Friday, December 25, 2009

Faith that Sings Back - Christmas Day (Psalm 98)

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

Dear Redeemed by Christ, the Word made Flesh:

Sing to the lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things. He has remembered his love and his faithfulness to the house of Israel. [And] all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.
Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music. With trumpets and the blast of the ram's horn. Shout for joy before the Lord, the King. (Psalm 98)

One of the most crushing events anyone can ever experience is being asked by the director, after enthusiastically joining a choir, to only mouth the words while everyone else sings. Imagine being told: "We love having you in our choir — but please don't actually sing any of the words."
It is very unfortunate and it is completely disappointing because it is completely unnatural. Singing with nothing coming out of your mouth. It just shouldn't be because human beings were created to hear and take to heart — and then speak and sing.
That's why the Christian Church has always faithfully passed on the faith to the next generation through the Word of God spoken and preached and shared — and chanted and sung. It wasn't that many years ago when Grandpa would hand on his Bible to his son, and Grandma would hand on her hymnal to her daughter (in addition to both inheriting a well-worn copy of the Small Catechism).
But all of that seems to have changed these days — especially at Christmas. We have allowed those running the show to tell the faithful: "We love having you in the sanctuary — but please don't try to sing your faith — we have a praise band and a professional vocalist for that."
Five hundred years ago there was a reformation that not only put the Bible back into the hands of God's people, but the hymns of the Christian Church as well. By God's grace, Luther realized that faith wants to sing — true Christian faith needs to sing. No wonder one of the annual articles put out on the Reformation information table is titled: "If you sang a hymn in church this Sunday, thank Luther."
To a Church who thought song was the exclusive property of the monks and their choirs, the Reformation had something very definite to say. For faith — true Christian faith — cannot but sing back to God his Word and his Christ and his Font and his Table and his Birth, Death, his Resurrection and Ascension into heaven.
In this sanctuary this morning the Word of God spoken and sung is not the exclusive property of Italian-speaking opera singers or Latin-speaking monks and nuns. The song of Christmas comes from Prophets and Angels and Apostles — to God's people — to change hearts and strengthen faith as it returns back to heaven. Salvation through our ears and through our hearts and minds and then through our mouths back to God and to our neighbor.
That was the way it went in the days of great King David and in the days when shepherds who hadn't taken a music lesson in their life sang to all who would listen on the way back from the manger. (I wouldn't be surprised if, upon their return, the shepherds sang of Emmanuel in the manger even to their sheep.) And this is the way it will be in these last days before our Lord comes back in all power and glory leading heaven's armies upon his war horse to bring a final end to sin and death — to gather all believers in him, that we might sing his praises before his heavenly throne for all eternity.
On this, Christmas Day, true faith wants to listen to the Word of God and then sing — sing to God and sing to anyone else who will listen — about the deep despair of living in sin, cut off from God and from his grace by our rebellious thoughts, words, and deeds — about the poverty of our silly attempts to reconcile ourselves to the Almighty Creator of heaven and earth — about God's own answer to our estrangement and pitiful inability to redeem ourselves or anyone else in the sending of his most precious gift: his only-begotten Son.
On this day, Christmas Day, faith looks to do nothing else but listen to the Word of God — in, with, and through the prophets and apostles, in, with, and through the water of baptism, in, with, and through the bread and wine of the altar — and then, in a trust and joy and confidence that the world knows nothing about — sing back to heaven and earth.
In the manger, God is bringing all things to their fulfillment. He is putting into motion redemption that will bring the Son of God and Mary's Son from the donkeys of Christmas Day to the donkey of Palm Sunday, from the wood and nails of a manger to the wood and nails of a cross, from the cold and dark of a stable cave to the cold and dark of a tomb, that sin would be atoned for, that you might be bought back through the sacrifice of this holy, spotless Lamb of God.
This is the song of the angels. This is the singing faith of the shepherds. This is your song and my song. And we will sing it only as long as we keep our ears close to the Word of God — the Word of God made man.
Speak the Good News. Share the Good News. Sing with the angles and all of creation the Good News of Christmas morn: "Glory to God in the highest, and his saving peace on all upon whom his favor rests."
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve - The Antiphons of Advent - The Desire of Nations

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

Dear Fellow-Redeemed in Christ:

From the Prophet Isaiah, the 66th chapter:

The Lord declares: “ ... the time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and shall see my glory, and I will set a sign among them." (Isaiah 66:18-19 ESV)

We hear it especially during the Christmas season: words of regret and longing and desire that the entire family would be together — around the tree and around the table. Sometimes it is said in whispers and other times it is shouted from the rooftops: "If only the entire family could be together — at the table and under the tree."
For some of us it will be a difficult Christmas because it will be an unfulfilled Christmas. Someone won't be there to cook the roast or string the popcorn or help put another log on the fire or tell a story or join in song.
In spite of all the shopping, in spite of all the wrappings and fancy sparkling things of Christmas, tonight too many of us here will have a Christmas with a loved one absent.
One example comes from my friend from Cambodia. A refugee of a war-torn nation, his family fled the killing fields. Some relatives were killed, others taken prisoner, still others later rescued from a small boat off the coast. But in that rescue, he was separated from his brothers and sisters and parents. Each individual family member who survived the atrocities of civil war was scattered by the relief agencies to different parts of the world: he was sent to Detroit, Michigan. A brother was sent to Tokyo, Japan. Another, Paris, France. His parents to Southern California. A family persecuted and scattered. A household fragmented and broken.
To come together and rejoice around one table, around one tree: this is the desire of so many people — not only on this day of the year, but on every day of the year.
Do you have a secret desire as you come to the Christmas Table, as you come to the Christmas Tree this year? What do you long for — who do you long for — in the still of this night?
What desire is left unfulfilled after all the glitter and tinsel of the world's spin on Christmas? The desire to be with an absent loved one? The hope-against-hope longing to be reconciled with another who can't be — won't be — with you to enjoy the food and gifts of Christ under his tree?
The great Advent hymn, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" and the ancient antiphons that inspired it, reflect the biblical revelation that is just as true this year as it was thousands of years ago: the world, the nations of the world, peoples and families around the globe come to Christmas with desires that they just cannot fulfill, despite all the legislation from Washington and all the declarations from Stockholm or Copenhagen. Despite all the resolutions by the United Nations, the nations are still — whether they dare to admit it or not — longing for that same peace and fellowship and community and family that we as the human race lost so long ago.
What do you long for — what do you desire — when you find yourself singing the words:

O, come, Desire of nations, bind / In one the hearts of all mankind;
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease, / And be Thyself our King of Peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel / Shall come to thee, O Israel!

Some things just can't be bought with a gift card or made right with just a New Years' resolution. Despite all our merry-making, all our attempts to drown-out that dark corner of our heart by just playing the holiday music a little louder or adding more lights to the porch or pouring in a little more peppermint schnapps into the punchbowl — try as we may — the deepest of longings of a fallen humanity are still with us — even on Christmas Eve.
Actually, if we are honest with ourselves — it is especially the light of Christmas Eve that brings to light our darkness, our longings, our unfulfilled desires and fears — as individuals, as families, as neighbors and friends, as citizens of a nation and the world.
You see, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" is actually a public confession, a prayer set to music, sung to the Lord of heaven and earth. For when we sing the words of this beautiful Christian hymn, we give witness to the teaching of the Old and New Testament — the revelation that we are a broken, fragmented people who cannot make things around the Christmas Table and things around the Christmas tree like they should be, like they once were, like we wish them to be.
And so we despair of ourselves this Christmas night. We despair of our trying through our busyness and buying and bartering to make it all right, to redeem the darkness and hidden longing that comes with Christmas.
"O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" is a great hymn for the Christmas season because it takes our eyes and preoccupations off self and puts them where all true desires are fulfilled: on the One who comes from heaven above, the One who is the true Desire of all families and peoples and nations, the One given the name Emmanuel — God-with-us-to-save.
The hymns of the Christian Church — the liturgy and readings of the Christian Church — announce again this night that there is a world of difference between simply making ourselves merry for a few days around Christmas and receiving, by God's undeserved grace, a blessed Christmas, a lasting Christmas, despite our losses, despite our weaknesses, despite our fallenness and sin and inability to create the Christmas Table and Christmas Tree we know we long for.
For the God-ordained scandal of Christmas Eve is something that flies in the face of everything we would have ever expected: the announcement from a cattle shed that gives that peace and that joy and that family and community that won't break a week later, won't run out of batteries a month from now, won't be traded in for another color or size or re-gifted and placed on the dollar table at a garage sale.
Hear the Word from heaven tonight: Emmanuel has come. The desire of the Nations and the Price of true Peace has come in this lowly, common-enough looking child in the straw of a Bethlehem manger. The savior of wandering shepherds and cynics. The redeemer of those oppressed by their sins and shortcomings. Emmanuel, God-with-us, come to deliver us, even from our fears of bearing the burden of another unfulfilled Christmas — another year of missing family and friends around tree and table.
For the Son of God and Mary's Son has come to do what all our will-power was always unable to do, what all the mistletoe and merry-making could never accomplish, what holiday wishes just couldn't make a lasting reality.
It is this Christ child who has been sent to set the table and decorate the tree. It is the baby Jesus who alone can bring the nations together around tree and table — his Table and his Tree.
For Christ is the true Manna from heaven. It is this one child who is, as Martin Luther use to say, the cook and the waiter and the meal at the true table of reconciliation. He prepares the table — his table, and feeds us with his very body and blood — forgiving sin, strengthening faith and establishing a communion — a holy and eternal communion with God and with each other.
Yes, Christ sets the table and gathers the peoples around it. He fashions the tree and draws the nations around it. For, as by a tree humanity fell into sin, so through a tree redemption for us has been won.
Jesus himself revealed the same when he foretold, "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32 ESV)
The true desire of all people, all nations, all families broken and scattered by sin has come hidden, wrapped in swaddling linens and laid in a manger.
What is needed to have a jolly Christmas is anyone's guess. But — as baptized Christians — what is necessary for a blessed Christmas? The table of Christ. The tree of Christ. God's gracious invitation. And the Word made flesh for you.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The "O Antiphons of Advent" - O Key; O Dayspring (Isaiah 9:1-7; Malachi 3:1-7, 16-4:5; Acts 26:1-18)

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
Dear Redeemed by Christ:

O Key of David: Come — and rescue.
O Dayspring, O Morning Star: Come — and enlighten.

The coming of deliverance; the advent of Light. These are the themes sung in the fifth and sixth stanzas of the great Advent hymn, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel." After offering our petition for the advent of Emmanuel, Heaven's Wisdom, Lord of Might and Branch of Jesse's Tree, we call out: "O come, Thou Key of David and do your saving work of opening and closing." "O come, Thou Dayspring from on high and do your redeeming work of driving away the darkness of death."
And on what basis can we pray these kinds of prayers set to music? Where do these words come from? How do we in the 21st century find ourselves joining the 4th century author in praying this way, with these words that seem at first glance so strange — so cryptic? And what is our assurance that we can rejoice knowing that our Lord hears our prayer set to music — and responds to it in grace and mercy and goodness?
First and foremost is the clear understanding that any prayer worth praying — spoken or sung — is worth praying only on the basis of it's faithful reflection of the Word first spoken to us and to all who will listen to the inspired Scriptures in faith. The reason "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" is one of the greatest Advent hymns is not simply that it is a singable tune that you find yourself whistling on the way home from church. That's part of it, but there are plenty of songs that have a catchy tune that don't get us any closer to heaven's door. (The theme song from Green Acres comes to mind.)
Christian hymns — or hymns that call themselves Christian — are only truly Christian if they clearly, faithfully, beautifully reflect the Word of God — the Word of Holy Scripture and Christ's redemptive center through his substitutionary sacrifice in our place. It's not just a matter of counting how many times the hymn uses the name Jesus. Can a hymn pass the "salvation by grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone" test? Then it is a Christian hymn faithful to the Word of God, and an even better hymn if set to an appropriately beautiful tune.
These two verses we pause to ponder this afternoon continue for generation after generation in the Christian Church because they are drawn from Scripture and present in song the same plea all believers offer up before the Lord of heaven and earth.
We as Christians are called upon to critique and evaluate and judge the hymns we sing, the Christian books we read, the prayers we pray on the basis of this one measuring stick: does this faithfully reflect the Scriptures and the salvation revealed in Christ? Is this borne of the revealed Word of God through the prophets and the apostles, or is it simply a product of our own fallen human imagination — the way we think salvation should work, the way I think Christ should operate in my life? God help us always to discern the wheat from the chaff when it comes to what we pray and what we study and what we sing.
And so, directed by the revealed Word of God, we join the voice of the prophets and apostles as we look to our Lord Christ and pray in these days before Christmas: "O come, Thou Key of David and do your saving work of opening and closing." "O come, Thou Dayspring from on high and do your redeeming work of driving away the darkness of death."
It is the babe born in Bethlehem that is our Sun of Righteousness, who comes in grace and mercy and forgiveness with (as the prophet Malachi foretells) healing in his wings — redemption that forever closes the door on our estrangement from God and opens the door only the Christ can open: the gates of an eternal heaven with our Lord and with our loved ones: those who have gone before us clothed in Christ's righteousness — and those who will follow us — the faithful in our households, and the faithful in the household of faith baptized into Jesus' birth and death, his cross and resurrection, his ascension into heaven.
For you see, from the earliest times of the Christian Church — from the time of the apostles — being enlightened by the redeeming rays of Christ and his righteousness was the language of Holy Baptism. Being enlightened had nothing to do with sitting under a tree and contemplating selfish desire or suddenly understanding the wisdom of the world while eating magic mushrooms.
Under the Word of Christ and his messengers, being enlightened is all about Christ coming — Christ's advent — in, with and through the water of the font to bring to light our desperate need to be forgiven, and God's saving work of providing the free gift of redemption through the once-for-all sacrifice of his Son.
And so we sing: "O come, Thou Key of David and do your saving work of opening and closing." "O come, Thou Dayspring from on high and do your redeeming work of driving away the darkness of death."
This is the purpose for which the prophets and apostles were sent out into the world: to serve Christ by witnessing to him and his coming to save through his Word and water and bread and wine.
For the commission of our Lord to the apostle Paul is the commission to the Christian Church in our day: "I am sending you," Jesus says, "to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me." (Acts 26:18 ESV)
Who is properly prepared to receive the Christ child on Christmas Day? Those who can stand before Christ and his Church and confess: I am in bondage and cannot free myself. I am spiritually helpless and a prisoner of a dungeon of my own making. I am chained to my fallen-ness and sin. My rescue lies in the One God himself has appointed to open and to shut. The One who holds the Key and Scepter of Redemption. Who opens and no one can shut. Who shuts and no one can open. Who has won salvation and gifts it to all who will receive it in true faith.
"O come, Thou Key of David and do your saving work of opening and closing." "O come, Thou Dayspring from on high and do your redeeming work of driving away the darkness of death."
We join the prophets and apostles and pray to our Lord: "Come and rescue us; come and enlighten us with your Word." For, as the psalmist has written:

Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD!
O Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy!
If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.
I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the LORD!
For with the LORD there is steadfast love, and with him is plentiful redemption.
And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities. (Psalm 130:1-8 ESV)

God continue to bless our Adventide in Christ the Key, in Christ the Morning Star. Amen

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Son of David Greater than David? The 'O Antiphons' of Advent

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

Dear Fellow-Redeemed in Christ:

The Holy Gospel According to Saint Matthew, the 22nd Chapter:

Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, saying, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, “‘The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet’? If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions. (Matthew 22:41-46 ESV)

Lord. Son of David. How do the two go together? Can the two go together? And what difference does it make for us in these days before Christmas?
Our Advent Canticle, O, Come, O, Come, Emmanuel puts the two titles together as it assigns both to Jesus — as it assigns both to Jesus, even at his birth. Lord and Son of David. Son of David and Lord.
Now just pause and consider anew how unbelievably silly that all sounds at first. This child? This man? This son of a lowly maiden and a blue-collar carpenter? Born in a forsaken place on the outskirts of a forsaken town? This child? This child king who's court consists of donkeys and horses and cows and the sheep of flee-bitten shepherds? Is this the best the house of David can do?
No wonder this question of Jesus to the unbelieving religious leaders shut down the entire conversation and left those who would not believe that Jesus could be greater than great King David fuming.
The Jesus of the Gospels and the Jesus of Christmas Day is accepted by the world and our old, worldly nature, just as long as he remains simply a babe in the straw of a manger or just another prophet or just another nice guy with nice intentions.
But watch out. When Jesus claims to be greater than the great Moses or greater than the Ten Commandments he revealed or greater than King David or greater than King David's City, sparks begin to fly. "Who are you, son of Joseph the carpenter of Nazareth, claiming to be greater than Moses and David? How dare you compare yourself to the great Patriarchs of our faith! How irreverent. How insulting. It's blasphemy!"
When Jesus reveals himself as greater than the great King David, greater than the Law of God and the Law-giver of God, there is nothing more to discuss. That was true in Jesus' day and it is true today.
Everyone (well, almost everyone) doesn't mind a Christmas card with some sheep and shepherds and Mary and Joseph and a little baby in a manger. It looks kind of cute and nostalgic and just a little pitiful.
But we confess something impossible for the world to acknowledge, something part of us has a real problem with: Jesus born Lord of Moses and Lord of David. This little baby Jesus - born King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Son of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, greater than Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Son of David, greater than David.
No one could be asked to believe that could they? The greatest of the great, born in poverty, born after his parents hear that there was no room in the inn for the Son of David who was greater than David himself?
The hymns of Advent are not for our own entertainment or personal amusement. They are to call forth Christian faith in Jesus as Lord and Son of David and sustain it in a world that will give lip service to Christmas Day but just can't believe that the babe of the manger is the Creator of Heaven and Earth and the one Redeemer of all of humanity.
The world would sing:
"O, Come, O Come, Thou Sage of Wisdom, Thou Spiritual Mentor, Thou Great Humanitarian and Friend of the Poor and Downtrodden."
But the world will never put it's faith in Jesus as Emmanuel, God-with-Us-in-Human-Flesh. Our fallen nature will never put all the chips on Jesus as the one Redeemer, the one God-ordained medicine for sin-sick souls, the one heaven-chosen sacrificial substitute for Abraham, and Isaac and Jacob and Jesse — and even Jesse's son, great King David himself.
Each of us is called to confess Jesus as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Who, through his death and resurrection fulfilled the Law given through the great prophet Moses on Sinai's height. Who through his death and resurrection graciously gave us victory over sin, death and the devil.
For, you see, Jesus is not only the branch that springs forth from the tree of Jesse, David's father. Jesus is the root of the tree that is all children of the promise given to our first parents as they wept at the revelation of what they had lost in their disobedience and doubt and rebellion — as they wept at the revelation of what would be won back despite their disobedience and doubt and rebellion — by the Son of God and Eve's Son: the Messiah-to-come.
The Son of David greater than David? Most could not believe it — would not believe it.
But a remnant put all their hopes on this Jesus, this son of Jesse's tree who claimed to be the Word of God — the Law of God — in flesh and blood.
People like the two blind men in Matthew, chapter 9. People like the Canaanite woman in Matthew, chapter 15. People like the two blind men in Matthew, chapter 20:

And behold, there were two blind men sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was passing by, they cried out, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” The crowd rebuked them, telling them to be silent, but they cried out all the more, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” And stopping, Jesus called them and said, “What do you want me to do for you?” They said to him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” And Jesus in pity touched their eyes, and immediately they recovered their sight and followed him. (Matthew 20:30-34 ESV)

Only those who abandoned the logic and wisdom of the world, only those who received the unbelievable Word of God in faith looked to Jesus as David's greater Son. Only those who will say, "Amen" to heaven's shocking way of salvation can truly sing on Christmas Eve, "Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me." "Son of David, Kyrie, eleison!"
Advent is a season of preparation — not for those who have finished sending out all their cards and completed all their Christmas shopping — but for those who are, as the Small Catechism teaches us, spiritually blind, dead and enemies of God.
For it is this babe of Bethlehem, the ancestral home of David, that comes — comes in the waters of holy Baptism to have compassion on you, to wash you clean and open your eyes, that you might follow him in faith.

A shoot will sprout from Jesse's stem, / A branch from David's line,
A Price of Peace in Bethlehem: / The fruit of God's design.
("What Hope! An Eden Prophesied" LSB 342:2)

Come, my Lord and Savior. Come, thou Branch and Root of Jesse's Tree. Come, and save with your might hidden in your mercy, your glory covered by your grace, your power serving your pity on your helpless, wandering people. Come — and save.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

O Come, Emmanuel; O Come, Thou Wisdom from on High (An Advent Sermon)

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

Dear Redeemed by the Wisdom of God Come in Human Flesh:

Scripture reminds us of the demands made upon God by our rebel world and its inhabitants. "Prove yourself to us and then we will believe in you. Come and show your glory to us and then we will give you our worship and praise. Come and explain yourself to us, show us your wisdom and power and glory, and then we will acknowledge you as God."
That has been the demand set before the Almighty Creator of heaven and earth since the beginning - since the fall into sin by our first wayward parents, Adam and Eve. They demanded an explanation. They desired the wisdom that was with God the Father from before the beginning. But what did they receive on account of their rebellion and doubt and unbelief? A twisted wisdom, a corrupt understanding, a self-centered and sin-stained view of their God, themselves, and the kind of redemption God would set into motion to save the two of them and their children.
For you see God needs to come and save us his way — in a way unknown to the wisdom of the world. In a way unknown to the wisdom of our fallen nature that thinks everything is resolved through the use of human cunning and power and might. It's just like my best friend use to say when he was working on the assembly line in a Chrysler plant: "If it doesn't fit - get a bigger hammer."
That was the way of murderous Cain and inheritance-stealing Jacob. That was the way of those who began to build the Tower of Babel. That was the way of Judas the betrayer. That has been the way of the world and the world's religions. And that is what is being pedaled by today's evangelists of the world's wisdom: turn you life around and take heaven by storm through your great promises and intentions and positive thoughts and good energy. Create your own positive future. Create your own blessed life. Create your own great relationship with God and everyone in your life by creating a new life for yourself.
And our old nature instinctively follows, thinking, "That makes perfect sense. I will create my own redemption through my dedication and decision and determination to make things right between me and my God."
But what do we read in Scripture with the eyes of God-given faith in his Word and Wisdom? Heaven had a very different plan — a plan that was completely outside the box of the world's wisdom, completely foolish and crazy and senseless. A plan that would make mouths drop in speechless awe and amazement. God securing salvation for helpless sinners who put their hope in God's form of wisdom.
God himself would establish salvation for his rebel people. God himself would set up redemption and secure heaven for those who continued to foolishly think they could straighten the whole mess out themselves if just given another chance. And God would do it in a way hidden from the wisdom and logic of the world. God would shatter all human reason by sending forth his very Word to make satisfaction for all sin.
Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Saint Paul writes to the Church in Corinth:

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1Corinthians 1:18-25 ESV)

This week the season of preparation begins, four weeks that calls to us and the world to listen to the Word and Wisdom of God himself. To close our mouths and in silence wait for heaven's own unexpected sign, heaven's own unexpected wisdom in making sense out of what has become a meaningless world of toil and sweat and heartache and despair and death.
In this too-often neglected season of Advent, heaven's wisdom calls out to all who will listen in faith, to all who mourn over their sin, to all who will acknowledge that we are in spiritual exile by what we have inherited from our first parents — and from the sin we have done and the good we have failed to do. Especially the sin of putting our trust in salvation done the world's way - independent of God's Word through the prophets and apostles, independent of God's Word through water, independent of God's Word through bread and wine.
Wisdom calls out, but in a way we would have never guessed, never have imagined in a thousand years. For, when it comes to our salvation, heaven's wisdom cries out — from a lowly manger in a lowly cattle stall in a lowly village, the son of the lowliest of maidens, the son of a lowly carpenter. All to establish God's redemption. All to win his ransomed people. All to shame the wisdom of the world. All to shame what makes perfect sense to us and to those who continue to believe if they just figure everything out, then they will win reconciliation before God and their estranged neighbor on their own terms.
God sent his wisdom to shame the world's wisdom, that we would despair of our own deluded ideas about how we think redemption should work, and embrace the wisdom of God — the wisdom of God that comes not as a coded inscription on an Egyptian pyramid, not as a mysterious date on a Mayan calendar, not as a magic formula re-discovered at Stonehenge, not as the world's practical advise on how to truly find God by truly finding yourself.
What does God declare to that part of each of us that thinks we can figure it all out and discover for ourselves the wisdom that will save our souls and give meaning to the rest of our lives?

... let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the LORD.
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:7-11 ESV)

It is the high-soaring Gospel of Saint John that announces to all who will listen with the ears of faith that the Word of God has come in human flesh to redeem human flesh by the once-for-all sacrifice of the Cross.
And it is the antiphons of Advent that proclaim that it is this wisdom from the mouth of God that gives divine order and knowledge of salvation to those who will confess with repentant hearts, "Unless I am taught by the Wisdom of God made flesh and blood, I will perish. Unless I am known by my Redeemer, and connected to his substitutionary death and resurrection, I am an eternal exile of the kingdom of heaven. Unless God sends his dear, only-begotten Son to save, I will die in my sin and foolishness."
The season of Advent would have us prepared for Christmas by the very Word of God, the very Wisdom of God, the very Son of God and Mary's Son, even Christ Jesus our Lord.
The wisdom of God made man — to shatter the foolishness of a world that can only conform Christ's birth to it's own fallen version of power and wisdom and glory and might.

The great Advent hymn, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," and the Advent antiphons that shaped it, call on the faithful to measure our Christmas preparations by the litmus test of God's unexpected wisdom. The wisdom that unites the wood and nails of the manger with the wood and nails of the cross; the wisdom that unites beasts of burden in a Bethlehem cave with those burdened with the load of their sin and shame; the wisdom that will only receive Christmas Day through the lens of Good Friday and Jesus' work on Calvary.
The lowly Son of the virgin Mary sent as the wisdom of God and the sign of God only heaven's gift of faith will see and receive.

O Come, O come, Emmanuel.
O Come, O Come, Thou Wisdom from on High.

Come and do your saving work of revealing and ransoming the clueless, we who would always get it wrong if left to our own fallen intuition and heart and pride. Come and conform Christmas to the image of your incarnate Son — and to the image of his Cross.
In repentant joy, may God through his Word and promise, ever prepare us for his unexpected coming to save.

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

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Mercy and Thankful Hearts - even for Samaritans. (Luke 17:11-19)

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

Dear Fellow-Redeemed in Christ our merciful Master:

The Holy Gospel According to Saint Luke, the 17th chapter:
On the way to Jerusalem [Jesus] was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. (Luke 17:11-14 ESV)
I have finally come up with a plan to write a book and make so much money from sales that I can retire when I'm fifty-two. I know it will be a best-seller because it is exactly what the world — and our old, worldly nature — thinks it needs to have a truly thankful and joyous and happy and fulfilled and blessed life. I already know what the front cover will look like: a photograph of me in a nice suit with a few big gold rings and a Rolex and a big smile (and a little more hair on the top of my head). And the title of the book in big letters: "Thirty Days to a Thankful Life."
Inside the book will be thirty chapters detailing thirty steps that, if done in just the right way, will promise the truly blessed life. The truly happy and successful life. The truly thankful life that everyone wants but no one, seemingly, can achieve — until now. Until my proven 30 step program to the truly thankful life.
The great thing about selling my book on "thirty days to the thankful life" is that the world — and our old, worldly nature — is already selling this formula in its advertisements and movies and novels and poems and television specials.
The 30 days between Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Eve is the perfect time to get regularly hit over the head with the judgment that we have been — again — for another year — found as poor, miserable failures when it comes to being the always thankful people we should be.
This is the reason Hollywood stars come out once a year to dish out turkey to homeless people. This is the reason we are entertained by special presentations of the Grinch and Dickens' A Christmas Carol. This is the reason for the insanity of these thirty days between November 26th and December 24th: the world — and our old, worldly nature — have fallen for the temptation to stake everything on the belief that we can make satisfaction for our shame and guilt and become truly thankful people by promising more, entertaining more, doing more, and buying more.
And unfortunately, much of what calls itself Christian today promotes the same dead-end belief: changing the fallen human heart by fallen human will power.

It's interesting that when first-time visitors come to worship services here at Redeemer and are asked, "Did you feel comfortable with the service this morning?" the answer is more often than not: "Everything was nice — except for that beginning part. You know, that part where we have to say that we are poor, miserable sinners. Do you guys actually say that every Sunday?"
The crazy thing about disdain for the confession of sins is the fact that those same people join the world these thirty days between Thanksgiving and Christmas and secretly confess a very similar thing — that:
"I have failed to be truly thankful by what I have done and by what I have left undone. I have done unthankful things. I have (at least on occasion) found myself stingy or greedy or selfish — maybe even grumbling about things I shouldn't really be grumbling about."
"I have failed to be truly thankful by what I have failed to do. I have not cheerfully given as much as I should to my parents, my spouse, my children, my grandchildren and the rest of my family. I haven't been happy in sharing my things with others — especially those in need. I haven't shown thankful behavior to those God has placed in my life. I haven't always said, "Thank you" when others give me things. I failed to write a note or make a call or stop and show appreciation for the simple blessings God continues to give through my neighbor: my family, my co-workers, my congregation, the leaders in my community."
But although we as believers in Christ and the world make similar confessions, Scripture reveals that our condition is much more desperate than what the world would ever imagine. Our un-thankfulness can't be corrected with a simple swipe of the credit card or our pledge to do better next time around.
Plenty of people after eating too much turkey and gravy will look back on Thanksgiving Day and convince themselves that things went better than expected. Uncle Henry didn't walk away from the table after arguing about the difference between the teachings of the Lutheran Church and the Church of Scientology. The kids didn't scream about which Black Friday sale to camp out in front of. Everyone was polite. Some even said "thank you" for hosting the dinner or bringing the dessert. Bobby even helped with the dishes.
But is that the core and center of what makes people truly thankful people living out truly thankful lives?
Contrary to what some parents confess when I ask them why they chose Redeemer Lutheran as the place to enroll their preschooler, Jesus has not come to merely make our behavior look more "Christian." (Actually, if you want the best "Christian"-looking behavior, you might be better off to go to your Hindu or Mormon neighbor.)
All ten lepers in today's Gospel reading were thankful and obedient. They did just what Jesus had told them to do. They went to show themselves to the priest and, when pronounced "clean," they made the required sacrifices at the temple according to the law of Moses.
All ten decided to do the proper and polite thing and plead for help and mercy and healing without approaching Jesus and risk getting him infected with the disease they were suffering under. There were probably more than a few in the group who had resolved on their way to the priests that they would later send a thank you note and even a check to that Jesus of Nazareth for pointing them in the right direction - for giving them the formula for a truly thankful life - for being so helpful.
But the real Christian life is not about confessing Jesus as helpful. It is something much more difficult, much more unexpected, much more radical.
On the way to Jerusalem [Jesus] was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:11-19 ESV)
The Word of God has come in human flesh to affirm and fulfill the work of Moses — the work of Moses that does not ask that we promise to act more thankfully, that we enroll in a thirty day, thirty step program to change our hearts and transform ourselves into truly thankful people, despite what the TV evangelists say.
Christ came — Christ comes to you and me this day — to first affirm that our leprosy is truly leprous. It forever bars us from communion with a holy, perfect God and his holy people. When we say "amen" to the holy and perfect will of God for us and for the world, we find ourselves under the realization that our un-thankfulness has placed us outside the camp. Our sin has relegated us to wander in the wilderness of sickness and disease and failed promises and a will-power that just can't sustain our good intentions. We stand afar from the God of heaven and cry out in total despair, "Despite our un-thankful hearts, have mercy on us Lord. Come quickly to save us, for we can in no way even begin to save ourselves."
Martin Luther and the Scriptures reminds us that God brings the rain for the just and the unjust alike. God provides his life-giving, life-sustaining gifts not just to pious pilgrims and believing Missouri Synod Lutherans. He gives undeserving gifts to those who have true saving faith and those who do not. For we know that in his heart-of-hearts, our Lord loves to abundantly show grace and favor and mercy — even toward his wayward creation, even toward unfaithful children, even toward the un-thankful. For he gave his greatest gift: his precious, only-begotten Son for a world bent on either successfully turning him into merely a nice Savior — or rejecting him altogether.
The Samaritan leper — unlike the other nine — was comfortable with believing that he should have never been healed. He was outside any demand before God or his spokesmen to be cured, either in this life or in eternity. The Samaritan leper received salvation at the hand of Christ as complete, unexpected, undeserved, unmerited grace. And, we see, that gift of faith in the grace of God alone produced the fruits of faith: a truly thankful heart that would not rest until due thanks and praise was placed at the feet of the Christ, the Messiah, the One anointed by heaven to, as we heard at the beginning of this passage, journey to Jerusalem, there to do what only the Christ could accomplish: fulfill what the sacrificing of doves and goats and bulls could only point to. The winning of salvation on behalf of an entire rebel world.
The scandal of Christianity is the scandal of Christ and his Cross: that only in faith in Jesus as our substitutionary sacrifice for our leprous sin is there to be found true thanksgiving — thankfulness that lasts through December 25th and January 1st and into eternity.
You won't read that in this morning's paper. You won't hear that during this afternoon's half-time show. You won't see that on one of the giant comic strip character balloons during a Thanksgiving day parade. But it's heaven's truth just the same.
Human behavior that looks thankful is simply that: outward show from fallen, weak and helpless people that the world may applaud for a day, even though it counts for nothing when it comes to our salvation before the almighty Creator of heaven and earth.
As fallen children of Adam and Eve, we need healing under the Word of God himself. As fallen children of Adam and Eve, we need to be re-created from the inside out and given thankful hearts that see everything through the mercy of Christ and his Cross.
In true faith and the thankfulness it produces, we can give thanks to God that he has come to us in Holy Baptism and will continue to see us through — through heart-ache, through loss, through the most hopeless of difficulties. Even if we think we are like that one Samaritan, completely unworthy of being healed from what bars us from God's heavenly presence.
It doesn't take a 30 or 40 day program to make someone struggling with their sinfulness into someone truly thankful. It takes one Savior and his merciful, forgiving, healing Word — his Word that changes even as-well-as-dead leprous hearts into beating, believing hearts that willingly, joyfully — thankfully —join Christ on his journey to the Cross. And as he said to the Samaritan leper he says to you today: "In my death and resurrection you have been healed. In God-given faith and thanksgiving — take up your cross and follow me."
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Reformation Sunday Sermon - Let Christ be Your Savior (John 8)

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

Dear Brothers and Sisters of Christ the Crucified:

... Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” (John 8:31-33 ESV)

The world and the world's churches have convinced themselves that the nicer they appear and the more good they can do in front of television cameras and newspaper reporters, the more the world will adore Christ, fall in love with him, and stop all its bad behavior.
And so congregations and organizations that call themselves Christian are out in the world loving everyone to death in order to make the world love the Gospel of Christ.
And shouldn't that be the way we effectively, successfully make everyone in our families, neighbors and communities Christian — by being holy and righteous and good and sinless people who are constantly doing holy and righteous and good and sinless things? If only we would end all disagreements in our church. If only we would stop all those personal idiosyncrasies that bother those around us and give a flower and a smile to everyone we meet during the day. If only we would be the perfect parent or the perfect child or the perfect next-door neighbor or the perfect employee or citizen.
If only we would overcome our fallenness and truly love God with our entire mind and heart and soul. If only we would overcome our sinfulness and love and care for our neighbor simply for the sake of our neighbor —
Then the world would stop being so mean and realize that Christ-like love is all we need. If we would only be like Christ — then the world would put away all anger and jealousy and greed and slander and hatred — and decide to be nice and play by the rules.
But that's the strategy of the world and the world's churches. And although it sounds so good, it is, in view of God's own clear revelation through the prophets and apostles, a strategy that leads nowhere but sinful pride and boasting — or total despair.
This morning, as we celebrate the 492nd anniversary of God's grace given in Luther's re-discovery of the saving Gospel, we do well to remind ourselves that the Reformation of the Christian Church of Rome that began on October 31st, 1517 had nothing to do with any man-made revitalization program for the church and the world.
Luther didn't cook up some magic formula that injected enthusiasm and excitement into Rome's plans to build the kingdom of heaven on earth through the funneling of more money into the church's coffers. Luther is not celebrated this morning because he defended the inalienable rights of the individual or because he single-handedly exposed the evils of corporate greed within the organized Christian church.
God's Word this morning tells us again exactly what we need to hear - especially when we get all puffed up with the wrong-headed notion that stubborn ol' Luther, master theological teacher, Bible-translator, hymn-writer, preacher, pastor and missionary lived such a good and Christ-like life that the gates of heaven were opened for anyone committed to follow in his saintly steps.
All that the Reformation truly stands for continues to be something that the world just can't swallow. Something that the world and the world's religions continue to spin and re-interpret to fit it's own self-deluded conclusion that humanity — if it just tries hard enough — can become holy and good and righteous — even before God himself.
Luther, after his hell-on-earth experiences as a monk, was given by God the grace to understand that even with the best of intentions, even with the greatest desire to please God and serve neighbor, our first parents have drained us of any ability to actually carry out what is truly God-pleasing.
Our care of neighbor is stained with our own preoccupation of building up our own image in the eyes of others.
Our love of God is all wrapped up in what kind of reward we think we'll be knocking down for being such good children of heaven.
We keep track of who we've saved and who we've helped and how many times we've said to someone on an airplane, "God loves you and so do I."
We are, by our very nature, list-makers of all the good we think we've contributed to the "righteousness" column that will be read on the last day by the One who knows if we've been naughty or nice.
No wonder why our old nature and the world's religions around us just can't accept the Jesus that comes to us in the Old and New Testament. The Jesus who announces in the eighth chapter of the Holy Gospel According to Saint John that all children of a real Adam and Eve are real fallen and sinful children of parents who gambled everything away — for themselves and for each of us — as they traded in faith and trust in their gracious and all-giving God for a chance at being the center of the universe.
And so any Reformation service worth it's salt begins with the acclamation that it isn't our good intentions that last forever. It isn't our nice behavior or sincerity or tears or promises or decisions or our cleaned-up lifestyle that saves ourselves or anyone else. The Church of the Reformation is, by God's unmerited grace, the church that begins Reformation Sunday with the clear confession — to the Lord Almighty and to the world — that on the basis of the unchanging Word of God, we are by our very fallen nature "sinful and unclean" and "deserving only of God's present and eternal wrath and punishment."
That's the opening note of the Reformation symphony because it is the opening note of the history of God's redemption in Christ.
We are under the oppression and shackles and curse of sin. We are worse off than the children of Israel under the thumb of Egypt's wicked Pharaoh. We are, by our very nature, able to choose, but able to choose only what appears to be good, right and salutary before the Maker of heaven and earth.
We are, in the words of Saint Paul, poor, miserable failures when it comes to carrying out the good that we wish to do, even if we've convinced ourselves and the world of our spotless intentions.
You see, the Law of God comes through Moses and the Ten Commandments to hold up the clear mirror of heaven's will, that we would get a good look at what we have lost — what we have become before our holy and perfect and righteous God. And the sight is not a pretty one. "For all have sinned and fallen woefully short of the glory of God" — that glory intended for each of us and for the whole of creation.

Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed." (John 8:34-36 ESV)
Several years ago, the great Lutheran theologian and ethicist Dr. George Forell spoke here in this sanctuary and held up the truths of Scripture reflected in the great hymns of the Reformation. And in pointing out the relevance of the Reformation for today, he pointed to the words written by Paul Speratus in the hymn we sang here last Sunday: "Salvation unto Us Has Come."

It was a false, misleading dream
That God his Law had given
That sinners could themselves redeem /
And by their works gain heaven.
The Law is but a mirror bright /
To bring the inbred sin to light
That lurks within our nature. (verse 3)

Try getting the United Nations or Washington D.C. or Sacramento (or the YMCA or many churches that call themselves Christian) to sing that next time they get together to do good and make the world a little more like heaven.
This morning it is God in his grace that gathers us together to shut-out the go-nowhere, empty programs of the world and our own fallen nature — that we would hear his Word — his Word which shows us our sin —so that we would then receive with joy and thanksgiving the only God-ordained medicine for hardened hearts — the only God-ordained cure for minds convinced that, if given just another chance, we could clean up our lives, turn everything around and thereby earn God's favor.
It is God's Word alone that clearly shows us the depth of our spiritual plight, that we would then be brought to the foot of the Cross of Christ to there see the Son of God take upon himself our sin — and atone for it and make satisfaction for it and bury it forever in his grave.
Jesus wasn't born in a humble manger just to teach us to be humble. Our Lord wasn't crucified on a cruel cross just to show us that we can redeem ourselves by always looking at the bright side of life. Christ did not come to show you how you can save yourself. He came to affirm the ministry of Moses and the Law that drives us to despair of any self-made attempt to build some staircase into heaven out of our own good works.
Outside of God's grace in Christ, we are, as the Small Catechism reminds us, spiritually blind, rebel enemies of God, even when our behavior looks so good to the world. For, as Romans 14 reveals, "whatever does not proceed from [true] faith is sin."
But if the Church of the Reformation proclaims that everything outside of God-given faith in the Christ of Scripture is sin and slavery and death, it is because only with this confession are we ready to hear the Gospel — the great Good News that alone brings true peace and salvation and the hope of heaven.
Christ did not come to show us how we can perform before God and make him applaud on account of our more civilized behavior.
Christ came to die for the shame and guilt of an entire disobedient, out-of-control world. Christ came to graciously, mercifully save undeserving sinners who were, whether they would admit it or not, dying under the weight of their own unrighteousness.
That is the one, true treasure of the Church. That is the holy Gospel of grace given to the Christian Church on earth to share with all who have given up on saving themselves by their attempts to be nicer and more love-able before God and neighbor.
The Jewish leaders in this morning's Gospel reading who began to believe were taken back when Jesus told them that their favored status as children of Abraham didn't negate the fact that on their own they could do nothing to earn heaven's reward. Even the religious elite needed another — a strong man to come and bind sin, death and the devil and set the weak and helpless free.
And what these people in John chapter 8 needed to believe is the same thing we are called to put our faith in. The clear teaching of Scripture that there is only one righteous offspring of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. There is only one righteous Son who enjoys an permanent place before God in his eternal dwelling place. There is only one righteous redeemer who offered up his very life-blood as an all-encompassing sacrifice for the transgressions of the entire human race.
Only through Christ are we declared acquitted, restored, righteous in God's sight. Only through Christ. Only through Baptism into his saving Name are we given a new nature that not only has the ability but the unwavering desire to trust in God's Word and please him with the fruits of faith.
Saint Paul said it best when he wrote these inspired words to young Timothy:
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners... .
(1Timothy 1:15 ESV)
I am not up here this morning to wow you with everything I know about Luther and the Reformation. I am not up here this morning to give you the secret formula to get all sin out of your life so you can become just like Christ in order to win some "Holy and Righteous Christian of the Year" award. That's the junk Tetzel was selling by exchanging coins for parchment and the Pope's seal and the promise of sins paid for.
I am here, on this Reformation Sunday, to point you to that one thing — that one thing that remains forever. And it isn't the smarts of the pastor or your promise never to sin again.
I have been called to simply point sinners to the eternal Word made man — to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world — at his Cross, at his Baptismal font, at his altar.
In God-given faith, confess your unrighteousness, and your trust in Christ — our only redeemer, our only savior, our only hope and righteousness, here and in eternity. Again, Paul Speratus:

Let me not doubt, but truly see
Your Word cannot be broken;
Your call rings out, "Come unto me!"
No falsehood have You spoken.
Baptized into your precious Name,
My faith cannot be put to shame,
And I shall never perish. (verse 7)

Let yourself be the helpless sinner. And then — let Christ be your Savior.

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

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Wheels of Salvation Set in Motion (Mark 9:30-37)

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

Dear Fellow Redeemed in Christ:

They [Jesus and the disciples] went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he did not want anyone to know, for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him. (Mark 9:30-32 ESV)
It's already begun. The movement is now afoot. The plans are being made. The plot has already been hatched.
And Jesus knows it. And Jesus is preparing for it. And Jesus is preparing his disciples for it. And, this morning, Jesus is preparing you and me for it.
The plans are in reaction to the impending battle that will answer once-and-for-all: "Who is the greatest among us? Who's got the real power and authority? Who's got the chutzpah to step up to the plate and deliver? Who's got the passion to win what angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven have been pleading for since Adam and Eve's fall into sin?
When it comes to salvation, there is seemingly little room for the shy and squeamish. From now on, things will move irreversibly toward the great and mighty day of the Lord. "The time has now come." Jesus announces to those he has called to follow him.
Because when it comes to life in this world, God doesn't leave his own children hanging — he doesn't leave us hanging. When it comes to our redemption, our Lord puts it all on the table.
And as we heard last Sunday, the focus of Jesus' ministry now moves from performing signs and miracles as a witness to the crowds to the preparation of Jesus' own for what now lies just around the corner.
And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. (Mark 8:31 ESV)
No more obtuse hints, no more innuendo. No more under the table clues and back room whispers. For the disciples, for the tribes of Israel reduced to twelve, it was out in the open now. From the mouth of Jesus himself the disciples now hear plainly what had only been sketched out by the prophets of old: "I am the Christ. And I have been anointed to be the Servant of the Lord of Hosts, sent to secure salvation for you and for the entire world — by suffering, by being rejected, by being killed — and after three days resurrected."
The Twelve had hoped that things would change for the better after Jesus' first prediction of what was in store for him — and for them — in Jerusalem. And with the glimpse of glory granted to Peter and James and John (the representatives of the Twelve who accompanied Jesus up the mount of transfiguration), they quickly forgot the far-from-glorious end Jesus had earlier predicted. With the powerful healing of the boy suffering under an unclean spirit, the disciples tucked away any thought that Jesus would end up in the hands of evil men who would strip him — strip him of his very life.
But now, Jesus had paused from performing signs and miracles in the public square to do an even greater work behind closed doors: to begin the process of readying his true followers for the cosmic firestorm that would ensue with Jesus' betrayal and arrest.
With this morning's Gospel from the 9th chapter of Saint Mark, we see that the wheels are now set in motion. The Jewish religious leaders have been convinced that this whole Jesus of Nazareth movement was not progressing toward their salvation but — if left unchecked — their undoing. Judas has been convinced that the perks he secretly enjoyed as treasurer of the band's coffers were now in real jeopardy if Jesus was preparing to end it all when he arrived in Jerusalem. Judas thought: "How in the world can this self-proclaimed messiah — this glorious son of man — allow himself to be delivered over into the hands of those who would cancel his rise to fame — like some helpless piece of bulk mail?"
I always remember what Judas sang in "Jesus Christ Superstar" as he warned Jesus about the road he was now announcing to the disciples:
Listen Jesus to the warning I give. /
    Please remember that I want us to live.
But it's sad to see our chances weakening with ev'ry hour.
All your followers are blind. / Too much heaven on their minds.
It was beautiful, but now it's sour. / Yes, it's all gone sour ... .
Judas' dreams of greatness were drying up, even as the Twelve made their way to the lakeside home of Mary, the mother of Jesus. He could see nothing but disaster and a big, fat dead end — not only for Jesus, but especially for himself and his great personal aspirations.
Something had to be done. Plans needed to be made. Alliances needed to be established and nurtured. Someone needed to stand up and take the bull by its horns and stop this mad rush off the cliff. Someone needed to rise to the occasion among Jesus' followers.
And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. (Mark 9:33-34 ESV)
The private whispers of the disciples along the way had proven much more divisive than decisive. They were jostling among themselves for a seat of power and glory and honor at their master's right and left — especially now as it seemed that someone would have to take charge in Jesus' absence.
Who among the Twelve could guarantee they had the right stuff to continue what Jesus had started? Who was the heir apparent? Peter? James and John? Thomas? Andrew? Judas?
Who could make what Jesus had begun into something truly great and glorious and eternal?

Jesus, dear, long-suffering, patient Jesus brought his disciples inside and closed the door and sat down to teach them again something that seemed more and more impossible for their fallen, self-absorbed, "what's in it for me," hearts and minds to grasp. Jesus was about to teach them that "It's not about getting to the top of the ladder before anyone else."
And [Jesus] sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them,“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” (Mark 9:35-37 ESV)
It should increasingly disturb us that the mission of more and more of the organized Christian church swirls around a deadly obsession to gain the applause of the crowds and make a great name for those individuals who — in the eyes of the world — fought the hardest for heaven and claimed the most real estate for the kingdom of God.
Jesus calls the twelve to repentance and a complete turn-around in their understanding of the securing of salvation when he puts the simple, unquestioning faith of a child before their eyes and says, "This is what the kingdom of God is all about. This is the will of God. This is the mission of his one-and-only Son. To be a servant who's only aspiration is to obey the good and gracious will of him who sent him."
Our secret aspiration was to be thought of well by more and more people. Jesus' secret aspiration? To do the will of his Father in heaven and give his life-blood — even for fame-craving disciples. Our secret wish was to gain the accolades of those around us and have nice things said of us after we were gone. Jesus' secret wish: to do the will of his Father in heaven — to serve his Father's gracious will — even when it meant being the Suffering Servant. Even when it meant receiving the wrath of sinners too busy arguing about who's name would be announced at the next awards show to see their redemption just over the hill.
"What were you discussing along the way?" Jesus asks, as he calls each of us to let go of the desire to make a name for ourselves — that he might place his saving name upon us.

Christ would have nothing to do with the silly and endless debates about who was greatest — who deserved the service and applause of everyone around them. He came to serve, to give his life as a ransom for the many, to put on a waiter's towel and stoop down and wash away our sins with his very life-blood.
When it comes to hitting home runs in the kingdom of salvation, only Christ wears the title of designated hitter. Only he has stepped up to the plate, and forsaking all glory, won for us — and for an entire lawless, self-seeking world — the name gifted to us at the baptismal font: believing, faithful, God-pleasing child of heaven.
Put your faith in Christ and his Word spoken over you at the font, spoken over you through the prophets and apostles, spoken over his table, over bread and wine through which he forgives and strengthens.

It took something truly great to change the disciples' endless debates about who among them was the greatest and most glorious. And it takes something truly miraculous to change our old nature's fascination to look into the mirror and ask, "Who's the fairest one of all?" It takes a plunge into Christ's death and resurrection. It takes a daily drowning of that nature we drag around with us, that a new nature would arise — a Christ-like nature that serves our neighbor, even the neighbor we find it so difficult to care for.
It was the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer who once said, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die."
May Christ continue his great and mighty work of drowning our sin, and brining forth a new nature that serves those God places into our lives - for their sake.

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

Friday, September 18, 2009

What Fuels Faith After the Excitement Wears Off? (Mark 9:14-29)

In the Name of Jesus

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ our Savior:
Jesus finds himself at the height of his popularity in and around the sea of Galilee. He has come and, without reservation or wavering, picked up his unique call from his Father in heaven to reveal the signs of redemption through his itinerant healing and preaching. His unexpected presence in the lives of those burdened and crushed by the weight of sin and its consequences is as unexpected as his sudden word of healing and touch of mercy upon those who had despaired that they would ever see the light of day again. The blind are given their sight. The lame are healed. The hungry are miraculously fed. And as the people get the real sense that the long-awaited kingdom of God is now breaking in, amazement and excitement give way to more and more questions. Who is this man? What kind of prophet could he be? Could he even be the only-begotten Son of God — the divine Messiah?
The questions and possible explanations whirled around the crowds, those who had been healed, and even among the twelve disciples. And seemingly adding to the confusion we hear of Jesus' clear command to those he redeems: "Don't tell anyone about this."
Jesus knew what no one else knew, including the unclean spirits themselves. Word was getting out on its own that all indicators, all miracles, all signs pointed to Jesus as the promised Messiah who would usher in the Messianic age of salvation and the restoration of all things lost in the garden of Eden.
However, the discussions among the crowds and disciples and the Jewish religious leaders got ugly when it came to what kind of Messiah this carpenter's son from Nazareth could be. No one could deny that he was performing miracles — but as just another prophet? Or as someone completely different than Elijah or even Moses?
Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Saint Mark puts before us the pattern within which our Gospel this morning is found. Take a look at the larger section that surrounds today's Gospel reading. The end of chapter eight consists of Jesus healing the blind man at Bethsaida, followed by Peter's God-inspired confession, followed by Jesus' first plain announcement about who he truly is and what he's come to do.
And [Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. (Mark 8:31-32a ESV)
Jesus announces to the Twelve that being Messiah is all about the glorious redemption of the world through the sacrificial death of the only-begotten in the place of the spiritually blind and lame — those who were dead in sin.
That's the unexpected, jaw-dropping reality that the inner core of the Twelve were kicking around in their heads as Jesus lead them up the mountain, there to be transfigured before them — there to be strengthened for the grueling journey ahead. Jesus' glory would be his departure — his exodus. Jesus' triumph would be the cross. That's the God-pleasing revelation from heaven — and from Moses and from Elijah.
It is this context that frames Jesus healing of the boy with the unclean spirit. And it will give Jesus the second opportunity to tell the disciples again what kind of Messiah he has been sent to be.
The Holy Gospel According to saint Mark, the ninth chapter:
And when they [Jesus and Peter and James and John] came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them. And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him. (Mark 9:14-15 ESV)
When Jesus is thought of as just another philosopher or spiritual guru or human miracle-worker or mere moral example to follow, things very quickly become muddled — to the point of confusion and uncertainty and doubt. We see it here in the Gospel according to Mark, and we see it in much of what calls itself Christian today: everyone seeking after a Jesus of prosperity, a Jesus that will justify the lifestyle or behavior or self-centered desires that have already been chosen.
The crowd in Mark chapter 9 knows of the amazing, miracle-working Jesus, but in their doubt and uncertainty they do not yet believe in Jesus as the Christ — the Messiah — of the cross.
And he [Jesus] asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” And someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid." (Mark 9:16-18a ESV)
In desperation, the father has brought his son and gotten in line for his chance at getting some of the glories others in desperate straights have received. But is Jesus willing, or able to redeem this situation? A son — an only son — ravaged since childhood with an unclean spirit that throws him into the water as easily as he throws him into the fire. Will this "teacher" — can this "teacher" — rescue this boy from such a tight grip by the forces of oppression, darkness and evil? Can this Jesus save from these seemingly permanent effects of sin? The distraught father continues:
"So I asked your disciples to cast it out, [but] they were not able.” And [Jesus] answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” (Mark 9:18b-19 ESV)
Even the empty-handed Twelve join in the desperation of the father. As the situation grows more hopeless, those gathered around our Lord wonder: "Has this Jesus met his match in this unclean spirit — this spirit that has tormented this boy to the precipice of death?"
And they brought the boy to [Jesus]. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him." (Mark 9:20-22a ESV)
The effects of sin are as oppressive today as they were the day after Jesus and Peter, James and John came down off the mount of transfiguration. We see it not only in physical weakness, disease and suffering, not only in the demonic acts on the evening news and in the local newspaper. We even get a glimpse of sin's oppressive consequences in our own lives — in the effects of sin that cause us to doubt in the goodness of our heavenly Father and cause us to fall into the temptation to believe that my situation — my sin — is all too much for even the Word of Christ to overcome.
"But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” [the father says.] And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:22b-24 ESV)
A cry of mercy and faith and hope that clings to the invitation of the Lord to put trust in him. Here Jesus is doing his proper work — his life-giving work — of bestowing on poor, nothing-to-offer sinners the gift of faith that grabs hold of the savior's work in our place. Jesus calls forth faith in this most desperate of men, and God-given faith responds "Amen. In spite of my doubt, let it be so for me, Jesus."
And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. (Mark 9:25-27 ESV)
Jesus rebukes, that he might then forgive. Jesus condemns, that he might then show abundant mercy. Jesus exposes sin as sin, that he might then take our sin, and the deadly consequences of sin and rid us of it — forever.
And when [Jesus] had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” (Mark 9:28-29 ESV)
It seems more and more apparent that the beginning of the Christian life seems to go along just fine fueled with the excitement and adrenaline of the glories of one's new life in Christ. We see it often in the newly-baptized, the young Christian, the just-born congregation. Everything is, for a time, so alive and fresh and new.
Remember the glories of those days when you first believed — as an individual Christian, as a Christian family, as a Christian congregation.
Here at Redeemer the newly-formed congregation met in a simple, modest real estate office. Members were excited — to the point of energetically mowing the lawn and sweeping the floors and setting up the metal folding chairs week after week after week. Members would volunteer without being asked to bring flowers cut from their backyards to be placed before the little make-shift altar.
But the joys of those first glorious days usually don't last forever. We see that here — in our own lives, and in the lives of those presented to us in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
The disciples in this morning's Gospel are beginning to realize that they've run out of gas. Their excitement is waning as doubt gets the best of them. In their increased confusion about Jesus and his Word and his work, the Twelve stumble, as we stumble, when we put our trust in anything other than the true object of saving faith: Jesus Christ, son of God and Mary's son, given up — lifted up — for you and for the world. The Christ who calls his prophetic and apostolic Church to recklessly sow the seed of his Word wherever the Lord opens a door.
The ninth chapter of Saint Mark is the turing point — for Jesus, for the crowds, for the Twelve. It is the turning point for you, for me and this congregation as we wonder what will sustain us when the newness of being redeemed finally wears off, when the honeymoon seems to be all but over.
This morning God announces that our resolve can only be based on the resolve of the Father in the Son through the Holy Spirit to save us from the oppressive forces of this sinful and fallen world.
Where will we find hope when we discover that we cannot free ourselves from the demands of God's holy will? From the demands of the Law, the commandments touched upon in this morning's epistle? Where will we find hope when we realize we have trampled the eighth commandment and made an irreparable mess as a result of our sins of the tongue?
We look to the Christ of the Scriptures — the Christ revealed to us through the prophets and apostles. We look to our savior who journeyed to Jerusalem, to the Cross, to God's heavenly altar — sustained not by the excitement of the disciples or the thrill of performing miracles for the crowds.
We dare not put our trust and enthusiasm in a new discipleship program, a new spiritual method, a new worship experience, a new charismatic pastor or teacher or religious guide, even when they give us goosebumps.
We put our trust in Christ, in his journey into the darkness of our sin, his journey into the darkness of an entire rebel race, his prayer for us, his sacrifice for us — that you and all who believe might be delivered from sin and it's deadly consequences — forever.
May God in his mercy deliver us from the confusion of the world, the faith-destroying effects of sin, and the desire to motivate the Church with anything other than the Gospel of the glory and grace of God.
May it be so, for his glory, for our salvation and the salvation of many. In the Name of Christ.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Word Sacrificed and Silenced? (Mark 6:14-29)

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

Dear Fellow Redeemed by Christ the Crucified:

"I have made my choice. I have weighed the odds and considered the consequences — and I have made my decision." In each of our lives we announce our verdict on choices and decision and circumstances each and every day. Who to be loyal to, and who to walk away from. What to do with our skills and talents and time and resources.
A day doesn't go by that we don't choose something over something else — someone over someone else. "I have made my decision — about my job, about my studies, about my family, about my neighbor across the street — about me."
We live in an age that demands it's freedom to choose. We decide what we do and what we refuse to do. We decide when and where we will go, and who we will hang out with. We decide under what circumstances we will expend our blood and sweat and tears. We decide if we will make a difference or if we will just muddle through.
And so it happens on a regular basis that preachers are asked, "When did you decide to become a pastor? When did you make the decision to become a minister of Christ and his Word? When you were a little boy? When you were in college? When you realized that you had the touch — or the spirit — or the calling?"
This morning's Old Testament reading from the prophet Amos sets all of that straight. Like the prophets before him and after him, Amos becomes a prophet — not when he turned his life around — not when he decided to make a difference for his people and his God. Amos, like the greatest of the prophets — like all the prophets — became a prophet not when he signed a contract with the local parish or knelt down and prayed the prophet's prayer.
Amos became a prophet the same way that Christians become Christians: when the Word of the Lord came to him and called him to faith and his particular station in life. "I was no prophet, nor a prophet's son, but I was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees" Amos announces to those who think he can just turn it on and turn it off. For he knew by faith that the decision — the credit — the burden and cross — that went along with being a prophet didn't rest with him. He was just a herdsman of sheep. He was simply a caretaker of fruit trees.
No outstanding score on a prophet aptitude test. No Sunday School teacher recommending him to divinity school. No Uncle Fred who saw in him the beginnings of a great man of God. He was just like the guy next to him. Amos was nothing special, nothing glorious, nothing that made the world stand up and take notice.
But being a prophet or being a deaconess or being an elder — or being a Christian — isn't about turning it on or turing it off. As you have heard from Scripture, as you have heard from the Small Catechism, as you have heard from the liturgy and the hymnal and the baptismal font and the altar and pulpit, it never was about our seemingly great human abilities to clean up our spiritual life and turn our heart over to Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
"When did you choose to be a prophet, Amos? When did you decide to be the forerunner of Christ, John? When did you determine to preach against sin and the consequences of sin and God's most unlikely remedy for it all? Who gave you the authority to announce God's wrath and judgment against sin and God's gift of forgiveness for all who look to his only-begotten Son and his sacrifice in our place?"
In Amos' day those in power wanted the prophet of God to either deliver a sermon that would go along with what their fallen minds and hearts had already decided to believe in — or go somewhere else so they wouldn't have to listen to what he had been given by the Almighty Lord to proclaim.
And so many in Amos' day sacrificed the Word of the Lord for their own fallen, self-glorifying desires. The Word of the Lord was silenced in favor of sinful pride and prestige and personal gain.
"If the Word of the Lord is going to unmask our sin and condemn our rebellion, then take the Word of the Lord somewhere else. Close your mouth Amos, or we'll close it for you." they threatened.
But what was Amos to do? What was John the Baptist to do? What was the Word of God made flesh to do? The seed of the Word was to be sown and scattered and broadcast in every place, among every people, in every tongue, to those (as the hymn-writer says) — to those who like or like it not. Come what may, the prophets were called to announce the Word of God he had placed in their mouths to speak.
Amos did not ask the Lord for credit when it came to his calling as a prophet, just as John the Baptist did not look for a merit badge from God or applause from the world, as he called Herod — as he called all — to receive the Word of the Lord — the Word of the Lord that alone convicts us of sin. The Word of the Lord that alone creates faith in our heart. The Word of the Lord that alone begins and sustains and finishes our salvation and the salvation of all who believe.
Amos didn't decide, John the Baptist didn't determine to be the mouthpiece of the Word of God — just as you didn't turn on faith in your heart or make yourself acceptable to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
The seed planted by Christ did that. The Word announced by the Prophets and Apostles did that. The Scriptures in the liturgy and the hymns and the Catechism and the Creed did that. God did all of it — all out of fatherly love and pure, divine, undeserved mercy and grace.
It is in this way that the Word does it's convicting, restoring work in our minds and hearts and lives this day. It is the Word that has called us to God's house this morning. It is the Word of God that has sat you down in that pew this morning. And it is the Word of God who will sustain you in the one, holy, Christian faith and keep you with our Lord and with fellow Christians in the communion of the Church until he comes again in glory.
Hear how Martin Luther explains it in his Explanation of the Third Article of the Creed:
I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.
In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.
In this Christian church He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers.
On the Last Day He will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ.
This is most certainly true.
You see, it is the Word that gives us a hunger for the Word. It is the Word that gives us a thirst for hearing and reading and marking and taking to heart what Moses foretold, what Amos foretold, what John the Baptist foretold: the Word that won our salvation as he took our skin and bones and flesh and blood upon himself to carry our sin to the Cross and atone for it once and for all.
And it is the Word of God alone that compels us as Christians, as Christian families, as a Christian congregation, to speak what the Lord has given us to speak — no more and no less. A double Word. A word of Law for those comfortable with their sin, and a word of Gospel for those who are terrified and crushed by their sin.
The religious leaders of Israel in Amos' day couldn't silence the Word. Herod couldn't silence the Word in his day, even when he sacrificed and silenced a righteous and holy man sent by the maker of heaven and earth to announce the advent of the world's redemption.
And so it is with those forces today that want nothing more than to sacrifice and silence the Word of God. To remove — as we say on our front sign — Scripture alone.
And yes we can point our finger at those who would demand that churches not share the Word of God with those of other "faith traditions." We are called to speak the truth in a winsome way even to those from within Christian denominations who now say the Word of God says nothing about the sanctity of human life, the sanctity of marriage, the sanctity of the family — the sanctity of the Scriptures and the Sacraments.
But our own old nature is also condemned when the spotlight is put on those who would sacrifice and attempt to silence the Word of God. It is the old nature that we as Christians drag around with us that continues to fight against what Amos has to say, what John the Baptist has to say, what the Word incarnate has to say about our poor, miserable, completely helpless condition before the Almighty.
And so we ask ourselves this morning:
Have I neglected the reading of the Bible thinking that hearing it on Sunday is enough? Do I let other daily activities take presidence over prayer and meditation on God's Word? Have I kept every day holy with the reading and meditation upon God's Word? Has the hearing and reading of God's Word become boring and meaningless to me? Have I despised the preaching of God's Word by not coming to services and studies as regularly as I should? Have I allowed my mind to wander during services and studies and become distracted by my thoughts? Have I been an unfaithful witness to God's Word to others in this congregation by my absence or inattention during services and studies? Do I reflect on the readings and sermon after the service, or do I quickly forget it all? Do I have a desire to learn from the readings and sermon and apply it to my own faith and life?
In other words, do I take seriously the Third Commandment which announces that: "We should fear and love God that we may not despise preaching and his Word, but hold it sacred, and gladly hear and learn it."
Stubborn, unbelieving Herod offered up to half of his kingdom — and received the full weight of God's condemnation for agreeing to have John the Baptist's Word sacrificed and silenced.
But our Lord Christ didn't sacrifice half his kingdom for those who had performed well or made the right "life choices."
Christ offered up all that he had, all that he was, his very life-blood, for those who could only decide to sin, for those who could only dedicate themselves to unfulfilled intentions and self-centered, sin-stained works for God and for their neighbor. Christ promised life for all — even for those whose old nature desired to hear any voice except the one God had sent.
We take a good hard look at our mind and heart and life this day. Where are we sacrificing the Word of God? Where are we turning a deaf ear to God's Word in, with and under water — in, with and under bread and wine — in, with and under the prophets and apostles?

Let the Word have its way with you. Let it come and convict — that it might then come and comfort. Let it come and diagnose your rebellion and unbelief and sin — that it might then come and announce the sweet medicine of Christ offered up for you.
In a land and in a culture that believes it's all about personal decisions, it is a redeeming comfort to hear Scripture's revelation that when it comes to our salvation — when it comes to being baptized, when it comes to believing in Christ and remaining in Christ — it all rests not with any of us, but with God and his precious Word, his gracious Spirit, his life-giving Son.
We didn't choose our parents or our family or any of the circumstances surrounding our birth — and we didn't choose the circumstances of our eternal life either.
It is the eternal Word of God in Christ that brings life to things that were all but dead, illuminating our darkened minds and giving life to sinful and hardened hearts.
We have been called by the Gospel, enlightened with the Holy Spirit, and brought to faith by the Word sent out by the prophets — Amos and John the Baptist — by the apostles — Paul and Peter, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
It is Christ who decided — to die for our sin. It is God who chose us — before the foundations of the world — to be a daughter, to be a son. To be a husband, a wife. A father, a mother. A citizen. A student or worker.
God gets every bit of the credit and praise for making each of us a baptized Christian who lives in Christ and his Word and Spirit — to freely live a life that gives glory to God, that serves what is best for our neighbor-in-need.
In an age that demands the right to decide, what do we contribute to our salvation? Simply our sin.
In faith, let Christ and his Word continue to gift you with salvation and guard and keep you always.

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

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Abandoned by the Lord?

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

Dear Redeemed by our Crucified, Risen and Ascended Lord:

This morning we find ourselves in twilight time, in that fuzzy gray time of transition between day and night. These days in the Church year are like no other as Christians around the world observe both Ascension Day (last Thursday — forty days after Easter Sunday) and the Feast of Pentecost next Sunday (fifty days after Easter Sunday).
For all who follow Christ these ten days are peculiar days, days to mark and ponder and take to heart. Days between our Lord's triumphal ascension to the right hand of God Almighty and the sending of the Holy Spirit upon all his children.
These ten days between Ascension Day and Pentecost were difficult days for the disciples. They remained — for the most part — clueless as Jesus gave his final farewell — his final commands and promise — before being taken up into heaven.
We hear how the disciples were left with their mouths open and their heads and feet motionless on that Ascension Day through the inspired pen of Saint Luke when he writes these words in the first chapter of the book of Acts:

In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.
And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. [Christ candle extinguished.] And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James. All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers. (Acts 1:1-14 ESV)

Confused, under threat of persecution and death, numb from the events of the last forty days, and tempted to believe they had been abandoned by their Lord.
But, with words of encouragement from the two heavenly angels, the disciples held tight to Jesus' Word and Promise, the one thing that could keep them together and give direction and words to their continuous prayers during those ten "up-in-the-air" days between Ascension Day and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
This is the reason why more than a few Christian groups have, for generations, set aside these ten days between Ascension Day and Pentecost as a time of fasting and prayer and devotion and acts of mercy to their neighbor-in-need. Some congregations observe this week-and-a-half by offering a continuous (240 hour) prayer vigil in the sanctuary.
But what do you pray for for 240 hours?
Well, what did the disciples pray in that upper room — that upper room in which they had celebrated the Lord's Supper, that upper room in which they had seen the risen Christ and the saving marks of his sacrificial death upon a cross, that upper room in which they had — as apostles and pastors of the Church — received through the Holy Spirit their calling to forgive sins in the stead and by the command of Christ himself.
What did the disciples — the Church — pray in their time of need and bewilderment and fear and uncertainty?
That is a good question to ask for congregations who find themselves in their own "twilight time" as they struggle with declining membership and resources and changing neighborhoods — for husbands and wives who find themselves in times of temptation and uncertainty — for parents and children who find themselves at odds with their respective roles in the family and the world around them — for individual Christians who find their faith under attack and their hope in heaven shaken.
What do we pray?
The prayer the Church has always prayed — a prayer based on the sure foundation of Christ's Word for us: the collect for the seventh Sunday of Easter — the collect for the Sunday between Ascension Day and Pentecost:
O King of glory, Lord of the heavenly hosts, uplifted in triumph far above all heavens, leave us not without consolation but send us the Spirit of truth whom you promised from the Father.
The prayer of Christ's Church — our prayer — your prayer — is to be found in the one source of all hope and comfort and consolation: the Holy Scriptures. In the Introit — the entrance psalm — for the Seventh Sunday of Easter (also known as "Waiting Sunday"). Psalm 27 — a psalm from the inspired king David as he proclaims from God:

"Wait for the Lord. Be strong, and let your heart take courage, and wait for the Lord!" (Psalm 27:14 ESV)

This is the same Lord who spoke pure comfort and hope and strength to his own as he prepared them for his betrayal — his holy, innocent, suffering and death.
Imagine, if you will, the head of the household gathering his family around the Thanksgiving Day table. Everyone is in attendance. Everyone in the family is seated in their proper place. All individual quarrels are put aside as the household circles around the gifts presented: an enjoyable meal and the enjoyable company of each other's presence. The head of the household leads those gathered in giving thanks for the table prepared, for the fellowship created in, with and under bread and wine and the care of the Master of the house.
But as the plates are cleared, the householder announces that he has decided to go ahead with the plans he had made to join the armed forces and fight to defend the life and liberties of his family and fellow countrymen. He will be leaving them now, to lay down his life that the life of his family might be defended, preserved, secured.
Think of the resolve of the Master of the house as he announces what will happen in the days ahead. Think of the fear and despair of those gathered at table as they hear the words:
"I am leaving you now. But it is for your good. If I don't go this house cannot survive and flourish. I must leave you now. And you must wait for my return — in faith and hope and confidence that this is the way it must be — for your good. Hold tight to my word of promise: you will see me again. I will not leave you as orphans."
Hear again Jesus as he prays for his own on the night he was betrayed. The Holy Gospel According to Saint John, the Seventeenth chapter:

[Jesus prayed,] "Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth." (John 17:11b-19 ESV)

For a Church that would rather hide in a bomb shelter — behind closed doors of an upper room — until their Lord's return, Jesus sends out his own into the world. But he sends them out as his own — marked by his holy Cross, his holy Name, his sanctifying Word.
In these ten uncomfortable days between our Lord's Ascension and the pouring out of Christ's Spirit at Pentecost, we are called to live Christian lives of faith in Christ's Word, lives that reflect Christ's Word and Promise — in our prayers and worship, in our Christian witness, and in our service to those God himself has placed in our lives.
Our Lord has gone out to do battle for us and for all fallen children of Adam and Eve. But he has not left us to helplessly try to fend for ouselves. We have not been made orphans — for we are, even now, held safe in his saving Name, his eternal Word, his enlivening Spirit and Baptism — that we may live lives of thanksgiving by serving each other in the bond of peace.
Is your world upside-down this morning? Are you wondering why Christ has left his own to return to heaven?
Hold tight to Christ's Word of promise as he embraces you, treasures you, keeps you and preserves you for eternity.
Wait for the Lord. Be strong. Take heart. And wait for the Lord. He is faithful.

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