Saturday, April 12, 2014

Blessed is He Who Comes to Die

Sermon on Matthew 26 – 27
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
April 13, 2014 (Palm Sunday)

Did your part in the Passion reading make you uncomfortable?  Specifically the part where the congregation are the ones who read the words, “Let Him be crucified!”?  Was it difficult for you to play the part of the “bad guys” in the story?  Good.  That was the intention.  To put yourself into the place of those who were calling for our Lord’s death isn’t something we like to do.  We like to think that if we’d been there we wouldn’t have been doing that.  We’d like to think that we would have been with that other crowd, instead, the one that was calling out “Hosanna in the highest” back on Sunday.  We all fool ourselves into thinking we’re good people and that we know better than those who were calling for Jesus to be crucified.

The problem is, it isn’t true.  It was our sins that put him there.  It was our selfishness and meanness and lust and anger and envy and pride that nailed him to the cross.  Every time we put ourselves before others or God, we are, in effect, shouting out, “Let Him be crucified.”  Every time we covet what is not ours, we drive the nails in deeper.  Every time we put the worst construction on the words and actions of our brothers and sisters in Christ, we join the mob mocked and jeered Him as He hung up there dying.  The fact is, by our actions we do shout “Let Him be crucified” every day.  We just don’t like to admit it.  We don’t like to admit that we’re sinners, or that we make mistakes and judge our brothers and sisters poorly and say words which hurt others.  But we do.

Of course, that’s the whole point.  It’s because we’re sinful and corrupt, turned away from God and our neighbor towards ourselves, that Jesus came to earth in the first place.  That’s why he took on human flesh, and lived our life, suffered our pains and sorrows, and died our death.  Looked at from one direction, it was we who put Him into that position by our sin and selfishness.  But looked at from the other direction, it was a willing sacrifice He made for us and for our salvation.  He died to save us, and He did so willingly, out of love.  He didn’t think that being God was something to be bragged about, like the spoils taken after a battle, but made Himself nothing, and humbled Himself even to the point of death on the cross.

The crucifixion wasn’t a mistake or a defeat for Christ as some thought.  No, it was all according to His Father’s plan and will, and it was done out of His love for us sinners.  The guilt and the pain of the sins of everyone who had ever lived and ever would live was borne by Him so that He could pay the price for all of that sin.  He died so that we can live forever.  He suffered the pain and torment of separation from His Father so that we can be united with Him in eternity.  It was for us that He did all of this, and for our salvation.

And because He did this for you and me, it was precisely through all of this that He shows Himself to be our true King, our true Lord.  As the Catechism puts it, “I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me.”  He is my Lord because He has redeemed me.  He is my king because He is the one who gained entrance for me into His kingdom through His suffering and death.  God’s true glory is found in showing mercy and pity, not in proud displays.  What we praise Him and thank Him for first and foremost is not the fact that He sits in the heavens surrounded by multitudes of angels who sing “Holy, Holy, Holy,” but in the fact that He showed Himself to be God by His humility.  God is the provider and giver.  Which means that it is His love for sinners that shows Him most clearly to be God.  It is His love for sinners, shown in the forgiveness of sins, that motivates us to go and discuss His salvation with our fellow sinners, not His high and mighty sovereignty over heaven and earth.  The mountaintop experience that drives us to go and tell the Good News, in other words, takes place on the mountain of Golgotha and nowhere else.

And so Good Friday is not the ignominious end of the movement that seemed so full of promise and hope the previous Sunday.  Instead, Good Friday is precisely where the King hailed the previous Sunday comes into His own.  He was doing precisely what He came to Jerusalem to do.  The King of the Jews had in fact claimed His throne, but His throne was made of wood, from which He hung rather than being seated on it.  He had claimed His crown, but that crown was made of thorns.  The crowd on Good Friday were reacting to Christ out of the hate and anger that was in their sinful hearts—the same hate and anger toward God and toward authority that is in all of our sinful hearts—but they were asking for what Christ had come to do in the first place.  They were asking for Jesus to be crucified, which is precisely what He had come to do.  We might be horrified and sickened by the sight of Christ on the cross.  Good Friday reminds us that sin has consequences.  It reminds us that the forgiveness of sin is not just a matter of saying, “Oh, God will forgive me because He’s just a nice God.”  It reminds us that the forgiveness of sins is a matter of Jesus suffering and dying a horrid, bloody, painful execution in our place, which means that sin, including our sin, is serious, bloody, painful business.  It is a reminder to us that we all were among those who shouted, “Crucify Him!  Crucify Him!” that first Good Friday, because it was our sin that put Him there.  But He does it willingly.  He does it out of love for His creatures.  He does it because He is a God who is love, and that means that he will give Himself up to death so that we might have eternal life.

It is from this perspective that we can truly understand what the crowd was saying when they welcomed Jesus as their King that first Palm Sunday.  That crowd probably didn’t understand fully what they were doing themselves.  After all, they were probably expecting an earthly king.  But they were correct in welcoming Jesus as their King, because that’s what He was.  That’s what He is.  He is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.  He is God Himself, who reigns over us.  But His reign over us is precisely from the cross.  He reigns over us, by giving Himself up for our sakes so that we might have life.  Just as the crowd did, we welcome His coming among us to reign in triumph from the Tree, with the very same words in the Communion Liturgy as the crowd used that first Palm Sunday almost 2000 years ago: “Hosanna!  Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest!”  From the cross He comes to us and gives us His body and blood, so that, united with Him we may never be parted from Him either here or in eternity.  Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.  Hosanna in the highest.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Resurrection and the Life

Sermon on John 11:1-53
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
April 6, 2014 (Fifth Sunday in Lent)

This was it.  This was the last straw.  This was the event that finally convinced the religious leaders in Jerusalem once and for all that Jesus needed to die.  They couldn’t simply try to discredit Him or make Him look foolish any more.  Bethany was not far from Jerusalem, and many from Jerusalem knew Lazarus had died, and now saw him walking around alive.  There was no longer any way to convince the people that Jesus wasn’t who He claimed to be: the Son of God, the promised Messiah, come to rescue the world from sin and death.  Now the only course of action left to the Sanhedrin, if they wanted to hold on to their power over the people, was to eliminate Jesus entirely, by finding a way to have Him executed.

It’s kind of ironic that it was precisely by demonstrating that He is the Resurrection and the Life, the One over whom Death itself had no power, that He put Himself in a situation where His own death became inevitable.  It shows just how perverse was the thinking of the Jewish leaders of the time.  They had to have figured out by now that Jesus really was who He claimed to be.  That’s what made Him so dangerous.  You can’t argue with or discredit the true Messiah.  You can’t simply ignore or publicly embarrass God Himself.  It’s precisely because He really was who He said He was that the chief priests wanted Him dead.  It’s precisely because He represented God’s own condemnation of their leadership that they needed to get Him out of the picture.

And we are no different than they were.  It’s precisely because Jesus is God Himself in human flesh that we would rather He stay safely away from us.  We may call on Him now and again when things aren’t going so well for us, we might like to think of Him as an example for how to live an upright and moral life, or as a great teacher, or any of a thousand other things.  But to have Him come to us and take away from us any illusions we may have about our ability to please God on our own, to have Him come to us, not only to insult us by telling us even our best good works are filthy rags as far as He is concerned, but to give us salvation as a free gift and thereby destroy any hope we thought we had of pleasing God on our own, is simply intolerable.  And yet that’s what He does.  He comes to shatter any illusions we may have had that we are in any sort of control over our own relationship with God.  He comes to show us that only He who made us can restore us to the perfection we were meant to be.  He comes to take away any power we thought we had over our own lives.  And so we, with the chief priests, want Him dead, gone, and away from us.

But you can’t keep the one who is the Resurrection and the Life dead.  That’s the thing about God.  He’s God.  Even death itself is not an obstacle to Him, because He’s the one who made life in the first place.  Jesus is the Word the Father spoke at the beginning of creation, the Word that is so powerful that it speaks into existence what it says.  He is the life-giver, the one who sustains us and gives us everything we need to support this body and life.  He became man precisely so that He could die, but He’s still God, and so death itself is fatally poisoned by the attempt to swallow Him.  He spoke creation itself into existence, His word speaks Lazarus out of his tomb, free of whatever disease killed him, and free of the decay that ravaged his body afterward.  His word speaks life into us again, despite our wish that He leave us alone here in this tomb of an old, sin-filled world.  You can’t keep God dead, since He is life.

And so we who have become part of Him can’t be kept dead either.  The old, dead Adam in us thinks he can hold onto life by killing the Son of God, but he only ends up getting himself crucified with Him in the process.  He only ends up getting himself drowned in the water and blood that flowed from Jesus’ side, in which we were washed in Holy Baptism.  And since we joined Him in His death, we also join Him in His resurrection.  We also sit with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, not at their home in Bethany with the Sadducees looking on and gnashing their teeth, but in His home, where He is the host and the meal, where Mary, Martha, Lazarus, and all who have died in the faith gather, with the angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven, praising God eternally, eating His body crucified and drinking His blood shed for us.  We eat and drink the Resurrection and the Life, and receive eternal life itself in the process.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Hopefully this will be better . . .

I didn't realize the white text was going to be hard to read for some of our people.  Hopefully this is better.  If not, more tinkering will follow . . .

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Seeing Christ as He Is

Sermon on John 9:1-41
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
March 30, 2014 (Fourth Sunday in Lent)

“There are none so blind as those who do not want to see.”  People who physically cannot see usually still want to find out what is really happening around them, and often they will get a pretty good idea by using their other four senses, especially hearing.  However, when someone, whether physically sighted or blind, does not want to admit to the reality of something, they will find all sorts of excuses to pretend that they haven’t just seen that thing.  A child is asked to clean up the mess his room, and one of the first responses, in many cases, is, “what mess?”  (Men often respond like that to their wives, too.)  Sinful human beings will deny reality itself before they will admit to even plain and obvious facts that point out their own sin or their own duty that they would rather avoid.

This is the meaning behind what Jesus tells the Pharisees at the very end of today’s Gospel lesson.  It is those who claim to see reality but deny it that are guilty, rather than those who know their blindness and wish to be enlightened.  It is those who think that their relationship with God is on pretty good footing on the basis of what they do, that are most likely to ignore the very first Commandment, namely that God is the giver of everything, including salvation.  God is the one in whom we are to trust for all good things, not myself.  Those who know themselves to be poor, miserable sinners who cannot see God with their own reason or strength are the ones whom God has already prepared to receive the good news that God has come down to us by grace, in sending His Son, Jesus Christ, and in bringing that same Jesus Christ to them in water, words, bread, and wine, by the Holy Spirit’s power.

Our sinful, selfish pride causes us to be like the Pharisees.  We want to do it ourselves.  We want God to be pleased with us on the basis of our own works.  We want Him to see all the things we are doing for Him, and congratulate us, pat us on the back, and tell us we’ve earned a spot in His kingdom, or that we’ve earned a better spot in His kingdom than we otherwise would have had.  We want our own eyes, our own reason and strength, our own good works, to be good enough to get us something from God.  And whenever it is pointed out to us that even our best good works, even our most ardent zeal at witnessing or volunteering for the Church or whatever, is like filthy rags as far as God is concerned, that offends us and just makes us angry.  We want to ignore the fact that by trying to earn something from God we are breaking the First Commandment, the most important one from which all the others flow, and so it doesn’t matter how good the things we may be doing are for our church or our fellow human beings, God is not pleased.  We become blind as only anger can make us blind, and will not see the evidence that only He can, and has, bridged the gap between us and God.

But He has, in fact, bridged that gap, not from our end, but from His.  It was not because of anything special in the blind man that he was able to see.  It was a pure gift.  That’s what God does.  He gives gifts.  He’s not in the rewards business.  You can’t earn enough points with him to earn a even a little extra benefit.  Yes, the Scriptures do say that there will be different positions or vocations within eternal life, just as there are here on this earth, some higher than others, and that who we have been given to be in this world to some extent will be related to who we are given to be in eternity.  But that’s not about earning rewards.  That’s simply because He made each of us unique, and so our uniqueness works out in the ways He deems best, just as it does in this world.  Focusing, as many Christians unfortunately do, on rewards for our own works in heaven, even if we admit that getting there in the first place is a free gift, is still a selfish focus on what I can get out of the deal, and not a focus on love for God or the neighbor.  We are here to serve our neighbor in love, just as God serves us in love, and not to earn any rewards from the one who only wants to give us gifts.

God is a giver.  God is the creator, which means that He is the one who gives restoration of that creation.  He will sometimes open the eyes of the blind, either through the purely miraculous, as we see here, or through the gift of technological and medical advances, or whatever.  But notice how He does it this time.  It’s not just a miraculous healing.  It’s a healing that happens by means of water and dirt.  That’s what we are in this old world, after all, water and dirt.  In the new creation, however, we are much more than that.  He has given us to be part of His body.  Our perfected bodies (which are even how hidden under, our imperfect bodies made of mud and ashes) are nourished already by means of His body and blood.  Which means that whatever imperfections we have in this life are healed.  We won’t see it until the last day, but the new man in Christ is both body and soul, and that new man in Christ is nourished on the food of eternity.  All we see is bread and wine.  Then we shall see Him, and them, as He is.  All the blind who trust in Him as their Savior from sin, death, and the devil will have their sight completely and miraculously restored in the resurrection at the last day, as we see both Him and ourselves as He already sees us.  Even those of us who simply need glasses won’t need them then, and we will see Him clearly, face to face, in His glory.  We can’t ever do enough to earn that.  Thank God, we don’t have to.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Christ Cleanses His Bride in Living Water

Sermon on John 4:5-30, 39-42
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
March 23, 2014 (Third Sunday in Lent)

The well was the ancient equivalent of a singles’ bar.  The well was where Abraham’s servant met Rebekah, who would be Isaac’s wife, and where Jacob met Rachel and Leah.  Moses met his wife Zipporah at the well.  And so it’s more than a little odd that Jesus sits and has a conversation with this woman here.  Some would say it’s downright scandalous.  After all, as she points out, she’s a Samaritan, and shouldn’t be associating with Jesus, a Jew, especially in this place which is traditionally where people meet and find out about members of the opposite sex.  Not to mention that Jesus is the Son of God, the promised messiah, and this woman has not exactly kept the Sixth Commandment, You shall not commit adultery.  And so if we were among the disciples that day, we too would be more than a little uncomfortable and put off seeing Jesus talking to this woman at Jacob’s well.

Of course, Jesus isn’t flirting with her or courting her.  He is, rather, teaching her about the kingdom of God and about how the ancient Israelite religion was established for the purpose of pointing to Himself, and that while the Jewish worship of those days was, in fact, closer to what God had established than the Samaritan worship was, it was still not complete in itself, but only pointed forward to the day when Messiah Himself would come and bring forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation to everyone, and that God would be present not just on this mountain or that, but wherever God’s people gather to receive the Holy Spirit where He has promised to be found, the physical and visible preaching of God’s Word and the administration of His Sacraments.

While Jesus wasn’t flirting with this woman or seeking any sort of relationship in the earthly sense, I do think that He chose this venue to have a conversation with this woman in order to make a point, both to His disciples and to us.  You see, He came to bring the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation to sinners.  You can’t get the forgiveness of sins if you’re not a sinner.  As He points out elsewhere, it’s not those who are well that need a physician, but those who are sick.  The Church is more of a hospital than a gymnasium.  It’s a place where God comes to us to heal us, not a place where we do spiritual exercises to improve ourselves.  And so, the fact that He talks to this woman, just like the fact that He eats with tax collectors and other sinners elsewhere in the Gospels, stands as a reminder to us that it is precisely those who are lost that are to be welcome here; it is precisely those who have not always lived good and decent lives that here can receive forgiveness and healing.  None of us is any better than this woman from God’s perspective.  We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and it is only because He comes to us with the forgiveness He won on the cross that we can presume to stand here before Him at all.

The Church is the bride of Christ.  The Church, as she is found in the world, is not exactly holy.  We, the members of His bride, have not been faithful to Him as our Lord.  In the Old Testament, God often refers to Israel’s idolatry as “adultery.”  But it is precisely His fallen bride whom He came to redeem from her sins.  It was the Church for which He died.  Which means that Jesus was asking this woman to be part of His Bride, the Church.  He was asking her to meet Him by the true well, which gives water for eternity, and have her sins washed away in that baptismal water.  He was asking her to become a partaker in His eternal wedding feast, in which He is both the host and the meal.  He was asking her, in short, to become joined to, part of, His Bride.

And that’s the way God always courts those whom He meets and whom He invites to join Him in eternal bliss.  He meets them at the well which gives the water of eternal life, yes, that one right there, and washes away their sin, and makes them new creatures who really are what He created them to be, perfect and holy in His sight.  And he invites them to the wedding feast, in which He feeds them with His body and blood.  That’s what our God does.  He condescends to even the worst sinner, and brings them forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation through His word and His body and blood.  That’s what He did for each of you.  He made you, the Church, collectively, into His bride, worthy and well-prepared for His coming, looking forward to sharing with Him an eternity of love and joy that we can’t even describe using earthly terms.  We are His bride, His beloved.  He has come to rescue us from our life of sin and receive us to Himself.  Welcome to the feast.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, March 16, 2014

You Must Be Born Again

Sermon on John 3:1-17
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
March 16, 2014 (Second Sunday in Lent)

“How can a man be born when he is old?  Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”  It seems like a relevant question.  What Jesus had just said to Nicodemus was completely unreasonable.  One must be born again.  How can you do that?  What kind of teaching is that?  How does it help us to know what we should do to live a Godly life, to tell us something physically impossible like that?  Nicodemus had come to Jesus to find out more about him, to find out what wise thing He might tell him about how he can improve his life, how he can better follow God’s Law, how he can become a better Nicodemus.  And what does Jesus tell him?  To be born again.  What does that even mean?

Our old selves want to do something, to be active, to be in charge.  That’s true whether the temptation is to do something explicitly against God’s law, or whether the temptation is to try to please God by our own reason or strength and thus refuse to give Him the glory.  That’s why the Pharisees were so intent on their little rules and regulations.  They wanted the relationship they had with God to be on their own terms.  They wanted to be in charge of it.  They wanted to be the ones who were doing the doing when it came to spiritual and religious things.  That’s also why medieval monasticism came about: because people wanted to do something to be closer to God.  They wanted to devote themselves to being more holy than everyone else, to following the commandments better than everyone else, to setting themselves apart from the distractions and temptations that were to be found “out there.”

The old Adam hasn’t changed, of course, even in our own day.  Countless Christians are confused by what Jesus says here, thinking that He really is commanding that we do something.  That’s the reason why so many Christian groups focus on being “born again” as something we do, a choice we make, the decision to “invite Jesus into my life,” or the supposedly spiritual experience in which a convert feels led to come forward and devote himself to God.  (Actually, by the way, these sorts of things are emotional experiences, carefully brought forth by careful choreography, the talents of the preacher, the mood of the music playing in the background, and so on.  But then, that’s where most of American Christianity thinks the Spirit is at work in the believer’s life: in his emotions, which is why emotional and spiritual end up meaning pretty much the same thing to most Christians in our country.)  Even the very words of Jesus which describe something that is literally impossible to do by and for oneself, are taken and used as if they were describing an experience or a decision that a person is able to bring forth in himself (with the aid of the right emotional manipulation, of course).  In fact, that’s how the Methodists historically got their name, because they pioneered the “methods” used to manipulate people to ask Jesus into their hearts.

Now, it’s easy to point the finger at the American Evangelical movement in its many and various forms, and even to gloat because we Lutherans know that the word “spiritual” refers to what God the Holy Spirit does in the tangible and audible means of the rightly preached Word and rightly administered Sacraments, and not to any emotional experience that may or may not follow on that.  But what we don’t like to admit, is that we’ve got the same Old Adam that everyone else has.  We are just as likely to try to make our relationship with God something that we control rather than something God controls.

The Church is currently observing a season called Lent.  The most central theme of Lent is repentance, especially in the context of recognizing that it was our sin which put Jesus on the cross.  And it really is meet, right, and salutary that we should realize how serious our sin is and what it cost our Lord save us from the hell we earned by it.  But repentance isn’t the same as feeling mournful or sorry.  It isn’t the same as mentally whipping ourselves and feeling properly sad and sober over it, to the point that we Lutherans have gotten the reputation of always being sour and serious (actually, that’s just because most of us are Germans).  These are still things that we do, that we manipulate ourselves into.  As Luther puts it in the very first of the 95 theses, when our Lord said to repent, He meant that the entire life of believers should be one of repentance.  That doesn’t mean we go around mournful or ashamed all the time, it simply means that we realize that we cannot do anything that improves our situation before God by our own reason or strength, and that because we are helpless to be anything but sinners we have no choice but to simply rely on what God has given in order to strengthen our faith in Him and love towards one another.

Jesus’ whole point here is that being born is not something a person chooses to do or bring forth in himself.  It’s something that happens to a person.  Which is why, by the way, when Nicodemus asks how it’s possible to be born again, Jesus gets rather impatient about his lack of understanding, and starts to lecture him about how he, a supposed teacher of God’s Word, doesn’t even understand one of the most basic points taught in that Word.  Being put to death and then being raised to new life as a citizen of the new creation is not something that a person can choose to do, any more than he can choose to be born into this world.  It’s something that is done to a person, rather than being done by a person.  Which is why we baptize infants while certain other Christians don’t, by the way.  Because being made a believer is something God does to a person rather than something a person does to himself, it is precisely those who had no hand in their being brought into this world who remind us that we also have no hand in being brought to the next.

It’s precisely what God does from the outside of the world, and from the outside of ourselves, that makes us citizens of heaven, sons and daughters of a new mother, namely Christ’s bride the Church.  Infants are helpless.  They cannot even feed themselves.  They must rely on their parents, especially their mothers, to provide them with what they need.  What feeds and nourishes the Christian is the Word and the Sacrament of the Altar.  These are objective things that are brought to us and given to us from outside ourselves.  If I look at myself for reassurance that I’m going to heaven, I’ll only find doubt and confusion.  How we know we will live forever with Him in His kingdom, is precisely because He tells us so in real words, printed on a real page, spoken by a real mouth into real ears, and by real bread and wine, declared out loud to be the Body and Blood of Christ, given to us.  (By the way, that’s the historical reason why traditionally Christians used to receive the bread not in the hand but directly in the mouth, and not with cups picked up with our own hands but from a cup tipped up to our lips by someone else.  That’s how someone who is helpless is fed.  There’s nothing wrong with the individual cups or with receiving the bread in your hand, of course; I’m just pointing out how the older practice happens to illustrate Jesus’ point in this lesson).  That’s how we become and remain Christians: Someone else did, and does, it for us.  And that someone is no less than our Creator and Savior Himself.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Temptation

Sermon on Matthew 4:1-11
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
March 9, 2014 (First Sunday in Lent)

“If.”  That word occurs three times in today’s Gospel lesson.  All three times it is Satan who says it.  “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”  “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.”  “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”  If, if, if.  Faith doesn’t use that word.  Faith deals in certainties.  I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.  Not, I will believe in God the Father Almighty, if He shows up and proves that He is God.  That’s not faith.  That’s not trust.  That’s unbelief.  Making God prove Himself is the same thing as making yourself His judge.  He is only God if He does what I say He should do.  It wasn’t only that third time that the devil was telling Jesus to fall down and worship him, though that was the most explicit one.  All three times Satan was asking Jesus to submit to his will.  If you’re God, do what I say.  Making stones into bread may not be sinful in itself, and while throwing yourself down from the temple is a really, really stupid idea, by itself it’s not an act of worship towards Satan, but when done in response to the devil’s questions and “if” statements, it’s the same thing as bowing down to Him.  Prove you are who you say you are, and prove it by doing what I say.  Under those circumstances, doing these things would be just the same as bowing down and worshiping him.

“Did God really say that?”  Eve in the Garden was tempted the same way.  Make God prove that He means what He says.  See how much you can get away with before He comes down in wrath and punishes you.  If He ever will.  The fruit won’t hurt you if you touch it, see?  What else has God lied about?  (Of course, God never did say that touching the fruit was sinful, only eating it.  But Satan wasn’t there to clarify that point, he was there to exploit Eve’s misunderstanding.)  Are you really going to die if you eat it?  Maybe He’s afraid of you, and wants to keep you from discovering what you can become if you just bite into the fruit.  If.  Maybe.  Did God really say?

What doesn’t help, of course, is that the world and our own selves go along with the devil in asking these questions and raising these doubts.  We ourselves are infected with Adam and Eve’s sin, and so is everyone else around us.  If God is really there, why doesn’t He show Himself?  If He really didn’t want us to be selfish and greedy and lustful, why do those things feel so good?  Or, here’s another, more serious type of temptation: If He really cares for us, why did my loved one die of cancer?  How can bad things happen if God is both good and able to do anything?

And since we are sinners, there is another question Satan asks, and this one is the most deadly.  You see, Satan isn’t there primarily to get us to do bad things, although he does do that, and we really do earn God’s wrath when we do them.  But getting us to do bad things isn’t the point.  He tempts us to sin for another reason.  He tempts us to sin so that when we do he can turn around and whisper God’s own Law into our ears.  Yes, when you hear God’s law presented as a temptation to disbelieve the Gospel, it’s Satan quoting it.  His ultimate aim is to make us doubt God’s forgiveness.  His aim is to get us to question His love for us, to cause us to think our sin is bigger than His love.  It’s not just this or that sinful action here or there that lands people in hell; it’s unbelief.  Which means that Satan’s ultimate temptation has less to do with any specific outward sin, but rather goes something like this: “Did God really say you are forgiven?  Would that pastor really be standing there absolving you if he really knew what you’ve done?

Which is why Jesus’ answers here aren’t just good examples for us to follow when we meet and have to resist temptation.  He isn’t just quoting the Bible back at Satan to show us what we should do in the same situation.  Yes, Jesus’ example here is one we do well to follow.  But it’s more than that.  Let’s look at those Scripture passages again, this time keeping in mind just Who it is that is speaking them.  “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes out of My mouth.”  He wasn’t just countering Satan’s temptation to prove Himself by making bread to fill His human hunger, He was rebuking Satan by reminding him that it is He who created all things and doesn’t need to prove Himself to anyone.  He is the bread of life.  He is the one who feeds His people, not just with bread for this life, but with His own body and blood, crucified and shed for the forgiveness of sin.

“You shall not put Me to the test.”  This is a very direct rebuke of the evil one.  It’s not just a matter of pointing out that testing God is a matter of trying to make Him obey you; it’s a matter of reminding Satan that He, as the creator of heaven and earth, can do anything He wants to, and His Word stands firm, even when what He does do looks completely illogical and foolish to human eyes.  What Satan was trying to do here was very similar to what the soldiers and the passing Jews and even those who were crucified with Him demanded that He do if He were the Son of God on Good Friday.  But the reason He didn’t come down from that cross was precisely because staying on the cross and dying was what He came to do.  He stayed on the cross and died not because He was weak, not because He couldn’t, but out of love for us.  Don’t test Me, Satan, for your defeat is at hand.  I’m here for a specific purpose, namely the salvation and forgiveness of the world, and you’re not going to get in the way.

Again, “You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve” takes on a different tone when we remember who Jesus is.  “You shall worship Me and serve Me alone.”  And, bizarre as it sounds, serve Jesus is what Satan ends up doing.  Luther once called the devil, “God’s devil.”  There is nothing that the evil one can do that God doesn’t turn out for good.  Even the most hurtful act of betrayal, the kiss Judas gave in the garden, a kiss prompted by Satan who had entered Judas in the upper room, that vile kiss was what God intended.  Satan served God that day.  It was precisely because Jesus was betrayed into the hands of sinners that He died on the cross.  It was precisely as the sin-bearer that He went down to the grave.  And because God died, death itself came undone.  We died with Him and we rise with Him through the waters of Holy Baptism.  The old is done away with, the new has come.  Even Satan’s attempts to pry us away from Jesus serve only as exercise that will develop and strengthen the faith which clings to Him and His promises.  Satan serves God.  He serves Him unwillingly, but he serves Him nonetheless.  And if even Satan can be made to serve God, there’s nobody left to accuse us.  All the temptation and accusation has fallen on Jesus, and He took it with Him to His grave.  All that is left for us is to fear, love and trust in Him, to rejoice and thank Him for this wonderful gift, forever.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Treasure in Heaven

Sermon on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
March 5, 2014 (Ash Wednesday)

“Remember, O man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  This paraphrase of Genesis 3:19 is what is said when ashes are placed on Christians’ foreheads in many churches on Ash Wednesday.  While we at Holy Cross haven’t been practicing the imposition of ashes, the verse which accompanies it is worth keeping in mind.  God made Adam from the dust of the ground, and when we who came from him die we will eventually become dust again.  Life lived only for the sake of this world is simply futile.  Vanity, says St. Solomon.  Nothing that is done in this world will last.  We will die, and what we have built for ourselves will belong to someone else, who will eventually die and again it will become someone else’s.  And on Judgment Day, everything in this old creation that hasn’t already fallen down, been blown up, or washed away will be destroyed with fervent heat, as atoms and molecules and even smaller particles come undone at the command of their creator.

Humanity doesn’t want to be dust.  Humanity doesn’t want its works and its ways to become nothing.  Humanity wants to become its own god.  That, after all, was what the serpent in the garden whispered to us: “You shall be like God.”  We want to be admired.  We want to be worshiped.  We want to be remembered.  We want to impress.  But our Creator is, by definition, greater than anything we can come up with.  And so our desire to be worshiped convinces us to ignore Him and deny His very existence, as the very idea of an infinitely intelligent and infinitely powerful being stands in the way of humanity’s desire to become lord and master of all.

How ironic, then, that the way our rejected Creator solves the problem is not by boasting, not by demonstrating His mighty power (although He can and does do that simply by reminding us that nature itself isn’t under our control in the form of hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, wildfires and the like), but in becoming one of us.  He who created the dust itself was made man, made from dust.  He who breathed life into the first man suffers death at the hands of His fellow men.  The real Lord and Master of all doesn’t need to boast of His status and His greatness, and so it’s no problem for Him to become one of us, live a humble life, and die a painful and undeserved death.  He who built it all lived not for his own greatness but for the love of His fellow men.  He went down with the creation He made into the grave, so that He could rebuild it in His own resurrection.  And His greatest glory is found in this, that He did it not to brag or boast of His power, but for the love of His bride the Church.

Laying up treasures on earth is not only against Jesus’ command in today’s Gospel.  It’s also futile.  You are dust, and shall return to the dust.  Laying up treasure in heaven, however, doesn’t mean trying to impress people by being “spiritual,” either.  Things done for supposedly religious reasons in this world will also turn to dust.  It’s not just monuments like the Tower of Babel raised in defiance or rejection of the Creator, but also houses of worship which have turned to dust over the millennia.  Certainly it is good to praise God, to worship Him, and to confess Him before our friends and neighbors, but even that can be done for the wrong reasons.  Phariseeism is in all of our hearts, and it’ll be there until we do, in fact, return to the dust we came from.

Rather, laying up treasure in heaven means regarding as valuable and important those things which give us heaven.  Our true treasures are not those things we do, whether we do them for ourselves or even supposedly for God, but those things our Creator has given us that bring us into the new creation.  Our watery grave in which we died with Christ only to be resurrected with Him by water connected with and comprehended in God’s Word.  The speaking of our Creator, which comes true even if it had not already been true, which declares you citizens of the new heavens and the new earth, forgiven, restored to God’s fellowship, and perfect.  And the body and blood of our crucified and risen God Himself, the first-fruits of the new creation which will not turn to dust, rust, or be stolen.  These are your true treasures, the things God gives you that have Himself, His Father, and the Holy Spirit hidden within, and therefore grant eternity with Him.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Tell No One the Vision

Sermon on Matthew 17:1-9
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
March 2, 2014 (Transfiguration of our Lord)

“Tell no one the vision until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.”  Now, that’s just startling.  To Peter (especially Peter, who definitely had his own ideas about what Jesus should or shouldn’t do), as well as James and John, it was a startling statement because it implied that Jesus would die.  Of course, Jesus had said this before, and then had to rebuke Peter and even call him “Satan” for refusing to allow it.  But now, after the glorious vision they had seen of just Who and What Jesus is, the implication that He would die was startling, and not in a good way.  From this point on, Jesus’ steps would lead straight toward Jerusalem.  His face would be set toward the cup His Father had given Him to drink, the agony of His death for sinners.  The road down from this mountain led straight up another named Golgotha.  The One identified here as the Father’s beloved Son would cry out in agony, My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?  The disciples were not ready to hear that, especially after seeing Jesus as He was and is, with Moses and Elijah representing the company of heaven, shining so brightly that even his clothes couldn’t contain the light.  And so the command to tell the vision to no one until Jesus had risen sounded downright bizarre.  In order to rise one has to die.  And how could the heavenly, glorious Being they had just beheld possibly die?  Why couldn’t they all just stay there with Moses and Elijah and with Jesus allowing His true heavenly glory to shine forth?  Why can’t we just build some tents and stay here forever?

Of course, this isn’t the last time Peter put his foot in his mouth.  Just before Jesus’ betrayal and arrest, Peter had promised that he would never abandon Jesus, and that he would even die for him.  And, just like in today’s Gospel, Peter had no idea what he was talking about.  When Judas betrayed Jesus into the hands of the temple guards, Peter boldly drew his sword and swung it at one of the high priest’s servants, severing his ear.  Peter evidently thought there was going to be a battle when Jesus was arrested, that Jesus would defend Himself and ward off the attackers.  Peter wanted to be part of that battle.  That’s what he was thinking about when he promised to die for Jesus.  He was determined to go down fighting defending his Lord.  But a Jesus who willingly hands Himself over to His enemies, makes no reply to a hostile kangaroo court, and even rebukes Peter for raising his sword in the first place, that sort of Jesus Peter was ashamed of.  If He wasn’t going to defend Himself, Peter had probably better lay low and not let anybody know who he was, even if he had to lie about it.

It wasn’t until after the resurrection that Peter understood what had been going on the whole time.  The pieces didn’t come together for him until Jesus rose from the dead, proclaiming that the world’s sin, and Peter’s sin, was forgiven.  Jesus wasn’t here for power and glory.  He was here to die for the sin of the world.  He was here to take the ugliness and bitterness and unfairness and hatred and pride and greed and all the other things that had ruined this old creation into Himself and draw them down to the grave.  It was only then that His true power and glory could be shown in His resurrection, by which a new world free from Adam and Eve’s pride and disobedience, would come forth.  Only the death of Him who cannot die can do away with the world’s rebellion.  Anything less, any superficial demonstration of His identity and majesty, would be completely futile.  It was only a God who died who could truly raise with Himself His beloved creation and heal it, heal us, of its self-inflicted wounds.

The command to tell no one the vision wasn’t just startling to Peter, James, and John, however.  It’s also startling to us.  We in the Christian Church have now been commanded to go and make disciples of all nations, and so Jesus’ instructions here, as well as the many other places where he tells people not to say anything about His miracles, are downright bewildering.  If telling people about Jesus is how they are brought to believe in Him and be saved, then why would Jesus ever forbid anyone from talking about Him or what He has done?  In fact, these commands from our Lord sound so contrary to what we know as the Great Commission, that some interpreters have said that Jesus was using some sort of reverse psychology when He said these things, knowing that they would disobey His command and thus spread the good news about Him even further.

But I disagree.  Jesus wasn’t using reverse psychology here.  He wasn’t manipulating people into witnessing by ordering them not to do so.  He genuinely didn’t want people blabbing their mouths about Him.  The reason for this is that not everyone who says nice things about Jesus is necessarily giving a genuine witness which will bring someone to faith in Him and eternal life in heaven.  Jesus didn’t just come to earth to do some miracles in people’s lives and show them how to live better.  He came to forgive our sins by His death and resurrection.  Without that, anything else one might say about Jesus is just noise.

The fact is, talking about Jesus the miracle worker, Jesus the great example for life, Jesus the guy who can fix your relationship problems, your financial problems, transform the mediocrity of your everyday life into some great adventure that will accomplish great things for Him and change the world, doesn’t convert anybody.  Yes, it excites a lot of people.  It led thousands of people in first-century Judea to follow Him so that they could see more of His miracles.  It even led them to try to capture Him so that they would always have enough to eat, and thereby have their best lives now.  It leads millions today to listen to any number of preachers who ignore Good Friday and Easter Sunday and preach practical advice using Jesus or other saints as contrived examples of how you, too, can change the world for God.  Any message about Jesus which doesn’t take into account His suffering, death, and resurrection leads, not to Christian faith, but to idolatry.  To use Jesus to fix our own temporal and temporary lives here in this world is to deny His true purpose: to put to death this old world, including our old selves, in order to give us eternal life with Him.

The transfiguration wasn’t witnessed by the crowds; it was seen only by Peter, James, and John.  And even they weren’t supposed to tell anyone about it until they understood the whole picture.  Even the resurrection itself wasn’t witnessed by everybody, but only by those who were already believers.  This is because it is only in the context of the cross and the empty tomb that the Christian message can truly be understood.  It is only knowing that there is nothing short of death that can fix us, and that even our best efforts only make the situation worse, that the death of God Himself can be understood.  Jesus’ shining forth transfigured on the mountain, His victorious resurrection from the dead, and all the wonderful miracles that He performed, mean nothing unless you understand the central meaning and purpose of Jesus’ having become man in the first place.  His true glory is found in His love for us, and His true love for us is found in His death, in His giving His life for His friends.

That’s not exactly good PR, of course.  But it’s what He’s given us to do.  We make disciples, not just by saying nice things about Him, but by death and resurrection.  The Great Commission commands us to bring nothing less than watery death and rebirth to the nations.  It commands us not just to tell people that they’ll generally be better off with Jesus in their life, but to teach them all things He has commanded, especially that they are sinners deserving of death and only His death and resurrection rescues them from that hopeless state.  Jesus’ promise to be with us always doesn’t just mean that He’s generally leading and guiding us along a path that improves our lives, but that His very body and blood, the food of eternity, flows in our veins.  The transfiguration is a view of eternity itself.  But it is an eternity that is only won by His death and resurrection.  Tell no one the vision, unless you also tell them about Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Be Perfect

Sermon on Matthew 5:38-48
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
February 23, 2014 (Seventh Sunday after Epiphany)

“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  This sentence pretty much sums up the section of the Sermon on the Mount we’ve been hearing from in our Gospel lessons the past few weeks.  It isn’t good enough to keep yourself from actively and outwardly breaking the various Commandments, you must sincerely love God and your neighbor and keep the Commandments from that basis.  It’s not good enough to refrain from outright murder, you must actively help your neighbor in his bodily need, and do so from a loving heart.  And, as today’s Gospel lesson points out, that’s true even when your neighbor is trying to harm you or use you or walk all over you.  If it truly helps your neighbor to let him strike you, let him strike you.  If he forces you to carry his stuff, offer to help him by carrying it even after he relents.  If he takes something you need, offer to help him in any other needs he has as well.  After all, it is God who gives rain and sunshine to those who are His enemies.  Or, as Luther puts it in the Catechism, “God certainly gives daily bread to everyone, even without our prayers.”  In fact, it is He who gave, not just rain and sunshine, food and drink, clothing and shoes, house and home, and so on, to His enemies, He died for them.  He died for us while we were yet sinners.

Of course, the neighbors whom God has given you first and foremost are those in your own household, your spouse and children.  And if helping a random stranger would severely disable you from helping them, they do come first.  But this isn’t a matter of being selfish, it’s a matter of recognizing that your particular place in life is where God put you as a father or mother, son or daughter, husband, wife, or worker.  But even a random stranger, even an enemy, even the boss who is a jerk or the demanding and unreasonable customer or the guy who nearly ran you off the road because he just doesn’t care about other drivers, are all among those God commands us to love rather than seeking revenge.

The whole point is that perfection, as God defines it, doesn’t just involve outward actions such as making sure you don’t actually kill somebody or cheat on your spouse or take something that belongs to someone else.  It involves being as loving as He is, being as giving as He is, being as self-sacrificing as He is.  It involves self-denial of the highest order.  And that’s true of anything we outwardly do for others as well.  If it’s not wholly and completely motivated by love for God and the neighbor, if there’s even the slightest hint of a thought of our own reward, whether in this life or the life to come, it’s not perfect.  And if it’s not perfect, it’s not good enough.

Actually, there was only one thing that a Man has ever done for his fellow men that is perfect.  That Man Himself said so.  He said, “It is perfected.”  Actually, that’s usually translated, “It is finished.”  I’m speaking here of Jesus on the cross.  But “perfect” and “finished” are both basically the same word in the original Greek.  God the Son became man, lived a perfect life, and died an innocent death for you and me and everyone else in the world.  That’s the kind of love we are talking about here.  Love that caused God Himself to die for us sinners while we were yet sinners.  Love that sends forth His Church to proclaim peace between God and man even when the world doesn’t want to hear it and actively rejects it.  Love that can only come from God Himself.

I should point out here that even though the English Standard Version, which is what I read from this morning, translates it as “you . . . must be perfect, the original Greek can also be translated as “you shall be perfect,” as a statement of fact rather than a command.  And when God makes a statement of fact, He doesn’t lie.  Even if what He says wasn’t already true, it becomes true by the power of His Word.  The blind receive their sight.  The deaf hear.  The dumb speak.  The lame walk.  The diseased are cured.  This sentence from the Sermon on the Mount is a command, but it’s more than a command.  Commands from God are always more than commands.  They are His creative Word.  “There shall be light.”  And there was light.  “You shall be perfect,” and you are.

Of course, that perfection, that completion, came at a price.  Only when the Son of God dies does he declare that our perfection is accomplished.  Only then does he say that everything is fulfilled.  His rising to life again on the third day, His ascension into heaven, and His being seated at His Father’s right hand, are all proclamations of the victory that has been won, but the victory itself came on that cross.  And that also reminds us of the sort of perfection we are talking about here: perfection in love and service to God and the neighbor.  It is precisely in His death for us sinners that He is perfect just as His Father is perfect.  It is precisely in serving we who were still His enemies that He wins us as His brothers and His Father adopts us as His sons.  And, because His Word does not return void, that’s what you are.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +