Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Proper 8 of Series C (preached 7-1-07)

“Christ has set us free.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The text for our sermon comes from the Epistle lesson read a few moments ago from the fifth chapter of Galatians, that great book of Christian freedom. Dear friends in Christ-- every year around Easter time, ABC shows the great epic movie the Ten Commandments. Charleton Heston, proudly wearing an NRA hat, is Moses, who leads the people of Israel out of Egypt and into the wilderness on a long journey to the Promised Land. Even though the moviemakers embellished the true story of the Exodus quite a bit, as Hollywood often does, one of the biblical truths that does come through loud and clear is the rebellious state of the people of Israel. Time after time, even following God’s mighty acts of salvation, they are ready to turn back to slavery. For them, life in slavery was better than putting their trust in a God who had saved them through mighty acts of His power. We can easily watch the Ten Commandments and shake our heads, wondering how the Israelites could be so blind not to see the deliverance of God and instead wanting to return to slavery. But has human nature really changed all that much in the centuries since the Exodus? Does human nature really put its trust in a gracious God and not want a return to bondage? Paul didn’t think so- he saw our human nature constantly striving to put itself into slavery, and the worst slavery of all. This slavery does not simply take away our freedom- it leads to death, eternal death.

In our text today, Paul uses the term ‘flesh’ to describe this slavery, not because our physical bodies are evil in themselves, but because our bodies have been wholly corrupted by sin through the Fall. For Paul, the flesh is not something physical, but is a life lived opposed to God. In verses nineteen through twenty-one of our text, Paul describes life in the flesh by the deeds done in the flesh. “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impuity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealously, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.” We could spend several hours going into every one of these vices, but Paul gives us a nice summary in verse seventeen: “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit.” The life lived in the flesh is a life lived in opposition to God’s holy Law, a life lived in rebellion against Him. A life lived in this way, as Paul says at the end of verse twenty-one, does not inherit the kingdom of God. Those who commit these sins are trapped in the slavery of sin, and that bondage delivers them up to death.

But these four walls do not make us immune to this bondage, because the Christian Church is full of slaves to sin. How often have you seen gossip or conflict in the church? How often have we not put the best construction on everything, and have opposed both our fellow Christians and the shepherds sent by Christ to us? How often have we allowed our own jealousies and personal rivalries interfere with the mission given by Christ? How often have we focused on our own ambitions instead of on Christ? This church building was founded on Christ, not on me or you or any other person. What Paul says sarcastically in verse fifteen speaks volumes to us: “But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.” How tragic is the division of the church by those who bite at each other, but it pales in comparison with the form of slavery that is the focus of this text and the book of Galatians- a voluntary return to the Law by those who have been set free by Christ.

In today’s world, we want to be independent, ‘self-made’ people, and we gobble up self-help books by the thousands that teach us how to do everything from lose weight to run a computer. Because of this, we simply cannot fathom that anyone would give us a gift that we don’t have to earn ourselves in some way. And this goes for our spiritual life as well- the popularity of the Purpose-Driven Life, with its idea that we can please God through our own obedience to Him, shows that this is true. As a consequence, we often rebel against the free grace of God and try to earn God’s favor through our own works. We view church attendance and the Lord’s Supper as something we do to appease God. Even all the time we spend on various boards or church groups can be used to show God our commitment to Him. Our kindness to those around us will surely give us some ‘brownie points’ with God, won’t they? Surely God will give us salvation because we have tried to live a good life, right? Our human nature wants to stand before God on the Last Day and say, “Let me into your glory, Lord, I’ve led a good life.” My friends, this is exactly what Paul warns us about in verse one of our text: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Trying to earn God’s grace through our own good deeds and ‘good life’ is a path in bondage to the Law. Living in this way returns us to slavery, and it is the worst slavery of all, because we think that we are earning God’s favor when we are actually despising His grace!

This slavery has no hope of saving us, because it is the yoke of the Law. After working and toiling for our entire lives to please God with our works, the only reward we can receive is the condemnation of God. Living as slaves to the Law is no better than living in open sin our entire lives. In fact, open sin is better, because it does not give us the delusion that we are actually serving God. Whether we live in rebellion or in dependence on the Law, we are living in the flesh, and Paul tells us that the “desires of the flesh are against the Spirit.” Faced with this terrible fact, where do we turn? What option is there for those who live in open sin or have trusted in their own goodness for salvation? If both paths lead to eternal condemnation, what hope do we have? Where can we turn? The simple answer is that we cannot do anything to release ourselves from the slavery of sin or the Law. Therefore, God did it all.

Christ, true God and true man, came down to this earth to set us free, to rescue us from the bondage of sin and the Law. He became a slave like us and walked this earth, fulfilling the demands of the Law on our behalf, not falling into any of the sins on Paul’s list of fleshly works which we read before and completely embodying what Paul writes in verses twenty-two and twenty-three: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” Then He was bound by sinful men and became a slave in every sense of the word, beaten and accused for crimes He did commit, then was led to the cross. He could have turned back from the cross, as we have often turned back to the yoke of slavery, but instead He went to Golgotha and there shed His blood- the sinless Son of God crucified like a slave. And that truly is the most important part. While we remained slaves to sin, Christ died like a slave to grant us freedom, and rose again victorious to take the keys of slavery away from death and the devil. As God delivered the Israelites of old from Egypt, so Christ delivered us through His own Exodus.

But freedom on paper is no use unless Christ actually comes to us and sets us free- taking the keys to our chains won from death and Satan and releasing us. In Exodus, God saved His people when He had Moses stand before the Red Sea to part the waters, giving His people salvation through water. Today, Christ also gives us salvation through water. In verse thirteen of our text, Paul writes that we were “called to freedom.” Who called us and when did this happen? In our Baptism- by Christ Himself! Though the washing of water with the Word, the Holy Spirit set us free with the freedom that Christ won through the cross and empty tomb. In Baptism, we are set free from the bondage of sin and the Law. We are free from the condemnation of the Law and the power of sin to condemn us eternally!

Moreover, the Holy Spirit comes to us in Baptism and we live by Him. The Spirit therefore shapes our lives as He works within us, strengthening our faith so that we stand firm in our freedom. We are now free to be who we are as Baptized children of God, showing to those around us the love that Christ showed us. Paul writes in verses twenty-two and twenty-three that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” These things are the fruits produced by the Spirit in us- they are the works of the Holy Spirit in and through us. Because of who we are as children of God, set free by Christ, we show that same love to others. The love that Christ showed on the cross, when He became a slave for we who were slaves to sin, flows out through us to a world that is still in bondage. Therefore, the cross shapes our lives as those set free by Christ.

Paul describes this baptismal life of the Christian in verse twenty four: “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Our sin was nailed to the cross of Christ, along with the demands and accusations of the Law. We do not have to rely on our obedience to the Law for our salvation, but instead we depend solely on Christ, the crucified and risen one, who set us free from reliance on the Law. But we are not completely rid of our sin, nor will we be until Christ takes us from this valley of sorrow to Himself in heaven. Therefore, the baptized live a life under the cross, of continual dying to sin and rising with Christ. This life is therefore lived by the Holy Spirit, who gives us the grace and forgiveness we need to be sustained for life in this sinful world. This grace is given through the reading of God’s Word, or in hearing the words of absolution spoken by a pastor or partaking of the meal of forgiveness and strengthening, the most holy Supper of Christ’s Body and Blood. The life of one called to freedom through the waters of Holy Baptism is therefore nourished throughout by Christ’s abundant grace.

Therefore, unlike the rebellious children of Israel, who grumbled against Moses and against God of their desire to return to slavery, we live in the Spirit, sustained by the overflowing grace of God. We have no need to return to the works of the Law, because the Law has been fulfilled in our place. Therefore, we do good works not out of obligation, but as the overflowing of love and grace that we received from Christ. We will continue to live a life under the cross, a life of daily remembering our Baptism as we die to sin and rise to Christ. Sin will always creep up around us, and Satan will tell us that we are still slaves to sin and the Law. But when he tells us that we can spit in his face and say, ‘Get behind me, Satan, CHRIST HAS SET ME FREE!’ Amen.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Pentecost of Series C (preached 5-27-07)

You may be noticing a trend- the older sermons (such as this one) are much longer than more recent ones. I'm not against long sermons per se, but I am working on tightening up my thoughts and being more focused. Not sure if it's working, but my sermons have been several minutes shorter...

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” Grace, mercy and PEACE to you from God our Father and from our Lord and savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning is the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago by Pastor Doehrmann. Dear friends in Christ. One of the unfortunate things about going to school in Fort Wayne is the fact that to travel home, I have to go through Chicago. Not only is the traffic bad, but in addition, flying through O’Hare can be a time-consuming business, with constant delays and headaches. There is one advantage to this situation, however. Most of the planes from Fort Wayne take a lazy turn over Lake Michigan and fly just north of downtown Chicago, giving us spectacular views of one of the most magnificent skylines in our country. You can probably easily picture the buildings in your mind right now- the Sears tower, the Hancock building, and you can probably name many more that I can’t even think of. It is amazing what we humans can build when we put our minds to it, right?

That is without a doubt what humanity thought thousands of years ago in Genesis eleven. In that time after the flood, all mankind had the same language, and now they wanted to see just how great they could be. They said to one another, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves.” In their foolish pride they wanted to become as important, as powerful as God Himself. They believed Satan’s little lie that He first spoke to Adam and Eve, “you will be like God.” That desire to become our own God has infected all of humanity since, and we see it here again, even after the ravages of the flood, with the building of the Tower of Babel.

And we see it time and time again in our own world today. Now I am not speaking directly about those brave men and women who built skyscrapers in our own history. What I am talking about more specifically is the building projects we take on in our own lives. We try to become like God in every facet of our lives, building great skyscrapers of pride out of our work, our families, our homes, and our recreation. We want to build a “tower with its top in the heavens,” and “make a name for ourselves” with the things of this world. How often have we been tempted to believe that ‘the one who dies with the most toys, wins?’ How often have we compared ourselves to those around us, and rejoiced when they were the ones found wanting? But these things are only the surface of a much deeper problem- we want to be like God. We build these ‘skyscrapers’ out of our own lives to declare our independence from God. We make the things of our lives our idols, placing our pride between ourselves and God.

But we are not satisfied with simply pursuing our own building projects- we also ruin the plans of God. From the very beginning, God has wanted to dwell with His people. He walked in the Garden with Adam and Eve, He dwelt in the midst of the camp as Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt. He even promised to be present with his mercy in the temple in Jerusalem. But God wanted more than that- Jesus tells us in verse twenty-three of our text today that “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” God wants to dwell with every one of us, present with His mercy each day- His desire is to make His home with us! Sinful humans, however, too often have other plans.

Throughout the Old Testament, the people of God were too busy with their own building projects to concern themselves with God’s desires. They may have built a temple to God, but they also built altars to idols. They constructed the ark of the covenant- after they crafted a golden calf. Every time that God provided a means to dwell with His people, they scorned Him and followed their own ways. And we are little different- we may help build or support a church, but we also build skyscrapers out of the things of this world, idolizing our money and possessions, placing them before God. We take tremendous pride in what we have accomplished by ourselves, without needing the help of our Creator. In our pride, we are incapable and unwilling to love Jesus or keep His words. Remember what Jesus tells us in verses twenty-three and twenty-four: “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words.” For God to dwell with us, as He desires, we must do what we are unable to- love Jesus and keep His words. We fail in every commandment because in our pride we have broken the first and set up idols in our lives to oppose God.

In our sin God cannot dwell with us, because He is holy and cannot make compromises for those who directly oppose Him with false gods of their own. And without God dwelling with us, we have no hope. We may leave this world with many material things, or a family legacy, or an impressive list of accomplishments, but we leave this world just the same. And without God present with us in His grace, we face His wrath alone. We have no peace beyond this life because all that our building projects have earned us is eternal condemnation. We even spend our life in this world without peace, because our pride tells us constantly that we haven’t done enough for ourselves. And underlying our entire lives is a lurking fear of God’s righteous wrath, which will be unleashed on us when we leave all of our skyscrapers behind.

And that is where we would be if Christ had not done something about our situation- we were lost in our pride, in our foolish attempts to become like God, and we could not do anything about it. But Christ did, and He did so in the most extraordinary way. The Son of God became man and dwelt in our sinful world amongst sinful people, breathing the air we breathe and eating the food we eat. In Christ God dwelt with His people as He did in the Garden of Eden, or in the tabernacle in the desert, or in the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus was the ‘tabernacle’ or ‘temple’ amongst the people, embodying God’s presence in His creation. But Christ’s greatest act was when He departed. Jesus tells in verse twenty-eight of our text, “You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I.” The Father is not greater than Jesus because Jesus is a ‘lesser God,’ but because Jesus Christ, true God and true man, submitted Himself to the Father’s will. And what was that will? That Christ would die on a cross for our sins and be raised back to life for our salvation. He tells us in verses thirty and thirty-one, “I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no claim on me, but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father.” The ruler of this world, Satan himself, had entered Judas, and just hours after these words the betrayer would lead an armed party to Jesus. Then sinful men placed the Son of God on one of man’s towers, this one in the shape of a cross. This skyscraper of guilt and shame, punishment and torture, became for us the tower of grace, because on that cross Christ gave up his life for us. He died in our place to forgive us of our sinful pride, which places the things of this world ahead of God. And then He rose triumphant on the third day to give us the hope, the promise that we would rise again and live with Him into all eternity, the people of God dwelling with their Savior.

Christ then left again, ascending to where He had come from, leaving us in this still sinful world. But He did not leave us alone. In verse twenty-six, Jesus says, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, He will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” The Holy Spirit, whom God sent through Christ, will continually bring to mind the words and deeds of Christ. As we prayed in the collect today, we ask God to “Grant us in our day by the same Spirit to have a right understanding in all things.” The Holy Spirit preserves the teachings and deeds of Christ, and proclaims them to us. But He does much more than that. The Spirit stands beside us, testifying before God, the world, and ourselves that Christ did die for us and that our sins are forgiven. Our promised helper came on the day which we celebrate today- Pentecost.

On that day, Luke writes in Acts chapter two that “suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” The promise of Christ in our Gospel lesson today was fulfilled on that great day, and the Holy Spirit came to the believers in Christ. In Jerusalem, on the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit reversed the great sin at the Tower of Babel, and for one night all the languages of the earth were once again one. But they did not simply speak gibberish, but as Jesus said in verse twenty-six of our text, “He will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” The Holy Spirit enabled the disciples to preach the words and deeds of Christ to the people, especially how He died and rose again for them, and God blessed this preaching with thousands of conversions. In a great foretaste of heaven, all people spoke the language of God.

On Pentecost the sin of Babel was reconciled, and God dwelt with humans again through the work of the Holy Spirit. In the same way Christ has won forgiveness for all of our stubborn pride in our own sinful building projects, and the Holy Spirit brings those benefits to us, healing the rift between us and God so that He can dwell with us. In verse twenty-six, Jesus tells us that God will send the Holy Spirit “in my Name.” Last Sunday, an infant had the name of Christ placed on him, the name by which God has revealed Himself to us, he was baptized “In the NAME of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” As Jesus promised us, the Holy Spirit came in that name to work faith. Every Baptism, therefore, is a Pentecost, where the Holy Spirit comes to us like He did in Jerusalem two thousand years ago. Our Introit for today says “When you send forth your Spirit, they are created.” In our Baptism, the Holy Spirit creates a new person within us, drowning the Old Adam with all of our sins and evil desires. Through the faith given in Baptism we love God and hold on to all of His words- words of grace, words of comfort, but most especially the Word Himself, Christ our Lord.

This Jesus tells us in verse twenty-three, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and We will come and make our home with him.” Because of the forgiveness received by faith, God comes to dwell with us. He comes near to us whenever we read His word or hear it preached and especially whenever we receive His precious Body and Blood in the Lord’s Supper. He dwells with us in grace, granting the forgiveness won on the cross through these means. And this grace, this wonderful dwelling of God with His people, gives us peace. Jesus tells in verse twenty-seven, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not you hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” This peace is the peace of knowing that our sins have been forgiven for the sake of Christ and that we will know true peace in heaven, where we will dwell with Christ into all eternity. Therefore we have no need to fear the wrath of God, because it was poured out on Christ for our sake, and we can truly live in the peace that all of our earthly things and all of our pride, the skyscrapers we try to build for ourselves, can never give us. In verse thirty, Jesus says that Satan “has no claim on me.” Satan also has no claim on us, because we dwell with God, and in His arms we have peace.

After giving these wonderful words of comfort, Jesus tells His disciples, “Rise, let us go from here.” They must travel to the Mount of Olives, where Jesus will meet His betrayer and then go to the cross. At the cross, He won the peace which He promises, the same peace which He gives to you today and every day through the work of the Holy Spirit. Because of what He did for us that Good Friday, no tower can ever rise higher than His cross. In Christ we find peace, the peace that allows us to “Go from here” with the forgiveness and grace of Christ. Therefore, “Rise, let us go from here” with the PEACE of God which passes all understanding, Amen.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Christmas Midnight of Series A (Preached 12-24-07)

Here is a bit more recent one, preached just last month:

“And she gave birth to her firstborn son.” Grace, mercy, and peace among those whom He is pleased from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Our text for our sermon this Christmas Eve comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the second chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ, have you ever noticed how little space Luke devotes to the actual birth of Jesus? One verb, really, and hardly half a verse. “And she gave birth to her firstborn son.” Luke spends so much time setting the stage, taking us from the emperor’s palace in Rome to a small town south of Jerusalem, from the very seat of power as Luke knew it to a poor virgin mother and her betrothed. But for the actual birth itself, Luke does not attempt to explain this event, to pause and wonder at this great miracle, that God had been born as man. “And she gave birth to her firstborn son.” Such a simple phrase, true of millions of others throughout history, and probably more than a few on that very night, but here we have no ordinary birth. Here God has become man, something so amazing, so unthinkable, that if we attempt to ponder how it is even possible we would be overwhelmed. But no, Luke does not linger, but he leaves the baby and its human parents and goes out to the fields, to shepherds, “keeping watch over their flock by night.”

Luke tells that “an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear.” A common question we ask of Luke here is ‘why were they afraid?’ We could say that they were surprised at the sight, that they were shocked at seeing something completely out of the ordinary, but that masks the true answer. They were afraid because the glory of God is not always a good thing! These shepherds knew who they were, they knew that they were sinners, that they had fallen short of the glory of God, and now that very glory was staring them right in the face. God’s messengers were here, and whatever they had in mind, these shepherds could not escape. They were terrified because they knew that God was well within his rights to destroy them right then and there. They were terrified because they knew their flesh was corrupted by the sin of Adam, and that they did not deserve to share a hillside with the glory of God.

So if we stood with those shepherds on that dark night two thousand years ago, would we have been afraid as well? Maybe not, because our modern world has given up any thought that God might ever be angry at us, that he could ever destroy us for our sin. We think we are doing alright, that we at least try hard, that we’re in good with the big guy (and no, I don’t mean Santa Claus). But if you stood there on that hillside, suddenly illuminated with the glory of the living God, you might have a different outlook. In that flash of light, we would see our own sins brought to light, we would be totally naked before God, without any place to hide. You thought that you could hide your sins, that they would really be a secret, but as God’s battle hardened warriors descend from His throne, everything is exposed and you would learn just how much you have to fear.

You would fear because this God has proclaimed throughout the Old Testament that He detests sin, that He punishes godlessness, that His commandments will be upheld. That lustful look at a coworker, that fit of cursing at the football game, that hatred you carry against your neighbor God has promised to punish, and He is not talking about a slap on the wrist. God wanted man to dwell with Him forever, that is why He created us, and now that we have rebelled through the sin of Adam and our own sin, God will separate Himself from us- forever. That is what the glory of God shone on a hillside must mean, that is what it can only mean, right?

But then the angel speaks to these terrified people, and his words are not at all what they deserve or expect. “Do not fear.” Two words in Greek, three words in English, these words are the most wonderful words the shepherds had ever heard. All their fears can now vanish, because this angel has spoken a word of comfort, a holy Absolution from God Himself. And why do they have no need for fear? “I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Into the darkness of that night, into the darkness of our sinful word, a light appeared. This light was God Himself, born in a stable not far from there, born as a man. Isaiah writes in our Old Testament lesson, “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.” That light was Jesus Christ, the Son of God, born of a virgin maiden. This makes for a great story, and a great mystery that God became man. But the fact that Jesus was born could not take away any fear. Now God was on earth among us, but it still didn’t do anything about our sin, about the punishment we deserve. If Jesus was simply born, we would still have reason to fear.
But then Jesus Christ was not just born, He was born as our Savior, He was born to die for our sins. Luke tells us that Mary “wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger.” Jesus would be wrapped in cloths again, but only after He had given His blood, His very life for us on the cross. He died the death that you deserved, took on the punishment you feared, and therefore took away your fear. You do not have to fear the glory of God, the wrath of God, because Jesus faced that for you! As Paul writes in our Epistle lesson, Jesus “gave Himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession.” Jesus, after giving Himself for us on the cross, was wrapped in burial cloths and laid in a tomb. But on Easter morning as it was on Christmas morning, the clothing of Jesus was once again a great sign. The women and the disciples found the burial cloths of Jesus lying empty in the tomb, declaring to all the world that this child once born in a stable and wrapped in swaddling cloths had now risen from the grave. Christ had been born to die and be raised back to life again, freeing us from fear and granting forgiveness and eternal life to all.

As the angel said, this great gift, this freedom from fear, is given to all people. Luke starts his story from the halls of Rome and then takes us to Bethlehem, showing us that Christ was born for all people, in all places, in all times. He was born for you and He was born for me- he was born for all those who have reason to fear God’s wrath because of their sin. All of those who receive the message of Christ’s birth and death for all people are those of whom the angels sang: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.” God truly is pleased with them because of the birth and death of His Son. Who then needs to fear? The only ones left who have any reason for fear are those who reject Christ, who reject His miraculous birth and His death for the sins of all people. They nothing left but fear, because they have rejected the message once proclaimed by angels and then carried throughout the world- the proclamation of the One who takes away all fear.

And who carries this message? Those to whom God has revealed it to! The shepherds heard the proclamation of the angels and believed- they believed even before they saw the baby or its mother, even before they saw the miracles of Jesus, even before Jesus walked from the tomb on Easter morning. They believed and then they went to worship the child. Their faith came from hearing the word of God, just as it does to us. We do not hear it hear it directly from the heavenly host, but we hear it from Holy Scriptures, we hear it proclaimed from this pulpit, we hear it at the font, and in those ways, God creates faith in us that believes that message once proclaimed by angels.

And that message, that glorious Gospel which declares what Christ has done for us through His birth, death, and resurrection sends us out into this world to speak this message to others. Luke writes, “And when they [the shepherds] saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them…And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” Having heard such a glorious message, how could they do anything else but proclaim it to others? Following in the footsteps of the shepherds, we too go joyfully to those around us, proclaiming to them what was once proclaimed to us- “Jesus was born for you, He was born for me, He was born for ALL!”

So tonight, in a bright sanctuary in the darkness of a cold winter night, we sit as the shepherds did, in a dark world filled with sin. And once again the light of the world comes to us, much like He did on that darkened first Christmas Eve. Only this time He comes not in the form of a baby, but in His holy Body and Blood at this altar and at this rail. Here God speaks through the mouth of your pastor much as He did through the angel- “Do not fear.” “Your sins are forgiven.” As we rise and go back into a dark world, forgiven by this Supper, we will have the words of the angels ringing in our ears, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!” Amen.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Proper 7 of Series C (preached 6-24-07)

“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our text for our sermon this morning is the Gospel lesson read just a few moments ago from the eighth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ- I want you to imagine, if you would, a city. Now this is a fairly ordinary city, it is well-placed in a river valley, with fertile soil all around. Another thing, too- this city is doing quite well, in fact, many of its citizens are downright wealthy. How did they get their wealth? They received it from agriculture, more specifically from growing corn and raising pigs. Does this sound familiar? Well, maybe not the ‘wealthy’ part, but it seems like this city you are imagining could be located right in the middle of Nebraska. But you see, I am not describing a city in the modern Midwest, no, the city I’m describing existed thousands of miles away and two thousand years ago. It was the city of Gerasea, which Jesus visited in our text today. And when He arrived there, He found Himself in corn and hog country, with people living the ‘American dream’ long before there was an America to dream, people like you and like me. But in this peaceful, prosperous farming community, there was a problem- Satan was lurking just around the corner.
Almost as soon as Jesus stepped out of His boat, He was met by a man. Now this man was no ordinary man, because he was possessed by many demons- a whole ‘legion’ of them, as we learn later in the text. Luke says in verse twenty-nine that the man was possessed by an “unclean spirit,” and if any word was appropriate to describe this man, it was ‘unclean.’ For a first century Jew, the concept of being clean or unclean did not refer to dirt on the body, but to a person’s standing before God’s holy Law. God is pure and holy, and so to approach Him, people must be clean, purified from sin, and this man was anything but. First of all, he was a Gentile- when Jesus traveled over the Sea of Galilee, He passed from His own Jewish home to the land of unclean Gentiles, non-Jews. Luke makes this clear in verse twenty-six, “They sailed to the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee.” This land was not just geographically opposite, but in addition the Gentiles in this land were pagans, worshipping many gods, in addition to natural things. The whole land was in the grip of Satan, not just this man. But the most obvious source of uncleanness was Satan himself- this man was under the direct control of Satan! He had no hope of ever coming in contact with God, because he was simply too unclean.
But Jesus refused to let this happen, to let this man die in the grip of Satan. He cast the demons out of him and sent them into a large herd of pigs, which ran into the sea and drowned. This is where the story could have ended, but the townspeople and pig herders, those people who are so similar to you and me, were afraid. Luke tells in verse thirty-seven, “Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Him to depart from them, for they were seized with great fear.” They saw or heard about the great and mighty works of Christ, who in His mercy freed this man from the dominion of Satan, and their response was fear. The Son of God stood in their midst and showed His power over the prince of darkness, and all they could think about was their possessions, which had drowned in the sea. These people were just as unclean as the man possessed by demons- they remained in the grip of Satan because they trusted in their things more than in Christ.
And what about us today? You cannot tell me that some of you didn’t feel a bit of sympathy for those townspeople when you first heard the text read this morning. Mark, in his account of this event, tells us that the herd of hogs numbered two thousand head. Even if you never raised pigs, you know what kind of money was involved. It is a simple fact shown once again in our text today- the things of this world, all of our material goods, keep us from seeing the great works of Christ. Now, I am sure that many of you would say that if Jesus Himself came and did a mighty work right in front of you, you would not kick Him out of the county. And that is probably true, but Christ has done great works in your life, and how do you react? He comes to us every Sunday in the divine service, bringing us His gifts in the Lord’s Supper and the Word of God read and spoken, and we too often respond by not coming to this place and receiving His gifts. Or if we do come, the things of this world interfere with our time spent in this place, distracting us from the true purpose of being here. God has given us the great gifts of prayer and His Word, but how often do we chase after money, not leaving any time to use these gifts. How often do we focus on the size of our home, the quantity of our ‘things,’ instead of on the great gifts that God has given to us? We are like the people in our text in so many ways, including our reliance on the things of this world when confronted with God’s grace.
In addition, there are many in our world today who are similar to the demon-possessed man, who are trapped in the power of Satan with no hope of ever being released. And we often pass them by, too concerned with our own things and our own time to reach out with the love and message of Christ to a dying world.
All of our sinful actions, especially our reliance on the things of this world over the grace and gifts of Christ, make us unclean. They are sinful, and sinful people can never be in the presence of a holy and clean God. In our text, the townspeople and farmers made themselves unclean by rejecting Christ and His merciful works. Today, we make ourselves unclean by returning to our material things when confronted with Christ’s mercy, and we cannot make ourselves clean. In fact, like the demon-possessed man in our text, without Christ, we would be dirty forever, and like him we would not be able to be with a holy God. Without Christ, both we and the demon-possessed man would spend eternity in hell. But thanks be to God, for Christ did come to us.
We were unclean, lost in the power of Satan, but Jesus came to us in a cleansing washing of water with His Word, saving us through Holy Baptism. One of the parts of the baptismal liturgy that did not make it into the new hymnal was the ‘exorcism.’ Now this was not some elaborate section, but the pastor simply demanded that Satan leave the person and give room for the Holy Spirit. This exorcism acknowledged the fact that before our baptism, we were trapped in the grip of Satan, we were under his control with no way out. But through this washing Christ came to us through the Holy Spirit, working faith and cleansing us, expelling the devil from us, with all of his works and all of his ways. As Paul says in Ephesians five, “Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the Word, so that He might present the church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” We were unclean in our sin, lost in the grip of Satan, but Christ cleansed us through Baptism, presenting us to His Father, and there we are accepted by Him. At the baptismal font, Jesus asked us through the pastor as He did in verse thirty of our text, “What is your name?” Having heard our mortal, human name, He placed a new name on us, the name by which God has revealed Himself to us, the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and in this name we have life.
But Baptism is not only a bath, where God simply decided to cleanse us because He was tired of us being dirty. It brings us the benefits that Christ won for us. And how did He win these benefits? By coming to our world as a man and walking the dusty streets of Palestine, teaching those around Him. But He did not simply teach, He acted. Throughout His time on earth, Jesus did battle with sin, waging war on death and the devil. He drove out disease, renewing God’s good creation that had been corrupted by sin. In our text today, Christ stood in the midst of unclean people and faced a legion of Satan’s soldiers, defeating them with a rebuke. Satan would continue to oppose Jesus up to the very end, where Judas would give into uncleanness and betray Jesus with a kiss. Then the people whom Christ came to this earth to save nailed Him to a cross, and crucified Him, the pure and holy one, God Himself, as an unclean criminal. Christ lay in a tomb, just as the demon-possessed man lived among the tombs, and the powers of darkness thought they had won the victory. But they were once again wrong. Christ rose victorious from the grave, winning the gifts of the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting. Through His death as an unclean criminal and His rising to life on Easter morning, Christ cleanses us, and this cleansing saves. The translation of verse thirty-six in the text today says, “And those who had seen it told them how the demon-possessed man was healed.” The word ‘healed’ does not capture what Luke originally wrote- he wrote that the man was ‘saved.’ He was not simply given physical healing, but was transferred from the power of Satan into the kingdom of God- He was delivered from the powers of sin, death, and the devil through the mighty work of Jesus. When we were baptized, we were saved just as that man was, transferred from death to life, from Satan to Christ. Because of what Christ did for us on this earth two thousand years ago, we can stand before God forever, cleansed and redeemed, singing His praises into all eternity.
And that is not all, but Christ sends His cleansed people back into the world. The most amazing thing about our text today is the conclusion. “The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with Him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, ‘Return to your home and declare how much God has done for you.’ And he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city how much Jesus had done for him.” Jesus made this man, only moments before a servant of Satan, a missionary! He went out to his home and told them what Christ had done for him, namely that He saved him from the power of the devil. As a member of God’s kingdom through the gracious work of Christ, he could do nothing else but proclaim Christ.
In the same way, Christ sends us out from the baptismal font to speak about what He has done for us there to all those around us. There is nothing special about it- Christians throughout history have simply told their friends and family what Christ has done for the sake of the world. We have been given the greatest gift of all by the grace of Christ, how can we do anything else but tell others about it? We have one great advantage over the new missionary in our text- we know the end of the story, that Christ died on a cross for our sins and rose again for our salvation, and that message we proclaim to others.
In this sinful world, we will never be truly free from our reliance on our own material things, but we know that Christ has redeemed us, He has freed us from the power of the devil, and He has cleansed us from our sin. We return to this place to receive the abundant, overflowing grace of Christ offered in the Lord’s Supper and in absolution, and in the proclamation of the Word from this pulpit. Christ’s gifts strengthen and forgive us, they save us again and again from our sin. It is in His name, placed on us in our Baptism, that we are cleansed and presented before God as His child, and as His child, we ‘return to our homes and declare how much God has done for us.’ Amen.