Wednesday, March 29, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Just look at the parallels between Joseph and Jesus:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, March 27, 2017

Sermon - Lent 4 - John 9:1-41

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Sermon - Lent Midweek 4 - St. Joseph

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 09, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Sermon - Ash Wednesday - St. Matthias - Acts 1:15-26

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

And so another Ash Wednesday is upon us, another Season of Lent begins, and another 40 days of fasting and penitential preparation for the journey with Jesus to Jerusalem, to Calvary, to the cross.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Adam was taken from the dust, the clay, the dirt – molded and shaped by the very hand of God, given life by the very breath of God. But by his hand he reached and took forbidden fruit. And by his breath he laid blame on the woman God gave him. And in this sin, he who was taken from the ground found the ground itself cursed with thorns and thistles. He who was shaped from the clay had reshaped himself in a sad and perverse way. He who was dust and dirt was now soiled with sin and bound for the grave, dust to dust, ashes to ashes, dirt to dirt.

And you, child of Adam, are no different. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Adam's children inherit and practice Adam's sin. Adam's children were all brought forth in his image, and they died. And they died. And you too, it seems, will die.

Ash Wednesday begins the Lenten call to repent. So repent! Be reconciled to God. Turn again, today, from sin and death. Turn again, to Christ, and live. For he is the second Adam. Not formed by dirt and spirit, but conceived by the Spirit and born of a virgin. A second Adam who defeated the tempting serpent. A second Adam who conquered by a tree. A second Adam, who laid in the grave like all of Adam's dust-bound brood – but this second Adam defeats the grave. In him, death has no final say – over him, or over you.

So keep the Lenten fast in a way that seems best to you. Don't practice your righteousness before man. But rend you hearts, and not your garments. For Jesus Christ has come to save even people of dust and ashes.

This Lent, we will be taking a look at some of the saints and believers who are commemorated by the church during March and April. Perhaps first a word about how we Lutherans understand the recognition of saints.

We confess with Holy Scripture, “There is one mediator between God and man, the man Jesus Christ” (1 Tim. 2:5) And so we do not worship or pray to the saints, or any other created person or thing. We worship God alone. The saints in glory certainly pray for us, but we have no assurance they can hear us and no example in Scripture which directs us to call upon them.

Furthermore, we ascribe no righteousness of their own to these saints. Rather we confess they were all sinners like we are, born under the law, and in need of the same redemption in Christ we have received. Their lives of faith and love we credit to God, and we look to the saints then as examples of God working in and through their lives. Yes, we should emulate their good examples. But even more we ought to rejoice in what God has done through them, and continues to do for and through us today.

The saints we will be looking at this season come from quite a variety of times and places, walks of life and vocations. Perhaps you will relate more to some than others. Some are familiar, some are far more obscure. Some we know from Scripture, and some only from the history of the church. But the common thread through all of these is the faith they were given in Christ, and the fruits of that faith seen in their lives.

Today our first saint of Lent is Matthias. Here's his story, from Acts 1:

15 In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) and said, 16 “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. 17 For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” 18 (Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness, and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. 19 And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their own language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) 20 “For it is written in the Book of Psalms,

“‘May his camp become desolate,
and let there be no one to dwell in it’;
“‘Let another take his office.’

21 So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22 beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” 23 And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also called Justus, and Matthias. 24 And they prayed and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen 25 to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” 26 And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.

For someone given such a high honor, to be numbered as one of the Apostles, we know very little of Matthias. And that in itself teaches us something.

He's no Peter – leader of the Apostolic band, with both bright shining moments of good confession and embarrassing breakdowns of denial and lack of faith.

He's no John – Gospel writer, Revelation-seer, son of thunder, witness to both cross and vacant tomb.

He's no Matthew – reformed tax collector

He's no Phillip – who was always bringing people to Jesus

No doubting (but also believing) Thomas. No Nathaniel, the true Israelite in whom there is no guile.

Or any of the other notable and memorable apostles with all their ups and downs, but whom we can at least relate to for some reason or another. Matthias is just... Matthias. The one they picked.

He's not even as interesting as the one they didn't pick, Joseph with the two aliases: Barsabbas and Justus. He's just Matthias.

One of the unknown disciples who was a witness along the way, who was now thrust into this important office of “apostle”.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.  All your works and all your efforts and all your fame and fortune and possessions and achievements. All of it is bound for the dustbin. And in all likelihood, this world will forget you. They will say some nice things at your funeral, and then they will move on. And if you're lucky, like Matthias, someone might at least remember your name.

But you will not be forgotten by God. For Jesus Christ shed his blood for the likes of Matthias, and for you. Jesus was laid in the dust of death for you. His cold clay rested in the hewn stone tomb to sanctify your grave. But the Father didn't forget him either. He would not let his holy one see decay. Jesus was raised to life. Jesus can never die again. Jesus lives, and reigns for us. One day, when he returns in glory, the dead in Christ will rise and all his own will be translated to glorified bodies, full of life forevermore. The dust will be forgotten. Abundant life will remain. This entire fallen world will be a distant memory, if it's even remembered at all. But the word of Christ, the love of Christ, and the glory of Christ will remain forever.

Perhaps Matthias is a great place to start any discussion of the saints, for his relative anonymity shows us that none of these holy ones of God live to themselves or die to themselves. But like St. Paul, whether we live or die, we are the Lord's. Matthias was just a man, a witness, filling an office established by Christ for the good of his kingdom and the proclamation of the Gospel.

