Saturday, October 25, 2014

You Shall Be Free Indeed

Sermon on John 8:31-36
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
October 26, 2014 (Reformation Day, transferred)

Whoever commits sin is a slave to sin.  With these words Jesus shatters a whole world full of illusions and self-deception.  Most people think of the ability to commit sin as a matter of freedom and rights.  The more options you have open to you, the more choices you can make, the freer you are.  Especially in areas where Christianity and most other religions for that matter have identified your behavior as wrong.  That’s the way most people think.  To say that sin leads not to freedom but slavery, as Jesus does, seems alien to many people in the world today.

But it’s true.  God created us in such a way that we are to serve Him and our neighbor.  Our hereditary defect of sin, however, causes us to always be looking out for ourselves, to always be trying to figure out what I can get out of any situation.  And the sins we commit themselves capture us.  Habits form.  Even when we no longer want to be the way we are, it’s so much easier to keep making the choices we’ve made before rather than break those habits.  Even when we know its wrong, even when we know it will be hurtful to ourselves or to our relationships with each other or our God, we find ourselves doing the same things, committing the same sins, over and over again, often without even realizing we did it until after the fact.  Sin enslaves us.  It doesn’t seem so bad at first, but when the consequences catch up, they catch up with a vengeance, and usually only after the sin has become habitual and very difficult to resist.  Especially when you consider that even outward righteousness doesn’t really free you from this slavery.  Even the Pharisees, the most outwardly righteous people who lived in Jesus’ day, are slaves to sin, because their behavior shows that their decisions are dominated by it.  The fear of sinning which causes a person to follow an overly-complex set of man-made rules and regulations is itself a form of slavery, and it was also this kind of slavery from which Jesus came to free us, and against which Martin Luther later fought so hard in terms of the Roman papacy of his day.  The Pharisees followed their complex system because they were afraid of sinning.  The medieval church also created that kind of fear in the hearts of the people, as we can see from the amount of money they were willing to shell out for indulgences.  A person who is constantly afraid of sinning is dominated by sin just as much as is someone who is constantly giving in to the temptation.  He is simply not free.  And besides, often this extreme fear of sinning also causes people not to do good when they have the opportunity, for fear of sinning.  Fear of sin paralyzes a person and causes him to sin by not doing what he should do, because he’s afraid of sinning by doing what he shouldn’t.  And this only makes the cycle worse.

Over against the slavery to sin, both the slavery of indulgence and the slavery of fear of sin which leads to the sale of indulgences, Christ stands and promises to set us free.  “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed.  And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”  He is the one who can set us free, for He as God has authority over sin, death, and the devil which have enslaved us.  He is the Son of God the Father, and as the Son he can free those who are slaves.  The power of sin is not broken when we try our hardest to not sin.  The power of sin is broken when the sins we have committed, and those we will yet commit, are forgiven and no longer held against us.  This breaks the fear and the despair which lead us either into works-righteousness and paralysis or deeper into the addiction to actual outward sins.  Forgiveness carries with it the power of the Holy Spirit to amend our sinful lives, and to live as God’s free children rather than as hired servants in His world.

We have become the adopted children of God’s house because the Son of God became one of us and became our brother.  His innocent life, his suffering and death, and His resurrection and ascension set the pattern for our life, death, resurrection, and eternal life.  Where Christ has gone there we shall go, and in fact we have already gone through those things in Holy Baptism.  We already in this world partake of the feast of Heaven in the body and blood of Christ Jesus.  We already have a life that is free from sin, though while we yet live in this world this is hidden underneath the old sinful nature and the old troubles, pains and hurts.  But even while we are troubled by temptations and by guilt from our sins, and even while we suffer and must put up with life in this sinful world, we are already living the new life which Christ has given us.  We have already died and been raised with Christ, and this freedom gives us the ability to live as God’s free people in this sinful world.

This is the kind of freedom that the Reformation was about: not a political freedom, not a freedom from government authority, not a freedom to do whatever we want, and not even the noble freedoms we enjoy as Americans, but freedom from sin, freedom from condemnation, freedom from hell.  The Gospel, which grants us this freedom, is what the Reformation was all about, and it is still what the Lutheran Church is all about.  The Festival of the Reformation is not just a celebration of an old historical event or the Lutheran equivalent of a patriotic party.  The Reformation is not about bashing other Christians, even though we must recognize and clearly point out that many other Christian church bodies are indeed wrong about what this freedom means for us as well as about certain other things the Bible teaches.  The Reformation is not even about the church war between the Lutherans and the Pope, even though it’s true that many of the concerns Luther raised in his day are still a concern to us Lutherans today.  Instead, the Reformation is a commemoration of the larger war against sin, death, and the devil which was won by Jesus Christ by dying on the cross and rising again for our justification.  Sin, death, and the devil no longer enslave you.  The Son has set you free, and so you are free indeed.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, October 18, 2014

God's Image and Inscription

Sermon on Matthew 22:15-22
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
October 19, 2014 (19th Sunday after Pentecost)

The Pharisees and the Herodians were not honestly seeking to learn from Jesus by asking the question they asked.  They were trying to trap Him.  These, in fact, were people who almost never spent time with one another.  The Pharisees wanted to bring back the glory days when Jerusalem, under king Solomon, ruled the known world.  The Herodians were those loyal to the Roman puppet king Herod, allied with the hated tax collectors, of all people.  The fact that they even showed up together was a huge, flashing red light that something wasn’t right here.  They make it even worse by prefacing their question with all sorts of compliments which already make Him sound dangerous to both sides.  And then they purposely asked a question for which both answers were problematic.  The question is a trap.  Either answer is bad for him.  It’s like the question, “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?”  Either a yes or a no answer is bad for the person, because the assumption behind the question is wrong.  He either upsets the people, who think He’s the one that will bring back the greatness of the kingdom, or He openly advocates rebellion and gets Himself put to death as a traitor.  Of course, that’s the accusation that got Him put to death only a few days later anyway, but if He’d fallen into the trap here the accusation would actually have been true.

But Jesus gets out of the trap by pointing out that it was Caesar who issued the money in the first place.  His face and his inscription are on it, and so it really belongs to him anyway.  Since Caesar issued the money, he has a right to demand it back.  But, by the same token, we are also to render to God the things that belong to Him.  And that means that there are certain boundary lines Caesar should not cross.  If Caesar demands that his subjects do things that are against God, those subjects have the duty to disobey him, even though they still obey him when his commands are within the sphere of authority God has given him.  Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.

Now, that’s not to say that any one particular form or government enjoys God’s special favor.  We happen to live in a constitutional republic (sometimes mistakenly referred to as a democracy).  All our human rulers swear to uphold a higher ruler than themselves, known as the Constitution.  And, since the highest law of our land guarantees us the freedom of religion, we do give thanks that God has graciously allowed us to be relatively free of religious persecution here.  This is a good thing.  But obviously Jesus wasn’t talking about the United States here; it would be some 1800 years before our Constitution would be written.  He was talking about the hated oppressor Caesar.  Every government, even ones that we would regard as oppressive and horrible, are also used by God to keep peace and order in society.  Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship was terrible, but He was an equal-opportunity oppressor.  He was a Muslim, but his second in command was a Roman Catholic.  As a secular ruler, he was very effective from keeping the Islamic majority in Iraq from killing or driving out the Christians in that country.  The sort of thing ISIS is doing right now is what results when you remove that stabilizing force.  Even Communist regimes keep the roads paved and the electricity flowing, which are blessings even for those who have to worship in secret.    And so governments are to be respected, precisely because it is God who is keeping peace and order in society for our benefit through them.  But they belong to this world, as do money and the things that it can by.  They and their money also belong to God, and so they are to be respected, but only when they keep to their own sphere, that is, the things that belong to this old world.  And, by the way, this includes not just rulers of nations, but everyone who has authority in one way or another, beginning with parents, and including bosses and whoever else has a claim on our time and resources in this world.

But there’s more here than just a clever way out of an attempted trap set for our Lord.  The coin they brought to Him had the image of Caesar and the inscription of Caesar stamped upon it.  And so, because it bore Caesar’s image and His inscription, it was Caesar’s.  It belonged to this world, just as Caesar does.  But how do we know what is God’s?  The same way.  By God’s image and God’s inscription.  And where do we find that image of God?  What things bear the image of God?  We learn from Genesis that mankind was created in the image of God.  This means that everything we are and everything we have is God’s, because we bear His image within ourselves.  This isn’t just a matter of giving to Church or to charity, although one way we confess the fact that we are His is by giving generously to the Church and to those who need our help in our midst.  This is a matter of confessing that everything we are and everything we have is His.  There is no part of our life, no aspect of our being, that He does not claim.  His image is upon all of it.  We are created in His image.
Of course, mankind lost that image when he fell into sin.  We have all inherited that sin from Adam and so are separated from our Creator.  This is why He sent His Son Jesus Christ to die and rise again so that our old sinful nature could be drowned and die in Holy Baptism, and a new man come forth and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.  In Holy Baptism a new name was inscribed on your hearts, the name of Jesus Christ.  Christ claimed you again as His own, so that you could live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness.  You were recreated, reborn, in that font, so that now you have once again the image of God in you, not only in your heart but in your whole being and in the living out of your life.  Where do we find that which is God’s?  Where His image and inscription are.  Where are that image and inscription?  On our hearts and in our lives.

We belong to God.  Yes, that is a great responsibility, but it is also a great comfort.  Part of the duty of the government is to watch over and protect us from those who would hurt us.  But the police and the sheriff’s deputies can’t be everywhere at once, and even though in our nation we also have the right to keep and bear arms to defend ourselves, we also can’t be everywhere at once.  Sometimes our fellow sinners are still able to take advantage of us, to rob us or even rape or murder us.  But God’s vigilance over us never fails.  Nothing happens that He does not know about and use for our benefit.  Even the ultimate evil that could happen to us, namely death, is now the gate of life for us.  And how do we know we have eternal life?  We have God’s image and His inscription.  We belong to Him.  And He will defend and keep what is His own.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, October 11, 2014

LWML Sunday

Sermon on Luke 11:14-28
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
October 12, 2014 (LWML Sunday)

“Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it.”  Most Christians, including many Lutherans, would paraphrase this passage from the end of today’s Gospel in this way: “If you hear God’s word and do what it says, God will bless you.”  But a more accurate paraphrase of what Jesus actually said here would go something like this: “Treasuring God’s Word in your heart and mind, will be a blessing to you.”  On the surface, those two paraphrases don’t sound all that different.  But really, there is a huge difference there.  The first version emphasizes doing what God says, and really doesn’t have much at all to do with what God did for us.  Not to mention the fact that in this old world, doing what God says doesn’t always have any connection to the sorts of blessings we may or may not have here.  There are plenty of people who live corrupt, dishonest, and downright sinful lives who have huge houses, fancy cars, and so on.  And there are many outwardly righteous people who barely manage to scrape by.  The world hasn’t ever been fair since Adam and Eve, and it never will be until Judgment Day.  And so the idea that if we follow His Law He will bless us, just doesn’t hold water.

God’s blessings come from treasuring the Word of God in our hearts, like Mary did.  The word keep here actually means to defend, to regard as important, to treasure something. The Word we are to treasure isn’t just God’s Law (in fact, God’s Law isn’t even the first and foremost thing we are to treasure).  The most important thing we are to treasure in our hearts is the Gospel, the good news that God sent His Son to be the only possible sacrifice for the sin of the world, the only sacrifice which is well-pleasing to God, a sweet aroma rising to Him.

And that brings us to the theme that the LWML has chosen for this day, based on the second verse of our epistle lesson.  It is Jesus who offers the perfect sacrifice for our sins.  His righteousness, given to us in the washing of regeneration and renewal, is what covers our sins.  To borrow the metaphor from today’s Epistle, the sweet aroma of His sacrifice is what covers over the stench of our sin.  It’s only because of His sacrifice that anything we do could possibly be pleasing to Him.  Outside of Christ’s sacrifice, we might do good things that help our neighbor, but God isn’t impressed.  All our righteousness is filthy rags.  It’s only when the white robe of Christ’s righteousness, given us in Holy Baptism, covers our sin that anything we do can possibly please Him.  After all, believers’ righteousness isn’t their own.  It’s only Jesus who is pleasing to His Father.  And that’s true not just of His earthly life, but of the life He lives in, with and under our lives here on earth.  It’s not we who do good works, it’s Jesus.

And that brings us to the LWML, for whose work for missions and human care we give thanks today.  We do thank God for the many ways in which this organization has helped any number of missionary and charitable projects conducted by various elements of our church body.  They’re very good at what they do.  But their work doesn’t please God either, unless those works are done in faith.  The LWML’s work isn’t pleasing to God by itself, no matter how much good they may do.  It’s only when Christ’s righteousness covers their sin, too, that anything they do is pleasing to Him.  While we do give thanks to God for their work, we dare never forget that nothing we or they do helps us before His throne.  Only Christ can do that.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Rent

Sermon on Matthew 21:33-46
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
October 5, 2014 (Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost)

Obviously the tenants were being stupid.  How could they possibly think that by committing murder, murder of the owner’s own son, no less, that they would inherit anything from the owner?  Who in his right mind would think that by beating up or killing the guy that came around to collect the rent check that they would become owners of the apartment?  It just doesn’t make any sense at all.  Of course they would be evicted.  And not only would they be evicted, they’d be thrown into prison, and possibly (depending on what state they lived in) sentenced to capital punishment.  What kind of stupidity is this?

It’s the kind of stupidity that comes from the same place in our hearts as the place where Eve’s idea that she could be like God came from.  God is the owner of everything.  He is the one who made it all, and so He’s the one that gets to decide what to do with it all.  We’re merely tenants when it comes to this world.  Even the stuff we legally own from the perspective of this world and its social order, isn’t really ours, because even the social order that determines what we do and do not own, is something God made.  We’re strangers here.  We only inhabit our homes, use our cars, and even use our own bodies for a short period of time.

But we like to think we own these things, don’t we.  The classical definition of the word “property” is that you get to determine what happens to something.  If you are the one who determines whether to sell or keep something, whether to give it away or not, how much you’re going to sell it for if you do decide to sell it, and so on, that thing is your property.  And in this old world, that idea is very important, because it keeps people from abusing each other by simply taking what they need without regard for the needs of the original owner.  The Seventh Commandment has something to say about that.  But where we get into trouble is when we start to apply the idea of ownership to our relationship with God.

We don’t own our own bodies, God does.  We don’t own our own stuff, God does.  We don’t even own our own reputations.  God owns all of that stuff.  And we don’t like that.  After all, there are plenty of things we could do if God didn’t have a claim on our bodies and lives.  In fact, we do that stuff anyway, don’t we?  Disobedience and hatred for those in authority, murder, lust, theft, gossip, are all things we do, as if we owned our own bodies and possessions and could do whatever we wanted with them.  What’s worse, is that we think we own our relationship with God Himself, as if we could get Him to do what we wanted.

But that’s not the case.  The vineyard isn’t ours.  We’re disobedient, hateful, and lazy tenants.  When this is pointed out to us, our old sinful natures rise up and want to kill those who point it out.  Some even get so mad at God that they wish He didn’t exist (and that’s what most–but not all–modern atheists are, by the way, not people who objectively believe He doesn’t exist, but people who resent His existence and and wish He weren’t there).  We don’t want to pay the rent, because it would mean admitting that someone else owns what we think is ours.  And so we kill the Son.  We are the ones who, by our rebelliousness drove the nails into His hands and feet, the crown into His head, and the sword into His side.

But when it comes to our relationship with God, and the fact that He is our landlord and we merely tenants, our response to Him becomes even more bizarre.  Yes, we try to kill Him and pretend that we owned ourselves and our stuff.  But what rent is it that He demands?  Most would say that He is looking for good works.  Most, even among Christians, would say that He is looking for works of charity.  Or that He’s looking for a pure life in which we, by our own willpower, resist temptations to sin.  Some would even say, as silly as it sounds, that God is looking for the good work of saying the Our Father, the Creed, and the Hail Mary a certain number of times.  And it is true that God doesn’t want us to break His commandments, as much for our own well-being as because He told us to do these things.

But these good works, by themselves, are not the rent which God demands of us.  The “rent” He would have us show is very easy and very light.  In fact, it’s something He creates inside of us.  It’s not something we can or should bring forth in and of ourselves.  Why we would rather kill God than pay the “rent” He is looking for is completely absurd.  The “rent” He demands of us is simply that we believe and trust in Him as the one who forgives our selfishness.  And even this trust is something that He did, that He created.  He was the one who created in us a clean heart and renewed a right spirit within us.  He is the one who put us on that cross that we used to try to kill Him.  He is the one who made us into creatures who trust in Him.  He is the one who sustains and nourishes that new self by giving us His own body and His own blood, which we nailed to the cross, as our heavenly food.  The “rent” he demands is that we receive from Him the good gifts He gives.  In other words, it’s not really rent at all in the sense in which we use this term.  What God expects is what He Himself gives.  We pay our “rent” by getting gifts from Him.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Pause

For various reasons I won't get into here, this blog will be taking a sabbatical for a while.  Please stay tuned.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Who is the Son of Man?

Sermon on Matthew 16:13-20
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
August 24, 2014 (Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost)

“Who do people say the Son of Man is?”  If you took a survey today and asked people what they thought of Jesus, the answers you would get back would be just as varied as the answers the people gave when Jesus asked the question in our text.  Some would say that He was a great teacher, a great moral example.  Others, like the Jews, would say that He was a fraud.  Others, such as the Muslims, might call Him a great prophet, one of the more honored predecessors of their own prophet Mohamed.  Atheists would say He was really a nobody who just so happened to have a myth get named after Him.  That is, if they even believe He existed at all.  Other people you ask might not care who Jesus was.  This last group are the ones we are more likely to meet, in fact, many of them are our friends, neighbors, and even relatives.  They have never even given the question of who Jesus is much thought.

But the question is an important one.  It is important because who Jesus is determines who we are.  This is why after hearing the answers the apostles had gleaned from the people around them, He asked the question again, only now it was personal.  “Who do you say that I am?”  This is a question we all must face if we are to be sure that what God has to give us, namely salvation and eternal life, is indeed ours.  It is a question we face as we examine ourselves in preparation to confess our sins and receive Holy Absolution, as we examine ourselves in preparation for the Lord’s Supper, and especially as we daily examine ourselves in preparation for Judgement Day, which could come at any time.  Who do you say that I am?  What do you believe about Jesus?  Who is He?  How do you answer that question?  Being a Christian, after all, is not a matter of looking at myself to see how I’m doing, but receiving the gifts God has to give through Jesus’ death on the cross.  Which means that the doctrine regarding who Jesus is and what He has done, is the very heart and center of Christianity.

In our text, Peter spoke up in behalf of all the apostles when he said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  Peter confesses his faith that Jesus is indeed the Son of God, the Creator of the Universe, who has become man in order to save us.  Peter’s confession is not just his own, it is the confession of all the apostles.  Peter becomes their representative, their spokesman.  In fact, in making this confession Peter represents the entire Church, both of the Old Testament saints who expected Christ’s coming, and of the New Testament saints such as you and me who look back to His first coming and forward to His return in glory.  “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”  “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.”

But listen to what Jesus says to Peter next: “This was not revealed to you by man, but by My Father in heaven.”  The knowledge that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, comes only from God Himself.  You see, God must first speak to us before we can speak back to Him.  After all, like Peter, we are sinners.  We are not able to believe what God wants us to believe in our natural minds.  The fact that this Man Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, is a fact that seems impossible to human reason, and in our sinful pride we think that our reason must be the judge of all truth and falsehood.  Our sinfulness causes us to reject Jesus our Savior because who He is and what He is don’t go along with our reason and our senses.  It is only when God reveals the truth to us and gives us the ability to believe it by creating within us a clean heart that we are able to believe, and to confess, what He has said to us.

And that’s what “confession” is.  It is saying back to God, and to each other, and to the world around us, what He has first said to us.  He tells us that we are sinners.  We repeat back to Him what He has said to us when we say that, yes, we are sinners, as we do every Sunday morning and every day when we pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  God then tells us that we are forgiven for the sake of His Son, Jesus Christ.  We repeat back to Him what He has said to us by confessing our faith, as we do on Sunday morning in the words of the creed, as well as in all the other words of the liturgy which speak of our salvation through Christ.  We also confess to each other and to those around us as we comfort and encourage one another in Christ and testify to those outside the Church what Christ has done for us.  We speak what God has first spoken to us.

Through our speaking what God has spoken to us, God Himself speaks through us.  God has given me the vocation of preaching His Word to this congregation and administering His Sacraments.  Through my mouth and my hands, Christ’s Word and Christ’s hands work on you to give you salvation.  I don’t speak my own word, but God’s Word (and of course one of your responsibilities is to make sure that what I say is in fact God’s Word by cross-checking my preaching against the Holy Scriptures).  If I speak God’s Word, which He has first spoken to Me, then He is speaking through me to you.  As you confess to your neighbors who do not know Christ concerning the salvation that He has given you, as you comfort and encourage one another with the Gospel, and even as you confess your faith through the words of the liturgy and hymns here on Sunday morning, and as you teachers help these children’s parents to teach them regarding what Jesus did for our salvation, God is speaking through you.  He is speaking the same words He has first spoken to you, but He is now speaking through you.

God continues to speak to us.  He continues to give us life through the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments, as well as through the conversations and the comforts we receive from each other.  It is only through God’s speaking to us, both in the spoken Word and in the edible and drinkable Word of the Sacrament where He gives us the body and blood of Jesus, that God strengthens us.  To receive the Lord’s Supper is also to confess your faith  that this Jesus whose body and blood we receive is in fact the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  This body and blood will strengthen us in our confession to God and our neighbor of what He has done for us.  Which means that we are blessed, for this was not revealed to us by men, but by our Father, who art in heaven.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Dogfood

Sermon on Matthew 15:21-28
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
August 17, 2014 (Tenth Sunday after Pentecost)

Why do bad things happen to good people?  Why doesn’t God help me out when I’m suffering?  Why doesn’t He seem to care if He’s supposedly such a good God?  These are questions that theologians and philosophers have pondered over for thousands of years.  And they’re not just an academic exercise, either.  Suffering is very real all around us and in our own lives.  If God truly is all-powerful, He should be able to deal with all of this so that we don’t have to.  But very often God’s response to our prayers seems to be the same kind of seemingly callous and insulting response we read that Jesus gave to the woman in today’s Gospel.

Now, many times we can’t know specifically the reason why God allows these sorts of things.  But in general, we know from Scripture that God uses these things to make us rely on His promises more firmly.  God’s promises to be with us and to preserve us and to comfort us depend only on the fact that it was He who spoke them.  His promises to us are true even if the whole world and everything we see and feel seems to contradict them.  His promises to us are true even if He Himself seems to be ignoring us and rejecting us.  Sometimes God puts us through experiences like that of this woman to remind us of that fact, and to strengthen our faith so that we rely more firmly on the promises rather than testing Him and trying to see physical evidence of His care for us.  Our confidence in God’s protection and care, and more importantly our confidence in His salvation, should not depend on whether or not we feel or see His care and protection in our lives.  Our confidence in God’s love for us and His care for us depends solely upon His promises to us in the Holy Scriptures.  But all too often we like to rely upon other things besides God’s promises to support our faith, whether those things be our emotions or good feelings about God, or whether those things be the fact that things are going well for us, or whatever it may be.  For this reason, sometimes these blessings are taken away from us precisely because we are using them as a crutch in the place of our faith or making our faith depend on them rather than Him.

Notice also that even though Jesus didn’t come right out and call the woman a dog, she more or less admitted herself to be one when she said that even the dogs eat the crumbs which fall from the master’s table.  God’s care for us and His protection of us also don’t depend on our own worthiness.  We can’t come to Him and say that He should do things for us because we’re such good people or because we have tried to do what is right or whatever.  The fact of the matter is that we aren’t good people.  None of us have done what God required.  Before God’s throne we have to admit that we are nothing but poor, miserable sinners.  And many of us can name specific sins we have committed that are pretty terrible.  If we were to have a conversation with God the way this woman did, we too would be forced to admit that we aren’t worthy for God to do anything for us.  We too would have to admit that we are nothing and worse than nothing, and that God would be perfectly within His rights to ignore us and to forget about us and allow us to go straight to hell after our deaths.

But God has promised not to do that.  And it is His promises that give us the reassurance that He won’t do that.  It is His promises in the Holy Scriptures that we hold on to.  God keeps His promises.  This woman stubbornly held God to His promises after He had cut out from under her any other reason for Him to help her.  He wasn’t going to help her because of her nationality, because she was not of Israel.  She was a Canaanite, a group of people whom the Jews of those times often referred to as “dogs.”  He wasn’t going to help her because of her crying and yelling after Him.  He helped her only because His nature was of love and mercy.  He helped her because not only the Israelites but all people were among those who are to humbly and thankfully receive God’s gifts.  He helped her not because she was worthy of the help but because He is the one who helps people and upholds them.  That’s who He is, that’s His identity: the life-giver and life-sustainer, both here and in eternity.

God has not promised to take away all our pains and griefs and troubles in this world.  After all, if He did away with everything that’s wrong with this world the easy way, He’d do away with us sinners too.  But He has promised to take away the guilt of our sins and to give us eternal life.  In eternal life we will have no more problems, troubles, and fears.  In eternal life every tear will be wiped away from our eyes.  In this life we may experience times that feel an awful lot like hell to us.  Sometimes those hells are of our own making, whether because we have refused God’s Law and done what we ought not, or whether we have refused the Gospel, disobeyed the First Commandment, and imprisoned ourselves in a nightmare of guilt and self-blame.  But we have His promise that this too shall pass.  And we believe His promise, we have faith in His promise, not because we see Him working, not because we feel Him working, but because He is the one who gave us this promise.  Despite everything we might see and feel, He is still there watching out for us and providing us with daily bread, and more importantly with the forgiveness of sins, eternal life and salvation.  Even we dogs, we poor miserable sinners, get to eat the crumbs which fall from the master’s table.  And these “crumbs” are nothing less than the body and blood of Jesus Christ Himself.  These “crumbs” grant nothing less than eternal life and salvation to those who receive them.  We don’t deserve it, but God has given us to participate in the eternal feast of victory which has no end.  God may not always seem to be gracious to us if we only use our five senses.  But to the eyes of faith, which see the promises of His Word and the body and blood of His Supper for what they are, the richest blessings imaginable are ours.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Daily Drowning

Sermon on Matthew 14:22-33
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
August 10, 2014 (Ninth Sunday after Pentecost)

We’ve all been in situations where we felt like we were overwhelmed.  There have been times in all of our lives when there are so many demands on our time, our energy and our abilities that we cannot even concentrate on our ordinary, day-to-day tasks.  Whether we have been overcommitted at work, or at school, or found it difficult to balance family with other obligations, or even something as simple as forgetting an important family anniversary or birthday, this kind of hopeless feeling is not all that uncommon, especially in our busy age.  The hopeless, sinking feeling we get is the figurative equivalent of the hopelessness and doom Peter felt when he was literally sinking into the waters of Galilee.  And as with Peter, the worst part of it all is the fact that we are to blame for the impossible situation we are in.  We are responsible, and we will be doomed when the whole thing comes crashing down around us.  In extreme cases, we feel our life will be over.  Sometimes those who cannot face the consequences of their actions may even commit suicide to avoid the condemnation they are sure the world is going to heap upon them.

I suspect that there is a reason that we human beings so easily give in to despair and overwhelming guilt.  We know deep down that we are at least partially to blame for many of our problems.  And even the non-Christian knows, even though many of them won’t admit it, that there is a God who made the universe, who is angry over sin, and who will condemn the sinner.  And the truly frightening thing is that apart from Christ, they’re right.  Apart from Christ and His Gospel and His Sacraments, God is an angry God who condemns the sinner.  This knowledge colors everything a man does and thinks, especially when he is burdened with guilt.

The reaction of depression and despair is natural in those who know nothing of a loving God in Christ Jesus.  However, to us who know Christ, whose foreheads are marked with His cross in Baptism, the reaction of helpless, paralyzing despair that many of us experience, the reaction that Peter probably was experiencing as he sank into the waves, is a reaction that demonstrates unbelief.  It is a reaction that shows doubt in a God who loves and cares about us and will see us through these kinds of problems.  Our Lord chastised Peter for his lack of faith.  That admonition applies to us as well.

But when you are in the midst of a situation where it seems the world is caving in on you, where nothing you do can avert disaster, simply saying that your reaction to the situation is a symptom of doubt and unbelief doesn’t help.  It only increases the guilt and despair, for not only have I let down everyone on this earth I love, but I’ve let down God as well.  Indeed, there is only one thing that does help such a person in any truly lasting sense, and that is for God Himself to come to that person in His Word, His baptismal water, His body and blood, and tell that person that his sins are forgiven, and that no matter what the outcome of his current problems he will be with God in heaven for eternity.  This is what our Lord did for Peter in the sea of Galilee.  He pulled him out of the water.  He demonstrated His love and His forgiveness by saving the very man who was doubting His promises.  It was only after Peter was safe that he scolded him for his lack of faith.  His first response was to restore that faith by saving Peter.

But Peter did die in the sea of Galilee that day.  That’s right, I said that Peter died there in the water.  Now, before you go accusing me of saying that the Bible is lying to us, let me explain.  The Peter who doubted our Lord’s promises, the Peter who gave in to despair and fear, that Peter did not survive.  When Jesus stretched out His hand and pulled Peter out of the water, it was a different Peter he pulled out, a Peter who believed our Lord’s promises and relied confidently on His ability to save.  In a sense, the old Peter, or rather the old Adam in Peter, was drowned so that a new Peter, a new man in Christ, might come forth and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.  By saving Peter, Jesus killed the old Adam who thought that Jesus could not save him.

What really happened out there on the sea of Galilee was that Peter was returned to the time when he was baptized.  Most scholars assume that the disciples Jesus chose had been baptized by John the Baptist, since we never read of them being baptized by Jesus.  Back there at the Jordan river, God worked though the hands of John the Baptist to drown the old Peter so that a new Peter could arise.  Just like every one of us, though, the old Peter refused to die, and so he had to be drowned again every day.  As Luther says in the Catechism, “Baptism signifies that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins, and that daily a new man should come forth to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”  What happened to Peter on that day in the sea of Galilee was simply an unusually graphic example of this process at work.

Now, this daily renewal of our Baptism doesn’t usually happen in such an extraordinary way.  But God is rich in His grace.  Often in the midst of the worst despair a verse of Scripture, the memory of a particularly powerful sermon, the forgiveness of a caring friend, or on Sunday morning the forgiveness of God Himself in the words of the pastor’s absolution, or any one of a host of other things will come into our minds and reassure us that we do have a loving God who will see us safely through all our earthly troubles so that we can be forever with Him in heaven.  We have all experienced such comforts in times of trial.  But we don’t usually think of them in terms of death.  But that is what happens when God speaks through a friend or a pastor to remind us of God’s promises.  The old Adam is put to death, and the new man, the new Christ in us, comes out of the Baptismal water to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.

Martin Luther was often assailed by doubts and fears.  After all, he had a big job.  There have been Lutherans around for almost 5 centuries, so we may not realize what he was up against.  In Luther’s day, the true doctrine seemed new.  False doctrine had been taught by the Church’s highest officials for centuries.  In this kind of environment, its not surprising that even Luther himself sometimes doubted whether or not what he was doing was right.  Satan would taunt him mercilessly, trying to get him to forsake the reformation he had started.  But in the moments of his worst doubt, his worst despair, Luther would cry out, “Nevertheless, I am baptized!”  The fact of Luther’s Baptism was his comfort against the doubts and tricks planted by Satan in his heart.  He knew that even if some of his ideas were a little off (they weren’t), even if what he had done was more of a harm to the church than a help (it wasn’t), that God had still claimed him as His own and would still take his soul to be with Him at the end.  He knew that on the last day his body would be raised, and he would, as he put it, “live before God in righteous and purity forever.”    Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Bread and Compassion

Sermon on Matthew 14:13-21
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
August 3, 2014 (Seventh Sunday after Pentecost)

What is a god?  Luther in the Large Catechism answers it this way: “A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress.”  In other words, whatever is the most important thing to us, whatever it is we look to for strength when the going gets rough, that is our god.  Of course, only the true God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, can actually satisfy the needs of humankind when it comes to Luther’s definition here.  Only the true God can be so powerful and yet at the same time so merciful, that He really can be, without failing, “that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress.”  In fact, it is His merciful, loving nature that makes Him God.  He is the one who made  us and all creation, and He’s the one who orders it for our good.

So, when today’s Gospel says that Jesus “had compassion” on the great crowd, it’s not just telling us what emotions the man Jesus happened to be feeling.  It’s telling us that this Jesus is the one who “made me and all creatures, … given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them.”  It’s not just that Jesus has compassion, it’s that He is compassion.  It’s not just that He has mercy, it’s that He is mercy.  The very definition of the word god emphasizes that He cannot do otherwise than give and support His creatures.

Jesus had been in the wilderness before.  He had been asked to make bread before.  He had been asked to show that He’s God before.  “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread.”  And what does the Word Incarnate say to this?  He quotes the Word that’s written down.  “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”  And yet here He is, in the wilderness, making bread.  Only, He’s making bread for others, not Himself.  God is God not in proving simply that He’s powerful and can do stuff.  God is God in having mercy and compassion.  He has no need to prove Himself, but He does provide for His creatures.

“If you are the Son of God, come down and save yourself.”  Satan spoke through the mouths of those who stood nearby and mocked Jesus at His crucifixion, with the same temptation he had given Jesus in the wilderness.  If you are the Son of God, save yourself.  Do something for yourself.  Do something besides, well, being God.  Don’t provide for Your fallen creation, do something impressive for yourself.  Don’t give Your life as a ransom for many, prove you’re God by denying everyone eternal salvation and defending Your own pride and honor.  The problem is that, precisely because He is God, He can’t go around proving that He’s God.  God is almighty and infinite and all-knowing and so on, but it’s not these things which make Him God according to the way we Lutherans talk about Him.  What makes Him God is the fact that He uses His infinite power and wisdom in a way that provides for and nurtures His creation.  God has all sorts of attributes, but He is love and mercy and compassion.

And so the God who refused to make bread in the wilderness for Himself, makes bread in the wilderness for His people.  After all, that’s what He’s always done.  Not just feeding 5,000 here or 4,000 there as we read in the Gospels, but for a whole nation for over forty years.  But even that is nothing compared to what He does for His people now.  By His death He gives us Himself as bread, as we journey through this wilderness we call this old, sin-sick world.  He allows us to live forever in His new creation, by being buried in this old one.  He who is the resurrection and the life gives us Himself.  The bread we break here is His body and blood.  It comes straight from the Cross, it is partaken of by millions of Christians every Sunday, and has been for almost 2,000 years.  If you want to talk about miracles, talk about that.  Coming down from the cross would have meant nothing.  Providing for His people by staying up there so that He could work a greater miracle and give His people the new creation, is the greatest miracle of all.  Resurrecting us who belong to this old world and who are dying its death, by giving us bread that belongs to new life, is what God does.  It’s what He is.  Compassion.  Mercy.  Pity.  Love.  That’s what God is about.  He serves us by burying Himself in us sinners under bread and wine, and thereby brings us to Himself in eternity.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, July 26, 2014

God the Treasure Hunter

Sermon on Matthew 13:44-52
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
July 27, 2014 (Sixth Sunday after Pentecost)

The first two parables in today’s Gospel both portray for us men who find one thing that is so important or valuable to them that they give up everything they have to get that one thing.  Now, in today’s society, surrounded as we are by all sorts of “stuff,” it’s hard to imagine anything being so valuable that someone would want to sell everything he has for it.  But that is, in fact, what the kingdom of heaven is compared to here: something so valuable that it is worth giving up everything a person has in order to get it.  And, for a believer, that simply makes sense.  The kingdom of heaven will last forever, while we only spend a few decades here.  Nothing in this old world will last forever.  What doesn’t rust or wear out or break down will be left behind when we ourselves rust and wear out and break down.  As the old saying goes, you can’t take it with you.

But what God demands of us is not just that the “stuff” we will have in eternity be more important than the “stuff” we have here.  What He demands in the First Commandment is that He be more important to us than everything and everyone else.  After all, He is the One who made us.  He is the One who gave us our very lives, and still sustains us, not to mention that He created and gave us everyone and everything we have here in this life.  And the most important part of eternity is not just that we will have perfect bodies not subject to illness or infirmity, nor that we will have all our loved ones who died in the faith with us, nor that the things we have will not be subject to rust or decay or manufacturing defects (leaving aside the fact that we have so little understanding of eternity that we really have no idea what “things” we might have there anyway).  The most important thing about eternity is that we will be united with our Creator and share in the love and fellowship that exists within the Trinity Himself, because we will be, and already are by faith, members of the Second Person of that Trinity, our Lord Jesus Christ.

The problem, of course, is that here in this old world we can’t really see any of that.  We can’t see or measure what lies ahead for us on the other side of the grave.  For that matter, we can’t prove or disprove by the scientific method that God exists, and apart from the Scriptures we can’t even imagine that He is Triune, that He loves His creation, and that the historical Man named Jesus of Nazareth is, in fact, His eternal Son sent into the world to redeem us and bring us the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.  Granted, the very existence of the world strongly suggests the existence of some sort of creator, but who He is and how He sees us and what happens after we die is a complete mystery apart from the Holy Scriptures, while the people around us in this life, and the things we have, such as houses and cars and food and clothing, seem very real and concrete to us.  Thus the temptation to disregard eternity in favor of what we can see and feel here and now is very strong, and it’s a temptation we give in to more often than not.  How many of us are being completely honest when we sing that line in “A Mighty Fortress:” “And take they our life, goods, fame, child, and wife, let these all be gone, they yet have nothing won.  The kingdom ours remaineth.”  If you think you can, with your whole heart, pray that line honestly, you are simply fooling yourself.  Nobody is completely free of the idolatry that attaches us to this old world.

That’s why God had to come to us: by nature we can’t free ourselves of this old world’s entanglements.  That’s why God the Son had to condescend to be born among us, become one of us, live our life in this old world, suffer and die our death.  As far as anyone could tell, we were like a vacant field with no special value to anyone.  He died for us while we were still sinners.  He gave up everything for us.  Only He could see the hidden treasure, the new man in Christ, recreated in His image, to live before Him in righteousness and purity forever.

So, which is it?  Are these two parables about how nothing should be more important to us than God, or about how nothing is more important to Him than us?  I’d say the answer is both.  After all, we can only love God because He first loved us.  We are only capable of giving up everything for Him because He gave up everything for us.  It’s only because He redeemed us while we were still sinners that we can see, and obtain the treasure that is eternal life.  He bought us so that now we can see Him where He has hidden Himself.  An ordinary field with buried treasure doesn’t look like anything special.  Neither does an ordinary man standing in front of church on Sunday morning.  Neither does ordinary water poured on someone’s head.  Neither do ordinary unleavened wafers and wine.  But there’s treasure hidden there, too.  The forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are hidden here, but revealed to those who have faith in God’s Word.  Nothing is more important than that.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +