Monday, January 27, 2014

Epiphany 3 of Series A (Matthew 4:12-25)

“The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the fourth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, two weeks ago, we watched our Lord submit to the baptism of John, the baptism of sinners. We watched as the heavens were opened, the Father spoke, and the Spirit descended as a dove. The triumph, the beauty, the glory of that day was only magnified last week when we heard John cry, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Jesus travels from the river to the wilderness, and there He does battle with Satan, emerging victorious. But the path of the Messiah is not to be filled with triumph and victory. “Now when [Jesus] heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee.” This should shock us—after all this triumph, after all this glory, John—John!—is arrested, and he will not leave that prison alive. Jesus withdraws to the backwoods, and He begins His ministry far from His dangerous enemies in Jerusalem. The darkness is still deep, it lies thick over our fallen world. But our text also holds a promise: “The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.”

The darkness is overwhelming in this world of sin, it surrounds us, it fills every nook and cranny, it smothers us like a heavy blanket. There is no light in a world where people commit acts of incredibly cruelty against others, where children are bullied until they take their own lives, where people suffer from poverty of their own making or inflicted by others, where families are shattered by adultery and divorce. Two weeks ago, I stood with many others on the steps of the Iowa capitol, and we declared together that the horror of abortion must end. How deep must the darkness be when the most vulnerable are put to death in the name of ‘choice?’ No deeper than the darkness that dwells in your own heart. The mistake we often make is that we think because our sins don’t make the news, that we are somehow better off than others, that the darkness isn’t nearly as deep. But that’s a deception. Your will never understand the depth of your sin until you see that the darkness in your own heart is as deep as the darkness outside. That is what Scripture teaches us: every sin offends God, each is deserving of death, yes, even eternal death.
“The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” Into the darkness that surrounds you, into the darkness that dwells within you, Jesus shines the Light. “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” Jesus calls on this world, He calls on you, to repent. The Light of the Law shines in the darkness of human hearts, illuminating sin, pointing out transgressions, revealing the deeds of darkness for what they are, and calling on us to abandon them. That is His cry to a world of abuse and cruelty, where every person simply looks out for his or her own interest: Repent! Turn away from your sin, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand! That is His cry to you and me today, who self-righteously believe that we aren’t as bad as everyone else, who hide the darkness deep in our own heart: Repent! Repent, sinner! Cast the works of darkness far from you! There is an urgency to His cry: today is the day of salvation, do not tarry, do not cling to the darkness for one more moment. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!”

The call to repentance echoes in the darkness. The world has been called to account, its darkness has been exposed by the powerful preaching of the Law. But few listen. The shadow of unbelief lies heavy upon our world. Some is militant unbelief, exemplified by the hardcore atheists, who spend much time and ink attacking the Scriptures. In addition, more and more people are becoming ‘agnostic,’ meaning that they claim to know nothing for certain about spiritual matters, except, of course, that Christianity is wrong. More insidious, however, is a deep apathy that infects so many. They may say that they believe in God if Gallup calls them up, but their life in this world gives the opposite answer. These are all simply different forms of the same spiritual blindness, the darkness that fills our world. But even if a person heeds the Law, there is not yet any salvation. In your spiritual blindness, you may be able to see the Law, but you cannot see any solution, you are blind to any promises, you dwell in darkness too thick to see a Savior.

“The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” Into the darkness of spiritual blindness that fills this world, into the darkness of spiritual blindness that afflicts you, Jesus shines the Light. “While walking by the Sea of Galilee, [Jesus] saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And He said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.’” The darkness that afflicts us cannot be broken by any effort of our own, any more than a blind man can make himself see. We need the intervention of another, someone with the power to shine the Light in our darkness and restore our spiritual sight. Only the power of Jesus’ call can destroy darkness in sinful human hearts and bring in the Light. Most first-century rabbis waited for disciples to join them; Jesus seeks out disciples, He calls on people to believe in Him as the Savior of the world. His call creates faith, His call overwhelms the darkness and brings forth children of light. “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”

The darkness of sin is driven away by the call to repentance; the darkness of unbelief is driven away by the call to faith—we would expect as believers, as the redeemed, to dwell in the beauty of light. But still the darkness surrounds us. Four fishermen were called by Jesus to follow Him; only one would die a natural death. The followers of Jesus still get cancer, they still have heart attacks, they still get injured. The effects of sin do not spare those who are called by Christ; if anything, it seems that we are afflicted more than those who dwell in darkness. That is just as Christ promised us: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.” And everyone, believer and non-believer alike, will eventually die. Death will claim you whether you spend Sunday mornings in worship or at home. John the fisherman turned apostle was not killed for his faith, but he still died. You are a believer, but darkness still surrounds you, choking, thick, and heavy, snuffing out life itself.

