Sunday, September 6, 2015

Sermon for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost (September 6, 2015)

Pentecost 15 – Proper 18 – Series B (September 6, 2015)

“Strength for Anxious Hearts” (Is. 35;4-7a)

            “Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not!’”

            So says the prophet Isaiah to the people of Judah.  And who among us does not have an anxious heart?  You may be perfectly calm and content at the moment, but there are times when your heart starts to beat more quickly.  You become nervous, even frightened.  You start to sweat.  You have trouble breathing.  You feel like there is a ton of bricks on your chest.  Or perhaps you are someone who deals with chronic anxiety.  You experience severe panic attacks that are out of your control, and you need medicine to help you focus and function.

            What brings this on?  It could be any number of things.  Maybe it’s the new school year.  You are anxious about your new teachers, your new classes, your new classmates.  Maybe it’s a job interview.  You are nervous about how you are going to present yourself to your potential employer.  Maybe it’s news stories that create a sense of unease.  Maybe it’s news from your doctor that you have a serious disease.  Or maybe it’s something that no one else knows about.  Maybe it’s a persistent sin that troubles you, that constantly tempts you.  Maybe it’s something you’ve done in your past that still haunts you.  You are afraid and anxious to tell anyone about it, even your pastor, because you are so ashamed.  You are anxious because you wonder if God can even love you or forgive you.  Before I go any further this morning, let me assure you that he does love and does indeed forgive you.  I don’t want you walking out to use the bathroom or blow your nose before the sermon is over without hearing the marvelous news, that yes, indeed, for the sake of Jesus Christ, you are fully and freely forgiven.  I suppose you could say “Amen” to that right now and my sermon would be over, but there’s more I want to tell you from our text today.

What was creating anxiety for the people of Judah to whom Isaiah was sent to preach?  They were living under the threat of invasion by the Assyrian Empire from the north.  Judah’s cousins in the northern kingdom of Israel had been destroyed around 20 years prior.  Utter destruction and captivity could be just around the corner for them, too.  The fertile land would be stripped bare and become a place of “burning sand” and “thirsty ground,” the “haunt of jackals.”  There would be nothing left to give shelter or support for their bodily needs.  Their leaders had forgotten to rely upon the Lord for their safety and well-being, and instead relied on pacts with foreign powers around them.  In fact, they had been reaching out to Egypt for help, but the prophet says a few chapters earlier, “Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the Lord!” (Is. 31:1).  Likewise, I imagine that you and I could think of many things that we look to for our comfort, our security, our contentment, rather than looking to the Lord first and foremost.  We look to our national leaders to provide a strong defense, yet also know that our nation’s laws have gone far astray from God’s will and ways, especially in life issues and marriage matters.

Isaiah promises that God “will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God he will come and save you” (35:4).  In other words, it’s payback time!  The Assyrians did eventually lay siege to Jerusalem, but the Lord intervened.  The Angel of the Lord put to death 185,000 Assyrian soldiers.  The Assyrian king Sennacherib turned tail and headed back to his homeland and capital city of Ninevah.

But this vengeance and recompense of God points forward to an even greater day of payback.  In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus has just returned from Tyre and Sidon on the northern coast where he cast a demon out of the daughter of a Syrophoenecian woman.  Now he enters the region of the Decapolis on the east side of the Sea of Galilee and heals a deaf man with a speech impediment.  These were both pagan, Gentile regions.  Prior to the presence of Jesus, they were places devoid of the Word of God.  They were like a dry and weary desert that Isaiah describes, that is, until the Living Word comes to visit with his life-giving, refreshing presence and power.  He comes with a vengeance over sin and its life-destroying effects.  He comes to show how he inaugurates a new creation where evil is cast out and bodies are made whole.  He comes to die as the recompense for our sins … as the holy and righteous payment for the sins of the world.  He comes to give his Shalom … his peace … his wholeness … the exact opposite of anxiety and worry and brokenness and guilt and shame.  Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, all your guilt is paid for and your shame is covered.

“Say to those with anxious hearts, 'Be strong, fear not!’ Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.”  Jesus has indeed done this.  He did it for you at the cross.  He does it for you today as the forgiveness of sins is given to you.  And he will do it for you in the future when he brings the new creation in all its fullness for his Church.

Even though our hearts are parched and thirsty like dry ground, we are refreshed with the waters of Holy Baptism.  The Holy Spirit given in Baptism is a never ending supply of refreshment, life, and salvation.

Even though we are often blind to his presence and his working among us, our ominiscient God is never blind to what you are going through.  He never closes his eyes to your problems.  He sees all and knows exactly how best to care for you.  And his Word opens our eyes so we can see with the eyes of faith and recognize the ways in which he is present and working among us, especially in those humble means of Word, water, bread, and wine.

We can be hard of hearing, even deaf to his Word at times.  But his Word of promise unstops our ears so we can be encouraged and trust in his gracious presence and merciful care.  Moreover, his ears are never deaf to our cries for help when our hearts are anxious and afraid, when we know our guilt and shame and cry out for forgiveness.

We lamely limp through life, beaten down, bruised, damaged.  Healing may not be in God’s immediate plans for you (although it certainly is in his plan in eternity).  But your heart can leap like a deer, full of joy, because Jesus was beaten down, bruised, damaged, even killed for you … and leaped out of the tomb on the third day, the firstfruits of the new creation that is in store for you when he raises his baptized, forgiven, chosen ones on the Last Day.

