Sunday, October 2, 2016

Sermon for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost (October 2, 2016)

Pentecost 20 – Proper 22/Year C (October 2, 2016)

“Increase Our Faith” (Luke 17:1-10)


“Increase our faith!” the disciples said to the Lord Jesus.  I would assume that has been your prayer on numerous occasions.  There are times when you simply feel wasted.  Exhausted.  Tired.  Full of doubts.  On the verge of despair.  It gets so hard to believe sometimes, to trust that God is there, that he loves you, that he forgives what you have done.

            “Increase our faith.”  Add to our faith.  Make it bigger.  Make it stronger.  Increase it, Lord.  That is most definitely our constant prayer.  It seems the older we get and the better we know God’s Word, the more we recognize how sinful our hearts really are and how dependent upon God we are.

            What prompted this prayer from the disciples?  Jesus spoke to them about temptations that are sure to come to those who trust in him.  The Greek word translated as “temptation” here is scandalon.  From that word we get our English word “scandal.”  A scandal is “an occurrence in which people are shocked and upset because of behavior that is morally or legally wrong.”[1] Every once in a while, a scandal involving a prominent public figure is revealed … a politician, a pastor, a teacher.  It makes the news.  People are shocked.  And it’s becoming harder and harder to keep a scandal a secret in this day and age of the internet, social media, and a camera on every phone.

            The types of scandals that Jesus means here are those temptations which ultimately cause someone to stumble and fall into sin and unbelief.  Some of those temptations he just finished pointing out in the parables and stories previous to this section.  Thinking that you are not a sinner and looking down your nose at those you think are, like the Pharisees and scribes who were disgusted that Jesus would “receive sinners and eat with them” (Luke 15:2).  Jealously withholding your forgiveness from someone whom God has already forgiven, like the Prodigal Son’s older brother who was upset that his father would throw a party for his younger brother (Luke 15:28-29).  Making money your master and not God (Luke 16:13).  Partying hardy and ignoring those outside your gates, like the condemned rich man who ignored poor Lazarus (Luke 16:19-21).  Refusing to listen to Moses and the Prophets (Luke 16:29) and the Evangelists and the Apostles.  And so we pray along with the disciples, “Increase our faith … Keep us from these temptations and keep us from stumbling into sin and unbelief.”

            And then, Jesus ups the ante.  He further says, “Woe to the one through whom those temptations … those scandals … come.”  Jesus says, “It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.”  Millstones are huge round stones used to grind grain.  One would rest on top of the other, with the top one being rotated to grind the material in between.  Obviously, if you had one tied around your neck in the water, you wouldn’t last very long.  You’d plummet into the depths and die.  That’s exactly the point Jesus is making.  You’d be better off dead than to scandalize the little ones, either believing children or possibly adults who are “young” in their faith.  Therefore, Jesus says, “Pay attention to yourselves!  Take care!  Repent of your own sin!”  All the more reason to pray right along with the disciples, “Increase our faith!  Increase our faith so that we do nothing that might cause our brothers and sisters in Christ to stumble or fall away from faith.”

            Jesus also teaches here about the necessity of offering perpetual forgiveness.  If someone sins against you seven times in a day and seven times says, “I repent,” you forgive them seven times.  Does this mean that the eighth time you’re done?  No more forgiveness?  Of course not.  Remember elsewhere that Jesus said to forgive “seventy-seven times” (Matt. 18:22).  Another possible translation is “seventy times seven.”  That’s 490 times!  The number is not what is important here.  Jesus simply means to be ready to forgive always.  God’s forgiveness for you is without limit.  So should yours be for those who sin against you.

            Does that mean you have to be best buddies with everyone?  No, of course not.  We seek to reconcile as often as possible.  We seek to reach out and love all people whom God places into our lives.  But clearly there may come a time when we have to keep some people at arm’s length, when we have to walk away from certain toxic relationships, people whose behaviors or attitudes may be harmful to our well-being or the well-being of the people around us.  Does that mean we cannot forgive them?  Certainly not.  When they say “I repent,” then we forgive them.  Seven times.  Seventy-seven times.  Seventy times seven.  Without limit.

            And in order to forgive constantly, we pray constantly, “Increase our faith!  Increase our faith so that we can forgive as God forgives us … daily, constantly, perpetually, even for the sins of which we are unaware.”

            Now what do we do with this business about faith the size of a mustard seed?  The tiniest amount of faith.  At first glance, it makes us feel inadequate for the task.  I don’t have the faith to tell a tree to be uprooted and be planted in the sea.  That’s just not going to happen, I know it!  That tree is not going to obey me.  And elsewhere Jesus suggests that we can even move mountains with our mustard seed-sized faith (Matt. 17:20).  Yeah, right!  And we’re back where we started at the beginning of our sermon today.  Doubting and despairing.

            But this is not meant to discourage us.  It’s meant to teach us about the right kind of faith.  If we are trying to stir up faith in ourselves by an act of our own will, then we should indeed despair.  Instead, our faith, small though it may be, is power-packed because it is a God-given, Word-and-Sacrament-driven, Christ-centered kind of faith.  Even a tiny mustard seed has the power of life in it, the power to burst forth and grow into a tree of its own.  And even the smallest amount of Spirit-inspired faith in Christ-crucified and risen from the dead has the power to do what seems humanly impossible … like endlessly forgiving others, like trusting that God in Christ has truly forgiven your sins – even the ones that you might think are unforgivable – and does so without limit.

            And so, we pray, “Increase our faith.  Increase our faith so that we avoid temptation.  Increase our faith so that we are never the cause of temptation.  Increase our faith so that we can forgive endlessly.  Increase our faith so that, when we do those things that faith leads us to do, we never brag or boast or expect a reward, but simply say ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”

Are you concerned whether you may have scandalized someone’s faith?  That you are the one who deserves that millstone?  Remember what Jesus has done for you.  Jesus took a millstone for you in the shape of a cross and was cast into the depths of death and the grave.  Your Lord Jesus shed his blood for the ways in which any one of us may have been the source of someone’s temptation.  Moreover, remember that, ultimately, the will of God will be done no matter what we do.  He will save all those whom he has called and chosen.  Jesus promised “No one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:28), and “All that the Father gives to me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out … And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up at the last day” (John 6:37, 39).

You can be sure that the prayer “Increase our faith” will be answered.  To believe is God’s will for you … he “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4).  And you pray this more than you realize.  Every time you pray “Thy kingdom come,” God hears and answers that prayer, because Jesus taught you to pray this way.  His kingdom comes to you when your heavenly Father gives you his Holy Spirit, so that by his grace you believe his Word and lead a godly life here in time and there in eternity.  Every time you pray “Thy will be done,” God hears and answers that prayer, because Jesus taught you to pray this way.  He will strengthen and keep you firm in his Word and faith until you die.  This is his good and gracious will.

Jesus says, “Believe.”  We pray, “Increase our faith.”  He graciously gives what he demands.  His will is done.  His kingdom comes to you.  And you are saved.



Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2016 (February 10, 2016)

Ash Wednesday 2016 (February 10, 2016)
“Our ‘I Am’: I Am a Poor Miserable Sinner” (Psalm 51)

Our sermon series for Lent this year is entitled, “The I AMs of Jesus.”  Throughout the Gospel of John, there are seven declarations where Jesus says “I AM.”  For example, Jesus says “I am the door” … “I am the light of the world” … “I am the Good Shepherd” … and others.  We’ll talk more about this next week when we hear our first message about one of Jesus “I AM” statements.
But before we go any farther, it’s appropriate for Ash Wednesday to go in a different direction.  At the beginning of Lent, we need to start with a different “I am” declaration.  One that starts with us.  Before we can hear any of the I AM statements of Jesus, before hear them in faith and learn from them, we need to consider an “I Am” declaration of our own … one we all need to make …
“I am a poor miserable sinner.”
            Those words are taken from the confession of sins in Setting Three of the Divine Service.  There at the beginning of the service, we acknowledge our unworthiness to be in God’s presence and say: “I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto you all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended you and justly deserved your temporal and eternal punishment.”
There was a time when what we now know as Setting Three was the only setting of the Divine Service we had in our hymnals.  We said those words of confession more often than we do now.  I can still say them by heart.  I grew up in church saying these words practically every Sunday, except when we used Matins.
I also used to be confused when we got to the part that says “I am heartily sorry for them and sincerely repent of them.”  In my youthful naiveté, I thought that we were talking about someone else who was a sinner.  “I am heartily sorry for THEM and sincerely repent of THEM!”
Back to “I, a poor, miserable sinner.”  People are often confused by these words.  More likely, they are offended by these words.  “I am NOT a poor, miserable sinner!” they insist.  “You Lutherans are awful!  Why would you make someone say something like that!  Church should be a place where you go to feel good, not be told how rotten you are!”
Here’s the thing.  The Bible makes it clear that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).  And sin is not simply making mistakes or having simple shortcomings.  It is rebellion against God.  It is a hereditary condition, but one for which we cannot blame our fathers or mothers.  David wrote Psalm 51 after he was confronted with his adulterous affair with Bathsheba and his murderous plan to get her husband Uriah out of the way.  “I was brought forth in iniquity” … wickedness … “and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51:5).  Here he acknowledges his sinful condition that led to his sinful actions.  But he refuses to pass the blame onto his parents.  “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me,” David says (Ps. 51:3).  And then this: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Ps. 51:4).  Ultimately, no matter what we have done to hurt others, offend others, sin against others … in the end it is an offense and rebellion against God and his will and his ways.
And this may indeed make us miserable.  “My sin is ever before me.”  You can’t get it out of your head.  It haunts you.  It eats at you.  It keeps you awake at night.  It’s like Psalm 32, where David describes the results of unconfessed sin.  He says, “when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long … day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer” (Ps. 32:3-4).  Sometimes sin results in more than psychological effects.  Think of those who have become addicted to drugs or alcohol.  Think of those whose families have been destroyed because of infidelity.  Think of those who end up in jail or prison because of their sinful choices.  Sin may at first be enjoyable, but in the end it makes us miserable … wretchedly unhappy.
 But this is not what miserable means in the words of the confession.  Here the word miserable is related to the Latin version of Psalm 51:1 … “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love;  according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions” (Ps. 51:1).  The Latin of Psalm 51:1 uses forms of the word miserari several times.  It means “to pity.”  The original Hebrew uses several different words here that mean “to show favor” or “to have compassion.”  And why does God do this?  Because of his “steadfast love” and “abundant mercy.”  Here, the Hebrew words mean “grace, goodness, faithfulness,” and “love, sympathy, or compassion.”  I’m not a big fan of the old King James Version because it has so many words that people just don’t understand anymore, but I do love its translation here: “according to the multitude of your tender mercies.”  That’s such a wonderful description of God’s love for us sinners.
            So, to admit you are miserable is not to admit you are a worm, not to consider yourself a despicable person.  It’s simply to admit that because of your sinful condition, you are desperately in need of mercy, compassion, God’s grace.  You may not feel very miserable.  In fact, you may feel quite comfortable with your life at the moment.  Nevertheless, believe what God’s Word says about you.  Confess it.  “I am a poor, miserable sinner.”  Although you deserve his wrath, you desire his compassion.
            “I, a poor, miserable sinner.”  You are not a worm, but Jesus became a “worm” for you when he was crucified, cursed with the sin of the world, and suffered an agonizing death for you.  In fact, Psalm 22:6 puts these words in the mouth of the Suffering Servant as he hung upon the cross: “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people” (Ps. 22:6).  We pray this psalm at the end of every Maundy Thursday service as the altar is stripped as a reminder how Jesus was stripped bare and given over into the hands of his executioners.  We pray the words that Jesus prayed, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1).
But remember … Jesus was no helpless victim.  He was a willing participant.  He could have put a stop to all of it in a split second.  During his earthly ministry, he told the wind and the waves to “Be silent!”  He told unclean spirits to “Be quiet!”  At his arrest, he said, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send more than twelve legions of angels? … But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled” (Matt. 26:53, 56).  And in John 10, Jesus said, “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (Jn. 10:18).
Forgiveness is not free.  There is a price to be paid.  There has to be justice.  Jesus endured God’s justice over the sins of the world.  He suffered God’s wrath so that you and I can have God’s favor, grace, mercy, pity, compassion.  Jesus became poor and miserable for us so that you and I would have the riches of heaven and the tender mercies of God bestowed upon us.
            Therefore, in our confession of sin to the Lord, we can admit to being a “poor, miserable sinner” – one in need of his mercy – and say, “I pray you of your boundless mercy, and for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of Your beloved Son Jesus Christ, to be gracious and merciful to me, a poor sinful being.”
            And then, we hear those precious words of grace from the one called to be God’s mouthpiece of absolution for you, “I, by virtue of my office, as a called and ordained servant of the Word, announce the grace of God unto all of you, and in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
            And they ARE forgiven.  YOU are forgiven.  God no longer sees you as a poor, miserable sinner … but as a baptized, beloved, mercy-laden child of God.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Sermon for the Transfiguration of Our Lord (February 7, 2016)

The Transfiguration of Our Lord – Series C (February 7, 2016)
It’s Good for Us to Be Here” (Luke 9:28-36)

            “It is good for us to be here,” Peter said to his Master Jesus. Peter was right, but for the wrong reasons. He saw the glory of God there … the bright glory of Jesus’ divine nature shining through his human nature. Peter saw the glory of God, and wanted to hang on to it as long as possible … maybe even forever.
            “Let’s build three tents,” he said. “One for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Those tents he wanted to build were not mere shelters from the elements. He wanted to build “tabernacles” … places of worship, like the tabernacle God told the Israelites to build and where the ark of the covenant was placed.
            In all of the excitement, Peter sort of lost his head. St. Luke writes that he didn’t know what he was saying. Worship is reserved for Christ alone. That’s why in the end, that’s all they saw. Jesus stood alone. But first, as Moses and Elijah were leaving to go back to their place in heaven, “a cloud came and overshadowed them.” This is the sign of the presence of God, the glory of God on the mountain. This cloud brings to mind the other clouds of God’s presence … at Sinai, in the tabernacle, in the wilderness, and later when Jesus ascended into heaven. And the Father’s voice comes from the cloud, saying “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” “And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone.” It’s as if the Father was making the point that Moses and Elijah indeed were great prophets. But they and all the other prophets were preparatory to the coming of the Son of God.
            Why Moses and Elijah? Of all the Old Testament saints, why were they chosen to appear with Jesus? Did they all line up to volunteer? Did they all raise their hands, trying to get the Lord’s attention, crying out, “Pick me! Pick me!” I mean, Abraham would have been a fine choice. Why not Adam? Or what about David? Why these two?
            These two men were two of the greatest prophets in the history of Israel, yet eventually they had to hand the reins over to their successors. And the names of their successors point us to Jesus. Moses, the one through whom God’s Holy Law was given was succeeded by Joshua (or Yeshua as it is in Hebrew), whose name means “Yahweh saves.” Elijah, who ascended into heaven in a whirlwind, was succeeded by Elisha, whose name means “God saves.” And here they stand with the great and final successor of all the kings and priests and prophets of the Old Covenant … the one who fulfills all the promises and plans of the Old Testament … Jesus, the greater Joshua, the greater Elisha. Jesus is the Incarnate God who comes to save us from our sins. His name is also Yeshua, which (as you already heard) means “The Lord saves.”
And the Father says, “Listen to him! Listen to his words!” After all, the words of the prophets were nothing other than the words of the Son of God. The Son’s words are nothing other than the Father’s words. Jesus only speaks what was given to him to speak from his Father, as St. John records for us, “I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment – what to say and what to speak” (John 12:49).
So, it’s good for us to be here. And why are we here? Some of us may also be here for the wrong reasons. If we’re here to prove to others – maybe even to prove to God – how good we are by going to church, then we’re here for the wrong reason. If we’re here because we think that this is another thing to check off on our “Ways to Get to Heaven” list, then we’re here for the wrong reason.
If you’re here to confess your sins, then you’re here for the right reason. If you’re here to listen to the words of the Son of God – especially his word that he forgives your sins – then you’re here for the right reason. If you’re here to see God show up in a blaze of glory, you’ll be disappointed. But if you know that Christ’s glory is here, but hidden, then by faith you can rejoice. Before and after our Lord’s face was altered and his clothes dazzled in whiteness, his divine glory was hidden under human flesh there on the mountain … and wherever he walked. Now, here at the altar, Jesus is once again present with his disciples. The glory of his body and blood are hidden under bread and wine and given for you to eat and drink.
            This gathering on the mountain is also a preview of things to come. It’s a preview of the resurrection, this tableaux of Jesus and two departed saints. “Fulfiller of the past, And hope of things to be, We hail Thy body glorified And our redemption see” (LSB 414.3). One day we will see Jesus forever shining in glory, surrounded by angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. Reflect back on what we heard last week from 1 Corinthians 13, “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.”
            It’s good for us to be here to prepare for the cross. The Transfiguration prepared Jesus and the disciples for the cross and all that led up to it. Denial and betrayal. Suffering and death. Glory hidden under nakedness and bloody agony. Salvation and forgiveness earned by the once-for-all sacrifice of the Lamb of God. God loving us to the uttermost: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” The atoning sacrifice. The shed blood that covers our sins and declares us righteous … holy … not guilty … forgiven.
            But before all this, Moses and Elijah prepared Jesus by speaking of his “departure.” In the Greek, the word is “exodus.” Once again, we are pointed back to Moses who led the Israelites out of Egypt into a new life as God’s people. We are pointed back to Joshua, who led the Israelites through the waters of the Jordan and into the Promised Land. And Jesus is our New Testament Joshua, succeeding and far surpassing all the prophets. He is “counted worthy of more glory than Moses” not as a servant, but as a Son, as God in the flesh, the builder of the house of God (Heb. 3:1-6). Jesus passed through the Jordan for us in his Baptism, carried out his earthly ministry, and entered into his glory through his cross and Passion. And now, Jesus leads us through the waters of our Baptism and into the Promised Land of eternal life.
But first, the cross of suffering awaits us. “Tis good Lord to be here! Yet we may not remain; But since Thou bidst us leave the mount, Come with us to the plain” (LSB 414.5). Jesus had to go down the mountain to face the cross. He could not stay there, shining in glory. He had to finish his work. In the same way, we are not permitted to stay and bask in the glory. There are crosses that we must still bear in this world full of sinful brokenness and opposition to God and his Word and his Church. But as we sang, the risen and ascended Jesus is not absent from us as he rules and reigns from his heavenly throne. He comes with us to the plain. He is with us in our pain. He is right beside us as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
            Imagine the thoughts of the disciples as they endured suffering after Jesus ascended into heaven. Their memories of Jesus on the mount of Transfiguration – and later seeing Jesus risen from the tomb – certainly sustained them in their times of trial. In his second epistle, Peter wrote, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,’ we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain” (2 Peter 1:16-18). And then, in his first epistle, he writes to Christians who are facing persecution, and says this: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:3-7).
Jesus transfigured. Jesus risen from the dead. These are memories that Peter and the other disciples could remember and hang on to and be sustained by. These are truths that you and I can remember and hang on to and be sustained by … no matter what troubled times come our way.
The Transfiguration means that the season of Epiphany comes to a close. Lent begins this week. We say goodbye to Alleluia for a while. “Alleluia cannot always Be our song while here below; Alleluia, our transgressions Make us for a while forego; For the solemn time is coming When our tears for sins must flow” (LSB 417.3). Our worship is somewhat subdued during Lent. Although we certainly confess our sins often, both corporately and individually, during Lent we spend some extra time contemplating our sinfulness and the awesome price our Savior gave for our forgiveness. Then, in 40 days (plus the Sundays), we will be prepared for a proper Easter celebration. So even though Lent is a concentrated time of penitence, we look back with Peter and the other disciples to the Mount of Transfiguration … we look back with them to the day of Christ’s resurrection … and we look forward to the day of our own resurrection. “Therefore in our hymns we pray Thee, Grant us, blessed Trinity, At the last to keep Thine Easter With Thy faithful saints on high; There to Thee forever singing Alleluia joyfully” (LSB 417.4).
That’s why it’s good for us to be here.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany (January 31, 2016)

Epiphany 4 – Series C (January 31, 2016)
“A Still More Excellent Way” (1 Corinthians 12b-13:13)

Striving for excellence in all that we do is a good thing.  In Colossians 3, St. Paul writes, “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus … Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Col. 3:17, 23).  We don’t want to do things in a sloppy fashion, especially when it is done to God’s glory.  As we bear the name Christian, we want to uphold God’s name, God’s reputation, as people who do things heartily as for the Lord.
            As a pastor, that means striving for excellence in preaching, liturgy, pastoral care, and being sure that the doctrine I proclaim is true.  For each of us, that means in our parenting, in our school work, in our relationships, we are to be the best we can possibly be.  In the installation of our church officers last week, we heard from 1 Corinthians 15:58, “in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58).
On the other hand, the quest for excellence can be burdensome.  It can feel like you are in a pressure cooker.  The air around you presses down upon every square inch of your body.  It’s hard to breathe.  You feel like something is about to blow.  It is especially burdensome when you begin to believe that your status before God based on the quality of your performance.
Ted Engstrom, former president of Word Vision and Youth for Christ Internation wrote a book titled The Pursuit of Excellence.  Here’s the description from the back cover:
“He cuts a swath through mediocrity – ‘get angry at your own mediocrity’ – to promote a way of life that says ‘you don't have to be average.’ … Engstrom calls people to stretch themselves, to give up their small ambitions, and to pursue the path of excellence, using examples from Scripture to show how God's people down through the ages have followed this mandate. Each chapter includes workable steps for a strategy for excellence in every area of life.”[1]
Wow.  Does that sound like a book that might put you in that proverbial pressure cooker?  Another book was written a few years ago entitled Perfecting Ourselves to Death: The Pursuit of Excellence and the Perils of Perfectionism.  In this book, Christian counselor Richard Winter compares the positive desire to strive for excellence, while warning against “the seductive nature of perfectionism” that can lead to “debilitating thoughts and behaviors” such as eating disorders, anxiety and depression, fear of failure, and so forth.[2]
And yet here we have Paul today talking about “excellence.”  Our reading begins with these words, “I will show you a still more excellent way.”  He has been explaining that God has given spiritual gifts to each of us in the Church.  He has been illustrating this with the example of the way the body works together.  Likewise, the Body of Christ works together as God has arranged it.  With Christ as our head, with Christ at the center of all that we say and do, there is no dysfunction.  Even the smallest of tasks are important because they are all empowered by the same Spirit.
            But what can be more excellent than this?
            The “still more excellent way” is love.
You can do everything with excellence, but if you have no love, you are nothing more than a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  As a matter of fact, some of the Corinthians’ neighbors used cymbals in the worship of Dionysius, the god of wine.  Paul mentions gongs and cymbals here to suggest that the use of spiritual gifts without love makes the worship of the Corinthians no different than the pagans around them.[3]
You can say the truest things in the world, but if there is no love behind it, you sound like this [BANG CYMBAL].  You can prophesy.  You can understand all the mysteries of the universe, peering into the deep things of God.  You can move mountains with the strength of your faith.  You can live like a monk and die like a martyr.  But if you have no love, you are nothing.  If you have no love, you gain nothing.
The pastor can stand in the pulpit Sunday after Sunday.  He may be the most orthodox of theologians.  He may be the most eloquent of preachers.  But if he shows no care or concern for people, he sounds like this [BANG CYMBAL].  Some of the best advice I ever received came from the Rev. Walt Reese, interim pastor here at Messiah when I was called to be your pastor.  All he said was, “love these people.”  Not long after that, another pastor echoed that advice when he put his arm around my shoulder and said, “Love your people, love your people, love your people.”  I pray I’ve lived up to that to the best of my abilities, with the help of the Holy Spirit, of course.
Paul’s Spirit-inspired description of love is one of the most poetic and beautiful descriptions ever written.  It’s often used in wedding services, but it is about so much more than romantic love.  It is a description of the self-giving, self-sacrificing love that we are to have for all people.  Patient.  Kind.  Not envious or boastful.  Not arrogant or rude.  Not insisting on its own way.  Not irritable or resentful.  Does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  Bears all things.  Believes all things.  Hopes all things.  Endures all things.
So how are we doing?  Measured up to this standard, not so hot.  We can be impatient, unkind, envious and boastful.  We can be arrogant or rude at times, if not outwardly, certainly in our thoughts.  We can be very irritable and resentful when we don’t get our own way.  We may not rejoice at wrongdoing but we certainly revel over wrongdoers when they get their just deserts.  Of course, we want justice served.  But sometimes our brand of justice becomes revenge.  Someone wrongs us and hatred boils up in our hearts.  Maybe we even wish they would rot in hell.
We must repent of this.  We must instead see each person as someone for whom Christ Jesus also died to save, even as he died to save you and me.  We must repent of all the ways we have failed to love, and turn in faith and trust to the one who loved us in the most excellent way.
·         The One who spoke not in the tongues of men and angels, but with the very voice of God himself.
·         The One who has all prophetic powers to speak with authority to both demons and disease and to cast them out, and whose authoritative Word in his Church today still works to deliver from all evils of body and soul.
·         The One who truly does understand all the mysteries of the universe, because he created the universe.
·         The One who, when he walked and talked here on earth, lived in perfect faith and trust in his Heavenly Father.
·         The One who lived in poverty and delivered his body up to be crucified while bearing all the sins of the world upon himself.
Romans 5:8 says, “God shows his love for us in this, that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).  That’s the most excellent way in which you are loved.  Jesus is the One who did all this for you and for your salvation.  Forgiving you for your failure to love.  Forgiving you for all the ways you have sinned against his holy commandments.  Empowering you to love as he has loved you … self-giving, self-sacrificing.  “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
Jesus is love incarnate.  He is eternal.  He never ends.  And because Jesus never ends, that means love never ends.
And yet we still ask this question:  “I know Jesus loves me today, but will he love me tomorrow?  What if I sin tomorrow?  I probably will.  I’m so weak.”  Yes, of course, Jesus will love you tomorrow.  His love never ends.  His forgiveness never ends.  His work on the cross was effective for you yesterday and will be effective for you always.  He loves you the same yesterday, today, and forever.
Paul says that one day prophecies will pass away, tongues will cease, knowledge will pass away.  These are all things that were present in the first century early church in miraculous ways.  Some were given the gifts of prophecy, speaking in other languages, and special words of wisdom.  Those gifts seem to have faded away after the apostolic age, especially after all the books of the New Testament were written and God’s written revelation was complete.  Paul probably mentions this in conjunction with the problem in the Corinthian congregation, that is, people with more spectacular spiritual gifts pridefully considered themselves better than others.  It’s like two children arguing in the playground over silly little things:  “My backpack is cooler than yours” … “I have more pencils than you” … “My dad can beat up your dad” … “I can throw this rock farther than you” … Neener neener.  Paul says there comes a time to give up those childish ways.  That’s why he had to remind his hearers that the same Spirit gives gifts to each member of the Body of Christ to work in coordination with each other and to edify the Church … no one gift is better than another.
And as he says immediately before our text today, “eagerly desire the higher gifts.”  What are those gifts?  I assume he is referring to the gifts of faith, hope, and love.
Faith is trust in God’s promises.  There will come a day when faith will no longer be necessary.  All of God’s promises will be fulfilled.  We will see him face to face.
Hope is confidence that God will keep his promises.  There will come a day when hope will no longer be necessary.  We will see with our own eyes the fulfilment of all those promises.
Love is putting the needs of others before yourself, willfully acting on behalf of others, showing genuine care and concern for their well-being.  Every need of every baptized believer will finally be met in the resurrection on the Last Day.  But the love of God that binds us all together will never cease.  In eternity, there will never be a moment when love is not necessary, for God’s chief attribute is love.  God will love you forever.  We will love each other forever.  And that is why of faith, hope, and love … the greatest of these is love.
It truly is the more excellent way.  God help us to be excellent in this way.

[3] Barry, J. D., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Mangum, D., & Whitehead, M. M. (2012). Faithlife Study Bible (1 Co 13:1). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany (January 17, 2016)

Epiphany 2 – Series C (January 17, 2016)

“New Names” (Isaiah 62:1-5)

“You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate, but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married.”  In the original Hebrew, Forsaken is “Azubah,” Desolate is “Shamamah,” My Delight Is in Her is “Hephzibah,” and Married is “Beulah.”

Azubah.  Shamamah.  Hephzibah.  Beulah.  Those are some unusual names, names we don’t hear much anymore.  I doubt if you’ve heard anyone named by the first two, but perhaps you’ve heard of the last two.  Those remind me of names that a southern belle may have been called during the Civil War.

There is a small town named Hephzibah in Georgia.  Hepzibah Pyncheon is a chief character in the 1850 novel “The House of the Seven Gables” by Nathaniel Hawthorne.  And while doing a bit of research, I learned that in the Marvel comic book series “The X-Men” there is an alien by the name of Hephzibah.

Some of you who have been on this earth for a while may remember a radio and later a TV show called “The Beulah Show” featuring an African American maid named Beulah.  There was also a famous gospel hymn written in the late 1800’s titled “Beulah Land” which refers to heaven.

Two of those names are used in improbable ways in the Bible.  The mother of good king Jehoshaphat was named “Azubah” … “Desolate” (1 Kings 22:42); while the mother of evil king Manasseh (if not the most evil of all the kings of Judah) is the one named “Hephzibah” … “My delight is in her” (2 Kings 21:1).  Doesn’t seem fair that those particular queen mothers received those specific names considering how each of their sons turned out.

Azubah … Forsaken.  This is what the people of Judah and Jerusalem would be known as.  Shamamah … Desolate.  This is what their land would be called.

Forsaken.  Desolate.  That’s quite a reputation.  In using these names, Isaiah is telling the people what would soon happen to them.  Because of their unfaithfulness to the Lord, they would be taken away into captivity.  In those days, since it was thought that the gods had control over certain lands and territories, it would appear as if the God of the Israelites had forsaken them.  They were no longer in their own land.  Not only that, their land would appear to be Desolate.  God had abandoned them.  Their homes were left empty.  Their fields and vineyards abandoned.  God’s House, the Temple, was destroyed.

