Sunday, March 25, 2012

Lent 5, Series B

Sermon on Mark 10:35-45
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
March 25, 2012 (The Fifth Sunday in Lent, Series B)

James and John didn’t get it.  They didn’t understand what Jesus had come to do.  They thought, like the rest of the disciples, like many other Jews at the time, that the Messiah would come to free Israel from the Romans and restore it to its former glory under kings David and Solomon.  All the talk about Jesus dying on the cross and then being raised again three days later either disturbed and upset them, or it went completely over their heads.  Even if they had some idea that the crucifixion and resurrection were to happen, they still assumed that Jesus was going to restore the physical nation of Israel to its former glory.  And so, after hearing Jesus talk again about His death, James and John try to change the subject (actually, we learn from other Gospels that they enlisted their mom to help them present this request).  They would rather talk about what they think is going to happen after that.  That’s the part that they are interested in.  They’re interested in who is going to be part of Jesus’ cabinet when He becomes king of Israel.  They want to be His second and third in command in the new government.

Of course, the other disciples don’t like that.  But they’re not so much offended that James and John would be so arrogant, they just wish they’d had the idea first.  They all want to have high positions in Jesus’ supposed new government, and they’re annoyed that James and John were the first ones to ask.  None of them really understands what Jesus is here for.  None of them really understands that the death and resurrection stuff isn’t just something Jesus has to get through in the process of becoming king.  None of them understands the fact that it is precisely in His death on the cross that He becomes king.  Which is why when Jesus asks them if they can drink the cup He will drink and be baptized with the baptism He is baptized with, they immediately, and without giving it much thought, say they can.  They have no idea what they are being asked to do.

It’s easy, by the way, to sit back with our 20/20 hindsight and think that we would have done better than James and John in this situation.  But we too, according to the old Adam in us, don’t like the idea that the kingdom of God came by suffering, and specifically suffering for our sins.  We too would like Christianity to be something that rules the world and determines also civil law.  Many Christian groups spend most or all of their energy, not on examining themselves and repenting, but on trying to fix the evils of society.  We Lutherans have been hesitant to get involved in the civil sphere, and there are reasons for that.  Our mission has to do with individual repentance and faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, not on fixing the worlds problems as such.  It’s only when the most innocent and helpless (the unborn) are involved, or when we are told we must support a problematic agenda with the money in our own Synod’s benefit plans, that we have gotten involved.  But that isn’t what many Christians want to see.  They want to see the Church ruling the world.  After all, if we’re all about telling everyone else what to do, then we can distract ourselves from our own sin and our own need for forgiveness.

Jesus came to bear the punishment for the sins of the world.  Only death can atone for sin.  But one man’s death only atones for that man’s own sin, unless that one man is both perfect and God Himself.  And so the cup He will drink and the baptism He will be baptized with, are nothing less than bearing the sin of the whole world and dying with the wrath of God the Father falling upon Him full-force.  That’s not something any human being, even James and John, who with Peter are the inner circle among the disciples, can ever do.  Only Jesus can do that.

But Jesus does say that they will drink His cup and be baptized with His baptism.  That doesn’t make sense, if they can’t.  Well, they can’t in their own right, though they will be treated in ways that resemble His death.  James will be the first of the Twelve to be martyred.  John will be exiled and will outlive all the others.  Peter will be crucified upside-down.  Andrew will be crucified on an X-shaped cross.  But Jesus isn’t just referring to the fact that they, too, will be treated the way Jesus was treated.  He is referring to the fact that His death and resurrection will become theirs.  He dies for them.  He dies for you and me.  His death atones for their sin, and ours.  But what’s more, is we participate in His death and resurrection.  When you were baptized, you died with Him, and rose with Him.  You really were there on the first Good Friday and Easter Sunday, dying and rising with Him.  And the body and blood that were given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins, the same body and blood that rose again as the first-fruits of the new creation where we will live forever, are present for us to eat and drink in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper.  James and John, as well as you and me, really do participate in His death and resurrection, through the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion (by the way, that’s why Jesus chooses the words he does, emphasizing the cup and the baptism, because it is those Sacraments which give us His death and resurrection to be our own).

