Sunday, June 14, 2015

Sermon - 3rd Sunday after Pentecost - Mark 4:26-34

“Two Seed Parables”
Sermon – Pentecost 3
June 21, 2015
Mark 4:26-34

What young schoolchild doesn't do that universal project?  You know the one, where you plant a seed in a little container, water it, put it on the classroom windowsill, and by the end of the school year it's sprouted and grown. What a lesson in how things work, and in patience and in how wonderful God has made this creation.

It's also a lesson about the kingdom of God. Jesus uses seeds again to tell us what the kingdom is like. And there's always something to learn from Jesus' teaching. Let's examine these two seed parables from Mark, and think on the kingdom of God as Jesus explains it.

The Parable of the Growing Seed
The first parable is about patience and trust. The farmer learns the same lesson the schoolchild does – after you plant and water, there isn't much to do but wait. We bought some plants to put on the back porch this year – tomatoes and peppers.  And every day I check to see how they're doing.  Nothing seems to change, day to day.  They look about the same. It takes time. It takes patience. It takes trust in knowing that the combination of seed and soil and sun and water will produce results. But when? And how much?

In the kingdom of God, it's the same. God's word is cast onto the soil – and it produces effects. The church does the casting, the planting of the word – but we don't know why or how it works. We simply share what we have received, and watch its effects grow. We don't understand it, but we trust God to make it happen.  That the word will have its effect, according to the promises of God.  It will not return void, but will accomplish what he sends it to do.

Through the Gospel, we come to believe in Jesus Christ. “Faith comes by hearing”. Through the Gospel, the Spirit calls us to faith in Christ. He plants the seed in our heart, and nurtures it to life. And it grows. When we are baptized, the word is spoken over us with the water, and faith is given – a gift and a miracle.  When we hear the message of the law, we are pruned and cut down.  But then by the good news of Christ crucified for sinners, he awakens and enlivens our faith. When we receive the Gospel in physical form – bread and wine that is his Body and Blood – he further nurtures the seed growing within us.

And sometimes (quite often) we don't even see the growth happening. With an earthly seed the change is too gradual to watch it happen. But with the seed of his teaching, and the working of his Spirit, sometimes it's even harder to see, maybe even impossible.  We Lutherans aren't so concerned to pinpoint the very moment of faith, the “hour I first believed”.  We leave that to God, and simply give thanks that he does it.

We can't hurry it along, either. God's timetable is his own. There is no spiritual Miracle-grow. But as the seed gives life, so does the Gospel. And we trust in God's power to bring about that growth, in his time, in his way. This is frustrating for us, as we see friends and family members who aren't where we'd like them to be. We see our children straying from church. We see husbands who sleep in or stay home while mom brings the kids to church. We pray for people that God would touch their hearts, make them see – help them believe or believe more deeply. And we don't see it.

Or, we look in the mirror. And you see the same old sinner that you always wake up to. Same old warts and blemishes. We'd like to be someone else. Someone more Christ-like. But sin breathes down our neck. It's a constant companion. Why can't we grow, grow more, grow more Christ-like? But God promises, “he who has begun a good work in you will bring it to completion on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” We don't see it, but we believe it. The harvest will come.

It is hard, very hard, for us, though to truly believe and trust that the Word of God will do what God desires, and that we humans don't have anything to add.  That we can't force it.  Indeed, some through history have tried to use force, even violence, to shoe-horn the Word of God into some sinner's heart, to make him believe.  Whole armies have been forced to be baptized by some wrong-headed Christian ruler.  But the word has quite enough power on its own, thank you very much.  And we can't add a thing to it.

Martin Luther knew this, too.  He once wrote:

"For the Word created heaven and earth and all things [Ps. 33:6]; the Word must do this thing, and not we poor sinners.... Take myself as an example. I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept [cf. Mark 4:26–29], or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philips and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.”

So it often happens for the effects of the word in the world, effects that we can see – but sometimes the effects of the word are only seen after death.

In another parable Jesus compares the resurrection to planting a seed (which appears dead and is literally buried). And yet that seed sprouts and grows at the proper time. The seed of God's word is planted in us, and perhaps we don't see any growth. Perhaps we even die. But we trust that seed will produce a harvest, even if it's only seen fully in our resurrection to glory – at the harvest.

And so we are patient through all the ups and downs of life, patiently waiting for God to fulfill all his promises to us in Christ. Patiently waiting for his good gifts, for the fulfillment of his plan, and for him to take us home to himself. Trusting that the seed will grow until the harvest.  If we look to ourselves we will be impatient and frustrated.  If we look to Christ and his cross, we are assured he who spared not his own Son will certainly make good on his promises, in his way, in his time.

The Second Seed Parable
The other seed parable we read today, about the mustard seed, further explains this mysterious gift of faith. Here the reminder – the small things of God can have great and wonderful effects. Just as the mustard seed, one of the tiniest of seeds, becomes a grand shrub where even birds can nest – so does the word of God produce a faith in us that has far-reaching effects.

This is a promise. It's not a command. If we were to sit about measuring and pondering our good works and the effects of our faith on others.... if we compare how much fruit we bear with the next guy, if we count and tally, focusing on ourselves and our accomplishments, we will always fall short.
But trusting in his word, we know our faith is not in vain. It is not for nothing. What seems small to the eye, may have effects we'll never know.

Take Christ himself – born to humble parents, coming as a baby, greeted only by shepherds.  A “regular” childhood, but he grew in the knowledge of God and in stature with man.  Still a simple preacher who called everyday people as disciples.  And who built his church not by the sword but by preaching his word.  Who saved the world not by flashy fireworks and awesome glories, but by laying down his life in humility.  The seed of the woman that crushed the head of the serpent.  The seed that died and was buried.  But the seed that would sprout again to life on the third day.

And notice he did even this by calmly leaving death behind him, and with no great fanfare.  But the word would spread.  That good news would grow, and spread and fan out to all corners of the world, so that even today, even here, you and I come to rest in the branches of the church in this place.  It started small, but through the small, the humble, the lowly, our God does great things.

A Word About “Church Growth”
Today, many are concerned about the growth of the church.  There's even a whole “church growth movement” that wants to use whatever methods possible to win new souls for Christ.  And many of these churches seem to have, outwardly, great success.  We drive by their massive buildings all the time, and are amazed at their grand parking lots brimming with eager worshippers.  It is oh so tempting to simply assume bigger is always better.

But so often these well-meaning churches and individuals simply look past the word of Christ, who says, “I will build my church”.  Some would even trade the clear teachings of scripture for more palatable doctrines, or little doctrine at all, so as not to offend and drive people away.  And some, in an effort to grow, and put more people in the pews, would even exchange the Gospel itself for more “practical” advice for living.

To this we must say, nothing is more practical than the Word of God.  To this we must say, nothing is worth hearing more than the Word of God, the Law in all its severity and the Gospel in all its fullness.  You are a sinner. And your sins are forgiven in Christ. Nothing but the pure and true seed of his teaching will do.

And only the growth that He gives is worth having.  For nothing other than Christ, and him crucified, can save us.  And we have been given to preach only this.  We must ever preach and hear the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ, receive and live by the blessed sacraments.  What growth God gives through these is always good, always enough, and always blesses.

Thank God for the seeds he plants in us and through us. Thank God for the blessings he brings through his word of Law and Gospel – the word which grows in hearts and renews spirits and minds. Which gives life – even when you can't see it. Which always, always has an effect for the good of those who love him.  And that God grows his church, in his time, in his way. God grant each of us the faith and patience to believe it. In Jesus' Name, Amen.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Sermon - Mark 3:20-35 - Pentecost 2

“Bullying the Bully”
2nd Sunday after Pentecost
June 7th, 2015
Messiah Lutheran Church, Keller, Texas
Mark 3:20-35

These scribes had come from Jerusalem, and they were trouble.  Perhaps it was to see what was all the fuss about this country preacher.  Investigating what was surely the latest fad of a self-made prophet type, getting the people all lathered up again.  In any case, they were there, and they didn't like what they saw, and especially didn't like what they heard.  They weren't there to learn from Jesus, to receive his preaching.  They were there to judge him and his teaching – and not too kindly.  But they couldn't deny the miracles he was doing.  They couldn't just brush off the fact that he was casting out demons left and right.  So they lobbed an accusation that he was really casting out demons by the power of the prince of demons himself.  He is possessed, they claim!  This could explain his obvious power, they must have reasoned, without them having to believe what he was saying.  Without them having to believe in him.

And they weren't the only ways to oppose Jesus.  His own family members were calling him crazy.  They said, “he's out of his mind” and they tried to seize him.  This preaching and miracle stuff is getting out of hand Jesus.  

So what answer does Jesus give to all this?  He starts out with some simple logic.  How can Satan cast out Satan?  How can a kingdom divided against itself stand?  How can a house divided stand?  Rhetorical questions which all should be answer:  it doesn't happen that way.  Jesus is not of Satan.  He's Satan's worst nightmare.

Nobody likes a bully.  Most of us have probably been bullied sometime or another in life.  It might have been a schoolyard lunch money extortionist.  Or it may have been a mean old manager at work.  Or maybe even a family member who pummels you emotionally, and leaves wounds far worse than bumps and bruises.  But the classic bully is the strong guy picking on the weak one.  Throwing his weight around to get what he wants, make a point, or just for the fun and sheer cruelty of it.  Nobody likes a bully, especially when you're on the receiving end of the bullying.

And there is no greater bully in this world than the Devil.  We can't stand up to his power alone.  Surely, if he was able to deceive Eve and somehow operate without Adam's intervention – when our first parents were without sin in paradise – then you and I who are conceived and born in sin, we are easy prey.  We fall for his lies so easily.  We are duped and enticed and led astray.  

And in a way we are held captive by not only our own sin, and death, and this fallen world, but also by the ruler of this world – the father of lies.  We may not be possessed in the sense of an unclean spirit controlling our speech and actions – but in our sin we are just as much under the Devil's sway.  Locked down into a solitary confinement of sin and death.  This is our starting point, fellow sinners.  This is where we are stuck without Jesus – bullied by the ultimate bully.

But we are not without Jesus.  So in Jesus' parable, there is the strong man – the Devil.  But someone else comes and subdues him.  Binds him hand and foot.  Someone is here to bully the bully!  And that stronger man is Jesus Christ.  First he defeats our enemy, and then he plunders the house.  And you, dear forgiven sinner, are the plunder!  Jesus comes to steal you away from the jaws of death, the fangs of sin, and the clutches of the Devil.  He comes and divides, destroys, brings ruin to the house of Satan, and all our enemy's power comes crashing down with a breath.  Jesus one, the devil nothing – the eternal score.

But how does he do this?  When does it happen?

Certainly, we must go to the cross.  There we see what appears to be a “not-very-strong-man”, but instead a man of sorrows dying under a curse.  There we see the one stricken, smitten, afflicted.  The one forsaken by God who can count all his bones, surrounded by dogs – pierced hands and feet – tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth, strength dried up like a potsherd.  There?  There's your strongman?  There's your defeat of the biggest, baddest meany of all?  Yes.  At the cross.  Where God's power is made perfect in weakness.  Where God's wrath over our sin is satisfied.  Where Jesus wraps it all up with the bow of a perfect declaration.  “It is finished”.

It began in Genesis, when the old serpent began his campaign of lies.  But the Lord calmly walked over there in the cool of the day, and made a promise.  The seed of the woman will crush your head.  And you will only bruise his heel.  Here (the cross) is the bruised heel.  But here, also is the crushed head of Satan.  Here is the lamb slain from the foundation of the world.  Here is the victory.  Here is your victory.  His resurrection proves it and seals it.  Death has no more sting.  And Satan himself is a serpent de-fanged, and roaring lion de-clawed.

Christian author J.R.R. Tolkein depicts this ultimate struggle in his Lord of the Rings novels, which are also popular movies.  In the final battle scene, the good guys are set to storm the gates of Mordor, the stronghold of the enemy.  There, the wicked Sauron – the seeming personification of evil – watches the battle from his dark tower with a creepy all-seeing eye atop it.  The army of men is surrounded by the armies of darkness.  The tension builds to a fever pitch as friends in arms begin to say their farewells.  There looks to be no way out. Hope fades.

But in one dramatic moment, the ring that contains all the enemy's dark power is destroyed.  Sauron's tower crumbles, his eye is snuffed out, and all his hellish armies scatter and flee.  The seemingly incontestable strength of this evil foe comes crashing down in a moment.  
This is what Jesus did at the cross.  And this is what Jesus does every time your sins are forgiven.  This is what happens when a child is baptized.  This is what happens when you “take and eat” and “take and drink” at his table.  The might of Satan is unraveled.  And his house comes crashing down.  When sinners repent and believe in Christ, and sins are forgiven, the angels rejoice, the Devil loses, and Jesus wins YOU.

He says, “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”.  

Don't let this part of the passage scare you, friends.  Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is essentially opposing the work of the Spirit.  And since the work of the Spirit is to call sinners to repentance and faith in Christ – this unforgivable sin amounts to, very simply, the rejection of forgiveness in Christ.  Don't pass by the fact that Jesus promises “all sins will be forgiven”.  Even blasphemies!  There is nothing you've done so bad, so wrong, so deep and dark that Jesus can't handle it.  The only eternal sin is turning away from him and his forgiveness.

And this victory that he wins, this forgiveness that he freely gives – it makes you more than just his disciples, or even his friends, it makes you his family.  For when his mother and brothers come looking for him again, presumably to rescue him from himself, Jesus teaches another profound truth.  Those who do the will of God are his family members.  And what is that will of God?  That sinners repent and believe, and have life in his name.  That your sins are forgiven.

Sometimes being a Christian doesn't seem very victorious.  We don't always “win” at the “game of life”.  We have our hurts and our sorrows.  We fall flat on our faces.  And even the devil, whom we know is defeated, still prowls around looking for someone to devour.  He still tempts us, and would see us fall.  And he loves to see you suffer.  He wants you to doubt your forgiveness.  He still asks, “did God really say...?”

More than that, Jesus promises we'll bear crosses, and be persecuted and that the world will even hate us because of him.  It doesn't sound very much like a victory celebration.  

But we walk by faith, not by sight.  Paul reminds us today, “things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”  Even if our earthly tents, these bodies, are destroyed (and unless Christ comes first, they will be...) nevertheless we have a temple – a permanent residence with God in eternity.  And our defeated flesh will rise again in glory to live forever.  This momentary affliction is nothing compared to the eternal weight of glory in store for us.

And so it happens again today, as it always does at his family gatherings.  We confess and are absolved.  The Gospel is proclaimed.  Sins are forgiven for the sake of Christ.  So all Satan's might has come unraveled.  The strong man is defeated by the God-man.  Jesus lives, the victory's won.  And that victory is yours.  Believe it for Jesus' sake.  Amen.