Sunday, December 25, 2016

Sermon - Christmas Day - John 1:1-14

Christmas Day
December 25th, 2016
John 1:1-14
“A Very Wordy Christmas”

We wish you a Merry Christmas.  A Blessed Holiday Season.  Season's Greetings.  Happy Holidays.  Have yourself a Merry little Christmas.  There are so many ways people greet each other in honor of this day.  But what if I wished you a “Very Wordy Christmas”?

The Word.  That's the central idea of John's Christmas account.  Unlike Luke's detail-rich account of shepherds and angels, inn and manger.  Unlike Matthew's focus on Joseph's dilemma and the angelic dream.  Here, John goes right to the deep theological meaning of the event.  There's no possibility of sentimentalizing this.  But there is great fodder here for profound meditation and rumination.  Consider with me, this Christmas day, these words of John's Gospel, as “the Word became flesh and dwelled among us”.

John is already hitting the notes of Genesis with the first few words here.  “In the beginning”.  That's how Genesis starts, and that's what the word “genesis” literally means.  John is evoking for us the very beginning of Creation, in which God spoke everything into being by his word.  “Let there be light”.  “Let there be fish, birds, beasts...”.  “Let us make man in our image”.

No this world wasn't formed when some naughty mythological miscreant opened a forbidden box.  We aren't the byproducts of a war between Marduk and Tiamat.  Nor is this just another iteration of the unending circle of birth and rebirth.  Genesis points to a beginning.  A time when the earth was formless and void, and God gave it form – by his word, and filled the void – by his word.  The word of God is the agent of all creation.  By this word, all things were made.

John tells us even more about that word.  He was with God, and he was God.  The word is eternal, and the word is a person.  The word is identified with the God who speaks the word... they are, we confess, of the same substance.  And so this eternal word is a living word, a word in which is also life – and light.  Just how all this is so is a mystery as great as the Trinity itself.  A ponderous enigma not really to be understood, but confessed by faith.  The mystery of the Word, the Son of God.

And then another word was given.  “You can eat of any tree in this garden, but not the one at the center – for in the day that you eat of it, you shall die”.  But the serpent tempted, the woman was deceived, and her husband also ate.  All that had been orderly and good was now corrupt.  Death came.  And we've been living with it ever since.

Our words are small and selfish and corrupt and failing.  They are not reliable.  They are unclean words that proceed from unclean lips.  They are words that flow from unclean hearts, and are accompanied by sinful actions and sinful inaction.  We are no better than our first parents in the garden.  We are just as deceived, in our flesh, just as disobedient to God's word.  We are just as deserving of his word of condemnation.

But before God even addressed the brand-new sinners in the garden, he had a word, another word – a word of hope for them.  For the serpent's head would be crushed by the woman's offspring, though his heel would be bruised.

This word, a word of promise, would unfold and expand throughout the pages of the Old Testament.  The prophets declared the outlines of a savior and his work – a suffering servant, born of Bethlehem, born of a virgin, a son of David.  The events of history painted a picture – a system of sacrifices that pointed to a final sacrifice, a bronze serpent lifted up for healing, the sign of Jonah – in the belly of death for three days... and so many more.

All these words, woven together in a blessed tapestry of prophecy and promise, all driving toward the blessed incarnation of the Living Word from eternity, born as a humble Jewish baby.  The Word became flesh. And here another mystery impossible to comprehend.

How can “the Word” be God?  How can a word be alive?  How can a word become flesh?  How can God become man?  How can light and life have their being in a word?  How can the creator of all things, the eternal Son of God, whose glory and majesty we can't even begin to comprehend, who stretched out the heavens and called forth from nothing everything that is, how can this incomprehensible glory be revealed in a newborn child?  One of us?

But there it is.  The mystery of the incarnation.  The wonderful fulfillment of God's ancient word of promise.  Salvation unto us has come.

God's greatest gift to the world came wrapped not in ribbons and bows, but in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger.  God's plan of salvation was not accomplished with swords of steel or bolts of lightning, but with a word made flesh, and that flesh offered in sacrifice.  This living word was born to die, to give his life as a ransom for many.  This living word, in which was the light of men, would submit to the darkness of death to shine the bright beams of salvation upon us.  But this living word would never be silenced, even by death, for he rose and lives for all eternity.  And his word goes forth – from Jerusalem, to Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

The word, the word... the word that today proclaims your forgiveness – not a word “about” your forgiveness, but a word that actually forgives you your sins.  An absolution so strong that it even unlocks the gates of heaven!

The watery word of your baptism, the triune name of God – Father, Son and Spirit – a word that holds sway over you every day.  A promise of adoption that still stands.  A washing away of sin that still matters.  A word of hope that will never fail.

And the words with which Christ gives to us his body and blood – words of institution – words which promise forgiveness of sins.  Far more than symbol or metaphor, these words are “mysterion”, they are sacramental.  They put the eternal word of God, the person of Jesus Christ himself, in yet another form for us – under simple bread and wine.  And as his words invite us to take and eat, take and drink, they also promise forgiveness, life and salvation.

Where would we Christians be without the word?  We'd be without Jesus, and that is no place to be.

That's the way it is for the world.  The unbelieving world that does not receive him.  That has no ears to hear this word.  Even though he made them, they don't know him.  The same goes for his own people, the Jews.  Though some did receive and believe, as a whole, his own people rejected him.  We see the haters and scoffers around us, today, too.  Sometimes we cower before them.  Sometimes we are annoyed or even enraged by them. But ought we not also bear witness to the light?

But to us, who have received this word, by faith, he gives the right to become children of God.  And in this way – he whose birth was a mystery and a miracle – he gives us a mysterious and miraculous second birth.  Not by blood, or the will of man, or the flesh – but we are born of God.  Born of water and the word.  Born by the spirit.

As you ponder the Christmas story, remember John's Christmas.  And consider the Word.  The word who was with God, who still is God.  The Word by whom all things were made.  The Word who became flesh, in the person of Jesus Christ, born for you.  In him we have seen the glory of God.  In him we are born anew.  Abide in his word, dear Christians.  And have a very “wordy” Christmas.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Sermon - Matthew 1:18-25 - Advent 4

December 18th, 2016
“Matthew's Christmas Prepositions”

Today we have the Nativity of Christ according to St. Matthew. It's shorter than the Luke account. We don't have all the details that Luke tells here. Instead, Matthew focuses on the dilemma of Joseph, the appearance of the angel and the naming of the Savior – Jesus, also known as Immanuel. It serves as a complementary account to the more well-known nativity told by Luke. And so both help us by painting part of the picture of the events surrounding our Savior's birth. Today I'd like to take a slightly unusual approach to this familiar Christmas text....

Abraham Lincoln, in his famous Gettysburg Address, spoke of a government “of the people, by the people and for the people”. They are powerful words that are still quoted in political speeches even today. Those little words, “of”, “by” and “for” hold most of the meaning in the phrase – even though they are lowly prepositions.

Well we Christians know something about words, and we especially treasure the Word of God. We pay attention to the grammar, and even the smallest words amongst God's words can play an important role for our faith. So today, I'd like to look at a familiar Christmas passage from Matthew's Gospel, through the lens of some important prepositions.

Our first preposition helps Joseph solve the dilemma he faces. The problem is this: his betrothed, Mary, is found to be pregnant. She had been away for a few months visiting her cousin Elizabeth, and one way or another, Joseph comes to find out that she is with child. You can imagine the thoughts that ran through his head – assuming that Mary wasn't who she appeared to be, and had instead betrayed him and his trust. She had broken the marriage, it seems, before it really even got started. She had put Joseph in a very difficult position.

According to Jewish law, the penalty for all this could be quite harsh for Mary. Joseph could have not only divorced her, but he could have done so in a very public way – putting Mary to shame as an adulteress. Some suggest that if he pressed, could have had her punished – even perhaps put to death.

But Joseph was a righteous man, and wanted to divorce her quietly. He was a man of faith, a child of God. He resolved to do unto Mary as he would have done to himself. He was making the best of a bad situation in the most godly way he knew how. And in this way, he stands as a fine example for all of us. He was being, in his way, Christ-like.

But he didn't have all the information. So the angel appears and fills him in on some very important things. And here we come to our first Christmas preposition: From. “That which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” In other words, this isn't a case of adultery, Joseph. This child is from God.

From God. Or we might translate “by God”. In these two words is summed up the central doctrine of the scriptures. Everything good that happens to us and for us is from God. He is the source of all things, the creator of all this creation. He is the one who works salvation – it is a pure and free gift from him.

By contrast, we could look at what comes from man. From man comes sin and evil. From the heart of man come wicked desires. From the mouth of man's unclean lips come unclean words. We bring nothing good of ourselves. We have only shame.

But from God comes good, despite all of this. From God comes Jesus, the Savior. From the Holy Spirit is conceived in the womb of the virgin a miraculous child – sent from heaven above – from the Father – to us.
Completely outside of and beyond this creation, Christ comes from God, though he is God himself. From the highest throne to the lowly manger. From riches to rags if it ever were. He comes. From there, to here, for you.

This is the mystery of the incarnation. That God takes the initiative in our salvation, without any human work or effort. By his Spirit, he sends his Son into the womb of Mary. Just has he calls each of us to faith by that same Spirit, working in the word.

The next preposition is also a “from”. But it's an entirely different direction: “From their sins”. The sense is, “away from”

She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

And so we see that the significance of the birth of Christ is all wrapped up in the forgiveness of sins. Without this part – the forgiveness of sin, the saving FROM sin – none of this matters much at all. But this child from heaven is here to bring us away from sin, and back to the Father.

The name of this child is also from heaven, from God, through the angel. And the name “Jesus” is not just a favorite name popular in the Jewish mom and dad baby books of the day. Jesus means something. It means, literally, “God Saves”. Yah- Shua. And you will call him this, the angel commands, for a specific reason. FOR (there's another preposition) he will save his people from their sins. The name denotes his special role, calling, task. It tells us who he is and what he's here to do. Save us. From our sins. From our own sins. To save us first of all, from ourselves.

And he does it by a perfect life, and by a sacrificial death. He does it by doing everything well, and doing it in our place. He does it by earning what we couldn't, and paying what we can't. He suffers all, bears all, endures all – even death, FOR us.

And finally, he is not only FOR us, he is also WITH us.

“God with us”, the ancient prophecy gave this title to the Messiah, “Immanuel”. He is God with and among us. With us in the most intimate way possible – by becoming one of us. He's not just God in our midst, he's God made flesh, Creator becoming creature.

And he is God with us for us. That is, he comes in mercy, not in terror. He comes as savior, not as judge. He comes to bring us salvation. If God were angry with us and here to judge us, then his being with us would be terrifying. But this Immanuel is here for our good, our highest good.

And while we no longer see him, for his body is now ascended to the throne of heaven, still he remains Immanuel, God with us. He's with us by his word of promise - where two or three are gathered in his name. He's with us in baptism, by which we have “put on Christ”. And he is with us in the mystery of the meal – that bread and wine are divine body and blood – because he says so. Immanuel, God with us, even now, even here, even today. For our good, for our forgiveness, for our salvation.

As we mark one more Sunday of Advent, one week away from Christmas, rejoice in Matthew's Christmas account. And give thanks that this child, this Jesus, is FROM God. Rejoice that he saves you FROM your sin. And believe his promise, that he is WITH you always, even to the end of the age. Amen.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Sermon - Advent 2 - Matthew 3:1-12

Matthew 3:1-12
Advent 2
December 4th, 2016
“John's Call to Repent”

In much the same way that the holiday season brings visits from loved ones we may see once a year, today we have the annual Advent season appearance of John the Baptist.  And just as every family seems to have that one crazy uncle or aunt (and as they say, if you don't know who it is, it's probably you), so John the Baptist is a very strange character himself.

He must have looked kind of rough, living out in the Judean wilderness.  He won't be winning any fashion shows with his camel's hair outfit.  His cookbook full of locust and wild-honey recipes probably won't have a wide appeal.   And he's not going to write a book on how to win friends and make nice to pharisees – calling them out as a “brood of vipers”.

But for all of that, it wasn't John's oddity that gained all the attention.  And he was gaining quite a following, as, “Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him”.  What was it about John that grabbed everyone and made then take notice?  It was his message:

“Repent!  For the kingdom of God is at hand”

It's Advent.  Jesus is coming.  And John the Baptist has appeared again with the same Advent message, even to you and me:  “Repent!  The kingdom of God is at hand!”

Repent!  Turn from your sin.  What a strange message it must be in the ears of a world that is more concerned with decorations and presents and baking and parties.  Repent!  The world, if it listens to that message at all, usually finds it offensive.  Imagine the accusations John would hear today!  Judgmental.  Harsh.  Close-minded.  Bible thumper.  But John's cry still rings out, down through history.  Repent!  This is how you REALLY prepare for Christmas, for the birth of the Christ, for the coming of his kingdom.

And who likes to be told they are wrong?  Who likes someone rubbing your nose in your sin?  That's what the call to repentance is, first of all.  The pointing finger of John jabs past the holly and garland, through the evergreen potpourri, past the neatly wrapped boxes under the tree, and it stabs at the heart of our sinful nature.  Poking, prodding, touching the sore spot of sin that we so often pretend isn't there.  John's call to repent is an uncomfortable reminder that you're not all right, you're not just fine, and you stand under the judgment of a Holy God.  You've broken his commandments.  You've rebelled against his word.  You didn't eat of the forbidden fruit in Eden, but you chow down on all sorts of other forbidden pleasures.  And as a tree, your fruit is rotten.

And because that word is so sharp – repent – there's no explaining away our sin.  There's now softening its edges.  We can't blunt the force of the accusation or shift the blame or rationalize it away.  “Repent” leaves us no “out”.  It is a crystal clear call to turn away from sin.

And the threats are real.  The axe is at the tree.  The fruitless trees are to be cut down and thrown into the fires of judgment.  This is not just some slap on the wrist, it is the condemnation, the very wrath of God.

John anticipates their argument, “But... but... we're children of Abraham!”  Spiritual resting on one's laurels is no excuse for sin.  Claiming you are something when you are really nothing is a fool's game.  John pulls the rug out from under them, and us.  There's no refuge we can devise. There's no escape we can formulate.  There's no merit or worthiness we can offer to shield ourselves from the force of the law.

And there's only one place to turn.  The same pointing finger of John that calls out sin, is the finger he would turn to Christ and say, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  He preached repentance, yes, but a preaching of repentance, and a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin!  And let's not forget that aspect of John's message.

Yes, John was a harsh preacher of the law, whose words cut us to the heart even today.  But he also held forth the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ.  The “greater One” who as soon to come.  John's not worthy to touch his sandals.  John's baptism is preparatory, fulfilled in the Baptism of Jesus Christ.  John is a prophet, and greatest among those born of women, but greater still is Jesus, the one who brings the kingdom of God to us all.

For his part, Jesus the “greater one” makes himself last and least in the kingdom.  He places himself under the axe of judgment.  And lays down his life on the tree of the cross.  But this tree does bear fruit – abundantly.  The fruits of the cross – the body and blood of Jesus – are offered here, to you, even today.  The forgiveness of sins Jesus procured for us there, is also freely given here.

John. Like any good preacher worth his salt, is really not about himself, but about pointing sinners to Jesus.  Calling sinners to repent, turn from sin, and turn TO Jesus Christ in faith.  

Really that's the other part of repentance.  It's not just turning from sin, it's turning TO Christ in faith.  If repentance was only feeling contrition, being sorry for our sin, then we would still be lost in despair, for there is no way to dig ourselves out of sin's pit.  But faith turns its eyes to the only one who can save.  And Jesus brings us out of the pit, even out of the grave, restoring us not just to neutrality – but to a place in the kingdom, even in his family.

You might be tempted to think that repentance is something you do – but it really isn't.  It's a change of mind and heart that is worked by the Holy Spirit.  It happens when he works through God's law to convict you of sin, and when he awakens and strengthens faith in you by the gospel.  We confess, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength, believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him...”.  And that goes for repentance, too.  Even this is a work of God, a gift from God.

Repent!  It's also a daily call for the Christian.  For each day, we return to our baptism:

For what does such baptizing with water indicate?  What does such baptizing with water signify?--Answer:

It signifies that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, again, a new man daily come forth and arise; who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever.

Where is this written?--Answer:

St. Paul says Romans, chapter 6: We are buried with Christ by Baptism into death, that, like as He was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.

So say hello again this Advent season to John the Baptist.  He calls you to repent!  Turn away from your sins, and turn in faith to Christ.  And live in the daily repentance and faith of your baptism.  For one even greater than John has come – Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God.  And through him, the kingdom of God is yours.  

Monday, November 28, 2016

Sermon - Matthew 21:1-11 - Advent 1

Matthew 21:1-11
Advent 1
November 27th, 2016
“The Manifold Coming of Christ”

If you just came to church today and heard our Gospel reading, you might think that someone had messed up the scheduled readings for the day. After all, Matthew 21 is the Palm Sunday reading – we usually hear that the week before Easter. Jesus makes his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, Holy Week begins, and soon his suffering and death are at hand. The crowds welcome him as the Son of David, but then turn on him and shout, “Crucify!”.

So what are we doing now, at the beginning of Advent, reading about Palm Sunday? Is this like “Christmas in July” only, backwards? What is our lectionary thinking today – beginning the Church Year with Jesus' donkey ride into Zion?

Perhaps it's best to review what Advent means – in a word, it means, “coming”. Jesus is coming. Jesus is coming as a little baby in Bethlehem. That's Christmas. He's also coming again in glory to judge the living and the dead. That's his second coming – and that's been a theme for us the past few weeks. Jesus is coming, and he's coming to Jerusalem in our reading today. He's coming to do what he came to do – to suffer and die, and save.

So it makes sense, really, that Advent begins with a very important beginning – the triumphal arrival of Christ to his people, to his city – marks the triumphal arrival of the Church Year anew. And so Advent begins in this way.

One theme of the Palm Sunday account is that it all took place in fulfillment of prophecy. Zechariah proclaims that the king would come humble on the foal of a donkey. And Jesus own words to his disciples – telling them where to find his ride – they also are fulfilled. But really, this is the fulfillment of God's longstanding promise of a Messiah – a king from the royal line of David. This is God's own appointed Savior – the Christ – coming to do what God promised he would.

He would suffer and die. That's not what many expected, or wanted. When Jesus comes, it's not always how we hope or the way we expect. God is full of surprises. But his word is always fulfilled, sooner or later – according to his will.

So what does it mean for us, today, 21st Century Lutherans standing at the turn of another Church Year – with Thanksgiving Day behind us and Christmas around the corner? What does Jesus coming to Jerusalem, or to Bethlehem, or in Glory on the Last Day... what does it have to do with your problems today?

Everything. For your problems come from sin. And Jesus comes to deal with sin. Your struggles and hardships, your sorrows and pains – all result from being a sinner in a sinful world. It's not that God isn't good, it's that we are evil – and evil is all around us. We should first blame ourselves. We have a hand in our troubles – our own sins of thought, word, and deed tell the story. From the garden of Eden to the place where you live – we humans sin, sin daily, and sin much. Sure we try to cover our sins like Adam and Eve covered themselves with fig leaves. But God knows what you do, he's not so easily fooled. So let's not fool ourselves.

An honest look at our own lives would show a mess that needs to be cleaned up. Like when holiday guests are coming and the house is a disaster – you do what you can to pick up, vacuum, make things look nice for company. But imagine someone just dumped a truckload of garbage in your living room and you have only minutes to clean the place. And the guest that's coming isn't just some family or friends – but the king! How will you hope to be ready? How will you be prepared for his coming?

You can't be. But the good news is that he prepares you. He prepares your heart and mind and spirit. He comes to you for that very reason. He comes to make you ready for his coming. He comes, to you, today.

Jesus comes to his people – not only as a baby, as a donkey-riding Son of David, and as a glorious omnipotent king – but he also comes to you today. He comes in his word of forgiveness. For when you hear his word proclaimed and preached – he is present, working his salvation. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.

He also comes in bread and wine that are his body and blood. Jesus is truly present here, in this place, in this simple meal, in accord with his word of promise. And with that promise, you who receive him receive his forgiveness, and life, and salvation.

The same Jesus who came as the Babe of Bethlehem and the Son of David riding a donkey, is the same Jesus who comes to you today in these humble forms. He promised, after all, to be with his disciples always.

And it is in these humble ways of word and sacrament - that he comes to prepare you for his glorious and final coming.

One of our advent hymns strikes many of these notes:
“Once he came in blessing, all our sins redressing:
came in likeness lowly, son of God most holy.
Bore the cross to save us, hope and freedom gave us”

but the hymn goes on – how does Jesus come today?
“Now he gently leads us, with himself he feeds us.
Precious food from heaven, pledge of peace here given.
Manna that will nourish souls that they may flourish.”

and then his final coming gets a verse:
“Soon will come that hour, when with mighty power,
Christ will come in splendor and will judgment render.
With the faithful sharing joy beyond comparing”.

As he comes to us sinners, let us repent of our wicked ways, and receive him with thanksgiving, who came and lived and died for us, who comes to us and forgives us, and will come again...

Yes, Jesus came – to Bethlehem, to Jerusalem.
Yes, Jesus comes – in the Word, in the Sacrament.
Yes, Jesus will come – in Glory, to fulfill all things.

Yes, he will come again in glory.... Advent reminds us that Jesus will come in glory to bring this fallen world to its conclusion. He will come, all eyes will see him. He will come in the clouds with great glory, with al the angels and the trumpet call of God. He will come to judge the living and the dead. He will come to make all things new.

Scripture tells us precious little about that day, but we know it will be our day of victorious, triumphant joy. The dead in Christ will rise and be gathered to him forever. Those of us that remain alive and in Christ will be changed into glorious bodies like his. The wicked will be sent away to the fires prepared for the Devil and his angels. But we will inherit eternal life, paradise will be restored. and the unending praises of the Lamb who was slain will echo around his throne in a new song that will never get old. Jesus is coming again. And what a great day it will be.

Until then we wait. We fulfill our callings in life. We watch and pray. We live the repentant life of a child of God. And we continue to receive him who came, him who comes, and him who will one day come again.

Hosanna to the Son of David. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!

Monday, November 07, 2016

Sermon - All Saints' Day (Observed) - Revelation 7:9-17

“A Vision of All the Saints”
Rev. 7:9-17

In a well-known movie, “Dead Poets Society”, Robin Williams played a poetry teacher at an elite boarding school for teenage boys. His unorthodox teaching style engaged the students in high contrast to the otherwise stuffy and straight-laced expectations of their parents and teachers. In a well-known scene early in the movie, he takes his whole class downstairs to the exhibit hall where he shows them old pictures of boys who attended the school in generations past. As the camera zooms in on these ghostly figures of a bygone era, the teacher tells the students to listen to their predecessors – listen closely – and you will hear them whispering, “Carpe Diem”, which of course means “Seize the day”. The teacher challenges his students “make your lives extraordinary”. It's all very poetic, and maybe even inspiring on some level.

And in a way, it reminds me of the picture we see today in our reading from Revelation. There, John sees in his heavenly vision, a picture of the church in glory. The eternal reality of the innumerable multitude of those who are saved – they who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb. They are from every tribe, nation, people and language. The span the whole of Christianity throughout space and time. They are, as it were, all the saints. It's a fitting text for this All Saints Sunday.

But if you listen to them, they don't whisper “Carpe Diem”. They aren't going to tell you to make your lives extraordinary. In fact they won't point you to yourself at all. Instead, they cry out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
They point you not to yourself, but to Jesus, the Lamb who once was slain.

It's his blood that proved the only detergent that could lift the stain of sin. It's his life laid down, and taken up again, that paved the way for their life and yours. It's his salvation, that belongs to him, that he gives to us, freely of his grace.

And so they are not a society of dead poets. Rather, they are a communion of saints, very much alive in Christ! Even the dead who have gone on before us live with him. For he who believes in Christ, even though he dies shall live. And he who lives and believes in Jesus Christ will never die.

Such is the picture of the church in her glory. It's a picture of all the faithful, Old Testament and New Testament. Jew and Gentile. Male and Female. Long gone, and not even born yet. And it's a picture of you, too, Christian.

For somewhere in that multitude from every nation, there's a face very familiar to you – a face you see in the mirror every day. If this is all the saints, then that includes you. For you, too, are washed in the blood of the Lamb. You, too, were buried with Christ, and raised with Christ in Holy Baptism. You, too, gather at the altar of Christ with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, and you share in the blessed sweet communion not only with Christ, but with all those that are in him. Even those who are already asleep.

All Saints Day is a reminder to Christians that we are saints – even while we are sinners. That we live in the strange paradox of this dual reality. Though I sin every day, though I sin much, though I sin by my own most grievous fault, God sees me as righteous through Christ. He sees me as, declares me to be holy and blameless. When God looks at you, he doesn't see or regard all the embarrassing realities of your fallen, corrupt and naked shame. He looks past the filth. Rather, he sees you clothed with a white robe of righteousness. It's as if he's looking at Jesus himself, and so he says of you, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”.

The Elder who interprets this vision for John, and for us, then tells in poetic verse that describes them further:

“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 of living water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Ah but it was not always so. There was a time when we were not before the throne of God, but were cast out into the exile of separation over sin. Not fit to stand in his presence, or enter his holy temple. Even when they were, only the priests, and only at prescribed times could so enter. But now, all are holy, all are in his temple, all serve him day and night, that is, forever. There is no more wall of separation between man and his creator. This is what heaven is all about. Sheltered in the presence of God. Does it get any better?

Oh in this world, we suffer. In this world we are hungry and thirsty, scorched in the flames of sun and heat. But this is more than just a typical August in Texas. These bodily sufferings are emblematic of the suffering all of us face as consequences of our sin, and as part of the brokenness of the world we have inherited. It doesn't stop at hunger and thirst and heat. We see all manner of infirmities, persecution, heartbreak, loneliness, conflict, war, addictions, injustice, abuse, disaster, poverty, betrayals, lies, mockery, depression and even death itself. What a world! What a vale of tears! What a wilderness wasteland!

How far we've fallen from the green groves of paradise God made for Adam and Eve. But Adam's sin touched all of creation, and as the head of it – so the body would follow. Adam's sons were brought forth in his, now broken, image, and they died. And Adam's world, entrusted to his care, would now spit thorns at him, and that was just the beginning.

But paradise lost is restored in Christ. What sin had shattered, Christ makes new. Through one man came death to the whole world, but through another man came life for all.

And so, with the Lamb as our Shepherd, everything is right and good again. No more hunger, thirst, or scorching heat. No more suffering and pain. And in his tender mercy, not only does he take away sin and suffering, but the picture is so up close and personal – he wipes every tear from our eyes.

Dear saints of God at Messiah. Christ knows your suffering. He suffered all – even the very wrath of God – to procure your salvation. He is not unable to sympathize with us in our weakness. In fact, he knows it better than we ourselves. The man of sorrows wept bitter tears for you on the cross, to take away all tears from you forever. And though in this world, while we are in the body, we still suffer for a time – those sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that is to come. For behold, he makes all things new.

No, I won't march you out into the narthex and show you pictures of the saints of old today, and whisper in your ear, “Carpe Diem”. But we will gather in a few short moments at the communion rail. And there we will join that great throng, the communion of saints. There we will receive that body and blood of the Lamb that makes our filthy robes white again. There we will join all tribes and peoples and languages gathered around his throne. There, we will have a foretaste of the great feast to come. And then we will add our voices of thanks and praise for the Salvation that belongs to the Lamb, the salvation that he works for us.

Thanks be to God for all the saints that have gone before us. Thanks be to God for incorporating us into that blessed communion. Thanks be to Christ the Lamb for his salvation. Praise be to the Father and to the Spirit enthroned with him.

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

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Sermon - Luke 18:9-17 - Pentecost 23

“Two Kinds of People”
Luke 18:9-17

There's an old saying, “There are three kinds of people in the world:  Those that can do basic math, and those that can't.”  (Think about it)

Today Jesus, in our Gospel reading, presents us with two people, and by extension two kinds of people.  And I don't mean “Democrats” and “Republicans”.  There are two kinds of people in the world.  Pharisees and Tax Collectors.  The proud and the humble.  The self-righteous, and those who claim no righteousness of their own.

This Pharisee.  His hubris is almost unbounded.  In his very prayers he expressed how full of himself he is.  “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”
First he begins by claiming superiority not just over the tax collector, but over “other men”, indeed, implying he's far above most (or even all) men.

They are extortioners, but not me.  They are unjust, but not me.  They are adulterers, but not me.  And then there's this lousy tax collector.  I'm sure glad I'm not like HIM.  Everyone else is bad and sinful and worthy of derision.  But not me.  If the pharisee were alive today, surely he'd have chosen a side in politics and convinced himself he was far better than the scum of the earth on the other side.  He would see everyone else's shortcomings, real or imagined, and count himself far better.

Because on the other hand, he brags to God, “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get” And if you pressed him, he'd probably prattle on and on about all of the other righteous outward deeds and works on his resume.  He'd probably sound a lot like the rich young man who told Jesus, regarding the commandments, “All these I have kept from my youth”

And then there's the tax collector.  “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”   First, he stands far off.  As if he's not worthy to be in the presence of other men, certainly more righteous than he.  He further shows his humility, by not even lifting his eyes to heaven as he prays.  Surely if he's not good enough for other men, he has nothing to show before God.  And his sorrow for sin is also shown outwardly in beating he breast, a very demonstrative expression of guilt and shame.  This man is broken.  This man is crushed by the law.  We don't know what his sin is, or maybe they are many.  But he is plagued, vexed, and tormented.  He can only beg God, “have mercy on me, a sinner!”

Could there be a greater contrast between these two?  Outwardly, the pharisee has his act together, and the tax collector is a mess.  Before man, the pharisee is a pillar of the community, and the tax collector is a low-life.  Ask any ancient Jew who you'd rather be:  the pharisee.  Ask them who would inherit the kingdom:  the pharisee.  But not so fast, says Jesus.

This man, the tax collector, went home justified.  For here is the principle:  whoever exalts himself will be humbled.  And whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

These men, who appeared so different, weren't so different at all.  For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  That means not only tax collectors but pharisees, too.  The main difference between these men was repentance and faith.  The pharisee was living a self-righteous self-delusion.  The tax collector saw the truth with clarity.  Neither man was righteous, of himself.  But only the tax collector who acknowledged his sin went home righteous.  For he fell on the mercy of God, and received that very mercy.

The application is so clear, my friends.  Put away your self-righteous delusions.  Don't think you can impress God with your fasting and tithing, or your church-going and volunteering.  Don't claim you've kept even the least of the commandments.  Don't pretend that you can stand before the withering accusations of the law and hold up for a moment.  God knows your heart.  He sees what's inside.  All the window dressing of good works may impress your fellow man, but God will not be mocked.  Sinful pride has nowhere to hide from the Righteous Judge of all.

Rather come before him in humility.  Own your sin.  Confess it.  Hold nothing back, but lay it out there before him.  “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  But if we confess our sin...  if we confess our sin.... God who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

The same Jesus who cleanses lepers and gives sight to the blind, the same Jesus who casts out demons and heals all manner of disease.  The same Jesus who responds in compassion to so many calls for mercy, even from a poor sinful tax collector  – This Jesus has had mercy upon you.

Jesus so often breaks the expectations of the world, and turns them upside down.  “If you are the Christ, save yourself!”  they mocked.  Ah, but he is the Christ, and his precise plan was not to save himself, but us.  He conquers by his own seeming defeat.  He destroys death by being destroyed.  He takes away sin by becoming sin.  And his cross, where he is shown no mercy -  is precisely how he is merciful to the sinner.

The final section of this reading also contrasts two kinds of people:  children and grown-ups.  Now in Jesus' day children were not idolized as they are in our culture today.  We have gone to the other extreme of placing many children on a golden pedestal, where they can do no wrong.  Some parents very purposely won't even say 'no' to their children.  Some raise them with the assumption that the child will know best how to choose his own values, and we adults should stay out of the way.  And many believe that children are innocent, paragons of virtue born without wicked inclinations.

But in Jesus' day children were often regarded as far less than adults.  Adults were the valuable and productive members of society.  People who have gained the wisdom of life the hard way – by living it.  People who understand and can grasp Jesus' teaching and interact, ask pertinent questions.  Many people, even Jesus' own disciples, couldn't be bothered with children, and didn't imagine Jesus would bother with them either.

But Jesus welcomes children.  He receives them, blesses them, and sets them before the adults as an example – not of good works – but of faith.  “The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these”  But why?  Not because the children are our future.  Not because they are morally superior.  But because they show us that the kingdom of heaven is passively received.  Jesus commends their faith.

And that faith is the same as the tax collector who had nothing to offer God but his plea for mercy.  These children had no grand life accomplishments.  They had nothing to boast about like the pharisee.  But they were excellent examples of receiving by faith all that the merciful Father gives.  They come to Jesus, and he blesses them, freely by his grace.

Truly, there are two kinds of people in the world.  Not some good and some bad – for all have sinned.  Some repent and some do not.  Some have faith in Christ, and some do not.  Some want to be grown-ups who can do everything themselves.  Some have a childlike faith that receives the gifts from the giver of all good things.  Some think they are something when they are nothing.  And some know they are nothing, but are made something by grace.  Two kinds of people.

Depart in peace.  Children, you have received the kingdom.  Go home justified.  In Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.


Monday, October 10, 2016

Semron - Luke 17:11-19 - Pentecost 21

Luke 17:11-19
October 9th, 2016
“Mercy for Lepers”

“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

“Well, friends, first you have to ask me into your heart.”  No...

“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

“You do your part, and I'll do mine.”  No...

“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

“Oh, but what have you done for me lately?”  No...

“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

“Go, show yourselves to the priests”.  In other words, “I'm way ahead of you, fellas.  The healing is already a done deal.  No strings attached.  I have had mercy on you, in fact I'm all about mercy.  No need to pay me for this, you couldn't afford the price anyway.  But receive this gift.  Just go and make it official, now, with the priests.”

So our merciful Lord, in yet another example of his great compassion, heals the 10 lepers.  He saved them, as only he could, from a fate worse than death.  For apart from the physical horrors of leprosy, their disease also made these men ritually unclean.  And even worse than bearing the shame of such a condition, they were cut off from society, friends and family.  The were exiles.  Castaways.  Dead men walking who were not even afforded the comfort of loved ones, as the grave stared them in the face.

But Jesus makes clean the unclean.  He heals the sick.  He brings even the dead back to life.  Leprosy is no match for him.  Nor is the root cause of all earthly suffering and disease.  Christ conquers death, by bearing its wages upon himself.  He goes to the cross!  He carries that cross outside the city.  And there he lays down his life as a ransom for many.  Into his own flesh he takes all that is or ever was unclean, and he casts it, with himself, into the darkness.  He takes it, even to the grave.  But there it stays.  For his part, a resurrection follows – and his body is restored not just to life but to exaltation.  And it is verified, shown not just to a few priests, but to all the witnesses of the resurrection – including at least 500 people on one occasion.

Of course, he does so also for you.  Sure, you may not see outwardly what those lepers did – the rot and stench of sin's consequences.  But surely, sin has left its mark in your life.  As you grow older, and your little box of regrets becomes a closet, and then a storage facility.  As you see the chaos sin unleashes in your relationships – and don't you go thinking it's always the other person's fault!  Sin may not bring leprosy, but it eventually rears its head in our aches and pains, our chronic and acute conditions, disease, and finally death.  You can only live in denial of sin for so long, until the wages of sin come due in the starkest fashion, and it's undeniable.

When you see it, when you know it, confess it, Christian!  Call for help to the only one who can save!  Beg for mercy from the one who is always merciful.  “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

And, of course, he does.  He heals.  He restores.  He cleanses.  He even bestows new life.  Although he doesn't always do so outwardly, in the fashion we desire and on the timetable that pleases us.  Even Christians, even the most faithful Christians, still get sick and die.  Christians bear crosses in this life – problems that sometimes have no earthly solution.
None of this means you aren't a Christian.  None of this means God has forgotten you, is angry with you, or is punishing you.

Sometimes all we can do is keep faith and know that God works in all things for the good.  Faith trusts that God knows best.  We walk by faith, and not by sight.  And faith also looks to the horizon, that final day when the dead in Christ rise, and our eternal inheritance is fulfilled.  Then we will see, in our restored flesh, the final “yes” to all God's promises in Christ.

And that prayer of the lepers, the prayer of blind Bartemaus, is the prayer, really, of all Christians - “Lord, have mercy!”  We prayed it already this morning in song, the “Kyrie Eleison”, Greek for “Lord, have mercy!”  It's always an appropriate prayer because it calls on the merciful character of God, and of Christ.  It trusts God to both know and do what is best.  It asks for help, not because we are worthy, but because faith knows that God delights in showing mercy.  So we can pray:  forgive me my sins, Lord have mercy!  Save me from death, Lord have mercy!  Bless the helpless, Lord have mercy!  Comfort the distressed, Lord have mercy!

But there's a second part to this story.  It's not just that these men beg for mercy, and Jesus grants it.  9 of them are, at least outwardly, obedient to his command – they set out immediately to “show the priest” the healing Jesus bestowed.  They are eager to get on with their lives, see their friends and families, perhaps get back to work and life as normal.  And can that be so wrong?

But the one, the one of the 10 returns and falls on his face, to give thanks.  And this one, a Samaritan.  The other 9 we assume were Jews.  But here is the outsider amongst the outsiders. The one who the Jews would expect to set the bad example.  But he alone returned to give proper thanks.

There's a reason that this is the text appointed for our Thanksgiving Day services every year.  This leper, now cleansed, this Samaritan, shows us by his example the pattern we ought to follow:  We see our unclean, wretched state.  We cry to God in Christ for mercy.  We receive the very mercy we need from Christ.  We return to him proper thanks for all his benefits.

Yes, first of all, even in worship.  The leper fell before Christ, that's what the word often translated as “worship” really means – going face down, prostrated.  We humbly, reverently, yet joyfully and thankfully acknowledge, first of all, the gifts and the giver.  This is the pattern laid out in all of scripture, in the Psalms - “let us come before him with thanksgiving” (Ps. 95), “Enter his gates with thanksgiving” (Ps. 100) “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, and his steadfast love endures forever” (1 Chr. 16:34) and Paul writes, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Col. 3)
A thankful, grateful heart, living in the Christian, is part of the fruits of our faith.  But it doesn't stop with simply saying “thanks” to God.  Faith also expresses its gratitude in love for our neighbor:  That we would show how much we appreciate the mercy of Christ by showing mercy to others.  That we would help as we have been helped, love as we have been loved.  A Christian does these things not to earn or gain what we already have – rather, out of thankfulness we exercise our faith in service to our neighbor.

Truly, we are nothing, and we have nothing apart from Christ.  We are just as bad off as a leper colony.  Separated from God by sin, and careening toward a pitiful death.  But here comes Jesus.  We cry out, “Lord, have mercy!” And he does.  We are made clean by his blood.  May we also return thanks where it is due, not only in word, but also in deed.

So you, too, rise and go.  Give thanks to God.  Your faith in Christ has saved you.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Sermon - Pentecost 18 - 1 Timothy 2:1-15

Sermon – September 18, 2016
18th Sunday after Pentecost
Hope Lutheran Church, Warren, Michigan
1 Timothy 2:1-15
Hope. In This Place.”

What a blessing and privilege to return here for Hope's 50th anniversary year. I thank you for the invitation, and for your hospitality. Brenda and I lived here in 1997 and 98 when I served as Hope's second vicar. It was a year of great learning for me, in which so many of you showed us great kindness. It's been great to catch up with so many of you. Hope Lutheran Church will always have a special place in our hearts.

Now, 18 years have passed, and much has changed, but much is the same. I see that Hope remains a place in which the Gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed in word, and the love of Jesus Christ is shown in deed. Throughout these 50 years this congregation has been blessed, and also been a blessing to many.

With that in mind, I'd like us to focus today on our Epistle reading from 1 Timothy 2. Here you have one of Paul's “pastoral” letters, written to Timothy, a young pastor for whom Paul had lots of helpful instruction and advice. You might say that Timothy was almost like Paul's vicar.

Last week, this series of readings from 1 Timothy began, and Paul talked about his own path to the public ministry – that he was a persecutor, blasphemer and insolent opponent of the Gospel – and yet even as the foremost of sinners or chief of sinners, he was saved by God's grace because Jesus came into the world to do just that – save sinners. And here we see Paul was appointed as an apostle to the gentiles.

Those of us who serve in the Holy Ministry can certainly relate. Each of us brings the baggage of our sins, our personality flaws, all our shortcomings to the office. None of us is Jesus Christ. None of us is even St. Paul. But nonetheless God appoints pastors, calls and ordains pastors, to serve his church, to preach his word, for the good of his people. He works through these imperfect servants to bring you his gifts – His Word of grace, Holy Baptism, and the Sacrament of Christ's body and blood.
So we have the Church and her Ministers – two holy institutions established by God for our benefit. And just as Hope has benefitted from the faithful preaching of faithful preachers these 50 years, so has Hope also served others by training and sending men out to serve in other places in that same ministry.

Just as Paul sent Timothy to be a pastor, and just as the apostles appointed men to preach in various places, churches were established throughout the world as the Gospel went forth from Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria and even to the ends of the world.

So too has Hope Lutheran Church, in Warren Michigan had a hand and influence in the preaching of the Gospel throughout the world – and in places near and far, Wisconsin, Texas, and Singapore... and many other places.

Paul writes, that men in every place should pray.... in every place... There is a universality to this Gospel message, its invitation for Jew and Gentile, slave and free, men and women, rich and poor. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and are justified freely by his grace in Jesus Christ.

But there is also a particularity to all this, too. You are a certain person, in a certain congregation, in a certain place. A location. With local people as neighbors, that is, those God places near you.

Paul also says here that Jesus is the one mediator between God and man. As a mediator, or a go-between, that means he takes your place before God. He takes the place of sin, the place of punishment, the place of the cross. And he gives you a place you could never have earned, a place prepared for you even in the mansions of Heaven. A place in his kingdom, even in God's own family.

And God sends you, his people, pastors – places them in your midst - to tell you this good news, week in and week out. That even though you sin, though your sins are as scarlet, in Christ they are as white as snow. That in Christ, they are as far away from you as the East is from the West. That in Christ, God remembers your sins no more.

For this we give thanks. For this we lift up holy hands in prayer. Yes, holy hands – hands that have been sanctified by the blood of Christ to pray - “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings... for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior”

You are, Christian, a part of something far bigger than yourself. You are, Hope Lutheran Church, a part of something far bigger than just a local congregation. You are part of the body of Christ in the world, and have been these 50 years, and God-willing for many more.

And in this church each of us has differing and varying gifts. In this church, each of us has different and varying callings, tasks, roles. Paul makes it clear here, the office of the ministry is reserved for men. Likewise, the role of childbearing is reserved for women (thank God!)
And it is through this godly calling that God brought salvation into this world – when the Son of God was made man, born of a woman. But there are many callings, vocations, ways to serve in response to His grace.

Some are musically inclined. Others serve the needy. Some give a hug when needed, others make a meal for someone who's lost a loved one.
Members of one body all – the hand and the foot and the eye and the mouth – all need each other. All have a part to play. All have a place.

You see, the church is a communion of saints – a community – placed in relationship with each other, to love and serve one another. And each local congregation is an expression of that. A gathering of believers to first of all hear and receive the gifts of God, but then also to share and reflect his love to one another. To bear one another's burdens. To encourage and strengthen. And to love whatever neighbor God places in our path in whatever way he has equipped us to do it. First of all, to those of the family of faith, but even to all people as we have opportunity.

I've lived in many places now in my years on this earth. Baltimore, New York, St. Louis, Wisconsin, Singapore, even Warren Michigan. Schoenner Ave. and 13 mile road. But whatever place I've been, people are really the same. Sinners all, just as fallen and frail as the next, facing the same grave that awaits us all. But Christians in every place are also the same – faithful people of God who trust in Jesus Christ for salvation. People who appreciate the good news he brings. People like you, at Hope, who know the grace of God in Jesus Christ, and seek to serve him by serving your neighbor. Thanks be to God for these 50 years. And God grant many more, for Hope Lutheran Church, in this place. Amen.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Sermon - Pentecost 17 - Luke 15:1-10

Sermon – September 11, 2016
17th Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 15
“Savior of the Lost”

24-year-old Welles Crowther was an equities trader at the World Trade Center on September 11th. He helped at least a dozen people get out, and then he went back in with firefighters to save more.  They later recovered his body in a collapsed stairwell.

Ron Bucca, a 29 year army vet who served also 23 years as a firefighter, entered the burning building to help in the rescue, and was last seen on the 78th floor of the second tower.  His remains were later recovered at the site.

Rick Rescorla, a security officer for Morgan Stanley, was responsible for saving more than 2,700 lives.   He sang songs to keep people calm while they evacuated.  He was last seen on the 10th floor of the South Tower, heading upward to look for any stragglers. His body was never found.

Why do these stories of heroism strike us so poignantly?  What is it about the self-sacrificial actions of the hero that lead us to honor them?  Perhaps especially for us as Christians, we see in these stories a picture, a reminder, of the one who left everything behind to save the lost.  They show us in a small way what Jesus Christ has done for us in the grandest way – laying down his life for the sheep.

“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it?”

Now, at this time, Jesus was only sacrificing his reputation in order to eat with sinners and tax collectors.  But he would soon give much more for many more at the cross.  Nonetheless, it's an opportune time to teach the Pharisees and us the true purpose for which he came.  He tells these two parables, and later in the same chapter, the parable of the Prodigal Son or the “Lost Son”.  So this chapter of Luke 15 has sometimes been called the “Lost Chapter”.

But are you, truly lost?  The Pharisees didn't think so.  They looked at the prostitutes and tax-collectors and said, “Surely these sinners are lost!  Surely they are outside the pale of salvation!”  And it befuddled them why a great teacher would give these ne'er-do-wells the time of day, let alone the courtesy of table fellowship.  What gives?

And in a way, Jesus agrees with them.  These are the lost!  The parable he tells compares them to the lost sheep who has wandered off.  Or the coin that rolled under the couch.  They are lost in their sins. They've wandered from the path.  They are not where they need to be.  But that is why he came!  Not to confirm the self-righteous in their self-righteousness, but to seek and save the lost!  He's the Savior, after all, and here's for those that need to be saved.  He's the Finder, who comes to find those that are lost.

So the question is, are you lost?

Sometimes, we don't see our lost-ness so clearly.  Sometimes we are like the Pharisees.  And if you don't see your sin, you won't see much need for a Savior.  If you can't admit you're lost without him, then you won't see much need for him to find you.  Because you think you've got it covered. Repentance, what's that?

Isaiah writes, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way”. And it is just so true.  The “99 righteous persons who need no repentance”  are not really righteous at all, and they do need repentance.  They are even worse off than the prostitutes and tax-collectors. They just don't see it.  Friends, don't let this be you.

Take a good look in the mirror of the law, to see just how lost, how far off course you are.  See all the little gods you make for yourself and bow down to.  See your negligent prayer habits and your too-casual regard for God's holy name and word.  Admit your inclination to rebel against authority, the murderous hatred that lashes out from your heart.  The lusts of the flesh.  The greed and avarice for things.  The way you drag your neighbor's good name through the mud.

We're such pretenders.  We act so often like nothing's wrong.  We've got it together.  We're not lost! Sin is no big deal.  We need to be convicted, called to account.  For only then do we turn from sin, and turn to Christ.

But sometimes, our predicament is clear.  Sometimes the building is burning around us and the smoke is choking us and the exits are blocked and there appears no way out.  And then when the voice of the savior calls out, “this way!” we are eager to hear and follow.  We may know we are lost when our sins are set before us, when they slap us in the face, when they weigh on us like a ton of bricks. Sometimes sins' wages of death stare at you with a cold gaze that makes you wonder if there's any hope at all.

And if this is you, then you need to know Jesus has come to your rescue.  He saves you not from a burning building but from the fires of hell.  He saves not just your life for a little while, but your body and soul forever.  He rescues from sin, death and devil.  He delivers from the very wrath of God. Because he steps in the way of it, takes it into himself at the cross.  And promises you paradise in return.

The Good Shepherd leaves all behind to find the one, the one that is lost.  But the mystery is that we are all lost.  And he comes to find each of us.  His saving work is without limits – for the whole world – and yet it is also very personal.  He seeks out the one, the you, who is lost.  He finds the sheep, but not to give it a beating for wandering off.  He's there in compassion.  And it's not just that he leads you home by example, oh no.  He picks you up, carries you on his shoulders, and takes you back home.

For he picked up his cross, and on it all the guilt and gunk of sin.  All the lostness of all who ever wandered away – he met there on Calvary.  Casting himself, instead, into the darkness of God's wrath, he became lost for you.

Or take the lost coin.  The woman lights a lamp and gets to work – there's no waiting till morning! This is urgent!  She tears apart that house, sweeping and searching, until she finds that coin.  How much more the urgency when God sends his own Son to seek and save us sinners?  He brings the light, he is the light, that shines in this dark world.  So we are not lost in the dark, forgotten in the couch cushions.  We are instead his own prized possession.  Won by his own sweat and tears and even blood.  Paid for with everything he had.

For this, heaven rejoices.  And so do we.  What a thought, that every time a sinner repents, there's a party in heaven!  When you see your sin and turn to Christ in faith.  When you confess and believe in the forgiveness he proclaims.  Even in the Holy Sacrament of the Altar, when Jesus' words invite sinners to come – and your faith says, “Yes, I'm a sinner!  I need you, Jesus!” - and you receive him, his very body and blood.  Heaven rejoices.  Angels do a happy dance.  For your sins are forgiven, and you are no longer lost!

Rejoice this day to repent and be rescued.  Rejoice this day to be lost and yet found.  Don't be like those pharisees, who pretend to have their act together.  Be like the rotten sinners who know it, but who looked to Jesus in faith.  For he is the Savior of the soul and the Finder of the lost.  And his love will never forsake, but always find you.

And rejoice with the angels and all the company of heaven that you are not alone, but that many other sinners repent and come to faith and come to his table in fellowship.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Sermon - Pentecost 15 - Luke 14:1-14

Humility at the Feast”

So the scene today is a dinner party on a Sabbath day, probably after the weekly synagogue meeting, in which Jesus is invited to dine with some Pharisees in the home of a ruler of the Pharisees. But this was no mere social event. The pleasantries and hospitality were colored by the shadow of the Pharisees' glare. Luke says, “they were watching him closely”. Jesus is under the microscope.

Who knows what legalisms and protocols there were to follow in that gathering? But be sure, the Pharisees were very concerned that everything be done the right way, just so. The food would have been prepared a day before, so as not to “work” on the Sabbath. They had laws upon laws to help them get everything right, and they followed them closely. “But what about Jesus? We've heard some strange things about him and his teaching?” And likely this dinner gathering was as much as anything, a chance to trap him. To catch Jesus saying or doing some pharisaical no-no. An opportunity to gather ammunition for the confrontation that was sure to come.

And, behold! Look! Luke, says, “there was a man with dropsy.” That is, a fluid build up or edema of some kind. Perhaps this was one of the servants who would have tended to the meal. Jesus shows his characteristic compassion and heals the man, but not without also teaching the Pharisees a lesson. “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” Silence. Crickets. Now they are the ones in the trap. But he presses them more, “Which of you, if your son, or even your ox, falls into a well on a Sabbath day, will you not pull him out?”

This same Jesus would later clarify that the Sabbath was made for man. But these Pharisees got it backwards. Their whole approach to the Sabbath, indeed their conception of God himself, was entirely upside-down. Their religious observances and self-righteous piety were absolutely backwards. And Jesus is here to set them straight. And you and me, too.

He goes on to tell a parable. He sees the way these proud men are jockeying for position – seeking the higher and more honorable places at table. It's one of the favorite past-times of the sinner. Comparing our status with others. Keeping up with and surpassing, if we can, our neighbors. Making ourselves look good. Looking out for #1. A selfishness and self-righteousness that rears its head in multiple ways, but always lurks in our dark heart. And at our core, we would even de-throne God himself if we could. It's the original temptation. “You will be like God...”

Surely Jesus knew the Proverbs, and well could have had in mind this reading from our Old Testament passage today:

Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence
or stand in the place of the great,
for it is better to be told, “Come up here,”
than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.
(Proverbs 25:6-7)

But there is a deeper point here, too, than just a lesson in etiquette. This is not Jesus acting like Miss Manners. He's striking at the sinful pride of each of us. He's pulling the rug out from under us who think we are something when we are nothing. The Pharisees needed to hear it.

You and I need to hear it, too. You don't deserve to be at the head of the table. You don't qualify for the place of honor on the right hand of the host. Your sins make you unclean, and not just in a ritualistic pharisaical sense. We're talking about a blackness of the soul.

But our delusional self, our puffed-up pride wants to bend reality. Put all the perfume you want on a corpse, it still lies dead. Put lipstick on a pig, but that doesn't make a pig a prom queen.

Rather, take the lowest seat at the table. And you will find yourself exalted. Or even better, be like the gentile woman who confessed herself a dog, but whose faith looked for the crumbs that fell from the master's table. Jesus not only granted her request, but commended her great faith! “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled. And everyone who humbles himself will be exalted”.

And Jesus Christ knows about humbling oneself. He is the grand-master of humility. He came from the highest throne of heaven to take up residence in an animal feed trough. The Son of God became a man, and a simple, humble man at that. He had no place to lay his head. He had no particular beauty or majesty that we should regard him. He ate with sinners, associated with fishermen and tax collectors, and even stooped to wash their dirty, stinky feet.

He put aside his rightful crown of glory in exchange for a crown of thorns. He swapped the praises of the seraphim for the fellowship of condemned criminals. And this man of sorrows, when you think it couldn't get any lower, saw his own Father turn his back on him in the darkest moments of his suffering. And then Jesus died. Death is the great humiliator of all men. It brings us all low. He didn't even have his own grave, but had to rely on the kindness of others to provide this last bit of respect.

All this he does for you. His humility is your exaltation. His making himself low, brings you up, from the dregs of sin, from the darkness of death, into the light of eternal life and heavenly bliss. He took his seat at the very worse place – on the cross – to procure for you even a place in heaven, and a crown of righteousness.

And having been thus exalted, having seen the loving humility of Christ which brings us from sin's lows to heaven's heights, our love for the lowly can only grow.

In this last section of the reading, Jesus imagines the one who hears these words of his throws a banquet of his own, and invites some unusual guests. Not the high and mighty, the noble and the powerful. Not those who can do something for me, or bring me some benefit. But rather, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind, for they cannot repay you. And you will be blessed!

What a radical shift of world-view! But isn't this what has first been done to us? Weren't we, already, the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind? And hasn't Christ invited us to his banquet, and called us from the lowest place at the table to his very side? Now, you, go and do likewise. Show the love for others that has been shown to you. And let God sort out the rewards at the resurrection. Exalt the humble. Regard the lowly. Serve the undeserving, for so it has been done to you.

And so it is, even today, when we gather for the meal that Jesus sets before us in his Sacrament. Here we come in great humility, confessing our sins. With contrite hearts, and bended knees, we take our lowly places at invitation to his table. And he will lift you up. For here your sins are forgiven. Here are far more than crumbs from the master's table, but a feast of heaven's finest food. The very bread of life. Here is Jesus, for you.

Lay aside your sinful pride, turn from it, and come in repentance to the feast. Take the lowest place, the place of the sinner, and see how Christ will raise you up. For he became lowly, that you might attain heaven. And he calls you to humble service of others, for his name's sake. Repent and believe live in him. In Jesus' Name. Amen.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Sermon - Pentecost 14 - Luke 13:22-30

Sermon – August 21, 2016
14th Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 13:22-30
“Striving for the Narrow Door”

I saw a statistic this week that said, out of all the high school athletes who compete in swimming, you have a roughly 1 in 5000 or 6000 chance of making it to the olympics.  That's the numbers for men and women's swimming respectively.  That's also just for one sport – it varies of course by the sport, but in any case, to make it that far as an athlete you really have to overcome great odds.  And that's just getting there, whether or not you win a medal.

Today we have a question of statistics posed to Jesus.  He's on his way to Jerusalem, and someone asks him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?”

And as he often does in these kinds of situations, Jesus seems to dodge the question. Our Lord could have simply answered yes or no.  Or he could have said, “Well, I figure about one out of every five.” or, “it's really about 50-50.”  or “1 in 6000”. But rather than answer the question directly, as he so often does, he responds with what one needs to hear rather than what one may want to hear.  Of course, he always answers well.

And here the answer may well give a clue to the agenda of the questioner.  Why would someone ask, anyway, how few will be saved?  Likely, to comfort himself in his own worthiness.  Hoping to hear, no doubt, that the way is broad and easy and open.  And if that's the case, then I can rest assured for I am certainly better qualified than most people.  I pay my taxes.  I go to church.  I don't abuse my family.  Sure I have some little issues, but not as much as that guy or that guy.  So, I'm good.  I'll get in.  I just know it.

“Strive to enter the narrow door”.  At first this sounds like law-talk, doesn't it?  As if Jesus is saying “try really hard to do lots of good works, and earn your reward”.  Like an athlete who practices day and night, over and over, to get stronger and stronger... is Christianity a sort of spiritual work-out routine?  Sweating to the commandments?  Law-bo?

Is that what he's saying?

It better not be.  For if so, all of us would be automatically, and permanently disqualified.  Scripture is clear, as I ran across Psalm 14:3 again this week, “They have all turned aside;  they have together become corrupt.  There is none that does good, no, not one.”

Lord, will those who are saved be few?  Well, if salvation depends on your works and your merit and your level of qualification before God then the answer is, “NO one will be saved.”  Zero.  Everyone tied for last.  No medals, no trophies, no reward in heaven.  Only weeping and gnashing of teeth. Only being cast out by a God who doesn't know you, and isn't impressed with your weak and corrupt attempts to prove your mettle.  A just God cuts through all the baloney we tell ourselves, and applies his law to us with terrifying results.  Depart from me all you workers of evil!  And SLAM goes the door.

Well that's one scenario.  That's the way it goes if you strive to enter based on your striving.  If you think you can do it, you can't.  You need Jesus.

“Oh, but we know about Jesus!” some might say.  Jesus anticipates this, too.  Some will say, “Hey look, we saw you in the streets and heard you teach in our synagogues.  Some of us even ate with you!  C'mon Jesus don't you remember us?”  But knowing about Jesus means nothing.  It's not the outward acquaintance that counts.  Luther puts it this way:

“For even though you know that He is God's Son, that He died and rose again, and that He sits at the right hand of the Father, you have not yet learned to know Christ aright... until you also believe that He did all this for your sake, in order to help you!” (AE 30:30)

Faith in Christ is that narrow door.  And the door is in the shape of a cross.

Just as the people of Israel were spared from destruction by the blood of the lamb on the doorposts and crossbeam, so are the people of the New Israel, you believers in Christ, saved from destruction by the blood of the lamb shed on the cross of Jesus.

The kind of striving for the narrow door Jesus means is not an exertion of effort, but an exercise of faith – and that faith in him.  “Strive for the narrow door” means, “Have faith in me, Jesus!”

For he is, himself, the gate for the sheep.  He is himself, the stairway to heaven. He is the door.  He is the way, and the only way to the Father.  But what a way he is!

At first this way may seem narrow and hard.  But the mystery is this, when we finally despair of ourselves and trust in him – we find the door has been opened wide.  So if you are weary and burdened, he invites you to come and rest.  “My yoke is easy,” he reassures us, “and my burden is light”.

So how few or many will be saved?  Jesus says “people will come from east and west, and from north and south and recline at table in the kingdom of God”.  And that seems, after all, like quite a few!

Now we also see a few more things here.  One, salvation is for all people from all nations – north, south, east and west.  It's not just for good Jews who have all the right lineage.  Nor is it only for white bread Americans of German descent.  In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.  But he calls people from all nations with his wide-ranging and far-reaching gospel.  So there's even more hope for you, no matter where you come from.  Isaiah already saw this coming, as we heard in our Old Testament reading today.  And it is fulfilled in Christ.

And the second thing is that we find our fellowship in him at the table.  Reclining at table, that is, sharing a meal, in the kingdom of God.  The final celebration of God's people in glory is often pictured as a meal, even a grand feast.  But it is a meal that we have a taste of, even here and now.

Yes, he feeds us that meal – he gives bread that is his body and wine that is his blood - to all of us from the four corners of the earth, and throughout all the generations.  We are united as one in the great company of heaven.  Even those who have gone before us and now rest from their labors join in the great feast with us, transcending time and space and even death itself in Christ.

“And behold, some are last who will be first and some are first who will be last.”  In other words, some who you think have the least chance of salvation will be there.  But their sins won't be counted against them.  Their dark deeds will stand forgiven.

But others, who seem to have the best credentials will be left out.  Many will even be surprised by this!  What counts is not race, nationality, or social class.  What matters is not how big of a sinner, or how clean your record.  What matters is Christ, and Christ alone.  Faith in him – the narrow door.

That door stands open to you this day, in the absolution, in the proclamation of his word.  The meal is set before you this day, and he invites you to the feast.  The way to heaven, so narrow on our own, is open, always, to you for the sake of Christ.  Repent and believe.  For Jesus' sake.  Amen.