Monday, September 24, 2018

Sermon - Pentecost 18 - Mark 9:30-37


Mark 9:30-37
It's for the Children”

And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them,“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” (36-37)

The Christian faith is full of surprises. God does things and says things that are exactly opposite of how we would do - or say they should be.

Our reading from James today is full of these contrasts – between the wisdom of the world, and the “wisdom from heaven”. Jesus knew such wisdom well. And it's perhaps one of the most striking aspects of his teaching. He honestly shocked people when he said, “turn the other cheek”, and “wash each other's feet” and “the first shall be last – whoever would be great among you must be slave of all”.

Today our reading from Mark unfolds these surprises even more. In a great reversal, Jesus takes these disciples who were increasingly impressed with their own rock-star status and he teaches them a lesson in humility. That true greatness is found in lowliness, and last-ness. 

Remember, these disciples were witness to many amazing things. The fame and glory Jesus was generating must have rubbed off on them, at least in their own minds. They themselves had been given authority to heal and cast out demons. They saw the crowds thronging around Jesus, and surely felt a little puffed up themselves by all the attention. So one day on the road they began to discuss their own greatness – and even argue which of them was the greatest. “I'm better than you are. I'm the most important. I'm the best”

Maybe Peter had the best claim, “I walked on water. Jesus calls me 'the Rock!” or maybe it was Judas, “hey he trusts me to carry the money”. Or John, “I'm the disciple Jesus loves”. Or Nathanel, “He called me a true Israelite in whom there is nothing false”. Or Phillip, “Yeah but I brought you to him.” Or whatever.

Sounds pretty childish, doesn't it? And when Jesus asks what they were arguing about, he surely knew. But they kept silent. No one wanted to admit to what they were doing – they too must have known it was wrong.

Yes, the guilty silence. It reminds me of the way a child acts when they are caught being naughty. “What were you doing that was naughty?” The parent asks. “I don't want to say” the child replies. The disciples were acting like children.... rebellious and bickering children who were caught in the act of sin.

We are no better. We are just the same. We argue amongst ourselves. We get puffed up with pride in ourselves. We set ourselves against each other. Oh we think we're good at hiding it all – and for the most part we do hide our petulant hearts from each other. But the guard comes down, and the teeth come out here and there. We are selfish and willful and petulant and full of all the same sins that made the disciples act like children. Let's be honest with ourselves.

Funny then, that Jesus takes a child to teach the disciples a lesson in humility. Receiving children – regarding them, acknowledging them, well it wasn't considered a top priority for adults. Especially for self-important disciples of the great Rabbi! The disciples thought Jesus had no time for insignificant children. They tried to shoo children away. But Jesus shows special care and concern for children. He says, “let them come to me and do not hinder them”. He touches them. He blesses them. He commends their faith.

Perhaps this is a key – there's a difference between being childish and child-like. In sin, our actions are childish. Everything that we adults try to correct in our children – all that misbehavior that comes naturally to them – is also in us. The childishness, selfishness, and obstinate rebellion – all the worst things we see in them, God could say the same and worse of us.

But Jesus commends those whose faith is child-like. All the best characteristics of children, like trustfulness, humility, openness to being taught. Through Jesus we become children – children of God and heirs of eternal life. And it is these sorts of qualities the Spirit works in us, as the New Man daily emerges from baptismal waters.

To receive a child, we must stoop down from our pedestal of pride. And only in such humility can we receive Christ. Only confessing our sins do we receive his forgiveness. Only in denying our own powers do we rely on his power, his Spirit. Only in lowliness are we exalted. The first shall be last, and the last, first, indeed.

And now back to the first part of this reading, and to another surprise, another reversal, another opposite-of-how-we-think-it-should-be. The disciples were too caught up in their petty squabbling and childish pride to hear and digest what Jesus had just said – that he would be betrayed, die, and rise again.

This is the second time Mark records Jesus telling what his future holds. The first time, Peter tried to rebuke Jesus for all that suffering and dying talk. Jesus even called him Satan. Well now Jesus is bringing it up again and rather than rebuke him they just ignore it all. They've got better things to talk about, like which of them is best.

But there is no better thing to talk about than the work Jesus does for us. His suffering, death and resurrection. There is no more childlike faith than the one who says, “Jesus died for me, to forgive my sins, and rose from the dead for me, so that I get to go to heaven”. 

Such child-like faith receives the Christ joyfully. And in receiving Christ, we receive the Father. And if we receive the Father, that makes us his children. It's that simple.

And we express our faith in God by serving our neighbor, yes, even children. Our own children, first of all – those whom God has placed in our care. Our nearest “neighbors”. We serve them, love them, not just because they are cute and lovable. Any parent can tell you about the times their children are NOT so cute and lovable. But we serve them because they are ours. They belong to us. They are our own flesh and blood. And God has given us charge of them.

Sure, we feed and clothe them. Sure, we provide them with love and affection. We save for them to go to college. We put them in good schools and activities and always want the best for them. But a Christian parent knows the best we can do is this: we bring them to the font to receive their Savior in the Water and the Word of promise. We bring them to His house to hear his word, and learn and grow.

And we care for all God's children – young and old – as we show our love in acts of mercy and kindness. And whatsoever we do to the least of these, even for the children, we do it for Christ.

It's for the children”. Jesus could have said that on his way to the cross. It's for the children – the children of God's creation who had become children of destruction in their sin. What a great reversal – what a great surprise. That by his lowly suffering and humble service, even his death on the cross – he makes us children of God once again – restored, renewed, and one day resurrected to eternity.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Sermon - Pentecost 16 - Mark 7:31-37

Mark 7:31-37
“He Does All Things Well”

Perhaps you know someone who is what they call a “Jack of all trades”. Maybe you are that someone. It certainly isn't me. The “master of none” part fits me just fine. For most of us, we can do some things pretty well, some things ok, and many things we just have no clue about. I can change a tire, but not spark plugs. I can change a light bulb, but A/C repair is beyond me. I can re-format a hard drive, but don't ask me to build a computer. And usually, we have that one skill or set of skills that helps us pay the bills. And good for you if you also enjoy that activity.

But look at what they say about Jesus in Mark 7. He heals the deaf and mute man, and the people who witness declare, “He has done all things well...” Jesus is no “Jack-of-all-trades, but master-of-none”. He is Master of all. Lord of all. King of creation. And so it shouldn't surprise them that he can do this miracle, or any miracle, really, if they believed in him. He has done all things well. That's really quite an understatement!

Jesus has been busy. He has, already in 6 chapters of Mark, been baptized and tempted, driven out evil spirits and healed many of various diseases. He has preached good news to the poor, cleansed a leper, healed a paralytic and a man with a withered hand. He calmed a storm, cast out a legion of demons, healed a woman with a flow of blood and raised a little girl from the dead. He fed the 5000 and cast out a demon from a little girl without even seeing her in person. And now he heals the deaf and mute man. And of course, all along the way he'd been teaching them in sermons and parables. You can see why the people were impressed. You can see why they said, “He has done all things well”.
But more than the spectacle of it all, more than the wonder at these mighty works, is the fulfillment of prophecy.
He has done all things well – in terms of all those things that are marks of the Messiah. Here, he fulfills the Old Testament reading, Isaiah 35:5:
“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;”
He has done all things well. This is one of those unwitting prophetic sayings that happen from time to time in Scripture. Like the crowd that cried out, “his blood be upon us and on our children” - yes, it was to be upon them, but not in the way they meant. Or Caiaphas, who advised the Jews that “it is better that one man die for the people”. While they perhaps meant, “He has done all things well” as a general sort of atta-boy, an adulation of praise, even, we could apply it much more deeply and broadly to Jesus.

