Tuesday, May 31, 2011

"If you cherish me, you will cherish my Word." (John 14:15)

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

Dear Fellow-Redeemed in Christ our Crucified and Risen Lord:

Just imagine a bridegroom swapping out vows to his bride for an announcement to her and all in attendance at the wedding ceremony: “You will love me and you will obey me.”
And just imagine a bride exchanging her wedding vows for a proclamation to her bridegroom: “You will love me and you will do what I tell you to do.”
That would make for an interesting marriage ceremony and an even more interesting marriage.
Because any marriage, any relationship instituted by the Almighty himself quickly disintegrates into a game of self-fulfillment when the measuring stick is just obedience to the rules sinful, fallen people happen to set up for each other. What I have to do in order to get what I want out of a marriage or a family or a church family. What others must do to avoid my anger and the threat to walk away.
That’s why we have not only divorce lawyers but, now, marriage attorneys. That’s why more and more Christians are signing pre-marriage contracts, so that there is legal recourse when we are not loved or obeyed to the standards we have set for those God has placed in our lives. “Sweetheart, I love you. Here’s the contract I’ve drawn up. Sign here.”
Because, as this dark and dying world teaches us — as our old, sinful nature reminds us, our beloved is our beloved only insofar as they hold up their end of the bargain — only as long as they love and obey and do what we have told them to do.
This is the approach of so many we have crowned “marriage expert” and “family therapist” and “relationship guru.” What is family? What is marriage? It’s whatever we define it to be. It’s me and my self-chosen partner (or partners).
That way of thinking has led to redefining marriage and the family in our courts and in our classrooms and in our congregations. “Well, as long as they love each other.” has become the mantra of the day. And each of us demands the right to define love and family and marriage any way we want.
So what do we do when our Lord Christ stands before us and says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments”? Will we play Humpty Dumpty and re-define and re-interpret his words to make them mean whatever we want them to mean? Or will we acknowledge that Christ himself interprets what he says to us and to the world? Does the world make sense of the Word of God or does the Word of God make sense of the world and each of us here this morning?

God forgive us for our constant attempts to suit Jesus’ words to our own pre-conceived understandings. God forbid that we make ourselves the final word on our Lord’s Word as it comes to us through his prophets and apostles. God send his Spirit to us anew to hear the Word made flesh with sanctified ears and a cleansed heart. Amen

So, what is Jesus telling not only the disciples but every one of us who receive him by God-given faith when he says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”? (John 14:15 ESV) Is Jesus simply laying down the law in the same way people in our age agree that we’ll be family, we’ll be a church family, we’ll be friends just as long as I hold up my part of the agreement and (more importantly) you do the same? Is our Lord making a legally-binding-in-court contract with the Twelve and with each of us? “Do these things, and then you will be the object of my blessing?”
Well, if we read it, if we hear the words of Christ in that way, how are we performing according to Jesus’ do this and then I’ll do that for you agreement? Are we measuring up?
Our old nature things we’re doing a pretty respectable job. We go along with much of what Jesus tells us, at least when it comes to our behavior in public. Like the Muslim who gauges the possibility of earning heaven on how well he or she “submits,” our old nature works overtime in minimizing the commands of the Law so that we have some chance of squeaking through the pearly gates.
Yes, we break the commands of the law not only by what we do but even more by what we say, by what we think, but we try to console ourselves that at least our performance is better than that other person — that other person who has no chance, no possibility of climbing their way into heaven.
But how are we really measuring up to the Law still faintly written in our hearts but revealed clearly through Moses on Mt. Sinai? Remember those Ten Commandments? Remember what they really mean? Remember, for example, Martin Luther’s meanings from the Small Catechism? All that stuff about fear, love and trust in God above all things and service to neighbor — to wife and husband and parent and child and employer and employee and next-door neighbor and community and church family simply for their sake, for their welfare and well-being without counting any personal cost to ourselves?
How are we really doing when God holds up the mirror of his holy will and law? How would we be doing if it really was, as our old nature thinks: “Christ will love us only if we first obey his commandments.”? How are we really performing if Jesus is saying, “I will love you, but only if you would first love what I have commanded you.”
Deep down inside we know we have failed miserably. We know that from that small voice of our conscience, those remnants of the Law written into our own heart and mind. But we know we have failed miserably in the face of the clearest and most powerful revelation of the extent and enormity of our failure to love Christ and his command: the extent and enormity of sin Christ himself bore for us upon the Tree. That wasn’t Christ’s sin; that was our sin. That was our sin that Christ made his own. That’s what our sin, our disobedience, or rebellion, our failure looks like as heaven’s wrath is poured out against human transgression.
Calvary is the clearest indicator of the enormity of our sin. Each of us has to acknowledge that. And if you can say “that was my sin Christ bore unto the poor and miserable death of the Cross,” then the Word of God is working repentance and contrition in you — then you are ready to hear unexpected, unbelievable Good News this morning.
For Christ’s cross is not only the revelation of the severity of our sin — of your sin and my sin — but it is the clearest revelation of God’s gracious, unmerited forgiveness for sin. Not for some of it, not for a part of it, but for every bit of it, even for the sin you cannot forgive yourself of.
In Christ, it’s forgiven. It’s buried in the depths of the sea. It has been dragged to Christ’s tomb never to rise again.
And if that wasn’t enough, Christ gives you the gift of faith. Not some kind of whistle-in-the-dark faith, but a sure and certain confidence in Christ and his promises — especially those promises that our old, sinful nature never sees and will never put its trust in.
And what’s the hidden promise for all who repent and turn to Christ and his redemption in their place?
Never getting sick? Never experiencing heartache or loss? Never having to ask for Christ’s forgiveness ever again?
No. Something greater and much more glorious. For in those words, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” there is a great and eternal promise.
Christ is saying, to you, “As I have sent my Spirit into your heart, your new nature will love me, will treasure me, will keep me, will cherish me, will forever hold me close.
Just as you will will love and treasure, keep and cherish my Word — now and always.”

We pray in the words of Martin Luther:

Lord, keep us steadfast in Thy Word;
Curb those who fain by craft and sword
Would wrest the kingdom from Thy Son
And set at naught all He hath done.

Lord Jesus Christ, Thy pow’r make known,
For Thou art Lord of lords alone;
Defend Thy Christendom that we
May evermore sing praise to Thee.

O Comforter of priceless worth,
Send peace and unity on earth.
Support us in our final strife
And lead us out of death to life.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Great Good Shepherd (Ezekiel 34:1-16)

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

Dear Brothers and Sisters Redeemed by our Good Shepherd:

There is the Good Shepherd of the Scriptures, and then there are the good shepherds that the world and our old, worldly nature have cooked up. Do you know the difference?
There is the Good Shepherd that God provides for his own harassed, lost and helpless sheep, and then there are those who masquerade, who pretend to be a shepherd of the Lord’s sheep. Do you know the difference?
As I have mentioned before, even demonic leaders of religious cults claim to be the voice of the good shepherd — and, sadly, some poor soul follows their siren call and ends up being pushed off a steep cliff or being pulled into a black hole of despair and death.
There is the Good Shepherd that is set before our eyes and ears by the inspired prophets of the Old Testament and the apostles of the New, and then there are the false shepherds, the imitation shepherds, the un-faithful-to-the-Lord’s-calling shepherds. Do you know the difference? Are you sure you could spot an impostor shepherd — even if one would appear in a church that calls itself Lutheran? Even if that false shepherd could quote passages from the Bible and even the Small Catechism?
Because everything is riding on which voice you listen to and follow. Everything, your very life and being and soul depends on which shepherd you will pay attention to. Will you pick up after the shepherd that calls to you to fulfill your destiny by pursuing self-fulfillment and the comfortable, got-it-made-in-the shade, take care of your own desires first and then everything else will follow life?
Or will you listen to another shepherd who calls with the message that if you would only conquer sin and temptation, if you only live the holy life cut off from the evils of this physical world, then you will earn for yourself (and for your loved ones) the highest level of heaven?
Everyone has to believe something. And everyone has to have a shepherd, even if they don’t walk on all fours and produce a nice coat of wool.
We all were created to have a shepherd, to be directed and guided and watched over. We were wired to follow a shepherd. And that instinct, that desire, that condition of needing a shepherd was not snuffed out when our first parents forsook the guiding word of the Lord in order to follow another voice, a voice who gave the empty promise that we didn’t have to be sheep under a shepherd. We could take matters into our own hands and mouths and become our own shepherds — and enjoy the pleasures of calling the shots and telling even the Lord what should be done and what should be left undone.

We yearn for heaven, but in this life it seems nowhere to be found. We cry out for blessed relationships with our family and friends and loved ones, but it seems impossible to secure. We long for an end to pain and disease and disappointment and loneliness and chaos, but it seems to have the last word in so many situations. We hunger for the death of death and sin and the consequences of our neighbor’s sin and our own, inexcusable transgressions.
And so the Lord called some to be under-shepherds, his under-pastors, his caretakers, his servants to care for the sheep. But too many called to take care of the sheep, to tend the sheep, to nourish the sheep, to defend and protect the sheep had, what they believed, more important things to do: secure their own comfort and power and prestige and position in the world.
And the poor sheep suffered under the neglect of the false shepherds. Especially those sheep that the Lord took special attention of — the young, the helpless, the sick, the abused, the forgotten. Those who cried out in despair: “Save us, good Lord. Spare us, good Lord!”
So the Almighty Lord sent out his Word of judgment through his inspired, faithful, say-it-like-it-really-is prophets.
The Word of the Lord from the prophet Ezekiel, the 34th chapter:

The word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.
“Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: As I live, declares the Lord GOD, surely because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd, and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep, therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: Thus says the Lord GOD, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them.
“For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.” (Ezekiel 34:1-16 ESV)
The Lord himself will be the shepherd of his sheep. The Lord himself will do what a truly good shepherd does — all for the sake of the sheep. And did you hear what makes the Good Shepherd good? Charismatic personality? Works well in front of a television camera? Is the media darling of Hollywood and Washington, D.C.? Knows how to manipulate the law to get what he wants?
What makes the Good Shepherd truly good? Good looks? Good ratings? Good grief, no!
What did you hear? The Good Shepherd feeds the sheep with the Word — with himself. He does not neglect the flock in order to fatten himself and his wallet. The Good Shepherd does not slaughter the sheep for his own pleasure.
The Good Shepherd strengthens the weak lambs, he heals the sick ewes, he binds up the injured sheep, he seeks and brings back those who have strayed and are lost. He does not shepherd the flock with a harsh hand that only scatters God’s sheep and makes them prey for the forces that would devour them forever.
The Good Shepherd give all as he seeks out the scattered sheep and gathers them back to his fold and feeds them upon the choicest of pastures. Under his merciful care they will lie down in safety. Under his gracious shepherding they will be provided the best of grazing lands and be defended from all who would come and scatter and maul them.
I myself, the Lord says. I myself will be their shepherd forever.
This is what makes the great Good Shepherd the great Good Shepherd. This is what makes our hearts sing, “The Lord himself is my Shepherd, I shall lack nothing.”
For Christ himself reveals what the 23rd Psalm and Shepherd-King David and Shepherd Amos foretold.
Why is Christ the great Good Shepherd?
[Jesus said,] “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.” (John 10:11-15 ESV)
Hear the voice of the one true Shepherd sent from heaven , the very Son of God who picked up his life after laying it down for you, his straying sheep.
Hear the voice of the great Good Shepherd as he leads you to the waters of the Baptismal font there to cleanse you wounds and bind up you heart.
Hear the voice of the great Good Shepherd as he leads you to the rich pastures of his eternal, life-giving Word through the prophets and apostles.
Hear the voice of the great Good Shepherd as he calls you to his holy Table there to feed you and forgive you and strengthen you with his very body and blood, in, with and under bread and wine.
Forsaking all other voices, hear in faith the voice of the great Good Shepherd and feed upon his Word.
Luther says:
God’s Word is all-powerful. Faith and the Spirit are always active and restless. They always need something to do. They need to fight and defend. This is why the Word of God does not have small enemies but the most powerful enemies of all, such as our sinful flesh, the fallen world, Death and the Devil. This is why Christ is called “Lord of Sabaoth” — the Lord of the heavenly armies who is always fighting for us, his sheep.
He also gives us his Body and Blood, which is not just a symbol of grace but is food that gives strength to those in the church militant. This food of his Word is, in fact, the wages and provisions he provides his church under attack. And he will continue to feed us until he wins for us the final victory.
Under the gracious rod and staff of the Good Shepherd, feast upon his redeeming Word, this day and forever more.
A blessed Good Shepherd Sunday to each of you.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

How Saints are Made. (John 14:6) Feast of Saint Philip and Saint James

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

Dear Fellow Redeemed in Christ:

Maybe you’ve heard.  On this, the first day of May, the feast day of Saint Philip and Saint James, someone is becoming a saint.
Today, someone is becoming a saint after a full-blown investigation and review.  After a thorough examination and inspection of their life and words and writings.  After all the qualifications for becoming a saint are documented and authenticated and certified by an official seal of approval.
Because, no one wants to be proclaimed a saint only to be later dropped from the official saint list - like poor Saint Christopher - I mean poor former Saint Christopher.
And so the pilgrimages have already begun to view the body of this newly-declared saint.  His remains have been dug up and now on display, hundreds of thousands of people believing that if they just view this saint with their own eyes, or touch the hem of his burial cloth, they will receive some special merit before the Lord Almighty.
But where would God himself want our eyes and ears focused on this day?  On Saint Philip or Saint James? On Saint Karol or Saint Joseph?  Where does God himself want us to look to receive his blessing, his commendation, his approval?
The Holy Gospel According to Saint John, the 14th chapter:
[Jesus said,] “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.  In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.  And you know the way to where I am going.”  
Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”  
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.  If you had known me, you would have known my Father also.  From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.”
Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?"  (John 14:1-9 ESV)
"Do this for me, God, and then I will be satisfied."  When was the last time you prayed that prayer?  "Just see me through this one time, and then I'll never complain to you again."  "All I want is this one thing, and then I'll be in church every Sunday and give you 15% of everything I have and be nice to all those people I really can’t stand.”
“Show us the Father,” Philip requests. “Show us what Moses got to see. Show us what Isaiah got to see. Let us see God’s saving glory and then we will be content.”
Philip and James and John and Peter and Matthew and you and I all wanted one kind of glory, but heaven gave quite another. For, as Luther reminds us, if we start looking for God in his heavenly glory we will never find him. We must look for our Father in heaven — hidden in the revelation of the only One who has seen and has perfect fellowship with the Father: the only-begotten Son found in the Bethlehem manger, in the simple shop of a Nazareth carpenter, in the insignificant-looking Jesus who rides into Jerusalem upon all the glory of a donkey and dies a sinner’s death upon a cross.
Here we believe that God’s final Word in this world is to be found hidden in the Scriptures. Hidden in Baptism. Hidden in the Lord’s Supper to all but the eyes of faith.
And what Philip learned, in repentance and faith, is what we must also learn: our salvation has come in the person and work of Christ Jesus. He is the fulfillment of all things. In him all is finished. All is complete. All has been accomplished for us and for the world and sealed with God’s stamp of approval in the resurrection of Christ from the dead.
But our old nature still keeps looking for other miracles and other manifestations and other ways it thinks God should be revealing himself to us. Mayan calendars and bleeding statues. Mysterious arrangements of ancient stone pillars and cryptic formations of lights from outer space.
Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.”
Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father."  (John 14:8-9 ESV)
Today everyone wants a piece of the miraculous. Everyone hungers for some sudden epiphany from heaven. A divine experience. A close encounter of the heavenly kind.
But if any one should know that’s not the way it works in this life, it should be us here this morning. We know what happens when sinful people are placed in the presence of a holy and righteous God, the Almighty Lord of heaven and earth. Why do you think there was a curtain a handbreadth’s thickness covering the Lord’s presence around the Holy of Holies?
We as fallen, sinful people don’t survive if put face-to-face before the Almighty in his glory. How do we know that? Take a look at Moses on Mount Sinai. Take a look at Isaiah, chapter 6.
Take a look at the cross. See and note well what happens when God’s justice is unleashed on the one who becomes sin for us and for the entire world.
It is not for the Father’s good, but for our good that God has come hidden and clothed and wrapped in human flesh, bearing the form of a servant, to give us the faith to believe that when we hear Christ, we hear the Father. When we are baptized into Christ, we are made children of the heavenly Father. When we commune with our Lord at his holy Table, we commune with all the saints in paradise and with the One who dwells in unapproachable glory and light.
But sadly there are those who seek a different place to look for God’s favor. In horoscopes, in fortune tellers, in following the fallen and deceptive desires of the human heart. And, yes, even in the empty comfort that our desires will be found if a saint in heaven prays and intercedes on our behalf.
That’s what God had to save Luther the schoolboy from as he called out in a lightening storm: “Saint Anne, save me and I will become a monk!”
That’s what God must save many from today. “Pray for me, Saint Francis, and rescue me and then I will be truly blessed!”
But before we get all self-righteous about what is happening in Vatican City today, let’s remember what’s happening today in many congregations who call themselves Christian.  Last week everyone celebrated the resurrection of our Lord.  This sanctuary and others like it were in “standing-room-only” mode.
And just a week later, much of Sunday morning has returned to the world’s old tune of “what I need to do to be holy.”  “What I need to do to be blessed by God.”  “Five steps to a worry-free life.”  “Ten Stages to be Truly Blessed by God.”  There may even be a few congregations where the topic of the sermon is: “How even you can be a great saint — if you are sincere enough, if you pray enough, if you only try hard enough to make God smile.”
Feast Days in the Christian Church are not the occasion to dig out a body or put a hand or tooth or piece of cloth on display that we might receive a special blessing by viewing it.
God through his holy Word couldn’t have made it any more clear.  Worshipping remnants of those who are eternally with the Lord don’t get us any closer to heaven.  And worshipping our own self-made merits and good works is just as bad.
They actually get in the way.  They become a great distraction.  They can quickly become a danger to our true faith in God’s peculiar way of graciously saving us - through his Son and his Son alone.
That’s what we hear at just about every funeral service here as the words of our Lord from John 14 are read:
Jesus said … , “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6 ESV)
That’s what we need to hear this morning on the feast day of Saint Philip and Saint James.  That’s what we need to hear this morning as Rome adds another name to it’s official list of saints.
We do not become a servant of God or worthy of veneration or blessed or saint or Christian by living a holy-enough life to be recognized by some special church “saint recognition” committee.  Saints are not identified by evidence that their body didn’t smell bad or decay after death.  Saints are not determined by whether or not they saved another after they died by praying and interceding for them and causing a miracle to take place.
Saints are made by grace alone, by faith alone, by Christ alone as God’s Word comes and creates holy saints and heirs of heaven — as water is splashed on us at the Baptismal font.  As bread and wine from the altar is placed into our hands and mouths.  As the voice of God himself is heard through weak and fallen and sinful prophets and apostles as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
This morning, it isn’t a church committee, but God himself, through his grace, through his Word, through his Son, through his Holy Baptism and Scriptures and Table, that announces to you this day: acknowledging you sin and looking to Christ and his Cross alone as your righteousness, “I declare you my beloved, precious, forgiven, glorious saint. Through my Son, and him alone, I am well-pleased with you.”
May God in his mercy keep our eyes where true redemption is to be found: on our crucified and risen Lord, to whom, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, be all power, honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.