Friday, September 30, 2016

The 125th Anniversary of Saint John's Lutheran Church, Kiron, Iowa (Luke 16:19-31)

“‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’” 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, the 125th anniversary of Saint John’s Lutheran Church in Kiron, Iowa, is the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the sixteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ, in death as well as in life, the rich man had no regard for the Word of God. It was in no way sufficient for him, and he suspected that it would not be sufficient for anyone else. What he understood was the language of power, the voice of money, his wealth and prosperity that made his life worth living. His eyes told him what was important, what would impress, and even in hell, having left all of his wealth behind him on this earth, he remains a theologian of glory. There, all he understood was the wonder of miracles, great signs and wonders that could convince any stubborn heart. On this earth, he trusted in his money; he thought that his wealth showed him (and everyone else) that God favored him, that God had blessed him. In hell, his money is gone, but he still trusts in appearances, he still relies on the big show. Only a miracle will bring his brothers to faith—this he knows. And so the strongest words spoken in our text are against the Word: “No, father Abraham!”

The Word is not sufficient; it doesn’t work, it can’t work. Wealth and miracles, power and signs, influence and wonders, those are the only things that can do any good. “No, father Abraham!” Who puts their trust in the Word, anyway? What can the Word alone possibly do that money cannot buy, that miracles can’t achieve? The church of the rich man takes great pride in beautiful buildings, the church of the rich man rejoices in schools that are bursting, the church of the rich man boasts about fancy sound systems and professional quality music. The church of the rich man dresses its pastor in a thousand-dollar suit, the church of the rich man gives him a brand new car and a massive house, the church of the rich man carves the pastor’s name in stone on the sign. The church of the rich man sits in a prominent neighborhood in a major city, the church of the rich man is well-known and respected in the community, the church of the rich man has successful businessmen and trusted politicians on its rolls. Trust in the Word? “No, father Abraham!” Trust in full pews, and full offering plates, trust in the power and influence of the Church upon the world. Trust in what your eyes see.

The church of the rich man has great optimism, the church of the rich man promises miracles, increase, prosperity. The church of the rich man declares that if you pray enough, that if you believe hard enough, that if you give enough, great things will happen. God will act. Miracles will come. That is how you know if your congregation is healthy and thriving, by the wonders you see, the blessings rolling in. In the church of the rich man, your own personal wealth, your own personal success, your own personal health is a sign that God is working in your midst, that God is actually present when you gather for worship. The church of the rich man has success stories left and right, the church of the rich man can point to numerous miracles, the church of the rich man has full pews and full offering plates because the church of the rich man can promise you both health and wealth. Trust the Word? “No, father Abraham!” Trust in full bank accounts, and full health, trust in prosperity promised and delivered. Trust what your eyes see.

But that’s the problem, isn’t it? What do your eyes see? Your eyes don’t see full pews, except for today, they don’t see full offering plates. Your eyes see rural areas emptying out, your eyes see fewer and fewer children getting on the bus. Your eyes see a former pastor, wearing the same suit and driving the same car as he did before—the only thing that has changed on both is the miles. Your eyes see a congregation that won’t make the news, that in the grand scheme of things seems pretty insignificant and out of the way, far from power and influence. Your eyes look at your own life, and you see bills that need to be paid, appliances and vehicles that will need to be replaced, you see failing health, you remember those whom God didn’t heal. Your attendance at worship, your prayers and your faith, they haven’s seemed to accomplish much. The church of the rich man seems mighty impressive next to St. John’s Lutheran Church in Kiron. Even 125 years doesn’t seem too impressive when you compare it with the church of the rich man; they celebrate ten years with much more fanfare. You look at your history, you page through the memory books or look at confirmation pictures, and it often seems that the glory days are far in the past, they have passed by, today seems in some ways to be only a day for nostalgia, for sighing about what used to be.

Is the Word enough, is it sufficient? “No, father Abraham!” we cry. Give me a sign and a wonder, give me some health and wealth, bless this place, make the pews and offering plate burst! Then we will know that God is with us, then we will know that God cares for us. “No, father Abraham!” But father Abraham will not give us what we want, the things the rich man lived on. Instead, he gives us the Word. “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” Take comfort, my child, father Abraham tells us, God’s Word is sufficient for you. Do you want wealth? Your congregation is immeasurably rich, for St. John’s Lutheran Church in Kiron, Iowa has the treasure of the Word, a treasure that will never run out, a wealth that this world cannot understand or have, the treasure that the church of the rich man forgot, to his sorrow.

Here, in this place, humble as it may be next to the church of the rich man, the greatest treasure that this world has ever known is given freely to you who gather. Here, in this place, the forgiveness of sins is poured out on you, a treasure that no money can buy, a pile of wealth that cannot be found anywhere but where Christ’s Word is proclaimed. This is the only wealth, the only treasure, the only inheritance that goes beyond the grave, for this treasure actually defeats death. And it is found here, in this place, on Sunday mornings; this place, along with all other places where this Word is purely preached, is the most important piece of real estate on the planet and it has been, for 125 years. For in this place Jesus is proclaimed, the same Jesus who spoke this parable, the same Jesus who was going to the cross bearing upon His shoulders all the sins of the world.

Do you want miracles? Someone did rise from the dead, Jesus Christ, the crucified One, the One who gave His life into death for the life of the world. The Word is sufficient for you because it proclaims to you the only miracle that matters, the only miracle you’ve been promised, the resurrection of Jesus Christ. You need no other miracles, for this miracle gives us all that you need. Jesus rose from the dead to pour out forgiveness, life, and salvation into every corner of our world, that His name may go forth in every century, to every tribe, nation, and language. Jesus rose from the dead to raise you from the dead, to give you the promise and the guarantee that your destination is the same as Lazarus. “The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side.” As I stand here again in this familiar pulpit, I am reminded of the dear saints who have been carried to Abraham’s side, who we commended to Abraham’s side here in this very sanctuary. That is the reason this congregation exists, to shepherd Christ’s flock through the turmoil of this life to the side of Abraham. This place is here because our world is dangerous, and Satan wants to shipwreck the faith of all the baptized; you need the Church to bring you the Word and Sacraments, which alone can keep you in the faith.

It doesn’t matter how impressive your church looks before the world; it doesn’t matter what the weekly attendance or offering is. What matters is the Word, and the Word alone. A faithful congregation is more vital to this dying world than any church of the rich man, and no faithful congregation is greater than another, no matter how much they differ by any outward measure. Each one is an outpost of the Gospel, a place where people gather to hear God’s Word, where the Word is sufficient for them, because the Word brings them Jesus, the Word gives them the promise of the side of Abraham. Each congregation, each Christian, is Lazarus: looked down upon by the world, covered in suffering and struggles, but given the promise of the banquet of heaven, the guarantee that one day they will rest at the side of Abraham. Appearances are deceiving. We do not trust what our eyes see, or else we become like the rich man, who even in hell was still a theologian of glory, who still put his faith in great signs and wonders. We trust what our ears hear: the Word, which proclaims to us a God who loved the world in this way, that He sent His only Son to suffer and die, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.

For 125 years, this congregation has been a beacon of hope, an outpost of the Gospel, an embassy of the kingdom of God in a foreign land. For 125 years the Word has been proclaimed in this congregation, in two different locations, by 10 different pastors, three of whom are with you today. At this font, countless children have been baptized into the faith, the Word has been joined with water to put to death the sinful man and raise up the new man to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. In this congregation, the very Body and precious Blood of Jesus has been put into the mouths of His saints. This is what we celebrate this day: the faithfulness of a God who put Saint John’s Lutheran Church in Kiron, Iowa to deliver His Word to people in desperate need of it. The Lord gave you this congregation; it is His gift to you, and a quick stroll through the cemetery, to learn the names of all those resting in the bosom of Abraham, tells you that you are not alone, that on the Last Day, there will be many who will rejoice that God used this congregation to bring them to the side of Abraham. Yes, father Abraham, the Word is sufficient for us, it is enough, because it gives us everything. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Trinity 17 (Luke 14:1-11)

“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” 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 Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the fourteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ: on the seventh day, God created rest. “And on the seventh day God finished His work that He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work that He had done.” He did not rest for His own sake, for God needs no rest, even after creating all there is. He rested for our sake. “So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all His work that He had done in creation.” Rest on the seventh day, the Sabbath day—called the ‘Sabbath’ from the Hebrew word for ‘rest’—was God’s gift to His people, and it was to be zealously guarded. “Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates.” Pharisees are the kind of people tailor-made to guard the statutes of God; they delight in following what God commands to the letter, they rejoice to show the world how they keep His Law.

“One Sabbath, when [Jesus] went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, they were watching Him carefully.” Pharisees build great hedges around the law, pages and pages of legal codes that keep anyone from getting anywhere close to violating the commandment. Pharisees watch others carefully, for rules and regulations are what make the Sabbath for them; they demonstrate how to keep the Sabbath properly and condemn those who don’t measure up. For Pharisees, the Sabbath is about the show, it is about watching yourself carefully, it is about showing others that you are obedient, so that your life is a rebuke to those who are not so scrupulous. The Sabbath is a day for doing what is expected, for keeping up appearances, for making sure others see just how obedient a Pharisee can be, and calling out those who are not so careful.

