Sunday, April 20, 2014

Sermon - Easter 2014

The Resurrection of Our Lord
Easter Sunday, 2014
Matthew 28:1-10

Christ is Risen! (He is risen indeed! Alleluia!)

What a difference 3 days can make. Not even three days, by our modern way of reckoning. Friday afternoon to Sunday morning. Not even a whole weekend. But that's all the rest in the tomb Christ would take, before rising to life again at Sunday's break of dawn. What a difference between Friday and Sunday.

On Friday, there women mourned him, but on Sunday they were first to hear the good news.

On Friday, two thieves flanked our Lord in his dying breaths. On Sunday, two angels at the tomb appeared to announce he is alive!

On both Friday and Sunday were earthquakes – but for very different reasons. Friday's earthquake was part of creation's groaning at the death of the creator. Sunday's earthquake accompanied the stone rolling away, no heavy earth or stone could keep this grave sealed.

On Friday, soldiers had their way – even dividing up his garments as he died. Sunday – it was soldiers who were as dead men, and Christ who was alive. He left his grave clothes behind, by the way...

On Friday, nails pierced his feet and fastened him to the cross. On Sunday, the joyful women fell at those feet and worshipped.

On Friday, they went away beating their breasts. On Sunday, they departed quickly with fear and great joy.

On Friday it seemed like the end. On Sunday it was a whole new beginning.

And yet Friday and Sunday go together. You can't have one without the other.

Without the victory of Easter joy, without the triumph over death and grave, without the vindication of Christ in all things – Good Friday would not be so good. Sunday shows that Jesus' word is true, even when he talks crazy about coming back from the dead. So too when he speaks of your resurrection, dear Christian. Sunday shows that God the Father accepts his Son's sacrifice, indeed, it is the “well done, good and faithful servant” seal of approval on all that Jesus did for us. God's wrath is satisfied, by Christ, for you and me. And Sunday gives us a taste and glimmer of what our own resurrection will be. A glorious day when all the dead in Christ rise, bodily, and see him face to face – in my own flesh, with my own eyeballs – to paraphrase Job.

And without Good Friday, what does Easter mean? Bunnies and Chicks? Candy and chocolate? Brunch with the family? Sadly many have reduced Easter to this, perhaps because they get to Sunday without regarding Friday. Christ's resurrection makes no sense apart from his death – where he atoned for all sin. But the dark tunnel of death he passed through on Friday makes the bright morn of Sunday all the more radiant.

For us, many days feel like that Friday. Not the “thank God it's Friday, the weekend is here”, but “The sun just got dark and the earth beneath me is shaking. Judgment is hovering over me and death is breathing down my neck.” Fear rules the day, and sadness and suffering mark its passing. Many days end with what seems like little hope. We cause so many of our own griefs, but we are also subject to the brokenness of creation. Life's toils and troubles heap onto our guilt and shame. It's enough to make anyone cry out, “My God, have you forsaken me?”

But Easter reminds us that in Christ, Friday is tied to Sunday. Suffering will be vindicated. Death is not the end. Even on the darkest of days, there is still hope for us. We may not see it until we, too, pass through the grave. But faith believes it at his word, and rests secure. And you can trust a guy who rises from the dead and calls his shot ahead of time. You know he's got your future in his hands, too. And that's the best place for your future to be.

For the Christian, every day is a Sunday. Every day is a day in which Christ lives. Every day is a day in which he's still got his crushing foot stomped down on the serpent's head. Every day is a rebirth and renewal, a return to our baptism where we were not only buried with Christ but raised with him. Every day we live in the new life that is already ours. Every day is a Sunday, a new creation.

Christian theologians have made an interesting point about Sunday – you know it was the first day of creation. God started, not on a Monday, but on a Sunday with “let there be light”. And then he rested on Saturday, the real last day of the week. So Christ rests in the tomb on Saturday, and at break of dawn on Sunday, the one who created light and is the Light of the World, returns to bring life and light to all men. It's a pretty powerful connection.

And others have gone on to say, that in a way, Easter Sunday is the “8th day of creation”. That is, on Easter, the renewal of creation in Christ is revealed – brought forth first in his own person. And we now live in the time of transition between that 8th day of creation and eternity. Or to put it another way, Easter is the Sunday that never ends.

