Monday, March 28, 2011

Lent 3 of Series A (John 4:5-26)

“Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty forever. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to 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 morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the fourth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. Dear friends in Christ: a well is a place of romance. Now that may seem to us to be a strange statement. Wells in our world today are something underground, hidden and dirty, maintained by city workers and plumbers. But in both the Old and New Testaments, wells were a communal place, a meeting place, a place where the whole village went to draw the most basic necessity of life, water. And so, if a young patriarch or prophet wanted to find a wife, the well was the first place to look. It was to a well that Abraham sent his servant to find a wife for Isaac, it was at a well that Jacob first gazed into Rachel’s beautiful eyes, and it was at a well that Moses first met the shepherd girl Zipporah. In the Bible, if you want to find a spouse, you travel to the well. For at a well, available young men have the unique opportunity to find available young women.

And so when Jesus, tired from his journey, stops to rest at a well, it is no surprise that the first person to meet Him is a woman. She has come simply to draw water, as she does on each and every day, but this day will be quite different. “Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink.” The woman is repulsed. Has Jesus forgotten that He is a Jewish man and she is a Samaritan woman? There are rules against that sort of thing. And now He starts going on and on about ‘living water?’ What kind of a guy is this? The words of Jesus, as they have for so many others, leave her completely confused. “The woman said to Him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.’” Jesus’ reply leaves her intrigued. What difference is there really between Jews and Samaritans? (Those were just silly rules anyway…) And hey, He’s kinda cute, and He doesn’t have to know about her past. And so she uses a line repeated all too often in the bars and other meeting places of this world: “I have no husband.” She has come to the well to fulfill her physical thirst, but perhaps this guy will be the one to fulfill a deeper thirst. She has tried so many others, but maybe this one will finally be the ‘one.’ [Law] But Jesus calls her out, for this is no ordinary man speaking with her at the well: “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband;’ for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.”

His words fall like a hammer upon her. She has been caught in the act, caught in the act of adultery. Her sin falls under the authority of the sixth commandment, but it points fundamentally to a violation of God’s first and greatest commandment- “You shall have no other gods.” She has embodied her people, the Samaritans, who were known for chasing after the gods of the nations. She has embodied you and me, for we continually search after other ‘gods,’ so often of our own making. She has let her lust, her search for fulfillment consume her. God created her, God created you and me, God created our first parents, and He desired to be in communion with us, but we would not have it. [Law] We rebelled against Him, we chose other gods, idols of wood and stone, money and work, idols that consume us, then leave us in ruin. We idolize other human flesh, whether in a physical relationship like the Samaritan woman, or in our thoughts, our eyes, on our TV, or on the computer screen.

This woman came to the well seeking to fulfill her physical thirst, but her sin left her in a desert with no fulfillment, with no life-giving water. Sin leaves ruin in our lives. We go from well to well, from the well of money to the well of lust, and we drink deeply of the water we find there. But we soon find that this so-called water leaves us more thirsty than before, unfulfilled, parched and still searching. And like this woman, we travel from well to well, hoping that at the next one we will find fulfillment. We, the people of God’s own creation, wander from well to well crying out “I have no husband.” [Law] For we have forsaken our creator, the One who was to be a husband to us, His perfect creation, and for that we are left to wander in the desert of sin and death, drinking from poisoned wells, wells that never satisfy, wells that lead ultimately to eternal death.

The Old Testament book of Hosea is very much a love story, containing the cries of a God whose heart is literally breaking over the rebellion of His people. “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more they were called, the more they went away.” But Hosea is also the account of a God that loved His adulterous, rebellious people so much, that despite all that they did to Him, He still called them back. “Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity.” The bridegroom would come to this earth, true God taking on human flesh, to court His people and call on them to return to the God who loves them. “Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her.” This bridegroom came to Cana’s wedding feast and declared His power as He changed water into wine. John the Baptist pointed to Him and declared, “The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears Him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete.” This same Jesus Christ came to the well on that day and courted a sinful Samaritan woman, the example of her sinful people, the example of all sinful people, of you and me. He came to call her back, to call us back from our idolatry.

But He knew that simply calling us back would not do any good. For we would fall again, we were corrupted through and through with sin, we needed more than mere courtship. The bridegroom could not only woo His bride, He must pay for her sin. [Gospel] And so Jesus Christ traveled to the cross, the bridegroom giving His life for His bride. Jesus took upon His own shoulders all of our sin, all of our rebellion, all of our adultery. He was not spared from a single one of our sins or any of the sins that have ever been committed. He took them all upon Himself, and there He shed His blood to pay for them, the pure and sinless Son of God, the pure and sinless Bridegroom in the place of His sin-stained bride. He died for your sin, for my sin, He died to make us whole, to make us pure, to bring us to Himself as a radiant bride. GOD LOVES HIS ADULTEROUS BRIDE.

As He hung upon the cross, having paid the price for our sins, having given up His life for ours, a soldier pierced His side. John tells us what happened: “at once there came out blood and water.” The blood that paid the price for our sin, for your sin and my sin, poured out, but so did water. Living water. For the bridegroom dies and rises again to pour out living water upon His people, water that satisfies, water that purifies, water that makes whole. Jesus said to the woman at the well, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty forever. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” That Living water poured out from His side on Good Friday, and it flowed out to cleanse us from our sin, to make us whole, to make us holy, to deliver us from the desert of sin, from the wasteland of idolatry. No other well on earth can satisfy us, only the spring that Christ provides, the spring of Living water that flows to us. [Gospel] Jesus poured on our head that living water in Baptism, making us His own, claiming us with the promise of eternal life, the gift of forgiveness that He won on the cross and through His victory with the empty tomb.

Now, the geography of worship has changed. We no longer go to the temple, or to Mount Gerazim, but to wherever that Living water flows. “Jesus said to her, ‘woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will we worship the Father.” Jesus has altered the landscape, the temple has been fulfilled in Him, He is the new location of God’s gracious presence on earth, His presence to forgive and renew, to save and strengthen. We no longer have to search in our world for fulfillment, for Christ has told us where He gives complete and perfect fulfillment. He gives it where His Word is proclaimed, where Living water is poured on heads in Baptism, where His very Body and Blood are given for people to eat and drink in the Lord’s Supper. Wherever Christ has promised to be with His gifts, there we worship. There the Bridegroom welcomes His bride, cleansed and renewed to stand before His Father in heaven for all eternity. It is in the Divine Service where the courtship finds its realization, for there Christ is joined with His Church, His bride, in intimate fellowship and communion. [Gospel] Jesus brought the Samaritan woman, you, me, and all people from the wasteland of sin to Himself as the only place where Living waters flow, pouring out on us forgiveness, life, and salvation. In His death and resurrection the relationship is restored, the marriage is renewed, and we will dwell as the bride of Christ for all eternity. As Saint Paul declares so beautifully: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her, that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the Word, so that He might present the Church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”

As Christians, we do not travel on this pilgrimage with perfect fulfillment, without feeling the temptation to find satisfaction in idols of one sort or another. Our sinful nature always wants to find fulfillment in something, anything other than the God who created us and acted to redeem us. We are in constant need of forgiveness, and that is why our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ continues to satisfy our spiritual thirst again and again through His gifts, offered in this place. We travel on this pilgrimage through a parched land, drinking from the Living water every time that we hear, read, or taste Christ’s forgiveness, every time that He covers our sin. We cry out when we enter into this place with the words of the Introit: “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts… Blessed are those who dwell in your house, ever singing your praise!” But we also enter this place with the hope and promise of an eternity in God’s presence: “My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord.” May the Lord sustain with this promise and give us to drink from the springs of Living water until that Day when we drink it anew in His kingdom, Amen.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Lent 2 of Series A (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 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 third chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. Dear friends in Christ, preaching about works to a bunch of Lutherans seems redundant. Those of you who are lifelong Lutherans have heard it all before: works don’t save me, faith in Jesus does, Amen. As Lutherans, we’re known for taking a stand against works. But do we really get it? You can say “I’m saved by Christ alone through faith alone” just like your pastor taught you in confirmation, but do you truly understand what this means? I was told the story of a pastor who went to the bedside of a life-long Lutheran, a faithful member of his congregation. She was dying, and the pastor firmly and confidently told her that she would be in heaven soon. She replied, “I hope so, pastor, I think I’ve lived a good enough life.” We can shake our heads in disbelief, but I think that she is simply expressing the default setting of human nature, and if we’re honest with ourselves, we too fall into a reliance on our works each and every day, trying to climb the ladder to God, attempting to earn our way into His presence. I’m convinced that we do this because, even as Lutherans who have heard this teaching our entire lives, we still don’t understand the depth of our corruption due to sin.

