Monday, December 25, 2017

Sermon - Advent 4 - Luke 1:26-38

Advent 4
December 24, 2017
Luke 1:26-38
“Mary's Questions, Mary's Faith”

One of the main characters on the stage of the Advent season is, of course, Mary the mother of Jesus. It is likely the case that when St. Luke set out to write his gospel, he sat down with Mary for an interview. Luke tells us he endeavored to write a careful, orderly account of everything that had happened. And at the end of these first couple of chapters, he mentions twice that “Mary treasured these things up” and “pondered them in her heart”. While of course, the Holy Spirit inspired the writing of these events as he did with all of Holy Scripture, he likely worked through the recollections of a young mother looking back years after her son, the Messiah, had ascended into heaven.

As Lutherans we take a view of Mary which might not sit well with Christians on either side of us. On the one hand, we have some serious disagreements with Roman Catholics about Mary's place and role and status. Scripture gives us no indication that she was without sin, or was assumed, bodily, into heaven. Neither are we told to turn to her as an intercessor. We are careful to treat her, like all the other saints of God, not as one justified by her own merit, but only by grace through faith like the rest of us. However. Unlike many protestants, we still hold Mary in high regard and can even call her by the title, “Mother of God”, as we do in the Formula of Concord. But especially we know of her from the pages of Scripture, like today's Gospel reading, and those accounts show us that she was a woman of great faith, and therefore an example to follow.

Today I'd like to focus on this particular account, the Annunciation as it is called, and especially on the questions that Mary asked and pondered... as the answers, of course, are found in Christ.

What sort of greeting?
Perhaps you'll agree with me that it's more than a little odd how Mary reacts to the appearance and greeting of the angel Gabriel. Or at least what we are told about it. If an angel appeared to me, I would be shocked, awed, amazed... filled with wonder. I might fall down on my face as so many did – or be stricken with great fear. I would certainly be concerned with the reason for such a visit. Perhaps this is the angel of death? Is my time up? Or is this a warning from God that I'm in big trouble? And while the angel here says what angels always seem to say, “Do not be afraid”, it doesn't give us any indication that she was. In fact, the appearance of the angel itself doesn't seem to trouble Mary. But what does trouble her is instead – his words. His greeting. “Greetings, O favored one! The Lord is with you.” And Mary wonders, “what kind of greeting this might be”. She was “greatly troubled at the saying”.

Mary seems to me to be a thoughtful kind of person. The kind of person who ponders deeply – as she did for years the events of the nativity of Christ. She pondered the shepherds and their stories about angels. She pondered the strange visit with her cousin Elizabeth, and how the baby John leaped in Elizabeth's womb. She pondered Zechariah and the angelic visit he received. She pondered all these things, treasured them up in her heart. She must have continued to ponder this angelic visitor and his troubling words for some time also. But why would it be troubling?

Perhaps Mary was also keenly aware of her sin. For the sinner doesn't, and shouldn't expect the favor of God. At least in the sense that one has pleased God. I get the feeling that Mary's first question here has the sense of, “Well gee, that's nice, but why me?” Why a young girl from Nazareth? Like Nathanel would later say, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Mary seems to be asking, “Why me?” What have I done to deserve this? That's a paraphrase of Elizabeth's question when Mary visited her. It's a similar idea. What have I done to deserve such a gift? It's a confession of sorts, “I don't deserve such a gift”. “I'm nothing special. I'm no one worthy.”

We can sympathize, can't we? Why would God look at me with anything but disdain? I know my sin. My failure is always before me. Sure I keep it hidden from the world, because I don't want anyone to know what a scoundrel I really am. The things I think. The words I say. The things I do when no one's looking, and even when some people are. But God knows my sins – all of them – better than I do. He's God, after all. Why would, how could I expect to get away with anything? I deserve judgment. I deserve his anger. I deserve punishment.
So what kind of greeting is this? “You who are highly favored”. Well like I said, the answer is really only found in Christ.

Favor – the greek word is “Charis” which we sometimes translate “grace”. If you've ever heard the Roman Catholic “hail Mary” prayer, it begins, “Hail Mary, full of Grace”. Well she's not full of grace on her own, but like every true believer in God – she has his favor and grace, his undeserved love... only through Christ. You have God's favor and grace, his undeserved love... only through Christ. Though you are, in your sins, a scoundrel. Though you couldn't expect a just God to do you any favors, yet the merciful and kind God has done you the greatest of favors in Christ, the child of Mary.

That Mary had such faith is also evidenced by her next question. “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” Now, if you've been reading Luke's Gospel from the beginning, you might also find this a bit strange. Because Mary isn't the first one to see an angel, nor the first one to hear tell of a miraculous conception and birth. Zechariah, one of the priests, married to Elizabeth, a relative of Mary – he saw the same angel. And he heard a similar word – “your wife, though she is old, will have a son”. And Zechariah had a question of his own - “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years?” A very similar question to Mary's, “How will this be? For I am a virgin...”

But Zecharaiah's question was not asked in faith, but in doubt. He was struck mute – unable to speak until this word of God was fulfilled. Only when he confessed his faith by same-saying that the name of the child was John (scrawling that name on a tablet). Only then could Zechariah speak. And his first words after that were a Spirit-inspired song of praise.

Mary, for her part, believed from the get-go. Her, “How will this be..?” wasn't out of doubt. It was a simple request for information. She knew the normal way things worked, and that this wasn't normal. It didn't make sense. But her trust wasn't in her senses, it was in the Lord. This was an honest question of faith, how will this unfold? What will happen? Unlike Zechariah's question tinged with doubt.

But like Zechariah, she also responded to the news with a song, full of the Spirit. Only Zechariah had to wait to see the fulfillment of the promise. Mary took it on faith from word one. We sing both these songs in the church to this day – the Benedictus of Zechariah and Mary's Magnificat.

Some of us hear the word of God and believe it right away. Some of us have more struggles and doubts. Some of us may have even rejected it entirely. But the word still stands. The Law still convicts. And the Gospel still calls us to faith. And like both Mary and Zecharaiah, we too sing our faith in joyful response to God's promises. Because no matter the odds, or the appearance to our reason and senses, we trust in the words and promises of God in Jesus Christ. We are thankful when we see them fulfilled. And we are just as thankful while we wait for the fulfillment.

Where the doubters and the scoffers say it's impossible, the Angel Gabriel reminds us, “With God, all nothing is impossible”. Not a virgin conceiving and bearing a child. Not that God himself would become a human being. Not that this child to be born would save his people. Is it impossible that God would die for man, so that man could live for God? Is it impossible that a man who died would rise, that all die in him would also be raised with him? Is it impossible that he will come again in glory, and take us to our eternal home? Faith believes the promises, even when it seems impossible.

Mary believed. And her faith took on words – as she responded to the angel confirming that what he said would be, would be:
“I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me according to your word.”
What an example for us. May your faith say the same:

I am the servant of God. I'm not here to set the agenda, God, but to serve at your good pleasure. I am the Lord's servant – not his master, nor my own master. In humble faith I will receive your direction and follow it. May it be to me according to your word. What you say to me, Lord, is true. What you promise me, is certain.

As it was to Mary, may it be to you according to God's word: that your salvation is assured in Christ. That you, too, are highly favored, and full of grace. Find all of the answers to faith's questions in him, and know that with Jesus, nothing is impossible. In Christ, Amen.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Sermon - Midweek Advent 3 - Micah 5:2

Advent Midweek 1
Micah 5:1-6
December 20, 2017
“O Bethlehem”

You, O Bethlehem. Yes, I'm talking to you. The prophet Micah has got a word about you. Oh you're a sleepy little town, not worthy of note on your own. Just about the only claim to fame you have is being the hometown of King David. Sort of like Springfield, Illinois claims its most famous resident, Abraham Lincoln – but why else do you know or care about Springfield?

Bethlehem - You don't have the mighty temple, like Jerusalem. You don't have the seat of governmental power like, say, Caesarea. You're not a port city or at a major thoroughfare or crossroads. I mean, what can you say for yourself?

Well then there's that other prophecy about Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted. A prophecy of Jeremiah, the weeping prophet himself, because he lived to see the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Before they carried off the people of Jerusalem into exile, they had a staging area at Ramah – kind of like a POW camp.

The same Ramah, where Rachel had died in childbirth, and was buried. But when she died, she was on her way to Bethlehem. And so Ramah and Bethlehem are connected.

Later on, when King Herod killed the innocent babes of Bethlehem, Matthew's Gospel quotes Jeremiah. The comparison is this: Bethlehem and Ramah – these little towns are associated with weeping and misery – because of the death or Rachel, because of the deportation of the exiles, and because of the murder of innocent children by Herod. Any way you slice it, none of this is really a point of boasting for little Bethlehem.

But don't worry, O Bethlehem, for our God has a way of bringing something out of nothing. He makes the first last and the last first. He raises up the lowly, and humbles the high and mighty. And you, O Bethlehem, little town that you are, God has plans for you.

[You] who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
from ancient days.

You once brought forth a king, O Bethlehem. Though he was the smallest among his brothers, the youngest of 7. He guarded the sheep – fighting off bear and lion. He then proved his mettle when he took down the Philistine giant. But his mettle was not in his strength of sword or prowess in battle. He was a man after God's own heart. He gave God the credit for the victory. He knew going in God was with him. And afterward he kept no glory for himself. David lived by faith, as did all who lived and trusted God's Word, as do all believers, even today.

And now again, O Bethlehem, you are to bring forth the Son of David. The one who would rule on his Father David's throne. The one who would restore the fallen house to a mighty dynasty, the shoot from the stump of Jesse that would grow to a mighty oak. The people of Jerusalem would shout their Hosannas at his triumphant arrival. Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord!

But what's this – his origins are from of old? From ancient days? There's a hint, a glimmer of his true nature – his divine nature. For before there was, he was. He's the ultimate being, the very Yahweh. This is a human, but this one born in Bethlehem is also true God. He had his beginning here, but he also has no beginning and no end. His reign and rule are forever. His kingdom has no end.

But there's more, O Bethlehem. He's a Shepherd. Much like his ancestor David was a shepherd. But more, and better. He is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. Little shepherd boy David tended his father's flock in Bethlehem. The Good Shepherd Jesus tends to the flock his Father gives him – even the whole number of believers, the church – even to the ends of the earth.

Little shepherd David fought off the lion and the bear – all to protect his sheep. The Good Shepherd crushes the head of the Serpent. He stops the mouth of the roaring lion looking for someone to devour. He defeats even the dragon who would swallow him up – along with all of us. Our Good Shepherd is victorious, over sin, over devil, even over death.

And did you also know, O Bethlehem, that he brings peace? He is peace. Peace with God. Peace of conscience. Peace in the raging of all life's bitter struggles. The Assyrians – well they're just an example, a shadow of the many enemies we face. Fightings and fears within, without. Wars and rumors of wars. False teachers. Persecution. Nakedness, danger, sword. We are as sheep to be slaughtered, yet in all of it – more than conquerors through him who loved us. Through all of it, a peace that comes only through the Prince of Peace.

The wise men came from the east and asked old king Herod where the new king could be found. They'd seen your star, and it had led them this far. Herod's own wise men knew this ancient prophecy. The Messiah would be born in you – little Bethlehem. And so they went, and brought their gifts. These representatives of the nations laid their tribute before the king of the Jews and the king of kings. You, O Bethlehem, got to see it happen.

You are Bethlehem – which means “house of bread”. Isn't it fitting that the one born unto you, the one from of old, also called himself the Living Bread from heaven? The one who would feed the entire world with his own life. Bread, the staff of life, the most basic of foods, a most primary need – Yes, O Bethlehem, you are the house of bread, by bringing forth the one who gives life to the world.

And Ephratha, your other name, it means “fruitful”. You're the “fruitful house of bread”. Surely, here in the Babe of Bethlehem comes great fruitfulness. His fruits – his works – are righteousness. A fulfillment of the law, through a perfectly lived life. And the fruits of his cross – body and blood given and shed for you and for all for the forgiveness of sins. Well. These fruits are far better than the fruits of sin and death we've been eating since our first parents ate and died.

You, O Bethlehem. I guess there's more to say for you than one might think. Though you are small among the clans of Judah. Though no one's impressed with your population and pedigree and acreage and history. You have this one thing. You have the promise of the Messiah. And that's the best thing of all.

You, O Christian, have the same. In fact sleepy little Bethlehem, with not that much to say for itself – is like every humble person the Lord calls to faith. Little Bethlehem, among all the towns. Little Israel, among all the nations. Little old you and me, as insignificant as the world considers us to be. As worthless and despised as our sins have made us out to be.

Though you don't have much, and can't say much for yourself, of yourself - you really have it all. For the child born in Bethlehem is the Son of God born for you. The prophecy spoken by Micah, was spoken as much to you. Out of a backwater nowhere, God has brought his salvation to the ends of the earth, even unto Keller, Texas. Just as he created the world out of nothing, so has he brought salvation from next to nothing. For Christ is born for you, for me, for all. The Good Shepherd. The Bread of Life. Who gives us the fruits of his salvation. A Blessed Advent, and a Blessed Christmas to you, in him.

O holy Child of Bethlehem, Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in, Be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels The great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Immanuel.


Thursday, December 14, 2017

Sermon - Midweek Advent 2 - Isaiah 7 & 9

Advent Midweek 1
Genesis 3:15
December 6, 2017

Pastor Huebel mentioned Sunday that prophecy is just history written in advance. That is certainly true of these two famous prophecies from Isaiah. Some of the clearest and best messianic prophecies come from this prophet, and he is a regular staple of our Advent meditations. Today we'll look at two of these famous passages – Isaiah 7 and Isaiah 9.

But to do so, we'll need a little history lesson. It was a little more than 700 years before the birth of Christ when Isaiah the prophet lived and preached. At this time, the great kingdom of David and Solomon had sadly become divided by civil war into a Northern and Southern kingdom. In the north, most of the 12 tribes, and in the south you had Judah and Benjamin, but by far the largest was Judah. And so the prophets in these days of the Divided Kingdom refer to both – the Northern Kingdom, Israel, and the Southern Kingdom, Judah.

Though they had reached a peaceful coexistence with each other, the now divided kingdoms still faced threats from without. The Assyrians, in particular, were a very cruel, brutal conqueror. They were known for all sorts of atrocities that I won't even mention or describe in the pulpit. I've sometimes called them the “Old Testament Nazis”, but perhaps that's not even adequate to describe their cruelty to those at the tip of their spear and sword. In light of this rising threat, the Northern Kingdom, along with neighboring Syria, wanted king Ahaz of the Southern Kingdom to join their coalition – three small kingdoms against the evil empire of the Assyrians.

But Ahaz was a wicked king, and he sidled up to the Assyrians. He feared the big dog more than the smaller two, though he still feared them. But he did not fear the Lord God almighty. Isaiah's message to Ahaz was to trust in the Lord, not outside nations. And so God, through Isaiah, gave Ahaz a sign. A prophecy with two fulfillments.

In the first, Isaiah's oracle showed that in the time of about 9 months – the time it would take a young woman to conceive and bear a son – God would deliver Judah from the 2 kings that were threatening him. And indeed, in 722 B.C. Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom, fell to the Assyrians. We might call this the near fulfillment, or the lesser fulfillment.

But the greater and far better fulfillment would have far more wide ranging impact. A virgin would conceive and bear a son. And that miraculous child would deliver all people from the threats of our enemies, the cruel trio of sin, death, and Satan. The New Testament confirms this, interprets Isaiah for us, in Matthew 1:22-23 “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.' All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, 'Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel' (which means, God with us)”

Ahaz was a wicked king, but God worked in spite of him to bring about the fulfillment of his plan and promises. Ahaz, a descendant of David himself, would also be an ancestor of Jesus, the true Son of David. But this was God's doing.

You can't save yourself by your own reason or strength, your own good works or spiritual commitment. Though there is no merit or worthiness in you but only sin and corruption – but still God promises, God works, and God accomplishes your salvation. So also, no sinful man can claim credit for the birth of this child born to the virgin, but only God gets the glory for sending his Son to us. No man can claim the honor, even in part, for the saving work and sacrificial death of Christ. Only God the Father can say, “That's my boy. Like Father, like Son.”

That Jesus was born of a virgin is good news for you. It means your salvation comes from outside of this sinful, fallen world. If it came from below, it would be unworthy of your faith. For what can man do, of himself? But if it comes from God, it cannot fail. If salvation is his doing, you can trust it always and fully.

Two chapters later, we have another oracle, in which the prophet describes this promised deliverer, this child that would be born. For one, he is identified with Galilee. Part of the area that was once conquered by the wicked Assyrians. Part of the nation that was laid waste by the enemy. But God has a way of bringing something from nothing, bringing salvation out of the ruins, light from darkness, and even life from death itself.

And so the sign that old King Ahaz scorned would be fulfilled in the Son that is given – the one called Jesus, the Christ. But look what else Isaiah calls him:

Immanuel, that is, “God with us”. Likewise, in chapter 9, “Mighty God” and “Everlasting Father”. This is no mere human savior. Here comes no average or even above average man. No earthly leader, no worldly politician elected or appointed or otherwise. Here, among us, is God himself made flesh. The Messiah is, perhaps above all, the very embodiment of Yahweh himself, come to earth, present among his people. And this is no small thing.

It is noteworthy that many of the heresies that have plagues the church over the years attack this very point – that Jesus Christ is true God. It's why the church has responded with creeds and statements and catechisms that make it clear who he is – God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Begotten not made. True God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the virgin Mary, and my Lord. To take away or deny Jesus' divine nature is to make him no Messiah at all. For God has promised that's the Messiah he would send. He will not do his saving half-way or half-heartedly. He will not delegate it, even to an archangel. He will see to it himself. God will visit his people.

He is the Wonderful Counselor. The counsel he gives, the word he speaks, is the object of our wonder. The things he says ought to amaze us. The Gospel is astounding. The free gift of salvation, which we proclaim is so many ways.... may we never lose our sense of awe at this. This central teaching of our faith – Christ crucified for sinners - that he's done it all for you, and all that's left is to believe it and live in grateful response to it. This is better, wiser counsel than any you could hear. This is a more wonderful word than any you could imagine.

And Prince of Peace. Princes and Kings and the mighty men of this world talk a good game when it comes to peace, but they often fail to achieve it. But he is not just a prince who brings peace, as if in a temporary condition. He is the Prince of Peace. All peace, that is all true peace, is rooted in him. The peace that he brings is a peace with God. It is a peace that passes understanding. Like his kingdom, it is not of this world, peace not as the world gives. It's a peace you can't see or touch, but it must be known by faith, according to his word.

And what else about this Messiah, this child born unto us? He will rule with justice and righteousness on the throne of his father David – and he will do so forever. David. Remember God's promise when David got it into his head to build God a temple? Look the ark is in a tent – the tabernacle – while I dwell in a fine palace. Let me build a house for God, a temple. It was an honorable inclination. But God turned it around on him and said, “No, David. I'll build you a house. And I will establish your house (your dynasty) forever.” David's son Solomon would build that temple. And God would hold up his end of the bargain.

Though in the rise and fall of nations it may have seemed like God had forgotten, or had failed. David's line was shattered when the kingdom divided. The Northern Kingdom fell to the Assyrians. Later the Southern Kingdom would fall to the Babylonians. Ahaz and his descendants would be no more – at least not reigning on the throne. The Davidic dynasy – once a mighty tree was cut down to the stump. But a shoot was to come from that stump of Jesse (words from Isaiah 11). And David's throne would be restored... in Christ.

Not an earthly throne. But a heavenly throne. Though he left that throne for a time, our king became enthroned in human flesh, and in a manger, and on a cross. Enthroned in his resurrected flesh, ascended to the right hand of God where David's son and David's Lord reigns even today, for all God's chosen people.

This is the kind of Messiah Isaiah foresaw. The One born of a virgin. The one unlike any other. The Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. The One to restore David's throne. The One we call Jesus, who has delivered us from our enemies. Rejoice with great joy. For unto us child is born. Unto us the Son is given. Amen.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Sermon - Midweek Advent 1 - Genesis 3:1-15

Advent Midweek 1
Genesis 3:1-15
December 6, 2017

This Advent Season, like all Advent seasons, we place a special emphasis on the prophecies of the Old Testament concerning the coming Christ. Advent means “coming”, after all. And while an exhaustive treatment of each and every prophecy of Christ would be impossible, and indeed, we would have to study the entire Old Testament, which Jesus says testifies to him... still, it seems good to zoom in on a few passages which hold a particular importance or a place of prominence in Messianic expectations. You might have chosen some other passages, and another perhaps 3 others. But these three seemed the most well-known, the most often-referenced, some of the most pivotal prophecies pointing to Christ out of all of them. So for the three weeks of Advent this year – we will consider the messianic prophecies of Genesis 3, Isaiah 7 and 9, and Micah 5.

Prophecy isn't only about the future – strictly speaking it is a word of God given through a representative or mouthpiece – a prophet. And that word can speak of the past, present, or future – for all times are in the view and knowledge of God. It can be, as it were, a word of law or gospel: A prophetic word is often a word of rebuke, a harsh word over against the powers of the day that are set against God. Even today, sometimes it's used in that sense. The prophetic word that is hard to hear. But then there is that other sense of it, perhaps more commonly intended – that a prophet is one who tells the future. And many prophecies do so. We are concerned, especially, about those prophecies concerning the Christ – that most important promise of God to send a Savior to deliver his people. That promise, or or those promises, telling of future salvation, date as far back as the Garden, as we shall see today. In fact, let's turn our attention there now.

Try to imagine the scene of Genesis 3 – the freshly minted creation in all its “very good” glory, the animals according to their kinds, the garden planted by God as a paradise for man, and the innocent and noble Adam, and his helper Eve, both created in the image of God and set above creation, blessed to be fruitful and multiply. What joy it must have been for the newborn creation – think of the “new car smell” and the smell of a newborn but only better, more pervasive, entirely thorough.
Nothing bad, only good, indeed as God declared, “very good”.

And what a start contrast to what would soon follow. When the serpent slithered in. Taking the form of one of the beasts of creation, Satan, the evil one appears with his wicked agenda. He deceives the woman. The man fails to intervene, but partakes of the rebellion with her. And so the one to whom God gave dominion over all creation, the head, as it were, was struck. Sin, death, corruption, disease, chaos of a manner we still don't comprehend – all of it came upon creation. Like the dark shadow of an eclipse – so out of place, so alien to its design, creation fell along with its appointed master. And now, the serpent becomes the prince of this world. Adam and Eve beget children in their own image, and as you read the genealogies, the refrain is unmistakable, “and he died... and he died”. Quite a contrast to, “and it was good”. What a dark day that was. What a bitter day. A day of reversal. A day of death. A day of fear.

For as they heard the Lord walking in the garden, they hid. Like young children even today who instinctively hide when they know they've done something wrong, Adam and Eve hid. But you can't hide from God. You can't hide your sins from God. Their paltry attempts to cover nakedness with fig leaves only testified to their shame. Who told you you were naked? Did you eat of that forbidden tree?

And now they await punishment. It must have been with fear and dread that our first parents stood, waiting to get their comeuppance. Waiting to hear the pronouncement of judgment they truly deserved. We've all been there, at least in small ways. Perhaps waiting in fear of an angry parent. Perhaps watching the squad car as the officer gets out and walks toward your car window. Or perhaps even as your conscience burns at the thought of your God frowning at your sinning, yet again. What would it be like to stand and answer for your sins? To face up to it, with no escape in sight? Isaiah saw God and he cried, “woe to me, I am ruined!” Adam and Eve must have felt the same. We all should before a Holy God.

Oh they tried the blame game. It was the woman you gave me, Lord, it's all her fault. Oh, no, Lord, I was tricked, tricked I tell you! It was that crafty serpent. But the blame doesn't really shift. They knew what they were doing. They are just as accountable.

And then, when all seems lost, when they had nothing left to say, when the swift and sure blade of justice was surely about to cut them down... then it happened. God spoke to the serpent.

And in that curse, a blessing. In the bad news for our enemy, is the good news for Adam and Eve and you and me and all. Martin Luther puts it this way:

“These words are spoken for the sake of Adam and Eve that they may hear this judgment and be comforted by the realization that God is the enemy of the being that inflicted so severe a wound on man. Here grace and mercy begin to shine forth in the midst of wrath which sin and disobedience aroused. Here in the midst of most serious threats the Father reveals His heart…Who points to deliverance, indeed who promises victory against the enemy that deceived and conquered human nature.”

First, God curses the serpent to eat dust and crawl on its belly. And this may seem easy to pass by. But it is good news. For God limits Satan. He cannot come at us straightaway, head-on. He is limited to working sideways, slinking and squirming, through his deception and lies. Luther comments that if Satan wasn't limited in such a way, he would destroy all life, even keep a single tree from sprouting, for he hates God's good creation so. But the curse goes on, and the news for us gets better.

Genesis 3:15 is sometimes called the proto-gospel, the very first promise of God, and the first prophecy of a savior, a messiah, the very Christ. It is a promise that God unfolds throughout the pages of the Old Testament, progressively revealing more and more, as if facets of a diamond, until it reaches it fruition in the birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension and return of Christ in glory.

He, the offspring, (literally the seed) of the woman, the one descendant to come – would crush the head of the serpent, though the serpent would bruise his heel. Christ, though wounded, even mortally, at the cross – would not be defeated by death. But rather, with that very wound, he trampled the head of the Serpent, delivering a final defeat and humiliation of our ancient foe, completely disarming and destroying him and his kingdom forever. And so Jesus declares, “it is finished”. God keeps his promises.
Just look at the way God does it, though. Satan thinks he is victorious, working through the woman to get at the man. But God turns it around, working through the woman, through the womb, to bring about the man – the second Adam, that would be Satan's undoing.

He who once overcame man by means of a tree – now is overcome by the tree of the cross. And we, who fell into sin by eating the fruit of a forbidden tree, are now nourished unto salvation by the fruit of the cross – namely the body and blood of Jesus given us to eat and drink. By one tree and fruit came death, but by this tree and fruit comes life. In one Adam all mean are condemned to death. But in the Second Adam all men are given life.

Through the ages, God brings this promise to fruition. Preserving the line of the promise through Noah – despite a flood that ended all other flesh on earth.

Through the line of Abraham, so old he was as good as dead, and yet God gave him a son. Through that son Issac, and his son Jacob, and his son Judah, and down through history, the seed of promise was tended.

David was also promised his descendant would sit on his throne forever, and so the line of promise continued, though david's mighty house lay in tatters.

And then an angel appeared to Mary, and announced the child born to her would be that long-awaited savior. The seed of the woman, come to crush the serpent for good.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Sermon - Pentecost 24 - Matthew 25:14-30

Entrusted and Trusting
Matthew 25:14-30

You know I've heard a sermon or two that just gets this parable all wrong. Of course, it's another parable about the end times and the judgment day, when the Master comes to settle accounts with his servants. But the way I've heard it preached is this: God gives us each talents and abilities and resources – and one day he'll come back and settle accounts! So you better be a good steward of what he's given you – or else! It's just a longer version of the cheeky bumper sticker that reads, “Jesus is coming soon – look busy!” As if the point of it all is what we do, how we do it, really, our good works or lack thereof. That's not what Jesus teaches. That's not what this parable is about.

One of the things we can look for when we study the parables is what a favorite commentator of mine called “cracks in the realism”. These are the little things about Jesus' stories that are a just a little bit “off”. A son asks for an early inheritance, and his father gives it to him. And you might say, “well that would never happen”. The tenants of a vineyard think they can get away with murdering the master's own son. A Samaritan turns out to be the hero of the story. Things like this.

Well with this parable – the Parable of the Talents, as it is called - there's nothing unusual about a master having servants. There's nothing odd about him giving them duties, or even management of various tasks or assets. But what is really strange here is that he would line them up and entrust them with large amounts of money – and then promptly go away without so much as an explanation! This would be like your boss at work depositing millions of dollars into your account and then going on a year-long vacation without telling you.

For the master to do such a thing – to entrust his servants with so much, for no apparent reason, with no talk of their qualifications or merits or credit history – it's not something you see in everyday reality. Some would say it borders on the insane. Others, Christians, might call it something else – grace.

One definition of grace is the “undeserved love of God”, especially in Jesus Christ. And we thank God that he has redeemed us freely, not by gold or silver, but with Christ's holy precious blood, and his innocent suffering and death. All this by grace. Even his physical blessings of earthly life he gives us out of undeserved love – your house and home, land, animals and all you have, your reason and senses, eyes, ears, all your members – all this he does only out of fatherly, divine, goodness and mercy – totally undeserved – no merit or worthiness in me. Even the Spirit works by grace, calling us to faith – though I believe that I cannot, by my own reason or strength, believe in Jesus. Bottom line, you have nothing, but God gives you everything.

So how does one “invest” the talents? How do we rightly use these gifts given to us, which we in no wise deserve? Well, it depends on the gift:

His highest gifts to us – the Word, the Sacraments – we use rightly, and invest profitably, by simply receiving them. Regular worship, gathering with the other recipients of these treasures, hearing the word by which faith comes and by which faith is strengthened. Receiving the absolution from the pastor, as good as if Christ himself said the words – and thereby receiving the forgiveness of your sins.

Last week, we heard how the bridegroom came suddenly and caught the foolish virgins off guard and unprepared. And I briefly mentioned that to be prepared for his coming was simply to faithfully receive the gifts of word and sacrament that are really the oil of the wise virgins. Likewise, this parable also teaches us that we will be well prepared for his coming when we have invested the gifts – that is, used them profitably – to our own salvation. None of this is Christian rocket science. It's simply receiving what God gives us with thanksgiving. It's doing what he wants us to do – be saved.

But having said all of that, there remains yet further application. For the gifts God gives to his people are overflowing. They are not just spiritual. They are also physical, worldly, tangible. He does give you talents – not the monetary denomination of the ancients – but the skills and abilities and inclinations that are unique to each of you. He does give you time – a resource that is far too often wasted by us, but must be managed like anything else. And he does give you treasures – earthly gifts, money, possessions, inheritance, and all the “things” of life. We are caretakers of all of these – none belong to us alone, or even ultimately.
And God would have us use them well. Not to earn salvation – for that has already been given us. Not to prove our salvation – for that is already assured in Christ. Rather, faithful and godly management of his good gifts is simply what his people, born again as new creations in Christ, it's just what we do. We do it out of thankfulness, humility, and a love for our neighbor. We do it to advance the Gospel itself, so that all may hear the good news of Jesus and be saved.

The bad servant in the parable – you know, by some measures, he might not be seen to have done anything wrong in this parable. After all, he didn't squander the talent. He didn't go spend it on himself, or lose it at the casino. He kept it secret and kept it safe. What really set him apart from the others, though, happened before the final accounting.

When the master entrusted his gifts to the servants, this servant didn't trust the master. He knew him to be a hard man. He operated out of fear of the master. He showed a lack, in our terms, of faith. And so he got the kind of master he expected in the end – an angry judge who cast him out for his wickedness.

Rather, the servants who trusted the master – they were free of fear. They didn't sit on the talents, but put them to work. Not because of anything special about them, but because they knew the master to be a generous man, a kind master. A man of grace.

And that makes all the difference in the world.

Just think about this kind master you have, this benevolent king. He has given you riches beyond all telling. He has spared nothing for you, not even his only begotten Son. The bright jewel of his crown. He sent Jesus to us – the purest and greatest gift to all mankind.

And Christ did all things well, for us. He fulfilled the scriptures, the law, and all that the Father asked of him. He defeated the temptations of Satan. He taught the truth which sets us free. He had compassion on many, and upon us. He offered us all blessings, even his own body and blood. And finally he gave up his life as a sacrifice in our place, his blood for ours, our punishment for his, and by his stripes we are healed.

None of this you earned. None of this you deserved. It is far more than you could hope for or imagine. But the master gives even himself to you, and comes to you now in his word and sacraments.

All this, entrusted to you, tells you what kind of master you have. A loving, kind, merciful, generous master. A Lord who delights in giving good things to his children, far more than any earthly father could. He does so, not to make profit, not to test your worthiness, but simply because he loves you.

And now, with all of that in mind, and only now can we ask the question, “how ought we treat these good gifts?”. Bury them? Ignore them? Rest on our laurels in a false sense of self-righteousness? No. But make the most of the gifts he has given you. Hear the word. Remember your baptism. Come, take and eat, take and drink. Be the Christian he has made you to be. Not by exertion of effort, but by trusting the one who has entrusted it all to you. Look to Jesus, not yourself. And the blessings will abound.

