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.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Sermon - Easter 5 - John 14:1-6

Easter 5
John 14:1-14
“The One Way Jesus”
(Mother's Day)

Even though it's a secular holiday, we wish to take a moment to recognize Mothers' Day. We Christians give thanks to God for the blessings of motherhood: that God brought us into this world through our mothers. That he raised most of us and nurtured us through the care of a loving mother. That some of us have had the blessing of even becoming mothers and grandmothers ourselves.

Not everyone enjoys all of these blessings, of course, and in this fallen world we recognize that even the mention of a mother reminds some of a mother lost or estranged, or a mother never known, or a mother they wish they could be. Nonetheless, we give thanks for the godly vocation that motherhood is, as we can also see a common mother of us all in the Holy Christian Church.

While the modern, secular version of Mothers' Day dates back to 1914 (at least as a national holiday), there are ancient precedents for it even in the church. A long tradition in the UK and parts of Europe was known as “Mothering Sunday”, observed on the 4th Sunday in Lent. On this day, Christians would return to the church where they were raised (their “mother church”) for a special service. Maybe there are even echoes of that practice today as we often see people observe the day by coming to church with mom.

So today we may rightly thank God for earthly mothers, by whom we are born and fed and loved and nurtured. But also thank him for our mother, the Christian Church. Into which we were re-born by Holy Baptism. In which we are fed by the Sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood. And it is in this church where the Holy Spirit daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers.

Now on to our Gospel text for today from John 14, especially verse 6, “I am the way and the truth and the life” Jesus says, “No one comes to the Father but by me”.

Have you ever heard something like this:
You intolerant Christians! You really believe that Jesus is the only way to heaven? You mean to tell me that if a good Muslim or a good Jew or a good Buddhist or even a good atheist dies, that God won't have mercy on him? Come on! What a narrow-minded, exclusivist thing to believe? No wonder so many wars are fought in the name of religion – with people like you running around. This just proves that you are bigoted self-righteous bible thumpers. Jesus is the only way to heaven. Puh-leez.

Sound familiar? Maybe you've heard even just a part of a rant like this. And it's no fun being on the receiving end of such an attack. Words like these are, frankly, of the devil. It's the oldest trick in his book, to question, “Did God really say...?”

But yes, in fact, Jesus really says it. “No one comes to the Father but by me”. There's no way around it. There's no “yeah, but”. His words are simple and plain, and they demand our acknowledgment. Jesus is the only way to heaven. Christianity is an exclusive religion. Sure there are squishy Christians who want to water down our Lord's plain words, or add asterisks and addenda. Sure there are those whose cultural moorings are stronger than their biblical ones. They want everything in Christianity to be tolerant and inclusive and, well, nice. No bad news. It's too much of a downer. So they explain away or twist or just ignore these simple straightforward words. “No one comes to the Father but by me”.

And you do it too. We all do. There are times when even rock-ribbed, harded-headed Missouri Synod Lutherans, yes even pastors, try to find another way to the Father, but by Jesus Christ. We may not do it intentionally or consciously, but rest assured, we are no better than the critics. Our sin leaves us without excuses.

For example, what about the way we sometimes try to bargain with God. If you do this for me, I'll do this for you? That's coming to the Father apart from Christ, isn't it? It's offering our own good works as some form of spiritual barter. But God's not interested in our filthy rags. Only the precious blood of Christ is valuable enough to purchase what we need. And that we can only receive as a gift.

Or what about when we ourselves fall for the cultural lies of tolerance and relativism? What about when we, too, explain away the hard words of Scripture? We feel bad about that unbeliever who rejects the Gospel, and so we imagine another way to salvation for him. We may tell our friends, our children, that God is all-loving and all-accepting, and what we really mean is that these words of Jesus are wrong, “No one comes to the Father but by me”. Yes, we buckle to the pressure of our culture far too often.

Or what about when we come to the Father by Jesus, but a Jesus of our own imagination? One who doesn't bother with calling for repentance (even though the real Jesus does). A Jesus who isn't all that concerned about sin (even though that's the main reason the real Jesus came)? A Jesus who is mainly an example to follow, not the real Jesus who is a substitute for us – doing what we can't do even if we try? Or a Jesus who wants to make you feel good – not the real Jesus who wants to declare you righteous (whether you feel it or not!) A Jesus without the cross?? That's no Jesus at all. That's someone else who can't save you.

There are so many false Jesus-es. And there always have been. From the thieves and robbers who came before him, claiming to be the savior... to the false teachers and charlatan preachers of today who try to get your eye off of the cross, and the Crucified one. The devil constantly asks, “did God really say?” And sometimes we believe it. And sometimes we even say it.

So repent, and believe. Believe in the Jesus who is the only way to the Father – but he IS THE WAY! This is good news! You have a way! You are not lost! Your sins are not the death of you. Jesus died for you, and Jesus lives for you, and Jesus, and only Jesus, but yes, Jesus gives you all that you need.

No one has life but by him. He died that the world would not perish. No one is righteous, not one. But he lived righteousness and gives his righteousness to you. No one can rise from the dead, but he did, and through him we do too. No one can save himself, but Christ saves us all!Jesus is the only way, but what a way he is!
If you want to see God, look to Jesus. If you want to be one with God, be one with Jesus. If you want God's blessings, seek Jesus – even as he has already sought you. If you want to hear the wonderful and precious promises of God, just listen to Jesus. He'll fill you in.

He is the way, the truth, the life. Not one among many, but our one and only. And he is yours, even today.

What an amazing miracle that this one, narrow way to salvation comes to so many, and has come to you! What a blessing that his 2000 year old words still speak and have the power to create faith and save and forgive you! That his sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion still endure, and still give us access to his grace and mercy, personally, in time and space.

And this exclusive way of salvation is really quite open to all. There is no sinner Jesus didn't die to save, whose sins aren't paid for in divine blood. There is no race or color or socioeconomic exclusivity. No age limit young or old. No lineage or pedigree with greater claim. Even the Buddhists and Muslims and Atheists are invited to Christ. That means that it's for you, too. Jesus, the only way of salvation, is your way, your truth, and your life. Believe in him, and only him, always. In his name, Amen.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Sermon - Easter 4 - John 10:1-10

The Shepherd or the Thief?

Smack dab in the midst of this Easter season, like every year, we come upon “Good Shepherd Sunday”.  Today we hear from Jesus, who takes this grand scriptural metaphor of Shepherd and Sheep, and he applies it to himself and gives it even deeper meaning.  And while, at least around here, it seems, fewer and fewer people have first hand experience with shepherding, or with sheep, we can still learn from our Lord through this analogy of faith, he the Good Shepherd, we, the trusting sheep.  There are many ways this can teach us about the blessings we have in Christ, but several points this morning we will consider, based on this reading from John 10:

First, some remarks concerning the nature of sheep.
Then contrasting the Shepherd and the Thief or Stranger:
Concerning their legitimacy, their voice, and finally their purpose.

I saw recently on the internet (so it must be true), that the Merriam-Webster dictionary has updated its entries once again, and a new word it has added is the word, “sheeple”.  You can see how this somewhat pejorative portmanteau made from “sheep” and “people” means to compare certain people with sheep who blindly, trustingly, and perhaps foolishly follow their leader.

Martin Luther comment similarly on the foolishness of sheep:

Sheep, you know, are most foolish and stupid animals. When we want to speak of anybody’s stupidity we say, “He is a sheep.” Nevertheless, it has this trait above all other animals, that it soon learns to heed its shepherd’s voice and will follow no one but its shepherd, and though it cannot help and keep and heal itself, nor guard itself against the wolf, but is dependent upon others, yet it always knows enough to keep close to its shepherd and look to him for help. Now, Christ uses this trait or nature of the animal as an illustration in explaining that he is the good shepherd. In this manner he plainly shows what his kingdom is, and wherein it consists, and would say: My kingdom is only to rule the sheep; that is poor, needy wretched men, who well see and realize that there is no other help or counsel for them.
To confess we are sheep, therefore, is to admit our limitations, our need, our weakness.  It is tantamount to confessing our sin, which is what has put us in this predicament of neediness.  Thanks be to God we have, in Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who even lays down his life for the sheep!

But the good part about sheep can also be that they are trusting – if their trust is well placed.  What is foolishness to the world, is wisdom when it comes to God.  And so sheep that follow a Good Shepherd will be well cared for.

So what do we know about this Good Shepherd?  Throughout this passage, Jesus casts a contrast between himself, the Good Shepherd, and the thief and stranger, or in other passages the “hired hand”.  And the first of these contrasts has to do with the way the Good Shepherd enters, or comes to his sheep – as opposed to the way of the thief and robber.

Just who is this thief or robber?  Of course, we first of all think of the original enemy, the Devil himself.  He who slithered into Eden and stole away the holiness of Adam and Eve, who handed it over willingly.  He who would steal away any of the sheep, if he could, from the flock of God's people.  A prowling lion looking for someone to devour.  A ravenous wolf who often comes in sheep's clothing.

But it could also include any false prophet or false teacher who seeks to lead the sheep astray.  Indeed, Jesus indicates that many of these thieves and robbers came before him.  False Messiahs abounded. False gods were worshipped.  False religions led many astray.  And the original thief, the Devil, certainly delighted in it all.

The Devil comes, though he is not invited.  He usurps a role that is not his, like when he offered to give Jesus all the nations of the world if he'd simply bow before him.  For one, the nations aren't his to give. And for two, the worship isn't his to receive.

Likewise, all false preachers and teachers are illegitimate.  They climb over the fence, but do not have the authority to be there.  And even a pastor who is rightly called and ordained exceeds his authority and delegitimizes himself when he preaches a word other than the word of God.  There is only one way into the sheep pen, and it is through the truth – the Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified for sinners.  No self-help, power of positive thinking, name it and claim it, look within yourself false gospel will do.  Only Jesus born and crucified and risen and ascended for you.

For his part, Jesus comes with the legitimate authority.  The true Shepherd.  The sheep belong to him.  They were created by him.  The sheep owe everything to him, even though he came to his own who did not know him.  He doesn't need to sneak in, for he comes with all the legitimacy and authority there is.

And when Jesus preached he did so publicly, teaching openly in the synagogues and the temple.  His word today is also preached publicly, proclaimed openly.  There are no secrets in the Christian church – no decoder rings or secret handshakes.  His word is plainly set forth for all to see.  The doctrines of the church are public and for all, they are not secret for the select few.

And in the church things are done in good order.  All regard the vocations in which the Lord has placed us.  It all starts with our Good Shepherd, who obeyed his calling perfectly, and “became obedient even unto death, even death on the cross.  Therefore God the Father has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name.”

Yes, God the Father accepted His Son's sacrifice, and raised him in glory from death to show just that.  Thus the Good Shepherd bears the ultimate seal of approval, the utmost mark of authority, the all-surpassing legitimacy of one who has power, even over death.

The Good Shepherd has legitimate authority, unlike the thief.  And the Good Shepherd's voice also stands in contrast to the Stranger.  When our Good Shepherd speaks, we, the sheep, know his voice.  Faithful sheep who have been taught the Gospel and believe it can hear the voice of the Good Shepherd through whatever mouthpiece he chooses to speak it.  Faithful sheep know when they're being fed cutes stories, or what their itching ears may desire, and when they are  not hearing the letter that kills and the Spirit that gives life.

It's that voice of Jesus, the voice of his Gospel, that makes us his sheep to being with.  It is the Spirit of Jesus, through the word, that calls and gathers the sheep and sanctifies and keeps the sheep.

I've been talking with our youth over the past few Sundays about how, for example, the simple teachings of the Catechism can help us give answer to almost any question of theology.  These basic teachings reflect the voice of our Good Shepherd, and help us filter out the strange voices which would cry for our attention and trust.  And when it comes time for you, should you move away, to find a new congregation...  are you listening for the true voice of the Good Shepherd?

When you hear the voice of the stranger, what should you do?  Run away!  Flee from false teaching.  Make no room for man-centered doctrine and preaching.  Only the truth can set us free.  Only the voice of the Good Shepherd is worth hearing and obeying.  Jesus is the door, after all, the only way in to safety for his sheep.  He is the WAY, the truth and the life, the only way, that is. Every other way leads to destruction and death.

And finally, a contrast in purpose between the Good Shepherd and the Thief.  Jesus says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

The thief, that is the Devil, any of his henchmen, or anyone concerned with his own agenda that is at odds with Christ – is there only to do harm.  They are working against the sheep and for their own selfish purposes.  But Jesus the Good Shepherd comes to do the opposite.  He comes with abundant life in a free offer.  He comes not to take, but to give.  He comes not to steal, but to lay down his everything for you, dear sheep.

So be a sheep.  Trust in the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ.  He openly and freely gives you all the blessings won by his cross and resurrection.  He speaks to you, even today, with a voice that you know... a voice that forgives sins and therefore brings abundant life.  Tune out the stranger's voice.  And fear not the thief and robber.  You belong to the Good Shepherd, who will lead you to lush valleys and still waters, who will prepare a feast before your enemies, and anoint your head with oil while your cup overflows.  And you, dear sheep, will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.  In Jesus Christ, Amen.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Sermon - Easter 2 - John 20:19-31

John 20:19-31 (esp. 30-31)
“What is the Purpose of Scripture?”

“These things are written”, the Apostle John writes, “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

What is the purpose of Holy Scripture?  To teach us about God?  To show us how to live our lives?  Morality?  Basic instructions before leaving Earth?  Is the Bible a rule-book to thump over people's heads?  Is it a decoder-ring with all the answers of life, if you just read it the right way?  Or is it just a collection of different writings with no purpose, or at least no central purpose at all?

Setting aside the questions of “is it true?” “did it really happen?” or “is it truly God's word?”, (To all of which we say, “yes”, of course).  What I'm asking is – what is the Bible FOR?  What is the purpose?  What's it supposed to DO, if anything?

If it's simply a rulebook, then it's not a very appealing one.  The God of the Bible, when he gives his law, is not looking for simply “good enough”.  He wants holiness.  And Who can live up to the standards of this law?  No one.  If all Scripture has to offer is morality and virtue, that leaves us in a predicament of despair, with no Savior.  And it certainly does nothing for us when it comes to death, the true wages of our sin.

What is the purpose of the Bible?
The answer is very simple.  John gives it here, at the end of his Gospel.  These things are written with a two-fold purpose:  One, that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.  And two, that believing, you may have life in his name.  The purpose of this writing is that you One: believe, and Two: have life.  We could say that the first is the content of the faith, and the second is the effect of that faith.

Now, one might say that John is on one level here really only talking about his own Gospel.  But Paul teaches that, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness”  So it's not that the ONLY possible use or purpose of Scripture is 1. Believe and 2. Have Life.  But these aren't really antithetical.  For the one who believes is trained in righteousness.  After all the righteous shall live by faith.  It's really all the same thing.

Jesus really clears it up, when he says, in John 5, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.”   If all the Scriptures testify to Christ, and if they are the Word of the same God, then it bears out that we can expect a consistency of its message, and a continuity of purpose throughout.

Yes, the first point of purpose of John's Gospel, and really of all of Holy Scripture, is that you and I would believe in Jesus.  Scripture is all about Jesus.  The Old Testament is about Jesus.  The New Testament is about Jesus.  It's really “All Jesus, all the time!”  And that's ok with us!

For Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.  This is what we Christians believe.  And packed in that little tiny confession is a whole lot more.

That he is the Christ – the anointed one – carries a freight of its own meaning.  He's the one, the special and holy one, set aside from the very foundation of the world – to be the one and only Savior from sin.  That's what it means that he is the Christ.  And so, to confess Jesus as Christ is to implicitly confess sin.  And to confess him as Your savior, Your Christ, is to confess on some level that you have sins and you need saving.  Of course we don't simply stop at confessing this implicitly.  We say it quite clearly and plainly.

So the purpose of John's Gospel, the purpose of all the Gospels, the purpose of all Holy Scripture, is to show your sin and who the savior from that sin is – Jesus the Christ, the Son of God.  The one conceived and born for you, who suffered and was crucified for you.  Who lives and reigns for you, and will come again at the resurrection to judge the living and the dead.

Oh yes, he's the Son of God, too... the only one obedient enough, faithful enough, holy and blameless enough to do the dirty work of saving.  The only one strong enough to make his power perfect in the weakness of the cross, and then tear death's foul chains to smithereens.    The Gospels, the Scriptures, they teach us to believe in him, and they unfold for us in so many ways just what “believing in him” entails.

But Jesus doesn't just want you to believe in him for the sake of belief.  There's a benefit attached to this faith.  And that benefit, that purpose, John writes is this, “that believing, you may have life in his name”.

1. Believe  2.  Have life.  They go hand in hand.  For those who believe in Jesus have life.  He offers it freely.  He gives it by grace.

The life he gives is the fullest, broadest, best sense of life we can imagine or describe.  It's not just life after death, it's life forever.  It's not just life floating around as a spirit or an angelic ghost of sorts.  It's life as he intended it for us humans – body and soul, united and united with him forever.  This is what we Christians confession in the Creed, “I believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting”.

And this brings us back to Easter.  Jesus can give life so freely because he has conquered death.  He can bring us with him through the grave and then to life on the other side because that was his course.  He paved the way.  And he can give that life because he has paid the price of sin, so that death has no more hold on is.  It's wages were paid to him instead.

Which is why, when Jesus appears to his disciples on that first Easter, he doesn't waste time with chit-chat.  He doesn't excoriate them for scattering like roaches when he was arrested.  He doesn't thump them for being fraidy-cats and hiding from the Jews.  He says “Peace be with you”.  He breathes the Holy Spirit on them.  And then he gives them the authority to forgive sins.  Wait... what?

Jesus is the Christ, who delivers from sin and death.  He does so by forgiving our sins.  For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.  Where there is forgiveness of sins, death holds no sting, no condemnation for us.  Where there is forgiveness of sins, nothing can harm us, destroy us, or bring us to despair.  For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is Jesus the Christ, giving life!

That he gives that authority to mere men, first to the apostles, to the church as a whole, and to pastors in all places... is how he gives faith and life.  For they, we, speak his word.  We point you to him.  We want what Jesus wants, what John wants, what the Scriptures want – for you to believe and have life in Jesus' name.

The purpose of Scripture is not for you to learn head-knowledge of God, though from it you may.
The purpose of Scripture is not that you follow its laws and rules, though you should.  The purpose of Scripture is not to bring glory to God, though it does.  The purpose of Scripture is not to tell us the history of God's people, though it does that too.  The purpose of Scripture is not to be a how-to-book for getting yourself to heaven.

These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing, you may have life in his name.

And then John also makes this strange offhand remark.  “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book”  And the imagination, at least mine, goes wild at that sort of thing, wondering what signs and wonders Jesus showed them.  All we can do is speculate.

But what we do know, however, is that what is written is enough.  The words of Scripture are sufficient for our salvation.  We don't need miracles and signs and wonders in order to believe.

God doesn't need to “prove” all this to us, like Jesus did to Thomas.  Blessed are we, even more, who have not seen and believed.  Who have heard the words that are written and proclaimed, the words that tell of Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God.

It is through THESE words that the Spirit who was breathed on the disciples is also breathed on us.  It is through these words that the peace Jesus brought on Easter is upon us.  And it is through the sweet words of absolution, forgiveness, from the pastor – that we both believe and have life in his name.  The word and the water of baptism.  The word that consecrates bread and wine as his body and blood.  It all goes together.  Scripture, Spirit, Forgiveness, Sacraments, Faith, Life.  It's all about Jesus, crucified and risen and forgiving and giving life to you, forever.

Thanks be to God, in Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Sermon - Easter Sunday - Matthew 28:1-10

Christ is risen!  (He is risen indeed, Alleluia!)

You are here this morning because Jesus Christ has defeated death.

Easter is not about bunnies and chocolate, duckies and egg hunts.  It's not a celebration of spring and the new life of nature's usual cycle of rebirth.  It's not just a time to put on your best outfit and do a traditional family thing.  Easter is easter, because it is the resurrection of our Lord.  We are here today because Jesus laid down his life, and Jesus took back his life again, leaving sin and death in the dust.  Christ is risen!  (He is risen indeed, Alleluia!)

I've noticed that at funerals, there's usually a story.  The story that the mourners tell, sometimes over and over, about what led up to the loved one's death.  “We were eating dinner, and he was having chest pains...” or “We had just come to the hospital when mom suddenly took a turn for the worse.”  It seems to be part of the grieving process, to walk through it all, how we got to this point, standing at the funeral home with the other mourners.

I wonder if the women were doing the same on their way to Jesus' tomb that morning.... rehearsing the events of his death.  How he was arrested in the garden Thursday evening.  A quick trial before the Jews and then the Romans, and suddenly they were taking him outside of the city to crucify him. How he suffered.  His poigniant words, “Father forgive them”, “Woman, behold your son”, “It is finished”.  Most of it probably didn't make much sense to them.  And it all happened so fast.

There was no time for a proper burial, but at least they owed him that much. Who knows what they would have done if that nice rich man didn't donate a new tomb for Jesus – what was his name?  Oh yes, Joseph.
Now that the Sabbath was over, they'd take some spices and do all the customary things they do at Jewish burials.  Jesus certainly deserved that much.  It was the least they could do.

And as they approached the place, strange things happened.  The very ground shook.  But this was no ordinary earthquake.  This was an emissary from Heaven sent down with an important assignment of his own.  He beat the women to the tomb.

The guards were still there, but the very sight of this heavenly herald – as bright as lightning and white as snow – well, they trembled in such fear at the sight and fell over as good as dead.  Yes, the living became as dead men because a dead man was about to come to life.

And this angel - this powerful and spectacular being had a mission.  He rolled the stone away.  Like rolling out the red carpet for an even more noble guest, this stone couldn't stand in the way anymore than death itself could.  And then, as if to show further disdain for the grave that now lay defeated, he sat on the stone as you'd flop down on a comfy sofa.  Death has no more fear.  Death has no more sting.

But the angel also has a story – a message – he's got a word to proclaim to these sad and confused and no doubt amazed women now before him.  “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified.  He is not here, for he has risen, as he said.”  For good measure, he even shows them the place they laid the body, now quite empty.

Just like he said!  See, Jesus knew this would happen.  He intended for it.  This was the plan, always, even from the foundation of the world.  He spoke plainly about all this to his disciples, who simply didn't want to hear it, and couldn't seem to believe it.  Neither did these women, or they wouldn't have expected to come see a dead body, but a living Jesus.

“Just as he said.”  Things are always just like Jesus says, whether we believe them or not.  Even when they seem as unbelievable as rising from the dead.  In fact Christ's resurrection is a sign that shows you can always trust his word, believe in him, for things are always just as he says.

When he says “your sins are forgiven”, they are, even if you don't feel like they are.  When he says, “I am with you always”, he is, even when it seems like he's abandoned you.  When he says, “He who believes in me will live, even though he die.”  - those are words we can take to heart.  Those are words to hang your hat on, no, to put your very life on.  They are words more powerful than death, because he is more powerful than death.

And yet he still has time for his people.  He's defeated the greatest enemy ever, and he's not going to Disneyland.  He's greeting the women.  He's planning to see the brothers.  That he even calls them brothers after they by and large abandoned him...  And he tells them, “Do not be afraid”.

Do not be afraid.  You can see why they might be afraid.  They'd just experienced an earthquake.  They've seen an angel from heaven.  They've been told that someone dead has come back to life.  And now they see him, and he is – alive!  None of this comports with everyday experience.  None of this is what they had planned on their day's agenda.  But here they are, and Jesus meets and greets them, alive, in the flesh.  And he too says, “Do not be afraid”.

He would say the same to us.  Do not be afraid, for your sins are forgiven.  Do not be afraid, for sin's wages are paid in full.  Do not be afraid, for death is lain waste.  He looked it in the eye, and didn't even blink.  He set forth, headlong into death's dark valley.  There he faced and grappled with all the dark demons of fear and uncertainty, grief and shame, sorrow and loss that ever were or ever would be.  There, in that knock-down, drag-out, no-holds-barred contest to end all contests, Jesus was willing destroyed, and in do doing, destroyed the foe.

