Wednesday, November 30, 2011

As Good as His Word (Genesis 15)

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit Dear Fellow-Redeemed in Christ: In the good old days, you were known by others on the basis of your word. Whether you kept your word or you didn’t keep your word. Whether you lived up to your promises or you fell short on what you said you would do or wouldn’t do. That’s just the way it was in the old days, when someone’s word meant something. When someone’s word stood for something. But look at us today. We need a legally-binding, will hold up in court agreement for everything these days. Because people today promise everything and end up going back on what they had promised. That’s why there are countless shows on television where two people are hauling each other into court because things didn’t go well when it came to fulfilling some promise. That’s why the world tells us that we need a release form signed before we let anyone skateboard in our front yard or swim in our back yard. That’s why parents want to toughen up their kids and prepare them for a world that doesn’t think twice about going back on promises spoken. “Trust people only as far as you can throw them,” they say. “No money leaves your right hand unless a written agreement is put in your left hand. And when in doubt, have it lawyer-ized and notarized.” Because it’s no longer the case that a man’s word is his bond. Now we have to put down a deposit or pay bail or leave collateral or give ernest money to show that we will actually do as we have promised. These days, we are required to put something down — before we can pick anything up. That’s just the way this corrupted-by-sin world works. So we shouldn’t be that shocked when a father, in an attempt to educate his own son in the ways of the world, places his four year old on the kitchen table and then steps back four feet. And then, with hands outstretched, calls to the son to trust him and jump off the table into his father’s waiting arms. But when the son finally jumps, the father jumps back to let the child fall to the floor, saying, “Let that be a lesson to you, son. In this world, don’t trust anyone’s promises.” And all of us have had similar experiences. Someone calls on us to trust them and the story they are telling us, but ends up burning us or scamming us or taking advantage of us and our silly trust in promises made. And the good old days weren’t that good either. Because the condition of fallen humanity has always been fallen. We have always been better at making excuses than promises. We’ve always been better at doubting someone else’s word than we were at taking someone at their word. And so it was for our father Abraham. After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” (Genesis 15:1-3 ESV) Poor, desperate, wavering Abraham and his poor, desperate, wavering faith. He knew a little about others making deals and not keeping them. Abraham had plenty of years of experience with people and their words. Doubt and deal-making had even spotted his own life. Not being honest about his wife to Pharaoh and to Abimelech. Not being honest with God when it came to his greatest fear: coming to the end of his life without a son beside him. Abraham, in his desperate circumstances, wanted to make one of his deals with his Lord. One that would look mutually beneficial. An offer the Lord couldn’t refuse. One that would secure him a son. But Abraham needed to learn that the promises that come out of the mouths of sinful people like you and me are of a very different sort than the Word that comes from the lips of the Lord. For, you see, our Lord’s Word comes and does exactly what it purposes to do. Our Lord’s Word comes and does just what he desires his Word to do — without need of collateral or bail or bond or deposit or ernest money. Abraham hears heaven’s announcement, “I am as good as my Word, Abraham. When my Word goes forth, it comes and accomplishes whatever I send it to do. And, Abraham, I am sending out a Word for you — a gracious and merciful Word — as an eternal blessing to you and to the nations. I am sending to you a son.” “In my gracious Word and promise you will find your life and your hope and your reward. Believe against unbelief, Abraham. Trust in the midst of your worry and fear and temptation to believe I don’t have your best interest in mind. Put aside you deal-making and posturing and put your confidence in my unexpected Word and promise.” And behold, the word of the LORD came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:4-6 ESV) That day, the Lord performed a double miracle. The same double miracle he performed for the likes of doubting Adam and rebellious Eve. The same double miracle he performed for old Noah and his family. The same double miracle he performs for you, in the midst of the hardness of your heart and the constant temptation to follow the world and its mistaken belief that deals must be two-way contracts with up-front evidence that both parties will live up to their end of the bargain. The Lord graciously performing a double miracle. That’s the way it is, in these days before Christmas, with the sending of a Son — for us and for our future. Even when we try to do everything we can to guarantee that our hope will become a reality. Even when we plan and strategize and worry and try to bargain with the Lord, doubting that anything good will come of the days ahead unless we get things off the ground. “How shall I know that you will send me a son?” Abraham asked. And the Lord answers in the most unexpected of ways: with a flaming pot cutting a covenant, an oath, a promise — a one-way covenant that has the Lord making an oath and Abraham silent on the sidelines. For you see, people in Abraham’s time would made a deal by swearing to their part of the bargain as both parties walked between the sacrifice that had been cut in half, saying, “May it be to me as it is this sacrifice if I don’t live up to my part of this agreement.” But with the Lord and his gracious promises, it is always a one-way deal. His one-way Word. His one-way promise. His one-way covenant. The merciful miracle of his one-way grace and forgiveness — and the faith he gives to believe in his too unbelievable to believe Word. “And [Abraham] believed the Lord.” (Genesis 15:6a ESV) And if the Lord can bring forth a son from old, as good-as-dead Abraham through his Word and Spirit, the Lord can bring forth a son for you, to rescue and redeem and deliver you. From your doubt. From your fears and your nothing-good-can-come-out-of-this situation doubts. Even from your sin of not living up to what you have promised the Lord. For God sends his beloved Son for you and Abraham and your neighbor down the street. He sends his precious Word, clothed in human flesh and blood, to bear your sin and be the savior of the world. God’s Word calls us to believe what the deal-making world will never believe: that with the coming of his Son, our reward from the Lord is greater than we can count, greater than any of our silly promises to try to live up to the gift of the manger and the cross and the empty tomb. God’s part of the bargain? The sending of his Son to be your sacrifice and substitute and eternal righteousness. And your part of the bargain? To simply say, by God’s grace, “Amen. Amen. Come Lord Jesus — and save.”

