Sunday, July 23, 2017

Sermon - Pentecost 7 - Romans 8:18-27

Romans 8:18-27
Hope in Christ”

Some people paint a dire picture of the future, and some have a rosier view. Some see technology making our lives ever better, until everyone enjoys a basic universal income and we spend our time in leisure and happiness. Others see climate change and other gloom and doom scenarios leading to a dystopia in which suffering and misery are the norm. Some prognosticate progress. Others claim the good old days are gone. But seeing that no one can really see the future, how does a Christian view the question? How are we to look forward, and think about what is to come, especially for us?

The Christian answer to this is hope. We are not naive about the suffering and troubles of the world. In fact, Jesus, Paul, even all of Scripture paint a picture of troubles that are ever increasing up to the end. Yet we also recognize the promises of God in Christ are for us – and those promises are what really matter about the future – our future. We are in Christ, and so we have hope. Christ lives, and so we will live. Christ has the victory, Christ has won us an inheritance, and in Christ nothing can separate us from the love of God.

Today's reading from Romans 8 really revolves around the Christian idea of hope. Here Paul spells out several reasons we Christians can have hope for the future, come what may. And the hope of the Christian is far more reliable, far more certain, and much more all-encompassing than any fleeting hopes this world has to offer.

This is more than Paul offering us some upbeat platitudes to buck up and cheer up and see the glass as half full, there's always tomorrow. Christian hope is a hope in Christ. It is built on Christ, it looks to Christ, it trusts in Christ.

This chapter, Romans 8, is the culmination of thought, a sort of a “so what” to everything Paul has laid out up to now. He spells out the righteousness of God that comes only by faith in Christ. And then he shows what such faith looks like, not only now as we continue to struggle with sin, but also the end of faith – that is, our hope for glory.

First, it is hope in the midst of suffering.
Paul does not deny that Christians suffer. But he calls us to keep our suffering in perspective. He's not ignoring or downplaying suffering. Remember, Paul himself knows suffering well.

This is not a situation of “easy for you to say, Paul, you're not going through what I am.” Paul tells us about his sufferings in 2 Corinthians 11:

Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.

And yet this same Paul can say the sufferings of this life aren't worth comparing to the glory to be revealed.

And then there's Jesus. The man of sorrows, well acquainted with grief. The one who suffered for all. He has bourn our griefs and carried our sorrows. He bore even the cross, to win us the victory. Christ calls us to follow him, carry our own cross. He knows we will suffer. But he also knows the vindication of the Father – and the vindication we too will see.

Our suffering is temporary, but our hope is for eternity. Our suffering is here for a little while, but God will wipe away our tears and we'll be with him forever. Suffering results from sin, and sin has met its end in the suffering and death of Christ. And so whatever we must endure here in this fallen world isn't worth comparing, it doesn't even tilt the scale, when weighed against the blessings that will be revealed. This is hope. Not a dismissive attitude toward suffering, but a sober assessment of where it fits in the grand scheme of things.

There is a glory that will be revealed to us. It's already there, of course, but unseen. Hope is the assurance of that which is unseen. And on the last day it will be revealed. All will become clear. We will see who is truly a believer, who is truly a son and heir, and the inheritance that is ours will be on full display.

This hope is not only for us, but for all creation. Creation waits for it, Paul says, with eager expectation. He's personifying creation here to show us a few things – one, the extent of sin's corruption, and two the extent of the restoration that is our hope.

Creation is fallen. It's broken. And it all goes back to Adam and his sin. When Adam, whom God placed over creation and charged him with dominion – when Adam sinned, all creation fell with him. It was subjected to futility. It was placed in bondage to corruption. This explains so much suffering. It's not that God brought it or wanted it. But Adam sinned and brought sin's consequence of death to all.

And so creation is groaning. It's like a woman in labor, going through fits and starts of pain and suffering. Natural disasters, diseases, chaos, sorrow, and all sorts of trouble. It comes and goes, but it seems to be getting worse overall. It comes and goes, but it seems to be driving toward something. An end is coming. A new heaven and a new earth is promised. Creation will be restored, for the sin that held it in bondage is paid, and death – the last enemy to be defeated – will see its end when Christ comes in glory.

The creation's hope is related to ours, you see. For the renewal and restoration in Christ is not just for the world, it is for you. And it's not just for your spirit, it's for your body. The whole creation is redeemed in Christ. And you, your whole person is redeemed in Christ. This is our hope. To be saved, body and soul, forever.

This is why Christ died in the body, to redeem us – including our bodies. This is why Christ rose, bodily, from the dead – to save us, bodily, from death. This is why he promises a resurrection for us – a resurrection like his – a life of the world to come that we confess in the creed and look forward to in faith.

Too many Christians today think of heaven only in spiritual terms. Too many funerals proclaim our dead loved ones are “in a better place” as if that's the end of the story. It's true. The dead in Christ rest in peace. But there is even more hope! There is a resurrection in the offing. Your body will rise and live. And it will be suffering-free. Pain will be gone. Glory will be revealed as the sons of God enjoy his inheritance forever. This is our hope. This is our future.

Admittedly, we are still weak. We don't always believe it like we should. We sin like we shouldn't. We don't live in accord with this hope. We don't pray like we should. We often don't even know how. But God does not leave us without help. He sends his Spirit.

And while the Spirit works through the word, yes... and the Spirit is in us by our baptism, yes. The Spirit strengthens us for good works and keeps us in the faith, yes. But wait, there's more... the Spirit also intercedes for us. He acts, like Christ does, as a go-between. And here's a wonderful promise: That the Holy Spirit prays for us even when we don't know what to pray. This is a great comfort!

I would love to have perfect prayers. Wouldn't you? But sometimes in this mixed up crazy fallen down world – I don't even know what to ask. I would love to pray every time that I should – but like you, my prayers aren't as frequent as they should be. I'd love if my prayers were pure and holy like Christ's, if they were selfless and loving even to my enemies – but I can't always get over myself and pray “as we forgive those who trespass against us”. But guess what. The Spirit prays for you – and better than you – and in your place. He prays in ways that you can't – with groans that words cannot express (and please don't ask me to explain that, but doesn't it sound great?) Just as Christ does for us what we can't do for ourselves in dying for our sins and winning our redemption – so also Christ's Spirit does for us what we can't – and prays for us, intercedes for us perfectly, in accord with God's will.

So wait patiently, Christian, with hope. You have the first fruits of the Spirit – a down payment on the great reward that is to come. You have the word of hope. You have the forgiveness of sins. You have the blessings of baptism. You have the holy supper of Christ. You have the Spirit's prayers. You have a promised inheritance. You have a glory that will be revealed. You have a resurrection in your future. And you have Jesus Christ, the author and finisher of your faith. The redeemer, the savior, the one in whom we hope. Trust in him, and the sufferings of this world are truly not worth comparing to the glory to be revealed.  


Monday, July 17, 2017

Sermon - Pentecost 6 - Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23

“The Sower”
Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23

Now here is a parable of Jesus – and a most blessed example – in that he actually spells out its meaning. Thanks be to God that we have this opportunity. Thanks be to God that Christ explains his parable to the disciples, and also, therefore to us.

The key element of the parable is the seed – which is the word of God. Like other parables, such as the mustard seed, in which the beginnings of God's kingdom start small. A seed – which may seem dormant, even dead, but holds the potential for all sorts of life to sprout forth. A miracle of latent power in each seed, really, and so an apt metaphor for the word of God. We will see this seed in action when we get to examining the various soils.

And the sower – Is it the Father who sends out his word via the apostles and prophets, or the Son – who preached freely to all about the kingdom that was at hand and had arrived in him – or is it the pastor, who even today, preaches and proclaims the word of God – the whole counsel of God, law and gospel, treasures old and new? Probably the answer is yes, all of the above. Take your pick.

But not all have ears to hear. And so not all will hear. There are, sadly, different kinds of soil. And not all of it is good. Why doesn't the preached word of God always flourish? Why isn't the Gospel always received with great joy and to marvelous effect? Why doesn't every mission congregation that preaches the good news of Jesus grow into a sprawling megachurch brimming with parishioners and bursting with baptisms, weddings, and filling its coffers with offerings?

What's wrong with the seed? Is it bad? No. But there are different kinds of soil. In fact, the same good seed is sown – even recklessly so – on all kinds of soil. And yet the mystery is that some receive and some do not. Some believe, and some do not. Some seem to get it, yet fall away – either lacking deep roots, or choked by the cares of the world. So it goes, and so it goes...

One purpose of this parable appears to be to set our minds at rest on this question, “why do some believe, and not others?” And while he really doesn't explain it, Jesus does show the way it works, how it happens. There are spiritual forces that hinder the word of God. So don't be surprised. There are different kinds of soil, and so the seed, that is, the word, does not always produce the same. There are different kinds of people, in different situations, with different reactions to the word, and so the seed sprouts differently here and there.

And another thing. Just because some of the seed doesn't become full grown plants, doesn't mean there's something wrong with the seed. Nor does one lay blame upon the sower. Rather, it is the soil that is not fertile. It is too rocky, to weed-filled, or what have you. In other terms, when the Gospel is rejected, it's not God's fault or desire. When men refuse to hear and believe, when we close our ears, let the cares or riches or pleasures of the world overtake us, it's on us. So when people fall for the devil's temptations and disbelieve or despair, it is our their doing, the blame is on them, not the sower, or the seed.

But thank God we are the good soil, right? Thank God we always hear the word with a noble and good heart! Thank God we always keep his word and have all these wonderful fruits of faith to show! Thank God we have such patience and, well, too bad for all those other bad soils out there.

Does anything sound wrong to you about such talk? It should! Jesus doesn't mean to puff up our egos here with his parable – to give us a sense of spiritual superiority over all those other kinds of soil.

But part of the mystery is also this: That you and I can be all of these sorts of soil at one time or another!

Some seed falls aside the road, is trampled, and quickly snatched by the devil. Sometimes the devil's wicked machinations are successful in turning our attention away from the word of God. Sometimes he distracts us, and we let him. Sometimes he twists the scriptures or sows doubt with his age-old question, “did God really say?”. He loves to brew his concoctions of truth mixed with error and then get us to take a swig or two. And if he could, he would snatch the Gospel away entirely, and leave us with nothing but false pride or despair. Sometimes the Word appears to fall on deaf ears. The seed of its teaching never takes root, never grows, and is gone quickly. The Devil can't stand the idea that it might yet sprout, so he does what he can quickly to interfere, and snatch that word away.

Dear Lord, protect us from this foe! And he does. For the same thing that Satan would snatch away is itself the weapon that defeats him – one little word can fell him – if that word is the Word of God. The foe is defeated by Christ in the wilderness. The foe is defeated by Christ at the cross. The foe in triumph shouted when Christ lay in the tomb, but lo, he now is routed, his boast turned into gloom. Christ lives! The battle is won. The word proclaims it. Let our hearts believe it.

Likewise the temptations and the cares of this world, we sometimes let pollute our soil. Persecution or the fear of it may choke out the word, if we let it. Riches, too, can be a hindrance – for all too often the soil that thinks it is rich is poor, and only the soil that knows it is poor needs what the good seed brings.

And no, friends, we have no time to stand around criticizing our neighbor's soil, pontificating on why his plants aren't bearing more fruit, and what he could be doing to improve. We have plenty of problems in our own backyard, in the garden of our own life, the weed-patch of our own hearts. Repentance is always in order.

Deliver us, Lord, from being unreceptive to or distracted from your word! Keep us from comparing our lives to our neighbor, but ever only to the perfect standard of your word. Remind us, then, not only of our sin, but of our Savior, who intends to sow in us his good word, that we may be fruitful. Amen.

How often Christians emphasize “being in the word”, and “you need to be in the word”. But the picture here is different. The word is planted in us. Even this is God's doing, not ours. When you hear Law and Gospel preached – for your repentance and forgiveness – the Spirit of God is blowing those seeds toward you. When you are convicted of your guilt but comforted by Christ's forgiveness, the Spirit plants that word in your heart once again. And when the Spirit brings you to faith, and to deeper faith by his own mysterious working of that word – then does it bear the abundant fruit, the hundredfold that Jesus promises. When sinners are brought to repentance and faith in Christ.

And Christ's gifts of forgiveness and mercy are distributed even more freely than the reckless sower scatters his seed. Oh what of that, and what of that? He is no respecter of persons, but died to save all – Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. Big sinners and little sinners, lifelong church people and those who've just arrived. He casts the same good seed to all.

To you, friends in Christ, it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God. To you, the good seed of His word has been cast. In you, the Spirit works to sprout and grow that word planted in your heart, that it would flourish and flower and bear fruit a hundredfold.

But he does it not by making you strong and successful and glorious. He does it by death and resurrection. He does it by suffering, cross-bearing, and refinement in fire. He buries you with Christ in baptism, drowning Old Adam each day, as by grace the New Man arises. May it ever be so by God's grace in Christ. Let us continually receive his word, as all his gifts, with thanksgiving.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Sermon - Pentecost 5 - Matthew 11:25-30

Pentecost 5
July 9, 2017
Matthew 11:25-30
“Rest in Christ”

We're just coming off of a holiday weekend, and I hope you've gotten, or will soon get, some vacation time this summer. Maybe you'll be traveling, like we will, to go see family. Maybe you'll take the kids sight-seeing. Or maybe you have something even bigger and grander planned. Or maybe you'll just opt for a “stay-cation”. Of course, many go away to see new places and things and participate in exciting activities. But another reason we take vacations is to take a break, right? To get some rest.

Even the secular world seems to understand the need humans have for rest. But the pattern was already set in the first week – when after 6 days of work God rested on the seventh. If even God can rest from his work, then certainly we his creatures ought to, from time to time. He designed our bodies to need a certain amount of sleep to function. He set aside and prescribed certain times and days for the Old Testament people to rest – even a once-every-50-years “year of jubilee”. And all of this is a gift, as Christ teaches, man wasn't made for the Sabbath. The Sabbath was made for man.

Here in Matthew 11, Jesus offers a different kind of rest, “rest for your souls”. Let's explore what our Lord means by this gracious offer of rest.

Before we get to the rest Christ offers, take note of what he says in the first part of this passage. One, that God hides wisdom from the wise and gives it to children. This is God's gracious will. It fits with so many other passages of Scripture in which God does exactly opposite of what the world expects. The world expects the wise to be those who have studied and learned, who are well-read and well-pedigreed, with alphabets following their names and pontificating from ivory towers of expertise. But the wisdom of God is found in the faith of a child that sings, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” One seems to have it all, but knows nothing. The other seems a credulous fool, but is wiser than the wise of this world. We will come back to this.

And secondly, that everything Christ gives, he receives from God, and gives or reveals to those he chooses. This shows us that there are those things, those truths, which we humans cannot access on our own. No matter how much we study creation and ponder it, no matter how well we understand the mathematics and know the science, there still stands apart from it all – Divine Revelation. That which we cannot know or see or believe, but what must be revealed to us by the one to whom it belongs.

As the catechism reminds us, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength, believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him...” so we confess that without what Christ gives us, shows us, tells us... we are lost. We know nothing, we have nothing. It's all gift. Which leads us to his gracious offer of rest:

A rest that is given, not earned.
In this world, you have to earn your living, but also your rest. You only get so many days off. You get so much vacation, or whatever the benefits of your contract, and that's it. Sometimes you can cash out the unused portion at the end – but only what you have earned, what you are due, what you deserve.

Well if scripture speaks in terms of wages, we ought to tremble in fear of what wages we have earned. The wages of sin is death. This is the paycheck that comes due for those who turn from God and his law. This is what we would deserve if God's economy operated purely on justice, and not mercy. A man reaps what he sows. Without Christ, our just deserved would be punishment, wrath, and a casting away from God's presence forever. But rather than cast us out, Jesus says, “come to me...” Rather than giving us what is due, he gives us according to his grace.

Jesus doesn't say here, “Come to me, work for me, and I will give you the rest you earn. When you're down plowing the fields, if you've done enough, worked hard enough, then you'll get your pay.” Far from it. He's offering something for free. He's giving, and that is what a gift is – without cost. Here he speaks of this gracious gift in terms of rest. Rest for the weary. Rest for those carrying heavy burdens. Rest that consists of an easy burden and a light yoke – rest that comes only from him.

For his part, he takes the heavy yoke of the cross. He bears on his shoulders the tiresomeness of a world of sinners, the burden of all our guilt and shame. He works – his whole life – carrying the mantle for all of us who labor under the law to no avail. But Jesus did it. He fulfilled the law and then paid the debt. A perfect life and a sufficient death. His work brings us rest. His labor brings us rewards. His earnings – our paycheck.

Rest from good works.
And so the rest he brings is a rest from trying to do it ourselves. Not that we could, but so many would try. It is a lie of the devil that we could earn our salvation, or even contribute to it. That's what the reformation was ultimately about – can man cooperate with God toward his salvation? Rome said yes, we must! Luther (and Scripture) say no, we can't. And we ought not think we can. This is a giant hamster wheel that gets us nowhere fast. It either creates in us a false sense of pride, that our good works are worth something to God... or it leaves us in a place of despair, knowing that we can't work our way to heaven (but obscuring Christ from our eyes). Rather... Christ has done the work for us. You can rest in him!

This doesn't mean that the Christian does no good works. In Christ, we want to, we strive to, and with the help of the Spirit we grow into the good works he has prepared in advance for us to do. But in Christ, the burden is light and the yoke is easy. The good works we do spring from faith and are no drudgery. And though they are of no value for our salvation, they serve our neighbor in love. The labor of salvation is done, but the work of expressing faith continues.

Rest for the conscience.
Related to the rest he gives when it comes to the treadmill of good works, is a rest for the troubled conscience. This rest, this peace, sets us at ease knowing that in him even our deepest darkest sins are nothing. That Christ's atoning sacrifice on the cross is sufficient. That we are baptized into Christ – and that's not about the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God.

What this rest is NOT.
The rest that Christ gives, is not, however, a promise of a trouble-free life. It's not a get-out-of-suffering-for-free card. It doesn't mean we can or should be lazy. It doesn't mean that our earthly lives will be peaceful, calm or restful. It doesn't mean we can expect no persecution – quite on the contrary, the world will hate us on account of him. It doesn't mean that our enemies – devil, world, and sinful flesh – will just quit bothering us now that we are in Christ. If anything, they trouble us even more. The world is a hostile place, with no rest for the weary, especially the weary Christian. It is a valley of the shadow of death. But in it, we are not alone. And from it, there is an escape, a final hope, a promised rest.

Eternal rest.
Perhaps the most expansive fulfillment of this promised rest in Christ comes at the last – when we enjoy the rest in peace that comes at death, and in the mansions of heaven. Our hope in Christ is not only for this world, for this life, but we look to the horizon, and see life with him beyond. I believe in the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.

Jesus made many promises of this, from his words of grace to the thief on the cross: “today you will be with me in paradise”, to his words to the sheep in the judgment of the sheep and the goats, “enter into your rest”, to his words here in Matthew 11, “come unto me all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

In your hymnal, you have of course the various services we use here in church – Divine Services, Matins, even Vespers and Evening Prayer. But there is also a service called “Compline – Prayer at the Close of the Day”. It's meant as a sort of expanded bedtime prayer for God's people. We used this service every night with the youth at our recent conference in San Antonio. And one of the prayers it includes, well let me share it with you now. And let my words here conclude with these words that ask for the rest that comes only in Christ. We pray:

O Lord, support us all the day long of this troubled life, until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes and the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then, Lord, in Your mercy grant us a safe lodging and a holy rest and peace at the last; through Jesus Christ, our Lord.” Amen.


Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Sermon - Matins - Higher Things 2017

June 28, 2017
1 Kings 18:20-40
Matins - Higher Things Conference "Here I Stand"

Here I stand. And there Elijah stood: It's time to fish or cut bait, people. You've been going back and forth, to and fro. Either serve the true God Yahweh, or go after your false god, Baal. Let's have a contest. You build an altar, I'll build mine. We'll make a sacrifice. Whoever gets their god to send down fire on it, well that God is the real deal. You go first.

What? Your god isn't listening? Maybe you need to pray harder. Cry louder. Maybe Baal's in the bathroom. (And who says the Bible doesn't have any bathroom humor?) Today he might say Baal's internet is down, or his phone is on “do not disturb”. Oh, now you're cutting yourselves? Ew. Gross. But even all this blood won't get his attention? But after half a day of this nonsense, there was no fire. There was no voice. No one answered. No one paid attention.

Elijah says, “Let's make this interesting. Dump a bunch of water on my altar. No wait, dig some trenches so we can even surround with with water. Douse it good. Not once, not twice, three times.” And then Elijah prayed. And the fire fell. And it was no mediocre fire, it was Texas hot fire. To burn the bull, the wood, the water and the very stone... you need fire about 2800 degrees Farenheit. Yahweh means business.

And so you could say Elijah proved his point, or rather Yahweh did. And Elijah took those 450 false prophets and had them executed. Which made wicked queen Jezebel put a price on his head, but that's another story. So what do we make of this dramatic contest, the smackdown on Mt. Carmel? What does it have to do with you, and with Jesus for you?

So where do you stand? You can see yourself, perhaps, in the audience. One of those curious onlookers waiting to see how this would all go down. You're not watching Baal vs. Yahweh, but the contest today is between Yahweh and, well, lots of other things. You probably even have your own personal little Baals. Worldviews, ideas, lifestyles opposed to God, vying for your attention and loyalty and even participation. Will this contest end with you in the camp of the true faith? Or will the false prophets of the world convince you with their gesticulations and persuasions? Or maybe they already have. Don't be a human ping-pong ball, back and forth between the truth and lies. Repent. Turn away from all that. Look to Christ, to Yahweh, and live.

God does what he says he will do. He keeps his promises. Now, he has not promised to send down fire from heaven whenever you want. That would probably cause us some trouble, anyway. But he has promised to send down his forgiveness on you just as gratuitously, or even more. His grace in Jesus Christ melts away all your sins. His baptismal waters power-wash away every spot and stain. There's nothing left. This is no half-way, strings-attached, mealy-mouthed, mamby-pamby, all for show, sissy-pants forgiveness. This is a full-throttle, take-no-prisoners, super-sized, punch in the gut, for all-the-marbles, complete annihilation of sins kind of forgiveness. God does not mess around.

And where's Jesus in all of this? He's the Elijah that prays on our behalf. Where's Jesus? He's the sacrifice on the altar who is himself consumed, so that the fires of hell can't touch us. Where's Jesus? He's the one who shed his own blood – and unlike with those loser prophets, with Jesus' blood - Someone listened, Someone answered, Someone paid attention. God the Father answered and accepted the sacrifice on the cross, and showed it by raising Jesus from the dead. And so, Jesus wins.

You know the score: Sin, death and Devil – zip. Baal nothing. Yahweh everything, forever. Jesus wins it all - and he wins you, not just now, but forever. That you may be his own, live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in everlasting righteousness innocence and blessedness. This is most certainly true. This is where it stands. In Jesus Name. Amen.