And fulfill your vocation, whatever it is, however many you have. For he has entrusted you with a spouse, with children, grandchildren, with work, with an office, with neighbors, and all manner of opportunities to love them. And his love for you will bear dividends in your love for others, and in your faithfulness in your callings.

The reward is great – faithful in little, set over much. So be faithful. Trust in the master, and make use of his gifts. Looking to yourself is only burying the gift. But look to Christ and receive even more blessings.

In Jesus Name. Amen.

Sermon - Pentecost 23 - 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
“Encouraging Words about the End”

History has an end. The Greek word the New Testament uses for it is “Telos”. There will be a last day, this is very clear in Holy Scripture. The universe will not go on, at least not like this, forever. There is a day, somewhere in the future, that God has planned, in which Christ will come again to earth, and bring all things to fulfillment. It is now, in November, near the end of the church calendar year, that we Christians especially think about the end time, and the Last Day.

Like many people today, the ancient Christians in the city of Thessalonica had questions and worries about that day. They had some misconceptions too. So St. Paul writes to them, to clear up the picture, to explain why that day is a good day for us Christians – to give them hope. “Encourage each other with these words” he says. And so Christians have encouraged each other with those words throughout the ages, and so today shall we.

Perhaps it's worth reviewing some basic teachings about the end. One thing we can be certain of, is we are living in the end times. These are the last days. So many of the signs of the end are all around us, ever more all the time. Natural disasters like the Hurricanes that plagued us this year. Violence like the church shooting this past week.

So much of the book of Revelation depicts the calamities and troubles that are not only to come, but that we experience in various ways all the time. Christians are persecuted. We are as lambs led to the slaughter. Nations rage, kingdoms fall. Wars and rumors of wars, as Jesus tells it. Paul uses the analogy of a woman in childbirth – that the creation itself is groaning in labor pains – but that is all moving toward a telos – an endpoint, a conclusion.

Then there is the last day. It will come suddenly, when we least expect it. Passages like our Gospel reading from Matthew encourage us to be watchful as we look for it to arrive at any time. Jesus says he will come “like a thief in the night”, that is, suddenly, and not when you think he might. How many date-setters have already gotten it wrong? Well so far, all of them. No one knows the day or the hour.
Many passages, like our Old Testament reading from Amos, paint the day of the Lord as something great and terrible – a fearful day in which God's judgment is poured out. But Amos was speaking to people who had forsaken God for pagan worship. There was an earthly judgment to come in the form of the Assyrian empire. But Amos also spoke of the final judgment it foreshadowed. Surely for the unbeliever, the judgment day will be fearful and terrible.

But for the believer, it's quite the opposite. 1 Thessalonians tells us that it will be a good day – a great day – that should give us hope. So put aside your fears, and hear what God promises about Christ's appearing – and what it will mean for us, his people.

“we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep”

The Thessalonians full well expected Christ to return within their earthly lifetime. And they became concerned when faithful Christians began to die – wondering if there would be a difference between the living and the dead – that somehow their dead loved ones would miss out on the glory of Christ's return. This became a source of grief for them. But Paul says not to grieve like others who have no hope. Christ gives them hope.

In Corinthians, Paul explains, “we will not all sleep”, that is, not every Christian will die before that day. Some will live to see it. But those of us that do will be in the same boat as those of us who have already died. The dead will be raised. And we will all be changed, glorified, and we will all meet Christ together.

The dead will rise. Here's an important promise that gets short shrift these days. We're so accustomed of thinking that we Christians die and go to heaven (and yes, we do), that we forget the final fulfillment of God's plan is that we would rise from the dead. Just like Jesus, whose physical, earthly, human body rose from the dead – so too will our bodies be brought back to life – to live forever with God. Those who die in the faith – while their body “sleeps”, their soul is surely with the Lord and at peace. But at the resurrection soul and body reunite to live in eternal glory.

We will be changed – made “incorruptible”, Paul says. Glorified. We will be like Christ, in his glorified body. We don't know exactly what that means – it hasn't been fully revealed yet. But it sounds good, doesn't it? A physical body that is free of the corruption of sin? No more aches and pains. No more disease or handicap. A body free forever from the effects of the sin which has corrupted us. A body and soul as God intended them to be – perfect and holy.

Together, we will rise not only from death but into the air to meet him. Reminds me of the way Christ ascended into the clouds, after his resurrection, in his own glorified body.

And the promises continue. For there, we will meet Christ and each other, and we will be always with the Lord. What a blessing it will be to see with our own eyes, in our own flesh, what we have known by faith already. As we said last week, being in the presence of the Lord is what makes heaven so heavenly, and we will enjoy it forever, body and soul, with our Lord.

What about all the fire and brimstone? What about the judgment day? What about the locusts and horsemen? What about the lake of fire and answering for all your sins? What about the picture Amos paints of a great and terrible day?

Well Jesus faced that day himself, already. On that dark Friday in Jerusalem, when he hung on a cross for our sins. The sun blotted out. The earth shook. Even some of the graves of holy people opened up and they came forth. These signs show us a connection between Good Friday and the signs of the judgment day.

And Jesus endured the wrath of God's judgment so that our last day would be a day of peace. He took the punishment so we would stand before God free of guilt. He died for us to live – not just spiritually, but also physically – just as he rose, firstborn of the dead triumphant over the grave.

And because of that day of sacrifice, and that day of resurrection, we have a resurrection of our own – a promise yet unpaid but not forgotten. A day of final victory. This is why his resurrection is such a lynch-pin for our faith. Because only in his resurrection do we have the promise of resurrection. Only in him do we escape the judgment of eternal death, and receive the judgment to eternal life.

That doesn't mean that no earthly suffering will come to us. That doesn't mean that the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh stop working overtime to make us doubt and tempt us and make us as miserable as possible. They can't win the war, but they'll kick and scream trying to win as many battles as they can. Persecutions are sure to come. Many will hate us for Christ's sake. Jesus doesn't sugar-coat these truths either. We're still in the flesh, here, and so those battles rage.

But he who makes wars to cease, who breaks the bow and shatters the spear – he's our mighty fortress and champion in the fight. And we can hear, in his word, the distant triumph song. He will come again, and soon.

So watch and be ready for his coming. Hear his word, frequently and faithfully. Remember your baptism, where he first raised you from death to new spiritual life. And receive his body and blood – often – for the forgiveness that sustains us each day, keeping us strong and vibrant in a faith that is always ready for its fulfillment.

Live your life in the faith that he has given you, trusting in his mercy and grace. And die your death in a peace that knows the promise of victory, and rest in peace, for the trumpet will sound, the archangel will shout, and Christ will return for his people. And we will be with him forever. This is our hope. This is his promise. These are the encouraging words, that point us to the blessed end. In Jesus Christ. Amen.

Monday, November 06, 2017

Sermon - All Saints' Day (Observed)

What will Heaven be like?
All Saints' Day - November 5, 2017
Revelation 7, 1 John 3, Matthew 5

It's a simple enough question, “What will heaven be like?”  It's often asked by a child.  But worth asking, since all of us hope to be there someday. 

Our readings on this All Saints Day give us a chance to ponder that question and answer it, as best we can. 

1. What we know, we know from Scripture
We ought not look to Hollywood for our definitions and descriptions of the afterlife, either good or bad.  Nor ought we defer to our culture, which paints a picture much the same.  Many people believe in a heaven of some kind, perhaps most people in our world – far more than believe in a place called Hell.  Which may illustrate how shaky people's understanding of the topic can be.

Even we Christians may be especially tempted to imagine a heaven of our own design or creation – if you're a golfer, you might want to think of it as a perfect golf course you can play every day for free.  Or if you're a foodie, you might picture it as a giant Sam's Club on a Saturday with unlimited free samples of all your favorites. 

What an odd place heaven would be if it was simply everyone's greatest desires – a rock concert over here, country music over there.  A hunter runs through chasing a big buck while the Cubs win every world series.  And of course, all dogs get to go there, too.

Rather than looking to the world, or to our own imagined heaven, the Christian lets Scripture tell the tale.  We can imagine all we want, but that doesn't make it so.  Like all our doctrine and teaching, we must turn to Scripture to clue us in.  And some of that picture is painted in our readings for this All Saints Day.

2. We don't know that much
Perhaps it's worth noting, however, from the outset – that Scripture tells us precious little about the world to come.  We are given hints and glimmers, pictures that give a sense of it but are far from answering every question.  We know some popular myths are just wrong – for instance we don't become angels when we die.  But many of us are like that curious child, wanting to know more.  And that's maybe not a bad urge in itself.  We ought to yearn for our eternal home.  This veil of tears is filled with troubles and misery, temptation and sin.  We ought to look forward to that horizon.  Like St. Paul, we recognize, it will be far better to be at home with the Lord than here in our mortal bodies. 

And so we take comfort in what little Scripture does teach us about this place we call heaven:

3. We know we don't deserve it.  But Christ promises it.
One thing we know for sure is that we don't deserve it.  Our sinful nature and our sinful actions and inactions have made us worthy of a far different fate – temporal and eternal punishment is what our sins deserve.  Were it not for God's great mercy he would have been there already, long ago.  By rights God could wipe us out just like he did to the wicked world before the flood.  But he is patient.  He is merciful.  And he would not see the sinner perish, but desires all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.  He wants you to have life, and have it abundantly, with him, forever. 

Which is why he sent his Son, Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.  The Lamb at the center of the throne around whom all the saints gather.  The Lamb, by whose blood, their sinful robes are washed white and clean.  It is because of Jesus, and Jesus alone that anyone receives the blessings and promises of heaven.  Christ crucified, dead, risen and ascended again will bring you there.

4. What we do know is good, even great!
We speak of heaven in really two senses.  When we say “heaven”, we often mean where the dead in Christ reside now – with God.  Paradise, Abraham's Bosom, or simply “being with the Lord”. 

And here's what we know about that:  The dead in Christ now rest in peace.  They are with him.  And it is good.

Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord, for they rest from their labors. (Rev. 14:13)

Jesus told the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise”  Not tomorrow or someday down the road.  Today, that is, as soon as you die.  Those who die in the faith are with the Lord.  Stephen, the first martyr, confessed the same with his dying prayer, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit" (Acts 7:59)

Jesus also hints at this reality with story of Lazarus in “Abraham's Bosom” - both of whom were contrasted with the agony of the rich man who died in unbelief.

Today we give thanks for our loved ones and those Christians who have gone before us into the paradise of God's presence, into the rest and peace that is Heaven.  They are away from the body, but they are with the Lord. And that makes everything ok.  But as they say at the end of commercials, “But wait... there's more”

There is something else, heaven in the final sense – that kingdom of glory that begins on the last day.  This eternal life, lived in the new heaven and new earth, this is really the final and best hope of God's people.

Or another has said there are various “modes” of eternal life.  Eternal life – that life we have now, even already, beginning at our baptism.  Then there is the eternal life of the Spirit that rests secure with God, but away from the body, awaiting the judgment day.  Then there is the eternal life in the kingdom to come, life in the resurrection – in the body – which is the final promise to and hope of the children of God.

Paul makes it clear, especially in 1 Corinthians 15, the great resurrection chapter of the Bible, that we too will rise, bodily, at the last day.  Jesus is the Firstborn of the Dead, but that title itself shows that others will follow.  “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will also certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”  Romans 6:5

When will this happen?  At his second coming.  Paul says the dead in Christ will rise, and we who are still living will be changed in the twinkling of an eye at the last trumpet.

At his appearing – we will change, be like him (1 John 3:1-3)

And this gives a clue what the heaven of the resurrection might be like.  How will it be to live in resurrected, glorified bodies?  We have a clue, perhaps, by looking at Jesus' glorified, resurrected body. 

On that day, at the fulfillment of all things, The Beatitudes will become visible (Matthew 5).  The blessed mourners comforted, the blessed meek shall inherit the earth.  All the saints, in our final glory, will be blessed forevermore.

Jesus has gone to prepare a place for you, will come back (John 14:1-6)

And the picture of the multitude robed in white reminds us that in that glorious day, God's people will all be there.  A great multitude no one can count from every nation and tribe and people and language.  A joyful reunion with our God and with one another.  There will be endless, perfect, joyful worship of God.  A perfect communion of all the company of heaven.

Revelation paints a picture of bliss:

15 “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.
16 They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
the sun shall not strike them,
nor any scorching heat.
17 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.”

Later, John's vision depicts the church in glory as heavenly Jerusalem.  There she is described in terms that evoke the paradise of Eden restored.  For in Eden there was were rivers, a garden and the Tree of Life.  Now in glory we see the River of life, the Tree of Life reappearing.  The curse is removed. Paradise is restored, and all is well.

Here today we have a glimpse of that heavenly feast, a foretaste.  Here as we gather around Christ, enthroned in simple bread and wine, we gather with just a small portion of that final heavenly multitude.  But in a way, we also commune with those at rest in Christ, and with all the Christian faithful who will one day visibly gather with us around the heavenly throne.  Here, at the Lord's altar, then, is about as close as you can get to heaven-on-earth.  For here you are united with Christ and his people in a holy and precious way.  Here, heaven and earth are in a way united, in Christ, for you. Here, today, is the communion of saints.
Heaven is for real, but it's not the heaven of mere imagination.  It's the eternal bliss that God has prepared for his children, those redeemed in his Son Jesus Christ.  It's the joy of his presence when we die, and it is the glory of a resurrection and life from the last day forward.  Like all of God's blessings, a pure and free gift won for us in Jesus Christ.  Remain in him, and you will abide to the end, even to heaven.  Amen.

Sermon - Higher Things Retreat - Faith, Plano

Romans 10:5-17
Matthew 14:22-33

You've gotta love Peter.  He's the best.  And he's the worst.  He's the one bold enough to step forward and answer, “but who do YOU say that I am?”.  But he's also the one dumb enough to try and talk Jesus out of going to die on the cross, so he gets the “get behind me Satan!”.  He's the one to open his yap on the mount of transfiguration, “hey guys, let's build some tents and camp out a while here”, but he had no idea what he was saying.  At one point he seems ready to die for Jesus if necessary, but a little later he's denying Jesus because he is questioned by a little girl, and he runs out crying like a little baby.  Of course all his bright shining moments are really by faith, and that's a gift from God.  And all of his failures are on him.  But he's just like you and me that way.

These Bible stories aren't just about the apostles, and they aren't just about Peter.  These are about you, too.  You have your ups and downs.  You have your good days and bad.  You have your own sin and struggles, and you have the same Savior. 

Peter has his ups and downs, you see, and that's true even here, walking on the water. 

At first, it appears he's just scared to death, along with the other disciples, because, well it wasn't every day you see a guy taking a midnight stroll on TOP OF THE WATER.  They were a superstitious bunch, even back then, and so they cried out “It's a ghost!”  They must have thought they were doomed.  They must have thought some evil spirit had come to sink their boat and they would die at sea.  But it was not a ghost.  It was Jesus.  And he calmed their fears.  “Take heart, it is I!”

This is the first miracle.  Jesus comes when no one else can.  He comes like no one else can.  He comes in a way that we don't expect – not only above and beyond nature and our experience – but what is most amazing here is not that Jesus was walking on water.  What is most amazing here is that the just and holy God of the universe would become flesh, and associate with sinners, have anything to do with them at all - but speak kindly to them, even love them, when by rights he could have come in just wrath to wipe them out of existence. 

But nevertheless, here's a sign, a wonder, that Jesus does, as yet another calling card that he is, in fact, the Messiah. 

And what gets into Peter that he wants to put Jesus to the test.? If it's you?  Who else could it be?  But here we go again, with Peter, and he says “Ok, Jesus, invite me out for a stroll”.  And so he does.  And so he does.  Kids, do not try this at home.

Hey at first it's going great – Peter is walking – things are cool.  But then the trouble comes.  And hasn't this happened to you?  Not the walking on the water part, but that things seem to be going great, great in your life, great with God.  And then oh, look, there's the wind and wave.  Oh look, there's that favorite temptation of mine again.  Oh, I've broken this commandment, that one, the other one.  I don't feel so Christian anymore.  I don't know if I'm so good with God anymore.  And the more you think the more you sink, and the more you sink the more it stinks and you start to worry or panic or fear all over again.

