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.