Thursday, October 30, 2014

Reformation (Romans 3:19-28)

“There is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is 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 this evening comes from the Epistle lesson read a few moments ago from the third chapter of Paul’s letter to the Church of God in Rome. Dear friends in Christ, the medieval church was noisy. You heard the sound of prayers and masses, offered to God and to the saints, seeking favor, seeking protection, seeking merit. You heard the voice of the indulgence preacher, marketing his wares, offering deliverance from purgatory for a few coins. In Rome, the monk Martin Luther heard the sound of hundreds of pilgrims climbing the stairs, saying ‘Our Fathers’ and ‘Hail Marys’ on every step. And you heard people constantly chattering, to each other and to their God, telling all who would hear about what they have done for their Creator. That is what you must do, if you believe that you are justified, made right before God by what you do. The heart that believes it is justified by works is always talking, always telling God what it has done, always making comparisons, contrasting itself with those around it. Any sinner can look better when he finds someone more wicked than himself.

You and I are little different; we are as noisy as a flock of blackbirds, chattering to God, chattering to each other. We make comparisons, we make distinctions, between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ between we ‘good church people’ and the ones who dwell outside of these walls. We love to compare ourselves to others, especially when the comparison shows that we are the saint, when we are given the opportunity to show that someone else is the sinner. Sure, I’m not perfect, but I’m certainly not as bad as her! In pride, we brag about our good deeds, we bring them before others, we hold them up before God, hoping that He will be pleased. Our comfort at the time of death is ‘I’ve lived a good life,’ something we need to tell ourselves constantly so that we just might believe it.

God hears our chatter, our boasting, our distinctions, and He has one thing to say: Be quiet! Be quiet. “Now we know that whatever the Law says it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.” The Law of God stops all this foolish chatter; it silences mouths that love to run down others and exalt themselves. Be quiet! Quit boasting in your works; the Law declares that no good work is good enough to overcome sin. “By works of the Law no human being will be justified in His sight, since through the Law comes knowledge of sin.” You thought that the Law could justify you, that it was the path to bring you to God. But that was a false, misleading dream. The Law can never bring you near to your Creator, because you cannot keep it. Through the Law comes knowledge of sin; the Law is meant to condemn you, to proclaim the opposite message: there is no distinction, all flesh stands condemned, separated from God forever.

You and I chatter to God and man, making distinctions, making comparisons, thinking that somehow our Creator is working with a sliding scale, that we can justify ourselves in His sight. God speaks in His Law, making no distinction, condemning all. “Now we know that whatever the Law says it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.” Every mouth is stopped. The whole world stands accountable to God. That is the truth that the thunder of God’s Law declares. You are not good enough for God; you are not holy enough, you are not righteous enough, you are not perfect enough. You are unworthy of your Creator, no matter how much worse your neighbor appears, his condemnation is your condemnation. Be quiet. Shut your mouth. Quit chattering, quit talking, and listen. God’s Law demands absolute perfection, each and every day, and you have fallen far, far short. You are a sinner, and you are accountable to God for that sin.

You have no defense, the Law has stripped away every excuse, every apology, every attempt at self-justification. When the Law speaks in all of its fury, we have no choice but to shut our mouths. What can we say? Martin Luther declares in the Smalcald Articles: “This, then, is the thunderbolt by means of which God with one blow destroys both open sinners and false saints. He allows no one to justify himself. He drives all together into terror and despair.” We cannot speak, for all of our chattering, all of our distinctions are no good. God doesn’t care that you are a ‘better person’ than the one sitting next to you tonight; when He looks at this world, all He sees is sinners, sinners accountable to Him, sinners who could never pay their debt.

He sees sinners that He, He alone, can deliver, that He has promised to deliver, that He has delivered. “There is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith.” God makes no distinctions; all stand condemned under His Law, and all are justified, declared righteous, right with Him, solely by His grace, through the blood of Jesus Christ. On the cross, God justifies Himself by justifying you. “This was to show God’s righteousness, because in His divine forbearance He had passed over former sins. It was to show His righteousness at the present time, so that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” A God of justice couldn’t simply ignore sin; the Law’s deserved wrath must be poured out. But for centuries, His wrath didn’t come. Even today, many blame God for the existence of unpunished evil. But God is not unjust; His wrath against sin would be poured out, in His time, and upon one man: your substitute, God in the flesh, His own Son, Jesus Christ.

Christ suffered the very anguish of hell; every ounce of wrath earned by the sin of the world was poured out upon Him. On the cross, Jesus suffered for your sins, so that their price is no longer demanded from you; He suffered your punishment, so that you will never feel it. You stand condemned under the Law, but the Law is not God’s final Word, just as the cross was not the end for Christ, so condemnation is not your end. He is risen, and you are delivered, justified, declared righteous before Him, solely through Christ. The Law silences you so that you hear the Gospel and rejoice!

The most important paragraph in the Lutheran Confessions, Article Four of the Augsburg Confession, mercifully brings to an end all the chattering of the medieval church: “It is also taught among us that we cannot obtain forgiveness of sins and righteousness before God on our own merits, works, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith, when we believe that Christ suffered for us and that for His sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us. For God will regard and reckon this faith as righteousness.” The Law demands that we be quiet, for all stand condemned under it; the Gospel invites us to be silent, because there is nothing that we need to say, nothing that we need to do. We believe that Christ has done it all for us, and it is ours. It is a gift, we do not earn it; a gift won upon the cross by your substitute, and given to you in the Word, in Holy Baptism, in His Body and Blood in the Lord’s Supper. You are no longer condemned, you are righteous!

As the Apology to the Augsburg Confession declares, “When frightened consciences are consoled by faith and believe that our sins are blotted out by Christ’s death and that God has been reconciled to us because of Christ’s suffering, then indeed Christ’s suffering benefits us.” Christ suffered for you, He has brought the benefits of that suffering near to you in His Word and Holy Sacraments, and you are justified by faith, the faith created by the Holy Spirit in those very means. He has done everything needed to quiet your conscience, a conscience that stood in terror under God’s Law. As Saint Paul says, “Now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the Law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”

The Reformation church is noisy. You hear the sound of the Gospel, freely proclaimed to the entire world. You hear the songs of the saints, trumpeting forth the wonderful good news of God’s free grace on account of Christ. You hear the Divine Service, bringing salvation near to human ears and lips each and every Lord’s Day. The church of the Reformation, the Lutheran Church, cannot keep from chattering, speaking the beautiful message of the Gospel to sinners in desperate need of it. We have a treasure we can’t help but share. The Lutheran Church exists, and the Lutheran Confessions were written to bring comfort to stricken sinners, to those who were living under the Law and all of its demands. Paul declares, “We hold that one is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law.” The Confessions echo: “Faith alone makes a righteous man out of an unrighteous one, that is, that it receives the forgiveness of sins.”

Therefore, the Reformation is for everyone; the Lutheran Church isn’t a German phenomenon, any more than Luther is simply a German cultural icon. The Lutheran Church is for all people because the message she proclaims is for all people. “There is no distinction: for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” It is that glorious Gospel message that we celebrate on Reformation Day, because that message is for every person on this planet, even you, even me. In the Name of Jesus, who stood in your place under the wrath of God, by whose shed blood you are declared righteous, Amen.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Third Week of Spiritual Renewal for Capital Campaign (Hebrews 10:19-25)

“We have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that He opened for us through the curtain, that is, His flesh.” 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, this third week of spiritual renewal for our capital campaign, comes from the tenth chapter of the letter to the Hebrews. Dear friends in Christ, in the temple hung a curtain. This curtain divided what was holy from what was not; it divided the people of God from the holiness of their God. It hung there to shield God’s people, to defend them, to keep them from holiness so pure that it was a terror to sinful man. The curtain proclaimed one message: God is holy—you are not! But man should’ve had no need of a curtain to tell him that; the curtain is only the necessary consequence of that truth, a truth that has stood since our first parents grasped after holiness on their own terms, and found only corruption. 

God is holy—you are not! He is pure love, pure righteousness, pure justice. You are a child of Adam and Eve, corrupted and divided from God at the moment of your conception by the sin you inherited from them. You are filled with hatred and anger, you have soiled yourself with the thoughts and deeds of darkness, you have treated others as you wish no one would treat you, you have destroyed reputations by words and actions. Even if no curtain ever hung in Jerusalem, a curtain still stands between you and your God; between His holiness and your impurity. In your sin, you can only approach Him in terror; you have no access to His holy places, and when the unclean and unholy approach the holy God on the Last Day, that holiness is a consuming fire—for eternity.

There had to be a curtain in the temple, there had to be a divide, because that was reality, that was the truth. That is what the Law in all of its severity, all of its sternness was meant to teach the people: God is holy—you are not! And as long as that curtain hung, the people of God knew that unless someone intervened, a curtain would stand between them and their Creator for eternity. The blood of bulls and goats entered within the veil, but they knew it was not enough. That curtain still stood, blocking them from their God; preventing entrance into the holy places. Someone needed to tear it down, or we would be divided from God for eternity, and someone did.

“Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up His spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split.” At the moment of His death, as Jesus was at the pinnacle of His humility, His abandonment by His Father, as He gave up His dying breath, the temple curtain was torn in two. At that moment, with the Son of God hanging dead upon the cross, the barrier between God and man, between your impurity and His holiness, was destroyed. Christ has put Himself between God and man; through His flesh we are finally brought near to our Creator. “We have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that He opened for us through the curtain, that is, through His flesh.”

The former priesthood could never fully atone; they entered behind the curtain, but the curtain continued to stand. Nothing that sinful man did could remove that barrier. What Paul called the ‘dividing wall of hostility’ still stood. That is, until Jesus came. Christ Jesus came to shed His blood, His holy, precious blood; the price of the Lamb without stain, the blood of the man who is also God, the only price that would suffice. He came to tear down every barrier between creature and Creator by paying the price for your sin, ripping down the curtain and all that it proclaimed. He came not just to show you the way to God, but to be Himself that way, and to bring you through it.

He tore that curtain in two and then put Himself in its place, not to divide you from God, but to bring you near. No doubt, within days of Good Friday, the religious officials hung another curtain in the temple, but it no longer reflected reality. The great High Priest had done what the former priesthood could never do; Jesus had destroyed the division between God and man, between you and the God who created you, by offering the sacrifice of His own flesh and blood. The new curtain is His own flesh, and you are brought through it to the holy places, you have access to your holy God by the forgiveness of your sins. What the former priesthood could never do Christ has done, and the people of God rejoice. “We have a great High Priest over the house of God,” the author to the Hebrews joyously proclaims, a great High Priest that offered Himself as the sacrifice.

Therefore, since we have such a great High Priest, since we have been given access to the holy places of God through His shed blood, let us draw near. “Let us draw near with a true heart in the full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” Let us draw near, for Christ has brought us near through His death. Let us draw near, for our hearts have been sprinkled clean by the blood of Christ in the waters of Holy Baptism, our bodies have been washed with pure water, the water joined with God’s holy and precious Word. The doorposts and lintels of your heart are marked with the blood of the Lamb. You are holy, your sins are forgiven, for you are the baptized, and you are brought near to God our Father. And that, dear friends in Christ, is what the Church is all about.

Here in this place, the curtain is torn, and you draw near to God’s holiness through the blood of Jesus. Come boldly, come with confidence, not in yourself, but in Christ, whose shed blood has been sprinkled upon you, in whose living stream you have washed your robes and made them white. Here your sins are forgiven, here the holy God comes to you through the flesh and shed blood of His Son. Let us draw near to this altar, for here the catechized are given the very Body and Blood of their Savior. The same Blood shed to give you access to your God is given to you to partake of in this feast. Heaven is open to you, God Himself touches your lips with Himself, giving to you all He won on the cross. Such contact with the divine held only terror to those separated by the curtain, but for you, who have been sprinkled clean from an evil conscience, whose body has been washed with pure water, this is pure joy, this is something worth telling the world about.

