Monday, June 22, 2009

Proper 7 of Series B (Mark 4:35-41)

“And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, ‘Who is this, that even wind and sea obey Him?’” 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 the fourth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Mark. Dear friends in Christ, sometimes even the most minor details in Scripture have importance. In our text today, Mark gives to us a curious example. “And leaving the crowd, they took Him with them in the boat, just as He was. And other boats were with Him.” What’s with the other boats? Matthew and Luke don’t mention them, and even Mark doesn’t point them out again. Why include this detail? The most obvious answer is that it is true- the Gospels report to us history, and Mark may simply be trying to be as complete as possible. But I believe that there is an additional solution. The Gospels may be history, but they are not only history. They are also proclamation, they tell our story. The Gospel writers want us to see ourselves in the accounts they deliver to us. And what better way to do it than mentioning the presence of other boats? In that way we can imagine ourselves out on the lake, following Jesus by land and by water, when disaster strikes.

The sea is a place of danger to first-century people, it is the very embodiment of evil and death, an impersonal force looking for new ways to kill and destroy. “On that day, when evening had come, He said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’” There is an element of routine here- people travel across the sea every day- but when we hear these words, our hearts do feel a twinge of fear. We can’t help but think of Jonah, another prophet of God who traveled across the sea. We all know how that one turned out. On the Great Sea, the Mediterranean, his ship ran into a storm and Jonah ended up spending three days in a great fish. What possible dangers could be waiting for Jesus? Yet, there is something quite different about this Jesus. Jonah was God’s rebellious prophet, his journey on the sea was to escape the mission given to him. Jesus, however, is not unwilling but willing, He travels across the sea for the express purpose of declaring the Word of God to the Gentiles living opposite the Jews. Just as Jonah preached unwillingly to the Gentile sinners of Nineveh, Jesus goes to preach willingly to the Gentile sinners of the land across the sea, the Decapolis.

So we run to our boats and begin to follow Jesus. And, out on the water, in the middle of the lake, our worst fears come true. This Jesus guy seems to stir up trouble wherever He goes- we can all remember how the demon possessed ran to challenge Jesus, how He cast the demons from them with the power of His Word. And now the entire sea appears to be demon possessed. “And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling.” We can’t help but think that this storm is all that we deserve. It was our sin that plunged the world into chaos, that made travel across any part of God’s good creation dangerous. Mankind corrupted itself, and Jesus has been combating the results since He appeared on the scene. Diseases, infirmity, the oppression of the devil, even death itself are the effects of the Fall into sin. But it goes much deeper than that, and it is the ultimate consequence of our sin that gives us the most fear as the water fills our boat. For as much as the storm personifies the corruption of this fallen world and the oppression of Satan, it also reminds us of God’s judgment. We are sinful in our thoughts, words, and deeds, all we deserve is eternal separation from God, and it seems like this storm may be it.

What recourse do we have? As the storm rages, we have only one person that we can turn to, and He has disappeared. As we gaze into Jesus’ boat, the great teacher is nowhere to be seen. “But He was in the stern, asleep on the cushion.” Jesus had found the only sheltered spot on a Galilean fishing boat, underneath the helmsman’s platform, and there He slept. Maybe there wasn’t such a great difference between Him and Jonah after all? That rebellious prophet also slept as the storm raged. But the connections we draw go much deeper than that. God has often seemed asleep to us, we have sometimes been unable to see Him working, to feel His presence. So often, it seems like God doesn’t care about us or what happens to us. The storms of life come upon us fast and furious, they overwhelm us with their power. They come in the form of sickness and disease, or the death of dear loved ones, and we cry out to God for deliverance. Natural disasters, the loss of property, the distressing events of our world continue to pour water into our boat, and we can’t believe that our God is sleeping. “And they woke Him and said to Him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’” Our question reveals the turmoil within us. We are in danger of giving up the faith, we are tempted so often to give in to fear and unbelief. If God won’t intervene right now, then why should we believe?

But the One who appeared to be asleep has been watching over us the entire time. “And He awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Peace, be still!’ And the wind ceased and there was a great calm.” We watch in amazement as the thunder of Jesus’ voice sounds out. Just as He told the demons to be quiet and come out of their hosts, so He exorcises the sea with the power of His Word. The sea is rebuked and silenced, the great storm is replaced by a great calm. But the sea is not the only thing that is rebuked. “He said to them, ‘Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?’” The accusation cuts deeply. In so many of the storms of our lives, we have let fear replace faith, and for that we repent.

As we watch the storm clouds quickly fade away, a question forms on our lips. “And they were filled with a great fear and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey Him?’” We can’t help but think of when Job was asked a similar question. “Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said… ‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements- surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it?’” There is only one answer- the God of all Creation has appeared on the scene, Yahweh Himself has come in human flesh to deliver from the storm. This great teacher, this amazing prophet, this miracle-worker is no mere man, but our Lord and Savior, the Messiah, the very Son of God. As Luther puts so beautifully in his hymn, “You ask who this may be? The Lord of Hosts is He, Christ Jesus, mighty Lord, God’s only Son, adored. He holds the field victorious.”

But as we follow Jesus and the disciples in our boat, something is still not connecting. More storms will form over the Sea of Galilee, the earth has not been rid of all corruption. When we reach the other side, Satan will oppose Jesus once again in the form of a wild, demon-possessed man. Jesus will cast the demon from Him as well, but each of these victories seems incomplete and temporary. If Jesus is going to cleanse creation of the effects of our fall into sin, He has a long way to go. But as we travel with our Lord, it slowly becomes apparent that He is headed for a once-for-all, ultimate showdown with Satan. These minor engagements are only preliminary to what is to come. For Jesus Christ has come to still the storm of Satan’s domination, He has come to defeat evil forever. But He would do this in a strange way. At least the calming of the storm had the appearance of victory, we could cheer at the triumph of the Creator over His rebellious creation. Christ’s ultimate victory would instead come wrapped in the appearance of defeat. Jesus would allow sinful humans to falsely accuse Him, to beat and scourge Him, and finally to nail Him to a cross. It was only by sacrificing Himself that Jesus could win ultimate victory, our Lord and Savior offered His very blood in the place of you and me. There, on the hill of Golgotha, man’s scorn and God’s wrath raged against Him in complete fury, it was a perfect storm, and He endured it all for us, He endured it all because He loves you. “And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat.”

When the sky cleared, Jesus had given up His very life to deliver you, His blood was shed for you, He lay in a tomb to sanctify your grave, and He rose to give you life. For sin, Satan, and death had done their worst, and had failed, for Christ had crushed them all, defeating them for you and me. The storm was silenced, its fury broken, mankind delivered. Satan had stood before the throne of God, accusing us of our sin, but now Jesus has ascended to the right hand of God, and He silences our accuser. “And He awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’” Satan can no longer accuse us of our sin, for Christ took all that sin to the cross, we have been forgiven through His triumph, we are covered in His blood. Satan can talk all He wants to- we are God’s children through Baptism, we are forgiven, we are His own. That is the promise that we have, that is the victory Christ won for you and me.

As God’s children, we still travel the waterways of this life. We still encounter storms, terrible storms that make us wonder if God is asleep. But we have the promise of ultimate and eternal deliverance, we know that God will bring us through every storm to the harbor of heaven, His promised rest. Psalm 107 puts it so well: “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and He delivered them from their distress. He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. Then they were glad that the waters were quiet, and He brought them to their desired haven.” God may not always calm the storms of this life in the way that we want, but we take heart that the ultimate storm has been defeated, that every storm will be hushed in eternity. How can we thank Him, what is our response to this great proclamation of our Creator and Savior? Once again, Psalm 107 gives us the words: “Let them thank the Lord for His steadfast love, for His wondrous works to the children of men! Let them extol Him in the congregation of the people, and praise Him in the assembly of the elders.” Amen.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Proper 6 of Series B (Mark 4:26-34)

“When the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, for the harvest has come.” 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 the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the fourth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Mark. Dear friends in Christ, I will always be a farmer. The Lord has led me toward a different vocation, but a part of me will always love the life in which I was raised. I grew up with the sound (and smell) of pigs, with baby calves in the spring and mean bulls keeping an eye on me. I grew up with the soil of God’s beautiful earth in my hands, watching dad or grandpa drive the tractor back and forth. For my family, life had a rhythm, and this rhythm had nothing to do with us. We were on someone else’s schedule, whether it was the growing season for crops or the pregnancy of cattle. There was little that we could do to alter it. Spring and summer would come whether we were ready or not, and we were the ones who had to adapt. Each year could hold a disaster, too much rain or too little, and there was nothing that mere humans could do about it. We all knew it- all of my relatives knew it, all of our neighbors knew it, all of the old farmers at the cafe drinking coffee knew it. But that didn’t mean we always liked it, or ever completely accepted it.

It’s simply a part of human nature. We want to be in control, we want to have all the answers. We look around us at a world spiraling out of control, and we want to get a handle on it, to somehow slow it down or turn it in the other direction. At least a farmer has a pretty good idea of the rhythm of nature; when we look around our world, we have no idea what will happen next. It is important to stay current on what is happening in the world, but doing so without falling into despair is almost impossible. Gay activists continue their assault on marriage and the family, while at the same time an abortion doctor is killed, sparking a harsh backlash against all who support the sanctity of life. And scariest of all, we are losing our rights to speak against sin in the public square. But you do not have to tune to 24-hour news channels to see a world spinning out of control. Sometimes we only have to look around us, sometimes into our own homes, or at our own lives.

In times like these, we want to speak the words of the Gospel to others, we want to proclaim the message of hope and peace to a world that has neither. And this doesn’t necessarily mean mission trips or handing out pamphlets, often we simply want to see our friends and family brought into or back to the faith. Children or grandchildren, brothers and sisters, parents and other relatives, our coworkers, our good friends- we want them to be part of the body of Christ, and so we do our best to speak to them about Jesus and what He has done for them. We plant seeds, but then we desire control, we want to cause the growth, we want to do everything. “And He said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how.’” We want to have control because it seems like God is slacking off, we can’t understand how He is working.

It is the same way with our own salvation- we want to be the boss, we want to cause our own growth, we want to be active. But that is precisely how we fell into sin in the first place. Adam and Eve wanted to have control, they weren’t going to let God run things. They second-guessed their Creator, and then they fell into sin, plunging us all into rebellion. And now we are conceived and born in opposition to God. We were born with the ability to do a lot, but every act is in opposition to Him, rebelling against His will and His ways. Since the day Adam and Eve fell into sin humanity has been trying to reach God, to somehow attain our own salvation, and the simple fact is that while we can do much to rebel against God, we cannot do anything to accomplish our own salvation.

“The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle because the harvest has come.” Without human help, without human advice, in fact counter to every way that fallen humanity would’ve planned its own salvation, God brought forth deliverance. His plan was one of seeming insignificance, seeming weakness, seeming defeat, but in that insignificance, weakness, and defeat God would provide the victory. In Genesis chapter three God promised a ‘seed,’ an object of complete unimportance, that would accomplish salvation. But that was not the half of it. “And He said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth.’”

Fallen humanity could not save itself, it had no control over eternity, but instead faced the sure and certain penalty of eternal death, and so God sent forth His Seed in the person of Jesus Christ, born of the virgin Mary, true God in human flesh. He truly was “the smallest of all the seeds on earth,” born in a stable, raised by a carpenter, one who grew up to be a dirt-poor wandering rabbi. Jesus appeared to all who saw Him in complete and total humility. He made Himself low, insignificant, and weak. But His life would only show part of his humiliation- His death would proclaim it to all people. Jesus declared to His disciples in the Gospel according to St. John: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” This seed, this mustard seed, “the smallest of all the seeds on earth,” Jesus Christ Himself, was cast into the ground and died. The promised Seed was hung high upon the tree of the cross, the righteous Branch proclaimed by Jeremiah was nailed to the wood. There Jesus suffered, there Jesus bled, there Jesus died, and He suffered, bled, and died to deliver you. This was God’s plan from the beginning, that we, who have no control over our own salvation, would be delivered by the humility and death of the very Son of God.

But that is not the end of the story. “It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants.” Jesus Christ, the promised Seed, fell into the ground and died, He was buried for three days. But on that glorious Easter Sunday He rose, and He rose to be exalted for the purpose of granting eternal salvation to you and me, He rose to establish His Church, His very body, which would grow into a magnificent plant. And that plant, His Church, now casts new seed into this world.

“The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground.” The seed is the Word of God, the very Word that proclaims the work of the promised Seed for the salvation of all. That seed is planted in human hearts through His Church, which by means of the Holy Spirit proclaims that Word and baptizes people in the washing of the water with the Word. That is how you came to faith, through the Word of God read, proclaimed, or taught, or through the blessed washing of Baptism. As much as we humans want to take part, it is the Holy Spirit that brings forth growth. Sometimes that growth is strong, sometimes the plant nearly withers, and sometimes it appears dead for years, even decades. But all along the Holy Spirit is working through the means that have been appointed. He works through the Word, He brings to mind the waters of Holy Baptism, and soon He adds another means, the gift of the Supper of Christ’s very own Body and Blood, given and shed for our sin on the cross, and now given to us for the forgiveness of sins in the Sacrament. “He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.” We cannot create growth by ourselves, but we can stunt it by avoiding the gifts Christ wants to give us. That is where humans are active. We cannot create faith in the heart of another, but we can bring them into contact with the Word of God as much as possible, leaving it to the Holy Spirit to cause the growth.

The Word produces fruit, in God’s own way and in His own time. “But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” That is the day that we look forward to- the day of harvest, the day of Resurrection, the Last Day. It is on that Day that God will gather us in, all those who have been covered with the blood of the Lamb, redeemed through His death and resurrection. On that Day we will dwell with Christ in the Resurrection life He won for us forever.

But for now, we remain in a world out of control. What shelter can we have in the storms of this life? “It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” The only place that we can find shelter is in Jesus Christ, the promised Seed that has now through His death and Resurrection become a mighty tree. We dwell under His cross, for it is through His sacrifice on the cross that we have forgiveness, life and salvation. Every other ‘tree’ in our world promising shelter is just like a Charlie Brown Christmas tree, it provides no protection, no shade in a world spinning out of control. Instead we dwell in Christ’s branches, we dwell under His shade through prayer, through the Word, through the Sacraments, and through this community of believers He has placed us in.

And as we find shelter in the branches, we spread the seed of the Word to others. Just like the promised Seed, Jesus Christ, this seed seems insignificant, and often we can’t tell if it is causing any growth. But we still cast the seed, and we pray, we pray that the Holy Spirit would work faith in Christ through His Word, we pray that God would keep His promise to make His Word fruitful. We do not have ultimate control, as much as we would like to, but that does not keep us from casting seed. We do so in the shelter of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and His cross, receiving the forgiveness of sins and looking toward the harvest day. On that day we will dwell in the branches of our Savior forever, delivered from death and hell to live before Him in eternity. May the Lord preserve us and strengthen our faith through Word and Sacrament until that day, Amen.

Holy Trinity Sunday (Series B: John 3:1-17)

“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 Sunday of the Holy Trinity 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, Holy Trinity Sunday has a tendency to be a bit confusing. The Gradual for this day declares: “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, and His greatness is unsearchable.” After we confess the Athanasian Creed this morning, I think you will all heartily agree. I am of the opinion that only pastors and vicars actually like reciting this creed, and I think we all have this plot brewing to confess it every month, if not every week. Some may say that this is because you need a seminary education to understand the Trinity, but I would disagree. All a seminary education gives you is a shelf full of books about the doctrine of the Trinity, where everyone pretty much says, “we don’t get it either.” But there is a great difference between knowing the ins and outs of the Trinity and simply confessing what the Bible tells us. In the Athanasian Creed we will confess, “The Father is one person, the Son is another, and the Holy Spirit is another. But the Godhead of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is one.” That’s not any kind of math I’m used to, but that it what Scripture teaches us.

Humans quite simply don’t understand God, in fact, we cannot. On the other hand, Jesus has us figured out, as John tells us right before our text: “[Jesus] Himself knew what was in man.” Just in case we don’t believe John’s testimony about Jesus, we are given an example. “Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with Him.’” Nicodemus has some flattering words, but he doesn’t know what he is getting himself into. The answers of Jesus leave Him befuddled, all of His great intelligence and standing before the people counts as nothing before Jesus. “Jesus answered him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?’” He is in the same boat as the rest of us. Humans cannot understand the mystery of God, we are unable to probe the depths of His mind, and the effort often leaves us confused and frustrated.

Why is this? Jesus tells Nicodemus in our text. “That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” We have been born in the flesh, the sinful corrupted flesh that was given to us by all who came before. This sin, which clings to us like a disease, not only keeps us from understanding God, it keeps us from knowing Him in the first place. We are born separated from God, unable by any effort of our own to come to Him or know Him. But this separation is not just one of knowledge, as if we could go to the library and fix it. This is a real, physical separation. God created man to be in fellowship with Him, but our sin continues to push Him away. We cannot come to God, but we can and do make the gap wider and wider- with every lie, every evil thought, every moment of hatred toward others, every time we profane His Name. Our focus is in the wrong place, as Jesus said: “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” Our sinful selves are focused on earthly things, the things of this world, rather than on heaven. The concerns of our lives on this earth so often drown out any concern about the things of God. Isn’t that how the world tells us to live, with our eyes focused on the ground, on our wants here in this world? The teachings of Christ about the Trinity mean little to the world, because it does not see our real needs- that we have a sin problem, we have a death problem, we have a hell problem.

To solve those problems, to fulfill those needs, the only needs that matter in eternity, the doctrine of the Trinity is indispensible, because for our salvation, the Trinity sprang into action. We will confess in a few moments: “We worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance.” The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are in relationship together, an intimate relationship that is incomprehensible to the human mind. But Jesus declares, “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony.” Jesus of Nazareth, who appeared to human reason as simply a man, had a window into that relationship, for He was a part of it. He was true God and true man, the Second person of the Trinity. “No one has ascended into heaven except Him who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” They are three distinct persons, yet one God. We can spend all day trying to figure out how one God could be three distinct persons, but here we simply confess what we have been given to confess- that the three persons of the Trinity work in relationship to accomplish our salvation.

God saw our corrupted state, that we could neither understand Him nor come to Him, that we were born separated from Him and condemned to death, and He acted. And He acted in love. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” The first person of the Trinity sent the Second person into our creation, Jesus Christ became man for us and our salvation, that man and God may no longer be separated. “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.” But the Incarnation was not victory in itself. Jesus had come to deal with our sin problem, our death problem, and our hell problem, and to do that He needed to defeat them all by offering Himself in our place. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him might have eternal life.” Moses crafted a bronze serpent, the very embodiment of the punishment for the people’s sin, and placed it high upon a pole. This bronze serpent had no poison in itself, but instead all who were bitten would look to it and live. Jesus Christ, who bore our very flesh, but yet without the poison of sin, allowed Himself to be taken up high upon the pole of the cross. There He gave His life, there He shed His blood, there He endured the abandonment of God for our sin. Jesus was in that intimate relationship of the Trinity, but on the cross, God turned His back upon Christ, unleashing hell upon Him for us. And with His wounds we are healed, with His blood our sin is atoned for, with His death, death itself is defeated, and with His resurrection, we have the promise of eternal life.

But Jesus’ death and resurrection would mean nothing if the benefits were not brought to us. For this task, the Third person of the Trinity would be sent. In our text, Nicodemus tries to butter Jesus up with some flattering remarks about their admiration for His teaching. But Jesus goes right to the heart of the matter. “Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’” We were born with the corrupted flesh that we inherited from our parents, indeed from our first parents, Adam and Eve. We were barred from the kingdom of God and condemned to death. In love the Father sent the Son, who accomplished salvation, and then the Father and Son send the Holy Spirit, who brings people into the kingdom of the Son. And He does this by giving us a new birth. “Nicodemus said to Him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?’”

In our physical birth we received the inheritance of sin, and so we needed a different birth to give to us the inheritance of salvation. “Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’” In Baptism, we are washed with water and given the gift of the Holy Spirit. There the Spirit does His work of bringing us the gifts Christ won for us, of making us new. We are given in Baptism the rebirth in the Spirit, a new birth of life that brings us into Christ’s promises, into the kingdom He established with His blood. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Through Baptism we are given a new birth, a birth from above by water and the Spirit, we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit and the promise of the forgiveness of sins. We are baptized into the fellowship of the Trinity- it is no surprise that Jesus instructs us to baptize in that Name: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Through Baptism, the new birth of the Spirit, we are made children of God, God is now our Father, as Jesus teaches us in the Lord’s Prayer. That is what characterizes our eternal existence- intimate fellowship with the Triune God. But though we are born of the Spirit, we do not therefore reject our bodies. Our flesh is a good gift of God, and He will raise it up and renew it as well on the last day. That is the promise that we have through Baptism, that all of us, body and soul, will dwell with Christ forever in heaven.

Nicodemus, after hearing of the miracle of Baptism, that God would give life to sinful people through the washing of the water with the Word, asks “How can these things be?” But Jesus has already given him the answer: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” The Spirit works as the Lord has ordained, and He works in mysterious ways, bringing people the blessings Christ won through simple words, water, bread and wine. And so, even with the birth of the Spirit in Baptism, the things of God still remain mysterious. We will not be able to completely understand the Trinity, we will not be able to fully comprehend how God could become man and accomplish salvation, nor how the Holy Spirit could use such ordinary means to bring us salvation. We remain in the flesh, and so we confess what we have been given to confess from the Scriptures. And the Scriptures teach us to confess what we cannot see, what we cannot fully understand, that the Father sent His Son to accomplish salvation, and the Father and Son sent the Spirit to deliver His gifts to us. That is where we place our confidence- on what Scripture has taught us, what Jesus has taught us, and what we will confess in the Athanasian Creed. We believe in the Triune God that created us, defeated our enemies for us, and gave to us a new birth through the washing of the water with the Word. May the Triune God, the only true God, strengthen and preserve you in that baptismal faith until life everlasting, Amen.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Day of Pentecost (Series B: Ezekiel 37:1-14)

“And you shall know that I AM the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this Pentecost Day is from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the thirty-seventh chapter of the prophet Ezekiel. Dear friends in Christ, the earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. But God spoke, and things began to happen. With the power of His Word He brought forth light, He separated waters, He caused plants to sprout, and animals to teem in the sky, on the land, and in the sea. His Word brought the stars into existence, with the sun and the moon. All things came to be through the power of His Word, but the greatest miracle was yet to come. “Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” He who had no life in himself, who was only a pile of dirt, became a living person with a blast of wind from God’s nostrils, God put into man the breath of life. And God took a rib from the man, this mound of dirt made alive by the power of God’s life giving breath, and made woman. Adam said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, because she was taken out of man.”

They were united together as man and woman, as husband and wife. And together, they plunged into rebellion. All the gifts that God had given, every good thing brought forth by the power of His Word, even the very gift of the breath of life, was not enough. They wanted more. They wanted to run the show, they wanted to be like God. And so they betrayed God, they disobeyed Him, and they condemned each of their offspring to lives as enemies of God. We are the children of Adam and Eve, we too want to be like God, to run our lives our own way, without His interference or His rules. The wonderful life that God has given us to live is too stifling for us, we think we know better. And so we live our lives our own way, indulging in secret or even public sin, wallowing in thoughts, words, and deeds that thumb our noses at our creator.

And so those created by God, those breathing the very breath of life, wither away. For as hard as we may even try to follow the commands of God, the fact remains that we are estranged from our creator, cut off from His life-giving nourishment. "The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry." Ezekiel sees the results. He sees what humanity’s sin, the sin inherited from Adam and Eve and added to by us, has led to- dry bones, cut off from water. Not alive, in fact the very opposite of alive. These bones are dead, they have very little that would demonstrate that they have ever been alive. And they are left unburied, subject to the elements, subject to the curse. Ezekiel knows that in his day bones were only left unburied as a sign of a curse, and He knows that the curse over all humanity is that of death. “And He said to me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ And I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’”

God’s question is ridiculous, and Ezekiel answers the only way he can. Of course these bones cannot live. They cannot pick themselves up and grow flesh and skin and become people again. Bones, dry bones, cursed bones quite simply don’t do those sorts of things. They cannot even move without help, because they are dead. This is the plight of mankind- God quotes His people, they say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost, we are completely cut off.” But yet Ezekiel cannot leave it with a simple and emphatic ‘no’- he is speaking with the Lord of all creation, the Lord who created life in the first place by mounding up some dirt and breathing. “O Lord God, you know.”

God did know. God knew that He would soon send someone to give life to dead bones, one who would take the very plight of man and make it His own. This one is the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God Himself taking on human flesh and dwelling amongst dry bones. The people cried out to God for deliverance, saying, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off.” Jesus Christ came to allow His bones to be dried up in the dust of death, as He cries in Psalm 22: “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.” He came to allow his hope to be seemingly lost. He came to be completely cut off from the Father as He cries out from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He came to do all this for He had come to rescue sinful, condemned, and cursed people from death. He came to take on their sin, your sin and my sin, and take it to the cross. He came to defeat death and make dry bones alive. His mission was to suffer everything, even the very abandonment of God, and die for you, me, and all people. He came to the valley of dry bones, and He saw the humanity He loved, you and me, enslaved to death and ensnared in its curse. We were dry bones, unable to raise ourselves up, but He came for our salvation, He came to give life to us. And He did this by giving up His life, by allowing His body to be broken and destroyed, by laying Himself in the dust of death. But God brought Him forth from an open grave. “Behold, I will open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people.”

The Lord asked Ezekiel, “‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ And I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’” God knew that His Son would come to reconcile the Creator with His creation, He knew that Jesus Christ would die on the cross, facing the wrath and abandonment of God for dead and dying people. And He knew that Christ would rise triumphant and then go out to make dry bones live. But He does not answer Ezekiel, He simply demonstrates. “Then He said to me, ‘Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the Word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.” The Word goes forth from Christ and those whom He appointed to proclaim that Word, and it goes forth to give life to dry bones, bones which could not give themselves life. “So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath in them.”
There is a problem- these bones had formed bodies, just as God formed the man from the dust of the earth, but they were not alive. One thing remained- a promise, a promise that was fulfilled on this day. “When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.” The wind came, and it brought the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift long foretold, a gift that would make dead, dry bones alive. "Then he said to me, "Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live." So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army."

God recreated His people through the gift of the Holy Spirit, the one who brings the very benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection near to dead and dying people, near to you and me. Through the power of Christ’s word, the Holy Spirit breathed into your nostrils the very breath of life. You were joined to Christ, made His, a participant in the redemption that He won. You who were dead were made alive through Jesus Christ and His Word, which the promised Holy Spirit brought to you.

God recreates through the redemption of His Son, and then we follow the pattern of Jesus. Christ opened the grave as the firstfruits of the resurrection, and now we are part of the harvest to come. “Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people.” God asked Ezekiel, “Son of man, can these bones live?” The answer is: ‘Yes, through the redemption of Christ by His death and resurrection, these bones can live, and they can live forever!”
You and I are destined to join that ‘great army’ that Ezekiel sees, the great company of the ones redeemed by the blood of Christ, the ones resurrected to live before the throne of the Lamb forever. “The breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.” We are those who will receive the heavenly inheritance, the new heavens and new earth, the new Israel given to those redeemed by Christ’s blood. The Holy Spirit has made you alive through the Word of Christ and His sacraments, and now you await the day on which you follow Christ’s resurrection with your own. “And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I AM the Lord.” The Spirit was given to us on this day, the day of Pentecost, the day on which Christ fulfilled His promises and sent the Comforter, the one who will bring Jesus to us each and every day until the day of Resurrection. On that day we will join Christ forever in the resurrection life, standing before Him in heavenly glory for all eternity. May our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ work through the Holy Spirit to give you the confidence in God’s promises, that you may believe Him when He says, “I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord.” Amen.

Seventh Sunday of Easter (Series B: John 17:11b-19)

“Holy Father, keep them in your Name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this seventh and final Sunday of Easter is from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the seventeenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. Dear friends in Christ, always pay attention to the Collect. This little prayer, said towards the end of our service today and printed in your bulletin, is supposed to be a summary of the entire service. A good Collect will bring together all the themes of the day from the Introit, the Gradual, the First Reading, the Epistle, and the Gospel, giving you an excellent synopsis of what I should be talking about from up here. Today’s Collect is especially good: “O King of glory, Lord of hosts, uplifted in triumph far above all heavens, leave us not without consolation but send the Spirit of truth whom You promised from the Father; for You live and reign with Him and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever, Amen.” Do you see what is happening here? The Collect has set the context for this Sunday- last Thursday was Ascension Day, when the disciples saw Jesus disappear as He was lifted up high into the sky. We are tempted to think we are left alone, but wait, Jesus has promised a Comforter, the Holy Spirit who will bring Jesus to us. And for that Comforter, for Pentecost, the disciples wait, and we wait with them.

But waiting is not easy. We know that Pentecost is next week, we know that the first Pentecost was just shy of two thousand years ago, and yet we still wait. We wait for Christ to return, to fulfill His promises by making all things new. And while we wait, the Scriptures tell us we will face hardship. Our Gospel lesson comes from Maundy Thursday, and on that evening Jesus was especially concerned with what His followers will face while they waited. Before our text He tells us: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” We live, we wait in a world that despises us and the Gospel that has been delivered to us. They rejected Christ as Israel rejected her prophets, and having rejected the Master, they have few qualms about roughing up His servants. As He is preparing to travel to the cross, Jesus is giving us a reality check. We will face persecution, we will face rejection, we will face the hatred of the world because we belong to Christ, because of the hope that fills us. This is not some pessimistic prediction; for Jesus, this is simply reality.

When faced with the hatred of the world, there are two options that Christians are tempted to run toward. The first is simply giving up the faith. The history of the Church is sadly filled with people who abandoned what was given to them by Christ at the first sign of persecution. The way of the world looks so much easier, so much more carefree, than a life lived under the cross, facing hatred and rejection from even friends and family. That is where Satan wants us, that is where the world wants us, that is the goal of their persecution. You and I are tempted so often and so hard to simply give up, to take the easy path, to remove the stigma and burden of the name ‘Christian’ from us.