At that point, when you're downing, this is where Peter sets the good example.  He cries out to Jesus.  “Lord, save me!”  The world thinks Peter is so great and noteworthy because he had the faith to step out of the boat.  But where faith really counts is when you are sinking to the depths and everything's closing in on you, and you're drowning in your sins, and faith cries out, “Lord, save me!”.

And Jesus does it.  Immediately.  When no one else can.  He reaches down and pulls him up, no fuss, no muss, no questions asked.  He doesn't put Peter through a thorough examination or make him prove he's really sorry about all this.  He doesn't require a bunch of penance or compensation, or ask Peter if he really, truly, deeply means it.  There's no time for that.  There's never time for that, when you're Jesus.  He's just there to save, to forgive, to snatch you out of the jaws of sin and death and to bring you into the safety of his strong arms.

In fact that's what Jesus is all about.  That's his thing, reaching down to save you.  Reaching down, from heaven, by even becoming a man.  Coming down in great humility, to live in the muck of this world with us.  But even more.  To submit to being taken down into death, by being lifted up on the cross, and buried down the hill in that borrowed grave.  All of that, is his big, strong arm reaching down to pull you and every other sinner out from the depths.  And as he emerges from death safe and sound and even glorified, so to you will follow in his footsteps – walking not on water, but walking all over death itself.  He saves you.  He's all about saving you.

He does so – for you – when you confess your sins (that's the “Lord, save me!”) and the Pastor forgives your sins in Jesus' name (that's the hand that pulls you back up).  He does so when you hear the Gospel proclaimed – faith comes by hearing.  He reaches down into your dark, cold heart where you feel like you're drowning and dying – and he changes things.  He daily drowns that old Adam and brings the New man to life – out of the water – by the water of your Baptism.  Splish, splash, forgiven yet again.

And so as they climb back into the boat, and this strange little event is over, Jesus says to Peter, “you of little faith, why did you doubt?”  It's not a stern lecture but a gentle rebuke.  The kind of kind chiding by which Jesus corrects and encourages.  Hey, you can trust me, don't you see?  You can always believe in me, why would you doubt that?  My friends, you can always trust Jesus.  You can always cry out, “Lord save me”.  And he will.  That's what he does.  In Jesus' Name.  Amen.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Sermon - Pentecost 20 - Matthew 22:15-22

Matthew 22:15-22
“Render to Caesar, Render to God”

Here again another confrontation with his opponents, this time through intermediates.  They come with all sorts of false flattery, “Oh, Jesus, you're so great.  We know you teach the truth, and you don't care about appearances... tell us your great wisdom”.  But really they're trying again to trap him.  Either get him to endorse the Romans, a clearly unpopular position.  Or get him to speak against Roman taxes – and give them some ammunition to use against him.  See, Pilate, Jesus forbids people to pay taxes!  Actually, that was one of the false accusations they raised against him.  But he never said that. 

Instead we get this principle, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's.”  To render, that is, to hand over – to offer up – the provide – to Ceaser, and to God, respectively what each is due.  Let's consider each in turn.

Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, Jesus commanded them.  Caesar, the Roman Emperor who reigned over them all.  Caesar, a godless pagan from another land far away – but who happened to have the biggest, baddest army and ruled them by force – whether they liked it or not.  And most of them did not.  Still, Jesus commands that Caesar, that wicked pagan, be given his due.  Render to Caesar what is Caesar's.

Today we have a different Caesar.  Actually, we have many caesars in our lives.  But the principle still holds. Christ's word stands forever. The names and positions change, but we still stand under earthly authorities. So how do we apply this word to ourselves, today?

Lutherans have contributed a framework of teaching which we call the Doctrine of Two Kingdoms.  By this, we mean that God rules the world, in all spheres of life, but in different ways depending on the context.  In the church, and by his Gospel, we have what we call the “Right Hand Kingdom”.  Here, he forgives sins, gives spiritual blessings, promises and the like.  Here, he rules simply by means of his word, and especially the Gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified for sinners.  The right hand kingdom isn't the church per se, but it is how God primarily operates in this context.
On the other hand, that is, the Left hand – we have another kingdom.  The Left Hand Kingdom is the kingdom of the world – or the secular arena.  Here, God is still God, though he isn't always or often recognized as such.  But in all secular authority we recognize the authority of God – working for the good of all people.  In the Left Hand kingdom, God rules by power of the sword – ultimately, for instance, if you go up against worldly authorities, you can be put to death.  If you don't pay your taxes, well, just wait and see what happens to you.  Police and Lawyers, Politicians and Officials, Bosses and even Parents – all exercise a Left Hand kingdom authority in our world.  And all of this, designed by God, for our good.

The Fourth Commandment teaches us to honor and obey these rightful authorities.  And while not without limit, for we must always obey God rather than man.  But still, this doesn't put Christians above the law, if anything, we have more reason than the heathen to follow the law, honor our leaders, and submit to authority. 

So, what do we owe to Caesar, and what do we owe to God?

Paul answers the question for us in Romans 13, springboard off of Jesus in the main New Testament passage foundational to our understanding of the Left Hand kingdom: 

“Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.”

So taxes are not theft.  I sometimes hear politically conservative Christians say such things, and it's just not scriptural.  Now, Christians are free to argue – and certainly many do – about just what is the best and most fair tax policy, and how the government ought to spend it.  But at the end of the day, we need to recognize what Scripture teaches, that the government is instituted by God for our good, and to pay our taxes, follow the rules, and honor the authorities in all ways God has placed them over us.

Likewise, we ought to pray for our president and other leaders, whether they have a D or an R behind their name.  We ought to see them even as a gift from God, a servant of the most high.  For this too, we are instructed by the inspired word of God: 

“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made 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.” 1 Timothy 2:1-2

Do you joyfully obey and honor the authorities because Jesus has told you to do so?  Do you pray for them and give thanks for them, because Scripture teaches us to do so?  Clearly when it comes to the Left Hand Kingdom, we have much to confess.  We fail in many ways – either through a rebellious spirit, or outright disobedience, or by failing to honor the gifts of authority God has given us. 

But what if that authority isn't so good?  Even an wicked authority like Caesar – Jesus still wants us to honor.  Any human authority is going to be imperfect, every office and position held by a sinner.  Yet we are no better, and the call to “render unto Caesar” convicts us all the same.

But what about “rendering unto God what is God's”?  That's the second part of Jesus' little saying here, the other side of the coin.  What does he mean “Render unto God what is God's?”  What is God's?  For starters, we might say “everything is God's”.  It all belongs to him.  Our whole lives are from him and we owe to him.  So first, perhaps, a recognition of God as Creator – who has given me my body and soul, eyes ears and all my members, my reason and all my senses. 

Render unto God what is God's must then also imply: follow his commands.  And this, far harder than following the laws of the Left Hand kingdom worldly authorities.  Here, the law leaves us no corner of escape.  Love God with ALL your heart, and your neighbor as yourself.  Render to God what is God's – how can we even begin?

It starts with repentance.  The sacrifices God desires are a broken and contrite heart.  If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves... but if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins.  God wants holiness, in fact he demands it.  But he also knows we fall far short of it.  And so in his mercy he provides the way of grace, the way of repentance and faith, the way of Christ.

Render unto God what is God's.  What God wills most from the sinner is not sham good works, or feeble attempts – do your best and that's good enough.  He wants repentance and faith.  We wants to give you gifts.  He wants to render unto you that which is his – his highest and his best – even his only begotten son.  Jesus, who rendered back to God a perfect life of obedience, and gives us the credit for it.  Jesus, who rendered himself as a sacrifice for all sin, and for your sin.  Jesus who rendered to God the only price dear enough to pay the debt of sin we owe.  The only sacrifice of a spotless lamb that could take away the sins of the world.

Render unto God what is God's.  Jesus did.  For you, all there is left is to believe.  This is what we owe to God – our trust and faith in him through his Son, by the power of his Holy Spirit. 

So, with his Left Hand kingdom, God rewards the good and punishes the wrongdoer.  But on the other hand, the Gospel forgives freely without respect to person.

Two kingdoms.  Two hands of God.  Both for our good.

On the one hand, God generally protects you from bodily harm due to crime and war and the evil deeds of men.  But on the other hand, he rescues you, body and soul from death, even for eternity.

On the one hand, God sends his authorities to rule over you and your neighbor to keep evil from getting too far out of hand.  But on the other hand God destroys sin, death and hell by Christ's saving work for us.

On the one hand, God works through delegated authorities to protect and punish – in accord with the natural law he's written on men's hearts.  But on the other hand, God works through delegated authorities to proclaim the revealed word of law and gospel that no man could know apart from the Spirit.

On this hand, there is the sword, coercion and force.  On the other hand, there is the gracious, loving invitation of the Gospel.  And while we can't call ourselves to faith, we are free to reject.  He doesn't force you to believe at gunpoint.  But he does call, gather and enlighten you, along with his church, to receive the blessings of Christ.

And so God works with both hands – his right and his left – all for the good of the people whom he loves.  He brings both justice and mercy, both punishments and grace, both death and life – according to the means he has appointed. 

But the best thing about the 2 – handed God, is that he's right handed!  Thanks be to God, who gives us all good things, through his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Monday, October 02, 2017

Sermon - Pentecost 17 - Matthew 21:23-27

Matthew 21:23-27
“By What Authority?”

When I was a kid, and my parents told me “no”, and I asked “why?”, they'd sometimes say, “Because I said so.” I hated that. I vowed, that when I became a parent, I'd never tell my kids, “Because I said so.” Instead, I find myself saying something like, “Because I am your parent, and I have authority over you, and therefore I don't have to explain my reasons.” Which is, basically, just a longer way of saying, “Because I said so.”

Today we have another verbal sparring match between the woefully outmatched chief priests and elders and the Lord Jesus Christ. As they so often do, they challenge and question him, not to seek understanding but to try and get the best of him, to win points, to discredit him. But they never get the upper hand in this way. Jesus will not be out-foxed.

They once tried to trip him up with a question of taxes, and he cleverly answers with the quip, “Render to Caesar what is Caeser's”. They complain that his disciples don't follow their traditions and rules – ritual washing, working on the Sabbath. They even complain that Jesus was healing a man on the Sabbath. Ah, but the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

Not only is he wiser and better prepared than they for such things – but he simply has the authority to teach. He didn't teach like they taught – referring to the wisdom of those rabbis who went before them. His teaching had an authority – and people knew it. Jesus says, “you've heard it said.... But I tell you....”. His authority supersedes their teaching. He has an authority that they don't.

The Jewish leaders didn't like what he was saying, and rather than challenge the content, they challenged his authority. We do this, quite often, too. “Who are you to judge me?” is the same sort of objection. Let's not talk about my sin, which I can't really defend. Instead, let's talk about whether you have the right to call out my sin. It's a not-so-subtle changing of the subject. They wouldn't have accepted his authority even if he gave them a straight answer - “Well, fellas, I'm the Son of God, after all!” They were, like all sinners, in rebellion.

We humans often have a problem with authority. And it's not just criminals who disrespect police and naughty students who make faces when the teacher turns her back to the class. We balk at any authority, almost automatically, by nature. If I say, “Don't touch this cookie” the first thing most people have the urge to do is just that. If I draw a line in the sand and say don't step over, guess what the sinner wants to do, almost compulsively? The law, expressed in authority, often draws out sin.

Authority is imposed upon us from outside, and we generally have nothing to say about it, and that doesn't always sit very well. You don't get to choose your parents. You might have a president or governor you voted against. You don't usually elect your boss at work. And so on. So too with Jesus. He's the authority on everything, whether people realize it or not, or want to admit it or not. And eventually they will – at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue confess...

All human authority, we learn in our study of the 4th commandment, is a gift from God, and devolves from God. The authorities in our lives, parents, teachers, government, even pastors – all exist to bring us some good. And all authority derives from above, from the ultimate authority, God himself. As Jesus told Pilate, “You would have no authority over me unless it was given you from above”.

And so any discussion of authority, for the Christian, will call us to examine our own sinful rebellion. And it ought to also point us to the blessings of authority that God gives, especially in Christ.

Jesus didn't answer their question, for they asked from rebellion. But we who are in Christ could ask the same question in faith, “By what authority do you do these things, Jesus?” And the answer may come several ways.

He is the authority because he is the author of creation.

He is the authority because all authority has been given to him.

He has the authority – but he uses that authority for us. Chiefly, to forgive sins.

You might not think of Jesus, the Son of God, when you think of Creation. We usually ascribe that work to God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth. But John's Gospel has a Genesis account of its own – an, “in the beginning” - in which we see the Living Word that was with God and was God – that living word which eventually became flesh and dwelled among us. John tells us that “through him” (that is the Word) all things were made. That is to say, through the Son of God. So while it is proper to call the Father the creator – the one who speaks the words of creation, “let there be light” (etc.). We could rightly call God the Son the Agent of Creation. By whom all things were made.

Paul tells us Christ also sustains creation by his authority, that in him “all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). And in Hebrews it is likewise taught that God upholds all things by his powerful word (Heb. 1:3).

And so, like the Father, this gives him the authority over his creation. He's the author, after all, with an intimate hand in the creation of light and land and sun and moon and plant and animal and you and me. We belong to him because he made us, and he sustains us each day. We answer to him, Jesus, because he is, after all, God.

But he would not always use this divine authority, at least not fully. For a time, he set it aside, mostly. He humbled himself. He became submissive, obedient, to all the changes and chances of a life lived in human flesh. He would hunger and thirst, sweat and weep, grow weary but have no place to lay his head. He had to learn and grow. He submitted to his earthly parents, teachers and authorities. He was, Scripture teaches, like us in every way – yet without sin. And while in his public ministry he would show glimpses and flashes of divinity behind the fleshly veil of his human nature, - and the demons certainly recognized his authority – yet for the most part, he set that rightful authority aside, and became obedient, even unto death – even death on a cross.

For you, of course. And God raised him from the dead, also for you. Now his exaltation would begin. A risen Jesus would appear and disappear at will. He was recognized or not recognized as he so pleased. He would give many convincing proofs that he was alive, and finally after 40 days, ascend bodily into heaven, there to re-take his rightful throne, his due honor, his place at the right hand of God – from which he will return to judge the living and the dead.

He has ultimate authority by rights, as the Son of God. But more than that, because of his obedience unto death – all authority in heaven and on earth is given to him.

This is great, good news for you, Christian! You have an advocate, a true friend, a compassionate intercessor in Jesus – seated at God's right hand. You have a brother and a king with all the authority there ever was – and who's looking out for you. He doesn't receive all authority for his own sake, for his own pleasure or benefit. Like all things Jesus does, he does for you. He exercises his authority for the church in general, and for you in particular – a member of his body.

And so our very life is in his charge, and his care. Not a hair on our head isn't numbered. He works in all the events of our lives, even the sorrows, especially the sorrows, to bring about his good purposes. He promises nothing can separate you from the Father when you remain in his love. He promises you a place with the Father in the mansions of heaven. He'll show his authority, one day, over death itself when at the trumpet call of God and the shout of the archangel – he will command your grave to open and you will rise in your flesh, and stand upon the earth, and see him face to face. Only he has the authority to do it. Only in Jesus do we have such a promise.

But the best, the greatest, the most important aspect of Jesus' authority is perhaps this: that he has the authority to forgive sins. For all these other blessings of life, salvation, reconciliation and even faith itself – flow from the chief blessing of forgiveness.

He has that authority. He proved that when he healed the paralytic. First, he forgave the man's sins. But when the Jews balked, and said, “who can forgive sins but God alone?”, Jesus proved his authority. “Which is easier to say, 'your sins are forgiven'? Or 'get up and walk?'” But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins... and then he healed him.

He has also forgiven you. He won it at the cross, and he applies it at the font and altar, and in the absolution. He gives that blessed authority to his apostles, and to their successors, his pastors – the authority to forgive sins in his stead and by his command. And so it is today, that your sins are forgiven, in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

By whose authority do you do these things, Jesus? By the authority that sent John the Baptist – by the authority from heaven – the authority that created all things by the word – the authority that promised salvation to a fallen creation – that worked out that salvation through patriarchs and prophets, and the rise and fall of nations, until in a little town of Bethlehem the Author condescended, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him. All the authority to create, sustain, and forgive – and he exercises that authority. For you. Your sins are forgiven. Because he said so. In Jesus' Name, Amen.