Sunday, March 10, 2019

Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent (March 10, 2019)

Lent 1 – Series C (March 10, 2019)
“How Do We Beat Temptation?” (Luke 4:1-13)

            What have you given up for Lent?  Anything?  Giving up something for Lent is one of those things we call “adiaphora.”  That’s the fancy theological term for something neither commanded nor forbidden in Scripture.  Still, many people do it.  It’s associated with the 40 days in Lent because of the 40 day fast that Jesus endured in the wilderness after his baptism.  Many people fast from certain things such as coffee or sweets or television.  Some people take a social media fast.  When we give something up for Lent, it’s meant to focus us on Jesus and how he gave up his life for us and for our salvation.
This year, I thought I might try to skip one meal during the day and only have one small serving of food the other meals.  That didn’t last long.  It didn’t even last past Ash Wednesday.  The soups were too good at our soup supper, and I ended up having three bowls!  I’m so weak!
But that’s not real temptation.  God doesn’t care if you have coffee during Lent, or a piece of chocolate, or an extra bowl of soup on Wednesday night.  God doesn’t even care if you check your Facebook notifications.  He does care about those temptations that come our way to sin against his commandments … the sins of not putting God first in our lives, neglecting his word and worship, disrespecting our parents and teachers and other authorities, looking at things on the internet that we should not be looking at, cheating on a test at school, talking about people behind their backs, the sins of greed and envy and … do you need me to continue?  I could, you know.  I don’t need a hidden camera in your home or a drone to follow you around to know that you are sinners.  Because I know that I am one, too.  Those sins I listed are all “sins of commission” … the sins we actively do.  Don’t forget about those “sins of omission,” too … the good we ought to be doing but fail to do.  And each of us have memories of things we’ve done in the past that we revel in rather than being repulsed by.
How do we beat it?  How do we beat temptation?  It seems impossible to avoid it.  It seems impossible to conquer it.  We fall so soon after we first feel tempted.  We throw in the towel and give up the fight in the first round.  Maybe we make it to the second or third round, but not likely.  In fact, we easily sin without even really being tempted.  We just let ‘er rip.  We walk right into it.  The devil doesn’t even have to get involved.  Our sinful nature gladly goes into high gear.
How do we beat temptation?
Today’s Gospel lesson reveals to us the battle that Jesus fought against the devil.  As soon as Jesus left the waters of his baptism, he was plunged into the desert to face Satan head on.  He was led there by the Spirit, St. Luke tells us.  This was all part of God’s plan.  Jesus fasted for forty days.  He was brought to a point of great weakness in his human nature.  Yet Jesus was not caught off guard by the devil, like we often are.  Temptation often sneaks up on us.  And the devil knows our weak condition, which is nothing like the condition which Jesus was in.
But even in his great weakness, Jesus beat temptation for you.  He overcame the devil’s cunning for you.  He is the linebacker on the offensive line who knocks down the blitzing defender, sending him humiliated into the turf.  He is the steamroller who flattens and smashes all obstacles in the road.  He is the army’s secret weapon who infiltrates enemy territory and foils their plans and rescues the prisoners of war.  And Jesus did this, not using his power as God, but staying strong as a Man.  He did this, feeling the full force of every temptation … not like us, who fall well before Satan runs out of fiery darts to shoot at us.  Where the first man Adam failed when he was tempted, the man Jesus – the Second Adam – succeeded.  And he did it all for you.  Jesus stayed faithful to his Father all the way to the cross so that he would be the perfect Lamb sacrificed for the sins of the world.
How do we beat temptation?  We beat temptation by staying connected to Jesus.  We trust in Jesus and “take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one” (Ephesians 6:16).
You don’t live by bread alone.  You feed on Jesus, the Bread of Life.  He comes to you in his Word.  He gives you his Body and Blood in the bread and wine of his Holy Supper.
You can’t have all the kingdoms of the world.  Who needs them?  You are a part of God’s kingdom by Holy Baptism and by faith.
You don’t need to test the Lord to see if he will really care for you.  Just look back at your life up to this point.  See how he has already cared for you in so many ways, carrying you through all kinds of challenges and difficulties and even temptations.  Your faithful Father will surely keep on caring for you.
When you do fall to temptation – and you will because you and I are so deeply depraved – remember that you have a righteous Savior who deeply loves you and forgives you and gives you his own righteousness.  Don’t beat yourself up, but beat a path to confession and absolution.  Do it here in the Divine Service.  Do it privately with your pastor when you have certain sins that persistently gnaw at your soul.
And just as Jesus used Holy Scripture against the devil’s temptations, we can, too.  As you spend time in God’s Word, here in the Divine Service and at home in your personal devotion time, you will find that the Holy Spirit really does work to mold you and shape you and strengthen you.  He will redirect your thoughts to what is pleasing to God, as St. Paul writes in Romans 12:  “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).
Jesus also invites us to join the battle against temptation in prayer.  He taught his disciples – and us – to pray: “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” … or “the evil one” as it can be translated.  Luther explained it this way in the Small Catechism: “God tempts no one. We pray in this petition that God would guard and keep us so that the devil, the world, and our sinful nature may not deceive us or mislead us into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice.  Although we are attacked by these things, we pray that we may finally overcome them and win the victory.”
In the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he was crucified, Jesus told the disciples to pray.  He told them to “Pray that you may not enter temptation” (Luke 22:40).  But they did.  They fell asleep, failing to pray, while their Lord agonized over going to the cross.  Judas showed up with his opponents, betrayed his Teacher, and the phrase “Judas kiss” was born.  Jesus’ opponents arrested him in order to murder him.
The first temptation happened in a garden, and the First Adam fell.  The final temptations of the Second Adam happened in a garden, and he remained faithful.  This was probably the “opportune time” which Satan was waiting for in order to strike at Jesus one more time.  But he failed again.  Jesus kept his eye on the prize – the joy that was set before him: forgiveness and paradise for you – until his final breath, until the very last necessary drop of his blood was shed.
St. John tells us that, in the place where Jesus was crucified and buried, there was another garden (John 19:41) and a new tomb where Jesus’ dead body was laid.  It was from this garden that new life blossomed.  Jesus rose again.  The banners of Jesus’ certain victory over sin, death, and the devil were unfurled.  Now, when we are tempted, we draw strength from his resurrection and his ascension into heaven, as the author of Hebrews says, “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.  Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16).
That’s how you beat temptation.  By relying on the one who beat temptation for you.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Sermon for the Transfiguration of Our Lord (March 3, 2019)

The Transfiguration of Our Lord (March 3, 2019)
Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Luke 9:28-36

            Put yourself in Moses’ place this morning.  Forty years you have been traveling, leading the people of Israel.  Now, they are on the brink of entering the land that God promised them.  A land of their own.  A fruitful land.  A land flowing with milk and honey, as he described it.  Beats the barren desert you’ve been traveling through and camping in.  Beats being enslaved in Egypt, where your people had lived for about 400 years.  Beats being chased by Egyptian armies as you flee.  Thankfully, Yahweh rescued you at the Red Sea, parting the waters for you.  But then, hunger and thirst struck again in the desert.  There was no food.  No water.  You had to rely on manna from heaven.  Quail delivered from the Lord.  Water from a rock.  All this was quite miraculous.  Yet it still was not “home,” the land where your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had lived, the land promised many years prior to them.
            Now, here you are, standing on Mount Nebo, a mountain peak to the east of the Jordan River opposite the city of Jericho.  From there, God lets you see the Promised Land.  This is the goal!  The finish line!  What you have been waiting for!  And yet, it is denied to you.  You can’t reach it.  You can’t have it.  You can’t go in.  Such disappointment.  All you can do is look longingly.  All your hopes and dreams have been taken away from you.
            Why?  Why could Moses not cross the Jordan with the Israelites?  One act of disobedience kept Moses from entering the Promised Land.  There was that moment when Yahweh told him to speak to a rock in order that water might come out and quench the thirst of the Israelites.  But instead of merely speaking to the rock, he struck the rock twice with his staff and said, “Hear now, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” (Numbers 20:10).  It was as if Moses was taking credit for this miraculous event rather than giving glory to God.  And the Lord responded to Moses, saying, “Because you did not believe me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them” (Numbers 20:12).  Can you imagine Moses’ devastation?  Would he have taken the chance to beg God for a “do over”?  “I’m sorry, Lord.  I’m so sorry.  Give me one more chance.  I’ll do it exactly as you told me the next time.”  But it was too late.  The damage had been done.  No Promised Land for Moses.
            Can you relate to Moses?  Think about the plans you have made.  Your goals.  Your projects.  Your hopes and dreams.  If you’re young, you have your whole life ahead of you.  You are excited to start your own personal journey and accomplishing so many things.  But I’m sure you have had your disappointments, too … when certain things have not worked out the way you’ve planned.  Ask us older folks.  We know all about disappointment.  Plans that have gone awry.  Goals not met.  Projects left unfinished.  Unfulfilled hopes and dreams.  Your life has not gone exactly as you had imagined it.  A career path you had planned as taken a different fork in the road … or maybe a sharp left turn … or maybe it was a U-turn.  Disease has invaded your body or the body of a loved one.  Disorder has affected your family, and there are arguments and fights and estrangement.  Death has taken a traveling partner away from you, and you give up on the goals you set together.
            Why do we get so brokenhearted about all these things?  Why do we have this sense of direction, like our life is supposed to mean something, that all this has a point and a purpose?  Why do we feel the desire to be happy and fulfilled?  Why do we get disappointed when our plans go haywire?  If we’re just evolved animals, our life should have no real ultimate meaning.  We’re just here today and gone tomorrow.  No big deal.  Death is the end.  That’s all there is to it.  What’s the point in being disappointed or devastated when our life doesn’t turn out the way we hoped?  We’re just acting on instincts and impulses anyway, right?
            Deep down we know there is more to life than just “getting by.”  Deep down we know that there is more to life than what meets the eye.  All the plans we make, all the goals we have, all the desires for joy inside of us are evidence of a greater joy and an eternal destiny that God intends for us.  He has set eternity in our hearts, the writer of Ecclesiastes declared (Ecclesiastes 3:11).  We are looking forward to the Promised Land of heaven, everlasting life, resurrection, the new heaven and new earth promised to us.
            Moses had more than just one sin of which he was guilty.  But it was that one act of disobedience of which we spoke earlier that kept him out of the Promised Land.
            You and I have many acts of disobedience for which we are guilty and for which we must repent.  All of them will potentially keep us out of the eternal Promised Land of heaven.  And often, our consciences are bothered by one particular sin that eats at us, we can’t forget about it, we keep thinking about it and wondering, “Is this the one act of disobedience that will keep me out of the Promised Land of heaven?”
            One sin kept Moses out.  And yet, in today’s Gospel reading, Moses appears with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration … in the Promised Land.  He made it there after all.  He got to plant his feet there along with the prophet Elijah and with the Lord Jesus, with Peter, James, and John looking on.
            After this moment of glory on the mountain, Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51) where he would die for the sins of the world.  Jesus died for the one sin of Moses and for all his sins.  Jesus died for the sins of Elijah.  Jesus died for the sins of the three who got to view that glorious sight on the mountain.  Jesus died for your one sin that gnaws at your soul and for all sins which would keep you out of the eternal Promised Land.  Moses was forgiven. Elijah was forgiven.  The apostles were forgiven.  And you are forgiven.
            That glorious sight on the mountain – Jesus’ divine nature shining through his human body, and Moses and Elijah appearing alive with Jesus – is a preview of the glory of eternity and the resurrection of all flesh.  It’s no longer about the land.  It never really was.  The Promised Land of Canaan – or Palestine as the Romans called it – was only a foretaste of the heavenly land, the heavenly Jerusalem, the eternal house of God that all the patriarchs and prophets were looking forward to.  The author of Hebrews wrote, “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.  For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.  If they had been thinking of that land from which they gone out, they would have had opportunity to return.  But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.  Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city” (Hebrews 11:13-16).
            You and I live in the light of the finished work of Jesus … his death and resurrection.  By baptism and by faith we receive the blessings and benefits of his death and resurrection … the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.  Yet there are still some things that we see and greet from afar.  We still live in this broken world of sin.  We don’t yet see the victory of Jesus over sin with our own eyes.  Here, before the altar, we stand on Mount Nebo, and get a glimpse of our homeland in the body and blood of Jesus.  Jesus is with us here, standing right with us, in his divine glory, hidden under the bread and the wine.
            In our previous hymnal, one of the offertories we would sing before the Sacrament of the Altar went, “Let the vineyards be fruitful, Lord, and fill to the brim our cup of blessing. Gather a harvest from the seeds that were sown that we may be fed with the bread of life.  Gather the hopes and dreams of all.  Unite them with the prayers we offer.  Grace our table with your presence and give us a foretaste of the feast to come.”  When I was at seminary, we used to make fun of those words, “Gather the hopes and dreams of all.”  “What does that even mean?” we would ask.  But you know, the older I get, the more I’m beginning to understand those words.  We all have hopes and dreams that go unmet and unfulfilled.  And some of us are getting to the end of our lives where we’ve run out of time to finish our plans, meet our goals, complete our projects.  Those hopes and dreams, whatever they may be for each of us, are buried deep within us.  They are evidence of those larger hopes and dreams that God has placed within our believing hearts, that we are destined for more than just getting by and surviving in this life on this side of the veil.  In Christ Jesus, God gathers your hopes and dreams and unites them with the prayers we offer here and says, “Whatever your hopes and dreams, I have bigger plans for you.  Eternal plans.  A plan to give you hope and a future in the glory of my eternal Promised Land.  In the resurrection, you will stand there with Moses, Elijah, Peter, James, John, all the apostles, all the departed saints, all your baptized believing loved ones who went before you.  Look to the Mount of Transfiguration to be reminded of your heavenly destiny.  And look to the altar where I gather your hopes and dreams and give you a foretaste of the feast to come.”