Monday, October 27, 2008

Reformation Day (observed)

“If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this Reformation Sunday is the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from John chapter eight. Dear friends of Christ, what was the Reformation about? Some would say that it was all about the abuses of the medieval church, that an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther was finally driven over the edge by the selling of salvation by the church. Others would say that the Reformation was all about change, and that the Reformation Church is therefore constantly changing. I would agree to those two thoughts to a certain extent. The Reformation did begin because someone was finally pushed over the edge, driven to speak out against the abuses of the Church. The Reformation also has an element of change- there were problems that needed fixing, there were changes that needed to be made. But I believe that the Reformation was about much more than church abuses or change for the sake of change. The Reformation was all about the Gospel, and the free and clear proclamation of that Gospel throughout the world. The Reformers were called by God to be His bold witnesses before the Church and the entire world.

And what did they bear witness to? They bore witness to the truth of the Gospel, the truth of God’s word. Their lives, and our lives, revolve around the confession of the truth, as it is stated in our text: “So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in Him, ‘If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’” And what is this truth? It is much more than a concept, than an abstract idea, it is a person. Jesus is the Truth, God’s Truth, the Truth that is sent into a world afflicted by the father of lies. Jesus Christ, the Truth Himself, is God’s answer to our sin, He has come to speak the words of ultimate truth- that no person can be with the Father except though Jesus. The Truth of God is that your heavenly Father had a plan to deal with your sin, and it included sending this Truth into the world as a man and then sending that Truth to the cross, where man refused to recognize God’s Truth and instead put Him to death. But it was only through that death, and His glorious resurrection, that the Truth could triumph over the lies of sin, death, and the devil.

The benefits of this triumph are now given to us through the Word. As Jesus said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples.” The truth then comes to you when you abide in the Word, God’s Holy Scriptures. Abiding is not only reading God’s Holy Word, but instead it is an intimate communion with this Word, letting it shape your life and strengthen your faith each and every day. It is not simply head knowledge, just as the truth is not simply a concept. Instead, it is the means of a connection, of a communion with a person, God’s Truth Himself, Jesus Christ. And when we are connected with the Truth through the Word, we then are given the privilege of being Christ’s disciples. We have the wonderful opportunity to sit at Jesus’ feet each and every day, to learn from Him and draw strength from His gifts. As Jesus says, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” What a wonderful gift! To that we can only respond with thanksgiving!

But how do the Jews respond to this glorious message? They take issue with one little word, one that we haven’t even touched on yet in this message- ‘free.’ “They answered Him, ‘We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it then that you say, “You will become free”?’” Many in the Church at the time of the Reformation said much the same thing. They did not see any bondage or slavery in their beloved Church. It took Martin Luther and others to open people’s eyes to the bondage that the Church was under. The people were under a terrible slavery to the Law. They were expected to work out their own salvation through their own effort, in many cases, they were expected to buy their own salvation. The burden of salvation rested solely on the shoulders of the people, and it was a heavy burden. Because of this, the Gospel itself was in shackles, bound and chained to the Law. The clear proclamation of what Christ had done was rarely heard, but instead people had to look at what they had done, leaving little assurance to anyone.

But even that slavery paled in comparison to the slavery which you and all humanity are under. What, we ask, is the slavery that we are under? We live in a free country, we are bound to no one! Why would we need to be set free? We have the same objection as the Jews in our text or the people in Luther’s day. We “have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” Jesus answers you, me, the Jews, and all people throughout history, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” That is the slavery that we are under, that of sin! Sin is a narcotic, it is an addicting substance, it wraps its chains around you, becoming tighter and tighter as you fall deeper and deeper into it. Some sins are famously addictive, such as pornography, alcoholism, or stealing, but when you get down to it, every sin that you commit enslaves you. We think that we can quit at any time, but as we continue in a sin, it becomes harder and harder to do so. Jesus is exactly right- sin is a slave master, constantly seeking to bind us ever tighter. It calls upon our total allegiance, it begins to consume our entire lives. And there is no reward at the end of this slavery, our slave master will not let us go, and so this slavery only promises death, it only promises separation from God in hell.

As Jesus said in our text, “The slave does not remain in the house forever, the Son remains forever.” Because we are slaves, slaves to sin, we do not deserve to remain in the house, instead we deserve to be cast away from God’s presence. And that is what God’s judgment is on sinful humanity. But the Son, the Son remains forever. And who is the Son? He is none other than the Truth Himself, Jesus Christ. Jesus is the one who remains in the Father’s house forever. The word used here for ‘remain’ is the same Greek word used earlier in our text for ‘abide,’ and here it has the same meaning. It means an intimate communion between Jesus and the Father, a connection, a personal relationship that is closer than any other relationship that we could think of. Jesus is true God, He is in that relationship called the Trinity, one God in three persons, three persons in communion with each other. And without leaving that relationship behind, Jesus Christ became true man, and He became true man to do something about our slavery.

I said earlier that our slavemasters, sin and Satan, will not let us go. They have us in their grasp and there is nothing that we can do to set ourselves free. All of the good things that we do cannot break the bonds of slavery, they do not cancel out our sin. No, we will not be let go. But Jesus did not become man to negotiate our release- He came to take on sin, Satan, and death, to deal our slavemasters a blow from which they will never recover, He came to defeat them and free you. And how did He do this? By taking the form of a slave, taking our form, and humbling Himself to death, death on a cross. He allowed Himself to be bound by the Jews and the Romans, He allowed them to deliver Him to the death that you deserved. Upon a Roman cross, Jesus of Nazareth, God in the flesh, shed His blood, and He shed it for your sins and the sins of the entire world, He shed it to set you free from the bondage you were under. Then He broke the bonds of death, He threw off the shackles that enslaved you when He rose from the dead Easter Sunday. When the stone to the tomb rolled away, freeing Jesus Christ, you too were free, centuries before you were born. “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
As Paul said in our Epistle lesson for today, you “are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith.” This grace comes to you today and every day as a gift, Jesus is constantly freeing you from the bondage of sin each and every time that you repent of your sins. Christ continually works to free you because you continue to fall into sin’s slavery, you will not be free of sin this side of heaven, but He still breaks your bonds daily. You see, Jesus’ grace is so overflowing and abundant that it pours into your life at every moment. And how does this grace come? As Jesus said at the beginning of our text, it comes by abiding in His Word. But this is not simply head knowledge or reading from a book. God’s Word comes to us primarily through His spoken word, when He comes into your ears with the message of freedom. But He also works to free us in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Through those physical means, connected with His Word, we are set free from our slavery to sin. These means bring us into a relationship with Christ, through them we are in intimate communion with the Trinity, we abide in God, and He abides in us. We are now the sons who abide in God’s presence until eternity, we are claimed as His children through Christ. We no longer have any need to be enslaved to sin, for we have been set free by the grace of God through the triumphant victory of Christ over our slaveholders.

This message was the goal of the Reformation, no more and no less. Martin Luther and his companions did not intend to start a new Church, but instead they sought to release the gospel from its slavery and once again give it free course throughout the world. They sought to release men and women from the bondage of the Law and sin, proclaiming to them that Jesus has set them free through His death and resurrection. They sought only to emulate what John wrote about in our first lesson today: “Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal Gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people.” May this eternal Gospel, the Gospel that you are set free from your sins through Christ, strengthen and preserve you in the true faith until life everlasting, Amen.

Circuit-wide Reformation festival sermon

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Greetings to all of you on this day on which we celebrate God’s gift of the Gospel, the light brought forth from all that shrouded it through the work of Martin Luther and others. Today we do not celebrate a man or even a movement, but instead we commemorate the Gospel, and God’s chosen instruments used to proclaim that Gospel clearly. God chose a simple Augustinian monk from Germany to reform the Church, to create a movement that would result in the Gospel once again being clearly proclaimed. This should be no surprise to any of us. God has a certain habit of using means, whether it is water, bread and wine, or the sinful lips of a pastor. He takes hold of those means and uses them to create and strengthen faith, He connects them with His Word in order to give life. But because He likes to use sinful human beings, you, me, and many others throughout history as His means, the proclamation of the Gospel rarely occurs without trial or stumbling. Even Martin Luther, a figure that seems to tower over history, was a sinful human, and it would be his struggle with sin that would define the rediscovery of the Gospel.

Luther’s life was filled with spiritual struggle and conflict. He was fully aware of his own sin and God’s punishment for that sin. Luther knew only of a God who judges, a God who condemns, and His condemnation is terrible, it is unavoidable, it is final. Our creator laid down laws for all humanity to follow, laws that no human could be expected to keep, then condemned us when we failed to live up to His standard. I think that we today have much to learn from Luther’s struggles. We are in a culture that dismisses sin- we are not conditioned to look at ourselves as sinners. But that is what you and I are. You can fight it all we want, you can tell your pastor to quit proclaiming it, but the simple fact is that you are a poor, miserable sinner. Perhaps those of you in the church do see your own sin, but do you realize the weight of your sin, the fact that God has every right to condemn you to hell for it? As we read in Romans, “The wages of sin is death.” Inside or outside the church, we encounter many people who honestly believe that they do not sin- they see their lives as perfect, or if they do admit to wrongdoing, they do not acknowledge the punishment they deserve. You’ve tried to live a good life, right? Surely that has to count for something! Moreover, many Christians believe that they are done with sin, that they have passed beyond the stage of sin and are now perfect, as God wants them to be. Luther’s awareness of his own sin is something that we can all learn from, as it is only from an awareness of sin that we have any need for a merciful God. Those without sin have no need of a Savior.
This acute awareness of his own sin drove Luther to find salvation for himself. It drove him to the monestary, where he was an exemplary monk, and he followed each and every regulation and instruction to the letter. But he could not find peace. As he said himself: “Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience… I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners.” The more he worked toward his own salvation, the more he was aware that he was reaching for an impossible goal. All he deserved was death, eternal death.

