Sunday, February 22, 2015

God Tempts No One

Sermon on Mark 1:9-15
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
February 22, 2015 (First Sunday in Lent)

What is the Sixth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer?  “And lead us not into temptation.”  What does this mean?  “God tempts no one.  We pray in this petition that God would guard and keep us so that the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh may not deceive us or mislead us into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice.”  Okay, we can see where Luther got that explanation from the section of James that was read as our Epistle lesson for today.  But what it doesn’t explain is what happened to Abraham and Isaac in our Old Testament reading, or for that matter that it was the Spirit which drove Jesus into the wilderness in order to be tempted.  How can we say that God tempts no one if it was God the Holy Spirit who drove Jesus Himself, God the Son, into the wilderness precisely in order to be tempted?  How can we say that God tempts no one if it was He that put a test on Abraham to see if he would obey God or not?  After all, the Greek and Hebrew words for “tempt” and “test” are actually the same word.  Is it really true, as the Catechism and St. James teach us, that “God tempts no one?”  For that matter, isn’t it supposed to be Satan, not God, who does the tempting?  How can God and Satan be involved in the same activity together?

Let’s bring this a little closer to home.  If God is good, and He is almighty, how is it that we are allowed to wander into situations where sin beckons to us and crouches at our doorstep?  Can’t He stop us from being put into situations where someone has left their belongings unguarded?  Or where we know a bit of juicy gossip about someone that we can hardly resist sharing?  Or where someone else besides the one God has joined us to looks more attractive or even like a better fit than our own spouse?  Or when a loved one is dying and we have prayed with all our might that He would heal them, with seemingly no response, and it looks to us like perhaps God doesn’t even exist?  If God is almighty, can’t He simply prevent us from even experiencing the opportunity for “false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice,” as Luther puts it?

The fact is, however, if we were outwardly sinless and perfect (because temptation simply never came our way) that itself would be a temptation.  For us, the descendants of Adam and Eve, even keeping the Law is itself a form of temptation.  Look how good I’m doing.  Look how righteous I am.  I thank you that I’m not like that tax collector over there.  And instead of praising God, we praise ourselves.  In keeping us completely away from the more obvious temptations, God would then be tempting us with the subtle and most dangerous temptation of all, namely the temptation to put ourselves instead of Him on the throne of our hearts.

The problem of temptation is simply the problem of sin.  It’s not God’s will that sin be in the world in the first place.  It wasn’t His will that Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  It’s not His will that we face difficult choices in our lives, in which even though one path is clearly right and the other clearly wrong, the wrong path looks so much easier or more attractive.  It’s not His will that we face those even more difficult choices where both paths involve an element of sin and the only thing we can do is, as Luther put it, “sin boldly.”  None of this was what God created us for.  None of it is what He wanted for us.

But that’s where our Gospel lesson comes in.  It is precisely the sin, the brokenness, the hardship, the helplessness, and the hopelessness of living in a sin-filled world with sin-filled hearts, that our Lord became man in order to take into Himself.  He was tempted precisely because we are tempted.  He who knew no sin became sin for us.  And He won the victory over it.  The small victory he won over Satan in the wilderness foreshadows the much greater victory He won by staying on that cross and giving His life as a ransom for many.  The only way to deal with the problem of sin, and therefore the problem of temptation to sin, was to take it upon Himself.  The only way to deal with Satan was to defeat him so thoroughly that even his worst weapons, the temptation to false belief and despair, are now tools that He uses to bring us closer to Him.  Luther was fond of saying that the devil is now “God’s devil.”  The worst he can throw at us is now a tool God uses to drive us to His Word and Sacraments, to draw us closer to Himself.

And so it’s precisely when Satan tempts us that God is testing our faith, not in order to weaken it, but in order to strengthen it.  It’s precisely when we are given the occasion for false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice that we also have the opportunity to further refine and temper the true faith, trust, and righteousness that is now ours in Christ Jesus.  God doesn’t tempt us, but at the same time He does.  He tests us, not in order to knock us down, but as training so that we learn all the more to lean on Him and His righteousness when we know our own is completely worthless.  It is precisely when we are weak, in other words, that He is strong.  He uses testing to teach us that He is the one who is our strength, and we can’t learn that unless we first see how weak we ourselves really are.

God allows us to be knocked down so that He will be able to raise us up.  God puts Abraham in a no-win situation so that Abraham will rely solely on God’s promises that He will provide the lamb for the burnt offering.  It is precisely when Abraham thinks he has no choice but to murder his own son, that God puts faith in him that even so God will still fulfill His promise to provide the true Lamb who will take away the sins of the world.  It’s possible that he thought Isaac was that Lamb, that Messiah.  But the lamb caught in the undergrowth nearby served as the substitute, just as Jesus is our substitute, the one who undergoes temptation, suffering, and even death in our place.  God did provide the Lamb for the burnt offering.  God did take our place in the trackless desert of temptation, where we can’t find our way and it looks like all paths lead nowhere.  In His stead, then, we receive the straight road that leads to eternity, the road marked not by our own fleeting mirage of victory, but by His cross and seeming defeat.  Does God tempt us?  Did He tempt His Son?  In one sense, yes.  But in view of His ultimate purpose of salvation, no.  He only knocks down so that He can raise up.  He only breaks so that He can heal.  He only kills so that He can make alive.  He doesn’t tempt us for the sake of judgment, but for the sake of fixing our eyes on Jesus who won the victory for us all.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Dust

Sermon on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
February 18, 2015 (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, February 15, 2015

A Small Church?

Sermon on Mark 9:2-9
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
February 15, 2015 (The Transfiguration of our Lord)

In today’s text, we see Jesus choose His three closest disciples and lead them up onto a mountaintop.  This is the point in Jesus’ ministry when He sets His face toward Jerusalem.  He begins the long, slow journey that will eventually result in His death for our sins.  This journey would be a depressing and confusing one for the disciples, since to them it would seem like their Lord had gone crazy.  He is heading toward the one place where human wisdom and common sense tells them He absolutely must avoid.  He is heading straight for a sure and certain death at the hands of the chief priests and the Roman government, and that’s suicidal madness as far as worldly thinking is concerned.  And so the disciples would be sorely tried and tested over the next months, as they will have to face a series of events that will seem like the defeat and collapse of everything their Master has being doing throughout His ministry.

To prepare them for this, to strengthen them for this, Jesus undergoes the transfiguration we see in today’s text.  Because to the disciples it will look like their church is falling apart and being destroyed by their leader’s supposed mistake of going to Jerusalem, Jesus strengthens them and reassures them by letting them see the heavenly reality of Who it is that is with them.  He lets them see some measure of what He looks like to those who have been glorified in heaven.  He lets them see two of the saints who are with Him in eternal life, Moses and Elijah.  He does all this because the disciples need to know that there is more going on than what they will see with their own eyes.  They are not being misled or betrayed by Jesus when He gives Himself up into the hands of the authorities.  Instead, all these things are happening according to God the Father’s plan.  Jesus cannot truly be defeated because He is God the Son.  The cross is not a defeat for Christ, even though that is what it looks like.  Instead, death is swallowed up by death.  It’s sting is lost forever.

Now, it may be tempting for us to be troubled when things aren’t going as well for the Church as we would like.  It may be tempting to despair or doubt when we see that our congregation is not doing as well numerically as it may have in times past.  It may be tempting to feel that God has turned His back on us or that we are somehow doing something wrong in terms of the way we worship or the way we live as Christians.  It can be tempting to think that God has abandoned us.  But make no mistake about it, to think this way is a temptation is from Satan.  No one else but Satan would want us to think that God has abandoned us or is punishing us in some way because our congregation isn’t outwardly as strong or as healthy as we would like.  God has not abandoned us, even if we aren’t where we would like to be as a congregation right now.  He hasn’t abandoned us, any more than He abandoned His disciples.

There is one thing needful in our lives as Christians and as a congregation.  That one thing needful is Jesus Christ.  And with Christ comes a multitude of blessings.  With Christ comes the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation.  Giving us these things is the purpose of the Church, and so if we receive the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation from God here, our church is doing what it is supposed to.  Yes, it would be good to see more people here, especially younger people, and we should all encourage our friends and neighbors to join us here so that more do come to receive God’s salvation.  But if even only one person comes to faith through the preaching of the Word and administration of the Sacraments here—even if only one person is transferred from the realm of eternal death and hell into the blessedness of eternal life, our Church is serving its purpose.  Even if we don’t gain any new members, simply the fact that this Church is helping those members we now have to continue to be strengthened in their faith and kept on the narrow road that leads to the kingdom of God—this fact itself indicates that Christ is present with us and doing His work among us.  And that’s all we need to know.

And as I mentioned before, there are far more here than you can see and count.  The true number of those gathered here today is greater than anyone knows except for God alone.  For where Christ is, there all the saints are present as well.  Where Christ is, there are Moses and Elijah.  Where Christ is, there are Peter, James and John.  Where Christ is, there are Augustine, Luther, and all the other great theologians of Church History.  Where Christ is, there is the incredible number of nameless ordinary Christians who have fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith over the course of the centuries.  Where Christ is, there are our own loved ones who have died in the faith.  Where Christ is, there are our loved ones who are still living and continuing in the Christian faith in other places.  Where Christ is, there are the angels and the archangels and all the company of heaven.  And Christ is present among us now, as we have gathered in His name.  He is present not only in His Word but also and especially in His body and His blood.  We gather here to be strengthened by Him in their presence.  We join with them in their songs of “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth.”  We join them as they celebrate the victory feast of the lamb who was slain.

So, are we a small Church?  I’d say that, no, we aren’t.  There are thousands upon thousands worshiping with us today.  We all gather around the true altar where the Lamb makes Himself both the host and the meal in the victory banquet which is held in His honor.  This heavenly reality is revealed to us through God’s Word in order to strengthen us as we face the trials of life in this sinful world, where we cannot see or hear this great cloud of witnesses.  Our congregation, alongside every other Christian congregation in which the Word is rightly preached and the Sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, is nothing less than a visible manifestation of the otherwise invisible one, holy, Christian and apostolic Church which we confess in the Nicene Creed.  Are we a small church?  Of course not!  How can our Church be small, when all the host of heaven is here with us?  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, February 7, 2015

You Are Raised Up

Sermon on Mark 1:29-39
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
February 8, 2015 (The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany)

If it hadn’t been for the blizzard, we would have heard last Sunday about Jesus’ healing of a demon-possessed man who came forward to confront Him while He was preaching in the Synagogue.  Now he heals Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever, and then goes on to heal others and cast out more demons.  These are great and impressive miracles, of course.  Casting out demons, and healing people simply by speaking the Word is certainly not something you see every day.  It is a testimony to just Who Jesus is, that He has authority over even demons, not to mention mere physical illnesses.  But I think sometimes we might get caught up in the fact that Jesus is demonstrating His power here and showing that He is God.  There’s more to it than just the fact that Jesus is doing miracles.  It’s not just about Jesus’ sheer power.  Remember why it is that people get sick in the first place, and why it is that demons can possess people at all.  The creation itself has been fundamentally corrupted by the sin of its inhabitants.  All disease, hunger, thirst, injury, disaster, and, yes, even demon-possession, are symptoms of the fact that mankind, the crown of creation, is now subject to death, and therefore creation itself is subject to futility, instability, and breakdown.  Jesus’ mother-in-law’s fever, and the possession of various people by fallen angels, are things that are only symptoms of the basic disease of sin that was brought into the world by Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden.

And so, Jesus’ ability to heal people and drive out demons is more than just merely a miraculous demonstration of the fact that He’s God.  It’s more than just a rather dramatic way of proving His claim to be the promised Messiah.  It is, in fact, part and parcel of what He came to do.  He came to put to death the old creation in His own body, and raise up for us a new creation, in which we, cleansed and purified of sin and all its effects, will live forever.  He came, not just to do away with the effects of sin temporarily for a few people back in first-century Palestine, but to do away with sin itself, forever, and restore the creation to what it was originally intended to be.

Now, St. Mark actually hints at this in his choice of words to describe what Jesus does for Peter’s mother-in-law.  He comes to her and “raises her up,” says St. Mark.  Now, that doesn’t mean that she was actually dead and that He resurrected her.  But it is interesting that Mark uses the same word as what is later used to describe Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, and our own resurrection.  And then he says that the fever left her.  This one isn’t as easy to see in English, because Mark uses a Greek word that can be translated all sorts of ways, but the verb that is translated “left,” as in “the fever left her,” is actually the same word that is translated “forgive” when the object of the verb is sin.  Forgiveness and raising up go together.  Death is only in the world because of sin, and so the forgiveness of sin (and therefore of death, and therefore of disease that leads to death), results in the raising up, the resurrection, of those who are forgiven.

I mentioned last week, in connection with the fact that Jesus cast out, or exorcised, the demon in the synagogue, that Holy Baptism is actually an exorcism, a casting out of the chief demon himself, Satan, in order to make room for the Holy Spirit.  The same thing is true of Holy Absolution, the preaching of the Gospel, and the Holy Supper.  That which is corrupted, and desecrated by sin is destroyed to make way for the new creation that God will “raise up” to live before Him in righteousness and purity forever.

And I’m not just speaking of purely spiritual things, either.  Peter’s mother-in-law eventually died.  So did everyone else that Jesus healed during His earthly ministry.  But when Jesus forgives us and raises us up, He raises us up not just spiritually, but physically as well.  He makes us part of the new creation, the new heavens and new earth, in which righteousness dwells.  Even though the text doesn’t say explicitly, it’s a pretty good bet that Peter’s mother-in-law was a believer, and if that’s the case, even though she died, yet she lives.  Even though Peter himself was crucified upside down under Roman persecution, he lives in eternity.  You and I also, because our sin has been forgiven, are also raised up.  We will live forever, not just spiritually, but also bodily.  When Christ comes again to judge the living and the dead, we will be raised up from the dead to live forever with Him in the new creation.  Compared to this, the miracles recorded in our text are actually not all that spectacular.  They are merely dim foreshadows of the greater miracle that happens here every Sunday, where your sins are forgiven and you are raised up to eternity.  You become part of the new creation when you eat and drink the first-fruits of that new creation, namely the risen body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Instead of being granted temporary healing, we receive here a new and eternal life where neither sickness nor demons will ever come near us again.  You are forgiven.  You are raised up.  You will live forever with your Creator.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, January 25, 2015

How to Catch Men

Sermon on Mark 1:14-20
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
January 25, 2015 (The Third Sunday after the Epiphany)

In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus tells Andrew and Peter that He will make them fishers of men.  This text is one that is often referred to when speaking about missions and evangelism, that is, deliberate outreach into the community around us or around the world.  What Jesus is saying is that the Church is to “catch” people into His Kingdom who do not already know Him, and so bring them to the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation that is ours through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard a lot of mission speakers and evangelism experts who use the imagery of fishing to explain how it is we are to go about catching men.  But what I’ve often heard is that we are to choose the right “bait,” that is, find a felt need that will draw people’s attention to our church, and use the right marketing techniques (that is, make the bait move in a lifelike way using various techniques with the rod and the fishing line) to draw people in.  There has been a whole movement in American Christianity (including among Missouri Synod Lutherans) that encourages and teaches churches how to do evangelism in this way.  The idea seems to be that if we can meet the needs people already know (or think they know) that they have, they will come to our church and have a chance of hearing about their true need for forgiveness, and how that need is met in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Now, to be sure, there is an element of truth in the “felt needs” approach to evangelism.  The fact that human beings have unmet needs at all is a symptom of the problem of original sin, and where the Gospel is preached there God’s people will try to alleviate, as best they can, the needs and the problems that are created by sin in the world, as a way of illustrating eternal life, where sin and its effects won’t bother us at all.  This is why churches have historically been the place of charity.  Many schools, hospitals, nursing homes, soup kitchens, shelters, and other charitable organizations have been founded by churches for precisely this reason.  The problem is not with the idea of meeting people’s needs as such.  The problem is when meeting people’s needs in this life crowds out the true need that lies at the root of all the other problems, namely sin, and thus Jesus becomes not a savior from sin but an example to follow in social ministry.  And that happens far too often, both among liberals who seek to meet the felt needs of the poor through social gospel, and among conservatives who seek to meet the felt needs of suburbanites through church as group therapy or good advice with regard to finances, relationships, etc.

In any case, when it comes to using today’s Gospel lesson as a proof-text for the “felt needs” approach to evangelism and church growth, I do think many interpreters are missing the point.  Most of the analogy I’ve described up to this point of how fishing is done comes from modern recreational fishing, in which you either go out in a boat or stand on a dock or a pier, and cast bait out using a fishing rod and line, and try to trick the fish into biting by your selection of bait and how you move it through the water.  However, that wasn’t the kind of fishing that Andrew and Peter would have been familiar with.  In fact, that kind of fishing hadn’t even been invented yet.  These men weren’t recreational fishermen.  They didn’t use bait, or fishing lines, or poles.  They didn’t go after their fish one at a time, trying to trick the fish into grabbing the bait and becoming hooked on the line.  Commercial fishermen don’t do that.  What commercial fishermen do is simply run a big net through an area of the water where there is a large school of fish, and draw in all the fish that have unwillingly been caught in the net.  This technique hasn’t changed much during the centuries since Jesus spoke these words.  Of course, motors have replaced sails, and the fiber the net is made out of is far more advanced a material than they used in Jesus’ day, but the idea is the same.  Trying to appeal to the fish in order to draw them into the boat isn’t even a consideration here.  The net simply catches a bunch of fish.  Some escape, some don’t, but it doesn’t matter, because the net is what does the work, and often it’s completely random which fish are caught and which aren’t.

And so, when Jesus told Peter and Andrew that they were going to catch men, He wasn’t telling them they’d be using bait and a hook to draw men into the Church one by one.  He was telling them that they were simply going to put the Word of Law and Gospel out there, and let the Word itself do all the work.  Who is brought to repentance by the preaching of the Law and then brought to faith by the preaching of the Gospel, is something of a random chance as far as we can tell.  Only God knows why this one repents and that one escapes the net.  It’s not a matter of technique.  It’s a matter of simply letting down the net and dragging it through the water.  God’s Word does what it says.  It will bear fruit, when, where and as He chooses, and often does in the unlikeliest of places.

And that’s a good thing.  The most unlikeliest of places for God’s Word to bear fruit is the human heart, including yours and mine.  We were born enemies of God, and have no natural ability to believe in Him or come to him.  The Word catches us unwillingly, many of us before we were even aware of it, by means of the Word in and with the Baptismal water.  The Word transforms us, makes us into those who believe in Jesus Christ.  We are drawn into the Church by the power of the Word alone.  It’s not the technique or the skills or the personality of the pastor, or what services and activities are offered by the particular congregation.  It’s the Word itself that does the work.

And work it does.  What the Word says about us is that we are perfect and holy, because Christ was perfect and holy in our place, and when the Father looks at us, He sees us through Christ.  And the Word does what it says.  We are declared forgiven, and a clean heart and right spirit that are without sin really are created in us by that Word.  We are declared to be citizens of the kingdom of heaven, and that’s what we are.  And that’s what we have to declare to those around us.  The Word itself will do the work.  The Word itself will draw those who repent and believe the Gospel into the Church, just as it does for us, Sunday after Sunday.  The Word itself makes them, along with us, citizens of eternity.  The Word Himself feeds us with the food of heaven, and will bring us at last to dwell with Him forever.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Peter, Thomas, and Nathaniel

Sermon on John 1:43-51
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
January 18, 2015 (The Baptism of our Lord)

If you ever had any doubts about whether the Gospels are factual history or mythology, today’s Gospel lesson convince you that what we are dealing with here is a factual account of what really happened.  Mythological heroes just don’t talk like this.  Nathaniel, one of the twelve apostles, one of the founders of the earliest Christian Church, is here depicted as being sarcastic about Jesus’ home town, and Jesus Himself gives a bit of a wry observation about Nathaniel’s personality.  Nazareth?  Can anything good come from Nazareth?  Might as well ask if anything good can come from Gary, Indiana.  And what Jesus says about Nathaniel, while it is a compliment, is one of those compliments that could be taken as a criticism, too.  “A true Israelite, in whom there is no deceit,” sounds like high praise.  But what Jesus is talking about here is the fact that Nathaniel pretty much says whatever he’s thinking.  He’s incapable of deceit, not because he is any better than anyone else; Nathaniel too was born in sin, a descendant of Adam and Eve.  Rather, he’s incapable of deceit because his mental filters just aren’t that good.  He blurts out what he’s thinking even if what he’s thinking is a bit insulting or impolite, such as his commentary on the town where Jesus grew up.

But it is such imperfect men as Nathaniel that God uses to spread His kingdom here on earth.  Show me a perfect pastor and I’ll show you a faker who probably has more than a few skeletons in his closet.  It is precisely because He’s God and all the glory should go to Him that he uses sinful men as His messengers.  It’s precisely because He’s God and He’s all-powerful that He uses those who aren’t necessarily all that great at public relations, or who easily lose their temper, or are stubborn, or are wishy-washy, or lazy, or any of a thousand other faults, to bring His Word to those who need to hear it.  It is His power, and His power alone, that is at work when the Word is preached.  To make that point, He uses men who just don’t have the talents or the personality to draw a large following, to bring His good news of forgiveness and eternal life to their fellow sinners.  It must be God working, because if it were up to us, we would fail, and fail miserably.

Today is also known in the Church year as “The Confession of St. Peter,” and the Gospel lesson for that festival is the account of Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.  What Jesus says to Peter on that occasion also applies to what Nathaniel says this morning as well: “Blessed are you, because flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.”  Nathaniel also confesses who Jesus really is, the long-awaited Messiah, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity in human flesh come down to earth to save us.  But how was that revealed to Nathaniel?  Yes, there was a miracle involved, namely that Jesus saw Nathaniel and knew him when he was in a place where he thought he was alone.  But ultimately it was the Word of God which informed Nathaniel of who Jesus is: the Messiah promised for hundreds of years, going all the way back to the promise in Genesis 3 that the seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head, and following throughout the Old Testament Scriptures.  That’s partly why Nathaniel believed even though he only saw the one minor miracle: He knew the Scriptures.  The Holy Spirit works through the Word.

But Jesus does promise him that he will see much greater things than this.  The heavens will open, and he will see the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.  It is precisely Jesus who is the ladder of Jacob.  Nathaniel’s ancestor Jacob, also known as Israel, after whom the nation of Israel is named, saw a staircase reaching from heaven to earth, symbolizing that God would come down to us to rescue us from our sin.  Jesus here identifies Himself as that staircase, as well as the man who wrestled with Jacob that same night and renamed him Israel.  To the true Israelite, who cannot deceive because he’s too blunt and even rude, God will show His salvation, His route down from heaven to join us, share in our sufferings, and take us up with Him into glory.

You see, Nathaniel is not the only one in this Gospel lesson who is without deceit.  There is another here who cannot lie.  But Jesus’ truthfulness is different from Nathaniel’s.  Jesus’ truthfulness doesn’t come from a lack of mental filters or a tendency to blurt things out.  But Jesus’ truthfulness doesn’t come from scrupulousness in always speaking true things, either.  Jesus is without deceit simply because He’s God, the Son of the Father, the Word by which the heavens were made.  What He says, is.  Which is why it is by His Word, even when spoken by sinful men, that faith is created in the heart, even the cynical heart which doubts anything good can come from humble beginnings.  The Word does what it says, despite doubt and cynicism.

This Gospel lesson comes from the first chapter of St. John’s Gospel.  Near the very end of that same Gospel, there is an account involving another disciple who confesses Jesus as the Son of God.  Every year on the First Sunday after Easter we hear the story of St. Thomas, who claimed he needed to see Jesus to believe in His resurrection.  What Jesus says to Thomas then, is an echo of what happens here in Nathaniel’s case.  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.  Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ.  Which is why God calls preachers.  Which was why Jesus called Nathaniel, and Thomas, and Peter.  All had personality flaws, all had doubts.  All were sinners forgiven for the sake of Jesus’ death on the cross.  It’s the Word itself that does the work.  As we go forth and confess to our friends and neighbors what we’ve heard from God, that’s a comfort for us as well.  The Word itself does the work.  The Word itself comes down to us and gives us eternal life.  The Word Himself comes to us personally to forgive our sins and give us His own body and blood.  It’s all the Word.  It’s all Jesus.  And that’s all that’s necessary.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Fire and Water

Sermon on Mark 1:4-11
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
January 11, 2015 (The Baptism of our Lord)

In today’s Gospel, John says that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit.  But where has the Holy Spirit promised to be found?  In the word.  Holy Baptism is not simple water only, but it is water comprehended in and connected with God’s Word.  It is water comprehended in and connected with the Holy Spirit.  Which means that “water baptism” and “Holy Spirit baptism” aren’t two different things, but two descriptions of one and the same thing.  Now, St. Luke in his parallel to today’s text, quotes John as saying that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  Which means that to be baptized with water and God’s Word, water and the Holy Spirit, is also to be baptized in fire.

Fire is a useful thing, but it is dangerous if it is not properly contained.  Fire provides heat for our homes, it causes our cars and trucks to move down the road, it cooks food, and a thousand other useful things.  But it provides all these benefits by destroying its fuel.  And that’s why fire is dangerous.  If not properly controlled it will use all sorts of things as fuel which ought not be burned, including ourselves.  It may be useful, but it’s not tame.

But there are uses for fire that rely on the fact that fire is destructive.  This is how fire becomes purifying.  Metals are refined using extreme heat, because it is only in a molten state that impurities can be removed.  It is this use of fire that John is talking about when he describes the baptism of Christ as being a baptism in fire.  Our sins, our impurities, are removed from us in Holy Baptism.  When we come forth from the waters of Holy Baptism, that which is not pure in us, the Old sinful Adam, has been put to death and a new, pure man in Christ has been created to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.

Another way of saying this is to say that we who have been baptized into Christ have been baptized into His death, so that even as Christ is risen from the dead we too should walk in newness of life.  We were buried with Christ by Baptism into death, so that even as Christ is risen from the dead so we also should walk in newness of life.  When you were baptized, you died, in other words.  It sounds pretty harsh to say it that way, but it’s the truth.  When you were baptized, you died, and then you were raised to a new life.  The continuous forgiveness you receive by faith every day, and the forgiveness you receive from my mouth every Sunday in Holy Absolution, are simply part of your Baptism, where the Old Adam is daily drowned so that the New Man can daily come forth and arise.  This is how the water of baptism functions as fire in your life.  It destroys the Old Adam so that the New Man in Christ can arise.

If all of this is true, though, and Baptism purifies us from our sinfulness, then we need to ask, why did Christ need to be Baptized?  After all, He was without sin in the first place.  He didn’t need to be purified of His sins, because He didn’t have any.  In fact, John asks Him this very question when He comes to be baptized.  St. Matthew records that part of the conversation.  The answer is that just as we were baptized into Christ’s righteousness, He was baptized into our sin.  When He was baptized, He was beginning His public ministry, He was taking on His role as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  And He didn’t just make that sin vanish; He took it upon Himself and bore it to the cross.  It was at His Baptism that Christ became the one who takes away our sin, and it is for this reason that His Baptism in the Jordan River is important to us.  Christ was baptized into our sinfulness so that we can be baptized into His righteousness.  Which means He went through the fires of Hell so that we can be warmed and lightened by His face in heaven.

This season in the Church Year is known as the season of the Epiphany, after the festival of the Epiphany, also known as the coming of the wise men, which we celebrated last Sunday.  The word Epiphany means “shining out” or “shining forth.”  The idea is that the Gospel lessons during the Epiphany season show us how Jesus shines forth as God even though He is also man, and even though He is living as a humble and lowly servant of us all.  Here at Jesus’ Baptism, where He begins His public ministry as the Lamb of God who takes up and takes away the sins of the world, His divine nature shines forth through the testimony that the Father and the Holy Spirit bear of who He is.  He is the Son of God, in whom the Father is well-pleased.  He is the one to whom the Holy Spirit testifies.  He is God become man so that mankind might be restored to fellowship with God.  The Father declares that He is well-pleased with the Son, because the Son is sinless.  And because the Son is sinless, He can carry our sins to the cross and burn them up there.  The whole Trinity testifies to the salvation that is ours in Christ Jesus.

Fire gives light.  The refiners’ fire which purges our sins away from us is what shines forth in the coming of Christ to the world.  But then He subjects Himself to that fire on the cross.  In  fact, He is our light, our source of warmth and light, because He becomes the fuel for the fire.  He bears our sin to the cross.  He becomes our sin.  And He burns it up in Himself.  Which is why even though the fire purifies us, and make no mistake that is painful because it means putting ourselves to death, it grants us warmth and light and ushers us into the eternal light that comes from God’s face.  Life comes from death.  The broken body and shed blood warm and enlighten us as we partake of them.  And yet they come from the cross, which is where Christ’s light comes from, precisely because He has taken the darkness into Himself and burned it up.  We have the light of heaven because we have the light that comes from the cross.  Amen.  

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Troubled

I'm not sure why I didn't post the last two weeks' sermons, but here they are for your enjoyment.

Sermon on Matthew 2:1-12
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
January 4, 2015 (The Feast of the Epiphany)

These men didn’t show up in Judea by accident.  The Lord had led them there.  Exactly how He did that is something of a debate among Christian historians.  Some think they were simply pagan astrologers who saw a particular star in the heavens that corresponded to their own system of reading important events, and that, because God wanted them to show up, He made it so that their astrology happened to be right this one particular time.  Others, including myself, suspect that these men were students from the order of scholars in Babylon, the same order of wise men of whom the prophet Daniel had been the wisest during Judah’s exile in Babylon.  In this case, these men would have been believers in the coming Messiah on the basis of that portion of the Old Testament which had already been written at the time of the exile.

There are also many theories about the nature of the star they saw.  Virtually all modern depictions of the manger scene include a large, highly visible star in the sky over the stable where our Lord was born.  But because it was only these men from the east who noticed the event, I doubt it was nearly as far out of the ordinary as most of our modern Christmas artwork portrays it, but was rather something the average person would have dismissed as simply another star, but which only had meaning to those who spent their lives studying the movements of heavenly objects.  If that’s true, then what was it, exactly?  Was it a confluence of various planets?  Was it really a star God miraculously caused to shine in that time and place but which ordinarily wasn’t there?  And if so, was it a supernatural miracle or did He use the natural phenomenon we know as a supernova, where a star explodes and becomes more visible in telescopes, or even to the naked eye, than it previously would have been, before fading again?

The fact is, there is a huge amount of information we don’t know about the visit of these men from the east.  We don’t even know if some or all of them were kings, or how many of them there were, despite the popular idea of the “three kings,” one for each of the gifts they brought.  But their visit is significant not so much in how it came about, but in what it signifies about the Child they came to worship.  And yes, the text does say they came to “worship” the Child.  Whatever else they did or did not know about the prophecies of the coming Messiah, they knew that this Child was God in the flesh.  They knew that none other than the creator of heaven and earth was present before them, receiving their worship and adoration.

The contrast between these men and those who were in power among the Judeans of that time is obvious.  Last week we talked about the bloodthirsty dictator called Herod who slaughtered all the male babies under two years old in and around Bethlehem in a vain attempt to kill this supposed usurper of his throne.  The religious leaders were troubled, too.  Their own power over the people of Judea was also being challenged here.  Unlike Herod, they clearly knew Who they were dealing with.  Micah’s prophecy they quoted to Herod was clearly about the coming Messiah, the Seed of the Woman, the Suffering Servant, the Son whom the virgin would conceive, Immanuel, which means “God with us.”  These same religious leaders would hound Jesus during his whole ministry, eventually putting Him to death for being the One they, in fact, knew Him to be, namely God the Son.

We’d like to think we would have been among the wise men and not those in Jerusalem who were upset by the whole thing.  Or perhaps we would have been among the humble Old Testament believers who already lived in Judea, such as Mary and Joseph themselves, Zechariah, Elizabeth, and their son John, Simeon, Anna, and so on.  That’s where we’d put ourselves in the story if we had to imagine we were part of these events.

But it troubles us when the Scriptures remind us of God’s Law, doesn’t it?  It troubles us when we’re reminded that we haven’t been perfect.  And it’s not just that we haven’t been perfect.  It’s not just that we’ve done a few things wrong.  It’s troubling to us when we realize that even our best and most pious good works are stained by the corruption of selfishness and pride which stains everything we do.  It offends us when we are reminded that our relationship with our creator is not going along happily and swimmingly the way we’d like it to.  In this we aren’t so different from the religious leaders in Jerusalem.  For that matter, we’re not so different from Herod himself.  Anything that puts something other than ourselves on the throne of our hearts becomes an object of our wrath and hatred.  Anything that reminds us that there is Someone more important than ourselves who can call us to account is met with discomfort at best, and murderous hatred at worst.

But being the object of hatred and murder was why Jesus came here in the first place.  You heard me right, God came into His creation for the purpose of being hated and killed.  He wasn’t among those infants killed by Herod immediately following today’s Gospel, because it wasn’t His time, but the absorption of all of our hatred and rebellion against Him was why He was born.  The absorption of all the hatred of all mankind against Him was why He was born.  Which means that it is all mankind, not just the members of that nation God had originally chosen to be His ancestors and relatives, which had their hatred and violence against their creator taken away from them by His act of dying on the cross.  Of course, anybody can still reject this wonderful news, and many do to their eternal judgment, but the fact is it was the rebellion of the whole creation against its creator that died on Good Friday, and an entire new creation newly aligned with its creator’s design which rose again Easter Sunday.

What this means for us is that we are among those who have died with this old world and who have risen as citizens of the new heavens and the new earth.  We are the ones who belong to His heavenly court and share in His heavenly banquet.  Which means, ironically, that He is now the one who brings us the true treasures of eternal life.  Our stuff, or money and possessions and even our very bodies, become the gold of heaven which He dispenses freely in love toward Him and service toward our neighbor.  Our prayers become the incense which is pleasing to Him for the sake of Christ and which He answers in the way most beneficial to us and to our neighbors.  And our very graves (which, admittedly, now use embalming fluid rather than myrrh, but the point is the same) become the beds from which we will awake from sleep to live forever in His kingdom.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Friday, January 2, 2015

The Holy Innocent Son of God

Sermon on Matthew 2:13-18
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
December 28, 2014 (The Holy Innocents)

Christmas has consequences.  Jesus Christ is born, and suddenly everything is different.  We move from the Old Testament into the New.  Instead of looking forward to the coming Messiah, God’s people now look back upon Him and His completed sacrifice on our behalf on the cross.  Christmas isn’t just a break from everyday life, a holiday that we celebrate and then go back to our normal lives as if nothing had happened.  The Second Person of the Trinity has taken on human flesh.  Our creator has become one of us.  That’s not something you can ignore.  It changes things.  It changes the world.  And, of course those who have it pretty good in the status quo are going to resist change, even those who used that word as a campaign slogan.  The rich and the powerful, especially, don’t like change that doesn’t serve their purposes and interests.  And there is no more radical change in all the world than the change from allegiance to this world’s prince, Satan, an allegiance into which we were originally born by nature, to an allegiance to the King whose kingdom is not of this world.  The idea that us Christians have an allegiance that goes beyond what we owe to any earthly ruler is threatening to those who seek power and control over their fellow humans.  Right now the big religious bogeyman in our country is Islam, but I would not be surprised to see any religion that makes exclusive claims about itself, including conservative Christianity, being portrayed as an enemy of civilized society before too many more years.  And so it’s not surprising that even before this newborn heavenly King was old enough to humanly understand what was happening, His very existence indirectly resulted in the murder of countless other children his own age in and around Bethlehem.

Today we celebrate an unusual saint’s day.  Most of the days in the Church’s calendar that are devoted to specific saints, are days which observe the lives, ministries, and deaths of individuals who did great and noteworthy things for the Kingdom of God as adults.  But today we remember a group of innocent young boys, killed even before they were old enough to know what was happening.  What we see in today’s Gospel lesson is nothing less than the full fury of the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh against God and His gift of salvation and eternal life to us.  It’s not a pretty sight.  We normally tend to avoid thinking about the fact that we human beings are even capable of such brutality and viciousness.  But it happens just the same.  Just as the thousands of innocent victims in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the hijacked airplanes of September 11th are remembered by our country as heroes, even though many of them did nothing more than be in the wrong place at the wrong time, so also these children, the victims of an earlier and less complex (and more officially sanctioned) form of terrorism, are remembered by the Church as heroes as well, since their deaths were directly related to the coming of the Son of God in the flesh to save us from our sins.  So also, by the way, ought we to remember the millions of unborn children that have been murdered in our nation since 1973 simply for the sake of selfishness and convenience.  We have put to death more of our own citizens each and every day since the Roe v. Wade verdict in 1973 than died on September 11th, 2001.  Just as the blood of Abel cried out to God regarding Cain’s guilt, so also cries out the blood of the Holy Innocents, that of the victims of abortion, as well as victims of every other act of violence and murder which has resulted from Cain and Abel’s parents falling into sin.

As their blood cries out to God, we add our voices to it and cry to Him as well: “How long, O Lord, how long?”  Why don’t You do something about it?  The answer, however, is not as simple as we’d like it to be.  You see, if God were simply to wipe out all those who murder and are prideful and want to have things their way, there would be nobody left on the earth.  The attempt to deal with sin the way we want to deal with it, always has unintended consequences, because it is not just our enemies who are selfish and sinful.  We all have the same sin in our hearts as Herod and Hitler and Stalin and, yes, even Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.  We may not have acted on that sin in the grossly destructive ways that those men did, but our hearts are no different, neither as individuals nor as a nation.  And so if God were to do away with evil in the world by doing away with all the evil men, we wouldn’t like the results.  He’d do away with us, too.

Instead, God deals with evil in the world in a way that preserves His creatures while cleansing them of their sins.  He does it by taking all of the evil and the selfishness and the pride and the lust and the boastfulness and whatever else is involved in the stain of sin on our hearts, and applying it to His own Son.  That’s why Holy Innocents is celebrated as a festival as one of the 12 days of Christmas.  It stands as a reminder to us of why Christmas happened.  Christmas happened so that Good Friday and Easter could happen.  Christ entered the sin-filled world so that He could take that sin upon Himself and in return give us His perfect and holy life.  He was declared guilty so that we could be declared innocent.

In fact, Jesus is the One who truly bears the title of “Holy Innocent.”  Even those babies in Bethlehem were born sinners like the rest of us, so that even their untimely deaths were not more than they deserved.  But He is the only one that is truly innocent, so that His death sanctifies them and their deaths.  And so, since those Old Testament Christian babies, who had been made part of God’s people and been given faith in the coming Messiah through the sacrament of Circumcision, died in that faith, they too were Holy Innocents, not because of their own righteousness, but because of what their Lord would do for them some 30 years later on the cross, and because of the faith in Him that had been granted through the Old Testament Word and the Sacrament of Circumcision.  And thus their deaths were sanctified by Christ to become for them the gate of eternal life.  And their blood cries out, not just of the sin of Herod, but also and more importantly of the salvation of Him who shed His blood for them on the cross.

The same thing is true of you.  Even though you bear the guilt of sin, not just of original sin but also all of the actual sin you have added to it during the course of our lives, you now carry the name of “Holy Innocents.”  Christ’s perfection has become yours.  You have been baptized into Him and have heard His Word declaring you “not guilty,” and you will soon eat His body and drink His blood which was shed on your behalf.  Therefore your death, whenever it comes, will be a testimony not only, not even primarily, to your sin or the sin of those around you.  Rather your death will proclaim to all the world the salvation which Christ has given you.  Death for Christians has become the gate of everlasting life, where the evils of this present world will no longer trouble us or cause us to weep any more.  Rachel will no longer weep for her children, for there will be no more sin, sorrow, or suffering.  Christ the Innocent One has made all of us Holy Innocents with Him, and we will all share in that blessedness with Him forever.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Nails, Spear, and Peace

Sermon on Luke 2:1-20
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
December 24, 2014 (The Nativity of our Lord)

“Nails, spear shall pierce Him through, the cross be borne for me, for you.  Hail, hail the Word made flesh, the Babe, the Son of Mary.”  Not the sort of love, peace, and joy that you normally hear about at this time of year, is it?  But that’s really what we’re here for.  The baby born in Bethlehem is the Savior, Christ the Lord.  But what does it mean to be the Savior?  It means taking the effects of our sin upon Himself.  It means death, because that’s the wages of sin.  God came to earth, yes, but He came to die.  Tonight has meaning precisely because of Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Many times during Jesus’ ministry He reminded His disciples of this.  And just as many times they failed to understand what He meant.  Mary, who treasured all these things up in her heart, would live to see it all happen.  The shepherds came to worship, not just a baby, but the Good Shepherd who gives His life for the sheep.  The angels sang of peace on earth, but that peace came at the price of the cross.  We celebrate the birth of our Savior, but His salvation is from sin, death, and hell, by means of His taking our place.  Christmas doesn’t mean anything without Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

But because He was born, lived, died, and rose again for us, we really do have peace with God now.  All the things which go wrong because of sin in the world are now no longer permanent because He took these things upon Himself.  We celebrate His birth because the angels in heaven now can celebrate our eternal birth into His kingdom in Holy Baptism.  We rejoice with them because He was born to save us.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +