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.