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.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Sermon - Matthew 18:21-35 - Pentecost 15

Matthew 18:21-35
“Forgiveness, Continued...”

Today Matthew's Gospel continues to take us on a survey of forgiveness. We've seen Jesus' great concern for even the least of his people. We've heard how Christians ought to seek reconciliation with the brother who sins against us, always seeking to win the brother. So far so good.

But now Peter asks for some qualification. How often do I have to do this, Lord? Let's throw out a generous number. 7? The Pharisees might only say you have to forgive three times before the sinner proves he's not deserving. I'll say 7, and shoot for the safe side. How about that, Jesus, aren't you impressed?

But no. Not 7. Not 17. 70 times 7. In other words, forgiveness is unlimited. By it's very nature, forgiveness is not about keeping score – it's about wiping the slate clean. That's what Christ does for us in his saving work of death and resurrection. That's what Christians are to reflect and practice in our own relationships – especially with other Christians.

The question itself is flawed. “How often, how many, how much MUST I forgive?” Rather, we would ask, “How much do I get to forgive?” “How can I NOT forgive, in light of God forgiving me in Christ?” And to prod us in this direction, Jesus reminds us how much we've been forgiven. He does so, of course, with a parable.

A king is settling accounts with his servants or slaves. But these aren't the bottom of the food chain slaves out doing the manual labor. These are his high ranking ministers and advisors, those in charge of his household and business affairs. They've got the purse strings. They don't have to ask him every time they spend a denarius. But they do have to give account from time to time, and when the books are opened, it becomes clear that one servant has a debt to pay. And it's outrageous. 10,000 talents. Or in today's dollars – estimates range somewhere between several million to several billion. In any case, the debt was huge.

As Americans, we know about debts. We are perhaps one of the most debt-ridden societies in history. The national debt is in the trillions. $20 Trillion last I checked. $61,000 per citizen. Individually, we owe money on mortgages and cars, student loans and credit cards. So maybe we can relate to this parable of Jesus especially well – a story in which a man is forgiven a great debt. But can we relate enough? Even in a nightmare scenario, if all our debts came due at once, if we had to somehow pay everything right now -we might declare bankruptcy or end up on welfare. But this man faced imprisonment, along with his entire family. And Jesus even hints at torment that happens there. Scary stuff.

Of course the heavenly meaning hidden in this earthly story is not a debt of money, but the debt of sin that you and I owe, and the punishments of eternal condemnation we deserve. Just as hopeless as paying back billions of dollars with a job making license plates in prison – so are our prospects of paying off our debt of sin. We can't even make a dent in it.

And if you don't think your sin is that great, maybe you ought to do some tallying. How many times do you put other gods before the true God? How often do you misuse his name, or despise his word? How do you measure such things? Or how often you rebel against rightful authority or harm your neighbor's body or reputation. Or take what isn't rightly yours, or lust after or scheme to get it? 10 times a day? 100 times a day? 1000? Even a conservative, lowball of 50 sins a day, times 365 days a year and the average lifespan of 78 years leaves you with 1,423,500 sins. And this isn't counting the sinning that comes with failure to act, or the original sin and guilt that corrupts our very nature. No, if you are honest, you'll see your sin is beyond human measure. Even the Psalmist puts it succinctly, “who can know his errors?”. The debt is greater than we can know, but we know it is great.

There's only one way out of the debt. Forgiveness. Now, the servant in the story begged for time to pay – “patience, master!” he pleaded. But that was a pipe dream. And the kind master knew it. Shockingly, he forgave the debt – no strings attached. Such is the nature of our master, our heavenly Father. We, too, would beg and plead – but don't bother offering to repay. Rather trust in the mercy of the king who sends his beloved Son to pay every last bit of your debt. Forgiveness is the only way out for us. And that's just what he provides.

Consider the debt Christ paid. Sure, he bore the sins of the world – and what an awful load that was! If we can't even imagine or calculate one sinner's debt – how much more to pay all sinners's debts? But only the most precious commodity will do – the holy, innocent, suffering and death of the spotless lamb of God. Only the precious blood of Jesus could pay the price. Only his perfect sacrifice was enough to settle the debt. But settled it is. Forgiveness is won. Debt retired. It is finished.

The same Jesus who won and offers forgiveness is the Jesus who also teaches us to forgive. He teaches us to pray for it in his model prayer, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”. He teaches us explicitly to forgive as we have been forgiven. It's assumed that we will do so. And he shows in this parable, by contrast, the outrageous actions and dreadful end of the servant who has no mercy on his fellow servant.

It should shock us. That the man who had been forgiven so much couldn't forgive even a much smaller debt. Something on the order of $15,000. Nothing to sneeze at, but in the scheme of what his own debt forgiven by the master... why wouldn't he forgive his neighbor. Why couldn't he?

Perhaps the urgency to squeeze every last penny from his own debtor sprang from his own lack of trust that his debt was actually forgiven. Was it a futile attempt to settle his own accounts, and cash in where he could, just in case the king called in his debt after all? We're not really told. But one thing is clear, that forgiveness ought to beget forgiveness, and mercy to inspire mercy. And woe to the one who fails to reflect the forgiveness he himself has been shown.

This wicked servant wouldn't get away with it. His peers reported it to the king, who did rebuke and punish the man for his failure to show mercy. And so in this way, he had thrown away the precious forgiveness he'd been given, and instead having to pay the debt anyway from jail.

And now the hard words of Jesus, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” Let those words sink in. I'm not going to explain them away, couch or cushion them with caveats. Jesus is deadly serious here.

Forgiveness, forgiving your neighbor, is not an option for Christians. It is a necessity. Holding a grudge against your neighbor is antithetical to what it means to be a Christian. To be forgiven is to forgive. It's that simple. But not so easy, is it?

This is harsh law, friends. The threat is terrifying. How do we, then, approach the forgiveness Jesus would have us show for those who trespass against us?

One way is to come back around to our own sin. Look in the mirror. Check the log in your own eye. Remember how much you've been forgiven. And trust in the king, the master, the Savior who does the forgiving. This will help your perspective when it comes to the really very small debts your neighbor could possibly owe you.

Another helpful idea – take the example of Joseph from our Old Testament reading. His brothers had wronged him greatly – sold him into slavery and told his father he was dead. Separated from his family, deprived of his freedom, later thrown in prison – Joseph had more reason to hold a grudge than most. And yet, he foreshadows Christ by loving and forgiving his brothers. When the tables are turned and Joseph has the upper hand, he doesn't exact his revenge, but instead offers a tearful embrace and welcome. His words are so memorable, “you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good”. So could we say to any sinner whom God gives us the opportunity to forgive. See in it the good that God will bring from reconciliation and restoration.

For in showing forgiveness we not only fulfill the law of love, but we also give expression to our faith. We confess in word and deed the love that we have received in Christ. We give some of the most powerful witness to the unbelieving world of what Christianity is about, and what Christ is like. There is, really, perhaps no more Christ-like thing than to forgive, from the heart.

That doesn't make it easy. And it doesn't mean we'll do it perfectly. We pray for the strength to forgive. And we always circle back to the forgiveness we have received in the Christ of the cross. Your debt has been paid. So freely forgive, for the sake of Christ. Amen.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Sermon - Pentecost 13 - Matthew 16:21-28

Matthew 16:21-28
“What Kind of Christ?”

Last Sunday we heard of Peter's bright, shining moment.  Jesus asks, “who do you say that I am?” and Peter, speaking for the disciples, speaks what was revealed to him by the Father, and answers:  “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”.  Jesus commends and blesses Peter for this answer. He confirms he is, in fact, the Christ.  And we heard about the importance of confessing that faith in Christ – even for us – and confessing it rightly.

Today, Jesus goes on from that point.  “Ok, you've said it well.  I'm the Christ.  Now let me tell you what that means:  The Christ, “ must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.”

Now, just who exactly does Peter think he is?  Correcting Jesus?  Telling Jesus he's wrong? Contradicting what Jesus just said?  Now, maybe he didn't do it very harshly – indeed, Peter tries to take him aside and so as not to embarrass poor Jesus in front of the other disciples, “but you know, Jesus, this kind of talk is scaring people.  We all know that you have enemies, and what you preach isn't always popular.  But let's stay positive here.  Look at all the miracles you've been doing.  God has given you great power!  That's got to be for a reason.  Why don't you just use those powers to protect yourself then we can leave aside all of this worry and fuss about suffering and crosses and all.  Far be it from you, Lord.  You're not a loser, you're a winner.  You're the Christ, after all, like I said, and you've got some work to do here....”

And I wonder just how much of this kind of talk Jesus tolerated before he blasted Peter with some of the harshest words he's ever uttered.  “Get behind me Satan!”  Peter, you're not even Peter anymore. These aren't your words.  They are satanic.

Now you might think Jesus was being a little too harsh.  After all, Peter meant well.  He was looking out for Jesus.  He didn't want to see his beloved teacher arrested, suffer, or even die at the hands of his foes.  Who wants to see their loved ones suffer, be humiliated, and die?  For most of us, that's our greatest fear.  Some of us have had to face it, even numerous times.  And we want to avoid such pain, thank you very much.

But Jesus hears in these words, this perhaps well-meaning rebuke of Peter, the very voice of the Tempter himself.  The same devil who accosted him three times in the wilderness.  There, the Devil also tried to get Jesus to take the easy way out – don't suffer hunger.  Don't suffer your enemies.  Just bow down and worship me, and it'll all be yours.  No need to fuss with that suffering and cross business.  But Jesus never buys what the devil is selling.  He's not here to be taken in, but to crush the old serpent's head, even though it means he'd bruise his foot to do it.

Jesus was telling the disciples exactly what kind of Christ he is to be.  He is a suffering Christ.  He is a dying Christ.  He's not the Christ that many expected.  He's not the Christ you may have wanted.  But he is the Christ you need.

If I were God (and thank God I'm not), I might have done it differently.  If I were writing the plan of salvation, it probably wouldn't include pain and sorrow, suffering and grief.  I don't want it in my life.  And so I wouldn't want it in my Savior.  In fact if any of us were to concoct a Christ we'd probably have one that always conquers his enemies, triumphs over evil, leaves us with warm fuzzies and good vibrations, and throws a party for us all to boot.  I doubt any sinful, fallen human would put forth a Christ who dies on a cross.  Certainly Peter didn't have that in mind.

But anything other than a Christ that suffers and dies for you – any kind of Jesus without the cross – is a satanic Jesus.  It's a Jesus cooked up in the minds of men, or in the bowels of hell.  But it's not the Jesus he truly is.  It's a false Christ.  It's a Christ who can't save.  It's a Jesus of your imagination and a lie of the devil.

But you and I are no better. We, like Peter, fall for the tempter's tricks and  try for a way without the cross.  You see it in our constant temptations to be our own savior, to work off our own debt, make a deal with God and get what we want.  And then we are indignant when our prayers aren't answered our way.  You see us buying into the lie when we imagine a Jesus who never lets us suffer, and that if we suffer he must have forsaken us.  We close our ears and stomp our feet, inwardly at least, when we hear talk about crosses and cross-bearing.  This isn't “your best life now”.  This isn't “glorious living”.  This isn't what we signed up for, is it?

“You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” Peter rightly confessed.  And we confess the same.  But a Christ rightly confessed is the Christ of the cross, and so we must join our voices in that accord.  We must listen to what Jesus says, first, of himself.  And not talk over him.  And not think we know better.  And not rebuke him for getting it wrong.  But simply say what he says.

The Christ must suffer and die.  And let's not forget this, on the third day rise again!  The satanic lie doesn't want to hear about the cross, but that means it also takes away the resurrection!  Yes, Jesus suffers greatly – for the sins of the world.  Yes, Jesus dies a terrible death, the man of sorrows bearing the sins and infirmities of all.  But this is not the end of him.  There is a resurrection to follow.  He's a dying Christ, but he's a rising again Christ.  He's a Christ who lives, even now, and lives forever.  Death has no power over him.  He will never die again.

And a Christ of the resurrection is exactly the kind of Christ we need.  For we too face death all the day long.  We are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.  Christians are no better than our master, and we must endure the same kinds of hardships in this life.  Persecution, danger, nakedness, sword.  Fightings and fears within and without.  Trouble of all kinds.  Sickness.  And finally death.  We are to take up, not shun our crosses.  We are to called to take them up and follow him.

But we know where his cross leads.  It leads not only to slate wiped clean of sin.  It leads not only to a reconciliation with our estranged Father.  It leads also to a tomb cracked open by the power of the Lord of Life.  There's no Christ without the cross – but the cross is nothing without the resurrection. Thanks be to God, that in Jesus Christ, we have it all.  That's the kind of Christ he is.  A suffering and dying and living and reigning Christ who's done it all for you and gives it all to you and promises you the world – a new heaven and new earth – and the mansions he's preparing there for you to live in forever.

Who could turn all that down?  Who wants a savior only for this world?  That's a pretty lame Christ. If our hope in him is only for this world, then we are to be pitied more than all men.  But Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of a great harvest of the dead that God will receive to himself at the last.

And what a day that will be.  Then all who die in Christ, all who have confessed him with our mouths and believed in our hearts – then with Peter and Paul and all the apostles, then with Moses and Elijah and all the prophets, then with all the Christian martyrs who've spilled their blood for this confession, then with all the faithful who've lived and died in Christ... then with the whole company of heaven we will stand, like Job says, in the flesh, and see with our own eyes, and not another – that our Redeemer lives.

So deny yourself.  Put yourself behind yourself.  Give up on your own half-baked, ill-conceived, man-made and hell-pleasing ideas of who Jesus is or should be.  And tune your ears and hearts once again to the kind of Christ that he really is.  The Christ who dies for you.  The Christ who lives for you.  The Christ of the cross, who calls you to take up your cross.  Set your mind of the things of God.  And if you taste death, so be it, for death is not the end of him and death is not the end of you.

Repent and believe.  Lose your life, and gain it in Christ.  Forfeit the world – for he has gained for you your soul.  Hear him clearly, confess him rightly, and trust in him only.  This is the kind of Christ he is – the suffering and dying and rising Christ.  Let us follow him.  Amen.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Toward a Christian View of “Race”

Toward a Christian View of “Race”
(printed in the Messiah Messenger church newsletter, September 2016)

I was catching a flight to Milwaukee for our LCMS national convention this summer the morning after the 5 police officers were shot in Dallas. I remember watching the news with a mixture of feelings – anger, disgust, concern for the world my children are inheriting. But I also wished there was something I could do in what seems like an increasingly polarized and conflicted society. And all the more so, as a Christian.