Pharisees like us come to worship, we go through the motions, we do what is required. Pharisees like us keep up appearances, we make sure that others see us in the pew, but our hearts and our minds are far away. Pharisees like us despise God’s Word, we ignore it, we criticize it, we don’t hear it gladly. Pharisees like us are bored with God’s Word, we can’t wait until we’ve left this place to do something, anything else. Pharisees like us don’t concern ourselves with what is taught, what is proclaimed, only with what is expected. Pharisees like us gladly listen to false doctrine, we drink in false teaching, because it tickles our itching ears, it tells us what we want to hear. Pharisees like us haven’t bothered to learn enough to identify and flee from false teaching, and so we follow every whim and fancy of the culture or popular Christian literature.

Pharisees like us leave worship unchanged, silent; instead of praising God for what He has given there, we thank God that it is over. Pharisees like us pass ourselves off as zealous, devout, and faithful Christians on Sunday morning, but the rest of the week we live like the pagans around us. Pharisees like us are unchanged by the Word, but we still think we have done our duty, our work for God. Pharisees like us gain no knowledge of God’s Word; we leave each year with as little understanding of God’s holy Word as we did when we entered it. Pharisees like us don’t take the Word of God into our home; we fulfill our expectations, we get ourselves and our families into the pew or into the classroom, but we don’t pray, we don’t read the Scriptures, we don’t have devotions. Then Pharisees like us wonder why our young people leave the church.

Pharisees like us are not here to listen to the Word of God, we are here to keep up appearances, to fulfill our external duties. For first century Pharisees, it was refraining from work, scrupulously avoiding labor of any kind. For twenty-first century Pharisees, we have long ago given up the concept of keeping the Sabbath by avoiding work. Instead of a day without work, it is a couple hours ‘resting’ in a pew. If you have done that, then you have done your Sabbath duty. Pharisees like us certainly have kept the outward forms of the Sabbath, we come to church (usually), but our hearts are still hardened.

Jesus knows Pharisees like us; He knows us better than we know ourselves. And so He comes into our legalistic, outward-focused Sabbath in order to teach us how it truly is kept. “And behold, there was a man before Him who had dropsy. And Jesus responded to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?’” He responds to those who watch, even though no one has said anything. He knows the hearts of Pharisees like us, Pharisees focused on externals, intent on simply making sure the appropriate strictures are followed, and then the Sabbath is fulfilled. But the Sabbath is not fulfilled by following Pharisaical rules. “He took him and healed him and sent him away. And He said to them, ‘Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?’”

Jesus holds the Sabbath day sacred by making it a day for healing. He holds the Sabbath day sacred by making it a day for mercy. Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath? Yes! The Sabbath is a day for healing, a day for mercy, a day for Jesus to show love to His afflicted people. Jesus makes the Sabbath day a day for Him to give release to the prisoners, sight to the blind. He holds the Sabbath day sacred because it is the day on which He will heal the wounds of His people. The Sabbath is not about avoiding work, but being healed by Jesus. The Pharisees cannot see it, for they think they are well. But this man with dropsy leaves their midst restored, while they remain sick with sin. Outwardly, Pharisees like us are healthy; inwardly, we are deathly sick. Repent dear friends, repent of your misuse of the Sabbath, admit your sickness, your desperate need for restoration, for Jesus came precisely to heal us.

“Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on the Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?” Jesus came upon us in our sin and iniquity, trapped in a well, with no way out; only death could be our share. And on the eve of the Sabbath, on Good Friday, He rescued us, He did not hesitate. Most people rescue a trapped person or animal by tossing down a rope and remaining safely on the surface. Jesus refused to save His own life, but jumped into the well with us and then heaved us out, leaving Himself behind in our place. There in that well, our tomb, He observed the Sabbath rest, spending the Sabbath beneath the ground. But on the third day He pulled Himself out of the well, rising victoriously from the grave, triumphant over death, having delivered us from every bond that held us. Jesus fulfills the Sabbath by resting fully and completely, the rest of salvation, sanctifying our own rest in the tomb. And when He rose from that rest, the Sabbath was fulfilled in salvation, and Jesus sanctified every day since as a day to hear of His salvation, a day to receive His gifts, the eighth day that will last forever, until it is fulfilled in our own resurrection day. Our Sabbath, our rest, is now every day, every day since Easter is a holy day, a Sabbath, and most especially those days that the congregation gathers around the gifts of Christ, assembled before altar, pulpit, and font. There Christ gives His healing, He gives true rest to forgiven Pharisees like us.

That is the gift of the Sabbath; Jesus has fulfilled its promise, He has finally made it complete. The rest of the Sabbath day was never meant to be an end in itself but it, was meant to be a taste of the rest that is yet to come, the rest that Christ won for us by His three-day rest in the tomb. That is what your eternity will be: an eternal Sabbath day, a never-ending day of rest, set aside for fellowship with your God, set aside to dwell in His presence. And so now, every Sabbath day, that is, every day since Easter, is a time for Jesus to heal us, to call us to repentance and cleanse us of our sin by His blood-bought gifts. That is what the Sabbath is all about—Jesus healing sinners, Pharisees like you and me.

So the Sabbath is not about avoiding work; it isn’t about following Pharisaical rules, keeping up appearances. Pharisees major in the minors; they observe what is incidental on the Sabbath while neglecting what is vital. What does Luther teach us about the Sabbath day? “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” The Sabbath is not kept simply by doing no work, or by simply being in the pew, although you certainly are violating the Sabbath command if you avoid the pew. The Sabbath is kept by gladly hearing and learning the Word of God. That is what the rest is for, that is why you are in the pew: to hear God’s Word. The rest of the Sabbath is meant to serve the Word.

How do we keep the Sabbath day? By gladly hearing and learning God’s Word, wherever and whenever it is read or proclaimed. By letting the Word fill your home, sanctifying each day with prayer and the Scriptures. The Sabbath rest of every day flows from the Sabbath rest of the Divine Service. Your pastors are here to help you in that task. We know that a prayer and devotional life is not easy, that it isn’t easy to raise your children in the fear and admonition of the Lord, and so we are here as your resources, to help you in this great task. How do we keep the Sabbath day? Not by doing or not doing, but by receiving. By taking time for rest during your week, coming to this place to receive all that Christ has to give: healing of our sin-sick souls, victory over death, His very Word which is the bread of life, and His Body and His Blood under bread and wine, the manna of heaven, the food of immortality. Here He gives you rest, the rest that you need, the rest that will never end, for here Jesus takes you, heals you, and sends you away, to dwell in perfect rest, forever. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Trinity 15 (1 Kings 17:8-16)

Martin Luther writes: “It is the nature of God to make something out of nothing. Therefore out of him who is not yet nothing God cannot make anything… So then God receives only the abandoned; He makes well only the sick; He makes seeing only the blind; He makes alive only the dead; He makes godly only the sinners; He makes wise only the foolish. In short, He has pity only on the miserable, and gives grace only to those who are without grace.” A man of God is sent to you, sent from the glories of heaven itself into the famine of this world, sent from prosperity to want, from the garden to the wilderness, from abundance to scarcity. All around you there is not wealth but poverty; the people are starving, their stomachs empty and their mouths dry. There is need everywhere, and no one knows where provision will come from, no one knows when hunger will end. The famine rages, and at its worst the man of God comes to you. He comes to you where you dwell, in the midst of an unclean land, surrounded by worshippers of idols, the last place one would expect a man of God to go. This is far from the land set aside as holy, this is far from the sacred places where one would expect God to be. This bone-dry, idolatrous and wicked land is far from God, it is far from anything that is godly. Here idols dwell; here children are sacrificed to false gods; here the temple prostitutes ply their trade. But it is not to the city of Jerusalem that the man of God is sent; He is sent to the land of the Gentiles, the land of sin and death; He is sent to you.

He is sent to you because God has appointed you to serve Him. You didn’t know it, you were never asked, you never signed your name on the dotted line. There were no notaries or lawyers involved here; God simply appointed you, He chose you to welcome His sent one, to receive Him into your home. That is why this man of God comes to you, to receive all that you have to give, to eat and to drink out of your abundance, to share your table. To the man of God you are to render the service that is owed to God Himself: a life lived in obedient service to your Creator, following His laws and constructing a home of holiness, filling a storehouse to the brim with righteousness, constructing barns stacked with good works. That is the food that God requires, that is the drink He demands. You are appointed to care for this man of God, to provide for Him from your abundance, to set His table richly, whether He says, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, that I may drink,” or “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” Food, water, shelter, this man of God has come to be served by you.

But that’s ridiculous; you have nothing to give. You are in poverty yourself, you are starving, abandoned by all, surrounded by wickedness: how can you give the man of God anything? You have nothing to give, nothing that He needs, nothing that He can use. You are a beggar, you are nothing, you have nothing except empty hands. You do not have any house of holiness, just a shack of sin. Your storehouses are not full of righteousness but iniquity. Your barn of good works? It’s a shed built with sticks, and every good work in there is moldy with sin. You are starving; you have not the food that the man of God is seeking, that God has demanded that you render to Him.

You are at the point of death; the famine is about to take you, to claim you for its own. All you have is a poor meal that cannot save from death, and may even speed up the process. That is what your idols have given to you, that is what your coveting has delivered: a cake of bread, that you may eat of it and die. That is the abundance that your neighbors encourage you to chase: wealth, power, influence, glory. A little oil in a jug and a handful of flour in a jar. You eat of it, and you are hungrier than before. This food cannot satisfy, it cannot fill; in fact, this food doesn’t fill the pit in your stomach, it expands it. The world, along with your idols, continues to hand you everything on the shelf to toss in there: money, influence, work, sex, alcohol, drugs, sports, but nothing satisfies, nothing fills that hole. Such food simply makes you hungrier, emptier, and the more you pour into that hole, the bigger it gets

This is a meal of death, a meal that can only deliver death. You have nothing for this man of God but your sin, and you say to Him, “Now I am gathering a couple of sticks that I may go in and prepare it for myself and for my son, that we may eat it and die.” For that is all that this scarce meal can give you—death. Some of this fare may bring death quicker than others, but none of it can deliver from death. Nothing this world can offer or deliver lasts beyond the grave. So God seems to be mocking you. Just what is He after, sending this man of God to you, asking you to provide for Him? He knows you are starving, He knows your cries of anguish in the night, begging for deliverance, begging for some food that might last. And now the man of God comes to you so that you can provide for Him? No, you would rather eat your meal and die.

But the man of God is undaunted. “Do not fear; go and do as you have said. But first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterward make something for yourself and for your son.” He is calling on you to believe, to trust without seeing; to give up all that the world gives you, that sparse meal in the midst of famine that has been the only fare you’ve ever known, trusting that God will provide. For the man of God adds this promise: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘The jar of flour shall not be spent, and the jug of oil shall not be empty, until the day that the Lord sends rain upon the earth.’” The man of God has not come to you to demand holiness, for He knows you are unholy, He has not come to you to demand righteousness, for He knows you are unrighteous, He has not come to you to demand good works, for He knows you have none that are worth anything in God’s sight. He has instead come to take and to give: to take your sin and wretchedness, the last morsel from your jar, and to give in its place the overflowing bread of life until the famine is broken on the great Day of the Lord.

You are called upon to believe, to trust, to hand over your sin and iniquity to Him trusting that He will provide for you. “Do not fear,” He tells you. Do not fear, for God has never failed to keep a single one of His promises. Do not fear, for the man of God is not going to take anything that is worth keeping. Do not fear, for this is the deliverance you have prayed for. Unbelief clings to what is seen, what it knows, no matter how poor and miserable that sight is. Unbelief doesn’t want to let go of sin; it wants to treasure it, indulge it, wallow in it. Faith, on the other hand, is born of the promise, its strength comes only from the Word of God, and it clings to that Word with tenacity.

The man of God takes your morsel of sin, your meal of unrighteousness, and He consumes it. He fills His belly with your every iniquity, He takes into Himself your every transgression. Your uncleanness, your unrighteousness, your tainted good works, He takes them all into His own flesh. He consumes them all, and they kill Him, just as they were killing you, just as they were delivering you up to death. The man of God, Jesus Christ, takes your sin into Himself and dies the death that it was to give to you. He dies in your place, as your substitute, with that bitter food filling His belly. But He did not stay dead. This food would’ve killed you forever, but Jesus, the man of God, the innocent One, cannot be held by the grave. He rose, leaving behind your sin and iniquity, having borne in His own body the death you should’ve died, and winning for you a jar of flour that will not be spent and a jug of oil that will not become empty.

In place of the food of sin, the meals of iniquity, Jesus provides much richer fare, food that delivers life, food that actually fills that gaping, empty pit within you. From the jar of flour and the jug of oil comes the Bread of Life Himself, Jesus, giving to you the meal that brings immortality, the food that will last forever, the Word, the water, the bread and the wine which give eternal life. You still dwell in the midst of the famine; you still dwell in a foreign land, surrounded by idol-worshippers, but you have what no unbeliever has: a jar of flour and a jug of oil that will never run out, that feed and sustain you in the midst of a world filled with scarcity. That is God’s promise, fulfilled when you gather in this place, a promise founded on the power of His Word. “The jar of flour was not spent, neither did the jug of oil become empty, according to the Word of the Lord.”

Only having received the miraculous food that He alone gives do you then serve Him by serving others, by extending the love that He first showed to you and producing the only works that are good, those done in faith, those made with the flour and the oil that He provides. This is the life of faith, dwelling with Jesus in our house, eating from His miraculous provision, and sharing those gifts with a starving world. As Saint Paul says, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” The flour and the oil, eaten in this place and given into the world, is the guarantee that there is a Day that is coming when you will hear the thunder, and the sweet smell of rain will fill your nostrils. The famine will end, the wilderness of scarcity will become the garden of abundance; that is God’s promise, as sure as the jar of flour and the jug of oil, as sure as the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Though you were not worthy, this Jesus, the man of God, came to you; not to be served, even though the Law demanded that you serve Him, but to serve. When you were nothing, when you were a beggar, when you had nothing to give but your sin, that was what the man of God took from you, that is what Jesus took upon Himself. When you were nothing, when you were struck down by your sin and poverty, it was then that Christ came to you, for as Luther declares: “It is the nature of God to make something out of nothing. Therefore out of him who is not yet nothing God cannot make anything… So then God receives only the abandoned; He makes well only the sick; He makes seeing only the blind; He makes alive only the dead; He makes godly only the sinners; He makes wise only the foolish. In short, He has pity only on the miserable, and gives grace only to those who are without grace.” In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Holy Cross Day (John 12:20-33)

“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 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 festival of the Holy Cross is the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the twelfth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. Dear friends in Christ: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” A simple request, really, and quite understandable. These Greeks are in Jerusalem for the Passover; they have heard the commotion of Palm Sunday, the events that shook that great city to its core. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” They want to see this great man of God, to hear Him speak, to perhaps even have the opportunity to ask a few questions. They have heard so much about Him, now they want to see Him for themselves. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” The disciples have certainly fielded requests like this before; throughout His three-year ministry many people have been brought to see Jesus. But this time something is different. This request comes not from Jews, or even from Samaritans, the usual crowd hanging around Jesus, the inhabitants of first century Palestine, occupying a small corner of this world. These are Greeks, and at this moment, on Palm Sunday, they stand in for the rest of the world; they represent the nations lining up to see Jesus, peoples and tribes and languages spanning the globe, all with this simple request: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” The time has come for Jesus to show Himself to the world.

“And Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.’” The request of these Greeks, as simple as it may sound, is a signal Jesus has been waiting for. The hour has come; it is time for Jesus to be revealed, to be glorified before the entire world. It is time for a local mission to become universal, it is time for the message of Christ to travel to every corner of creation. It is time for all to see His glory. And the world will be looking for it. We will look for the glory of Christ in more and greater miracles, delivering us from the suffering of disease and depression. We will look for the glory of Jesus in more profound and practical teachings, delivering us from the suffering of broken relationships and business failure. We will look for the glory of Jesus working the levers of power, delivering us from the suffering of poor government. We will look for the glory of Jesus in fancy church buildings, full pews and full offering plates, delivering us from the suffering of persecution and opposition. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus;” we wish to see His glory, the glory that will glorify us in the eyes of all those around us, the glory that is an escape from all the suffering this world can deal out.

But the glorification that Jesus has in mind has nothing to do with escaping suffering. “Truly, truly I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” The Greeks wish to see Jesus; the world is looking for the revelation of His glory, and Christ will show it to us, but in a way that none expect: by dying. He will bear much fruit, He will give forth a harvest the world has never seen, grain from every corner of this planet, but only by following the seed into the ground, only by dying. One of God’s greatest miracles in creation is that a dead, dry and wrinkled seed can sit on a shelf for months, even years, but when it is put into the ground, when it finds soil and water, it comes alive, and bears a harvest. Jesus will follow the pattern of the seed: He will be put into the ground dead, but will emerge alive, bearing much fruit. Only by dying will we see Jesus’s glory, only by suffering will Jesus be exalted. “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Jesus saves His life only by losing it; He loves the world only by hating His life in it. He doesn’t escape from suffering, but gives Himself into it. And He calls on the world to follow Him. “If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.” Where is Jesus? On the cross, and there His servants will be also. We follow Jesus to glory, certainly, but only after suffering, only after the cross.

It is at this point that many who wished to see Jesus turn away; the cost is too high. Jesus, too, is tempted to escape from suffering; as the cross draws near, He wrestles with His Father’s will. “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour?’” Jesus sees what lies ahead of Him: the horror of the cross, the humiliation, the pain, the suffering that will be inflicted by a sinful world. We want a Jesus that has no cross, a Jesus that makes us feel better, that gives us glory right now, who delivers from suffering, not one who leads us into it. But the only path to glory, the only path to true, complete, and eternal freedom from suffering, is through suffering and death, it is through the cross. “For this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your Name.” Asking for glory is asking for the cross. The two are inseparable, tied together; they are one and the same. Christ’s glory is Christ’s suffering; Christ’s exaltation is Christ’s cross. Jesus’ soul was troubled, but now He is resolute, He will go to the cross, He will fulfill the Father’s will, Jesus will save His life by losing it, He will hate His life in this world by giving it into death upon the cross. He will not ask for salvation from this hour but for glory, the glory of the cross. And His Father will answer. “Then a voice came from heaven: ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”

The cross doesn’t look very glorious, although we dress it up like it is. Every cross should be a crucifix, every cross should bear the body of Jesus, or else we are tempted to make it pretty, to give the cross some kind of magnificence or glory of its own. Dear friends, the cross has no glory in itself. By itself the cross is an instrument of torture, designed to give a cruel and agonizing death. Our attempts to dress it up, to plate it with gold, to hang it from a rapper’s neck or tattoo it on the small of our back are futile. The cross only has glory because it bears the body of Jesus. The glory of the cross only comes from what was done there, what Jesus accomplished hanging on its horrific beams. “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” The cross only has glory because Jesus hung there, exalted and lifted on high, bearing the sin of the world. The cross only has glory because it is spattered with the blood of Jesus, because there the sacrifice for the sin of the world was slaughtered. The cross only has glory because on the cross the serpent’s head is crushed, there the ruler of this world is cast down from His throne. The cross is a standard of victory because it is in the death of Jesus that we see Jesus for who He truly is, the Savior from sin and death, the One who leads us through suffering and death, His and ours, to a new creation where suffering and death will be no more. Glory comes through suffering: that is the message of the cross.

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” It isn’t important whether those Greeks saw Jesus or not that day: what is important is that their request was answered on Good Friday: there the world sees Jesus as He wishes to be seen, in His glory as the Savior of the world. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” This is the question the world is asking the Church, whether they realize it or not. And we must give answer, we must show this world Jesus, Jesus upon the cross, Jesus lifted up from the earth, for we have the promise that where Jesus is thus exalted, He will draw all people to Himself. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” This is the question you must ask every time you gather in this place, and you must hold your pastors accountable to show you Jesus as He wishes to be seen: suspended between earth and heaven, exalted in glory upon the cross, drawing all people to Himself. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” The people of Israel, facing the just consequences of their sin, were told to look upon the embodiment of their sin hanging upon a pole; they looked, and they lived. As we languish in our sin, suffering in a sinful world, subject to sin’s penalty, we are called to look upon the embodiment of our sin hanging on a cross; we look in faith, and we live. Jesus’ glorification began when they lifted up His body on the cross, suspending Him between earth and heaven, exalted for you, glorified for you, so that one day He will draw you out your graves and to Himself; forever. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Trinity 14 (Luke 17:11-19)

“Rise and go your way; your faith has made you 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 morning is the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the seventeenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ: common politeness dictates that you tell someone ‘thank you’ when they give you a gift. We teach our children this, and we hammer it home, whether it’s for a bike on their fifth birthday or for a college scholarship. A thank-you acknowledges the gift, it acknowledges its importance, and it honors the giver. It demonstrates how highly you hold that gift, and how highly you respect the one who gave it to you. In the fifth petition to the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread,” Martin Luther teaches us to confess: “God certainly gives daily bread to everyone without our prayers, even to all evil people, but we pray in this petition that God would lead us to realize this and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.” All people receive daily bread from God; they all are provided for out of His abundance with what they need for this body and life. The rain doesn’t just fall on the fields of Christians; it is not only Christians that have food to eat. But only Christians give thanks to the right person, only Christians give thanks in the right place; only the voice of faith gives thanks to the God who gives all good things, while the voice of unbelief gives thanks in the wrong place or not at all.

Ten lepers stood at the side of the road, just outside of a village. They were afflicted with a terrible disease, a disease of living death, that would not only one day claim their life, but until that day made them outcasts, isolated from their people and from the worship of their God. The book of Leviticus tells them how they are to live. “The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone.” They are lost, without hope, condemned to death, estranged from their people, estranged from their God. But then they see Jesus. They see this man they have heard so much about, this great miracle-worker from Galilee, the teacher, the healer of so many. This is their chance, their one hope, and so they do not cry, “Unclean, unclean!” but, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

Their voices utter a cry of faith. They believe that Jesus can heal them; they believe that He can do something about the terrible state that they’re in. They trust that He will have mercy, that He will have compassion, that He will not hold back, but will act. They cry out to the only One who can do anything about their situation, the One who has proven again and again that it is to Him that all who are broken by the effects of sin must go, that it is He alone who can give the healing that all men need. They believe that He can heal them; otherwise, they would’ve kept quiet in their dark despair. But when they see Jesus, they see hope, when they see Jesus, they see healing, when they see Jesus, they see the coming of light and life into their darkness and death.

And they were right. Their faith has the proper object; they believed in the only One on the planet who had in Himself the power to heal. Their faith would’ve been of no benefit if they would’ve believed in the next guy to come into town, or if they would’ve put their trust in a Greek, Canaanite, or Egyptian god. Dear friends, faith is only as good as its object. If the object cannot heal or save, no amount of faith will help. The object of their faith was the only one who could heal them. And heal them He did. “When He saw them He said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ He calls them to a further exercise of their faith; He does not heal them immediately, but He sends them to demonstrate their healing to the proper authorities, trusting that it will happen, indeed as if it had already happened. They do not waver: they trust, they believe, they go.

“And as they went they were cleansed.” Death reversed. Life restored. Skin renewed and reborn. They actually experience Nicodemus’ sarcastic question: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?” The ten lepers are reborn; they pass from death to life, from outcasts to full members of the community. Imagine the sight, as they watched their skin renewed and restored, made whole again, cleansed from its corruption. Now all that was left was to go, as Jesus instructed them, to the temple. There they testify to their healing; there they demonstrate that the Law’s demands have been fulfilled: they are clean! Christ has done it all for them, they are healed by His work, not their own. They simply believed in the One who had power to heal, and He healed. The Law which once excluded them now brings them back into the fellowship of their people, the fellowship of their God.

Nine former lepers returned home, certainly rejoicing, certainly giving thanks. The miracle worker had worked a miracle in their lives, they believed that He could heal them, and heal them He did. Now they are restored to their community, and they will begin the rituals to be fully integrated back home. But that’s all. Certainly this has been an amazing, miraculous, wonderful day, but there is nothing for them beyond the physical healing. So ends the story of the nine; once lepers, now clean. But as great as the cleansing of leprosy is, for one man this miracle has meant much more than the healing of his body. “Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving Him thanks.” Something much more important happened to him than the cleansing of his skin.

The same Word that cleansed his body also cleansed his soul. The new birth that he experienced on the outside was mirrored by a new birth on the inside. He received both what Nicodemus sarcastically asked for and what Jesus actually promised: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” He knew what it meant to be baptized into Christ; he saw in his body what Christ had done to his soul. Ten men were healed, only one was saved, only one believed. The nine believed that Jesus was a miracle worker, a rabbi who could restore their skin; the one believed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, the One who could restore his soul. His skin was afflicted with living death—the exact same state of his soul—but both were restored, both were healed, both were saved. The nine left the temple with clean bodies and still corrupted souls; the one returned to Jesus restored in both body and soul.

Faith gives thanks in the proper place to the proper person. In this case, the proper place and the proper person are the same. Only Christ has healed him, only Christ has saved him. His voice, once raised up in cries for help, is now raised up in cries of thanksgiving. Ten were healed; one was saved. God sends rain on the just and the unjust, and He sent His Son for the healing of all people, to cleanse them from the leprosy of their sin. The Law’s demand on the leprous in soul is not only death, but eternal death, to be outcast from God forever. But Christ fulfilled the Law’s demands, bearing your sin in His own flesh; dying and rising again as your substitute, in your place. And now His healing, won by His blood, is for all, it is freely given to all, to be received by faith. Go and show yourselves to the Law, dear friends, and because you are in Christ, it will have nothing to say against you. Your soul has been restored like the skin of the ten lepers; you have been washed clean by Christ’s shed blood, poured out on Calvary’s cross.

But what is true of daily bread is also true of the bread of life: unbelief gives no thanks. The voice of faith gives thanks; it can’t help it. Gratitude overflows from one who has been given all things, the healing of body and soul. The voice of faith gives thanks to the One who is Himself the presence of God in the flesh, it realizes that every good gift comes from God, and that God is to be found where the flesh of Jesus is. And where is the flesh of Jesus to be found? In His Church, His bride. Where the bride is, there the bridegroom will be, serving the wedding guests. And there Christians will be gathered, giving to Christ great thanks and praise, falling down before His feet, as the psalmist says: “Blessed are those who dwell in your house, ever singing your praise!”

Elsewhere, away from Jesus, is thankless unbelief. “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” It’s just common politeness, after all, to give thanks when a gift has been given, but Jesus has much more in mind than proper etiquette. A lack of thankfulness isn’t remedied by a good scolding or taking away a toy; a lack of thankfulness indicates that there is no faith. Once again, as Luther teaches us in the Small Catechism: “God certainly gives daily bread to everyone without our prayers, even to all evil people, but we pray in this petition that God would lead us to realize this and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.” The difference between a believer and a non-believer is not in the gift given—as God gives daily bread to everyone, so Christ died for the sin of the world—but in the thankfulness born of faith. The believer gives thanks, the non-believer gives no thanks at all, or (perhaps even worse) gives thanks to someone else.

But thanks given to anyone other than Jesus is misplaced. Only He comes to give the healing that all people need, even foreigners, even Samaritans, even you and me. He comes to heal our souls by washing them clean in His shed blood so that one day our bodies will be cleansed from the leprosy of sin, the disease that is at the root of all others, the only malady that can condemn to hell. When the Samaritan leper sees his skin restored on the road, he is seeing a preview of the Last Day, when his flesh, resting in the grave these past two thousand years, will be raised up and restored to perfection forever. He already saw in his body, in some small way, what you too will see in your body on the Last Day, when Jesus will summon you forth from your graves with a voice of compassion, of love: “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” In the Name of Jesus, Amen.