Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Wandering in Your Wilderness (Luke 4:1-13)

In the name of Jesus.
Dear Brothers and Sisters redeemed by Christ:
Down the street, Christians continue to sing and shout and scream: "Praise, praise, praise, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia." And tonight, down the street, Hollywood will continue to sing and shout and scream it's "alleluias" before the flash bulbs and cameras.
But here, this morning, something has changed. The alleluias have been put on hold for a season. The great shouts of praise to God from his people on earth have, for a time, become silent.
For a season, we will refrain from singing "Glory to God in the highest." For a time, we will refrain from singing "This is the Feast" and the alleluias that accompany it. For a while, we will refrain from singing "Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia."
But why? Why deny God's people the opportunity to loudly shout alleluias to God and the Lamb? Why - for a time - does the Church close the door on boisterously reveling in the happy, clappy Christian life?
Benny Hinn isn't observing Lent. Trinity Broadcasting Network isn't airing some annual "Ash Wednesday Praise-a-thon." Alleluias are not silenced in the mega-churches that are regularly featured in our newspapers and magazines. Why have they been reserved until a later time here?

Purple adorning the sanctuary. The absence of flowers on the altar. Hymns sung in minor keys. Children of God entering church still hiding a few ashes in the pores of the skin of their foreheads. "Oh, it's that time of the year again."
And something deep down inside us asks, "Didn't we do this Lent thing last year? Can't we just get on with it and fast-forward ourselves to the glories of Easter lilies trumpeting a Christ-less cross and empty tomb?"
Many in New Orleans and many more in Rio de Janeiro have plunged themselves into the excesses of Carnival or Mardi Gras, wishing they would finally wake from their stupor on the other side of Lent.
And so it is with Christians in our communities. A voice inside says, "I want a church that affirms me and allows me to do what I've already decided makes me feel good. If the liturgy is going to mention sin every Sunday then I'm just going to skip Sunday services until Easter. I know what I'll do. I'll simply go find a congregation that projects on their jumbo-tron a blood-less, cross-less -- handsome and hug-giving Christ."
But the absence of the alleluias, the Gospel for the First Sunday in Lent has been placed before us this morning for a reason, for a most-important reason: to highlight how Jesus' redeeming mission actually all began, that we would put our faith in his subsitutionary work in our wilderness and gain strength as he leads us through the barren wasteland of this world and into paradise.
This first Sunday in our Lenten journey with Christ sets the stage for not only his forty days in the wilderness but his entire public ministry: one of struggle, one of self-denial, one of wrestling with the possibility -- the tempting possibility -- that salvation could be won another way outside of the Savior's "innocent, bitter suffering and death."
"There's an easier way." the devil whispers into Jesus' ear. "If you are the Son of God, get yourself off this road that leads only to hurt and struggle and blood and sweat and tears. Reject this silly notion of offering yourself as the sacrifice for sinners and grab the glories you deserve as God's Son - now. Give in to the exciting side, the glorious side, the reasonable side of the spiritual life."
Saint Luke documents three final temptations that capped forty days and nights of struggle with his human nature, the devil and the world. These were the same temptations others before him failed to win against.
In these forty days of temptation, Jesus undoes what Adam failed to do in the Garden: firmly trust in the Word of God as it was revealed from heaven. In these forty days of temptation, Jesus restores what the children of Israel failed to carry out: as he believed firmly that, even despite appearances, God's leading was good and gracious and ultimately for his own good.