As for the question of who will sit on His right and His left when He comes into His kingdom, His Father answered that question, too.  But you have to understand that Jesus’ kingdom is one of the forgiveness of sins.  Which means His throne is where He gives that forgiveness from.  When Jesus came into His kingdom, when He was crowned and given His throne, none of the Twelve were on His right or on His left, though John was standing in front of Him with Mary His mother.  When Jesus came into His kingdom, those on His right and on His left were thieves.  One repented of his sin and trusted in Jesus for salvation, the other mocked Him.  But the point is, the throne is the cross.  The crown is made of thorns.  And so those who are with him are not those who are most loyal to Him but notorious criminals, as is appropriate for the one who became sin itself for us.  His right- and left-hand men at this most important time in His life were sinners, as He took on the sin of the world.  But it is because He did that, that we also can hear and believe what He says to the thief who repented: “Today you will be with me in paradise.”  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Fourth Sunday in Lent, Series B

Sermon on John 3:14-21
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
March 18, 2012 (The Fourth Sunday in Lent, Series B)

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him might have eternal life.”  Just by itself, that sentence, taken from the beginning of today’s Gospel, sounds pretty good.  The Son of Man is to be lifted up.  He is to be placed on high, so that everybody can see Him, be drawn to Him, and live forever.  Many Christians have taken this to mean that His name and His praise is to be spread as far and as wide and as publicly as possible.  Confessing faith in Him is do be done with as much public impact as possible, so this line of thinking goes, so that He can draw as many as possible to Himself.  And there’s nothing wrong with that, in and of itself.  But spreading the good news that mankind can now have eternal life with its Creator is not, first and foremost, what Jesus was talking about here.  The “lifting up” that Jesus speaks of here is not, first and foremost, a matter of putting His name and His face on as many billboards or TV’s or whatever as possible.  What Jesus is speaking about, here, is His death.  Jesus is lifted up the same way the bronze serpent was lifted up: He is put on a pole as a sign that what plagues us has been defeated.  And what plagues us is sin and death.

It’s no accident that it was serpents which attacked the Israelites in the wilderness.  It was Satan in the form of a serpent who first tempted Adam and Eve (and all of us, their children) to sin in the garden.  Snakes have always been depicted as Satanic creatures because of this.  A missionary named Patrick, centuries ago, was reputed to have driven all the snakes out of Ireland, when in fact what he drove out of Ireland was devilish pagan ideas about religion, by teaching the people there about the Holy Trinity.  He used a three-leaved clover (a “shamrock” in the local dialect) to illustrate the doctrine of the Trinity, by the way, which is why that plant is still associated with his name and with the Church’s traditional celebration of his life and work, which took place yesterday.  I do think it’s ironic that a Christian symbol of the Trinity gets splashed all over the place in connection with that festival, even in places where people would otherwise object to anything remotely Christian being displayed.  Who knows, maybe that’s the next Christian symbol the “angry atheists” will attack.  I also think it’s ironic that this time of year we put this Christian symbol of the Holy Trinity next to icons of the old pagan earth-spirits (leprechauns, in the Irish dialect), but that’s just a symptom of the world not knowing what it’s doing when it stumbles upon holy things.  But anyway, the point is, where the Trinity is confessed, the devil is defeated, which is why the legend grew that he cast out the snakes.  He actually cast out the demons, by baptizing and catechizing the Irish natives about the true God, the Holy Trinity.

The irony about this, though, is that it was precisely a snake that the people were to look at in order to be cured from snakebite.  You would think a more appropriate symbol would have been something having to do with God and His majesty and holiness, His power and ability to save.  But it was a snake, the very thing that ailed them, that they were to look to for salvation from snakebite.  So also with us.  It is precisely the image of sin and death that we are to look to for our cure from sin and death.  But, Pastor, we’re supposed to look to Jesus, aren’t we?  He is life and peace and love, isn’t He?  How can you say we’re supposed to look at sin and death?  Jesus on the cross is the very image of sin and death.  Yes, He was perfect and knew no sin.  But, as St. Paul points out, He who knew no sin became sin for us.  He took the world’s sins upon Himself, and paid sin’s penalty.  The wages of sin is death.  And so, in order to be saved from sin and death, we look at where the whole world’s sin and death were concentrated into one man, the God-Man Jesus Christ.

As Jesus tells Nicodemus, it is precisely in His death that His love for the world is shown.  He took sin and death into Himself willingly, so as to defeat them, and in so doing he also defeated the ancient foe, Satan, who tempted Adam and Eve into sin in the first place.  We look on Christ’s defeat in order to receive the fruits of His victory.  Resurrection to eternal life comes at the cost of dying to this old world.  You can’t raise up what hasn’t first died.  That’s why it’s Christ’s crucifixion that the Church has depicted at the center of the faith for centuries.  Yes, the resurrection is there, too, but it is the cross that has become the preeminent symbol of Christianity.  We still live in this old world, and so it is precisely the fact that He took everything that ails us into Himself on the cross that is our comfort here.  The resurrection is coming, and that’s also a great comfort, but it was the crucifixion where our victory was actually won.  We look upon sin and death in order to be cured from sin and death.  We receive Christ’s body broken and His blood shed so that our bodies will be whole and perfect on the day of His coming.  Christ was raised up on the cross, and it is precisely as the Crucified One that He draws all men to Himself, and gives them eternal life.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Third Sunday in Lent, Series B

Sermon on John 2:13-25
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
March 11, 2012 (The Third Sunday in Lent, Series B)

“What sign do You show for us for doing these things?”  Another way of putting that question might be, “Who do you think you are, coming in here and chasing away the businesses we’ve allowed to set up shop?”  This isn’t just an abstract theological question, this question of who Jesus is and what authority He has.  The money-changers were there because the temple tithes were supposed to be paid in Jewish money, while what most people had and used in their daily business was Roman money, which carried on its face the symbol of their hated oppressors.  The animals and those who sold them were there because it was easier to buy animals for the sacrifices at the temple than it was to bring them from all over the empire, especially for those who lived elsewhere than Judea.  Not to mention the fact that this guaranteed that the animals used would be ritually clean and without blemish, something that not everyone knew how to inspect for, especially since those who raised livestock for a living were a much smaller percentage of the Israelite population than had been the case centuries ago when the sacrificial regulations were revealed to Moses.  The fact that both the money-changers and the sale of sacrificial animals both made a nice profit, a portion of which went to these businessmen’s landlord, namely the Temple priesthood, well, that was just icing on the cake, you know.

So Jesus upsets their applecart by evicting the businessmen from the Temple.  It’s perfectly natural that the Jews would ask what authority He has to evict people from this building.  Who does He think He is, the owner of the building, or something?  Of course, as we know, that’s exactly who Jesus is.  He is the Angel of the Lord who appeared to the Israelites in the pillar of cloud and fire, whose glory rested on the first Tabernacle and then Solomon’s Temple (which had been built on the exact same spot as the current Temple), who met His high priests in the Holy of Holies every year between the golden cherubim who flanked the lid of the Ark of the Covenant.  It really is His temple.  Of course, as the creator, everything is His, but this was the place He had established for the Israelites to meet them in grace and mercy and forgiveness rather than wrath and judgment, and so this place is His in a way that nowhere else in the world at that time could claim.

Now, if He had simply said that, of course, it would have proven nothing.  In fact, He does indirectly say that when He refers to the Temple as “My Father’s House.”  So the Jews ask for a sign that He really is the one who has authority to do these things.  But Jesus doesn’t give them the sort of sign they are asking for.  He doesn’t do some miracle on the spot to prove He is the Son of God.  Nor does He pull out His Galilean driver’s license that says “Son of God” on it, or the title deed to the Temple grounds.  He instead tells them about something that is going to happen in the future.  He will be put to death, and on the third day He will rise again.  But He says it in kind of an odd way.  He talks about “this temple,” referring to His body, which, of course, simply confuses everybody.  They think He’s talking about the building they’re standing in.  In fact, that’s one of the things that is brought up at His trial before Caiaphas early on Good Friday morning, namely that He said He was going to destroy and then rebuild the Temple.

One could argue that Jesus was simply being obscure here, telling some sort of parable or riddle to confuse the Jews.  And there’s an element of truth there.  Jesus’ parables aren’t so much intended to make the lesson easy to understand (despite what you may have been told by the advocates of using lots of stories and object lessons in sermons) but to make it more difficult and confusing for those who are not of the Faith.  As Jesus Himself says elsewhere to His disciples, “I speak to you plainly, but to the rest in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’”  The same thing is true here.  Jesus is saying something that will only be understood later by His disciples after He has risen from the dead, and not at all by the Jews who asked Him the question.

But, at the same time, what He says is perfectly true.  The Temple was the place of sacrifice.  That was the whole point of having all these different animals for sale: they were to be presented for sacrifice.  But Jesus is the true Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  He is the true sacrifice for sin.  The whole elaborate system of sacrifices that was laid out in the books of Moses was designed for one thing, and one thing only: to point forward to the once for all sacrifice which would take place very soon now, which we will celebrate a little less than a month from now.  Jesus is the true sacrifice.  He is the true temple.  He is the true altar.  His death on the cross is what makes the whole Old Testament sacrificial system worthwhile.  The animal sacrifices do nothing by themselves; it is only as sacraments tied by the Word and Promise of God to the true sacrifice of the Son of God on the cross, that they mean anything at all.

And, by the way, that’s part of why Jesus chases them all out.  It wasn’t just that His holiness was offended by the crass profiteering the priests were engaged in, though that was part of it.  The bigger reason why He chases out the money-changers and the livestock brokers is because soon they will no longer be needed.  The true sacrifice is at hand.  They were never intended to be an end in themselves, they only pointed forward to the sacrifice of God Himself outside the gates of Jerusalem at the hands of the Roman authorities.

And so it is also with our worship here in this place.  The one true sacrifice for all sin is really present on this altar, Jesus’ body and blood, the true temple, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.  We don’t re-sacrifice Him, and our sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise is just that, a sacrifice of thanksgiving, not a sacrifice that atones for sin.  But the One who was sacrificed for all is really present here, and His body and blood which you eat and drink really do, at the very same time, stand before God’s presence in the heavenly temple to plead for you before the Father.  The sign that He has done away with the animal sacrifices is the same sign that your sins really are forgiven and that you will live forever with Him in eternity.  The temple of His body was destroyed, and then it was rebuilt in three days.  His resurrection is what proves that your sins are forgiven, that you are no longer separated from your Creator, and that you will dwell with Him in eternity.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Second Sunday in Lent, Series B

Sermon on Mark 8:27-38
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
March 4, 2012 (The Second Sunday in Lent, Series B)

What Peter experiences here is something I’m sure is common to many students.  Those of you in the upper grades may have had this happen to you already; parents, teachers, and the rest of you, I’m sure it happened sometime while you were in school, whether grade school or high school or even college.  You get an answer right, the teacher congratulates you, and then, next thing you know, you raise your hand again, confident that you know where the teacher is going because of the compliment you got last time, and end up saying exactly the wrong thing.  It’s a humiliating experience.  But in this case, it’s far more than that.  You see, if Jesus had followed Peter’s advice here, there would be no point in any of us being here today.  If Jesus had followed Peter’s advice, there would be no way for any of us to be saved from death and hell.  Dying on the cross was the entire reason Jesus came to earth.  It wasn’t just something bad that happened to Him toward the end of His ministry; it was what He came to do.

The whole reason why there is a Christian church, or Christian schools for that matter, is for the sake of the cross.  We’re not just here to teach good morals or “Christian values.”  Good morals and good values can be taught without Jesus.  He didn’t come to set an example for how we are to live.  He didn’t come to be a role model for us.  He came to live life in our place, die the death we deserved, and give us heaven as a free gift.  If the only thing we think we’re here to do is give people good morals and good values, we’re going down the same wrong road that Peter was.  It is only in view of Christ’s death and resurrection that what we do here, what we preach, and what is taught in our classrooms, makes any sense.

You see, who Jesus is (which Peter gets right in today’s text) and what Jesus did for us (which Peter gets wrong) is not something we can figure out based on human reason.  It’s something that God must reveal to us, and He does that in His Word.  It’s only because the Holy Spirit works through the Word to create faith in the heart that we are able to trust in Him and be saved.  That’s the real reason why the German Lutherans who settled here in America founded many of their churches by building and starting schools, in many cases even before they built their houses of worship.  That’s the reason why continued, lifelong catechesis in the Christian faith is necessary, not just during your grade school or even high school years, but throughout your life.  The things that God would have you believe and trust for your salvation are contrary to what your reason will tell you, they are contrary to what the world will tell you, and they are even contrary to what many other Christians will tell you (as Peter found out the hard way).

The idea that our sins were so terrible that they required a bloody, painful, bitter death to get rid of, is not something the world will tell you.  It’s also not something you want to hear.  What you want to hear is that God’s forgiveness is the forgiveness of some tolerant grandfather who just lets you do whatever you want because He’s just a nice guy.  What God’s Word tells you, however, and what Jesus had to remind Peter and the other disciples of in today’s Gospel lesson, is that your forgiveness and salvation came at a huge price, a price that meant the death of God Himself on the cross.

That’s why the Church gets so somber and serious during the season of Lent.  That’s why we take Christian education and especially catechesis, that is, education in Christian doctrine, so seriously that we’re willing to put in extra time, talents, and treasures so that we can maintain our own school system where this truth is integrated into the rest of what our children learn about the world God created.  That’s why the Church also takes seriously the unfortunate necessity of exercising Christian discipline and even excommunication sometimes, when a person is so intent on a sinful path that they become careless about the fact that their ongoing sin is what is striking the hammer blows on the nails piercing our Lord’s hands and feet, and pushing down on the thorns gouging into His scalp and scraping the bone of His skull.  Forgiveness is serious business.  The death of God on the cross is serious business.  It is not to be taken lightly.

But while it is to be taken seriously, it is given by God freely.  That’s the other thing that we don’t always understand.  We like to think we can earn God’s favor by what we do, how well we live our lives.  But that’s not the case, either.  God is God. He is the one who gave us everything we are, and everything we have.  He doesn’t need anything we have to give Him.  In fact, when we try to earn His favor, when we try to earn His rewards, we are in fact insulting Him and denying that everything we need was given to us in Christ’s death and resurrection.  We are saying that we can add something to Jesus’ perfect sacrifice.

There is nothing that we can add.  All that is necessary has been done already.  And so, that frees us.  It frees us to take up our own crosses, as Jesus says to do, and live for God and for each other.  Instead of thinking about what we need to do to make up for our sins, or what we can do to impress God and each other, we instead serve our neighbor in love.  And it’s a love that’s expressed in the most ordinary ways.  Feeding and clothing your own children.  Teaching them the Christian faith as you have been taught from the Catechism.  Giving of your time, talents, and treasures so that we can continue to operate a Lutheran school whose primary purpose is to help you teach them that faith.  Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, and a thousand other things we do in our daily lives, toward our own friends and families, without even realizing that we do them.  That’s what taking up the cross means.  Living for God and for others, not because we want to earn something or impress them (which would really be doing it for ourselves), but because God loved us that much.  We love only because He first loved us.  And His love takes the form of a cross, an instrument of torture and execution that He bore so that we don’t have to.  But that cross is nothing less than the throne of God, where He gives us Himself.  That cross is nothing less than the altar upon which the Lamb of God was sacrificed for us.  That cross is nothing less than the place where Jesus Himself gives us eternal life with Him.  That cross is, for us, nothing but heaven.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +