Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Christmas Eve (Luke 2:1-20)

“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” 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 Christmas Eve 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: O holy night, the stars are brightly shining, and in his palace in Rome, Caesar Augustus sleeps the contented sleep of the powerful. Even now, he knows that thousands, maybe millions of people are moving, traveling in obedience to his word. “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” Caesar sets out to register all the world, for, dwelling amongst the splendor of Rome, he believes that he rules all the world. And he does, except for most of Asia, most of Africa, all of North America, all of South America, and Antarctica. But who wants Antarctica anyway? To Caesar, the world lives and dies under Rome. This arrogance is typical of the powerful; I’ve seen Washington D.C., I’ve seen the monuments that we have erected to our country and its founders, monuments that look, oddly enough, like temples. The people of Rome worshipped the Caesars; we too have our own nation-worship, with its high feast days and saints, its pilgrimage sites and sacred texts.

But Mary and Joseph refuse to participate; they do not worship the Caesars, they do not look to them as the final authority. They do not pay homage to secular monuments built like Greek temples; they hold to one sacred text, and it is not the U.S. Constitution. They do not owe Caesar worship, and they knew it, but they do owe him obedience. “Honor your father and your mother,” Paul points out, is the first commandment with a promise, “that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” Joseph doesn’t take Mary to the mountains to hide, he doesn’t refuse to travel to Bethlehem, he doesn’t join the many who violently resisted the census. No, in obedience to God he was obedient to Caesar. “And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David.” If anyone had a reason to rebel against Rome, it was someone from the kingly line of David. But if anyone knew that obedience to God meant obedience to the one whom God sets in authority over you, it was a descendent of the man after God’s own heart. Joseph would never offer sacrifice to Caesar, but he will obey this decree; he will go to Bethlehem.

Their journey is insignificant to the extreme; had Caesar been told of it, he would’ve considered it beyond his notice, except that it served as a magnificent example of how the world moved when he spoke a word. It almost seems to be a joke that we are even talking about Mary and Joseph two thousand years later; how many others traveled to their hometowns at the whim of Caesar, and are lost to history? Caesar knows nothing about angel visitations, or a child conceived in a virgin womb. No angel appeared to him, no messenger came from God to instruct him. Not that Caesar would’ve listened; in the halls of power, the only voice that mattered was his own. But Caesar was just a pawn. Not a king, not even a rook, but a pawn. The most powerful man in the world, who set out to register the “all the world,” was simply a small piece in a drama that he knew nothing about. The main event was not in the halls of power in Rome, it was in the womb of that virgin traveling to Bethlehem.

“And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn Son and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths and laid Him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” Your eyes couldn’t tell you the story that night; the best they could give you was a story of poverty, of displaced refugees. All your eyes see is the story of a small town overwhelmed by an unplanned family reunion; no guestroom available, only a manger. And then, finally, all your eyes see is a baby. There isn’t much you can say about this baby; a baby is a baby, adorable, loved by His parents and completely helpless. Surely there were other babies in Bethlehem that night, maybe even born that night. What was special about this baby you cannot know by looking, only by hearing. Caesar in Rome didn’t know; he wasn’t told. The people of Bethlehem didn’t know; they slept through that holy night. The priests and Pharisees didn’t know; they failed to keep watch. The only ones who knew were those who were told, and God chose to tell shepherds about the birth of His Son. “And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

Shepherds are told about the birth of this child, for this child will grow up to be a shepherd, the Good Shepherd, who leads His flock to green pastures and quiet waters, the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep. He comes as our Savior, our Savior from sin, death, and the power of the devil. He comes as the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed One, appointed to bear your sin to the cross. And He comes as the Lord, God in the flesh, Immanuel, God with us. He comes for all people. Caesar thought with arrogance that his decree would register all the world; Christ comes to bring forgiveness, life, and salvation to all the world, to all people of every time and place. Caesar’s census could only register those living under his rule at that time; Christ’s salvation goes forth to all people, of every tribe, nation, language, and century, even to you, even to me. “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Unto you this child is born; He is yours, He is for you. This child is God’s gift to you, yes you, living thousands of years and thousands of miles away from the first Christmas. This child is for you, to take away your sins by bearing them to the cross, to give you eternal life by rising in victory over the grave. This child is for you because He will live a perfect life in your place, die under God’s wrath in your place, and rise again in victory as the firstfruits from the dead. He is for you; He is for all. No one is forgotten, no matter how insignificant; Christ died and rose again for all. He is the Good Shepherd that lays down His life for the sheep, all the sheep. His Word has a power and scope that the Caesars could only dream of; at His Word, sins are forgiven and death is destroyed.

Caesar Augustus had his glory; at his word, nations moved, by his command, armies conquered, and the architectural wonders of Rome testified to his greatness. But those magnificent buildings now lie in ruins. Impressive ruins, to be sure, but ruins just the same. And it is utter foolishness and arrogance for us to believe that our monuments will escape the same fate. The glory of this world, no matter how great, cannot escape decay and destruction. Only Christ’s glory will endure though all else pass away, and the shepherds are sent to see it, wrapped in humility. They are not told to go to Rome, they are not sent to the temple; the angels send them to a feeding trough. “This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” Caesar’s glory stands out all the more next to the Christ Child’s humility, but appearances are deceiving. Through humility this Child will have glory that will last far beyond that of Caesar or any other man. The humility of the manger will lead to the humility of the cross, and a grave with sinners, but on the other side of the cross is the very glory of the right hand of the throne of God, from whence He will return on the Last Day to raise you and all the dead, giving that same glory to you and all believers in Christ. All this is hidden in a manger, wrapped in swaddling cloths; your eyes cannot tell you the truth, only your ears, listening to the voice of the angels.

This is God in the flesh come to save, as John Chrysostom preached on Christmas over sixteen hundred years ago: “For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His Spirit; and so He bestowing and I receiving, He prepares for me the treasure of Life. He takes my flesh, to sanctify me; He gives me His Spirit that He may save me. Come, then, let us observe the Feast. Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the Nativity. For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken, paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed from us, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused, and spreads on every side, a heavenly way of life has been planted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and men now hold speech with angels. Why is this? Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle. He became Flesh. He did not become God. He was God. Wherefore He became flesh, so that He Whom heaven did not contain, a manger would this day receive. He was placed in a manger, so that He, by whom all things arc nourished, may receive an infant’s food from His Virgin Mother.” What the shepherds see is a baby, a child, but more than that, a Savior, Christ the Lord. Heaven could not contain Him, but He located Himself in Mary’s womb, in a manger, upon a cross, in the Word and holy Sacraments, for you. This child is born unto you, He is born for you, just as He died for you, and He is risen for you. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!” Amen.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Third Sunday of Advent (Matthew 11:2-10)

“Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” 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 eleventh chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ: a Sunday morning worship service is one of the few remaining places in our society where you can find people from every walk of life gathered together. Think about it—we’ve divided and subdivided out society so much, we live in silos, isolated from people that are not like us. We socialize with those who have the same interest as us, who are the same age, who have the same social or economic status. We divide our children into grades, we put out elderly in nursing homes, we have different hangouts, even different stores, for those who are different from each other. Especially in a city, you don’t have to interact with people who aren’t like you if you don’t want to. But one of the few remaining places where all sorts of different people interact is where you are sitting at this very moment—a church sanctuary. Here, in this room, are rich and poor, high status and low status, infants, teenagers, adults and the elderly, all gathered together. In Sunday morning worship it doesn’t matter what your bank account says, it doesn’t matter whether you watch the Walking Dead or no TV at all; it doesn’t matter what your race, age, or gender is. All that matters is what you came here for.

But maybe that is the greatest difference of all. We are all here together, sharing the same room, interacting with one another, despite our difference, but are we here for the same reason? Jesus had watched the masses go out to John, the residents of a diverse city all running into the desert to see and hear this preacher. And now that John sits in prison, Jesus asks the question that is asked of you today: Why? “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?” Why are you here? What did you come to see? What drew this diverse group of people to Good Shepherd Lutheran Church this day? “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?” Did you come to seek a shaking reed, a flimsy plant that moves this way and that in the winds of this world? Did you come to this place, as many came to John, to have someone tell you what you want to hear, to have your itching ears scratched?

Did you come here today seeking affirmation, seeking to hear someone say that the sin you are living in is not really a big deal, that it doesn’t matter? Do you come here to present yourself before the altar of God in unrepentance, wanting the church to tell you God doesn’t care about how Christians live their lives? Your ears are itching to hear that what the rest of your body and mind is engaged in is not actually sinful; your ears want to receive the stamp of approval from the Church on how you choose to live your life. Your ears want to hear God’s black and white Word made into a nice shade of gray, they wish to hear that the teachings derived from the Scriptures are flexible, changeable, that they can move with the winds. They want to hear that this doctrine, or that command, is not really binding, that it doesn’t really matter. They know how the winds of this world blow, they know how unpopular the teachings of the Bible are, from Jesus as the only way to heaven to free will to the six-day creation, to greed and adultery, and they want to hear a flimsy reed tell them that it’s just fine to blow in the wind, that none of this really matters. What about you? Is that what you came to see?

Or did something else draw you? “What did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing?” Did you come here today because this church is your social club, the place where you gather with your friends, where you might meet that cute guy or girl you’ve been keeping your eye on? Did you come only because someone expected you to, so that you can fulfill your family obligations? Did you come here to keep up appearances, to make sure everyone considers you a Christian man or woman?

Or are you really interested in those fancy clothes? Did you come here today seeking prosperity, hoping to hear how the teachings of Christianity can give you a healthier body, a more robust bank account, or better kids? Did you come here today itching to hear how Christianity can make your life better, how you can have your best life now? Do you join with the masses on Sunday morning to collect some biblical principles to apply to your work, school, or relationships? Your ears are itching to hear how Christianity will benefit you in the here and now; they want to find out the secrets to having the job, the relationships, the life that you want. Your ears are seeking to know how to make God act and answer your prayers in the way that you want them answered. What did you come here to see? Did you come to see a man in a high-dollar suit, telling you how the Scriptures can make you as successful as he obviously is?

If that is what we came to see, we, like the people who ran from Jerusalem to the Jordan to see John, will be very disappointed. Jesus doesn’t think that we’ll find much in the way of fancy clothes when we go out to hear from those whom He has sent. “What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses.” John didn’t care much about clothes, or money, or power; he gave up everything to serve as the appointed messenger of the Lord. And it hasn’t changed much today, even if your pastors don’t take a vow of poverty. It doesn’t matter how much we paid for our suit; we cover it with a robe. No, this is not the place to have itching ears scratched; this is not the place to see soft clothing and hear how you can get some for yourself. Repent of all the sinful reasons for being in this place and learn from Jesus why we come here: “What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.” Did you come seeking a Word from God, spoken through His messengers? Did you come seeking a Word that calls you to repentance and then forgives all of your sin? Did you come to hear what God has to say to you this day, both Law and Gospel?

Why do you come here? What did you go out to see? You came seeking many different things, but what you see is a finger pointing to Jesus. That is what John was, and that is what the Church is, a finger pointing to Jesus, a voice speaking His Name. “This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’” As John prepared the way for Christ’s earthly ministry, so the Church prepares for Christ’s return in glory, speaking of Him, pointing to Him in the midst of your affliction. Are you trapped in the bondage of sin? Here the finger points to Jesus, who died for that sin and forgives it in this place through His powerful Word. Are you lonely, disconnected from others in this sin-sick world? Here the finger points to Jesus, who creates true fellowship through His common grace, fellowship that has its highest expression at the Lord’s Table, but also is found in the other activities in this congregation. Do you struggle under the sufferings of this life? Here the finger points to Jesus, who comforts you with His presence and the promise that the darkness will end and the Light will shine forth in glory when He returns.

What did you go out to see? More than a prophet? Yes, more than a prophet; in this place you hear from your Savior. You came to this sanctuary and you hear Jesus, speaking through His servants, speaking the Word that you desperately need to hear. You came and you hear Him say to you, sinner though you are, ‘I forgive you all you sins.’ You came and you hear Him say to you, ‘I died for you; I suffered all that your sins deserved in your place, that you would have a place in heaven.’ You came and you hear Him say to you, ‘I rose in victory on the third day that you would live even though you died, so that on the Last Day you will be raised as I was and you will live forever, as I do.’ You came here and you did not simply to hear that Jesus died and rose again, or even that He will return one day. You can read that in the Bible, or other books, at home. You came and this day you hear from a fellow human being, one sent by Christ to speak these very words, that Jesus died and rose again for you, and that He will come again in glory to raise you up in victory and give you a place in the New Heavens and the New Earth. That is why the messengers of the Lord cannot be reeds shaking in the wind; their task is to proclaim to you Jesus, consistently, constantly, and they are accountable to God for that work. Saint Paul says, “It is God who judges me.” Not the winds of man, not the opinions of others, but God Himself, who has sent Him, who has sent the Church, as He sent John the Baptist, to speak of Jesus.

The way of the Church isn’t to issue a survey, asking people what they want and then giving it to them. The Church gives to all people what they need. It seems we are not united in anything here: not in age, not in social or economic status, not in our interests and desires. We are not even united in why we walked through the doors this day. But we are united, we are one, in what we truly need and what Jesus desires to give in this place: Himself. We are united in that we are all sinners in need of mercy and grace from a loving God, and we are united in that God has shown us this mercy and grace in the death and resurrection of His Son. Rich or poor, young or old, we are all together sinners saved by Christ; we are all together those for whom Christ died. This is the rock-solid message that the Church is built upon, that the Church has the privilege to proclaim; she is not built upon the whims of men, she does not proclaim the satisfaction of wants and desires stained by sin. The Church is no flimsy reed, for she is built upon the Word which is immovable, though all else give way. “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” Thanks be to God, for it is this Word, and this Word alone, that gives us Jesus. In His Name, Amen.

Second Sunday of Advent (Malachi 4:1-6)

“But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.” 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 in Advent is the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the fourth chapter of the prophet Malachi, the last words of the Old Testament. Dear friends in Christ: Behold, the day is coming, it is coming soon. We live in the light that precedes the dawn, at that moment when the darkness seems the deepest and yet the light begins to brighten the eastern sky. You know that time, the moment where we are suddenly awakened and do not know if it is the middle of the night or the beginning of the day. We sit up in bed, confused, wondering if the night is spent or if it has barely begun. That is where we dwell in these gray and latter days, in darkness so deep that it seems that it will never end, but yet with a glimmer of hope on the horizon. The day is coming, it is coming soon. The sun is rising; when, we do not know, but we do know that it will rise. We live our lives in the strange interplay of hopeful light and deepest darkness that comes right before the dawn. At that moment, we can rightly ask: Is the night ending, or is the day beginning? It’s really all a matter of perspective. How do we see the approaching of day? Do we welcome the light, or do we fear it? Is the night ending, or is the day beginning?

For the arrogant, the prideful, those who had confidence in themselves, the night is ending; the darkness that they reveled in is coming to a swift end. “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming will set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.” They fear the coming of the day, they shudder from the very hint of light, from the rumor of sunrise, because God has warned them about the destruction that will come at dawn. They will be consumed, utterly destroyed, cursed forever. God will purge all evil from the land; nothing unclean, nothing wicked, will dwell in His perfect new creation, the land He promised to His people. The arrogant have no inheritance with Him, but will be cast into the fire, the fire that is not quenched, the home of the worm which does not die.

God doesn’t do this out of spite; He is not a capricious God, delighting in the destruction of people He created. Instead He graciously calls on the world to repent, to escape from the judgment that is to come. “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” As Elijah the prophet called on the wicked kings of Israel to repentance, as John the Baptist fulfilled this prophecy by calling the Jewish people to repentance, so the Church stands today, in the darkness before the dawn, as Elijah, calling the world to repentance. The Church warns all people that the dawn is coming, that the darkness they revel in will not last forever, and she calls on them to repent, to turn and welcome the light, to look forward to the day.

But the arrogant love the darkness more. The prideful are those who have been called out on their sin, who have been told that their behavior, their lifestyle, is wrong, but have refused to repent. The Church reminds the world of these words: “Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.” The prideful think they know better than Moses, who received the Law, and God, who gave it. They make their own rules and live by them. The arrogant are those who love their own pleasure more than they love their neighbor, more than they heed God’s Word. Those infected with pride look to their own accomplishments, their own bank account, the titles they hold, and they guard these accolades jealously. They make sure that those around them know their exalted position, that they receive the proper respect their money, or their office, or their accomplishments deserve. The arrogant are constantly looking for a slight, always ready to be offended, to break off relations with any who don’t view them as highly as they view themselves. 

The preaching of Elijah was intended to turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, but the arrogant have hearts turned in on themselves. The neighbor in need matters little unless they have something to give, some contribution to make to the storehouse of pride that dwells in their darkened hearts. The arrogant, the prideful, love the night; they would rather sit in darkness than welcome the light. And so they quite rightly fear the coming of the day; if they deny it will come it is because they are afraid that it will come, that God’s Word will be proven true.

The arrogant will see the light of dawn and in terror they will cry out that the night is ending; the humble will see the rays of sunshine and rejoice to proclaim that the day is beginning. For they heeded the call of Elijah; they repented, they turned from their sin in faith. The humble are not those who have kept all of the commandments perfectly, they are those who see themselves in the mirror of God’s holy Law and repent. “Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.” The humble remember the Law by striving to live in accordance with it and repenting when they sin against it. The humble acknowledge that God is God and that they are not, and submit in obedience under His Word. Their lives are ordered by the Ten Commandments, but not in the arrogance of thinking they are made right with God by their obedience—for they know their sin—but instead knowing that they are made right with God despite their disobedience.

