Monday, February 24, 2014

Epiphany 7 of Series A (1 Corinthians 3:10-23)

Once upon a time, three little pigs lived with their mother in a sturdy stone house. One day, the three little pigs came to their mother with a decision. “We love living with you, mom, but we all feel like we need to spread our wings. We’re going to go build churches.” Their mother was taken aback, but she was proud that they had such a noble ambition. She had plenty of words of encouragement for the three little pigs, but she also had a warning. “Be careful how you build, dear sons. God takes this work very seriously, and Saint Paul says, ‘Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.’ Whatever you do, take special care that you don’t overthrow that foundation.” The three little pigs, filled with the overconfidence that afflicts every young seminarian, just rolled their eyes and said, “Yes, mother.” Then they were off to seminary, and four short years later, with their toolkit in hand, it was time for the three little pigs to build churches.

The first little pig, careful to follow his mother’s advice, began to build his church on a steady, rock-solid foundation, the foundation provided by the skilled master builder Saint Paul. “According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it… No one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Christ Jesus.” His foundation was the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a foundation that would be steady and firm, enduring in a dangerous world. And that was a good thing, because the materials he chose to build upon that foundation were not nearly so steady and firm. He took several opinion polls, and he found out that unbelievers want a church that believes very little. They want a church built with the straw of acceptance and tolerance, a church that has no problem with any sort of lifestyle that people want to live. They like the idea of God, but only if he doesn’t say anything of substance, only if he doesn’t make any demands on their lives or call on them to believe anything very specific. So, rather than the bricks of God’s Word, he used the straw of worldly wisdom to build his church. And people loved it. The straw church was praised on television, in the newspapers, by politicians and celebrities. The material the first little pig used made his structure remarkably flexible, able to move with every wind of the culture. Women pastors, living together outside of marriage, abortion, the authority of the Bible, Jesus as the only foundation, homosexuality, open communion; the church swayed this way and that on whatever issue came up. The first little pig came dangerously close to disobeying his mother’s advice and overthrowing the foundation; in fact, the foundation was often obscured by a mess of straw, but it still stood.

And that was a very good thing, for one Day a wolf came along, breathing the fires of Judgment Day. He came as Saint Paul had warned: “Each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.” The wolf came on a Day that the little pig didn’t expect, and he was hardly ready. “Little pig, little pig, let me come in,” the wolf said. “Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin,” the straw covered hog replied. The wolf took a deep breath. “Then I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll burn your house down!” He really didn’t need to huff and puff that much, for one spark set that straw church ablaze. The little pig thought he was lost, but then he remembered the foundation. He clung to the solid base of his flimsy church, and remarkably, the fires passed over him, leaving him scorched and singed, but alive.

The first little pig fled to his brother’s church, built, as their mother had warned them, on the foundation that St. Paul laid, the solid rock of Jesus Christ. The base of his structure was the perfect life of Christ, His substitutionary death, and His victorious resurrection. That was the foundation, but, as he kept telling people, “We have to take the next step and build this church ourselves.” His brother built with the straw of ‘love’ without holiness; this second little pig built with the wood of holiness without love. In other words, this was church held up by the sticks of the Law, the sticks of rules and principles. Those who lived in a way contrary to God’s Word weren’t tolerated as at the straw church, they were shamed out of the community; it was abundantly clear that they weren’t welcome in a church filled with such holy people. The foundation of Jesus’ death and resurrection was assumed, so he covered his roof with sticks of self-help, better principles for living, forty days of one thing or another. The wooden church wasn’t nearly as popular with the cultural elites as the straw church, but it was popular with the people. They loved his practical sermons and the entertaining worship. In fact, this little pig held up his structure with the wooden beams of his own personality. His church was so great because he was so great; his charisma, his preaching, his leadership made this church grow and prosper, and soon even his brother was caught up in the wonderful energy of this place.

That is, until the Day the wolf showed up. Saint Paul had warned them, and now that Day had come. “Little pig, little pig, let me come in,” the wolf said. “Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin,” the self-righteous pig replied. The wolf took a deep breath. “Then I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll burn your house down!” This second church didn’t burn nearly as easily as the first, but it still burned. The two little pigs thought they were lost, but then they once again remembered the foundation. They clung to the solid base of the burning church, and as if by a miracle, the fires passed over them, leaving them scorched and singed, but alive.