He took on the final force that swallows up all men, even the grave itself, and he, Jesus swallowed it instead.  His victory is so complete, so thorough, so perfect – that death has nothing more to say.  Not only for him, but for all who are in him.  Jesus is victorious over death.  And his victory, dear Christian, is yours.

Easter, then, is a sort of an anti-funeral.  Rather than telling the story of how a loved one departed, we get to bask in the glory of his restoration.  We won't shed any tears over death's undoing, but maybe a few tears of joy at Christ's triumph over it.  Here is not the end, the goodbye, the farewell.  Here is the new beginning, the new life, the eighth day of creation – that is ours in Christ.  And this resurrection changes our funerals from pure grief, to grief that has hope.  No shallow and schmalzy “celebration of life” for us, rather a Christian departs under the proclamation of victory and life in Christ, who is our life.

And yet, here we are, still surrounded by a world of death.  Wars still rage.  Enemies seethe.  Innocents are slaughtered.  Pain lingers.  Sorrows still remain.  Even we, the people of Christ, are not immune to the sufferings of life in this sin-scarred world.  Even we, Christians, are not exempt from that day when we too must face the final foe of death.  Some of you here today will probably not be here next Easter.  And that's only a bearable thought because of Christ's resurrection.  Do not be afraid.  Jesus has won the victory.

His resurrection is also your resurrection.  We are united with him in a death like his, and united with him in a resurrection like his.  Buried and raised with him in Baptism.  Death can't touch him.  And death can't have you, because you belong to him.  Oh, your body may die, and your loved ones will miss you.  But the Living One has made you a promise.  And what he says is always true, “just as he said.”  You will live.

Christ is Risen!  (He is risen indeed, Alleluia!)

It is just as he said.  It's always just as he says.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Poem - "Oh the weight of the cross"

Oh the weight of the cross...
Piled and heaped high to the sky.
With a million, million sins and more.

Coveting leers, stinging hurts, rivers of tears.
The filth 2 zillion eyes have caressed.
All the lies you can find in every lexicon of death.
The buckets and vats and seas of blood sin has shed.
The tsunamis of tears wept for loved ones now dead.
Add the snide, the sniveling, the insults for fun.
The gossip mongering, the cursing, cutting lashes of tongue.
Throw on the blasphemy, the cacophony of all the silent, uncountable little gods.
All shame, all indignation, all mock outrage, all failures and frauds.
Oh, the weight. Smothering. Soul-crushing. Cosmic millstone. A singularity of pain.
I could go on, but I can't. But he does.

Oh the weight of the cross,
Pressing down on the Son, the One,
The only one with the shoulders holy enough to bear it.
The only one with the righteousness, the merit.
A spotless lamb, the world bearing down.
A perfect sacrifice, yet see the Father's frown.
For after all the abuse was taken.
Now even by his God forsaken.
He gives up his Spirit.
It is finished.

Oh the weight of the cross,
All that he bore,
Sinks into the abyss,
To trouble us no more.
Down it goes, forever gone, gone...

But life springs up in him.
It can't hope to contain him.
Life bursts; it overflows to the world.
It is a fountain, a geyser, a mighty rushing flood.
Exploding supernova of light and hope and peace and beyond.
He lives. You live.

The weight of the cross is gone and forgotten.
It is faded to nothing and less.
Death's victory evaporates. It stings no more.
Sin is as far as east is from west. Death is as far as north from south.
And life is closer than you can see. It's in you. In Christ.

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. Surely, with his stripes, we are healed.

Rev. Tom Chryst, Holy Week 2017

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Sermon - Midweek Lent 6 - Hebrews 4:16

Lenten Midweek 6
“The Saints of Lent”
Lucas Cranach and Albrecht Durer – Artists (April 6)
Hebrews 4:16

As our midweek series on the “Saints of Lent” comes to a close, we might look back for a moment to those we have considered in these 6 weeks:  Matthias, the replacement apostle about whom little is known, who nevertheless faithfully fulfilled his appointed office.  Perpetua and Felicitas, early Christian martyrs who died while firmly refusing to renounce their faith.  Patrick, a great missionary who returned to Ireland to preach Jesus to his former slave masters.  Joseph the Guardian of Jesus, obedient and faithful, protector of Mary and Jesus.  And then Joseph the Old Testament patriarch – a model of forgiveness and a shadow of the Christ who was to come.  They are men and women from various walks of life, different vocations, in different times and places.  And by their very diversity they remind us of the far-reaching scope of salvation, that our God is the redeemer of all people of all times and places who would trust in him, and his Son Jesus Christ.  Looking forward or backward.  Showing that faith in life and in death.  The saints are, all, in the end, all about Christ.

So too for today's examples - 16th century artists Lucas Cranach and Albrecht Durer, commemorated in the Lutheran Church on April 6th.  These contemporaries of Martin Luther and the reformers were prolific and well-respected artists even in their own days.  But why, exactly, do we make a point of remembering them?  And what do their lives teach us about the faith?  How do they point us to Christ crucified for sinners?  Today we'll take a closer look.

For starters, perhaps a general word about how Lutherans have understood Christian art.  Lutherans were conservative reformers, and unlike some who thought we didn't go far enough away from Rome.  Some protestants, to this day, espoused an iconoclasm – literally, a burning of images – in their zeal to put distance between themselves and Roman Catholicism.  It's why many protestant churches today are rather void of artwork, bare and austere.  You won't see stained glass or sometimes even a cross in certain churches, because they consider these “graven images” and against the commandments.  They would even re-number the commandments so that the warning about graven images is its own commandment.

Clearly not all artwork or imagery is of the devil.  The church never understood this to be the case for at least the first 1500 years.  Scripture itself shows examples in which artwork adorned even the tabernacle and temple furnishings.  In Phillipians 4, Paul encourages us, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”  David made glorious music and poetry in other forms of artwork – some of which we even include in the canon of Scripture – the Psalms!

We can understand the danger.  Not only in the Old Testament time did humans fall victim to the temptations of worshipping images, created things.  Some Christians today seem to have a toe in that water with an over-emphasis on the use of iconography in worship.  For the Eastern Orthodox, for instance, they say that when an icon is venerated, "the praise and veneration shown to the icon passes over to the archetype”, that is, whatever or whomever is depicted.

But Lutherans neither despise nor venerate artwork.  Nor do we consider art to be among the “means of grace”. We hold that these things fall into the realm of Christian freedom, and that godly visual art, and also music (another form of art) may serve to glorify God by its beauty.  And to the extent that the art comports with Scripture, it may well reinforce the doctrines taught there.  We don't worship artwork any more than we worship the saints.  But we can see in it faithful instruction and confession of the Christian faith, much the same way we can see God working through the lives of the saints.

Now, I don't want to turn this into a history lesson or biography on either of these men, but there's much that could be said about their lives and work.  I'll give a very brief synopsis of each of these men, and then encourage you to read deeper if you have the interest.

Albrecht Durer (born in 1471 in Nurenberg, Germany) was perhaps the more famous of these two men, and was in contact with the likes of Raphael and DaVincci.  A very learned man, himself, he is most well-known perhaps for his woodcuts (like the example on your bulletin), though he also produced watercolors, landscapes, altar-pieces, portraits, and wrote an autobiography.  One of his most famous works is a simple drawing of praying hands.  While it is clear from both his work and his writings that he was an admirer of Luther, and even held some sympathy toward the Reformation movement, he never formally renounced Roman Catholicism.

Lucas Cranach (born in 1472) was certainly more closely associated with Luther and the Reformation.  In addition to working as an artist for the various Lutheran princes, Cranach was also a close personal friend of Martin Luther.  He was present when Luther was engaged to his wife Katherine, a former nun.  Cranach was godfather to Luther's first child, and painted several portraits of Luther.  His artwork, increasingly through his life, conveyed some of the themes of Reformation theology.  Some of it was even a bit polemical, for instance, showing Jesus driving the pope and the Roman Catholics out of the temple.  Cranach had two sons, one of them an artist himself who finished his most famous work (which we'll talk about in a moment).  And he also had a daughter who became an ancestor to the famous German poet Goethe.

As I said, this brief synopsis of both men's lives is about all I can do in a sermon.  Moreover, in a sermon, I can't show you many visual examples of what they produced.  But we have, on your bulletin today, one example each of some of their more well-known works.

First, take the woodcut in black-and-white, a crucifixion scene by Durer.  Like so much of his work, he treats the subjects of Scripture with deep respect and depicts the scenes with reverent detail.  Christ is central to much of the artwork, and a Christ pictured as Scripture shows him.  This is not a modern artist's take on a laughing Jesus, a feminized Jesus, or a Jesus molded to some political or idealogical agenda.  Jesus is here, suffering for sin but still holy and majestic (note the halo).  Death is at his feet, there's the skull.  Some mourn him, and some jeer him.  His side is pierced and blood flows forth.  It's one of many crucifixion scenes Durer created, as it was a very common theme in his work.

Perhaps Cranach's most famous work is this altarpiece from Weimar, Germany.  It's the color piece on your bulletin, and a poster of it also hangs in the hall between here and the narthex.  It was completed in 1555, after Cranach's death, by his son Lucas Cranach (the Younger).  It is still displayed in St. Peter and Paul church in Weimar, Germany.

This piece, too is a crucifixion scene, but much more.  It's too small to see on this version, but there are depictions of Moses preaching the Law, and of a Skeleton chasing man into the fires of hell.  You might see yourself in the painting here, as a sinner, reminded of God's law and its terrors.  But there, also, too small to see – are the bronze serpent raised up in the wilderness, an Old Testament foreshadowing of Christ, and the Angels announcing Christ's birth in Bethlehem.  Cranach, it is clear, knew both the accusations of the law, but also the comforts of the Gospel as revealed in Scripture.

The focus of the piece, is of course, Christ crucified.  A second figure of Christ is depicted there on the left, driving a spear through Satan, depicted as a dragon Christ tramples Satan with one foot and death (a skeleton) with another.  This is the risen Christ!  And that's not just any spear, but it is the flag of victory that Jesus has won over his enemies and ours.

A third nod to Christ is the lamb, depicted before the cross – reminding us that Christ was the perfect sacrifice for all. John the Baptist is portrayed there, pointing with one hand to the lamb, and the other to Christ.  Remember it was John who said of Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

Standing next to John are the artist himself, Cranach, and wee see the blood of Jesus flowing directly out and onto his forehead.  In this way, the artist both confesses his own faith, and stands as an “everyman” representing all Christians.  We could imagine ourselves standing there with Cranach, as we too are washed clean in the blood of Christ.  May his blood ever be upon us and on our children!

Then, of course, next to Cranach you have Martin Luther.  Luther holds a bible, and points us to the word.  If you look on a larger copy, you can see that Bible is open to the passage from Hebrews we heard as our reading tonight.  “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16)

The cross is, in a sense, that throne of grace.  It is that place where Jesus is most glorious, most kingly, most gracious.  It is that place where he won help for us in time of need.  It is that demonstration of both God's justice and mercy.  It is the hub of all history, the crossroads of time, as the Old Testament looked forward and we in the New Testament times look back.  It is the most important event, not just of all artwork ever depicted, but of all eternity – that in Jesus Christ, God died for the sins of the world.  When we draw near to the cross, and to Christ who was crucified for us, when we look to him in faith – we indeed find that mercy and grace.

Thank God for Christian artists who faithfully confess the truth of this Christian faith - in whatever form that artwork takes.  May we also be moved to use the gifts God has given to us for his greater glory, and in service to our neighbor.

And as this Lenten season comes to a close, and we turn our eyes to Holy Week, give thanks not only for the saints who have gone before us, but that through Jesus Christ, through his suffering, death and resurrection, we too are made holy and righteous.  May you find blessing in his Word, and in his Sacrament in this holy season, and forevermore.  In Jesus' Name.  Amen.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Sermon - Midweek Lent 5 - Genesis 50:15-21

Lenten Midweek 5
“The Saints of Lent”
Joseph - Genesis 50:15-21

As a pastor, you learn that some of the best stories come from your local funeral director.  On the long slow ride from church to the cemetery, Larry would often tell me some of the highlights of his long career as an undertaker.  In one story, the family was planning mom's funeral, and two of the sisters were at each others' throats.  Sometimes funerals bring out the worst in people, it seems.  The fighting was so bad that Larry closed his book and told them they could go and find another funeral home, he wasn't putting up with any more of it.

At that point the sisters immediately changed their tune and begged him to reconsider.  He relented, but pointing his finger at them admonished them like a stern father, “I don't care how you behave afterwards, but while this funeral is going on, you will comport yourselves with respect and act like adults!”  This seemed to do the trick, he told me, as for the viewing and the service and all the rest of his time with them, the sisters were perfectly civil.  Finally they got to the cemetery for the committal, the pastor and the family saying the final prayers and farewells.  And no sooner did the pastor say, “Amen”, Larry tells it, that the one sister hauled off and punched the other sister in the nose.  Game on!, I suppose.

Today we remember Joseph, the Old Testament patriarch, whose official day falls on March 31st.  And if anyone had an occasion to give their siblings the what-for, it would have been Joseph.  They had just laid their father Jacob to rest, and now the brothers were fearful that after everything that had happened, they would finally get what they deserved for their treatment of Joseph.  But Joseph shocked them all, and continued to forgive them and speak kindly to them, who had done him such wrong.  “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good” he famously remarks.  And in Joseph we see shades of Jesus, who was also treated unjustly, but was forgiving to the last.

Just look at the parallels between Joseph and Jesus:

Joseph was his father's favorite son, born of his wife Rachel, whom he loved more than sister-wife Leah, or the two concubines Bilhah and Zilpah.

Jesus is the only Son of God from eternity – of whom the voice of the Father remarked at his baptism and transfiguration, “This is my son whom I love”.

Joseph was given special knowledge, revelation by God through his dreams.  His brothers particularly balked at the dreams that had them bowing down to him.

Jesus spoke with an authority that was above and beyond the authority of the other teachers.  His teaching, with an authority of its own, also stuck in the craw of the other religious leaders.  They wouldn't recognize his authority either.

Joseph was mistreated by his brothers.  They ripped off his coat.  They cast him into a pit and sold him into slavery.  They told Jacob he was dead.  He was as good as dead, as far as they were concerned, though he would later reapper.

Jesus was mistreated, especially in his passion.  They stripped his clothing.  He was betrayed for 30 pieces of silver, the price of a slave.  He was cast out of the Holy City of Jerusalem, crucified just outside the city walls.  Unlike Joseph, Jesus actually died, though he also would make a reappearance.

In Egypt, Joseph found himself tempted by Potiphar's wife, though he withstood the temptation.

In the wilderness, Jesus faced the devil's temptations and prevailed.

In prison, Joseph was flanked by the baker and the cupbearer.  He told of the baker's coming demise and the cup-bearer's vindication.

On the cross, Jesus was flanked by two thieves.  He told of the repentant thief's future, “today you will be with me in paradise”.

Joseph ascended to the highest throne in Egypt apart from Pharaoh himself.  He did so because he saved the people of Egypt, and in fact much of the world, through his prophecy of plenty followed by famine, and wise stewardship of grain.

Jesus, who humiliated himself to fulfill the law for us, is now ascended to heaven's high throne, his rightful place at the right hand of the Father.  He is, of course, the very bread of life who gives life to the world.  He provides not only daily bread, but his own body and blood as the sacramental feast that gives everlasting life.

Joseph's brothers didn't recognize him at first.  Jesus' own people didn't recognize him, regard him as the Messiah, indeed many of the Jews never would.  Even after the resurrection, Jesus wasn't recognized unless he revealed himself, as he did to the Emmaus disciples in the breaking of the bread.

And Joseph forgave his brothers on more than one occasion.  He had already forgiven them, when finally Jacob died.  And the brothers thought that perhaps now Joseph would punish them, as they surely deserved.  Perhaps he was only pretending to forgive for the sake of their father.  But now that Jacob was gone, would they get their comeuppance?  No, Joseph's forgiving heart remained.  His faith in the true God, the God of Grace, moved him to show the same grace to those who deserved his wrath.

And so Jesus, also, forgives freely, abundantly and repeatedly.  And he teaches us to do the same – not 7 but 70x7 times to forgive our brother, to turn the other cheek to his evil, to share the grace we have received in him.  Even from the cross, Jesus cries, “Father forgive them”.

And Joseph makes a home for his brothers in the safety and abundance of Egypt.  There they would grow and prosper into a great nation.

Likewise Jesus promises us a place in the Father's house, in the mansions of heaven.  There we will prosper for eternity in blessed communion with him.

No, Joseph wasn't the savior, but God worked through him to do great things, and pointed forward to one even greater savior to come.  Still, Joseph needed the Jesus that he foreshadowed, just as we need the Jesus that we hope to imitate.

We can see ourselves also in Joseph's brothers, who conspired against him and did him wrong, and later felt the dread of due reward for their deeds.  Often, even the Christian wonders if our sins are too big, too bad, too ugly to be forgiven.  If we see our wretched state rightly, we'd admit we've done far worse than sold a brother into slavery.  We've rebelled against our God, and we do it all the time.  We gossip and lust and lie and cheat and steal and kill – if not with our hands, then our lips, and if not with our lips then certainly our hearts.  Our sin is great.  But Jesus forgives it all.  His blood covers it all.

So when you are wronged, when you are hurt, even if you're thrown into a pit and stripped of all that is precious, may you forgive all the same.

Though the world may mean it for evil, even in your suffering, God means to work for good.  Who knows what he may bring of it?

When it seems like everyone has forgotten you, even your own family is against you, and there's pain and sorrow a-plenty, look to Jesus.  He will provide for you.  He will remember you.  He will forgive you.  Your life is only, ever, and always in him.


Monday, March 27, 2017

Sermon - Lent 4 - John 9:1-41

Lent 4
March 26, 2017
John 9:1-41
Blind but Seeing”

Many of us have trouble with our eyes. If you're around long enough you may need a pair of reading glasses. And while medical advances and the use of laser surgery have made many advances, disease and dysfunction of the eye is something no one wants to see.

But most of us have never been blind. And most of us never will be. Maybe you can imagine it by being blind-folded. Or as you fumble around in the middle of the night. But true blindness – not being able to see at all – we may have a slight chance of it by accident or disease, but at least we weren't born blind, like the man in our Gospel reading. Or were we?

I don't have to tell you that physical blindness is an apt metaphor for being spiritually blind. In fact, in the last few weeks we've heard of Nicodemus, who was blind to some basic teachings of the kingdom, and the woman at the well, whose eyes were also opened by Jesus. Now the man born blind, whom Jesus heals. But as we ponder blindness and sight, sin and forgiveness today, let's also remember that spiritually speaking, we too are blind from birth. Like the lyrics to that favorite hymn, “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see”.

The disciples saw the man who was born blind, and they wanted to know why such a thing would happen. They assumed that his blindness was a punishment for a particular sin. But they weren't sure whether he himself, or his parents were to blame. When Jesus says, “it was not this man who sinned or his parents” he doesn't mean to suggest that the blind man or his parents were perfect and holy. Jesus is trying to correct their reasoning that bad things happen to bad people (and therefore since I am relatively healthy, I must be relatively good). Baloney. We are all sinners alike, subject to the sometimes fickle effects of sin and death in our world. Throughout the New Testament Jesus repudiates this kind of “you must have deserved that” gloating from pride-filled observers.

Perhaps the disciples were blind to their own blindness. Perhaps they were so focused on this man and wondering what his sin was that they couldn't recall their own. Indeed, Jesus tells us to watch out for logs in our eyes.

But if the disciples had a log in their eye, the Pharisees must have had whole trees. They too, ironically, were blind to the truth. They couldn't see how someone who broke their man-made rules of Sabbath could possibly be one sent from God.

So they interrogate the formerly-blind man. One day soon, they would put the Lord himself on trial. In both cases they were blind to the evidence before them. This Jesus was no mere man, no sinner (like them), but he was and is the Son of God. They were blind. And only later would some of them see.

It is part and parcel of our sinful nature to be blind. To not see. To get things wrong. Turned around. Backwards, even.

We make ourselves God, and try to make God answer to us. We tell ourselves that God somehow owes us, and we live in denial that we owe him everything and more. We think we please him with our good works, rather than trust that Christ has pleased God with his good work for us.

We have a keen sense of justice when we are wronged, but are quite lax and flexible with the law applied to ourselves. We selectively apply the rules of politeness, kindness, and regard for our neighbor. We know our neighbor's sins all too well, especially those sins against us. But when we sin, we are quick with excuses and rationalizations.

We think we know, when we are ignorant. We think we hear, when we are really deaf. We think we see, when we are truly blind.

The Pharisees were no different. Oh, their pride. “You were steeped in sin at birth, and you would teach us!” We are the teachers of Israel! We are the children of Abraham! We are the disciples of Moses! We are the ones who keep the 613 laws! We are the clean, and you are the unclean. We give to the temple treasury (didn't you hear the trumpets?) We aren't like those sinners – those prostitutes and tax collectors, those lepers and outcasts. We're not steeped in sin like this man born blind. And we would never do work on the Sabbath, like that sinner, Jesus.

And so such spiritual chest-thumping goes. But it is madness, and blindness. And it is us.

We are all the man born blind. We are all conceived and steeped in sin. We are all children of our father, Adam. We are sinners who sin, who can see only own spiritual navels, curved in on ourselves, who cannot see God. We are all the pharisees, blind to our blindness, but convinced we see it all, know it all. We think the good people prosper, or deserve to. And that the bad people suffer, and deserve to. And of course, we are the good.

It is part and parcel of our sinful nature to get things wrong. Turned around. Backwards, even.

But God's way is different. Mysterious to us. But it is far better, in fact, it is divine.

One seminary professor, Dr. David Scaer, puts it this way:

...The divine economy is different from ours. You cannot come to a conclusion about the morality and sanctity of any person by the amount of suffering he has experienced. The suffering sinner turns out to be God’s saint and the hawkers of holiness are rejected by God…Human suffering is not only an opportunity for God to show that He is and remains the creator; human suffering is the place where God shows His glory. Jesus dies so that through the resurrection God might finally demonstrate to the world who He really is. The Son of Man is lifted up so that all men may be drawn to him, not in the magnificence of creation, but in the glory of the suffering of the cross…God approaches us through what we find reprehensible.”

It is in Jesus that all of this senselessness makes divine sense.

So Jesus is the light. Jesus came to take the darkness away. He makes night into day. He makes blind men see.

No one has seen God except He who came from God. But in Jesus Christ, we do see God. No one comes to the Father but by Jesus. But Jesus is the perfect image of the Father, the exact representation of God, for He is one with the Father, and He is True God from eternity.

Jesus came into the darkness, born under the law, to redeem us under the law. In the dark Judean night, the Light dawned. And on a dark, but good Friday, when the sun was blotted out and the Lord of Life hung on a cross, dying... salvation came to light. It was finished, then and there, for all, forever.

And so this one “Sent by God”, sends the blind man to the pool of Siloam, which means, “Sent by God”. No matter that it was the Sabbath, for Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath. Jesus is the Sabbath-rest of God, who gives us rest from our sins. He who washed the blindness away for that man, also washes us clean and new in Holy Baptism. And the scales fall from our spiritual eyes, as faith comes, and we see and believe.

The little pharisee in our heart finds it hard to believe. But the eyes of faith see it plainly. The Old Adam in us fights against it. But Christian baptism drowns that one daily, in repentance and faith. And so it goes – and so it goes, as the old and the new continue to struggle and muddle through this life, growing in faith toward God and love toward neighbor, but always in Christ, always looking to his light, the only way we can see.

You have seen him, but with the eyes of faith. You see him in his word. You see him at the font. You see him on the altar, under bread and wine. You see him who speaks to you, and faith says, “I believe.” So turn your eyes away from your neighbor's sin, and forgive freely. And turn to see your own sin, yes, but fix your eyes on Jesus, who takes that sin to the cross. In him, we see forgiveness, life, salvation, and the peace of God which passes all understanding. May it guard and keep your hearts and minds in Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Sermon - Lent Midweek 4 - St. Joseph

So far in our Survey of these lenten saints, we have looked at St. Matthias, the apostle chosen to replace Judas, who shows us that our calling in Christ is more important than whatever we bring to the table.

We've remembered Perpetua and Felicitas, early Christian martyrs, whose example of firm confession even unto death encourages us to be all the more steadfast in our faith.

And we commemorated St. Patrick, perhaps the most famous of these, a man who suffered bitter slavery as a youth, but whom God used later as a missionary to bring the Gospel to many of the pagans in Ireland.

March 19th, a few days ago, was the official day to commemorate St. Joseph, the Guardian of Jesus.  Joseph of Mary and Joseph.  Another man of faith whose example we cherish, and who also played a part in God's plan of salvation through Jesus Christ. (credit to for much of the following background information)

Most of what we know of Joseph we learn from the nativity accounts in Matthew and Luke's Gospels.  Otherwise he is mentioned only in passing as the supposed father of Jesus of Nazareth.

Matthew's Gospel shows Joseph as just and fair man, but a man of compassion – especially for his betrothed wife: When the Virgin Mary revealed her pregnancy to him he sought to avoid a public rebuke, which may have resulted in her being stoned to death. Then after the Lord sent His angel and revealed Himself as the cause of this extraordinary circumstance, Joseph submitted to God's will, just as Mary also submitted to God's plans for her.

The Heavenly Father thus graciously allowed this unassuming man to bear the responsibility of protecting and providing for the Incarnate Word and his mother. How could Joseph possibly have imagined the extraordinary events that awaited them, including the visits of shepherds and wise men, as well as Herod's wrath and their subsequent flight to Egypt?

St. Joseph was a pious Jew, as we see hinted in Mary and Joseph's observances of Jewish holy days, and of pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  We also know he was a descendant of David, which doubly fulfills the scriptural promises that the Messiah would be the “Son of David”.  Both Joseph and Mary, it seems, were descended from David – and so Jesus' bodily lineage (through Mary) and his legal lineage (through Joseph) are covered.

Joseph was – at least as it is normally translated — a carpenter by trade. Actually, the the Greek word τέκτων (tekton) that is used in the Gospels can mean "builder" or "architect." Scholars suggest that Joseph may have been a repairman, a general craftsman, or a building contractor. And while other words are used in classical Greek, it's possible that tekton had a broader meaning in the Greek of the Scriptures and that Joseph may have been a metalworker, a stoneworker, or a mason.

Some archaeologists speculate that Joseph may have been a craftsman employed in the recently excavated Roman city of Sepphoras, not too far from Nazereth.  Whatever his specific trade, Jesus likely learned it from Joseph, and we assume that he too would have earned a living from it until his days of public ministry.  This further shows Jesus' fulfilling his active righteousness in redeeming all of life for his people – including that part of life we know as “daily work”.

Because of the silence of the Gospels — and because Jesus entrusted Mary to the care of John — it is generally believed that Joseph died a natural death after the visit to Jerusalem when Jesus was twelve (Luke 2:41-51) but likely before His baptism in the Jordan (Matthew 3:13-17), probably around His thirtieth year.

We can only wonder what influence Jesus' earthly father had on Him during His early years on earth.

But what can we learn from St. Joseph and his faithful example?  I suggest several key points.

1. Joseph was a model of obedience to God.
Consider the many points along the way in which Joseph showed his obedience.  First, he was told that Mary had not been unfaithful, that this Child was of God, and he should not fear to take her as his wife.  And so he obeyed.  The angel also told Joseph that he should name the child “Jesus”, and he obeyed.  He obeyed the decree of Caesar, thus honoring the 4th commandment, and brought Mary to Bethlehem for the census.  He obeyed the Jewish law and had the child circumcised on the 8th day.  When Herod sought to kill the child, Joseph again obeyed the voice of the angel and brought the family to Egypt.  Later, he obeyed when told to return.  But because Herod's son Archelaus was ruling in Judea, Joseph was told, again in a dream, to return not to Bethlehem but to Nazareth, and again he obeyed.

Wouldn't it be nice if at when someone looked back on your life or mine, they could say, “what an example of faithful obedience!”  Surely Joseph was a sinner like the rest of us.  But this humble and pious man showed great faith in God by obeying at every turn, even against his first inclinations, and certainly with no small amount of sacrifice.  He obeyed the earthly authorities when and where he could, but he obeyed the word of God first and foremost.  And so should we.

2. The children in our charge are also, not, ultimately ours.  We too raise them on behalf of their Heavenly Father.
One rightly points out that Joseph wasn't really Jesus' father.  This would deny that Jesus was born of a virgin, conceived by the Holy Spirit, and through no act or will of man.  Rightly so.  But in another sense, in a day-to-day, earthly sense, Joseph was Jesus' earthly father.  He raised him.  He taught him.  He provided for his daily needs.  He protected him.  All this Joseph did, not because Jesus was truly his own, but because of the charge he had been given.

Some parents today have children that are also adopted in one sense or another.  But even if your own children are your own, born the natural way, they are still in a sense not your own.  Just as the earthly gifts of money and possessions we enjoy are not our own, neither do our children really belong to us.  We are charged with their care and nurture, and most importantly to raise them in the fear and knowledge of the Lord.  Ultimately, they belong to the Lord, as do we all.  Ultimately, they will return to him.

We can also give thanks to God for the Josephs in our own lives, those who have cared for us, and served as a father figure – whether we are related by blood or not.  God places those people in our lives to protect us and provide for us, and to teach us his word.  And these vocations are some of the highest and most important of all.  For in them, through them, the Holy Spirit brings us to faith in Christ.

3. God chose humble, everyday people, even to have care of Jesus.  So does he charge us, today, who have the message of Christ, to both guard it and set it before the world.

One of Joseph's chief roles was to protect Jesus, especially as a vulnerable young child.  Likewise, it is in some sense, the role of every Christian to guard what has been given to us as a charge – and for all of us, that includes primarily the Gospel!  Guarding the holy Word of God from false teaching, from abuse and neglect, and from those who would twist and cherrypick it for their own ends – certainly this complies with a Christian view of Scripture.  Paul says anyone who preaches a false gospel is anathema, even an angel from heaven (Galatians 1)!  He tells us to “Guard the good deposit” (2 Tim. 1:14).  John warns us about anyone who would add to or take away from God's word (Rev. 22:19).

But we can't bury this treasure in the ground for safekeeping, or hide the light under a bushel.  The Gospel of Jesus Christ, which we have heard and believed, by which our sins are forgiven, and by which we are saved... it must be proclaimed.  The Christian church is not only to be guardian but missionary.  We are not only to keep it straight, but to get it out.  We are to believe it, but also to confess it with boldness, according to our vocation and the opportunities God gives us.

Finally, concerning Joseph, we should say this:  To the extent that Joseph showed obedience, that he faithfully cared for his charge, that he protected Christ from harm, we must confess that this flowed from his faith.  He didn't do it because he was good, but because he believed.

And we should also note that in turn, Christ does all of these far more, far more fully, and for the entirety of our race.  That is to say that Christ is fully obedient, even unto death, even death on the cross for us all.  Christ cares for all of us who are placed in his charge – not one of us will be snatched from his hand.  Christ protects us from harm, delivers us from evil, and even from death itself.  And Christ also sends us out with the message of salvation, ambassadors of his Gospel to all the world. Christ did the work that was given to him – both the mundane, everyday work of the carpenter, but also the extraordinary, once and for all work of building his church, by a cross, by a resurrection and by a precious gospel full of everlasting promises.

Whatever good example Joseph shows, Jesus shows all the more.  And whatever Jesus does it is never only example, but also a good work done where we fall short, a righteousness completed on our behalf, or a sacrifice made in our place.  Thanks be to God for Joseph, a faithful example, the guardian of our Lord.  And thanks be to God for Jesus, our faithful savior.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Sermon - Lent Midweek 2 - Matthew 24:9-14

Lent Midweek 2
Perpetua and Felicitas
Matthew 24:9-14
March 8, 2017

When you think of the early Christian martyrs, you likely have a picture in your head of faithful believers in Christ being thrown to the lions before a jeering crowd in a Roman arena.  Perhaps you've seen movies like “Gladiator” or read books like, “The Flames of Rome”, which imagine and detail these atrocities further.  To a large degree, these kinds of stories are informed by the martyrdom of a Christian noblewoman named Perpetua.  While imprisoned, she and one of her companions, Felicitas, who was her slave, both kept diaries.  And a later editor put them together with eyewitness accounts of their martyrdom.

The year was 202 AD.  The Roman Emperor Septimus Severus had just issued a decree against Christianity, which he thought subversive to Roman rule.  We should note that such persecution was not constant in the early church, but intensified at certain times and places under various Roman emperors.

22 year old Perpetua and her family lived in Northern Africa, in the Roman city of Carthage.  There was a thriving young Christian community there.  We don't know exactly how she came to faith in Christ, but it is clear that she did, and her slave Felicitas along with her.  Yet even in the face of this new decree, she would not turn away from her Lord.  She was among a group of five new Christians who were arrested in response to the emperor's decree.  She had been baptized shortly before her arrest.

While imprisoned, she kept a diary, marking the events.  One of the first was a visit from her father, who begged her to turn away from Christianity and become a pagan once again, paying homage to the emperor.

"Father do you see this vase here?" she replied. "Could it be called by any other name than what it is?"
"No," he replied.
"Well, neither can I be called anything other than what I am, a Christian."
It would not be the last time her father visited and begged her to recant. But Perpetua stood firm.
During her time in prison, Perpetua and the other Christians frequently prayed, sang and worshipped. Perpetua remarked about her time there, “the dungeon became to me a palace.”

What makes the story all the more moving is that Perpetua was pregnant at the time of her arrest, and gave birth after at months in prison.  She was moved to a better part of the prison in order to breast-feed the child, but this would not delay her fate for long.

The day came for the 5 to be tried before Hilarianus, the Roman governor.  He again urged them to turn aside from Christianity and make a pagan sacrifice to the emperor.  One by one, they refused. Perpetua's father attended the trial, and cried out, “Make the sacrifice!  Have pity on your baby!”  But when she refused, the governor had him beaten into silence, and he sentenced the Christians to death in the arena.

The Christians sang psalms as they were lead to their death in the arena.  The men were scourged before a line of gladiators.  The men were subjected to attack by a wild boar, a bear and a leopard, while the women were attacked by a wild heifer.  Finally to satisfy the bloodthirsty crowd, the Christians were put to death by the sword, while the crowd chanted mockery of their baptism, “saved and washed, saved and washed!”

St. Augustine was so moved by the account of this martyrdom that he preached four sermons about it.
It was transmitted widely in both Latin and Greek, transmitted far and wide, and passed down through the ages.  So it seems their story inspired many of the early Christians, who no doubt also faced threats of similar persecutions.

Tertullian, one of the church fathers, famously said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”.  Indeed, their example of faith must have served to inspire many, to seed the church.  The student of church history sees the church often grows most exponentially during those times when it was persecuted most fiercely.  But perhaps Tertullian would also concede that the blood of the martyrs also waters and strengthens the church that has been established – that is to say, that they encourage us by their faithful example, even today.

While this story doesn't rise to the level of Scripture, and its details may not be as reliable, it does stand as an example of what the early Christians faced, and of the fulfillment of Jesus' predictions that his people would stand before governors and kings and confess his name.  That they would be persecuted like the prophets who were before them.  That they would be hated by all nations for his names' sake.

That Jesus saw this coming, and so much more persecution and trouble for his people might not seem good news to the hearer.  It may seem more like doom and gloom, which then came to pass.  And indeed, many seek a Christianity that looks nothing like what we see from Jesus, or in the deaths of the martyrs, or even in the persecuted church of today.

Some would go after a version of Christianity that looks just the opposite.  A gospel of prosperity. Where the well-dressed and well-heeled preacher (who lives in a mansion and drives fancy cars) tells you that God wants YOU to be happy and healthy and wealthy, too.  You just have to ask the right way, believe hard enough, oh, and don't forget to make your checks payable to....

But that's only a most egregious false Christianity.  Other more subtle expectations of Christ can be just as misleading.  Do we want a Christianity that is comfortable, or one that challenges us to bear the cross?  I'll go to church on Sundays, and maybe on Wednesdays during Lent, Lord, but don't expect much more from me.  Don't ask me to do more, or give more, or pray more, or anything more, Lord.  I'm at my whit's end.  My life is stressful.  I've got too much on my plate.

And then we see the martyrs being lead to their death for a simple confession of Christ, and they put us to shame.  We, who moan and complain over so little.  The spiritual equivalent of a hangnail. Their example of faith in the face of persecution functions much as a call to repentance.  For us to remember what's important in life.  To re-order our priorities.  To cling to Christ, even in the face of death.

I don't pray for persecution.  I don't long for the days that Christians are thrown to the lions, or beheaded by Muslims.  But let no one be surprised if it should happen, even to us.  For Jesus has told us.  And we've seen it happen to others.  And we know that in other places, it happens even in these dark and latter days.

Every Christian will face death sooner or later, unless Christ comes first.   And that death that waits for you on some future horizon may not be at the hands of a pagan or enemy of Christ.  It may be a disease.  It may be an accident.  It may just be old age.  But let not the fear of death turn us away from Christ at our last hour.

Every Christian will suffer in this broken down ramshackle world infested with the chaos that sin brings to bear.  Even if it doesn't kill you, the world hates you, and death's shadow is also a sorrow we will inevitably bear.  Its tendrils grip every part of our life, and it would sap all joy from us.  This vale of tears, however, is not our final destination.

Rather, Jesus promises, amidst a bunch of talk about suffering, persecution, betrayal and lovelessness, he says, “the one who endures to the end will be saved”.  With Jesus, there is always hope, no matter how hopeless your situation seems.  With Jesus, there is always a future, no matter how final the end seems.  It reminds me of the clever quip, “Everything will be ok in the end.  If everything's not ok, then it's not the end yet.”  Without Christ this is sentimental drivel.  But in Christ, it's a sure and certain reality.

Jesus knows martyrdom and cross.  He was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities.  He knows about dying unjustly.  He felt the scourge, bore the rod, the spitting, the thorns, the nails, the mockery.  “He saved others, but he can't save himself”, they jeered.  His death, too, was a display for wicked men.  It was utter humiliation.  It was maximum suffering.  It was, humanly speaking, the depths of despair.

But you know how the story ends.  There is hope.  There is life.  There is a resurrection to follow, and death and grave and all of our sins are left in the dust.  For Jesus there is life, glory, ascension and enthronement.  For Jesus there is a victory that can never be taken away.  He turned the tables on all the darkness, and brought life and immortality to light.

So too for his people.  So too for the blessed martyrs, Perpetua, Felicitas, and so many others, some named, many anonymous.  Their deaths were not in vain.  Their good confession will see its reward. Their example of faith is set before the church even today.

And Jesus' victory is yours, too, dear Christian.  Whether your death is a spectacle before a jeering crowd, or a quiet passing in a hospital bed, whether you are beset by fanatical enemies of the Christian faith, or simply by the ancient serpent who despises all Christians, whether your death goes down in history or whether you don't even rise to one of its footnotes – nonetheless – Christ has won the victory, and so the victory is yours.  For you are in him.

Let our Lenten sorrow be over our sins, but not over our demise.  Let our repentance bring us to hope once again, and even joy.  For while death may take us, the grave has no sting for those who are in Christ.  And nothing can separate us from the love of Christ, not nakedness or shame, nor danger nor sword.  Not even death itself.  Therefore endure to the end, in Christ, and be saved.  Take the example of so many who have gone before you, and now have received the crown of victory.  And know that yours also awaits.  In Jesus Christ, Amen.