Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Article in October School Newsletter

Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
When I started teaching in the classrooms of Zion Lutheran School two weeks ago, one of the lessons I started with the kindergarten and first graders was the Ten Commandments. I don’t know about you, but for me, that phrase makes me think of Charlton Heston bringing down the tablets from Mount Sinai (kids, ask your mom or dad about that movie- it’s even older than me!). As we work through all ten together, learning what they are and what they mean, I wanted to expose both parents and the students in other grades to some thoughts of what the Ten Commandments are all about. This month, I will speak briefly on the structure of the Commandments, while next month we will focus on its use.
The Ten Commandments can be nicely divided into two parts, or ‘tables.’ The first concerns our relationship with God (the first through third commandments), while the second concerns our relationship with other people (fourth through tenth commandments). An easy way to think about this is by drawing a cross. The vertical line is the connection between us and God. That relationship is shaped by the first three commands. The horizontal line is the connection between us and our neighbor. The important idea to keep in mind is that our ‘horizontal’ relationships in this world are defined by, and flow out of, our relationship with God. Because God has shown us such love by sending us His Son for our salvation, we then go out and show that same love for one another. It is only on the basis of the first three commandments that we can go out and live the other seven. Even more specifically, all Ten Commandments flow directly out of the first. Because God is the only true God, we will worship Him and keep His name holy. Moreover, we will order our relationships with others in a way that reflects His identity as true God. The Ten Commandments provide a structure of our lives in Christ, but more on that next month! God’s blessings!
In Christ,
Vicar Maronde

Article in October Newletter

From the Vicar,
‘Spirituality’ is a popular term in our world today. It seems as if people are searching for this elusive sense of the spiritual in their lives, most often a spirituality that is divorced from organized religion, much less the Christian Church. Within the Church, too, people are searching for ‘spirituality,’ and the shelves of Christian book stores are filled with hundreds of titles that promise just that. The popularity of books such as The Purpose Driven Life or The Prayer of Jabez indicate that people are drawn to those who seem to have all the answers, and even Lutherans are drawn into the focus on self that we find between the covers. A true Christian spirituality does not focus on us or what we do, but instead focuses on Christ and what He has done for us.
In distinction and contrast with all the books we find on ‘spirituality’ in the local bookstore, there are several Lutheran authors who have written short and easy to read books on the faith. Several times during this coming year, I will review these books and recommend them to you for your own reading. It is my prayer that these authors can help you to understand Christianity and Lutheranism as focused solely on our Savior, and not on self. This month, I would like to speak about a book by Rev. Daniel Preus, entitled Why I am a Lutheran: Jesus at the Center.
Rev. Preus intends within the pages of his book to demonstrate how Jesus is at the center of all that is Christian. He does not set out to describe the Lutheran faith, and he recommends Luther’s Small Catechism for that task (more on that handbook of Christian ‘spirituality’ next month). It is his hope that in starting with Christ, it will become apparent that he and many others are Lutheran quite simply because no other confession places Christ so firmly at the center. The primary metaphor that Rev. Preus uses to demonstrate this is three mountains. The first is Mt. Sinai, where the Law was given, the Law that accuses and condemns us. The second and most important mountain is Mt. Calvary, where Christ shed His blood for us. This mountain is where we can meet God and live. The final mountain is Mt. Zion, or the Church, where we join with all who have gone before us in fellowship with God. Within his discussions of these three mountains, Rev. Preus describes the faith, from justification and the Sacraments to worship. Especially important to his assertion that Christ is at the center is the concept that we can only reach Mt. Zion through Mt. Calvary. Any attempt to reach Mt. Zion on our own only results in our being placed once again at the foot of Mt. Sinai, facing God’s wrath alone. This is where popular Christian ‘spirituality’ goes wrong. When we focus on our own efforts to please God, we have returned to Mt. Sinai by ourselves. The good news is that Christ has faced God’s wrath for us by going to the cross on Mt. Calvary.
Rev. Preus writes in a very engaging style, using stories from his childhood and his time as a pastor to illustrate his topics. In addition, he challenges his readers by teaching theological terms and quoting from Lutheran theologians. The use of hymnody provides a connection to the worship of the Church, as we sing what we believe (more on that in another newsletter). It is appropriate for those of High School age on up, though I would not hesitate having Middle School children start working through it. I have several copies in my office, if anyone is interested in taking a look, or you can contact Concordia Publishing House to purchase your own. Christ truly is at the center of all that we believe and confess as Christians, and through this wonderful book Rev. Preus has reemphasized this fact for us all. God’s blessings!
In Christ,
Vicar Maronde

Proper 21 of Series A (Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32)

“Why will you die, O house of Israel?” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning is the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from Ezekiel eighteen. Dear friends in Christ, we all have little phrases that we use for a variety of situations. Some simply don’t make sense, like “A stitch in time saves nine.” Just who is taking the needle to our clocks and why do we only save nine? Wouldn’t ten be better? Others do make good sense, like “a penny saved is a penny earned.” Well, maybe not in this economy. In our text today, we hear about a phrase that the Israelites spoke amongst themselves: “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Huh? At first glance, it seems like the Israelites are as crazy as we are. But if we look closer, the meaning becomes apparent. The Israelites are saying that when the fathers sin, their children are punished. The fathers are the ones who eat the sour grapes, but who takes the consequences? Their offspring. The children are punished for the sins of their parents. Something seems wrong here.

God quotes this saying in our text because the people of Israel are using it to make an accusation against God. They are saying that God’s judgment is arbitrary, that He is punishing people no matter whether they are wicked or righteous. The Israelites are asserting that God does not care who bears the brunt of His wrath, just so that He gets angry at someone. God’s punishment hits the wicked and righteous in a pattern that seems random, and when you get down to it, that is unfair. We in the Christian Church today say many of the same things. You pray, you go to church, you read your Bible, but still, bad things happen to you. Meanwhile, your neighbor, who is probably still sleeping right now, doesn’t even own a bible, and only uses the Lord’s name in vain, is living pretty well. Trouble does not seem to strike him, despite how much he must be ticking off God with his life. How can this possibly be fair? The bad things of this life, the consequences of living in a sinful world, hit believer and unbeliever alike, and there seems to be no pattern to it. Like the Israelites, we call out God, perhaps by using a phrase like we find in our text. But when you make an accusation about God, you had better be ready for Him to defend Himself.

And God’s reply does thunder forth: “Hear now O Israel: Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just?” He points the arrow back squarely at us. We are the sinful ones, we are the ones who messed up His perfect creation, and now we have the guts to stand up and tell Him that His ways are not right? Our ways are unjust, we wallow in sin each and every day, and for that we deserve only punishment, eternal punishment. But God is not a teenager who simply passes the blame onto someone else. He has something to say about His ways: “Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.” Every soul belongs to Him, and He judges them one at a time. His judgment comes to each person, wicked or righteous, and that judgment is not based on our parents or on our past. It comes to each person at the time of death, as God says, “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord God.” Our accusation against God is answered by a terrible pronouncement. God’s judgment is not arbitrary or random. It does not come in this life, but instead upon death, and as our text states, “the soul who sins shall die.” We have all sinned, we have all broken God’s Law, and God’s judgment is announced here for us- death.

And so God has a message to each and every one of you- repent! “Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin.” Our sin will be our ruin unless we turn away from it, and instead follow the path that God has laid out for us in His Law. Sin has become a burden for us, weighing us down and carrying us to the grave in disobedience to God’s will. God speaks to us, “Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed.” Unless we turn from our sin and cast it away from us, a holy God cannot abide with us. “When a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it; for the injustice that he has done he shall die. Again, when a wicked person turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he shall save his life. Because he considered and turned away from all the transgressions that he had committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die.” There is only one problem. None of us can do that on our own. We are dead in our sins, we cannot turn from them or cast them off by ourselves. But God has yet one more message for us in our text. “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God.” He will show His love and His grace so fully that we will never have a need to complain about His arbitrary judgment.

God’s judgment was death, and we did deserve it, but God’s desire is life, and life with Him. And so God sent His Son into the world, the only truly righteous person (as we heard last week), who had no sin to turn from or cast off. Instead of casting off sin, He took sin onto His own shoulders. As St. Paul puts it so beautifully in our Epistle lesson for today, Jesus Christ was the One “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” God takes no pleasure in the death of anyone, most especially His one and only Son. But it was only through death that His divine judgment could be satisfied, and so Christ was given to die. The Lord of heaven and earth then poured out the wrath we deserved on Jesus Christ, punishing Him as God mourned. The entire earth shook in mourning on the Good Friday, as God in the flesh was sacrificed for sinful man. It was on the cross that God showed all people that His judgment is not arbitrary or random, but instead it was focused on one person, the only one who could take all of our sin away. But it was also on the cross that God showed all people that His grace and love for His sinful creation is so powerful, so overflowing that He was willing to give up His very own Son to save us, to save you! Even though He has no pleasure in the death of anyone, He still put His Son to death for your sins! And when Christ stepped forth from the tomb on Easter Sunday, God declared all of you righteous through His blood. Only one thing remained- as God told the Israelites in our text, you must “make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit.”

And it is here that we run up against another brick wall. If we could not turn from our sin and cast it off by ourselves, how can we make ourselves a new heart and a new spirit? As I told you earlier, we are dead in our trespasses and sins, and as a dead person cannot become alive by himself, so we could not repent or make a new spirit. And without a new heart and a new spirit, Christ’s death and resurrection means nothing to us- they are simply interesting historical events. Thanks be to God that this is a weak translation! Another way to take this verse is “get for yourself a new heart and a new spirit,” and the only way we ‘get for ourselves’ a new heart and a new spirit is through the work of the Spirit, the Holy Spirit! God’s grace overflows once again! Christ does not only pay the price that we could not, but He delivers His gifts to us, renewing our hearts and spirits to receive those gifts in faith. He does this through the Word, but He especially does this through the washing of water with the Word. In your Baptism God gave you a new heart and a new spirit, putting to death your sinful heart and spirit, drowning them with all of their corruption. Now, with this new heart and spirit, we can receive the gifts of God, and he delivers them to us, the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting. In our text, God spoke of how He judges each person individually. “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord God.” Because of Christ’s death on your behalf, this judgment is ‘not guilty,’ you are declared righteous for His sake.

God asked Israel in our text, “Why will you die, O house of Israel?” Israel does not have to die because God will show forth His grace on the cross, saving all Israel and all humanity from the punishment we deserved. He asks the same question to us today. We can confidently answer Him, “No, we will not die, because you have paid the price for us!” God’s desire for you is now life, not a life free from troubles on this earth, but instead life, in heaven, life forever, life with Him! “For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live!”

And now that we have been claimed by Christ, now that we have been saved by His cross and washed by the waters which give to us life, we live a life of repentance. Each and every day we live out our Baptism, dying to sin and rising to Christ. As our text says, “Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit.” Each and every day the Holy Spirit works within us to enable us to repent of our sin, and He works to renew our heart and spirit. We live a life shaped by our baptism, shaped by the cross, and strengthened by His Word and the Lord’s Supper. When we come forward to the communion rail, we will receive life, we will eat at the banquet of life, we are dining at the table of heaven. God desires life for each and every one of you, and He brings it to you here today, once again in this place, as He did on your Baptism day. May He strengthen and sustain you in your Baptismal life until He brings you from temporal life to eternal life, Amen.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Proper 20 of Series A (Matthew 20:1-16)

“So the last will be first, and the first last.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our consideration this morning is from Matthew chapter twenty, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. Dear friends in Christ, we in America have a problem that I will call the “arrogance of the present.” We have an ignorance of history that causes us to think that what is happening today is more significant than whatever came before. We are so impressed with our advances that we look down on those who preceded us. And this can go in both a positive and negative direction. On the one hand, we can think that our world today is so much better than any other period in all of history. We are so much more enlightened than those who lived centuries or millennia ago, so much so that the human race today must be the pinnacle of all that God created us to be! We have this sense of superiority, the arrogance of a culture that dismisses people who lived in the past. On the other hand, the romantics among us believe that our society is so much worse than what came before. We have reached the pinnacle, alright, but the pinnacle of decay and moral depravity. Both extremes are quite simply wrong. In every facet of our society we are building off the advances of others, and those closer to the front of the chain were often much smarter than we. On the negative side, we can find plenty of moral decay in every society on earth, from Adam and Eve on. Even the 50’s weren’t as perfect as I hear people say…

