Friday, June 29, 2012

The Church's great myth

There is a myth that floats around in the Church. It is one of those myths that everyone believes, even though almost no one will talk about it openly. It is simply assumed to be reality; in fact, it is accepted without thinking and becomes a part of the culture of a congregation. Most myths have a core of truth, but this one has no truth in it at all. In fact, it is one of the tools of that master deceiver, Satan himself. What is this dangerous, insidious myth? ‘The Small Catechism is only for confirmation students.’

This myth has meant that we lock away the Catechism when we are confirmed; we were told to memorize all those explanations, but we never use them again. This myth has meant that we never return to the basics, and so the foundation of our instruction in the faith begins to crumble. This myth has led us to treat the Catechism as a textbook with one goal (confirmation), not as vital to every aspect of a congregation’s life. This myth hinders evangelism, because without Luther’s simple explanations at our fingertips, we find it very difficult to confess what we believe to others. This myth hampers youth ministry, because we don’t reinforce in high school and college what was instilled in confirmation, and their faith withers as a result. In short, this myth is crippling on the work of the Church.

This should not be!  Martin Luther himself, who wrote the explanations that we study today, confessed that he remained a student of the Catechism his entire life. It was central to his life as a Christian, and so it should be central to our lives as individual Christians and as congregations. It is much more than a textbook, it is the foundation of our faith. The Catechism forms our lives as Christians; it proclaims both Law and Gospel, it teaches us about our God, it teaches us about the Sacraments, it teaches us about our life before God and men. The Catechism is a gift, the gift that keeps on giving, at every stage of life.

The Nativity of St. John the Baptist (Luke 1:57-80)

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon on this, the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist, comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the first chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ, he was a miracle child, born to a barren woman well past the age of child-bearing. He had a special name, given to him by God through his parents. When his relatives objected, Zechariah wrote, “His name is John,” and his mouth was opened, his tongue was loosed. A miraculous birth and a strange name, if nothing else, get people talking: “And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, ‘What then will this child be?’” What, indeed, is John all about? We know about his fiery message and his strange appearance, but what is less clear is whether he is necessary, especially to us today. Is he simply some footnote to the history of Jesus, a strange sideshow that we watch before the main event? Many Christians probably wouldn’t notice if he wasn’t even in the Gospels. Is John really worth taking a whole Sunday to commemorate, to have the altar guild switch the paraments to white only to change them back again? What’s so special about John? Do we even need him?

The free have no need of John; those who don’t wear chains, who have no taskmasters, have little use for him. But if you are enslaved, you need John. If you are in bondage to your sin, chained and shackled to it, you need John. If you have a sin that you cannot shake, that you cannot escape, that follows you closely each and every day, you need John. All sin enslaves, all sin puts us into bondage. Some sins are enslaving by their very nature, such as drugs, alcohol, or lust, but all sin is addictive, all sin enslaves. All sin requires complete allegiance. If your sin is a slave-driver, constantly demanding more, constantly placing itself above all else, you need John. If you cannot escape on your own, no matter how hard you try, no matter how much you struggle, no matter how many programs you go through, you need John.

You need John because he proclaims the redemption of Almighty God. Zechariah sang about the birth of his son: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people.” John has come to declare that God has visited His people; He has come down in the person of Jesus Christ to free you from bondage. He has come down to redeem you, to pay the required price to set you free, to pay the price that you couldn’t pay. Zechariah may not have known what that price would be, but John did. He extended his finger toward Jesus and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Jesus would be the price of redemption, the price of freedom, for He is the Lamb without blemish or spot who would be offered up as the sacrifice for sin. Redemption’s price was the blood and death of the innocent Son of God. You need John because He points you to the One who sets you free: Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God.

