Thursday, May 31, 2018

Sermon - Trinity Sunday - John 3:1-17

The Mystery of the Trinity

Mystery movies, mystery books, novels, short stories.  They're a popular genre of entertainment.  Whether you like Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew or Agatha Christie or a police drama like Law and Order.  There's something about the plot of a mystery story that appeals to many people.  You try to figure out, as it all unfolds, whodunnit.  But you don't know for sure, until the payoff at the end, and the mystery is solved or revealed and all the questions fall into place.  Of course, there's often a twist and sometimes questions left unanswered, or even a cliffhanger to get you interested for the next story or episode.  But so it goes.

The Christian faith claims a number of mysteries of its own.  The English word “mystery” is rooted in the Greek word “mysterion”, which appears about 27 times in the New Testament.  But it doesn't mean the same thing as a modern mystery novel.  In scripture, a mystery is truth that can't be understood by human reason, but instead must be apprehended by faith.

For instance, when Paul talks about the resurrection of the dead on the last day, he begins, “Behold, I tell you a mystery – we will not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet”.  He speaks of marriage as a mystery, in Ephesians 5, in that it is a earthly picture of the blessed union between Christ and his bride, the church.

And then there are those doctrines that the church draws from scripture that have the same quality of mystery.  The incarnation:  How can God become man?  The nature of the sacrament of the altar:  how can Christ be truly present in the bread and wine?  And perhaps one of the greatest scriptural mysteries of all – the doctrine of the Trinity.  God is three.  God is one.  It defies reason.  It is a mystery.  It is hidden from the eyes of reason and logic – but revealed to the eyes of faith.

Nicodemus came to Jesus by night – presumably to hide himself in the cloak of darkness and not be seen by his peers.  Perhaps if he didn't like what Jesus had to say, he could slip away just as quietly.  But Nicodemus was also under a fog of heart and mind.  God seemed to be with Jesus, but he wasn't too sure.  Like so many, even as a teacher of Israel, he couldn't penetrate the mystery of Jesus.

Your sinful nature is much the same as his.  Nicodemus is an everyman in a sense, bringing his questions, doubts, opinions and ideas to Jesus.  We come in the fog of sin and unbelief.  We labor under the darkness of doubts.

If God is good, why does he allow evil?  If God loves me, why is he letting me suffer?  How can I know for certain that all this is true?  What if we really did evolve from monkeys, and what if death is really the end, and what if Jesus didn't rise from the dead, and so on, and so on. 

And what does it matter that God is three, or one, or 53 or 2 trillion?  How can Jesus be begotten of the Father but not created?  And how can the Spirit be sent, but not begotten and what difference does that make? 

What do you mean, be born again, Jesus?  How can a man be born when he's already old? You mean I should enter the womb again?  But the mystery is this – you must be born of water and the spirit to see the kingdom.  Baptism is also not to be understood, but received by faith. 

Baptism isn't your work or doing, any more than you engineered your own birth.  It happened to you.  It defined you, and still does.  It's not your testimony or promise to God, but rather his testimony about and promise to you – to make you his child, born of the Spirit, born under grace and no longer the law.  Buried with Christ, and raised with Christ so never to die again.  All of this in simple water and word – it takes faith to receive and apprehend.  It's a mystery to be received, not explained.

But don't just gape and marvel at this mystery, Nicodemus.  For the mysteries continue – take the Spirit.  He moves when and where he wills.  You can't see him, you can't contain or comprehend him.  But like the wind – you can see his effects.  You know he's moving, affecting things, in his time, in his way.  This takes faith to see.  This is a mystery.  It is a heavenly thing.

Anywhere the Word of God is proclaimed, the Spirit is at work – convicting the world of sin and righteousness and judgment.  Anywhere the seed of the Gospel goes forth, the Spirit brings the effects and purposes he desires.  Often hidden to us, even for years, or never to be seen – faith trusts the word and the Spirit who works through it. 

The Father is also mysterious – in that no one has ascended to see him.  No one can speak first hand about what the Father is like, except for the Son, who came from heaven.  And that the Father would love the world, such that he would send his only Son – is a mystery.  Why would a holy and just God act in love toward wicked and rebellious people?  Why would he send this Son to save the world, rather than to condemn it?  It's surely not what the world deserves.

But the Son is sent.  And the Son is born.  And the Son is lifted up – in another great mystery.  Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, and all who looked to it lived – so is Jesus lifted up on the cross, lifted up before the world, so that all who look to him in faith live.  All who receive the mystery need not fear the venom of the great serpent.  All who trust in his promise have eternal life. 

And so the church confesses the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, and notice how we say it – we don't “understand” the Trinity.  We don't “explain” it.  We can't take it apart and put it back together.  Rather, like all the mysteries of God, we receive it – and we confess it.

This is why we have these creeds – the Apostles, Nicene, and Athanasian.  To summarize what scripture teaches about God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  And to set forth and confess – that is, to echo and re-tell – what God has said about himself.  He is Father, he is Son, he is Holy Spirit.  But each person distinct, and yet one God united.

In fact we go wrong if we try to explain beyond what scripture teaches.  We go astray if we overanalyze the mystery or subject God to our rules of logic.  It is an exercise in humility, for us to recognize he is so far above and beyond our limited and corrupted natures.  It is an exercise in faith to say, “I don't understand it, but if God said it, I believe it”.

So it is with his Triune nature, so it is also with his works and his promises.  His work of creation – we can seek to understand to an extent, but we can easily go wrong if we think we know better than he does how it happened.  Rather, we receive the mystery that the world was made in six days and he rested on the 7th. 
His work of redemption – how can we explain or comprehend the love that Christ has for us, that he would endure the cross, scorning its shame, for the joy set before him – the joy of accomplishing our salvation!  This gift is simply to be received. 

And likewise the gifts of his Spirit, many and varied as they are – sanctifying us even though reason and observation say we're not so holy.  But faith trusts the word, that faith a gift of the spirit.  And faith says, though I'm a sinner, God says I'm a saint.  I don't get it.  But I believe it.  I confess the mystery.

No, when it comes to mysteries, Agatha Christie has nothing on the Triune God.  He's not a riddle to be solved or a puzzle to be mastered – but his nature is a mystery to be confessed.  And his work his a whodunnit of a different sort – for he has accomplished salvation for us, in Jesus Christ.  And you are baptized into his name – Father, Son, and Spirit.  God grant us the continued grace to receive it, and believe it.  Amen.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Sermon - Easter 7 - John 17:11b-19

John 17:11b-19
“Jesus Prays”

I'm a pastor, as you know.  And partly because I often wear the uniform in public, I will have people occasionally stop me and want to talk.  It leads to some interesting conversations.  But often times those people will ask me to pray for them.  I think many times, they must reason (mistakenly) that a pastor is more holy than the average person, or that my prayers have some special conduit to God.  Or maybe, they simply assume that I will actually be inclined to pray and follow through on it.  Whatever the reason I'm happy to do it.

I've said it before, that one of the pastor's jobs and greatest privileges is to pray for his people.  Your pastors do pray for you, the members of our congregation.  And we do it far more than you know.  We do it both collectively and individually.  We pray intentionally and as occasions come up.  We don't always tell you.  Perhaps we should tell you more often.  But it is one way the under-shepherd cares for the sheep.  And we're glad to do it.

By the way, on this mothers day, we might also mention that one of the best and greatest works a mother does for her children is to pray for them.  Even when they are grown and gone, and there seems nothing much left she can do for them in their busy lives, a Christian mother still prays for her children, her family. 

But here today is something far better than having another Christian, or even a pastor pray for you.  It's better than having all the pastors pray for you all the time.  In our Gospel reading, Jesus prays.  And he prays not only for his disciples, he prays for you, too.  What prayer could be better than his prayer?  What petitions could be more appropriate or necessary?  Who has your best interest in mind as much as Jesus?  Who can be more certain to be heard, than the beloved Son of the Father from eternity?

In John 17, Jesus prays – we call it his “great high priestly prayer”.  Because one job of the priest is to pray, to intercede, to serve as a go-between, representing the people before God.  Jesus, the greatest such advocate, the highest high priest that ever was – prays.  John 17 records this prayer, which Jesus would have prayed on Maundy Thursday as part of his “Farewell Discourse” in John 14-17.  Let's consider exactly what Jesus prays for, when it comes to his prayer for his disciples, and for you:

First, he prays to his Father, “Keep them in your name”. To be “kept” and guarded in the name of the Father is no small thing.  God's name itself is a great treasure and privilege to know, but even more so that he places his name upon us.  And though Jesus doesn't say it here, it's also true – that we receive the name of the Father, Son AND Holy Spirit.  That triune name is placed upon us in baptism.  And it comes with promises.  Forgiveness, life, salvation – all belong to us in his name.

The name of the Father is a prominent concern for Jesus.  It's the first petition in the other famous prayer of Christ – the Lord's Prayer.  “Hallowed be thy name”.  Luther explains the meaning – that God's name, which is certainly holy in itself, would also be kept holy among us.

All of this ought to teach us many things.  That the name of God is kept holy, placed first and foremost.  That our regard for God, who he is and what he does, should be of highest priority.  That no other gods ought to come before him.  That nothing false should be taught about him, or in his name.  That we regard his name as holy, along with everything that bears it.  And that we, who bear that name, live up to it – keeping ourselves from sin, and trusting in his grace when we fail.

But Jesus prays that God will do the keeping.  Which only makes sense.  Just as God alone does the saving, so does God alone do the keeping of us in the faith. 

Jesus' second request is tangential to that.  He prays that his disciples would be kept, in order that, or with the effect being this:  that they may be one.  Unity.  Oneness.  It is something to be desired for Christians.

Of course, it's something that is often lacking.  Not just with the disciples who argued which one was the greatest, or who competed for thrones at Jesus' left and right hand.  But also with all his people who suffer from the divisions that sin causes.  “I follow Paul, I follow Apollos, I follow Cephas”, the Corinthians argued.  And even today, we see the sad divisions of Christianity on the macro and micro scales.  From the divisions of denomination – down to the fractured relations of individual Christians.  Jesus wants none of it.  He prays against it all.  He desires “that they may be one”. 

Outwardly, we don't see Jesus' prayer being answered.  It seems that as time goes on, there's ever more and more division in the Church.  There's less oneness and more scattering and breaking apart.  But let's remember a few things.  One, the church is not truly divided.  All who have true faith in Christ are members of the body, one, holy, Christian and apostolic church.  The universal, the invisible church, the whole number of believers in Christ from all tribes, nations, places and times.  There is a oneness, a unity that supersedes even the outward divisions that set us against each other.  There will be, on the last day, only sheep and goats – not Lutheran sheep, Baptist sheep, Anglican sheep, and non-denominational sheep.

But on the other hand, we must acknowledge, here in these last days, that these divisions are caused by sin and false belief.  And we ought to strive to avoid them when we can.  We ought to be reconciled with our brothers when one sins against another.  And we ought to seek the truth as best we can find it, and attach ourselves to that confession of faith that gets God's word right.  It's not as though the differences are indifferent.  God's word matters.  Unity is based on the truth.  And to the extent that we can, we ought to purse it here – in fulfillment of Christ's own prayer, “sanctify them in truth – your word is truth.”

Satan would divide us over things that don't matter, and teach us false unity where true divisions exist.  He will tell you God's word doesn't matter, but how you look does, or where you come from.  Don't be fooled.  Unity is found in the truth.  And Jesus desires it for all his people.

Next Jesus prays for us to have joy.  Not just any joy, but his joy fulfilled in ourselves.  We Christians often distinguish between happiness and joy.  Happiness, a fleeting emotion that comes and goes based on the happenstance of the moment.  But joy – a deep and abiding cheer based on the promises of God in Christ – a delight of heart that knows all these passing troubles are not the end of the story.  Jesus has joy.  His greatest joy, the greatest joy of the Father and the angels in heaven, is when the sinner repents and believes and is saved.  Nothing pleases him more.  And so also our joy must follow.  For our joy is derived from his. 

Our joy, first of all, is in the salvation Christ has accomplished at the cross.  It's in the resurrection, by which he destroyed death.  It's in the promise of our own resurrection and the life of the world to come, paradise restored, all things made new.  No matter how bad life gets, no matter how dark the night of sin, we know that a better day will dawn.  Our joy will be fulfilled and completed in the kingdom that is to come.  There, God himself will wipe every tear from our eyes. 

The joy that he has, the joy that is fulfilled in us, we wish to see fulfilled in others.  This is why he sends us into the world.  This is the mission impulse of the Christian church.  Joy abounds, overflows, it goes forth into the world.

But the world is a dangerous place.  The world hates Christ, that is, the unbelieving world.  And those who hate Christ hate also his disciples.  We are not of the world any more than he is.  But we are in it.  We are subject to all the venom the world spits at us, all the seething rage of those who hate Jesus but can't get to him, but they can get to us.

Moreover, there is the evil one.  The roaring lion always on the prowl.  Jesus knows the opposition we face.  He knows the pitfalls and perils of persecution.  In praying this way, he also warns us of it, just as he often warned the disciples.  But he also shows his desire to keep us, and have the father keep us, in the midst of so many dangers. 

Being kept from the devil and the evil world doesn't mean you won't have problems.  Look at all the problems the devil was allowed to create for poor Job.  No, being kept from the devil means being kept from the only real harm the devil can do to you.  And it is what he wants most of all – to destroy your faith.  To lead you away from Christ.  To bring you, in misery, into his company – and to share in his final judgment and punishment.  Sure the devil and the world delight in seeing the faithful suffer – but all the more if they can turn that suffering into despair and unbelief.  If they can convince you that God hates you, has forgotten you, or is himself just a big lie.

Jesus prays for you, but he doesn't just pray.  He goes a long way toward answering his own prayer.  He dies and rises to accomplish salvation so that you are kept in the name of the Father.  He teaches his disciples his word, and sends them to all corners of the world with the Gospel.  That message of Christ crucified is the power of God for salvation, and the root and source of the deepest joy – his joy, fulfilled in you.  And Jesus sends his Holy Spirit, the Comforter, the Helper, to enlighten you with his gifts, and to lead you into all truth. 

That's his last request in this prayer, his final petition, “sanctify them in your truth”.  Make them holy by your word.  Set them apart from the world, even apart from their own sinful flesh – by the power of your promise.  So Jesus prays, and so God the Father does, by the working of the Spirit.  So the Triune God does through the blessings of baptism, and in the absolution of every repentant sinner. 

Jesus prays, and he prays for you.  He prayed his high priestly prayer on that Holy Thursday, and he continues to intercede for you with the Father even now – from his high throne in heaven.  And if the prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects, how much more, how much comfort is there in knowing that the Son of God and Son of Man, the God of Gods who is one of us, the Ruler of all things – is on your side, has your benefit in mind, and wants every good blessing for you?  Jesus prays.  And we say, Amen.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

Sermon - Easter 6 - 1 John 5:1-8

Water, Blood and Spirit crying, by their witness testifying to the one whose death defying life has come, with life for all.

Water, Blood, Spirit. The three that testify of Christ, John writes in this epistle. They are in agreement. There is unity of voice. But what does each entail? And how are they connected? Let us ponder this morning, Water, Blood and Spirit.

The water is the water of Baptism. Jesus' own baptism, first of all, where the Spirit made an appearance as a dove. There, the Spirit descended on him, anointing him, setting him apart publicly as the Messiah. It was Jesus' ordination, as it were. And the Spirit testified at the Jordan along with the voice from heaven that this man, Jesus, is the Son of God.

But the water is not without the blood. Jesus was baptized not for his sins, but to fulfill all righteousness. Jesus was baptized, not for his sins, but for your sins – to take them upon himself. Jesus was baptized to identify with sinners, and even eventually that he who had no sin would be made to become sin for us. And there's only one place those sins could end up – at the cross.

The water is not without blood. Luther called the Baptism of Christ “blood-stained water”. Baptism means death. Can you undergo the baptism I am to undergo? He asked James and John.

And then there's our baptism. Usually a cute little baby dressed in a pretty white gown. A happy occasion. A time for rejoicing. But it is also a death. The Old Adam in us is drowned in those waters. The flesh is crucified with Christ, buried with Christ. Baptism is an end – even as it is a beginning. It is our new birth, our second birth. There we die, but we also rise with Christ. The water testifies – that is, the water combined with God's word of command and promise – the water testifies that the Christ who was baptized for us, the Christ who faced the baptism of the cross for us – is now united with us, and we with him.

The blood. The second witness in this passage. The blood of Christ which testifies to him, of him. It is like unto the blood of the passover lamb, which stood as a witness on the door posts “death, do not come to this house”. The blood of Christ testifies that the wages of sin have already been paid by him.

The blood of Christ – speaking a better word than the blood of Abel, which cried for vengeance. But the blood of Jesus, for our pardon cries.

The blood of Christ, the blood of the lamb, by which the heavenly multitudes was their robes and make them white and clean. There was blood on their hands, on your hands. It shows, testifies of our guilt. It makes us unclean. But the blood of Christ washes away the bloodguilt of man. It testifies of forgiveness.

The blood of Christ, sprinkled over the nations – a better blood than all the blood of beasts on Jewish altars slain. None of that animal blood could ultimately wash away sin's stain. But the blood of Jesus, the spotless Lamb of God, flows through time and space to cover the sins of all people. It is a rich, saving flood.

That same blood, shed on the cross, now comes to you in the chalice. It comes with his body in the bread, and for your forgiveness, life and salvation. It is not the blood and the body of a dead man, but the blood and the body of the living Christ. It is not the blood and body of a judgment upon you, but by faith, it is the very medicine of immortality, and foretaste of the feast to come. The fruits of his cross, given and shed for you. And every time you eat this bread and drink of this cup – you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes. That is to say, you witness, you testify. Water, Blood and Spirit – all testify. And now you, along with them.

Finally the Spirit. The Spirit is always testifying of Christ. He is the Holy Spirit, but also the Spirit of Christ. He shows Christ, points to Christ, leads to Christ, creates faith in Christ. I cannot believe in Christ on my own, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel. The Spirit leads the church into all truth. He “parakletes”, encourages the church militant on the field of battle. Always directing our eyes to Jesus, the champion of the fight.

And he shows us the cross – where from the Body of Jesus poured forth blood and water when they pierced his side. Where Jesus gave up his spirit into the hands of the Father.
The cross. The only place the sinner can look for hope, forgiveness, life. The Spirit points us there. But the blessings of the cross are poured forth in the water of baptism. They are served in the blood and body given in wine and bread. They are shown forth by the Spirit who works through the word of God.

The word. The Spirit and the word also go together. Where there is the word of God, the Spirit is working. And we ought not look for the Spirit's testimony apart from the word. When John tells the church to test the spirits, he means us to test them against the Word. Generally, the confession of Jesus – who came in the flesh. But more specifically, the Spirits are tested against the prophets, against Moses, and now even against the Evangelists and Apostles – who have written their testimony of Christ in the words of the scriptures. Any Spirit that contradicts these is not the Holy Spirit. Any testimony that is against these, is against Christ. For the Spirit is truth. Christ's word is truth, even as he is the way, the truth, and the life.

What about this “spirit of antichrist?” John says it's coming into the world, and yet, it's already arrived. It is any Spirit that confesses contrary to, against Christ. Any Spirit, for instance, that would tell you Christ isn't the only savior. Any Spirit that tries to tell you your sins aren't that bad. Any spirit who tries to convince you that you can save yourself. Any spirit that says you can cooperate with God in salvation. Any Spirit that points you away from the grace given in baptism, any spirit that denies the gifts of Christ set forth in the Lord's Supper. Any spirit that makes man-made rules the standard of Christian living, and twists or changes God-made commandments.

The Spirit of the antichrist is particularly and most shockingly found, even in the church – as false spirits try to lead away the faithful, if they could. This is one reason the Lutheran Reformers identified the office of the pope as “antichrist”. The pope who claims divine authority, the vicar – or substitute- of Christ on earth. The one who makes false claims about Christ and denies salvation by God's grace alone, even to this day. The true testimony of the Spirit says otherwise.

The spirit of the antichrist is a spirit of the world. And, little children, you are different from the world that is set against Christ. You have Christ within you. And he has overcome the world, therefore, so have you. It may seem that the world overcomes you with its lies and wickedness. It may feel like the antichrists are getting away with murder, and in a way they do. But the final judgment, the end of the story is already written. He who is in you is greater than they. He who is in you has overcome even death – for he lives! He who is in you speaks a different testimony than the world, a better testimony, an eternal word. Heaven and earth will pass away. But the word of the Lord endures forever.

Let all who would live in this world only and be of the world and listen to the worldly ways of error, all who abide in the spirit of the antichrist – let them be.

But as for you, dear children of God, listen to the testimony of the Spirit, the testimony of the Water and of the Blood. For these three agree. Listen to the truth of Christ, and the word of his apostles. Know Christ, know the truth, and believe.

Water, Blood, Spirit. Three which agree on the testimony of Christ. Listen to these, and believe and live!

Spirit, water, blood, entreating, working faith and its completing in the One whose death defeating Life has come with life for all.