So do we all, in our vocations, have a calling from Christ for his own good purposes. And it is a high calling, whatever it is, not because of the one who is called, but because of the one who calls. Therefore do what you are given to do, fulfill your vocation, for the sake of Christ. Seek not your own gain, for you are lowly dust without him. Seek instead his kingdom and righteousness. When you see success, give glory to God. When you fail, repent, confess, and believe.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. But that's not the end of the story for those of us in Christ Jesus. Abide in him in this Lenten season and always. Amen.

Sermon - Transfiguration - Matthew 17:1-9

Matthew 17:1-9
The Transfiguration of our Lord
March 6th, 2011
Just a Peek”

Transfiguration. Now there's some churchly insider lingo for you. What does it mean? Trans, as in, change – figure, as in figure or appearance. Jesus' appearance changes on the mountain. And we mark this unusual event every year with a special Sunday at the end of the Epiphany season and right before Lent.

So why the change? And what does this have to do with you and me? As the three apostles have front row seats to this miraculous sign, we sit and peek over their shoulder this morning, ponder the meaning of the Transfiguration. And be encouraged with them, for here we come to the mountain, yet we may not remain...

First, let's recall the context of this event. Jesus had less than a week before pointedly revealed to his disciples that he was the Christ! And he immediately started to tell them what that meant – that he would go to Jerusalem, that he would suffer and die. Mark tells us, “he spoke about this plainly”. But the disciples didn't want to hear it, and Peter tried to rebuke him. “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus told him, “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of man!”

And then he told them, “some standing here today will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom”.

With these words hanging in the air for just 6 days, the very next thing the Gospel writers detail is the Transfiguration.

In those six days, we can only wonder what ran through those disciples' minds. Was the truth about Jesus starting to sink in? That he was a suffering Messiah, not a triumphant conqueror? Were they perhaps becoming doubtful about him? What's this crazy talk about death and resurrection, anyway? And what did he mean by they will see him coming in his kingdom?

Have you ever been put off by the word of God? Have you ever struggled to understand, or to believe what the holy scriptures teach? Has a sermon ever not sat that well with you, bothered you – made you churn and squirm? Does the law have its way with you? And are you sometimes not only confused about God, but also yourself – how you fit in with his plan?

Sometimes we get it right, like Peter, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!”. Sometimes we get it wrong like Peter, thinking we know better than our Lord. And sometimes, we just don't get it. Confusion reigns.

We look at ourselves and see something far afield from the glory that shines in Christ. We are bumbling fools in our sins, filthy and slimy. Dark and dull. Twisted and evil. We are are the opposite of the mountaintop, we are the depths and chasms, wallowing in the muck of our miserableness. Oh, to even be in the presence of such glory – we can see why Peter wanted to build some tents and stay awhile. But that wasn't the point either.

So then, the transfiguration. A high mountain, Peter, James and John. Jesus' appearance changes – dazzling white glory – they get a peek behind the veil of his humility. After all, he truly is God of God and Light of Light. Moses and Elijah, representing the law and the prophets, all the Old Testament scriptures testifying to Jesus as Lord. And best of all, the voice from heaven, God's own voice, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.” The same voice and the same remarks from Jesus' Baptism, only now he adds, “Listen to Him”. You may see a spectacle here. You may be startstruck by your Old Testament heroes. You may have the image seared on you forever – but listen! Listen to him!

And so what does he say? “The Son of man will go up to Jerusalem, and suffer and die, and be raised again.” He speaks the Gospel!

This great event, this mountaintop experience, this bright shining moment is great and all, but it's nothing compared to the glory yet to come. It's nothing compared to the day, the Friday that Jesus has in mind, and the Sunday morning to follow. There, on that mountain called Calvary, Jesus would come into his kingdom. And John, who had a front row seat to the transfiguration, will also stand at the foot of the cross.

There Jesus will be stripped of all earthly dignity, rather than clothed in glory. There Jesus will be flanked by common thieves, not great men of faith. There darkness will blot out the sun, rather than radiance shining forth. There no one would say, “it is good to be here, let's build some tents and stay a while”. There, God would not consider Jesus his beloved Son with whom he is well pleased, but instead, he would forsake him who was made to become sin for us.

But listen to him. What he says there, on the cross, matters even more.
Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
You will be with me in paradise. It is finished.

The transfiguration of our Lord – it shows Jesus' glory. It gives the disciples, and us, just a peek of what our eyes cannot see – that this Jesus is indeed the Son of God. The voice of the Father confirms it. But this mountaintop experience isn't the goal. It simply prepares us for that other mountain, where Jesus does what he really came to do – die for sinners like us. Knowing his true identity is important to understanding that death – that the God made flesh dies for all people – it's foundational to our faith. It's the heart and center of it all.

What does the transfiguration mean to us? It means that Jesus Christ is the Light of Light and very God of very God - he has and deserves all the glory. But it means that the cross matters all the more – that his suffering and death for us are all the better – because he is who he is. The transfiguration reminds us that it's not just some guy who dies for us – but God's own Son. The transfiguration, a picture of glory, actually points us away from such glory to the darkness and scandal of the cross. There is God's kind of glory – a power made perfect in weakness – a salvation through suffering – sweet life for all won by bitter death for him.

And finally, the transfiguration gives us a hint of that kingdom that is yet to come – the kingdom of glory, when we will see Christ as he truly is, when he comes to raise us up forever. Then, we too will be like him, glorified. Then, we will be transfigured – changed – made perfect – body and soul forever. The transfiguration is Christ as he truly is – but it's also a glimpse of our future in him.

Until then, the glory remains hidden. The promise is heard but not seen. He comes to us humbly, still – under bread and wine, by the water, in the Gospel. His kingdom comes to you today – forgiving you, renewing you, and transfiguring you, by faith. So receive him, see him, listen to him. In Jesus' Name, Amen.