Jesus' attention to detail in fulfilling the scriptures even shows as he hung, suffering, on the cross. “In order to fulfill the scripture, he said, 'I thirst'.”
Yes, he did it all – was born of a virgin – Isaiah 7 check! Was born in Bethlehem Micah 5 – check! Was a suffering servant – check many places in Isaiah. Was forsaken by God – check Psalm 22! Gave the sign of Jonah and rose again – Check – Jonah 3! And we could go on and on and on. Even the whole Old Testament speaks of him, foreshows him, points to him the Messiah, the Christ, the long-promised savior.

More than that, he has done all things well – in procuring our salvation. He keeps the law perfectly, down to the smallest detail. He offers the perfect sacrifice – a lamb of God without spot or blemish – a lamb that is slain for the people, whose blood washes over us, and washes us clean. He does what no one else could, what no one else can, what no one else would, or could even imagine. He bears the sins of the world. All of them. He has done all things well. He even conquered death, snapping its strong bands to tatters as he arose in glory. He has done all things well.

And then there's you. You and I, who have not done all things well. Hold us to the same standard, in fact hold us to almost any standard, and we don't come out looking so good. The Ten Commandments strip down any supposed good works we could hope to offer. We can't even get past the first one – have no other gods. In spiritual terms, the only thing we can do well is sin – pervert and abuse God's good gifts, turn away from him and in on ourselves. We can't love God or our neighbor as we should. We don't. The Old Adam doesn't really even want to. We sin in thought, word, and deed. We have well earned sin's wage of death.

And like the deaf man who cannot hear - we are so deaf to God, so dead in our trespasses, that we cannot even hear his word, let alone speak it. Of our own devices we are spiritually blind and deaf and mute and dead. I cannot by my own reason or strength. Helpless and hopeless until Jesus comes along. But he does. He takes our bad works and gives us his good. He takes our death and gives us his life. He opens our eyes and ears and loosens our tongues to faith – a faith we could never have without him, and his Spirit.

Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. And even though we are spiritually deaf by nature - the word of God itself creates what it demands. The Gospel itself is the power of salvation. It cleanses hearts, gives life, opens ears to hear.

And so Jesus speaks to a deaf man – and think of that – speaks to his deaf ears and commands them to hear. He brings into being, by the power of his word, that which was not. And it is so.

He speaks also to you. His word reaches the cold, dead ears of your sinful nature, and whispers “Ephatha”. And faith comes. Suddenly you can hear. And hearing you believe. And believing, you also speak.
For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. And all your not-so-well is covered by his everything-well.

The word, “well” in the Greek “kalos” is the same word, “good” (Adverb, Adjective), that Greek uses for the Genesis account, when God made everything and declared it “very good”. And just think of that. That God the Son, by whom all things were made, and who made everything good, and with man, even very good – this God become flesh in the person of Jesus – has done all things well, and for your good. And to restore you to the good, even the very good he meant for you to be. It's no accident that the book of Revelation pictures our eternal home as a restoration of that ancient paradise – complete with the reappearance of the tree of life – and its fruit year-round and leaves for the healing of the nations.

Of course, you don't see this right away. Your ears of faith hear it and believe it – but faith is the assurance of things unseen. Your heart still stammers and stutters to believe the words and promises of Jesus. Your mind doubts like Thomas, and says, “show me”. An outward healing is hard to deny. But inward healing, a declaration of forgiveness, a promise of a resurrection... is harder. And so we waiver. We doubt. We say, “I believe Lord, but help my unbelief.” And so it bears repeating. We must hear the word, the law and the gospel, over and over. Let our ears be drenched with this word of God, until that day when death comes and the flesh can no longer struggle against the Spirit.

Jesus doesn't just heal the ears – he also fixes the tongue. He cures the man's speech impediment, and we hear him speaking plain as day. So too does this gift of faith he gives to you – loosen your tongue to confess Christ, freely, faithfully, and boldly.

You confess him formally, in creeds and catechisms, and as the very words of Scripture roll off your tongues. You confess him informally, giving answer to the hope that is within you. Your faith speaks in actions – as you love your neighbor, show mercy to the weakest and least among us. You even proclaim his death until he comes again when you kneel to receive this cup and this bread, which are his Body and Blood. Your participation is your “amen, yes, it is so!” to his gift and promise.

So, forgiven sinners, read and meditate on that word of life every day. Gather around the word of God each week, humbly confessing and begging forgiveness, as Christ speaks that word of life to us again. Hear the Gospel read, and preached, as the Spirit works to convict and console you, to accuse and pardon you. Hear Christ say, “here's my body and blood for you, to forgive your sins.” and come forward saying, “I'm a sinner. I need what Jesus is giving!” And once again your ears and heart are opened, healed, revived in him. Come this day. In Jesus Christ, Amen.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Sermon - Christian Education Sunday - Deuteronomy 6:4-15

Christian Education Sunday- August 26, 2018
Deuteronomy 6:4-15
“Christian Teaching; Christian Learning”

Our Lord Jesus Christ loves children. He says “let the little children come to me and do not hinder them”. He uses children as an example, a paragon of faith. And there is much we could say about this. But on this Christian Education Sunday, we're going to focus especially on these words of Moses from Deuteronomy 6:

And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise”

This passage comes as part of Moses' farewell to the Israelites. You know the story of the Exodus, how God brought the children of Israel out of Egypt with a mighty hand, parted the Red Sea and drowned Pharaoh's armies. How he brought them to Mount Sinai, met with Moses there, and gave them the 10 commandments, and established a covenant with them. He had them construct a tabernacle, and the ark and all its appointments. He gave them a system of sacrifice to deal with sin. He promised to be their God, and they would be his people. And he was bringing them to a good land – flowing with milk and honey.

They grumbled and rebelled. It would take 40 years, an entire generation, before God decided they were ready to take possession of their inheritance. Through it all, he sustained them with daily bread from heaven. And he would also go before them to conquer the Canaanites and deliver the promised land to them. This story would be repeated by the prophets and the people throughout their history, and even we gentiles repeat and rehearse it today – for through this little nation he was working out his plan of salvation for the whole world. From this nation would come the Savior Jesus Christ.

Moses wasn't going with them into Canaan. He would die on Mt. Nebo – just overlooking the border into that land. But before he died he wrote them (by the Spirit's inspiration) a farewell sermon – Deuteronomy. That name actually means, “second law”. It reiterates the words and promises of God, as well as his commands. In fact the 10 commandments are found in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. So when Moses teaches them the word of God here, it isn't the fist time they heard it; it was a repetition.

And Moses is encouraging the people to keep repeating these words of God, in various ways, as they also teach them to their children. Morning, noon and night. Rising and sleeping. Sitting and walking. In and out of the house. Anywhere and everywhere. Anytime. The word, the word, the word. We do well to heed his advice.

Christian Education is nothing other than receiving the very Word of God. So in some ways, it seems superfluous to have a “Christian Education” emphasis – as every Sunday we gather – Christian Education is going on. Of course this happens first and foremost in the Divine Service. When we gather around God's word. We read it, hear it, learn it and inwardly digest it. In fact Jesus Christ, as the living embodiment of that word is central to it all. When we receive the Word of God, we receive Jesus, and vice versa.

Oh, and it's not just an intellectual “learning”, by the way. Though surely there is a head-knowledge component. But Christian Education is a training of the heart in God's word more than anything. It is a spiritual matter, an exercise of faith. The sermon is less a classroom lesson and more a proclamation. So if you didn't “learn anything” on a given Sunday in church, that's ok. You're still hearing the word – and faith comes by hearing. And the central gathering of Christians for this endeavor is in our weekly worship.

But just as Moses implored the Israelites to eat, sleep and drink the Word in various ways, so we modern Christians have our own ways of fulfilling these commands. For about 100 years we've had something called “Sunday School”, in which we intentionally teach the Bible to our children at age-appropriate levels. Sure there's arts and crafts and fun and games, and if you're lucky some flannel-graph visual aids, but that's not what it's all about. It's about Jesus. It's about God's word. It's about teaching our children this precious heritage of faith that we have received, and which they will not receive in a world that has grown increasingly hostile. Thanks be to God for those who teach, and those who learn in our Sunday School classes.

