Monday, July 26, 2010

Proper 12 of Series C (Genesis 18:20-33)

“And the disciples said to Him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the eighteenth chapter of Genesis. Dear friends in Christ, the Lord looked toward the city and said, “Because the outcry…is great and their sin is very grave, I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know.” And the Lord turned to go, but an intercessor came up and stood between God and the city. This man interposed himself between the Lord and creator of the universe and the sinful city there below. Webster’s dictionary defines an intercessor as one who offers “mediation, pleading, or prayer in behalf of another or others.” That is exactly what this intercessor intends to do. He places himself between God and the city and goes to work.

The intercessor gets right to the point, calling on God’s just character to spare the city. “Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked!” He knows who he is dealing with. God is a God of justice, and while justice may mean the punishment of the wicked, it also means the deliverance of the righteous. But God answers, “If I find…fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake. But don’t count on it. This people is rebellious and sinful, they do not hallow my Name. My Name is holy because I am holy, but these people use my Name in vain, they dishonor it by the way they live. They do not realize that every moment they bear my Name, and their sin defiles it. But if there are fifty who hallow my Name, the city will be spared.”

The intercessor is a good Old Testament Hebrew; he knows that the highest form of faith is to wrestle with God, to cry out to Him in prayer, and so he boldly pushes the envelope. “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking. Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” God wants His people to wrestle with Him in prayer, to bring every request to Him, and so He does not become angry, but answers: “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there. But don’t get your hopes up. This people wants nothing to do with my kingdom, they certainly don’t want it to come. They have things just fine the way they are, with a comfortable life, money, material goods. They don’t see that they have any need for my kingdom to come to them. But yet if there are forty-five who see their need for my just rule, the city will be spared.”

The intercessor knows that God is a god of justice, but He is also a God of grace. He wants to deliver His creation, for He loves all He made. “Again he spoke to Him and said, ‘Suppose forty are found there.’” The Lord of the universe answers, “For the sake of forty I will not do it. But I fear even so few are lacking. No one wants my will to be done, only their own. These people want their own desires fulfilled, they care nothing for my good and gracious will. They trust only in themselves, and have little room in their heart to depend on me. But if forty seek my will, I will spare the city.”

“Then he said, ‘Oh, let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” The Lord answers, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there. But there may not be thirty there who seek their daily bread from my gracious and overflowing hand. My people do not realize that I provide every good gift, and so they depend on their own labor to supply their needs. They toil away; they worry constantly about daily bread. They do not realize that I work through my creation to provide for them, they forget that it is their sin that has cursed the ground in the first place. But if thirty seek daily bread from their creator, I will not do it.”

The intercessor is one very bold individual, to bargain with God over the fate of the city. But that is what God desires from those who pray, boldness to bring every request before Him, to ask, seek and knock. And so the intercessor speaks again: “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” The Lord answers, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it. But not even twenty may be found who forgive their neighbor. Instead they hold onto their neighbor’s sin, letting it fester inside, waiting to be used at the worst possible moment. They do not even know how to say ‘I’m sorry,’ and when they do, the answer too often is ‘It’s OK,’ rather than ‘You are forgiven.’ But if twenty forgive their neighbors when they sin against them, I will spare the city.”

The intercessor is persistent with God, but he knows that God loves the persistent prayers of His people, and so he speaks one last time: “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there.” The Lord has a look of sadness as He answers, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it. But that deceiver, that murderer from the beginning has led all astray into temptation. They have all deserted me, they are all corrupted with sin from their first parents, as my psalmist said, ‘None is righteous, no, not one.’”

The Intercessor is not fazed by this reply, this final striking down of His prayers for the city, for its people, but instead He says, “No, Father, none of these your created people are righteous, but I am righteous, and I will stand in their place. I will become man, taking on their human flesh, and I will live the life they could not, perfectly fulfilling your Law. I will fulfill it in their place, so that it can no longer accuse and condemn them. And if the Law no longer accuses, then there will be no place for the Accuser. I will defeat the evil one, Satan, on their behalf, for their sake I will crush his head just as you promised from the beginning. And finally, I will stand between your wrath and them. Just as I have stood before you and interceded for them, so I will stand before you as the Righteous One, hung upon the tree for the sin of the world, for all of their rebellion, all of their sin, all of their falling into temptation. You are a just God, and so sin must be punished, but you are also a gracious and merciful God, and so you desire not that men die eternally but that they are reconciled to you. On the cross your justice and your mercy will meet, as wrath over sin will be poured out on me so that you can show mercy to your people. Through me you will be reconciled with your people. I willingly do this because I love these people, and you love these people; I love them so that I am willing to face your wrath for their sakes, you love them so much that you are willing to give me up, your only Son, on the altar of the cross.”