If you live a carefree life, you have no need of John; those who are unopposed in all that they do, who aren’t harried or persecuted by anyone or anything, have little use for him. But if you have enemies, you need John. If you have felt Satan’s hot breath on your neck, tempting you to sin, tempting you to despair, tempting you to give up, you need John. Satan means to destroy you; he wants you in hell with him, and he is persistent. He knows all of your weak spots, he knows how to attack them. He knows how to wield his allies, sin and death, with devastating effect. If you struggle with cancer, heart disease, stroke, or a whole host of other maladies, you need John. Despite all our advances in medical technology, despite all the diseases we have cured, we cannot defeat death. If your body is mortal, if you will die one day, you need John.

You need John because he proclaims the victory over all your enemies. Zechariah sang: “[God] has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David, as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us.” John proclaims the One who has come to defeat our enemies, the Messiah from the house of David, the one prophesied throughout the Old Testament, Jesus Christ. Jesus has come to defeat our enemies, to crush Satan’s head by dying in your place on the cross, to rob death of its power by conquering the grave on Easter morning. Now, when Satan tempts you, when death threatens you, you know that they are defeated enemies, conquered by your Savior. You need John because he points you to the one who has defeated sin, death and the devil on your behalf, your crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ.

If your world is full of light, you have no need of John; those who walk in roses each and every day, who never have troubles, calamities, or sufferings, have little use for him. But if you walk in darkness, you need John. If you look around you and see a world filled with sin and sorrow, you need John. The darkness is overwhelming in a world that is self-centered, that despises God and His Word, a world that has little regard for human life. The darkness creeps around you when you struggle with your own sin or the effects of the sins of others. The darkness encroaches upon your life when you suffer. If you have seen the destructive power of nature, if you have watched your family torn apart, if you have suffered in any way, you need John. Ever since the fall into sin, sorrow and suffering defines our lives in this world. If darkness is all you see, you need John.

You need John because He proclaims the coming of the Light. Zechariah sung that his son would declare “the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.” When Jesus was born, the sun rose on this darkened earth. He came to give light to those sitting in darkness, to the ones dwelling in the shadow of death. His light drives the darkness away, for His light is the light of salvation. You have a God who loves you, who cares for you, despite all that happens to you in this world of sin. You know that because of the cross of Christ! Light shines forth from the cross especially in the midst of the darkness. The cross defines God’s relationship with you, not the suffering you are now experiencing. You need John because he points you to the Light of the world, the sunrise that drives away all darkness.

If you are confident and sure of yourself, you have no need of John; those who have everything figured out, who never doubt, have little use for him. But if you face any trouble in this life and don’t know where to turn, you need John. If you cannot handle your problems on your own, you need John. There are plenty of sources for advice in our world, all promising to take care of your problems, to guide you in the right direction. But the trouble is, they are all human, too. They are tainted with the same sin that afflicts you. And none of them can deal with that sin, the ultimate source of every one of your problems. As much as they can help, they cannot get at the very root of your maladies. If no human means can deliver you from whatever afflicts you, you need John.
You need John, for His finger is constantly pointed from himself to another, the One who has delivered you from all afflictions. Zechariah sums up his son’s mission in this way: “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to His people in the forgiveness of their sins.” John came to prepare, to make ready the way of the Lord. His task was revelation, he was to reveal God’s condemnation of sin and the salvation that was to come. You need John, for he reveals Jesus as the One who has dealt with your sin through His death and resurrection. He points you to Jesus and His forgiveness, given abundantly here in this place through Absolution, pulpit, font, and altar. John points you to Jesus in every situation you find yourself in as you walk through this life. John’s answer to each and every problem that faces you in this world? Look to Jesus. “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

We commemorate John on this day because He points us to Jesus, never to himself. He never claimed to be the Messiah, only a messenger making ready the way of the Lord. We celebrate Saint John the Baptist on June 24th because Luke tells us he was born six months before Jesus, whose birth we of course celebrate on December 24th. There are six months until we celebrate the coming of light into this darkened world. Six months until we see God’s plan of salvation, foreshadowed by John’s birth and prophesied by Zechariah, put into action. In the old calendar used in the time of the early Church, the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist fell on the longest day of the year, while Christmas Eve was the shortest. So after the Nativity of John, the days grew shorter, while after the Nativity of Jesus, the days grew longer. As John himself said, “He must increase, I must decrease.”

