Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Sermon - Midweek Advent 3 - "Christ our King"

1 Samuel 16:1-13 David is anointed as king
Philippians 2:1-11 “Every knee shall bow”
Matthew 2:1-12 “Where is he that is born king?”

So far in this Advent Season we've seen Christ as our prophet – the appointed messenger of God's word, the ultimate messenger, who himself is the message, the very Word of God made flesh, now dwelling among us.

And we've also seen Christ as our great High Priest, who has offered the once-and-for-all sacrifice for sin, the sacrifice of himself on the cross, and yet still intercedes for us his people. He even makes us, believers, together, a royal priesthood – with sacrifices and prayers of our own to offer to God in his name.

And the final office of this Old Testament triad – the king – Christ also fulfills most excellently. He is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, as Handel's Messiah joyfully sings, and as John saw written on his robes and thigh in the vision of Revelation.

But just as there's more to it than first appears when it comes to his role as prophet and priest, so also his office of king. Jesus as king shows us more than just his awesome, almighty, top-dog in creation power. It's far more to us than just an acknowledgment of his omnipotence. Yes, he's the most powerful, we get that. But how does that benefit us? Why is it such good news that he is king?

Once again we turn to the Old Testament for some direction. There we see the office of king held by many mere men, none of whom did so perfectly. But if there is one who was regarded as the greatest, it was surely king David. David, the shepherd boy who felled the giant Goliath with a sling. David, who killed tens of thousands of Philistines and brought honor and glory to Israel. David, who though anointed to be king even as a youth - would wait patiently for his time, even when King Saul wanted him dead. David, a man after God's own heart, whom God promised to build a house, a dynasty, that would last forever.

Now, David wasn't perfect. We know his sin with Bathsheba, and his murder of her husband Uriah the Hittite. We know who the consequences of this sin reverberated in David's own family, and though his son Solomon would inherit the throne, he too was far from perfect. And in the next generation the kingdom split into two, never to unite on earth again. Both kingdoms saw a succession of kings, some good but mostly bad, some faithful but most of them turning to other gods. And so God, through the Assyrians and then the Babylonians, brought and end to the kings of Israel. He cut down the mighty tree of David's royal family, into a stump – the stump of Jesse. And the monarchy was done. Davidic dynasty over. David's house had fallen.

But God had made a promise. And our God keeps his promises.  And so a shoot would come forth from that stump of Jesse. God would restore the fallen booth of David into a mighty house. The king would rise again, and his throne is established forever. Hosanna to the Son of David, blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Yes, of course, it's Jesus. Jesus the long-expected king.

The wise men knew it.  They saw his star in the East and they came to worship this king.  They asked the worldly king, Herod, but he could see only a threat to his own power.  Nonetheless, we remember the visit of the magi and their gifts fit for a king, fit for the Christ.

When we think of a king, we think mostly of his authority to rule and govern.  The king is the singular head of a government, the big dog that sets all the smaller dogs to yapping.  His word is law.  We as Americans may pride ourselves on breaking away from King George and governing ourselves.  At least if you have to have a king you hope for a just and fair king, who applies his laws equally.

But a king is not only meant to be a ruler.  He's also supposed to be a protector.  He doesn't just send the armies into battle, but he leads the charge.  He who governs well keeps his people safe from the enemy.  This is one reason King David got into trouble with Bathsheba – he wasn't doing what he was supposed to as king – leading the armies – but shirked his duty, sat in the safety of his palace and succumbed to temptations.

In Jesus Christ, we have a perfect king.  David's Son, but also David's Lord.  He rules the peoples with equity.  His justice is fair, he does not show favoritism, but applies the same law to all his subjects.  But even though we are a rebellious people, still our King leaves his royal throne behind to come walk our streets, breathe our poisoned air, and bear upon himself our burden of sin. He takes the rightful punishment for all-law-breaking law-breakers.  He who would judge all, puts himself under the sentence of death.

And thus he is also our protector.  While earthly kings ride horses and chariots into battle against their enemies in battles near and far, this king fights for us, our champion, the valiant one.  He conquers, not by sword or spear, but by being pierced, bruised, stricken and smitten.  He brings peace not by glorious victory, but in the humble suffering and sacrifice of the cross.  There is his throne, our king, our Christ.  Our Lord and Protector.  A crown of thorns.  A staff they used to beat him.  A mocking purple robe put on him and ripped off.  Homage paid by soldiers spitting and pharisees wagging heads.  His royal court – condemned thieves, Roman dogs, and grieving onlookers.  And the sign above him, written by the earthly governor who condemned him, “This is the king of the Jews”.

Our King has come.  He came as a babe in Bethlehem, but a humble king.  Honored by wise foreigners and lowly shepherds, but despised by the kings of this world.  Our king has come, humble and riding a donkey, a prince of peace, who comes to bring us peace.  Our king has come into his glory, in the dark shame and bleak suffering of the cross.  And our king has conquered death and brought life and immortality to light.  Death cannot contain him.  He rises again, for you, for all.  Death has no victory.  Death has no sting.

Now it's true, his kingdom is not of this world.  So he told the king's representative who gave the order to crucify him.  Jesus' kingdom is far more than this world.  The Kingdom of God is the reign and rule of God in the hearts of men.  It is the gracious activity of God to bring about his purposes, in accord with his plan.  It is the working of the Holy Spirit through the Word, to convict the world in regard to sin, and to point us, drive us to Christ for our forgiveness.  Jesus' kingdom is a kingdom not only of power, but also of grace.  It is a kingdom exercised in the church, through the proclamation of the Good News, and through the administration of the Sacraments.  You want to see Jesus as king? See him in the water of baptism, claiming sinners as his own.  See him under humble bread and wine, his body and blood truly present.  The king has come, and the king still comes to his people to rule, and to protect.

But the king will come again.  He will come again in glory, to judge both the living and the dead.  And his kingdom will have no end.  We think on this at the end of the church year, and also at its beginning, in Advent.  He came, he comes, and will come again.  And when he comes again it will not be in humility but in all the glory of God that is rightly his.  All eyes will see him.  There will be no mistaking it.  And, we are told, every knee shall bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.  Every knee will bow, either in faith as his righteous children and loyal subjects, or in fear of the just punishment to come for those that reject his grace.

St. Paul wrote to Timothy from prison,

Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound! Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. The saying is trustworthy, for:

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him;  (2 Timothy 2:8-12a)

Take heart, you loyal subjects, for you also share in this reign.  For you are a priesthood after your great high priest, and you are a royal priesthood, for your priest is also the king.  And his reign and rule he shares with those who are his own.  We have what even the angels cannot claim, a promised crown of righteousness awaiting us in glory.  We have access to the king forever, who will dwell among us and has become and will always remain one of us.  True God, True Man, Prophet, Priest and King forever.  Join the angels, the prophets, the apostles, the martyrs and all the saints of God in singing the praises of our King, for he has done all things well.

Sermon - Christmas Eve - John 1:1-14 (15-18)

“Word, Light, Life.”
John 1:1-14 (15-18)
Christmas Eve 2015

In the beginning...

John begins his Gospel of Jesus Christ with the same words that start the creation account of Genesis.  “In the beginning”.  It's no accident, of course.  The same Son of God who was there in the beginning is the one who comes in the flesh to save us.  His origins are from of old, even, from the beginning.

Quantum physicists have tried to plumb the secrets of the universe, examining how the smallest particles that make up our world might fit together.  And using their admittedly extensive intellect they've come to the conclusion that everything had a beginning – at the Big Bang.  There and then, they believe, everything started with an explosion – and all matter spread out from a single point.  Of course, this is extrapolation.  No one was there to see it.  And when pressed, even they admit their best theories break down into absurdity when pushed to the limit.  Time itself becomes meaningless.  Thus far modern physics on “the beginning” (or at least, my brief summary of it).

But we Christians have another word about the beginning, and that word is Christ.  He was with God in the beginning, for he is God.  All things, therefore, begin with him.  By him all things were made.  Nothing exists that wasn't created through him.  Not even smarty-pants physicists.  Not even you or me.  

That this Child born in Bethlehem is the Creator of all things is not something to lightly pass over.  It's impossible to comprehend, really, that the ultimate being, the ground of all reality, God of Gods, Lord of Lords, Supernal, Eternal, All-knowing and all-powerful – would come down... (and down, fails to entail the fullness of this thing), that he would come down, to be one of us, to be conceived and born, born in the most everyday way we humans are.  That he would empty himself of such glory and majesty that even to look on him was surely death, but now he's a baby and everything that it means – crying, needing his mother, making dirty diapers and all.  God of the universe, here in time, for you.  The one from before the beginning, now makes his beginning as one of us.  Wonder for a moment at that.

Was the word...

And this agent of Creation is described by John as the “Word”, the “Logos” (in the Greek).  And how can a word be alive?  How can a word be eternal?  How can all things depend on this word?

In our everyday experience, words can mean little.  You say something, but you don't mean it.  You hear words, words, words... advertisements.  The latest political debate analysis.  The store checker trying to sign you up for their credit card.  None of these words mean all that much.  None of them are likely to last, to be remembered.  None of them will change your life, in most cases.  They're background noise.  But they are the words of man.

Furthermore, our words are tainted by sin.  We say things that aren't true, or aren't very nice.  We make  pie-crust promises – easily made, and easily broken.  We curse, swear, lie and deceive.  We talk of ourselves, when we should be listening to others.  We tear others down under the pretense of concern.  We repeat the lies of Satan that make us feel good about ourselves, and sometimes give only lipservice to things that we know should be said.  Our words are so often poisonous, bubbling out of the polluted heart and doing nothing but tearing down and spreading the chaos of sin and death.  We must confess with our lips, our unclean lips, that we are ruined if not for the saving Word of Christ, the very living Word of God.

The Word of God is in a class by itself.  This word is creative.  It made all things.  It is powerful, holding all the authority of the one who speaks it.  The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two edged sword.  It cuts both ways, piercing us with the law's accusations, but also severing us from guilt and shame by the Good News of Jesus Christ.  The Word of God is eternal – it is the first word spoken, and none of his words will pass away – even though the heavens and the earth will.  This Word stands alone.

And Jesus Christ is that living Word.  This is John's Christmas account – a more theological word about the meaning of the incarnation.  That in Jesus Christ, God became flesh.  And this is how it began.  Here in the manger, the silent Word is pleading for us.  Here in the manger, the Word that one day will be pierced by nails and spear, but still has come to speak a word of comfort.  A word of Gospel.

In him was life and that life was the light of men...

Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, is both Life and Light.

He is the source of all Life, since by him all things were made.  He is the Light of Lights, from whom even light itself has its existence.

Life mystifies the scientists and philosophers.  It's hard to define, and far harder to explain.  The search for life on other planets continues to be a quest that preoccupies many.  And the explanations of life's origin continue to elude even those most steeped in Darwin's theories.  How is it so complex?  Where did this information come from?  DNA, RNA, microscopic systems that exceed the most cutting edge technology we can design.  Wetware that far exceeds our hardware creations.  Life, which overcomes obstacles and seems adapted for every challenge to its existence.  Life in all of its wonderful variety yet miraculous order.  Let alone human life, in a category of its own.  A PhD in biology won't even scratch the surface of the mysteries of life. But we Christians know from whence life comes.  It is from him.  The life was in him, from the beginning.  The life that is the light of men.  And it is found in him, even today.

But life is not where we “live”, in our sinful nature.  The First Adam brought death.  And the Old Adam is a dead man walking.  We sinners know little of life, but we are well acquainted with death.  We see it all around us.  We see its effects creeping in on us.  We hear of this shooting and that cancer.  He dies, she is dying.  Though we often speak of it in whispers, or hide it in hospitals, or try to sanitize it with euphemisms.  We know well the wages of our sin.  It's like a dark cloud that follows us everywhere and eventually swallows us up.  

But Christ is the life.  In him is life.  And he brings that life to us.  Through, of all things, his death. But he is so much life, that death cannot hold him.  And risen from the dead, he gives life to all who believe on his name.  He gives them the same life, he makes us children of God.  We're in the family.  We're blood.  Not born of flesh and blood, but born of God.  Because he was born of flesh and blood, for us.

And light.  Another thing of mystery to the scientists.  It's nature, still not fully understood.  It's speed is constant, and nothing can go faster.  Yet it can bend and warp.  It's a wave and a particle, depending on when and how you're looking.  And yet, though one of the simplest and basic elements of creation, still its true nature eludes our brightest and best minds.  So common, so integral to our experience as humans, and yet a mystery.

Who can see anything without light?  And who can see anything without Christ?  Especially for us who sit in darkness.  Oh, like death, we know the darkness well.  Our sin loves the darkness, for there it thinks it can hide.  It skulks and snivels in fear of exposure.  And woe to anyone who tries to cast the light upon it!  Who are you to judge me!?  You've got your own sin, too!  So your darkness is worse than my darkness, I tell myself, and the darkness further obscures things for both of us.  

But the light of Christ casts out all darkness.  It shines through and not only exposes sin, but chases it away.  Purifies, vaporizes the darkness with the light of his truth.  The true light, the ultimate light, who gives light to all now comes into the world.  

John came, baptizing, calling broods of vipers broods of vipers.  Preparing the way and making straight the path for the greater one to come.  The one John didn't even deserve to touch his sandals.  Who ranks far before John.  The one whose origins are from of old, even from before the beginning.  John wasn't the light, but he testified to it, pointed to him, Jesus Christ the light of the world.  The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  The Glory of God now revealed in human flesh.

Some will see him, with eyes enlightened by faith.  Others will remain in the darkness.  He came to his own, the people who should have known him, but they did not.  And so many others who you wouldn't think would, would come to the light.  Some will prefer the shadows of sin and death.  But others will believe in him and live.  So for you: grace upon grace.  Life.  Light.  And an eternal word.

In the love and hope and joy and peace that God gives this Christmas, we see a child, born to die, a perfect little one innocent in every way, who is much more than meets the eye.  The Word made Flesh.  The Light of the World.  The Life of all mankind, wrapped up in this little bundle of Bethlehem joy.  Thanks be to God for this one, this Jesus, the Christ, who brings us grace and truth, even today.  In the beginning, at the manger, from the cross, and always.  In Jesus' Name.  Amen.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Sermon - Midweek Advent 2 - "Christ Our Priest"

Christ our Priest 
Exodus 19:1-8 “A royal priesthood”
Hebrews 9:11-22 “Christ appeared as a high priest...”
John 17:1-26 Jesus' High Priestly Prayer

So far we've seen Christ as our Prophet – fulfilling the Old Testament role of the one who speaks for God, and indeed who is the very Word of God.  He is the prophet to whom all prophets testify.

But our Lord Jesus Christ also fulfills the office of priest in a most excellent way.  Such that he is the everlasting High Priest of the highest order, a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.  But to get a better grasp on his priesthood, and why it is such good news for us, we again take a step back into the Old Testament.
The priesthood of Moses' brother Aaron was established with the sacrificial system at Mt. Sinai.  The anointing of Aaron as the first High Priest of Israel was a day of great joy for God's people.  
They would sing of it in the Psalm (133):

Behold, how good and pleasant it is
when brothers dwell in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down on the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down on the collar of his robes!

The priest, and especially the High Priest, we see, was especially beloved for he was a representative of the people before God.  He stood in the place of the people and offered sacrifices and prayers to God on their behalf.

Sacrifices – yes, the priesthood was a bloody business.  More akin to a butcher than a paper-pusher, the Old Testament priest was well acquainted with the blood of beasts.  How many millions of animals were slain on the altars of Israel over the years by the hands of the priests.  And why?  Why did the high priest, once a year, place his hands onto the head of the scapegoat and then send it out to die in the wilderness?  And then take another goat, kill it, and sprinkle its blood on in the Holy of Holies?  Why were bulls and rams and pigeons slain and sacrificed?  It was all for this:  for the sins of the people.  The wages of sin – death.  Sin means blood.
I often wonder whether the ancients saw this more clearly – how sin leads to death.  And seeing all these animals die... We've made death so clinical and sanitized it today, but it's only a thin veneer over the ugliness. We don't even like to think that our cheeseburger was once a cow.  But the priests dealt with death.  Day in, day out. 

For his part, Jesus is the priest to end all priests.  He came not only to make the greatest sacrifice, but to be it. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  Your sin.  Mine.  Everyone's.  Christ the victim, Christ the priest.  He willingly sheds his own blood, offers his own life, gives up his own spirit – for you.  
To save you from the bloodguilt of your sin.  To rescue you from a well deserved temporal and eternal punishment.  To satisfy the just wrath of God over your sin.  And to create in you a clean heart and a right spirit.

Jesus your priest stands before God the Father and says, “I stand in their place.  My blood for theirs, my life for theirs.  I have paid the price, I drank the cup, I have done it all.  It is finished.”

You see the high priest of old was anointed with oil, but Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit.  The high priest of old would wear bejeweled robes.  But Jesus was stripped of his garments.  The high priest of old would make his sacrifices year after year.  But Jesus died once for all.

Hebrews goes to great lengths to show us how Jesus' priesthood far exceeds all others, and how as the priest of the New Covenant, he sprinkles us with and purifies us with his blood, and so our sins are forgiven.  All the Old Testament sacrifices, while they dealt with sin, did so in a way which found root and fulfillment in Christ. Thus, no more temple sacrifices continue, as the true temple is Christ, and the ultimate sacrifice has been fulfilled in him and by him.  

But a priest is good for more than just making sacrifices.  He stands as a representative of the people, before God, also in prayer.  He sums up the concerns and petitions of the people and presents them on their behalf. He is a mediator in both word and deed.  An intercessor, a go-between.  A priest prays for the people.
Certainly Jesus prayed for us.  John 17 records his longest prayer, what is even called his “High Priestly Prayer”.  

There he prays for his disciples, and for the church that would be built through the Gospel they would preach. That they, we, would not be taken out of the world, but kept faithful while we remain here.  That we would have joy.  That we would be sanctified, made holy, but the truth of God's word.  That standing in that truth, we would also be united.  It is a beautiful prayer of spiritual blessings, notable for what he does NOT pray for as for what he does.  He doesn't ask the Father to keep us from ever suffering, or having to bear persecution.  He doesn't plead that we would all be healthy and wealthy.  Instead he prays, “keep them from the evil one”.  And finally, that we may be with Jesus where he is.

Jesus prayed often, not simply as an example for us, but he prayed for us.  Throughout his earthly ministry, in times of apparent success and through all opposition, Jesus prayed.  In his last hours before death, he took his disciples to a favorite spot for prayer – Gethesmane – Judas knew it well for they would often go there.  Even in the midst of his dying, from the cross itself, Jesus prayed to his Father, prayed for us, for our forgiveness.
But make no mistake. Even now that he is ascended into heaven.  Even now that he sits at the right hand of the Father and rules all things for the good of the church.  Even now that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him.  Still, Jesus prays.  He intercedes with the Father for us.  He is still very much our good and great High Priest pleading with his Father on behalf of his people.  

His people, by the way, who are also priests.  Even the Old Testament people were declared to be a “royal priesthood, a holy nation”.  But now we, too, New Testament believers – are called the priesthood of all believers.

So what sacrifices do we make?  Not for sin, that's certain.  Jesus has already done it all.  But we are told to offer our bodies as living sacrifices.  We lead holy lives in response to his holy word.  We serve God by serving our neighbor.  We offer sacrifices of thanksgiving, joyfully returning to God a portion of what he has given to us.  In your support of the church and the work of the Gospel, you fulfill this priestly role.
And prayer, too, makes us priestly.  We can go directly to God in prayer for he government and those in authority, for our neighbor, for the unbeliever, even for our enemies.

Even in the most frustrating moments of life, when you're at your wit's end, and you feel powerless to effect any positive change.  When you're beating your head against the wall trying to help someone, or solve some crisis of the day, you are still a priest.  You still have access to God through Jesus Christ, and that is no small thing.  You can, you are graciously and lovingly invited to pray to the very God of heaven who sits on his throne.  And we know our prayers will be heard for the sake of the one by whose name we pray, even Jesus Christ our Lord.

I remember with fondness old Helen, a dear 105 year old lady whom I would visit.  Her hearing had gotten hard, her eyesight poor, and her legs were mostly useless.  But her mind was sharp, even at her age.  Helen would often wonder aloud, “Why am I here?  What purpose do I serve?  All my friends and family are gone on ahead of me.  Why doesn't the Lord take me?  I'm no good to anyone!”  And I would gently remind her, “but you can pray”, and I know she did.  Even when all else fails, every one of us still claims this vocation.  The priests of God, the royal priests, pray to him through Jesus Christ.  We pray, young and old, rich and poor, a ceaseless stream of prayer rising to God like a pleasing incense ever rising to him.

Thanks and praise to Christ our prophet, who brings us the word of God, even his very self.  The prophet to whom all prophets testified.

And thanks and praise to Christ our priest, who offers the ultimate sacrifice of himself, and even still prays for us his people.  He is the Great High Priest whom all prior priesthood anticipated, and who has now come.
As we continue to anticipate his coming in glory, and look forward to celebrating his coming in the flesh long ago, may we continue to fulfill our priestly calling in loving response to his many and ongoing gifts.  In Jesus' name.  Amen.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Sermon - Midweek Advent 1 - "Christ the Prophet"

Christ our Prophet
Micah 5:1-5a “You, oh, Bethlehem”
2 Peter 1:16-21 “The prophetic word more fully confirmed”
Luke 13:31-35 “Oh Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets”

This Advent Season we meditate on the three-fold office of Christ, who is our Prophet, Priest and King.

We will see how Jesus fulfills these three Old Testament offices, which, like all of the Scriptures, testify to him.  We will draw on the saints of old who held these offices and set forth the pattern, but we'll also see how they reach their apex and perfection in Christ.  And finally, we will consider how, in each of these offices, our Lord Jesus still serves his people as Prophet, as Priest, and as King.

Today, Christ the Prophet.

An average person on the street might think of a prophet as akin to a fortune teller or psychic.  Someone who has a special knowledge, particularly about the future.  Maybe they can predict the outcome of sporting events, or tell you what profession you'll one day have.  Or maybe they can foretell the course of events on a national scale.  Nostradamus, guys like that, who write cryptic poems that people try to decipher in the events of history.

But the biblical definition of prophet is quite different.  Now, it is true that often the prophets of the Bible have a special knowledge, and can even predict the future.  But this message they bring is not one of superstitious origins, it comes from God himself.  It is not a vague and cryptic message to be decoded and shrouded in mystery, but it is as straightforward and clear as the Word of God always is – for that is the message they bring.  And while the role of the prophets is sometimes to tell the future, it is just as often to speak a present word to the people of God.  Repent!  Turn away from your sins, and turn to God today while he is near!  And so forth.

We might survey the prophets and some of their more notable prophecies:  You have the major prophets:

Isaiah – who warns both the Northern and Southern kingdoms of judgment, but also predicts a restoration after exile in Babylon.  He also shows the Messiah as a suffering servant of God.

Jeremiah – the weeping prophet who foretold the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, and then lived to see it.  But he also foretold of a New Covenant in which God remembers sin no more.

Ezekiel -  Who preached doom and gloom for both Israel and other nations who had mocked Yahweh, but also had a word of hope perhaps best seen in his vision of the Valley of Dry Bones, restored to life.

Daniel – who lived during the captivity and also received prophetic messages through interpreting dreams and receiving visions – and who prophesied the rise and fall of empires and the coming Messiah

Then 12 minor prophets, for example:

Hosea – who married a prostitute as a living object lesson that God's people where unfaithful to him by following other gods.

Amos – A shepherd and vinedresser from the South, turned prophet to the North – with a word of warning for those people.

Jonah – the reluctant prophet, whose 4 word sermon brought Nineveh, the world capital of wickedness to sincere repentance... an even greater miracle than being swallowed by a fish.  But even in this sign of Jonah, the prophet pointed to the Ultimate Prophet.

And Micah, who tells the Savior will be born in “You, oh Bethlehem, Ephrathah”.

Then those many other prophets whose messages weren't written as Holy Scripture for us, but some of whom we hear about, like Nathan, the prophet who stood eye to eye with King David, called him out on his sin with Bathsheba, “You are the man!”  And when David confessed his sin, immediately Nathan also spoke that word of comfort, “You will not die.  Your sin has been put away”

And of course Elijah, who stands for “all the prophets” and meets Jesus on the mount of Transfiguration.  Elijah, spokesman for God against the wicked pagans of his day, Ahab and Jezebel and their false gods Baal and Asherah.

All these men were “carried along by the Holy Spirit”, given the words to speak, inspired to write and act on behalf of God with a prophetic word – a word not their own – a word from God himself.

And there is one more prophet worth mentioning here, the last of the prophets, the voice of one crying in the wilderness “Prepare the way of the Lord”.  John the Baptist, who says of Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”  John, who preached a harsh word of repentance, and called a brood of vipers when he's see it.  But John who also preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  And who recognized the greater prophet to come, whose sandal he wasn't worthy to untie. Jesus says John is a prophet, and more, the greatest man to ever live – yet whoever is least in the kingdom is greater than even he.

Which brings us back to Jesus, of course.  The one who is the greatest because he makes himself least.  The one who is a prophet's prophet.  He is the one of whom all true prophets prophesy.  He is the ultimate bearer of the message, for he himself IS the message - the very Word of God by whom all things were made, the eternal word now made flesh and dwelling among us.

Jesus would speak all that the Father had given him, for his people and for our benefit.  When many came to him for healing and other miraculous signs, he would say, “Let's go to the other towns, so that I may preach there too, for that is why I came”.

Many received his message with great interest and even joy.  “What is this, a new teaching, and with authority?”  But others were offended at his prophetic word.  Even at his hometown, where he declared himself the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy, they tried to push him off a cliff.  “A prophet is never accepted in his home town”.

And while some today think that Jesus only message was one of love and cheer and no rough edges, he certainly could call down prophetic fire and brimstone.  He excoriated the pharisees, calling them whitewashed tombs and sons of Satan.  He cleared out the temple, even made a whip, and demanded his Father's house be a house of prayer, not a den of thieves.  He called a sin a sin, though sometimes gently, too, “now go and sin no more”.  Today, too, he calls you to repentance by his prophetic word.

But the best prophetic word that Jesus brings is his Gospel.  The good news about himself.  That in Him, the Kingdom of God has come.  That in him, the promises and prophecies of old are fulfilled.  That in him, the sins of the world, and your sins, are forgiven.

A prophetic word he spoke even from the cross - “Father forgive them...”, “Today you will be with me in paradise”, “It is finished”.  Yes, Jerusalem, which kills the prophets, would also kill the greatest prophet on a Roman cross.  But Jesus knew it, and prophesied it many times.  Take Luke 18 for example:

31 And taking the twelve, he said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished.32 For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. 33 And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise.”

One of the marks of a true prophet, then, is if his predictions come true.  But what prophet ever went so far as to predict his own arrest, suffering, death, and resurrection?  And then delivered on it, just as promised?  Only Jesus.

The God who knows both past and future, has provided a prophet for you.  He declares the sins of your past forgiven.  And he promises blessings now and in the future.  He speaks with all the authority that is his – all authority in heaven and on earth.  And while he speaks a word of law to show you your sin, that word is followed by his word of comfort.  In Christ, your sins are forgiven.  In Christ, your future with God is secure.

We know that some of his prophecies yet remain to be fulfilled.  He will come again in glory to judge both the living and the dead.  All flesh will rise and see him.  He will separate the sheep from the goats.  And of those that belong to him, not one will be snatched from his hand, but he will say to them, to us, “enter into your rest”.

Thanks be to God for Christ the Prophet, who came once in blessing, and will come again in glory. Trust in his prophetic word, for it will never fail you.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Sermon - Pentecost 25 - Mark 13:1-13

Pentecost 24
Mark 13:1-13
“Saved in the End”

You see this fancy temple? It's toast. You see these tall pillars? They're coming down. The Holy Place? Scrap it. The Holy of Holies? First they'll tear it down, then it will become a trash heap, then a shrine to a false god, and then, along with every other once proud and impressive location – everything will be destroyed. Not even one stone left on another.

Are you impressed by the things of this world? The Sistine Chapel? The Great Wall of China? Mt. Rushmore? None of it will last. Even the Pyramids, which have stood perhaps the longest – they'll be gone, too. Your house, your neighborhood, the Taco Bell. Your school, your workplace, even your church building.

It's that time of the year again, the end of the church year, in which the lectionary, for several weeks, sets before us these readings which point to the end. Call it the judgment day, the last day, the second coming of Christ. Or use the fancy term, “eschatology” from the Greek word “eschatos”, which means, simply, “the last things”.

Here in Mark's Gospel, were are again in Holy Week. Jesus is with his disciples in the temple, like so many others who have come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. Jesus has already been welcomed on Palm Sunday and greeted with “hosannas”. He's turned over temple tables, and his teaching is overturning the hopes and expectations for Jewish national glory.

Not only is Jesus not the military messiah so many expected, here to run out the Romans. He's the bearer of bad news: This place is going down. And so it came to pass. In 70 AD, not even 40 years after Jesus speaks these words, Roman general Titus puts down a rebellion in Jerusalem.
And he destroys the temple. Jews still mourn this event every year. Titus would go on to become Roman Emperor, and the arch which tells of his glorious victory in Jerusalem still stands in Rome to this day. But the temple, the temple into which so many Jews put their hopes for the future, has been reduced to one lone exterior wall.

So how can Jesus say “not one stone will be left” if, in fact, a whole wall remains? Because the prophecy isn't finished yet. The destruction of the temple was but a foretaste of the final destruction for which this corrupt world is destined. All of it will pass away. Vanish like smoke. Be rolled up like a scroll. Scripture tells us, and Jesus tells us, of a time to come when he will bring about a new heaven and new earth, and the old will pass away entirely. For us it is a day of victory and celebration.

But before that day comes, he has more bad news. There will be other calamities. And what a list it is! Wars and rumors of wars. Earthquakes. Famines. And maybe worst of all, false teachers.
Do not be led astray! Jesus warns us to watch out, especially, for those who would falsely come in his name. But this isn't just about crackpots who claim to be Jesus in the flesh yet again (though surely there have been quite enough of those!)

This is also about all who would come and teach falsely concerning him. Anyone who teaches against his word. Anyone who points you to yourself for your own salvation. Anyone who teaches you that his grace is not enough, and that you need to add your own work, your own decision, your own acceptance to the mix. Anyone who teaches you to despise his gifts given in water and bread and wine, and not receive them as he intends, for the forgiveness of your sin. Anyone who would teach that Christianity is all about Gospel apart from Law, or vice versa. Anyone who adds the teachings of man to the revealed Word of God. Even those who would cheapen God's grace in Christ by claiming that this sin or that sin doesn't matter, or isn't that sinful, and who call good evil and evil good. Beware! Watch out! Do not be led astray! Many will come, teaching all this and more, but they are not Christ. And it is not yet the end.

He warns the disciples of persecution. That they would be arrested and beaten and delivered over to death. Even families would be torn apart in all of this. And all who are with Christ will be hated for his name's sake. What an uplifting picture of the future Jesus paints for them, and for us.

Church history tells us that all of the 12 Apostles met a martyrs death, except for John – who was also persecuted and imprisoned. Jesus rightly prepares his disciples for the trouble that would follow them, even unto death. But these disciples, too, are but a foretaste of the persecution of the church and the birth pains of creation that would continue from then until the very end.

And we, too, live in those times. Yes, we are in the end times. The times of the birth pains. We hear of wars and rumors of wars. We see earthquakes and famines and false teachers. We see families torn apart and Christians hated for Jesus' name. The church has always faced these things, in one measure or another, in fits and starts, just like a woman in labor. When the birth pains come, then they recede, then they come again in greater force, then recede. We know how this goes. We know that the end is coming, it's on the horizon, it's getting nearer. But we can't say exactly when.

But Jesus doesn't tell us all this to scare us. He knows well enough that we have enough fear living in this fallen world. He's not simply trying to get us to wake up and shape up, and live a good life with the short time we have left. As if threats of the law could do that anyway.

But it should drive us to repentance. Repent of your attachment to the supposedly impressive things of this world, which is passing away. Repent of your adherence to anyone who teaches falsely in Christ's name. Repent of your fears of what may come, of who may oppose you, and your lack of trust in Christ. Repent, and believe in Christ!

And hear that Jesus is also speaking words of comfort to his dear flock, not one of which he means to lose from his hand.

“The one who endures to the end will be saved”. In other words: have faith. Have trust in me. For I have come to save. No matter how bad it gets. No matter what troubles may come. No matter what armies march into your backyard and destroy your homes and burn your churches. No matter what natural disasters befall you. Though the earth shakes it all down and the fields dry up and waste away. I am with you to the end. So endure to the end. You will be saved. I won't let you fall. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies. And he who lives and believes in me will never die.
Jesus endured all of this and worse, for you, on the cross. He knows what it is to suffer all, and to see your world come crashing down before you. He suffered the wrath of God for the sins of the world. Every injustice against every innocent. Every violence, every cruelty, every hatred – this man of sorrows carried it all on that wooden cross. And his sacrifice was for it all. The sins of the world. To save the world.

Though false teachers will come and give false words about him, his word, and his work. Yet he promises that his faithful people will not be without his Spirit. And that Spirit will give us even the words to speak before councils and synagogues and even before governors and kings. That word never changes. That word of the Gospel which shows Jesus Christ crucified for sin, to save the world. And that Gospel must be preached to all nations.

So rather than worrying about when all this will happen, it is enough for us to know that it will. And that Christ knows it, and is still going to save us. No matter how bad it gets, no matter what you must suffer now or in the future – Jesus suffered all, and has gone before you to save. He faced death, but conquered it. And now you share in his victory. He has saved you. And he will save you, even for all eternity. Cling to this word. Even to the end. Believe it for Jesus's sake. Amen.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Sermon - Pentecost 24 - Mark 12:38-44

What About Widows?
November 8th, 2015
Mark 12:38-44

Today's Gospel reading comes from Jesus' teachings in the temple during Holy Week.  In those days, he taught many things recorded for us in the Gospels.  But today, we focus on two main ideas – both which set before us the widow.

In the first, Jesus warns against the Scribes, who “devour widow's houses”.  And in the second thought, Jesus commends the widow who offered her mites, or small coins to the temple treasury.

Let's take a closer look at how the widows fit in to Jesus' teaching in today's reading.

For starters, some background on what it means to be a widow.  By definition, a widow is someone who has faced death, up close and personal.  Some of you, even here today, know what this means.  You've lived it.  To be a widow, then, as now, means weeping and mourning.  It is to face sorrow and grief, which may dull over the years but will hardly be forgotten.

The fact that we have husbands and wives who are separated by death after years of life and love together – is another dread reminder of the fallen, sinful world in which we live.  Without the sin of Adam and Eve, which we inherit and perpetuate, there would be no such thing as widows, for there would be no such thing as death.

In ancient times, far more than today, to be a widow also meant financial disaster.  As if the sorrow of losing one's husband wasn't enough, a widow was left without a source of income and support.  She was forced to turn to others for such help.  If she had sons, they would take her in.  But if not, a widow's grief was then compounded by her financial ruin, as she joined the beggars and lived her sad days out in destitution.  Widows and orphans are grouped together, then, as the poorest of the poor, and the most in need of the kindness of strangers.

Our Lord God has a special concern for the widow.  The term is mentioned almost 80 times in Scripture. But not everyone shared such a concern for these vulnerable individuals.  Instead, some, like the Scribes who Jesus warns against, even preyed upon the widows.

These Scribes were a piece of work for many reasons.  Jesus paints them as pretentious showboats who love the attention and adulation of others.  Who make a great show of their grand religious extravagance, fancy robes, long prayers, and the like.  But all of this is window dressing.  It hides the wickedness behind the robes, the evil that they do.  They exploit even the vulnerable widows for their own greedy gain.  Their religion is really a sham.  It is self-serving, not neighbor-serving.  Not only should we watch out for people like this, but we especially should not be anything like them.

But are we?  Isn't there a little scribe or pharisee in every human heart that loves to make a show of our own righteousness?  If not to others, then perhaps to ourselves?  Or even in our own mind, or we imagine, before our God?  Maybe we're not so bold as the scribes, but the temptations to tout our own spiritual achievements abound.  But it's just as much of a show.

Where God would have humility, our hearts are filled with pride.  Where God would have us serve others, we are only too happy to be served.  After all, we tell ourselves, we deserve it.  Where God would have us sacrifice of ourselves for the vulnerable and needy – we find twisted ways to take advantage, and shirk our responsibilities, neglecting those who need our help.

So then Jesus sat and watched all those who came to offer their gifts toward the temple treasury.  And it seems many made quite a show of it.  The rich, especially, who put in large sums for all to see.  Look at me.  Look at my good works.  But Jesus is not impressed.  Until we see the poor widow.  She comes with two small copper coins, worth only a penny.  Who knows if it was even enough to buy a single meal.  But it was all she had.  Her entire net worth.  And she gave it all.

Jesus commends her, and points his disciples to her example.  The others gave out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.

Again we are condemned.  Maybe we escaped the accusation of the law, and could make the case that we're not as bad as the scribes, those showboating predators.  But who among us can live up to the standards of this widow?  Who can give all they have?  She puts us all to shame.  Like the rich young man who went away sad because he had great wealth, are we not also condemned in comparison to this widow who gave all she had to live on?  How could she do that, anyway?

The text doesn't spell it out, but the answer must lie in her faith.

Man does not live by bread alone.  And surely this widow didn't have enough, even to buy bread.  But she was rich in faith, for she generous gift confessed her trust in the one who provides for our needs.  The one who cares for us, body and soul.  The one in whom we have life, and have it abundantly.

Jesus doesn't need your treasures, but he desires your heart.  Jesus doesn't need your mites, your dollars, your wealth or inheritance.  But he wants you to belong to him entirely.  And he would even give his all to make it so.  He purchased and won us from sin, death and the devil, not with gold or silver, but with his holy precious blood and his innocent suffering and death.  That you and I may be his own...

Jesus, a man well acquainted with grief and sorrow.  A man who knew the weaknesses and burdens we carry.  One who knew poverty from his humble birth in Bethlehem, and as a man had no place even to lay his head.  He who was stripped of all belongings, even the clothes on his back which they divided among themselves.  He who was deserted by his friends.  He who was forsaken by his Father.  He who was born of a virgin, and whose death pierced his own mother's heart.  But even in his death he cared for her, a widow, “woman behold your son, John, behold your mother”.  Just as he cares for all widows and orphans and beggars and all the bedraggled masses of sinners that ever looked to him for salvation.  He gives it.  He gives it all.

Elijah, a prophet of God, once cared for a widow and her son at Zarepeth.  She first showed her faith by hospitality, giving the last of what she had to live on to provide a meal for this traveling man of God. “Let's eat the last of it, and then die” she said.  Through a divine miracle, she was given food to eat, daily bread and oil that didn't run out.  So far our Old Testament reading today.

But the very next verses go on to tell how the woman's son died anyway.  Then she turned her anger on this wandering prophet.  But an even greater miracle was afoot.  For now the Lord would raise her dead son through this prophet.  Her weeping would be turned to joy.

Jesus is the greater son of a widow, and the greater prophet than Elijah.  His sustenance never fails or runs out.  Our sins never exhaust the supply of his merits, won a the cross.  He never fails to invite us to his table, giving bread and wine that are the very body and blood of God for poor, grieving sinners to eat and drink, and live.

And he who died for all scribes and widows and orphans and pharisees and even for you – also rose from the dead for you and for all.  He gives hope to all who mourn the wages of sin, to all who have tasted the bitterness of death, to all who are poor.

Therefore love one another.  Give generously to those who need.  Care for the least among you, even the widow.  And give thanks to him who gives hope even to the hopeless, and has comfort for all who mourn, even widows, whose Son died and rose to make it so, even Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Sermon - All Saints Day - 2015

All Saints' Day
Revelation 7:9-17
November 1st, 2015

Our text this All Saints' Day is from John's vision in Revelation – to be more clear, what Jesus Christ revealed to St. John. Revelation uses these word pictures to show us eternal truths of God's kingdom. Like the angel flying overhead with the eternal Gospel – which we heard about last Sunday. When did that happen? It's always been God's way – to send messengers who bear his message – and it will be that way forever.

Today, we read John's vision of the great multitude clothed in white. It is another anchor of comfort in the sometimes stormy clouds Revelation paints. A moment to exhale and be comforted by a picturesque promise of the blessings that His people enjoy in Christ. Blessings we enjoy now, and will enjoy fully in the age to come.

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages,

This is the church, of all times and places. It is a grand reunion into one body, now one visible multitude, of the many who on earth were divided by national borders, lines of lineage, and mother tongues.

They are innumerable. Like stars in the sky and sand on the seashore, the multitude cannot be counted by any of us (though certainly God knows its exact number). This is the final fulfillment of the promises to Abraham, for all his children by faith are now gathered into the final family reunion. Here, in glory, the church is one.

Sin, which had divided us in so many ways, is now behind us. No longer is the judgment of Babel enforced, in which the languages were confused and the people scattered – for God knew that if we were united in our sinfulness, no sin would be too great for our human pride to accomplish together. So just as he punished Adam and Eve with exile, for their own good, so they wouldn't eat of the tree of life and live forever in their sin, so he scattered the nations at Babel to prevent us from joining our wickedness as one.

But now, in the church's final glory, all is right again. Any rifts of division are washed away in the blood of the Lamb. All the national distinctions and ethnic tensions melt. And the language becomes one again. Just like it did at Pentecost. When each heard the wonders of God being declared in his own tongue. The Apostles preached the Gospel of Jesus to all people – and all people heard it as the Spirit gave them utterance.

So today, the church speaks and hears the same language – the language of the Gospel. That in Jesus Christ, all are one, all are holy, all are saints.

standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands,

Palm Sunday peeks its head out today, too. But this is a far better Palm Procession. For these branch-wavers are no longer crying “Hosanna”, that is, “Save us Now”, but they are singing to the one who HAS saved them. They are are not anticipating the one who rides the donkey just might be the Son of David come to save. They know full well he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
The Passover in Egypt pointed to him as a shadow. John the Baptist said it clearly. And Jesus fulfilled it fully, when on the altar of the cross, he made the perfect sacrifice of... himself. He is the perfect and spotless Lamb without blemish, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, the Lamb who once was slain but now lives forever enthroned in glory.

For they stand in his throne room. They are before him in his place of honor. And he rules there, from his throne, for their benefit. He is their advocate with the Father. He is the one intercessor of God and man. And he, the Lamb that was slain but now lives – is both true God and true man to eternity. He is one of them. He is one of us.

and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

They shout the triumph call. It's worth saying and worth saying LOUDLY. Salvation belongs to the Father and the Son. Our God who sits on his throne, and his Son, the Lamb. The Father sent the Son, and the Son completed the Father's mission. He died for all and rose again for all. He paid the price, fought the good fight, and conquered death once and for all. And the victory – it's ours. He doesn't keep it to himself. We share that in the triumph he won on our behalf. By pure grace, all that He has is ours.

And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God,

All creation joins the church in continual worship. Not even the highest ranking angels with all their mysterious might are immune from falling on their faces in the presence of God's almighty glory. The Elders – the 24 who represent the church's spokesmen in both Old and New Testament times – they too, join this heavenly worship. And the four living creatures – with the head of the man, the ox, the lion and the eagle – show that even the wisest and strongest and fiercest and swiftest of all creation defers to the majesty of its Creator. We are not worthy to even come before him. But he makes us worthy. Always and ever.

saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

The content of their praise, a sevenfold (a holy) song:
Blessing – We bless him from whom all blessings flow.
Glory – That mysterious quality of God that shows his surpassing worth
Wisdom – Omniscience – all knowing, all seeing
Thanksgiving – For we are ever-grateful for all his benefits, and he is ever benevolent.
Honor – The highest honor, which no medal can designate and no proclamation exhaust
Power – Dynamic, explosive, thunderous power to destroy and create at will
Might – The Lord of all hosts, or heavenly armies, who serve at his command
He is the superlative of all this and more, forever and ever. But for all the superlatives, we are about to see the most wondrous work he has done. An accomplishment to exceed them all.

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

And we have some heavenly catechesis here. “Who is this crowd of exultant worshippers?” John is asked. And like a child too fearful to offer a guess, he demurs, “Sir, you know”. And now the answer.
These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation.” And let's be clear – this is not some special group of elite believers who've earned a better heaven than you poor schlubs. It's not some particularly faithful and holy subset of Christians who faced trials way harder than yours, and thus deserve a more impressive reward.

We all must face, and daily do face the great tribulation. The great struggles and turmoils of the life of faith lived in a fallen world. Fear and doubt. Temptations of all kinds. Wondering, “how long, oh Lord, until you hear my cry?” Loneliness and sorrow and grief – and all other sorts of cross-bearing that the people of the cross have been given to do. Even the struggles against our own fallen nature – this is all the great tribulation. And we are troubled in various ways at various times. This is the church as a whole. This is the entirety of God's people. So it has always been.

But they are now those who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
They have come through the great tribulation. Their robes were soiled – sullied and stained by the stench of sin and death. Torn to shreds and stinking to high heaven, but certainly not fit attire for the very throne room of God. But by God's grace they have come through clean and clear on the other side, through the one who cleanses them, and cleanses us by His blood.

They have walked through the valley of the shadow of death, but with a Good Shepherd to guide them. Some were martyred. Some we cast down by the world. Some were persecuted for righteousness' sake. Some were cut down in youth. Some languished for years in ill health. Some were mourned but the world, but others were forgotten. Some suffered the senseless abuse of strangers, or friends, or even family. But all bear the baptismal seal upon their brow, the seal of him who died. And so they who toiled in Christ's kingdom now have blessed rest from their labors.

They bore crosses, for so did our leader who went before us and paved the way to heaven. But so also will they follow him into glory, and life eternal:

Therefore they are before the throne of God,
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.
They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
the sun shall not strike them,
nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs o living water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Here we find some of the most precious promises of all Holy Scripture.
These saints, all the saints, and that means you too – will be ever before the throne of God, serving him day and night in his temple. And God will shelter them with his presence.
Friends, there is nothing better than to be in the presence of God, forever. There in perfect communion with our Creator, paradise is restored – and even better. There aren't enough “veries” to tell how very good it will be.

The Elder speaks to John in poetic language of earthly provision: No more hunger, no more thirst. No more scorching heat. In other words, no more physical wants or needs. No more pain or worry about tomorrow. We'll have all that we need and then some. God will shelter us with his very presence. But it gets better.

The Lamb, Jesus, will be our shepherd. And he will guide us, not just to green pastures and still waters, but to the springs of living water. The river of life itself. And so death and all its sorrow become a distant memory for those in his eternal sheepfold.

And this tender promise, “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes”. Like a loving parent who kisses the child's boo-boo. God will, so very personally, take all hurt and pain away. And can we put on a finer point than that?

Jesus suffered all, endured all pain, cried all his tears for you. He knows your weakness, he knows your pain and then some (and then some!). He has answer to every drop of sadness that wells up and runs down your cheek. And he will wipe every tear from your eye on that blessed day when you re-unite with him and all the saints in glory. This is our hope. This is our future. This is his promise, and what a beautiful promise it is.

Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Sermon - Mark 10:2-16 - Pentecost 19

Pentecost 19
October 4th, 2015
Mark 10:2-16
"Christ on Marriage and Children"

Dearly beloved, Jesus speaks to us today of marriage. And while our culture has its own ideas about marriage, our Lord, who created and established it, knows and speaks the truth of it.

For the culture, marriage may be a blessed arrangement, a dream within a dream... romanticized and idealized at times, but also ridiculed as a sad end to the freedom and revelry of single life. An agreement between two people (or maybe more), now of any gender, to “love each other” whatever that means to them. It is meant to be permanent, kind-of. It is meant more for self-fulfillment than self-sacrifice. The wedding day becomes a show of self-expression, where super-hero themed outfits, sports idolatry and scuba diving officiants barely raise an eyebrow. But where, in it all, is the Lord who created and blesses marriage?

And so it shouldn't surprise us that divorce quickly becomes an option. So it was for the ancient Jews, so it is for the modern Americans. Jesus' teaching on marriage could not be more timely for us.

Single people – those not yet married – don't tune out here. For by leading a chaste and decent life you honor your future spouse. And to those who are widowed... you, also, are to keep marriage sacred even though death has parted you from your spouse. You, too, can still honor marriage by hearing Jesus' words today, and by upholding and supporting those around you in their marriages and families.

So we come to our text. The Pharisees can't trip up Jesus. He is the one who puts men to the test, not the other way around. So here, as always, their attempts to trap and trick him fail.

But there's more to this than Jesus besting them in a theological debate. There's instruction on marriage and family. There's teaching on sin and blessing. And there's hints of a deeper reality that comes in the kingdom of God through Christ – where the marriage is forever, and the children are eternally blessed.

Their question about divorce reminds me of my 7th grade confirmation students asking, “Is this a sin? Is that a sin?” It is the little legalist in all of us that wants to know what can we get away with? How far can I push the limits of the law, and still be good to go? Behind that is the assumption that if we simply avoid this or that, we can avoid sin and justify ourselves. If divorce is a sin, then just don't get divorced, and you haven't sinned. But if divorce is permitted, and all you need is a certificate, then get the paperwork and you're free and clear, right?

Wrong, according to Jesus. He takes them, and us, back to the source, the foundation of marriage – he takes them back to Eden. There, God created male and female. There, God instituted the one flesh union of marriage, and blessed it. There, and then, he established for us something that holds great blessing and something that should not be put asunder. So the question begins not with do's and don'ts, but with the free blessing of God for us. Sadly, we don't always receive God's gifts as the blessings he intends.

Jesus pulls no punches, so let's not either.  Yes, divorce is sinful. It is a painful reality in a sinful world. And it is a sin which Christians too often give a pass. “Oh they were just too different”. “They grew apart.”. “They couldn't make it work”. We treat divorce as something that just happens by chance. We say it's nobody's fault. But sinners do sinful things that lead to divorce. Jesus says it is because of hardened hearts.

And other sinners gloss it over, so as not to make anyone feel bad. But providing cover for a sin by acting like it's not a sin, is just as sinful. There's plenty of guilt to go around, and ample reason for all of us to repent. Even for those of us “happily married”, do we honor God's gift of marriage as we should? Do wives submit to and their husbands as to the Lord? Do they respect their husbands as they should?

Do husbands love their wives as their own bodies, nurturing and caring as we should? Do we lay down our lives for our wives? Paul's instructions for marriage in Ephesians could accuse us all. And if our marriage was compared to the scrutiny of our marriage vows, how many of us love, honor, and cherish as we should?

We all stand condemned. We all dishonor the gifts God gives. We all seek to put God's blessings asunder.

Jesus is not in the business of seeing people divided, separated, torn apart. He is about making whole, making one, reuniting and reconciling. Not only sinner to sinner, but sinner to God.

In Christ, God and man are made one – even in the person of Jesus. True God and true man – being of the substance of the Father, but conceived in the flesh of man in the womb of Mary. God and man are “joined together” in the incarnation, a not so subtle indication of his overall mission to bring God and man, once separated by sin, back together forever.

In Christ, God reconciles the world to himself. At the cross, even as his body is broken, Jesus repairs, restores, revives and renews. Even when we were enemies, outsiders, and wanted nothing to do with him, he sought us and made us his own.

We are united to him, buried with him and raised with him in Baptism. We are united with him and each other in the Holy Communion. There, we are together with angels, archangels and all the company of heaven. There, we are united in a physical but mysterious way with our Lord, with his Body and Blood.

What God has joined together, in Christ, let man not put asunder. Let man not separate. You see, for a Christian, marriage is much more than just two people who vow to be together until death. Christian marriage is a picture of the very union between Christ and his bride, the church. We are, all together, the bride of Christ. He is the ever-faithful bridegroom. We were the damsel in distress – the distress of sin and death. He is the knight in shining armor, our champion, who rescues from the dragon us and wins us a happily ever after.

And is it an accident that our text about marriage is followed by Jesus' regard for the little children? For one of the great blessings of marriage is that through the one flesh union, God brings forth new life. In the bearing of children, the two, quite literally, become one. Even as much as we are part of his bride, the church, so also are we, through Christ, children of God. And Jesus regards even little children.

I remember as a child of about 8 or 10, being given the great responsibility of ordering some lunch-meat while mom shopped for some other groceries. And so I stood at the deli counter, waiting for my turn. But the people behind the counter didn't seem to notice me, and only waited on the adults. Maybe they didn't think that I was old enough to do my own shopping. Or maybe I was just too short to see.

But Jesus regards the little ones. He has a special place in his heart for them. He touches them and blesses them, blesses even us. He gives us all blessings at the font. He brings us to himself, even when some would say the blessing isn't for children. He calls us his own, calls us by name, and commends us to the Father.

Receiving his kingdom like a little child means to receive him, Jesus, with childlike faith and trust in him to make it all right.

Our Lord Jesus Christ speaks teaches us today about marriage and children. He calls a sin a sin, and points us back to basics when it comes to what is right and true.

But he is also the one who brings forgiveness, for all who sin - for the divorcee and those who dishonor marriage in any way, for all those who are separated from God by our sins. He brings life to those whose lives are torn apart and in tatters. He brings salvation, renewal and reconciliation to all who receive him like a child, and look to the blessings of his cross rather than trusting our own devices. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one put asunder.... in Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Movie Review - "Pawn Sacrifice"

Pawn Sacrifice is a new biographical film about U.S. Chess Grandmaster and World Champion Bobby Fischer.  He rose to fame in the late 1960s and dramatically won the World Chess Championship in Reykjavik, Iceland in 1973, defeating Russian World Champion Boris Spassky.

Tobey Maguire plays Fischer, the troubled genius whose mental illness vexed and complicated his exceptional chess career.  Much of the dramatic force of the movie explores (even without words) the struggles of his paranoid and delusional mind, and the obstacles his illness presented both to his own goals, but also to those around him.

His lawyer/agent, Paul Marshall, serves as the main spokesman in the film for one of the underlying plot conflicts - that of the Cold War rivalry between the U.S. and Soviet Union - which lent far more interest and symbolic value to the event in the eyes of the world.  This aspect of the match should draw the attention of of movie viewers with an interest in history.

As a clergy-type, myself, I particularly appreciated the portrayal of GM Bill Lombardy, a Roman Catholic priest who served as Fischer's "Second" (his chess-training partner).  This character serves well to "interpret" much of the chess "stuff" for the non-chess characters (and the audience).  But I also appreciated the portrayal of a clergyman as a "regular guy", and yet also a man of wisdom.  So often Hollywood portrayals of clergy make us villains or fools.  I appreciated this approach.

Overall I'd recommend "Pawn Sacrifice".  I enjoyed it very much.

Sermon - Mark 9:38-50 - Pentecost 18

Mark 9:38-50
Pentecost 18
“Divine Amputation”

Did you ever use that little phrase, “I'd give an arm and a leg” for something? It means you really, really want something. So bad that you'd even sacrifice an irreplaceable part of the body for it. At least, figuratively. Yogi Berra, who dies this past week, once quipped, “I'd give my right arm to be ambidextrous”.

Now, obviously, Jesus doesn't want us to go around cutting of various parts of our body. But his strong words here are meant to jolt us out of a complacency toward sin. He is showing us in strong and certain terms that sin is a deadly serious problem. One that we far too often take far too lightly.

“It's no big deal” we rationalize. “It doesn't hurt anyone else.” “Just this once.” “No one will know.”

Think of the things we say to minimize and justify our sin. Or we try to change the subject or shift the blame. “Who are you to tell me what to do?” “Doesn't the Bible say not to judge?” “Hey, it's not my fault... it's that woman you gave to me.” or “The temptation was too strong. The Devil made me do it.” Maybe your favorite is, “I'm only human” or “Nobody's perfect”. Or if someone harms you, you think you can harm them back – tit for tat – take the law into your own hands.

Jesus would have none of this. For him, sin is a big deal. For the Father, sin is a big deal. He doesn't wink at it or ignore it. He doesn't excuse it or accept your lame excuses. He is a just and fair judge who does what he says, and punishes the guilty. Yes, but that's not the whole story...

Jesus would have us take our sin seriously. Serious as a heart attack. Serious as life and death. For that's what sin always leads to, death, that is its wages. And not just earthly death, but eternal death. Yes, hell is real. Most of what we know about it comes from the lips our Jesus himself. A place of unquenchable fire and everlasting anguish. One way of looking of it is to be “cut off” from God for eternity. And isn't it better to have a hand or foot cut off, than to be cut off from God?
Yes, according to Jesus.

But it doesn't seem like such a good idea to take the advice Jesus gives in our Gospel lesson today, does it? If you hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off. If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. And if we did take this word literally we might see a lot of blind and handless and footless people hobbling around. But to extend the principle further, if any part of our body involved in sin is to be destroyed, then there wouldn't be anything left of us. For we are corrupted, thoroughly, through and through.

And sin cuts us off. It cuts us off from God, and it cuts us off from each other. Think about how it is when there's a sin hanging out there between you and a fellow Christian. Instead of peace there's this gulf, a separation, a distance that seems like it cannot be bridged. Sin is what breaks relationships and puts people at enmity with each other. Sin is what creates “us” and “them”. And as Christians, we want no part of that. When your brother sins against you, Jesus says, go show him his fault - with the hopes he will listen and you will be reconciled. When you sin against your brother, confess it, ask for forgiveness, and be reconciled to one another in Christ.

But our real problem, our first problem, is that our sin cuts us off from our God. A holy God is by nature set apart from sin, sinfulness and sinners. We deserve to be cast out from his presence. We deserve to be exiled from paradise like our first parents were from the Garden. Our sinful nature and our own sins cut us off from God.

Our eyes lust and covet. Our hands steal and strike. Our mind is full of twisted thoughts and ideas. Our mouth, as James says, is a wild beast and a raging fire. And even the human heart, which so many hold in such esteem.... follow your heart, do it with all your heart.... Jesus says it is out of the heart that come all sorts of evil desires and thoughts. But who can live without his heart? So are we to die?

Yes. Die with Christ, only to rise with him. Only Christ can save our eyes and hands and feet and hearts. Only Christ can make every unclean, unrighteous member of this fallen human nature clean and holy and righteous.

For his eyes were closed into a death for us. His hands and feet were pierced and pinned to a cross for us. His heart and lips cried out, “Father forgive them”, even as his very life was fleeting. He was cut off by his disciples who ran and scattered like roaches in his hour of darkness. And he himself was cut off entirely – cut off and forsaken by the Father, “O God, why have you forsaken me?” And it was here, in Jesus' moment of deepest suffering that he himself experienced the worm that would not die and the fire that is never quenched. In a mind-bending eternal mystery he suffered hell's torments for all sinners of every place and time. And most importantly, for you.

So by being cut off, he saves us from being cut off. But God would still have the now-forgiven Christian flee from sin. He would still have us take sin seriously, and avoid in all its forms. And when we fail, when we ought to be cut off, to rather bring those sins in confession to the one who cuts them off from us, separates them from us – as far as the east is from the west. A continual cycle of contrition and faith, death and rebirth, repentance and renewal, so that we enter into our eternal rest with him whole and undefiled.

And this happens with salt and fire. Both preserving and purifying agents. Salt and fire here refer to that which God uses, those practical things, to preserve and purify us. It is by his the salt and fire of his Word and Spirit that he does these things. That he calls us and keeps us, that he forgives us and fortifies us.

Paul paints a picture, a grand metaphor of the church – as the body of Christ. Each member has its role to play. Each member needs the other. The eye can't say to the hand, “I don't need you”. The mouth can't do it all by itself. But Christ is the head this body. And by our baptism we are connected to him. If we were cut off from him there would be no life in us. But connected to him we have all the good things we need.

Sin is deathly serious. Its consequences are eternal. But thanks and praise to him who was cut off, so that we are not. For he makes us clean and whole, and connects us to himself and sets us at peace with one another. In Jesus Christ, Amen.