It was precisely that issue that confused Nicodemus. “Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ 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?’” It wasn’t so much the idea of a new birth- I’m pretty sure He knew that Jesus wasn’t talking about another trip through the birth canal- but instead it was the necessity of a new birth that really hit him. John calls Nicodemus a Pharisee and a “ruler of the Jews.” This guy knew his theology, and he knew, or thought he knew, that the only way to get into the Kingdom of God was through obedience. Man has to climb the ladder to God, ascending rung by rung through his own good works. These good works could include service to your neighbor, but mostly it meant following all of the ceremonial laws to the letter, washing, praying, and keeping the Sabbath. And if you did serve your neighbor, you only did so only to benefit yourself. You didn’t serve the neighbor in need out of concern for his welfare, but out of concern for your salvation. The neighbor was simply a tool to help you climb that ladder.

But what Jesus proposes is much more dramatic. “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Jesus is very insistent on this point: you must be born again, you must be born of water and the Spirit to enter the kingdom of God. I think we often read through this text without realizing how dramatic of a statement this is. You must be born again. Nothing short of an entirely new birth of water and the Spirit can bring you into God’s Kingdom. This means that our corruption runs so deep that only starting over again with a new birth can deliver us. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Nothing that our physical birth gave us can bring us into the Kingdom, not our works, not our good life, not anything. All that our physical birth gave us is sin, all that a birth of the flesh has earned us is death.

We Lutherans have a pretty robust doctrine of sin. We can call ourselves ‘poor, miserable sinners’ at the beginning of the service, but do we ever ponder the depth of our sin? We can say the words, but do we truly believe what they say? This is the season of Lent, the season of self-examination and reflection. Examine your life- was there even one hour in which you did not sin? If you answer ‘yes,’ then you are deluding yourself, for you were conceived and born in sin, completely and utterly in rebellion against your God. Your fleshly birth gave you the ‘gift’ of original sin, this corruption that permeates every aspect of your life, making every thought, word, and deed stained with the scourge of sin. We are sinful to our very cores. If our corruption runs that deep, then we truly cannot save ourselves, we cannot climb the ladder to God. There is no ladder, and even if there was, we in our sin would fall off as soon as we started climbing. That is what shocked Nicodemus, what shocks our human nature. We think that there should be some way of earning favor before God, but Jesus shuts all of that down with His statement, “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” No amount of works can erase the stain of sin, our corruption runs too deep for any of our own efforts to save us. The only way we can enter the Kingdom of God is if we start over again with a new birth.

We cannot provide this birth ourselves, but instead it must be given to us as a gift. As physical birth was not our work, neither is spiritual birth. “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.” Man cannot control the Holy Spirit, we cannot tell Him what to do or how to do it. Instead, the Spirit comes to us when and where He pleases and gives us new birth through the water and the Spirit, the washing of the water with the Word, Holy Baptism. That is truly the new birth Jesus spoke of, a new birth which provides access into the Kingdom of God. There at the font, the spiritual birth from Christ reverses the corruption of physical birth. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Fleshly birth brings sin; spiritual birth brings forgiveness. Fleshly birth brings death; spiritual birth brings life. St. John wrote in the first chapter of his Gospel: “But to all who did receive him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” Only with the birth of water and the Spirit do we have life and salvation. Only by this new birth are we made children of God. We cannot explain how the Spirit works any more than we can see the wind, but we can see His effects. For where the Spirit works in the washing of Holy Baptism, there faith is created, there corruption is reversed, there new birth is given.

Baptism only has these benefits because it is founded in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Therefore, Jesus next takes Nicodemus to the foot of the cross. “No one has ascended into heaven except Him who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” Nicodemus thought that he could climb the ladder to God, as we are tempted also to believe, but here Jesus crushes all attempts to bring ourselves to God. No one has ascended to heaven except the One who has descended, the very One who is speaking. We do not have a God that we have to climb toward; no, instead we have a God who came down to us. He came to us in our distress, in our corruption, in our inability to come to Him. He came among us to win salvation for us, to give us the new birth that we so desperately needed. He came to us as one of us, to live the perfect life we in our deep corruption could not, and to die the death that we deserved. To do this, the One who came down would be lifted up.

In the wilderness, God sent poisonous snakes to punish the people for their grumbling. Then in His grace He provided salvation. A bronze serpent, the image and embodiment of their sin, was placed high upon a pole. All who looked to it were healed. Jesus Christ became the embodiment, the very image of our sin; even more than the bronze serpent, Jesus became sin itself, for He bore all of our sin upon His own shoulders. Those who looked to the bronze serpent of Moses were given physical healing, but yet they still all eventually died. They were given deliverance, but they remained in their sin. All who look to Jesus, the embodiment of sin hanging upon the cross, will never die eternally, they will live even though they die. “The Son of Man must be lifted up that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” Christ gives what Moses could not: a new birth, which brings eternal salvation, forgiveness of all sin, the reversal of our deep corruption. Look to Jesus, for in Him death is defeated! Look to Jesus, for there is your salvation! Look to Jesus, for when you were unable to come up to God, God came down to you for your salvation! Look to Jesus, for your new birth is into His death and resurrection! He was lifted up on the cross to draw all people to Himself, so that He may be exalted to the right hand of the Father’s throne, where we will dwell with Him for eternity.

Why would God come down amongst us in salvation? What would motivate Him to save people who were utterly and completely corrupted by sin, who were His enemies? The answer is three words: God is 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.” God became man because He loves you. He came to this earth precisely because you couldn’t come to Him, He descended because you couldn’t ascend. He loves you and wants to see you with Him for eternity; that is why He gave you a new birth in your baptism, that is why He made you His child in those blessed waters. Jesus came for no other purpose. “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.” Those who reject Christ have refused His salvation; they have condemned themselves, choosing to stand before God with the filthy rags of their sin, choosing to dwell in their birth of flesh. Christ has come to cover you with the robe of His righteousness, to give you the new birth that you need. He has delivered you, He has forgiven you, all because of His deep love for you. In the name of the One who descended to be exalted on the cross, the One who gives new birth, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Lent 1 of Series A (Genesis 3:1-21)

“I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your offspring and her offspring; He shall bruise your head and you shall bruise His heel.” 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 Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the third chapter of Genesis. Dear friends in Christ, when you were baptized, you were cast from the baptismal font into the wilderness of temptation. Christ claims us as His own through those blessed waters, which gives us an enemy, and this enemy is ready to attack. So the first stop after baptism isn’t the reception, it is the wilderness. In this way we simply follow the example of our Lord. Jesus was baptized in Matthew chapter three, and in one glorious moment the Holy Spirit descended as a dove and the Father’s voice sounded forth: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” The opening of our Gospel lesson tells us the aftermath of this event: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” I think we’re seeing a pattern here: first baptism, then the wilderness. This pattern is hardly new. Adam and Eve weren’t baptized, but they did have a birth of sorts, as the Lord God created the man from the dust of the earth and the woman from man. They didn’t enter the wilderness, instead they dwelt in paradise. But lurking in God’s perfect garden was temptation.

“Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’” Did God actually say? Every temptation that Satan throws at us begins with this question. He wants us to doubt God’s Word, to explain it away or ignore it. Did God actually say to love your neighbor as yourself? Did God actually say not to commit adultery? Did God actually say to honor your parents? If Satan can introduce doubt about God’s Word into our mind, the game is almost up. He wants us to reinterpret God’s Word to suit ourselves and our culture. Sometimes whole church bodies listen to this question: did God actually say that homosexuality is sinful? Sometimes entire countries do the same: did God actually say that all human life is sacred? Satan used this same tactic when he encountered Jesus in the wilderness. He began each of his three temptations with the phrase, “If you are the Son of God…” At His baptism, God had declared to Jesus that “This is my beloved Son,” and now Satan wants Jesus to doubt that word from God. That little word ‘if’ is a powerful weapon in the hands of Satan, bringing doubt and uncertainty.

When we begin to wonder if God actually said what we think that He said, we begin to stray from His sure and certain Word to our own emotions. “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.” Desire always precedes the sin; that is why God has commanded us not to covet in the ninth and tenth commandments. Satan tempts us to doubt God’s Word, places the desire before us, and then simply watches us fall into sin.

The result of sin is immediate and devastating. “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made for themselves loincloths.” Guilt and shame follows sin; that’s the part that Satan doesn’t tell you. You know exactly how this works. Satan tempts you, asking ‘did God actually say?’ and then showing you the great pleasure that this sin will give you. Then you commit the sin, and all you feel is shame, deep guilt and regret. You vow that you will never commit that sin again. But then Satan starts the process over and before you know it, you’re dwelling in guilt again. The first man and woman lived without shame, as Genesis chapter two teaches us, but when they rebelled against God, can you imagine the shame they felt? It was an emotion they had never felt before, and it was overwhelming. They wanted to hide from God, but there is no hiding from God. We cannot hide our sins from God; to even think that we can is as laughable as Adam and Eve thinking they could hide from Him behind a bush.

And so we must face our Lord’s wrath. What is the penalty for sin? To Adam God said, “Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you.” God’s perfect creation has been corrupted, poisoned by our sin. Thorns, disease and injury will become a part of life, in fact so much a part of life that we cannot imagine being without them. And after that, all we have to look toward is 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.” Death now reigns in this fallen creation, and it seeks out everyone, even you and me.

Martin Luther expressed our plight in this way in the hymn we just sang: “The old evil foe now means deadly woe; deep guile and great might are his dread arms in fight; on earth is not his equal.” We have an enemy that we cannot beat, who is persistent in leading us into sin, and sin can only lead to death. On our own, we are doomed, as Luther says, “With might of ours can naught be done, soon were our loss effected; but for us fights the valiant One, whom God Himself elected. Ask ye, who is this? Jesus Christ it is, of Sabaoth Lord, and there’s none other God; he holds the field forever.” That ‘but’ in verse two is the most glorious conjunction in our entire hymnal: “But for us fights the valiant One, whom God Himself elected.” We were lost, indeed condemned to death, but Jesus Christ, the One appointed by God Himself, went forth from His baptism to do battle with Satan.

Jesus refused to doubt God’s Word; in fact He wielded it as His weapon against Satan. Every time that the evil one said, “If you are the Son of God…” Jesus replied with “It is written…” The Word of God is what we use to combat Satan; when he says, “Did God actually say?” we can give him chapter and verse, saying, “Yes! He did actually say that!” Satan’s lies can only be conquered by the truth. When we have no confidence in God’s Word, then we cannot help but fall into sin. That is why you see church bodies slide down the slippery slope into endorsing more and more sin after they have given up on the truth of God’s Word. Without the Word to grip onto, we cannot fight any of Satan’s temptations. And I think you know what this implies: we need to know God’s Word. Simply having a Bible on the shelf does no good against the assaults of Satan; we need to learn it, to study it so that when Satan asks, “Did God actually say?” we can answer like Jesus with “It is written…”

But Jesus didn’t go to the wilderness simply to give us a tutorial on beating Satan; no, instead He went to the wilderness to beat Satan for us. We are tempted by Satan each and every day, and we fall for those temptations each and every day. We cannot beat Satan on our own, so Jesus goes forth to defeat him in our place. Jesus is our substitute on the battleground of the wilderness, and He triumphs, He defeats each of Satan’s temptations, even the greatest of all temptations. Satan shows Jesus all the glory of this earth and then says, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” But Jesus triumphs over this temptation as He did over the other two, and casts Satan away: “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve.”

The encounter in the wilderness was only the beginning, the first shots fired in a war between Satan and Jesus. God had promised Satan that this fight was coming: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring.” Jesus beat Satan in the wilderness, but the evil one is persistent. He used the religious leaders, even Peter and Judas, to try to drive away Jesus from the final showdown. But Jesus in His great love for you and me would not be deterred. He was out to fulfill God’s first promise of the Gospel, spoken to the serpent just nine verses after the first sin: “He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel.” Satan struck the heel of Jesus by inciting sinful men to hang Him on the cross. There Jesus suffered, there Jesus died, as God had declared so long ago, but in that moment of seeming defeat the first half of the prophecy was fulfilled. In the suffering and death of Jesus, Satan’s head was crushed. Man’s ancient enemy, the one who led us into sin in the first place, is now defeated, crushed under the mighty foot of our Savior. Jesus was struck, but in being struck, even in being killed, He triumphed, for He died to take away our sin, He died to pay our penalty, He died so that we will live. The empty tomb then declares to the entire world that though Satan struck the heel of Jesus, he couldn’t keep Him in the grave.

The second Adam triumphed where the first Adam failed; His victory reversed the penalty of sin, the corruption and death that had reigned since Adam. St. Paul wrote in our Epistle lesson: “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” Guilt and shame are taken away by the overflowing forgiveness of Jesus; death is abolished by His death in our place. Because He lives, so we too will live forever. We can declare with Luther in the words of our hymn: “Though devils all the world should fill, all eager to devour us, we tremble not, we fear no ill; they shall not overpower us. This world’s prince may still scowl fierce as he will, he can harm us none. He’s judged; the deed is done; one little Word can fell him.” That Word, which can fell Satan, is a name, ‘Jesus.’ Jesus has conquered Satan for us, and so he is a defeated enemy, he has no more power over us. Death’s sting is gone, the penalty is erased; guilt and shame are washed away in the waters of Holy Baptism. These are the fruits of victory- the victory Christ won for us. In the name of the second Adam, who triumphed where the first Adam failed, who triumphed in our place, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Ash Wednesday (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21)

“Lay up for yourself treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” 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 Ash Wednesday comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, the first time I had ashes placed upon my forehead was my freshman year at Concordia University in Seward, Nebraska. Though it was a new practice for me, I think that I understood why we did it, and so I wore the ashes all day. In fact, the ashes became a billboard for myself and many of my fellow students. It loudly declared to everyone else that I had been to chapel that day. Hey, look at me- I’m repentant! While I can’t say that those not wearing ashes were stigmatized, we definitely had something to say or think about the ones with clean foreheads. We were good Christians, we were truly pious, we were truly repentant, and those other people, well, they were slacking.

Maybe we should’ve paid more attention to the Gospel lesson appointed for Ash Wednesday. Jesus opens our text with His theme statement: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” The first place we can do this is when we give to charity. “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.” When we serve our neighbor only to look good for the papers, only to get our name on a brick or on a building, then we’ve really used them, right? They’ve become a tool or instrument to get me what I want, namely the praises of others. I’m not serving them, I’m serving only myself. The neighbor in need is then only a rung on the ladder to make me look good in the eyes of the people around me. Now, having your picture in the paper isn’t a sin, nor is winning a good neighbor award, but how do you act toward your neighbor when no one else is looking?

“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.” Prayer is one of the greatest gifts that Jesus has given to us; through Him we can pray to God as our Father. But when we use it as a way to impress others, then we are guilty of using this wonderful gift as simply a means to an end. We want to look good before others, and so we pray and come to church simply so that other people can see us and be impressed. Jesus isn’t going to tell you to quit coming to church, but instead to examine your motives. Are you a Christian when you’re alone?

“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly I say to you, they have received their reward.” Fasting is unfortunately something we have quit doing as Christians. This practice is intended to remind us of our dependence upon God, to focus us on Him. As Christians fasting also reminds us that we have a banquet awaiting us in heaven and spiritual food on the altar here on this earth, where Jesus, the very Bread of Life, is both host and meal. Fasting serves those wonderful purposes, especially during Lent, but once again, if we use it as a tool to gain favor before others, we have already received our reward. That reward is the praise of men, the admiration of others. That is all the reward that is coming, for God is not in the habit of rewarding selfishness and self-righteousness.

Instead, God looks to the heart. The outward acts that impress men have little effect on Him, for His concern is with what motivates those acts. Do they come from faith, or do they simply flow from a selfish desire to exalt ourselves? “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” God is hidden, He sees the inner recesses of our hearts, and what does He see? Mixed motives. Selfishness. Self-righteousness. Sin. He sees what we see if we examine ourselves closely this Ash Wednesday, that not even our most righteous deeds come unstained by sin. Even when we help the needy, even when we pray, even if we fast, we never do so without sin. What Isaiah said so long ago still applies today: “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” And so what is the message of Ash Wednesday? Repent! Repent, for you see your sin before you! Repent, because you cannot hide your sin from the hidden God!

Jesus called God “your Father who is in secret.” This secret God Jesus intends to make known, to reveal to us, and He will be revealed as the God of love. The message of Ash Wednesday is one of repentance; that’s why you bear ashes on your head. But Ash Wednesday is also the beginning of a journey, a journey that has a destination. I could’ve just smeared the ashes on your forehead; I could’ve made a frowny face or perhaps written the word ‘sin’ there, but I didn’t do any of those things. No, instead ashes were placed upon your head in the shape of a cross. It is at the end of this Lenten journey that Jesus reveals the secret and hidden God, and He does so only through His suffering, His death, His sacrifice on the cross. It is on the cross, as a beaten and bloodied man dies in humiliation, that God Himself is revealed. Do you want to know what this hidden and secret God looks like? You look at the cross, and you see God revealed in love, in forgiveness, in salvation. The very character of our Triune God is made manifest at the moment of the cross, as Jesus opens wide His arms in love for you and for me. Every sin is encompassed at the cross, every mixed motive is wiped out, even the selfish and self-righteous have their sin paid for by the sinless Son of God.

Therefore, we have no need for earthly treasure or praise, for Jesus has won for us an eternal, heavenly treasure. This is a treasure that is everlasting, it will never fade for the One who gives it rose from the grave never to die again. Nothing can touch the treasure given by our crucified and risen Lord: “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” Christ has given to you His own righteousness, the righteousness that avails before God in heaven. You are righteous, you are forgiven of all your sins because of His death on your behalf. We return to the deep wells of His forgiveness each and every day, for we know that none of our deeds are pure; we need what He gives. Repentance and forgiveness is the rhythm of our life before God, in Lent and every season.

As I said at the beginning of the sermon, for many at Concordia Seward, including me, ashes on the forehead was a way of showing our righteousness before men, to be seen by them. I was finally made aware of this my senior year, when some of my fellow pre-seminary students were talking about getting rid of the ashes altogether. But there was no need to toss out this practice simply because students abuse it. Jesus doesn’t say to stop giving alms, quit praying, and stop fasting. No, instead He says ‘When you give to the needy,’ ‘When you pray,’ and ‘When you fast.’ This Lenten season, you are encouraged to pray, you are encouraged to give to the needy, you are even encouraged to fast. Lent is a season of reflection and repentance, and those are good and salutary ways to serve your neighbor and worship God. But we do not do these things in order to show off to others. For this reason, I will encourage you to wash the ashes from your head as you depart this evening. As we do so, we remember our baptism, where the hidden God revealed Himself as your heavenly Father, forgiving you for the sake of His Son. Through Jesus you are set free from demonstrating your righteousness before men, for you have the righteousness that He won for you. In your baptism you have a treasure that is far beyond any praises this world can give. In the name of the One who gives such treasure, who won them for us when His own Lenten journey ended at the cross, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Epiphany 8 of Series A (Matthew 6:24-34)

“Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to 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 sixth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, the Sermon on the Mount has a certain intensity to it. Jesus rails against man’s self-righteousness attempts to keep the Law with fire and brimstone. You can hear His passion in exposing the false ideas of His hearers throughout the sermon, but in our text for today, the tone changes. We have a pause in the fire and brimstone, and here Jesus speaks much more softly. You can almost imagine Him preaching this text with His arm around your shoulder, gently chiding you for not trusting in the promises of God. The command ‘do not worry’ is stern Law, but Jesus bases it on the sweet words of the Gospel; you don’t have to worry because your heavenly Father is taking care of you. The theme statement of this little ‘sermon within the sermon’ is found at the end of our text: “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” What does it look like to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness; how does this affect how we live? These are the questions we are going to investigate this morning, and to do so, we are going to look at three individuals who place their trust in the Lord: a farmer, a worker, and a retiree.

The farmer has plenty to worry about. God promised the Adam and Eve that the ground would yield its fruit only grudgingly, and even with all of the modern equipment and technology, that truth still remains. The farmer stands at the mercy of things completely out of his control. A drought could stifle his crops, a flood could drown them. Weeds could choke his corn, bugs could eat them, some new disease could cause them to waste away. A bad crop doesn’t stop the bills; the corn doesn’t care if you needed to put up a new building or buy a new tractor or simply had to repair what you had. Expenses continue to go up as the farmer coaxes the ground to support him and his family. Yet, on the other hand, not everything is bleak. He has visions of more land, better equipment, more money. He is tempted to go all out, to cash in on his opportunities like that superfarm down the road.

But yet the words of Jesus stick out in his mind: “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” It’s simply a question of priorities, right? You cannot place both God and money first in your life. In Luke chapter ten, Martha hurried around thinking about the things of this world while Mary sat at the feet of Jesus. The farmer tries to model his life after that of Mary. Hearing the Word of God, and teaching it to his family, takes precedence over everything else. He has been tempted more than once to spend Sunday morning in the field, but then he remembers again the words of Jesus: “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” He knows all the excuses- if I don’t spray on Sunday morning, it’s going to rain on Sunday afternoon; if I don’t get the harvest done, it’s going to snow- but he doesn’t use them. He may squirm a bit and check his watch, but he is there on Sunday morning, seeking first God’s kingdom and His righteousness. He trusts that the Lord will take care of him, that the God who created and redeemed him will continue to provide.

How can the God who provided for the farmer’s salvation fail to provide his food, drink, and clothing? The same God who gave His own Son into death to forgive the sins of this farmer, along with you, me, and all people, is also concerned about the things that we need for our life in this world. Jesus said, “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” The obvious answer is yes, you are more valuable than them! So valuable, in fact, that the same one who is speaking will go to the cross to pay for your sin, to provide for your greatest need, your need for salvation from sin and death. You are so valuable to Him that in His love He suffered the very anguish of hell so that you would never have to. Now heavenly treasures await you, treasures that are so far beyond anything in this world.

Like the farmer, the worker has plenty to worry about. She labors hard for every dollar that she earns, putting in long days to support her family’s needs. But things simply seem to be getting harder and harder. How can revolutions half a world away reach out and strike her wallet? Costs keep going up; rumors of five dollar gas are swirling about, and the newspapers are already talking about drastic markups at the grocery store. It was already tough making ends meet- what will it be like in a couple months? She’s lost faith in the government; she and her husband already work too much- where can she turn?

She turns to the only place that she has left: prayer. Saint Paul wrote in Philippians chapter four, “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” She takes Paul’s advice and holds up her concerns to God. She asks Him to take them, to make them His own. She commends herself, her family, and all the worries of this life to her heavenly Father. Prayer becomes her constant companion; whenever worries and anxieties enter her life, she counters them with prayer. She doesn’t work any less hard, nor does she expect prosperity and wealth simply because she prays, but instead she places her life into the hands of God. She doesn’t put her trust in her work, but instead in Him. She, like the farmer, keeps her priorities straight, seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, trusting that her loving Father in heaven will then provide all else.

Jesus said in our text: “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.” God will provide because He is our loving Father. That is the teaching of the Lord’s Prayer, which Jesus has given as a gift to His people earlier in the Sermon on the Mount. “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” You are a beloved child of God only because of the One who gave this prayer. You are joined with Christ in baptism, for you were baptized into His death for your sin. His resurrection victory is yours through Baptism, and those connected with Jesus as brothers and sisters are then children of the heavenly Father. Through our brother Jesus we then have the confidence that our Father knows our needs, and He wants us to bring every request to Him. In the Lord’s Prayer, we are given the opportunity to ask for everything that we need. The worker prays the fourth petition most fervently: “Give us this day our daily bread.” This petition reminds her every day that all she needs in this life only comes from her Father in heaven. But she doesn’t pray the fourth petition first. Instead, the Lord has taught her to first ask that His Name would be holy, that His kingdom would come, and that His will would be done on earth as it is in heaven. In the Lord’s Prayer she is taught to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. The kingdom comes to her in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and it is His righteousness that clothes her. With the robe of Christ’s righteousness given in Baptism, she can boldly cry out to her Father in heaven in every trouble that she finds herself in this life, knowing that this robe will be her garment for all eternity.

The retiree has plenty of anxieties, too. He worries about his physical health, knowing that each test he takes could bring news that is terrifying to hear. He dreads words like cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s. But he doesn’t only worry about himself, because the others around him provide plenty of opportunities for concern. He shares the anxiety of his children and grandchildren; their worries become his own. And if that isn’t bad enough, he worries even when they aren’t worried. When they are living openly sinful lives, he worries, even though it doesn’t seem to affect them at all. When he stops to think about all the concerns of his life he has only one question: wasn’t retirement supposed to be relaxing?

But then he remembers the words of Jesus in our text, once again gently chiding: “And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” The answer, of course, is that worrying is much more likely to take away hours from a person’s life rather than add to them. He learns through this text to trust in the provision of the Lord, to depend on His care and protection. Jesus concluded our text in this way: “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” Trusting in the Lord’s protection and provision is a daily task; it is trusting today that he will provide for tomorrow. In Exodus chapter sixteen, the people of Israel were given the miraculous provision of bread from heaven as they wandered in the wilderness. Moses told the people to simply gather what they needed for the day, but what happened? “They did not listen to Moses. Some left part of it till the morning, and it bred worms and stank.” They gathered too much because they didn’t trust that God would provide tomorrow what He had given today. The retiree seeks to learn from their example, entrusting today and tomorrow to his heavenly Father.

He cannot do this on his own; none of us can. The retiree falls into worry, just as the farmer and just as the worker- indeed just as you and I. But the same God who provides for all of our needs also provides forgiveness for that sin as He provides forgiveness for all of our sins. Through that forgiveness, we are promised an eternity where all the causes for worry are erased, as Isaiah declares in our Old Testament lesson for today. “They shall feed along the ways; and on all bare heights shall be their pasture; they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them, for He who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them.” In the midst of the struggles of your life, the challenges that cause worry and anxiety, the message is clear from both Jesus and Isaiah: God has not forgotten you! “Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.” In the Name of the God who knows your needs, who provides for you out of His rich bounty, our Lord who provided for our greatest need through His Son Jesus Christ, Amen.