The two little pigs fled to the church of their brother. Now this was much different looking structure than their churches of sticks and straw. It was despised by the world, shunned by its neighbors; it looked old and decrepit. The two were ready to call on their brother to leave while there was still time. But then they noticed something—the foundation! It was certainly the same foundation upon which they had built their churches, the foundation of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. But this foundation was there for all to see, not obscured by straw or sticks. And this church was built into that foundation, not simply upon it. The walls were rock-solid, and when one looked closely, they could see they were made of gold, silver, and precious stones. The walls were simply an extension of the foundation; this sturdy structure was built of the solid bricks of the Bible, Absolution, Holy Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. The beams of love and holiness formed the roof; in this church God’s Law was proclaimed to condemn sin, and His Gospel was proclaimed to forgive it. This was one church that would not sway in the winds of culture; here was something steady in the whirlwind, a refuge for the broken and sinful. There was only one thing missing: their brother! The two little pigs called his name, and he stepped out from behind a wall. “What were you doing, hiding?” they asked. “Actually yes,” he replied. “I hide behind the walls of this church so that all the focus can be on the foundation; that’s all that matters, not me or anything I do.”

At that moment the wolf came along, breathing the fires of Judgment Day. The third little pig wasn’t surprised, for he had built with Paul’s warning in mind. As before, the wolf walked confidently up to the door. “Little pig, little pig, let me come in,” he said. “Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin,” the three pigs replied. The wolf took a deep breath. “Then I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll burn your house down!” And he huffed, and he puffed, and the fires of judgment burned against the church, but nothing happened. This church stood firm. The wolf expended all his breath, and finally the waters of baptism spurted from the unbroken walls, quenched his fire, and swept the wolf away.

Why did one church stand while the others fell? It was all in the materials. Don’t think for a moment that we here are a church built entirely of brick, and all other churches are built of wood and straw. We are all tempted to build our churches with substandard materials, and Paul calls us to examine ourselves and see how we are like the churches of wood and straw. No church and no Christian can ignore Paul’s words: “I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds on it.” You see, when it comes to building a church, the foundation makes all the difference. Those three little pigs were not saved because they built well, nor were they destroyed because they built poorly. They were saved because they clung to the foundation. They were saved, in short, by Jesus, just as you are. His death, for you. His resurrection, for you. “So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos of Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” Christ builds His Church, He builds your faith, on a solid foundation, a foundation that will survive the fires of Judgment Day. And because you belong to Him, you have everything; you have victory over death, you have overcome a world of sin and suffering, you even have the future, because your future is eternal glory. It’s all yours, because you are more than conquerors through the cross and empty tomb of Jesus Christ. Put not your trust in men, whether they are good builders or not; put your trust in Christ, and seek a place where the Church is built with precious stones, not sticks or straw. It is Christ who saves, not men, and He has saved you, you are Christ’s, and the big bad wolf has no hold upon you; his fiery breath is extinguished by the water of your Baptism, He is crushed by the mighty foot of your Savior. In the Name of Jesus, the foundation to which we cling, Amen.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Epiphany 6 of Series A (Deuteronomy 30:15-20)

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live.” 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 thirtieth chapter of the book of Deuteronomy. Dear friends in Christ, I have a problem with pro-life license plates. You know what they look like, you’ve been stuck behind people who have them: two smiling faces and the phrase ‘Choose life!’ The teaching is simple: when you are pregnant, choose life, not abortion! The trouble is, this language of choice plays right into the abortion movement’s hands. We are playing their game when we use their language, and it’s a game we won’t win with those rules. Enough focus has been placed upon a woman’s choice; the focus needs to be on the unborn. What is the unborn? The unborn is a human being, and every human being, regardless of size, level of development, environment, or degree of dependence deserves protection. When we assert the humanity of the unborn, then there really is no choice, there is a baby, and the question of how we can help and support the mother. If it’s only about a woman’s choice, then abortion will always be legal: we Americans love our freedom. But if we can convince our fellow citizens that the unborn are human beings deserving of protection, that there is only one choice, then we’ve finally won this long battle on behalf of life.

You see, when the choice between life and death is placed before sinful humans, we always choose death. When God used the language of ‘choice’ through Moses in our text today, He didn’t have much success either. “See, I have set before you life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in His ways, and by keeping His commandments and His statutes and His rules, then you shall live and multiply in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.” How did that work out? The rest of the Old Testament is the story of Israel choosing death, rebelling again and again, refusing to keep His commandments and His statutes and His rules. His commandments promised life, but they instead chose death. Things have hardly changed; we are little different than our Israelite forefathers. Our world has allied itself with death, it has tried to make a covenant with our enemy, to wield death as a tool. Death is the solution to an unwanted child, to elderly people taking up resources, to pain and suffering. Death is chosen for those who earnestly desire it, and it is chosen for those who have no voice. Those who dwell in the womb and those who lay on hospital beds are both told that death has been chosen for them. “Choose life!” God says to us, but it is clear that our choice has been made, and the choice is death.

We chose death by walking in the paths of sin. “If your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess.” Our choice is sin, our choice is idolatry, our choice is death. “Choose life!” God commands in His holy Law. But our choice is death. Our choice is anger, our choice is hatred of our neighbor, holding a grudge and refusing to be reconciled. “I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, 'You fool!' will be liable to the hell of fire.” Our choice is lust, to exploit with our eyes, with our mind, and with our actions those who are not our spouses. “I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Our choice is to seek our own way, often leading to conflict in marriage, which can even cause the dissolution of what God has brought together. “I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” And those are only three sins! “Choose life!” God says, but all we have chosen is death.

For God Himself tells us the penalty: “I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish.” Those who walk in the paths of death will only have death to greet them, yes, even eternal death. But even in this life, the created order calls us to account, for they are God’s witnesses against us: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse.” The creation itself witnesses against us when we walk in the paths of death. There are consequences to our actions. The woman who has an abortion lives with guilt. Both children and adults suffer when divorce or adultery enters into a family. Anger and hatred poison our minds and consume us, eventually destroying us. Heaven and earth testify against us; when we violate God’s Law, the creation gives out punishment, eventually the punishment of death.

God’s Law, on the other hand, holds out the promise of life. If we obey, if we listen to His commands, we will live, we will prosper. “You shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.” We know this instinctively, we know that our lives would be better if we didn’t violate God’s Law. Life is there for the taking, but we never get our hands on it. We always choose death. The Law promises life, but it has never delivered. Every human on this planet has been given the opportunity to achieve life and escape death through obedience to the Law, but no one has ever done it, and no one ever will. The Law cannot give us the ability to do what it commands. The Law can tell us what is right and good all that it wants, but we still choose what is wrong and evil, because we are sinful to our core. And because we cannot keep the Law, we are given up to death. As Saint Paul says, “The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me.”

We could not choose life, and so we were doomed to death. But our God is a God of life, and the word of the Law is not His final Word. He sends His Word into the flesh to do for you and me what we couldn’t do for ourselves. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, as the Word incarnate, Jesus Christ, lived a life in obedience with God’s Law. The Law promised life to the one who perfectly obeyed, and Jesus did, He obeyed to the letter every command that we violate. He was offered life, but He chose death. He chose death to bring you life. His choice was to endure your death so that you would have His life. His perfect obedience to the Law is given to you, as if you had never sinned. His death upon the cross under the penalty that the Law demands is given to you, as if you had paid it yourself. His obedience is yours, His death is yours, and so His life is yours. When He rises from the grave on Easter morning, you are given life, you are released from the shackles of death; the demands of the Law have been satisfied. God’s choice is life: for you, for me, for a humanity unable to achieve it on our own. We chose death, but God chose life, and it is His choice that makes all the difference.

He chooses you for life because Christ chose death for you. He chooses you for life by baptizing you into Christ, making you His own dear child. What He once offered through obedience to the Law He now gives freely through the Gospel. “Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying His voice and holding fast to Him, for He is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.” He gives to you all those things because He kept His promise to the people of Israel, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. He swore to Abraham, “In your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” The promise was given for us, for that promise is the promise of Christ Jesus, crucified and risen, to make God our life and length of days, to lengthen our days into eternity, to make us to dwell in the Promised Land of the new heavens and the new earth. God has fulfilled His promises; the Law offered life, but couldn’t deliver—not because the Law was deficient, but because we are deficient. But what the Law couldn’t give, the Gospel does. Life is found in God’s choice. Life is found in Jesus.

“Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live.” To choose life is to believe in Jesus, to cleave to Him in faith. And this not of yourselves, it is a gift of God, that no man may boast. Cling to Jesus, not on your own power, but through the working of the Holy Spirit, who has called you by the Gospel, enlightened you with His gifts, sanctified and kept you in the one true faith. In Jesus you are given life, eternal life. In Jesus you are given forgiveness, founded on His shed blood. Jesus chose death in order to give you life; Jesus chose death in order to wipe your sins away. You have chosen to walk in the ways of death? You are forgiven. God has sworn to wipe out your sins; His promise to Abraham is your promise, and because He kept that promise, He keeps this one too: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” To the one who has participated in divorce, to the one who has lusted or committed indecent acts, to the one who has harbored hatred in their heart, to the one who has committed an abortion or helped someone have an abortion, to those who have chosen the paths of death in any way, hear this: I forgive you all your sins in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Christ chose death so that you will have life. His perfect obedience is set in place of your sins. What the Law promised and couldn’t deliver the Gospel brings to you. Christ is your life, today, tomorrow, forever. “Choose life”? God did; He chose life for you in Christ. In the Name of Jesus, our life and length of days, who chose death for us, Amen.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Implications of a Lutheran theology of education

In light of the ongoing discussion about Common Core and the state of education in America, it is helpful to examine again the Lutheran theology of education.

Lutheran theology roots education in the Fourth Commandment, and so today I will focus narrowly on Luther’s explanation in the Large Catechism. Here Luther establishes that principle that not only the call to educate children, but also the call to rule over nations comes from the family, from the authority given to parents in this commandment. “All authority flows and is born from the authority of parents. Where a father is unable alone to educate his rebellious and irritable child, he uses a schoolmaster to teach the child. If he is too weak, he gets the help of his friends and neighbors. If he departs this life, he delegates and confers his authority and government upon others who are appointed for the purpose.” (LC I.141) Obedience to the schoolmaster and obedience to the king flows from the first human institution that God established: the family. This is a responsibility that should not be taken away or given up. “For this purpose He has given us children and issued this command: we should train and govern them according to His will. Otherwise, He would have no purpose for a father and a mother. Therefore, let everyone know that it is his duty, on peril of losing the divine favor, to bring up his children in the fear and knowledge of God above all things. And if the children are talented, have them learn and study something. Then they may be hired for whatever need there is.” (LC I.173-174) The primary purpose of education is to raise up children in the fear and admonition of the Lord. Second, but still vitally important, is to prepare the next generation for all the vocations that life in this world requires. “If we wish to have excellent and able persons both for civil and Church leadership, we must spare no diligence, time, or cost in teaching and educating our children, so that they may serve God and the world.” (LC I.172) Education is vital, not for the child him or herself, but for the good of the neighbors they will serve. In the Table of Duties, Luther provides a summary by citing Ephesians 6:4. “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”

We can draw two conclusions from this brief (and narrow) examination. First, we see that for Lutheran theology, education is done primarily at home by the parents. The church steps in when the parents are unable or unwilling, for a variety of reasons, to carry out all or part that task on their own. This goes for confirmation instruction as much as for reading, writing, and arithmetic. The state takes responsibility when both the Church and the parents are unwilling or unable to provide such an education, for the primary function of the state is to do what the family is unable to do on its own. This is obviously the complete opposite of how we look at things in our own country, where public education is the norm, private education is available for those who want it, and parents have some limited freedom in educating their children themselves if they so choose. Now, the point of all this isn’t to denigrate public education or the Lutheran school system—far from it, we need good educators and good education going on in those places precisely because not every parent can carry out this weighty responsibility on their own, for many different reasons. The point is that in our country we have a philosophy of education that is backwards, top down from government mandates to the parents, rather than founded on parental responsibility, and this is exemplified no more clearly than with Common Core. This Lutheran perspective on education is not a relic of the sixteenth century or bound to a particular society or age, but is theologically formed and rooted in the Fourth Commandment.

Second, regardless of whether parents educate their children themselves at home or ask the Church or state to do so on their behalf, the responsibility for education still rests upon them. This goes as much for catechesis in the truths of the faith as it does for math and science. The Church and the state are able to help, but the responsibility for the raising of children doesn’t belong to the Church or to the state, but to the family. Parents need to be teachers; they need to know what their children are being taught, and they need to be able to reinforce it at home. On the other hand, teachers, whether at a Christian school or in the public school system, need to understand this as well. For this reason, we need Lutherans in public education who understand this and champion the authority of parents. Obviously, this perspective should also be a driving force in our Lutheran schools.

For all of its downfalls and dangers, technology has provided Christian parents and Christian churches with a tremendous opportunity. It has never been easier for parents to homeschool their children, to take the responsibility for education given by the Fourth Commandment directly into their own hands. It has also never been easier for congregations (even the smallest of congregations!) to provide education on behalf of parents. Through online materials (such as Wittenberg Academy), a small congregation far from an established Lutheran school can host a ‘homeschool consortium’ to provide for the education of the children of the congregation. Technology has made it possible for an explosion of Lutheran education; we only need to see and take advantage of the opportunities given to us. We can and should promote Lutheran education, from our wonderful Lutheran school system, to encouraging homeschooling, to the more creative arrangements that congregations should explore. For the good of our neighbors, we should also be active in doing our best to improve public education, including putting Lutheran teachers in public schools, with a solid grasp of the Fourth Commandment firmly in mind. The Fourth Commandment is what a Lutheran theology of education is all about, in the home, at Lutheran schools, and even in the public school system.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Epiphany 5 of Series A (Isaiah 58:3-9a)

A town has two churches. This is a small town, typical of much of the Midwest, populated by about three hundred people. No stoplights, just a post office and a bar, a town hall and these two churches. Both are affiliated with the same denomination; they teach the same things, they confess the same faith. They may have different preachers, but they hear very similar sermons. Their children receive the same baptism, the confirmed receive the same Body and Blood. The pews in both sanctuaries are occupied by believers in Christ, those who have been claimed by His Blood, who have the faith which grasps His salvation. The crucifix is displayed prominently, reminding all who worship of the great cost of their sin, paid for by the Son of God, their Savior Jesus. The Law is heard in all of its sternness to condemn sin, and the Gospel is heard in all of its sweetness to forgive it. Neither church is bigger than the other, neither church is younger than the other; in most ways, they are mirror images. They sit on either side of this small town, placed there by chance and the will of the Lord, who puts churches where He pleases.

It is Sunday morning, the second week of February—bitterly cold. But inside the sanctuary of First Lutheran Church, on the south side of town, it is warm and cozy. They have been blessed, the council will proudly tell you, with the funds to heat this building adequately for the comfort of all the members. They are singing the hymn of the day, “Thy Strong Word,” with the gusto it demands, looking toward the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ Himself, displayed on the crucifix behind the altar. Where they don’t look is out the windows, which are thick stained glass, other than a small patch where it is clear. Looking through each pane of clear glass is a face. The needy of the town stand gathered outside First Lutheran Church, summoned by her singing, hungry for her warmth, desperate for the love displayed upon that crucifix.

There is a man, John, suffering under the bondage of addiction. Everyone in town knows what kind of man he is, they know him as one of the town drunks; what they don’t know is that he has lately been into harder and harder stuff. What they don’t know is the pain he feels, the guilt that drives his addiction, like a continuous circle, a cycle that he wants to escape, but doesn’t know how. He has some inkling that the church is the place to go, and so he is there, standing in the snow, crying for help without words.

At the next window is Andrea, with two little ones and another on the way. She has learned the hard way that feminism and the sexual revolution have simply given men the ability to shirk their responsibilities, and she is left with the wreckage. The world promised freedom, but the fathers of her children were the only ones to find it. She is left scraping by, desperately hungry, unable to adequately feed her little ones on three part-time jobs, carrying the guilt of the one that was put to death in her womb. It seems that the church is the only place left to turn, and so she keeps her babies warm and gazes in.

A man, Ryan, stands there stamping his feet. He’s cold, but he’s used to it, because he doesn’t have a home. Yes, he’s made some mistakes, he’s squandered opportunities, some could say that this situation is his own fault. And he would probably agree. But now he is at rock bottom, aware that in this cold, he probably won’t make it through the night. His pride is strong, but he is ready to ask for help, and maybe his heart is open, too, to hear of the One who had no place to lay His head.

Finally, there is Georgia. She’s elderly, widowed, lives by herself, surviving only on the little that comes each month from the government. She heats her house with two little space-heaters, because she cannot afford to run her furnace. She doesn’t have nearly enough warm clothes or blankets, so she goes around with a perpetual chill, a chill that she knows will one day take her life. She used to be a churchgoer, and now here, in her most desperate hour, she has come back, she is hungry for Christ and His gifts once again.

Four desperate, hungry faces look into the church, but no one looks out at them. The worshippers focus on Christ, as they should, but no thought is given to the world outside, to seeing Jesus in their neighbors. The preacher proclaims the love of Christ for all people, especially the poor and needy, and the people nod approvingly. They all put money for Lutheran World Relief in the offering plate this morning, they’ve done their part. Then, after the closing hymn is sung, they shuffle out to their cars. Longing faces greet them, but they take little notice. Their sole concern is to get home and relax. Even the preacher looks past them as he locks up the church; Sunday mornings are exhausting, and he has lunch and a nap on his mind. When all the people are gone, back to warm homes and warm meals, the church is dark and desolate, but to the needy gathered at its windows, it has always been dark. Yes, there was light in that warm sanctuary, but it never escaped into the world outside, it never touched the darkness of their lives.

Crushed and disappointed, the needy begin to disperse. But then John sees the steeple rising on the north side of town, and without a word, he points the way. After a long, cold walk, they are gathered around Second Lutheran Church, once again gazing through the windows. The scene is much the same. The congregation is warm, but not too warm; many of the parishioners are still wearing coats. The hymn is the same, and the gathered needy hear once again of the redeeming Light which from the cross ever beameth. Somehow, at this church, they see the reality of those words; the light does seem to flow from the crucifix into the sanctuary, and then from the sanctuary into the world. The Light shines on their faces, and despite the cold, they feel the warmth of Christ’s love.

The door opens and out comes a man. He walks directly to Georgia, standing at the first window. She expects to be shooed away, but instead the man takes off his warm jacket and puts it on her shoulders. Then he leads her inside. They chat briefly in the warmth of the narthex; he will help her apply for heating assistance, and in the meanwhile the church has a number of quilts and sweaters that will keep her warm. He invites her to join his family for the rest of the service, and with a smile and some tears, she agrees.

The sermon is half-way over when a woman emerges and approaches Ryan. She invites him in, but Ryan isn’t quite ready to step foot in a church, and so they talk in the cold. She tells him that the church isn’t as warm because part of the budget goes to a fund for housing assistance; on Monday, they will help him get into some low-income housing, and for tonight, her husband will drive him to a shelter. The rest is up to him, but the church is willing and able to give him a fresh start. She offers once again to bring him inside, but he says he’ll wait for her in the cold.

One of the elders, fresh from collecting the offering, is the next to step outside. He comes to Andrea and her two children and ushers them inside. In the bible study room, she is told about the mobile food pantry that the congregation helps to sponsor, but in the meanwhile, he gives her a voucher that can be spent at the grocery store. Then he tells her about Sunday School, and she shuffles into the sanctuary to observe, somewhat awkwardly, the communion liturgy.

After the service it is the pastor who finds John, having skipped the usual routine of shaking hands. They talk, the pastor in his robes, and John in his blue jeans, about guilt and addiction, and about the Jesus who sets the prisoners free. They will talk again; John wants out from bondage, and the pastor wants to help him. The pastor returns into the building, and there he meets Andrea. She wants to talk to him privately. They go to his office, and she collapses, sobbing about the child she didn’t allow to live. This pastor has the privilege of placing his hand on her trembling head and declaring, “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.”

When all have left, the church is as dark as it was before anyone arrived that morning, but to the poor and needy of this community, it is a constant beacon of Light, shining the love of Christ into the darkness of their lives. The Light flows from this sanctuary into the world outside in a thousand different ways, carried by Christians who practice their faith as much outside the building as inside it. They can’t help it; Christ has shown them such great love and mercy within that sanctuary every Sunday morning that they can’t keep it to themselves. He has forgiven their sins, He has fed them with His Body and Blood, and now what else can they do but in joy take that love into the world?

