Sunday, February 3, 2013

Sermon for the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany (February 3, 2013)

Wordle: Untitled

Text: Jeremiah 1:4-10, 17-19
          In the face of seeming failure and opposition, God is present and active with his Word in our lives to manifest Christ.
          Take Jeremiah, for example.  You want to talk about failure and opposition?  Jeremiah’s a good place to start.  For much of his ministry, no one listened to him.  Both religious and political leaders maligned him.  His message seemed to be the opposite of what you would expect.  When the Babylonians were on their way to take the people of Judea into exile, the Lord told Jeremiah that this was all part of his plan.  This was part of his discipline for their unfaithfulness.  Tell the people to go.  And when they get there, make a home for themselves.  Settle in.  In seventy years, the Lord would restore the people to Judea.
          That’s not what everyone wanted to hear, however.  What did they do?  They sought an alliance with Egypt rather than trust in the Lord.  They sought to rebel against the Babylonian invaders.  They made Jeremiah’s life miserable, accusing him of being a traitor, throwing him in prison, later down a slimy cistern.  Still later he was dragged down to Egypt with some of those who remained in Judea and attempted to escape exile in Babylon … again, against the clear word of the Lord. 
          In his darkest hours, Jeremiah had to constantly remember his call to be a prophet.  Back in the days of good King Josiah, back when things weren’t so bad for him, the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah.  “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you;  I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”  Jeremiah had to remind himself of his identity and vocation as God’s chosen prophet.  The Holy Spirit came to him through the Word that came to him and enabled him to stand firm, to be, as the Lord said, “a fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests, and the people of the land.  They will fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, declares the Lord, to deliver you.”
          In your darkest hours, it’s important for you to remember God’s call in your life.  Before all time began, he knew you, just like he knew Jeremiah.  Your whole life is laid out in front of him.  He knows your struggles.  He knows your pain.  He also sees you in your sin.  He knows all that you have done and will do that is against his commandments.  He knows your deepest, darkest thoughts and attitudes that deserve his wrath and condemnation.  And yet, he still chose to love you by sending his Son to be your Savior.  He loves you and forgives you for the sake of Christ, into whose death and resurrection you were baptized.
          Take comfort in God’s intimate knowledge of you.  Before he formed you in the womb he knew you.  Take comfort in God’s plan for you.  He consecrated you.  He set you apart in Holy Baptism as a royal priest to serve and intercede on behalf of others who need your love and care.  As we heard last week, he has given each of you special gifts and talents to use as members of the Body of Christ.  He sends us back into the world to manifest Christ in our lives in both words and actions.
          We know all this.  Yet you and I have great fear in the face of duty.  You heard Jeremiah’s excuses.  “I don’t know what to say” … “I’m too young.”  You may remember others who made excuses when the Lord called them for a specific task.  Moses made excuses: “Who am I to do this, Lord?” (Ex. 3:11) … “Nobody will listen to me” (Ex. 4:1) … “I’m not a good public speaker” (Ex. 4:10) … “Please send someone else” (Ex. 4:13).  Isaiah didn’t make any excuses, per se, but he certainly thought his sinfulness disqualified him from being God’s prophet.  “Woe is me!” he said. “For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips.”  How can these unclean lips bear upon them the Holy Word of the Lord God Almighty?
          And you and I make excuses, too, when we are called to serve.  I’m too young.  Too inexperienced.  Too tongue-tied.  I can’t do it.  I don’t know how.  It’s not my gift.  Not right now, maybe later.  In our sinful weakness and uncertainty, we don’t feel much like a “fortified city, an iron pillar…a bronze wall.”  We feel more like a like a rundown slum, a rotten fencepost, a muddy pothole.  Like Jeremiah, it’s hard to rise above your sins and struggles when you are in the pits, up to your neck in mud and muck.
          But there is no fear when God is present.  The Lord told Jeremiah, “Do not be afraid … for I am with you.”  He told Moses, “I will be with you” (Ex. 3:12).  And in Isaiah’s vision, an angel took a hot coal from the altar, placed it upon Isaiah’s sinful mouth, and said, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for” (Is. 6:7).
           There is no fear when God is present, especially when he is present with his forgiving grace.  He is present for you today in the word of absolution.  He is present for you today in the Word of Christ you hear today.  He is present for you on the altar today, and Christ’s Body and Blood will touch your lips, the very Body and Blood which takes away your guilt and atoned for you sins.
          There is no fear when God is present, and this equally applies when we serve in our vocations and speak the Gospel when he gives us opportunities.  St. Paul wrote to Timothy, “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Tim. 1:7).  Remember, too, that it is not our own words that we speak, but God’s Word.  The Lord told Jeremiah, “I have put my words in your mouth.”  And it is God’s Word that bears the Holy Spirit and works faith (2 Pet. 1:21).
          God made Jeremiah bold in the face of opposition and persecution, even when it seemed like no one was listening.  But speaking God’s Law and Gospel is tough at times.  We can be easily intimidated by the arguments that people make.  We live in a culture that sees all viewpoints as equal.  For many people, all religious roads lead to the same destination.  No truth is absolute … which in itself is self-contradictory, because claiming there is no absolute truth is an absolute statement.
          Jesus faced opposition, too.  If it happened to him, it will happen to his followers … prophets, apostles, pastors, and people in the pew.  Like Jeremiah, Jesus was opposed by the leaders, the teachers, and the so-called religious people of the day.  And as God in the flesh, Jesus was opposed by the devil and his demons, tempting him and taunting him and terrorizing his creation.
          Jesus had to remember his call.  Before he was formed in the womb of the Virgin Mary, he was the eternal Son of God.  Before he was born, he was consecrated, set apart to be the Savior of the world.  Jesus was confirmed as the Messiah when he was baptized by John, and the Father spoke, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22) … and we’ll hear those words again next week on the Mount of Transfiguration as the Father prepares his Son to face the cross.
          Jesus knew his identity and he faced his mission with perfect faith in his Father.  The night before his crucifixion for the sins of the world, in the Garden of Gethsemane, he made no excuses why he should not fulfill his vocation as the Savior.  Instead, he prayed, “Not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).  Jesus was a city, a pillar, a wall in the face of temptation, persecution, and crucifixion.  He was beaten down for us.  He was killed for us.  He endured God’s wrath in our place.  It looked like he was conquered.  But in the end, he prevailed.
          Through his death and resurrection, you and I are forgiven and delivered from all the evil forces seen and unseen that are arrayed against us and Christ’s Church.  Jesus promised that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church (Matt. 16:18).  The gates of the Church may seem as if they are rotten and crumbling at times.  But Christ our firm foundation stands firm.  God has brought us into his kingdom by baptism and by faith.  The Holy Christian Church is “a fortified city” with iron pillars and bronze walls.  We are safe inside her everlasting gates.  And our Lord Jesus sends us forth with faith in our Father and without fear to fulfill our callings and to manifest the love of Christ in our lives.

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