Monday, October 31, 2011

Reformation Day Observed (Revelation 14:6-7)

“Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. And he said with a loud voice, ‘Fear God and give Him glory, because the hour of His judgment has come, and worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.’” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this Reformation Day comes from the First Lesson just read from the book of Revelation. [Knock, knock, knock] His hammer drove the nails into the thick church door. He was excited, a bit nervous, but most of all he was angry. [Knock, knock, knock] That anger drove the nails in deep. This young monk was upset at what the church had taught him, but what made him even more irate was what the church had taught to the people he preached to and cared for, the good Christian people of Wittenberg. [Knock, knock, knock] Those nails tacked to the door what young Martin Luther called his ’95 Theses,’ ninety-five points of disputation. He was calling on people to debate him, to start a conversation, but what started was the Reformation. Luther could never have predicted that what he began on October 31st, 1517 would consume his entire life; in fact, his hammer would echo throughout history, resulting in a church split into literally hundreds of denominations. His message would divide, for it was the message of the pure Gospel: You are justified by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone.

Martin Luther’s message focused on that vitally important word ‘justification.’ Today, many people, including even more than a few Lutherans, have said that this complicated word has no meaning to modern people. I disagree; in fact, I think we know all about justification, because we attempt to do it all the time. You are by nature a justifier. To justify means to make things right, and you try to justify your actions each and every day. When a confirmation student forgets his memory work, what does he say first? Does he apologize, or does he justify? Does he say, “I’m sorry, I sinned and didn’t do what I was supposed to,” or does he say, “I was too busy this week, and I had too much other homework, and I forgot the sheet, and your expectations are too high,” and on and on. When you sin against someone, what is your first response? Do you ask for forgiveness, or do you justify? “If you would’ve done what I asked, I wouldn’t have lost my temper.” “If I wasn’t late, I wouldn’t have been speeding.” “If my classmate had covered up his paper, I wouldn’t have cheated.” You would much rather justify yourself than ask for forgiveness; you want to make things right yourself, without any help from anyone else. We even justify our inactions: “I would’ve stopped for that accident, but there were other people there already.” “I would’ve shared my faith, but it just wasn’t the right time.” “I would’ve helped my neighbor, but he’s never helped me.” Pastors are not immune: “I should’ve told that person about their sin, but I don’t want to make them mad.” You were conceived and born a self-justifier; that is what you’re good at, that is where you turn first.

Luther knew all about this; perhaps more than any other theologian in the Church’s history, Luther understood the depth of human sinfulness, because he knew the depth of his own sinfulness. He knew that we try to justify our actions before others, but even more importantly we even try to justify ourselves before God. He had traveled that road himself, he had spent his life trying to reach God with his own actions. That was what made him so upset as he hammered on the Wittenberg church door; the church of his day didn’t discourage self-justification, instead, it made self-justification the chosen path of salvation. People were directed toward their own efforts to justify themselves; they were supposed to reconcile themselves to God through an elaborate system of good works, they were supposed to climb their way up to God. Our world, and unfortunately even the church, has these same ladders today. The ladder of the mind declares that our own understanding and reason can reach God. The ladder of the emotions proclaims that if I feel God more and more in my life, then I am coming close to reaching Him. The ladder of good works declares that I can climb up to God through my own obedience to His Law, that I can justify myself before my Creator by doing what He wants. Luther had walked that road, he knew its end. He knew that no ladder could reach God, because he had tried them all, and had found only despair. He was an exemplary monk; he worked harder than his brothers, he followed every rule to the letter, but still he was painfully conscious of his own sin. All he saw was an angry, all-powerful God, who demanded that humans justify themselves, then delighted at condemning them when they failed.

“Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people.” This eternal gospel had gone forth throughout the world as the apostles boldly preached it, but the church had forgotten it, instead burying that sweet message under a pile of attempts at self-justification. Luther was to be God’s instrument to proclaim that message once again. The eternal gospel rang forth into his own ears as he studied the Scriptures, especially the third chapter of Romans: “We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.”
Brothers and sisters in Christ, do you hear the sweet message of the Gospel in that verse? You do not have to justify yourself; you are justified by faith ‘apart from works of the Law!’ You are freed from any attempts to make yourself right with God, for Jesus has done it all for you! Believe that message, cling to His redemption in faith, and you are justified! No works are required, no ladders, no self-justification; God has justified you through faith on account of Christ. “There is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith.” Jesus Christ is the atonement sacrifice, the Lamb who was slain for you, for me, for all people. He hung upon that cross bearing your sin, He was raised to justify you, to make you righteous in the sight of God. You are set free from your sin, you are set free from any attempts to justify yourself, but instead you confess your sin and receive the blessed forgiveness Christ won. You do not have to make things right with God, for Christ Himself has reconciled you to your Creator with His suffering, death, and resurrection!

That is the message, the eternal gospel that the angel proclaims in our text: “Fear God and give Him glory, because the hour of His judgment has come, and worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.” This is a call to the entire world to repent and believe the Gospel. God is glorified when people cling to His Son, He is glorified in His Son’s death, in His Son’s resurrection for the sins of all people. God is not given glory in your self-justification, but in your faith. God is not given glory in your own righteousness, but in Christ’s righteousness given to you. And having being forgiven, having been justified by the very blood of Jesus Christ, we can now truly worship God as our Creator. That is the chief end of Christ’s death and resurrection, His redemption and justification of lost sinners: to reconcile us with His Father, the one who created us and has loved us from all eternity. Only through Christ’s salvation do you worship the Father as the one who gave you life, who knit you together in your mother’s womb and has given you every good gift since. You have all things because of Christ: freedom from self-justification, redemption from you sin, and the sure and certain promise of eternal life, founded upon His resurrection from the dead. That is the message Luther was called upon to proclaim, the ‘eternal gospel’ that rang forth in our text.

Some Lutheran theologians through the centuries have therefore made the claim that the angel in our text for today is Luther himself. It is unlikely that this text is a direct prophecy of Martin Luther, but what we can say is that he was another in a long line of saints who were appointed by God to proclaim the ‘eternal gospel’ to every nation and tribe and language and people. In fact, we can say even more: God used a German monk as His instrument to uncover once again the free message of God’s grace from all that had obscured it. Today, we do not celebrate a man, or even a church; Luther himself would be disgusted to see us place our focus on him alone. No, instead today we rejoice in the Gospel, we rejoice that we are justified by grace alone, through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. Today we rejoice that the Lord in His grace used Martin Luther to proclaim it freely again. But Reformation Day is not simply about God’s gifts through one man, for God placed around Martin Luther a talented cast of theologians, faithful lay people, and a loving and devoted wife, all of whom were blessed with the gifts needed to carry this message before the entire world. Indeed, they had the opportunity to fulfill the words of our Introit for today: “I will speak of your testimonies before kings, O Lord, and shall not be put to shame.” The Lord Himself gave them boldness, the same boldness that drove Luther to the church door on October 31st, 1517.

[Knock, knock, knock] That young monk had no idea where the journey he began with a sheet of paper, a hammer, and some nails, would end. He didn’t know that five hundred years later congregations would bear his name, not because they worship Martin Luther, but because they revel in the Gospel that he proclaimed. What he did know was that God loved him for the sake of Jesus Christ, that He had justified him through faith, simply on account of His grace. Because Luther understood the depth of our inability to come to God, he understood all the better the enormity of God’s grace, that when we were unable to come up to Him, God came down to us for our salvation. In the Name of the One whose righteousness we bear, whose blood justifies us before God, Jesus Christ, our Savior and our Lord, Amen.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Proper 25 of Series A (Matthew 22:34-46)

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind… You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the twenty-second chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, not very long ago, the media was buzzing about a woman named Casey Anthony. This mother was implicated by the authorities in the disappearance and death of her young child, but was acquitted and released. People hotly debated her guilt or innocence throughout the trial and since, but people on both sides agreed that, according to what the media reported, she was a poor mother. It seemed apparent to many that her daughter was an inconvenience, that Casey Anthony was going to continue to live for herself whether she was a mother or not. There was great anger and rage directed toward her, for many believed she had murdered her child in great selfishness, simply to remove something that kept her from living how she wanted.

This anger is quite ironic, for Casey Anthony, if she truly was the poor mother we have been told she was, simply lived the way that our culture today tells us how to live. Millions of children have been killed in the womb through abortion in the past thirty years, the vast majority because a child will be an inconvenience, will prevent a mother or father from reaching their goals, or will change too much in their lives. The parents who spare their children are still told by our world that children shouldn’t change things, they shouldn’t affect your career or social life. But the relationship between parents and children is simply the symptom of a much more fundamental issue. Our world declares that you should live for yourself, placing your own needs above that of everyone else. That message affects every one of us in a variety of areas, at any stage of life. Look out for number one; don’t worry about or trust anyone else. Love yourself! That’s the key, isn’t it? Love, in our world today, is first directed inside.

Jesus gives us a radically different picture of love in our text for today. True love is not directed inside ourselves, but instead outside, toward our God and then toward our neighbors. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In a certain sense, it’s easy to love God. It’s easy to love Him when you are sitting here on Sunday morning. It’s easy to love Him when things are going well, when everything in your life seems to be lining up just the way you want it. Sure, you may not think of it much, but if someone asked you, you would say, ‘Oh, yes, I love God.” What Jesus commands here is much more than simply a kind of half-hearted love when life is rosy. Instead, He calls on us to love God with all of our heart, soul, and mind. We are to love God with our intellect, our emotions, our desires, and intentions. We are to love God in thought and in deed, privately within ourselves and publically in this world. In short, we are to love God completely, with everything that we are and have. We are to love nothing more than God; no other ‘gods’ may claim His throne, even if those idols are the good gifts that He has given us. He is to be over all in our lives. Moreover, we are to love Him at all times, even and especially when we face suffering in this life. We are to love and trust God even when we can’t understand what it happening to us, when we can’t see how He will bring good into a bad situation. Love places our lives into the hands of God, in good times or in bad, in suffering or in health.

This love for God finds concrete, practical expression in our love for those around us. Jesus declared, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And who is our neighbor? Your neighbor is not simply the person who occupies the house next to yours, but instead all those whom God has placed around you. Those nearest to you are your family: your spouse, your children, your parents are all your neighbors. But God has also placed neighbors before you in every other area of your life. At work, at school, and in your interactions in the community, God places neighbors in front of you, those who need your assistance. If you see a car accident and stop to help, you become a neighbor to someone you will never meet again. Your neighbors are even those whom you don’t like, even your enemies, to whom you may show love simply by praying for and forgiving them. Your love is directed outside of yourself to those around you, those who have a variety of needs. And God has gifted you in unique ways to fulfill those needs. He has given you those gifts not to serve yourself, but to serve others.

The greatest need of your neighbors is for the Gospel, and God places many into your life who need to hear it. Saint Paul tells us about this in our epistle lesson: “We were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, for you had become very dear to us.” Our world declares, ‘Love yourself above all else.’ Jesus instead commands, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” We place our neighbors above ourselves, seeking to direct our love outward into their lives, providing for their needs as we are able. We do not have to go searching for neighbors, but God places them directly in front of us, and we show them love by providing for their needs.

With two brief commands, Jesus has encapsulated the entire Ten Commandments, indeed Jesus Himself says, “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” These two commands are impossible for fallen, sinful people to even begin to obey. You cannot love God with all your heart, soul, and mind; you cannot love your neighbor as yourself. Instead, your love is always turned inward. This is the condition of all people since the Fall into sin; this is why there is such suffering, war, and brokenness in our world. There is only one exception, only one man who was not curved in on Himself. Jesus Christ loved God with all of His heart, His soul, and His mind. Jesus did everything in obedience to God; His entire life was placed into the loving hands of His Father. Jesus trusted in God when times were good, when He was popular and acclaimed by man, but He especially trusted His Father when suffering came. As He hung dying upon the cross, He cried out, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” He trusted in the words of Psalm 110: “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.’” He trusted that He would be vindicated, that His Father’s love wouldn’t fail. Like a sheep led to the slaughter, He did not defend Himself against the accusations and the cruel blows of His enemies. His love was not turned in on Himself, but toward His Father, who willed that He go to suffering and to death.
His love was also turned toward you. On the cross, Jesus loved God with all of His heart and soul and mind, and on the cross, He loved His neighbor as Himself. He stretched His arms wide to embrace the entire world, every person that has ever lived, even you and me, as His neighbors, and He showed love to His neighbors by dying in our place. He loved even His enemies from that cross, crying out as they drove in the nails, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!” He placed you above Himself as His neighbor, giving up everything to provide for your greatest needs. You needed salvation from sin, you needed deliverance from death, and His suffering and death won both for you. He suffered all to show you love; His love is directed outside of Himself, and that love has power, for it led to His suffering and death in your place, for your salvation.

You cannot love God with all your heart, soul, and mind unless you know God, and you cannot know God unless you know Jesus. Knowing Jesus means knowing what He has done for you, how He suffered and died in His great love for you. Knowing Jesus means knowing who He is, the Son of David and the Son of God. The Pharisees failed on both counts. Their focus was on the Law, on the dos and don’ts, because they thought they could attain their own salvation. Their love of God and their love of neighbor was not true love, for they still loved only themselves. Their obedience to God and their care for their neighbor was only a means to an end, a means for them to work their way to heaven. Jesus instead teaches in our text that the focus is on Him and the salvation He brings. If you don’t know Jesus, no amount of ‘love’ is going to deliver you from death and hell. We only know Jesus through faith, the faith worked in us through the Holy Spirit, using the tools of the Word and the Sacraments. These means of grace not only proclaim the love that the Son showed toward you, but they apply that salvation to you, giving you the gifts that He won in love on the cross. You are delivered from sin and death through the love of the Son! That is where your confidence lies, in the One who loved you so much He would suffer the very punishment of hell for you.

Our love for God and love for neighbor is then not an obligation but a privilege, overflowing from the love that God first showed us. We love God because He has given us everything, especially eternal life with Him in the new heavens and the new earth. We love our neighbors because God loved them in Christ, giving up His Son for their salvation. Only the work of the Holy Spirit can turn us from an inward focus to a focus on loving God and loving our neighbor. This doesn’t happen overnight, and indeed it will only perfectly happen when we stand before the throne of the Lord forever. Our love toward God and neighbor will still falter and sometimes even fail. At those times, the Holy Spirit brings to us the forgiveness of Christ, the forgiveness that covers even a failure to love, the same forgiveness that Christ won on the cross. That forgiveness sustains our love and forgives even our lack of love, for it is the love of Christ shown to us. In the Name of Christ, who suffered all to show love toward you, His beloved neighbor, Amen.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Proper 22 of Series A (Isaiah 5:1-7)

“For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are His pleasant planting; and He looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry!” 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 fifth chapter of the prophet Isaiah. Dear friends in Christ, a gardener had a sweet corn patch. He cleared the land, he removed the tree roots, the sticks, stone, and debris. He sweetened the ground with manure, he tested constantly to make sure the PH balance was just right. He placed into that black earth the best sweet corn seeds that money could buy, seeds that consistently produced results of both quality and quantity. Then he went to work defending that sweet-corn patch. He put up a fence to keep out the raccoons, rabbits, and deer, exerting every effort to keep His crop safe.

As his corn grew, big and beautiful, the gardener began to prepare for the harvest. So confident was he of a wonderful harvest, that the gardener purchased a shed to store the corn, he built a stand to sell it on Highway 39. The weather was perfect that summer; the right amount of rain and plenty of sun. The bugs didn’t attack his plants, and they grew and grew, developing large ears of ripe corn. The gardener waited patiently for his sweet corn patch to mature, and at exactly the right time, he began to pick. As was tradition, the first ear of corn was for the gardener, and that evening he sunk his teeth into its rich kernels…and promptly spit them out. This corn was the worst he had ever tasted, worse than going down the road and biting into an ear of field corn! This patch of sweet corn, which had held such promise, for which he had done everything that could’ve been expected, had betrayed him. He looked for a bountiful harvest, and instead received corn that was quite literally worthless. So, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, what would you do with such a sweet corn patch? Would you continue to care for it? Or would you tear down the fence, and let the raccoons have those worthless ears? Do you owe that rebellious sweet corn patch anything, any grace, any protection?

In answering that question, you point the finger at yourself. “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are His pleasant planting; and He looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry!” You are the rebellious sweet corn patch, you are the disobedient vineyard that the Lord planted. What more could God have done for you that He left undone? He prepared the soil, giving to you a creation that provides for all of your needs. Then He placed you into that creation, He formed your first parents from the dust of the earth, and He formed you in the womb of your mother. But God didn’t create you only to abandon you. Food, shelter, clothing, and even the very air you breathe are daily gifts from Him. Luther teaches us: “I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them. He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all that I have. He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life.”

God created this earth and all that is in it; He created us, humanity, the pinnacle of all that He made, and then He waited. In eager expectation, with great patience He waited for us to produce a bountiful harvest. But such a harvest didn’t come. “He looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.” The vines looked good, but they were counterfeit, worthless imposters, filled with wild, sour, literally ‘stinky’ grapes. His people had rebelled against Him. “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry!” He looked for you to produce a bountiful harvest of good works, love and service toward Him and toward your neighbors, but all He received was sin and rebellion. He looked for selflessness but found selfishness. He looked for honor but found disrespect. He looked for worship but found apathy. He looked for sexual purity but found lust. He looked for honesty but found lies. He looked for stewardship but found greed. He looked for love of your neighbor but found hatred. He looked for obedience but found rebellion. He looked for holiness but found sin. God planted mankind in this beautiful creation; He gave you life and provided for all of your needs, but the only thanks He has received is worthless fruit. “What more was there to do for my vineyard, that I have not done in it? When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?”

What will God do with His rebellious vineyard? God poses the question to us: What would you do with a vineyard that produces only wild, sour grapes? What would you do with a sweet corn patch that produces a crop that no one wants to eat? “And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and briers and thorns shall grow up; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.” Sin ravaged the vineyard, the vines were trampled, beaten down by the evil of this world. Briers and thorns grew up, a constant and harsh reminder that this pleasant planting of the Lord was corrupted and fallen. Now death entered the vineyard of the Lord and ruled over it as a tyrant. It terrorized the vines, for it was one power that could not be defeated. No one could escape it, it held all in a prison of fear. Death was all that God’s rebellious vineyard deserved, and not just death in this world, but eternal death.

God didn’t find the fruit He expected from His vineyard, and so it was left open to the ravages of sin and death, just penalties from its rebellion. But God didn’t completely abandon His vineyard. Instead, He sent one messenger after another to call the vineyard to repentance, to summon it back to the one who had planted it. Jesus says in our Gospel lesson: “When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. The tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them.” God persistently sent one servant after another to call on His vineyard to produce the fruit He expected in the first place, but the vineyard refused again and again. God’s messengers were abused, even killed. But God wouldn’t give up; He was willing to go to the very limits to restore His vineyard to Himself. “Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’” He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, true God in human flesh, to call the vineyard to repentance, but His end was exactly like the servants who came before: “But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.” Jesus Christ, the vineyard Master’s Son, was cast from that vineyard and killed; He was crucified outside of the city, dying the death of the servants who preceded Him, dying the death of a criminal.

The vineyard rejected the Master’s Son as they had rejected the Master. But it was at this moment, when the rebellion of the vineyard was at its very worst, that the vineyard itself was redeemed. In being cast outside and killed, the Son, Jesus Christ, renewed and restored the vineyard to its Master. The blood of Jesus bought back the vineyard by paying the price of sin it owed. The death of Jesus delivered the vineyard from the tyranny of death, for He died in the place of the vineyard. In the very act of being rejected, Jesus erased the consequences of the vineyard’s rebellion, He returned that vineyard to its rightful owner, cleansed from its sin and iniquity. In our Gospel lesson Jesus declares: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” Jesus is the rejected stone, rejected by the ones He came to save. But this rejected stone is now the cornerstone of a new vineyard, the Church. Through His resurrection, Jesus is now the foundation of God’s renewed and restored vineyard, a vineyard that produces fruit in abundance only through Him. You were a member of God’s rebellious vineyard; now, through the waters of Holy Baptism, you are a member of the new vineyard, the vineyard founded on the rejected cornerstone.

God provided in abundance for His vineyard at its creation; how much more will He provide for His renewed and restored vineyard? In our text, Isaiah sings the song of a vineyard in rebellion against God; but in chapter twenty-seven of his prophecy, Isaiah sings of the vineyard redeemed and restored by Christ: “In that day, ‘A pleasant vineyard, sing of it! I, the Lord, am its keeper; every moment I water it. Lest anyone punish it, I keep it night and day; I have no wrath. Would that I had thorns and briers to battle! I would march against them, I would burn them up together… In days to come Jacob shall take root, Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots and fill the whole world with fruit.” This vineyard is fed by Christ’s Body, it is watered by His Blood. This vineyard is nourished by a constant and overflowing supply of forgiveness so that it does produce good fruit, not to earn God’s favor, but because it has been made God’s own through the waters of Holy Baptism. And this vineyard will endure, with Jesus as its foundation and cornerstone, singing His praises and rejoicing in His salvation for all eternity in the new heavens and the new earth. In the Name of the vineyard Master’s Son, the one who was cast from the vineyard and killed to restore the vineyard to its Creator, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.