The arrogant refuse to repent, and thus refuse God’s deliverance from the destruction that the day will bring; either they think they have no need of salvation, or they think they can save themselves, foolishly counting on the worldly things they take pride in. The humble despair of themselves; they know they cannot achieve salvation on their own, that apart from God’s aid, apart from His salvation, the coming of the dawn inspires only fear. The humble know and confess that they are infected with the disease of sin, that they are wounded by the deeds of darkness. And God promises healing.

“But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings.” Who is this sun, the sun that brings light into the world, whose coming is the coming of the dawn, the break of day? It is none other than God’s own Son, Jesus Christ. And how will Jesus bring the healing that all people need? Not by deeds of power, but by an act of humility. “He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” His wounds bring the humble healing, for He was pierced for the transgressions of all people, even for the arrogant, He was crushed for the iniquities of the nations, even those infected with pride. He came to bear the curse that God threatened for all who reject the preaching of Elijah. “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.” No one need fear the coming of the day; no one need be in terror for the arrival of the light. Jesus wants all people to receive His return with joy, to repent and believe—that’s why the Church calls the world, she calls you, to repentance.

See your sin and repent of it! Jesus died for all; He died for you. Repent of your sinful arrogance, repent of your pride. Repent and in humility know that you cannot save yourself, but that Christ has saved you. The humble fear God, not the coming of the day; they shun the darkness in repentance and welcome the light in faith. Look to that day not in fear, but with joy! “For you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.” The sun of righteousness rose early on Easter morning to heal you of the affliction of sin that clings to your bones, to even cure you of death. The sin, the sorrow, the suffering of this world will end; the sun who rose on Easter will rise on the day that is coming, and the night will be over, all evil will be no more. “And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts.” When the day dawns, you will be set free from all that held you captive in the darkness of this world, and there you will have joy that is indescribable. “You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.” When the day dawns, you will realize that this world of sin and death was a locked cage, and now you are free. The long age of confinement will be over; the light has come, and night will be no more, for your Lord has returned in victory, just as He promised, and He has come to give to you a new body, a new creation, light forevermore.

Behold, the day is coming, it is coming soon. We live in the light that precedes the dawn, at that moment when the darkness seems the deepest and yet the light begins to brighten the eastern sky. The sun is rising; when, we do not know, but we do know that it will rise. At that moment, we can rightly ask: Is the night ending, or is the day beginning? It’s really all a matter of perspective. How do we see the approaching of day? Do we welcome the light, or do we fear it? We heard Jesus’ answer: “Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Because Jesus went from speaking those words to hanging on a cross, because He rose again in victory, because He has promised us that He will return again, we need not fear the coming of the dawn, but we lift up our heads in confidence, not in ourselves, but in the salvation He has given to us. The day is beginning, the day that will never end, the glorious day that we will have us leaping like calves released from the stall, forever. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Last Sunday of the Church Year (Matthew 25:1-13)

“Watch therefore, for you do not know the day nor the hour.” 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 Last Sunday of the Church Year is the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the twenty-fifth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, keep watch, for the end is coming. It is coming like a thief in the night, suddenly, at an hour that you do not expect. If the master of the house had known when the robbers would come, he would’ve been sitting in his living room at that very hour, shotgun in hand. But he doesn’t know when they are coming, and so he must constantly keep watch. There are no more events that need to occur before Jesus can return; the signs He promised have been happening since He ascended into heaven, and they will continue until He returns, exhorting us to be watchful. Every war, every natural disaster, every instance of persecution is a warning, a call to be watchful, a reminder that the end is coming. Don’t be deceived by date-setters; Jesus could come today or tomorrow or the next day; nothing needs to happen that hasn’t already occurred. Our Lord didn’t preach complacency, but vigilance; His return will be sudden, it will come at a day and an hour that no one expected except those who were constantly vigilant, constantly watchful. For such people, the kind of people Christ calls on His Church to be, the end is sudden, but not surprising.
The end is coming at a day and an hour that no one knows, but it is surely coming; no one in the Church or the world should be surprised. Jesus certainly made Himself very clear. He who died for the sin of the world, rose again in victory over the grave, and ascended to the right hand of the throne of God will return from that throne on the Last Day to bring the present order to an end, establishing the new heavens and the new earth. As He said in Matthew chapter twenty-four: “Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And He will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” The Church has been preaching these words for over two thousand years; in fact, the Church is nothing else than those gathered in eager anticipation of Christ’s return. Why did the virgins gather? Only to meet the bridegroom. “The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.”

The Church is the assembly of the saints crying out, “Come, Lord Jesus!” The world knows this, it knows the Church’s message, that her Lord is not only risen from the dead but is returning on the Last Day. Christ’s bride cannot tell the world the day or the hour, but she has always declared that He is surely coming. And if the world knows this, then surely those within the Church should know this. Why else do we gather? Only to meet the Bridegroom. When that Day comes, when the voice cries out, no person should be surprised. “Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!”
On that Day there are no surprises; no one who was prepared will be shut out, and no one who was unprepared will be let in. There is no hidden or secret knowledge here, no codebook to learn. Jesus was quite clear, and His Church has been quite clear in preaching His Words. It has not been kept from anyone how to be prepared for that Day. But still, inexplicably, the ten virgins of the Church are not all prepared: “Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.” All ten were virgins, make clean and pure in the waters of Holy Baptism and brought into the Church, the virgin bride of Christ. All ten carried lamps, shining out their light before men in good works, maybe even making confession with their lips. And all ten fell asleep, that is, they all, wise or foolish, died.

But the foolish virgins were lacking something; few realized it simply by looking at them, but they themselves knew. Their virgin purity shone forth in the light of their lamps, but they had forgotten something. “When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them.” They may be in the outward fellowship of the Church, they may have been baptized, their names may appear in a church directory, but there is no oil, they have no faith. They have let their hearts grow cold toward Christ. They have long ago let the cares and concerns of this world overcome their faith. Some of them may go to worship, even partake of the Lord’s Supper, volunteer in their community and do good works in the name of Christ, but it is all a sham, a deception to impress others; they despise and reject what they hear. And they know it; whether they have abandoned the church or keep up a pretense, whether they have openly rejected Him or quietly lost their faith in apathy, they know they have discarded Christ.
The wise virgins have also been made pure in the waters of Holy Baptism, they too shine forth their lamps in good works and the confession of Christ with the lips. And they too fall asleep; being wise doesn’t spare anyone from death. But they are prepared. It is no surprise who is wise and who is foolish; neither group should be shocked. Jesus isn’t operating by deception or in secrets, He has made it quite plain what the wisdom He seeks consists in. “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” The wise virgins are those who hear the Word of God and believe by the power of the Holy Spirit; the oil in their lamps are the gifts of the Gospel, received by faith. Their lamps shine because they burn with the oil given by Jesus; their good works flow from faith.

One is not prepared for the return of Christ by their outward purity, by their good works, or having their names in a church directory. None of those things matter at all apart from faith. Those who believe are prepared. And it is no surprise where this faith is given; it is no surprise where virgins are made wise and prepared for the coming of the Bridegroom: this only happens in the fellowship of the Church, gathered around Christ’s Holy Word and His precious Sacraments. There Christ puts oil in our flasks, there He makes us prepared, by forgiving our sins and strengthening our faith as we wait for His return. There we are strengthened by our fellow believers and encouraged to patience. The Church isn’t some sort of secret society, imparting the codebook that will get you into heaven; the Church preaches the Word clearly and boldly to the entire world, the Word that creates faith in our crucified and risen Savior, the only oil that can keep lamps burning and make us prepared for the Bridegroom’s return.

And He will return, as He promised. His return will be sudden, but it should take no one by surprise. And it will not surprise anyone what the consequences will be. “The bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut.” On that Day, the voice will announce the Bridegroom’s return, and all those who slept the sleep of death will be awakened, wise or foolish. It will then be no surprise on that Day that the door is open to the wise, to those who believe. Their purity is not their own, but is given by Christ; they wear the robe of His righteousness. Their good works shine forth and are pleasing to God because they burn on the oil of Christ’s gifts, they flow from faith in Him. They enter only through Jesus. “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture.” It is then no surprise when the foolish virgins find the door shut. “Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly I say to you, I do not know you.’” He doesn’t know them because they didn’t know Him; they trusted in their works or their appearances, but not in Jesus.
Many foolish virgins live their lives apart from Christ, believing that they will have a second chance to make things right with God before that Day comes, or even after it has arrived. “And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’” That is what makes them foolish; it should be no surprise that on that Day there will be no second chances, it will be too late. “But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’” The wise virgins are glad to show others where to obtain oil—the Divine Service—but on that Day, it is too late. The door is shut.
“Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Keep watch, as wise virgins, dear friends, not as the foolish ones. You have been made pure by the work of Christ, cleansed by Him in Holy Baptism. You have heard His Word proclaim to you that your sins are forgiven; Christ’s death and resurrection have been applied directly to you. You have received His Body and Blood, given and shed for you on the cross, given to you to eat and to drink in the Supper. The door stands open for you, because Christ died and rose again to open it for you. That door received Aaron after his idolatry, admitted David after his adultery, after his homicide; that door did not repel the disciples after they abandoned Christ, and it will not be shut against you. The same forgiveness that Christ bestowed on the saints of old belongs to you, for Christ died for all; His blood was shed for your sin, and only by His blood do you have access to the feast. You will enter in with joy, joining the Bridegroom’s feast, for you have the oil that is not your own, but has been given to you by Jesus through His Church. You are wise because you have been made wise by Christ, and therefore for you the cry of the watchman is a cry of joy: “Here is the Bridegroom! Come out to meet Him!” Come, Lord Jesus! Amen.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Trinity 24 (Matthew 9:18-26)

“My daughter has just died, but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” “If I only touch His garment, I will be made well.” 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 Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the ninth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ: “…and was made man.” Four words; one profound mystery. “…and was made man.” Many Christians throughout the centuries have bowed at these words, even genuflected, kneeling to the ground in adoration. You are free to observe these words in whatever way your personal piety directs, but you are not free to ignore them. “…and was made man.” These words are so profound, so amazing, so incredible because of what has been said just before them. “I believe…in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.” This same Jesus Christ, the Son of God, of one substance with the Father, was the very One who “for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man.” God became man; the Second Person of the Trinity took on our human flesh. He did not become an angel or some other creature—He was made man. 

Faith clings to the Incarnation, it holds tightly to the wondrous words, “and was made man.” Faith adores the mystery, not as some sort of museum piece, a magic trick, but as a miracle absolutely essential to salvation. We have a God who can be touched, who can touch us, and that touch has great power, the power to save. We have a God who became like us in every way; who shared all of our sorrows, who knew all our griefs, who experienced all of our temptations, yet without sin. That is the God that we cling to; that is the God we cry out to.

Sometimes the voice of faith cries out boldly, confidently, assured of Christ’s deliverance, convinced that He will truly act. “While He was saying these things to them, behold, a ruler came in and knelt before Him, saying, ‘My daughter has just died, but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.’” Sometimes the voice of faith is confident, not in itself—no, faith is never confident in itself—but only in its object, the Word made flesh. Trust is placed in the Incarnation; that this man, walking this earth with the same anatomy as any other man, is God Almighty, God become man. The ruler doesn’t trust in a phantom, in an angel, but in a man: “Lay your hand on her, and she will live.” We are surrounded by death; death on the news, death among our friends, death in our families, death in our homes. The cruelty of death we have seen close up and personal; we have seen its cold fingers take those whom we love. There is only One who can save, only One who can help, and the voice of faith cries out with all boldness and confidence, knowing that He will come to our aid.

Sometimes the voice of faith cries out meekly, humbly, hoping against hope that the Savior will act. Sometimes the voice of faith is so beaten down by affliction that all it can do is repeat words of hope, earnestly wishing that the night of suffering is over, that the day has come. “And behold, a woman who had suffered from a discharge of blood for twelve years came up behind Him and touched the fringe of His garment, for she said to herself, ‘If I only touch His garment, I will be made well.’” Sometimes the voice of faith is hanging on by a thread, afraid to be bold and direct, simply yearning for the crumbs that fall from the Master’s table. Trust is placed in the Incarnation, that this man, walking the earth as any other man, is God of God and Light of Light, of one substance with the Father. This woman isn’t asking for help from a ghost, from the spirits of the saints of old, but she literally clings to a man, a human being, God in the flesh. “If I only touch His garment, I will be made well.” We are all dying; some more quickly than others, but from the moment when we take our first breath, we are coming closer to our last. There is only One who can help, and the voice of faith cries out in humility, knowing that it deserves nothing from the Word made flesh, but trusting in His compassion and His promises, the promises that sent Him to this earth in the first place.

And Jesus hears, He listens; He has compassion, He has mercy, He shows forth His love. “Jesus turned, and seeing her He said, ‘Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.’ And instantly the woman was made well.” The touch of Jesus brings healing; His garment is grasped after by a desperate soul, clinging to the promises of God in the midst of a dozen years of affliction. Her faith was not shown forth in boldness, but in meekness and humility; she was the poor in spirit to who belongs the kingdom of heaven. His grip on her was much stronger than hers on Him; it is the object of faith, not faith itself, that makes all the difference. She who was slowly dying is given life in the midst of death; the Incarnation saved her. On His way to raise the dead, Jesus heals the dying. Then He comes to the house of death, the abode of sin’s penalty. He sends away the mourners, saying, “The girl is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at Him. The world mocks the Incarnation, they cannot believe that any man can raise the dead. But this is not any man; this is God of God and Light of Light, very God of very God, who “was made man.” Just as the ruler so confidently declared, the confidence born only of faith in the Incarnate Son of God, Jesus heals with a touch. “He went in and took her by the hand, and the girl arose.”

Jesus didn’t take flesh simply to ‘walk a mile in our shoes,’ or only to give us an example of how we should live according to God’s Word. We do have a God who became like us in every way; who shared all of our sorrows, who knew all our griefs, who experienced all of our temptations, yet without sin. This is all true and filled with comfort for us, but His coming in the flesh served an even greater purpose. He was made man “for us and for our salvation;” He was made man to bring life in the midst of death. Only as true man could the Son of God fulfill the Law perfectly in our place; only as true man could He be our substitute. And only as true man could the Son of God die. The Incarnation leads to the crucifixion; Christmas leads to Good Friday. We confess that this God made man “was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried.” Only as true man could Jesus pay the price we owed, destroying the corruption of sin that leads inevitably to death. And only as true man could He conquer death for us by rising from the grave. “And the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures and ascended into heaven.” The resurrection has meaning and significance for us, and is a true defeat of death, only if He rose again as true man.

And now, only as true man does Jesus interact with us. “…and was made man” is not some artifact of history, a tactic that God used to deliver us from our sin and then discarded. No, the same One who was made man still is man, and as man He “sits at the right hand of the Father.” And from that throne, as true man, He touches us with salvation, He drives away death from us. ‘Come and lay your hands on me, and I will live,’ we say. And He does, touching us with water joined to His Word, a washing that gives eternal life, that defeats death by giving new birth. ‘If I only touch his garment, I will be saved,’ we say. And we do, as we touch bread and wine joined to His holy Body and His precious Blood, the medicine of immortality, the antidote to death. His Incarnation touches us to give us life. Finally, on the Last Day, as true man “He will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead, whose kingdom will have no end.” In the new heavens and the new earth, as He is true man and remains true man, so we will be true man, truly human, as God created us to be, forever. Therefore, with joy, “I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.”

Trinity 23 (Philippians 3:17-21)

“Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like His glorious body, by the power that enables Him even to subject all things to Himself.” 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 Philippi. Dear friends in Christ: Imitate me, Paul says. Follow my example. See my pattern and walk in it. Look to me as your guide. “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” He doesn’t point us to the saints of old, or even to Jesus; Paul points us to himself. “Join in imitating me.” How bold, how daring, how arrogant. Just who does he think he is? We have an automatic aversion to those who set themselves up as moral examples, who tell us to look to them as a pattern of teaching or life. Politicians, pastors, and celebrities; we’ve seen them all shipwrecked just when we thought we could trust them. But Paul is a different kind of example; yes, he knows exactly who he is, and that is precisely the point. The pattern he sets is as a forgiven sinner. “Join in imitating me,” Paul says, not as a man who is sinless, but as one who has renounced the world in repentance and faith. “Join in imitating me,” Paul says, in being a foreigner and stranger in this world, as one whose citizenship is in heaven.

You see, there are only two passports that you can carry, only two citizenships that you can have, and you can’t have both at the same time. Both citizenships are given at birth; either your natural conception and birth, or the rebirth of water and the Word in Holy Baptism. There are only two paths, two ways to walk: either you will imitate Paul as a citizen of heaven, or you will imitate those around you as a citizen of earth. “For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ.” Citizens of earth are enemies of Christ’s cross; they despise the cross and reject all that it stands for and all that it gives. Some use the cross as an excuse for sin, for giving in to the desires of the flesh. I’m forgiven, they say, set free from the Law, and so I can live how I want. God likes to forgive, I like to sin, so I’ll do what I want and He can do what He wants. Others have no desire for what the cross gives. They don’t believe that they are sinners, or they deny that what they are doing is sin. They look for loopholes, they try to make gray what God made black and white. They explain away God’s Law, giving in to Satan’s first lie: “Did God really say?”

Citizens of earth cling to, and even worship, the things of this world. That is what rules them, instead of the Word of God. Their natural desires and appetites, their body’s sinful inclinations, govern their actions. Citizens of this earth do what feels good, without regard for how their actions affect others or offend God. As Paul says, “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.” Their god is their belly, or other organs; they worship the desires of their body, giving in to what their flesh, corrupted by sin since the Fall, wants. Citizens of earth glory in their shame; they boast about their sin. They take pride in what they have done. What else is a homosexual ‘wedding’ or a transgender magazine cover than glorying in shame? Do not imitate them! Their end is destruction, for they have worshipped what will be destroyed, what does not last. When you live as a citizen of this earth, dear friends, you are clinging to those things that are temporary, while forgetting of the things of eternity. You are shortsighted; your eyes are fixed on those things that corrupt you, abuse you, and then will pass away. If your god is temporary, if he will be destroyed on the Last Day, then you will be destroyed too, along with all who trusted in him.

Repent. Repent in imitation of Paul. “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” Renounce the things of this world; renounce your citizenship on this earth and live as a stranger and foreigner here, with your citizenship in heaven. Citizens of earth glory in their shame; citizens of heaven count all earthly glory as worthless, as rubbish. Imitate Paul in seeing every reason for boasting before the world as so much garbage next to Christ’s salvation. Imitate Paul in renouncing, putting to death the desires of the flesh in repentance. Citizens of heaven take no pride in the things of this world, in the glory that this world bestows on those who embrace its ways, its citizenship. Citizens of heaven care little for what the world says about them, for what the world threatens to do to them. They know who their Lord is; they know of His victory over the world, and in that victory they trust even if they are put to shame before the eyes of others around them. Citizens of heaven do not glory in their sins, they do not boast in them, but they repent of them, crucifying their sinful desires and appetites in repentance and faith. They put their flesh to death daily, returning to that moment in time when their citizenship in this world was removed, replaced with the citizenship of heaven. Each and every day they look to their mark of citizenship, their passport, the sign of the holy cross made upon their forehead and upon their heart as they were given a new birth in water and the Word.

Citizens of heaven cling to Christ’s cross; they know their sin and they look toward their Savior, crucified and risen, for forgiveness. “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” We are strangers and foreigners here, bearing the mark of another citizenship, gathering in embassies scattered throughout this world, outposts of heaven upon this fallen earth, receiving grace and mercy from our Savior. Only such a Savior, Jesus Christ, could make you a citizen of heaven, a member of His Kingdom, by taking you from the citizenship of your birth, giving to you a new passport stamped in His blood. You do not have to pay for your citizenship, or earn it in any way; it is not for you or anyone else to bestow. Your citizenship was won for you by Jesus, He paid with His own life the high price required to take you from the citizenship of earth that leads only to destruction to the citizenship of heaven that gives life, and life to the full. Only such a Savior, Jesus Christ, can bring you back to your heavenly citizenship when you have strayed. He calls you back through His Law, and He forgives you through His Gospel, reaffirming your citizenship every time you repent by His mercy and love.

Citizens of heaven imitate Paul’s example of repentance and then set themselves forth as an example for others. This is not to be done in pride and arrogance, by Paul or anyone else. Instead, this is an act of service, done in humility under Christ for the good of our fellow citizens who need our help, our example. Every citizen of heaven should be able to say to their brothers and sisters in Christ: “Join in imitating me.” Imitate me in repentance, imitate me in clinging to Christ’s cross, imitate me in renouncing the desires of the flesh, and together, on the glorious Day that is coming, we will imitate Christ. “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like His glorious body, by the power that enables Him even to subject all things to Himself.” Citizens of earth worship and serve the sinful inclinations and desires of their bodies; citizens of heaven renounce those desires and put them to death, looking toward that Day when Christ will transform these bodies of sin to be like His glorious Body. Citizens of heaven do not hate their bodies, but they do look toward the day when those bodies will be as God created them to be: without sin, pure and holy forever. Jesus is coming, and He is coming to make your body imitate His in glory, in holiness, in righteousness and purity forever. Jesus is coming and He is coming to conform you, body and soul, to Himself. The glory of Easter will one day be yours, because you are a citizen of heaven, covered in the shed blood of Jesus Christ, and you await His return in glory, the very glory of heaven. He who has been given all power and all glory by virtue of His victory over sin and death will with that same power call you forth from your grave on that glorious Day, and you will finally come to your homeland, where your citizenship truly lies, to live with Him forever. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Reformation (Matthew 11:12-19)

“To what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Our text this evening as we continue to commemorate the Reformation is the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the eleventh chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ: April 18th, 1521. Worms, Germany. The band is warmed up and ready to play. The lead singer is Charles the Fifth, Holy Roman Emperor and one of the most powerful men in the world. His backup singers and instrumentalists are the bishops, princes, and priests, all gathered around him. The dancer is a young monk named Martin Luther, standing on the dance floor for all to see. The tune was called the day before, and it was clear and unmistakable: Repent! “First, do you acknowledge that these books here now named publically to you one by one, which are published in your name as author are yours? Next, do you wish to retract and recall them and their contents or to cling to them henceforth and insist on them?” Dance, Luther, dance! The tune has been called, the music is playing—dance! You know how easy it would be; you can feel your body swaying to the music. This song has one word, and you can sing it whenever you like: Revoco, ‘I recant.’ Repent, recant, take it all back. Dance, Luther, dance!

The world calls the tune, it brings the instruments, it provides the dance floor, and only one thing is demanded of us, exactly what was demanded of Luther: Dance! The music is all around us; it is blared forth from television and movies, we hear the song sung by our friends and family, people are tapping their toes to it at school or in the park. Dance, Christian, dance! You know you want to; it’s so easy—just follow everyone else’s moves; staying away from church, using filthy language, destroying reputations, having sex outside of marriage, denying Jesus as the only Savior and Lord, being ashamed of the name ‘Lutheran’ and seeking to be a generic Christian. This is no ordinary dance; there is a cost for sitting this one out. Those who play the music will not tolerate anyone sitting out, or dancing to another tune. “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” The world exacts a price for refusing to dance to the tune it has called. It can destroy your reputation, shame you in front of your friends, beat you up, or even take your life. Refusing to dance may mean sacrificing your life, money, job, family, success, or happiness.

And we won’t pay the price. The world says, ‘Dance!’ and we say, ‘Like this?’ We give in, we dance to the world’s tune, we conform ourselves to the world and its priorities. We sway to the world’s tune, we dance to the music it plays for us. We listen to the notes, we indulge ourselves, and soon we are moving to the music. We are afraid to pay the price the world charges for being different, and so we crumble, we lose our spine, we wimp out. We do not stand against the world, we give into it. We fail to follow the example set by Luther. He stood in the spotlight; the band was playing, and all were calling to him, ‘Dance, Luther, dance!’ But he refused. “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason, I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, Amen.” The world said, ‘Dance!’ and he said, ‘Here I stand!’

Luther was willing to pay the price; although he would die in bed, he would be an outlaw for the rest of his life, with martyrdom always around the corner. He knew when he said those famous words that the world would not be happy, that it would fulfill the words of Christ: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” The world had no kindness for John when he refused to dance to the world’s tune, nor did it have any for Christ Himself. “To what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’” The world called the tune, they wanted John and Jesus to be the kind of prophet, the kind of Messiah that they wanted: Dance, John, dance! Dance, Jesus, dance! But they would not. They refused, and the world didn’t spare them. First the world slandered them: “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at Him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” But the world did not stop with slander; those who will not dance to the world’s tune must be stopped by any means necessary. Luther died in bed; John would lose his head, and Jesus? He was nailed to a cross.

That is the fate that awaits you if you stand against the world, if you make the bold confession of Jesus, if you live different than your friends. This is the fate that awaits you if you hold to Lutheran theology among other Christians or those only pretending to be Lutheran: you will bear a cross. You will die—if not a martyr’s bloody death, you will certainly die to friends and family; you will die to yourself. “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” But take heart, dear friends: the world doesn’t get to play the last note. “For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.” John the Baptist, languishing in prison, soon to lose his head, by all appearances a defeated failure, conquered by the world: this man is ‘Elijah who is to come.’ And if he is Elijah, who comes to prepare the way of the Lord, than the man who speaks must be the Messiah, the Lord come in the flesh. Like John, this Jesus won’t dance to the world’s tune, and He will be hung upon a cross for it; He had only to say the word, He had only to recant His teachings, and His life would be spared, but He refused. ‘Here I stand,’ He declared to the world, as He hung upon Golgotha’s bloody tree.

Jesus and His Word, by all appearances, were powerless on that day, and the world shouted with triumph. But Jesus told us: “Wisdom is justified by her deeds.” The Wisdom of God seems foolish to the world, but it will be justified, it will be proven right only three days later. Jesus rose, triumphant over this world, victorious over death, proving that His Word is true, it stands forever, that nothing can or ever will overcome it, or any who cling to the Word in faith. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Hear the Word; do not depend upon appearances, but listen to Jesus. The same One who said, “He is Elijah who is to come,” when John sat in prison, who said, “It is finished” when He died upon the tree, is the One who says to you through St. Paul: “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.” This is the promise that you have despite all that the world does to you, despite the price it exacts from you, even if it declares you an outlaw like Luther or makes you a martyr like John. It is on this Word that you can rely, this is your rock in the storm; on this Word you take your stand.

The Reformation isn’t some moral parable about taking a stand on something and opposing the authorities that get you down. The Reformation is all about taking a stand against the world on the truth of the God’s Word. The Reformation isn’t just a call to confess anything, but a call to confess the Scriptures rightly. The world calls on you to change your confession, to change your life; to live and speak like those around you, to dance to its enticing tune. Dance, Lutherans, dance! Give up your confession, quit insisting on pure doctrine, acknowledge that all roads lead to God, or else! But the music you hear is Christ’s tune, and it speaks to you of victory even when all seems to be defeat: “And take they our life / Goods, fame, child, and wife / Let these all be gone, / They yet have nothing won; / The kingdom ours remaineth.” In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Trinity 18 (Deuteronomy 10:12-21)

“Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and no longer be stubborn.” 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 is the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the tenth chapter of Deuteronomy. Dear friends in Christ, the First Commandment is the commandment of faith, the commandment that can only be fulfilled by faith. “You shall have no other gods. What does this mean? We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” This commandment cares little for the outward show, for going through the motions, for empty ritual without faith; circumcise your hearts, God says, for without repentance and faith, the circumcision of the flesh matters little. “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I am commanding you today for your good?” This long list all comes down to the First Commandment: fear, love, and trust in God above all things. That is faith, without which none of the commandments can be kept. That is faith, apart from which any amount of good works, any amount of keeping the Law, is completely and utterly worthless. The good works of those who do not believe in the true God are simply a show and a mask, they are empty, hollow, hiding an uncircumcised heart.

They do not impress God, for He shows none of the partiality that we find in the world; He cares little for anything done outside of faith. The philanthropist, the benevolent ruler, the pious pagan receive none of His favor if they do not fear, love, and trust in Him above all things. Nor does He show favor to one with power, or riches, or worldly influence. It’s ridiculous, utter foolishness, to think that the things that impress men will ever impress God. “Behold, to the Lord your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it.” All things belong to Him—all things. All riches, all power, all influence. All things belong to Him, and so He is not impressed by the little we possess. He shows no partiality; He bestows His grace not to those who are great in the eyes of the world, but to those whom He chooses. And know this, dear friends in Christ—He chose you. All things belong to Him, yet He chose you to be His child, He chose you, and in that choosing, He gave you faith.

“Yet the Lord set His heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day.” He chose Israel, selected her out from the nations, and gave to her the commandment that is also a promise: “You shall have no other gods.” They have no need of other gods, for the only true God, the Creator of the universe, is their God. He promised to be their God, and He promised that they would be His people. He chose them despite their lack of power, despite the sin they would commit, He chose them even though at their greatest glory they would only occupy a spit of land in a dusty corner of the world. In love He chose them, love for them and love for the world, He chose them in His love for you.

He to whom all things belong chooses the downtrodden, the weak, the insignificant; He shows no partiality, He does not operate as the world does. He chose a nation insignificant on the world’s stage to restore the cosmos, to even defeat death. He chose a peasant girl to bear in her virgin womb His Son, the Messiah, Jesus Christ. And in Christ, by His blood and merit, by His death and resurrection, He chooses the weak, those battered by their sins, those who despair of any aid, who are meek and mourning, those hungering and thirsting for righteousness. He shows no partiality. He does not give life to the rich, but to those who are poor in spirit; He does not give forgiveness to the powerful, but to the helpless; salvation He gives not to the one who believes anything sincerely, but to the one who believes in Him, who holds fast to His promises.

He chooses you. He chooses you in Christ, His Son, crucified and risen for the poor and downtrodden, crucified and risen for you. He saved you when you were poor in spirit, trampled upon by this cruel world. He saved you when you had nothing to give to Him; you may have worldly power, riches, or influence, but none of that means anything before Him, none of that can pay for your sin or earn you salvation. He died for you even though you had nothing to give Him, when you had nothing that He needed. So if you are a fool, a despairing and despised sinner, or if you have been judged and condemned—so what? Here is the God of gods, who does not regard persons or care for their gifts. He cares for you, a sinner and a fool. What could happen that might sadden you? What sin could oppress you, what could cause you to despair? Yes, what height, what depth, what present thing, what creature could either puff you up or humble you?

“God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” God chose you in Christ; He chose you at the baptismal font, He chose you in the call of His Word, He chose you when you had nothing to give Him in return. He does not operate as the world operates, He doesn’t follow the pattern we set. “The Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe.” He doesn’t defer to the mighty, He doesn’t show His grace only to those who can afford it. He is no respecter of persons, even those who ‘live a good life’ in obedience to His Law. Without obedience to the First Commandment, without faith, such things have no effect upon Him. We cannot bribe our Creator with our good works; He can only be clung to in faith. “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.” If you are hoping that your church attendance, or your offering totals, or your church offices held will make the difference on Judgment Day, you will be sorely mistaken, as mistaken as if you trusted in your wealth, your power, or your influence among men. The only thing that matters on Judgment Day is Christ, and His love to the downtrodden, His love to you, received only by faith.

God will not be bribed; He shows no partiality. He loved you when you were weak and helpless, sentenced to death by your sin. He loved you and He chose you, claiming you as His very own child by pouring water upon your head. You had nothing to give Him, and He gave you everything; He to whom belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it gave to you forgiveness, life, and salvation. He is not the God of the rich and mighty, but of the downtrodden and the stranger. “He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving Him food and clothing.” Not only the spiritually poor does He provide for, but also the physically poor. The God who chose His people Israel when they were insignificant, the God who chose you when you were insignificant, sends forth His people to provide for the insignificant around us.

God is consistent throughout both the Old and New Testaments: His people are called upon to care for the fatherless and the widow, the poor and the stranger. Why? Because they too were once outcast and they were chosen in grace, delivered in mercy by the God who loves strangers. “Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” Love the downtrodden, for you were downtrodden by your sins. Love the stranger, for you were estranged from your God. Love the poor, for you were poor in spirit. Love the fatherless, for you had no father before your baptism into Christ. Love the outcast, for you were an outcast. It is for this very reason that God gives you riches or influence; not to impress Him, but to serve the less fortunate around you.

Too long have we let politics distract us from our responsibility to the downtrodden, either letting the government take care of this task or forgetting our command from God to care for the poor as we argue against the welfare state. Christians who are political conservatives or progressives forget that whatever the government’s role might be in providing for the needy, the Church has a role given by God Himself. Too long have we let bad theology by others keep us from caring for others. Too long have we abandoned the poor, leaving the needy to shiver in the cold, too long has what was such a large part of the early church’s work been reduced to a small line-item in the congregational budget, if it appears at all. The Church is not only the place of welcome for the spiritually downtrodden, but it should also be a place of welcome for the physically downtrodden People should not leave this place with full ears but an empty stomach. “Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.”

It all comes back to the First Commandment, the identity of your God. “You shall fear the Lord your God. You shall serve him and hold fast to him, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise. He is your God, who has done for you these great and terrifying things that your eyes have seen.” What kind of God do you have? Your God is the God of the poor and downtrodden, the meek and humble. Your God is the God who saved you, who delivered you when you were beaten down by your sins and condemned to death, when you had nothing at all to give Him but your corruption. Your obedience to the Law, even your service to the poor, means nothing to God without faith. The downtrodden are served in many places, but there is only one place where this service flows from faith: the Church. Only in the Church are the poor served by good works that are not hollow and empty, but filled with faith. The world simply points the finger, or makes more laws, when people fail to serve the downtrodden; the Church gives forgiveness, saying to those, to you and me, who are humbled by our sins of commission and omission: “I forgive you all your sins in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” That is our God, a God of forgiveness for the sake of His Son’s shed blood, who has done great and terrifying things, even dying and rising again for His poor, downtrodden people, even for you and me. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Installation of the Rev. Jesse Burns (Isaiah 52:7-10)

“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news!” 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 joyous afternoon is the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the fifty-second chapter of the prophet Isaiah. Dear friends in Christ: the feet are dirty, dusty, smelly. They are caked with mud, covered in callouses, afflicted with blisters. Every mile is revealed in those hardened soles, every step is reflected in the filth that dwells between the toes. The feet are a horror to look at, their stench causes many to recoil, it drives some people away. But not those who were waiting for just such feet. To them, these feet are the most beautiful sight of all. The mud and dust is a delight to the eyes, the stench is a pleasing aroma, for these feet carry a voice. The filth doesn’t matter, in fact, these feet are treasured despite their dirt and grime because it was their task to take a voice to those who were appointed to hear it, to those who needed to hear it. The voice carries words that he has been sent to speak, words that are not his own, but have been given to him. These feet are treasured, they are beautiful, because they carry a voice that publishes peace, bringing good news of happiness, publishing salvation. “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news!” 

This voice, carried upon beautiful feet, speaks to ruins, to a desolate waste. This voice speaks to eyes that can only see destruction, a city that has become a desert. Eyes look around them and see tottering buildings, steeples falling, pews emptying, budgets getting tighter and youth groups dwindling. Eyes see a culture that has become a wasteland, that swallows up the unprepared and kills them slowly with its promises of freedom, freedom that is actually bondage. Eyes see a church that is increasingly marginalized, that is driven out of the public square into the wilderness. Then eyes look closer to home, and see the wasteland that is their own life. Their relationships are a barren land, torn by anger and enmity, shattered by divorce and break-ups. Their body is a ruined city, as their health fails, as they live in the bondage of disease and addiction. And every day spent trying to get ahead in the wilderness, trying to provide for their family, just shows how parched the desert really is. The eyes can see no hope of salvation; the ruins cannot resurrect themselves, the wasteland cannot make itself a fertile field. Scaffolding cannot save a tottering church or society, any solution that the ruins propose is doomed to failure. Government cannot legislate away the desert, medicine cannot overcome the wasteland, the church finds each of its own solutions futile against the wilderness.

It is to those very ruins, the ruins of a shattered society and shattered church, the ruins of shattered lives, that God sends a voice, a voice to speak His Word: “The voice of your watchmen—they lift up their voice; together they sing for joy; for eye to eye they see the return of the Lord to Zion.” The voice is the voice of the watchman, who declares the return of the Lord to His people, who calls on them to make themselves ready for His coming. The voice calls for paths to be made straight, for mountains to be laid low, for rough places to be made a plain. In short, the voice calls for repentance. The voice calls on eyes who see the desolation around them so well to see the wasteland within and turn away from it. The voice calls out sins by name, specifically warning his hearers from the paths of the desert, from the bondage of the wilderness. He has a solemn charge from God: “Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me.” Woe to the voice who does not speak! The wicked will die in his sins, but the voice will be held accountable; he is compelled by God Himself to speak.

But the voice is not only compelled to speak a word of warning; he prepares for the coming of the Lord by calling for repentance, but as a watchman on the ruined walls, it is his joy to announce the coming banners of the King. “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” The voice cannot bring salvation, any more than the ruins can resurrect themselves, but it is his great joy to announce it. The King has returned, He has come in the flesh, and He has returned to resurrect the shattered walls, to renew the desert, to make the wasteland a fertile field. The voice announces that the King, Jesus Christ, came into the wilderness to overcome it, that He gave Himself up into death, even death upon a cross, to destroy the power that the desert of death had over you. He bore your sins, every one of them, to the cross; He laid them on His own back, and then exposed that back to the scourge and the whip for you to break your bonds. Jesus Christ came to His people, He came to you, in the midst of your distress, in the wasteland that fills your life, and He conquered it with His death and victorious resurrection. He comforts you in your distress, for He has redeemed you, He has paid the price for you with His own blood; the wilderness could not overcome Him, to the King belongs the victory, “Your God reigns!”

God reigns despite all the desolation that eyes see; God reigns, and the victory of Christ is given to all who are baptized into His Name. That is the message that the voice has been sent to speak into your life, in every situation: God reigns; look to the cross, not to the wasteland, to see the truth: sin, death, and hell, the wilderness, the wasteland, the desert, have been overcome, triumphed over by the King who returned, Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen One. That is what the voice declares: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again! The voice tells you who dwell in the wilderness of sin that your sin is forgiven; when specific sins are condemned, the voice speaks specific forgiveness: Christ died for all sins, and the voice who hears your confession tells you that Christ died for that sin, too. The voice tells you, as hands splash water on your head, “I baptize you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” and it declares to you with the words of Jesus, as hands place bread into your mouth and hold wine to your lips, “This is my Body; This is my Blood.” This voice comes into the midst of your lives lived in the wilderness, into your living room, to your bedside, holding your hand at the point of death and declaring, “Your God reigns!” The voice doesn’t bring salvation; all he can do is announce it, suffer for it, and die because of it. He cannot heal disease, fix every problem, or ‘save your congregation.’ He is only a voice, but a voice speaking of the victory that overcomes the devastation of sin.

And this voice calls on the ruins to rejoice in the salvation brought by Jesus, to celebrate the resurrection in the midst of the valley of the shadow of death. “Break forth together into singing, you waste places of Jerusalem, for the Lord has comforted His people; He has redeemed Jerusalem.” The voice calls on the ruins to rejoice even now, even in the midst of the wasteland, because salvation has come, victory has been won, and the day of vindication is near. God reigns, despite the desolation that fills this world; it is not what the eyes see but what the ears hear that is true: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. The fact of the cross and empty tomb stand against the wilderness, they testify that the wasteland will one day be made fertile again, giving you hope as you walk in the desert. And so the ruins rejoice, they sing praises to the King, to Jesus Christ, their crucified and risen Lord, because they know that a Day is coming when eyes will see what voices speak and ears hear, when the victory proclaimed by the voice is seen clearly by the entire world. “The Lord has bared His holy arm before the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.”

The feet are dirty, dusty, smelly. They are caked with mud, covered in callouses, afflicted with blisters. They have traveled from Montana to Nebraska, from Nebraska to Indiana, from Indiana to Iowa to Indiana and back again, then from western Iowa to central Iowa. Every mile is revealed in those hardened soles, but there is more to this grime than the lengthy journey. These feet are those of a sinner, they carry not only the dust of the miles but the corruption of the Fall, they are in as need of the absolving Word of Christ as you are. The feet of a sinner cause many to recoil, they drive some people away; they cannot imagine that God would use such an instrument to speak His Word, and so many reject such earthly means. But not those who were waiting for just such feet. To you, the saints of Redeemer Lutheran Church, these feet are a beautiful sight. These feet are treasured despite their dirt and grime because it is their task to take a voice to those whom God appointed to hear it, to those who need to hear it. He brought the voice to you, for the voice is His instrument, to stand as a watchman on the ruins, warning from sin and proclaiming the Savior who has overcome it. This voice carries words that he has been sent to speak, words that are not his own, but have been given to him by Jesus Christ Himself. These feet are treasured, they are beautiful, because they carry a voice that publishes peace, bringing good news of happiness, publishing salvation. Rejoice in these feet, rejoice in the family that these feet have brought with it, but rejoice even more in the message the voice speaks. “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news!” In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Kyle and Sarah Peters wedding (Genesis 2:7, 18-24)

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Kyle and Sarah, friends and family gathered from near and far: Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Our text on this day of joy is the Old Testament lesson you selected from Genesis chapter two, the creation of man, the creation of woman, the creation of marriage. Dear friends in Christ: like a cadence, like a drumbeat, on each and every day of creation we hear the refrain, “And God saw that it was good.” The moon and the sun are good, the animals are good, the land and the seas are good. But on the sixth day of creation, when God is at the very end of His work, he finds one thing, and one thing alone, that is not good, that is incomplete. His creation is not yet finished. “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone.’” The entire universe has been put in place; the planets have been set in order, the laws of physics have been established, the ecosystem is in perfect balance. But yet creation is incomplete, it is not yet very good, because the man is alone.

Notice that it isn’t the man who voices this concern; it is God who sees this deficiency and promises to take action to rectify it. “I will make him a helper fit for him.” Man doesn’t know it, man doesn’t quite realize it, but he is alone, utterly alone. He is one half of a whole, he is fundamentally incomplete, he needs a “helper fit for him.” He needs companionship in this world, one like him, but yet different, to be an object of his love, his care and compassion. He needs a helper, a savior from his loneliness. He needs assistance in fulfilling the great command of the Lord, which will be given by God Himself, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” It makes little sense for God to give such a command, such a privilege, if the man is left alone. He cannot bring forth the next generation by himself; he, like most of God’s creation, needs a partner. And after the Fall into sin, there is another reason man needs woman: he needs her as an antidote to sin, to help him control sinful lust.

It is God who notices this deficiency, not the man, and it is God alone who provides for it. For some, He provides with a gift of grace, the gift of celibacy, the gift of remaining unmarried without being overcome by lust. But for most, He provides as He did for the first man, with the gift of a wife, a bride, a “helper fit for him.” This is a helper corresponding to him, like him, yet unlike, like two sides of a coin, two pieces of a puzzle. It is a helper that fits together with him, that complements him in every way. God brought all of the animals to Adam, one after another, so that he could make an exhaustive search for the helper that God said he needed. “But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him.” No animal, no matter how beloved, could complete humanity, no animal could provide for all that the man needed. God must give to him a special creation, taken from him to be the perfect complement. “So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man He made into a woman and brought her to the man.” God gives the woman as a gift to the man; he does not take her in the passion of sinful lust, but he receives her as she is: a gift.

And the man receives her with joy, breaking forth into poetry: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, because she was taken out of Man.” She is the perfect helper, the perfect complement, the perfect savior from loneliness, because she was taken from the man himself. They are one flesh, and in their life together, and the lives of all their children, they will proclaim that reality. Moses reflects on this great mystery as he concludes our text: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Even though sin has corrupted this relationship of husband and wife, it does not destroy it. Woman was taken from man to be the helper corresponding to him, and thus for the rest of creation women and men will be joined together as one flesh for mutual companionship, for the bringing forth of children, and for restraining sinful lust.

This day, you, Kyle and Sarah, intend to enter this blessed estate, established even before the Fall into sin. This day you leave father and mother, separating from their households to form your own, publically taking up new vocations, husband and wife. You, Kyle, take up the vocation of loving your wife as Christ has loved the Church, giving up your life for her, sacrificing yourself, with your selfish desires and sinful passions, for her good. You, Sarah, take up the vocation of submitting to your husband as the Church submits to Christ, in love and joy allowing him to lead your household, knowing that he sacrifices himself for you. Here before God and the world you publically declare that you will live together as husband and wife, making promises, taking vows. It is this public act, this objective fact, that remains true throughout all of the ups and downs of your marriage, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health. God has joined you together, here, in this place, on September 19th, 2015, and what God has joined together, let not man separate.

This day you declare your love to one another, just as Moses teaches us that a man leaves his father and his mother and holds fast to his wife. You hold fast to one another in love, and not just any love, but the very love of Jesus Christ Himself. It is this love that sustains a marriage, for this love comes from outside of you, from the cross itself, from the wounds of Jesus. It is a love that is self-sacrificial, always placing the other and their needs ahead of your own. It is a love that is forgiving, founded on admitting sin and forgiving it. This is the love that all Christians are to show to their neighbors, and this day you are publically declaring that you have a new closest neighbor—each other. You will love each other by denying yourselves, by putting your pride to death. Don’t think you can do this on your own. You cannot give to each other what you haven’t first received. Therefore it is in this very place that you will receive from Christ the love and forgiveness which you then pour into your marriage, loving and forgiving each other.

Moses teaches us that after a man leaves his father and his mother and holds fast to his wife, “they shall become one flesh.” This day, you publically declare that you will live together as one flesh. Only once man and woman have publically left their father and mother and have been joined together in the sight of God and man, do they become one flesh. They do not come together in the passion of lust, in impurity, but only as those joined by God. A man does not take a woman whenever he wants, but he receives his bride as a gift from God’s hand. And together man and woman then bring forth new life, they give expression to the Lord’s commission in the Garden, “Be fruitful and multiply.”

Saint Paul was right when he said of marriage, “this mystery is profound.” The mystery of woman taken from man, only to be joined back to him as one flesh, is profound. But then he quickly adds, “I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church.” The mystery is that from this day forward, Kyle and Sarah, you are publically showing forth in your own lives the very Gospel itself. Man was alone on the sixth day, but humanity was left alone after the Fall, estranged from the God who created us and subject to death and eternal damnation. But the Bridegroom sought His bride, God’s lonely people, and Jesus Christ took flesh to buy us back from the bondage of sin and death, paying this price with His own blood. Now risen from the dead, our Bridegroom washes us, pure as Sarah’s dress, in the waters of Holy Baptism, and He presents us to Himself as a radiant bride, invited to the marriage supper that will have no end. This promise is for you, Kyle and you, Sarah, and your marriage proclaims that reality to a world trapped in the darkness of sin. You love each other as Christ loved you, and gave Himself up for you, dying and rising again to abolish sin and death for you and for the entire world. In His Name, Amen.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Trinity 14 (Galatians 5:16-24)

“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the 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 evening is the Epistle lesson read a few moments ago from the fifth chapter of Galatians. Dear friends in Christ: even if you know almost nothing about poetry, you have probably heard these words, penned by poet Robert Frost: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” ‘The path less traveled’ has become a proverbial saying, part of how we speak and think. I’m no expert on Robert Frost, so I cannot tell you what influenced these famous lines, but I can tell you that Biblical theology, drawing from the Exodus and wilderness wanderings, has always described of the life of the godly as a ‘walk,’ a ‘journey,’ and like Robert Frost, the Scriptures contrast the ‘path less traveled by’ with another path, a well-heeled path, a path that is broad and easy. In our Gospel lesson, one leper took the path ‘less traveled by,’ returning to Jesus to give Him praise, while the other nine traveled together to the temple. Our Old Testament lesson from Proverbs calls the ‘path less traveled by’ the “way of wisdom,” and the other road, the broad and easy road, the “path of the wicked.” For Paul, one path is “walking by the Spirit.” The other? Gratifying “the desires of the flesh.”  

The path of the flesh is wide enough for everyone to fit, and there’s always room for one more. The path of the flesh is easy, even pleasurable; what can be easier and more fun than letting your natural desires run wild? The path of the flesh is selfish and indulgent, seeking only what I want at that moment, without thought of others around me or of the future. “The works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.” 

The first three sins Paul lists are against the Sixth Commandment—sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality; the path of the flesh is letting your sexual attractions govern thoughts, words, and behavior, letting them tell you when and how to act, indulging your attraction to others no matter their gender, age, or whether you are married to them or not. The next two sins are against the First and Second Commandments—idolatry and sorcery; the path of the flesh is letting your inclination to make gods run wild, setting anyone and anything above the true God. The eight sins that follow deal with our relationships with others—enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy; the path of the flesh is living a life of competition, the survival of the fittest, looking down on those beneath you and being jealous of those above. Finally, with the last two sins your flesh is out of control—drunkenness and orgies; the path of the flesh is letting sin run your life. Ultimately, the path of the flesh, no matter what form it takes, is the path of addiction, addiction to the flesh and its desires.

Solomon says about this path: “They cannot sleep unless they have done wrong; they are robbed of sleep unless they have made someone stumble. For they eat the bread of wickedness and drink the wine of violence… The way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know over what they stumble.” The path of the flesh is broad and easy, but its end is shrouded in darkness, its destination is hidden. When Paul says, “you will not gratify the desires of the flesh,” the word ‘gratify’ is probably better translated ‘complete, finish, end.’ The desires of the flesh have a goal, an end, and it is this end that is covered by darkness. The broad and easy road leads to apostasy, a fancy word that simply means the rejection of the faith and turning away from God. The path of the flesh smothers faith, it drives away the Holy Spirit, and it is completed only in death; this path has only one destination: eternal judgment. “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God.”   

Two roads diverged in a wood; the easy, broad road has only one destination, though it keeps this goal hidden behind the pleasures of the present: death, eternal death. The path less traveled by has only one destination as well, but that destination is as different from the end of the broad road as darkness is from light. The end, the completion, the goal of the path less traveled by is life, life to the fullest, life for eternity. Solomon says about this road, “The path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day.” The full day is coming, when the road less traveled by will be bathed in light, the light as of the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth. For this road is walked in Christ and its destination is the inheritance that Christ won by His death and resurrection, the destination we sang of in the Introit: “For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of Hosts! My soul longs, yes, faints, for the courts of the Lord.”

The road to this place is not the road of moral perfection; that is the path that those who were deceiving the Galatians preached. No, the flesh secretly loves legalism as much as it loves sinning, because depending on the Law for salvation puts the focus back on us; the broad and easy road has plenty of room for those who are trying to work their way to heaven. Instead of moral perfection, Paul offers another way, the way of Christ Himself: walking “by the Spirit.” This is not a path of perfection, of legalism, but of repentance, going to war against the flesh, setting Christ against your sin. “The desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.”

Walking by the Spirit is the path of conflict, for the flesh cannot be trained, it cannot be reformed—it must be put to death. “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” The flesh is put to death by Christ and with Christ, it is taken by Him to the cross and nailed with Him there. It is conquered, overcome, defeated at the tree, and then each and every day, through the work of the Holy Spirit, Christ Jesus puts your sinful flesh to death by taking you back to your Baptism, where He first drowned it by water and the Word. Why do we need the gifts of Christ? Why does He continue to pour them upon us? Because only they can overcome the flesh. The war against the flesh is fought only by repentance and the forgiveness of sins. Those are the only tools, the only weapons Christ uses. He calls us to repentance by proclaiming the Law, putting the sinful flesh to death, and He makes us alive in the Spirit by forgiving all of your sins. You have heard of the desires of the flesh this night, desires that you have indulged, that you are indulging? You have heard the stern words of the Law, “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God”? Repent. Repent and hear these words, from Jesus through His instrument: Your sins are forgiven, each and every one of them. You are forgiven.

What flows from this forgiveness is what Paul calls ‘the fruit of the Spirit.’ “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” In the place of lust there is love and joy; in the place of competition and rivalry there is peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and gentleness. In the place of indulging sinful desires there is self-control. Living by the Spirit means controlling one’s natural desires and passions. This isn’t easy; it may bring suffering, as you run counter to the world and Christ does battle with the desires that dwell therein. You will bear the cross. But there is One who bore a cross for you, leading the way that you now walk, and it is only by His work that you can walk, because it is only by His work that you have a destination that awaits you.

“Two roads diverged in a wood,” Robert Frost wrote. “And I—I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” Jesus chose not to take the easy path that would’ve meant safety and worldly glory, the path of victory that so many wanted Him to take. No, instead He took the road of the cross, the road that passed through darkness, darkness deep as death, but on the other side was light, the light of eternal glory. The broad and easy path is bathed in light, but its destination is darkness; the road less traveled by, the road of the cross, is covered with darkness, but its end is light. Jesus walked the way of the cross to redeem those dwelling in darkness, to set us on a path that seems dark to our frail human eyes, but has the promise of the light of eternal glory that He won for us. He took the road less traveled by, and it has made all the difference—for you, and for me, for the world. Thanks be to God! In the Name of Jesus, Amen.