Monday, February 27, 2012

Servants of a present Christ, not vicars of an absent Christ

I was reading Luther's 1520 treatise The Freedom of a Christian for bible class yesterday, and this passage from his dedication to Pope Leo X struck me.

"Believe none who exalt you, believe those who humble you.  This is the judgment of God, that '...He has put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of low degree.' [Luke 1:52] See how different Christ is from His successors, although they all would wish to be His vicars.  I fear that most of them have been to literally His vicars.  A man is a vicar only when his superior is absent.  If the pope rules, while Christ is absent...what else is he but a vicar of Christ?  what is the church indeed under such a vicar but a mass of people without Christ?  Indeed, what is such a vicar but an antichrist and an idol?  How much more properly did the apostles call themselves servants of the present Christ and not vicars of an absent Christ."

This statement, though directed at the pope, has application to all who serve in the Office of the Holy Ministry.  Pride is always lurking, seeking to consume pastors, and many can unfortunately recount the devestating effects when it takes hold.   Luther insists that when we wallow in our pride and status, we end up pointing only to ourselves.  This can happen to the country pastor the same as the TV evangelist; in short, all pastors are suceptible to making their Office all about themselves rather than about Christ.

Lent 1 of Series B (Mark 1:9-15)

“And He was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And He was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to Him.” 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 first Sunday in Lent comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the first chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Mark. Dear friends in Christ, when you hear the word ‘wilderness,’ what picture comes into your mind? The first thing we may think of is the desert. The wilderness sounds like a place where the sun is beating down on you, where food and water are scarce. And that is probably the kind of wilderness that Jesus encountered in our text. But the word “wilderness” in the Bible doesn’t necessarily refer to a place, instead it indicates a situation. The wilderness is characterized by isolation, desolation, emptiness. 

The wilderness is a place where you are alone. Therefore, the wilderness can be the driest desert or the lushest rainforest. If you are isolated and alone, you are in the wilderness. Satan uses this isolation to make the wilderness a place of temptation. Eve was in the wilderness when Satan led her into sin. Even though Adam was right next to her, he refused to speak, and so she was alone. The children of Israel found the wilderness a place of temptation; even though they traveled as a nation led by God, they thought that they were alone, and they rebelled against the God who delivered them from bondage. Satan is at his best when he tempts us one at a time. His mission is to divide and conquer. He wants to bring us into the wilderness, to isolate us from others, and then lead us into sin.

He launches that assault on you and me each and every day. This world is the wilderness, the wilderness of temptation and sin. Satan is always working to keep it that way, to divide and isolate. He wants to separate us from our friends, our family, our congregation, but especially from our God. He does his most diligent and successful work in severing relationships. He wants us to think that we are alone, that we have to face this world by ourselves. And then, when we are isolated in any way, He moves in with temptation.

Temptation. That’s Satan’s specialty, and it is something that sharply distinguishes him from God. St. James teaches us: “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and He Himself tempts no one.” God tests, Satan tempts. We saw that in our Old Testament lesson, where God tested Abraham’s faith by having him sacrifice Isaac. God tests, and always for our good. What Satan does is quite different; he tempts, he draws us into sin. He plays on our desires, our emotions, our feelings. All sin starts in the heart, with desire, with coveting, and then it is downhill from there. Once again, James teaches us all about it: “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” Satan works on our most basic emotions, the desires we have for that which is not ours, for that which is not pleasing to God or in accordance with His holy Law. He knows the power that our emotions hold over us, and he is an expert at using that power against us, especially when we are isolated, when we are walking in the wilderness. Those desires lead to thoughts, words, and actions, those desires lead to sin. And sin has only one consequence, as Scripture clearly teaches: “The wages of sin is death.”

This approach has worked for every human since Eve took the apple from the tree; Satan has had thousands of years to perfect his tactics, and he has managed to lead every person who has ever walked this earth into sin. But then Jesus came. He showed up in Satan’s backyard, the wilderness of this sinful, corrupted world. “The Spirit immediately drove Him out into the wilderness.” He was baptized, but that doesn’t stop Satan’s attacks, it intensifies them. He doesn’t worry too much about the un-baptized, just as long as he can keep them from font. The ones he’s concerned about are those who have heard the words of the Father: “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased.” Like Jesus, all Christians, including you and me, are cast out from the font into the wilderness of temptation. But Jesus goes even a step further; He goes into a literal wilderness, the wilderness of Judea, a region inhabited only by the wild beasts, a place where there is no food, and water is scarce. Satan had to be licking his chops. Jesus was already isolated physically, now He must be isolated spiritually and then enticed into sin. One mistake, one sin, and the game was up. Jesus would be ruined and man would still be in Satan’s grasp. And so the devil quickly launched his attacks. Mark tells us that Jesus was “in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan.” Matthew and Luke give us three specific temptations by Satan, but Mark shows us that Jesus constantly faced the relentless assaults of the tempter.

Jesus endured what God’s people have endured for thousands of years; He endured what you have endured for your entire life: continual, unrelenting attack by Satan. Those who have struggled with addiction in any form know exactly what Jesus faced in the wilderness. In the wilderness, God’s chosen people, those delivered by His mighty, outstretched hand, were continually assaulted by Satan’s temptations, and they fell, again and again. In the wilderness, you and I, God’s baptized people, those claimed as His own in those blessed waters, are continually assaulted by Satan’s temptations, and we fall, again and again. But Jesus Christ did not fall. He wasn’t enticed, He wasn’t deceived. Satan used every tactic he had learned in thousands of years of leading humans into sin, every temptation that had worked on millions of people before, but Jesus withstood them all. He remained without sin. He triumphed where God’s people failed, He triumphed where you fail. More than that, He triumphed for you, He triumphed in your place.

For the encounter in the wilderness was simply the first engagement in a war that would last for three years. Satan was defeated in the desert, but he didn’t quit. At every turn, demons rose up against Jesus; Satan even used Peter as a tool to turn Jesus away from the path of salvation. Finally, the journey ended where it began: in the wilderness, this time the wilderness of the cross. On Good Friday, Jesus truly was in the wilderness, He was completely isolated, abandoned by all of His disciples, rejected by the world, forsaken even by God Himself. He was more isolated that afternoon that during his forty days in the Judean wilderness. The only one there was Satan, mocking Him through the voice of the crowds, “He saved others; He cannot save Himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down from the cross.” But Jesus Christ did not fall. He wasn’t enticed, He wasn’t deceived. Despite the temptations of Satan, He gave up His life on the tree, He shed His blood to destroy sin, death, and the power of the devil. He triumphed for you, He triumphed in your place. He triumphed on the cross for every time that you have fallen into Satan’s temptations, He triumphed on the cross so that Satan’s power over you would be broken forever. He triumphed on the cross so that you will never be alone, never isolated from God ever again. He triumphed so that the wilderness of temptation could become the new Eden of peace.

Sin isolates, it divides, it severs relationships. All of God’s creatures have been estranged from each other and from their Creator since Adam and Eve fell into sin. The wilderness is all about isolation. But Jesus came into the wilderness and transformed it. His blood brings forth a new reality: Eden restored, where all of creation lives in harmony with each other and with God. Jesus demonstrated this as He endured the temptations of Satan in the wilderness. Mark tells us, “He was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to Him.” Satan wanted Jesus to be isolated, but instead Jesus restored relationships even with the wild animals, the Creator was honored by His creatures. Isaiah predicted that this would be the work of the Messiah in chapter forty-three of his prophecy: “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild beasts will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches, for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people.” Peace in all the created order is the result of Christ’s work; the restoration of all relationships comes through His blood. What He began in the wilderness of Judea as He faced Satan’s temptations will be completed on the Last Day: the wilderness of temptation will be transformed into the Eden of peace.

Isaiah has more to say in another place about this new Eden, the new heavens and the new earth: “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” The new heavens and the new earth will be Eden restored, where the wilderness of isolation and division will be no more. Peace will characterize eternity; all relationships will be perfect and whole, especially your relationship with your God, healed by the shed blood of Christ. There the assaults of Satan will cease forever. He will no longer tempt, no longer accuse, for Christ defeated him for you; He did battle with your enemy and He triumphed, in the wilderness of Judea and in the wilderness of the cross. Until that Day, Satan remains your enemy, but he is a defeated enemy, triumphed over by the One who stood in your place and did not fall into temptation, your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. In His holy and precious Name, Amen.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Ash Wednesday (Joel 2:12-19)

“‘Yet even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” 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 evening comes from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the second chapter of the prophet Joel. Dear friends in Christ, it’s Ash Wednesday and I’m still not sure what I’m going to give up for Lent. I’ve thought about giving up watching sports, eating sweets, television, Facebook, or even the internet, but I haven’t been able to settle on any one thing. Surely, I have to give up something, right? It’s just what Christians do during Lent; giving up something has become a very popular way to commemorate this season, and so I have to deprive myself in some way. And it’s much better if I’m constantly reminding others about what I’m giving up and asking them what they’re doing, and so, what about you? Have you decided what you’re giving up for Lent?

Here’s an idea for you and for me: Give up sin for Lent! “‘Yet even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” God tells us to quit messing around, to stop our pathetic show of outward piety. He doesn’t care if we quit eating chocolate for Lent, He cares about the condition of our heart. He is tired of His people pretending to be sorrowful over sin, He is disgusted with empty repentance. We can make a big show of repentance, we can even put ashes on our head, but He could care less how dirty our heads are tonight if we aren’t sorrowful over our sin. Jesus said in our Gospel lesson: “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others.” Christ doesn’t care about the outward show; He looks to the heart. This is the same teaching we find in Joel: “Rend your hearts and not your garments.” Give up your sin for Lent! Don’t waste your time abstaining from steak if you continue to live in unrepentant sin. Examine your life deeply this Lenten season, make that your discipline. Look into every nook and cranny of your life, and expose the sin that hides in secret. Use the mirror of God’s Holy Law to bring all of your sin to light, especially the sin that no one else knows about.

Then repent of it; turn away from that sin and toward God. “Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and He relents over disaster.” Give up your sin for Lent! “Rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to your Creator, come back to Him in repentance, in sorrow and mourning over your great sin. Carry your secret sins to His altar and beg for forgiveness, confess them with the tears of repentance. Bring your sin into the light, confess them before God Himself and the servants God has given to you. Your pastor isn’t quite ready to institute the regular practice of private confession and absolution; he wants to teach a bible class first and write a few newsletters. Force his hand; demand that he hear your confession. Remind your pastor of his ordination vows, that he has been placed here by Jesus Christ Himself to hear your confession and intercede before God on your behalf. Make him do his job! Hold his feet to the fire, demand that he do what he has been called to do. Without private confession and absolution, you are being robbed of one of Christ’s greatest gifts; demand that your pastor provide it to you.

For he is commanded to do what the priests did in our text: “Between the vestibule and the altar let the priest, the ministers of the Lord, weep and say, ‘Spare your people, O Lord, and make not your heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, “Where is their God”?’” Your sins deserve death, each and every one of them, eternal death in hell; that is what God’s Law shows you when you examine yourself this Lenten season. God’s servants are charged to plead with Him to save you, to spare you from the punishment your sin has earned. Their task is to intercede on your behalf, they are to bring the petitions of those they serve before His throne of grace. They are to hear your confession, your secret sins and your public sins, and then plead to God for mercy, giving you assurance on the basis of His character. “He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and He relents over disaster.” Look to who your God is, take comfort there! “Who knows whether He will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind Him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God?” 

 You cannot make God be merciful, but you can trust that He will be merciful, that He will spare, that He will relent, because that is who He is. Your God is love. “Then the Lord became jealous for His land and had pity on His people.” God is jealous for you; He will give you up into Satan’s grasp, He will not let you die in your sin. He relents over the disaster that was prepared for you, because He has provided a substitute for you. St. Paul writes in our Epistle lesson, “For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” This sinless substitute is Jesus Christ; through His death and resurrection, God will show forth His character as the God of love. “He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love; and He relents over disaster.” Christ was made sin so that God could show grace and mercy to you. The Father’s anger was slow because He knew that one day He would offer up His Son. Even today His anger is slow; the return of Christ and the end of the world is delayed only for the sake of God’s beloved creation, that more people would be saved through the blood of Christ. The Lord relents over disaster because the disaster fell upon Christ. Jesus on the cross is the definitive display of God’s gracious character. Joel wrote, “Who knows whether He will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind Him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God?” We know, because He sent us Jesus, to suffer, die, and rise again on our behalf.

We know because He has sent us His great gifts. “The Lord answered and said to His people, ‘Behold, I am sending you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied; and I will no more make you a reproach among the nations.’” Christ has left behind Him the very gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation. Examine your life deeply this Lenten season, seeing your sin in light of God’s Law; then run in repentance to where Christ pours forth the forgiveness He won on the cross. Run to the font each and every day, washing yourself clean once again in repentance and faith, drowning the Old Adam and bringing forth the new man to live before God! Run to your pastor; hold him to his ordination vows, demand that he hear your confession and then hear the sweet words of the absolution forgive that sin. Bring your secret sins out into the light and confess them to a man who has been placed here by Christ to hear them and forgive them in His stead and by His command. Run tonight to this altar, where Christ gives Himself to you for the forgiveness of your sins. Here, in this place, on this very night, Christ declares to you, “Behold, I am sending you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied; and I will no more make you a reproach among the nations.” Run to where Christ is present for you, for Jesus pours out His gifts in abundance upon His repentant people.

For the next five Wednesdays, we will run to God’s house to hear God’s Law and repent of our sin, then we will hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ and receive His forgiveness. Joel calls on all people to hear of this salvation together. “Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Consecrate the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber.” Together we will hear of our sin; together we will hear of Christ’s death and resurrection as the answer to that sin. This Lenten season, we run together to the cross, where “the Lord became jealous for His land and had pity on His people.” Amen.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The proper nutrition

I would guess that every pastor wants to see his members grow in the faith.  He desires for them to see their sin, repent of it, and cling to Christ, not their works or emotions.  He is encouraged when a member 'gets it,' and shows enthusiasm (the good kind, not the heresy that clings to our flesh) for the teachings and work of the church.  He would certainly want to see the entire congregation grow in this way.  Spiritual apathy is very frustrating to deal with as a pastor.

My wife was watching a video by a nutritionist who consulted for the exercise program she is doing.  This man was emphasizing the value of nutrition for working out, essentially saying, 'You can undermine your workout by what you eat before and after.'  You can work out as hard as you want, but if you don't couple it with proper nutrition, you are sabotaging yourself.

This has direct application to the church.  We want our members to grow in the faith, we want them to be enthusiastic for the teachings and work of the church, we want to fight apathy.  But we so often do so without the nutrition Christ has given for doing this very task.  More social activities, youth group events and soup suppers can all be good things, but they don't have the ability to create and strengthen faith.  I as a pastor cannot expect anything but apathy if I am giving Christ's people a limited diet.

The nutrition Christ has given to the Church is the Word and the Sacraments.  These means of grace do have the power to create and strengthen faith.  That's why Christ gave them.  I cannot expect renewal in my congregation (or in the church at large!) without an emphasis on the gifts Christ has given.  I can try as hard as I want, I can run myself ragged, but if I am not using to the fullest extent Christ's gifts, I am sabotaging all of that work.

Without more frequent communion, the practice of private confession and absolution or a stronger emphasis on preaching and baptism, we are hamstringing all of our efforts; we are running in place or even going backward.  Those are the tools Christ has given, the nutrition He has provided.  Now, these gifts aren't magic; the results of Christ's Word and Sacraments are left in His hands.  We are all still sinners; apathy will still be encountered.  But even in the midst of apathy and sin, the pastor will be using the gifts that Christ has appointed for his task, the tools He has given, with the promise that His Word never returns empty, but will accomplish that for which it was sent.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Making God the devil

"We also see here how foolish it is for people to think they can hope for God's grace while they continue to cling to open or secret sin.  Such people make a devil out of God.  For it is the devil, not the holy God, who takes no notice of sin." -- CFW Walther (from God Grant It, pg. 231)

Transfiguration (Series B, Mark 9:2-9)

“A cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, ‘This is my beloved Son; listen to Him.’” 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 Transfiguration Day comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the ninth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Mark. Dear friends in Christ, on April sixth, nearly seven weeks from now, we will gather at St. John’s for Good Friday. On that evening, our yearly pilgrimage to the cross, which begins on Wednesday, will come to an end. That long, somber journey, centered on repentance, will lead us to the Sanhedrin, to Pilate, to a place outside the walls of Jerusalem, a bloody hill called Golgotha. You will hear from the Gospels of His suffering, you will listen to the mocking, the bloodthirsty cries of the mob: ‘Crucify, crucify!’ You will look to the cross, and there you will see a dying man hanging there, an innocent man, a man who did not deserve any of the suffering He endured, a man who spent His ministry healing the sick, driving out demons, even raising the dead. He is a remarkable man, to be sure, but to all the world, He is simply a man. Jesus never appeared more human than at the moment of His death. Who is this man, dying upon the cross, dying like a criminal? We find it impossible to see glory on Good Friday, to see anything other than a man unjustly crucified. Who is this man?

God gives us the answer at the Transfiguration. On this day, we learn exactly who this dying man is. It was out Lutheran forefathers who placed this festival on the last Sunday of Epiphany, and I believe that it was a great decision. Just days before we place ashes upon our heads and walk into the shadowy valley of Lent, we are given a glimpse of the glory, the curtain is pulled back, if only for a minute. “After six days Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And He was transfigured before them, and His clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them.” On this mountain, Jesus is revealed in all of His glory to be true God. In the magnificent language of the Nicene Creed, He is manifested that day as “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God.” The Transfiguration shows us exactly what is happening on Good Friday; this man hanging upon the cross, suffering in shame and humiliation, is more than a man, He is God. On Good Friday, you will see God dying on Calvary’s cross. The glory will be hidden, but the Transfiguration teaches us that it’s a reality, that Jesus is true man and He is also true God.

The Transfiguration has even more to teach us about this man dying upon the cross. “A cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, ‘This is my beloved Son; listen to Him.’” This Jesus, true God in the flesh, is the beloved Son of the Father. This makes Good Friday even more shocking; not only is God dying upon the cross, but the man who is also true God is called the ‘beloved Son’ of the Father! God’s beloved Son is dying upon the cross! This isn’t just a man; this isn’t even just a divine man. This is the One whom He loves, the One who is with Him from eternity, the only-begotten Son. The Father wouldn’t give the Son up into death lightly. How can God call Jesus His ‘beloved Son’ and then send Him to the cross? The Transfiguration teaches us the greatest tragedy of the cross: God’s beloved Son is crucified by God’s rebellious creatures.

What would motivate the Father to give up His Son into humiliation and death? Atheists call it ‘divine child abuse,’ and when we look at the cross, that seems close to the truth. But the answer is much different, and it is rooted not in God’s abuse but in our rebellion: Jesus Christ suffered and died because He was the only sacrifice that would suffice for the sin of the world. The cost of our sin isn’t the blood of rams, goats, or bulls. Those sacrifices could never completely appease God’s righteous wrath. Even the sacrifice of a man would never be enough. A perfect man? Closer, but still not enough. The cost of our sin is much higher; it is God in the flesh, the beloved Son of the Father. That is the only price that will suffice, the only sacrifice that will satisfy the wrath of God over our sin and rebellion.

The Transfiguration teaches you the price of your sin; on that mountain, with Peter, James, and John, you see clearly the price that you owed to God. Your debt was so large that only the death of the sinless, beloved Son of God would suffice. On Transfiguration Day, we learn that we do not take our sin seriously enough. How many times have you done something that you know is wrong, thinking that ‘I’ll just ask for forgiveness later’? We do this with our choices throughout each day, and we do this with the sinful lifestyles we indulge in. Pornography, filthy language, addiction, sex outside of marriage, hurtful words, and gossip are all sins that Christians wallow in. Now, there is a vast difference between struggling against a sin day after day, sometimes fighting it off, sometimes falling, and living in a sinful lifestyle without any thought of repentance. The first group takes sin seriously and wants to escape from it; the second doesn’t, but instead simply gives excuses. We justify our own actions, especially if we have the uncomfortable feeling that God’s Word is condemning our behavior. Where God’s Word is black and white, we are searching for gray. We are seeking to avoid the spotlight of God’s holy Law, and when it does catch us, we have excuses, or we tell ourselves that it isn’t a big deal. We treat sin and forgiveness as if it didn’t cost anything at all. Do we even confess our sins? Do we take our sin seriously enough to bring it before God and ask for forgiveness? After the Transfiguration you cannot take your sin lightly anymore; on that mountain you have seen the cost, the required price, and it is a price you could never pay.

God knew this, He knew the cost of your sin, the price that was required to satisfy His wrath over man’s rebellion, and in love, He paid it. The Transfiguration teaches us the love of God, a love that didn’t spare His only begotten Son, but gave Him up for us all. God didn’t hesitate in giving His Son into death for you. The price was steep, but He paid it, because of His great love for you. On Transfiguration Day, God shows you His Son in all His glory, and says, “This is what I’m giving up for you. He will die in your place because I would not see you die in your sin. This is the depth of my love for you; my Son, true God in the flesh, is the price I’m willing to pay for your salvation.” God’s justice demanded that sin should be punished, but His love demanded that He act to deliver you. At the cross God’s justice and His love met; there Jesus died under the wrath of God’s justice in order that the Father could show love to you.

Jesus is God’s beloved Son because He sacrificed Himself for you. God said on the mountain, “This is my beloved Son,” because Jesus was walking the way of the cross. Jesus was no unwilling victim; He knew the cost, but His love for you wouldn’t allow Him to do anything different. He was the only price that could pay for your sin. Only as true man could He take your place and live the perfect life you couldn’t; only as true God could His death atone for the sin of the world. He suffered and died upon that cross to satisfy the wrath of God, to pay for every sin you have ever committed. In fact, He died for the corruption of sin that has filled you since your conception. On the cross, we see a man dying, but through the lens of the Transfiguration, we see that this dying man is also true God, with the glory of the only begotten Son of the Father. That glory was hidden on Good Friday, but three days later it would shine forth never to be hidden again.

Jesus rose victorious over death, receiving the crown of glory that will never fade away. Now He is seated at the right hand of the throne of God, interceding for His people, giving forth all that He won on the cross, through His instrument the Church. The Transfiguration was a glimpse of the glory that Jesus would possess forever. In the same way, because you have been joined to Christ in God-given faith, the Transfiguration is a glimpse of the glory that will be yours for eternity. Saint Paul declares, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” We too have glory, not because of who we are or what we have done, but because of who Jesus is and what He has done. He has transformed us through the power of His Gospel, through the washing of Holy Baptism, through the gift of His Body and Blood. We have glory, even though now it is hidden, and we must, like Jesus, pass through the valley of the shadow of death. This glory will shine forth forever when the Lord takes us to be with Himself. The Transfiguration is a picture of you, now through faith, and in eternity, as you will shine with the glory of heaven.

This picture of glory; the glory of Jesus and our own future glory, sustains us in the weeks to come, and it sustains us as we journey through this life. We can’t remain on the mountain any more than Peter could. “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He didn’t know what He was saying, all he knew was that he wanted to stay there and bask in the glory. But Transfiguration Day isn’t the end, it isn’t the goal, it’s simply a glimpse of what is to come. We must go down the mountain, we must travel with Jesus to the cross. Suffering always comes before glory; that is the pattern that Jesus followed, and that is the pattern that we follow, this Lenten season and throughout our life. We know that glory awaits us, that it’s already ours through faith in Christ, and we wait for its final revealing. On that Day, the Father will say to you what He said to Jesus, “This is my beloved child!” In the Name of Jesus, the price for our sin, offered willingly in love for us, Amen.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Epiphany 6 of Series B (2 Kings 5:1-14)

“Let him come now to me, that he may know that there is a prophet in Israel.” 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 Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the fifth chapter of the book of Second Kings. Dear friends in Christ, Naaman was desperate, desperate for cleansing. He saw his leprosy, this cursed disease that consumed his flesh, and he wanted deliverance, he wanted to be clean. He knew that he was unclean, that he couldn’t hold his children, he couldn’t hug his wife, he couldn’t even fulfill the tasks that made him so valuable to his king. He is so desperate for cleansing that he is even willing to listen to the advice of a slave girl: “Would that my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” Think of how desperate Naaman must’ve been, to travel to Israel on the word of a slave!

We too are unclean, not with physical leprosy, but instead we are covered with the leprosy of sin and guilt. Some sins make us feel more unclean that others, especially those committed with our bodies, such as sexual sins, but all sin makes us unclean. That is often the way sin makes us feel; dirty, covered with filth and grime that we cannot remove with a mere shower. We need cleansing, in fact, we are desperate for it. Sin isn’t something we can see, but we can feel its corruption. We try all sorts of cures, from special diets to self-help, but none of them can quite remove the filth. In fact, many of us spend years trying to become clean. We know deep down that we are dirty, but we have no idea how to rid ourselves of the filth of sin. We feel like we will never be pure, never clean, never whole again. Like Naaman, we are ready to try anything to find the cleansing we need.

And like Naaman, we eventually come to the Church, we finally come to God. But Naaman didn’t come to God’s chosen people to beg for help, instead he came to demand it. Look at how he comes to ask for help: “So he went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten changes of clothes.” Naaman came to buy forgiveness, he wanted to impress the king of Israel to get what he wanted. But the king can’t give it. “Am I God, to kill and to make alive?” Fortunately for Naaman and for Israel’s king, Elisha heard about this request. “Let him come now to me, that he may know that there is a prophet in Israel.” Naaman came, but not in humility. “So Naaman came with his horses and chariots and stood at the door of Elisha’s house.” He will not stoop down to come into the house of the prophet; Elisha must come out to him. The prophet must deal with him according to his lofty status. Despite his leprosy, despite his uncleanness, which has driven him to such desperation, Naaman is still full of pride. Isn’t that like us? We know that we are unclean, we know that we in desperate need of cleansing, but we do not come to God in humility, begging for help; instead we come in pride, demanding it. We believe that we are entitled to healing, deserving God’s cleansing on our own terms.

Elisha will have none of it. “And Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, ‘Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh will be restored, and you will be clean.’” The prophet acted to kill the pride of Naaman. He refused to even come out and see this great general, but simply prescribed the cure: water and the Word. If Naaman washes, he will be clean, not because the Jordan is filled with some special water, but because that water has the promise of God attached to it, spoken by Elisha through his messenger. This is the same cure that Jesus proclaims to you in your uncleanness. He doesn’t come to you Himself, but instead sends a messenger, a fellow sinner just as unclean as you are, who proclaims to you, “Go and wash, and you will be clean. Avail yourself of the baptismal waters, because there Jesus gives cleansing, there he will wash away your filth.” The cure for uncleanness is water and the Word, given by Jesus through his called messengers.

But human nature rebels against such humble means. “Naaman was angry and went away, saying, ‘Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call upon the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the leper. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?” Naaman wants to see great wonders, to witness the mighty deeds of the prophet. Some show of power will surely befit his status as the hero of Syria! His pride revolts at this attempt to put it to death. He will not come in humility; healing must come the way he wants it, or he doesn’t want it at all!

In his pride, Naaman doesn’t fully understand his condition. He doesn’t say, “cure my leprosy,” but instead “cure the leper.” Naaman refuses to own up to his uncleanness, his pride won’t let him admit that leprosy is a part of him. Instead, he claims that this disease is something abstract and disconnected, a problem that needs to be fixed. Isn’t that how we deal with our sin? Sin is a problem that we want the Church, that we want our pastor, that we want Jesus, to ‘fix.’ It really doesn’t belong to me, it’s simply something that I am carrying around. We believe that our sin can be taken care of without really doing anything to us. But sin isn’t a problem that needs fixing, an issue that can be solved. Sin is a disease, a corruption that affects everything that we think, say, and do. The only way to deal with our sin is by putting it to death. God must kill in order to make alive.

That is what Elisha was doing when he refused to come out and see Naaman; he was putting Naaman’s sinful pride to death. But our pride doesn’t want to die, it rebels against the attempt of God’s Law to kill it. Like Naaman, we want the problem fixed without any cost to us. Our pride still wants to be in control, and so it demands wondrous signs, not the humility of the water and the Word. Naaman was prepared to die as a leper rather than submit himself to the means God had established for his cleansing. Fortunately, his servants continued the assault on Naaman’s pride. “His servants came near and said to him, ‘My father, it is a great word the prophet has spoken to you; will you not do it? Has he actually said to you, “Wash and be clean”?’” These servants encouraged Naaman to give up on his pride and trust the Word given by God’s prophet. And their master listened. “So he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God.” Naaman’s pride was finally crucified. He ‘goes down’ into the Jordan in humility, trusting in the means God has set forth for his cleansing. And He was made clean!

“His flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.” Naaman’s washing in the Jordan didn’t symbolize cleansing, it actually accomplished it. In those waters, joined with the very promise of God, his leprosy was washed away. In the same way the waters of baptism, which carry the very promise of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, wash away the leprosy of our sin. Even our pride is destroyed in those waters, because baptism is not your work, it isn’t the great sign and wonder that your pride wants; it is the work of Jesus, acting through His messenger. You bring nothing to the font, only your sin, and Jesus drowns it there. He drowns your filth in order to bring you back up from the water clean. God kills to make alive, He puts your sin to death in the font. That is the only way to deal with sin; it can’t be ‘fixed,’ it must be killed.

That is why Jesus went to the cross. Sin must be put to death, and so Jesus became sin for us, and was put to death in our place. His pride didn’t rebel against this path, the means God had established for the salvation of all, but instead He humbled Himself, coming down into our world so that He would be lifted up upon the cross. There all of your sin was put to death; all of your filth, all of your pride, crucified with Jesus. Jesus didn’t ‘fix’ sin, He destroyed it, by bearing it to the cross and putting it to death in His own body. So when Jesus puts us to death in our baptism, He is joining us with His own death, as Saint Paul declares: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” God kills in order to make alive. Jesus was put to death bearing the sin of the world, but on the third day, He was made alive, risen never to die again. You were put to death in your baptism with Christ so that you would be made alive with Him. “We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” You are incorporated into Christ’s death as the water drowns your sinful nature, and you are incorporated into Christ’s resurrection as you are brought up from that water alive forever, cleansed from all your sin.

For Baptism doesn’t symbolize your cleansing, it actually cleans you. All the sin that you desperately try to cleanse through any other means is washed away in Baptism. That is the cleansing that you are so desperately searching for. But Baptism is only a one-time occurrence, right? How can that cleansing apply to me each and every day since? The answer is that your baptism happened once, but its effects last forever. Your leprosy is cleansed and your pride killed each and every day as you return to the font in repentance and faith, receiving Christ’s blood-bought forgiveness. You live in this world as the baptized: dead to sin, for that sin has been put to death on the cross and drowned at the font, and alive to Christ, for Jesus raises you out of those waters cleansed and renewed to live before Him forever. You do not say ‘I was baptized,’ but ‘I am baptized,’ and this identity you will carry into an eternity spent before the throne of the Lamb, your crucified and risen Savior. In His holy and precious name, in which we are baptized, Amen.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Christ is an interminable well

Those of you who use the Treasury of Daily Prayer for you daily devotions read this wonderful quotation:

"The sun is not dimmed and darkened by shining on so many people or by providing the entire world with its light and bright splendor.  It retains its light intact.  It loses nothing; it is immeasurable, perhaps able to illumine ten more worlds.  I suppose that a hundred thousand candles can be ignited from one light, and still this lighty will not lose any of its brilliance.  Likewise, a learned man can educate a thousand scholars without forfeiting any of his own learning.  The more he shares with others, the more he has himself.  Thus Christ, our Lord, to whom we must flee and of whom we must ask all, is an interminable well, the chief source of all grace, truth, righteousness, wisdom, and life, without limit, measure, or end.  Even if the whole world were to draw from this fountain enough grace and truth to transform all people into angels, still it would not lose as much as a drop.  this fountain constantly overflows with sheer grace.  Whoever wishes to enjoy Christ's grace-- and no one is excluded-- let him come and receive it from Him.  You will never drain this fountain of living water; it will never run dry.  You will all draw from it much more than enought, and yet it will remain a perennial well."

-- Martin Luther

Monday, February 6, 2012

Epiphany 5 of Series B (Isaiah 40:21-31)

“Do you not know? Do you not hear? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundation of the earth?” You have heard it in Sunday School, you were taught it in confirmation. You can open your Bible and read all about it. It isn’t a mystery, it isn’t something hidden. “Do you not know? Do you not hear? Has it not been told you from the beginning?” It is God who created all things, not man. It is God who separated the waters to create land, it is God who stretched out the heavens to cover this earth, it is God who created plants and animals, it is God who gave man dominion over them. God “makes princes to nothing, and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness.” No man is greater than the God of all creation. He stands over and above history, and He has acted in history, to build nations up, and to bring them back down. He has destroyed nations before, judging them for their wickedness, and He can do so again. “Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when He blows on them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble.” Surely all flesh is grass before the Lord. We all wither, and we all fade away. 

“‘To whom will you compare me, that I should be like Him?’ says the Holy One.” We were like Him, created in the very image and likeness of God, but through our rebellion, we lost that great gift; now we are conceived and born in the image of sin and death. God is ‘other,’ unlike us in power and might, unlike us in holiness. Surely we are the grasshoppers, and He sits above the circle of the earth. But He looks down upon us, small and insignificant, and He knows us, He knows each of His creatures. “Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name, by the greatness of His might and because He is strong in power not one is missing.” He knows His creation by name, and not one is missing, because He holds all in His loving hands.

Why do you say, O Kiron, and speak, O Deloit, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”? The Scriptures proclaim to you that God has created all things, that He sustains all things, that He knows each of His creatures intimately, by name. But, you say, if God knows me and cares for me, why do I suffer as I do? Why do I suffer from disease, why does death stalk my steps? Why do I have conflicts with family and friends, why am I estranged from them? Why do I struggle with addiction, why can’t I rid myself of this sin? Why was the one I love taken away from me? I suffer each and every day! I suffer for no reason at all, and God doesn’t seem to be able to give me an answer. He doesn’t know my ways; He doesn’t know me. He doesn’t know my problems, He doesn’t know my struggles. God doesn’t understand me, and so He can’t help me. He’s powerless to intervene in this world, and so I am left alone, left to solve these problems through my own efforts. My way is hidden from Him, He can’t help me in my suffering.
Or maybe He won’t help me. Maybe God is completely capable of intervening, and He refuses to do so. “My right is disregarded by my God.” He has disregarded my affliction; He could act to deliver me, and He won’t. He refuses to hear my prayers; Lord, I prayed to you, and you didn’t act! You didn’t heal, you didn’t restore, you didn’t save. You could’ve, but you didn’t. Why do you refuse to act? Maybe it’s simply that my problems are too small to matter to the eternal God. “It is He who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers.” The problems of grasshoppers don’t matter much to the gardener, and so my problems must not matter too much to you. You can help, but you won’t. You are too great to care about my suffering, and Lord, I am suffering! “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God.” I don’t know whether you can’t help or you won’t help, but the result is the same; I suffer without relief!

“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.” The Lord set the planets in motion, He placed the stars in the sky. His power extends over the wind and the waves. He watches over nations, He even creates life in the womb. He who has done all that is not powerless; He can help in our affliction because nothing lies outside His power. “He does not faint or grow weary; His understanding is unsearchable.” You cannot investigate the mind of God. His ways are not our ways, because we are unlike Him. We are not given the answers to our suffering; we do not know why turmoil and struggles enter our lives. We are not God; He is. “‘To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him?’ says the Holy One.” You are tempted to try to be like God when you suffer, to demand answers from Him, to put Him on trial. “Why are you allowing this to happen? What is your plan here?” But you are not God, you are a creature, and for creatures “His understanding is unsearchable.” You are called upon rather to trust, to wait, to leave the answers in the hands of the One who created you.

For our Creator can help, and our Creator will help. “He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might He increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not be faint.” You are weary because of your suffering, but God never grows weary. The greatest athlete, the most savvy businessman, the hardest working politician will all eventually faint, collapsing under the load of their burdens, but those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength, “they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not be faint.” They are connected with the God who endures, the God who does not grow weary. They receive strength as they suffer, because they wait on the Lord. We don’t like to wait, we don’t like to be patient, we want deliverance now, and we want it on our terms. When we are suffering, patience seems nearly impossible. But you aren’t waiting in the hope that God might act, you are waiting for the God who can deliver you and who will deliver you; in fact, you are waiting on the God who has delivered you.

“Do you not know? Do you not hear? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundation of the earth?” God’s solution to your suffering is Jesus. He came in answer to your cries, in response to your afflictions. He came to solve your suffering, to relieve it forever. He came as God in the flesh. “He who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in” located Himself in a human body, He condescended to became like you in order to deliver you from suffering. The Lord and Creator of all was born in a stable and laid in a manger. Jesus came in humility, not in His power and might.

God’s “understanding is unsearchable.” If we were God, we wouldn’t have come down in humility, and we certainly wouldn’t have solved suffering by suffering ourselves. But that is what Jesus did; He answered our suffering with His own. He hung upon that cross for hours, enduring not only the pain and humiliation of that instrument of torture, but also the naked wrath of God, poured out upon Him. Our suffering is caused by the sin of this world; our own sin and the sin of those around us. Upon the cross Jesus endured the penalty for that sin, forgiving the sin of the entire world through His own suffering. Our suffering is also caused by the reign of death over us and our loved ones. Jesus’ death destroyed the power of death, because His death was in your place. When Jesus rose on Easter Sunday, the causes of our suffering- sin, death, and the devil- were all defeated. He suffered so that your suffering would one day end. You do not look to your own suffering to know what God thinks of you; you look to Christ’s suffering, and there you learn the richness of God’s love for you, a love which sustains you as you suffer.

And so you wait for the end of your suffering, not with some vague hope that God might relieve it, but instead in the sure and certain hope that because of Christ God will ultimately deliver you. “They who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not be faint.” Christ gives you strength in the midst of your suffering through His great gifts. That is why He gives you the Scriptures, that is why He gives you the forgiveness of sins, that is why He feeds you with His very own Body and Blood. You wait in patience because God has already acted to deliver you; because the suffering of Jesus is the solution to your suffering. You wait in patience because not only is God able to deliver you, He will deliver you. Your God isn’t too great to care, He is too great to fail, and He has already saved you by setting aside that greatness and humbly suffering for you.

“Have you not known? Have you not heard?” Your suffering will end in the new heavens and the new earth that Jesus won for you. In our suffering, we learn to give up all reliance on ourselves, to place ourselves in the hands of Jesus, and we especially learn to yearn for the life He gives. In the new heavens and the new earth, there will be no more weariness, no more suffering. Your burdens will be no more, for Jesus has relieved them through His precious blood. There you will dwell in peace and safety, with sin paid for and death destroyed forever. There “they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” Amen.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Singing against the enemy

Hymns should preach.  Hymns should proclaim.  Hymns should confess.  Good hymns do all of that in a masterful way; they preach a sermon that is eloquent, that is simply, that is conveyed through the blessed medium of music.  Good hymns don't simply play with the emotions; good hymns have something to say.

When good hymns preach, they are not simply preaching to someone.  In fact, our preaching, whether from the pulpit or in the song of the Church, should never be simply to the people in the pew or even to the world.  Good preaching is also against someone or something.

The hymns of the Church should speak a word against our own flesh, putting it to death.  The hymns of the Church should speak a word against death, telling our ancient enemy that it has no hold on God's saints.  The hymns of the Church should speak a word against Satan, telling Him to cease His accusations and go back to hell where He belongs.

Not every hymn has to do this explicitly to be a good hymn, but especially the great hymns of Easter and Baptism do this marvelously.  The hymns of Easter preach the victory of Christ against death itself.  Many of them have this 'in your face' attitude, telling death that its reign is done with the death and resurrection of the Son of God in our place.  The hymns of Baptism are especially suited for this, because in Baptism, God takes hold of a person and seizes him or her from the dominion of sin, Satan, and death.  "God's Own Child, I Gladly say it" embodies this perfectly: "Satan, hear this proclamation: I am baptized into Christ!  Drop your ugly accusation, I am not so soon enticed.  Now that to the font I've traveled, all your might has come unraveled, and against your tyranny, God, my Lord, unites with me!"  On Easter, on the occasion of a baptism, and every Lord's Day, we sing to our enemies, but we also sing against our enemies, only because Christ Himself has won the victory for us.