Sunday, June 1, 2008

Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost

The Third Sunday after Pentecost (June 1, 2008)
“Good Luck Charms and Godly Graffiti” (Deut. 11:18-21, 26-28)

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Today is Confirmation Day for three young people of our congregation. Passing the faith along to our children is important to God. That’s a big part of what our Lord is teaching us in today’s Old Testament reading from Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is, you might say, the “farewell speech” of Moses, handing over to the next generation all that God had told him on Mt. Sinai. The Israelites are about ready to cross the Jordan River and enter the Promised Land. Moses now stands before the people and reminds them of all the Laws and Promises that God had told him to record and deliver to the people. If they keep God’s Laws, God will bless them in the Promised Land. If not, he will curse them.

Once again, here is the text from Deut. 11:

“You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth. See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God, which I command you today, and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the LORD your God, but turn aside from the way that I am commanding you today, to go after other gods that you have not known.”

Good Luck Charms and Godly Graffiti

The Israelites eventually misinterpreted some of God’s instructions here. The bit about binding God’s words as a sign on your hand led them to take small pieces of parchment, write Bible verses on them, stick them in little leather boxes, and tie the boxes to their arms with strips of leather. And the part about frontlets between your eyes led them to tie similar boxes to their foreheads. They call these leather boxes “phylacteries.”

And then there’s the instruction to write God’s words on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. This developed into the practice of making mezuzot, or little boxes affixed to doorways in a home, and in which are placed Bible verses written on parchment.

Today, you’ll see orthodox Jews at prayer wearing phylacteries. And you’ll find mezuzot mounted in the homes of Jews around the world, even those who are not particularly religious. They’ve become sort of a cultural decoration. Some of them are little works of art in themselves, made out of silver, gold, or wood, with elaborate carvings and precious stones. It’s almost as if the beauty of the case is more important than the words inside.

It’s a good thing we don’t treat God’s Word that way.

Or do we? We don’t have little boxes on our bodies with Bible verses inside. But we have other stuff with God’s Holy Word on it. We’ve plastered it on t-shirts and trinkets. We’ve engraved it on knick-knacks and door knockers. A nice little framed print of a cottage in the woods is not enough ... it must have a Bible verse printed underneath. I even saw a tough looking guy at the park the other day who had some Bible references tattooed on his huge, exposed biceps. I couldn’t get close enough to see what the exact verses were, because I was a little afraid of him.

Now, am I saying that all this is wrong? No ... as long as all these ways in which we have decorated our homes with Bible verses does not take the place of the serious, deliberate, regular habit of reading God’s Word, studying it, praying it, and applying it to our lives.

I’m afraid that most of us DO neglect the real deep study and application of God’s Word. And Moses also makes it clear that the home is the primary place where this happens, including the instruction of our children. But teaching the Bible at home to our children is not often our priority. We leave that to Sunday School and confirmation. But then again, do our children regularly attend Sunday School? And if they do not, then they are already at a disadvantage by the time confirmation instruction begins. Do any of you “talk about [God’s Word] when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise”? No. We are preoccupied with other activities. We let other influences inform our conversation and shape our words and thoughts. Sadly, all the Bible verses with which we surround ourselves have become little more than the equivalent of good luck charms and godly graffiti.

For the Israelites, the misuse and disuse of God’s Word brought a curse upon them. For us, if we treat God’s Word like a mere decoration for our home ... if all we have is a family Bible on display big enough to choke a mule, but never opened ... then we, too, will miss out on all the blessings that God has in store for us through his Word. The Lord says in Isaiah 66:2, “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at My Word.” When is the last time you trembled at God’s Word? When is the last time you opened your Bible to read it and approached it with holy awe? Those words in there are not just any words. They are words with power ... words of Law that condemn ... and words of Gospel that bless. How have we treated them? How have we responded to them? If we continue in our sinful neglect of God’s Word, our fate will be like the unfruitful false teachers whom Jesus condemns in Matthew 7: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven ... And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” Now those are words which should cause us to tremble.

