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.