Monday, May 22, 2017

Sermon - Easter 6 - Acts 17:16-31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 15, 2017

Sermon - Easter 5 - John 14:1-6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Sermon - Easter 4 - John 10:1-10

The Shepherd or the Thief?

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

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

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

Martin Luther comment similarly on the foolishness of sheep:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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