Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Second Sunday after the Epiphany/Mission Festival (Romans 12:6-16)

“Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them.” 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 Epistle lesson read a few moments ago from the twelfth chapter of Paul’s letter to the church of God in Rome. Dear friends in Christ: Jesus is the One with the gift of prophecy, as He proclaimed to us the will of God, especially God’s salvation through His Son. Jesus is the One with the gift of service, as He came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many. Jesus is the One with the gift of teaching, as He taught all who would listen about the nature of the kingdom of God that was breaking into this sinful world like light in a dark place. Jesus is the One with the gift of exhortation, as He encourages us to repent, to turn away from our sins, and believe in the redemption that He has brought. Jesus is the One with the gift of contribution, as He gave all that He had, laying aside His glory to take humble flesh and then laying aside His life to die in your place. Jesus is the One with the gift of ruling, as He is the head of His body, the Church, and He leads and guides her to green pastures and streams of living water, where He will wipe away tears from all faces. Jesus is the One with the gift of showing mercy, divine mercy, overflowing mercy, not giving us what we deserve, but taking that judgment, that punishment upon Himself.

Jesus is the One who possesses every spiritual gift; they are His, and they are His perfectly, in full and complete measure. And He who possesses every spiritual gift then delights to give them away, to you and to me. Spiritual gifts are just that—gifts!—they belong to Jesus, but He entrusts them to our care, we are stewards of them, not owners. He gives them to each person individually, for us to use for the good of others, as Saint Paul says, “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.” Spiritual gifts are given on an individual basis, to each person as Jesus, the possessor of every spiritual gift, sees fit. Different gifts are given to different people, and the same gift is not given in the same way to any two Christians. Jesus gives them in exactly the way that they are needed, not for our own good, but for the good of the body of Christ and the good of a world trapped in the darkness of sin.

Spiritual gifts are not given for the purposes of pride, to puff out chests and inflate egos, to lead us to look down upon those who we don’t think are quite as gifted as we are. Paul warns against such arrogance later in our text. “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.” I’m just old enough to remember the fervor, really the nonsense, that once accompanied the subject of spiritual gifts. It was once quite trendy, and a quick Google search will tell you that in many places it still is today, for churches to give out ‘spiritual gift inventories’ to help you to identify your gifts, and then give you opportunities to exercise them in various roles within the congregation. This was a Christian version of a personality or career test: find your gift, and we’ll slot you in the right job.

Spiritual gifts then become a mystery, something that I can’t find out until I take this test; often the language of ‘discovery’ is used, as if Jesus makes us search around for how He has blessed us. Spiritual gifts, instead of being received as a gift, are then a source of pride, as we identify for ourselves (using someone’s test) what gifts we have and then call on others to recognize them. Spiritual gifts are then simply a synonym for personality strengths, that I must be allowed to exercise in the way I think they should be used. Most devastating, spiritual gifts are then set up against and above the vocations that God has called us to, they are used as excuses to leave vocations God has given or to seek vocations that He has not. Scripture forbids a woman to serve as a pastor, but many sought that office after a spiritual gift inventory claimed to identify the gift of preaching.

Such a perspective on spiritual gifts is completely contrary to how Paul would have us use the gifts Jesus has given. Spiritual gifts are not given for the self, they are not given for our own good. They are not given to benefit our own life, to exalt ourselves in the eyes of others, or as leverage for church offices. Spiritual gifts don’t belong to us, they are not our possession; Jesus possesses them all, and He gives them how and where He wills, all for the good of the body, His Body, the Church, and for the extension of the kingdom of God throughout the world. The question then is not, ‘what spiritual gift do I have?’ but instead, ‘where has God placed me and what has He called on me to do in that vocation?’ The spiritual gifts that Paul lists here are all general and generic, and that’s the point: the focus isn’t on the gift, the focus is on using whatever God has given you, in whatever vocation He has placed you, in genuine love for your neighbor, as Saint Paul teaches: “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.”

Jesus gives spiritual gifts to individuals for the good of the body of Christ, in each and every place, to show love to our brothers and sisters in our congregation and around the world. He gives gifts to you and to me, spiritual gifts, and also material gifts, to supply what others lack, what is needed in the body of Christ. He uses us in our vocation, He uses us according to the gifts He has given to us, as we, hearing the exhortation of Paul, “Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.” What we have, what gifts have been given to us, we use to supply what is lacking among others, trusting that God will use others to then supply what we lack. This happens in a congregation, as the body of Christ comes together to educate our young, maintain a building, and spread the Gospel, not only the direct preaching of the Word from this pulpit, but those who support this proclamation in numerous ways, and who take it into their vocations during the week. The Christian congregation is an assembly of saints with different gifts, each using them for the good of the body, each one supplying what the other lacks; each member is vital, each is blessed individually for the good of the whole. We see this on a much larger scale when we look at a church body or at the body of Christ spread throughout the world; individuals, congregations, and church bodies in love supply what others lack, using all gifts for the good of the body and the extension of the kingdom of God.