Many of us who have been around for awhile have watched, sometimes with a feeling of helplessness, as our society has grappled with questions of racism and all the connected issues. There is the “Black Lives Matter” movement. There were riots in the 90's after the Rodney King incident. The Civil Rights Movement of the 60s saw all sorts of tensions (this, of course, before my time!) But these are questions our American culture has been dealing with, or in some cases avoiding, since our very founding. The bloodiest war in our history – the Civil War - is also part of the story. Whole books have been written, and perhaps libraries could be filled with analyses and opinions and accounts of the matter.

Some thought electing our first black president might make things better. But it's seemed to have little effect. Some argue “education is the key!” and that we must train our children and young adults in proper attitudes and approaches. Others have established a whole new vocabulary for dealing with these issues with terms unfamiliar to previous generations (i.e. “trigger words” and “coded language”). Some appeal to the teachings of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. Proposed solutions abound.

I, for one, have no illusions of solving these problems or answering every tough question in a monthly church newsletter article! Nor is it my proper place to comment on the secular or political aspects of these questions on which Christians of good conscience may surely in some cases disagree.

But what does seem pertinent, especially in these times, is to review some of the basic teachings of Holy Scripture which may bear on this topic. How does a Christian view the topic of race, or racism? Does God's Word give us a foundation on which to build, as we seek to navigate our world, fulfill our vocations, and love our neighbors? I believe so. So let's take a crack at it!

Genesis tells the story
The foundation for our Christian understanding of who we human beings are is found in the book of Genesis. Where on the 6th day, God made man from the dust, and the woman from his rib. For us, these events are not mythology but true stories of God's loving creation. He establishes us as who we are. He gives us our very being. And to understand our nature and place in this world is to understand what He tells us about our origins. Genesis lays the foundation.
What happens when we reject God's account of how it all began? Nothing good. Confusion and perversion can only follow when we buy into theories of origin that are at odds with God's Word. Removing the Creator from the equation removes the dignity of His creation, as we will see a little farther down the page.

Yet even secular science can still get it right, or at least come close. For instance, various studies have pointed to a common origin for all “modern humans” in a “genetic Eve”. And science also tells us that the differences between “races” are not a matter of different or incompatible DNA, but mostly of only outward appearance.

Christians ought to be clear in our own minds what Scripture teaches, and take the conclusions of secular science under advisement, but never as judge of Scripture or as something that could disprove what God has said. We should find our understanding of who we are, first and foremost, from the One who made us and still sustains us. To that end...

The Image of God
Holy Scripture shows that we humans (and all of us, of every tribe, race and people) are descended from Adam. We are heirs to Adam's heritage. That includes a sinful fallen nature, with which we struggle every day, but which drowns and dies in baptism as the New Adam arises in Christ.

But Genesis also teaches that man is created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). While we've lost the original holiness and righteousness because of our fall into sin, man is still the crown of God's creation. Man is still given stewardship (dominion) of the Earth. And mankind is still of great value to our Creator. The dignity inherent in being created in the image of God is a dignity common to all people. It is thus forbidden by God to kill a man – for even in our fallen condition – this image of God in some sense remains: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (Gen. 9:6)

Furthermore, there is a unity of the human race. We have all this in common – being made in God's image, and suffering the same consequences of the fall into sin. These qualities cut across all distinctions of people.

Sin Divides. Babel much?
There was a time when the nations were united. Though, it was in sinful pride that they worked together to make a name for themselves, building a tower into the heavens. God was displeased. Partly in judgment, and partly to (mercifully) limit the extent of their ability to band together for evil purposes – God confused their languages and dispersed the nations.

Here is, in Genesis 11, the origin of the “races”. The various tribes, nations and languages are all here only because of sin. Sin divided us, as a human race, from our Creator. But it also brings divisions amongst us, between groups of people, small and large.

But this was not the design from the beginning! And it won't be the picture at the end.

A Multitude in White Robes
Revelation 7 pictures for us the church in glory – a multitude that no one can count – from EVERY tribe, nation and people. There, the unity that was intended by our creator is realized. There, the divisions that sin brought are healed. There and then we will see a perfect reunion not only with our loved ones, but with all the company of heaven.

We also got a taste of this on the Day of Pentecost, when 50 days after Jesus' resurrection the Holy Spirit caused the Disciples to proclaim the Gospel in various languages. Thus, what was lost at Babel was being healed, if only in a preliminary way, by the Gospel. The church is established as the New Israel – incorporating all nations. In Christ, by His Spirit, we have unity, and we have a future.

Peter and Paul
Paul's writings also have something to say to the question. Paul makes it clear that when it comes to the Gospel, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) In Christ these distinctions are wiped away – for when it comes to salvation, God see us all the same. Equally dead in sin. Equally alive in Christ.

St. Peter also confesses, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. (Acts 10:34-35)

Who is my Neighbor?
And yes, even Jesus weighs in. When asked, “Who is my neighbor?”, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans were different people, with no love lost between them. But Jesus uses this particular example to show just how strong Christian love can be, to overcome even the fiercest of human divisions. After all, Jesus is the prototype of the Good Samaritan – one who is completely “other” from us, but becomes completely one of us, to save us, restore and renew us. To reconcile us to the Father in himself, and therefore also to one another.

This informs how we treat those of a different race, nation, or people. We see them as our neighbor. Especially for other Christians, who are not only neighbors but also brothers and sisters in Christ. “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” (Galatians 6:10)

So, what?
These basics from Scripture won't dissolve all the problems of racism. Even if everyone was to suddenly embrace Christianity and believe in Jesus, troubles would remain with us as long as the sinful flesh is still kicking. The world is fallen, and passing away. The happy ending only truly comes at the end, when Jesus Christ makes all things new. We long for that day! Still, while we wait, we are given this time and called to live and serve.

We recognize our Father's intentions for those He has created. We see the dignity inherent in all who bear His image. We confess the divisions among us are a result of sin. All this can help frame our thinking. We know the universal call of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and that the love He has shown us is the same love He has for all people. This helps us see others as Christ would see them. Therefore we seek to best love the neighbor God has set before us, no matter what tribe or nation or people or language. And this is a good place to start.

Pastor Chryst

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Sermon - Pentecost 11- Matthew 15:21-28

Matthew 15:21-28
“When Yes Looks like No”

You know that old saying about how God answers prayers either with a yes, no, or “wait”. I think of that as I read this passage about the Canaanite woman who comes to Jesus for help with her demon possessed daughter.

Someone else in her shoes might be discouraged when Jesus initially ignored her. Maybe the answer to her prayer was, “not now”. But she persisted. She cried out and the disciples, annoyed, tried to get Jesus to shoo her off.  After Jesus finally tells her, “it's not right to take bread from the children and throw it to the dogs”, another might have concluded the prayer was certainly answered, “no”, and move on in disappointment. But this woman persists. She doesn't take the apparent “no” for an answer. Here is the mystery.

Surely Jesus' actions are strange here, putting off this woman at first, calling her a dog, telling her it wasn't right for him to help her.... but take note of the strange persistence of this woman, who apart from the fact that she was asking for a supernatural solution to a supernatural problem, also had a supernatural persistence where others would have given up.

Jesus knows the heart. He knows what people need. He knows her and He knows what He is doing. So, too, he knows you. He knows your needs and problems better than you do. He knows what you think you need, and what you really do. He knows your timetable, but he also knows the “proper time”. And he means to do you good, even when it looks like he is ignoring you, putting you off, or even doing you evil.

And faith knows its object, that is, the Savior. Faith knows the character of this merciful Jesus who comes to help and rescue. Faith looks to Jesus for all good things, for daily bread as well as daily renewed life.

Now you. Without Christ, you have just as much right as this woman to expect good things from God – zero. She was an outsider, a pagan, and surely a sinner.

She was not a Jew – and Jesus was “sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”, at least for now.  Only later would his mission be broadened to include the “all nations” of the “Great Commission”.  But somehow, as a sort of a first-fruit of that, this Canaanite woman comes, already confessing faith in Christ.  She called him “Lord” and “Son of David”.  She knows exactly who he is.  How did she know?

Somehow, she had heard the word about Jesus, and she believed it.  Though at first he did not answer her, she had heard the word about him, and the Spirit had worked faith in her – faith enough to call on him persistently for his help in time of trouble.

The affliction of her daughter by this demon, who knows what caused it. Who knows what the cause of any calamity or affliction is in this life. But what we deserve for our sins is surely far worse. Your problems may be bigger or smaller. Your suffering may or may not compare. But what you bring to the table is the same – nothing good. Nothing with which to say, “Hey look, God, you owe me one here.”

Oh we try, in our twisted minds, to appeal to our own supposed merit. As if holding our temper for a bit against some annoying person impresses the Lord who is truly slow to anger. Your anger was likely sinful in the first place.

Or as if writing a check to support a good cause shows God how good your heart is, and now, He'll send you some benefit in kind. But just try to hide the darkness bubbling in your heart from the one who knows all. He's not fooled by a donation here and there. You can't pay off the debts you truly owe.

Or maybe you go out of your way for people who never appreciate all you do, day in and day out, quietly suffering their sheer ingratitude – surely God must look at all they put you through and reward you this time. A friend of mine used to say, “Get off the cross, we need the wood”. There is only one whose sacrifice is, of itself, pleasing to God.

God isn't impressed with your martyrdom, your charity, your patience, or any other supposed merit you bring. Our best works are as filthy rags. Our shining example is a pile of garbage to him. Tainted and corrupted wholly by sin, we are beggars through and through, who can only ask and plead for what we don't deserve. Just like this woman.
Just like a dog, begging at the master's table.

But the dog knows, and the woman knows, and the faithful know – that the master delights in feeding the beggar. He joys to be patient with the sinner, to give heavenly riches to the poor in spirit, and to sacrifice himself for those who bring nothing. Christ goes to the cross for this very reason.

This woman's faith is truly a remarkable example. She doesn't become indignant with Christ, “who does He think He is? Calling me a dog.... we Canaanites were here before those Jews....”. She doesn't appeal to some imagined basis for his help, as if she deserves it - “But Jesus, I've been such a good mother.” Nor does she give up and go away discouraged. She simply persists in trusting the giver of good things for even the smallest crumbs, and finds herself lavishly blessed and fed.

Luther comments, “There is more 'yes' in this than 'no'; 'yes', pure 'yes' is in it, but indeed deep and secretly, and it only appears as a pure 'no'.

In other words, God moves in mysterious ways. At least mysterious to us, fallen sinful people. But somehow, faith “gets” it. A hymn puts it this way, “Behind a frowning countenance faith sees a smiling face”. Behind the apparent “no”, faith sees the “yes” in Christ. You see your sins, but God sees Christ's righteousness. You see death all around you, but the Word says you are alive – and alive forever. You see shame and destruction and chaos and meaninglessness.... but the promises of God stand in the midst of the swirling mess and proclaim a sure, certain, profound truth – that God loves you in Jesus Christ and is busy blessing you now and for eternity. It is a great mystery that things which appear one way, with God, are so often another. Faith hears God's word, and contrary to what the eye can see, faith believes.

This woman, she had never met Jesus in person, never talked to him face to face, never got to know him, seen him in the flesh.  And neither have you.  But we've heard the word, the witness about him, and we too believe he will have mercy on us, that he has had mercy on us.  That in the mystery of his death and resurrection, our life is saved.
It may seem he is distant, aloof, unconcerned or even angry with us.  But trust in the word of his promise.  It may seem he is deaf to our prayers, too busy for your feeble requests, or deems you not worthy of his time or attention, but faithfully persist and endure to the end – your reward is just as sure.  His yes is for you.

Luther writes:  She catches the Lord Christ with His own Words. Yes, still more, with the rights of a dog she gains the rights of a child. Now where will he go, the dear Jesus? He has caught Himself and must help her. But know this well, He loves to be caught in this way. If we only had the skill of this woman to catch God in His own judgment and say: 'Yes, Lord, it is true, I am a sinner and not worthy of Thy grace, but you have promised forgiveness and didst not come to call the righteous, but, like St. Paul says, 1 Timothy 1:15, 'to save sinners.' Behold, the Lord must then through His own judgment, have mercy on us.

God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform. And one more thing today - the mystery is also for you to eat and drink. For under the bread and wine are the most precious gifts of Christ's flesh and blood. Not crumbs from the table, or sips sneaked from the master's cup when he's not looking – but a lavish feast, a spread unlike any other, and a foretaste of the feast to come. Here your sins are forgiven. Here your faith is strengthened. Here you receive Christ, really and truly, for your good.

There is no better remedy for what ails you than Christ. There is no other promise you can rest in, hope you can stand on, or future worth having apart from Christ. And there is no food for your faith but the bread of life that he provides, and the living water he gives to quench the thirsting soul. Jesus is everything. Even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the children's table. And even sinners like you, are welcome to feast in faith, in Christ our Lord. Even when it looks like a big “no”, “all the promises of God find their yes in him” (2 Cor 1:20)

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Sermon - Pentecost 7 - Romans 8:18-27

Romans 8:18-27
Hope in Christ”

Some people paint a dire picture of the future, and some have a rosier view. Some see technology making our lives ever better, until everyone enjoys a basic universal income and we spend our time in leisure and happiness. Others see climate change and other gloom and doom scenarios leading to a dystopia in which suffering and misery are the norm. Some prognosticate progress. Others claim the good old days are gone. But seeing that no one can really see the future, how does a Christian view the question? How are we to look forward, and think about what is to come, especially for us?

The Christian answer to this is hope. We are not naive about the suffering and troubles of the world. In fact, Jesus, Paul, even all of Scripture paint a picture of troubles that are ever increasing up to the end. Yet we also recognize the promises of God in Christ are for us – and those promises are what really matter about the future – our future. We are in Christ, and so we have hope. Christ lives, and so we will live. Christ has the victory, Christ has won us an inheritance, and in Christ nothing can separate us from the love of God.

Today's reading from Romans 8 really revolves around the Christian idea of hope. Here Paul spells out several reasons we Christians can have hope for the future, come what may. And the hope of the Christian is far more reliable, far more certain, and much more all-encompassing than any fleeting hopes this world has to offer.

This is more than Paul offering us some upbeat platitudes to buck up and cheer up and see the glass as half full, there's always tomorrow. Christian hope is a hope in Christ. It is built on Christ, it looks to Christ, it trusts in Christ.

This chapter, Romans 8, is the culmination of thought, a sort of a “so what” to everything Paul has laid out up to now. He spells out the righteousness of God that comes only by faith in Christ. And then he shows what such faith looks like, not only now as we continue to struggle with sin, but also the end of faith – that is, our hope for glory.

First, it is hope in the midst of suffering.
Paul does not deny that Christians suffer. But he calls us to keep our suffering in perspective. He's not ignoring or downplaying suffering. Remember, Paul himself knows suffering well.

This is not a situation of “easy for you to say, Paul, you're not going through what I am.” Paul tells us about his sufferings in 2 Corinthians 11:

Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.

And yet this same Paul can say the sufferings of this life aren't worth comparing to the glory to be revealed.

And then there's Jesus. The man of sorrows, well acquainted with grief. The one who suffered for all. He has bourn our griefs and carried our sorrows. He bore even the cross, to win us the victory. Christ calls us to follow him, carry our own cross. He knows we will suffer. But he also knows the vindication of the Father – and the vindication we too will see.

Our suffering is temporary, but our hope is for eternity. Our suffering is here for a little while, but God will wipe away our tears and we'll be with him forever. Suffering results from sin, and sin has met its end in the suffering and death of Christ. And so whatever we must endure here in this fallen world isn't worth comparing, it doesn't even tilt the scale, when weighed against the blessings that will be revealed. This is hope. Not a dismissive attitude toward suffering, but a sober assessment of where it fits in the grand scheme of things.

There is a glory that will be revealed to us. It's already there, of course, but unseen. Hope is the assurance of that which is unseen. And on the last day it will be revealed. All will become clear. We will see who is truly a believer, who is truly a son and heir, and the inheritance that is ours will be on full display.

This hope is not only for us, but for all creation. Creation waits for it, Paul says, with eager expectation. He's personifying creation here to show us a few things – one, the extent of sin's corruption, and two the extent of the restoration that is our hope.

Creation is fallen. It's broken. And it all goes back to Adam and his sin. When Adam, whom God placed over creation and charged him with dominion – when Adam sinned, all creation fell with him. It was subjected to futility. It was placed in bondage to corruption. This explains so much suffering. It's not that God brought it or wanted it. But Adam sinned and brought sin's consequence of death to all.

And so creation is groaning. It's like a woman in labor, going through fits and starts of pain and suffering. Natural disasters, diseases, chaos, sorrow, and all sorts of trouble. It comes and goes, but it seems to be getting worse overall. It comes and goes, but it seems to be driving toward something. An end is coming. A new heaven and a new earth is promised. Creation will be restored, for the sin that held it in bondage is paid, and death – the last enemy to be defeated – will see its end when Christ comes in glory.

The creation's hope is related to ours, you see. For the renewal and restoration in Christ is not just for the world, it is for you. And it's not just for your spirit, it's for your body. The whole creation is redeemed in Christ. And you, your whole person is redeemed in Christ. This is our hope. To be saved, body and soul, forever.

This is why Christ died in the body, to redeem us – including our bodies. This is why Christ rose, bodily, from the dead – to save us, bodily, from death. This is why he promises a resurrection for us – a resurrection like his – a life of the world to come that we confess in the creed and look forward to in faith.

Too many Christians today think of heaven only in spiritual terms. Too many funerals proclaim our dead loved ones are “in a better place” as if that's the end of the story. It's true. The dead in Christ rest in peace. But there is even more hope! There is a resurrection in the offing. Your body will rise and live. And it will be suffering-free. Pain will be gone. Glory will be revealed as the sons of God enjoy his inheritance forever. This is our hope. This is our future.

Admittedly, we are still weak. We don't always believe it like we should. We sin like we shouldn't. We don't live in accord with this hope. We don't pray like we should. We often don't even know how. But God does not leave us without help. He sends his Spirit.

And while the Spirit works through the word, yes... and the Spirit is in us by our baptism, yes. The Spirit strengthens us for good works and keeps us in the faith, yes. But wait, there's more... the Spirit also intercedes for us. He acts, like Christ does, as a go-between. And here's a wonderful promise: That the Holy Spirit prays for us even when we don't know what to pray. This is a great comfort!

I would love to have perfect prayers. Wouldn't you? But sometimes in this mixed up crazy fallen down world – I don't even know what to ask. I would love to pray every time that I should – but like you, my prayers aren't as frequent as they should be. I'd love if my prayers were pure and holy like Christ's, if they were selfless and loving even to my enemies – but I can't always get over myself and pray “as we forgive those who trespass against us”. But guess what. The Spirit prays for you – and better than you – and in your place. He prays in ways that you can't – with groans that words cannot express (and please don't ask me to explain that, but doesn't it sound great?) Just as Christ does for us what we can't do for ourselves in dying for our sins and winning our redemption – so also Christ's Spirit does for us what we can't – and prays for us, intercedes for us perfectly, in accord with God's will.

So wait patiently, Christian, with hope. You have the first fruits of the Spirit – a down payment on the great reward that is to come. You have the word of hope. You have the forgiveness of sins. You have the blessings of baptism. You have the holy supper of Christ. You have the Spirit's prayers. You have a promised inheritance. You have a glory that will be revealed. You have a resurrection in your future. And you have Jesus Christ, the author and finisher of your faith. The redeemer, the savior, the one in whom we hope. Trust in him, and the sufferings of this world are truly not worth comparing to the glory to be revealed.  


Monday, July 17, 2017

Sermon - Pentecost 6 - Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23

“The Sower”
Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23

Now here is a parable of Jesus – and a most blessed example – in that he actually spells out its meaning. Thanks be to God that we have this opportunity. Thanks be to God that Christ explains his parable to the disciples, and also, therefore to us.

The key element of the parable is the seed – which is the word of God. Like other parables, such as the mustard seed, in which the beginnings of God's kingdom start small. A seed – which may seem dormant, even dead, but holds the potential for all sorts of life to sprout forth. A miracle of latent power in each seed, really, and so an apt metaphor for the word of God. We will see this seed in action when we get to examining the various soils.

And the sower – Is it the Father who sends out his word via the apostles and prophets, or the Son – who preached freely to all about the kingdom that was at hand and had arrived in him – or is it the pastor, who even today, preaches and proclaims the word of God – the whole counsel of God, law and gospel, treasures old and new? Probably the answer is yes, all of the above. Take your pick.

But not all have ears to hear. And so not all will hear. There are, sadly, different kinds of soil. And not all of it is good. Why doesn't the preached word of God always flourish? Why isn't the Gospel always received with great joy and to marvelous effect? Why doesn't every mission congregation that preaches the good news of Jesus grow into a sprawling megachurch brimming with parishioners and bursting with baptisms, weddings, and filling its coffers with offerings?

What's wrong with the seed? Is it bad? No. But there are different kinds of soil. In fact, the same good seed is sown – even recklessly so – on all kinds of soil. And yet the mystery is that some receive and some do not. Some believe, and some do not. Some seem to get it, yet fall away – either lacking deep roots, or choked by the cares of the world. So it goes, and so it goes...

