Sunday, November 19, 2017

Sermon for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost (November 19, 2017)

Pentecost 24 – Series A – Proper 28 (November 19, 2017)
"Trust in the Character of Your Master and the Power of His Talents" (Matthew 25:14-30)

INI
These last few Sundays of the Church Year we consider the End Times, the Final Judgment, and the glorious visible return of our Lord Jesus.
Last week we heard the Parable of the Ten Virgins.  That parable teaches us that we should be ready for the return of Jesus, because it could be at any moment … and probably when we least expect it.
This week we hear the Parable of the Talents.  This parable answers for us the question, “What should we do until Jesus returns?”  You might assume the answer is “Get to work.  Don’t just sit there and wait for Jesus.  Do something in his service.”  But there’s certainly more to it than that.  We learn here that we can trust the character of our Master, and that we can trust in the power of his gifts to bring a return.
The Master in the parable is Jesus himself.  The journey he has taken is his Ascension into heaven.  We are his servants, those who have been entrusted with creation and are expected to be good stewards of all that God has given us.  And he distributes talents.  “Talents on loan from God,” to paraphrase a famous radio talk show host.  He places things of value in your hands.
Now, in the parable, a talent is a measure of weight. In today’s currency, one talent of silver would be equal to about $16,500.  One talent of gold would be worth $1.25 million.  So, the fact that the master gives his servants five, two, and one talents each is a pretty big deal.  We’re talking a small fortune.
The idea of “talents” as special abilities is derived from this parable.  The gifts and abilities that we have can be either natural or honed by hard work … sometimes both.  Either way, we should still consider them as gifts from God.  And God wants us to use them in his service.
Talents are distributed “to each according to his ability.”  Everyone has different gifts, different skills, different abilities.  God gives talents even to those who do not believe in him.  God uses everyone in their various vocations to serve their neighbor.  And it’s important to remember the words of Isaiah the prophet: “But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand” (Is. 64:8).  And St. Paul writes in Romans 9, “Will what is molded say to its maker, ‘Why have you made me like this?’” (Rom. 9:20).  Our temptation is to always compare ourselves to others … and be envious.  And let’s be honest … there are some people that simply seem to be loaded with talent and who shine beyond the rest of the crowd.  Yet so many others live in quiet obscurity with few talents.  But that doesn’t mean that they are any less valuable to God.  We have no right to question “why that person seems to be more gifted than me.”  God will use you exactly as he wants to use you in his time and in his wisdom.  The tender care and compassion of a mother at home is just as important as the shrewd business leader who knows how to make millions of dollars and provide jobs for hundreds of people so they can make a decent living and provide for their families.
Before Martin Luther was hidden at the Wartburg Castle after the Diet of Worms labelled him an outlaw, there was another famous resident of the castle whom we commemorate today, Elizabeth of Hungary.  You might say her talent was “hospitality” in the way she welcomed and cared for people mired in poverty or disease.  Elizabeth was born in 1207 in Hungary and was betrothed at the age of four to Ludwig, the son of a German nobleman. From that point on, she was taken to the Wartburg Castle and raised with her future husband.  They were married in 1221 and Elizabeth soon displayed her talents for caring for others in the name of Jesus.  She founded two hospitals, one at the foot of the steep rock where the Wartburg was built, regularly tending to the patients herself and giving money for the care of children, especially orphans left without parents due to the plagues that ravaged the land in those days.  When she was 20, her husband Ludwig died of the plague while on a journey to join a crusade.  Her husband’s brother treated her poorly, forcing her to send away her three children.  Elizabeth made arrangements for the care of her young children, left the castle, and lived as a nun in Marburg where she continued to serve in a hospice for the sick, the aging, and the poor.  Four years later, she herself died of ill health but her memory lives on in the names of numerous hospitals around the world named after her where many people use their various gifts and talents in service to the sick and the dying.
Trust in the character of your Master, your God who distributes talents.  Don’t assume he is a “hard man” as the third servant did.  “I knew you to be a hard man,” he said to his master, who seemed to be insulted that the servant thought this way about him.  He assumed the master was judgmental.  He was afraid of him.  He dug up the talent he had buried and said, “Here you have what is yours” … sounds rather defiant, don’t you think?  And the master calls him “wicked” and “slothful.”  Wicked because he didn’t trust in the master’s good intentions.  Slothful because apparently he was afraid of failure so he didn’t even try to succeed.
Is this the way you see God?  As a “hard man”?  Judgmental.  Vengeful.  Are you afraid of him?  Or do you see him as a God who is complacent?  As a God who doesn’t care one way or the other what we do while we wait for Jesus to return, and therefore you have grown complacent?  Do you think that what you do while you wait – either good or bad – does not matter?  That’s what some of the people in Zephaniah’s day were saying.  Zephaniah prophesied the coming destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, the Day of the Lord that would be a small version of the great and final Day of the Lord.  The Lord said through the prophet, “I will punish the men who are complacent, those who say in their hearts, ‘The Lord will not do good, nor will he do ill’” (Zeph. 1:12).
If that’s the way you see God … as judgmental and vengeful … then that is exactly what he will be for you.  You will bring judgment upon yourself, if that is the case.  And the day when Jesus returns will then certainly be for you “A day of wrath … a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and destruction, a day of darkness and gloom” as the prophet Zephaniah declared (Zeph. 1:15).
Instead, trust in the character of your Master as he has revealed himself to you in Christ Jesus.  Trust in his giving nature.  He is not a complacent God.  He cared enough to act on your behalf to save you.  God the Father gave his Son to die for you.  Jesus willingly gave his life for you.  Your sins have been judged at the cross … your sins of slothfulness, laziness, your sins of not using your talents in God’s service, your sins of withholding your gold and silver from the Lord in your offerings.  Your Master forgives you.  He is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps. 103:8).  That’s David in Psalm 103.  Now hear St. Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5: “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him” (1 Thess 5:9-10).
Trust in the character of your Master.  And trust in the power of his gifts to bring a return ... to achieve something in God's kingdom, to be of service to your neighbor.  You had nothing to begin with.  God distributes gifts and talents and abilities according to his will.  Some come naturally.  Others need to be honed, practiced, even with sweat and tears.  But all are from his creative hands, his hands that are working behind the scenes in all that we do.
            So don’t hide away your talents.  Invest them.  Put them to use in God’s kingdom … the money that you have … the abilities you have … and your greatest talent … your greatest gift … the Good News of Jesus.  The Good News that Jesus is the Savior of the world, that he died to forgive our sins, rose in victory over death, and will return to share his victory with us when he raises us on the Last Day.  Don’t bury that news or hide it away.  It pays eternal dividends.
Today’s Gospel ends on a tragic note.  “Cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness.  In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  It’s one of those texts that is read and the congregation awkwardly responds, “This is the Gospel of the Lord.”  Some dude getting cast into outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth doesn’t sound all that “Gospelly.”  But it is a reminder to us that for “the one who has not,” that is, the one who has no faith in the Master or the power of his gifts, everything will be taken away from him.  There will be only eternal darkness, weeping, and gnashing of teeth.  The isolation and sadness and pain of being separated from God and his love forever is not something to be taken lightly.
But “to everyone who has,” that is, to everyone who has faith in the Master and the power of his gifts to work for his Kingdom, there will be an abundance of eternal light, laughter, and lips that laud the Lamb of God around his throne.  For those who trust in Christ, they will be welcomed with those blessed words, “Well done, good and faithful servant … Enter into the joy of your master.”
INI

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Sermon for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost (November 12, 2017)

Pentecost 23 – Series A – Proper 27 (November 12, 2017)
“Check Your Oil” (Matthew 25:1-13)

            Do you remember the days when you could easily tune up the engine in your automobile?  This was before they started putting all kinds of complicated computer gadgets in our cars.  Nowadays, I don’t dare touch anything under the hood for fear of voiding my warranty.  Having said that, both our cars now remind us when it’s time to change the oil.  A polite little reminder appears on the dashboard display, “Time to change your oil,” or something along those lines.  Previously, you had to periodically pop open the hood, pull out the dipstick, and check the oil level and the color of the oil.  If the oil level was too low, you needed to add some.  Checking your oil was extremely important.  Running out of oil would be disastrous.  Your engine will seize up and will probably be damaged beyond repair.
            Running out of oil was disastrous for five of the women in today’s Gospel reading.  Not motor oil.  They ran out of oil for their lamps.  They were part of a wedding party for a friend of theirs.  It was their job to wait for the groom to arrive.  Then, they would travel to get the bride at her home.  There, the bride would be lifted up on a litter and be carried in a festive procession after sunset to the place of the wedding feast.
            They had one problem.  They were unprepared.  They did not expect the groom to be so long in coming.  They all got drowsy and fell asleep.  Their lamps burned and burned and burned while waiting for the groom who, for some reason, was delayed.  But they forgot to bring along flasks in which to carry extra oil to keep feeding their flames.  At midnight, they were roused from their sleep.  The groom was on his way.  Line up.  Pick up your torches.  Go out to meet him as he approaches.  But the flames of those foolish females were fizzling out.  They asked the wise women for some of their extra oil, but were refused.  There would not be enough for everyone.  The only option would be for the foolish ones to go find an oil dealer and buy some for themselves.  But would there even be anyone open for business at this time of night?
            While they were gone to find more oil, the bridegroom arrived.  The wise women who were well-prepared went with the groom and into the home where the wedding feast was being held.  Some time later, the other women returned, but it was too late.  The door was shut.  They could not enter.  Now, you’d think to yourself that this would be no big deal.  Let them in, right?  So they were unprepared.  What’s the big deal?  I mean, after all, the original intent was for them to be in the wedding festivities, right?  They went with the bride to her bachelorette party (if they had those in those days, which I doubt), they bought their dresses at the Jerusalem Nordstrom’s, went to the wedding rehearsal, got their hair all gussied up at the salon ... they did all they were supposed to do ... except make sure that they had enough oil.  But their being unprepared to take part in the procession must have terribly offended the groom ... so much so that when the women called out, “Lord, lord, open to us,” he acted as if he didn’t even know them.  How devastating.  How disastrous.  They should have checked their oil.
            Our Lord Jesus ends this parable with this solemn warning, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”  This whole section of Matthew’s Gospel deals with Christ’s return on the Last Day and the Final Judgment.  Jesus wants us to watch for his return.  He wants us to be prepared, because he has not given us the exact time or date on which he will be coming back.  But we know from other parts of Scripture, such as today’s Epistle reading from 1 Thessalonians 4, that our Lord’s Second Coming will be sudden and it will be very public: “The Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God.” (1 Thess. 4:16)
            So have you checked your oil?  In the Bible, anointing with oil sometimes signified being filled with the Holy Spirit.  God continually pours his gifts into our hearts and fill us up through the means of grace ... Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, Absolution, the Word of the Gospel.  You might call them the “funnels” through which God pours his Holy Spirit into our hearts.  He fills us with faith in Christ.  He anoints us with grace and favor.  He lavishes us with forgiveness now and the guarantee of salvation in the life to come.
So how’s your oil?  Are you making use of God’s means of grace so that your lamp of faith will be full when Jesus, the Bridegroom, returns, and the eternal wedding feast begins?  Or will you have to make a last ditch effort to get filled up when it looks as if he’s on his way?  If so, then it will be too late.  You cannot rely on the faith of others to get you into the banquet hall.  Not your parents.  Not your grandparents.  Not your casual acquaintance with other members of the church.  Not your name on the membership roll.  And if you try to get filled up at the last minute, it will be too late.  The doors will be shut.  And no matter how much you cry out, “Lord, Lord” .... the Bridegroom will act as if he never knew you.
But even when our lamps are filled – even those of us who have been anointed with the Holy Spirit in Baptism, those of us who have been given the gift of faith in Christ – sometimes we get lazy and complacent.  We get sleepy like the women in the parable.  The Bridegroom is delayed.  It’s late.  It’s been over 2,000 years.  I’m tired.  Maybe I can just rest a little, not be so concerned with the way I live, the things I do and say, not make such a big deal out of being a Christian.  I’ll have time to shape myself up before Jesus comes back again.  But will you have time?  The trumpet call could sound at any moment.  I’m afraid that much of the Church today has fallen asleep.  Instead of listening for the trumpet call of God, the Church has listened to the siren song of accommodation and compromise.  We often live just as the rest of the unbelieving world lives.  You’d be hard pressed to see any difference in the way some Christians live compared to unbelievers.  We are afraid to boldly proclaim Christ as the only way to heaven.  We hesistate to affirm the biblical model of marriage in a culture that no longer fully accepts it.  We are more worried about taxes and health care than the health of our souls.  We often act as if we really don’t trust God to take care of us.
Whether we have drifted off to sleep, or whether we have failed to be faithful in our use of Word and Sacrament so that God can “top us off” with the oil of the Holy Spirit and faith ... either way, we must repent.  We must repent and turn to our Savior who never grew lazy or complacent as he lived here under the Law, totally obedient to God the Father’s will, always watchful for ways to help and heal and give hope to those in need.  In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus told the disciples who were with him to stay awake, to watch and pray.  They didn’t.  They fell asleep.  But Jesus stayed awake, praying in preparation for his impending passion.  He was arrested and forced to stay awake all night long, dragged between Caiaphas and the Council and Pilate, beaten and mocked and finally nailed to the cross.  And there at the cross, Jesus faced the judgment that you and I deserve.  With the weight of the world’s sin upon him, Jesus suffered God’s wrath over sin in our place.  Having finished his work, he finally was able to “sleep” ... not in a soft, cozy bed, but in a rock-hewn tomb.  But three days later, he woke from the sleep of death, publicly declaring his victory over sin, death, and the devil.  After visibly appearing to his followers for forty days, he then ascended into heaven to take his place at the right hand of the Father, with all rule and authority over all creation.  He removed his visible presence from us, but that does not mean he is no longer present.  Remember how he promised, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).  Jesus is with us even now.  Jesus will be with us today as he gives us his Body and Blood.  But one day he will come again in glory, every eye will see him (Rev. 1:6), and he will judge the world with justice and righteousness.
Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, our sins are forgiven.  When we hear this Good News, and as we pass through the waters of Holy Baptism, you and I are awakened from our slumber of spiritual death and given new life.  Now, we can be watchful and ready for the end of the age.  We don’t need to fear the final judgment, because Jesus has been judged in our place.  The just and righteous demands of God’s Law were met for us in Christ.  And when the end of the age is finally here – whenever that day may be, whether tomorrow or next week or next year or perhaps even before my sermon is finished – when Jesus returns on the Last Day, and that great eternal marriage feast begins, the doors will not be shut to us.  Our lamps will be burning brightly, but not because you and I have earned the oil or were able to purchase it with our good works.  No, our lamps will be burning brightly because God has graciously given us an ample supply in Word and Sacrament.  And we, the Church – the Bride of Christ – will meet our Bridegroom who is coming in the clouds.  “The dead in Christ will rise first.  Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.  Therefore, encourage one another with these words.” (1 Thess. 4:17)
And always remember to check your oil.

