Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Fourth Sunday in Lent (Series B: John 3:14-21)

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this fourth Sunday in Lent is from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the third chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. Dear friends in Christ, the foundation of all Christian theology is found in the first five books of the Bible, with the mighty acts of God in the Exodus taking center stage. In our Old Testament lesson for today, we are in the midst of the desert wanderings, and once again the people complain. “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.” God isn’t too happy with this, so He sends forth poisonous snakes to bite the people and many die. The survivors are quite repentant, and they beg for forgiveness and deliverance. God provides this deliverance, but He does so in a strange way. He does not simply snap His fingers or say a couple words, but He has Moses construct something. “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” The punishment for their sin is embodied and placed high on a pole, for people to look to and live.

In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus teaches us that this account is much more than simply interesting reading. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” Jesus has come to fulfill the words of Moses and others, His marching orders come from the Old Testament. And so this incident, this act of compassion by God thousands of years earlier, will shape the course of Jesus’ life. Just as the bronze serpent embodied sin for the people of Israel, so Jesus would become the embodiment of sin for all people. He would become sin itself, sin incarnate, the Sinner. And just as the serpent was lifted high on the pole for all to see, so Christ would be lifted high upon a cross. That is what Lent is all about. We are driving toward Good Friday, to that night when Jesus was betrayed and handed over to the authorities to be killed. They could’ve stoned Jesus, they could’ve beheaded Him, Judas could’ve poisoned his wine. But no, Jesus had to die upon the cross, He had to die lifted high before all people, as the Scripture foretold.

Why did He do this? Sure, He did it in accordance with the Scriptures, but that is more of a ‘how’ than a ‘why.’ What would motivate Jesus to become the embodiment of sin for us? Why would He allow Himself to be lifted up in the first place? In our text, we can imagine Nicodemus thinking the same thing, and so Jesus gives us an answer: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus did this in fulfillment of His Father’s love- His Father’s love for you, me, and all creation, every person that He ever created, every person ensnared in the bondage of sin. We fell into sin, but God had such a love for us that He gave His very best to save us- His one and only Son, Jesus Christ. Only by living the perfect life in our place, only by taking all of our sins upon His back and facing the Father’s wrath could Jesus save us. And He did so on Calvary’s cross, when He was lifted high so that people could mock Him and spit at Him. He endured hell itself for you, for me, for all people. God loved the world by redeeming it through the blood of His Son. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

That should be the end of the story, but unfortunately it is not. Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but yet so many in the world stand condemned. “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” The tragedy is that Christ has died for all, but most people reject Him and the salvation He brings. Jesus does not condemn them, but they condemn themselves by rejecting His redemption.

Why would anyone do this? Jesus, once again anticipating our question, gives Nicodemus the answer: “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.” The life of sin is so enticing, the darkness so inviting, that so many reject the Light, they shield their eyes and run away from its life-giving beams. They would rather dwell in darkness and do their sins in secret, away from the light of Christ, and for that they stand condemned. And we were little different before Christ shone His light in our lives. Paul describes our former lives in this way in our Epistle lesson: “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience- among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” Unfortunately, we still fall into this former life. Examine yourself this Lenten season. What sin do you have in the darkness, in secret? What are you hiding from your friends or family, and think you can hide from God? What particular sins draw you away from the light of Christ and into the darkness? Each and every day the darkness tempts us, each and every day we are drawn back into what we were before. Our sins, especially our secret sins, hate the light, they struggle mightily to stay hidden. “For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.”

But the darkness is not our home, despite how much our sinful nature wants to dwell there. For Jesus Christ has made us alive, He has delivered us through His cross and the victorious empty tomb. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” Jesus was lifted up on Calvary’s cross, bearing the weight of all our sins, and there He paid the price for them. But Jesus did not only accomplish salvation, He delivered it to us, as Saint Paul teaches: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ-by grace you have been saved.” Just as Christ was made alive on the third day and rose in triumph over the grave, so God makes us alive together with Christ. This happens in the blessed washing of the water with the word- we are buried with Christ in baptism and then raised with Him, made alive to live in the light. We follow His pattern- we die and are then made alive in Him, and we are brought into that great promise that Jesus speaks of in our text: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” We then conform to the pattern of Christ in another way. Jesus was lifted up high on the cross to fulfill the bronze serpent, but His lifting up also looked forward to His exaltation to the right hand of the Father, as we said in the Gradual today: “O come, let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” Because Jesus was exalted by the Father through His death and resurrection, so we too will be exalted with Him, as Paul teaches: “[God has] raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”

We are then heirs of the promise, those redeemed by Christ to dwell with Him forever. But we still fall into sin, we still are enticed into the darkness. In our Old Testament lesson for today, the people of Israel, the heirs of God’s promises, fell into sin once again, but God provided deliverance: “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.” By looking to the bronze serpent hanging high upon the pole, the Israelites received life in repentance and faith. We too have a place to turn when we fall into darkness, when we are enticed into secret sin. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” Look to the cross and live! There your Savior hangs, having faced the wrath of God for your sins, having paid the penalty you owed. Look to the cross for healing, look to the cross for forgiveness, look to the cross for salvation! Look to the cross whenever your sins crowd around you, whenever Satan is enticing you back into the darkness- look to the cross, for there the Light of the world redeemed you! Bring your secret sins out of the darkness and confess them to your Savior. Bring them out of the darkness and into His light, for He is a fountain of forgiveness and healing! Our life in the Light of Christ is a life lived in daily repentance and forgiveness, with our eyes focused on His cross.

Jesus concludes our text by teaching us “whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” Our works do not grant us salvation, as Saint Paul teaches: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast”- but our lives do point others to the Light, they allow the light of Christ to shine out from us to those around us. As those in Christ, we dwell in the light, we live in His truth, and we do what is set before us, as Paul tells us in the next verse: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” We do what is set before us as those dwelling in the light and testifying to it, repenting and asking for forgiveness when we fail and live in darkness, fixing our eyes upon the cross. May the Lord always keep His cross before our eyes this Lenten season and every day, and may He exalt us with Himself into heavenly glory forever, Amen.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Third Sunday in Lent (Series B: John 2:13-22)

“Jesus answered, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this third Sunday in Lent is from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the second chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. Dear friends in Christ, the Third Commandment goes much farther than not working on Sunday. In our Old Testament lesson for today, Yahweh delivers this commandment to Moses: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work... For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” God established the Sabbath rest for His people, it is meant to be a time set aside to receive His gifts, as Luther teaches us in the explanation to this commandment in the Small Catechism: “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” There is both a positive and negative side here. We are not to despise His Word, but instead we are to hear and learn it gladly. That is what the Sabbath is all about. That is what church on Sunday morning is all about. That is what this church building is all about. Here we set aside time to receive His great gifts, gifts He is yearning to give us.

But what happens when other things get in the way of God giving His gifts? What happens when the things of this world intrude into the church service and church building? Jesus saw the results with His own eyes, He saw what God’s house, the house of worship, the location of God’s presence in grace upon this earth, had become. “The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there.” The temple mount was simply a structure, a great mass of stone pillars and courts surrounding the temple building itself, but Jesus knew that it was much more than that. It was the place where God had promised to receive the sacrifices of His people for their sins. It was the very location where His grace would go forth, where the forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed. It had been set aside for the giving of God’s gifts, and now God’s Son saw what it had become- and He was not pleased. “And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, ‘Take these things away; do not make my Father's house a house of trade.’”