And so the author to the Hebrews exhorts us to speak: “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.” Let us cling to the confession of Christ without wavering, because only through Christ do we have access to the holy things of God, and only through His Blood, given and shed on Calvary’s cross, and given and distributed in the Lord’s Supper. Let us refuse to give up that confession, no matter what the world does to us, let us be willing to die for it, for this confession conquers the world, this confession gives life. Let us confess to and against the world that salvation was won for us upon the cross and is given to us in the means of grace, that the Word, Holy Baptism, and the Sacrament of the Altar give us access to God that is found nowhere else. Let us confess boldly what the Supper is; not some mere memorial of an absent Christ, but the opening of heaven, the incarnate Christ touching our lips with the same Body that hung upon the tree, the same Blood shed there to tear down the curtain that stood between God and man. Let us confess that in this Sacrament is given forgiveness of sins, life and salvation, that this is the very medicine of immortality, the feast that is access to God and that gives access to God.

And let us exhort our fellow saints to partake of it. “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Let us encourage both children and adults to be catechized and come to the table; let us exhort those who are catechized to come eat and drink. Let us stir one another up, let us be troublemakers, let us bother others, let us be the ones to ask about church attendance and the use of the means of grace, not out of a spiteful spirit, but in concern for our brothers and sisters, and always in love. Those who stay away from the means of grace are trying to walk in the desert without any water, and they are forsaking their fellow believers who are struggling on their own pilgrimage. We are not individuals, we are part of a body, the Body of Christ, that receives the Body and Blood of Christ in the Supper.

There is no renewal in the Church without a renewal of the Lord’s Supper. It is not worth pursuing a capital campaign, or any other effort in the Church, without a renewal of the use of the means of grace, without a renewal of the Sacrament of the Altar. The Supper is the center of the Church’s life, as week after week the incarnate Son of God touches the lips of the saints for the forgiveness of their sins. Here the body of Christ in this place comes together in unity around one table, and the Lord knows what strength comes from gathering together around His gifts. Let us stir up ourselves, let us stir up one another, to partake of Christ’s gifts, for the means of grace take us through the curtain of Christ’s flesh into the holy places of God on that final, triumphant Day.

On that Day, this body that was washed by the water and the Word, that was fed by Christ’s Body and Blood, will be raised, and you will draw near to God’s holiness forever. The Sacrament of the Altar is food for the journey, the journey from Baptism, where you were sprinkled clean by the blood of Christ and washed with pure water, to the Day when your Baptism is completed at the return of Christ. On that Day, you will draw near with boldness, because you enter through Christ, the new and living curtain, who shed His blood to tear down the old curtain, to destroy the dividing wall of hostility, to bring you to your God. God is holy—so are you, through Christ. In the Name of Jesus, our great high priest who offered the sacrifice of Himself, once for all sin, once for all sinners, Amen.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Farewell Sermon (Philippians)

Chris, a pastor, a servant of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Kiron and Deloit: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God whenever I think of you, always praying for you with joy, because of your partnership in the Gospel from the day that I arrived until now. And I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you on the day of your baptism will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ, whether I stand in this pulpit or not. It is Christ’s Church, not mine, and He is the One who gives the growth. What else could I hope for you, because I hold you in my heart, and you are all partakers with me of grace? We have labored sided by side in this corner of Christ’s vineyard, and you have shown me overwhelming welcome, care, and encouragement. God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. And it is my prayer that your love for each other and for Christ may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.