And our tongues are often mute. We don’t know what to pray.  We don’t often feel like praising God or giving him thanks for our circumstances.  Yet God’s tongue is never mute for you.  In this place, you hear him most clearly when through the mouth of your pastor God says to you that you are forgiven in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Here you also hear those wonderful words spoken from the table in the Upper Room and now spoken to you from this table, “This is my body … this is my blood … given and shed for you for the forgiveness of all your sins.”  And God loosens our tongues to praise him and give him thanks. 

At the Lord’s Table, you have a foretaste of the heavenly banquet in the new creation…

…No more blindness, but seeing God with our own eyes.

…No more deafness, but hearing God’s own voice.

…No more lame limbs, but resurrected bodies made whole again.

…No more mute lips, but lips that join with the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven … no longer only on this side of the veil.

…No more anxious hearts, but hearts full of the everlasting peace of Jesus.

Until that day, be strong and fear not … because your God has already come and saved you.  His peace be with you today and always.



Sunday, May 31, 2015

Sermon for Trinity Sunday and Confirmation Day (May 31, 2015)

Trinity Sunday – Series B (May 31, 2015)
“How Can These Things Be?” (John 3:1-17)

John chapter 3.  This is Nicodemus’ “catechism class.”  He had already been instructed in the ways of the Pharisees.  But this fell far short of the ways of God.  The Pharisees were all about strictly keeping the Law of God.  Trying your best.  Being super good.  Setting yourself apart from the rest of the impious rabble, especially those unclean Gentiles, tax-collectors, and other “sinners.”
            Nicodemus needed further instruction from Jesus.  Jesus had to correct and complete Nicodemus’ training.  Oh, sure, Nicodemus knew the Scriptures well.  But Jesus had to set him straight in regards to what true faith is all about.  It’s not about keeping the Law perfectly.  You can’t do it.  You’re a sinner, just like everyone else.  A sinner without quotation marks.  You need to be born again.  Born from above.  Starting fresh and new with the Spirit of God breathed into you.  Like a newborn baby, completely and totally dependent on God's work for you, not on your work for God.  After all, no baby ever did anything for their parents other than make them smile.  Well, maybe make them gag, too, over a particularly stinky diaper.
            Nicodemus needed further instruction like the people who were gathered on the Day of Pentecost.  They were Jews from all over the world gathered in Jerusalem for the great harvest festival.  They had already received their instruction in the Old Covenant.  They needed the revelation of the New Covenant through Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.  This is what Peter preached to them that day.  The “paths of life” are known through Jesus.  He makes us “full of gladness with [his] presence.”  After his sermon, the people responded, “Brothers, what shall we do?”  And Peter declared, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
            Nicodemus’ question is the same question you and I have probably asked many times: “How can these things be?”  Jesus used earthly illustrations to help Nicodemus understand heavenly realities.  Birth.  Water.  Wind.  And yet he still did not comprehend.  Jesus asked him, “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”  Even someone as well-educated as Nicodemus, even for a Pharisee who thought he had a pretty good handle on God, he still could not get beyond earthly matters to matters of faith.       
            And you and I aren’t all that different.  You and I are naturally captivated with earthly things.  We are inclined to believe only what we see with our own eyes.  “I’ll believe it when I see it,” we say, just like Thomas who refused to believe unless he could put his fingers in the wounds of the risen Jesus.  We fixate on earthly matters and ignore heavenly matters.  What we see with our eyes is more important that what we cannot see … those matters of faith.
            We are also inclined to believe the testimony of men over the testimony of God.  Scientists and educators are held in high esteem in our culture.  Politicians rouse their constituency with soaring rhetoric, even though most of them hire others to write their speeches for them.  And they are believed simply because of their authoritative position (well, maybe we’ve learned not to believe everything that comes from politicians).  Yet we have the greatest authority who has ever spoken … God himself.  We have the Word of God.  We have the testimony of the Triune God in the person of Jesus Christ, who said, “We speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony.”  This is God himself speaking and teaching.
