lord!” But Jesus hears none of that. He simply encourages, “Fear not.” “Do not be afraid.” And behind the simple “fear not” is much more: I'm not here to smite you. I'm here to save you, and all these others, too. I come not in judgment, but in grace and mercy, preaching a kingdom that is not of this world. I bring rest for the weary, love for the outcasts, healing, blessing, peace. I did not come to condemn the world, but to save it by my blood. I came to die, so that you might live. I came to destroy death, that you need never fear again.

Peter would soon learn all that is behind the “fear not” of Jesus. And even when in that dark hour of Jesus' passion, Peter would show just how big of a sinner he is by denying Jesus three times – still Jesus would return. resurrected, and meet Peter once again on the shores of this sea, and amaze him further with a catch of fish and a restoration. “Peter, do you love me? Then feed my sheep”

First the call to faith, the call to trust in the words of Christ. However crazy may seem and unsolicited they may be. However much it flies in the face of your own sinful self-pity. However much fear and doubt grip you and make your heart want to scream. However tired and weary from laboring all night with nothing to show for it. “Fear not,” he says. “With me, there is nothing to fear.”

And then the call to action. The call to serve. The call to put our faith to work for the love of neighbor. To be fishers of men, not just fishermen anymore.

But here too is a promise! Notice he doesn't say, “You better be good fishers of men.” or “get busy now, fishing for men”. He promises, “I will MAKE you fishers of men”. For even here, Jesus is doing the doing. He builds expands his kingdom. He builds his church.

But that doesn't mean you don't have a part in it. That doesn't mean he leaves you out of the fun. Christ calls us all, in various ways, to take part in the great casting of his Gospel net. Some may tend the nets. Some may cast them out. Others row the boat. And still others haul in the catch.

In other words, some are pastors fishing waters and streams nearby. And some are missionaries, pushing boats out to waters far away, even across oceans. Some are public proclaimers of Christ crucified for sinners. Some support this proclamation with prayers and gifts. But also called to the fishing industry of Christ are teachers and parents, friends and family. Some give their shoulder to cry on, or change diapers and wipe runny noses. Some invite others to come and be caught in the promises of Christ, and all are witnesses of what he has done for us.

You and I have been caught by Christ. Caught out of the deep water of our sin and cleaned, washed in the holy water of baptism. Fed with the body and blood of Christ. We are safely carried in the ark of his church through the dangerous waters of this world, until our ship comes in to the final port of life eternal. And along the way he catches us again and again as we confess with Peter, “I am a sinful man!” and his word of forgiveness answers, “Fear not!”

He who created fish and men and wood for boats and water to float them on – he knows his craft. He knows what you need, and comes to catch and keep you in his net of salvation, by his Spirit in his word of promise. So fear not, forgiven sinner. Fear not, in Christ. Amen.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Sermon - Pentecost 4 - Romans 7:14-25

Pentecost 4
Romans 7:14-25
St. John's Lutheran Church, Beloit, WI
Who will rescue me?”

The Christian life is a life of conflict. We are at war. The battle is for the ultimate prize, your eternal soul, and so this is serious business. The Devil is out to get you. The world that hated Christ hates you too, Christian. And if all of that is not enough. You are at war with your very own self. Even St. Paul himself was. And there is only one that can rescue us from this body of death, Jesus Christ! Thanks to him for the victory!

Paul sets up a contrast for us in Romans 7 that is universally instructive. Every Christian should read and mark these words carefully.

On the one hand Paul speaks of his “mind”. By this he means the new man or “new Adam”. The new creation in Christ that began at Holy Baptism. The Christian, the saint, the believer, the child of God. According to this nature, our new nature, we want to please God and follow his commandments. According to this nature we are righteous, holy, and without sin. This is the man that has been crucified with Christ in baptism and raised again with Christ. This is the man that clings to Christ, follows his word, and does good works with the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the man that delights in the law of God. This is our “inner being”

But Paul makes a distinction. As Christians, we are not only “new man”. But we also have this sinful flesh which clings to us. Our “outer being” if you will. The flesh, is that which we see. And not only the outward skin and bones, but that part of us that is still subject to sinful desires and words. “The Flesh” is our old nature, our “Old Adam”, which wants nothing to do with God and his word and his ways. This is the man who rebels against God at every turn. This is the one that still sins, sins daily, and sins much. This is the man apart from God, apart from Christ, and without the power of the Holy Spirit. There is nothing good that dwells in you, according to the flesh. “Wretched man that I am!” Paul says. Or you and I might just say of ourselves, “what a mess!”

You want to be kind to your family members, but the sinful flesh finds them so downright annoying! You want to listen to the sermon in Church, but the sinful flesh would rather plan your shopping trip. You want to honor your parents, but your sinful flesh convinces you that you always know best. You want to be faithful to your spouse, but your sinful flesh has eyes for anyone else it can fantasize about. You want to be generous, but your sinful flesh is all scrooge. You want to be content with what you have, but your sinful flesh thinks what that guy has is far better, and you deserve it far more. And you want to fear, love and trust God, but your sinful flesh always seems to have other ideas. What a wretched man I am! What a mess we all are.

And so we live in this tension. As Christians, we want to do good, trust God and love our neighbor. But as sinners, we are caught in this “body of death” as Paul calls it, with a war constantly raging inside of us.

Why is this helpful to know?

For one, it helps us understand what otherwise makes no sense. Some, it seems, even some Christians, think that when you come to faith – all sin suddenly stops.

Or that once you come to faith, you should at least be making measurable progress. And that if you stumble and fall along the way, it means you aren't really saved, don't really believe, and are destined for damnation.

Or some would say that God gets you started, gets you to the point of believing, but the rest is up to you, friend. Good luck. Then what happens when your life exhibits more fallenness than faith? Are you a back slider? Are you not an authentic Christian? Do you need to take it to the next level (and how do you know when you get there)?

All this could lead us to despair. Either God's a liar, or I'm a failure. For we do continue to sin, and we can't do it on our own, and our lives never exhibit the holiness and righteousness that God declares upon us.

But do not despair! Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, tells us otherwise. Sinning doesn't mean you're not a Christian. It means you are still a captive to the law of sin, and will be until this flesh goes into the ground. Your sin is not the ultimate reality about you. It's not what matters in the end. What matters is that you are baptized, you do have Christ's word of promise, you do belong to him, and your future is secure.

Mind you, none of this is an excuse to go on sinning. Paul asks and answers that question in chapter 6, “shall we go on sinning? By no means!” No, the struggle continues as we grapple with our flesh, till death do us part.

Secondly, understanding this distinction lets us know we're not alone in the fight. You think you're the only one who's struggled with sin? No, instead, you are in the good company of all God's people who are of the same flesh, from the same father, Adam. Abraham, the liar and coward. Jacob the schemer. Judah who sold his brother into slavery. Moses, a murderer. Rahab, a prostitute. David, an adulterer and murderer. Jonah, a reluctant prophet. Matthew, a tax collector. Peter, a denier. And even Paul, persecutor of Christians.

But in each and every case, the faithful of God trusted in his salvation, made known and completed by Christ. For all the saints who've gone before us, their laundry list of sin and death was washed in the blood of Christ, and only in Christ. But in him, they – and you – receive the crown of victory. In Him who conquered death, we too look past the grave to a resurrection like his, and the glory yet to be revealed.

Thirdly, all this reminds us that the only salvation is in Christ. “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Christ alone. Thanks be to him. You can't do it yourself, nor should you try. If you did try you'd either fall flat on your face, or live in a lie of self righteousness. If you thought you could rescue yourself, you wouldn't need Jesus. The war is too much for Paul, and it's too much for you. Sin is always close at hand. But Jesus is closer. Death is breathing down your neck. But Jesus is the death of death.

And Jesus died for your sins, all of them – before baptism and after. Jesus covers you with his blood, forgives your sins, reconciles you to his Father, and squashes death and the devil under his bruised foot.

Jesus rides to your rescue. He rides on a donkey, he rides the cross to its bitter last stop. He rides to hell and back, through an open grave, to the right hand of God. And he'll ride again on the clouds when he comes to the world's final rescue, all his angels with him. He will rescue us all from death forever.

So any time you struggle with sin, remember your baptism! Remember you are in Christ! All is not lost. He will never leave or forsake you. And he will come again in glory, to bring it all to fulfillment. Thanks be to God, we say with St. Paul and all the other sinners and saints – who are victorious - in Christ alone. Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ, our Lord! Amen.