Monday, June 24, 2013

Proper 7 of Series C (Isaiah 65:1-9)

“I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me; I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, ‘Here am I, here am I,’ to a nation that was not called by my name.” 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 sixty-fifth chapter of the prophet Isaiah. Dear friends in Christ, the face of the Christian Church is changing. For centuries Christianity was centered in Europe, and when it came to America, it became dominant here as well. Sure there were Christians in other places, as the missionaries went forth, but the primary face of the Church was European, people like you and me. Not so anymore. Christianity in Europe is dying a slow and painful death, and while we aren’t nearly as far along here in the United States, there are signs that we are headed down the same path. Meanwhile, Christianity is thriving in the global South and East. The Church is flourishing and expanding in China, in sub-Saharan Africa, in Central and South America; there is an explosion of growth wherever you look. The center of Christianity is shifting; away from Europe, away from America. People like you and me are no longer the face of Christianity; instead, that face is African, Asian, and Hispanic.

God’s declaration is especially true in days like these: “I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me; I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me.” God’s call, His Word, is going out to the nations, to peoples that have never sought Him, that were not called by His Name. He has revealed Himself to them through the proclamation of countless missionaries and evangelists. This is cause for celebration, for great joy! God is doing great things, His Word is not returning void, but is gathering a harvest! The pagans are becoming Christian! But as wonderful as these words are, God doesn’t speak them to cause celebration, but weeping; not for our joy but for our sorrow does He tell us of the conversion of the nations.

For His next words are words of accusation, spoken against His people Israel, against His people today, against you and me: “I spread out my hands all the day to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices.” The pagans are becoming Christian—thanks be to God! But as the nations come to God, as the pagans become Christian, the Christians are becoming pagan. God is holding His hands out to His people, but they are refusing to come to Him. The pagans, who didn’t seek Him, are coming to God in droves, while the Church, those who are called by His Name, the baptized multitude, is spurning His persistently open hands. The Gospel is being lost, and the Church is melting away, in places where it once was strong and established. Martin Luther warned the German people that the Gospel is like a passing rain shower; it waters the earth with abundance, but if it is not appreciated, if it is not protected, it will move on to somewhere else, leaving dry, barren ground.

Why is the Church in decline among us? The same reason it has always declined, the same reason that God proclaims through the mouth of Isaiah: the Church is in decline because it has tried to become like the world. “I spread out my hands all the day to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices; a people who provoke me to my face continually, sacrificing in gardens and making offerings on bricks; who sit in tombs, who spend the night in secret places; who eat pig’s flesh, and broth of tainted meat is in their vessels.” As the pagans become Christian, the Christians become pagan. God’s people, in both the Old and New Testaments, are to be set apart from the world, chosen out from the nations to be His own. And we are to live that way. Your heavenly Father has called you to be separate from the world, in it but not of it. The corporate Church should be the same: she should be a beacon light in a world of darkness, she should stand against the world, calling the nations to repentance and proclaiming forgiveness.

But more often than not, the Church as a whole and individually stand with the world, and not against it. Statistics show that there is little or no difference between the divorce rate of Christians and non-Christians, and that is only one example of the sins that are as common among us as among unbelievers. The Church often fails to speak boldly on the sinful actions of our world, and in some tragic cases, parts of the Church have followed the world in endorsing and even celebrating sin, as we have seen with the issue of homosexuality. In so many congregations, the dominant approach is to let the world’s desires drive the practice and message of the Church, instead of calling the world to repentance and then proclaiming Christ’s forgiveness. Much closer to home, President Harrison has been studying the decline of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and he has come to the preliminary conclusion that the primary factor for our decline is that we have followed the culture around us in marrying later and having fewer children.

So much for the Church at large—what about you? Is your life in this world as a Christian distinguishable in any way from that of a non-Christian? Are you in the world and also of it? Are your attitudes, desires, and actions shaped by God’s Word or by the world around you? Like God’s people Israel, we don’t even realize how far we’ve fallen; we add to our rebellion and wickedness the sin of self-righteousness, we still think that we are holier than those around us because we bear the label ‘Christian,’ saying, “Keep to yourself, for I am too holy for you.”