We have for years hosted a Vacation Bible School – and engaged the wider community with an invitation to come hear and learn about Christ.

So also, we've established here, a Christian school. Like many Lutheran Churches, we recognize the value of providing this service to our own members and the larger community. What a blessing to learn not only the 3 r's, Latin and History, music and art – but to do it all alongside of daily training in the Word. And as a classical school, the children in our care also learn by great emphasis on repetition – and certainly by repeating and memorizing the Word of God. Thanks be to God for the blessings of Lutheran Schools, and of the School we are blessed to operate at Messiah. Apart from the ministry of Word and Sacrament, our school is our greatest mission and our primary cooperative undertaking as a congregation. Let us continue to support it through our prayers, our gifts, and our encouragement.

Ah, but what of the adults? Does Christian Education exclude those of us who have graduated from school, been confirmed in the faith, who've been Christians our whole lives and perhaps even have a Master of Divinity degree? By no means! Aren't we beyond all that? Are we past it all? Haven't we heard all this before?

Moses wouldn't have any of that. These words of God – his commandment and promises – ought to be on our hearts and minds as children, and on our lips also as adults. We are never to stop teaching them and rehearsing them and cherishing them. Nor ought we ever think we've mastered them. We are all disciples of Christ, that is to say, students. Or to use a more modern buzz-word, life-long-learners of the faith.

For our sinful nature is stubborn. Our Old Adam does not go gently into the night. He is hard-hearted and hard-headed. He needs the Law of God to continually expose his sin. He needs to be knocked off his perpetual pedestal of self-righteousness. If we could only just stop sinning – maybe it would be different. But as long as the flesh is with us, as long as sin clings to us, the law must teach us our true need for Christ.

But likewise the Gospel – it's not a one-time deal. Jesus sacrificial death for your sins, and his rising from the dead to destroy death for you – this isn't just the introduction to our faith, it's the meat-and-potatoes of our faith. It is the everyday joy and blessing, the living water of refreshment and the daily nourishment for our soul. The grace of God, the forgiveness of sins, the promises of peace and hope and life in Christ – Christians should be steeped in the good news. It is a daily blessing. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is our constant and sure stronghold against all storms of the world, assaults of the devil, and doubts of the flesh. Repeat, repeat, repeat the good news of Jesus. Hear it again and again and again. It's so good, this news never gets old.

(Catechesis) Hear from Dr. Luther about learning the catechism:

But this I say for myself: I am also a doctor and a preacher, just as
learned and experienced as all of them who are so high and
mighty. Nevertheless, each morning, and whenever else I have
time, I do as a child who is being taught the catechism and I read
and recite word for word the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten
Commandments, the Creed, the Psalms, etc. I must still read and
study the catechism daily, and yet I cannot master it as I wish, but
must remain a child and pupil of the catechism—and I also do so
gladly.(Preface to the Large Catechism)

If the great reformer can so humbly remain committed to his own Christian Education, and even in the simplest terms. If your own pastors remain students of the word. And your fellow Christians continue to join you as disciples and students of the Great Teacher, Jesus Christ. Then surely you also do well to abide in his word every day.

There's always more poking and prodding the law will do to you, exposing sins you didn't even know you had. Showing you the way of holiness God expects. And there's ever more grace to be seen in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Ever more mercy to be found in him, ever more blood to cover your sins. And so we teach the children. And so we learn, ourselves. And so we grow in knowledge and faith and fear of the Lord. To our last day, when the pastor at our bedside speaks those same precious words and prepares us to enter his courts forever. God's word is our great heritage, and shall be ours forever. In Jesus Christ. Amen.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Sermon - Pentecost 12 - 1 Kings 19:1-8

1 Kings 19:1-8
“Food for the Journey”

Elijah was having a rough go of it. Sure he'd had his moment of glory. Actually, it was to the glory of God that the prophets of Baal were defeated in that famous contest on Mt. Carmel. You build your altar, I'll build mine to Yahweh, and we'll see which god is real. Yahweh sent fire down to consume Elijah's sacrifice, and the altar of stone as well – but Baal was silent, well, because he doesn't exist. And Elijah even had the 450 prophets of Baal put to death by the sword. For Elijah it was a great victory. A triumph, even.

But not when wicked queen Jezebel heard of it. She put a contract out on Elijah's life. And she meant business. She'd put many other faithful prophets of Yahweh to death already. Elijah would be just one more. But this once bold confessor who stood up to his opponents on Mt. Carmel and prayed for fire to come from heaven – and had faith to believe that it would – now turns into a coward and flees from the northern kingdom, flees even from the southern kingdom, flees all the way into the southern wilderness. Quite a contrast. Almost unbelievable.

Unless you read your bible. And you see the many other people of faith with their shocking ups and downs. Abraham's faith to sacrifice his son Issac, but his fear that the Pharaoh would kill him and take his wife. Moses' faith to stand before another Pharaoh but his self-glorifying fall when he struck the rock to get water. David's faith to fell the giant Goliath, remain faithful to a wicked king Saul, and fight the Philistines by their thousands, but his fall into sin with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah. Even in the New Testament – the disciples of Jesus, especially Peter, are commendable in faith one minute, and faltering in fear and failure the next. They confess him, then they deny him. They believe him, then they doubt him. And so it goes. The Bible is full of these sinners and saints.

And the contrast is also observable in your life. You can seem to fight the good fight for a while, but then temptations come and you fold like a house of cards. One day your faith feels strong like a fortress, the next you feel the sand shifting beneath you. You're confident of grace and God's love in Christ over here, and right over there you forget it all, and despair and doubt. Like St. Paul who struggled between his flesh and the new creation, every Christian goes through it. Wretched man that I am! Who will save me from this body of death? Thanks be to God – for he does it – in Jesus Christ.

And so God is continually pointing us outside ourselves. He's continually surprising us with the Gospel, with his love, grace, mercy, and providence. He's continually speaking to you, sustaining you, providing for you, even feeding you.

Take Elijah again. He's out in the wilderness. Threatened by enemies, but now also hungry. Despair is getting the best of him. “O Lord, take away my life...” he prays. But God's not having it. He has work for him to do. He has plans for his servant Elijah. He will go to Horeb. God will speak to him there. And Elijah will return and face his foes again, to pronounce God's word of judgment.

And so God strengthens him for the journey. In the middle of this wilderness, he lets him rest, and he gives him bread. Not just once, mind you, but twice, he feeds the prophet. He sends an angel, a messenger, with food for strength and words of encouragement. Food that Elijah didn't prepare or even ask for, but God knew he needed. “The journey is too great for you”. But nothing is too great for our God, in him all things are possible. In him, and in Jesus Christ – we have food for the journey.

Jesus Christ is the living bread from heaven who sustains and feeds us with his very self. He gives us strength for the journey of this life, indeed he gives us this life, sustains us in this world of enemies and this wilderness of sin. He speaks to us through faithful messengers who set his word before us, for the journey is too great for us. He feeds us with his own body and blood, not just once, but as often as we do this in his remembrance.

He's not a point-you-in-that-direction and see-you-at-the-finish-line kind of Savior. He's a with-you-every-step-of-the-way Savior. An ever-present help in trouble. A constant friend. A faithful shepherd. He will not leave you alone, wandering. He promises to be with you always, not just when it seems like fun. And if that were not enough: He even sends you his Spirit, who guides, comforts, enlightens, encourages and even prays for you along the way.

If you are tempted to despair, or give up, if you have had enough of sin, death, and of their wake of destruction and the mess they bring into your world. If you are longing for death, or just to check out and not be bothered with your vocations. If you even question God's goodness and mercy, or think that maybe he's forgotten or forsaken you. Consider this.

The God who went to the great care of sending his own son, even giving him into death, he will not leave you to your journey without his aid. He's gone to far too much trouble for your salvation.

For Jesus' part, he, too was a prophet who made his share of enemies. He, like Elijah, made a journey into the wilderness of his own. Only Jesus wasn't running away, he was driven by the Spirit there, to face the ultimate enemy, and to prevail. There, in his hunger, the Tempter said, “turn these stones into bread”, but the Living Bread answered, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”. There, in his 40 day journey, Jesus didn't despair, but he kept the fast and stood firm against temptation. And like Elijah, angels came and ministered to him.

Elijah sat under the small comfort of a broom tree, but Jesus labored under the shadow of another tree – a cross - a tree of suffering that had his name on it, that he would endure to end all suffering. A tree of curse, to reverse Adam's curse. A tree of judgment for the forbidden fruit of sin, by which he would win for us the fruits of righteousness again.

Elijah's journey wouldn't end in death, like he suggested. But Jesus' journey to the cross could only be to die. Yet he never turned away, never flinched, never failed to drink the cup appointed, or to bear the sentence that was pronounced. Mocked by men and forsaken by God, he truly was the only one left to bear that awful load.

How will God, who spared not his own son – how will he not also graciously give you all good things? How will Jesus, who endured all that suffering and such a bitter death – how will he not, also, graciously sustain you? He didn't do all this for nothing. He did it for you.

He did it because he knows the journey is hard. He knows you couldn't make it on your own – it's too great for you. But you, traveller, have a path and course marked out for you. You, wilderness wanderer, have a forerunner who's already stormed the gates of death and hell, and marked out the way back to paradise. Better than that, he doesn't just show you the way, he brings you with him. And he's with you all along the way, sustaining you come what may.

Enemies abound. The Devil rages and schemes for your demise. But what of that? You have shelter in the arms of Jesus. Death looms, and it may come for you. But what of that? For in Christ, death is but the gate to eternal life. The wilderness of the world is a wasteland of sin, violence, pain and sorrow. No matter. Jesus has the journey covered. He's with you every step. He'll even feed you along the way, over and over. And your destination is beyond comparing to this vale of tears.

The journey's too great for you. But not for Jesus. Come to his table today. Be fed once again. Remain in him, and your journey will be blessed.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Sermon - Pentecost 9 - Mark 6:30-44

July 22nd 2018
“The God Who Feeds”
Mark 6:30-44

God loves to feed his people. From the very beginning, in the Garden, and planted trees with all kinds of fruit. God made sure to provide food for his people. He fed his people in the wilderness with a daily supply of manna – bread from heaven. He brought them to a land flowing with milk and honey. The Psalmist writes, “The eyes of all wait upon you, O Lord, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing” and in that beloved Psalm 23 “You prepare a table before me.”

And Jesus is the same, of course. Like Father, like Son. He loves to feed his people. So after a long day of teaching and preaching, he sees a hungry crowd. And he makes sure that they are fed. Miraculously so – he provides food for 5000 men, not counting women and children. And this wasn't the only time he fed a large crowd, either!

Our Savior teaches here, as he commands he disciples to gather the leftovers – he teaches his children not to waste his gifts. The crowd also teaches us, in that there was more than enough and they didn't hoard it. They gave back to Jesus from the abundance he gave them. And 12 baskets were leftover. How we, living in America today would do well to learn these lessons – don't waste, and don't hoard our physical blessings.

To be sure, passages such as this show us that God does care for our bodily needs. Even in the Lord's Prayer we are taught to pray for daily bread – those things we need to support this body and life. And God gives us way more than we need – just as there were many leftovers at the miraculous feeding of 5,000. As the Psalmist writes, “you prepare a table before me... my cup overflows”. And as we can see in our own lives – even in tough economic times, uncertain times - God provides for us more than we need.

He also provides more than we deserve. Adam and Eve didn't plant the garden or create the trees from which they ate. The Children of Israel didn't do anything but collect the bread God sent from heaven. The 5000 hungry hearers of Jesus simply sat down and received the gifts he gave that day. But none of them deserved it. Especially as sinners, we deserve nothing from God but sin, death and hell. We don't deserve a job, a family, a house, a car, nice clothes, shoes or toys. We don't even deserve the food that God graciously provides.

Notice, however, that food wasn't all Jesus gave that day. It wasn't even the most important gift. He had spent the day putting first things first – he fed the people with his Word. And here we see the spiritual sustenance that comes from the Good News of Jesus Christ is the real thing. Jesus says it himself, “Let's go over there so I can preach.... for that is why I came”. He didn't come just to fill people's stomachs. He didn't come only to heal and cast out demons, raise the dead, and give people what they felt they needed. He came to give us what we all need the most – whether we know it or not.

And that, is himself. He gives himself to us, and for us. He gives his very life – a body broken and precious blood shed for our greatest need... forgiveness. A renewed and restored relationship with God. And all the blessings that go with it.

You may feel your needs are different. How would you finish the sentence, “If I could ask God for just one thing right now, it would be.... _____”? But our greatest need is always Christ, and God has already said yes to that prayer. All other needs and wants and desires pale in comparison to the nourishment of our souls, the living bread from heaven, Jesus Christ.

But that doesn't mean we ought not pray to God for every earthly need. In fact, he's taught us to do so – to pray, “give us this day our daily bread”. And so we do. We pray for the needs of the body, the physical, the earthly, the everyday. We recognize that all of this also comes to us from the hand of a gracious God who loves to feed his people.

But this doesn't give us the right to be lazy. For the ability to work for our daily bread is itself a gift that God gives us. Work is one of the means through which he provides us what we need. And Paul warns the lazy man, “he who does not work, shall not eat!” Expecting God's provision as some sort of right or entitlement is just as wrong as expecting nothing from him at all, and thinking you are the giver of all good things. Rather, we recognize and give thanks for his gifts – also – by putting them to use faithfully. And that includes the ability to work.

Now, some of our hungers are ungodly. Some of our desires are for things sinful. These, God is not interested in granting. Instead these cravings are forbidden fruits. For these sinful desires we need, instead, to repent. Greed and lust, pride, and over-indulgence of our own creaturely comforts.... It can even be the need to be liked and loved, especially at the cost of our integrity. We have many sinful “hungers” and we must weigh carefully – to see whether what we want lines up with what God's word requires of us.

And Satan would love to fill our bellies with all sorts of garbage. Whether you call it “spiritual junk food” or see it as the dangerous poison it is.... he would deceive us into swallowing his lies and falling for his temptations. But these false foods bring death, not life. They leave us malnourished and sickly, or bloated with a false sense of fullness.

But there is a spiritual hunger that is good and godly. It is what happens when the sinner falls on his knees before Holy God and admits what we truly deserve, and what we truly need! Like when Peter preached his first sermon, and the people were “cut to the heart” and asked, “what shall we do?”

Believe and be baptized, he told them. And thousands of years later sinners who hunger and thirst for righteousness are doing the same. When the law cuts us to the heart, we are ready – we hunger to hear that sweet message of good news in Jesus Christ. We are ready to be fed. And God still provides.

And what good Lutheran can think of God feeding us without considering the Lord's Supper? The same Jesus who fed the crowd of 5000 with bread after feeding them with his word, is the same Jesus who by his powerful word feeds us and then feeds us again with his word attached to bread and wine. He feeds you bread and wine that is his own true body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins. He feeds you often and freely. He feeds you with what you need the most – himself. He feeds you and this food gives life, and works salvation. He feeds you with a food just as miraculous as the fish and loaves. A food shared by all Christians, a table of angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. In this Holy Communion, he feeds well more than 5000 – indeed, he offers his heavenly bread to all.

One more gift Christ gives in connection to this meal. Just as he told the disciples to distribute the food to the crowd, so does he call pastors today, to minister, to serve, to distribute his gifts. “You give them something to eat”. The pastor feeds (and is fed) with the word. The pastor feeds the flock with the food he has received. It is a food only Christ can offer, but he offers it through simple, humble men, just as he gives it in simple words, and water, and bread and wine. It takes faith to see and believe that all this can and does happen. But such faith is also a gift from the provider of all good things.

So come to the table today. But don't come because it's just something to do. Don't come because everyone else is doing it. Don't even come because you should. Come because you feel the hunger. Come because you believe the promise – that this little wafer, and this bit of wine are what Jesus says they are. Come because he is present for you, here with forgiveness. Come because here, in this place, we find the one thing we need most. And our God loves to feed his people. O taste and see that the Lord is good, in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Sermon - Pentecost 8 - Mark 6:14-29

“The Death of a Prophet”
Mark 6:14-29

We've heard what the people of Nazareth thought of Jesus. They weren't too impressed. They rejected him, to Jesus' own amazement. Now Mark tells us what Herod thinks about Jesus. This is the Herod Antipas, who is the son of Herod the Great – and it was Herod the Great who tried to kill Jesus when he slaughtered the children of Bethlehem. It was also the same Herod here, Antipas, who was in Jerusalem and before whom Jesus stood on trial. So the mention of the Herod name gets us thinking both backward and forward in the New Testament witness.

Herod has heard of Jesus. Word of Jesus must have been all the talk. The miracles that Jesus performed – well, Herod reasoned in his superstition that Jesus was John the Baptist come back from the dead to haunt him. And the message of Jesus was similar to the message of John the Baptist – repent, and believe! And so Mark gives us a flashback scene – and tells us what led up to this when it comes to John and Herod.

The story is kind of disturbing, isn't it? Especially when you have to teach it to children. It's kind of grizzly. But if you can get past that part of it, you might still wonder why Mark, inspired by the Holy Spirit, would tell us such a story.

It would make a pretty depressing movie, I think. There's no happy ending in which the little guy is vindicated. John, this nobody from nowhere, who had given up the creature comforts of life to live in the wilderness – John, a voice crying in that wilderness – whose message was growing and commanding attention. People were responding in droves, as the Pharisees commented, “all of Judea is going to him!” And John, the voice of accusation toward Herod – learns that calling out the king's sin is dangerous business. I guess oday some would call it, “speaking truth to power”.

“Herod you married your brother's sister! Repent!” And if it bothered Herod, it REALLY burned his adulterous wife, Herodias. She wanted this voice silenced. She wanted John out of the picture. And so she has Herod arrest him. Oh, she wanted him dead, too... but Herod feared to go that far. For he knew, somehow, that John was a righteous man.

The conscience is a funny thing, isn't it? You see it in action here with both Herod and Herodias. Both of them were sinners, just like the rest of us. Their sin just happened to be more public. But that didn't stop John from speaking the law to them, from calling a sin a sin. But who likes their dirty laundry aired out for all to see?

Imagine a modern day parallel scenario in which a pastor has to call out someone's sin. Perhaps a couple wants to get married, but has been living in sin together, and everyone knows it. And the faithful pastor tells them this is wrong, this breaks the sixth commandment, this dishonors God's gift of marriage. Ah, but this couple - they're ok with the pastor addressing sin in general but not getting too specific. They're ok when it's someone else's sin. When the pastor rails on the sins of the secular, godless world. But don't point to my sin. Don't shine the light on me! If you've been around churches long enough you know this sort of thing happens, and it doesn't always end with repentance and restoration as we hope.

Or the older person who needs a word of correction about their habit of gossip. Or the person who's attendance or giving hasn't been what it should. Or the person who's ok with most of what the Bible teaches, but still wants to hold this or that teaching at arm's length.

But don't kill the messenger! When a prophet, or now a pastor, speaks and warns you of sin, calls you to repentance, it's not to be a self-righteous so-and-so or an old-fashioned meanie-pants. This is for your own good. It's the fate of your soul that hangs in the balance. We want you to turn from sin, be forgiven, and live! We want your conscience to be clear and clean, and your spirit renewed. And we pastors need to continually hear these same words of law and gospel that we preach!

Herodias had probably already silenced her own conscience, but she couldn't quite silence John's mouth. Herod seemed to be going back and forth, caught between Herodias and his own conscience. So he compromised and locked John in the dungeon. But this wasn't good enough for Herodias. She wanted full and complete victory over the voice of the law. So she waited for her chance, and she used her own daughter in part of her scheme. And she tricked the king, and got what she wanted. John's head on a platter.

And look how this story also shows us, that sin often ensares other people into its nasty web. And here, adulterous Herodias even puts her daughter on shameless display to get her way. She uses her to commit murder, and drags her down with her. Sin is contagious and infectious, and it always has been, ever since Eve said, “I gave some also to my husband, and he ate”. You may think your sin is your own business, but you may not see how it affects others. And Jesus warns us harshly about those who cause little ones to sin – it would be better to have a millstone around your neck and be thrown into the sea.

You can kill the messenger, Herodias, but the message remains. The word of the Lord endures forever. You can quiet and muffle your conscience, you can surround yourself with people who will either mind their own business or even celebrate your sinful ways. But it doesn't change the verdict. Just has Herod was afraid Jesus was John come back to haunt him – our sins can still haunt us, even from years and years ago.

I remember one older gentleman who was dying, and made a special point to confess to his pastor what he called, “the sins of his youth”, things he had done some 60 years ago. It was ancient history. But not to him. They say time heals all wounds, but the wounded and stricken conscience is another story. David spoke similarly, “I know my iniquity, and my sin is always before me.” Paul wrestled with the evil he hated, but found himself doing anyway. “What a wretched man!” he called himself.

No, there's only one way to a truly clean and clear conscience, and it's not by killing the messenger. It's not by twisting or re-writing the law. It's not by ignoring it. The only way is forgiveness, and that forgiveness is only through Christ.

John was the fore-runner of Christ. The last of the prophets who got what prophets so often did for their work – death. Jesus called it “a prophet's reward”. From an earthly view, John's story wasn't a happy ending at all. But the spiritual reality is greater. John was the fore-runner of Christ, both in preaching repentance and faith, both in bringing a baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and also in suffering and even dying at the hands of the wicked and powerful. But while John was the greatest man ever born among men, he wasn't worthy to untie Jesus' sandal. While John died in faith, for faithfully preaching the word of God, Jesus died for much more.

You see, in the cross, Jesus accomplishes the forgiveness of all sins. And yes, that includes your deep, dark sins. It includes the sins of your youth and the sins of this minute. It includes the sins that would shame you before men, and the sins that only your conscience knows. It even includes those sins that God only knows. While John's head was brought as a trophy on a platter for Herod, Jesus' cross stands as a symbol of God's love and mercy for the world.

And while Herod superstitiously feared that John had risen from the dead and appeared again as Jesus – we know that Jesus really DID rise from the dead, and appeared to his disciples. But Jesus doesn't come back to haunt us, or to throw sin back in our face. He conquers death for us. To show us his word is true. To vindicate his sacrifice as acceptable to God. And to give us a preview of the resurrection that awaits us – life beyond death for all his people. When he appears to his disciples the first words out of his mouth are not, “Why did you leave me when I needed you the most?” or, “Peter, how could you betray me?”. The first words are, “Peace be with you.”

Jesus brings peace to the troubled, sore and weary conscience. He brings rest to those who would labor to earn their own way to God. He brings hope to those in the despair of a life that is a trail of sin's destruction.

