Monday, June 17, 2024

Sermon - Pentecost 4 - Mark 4:26-34


Most of us, if we are honest, would admit that we are just sort of fumbling through life.  We do our best to keep up appearances.  That we have our act together.  That we are in control of our lives.  That we are decent and reliable and competent.  But the truth is we’re nowhere near as together as we project to other people.  If they knew our inner thoughts and struggles, we’d probably all be quite embarrassed.

One expression of this is what some people call, “impostor syndrome.”  That’s when you are hired for a certain job, or fill a certain role, and you secretly feel entirely unqualified to do it.  Sooner or later, you figure, people will discover that you’re a fraud, an impostor, and that you have no business doing whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing.

I bring this up because Jesus makes a very interesting point in his first parable today, sometimes called the “Parable of the Growing Seed.”  You might say that the farmer in the story has to admit that he doesn’t know what he’s doing.  Maybe he, too, would have “impostor syndrome.”

The story is fairly simple, as it follows the process of a seed that is sown, sprouts, grows, produces fruit, and finally is harvested.  We’ve all seen this process in the plant world from a very early age, when in Kindergarten we grew a bean sprout in a wet paper towel. 

But Jesus’ parables always have some kind of twist or surprise.  And here we may have to look a little closer to see it.  The farmer who planted this seed, who will eventually reap the harvest, he really has very little to do with the process after all.  He scatters the seed, and then simply goes about his regular business.  He sleeps.  He rises.  We might imagine he does his daily chores, reads the newspaper, goes to the store, and does whatever farmers do while their crops are growing.

But that’s just it, he’s not really doing anything to make those seeds grow.  He’s not out there with UV lamps, fine tuning them with just the right amount of energy.  He’s not the seed whisperer, talking to his plants in just the right way to coax the growth.  He certainly has no DNA expertise to bring to bear.  He just does his own thing, gets on with his life, and the seeds grow.  Jesus says, “He knows not how.”  What an understatement.

It is God who has this all worked out.  It is God who gives the growth.  Who designed the seed.  Who built the universe with its chemical interactions and laws of physics.  Who established photosynthesis so that this tiny plant can convert the energy of the sun into food for you and me.  Who makes seeds, which appear dead, to spring to life when the conditions are just right.  And of course, he set the weather in motion, with its seasons, and goldilocks temperatures and exactly the right atmosphere, and who gives soil for the plant to grow in, and a whole ecosystem to keep that soil full of nutrients.  To say, “the seed grows, and he knows not how” is really a remarkable statement. 

Such is the kingdom of God.

You and I tend to think we know what the church needs to thrive.  We act as if we are the experts who should be dolling out the prescription – and trust me, no one is more susceptible to this than us pastors.  If the church would only… knock on doors… then we would grow.  If we would only… reach out into the community.  If we would only… have the right youth program.  If we could just, each person, invite a friend to church.  If only the sermons were a little longer, or a little shorter, or had a few more jokes.  If only the music was a little faster, or a little louder.  If only people would love each other more and sin less.  THEN we would see the growth.  THEN our pews and our offering plates would be full.  THEN droves of sinners would come to faith in Jesus Christ and be saved.  And maybe then we could all feel quite pleased with ourselves, too.

But that’s not how it goes, is it?  The church can do all the right things and still not see the growth we desire.  And the church can do many wrong things, and God can still bless her.  Furthermore, the danger of measuring, is that we may measure the wrong things.  We may say, “oh, look how many people”, but there may be little fruit, and little root, though the branches are green and the stalks are tall.  Quantity doesn’t mean quality. 

All this is to say, that whether we speak of the church as a whole or as the individual Christian, the principle is the same:  God gives the growth.  And we know not how.  We can claim credit, in our arrogance.  We can claim understanding, in our ignorance.  But God alone grows his church, and God alone gives repentance unto faith.

Now, the farmer faithfully planted the seed.  And the church and its pastors must faithfully preach the Word.  This we are called to do, and given to do.  But we let God handle the results.  We let God do his job, and we do ours.  We love him and our neighbor in the vocations to which he has called us, as faithfully as we can, and rely on his grace when and where we fail.  It’s that simple.  Like the farmer who goes about his business, trusting that nature will take its course.  So we go about our business, trusting that Christ will build his church.

The second parable is that of the mustard seed.  And it has a similar point.  The principle is this:  The kingdom may start small, but it grows in surprising ways.  Just as one of the smallest seeds leads to one of the largest bushes, and even has room for birds to make their nests in its branches.  So, too, does the humble Word of God have great power in its effects.

The simple words of baptism prove to be a life-long comfort sure.  The straightforward promise of Jesus, that his body and blood are given and shed for you, and that for the forgiveness of your sins.  And the absolution of a pastor – your sins are forgiven – and they are!  And heaven itself is opened to you! 

Or the small beginnings of the church, and of our faith, on a dark Friday, in a backwater province, on a hill outside the city, where a humble man was crucified with a couple of criminals.  No fanfare.  No angelic choir.  Just an innocent man, forsaken by God, dying in agony.  And yet from this seed, planted on Calvary, and from his death and burial, life burst forth on the third day.  And life has been abundant in him ever since. 

We all come to roost and nest in the branches of his tree (the cross).  We all find our shelter in his church.  In surprising and wonderful ways, we know not how, but God provides for us individually, and together, as a congregation names Messiah, and as the holy Christian Church writ large. 

Such is the kingdom of God.  Such is the mystery of God’s ways.  We know not how.  We’re the impostors, but he’s the expert, the designer, and the giver of all good things.  We know not how he does it all, but we know him who does it, and does it all for us, and he is faithful, even Jesus Christ our Lord.  That’s how his kingdom is.  Therefore continue to trust in him.

Monday, June 10, 2024

Sermon - Pentecost 3 - Mark 3:20-35

Lunatic, Liar, or Lord?

One of the chief questions the Gospels address, and which Christians (and, really, all people) must answer is:  Who is Jesus?

And depending on how one answers that question, we can either find today’s Gospel reading terrifying or comforting.  We can either see in it the promise of forgiveness, and victory over our great enemy… or else we find ourselves outside of forgiveness, and forever captive to the evil one.

Jesus’ brothers and his own mother were there saying he was a lunatic.  He’s out of his mind.  He should be home acting respectable, taking up the family business like his father, the carpenter.  Not out here traipsing all over the towns and villages preaching and gathering this goofy band of followers.  He’s embarrassing himself, and us!  Let’s go talk some sense into him.  Let’s bring him home.

But then you have Jesus’ enemies, the teachers of the law.  They had made the 6 day journey from Jerusalem to see what all this fuss was about with Jesus.  And they had their own opinion.  He’s got a demon.  And he’s casting out demons by the power of the devil.  The use the name “Beelzebul”, that is, “Father of lies”, which the devil surely is.  And they spread this lie of their own to anyone who would listen.

Of course today, people have their answers, too.  

For many, Jesus isn’t a lunatic or a liar, he’s just not worth thinking about much at all.  If they do think of Jesus, they have a very shallow idea of him.  A nice guy.  A big smile.  Someone who loves everyone, and never says anything too difficult or challenging.  A Jesus who will pretty much leave me alone to do what I want, and maybe will be there if I really get in a pinch and need a favor.  But that’s not the Jesus of the Gospels, who preaches the kingdom with powerful law, and comforting gospel, the Jesus who fulfills all righteousness and lays down his life for his friends.  

Or, a Jesus who is a moral model, a lawgiver to follow by example.  But then you also have to contend with the fact that we don’t follow even the easiest examples of loving our neighbor, let alone dying for them.

Maybe even we get Jesus wrong from time to time.  Maybe we make him in our own image, a Jesus who fits our ideas, our desires, our emotional needs or our intellectual conceptions.  But let’s do away with any other Jesus that the real Jesus.  The one who is Lord.

Jesus answers his enemies first.  And he does so gently.  He calls them and offers them a refutation.  He shows the flaw in their argument.  How can Satan cast out Satan?  That doesn’t make any sense.  He wouldn’t fight against himself.  His kingdom would fall.  His house wouldn’t stand.  No, the power Jesus brings against is power over and against Satan.  And he makes a beautiful comparison.

No one can break into a strong man’s house and plunder his goods until he has first overcome the strong man, tied him up.  And Jesus has done just that.

Satan is the strong man.  Not to be trifled with, the devil is a fierce enemy, an old evil foe who seeks to work us woe.  He has deep guile and great might.  He’s too much for any human to stand up to.  He’s been leading us into temptation since the first days in the garden.  And he never lets up.  He is, as Jesus says, very strong.

But Jesus is stronger.  

Jesus overcomes the power of the devil time and time again.  He casts out demons with his authoritative word.  

He defeats the Devil’s temptations in the wilderness, not once, not twice, but three times.  Three strikes and you’re out, devil.  

But best of all, Jesus defeats the Serpent by crushing his head at the cross  – completely stripping him of all his power to accuse, emptying death of its sting, and the law of its terror for us.  By dying, Jesus wins.  Checkmate.  And the strong man, the devil, comes undone.  

What a way to overpower your enemy, but in weakness, shame, and bitter death!  What a way to save the lives of all but by losing his own life for us.

Of course, Jesus could not be bound by death’s strong bands, and Satan’s supposed victory over Christ at the cross turned out to be quite the opposite.  Death could not hold the stronger man, either.  Jesus burst the bonds of death and rose victorious.  Death has no power over him, and he will never die again.  God has given him all authority and will put all enemies under his feet, that includes you, Satan.

Which brings us to the third element of this mini-parable, the plunder.  The goods.  The stuff that belonged to the strong man, but has been robbed by the stronger man.  That’s you and me.  Jesus steals and snatches us away from the devil’s foul grasp, but no one can snatch us out of his hand.  Jesus frees us from the slavery to sin, and never can it weigh us down again.  Jesus crushes the devil’s hopes and dreams of our eternal anguish at his side.  It’s not to be.  We belong to Christ now.  The Devil is the eternal loser.

Now.  Jesus comments on two kinds of blasphemy.  The blasphemy against him, and the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.  Let’s take each of these in turn.

“Truly I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter.”  Since blasphemy is a sin, particularly making a mockery of God, Jesus means that even sins against him, as God, will be forgiven.  This is a great comfort to us all.  But what about that other kind?

Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit!  We often call this the “unforgivable sin”, and we are wise to hear his warning about it.  “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”  This is a terrifying suggestion!  And pastors have often heard dear Christians who are afraid they may have, or might someday commit this unforgivable sin.  But listen to how one of our Lutheran dogmaticians explains it:

"The sin against the Holy Ghost is committed when, after the Holy Ghost has convinced a person in his heart of the divine truth, that person nevertheless not only rejects the truth he is convinced of, but also blasphemes it. Hollaz thus describes this sin: “The sin against the Holy Ghost is the malicious denial of the divine truth which a person has clearly understood and approved in his conscience, a hostile assault on it, horrible blaspheming, and an obstinate rejection of all the means of grace, which lasts to the end.” (Examen, “De Pecc. Act.,” qu. 38.)64 The sin against the Holy Ghost is committed not against the person, but against the office of the Holy Ghost; it is the willful and determined suppression of the inner conviction wrought by the Holy Ghost." 

Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, 1, 571ff

In other words, friends, if you are worried that you’ve committed the unforgivable sin, that is evidence you haven’t.  If you fear you can’t be forgiven, that shows that you’re not too far gone.  Only those who despise Christ’s forgiveness and the Spirit’s work, and do it stubbornly to the end, will not be forgiven.  Or in yet other words, the only unforgivable sin is despising Christ’s forgiveness.  You can’t have his forgiveness if you reject his forgiveness.

We tie up this reading with Jesus’ statement that anyone who hears him, receives him, and does the will of the Father, that is, believes in him, is his true family.  He doesn’t deny Mary and his brothers, even though they called him insane.  But he shows that faith and forgiveness transcend even the blood ties of family.  The freedom from the strong man that we have in his name, as he plunders us from Satan and makes us his true treasured possession. And as all sins, even our blasphemies, are forgiven us in his name.  That’s how strong he is.  Not a lunatic, nor a liar, but our Lord, our savior Jesus Christ.  Thanks be to God in his name.  Amen.

Monday, June 03, 2024

Sermon - Pentecost 2 - Mark 2:23-38


The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath

This is the concluding summary, the main point Jesus makes in our Gospel reading today.  He, himself, is Lord of the Sabbath.

The Sabbath Day, of course, is the day of rest.  God set the pattern, after 6 days of doing all the work of creation, he rested on the 7th.  He thus set aside the Sabbath Day as holy, and later in the Mosaic law, clearly taught the people that this day is to be kept holy also by them as a day of rest.  We all know it as the 3rd Commandment.

But leave it to man to take a good gift of God and get it all fouled up.  Rather than seeing the Sabbath as a gift, a blessing, a time to be refreshed not only by physical rest but also by gathering to hear God’s word… the ancient Jews had loaded it down with legalism, prescribing all sorts of strictures on just what could and couldn’t be done on the Sabbath. 

Modern Jews have done the same – Rabbinical literature speaks of thirty-nine archetypal categories of labor prohibited on Shabbat:

The Mishnah lists them as follows:

sowing, plowing, reaping, binding (of sheaves), threshing, winnowing, separating fit from unfit crops, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking, shearing wool, washing it, beating it, dyeing it, spinning it, weaving it, making two loops, weaving two threads, separating two threads, tying, untying, sewing two stitches, tearing in order to sew two stitches, trapping a deer, slaughtering it, flaying its skin, salting its flesh, curing its hide, scraping its hide, cutting it up, writing two letters, erasing two letters in order to write two letters, building, tearing down, extinguishing a flame, kindling a flame, beating with a hammer, and moving from one domain to another.

All of these man-made extensions of a divine law, that really missed the point.

To Jesus’ opponents, it was as if man was made for the Sabbath.  That we were created to follow these laws as if servants or slaves to the law.  But just the opposite is true.  The Sabbath was made for man.  It’s one of the ten commandments, sure.  But even the commandments are made for man, not as oppressive taskmasters, but as an expression of God’s will for our good.

If you have no other gods but the true God, you will be blessed.  If you hallow God’s name, keep the Sabbath, honor your parents and refrain from murder, adultery, theft, gossip and coveting – you will be blessed.  Just as good parents give rules and guidelines to their children – not arbitrarily, but for their good – so does our loving Father establish his law with us, for our good.

Luther, in the Small Catechism, rightly interprets the 3rd commandment for us – it’s not about a certain day and avoiding work.  It’s about hearing God’s word!

What does this mean?  We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and his word, but hold it sacred, gladly hear and learn it.

The problem, of course, is that we don’t keep the law.  We profane the Sabbath day, and we despise preaching and his word.  We act as if the outward act of coming to church earns us some divine brownie points, or at least proves that we are good people.  Sometimes we think of church as an obligation, rather than a joy.  We say, “I have to go to church” not, “I get to go to church.”  We’re not all that different at times from the Jews who had twisted the Sabbath all around. 

Jesus uses an Old Testament story to debunk their legalistic approach.  Even King David “broke the Sabbath” by your reckoning.  He did far worse than you see my disciples doing.  He and his men took the bread from the Holy Place, in the Tabernacle.  The bread that was only for the priests! 

No, one might say that the disciples were doing exactly what the Sabbath was meant for.  They were with Jesus.  They were being fed by Jesus, the Bread of Life. 

The Lord of the Sabbath sets the parameters of the Sabbath.  And while he did command his people to observe it as a holy day in the Old Covenant, it’s clear that already in the early church the Christians began worshipping, not on Saturday, but on Sunday.  This they called, “The Lord’s Day”.  Sunday, the day of resurrection.  Sunday, the day in which Christ’s Sabbath rest in the tomb was done, and he rose to bring life and immortality to life for us all.  Ever since the church has been worshipping on Sundays – not as a law – but in honor and remembrance of the resurrection.

Christ is Lord of the Sabbath.  Christ, in a way, even is our Sabbath rest.  He gives us rest from all our work of trying to please God, as if we could, by our own righteousness.  Rest.  Be at peace.  He’s done it all for you.  He offers that rest freely, as he says in Matthew 11, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”  His yoke is easy.  His burden is light.  Faith looks to Jesus to do the heavy lifting, and he shoulders the burden well for us all.  He carries his cross, endures it, dies upon it, and by that death brings us true and lasting comfort, hope, peace, and rest.

In Christ, we rest in peace, even in the grave.  Paul often speaks of the Christian’s death as a sleep.  A slumber from which we will rise when the dead in Christ rise to meet him on the last day.  One of our hymns puts it this way:

Teach me to live, that I may dread                                                                

the grave as little as my bed.                                                              

Teach me to die, that so I may                                                              

rise glorious at the judgment day.

Now, of course, we do need regular, physical rest.  It’s part of the design of God’s creation.  We need times of sleep, times of refreshment, even a vacation, times to take a break between all the busy-ness of this fevered life.  And we sin even when it comes to such rest, don’t we?  Falling off on one side or the other – either sinful laziness, which wants to work little and rest too much, or else sinful neglect of rest, in which we work and work to the neglect of family, of downtime, and of balance in our lives. 

But thanks be to God for the forgiveness we have in Christ, for this, and for every other sin.  Thanks be to God he’s not playing “gotcha” with our sins, for we all would have been gotten long ago.  Rather, he delights to give us sabbath rest in the person of his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ – the Lord of the Sabbath.

God gives us daily bread, and yet man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.  He gives us fathers, and yet he is our heavenly Father.  So also he gives us rest – times of refreshment for the body – and even more, for the soul.  The blessings of our Lord Jesus Christ who came with good gifts for poor sinners, who has done the work of salvation for us, and who gives us perfect, lasting, peaceful rest in him.

In Jesus’ Name.

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Sermon - Holy Trinity Sunday - John 3:1-17


Holy Trinity Sunday

One of the nifty little neo-logisms we hear these days is “man-splaining”.  When someone, especially a man, explains something in a condescending way, especially to a woman.  A related term is “over-explaining”.  In our impatient world of fast-moving information, we don’t have time to sit through a long explanation of something we already know, so we skip to the end, or speed up the video, or ask for the “too long, didn’t read” version.

And while we probably all could be well-served by more patience, especially when it comes to the important teachings of the faith….  It is also true that Christian preachers may run into the danger of “over-explaining” certain doctrines, especially the one on center stage today – the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

Through many years of experience and great controversies, the church has learned a hard lesson about the doctrine of the Trinity.  It is a truth of scripture to be confessed, but not over-explained. It is a teaching to be fully accepted, but never completely understood.  It is a blessing that God graciously reveals to us, not something that we, of ourselves, concluded or deciphered about him. 

And so a right approach to such a doctrine comports very well with the Gospel itself.  Just as we are saved by grace and not by works, so we receive God’s revelation of himself as three and one – by grace – it comes to us, it’s not something we, even the whole church has “worked out”.  It is, rather, a gift.

This is why tools like the Athanasian Creed are so valuable for the church.  It sets a safe framework in which we may rightly confess the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.  It guards us from going astray, and repeating the errors of the past, which the church has already resolved.  It keeps us from new and divergent and false teachings which always detract from the Gospel, tend toward works righteousness, and diminish the work of God in Christ for our salvation.

We sinners want to master the material, we want to claim expertise and knowledge.  We want to be, in a word, like God.  It was our first temptation.  But just as Adam and Eve would have done far better if they simply trusted God’s word, “in the day you eat of it you will die”.  So we also do better to simply trust what God says about himself in Holy Scripture, concerning the Holy Trinity.

Today we have three of the great passages on which the doctrine of the Trinity rests… Isaiah 6, John 3, and Acts 2.

In Isaiah’s vision, like much of the Old Testament, the three-ness and one-ness of God is not as clearly revealed as it is in the New Testament.  Nonetheless, there are shades of it.  The angels sing that God is, “Holy, Holy, Holy”.  In the Hebrew, a three-fold repetition indicates a superlative.  As if to say, holy, holier, holiest.  But therein is also a hint of the three persons of this Holy Trinity and Undivided Unity.  The early church fathers understood this to be such a reference to the Trinity.

In John 3, Jesus explains to Nicodemus the importance of Holy Baptism, that is, being born again.  Later Jesus would command his disciples to baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  But already with Nicodemus, Jesus is teaching that the Father so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that we may be born of water and the Spirit.

Holy Baptism is thus another doctrine that is intricately linked to the doctrine of the Trinity.  For we are baptized into that threefold name of the one true God.  His triune name is upon us.  We are people of the triune God.  Children of the Father, Saved by the Son, Sanctified by the Spirit.  And whenever we hear that triune Name we can remember our baptism and make the sign of the cross.  In a way, your baptism is where the rubber of the this doctrine hits the road of your life.  You are baptized into the name, the three-fold name of God.  Thus he shares his divine unity with you.

Lest anyone say that the Christian Church invented this teaching at some council hundreds of years later, we have also the testimony of St. Peter in his Pentecost Day sermon.  From Acts 2, today, we hear Peter preach: 

this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.  God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death,

Peter unfolds the working of the Father and the Son: Jesus is crucified according to the Father’s plan, and the Father raises him from the dead, also according to plan.  Peter goes on:

Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.

The ascended and exalted Christ, at the right hand of God the Father, pours out his Holy Spirit.  Here we see the oneness of purpose, the united activity, the deep and mysterious way in which the Triune God accomplishes his purposes.

The Father sends the Son, to take on our flesh, to suffer, to die, to rise… to ascend and reign over all things.  The Son obeys the Father’s will, makes the Father known to his people, is obedient unto death, even death on a cross, and rises victorious, ascends in glory.  The Son then sends the Spirit, the Helper, the Comforter, to guide his people into all truth.  The Spirit, who testifies to Christ.  The Spirit, who calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies.  The Spirit who gives life, and that life is in Christ.

The Christian faith is no preschool lesson.  Yes, there are simple truths – God created you.  You are a sinner.  Jesus died for you.  We get to go to heaven.  But here there is not only spiritual milk, but meat. 

Here there are truths that exceed the greatest minds of the most learned scholars.  The deep and profound and sublime – the mysteries of the faith which are worthy of our attention, our study, and our pondering.  And the deeper we peer into these, like the doctrine of the Trinity, the more we are both humbled and amazed.  The more we see the riches of God’s grace.  The more we are comforted and encouraged.  The more we appreciate our salvation in Jesus Christ.

And then we come back to this, that we can ultimately not understand it, but only confess it.  That Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father, by the power of his Holy Spirit.  One God, Three Persons, a Holy Trinity and Undivided Unity – all for you, always.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.




Monday, May 20, 2024

Sermon - The Day of Pentecost - Ezekiel 37:1-14


Can these bones live?

What a question!  Surely not.

It would be different if whatever battle had happened here was just finished.  Then you could go through and look for survivors.  You’d maybe hear a faint groaning here or there, and be able to give someone aid, nurse them back to health.  Maybe find some wounded and help them get on their feet, and off to the hospital. Maybe it would be like that line from the Princess Bride, “He’s only mostly dead!”

But not here.  Not in this valley of dry bones.  It’s been a while.  The bodies have decayed.  There’s not even any flesh left, just dry, dry bones, bleached in the sun.  The life is long gone.  It’s more like the line from the Wizard of Oz, “Not only merely dead, but really, most sincerely dead.”

Can these bones live?  Surely not.

For one thing, they were dead.  And the thing about death is that it’s permanent.  Even a child knows that once a creature is dead, that is the end.  It’s what death is, what it means.  There’s no life and the life isn’t coming back.  That’s what death is, by definition.

And so death becomes the great cloud that covers all of us.  It’s the sword hanging over our heads.  It’s the constant threat to life that at any moment we could die, and then the story is done, that’s all she wrote.  Game over.

The world around us tries many things to manage death:  denial is a common strategy.  Shuffle death off to a hospital room and sanitize it.  Speak about death in words that take some of the edge away from it, “oh, she passed.  He’s with us no more.  Heaven just got another angel.” and so on. 

Darwin tried to give death credit for making life better – survival of the fittest. New Age gurus paint death as natural, part of the circle of life.  Pop culture doesn’t do much better when it makes death the center of so much entertainment. 

And secular philosophers have even tried their stab at it.  Take this increasingly common idea:  “Without death we cannot know how to truly live. Our mortality is what creates meaning in our lives.” Hmph.  Nice try.

But as Ezekiel waded through that valley with its piles of bones, I doubt he was thinking any of that.  The prophet knew what we Christians know, that death is the invader, the enemy, and it does not belong in this world.  But Adam’s sin opened the door to death, and it’s been an unwelcome squatter in our living room ever since.  So much death, because so much sin. 

This valley of bones wasn’t there to give life meaning, or show Ezekiel how to get the most out of life.  Standing knee deep in femurs and tibias and skulls, denial wasn’t really an option for him either.  No philosophy of man could re-cast the sad truth staring Ezekiel in the face.  Those bones told the story that couldn’t be sugar-coated.  The reality of death.

But the bones were not the whole story.  Yahweh was there, and so also the Spirit.  And the Lord was showing Ezekiel this vision to make and impress upon him a certain point.  Can these bones live?  Yes!  They can, and they will!

These bones are the house of Israel.  See, at the time of Ezekiel, the people of God were in a crisis.  They were in exile.  The Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, and destroyed all hope for them as a people.  They were as good as dead, as dead as a pile of dry bones.  If anyone looked on them and said, “can they live?”  The answer would surely be no.

But Yahweh had other plans.  He sent his prophets, and along with them his word.  And in his word, the working of his Spirit.

Just as the bones in Ezekiel’s vision came back to life at the preaching of the prophet – so does God revive and restore his people.  He did it then, and he does it still today.  By the Spirit, through the word.  The exile ended, the people returned, the temple was rebuilt, and God’s plan and purpose resumed, the promise of a Messiah soon fulfilled.  The bones of Israel would live again.

You and I are in a crisis.  Oh, we haven’t been conquered by an evil empire (at least not yet).  We haven’t died in battle.  We’re not pining away in exile.  But death still breathes down our neck.  We can’t escape it no matter how many doctors we visit, how many fruits and vegetables we eat, or how many steps we get on our fit-bit.  The wages of sin is death.  There’s no getting around it.  In the end, these sinful, unclean bones can’t live.

But for Christ.  Christ, who destroys death by his death.  Christ, who takes all sin upon himself.  Christ, who answers the question, “Can these bones live?” with his own glorious resurrection. 

The Spirit, the Holy Spirit, is the Spirit of Christ.  Jesus breathed his Spirit on his apostles on that first Easter Sunday evening.  Now, on Pentecost, he breathes the Spirit again upon his church.  The Spirit who gives life to dead bones does so for the sake of Christ, the life of all the living.  The Spirit who is sent by Christ accomplishes Christ’s purposes – bringing forgiveness, life and salvation to his people. 

The Spirit, who comes from the four winds, the four corners of the earth, is sent out to make disciples of all nations through the baptism of Christ and the teaching of Christ.  The Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, is sent by Christ, the Way, the Truth and the Life.  They are distinct, but united, one God, and with the Father, three persons.

On the last day, when Christ who has ascended in glory returns in the same glory, with angelic shout and trumpet call of God… then the Spirit will resurrect all who are in Christ to glorious bodies fit for eternal life.  And what a site that will be.  Not just a vision, like Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, but a reality.  Not just an army – but all the dead in Christ will rise, for our Lord Jesus has gone before us and where he goes there we will follow.

On this day of Pentecost, we give thanks for the Holy Spirit, and for the life that he brings, the life that is in Christ.  Through the preaching of the Gospel, he restores us now, and by his mighty power will restore us fully on the last day – body and soul – to live forever.  The resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

Can these bones live?  In Christ, by his Spirit, yes!  They will!


Monday, May 13, 2024

Sermon - Easter 7 - John 17:12–19


John 17:12–19

“Sanctified in the Truth”

Today is a sort of an in-between Sunday as we finalize the Easter Season.  We have observed, this past Thursday, Christ’s Ascension, 40 days after Easter.  And next Sunday, Pentecost, will be 50 days from Easter.  So it’s a transitional time.  Christ has ascended, reigns as our heavenly king, and soon we will celebrate the outpouring of the Spirit on the church, and the spread of the Gospel from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.

So what does the lectionary do with this sort of odd Sunday?  It focuses us on Christ’s great “High Priestly Prayer”.  Really all of John 17 records this prayer for us that Jesus would have prayed on Maundy Thursday.  It’s 26 verses in all, but today’s 8 verses are the heart of this prayer.

Now, of course, Jesus was genuinely praying to his Father with these words, but he was also praying them so the disciples, and now we, the church, could hear them and learn from them.  And so this prayer teaches us about Christ’s will and his work for us.  In a way, he answers his own prayer by his messianic activity.  And he also sets us an example of prayer, so that we too may come to the Father asking for the good gifts we need in Jesus’ name.

Now, what does Jesus ask for when he prays?

Well, he prays for his disciples – the 12 – and also after this, for all of us who would follow in the faith they would preach.  He prays that they would have joy, that they would be guarded from the evil one and the hateful world.  And then he prays that they would be “sanctified in the truth”.  He repeats that request, too, so it must be an important petition.  Let’s focus on it especially today:  What does it mean to be sanctified in the truth?

Sanctification is one of those theological terms that we don’t hear much outside of the walls of the church.  To sanctify means, simply, to “make holy”.  The Holy Spirit’s chief work is sanctification.  He makes us holy.  And so it makes sense to hear this prayer of Jesus the Sunday before we move on to remember his pouring out of the Spirit on Pentecost.

We also speak of sanctification in two senses.  In the wider sense, it means the Spirit’s work of calling people to faith in Jesus.  In other words, conversion.  We are all sanctified, that is, made holy, by the Spirit, in the water of Baptism, and by the faith that he creates in our hearts. 

The other, the narrower sense of sanctification, has to do with the Spirit’s ongoing work in the believer’s life.  As he continues to call us to repentance and faith, we are ever sanctified by God’s grace.  The Christian grows in love for God and his neighbor.  He grows ever more hateful of his own sin, and ever more thankful of God’s grace in Christ.  No, we never master sin, we will have the Old Adam clinging to us until death.  But we do, in a very weak sense, cooperate with the Spirit, to bring forth the good works that are the fruits of faith in our life. 

This week with our 7th and 8th grade MLCA students I watched a video of a famous TV preacher.  We’ve been looking at various Christian denominations and how they developed, and what they believe.  And I wanted them to see an example of this well-known celebrity pastor preaching to a stadium full of people – so that they can learn to critically evaluate good and bad preaching.

Well, this was some bad preaching.  I’m not really even sure I would call it Christian preaching, for Christ was missing and sin was not mentioned.  Instead, it amounted to a continual string of “do this, don’t do that.  Don’t be bitter, be happy.  Don’t give in to your flesh, but take control of your life…” And on and on he went.  As if we could sanctify ourselves, make ourselves holy all on our own by force of will.

The Lutheran knows better.  We confess in the meaning of the 3rd Article of the Creed:  “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctified and kept me in the truth faith.” 

Sanctification, in both the narrow and the wide sense, is the work of God the Holy Spirit, who brings us to faith in Christ, and keeps us in the true faith.  We are powerless apart from him and his work.  We are blind and dead in our sins.  We can’t sanctify ourselves.  We need our God, Father, Son and Spirit, to sanctify us.

So how does this happen?  Jesus says it simply.  “Sanctify them in the truth.”  And where do we find the truth, but his word?  “Your word is truth” he also prays. 

The Christian simply must hear and know and live and breathe the word of God.  Apart from Christ himself, who is the Living Word, the Word of God is our highest treasure, our great heritage.  It is the chief and only means by which we are and must be saved.  For even the sacraments themselves depend on the power of the word.  Baptism is not just water, but it is water combined with God’s word and promise.  The Lord’s Supper is not just bread and wine, but it is, by Christ’s command and at his word, also a gift of his precious body and blood.  Everything, for the Christian, depends on the word.

It is the word of truth that sanctifies us.  And not just any truth, but particularly the truth of the Gospel.  That Christ was crucified for sinners, of whom I am the foremost.  That he who believes and is baptized will be saved.  That all who believe in his name he gives the power to become the children of God.  That he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Of course, we also need the truth of the law, to show us our sins and need for our savior.  But the law only is only part of the story, it’s just half-the-truth.  The Gospel finishes out the plan of God for our salvation, our redemption, our sanctification.  We are made holy – not by keeping the law, because we can’t and we don’t.  We are made holy, only by the merits of Jesus Christ our Savior.  And the good news of this word is the way he delivers that sanctification to us, through the working of his Spirit.

What a treasure we have in God’s word!  We hear it read and preached here.  Our whole liturgy every Sunday is almost entirely the words of Scripture.  We sing back to God in songs and hymns and spiritual songs the truth of his word. And we, like Jesus, pray.  We pray in accord with his word, asking our dear Father as dear children, through the name of our brother, our savior, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, dear Christian, that you may be continually sanctified in the truth, and that Jesus’ prayer may be answered.  Come to his house regularly.  Read and study his word as you have opportunity.  Teach your children and pray with them.  Live and breathe the word of God in all that you do.

You have been, and you are – sanctified in the truth – made holy, set apart as God’s people.  Different from the world.  Faithful.  Sins forgiven.  People with a future, guarded and kept by God for that day when he calls you home and your sanctification is complete, and Jesus’ prayer for you is finally and fully answered.  In his holy name, Amen.

Saturday, May 11, 2024

Sermon - Ascension Day - Luke 24:44-53

Luke 24:44-53

Up, Up, and Not Away

Today we observe the Ascension of Our Lord.  40 days after his resurrection, and after many appearances to his people, our Lord Jesus Christ ascends into heaven and claims his rightful throne on high.  Liturgically speaking, this day falls, of course, 40 days after Easter Sunday, always on a Thursday.

Even though we mention it every time we confess one of the Creeds, it seems the Ascension has been neglected or ignored by many churches these days.  Some observe it on the nearest Sunday, and others seem to ignore it entirely.  But here, tonight, let us consider the meaning and significance of Christ’s ascension.  For like everything that Jesus says and does, he ascends into heaven for you.

For starters, let us address the paradox of the Ascension.  Jesus disappears from the sight of his disciples, and with few exceptions, he will not be seen again until he comes again in glory.  And yet on the other hand, Jesus had recently promised his disciples, “lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

But before some snide critic cries, “Bible contradiction!” we are quick to note that Jesus has only removed his visible presence from us, while he remains with us in other ways according to his promise.  He is with us, by his Spirit, whenever two or three are gathered in his name.  He is with us, in his word, especially when it is preached to us – for he himself is the living word of God made flesh.  And perhaps most poignantly, he is with us in, with, and under the bread and wine of the Sacrament.  Gone, but not gone.  Ascended but still very much present in his church, among his people.  Up, up, and not away… but ever with us, according to his promise.

Nor should we imagine that Jesus is now confined to some penthouse in the clouds, as if the glorified Christ is bound by physical location.  He who created time and space, who holds the universe in the palm of his hand, is not subject to his creation but master of it.  God has placed all things under his feet. All authority in heaven and on earth is given to him.  And so for Jesus, heaven is not a place, a location, as if you could find it on a map or even in a certain direction.  Rather, it is a spiritual status of being over and above all things.  That he rose up into the clouds is really incidental to all of that.

Lutheran pastor Bo Giertz puts it this way:

“The scorner asks whether we really believe that God dwells above us.  That we do not believe.  We know that God dwells beyond both time and space.  Heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain him.  But God has given us the heavens as a symbol of his majesty and power.  He has taught us to lift up our eyes to the heavens in prayer.  Jesus himself speaks of our Father “who is in heaven” and notes that Pilate has his power “from above.”  Such figures of speech are necessary and just as valid as when we say that the sun “rises.”  Therefore, our Lord was lifted up in the presence of the disciples when he was taken from them and entered through the heavens which separate our world from God’s kingdom.

The Ascension is one of the great milestones in the history of the world.  Its meaning is first and foremost that Christ is raised above all and has received the name which is above every name, God’s own name:  Lord.  He has been “received into glory” and is “seated at the right hand of the Majesty on high.”  The time of his humiliation is now past.  He possesses once more all the glory and majesty of God.

And now he has begun his reign as king in the kingdom of grace.  God “exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior.”  Now “he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.”  He who previously walked in our world like one of us and could speak only to a limited number of people at one time is now everywhere and works throughout the world.  He is the Lord of the church who has sent his Spirit and is with us always, even to the end of the world.

From "Preaching from the Whole Bible", Augsburg, 1967.  Thanks to Pastor Mark Taylor, Faith, Plano.

Pastor Giertz then rightly goes on to say how the next great milestone in the history of the world is the Second Coming of Christ.  We Christians, you see, measure time and history much more by the working of our Lord and God than of the rise and fall of governments and the wars of nations. 

And the truth is, Christ’s Ascension and his second coming are related.  The angels said as much, “This Jesus will return in the same way you have seen him go”  That is to say, visibly, coming in the clouds with angels attending, just as he ascended and was obscured by the clouds with angels attending.  And yet, it will be different, too.  For not only the small apostolic band will see him, but this time, all eyes will see him.

For the disciples, his Ascension was a cause for great joy.  Perhaps they couldn’t fully comprehend it or explain it yet (and really, still, who can?)  But that Jesus ascended caused them to rejoice, as it does for us.  When he returns in glory, there will also be great rejoicing for all who believe in him, and great weeping and sorrow for all who reject him.

But until that time – his Ascension still matters.  It still brings us blessing.  For Christ reigns.  And his exercise of all authority in heaven and on earth is, like everything Jesus does, for your good.

He reigns as the king, in this kingdom of grace called his church.  He guides and governs us by his holy law and blessed gospel.  He bestows the gifts of his Spirit, and consoles us with his means of grace, the Sacraments.  He intercedes for us with the Father, and prepares a place for us in the mansions of heaven.  He opens the seals of God’s plan of salvation for mankind, working through all things for the good of those who love him. 

Christ has ascended, bodily, into heaven. And this is good news for you, dear Christian.  By his death he has destroyed death.  By his rising again he has brought life and immortality to light. And by his Ascension he continues to receive and exercise his divine glory and power, for the good of his people the church.  And he will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead.  And his kingdom will have no end.

Christ has not left you as orphans.  He is with you by his Spirit.  He is with you by his word.  He is with you in the midst of your gathering with other believers in his name, even if only 2 or 3.  And he is with you in the real presence of his body and blood in his supper.  Truly, he is with you always, even to the end of the age.