Monday, February 21, 2011

Epiphany 7 of Series A (Matthew 5:38-48)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the fifth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, have you ever seen those old propaganda posters from the first or second Word War? Many of these posters were triumphant, showing victorious Americans coming together to get the job done. You remember the pointing finger of Uncle Sam or the smiling face of Rosie the Riveter. On the other hand, some of those posters took a much different approach. I am thinking of a World War I poster in particular. It showed the image, familiar from the movies, of King Kong coming ashore to sow destruction and death. In his arms was a fair maiden, limp and obviously in great distress. Above and below we read these words: “Destroy this mad brute! Enlist- US Army.” On top of the gorilla’s head is a German helmet. The message is clear: if you don’t enlist to help stop him, this ‘German brute’ is going to come to our shores and desecrate our land as he already has ravaged Europe. Destroy this senseless animal before it destroys you!

Propaganda like that dehumanizes the enemy; it makes our opponents out to be evil incarnate, senseless animals that only plot our destruction. Propaganda makes it easier to see other men and women as the enemy, it makes a far off war personal, and then it enlists our help in hating and then defeating that enemy. It is easy to see those who war against our country, who burn our flag, as the enemy. They very clearly stand against us, and often they explicitly call for our destruction. Yes, it is easy to hate those who spy on us, who bomb our buildings, who show contempt for us. But think a little closer to home; we don’t have to read the news to find enemies. We all know people that we cannot stand, that we would rather never see again. They annoy us, they frustrate us, they take delight in making us upset. We may not call them our enemies, but they are definitely not our friends. We go out of the way to avoid them, or we try to make their lives as miserable as they have made ours. But when Jesus uses the word ‘enemy’ in our text for today, He is not necessarily referring to either of those groups. In the New Testament, the word ‘enemy’ refers to those who are opposed to God and His people. By that definition, every person who doesn’t believe in Jesus is our enemy. Yes, it’s easy to see those who persecute us for our faith as our enemies, but the Scriptures go even farther than that, declaring that every non-believer is, in a sense, our enemy.

So what do we do with enemies? We love them. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” We are to show love to those who hate us, whether it is a terrorist who wants to see you killed, your neighbor you can’t stand, or the atheist who mocks your faith. We are to show love to them even when they don’t show love toward us. In fact, Jesus says that we are to show love to them especially when they don’t show love toward us. “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” As Christians we can make a great show of doing good to those who treat us well. Great job, Jesus says; you are just about as pious as the thieves and the scoundrels, as the prostitutes and the criminals, or as the devil himself! Jesus calls us to a higher standard; we are to show love to the ones who hate us, who persecute us, who even seek our deaths.

Why? Why should we show any respect to those who hate our guts? The first reason is that we do not return evil for evil. “But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” We hope that in showing love to our enemies they may see our love and give glory to our Father who is in heaven. The second reason is that in doing so we are only imitating God Himself. “For He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” God shows love to all of His creation, those who love Him and those who despise Him. He shows love regardless of the thanks He receives, and we are to do the same. Now I hope that none of you think that this is easy, because it isn’t. In fact, you are probably tempted to protest: ‘Come on Jesus, this is ridiculous, this is impossible. Who could possibly do this?’

Jesus doesn’t answer our protest with words, but instead with actions. He is the one who loves His enemies, even to death, He is the one who refuses to resist evil, even though it means the torture of the cross. In our text, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Early in the morning on Good Friday, Jesus did not resist as the servants of the high priest struck Him again and again, He refused to act as Pilate’s soldiers ruined His body with the scourge. Jesus said, “And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” Our Lord did not protest as He was forced to carry His own cross to Golgotha, carrying the very instrument of His own death. “And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.” Jesus watched in silence as the soldiers took His clothing and cast lots for them. They took all He had; they left Him with nothing, but still, like a lamb led to the slaughter, He did not open His mouth. He did not respond to the jeers or to the cruel torture with words of anger or hate, but instead when He did speak, it was words of grace. On the mountain Jesus had said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” At the cross He cried out as the soldiers drove in the nails, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Jesus is the one who refuses to give evil for evil, He is the one who prays for those who persecute Him, He is the one who loves His enemies.

Those enemies were not only the ones crucifying Him that Good Friday, they were not only the ones who condemned Him to the cruelest death imaginable. No, His list of enemies includes you, it includes me. Saint Paul writes in Romans chapter five: “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” You and I were conceived and born in sin, we were conceived and born enemies of God, completely opposed to Him. You and I were God’s enemies! But while we were still His enemies, Christ showed love to us. For He did not submit to the tortures of cross as some sort of object lesson, simply to demonstrate that a person could love his enemies and pray for the ones who persecute him. No, He submitted to the tortures of the cross and did not resist the evil of men because He intended to save all of His enemies. His prayer that day, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” was for all of His enemies, it was for you and it was for me. He died on the cross for those who opposed Him, you and me, so that He might pay for our sin and save us. Because of Christ, God deals with us only on the basis of His Son’s sacrifice for us, as our Introit for today puts so well: “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.” Jesus doesn’t resist our evil with evil, but instead with love and forgiveness. He didn’t resist the torture of the cross because He knew that it was only His death in the place of His enemies that could deliver His enemies from sin, death, and the devil. He refused to repay evil with evil because He had come to that moment in order to destroy evil. He went to the cross because it was the only way to make His enemies brothers and sisters.

We were born enemies of God, but because Christ died for His enemies, we are now made children of God, united with Him through our baptism into His death. We are reconciled with the Father, transformed from bitter enemies into beloved children. As His beloved children we go forth into this world with love for our enemies. His love for us, as always, motivates our love for others. We love our enemies because Jesus loved us when we were His enemies. He prayed for our forgiveness, He shed His blood that we may be united to Him. We show love to our enemies that they might become our brothers and sisters in Christ, united with us in the bonds of faith. Sure, some may take advantage of us, some may never show us any love back. Some may even persecute us. But we err on the side of showing generosity to anyone in need, just as Jesus said: “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” God showers on all people the fruits of the earth, regardless of whether they thank Him or not; His reckless love casts out the seed of the Word into the world. We too live with such reckless love, giving to those who cannot repay, showing kindness to those who hate us. In that way we follow the example of God Himself.

Jesus calls on us to follow that example with the last words of our text: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Now, this seems like an impossible command, and it is. We cannot be perfect as our heavenly Father is with our own efforts. We need the perfection given by Christ, given to us through His perfect life, death, and resurrection for us. Joined with Him in the waters of Holy Baptism, we are perfect as well, we bear His perfection. And so we live in the world and love our enemies as those made perfect already in Christ, and looking toward the day when we will be perfect in body and soul for eternity. Glorious now, we look toward the glory yet to be revealed. Thanks be to God that He has loved His enemies in Christ! In the Name of the one who forgives His enemies, who dies for those who persecuted Him, our crucified and risen Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Epiphany 6 of Series A: Sanctity of Life Sunday (Deuteronomy 30:15-20)

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this Sanctity of Life Sunday comes from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the thirtieth chapter of the book of Deuteronomy. Dear friends in Christ: in our text for today, Moses presents the people with a choice. The verses that immediately precede our text give us the sense that Moses believed this was an easy, even obvious choice: “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.”

What is this choice that is not far off, that is easy and even obvious? It is nothing other than the choice between life and death. “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil.” Hmmm, what does Moses want us to choose, letter ‘a’ or letter ‘b?’ Life or death? Good or evil? This is a test with only one question, and only one right answer. If you guessed letter ‘a’ then you…are…RIGHT! “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live.” Choosing life is nothing else than living in obedience to God and the Law that He has set forth through this same Moses. “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in His ways, and by keeping His commandments and His statutes and His rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.” Life is given when the people of God obey and love Him.

On the other hand, death is the penalty for disobedience, for apostasy, for idolatry. “But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess.” If the benefits of obedience are clear, the penalties of disobedience are even clearer. To serve anyone else than the true God can have only one result: death. So the choice is clear: Serve the true God, and you will have life; serve false gods, and you will have death. What could be easier than a choice between life and death? The life of obedience is not easy, but at least the choice is: life is the right answer, indeed the only answer, because who would answer with death when given the choice between it and life?

Unfortunately, in our world today, when given the choice between life and death, many choose death. We live in a culture of death, a culture that sees death as a solution, as an instrument. It is the solution to unwanted people of any age and stage of development. Death is the solution of convenience, it is the solution of choice when another person is going to drain our finances or dramatically change our lives. Over fifty million children have been murdered in the womb in the United States since Roe vs. Wade in 1973. Fifty million situations where death was the solution for whatever problems faced the parents. Fifty million occasions where death was the choice; where death was enlisted to eliminate a burden. Many of those fifty million were those with physical or mental disabilities, killed because others did not see them as fit to live. Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, envisioned abortion, birth control, and sterilization as means to eliminate those who were a drain on society, creating a more pure race. Even today, it is the poor and disabled who are targeted by abortion providers. Death is seen as a solution to poverty, a solution to the challenges that raising a disabled child presents. But it is not only the infirm and poor that are killed. The vast majority of those fifty million were killed for convenience; death was the solution to protect careers or money. Children are killed in the womb each and every day because the time isn’t right, because the parents aren’t married, or because the child is quite simply unwanted. Millions are killed because parents refuse to take the responsibility that sexual activity demands.

Death is not only the solution used for those who are ‘unwanted’ in the womb, but even at the end of life death is seen as a solution. The same reasons used to defend the slaughter of fifty million children since 1973 are now being used to speak of the disabled, the infirm, the aged. There are many who wish to call on death as the solution once again, the solution for those with incurable diseases, the solution for those who are profoundly disabled, the solution for those whose usefulness to society has seemingly ended. Hitler killed all three groups in his quest for the master race; now many in our society want to follow in his footsteps. Death is the solution of convenience, the solution that saves money, the solution that removes the burdens of caring for those who cannot care for themselves from family or the government. Death is the solution sought by our society for all manner of ills.

But death cannot be tamed, it cannot be harnessed as our ally. Death is never the solution, but instead it is the problem. Death is our enemy, the first and fundamental adversary of man. God declared to Adam and Eve after they plunged humanity into sin and death: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” You will hear those same words repeated a month from now as ashes are placed upon your head. “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Death is not something to be embraced, but instead it is the penalty for our sin, it is our first and greatest enemy. We cannot wield our greatest enemy as a tool, we cannot think that we can control it without dire consequences. We are adrift in a sea of death, in the midst of a culture which views death as the solution for many, if not all of the problems that we face as a society. But the Scriptures declare that death is man’s greatest problem; it is never the solution.

However, there is one exception to that statement. Death is never the solution, except for the one instance where the death of one is the solution to death for all. Death is the problem, and the death of Jesus is the solution. It is His death that conquers death, it is His death that brings life. His death even brings forgiveness for those who have participated in the culture of death. He died so that a repentant mother who aborted her child will live eternally, forgiven and restored. Jesus died so that a repentant father who pressured his partner to end their child’s life will be forgiven of his sin just as Christ’s death forgives your sin and mine. The death of Christ destroyed death even for abortion doctors and nurses, even for you and me when we fail to stand up to this culture of death. The death of Christ destroyed the power of death over all of us; His death on Calvary’s cross brought life- the resurrection on the third day proved that. For those who have participated in abortion or euthanasia in any way, the message on Sanctity of Life Sunday is clear: Christ died for your sin, and He forgives you of that sin as He forgives you of all other sin, for no sin is too great for His love and mercy to forgive it.

Christ’s death brings us life, fullness of life, the kind of life that Moses held before the people in our text for today. In order to attain that life, Moses demanded obedience from the people: “Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying His voice and holding fast to Him.” But the commands of Moses couldn’t give that life; if it were up to our obedience to choose life, we would only end up with death. St. Paul writes, “The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.” We are sinful; we cannot love the Lord to the extent that we ought. That is why Christ came and that is why He died. He died in order to give us what the command of Moses could not- life. He chose life for us, and He won it for us through His death. Now, because of His death for you, you are destined for an eternity where death, your first and greatest enemy, is trampled down and defeated. We read about this eternity of life in Isaiah chapter sixty-five: “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind… I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days…”

We who have been given life, eternal life, then go out and proclaim that life to others. Death is not the solution to any problem that our society faces, but it is instead the problem, the greatest problem, our ancient enemy. And we have the privilege to declare before the world that it is a defeated enemy, that Christ has defeated death through His death and resurrection. We have the opportunity to declare Christ’s resurrection victory with St. Paul: “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” We defend life from beginning to end because we have a God of life; the God who created life, the God who sustains life, the God who gives eternal life. Christ’s life is your life, His victory is your victory, His resurrection points forward to your own. In the name of the One whose death brought us life, the Lord of life, our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Epiphany 5 of Series A (Matthew 5:13-20)

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the fifth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, [later this morning at Saint John’s we are going to have a confirmation] today you are going to witness a confirmation. Alice is going to come forward after the offering and make solemn vows, a confession before God and the world as to what she believes. Confirmation isn’t something commanded in Scripture, but the Church in her wisdom has established it as a time for one who has been baptized and instructed in the faith to confess Christ before others. Confirmation is not graduation; instead it is more like a beginning, the beginning of a lifetime of learning more and more about God, a lifetime of confessing Him before men. Jesus promises in Matthew chapter ten: “Whoever confesses me before men, I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven.” Friends in Christ, at your confirmation you made the same solemn vows that Alice will make. You confessed the triune God, you declared your allegiance to the teachings of the Lutheran Church, and you promised with the help of God to live according to the Word of God. In the words of Jesus in our text for today, you promised to be salt and light.

“You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.” Notice how Jesus says it; He doesn’t say ‘make yourself salt and light,’ but instead He says, “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world.” This is your identity, your baptismal identity. When God made you His child in the washing of the water with the Word, He made you salt and light. That is simply what a Christian is, and as Jesus says, a Christian that refuses to be what God has made him or her in Baptism is as ridiculous as unseasoned salt or hidden light.

Salt seasons; light shines. That is simply what they do, and that is what we are called on to do. We are to salt the earth and give light to the world. All creation has been corrupted by sin, and so people need to be called to repentance, they need to hear the Gospel. That is what it means to be salt and light in this world; to speak the Word of God to those around us, to confess Jesus before men. It means living a life that declares to the world that we Christians are different, that we refuse to participate in the corruption of this world, but instead that we call on this world to repent. In our Old Testament lesson for today, God is fed up with the empty fasting of His people. He doesn’t need them to stay at home trying to impress Him, but instead He wants them to go out and be salt and light. “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” Being salt and light in this world is nothing else than serving our neighbor in his physical and spiritual needs. It is showing the love of Christ to those around us. Salt and light should make an impression on an unseasoned and dark world. “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” That is the object of our lives in this world; we are salt and light in order that others may glorify God and come to faith.

Someone who claims to be a Christian and yet refuses to proclaim Christ by word and deed is like unseasoned salt or hidden light. “If salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet… Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.” Unseasoned salt? Hidden light? A Christian that has no effect on the world around him, who lives a life indistinguishable from his atheist neighbor is just as absurd, just as crazy. Christ hasn’t delivered you from sin, death, and hell so that you can continue living like the world, but instead He has claimed you as His own so that you are salt and light. That is what Baptism makes us, that is what we confess in Confirmation. I will ask Alice, “Do you intend to live according to the Word of God, and in faith, word, and deed to remain true to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, even to death?” Only through the power of the Holy Spirit, Alice will answer, “I do, by the grace of God.” That promise, or one like it, is what you said on your confirmation day. You promised to live different than the world, for Christ’s coming didn’t destroy God’s holy Law. “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.”

The Law tells us how to live as salt and light, and therefore cannot be abolished. But the Law cannot make us salt and light. Only the one who has fulfilled the Law can do that. We are salt and light because Jesus has first salted and enlightened us. He came as the fulfillment of the Old Testament, to complete God’s revelation by bringing the promised salvation to us. He is the true light that has come to shine in the darkness of this corrupted world, to shine in the darkness of corrupted hearts. Saint Paul said in second Corinthians chapter four: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” We were in darkness, the darkness of sin, the darkness of death, but the same God who created light from darkness on the first day of creation sent the Light into our dark world. Saint John writes in the first chapter of his Gospel: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” But the darkness sure tried. The crown of God’s creation, humanity, tried to snuff out this light; the prince of darkness, Satan, incited them to nail the Light of the world to the cross. There the sun refused to shine, there darkness covered the earth, the darkness of sin and death. The Light of the world was placed under a basket, and to the world it seemed that it had been smothered.

But the darkness could not extinguish this light. On Easter Sunday, the Light shone in all of its brilliance, all of its glory, out of the open tomb. Jesus has risen! The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it! The powers of darkness thought that they had snuffed out the Light on that Good Friday, but instead it was the darkness that was defeated. The darkness of sin and death will no longer have a hold on God’s beloved people, for the Light has conquered the darkness in victory. His resurrection is the declaration of that victory, the assurance that just as He conquered death, so you will too. The Light of Christ then goes out to illuminate dark hearts, to bring the victory of the cross to you and me. We give those whom we baptize a candle, signifying to them that through the washing of the water with the Word the Light has illuminated their hearts. On the day you were baptized, the Lord shined His Light in your darkened heart, removing the power of sin and death from you.

It is only because Christ hasfirst shone His Light in our hearts that we then have the privilege of shining that same Light before others. We do not shine our light in order to earn heaven, but we shine our light because we have been given heaven. Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” We don’t need our good works, because our salvation has already been accomplished by the death and resurrection of Jesus, but our neighbors need them. Our neighbors needs the Light that we shine forth in word and deed, because they are hungry, they are poor, they are naked, they are sick. But most of all, our neighbors need the Light because they are sinful. They need Christ and His forgiveness just as much as you and I, they need the Light to illuminate their darkened heart. Our good works are directed toward our neighbors because they have need of them, and we pray that through our good works they give glory to our Father in heaven.

Only good works done in faith are righteous, and as Jesus says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” The scribes and Pharisees had outward righteousness. They looked good to the world, but their righteousness counted as nothing, for they weren’t joined with Christ. Any good deed done outside of faith in Christ is not a good deed at all. Only when we are joined to Christ through Baptism are our works righteous; our good works are righteous in the sight of God only because Jesus is righteous. They flow from His righteousness given to us, they come naturally through the relationship that He has established with us. Our righteousness abounds and brings us into the kingdom of heaven because it is His righteousness, won for us through the cross and empty tomb.

It is Christ’s righteousness that we cling to as we salt and enlighten the world. We do this imperfectly, we stumble and fall, we often are unseasoned salt and hidden light. And so we are in constant need of Christ’s righteousness applied to us, we daily require the Light of Christ to be shone into our hearts, we need His forgiveness. That is why we study His Word, that is why we hear the beautiful words of the Absolution at the beginning of the service, that is why we partake of His Body and Blood in the Lord’s Supper. Through those means, Christ forgives us, He makes us righteous by giving us His righteousness, He shines the light that chases the darkness away. This same Light will characterize eternity, as we hear in Revelation chapter twenty-one: “And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day- and there will be no night there.” In the name of the Light of the World, our Lord, our Savior, our righteousness, Jesus Christ, Amen.