And how are you doing during your forty days of wandering in the wilderness -- the wilderness of your weakness and sin and consuming concern with self and self-obtained security?
Christ was tempted in the place of Adam and Israel and you - and came out of it faint, but not faint-hearted towards the will of his Father in heaven.
Scripture tells us that the devil left Jesus after those excruciatingly difficult forty days, until a more opportune time. And what was that more opportune time?
And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments. And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (Luke 23:33-37 ESV)
Everything hung in the balance. Would Jesus give in to the tantalizing lie that our salvation could be won without the Savior's death upon the cross?
Yesterday I was reminded that the daily Scripture readings suggested in the bulletin for the last few weeks have included the book of Job, a book that reveals Job's faith in his Redeemer-to-come, his Redeemer that would take upon himself Job's own human nature and helpless situation and overwhelming temptation in order to bring him -- and us -- through the wilderness of the unimaginable to rest in the eternal land of promise.
Do you find yourself in a wilderness of disappointment and hurt and anxiety and fear? Do you find yourself giving in to the temptations and trickery of Satan, your old nature and the world?
Then flee to the Christ that takes center-stage in the season of Lent. Watch as he is attacked by those who would rob him of his proper place as redeemer and, in so doing, rob you of any hope of heaven. See him as he gives up all in order to give you and all fallen children of Adam and Eve hope in this world and life in the world to come. Journey with Jesus these forty days, take hold of this man and his way of saving you: from your wilderness, from your hell, from your death.
Bind yourself to Christ and to his Word and his life and death and resurrection, for he has bound himself to you and your helpless condition. Salvation is all tied up in this Son of God and Mary's son, in his rejection of attempting to do things the easy way, the glorious way, the risk-free way.
Christ was found faithful at the end of his forty days because Christ was found by his Father in heaven holding on to the word of promise: "Through your innocent suffering and death, my people's many sins will be atoned for. By your perfect life, my people will stand forgiven and righteous before me."
One thing I'm convinced of after Ash Wednesday: there are a lot of different looking foreheads around Redeemer Lutheran Church and School. All kinds of foreheads - but the same spiritual condition. "We all like sheep have one astray, and the Lord has laid upon Christ the iniquity of us all."" Each of us received the same announcment this last Wednesday: "Because of our sin, we shall return to the ground from which God created you." Yet each of us received that announcment with a mark: a mark not of the Ten Commandments, a mark not of our great promises to God, a mark not of Moses, but the mark of Christ's sacrifice upon the cross.
This week you are beginning forty days of allwing God in Christ through the Holy Spirit to put everything in Christ's life -- and your life -- into sharp focus. Our great need. God's greater solution for it. God's unmeasureable gift of love in the giving up of his only-begotten Son.
Next time someone asks you, "What's your favorite season of the year?" will you reply, "Lent."? Next time someone asks you, "Where is the clearest, surest, most comforting revelation of our sin and God's forgiving love?" will you reply, "Christ upon the cross."?
God be with you these forty days, as he promises, to defend you and save you through his all-giving Son. In the name of Jesus.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Color of Sin

