Sunday, February 1, 2015

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany (February 1, 2015)

Wordle: Untitled

Epiphany 4 – Series B (February 1, 2015)
Deut. 18:15-20; Mark 1:21-28

            The traveling rabbi enters the seaside village of Capernaum.  Four of his fisherman followers accompany him.  Just before this he had invited these sun-baked, calloused, rugged men to learn from him.  He had great plans for them to be “fishers of men.”  His authoritative call impelled them to leave their business behind and travel with him and sit at his feet.
            Now it is the Sabbath.  The day to set aside all work so that you can go to the synagogue and let God’s Word do its work in you.  The traveling rabbi enters the synagogue in Capernaum to teach, and the people are astonished at his teaching.  Like the fishermen-followers of Jesus, they noted that his teaching was with authority, not like the scribes they were accustomed to hearing from.
            A recent commentary on this text says that Mark’s language here gives the sense that Jesus was “exuding” authority.  How did Jesus exude authority?
            First, let’s consider how people exude authority today.  In the office, you dress for success.  Wear a suit and a power tie.  Stand up straight, no matter how tall or short you are.  Look confident.  Make eye contact.  Use a clear, direct, commanding voice.  On the football field, you send the Legion of Boom out to crush Tom Brady and the Patriot’s offense (I promise, that is my only Super Bowl reference today).
            How did Jesus exude authority?  Was there something about his appearance?  Probably not.  The prophet Isaiah described the coming Messiah this way: “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Is. 53:2).  Other than his appearance on the Mount of Transfiguration, his divine presence was not noticeable.  He looked like an ordinary human being.  Yet he taught with authority, and “not as the scribes,” Mark states.  In other words, he spoke his own words and never quoted other rabbis, as would have been the custom of other teachers in those days.
            Jesus is the “prophet” promised in today’s reading from Deuteronomy 18.  As they prepared to enter the Promised Land after their wilderness wanderings, Moses says to the people: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers – it is to him you shall listen – just as you desired of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’”  Back at Sinai, the people had heard the fearful thunder and flashes of lightning and smoking mountain and they were terrified.  When God speaks unveiled, fear and terror strike sinful human beings.  No one can stand before his glory and live.  Even in the Old Testament, when God spoke, it appears that he veiled himself in some way, sometimes as the Angel of the Lord, once as a burning bush, at other times as pillar of cloud or fire.
            And so, God promised one final prophet to come of whom he said, “I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.”  “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers – it is to him you shall listen.”  At the Mount of Transfiguration, this is exactly what the voice from heaven said.  Surrounded by Moses and Elijah, two of the great prophets of the Old Testament, God the Father said “This is my beloved Son … listen to him” (Mark 9:7).  Jesus is that prophet like Moses … but more than a prophet, of course: “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail th’ incarnate Deity,” to quote a famous Christmas hymn.  He is the very Son of God who speaks the words his Father gave him, the authoritative words we listen to in the Scriptures today.
            The authority of Jesus is challenged by demonic forces.  Here in our reading, it is challenged in the synagogue, no less.  The very place where God’s Word was read and explained.  Other than our Lord’s temptation a few verses earlier, this is the first place where opposition to Jesus’ teaching arises.  The man with unclean spirit cries out, “What have you to do with us?”  That is to say, “We have nothing in common with you!”
            We gather here, safe and snug in our pews, and look out at the evil in the world today.  We forget that here in the Church is where opposition to Jesus and his teaching begins.  The devil attends church, too, you know.  Now, his opposition is not as obvious as in our text, where demons cry out with loud voices.  It’s much more subtle.  False teaching and false teachers infect our ranks.  The devil wants us to doubt and question the truthfulness and authority of the Scriptures.  He also loves to cause division … division between fellow Christians, and division over the teachings of the Scriptures.  Both are a poor witness to the unity that Christ desires for his Church.
            You and I are also tempted to ask, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”  Our sinful nature is moved to say that we have nothing in common with Jesus.  God’s judgment and wrath convict us, like that terrifying voice from Sinai, and we ask, “Have you come to destroy us?”  We fail to hear and believe the words of Jesus which teach us, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).  Jesus has plenty in common with us.  Hebrews 2 says, Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery … Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:14-17).  The sinless Son of God came to share in flesh and blood with you in order to be the perfect atoning sacrifice for your sins and mine.  He came to call all of us back into God’s kingdom by faith in him.  God had said through Moses that the prophet who presumes to speak a word that he was not commanded to speak should be put to death.  And the great divine prophet Jesus came, speaking nothing but truth in the name of the Father, and was unjustly put to death on a cross … a death he endured willingly, lovingly, so that you and I might be given life eternal.
            Jesus did not come to destroy us, but came instead to destroy the evil forces arrayed against him and against his redeemed people.  He muzzled the demon in our text and cast him out, a preview of the day in which the devil and all that is opposed to God will be eternally silenced and cast into outer darkness.  1 John 3:5 says that Jesus “appeared in order to take away sins,” and then verse 8 says, “the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.”  And Jesus said that on the Last Day, “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace” (Matt. 13:41-42).
            The authority that Jesus displayed is the authority of his Word.  With a word he created the world.  With a word he silences demons and casts them out.  The one who ordered all things comes to destroy the one who brought disorder.  The unclean spirit is cast out by the one bearing the clean Spirit, given to him at the Jordan.  At the font, you were given the clean Spirit.  Now, you can sing, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.  Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.  Restore unto me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with your free Spirit.”  The Holy Spirit cleanses you, forgives you, brings you in and keeps you in God’s kingdom.  He makes you a new creation now and keeps you ready and watchful for the day when Jesus returns in glory and the new creation will come in all its fullness.
            The night before his crucifixion, Jesus prayed to his Father, “Glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:2-3).  And then, before his ascension, he told his disciples, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” by baptizing and teaching them in the authoritative name of the Triune God.  Jesus silences the demons, but he sends forth his Church, cleansed and redeemed, filled with his clean Spirit, to boldly declare him as the Holy One of God.  Trust his authoritative Word today that gives what it says … the forgiveness of sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

            Amen. 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord (January 11, 2015)

Wordle: Untitled

The Baptism of Our Lord – Series B (January 11, 2015)
“The Dawn of a New Day” (Gen. 1:1-5; Rom. 6:1-11; Mark 1:4-11)

            The New Year brings all kinds of expectations.  People make all kinds of resolutions.  Exercise more.  Eat healthier food.  Quit smoking.  Spend less time on the internet.  But after two Sundays into the New Year, some find that they couldn’t even hold out that long.  The temptations were too strong.
            Well, tomorrow is another day, isn’t it?  Whatever you failed to do today, there is always tomorrow.  It’s the dawn of a new day.  A NEW YOU!  But you wake up, and the same OLD YOU stares back at yourself in the mirror.  The same old failures.  The same old temptations.  All the sins that haunt you from the days past.
            The Baptism of Jesus was the dawn of a new day for all mankind.  But first, let’s go back to the dawn of the first day described for us in the book of Genesis.
            Before time began, God created the heavens and the earth.  At first, the earth was empty, void, and dark … and God filled it with life and light.  The Holy Spirit was present and active, too, hovering over the face of the waters, breathing life into all creation.  And the power of the Word of God to create was evident, as well.  God spoke … “Let there be light.”  And there was.  And it was good.  Perfect.  Just the way he planned it.
            God separated the light from the darkness, the day from the night, and there was evening and morning, the first day.  How can this be, when there was no sun created yet?  We’ll leave this to God to figure out.  He is the source of light.  In the heavenly Jerusalem described at the end of the book of Revelation, St. John writes, “They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light” (Rev 22:5).  Clearly, it’s not hard for God to make night and day occur even when there is no sun.
            At some point after the seventh day, mankind fell into sin.  Although the sun continued to rise with each new day, rebellious mankind was plunged into darkness in a fallen world.  Death was their destiny … a life of decay and an eternity apart from God.  And although God promised to send a Savior, people were content to remain in their sin.  John 3:19 says, “the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light.”  St. Paul, in Romans 1, says that “since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.  Though they know God's decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them” (Rom 1:28-32).
            God had called his people Israel to be a “light to the nations” (Is. 42:6; 49:5-6; 60:3).  He also named Israel his “son.”  In Exodus 4, the Lord told Moses to tell Pharaoh, “Israel is my firstborn son … Let my son go that he may serve me” (Ex. 422-23).  Through the prophet Hosea, the Lord said, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hos. 11:1) … and of course, you know that those words were later applied to Jesus when the Holy Family had to flee to Egypt due to Herod’s murderous intentions.
            Israel’s calling was to reveal the One True God and his purposes to the world.  But Israel failed to do this.  Like Adam and Eve, they rebelled against God’s will for them.  They followed after the false gods of the nations around them.  And God severely disciplined them, scattering them and sending them off into exile far across the Jordan.
            But God did not leave his people helpless or hopeless.  He sent his Divine Son into the world to be the faithful Son that Israel was not.
            The Baptism of Jesus was the dawn of a new day.  It was an Epiphany … a manifestation of the Messiah.  It was the beginning of a new creation.  Into a world of sinful darkness, into a world void of perfection and holiness, God enters to fill it and give light and life.  Jesus came to be the “light of the world” as he declares in John 8:12.  Remember also how Simeon took the infant Jesus in his arms and declared him to be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:32).  What Israel failed to do, Jesus came to do perfectly.
            Jesus stepped into the waters of the Jordan where people were going to confess their sins and prepare for the coming of the Savior.  Jesus had no sins to confess, but he came to bear the sins of the world, all the way to the cross.  The Spirit of God hovered over the waters of the Jordan, anointing Jesus to fulfill the words of Isaiah 42:1, “I have put my Spirit upon him,” … and Isaiah 61:1, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me” (Is. 61:1).  And just as the king of Israel was called God’s son in Psalm 2, “You are my son, today I have begotten you,” so also the eternally begotten Son of God is publicly declared to be God’s Son in the Jordan: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”  The powerful Word of creation spoken from heaven is now the Word made Flesh, plunged in the baptismal waters to rescue us from the powers of darkness.
            A missionary linguist was working in a remote village in Laos.  He was trying to find a word to translate Savior.  He asked villagers the word they would use to describe the person who saved someone from a tiger's attack, or a child from falling off a cliff.
            “Pa,” they said.
            A couple of days later, the missionary set out on a raft with two women to cross a river.  The water was turbulent, and the raft flipped.  The missionary grabbed the two women and swam with them to shore.
            The missionary asked them what word they would use to describe saving them from drowning.
            “Not pa, but che,” they responded. “Pa is when you reach down to help someone from above and che is when you were in the water yourself.”
            That's what Jesus did.  He went into the depths of the water [… both literally in the Jordan and effectively through his entire life, death, and resurrection … ] and pulled us out — a real Savior who became like us, lived with us, and gave his life for us. [i]
            Do you need to see the dawn of a new day?  Does the weight of your failed resolutions, your falling to temptation, and the darkness of days past keep you from looking forward to the rising of the sun in the morning?  First of all, look to Jesus who entered the waters for you.  Jesus was drowned at the cross, sunk under the weight of your sins, so that you could be set free of your guilt and shame.  Jesus took it all for you.
            Secondly, look to the day when you entered the waters.  Your Baptism was the dawn of a new day for you.  It was the first day of a new creation for you.  Into a heart of sinful darkness, void of perfection and holiness, empty of belief, God entered to fill you with light and life, to fill you with his Spirit and faith.  The Holy Spirit hovered over the face of the waters of the font and connected you with the one who bore your sins for you at the cross, as St. Paul writes, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4).
            And finally, remember that your baptism has meaning for you every day.  No matter what you have done, no matter what others say about you, no matter what you think about yourself, God’s Word is sure and certain.  And his powerful, creative Word in Holy Baptism has declared YOU to be a beloved son … a beloved daughter.  United to Jesus, all that he inherited as the faithful Son is yours.  You are loved.  You are forgiven.  Heaven is opened to you.  Each new day, you can walk in newness of life.  By grace, every day is a brand new day.
            Amen.
           

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas (December 28, 2014)

Wordle: Untitled

Christmas 1 – Series B (December 28, 2014)
“The Fullness of Time” (Galatians 4:4-7)

Time rules our life. We live by the clock. Your alarm clock wakes you up in the morning. You have to get to work on time. You have to get to school on time. Once you get to school, you need to be aware of your class schedule and how much time you have between classes. You also need to keep appointments with the doctor or dentist and get there in plenty of time. You want to know what time the Seahawks game starts. You don’t want to miss the opening kickoff.

It’s important for the church service to start on time, too. A few minutes too late, and you start to wonder, “Where’s the pastor? What’s holding him up?” Some congregations are concerned with the length of the pastor’s sermons. Some congregations are also overly concerned with the length of the service. If it goes one minute past an hour, the elders decide to hold a special meeting to discuss this with the pastor.

There’s a lot to be said for the way they deal with time in other cultures. In Lutheran churches in Africa, services don’t start at any particular time. People gather in the morning and begin singing hymns and psalms. This will go on and on for a while. Soon more people will gather, some walking for many miles around. Eventually, you may have 2,000 people gathered there, and then the Divine Service proper will begin with the procession and the liturgy that would be very familiar to us ... with an African flavor, of course. I kind of like that idea. But I’m not so sure how that would fly here. Besides, we’re going to need a bigger building to seat those 2,000 people.

Sports are ruled by the clock. Football, basketball, and hockey games are all limited to periods of certain lengths of time. I think this is another reason why I like baseball so much. No clock. It has a much more leisurely pace. I know what some of you are thinking. You’re thinking, “Pastor, the words ‘leisurely pace’ is just a nice way of saying ‘boring.’” I beg to differ with you. I like spending a day at the ballpark and when New Year’s Day rolls around that means Spring Training is a little over a month away.

On New Year’s Eve, countless people stay awake across the country and count down the seconds until midnight. Another year has gone by. Another year will begin. Another year of being ruled by the clock. And who hasn’t reflected on the strange phenomenon of time seemingly going faster as you get older? It never seems like there is enough time. We’re always running out of time. Who started this whole time thing anyways? It seems like such a curse.

It was God who started this whole time thing. When he created the world, he started the whole cycle of evening and morning, with “lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night ... for signs and for seasons, and for days and for years.” (Genesis 1:14) Then, time was a blessing. There was time for experiencing the perfection of God’s Garden. There was time to talk to God face to face. There was time for honoring God as Creator and knowing yourself as creature – and being happy with that arrangement – at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But all of that changed once Adam and Eve tried to turn that arrangement on its head and be like God. They ate fruit from that tree of which God had told them not to eat. The curse of death entered the world. Since then, the life of every man, woman, and child has been hurtling toward a date with the Grim Reaper.

And time became a curse. Because the passing of time means that this world is decaying. Our bodies break down and can’t always get fixed. Hearts stop pumping. Brains stop functioning. And you and I try to do all we can to avoid the inevitable. We waste time. We make time for ourselves rather than for meeting the needs of others who need our help. And then, in our loneliness, we kill time by deadening our inner pain with assorted activities or addictive substances. There’s a part of us inside that screams “Stop the world! I want to get off!”

That’s when it’s time to stop and look again at the Baby who was born in the manger of Bethlehem. When you look into the manger, it’s as if time stands still. Time and eternity met in the flesh of that Child. God entered the world in the womb of the Virgin Mary. God became Man. St. Paul put it this way: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” (Gal. 4:4-5)

“The fullness of time.” Other translations put it like this: “When the time had fully come.” (NIV) “When the right time came.” (NLT) “When the completion of the time came.” (NJB) “When the time arrived that was set by God the Father.” (MSG) None of those quite capture the whole meaning of the original Greek. Some commentators say that God chose the time of the Roman Empire for Christ to be born because the Roman roads made travel easy and helped spread the Gospel. That may be true, but then why didn’t God just wait for the day when the internet was invented, and then have Jesus be born? The news would have spread a lot faster today than it did then. It seems to me that St. Paul is saying more than just that the right time had come. It’s true that God had planned all this out carefully even before time had begun. Jesus is called “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” (Rev. 13:8 KJV) But that phrase “the fullness of time” gives you the sense that all time and history is centered in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of that One Man, Jesus Christ.

And although it’s as if time stood still in the manger, time did not stand still for Jesus. His life began just as hectic as any of our lives. Not long after his birth, he and his family had to flee to Egypt to escape the murderous intentions of a paranoid king. A few months later, they had to hike back to Judea, expecting to make their home in Bethlehem again. But then, as you know, Joseph was warned in another dream to head north to Galilee where he settled in Nazareth to fulfill another of the many Old Testament prophecies about the Christ.

We don’t know much about Jesus’ life until about the time he turns 30. And what a brief career he had. Around 3 years as a traveling rabbi, gathering around him 12 disciples, and even bigger crowds at times. But the words of this rabbi got him into trouble. He made some pretty outrageous claims. Like being the Son of God. Like existing before Abraham. Like being the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and no one coming to the Father apart from Him.

I began this morning by saying that time rules our life. I said that your life and mine is hurtling towards death. But as you read the Gospels, you see that Jesus’ life was ruled by time. Page after page reveals his battle with death and the devil and disobedience and disbelief. His life was hurtling towards death ... so that you and I might live. Look at the face of the child in the manger, and it’s as if time stops. God stepped into time so that you and I could step into eternity. The Child in the Manger grew up to be the Man on the Cross. There we see the fullness of time. There we see the center of all history. There we see the completion of all of God’s promises.

And in our Epistle text, St. Paul goes on to tell us about the blessings of what God’s Son did in the fullness of time. He redeemed us from the curse of the law. God’s law condemns us. It makes it perfectly clear that we are sinners and can do nothing to save ourselves. But Christ’s perfect sacrifice on the cross is the payment for the sins of the whole world. We are bought back with the price of his blood and adopted into God’s family as forgiven sons of God.

“And because you are sons,” Paul continues, “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” In Baptism, you were given the Spirit of God and faith to trust in God’s Son and what he did for you in the fullness of time. Jesus’ Father becomes your “Abba” ... the Aramaic word for “Father.” As adopted sons and daughters in Holy Baptism, our relationship to the Father is just as close as Jesus’ relationship to the Father. The same Spirit who came upon him at the Jordan is the same Spirit who came upon us at the font. We are not slaves who have no rights in God’s household. We are free sons and daughters of God, heirs of all that God’s Son has earned for us ... eternal life, a place reserved in heaven, a glorious future resurrection on the day when time is no more ... because of what Christ did for us in the fullness of time.

And now, each moment of passing time is no longer a curse, but a blessing ... time to talk to God in prayer, time for eating from the fruits of the tree of the cross at the altar, time for honoring God as Creator and knowing yourself as creature, and being happy with that arrangement. Each second that ticks by on the clock is another gift to be received, another moment of grace, another moment to be spent with God and with each other.

Amen.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent (December 21, 2014)


Advent 4 – Series B (December 21, 2014)
“God Takes Up Residence” (2 Sam. 7:1-16)

Many people have a dream of building their own home one day. They can make it as elaborate or as simple as they want. How exciting to have input on every little detail about your house. How many bathrooms and bedrooms it will have. How large the windows will be. What kind of cabinets and fixtures will go in the kitchen. Will it be a rambler or a two-story home? Will it have a deck out back? How about a gazebo with a hot tub? Now we’re talking!

When God first gave instructions to Moses about the tabernacle, it was quite elaborate. Furniture covered with gold. A solid gold lampstand. Linen curtains woven with blue, purple, and scarlet yarn. Images of cherubim.

But the tabernacle was not a house. It was basically a big tent. And it was no circus inside that big tent. God himself took up residence there. Although the whole universe cannot contain God, still, he promised that his very presence would dwell in the tabernacle. Right above the mercy seat on the ark of the covenant in the Holy of Holies, there God promised to meet with the people: “There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel” (Exo 25:22).

The tabernacle traveled with the Israelites in their wilderness wanderings. It crossed the Jordan River when Joshua led the people into Canaan. It stayed at Gilgal for seven years. After that it was pitched at Shiloh. After several other moves and mishaps, including the Philistines capturing the ark of the covenant for a time, David constructed a new tabernacle in Jerusalem and placed the ark inside where it belonged.

That leads us up to the account in today’s Old Testament lesson. David built a house for himself. “A house of cedar” he called it … but it was probably more like a mansion, a palace fit for a king. Whether it had a hot tub, I don’t know. But you can imagine that it was not your typical wooden house.

David looked around and thought to himself, “Here I am in a palace, but the ark of God sits in a tent. Something ought to be done about that.” Apparently, David had it in his mind to build a temple for the Lord, and Nathan the prophet put his stamp of approval on it ... that is, until the Lord had a little talk with him. The Lord had other plans. He told Nathan to tell David, “Hey, I’ve been living in a tent for a long time now. Have I ever griped about my accommodations? I never told anyone to build me a house of cedar.”

David wanted to build a house for God. But God always has a way of turning the tables on us. Right when we think that we are going to do something great for God, he reminds us that he is the one who does great things for us. And here, the Lord tells David, “David, I’m going to build a house for you.” “I will make for you a great name, like the names of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may dwell in their own place and be disturbed no more. And violent men shall afflict them no more … and I will give you rest over all your enemies. Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house.” And here, of course, the word “house” does not refer to a house of cedar. It refers to a royal dynasty, a ruling family, like when we say that Queen Elizabeth is of the House of Windsor.

King Solomon, David’s son, eventually did build a house for the Lord in Jerusalem. But God’s Word today points beyond Solomon’s spectacular temple. God’s Word today says of the House of David, “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me.” Yet after Solomon, the glory of the House of David did not last very long. The kingdom was divided. Because of their idolatry, the northern kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians. Because of their unfaithfulness to the Lord, the southern kingdom was destroyed by the Babylonians, and the people were taken off into exile. Seventy years later they returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the temple and the walls of the city. However, there was no king from the House of David ruling.

Until, that is, when the Angel Gabriel appeared to a Virgin in Nazareth of Galilee. The Holy Spirit came upon her. The power of the Most High overshadowed her. Within the house of Mary’s womb, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity took on human flesh. Without human intervention, one little egg became a zygote, and the House of David was restored, since Mary was a descendant of David. Not only that, but Joseph, her future husband, was also of the House of David. Therefore, by birth and by Law, Jesus was truly a Son of David … THE Son of David. God took up residence inside the womb of Mary. Although the whole universe cannot contain God, his very presence dwelt in the flesh of Christ in the Virgin’s womb.

But Christ was not born to rule in Jerusalem. At his First Advent we see him hunted down by King Herod in the region of Bethlehem. At his First Advent we see him confronted by the Sanhedrin, the ruling Jewish council. At his First Advent we see his trial overseen by Pontius Pilate, the local representative of the great Roman Empire. At his First Advent we don’t see Christ wearing a jewel-encrusted crown and seated on a gold-plated throne. His crown was made of twisted thorny branches. His throne was made of two beams of wood. From there, the King’s blood was “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt. 26:28). Christ, the Son of David, was born, lived, died, and rose again for you. And when he ascended into heaven, King Jesus of the House of David took his rightful place as King of all Creation. He now rules and reigns for the good of his Church. He is in control, even when things seem out of control … even as he was completely in control while dying for your sins and mine.

In Christ, God has built a house for you. Through Baptism, your sins were washed away, and you became a member of the household of God. Paul reminds us in Ephesians 2 that we were previously “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ … So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household.” You reside in God’s house … and God takes up residence in you. Although the whole universe cannot contain God, his very presence dwells among you and in you, as Paul concludes in Ephesians 2, “In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”

God dwelt in the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle. The Virgin’s womb became the Holy of Holies as God dwelt there in the flesh of Jesus. The Cross of Calvary became the Holy of Holies, as the flesh of Jesus hung there for the life of the world. And this altar becomes the Holy of Holies every time bread and wine are set apart by God’s Word and promise to deliver the true body and blood of the Son of David to us. God takes up residence right here, and delivers life, forgiveness, and salvation when you eat and drink with faith in those words, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of all your sins.” As Luther said in the Small Catechism, “These words, along with the bodily eating and drinking, are the main thing in the Sacrament. Whoever believes these words has exactly what they say: ‘forgiveness of sins.’”

God has built a house for us and by faith in Christ we reside in that house and God resides in us. He richly and daily forgives and feeds us in this house. What, then, shall we do with those words in our text, where God promises a place for his people where they would be safe from their enemies? If that “place” is the land, then God’s promise is not true. After Solomon’s reign ended, the people were continually pestered and persecuted from enemies without and within, as the people living in the land of Israel still are today. The land is not the thing. There is a greater land, a greater house, an eternal one, an everlasting kingdom where God’s people will be undisturbed forever from their enemies of sin, death, and the devil. There is a house waiting for us in eternity, as Jesus said, “In my Father’s house are many rooms … I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2).

And in that place, at Christ’s Second Advent, we will see the Son of David on his throne, and we will call to mind the words of St. John’s Revelation, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:3-4).

Amen.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

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

Wordle: Untitled

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

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

            Amen.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

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

Wordle: Untitled

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

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

            Amen.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

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

Wordle: Untitled

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

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

Wordle: Untitled

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