INI

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Sermon for All Saints' Day (observed)

All Saint’s Day (observed) (November 5, 2017)
“On the Way to Zion” (Psalm 84:5)

INI
In the past, pilgrimages were popular among Christians.  People would travel to the Holy Land, if it was feasible.  Closer to home was Rome … the burial place of Saints Peter and Paul, the seat of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope.  Another popular destination in Western Europe was the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain.  Travelers would walk hundreds of miles on the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of Saint James, ending up at the cathedral which supposedly contains the remains of St. James … the apostle who was one of the sons of Zebedee and was the first of Jesus’ disciples to be martyred.
The expectation was that some spiritual benefit would come from taking a long journey to a holy place.  You could earn time off your lengthy stay in purgatory, according to the teaching of the church of the Middle Ages.  You could also do it for your dead relatives in purgatory, praying for them along the way and helping them to reach heaven, thereby being able to give thanks for them on All Saints’ Day along with all the rest of the saints who finally made it to heaven.  But let’s set aside any misconceptions about earning heavenly travel rewards points and putting coins in the coffer to spring people from an intermediate state of existence that does not exist.  Purgatory is not a Biblical concept.
That’s not to say that taking a pilgrimage is a bad thing.  It may indeed end up being a faith-building experience.  For example, people still like to go on pilgrimages to places like Israel to see the places where Jesus walked and talked and to help make the Bible stories they have heard come alive in a new and fresh way.
            As you head out on a pilgrimage, you need to make sure you have strength for the journey.  It doesn’t pay to head out, only to stop half way there because you are exhausted or your resources ran out.  Plus, you need to make sure you are travelling in the right direction.  A slight deviation from your course in the beginning will lead you far away from your hoped-for destination many miles down the road.
The psalmist had the pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem in mind when he sang, “Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.”  Their strength comes from the Lord because their hearts are set on the highways to Zion.  They know exactly where they are headed.  They are headed in the right direction.  They are on their way to Zion.
            Zion, you may remember, is the name of the hill where King David built his house.  Later, David’s son Solomon built the temple on an adjacent hill.  The name Zion soon became synonymous for the whole temple complex and for the city of Jerusalem itself.  Jerusalem was the Holy City because it’s where the temple stands.  It was the Holy City because it was the sanctuary of Yahweh.  Within the temple was the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies where Yahweh promised his very real and gracious presence would dwell for the people.  And so, the psalmist could also sing the words at the beginning of Psalm 84, “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!  My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.”  The pilgrim traveler gets more and more ecstatic as he walks along the highway that leads to Zion, to the Holy City, to the place of God’s gracious presence.
            But Zion is not only used for an earthly locale.  The pilgrim traveler on the way to Zion looks far forward.  He looks beyond the veil that keeps us from seeing heavenly realities.  The veil is lifted for us in Holy Scripture where God pulls back the curtain and gives us a glimpse of eternity.  We hear in Psalm 50:2, “Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth” (Ps. 50:2).  And in the Revelation to St. John, chapter 14, we hear this: “Then I looked, and behold, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads” (Rev. 14:1).  This is a picture of the saints in heaven in the presence of Jesus, the Lamb of God, who was slain for the sins of the world.  144,000 is not a literal number, remember, but symbolic of the total number of believers.  It’s more than just 144,000.  It’s more like the countless number of stars that God showed to Abraham and told him, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them … So shall your offspring be.”  And Moses then states, “And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:5-6).  Like the number of stars in the sky, so will be the number of those who are counted as sons of Abraham, righteous by faith, both Jew and Gentile alike.  And one of those stars that Abraham saw so many years ago was lit for you, dear baptized Christian.  You are righteous by faith in Christ.  You are a child of Abraham.  You were on the mind of the Lord all the way back then.
So, Zion also signifies for us the place of God’s presence apart from sin and temptation and danger and death.  It is the place where the departed saints dwell, “those who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” … that is to say, those who know and believe that the shed blood of Christ at the cross has washed away the stain of sin which they bore.  They are the ones coming out of the great tribulation … this current existence where we experience suffering, sickness, opposition, and persecution, this current existence where all creation groans waiting to be released “from its bondage to corruption” and is waiting to “obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21).
But these are not the only ways in which the name “Zion” is used.  Zion is also used as a term for the Church.  First, listen to some hymn stanzas that sing about it this way:
·       “Savior, since of Zion’s city, I through grace a member am, Let the world deride or pity; I will glory in Your name” (LSB 648, stanza 4).
·       “Preserve, O Lord, your Zion, Bought dearly with Your blood; Protect what You have chosen Against the hellish flood” (LSB 658, stanza 3).
·       In today’s sermon hymn: “We, where no trouble distraction can bring, Safely the anthems of Zion shall sing” (LSB 675, stanza 3).
·       And lastly, “Hark! The songs of peaceful Zion Thunder like a mighty flood: ‘Jesus out of ev’ry nation Has redeemed us by His Blood” (LSB 821, stanza 1).
You see how in those stanzas, the name “Zion” refers to the Church.  Also, in Hebrews 12, the author writes about the fearful sight of Mount Sinai, then says, “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to the innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Heb. 12:22-24).  This doesn’t sound like a place … like a mountain … like a city.  It sounds like a description of the Church … both those who are in heaven already awaiting the day of resurrection, and those who are still here on earth, cheered on by that great “cloud of witnesses” whose journey is finished while we continue our pilgrimage (Heb. 12:1).
You see, you don’t need to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to feel any closer to God.  Besides, the temple is no longer there.  That was knocked down by the Romans in 70 AD.  And even when the temple still stood, it had been replaced in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth.  So you can take a little mini-pilgrimage every Lord’s Day and whenever the people of Zion gather together for the Divine Service where in the Divine Supper Jesus is present with his Body and Blood.  This is the sanctuary of Yahweh.  This is where you experience his gracious presence in the most profound way.  This is your Holy Land right here.  This is your Zion.
“Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.”  Sometimes the things that life throws at you make it hard to carry on.  You want to pull off the highway.  Set up camp and forget about the rest of the journey.  It’s not only our bodies that get weary in this pilgrim existence.  Our souls do, too.
            What is your heart set on today?  Are you only looking forward to receiving good things in this life?  What happens when you don’t receive those things you were expecting?  “Hope deferred makes the heart sick,” says the wise teacher in Proverbs 13:12.  Is your heart pointed in the right direction, or have you already gotten far off course, not even considering your eternal destination?
If this is true of you (and it’s certainly true of each of us at times), then it’s time for some encouragement and a course direction.  “Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.”  Those connected to Christ Jesus in baptism and by faith are blessed, even though their journey is not yet complete.  They are blessed … utterly happy and joyful and fulfilled, like those whom Jesus describes in the Beatitudes.  They are blessed because they find their strength only in the Lord, not in their own resources.  They are poor in spirit.  They mourn over their sinful condition.  They are meek and lowly.  They are reviled and persecuted simply because of their confession of faith in Christ.  But in spite of all that, they will be comforted and satisfied.  They will receive mercy and will see God.  They will be sons of God in the kingdom of God.
So here we are in Zion, spending time with the saints who are already in the heavenly Zion.  All Saints’ Day is about remembering those who have gone before us, giving thanks to God for the faith he gave them and the faith they demonstrated, and learning how to properly worship God in all reverence and holiness as they do.
But it’s also about spending time with the saints with whom you will spend eternity … those who are with you here, gathered together in Zion … learning to love them, learning to forgive them, and learning to give glory to God together for all that he has done for you.
We’re in this together … on this pilgrimage … in it for the long haul with the Lord’s strength … on the way to Zion.

INI

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Festival of the Reformation (October 29, 2017)

The Festival of the Reformation (October 29, 2017)
“The Enduring Significance of the Reformation” (1 Peter 1:25)

INI
            Nothing in this world lasts forever.  Even the grandest mountains are slowly eroding over time, enduring the ravages of wind and rain and ice and snow.  Some of them even blow their tops, like the ones we are familiar with in our region.
Mankind has attempted to build some things to last for a very long time.  Think of the pyramids of Giza.  Those have been around for about 4500 years and still stand as a testimony to the engineering skill of the early Egyptians.  Much more recent but also enduring is something closer to home … the granite portraits of four presidents on Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.  Finished only 76 years ago, you can imagine that those images will be around for quite a while.  You might also think of the monuments in Washington D.C. that tell the story of the enduring principles of freedom and liberty upon which our nation was built.  Still, none of these grand monuments will last forever … at least not in the way they were originally constructed.  Earthquakes and environmental wear and tear will change their appearance, if not topple them to the ground one day.
            I got to see many of the monuments to the Reformation last year in Germany.  All the statutes of Luther in every city where he had some connection.  The door of the castle church in Wittenberg where historians say the opening salvo of the Reformation was fired when Luther posted the 95 Theses on October 31, 1517.  The spot where Luther supposedly stood at the Diet of Worms and gave his famous “Here I stand” speech on April 18, 1521, refusing to renounce all that he had written.
Luther never wanted to start a new church.  He simply wanted to point out some of the problems he saw in the one he knew and loved.  But it didn’t take long before it became much more complex.  It wasn’t only about the buying and selling of forgiveness as he addressed in the 95 Theses.  It was about the sources of authority.  Was it Scripture and pope and council and tradition, or was it Sola Scriptura … Scripture Alone?  It was about the nature of salvation itself.  Was it faith in Christ along with human effort done to gain merit in God’s sight, or was it Sola Gratia and Sola Fide and Solus Christus … that we are saved by grace alone to be received by faith alone in the work of Christ alone?
Today we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, when the Good News of the full and free forgiveness of sins began to be preached again in all its clarity after centuries of accumulated traditions that obscured its comfort and beauty.  It is all about Christ alone.  The Reformation is still all about Jesus and his work of saving us by dying on the cross for our sins and giving us eternal life.
There are many reasons why the Reformation has enduring significance.  Documentaries on television will emphasize its cultural and political significance.  Religious historians will call it either a curse or a blessing, depending on their personal bias.  Above all else, the enduring significance of the Reformation is signified in those four letters on the banner on the other side of the chancel: VDMA.  That stands for the Latin phrase “Verbum Dei Manet in Aeternum” … “The Word of the Lord endures forever.”  That comes from 1 Peter 1:23-25, “you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for
            ‘All flesh is like grass
                        and all its glory like the flower of grass.
            The grass withers,
                        and the flower falls,
            but the word of the Lord remains forever.’
            And this word is the good news that was preached to you.”
            Verbum Dei Manet in Aeternum. The Word of the Lord endures forever. That became the motto of the Reformation.  It was sewn onto the official clothing of the court of the electors of Saxony.  It was later used on flags, banners, swords, and uniforms of Lutheran laymen united against those who would seek to destroy them and take away their right to confess their faith according to their conscience.
            This should still be our motto today.  Because in a world that is falling apart, there is only one thing that lasts.  Only one thing that endures.  And that is the Word of the Lord … the Word of the Lord and all his promises given to us … the good news of Jesus that must be constantly preached to us.    
At the time of the Reformation, there was division in the church.  There were societal and cultural changes occurring.  Exploration and advances in science were changing the way people saw the world.  Peasants were increasingly dissatisfied with the way they were treated by the upper classes.  There were wars and rumors of war.  The forces of empire and church were lined up against the Protestants.  The forces of the Muslim Turks were pressing in from the east.  Sickness and plague and violence constantly threatened to take away the fragile lives of both young and old and everyone in between.
When you stop to think about it, we face similar challenges today.  There is still division in the church … between denominations, inside denominations, and within congregations.  We are often overwhelmed by swift societal and cultural changes … changes that are not always friendly to Christians or the Christian Church.  We’re often dissatisfied with the way our government operates.  There is war in Afghanistan and rumors of war from North Korea.  Islamic terrorism is still a real threat, as is random violence from our own citizens.  And even with all our advances in modern medicine, no one can stop the onslaught of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and any other number of health issues that prove we live in a sin-broken world.   
Our world is falling apart.  Uncertainty abounds.  Nothing lasts.  Our first reaction is often to engage in fearful, incessant hand-wringing.  The Church is losing ground!  The Church is losing members!  What should we do?  Isn’t it terrible?  What is this world coming to?
Instead, we should remember those four letters.  VDMA.  Verbum Dei Manet in Aeternum.  The Word of the Lord endures forever.  He has made promises to us, and our Lord God Almighty is the only one who keeps his promises perfectly.  His Word is a Word that works.  It goes forth and achieves the purpose for which he sends it.  It forgives you.  It justifies you.  It declares you not guilty for the sake of Christ’s finished work at the cross.  It makes the sacraments into saving gifts rather than empty shells.  His Word fills the water of Baptism with saving grace, the gift of faith, the gift of the Holy Spirit bestowed upon you.  His Word amplifies the pastor’s voice with God’s own voice when he says, “I forgive you all your sins.”  His Word fortifies the bread on the altar with Christ’s body that was nailed on the cross to bear your sins.  His Word saturates the wine in the cup with Christ’s blood that was shed for you for the forgiveness of all your sins.  His Word is given to you in your ears and in your mouths to comfort you and to assure you of God’s abiding presence, love, and mercy in a world that is radically changing and rapidly decaying.
            Every October, Lutherans get the urge to get all proud and triumphalist.  That’s especially true when a big anniversary rolls around.  500 is a pretty cool number, after all.  But celebrating the Reformation should never be all about “yay Lutherans” or “hoorah for Luther!”  It should always be all about Jesus.  It should be a reminder that Lutherans never meant to be separatistic or even cultic … following the teachings of one single influential and charismatic man rather than the teachings of Scripture.  The Book of Concord, our Lutheran Confessions, begins with the ecumenical creeds … the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds … to express our connection with the Christian Church of the ages, the Apostolic Church, the Holy Catholic Church and all her saints and martyrs and confessors who confessed the faith before 1517.  We continue to confess the faith as we have learned it from the Reformers and from their heirs, all the teachers of the Church that God has given to us since 1517.  We offer our confession without compromise.  And we seek to unite with other believers where we share the same confession of what Holy Scripture teaches.
VDMA.  Verbum Dei Manet in Aeternum.  The Word of the Lord endures forever.  It’s still all about Jesus.  He is the Word made flesh.  The Word who was crucified for us.  The Word who rose again from the dead.  He lives forever.  The Living Lord Jesus makes the written Word of God what it is … inspired, inerrant, living, active, convicting, forgiving, edifying, enlightening, and faith-building … for us to hear, and read, and study, and respond to in prayer and worship.
Jesus, the Word made flesh, lives forever.  United to him in Baptism, we will live forever, too.  When we take our last breath, he will bring us to himself and away from this sin-broken world that is falling apart.  And one day, when Jesus returns in glory, we will be raised to life again – just as he promised in his enduring Word – and live together in a God-restored world.  And there, with Jesus our Savior, and with all the saints who have gone before us, we will endure forever.

INI

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Sermon for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost (October 22, 2017)


Pentecost 20 - Series A - Proper 24 (October 22, 2017)

“What Can You Give to God?” (Matthew 22:15-22)



            There’s an old saying that goes like this: “A common enemy makes strange bedfellows.”  Sometimes nations ... and people ... who are sworn enemies get together when they have a common cause.  That was the case in today’s Gospel reading.  The Pharisees and Herodians were not the best of chums.

The Pharisees were patriots and no fan of the ruling Romans.  They hated the idea of paying taxes to the Roman Empire.   Every time they pulled a coin out of their pocket, they were reminded of the political situation in which they lived.  Caesar’s face was stamped right on the surface of their money.  And this wasn’t only a political issue.  It was a religious one, too.  Stamped on Roman coins in those days were inscriptions which gave Caesar divine honors.

The Herodians, on the other hand, were supporters of the family of Herod the Great, who ruled only because the Romans had put Herod’s family in power.  So, of course the Herodians would have been all in favor of paying taxes to Rome.

Either way, both the Pharisees and Herodians wanted Jesus out of the picture.

At this point in Matthew’s account, opposition to Jesus is increasing more and more.  His enemies are pulling out all the stops to trick him into saying something with which they can finally pin him to the wall.  And so they ask him, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”  If he answered “No,” then the Herodians would have him nailed as a traitor and a rebel, and they could hand him over to the Roman authorities.  If he answered, “Yes,” then the Pharisees would have him nailed as an idolater and blasphemer, since he obviously supports the idolatrous worship of Caesar and his rule.  Under Jewish law, then, Jesus would be deserving of death.

When the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians first came to Jesus, they said, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances.”  Now, they didn’t really mean all that.  They were just messing with Jesus, buttering him up, and trying to trap him in his words.  But what they said is absolutely true.  Jesus IS true and teaches the way of God truthfully.  He is the only way through whom anyone comes to God the Father.  He doesn’t care about anyone’s opinions nor is he swayed by appearances.  Moreover, he sees right through self-righteous pretense and calls it what it is.  Hypocrisy.  And so he says, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.”  They hand him a denarius ... one of those offensive coins with a picture of Caesar’s head and the words “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus” and “pontifex maximus” ... which the Jews would have understood to mean “high priest.”

Everyone would have expected Jesus to blast the Romans for such blasphemy.  Instead, Jesus’ answer surprises everyone: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  And Matthew adds, “When they heard it, they marveled.  And they left him and went away.”  They were speechless.  Jesus had stumped them.  This was a new idea with which they were not familiar.  Back in those days, government and religion were intimately tied together.  Faithful Jews could not stomach the idea of paying taxes to foreign and pagan rulers.  And pagan rulers often demanded their subjects to not only pay taxes, but also to pay homage to the rulers as divine.  This caused no small problem for Christians in later years when it was demanded of them that they offer sacrifices to images of the emperor.    

            “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”  We get this ... especially here in our nation.  We have this idea of the “separation of church and state.”  And this really is derived from Lutheran theology which used the words of Jesus here in our text to clarify this concept at the time of the Reformation.  We call it the doctrine of the “two kingdoms” or the “two realms.”  Government we call God’s “left-hand kingdom” or “realm” and the Church we call God’s “right-hand kingdom” or “realm.”  These are the two ways in which God rules and serves the world.  He offers forgiveness and grace in the Gospel of Christ through his right-hand realm, the Church.  He maintains order through his left-hand realm, the government, so that people can serve one another with earthly goods and bodily care.  God even uses pagan rulers to do this, just like he did with Cyrus the Persian, who was mentioned in today’s reading from Isaiah 45.  Cyrus was used as a servant of God – even though he didn’t know the true God – to defeat the Babylonians and to give God’s exiled people permission to return to Judea and to rebuild Jerusalem.  So no matter who is in office in our land, they are “God’s servant for your good” (Rom. 13:4), whether you agree with them or not on all points in politics or religion.  We “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”  Honor.  Respect.  Obedience when it doesn’t conflict with Scripture (Acts 5:29).  Taxes.  And prayer ... not TO them, but FOR them (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Tim. 2:1-2).

            “Render to God the things that are God’s.”  This one’s a bit more challenging.  We know what we owe Caesar.  But what do we owe God?  What shall we give to God?

Give your heart to Jesus?  Well, that’s a fine gift.  The prophet Jeremiah described the human heart this way: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9).  And here’s what our Lord Jesus says about our heart: “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness” (Mark 7:21-22).

            Give your offerings?  We do this as part of our worship.  But does God really need your money?  Every beast of the forest is his, as well as the cattle on a thousand hills, as he says in Psalm 50.  God owns everything.  Why would we think that a measly few dollars – which belong to him anyways – would somehow be an appropriate gift?

            How about this one: Give your worship?  This is probably closer to what Jesus is getting at here.  Remember that image of Caesar on the coin and that divine honor was to be given to Caesar.  But the Lord said through the prophet Isaiah, “I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides me there is no God.”  Worship God alone.  But do we always give our undivided attention and respect and awe and reverence to God in our worship?  Do we listen carefully to every word in the readings and in the sermon and to all the words in our hymns and liturgy?  I’m afraid not.  Our minds wander constantly, as we look at what the person in the pew in front of us is wearing, think about what we’re going to have for lunch later on, worry if our toddler is making too much noise, get upset by the rude guy in the car at the stop light outside with the booming stereo.

            God demands 100%.  We fall far short of that goal in the things we should give to God.  Our hearts are sinful.  Our worship is imperfect.  Our offerings are meager.  Even if we could give 99%, that still wouldn’t be good enough.  We owe him everything.  We owe him our very lives.  But our lives are full of sin.  And “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). 

            We have nothing to give to God.  All we can do is approach him empty-handed like beggars and rely on his mercy given to us in Christ Jesus, who gave to God the Father what was demanded of us.

The heart of Jesus was always given over to complete devotion to his Father and his will.  Jesus said, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38).

And Jesus gave to God the Father his life in exchange for ours.   Listen to how St. Paul describes this gift that Jesus gave for us.  He “gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Gal. 1:4). “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2).  “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” (Eph. 5:25-27).

Through faith in Jesus, what Jesus gave to God is yours.  The perfect life of Jesus is credited to your account.  The shed blood of Jesus washes your sins away in Holy Baptism.  God now sees you as “holy and without blemish” because of what the unblemished Lamb of God did for you in his death and resurrection.  “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift” ... the GIFT, what God GIVES to YOU ... “is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).

And what do you give to God after all that?  Thanksgiving.  Praise.  Faithful worship which continues to hear his Word and receive often the Body and Blood of the One Crucified and Risen for the forgiveness of all our sins.

INI

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost (October 8, 2017)

Pentecost 18 – Series A – Proper 22 (October 8, 2017)
“The Cornerstone” (Matthew 21:33-46)

INI
Unless you are looking for it, you might miss seeing a cornerstone in a modern building … that is, if the building even has one.  In days gone by, brick and mortar buildings had a stone that was placed first.  The angles of the walls that meet at that corner must line up with that initial stone, so it was a significant part – if not the chief part – of the foundation.  Today, cornerstones are not always the first stone laid.  They are often decorative, with the year the building was built engraved into it and other important information about the building, such as who the builder was, what organization or business ordered the structure to be built, and so forth.  In some Lutheran churches, you may find a cornerstone with the initials “U.A.C.” etched on it.  That stands for “Unaltered Augsburg Confession” and displays the fact that the congregation confesses the Augsburg Confession of 1530 before Philip Melanchthon altered it.  He softened some of the language about the Lord’s Supper about 10 years later to appeal to Christians who denied the real presence of the Body and Blood of the Lord in Holy Communion.  As a professor in Wittenberg and friend and colleague of Luther, Melanchthon was a key figure in the Reformation, but altering the Augsburg Confession was not one of his brighter moments.
It’s also possible that a cornerstone such as the one described in our text today could refer to a large decorative stone placed at the top of a corner where two walls meet.  It gives the corner a beautiful, finishing flourish.  This meaning of the word “cornerstone” would also make sense in our text today, since it has the potential to do some damage when it falls on someone.  A cornerstone at the bottom of the building isn’t going to travel very far.  And it certainly won’t crush anyone.  Maybe a toe or two, if even that much.   
Jesus quotes from Psalm 118 after telling the Parable of the Wicked Tenants.  “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”  Now, why would you reject a stone from being a cornerstone?  Maybe it’s not substantial enough.  It’s not made out of lasting, durable material, but will crumble under pressure.  Maybe it’s not square enough.  Its edges are uneven.  It would be difficult to align the other stones with it after it’s set in place.  Maybe it’s not beautiful enough for its nature as a decorative part of the building.  A cornerstone must be perfectly suited for its task.
            Jesus was referring to himself as the cornerstone that was rejected by the “builders” of Israel, the chief priests and experts in the law and other leaders of the people of Israel.  He was rejected, even though he was perfectly suited for his task.  He was substantial enough … True God in the flesh … “of one substance with the Father” as we confess in the Creed.  He did not crumble under pressure when Satan tempted him and tried to divert him from his mission as the Messiah. He was perfectly aligned with his Father’s will as he perfectly obeyed the Law and willingly came to serve humanity as our Savior.  He did not appear to be beautiful to those who saw him, though, as the prophet Isaiah said, “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Is. 53:2).  He came in all humility, not appearing gloriously as the Son and inheritor of the One who planted the vineyard, but rather as the son of an insignificant virgin from a remote village.
            Yet he was rejected by the very ones he came to serve.  Israel was the vineyard that God planted.  It was all the Lord’s doing.  He chose them as his own special people.  They did not choose him.  The Lord built a fence around his vineyard for protection, a winepress for provision, and a tower from which to peer for approaching enemies.  In other words, God gave them the Torah to guide them in all truth.  He gave them the priesthood to intercede and offer sacrifices.  He gave them the prophets to call them back to the Lord when they would rebel.  But the people of Israel notoriously rejected the Lord’s Word given through the prophets and put many of them to death.  As Isaiah said, “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah  are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, and outcry!” (Is. 5:7).  The prophets preached against the unfaithfulness of the people, and the people responded with injustice, bloodshed, and unrighteousness.  The prophet Zechariah the son of Jehoiada was stoned to death in the temple court by command of King Joash.  According to tradition and possibly referenced in Hebrews 11:37, Isaiah was sawn in half.  In the time of Elijah, the wicked queen Jezebel had many unnamed prophets put to death.  And of course, there was John the Baptist, beheaded while imprisoned for publicly condemning Herod’s adultery (Matt. 14:1-12).
            Yes, God planted Israel as his vineyard.  But when he came looking for fruit, there was none.  Nothing.  The trees were barren.  There was no fruit produced.  No faith.  Instead, there was the rotten fruit of unbelief, demonstrated in injustice, bloodshed, and unrighteousness.  And the chief priests and the leaders to whom Jesus was speaking were about to demonstrate the same.  In just a few days after Jesus told this parable, they would kill the Son of God.  They “threw him out of the vineyard,” outside the walls of Jerusalem, as an outcast, as a criminal.  They handed him over to the Romans who had the authority to crucify him.  And in so doing, they failed to receive the Son’s inheritance … an honored place in the kingdom of God.  This would be taken away from them and given to a people producing fruit … those with true faith and true fruits of faith.  The very people whom Jesus came to save rejected him.  And Jesus said, “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”  There is judgment awaiting those who reject the Cornerstone.
“This is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.”  God is the one who planted the vineyard, Israel.  He chose them.  Yet they stubbornly rejected God’s will for them.  At the same time, God is the one who knew that the rejection of his Son would mean the salvation of the world.  It involved plenty of injustice, bloodshed, and unrighteousness.  Christ’s blood was shed for us.  All our injustices and unrighteous thoughts, words, and deeds were placed upon him.  The cornerstone himself was crushed for our iniquities (Is. 53:5).
By baptism and faith, God plants you in his vineyard.  He places you as a stone in his building, the Church.  Yet we often reject God’s will for our lives, too.  We don’t align ourselves with the Cornerstone.  When you fall on the Cornerstone in repentance, you are broken to pieces.  But the Lord puts you back together again.  In Christ Jesus, you are made whole again.  Your sins are forgiven.  You are put back into alignment with Cornerstone.  This stone will not crush you.  But he does promise to crush all your enemies under him, your enemies of sin, death, and the devil.  They were crushed when another familiar stone was rolled away, the one that tried to keep Jesus in the tomb.  Those enemies still pester us and hinder us in this life and will continue to do so until Jesus returns in glory.  But because Jesus has won the victory for you in his death and resurrection, you can see those enemies not as giant boulders ready to bowl you over, but as tiny little pebbles being tossed at you, a mere annoyance that we can walk right past because we are aligned with the Cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.  Aligned with the Cornerstone, we can hold him high, decorating our lives with his beauty and truth.  We can stand on the firm foundation of the Word of God.  We will receive the inheritance of our Lord Jesus, not as something we have earned, but as something that is freely given to us … living eternally in the presence of God, seeing Jesus face to face.  And won’t that be marvelous in our eyes?