However you look at it, give thanks to God for the blessings of this Holy Sunday. May your faith be strengthened in the knowledge that he who paid your price on Friday, rested in your grave on Saturday, also Rises for your resurrection on Sunday.
Alleluia. [Christ Jesus] abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. Alleluia.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Sermon - Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion - Philippians 2:8

Sometimes I think God asks too much of me. I mean, really. What is he thinking? I can understand giving some general guidelines to follow, some flexible rules to kind of give me an idea of which way to go in life. But commandments are a different story. The law of God is just so... oppressive! What do you mean I can't have ANY other gods? What, you expect me to be kind and loving ALL THE TIME? I wouldn't argue too much if there were some qualifications on all of this. A sort of, “do unto others in the same way they do to you”. Or just, “be nice most of the time”. But he says, “Do as you would HAVE them do to you”. And “love your enemies, even pray for them”. And that's a whole lot harder to do. Sometimes it just doesn't seem fair.  Of course all this is my Old Adam talking.

And then there's Jesus. We know he was like us in every way, yet without sin. And I have to say, I can't imagine what that must be like. No sin of deed, or word, OR thought. I can't even roll out of bed for a couple of minutes without some sinful thought dumping out of this brain. I'm sure you are the same. But Jesus, though human, was also God. He was different, special, holy. He was the only one who could do this. Walk the walk, perfectly. Talk the talk, think the think – of one without sin.

And so he was perfectly obedient. As Paul says, right? Though he was God, he didn't think much of that. He listened when his Father sent him to take on human flesh and leave his heavenly throne behind. He obeyed perfectly, fulfilled the law – honored God, honored his name, his day, his parents. He loved his neighbor with a compassion you and I can only dream about having. It's like they said about Jesus, “he has done all things well!” He cast out demons, healed the sick, he even raised a man from the dead. But there was one more thing God would ask of his Son.

“He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

I want you to go to Jerusalem, and there you will die. You'll hand yourself over to those pompous hypocrites, and they will put you, the judge of all things, on trial. They, sinners from birth and sinners to this day – will judge you as a criminal, innocent though you are. And they, dead in their sins, will condemn you to death – by the shouting jeers of a bloodthirsty crowd, the cynical machinations of jealous and power-hungry men, and the cowardice of the one who was given authority from above.

Yes, all of this will happen, and it will all happen in spite of your holiness, my son, and you will die, and die a miserable death for them all. And I have to say one more thing, I can't even be with you at the darkest moment. When you take their place, I have to turn my back on you. I can't just wink at sin, you know, it must be condemned. And it will be condemned in your body, as you die, on that cursed tree. You'll bear the brunt of it, my condemnation for all sin, for all people of all time and place. This is your mission. This I ask of you. I am sending you to do it.

And Jesus said, “Thy will be done”. Even in the garden, with death so imminent it made him sweat blood, he prayed, “Thy will be done”.

Truly no greater love has someone than that he lay down his life for his friends. Jesus Christ laid his perfect life down not for friends, but for his enemies, to make us his friends, his people, God's children.

In this holy week, we will meditate on his sacrifice for us. In a way, it began even before he was born. But his passion puts a fine point on it, and crescendos to Calvary, where it is finished. Jesus takes the place of Barabbas. Jesus takes the place of all sinners – condemned to die – apart from God. Even in his tomb, he is our substitute. He goes in our place.

And you, forgiven sinner, go in his place. You go to resurrection. You go to an inheritance. You go to the throne room of the Father, and receive a crown of glory. You receive what Jesus has, what he deserves, what he gives freely, by grace, through faith in him. Trust in him all the more, for it is finished. In Jesus' Name.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Sermon - Lent 5 - Ezekiel 37:1-14

Lent 5
Zion Lutheran Church, Marengo, IL
Ezekiel 37:1-14

Lent is a good time to think about death. As good a time as any.
It's a topic every man must face sooner or later. A topic we like to put away, out of our sight, far from our minds. Try as we might.

