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.  

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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.


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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.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Sermon - St. Barnabas

The Encouragement of Pastors

St. Barnabas, Apostle
The 10th Anniversary of Ordination for
Rev. James Alfred Roemke
June 11, 2017

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Today we gather to give thanks to God for the ministry of his servant Pastor Jim Roemke these past 10 years. It is good and fitting for the church to honor her ministers, for in doing so we honor the One who sends them to us, even our Lord Jesus Christ. So also, today, even though Pastor Roemke hasn't served here at Messiah all of those 10 years, we recognize also that God has worked through this man here and at his former parish, to forgive sins, administer the sacraments to sinners, and to proclaim the word of God and especially the message of Christ crucified.

It was about 10 years ago, when my good friend here was ordained, that I also had the privilege of preaching for the occasion. And, God willing, perhaps I'll have the honor again many years from now to do the same again. But for today, we agreed it was fitting to observe the commemoration of St. Barnabas, who's day falls on June 11th. Pastor reminds me this was the occasion, also, for the first Sunday he ever served as an actual pastor. But it is fitting for many other reasons, as we'll soon see. First, some background on Barnabas:

His given name was Joseph, but he was called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement). He was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, and he sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles' feet. (Acts 4:36-37). Here Scripture makes first mention of Saint Barnabas.

This name given by the Apostles matches what we know of his actions. When Saul of Tarsus (or Paul) came to Jerusalem after his conversion, most of the congregation wanted nothing to do with him. They knew him only as a persecutor and an enemy of Christ's Church. Barnabas, however, willingly gave him a second chance. He sought him out, spoke with him, and brought him to meet the other Christians, vouching for him.

Later, Paul and Barnabas went on a missionary journey together, taking Barnabas's cousin Mark along. Part way, Mark turned back and went home. When Paul and Barnabas were about to set out on another such journey, Barnabas proposed to take Mark along, and Paul was against it, saying that Mark had shown himself undependable. Barnabas wanted to give Mark a second chance, and so he and Mark went off on one journey, while Paul took Silas and went on another. Apparently Mark responded well to the trust given him by the "son of encouragement," since we find that Paul later spoke of him as a valuable assistant (2 Timothy 4:11; see also Colossians 4:10 and Philemon 24).

Barnabas stands for us, today, as an encourager as well. Yet another example of a faithful ministry of the word, he teaches us by example and reminds us of gifts God gives to his church through his appointed servants.

The apostles gave him the name, “Barnabas”, but I also like to call him “Mr. Second Chances” He reminds me, for instance, that it is one aspect of the pastor's office to afford “second chances” to sinners, under the cross of Christ. The cross is the only second chance we have with God, the only escape clause from the punishments due for sin. And a faithful pastor points sinners to that cross, and to this Christ.

Yes, Paul was a great sinner and persecutor of the church, but Baranabas could see through the cross, that Christ had forgiven Paul and would use him for good. Yes, Mark may have chickened out or given up when the going got tough, but Barnabas saw through the cross, that whatever Mark's failing – Christ had it covered, and Mark would go on to continue serving the kingdom.

You, also have a faithful Barnabas, Messiah. Your pastor here, will encourage you with the same cross of Christ, and restore you by the forgiveness Christ speaks through him. It doesn't matter what your sin is, this pastor will hear your confession and pronounce God's holy absolution for the sake of Christ. It doesn't matter how big or how small it is, the Barnabas in this place will remind you of your baptism, where your old Adam drowns and your new Adam arises daily. Were you unkind, or selfish, or angry, or lustful, or negligent, or prideful, or gossipy, or discontent, or hateful, or cowardly, or some combination or all of the above? This faithful Barnabas will feed you with the very Body and Blood of Christ, who was none of those things, but who takes all of those sins and more and wipes them out, giving you a clean slate each and every time.

The Gospel reading for today is also helpful. Why is this chosen for St. Barnabas day? Barnabas wasn't one of the 12 sent out here by Jesus, though Luke refers to him briefly with the same title, “apostle”. Perhaps because, like the 12, Barnabas was also sent out, though at a different time and to different places, in a twosome with St. Paul. And furthermore, this reading from Mark 6 gives some basic contours common to all who serve in the public ministry of the word. Consider:

Jesus sends them out with authority – and so he does for us, and this is good for you, the hearer. To know that the pastor doesn't preach his own word, his own ideas, his own opinions – but always and only the word of Christ. A word that has authority. So when the pastor forgives your sins, it's not his forgiveness, but God's. When the pastor proclaims that in Christ, salvation is sure, eternity is yours, and “it is finished”, you know these are not his words, but the words of him who sends him. And that is an encouraging thought.

Take note, it says Jesus “began to send” them out... This isn't the last time Jesus would send out preachers carrying his message. It may have been that he sent the 12 out on several occasions similar to this, as it seems Matthew and Luke's accounts have some varying details. Jesus would send out the 72 in pairs of proclamation. And some of his final words before his ascension were words of sending, that disciples should be made of all nations by baptizing and teaching everything he has commanded. The same Jesus, by the same Spirit, sent laborers into his harvest fields throughout history, all over the world, and has even sent a young man from Indiana to a congregation in Kenosha for the same purposes.

Jesus also reminds them that some will hear and receive and believe, and others will reject this message. He instructs the disciples to testify against them by the prophetic action of shaking the dust off their feet. A powerful statement that if you won't receive Christ and his word, then you have no part with him or his church. But the flip side is that some will believe and show appreciation for the word, the ministry, and therefore the ministers of this message. Some would even take them into their homes, and show hospitality as long as the preacher was there.

So also, today, not everyone has ears to hear the Gospel. I'll let you in on a little secret about us pastors. One of the hardest things for us, one of the biggest griefs we bear, is when people reject the Gospel of Christ. It happens far too often.

But the comfort, the encouragement for us from Christ is partly, knowing beforehand that some will reject, but also that some, like you will believe. And this is one of the greatest joys of the pastor. Not that his people love him. Not that they give him a nice salary or a Christmas bonus, or a nice parsonage or a 10 year anniversary celebration. But it pleases us most, gives us the most joy, when sinners repent and believe in Jesus Christ. When that happens, there's even a party in heaven as the angels join in great rejoicing.

But yes, that does also mean that those who receive the message and appreciate it will also care and provide for their pastors. And I know that you do so here at Messiah, and have for a very long time. It is a testament to your faith in Christ, and that you do treasure his precious Gospel. And because of that, you care for and treasure your pastor. And so, I encourage you - keep up the good work!

Thanks be to God for the 10 years he has proclaimed the word through this faithful servant. May God continue to bless and keep you and your family, Pastor Roemke, as you encourage these your people with the message of Christ crucified. And we pray that the Lord who has sent us into the harvest will also bless our labors, according to the work of his Spirit, for his good purposes and according to his gracious will. God grant it, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.







Sunday, June 04, 2017

Sermon - Pentecost - Acts 2:1-21

Pentecost, Then and Now
Acts 2:1-21
June 4, 2017

The Day of Pentecost. Another one of these yearly observances in the church that can be a little puzzling. Most of us have heard the story of that day, that original Christian Pentecost, many times. The Holy Spirit was poured out, tongues of flame rested upon the disciples' heads, they spoke in tongues they had never learned, and the pilgrims from all over the world now gathered in Jerusalem – all heard them declaring the wonders of God in their own languages. In fact we probably, many of us, know this story well from the Sunday School lessons of our childhood. Maybe you even had the flannel-gram version, like I did.

But what I've found that has puzzled people over the years is the Holy Spirit himself. We acknowledge even in our hymnody that he is the most mysterious person of the Trinity. And we observe that the doctrine about the Holy Spirit – his person and his work – has been the playground for all sorts of false teachings and confusion. Witness the Pentecostalism which arose at the beginning of the 20th century and is still alive and well in Charismatic theology both here and around the world.