INI

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Sermon for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost (October 1, 2017)

Pentecost 17 – Series A – Proper 21 (October 1, 2017)
“Shine Like Stars” (Philippians 2.1-4, 14-18)
INI
If you visit Hollywood, California, you’ll see a lot of stars there … if not in person, then certainly on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  All along Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street, you’ll see these big inlaid stars in the sidewalk under your feet as you stroll along.  On those stars are the names of prominent people in the entertainment industry.
But what makes someone a “star”?  They’re usually an actor or musician who is readily recognizable to most people.
Some of these stars are like huge suns.  Bright.  Attractive.  They have a warm glow about them.  On the other hand, one might be tempted to describe some of them as giant balls of gas, especially when they go on and on at awards ceremonies, touting their latest political agenda.
Some are like shooting stars.  Meteors.  Streaking across the sky, bright and spectacular, but only for a moment, quickly flaming and fizzling out.
Some are like distant stars in the sky.  They’ve been around a long time.  They are consistently sparkly.  No matter when they show up, they never disappoint.
But being a star doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with your character.  It just means you are a good actor.  You have the looks for the part.  You have a good agent who gets you good roles (and you have the money to pay that agent).  You’re in the right place at the right time.
St. Paul tells the believers in Philippi that they “shine as lights in the world.”  They “shine like stars” – as some translations have it, since the word “lights” here refers to the heavenly bodies in the sky.  Paul writes, “Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life” (Phil. 2:14-16).
“Shine as lights.”  “Shine like stars.”  This has everything to do with your character and behavior.  In the world – and in the human heart – there is darkness, evil, corruption, hopelessness, hatred, dread, and despair.  Paul is using language similar to Deuteronomy 32:5 where the children of Israel, during their wilderness wanderings, are described this way: “A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he. They have dealt corruptly with him; they are no longer his children because they are blemished; they are a crooked and twisted generation” (Deut. 32:5).  The Israelites also did their fair share of grumbling and disputing.  They complained to Moses and to God about their circumstances in the desert.  Ezekiel has them grumbling against God, saying “The way of the Lord is not just” (Ezek. 18:25).  And there must have been some grumbling and disputing going on in the church at Philippi for Paul to bring this up … and, in fact, in chapter 4:2 he singles two women out: “I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord” (Phil. 4:2).  What were they disagreeing about?  We don’t know.  Whatever it was, it was serious enough for Paul to bring it up in his letter.
Like the Israelites … like the Philippians … we don’t always act very star-like.  Our sinful hearts often obscure the light rather than shine it.  Some people can be a veritable black hole, sucking the light and life away from others and out of a congregation because of the gigantic gravitational pull of one’s negativity, criticism, gossip, etc.
Into this darkness, Jesus shines his light.  A star appeared in the sky to direct the Wise Men to him.  What did they find?  Not a newborn prince, but a humble child in the meekest of circumstances.  The verses omitted between the paragraphs of our text today tell us how Jesus humbled himself: “though he was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant being born in the likeness of men. And being in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:6-11).  Jesus entered this world in humility.  After thirty years of obscurity, he had what you might call a meteoric rise to fame … a short three-year ministry that just as quickly flamed out, ending in disgrace at the cross.  But it was there that he bore our disgrace, our shame, our guilt.  In his resurrection and ascension, he is now the brightest and best star who fills the universe with his love and forgiveness … who burns away all our sin and makes us innocent and blameless in his sight … who shines the light of faith in our hearts so we can trust in him and receive his forgiveness and eternal life. 
            Jesus said “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12).  And he tells his followers, “You are the light of the world” (Matt 5:14).  We shine because we reflect the light of Christ.  Note how Paul says, “You shine.”  He doesn’t say, “you should” … “you must” … “you need to shine.”  He simply says, “You shine.”  It’s what we do as God’s baptized people.  That reminds me of those recent GEICO commercials with the catch phrase, “It’s what you do.”  One of these ads has Prince Charming kissing Sleeping Beauty, but she doesn’t wake up.  After he leaves, she carefully opens her eyes, sits up, says, “I thought he’d never leave,” turns the TV on with the remote, and proceeds to watch her favorite show.  The announcer says, “If you want someone to leave you alone, you pretend like you’re sleeping.  It’s what you do.  If you want to save 15% or more on car insurance, you switch to GEICO. It’s what you do.”
            If you’re a baptized believer in Christ, you shine as a light in the world, holding fast the word of life.  It’s what you do.  Because in Christ Jesus, there is encouragement and consolation.  There is comfort from his love and the love we have for each other.  We participate in the Spirit, that is, we are intimately connected to God and one another through the Holy Spirit and the faith that has been given to us.  In Christ Jesus, God’s people share deep affection and compassionate sympathy.  We “do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.  Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
            Paul is in prison as he writes this.  He is fully expecting to be put to death.  But he was not hopeless nor despairing.  He still has reason to rejoice.  “Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all.”  What he’s referring to is the way wine was poured out with certain sacrifices in those days.  Both Jews and pagans did this, so the Philippians would be familiar with the practice.  Paul sees his life as a sacrifice of sorts in the interest of the faith of the Philippians.  Therefore, he encourages the Philippians to rejoice with him.  And to make his joy complete, he urges the Philippians to be unified in their confession of faith: “complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”  Unity in Christ is closely connected to unity in truth.  And that unity is to be confessed and made clear.  Therefore, Paul tells the Philippians – and the Church of all time and places – to “shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life.”  By the way, that phrase “hold fast” can also be translated “hold forth” or “hold out.”  And really, both ideas are vital.  Hold fast to and hold out the word of life.  Hold fast to it.  Hang on to it.  Cling to it.  Trust in it.  Your eternal life depends on it.  And hold it out.  Don’t keep it to yourself.  Proclaim it.  Deliver the precious, forgiving, saving message of the Gospel to the world through your mouth, through your prayers, and through your offerings which support mission work here and around the world.   
            Shine like stars.  Not like a meteor, which streaks across the sky but quickly fizzles out.  Nor should you be like a big ball of gas, proudly touting your own opinions and acting as if you are the center of the solar system, with everyone else revolving around you.  No.  Shine like those stars that fill the night sky, consistent, faithful, dependable … yet never outshining the sun who is at the center of our galaxy, the one around whom everything truly does revolve … the blameless and innocent Lamb slain for you, the one who humbled himself for you, the one whose blood was poured out for you, the one whose blood we partake of today, the one in whom we are glad and rejoice.
            INI