            Nicodemus was coming close to this knowledge, but he wasn’t quite there just yet.  When he first came to Jesus, he said, “We know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”  Correct answer, Nicodemus!  You are almost ready to be confirmed!  As a matter of fact, Jesus is a teacher come from God.  More than that, he is the Son of God … God in the Flesh.  Jesus confirmed his own eternal existence when he said, “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.”  “Son of Man” was a term used by the prophet Daniel that referred to a great end times figure sent with the authority, glory, and power of God.  Jesus applied this term to himself, yet made it clear that this Son of Man must first suffer and die for all people.  The Son of Man must be lifted up on the cross.  God the Father gave his only Son.  That’s the way he loved the world.  Now, whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.  God sent his Son not to condemn, but to save.
            But the question remains, “How can these things be?  How can I believe these heavenly realities?”  Jesus said, “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God” and follows it up with the parallel statement, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.”  To be “born again” can also mean to be “born from above.”  It’s a heavenly birth so that we can believe heavenly things.  We are unable to believe or confess without heavenly help.  To be born of water and spirit means to be born of Baptism and the Word of God through which the Holy Spirit works to connect us to Christ by creating faith in our hearts.
            We are unable to believe or confess without the Holy Spirit.  In 1 Corinthians 2, St. Paul writes, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14).  And later in chapter 12, he says, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3).  Yet these same lips which confess Jesus as Lord have also said some very ungodly things.  For Isaiah, the coal from the altar of sacrifice cleansed his lips.  For you, the blood from the altar of the cross has cleansed not just your unclean lips, but every ungodly part of you.  Your guilt has been taken away.  Your sin has been atoned for.
            We confess our faith in many and various ways throughout our life.  The Rite of Confirmation is one those moments.  It’s a significant day in the life of a young person when they get to publicly confess their faith and affirm the promises God made to them when they were baptized.  Two of the vows they will make today are in answer to these questions:
·         Do you intend to live according to the Word of God, and in faith, word, and deed to remain true to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, even to death?
·         Do you intend to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it?
            That’s some pretty serious stuff for a couple of 13 year-olds!  But you know what?  That’s some pretty serious stuff for a 30 year-old, a 50 year-old, an 80 year-old, or whatever age we are as baptized children of God.  That’s why the reply is “I do, by the grace of God.”  It’s only by the grace of God that any child of God can remain faithful to their confirmation vows.
            No matter how old we get, we are all still children.  “Like newborn infants” we are always in need of “the pure spiritual milk” as Peter calls it, “that by it you may grow up into salvation” (1 Peter. 2:2).  It’s always good to get back to the basics.  Luther said that no matter how old he was, he saw himself as a perpetual student of the catechism.  He said, “I am also a doctor and a preacher … yet I act as a child who is being taught the catechism.  Every morning – and whenever I have time – I read and say, word for word, the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Psalms, and such.  I must read and study them daily.  Yet I cannot master the catechism as I wish.  But I must remain a child and pupil of the catechism” (From the Longer Preface to the Large Catechism).
            It’s important to get back to basics, the “pure spiritual milk.”  Yet we’re also called to grow and mature.  Elsewhere Paul talks about the need to also be fed with solid food (1 Cor. 3:2-4; Heb. 5:12-14) … ongoing Bible study, ongoing catechesis, further study in the doctrines of the faith and their application to our lives.
            This is important because of the challenges to faith that we will face.  There is the “unholy Trinity” … the devil, the world, and our sinful nature … that the Catechism says “do not want us to hallow God’s name or let his kingdom come.”  We also live in a society that is increasingly hostile to Christianity.  Although the difficulties we face here are nothing like what our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world face on a daily basis, it is still more difficult to be a Christian than when I was your age (Wow…doesn’t that sound like an old guy talking?  “When I was your age…”!!!).  But it’s true.  We want you to be prepared.  That’s part of what Confirmation instruction is all about.  To teach.  To prepare.  To equip.  To remind you that Confirmation is not Graduation.  This is a step along the way in a lifelong study of God’s Word, a lifelong connection to the Triune God in Word and Sacrament.
            How can these things be?  How can you believe?  Remember Dr. Luther’s explanation to 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.

            How can these things be?  How can you believe?
            You have been born again.  Born from above.  Born of water and the Spirit.  For God so loved you that he sent his Son for you.  You are forgiven and given eternal life.


Sunday, May 24, 2015

Sermon for the Feast of Pentecost (May 24, 2015)

Pentecost – Series B (May 24, 2015)
“He Will Bear Witness About Me” (John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15)

Last week you heard me suggest that Easter seems to end with a whimper.  Jesus ascends into heaven.  Then, on the last Sunday of the Easter season, Easter sort of fizzles out.  We say “Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!”  But the joy of that acclamation is not as fresh and new as it was back on Easter Sunday.
            But, you may remember that I also said that Easter really never ends.  In fact, it continues as the risen and ascended Christ continues to make his presence and power known.  Easter does not end with a whimper.  It continues with a bang on Pentecost.  Jesus sends the Holy Spirit so that his Easter joy can remain with us, even though he has removed his visible presence from us.
            Today’s reading from the book of Acts describes that amazing day when the Spirit was poured out on the believers in Jerusalem.  Peter declares that this is what the prophet Joel foretold would happen in “the Last Days.”  The measure of the Holy Spirit that was poured out upon the prophets in the Old Testament would now be available for all people, young and old, male and female.  At the cross, God had already shown signs in the heavens and on the earth.  Darkness at midday.  A rock-splitting and tomb-opening earthquake that brought forth many saints who had died and appeared as risen to many in Jerusalem.  This was the great and magnificent Day of the Lord, the day when Christ faced the judgment of the whole world at the cross.  It was a preview of Christ’s own tomb-opening and tomb-emptying event three days later.  And it pointed far forward to the final great and magnificent Day of the Lord when the risen and ascended Jesus will return in the same way he went into heaven, and all things will be made new.  On the day of Pentecost, today, and until the final Day of the Judgment, what Peter said is true: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
            Many people wish that we could have the same Pentecostal signs and wonders that were manifested on the day of Pentecost.  We have churches today that bear that name and claim these magnificent signs and wonders.  But the truth is, they were unique to the Book of Acts and the ministry of the Apostles.  They were the distinctive “calling card” of the Apostles, to prove that they were Christ’s authoritative representatives.  But this does not mean that the Spirit is not present and active in the same way as he was back then.  He is.  He just operates a bit more quietly.  He keeps a low profile.  He operates in unexpected ways, as Jesus said, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).
            Jesus anticipated this when he prepared his disciples for his departure.  In the Upper Room, the night of the Last Supper, he told them he was going away.  And sorrow filled their hearts.  They were probably already sad and confused after Jesus had predicted Peter’s denial, Judas’ betrayal, and future persecution for his followers (13:36-38; 13:21-30; 15:18-25).
            In this sinful, broken existence, our hearts are often full of sorrow, too.  We wish we could see and feel and hear Jesus like the disciples did when he walked and talked among them.  We know that Jesus is risen and ascended, but we have a hard time wrapping our minds around the idea that Jesus is everywhere as True God and True Man.  We grieve over the ways in which we have denied and betrayed Jesus.  We have said things contrary to his truth.  We have done things contrary to his will.  We have thought things that plague our conscience.  We are afraid of persecution.  Mocking words come from others around us.  The name of Christ is dragged through the mud because of the public, sinful actions of his followers.  The Church faces threats of retribution because of the divine truths we confess.  And we are called hateful … discriminatory … hypocrites.  And certainly we have sorrow over the threats of death against our brothers and sisters around the world, threats that are often carried out.
            And we ask, “Where is Jesus?”  He seems so far away, even though he promised he would be with us always.  We can’t see him, feel him, or hear him in person.
            Jesus knew the challenge this would be for his Church.  And so he promised to send “the Helper … the Spirit of Truth.”  Jesus tells the disciples that the Spirit’s job would be to bear witness to Jesus.  He bears witness to Jesus by filling us with faith in Jesus.  He empowers the witness of the apostles.  He empowers our witness as we proclaim the apostolic testimony about the Risen Jesus.    Now that Jesus’ work is done, he sends the Holy Spirit.  In his earthly, visible presence, Jesus testified to the Father’s love and mercy.  Once his Messianic ministry was complete, he removes his visible presence and sends the Holy Spirit to testify to the ongoing presence of Christ.
            The mighty rushing wind signifies the Spirit as the breath of God who breathes new life.  He breathed the breath of life into Adam at the very beginning.  The dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision received flesh and skin and breath and the Spirit of life.  Jesus breathed on the disciples after the resurrection and sent them forth with the Holy Spirit to forgive the sins of those who repent or to withhold forgiveness from those who refuse to repent.  The breath of God speaks forth words of Law and Gospel, words that are meant to be understandable.  At Pentecost, God reverses the curse of Babel where languages were confused and rebellious humanity was scattered to far off kingdoms.  The Apostles speak in different languages, but now everyone understands them.  Scattered humanity is brought back together into the Kingdom of God as they hear and believe “the mighty works of God” accomplished at the cross and the empty tomb.
            And then there was the fire.  The presence of God was seen in fire in the Old Testament.  The burning bush where Moses first heard the voice of Yahweh.  The pillar of fire that led them through the wilderness.  Now the presence of God is evident in the tongues of fire on the disciples.
            Even with this fireworks show that the Holy Spirit put on, he still did not forget his role in all of this.  His job is to point people to Jesus.  When Peter began to preach, he did not highlight the work of the Holy Spirit.  He preached Jesus.  His crucifixion.  His resurrection.
            Over and over again, Jesus makes the same point about the Holy Spirit.  “He will bear witness about me.”  The Holy Spirit’s job is to point us to Jesus and his work of redemption.
            “He will convict the world of sin and righteousness and judgment.”  This is all about Jesus.  He will convict the world of sin, because people don’t believe in Jesus.  He will convict the world of righteousness, because Jesus the righteous One is the only perfect one who deserves to go to and be in the presence of the Father.  And he will convict the world concerning judgment, because Satan, the ruler of this sinful world is judged.  And where was he judged?  At the cross!  Again, this is all about Jesus.
            “He will guide you into all truth.”  This is all about Jesus, too.  The Holy Spirit would inspire the spoken testimony of the Apostles.  He would inspire the written testimony of some of them and their associates which became the books of the New Testament.  The Holy Spirit would not speak on his own authority, but would speak whatever was given to him from Jesus.
            The Holy Spirit never points to himself.  Even on the amazing day of Pentecost, it was not about him.  It was about Jesus.  I have a book in my library entitled, “The Holy Spirit: Shy Member of the Trinity.”  That’s an accurate description.  The Holy Spirit likes to stay in the background and push Jesus forward into the spotlight.  And in the book, the authors make the point that if someone is making too big of a deal about the Holy Spirit, you can be sure that it’s not the Holy Spirit who is at work.  But wherever Christ is preached and magnified and glorified, you can be sure the Holy Spirit is at work there.  You can never make too big a deal about Jesus.
            Where has Jesus gone? To rule and reign at the right hand of the Father … everywhere, with power and glory.  But what good does that do for us?  How do we get connected to Jesus?  How do we know he is everywhere acting for me?  Still working on my behalf?
            We know because from his place at the right hand of the Father, with his work of redemption complete, Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to work in Word and Sacrament to connect us to him, to work in our hearts to create and sustain faith, to keep on blowing through our hearts and lives with his life-giving power, to keep on filling us, to breathe on our dried up bones.  At times, we are just like the children of Israel in exile: “our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, we are clean cut off.”  Jesus breathes his Word and Spirit into us so that we may live. He forgives our sin.  He restores our hope.  He reconciles us to God.  And one day, after our bones are really and truly dried up, he will open our graves and raise us up and place us in our own land, the new heaven and new earth that he has promised.
            “Come, Holy Spirit,” we pray with the Holy Church, “fill the hearts of the faithful, and kindle in them the fire of your love.”  He is, indeed, the mighty rushing wind in our sails that moves us and motivates us … the breath of God that breathes into us new and eternal life … the fire that ignites our love, our service, and our witness.

Shine in our hearts, O Spirit, precious light;
Teach us Jesus Christ to know aright
That we may abide in the Lord who bought us,
Till to our true home He has brought us.
    Lord, have mercy!
(LSB 768.4)

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter (May 3, 2015)

Easter 5 – Series B (May 3, 2015)
Clearing Away the Debris” (1 John 4:1-11)

Last week we prayed for the people of Nepal. All across the country, people were buried – many still buried – under the rubble of toppled homes, businesses, and workplaces. The death toll is approaching 6,000 and could go as high as 10,000. 19 people also died on Mt. Everest from avalanches caused by the earthquake. Rescuers now are digging through the wreckage, trying to recover survivors and the remains of those who died. But those with some breath left in them can’t help themselves. They’re stuck. They’re gravely injured. They need someone to clear away the debris for them. If not, they will die, too.

Without minimizing the pain and suffering of the people of Nepal, consider how people in our world today are buried under a different kind of debris, but a debris that debilitates nevertheless. People are buried under the debris of depression, loneliness, addiction, abuse, and poverty. People are buried under the burden of guilt over behavior which they know is contrary to God’s will. People are buried under the debris of false teaching which points them away from the truth God has revealed to us in his Son Jesus Christ. We are all buried under various kinds of debris that proves to us we live in a world of dis-ease and dis-order, a world that is desperately broken with hearts that are desperately broken. We are disconnected from each other because we do not live fully in the life and love that God desires for us.
The revelation of God’s love for us in Christ Jesus clears away the debris of false teaching – the spirit of error which John mentions – so that we can know the truth. When we know and believe the truth, we are filled with God’s life and love so that we can love one another as he loves us.

Knowing the truth begins with confessing that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. This is in opposition to those in John’s day and in ours who would make certain false claims about him. They might say that Jesus was not truly Man but only appeared to be. He was a phantom of sorts. Others might say that he was not truly God, even though he claimed to be. C.S. Lewis famously claimed that this would put Jesus on the same level of someone who claimed he was a poached egg. The portrait of Jesus in the Gospels, however, is not of someone who was out of his mind. There are yet others who claim that Jesus never truly existed in the first place. Honest historians, though, do not refute he existed, but they will argue over the meaning of his life and his claims.

When John says “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh,” this is shorthand for the whole story. Saying he has come in the flesh also implies that he existed prior to being born of the Virgin Mary. He is the eternally existent Second Person of the Holy Trinity. It also includes that fact that Jesus came to save sinners. John says, “God sent his only Son … so that we might live through him” and “to be the propitiation for our sins.” That means that God’s anger over our sin was appeased at the cross. Now, Christ’s shed blood covers over all our sinful thoughts, words, and deeds that are opposed to God and his will for our lives. “How do I know this is for me?” someone might ask. 1 John 2:2 says, “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” It’s not just for a select few. It’s for the whole world. It’s for you. And remember John’s words that we speak often in the liturgy, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

“Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.” Just believing he was born is obviously not enough. You need to know the reason why he was born. You need to know his divine identity. You need to know he is your Savior. You need to know that he works through his Word and Sacraments to reach down and clear away all the sinful debris under which you have been buried and rescue you. Your sinful nature was buried with Christ in the waters of Holy Baptism. You were raised to new life with Christ when you came forth from the font, just as Jesus came forth from the tomb, and you entered into a new life full of faith and hope and the promise of everlasting life. And the same flesh of Jesus that entered this world for you in his Incarnation still enters this world for you in the bread of Holy Communion. His very body is put into your hand and your mouth, and his resurrection life fills your soul.

Yet John reminds us that there are many false teachers, false prophets, who bring uncertainty, confusion, and fear into our ranks. He chalks it up to “the spirit of error” because really every false teaching finds its source in the old evil foe from whom we pray to be delivered in the Lord’s Prayer. He the spirit of antichrist … not one final apocalyptic character, but all that is and ever will be against Christ.

But John also encourages us that we have nothing to fear. You are of God. You believe that he came in the flesh … along with all that that means as we just heard. Nothing can overcome you, even though the fight is great. You struggle mightily. Defeat seems imminent. Yet Christ has overcome for you, for his Bride, the Church. Greater is he who is in you than the spirit of all that is opposed to Christ. In his commentary on this text, Luther brings up the criminal on cross who confessed faith in Jesus. He believed in spite of the cross, in spite of all the blood, in spite of all the mockery, in spite of impending death. Still, he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Likewise, in spite of all the suffering we endure, in spite of all the suffering and opposition that the Church faces in our world today, we look to our Crucified and Risen Savior in faith and hope.

Amel Shimoun Nona is the archbishop of Mosul, Iraq … although currently he lives in exile as do the rest of his fellow Christian citizens. ISIS attacked Mosul last June. The armed forces and local police abandoned their posts and left the citizens to suffer at the hands of the enemy. Before the violence reached Mosul, Christians elsewhere in Iraq were being persecuted, and Archbishop Nona wrote an open letter to Christians in the West. I wanted to share some of it with you as an example of faith in the face of bitter opposition:

The greatest challenge in facing death because of our faith is to continue to know this faith in such a way as to live it constantly and fully — even in that very brief moment that separates us from death. My goal in all this is to reinforce the fact that the Christian faith is not an abstract, rational theory, remote from actual, everyday life but a means of discovering its deepest meaning, its highest expression as revealed by the Incarnation. When the individual discovers this possibility, he or she will be willing to endure absolutely anything and will do everything to safeguard this discovery — even if this means having to die in its cause. Many people living in freedom from persecution, in countries without problems like ours, ask me what they can do for us, how they can help us in our situation. First of all, anyone who wants to do something for us should make an effort to live out his or her own faith in a more profound manner, embracing the life of faith in daily practice. For us the greatest gift is to know that our situation is helping others to live out their own faith with greater strength, joy, and fidelity.