Moreover, Luther was very aware of Satan’s work in the world. Today it is easy to simply dismiss this as part of the superstition of his day, but as you read Luther, you become convinced that he felt the hot breath of the evil one on his neck each and every day. In the monastery he heard Satan’s accusations from every angle, as he was accused of his sins and shortcomings. Today, many even in the Church seem to forget that he is the enemy, the accuser, the murderer and father of lies. How often do you speak of your enemy, how often do you appreciate that he is always striving against you? How often do you hear about your enemy from the pulpit? Every Christian should be aware of Satan’s work, whether through the world or our own sinful human flesh. You should engage Him in battle each and every day, every sermon that is preached should take him head on and strike him the blows that only God’s Word can land. As Luther said, “A Christian should know that the devil is about us everywhere…and we must fight with him.” You have a problem- it is called, sin, it is called death. You have an enemy- he is called Satan. Make no mistake, Luther was exceedingly aware of both his sin and Satan’s work, and both of those drove him first to his own works, but then to the Bible.

It was Scripture that saved Luther. This, once again, is no surprise. God has a habit of changing hearts through His Word- He has been doing it since the Creation, and he has not stopped since. Luther was led through his struggles and anguish to Romans chapter one, verses sixteen and seventeen: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” These words tortured him, as they gave a picture of a righteous God who condemned all those who did not live up to His righteousness. God, however, continued to work through His Word. Finally, Luther realized that the righteousness demanded here was the righteousness of Christ given to us as a gift by faith. It was at that point that the Scriptures opened up for him, and for us! “There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the Gospel, namely… the righteousness with which God clothes us when He justifies us.” Jesus Christ was the one who fulfilled the requirements of the Law by becoming man, by taking on our human flesh. He was the one who faced the wrath of a just God over your sin, the one who died on the cross to fulfill all righteousness. On that Good Friday, Jesus hung upon that cross in your place, taking on the punishment that you deserved, and when He said ‘It is finished’ your salvation was completed. He shed His blood for you! He defeated your enemies- sin, death, and Satan. He dealt them a blow from which they will never recover when He stepped forth from the tomb on Easter morning. This same Jesus Christ then bestows on you His righteousness won on that cross through faith. This righteousness covers you like a robe so that when God looks at you from the judgment seat, He only sees Jesus. His judgment is therefore ‘not guilty,’ and you are given the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting for the sake of Christ. Righteousness is no longer an unattainable goal- in fact, it is not a goal at all, but a gift, a gift given to you through His shed blood. You are a poor, miserable sinner, but because of what Christ did for you, you are now saved from your sins, you do not have to fear the wrath of God. What wonderful news! The Scriptures all opened up for Luther to reveal the glorious narrative of God saving His fallen creation through the sacrifice of His Son.

And so the remainder of Luther’s life focused around proclaiming and defending this message, this glorious Gospel of God’s free grace for the sake of Christ. Every sermon and every page that came from his pen dripped with the blood of Jesus, it revolved around Christ and Him alone. This focus on the Gospel also led Luther to highlight the Sacraments, those means by which God comes to sinful man, the means by which He comes to you. In Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, Luther did not see something you do for God, but instead simply another way that God’s overflowing grace comes to you. Baptism encapsulated the Gospel, as the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given to you through water joined with the Word. In your baptism, you are clothed with Christ’s righteousness; you are one of those who are “coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” As Luther says in the Small Catechism: “Certainly not just water, but the Word of God in and with the water does these things… with the Word of God it is a Baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit.”
In the Lord’s Supper, the fact that God took human flesh, becomes reality, a reality that you join in each and every time that you receive His Body and Blood. That is why he opposed so vehemently any attempt to make Christ only spiritually present in the Supper. As he states in the Large Catechism: “Here you have both truths, that it is Christ’s body and blood and that these are yours as your treasure and gift. Christ’s body can never be an unfruitful, vain thing, impotent and useless.” When you receive the Lord’s Supper in just a few moments here in this place, you will receive the very Body and Blood of your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the same Body and Blood which was given and shed on the cross for all of your sins, and now it is given to you for the forgiveness of your sins. Luther always taught that salvation was accomplished on the cross, but it is distributed to His people in His Word and Sacraments- and it is distributed to you on this very day!

Luther’s goal was never reform for the sake of reform, or change simply for the sake of change. His goal was to proclaim the Gospel freely, detached from all that the medieval church had added to it. He did not introduce anything new, but instead sought to restore what had been lost, to bring the Church back to its Scriptural roots. How do we follow in his footsteps? By defending the Gospel with everything we have, opposing any teaching that adds any ounce of our own effort or striving to the Gospel. And by proclaiming this same Gospel, freely and clearly, to all whom you come into contact with. Those who have received this message by faith have no need of the Law to motivate them to speak this message to others. Instead, proclaiming the Gospel is simply something we do because of who we are, those redeemed by Christ. May this glorious message, the wonderful free gift of life and salvation through the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, strengthen your faith and give you the confidence to stand before God as one of those redeemed by Christ, Amen.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Article in Eagle Newspapers of Northern Madison County (New York)

Greetings in Christ, our Savior and Redeemer. My name is Vicar Christopher Maronde, and I am a seminary student at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana. For the next year, I will be serving as a vicar in three churches in upstate New York, including Redeemer Lutheran Church in Canastota. My year in upstate New York is a time of hands on preparation for becoming a pastor in the Lutheran Church- Missouri Synod. While serving my vicarage, I will be submitting a monthly article relating to the Gospel of Jesus Christ for publication in the Eagle Newspapers of Northern Madison County.