But Satan is still pretty pleased when we choose the second option- compromise. We see it all around us in the Christian Church today, that when faced with the hatred of the world, church bodies and individual Christians simply cave in. We saw it when women’s ordination became a big issue decades ago (it still is today), and church bodies simply followed the tide of culture rather than the truth of Scripture. We see it today as homosexuality finds acceptance even in our churches, when a bishop of the Anglican Church is an advocate for a lifestyle that is clearly condemned by the Word of God. Many Christians even support abortion, the heinous destruction of human life declared unwanted by our world. But before we point the finger at all those other Christians, at those so called ‘liberal’ church bodies, we need to look at ourselves. How often have we allowed the world to set the agenda for our life of prayer and worship, determining when and how often we commune with our Lord and Savior? Are we even shocked anymore by the transgressions of God’s command to ‘not commit adultery’ on our televisions, in our schools, or in our communities, as students ‘hook up’ and adults live together before marriage? How often do we look the other way when someone’s name is slandered through gossip or rumor? And our culture of entitlement has influenced us so much that we so often dictate our agenda to God and His Church. In these and countless other ways we have let the world’s agenda seep into our own lives, because standing against the world’s hatred is a lonely and tough task.

Jesus knows this. He knows that we will be hated by the world- He has told us that clearly- and He knows that we will be tempted to fall away, that we will be tempted to compromise. And so what does He do? He prays. The account of Maundy Thursday in the book of John is five chapters long, and in four of those chapters Jesus is speaking words of warning, the reality check we spoke of before. But He also speaks words of comfort, and He promises the gift of the Holy Spirit, for whom we wait this Sunday between Ascension and Pentecost. Having told us all these things, the good, the bad, and the ugly, in that fifth and final chapter Jesus takes all those who believe in Him to the Father’s throne of grace, He holds all of us up in prayer.

“Holy Father, keep them in your Name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled.” Jesus prays that the Name of the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, might be placed on all people. This is the Name above all names, the Name that gave salvation time and again to Israel, and now it would be connected to a much greater act of salvation. Jesus is praying on the eve of the Day of Salvation that the benefits of His death and resurrection would be applied to all people. “Sanctify them in the truth, your Word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.”

Christ was sent into this world, this world of sin and corruption, a world in rebellion against its creator, a world that would reject the very Son of God, to make unclean people holy again. We were all filthy with sin, covered with that uncleanness that had separated us from God from the moment of conception. But Jesus Christ, the Holy One of God, consecrated Himself, He set Himself aside as the One to make all people holy again. He was sent to cleanse all through His shed blood, and after finishing this great prayer, He would go forth to the Mount of Olives to accomplish that for which He was sent. For the next morning was Good Friday, the day on which Christ consecrated Himself for the task of giving His life on the cross, the Holy One nailed to the tree to make all people holy. For when His blood flowed from His hands, His feet, His head, His back, and then from His side, it flowed to cleanse all people. And when He rose again, He rose to show He had overcome every source of our uncleanness, He rose to “sanctify them in the truth.” Jesus prays in our text that this victory, this salvation, this cleansing may be extended to all people through the Word of God, “that they may be one, even as we are one.”

We are those who have been cleansed by the Word, we are the ones who have had the Name of salvation, the Divine Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit placed on us in our Baptism, and Christ prays that we may be kept in that Name. “Holy Father, keep them in your Name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” Christ prays for us, for you and me, that we might not fall away from this faith, this salvation delivered to us. What comfort this is, that Jesus prays for you and me constantly that our faith may be strengthened and preserved, that we may be kept in the baptismal Name given to us. Amidst the hatred of this world, we need this assurance, we need Christ’s prayer. “I have given them your Word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.” Christ prays for us, He holds us up in prayer that we may not compromise with the world, that we may be protected from the assaults of Satan. But we all know that we fall so often in this area, and so our Lord and Savior prays: “Sanctify them in the truth, your Word is truth.” He prays that through the power of God’s Word, our sins would be forgiven, washed away by His blood applied to us each and every time that we hear the beautiful message that “your sins are forgiven,” whether in His Word, in Absolution, or in the feast of His Body and Blood. And He prays that the Holy Spirit would continually work in our lives to make us more and more holy, living a life apart from the sin of this world and bathed in the forgiveness of Christ. And this is the life of true joy, living in the forgiveness of Christ, the hope that fills us despite anything we may face. “But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves.”

We live with the joy of Christ because He died and rose again for us and we live with the joy of Christ because He bathes our lives with forgiveness by applying what He won directly to you and me. But we also live with the joy of Christ because He stands at this very moment before the Father praying specifically for you and me, because He is performing His great work as our intercessor before the Father, praying for us. It is only with the prayers of Christ that the people claimed by Christ’s blood can live in a hostile world. The Church then exists distinct from the world, as an oasis of forgiveness in a desert of sin, as the place where life is given to dying people, as the location where God delivers his very gifts to you and me. The Church is where, as we heard in our first lesson today: “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer.” May the Lord sustain you through His prayers for you each and every day as you wait for His return in this world, enabling you to stand and forgiving you when you fall, Amen.