Therefore, today, and every day that we commemorate one of God’s saints, we do not look at them, but to where their finger points; we look to Christ, the one they put their trust in, the one to whom they would have us look. They decrease so that He can increase. Only Jesus has brought us freedom from bondage, salvation from our enemies, light in the darkness; in short, the answer to all our afflictions, through His death and resurrection on our behalf. Only He is the Lamb of God, offered up for the sin of the world, offered up for you sin, so that you will have a seat at the heavenly table with John and all the saints, forever and ever. In the Name of Jesus, proclaimed by Saint John the Baptist even from his birth, Amen.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Proper 6 of Series B (Mark 4:26-34)

Suppose you are a parent, a mother, or especially on this day a father. You have done all you can to raise your children in the faith. You have fulfilled your God-given responsibility to make sure that they have been baptized, washed by Christ Himself in those blessed waters. You brought them faithfully to the Divine Service, where for years, Sunday after Sunday, they received the gifts that Jesus so abundantly pours out. But then something happened as they reached adulthood; they began to slip, and then to fall. The faith which seemed so firmly rooted, that you had done everything you could to instill and strengthen now appears to be failing. Their worship attendance drops off, until finally they aren’t going at all. You begin to wonder whether they are even Christians anymore. When you bring it up, all it starts is an argument, and so while you may hold your peace when sitting next to them, in prayer you cry out to God. He has never seemed so powerless, His Kingdom so weak, as when the ones you love, whom you raised in the faith, abandon that faith. “What are you doing here, God? Where is your kingdom?”

Suppose you are the member of a congregation. You can look through the old confirmation pictures and recall the glory days, when the Sunday School was full and you had to get to church early to find a seat. The days when no one worried about the budget, but all simply gave out of their abundance or poverty, and the Lord sustained His church. But the Lord seems to be slacking off now; the abundance that you remember is but a distant memory. Now you are the member of a dwindling congregation; the Sunday School isn’t filled, its barely going. The budget isn’t a minor issue anymore, but consumes so much time and energy that there’s barely any left for the proclamation of the Gospel. You worry about whether your congregation can even continue; will we make it another ten years? God had at one time greatly blessed His Church in this place, but He has never seemed so powerless, His kingdom so weak, as when His churches dwindle and close. “What are you doing here, God? Where is your kingdom?”

Suppose you are a pastor. You were called to this place to proclaim both Law and Gospel; in fact, your ordination vows made that quite clear before God and His people. You have been superbly trained by the seminary; you know what you need to say and when, but no one wants to hear it. The world doesn’t want to hear about Christ; the people you encounter on the street don’t think they need a Savior. Even amongst your members, the Gospel doesn’t seem to have any effect. It’s a ho-hum, dreary message that seems to be withering the church, not strengthening it. Your members don’t want to hear the Law either, they don’t want to have their sin pointed out. Instead of causing repentance, all the Law seems to do is chase people away, as they run to another church or no church at all. Trying to exercise church discipline on an unrepentant sinner is like kicking over a hornet’s nest, as you bring down the wrath of entire families on your head. God has never seemed so powerless, His Kingdom so weak, as when Law and Gospel, the tools of a pastor, have no effect. “What are you doing here, God? Where is your kingdom?”

Suppose you are a citizen of this country. You are still proud, you are still patriotic, you would still give up your sons and daughters to fight for her, but you are disillusioned. This country you love seems to be sinking into a cesspool of immorality. Abortion continues to be legal, even endorsed and strongly protected by many of our leaders, and thousands die each day for any reason or no reason at all. Gay marriage has become legal in Iowa without even a vote, continuing the breakdown of marriage and the family that begun with no-fault divorce decades ago. Everywhere we look, couples are living together without marriage and having children out of wedlock, and it will be an entire generation of children who suffer. And now, religious liberty is under attack, as the government wants the power to force religious institutions and religious people to go against their beliefs. God has never seemed so powerless, His kingdom so weak, as when a nation with a majority Christian population undermines Christian morality and freedom. “What are you doing here, God? Where is your kingdom?”

Our gut response, in each of these situations, is to despair and panic, to become frustrated and angry. We get depressed, we mope around, we complain to ourselves and to others. We are resigned to the fact that things are not going to improve. On the other hand, often our response is to try to fix things, though with our own methods. God had His chance, now it’s my turn! When the world and the church are falling apart around us, the last thing we want to do is trust in God. In anger, in disbelief, in fear, we shake our heads (and our fists) saying, “What are you doing here, God? Where is your kingdom?”

Jesus spoke the parables of our Gospel lesson to answer those questions. He taught about seeds and plants to respond to our despair, to our lack of trust. “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.” Seeds are amazing things. They can lie dormant on your shelf for months or even years, but when you put them into some dirt and add a little water, they grow. The farmer or gardener can try to control a lot of factors, but whether the seed sprouts or not is completely out of his control. Pay close attention to Jesus’ words. The farmer doesn’t do anything; he sleeps and rises and the seed grows, the earth produces the crop by itself. In fact, the farmer doesn’t know how this works; it is all a mystery to him, but he trusts that it will happen, and when it does, he is ready for the harvest.

It’s the same with the Word of God. We sow the seeds through the power of the Holy Spirit, but God alone gives the growth. Parents, and especially fathers, have a God-given responsibility to proclaim God’s Word to their children, they are commanded to bring their sons and daughters to Holy Baptism; in the same way a pastor has the God-given responsibility to proclaim Law and Gospel to the flock entrusted to him. Both parents and pastors will be held accountable before God for those tasks; they cannot reject the responsibility to sow the seed. But God gives the growth. We can water, we can fertilize, but only God can make faith grow. It’s not about your or me, it’s not about the farmer or gardener, but it’s all about Jesus Christ, who makes the seed grow.

The Word does its work, even if we can’t see it, even if it seems to be failing. Jesus works mysteriously, beneath the surface, striving to create and sustain faith in even the most stubborn of hearts. We are like the farmer in His parable; we don’t know how, but Christ brings forth a harvest. “When the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” Sometimes we don’t see the harvest, we don’t see the seeds we planted sprout and grow, but we trust that Christ is working. What God does with the seed is His business; our task is simply to cast it into the soil. We entrust the seeds into His hands and pray that He will bring the growth. For the power doesn’t rest in the sower but in the seed.

And this seed, the seed of the Word, is the most humble of seeds. “It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth.” The Word is the smallest, the most humble of seeds, for it proclaims Christ, the humble Savior. He lowered Himself to endure the most humiliating death. He made Himself the smallest of men, the Son of God condemned falsely by church and by state, the Son of God nailed to a cross. In humility He suffered, in humility He died. In humility He allowed Himself to be planted in the ground. Jesus did this for you, for He did this bearing your sin, your sins of despair and fear, your sins of not trusting in His Word or His Kingdom; even your failures to plant the seed were carried upon His beaten and bloody shoulders. He took those sins, along with all others, to the cross and in humility He paid the price for them; He paid the price for you. The Church that lives on His Word, the proclamation of His death for all people, His death for the sin of the world, dwells in the same humility. Steeples fall, congregations close, Sunday Schools wither and attendance declines. The world she lives in plunges from one level of immorality to another, even threatening her very existence.

But take heart, for that smallest of seeds has become the greatest plant. “When it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” Jesus Christ, the humble seed, was placed into the ground, He was planted in the earth. But that smallest of seeds made the greatest of plants, for He rose in victory on the third day. He extends forth great branches, and the birds of the air—you, me, and all nations—can find shelter in His shade. In a world gone so terribly wrong, where God seems so powerless and His Kingdom so weak, that is the good news, the reality that sustains us. Even though we cannot always see the results, even though the Kingdom of God seems insignificant, the truth is that God is working, and He has made Christ the greatest plant, where we can all dwell in safety. Despite all appearances, the Kingdom of God is thriving, for it is an eternal kingdom, and what it truly is will be revealed at the harvest on the Last Day. Now we see the humility of the smallest of seeds, but on that Day we will see the glory of the greatest plant. The power of God is hidden, it is mysterious, but it is real, and it will sustain you until you dwell in its shade for eternity. In the Name of the smallest seed who became the greatest plant, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Proper 5 of Series B (Mark 3:20-35)

“Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” 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 Mark. Dear friends in Christ, there once was a strong man. He dwelt in a house full of riches, seized through treachery long ago. He was the ruler of that house; everything that he owned was under his control, in his grasp, bound to him. He was indeed the ruler of this world, for his bounty, his riches, his goods were people, they were you and me. His strength gained him the entire world when he overwhelmed Adam and Eve. The woman put it perfectly: “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” With that deception, the strong man seized all people for himself, a treasure sitting safe and secure within his house. For no one was stronger than he; not a single one of his possessions could stand up and set themselves free. They couldn’t, for they had been under his power and control from the very moment of conception; no one was stronger than the strong man. Everything they did was tainted by his influence; whether they wanted to or not, they served the strong man, and the strong man alone. They were doomed to live under his influence, chained and shackled to his whims. He delighted in seeing them suffer, he rejoiced to see them fight, and he was deeply satisfied to see them die.

The strong man thought that he had it made; he sat, safe and secure, in his house, knowing that he held all the cards, that his possessions couldn’t walk away, for he held them in the strong grasp of his influence. But on the day when he seized his riches, a promise had been made. “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.” One of his possessions would rise up, the offspring of a woman according to the flesh, but yet also true God, Jesus Christ. Only He was stronger than the strong man; only He could triumph where Adam and Eve had failed. Jesus said this about His mission: “No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed he may plunder his house.”

Christ entered the house of the strong man and bound Him; He came into this world, the domain of the strong man, and defeated Him as had been prophesied of old. Yes, the strong man bruised His heel as God had also prophesied; Jesus suffered, Jesus died. In humiliation, He bore the cross. But in suffering, in dying, Jesus won the victory. He bruised the strong man’s head; He struck Him a blow from which He could never recover. When Jesus cried out ‘It is finished,’ the strong man was defeated, overwhelmed by the only one stronger than he, overwhelmed as he had overwhelmed Adam and Eve so long ago. On the third day, when He ripped apart the shackles of death and rose from the grave, Jesus, the stronger one, bound the strong man. The cords and chains that the strong man had used to hold his possessions were used against him. Jesus bound up the strong man in his own house and left him there for the day of his destruction.

Now came the plunder, as Jesus said Himself: “No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed he may plunder his house.” With ten plagues, God struck the strong man Pharaoh on the head, and then He plundered the house of Egypt, bringing forth His people Israel, liberated from their captivity. Now the ultimate strong man was bound, struck on the head by the mighty foot of the Savior, and it was time to plunder the house; Jesus went forth to set the strong man’s possessions free. He proclaimed to all people that they had been set free, their bonds had been loosed, their chains broken, their bondage ended. There was no one on this earth who wasn’t part of the strong man’s riches, and so there was no one on this earth who wasn’t now set free.

Jesus came and set you free from your bondage. The people of Israel passed through water to freedom; you have done the same, as Christ Himself brought you through the font to the Promised Land of freedom. Jesus has proclaimed to you this freedom through His messengers, releasing you from your bondage through their words. You are free! Your captivity is ended, for the strong man, who held you in his grasp, has been struck by your Savior, then bound with cords that he cannot break. He can’t do anything but watch as Jesus plunders his house, removing all the riches he was so proud to hoard. The strong man doesn’t have any authority over you anymore! You are set free, freed from sin, freed from death, freed from domination and oppression. You, me, and the entire world, the prize possessions of the strong man, are no longer his, you are no longer goods for him to control, for your bonds have been broken by the one who died for you!

All are free; the freedom from the strong man won by Jesus is true, objectively true. All people are free, that is a fact. But some plunder refuses to be freed. Some plunder chooses to remain in the strong man’s house; so many who are set free reject this freedom. They refuse to believe in the One who set them free. Some even believe that He is in league with the strong man. “And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, ‘He is possessed by Beelzebul,’ and ‘by the prince of demons He casts out demons.’” Others simply believe that He’s crazy. “And when His family heard it, they went out to seize Him, for they were saying, ‘He is out of His mind.’” They reject Him, because they either think that they can free themselves or they don’t think they need freedom in the first place. The strong man is bound, lying on the floor; the doors are open, the One who bound him is leading the captives free, but so many simply refuse to leave. They let the strong man, who has been triumphed over, who is bound by Christ, still exert his influence upon them. What is even more baffling is those who have been freed and yet return to the house. They put themselves back into bondage.

And unfortunately, those who choose to remain in the strong man’s house will face the same destruction that he is doomed to experience. “Truly I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” By rejecting the Holy Spirit, by refusing the freedom won by Jesus, they have doomed themselves to eternal destruction. They have associated Christ with the strong man, for they have called Jesus a liar. The strong man deals in lies; that is his specialty, and by saying either that they have no need of freedom or that they can free themselves, they make Jesus instead of the strong man the father of lies. They trample upon the freedom and forgiveness He so freely offers. The sin against the Holy Spirit is continual, persistent rejection of the freedom offered by Jesus, and one who rejects freedom will remain in bondage forever.

This tragedy surrounds us, for we encounter those who remain in bondage each and every day. For Jesus Himself, it hit particularly close to home: “And when His family heard it, they went out to seize Him, for they were saying, ‘He is out of His mind.’” We feel the pain, the isolation that Christians have felt throughout the ages, as our friends and families stubbornly refuse freedom and chose to dwell in the strong man’s house. It literally breaks our hearts to see a child, a sibling, a parent dwell in bondage, to watch them sit in the strong man’s house while the strong man lies there bound and his doors are wide open. And nearly all of you have those in your life who are living in the strong man’s house, or at least are thinking about walking back through his doors.

What is even worse is the ridicule and opposition you face, whether spoken or unspoken. Jesus was called crazy by His family; you have perhaps been called worse by those who reject the freedom you enjoy. They think that you are foolish to spend so much time at church, to pray, to set aside time each week for worship. They either have rejected such things or have little time for them, and they cannot understand why you think they are so important. With or without words, they say, “You are out of your mind!” Jesus knows what you have experienced. He was ridiculed by His own family; He knew the pain of having loved ones reject the freedom He won for them. He was called crazy long before you were. He knows the tragedy of a divided family, and so He calls into being a new family, which will dwell in a new house.

The strong man’s house has been plundered, and in its place, Christ builds a new house, a house, as St. Paul says, “not made with hands.” His mother and His brothers, His family according to the flesh, stand outside that house, calling to Jesus, summoning Him to cease His crazy ways and join them in bondage. “And He answered them, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking about at those who sat around Him, He said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” A new family dwells in Christ’s house, the family of those set free from bondage. You are His family, for He has plundered the strong man’s house and set you free. Only in the household of faith can you be comforted in a world that calls you crazy and your Lord a liar.

This assembly gathered here today is part of that family, linked together by the freedom we share. We want our natural family to be a part of this family as well; we pray for them, we speak of this freedom to them, in the hope that they will leave the strong man bound in his house, and go in freedom to the house that Christ has established. That house will stand for eternity, for it is a house and a family established by Christ’s own blood, shed on the cross to set you, me, and all people free. That is your home, that is your family, with Christ at its head, forever and ever. In His Name, Amen.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Holy Trinity (Series B, Isaiah 6:1-8)

On the Lord’s Day, sitting in the Lord’s house, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of His robe filled the temple. Did you catch that? I, the prophet, saw the Lord. I saw His throne, I saw His temple, I saw His attendants, I saw His glory. I saw what your eyes long to see, I saw what you can only dream about. And let me tell you today, seeing the glory of the Lord isn’t the wonderful experience that you think it would be. Yes, dear Christians, I’ve heard you talk, I’ve heard your songs. There are a lot of people going around talking about seeing God. You modern Christians are desperate for the kind of vision I saw. There is even a recent Christian song titled, “Open the eyes of my heart, Lord.” The refrain goes like this: “I want to see you high and lifted up, shining in the light of your glory.” Do you even know what you’re asking for? I’ve seen the Lord, high and lifted up. I’ve seen the Lord, shining in the light of His glory. I’m part of an exclusive group of God’s servants who have been granted access into the heavenly throne room. Moses, Ezekiel, Daniel, and John saw what I have seen, and dear friends in Christ, it isn’t something to take lightly. I saw the Lord, and yes it was glorious, yes it was beautiful, yes it was amazing; that’s what made it so terrifying.

I saw the Lord, and I heard the song of heaven. Perhaps you’ve heard it before: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.” They said ‘holy’ not once, lest I think that there was only the Father, not twice, lest I think that there was only the Father and the Son. They cried out “Holy, holy, holy” to show that there are three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But yet, they didn’t say, ‘holies,’ lest I think that there were three Gods. Instead, all three persons are ‘holy;’ though they are three, each equally holy, they are together one Holy God, as the Athanasian Creed confesses: “The Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God; and yet there are not three Gods but one God.” One God, three persons. This is a mystery; your mind cannot understand it, you can only confess, you can only worship, you can only sing, adoring the eternal mystery of the Trinity with the chorus of heaven: “Holy, holy, holy Lord God of Sabaoth; heaven and earth are full of thy glory. Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna in the highest. Blessed is He, blessed is He, blessed is He that cometh in the Name of the Lord. Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna in the highest.”

Then things began to happen. It was as if the mystery of the Trinity, the glory of the eternal God was too much for even God’s own house to handle. “The foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.” The temple itself trembles at God’s presence. Such glory, such majesty cannot appear without effect. Smoke filled the temple; I could no longer see the glorious vision. The thresholds shook; I could no longer enter in. The very glory of the Lord excluded me from the temple; the entrance was barred. The One who sat on the throne was keeping me out! Why? Why couldn’t I enter in, why was I excluded?

Suddenly, in horror, I understood. I couldn’t enter because I couldn’t stand before the holy God. The glory, the power, the majesty of God is pure terror to those who are unclean, and I certainly was unclean. I cried out, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” I am unclean through and through, covered with the filth of sin I inherited from my parents, but what accused me in that moment was the sin of my lips. God’s Law had told me, “Do not take the Name of the Lord your God in vain,” but I had sullied His Name. I had cursed and swore, I had let filthy language flow freely from my lips. Words that are not appropriate for a Christian came when I was angry or frustrated, but what was even worse was how those words came without thinking. I used them to fit in, to be more like my neighbors, for I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips. I let them, rather than God, determine my speech. These lips which were made to praise the Lord were used to curse men and utter unthinkable things.

God’s Law had also told me, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor,” but I had used my words to harm others. Children on the schoolyard may say, ‘Words will never hurt me,’ but words hurt, they cut deep. My words had been weapons, used against my neighbors, my friends, my children, my spouse. I had wielded them effectively, cutting down anyone who offended me or got in my way. But that was only when I launched a direct assault. My stealth weapon was gossip; with that tool, fed by hungry ears, I could destroy someone without them even knowing it was me. God called on me to put the best construction on everything, but around the kitchen table, at coffee, or on the phone I made sure to put the worst construction on all that I heard or saw. These lips were meant to build up, but I used them to destroy. They were truly and utterly filthy. I was truly and utterly filthy.

Do you understand now, Christians, why seeing God’s glory, power, and might is so devastating, so terrifying? I am not holy, and neither are you, and so the only result of seeing the holy God is death itself. God in His naked power and glory is a vision no sinner should want to see. What else could I do but cry out, “Woe is me! For I am lost.”? If you are not holy and stand in the presence of the holy God, the only outcome is destruction. I was lost for eternity, for my eyes had seen God in His holiness, and it was a standard that I couldn’t attain. My destination was separation from Him—forever.

I fell to my knees in guilt, shame, and sheer terror of the judgment to come. But then one of the servants of the living God ran to the altar, which was sitting before the throne. He returned to me, having in his hand a wafer of bread and a chalice of wine. He gave them to me, saying, “Take eat, this is the true Body of your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; take drink, this is the true Blood of your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” He touched my filthy, sinful lips with the wafer, then with the cup, I ate and drank, and he stood back and declared, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” I knelt there in shocked silence. Could this be true? Could my lips truly be clean? Has my guilt really been taken away, my sin atoned for?

Sensing my questions, the servant of the Lord repeated: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for. For what has touched your lips is the sacrifice for your sin, offered up on the altar of the cross by none other than Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God. He is the image of the Father, whom you saw upon the throne this day. You are not holy, but Jesus is, and He took upon Himself your guilt and your shame. The Holy One became sin itself for you. The uncleanness of your lips He bore to Calvary, and there He laid down His life for you. You were lost, condemned to eternal death, but in love, He endured that penalty in your place. He offered Himself as the atonement for your sin. His life was what Almighty God required to bring you salvation, to deliver you from sin, death, and hell, and He gladly, lovingly paid it. His death atones for your sins, it covers them completely. Now, today, in the most Holy Supper of His Body and Blood, He gives to you the very price of your redemption to eat and to drink for the forgiveness of your sins. The same Body that hung upon the tree as the acceptable sacrifice; the same Blood poured out there as required price, is given to you here and now to make you holy. Believe what I say to you: Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”

I finally understood; by myself, bearing my own uncleanness, I couldn’t stand before God and live. This vision would only bring terror, especially when I stood before the throne of judgment on the Last Day. But if I stood bearing a righteousness that was not my own; if I was made holy and clean by Christ Himself, delivering to me the fruits of His victory through the cross and empty tomb, I didn’t need to fear that Day. I could stand before God with joy, with confidence, with a sure and certain hope, for the judgment on that day will be ‘not guilty,’ ‘holy,’ and ‘righteous.’ My guilt was taken away, for God has removed my sins as far as the east is from the west; my sin has been atoned for by death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and now, only in Him, can I stand before the glory of Almighty God.

Then I heard a voice from the throne room saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” The one with filthy lips made clean by the atonement of Christ is called on to speak with those lips the glorious and life-giving Gospel. The one who has been forgiven is to proclaim forgiveness to others. The one transformed and regenerated is to be a living message, a visible sermon, of what Jesus has done for the entire world. The darkness of God’s judgment and the condemnation of the Law is real, it is terrifying, it must be spoken to the world. But the answer is found in Christ; only in Christ. Jesus and His death is the solution to impurity, to uncleanness, to the penalty of the Law. He atoned for my sin, and He atoned for yours and for the entire world. There is no person on this planet that doesn’t need to hear this message, and the only ones who can proclaim it are those who have heard it first themselves. They have been redeemed, purified, made holy in order to proclaim the saving Gospel to others. How can I keep from speaking of what God has done for me in Christ? “Then I said, ‘Here am I! Send me.” Amen.