Lutheran Theological Seminary in Pretoria, South Africa has students, men who wish to become pastors and spread the Gospel in their native land, who hunger and thirst for Lutheran theology, but what don’t they have? They don’t have enough teachers, they don’t have enough materials, and they don’t have enough money. What do we have? We have men who can teach, we have the books, and we have been blessed to live in a prosperous land; we can supply what they need. That is what mission work is all about: we supply what others lack, but we are not left unchanged, as they supply what we lack, exhorting us to be faithful to God’s Word and the Lutheran Confessions, and refreshing us with their zeal to know and learn more about the truths of the faith.

This exchange of love in the body of Christ is a source of joy, because we are not looking to our own pride, but to the good of others. Saint Paul encourages us, “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.” The Church is a body, and we do not exalt ourselves over other members of that body, we do not look down on them in pride for any deficiency they may have, but with joy we fervently seek their good, for we all are loved by a God who seeks our good—it is His love, first shown to us, that we then show to others.

Jesus is the One whose love is genuine, never false, never fake, never a show, but always sincere, always honest, always true. Jesus is the One who abhorred what is evil, refusing to give in to Satan’s temptations, refusing to abandon the road of the cross, and instead chose the good: what was good for us, His death, in our place, on a Friday we still call ‘Good.’ Jesus is the One who loves us with brotherly affection, for we have been made His brothers and sisters, brought into His family, by our baptism into His Name. Jesus is the One who shows honor to all, especially the lowly, especially the downtrodden, especially those whom the world has forgotten. Jesus is the One whose zeal is never slothful, but is fervent in His service of you and me with His gifts, pouring out His love and forgiveness in manifest ways. Jesus is the One who rejoiced in the hope of His Father’s vindication, was patient in the tribulations inflicted upon Him for your sake, who constantly cried out to His Father in prayer, and was heard. Jesus is the One who contributes all He has for the needs of the saints, and He shows hospitality to us, calling on us to take shelter under His wings. Jesus is the One who blessed those who persecuted Him, asking God to forgive them as they nailed Him to the tree. Jesus is the One who rejoices with you who rejoice, as you celebrate that gifts and blessings that flow into your life, provision from a generous God, and Jesus is the One who weeps with you who weep, as you face the struggles and challenges of living in a still-fallen world. Jesus is the One who is never haughty, who is not embarrassed to associate with sinners; in fact, He never associates with anyone else. He associates with sinners in order to forgive them. He associates with you, He forgives you, because He loves you; He has every gift in full measure, He has fulfilled every exhortation on your behalf. His love is genuine, and it will never fail, it is His greatest gift. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

The Epiphany of our Lord (Matthew 2:1-12)

“And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.” 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 on this celebration of the Epiphany of our Lord is the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the second chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, in the days of Herod the king, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, strange visitors came to Jerusalem, asking an even stranger question: “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” They come seeking a child, already declared king—why? “For we saw His star when it rose.” The word ‘epiphany’ is Greek, and it simply means ‘revelation’ or ‘manifestation.’ The star epiphanied to these strange visitors, called magi by Matthew—magicians, sorcerers, or, as we have sanitized it today, ‘wise men’—the star epiphanied to them that a special child was born, so special, so unique, that these magi declare that they “have come to worship Him.” This is no ordinary king, but One worthy of worship, One to whom they will bow; this king was epiphanied to them, and they are compelled to make this journey, they are compelled to worship Him, and they have come to Jerusalem to find Him.

Where else would they go? If these men have any of the wisdom we humans are so proud of they know that the One born King of the Jews must reside where all the other kings of the Jews lived: Jerusalem, the holy city, the seat of Israel’s kings. If a king worthy of worship has been born to the Jews, He must reside in a magnificent palace. The star epiphanied to them that a child was born king of the Jews; it did not give them the address. Where else would you go to find the king of the Jews? But there is no epiphany in Jerusalem, only the darkness of unbelief. “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” Herod’s heart is darkened by jealousy and rage; the child is not in his palace, nor in the temple, no great birth has been reported. So the magi know a child is born, but they have no power to find Him; their wisdom fails them, indeed, it’s a hindrance—they’ve come to the wrong place. In fact, their wisdom has placed the King they have come to worship in jeopardy, as a jealous Herod is now alerted to the presence of a rival. The magi are failures, their ‘wisdom’ is a sham, their journey a fiasco, all their powers of reason and understanding are completely and utterly worthless.