Monday, September 12, 2011


September 11th, 2011

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
Nothing is more horrific than to watch a multitude of people free-fall into the abyss. Nothing is more paralyzing than to see in slow-motion the innocent slaughtered by demonic forces masquerading as the final arbitrators of God’s holy will. Nothing is more devastating than to witness the destruction of innocent human life in an evil attempt to wipe out an entire people.
For each of us, ten years doesn’t seem like ten years when it comes to the wounds and hurt and despair of having your whole world suddenly collapse in all around you. Whether it is a ten or fifty or one hundred or one thousand year anniversary of an event of terror — we are still connected to the carnage and chaos of men bent on snuffing out the lives of others in the name of God himself.
We try to forget. We try to put it out of our mind. We try to pick up life as it was before the tragedy, but somewhere deep in our heart we know that it will never be the same again. It just will never be the same. Talk to those who fought in war. Talk to those who fought against devastating diseases. Talk to those who have survived through disaster and tragedy and loss and the horrors of forces bent on indiscriminately ending human life. It can never be the same.
So it is with this day. We remember the burden we now bear — the incomprehensible burden of trying to heal from those tragedies in our life that few words can express. Tragedies and disasters that effect the entire world — effect our entire world, seemingly forever. Events that lay bare not only own own vulnerability but the real, in-your-face temptation to begin to believe that there is, at the end of the day, at the end of our life, nothing left for us but the darkness of the pit and a remote hope that something about us will be remembered — at least for a while.
Today we remember. Today families and friends and fellow citizens remember the events that paralyzed not only New York and Washington, D.C. and southwestern Pennsylvania, but all within earshot of a radio or in viewing distance of a television screen.
We have been brought to begin this day under our Lord’s Word as his Church. Gathered to remember the words of the Psalms, to confess our Christian faith and sing our Christian faith and pray our Christian faith, to mourn once again for the condition of a wold gripped in chaos, a humanity gripped in apprehension and uncertainty and anxiety, a people unable to forget — unwilling to forget the events that bring into clearer focus what dwells in the sinful heart of that fallen humanity we have become.
It is proper that the first thing out of our lips this morning is a remembrance — of who we have become: a fallen and sinful people who’s hearts and minds and spirits fail every time we put our trust in anything outside of God and the grace and mercy and deliverance and strength and courage found in Christ alone.
“If the Lord had not been my help, my soul would soon have lived in the land of silence.” we say in the words of Psalm 97.
If Christ had not been our redeemer, we would have no lasting, no redeeming, no truly sustaining words to say on days like 9/11, on days when a child or parent is taken from us, on days when our loved one is suddenly no longer gathered with us around the table.
Before the world we cry out for defense of our neighbor and care for the casualties of a world gone senseless. We are called as a community and nation to protect ourselves and family and loved ones from the ravages of all that would snuff out God’s precious gift of human life. But as we pray for those who’s job it is to serve and protect and defend, we also pray for our enemies — pray for even those we may never forgive, that their hearts may somehow be turned to repentance and faith in Christ by his eternal Word.
Ten years ago, people just like you and me confessed in unbelief and horror: “This doesn’t make any sense.” And ten years later, too much of what happened on 9/11 still is beyond our comprehension.
This morning millions of people will re-live that moment when twin towers fell, when passenger jets were seized for demonic ends, when what should have never happened — unbelievably — happened.
And where do we flee to make sense of a world that no longer makes any sense? Where do we look when our eyes are seared with images too horrific for words? Where does our Lord direct us when the atrocities of a world out-of-control threaten to plunge us into the thick and cold darkness of despair and death?
Faith would have us believe the seemingly unbelievable: that God’s saving work hidden in Christ is greater than the forces that bring disease and death and human suffering to so many — to the entire human race.
Who, our old nature wonders, will have the last word when life is taken from us? And our God-created and sustained nature quietly answers, “Our Almighty and merciful Lord and his Word of promise.”
What will define and make sense on days like today? On days when there seems to be no sense to be found. On days we are too weak to fight anymore. On days we have given up any hope of rescuing ourselves or any of those around us.
The God revealed through the prophets and apostles would point us to the one event that continues to define all others. The day that heaven and earth covered their eyes with darkness. The day that the Innocent One was slaughtered by demonic forces masquerading as the dispensers of God’s will. This was the devil’s ultimate attempt to crush redemption for a fallen humanity — for you and me and those we love — and those we believe we can never love.
It is at the cross that Christ does the unimaginable. He takes your sin and your neighbor’s death and your enemy’s fate — upon himself. And that, my friend, should bring true terror to you heart and tears to your eyes. The spotless Lamb of God, for the sake of an entire undeserving, bent-on-it’s-own-destruction world, makes satisfaction for not only those we would give our very lives for — but for those we may never bring ourselves to forgive.
Christ is the once-for-all revelation that is the final Word on the forces of disease, destruction and death bent on silencing human life. And faith in Christ believes, even as it grieves and mourns, that with our Lord’s to-death sacrifice in our place, everything has changed.
Death swallowed up by Christ’s death. Suffering re-defined by the Lord’s own Suffering Servant. Disease undone by the One who has sealed us with his Baptism and Spirit and the promise of a redeemed creation.
The holy One of God, the only-begotten Son from heaven abandoned by his loving Father as he receives the wrath poured out on sinners and law-breakers as his mother cries out at the foot of the cross, “This cannot be happening.” As the disciple John cries out, “This makes no sense.”
Some things in life we cannot forget, as much as we try, as much as we attempt to move on and leave it behind. We just can’t forget, especially when it comes to sin and the effects of sin that make us poor, miserable people in a poor and miserable world.
But Christ has come to deliver us and the world in the most unimaginable way, by being the lightening rod for God’s all-consuming wrath for all human sin and hatred and evil.
The world, when suddenly confronted with the effects of its own sin, cries out with meaningless words, “O my God.” But faith created by the Word made flesh and blood and bone cries out, “Lord, have mercy. Lord, save us according to your mercy and grace and forgiveness. Christ, have mercy on me and all who would believe in you and your sacrifice. Kyrie eleison.”
In these last days, we cannot but remember the gracious gifts given to us and to the world — all because of Christ — even in the midst of days like 9/11. Especially in the midst of days like 9/11.
Christ has taken into himself all that would separate us from the mercy and love of God, that we might grieve, but grieve with hope. That we might share each others burdens, but with faith that we will never be abandoned or forsaken by our Lord.
For it is Christ and Christ alone who was handed over, delivered up, poured out at the ground zero of Calvary, to announce to the world, “Your salvation is fulfilled. Your redemption is complete. Your rescue is established — in me — for eternity.”
This is our hope in the face of tragedy. Our redemption in the face of pain and suffering. Our victory when nothing makes sense, save Christ and his un-ending love for us. Love that has the last word on sin, death and the devil.
May we always be found under the shadow of God’s grace and his life-giving Word that raised Christ Jesus from the grave, and with him, all who would believe.
And the peace of God, which passes all human understanding, will guard you hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Amen

