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 +

The Wheat and the Darnel

Sermon on Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
July 20, 2014 (Fifth Sunday after Pentecost)

Last Sunday, we heard about the parable of the sower.  In that parable, the seed was the Word of God, and the soil was the hearer of the Word.  This Sunday we also hear a parable that uses agricultural imagery.  But this time the symbolism is a bit different.  The field is not the Christian, nor is it the Church (despite the way some have interpreted it this parable is not an argument against the practice of Church discipline).  Rather, the field is the world.  The plants growing in the field are humanity, including believers and unbelievers.  Some are planted by God, and some are planted by the devil.  Now, in reality the interplay between believers and unbelievers is more complicated than that; every analogy or parable starts to break down if you push it too hard.  Believers can become unbelievers, and vice versa, and in any case each and every believer also has an unbeliever living with him in the same body.  But for the purposes of this parable, Jesus is asking us to look at things from the perspective of Judgment Day.  Some will be saved, and others won’t.  It’s that simple.

Now, to us who have to live in this old world until the harvest, the fact that sin and evil dwell here too isn’t exactly pleasant.  People die.  Natural and man-made disasters happen.  Those who are simply trying to live humbly and serve their neighbor so often struggle to get by while those whose personal lives are a mess (as we can see every time we go through a supermarket checkout lane) are so often rich and successful and have money and possessions to spare.  And ultimately, whether good or bad, the same fate awaits us all from the perspective of this world.  Under the sun, all is vanity.  In fact, one of the most common objections atheists will raise against belief in God is that a God who is good and all-powerful would do something about the bad stuff that happens in the world.  Now, this isn’t really an argument against God’s existence (which is what they are trying to argue against) but His goodness (which, simply by virtue of being God, He gets to define for Himself; we can’t come up with our own standard of goodness and make Him follow it, because then He would end up being our servant, and not God at all).  But in any case, the question of why bad stuff happens to those who are trying to do good is a heartfelt question also for believers.  Life in this old world is hard, and we all wish all the unfairness and injustice and suffering and pains and sorrows could be done away with.

But here’s the problem.  Until Judgment Day there is simply no way of distinguishing the weeds from the wheat.  The word that is used for the weeds here refers to a plant called “darnel.”  The thing about darnel is that until harvest-time, it looks exactly the same as wheat.  The reason why God doesn’t command His angels to uproot the darnel and throw it away until the harvest time, despite how it takes some of the nutrients and water and sunlight which properly belong to the wheat, is because they look exactly alike.  By the way, you will often hear preachers saying that the reason why not to uproot the weeds is that there is a risk of damaging the wheat’s roots since they are tangled up in one another.  That may be true, but the point here is not about simply damaging the wheat, but that the wheat would be destroyed entirely because nobody can tell the difference at that point.

In other words, the reason God lets all the suffering and sorrow and injustice and so on continue to happen, is because you can’t destroy evil without destroying the good.  Good and evil people, from God’s perspective, aren’t determined by how outwardly good their actions are, but by what is going on in their hearts.  And the fact is, all of us believers and heirs of heaven have within us an unbeliever who is just as sinful and selfish and murderous and lustful and covetous as the worst unbeliever.  And so any attempt at uprooting evil in the world before the final judgment will simply end up in disaster for all involved.

And that’s why the way God deals with this field is to allow both to grow together.  He is the one who sends His water, His nutrients, His sunlight onto the field.  The Church is sent out to make disciples by baptizing and catechizing as we go on through our lives in this world.  The water and the nourishment of the Word do what God says they will do.  And Jesus Himself, who is the true Light, shines down on us and gives us His own food in His body and blood.  That’s the way the wheat seeds grow up unto into the fruitful harvest of eternity.  In fact, to depart from the parable’s analogy for a moment, that’s how even the darnel plants (which is what we all, in fact, are according to our old nature) become wheat plants.  God, instead of destroying them, transforms them into those who bear the fruit of eternal life by His Word and His body and blood.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Christ Is the Good Ground

 Due to an argument I've been having with my computer, the last couple of sermons didn't get posted.  So here they are, as well as tomorrow's, all at once.

Sermon on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
July 13, 2014 (Fifth Sunday after Pentecost)

It may seem stupid to fling the seed randomly at every type of soil instead of carefully testing the soil by doing market surveys and using other techniques to find out where the best soil is.  But it’s the only thing we can do in the Christian church.  Despite what it seems like to human reason, there is no way to tell whether a particular person, a particular neighborhood, a particular region of the country will react in any of the four ways we see in our text.  Often it’s tempting for church officials to “invest” the mission dollars where the money is, in growing suburbs populated by those who have money to spare and who would seem therefore to be better able to support their congregation and the church body to which it belongs.  Of course, that ends up being a way of making decisions based on what the church can get out of people rather than the love for people and concern for their eternal well-being which Jesus would have us exhibit.  But apart from the question of selfishness, the fact is, all of the sociology in the world is useless in figuring out who will and will not bear the fruit of salvation.  After all, the fruit we are looking for isn’t an externally healthy church (though that’s certainly helpful).  It isn’t a lot of mission dollars for the District or Synod (though that can be an important way we as a congregation give thanks for the blessings God has given us).  The fruit we are looking for is souls in heaven.  And that’s something you can’t predict or analyze with human reason.  Jesus’ statement about those who hear yet don’t hear means that in every plot of ground there will be some of each of the four categories.  And the seed can often bear fruit in places that look to human wisdom as completely unlikely and wrong.  Indeed, those whose lifestyles have been overtly contrary to God’s will are often more receptive to the Gospel of forgiveness than are those who think of themselves as good, upstanding citizens.  And so instead of engaging in marketing tactics and all the other nonsense that so many refer to as evangelism in our day, we simply preach the Word and administer the sacraments here on Sunday morning, and we confess our faith to those we encounter in our lives.  Whether it be in our day-to-day business or in some intentional outreach project, we still simply confess what we have heard.  That’s how God’s kingdom grows even in the most unlikely places.

The next question that this parable raises in our minds, of course, is the question about us as individuals.  What kind of soil am I?  Am I the hard soil that doesn’t even let the Word sink in but lets the devil snatch it away?  Am I the rocky soil which, even though the Word begins growing in my heart, it is not allowed to get very deep roots and so it doesn’t survive long?  Am I the thorn-infested soil that simply has too many other things going on around me to allow my faith to grow and mature?  What kind of soil am I?  This question is, of course, a natural question to ask for anyone who is concerned with their own salvation.  And it may be helpful for us to see if any of these things is true of us so that we can fight against these things in ourselves.  But it can also be a dangerous question, because if I conclude that in some ways I’m like the hard path or the rocky or thorny soil, then I might give in to despair because I can’t hope to be saved.  It’s too easy to look at these four categories and assume that everybody falls into only one of the four, and that’s that.

Fortunately it’s not that simple.  All of us fall into all of these four categories.  We are by nature sinful and unclean, and we are constantly bombarded with the attacks of the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh as we hear the Word of God.  According to our old sinful nature we are hard-packed, rocky, and thorn-infested all at the same time.  But according to the new person that has been recreated in us by Christ, we are good soil, which will produce the hundredfold fruit of everlasting life.

The hard-packed soil didn’t even let the seed in.  Sometimes the Word simply doesn’t make it into our minds and hearts at all.  Sometimes we think that we are too busy to stay and listen to God’s Word in the first place.  We don’t even come to where it is being preached at all.  Or we come and we doubt the truthfulness of what we are told.  Or the preacher says something in his sermon that hits us the wrong way and we tune out the rest of what he has to say because of anger.  Or we are simply too tired to stay awake during the preaching of the Word.  These kinds of things can happen to any one of us, and in this way the devil snatches the Word of God away from us and prevents it from taking root in us that day.

The rocky soil allowed the seed to start growing, but it didn’t allow a good, stable root system to develop.  We are always tempted to base our confidence in God in things that are shallow.  Emotions such as feelings of happiness and warmth are a good thing; they are a good response to the Christian message.  But they are shallow and they can change.  The true joy and peace that Christ gives are not the same thing as warm feelings.  The true joy and peace of Christ are still ours even when we don’t feel particularly happy or particularly peaceful.  Too many people in our world think that they have lost their faith because they don’t feel the same way about God or about going to Church as they did when they were younger.  And so when things in this world go badly for them they don’t think that Christ is still there for them to rely upon.  The world is a cruel enemy of the Christian, and often things do go badly for people precisely because they do believe in Christ.  Unless faith is grounded in something deeper than feelings and emotions, it’s not going to be able to stand up to the blistering heat of the world’s attacks against Christianity.  Only God’s Word itself can create the truly deep roots that a Christian needs to survive even when everything in the world seems to be going against him and his shallow emotions no longer hold him upright steady in the faith.

The thorny soil allowed the seed to grow, but then it cut off the light that it needed to continue to grow and bear fruit.  Our old sinful flesh pays attention to all sorts of other things besides the Word of God.  We are by nature easily distracted from God.  Even perfectly innocent and good things can distract us from God’s Word.  Things like our work, our hobbies, sports, caring for our families, and the desire to sleep in at least one day a week can distract us from continuing to bask in the light of God’s Son.  Our old sinful flesh wants to keep our energies away from sustaining the faith that has been planted in us.

But God has recreated our hearts.  His Word acts as a plow to break up the hard soil, to turn up the rocks and remove them, and to destroy the thorn bushes.  The rocky soil may not bear fruit one season, but the roots that the plants tried to put down will eventually over the course of the years break up the rocks and turn them into good soil.  The same thing is true of the hard path.  Plants and even big, strong trees can grow even in hills composed largely of flint and limestone.  The devil, the world, and our sinful flesh are beat down and killed by the dying and rising again of Christ our Lord.  He is the good soil, because ultimately He is the one who bears the fruit of eternal life.  His good soil is spread upon our poor soil through Baptism, preaching, and the Lord’s supper, just as good, black dirt is often put on a garden or a flower bed to make up for the poor soil already there.  In this way he remakes us in His image.  We become part of Him.  And through Him we will become a hundred times more than we are right now, because we will be reborn, perfect, on the last day when He comes to harvest us and take us into the barns of His eternal presence and joy.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Your Burden is Light

Sermon on Matthew 11:25-30
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
July 6, 2014 (Fourth Sunday after Pentecost)

“My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  Um, really?  Doesn’t He also say that we are to love God with all our heart, mind, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves?  Doesn’t He say that we will endure suffering and even death for His name?  That we can expect to be treated by the world the same way He was treated?  That the road to eternal life is the narrow one that only a few find?  That He came not to bring peace but a sword?  How can He say that His burden is light?  When you consider all that becoming a disciple of Jesus entails, it doesn’t look all that easy or light at all.

That is, unless you compare it to the alternative.  Every religion in which man’s relationship to his god is dependent upon what man does, involves a hellish merry-go-round of good works.  In Hindu societies, it is forbidden to give charity to those of a lower caste than you, because if you help them to much you will mess with their karma and they may end up reincarnated as a lower form rather than a higher one.  Which, of course, means that life is incredibly hard for those of the “untouchable” caste.  Of course, we are all aware of how harsh many of the different Muslim sects can be in terms of what they demand of their followers.  And many of the ancient polytheistic religions, such as those of the Canaanites or even the Greeks and the Romans, involved horrific rituals, sometimes involving self-mutilation or even human sacrifice.

But even within Christianity, when Christians misunderstand their religion as one where our works are the important part of our relationship with God, the merry-go-round is there too.  Luther pretty much destroyed his health during his early adulthood when he was trying to find assurance that God was pleased with him by following the monastic regimen of works and fasting and daily devotion and prayer.  He scrubbed and scrubbed the floors, symbolical of his own heart; he prayed and prayed, and still it wasn’t good enough.  And many Protestant groups aren’t much better.  Many Christians spend their entire lives unsure of their standing with God.  They make a decision for Him, they dedicate their lives to Him, they promise their sincere intention to make Jesus the Lord of their life as well as their Savior, but it never quite works out that way.  The pet sins are still there.  The doubts are still there.  And so they make another decision for Christ, and they’re really, really sincere this time, since the last one apparently didn’t “take.”  But the pet sin rears its ugly head again, whether it’s a tendency toward anger and rage, or gossip, or covetousness, or alcoholism, or lust, or simply a tendency to be lazy and sleep in on Sunday mornings.  Many modern “evangelical” churches teach that consecrating your life to Jesus will give you a victory over those sins, and that having that improved life, that cured sin, is the evidence that you really are a Christian.  And, because you were the one who decided to bury your sin and turn your life over to God, you are the one who is in control of your relationship with God, or so you think.  That’s how Pharisees and modern-day pietists are made.  But often, after the excitement wears off, the sin is back, and worse than ever.  And so, since you apparently weren’t sincere enough or consecrated enough, you goes through the whole process again, and again, and again.  But you’re still imperfect, still a sinner, and because you still haven’t gotten that whole “giving your life to God” thing right, you still don’t really know what your standing is before God. A Christian will end up spiritually exhausted and willing to give up on the whole “religion” thing entirely.

A couple of years ago, there was a survey of the members at many so-called “evangelical” churches, mostly mega-churches and wanna-be mega-churches.  One startling result of that survey was that it was those who were considered most mature in the faith, the ones who were the most active in the programs and activities of their church, who were also the ones most likely to be seriously thinking about leaving the church entirely.  They were simply burned out.  For one thing, how the dedication and maturity of their members was measured was how active was their prayer-life, how much time they spent in “quiet time” and in journaling, and those sorts of things.  Not only are these things the Christian is allegedly supposed to do, that is, Law, but they’re laws that you won’t even find in the Bible.  They may be good advice for a person’s mental health if he actually has time for them, but these aren’t the ways God has promised to work.  God comes to us in words, whether quiet ones or loud ones, not in our meditations or our own writings.  What their church was giving them was a steady diet of law, law, and more law, and they were trying and failing to keep all of it, and the only encouragement they ever got was that God would help them to do better next time.  Full and free forgiveness of sins, which is the only message that can actually help a person in that situation, is in most cases, simply not talked or preached about at all in those churches.  If it’s talked about at all, it’s addressed to those who are visiting, as a means of encouraging them to join the church in the first place.  But once a person joins, the Gospel is almost never mentioned again.  It’s all about what the Christian is supposed to do, and that is what is falsely referred to as “discipleship.”  It’s no wonder the most committed and most active Christians were the most burned out.  When you think about it, that sort of life is not all that different from what Luther went through as a monk.

Compared to all that, Jesus’ yoke really is easy, and His burden really is light.  You see, our relationship with our God, where we stand in His sight, doesn’t depend on how well we’ve done at keeping His law.  No matter how hard we’ve tried, we’ve at best kept it very poorly, and if you include the thoughts and desires of the mind and heart, we haven’t even come close to keeping it at all.  But because our relationship with him is dependent not on how well we’re doing, but on what He has done for us, and the promises he makes to us in the Scriptures, we can be confident that our heavenly Father is still our true Father and we are His true children.  Should we strive to do good and avoid sin?  Yes, of course we should.  Do our failures affect our relationship with God?  No they do not.  Our confidence is not in what we do, but in what He has done.  When Jesus says “learn from Me” in our text, which, by the way, is another way of saying, “be My disciples,” He’s talking about hearing and learning the Gospel of the free and full forgiveness of sins.

And that is just plain liberating.  As one of my professors at Fort Wayne, Dr. David Scaer, puts it in his commentary on James, the forgiveness of sins gives us a certain recklessness in doing good.  And doing good doesn’t mean focusing on ourselves or our supposedly sanctified life.  It doesn’t refer to the time spent in private devotion or meditation, as beneficial as those things can sometimes be.  It means serving our neighbor, including our family members, coworkers, neighbors, and so on.  In other words, living out the daily life of a Christian precisely in the world.  Because our relationship with God is secure, our failures, including our future failures that happen out there in the world, are already forgiven.  Now, that doesn’t mean we should carelessly or deliberately sin.  But it does mean that we are free to serve God and our neighbor as well as we can without worrying about the fact that we won’t be perfect at it.  Our relationship with God is grounded in His forgiveness and love, not in our commitment or decision.  And so we really do have an easy yoke and a light burden.  What we do in service to God and our neighbor isn’t weighed down by the fact that we never quite get it right.  Our heavenly future is secure, even though we may stumble and fall during our earthly walk.  God has already forgiven us.  We already know what the verdict on Judgment Day will be: “It is finished.”  And so our burden really is light, because eternity with God doesn’t hang in the balance.  That’s been taken care of by Christ on the cross, and given you day after day and Sunday after Sunday in His Word and His body and blood.  You’ve got heaven.  You don’t need to work for it.  Your burden is light indeed.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, June 28, 2014

God Works through Sinners

Sermon on Matthew 16:13-19
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
June 29, 2014 (St. Peter and St. Paul, Apostles and Martyrs)

Why are the paraments red?  Isn’t today supposed to be the Third Sunday after Pentecost?  Well, yes and no.  There are certain days set aside on the church calendar to remember specific Christians whose lives and ministries were significant in one way or another to the Christian Church in Biblical times.  These holidays are seldom celebrated in the modern church, because they seldom fall on Sundays, and it’s virtually impossible to get Americans together for a non-Sunday Church festival for anything other than Christmas or Thanksgiving.  Even national holidays only get celebrated when they occur during that part of the year when they can be used as an excuse to grill out.  Besides, during the festival half of the Church Year, from Advent through Trinity Sunday, the Sundays are considered more important than these festivals, so that the only ones that are actually celebrated on a Sunday are the ones that happen to occur during the Summer and Fall, and sometimes the ones that follow immediately after Christmas and before Epiphany.  Reformation Day and All Saints day, of course, have taken on a life of their own, often being celebrated on the last Sunday in October and the first Sunday in November, respectively, but the rest of these festivals aren’t nearly that famous.  By the way, if you’re curious about these festivals, there is a list of them in the beginning of the hymnal, before the Psalms, on page x.

Now, we don’t worship the saints, nor do we pray to them, as the Roman church does.  To Lutherans, all Christians are saints, all are holy ones.  But at the same time, it is a good thing to remember especially those Christians who played some significant part in the history of the Church.  The Roman church has a much longer list of days set aside for specific saints, of course.  Luther advised that, just for the sake of simplicity, it would probably be a good idea to limit these festivals to those who lived during New Testament times.  Of course, there is nothing wrong with remembering other significant Christians during Church history; our current hymnal also includes a list of “commemorations” on page xii, including all sorts of people from the Old Testament, the Early Church, the Reformation, and even a few men from the Lutheran Church here in America, including the Missouri Synod’s own first President, CFW Walther (May 7).

But let me be clear: we are not worshiping Peter and Paul today.  We are worshiping the God whom they proclaimed.  Peter and Paul were exactly the same aw we are: forgiven sinners.  And today’s Gospel reminds us pretty clearly of that fact.  What we see here is a picture of St. Peter both at his best and at his worst, one right after the other.  Sound familiar?  Sometimes our worst failures, our greatest humiliations, and yes, our worst sins, come right after our greatest good works.  We forget that it is God who works through us when we do good works, not ourselves.  We want to take the credit for what we have done well, instead of giving the glory to God.  Peter had just, on the spur of the moment, spoken one of the greatest and clearest confessions of the central truth of Christianity found in all of Holy Scripture.  “You are the Christ.”  He told him that these things had not been revealed to him by men but by the Father in heaven.  If you read on only a few verses beyond this, though, you’ll see that Peter didn’t listen.  He tried to rebuke our Lord when He went on to talk about His death.  Thing is, what Peter said would have resulted in there being no such thing as Christianity, because without Jesus dying on the cross we would not have had a sacrifice for our sins.  Peter’s objections came straight from Satan himself.

St. Paul is another example of a saint who is shown very clearly in the Holy Scriptures as a sinner as well.  He also thought he was doing the right thing.  But where Peter simply said something stupid and evil, Paul actually acted on what Satan had him doing.  He persecuted the Christians and even had many of them executed for their faith.  But after his conversion this Pharisee became perhaps the greatest missionary to the unclean Gentiles the world has ever seen.  As far as I know, we’re all Gentiles here, not Jews.  It was Paul who pioneered the mission work among the Gentiles, and who stood by it when even Peter had given in to peer pressure from his fellow Jews not to associate with the Gentiles.  Ultimately Paul also gave up his life for the faith just as Peter did.  The one-time murderer of Christians was himself murdered for being a Christian.

What is going on here?  We see a young disciple whose pride has led him to say something Satanic and a Pharisee who murdered Christians.  Neither of them seems to us to be a good candidate for any great sainthood.  But these two became the most significant men in the history of Christianity aside from our Lord himself.  God doesn’t do things the way we expect Him to.  After all, Christianity itself is built on an even more improbable series of events.  A poor man from the back country of Galilee became an itinerant preacher who was eventually put to death because his message was too controversial.  But it was by that death that the world’s salvation was won.  And the angels proclaimed the resurrection on that first Easter morning not to the kings and princes by the angels, but to the frightened and miserable disciples and the women who had followed Him from Galilee, just as at His birth they proclaimed the message to shepherds rather than to Herod or the Emperor Augustus.  If that is the way God works through His own Son, is it any surprise that he works in this “foolish” way through Christ’s followers?  The one who was referred to as Satan for trying to stop Jesus from going to the cross, and who denied Him three times during His trial, becomes the leader of the Twelve Apostles.  The one who persecuted and killed the Christians becomes the Apostle to the Gentiles.

God still works that way today.  How does he make us Christians and keep us in the faith?  Not through great and powerful signs and wonders but through water, through the words of a man who is a sinner just like yourself, and through bread and wine.  Who are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven today?  Not the television preachers, not the highest officials in the various churches, not the laymen and clergy who are always active in church politics.  The greatest in the kingdom of heaven are those Christians, both the pastors and the members of the Church, who simply and humbly do what God has given them to do in their day to day jobs and callings, and who through words and through good works serve as living invitations for those who are as yet outside the Church to come to the waters of Holy Baptism and receive Christ and His salvation.  These humble Christian people, just like you and me, are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, because it is through us that heaven itself comes to fallen humanity, and that therefore those who believe are made heirs of heaven.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +