Sunday, October 20, 2019

Sermon for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost (October 20. 2019)

Pentecost 19 – Series C/Proper 24 (October 20, 2019)
“Salve for Itching Ears” (2 Timothy 3:14-4:5)
What makes your ears itch?  Could be an infection.  Could be a build up of wax.  Maybe a bug flew in there.  You might want to talk to a pharmacist.  They might have some salve that you could use to help your condition.
When Paul talks about “itching ears” he means something entirely different.  He writes, “the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions.”  In other words, they have ears that are eager to hear only pleasant things, only those things that they want to hear, teachings that don’t necessarily make any demands upon them, teachings that keep them from being held accountable.  And so, the teachers they like to listen to will never talk about things like sin or judgment or condemnation for sinful behavior.  The teachers they choose to listen to will emphasize a certain nebulous “spirituality.”  They will encourage you to be “spiritual, but not religious.”  That usually means one of two things.  One, you don’t need to go to church because the Church is just another oppressive, bigoted institution.  Or two, you can pick and choose whatever you want to believe, like going to the Golden Corral and having all sorts of choices in front of you.  You don’t like asparagus?  Then move on to the mashed potatoes and gravy and put that on your plate.  You don’t like having to believe in Jesus as God in the Flesh?  Then move on to the idea that everyone is a little god and that your words are powerful to create your own reality.
            But that would be one of many foolish myths that Paul warns about, those superstitious beliefs that do not lead to salvation.  He mentioned this in his previous letter to Timothy.  In 1 Timothy 1:4 Paul tells Timothy to charge his hearers not to devote themselves “to myths and endless genealogies.”  Apparently, there were teachers who were inventing fanciful stories based on the lists of names in the Old Testament.  In our day, I can remember some friends who got themselves tangled up with a group who had their own problem with genealogies.  In the living room of their home, they had these huge charts that – so they claimed – proved Queen Elizabeth was directly descended from King David, and therefore all the promises given to the people of Israel now apply to England and also America because of our original connection to England.  And that’s all they talked about.  It was weird stuff.
Later, in 1 Timothy 4, Paul writes, “the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons,” for example, forbidding marriage and requiring abstinence from certain foods.  The truth is, though, your marital status has nothing to do with your status before God.  What you put in your mouth has nothing to do with your salvation, only what goes into your soul via your ears and what you ultimately believe.
What do you suppose are the prominent myths that people’s ears are itching to hear today?  One is most certainly the way many have rejected the God-ordained order in creation, the attempt to separate the body from the soul, the idea that what you do with your body does not matter.  A loud segment of society would have us believe that the order of male and female no longer matter, that you can be whatever you want to be or identify as.  This is a clear rejection of God’s good creation … although we know that this creation is certainly fallen.  That’s why we also should recognize the need to love people and be merciful and compassionate when they are struggling with these matters of gender and identity.  At the same time, we dare not succumb to the myth and the demonic deceit that makes us say “Well, at least my sin is not as bad as all those other people!”  And we excuse ourselves and try to justify the things we do that separate us from God.  Any and all sin finally is a rejection of God’s order and God’s intention for his redeemed creatures.
We must recognize our own fallen condition.  We must recognize our own need to repent of our sins.  And then, instead of having our itching ears satisfied, we fill our ears with the God-breathed sacred writings that Paul says “are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”  They are able to do this, they are powerful, because they are indeed God-breathed.  They are God’s own Words to us.  They have the power of the Holy Spirit working in them and through them, as St. Peter writes, “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).  The preached Word of Law goes into our ears and into our hearts so that we recognize our sinful condition that deserves everlasting condemnation.  Then, the preached Word of the Gospel – the saving message of Christ crucified and risen for the sins of the world – goes into our ears and into our hearts so that we can by faith receive the gifts of God … forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation.
Moreover, this faith is something that God gives even to the littlest among us, and we need to expose them to the Word of God at the earliest moments of their lives.  I bring this up not just because of all the babies we’ve been blessed with lately here at Messiah.  I mention it because of something Paul says in our text.  When Paul says to Timothy that “from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings,” the word there for “child” is brephos in Greek which literally means “infant.”  Paul says that Timothy was acquainted with God’s Word from the time he was a little baby.  And that’s something we should do, too.  So expose your babies, your brephoi, to the inspired Word of God.  Let them hear it in the womb.  Remember how St. John jumped for joy in his mother’s womb when Mary, with Jesus in her womb, came to visit.  Bring your babies to baptism, the Word and promises of God connected to the water.  Make the Word of God a part of your life at home.  Bring your babies and children to Sunday School and later to confirmation instruction and youth group Bible studies.  Bring them first and foremost to the Divine Service, even while they are in the womb, because this is the place where they will be formed and shaped by the texts that we hear in the liturgy and the lectionary.  This is the shape of our life as adult children of God, too … constantly being formed and shaped by the sacred writings that are able to make us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  We need to support all these families with these little brephoi.  And when we see these little ones, totally dependent on their mothers and fathers, it teaches us about faith.  It teaches us that we are all children, totally dependent upon our heavenly Father for everything, including and especially the gift of salvation by grace through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.
The message of the cross of Christ is not going to satisfy any itching ears, that’s for sure.  It involves sin and death.  It’s uncomfortable.  It means I’m guilty.  It means I’m accountable to someone bigger than me.  But that should not stop us from doing as Paul says to Pastor Timothy and to all pastors and congregations: “Preach the Word; be ready in season and out of season, reprove, rebuke, exhort, with complete patience and teaching.”  We should never stop preaching the message of the cross of Christ, because that’s the very message that our ears and our hearts need to hear.  Yes, it involves sin and death.  But it ends in forgiveness and resurrection.  Yes, it’s uncomfortable, but Jesus comforts us with mercy and compassion.  Yes, we are guilty, but the blood of Jesus declares us not guilty.  Yes, I’m accountable to someone bigger than me.  But that bigger someone is our loving Father who “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).
That might not be the salve you want for your itching ears.  But it’s the only one that’s going to do the job of bringing you to and keeping you in the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter (May 19, 2019)

Easter 5 – Series C (May 19, 2019)
“Do People Know You Are a Disciple of Jesus?” (John 13:31-35)
It’s the night that Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper.  He is gathered with his chosen disciples in the Upper Room in Jerusalem.  And he gives them a new commandment … to love one another.
Now, that sounds easy enough.  Love one another.  Okay.  I can do that.  That’s just one I have to remember.  Not like having to remember TEN.  And those Ten Commandments, well, they’re a bit harder to keep.  Love?  I can handle that.
But can you?  Is it really all that easy?  And is it really all that new?  Jesus had already referred to this when a lawyer asked him, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” (Matthew 22:36). Jesus answered by quoting passages from Deuteronomy (6:5) and Leviticus (19:18): “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-39).  So there you have it.  Even in the Old Testament, the Law is summarized by “Love God.  Love your neighbor.”
So, what’s so new about what Jesus has to say here?  Jesus says to love “just as I have loved you.”  And how would the disciples have understood that?  Jesus demonstrated it earlier that night when he washed their feet.  That was the job of a slave.  Their teacher, their master, their Savior, their God humbled himself and acted as if he was their servant.  He knelt down in the dust and got all dirty for them, to cleanse their feet.  He put his own needs, his own ego, his own rights as their superior aside and served them sacrificially.  And the next day, he would be nailed up on a cross and get all bloody for them, to cleanse their souls.  To cleanse our souls.  Love “just as I have loved you” means to love by acting as a servant, by setting your own needs, your own ego, your own position aside and serve others sacrificially.  By being willing to give up your life for someone.
Easy?  Now, we’re not so sure anymore, are we?  And loving others is even harder when it comes to loving people who aren’t very lovable … people who annoy us, people who are obnoxious, people who have done something that deeply hurt us, people who have radically different politics than us.  Loving others is harder when it comes to loving those toward whom we have some long-standing prejudices.  Take Peter, for example in our first reading Acts.  There he is reporting to the church in Jerusalem how, after receiving a vision in Joppa, he went to Caesarea to the household of Cornelius – an uncircumcised Gentile of all things! – and witnessed how the Holy Spirit came upon them and granted them “repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18).  Prior to this, Peter would have never set foot in the house of an unclean Gentile.  Jews simply did not do this.  But in his vision, he saw a sheet coming down out of heaven, with shrimp and lobster and bacon cheeseburgers (okay, there weren’t really bacon cheeseburgers), all kinds of things that the Old Covenant had forbidden them to eat.  A voice told Peter to dig in.  Peter said, “No way.  I’ve never eaten anything unclean.”  And the voice replied, “What God has made clean, do not call unclean.”  Peter grabbed the clue.  All those old, long-standing bigotries and prejudices were set aside.  He went to Cornelius’ home, preached the Gospel, baptized everyone who heard the Good News, and stayed with them for a few days, eating and drinking with them … Christian fellowship, oneness in Christ, showing love for one another.  But old habits die hard.  Later on, we read in Paul’s letter to the Galatians that Peter fell back into his old prejudices and refused to eat with Gentiles.  Paul had to call him out on that.
“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another,” Jesus says.  Do people know you are a disciple of Jesus?  Do we live like the first believers did as described in Acts 2: “…they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers … all who believed were together and had all things in common … they were selling their possession and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.  And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people” (Acts 2:42-47).  The second century church father Tertullian, from Carthage in North Africa, famously quoted the pagans around him who observed the Christians and said, “See how they love one another.”  Love was apparently one of the distinguishing marks of the early church. 
But even people who are not Christians can love.  So what makes us different?  What makes someone a disciple of Christ?  After the resurrection, Jesus sent his apostles out with this word: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).  Baptizing and teaching.  That’s how disciples are made.
In Jesus’ day, disciples chose their teachers.  It’s the other way around with Jesus.  He chooses you.  He calls you to faith by baptism and by the Word of God.  The Holy Spirit works through those means to give you faith.
A disciple also listens to his teacher and learns from him.  That’s what you are doing right now.  Listening to the Word of Jesus here in the Divine Service.  Listening to his Word at home as you read it by yourself or together with other family members.  You are a disciple of Jesus.  Baptized and taught by him.  And the Holy Spirit produces the fruit of love in you as a disciple.
Yes, we need to repent of the ways in which we have not loved well.  But you are forgiven.  Jesus loved you and still loves you today with a humble, sacrificial love.
Take note, too, what happened on either side of today’s Gospel reading.  Jesus washed the disciples’ feet as a picture of humble, sacrificial service.  And then comes our text.  It begins with these words: “when he had gone out.”  When who went out?  Judas!  The one who betrayed the Lord.  Jesus knew what Judas was going to do, and yet he still lovingly washed the feet of the one who would betray him and never return in faith.  Then, right after our text, Jesus says that Peter will deny him.  It happened that same night.  Jesus knew it was going to happen.  And yet Jesus still lovingly washed the feet of the one who denied him three times and did return in faith to “feed [Christ’s] sheep” and eventually give his own life for his confession of faith.  And our Lord Jesus loves you so much that he humbly and sacrificially served you by dying for you at the cross, even though you have not loved well, even though you and I have failed him in so many ways.
Jesus addresses his disciples as “Little children.”  They’re not so little, you might say.  But how are they like children here?  Their Lord is about to leave them.  They are unsure of what this all means.  They are scared.  Confused.  Dependent.  But completely loved by their Teacher.  He does not demand allegiance.  He does not coerce them to love him.  He does not beat them like a cruel schoolmaster.  He treats them with mercy and compassion.  He serves them.
In the same way, you are “little children” to him.  We can be scared.  We can be confused.  And we are totally dependent upon our Lord and Master.  We are lifelong disciples of Jesus.  We never stop learning.  We never stop growing.  We continue to listen to his Word in the Scriptures.  We continue to be fed and nourished by his body and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar.
He humbled himself by taking on the form of a servant.  He who washed us in Holy Baptism.  He loved us by giving his life for us.  He empowers us to love one another as he has loved us.  And he has promised, “Behold, I am making all things new.”  There will come a day when all our fear and confusion will come to an end.  But our dependence upon him will continue into eternity.
“The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son” (Rev. 21:7).  Your Lord Jesus, the Son of God, conquered sin, death, and hell for you.  In baptism, his victory becomes yours.  You are more than a conqueror through him who loved you.  Jesus’ Father is your Father.  He is your God.  You are Christ’s disciples now.  You are God’s sons and daughters forever.

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.