The wisdom of this world, the wisdom peddled by these magicians and sorcerers, these ‘wise men,’ cannot apprehend the child born King of the Jews. Such wisdom only hides Him. This world is not going to find the child born King of the Jews simply by observing creation and using the power of human reason. People are not going to become Christians by watching a beautiful sunset or climbing a mountain. You won’t find Christ in a fishing boat or in the casino. People won’t even be converted simply by seeing Christians live upright lives among them. At best, they will come to Jerusalem, to the seat of power and glory, looking for a God who is big and powerful, a generic God who either likes me because I’m likeable and wants to give me everything I ask for, or hates me because I’m hatable and wants to crush me. The best that human reason can do, thinking as deeply as it can, examining this creation as closely as it can, is that there is a God, and this God has two characteristics: He’s big, and He’s mad. And that’s the best human reason can do; the worst is complete and total unbelief, the hatred against the child exemplified by Herod. There is no epiphany by human reason; nothing is epiphanied that gives any hope, certainly not the child born King of the Jews.

Epiphany only comes through the means God has appointed. The magi are in the wrong city, they have no idea where the child is, their human wisdom and learning is not worth one pinch of owl dung. But Herod—sinful, jealous, unbelieving Herod—he actually knows where to go. He goes to the Church. “And assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.” God’s Old Testament Church, now corrupted and led by status-seeking men concerned only with the outward show of the Law, still serves the purpose that it has had since the very beginning. From the first message of the Gospel given to the first preacher, Adam, through many centuries and countless prophets and priests, the Church has been given the solemn responsibility to point people to the child born King of the Jews, the seed of the woman who will crush the serpent’s head, the star coming out of Jacob, the righteous Branch, God’s Servant Immanuel. There is epiphany within the Church, an epiphany that human reason cannot attain, an epiphany that the Church has a command from God Himself to show to the world, a command that still stands, by the way, reemphasized by Christ Himself. And so the chief priests and scribes, despite themselves, fulfill their God-given task, pointing the magi to the child born King of the Jews.

“They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”’” The Church points the magi to Bethlehem, to the child born King of the Jews, by preaching the Word. The Church doesn’t start a soup kitchen, it doesn’t send out people to dig wells or clean up a park, as God-pleasing as such things may be; it preaches the Word. The Church must speak, Christians must speak. You cannot expect your neighbor to believe simply by watching you drive to church every Sunday, you cannot think you have spread the Gospel when you double your waitress’ tip. It is the Word alone that epiphanies the Christ child. The Christian must finally speak; we cannot expect the world to believe by osmosis, as if a church building in a neighborhood automatically makes Christians, as if a Bible sitting on our shelf can convert our relatives. Jesus does not want to be known in any other way than through His Word; He cannot be apprehended in any other way—the Church, Christians, must speak. Even Herod pointed the magi to Bethlehem; the Church, on the other hand, speaks not out of jealousy and murderous schemes, but out of love, love for Christ who has called us to speak and love for neighbors lost in the darkness of sin, death, and hell, who desperately need us to speak. Human wisdom will fail every time, the beauty of nature will always fall short, good works by themselves never converted anyone; the Word epiphanies Jesus, and His Word never returns void.

The magi heard this Word, spoken by the Church, and through the work of the Holy Spirit, a miracle indeed, they believed. “After listening to the king, the went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was.” Note well, dear friends: the star guides them to the house only after they have heard the Word and believed. It is the Word that points them to Jesus, and then God sends the star to get them to the proper address. Only in the Word is Jesus revealed to be who He is, against all appearances: the ruler of the nations, the Lord of creation, the shepherd of His people Israel. Apart from the Word, God is an angry judge; He is big, and He is mad. But the Word epiphanies Him as the God of love, a God who would send His Son to save not only the Jews, but all the Gentiles, starting with the magi, converted from trust in wisdom to trust in the Word. The Word epiphanies Jesus as the Good Shepherd, the Shepherd who lays down His life for you and for me. The Word epiphanies Jesus as the King of the Jews, the title that will be placed above His head as He sheds His blood for the magi, for you and for me, for all the world. The Word epiphanies Jesus, the baby lying in a manger, the child living humbly in Bethlehem, the man presented to the angry crowd by Pilate, the man hung upon the cross, as your Savior, your Lord, your King. He is epiphanied in the Word, He is epiphanied in the Church, He is epiphanied to and for you. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.