In February and March of this year I was exposed firsthand to the hope which springs from the sharing of the Gospel as I spent three weeks in South Africa on a study abroad trip. During the weekdays, we stayed at a Lutheran seminary in Pretoria. On the weekends, we left the city behind and traveled the countryside, seeing the church and its people. South Africa is a very fascinating and unique country, but also a troubled one. Apartheid (a program of racism and forced removal of native Africans that lasted from 1948-1994) has left deep scars, and numerous issues that affect the entire nation along with the Lutheran Church. Not only this, but the issues of poverty, AIDS, and the growing influence of Islam are difficult issues facing the Church not only in South Africa, but all throughout the African continent. Preaching the Good News of Christ in Africa is challenging even in the best of times.

This is precisely why the seminary in Pretoria, Lutheran Theological Seminary- Tshwane, is so important. At this seminary there are students from all over the continent, trained in Lutheran theology, and then sent back out into their countries to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to baptize. The sacrifices these men make to answer the Lord’s call to become a pastor are simply amazing. One student, a South African of Zulu descent, had to leave his wife and children behind, because he could not afford to bring them with him, and he cannot afford to visit them. Another student from Uganda runs the family farm with a cell phone. All of the students live on next to nothing, but their faith remains strong. These men have given up everything to serve Jesus, and they pray for that day when they will rejoin their family and begin to preach God’s Word to their people. In Pretoria, South Africa, the cause of the Gospel throughout a hurting continent is being served.

This same Gospel is proclaimed at Redeemer Lutheran Church every Sunday at 4 pm (we meet at Trinity Episcopal Church in Canastota). We also have several bible studies- before church at 3 pm, at Whitman Road above Clockville on the 2nd and 4th Mondays at 2:00 pm, and at North Bay on the 2nd and 4th Wednesdays at 6:30 pm.

Proper 24 of Series A (Matthew 22:25-22)

“Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” 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 from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from Matthew chapter twenty-two. Dear friends in Christ, think back to the Gospel lessons of the past three weeks. We have been marching through the Gospel of Matthew, walking with Jesus on His way to the cross. These past three weeks, Jesus has launched three attacks against the religious leaders of His day. He has told them through three parables that the kingdom of God will be ripped from their hands and given to others. Israel has been disobedient, they have refused to do the Father’s will, killing the prophets sent to them, those who were inviting them to the wedding feast. Not only that, but they will soon kill His one and only Son. And what was their response? Did the Jewish leaders repent and follow Jesus? I think you can guess the answer- as we read a few weeks ago, “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard His parables, they perceived that He was speaking about them. And although they were seeking to arrest Him, they feared the crowds.” They could not just arrest Jesus out in the open, but they needed another strategy, a more cunning strategy. Our text is the first of three attempts to take care of this ‘Jesus problem,’ and to do this, the religious leaders have concocted a new plan.

“Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle Him in His talk.” This was their strategy, to get Jesus to say something that would turn people against Him. They needed a question that would have no good answer, that would place Jesus in a lose-lose situation. But first, they needed to butter Him up. “And they sent their disciples to Him along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances.’” For all their false flattery, what these people said was correct. Jesus is true, and He does teach the way of God truthfully, most especially when He said that the only way to God is through Himself. Moreover, He does not care about man’s opinion. All that He cares about is the will of His Father, for whom He took on Human flesh. Jesus serves His Father, not the whims of men. These men spoke ‘truthfully,’ even though their purpose was deception.

The disciples of the Pharisees had a simple question for this teacher they supposedly revered so highly: “Tell us, then, what you think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” They think they have the perfect question, and in many ways, they do. It sounds very innocent, a simple and honest inquiry on how a conquered people should treat their conquerors. Moreover, there are two wrong answers to this question. If Jesus says ‘no,’ if He declares that the Jews should not pay taxes to Caesar, the Pharisees will turn Him over to the Roman authorities as a revolutionary. Jesus will then be declaring that His kingdom truly is of this world, that He has come to collect power and set Himself up as an earthly king. With the God-man at their head, the Jews will be unstoppable in their quest to throw off the shackles of the Romans. On the other hand, if Jesus answers ‘yes,’ if He tells those gathered around Him that they should pay taxes to Caesar, then the Pharisees can paint Him as an opponent of the Jews, One who has no regard for the privileges of His very own people. In either option, temptation lurks, Satan is waiting for Jesus to make a false step. This is another chance for Jesus of Nazareth to grasp at glory, to court the favor of the crowds, perhaps even a chance to join with the powerful Romans. Satan wants Him to reach for earthly glory, he knows that Jesus must be derailed from the cross. But Jesus sees through it all: “But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why put me to the test, you hypocrites?’”

And Satan continues to tempt you and me with this same question. Especially in an election season, the question comes to each one of us, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” No matter who wins and who loses on November fourth, roughly half of our nation will be elated and the other half despondent. For those of you on the losing end, the question then becomes, do we give this new government our loyalty as well? Or do we register our disappointment by failing to pay taxes or dumping our trash on yards with Obama/Biden signs? Now those are pretty extreme examples, but I am sure that you know many other ways to rebel against rulers you despise. More importantly, there is the mental despair and despondency that comes from seeing someone you detest take the podium on Inauguration Day. On the other hand, there is an equally insidious danger to the winners. Those who win political victory are tempted to put all of their trust in the government, to stake all their fortunes on the whims of a hundred million voters. Is this any different than what Jesus was tempted to do? Satan wanted Him to gather worldly glory, forsaking the purpose for which He became incarnate. Satan wants your focus on anything else but God, He wants your trust to be centered on the things of this world. On either side, despondency or elation, we forget where our hope and trust should lie. They do not lie upon humans, but instead upon the God who has created us, the God who has redeemed us. On November fourth I urge you to vote, but do we look to a candidate for our ultimate confidence, for our salvation? Do we put our trust in the government, in the mechanisms of this world alone? If not, what do we owe to Caesar, or Obama, or McCain? What did Jesus say?

The answer of Jesus is so simple that it almost seems ridiculous: “‘Show me the coin for the tax.’ And they brought Him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, ‘Whose likeness and inscription is this?’ They said, ‘Caesar’s.’ Then He said to them, ‘Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard it, they marveled. And they left Him and went away.” Such a simple answer to such a serious question! We simply give to the government what we owe it, whether it is taxes or obedience to the law. Jesus did not advocate rebellion, He did not take Satan’s bait to establish a kingdom upon this earth, but instead He rejected this temptation. We are especially tempted during an election season to put our hope in earthly rulers, but Jesus shows us a much better way. We give to our rulers what we owe them, no more and no less. We do not give them our ultimate hope and our confidence, we do not look toward them for salvation. But we do give them what they are owed. And why is that? What is so special about earthly governments that would have even Christians in their debt?

We render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s because Caesar’s ability to rule does not come from Himself, it comes from God. God has established earthly governments to take care of earthly things- their power flows directly from Him, just as our loyalty to government flows directly from our obedience to God. But that is not all- more importantly, God also uses earthly governments to His own ends. In our Old Testament lesson, God tells Israel that He will use Cyrus, the king of Persia, as His instrument to bring His promises to fruition, as His means of returning Israel from exile. And Cyrus will not even know it. “I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know me, that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am the Lord, and there is none other.” Just as God used Cyrus to fulfill His promises, so He would use other earthly rulers, Pontus Pilate and the Jewish leaders, to fulfill His ultimate promise. Jesus rejected Satan’s offer of earthly glory because He had come to this earth for a much higher purpose. He took on human flesh in order to die, to be killed, to be executed as a common criminal. God needed an instrument to accomplish this sacrifice, and so He appointed Pilate and the Romans, who did not know God nor His plan, to be His chosen instrument of salvation, of your salvation. Jesus reminded Pilate that he was simply a part of God’s plan in John chapter 19: “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.” Jesus’ kingdom was not of this world, in fact, the world rejected it, as He was crowned with thorns and hung on a cross, shedding His blood for your sins and the sins of the entire world. Jesus was not just ‘true’ as the Pharisees flattered Him, but He was the Truth Himself, and the Jewish leaders exchanged the Truth of God for a lie when they sent Him to His death. But then God’s chosen instruments were witnesses to a greater miracle, as Pilate’s soldiers fell to the ground in fear as the tomb opened and Jesus stepped forth. His sacrifice now redeems you, His victory gives you life, life with Him forever. You have no need to put your trust in candidates, presidents, or rulers. God can use whomever we elect toward His own ends. Instead your confidence and hope is in Christ, the one who gave up His life for your sins, the one who covers you with His robe of righteousness and brings you to the marriage feast of God.

Because Christ has redeemed us, we can then live a life in fulfillment of Jesus’ words: “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” God has blessed us with so much in addition to our eternal salvation- every good gift flows from Him, and so we give back to Him what we have received from His providing hand. Not only that, but the very best, the first-fruits, go to Him in joyful thanksgiving to the Lord of the Harvest. And while we are not rebellious citizens, we are also not quiet ones. As baptized children of God, as those redeemed by Christ’s blood, we do not let the government infringe on the Gospel- it is there that we draw our line. The government was established by God to order our affairs in this life, but when those God-given authorities step into the realm of the Gospel, we are expected to disobey. We must obey God rather than men.

And so there is a balance to be struck in our Christian walk. On the one hand, we respect those placed in authority over us as those who have authority from God. On the other hand we do not tolerate their intrusion into areas in which God has not given them authority. This is not an easy balance. We prayed in our collect for today, “With You as our ruler and guide we may so pass through things temporal that we lose not the things eternal.” Satan is always using the things of this world in an attempt to draw our attention away from Christ. May we live our lives in this world in order that we do not put our trust in anything else but in Christ, the one who became man for you, the one who took on Satan for you, the one who died in your place. The Lord is forever faithful to His promises, and we pray that He will preserve us in this true faith until life everlasting, Amen.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Proper 23 of Series A (Matthew 22:1-14)

“For many are called, but few are chosen.” 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 from Matthew twenty-two, the parable of the wedding feast. Dear friends in Christ, everyone loves weddings! Well, almost everyone. I’m sure there are people that haven’t enjoyed a wedding since their own, and can’t really stand being at them. Since Bethany is not here (at a wedding), you can tell her the next time that you see her that I did honestly enjoy our wedding. Wonderful sermon, good fellowship, and great food. Oh, the food! I have realized by being in a number of weddings over the past few years that the very best thing about a wedding is the food. Some of the best food I have ever tasted was at rehearsal dinners, including a steak about this big. And the food at the wedding itself is no slouch either, plus cake. Who doesn’t like cake! It is no surprise, then, that Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God as a wedding banquet in our text for today. “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son.” Jewish weddings were a sight to behold, encompassing several days of joyous celebration, and more food than even a teenager could be expected to eat. Who could pass that up? Apparently, a lot of people.

God established the nation of Israel to be His chosen possession, to be the ones to carry forth His promises, to bring the Kingdom of God to fruition. This great banquet feast was set before them, the bounty of a King who loved His people. And so the call went out. God “sent His servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come.” The people of Israel, God’s chosen nation, rebelled against the God who had set them apart, and refused to come to the feast. They had much more important things to do: “Again He sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, “See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.”’ But they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business.” God did everything He could to invite them into the feast. He made covenants with their forefathers, covenants to bless and multiply them and to give them the Promised Land. And He did deliver this promised land, after He brought them forth from bondage in Egypt and gave to them His holy Law. All they had to do was obey, and He would bless them, He would defeat their enemies before them. But the Israelites refused. They went chasing after other gods, the gods of the people into whose land they came. But the Israelites did not simply reject this message. They also rejected the messengers that carried it. “The rest seized His servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them.” This is the story of the entire Old Testament, as the God who loved Israel so much sent messenger after messenger to His beloved people, and each is rejected in turn. Many were killed, culminating with the King’s own Son, Jesus Christ.

But before we begin to point the finger at Israel, we must first look at ourselves. We too have been invited to a feast, the feast of God’s Word and His sacraments here in this place. And not only in this place, but each and every day we are invited to feast on God’s Word. And what happens? God “sent His servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come… They paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business.” Does this sound familiar? We too have quite a list of excuses for not coming to God’s banquet, whether here in His house or in our homes. The cares and worries of this life hem around us, choking out any opportunity to feast on God’s Word. Work, school, financial stress, and sports all supplant God’s banquet on our list of priorities. Even the menu can often fail to entice us. In our text, the king said, “See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready.” God has prepared quite a feast for us here in this place, and every time that we dine with Him though His holy Word. He provides strengthening of faith, direction for our lives, and the forgiveness of sins, but we often cut ourselves off from this feast and barely survive on a spiritual starvation diet. What would we say if someone turned down a rehearsal dinner to eat a piece of moldy bread? Pretty crazy, but no less so than cutting ourselves off from God’s Word. By doing this, we are rejecting Christ’s messengers, and the message that they carry. We are showing God what we think of His invitation to dine, much as rebellious Israel did.

For Israel’s violent rejection of the prophets, those servants and messengers of God, the king must respond in kind: “The king was angry, and He sent His troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.” He had a right to be angry over their rejection- over our rejection- of His good gifts. The people whom He loved so much, as a husband loves his bride, had despised Him, and for that they deserved punishment. Thus, destruction was the fate for anyone who rejects God’s gifts, all who scorn the wedding feast. As the king said in our text: “The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy.” For their rejection, for our rejection, we deserve to be weighed on the scale and found ‘not worthy,’ only destined for destruction.

And that would have been our fate had God not sent one final messenger to Israel and all of humanity- His very own Son, Jesus Christ. Israel treated Him as they had treated God’s other messengers: “The rest seized His servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them.” Jesus Christ came preaching a message of repentance, preaching of the love of God for His rebellious creation, and for that He was hung on a cross, killed as a common criminal. But in God’s great plan for our salvation, it was only through His death that rebellious humanity could live. This is because Christ did not stay dead- He rose again victorious on the third day, and now He truly sits as the bridegroom in the banquet of heaven. Through His death and resurrection, He has won the feast for us, the feast of heaven, the Messianic banquet. Isaiah describes this in our Old Testament lesson: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.” The salvation promised for us is this banquet, the wedding banquet of Christ with His Church. Here the broken marriage between God and His creation is restored, here “He will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken. It will be said on that day, ‘Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the LORD; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.’” Because God dealt with our sin by dying on the cross, He will swallow up sin and death, He will wipe every tear from our eyes, bringing us to the heavenly banquet, the marriage feast of the Lamb who was slain, Jesus Christ Himself, the bridegroom wed to His Church, all those whom He has called.

And God’s call continues to sound forth to all people, as it once did to Israel. The King sends forth His servants to every land with this commission: “Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.” God calls us, and He does this through His Holy Word, spoken, read, and connected with means. God does the calling, but He continues to call through His chosen messengers. These men, called pastors, go forth throughout the world to preach this message to others, to be the instruments of God’s call. Moreover, all Christians are also sent out into the world to speak the Good News of Christ to those around them, and God works through their witness in words and action to extend His call to all people. Every Christian is therefore one of Christ’s messengers as they speak of the hope that is within them to all those they encounter. This call of God has power, not from the messenger who carries it, and not in the person who hears it. The Word of God has a power of its own, and it is through this Word that the Holy Spirit creates faith in the hearts of people, the faith that grasps the promises of God. The spread of the Word of God is truly a wonderful thing. “And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

And so the Church, the assembly of those called by God through the Word, has both good and bad people in it. What is the difference? We cannot see it, but the King knows. “But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” Only those with the proper clothing can remain at the wedding banquet into all eternity. And what are these clothes? Isaiah tells us in our Introit for today: “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for He has clothed me with the garments of salvation; He has covered me with the robe of righteousness.” Only with the robe of righteousness, Christ’s own righteousness won on Calvary’s cross, can we sit at the wedding feast. And how does God bestow this robe? In our Baptism! In the earliest days of the Church, those who were baptized stepped into the water naked, were Baptized, and as they stepped out of the water they were clothed with a white robe. This robe declared that now Christ’s righteousness covered them, that when God looked at them He did not see a sinful human being, but instead He saw Christ and His righteousness. Whether or not you received such a physical robe on your Baptism day, the truth remains the same. In your baptism Christ covered you with His righteousness, He gave you the wedding garments that you will wear at His feast for all eternity. Cling to your Baptism through every storm in your life, for it is there that you can find the assurance that God is has clothed you with Christ’s righteousness.

Jesus concluded our parable with the words, “For many are called, but few are chosen.” We unfortunately see the truth of these words all around us. Many who are clothed with the Baptismal garments cast them off later in life, abandoning the faith and the robe of righteousness that Christ gave them. Some reject Christ without even putting on those garments. Why is this? It is only because of humanity’s sin that some reject Christ. When a person believes, the credit goes to God. But when a person rejects the wedding garments, the blame goes to that person. In the face of that we can only take confidence in Christ’s promises, not in our ourselves and our own feelings, we cling to our Baptism tightly, knowing that God is faithful to His promises, He is faithful to those whom He has claimed as His own, and we know that He will bring us to the wedding banquet, where we will dine with Him for all eternity, Amen.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Proper 22 of Series A (Matthew 21:33-46)

“The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon today is the parable of the tenants, from Matthew chapter 21. Dear friends in Christ, one of the really neat things about living here with you in the Finger Lakes region is all the vineyards. Next spring and summer, Bethany and I hope to take in the sights and tastes of this beautiful region. When you are relaxing with a glass of wine while overlooking Cayuga Lake, I’m sure that you can understand why God speaks of His kingdom or His creation as a vineyard. “Hear another parable. There was a master of a house that planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower.” God planted His people Israel in the Promised Land, and He provided for their every need. He protected them from their enemies and did everything that He could so that they would produce fruit. He did not just want fruit, but He wanted fruit of the best kind, fruit brought forth from their love of Him. But God did not want to be a puppet master pulling the strings of His people, instead He wanted His people to tend His vineyard, to be the keepers of the promise, a chosen people who would serve Him and bring His promises to fruition. God “leased it to tenants, and went into another country. When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit.”

God had given His people so much- He had made them into a great nation under Egyptian bondage, then brought them out with His mighty hand and established them in the Promised Land. Not only that, but He entrusted His promises to their care. They were to serve Him, they were to bear fruit. But there was rumor of war and rebellion in the nation of Israel, and so God sent His servants to them. “And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them.” This is the story of the entire Old Testament. Israel rebels, God sends His servants, the prophets, to preach a message of repentance, and those messengers of God are treated shamefully. Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Hosea, Nahum, and all the others were abandoned by their people, and many lost their lives for the sake of God and His message. The people of God, His chosen possession to whom the vineyard was given, refused to give to God the fruit He expected, and instead they rejected His chosen messengers. This cycle repeats over and over again, this tragic story of the people whom God loved so dearly rebelling against Him, until God finally had enough. “Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.” The very Son of God, Jesus Christ, was then sent to rebellious Israel, to preach the message of repentance, to call upon God’s chosen vinedressers to bring God the fruit they owed Him. But instead of bearing fruit, the Jews foolishly killed Christ through the Romans, who hung Him upon the cross. The very Son of God, God in the flesh, was killed by those whom God loved. What should happen to these rebellious tenants? As you sit in your pew, you probably can think of a long list of punishments that would be appropriate for a rebellious nation, you are eager to answer with the people in Jesus’ day: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”