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Sowing Life-Giving Seed with Abandon (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23)

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

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
Salvation takes work. Redemption demands blood and sweat and tears. Forgiveness and mercy and grace requires dedication and commitment and more than a little bit of hard labor.
That is one of the themes presented as Jesus puts his parable before you this morning. And it isn’t the parable of the good soil, or the parable of the weeds or scorching heat or attack of the birds.
But that hasn’t stopped generation after generation of well-meaning individuals on both sides of pulpit and pew to follow their own, worldly, fallen, sinful nature in interpreting this beautiful parable in completely the wrong way.
This morning, Christ would have us listen to his Word with the ears of God-given faith. Jesus would have us read his words with eyes that look to him and his Cross to properly interpret what this parable is all about, and what it is not.
God, in Christ, through the Holy Spirit give us sanctified ears and redeemed eyes as this parable of our Lord is placed before us. Amen
Well there seems to be plenty of material for the Christian pastor to preach on this morning, using Jesus’ famous parable from the 13th chapter of Matthew as a good diving board to plunge into the waters of how salvation and redemption and forgiveness work.
And so, in other congregations there will be emotional appeals from the pulpit (if the congregation still has a pulpit) to those in attendance: “You must become the good soil if you are to glorify God and produce fruit for his Kingdom.” The pastor will say, “Do you want peace, and the certainty in your life that God will bless you? Do you want to know in your heart that you are one of God’s elect and a child of heaven? Then make your heart good soil. Make yourself worthy of the seed that God wants to sow in you. If you are to be saved,” the pastor will say, “then you must defeat the wiles of the devil, conquer worry and the cares of this world, and constantly be attentive to God’s Word and always have his Word in your ears and in your mind, heart and mouth.”
Have you every heard a sermon take the parable of the sower and spin it that way? In a way that puts the focus on what you are doing to make yourself the good soil in the parable? In a way that makes your salvation all about you and your work and your blood, sweat and tears? In a way that makes this parable all about your dedication and commitment — about your hard labor?
Well, let’s see what happens if we walk down that road. Where will the parable take us if we want it to be about making our weed-infested, drying-up and beginning to wither, under constant attack from the devil, the world and our old sinful nature dirt into super-soil.
Actually, attempting to walk down that road of making self into super-dirt describes much of my teenage years. Giving all the right answers in Confirmation class. Attending youth group and Sunday services and volunteering Saturdays to trim the bushes around the church and scrape off old paint around the windows of the fellowship hall. Behaving myself. Being a good kid and a good student and a good Christian — all so that I would be sure I had made myself into soil that God could use and forgive and redeem and make worthy of heaven.
Maybe that’s the same road you tried to walk down this last week. Making all the big promises to God that you will straighten your life out and fly right so that he can reward you and plant some blessings in your life.
Well, how’s that road working out for you? How’s your struggle to make yourself into super-soil going? It went just fine with me. I was proud that I wasn’t like those other people who hadn’t rooted out all the weeds in their lives. All those other people who hadn’t accomplished all the Christian things that I had accomplished. All those people who didn’t have the smarts to make themselves into super-dirt — soil that God couldn’t but notice and smile over and bless.
And so everything was going fine — for a while. Until God’s Word had its way with me. Until the Law did its irresistible work of showing my pride for what it really was — sin that I could not rid myself of. Sin that stole the work only Jesus could do. Sin that made me my own savior and redeemer and deliverer.
So, Jesus is giving each of us a warning this morning in this parable of his. This is Jesus’ parable of the sower. Not the parable of the made-itself-worthy soil.
Who does the saving work in this little earthly story with a heavenly meaning? It’s all about the sower and his crazy approach to sowing the good seed of his Word.
Because, as Pastor Chad Bird has said, our merciful, gift-giving Father in heaven sows seed with a blindfold on. Talk about nutty. Talk about insane. Talk about wasteful and irrational behavior. The sower sows indiscriminately. The sower sows his good seed among people the world (and our old, worldly nature) think is a complete waste of time and energy and resources.
The Parable of the Sower warns us as a congregation that we are not to withhold the Word of God — we are not to withhold Christ’s mercy — to those our old nature believes are unworthy of it. Those who won’t become a member and contribute to the offering plate. Those who come from a culture we just don’t like. Those who are too young or too old to attend a voter’s meeting. Those we have determined aren’t the best candidates to be Christians. Christ announces this morning that his word rains upon the unjust, the unworthy, the “will probably never believe.” And his Word does its work whenever and wherever the Holy Spirit wills. Even upon two-year olds in the preschool and twenty-year olds living right next door to this campus. Even upon ninety year olds in senior apartments a stone’s thrown from this sanctuary — regardless of the color of their skin or what language they speak in the kitchen.
God in Christ through the Holy Spirit sows his seed, and he does it with jaw-dropping abandon.
And what is crazy news to the world is good news to you. Because the Almighty sows the good seed of his Word — his Word made flesh to do your hard labor, to work salvation for you, to give his blood, sweat and tears for you, to give his holy life for you. And he sows that seed — even in the “doesn’t have a chance in hell to sprout and grow and bear good fruit” soil of your heart.
“Outside of Christ, there is no good soil within me.” That is the witness of the Bible, the witness of the Creed, the confession made at the Baptismal font and the Table of our Lord.
But the Father of all mercy and comfort has sent his life-giving seed — has sent his Son — and planted him firmly in your eyes and ears and mind and heart. His word has done the miracle greater than the Almighty creating heaven and earth from nothing.
He has taken your sinful, worry-infested, dried up, withered and dead as a doornail heart. And he has created good soil that produces the greatest of good fruit: trust and faith and hope and joy that sings back to God and to neighbor, saying: “God has sent his Son into a dark and dying world. Into my dead and cold heart. And troubles and temptations not withstanding, nothing shall uproot his good work in me — and in all who look to Christ’s sacrifice for their redemption.”

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

Saturday, June 11, 2011

"For your own good, I am leaving you." Feast of Pentecost

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

Dear Christians Redeemed by Christ’s Word and Spirit:

“This is for your own good.” When was the last time someone told you those words? When your mother gave you castor oil? When your father got out the yardstick? When your teacher had you write, “I will not talk in class” one hundred times on the blackboard?
“This is for your own good.” Usually in this life those words are used before those in authority bring down the hammer. “This is going to hurt me more than it is going to hurt you.” they say. But in the end, they weren’t the ones who couldn’t sit down for a week.
“This is for your own good.” The lead-off phrase used by dating teenagers and young adults who want to make a big change in the life of a family member or employee or next-door neighbor.
“This is for your own good.”
We take that announcement with a grain of salt because we know this is the Law talking. This is the language of discipline. This is the language of boot camp and the world’s version of “tough love.” “This is for your own good” is code for “I’m going to discipline you, and you need to take it and endure it and learn from it so that you’ll do a little growing up and not let it happen again.”
That’s why we winch a little when someone comes up to us and says, “This is for your own good.” Those words in our ears do not make our heart sing out for joy. They begin the process within us of getting ready for the blow that we think will surely follow.
Dread and sorrow and fear of what is just around the corner. So it was when the disciples heard Jesus’ words to them just before his arrest and suffering and death.
The Holy Gospel According to Saint John, the 16th chapter:

[Jesus said,] “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me, … . … because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. ...”
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:1-14 ESV)

If the world coming and laying down the Law wasn’t enough, now our Lord Christ comes to us and says, “I am bringing this upon you for your own good.”
“But now I am going to him who sent me, [Jesus says,]… . … because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, … .” (John 16:5a, 6, 7a ESV)
Now we know that when the fallen world and our old, sinful nature says “It is for your advantage that I go away.” the real meaning is far from pure, selfless concern for the other. Just like when we hear people begin a sentence with the words, “It really isn’t any of my business …” or “I’m not telling you what to do …”
In these last days, when we hear a self-absorbed world say, “For your good — because I care about you, … .” we have a pretty good idea of what’s coming next, and it’s not going to be pretty.
So what’s Jesus doing here in John, chapter 16? Is he toughening-up his followers for heaven’s heavy hand of discipline? Is Jesus saying, “It’s time for you to grow up and begin relying on your own strength and ingenuity. And so, for your own good, I’m out of here. I’m kicking you out of the nest. You need to take wing and fly. I’m not going to be your mother robin anymore. It’s high time you stood on your own two feet.” ?
How many parents have had that conversation with their teenage son or daughter? Is that what our Lord is doing here? Booting believers out of the nest to wean them off of Christ’s immediate and constant care? Isn’t that what the Rite of Confirmation is all about?
Ten days ago the Christian Church commemorated Ascension Day. A great and glorious day for Christ as he returns to heaven in all his resurrected splendor — but what about those left behind? What about those of us who are still stuck with our daily battle against devil, world and sinful flesh?
Part of us is not at all happy that Christ has ascended above all heavens and seemingly left us here alone to try and fend for ourselves. We find ourselves right along side the disciples on the road to Emmaus pleading with our Lord, “Stay with us, for it is evening and the day is far spent. Do not leave us.”
Today, the Feast of Pentecost — fifty days after our Lord’s resurrection and ten days after our Lord’s ascension — is a great opportunity to hear straight from the mouth of our Lord that when our Redeemer tells us, “This is for you good,” we can truly believe that — for once — it really is for our good.
For all of Scripture stands as heaven’s clear, Spirit-inspired witness that all that Christ did, he did for our good. From the manger to the cross, it was for our good, for our salvation, for the world’s redemption. Every bit of it, from each miracle to each step that brought our Lord Christ closer to the Cross. For your good, for your benefit, for your salvation. And none of that changed the day Christ ascended above the clouds to take his rightful seat at his heavenly Father’s right hand.
“This is for your own good.” means something is coming that we didn’t invite, we didn’t ask for, we didn’t anticipate, but between Christ and those who put their faith in Christ, the things we didn’t ask for or anticipate are always great and glorious and merciful in a way that the world knows nothing about.
“But now I am going to him who sent me, [Jesus says,]… . … because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:5a, 6, 7 ESV)
“I am leaving you — and this is for your own good.” Jesus says to his own, says to you and me. “Because I truly care for you, I am leaving you. Because I love you with a self-sacrificing love, I am going to my Father in heaven. Because you mean the world to me,” Jesus tells us, “I am leaving this world, that I and my Father might send to you the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, the Helper.”
Yes, Christ has ascended high above the heavens, but he has left us that he might — through the Holy Spirit — distribute his merciful presence and the gifts of redemption won upon the cross abundantly to all who will receive him in faith.
None of us here this morning, upon hearing the Word of God, would have received saving faith — except Christ had ascended and, with the Father, sent the Helper.
The Helper, not in the sense of some spiritual sidekick provided to give us a leg-up on our salvation. The Holy Spirit the Helper, the Enabler, our Champion, without whom not a soul would be saved.
That’s what we believe, teach and confess every time we speak that Third Article of the Creed — and the Small Catechism’s Explanation of it:
What does this mean?
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. (Lutheran Service Book 323)

That’s the greatness of what Christ and his Father in heaven have sent the entire Christian Church on earth by his ascension into heaven. That’s the greatness of what Christ has sent you by his ascension into heaven. It is the Spirit sent who has called us, enlightened us, sanctified us and keeps us in Christ as he daily forgives us our sin — until that day when we and all believers will, by the grace of God, in Christ, through the Holy Spirit, follow our Lord into heaven.
Christ says to you, “By my ascension into heaven, the Holy Spirit has been sent to freely give all the redeeming benefits won for you upon my Cross.”
And our new, Spirit-created nature replies, “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.” Amen

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.