Well, sadly we don't have time this morning to cover everything there is to know and say about the Holy Spirit. But I'd like us to draw some connections and reaffirm some basic points in light of this day, and this reading.

  1. The Holy Spirit works in the Word
  2. The Word testifies to Christ, and so does the Spirit
  3. The work of the Spirit continues, and Pentecost remains, when and wherever the Gospel is preached, and the church believes it

One of our most important confessions of faith as Lutherans is the Augsburg Confession. It's one of those statements that we pastors in the Lutheran Church swear to uphold and teach. And in Article 5, it lays out the distinctly Lutheran understanding of what Scripture teaches about the work of the Spirit:

So that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the gospel and administering the sacraments was instituted. For through the Word and the sacraments as through instruments the Holy Spirit is given, who effects faith where and when it pleases God in those who hear the Gospel, that is to say, in those who believe that God, not on account of our own merits but on account of Christ, justifies those who believe that we are received into grace on account of Christ. Galatians 3:14b: “So that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.”
They condemn the Anabaptists and others who think that the Holy Spirit comes to human beings without the Word through their own preparations.
So, it is through the Word of God that the Holy Spirit works saving faith, and also that word connected to the visible elements in the sacraments. This is where the Holy Spirit works. And while that still doesn't explain everything, it is a great comfort to us – and it also keeps us out of a lot of trouble.

For one, we know not to look for the Spirit apart from the Word. He's not going to bonk you on the head randomly or put some burning in your bosom. The Holy Spirit, apart from the Word, will not “lay it on your heart” or give you a special revelation of God's will.

The confessions say it even more forcefully in the Smalcald Articles:
Therefore we ought and must constantly maintain this point, that God does not wish to deal with us otherwise than through the spoken Word and the Sacraments. It is the devil himself whatsoever is extolled as Spirit without the Word and Sacraments.” – The Smalcald Articles, Part III, Article VIII, 10

This is not to say that God “can't” do as he wills, even work apart from the word. But that he has given us no direction, no indication, no promise of his blessings anywhere but in the word.

So if you want to know the Spirit, know the word. If you want to know where the Spirit works, or how, look to the Word. Even on the Day of Pentecost, those early Christians didn't receive the Spirit in order to prove their second-level faith or to confirm that they were really believers. They received the Spirit in order to proclaim the word of the Gospel. Granted, a miraculous and unusual form of the word – empowering speech in strange languages – but still using the word to tell of Christ.

Which brings us to the next point – The Spirit always testifies to Christ. This follows from our first point. If the Spirit works through the word of God, then we know that the Spirit must testify to Christ, for the word of God testifies to Christ. Jesus makes that plain as day. “You search the Scriptures... these are they that testify to me!” The word of God is the word that points to Christ, tells of Christ, reveals Christ, proclaims Christ. And that is what the Spirit is all about. He's not the Spirit of himself. He's the Spirit of Christ. He's like a bright shining spotlight that wants to point our attention always and only to Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith. Keep your eyes fixed on him! And no one can say, “Jesus is Lord!” except by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3)

The Small Catechism describes the Spirit's work with four verbs – He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies. First he calls us... to faith in Christ. We couldn't do it on our own. Just as we can't die for our own sins, and pay the price that's due – we need Jesus – so we can't believe in Jesus on our own – we need the Spirit. The Spirit, for instance, on that first Christian Pentecost, called thousands of Jewish pilgrims to faith – people from all over the world – by a miraculous proclamation of the Gospel.

The Spirit would then use those believers to call and gather others to Christ, even as they returned to their various homelands. Even as he gathers us together in churches throughout the ages and even today – and through the word has called and gathered us all here.

The Spirit enlightens – he sheds light – he reveals and makes known the things of God. Again, primarily and ultimately, this means Christ. It is by the Spirit, that we gain deeper knowledge of the word, and a fuller appreciation of its testimony to Christ.

And the Spirit sanctifies. He makes holy. He keeps us holy before God, and he works in our lives to make us more Christ-like. He helps us in the daily fight with sin, the daily return to Baptism, the daily death and resurrection of repentance and faith. The life under the cross of the Christian. He sanctifies our vocations, and makes all our work done in faith to be good works pleasing to God.

Yes the Holy Spirit remains active in the world, and especially in the Christian church. Here he “daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers”. He applies the riches of salvation won for us at the cross. He transmits them to us through the means God has provided – words of absolution, sacraments of font and altar. He ever broods over the church like he hovered over the primeval waters of creation. And so, Pentecost continues, in the church, to this day.

Pentecost was a harvest celebration for the ancient Jews. It marked the early harvest of wheat. And you can see why it's no accident that the Spirit is given on this day. Jesus says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few”. The Christian church is depicted as a harvest of the faithful. The Gospel seed is sown in soils of all kinds, and when it falls on good soil produces a harvest of even 100-fold. This is the work of the Spirit. This is the establishing of the church. This is the early harvest, looking forward to the final harvest when all the nations are judged, wheat and chaff are separated – the chaff to be burned in unquenchable fire and the wheat to be stored in his garner forevermore.

So for the church, everyday is Pentecost. Every time the Spirit gathers us around the word, speaks to us in our own language and declares the wonders of God. Every time sinners are called to repentance and faith in Christ. Every time your sins are forgiven and you are sent back into the harvest fields. Pentecost continues. The Spirit presses on.

The Holy Spirit works through the word.
That word always testifies to Christ.
When the word is proclaimed and believed, the Spirit is working, and Pentecost continues. The church is established, sustained, and it grows.

Thanks be to Christ, our one and only Savior. Thanks be to the Holy Spirit, the Lord of the Harvest, working for us, on us, and in us. Thanks be to the Father, who with the Son sends this Spirit, now and forever. Amen.




Monday, May 22, 2017

Sermon - Easter 6 - Acts 17:16-31

Strange Things”
Acts 17:16-31
Easter 6
May 21, 2017

Perhaps you've noticed that during the Easter Season the Old Testament reading is replaced by reading from the book of Acts. This has tripped up more than one pastor over the years, as we are creatures of habit. And so I'm always wary about announcing “Today's Old Testament Reading is from the New Testament book of Acts”. One way of looking at this is that in these readings from Acts we are seeing the immediate “effects of Easter”, as the early church grew and the message of the Gospel spread. The risen Jesus had sent his apostles to carry that message from Jerusalem to Judea, to Samaria, and eventually, to the ends of the earth. Today, we pick up with St. Paul, who certainly traveled to the ends of the earth, on a visit to Athens, Greece.

As was his custom, when Paul entered the city he first preached to the Jews in the synagogue. But he also made time to preach to the pagans of the city, and even the intellectuals who whiled away their days in discussions of philosophy and ideas. Some weren't so impressed with his preaching, and called him a “babbler”. Some seemed to think he was preaching about foreign gods, as pagans often thought of gods as being localized to a certain country.

They took him to a prominent rock outcropping - a place called the Areopagus - “Ares Rock”, named after one of their gods (later the Romans called it “Mars Hill” after their version of the god of war). Here was a sort of a city cultural center, but also a place where trials were held. In a way, they now put St. Paul on trial – and ask him to defend these “new teachings” and “strange things” brought to their ears.

Strange things. I'm sure what Paul was preaching sounded very strange to these Greek intellectuals. Strange, not just because he was a foreigner, a Jew. Paul was preaching “Jesus and the resurrection”! And what could be stranger than that?

For as much as these men, or any men, seek out new ideas and different religions, unique and unheard of systems of belief, all of that is really the same. The religion of man is the religion of works. And while it comes in many different guises, under many names and forms – it always boils down to the same, a religion of law. A religion in which you must do something or not do something in order to get something from some god, or force, or universal principle. Meditate to gain enlightenment. Build up your good karma to get a better spot in reincarnation. Pray the right way, live the right way, think the right way – and blessings will come your way.

And so when critics of religion and shallow observers of these many worldviews claim that all religions are basically the same and aim to teach you to be a good person, there is some truth to it. But there's one major exception – there's one religion, one faith, in which you can't do the right thing, but in which God does all good for you. You earn nothing, but he gives you everything as a pure gift. Not a religion of law, but a religion of grace. Not a religion of man, but the true religion of God. God doesn't need your good works, anyway. He made everything that is.

And to say that there's a lot of truth in these worldly religions – well, even Christians can say that. Most religions teach morality. Many have a creation story. They mostly encourage adherents to do good, and not evil. After all, in building his case, Paul even quoted from their own pagan literature: Epimenides of Crete and Aratus’s poem “Phainomena”. So there is some truth to almost all of these various systems of belief. And yet, they can't all be entirely true. And we know, there is only one way to the Father, one truth, and one life.

And so Paul sees that amongst all their statues and man-made images of man-made gods, there is one unusual idol – dedicated to the unknown god. That is, just in case we missed one. It's a small admission that perhaps they don't know it all or have it all right, so let's cover our bases here. Paul says yes, what you do not know, I am going to make known to you.

Paul starts with where they are, and brings these strange things to their ears – this talk of Jesus. He goes to creation, and shows how the God who created all things is also the God who expects us to follow his law, and honor him. He's patient, overlooking ignorance for a time, but he will also judge all men. He calls all men to repent, and to turn to the one, the only one, who can bring righteousness and make us righteous – the one man that God raised from the dead.

These are strange things. They were strange things to preach to a cluster of Greek philosophers in the first century. And they are strange things to a 21st century world steeped in a relativism and post-modernity. But they would be strange to any man-made, man-centered religion of law. For this is the doctrine of the Gospel – the pure and free grace of God for you, the sinner, on account of Jesus Christ's life and suffering and death and resurrection!

It's strange to your Old Adam, too. Natural man is really a creature of the law, born under the law, living and dying by the law. We have an innate (though twisted) sense of fairness... especially when we are wronged or slighted. As every child has said many times, “that's not fair!” and a frustrated adult would respond, “Life isn't fair”. But we all want life to be fair on our own terms. And we should dread if life was fair on God's perfect terms, for then we'd be lost, judged, condemned. God is fair, and just, but here's what is truly strange: he is also merciful! And in his mercy he has given us a way out of judgment.

And that way is Christ. Here's what's truly strange: That a God who hates sin would send his only son to die in the sinner's place. That by a crucifixion, a most shameful death, he would bring life to one and all. That this Jesus who died in such a way would be raised to life again on just the third day... and that his resurrection paves the way for our resurrection, even guarantees it. Strange as these things may be, this is our faith.

These are other truly strange things. That God forgives sins for the sake of Christ. That he gives men the authority to do so in his stead, on his behalf. That a little water sprinkled and the name of God spoken, Father, Son and Spirit – that a simple baptism – can seal you as God's child for eternity. That bread and wine can be what he says it is - “my body” and “my blood” for the forgiveness of your sins.

Paul says that the cross is a stumbling block, that is, a scandal, to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. And that is often the case. The teachings of Christ, of his Gospel, of his cross and resurrection – are all too strange for so many to receive, and believe.

Strange to the world, but to us who are being saved, the message of the cross is the power of God!

The reading for this morning continues with the results of Paul's preaching. Here's what followed:

32 Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33 So Paul went out from their midst. 34 But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.

So it was then, so it is today. Some hear the Gospel and reject it, and mock. Some hear and believe. For some these strange things are just too strange, too foolish, too unbelievable. But by the power of the Holy Spirit, some believe and are saved.

Today, what is left of all those false gods, statues and altars?  They are gone.  All that's left of the Areopagus is a bare rock.  But the word of the Gospel still stands, and will endure forever.  His Spirit still works through it, making Christ known.

God grant you that same Spirit, in ever more abundance, that you would continue to repent and believe the “strange things” of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And with Paul and Dionysus and Damaris, with all the believers of all time, we will join one day in the great resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, with. For what was unknown to us, has been revealed – in Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.