But like Nathan told David, this text points its finger squarely at us and says, ‘You are the man!’ We are just like the Israelites in our Christian life. We have been given the gifts of God through our Baptism, we have been given the promise of eternal life in His Holy Word, but we still try to serve ourselves. Christ does not direct His Church like the puppeteer, but instead He gives it to us to tend as a vineyard. And how do we care for this vineyard? By serving ourselves and our own interests. Our position in the Church becomes an opportunity for power, a chance to exercise authority over others. Instead of serving God through the Church, we can be tempted to use our positions for our own agenda and interests. We go our own way, often refusing to listen to those messengers which Christ has sent to us. Being selfish and self-centered is a fundamental human trait, and unfortunately it finds its way into the church as well. The tenants in our text, the people of Israel, served themselves, not the God who had given to them the vineyard. The Christian Church too often emulates them, mirroring their focus on themselves. But the worst part of our rebellion is our lack of fruit. Our faith frequently does not shine through our focus on self, we often do not bear any fruit at all. Christ is not evident in our words and actions, and therefore we bear little to no fruit. In doing this, we are doing no less than the tenants in our text. We are rejecting Christ and the Church that He established. Moreover, our sinful ambitions helped to crucify Him in the first place. It is our self-centeredness that drove the nails through His hands and feet, and for that, the Lord of the vineyard must respond.

And the Lord of the vineyard responds in judgment. “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits.” For our lack of fruit, for our focus on self, we deserve for the vineyard to be given to others. The Jews saw the vineyard ripped from their ungrateful hands and given to the Gentiles. We are in danger of seeing the vineyard taken from our hands and given to others who will bear fruit. We are already seeing this happen as the center of Christianity shifts south to South America and Africa. We see this in our own country as congregations close or wither away. What are we to do?

Quite simply, we pray for forgiveness, we beg for God’s grace, as many of the Jews in the days of the apostles’ did. And God does respond, He does show forth His love, but in the most unusual way. The beloved Son sent by the Lord of the vineyard to preach repentance, to call on Israel and you to give up self-centeredness and bear fruit, was killed by those tenants. Moreover, He was killed by us as our sins nailed Him to the tree. Mankind’s ultimate act of rebellion was placing Jesus Christ on the cross. But amazingly, that very act of rebellion by you, me, and all humanity, was the very means by which God brought about salvation. Christ had to die because He was the beloved Son of God, and God made Him the sacrifice for all of our sins. Our sins nailed Him to the cross, but there He paid the price for those sins, for that rebellion with His very own blood, taking the punishment that we deserved. God’s love for His creation was greater than our rejection of his servants, greater than every day that we do not produce the fruit that He expects. He dealt with our sin by sending His beloved Son to the cross, letting sinful men do what it says in our text: “They took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.” Jesus was taken outside of the walls of Jerusalem, and there on a hill called Golgatha He saved you. Despite all that you have done in your life, despite every moment of self-centeredness, despite every power play in the Church, He died for you, and it is only on the cross that salvation comes to you. The tenants said in our text, “This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.” Those wicked men were more right than they knew. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we all receive His inheritance, the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting. An inheritance is only received upon death, and in the death of God’s own beloved Son, you receive all that He earned through that death.

And so the crucified and risen Lord sets out to build His Church. Like the vineyard of Israel, Christ uses sinful people as His tenants, but we do not build on our own foundation. “Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the Scriptures: The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes?’” God entrusted the building of His kingdom to Israel, and as the chief cornerstone He presented to them His very own Son. But those builders rejected this cornerstone, and so they sent Christ to His death. Ironically, it is only through His rejection that Christ could become the cornerstone. This was God’s plan all along, as our text says, “This was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” In being rejected, Christ won salvation, and now it is offered freely to all of us who participated in nailing Him to the cross. Only those who sin need Christ, and He comes to those sinners in His Word and Sacraments. The Word, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper are the means by which Christ builds His Church, because they are the means by which Christ comes to us, the means by which Christ conveys salvation. The Church is established for only one purpose- to save sinners. That is why we build on Christ and Him alone, and the gifts which He has given. It is here in the Church where this salvation comes to you and you are forgiven of all the sins that you have committed, especially your selfish power plays in the Church. Here Christ heals, here Christ binds our wounds, here Christ forgives, and He forgives you!

Because of all that Christ has done for us, we build upon Him, we serve Him and not ourselves. This is who we are because of our Baptism, because of the salvation given to us. We show forth the love of Christ to others, in the earnest hope and prayer that God will use our words and actions to bring others to Jesus. Paul is an excellent example for us to follow. Like us, he was a rebellious tenant who rejected Christ’s messengers and instead sought his own interests. He even had a hand in killing Christ’s messengers. But yet Paul says in our Epistle lesson for today: “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ… For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith-- that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” Because of the love of God shown by Christ to you, may you have the same attitude as Paul, being willing to consider everything as a loss for the sake of Christ. May you, like Paul, bring this message to those around you, trusting that God will bless your words and example, Amen.