Thursday, April 21, 2016

Easter 4 (Isaiah 40:25-31)

“But they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” 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 Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the fortieth chapter of the prophet Isaiah. Dear friends in Christ: Where is God? ‘Where is God?’ asks a nation, a community, a neighborhood ravaged by disaster or touched by tragedy. ‘Where is God?’ asks the unbeliever, seeing suffering all around him. ‘Where is God?’ asks the father, as he buries his daughter. ‘Where is God?’ asks the man who has just lost his job, who has hungry mouths at home to feed. ‘Where is God?’ asks the couple, who has lost a child in the womb. ‘Where is God?’ asks the woman, who has just received a diagnosis of cancer. ‘Where is God?’ asks the widow, destitute and alone. ‘Where is God?’ asks the child, standing beside the coffin of his mother. Where is God? “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God’?”

Is God powerless? Can He save? Are our sufferings too powerful for Him to deal with? Can cancer conquer Him, can Alzheimer’s or dementia? Is He weak and helpless against the tornado, the flood? Where is God as a child suffers, as families gather in funeral homes, as the young woman lies in a hospital bed surrounded with wires and tubes? Where is God? Is He absent from the nursing home, from the hospital, the ICU, the NICU? Is depression, alcoholism, mental illness too much for Him to heal? Where is God? “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God.” Where is God? He does not save right now, so He must not be able to save. If God will not intervene, where do we turn? If God is powerless, who is powerful? In whom should we place our fear, love, and trust? Is it tougher laws, a more powerful government, that will save us from destitution and chaos? Do we place our reliance on doctors, specialists, experts who know all things? Do we trust in courts, in judges, to make right what God has left wrong? If our suffering is greater than God can handle, then the solution must be greater than God. If God is absent, if God will not answer, then we must turn to men, to the things of this world. They will become our gods; they will act, they will save. They must, we have no other hope: Where is God?

“My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God.” Where is God? Why does He not act? Why doesn’t He intervene, why doesn’t He save? Why does He leave me alone? Is His eye elsewhere, is He looking in favor on someone else? Why do others, even those who despise you, have everything going well, while I suffer? Why doesn’t He act, why doesn’t He save? Why doesn’t He see, why doesn’t He realize the pain and hurt that fills my life? I am lost, abandoned, forsaken; God has hidden Himself from me, I am hidden from His sight. He has disregarded my cause; He has left me to face the evil of this world by myself. Where is God’s justice? Has He forgotten me? Does He remember me at all?

“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.” God remembers you. Have you not known? Have you not heard? God remembers you. He does not forget any member of His creation, and He has not forgotten you, His beloved. He who holds all creation in His loving hands is not too great to remember you, He is too great to forget you. “Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name, by the greatness of His might, and because He is strong in power not one is missing.” He who knows every star by name knows you by name. He knows your sufferings, He knows your struggles, He knows your pain. Even the hairs on your head are numbered; much more does He know your sufferings. And He is not idle, He is not absent; He goes into action. He has not forgotten you, and He sets Himself forth to do something about your sufferings.

There is your God. There, on the cross, hanging there, suffering, dying for you. There is your God. Your God is Jesus Christ, God made flesh, the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep, the Suffering Servant who serves up even His own life. Your God suffers all in you place, taking on your flesh and blood, then bearing your sin and your sin’s penalty. Your God takes up your cause, He acts to vindicate you by giving Himself into death in your place. On the Last Day, your righteousness, now hidden in suffering, will be seen by all, you will be vindicated. Your pleas have not gone unanswered; they have not been ignored. Jesus is God’s reply to your cries for help; Jesus is God’s answer to your sufferings. There is your God. He has not forgotten you, He has not abandoned you, He has not left you. There is your God.

Have you not known? Have you not heard? “The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; His understanding is unsearchable.” Your God does not become fatigued; He does not become weary. He will not tire; He will not end. He is eternal, He is all powerful, and that power is directed toward your good. “Even youths shall faint and be weary; and young men shall fall exhausted.” All human powers will fail; their ability to end the suffering you deplore is only temporary, if they can relieve you at all. They cannot bring you the deliverance that you need. They cannot conquer suffering, they can only mitigate it, and even those efforts will ultimately fail. Only your God can conquer sin and suffering, and only your God has.