God’s Word Gives Life and Grace

But where you and I have neglected God’s Word, our Lord Jesus was always attentive and obedient to his Father’s Word ... even when he was not much younger than a confirmation student and amazed the teachers in the temple with his insights into the Scriptures, and who told Mary and Joseph who had been searching for him, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Where you and I have not done the will of God, our Lord Jesus always and perfectly did the will of his Father in heaven. Where our lives bear the evidence of bad fruit because our hearts are sinful and unhealthy, our Lord Jesus always bore good fruit, the fruit of trust and love and compassion and righteousness. The curse for our disobedience was laid upon Jesus at the cross. Galatians 3:13 says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’” Our sinless Savior became a “worker of lawlessness” in our place, bearing our sins in his body on the tree and feeling what it is like to be told by the Father “Depart from me.”

This word about Jesus is no good luck charm. It is a word that gives life and grace. It’s a powerful word, as we heard St. Paul last week say, “it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” (Rom. 1:16) The curse is removed. The blessing of forgiveness is bestowed. The righteousness of Christ becomes yours by faith ... by repenting of your sins and trusting in Christ’s payment for your sins with his own blood. “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law ... the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation [an atoning sacrifice ... a “covering over”] by his blood, to be received by faith.” (Rom. 3:21-25)

Jesus also told a parable about two men who built a house. One built it on sand. The other built it on rock. The wise man’s house on the rock was the only one that withstood the forces that pummeled it. That man was able to live in that house. He staked his life on it. The foundation was solid. He could trust that he and his family were safe inside, no matter what went on outside.

God’s Word is like that. God’s Word gives life and grace because it is the only solid foundation upon which to build your life. You can stake your eternal life on it. His promises are always and eternally sure. With God’s Word surrounding you ... with God’s Word at the center of your family life ... you can trust that you and your family will be safe in God’s grace, no matter what goes on around you.

And don’t pride yourself on being such a good builder. In the parable, remember, it wasn’t the way the house was built that kept it intact. It was the foundation ... solid rock! Likewise, it’s not the way you’ve structured your life that keeps your faith intact. It’s the foundation upon which your life is built. Give credit where credit is due. It’s not about the building. It’s about the foundation. You had nothing to do with it. It’s all about God’s Word. It’s all about the Gospel. It’s all about Christ Jesus and his cross and his empty tomb.

So lay up the Word of God in your heart and in your soul. Treasure the Word of God. Retain it in your memory. Love it. Let it help you when temptation comes your way, as David said, “I have hidden your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” (Psalm 119:11 NIV)

Bind the Word of God on your hand. Not in a leather box. Think of it this way. How do some people try to remember things with their hands? Years ago people used to tie a string on their finger. Some people write quick notes directly on their skin. Better yet, how about a wedding ring? What does a wedding ring do? It’s a reminder of what and who you are to be faithful to ... your wedding vows to your spouse. And so, figuratively speaking, you can bind God’s Word on your hand, reminding yourself to be faithful to God, reminding yourself that he was first faithful to you, and then putting God’s Word into practice with your hands, serving your neighbor in love.

Make God’s Word into a frontlet between your eyes. Again, not in a leather box strapped to your forehead. But treat God’s Word as if it is always right in front of you, going before your eyes, reminding you to take into your eyes only those things that are God-pleasing. Perhaps also you might say that this teaches us to see things through God’s perspective ... interpreting the events around us and the troubles and struggles before us with an eye to eternity.

And write God’s Word on the doorposts of your house. Not in a little box. And not as so much godly graffiti. But instead, let God’s Word frame and shape and inform all that goes on in your home.

And speaking of doorposts ... 40 years before Moses’ words in our text, the blood of a perfect lamb was once put on the doorposts of the homes of the children of Israel. The angel of death passed over. And the people were rescued from their slavery in Egypt, brought through the waters of the Red Sea, and made to be God’s own special people.

All this looked forward to the day when the blood of the Lamb of God was spilled out on the cross. God’s anger over sin has passed over. You and I are rescued from our slavery to death and the devil, brought through the waters of Baptism, and made to be God’s own special people. May this truth, the truth about the Word made flesh and crucified for you, be written on your heart both now and forever. Amen.

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