A town has two churches, the same in almost every way. They have the same Lord, the same faith, the same Baptism. They have been shown the same love, given the same forgiveness. Neither church has earned such grace; even the congregation that showed such love has not contributed one bit toward their own salvation. Jesus declared, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” The righteousness that enters the kingdom of heaven is perfect righteousness, the righteousness of Christ applied to those who believe in His perfect life, death, and resurrection for their sake. No amount of good deeds can ever outweigh the sin; man could never earn salvation for himself, and so God Himself took our human flesh to achieve it. He died for you, he died for me, he died for all.

A town has two churches; both are called by God to repentance and faith, both are called by God to remember that while good works do not earn salvation in any way, faith without works is dead, worship without love is empty. The Church is salty, the Church is light, because the Church is forgiven. [Repeat] The love and care of the neighbor in need doesn’t earn forgiveness, it flows from that forgiveness into a world in desperate need of the love that the Church has in abundance. This love is given to you, it is given to me, it is given to the world; it is for all men. In the name of Jesus, Amen.

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Purification of Mary and the Presentation of our Lord

“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon on this feast of the Purification of Mary and the Presentation of our Lord comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the second chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ: look into the temple, gaze at its sacred environs, consecrated, set apart as the place where God meets man. What do you see? You see hundreds of people gathered; peasants and princes, priests and paupers. You see animals; lambs and bulls, doves and pigeons. Your ears are assaulted by the bleating of the sheep, the bellowing of cattle; they can smell death, they know what is coming. Your nose is attacked by the stench of burning flesh; sacrifices placed on the altar, offered as a burnt offering to the Lord. And you see blood; rivers of blood, flowing from the bodies of slaughtered animals, flowing out of the temple and into the valley below. Blood on the robes of the priests, blood sprinkled on the altar, blood staining the pavement. What you see is the worship life of Israel; for thirteen hundred years the blood has flowed first from the tabernacle and now from the temple.

What you see is the price of sin. You see the cost that God required of His people; the blood of animals flowed as a substitute for their own blood. You see the price of transgression, flowing like a river from the temple, and you see live and in color what God thinks of sin and unholiness. You see that you have far been too casual about your sin. If you had to watch an animal die because you had rebelled against God, perhaps it would make you think twice about speaking those harsh words, looking at that website, or cheating your neighbor. It’s supposed to be your blood, but in grace God provides with the blood of another. Sin isn’t pardoned without blood. See the animals lined up to die; see the priests carrying the knives. If you had to stand beside a river of blood, maybe you would understand that lust, anger, and coveting aren’t just thoughts in your mind, they are offenses against God. You see the cost of your sin, and you shudder—it is nauseating to see the result of your transgressions, flowing out of the gates of the temple.

You see crowds of people who have been trained by a lifetime of sacrifices to understand the cost of sin. They are leading animals; sacrifices purchased with what money they have, animals purchased for the sole purpose of being put to death. In the crowd, you see a young couple, carrying a baby and two birds. They bring the offering of a poor mother; she was supposed to bring a lamb, but in Leviticus God allows the poor to bring “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” She has come to be purified from her ceremonial uncleanness forty days after the birth of her son, as God has commanded her through Moses. Two pure white birds will substitute for her uncleanness; they will be put to death so that she can be brought back into the full religious life of her people. And she brings her son, to dedicate him to the Lord, “as it is written in the Law of the Lord, ‘Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord.’”

You see two people placing themselves in obedience under the Law. You see Mary, the virgin mother, who conceived through the powerful working of the Word of God. She is a faithful believer, and obedient to God’s Law, she offers the sacrifice. She places herself under the Law. She does the same for her Son. You see Jesus, the child born to the song of angels. You see Jesus, who the angel Gabriel says “will be called Holy—the Son of God.” You see this infant, who is greater than Moses, who spoke the words of the Law into his ear, being placed under that same Law, being presented in obedience with the command. There is only one human being in the history of the world that was not subject to the Law’s demands, and you watch as He is put under its authority.