One of my favorite songs by a group called the “Counting Crows” has this line,

“I got bones beneath my skin, and mister...
there's a skeleton in every man's house
Beneath the dust and love and sweat that hang on everybody
there's a dead man trying to get out”

Death is universal and unavoidable... like, well, death and taxes. No matter how we try to get out of it. For us Christians, in some ways it's the same, and in some ways it's different. Death is still an enemy. It still brings tears, even to the eyes of Jesus at the grave of Lazarus. Death is a separation from loved ones. And it is the great leveler of all men – after all, whatever wealth you have in this life, you can't take it with you.

But death for Christians is not the worst thing that can happen. For Christians, like Lazarus, there is Jesus with the answer to death. For us, death is not the end, nor is it to be feared. Where, oh death, is thy sting? Indeed, it is through his own death that Jesus brings salvation, and through his resurrection that he brings life. And so we grieve death, but not without hope.

Ezekiel's vision of the valley of dry bones shows hopelessness turned into hope. It shows us the power of the word. And it points us toward the Christ, whose death destroys death and who will resurrect his people to eternal life.

Take a look at that valley with Ezekiel. A vast army of dead, very dead people. Not freshly slain soldiers, among whom you might find some living but injured survivors. No they are quite dead. Not merely dead, but really most sincerely dead. Dead and decayed, just bones left, and dry ones at that. They are not even close to alive.

Kind of like you, in your sins. In fact, just like you, in your sins. Sometimes visions like this paint an even truer picture of reality than our eyes do. Just like the Israelites of Ezekiel's day were a hopeless and defeated nation with no life left in them, exiled to Babylon, powerless, hopeless, as good as dead. So are you, and so is every sinner, who may look alive but is very much dead in sin.

That valley of dry bones is the human condition apart from God. Just as dead and hopeless. Just as far from life and breath as anything. Might as well be a rock or some dirt. Your everyday experience tells you you're alive and just fine. But God's word shows the true reality. Sin brings death. It clings to us. It infects every part of us. We are dead men and women walking. Because we are sinners who sin daily and sin much. And no matter how hard the skeleton tries, it can't come to life. No matter how hard, you, the sinner, try, you can't come to life. What we need is a miracle. A divine intervention.

And God is in the business of doing just that. From death he brings life. From the cross, first and foremost. There in the hopeless, helpless, death of Jesus on the cross, he brings help and hope and life to all people. There in the valley of the shadow of death, Jesus dies to bring the light that chases away death forever. And as his dead flesh would rise to life again, so does he bring life to dead sinners who die in him.

Ezekiel's vision wasn't without hope, because he had God's word. The prophet spoke, by God's command and promise, to the wind, that is, the Spirit. Who came and brought life to those lifeless bones. Just as the pastor speaks the word of God to lifeless sinners, and the Spirit works through that word to bring life to you again. The valley of dry bones is a vision of how God works in all times and places, bringing life to the dead, through word and spirit, because of the life from the dead won by his Son at the cross.

As pastors, we could look out on you, the people in our care, and see a pile of bones – sinners who are hopeless and struggling with all their own faults and failings, grieved by the sorrows of living in a world where death reigns. You tell us your troubles, and we listen, but usually can't do anything much about it. It's like Ezekiel looking at a femur and a skull. The troubles can be so much. And I am just a man.

But the pastor has one thing for you, and it is enough. Not a man's word, but Christ's. So now hear this, you dried up and dried out dead people: Jesus Christ has died and Jesus Christ lives and Jesus Christ promises you new life. So hear the Gospel, now, and live! Hear the life-giving word of the Spirit, who creates life where there was only death. Hear the life-renewing hope and the sin-forgiving declaration. You are not dead. You are not lost. You are forgiven. You are in Christ, and Christ is alive. So, too, do you live through him!

You are baptized. There you first rose from the death of sin to new life in Christ. And one day your flesh will die, only to rise again because of the promise of Christ. The fanciful picture of dry bones coming back together, and breathing the breath of life again – is not so fanciful compared to the promise of the last day. That at the trumpet call of God the dead in Christ will rise and meet him face to face, in a glorified body, and see him as he is, being like him. This is our hope. This is our destiny.

Son of man, can these bones live? Yes. Can Christ conquer death and live? Yes. Can he, does he, promise the same for you? Yes. So believe it, and live in him always. Amen.