“To whom then shall you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One.” Not cancer, not heart disease, not Alzheimer’s, not Lou Gehrig’s, not tornados, not floods, not alcoholism, not depression, not death, not hell, not sin, not Satan—nothing can conquer your God, nothing is His equal, nothing is like Him. Nothing that you suffer in this world is more powerful than your God who hangs upon the tree. How do you know? Because your God, who hung upon the cross, rose again in victory on the third day. Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia, Amen! Easter gives you the promise that all you suffer will end, that all you suffer will be eliminated, that sin, death, and the power of the devil are defeated and will be eliminated, that you will be vindicated. “He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might He increases strength.” Your sufferings, no matter what they are, have been overcome, they have been defeated, your God is the crucified One, and the One who was crucified is the One who is raised, who lives nevermore to die. God has not forgotten you, God has not left you, God has not abandoned you. Your God lives—and you will live also. Your God lives—and your sufferings will end.

But not yet. Your victory has been won, but you do not yet see it. Your sufferings have been defeated, but they still cling to your flesh. God doesn’t promise you a life of ease and victory when you become a Christian; instead He calls on you to wait. “But they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” Where is God when you suffer? He is with you, beside you, even to the end of the age, strengthening you, enabling you to wait, filling you with His Word and promises. Jesus is God with you in the darkness of the valley of the shadow of death, feeding you with His Body and Blood, filling your ears with His promises, answering your cries of anguish by pointing you to His victory. There is your God. He is the crucified One, the risen One, who triumphed over your enemies for you, to give you the promise of an place where suffering will be eliminated, where death will be no more. There, for eternity, you “shall run and not be weary,” you “shall walk and not faint.” Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia, Amen! In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Easter 3 (Ezekiel 34:11-16)

“I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord, our Savior, our Shepherd Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning is the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the thirty-fourth chapter of the prophet Ezekiel. Dear friends in Christ: Who do you trust? That’s the question of the day, isn’t it? That is what the pollsters on your phone want to know, that is what the TV commercials and e-mail blasts are asking, that is what the discussion is around the breakroom. Who do you trust? Many of you probably are saying, ‘no one,’ but that’s a cop-out, and it isn’t really true. Every person you vote for, from the president of the United States, to your Nebraska legislator, to the chairman of a church board, is someone you trust. You may not trust them much, but you do trust them to pursue your interests, to govern in a way that you support. You trust them to represent you, to protect you, to provide for you and your family. You trust them to ‘Make America great again’ or to ‘Keep America great,’ depending on what you think of America at this moment. You trust them to shake things up or to keep things the same; that is how they earn your support, that is how they earn your vote.

The ancient peoples, both God’s own chosen people and the nations around them, called their rulers ‘shepherds,’ applying this common, almost universal picture to those placed in authority over them. The king as shepherd was supposed to protect his flock from enemies, he was to lead them to quiet waters and green pastures. He was to provide for their needs. Now we moderns may find this picture a bit overbearing, too oppressive and paternalistic, but we fall into it all the time, especially in an election season. Even the most cynical among us can get excited about the next big thing, the shepherd who will guide and protect us, who will serve our interests. As Christians who feel increasingly marginalized in our world, we look for the secular or religious ruler who will protect the Church, who we can trust to defend us, to save us from our enemies. If we only elect so-and-so, we will be delivered, from whatever evils we deplore. This idea infects us, it drives us to trust, to hope, to think that with one election the course of our nation or our church body can be reversed, that we can have salvation. There is a great error in thinking along those lines: we are putting our trust in men. God tells us all about earthly shepherds, just before our text: “The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them.”

Trust not in princes, they are but mortal; earthbound they are and soon decay. As shepherds they will always fail, for they are no different than you or I: they are sinful. Not service, but self-interest will too often govern their actions, once again because they are just like you. Therefore, the mismanagement of the Church and the world by sinful men throughout history is truly a marvel to behold. The historical record of the Old Testament itself is a depressing list of unfaithful rulers who mismanaged and abused the flock they were given charge over. In the New Testament era, it is a miracle that the Holy Christian Church has survived the ‘care’ it has received from its shepherds. You don’t need a doctorate in history to know how often rulers have lost their spine on the one hand or have become despotic on the other, failing the trust and hope that people placed in them. Men have failed and men will fail.