One purpose of this parable appears to be to set our minds at rest on this question, “why do some believe, and not others?” And while he really doesn't explain it, Jesus does show the way it works, how it happens. There are spiritual forces that hinder the word of God. So don't be surprised. There are different kinds of soil, and so the seed, that is, the word, does not always produce the same. There are different kinds of people, in different situations, with different reactions to the word, and so the seed sprouts differently here and there.

And another thing. Just because some of the seed doesn't become full grown plants, doesn't mean there's something wrong with the seed. Nor does one lay blame upon the sower. Rather, it is the soil that is not fertile. It is too rocky, to weed-filled, or what have you. In other terms, when the Gospel is rejected, it's not God's fault or desire. When men refuse to hear and believe, when we close our ears, let the cares or riches or pleasures of the world overtake us, it's on us. So when people fall for the devil's temptations and disbelieve or despair, it is our their doing, the blame is on them, not the sower, or the seed.

But thank God we are the good soil, right? Thank God we always hear the word with a noble and good heart! Thank God we always keep his word and have all these wonderful fruits of faith to show! Thank God we have such patience and, well, too bad for all those other bad soils out there.

Does anything sound wrong to you about such talk? It should! Jesus doesn't mean to puff up our egos here with his parable – to give us a sense of spiritual superiority over all those other kinds of soil.

But part of the mystery is also this: That you and I can be all of these sorts of soil at one time or another!

Some seed falls aside the road, is trampled, and quickly snatched by the devil. Sometimes the devil's wicked machinations are successful in turning our attention away from the word of God. Sometimes he distracts us, and we let him. Sometimes he twists the scriptures or sows doubt with his age-old question, “did God really say?”. He loves to brew his concoctions of truth mixed with error and then get us to take a swig or two. And if he could, he would snatch the Gospel away entirely, and leave us with nothing but false pride or despair. Sometimes the Word appears to fall on deaf ears. The seed of its teaching never takes root, never grows, and is gone quickly. The Devil can't stand the idea that it might yet sprout, so he does what he can quickly to interfere, and snatch that word away.

Dear Lord, protect us from this foe! And he does. For the same thing that Satan would snatch away is itself the weapon that defeats him – one little word can fell him – if that word is the Word of God. The foe is defeated by Christ in the wilderness. The foe is defeated by Christ at the cross. The foe in triumph shouted when Christ lay in the tomb, but lo, he now is routed, his boast turned into gloom. Christ lives! The battle is won. The word proclaims it. Let our hearts believe it.

Likewise the temptations and the cares of this world, we sometimes let pollute our soil. Persecution or the fear of it may choke out the word, if we let it. Riches, too, can be a hindrance – for all too often the soil that thinks it is rich is poor, and only the soil that knows it is poor needs what the good seed brings.

And no, friends, we have no time to stand around criticizing our neighbor's soil, pontificating on why his plants aren't bearing more fruit, and what he could be doing to improve. We have plenty of problems in our own backyard, in the garden of our own life, the weed-patch of our own hearts. Repentance is always in order.

Deliver us, Lord, from being unreceptive to or distracted from your word! Keep us from comparing our lives to our neighbor, but ever only to the perfect standard of your word. Remind us, then, not only of our sin, but of our Savior, who intends to sow in us his good word, that we may be fruitful. Amen.

How often Christians emphasize “being in the word”, and “you need to be in the word”. But the picture here is different. The word is planted in us. Even this is God's doing, not ours. When you hear Law and Gospel preached – for your repentance and forgiveness – the Spirit of God is blowing those seeds toward you. When you are convicted of your guilt but comforted by Christ's forgiveness, the Spirit plants that word in your heart once again. And when the Spirit brings you to faith, and to deeper faith by his own mysterious working of that word – then does it bear the abundant fruit, the hundredfold that Jesus promises. When sinners are brought to repentance and faith in Christ.

And Christ's gifts of forgiveness and mercy are distributed even more freely than the reckless sower scatters his seed. Oh what of that, and what of that? He is no respecter of persons, but died to save all – Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. Big sinners and little sinners, lifelong church people and those who've just arrived. He casts the same good seed to all.

To you, friends in Christ, it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God. To you, the good seed of His word has been cast. In you, the Spirit works to sprout and grow that word planted in your heart, that it would flourish and flower and bear fruit a hundredfold.

But he does it not by making you strong and successful and glorious. He does it by death and resurrection. He does it by suffering, cross-bearing, and refinement in fire. He buries you with Christ in baptism, drowning Old Adam each day, as by grace the New Man arises. May it ever be so by God's grace in Christ. Let us continually receive his word, as all his gifts, with thanksgiving.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Sermon - Pentecost 5 - Matthew 11:25-30

Pentecost 5
July 9, 2017
Matthew 11:25-30
“Rest in Christ”

We're just coming off of a holiday weekend, and I hope you've gotten, or will soon get, some vacation time this summer. Maybe you'll be traveling, like we will, to go see family. Maybe you'll take the kids sight-seeing. Or maybe you have something even bigger and grander planned. Or maybe you'll just opt for a “stay-cation”. Of course, many go away to see new places and things and participate in exciting activities. But another reason we take vacations is to take a break, right? To get some rest.

Even the secular world seems to understand the need humans have for rest. But the pattern was already set in the first week – when after 6 days of work God rested on the seventh. If even God can rest from his work, then certainly we his creatures ought to, from time to time. He designed our bodies to need a certain amount of sleep to function. He set aside and prescribed certain times and days for the Old Testament people to rest – even a once-every-50-years “year of jubilee”. And all of this is a gift, as Christ teaches, man wasn't made for the Sabbath. The Sabbath was made for man.

Here in Matthew 11, Jesus offers a different kind of rest, “rest for your souls”. Let's explore what our Lord means by this gracious offer of rest.

Before we get to the rest Christ offers, take note of what he says in the first part of this passage. One, that God hides wisdom from the wise and gives it to children. This is God's gracious will. It fits with so many other passages of Scripture in which God does exactly opposite of what the world expects. The world expects the wise to be those who have studied and learned, who are well-read and well-pedigreed, with alphabets following their names and pontificating from ivory towers of expertise. But the wisdom of God is found in the faith of a child that sings, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” One seems to have it all, but knows nothing. The other seems a credulous fool, but is wiser than the wise of this world. We will come back to this.

And secondly, that everything Christ gives, he receives from God, and gives or reveals to those he chooses. This shows us that there are those things, those truths, which we humans cannot access on our own. No matter how much we study creation and ponder it, no matter how well we understand the mathematics and know the science, there still stands apart from it all – Divine Revelation. That which we cannot know or see or believe, but what must be revealed to us by the one to whom it belongs.

As the catechism reminds us, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength, believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him...” so we confess that without what Christ gives us, shows us, tells us... we are lost. We know nothing, we have nothing. It's all gift. Which leads us to his gracious offer of rest:

A rest that is given, not earned.
In this world, you have to earn your living, but also your rest. You only get so many days off. You get so much vacation, or whatever the benefits of your contract, and that's it. Sometimes you can cash out the unused portion at the end – but only what you have earned, what you are due, what you deserve.

Well if scripture speaks in terms of wages, we ought to tremble in fear of what wages we have earned. The wages of sin is death. This is the paycheck that comes due for those who turn from God and his law. This is what we would deserve if God's economy operated purely on justice, and not mercy. A man reaps what he sows. Without Christ, our just deserved would be punishment, wrath, and a casting away from God's presence forever. But rather than cast us out, Jesus says, “come to me...” Rather than giving us what is due, he gives us according to his grace.

Jesus doesn't say here, “Come to me, work for me, and I will give you the rest you earn. When you're down plowing the fields, if you've done enough, worked hard enough, then you'll get your pay.” Far from it. He's offering something for free. He's giving, and that is what a gift is – without cost. Here he speaks of this gracious gift in terms of rest. Rest for the weary. Rest for those carrying heavy burdens. Rest that consists of an easy burden and a light yoke – rest that comes only from him.

For his part, he takes the heavy yoke of the cross. He bears on his shoulders the tiresomeness of a world of sinners, the burden of all our guilt and shame. He works – his whole life – carrying the mantle for all of us who labor under the law to no avail. But Jesus did it. He fulfilled the law and then paid the debt. A perfect life and a sufficient death. His work brings us rest. His labor brings us rewards. His earnings – our paycheck.

Rest from good works.
And so the rest he brings is a rest from trying to do it ourselves. Not that we could, but so many would try. It is a lie of the devil that we could earn our salvation, or even contribute to it. That's what the reformation was ultimately about – can man cooperate with God toward his salvation? Rome said yes, we must! Luther (and Scripture) say no, we can't. And we ought not think we can. This is a giant hamster wheel that gets us nowhere fast. It either creates in us a false sense of pride, that our good works are worth something to God... or it leaves us in a place of despair, knowing that we can't work our way to heaven (but obscuring Christ from our eyes). Rather... Christ has done the work for us. You can rest in him!

This doesn't mean that the Christian does no good works. In Christ, we want to, we strive to, and with the help of the Spirit we grow into the good works he has prepared in advance for us to do. But in Christ, the burden is light and the yoke is easy. The good works we do spring from faith and are no drudgery. And though they are of no value for our salvation, they serve our neighbor in love. The labor of salvation is done, but the work of expressing faith continues.

Rest for the conscience.
Related to the rest he gives when it comes to the treadmill of good works, is a rest for the troubled conscience. This rest, this peace, sets us at ease knowing that in him even our deepest darkest sins are nothing. That Christ's atoning sacrifice on the cross is sufficient. That we are baptized into Christ – and that's not about the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God.

What this rest is NOT.
The rest that Christ gives, is not, however, a promise of a trouble-free life. It's not a get-out-of-suffering-for-free card. It doesn't mean we can or should be lazy. It doesn't mean that our earthly lives will be peaceful, calm or restful. It doesn't mean we can expect no persecution – quite on the contrary, the world will hate us on account of him. It doesn't mean that our enemies – devil, world, and sinful flesh – will just quit bothering us now that we are in Christ. If anything, they trouble us even more. The world is a hostile place, with no rest for the weary, especially the weary Christian. It is a valley of the shadow of death. But in it, we are not alone. And from it, there is an escape, a final hope, a promised rest.

Eternal rest.
Perhaps the most expansive fulfillment of this promised rest in Christ comes at the last – when we enjoy the rest in peace that comes at death, and in the mansions of heaven. Our hope in Christ is not only for this world, for this life, but we look to the horizon, and see life with him beyond. I believe in the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.

Jesus made many promises of this, from his words of grace to the thief on the cross: “today you will be with me in paradise”, to his words to the sheep in the judgment of the sheep and the goats, “enter into your rest”, to his words here in Matthew 11, “come unto me all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

In your hymnal, you have of course the various services we use here in church – Divine Services, Matins, even Vespers and Evening Prayer. But there is also a service called “Compline – Prayer at the Close of the Day”. It's meant as a sort of expanded bedtime prayer for God's people. We used this service every night with the youth at our recent conference in San Antonio. And one of the prayers it includes, well let me share it with you now. And let my words here conclude with these words that ask for the rest that comes only in Christ. We pray:

O Lord, support us all the day long of this troubled life, until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes and the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then, Lord, in Your mercy grant us a safe lodging and a holy rest and peace at the last; through Jesus Christ, our Lord.” Amen.


Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Sermon - Matins - Higher Things 2017

June 28, 2017
1 Kings 18:20-40
Matins - Higher Things Conference "Here I Stand"

Here I stand. And there Elijah stood: It's time to fish or cut bait, people. You've been going back and forth, to and fro. Either serve the true God Yahweh, or go after your false god, Baal. Let's have a contest. You build an altar, I'll build mine. We'll make a sacrifice. Whoever gets their god to send down fire on it, well that God is the real deal. You go first.

What? Your god isn't listening? Maybe you need to pray harder. Cry louder. Maybe Baal's in the bathroom. (And who says the Bible doesn't have any bathroom humor?) Today he might say Baal's internet is down, or his phone is on “do not disturb”. Oh, now you're cutting yourselves? Ew. Gross. But even all this blood won't get his attention? But after half a day of this nonsense, there was no fire. There was no voice. No one answered. No one paid attention.

Elijah says, “Let's make this interesting. Dump a bunch of water on my altar. No wait, dig some trenches so we can even surround with with water. Douse it good. Not once, not twice, three times.” And then Elijah prayed. And the fire fell. And it was no mediocre fire, it was Texas hot fire. To burn the bull, the wood, the water and the very stone... you need fire about 2800 degrees Farenheit. Yahweh means business.

And so you could say Elijah proved his point, or rather Yahweh did. And Elijah took those 450 false prophets and had them executed. Which made wicked queen Jezebel put a price on his head, but that's another story. So what do we make of this dramatic contest, the smackdown on Mt. Carmel? What does it have to do with you, and with Jesus for you?

So where do you stand? You can see yourself, perhaps, in the audience. One of those curious onlookers waiting to see how this would all go down. You're not watching Baal vs. Yahweh, but the contest today is between Yahweh and, well, lots of other things. You probably even have your own personal little Baals. Worldviews, ideas, lifestyles opposed to God, vying for your attention and loyalty and even participation. Will this contest end with you in the camp of the true faith? Or will the false prophets of the world convince you with their gesticulations and persuasions? Or maybe they already have. Don't be a human ping-pong ball, back and forth between the truth and lies. Repent. Turn away from all that. Look to Christ, to Yahweh, and live.

God does what he says he will do. He keeps his promises. Now, he has not promised to send down fire from heaven whenever you want. That would probably cause us some trouble, anyway. But he has promised to send down his forgiveness on you just as gratuitously, or even more. His grace in Jesus Christ melts away all your sins. His baptismal waters power-wash away every spot and stain. There's nothing left. This is no half-way, strings-attached, mealy-mouthed, mamby-pamby, all for show, sissy-pants forgiveness. This is a full-throttle, take-no-prisoners, super-sized, punch in the gut, for all-the-marbles, complete annihilation of sins kind of forgiveness. God does not mess around.

And where's Jesus in all of this? He's the Elijah that prays on our behalf. Where's Jesus? He's the sacrifice on the altar who is himself consumed, so that the fires of hell can't touch us. Where's Jesus? He's the one who shed his own blood – and unlike with those loser prophets, with Jesus' blood - Someone listened, Someone answered, Someone paid attention. God the Father answered and accepted the sacrifice on the cross, and showed it by raising Jesus from the dead. And so, Jesus wins.

You know the score: Sin, death and Devil – zip. Baal nothing. Yahweh everything, forever. Jesus wins it all - and he wins you, not just now, but forever. That you may be his own, live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in everlasting righteousness innocence and blessedness. This is most certainly true. This is where it stands. In Jesus Name. Amen.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Sermon - Pentecost 3 - Matthew 10:5a, 21-33

“Confessing Christ. Confessed by Christ.”

Pentecost 3
Matthew 10:5a, 21-33
June 25th, 2017

As most of you know, this year marks the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation – 500 years since 1517, when Luther nailed those 95 theses on the church door of Wittenberg. The events that followed, both for Lutheran personally, and really for the whole world – would change the course of history. 13 years into this movement, it finally came time to settle on a formal presentation of just what the Lutherans believed, and taught, and confessed. That statement, that formal document, is known as the Augsburg Confession. Today, June 25th, marks the “Presentation of the Augsburg Confession”, now 487 years ago.

And we also have Jesus' words to his disciples today from Matthew 10, as he sends them out as sheep among wolves. He warns them that there will be persecution, and that some will even seek to kill them. But he tells them not to fear, and that “whoever acknowledges me before men, I will acknowledge before my Father”. Or, whoever “confesses” me before men.

Today in light of the anniversary of the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession, and of Jesus' own words from Matthew 10, I'd like to talk to you about the Christian practice of confession – especially in terms of confessing, making known, proclaiming positively, exactly what it is we believe – as the Christian confession ought always be a confession of Jesus Christ.

Back at Augsburg, the Lutheran princes had been asked to give a public account of just what it is that they believed. Phillip Melancthon, Luther's good friend and colleague, wrote the text of this document, and the princes who espoused these teachings set out for Augsburg Germany where the document was formally read aloud to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. It was a Saturday afternoon, about 3pm. Dr. Christian Beyer read the entire document aloud, as a hushed crowd listened through the open windows and over 200 gathered in the hall.

This confession of faith really is the birthday of the Lutheran church, if there is such a thing. The 95 theses got the ball rolling, but Augsburg meant the clear and true articulation of just what this was all about – the Gospel! That man is entirely sinful and unable to contribute to our salvation. That we are saved, not by works, but by the grace of God in Jesus Christ alone. Article 4, the most important of the 28 articles, is short but powerful. It states:

Our churches teach that people cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits or works. People are freely justified for Christ's sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven for Christ's sake. By his death, Christ made satisfaction for our sins. God counts this faith for righteousness in his sight.”

This may not sound all that radical or strange to you, especially if you are a lifelong Lutheran. But for those who confessed Christ at Augsburg, it meant taking their lives in their hands. To stand before one of the most powerful men in the world, and boldly proclaim a truth he and the Roman Catholic Church wanted stamped out... it was a fearful thing. But thanks be to God that he so strengthened them, so that they and their spiritual descendants, including us... that we can hear the pure Gospel of Christ preached from Lutheran pulpits everywhere.

But friends, this is just one example, albeit a dramatic one, of a time when Christians made the bold confession of Christ in the face of danger and persecution. The disciples that Jesus first sent out preaching would meet opposition. The apostles he sent out after his ascension would be persecuted, and most of them martyred. The early church found no friend in the Roman empire as they suffered for confession Christ, thrown to lions, cut down in the Colosseum, even crucified in mockery of Christ. Christians today are still being killed for their confession, as youtube videos appear with Christians being beheaded and worse.

Christians here in America are faring better, but we can see which way the winds are blowing. The signs are ominous as those who confess Christ and his teachings are pushed further to the edges of the public square, fined for refusing to bake cakes or take photographs, facing jail for exposing the abortion industry, mocked and ridiculed for our backward and bigoted and narrow minded bible-thumpery. Perhaps you also can feel the noose tightening around the church, the jaws of the lion widening to devour us (if he could). Enemies abound, near and far. It could easily drive us to fear, or worse, despair.

But here in Matthew 10, Jesus has words of comfort for us – in at least these three ways: He warns us that the persecution will come. He assures us we are of great value to him. And he promises to confess us before the Father.

“You will be hated by all for my name's sake”. While this warning of persecution isn't strictly a comfort in itself, at least it means we won't be surprised and shocked when it happens. What about those Christians who are taught that life in Christ means all sunshines and rainbows, buttercups and smiley faces... and then suffering comes, tragedy strikes, and they are persecuted? It could lead one to conclude that God has forsaken him. It could make you think that God can't be trusted, or that the persecution is evidence of his anger. But because Jesus predicts these things, we are not taken unawares when they happen. In fact, we expect it. The Christian life is a life of cross-bearing. And it means that sooner or later, one way or another, persecution will come. For the world hates Christ, and no servant is above his master. If they hate him, they will hate you, too, Christian. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that when we are persecuted, we are “Blessed”, “for in the same way the persecuted the prophets who were before you.” In other words, when you are persecuted for Christ, you are in good company. You are part of the company of heaven.

Will we see such persecution, even here, in the United States? It's certainly possible. Anyone who has witnessed how quickly the world has moved the ball down the field on the question of sexuality shouldn't be surprised when it moves further. And anyone who hears these words of Christ, dire warnings that they are, should not be surprised when a world that hates him hates you, too, a world that shed even his blood, would shed yours, too. We pray for peace to practice our faith unmolested. But we are not so naiive to think it must always be this way. Our trust must be in God, over and above even country. And we ought to teach our children as much.

But have no fear of them. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” In other words, these worldly enemies are not worth your fear. Their power over you is limited, by the One who holds all power and authority. They can only hurt your body, at worst. He has your very soul in his hands. But the good news is that he values you, and will care for you. The sparrows are worth only a few cents, and he knows all about them. He even has the hairs of your head numbered. He won't lose you to the world. He won't let them take you away from him. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. So have no fear. We can sing with the psalmist, “The LORD is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?”

And finally, Jesus encourages us to make the good confession when he promises to do likewise, “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.” Yes, it's one thing to believe in Christ in your heart. And that is faith that saves. But that faith will always lead to confession before men.

And it's not that confessing before men that earns Jesus' approval. It's not a “you-scratch-my-back, I'll-scratch-yours” sort of thing. It's like when Jesus says, “her sins are forgiven, for she loved much”. We can see faith's effects in outward ways. Love of others. Forgiveness of others. Confession before others of that very faith in Christ. It is therefore the one who has such faith, a faith that confesses Christ, that Christ himself will acknowledge or confess before the Father.

What a promise! That Jesus will stand before the Father and acknowledge you. That he will say, “This one's with me. I vouch for him. I died for her. Yes, Father, accept this one for I have paid the price, shed my blood for this child of yours.” With Christ on our side, as our advocate, who can condemn us? Not even God himself.

For Christ has died for you. Christ has declared it finished, for you. Christ has swallowed up death in victory, for you. And Christ reigns on heaven's high throne forever, for you. And Christ will confess you before his Father. Believe it for Jesus' sake. And confess him always. Amen.