Monday, October 15, 2018

Sermon - Pentecost 21 - Mark 10:17-22

Mark 10:17-22
“The Good Teacher's Loving Law”

I was reading something on the internet the other evening about people who've had encounters with celebrities. Sometimes they would find them to be rude, sometimes nice, sometimes just normal people. Oprah didn't leave a tip, but signed a napkin. Will Wheaton wouldn't talk to fans. Someone saw Ed Sheerhan and said, “I don't want to bother you” and he said, “Like you're doing now?”

I wonder if you and I were in the position of this rich young man who had a brief audience with Jesus – how might we act? What might we say? Would we gush over him? Call him “good teacher” or “Lord” or something else? And what would you ask Jesus if you had that one small chance? His autograph? Probably not. A Me-n-Jesus selfie? Hope not. Maybe a question for curiosity or reassurance? Maybe you wouldn't even know what to say.

The rich young man had a burning question, and it is kind of a strange one when you look at it. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Putting aside for a moment the whole thing about him calling Jesus “good teacher”, it's a strange question on its own merits. What must I do to inherit? Under normal circumstances, in a situation of an earthly inheritance, there really is nothing to do to gain an inheritance. You simply wait until your Father dies. You can't change the inheritance – it's not based on how hard you work, what you do or don't do, or anything like that. It's the decision of the person giving you their stuff. At it only happens when that person finally dies.

That's the normal way, anyway. That's why it was so strange – and really scandalous – for the younger son in Jesus' famous parable to ask his father for his inheritance – NOW! It was like an insult, saying, “Dad, I wish you were dead!”. But even stranger is that the father actually gives it to him!

No, this man is using the word “inherit” but what he really means is “earn”. He's looking for a deal, a roadmap, an end-of-the-bargain to hold up and to receive eternal life by his works. He thinks there is something he can do – and though he's done a lot – he knows somehow something is missing. What's that one cherry on the sundae that will seal the deal, Jesus? What's that one above-and-beyond good work you're looking for? What must I do? What a question of law. Not “what can I do to serve my neighbor?” Not “how can I ever repay God's love to me?” No, just crass do the work, get the paycheck salvation.

So Jesus humors him, at least for a bit. For after all, if someone could actually keep the law – well, that is one way to be saved. So he rehearses the commandments for him – the 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, the 4th. Notice these are all from the Second Table of the Law – which deal with how we treat our neighbor. And without much thought or reflection, the man nods along and agrees that he's kept all of these – even from his youth! Quite an achievement! If it were only true. But like many today, he must have had a checklist mentality about the commandments, and a very shallow one at that.

Perhaps Jesus was looking for a little self-reflection here, a little more honesty about what the law really demands and how the young man really didn't measure up. And Jesus could have rightly pressed the point on each of these commands and taken the man to task... really? You've really kept them all? But Jesus shows the wisdom of a teacher – he knows how to best make his point.

So rather than argue each point with the man, rather than get sidetracked or bogged down, Jesus knows just what to do.

Of the parallel accounts here, in Matthew, Mark and Luke, only here in Mark do we have this little comment, that Jesus looked at him and “loved him”. He loved him. But the way Jesus showed that love here, was by telling him a hard truth. He told him something the young man didn't want to hear. Sell all your stuff. It was tough love. And love sometimes is just that, as any parent can tell you. Love isn't just an emotion, it's doing what's best for someone else, even if they don't know it, or can't see it. And sometimes love means the tough word of the law, even the law that kills. God speaks that law to you, too. But not to leave you in the law. The love of God speaks that law to prepare you for the love of the Gospel. But the law does its work first...

Jesus hits the young man where it hurts. He moves now to the first table of the law, and really, the First Commandment. He clobbers the young man square in the face of his idolatry. Jesus pulls out his law-laser and zaps the man's main idol, the one he clings to, the place of his ultimate fear, love and trust. He says, “sell all your stuff, and follow me instead”. Ouch.

Now, this is not Jesus telling us to sell all of our stuff. You've got plenty of people in the Bible who are wealthy AND faithful. Oh it's not easy, mind you, tell that to the camel going through the eye of the needle. But with God all things are possible. So it was possible for this man to see his idolatry and repent of it, it was possible that he turned and lived and believed in Christ. But it doesn't seem that was so. He hung his head and went away with a scowl, for he had great possessions. And it didn't seem like he was ready to let them go, or to embrace the true treasure.

But this is Jesus telling you to give up your idols! This is Jesus telling you to put aside your gods, whatever they are, and follow the only one who is Good, the Good Teacher, that is, God alone. Follow his Son, the Savior. The one who brings true treasure. The one who dies for all sins. The one who generously gives of himself, gives his blood, more precious than gold or silver, and his body, a perfect sacrifice. Jesus gave everything – everything – for you. Repent, and believe in Christ!

What's your idol? What's your self-made god? What's your pet sin? What is your particular struggle? Is it lust or anger or pride? Is it covetousness or gossip or gluttony? Is it pride? There's plenty of law to go around. There's plenty of ammunition to blast away any sin you would cling to. Are you going to go away like the young man, head hung low, because you won't, you can't give it up? Or are you willing to sell all, give all, even die to the sin that has you tangled up, and follow Jesus?

Sure I've never physically murdered someone. But I've had plenty of hate in my heart. Sure I've never cheated on my wife – except with my eyes, and in my head. Sure I never lied under oath, but I've dragged my neighbor's good name through the mud and back on a regular basis. And other gods – too many to count, to mention, to know. Christians, I hope you never take a shallow and careless view of God's law. Rather, let its light shine even into the deepest darkest corners of your sin, and as the sins try to scurry away, squash them instead with confession and absolution. Let Christ clean house. And be at peace.

And Jesus gives you an inheritance. That's the wild thing here. You can't earn it or deserve it – you can't even ask for it. You can't decide or will it. You can only receive the inheritance in faith. You can only come by eternal life as a gift – and you only get it when the one who gives it dies. Jesus does just that – all of that – for you. Would that the rich young man could see it, hear it, believe it.

If you keep seeing salvation as something to earn – then you'll never deserve it enough, you'll always doubt – and you should! For an inheritance that depends on you – your worthiness, your merit, your deserving it – is no inheritance at all. That's an imagined IOU. It's worthless. But an inheritance that is a promise. An inheritance that is a guarantee. An inheritance that rests on the sure and certain word of the Good Teacher and the true God. That's worth trusting and believing. That's worth selling everything. That's worth more than your life.

Even if this man did sell everything and follow Jesus – it wouldn't have earned a thing with God. But it would have shown his heart set right. It would have been a very stark outward expression of a deep inward change. A way of confessing his sin, and receiving Christ's forgiveness.

Today, Jesus calls you to receive your inheritance – that is what he gives you by his death. His body and his blood, given and shed for you, so that you may be forgiven and that you will inherit eternal life. Here at his altar, the Good Teacher gives you the goods, which you could never earn or deserve. But that's what makes him so good. He gives his everything to you, for you, for your eternal salvation. It's not a matter of “what must I do” but “what Christ has done”, and what Christ is doing.

The young man went away sorrowful. The Greek suggests he had a look on his face as dark as a storm cloud. It was, for him, a far from a happy ending. But, today, you get to depart in peace, sins forgiven.

The young man went away with a scowl, for he had great possessions, and couldn't let these idols go. You, now, go in joy, for you have the greatest possession in the Gospel, the greatest treasure in Jesus Christ, and an inheritance that will never fade or falter – eternal life with God.

Monday, October 01, 2018

Sermon - Pentecost 19 - Mark 9:38-50

Mark 9:38–50
“Hell and Fire and Salt”

A couple of weeks ago we heard Pastor Huebel preach a sermon about demons, and Christ who conquers them.  It's a topic you don't hear much about in many churches nowadays.  Today, we hear from our Lord Jesus Christ on another topic which preachers seem prone to avoid:  the reality of hell.  But he also points us beyond ourselves, to the only hope we have of avoiding such a terrible punishment.  And that hope is, as always, in him.

Hell is real.  It is not some backward superstition of ill-informed religious zealots.  It's not a delusion that Christianity has outgrown.  Nor is it a made-up myth to scare people into behaving, like a mother goose or even brothers grim tale.  It is a place of unspeakable suffering prepared for the devil and his angels.  It is a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth.  And perhaps worst of all, it is a place without God – cut off from Father, Son and Spirit.  Some of the harshest words spoken in all of Scripture are when Jesus tells the goats, “depart from me, I never knew you.”  It should give us chills.

Most of what we know about this comes from the lips of Jesus himself.  In today's reading he uses the picturing of a smoldering garbage heap just outside of Jerusalem – Gehenna – as a picture of hell.  It was there, in the valley of Hinnom, that the ancient people had practiced their pagan worship, sacrificed humans, even their own children to pagan gods.  It was a place of curse.  And so they fittingly turned it into a place of rubbish, a place where the fires were always burning.

Jesus speaks of the eternal hell as a place of unquenchable fire.  A place where rotting flesh is forever being consumed by a worm that does not die.  A place of misery.  It's so bad, that you would rather have your hands and feet cut off, or your eye poked out, than to go there.  It would be better to be thrown into the sea with a large weight around your neck to sink you to the bottom.  There's no hope of swimming your way out of this one.  There's no floating back to the surface.  This judgment is final. This sentences is eternal. This is a stern warning.  These are hard words.  And they are not words spoken primarily to pagans, mind you, but first of all to God's people.  And even, to you and me.
Sin is insidious.  Temptations are subtle.  And the devil would have you minimize sin, think of it as innocuous, no real danger.  People don't even use the word sin as often as we used to – instead we speak of “mistakes”, or “challenges” or “growth areas”.  The world wants us to think people are basically good, or at least morally neutral – and that the idea that we have a sinful nature, entirely corrupted, and deserving of death – well who believes THAT anymore?  But to also say that even just one sin makes you guilty of the fire of hell?  Why yes, Jesus says that very thing.

Sin cuts things off.  It cuts us off, first, from God.  Separates us.  Divides.  The original oneness of will and spirit which Adam and Eve enjoyed with God was ripped apart when they sided with Satan and disobeyed God's only command.  But sin also separates us from each other – think of how it is when there's a sin hanging out there between you and someone – like an open sore.  It breaks the relationship.  It drives you apart.  Communication is cut off, kindness is cut off, friendship is cut off.  All of this is poisoned fruit of our sin.

And so our Lord impressed upon us just how dangerous sin is, how serious a matter it is, and how terrible the punishments of hell.  God is a just God.  He means what he says.  He cannot be mocked.  And hell is where the wicked are cut off from God forever – the ultimate consequence of sin.

So how do we escape such a fate?  Jesus says, “if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.”  And of course he's not speaking literally here.  If he were, and it were that easy, then we'd all be going through life with no hands, and breathing a big sigh of relief.  Likewise, feet and eyes, and any member that causes us to sin.  Cut it off!  The judgment is so serious, we would do anything – even radical amputation – to avoid God's wrath.  But upon deeper reflection, not even this will do.  For it is out of the heart that comes all sorts of evil.  It is the very soul that is corrupted by sin.  We can't amputate our entire being!  We'd never stop cutting.  We'd have nothing left.  We'd be long dead long before.

But isn't that exactly it?  Jesus calls us not to simply “do better”, but rather, to die.  Die to sin.  Put to death the old flesh.  Cut off all wickedness and ungodliness.  And the only way this is done, is not through extra or extreme effort or force of will.  Only repentance.  Only confession will do.  For if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

But why?  How?  Isn't this the God who is just and hates sin, and promises punishment and death and hell?  How can he just turn on a dime and forgive me?  Well he doesn't turn on a dime, he turns on a cross.

The cross is the difference, for us, between heaven and hell, life and death, between being cut off from God forever and resting forever in his arms where he wipes every tear from our eyes.  Only the cross of Jesus will do.  Only Jesus can do what needs to be done for our salvation.
At the cross, Jesus' own body - and the members of his body suffer – hands and feet pierced, head crowned with thorns, back scourged, side pierced.  But even more, he is entirely cut off from his Father, forsaken, as he endures the wrath and punishment and the very pangs of hell you and I deserve.  Consumed in the fires of God's justice, he gives his body into death.  He fulfills Isaiah 53:8, and is “cut off out of the land of the living”.  And Jesus declares, “It is finished”.

Ah, but Jesus was not finished.  He descended into hell.  Not to suffer, mind you – that was done at the cross.  Now he storms the gates of hell itself, shatters its power and chokehold on the children of Adam.  He declares death's undoing, announces the undoing of sin's power, and stomps on the devil's might just as he crushes the serpent's very head.  Jesus is victorious!  Death has no hold on him, and so he rises, he lives, he reigns.

And now what about all this talk of salt and fire? We see throughout Scripture that fire is a purifying agent even as it consumes what is impure.  That's why hell is an unquenchable fire – because there we see what is never made pure, but is always being consumed. 

But being “salted with fire” is different.  Here Jesus turns to talk of promise. For us, that is, the people of Christ, this world includes various fiery trials, through which God purifies us – like a precious metal which emerges as the dross is melted away. 

He purifies us through his word and Spirit.  The Holy Spirit himself appears as a fire, tongues of fire, and brings the Baptism of Jesus also with Spirit and fire.  The word of law shows our sin, burns down any hope of our own righteousness, leaves us with only the ashes of repentance.  But the Gospel brings us through that fire, a new creation, holy and righteous in Christ.  And so fire, for the believer, even the fire of God's presence, brings good, makes us pure, even refined.  For the believer in Christ, fire holds no fear.

Likewise Jesus speaks of salt – also a purifying and cleansing agent, but even more for preservation.  Salt was also used in the ancient world in covenants of peace.  It symbolically “sealed the deal”.  Jesus uses the picture of salt here, to point us to all these things.  “Have salt in yourselves”.  Again, who purifies and preserves us but the Spirit of God through the word?  Who brings us to peace with each other, but the Spirit, through the word?  Who brings us to faith in Christ, preserves us in Christ, enlightens and sanctifies us in Christ, but the Spirit?  How can we have peace with God and one another, apart from the Spirit?  How can we come to faith and remain in the faith, apart from the Spirit?  And the Spirit works through the word.

Only Christ, by his Spirit, can rescue from the seriousness of sin and the very fires of hell.  Only Christ, by his fire and salt, can keep you from being cut off.  Only Christ rescues us, hand and foot, eye and ear, head and heart, and makes us members of his body, the Church. Only in Christ, do we have the peace with God and peace with one another that passes all understanding.  May that peace guard and keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.