            How would you like to be known by these names?  How would you like that to be your reputation?  Forsaken.  Desolate.  This is certainly what we deserve.  We deserve to be forsaken every time we forsake God’s commandments.  Like the Israelites, we commit spiritual adultery every time we flirt with the gods we set up in our life other than the Triune God … wealth, relationships, success, our job, sports, anything that we make to be more of a priority than our relationship to God.

Our life sometimes seems like a desolate wasteland.  We look for all kinds of things to fill our lives with love and joy.  Many of them leave us feeling empty.  They don’t last.  They don’t truly fulfill us.  Trouble and temptation overwhelm us.  We recognize the sin in our life, and we feel far away from God and his love.  Instead of a burning torch of salvation, we feel as if our heart is a smoldering wick, maybe already a pile of ashes.   

            The Lord promised restoration to his people, to bring them back from their captivity.  He kept that promise.  And his promised restoration pointed to the day when he would deliver the world from its captivity to sin in the death and resurrection of the Only-begotten Son of God.  Those new names apply to all who receive his forgiveness and salvation by faith.  

            Hephzibah … My Delight Is in Her.  Beulah … Married.  God joins himself to his people as a bridegroom marries his bride.  It’s a relationship of love, commitment, tender care, and sacrifice.  Jesus seeks you out in your forsakenness, your desolation.  He embodies divine love, in particular in the way in which he showed his love … by his willingness to die for you.  That’s love.  That’s commitment.  He wore a crown of thorns so that you are can wear a crown of beauty, a royal diadem.  The crown that you wear is the righteousness of Christ, the brightness of God’s love and saving grace for you.  The glory that is upon you is the glory of the cross, the glory of God’s forgiveness.

In Holy Baptism, you take the name of Jesus, the Bridegroom of the Church.  He is present with you.  The Holy Spirit fills you with the life and love of God.  The name of the Triune God is placed upon you and you are given the new name of “Christian.”  You become a member of the Church, the Bride of Christ.  And “as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.”

It’s probably no coincidence that Jesus’ first recorded miracle took place at a wedding.  Among other things, this signifies his affirmation of marriage, and his blessing and presence in marriages.  And because his Church is his eternal Bride, it can also remind us of his presence for those of you who have lost your spouse, whether through death or divorce.  It can remind us of his presence for those of you who have never been married.

But there’s more to it.  This was not just a miracle for the sake of showing off.  It was not only to prove his deity … which it does of course.  John says that this was “the first of his signs.”  Jesus did miracles as signs.  They were meant to point to something of significance about himself.  And what was this “sign”?  He turned water into wine.  This is a sign that he is the promised Messiah.  The prophets foretold that there would be wine aplenty in the Messianic age:

·        On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined” (Is. 25:6).

·       “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Is. 55:1).

·       “The threshing floors shall be full of grain; the vats shall overflow with wine and oil” (Joel 2:24).

·       “And in that day the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and the hills shall flow with milk, and all the streambeds of Judah shall flow with water; and a fountain shall come forth from the house of the Lord” (Joel 3:18).

In this world on this side of the veil, there are times when you will still feel like an Azubah … forsaken.  This is especially true for those who have been victims of abuse or adultery.  There are times when you may feel like a Shemamah … desolate.  This is especially true for those who are lonely, for those who have been the victims of unrequited love.  This may also be true even in good marriages.  Let’s face it.  Even the best of relationships go through times of difficulty.  When you put two sinners together, there’s going to be conflict.

Remember that in Christ Jesus, you have a new name.  Hephzibah … My Delight is in her.  God delights in you.  Beulah … Married.  As a member of the Holy Christian Church by baptism and by faith, you are a part of the Bride of Christ.  Remember what a mystery this is.  Not a mystery in the sense that we can’t figure out what it means.  A mystery in the sense that only God can reveal its meaning to us.  This is how he revealed it through the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, chapter 5:

“Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, for we are members of his body.  Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:25-32).

Christ Jesus loves you.  He gave himself up for you.  You are made holy and cleansed.  You are a member of his body.  He holds fast to you.  He promises to never let you go.  Come to his table today where he nourishes you, not with water turned to wine, but bread and wine wherein he gives you his very own body and blood.  Celebrate today at this wedding feast, a foretaste of the feast to come where you will be presented to himself in splendor and glory … because just as at that feast in Cana, he has saved the best for last.


Friday, January 15, 2016

Sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord (January 10, 2016)

The Baptism of Our Lord – Series C (January 10, 2016)

“God’s Great Interruption” (Isaiah 43:1-7)

            “But now.”  Those are the first two words of our Old Testament reading today.  It’s always awkward when a reading begins like that.  We want to know what came before.  What’s the reason for this “But now”?  This “But now” introduces to us God’s great interruption in the history of the people of Israel, and it will lead us to consider God’s great interruption in world history in the Baptism of our Lord.  And then, we’ll see how God interrupts our lives in the waters of Holy Baptism.

            At the end of chapter 42, Isaiah foresees the way in which Israel would be plundered by the nations because of their unfaithfulness to God and his Word.  They would be swept away and taken off into exile far away from their homeland.  Then comes God’s great interruption.  “But now…”  Although Israel has been disobedient, Yahweh will rescue them.  Although they were scattered to the nations, he will gather them.  Isaiah foretells the day when Israel, God’s elect people, will be brought back from exile.  They were created and formed by God, created for his glory … created for him to display his saving grace among them.  Therefore, there is no need to fear.  Yahweh assures them, “I have redeemed you.  I have called you by name.  You are mine.  I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.  You are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you.

            The Lord also promises to be with them in their watery and fiery trials. They passed through the waters of the Red Sea on their way out of Egypt.  They crossed the waters of the Jordan River on their way to conquer Canaan.  During their stay in Babylon, three of their own would be delivered from the flames of Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace.  Ultimately, through repentant trust in God’s promises, they would be delivered from the fire of God’s wrath.

Still, a great is price necessary to rescue them from their sinful disobedience.  “I give Egypt as your ransom, Cush and Seba in exchange for you,” says the Lord.  “I give men in return for you, peoples in exchange for your life.”  Although the people of Israel deserved to die because of their sins, God continued to care for them and rescue them, in particular by involving himself in the history of other nations, especially those who have afflicted his people.  Egypt was nearby.  Cush and Seba were farther away.  All this to say that God will go to any length in order to save and deliver his people.

And that is exactly what he did in the Incarnation.  God himself became Man.  This was God’s great interruption in the life of the world … or should I say the death of the world, for this is a dying world which he entered to give life.

But until his Baptism, Jesus lived in relative obscurity.  Another great interruption occurred when he was baptized by John.

            The people were wondering if John was the Christ.  He replied that one mightier than he is coming, one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  Yet when Jesus arrives at the Jordan, he does not baptize.  Instead, he receives baptism by John.  He does not give the Holy Spirit (that came later), but the Holy Spirit descends upon him.  This was the public manifestation – an “Epiphany” – that Jesus is God’s chosen One, precious in his Father’s eyes, honored, and beloved.  “Behold, my servant whom I uphold, my chosen in whom my soul delights” (Is 42:1a; Introit).  “You are my Son, today I have begotten you” (Ps. 2:7).  “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22).

The baptism of Jesus was God’s great interruption in a long line of sinners.  All the people of Israel from days of old.  All the people lined up to be baptized by John.  “But now” the sinless Son of God shows up and cuts in line.  He goes to the head of the line.  Here to begin his public ministry.  Here to pass through the waters for us, to bear the sin of the world all the way to the cross.  Here to face the fiery judgment of God’s wrath as our substitute.  Although each of us deserves to die because of our sins, Jesus received our punishment.  One man was given in return for us, the Son of God in exchange for our life.

Jesus goes forth from the waters and begins to gather a new people.  Instead of 12 tribes, he calls 12 disciples.  He commissions them and sends them out to baptize and teach.  He gathers in a new people to be the Church, to gather in all who are far from God and bring them near to him in faith and forgiveness.  And he sends the Church into the world to carry the apostolic message, to baptize and teach and gather in all whom the Lord will call to faith, everyone who is called by his name, those created for his glory … those among whom he will display his saving grace … that’s you!

Baptism is the great “But now” in your life.  You and I were disobedient like the people of Israel.  We were outside of God’s promises, scattered, far away from God’s love and promises.  “By nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind,” is the way Paul describes us in Ephesians 2 (Eph. 2:3).  “But now” … in water and the Word … God interrupts our sinful, selfish existence.  He washes away our sin, adopts into his family, chooses us in connection with Christ.  He calls you by name.  Your name takes on new significance when you are named at the font.  It becomes your “Christian” name.  And the Lord calls you by HIS own name.  The name of the Triune God is placed upon you as you are baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  You were in the devil’s kingdom, apart from the life and the love of God.  “But now” you belong to the one true God, a member of his kingdom, joined to his eternal life and everlasting love.

            Recreated, reformed, redeemed, when you pass through your own watery and fiery trials, you do not need to fear.  God is with you.  He joined himself to you in the waters of Baptism.  Jesus endured your fiery trial at the cross.  The flames of hell will not consume you.

            And the refining fire of the Holy Spirit is upon you.  You are no longer living in sin, but walking in newness of life.  Your old sinful self was crucified with Christ.  The body of sin that still clings to you has been brought to nothing.  Oh, sure, it seems like something.  We fight it all the time.  You know all about that battle.  But as God’s baptized child, your sinful nature is not the ruling factor in your life.  The Holy Spirit is.  The new spiritual life that he gives you in Word and Water has the upper hand.  That’s why you know you need to be here often, to confess your sins, to receive the forgiveness of sins that God offers to you, to eat and drink the Body and Blood of Jesus for the forgiveness of all your sins.

            So acknowledge who you are.  Confess who you are.  Remember your baptism, just like we did a few moments ago in our service.  “Consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”  That is your condition!  That is what you are!  And the Lord’s words through Isaiah are for you, too.  “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.  For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior … you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you.”