But why should Jesus get so angry? The people were hardly committing a vicious sin- they were simply watching their bottom line, trying to connect with the convenience that travelers sought. They were simply trying to ‘market’ the temple a bit, make it more attractive to Jerusalem’s visitors. Why should Jesus have a problem with that? But Jesus saw right through them: for them, money had become more important than the primary purpose for the temple- the giving of God’s gifts. The financial bottom line was their focus, and it obscured everything else. We also so often worry about the bottom line, whether our own or that of the church. In increasingly desperate economic times, we are searching for anything to keep us and our congregation afloat. Worry for our own checkbook can cause us to hold back from the Church, and worry for the Church’s checkbook can drive us to desperation. We so quickly forget that our first turn is always to prayer, bringing our requests and petitions before our Lord. To be sure, the church needs money to pay the bills, but when we are sucked into a focus on our money, when we see new visitors as only an additional source of funds, when we spend our time worried about our checkbook or that of the church, our eyes are turned away from the one thing needful, the focus of our lives and the focus of the Church- Jesus Christ and Him crucified.

Jesus takes all of the tables we construct in our churches, all of the tables that cause us worries in our lives, and turns them over. He cleans them out just as surely as He did the tables in the temple courts. “His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’” Jesus had a passionate, intense love of His Father’s house, a love that compelled Him to take on the marketplace of the temple and clean it out. The zeal of Jesus has an intensity that contrasts sharply with the image of a meek and mild Jesus that we often see in our mind’s eye. “And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables.” It is the same zeal that God had for His people throughout the Old Testament, the zeal that preserved the messianic line from Eve onward. But why would Jesus have this same zeal for the temple? What was so special about this edifice of stone and mortar that made it worth cleansing?

Many then and even today think that Jesus came to destroy the religion of Israel, with its Levitical laws and barbaric sacrifices. But Jesus shows us here that He has come for a much different reason. “So the Jews said to him, ‘What sign do you show us for doing these things?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking about the temple of his body.” How can the one who has in one breath shown respect for God’s temple with the next speak of destroying it? The answer comes from Matthew chapter five: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” He has such zeal for the temple because it points to Him, He has such zeal because He has come as the fulfillment of the temple. “But He was speaking about the temple of His body.” The human frame of Jesus is God Himself in the flesh, God come to this earth to deliver His people. Jesus will fulfill the Temple as the location of God amongst His people, His body is the new temple, the temple that is established for all eternity. But because His body is a temple, it will also be a place of sacrifice. The flesh of Jesus will fulfill each and every sacrifice offered by the people of Israel in the temple, the blood that runs down from the sheep, cattle, and pigeons will be fulfilled by His blood.

For the zeal of Jesus is not only for His Father’s house, it is for His Father’s will. And the Father’s will is centered squarely on the salvation of all people from the bondage of sin. “His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’” Jesus’ love for His Father, His love for the Father’s will, His love for His Father’s house, will end up consuming Him. The reason that sheep, cattle, and pigeons gave their lives in the temple was that sin requires blood. Therefore Jesus, as the fulfillment of the temple, as the temple incarnate, needed to shed His blood for our sin. But His shed blood would be unlike that of sacrificial animals, which could never completely wipe away the sins of the people. His sacrifice, His shed blood, would be for each and every person who has ever lived, or will ever live, for each and every sin ever committed, or that ever will be committed. His zeal for His Father would lead Jesus to offer up His life on the cross for the sins of all, there His zeal for you and me, that intense and passionate love, would cause Him to suffer abandonment by the Father for our sake. His zeal consumed Him, and it consumed Him for us.

“So the Jews said to Him, ‘What sign do you show us for doing these things?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’” Jesus, as the true fulfillment of the temple, invited the religious leaders to destroy Him, with the promise that He would raise Himself back up. His authority would be tested by whether or not He kept that promise. The Jews took Him up on that offer, they destroyed Him on the cross, there His zeal consumed Him. This Lenten season we look to that moment where Jesus hung dead on the cross, having faced God’s wrath for you and me, and we try to place ourselves there on that day. Would Jesus keep His promise? Had the victory truly been won? I don’t know about you, but I love Lent so much because it is a crescendo building until Good Friday, then a three day pause before the trumpets finally sound. Jesus kept His promise. He rose from the dead on Easter morning, confirming not only His authority over the temple, but over death and hell itself. Both are defeated, cast down, they have no more power over you. All becomes clear at the resurrection- there Christ’s victory is sealed. Without Good Friday, Easter is meaningless, and without Easter, Good Friday is a day of defeat. But thanks be to God that Christ did arise, saving us from sin and death, confirming the victory won when the zeal of our Lord for us consumed Him on the cross! The resurrection is the foundation of our faith, it forms the basis of all that we believe: “When therefore He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the Word that Jesus had spoken.”