Jesus knows what earthly shepherds will do when threats come. “He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.” Hired hands flee the wolf, they cannot save the Church or the world; they quickly find that their power, their resolve, their ability to bring the salvation that people truly need is quite limited. And so the flock is scattered, scattered by the assaults of the wolves, left disoriented and disillusioned. Their trust has been let down, their hopes have been disappointed, they have been abused and neglected, knowing only one thing: trust not in princes.

God looks at this depressing mess, this hopeless picture that has been painted for you this morning, and He speaks with conviction. “Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out.” God looks backwards to the history of His people, the rulers that have been set over them, good and bad, He looks forward into all that will attempt to govern Church and world, and He says, “Enough! I will shepherd my people.” He will do it Himself, He will no longer leave it to others. “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God.” None who led His people had the ability to deliver His people, to give them the salvation that they truly need. When the wolf came, they fled, for they have no power over wolves. Yes, they can beat back an enemy army, they can put criminals in prison, they can avoid a famine—some of the time—but they have no power over the wolves that truly matter: they cannot eliminate sin (though some try), they cannot defeat death, and they cannot conquer Satan. When those wolves show up, the hired hands all flee.

But Jesus stands tall. He is God in the flesh, the same God who promised to shepherd His people Himself has come as man to do exactly that. He places Himself between us and those wolves and denies them passage. He gives up His own life to save the sheep. “I am the good shepherd. I know my own, and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.” He lays down His life for sheep that love to wander, giving Himself into the wolf’s belly, only to burst that tomb three days later.

He lays down His life for sheep who love to wander, who have been led astray and abused by the shepherds who have attempted to have authority over them. “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” We were lost, scattered, left without help or deliverance. Our own sin left us condemned to death, and those placed over us as our shepherds had no ability to save us. But then came a new shepherd, the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ. God laid on Him the iniquity of us all, and He laid down His life for us upon the cross, giving Himself to the wolves so that their power over us would be broken forever. Now, He goes forth from the empty tomb to gather the sheep in. “As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.” He seeks you out, from every place that you have been scattered; He has sought you out and brought you into His flock, claiming you with the quiet waters of Baptism, giving to you the wondrous promise of green pastures and fertile fields forevermore.

“I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel.” He has good pasture for you, the only food that satisfies, just as He gives the only salvation that truly matters. Here, in the Church, He shepherds you, He feeds you, He provides for you. Here in the Church you graze on His Word; here in the Church, you feast on His Body and His Blood. Here you are shepherded by your Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ. Here what earthly shepherds could not do, He does. “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.”
But He does this shepherding work through means, through people. He sends you pastors, under-shepherds whose task it is to be the hands and voice of your Good Shepherd. He does His seeking and His feeding through means, through men called for this purpose. After all that has been said, that may shock you. You have heard this day from your God in Ezekiel 34 and John 10 what to expect from earthly shepherds, and then Jesus sends you more!? Yes, just as surely as He continues to send you presidents and legislators. He is your shepherd; all earthly shepherds are to serve Him and to serve you. Your hope and trust is not in your pastor, but in the Word that he brings, the gifts he is honored to distribute. You do not follow him blindly; your shepherd is Christ, and you judge all under-shepherds by their faithfulness to His Word. Trust not the man, trust the office he has been given, trust Christ. He alone you are to fear, love, and trust. Your pastor, no more than your president, is a sinner like you; call on both to shepherd God’s people in accord with His Word. Trust not in men, trust in Christ.

So vote; take your responsibility seriously to choose and hold accountable those who will shepherd your city, state, country, congregation or church body. Do so wisely, guiding your reason by the Word of God and seeking to elect those who will in humility serve those whom they shepherd. If the Lord is calling you to such service, be willing to assist in the task of shepherding. We need more Christians in the political square, and we certainly need more who are willing to serve this congregation and in the Church at large, as pastors or lay leaders. But put no trust in yourself, put no trust in those who you vote for. Do not look to them for salvation, for deliverance. Trust not in men, trust in Christ. He is Himself the Good Shepherd, who won for you green pastures and quiet waters, who will gather you into the rich pastureland of the new heavens and the new earth on the day of His return. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.