Luther’s prophecy is on the verge of becoming true; the passing rain shower that is the Gospel seems to have left Europe high and dry, and on the other side of the ocean we too can see the signs of coming drought. When the Church becomes like the world instead of calling the world to repentance and proclaiming Christ’s forgiveness, the Church has no more reason to exist, and soon, it will cease to exist. It will pass away under God’s wrath and judgment. “These are a smoke in my nostrils, a fire that burns all the day… Because they made offerings on the mountains and insulted me on the hills, I will measure into their bosom payment for their former deeds.” Sin and rebellion must be punished, and it will be punished by God’s righteous wrath. One of the most dramatic, and frightening, images of God’s wrath over His people’s rebellion is that of a winepress. In Isaiah 63, God declares, “I have trodden the winepress alone, and from the peoples no one was with me; I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their lifeblood spattered on my garments, and stained all my apparel.”

God’s chosen people, Israel of old, the Church of today, you and me, were ready to be thrown into the winepress of His wrath. Indeed, that is all that we deserve for living no different than the world. But then our situation changed entirely. “Thus says the Lord, ‘As the new wine is found in the cluster, and they say, “Do not destroy it, for there is a blessing in it,” so I will do for my servants’ sake, and not destroy them all.’” There is a blessing in the cluster, new wine, and for the sake of that blessing, the cluster will be spared the winepress. In the days of Isaiah, God didn’t destroy all His people, but preserved a remnant; one cluster was spared the winepress. That cluster was spared for the sake of the promise it carried, the seed of a woman, the promised Messiah Jesus Christ. For His sake they were spared, so that salvation could come to all people.

Sin must be punished by God’s righteous wrath; it must be put through the winepress. God in His justice demands payment. “I will not keep silent, but I will repay; I will indeed repay into their bosom both your iniquities and your father’s iniquities together.” God demands payment, and when Jesus, the Messiah, came as God in the flesh, He freely, willingly paid the price. He was put through the winepress of God’s wrath upon the cross for you, He felt the fire of God’s anger over your sin and the sin of the entire world. God repays Christ for your rebellion! The terrible wrath that God promised in Isaiah 63 describes Christ’s own death in your place. And so you are spared from God’s wrath; He says of you, “Do not destroy it, for there is a blessing in it.” You are delivered from God’s righteous wrath because there is a blessing in the cluster, and that blessing is Christ Himself. As Saint Paul declares in our Epistle lesson, “In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” Through baptism into Christ, through faith in Christ, there is a blessing in the cluster, and you are spared from God’s wrath. Christ delivers the remnant from the winepress of God’s wrath, giving to them an eternal inheritance.

“I will bring forth offspring from Jacob, and from Judah possessors of my mountains; my chosen shall possess it, and my servants shall dwell there.” Those who are claimed by Christ, who belong to God as His beloved children through their baptism into Jesus’ death and resurrection, are inheritors of God’s mountains. Christ died in their place, for His sake they were spared from eternal death, and so they will live forever upon the mountains of God, the mountains of His peace, the mountains of His joy, the mountains where He dwells. There we will dwell with the nations; the Church, the forgiven, will be gathered from every corner of this world and from every generation to enjoy the riches that Christ has won for them. You will live, even though you die, in a new creation filled with perfect peace and joy. He has an inheritance for you, the new heavens and the new earth, described later in Isaiah chapter 65. “I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress.” We rejoice today, and we will rejoice forever, for we are the forgiven, we are the Church, offspring from Jacob that come out of every land and nation and language, who together will dwell on God’s holy mountains forever. In the Name of Jesus, the blessing in the cluster who spares the cluster from the winepress, Amen.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Proper 6 of Series C (Luke 7:36-8:3)

It was an ordinary Sunday morning in a small-town Lutheran church. The summer sunlight streamed through the stained-glass windows behind the altar, shining through an image of Jesus the Good Shepherd, gathering up His lambs. Beneath that beautiful picture was the altar, surrounded by the communion rail, filled with those very lambs. The people of God were gathered at His table to dine with Jesus. It was the time for the distribution, the time for Christ’s very Body and precious Blood to be given into their mouths. The readings had been read, the sermon had been preached, the Words of Institution had been spoken over the bread and the wine. The gifts were there, on the altar, for all to see. Now it was time for those gifts to be given out.

