Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Singing the Song of the Coming Christ

In the Name of Jesus

Dear Fellow Christians awaiting the coming of Christ:

The inspired Gospel writers were lead by the Holy Spirit to begin at the very beginning. And, as we know from the Sound of Music, the beginning is a very good place to start.
For the Evangelists Matthew and Mark and Luke and John, there can be no beginning at the manger, there can be no beginning with shepherds and angels, there can be no beginning of our Christmas celebration, no celebration of Christ's coming, without observing what comes before the coming, what begins before the beginning: the birth of John the Baptist before the birth of Christ.
Take a look at the four Gospel narratives that have, since the first days of the Christian Church, formed the skeleton of the Church Year and the rhythm, the seasons of our Christian life.
Saint Matthew does not begin with Joseph talking to the innkeeper. Saint Mark does not begin his Gospel narrative with Mary's water breaking. Saint Luke does not begin his account with the cold and clear blue of Bethlehem's night sky and the star that guided magi to the manger. Saint John does not begin the revelation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ by documenting the angel's visit to shepherds who search for a new-born wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.
The Evangelists begin at the very beginning: a time of waiting and anticipation and hope as God himself begins the countdown toward the fulfillment of all salvation history in the coming of the promised one, the one foretold by angels, the one who's name was given by heaven itself, the one received by some, rejected by many: John the Baptist - the forerunner of Christ.
This afternoon/evening, we hear the beginning before the beginning from Saint Luke, who doesn't even begin talking about Jesus by talking about John the Baptist, but by taking another step back and recounting the circumstances that led up to John the Baptist's birth.
It is Saint Luke that tells us that Zechariah and Elizabeth were, by God's mercy and grace, believing children of Israel, who put their faith in the Word of God — through Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms; believing people who looked forward in hope to the day God would remember his people and the covenant he had sworn to them — to come and redeem and deliver them from an enemy even greater than evil Pharaoh in Egypt. But Zechariah and Elizabeth had no child. "For [as Saint Luke writes,] Elizabeth was barren and both were advanced in years." (Luke 1:7 ESV)
For all intents and purposes, the door had been shut, bolted and locked on any possibility that they would ever enjoy the precious gift of a child. They struggled with their own human disappointment and frustration. They had placed themselves under the good and gracious Word of the Lord, they had received God's promises in the Messiah to come, but — in spite of their hope in God's deliverance, they had no child. God had not visited them with the gift of new life.
But as they continued to hope in the midst of hopelessness, as they continued to put their faith in the mercy of God despite all their worry and doubt, despite the temptations to abandon the Word of the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob came and drew Zechariah to his holy Temple. He brought Zechariah to himself and the altar of his mercy. Through the mouthpiece of his holy angel, God announced that fear would give way to God-given trust. The burden of barrenness would be exchanged for the gift of new life. Elizabeth would surely bear a son, and his name would be "John," meaning, "The Lord has been gracious."
And so, for more than fifteen hundred years, God's struggling, frustrated, waiting people — languishing in a barren world of sin and longing for new life — have, in faith, placed themselves under the promises given to Elizabeth and Zechariah.
And the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. ... and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared." (Luke 1:13-17 ESV)
Our Lord, through his messenger, the angel, announced to Zechariah the job description of Christ's forerunner, John. Called to a ministry that will complete the preparations made through all the Old Testament prophets, John will be used by God to "make ready for the Lord a people prepared — for the Lord's own coming." (Luke 1:17 ESV)
Through his holy angel, heaven announces to our old, unbelieving nature that there will be no advent of the Savior before the advent of Elijah in the person and work of John the Baptist. John must first do his God-given work, and then, when that work is accomplished, the Messiah will come and forgive and rescue and save.
And despite the fact that John the Baptist is given such little notice in our own Christmas preparations — his voice today continues to "make ready for the Lord a people prepared — for the Lord's own coming." (Luke 1:17 ESV)
We learn from Scripture that as Christians, we have nothing to say to God (or to our neighbor) concerning our redemption until God speaks a word to us — through his inspired messengers. And this afternoon / tonight we take time to hear the inspired words from Zechariah.
From a man who's mouth was shut and his tongue tied by his own doubt and sin and unbelief, we hear words of renewed faith and heartfelt joy. For Zechariah's faith in the coming Messiah — the same faith that was even then evident in his new-born son — gave way not only to a spoken confession of faith, but a heavenly song.
The Holy Gospel According to Saint Luke, the first chapter:

And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying,
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people
and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we should be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us;
to show the mercy promised to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us
that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:67-79 ESV)

This song of Zechariah is the first of three inspired songs given to the Christian Church and each of us to sing in repentant joy and faith as we look forward to Christmas Day. Today we join Zechariah in blessing the Lord God of Israel for the holy, one-way covenant he made before Abraham and Moses and David. This gracious promise to send the Deliverer — the very Word of God made human flesh — is the center of Zechariah's Song as it is the center of our song to God and to each other. This is the covenant announced by the Lord as he promised the Seed of the Woman to Adam and Eve as he sacrificed an animal in order to cover their shame. This is the covenant announced to Abraham as the Lord "cut" his covenant in the sacrifice of a heifer, goat and ram. This is the covenant announced as John the Baptist was circumcised on the eighth day, the first day of a new week, the first day of a new creation.
This is the covenant announced at a table in the upper room, on the night when our Lord was betrayed — the very night that led to the Messiah's sacrificial death and the securing of our deliverance from the hand of our enemies: sin, death and the power of the devil.
The presence of John the Baptist will give way to the presence of our Lord as he comes to establish salvation to all who would believe. "He must increase, and I must decrease." John says. But for now, as we wait for the final coming of our Bridegroom, as we patiently wait for the final rising of heaven's sun, we join Zechariah in blessing the Lord — in word and in song.
God grant us the faith to "start at the very beginning" — to sing back to him what he has first revealed to us through his servants Zechariah and John the Baptist. May the Benedictus also be found on our lips this season of preparation as God comes in his Word and gives us a new heart and a new hope and a new song.
A blessed advent-tide to each of you in the Name of the Coming Christ.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Sheep do as Sheep are. Matthew 25:31-46

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Dear Brothers — Disciples — in Christ, the Righteous Judge:

With this week, the Christian Church closes the book on an entire year focused on our Lord and his gracious promises and the gift of salvation freely given to us as revealed in the Holy Gospel according to Saint Matthew. A year ago we heard of Jesus' first discourse to his own brothers — his disciples — in the words of the Beatitudes. And this morning we hear from Jesus the last discourse to the Twelve and to us as he winds up his public ministry with an increasingly clear announcement of what lies ahead for his own and for the world. The Seven Woes of chapter 23, followed by the signs of the last days and the command to keep watch in chapter 24, followed by the Parable of the Ten Virgins and the Parable of the Talents.
And now, everything our Lord Christ has announced to his followers comes to it's completion, it's zenith, it's conclusion, with verse 31 and following:

[Jesus said,] “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-48 ESV)

At first hearing, that's a difficult section of Scripture to respond to with the words, "Thanks be to God." But like any other Word of the Lord, Christ is doing two things as he reveals something much more real and impending than a simple story about shepherds separating farm animals. He is giving nothing but condemnation to those who are shown void of what Christ-created and sustained faith produces: care for those in need; true care for those deemed insignificant by the world and our own sinful nature: the least of those Christ calls his brothers.
But Christ also gives the most comforting promise of grace and hope to all who have put their trust in the Lamb who once was slain and in his righteousness, his innocence, his blessedness.
Through these words, our Lord announces that all things have been given to him by his Father. As the Son of Man — the Messiah foretold by the prophets — Christ will, by his all-powerful Word, raise the dead and gather all peoples before him as he sits upon his judgment throne.
Once he came with his glory hidden, to be born, to live, to suffer and die as one of us, to take our sins upon his sinless body and make atonement for all in the giving of his own life-blood.
But with the words, "It is complete. It is fulfilled. The debt has been paid in full," Christ-given faith begins to see that hidden, saving glory — in the Cross, in the Scriptures, in Holy Baptism, in the Holy Supper.
That is our faith as we confess with the whole Christian Church on earth: I believe in Jesus Christ, who will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead; whose kingdom will have no end."
This is our faith as we confess in the words of the Athanasian Creed: I believe in Jesus Christ ... At whose coming all men will rise again with their bodies and will give an account of their own works. And they that have done good will go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire.
The glorious Son of Man, before whom no unholiness can survive, will, on the last day, raise and gather all of humanity in order to separate each person into one of only two groups. No third, miscellaneous category. No third, "I don't really know what to do with this one" group.
Simply sheep and goats — and the sheep are placed on his favored side, on the side of honor, on his right.
As a shepherd separates at the end of the day those animals who have grazed together in the same field, as the farmer separates the wheat from the tares at harvest time, as the fisherman separates the good fish from the bad fish after gathering them all in his net, as the master of the house, upon his return, separates the profitable from the wicked servants, so the Son of Man will come in his glory to gather in order to separate what is judged holy from what is judged unholy, what is judged righteous from what is judged unrighteous, what is judged blessed from what is judged as cursed.
As the sheep and goats are ushered by the shepherd into two separate quarters at the end of the day, so it will be for Adam and Eve and all their children.
And to the favored sheep on his right he will say, "Come, blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundations of the world."
Christ's precious sheep will be announced as gracious, undeserving heirs of the kingdom all of history has waited to be revealed, a kingdom cleansed from sin and doubt and rebellion and suffering and pain and death, a kingdom in which we will be released from the burden of an old nature that can do nothing but sin and grumble and attempt to work its way into God's good graces.
For Christ there will be no surprises, but for all those gathered, the judgment received will not be the kind of judgment expected.
More than a few will come before the King expecting praise for all the good they have achieved, for all the good they have manufactured, for all the accolades given to them by the world, for all that their heart told them would earn heaven and open it's glorious gates.
But they would have nothing to do with a King of the Cross, a Redeemer whose glory was hidden to all but God-given faith, a Savior who would freely clothe all undeserving sinners with his spotless robe of righteousness. And because they did not recognize Christ and the hidden glory of his Word and his Baptism and his Supper, they failed to see him in Christ's lowly and needy brothers.
In these days, we are tempted to look for a glorious Christ, that we might earn a favored place by his side through our own great and glorious works.
But the surprising thing is not that some will be revealed as goats on the last day. Salvation must remain a free gift that can be either received by faith or rejected in unbelief and rebellion. The surprising thing is that there are any of us who are judged righteous and blessed.
Scripture and Christ, the hymns we sing and the Catechism we learn — announce with one voice that we are the spiritually starving, wandering, naked, enslaved — sick unto death in our sin.
We were the needy ones that had no great or lasting importance — and Christ came and fed and clothed and visited us with his love and care, his grace and mercy, his very self.
To all who look to their own nature, their own spiritual poverty, their own sinfulness, their own inability to keep the Beatitudes — their own inability to produce any kind of righteousness of their own — Jesus comes to offer the gift of a righteous robe, a washing of regeneration, an undeserved place in heaven, a faith that gives us the ability to see Christ in the least of his brothers, in the least of fellow disciples and followers.
As we approach that great and fearful day, let us not fear but continue to keep our eyes on Christ and his righteousness — his righteousness that has made us his precious sheep, his righteousness that has made us blessed, his righteousness that gives us the ability to care for even the lowliest of Christ's own with a care that has no concern of earning God's favor.
God, in his abundant grace, increase our faith, that we might keep awake and watchful in these last days, and serve him — not by doing something glorious for his kingdom, but by simply allowing Christ to be our Shepherd, to work the works of faith through us, his undeserving sheep.
May Christ give us the hope and strength to look forward to the day when Christ will come in all his glory with his angels to declare his judgment upon all he has clothed in the redeeming fruits of his cross.
In faith, may we say today and always, "Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly, and clothe us in the robe of the Lamb."

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The Blessed Ones and the Blessed One

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

Dear Beloved Saints in Christ:
Today, a week after Reformation Sunday, the Christian Church commemorates her saints. That can be more than a little confusing for those who believe Martin Luther's great contribution to Christianity was ridding sanctuaries of statues and paintings and stain glass windows depicting believers who have been called to the Church triumphant.
But, contrary to what some may believe, there is no inconsistency between observing the Lutheran Reformation — the rediscovery of the true Gospel of God's grace and forgiveness in the substitutionary sacrifice Christ Jesus — and observing the commemoration of the saints — those who have received by true faith the true Gospel of God's grace in Christ.
God always means for the two to go together: the bright beams of the Gospel — and the fruits of that saving Light in the minds and hearts of the faithful that constitute the Church — Militant (Christ's children on earth) and Triumphant (Christ's children now in heaven).
God in his mercy gave us the one saving gift of his Son upon the Cross — and with that redeeming gift comes all others, including the gift of the saints.
And how many individuals came up to you Friday and wished you a blessed Reformation Day? How many did you wish a blessed Reformation Day to, only to receive a blank stare back?
And so it is with a proper understanding of All Saint's Day. The world knows of Hallow's Eve, but knows nothing of the true reason to bow the knee and give thanks to the Triune God for all those our Creator and Redeemer properly considers his own dear saints.
For example, ask your neighbor the significance of the first of November — and more likely than not you'll get the answer: it's the day after Halloween. The day to pick up the discarded candy wrappers in the front lawn. It's the day to take the rented costumes back to the store and put the "cobwebs in a can" and the squeeze bottle of fake blood back in the box until next year.
But what of the saints? The hallowed of All Hallow's Eve? Does our world (and our old nature) commemorate saints? Well, yes, but in it's own worldly way.
You see, the world's saints are marked by behavior thought to earn the title "saint" or "holy" or "pious" or "moral." If you're shooting for sainthood you can't kick the dog or be a disappointment to those who know you best. If you want to make the grade you have to prove yourself worthy of the title "saint." No investing in tobacco or oil companies. No problems at work or at home or with the neighbors. To be a saint, you need to present yourself to everyone around you in a way that will make them compelled to confess, "She's a saint." "He's a saint."
The requirements are grueling if you desire to be the world's saint. You have to stand out from the crowd with your saintliness, with your holy living. The competition is so ruthless the Roman Catholic Church now requires three miracles by the candidate — performed after his or her death.
But what of us here this morning? What of us here who have given up long ago on impressing the world or our relatives or boss or neighbors that we're on our way to earning our halo and becoming a saint in the eyes of the world? What of us who just struggle to get through the day without saying something stupid or hurtful — or neglecting those we have been called to serve with our time and care and resources? What of us who have our hands full trying to curb our own pride and self-centered concerns, that our Lord and his Word and love of God and neighbor would follow? What does commemorating the saints have to do with us who are so spiritually challenged — so morally disabled — so crippled and debilitated with temptation and sin and excuse-making?
We might, on a good day, be able to fool those around us, to produce in our neighbor some applause or accolades for our saintly behavior, but everything comes to a dead end when we realize that before God, everything is seen as it really is, for God looks at the heart. God looks at our fallen heart and sees even in our desire to be saintly the stain of sin and the hunger to be rewarded for what we believe we have made ourselves into.
But as we hear the clear words of the Beatitudes that come from our Lord before his disciples, a part of us cried out with the recognition that the moat he constructs is too wide and deep to cross, and the wall is too smooth and high to get over.

[Jesus] opened his mouth and taught them, saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (Matthew 5:2-8 ESV)

How could Christ come and announce such an impossible standard for those who's simple desire was to become God-pleasing saints? How could he take the measuring stick of the Ten Commandments and not only affirm them but show them to be a thousand times more impossible for any of us to master?
How can a loving, merciful, forgiving Savior announce such standards that are beyond our grasp, even for an hour or a day? Why did he have to shut and bolt and weld the door shut on my attempts to attain holiness and sainthood — and with it the reward of heaven?
Couldn't Jesus simply overlook the demand for complete obedience under the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes? Couldn't God just look the other way and measure my life only according to my outward behavior — when I'm in public? Why does everything I say and do and think, why does everything I have done and failed to do have to factor into the Almighty's decision when it comes to granting me the title "saint"?
King David himself may have been wrestling with the same impossibilities of attaining sainthood when he wrote the psalm quoted in this morning's introit — Psalm 31. In repentance, aware of his own sinful hopelessness, he is given the gift to accept the fulfillment and end of Moses and the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes as he cries out:

In you, O LORD, do I take refuge; let me never be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me!
Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily!
Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me!
For you are my rock and my fortress; and for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me; ... .

Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O LORD, faithful God. (Psalm 31:1-3, 5 ESV)

We are God's dear, holy saints in the same way we are God's dear, holy Church. Not because we have attained or earned or deserve it. Not because we have sincerely tried or somehow desired to make it our own.
We are God's saints because Christ has won that title for each of us. It was Christ whom God judged by both his public behavior and his private thoughts. It was Christ who was laid in the balance and proclaimed without spot or blemish. Christ is the holy one, the saintly one, the dear one before God on his almighty throne.
And in winning that title "saint" with his perfect life, our Lord Christ bestows it on all who will look to him in faith as their only righteousness and blessedness and holiness.
If there are any here this day who have fallen for the temptation to believe that the title "saint" and the status of being God's own dear child is for sale, that it can be earned by outward behavior the world labels good and perfect, then turn and look to the holy and perfect Law of God and then look to your own heart. Repent and confess the reality of your fallen human condition and God's revelation that only One has earned righteous before God. Salvation belongs to him alone.
Christ has taken upon himself your failure and sin and inability to keep God's righteous Law. He has taken it and made atonement for it. And in your Baptism, you have been given that white robe that makes you God's dear, precious, holy saint. Clothed in Christ you have been declared blessed, sanctified, hallowed, God-pleasing, perfect and pure.
In repentant joy, come to his table, clothed in faith and in the wedding garment of the Lamb who knew no sin, yet was made sin for us. Feed from his pierced hands and hear again the word of his heavenly Father this day:
"Trusting in my Son and his Cross, I declare you my dear child and saint."

A blessed All Saints Day to you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Broadcasting of the Word - Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

It was the Lutheran theologian Martin Franzmann who determined to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Concordia Theological Seminary in Springfield, Illinois in 1971 by writing the words of a new hymn that focused on the Spirit-inspired intent of the Parable of the Sower. Franzmann, the author of another great hymn we in this congregation are all very familiar with — "Thy Strong Word" — calls the entire Christian Church — pastors and teachers, elders, deacons and deaconesses, Sunday School instructors and preschool teachers — each one of us in our various vocations — to be faithful to the one directive given to us by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit.
And in an age where more and more congregations forget or neglect or reject their Christ-given calling, trading in ministry done to garner a heavenly harvest for a ministry that will garner the applause of the world, Franzmann's words continue to ring out as a clarion call. A call that we would repent of the sin of attempting to limit and re-define and re-invent the mysterious, unexpected, two-fold reign of God as revealed by the prophets and apostles.
In a time and place where the religiously fashionable take information obtained from credit card companies in order to determine which ethnic group or which economic strata or which newly-sprouted suburb is appropriate soil for their future Christian ministry, the Parable of the Sower needs to be heard anew.
In a time and place where those who are judged to be religiously successful prey on those pastors and congregations struggling with finances and membership by selling books at weekend workshops that promise to disclose their magic formula of testing the soil to guarantee increased numbers in the pews and offering plates, the Parable of the Sower needs to be heard anew.
In a time and place where even Lutheran church leaders are constantly tempted to trade in the family inheritance for the porridge bowl of a beautifully packaged, guaranteed-to-succeed growth program, the Parable of the Sower — and Franzmann's insightful reflection of it — is increasingly needed.
We live at at time when even life-long Christians are trading in the clear Word of Scripture and faithful confessions of it for more enticing interpretations of the Bible that actually put our old nature back into the driver's seat, assuring us that we have, through our own human calculations, harnessed heaven's salvation and manipulated it to sprout and grow and multiply when and where and how we think best.
But what does our Lord reveal in this parable? What divine reality does Franzmann so accurately reflect in the first stanza of his hymn?

1. Preach you the Word and plant it home / To men who like or like it not,
The Word that shall endure and stand / When flow'rs and men shall be forgot.

When our Lord gave to his Church the Parable of the Sower, he gave it as a revelation of how his two-fold heavenly reign is breaking into our fallen, self-centered, self-consumed world.
Despite all that you will hear from the self-proclaimed "experts" of Scripture and the hidden meanings they believe only they can discern in the sacred text, the Parable of the Sower is not all about how we make ourselves the good soil or how we can determine if others have made themselves good enough soil to merit our effort to plant the Word of God in them.
We are called to preach, to announce, to offer, to broadcast the Word of God — Law and Gospel — to all, as God gives us opportunity. It is a sin and a stumbling block to put ourselves in the position of deciding with whom we will share the Word of God — and to whom we will not. For, as Franzmann reminds us, the Word will remain after all the programs and policies and powers of church agencies will have been discarded and forever forgotten.
The Christian Church has not been called to invent some new slick and market-tested forty day program that makes thorn-infested, hard-hearted people into nutrient-rich soil for the Gospel. Like it or not, we — the Church — have been called to simply broadcast God's Word whenever, wherever possible — always leaving the results in the hands of the One who alone can bring forth life from a dead seed thrown upon dead soil.
For Christ, as announced to us in the Parable of the Sower, the critical event is not our making ourselves — or anyone else — good soil deserving of the fruits of divine blessing. We don't create the conditions for salvation and then ask God to come and put a little frosting and sugar sprinkles on our great redeeming work.
The parable this morning calls each of us and this congregation and the entire Christian Church on earth to do one thing: faithfully, clearly broadcast the eternal Word — God's Word — without any consideration of who deserves it or what we may or may not get out of it.
The prime directive: faithfully broadcast the Word of God to all God places in our lives — without consideration or calculation. Not an easy thing to do for any one of us, as Franzmann writes in the second verse:

2. We know how hard, O Lord, the task / Your servant bade us undertake:
To preach Your Word and never ask / What prideful profit it may make.

This parable does not center around our self-wraught metamorphosis into good soil. This Parable does not center on the often-preached question: "So, what soil have you made yourself into?"
This parable of our Lord centers, instead, around the sower, the way in which he sows and the God-wraught results. And how can we be sure of that? The 18th verse gives us the name of this morning's parable, and it is the name given by our Lord himself. The theme of Jesus' presentation of the Kingdom of Heaven — his presentation of the reign of heaven — throughout this entire 13th chapter of Matthew, is simply a presentation of how Christ's reign comes and how it will all turn out.
The sowing of the saving reign of our Lord is not only the proper subject of this parable, but the proper subject of the Christian Church and this congregation. Everything revolves around his sowing and his reaping, as he comes in the most ordinary-looking ways to accomplish the most un-ordinary things in us and among us.
This morning Franzmann calls us to, before all else, ask forgiveness for those times we have discrimanently sowed the seed of God's Word for our own ends and our own rewards.
The calling to abundantly, generously, graciously, indiscrimanantly sow is not only difficult, but simply impossible without Christ's forgiveness and grace to just stick to the faithful preaching of the Word to any and to all — and then let things fall where they may.
God grant the courage and faith to do what he has called us to do, no more and no less.
Franzmann continues:

3. The sower sows; his reckless love / Scatters abroad the goodly seed,
Intent alone that all may have / The wholesome loaves that all men need.

How does the sower sow? With calculated precision so that only the deserving will receive his freely sent gift? Is the saving Kingdom of God to be directed only to those we determine to be God's elect? To those we determine posess a "better-than-average" chance of producing abundant fruit?
The entire Gospel of Matthew stands as a testament to the abundant, generous, reckless, gracious, almost thoughtless way Christ through his disciples — his Church — sends out the Word of God. It is in Matthew's inspired account we see Jesus scattering the goodly seed to the most seemingly undeserving of people - to the residents of Galilee of the Gentiles — and beyond. All this that his Father's will would be accomplished: that all would receive in faith the Word which, like the spring rains, falls to earth to renew and re-create a fallen world.
Only a gracious God would be so reckless to send his Word to all peoples and nations and languages and tribes, regardless of the inconsistent, seemingly unpredictable results. Only such a gracious God would be so reckless to send his Word — his Son — regardless of the inconsistent, seemingly unpredictable results. This is is his love for the world. This is his love for you — and each person God has called you to be a neighbor to.
This is the saving gift of God broadcast to all who would come and receive it in faith — at Sunday services, during Sunday School and Vacation Bible School, in adult classes, in the preschool, at community Christmas concerts and Summer outreach concerts. God sows his seed, and he sows it with divine grace and abandon.
The fourth stanza:

4. Though some be snatched and some be scorched / And some be choked and matted flat,
The sower sows; his heart cries out, / "Oh, what of that, and what of that?"

What is the one, true treasure of the one, holy, Christian and apostolic Church? Anyone? (If you say the Shroud of Turin, I'll resign as pastor of this congregation and become a Thrivent insurance salesman.)
Christ, his redemption as sacrifice upon the Cross for me and for the world, and the means by which he connects me with the benefits of his death and resurrection: the Scriptures, Holy Baptism and the Lord's Supper.
And when these divine gifts are broadcast by God's grace over a fallen and rebel world, some of that grace will not be received with God-created and God-sustained faith. You know that in your heart if you have ever given someone a gift — only to have it given back or abused or put up for auction the next week on eBay.
And our old nature responds: "I'll never give a gift of love again. I'll never do such a risky, potentially painful thing again. Enough with grace and gifts and being vulnerable to pain and hurt and rejection."
You see, the fallen world and our fallen nature take offense at the way Christ's reign comes. It comes in the most gracious of ways, in the most hidden of ways — in a way seen and taken to heart only by faith.
Salvation is discuoraging and dis-heartening, yet our Lord is a reckless Savior, risking everything that all might be offered the gift of salvation.
Stanza five:

5. Of all his scattered plenteousness / One-fourth waves ripe on hill and flat,
And bears a harvest hundredfold: / "Ah, what of that, Lord, what of that!"

In the midst of the crushed and choked out and snatched and scorched seed there remains God-pleasing results. The amazement that so much of the seed seems wasted and rejected by the soil is, at the end of the day and at the end of our life and at the end of this age, overtaken by the amazement that so much fruit has been produced — but — as the Catechism says, when and where God wills.
The shock and heart-ache felt for those who repeatedly refuse to receive the Word of God — in, with, and under the prophets and apostles; the Word in, with and under water; the Word in, with and under bread and wine, is ultimately overtaken by the shock of seeing the hundred-fold harvest in heaven.
Our Lord calls us to simply trust that he continues to preserve a remnant of his believing people, a remnant through which his Word will accomplish all that he has sent it out to do.
And the final verse:

6. Preach you the Word and plant it home / And never faint; the Harvest Lord
Who gave the sower seed to sow / Will watch and tend his planted Word.

As Christ's disciple, you are called to trust in the most unlikely of things: the reign of God breaking into this world by the gracious, reckless preaching of God's eternal Word. As Christ's Church, we are called not to loose heart but keep and treasure the Gospel by sending it out "to those who like or like it not."
Christ has been called by his heavenly Father to be the gracious, forgiving, loving, reckless Sower. And what does the Sower do? He mercifully, tirelessly, caringly, abundantly sows his seed. And his disciples are called to faithfully, trustingly follow.
God grant it for Jesus' sake. Amen

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Called to Serve and Protect Word and Sacrament - Matthew 28

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

Dear Redeemed in Christ:

One of the aspects of parenthood more and more neglected — even rejected — by more and more parents is the calling, the responsibility, the duty to protect those placed by God under their care. Parents can be great friends to their children and grandchildren, important mentors and confidantes and guides and resources for their kids. But before any of that, there's the matter of protecting those who can't fend for themselves: those who are most vulnerable and at risk. Care-taking, protecting, and watching out for those who cannot yet take care of themselves is a constant responsibility, a 24/7 job, a life-long labor of love for the sake of those to whom we will pass the torch, in the same way our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents were called to protect and defend and sacrifice for us and for all to whom they left their legacy.
"To serve and protect" is not some slogan only for the side of a police cruiser. That is why, last Sunday, we not only gave thanks to God for the good confession given by this year's five Confirmands, but also, by God's grace, renewed our pledge to pray for them and, as a congregation, continue to watch over them as they grow up in their Christian faith and life.
We take Confirmation — and youth group, and Sunday School, and Vacation Bible School and Preschool — seriously because we take seriously the spiritual welfare of those placed under our care, by parents and grandparents and by God himself. It's what we've been called in Christ and his mercy to be and to do.
And that means not only putting a security fence around the preschool and providing adult supervision when the youth group goes to Six Flags.
We, as Christ's Church, are called to "serve and protect" those placed under our care, those most precious to our Lord. That's the command part, the Law part, of the Great Commission given to us by the One who has been given all power and authority in heaven and on earth. "As you are going," Jesus says, "make disciples of all nations." It is as if our Lord is saying, "I am sending you out into the world, that I may graciously work 'in, with and under' you to create and sustain saving faith in my own dear children from every language and nation and people. I am calling you to be my ambassadors and servants entrusted with all that you will need to bring salvation to the ends of the earth."
And, as I have said before, Christ does not leave it up to our imaginations how he will accomplish this miracle of creating trusting hearts and minds from spiritually dead and rebellious people.
What does he say? "I will, through my Church, make disciples by means of healers who can talk with the dead."? By means of the believer's own will-power to turn their life over to God and believe in him with their whole heart and mind and soul."? By means of what my own fallen intuition tells me is the leading of the Spirit."? By means of what make the most sense to the world or the world's own religions."?
Christ clearly announces to Peter and the Disciples and the entire Christian Church on earth that disciples will be graciously made by the Lord of heaven and earth by means of — what? By means of Word and Sacrament, by means of the entire Word of God Christ has revealed to the Apostles and by means of the Sacrament of Baptism and the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper that is naturally to follow in the lives of the Baptized.
Christ makes disciples through his own, divinely appointed means: Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. "Salvation," Jesus says, "is to be found where I have established it and sustain it: in the grace offered and given through my Word of forgiveness in, with, and under water, my Word of forgiveness in, with and under bread and wine. Here you will find me with my gracious gifts, working in you and all my children the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation. Look for me here — at the Baptismal font, in that same life-giving water created from my all-powerful Word that water that gave birth to creation, to the heavens and the earth."
And, this morning, we are once again reminded that not only was the gracious creation of the world a trinitarian event, the work of the One true God in the persons of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, but the even more gracious salvation of the world was won in Our Lord Christ winning what he had been sent by the father to accomplish: redemption through the giving of his perfect life upon the altar of the Cross, that Cross upon which Christ handed over to his Father the Spirit, that it might be poured out upon all God's children on the day of Pentecost.
Our creation and our re-creation is by the gracious hand of our trinitarian God. That is what he has revealed to the prophets and apostles to be proclaimed and believed and defended by his Church until Christ comes again.
That's why every service here begins in the name (singular) of God the Father and God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. That's why every Baptism in this sanctuary is administered in the name of the Trinity — because in his grace and loving-kindness, the greatest gift given to us by the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit is, as the second commandment reveals, his saving Name.
And that name is not kept holy when we smother it in bubble wrap and put it in the church's safety-deposit box. It is kept holy when used by Christ's Church and each of us Christians when we wake up in the morning and when we go to bed at night, when we gather for fellowship around the table and around the Scriptures, when we share the Word of God with ourselves and with our families and with our neighbor. When we use it daily (and this is the catch) — in God-given faith.
God the Father has called each of us and all of us together to treasure and protect and defend all that he has revealed about himself through Christ and his Word and Spirit. And, at the most fundamental level, that means upholding and guarding and singing and confessing and sharing the doctrine of the Holy Trinity: one God in three persons, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.
And we keep and treasure Scripture's teaching of the Trinity as our precious treasure because so much of what calls itself Christian or spiritual or religious or uplifting has no need of Scripture's teaching of the Trinity, or even teaches against it.
The doctrine of the Trinity was the first great struggle of the early Church. And, by God's grace, the Church's confession as spoken in the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed was a faithful one, one that reflected the truth of the Holy Scriptures and no more than that.
In many congregations this morning, Holy Trinity Sunday is no longer recognized as anything special or great or precious or worth observing. It is simply another Sunday in some new series of sermons on how individual Christians can earn God's favor by making themselves nicer people.
But this morning, here, in this place, around lectern and font and pulpit and altar, God again reminds us of who he is and what he does as our gracious, redeeming, life-giving God — with his Word in, with and under water and bread and wine.
God has called us to treasure those he has placed under our care. And, by his grace, he will continue to preserve among us the teaching of the Holy Trinity, that we might feed the youngest among us with the pure, clear and sustaining Word given to us by Christ himself.
May we be found faithful in treasuring the only Name under heaven by which we must be saved, for God's glory, and the salvation of many, especially those entrusted to our care.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Holy Thursday - "The New Testament in My Blood."

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Dear Fellow Redeemed and Heir of Heaven:
"Therefore [Jesus] is the mediator of a new testament, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first testament. For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. For a will takes effect only at death ... ." (Hebrews 9:15-17a)
God doesn't really mind it that much when we remind him of what he has promised to us. Actually, God loves it when we remind him of his promises. That's the difference between fallen people such as you and me and our gracious gift-giving God. Too often we have little patience when someone goes on about what we have promised to them, especially when it makes our lives more complicated and difficult and stressful and burdensome. "I know, I know. You don't have to remind me!" we think or even say out loud. But, as Martin Luther once said, God loves it when we rub his promises in his ears and — in faith — allow him to do what he loves to do: be faithful to what he has promised on behalf of undeserving, wandering and wayward sheep.
That's the life of true faith: to hold on, come what may, to the promises — the promises that come not from our mouth, but the promises that come from the merciful mouth of the Lord. It's his promise, his commitment, his doing, his faithfulness, his follow-through, his sacrifice of himself on behalf of a people who could not even begin to make amends for their sins and sinfulness.
When the children of Israel heard the Book of the Testament read at the foot of Mount Sinai, they mistakenly believed that it was all about them. "Do this and don't do that, and then you'll be saved." is what they heard. But everything outside of faith can only go one way, and that is the way of the Law and contract and two-way deal. "I'll do this for you if only you first do that for me." is the way a fallen world and a fallen nature always operates — a way that can only lead to one of two spiritual dead-ends: pride or despair.
But God announced his one-way covenant with his people and desired that they would respond with a simple "Amen." But in their fallen-ness the children of Israel replied, "We'll do our duty. We'll fulfill our part of the bargain God, and then we expect you to keep yours."
Yet, for even that sin of believing our redemption begins and ends with our decision and commitment and will-power and action, God freely offers forgiveness undeserved.
Tonight we again hear and take to heart the covenant God made with his people at Mount Sinai and Mount Calvary, a covenant like no other covenant in it's character and its effect. A testament given to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob — a testament that is, from beginning to end, a one-way arrangement: from a faithful God to unfaithful sheep caught tight in the brambles of their sin.
The covenant of the Lord is a one-way covenant. It is the Lord's covenant and promise and testament, in the same way it is the Lord's Word and the Lord's Baptism and the Lord's Supper — despite all our foolish attempts to make it something that we do and accomplish.
The Lord will have no talk of two-way deal-making when it comes to the deliverance of his enslaved people. At Passover he comes to save — simply because he loves to show grace and mercy and forgiveness, even when it costs us nothing and costs him everything.
That was the Gospel at the foot of Mount Sinai and that was the Gospel as Jesus stooped at the feet of the disciples in the upper room. "Salvation will be secured eternally through one great sacrifice for your sin and for the sin of an entire fallen world." Jesus is saying. "But it was to my blood that the sacrifices under Abraham and Moses pointed. I have come to not only usher in another covenant and testament and promise; I am that new testament and the final Word on salvation. I am that gracious, saving promise first given to Adam and Eve and to all who would receive it in faith. In the giving up of my life-blood, blessed communion between God and his people is restored. Fellowship at heaven's table is, this night, resurrected with my sacrificial death and the pouring out of my life before God's altar."
On the night of the Passover, the Lord delivered sinful, undeserving people through his Word of grace and promise in, with and under the marks of life offered up and blood shed. There was no "Do this for me and then maybe I'll get you out of your helpless situation." — at least from God. God saves because he loves to save. God forgives because he loves to forgive. God offers up his beloved Son because he is a God of abundant grace who will spare nothing that his people might again enjoy that perfect fellowship given to man before the Fall.
Scripture is very clear: there is no redeeming testament without the shedding of blood. There is no purification without the death of the appointed sacrifice.
God has little need of our great-sounding but empty promises to perfectly obey him and make him proud of us by never sinning again. Christ came to wash us from our sins and take upon himself the dust and dirt of our transgressions.
Christ came to establish forever the eternal, once-for-all new testament, a last will and testament that could only go into effect with his death on the altar of the Cross. And he bids us to simply respond in faith with the words, "Amen. Let it be so for me."
Everything in this miserable world that will not acknowledge and receive in faith the verdict of the last will and testament established by the Lamb of God stands condemned.
Because, when it comes to your salvation, God will hear nothing but the voice of his Son, our High Priest. His cries for us from the manger. His cries for us as he submits to circumcision and the Law. His cries for us as he looked upon helpless and wandering sheep. His cries as he looked to heaven, gave thanks and broke bread as he fed his own with — himself.
Tonight we have been gathered to receive God's pure and saving gift. We have been gathered to hear salvation announced, salvation promised, salvation offered, salvation secured, and, trustingly receive it — as the last will and testament of our Lord is spoken, and the fruits of his death are taken in and extolled with cleansed lips and hearts.
Tonight, around the Lord's Table, we take to heart again the great and final Word on our salvation from John the Evangelist:
"Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end." (John 13:1 ESV)

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Palm Sunday — Passion Sunday 2008

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
Everything was going as planned.  Jesus of Nazareth had performed many signs as Messiah, from the changing of water into wine at Cana to the healing of the man born blind.  And now, rumor had it, that he had even raised the dead man Lazarus.  Nothing could stop what was now in motion.  Jesus was coming to the holy city, God's own city, to deliver God's holy people.  No more oppression!  No more slavery!  No more suffering under the foot of foreign enemies who had made life pure misery for the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  The wheels were beginning to turn as Jesus of Nazareth approached Jerusalem in grand style, with his disciples cheering, with the children of Jerusalem singing, with the crowds making a royal highway with their cloaks and palm branches.  Soon it would be the time for battle as God's people followed the Messiah in rising up to defeat the foe who had their foot on Israel's neck.
"Hosanna!" they shouted. "Lord, save us!"  Save us from our political enemies.  Rid this land from the stench of the Romans that we might be free to live as we wish, worship as we want, believe as we desire to believe.
On that first Palm Sunday, Jerusalem was on edge.  The Jewish religious leaders were anxious and the Romans were tense with anticipation.  The crowds could feel it in the air.  The time was ripe for battle and rebellion and insurrection.  The normal population of the holy city and the outlying suburbs had grown from about 20,000 to 60 or 80,000.  And everyone knew more than a few Jews on that Palm Sunday were armed with more than a palm branch just in case the fighting broke out that afternoon.  "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!"
"Bring it on, Jesus!" they cried.  "Now save us!"  Begin in ernest what we've wanted you to do since the beginning of your public ministry!  Put us back in power.  Restore the glory we once enjoyed as a people in the days of Solomon and in the days of Solomon's Temple.  Bring it on.  We're ready to follow you into battle!"
That Palm Sunday everything was going as planned.  God had finally sent the One to overturn the tables and bring the good life back to the children of Israel.  Jesus would make the Romans respect the power of the Lord and his chosen people.  No more suffering.  No more doubt.  No more sadness and disappointment and uncertainty.  And it all would begin with this triumphal entry by the anointed Son of David.
But the royal steed on which the conquer rode ... .  Couldn't have his disciples found something a little more impressive?  A young donkey that seemed to be noticeable uncomfortable with this small stature of a man upon his back?  A young donkey that still needed to have its mother lead the way?  A much too common-looking beast of burden for the conqueror's procession?  How was that going to put fear into the Romans and instill the desire for battle in the hearts and minds of the Jewish population?  A poor, miserable donkey?
But, everything was going according to plan.  For, you see, although there was no one in and around Jerusalem that Palm Sunday that had a clue what this triumphal entry really meant, everything was going according to plan.  God has sent his beloved, his one and only Son from heaven, for just this day and just this entry on just this kind of animal. 
There had been no last-minute mix-up.  The Anointed One, the Christ, the Son of David and David's Lord, processes into the City of David, Mount Zion, to take it by storm: mounted on a donkey.
Not many years after Jesus' entry into Jerusalem on a donkey, Roman soldiers mocked Christians as they were led into the Coliseum to be torn apart by bears and lions.  They mocked them in hurling insults at them, and they mocked them by drawing graffiti of their Savior: Jesus of Nazareth, ridiculed by being depicted as a donkey crucified upon a cross.
A donkey king?  How is it that for two thousand years the Christian Church has seen fit to glory in a donkey king?  
That's what the last six weeks and the next seven days are all about.  For even today, everyone sees the signs Jesus revealed, but no one sees where those signs actually point.
The crowds that met Jesus that day were caught up in the ecstasy of a Messiah that could heal and raise the dead and provide wine for celebration.  The crowds that waved palm branches and shouted "Hosanna!" were caught up in a Jesus of their own making, a glory of their own making, a deliverance of their own making, and not much has changed — even in our day.
Do we really know what Jesus comes to accomplish for us and for all who would, in faith, follow him?  Do we really know what enemy Jesus has come to defeat?  Do we really grasp the real glory and power and might of the Anointed One sent from heaven?
For anyone here this morning who will listen, the animal upon which Jesus rides is a key into the hidden meaning of this day, the true meaning of Christ and his salvation and our spiritual condition and the world's refusal — our old nature's refusal — to have anything to do with any of it. 
Jesus comes to his own, to you and me, on a borrowed beast of burden, as he bears the burden of sins not his own.  His entry is not only a humble entry, it is the first step in his great humiliation in delivering us from what really oppresses and strangles us. 
This is the way our enemies will be defeated.  This is the way we will be released from all that oppresses and binds and smothers and suffocates us.  This is the way God promised to save the likes of Adam and Eve and all their poor, miserable, helpless and rebellious children: through the poor, miserable, innocent suffering and death of the One who could change water into wine, heal the blind, cure the lame, and even raise the dead, but could not, would not save himself from the unspeakable horrors of suffering under the burden of our sin.
Everything was going as planned, just as it had the first time Jesus had rode on a donkey: as his mother Mary took the hard road from Nazareth to Bethlehem only to give birth to her firstborn son in a stable cave, among the most unlikely of witnesses: the lowliest beasts of burden, animals fitted with reigns and yokes and saddles, the marks of bondage and hard labor.
We cried out for a glorious Savior, and God sent his King upon a donkey.  We clamored for a powerful Deliverer, and heaven sent the most common-looking of men who could do unimaginable miracles and signs, who exhibited unlimited power to restore health and life, but, strangely, refused to out-smart the betrayer's plot, refused to release himself from the bonds of those who arrested and abused him, refused to stand up and defend himself before Caiaphas or Herod or Pilate, refused to even find a horse upon which to ride into Jerusalem. All for your redemption.
"And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it."
Jesus placed all things into the gracious hands of his heavenly Father, and, according to his Father's will, laid aside his glory and the honor due his name, to come to us and do everything in our place, as our substitute.  
Jesus was born in your cave.  Jesus was born in the chill of your fallen-ness and the poverty of your sin.  Jesus lived — to die under the crushing burden we rightly were called by the Law to bear.  And he rode into Jerusalem as the donkey king to be fitted with a crown made from the thorny fruit of Adam's betrayal to take his seat on a throne of mercy and forgiveness and nothing-withheld loving-kindness for you and for an entire undeserving world.
God will indeed save his people from their enemies: sin, death and the power of the devil, but he will not deliver them with a war horse and the sword.  He will break the oppressor's rod with the blood of his precious Son; he will defeat the captive's chains as his one and only freely offers up his life as the one, eternal sacrifice for sin.
This hour, the King of Israel comes to you.  He comes not to shame you or strike a bargain with you or force you into submission.  He comes humble and hidden to all but the eyes of faith, in, with and under the most common of means: bread and wine. In his very body and blood, given up for you, offered for you, sacrificed for you upon the Cross, for the forgiveness of all your sins.
Hail, to the Lord's Anointed! Lord, save us!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Lenten Sermon: The Cross and the Peculiar Office of the Church

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Dear Redeemed in Christ:
The Christian Church can do a lot of really good things: help people with their loneliness, give parents a place to educate their children, keep teenagers off the streets on Sunday mornings, organize family camping trips, teach people how to sing or play a musical instrument, offer a basketball court to the neighborhood kids, and enjoy potlucks and sauerkraut and jell-o — and dessert.
But what makes a Church that calls itself "Christian" the one, holy, Christian and apostolic Church is something very peculiar — something very uncommon — something very strange, unexpected and, to more than a few, something very unsettling.
That isn't pointing out to the world our holy living and it's moral failings.
The peculiar thing about the true Christian Church is not that we have some pope or an archbishop or a synodical or district president.
The peculiar thing about the true Christian Church is not that we have a great sanctuary that will take your breath away or a hand-carved altar imported from the Black Forest.
The peculiar thing about the true Christian Church is not the presence of expensive paraments draped over pulpit or lectern or altar or pastor.
The peculiar thing about the true Christian Church cannot be discerned in silver-plated chalices or gold-plated offering plates.
The peculiar thing about the true Christian Church is "peculiar" because it is something that God has called only his Church to be and to do. Not the psychologist, not the politician, not the welfare agency, not the hospital or the school or university or athletic club.
And, contrary to popular thought, this peculiar "office" is not found among the clutter of the pastor's study. It is not the kind of office with a door, desk, phone and stapler. It is a peculiar role, calling, duty, responsibility, command given only to the Church by the Lord and Ruler of the Church: Christ himself.
And to properly understand that special calling, we turn to two special passages of Scripture: Matthew 16 and John 20.
Now if you attended the Bible studies on the Gospel of Matthew several weeks ago you might remember that Matthew 16:13-20 is the culmination of the entire three year ministry of Jesus with his disciples, a three year ministry of Jesus preaching faith into the disciples, and the resulting fruit of faith as Jesus' asks the Twelve: "But who do you (plural) — you all — say that I am?" Hear what the disciples confess through their spokesman, the first among equals: Peter. (Read Matthew 16:16-19.)

Only upon this confession of faith — a confession of faith that faithfully reflects what God himself has revealed about his Son through his Word and Spirit — will Christ build his Church.
But what a peculiar Church it will be: a Church under Christ exercising it's peculiar calling to bind and release one specific thing: sin.
This is what so much of what calls itself Christian today has forgotten or neglected or disdained as it trumpets it's own ability to release people from a spirit of low self-esteem or a demon of arthritis or the bonds of financial insecurity or the burden of a seemingly unfulfilling marriage.
The forgiveness of sins — real, unconditional, free, no-strings-attached forgiveness of sins — is the peculiar mark of the true Christian Church because only the true Christian Church has been given the call and authority to use the God-given keys that unlock and open — and close and bolt shut — the gates of heaven.
That is why we confess in the Creed that we believe in "the forgiveness of sins" when we talk about the saving work of the Holy Spirit as he creates and sustains the Church of Christ.
No Holy Spirit, no true Christian Church. No true Christian Church, no office of the keys. No office of the keys, no forgiveness of sins. No forgiveness of sins, no chance of heaven for hopeless sinners.
Now maybe some days we aren't all that convinced that the freeing and binding of people and their sins is all that peculiar or special or essential when it comes to the Christian Church. Why else would millions and millions of people walk away from congregations who spotlight the office of the keys in order to join a church that never mentions forgiveness, let alone that little three-letter word "sin"?
For anyone wondering if the office of the keys is a big deal to Christ and should be a big deal to the Church and to each of us as Christians, take a good hard look at John 20 and re-discover the first things Jesus had on his mind as he greets the Twelve (minus Judas and Thomas) on that first Easter Sunday. (Read John 20:19-23.)
The gracious gift of the crucified and risen Christ brings the gift of the peace his Cross secured. The gift of the redeeming presence of Christ brings the gift of the Holy Spirit and the call to be the body of Christ as he — through his Church and his pastors — forgives those who in faith confess their sins and look to Christ alone for their forgiveness — and retains the sins of those who will not lay their sins before the crucified Savior.
Now on some days we might think that the Church can't be the Church if the electricity goes out or the water main breaks or someone forgot to brew the coffee and pick up the donuts. But this afternoon / tonight God gathers us to again remind us that the true Christian Church can actually survive very well without all the conveniences that we've somehow made into necessities.
There is one thing that robs the Christian Church of its peculiarity, its uniqueness, its calling and duty and responsibility and obligation — and gracious privilege — as the Body of Christ: the absence of the exercise of the office of the keys, the releasing and binding, the locking and unlocking, the forgiving and retaining of sin.
Listen to me closely. Christ has not called the Church to make the world admire her or obey her or behave like her.
When it comes to everything outside of Christ and his body, the Church, the only authority any congregation is called to exercise is the authority to forgive the sins of those who look to Christ as their gracious Redeemer and Substitute.
Martin Luther, preaching on John 20:19-31, admonishes us when he says, "Christ's mandate to his disciples was not to have secular authority, but to preach the Gospel and to have authority over sins. Christ himself defined the commission and the authority: preach the Gospel, and remit and retain sins. The power of the apostolic keys, first and foremost, is to preach the Gospel of Christ, to bind and to loose sins." (Klug. Sermons of Martin Luther: The House Postils. 2:62.)
Well, O.K., the Church may do many things pretty well, but there's one peculiar thing it has been called to carry out: announce forgiveness to those who look to Christ with repentant hearts. — But what does all of this have to do with having our faith strengthened and our hope and comfort in Christ and his grace deepened?
Let's take another look at the Small Catechism, as it shows what Scripture reveals about "the Office of the Ministry."

What do you believe according to these words (John 20:22-23)?
I believe that, when the called ministers of Christ deal with us by his divine command, especially when they exclude manifest and impenitent sinners from the Christian congregation, and again, when they absolve those who repent of their sins and are willing to amend, this is as valid and certain, in heaven also, as if Christ, our dear Lord, dealt with us himself.

Yes, there is the stern warning that those who are not repentant, those who will not look to Christ and his work upon the Cross for their deliverance will in no way have their sins forgiven. The Church is called to uphold that truth and prevent it from being watered down or put into the storage shed out back.
But for those who are hear today struggling with a sinful act or an impure thought or a word said that seems too great for even the Church to forgive — I say to you: Christ has given his life, lovingly, for all of your sins and for the sins of the entire world. He has taken upon himself on the Cross the weight of your sin. The sin that terrifies you and gnaws at you and binds itself to you has been — through your baptism — dragged to the Cross of Christ to be forever buried in his tomb.
And the same Christ who forgave his disciples for their unforgivable unbelief and doubt and cowardice and sent his Church out to preach the Cross and forgive the penitent who put their faith in it — that same Christ forgives you and gives you his saving peace as you hear the pastor declare, "Upon this, your confession, ... I forgive you all your sins."
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

"My Eyes" Sunday - John 9 - March 2, 2008

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Dear Brothers and Sisters Enlightened in the waters of Baptism:

It is confessed every time we sing "Amazing grace."
It is confessed every time we remember our Baptism or receive the Lord's Supper.
It is confessed every time we gather as the sun sets for the service of Evening Prayer:
"Jesus Christ is the Light of the world; the light no darkness can overcome."

We have heard it since our days in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School.
We have seen it depicted in our illustrated Bibles and stained glass windows.
We have joined the disciples on the road to Emmaus as we find ourselves in the saving presence of Jesus and cry out to him,
"Stay with us, Lord, for it is evening, and the day is almost over.
Let your light scatter the darkness and illumine your Church."

For generations this Sunday, the Fourth Sunday in Lent, has been referred to as OCULI Sunday -- "My eyes" Sunday -- ever since the words of Psalm 25 were used as the Introit for this particular week in Lent: "My eyes are ever toward the Lord, ... ." (Psalm 25:15 ESV); and the words of Psalm 123 were read or sung as the congregation readied itself for the reading of the Holy Gospel: "To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens!" (Psalm 123:1)

But even though today is referred to as "my eyes" Sunday, the object of the verb is not our eyes but the object upon which our eyes are drawn. "To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens!"
This morning God has, in his abundant grace, gathered us around his Word and his Son and his Light and his Sacraments, that we might receive them with the eye of faith and put our trust in his saving treasures: the enlightening work of our compassionate Lord on behalf of all who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. (Luke 1:79)
The ninth chapter of John has always enjoyed a special place in the hearts of God's redeemed people. As it is with many other sections of the fourth Gospel, this chapter soars in setting before our eyes a sign -- a manifestation -- of Christ's glory, that we might see salvation come not only from the hand of Christ, but especially his mouth, and respond with both our mouth and hand in an offering of thanksgiving.
Sadly, such is not the case with everyone who sees with their eyes and hears with their ears God's final revelation of salvation in his Son. We see that clearly and dramatically in this chapter of John's Gospel account, but for the catechumen, the believing student, of the fourth Gospel, it is no surprise.
For you see, everything has already been laid out before our eyes in the first few verses of Saint John's inspired Gospel. Redemption by the very Word of God taking upon himself our fallen flesh, that the light of God's grace might shine into the darkness of our sin-diseased hearts. Notice the themes of light and darkness and the gift of sight as we read together the first 18 verses of John. (Read John 1:1-18)
Those 18 verses reveal more about God and his grace and Moses and Christ and the wretched state of this fallen world and our spiritual blindness than just about every book sitting on the shelves in today's Christian bookstores.
In our Gospel today we see Jesus confront the darkness that has not only clouded and obscured our minds and our hearts but made us rebels that rage against the light, the light that exposes so that it might then illuminate, the light that uncovers our wretchedness so that it might be covered with the righteousness of God's Son who came to tent -- tabernacle -- among us.
Now the Gospel of John is structured around seven signs that shock all who see it and provoke a response that is attentive to the Word that follows, the word from Jesus that scatters the darkness and illuminates our darkened souls.
The first "sign" John presents is the miraculous gift of wine during the wedding at Cana, and the healing of the man born blind is the sixth, to be followed by (seemingly) the final sign as Jesus brings forth Lazarus from the dead.
But as we see in this ninth chapter, the miracle is given as an occasion to look upon the greater revelation from the lips of the Savior -- the gracious promise hidden to all but the eyes of faith as Jesus says: "Go, wash."
This section cannot be properly used to argue that we are not born sinful any more than it can be used to argue that it was the blind man's obedience and good work of following orders that ultimately account for his healing. Hidden in Jesus' instructions is his promise that creates trust to go and wash, just as it does when we hear the words, "Take, eat. Take, drink."
The Word made flesh created the heavens and the earth from nothing. He spoke and by his gracious will it was. And that same Word, now made flesh, created faith in the man born blind -- faith that believes Jesus as he says, "Trust in me and my salvation. With the same clay from which I created your first parent, I now re-create your sight and the greater gift of faith that looks to me for the redemption of this sin-blinded world."
A man born blind suffered the debilitating effects of a dark and dying world and to it was added the judgment of neighbors and passers-by who believed that somehow he -- or someone else in the family -- had deserved it.
My family is, today, in the Lutheran Church because -- in the midst of a family member born deformed and dying -- good-intentioned Christians told my parents that this was a direct result of some secret sin the two of them had committed -- a sin that they needed to make amends for before my brother's condition worsened.
In my parent's struggling with what Scripture revealed about sin and the effects of sin they were guided to the faithful counsel of a Lutheran pastor who simply sat down with my parents and a Bible and said, "Every one of us has been born into a sinful and fallen world and every one of us manifests that fallen-ness in different ways. I don't know why your son was born so sick. But let me tell you what I do know: God is a God of grace who has allowed this tragedy into your lives for the strengthening of your faith and ultimately for his glory."
We are, outside of God's grace and the redeeming Word of his Son, spiritually-blind people suffering in many and various ways the effects of our first parent's fall.
And regardless of what the TV and radio evangelists say, our hope is not that we have opened our eyes and decided to think good thoughts and make the world a little more like heaven.
Our hope begins with the confession that we were conceived and born with sin-infected eyes that refused to see anything farther than the illusion of gaining heaven by our own good works.
Our hope, this Fourth Sunday in Lent, or any other day, is to be found not in our fallen eyes, but in the eyes of another, who, passing by, saw us with the eyes of divine grace: the great I AM who's eyes are eyes of mercy and forgiveness, eyes of a loving-kindness that will not rest until all has been given to secure and offer son-ship in the kingdom of glory.

Jesus ... having found him he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?" Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and it is he who is speaking to you.” He said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him. Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” (John 9:35-39 ESV)

Christ comes to reveal signs and wonders, that he might then reveal the glory of his redeeming grace. He is the great I AM. He is the Lord of the Sabbath. He is your healing substitute and sacrifice. And he has looked upon you with his eye of forgiveness -- from the Cross.

A blessed OCULI Sunday to each of you — in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Monday, February 04, 2008

"Jesus Alone." Matthew 17:1-9 The Transfiguration of Our Lord

In the Name of Jesus our Saving Glory. Amen

Dear Fellow-Redeemed:
Just this week a member here at Redeemer commented on the unhealthy fascination given by many Christians to the possibility of a physical, brick and mortar temple being rebuilt in Jerusalem on the Temple Mount so that animal sacrifices might resume and thereby usher in the Last Day.
Why people professing to put their faith in Christ so easily slide back into putting their faith in signs and types and foreshadows while abandoning the real, honest-to-goodness thing that everything else pointed to may be sad, disappointing and lamentable, but not completely surprising.
Guided by the Spirit of Christ working through the Word of God, we should be grieved but not shocked when we see Christians — sometimes even ourselves — hankering for a return to the former things and the old ways with which our old nature, the fallen world and wily Satan will always feel most comfortable: the glory of gold and silver, the glory of institutions and ceremonies and personalities and talents that impress the world and give us what we think we want — what we often think we need: a vehicle to prove to God and our neighbor and ourselves that we are deserving the good things of this life and the next.
God comes to us this morning to reveal to the disciples of Jesus the true place of Moses and Elijah and the true glory of salvation. God comes this morning that each of us might see through the eyes of Peter, James and John, the saving distinction between God's Law and God's Gospel and the difference between salvation by two-way contract and salvation by God's gracious, unmerited gift.
May God mercifully bless the preaching of his Word and the reception of it by faith. Amen.
It's a special Sunday, whether you look at the Christian calendar or the television program schedule. For us brought into this sanctuary by our Lord himself, it is a special, glorious, once-a-year commemoration of the Transfiguration of our Lord on this last Sunday after the Epiphany; for much of the nation, it is a special, glorious, once-a-year commemoration of the best the sports world has to offer: the arena of no second chances, may the best man win, winner take all competition sprinkled with cheerleaders and million-dollar-a-pop commercials.
Today we find ourselves in the middle of two kinds of glory, two kinds of prestige, two kinds of basking in the light of praise and honor and adoration, two kinds of dazzling performance and brilliant achievement. One strengthens the American ideal that with hard work and determination and a little luck, we are ultimately rewarded with the fruits of our effort; and the other strengthens our belief that being rewarded with what we actually deserve is the worst thing that could ever happen to us.
One kind of approach is by two-way contract: sweat and hard work for a glorious reward; the other sees sweat and hard work as the reward for our fall from glory.
One kind of approach desires to live and die by transactions and barters and contracts and deal-making; the other approach desires a different kind of life: one that transforms and remolds our own minds and hearts through something completely unmerited, something completely undeserved, something that is pure grace; pure glorious gift.
The Holy Gospel According to Saint Matthew, the 17th chapter:
And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. (Matthew 17:1 ESV)
A good question to ask ourselves upon hearing this introductory verse to our Gospel this morning is, "Six days after what?" And for that we need to open the Scriptures and retrace what important event had occurred just before Jesus grabbed the three disciples who made up the inner circle of the Twelve and lead them up this high mountain in Galilee.
What we find in the second half of chapter 16 is the completion of three years of instruction that began way back in chapter 4, instruction by Jesus that finally produces in them a God-given recognition that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. (Matthew 16:16) Jesus commends the confession given to him by the Twelve through the lips of Peter their spokesman, and announces that upon this true faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah himself will build his eternal Church, through which he will do the double work of binding sins and forgiving sins. And Peter begins to dream of wearing a gold champion ring that would put anything given at the Super-bowl to shame.
But Jesus will not keep the Twelve in the dark when it comes to how this reign of God's saving Word in Christ will be eternally established:
From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. (Matthew 16:21 ESV)
Peter again speaks for the Twelve. After three years he still wants salvation by negotiation and vote. "No, Lord! That can't be the way the reign of heaven will be established! That's not fair and that's not what you deserve. Your suffering and death is the last thing we need. We're all waiting for your glorious kingdom, and we'll give even our lives to make it happen."
For the next six days Jesus' unexpected answer kept ringing in their ears:
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it." (Matthew 16:24b-25 ESV)
Jesus had thrown a bucket of cold water on the disciples' wild dreams of a grand parade into glory hanging on the coattails of triumphant Jesus. It was time to show his little band of followers the difference between salvation by contract and salvation by grace at the top of a high Galilean mountain.
It very well may have been night by the time they reached their destination. As was his habit, Jesus removed himself a stone's throw in order to pray. Saint Luke tells us that Peter and James and John were heavy with sleep, but awoke sometime later to behold a sight that would not only take their breath away but drive them to fall on their faces in fear.
And [Jesus] was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. (Matthew 17:2-3 ESV)
Now this event in which Jesus was transfigured before the disciples was like, well, nothing else during the earthly ministry of Jesus. The Evangelists Matthew and Mark and Luke can only try to describe for us this heavenly scene in earthly language as Peter, James and John get a glimpse of that heavenly glory the divine Son of God had laid aside since the manger as he talks with Moses and Elijah about the greater exodus he was to fulfill at Jerusalem.
It is sleepy-eyed Peter who quickly wants to set up shop for Jesus and Moses and Elijah and get everything ready for the reign of heaven and the coming glory of deliverance for God's special people. But God himself will have no more of Peter's mistaken notions and intervenes with the bright cloud of his hidden majesty.
Falling to the ground, Peter now recalled the reality of his precarious situation as the voice of Yahweh himself thundered from the cloud. He remembered the pleas of the Israelites under Moses after he had come down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments:
Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.” (Exodus 20:18-21 ESV)
This is not the time for Peter to make-a-deal or do some good work to get the Lord's attention and impress the dignitaries. This is a time for the maker of heaven and earth to strengthen his only-begotten:
... behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” (Matthew 17:5 ESV)
This is the center of salvation and the core of life eternal. No talk of you do this for me and then I might do this for you. No talk of a building committee or setting up phone lines for a praise-a-thon. The Almighty re-affirms the verdict on Jesus' one-of-a-kind mission given at his Baptism, while also re-affirming the inspired words given his people through Moses:
"The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you—from your brothers. It is to him you shall listen." (Deuteronomy 18:15 ESV)
And as Peter and James and John raised their heads at the touch of Jesus and his word of comfort, "Rise and have no fear," (Matthew 17:7 ESV) they saw with their eyes what they had heard from the cloud of divine majesty: no longer was there Moses the Law-giver; no longer was there Elijah the prophet who was to usher in the glory of the Messiah and his redeeming kingdom. No glorious cloud. Only the hand and touch of Jesus.
This is one of the most glorious Sundays of the entire year. But it is faith in the Almighty's faithful Son, the Beloved One — God-given and sustained faith in the Word and touch of the only-begotten Son of God come in human flesh—that sees what is truly glorious and redemptive and eternal.
The Word and hands of Christ — as he prays at his Baptism, as he comforts and leads the disciples at his Transfiguration, as he washes and feeds them in the Upper Room, as he announces and embraces his calling to freely lay down his life in the most unfair of exchanges and the most unimaginable deals: our sin for his righteousness; his glory for our shame, his death for our eternal life.
This afternoon, on the gridiron, eleven men will gather to get what they deserve and revel in it. This morning, in this sanctuary, God announces anew — through the glory on the mountain and the glory of the cross and empty tomb — that not only the Twelve but all who put their faith in the Word and touch of Christ with water, with bread and wine, receive the ring of son-ship, the crown of eternal life, the gift only God's grace can give: victory over death, Satan and the grave.
A glorious Transfiguration Sunday to each of you in the name of Christ.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

"Faithful, but in unexpected ways." Matthew 4:12-17

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Dear Brothers and Sisters Baptized into the Death and Resurrection of Christ Jesus:

For eight hundred years the Jewish residents of the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali had vainly attempted to forget the memories of the Assyrian invasion recorded for us in the 15th and 17th chapters of 2Kings. During that military strike, residents who possessed skills that might be of use to the Assyrian Empire were ripped from their family and land and hauled off to the capital of the kingdom of the north. Oppressive conditions at the hands of Babylon followed. Both farmers and fisherman were brutally deported, only to be replaced by settlements of Assyrians who brought with them their distasteful customs and language and religious beliefs and practices.
This northern section of the promised land given to the twelve tribes of Israel was one of the first to suffer at the hands of Israel's pagan enemies. And, in many respects, one of the last regions to begin to recover. Even in the days of Jesus, eight hundred years later, the area was still considered by the rest of the Jewish nation as backward, colloquial, less Jewish, more infected with heathen influences, and, at the end of the day, less important to God and his continuing kingdom. "Galilee of the Gentiles," although predominantly Jewish, was a frontier territory inhabited by many different kinds of peoples, languages, customs and religions; a region of continual temptation to abandon the Word and Sacraments revealed by the God of Scripture. (Remind you of any place in our nation today?)
The region of Galilee, particularly the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali, was disdained by much of the southern kingdom of Judah. The northerners dressed differently, spoke with an accent, and their family and religious pedigrees were not as pure as those enjoyed by the Jewish residents in the regions that surrounded Jerusalem and the Temple of Solomon.
No doubt that even in Jesus' day, generations —centuries —after the brutal siege that tore apart the Jewish fabric of the these northern regions, the residents of Zebulun and Naphtali had little hope that they would ever regain what they had lost: their status as true children of Israel and the life-giving promises from the hand of Israel's gracious God. A darkness and gloom had settled over these northern districts, and the results upon the faith of their residents was as devastating as that experienced at the hand of the Assyrians.
Nevertheless, even though many had thrown in the towel on God's merciful intervention, the prophet Isaiah was called to send word to Zebulun and Naphtali. Isaiah had a word of hope for those who had given up on God's salvation, for those who had sat down in hopeless resignation. God would surely come and restore his people who lived oppressed in the shadow of death. The Lord had not forgotten these pitiful people, despite their unfaithfulness and failed attempts to resist the temptations presented by their new Assyrian neighbors.
Through his prophet, the Lord of Israel had announced life-giving Good News to hopeless people who could do nothing but sit in their own no-win situation. God's glorious Light had come to break through the darkness of believing that God had forever abandoned his people to suffer the loss of their families, their land, their culture and language — their connection with the Lord of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. "The God of your fathers will restore you." Isaiah proclaimed. "The God of David will come through his Messiah to bring back everything you have lost. He will deliver you, just as he did in Egypt. Put your faith in his Word and in his Son — in the One who will surely come for you."
You see, the appearance of being forsaken and handed over to one's enemies by the God who revealed himself to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob is nothing new in the history of salvation. Hope — in the midst of hopelessly being "handed over" to evil men — was a saving gift of God given to our first parents and to those who followed them in faith: to men and women such as Joseph and Ruth, Moses and Samson, David and the prophets that followed him.
And so we are surprised, but not completely surprised, when we hear this morning that the public ministry of Jesus is set into motion with the news that with John the Baptist, again, God has allowed one of his own to be handed over, to be seized and arrested and taken by evil men into the land of darkness and despair.
We had a feeling this is the way it might end for John as he followed in the way of the Old Testament prophets of the Lord, prophets who were subjected to abuse at the hands of those who had no intention of receiving their God-given proclamation in obedience and faith. We had a feeling this is the way it might end for John as he pointed to the coming of a Messiah hunted down by King Herod and despised by his sons who ruled after him; the Christ who had to flee to Egypt and then to Nazareth, and now withdraws to Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee.
But just when all hope in rescue from the hands of the oppressor has seemingly vanished, God's trusting people hear that their Lord is on the move. This unexpected Good News, this undeserved Gospel of our God's gracious intervention — his breaking through to rescue and save and restore — was placed in the mouth of Isaiah and fulfilled in the coming of the Messiah, in the coming of Jesus to set up his base for ministry at Capernaum.
John had been handed over, and now, in Jesus, the gracious reign of heaven has come near. His epiphany, the manifestation of his redeeming light, has dawned on a hopeless people who can only sit in the darkness of their despair and wait for the merciful intervention of One more powerful than their sin and doubt and empty promises to remain faithful to the perfect will and law of God.
It is Saint Matthew, guided by the Holy Spirit, who sees the same Immanuel, the same "God-is-now-with-us," manifested to betrothed Joseph in a dream now rising with healing in his wings to the inhabitants of forsaken and despised Zebulun and Naphtali. "God-is-now-with-us" to complete and fulfill all that John the Baptist pointed to, but in a way that takes our breath away.
The Lord of heaven and earth is faithful to what he promises — in his time and in his way. That revelation is written on every page from the inspired pen of Saint Matthew. God is — unexpectedly — faithful. From the inclusion of five unexpected women in Jesus' genealogy to the unexpected visitation of the angels to Mary and her husband Joseph; from the unexpected faith of foreign star-gazers and the unexpected hatred of Herod to the handing over of the infant children of Bethlehem to the flight into Egypt and the sudden appearance of John at the Jordan, God is suddenly on the move to redeem and rescue and save — in a way unheard of, in a way we would never have expected.
Jesus came to do what we did not expect in a way our old nature will never accept. Jesus came to reveal his Gospel light of deliverance to sinners, to those who have not been faithful, to those who have given in to the evil ways of their spiritually heathen neighbors. Jesus has come for all who have given up and now can only hope against hope that an undeserved Champion over darkness and death will graciously arrive.
Jesus is that Victor. True God, that he might conquer forever the forces of death, devil and world, and true man, that he might atone for our sin in our stead. But how he conquers shuts our mouths and brings fear to our hearts: he — the spotless Lamb of God, the innocent One, the righteous One, the beloved One — is handed over to evil men in our place to suffer the separation from God's love reserved for not only the unfaithful inhabitants of Zebulun and Naphtali, but for an entire wayward race, for you.
Christ, handed over and abandoned, that his saving light might shine upon the darkness of your sin.
That is the Christian faith; that is our confession and belief and song:

The people that in darkness sat
A glorious light have seen;
The light has shined on them who long
In shades of death have been. ...

Lord Jesus, reign in us, we pray,
And make us Thine alone,
Who with the Father ever art
And Holy Spirit, one. ... Amen

Monday, January 21, 2008

"A Faithful Pointer." John 1:29-41

In the Name of Jesus
Dear Brothers and Sisters washed white in the blood of the Lamb:

The dictionary gives several meanings for the word "pointer," ranging from a star in the Big Dipper to a long tapered stick; from a breed of hunting dog to the hands of a clock. But regardless of the details, a pointer is, simply, something that points. It is an indicator, an arrow. It functions as a guide, as a compass.
And whether it is composed of burning gas or sharpened wood a pointer is judged to be a good or a bad pointer based on just one thing: the precision of it's point. No one wants a sloppy pointer. No one wants directions from someone who keeps his hands in his pocket and answers, "I think it could be over there somewhere — I think." We want to know if it's nine o'clock or eleven o'clock, if it's northwest or northeast, if it's something to shoot or something to shoo, if it's the woman with the ponytails or the man with the baseball cap. If a pointer is going to be a good pointer, it must point to something, something definite and specific. It must be accurate.
That's why only a handful of watches are given the name "chronograph." That's why hikers these days use GPS units and not bread crumbs to find their way home. That's why law enforcement personnel match DNA and not shoe sizes. Sometimes — often — it just not good enough to be "somewhere in the ballpark" or headed in a general direction. Except for horseshoes and hand grenades, "almost" counts for very little.
Now when it comes to people being pointers, there are always an uncountable array of guides out there running around and saying, "It's not over there, it's over here!" And when it comes to the realm of salvation, just when we think we've seen and heard it all, up jumps another self-proclaimed spiritual expert yelling, "Hey, everybody, this way!"
This morning God through his holy Word comes to get our attention, that it might be placed upon his only-begotten Son come in the flesh. And this morning he does that life-and-death work through the mouth and the finger of a man named John.
Generations have watched the old television series with Raymond Burr as master defense attorney Perry Mason. And like other classic "who-done-it" dramas, the court case suddenly comes to a head as Perry scans the room, casts his eyes upon the unsuspected culprit and says, "My client actually didn't commit the crime he is accused of. Isn't that right Mr. Phillips?"
And so it was with John the Baptist. He was called by God himself to guide others through his riveting look and boney finger. He was to be "a voice calling out in the wilderness" — a prophetic pointer.
For the evangelist of the fourth Gospel, the life and death and resurrection of Jesus played out much like one of those courtroom dramas we listened to on the radio and watched on television. The scenario is similar, but those who take part in the biblical drama are even more real. Saint John presents the setting, and we are called to be the jury as we hear and watch Jesus on trial. Witnesses are called to testify — to give witness. The attorneys make their next move as they announce, "Your honor, for the next witness, I call — John the Baptist."
The Holy Gospel According to Saint John, the first chapter:
The next day [John] saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” (John 1:29-34 ESV)
This faithful testimony of John the Baptist is one of the most endearing statements in the entire Scripture. It doesn't begin with a "Hey!" or a "Yo!" or a "Look guys!" It begins, intentionally, with the distinctive word "behold," the announcement that the words just about to be proclaimed are from none other than the Lord of heaven himself. "Behold!" he says. "I come with the Word of God. This is the one who has come to bring comfort to repentant hearts! This is the holy Lamb of God, provided by heaven as the eternal sacrifice for sin — for you and for the world!"
By the grace of God, John the Baptist was allowed to do more with his little right index finger than many of us have done with our entire lives. The same hand that was used by God to scoop up water during the Baptism of our Lord now points others to the one whom the Bible and the prophets and the Father and the Spirit all give witness: Jesus, the Redeemer of the children of Israel and the nations that surround her.
The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, “What are you seeking?” And they said to him, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and you will see.” So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour. One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ). (John 1:35-41 ESV)
That pointing finger and the accompanying proclamation of John the Baptist set into motion one of the first events of Jesus' public ministry: sinners receiving Jesus — not as another coach or another policeman or another prophet or another cheerleader, but the Lamb of God.
Luther is un-moveable on this point:
This [announcement, "Behold! The Lamb of God!"] is an excellent and splendid testimony of John regarding the introduction of the new rule and kingdom of Christ. It is a powerful statement. The words are clear and lucid. They tell us what one should think of Christ. ... This [proclamation by John the Baptist] is an extraordinary fine and comforting sermon on Christ our Savior. Neither our thoughts nor our words can do the subject full justice, but in the life beyond it will rebound to our eternal joy and bliss that [this] Son of God abased himself so and burdened himself with my sins. ... Despite its show of holiness, virtue, power and glory, the world continues to be under the dominion of sin and [its human works] are completely discounted before God. [Therefore,] anyone who wishes to be saved must know that all his sins have been placed on the back of this Lamb! ... If you really want to find the place where all the sins of the world are exterminated and cancelled, then cast your gaze upon the Cross. The Lord placed all our sins on the back of this Lamb. As the prophet Isaiah declares, 'We have all strayed like sheep, each of us going his own way, but the Lord laid on him the guilt of us all.' [Isaiah 53:6] ... Isaiah says that the right way is this: 'God placed all our sins upon him and struck him [down] for the sins of [all who] went astray. God put all our sins on the back of this Lamb and upon no other. ... Therefore a Christian must cling to this verse [in the Gospel of John] and let no one rob him of it. For there is no other comfort either in heaven or on earth to fortify us against all attacks and temptations, especially in the agony of death. ... This is the basis of all Christian teaching. Whoever believes it is a Christian; whoever does not is not a Christian. ... The statement is clear enough: 'This is the Lamb of God who bears the sin of the world.' " (Am. Ed. of Luther's Works 22:161-64)
It was the all-powerful Word of God given to John the Baptist that animated his finger and his voice as he guided the disciples to Christ and then quietly stepped back out of the spotlight. Faith creates pointers who guide others to the Word of God, and then get out of the way. That's a lesson that each of us needs to learn and take to heart. Each of us has been given a voice and an index finger that we might point others to one specific thing.
Will that be our own human abilities and accomplishments? Will it be the things of the kingdom we have built around ourselves? Will it be our certificates of merit or trophies of achievement?
Or will we allow God to place before our eyes his faithful pointer, the greatest of the prophets, the forerunner with the forefinger calling all lost and condemned creatures to receive the One who has come to place upon his shoulders all our fears and failings?
Will you allow John the Baptist to be your guide? Will you point to Christ as you daily remember your Baptism and hear his life-giving Word? Will you point to Christ as you live under his mercy and grace? Will you faithfully give witness as you receive the forgiveness of sins through his very body and blood?
Hear and hold tight to the object of John's undivided attention as he says to you this day,
"Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!"
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.1