We do not find this arrogance of the present only in our society, but also in the Church. Once again, the primary culprit is ignorance of history. We can often have this sense in the Church that our situation today is like nothing the Church has ever seen before, forgetting the wise words of Ecclesiastes, “there is nothing new under the sun.” Jesus’ parable for today can apply to that sort of arrogance. If we view the time scale of this parable as the entire history of the Church, then we see that those who labored with the apostles receive the same reward and work in the same vineyard with the same tools as those who serve today. The Church is a unity that extends throughout all time. Next week when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, the liturgy we will use is nearly 2,000 years old, and it has been a vehicle for proclaiming Christ’s supper for almost the entire history of the Church. We will worship with all those who have come before us. Christ continues to build His Church as He always has, through the proclamation of His Gospel and the administration of the sacraments.

This parable can also be viewed in the scope of a person’s lifetime. Some of us are called by Christ as infants, when our Lord used those around us to bring us to the blessed baptismal waters. “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.” Some of us come into the Church as children, perhaps through the witness of a Christian day school. “And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went.” Others of us are brought to the faith as adults of any age, brought into a relationship with Christ through the witness of friends or family. “Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same.” Finally, some only confess Christ upon death, and are washed with the waters that bring us life as life itself is fading. “And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’” The Holy Spirit does the hiring, working faith in a variety of ways, at a variety of times in a person’s life, but humans have this bad habit of making judgments on how he does this. The new convert will often look down upon those that have been in the Church for life as not enthusiastic enough. On the other hand, those who were baptized as infants and raised in the Church can look down upon new converts, wondering what took them so long, and thinking that they are somehow lesser Christians. Both groups look down on death-bed conversions, and wonder whether it was legitimate. It is for us just as the text says: “And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’” Our parable teaches us that no matter when in our lives we entered the vineyard as a Christian, we still are equal in the kingdom of heaven. Our age at conversion does not matter, and neither does the century we live in. We are all equal in God’s eyes, as our text says: “I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?”

Within the Church, we can also have this haughty attitude toward those who hold different roles. All Christians are equal, but our roles in the Church are different. If you read throughout the New Testament, you will find that different people are given different roles. Paul talks about wives being in loving submission to their husbands, and husbands giving up their entire lives in love to their wives. Children are to love and obey their parents. A pastor has a different role than a layperson, and a vicar is stuck somewhere between. Conflict comes when we view our roles as an opportunity for power, and use it to dominate other people. On the other hand, conflict also comes when we attempt to take over the roles given by God to others. God wants us to respect the roles given to others, and to not abuse the roles He gives to us.

It is so easy to look down upon one another for any reason, whether it is the century they lived in, the age they came to faith, or the role they have been given. In doing this, we are letting our pride get in the way, and we are demonstrating that we do not deserve God’s good gifts. All we deserve is His judgment, because we are rejecting His overflowing love and generosity to others. As God says through the landowner in our text, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” Our haughty attitudes, our arrogance toward others in the faith, deserve for Christ to simply tell us, as the landowner did, to ‘go’- out of the Church, out of the kingdom, away from Christ’s gifts. But when we humbly repent, Christ brings us back in. The reward we deserve is punishment, but the reward we receive is something immensely better. When the landowner called the second group, he said to them, “You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.” The word used there for ‘right’ is the same word for righteous, or just. Righteousness is an important word in the Bible, and it means that we have a right standing before God. This righteousness could mean all of the good things that we do added up, a big pile of our good works that we present to God. Righteousness could be our making ourselves right in God’s eyes, making up for our sin by our work. We could be forced to attain our own righteousness, but instead righteous does not describe us, it describes Jesus Christ. Jesus was the only truly righteous man, the only perfect person who fulfilled God’s will. But He was not only man, but also God, and as true God and true man, the only truly righteous one, He went to the cross to pay the price for all the sinful. The blood of God in the flesh was shed on the Good Friday, and there Christ gave up His life for you. And as the righteous one, Christ was vindicated on Easter Sunday, when God accepted His sacrifice by raising Him from the dead. But the death of even a righteous man, even God in the flesh, meant nothing if it was not delivered to you. In Baptism His righteousness is then applied to you- this is the Good News of the Gospel. We were not left to attain our own righteousness through all of striving toward God and perfection. If left to ourselves, we would never come close to righteousness. Instead, Christ gives His righteousness as a gift, it covers us, and as a result, God declares us righteous, He declares our sins forgiven, He gives us eternal life. The ‘right’ payment given to all the laborers is the righteousness of Christ, won on Calvary’s cross and applied to you!

But this righteousness is not for those who already think themselves righteous. Those who in pride look down on others in the Church already have a righteousness of their own, a righteousness that comes from their own sense of superiority. When we realize that all Christians are equal in that they receive an equal reward from Christ, His righteousness applied to them, we will in humbleness repent of our own self-righteousness. We will then understand the truth of Christ’s words: “So the last will be first and the first last.” Anyone who would place themselves first in the kingdom of God due to their pedigree, their superiority, or their office in the Church, will be last. They have no need of a Savior because they have a righteousness of their own, based on their own pride. However, those who in humility confess all their sins and admit that without Christ they are lost will be first in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus Christ and the Church He founded on His shed blood are for sinners, and no one else. Those who in their self-righteousness see no sin have no place in the Church. Instead, it is all of us who are broken down by our sin, who have been beaten down by the Law that need Christ’s healing hand. We need His gifts, we need His healing, and it is here in this place that He gives them freely and openly, in equal measure to all whom He has called.

As our Old Testament lesson reminds us, God’s ways are not our ways. God says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” We would expect that a pastor would be a more important Christian than anyone else, or that those of us living in the ‘here and now’ are more vital to God, or that those born and raised in the Church would have a greater reward. But none of that is true. God gives His gifts freely to all who need them, all those sick with the affliction of sin. May you see your need for your Savior and in humility repent and come to this place to receive healing, forgiveness, and strength, each and every time that it is offered, Amen.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Holy Cross Day (Numbers 21:4-9)

“Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” 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 comes from Numbers, the twenty-first chapter. Dear friends in Christ, as most of you know, I come from Nebraska, which is just a bit west of here. I would guess that fewer of you know that the land I live on, that great expanse of prairie running through the middle of our country, was called by an interesting name when explorers first arrived. Many called it the “Great American Desert,” a term that seemed very appropriate for a treeless, dry land that had little evidence of ever becoming fertile. Of course, the story ends with Nebraska and her sister states becoming some of the most productive agricultural states in the union, and so when I am home I can look out over fields of green corn and beans and remind myself that I am standing in the ‘Great American Desert.’ I would think that deserts are something that many people in New York probably have little direct experience with. It is hard to imagine what the Israelites had to go through in our text when we look at all the bounty that our land can produce, with our beautiful tree-covered hills and fertile valleys. Because of this, we can often look down on the Israelites when we read texts like our Old Testament lesson for today. We don’t realize that Israel had been walking in circles for decades, Miriam and Aaron had just died, and they had been refused passage by a nation that should be a brother, the people of Edom. And now they looked forward to traveling around Edom in a punishing desert, where food and water would be scarce.

Our text for today tells us: “From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.’” When we see this text in the context of what Israel had been through lately, we can perhaps understand why they became impatient and complained. In fact, those reasons are quite major compared to the things that drive us to complain. We are a part of a culture that is increasingly impatient and negative. I think all you have to do to realize that is to drive on the highway sometime. Everyone is in a hurry to get somewhere, and we often don’t care who we push out of our way. Even if you are not a rude driver, you must admit that impatience creeps into your thoughts and words and you drive, I know they do for me. And even when we arrive at our destination, we can create an atmosphere of complaining and negativity that colors everything we do. Humans love to complain, and we love to complain in groups. We want a sympathetic ear, someone to share our misery with us. Just as Jesus says in Matthew: “Wherever two or three are gathered, there will be complaining.” Oh, I don’t think that’s the right quotation, but I think you understand what I mean. We complain about the weather, too hot, too cold. We complain about work, too many hours, too little pay. We complain about our family, friends, neighbors, and classmates. We have this remarkable talent for turning anything into a negative, and we do this very, very well. My favorite one, and this is one that I fall into very often, is to complain about negative people. How much more hypocritical can we get! Perhaps some of you even fell into that trap as I talked about complainers- “Go get, ‘em, Vicar! I hate complainers!”

The bottom line on complaining and impatience is that when we do this, we are forgetting all the good things that God has blessed us with. If Israel had much more to complain about than us, they also had much more to thank God for. They had been delivered from the tyranny of the Egyptians, freed from the bonds of slavery through the mighty acts of God. He had preserved them, given to them His Law as His own chosen people, and fed them in the desert. Why would He abandon them now? God is a provider, and He had quite a track-record of supplying His children throughout their desert journey. The last time that Israel had complained, God had simply provided, bringing water from a rock. This time, however, God’s anger and wrath overflowed. “Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.” They received their punishment in the terror of a plague of snakes, something that makes our skin crawl. But this was not the only punishment they deserved. Israel only was an example of the sin and rebellion that all of our complaining and impatience demonstrates. We rejected God’s good gifts of a beautiful creation and a life lived in communion with Him. Instead we chose the path of rebellion, and the story is played out in every generation since Adam and Eve- God gives His good gifts and we complain. Our complaint is simply the surface result of a much deeper rebellion against God, a rebellion that only deserves death, not only temporal death, but eternal death.

Faced with this terrible verdict, what are we to do? We cannot see our punishment coming at us as an Israelite saw the viper before it struck, but we still know that it is all we deserve. We can only cry out with Israel: “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that He take away the serpents from us.” This is called repentance, when we acknowledge our sinful rebellion and beg for forgiveness. God is calling you to repentance today for all of your complaining despite all of His good gifts to you. But being sorry is not enough- we need restoration and salvation. Fortunately for us, as in our text for today, God did not only provide the punishment, He also provided the means of restoration, of salvation.

“And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” God did not choose serpents to punish and restore Israel on a whim, simply because He had used spiders last week. Serpents are used in the Scriptures to describe Israel’s enemies, or as a picture of judgment. Why is this? Because it was the serpent that Satan chose as his instrument to entice Adam and Eve into sin. From that point on, serpents have had a sinister character, and whenever they appear, trouble comes with them. We could say that the serpent is the embodiment of sin, bringing with it a reminder of how humanity lost all the good things God gave to it in creation. God sent this very embodiment of sin to punish His chosen people, but now the serpent became the instrument of salvation and restoration. The very embodiment of sin was lifted up and displayed above them. Sin was lifted high, and in looking at it, the Israelites had healing. But even if the serpent on a pole could remove the scourge of the fiery serpents, it could not remove the scourge of sin. For that Israel and all of creation would have to wait. But when the time had fully come, sin was once again lifted high, and because sin was lifted high, all people have forgiveness and salvation. When Jesus Christ stepped forth from the waters of the Jordan River, having been baptized in a river where people washed away their sins, He rose up as THE sinner, the true embodiment of sin here on earth. As He walked the dusty roads of Palestine, He continued to take on our sins, our weaknesses, our diseases. Even though He had no sin of His own, He became THE sinner because He took on all of your sin, taking to the cross. As the bronze serpent, that embodiment of sin, was raised high over the Israelites, so Christ, the true and perfect embodiment of all your sin, was raised high over a sinful world. As Jesus said in our Gospel lesson, “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

Moses followed the Lord’s instructions, and God worked through the serpent placed on a pole, just as He had promised. “So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.” The Israelites who faced the just punishment for their sins simply looked toward the embodiment of sin lifted high, and they lived. Healing and restoration came to them through the means that God appointed, and He kept His promise. But this would only be a foretaste of the restoration to come. Our Gospel text for this morning begins with some Greeks asking the disciples, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Jesus goes on throughout the text to tell them that they will only truly see Him when He is accomplishing salvation on the cross. As the Israelites looked to the bronze snake for salvation, so we look to Christ on the cross for our salvation, because it is there that God Himself provided the payment to satisfy His own wrath over your sin, especially your rebellion and complaining despite all of His good gifts. Through the cross, God has promised to forgive and restore you, and the proof of that came on Easter Sunday, when He raised Christ from the dead, just as He will raise you someday. Look to the cross for your comfort, look to the cross for your assurance, look to the cross for your salvation! For there you see Jesus, the embodiment of your sin paying the price that you owed to God. We rejoice this day and every day that God’s love sent Christ to the cross!

It is especially on this day, Holy Cross Day, that we focus on that instrument through which Christ accomplished our salvation. In our Gradual for this morning, we heard God say, “Behold, I will lift up my hand to the nations, and raise my signal to the peoples, So must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him might have eternal life.” It is on the cross that Christ won the victory, conquering all that held us captive. This is the sign by which we and all people are delivered, but because it is a sign of weakness, of death, the world rejects it. As Paul said in our Epistle lesson for today: “For the word off the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” May you glory in the foolishness and weakness of God, the message of the cross, because it is only through the cross that you have salvation, Amen.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Proper 18 of Series A (Matthew 18:1-20)

“It is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from Matthew 18. Dear friends in Christ, aren’t babies wonderful? Well, ok, I can’t speak from experience, but at least the ones I have encountered seem quite fun. Always smiling, laughing, and having a good time, they have to be the most wonderful gift anyone can receive from God. And they are, but I’m sure all of you here who have raised a few can tell us that there is another side, a side that includes sleepless nights, temper tantrums, and dirty diapers. But despite those things, babies are wonderful gifts, and they can teach us a lot. That’s right- babies have much to teach us! Jesus tells us in our text: “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” You see, babies have this faith and trust in those who take care of them that causes them to place their entire lives in the hands of others. And their faith extends to Christ! Children have this love and trust in the Lord that we adults can only dream about. Big people have so many other things to worry about that it is tough for us to put our trust in Christ like a child does. Yet Jesus calls on us to follow their example- in everything else they are learning from us, but in faith we are learning from them.
This childlike faith, created in hearts big and small by the Holy Spirit, is vitally precious to our Lord. You were given this faith when you were baptized, even if you were baptized as a big person. Jesus reserves His strongest condemnations for those who lead others astray from this faith: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” As those who have been given this childlike faith, you are constantly in danger of being led astray by others- Satan seeks to threaten your faith at every turn. On the other hand, unfortunately, we too often become Satan’s tools to lead others away. How do we do this? Most often, we do this by living in open sin. When we flaunt our sinful lives, we are placing a stumbling block in front of other Christians and helping them to fall. Especially when we hold positions of responsibility or leadership, our ability to lead others astray is multiplied. We do all sin every day, but what I am talking about is sinning openly when we know better, and flaunting our sin before others. As baptized children of God, we are to live lives of repentance, begging for forgiveness for all of our sins, not wallowing in the pigsty of our sin and encouraging others to come in and roll in the mud! Jesus has very strong words for us when we do this: “It is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes!”
But even though Jesus has strong words to say about those who do these things, He wants His Church to bring them back in. When those whom Christ has given the gift of a childlike faith live in open sin or are led astray by those who live in open sin, we are not to simply cast them to the curb. “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” We are to point out their sin to them in private, showing them their fault from the Scriptures and praying for repentance. We do this with persistence, not from the joy of pointing out their sin, but out of concern for the path they are on. Sometimes, however, more is needed. “But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” We hope and pray that several people may be able to convince our wandering brother or sister of their wrong, leading them to repentance. But if they continue to be obstinate, one more step must be taken: “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” The Church cannot allow others to be led astray by the sins of this person- the childlike faith of those whom Christ has claimed for His own must be protected. So the person is sent out of the Church. But at that point we do not forget about them. What do we do with Gentiles and tax collectors? We preach the Gospel to them, in the earnest prayer that they may come to faith. When a person is excommunicated, they simply go from being a member to being a prospect.
We too often look at these principles as a list of rules we must follow to get someone kicked out of the Church. We forget that our primary duty is to restore our brother or sister to the faith, to bring them to repentance and back into the faith. We are called to be watchmen, as Ezekiel was in our Old Testament lesson. “So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me.” We must point out sin to our brothers and sisters, not to embarrass or prosecute them, but in order that they may see the error of their way and may be restored. Our concern is for those who have strayed- we are compelled by our love for them to go out and rescue them. Paul speaks about this love in our Epistle lesson: “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”
We can only show this love because Christ first showed it to us. You were lost in your sin, wandering off on paths that could only lead to death, but Jesus sought you out in your sinful condition. He came to us as one of us, but yet true God. He gave up all of the heavenly glory that was rightfully His to become a poor shepherd. And as the Good Shepherd, He laid down His life for the sheep. As Jesus said in our text for today: “It is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” Because the Father did not want a single one of His little ones, you and me, to perish, Jesus came to save. As we heard last week, the Father’s will, the divine ‘must’ of salvation was that Christ would die for your sins. He was the one who truly humbled himself as a child, and He humbled Himself to death on a cross for you. He did not cause any little ones to stumble, but He was the one who had the millstone hung around His neck for your sins of causing little ones to stumble. He took on the punishment you deserved and took it to the cross. The sheep did not have to die for their wanderings, though they rightfully deserved it. Instead the shepherd died, and in His death, you have the forgiveness of all of your sins. But the Good Shepherd did not only lay down His life- He also took it up again, and now wandering sheep have eternal life. You will die an earthly death, but on the last day, Christ will raise you as He was raised, and you will live with Him in glory forever. Thanks be to God that the millstone does not hang on your neck, but instead Christ bore it to the cross for you!
And because Christ loved you so much that He went to the cross for you, He continues to bring you the forgiveness He won each and every time that you wander off the path. Jesus told us in the Gospel lesson today: “What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray.” Jesus’ love for you is so strong that even when you rebel against Him, even when you wander away from the Good Shepherd, He will give up everything to bring you back to Him. As we heard earlier, the Church, Christ’s hands and fingers in this world, is to expend every effort to bring anyone who falls into sin back into the faith. Those in the Church are to show the love that Christ showed to any and all who fall. Christ spends a lot of time seeking after lost sheep, but He does this with joy because He loves His sheep, each and every one that He has given a childlike faith. All who have been given this faith are truly ‘great.’ Our text today began with the disciples asking Jesus who was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Because of what Christ did for you on the cross, because He placed His Name upon you in Baptism, creating that childlike faith, you and all Christians are great in the kingdom of heaven. This greatness is found in Christ and His love. Jesus’ love brought Him to the cross for you, and now His love brings Him to forgive you whenever you wander, to bring you back into the fold. We hear again what He said in our text for today: “It is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.”
Christ is always at work seeking out lost sheep, and He does so through the Church. He does this whenever you go to your neighbor and point out a dangerous sin, or when you bring two or three trusted members with you, or even when that person is put out of the Church. Christ’s love for His sheep, for you, never stops. It sent Him to the cross, and it sends Him out to seek you whenever you wander away. Christ restores wandering sheep especially here in this place, because it is here that He has placed the means of restoration. He ultimately restored the broken relationship between you and God in your Baptism, where He made you a child of God and gave to you that childlike faith, breaking the barrier that separated you from your creator. Each and every day we live in our Baptism, dying to sin and rising to Christ, being reconciled to Him every time that we repent. And especially every Sunday that you come to this place as a sheep who has wandered and stumbled, or perhaps caused others to stumble, you receive forgiveness here through His Word, and every time that Christ works through His under-shepherd, Pastor Werly, to give to you His Body and Blood in the Lord’s Supper. Here in this place salvation and forgiveness comes to you, here Christ restores wandering sheep with joy- the joy that is motivated by His love. May you also have this joy every time that your brother or sister is found by our Good Shepherd, the joy that is motivated by your love for those whom Christ has claimed as His own, Amen.