The Lord’s Table, the communion rail, is a curious place. It’s the one place where the congregation is visibly in unity, whether they want to be or not. Even in a small congregation you can manage to avoid people you don’t really like or want to associate with, but at the communion rail, you’re all together, perhaps even right next to each other. That was what happened on this day. Two people, who sat on opposite sides of the sanctuary, who had probably never spoken to each other despite being members of the same small congregation, were, by the luck of the draw and an usher’s counting, placed right next to each other. And somewhat uncomfortably, they waited together for Christ’s gifts. One was named Cathy, and the other John.

Cathy had been here before; many, many times before. In fact, she took great pride in the fact that she had been baptized at that font sitting off to the side, confirmed at this very rail, and married before this altar. She had been a Christian her entire life, and had been involved in this congregation just as long. Cathy’s grandparents were charter members; this was her church in a way that it was for few others. She was on the ladies aid and the altar guild; in fact, just last week she had polished the silver chalice that would soon be coming to her lips. Cathy was one of the pillars of this congregation, a good, solid member who was always ready to help. She kept her sins, which were really quite minor, to herself. Sure, she had some wilder days in her past; she hadn’t always been perfect, but who was? Her big mistakes had been committed long ago and far away, so no one around here knew about them, and her little mistakes, well, she kept them to herself.

Not so with the man kneeling right next to her. John’s sins weren’t secret, and they hadn’t been committed far away. Everyone knew what kind of man he had been. His baptism was at the same font as Cathy’s; he had even been confirmed, even though by that point he was rarely coming to church. After confirmation day, he never came back, for twenty-five long years. John couldn’t really tell you what had driven him away from the Church; no one had made him upset, no one had offended him. Maybe that was the problem: the congregation and the pastor simply let him drift away, they didn’t care enough to try and stop him. What he did know was that the Church frowned on the things that he wanted to do, and so he didn’t need the Church. And what he wanted to do was live with his girlfriends, and so he did, one after the other. What he wanted to do was stay out late and have a good time, but what began as fun led to addiction, to substance abuse, which consumed his life and destroyed his relationships. What he wanted to do was cause trouble and have nothing to do with the Church, and he didn’t, for years and years.

John would be the first one to tell you that Jesus is stubborn, He is persistent, He is always working to call the baptized back into the faith. As he kneels at the Lord’s Table, he looks at the crucifix sitting upon the altar. “Those wounds are for me,” he thinks to himself, and tears fill his eyes. Jesus sometimes uses a bucket of cold water (or a 2x4, as John would put it) to wake us up, and John heard of Christ’s forgiveness when he hit his lowest point. Not immediately, but eventually, he came back; he moved out of his girlfriend’s place, began working on getting sober, and he started coming to church. Everyone knew who he was; everyone knew what kind of habits he had fallen into. Nothing had been done in secret—he had lived all these years only a couple blocks from the church! He knew it wouldn’t be easy to come back, and more than once he had convinced himself that it was too hard. But whenever he felt the stares as he walked in and sat in the last pew, in the very corner, whenever he didn’t feel welcomed by anyone, he looked to that crucifix and he said to himself, “Those wounds are for me.”

John wants to talk to the pastor about having communion every Sunday; it has been two weeks since Christ’s Body and Blood have been offered, and he is famished. He needs what Christ gives, and he eagerly watches the pastor as he works his way down the rail, carrying the very forgiveness of the Son of God. With a smile John remembers that private confession and absolution is offered this week: another deep drink from the well of Christ’s forgiveness. Forgiveness is why he comes, why he yearns for Sunday morning, for here and now the blood-bought gifts are given to him. Forgiveness is breaking the bonds of addiction, little by little, forgiveness is cleansing away the muck of his past. It is appropriate that he is kneeling; if he could, John would spend the whole service kneeling, bowing at Christ’s feet in gratitude for His gifts. “Those wounds are for me.”

Cathy shifts uncomfortably. She knows John, or knows of him, and she knows what he became. Frankly, she doesn’t know why he’s here. He never wanted anything to do with the Church before; why now? She doesn’t know what he’s trying to accomplish, but he’s certainly making her uncomfortable. She glances at the pastor, who is quickly approaching. It’s all really his fault. How could he bring a person like John back into the church? What kind of reputation does he want this congregation to have? If he was truly a pastor, then he would know what sort of man this was who is kneeling at the Lord’s Table. And John is only one example; she doesn’t want to be called a gossip, but she knows a thing or two about some of the other members that the elders probably don’t. This is her congregation, right? How much is it to ask that these pews be filled with highly respected, good moral people, like her? Maybe she should take her family and find a church where people are more godly, where she will feel more at home.

Cathy wants to talk to the pastor about having communion less often; it takes so long, and we don’t really need it more than once a month, right? And she has already expressed her opinion on private confession and absolution—that’s too Roman Catholic! Sure, forgiveness is important, but the Church has other things to do. Now, don’t get Cathy wrong; she doesn’t reject Christ’s gifts, and she teaches her children about forgiveness and Christ’s death. But she has been receiving those gifts for so long that they have become commonplace to her, and it is so easy, on most Sundays, to go through the motions, to kneel at the Lord’s Table and forget what she receives there.

She watches with some measure of disgust as the pastor gives John the bread, the Body of Christ. But then she hears the words: “Take and eat, this is the true Body of our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, given unto death for all of your sins.” And she catches a glimpse of John’s face. There is pure joy and deep, deep appreciation for the gift that he has been given. His love for Jesus is plain and clear for all the world to see. Then it’s her turn, and remarkably, the same words spoken to John are spoken to her: “Take and eat, this is the true Body of our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, given unto death for all of your sins.” Then, almost too soon, comes the chalice. Again, the same words are spoken to them both: “Take and drink, this is the true Blood of our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, shed for you for the forgiveness of all your sins.” These words have never struck Cathy before; it’s almost as if she is hearing them for the first time rather than the thousandth time. Christ’s blood, shed for you. For you, John, and yes, for you, Cathy. This is the very Blood shed upon the cross for you, Christ’s own blood outpoured not just for those who never strayed from the Church, not just for those who have lived a decent life, but for you, John, and you, Cathy.

She looks to the crucifix with one word ringing in her ears: ‘all.’ Those wounds are for all sins; each and every one of them. Those wounds are for John’s addiction and adultery that everyone knows about; those wounds are for Cathy’s sins that are kept hidden from the world. Those wounds are for all sins. Jesus died for them all. Then, with a shock, as the pastor stands before them to speak the blessing, she remembers Jesus’ parable in the Gospel lesson. “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love Him more?” John’s debt was huge, but it had been cancelled by the shed blood of Jesus Christ. Cathy suddenly realized that her debt, though not on the public record, was as large as John’s, and perhaps even larger, for she had added to it the sin of self-righteousness. Could she be forgiven, too?

At that very moment, the blessing fills the sanctuary: “Now the true Body and precious Blood of our crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ strengthen and preserve you strong in the true faith to life everlasting. Go in peace and with great joy: your sins are forgiven!” Jesus answers yes; John’s sins are forgiven, and so are Cathy’s. They have received His Body and Blood, the price of redemption has been given into their mouths for the forgiveness of all their sins. All their sins. On this summer Sunday the light streams through the stained glass of Jesus the Good Shepherd, and the Lord Himself looks down at two of His lambs, forgiven and restored, to Him and to one another. And they kneel together in gratitude, in love, before the Christ whose shed blood covers them both. They kneel together today, and they will stand together in eternity before the Father’s throne, for Jesus has said to them, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Amen.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Proper 5 of Series C (1 Kings 17:17-24)

“And the Lord listened to the voice of Elijah. And the life of the child came into him again, and he revived.” 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 seventeenth chapter of the book of First Kings. Dear friends in Christ, in the beginning God gave us breath, and the breath was good. “Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” The Creator, with love, with compassion, in incredible intimacy, came down into His creation and bent over the ground, forming us from the dirt. Then, with a blast from his nostrils, we were living creatures, literally ‘those with breath in them.’ With breath we live and move and have our being; with breath we worship God, with breath we serve our neighbor. With the breath comes life; no breath, no life. Flesh and breath belong together; neither can exist in this world without the other. That is the order that the breath-giver set in place; His gift is essential, necessary, for without it, the Eden of paradise, of life, would become a wilderness of death. Breath was the gift of our Creator, given from His nostrils into ours, to enjoy for eternity.

But the breath was taken away. With our rebellion, the air was poisoned; when Adam and Eve took what was not given to them, our breath was forfeit. And from that day forward, all humanity lives under the threat that one day our breath will be taken away; breath will be separated from flesh, and a new reality will come to define us: death. This reality affects all people: young and old, poor and rich, believer and non-believer. When Elijah dwelt with the widow of Zarephath, the effect of our sin entered into that house, with tragic results: “After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill. And his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him.”

His mother, the widow of Zarephath, the hostess of Elijah, the receiver of the jar of flour that was not spent and the jug of oil that did not give out, responds as any mother would: with anguish, with pain, with anger. “And she said to Elijah, ‘What have you against me, O man of God?’” Breath has been taken from her son, and she demands to know why. She puts God and His prophet on trial, and she is the judge and the prosecutor; she puts them on the witness stand for a withering cross-examination. She has exalted herself even above God Himself, judging His actions and finding them unjust. God has taken her son from her, and she will have answers from the Lord and Creator of the universe; the One who gave breath will answer for taking that breath away. He must satisfy her sense of justice; He must justify His actions before her.

And she is ready to render a verdict; she claims to know exactly why this has happened to her son: “You have come to bring my sin to remembrance and to cause the death of my son!” She does have one thing right; sin was the cause of her son’s death, the sin that fills the world, that infects her, Elijah, her son, and you and me. But what she hasn’t judged correctly is the kind of God we have. The widow declares that God, the Creator of all things, the giver of breath, is a candy machine. She thinks that if she puts in some good works, some obedience, some worship and praise, like taking care of a prophet, her life will be blessed. But if she puts in some sin and disobedience, evil will be the result. The widow of Zarephath judges God’s favor or disfavor based on what happens to her in this life; if good things happen, God must be pleased with her, if bad things happen, God must be upset. Her conception of God is formed by paganism; her idols and false gods act this way, and so must the true God. God’s love and disposition is seen in the circumstances of her life, whether prosperity or suffering. She is the judge; she requires God to explain Himself. How has she sinned to deserve the death of her son?

The widow accuses; the prophet prays. The widow exalts herself above God, putting Him on trial; the prophet in humility cries out to the Creator for aid. “And he said to her, ‘Give me your son.’ And he took him from her arms and carried him up into the upper room where he lodged, and laid him on his own bed.” The prophet takes the boy without breath to his own room; he bears the burden of others upon himself. “Give me your son.” He doesn’t leave this grieving widow to cry out to God by herself; he takes on the burden of this woman’s grief and he takes it upon himself. He makes her burden his own. “Give me your son.” The boy is laid on the prophet’s own bed; the boy is held up to God in the prophet’s own prayers. “And he cried to the Lord, ‘O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I sojourn, by killing her son?”

Elijah has the same anguish for the boy without breath as his mother did; his cry is filled with as much compassion, as much anger, as much agony as the widow’s. In many ways, their cries are the same. But yet, they are as different as worship of the true God is from paganism. The widow accuses and puts God on trial; she thinks that the God of Israel is like every other god: if you are good, you will have a good life, if you are evil, you will suffer. And she demands to be shown the evil she has done that caused the death of her son. But Elijah does none of that; instead, he prays. He prays in agony, he prays in desperation, he prays with boldness. He wrestles with God for the boy without breath that he may become a living being once again. “Then he stretched himself upon the child three times and cried to the Lord, ‘O Lord my God, let this child's life come into him again.’” Elijah’s God, the true God, is not a candy machine. Those who serve Him in righteousness will suffer, while the wicked will prosper, as Elijah himself knows from experience. But Elijah knows that his God is good, He is compassionate, He is a God who wants to be wrestled with in prayer, and so he can go boldly to Him with this request, he can even ask the impossible, that God would bring breath back to those who are dead.

In the beginning, God gave us breath, and the breath was good. But the breath was taken away by sin and rebellion, and the Eden of paradise became the wilderness of death. God’s people cried out to Him for aid; at every casket, every grave, every deathbed, every diagnosis of cancer, every car accident, tornado or terrorist attack. “O Lord my God, let the child’s life come into him again!” God’s answer has always been the same: Jesus. Jesus, the Second Person of Trinity, God in the flesh walking this earth. Jesus, the one who said to another widow’s only son, “Young man, I say to you, arise!” and he sat up and began to speak. Jesus came into this hall of death, He breathed our poisoned air, and He answered our prayers, He brought life.

Jesus is the new Elijah. He took our burden, our death, upon Himself; He made our burden His own, completely. Our sin became His sin, and therefore our death was now His penalty to bear. Jesus ascended that cross carrying our bodies without breath, our lives condemned to death, and He bore them up. He takes us up without life, spiritually dead upon that cross, and He stretches Himself out upon us as they drove in the nails. Jesus stretched His arms out wide to embrace the world, to embrace you, and He cried to the Lord on your behalf. He cried out that breath would be restored to you, and He offered His own breath as the price. He breathed your poisoned air and then gave up that breath. “Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’ And having said this, He breathed His last.” He gave up His own breath so that you would breathe again, along with all who have fallen asleep in Jesus. 

Jesus took us up upon that cross dead spiritually and condemned to die physically. He took us up dead, and stretched himself out upon us. And His Father heard our prayer, He heard Elijah’s prayer because of Jesus. “And the Lord listened to the voice of Elijah. And the life of the child came into him again, and he revived.” The Lord heard Elijah’s prayer, and breath came back to the boy, and he lived. But that boy would die again one day; the final answer is not even to be found when Jesus raises a widow’s son; God’s answer to death is Jesus’ own death, God’s answer to death is found at the end of three days. For when Sunday dawned, Christ had brought us back down from that cross and out of that tomb alive, never to die again. “Elijah took the child and brought him down from the upper chamber into the house and delivered him to his mother. And Elijah said, ‘See, your son lives.’” God’s Word returns breath to the sons of widows, but that is only a preview. On the Last Day, God’s Word will return breath to you, me, and all believers in Christ. How do we know? Because through Elijah God returned breath to one widow’s son, and Jesus returned breath to another’s, but especially because Jesus’ own breath returned on the third day, and He rose, the firstborn of dead.

In the beginning, God gave us breath, and the breath was good. On the Last Day, God will give us new breath, and that breath will be very good. Even though you die, even though your loved ones die, death has not won. They live, they are breathing for the first time air that is not poisoned. Jesus declares to you in the midst of your sorrow and mourning the reality that you cannot see without the eyes of faith: “See, your son lives!” Look to the cross in your time of sorrow; look to the cross when your breath is threatened. Look to the cross to know what God thinks of you; not to your successes, not to your failures, not to your sufferings, not to your triumphs. Look not at yourself, not at your own life, but to the cross, to Christ. There you know that God loves you, there you know that death itself has been conquered, there you know that you will live even though you die. There you know that you will breathe the free air of the new heavens and the new earth for eternity. Our God hears our prayers and has given one answer to all the suffering, sorrow, and evil of this world: Jesus. In the Name of Jesus, who gave up His breath so that we will breathe heaven’s air forever, Amen.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Pastor as Confessor

A pastor wears a lot of hats. Most importantly, he is a preacher, a celebrant, one who is under orders by God to give out the gifts of Christ to His beloved people each and every Sunday. He is a teacher, charged with the task of instructing both young and old in the faith once delivered to the saints. He is an administrator, who (to a greater or lesser extent depending on the congregation) is to make sure that the daily 'nuts and bolts' of a congregation get done. He is a counselor, an aid in crisis, bringing God's Word into the midst of the various situations that God's people find themselves in. To this list we can add one more, one that we probably wouldn't have thought of: confessor.

A confessor is one sent by Christ to hear His people confess their sins publicly and privately, and then, in His stead and by His command, absolve them with the precious voice of the Gospel. A confessor is one who has promised, under solemn oath before God and man, never to divulge the sins that are confessed to him. A confessor knows the hurts, cares, foibles and sins of the flock entrusted to him better than anyone else, and so he is in a better position than anyone else to apply the healing balm of the Gospel. A confessor is a better preacher, because he understands those he preaches to and preaches directly to their hurts. A confessor struggles with his people in an incredibly intimate way, bringing Christ to them in their times of greatest need. A confessor is different than counselor. They have a wonderful and helpful vocation, and a pastor must also be able to provide some measure of counseling, but the Lord has given him a greater task: to proclaim the Gospel, to give to you forgiveness. A counselor brings you helpful advice, a confessor brings you forgiveness.

Lutheran theology has a wonderful German word to describe the pastor who sees himself as a confessor in addition to all of his other tasks: Seelsorge. This word means “soul-healer.” It is the pastor's task to bring healing to hurt and broken souls that have been entrusted to him, and the only balm that heals is the Gospel, the forgiveness of sins. A pastor does this when he preaches a sermon, when he gives you communion either on Sunday morning, at home, or at your hospital bed, when he counsels you and speaks comfort from God's Word, and especially when you confess your sins to him and he pronounces Christ's forgiveness. In all of these ways, your soul is comforted and healed. I have many pastors to whom I go for counsel and advice, but only one who hears my sins. I encourage you to see your pastor, or any pastor, as a confessor, as a Seelsorge, and to ask him for the gifts he is commanded to give, that he rejoices to give.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Proper 4 of Series C (Galatians 1:1-12)--Confirmation Day

“As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you have received, let him be accursed.” Former confirmands, future confirmands, present confirmands: 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 confirmation day comes from the Epistle lesson read a few moments ago from the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the churches of Galatia. Dear friends in Christ: confirmation is just the beginning, not the end. Perhaps every preacher who has stood in a pulpit on confirmation day has said something like, “Confirmation is NOT graduation!” Saint Paul was no different; he had been among the Galatians for years, teaching them the Gospel, but when he needed to depart, his message is my message to you today: You aren’t done, you haven’t really completed anything, your life as a Christian is just beginning. Confirmation is a mile marker, a time to confess before God and the world the faith God gave to you at the font, the same faith taught to you by your pastor in confirmation class. It is a day to make solemn oaths, oaths which are not to be taken lightly, oaths which are to govern your life from this day forward. Confirmation is a day to confess Jesus, who has delivered you from sin, death, and the devil. Nothing ends on confirmation day; you don’t stop learning, you don’t stop growing, you don’t stop needing what Christ gives. Satan doesn’t stop attacking; if anything, he has just begun to fight.

He certainly doesn’t waste any time. You have been taught the Gospel, you have made or you will make solemn oaths, but as soon as you walk out these doors, that Gospel will be attacked. Paul had spent an enormous amount of time and energy laying a foundation in Galatia, painstakingly teaching the truth, not simply to fill heads with knowledge and facts, but to create and strengthen faith. Then he moved on to preach the Gospel elsewhere, and immediately the foundation crumbled. “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to another gospel.” Our world is so corrupted and sinful that the work done by faithful laborers over the course of years can be destroyed almost immediately. Just ask the pastors who confirm youth only to never see them again. Just ask the parents whose children abandon the faith at the first opportunity. It’s no secret that the Christian Church loses the majority of the children that it baptizes and confirms. Why? Because so many listen to another gospel; they replace the true Gospel with something else.

Satan calls it a ‘gospel;’ he peddles his lies and poison as good news. And there are plenty of other gospels out there to listen to; you don’t even need to leave Christianity to hear them. Other gospels ring out in sanctuaries all around the world, gospels that promise health and healing, money and power, gospels that promise prosperity and an end to suffering. The true Gospel is a message that seems weak; it doesn’t give you any glory, wealth, or power; in fact, all it delivers to you is scorn. The true Gospel is hated by the world; these other gospels receive the praise of men. But these ‘gospels’ are no gospel at all, as Paul clearly understands: “Not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.” Each of these gospels is a perversion of the truth, a perversion intended to appeal to our itching ears, to tell us what we want to hear. One gospel tells you that Jesus never wanted you to suffer; if you only pray hard enough, you will have health and wealth beyond anything you can imagine. Another gospel says that the Scriptures don’t really mean what we think they mean; that Jesus really didn’t consider Himself the only way to heaven, that the Scriptures don’t really condemn homosexuality or abortion. Paul fought against a gospel which declared that you pleased God by what you did for Him, rather than solely on what He has done for you. That gospel has never gone away, but is pervasive even today; ever heard someone say that they are going to heaven because they ‘lived a good life’? Each of these gospels, and the many others that are floating about in the Church, all take the spotlight away from Christ and put it squarely on you, exactly where your sinful nature wants it.

But other gospels within the church are only the tip of the iceberg. This present evil age preaches other gospels to you, and you hear them constantly. They call it good news, because for our sinful natures, it’s the best news of all. The gospel of individualism, that you should only look out for yourself, and satisfy your own desires above all else in every arena. Closely connected are the gospels of bodily autonomy and sexual freedom. The gospel of materialism, that accumulating more wealth, that having more things, should be the focus of your life, the center of your identity. This is simply the outgrowth of the gospels of evolution and secularism. Another gospel is especially growing today: the gospel of ‘spiritual but not religious.’ This one declares that you can worship God without going to church, that you can have faith without doctrine, spirituality without Christ, that it’s good to believe in something, as long as you don’t believe too strongly. These gospels preached outside the church have the same goal as those preached within: to take your focus away from Christ and toward yourself. And they will entice you, past, future, and present confirmands; perhaps they have already enticed you, perhaps they have you in their grasp. If so, today is a tender call from Saint Paul to repent; he would see you leave all these other gospels behind and embrace the true Gospel of Christ crucified for you sins. But for the false teachers, he has no tenderness, and neither do I, only venom: “As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you have received, let him be accursed.”

At first glance, it seems that Paul is speaking only empty words. The preachers of these other gospels are persuasive, they are powerful; they have enticed millions, and they will seek to entice you. The Gospel that he preaches, on the other hand, appears weak and powerless; Paul himself was hated for it, and he bore on his body the scars of beatings and persecution. If the Gospel he preaches, the Gospel you hear preached and taught in this church, were simply one gospel among many, it would be considered the weakest message in all of history; and in fact, that is how the world has judged it. But the Gospel Paul preaches has a much stronger pedigree. “For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”

This Gospel has a power that none of these other gospels have, even the power to call down curses upon those who preach them, because this Gospel has its origin in God Himself. This Gospel preaches Jesus Christ, who has overcome Satan, the peddler of poison, the speaker of a thousand lies, the one who proclaims every gospel except one. His gospels promise much: happiness, satisfaction, freedom, but they cannot deliver, for they have no power over your enemies. This present evil age is an age under the power of sin, under the threat of death, and there is nothing that any of their gospels can do about it. But Christ has, as Paul boldly declares: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever, Amen.” Do not fear the power of these other gospels: Christ has delivered you from them, He has torn you from their grasp, and He has delivered you from all that they are unable to. Jesus died, and you are free from sin. Jesus rose, and you will live forever. His Gospel endures, despite every attack, for only His Gospel brings victory over man’s enemies. His Gospel endures because His Gospel saves, and it saves you.

So Paul doesn’t care if the world likes his message or not; it is the truth, and he is compelled to preach it, for only this Gospel has the power to save. “Am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” You can endure all that the world throws at you because you have been given victory over the world by Christ’s death and resurrection. You don’t care if the world likes you or not, if they approve of your faith or not; you cling to Christ, because Christ has saved you. Even death cannot separate you from Christ, because you have conquered death in Christ. His resurrection is yours! So, past, future, and present confirmands, stand firm in that faith, stand firm in Christ. Flee from false teachers, flee from all other gospels, for they turn you away from Christ and toward yourself. They cannot deliver from death, and so all they have for you is death. This world will hate you, it will persecute you, it may even kill you, but you have overcome death. How else could you make this promise, this oath in the confirmation rite: “Do you intend to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it? I do, by the grace of God.” Believe in this Gospel with conviction, so strongly that you are willing to die rather than deny it. While confessing it may mean temporal death, to deny it means eternal death, for Christ has robbed death of its power, it is now simply the gateway to life.

You go forth from this place into a world that has launched an all-out attack on your faith, even to the point of taking your life. Satan wants you, and he is willing to use every other gospel that this present evil age offers to get you. But take heart, Jesus has overcome the world. He will rescue you from this present evil age, for He has destroyed its power through the cross and empty tomb. These other gospels will not endure, and those who preach them will be overcome. Paul is a pastor; he calls down curses because he cannot stand to see his flock threatened by these false teachers. And as I look at these confirmands today, past, future, and present, I join my voice with Saint Paul. All false teachers, and yes, the chief false teacher Satan himself, hear these words: “If anyone is preaching to [these saints] a gospel contrary to the one [they] have received, let him be accursed!” In the Name of Jesus, who overcame all false gospels with the power of His true Gospel, Amen.