The obedience of mother and child is a sharp contrast to your disobedience. You see the faithfulness of Mary, the humble submission of her Son, and you see as in a mirror your own rebellion. He over whom the Law had no authority was obedient to it; you over whom the Law has every right to demand everything, even your own life, live in revolt against it, refusing to see the consequences. This little child puts you to shame. In His faithfulness, you see your unfaithfulness, your chasing after other gods and other priorities. In His humility, you see your pride, arrogantly thinking you can live in sin without consequences. In His holiness, you see your impurity, as you have soiled yourself with the filth of a life lived in one transgression after another.

You look at this child and you see everything that you are not. But still, He is there, in the temple, being placed under the Law. Look closer into the face of this child. Yes, He is pure, yes He is holy, yes He is truly God, the Son of the Most High. But He is also Mary’s Son. Look at the virgin-born: is He not also true man? Yes! He is like you in every way, except without the stain of sin. The same organs, the same tissue, the same blood. This child breathes the same air, eats the same food, needs naps and nightly rest like the rest of us. You see the One who was “made like His brothers in every respect.” The Christ child is a child; the infant Jesus is an infant. He is true man, born of the virgin Mary, true man from the moment of conception; He passes through every stage that we did, from zygote to embryo to baby. He is like you in every respect, except without sin.

He who is pure is placed under the Law of sinners. He, the only human being not subject to the Law, is presented on the fortieth day in obedience with it. You look at this child in the arms of His mother, and you see your substitute. He who is like you in every respect stands in your place, the sinless One in the place of sinners, in the place of you. The Law had authority over you; you watch as He is placed under its authority in your place. You watch as He is placed under its penalty in your place. What is that penalty? You only need to turn your eyes away from the child and back to the organized chaos of the temple to remember the answer. What do you see? Blood.

Fast forward thirty years. You watch as the child Jesus, placed under the Law in your stead, grows in obedience to that Law, resisting every temptation, living the life that you could not, living a perfect life in your place. Now look upon the holy city Jerusalem once again, but not to the temple. There is a new place of sacrifice. Look at Golgotha, gaze at its cursed environs, consecrated, set apart as the place where man puts man to death. What do you see? You see a crowd of people gathered; peasants and princes, priests and paupers. You see three men, nailed to the wood of their crosses. Your ears are assaulted by the cries of the suffering, the insults of the crowd; they can smell death, they know what is coming. Your nose is attacked by the stench of death; a man nailed to the cross, offered as the innocent One in the place of sinners. The Law, which placed Him under the sentence of death on His fortieth day, is now carrying out this sentence. And you see blood; rivers of blood, flowing from the body of Christ, flowing down the cross and into the valley below. Blood on the garments of the soldiers, blood sprinkled on the dirt, blood staining the wood of the cross. What you see is the worship life of Israel coming to its fulfillment; for thirteen hundred years the blood has flowed first from the tabernacle and then from the temple, and now it flows from the hands, feet, head and side of Jesus. It flows for you; this Jesus who lived in your place also died in your place.

“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death He might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.”

On February 2nd, the world just sees a child, carried in the arms of his dirt-poor mother. On Good Friday, the world just sees a man, hanging upon a cross, maybe innocent, maybe guilty, but who really cares? People die every day. Perhaps the same number of people watched the presentation of Jesus as saw His crucifixion. To most of them, He was simply another person; but not to Simeon. You see an old man run to the poor mother and father, wild joy in His face. You see Mary’s expression of shock and even fear as he takes the child into his arms. But then he says, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

With the eyes of faith, Simeon sees what you see in the face of this child: this is the salvation long-prepared, for Jew and Gentile. He doesn’t look to heaven when He says, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,” he is looking into the eyes of a forty-day old baby. For this child, true man, born of the virgin Mary, is also true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and He is truly Simeon’s Lord. Look at this child, and what do you see? Your Lord. Look at the cross, and what do you see? Your victory. His holiness substituted for your impurity; His perfect life substituted for your sin; His death under God’s wrath substituted for the penalty you deserved. Where do you find salvation? In the flesh of Jesus; only as true man could He stand as our substitute. You cannot grasp God for your good unless He is grasped in creaturely forms. The deeper you submerge Jesus in the flesh, the better it is for you. That is why you eat of His Body and drink of His Blood in the Lord’s Supper; that is why you leave the table singing these words: “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace…my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all people.” Your eyes have seen His salvation; at the temple on the fortieth day, at the cross on Good Friday, and at the table on the Lord’s Day. Depart in peace, according to His Word, Amen.