The Church is built on the same foundation as our faith- Christ’s death and resurrection. Therefore, it is not in the business of selling, it is in the business of giving away- it is a location for the free distribution of the salvation that Jesus won through the cross and empty tomb. In Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the Word, Christ’s gifts are offered freely to all people. Our focus is not on the bottom line- ours or that of the church- but instead upon Christ and His gifts. Sure, the Church needs money to operate, but this should never obscure the true reason for its existence- to give away Christ and His gifts. This whole enterprise is the height of foolishness to our world, as Saint Paul tells us in our Epistle lesson: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” How can all people be delivered by the death of one? How can the Church simply give away salvation? The answer is that Christ is not an accountant- He is a Savior, the Savior of you, me, and all people. May the death and resurrection of Christ bring us to our Father’s house in the new heavens and the new earth, where we will dwell forever in His glory, Amen.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Second Sunday in Lent (Series B: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16)

“I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this second Sunday in Lent comes from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the seventeenth chapter of Genesis. Dear friends in Christ, Abram and Sarai were sinful. Now, I’m sure this is not necessarily a surprise to you, though it is somewhat unusual. We would expect that the ‘heroes of the faith’ would be perfect examples of who we should be, shining stars for us to look to. But so often, we learn from them what not to do, how not to act. The Bible does not gloss over the sins of God’s followers, but in many places emphasizes them. In chapter fifteen, Abraham is given an amazing promise- his descendents will be as numerous as the stars in the sky, as plentiful as the sand on the seashore. And this will begin with the promise of a child to barren Sarai. What an amazing promise! Only a little patience is needed, as God fulfills His promises in His own time. But patience is in short supply in Abram’s tent. God is taking too long to fulfill His promise, and so Sarai offers her servant Hagar to conceive an heir. Hagar quickly becomes pregnant, and the drama begins. She looks in contempt upon Sarai, and so Sarai drives her out into the wilderness. All the while Abram allows this to happen, he allows his impatience to create strife and conflict in his tent.
It is into this domestic mess that God enters in. “When Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.’” In the context of Abram’s impatience and sin, God is telling him to shape up! Act like one who has the very promises of God! Enoch and Noah walked with God, they provided the example for Abram and us to follow. Walking with God involves living constantly in His presence, it includes an intimacy and communion with God that encompasses one’s entire life. Abram is encouraged to live in the promises of God! His living before God, his walking in the presence of God does not earn these promises, but it is the life he is called to as one who has these promises.
Is it any different for us? We have been given the very promises of God, promises that were only a mist and a shadow for Abram, promises founded on the very blood of Jesus Christ, and so we are called to live a life in fellowship with God. We are to be immersed in the presence of Christ, living in fellowship and communion with Him. How often do we miss the opportunities to walk in the presence of Jesus? Our Lord has given us so many opportunities to live in His presence, to walk before Him, and so often we pass them by. He has given us the great gifts of prayer and His Word, and how often do we go through a day without immersing ourselves in either? He has given us the Divine Service, where His Word is proclaimed, His forgiveness declared, and His very Body and Blood is given for the forgiveness of our sins. But how often do we deprive ourselves of these gifts, and find something else to do on a Sunday morning? Just like Abram, we are called on here to walk before God, to walk before our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and just like Abram we so often live like we do not have the promises of God.
“I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.” Even if Abram could claim that he was walking before God, even if we hear what was just said and are glad that Vicar is talking about someone else, this second command from our Lord sounds forth. In the face of the command to “be blameless,” even Enoch and Noah are reduced to tears of repentance. God is here commanding Abram, He is commanding you and me, He is commanding all people, to be perfect. The Jews who heard this command, in both the Old and New Testaments, would immediately think of the sacrificial animals, which God wanted to be blameless, without defect. These animals that bore the sins of the people were to be blameless, because the people themselves were not. And the situation has hardly changed. If Abram, you, or me had to rely on our ability to be blameless in order to receive the promises of God, we would be doomed to die in our sin.
But God has a strange, almost illogical habit of making unilateral covenants. His promises do not depend on man’s behavior, they depend on His grace. Our Lord said to Abram in our text for today, “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations.” Despite all that had transpired since God first gave that promise, He declares His promise to Abram again! He received the great promise of many offspring, which would form nations and bear kings. “I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you.” His offspring would also bear the promise. “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” And this would begin with the gift of a son: “I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her.” To be sure, God expected Abram to live like one who had the promise, but Abram’s life did not establish this covenant, it was God’s doing, it was His act, it was His promise. The grace of God does not wait for our perfection, but instead His grace is acting to destroy the source of our imperfection and deliver us from all that held us captive.
For the covenant with Abram was not to reward good behavior, it was intended for the salvation of all people, for the forgiveness of Abram’s sin and the sin of all. God did not give His covenant in the hope that we might improve our lives, but instead He gave it to do something about our sin, to wipe it away and break its shackles forever. That is why Abram received the promise, because His descendents would be the offspring of salvation, the messianic line. The promised offspring that would come from Abram’s line would be the One to deliver us from our sin, the covenant given to Abram had one purpose- our salvation through Jesus Christ. For Jesus was the promised seed, who came into the world when the covenant given to Abram was ready for fulfillment- and He did what Abram and we could not. He was the one who truly walked with God because He was God Himself, in intimate communion with God the Father and the Holy Spirit. Moreover, He was the blameless one, the one who had no sin of His own. He fulfilled what God commanded Abram in our text, and He did this for us.
The covenant with Abram brought Jesus into the world, and He came to establish yet another covenant. Israel had served its purpose, Abram’s descendant had come to our fallen world to redeem it, and now a new covenant, an everlasting covenant was needed. And once again, God is in the business of making unilateral covenants. He does not wait for us to shape up before He establishes a new covenant, but instead as Saint Paul tells us in our Epistle lesson: “while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly…. God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Christ was blameless, just like the sacrificial animals in the temple, just as God demanded of us in our Old Testament lesson. And exactly like those sacrificial animals, He shed His blood and gave up His life for our sins. His blood established a new covenant with us, one that is everlasting. Jesus teaches this in the words of institution in Matthew’s Gospel: “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Forgiveness and eternal life are the gifts of this covenant, they are the promises offered by our Lord through His death and resurrection. For Christ died to fulfill one covenant and establish another- He came to deal with our sin once and for all by dying in our place, the blameless and perfect in place of the imperfect and sinful. He died, and through His death you have life!
The new covenant established in the shed blood and victorious resurrection of Jesus follows in many ways the pattern of the covenant with Abram. In between the two parts of our Old Testament lesson, God instituted a visible sign to accompany the covenant, the act of circumcision. “You shall be circumcised… and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.” This was a daily reminder of the great promise God made to them. We too have signs of the covenant, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the great gifts of Christ to us. But, oh, they are so much more than simply signs! They convey the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection to us, they enact the promises of Christ’s new covenant in us- through them we become God’s children, members of His family, we become part of the multitude of children promised to Abram. In them our sins are forgiven, and we are clothed with the righteousness of Christ. And in them we also receive a new name. “No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations… As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name.” We bear the name of Christ because of our Baptism into His death and resurrection. We are blameless for His sake, and we will stand blameless around the throne in the new heavens and the new earth forever. Each and every day that we live out our Baptism by dying to sin and rising to Christ, and each and every time we receive the Lord’s Supper, we receive the benefits of what Christ has done for us.
And just like Abraham, we walk with God each and every day. We immerse ourselves in His word and prayer, we come to this place to receive His bountiful gifts. We are blameless in His eyes for the sake of Christ- what else can we do but walk in intimate fellowship and communion with Him? But this path, this walk with our Lord, is not an easy one. Jesus teaches us this in the Gospel lesson. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Bearing crosses is not a simple or easy task, but we do so with the knowledge that He bore it first for us and the promise that He bears it with us in our lives. May our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the blameless one, continue to cover you with His shed blood so that you are blameless before the Father for all eternity, Amen.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Mission Focus: Rev. Dennis Meeker (March article for church newsletter)

Our mission focus this month starts with a good story, but probably one Hollywood would turn down. It starts with an Iowa hog farmer (that is probably where we lose Warner Brothers) who was called out of that vocation to become a pastor (there went the other studios!). He traveled to Fort Wayne to begin his studies, and met a Kenyan pastor studying at the seminary. This pastor introduced him to a woman in his congregation in Kenya, a woman named Lorna. The rest, as they say, is history, as the seminarian took a break from school and married Lorna, then she joined him in Fort Wayne, becoming part of the deaconess program. When it came time for vicarage, it was only natural that they would serve in Kenya. And so the Vicar from Iowa served God’s people in Africa, teaching, preaching, and learning. It seemed natural for him and his wife to stay in Kenya and serve as LC-MS missionaries. But the LC-MS thought that it knew better, and another student was chosen for that spot. Though they were disappointed, the story did not end there. Instead, this story ends with the Bishop of Kenya’s Lutheran Church, Walter Obare, traveling to Iowa to ordain this one-time hog farmer as a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Kenya. Ah, a story only a Lutheran could love!

Rev. Meeker and his wife Lorna then traveled back to her homeland to serve a church in the Kibera slums outside of Nairobi, Springs of Life Lutheran Church. They knew that serving amongst poverty and disease (especially AIDS) would not be easy, but this sinful world had much more to send their way. In the turmoil of presidential elections at the end of 2007, Springs of Life Lutheran Church was looted and burned. You may have even watched it burn, as it made the national news here in the U.S. But at a time when many mission organizations (including the LC-MS, if you want to get me going, ask me about that subject!) were pulling missionaries out of Kenya, the Meekers refused to leave. They sheltered displaced parishioners and were even able to hold a communion service at the church just days after it was burned. It has been over a year since that terrible time, and while the Meekers are still rebuilding, they are also able to continue the wonderful work they had been doing previously. This includes serving an active congregation, but also much work amongst those living in poverty or afflicted with AIDS.

To support the important work of the Meekers, I encourage you to look at the Friends of Mercy, an organization here in the U.S. who is supporting them (along with other projects). Their website is http://thefriendsofmercy.org/ Friends of Mercy does wonderful work in supporting efforts in Africa to care for the victims of AIDS and spread awareness about the effects of that disease. I encourage you to consider supporting the important work that this Iowa farmer and his wife are doing amongst the slums in Kenya. May the Lord bless you as we travel through Lent on our way to the cross!

In Christ,
Vicar Maronde

What is a Lutheran? Part III (March article for school newsletter)

We heard last month that Christ won forgiveness of sins and eternal life for us though the cross and empty tomb. But these gifts would not do any good for us unless He delivered them to us. One of Luther’s most important contributions to our understanding of the Gospel was the distinction between salvation accomplished and salvation delivered. Salvation was accomplished through the cross and empty tomb, but we should not go running to Jerusalem to find it. Instead, salvation is now delivered to people in desperate need of it through His Church in several ways:

The first is through the Word. Through the Bible, or through people speaking (or preaching) the good news of Christ, the Holy Spirit comes to us to create faith within us, faith which receives His promised gifts. In Baptism, Jesus works through water to bring us into His kingdom, giving to us those gifts in another, more tangible way. Lutherans are encouraged to look back to their Baptism every day, and remember what Christ did through that washing. Our entire lives are to be shaped by that washing, as we drown our sin daily. Finally, He established the Lord’s Supper, a means of strengthening faith, where He comes to His people to give them His Body and His Blood for the forgiveness of their sins. Salvation is given as a gift, there is nothing that we can do to earn it, there is nothing that we can do to claim it. Instead, Christ comes to us in His Word or through Baptism to create faith within us, faith which grasps the salvation won on the cross.

Zion Lutheran Church is not the only place where Christ comes with His gifts, nor do Lutherans claim to be the only ones to receive these gifts. Christ works through His Gospel to bring salvation wherever it is proclaimed. I thank you for taking this journey with me through the basics of Lutheran teaching. Remember that Pastor Werly and I are both resources for learning more. Lutherans are all about Jesus, and what He has done for you and all people. God’s richest blessings as we journey through Lent!

In Christ,

Vicar Maronde

First Sunday in Lent (Series B: Mark 1:9-15)

“And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this first Sunday in Lent is from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the first chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Mark. Dear friends in Christ, Baptism forms the core and essence of our Christian life. It constructs a framework for the rest of our lives, it provides to us the gifts that sustain us every step of the way. For in those waters, God claimed you as His own, He came to you who could not come to Him. He saw you in your sinful state and acted to rescue you, even if you were only a few days old. We may not have been able to see it with our fallen eyes, but on that day what Jesus saw in our text for today happened again. “And when He came up out of the water, immediately He saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on Him like a dove.” Just think about it- the heavens were literally torn open in your Baptism, and there the Holy Spirit came to you, to work faith in your heart and forgive your sins. “And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’” The Father spoke these words to Jesus at His Baptism, and He spoke them to you at your baptism. For the sake of His Son, who cleansed you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, God the Father now says to you, “You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased!”

Baptism acts as an anchor, an assurance throughout our lives that God loves us and has claimed us as His own. We need this anchor and assurance because our lives conform to that of Christ. “The Spirit immediately drove Him out into the wilderness. And He was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And He was there with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to Him.” Jesus was cast out from His Baptism, from the beautiful words of His Father, directly into the wilderness. The wilderness is a place of isolation, of danger, of hunger and thirst, it is a place where one feels completely and utterly alone. That is ironic, because Jesus had company in the wilderness- Satan himself came to do battle with our Lord, to use the isolation of the wilderness to make Jesus abandon the mission for which He became man.

Our lives dimly mirror that of Christ, and so we too were cast away from our Baptism and into the wilderness. We left the font, where God declared us His beloved child, where the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit worked faith in our hearts, and were literally flung into a world that has little use for God or His promises. The wilderness of this world is a place of danger, it is a place of evil, it is a place of temptation. “And He was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan.” Just as Satan used the wilderness to tempt our Lord, so he used the wilderness to tempt us. He wants us to feel isolated, alone and separated from God. That is ultimately His goal- to separate us from God, to tear us away from the one who claimed us in the waters of Baptism. He tempts us to separate us from others and then from God. You know how he does this. He uses your thoughts and actions to drive wedges between you and others. He wants to see you isolated, and He delights in seeing groups of people in disunity. Disunity in families, disunity in churches are his special projects. We have here at Zion a group of people working together to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and oh, how Satan works! He drives wedges between Church and School, between boards, between members on boards, between every member of this community. Every time that we point the finger and refer to ‘they’ we have given into his temptation, we have isolated ourselves from one another. And while Satan is the one tempting, we have no one to blame but ourselves, as James says in our Epistle lesson: “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” And that is the end of our isolation, of our disunity, that is all that we deserve.

But the wilderness is not only a place of isolation and temptation, it is also the place of redemption. At Zion I am teaching a class on the Minor Prophets. As we walk through these fascinating little books, it is amazing to see how often the prophets of God mention the Exodus. The bringing out of Israel from bondage in Egypt was truly the salvivic event in all of the Old Testament. There God acted with a mighty and outstretched arm to deliver His chosen people from slavery. He humbled Egypt and her gods, then destroyed Pharaoh’s army with the crushing weight of the Red Sea waters. God acted to save His people, and He acted with power and might. He then preserved His people on a forty year journey through the wilderness, a journey that pointed forward to Jesus. “The Spirit immediately drove Him into the wilderness. And He was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan.” Jesus triumphed over Satan during His forty day stay in the wilderness, just as God preserved His people during their forty year journey. But following Christ’s triumph, something amazing happened: “And He was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to Him.” For this Jesus was not simply a guy who God declared His Son at His Baptism, He was no mere man. But Jesus was true God and true man, God in the flesh come to His fallen creation to restore it. The wild animals recognized what sinful man refused to acknowledge- this man in the wilderness was more than a man, it was Yahweh Himself come to save! And He would save through a new Exodus. Isaiah describes this new Exodus in chapter forty three of his prophecy: “Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings forth chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: ‘Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild beasts will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches, for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise.’” In Christ God is doing a ‘new thing,’ and the angels and wild beasts recognize it and fall down in worship.

We prayed earlier in the Collect: “You led Your ancient people through the wilderness and brought them to the promised land. Guide the people of Your Church that following our Savior we may walk through the wilderness of this world toward the glory of the world to come.” Christ has come to lead all of fallen humanity out of the wilderness of sin and into the promised land of heavenly glory. But He could only do this by submitting to the wilderness for us. Only by triumphing where the first Adam failed could He deliver us, and He did so in the desert at the very beginning of His ministry, setting the stage for the ultimate victory to come, a victory that would be accomplished by being bound. In our Old Testament lesson for today, Abraham is tested by God, who tells Him, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains.” The same God who would declare to Jesus that “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased,” first ordered Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son. Abraham dutifully obeyed, taking his son to the mountain and binding him for sacrifice. And you notice that Isaac did not protest, he did not struggle, but instead allowed himself to be bound. “Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here am I.’ He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know you fear God.’” My friends, God stopped Abraham from sacrificing his son, but He did not halt the sacrifice of Christ. God did not withhold the knife, but instead poured all of His wrath upon His only begotten Son. He did this because Christ willingly and obediently bore all of the sins of the world to that cross. Your sin, my sin, our sin of falling into temptation, of isolating ourselves from God and dividing from others, each and every one of those sins were paid for on Calvary’s cross. Christ showed the same obedience that Isaac did, willingly taking this burden on and then shedding His blood for all people. And when the moment came God did what He prevented Abraham from doing. His Son was sacrificed for us all, because only by paying for our sins with His blood could Jesus defeat Satan, only then, in seeming defeat, could the lord of darkness be ultimately defeated. Jesus entered the wilderness to crush Satan, and He left with the victory.

And now, because of His shed blood and death, Jesus leads us through this wilderness of sin. Satan is defeated, but the dog still barks- he still threatens, he still attempts to isolate and divide people. We cannot fight Satan’s attempts to isolate and divide by simply ignoring differences or pretending they don’t matter, but by turning to His Word, the only sure defense and bond of unity we have. Just as Jesus taught us, we turn the Word of God against each and every one of Satan’s temptations. And this Word gives us confidence in God’s gracious protection and deliverance. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus shows us that we are not alone, but instead that He is beside us in every temptation, giving us the strength to stand up under it. Luther teaches us in the explanation to the sixth petition of that great prayer: “God tempts no one. We pray in this petition that God would guard and keep us so that the devil, the world, and our sinful nature may not deceive us or mislead us into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice. Although we are attacked by these things, we pray that we may finally overcome them and win the victory.” We win the victory when for the sake of Christ we are delivered from the wilderness of this world to eternal life with Him in the new heavens and new earth. May our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ bring us through this wilderness until by means of His shed blood we dwell with Him in eternal glory forever, Amen.