I asked the preschool kids in chapel this morning, "If you had to pick a color to represent sin, what color would it be?" One child in the first pew quickly replied, "Dark." Actually, that's quite Scriptural as we hear the chain of events that Friday when the sins of the world came to rest upon one man suspended between heaven and earth. (Matthew 27:45; Luke 23:44; John 1:5, 19; 8:12; 12:35, 46) May God in Christ Jesus bless your Ash Wednesday observance.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Caught in the Net of Christ's Word (Luke 5:1-11)

In the Name of Jesus
Dear Fellow Redeemed in Christ:

This entire event with boats, nets and fish gets its cue from the section of the Gospel that immediately precedes it:
[Jesus] said to them, "I must preach as the Good News the Kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose." (Luke 4:43 Just)
In the Holy Gospel According to Saint Luke, Jesus' preaching, Jesus' heralding the Word, always takes center stage. Despite what our worldly nature thinks of it, this event is not ultimately concerned with Jesus' authority over perch and bluegill. This event is an epiphany, a manifestation of the glory Jesus will ultimately reveal upon the Cross. It is a sign that points to something infinitely greater and more glorious. Here, with boats and nets and fish, our Lord gives a sign that points to his saving Word — that saving Word that alone can gather in and send out. Here, Jesus orchestrates a "parable in motion" as he uses common, earthly things to announce that the heavenly kingdom of grace and redemption has come, and it has come in the person and work and word of God's one-and-only Son.
And it came to pass, while the crowd was crowding upon him and hearing the Word of God, he was standing by the lake Gennesaret, and he saw two boats standing by the lake. And the fisherman, having gone out of them, were washing the nets. And after stepping into one of the boats, which was Simon's, he asked him to put out from the land a little. And after sitting down, he went on teaching the crowds from the boat. (Luke 5:1-3 Just)
The crowd that crowds in around Jesus is a mixture of faith and unbelief, a hodgepodge of hunger for heaven and for the immediate wants of stomach and the comfortable life. Nevertheless, despite the double-natured hearts of the people. Jesus continues to cast out his Word. Without him, the crowds (and each of us) are merely aimless drifters in a sea of chaos, darkness, and despair.
For many that day, Jesus was seen as just another prophet, just another in the long line of men with special abilities to speak a Word from God. But, for the eyes of faith, Jesus was so much more than even Moses himself. Moses had parted the Red Sea; Jesus prepares to divide doubt from trust, human wants from eternal necessities, as he preaches the difference between the Kingdom of Power and the Kingdom of Grace and Mercy.
His desire that day, and his desire this day, is that in the casting out of his Word, people would truly hear — as the Word of Christ goes out into our ears, into our minds, into our hearts and souls.
And when he had stopped speaking he said to Simon, "Put out into the deep and lower your nets for a catch." And answering, Simon said, "Master, working hard through the whole night, we took nothing; but at your word I will lower the nets." And having done this, they enclosed a great number of many fish, and their nets were at breaking point. And they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats so that they were almost sinking. (Luke 5:4-7 Just)
Jesus will now call for an act of trusting faith from someone to whom he had been preaching his saving Word. That same word from Jesus' lips will now be revealed as the same divine Word that created the heaven and the earth, that almighty Word that breathed life into our first parents, that gracious Word from heaven that forgives and restores and promises eternal life.
You see, Jesus' was called to preach the Good News of the Kigndom of Grace, from the boat, on the road, from the moutainside, the Good News that defies all logic and reason: "God has come in his Son to forgive the unforgiveable, to heal the incurable, to secure the wandering and wayward in the net of the preaching of Christ.
"At your Word, I will." summarizes the entire Christian life. "At your Word I will believe. At your Word I will receive simple water connected with the promise of heaven. At your Word I will receive common bread and wine connected with the promise of forgiveness and strength. At your Word, Master, Lord, I will."
And the results under the direction of Jesus' Word are not only complete, but they are overwhelmingly complete. This is the "overflowing" praised in the Twenty-First Psalm. This is the abundance of wine provided at the Wedding Feast at Cana. This is the richer-than-imagined generosity of salvation given in and through the Word.
In this miracle of nature, Jesus is revealing to Simon and to you and to me, how he will establish his Church: by calling his own through his almighty and gracious Word.
And when Simon Peter saw this, he fell at the knees of Jesus, saying, "Depart from me, because I am a sinner, Lord." For awed amazement had seized him and all those with him at the catch of the fish that they had caught, and likewise also James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were companions to Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, "Do not fear; from now on you will be catching men... ." (Luke 5:8-10 Just)
Peter saw, and then he really saw. Peter heard, and then he really heard. Before anything else, he was swept away with the almighty presence of the Almighty. This was not just another prophet. This was the One who commanded the world and the people of the world. Peter not only saw a glimpse of who Christ was, he saw clearly who he was before God: an undeserving sinner.
That's a God-given reality only faith can accept: we are in desperate need of rescue from our own dark and cold sea of weakness and sin and rebellion against the will of our Creator.
We swim so much in our sins we don't realize how much they are a part of us. It's like asking a fish, "How does it feel to live in water?" "Water? What water? What weakness and sin and rebellion?"
But, by the grace of God, Peter gets his confession out of his mouth and before God. "I can't catch a thing if left to my own understanding and abilities," he says.
And with that confession, Peter will now know not only something about his own heart, he will see and hear about the heart of his Master, his Lord, his Christ.
"Do not fear." Here is holy, saving Absolution for Peter, as Jesus begins to reveal to his disciple, "I have proclaimed my Word to you. Your sins are forgiven. Now you are mine and I am yours. Now you're in my saving boat, caught in the net of my Word."
Peter went from believing in Jesus the miracle-worker to Jesus the sin-forgiver.
This same Jesus comes to you this morning, and says, "Receive what I have won for you upon the Cross through the proclaiming of my Word. Receive my hold upon your heart and upon your soul. And in faith, keep — treasure — my Word always.
Only Christ-engendered faith can say, "Amen." to being caught by this fisherman with nail-pierced hands.
And having brought the boats to land, having left all things, they followed him. (Luke 5:11 Just)
May Christ, in his mercy, proclaim his redeeming Word into our hearts, that we might be saved in the net of his Gospel and abide under his care forevermore. Amen

Friday, February 02, 2007

Funeral Sermon for Jean - February 1, 2007

In the name of Jesus

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ:

This day we mourn the loss of Jean. We mourn the loss of her presence with us. We mourn the loss of her no-nonsense work and devotion for her friends and family. We mourn the loss of her determination to never give up. And we mourn the loss of her conviction that there is something greater than even the physical death of those we love.
Just like the soup in a Chinese restaurant, this day is both sweet and sour. Funeral services, are by their very nature, bitter-sweet events.
Now that's not the way all funerals go. Too many — from beginning to end — are just plain bitter. Like some of the home remedies we had to take as kids, some funerals don't give an ounce of comfort or peace and strength. They just drain us and leave a bad taste in our mouths. Too many funerals are non-stop speeches of what will always be missed and what could have been if things would have turned out differently. And after those kind of bitter events, we seem to feel a part of us has died along with the one we loved. That's the power of despair and death. That's the difficult but necessary realization that there will be — at least in this life — no more visits to say, "Hello," no more cards to send at birthdays, no more camping trips, no more kids coming in the kitchen door asking for "Mrs. D."
It is a bitter day today. The many years God graciously gave Jean have finally come to a close. The time allotted for her to carry out her calling as a daughter, a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a friend, has now ended. For Jean, the sun has now set. God has brought us here this day to hear the last chapter of her life read and the book closed.
It's a dark day. The sickness and struggle that made up so much of Jean's last years has, sadly, brought us to this final event. And now that it's all ended, Jean stands before God at the entrance to heaven — a heaven without disease and sickness — a heaven without bitterness.
Only One knows better than any of us here today the realities of Jean's life and mind and heart: her strengths and her faults, her doubts and her faith. Before God, Jean's life is laid bare.
And it will be obvious for Jean, as it should be for each of us, that if heaven must be earned — if heaven must be worked for and won by our fallen human works — none of us have the slightest chance to demand entrance. That's just the way it is. Living before a holy and righteous and perfect God demands our holiness and righteousness and perfection.
Being the "pull-no-punches" person she was, I'm confident Jean honestly believed none of us can ever buy God's freely-given, gracious gifts.
Now the worst days for me as a Christian pastor are the days on which I am asked by a grieving family to preach a sermon during the funeral service that will convince everyone attending — including God himself — that the person who has died had done enough good things to earn heaven. Heaven can never be bargained for. And, for any of us, if left to our own far-from-perfect abilities, the doors of heaven will always remain shut.
That's the clear reality to which Jean gave witness whenever she sang the words of the hymn "Amazing Grace." Before God we are spiritually lost and blind — spiritually wretched people. That's the bitter reality Jean needed to swallow and that's the hard reality each of us needs to accept. And no one stated the sweet and the sour better than the apostle Paul in his letter to the Church at Rome:
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23)
That's the only reason we can sing "Amazing grace" at Jean's funeral service. Eternal life is a free gift based not on our performance but on God's gracious heart and the sacrifice of his Son in our place.
The sweet in the bitter-sweet is to be found in God's Word of promise, God's Word that declares: "The impossibility of climbing your own way to heaven doesn't ever have to be the final word. My Son, Jesus Christ, came to be the last word — of forgiveness and life and salvation."
Despite our confession to God that we have not lived our life loving God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind, despite our confession to God that we have not lived our life loving our neighbor as much as we loved ourselves, despite our wayward and wandering spiritual life, there can be true comfort, even on a dark day like today.
You see, Jean was baptized into Jesus Christ. And on the day of her baptism God gave her a sure and certain promise. Not the kind of promise we so often are tempted to make, "If you first do enough good for me, then, and only then, I might reward you with some nice prize."
God gave Jean a promise that was one-hundred percent gift, with no strings attached. "Jean," God said, "I wash away your sins simply because I love you with a love you will never fathom. I wash away your sins as I connect you with Christ and his sacrifice on your behalf. Because of my grace, I have made you my dear child."
In Sunday School and in Confirmation Class Jean heard it was on the basis of Jesus' performance for her that she was declared an heir of heaven. Jean's trust in that promise of God has become the great legacy in the family as her children and their children have also been brought to God's altar and their received the washing away of their sins and the unmerited promise of eternal life with Christ.
That's the only comfort for any of us on a day like today. Not the promises that Jean may have made, not the promises that you or I may have made.
Yesterday the family shared Jean's love of the Gospel songs of Aretha Franklin. One of those songs, an old Christian hymn, puts the reality of how our salvation works this way:
"Lord, I believe Thou hast prepared, unworthy though I be, for me a blood-bought free reward." (There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood")
This is the reason we mourn, not as the world mourns, but with hope. We mourn, yet give thanks that Jean was, in her baptism, buried with Christ, that she might also be raised with Christ.
Where is your hope this afternoon? Where is your comfort this day? In weak and fallen abilities of ourselves or others?
The Scriptures reveal that hope and comfort and faith are to be found in only one place: in the forgiveness of Christ and in his saving gifts.
I didn't know Jean, but I'm sure that if she were brought back to be with us here today she would, in no uncertain terms, tell each of us of the one enduring legacy she has passed-on to those she loved: a simple, strong trust in the amazing things Christ has won for her and for you.
Hear again the gracious, amazing promise of Christ to all who put their trust in him:
Jesus said, "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14)
May Jesus strengthen us as we fight the good fight of faith, taking hold of that eternal life won for us by Jesus — by the great Good Shepherd who willingly, lovingly, gave his own life-blood for the sheep.
May we say, "Yes" as Christ comes and says, as he came and said to Jean: "Allow me to do the work of saving you. Simply put your trust in me and in what I have promised to do for you. Let me take your weakness and your wanderings — and give you heaven."
And we say trustingly, "Yes. Amen. Let it be so."

In the name of Jesus.

Post: An Overture for this Summer's LCMS Convention

February 2, 2007

Dear Fellow LCMS Pastors and Congregations:

In preparation for the synodical convention this summer, and the deadline of March 10 for overtures, the following memorial is being forwarded to you for your consideration. It is hoped that you will prayerfully consider placing this issue before the congregation you serve, document its approval by the voters in assembly in a cover letter, and mail both the resolution and the cover letter to: Office of the Secretary, The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, 1333 S Kirkwood Road, St. Louis, MO 63122-7295. You are also encouraged to fax the resolution along with your cover letter to: 314-996-1016. Thanking you for your time and consideration, I remain

Your servant in Christ,
The Rev. Dr. Daniel N. Harmelink, Pastor
Redeemer Lutheran Church, Huntington Beach, CA

To Allow Congregations to Include/Retain Standard Language Describing the Nature of Holy Scriptures in Their Constitutions

WHEREAS, the constitution of a congregation of the LCMS is an indispensable document for congregational self-understanding and governance; and

WHEREAS, constitutions of LCMS congregations, LCMS rites of ordination for pastors and installation of church workers (Lutheran Worship Agenda, p 211; Lutheran Service Book Agenda, p 179), and confessional statements of synod (Article I of A Brief Statement of the Doctrinal Position of the Missouri Synod; A Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles (1973), http://www.lcms.org/graphics/assets/media/LCMS/astatement.pdf) have included the descriptive words "revealed," "inspired," or "inerrant" as standard, time-honored language that details the position of Holy Scripture (2Timothy 3:16; 2Peter 1:20-21; 1Corinthians 2:9-13; 1Corinthians 14:37; Acts 24:14; Psalm 19:7; Romans 3:2; 1Thessalonians 2:13; John 8:31-32; John 17:20; John 10:35; 2Corinthians 13:3; 1Peter 1:12) and the position of our Lutheran Confessions (Large Catechism, Part Four: Of Baptism, Paragraph 57); and

WHEREAS, district constitution commitees of the LCMS, directed by the synod's Committee on Constitutional Matters (CCM) to judge whether new or revised constitutions of congregations in their district are "in harmony with Holy Scripture, the Confessions, and the teachings and practices of the Synod", have now prohibited congregations seeking approval of their submitted constitution and bylaws from including such descriptive words as "revealed," "inspired" or "inerrant" in the confessional subscription section of their constitution, judging inclusion of such language as being in violation of the opinion of the Committee on Constitutional Matters (CCM) Guidelines for the Constitution and Bylaws of a Lutheran Congregation and "go[ing] beyond the synod's own confessional standards" (http://www.lcms.org/graphics/assets/media/CCM/GUIDELINES%20for%20Web.pdf); and

WHEREAS, the recent opinion of the CCM (http://www.lcms.org/graphics/assets/media/CCM/CCMMin9-06.pdf) has left no other avenue of appeal for congregations seeking inclusion or retention of this descriptive language in their constitutions; be it therefore

RESOLVED, that synod in convention affirm that the descriptive words "revealed," "inspired," and "inerrant" do not go beyond the synod's own confessional standards, and

RESOLVED, that synod in convention direct district constitution committees not only to cease directing congregations seeking approval of their constitutions and bylaws to remove such descriptive language from their confessional standards paragraph, but also to encourage congregations to retain such time-honored language that describes in a clear and helpful way the nature of the books of the Old and New Testament, and be it finally

RESOLVED, that the CCM document Guidelines for the Constitution and Bylaws of a Lutheran Congregation be revised to reflect the freedom LCMS congregations have previously enjoyed to faithfully and unambiguously describe the nature of Holy Scripture in the confessional standards paragraph of their constitutions using the descriptive words "revealed," "inspired," and/or "inerrant."

Redeemer Lutheran Church
Huntington Beach, CA

Approved in Voters' Assembly by unanimous vote. January 28, 2007