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.