I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that this decision was not made lightly. How could I serve among the saints of Christ in this place, rejoicing when you rejoice, suffering when you suffer, and mourning when you mourn, and simply leave without another thought? It has been my task, my honor and privilege, to be with you in some of the darkest hours of your life, to bring you the light of Christ when there was no other light. And it has been my great joy to feed you with Christ’s Word and His precious Sacrament week after week, sustaining you on your journey and encouraging you to stand firm. Despite all the challenges that we faced together, the last four years have been a joy, and I’ve been encouraged to see so many of you grow in your faith in Christ. My love for you is what made the last two months agonizing, as we struggled to decide whether to walk through the doors Christ had opened for us. But I do not leave you alone; pastors may take calls, but Christ never leaves—He simply changes masks; you will have another faithful man come here to continue the work. It is His Church. And we know as Christians that we are never truly absent from one another; we are united as one in the body of Christ, and we know that we will see each other again, either on this earth, in the outward fellowship of the Church, or in eternity, as we join with all the saints before the Lamb in His Kingdom.

Until that day, let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This world is becoming more and more hostile to the faith that you hold, and it may be granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in Him but also suffer for His sake, engaged in the same conflict that you see happening to your brothers and sisters around the world.

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Live in unity with one another, for you are children of the same God, you are redeemed by the same Savior. What have you to be prideful of, if everything you have is a gift? Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. As I’ve preached to you time and time again, place the needs of others ahead of your own. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, “though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always clung to Christ, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, serve your neighbor and keep the faith not with vainglory and boasting, but with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Do all things without the grumbling or quarreling that destroys joy, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world. Stand out from those around you, as light stands out in the darkness, as the straight stands out next to the crooked. Hold fast to the Word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may know that I did not run in vain or labor in vain in your midst. Do not let these four years of labor be in vain! Cling to the faith that has been given to you; support one another in unity, that none of those in your fellowship, especially the youth, may fall away. Even if you are to be poured out as a sacrificial offering because of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all, because you are baptized in the Name of Jesus, who humbled Himself to deliver you from sin, death, and the power of the devil. This world cannot destroy your joy because it cannot destroy you; you belong to Christ, who conquered death.

Next week, Pastor Mahnken will be sent to St. John’s, so that I too may be cheered by news of you. For I know no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. For so many seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. But you know Pastor Mahnken’s proven worth, how he has served with me in the Gospel, and has mentored a young pastor as he tried to find his way. At Faith Pastor Fritz, my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, is sent to you. I was excited to hear that he will fill the vacancy, and with these men serving you, I am less anxious. Receive them in the Lord with all joy, receive them as you received me, and honor such men, for they are servants of God in your midst, here to distribute the very gifts of Christ, as I did these past years.

Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord. Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who would lead you astray, that would steal your joy by fixing your eyes on the things of this world. We are not of this world, we are Christians, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh. In fact, whatever we gain in this world, we count as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, we count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing else matters; in Christ we find joy. For His sake we have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that we may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of our own, but that which comes as a gift through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that we may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and may share His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, that through Him we will attain the resurrection from the dead.

Not that we have already obtained this or are already perfect, but we press on to make it our own, because Christ Jesus has made us His own. Dear friends in Christ, we do not consider that we have made it our own. But one thing we do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, we fix our eyes on the things that are above, on the things of Christ. Brothers and sisters, join in imitating the saints; keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you are given in the Scriptures. For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. They want to rob you of your faith. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But your citizenship is in heaven, and from it you await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform your lowly body to be like His glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to Himself. There is resurrection in your future. Therefore, my friends, whom I love and will miss dearly, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. You have a treasure this world cannot take away. The Lord is at hand, He is coming soon; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving call upon the God who promises to hear you. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, dear friends, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things, fill your mind with them. What you have learned and received and heard in the Scriptures—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

I am humbled that I had the opportunity to serve as your pastor; I, a poor, miserable sinner, am not worthy of this office, yet you invited me into your lives, and I pray that I showed you Christ, not myself. Thank you for the care and compassion you showed to me and my family, for all that you have done to provide for our needs. And now, I know that the Lord will supply your every need according to his riches in Christ Jesus. He who has given up His own life for His bride will certainly care for her until that glorious Day when He brings her to Himself forever. Until that day, we say with Saint Paul, “In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” You can do all things, even say goodbye to a pastor, through Christ. It is His Church, and she endures, to the very end. To our God and Father be glory forever and ever, Amen. Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, Amen.