Thursday, December 07, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Sermon - Pentecost 24 - Matthew 25:14-30

Entrusted and Trusting
Matthew 25:14-30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that makes all the difference in the world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Jesus Name. Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 06, 2017

Sermon - All Saints' Day (Observed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revelation paints a picture of bliss:

15 “Therefore they are before the throne of God,
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.
16 They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
the sun shall not strike them,
nor any scorching heat.
17 For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

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

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

Sermon - Higher Things Retreat - Faith, Plano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 23, 2017

Sermon - Pentecost 20 - Matthew 22:15-22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” 1 Timothy 2:1-2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 02, 2017

Sermon - Pentecost 17 - Matthew 21:23-27

Matthew 21:23-27
“By What Authority?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Sermon - Matthew 18:21-35 - Pentecost 15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Sermon - Pentecost 13 - Matthew 16:21-28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Toward a Christian View of “Race”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pastor Chryst