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.