Strength in daily life; joy in everything we encounter along the path of life; confidence that the Christian faith holds the answer to all the fundamental questions of life, as well as helping us cope with all the relatively minor incidents we confront along our way. This must be the overriding objective for all of us. And to know that there are people in this world who are persecuted because of their faith should be a warning — to you who live in freedom — to become better, stronger Christians, and a spur to demonstrating your own faith as you confront the difficulties of your own society, as well as to the recognition that you too are confronted with a certain degree of persecution because of your faith, even in the West …

Still, we are happy … We are happy because we have the opportunity to make our freedom concrete — by defending with love the one who attacks us with rancor and hatred. Ultimately, persecution cannot make us sad or despairing, because we believe that human life deserves to be always embraced in a perfect manner, as Jesus showed us — even if death stares us in the face and we have no more than a minute left in this world. Saint Paul says that “where sin abounded, grace did still more abound” (Rom. 5:20). With him, we may also say that wherever there is persecution, there too will be the grace of a strong faith — and therein lies our salvation.1

Buried under the debris of opposition, persecution, hardship, suffering, exile, and even death, Archbishop Nona not only gives us an example of faith, but an example of love. “Defending with love the one who attacks us with rancor and hatred.” This is what Jesus said to do: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). I’m not sure I fully understand how to do this. Only by the power of the Holy Spirit can we be enabled to do so. Only by knowing that “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us” and sent his Son for us, can be begin to love one another, including those would seek to take our freedoms away from us, perhaps even our lives.

“If God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:11). Our love for others is motivated by what God’s love for us in Christ Jesus. It’s a love that’s freely given. It’s a love that never considers if it’s advantageous for you, never considers “What will I get out of this?” It’s a love that is fueled by Christ the vine to whom we are grafted by faith.

Remember the words of Archbishop Nona, who – when facing the destruction of the Church in his country – could say, “Still, we are happy … because we have the opportunity to make our freedom concrete — by defending with love the one who attacks us with rancor and hatred.”

Remember the words of Jesus, who – in the face of denial, betrayal, mockery, rejection, and crucifixion – could still look out and say “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Remember Stephen, the first New Testament martyr, who was stoned to death for his confession of faith in Christ. Just before he died, he fell to his knees and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).

And who knows what the Ethiopian eunuch may have endured when he returned to his homeland after Philip instructed and baptized him. We don’t hear any more about him in the New Testament. But the second century church Father Irenaeus wrote that he returned to Ethiopia and preached that the Son of God appeared in human flesh and was the lamb led to the slaughter to die for the sins of the world.

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” You have been born of God. You know God. So love one another as God has loved you, in a spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness. The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, will clear away the debris of fear and hatred and animosity, and work the love of God in you to accomplish his purposes when and where he wills … on roads that go from Jerusalem to Gaza, or wherever the Lord takes us … whether it be in Mosul or Marysville, Ethiopia or Everett … wherever the Lord plants us to bear fruit for him, to love one another, and so prove to be his disciples.



Sunday, April 26, 2015

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter (April 26, 2015)

Easter 4 – Series B (April 26, 2015)
“Reassurance” (1 John 3:16-24)

One summer night during a severe thunderstorm a mother was tucking her small son into bed. She was about to turn the light off when he asked in a trembling voice, “Mommy, will you stay with me all night in my room?”  Smiling, the mother gave him a warm, reassuring hug and said tenderly, “I can’t dear. I have to sleep in Daddy’s room.”  A long silence followed.  At last it was broken by a shaky voice saying, “The big sissy!”  The little boy received some assurance from his mother that everything was going to be alright … and assumed that dad needed reassurance, too.
            Julie and I needed some reassurance before we drove up to Hurricane Ridge during our stay on the Olympic Peninsula the week after Easter.  We asked the young man at the hotel counter if there were guard rails on the road.  He reassured us that there were plenty of guard rails on the more treacherous spots where the side of the road drops off into the abyss.  There were not “plenty.”  I think I counted three guard rails total the entire way up.  While driving, Julie needed reassurance from me, asking me if I was nervous.  I said, “I’m fine, sweetheart.”  Confession time.  I lied.  The whole time I was nonchalantly trying to wipe my sweaty palms on my legs in those moments the road straightened out for a bit.  Sorry, dear.  I guess that’s the last time we’ll be going up to Hurricane Ridge.
            We all need a little reassurance from time to time.  It is certainly reassuring to know that Jesus is our Good Shepherd.  He cares for us and guards us from the wiles of the satanic wolf who seeks to snatch us away and scatter us from God’s kingdom.  St. John gives us further reassurance today in our reading from his first Epistle.  He knows that our hearts need reassurance because we so often fail to love our brothers and sisters in the Lord.  Our hearts constantly condemn us.  We have a guilty conscience.  And there are many dangers that await us.  We doubt God’s love for us.  We despair over whether he hears our prayers and answers them.  We wonder if he has abandoned us.      
            First and foremost, we are reassured of God’s love.  “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us.”  This is how you know God loves you.  Jesus willingly laid down his life for you at the cross.  Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).  This verse is often used when we talk about soldiers who give up their lives for us.  You might hear it used as a text for a Memorial Day sermon, or at a funeral for a soldier who died in battle.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I never want to disparage the bravery of our soldiers nor diminish the ultimate sacrifices that many gave.  Soldiers serve out of a sense of duty, honor, patriotism, serving their country.  But they don’t know me.  They don’t love me.  Their friends are the men in their unit, their friends back home.  Jesus, on the other hand, truly knows all of you and loves you, calls you his friends, and gave up his life for each and every one of you.
            As you may already know, the ancient Greeks had four different words for love.  There’s philia, which is love between friends.  There’s storge, which is love between family members.  There’s eros, which is romantic love.  And there’s agape, which is selfless love.  This is the word John uses in our text.  Jesus' sacrifice embodies God’s definition of agape.  This kind of love is both selfless and sacrificial.  It thinks only about the object of its attention.  It is not concerned about self, but is fully focused on the other person.  The one who loves this way puts his own needs last and the needs of the one being loved first.  It is the kind of love that is willing to go all the way to death, if need be.
            John says that because we know this love of Jesus, and because he laid down his life for us, then we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.  God has given us “the world’s goods,” our daily bread, sustenance for our bodies.  We are to be stewards of what God has given us and to share with our brothers and sisters in Christ, but of course, this could apply to anyone who needs our care and concern.  Therefore, when you see someone in need, are you moved in your heart?  Is it like a sock in the gut?  Do you groan with empathy for them?  That’s the sense of the original words here.  The old King James Version comes closest: “But whoso hath this world’s goods, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?”  If you do not feel for your brother or sister, if you have “shutteth" your "bowels of compassion,” John questions whether God’s love abides in you at all.  “Let somebody else take care of it.  I’m a busy person.  I don’t have the resources,” we are tempted to say.
            Once again, the elderly apostle addresses his hearers as “Little children.”  He loves them like a father or perhaps a grandfather.  Yet here, I wonder if there is a rebuke, too.  Little children can be so very selfish.  “MINE!” they yell out when someone tries to take one of their toys.  You and I may not yell out “MINE,” but our heart at times screams with selfishness when it comes to our time and our money.
            At this point, we need some more reassurance, so John proceeds to reassure us of God's mercy and forgiveness.  “By this we know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything.”  Our hearts continually condemns us.  We know that we have not been moved to the depths of our being – our bowels of compassion – when we see our brother or sister in need.
            But God is greater than our heart.  He knows everything.  Wait.  That’s supposed to be comforting???  God knows exactly why my heart condemns me.  That should lead him to condemn me, too!!!
            On the contrary, it’s the greater heart of God that was so full of compassion for you that he sent his Son to die and rise for you.  Yur heart no longer needs to condemn you because Jesus took the condemnation for you.  You can have a clean conscience by virtue of your Baptism.  St. Peter writes, “Baptism … now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 3:21).  Knowing that you are forgiven and cleansed by the shed blood of Christ, and that this has been applied to you personally in the water and Word of Holy Baptism, you can have a clean conscience before God.  The slate has been wiped clean.  God is greater than your heart.  Therefore even though you see your sin, God does not.  It has been removed as far as the east is from the west.  He will remember your sin no more (Is. 43:25).
            This is the reassurance we need.  This gives and strengthens faith.  It gives us confidence before God.  Now, by faith, we know that whatever we ask for in prayer, we will receive.  We will receive what we ask for because by faith we are aligned with his will.  Faith never asks for anything contrary to God’s will.  By faith, we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.  This is not the Ten Commandments here.  Instead, it’s what’s called our Lord’s “Gospel imperatives.”  These are those things he tells us to do and at the same time gives us the very power to carry them out.  What are those commandments?  St. John tells us: “And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.”                                                        
            Reassured of God’s love in Christ who gave his life for us, reassured of forgiveness and a clean conscience so we can have confidence before God, we can also be reassured of God’s abiding presence with us.  “Whoever keeps his commandments abides in him, and he in them. By this we know he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.”  Someone may ask, “But how do I know I have the Spirit?  I don’t feel anything.  I’ve never felt any rushing wind come upon me nor seen any tongues of fire hovering over me.”  We do not know God by sense or experience, but by the Word of God.  That is the means by which the Spirit works and by which the Spirit delivers the goods of life and salvation to you.  He works via Word both read and preached.  He works via the Word that is connected to the water that is poured over your head.  He works via the Word that is connected to the bread and wine which are the Body and Blood of your Risen Savior, given for you to eat and drink, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of all your sins.
            By this we know love …
            By this we know that we are of the truth and reassure our hearts before him …
            By this we know he abides in us …
                        … to give you confidence and faith in the one who laid down his life for you.
                        … to give you faith to know and to trust that your sins are forgiven.
                        … to give you the will to lay down your lives for each other and to love in deed and truth.


Sunday, April 19, 2015

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter (April 19, 2015)

Easter 3 – Series B (April 19, 2015)
1 John 3:1-7

“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.”  It’s a simple truth.  But one we so easily forget.  God the Father loves you.  He calls you his child.  You were made his child in Baptism.  You were named there with the name your parents gave you.  But then it took on a new significance.  Your name was announced as a child of God.
            John does not tell you here to “be” a child of God.  You already are one.  “And so we are.”  It’s part of your identity.  You had no choice who your parents are or what your last name is.  In the same way, you had no choice in the matter of being a child of God.  It’s all by grace … undeserved, unearned, unmerited.  You have a Father who loves you and cares for you and wants you to be with him in eternity.  This is why he sent his Son for you.  To die for your sins.  To rise to life again.  To give you the Holy Spirit so you could trust in God and what he has done for you in Christ.  To be his child.  And if you are a child, then you are an heir of God and a fellow heir with Christ (Rom. 8:17).  No matter what inheritance you have from your parents, nothing can compare with being an heir of God.
            But John also says that we are unknown to the world.  Contrast this with the desire people have to be known, acknowledged, recognized.  Not many of us want to live our lives in complete anonymity.  We want to be known, understood, appreciated.  I’m not talking here about being famous.  Fame carries its own unique drawbacks, always being in the public eye, with the temptation of thinking people owe you respect simply because you are famous.  Once in a while you’ll hear about a TV personality getting in trouble and playing the “Do you know who I am?” card.  But it’s not necessarily egotistical to simply want to be known, understood, and appreciated.  That’s just part of being human and living in families and in community.
            The world – the unbelieving world, that is – will never know, understand, or appreciate Christians, because it does not know the Father, his love, or his plan of salvation in his Son.  People claim to know God.  They claim to be children of God.  But unless you have the Son, you will never have the Father.  “No one who denies the Son has the Father,” John writes in chapter 2 of his letter (1 John 2:23).  They attempt to please God on the basis of their own efforts, but in the end they earn his disfavor, because they do not trust in the means he has provided … the death and resurrection of his Son.
            The resurrected life we share through our baptism into Christ has a hidden nature.  You can wear all the Christian jewelry in the world and still not be a Christian.  You can wear T-shirts that give a Christian message, and still not be a Christian.  But true Christians can also give mixed messages to the world.  We sin, too!  That should come as no surprise.  But more on that on a moment.  Faith is hidden.  The new creation that you are in Christ is hidden … although that new creation does work its way out into manifest works of mercy.  Those cannot be hidden.  But the new nature we have in Christ is not always clear to the world.  When Jesus returns on the Last Day, it will be perfectly clear.  “We shall be like him … we shall see him as he is.”  Resurrected, glorified, immortal, sinless, perfectly righteous and holy.  Face to face, with our own eyes, as Job confessed, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth.  And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another” (Job 19:25).  Until then, “we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face,” Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13.  “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12).  The world does not know you.  But God does.  And he loves you.
            But what about this business of mixed messages that we send?  It’s no wonder the world does not know us when we practice sin and lawlessness.  “Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness.”  “Practicing” sin.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t need much practice at that.  In fact, it comes quite naturally.  I still bear this old sinful nature that rebels against my Father in heaven, even though he loves me so much and has demonstrated his love for me over and over again.
            My old sinful nature wishes God never gave the Law.  That way I could do whatever I wanted to do.  But this would be “lawlessness.”  Luther in his commentary on 1 John says that “lawlessness” includes sin which also causes your neighbor to stumble and lose faith.  Can you imagine a world without laws?  It would be anarchy!  The world would look like a Mad Max movie.  Maybe sometimes it does when people practice lawlessness.
            My sinful nature also wishes that the cross never had happened, because the cross demonstrates that there is something real called sin, God hates it, and had to deal with it.  But that’s the point, isn’t it?  The cross is how God dealt with sin … with my practice of sin … with your practice of sin.  “He appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin.”
            Jesus always practiced righteousness.  And he needed no practice.  It came quite naturally.  He is righteous.  “In him there is no sin.  No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him.”
            The Christian sins, no doubt.  But he fights against sin.  She struggles and knows that a change is in order.  The status quo of sinful behavior is unacceptable.  This is what John means when he says “everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.”  St. Paul put it this way in Galatians 5: “[T]hose who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passion and desires” (Gal. 5:24).  And Luther wrote: “Although it is difficult to avoid being wounded in war, yet it is an honor to stand up.  But it is a disgrace to yield.  Thus even if a Christian is surrounded by sin, yet he fights against sin.”[1]  You know it’s wrong.  As a Christian, you delight in God’s Law and know God has given it to you for your good.  You love God.  You Abide in Christ … in his Word … in your baptismal grace … remembering your identity as a child of God.  You eat and drink the body and blood of your Savior in repentant faith.  You are purified in Christ, just as he is pure.  You admit your sin and turn to the one who forgives your sin (1 John 1:8-9), relying on Jesus your advocate, not your own efforts.  You are united to Christ in your baptism, in his death and resurrection, and “in him there is no sin” … therefore, as far as God is concerned, in YOU there is no sin.  This is your practice of righteousness!  And “Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous.”
            “Little children let no one deceive you,” the apostle writes.  John, by now an old man, speaks tenderly to his hearers.  He reminds them of their identity as “little children.”  Helpless, frail, dependent upon God for everything, especially in matters of salvation.  Like us.  But children, nonetheless, made children of God by water and the Word … all by grace.  We are all easily deceived.  Easily deceived by the God-hating demons, the lawless world, and our own sinful flesh that would make what is unnatural seem natural, what is immoral seem moral, what is harmful seem beneficial.
            So John reminds us all of our righteous Jesus.  Jesus practiced righteousness for us his whole life.  All the way to the cross.  All the way to the empty tomb.  And he sends his Church to proclaim “repentance and the forgiveness of sins … in his name to all nations” (Luke 24:47).
            This is how we practice righteousness.  Repent.  Receive God’s forgiveness in Christ.  Be refreshed by the presence of the risen Jesus among us today in his Word and in his Body and Blood.  Go forth and do righteous deeds in the power of the Holy Spirit and in the name of Jesus … the pure and righteous one who clothes you with power from on high and who gives you his peace.  See what kind of love the Father has given to you, child of God!

[1] Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 30: The Catholic Epistles. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 30, p. 269). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.