And so, yes, John the Baptist lives, even though he died. And one day John will rise bodily with all the other believers, and with you, dear Christian, in the real ending of the story. For though you die, yet shall you live. Though your sins were as black as death, Jesus makes them white as snow. Though you face death all day long, Jesus wins you the crown of life. For Jesus is a live, and because he lives, we live. Because he declared “it is finished!”, sin really is finished, and death has no future.
Go in his peace. Amen.

Monday, July 09, 2018

Sermon - Pentecost 7 - Mark 6:1-13

Mark 6:1-13
Pentecost 7
“The Wow Factor”

You know, I'm not a math guy, I'm a word guy. I like to keep up with language, and observe how it changes and mutates. Not because I'm cool at all, but I think language is fun, and I like using new expressions. One newer expression you might have heard or used is when something is said to have a “wow factor”. It's a very descriptive way of saying it – that something is astonishing or amazing, even unbelievable.

The Grand Canyon has a wow-factor. A gourmet meal might have a wow-factor. An amazing basketball shot from half-court at the buzzer – there's a wow-factor. But the wow-factors in the Bible are way more wow-ish.

Today's reading from Mark has a couple of wow-factor moments. Jesus goes back to his home town, Nazareth. And with Jesus, there comes a wow-factor. He was doing amazing things. Healing, casting out demons. Astonishing, so far out of the box... and even moreso, he was teaching like no one else, with a wisdom and authority that brought astonishment to his hearers – another wow-factor. But that's when things turn....

They did not react the way you'd expect. They did not greet him joyfully, and turn to him in faith. They didn't even show him respect. Those people from the Nazareth synagogue were astonished by Jesus, but in a very different way. Their reaction: to take offense.

“Who does this guy think he is? Come in here, doing all these miracles, teaching all these things.... where does he get all this? He's no better than we are – we know his family, he grew up right here. We know what they whisper about how Mary was already pregnant before Jospeh married her. Sure, he's always been a little different, but he's one of us, and no one special. Who does he think he is, anyway?”

They are indignant. No doubt because Jesus was clearly calling sinners to repentance, like he so often did. No doubt these old “friends and neighbors” of his didn't take kindly to him calling them out for their sin. Jesus – along with his miracles, preached a message of repentance. He was calling them to repent!

Now, no one likes it, really, to have our sins pointed out. People often take offense at that. They might react with excuses or rationalization. They might try to deflect the blame to another “Hey it was the woman You gave me – hey it was that nasty serpent”. They might try to take the spotlight off of their own sins and say look at so-and-so who does the same thing, only worse. Or they may try to turn it all back on the accuser. “You're no angel, either, you know. What about YOUR sins, you hypocrite. Who are you to judge? Who do you think you are?”

Indignance. But the law offends. In fact, it kills. And it kills us, too. What really astonishes me is when a sinner is called to repentance – and turns from his sin! Like David, whom Nathan confronted, “You are the man! You slept with Bathsheba. You killed Uriah. You deserve to die by your own words of judgment!” But David responds, not in anger or blame or deflection or indignance. He repents. He confesses. “I have sinned” he humbly speaks. This is the wow-factor of a humble faith. This is not normal for a sinful human. It is a gift of the Spirit. When a sinner repents, we ought to say, “wow”! And rejoice with the angels in heaven.

But that's not the only astonishment in our reading. The next wow-factor is even more astonishing – because now it is Jesus who is amazed. He “marveled because of their unbelief”. I, for one, find it pretty amazing that even Jesus is amazed.

But it is amazing that people would reject what Jesus brings. Yes, he must have showed them their sin. But surely he also held out the promise, the invitation to come to him for mercy. Like he offered living water to the woman at the well. Like he offered new birth by water and spirit to Nicodemus. Like he called his own disciples, and prostitutes and tax collectors to trust in him and follow him. Like he had compassion on so many other sinners in their weaknesses and frailties and sins.

And yet, amazingly, some would reject such a gift. Some would, and some do, even today, turn a blind eye to his salvation, and a deaf ear to his word. I'm sure Jesus is still amazed at the lack of belief in our world. At the growing godlessness of a nation too wrapped up in everything but Christ. At the number of Christians who fall away and neglect the Sabbath day. At the bibles dusty from lack of use. At the churches that sit empty, while the bars and sports stadiums expand and multiply. This world is a mess. Sin, death, and the devil are having a field day. It's really rather amazing.

Now maybe you are, like I am at times, a bit jaded by all this. In a nation which permits the slaughter of the unborn, which invents and lauds same-sex marriage and undermines the marriage that God created, where school shootings seem to happen more and more, where poverty persists and diseases continue to wreak havoc. A world where people seem to invent new ways of sinning. Is anything surprising anymore? Is anything shocking? Maybe we ought not be so desensitized to the evil around us. Maybe we ought to continue reacting in shock to the brokenness of the world and the wickedness of our neighbors, and of ourselves. We were created good, even very good. But we seem to become every more evil. Does it shock you? Should it?

But here's some more wow-factor for ya. Look at the lengths to which Jesus will go to bring his salvation. Not just being rejected by his hometown synagogue, but much more. He will go to the cross. He willingly, of his own accord, lays down his life. He drinks the cup of God's wrath – for sinners – for all sins of all times – wow – even your sins. And God turns his back on Jesus. Wow. How does that even happen? And then, wonder of all, God, in the person of Jesus Christ, dies. The creator dies for the creature. He dies for you. What should wow you about that is his great love, that would go so far to save you, to forgive you.

We are wow'ed by a hero who lays down his life to save another. We award medals and bestow honors, we write songs about such heroes. Seldom will someone lay down his life for another, but maybe for a “good man” someone would bother. But wonder at this – Jesus did this for us when we were still enemies of God. Greater love has no one than he, for us.

Pile on some more wow-factor with the resurrection. And the Ascension. And the promise of our own resurrection, and our own joyful life with God forever. Wow. Think of what's in store for us, and be truly amazed.

Yes, with Jesus, there's constant amazement. And while some of it is unbelief, some of it is faith. While many will reject him, thanks be to God that by the power of the Spirit, we believers receive his amazing gifts with wonder.

There are many amazing things about this faith we have received. How can God be three and one? How can Jesus be God and Man? How can we be sinners, and yet saints? How can water do such great things in Baptism? How can Jesus' body and blood be truly here in the meal for each of us? And how can he forgive even sinners like me? Who is this guy?

We know, from the word, by the Spirit, that this wisdom comes from his Father in heaven. For he is the only-begotten son. And through him, all our offenses before God are nullified. By his cross, he does amazing things. And in his gifts, we are constantly wowed.

And it's also worth nothing the last section of our reading, where Jesus sends out the 12. Who are they, of all people, but a rag tag band of fishermen and ne'er do-wells? Amazing, astonishing that he should give them authority to preach and do miracles in his name. But he does much the same today, as he sends pastors to preach and administer the sacraments in his name, and as he sends all of us in our vocations to bear his name as witnesses to the world – witnesses of the amazing, wonderful, astonishing, marvelous things we have seen and heard and received, from Jesus Christ our Lord. Wow. He calls us, but he also sends us. Just, wow.

When it comes to Jesus, our words fail. But the Gospel never does. Even if some reject it, the wow-factor of his love and mercy remain. Thanks be to God for all of this, in Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Sermon - Pentecost 4 - Mark 4:26-34

Mark 4:26-34

So the city of Fort Worth needed to fix a leak right where the water comes in to the meter in front of my house. Of course they didn't tell me anything about it, just started digging up the little area of grass surrounding the meter – right out there by my mailbox. When they were all finished I had a brand new, non-leaking water meter. But where there was once some grass, now there was just dirt. I thought they might fix it – but I got tired of looking at it and decided to replant the grass myself.

I don't know much about horticulture or agriculture or even what the difference between those two really is. But I know that grass grows from seeds. And if you put the seeds down in some nice soil, and give it water, that those seeds ought to grow. And sure enough, a couple of weeks later, I've got some new grass peeking out from where I put the seed.

So it is with the kingdom of God. Jesus uses two seed parables today to illustrate different aspects of the kingdom. Or we might also say, of God's kingly activity in the world. For so often we have a tendency to make the kingdom of God all about us, or even about our work. But it's really always about him, what he does, how he acts, how he saves. Especially in Christ. Let's consider Mark's 2 seed parables this morning.

First, the Parable of the Growing Seed. A short parable, with a couple of points of comparison. Often in these parables we think of the seed as the word of God and the sower as God himself. But here, it seems more that the sower is not God himself, but a messenger – maybe a preacher or pastor. For the key is that the seed does what it does – mysteriously. It works according to its design and purpose, and the sower “knows not how”.

It also happens over time. I don't think there's any species of plant, in which you can plant the seed and watch the mature plant just pop right up before your eyes. It takes time. There's a process. First the blade and then the ear, then the full corn shall appear. All in good time. All in God's time.

There are some implicit accusations here for us, Christians. For one, we aren't always so content to live under the mystery of the kingdom's working. Sinners want control and information. We don't want to just blindly trust, but we want to know the how's and the why's of God's activity, or seeming lack thereof. We want to taste the fruit that is forbidden, and know good and evil, know what it's like to be like God.

But imagine a gardener who tried cutting open seeds to figure out their workings. Imagine him dissecting and examining and poking and prodding around in the seed, and then expecting the seed to grow. Or trying to tinker with the seeds and make corn grow cantaloupe or beans produce broccoli.

No, he plants that seed and goes about his other business. He rises and sleeps, day and night, blah blah blah. And lo, and behold, when the time is right – the growth comes. He knows not how.

And by way of a brief tangent - Perhaps here's also a small word of warning to our scientists who would seek to unlock the mysteries of life, the genetic code, the functions of the cell. While on the one hand God has given us the ability to study and understand much of the world he's created and put in our care – and we are even commanded to manage and rule it well. On the other hand, the astonishing design of life ought to bring us to humility as not only the heavens but also the microscopic world declares the glory of God, the creator. We know much more about how seeds grow, for instance, than we did hundreds of years ago. But the more we've learned, the more mysteries surface. And we're still far from being able to bring about life in the first place. All of this ought to humble us in our studies, and elicit a sense of awe at God's marvelous work of creation.

And finally, we ought to proceed with special care when it comes to tinkering with human beings in particular. Breeding plants or dogs or even creating new hybrids may bring stewardship questions, but when it comes to human beings we're in a different ethical ballpark, for humans are made in the image of God. And there is such a thing as “playing God”.

This first seed parable also indicts our sinful lack of patience with God's kingdom. I check the progress of my patch of grass every day- but it doesn't make it grow faster. The plants God designed come forth according to his design. So also his kingdom – as its word has effects that may take weeks, months, years to come to fruition. You may live to see those fruits or not, but no matter. Faith trusts the promise. God's word never returns void. It accomplishes his purpose. But on his timetable, and not necessarily on yours. How long, oh Lord? As long as it takes. In his good time.

Jesus also reminds us that there is a harvest time. Here is both a warning, and a promise. God's plan has an endgame, history has an expiration date, Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead. He'll separate the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the tares, and bring his harvest, his people, into his garner forever. This fallen world of suffering won't go on forever. Such is the kingdom of God.

And then take this second parable, perhaps more familiar, the parable of the mustard seed. One of the smallest seeds, but it grows one of the biggest plants – a huge bush with branches enough to accommodate all kinds of critters – nesting birds and whatnot.

Here the point is simple: the working of the kingdom starts small, but has great effects. It may begin with simple water and a few words, but it ends with a child of God living a life of faith and inheriting eternal blessings in the kingdom to come. It may begin with a simple preacher sent to proclaim Christ, and it may end with a church or churches where many believers continue to gather long after he's gone. It may start with one sinner who repents and is forgiven, and end with a multitude of those who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

Or even better, that by one man, salvation comes to the entire world. It started small – with a promise of a seed of the woman that would crush the head of the serpent. God preserved his promise through the ages, and the ups and downs of Noah and Abraham, and the tribes of Israel, and the kingdoms of David and Solomon, through exile and back, under Greek and Roman conquest. They would sleep and rise night and day, through the centuries, as God nurtured his promise. And then Gabriel announced to Mary, that she would bear that offspring. And you'll call him Jesus.

Those who looked forward to him in faith are saved, and those who have not seen and yet have believed are greatly blessed. The good news of this God in the flesh would start with a small band of about 120 disciples, and go forth from Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth. That believers from every nation would flock to this church like the birds nesting in the safety of the mustard bush.

And he, Jesus, also compared himself to a seed:
And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  John 12:23-24

Yes, the seed of the woman so long promised would indeed crush the serpent's head, but by the bruising of his own heel: The seed had to die. Just as the wheat falls into the earth and dies – so Jesus suffered, died, and was buried. But death could not hold him, and he sprouted from the grave with new life – not just for himself – but the fruits of his resurrection bring a resurrection to all who are in him. We haven't seen the complete fruition yet. But we will at the final harvest.

Until then, we live in our baptism, dying and rising daily in Christ. Until then, we are nurtured at his table, toward the fruits of faith in God and fervent love for one another. Until then, we too cast seeds as we are able, according to our own stations and vocations, and sleep and rise night and day – in the peace that knows not how God works, but trusts him to do it nonetheless. Thanks be to God in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Sermon - Pentecost 3 - Mark 3:20-35

Spiritual Reality:  The Household of Satan and the Family of Christ.
Mark 3:20-35

The real battle we Christians face is not against flesh and blood.  Our enemies are not the people of a nation, or a political party, or some earthly organization.  Paul teaches clearly in Ephesians 6:12

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

As with so many ways in which Christians see the world differently, we realize the real problems in life are not lack of education, lack of empowerment, faulty tax policies or anything like that.  Our real struggle, our real problem is a spiritual one.  We struggle against spiritual enemies – Sin, Death and the Devil.  And these three really go together.

Sin is the spiritual corruption that separates us from God.  It began when we despised his word and acted against it.  It continues when we do the same.  But it is first and foremost a spiritual thing.  You can see sin's effects in the sinful actions that we commit.  But even before you see it sin is there.  It's inherited.  It corrupts our nature.  It's our default mode.  It shapes our deeds, but also our words and our very thoughts.

And sin and death go together.  The wages of sin is death.  Death is what sin deserves.  But death, too, is also a spiritual thing first and foremost.  We die, physically, when our spirit separates from our body.  We died, spiritually, when our spirit separated from God.  For Adam this happened in the garden.  For us, we are conceived and born under the cloud of death, already under its reign because of sin.  Death is physical, too, to be sure – just as sins can be physical.  But death is first and foremost a spiritual thing.

And then there's the Devil.  Our great spiritual foe.  The one who slithered into the garden and fathered all lies (that's what Beelzebul means- “father of lies”) with his original lie, “you will not die”.  Since then his venomous poison has been pumping through the veins of all of Adam and Eve's children.  Since then he's been warring against God and his people at every turn.  He is a spiritual foe.  He wants nothing more than the spiritual victory. 

And he will use any means to achieve it.  If it means stripping you of physical life and limb, goods, fame, child and wife – he will try it.  If it means making you fat and sassy, living in the lap of this world's luxury so that you are blind and numb to the spiritual realities – he will try it.  If he can lie and tell you your sins are too great to be saved, that'll work for him.  Or if he can lie and tell you that you don't sin, or sin much, or that your sins aren't that bad at all.  Well, he'd be happy with that too.  If he can convince you to despise God's word just as he convinced your first parents – then he will do so happily and gladly.  Our struggle is not against flesh and blood.  It's a spiritual struggle.  And the chief opponent is the ancient serpent who works through sin and revels in death.

In Mark 3, here comes Jesus.  And he's created somewhat of a dust-up.  He's been away for a while – baptized by John, performing miraculous healings, casting out demons, gathering a great crowd of followers, and appointing 12 apostles.  And now he's come home to Nazareth.  And there's a stir.  The crowd is so great and there's such a fuss, he can't even find some peace to sit down for a bite to eat.

But his family wasn't pleased.  This was conduct unbecoming of a carpenter, and of this quiet and pious Jewish family.  Jesus is the firstborn son!  He's got work to do.  He's got responsibilities.  He's not supposed to be wandering around and causing all this hub-bub.  So they  reasoned, he must be out of his mind.  Mentally ill.  Let's go bring him home and hopefully he'll snap out of this soon.

But he's not crazy.  He's the Messiah.  He's not out of his mind.  He's the Holy One of God.  If there were no spiritual aspect to all this, if it was only what the eyes could see and the ears could hear, then maybe his family would be right.  In fact if Jesus were doing some of the same things in today's day and age, they might put him in a mental health facility and prescribe psychotropic medication.   But his family - they've got him all wrong.

So do his opponents – the scribes.  They came all the way from Jerusalem to see what the Jesus business was about. Surely they'd heard the stories and accounts of miracles and wonders.  But their answer was different.  Rather than deny the miracles and or paint Jesus as a lunatic, their suggestion was perhaps worse.  That he's of the devil.  That he's casting out demons by the power of the devil.  That he himself is possessed by Beelzebul!

And what a twisted view of Jesus this is.  It can only arise from a deep spiritual problem.  A deep-down, tooth-and-nail, stubborn-as-a-mule refusal to believe in Jesus.  And so they end up calling good evil, and accusing the Son of God of being possessed by the devil.

This is not too different from the opponents of Christ today – who would cast the Christian faith as some backward, intolerant, even wicked worldview.  They effectively call us “of the devil”, though many don't even believe in a devil.  They reject Christ and therefore conclude he, and his people are either crazy or evil.  And maybe even you, Christian, have been on the receiving end of this, one way or another.

As you would expect, Jesus cuts through the lies.  “How can Satan cast out Satan?  If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand!”

His case is this:  it's not true, and it makes no sense that Satan is behind all this.  Because look how through Jesus, Beelzebul's work is coming undone.  But in fact his house and kingdom of Satan are falling.  They are coming to an end. And this is only a glimpse of it.  There's much more to come.  One way to describe the work of Jesus is just that – to destroy the devil's kingdom.  To bring down the house of Satan and leave it in shambles.  To conquer him, destroy him, stomp him like a bug.

That's the picture painted for us in Genesis.  In the very first promise of a savior, a promise God makes to us while cursing the ancient Serpent himself – we know that the seed, the offspring, the one singular descendant of the woman would crush the head of the serpent, though the serpent would bruise his heel.  This is Jesus!  Jesus is the seed of the woman.  The Son of Man.  The one offspring who stands as champion for all of the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve.  The one descendant of the promise of God who would fulfill this and every promise of salvation. 

Jesus crushes Satan.  Not just by casting out demons and healing diseases.  Not just by standing up under three-fold temptation in the wilderness.  But by perfectly obeying the law of God his entire life, and obediently laying down his life as a sacrifice for sin.  These are all spiritual things.

Jesus doesn't throttle the demons with his own bare hands, he casts them out by the word.  He doesn't wrestle with the devil physically, but defeats him spiritually, also through the word.  And on the cross, to outward eyes it certainly appears Jesus is a loser, a victim, powerless and hopeless.  He's physically bound, beaten, and nailed to the tree.

But by that very cross Jesus fulfills the words of God, the promises of salvation for the world, and that shameful cross becomes the very weapon of Satan's undoing.  It may has well have been driven like a nail through the serpent's head.  So complete is Jesus' victory and the devil's defeat.

Jesus uses a mini-parable here to drive home the point.   “No one can enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods unless he first binds the strong man.  Then indeed he may plunder his house.”  Jesus affirms that Satan is a “strongman”.  He is a force to be reckoned with – and certainly far stronger than we poor humans.  But Jesus is the stronger man.  There's really no comparison.  It's not like it's even close.  And he has come to take and plunder the devil's goods, his kingdom, his prisoners. 

Yes, you, Christian, are the plunder.  Jesus steals you away from the clutches of the devil even as he freed the people who were plagued by possession.  He breaks the chains of sin and death – those bonds in which the devil had you all wrapped up tight.  He leads you out in an exodus of your own, passing through the waters of baptism, onto the shores of his own promised land, his own kingdom, his own household.

And having won you, he will also keep you.  For no one - not sin, not devil, not even death - can snatch you out of his hand.  No one can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.  He's that strong.  He's that good.

Though it may seem otherwise to you.  To physical eyes and ears you may still appear imprisoned by sin, death, and devil.  You still do wrong things, think wrong thoughts, say wrong words.  You're still tempted and perhaps even oppressed by the prince of this world and the father of lies.  And one day, you will physically die.  To all outward appearances, even Jesus couldn't stop it.  But don't be deceived.  See the spiritual reality.

Jesus' next move shows that he understands what the battle is all about. This spiritual struggle is all about sin – and the forgiveness of sin.  If the children of man want freedom from the strongman's power, that freedom comes only by the forgiveness of sins.  If you want to be out from under the devil, then your sins must be forgiven.  If you want to fear death no more – then let's ake the sting out of death by the forgiveness of sins.  And that, of course, is just what Jesus does. 

Not all would receive such a gift, mind you, and despising his forgiveness by blaspheming his Spirit is still possible.  But it's the only sin he won't forgive.  Only rejecting Christ, his Spirit, his forgiveness is unforgivable.  Every other sin is forgiven.  So receive his forgiveness with joy.

And finally, Jesus mother and brothers – perhaps those same family members who tried to seize him before – the same ones who thought he was crazy – the come and call him, they seek him out.  Now he's not denying they are who they are, the physical reality of family.  Nor is he teaching us to do so.  But he's getting at the deeper, the spiritual reality.

“Who are my mother and my brothers?  Here are my mother and my brothers.... whoever does the will of God”  That is to say, the family of faith. For the will of God is that sinners come to repentance and faith in Christ.

You've heard the saying that blood is thicker than water.  Family relationships run deeper, last longer than any friendship.  Or so the saying goes.  And in an earthly sense that's mostly true. But here Jesus goes deeper than blood to the connection of the family of faith.  Those who believe and trust in him are united in a bond thicker than blood.  They are his true family, his true mother and brothers.  They are his forever.  They are part of his spiritual family, and the spiritual counts for more than that which is of this world.

This also means that you are part of that family.  For you who are baptized and believe in Christ are his brothers and sisters.  You are united with him.  Being saved from the devil – but not just to aimlessly wander.  Rather, Jesus gives you a place in his house – even a place forever.

The Christian church is a foretaste of this.  One day we will be united with Christ and all believers in the kingdom that is to come, the kingdom of glory.  For now, we are part of the kingdom of grace that sees physical expression here in the church, on this earth.  Here, we find the other brothers and sisters of the family – even in this little corner of the church. 

So the spiritual reality ought to inform how we act, so our convictions of faith ought to direct what we do.  Love one another, Christians, Messiah family, for you are united with Christ and one another.  Don't be divided from your fellow Christian – there ought to be no “us and them” in the church – for a house divided cannot stand! Together we are forgiven and freed from the Devil's kingdom.  Together let us continue to love and serve and work together, doing the will of God.

Being a Christian means faith in Christ. But that also means we will see the spiritual realities that others can't, and won't.  Sin, death and devil seek to destroy us but the reality is they are defeated by Christ and his cross.  Rejoice in this spiritual reality with your spiritual brothers and sisters of the faith.  Freed from the Devil's house, and living forever in the family of Christ.