Sunday, December 14, 2014

Sermon for the Third Sunday in Advent (December 14, 2014)

Wordle: Untitled

Advent 3 – Series B (December 14, 2014)
“Bearing Witness to the Light” (John 1:6-8, 19-28)

            The Lights of Christmas at Warm Beach Camp and Conference Center has become a favorite local tradition.  Every year during the month of December the whole camp is illuminated by assorted Christmas light displays along with musical and dramatic offerings, wagon rides, snacks, and the always popular homemade donuts in a paper bag filled with sugar and cinnamon.  They’re greasy … but they’re fantastic!  The entire event certainly reflects the joy of the season.
            Over the last two weeks of Advent you have heard that Advent is a penitential season.  But there is also joy in Advent, too.  That’s why we light the pink candle on the third Sunday in Advent.  It’s brighter than the rest.  It reminds us that the Christ for whom we wait is soon to come.  He is “the light of the world.”  The celebration of his nativity is just around the corner.  He has already come for us to be our Savior.  And we look forward to his Second Advent with hopeful and joyful expectation.
Bearing Witness to the Light
            Today’s Gospel reading tells us that John the Baptist was sent from God “as a witness, to bear witness about the light.”  A witness is someone who testifies or declares the truth about someone or something of which they have personal experience.  What is this “light” of which he came to bear witness?  We know from the verses surrounding our text that it is Christ, the “Word” who “was with God” and who “was God” (Jn. 1:1).  He is “The true light, which enlightens everyone, [who] was coming into the world” (Jn. 1:9)   This Word “became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14).  And then, the evangelist writes, “John bore witness about him, and cried out, ‘This is he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me”’” (Jn. 1:15).
            As a witness, what was John’s personal experience?  We know that their mothers knew each other.  When Elizabeth was six months along in her pregnancy, Mary visited her to tell her that she was going to have a baby.  Not only that, but when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, John leaped in her womb, as if the forerunner of the Savior was thrilled to be in his divine presence even before the two of them were born.  And Elizabeth seemed to know all about Mary’s baby.  She said, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb!  And why is this granted that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Lk. 1:42-43).  Much greatness was foretold for Elizabeth’s son.  Yet even before he was born, she knew that Mary’s Son was even greater.  Elizabeth also knew that her son would not be worthy to untie the straps of the sandals of Mary’s Son.  Because Mary’s Son is the Lord!  He is the incarnate God!
            As a witness, how did John “bear witness”?  He came to prepare the way for the Savior by calling people to repentance in preparation for the arrival of the Savior.  Later, John pointed people to the Savior himself, saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (1:29).  John had personally experienced the revelation of the Son of God when Jesus asked John to baptize him.  A few verses later, the evangelist writes, “And John bore witness, ‘I saw the Spirit of God descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.  I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God’” (1:32-34).
Bearing Witness to the Darkness
            The opponents of John and Jesus bore witness to the darkness in their hearts when they sent representatives to question John.  John’s popularity was a threat to their own standing among the people and their position of authority.  Their motives were dishonest and two-faced.  They really had no intention of following John, no matter what answer he gave them.  Although they claimed to know God, they really didn’t.  He was in their very midst, yet John said, “Among you stands one you do not know.”  John knew that he was not worthy to even serve as the Savior’s slave.  Those who questioned John rejected the Savior and had him crucified.
            You and I bear witness to the darkness in our hearts when we act like those who questioned John.  God’s Word is a threat to our sinful heart that wants to be in charge of our life, not God.  Even our best intentions are often mixed with dishonest and self-serving motives.  We ask ourselves, “What am I going to get out of this?” rather than simply serving selflessly and humbly.  There are times when it can be said of us that we don’t know God even when he stands among us.  We read or hear his Word and we don’t recognize that it is for us.  We twist his Word in our minds to make it say what we want to justify our own sinful deeds.  Or, we treat it as an academic endeavor.   We come to the table lackadaisically, not truly thinking about the magnitude of the gifts we receive there.  We don’t acknowledge the magnitude of our sins and have no intention of amending our lives even as we kneel at the rail and open our hands and our mouths.  Yes, our hearts are indeed full of darkness and our thoughts, words, and deeds bear witness to that darkness.
The Light Shines in the Darkness
            The darkness of sin and evil has a certain gravitational pull, like a black hole in outer space from which not even light can escape.  It can look attractive and pull you in.  At the same time, there is also a certain terror that darkness holds.  Imagine yourself walking through a forest on an overcast, moonless night.  You have no idea what’s up around the bend.  You have no idea what is going to leap out and devour you.
            Darkness is oppressive.  Yet even the smallest amount of light can illuminate a dark room.  Into the darkness of nothingness in the beginning, God said, “Let there be light.”  Into the darkness of this sinful world, God sent forth his Word to be become flesh.  It wasn’t an instantaneous flash as it was on Day One of Creation.  It was quiet.  Humble.  Tiny.  Yet even the smallest amount of light coming from a manger in a stable in the tiny town of Bethlehem can illuminate the world with God’s life and love.  And like a divine black hole, Jesus suffered in the darkness of Good Friday and swallowed up all the darkness of sin and evil so that light could shine … the light of forgiveness, the light of the resurrection, the light of eternal life.  The darkness of death and the tomb could not keep his light from shining.
            Born in humility.  Born in poverty.  Yet look at the effect his birthday still has on the world.  There is joy and light all around even for those who don’t know the reason why they celebrate.  Give thanks today that through God’s Word and the waters of Baptism the Light has shined in the darkness of your heart.  2 Corinthians 4:6 says, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).
            The Light now also shines in the darkness of your world.  Christmas and Easter teach us that Christ entered this world to conquer the darkness of sin and death.  Advent reminds us that we are awaiting the day when Christ will return and finally take away the lingering effects of sin that we still deal with in this fallen world … sadness, sickness, suffering, conflict, tragedy, depression, loneliness, anxiety, you name it.  But the Good News of Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection brings light and life for the poor … mercy for the brokenhearted … freedom for those in bondage in the prison house of addiction … comfort for those who mourn … and encouragement for faint spirits (Is. 61:1-3).
            Whatever darkness you are facing, hear the Word of the Lord from St. John’s Gospel: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn. 1:5).  The love, mercy, compassion, and strength of Jesus will be with you.  He is with you today, giving you his Body and Blood for the forgiveness of all your sins and the assurance that he is truly your “Immanuel” … God with us … God with you.  Of this we can all bear witness.

            Amen.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent (December 7, 2014)

Wordle: Untitled

Advent 2 – Series B (December 7, 2014)
“The Beginning of the Gospel” (Mark 1:1-8)

            If the picture on today’s cover had not identified the subject as John the Baptist, you may have thought it was one of the stars of Duck Dynasty.  You know … those camouflage-wearing, bandanna wearing, duck-call moguls with the ZZ Top beards?  The family featured in their own wildly popular reality show on the A&E Network?
            As popular as they are, many “sophisticated” people probably think they are a little odd.  Just consider the way they dress.  The way they talk.  And all that “religious” stuff that gets thrown in!  I mean, they even dare to pray “in Jesus’ name” at the end of every episode!  Imagine that!
            People may have thought John the Baptist was a little odd.  Just consider the way he dressed.  The way he talked.  And his talk was all “religious,” too.  But John, of course, was more than just a faddish sensation.  His fashion sense declared him to be a prophet “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17) as the angel Gabriel explained to John’s father Zechariah.  Back in the days of the kings of Israel and Judah, the prophet Elijah wore a garment of hair with a leather belt around his waist and was a powerful preacher (2 Kings 1:8).  The Scriptures foretold that Elijah would come before the appearing of the Messiah (Mal. 4:5).  Jesus later declared that John was the fulfillment of that prophecy (Mark 9:13).
            Don’t be surprised when the world thinks you are a little odd.  The way you dress is probably not all that different.  You certainly don’t wear camel hair and sport a Duck Dynasty beard.  Is it the way you talk?  Well, hopefully there is something about your language that sets you apart … and not just your lack of vulgarities and a habit of misusing the holy name of God.  It’s your “religious” talk, too.  Especially at this time of year, Advent and Christmas, you have all kinds of opportunities to talk about Christ.  It’s built into the name of the holiday, after all.  It’s the “Christ” Mass.
            So as we approach Christmas, we begin at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel which begins: "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." But other than his mention of Jesus as the Son of God in the first verse, Mark does not begin with the birth of Jesus.  Mark’s Gospel begins with John the Baptist.  He skips right over the nativity narratives and “fast-forwards” to John’s appearance.  And Mark makes it clear that John is the fulfillment of the prophesied “messenger” who would come to “Prepare the way of the Lord.”
            Some might say that Mark got it wrong.  The beginning of the Gospel should be Christmas.  In fact, that’s what we should be talking about in December, not all this Advent stuff.  But when it comes right down to it, the beginning of the Gospel was really in the Garden of Eden when God first promised to send a Savior after Adam and Eve had eaten the forbidden fruit.  And if you really think about it, the beginning of the Gospel was from all eternity.  Jesus is the Lamb slain “before the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8).  In his foreknowledge and omniscience, God already knew that he would have to send his Son to be our Savior.  That should remove all doubt that your God is a gracious, loving God. The sacrifice of his Son for you was never Plan B.  It was Plan A all along.
            For Mark’s purposes, the beginning of the Gospel is the beginning of the public preaching of John the Baptist who prepared the way for the public ministry of Jesus.  Think of it this way.  For all the hoopla surrounding Christmas today, at the time of the birth of Jesus the meaning of his birth was not made known to all that many people.  Yes, there were Joseph and Mary, Zechariah and Elizabeth, shepherds and Wise Men.  They knew the joy of Christmas.  But there was no Christmas joy for the families in Bethlehem whose babies were killed by King Herod as he searched for the Child he thought was a threat to his throne.  But with John the Baptist, things were ramped up.  It was time for the public ministry of Jesus to begin.  It was time for more people to learn about him and see him in action.  But first, John had to prepare the way.
            How did John prepare the way?   To begin with, note his location.  He was in the wilderness.  The place of desolation.  The place of loneliness.  Away from that which might distract you from what it truly important.  That’s why early Christian monks often built their monasteries in the desert.  Spending time in the desert is a reminder to rely on God’s provision.  It’s the place where grass quickly withers and flowers fade.  It’s the place where people quickly wither and fade.  It was also the place of testing for the people of Israel.  They crossed the desert after the Exodus and entered the Canaan through the Jordan.  Yahweh “brought a vine out of Egypt” and planted his people in the Promised Land.  They crossed the desert once again after the Babylonian Exile and entered the land once again through the Jordan.  And now here is John, at the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  The people were baptized.  They confessed their sins and were incorporated into God’s forgiveness and looked forward in faith to the appearing of the Messiah.  They were led through the Jordan once more, made ready to live as God’s repentant and expectant people.
            John pointed people to the One who is greater than he.  Later, Jesus said of John that among those born of women, no one is greater than John (Matt. 11:11).  Therefore, this One coming after John must be something else!  Someone extra special!  In fact, John says that he only baptizes with water, but the one to come will baptize with the Holy Spirit.  This One to come who sends the Spirit upon whom he baptizes must indeed be the Divine Son of God.
            If the Lord is about to arrive on the scene, then confession is a good way to prepare.  God himself – Yahweh, the Great I Am … Immanuel, God with us – would be in their very midst.  The promised Messiah was coming to complete his mission to be our atoning sacrifice.  When he appears, the proper thing to do is to repent and receive him by faith.  Turn from your sins and trust in his forgiving grace.  To be God’s own repentant and expectant people.  And that is exactly what we are as we gather together.  Jesus is present today in his Word.  He is present sacramentally in the Holy Supper as he gives you his true body and true blood.  And Jesus will one day come again like a thief – unexpectedly, surprisingly – when “the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed” (2 Pet. 3:10).
            John came to clear the way to make the people ready to receive the Messiah, to remove any obstacles and roadblocks in hearts and lives that would keep people from meeting the Messiah.  There are all sorts of obstacles and roadblocks which keep us from meeting the Messiah, which take us off the path of righteousness, which keep us in unbelief so that we do not receive the blessings and benefits of his arrival.  The potholes of pride.  The sinkholes of selfishness.  The dead end of dishonesty.  The floodwaters of flagrant immorality.  Do you want those works exposed on the day of the Lord?  “The grass withers and the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass” (Is. 40:7).  The breath of the Lord speaks wrath over disobedience and unbelief, and you and I have no ability to remove those sinful obstacles from our path.  Someone else must do it for us.
            And the beginning of the Gospel according to St. Mark tells us how this is done.  The way is cleared for you by a baptism of repentance into the forgiveness of sins … the forgiveness of all your sins won for you by Christ’s death on the cross and a baptism even greater than John's, one accompanied by the power of the Holy Spirit.
            “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of the Lord stands forever” (Is. 40:8).  The Word made flesh who was crucified for your sins and rose in victory now stands forever as your great high priest (Heb. 7:23-28 et. al.).  Through the preached Word, the breath of the Lord blows upon you no longer in condemnation but in consolation with love and life eternal.
            The beginning of the Gospel in your life occurred in your baptism and the preaching of God’s Word.  The continuation of the Gospel in your life occurs in confession and absolution as you return to the Jordan River – that is, the promises given in your baptism – to live as God’s repentant and expectant people.  The Gospel continues in your life through the gracious presence of Jesus as you eat and drink his body and blood with faith in those words “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of all your sins.”
            Through this Word of the Gospel, you can stand forever before the Lord in his grace.  You can stand before him at his Second Advent and be “found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace” (2 Pet. 3:18).

            Amen.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent (November 30, 2014)

Wordle: Untitled

Advent 1 – Series B (November 30, 2014)
“Jesus Comes to Be Our Humble King” (Mark 11:1-10)

While the world is preparing for Christmas, we begin our celebration by hearing about Lent. While the radio plays songs about Rudolph and Frosty and bells that go jingle, you would expect the Church to sing songs about angels and shepherds and a baby wrapped in clothes that swaddle.

Instead, we hear about Palm Sunday. The Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. The beginning of Holy Week at the beginning of Advent. This is always jarring. Always surprising. With one eye on the manger, our other eye is on the cross.

Someone once told me that there is a lot of Lent in Advent. This is very true. There is indeed a lot of Lent in Advent. Like Lent, Advent is also a penitential season. It is important for us to reflect on the reason the Son of God became flesh in the first place. It was not to be a cute little baby who reminds us of all that is pure and innocent. It was not to be a baby born into poverty to give us a lesson on how to care for the less fortunate. It was not to be a great miracle worker. The Son of God became flesh in order to die for us. Jesus Christ died in our place with our sins credited to him so that we could be forgiven and at peace with God. This is the “peace, goodwill toward men” of which the herald angels sang.

So today, this first Sunday in Advent, we hear how Jesus comes to be our humble king riding to his cross.

The humble king rides into Jerusalem on the back of a young donkey. This is to fulfill the word of the Lord given to the prophet Zechariah: “Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zech. 9:9). This king does not come in a chariot with soldiers bearing swords and shields. He comes in kindness, with love and mercy and compassion for his people, even the very people who would soon reject him as their king.

This is also another picture of Jesus as the greater Son of David. In 2 Samuel chapter 7, the Lord promised King David that the throne of his son would last forever. Later, in 1 Kings chapter 1, David’s son Solomon is anointed as king. Solomon rode on David’s mule, he was anointed as king to succeed his father, and the crowd cried out “Long live King Solomon!” and “rejoiced with great joy” (1 Kings 1:38-40). But after Solomon’s reign, the kingdom was divided in two. Both the northern kingdom and southern kingdom were eventually destroyed. How could God possibly say that Solomon’s throne was to last forever? In Jesus, the greater Son of David, this is true. Listen to what the angel Gabriel said to Mary: “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:31-33). Jesus is the King who came to rule over all creation in his death, resurrection, and ascension. His kingdom, the Church, is an everlasting kingdom. Even the gates of hell will not prevail against it.

Jesus is our humble king who rides to his death. “Hosanna!” the crowd shouted in Hebrew. “Save us now!” is what it means. What kind of a Savior did they expect? They expected an exalted king, not a humble one. They anticipated a conquering king, not a crucified one. “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” they cried. They wished to see the Messianic kingdom in all its glory. They wanted the king’s armies to defeat Rome and all other enemies of Israel. They wanted to see the king rule from his throne in Jerusalem. They wanted to welcome an era of eternal peace and joy. Nobody expected this would come via a cross and an empty tomb.

What kind of a Savior do we want? One who solves all our problems for us? One who magically takes all our aches and pains away? One who gives us all kinds of earthly goodies? A divine Santa Claus, so to speak? If that’s all we’re looking for in a Savior, then we will be sorely disappointed. Until our Lord’s Second Advent, we still live in this broken world where we endure the consequences of sin. Yet even now, Jesus sustains us in our suffering. The disciple who denied Jesus a few days after Palm Sunday later confidently wrote: “after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Pet. 5:9). Jesus sustains you in your suffering because he has already suffered for your salvation. He has already overcome death for you in his resurrection. He “will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:8). And the gifts of eternity he has in store for you will far outshine any package ever opened on Christmas morning. As St. Paul wrote in Romans 8, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18).

The crowd praised Jesus as the Messiah, even though they misunderstood the nature of his mission. Jesus received the praise of the people. Jesus received their praise and did not silence them, because this was part of the plan to stir up the ire of his opponents who would soon arrest him, put him on trial, and nail him to a cross. They thought the only way to silence Jesus and his followers was to put him to death.

Advent is meant to stir us up. It stirs us up to repentance as we recognize the ways in which our sinful nature is opposed to God and wishes to silence the voice of the Law that shouts “Guilty!” Like cloaks laid upon the dust of the ground and trampled underfoot, “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” Like leafy branches dropped after the procession is over, “we all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away” (Is. 64:6).

But in Holy Baptism, the cloak of Jesus’ righteousness is laid upon you. Your sins are covered over. The Gospel shouts to you, “Forgiven!” The Holy Spirit breathes new life into you, and you now flourish “like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in season and its leaf does not wither” as Psalm 1 describes the man who delights in God's Word (Ps. 1:3).

Advent stirs us up for a proper celebration of the birth of our Savior … our humble King born in a stable with a feeding trough for a cradle.

Advent stirs us up to remember that our King still comes to us today in the humble means of spoken words, water, bread and wine.

And Advent stirs us up to remain watchful and ready for the “the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ,” the day when he returns in glory as our exalted king. Jesus will return still bearing “those dear tokens of his Passion” … the nail marks in his hands … there to remind you that there is no need for fear and trepidation when your King returns. Sing “Hosanna!” Save us now! He has already saved you. It is finished. Lift up your heads, and weep no more.

Amen.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Sermon for St. Peter and St. Paul, Apostles (June 29, 2014)

Wordle: Untitled

“A Confession, A Conversion, and a Church Convention” (Acts 15:1-12; Gal. 2:1-10; Matt. 16:13-19)
            Very early in the history of the church, June 29 was set aside to honor the two great apostles Peter and Paul.  One early tradition states that this was the day they were both martyred in Rome during persecution ordered by the emperor Nero.  Whatever the case may be, we give thanks to God today for Peter and Paul and learn from them as we consider Peter’s confession, Paul’s conversion, and a church convention at which they played a key role in preserving for us the freedom we have in the Gospel.
            Peter gave a succinct and beautiful confession of faith when Jesus asked the disciples “Who do you say that I am?”  Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”  Jesus commended Peter for this God-given revelation.  He promised build his Church on the rock of this confession of Peter.  He promised to give to the Church the keys of the kingdom of heaven so that the same verdict of forgiveness announced on earth would be valid in heaven as well.
            Although Peter gave such a bold confession of faith, he is also well known for his public denial of Christ.  Three times, Peter denied knowing Jesus while Jesus was on trial.  The rooster crowed as Jesus had foretold.  And Peter went out and wept bitterly.  But the Lord Jesus was gracious to him and forgave him.  On the day of his resurrection, the angel at the tomb told the women, “Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee” (Mark 16:7).  The angel knew that Peter specifically needed some extra encouragement.  Some time later, the Risen Jesus prepared a seaside breakfast for the disciples.  There, Jesus gave Peter the opportunity to confess his love for him three times and commissioned him to “Feed my lambs” (John 21:15-19).  That’s exactly what Peter did as a leader in the Church and missionary pastor until the day he was crucified in Rome.  He fed the lambs of Christ’s Church through his preaching and through writing two letters of the New Testament.  It’s also thought that Peter’s eyewitness accounts are behind the Gospel of Mark since Mark was a companion of Peter.
            Now on to Paul.  The story of Paul’s conversion is a dramatic one.  At first, Paul – or Saul as he was known in Hebrew – was involved in hunting Christians down, rounding them up, and having them put them to death.  It’s apparent that he also oversaw the stoning of Stephen, the first post-Pentecost martyr.  But the Lord Jesus was gracious to Paul, too.  Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus, where Paul was on his way to arrest more Christians.  He was blinded by a bright light.  Jesus spoke to him and sent him to the house of Ananias who preached to him.  As he did so, scales fell from Paul’s eyes and he regained his sight.  Ananias baptized him. Paul came to repentant faith in Jesus as Savior and the Lord Jesus sent him out as his “chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15).  That’s exactly what Paul did through his missionary journeys recorded for us in the Book of Acts.  Paul also is responsible for 13 of the 27 books of the New Testament … or I should rather say that the Holy Spirit is responsible for inspiring Paul – and Peter – to write their letters.  Paul’s letters give us insight into the life of the Church in his day and continue to have application to the Church today.  The four Gospels are the center of the New Testament, no doubt … but it’s hard to imagine what our Church life and doctrine would be like without the writings of St. Paul.
            The lives of Peter and Paul converged in Jerusalem and Antioch, leading up to the church “convention” described in Acts 15 where the first serious doctrinal conflict was hashed out.  Jerusalem was the headquarters of the early church.  Antioch lay around 400 miles to the north.  It became a prominent church and was the sending congregation of Paul’s missionary journeys.
            At Paul’s first visit to Jerusalem after his conversion, it took some convincing for the disciples to accept Paul.  They were afraid of him at first.  They knew his reputation.  But Barnabas stepped in and defended Paul and told how he “preached boldly in the name of Jesus” (Acts. 9:27).  14 years later he met with the “pillars” of the church again – James, Peter, and John – and they extended the right hand of fellowship to Paul and Barnabas.  They were pleased that Paul did not “yield in submission” to those “false brothers” who were demanding that you had to live like a Jew first before you could become a Christian … that you had to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses.
            Later in Antioch, some men from Judea arrived who tried to introduce that same false teaching.  This was the issue that led to the council in Jerusalem to settle this once and for all.  The very truth of the Gospel was at stake.  It was a crisis that directly impacted the doctrine of justification … that the person who has faith in Christ is declared righteous in God’s sight, not guilty.  The teaching of these “false brothers” nullified the free gift of forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life apart from the works of the Law.  Peter said that it placed “A yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear.”  The Law was a heavy burden because it demonstrated that no one could keep it perfectly and be holy and righteous before God.  Only Jesus kept the Law perfectly, and did so on our behalf so he could be the perfect, holy sacrifice for the sins of the world at the cross.  Therefore, Peter went on to say that “We believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, just as they will.”  In other words, the Gentiles who have never lived like Jews never have to.  They are saved completely and totally by the grace of the Lord Jesus because of his saving work at the cross.  We all are saved completely and totally by the grace of the Lord Jesus because of his saving work at the cross.  Never for a moment think that you have to add any of your works to what Jesus has already done for you.  Any works we do naturally flow from a heart that is forgiven and produces the fruit that the Holy Spirit plants there … but this is not what saves us.  Jesus already took care of that on Good Friday and Easter morning.
            When Paul wrote to the Galatians, they were being threatened by the same teaching that the Jerusalem Council dealt with.  Paul reflects on his initial encounters with the false teachers and writes, “We did not yield in submission even for a moment so that the truth of the Gospel might be preserved for you.”
            Now, there are times when “yielding in submission” is a good thing.  In fact, in his letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul stressed the importance of submission between Christians.  “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ,” he says.  Recognize your station in life.  Humble yourself in selfless service to one another.  Paul goes on to talk about how this works in marriage.  Husbands are to selflessly sacrifice themselves for their wives as Christ demonstrated his love for the Church.  In response, wives are to lovingly order themselves under the loving leadership of their husbands.  “Yielding in submission” in marriage is often about compromise and putting the needs of your spouse before your own.
            In our egalitarian society, this makes us uncomfortable.  But even more than that, it’s our hearts that are turned in on themselves that make us squirm and rebel against this word from the Lord.  But remember that Jesus perfectly yielded in submission to the will of his Father.  He yielded in submission at the hands of his persecutors in order to win for us freedom from the condemnation of the Law through his death and resurrection.
            On the other hand, there are times when we should never “yield in submission.”  This is especially true in the Church.  If it’s about what color the carpet should be, compromise is fine.  If it’s about the truth of God’s Word, then there should never be compromise.  When the truth of the Gospel is at stake, there should never be an ounce of submission … only submission to the Word of the Lord. 
            So today, as we recall Peter’s confession, may the Lord enable us by his Spirit to daily confess our sins and daily confess our faith … to each other and to others who do not know the freedom from sin and the fear of death that Jesus won for us.
            As we recall Paul’s conversion, may the Lord daily convert us by returning us to the promises of our Baptism and enabling us to daily turn away from our sin and turn to our Savior.
            And as we recall that first “church convention” where truth prevailed, may the Lord move us to gather often with fellow believers to hear the Good News, receive God’s gifts together, commune with the Lord Jesus and with one another at the altar, seek to be of one mind and one spirit, and never for one moment submit to anything that would obscure or jeopardize the sweet, pure, free, forgiving Gospel of grace.
            Amen.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Sermon for the Memorial Service for Jim Newlun (June 28, 2014)

“It Is Well With My Soul” (Mark 4:35-41)

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, especially to you Bea, and to all of you family and friends gathered here who loved Jim.
The portion of Holy Scripture I chose for our time together today is from the Gospel according to St. Mark, the fourth chapter. [READ TEXT]
That must have been quite a storm.  At least four of the disciples on board the boat were experienced Galilean fishermen.  They had ridden out many storms before this one.  But this one really got to them.  They were terrified.  They thought for sure they were going to die.  Waves were crashing over the bow.  The boat was filling with water.  This is it guys.  Prepare to meet your maker.  Next stop: Davy Jones’ locker.
The Galilean fishermen were panicking.  The Nazarene carpenter was sound asleep.  No storm was going to keep him from getting some much needed shuteye.  He had found a comfortable niche in the stern where he continued to trust in his heavenly Father’s care.  Moreover, this was no ordinary man.  This was Jesus, the Incarnate God, God in the flesh, true God and true Man in the same person.  But this had not yet been made clear to the disciples yet.  They had seen his miracles.  They had heard his authoritative teaching.  Jesus authoritatively calms the wind and the sea with the words “Peace! Be still!”  And the disciples ask, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”  Peter’s great confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God was still to come.
Jesus asked the disciples, “Why are you so afraid?  Have you still no faith?”  Looking at the storm, the disciples were afraid.  But with Jesus on board, there was no need to be fearful.  Because of the gracious presence of Jesus the disciples could say in the words of the hymn, “It is well with my soul.”
What about you?  Is it well with your soul right now?  If you’re honest, you might say, “No. Not a bit.  Everything is NOT well with my soul right now.  I miss Jim.  There are other people whom I love who have died.  And there are other problems in my life that are troubling me right now.  Life is pretty stormy for me.  And fear?  Sure, I’m fearful.  I’m no different than those disciples on that boat.  I’m afraid of dying.  I don’t know what will happen to me when I die.”
Jesus spoke words of calm to the storm out there on the Sea of Galilee.  Hear these words of calm spoken to you before his death on the Cross of Calvary where he paid the price for the sins of the world with his holy, innocent blood: “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 where I am going.”  At that point, Thomas asked, “Lord, we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?”  Jesus answered, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Through faith in Jesus you can be assured that your sins are forgiven.  Through faith in Jesus, you can know that you have a place reserved for you in heaven.  Through Jesus, you can be confident that all who are baptized into Christ and who trust in his saving work at the cross will rise to eternal life on the Last Day, even as Jesus conquered death and the grave on Easter morning.  It is only through faith in Jesus that you can truly say, “It is well with my soul.”  “He lives – oh, the bliss of this glorious thought; My sin, not in part but the whole, Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more.  Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, oh my soul.”
There’s a beautiful story behind that hymn.  Horatio G. Spafford was a prominent Chicago lawyer and close friend of the famous evangelist Dwight L. Moody.  In 1870 his four year old son died of scarlet fever.  The next year, the Great Fire of Chicago reduced the city to ashes along with most of Spafford’s sizable investments.  In November of 1873, Spafford decided to take his entire family to England for a vacation, knowing that his friend Moody was also scheduled to preach there.  Urgent business concerns detained Spafford in Chicago, but he decided to send his family ahead on board the steamship Ville du Havre as scheduled.  Midway through the trans-Atlantic voyage, the ship was struck by an iron sailing vessel and sank in 12 minutes.[i]  226 people died, including Spafford's four daughters—Anna, eleven; Maggie, nine; Bessie, seven; and Tanetta, two.  Mrs. Spafford was picked up unconscious, floating on a plank of wood, and once safely delivered to Wales, sent her husband the heartbreaking telegram: “Saved alone. What shall I do…”
Spafford immediately sailed for England to join his grief-stricken wife.  As his ship passed the approximate location where his daughters had drowned, his deep sorrow mingled with his unwavering faith in God's goodness caused him to compose his well-known hymn.
The natural tendency of one confronted with such senseless tragedy would most likely be to question, to doubt, to blame, to accuse God.  Yet this hymn reveals a person who had been graced by God to mourn without bitterness, to sorrow without anger, to trust without resentment, to rest in “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Phil. 4:6).  The peace of Jesus enabled Spafford to believe, as God’s Word promises, that – even in one’s darkest hours – “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28).[ii] [iii]
“It is well with my soul.”  Before Jim died, he made it clear to me that he wanted Spafford’s hymn sung at his funeral.  Jim had a vibrant, living faith in his Savior Jesus.  He loved to be with his fellow believers in church and Bible Class.  He hungered for the Lord’s Supper where he received the true body and blood of Jesus.  He loved to talk about Jesus.  He loved to engage others in conversation about Jesus.  He knew how much he, himself, needed Jesus.  There were some stormy times in Jim’s life, that’s for sure.  But Jim knew that Jesus was on board for him.  Jesus was his anchor.  The Lord Jesus was the “everlasting rock” to which he clung when the waves were crashing all around him.  Although cancer took Jim’s life, he knew that his eternal life was safe in Jesus.  He knew that although his cancer ridden body would not be healed on this side of the veil, it would be healed once and for all at the resurrection when Jesus returns in glory.  And so Jim was able to say, “It is well with my soul.”
“Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”  His name is Jesus.  The Crucified and Risen Savior.  Baptized in his name, trusting in his finished work at the cross and the empty tomb, you too can say right along with Jim … with Horatio Spafford … with all your fellow believers in Christ, “When peace, like a river, attendeth my way; When sorrows, like sea billows roll; Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well with my soul.”
Amen.



[i] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ville_du_Havre
[ii] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horatio_Spafford
[iii] http://hymns.net/stories/spafford.htm

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Sermon for Trinity Sunday and Confirmation Day (June 15, 2014)

Wordle: Untitled

The Path of Life” (Psalm 16:8-11)

This is the time of year when you hear motivational phrases like these: “This is the first day of the rest of your life” … “Carpe diem (Seize the day)” … “The sky’s the limit” … “The world is your oyster.” This is the time of year when you hear graduation speeches.

Maybe graduates will also listen to speeches which mention all the paths ahead of them. Each day they will be faced with many choices. How they respond to certain choices will determine what direction their life takes. Whether you have a Big Mac or a Quarter Pounder is not a very earth-shattering decision. Deciding who to marry … now that’s a life-changing choice.

While Confirmation Day feels like a graduation, remember what you always hear from me: “Confirmation is NOT graduation.” This is one step along the way in your ongoing growth in your life of faith in Jesus. And for each one of you … whether confirmand or graduate, youth or adult, there really are only two paths from which to choose: the “Path of Life” and the “Path of Death.” The Path of Life is trusting in God and walking in his ways and leads to eternal life. The Path of Death is turning away from God and his ways and leads to eternal death. The Path of Death is the one we naturally choose. It’s very easy to find. “The gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction,” Jesus said (Matt. 7:13), “and those who enter by it are many” (Matt. 7:13). The Path of Life on the other hand, is not so easy to find. “The gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to eternal life, and those who find it are few” (Matt. 7:14). Thankfully, God has revealed this path to us in the Holy Scriptures. Psalm 16:11 from today’s Introit says, “You make known to me the path of life.”

Knowing Your True Identity on the Path

Along this path of life, it’s important to know your true identity. Sometimes college students will take some time off and travel in order to “find themselves.” They have a major. They have an idea what career options are before them. But they’re not sure that’s what they want to do with the rest of their life. So they take a trip away from home … maybe Europe … or someplace exotic, like Nepal. They journal. They meet new people. They contemplate who they are and what’s really important to them.

Finding yourself” is not unique to college students. Teenagers do this, too. They experiment with their own personal style … with clothes, hairstyle, music, and so on. They are developing deeper relationships. They wonder how they fit in to all the different subgroups at school. When I was in school, there were the jocks, the preppies, the punks, the stoners, the surfers, the nerds, just to name a few. I’ll let you guess what group I was in. I don’t know what labels are out there now. Maybe you feel like you don’t fit in anywhere. You’re still trying to find your place in the world.

Some adults even struggle with knowing who they are. Certain men my age may have what is called a “mid-life crisis.” They look back on their life and judge their accomplishments (or lack thereof) and think to themselves, “I’m bored with my life. I need a change. I haven’t done what I wanted to. I haven’t achieved the goals I set out for myself.” At best, they go out and buy a motorcycle or a sports car. At worst, they abandon their families and begin to live selfishly and recklessly.

But you don’t have to wonder who you are. You already have an identity. You are a creation of the Holy Trinity. The same God who began to create with the words “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3) is the God who made you. This world did not come into being by chance. Neither did you. You are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14). The Lord “formed [your] inward parts” and “knitted [you] together in [your] mother’s womb” (Ps. 139:13). The same God who numbers the stars also knows how many hairs you have on your head (Ps. 147:4; Matt. 10:30). He takes a personal interest in you and continues to care for you.

You are also a new creation in the waters of Holy Baptism. You were baptized into the name of the Holy Trinity … Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Your sins were washed away. You were brought into his kingdom. You were marked with the seal of ownership. You belong to God as his own precious, redeemed child. You are an heir of all that Jesus earned for you at the cross … eternal life and the promise of resurrection on the Last Day.

And because you are baptized, this makes you a disciple of Jesus. Jesus sends his Church into the world to “make disciples of all nations by baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). This is how disciples are made. By baptizing and teaching. You become a life-long learner from Jesus and his Word. Led by his Spirit working through that Word, you receive help to make choices along the way on this path of life.

Your Travelling Partner on the Path

Along this path, you also have a travelling partner. King David said, “I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken” (Ps. 16:8). In royal jargon, the right hand is the place of privilege and honor. The right hand is the one that acts and serves and fights. So when David says, “I have set the Lord always before me,” it doesn’t mean that he’s somehow manipulating God. Instead, David is recognizing the Lord’s constant nearness as the one who acts on David’s behalf, who serves David, and goes before him to fight his battles.

Is this how you and I go about our day? Setting the Lord always before us? Trusting that he is at our right hand? Not usually. Instead, we’re focused on our tasks at hand, the problems we face, anxious, worried, fretting over how we are going to make it through the day because our finances are in a shambles, our health is failing, our job is in jeopardy.

Repent of your sinful worry. Listen to David again: “because [the Lord] is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.” The Lord is with you. He holds your hand as a Father holds his child’s hand and walks with you, stands beside you, and cares for you. Listen to Jesus who promises: “I am with you always” (Matt. 28:20).

Set the Lord before you as your travelling partner. Recognize that he has already promised to be with you along this path of life at your right hand.

Your Destination at the End of the Path

You are God’s creation and new creation in Baptism. The Lord is your travelling partner. Now let’s talk about your destination at the end of the path.

The end of the path of life is not death. Death is not the end. David acknowledged this when he said, “For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol or let your holy one see corruption” (Ps. 16:10). In death, God does not abandon you. When you depart this life, you will be with the Lord, and the promise of resurrection awaits you.

What’s more, St. Peter explains that in that verse, David was actually prophesying our Lord’s own resurrection here. Peter quotes Psalm 16 in today’s reading from Acts 2 and says that David “foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses” (Acts 2:31-32). And remember the words of Jesus, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25).

The joys of eternity await you at the end of the path. “In your presence there is fullness of joy, at your right hand are pleasures forevermore,” David says. And you receive a foretaste of eternity right here at this altar. Jesus has ascended to the right hand of the Father. In his Holy Supper, his right hand reaches down from heaven and offers you his very own body and blood, the very body and blood that earned for you the forgiveness of all your sins. Here at the altar, you are ushered to the Lord’s right hand. He invites you to eat and drink with him and gives you the place of privilege and honor. Here at the altar there is fullness of joy. Here there are pleasures forevermore. Here you are prepared for a blessed death so you may then partake of pleasures forevermore at God’s right hand, no longer hindered by sin or sickness or sorrow.

Above all else, remember that Jesus already walked the path of life for you. His path took him from heaven to the womb of his mother Mary, to the manger, to Egypt, to Nazareth, to the shores of Galilee, to the temple in Jerusalem, to the cross of Calvary, to the Garden Tomb, and back to the right hand of the Father. But this journey that Jesus took was not to find himself. It was to find you … to rescue you from the path of death you were on and put you on the path of life.

Your path of life now leads you to the altar, back out to the world to invite others onto “The Path of Life,” and on into eternity.

Travel this path knowing who you are. You are God’s creation. You are God’s new creation in Baptism. You are marked with the seal of forgiveness. You belong to him. You are a disciple … a life-long learner and hearer of God’s Word and recipient of all his gracious gifts in Word and Sacrament.

Travel this path knowing the Lord is your travelling partner. He is at your right hand to strengthen you, to uphold you, to care for you.

And travel this path knowing your destination … fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore at the Lord’s right hand … now in his Supper … then in the resurrection on the Last Day.


Amen.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Sermon for the Day of Pentecost (June 8, 2014)

Wordle: Untitled

“Living Water” (John 7:37-39)
            Think back to a sweltering summer day when you were a kid.  If you didn’t have a pool to swim in, what did you want to do?  Run through the sprinkler!  No matter how hot it was, it was bracing to leap through that stream of ice-cold water coming from the tap and out through the attachment at the end of the hose.  And if you were lucky, you also had a “Slip-n-Slide” … one of those long rectangular pieces of plastic sheeting that you spray with water, then run with all your might, fling your body forward, and you slip and you slide to the other end.  Great fun!  Refreshing!
            But you can’t keep the water running all day long.  Dad won’t appreciate the water bill.  The backyard will be turned into a huge mud puddle.  Eventually, it’s time to turn the spigot off and come inside.  The fun can’t last forever.  Plus, what happens if the reservoir runs dry?  No more water from the hose.  Now, I know that here in the Northwest that’s not likely to happen.  There’s plenty of water here.  But in other parts of the country, drought is always a real possibility.  In California where I grew up, there were some summers where we had to ration water.  Take short showers.  Refrain from watering your lawn.  Cities would stop watering their roadside landscaping.  Everything would wilt and die and turn brown.  As if California isn’t brown enough.
            But Jesus speaks about a source of life and refreshment that will never end.  “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’”  St. John explains that Jesus said this “about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive.” Like a cold, refreshing spring of water, the Holy Spirit is a refreshing, never-ending source of life given to the Church from Jesus.  And more than just a spring.  Jesus says “rivers.”  A life-giving source that is refreshing, cleansing, abundant, and overflowing.
            In the Bible, the giving of the Holy Spirit is tied in with two events.  The first is in John’s Gospel, and it’s connected with Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Lifted high upon the cross, crowned as our suffering King, Jesus was glorified there as our Savior, dying for the sins of the world.  This is the “glorification” that awaited Jesus and which had to be completed before the Spirit would be given.  This is not to say that the Spirit was not present and active before this.  He was, but it seems as if the Spirit was only given to certain individuals for particular tasks or commissions, like the men in our reading from Numbers today. But now, with his work of redemption completed, Jesus kicks it up a notch.  The Spirit is not limited to only a chosen few.  Risen from the dead, he appears to his disciples in John chapter 20, breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  And then, this giving of the Spirit is connected to the Word of Holy Absolution that Jesus gives to his Church, when he says “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:22-23).  To the penitent sinner, forgiveness is promised and truly given through the Spirit-filled Word of Christ.
            The other event is the Day of Pentecost recorded in Acts chapter 2.  This is the more common event you and I probably recall when we think of the giving of the Spirit.  Pentecost was a Spring harvest festival, 50 days after Passover.  It was one of the three festivals that all good Jews were expected to attend if they were able.  Therefore, Jerusalem would have been packed to the gills with people from all over the place.  This was the day the Lord chose to pour out his Spirit upon the disciples and empower them to be powerful witnesses to the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Tongues of fire rested upon them, signifying God’s presence … like the burning bush for Moses or the pillar of fire leading the Israelites in the wilderness.  The Holy Spirit enabled them to speak in the languages of the people gathered there, a reversal of the confusion of languages at Babel.  At Babel, the people were scattered.  At Pentecost, there was a harvest of souls who were gathered into Christ that day – repentant, believing, baptized – about three thousand, Luke tells us.  And as Peter said, this was the day foretold by the prophet Joel, “in the last days … I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.”  Sons, daughters, young men, old men, male and female.  And “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” As the rest of the Book of Acts unfolds, the Spirit is poured out through the preaching of the Word of Jesus to Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles.  The Word was preached and the Spirit came upon each group.  The Holy Spirit is truly for all people.  No exceptions.
            But today’s Gospel is from John 7, and here a different festival altogether is described where Jesus takes an opportunity to teach about the Holy Spirit.  Here it is the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths as they are sometimes called.  This was in the Fall of the year.  All around Jerusalem, people would build “succoth” or shelters in which they would live during the duration of the feast.  This was to be a reminder of how their forefathers lived in tents in the wilderness after their deliverance from slavery in Egypt.  A custom developed where on each day of the festival, a golden pitcher was taken to the Pool of Siloam and filled with water.  Then, the High Priest would carry it in procession with psalms being sung.  Back inside the temple, the water was offered to God and poured out at the altar.  This was meant to remind everyone how the Lord provided water in the wilderness.  It was a prayer for water now, asking the Lord to bring the Fall rains.  And it was an expectation of the coming Messianic age when God would pour out his Spirit on all.  Verses such as these may have been on the minds of the worshippers … Isaiah 55:1 – “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters” … or Isaiah 43:19 – “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” … or maybe Zechariah 14:8-9 – “On that day living waters will flow out of Jerusalem … It shall continue in summer as in winter.”  No stopping it.  No drying up.  A constant supply of refreshment and eternal life when the Messiah arrives on the scene.  And there’s also the visionary imagery in Ezekiel 47 where the prophet sees water flowing out of the temple, becoming a deep river that flows to the sea and makes its waters fresh, enlivening the creatures that swim in it.
            And so, Jesus stands up on the last day of the feast and says, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’”  In essence, Jesus is declaring, “This is all about me!  I am the fulfillment of all this!  I am the Messiah!  The Messianic age begins with me!  Only I can give you the refreshment that your souls are seeking!”
            The death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus inaugurated the Messianic Age.  All that he came to do, he accomplished … dying for the sins of the world and rising to life again to conquer sin, death, and hell.  This is the age in which you and I are blessed to live, even while we await the final consummation at the end of the age when Christ returns visibly as promised by the angels on the Mount of Olives.  This is the age in which the Spirit continues to be poured out upon the Church, creating and sustaining faith in Jesus, even in the face of hardship and suffering around the world.
            A river of living water flows from within all who believe in Jesus as Savior.  However, there is still some stagnant water within us … our old sinful nature.  Our sinful disobedience is like dead, decomposed detritus and other slimy refuse that clogs up a stream and takes the life out of it.  Nothing can survive there.  It stinks.  It’s rotten.  It needs to be cleaned out, pumped out, filtered, purified.  No one would dare attempt to drink it.  A mere sip of this water would be nauseating.  That’s when you need to hear the invitation from Jesus once again: “Come to me and drink.”  He is the one who provides you with the refreshing, cleansing, abundant, and overflowing waters of the Holy Spirit.
            In baptism, your sins were washed away.  You were given new life when you were born from above by water and the Spirit and brought into God’s kingdom (John 3:5).  And although you sin daily, the Holy Spirit works in you to receive and believe the refreshing and cleansing words of forgiveness in Holy Absolution.  The same Spirit whom Jesus breathed upon the disciples is breathed upon you as you hear those words, “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  And you ARE forgiven.  The living water of Jesus purges the stagnant water of sin from within you and gives you eternal life.
            Moreover, the living water of Jesus is abundant and overflowing.  It is a well that never runs dry.  There is more than enough for all people.  That was evident on the day of Pentecost.  The Spirit-inspired Good News of Jesus was preached to “Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians.”  The point being that the Good News of Jesus is for all people … including “Marysvillians,” “Arlingtonians,” and “Lake Stevians” … both “Everett-ites” and “Snohomishites” … for Tulalips and Stillaguamish … for citizens and sojourners … for ALL whom the Lord calls through the Word of the Gospel.  The work of the Holy Spirit is not limited to a select group of people.  It’s not limited to a certain set of congregations or denominations.  It’s not limited to a particular locale.  The Holy Spirit works where and when he pleases whenever the Good News of Jesus is preached and taught.
            Are you thirsty today?  Does your soul need refreshment?  Then come to Jesus and drink of the water that he provides.  Through his Word, he pours the Spirit into your heart.  His Word of forgiveness refreshes and cleanses.  His Word and Spirit prepare you to eat and drink worthily today of his refreshing body and blood.  And your Lord’s living water is so abundant and overflowing that it pours out from you to others, so you can reach out in love and offer them this living water, giving opportunity for the Spirit to work in their hearts, as well.

            Amen.

Friday, May 30, 2014

A Word I’ve Never Said in Bible Class … Until Now

From Messiah's June 2014 newsletter:

I said a word in Bible class the other day that I don’t think I’ve ever uttered during a Sunday morning adult Bible class. What was that word? “Pornography.” What was the context? It was in the middle of our discussion of the Sermon on the Mount, specifically where Jesus says, “everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:26).

Whenever the topic of adultery and lust comes up, the elephant in the room is often the topic of pornography. It’s not easy to talk about. It’s shameful. It’s also so much easier to hide nowadays. No longer do you have to drive to the seedy part of town and walk in the back door of an adult bookstore. No longer do you have to ask the person behind the counter of the convenience store for a copy of one of the magazines whose cover is hidden with a piece of opaque plastic, with just the title of the magazine peeking over the top. Now you can view images on your computer in the privacy of your own home and no one will know the difference … unless, of course, you get caught by a family member.

I suppose I’m primarily speaking to men here. Men are much more visually oriented and stimulated than women. One study I read stated that half of Christian men have a problem with pornography. Because of the secretive nature of the issue, I would venture to guess that the problem is even more significant. What constitutes a problem? In the first place, even mere casual viewing of pornography is sinful because it appeals to our sinful lust. It is breaking the Sixth Commandment. It is indeed adultery according to Jesus. In the second place, it can become addictive and can wreak havoc with marriages and other relationships and society at large when women are viewed as nothing more than sexual objects rather than individuals created in the image of God and for whom Christ died on the cross.

And there’s the “crux” of the matter. The cross is the first place to go for those who have been caught in pornography’s evil web. As difficult as it may be, go to your pastor and take advantage of private confession and absolution. As shameful as it is, remember that your pastor is not here to further shame you. As shameful as it is, remember that Christ bore your guilt and shame at the cross, including your sinful lusts and use of pornography to gratify those lusts. This sin is forgiven, too, by Christ your Redeemer. Go to your pastor and hear him deliver Christ’s words of forgiveness personally to you.

Like any addiction, however, you will need further guidance along the road to recovery. Confession and Absolution is a first and necessary step, but other resources will be beneficial. Christian blogger Tim Challies has written extensively on this topic, and I would recommend reading his material and list of resources given at http://www.challies.com/topics/pornography. (Disclaimer: Tim Challies is not Lutheran, so of course, when he writes on certain doctrinal topics, I don’t agree with everything. However, his blog has much from which a person could benefit, including the topic of dealing with pornography.)

Above all else, trust in the shed blood of Jesus which covers over our sin, both public and private, both the ones we don’t think are a big deal and the ones we do think are a big deal. With God, though, nothing is private. Every sin is a big deal. But you have an even bigger Savior “whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith” (Rom. 3:25 NASB). Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for all sin. He loves you so much that he took your sin all the way to the cross and rose again in victory. In the waters of baptism, you are washed clean. The blessings and benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection are yours. You are declared not guilty. Go in his peace. Trust in his victory for you.

In Christ’s service and yours,
Pastor Onken