God looked in love upon His only begotten Son, the Righteous One, the One whom He loved, and said, “I could not find even ten righteous ones in the city, but for the sake of the one Righteous One, my Son Jesus Christ, I will spare the city. He will put His righteous life in the place of the sinful lives of my created people, and His death will pay for their sin forever. His sacrifice will reconcile me to my people, and I will welcome them to the heavenly banquet forever in the new heavens and the new earth into all eternity. And because He gave Himself up into death in order to conquer death, my Son will not remain in the grave. I will raise Him up on the third day victorious over all that held my beloved people captive. He will rise as the victor over death, so that my people need not fear its sting any longer, but will see it as the door to eternal glory. All who cling to my Son in faith, the faith given through the gifts of my Word and Holy Sacraments, will be delivered. He will come to them and grasp onto them, and no one will snatch them from His hand. Satan will still try to lead them into temptation, but he is a chained lion without fangs; he can no longer accuse them before me, and they can find forgiveness from my overflowing springs each and every time that they fall. When I look at them, I see my Son and His righteousness.”

Our Intercessor, the Son of God, Jesus Christ our Savior then says to us this day: “Behold, now that I have won the victory over sin, death, and the grave through my death and resurrection, I have ascended to the Father’s throne and continue to intercede for you before Him. You can take confidence and great joy in knowing that I am praying for you, praying that your faith may be strengthened and preserved until you join the saints of all ages in eternal glory. And because I now intercede for you, you can in boldness pray to my Father. You can bring any concern before Him, you can cry out to Him for deliverance, but most importantly you can now intercede for others. You can hold others up before your Father’s heavenly throne and know that you are heard, for I have delivered you. They need your prayers, they need your intercession, and here especially on Sunday mornings the entire body of Christ prays on their behalf. That is why I gave to you my prayer, because in those simple words you not only pray for yourself, but you pray for the entire world, and you pray not as strangers, not as those separated from God, but as His dear children. For my sake, you pray ‘Our Father’ until you see your Father face to face in heavenly glory.” Amen.

Proper 11 of Series C (Luke 10:38-42)

“One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the tenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ, our Introit for today comes from the longest chapter in the bible, Psalm 119. This psalm is all about the Word of God, more specifically our study of His Word and our meditation upon it. The little snippet we spoke together earlier in the service is so wonderful because it expresses the psalmist’s joy in studying the Word. Hear again what he says: “Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” He cannot imagine walking through this dark world without God’s Word to guide him. And listen again to how he concludes: “The earth, O Lord, is full of your steadfast love; teach me your statutes!” He loves the Word of the Lord so much that He cries to his God to give him more, to teach him more. As we read these words, we can feel the joy he receives from every moment spent in the midst of God’s Word.

How about you and me? Do we feel that same joy from hearing or reading God’s Word? Do we cry out to our God with eagerness, “teach me your statutes!” No doubt many of you are thinking, “I do feel that joy! I am excited and eager to learn God’s Word!” Even though I have only been among you for a short time, I have no doubt that this is true, but we should dig a little deeper. Do we always receive God’s Word with joy? Or are there times when the things of this world keep us from hearing God’s Word? We have plenty of distractions in our world today, there are many other things to do rather than read our bible our spend time in prayer. You know what many of these are in your own life. Whether it is the television, the internet, or simply the busyness of life, there is always something waiting to pull us away from God’s Word. Satan has always been a master at distracting us from the study of God’s Word, and with our current technology and busy schedules, he barely has to work at it anymore. He wants us to not have time for God’s Word, because He wants us disconnected from the source of strength and life. He wants us to wither away from a drought of our own creation. And in our text for today, we see that even service can distract us from hearing God’s Word.

This is a dangerous text for a new pastor to preach on. A pastor is supposed to encourage his people to serve, right? And then, on his first Sunday, as he climbs into the pulpit the cruel fate of the lectionary is that he has to preach on the story of Mary and Martha. He has to tell his people, these people whom he barely knows, these people on whom he has to depend to run these churches, that service is a bad thing!? We’ll be lucky if we have coffee after church…or ever. How can service, especially service to Christ, be a negative? When we think about it in these terms, I think we can understand Martha’s dilemma. She welcomed Jesus into her home, and now she thought it was only proper to show Him hospitality. She’s just following the example of Abraham, right? We heard about him in our Old Testament lesson, how he hurried about to prepare a meal for his three angelic visitors. Martha knows what good hospitality entails, and it has nothing to do with sitting in the living room while the Messiah has nothing to eat! That is why she says to Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.”

The reply of Jesus is striking: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” Martha’s service has turned into a distraction, which has then transformed into worry and anxiety. Satan is the master of deception; he is an expert at using even good things to pull us away from God’s Word. I think we all have a little Martha in us, and the danger unfortunately increases the more we are involved in our church and in our communities. We get so wrapped up in serving, in doing the tasks to help our Lord’s Church and our neighbor that we work ourselves into a frenzy, forgetting why we serve in the first place. The church can become a place where people are simply busy, as if busyness was a mark of God’s favor. This can feed into Satan’s greatest lie, that our service is needed to please God, that it is something we do to earn His favor. How often are we tempted to think that our service, our busyness, will earn us God’s grace? Satan wants us to stand before God on the day of judgment with our titles, or a list of all our volunteer hours, depending on them to give us entry into eternal life. That is Martha’s fundamental problem. She thinks that she first has to serve Jesus. She thinks that He has come as a triumphant king to receive glory and honor from all He meets. In order for blessings to come to her, she needs to do something for Jesus.

But that way of thinking is completely backward. Jesus says in Matthew 20:28, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Martha’s problem is that she is trying to serve the One who came to serve! Jesus Christ came into this world not as a triumphant king searching for glory and servants, but instead He came in the form of a servant, and He was on His way to Jerusalem to render the greatest service of all, His very own life for us. He declared to Martha, “One thing is necessary.” We know that in this life plenty of things are necessary. We need food, we need water, we need air and a place to live. But here Jesus says that only one thing is necessary. I can imagine Him pointing at His own chest as He said those words. Jesus is the only necessary thing, and Him alone. All those other necessities pale before Him, because our need for Him was greater than any other need. The same sin that distracts us from God, the same sin that uses even our service to pull us away from Him, left us condemned before Him. All the church titles and all the volunteer hours in the world could not reconcile us to God. We had a need for a Savior, and thanks be to God that our Savior came in the form of a servant.

Jesus Christ came to serve you when He carried your sins to the cross. Jesus Christ came to serve you when He stood in your place before Pilate’s judgment seat. Jesus came to serve you when He faced the wrath of God over your sin and my sin upon that cross. Jesus came to serve you when He crushed Satan’s head by sacrificing Himself in your place, removing the penalty for your sin. Jesus came to serve you when He triumphed over sin, Satan, and the grave by walking out of the empty tomb on the third day. The entire life of Jesus was one of service, service to you, service for your salvation. And because He came not to be served but to serve, you will dwell with Him forever in heaven. Your sins have been washed away by Christ’s sacrificial death and His victorious resurrection. He fulfilled our necessity, He was determined to wipe out our greatest need, and so He willingly offered the greatest service by laying down His life. Rejoice, for we do not have to depend on our service to be reconciled to God, but instead He came to serve us!

You see, Mary had the proper perspective. Listen to how Luke describes her. “And [Martha] had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to His teaching.” Although she may not have understood all the details, Mary knew that Jesus had not come to simply receive, but He had first come to give. And thanks be to God that Christ’s service, His giving to His people, did not end with the cross. The salvation He accomplished there He now delivers to us in His Word and His holy sacraments. We gather here each and every week to sit at the feet of Jesus, receiving His gifts from Him again and again. Jesus proclaims His Word to you, His Word of forgiveness, His Word of life. He worked through a pastor to baptize you, bringing you into His kingdom. And on this day, He serves you by giving of Himself. The same body that the Servant bore on the cross, the same blood that He poured out in service to you is given to you this day to eat and to drink. Christ brings His forgiveness near to you, the forgiveness that you need, the forgiveness that He won.

Having received the forgiveness of Christ here in this place, having sat at the feet of Jesus today and every time we are in God’s Word, we then respond with prayer and praise, service to God and service to our neighbor. We experienced the joy of the Gospel each and every time that Christ gives to us His gifts, and then that joy motivates us to serve. We do not, like Martha, first try to serve Christ, but we like Mary first receive from His overflowing hand and then go out and serve. That is why we volunteer our time at our congregations, serving in various capacities. That is why some of you gave generously of your time to serve at Vacation Bible School this week. That is why we are involved in our communities, searching for any opportunity to serve, bringing the love that Christ first showed us to others. That is why we provide a helping hand to friends, family, or coworkers throughout our daily lives. Service is a wonderful and God-pleasing thing! Moreover, our neighbors need that service. Martha’s dilemma is not solved by pitting service and hearing the Word against each other, but by having them in the proper order. Christ serves us, and then we respond in joy to the great things He has done for us.

We go forth in service with a great promise, the same one that Mary and Martha heard in our text for today. “One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” Satan wants to pull us away from Christ, but here we have the promise that He will hold tightly onto us, strengthening our faith through His gifts until that day when He brings us to be with Himself forever. He is constantly working to forgive our sins and strengthen our faith through the hearing of His Word and the giving of His Body and Blood to eat and to drink. Come rejoicing, for Christ our servant gives of Himself to you once again on this day, for the forgiveness of your sins and to bring you to eternal life in the new heavens and the new earth. In His name, Amen.