“The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” Into the darkness of disease and death, filling our loved ones and we ourselves, which will one day claim each and every person on the face of this planet, Jesus shines the Light. “[Jesus] went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought Him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and He healed them.” Jesus entered this world to drive back the effects of sin; to heal the sick, to restore the infirm, even to raise the dead. The power of His Light shines in the darkness of diseased lives, paralyzed limbs, and demon-possessed flesh. Jesus came as the Light of the world not only to illuminate darkened souls, but to shine upon bodies dwelling in the shadow of death. His salvation is spiritual and physical.

His Light heals all the effects of sin, in you, in me, in this entire creation. He may heal you today through the work of a surgeon or doctor, He may save you from death using the instruments He has placed in this world for that very purpose, but even if He doesn’t save your physical body today, you still have the victory for eternity. The healings in our text are the proof and guarantee that one day you will be healed, His resurrection is the proof and guarantee that Jesus has come to destroy all the effects of sin in this world, even death itself. “The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. The shadow lay thick and heavy upon us; the darkness of sin, the darkness of unbelief, the darkness of disease and death, but Christ has come to defeat them all. He is the One who shines His Light in the midst of the darkness, lifting the shadow of death, all through the power of His cross.

It is on the cross that Jesus is revealed as the Light of the world, for it is on the cross that Jesus pays for sin, conquers unbelief, and overcomes death itself. It is the bright beams of the cross that shine the light of forgiveness into your heart when you fall into sin, it is the message of the cross that you are called by Jesus Himself to believe in, and it is only through the cross that we have the guarantee that no disease, and not even death itself, has a hold upon us or any of Christ’s called saints. At the foot of the cross, the people who are dwelling in darkness see a great Light; before its sacred beams the shadow of death is chased away. With the cross, darkness has no more power over you, me, or a creation which cowered so long under its shadow. There is your light, O people of God, there is the Light of the world. In the Name of Jesus, “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God,” Amen.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Baptism of our Lord (Romans 6:1-11)

“So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” 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 on this Baptism of our Lord is from the Epistle lesson read a few moments ago from the sixth chapter Romans. Dear friends in Christ, the Son of Man, the Messiah, Jesus, who was called the Christ, stood in the midst of Jordan’s stream. He came to this river where the people of Judea were washing away their sins and there He submitted to the baptism of sinners. He who had no sin was baptized in the place of all sinners, in your place and mine. The Father’s voice pointed us to our Savior: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” The Spirit descended to anoint Him for His work, and from that river, Jesus traveled a long, winding road which led to the cross. At the Jordan that day, Jesus, declared to be the Son of God, was also declared as the One who stood in our place, the bearer of our sin. Every sin. There is no sin that you have ever committed or will ever commit that Jesus did not bear to the cross. God’s grace, shown through the death of the sin-bearer, is greater than your sin. Every sin. All sin. His grace, His forgiveness is so abundant that Saint Paul will say immediately before our text, “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Christ’s blood-bought forgiveness is always more abundant than our transgressions; the grace of God shines from the cross more powerfully than all the darkness of our corruption. You cannot outsin God’s grace, although we certainly try. We pray “deliver us from evil,” and we think first about those things that are outside of us; we think of terrorists and criminals, we think of injury or death, we think of Satan. But this petition is prayed first against ourselves, against our own heart. We are the evil ones, corrupted through and through. We are a “body of sin” as Saint Paul tells us, a body corrupted by sin, a body infected with evil. And nowhere is this more manifest than in how we treat God’s grace.

Paul asks the question: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” The answer is obvious: ‘Yes!’ God likes to forgive, I like to sin; what better relationship could there be? You all know the grace of God; you hear it from the pulpit, from the altar, each and every week. We’re Lutherans, after all; that’s what we preach, more clearly than anyone else. You hear that you can’t outsin God’s grace, that His forgiveness is so abundant it covers every single sin, and you can’t help but take Him up on His offer. And so you turn the absolution into a license to sin, an excuse to sin. I’m going to get clean on Sunday morning, so I might as well get good and filthy on Monday through Saturday. As long as I’m a ‘good church person’ on Sunday morning, I can live my ‘other life’ the rest of the week. What a great deal! God likes to forgive, I like to sin—what more could I ask for? I can get drunk and make a fool of myself on Friday night as long as I ask for forgiveness on Sunday morning. Treating others like dirt, bullying, abusing, and speaking harsh words isn’t a big deal, because I know about God’s grace, and it’s available whenever I want it. I can sleep around and use filthy language as long as I remember to ask for forgiveness afterward. It really doesn’t matter what shows I watch, what I look up on the internet, or what magazines I read, as long as I’m in that pew once a week, looking good, hearing of forgiveness. Or, better yet, I can avoid the worship life of the Church altogether for the majority of my life, as long as I call in the pastor when I’m on my deathbed. Then I’ll square the accounts and cash in on this grace.

Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? We answer with a resounding ‘Yes!’ Paul’s answer is a bit different: “By no means!” ‘Why?’ we ask. Paul, don’t you get it, we’ve got everything going for us! I like to sin, and so I keep sinning. God likes to forgive, and so He keeps forgiving. I’m doing what I want, and so is God. What’s the big problem? Paul’s answer is simple: “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” You have died. I have died. Not a physical death, not the death that affects all creatures in a fallen world, but a different kind of death. We died to sin. We died in our Baptism. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? 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.”

At the font, you were put to death, you were killed. Not to destroy you, but to save you. We pray “deliver us from evil,” and at the font, God answered that prayer. That’s why we pray the Lord’s Prayer before every baptism, because the Lord’s Prayer, and especially that seventh petition, finds its answer in those blessed waters. He delivered you from Satan’s rule, from sin’s bondage, from death’s domination. He delivered you from the evil that dwells within you. “We know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.” The old man, that old sinful Adam, was crucified with Christ in the font; He was put to death, for Christ, our sin-bearer, took him to the cross and left him nailed there. His day is done, His reign is over. Should we continue to sin that grace may abound? By no means! We have died to sin, we are no longer under its slavery. “One who has died has been set free from sin.”

We are justified, made righteous in God’s sight, for Christ has linked together His death on the cross with our death in the font; at the cross He won salvation, in your Baptism He applies it to you. His death becomes your death, and as His death was followed by a resurrection, so too is yours. “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him.” In Baptism, we are joined with the most important events in history; in the time that it takes to apply water saying “I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” you are connected with the arrest and trial, the scourge and the whip, the cross and death, the rest in the tomb and the glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ. All that happened in those three days comes to you in a matter of moments, it is made your own. His death is now your death, and the old man is crucified. His resurrection is now your resurrection, and you are raised to newness of life.

“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.” Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! Why walk in the paths of death, in bondage to the evil that dwells within us, when we have been raised to newness of life? God’s grace isn’t license to sin, it isn’t an excuse to sin, it’s forgiveness for when we sin. You have been given a new life—why dwell in the ways of death, the paths of your old life, living among the dry bones of sin, which can only deliver you into death? You have been set free! You have died to sin, why live in it any longer? You are the baptized, who have the inheritance of eternal life, not the unbelieving world, which without Christ is destined only for eternal death. You have died and been raised again—do not live in death, but in life!

That is easier said than done. We have died to sin, but that old man still dwells within us, and he continues to speak his enticing words. Baptism inaugurates a battle, a battle that continues throughout the life of every Christian. “Deliver us from evil” we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, starting with the evil that dwells within our own heart. Once again it is Baptism that answers this fervent prayer. At the font we died to sin and were raised with Christ; we return to that death and resurrection daily in our battle with sin, as Luther teaches us in the Small Catechism: “[Baptism] indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” The Christian life is a life of returning to the font and remembering the death we died to sin. Whatever commands the old man of sin gives us, we obey them as much as a corpse; we have died to sin, how can we live in it any longer? Baptism shapes our lives: we daily die to sin in repentance, and we rise to Christ recalling what was given to us in our Baptism: forgiveness, life, and salvation.

We drown that old man in repentance and forgiveness each and every day, but he is a strong swimmer, he continues to entice us. We fall into sin, we walk in the paths of death. Here’s where the overflowing, blood-bought grace of God is so necessary. “If we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His.” God’s abundant grace isn’t license to sin, it is forgiveness for when we sin. It’s the promise that through Christ we have forgiveness, we have eternal life, for through our baptism, we were connected with Christ’s death and His resurrection. “We know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has any dominion over Him. For the death He died He died to sin, once for all, but the life He lives He lives to God.” Christ died once for all; once for all sin, once for all sinners. What is true of Christ is true of us: we are not only dead to the life of sin, we are dead to sin’s penalty; we are dead to death. We are alive to God today and we are alive to God forever, for we died and rose again in the blessed waters of Baptism. “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” We are alive! Death cannot hold us, for we have died already, and the resurrection of our Baptism is the guarantee of our resurrection on the Last Day. “I am baptized into Christ; I’m a child of paradise!” Amen.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Christmas 2 of Series A (1 Kings 3:4-15)

“Behold, I give you a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you.” 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 second Sunday after Christmas comes from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the third chapter of the book of First Kings. Dear friends in Christ: we Americans are a very practical, pragmatic people. We do things because we can see the results, we can see the tangible outcomes, often measured in dollars and cents. Our education system is, in many ways, set up for the primary and all-encompassing purpose of equipping someone for a job. The old liberal arts model of higher education, where the goal was to shape the mind of young people so that they will be wise and informed citizens, has been largely replaced by specialized trade schools and university departments, which teach skills for one profession or another. Why? The answer is money—we Americans are, after all, practical, pragmatic people. Learning for the sake of learning isn’t really all that practical, because unless you are going to teach in a university for a living, wisdom and understanding aren’t going to put food on the table or (more importantly) pay taxes.

Solomon’s request is therefore impractical to the extreme. God Himself comes to the king in the night and gives him an extraordinary offer: “Ask what I shall give you.” Like King Ahaz, Solomon is given a blank check from God, the opportunity to ask for anything. And as a king, Solomon certainly had many practical needs. He had just removed the immediate threats to his throne, but he still had enemies—should he ask for victory in battle? David his father had given him a well-off kingdom, but can a person ever have enough—should he ask for great wealth? Or what about the most important thing in the eyes of most people, next to money, of course—should he ask for a long life?

But Solomon asks for none of these things. He is given the opportunity to ask for anything for himself, but he refuses to focus upon himself. What he asks is for a gift to serve others. “Your servant is in the midst of your people whom you have chosen, a great people, too many to be numbered or counted for multitude. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?” Solomon refuses to ask for wealth, for military victory, or for a long life. Instead, he asks for wisdom. Not for himself, because what can wisdom really give you that wealth, victory, or many years cannot? If you are thinking of bettering yourself, you’ll choose the others over wisdom any day of the week. But Solomon was thinking of serving others, he was in humility seeking the good of his neighbor, and so he sought wisdom and understanding. He sought the wisdom and understanding that comes only from God, for it characterizes God.

God is wisdom, He is understanding. His wisdom is an open ear, hearing the pleas and understanding the great needs of those whom He loves. And His understanding provides for those needs, perhaps not in the way that we wanted or expected, but in His wisdom God always gives what is best for those whom He loves. In wisdom, God heard the cries of humanity for salvation from sin and death, He heard your cries even before you uttered them. And in wisdom, God set forth a marvelous plan of salvation. Saint Paul teaches us in our Epistle lesson that God is “making known to us the mystery of His will, according to His purpose, which He set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth.” God in His infinite wisdom ordered all things in history toward your salvation, so that Paul can say, “He chose us in [Jesus] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His will.”

God exercises His wisdom to serve you, fulfilling your greatest needs. In wisdom, God sent His Son into our creation in the fullness of time to bring forth the salvation long planned and prepared. His plan came to pass in a manger, for His wisdom is shown in the child Jesus, the fulfillment of all the promises. Jesus is God’s wisdom, as He demonstrates even as a youth, to the amazement of the teachers in the temple. When Solomon asks for wisdom, he is asking for what belongs to God Himself, what characterizes His interactions with sinful humanity, the wisdom that will lead to a little baby and a manger outside of Bethlehem. He is asking for the wisdom that serves.

True wisdom always serves, but not ourselves. Godly wisdom serves others. Godly wisdom won’t put more money in your account, it won’t lengthen your life, it won’t rid you of your enemies (in fact, it might give you more!), but it will help you serve your neighbor’s true needs. That’s why God praised it so highly when He heard Solomon’s request: “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches or the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, behold, I now do according to your word.”

True wisdom serves others, therefore we don’t want much to do with it. Deep down, we’re selfish, or we think that we can handle things on our own. We put a tremendous amount of energy into seeking after many things, most of which fall into the three categories that God gives: long life, riches, and triumph over our enemies, but we expend much less effort in seeking after godly wisdom. We Americans are practical, pragmatic people, and wisdom, especially godly wisdom, doesn’t pay the bills. In fact, godly wisdom doesn’t really benefit me at all! As a result, it is no secret that our churches have failed to teach the faith adequately for decades now, and blame lies on all sides. We clergy have botched our God-given task to teach all ages, to expect more from our students. And laity have played their part by not coming to bible classes and demanding less of themselves and their children. Now we have several generations of Christians that want little to do with wisdom, who don’t know their own faith, and therefore are swayed by every wind of false doctrine, who are ill-equipped to speak God’s Word in the world.

Now, don’t get me wrong. This sermon isn’t simply an advertisement for bible class and adult catechesis (held Mondays at 11am, 6pm and 7:15pm). True, godly wisdom doesn’t only come from being in a class, it’s more than studying Scripture, although the thirst for knowledge about God is vital. True wisdom isn’t just knowing facts. Godly wisdom is cultivated in the weekly Divine Service, it is taught through a devotional life of prayer and meditation upon God’s Word. You don’t have to be a pastor or a seminary professor to have godly wisdom, you don’t even need to have as much knowledge as the person sitting next to you today. Every Christian should cultivate godly wisdom as God has gifted them, not for our own benefit, but to serve others.

Solomon set the pattern. He asked God for an “understanding mind.” The Hebrew text says that Solomon asked for a “hearing soul.” True wisdom imitates God by listening to the needs of others. True wisdom is an open ear, seeking to understand our neighbor’s situation—spiritually and physically. Listening cannot be taught in a class, but only through prayer and meditation, by listening first to God Himself. Solomon also asked for the ability to “discern between good and evil.” This is where our study of the Scriptures comes in. If we want to help our neighbor, we must be able to distinguish between good and evil, truth and falsehood according to the Scriptures. We must be able to call a thing what it is, pointing out sin and falsehood and praising good and truth. And then, true, godly wisdom must discern how to help. If the need is physical, godly wisdom helps us to see how our vocations and the vocations of others can be used to serve the needs of his body. If the need is spiritual, godly wisdom applies God’s Word to our neighbor. Godly wisdom speaks the Law to condemn sin when a person is caught in unrepentance, and the Gospel to forgive sin when the neighbor is in desperate need of grace.

For God’s wisdom is ultimately shown in the Gospel. It is the plan of salvation set forth before time began, and when the fullness of time came, it bore fruit in seeming foolishness. True wisdom is found in Jesus; true wisdom is found in the foolishness of the manger, in the foolishness of the cross. Jesus demonstrated His wisdom when He befuddled the teachers in the temple; His wisdom would stump them again when He hung upon the cross. In the foolishness of the cross, God would show forth His wisdom, for in Christ’s humiliating suffering and death, all creation would be delivered from bondage. His wisdom forgives you for your foolish seeking after the things of this world: long life, riches, and triumph over others.

The one with godly wisdom is then the one who believes, who clings to the foolishness of the cross for forgiveness, life, and salvation. Godly wisdom is despairing of your own ability to save yourself, and therefore relying solely upon Christ. Godly wisdom is realizing your humility; like Solomon, you admit before your God that “I am but a little child. I do not know how to go out or come in.” Godly wisdom confesses that you don’t know it all, that you can’t do it on your own, and so like Solomon you ask for the wisdom that only comes as a gift: “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?” God answers this prayer, and more than that, He gives you everything. “I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor, so that no other king shall compare with you, all your days.” You have riches, the very treasure of heaven. You have a long life, life forever in heaven. And you have victory over your enemies: sin, death, and Satan are crushed by the foolishness of the cross—the world’s foolishness, God’s wisdom, your salvation. In Jesus’ name, Amen.