Sunday, June 24, 2012

Nativity of Saint John the Baptizer

Sermon on Luke 1:57-80
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
June 24, 2012 (The Nativity of Saint John the Baptizer)

In many families it is customary to name the first-born son after his father or grandfather and to name the other children after aunts, uncles, and other relatives.  And even if the parents pick a different first name, often they will choose the child’s middle name from among his relatives.  My own middle name, Daniel, just so happens to be my dad’s first name.  While it’s just a custom and there’s nothing wrong with disregarding it, it’s a good custom because it expresses the hope that the good things about one’s father or other relatives will be carried on by their descendants, and that in that way the father or grandfather or other relatives will be seen to have had a positive impact upon the world through his descendants.  In ancient times, this custom was followed much more frequently than we do today.  Naming a child after his father or grandfather wasn’t just one option among many; it was expected.  Since they didn’t have the sort of family-based last names that we have, the expectation that at least one of a man’s descendants would bear his name was that much stronger, so as to carry on the memory of the good things about that man.

But in the account of the Nativity of John the Baptist, we hear about something different happening.  In fact, it is so different that the other relatives and friends protest.  There’s nobody in the family by that name!  Nobody in the family has ever borne the name of John.  Why don’t you call him Zechariah, like his father?  The situation is even more puzzling to the relatives since Zechariah is very old, and so is Elizabeth.  The fact that they have a child at all is a miracle, and they can’t hope for another.  And so this is the last chance they have to pass on Zechariah’s name.  But they don’t.  Instead they give Him a name which comes, not from his earthly family, but from heaven.  A name which indicates not his earthly parentage but who he is in God’s sight.  A name which means, “The Lord is gracious.”  And that’s the message that John will preach, namely repentance and the forgiveness of sins.  His mission will be to prepare the way of the Lord by proclaiming repentance and administering Baptism for the forgiveness of sins.  His proclamation will be that our heavenly Father is gracious and has sent His Son to restore us into His family.

As I mentioned before, when parents name children after themselves or other relatives, they do so out of a desire that the good things about the person after whom the child is named, will be inherited by the child.  But what happens instead is often that the worst parts of the parents rub off on the children.  But actually, the reality is far worse than that.  We inherit nothing less than hatred toward God and desire to do everything except what He would have us do from our parents.  In the same way they inherited this opposition toward God from their parents, and their parents’ parents, and so on all the way back to Adam and Eve.  It’s called original sin.  It means that we are born enemies of God and subject to His wrath and displeasure, temporal death and eternal damnation.  And while the fact that we bear the last names of our fathers, and some of us even bear their first names, was intended by our parents to be a sign of hope that we inherit their good qualities, it also indicates that we have followed them in the fact that they are by nature sinful and unclean.

Which is why in Holy Baptism God gives us a new name, one which comes down from Him.  He claims us as His children, adopted into His family by virtue of the sufferings and death of our adopted Brother, Jesus Christ.  Indeed, it is His family name that we receive there.  We are no longer Bode or Elsenbroich or Schellenbach or Armbrecht or Buffham or Bellin.  By virtue of our baptism, we are now known by the new family name of Christian, that is, belonging to Christ.  This new family name is like the name that John was given at his circumcision.  It isn’t a name that is derived from our earthly families, from whom we have inherited eternal death, even though it is still through our earthly families that God gives us our earthly existence as well as many of the blessings we do enjoy in this life, and thus we do give thanks to God for them.  It is rather a name that is given by our heavenly Father whose Son has purchased us and brought us into His family solely by His grace and mercy and love, and who has and continues to remake us in His family image, causing us to be in fact what He has declared us to be, namely perfect and holy people who serve God and our neighbor with perfect love.

Until the name John was given to the baby, Zechariah couldn’t speak.  His speech was taken away from him because he didn’t believe the Word of God which spoken to him by the messenger.  In our old sinful condition, we cannot rightly speak of or to God, either.  The Old Adam may try to pretend to praise God, but really all that he ends up doing is talking about himself.  Telling everyone how much you want to praise God, how much you love to praise God, and so on, is not the same as actually praising Him.  Praising Him is repeating back to Him and each other what He has done for you.  It is confession of faith, in other words, not expression of feelings.  And you can only receive the faith which is confessed by hearing.  Until Zechariah had confessed what God had told him, by naming the baby John, he wasn’t able to speak at all.  Until we confess what God has done for him, anything else we might say about God is really just an expression of our weak and fickle feelings about Him rather than a confession of His great and mighty acts for us.

But God does speak to you through His messenger, sent by Him to bring you His Word and His Sacraments.  As the King David says in Psalm 51, “O Lord, open Thou my lips, and my mouth shall show forth Thy praise.”  King David had just learned the hard way that, left to himself, he will fall and fail.  Psalm 51 was written after David repented of his fall into sin with Bathsheba.  He knew that, if he were to be able to praise and confess God at all, it would only be by a gift of God.  And God gave him that gift, just as He gives it to you and me, through His Word.  Believing that Word, receiving it, we are granted the new life which does open our lips so that we may confess, to believers and unbelievers, to men and even to God, the great things that He has done for us, just as did both Zechariah and later John himself.

As we know, John grew up and became the last and greatest Old Testament prophet, the one who most immediately and directly prepared the way for the coming of the Messiah, which was of course the job of all the prophets.  He was eventually killed for his faithful confession of his Lord and Savior.  His wasn’t an easy life, and in fact much of what he went through was precisely because of his faithful confession of his Lord and Savior.  We too will experience hardships and trials, not only because we live in a sin-filled world, but precisely because we are Christians.  Bearing this new name that God has given us in Holy Baptism isn’t always easy, in other words.  But when we face these trials and temptations, God’s Word still proclaims to us that the end of these things is eternal life.  The new name which we have been given, the new family into which we are adopted, these things tell us that, no matter what happens to us now, we will be gathered eternally with our heavenly Father, there to enjoy His presence and His peace forever.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Pentecost 3 (Proper 6), Series B

Sermon on Mark 4:26-34
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
June 17, 2012 (The Third Sunday after Pentecost, Series B)

I’m sure most, if not all, of you have heard the expression, “A watched pot never boils.”  Basically, the expression is saying that if you’re waiting for something that is supposed to happen in its own time, focusing on it and obsessing over it won’t make it happen any faster; in fact, it will seem to take forever.  If, on the other hand, you go and do something else while waiting for that thing to happen, it will begin to happen almost before you realize it.  There are many things in life of which this is true; some of them are easier to deal with than others.  Boiling water, for example, tends to be fairly consistent, and so you can safely ignore it as long as you do go and check on it after a few minutes.  The same thing is true of seeds planted in the ground, which is the parable Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel lesson.  Again, seeds of a given type of plant are fairly predictable as to when they will sprout.

Other things, however, are not so easy to be patient and ignore.  Once a woman goes into labor, the time it will take to actually deliver the baby can vary widely.  At the other end of life in this world, waiting for a loved one who is suffering from terminal cancer to finally leave his suffering behind and enter into glory can be an excruciating process, both for the one who is dying and for those who love and care about him.  In fact, in most such cases the family will be relieved that his suffering is over more than they are mourning his loss, the waiting period has been that painful and stressful for everyone involved.  In the case of a church, we simply don’t know, no matter how hard we work, no matter how many we try to reach with the Gospel, whether it will grow or shrink, whether a particular congregation will thrive or keep struggling.  It’s harder to be patient and not “watch the pot” in those cases, when we have no idea how long things will take or even, in some situations, what the outcome will be.

In the case of the Word of God, we may never know if what is preached will take root or not.  God’s Word does not return to Him void, but that doesn’t mean that we, with our limited perspective here in time, will be able to see it happening.  As St. Paul reminds the Corinthians at one point, he preached and Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.  Sometimes it will be years before a person comes to faith, no matter how sternly or how winsomely we preach.  It may or may not happen at all, as Jesus reminds us through the parable of the Sower, which precedes our Gospel lesson.  For us to worry or fret over it is simply a waste of energy, and, more importantly, is a violation of the First Commandment which reminds us that we are to trust in God and leave the worrying to Him.

A wise farmer won’t worry or fret over whether the plants will sprout and grow; it is God who determines this, not him.  Even if disaster strikes in the form of an early flood that rots some of the seeds in the ground (something that happens here in Southeast Wisconsin fairly regularly), or a false spring that tells the seeds to begin growing and then freezes them out (like what happened this year), it is God who is in control of such things.  There is a limit to what the farmer can do, even with all the modern technology in the world at his disposal.  He still has to wait on God to let the seed do what it will.

So it is with the Word.  It is God who causes it to sprout and grow.  We can’t.  Nothing we can do will affect whether or not the Word will take root in a person’s heart.  It’s God’s business, not ours.  And that’s actually a good thing.  If it were up to us, nothing would ever sprout and grow.  Only the Word of God can take a sinner and enemy of God and turn that person into an heir of heaven.  Only the Word of God can break up the heart of stone that can not and will not love God and his neighbor, and replace it with a clean heart and right spirit that loves God and the neighbor before it is even asked.  Only the Word of God can make a saint out of a sinner.

And that’s what the Word of God does.  It takes poor, miserable sinners and turns them into saints and co-heirs with Christ of the heavenly kingdom.  A simple seed, a word that God forgives your sin for the sake of Christ’s death on the cross, sprouts and grows and turns you into something far greater and far better than you ever imagined being.  I don’t think we can imagine what Adam and Eve were like in the garden before they fell into sin, what sort of physical health and eyesight and intelligence and other abilities they might have had which we can’t even imagine.  But that’s what we will be in the resurrection.  Nothing but words spoken into your ears, water poured on your head, bread and wine in your mouths, and you grow into something beyond your wildest imagination of what you could ever be.  It’s only God who can do that, and He does it through the Word, when, where, and as He chooses.  What you will be in the resurrection is beyond your wildest imaginings.  But that’s what God already knows you to be, for the sake of Jesus who blazed that trail through death into life and takes us with Him to His Father’s throne.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 5, Series B)

Sermon on Mark 3:20-35
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
June 10, 2012 (The Second Sunday after Pentecost, Series B)

When you’re dealing with demons, appearances can be deceiving.  The Pharisees thought that they were doing the right thing in warning people about this Jesus Christ.  They weren’t being forced by a demon against their will to say these things about Him.  They knew what they were saying, and were sincerely convinced that they were serving God by warning people against this upstart Jesus.  But they were more controlled by Satan and his minions than those who had been demon-possessed.  The Pharisees, because they were opponents of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, were fully and completely under Satan’s control.  Their legalistic system of works-righteousness was every bit as demonic as the posession of those whom Jesus healed had been.

This is still true today.  If you want to find evidence of Satan’s activity today, you don’t need to go looking at Ouija boards or haunted houses or any of those things, despite the dangers that can be found if you get too involved in such things.  You need only look at the false doctrines that are creeping into even many mainline Christian churches in our day, doctrines which deny the truthfulness of God’s Word and depict even God Himself in ways which are completely contradictory to how He has revealed Himself, doctrines which deny that Jesus is the Son of God who became man to save us, and assert that He is merely some great moral teacher.  You only need to look at the rise of cults and false religions such as Wicca or the New Age movement or even such well-established cults as Mormonism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  You only need look at the rise of immorality in our society.  And I’m not only talking about the Sixth Commandment, either.  There is also a rise in immorality in other matters, involving greed and theft and selfishness on the part of the rich and powerful, involving a simple lack of basic love between parents and children and between other family members, involving a simple basic loss of courtesy and kindness between people in general.  These are the truly dangerous manifestations of Satan’s activity, and we see them on the rise all around us today.  Compared to this, the possession of a man’s body against his will is trivial.

The fact that so much of what is wrong with our society today can be seen in this way as demonic or Satanic should make us sober and watchful.  It is a wake-up call.  The things that go on around us, and the temptations that arise within our own hearts are not child’s play.  We are not strong enough to resist them on our own.  This is especially true since we are all born already in Satan’s kingdom and it was only when we were baptized that the devil was cast out of us and we became part of God’s kingdom.  If we try to stay out of Satan’s traps without God’s help and apart from the preaching of His Word and the receiving of His sacraments, we will fail and fail miserably.

But even though this message should make us watchful and sober and aware of our danger, it should not make us afraid or make us despair.  Yes, Satan is stronger than we are, and yes, if we try to stand on our own strength he will conquer us and make us and everything we have his own.  But even if we have already fallen to Satan there is still a stronger man even than him.  That Man is Jesus Christ Himself.  He is able to overcome Satan and drive him out of our lives.  He did so once when we were baptized.  The next time we have a baptism here in Church, listen to what is said in connection with Holy Baptism.  Before we confess the Apostle’s Creed together, we are asked, “Do you renounce the devil and all his works and all his ways?” And the response is, “I do renounce them.”  That wouldn’t be possible if Jesus were not stronger than Satan.  Even the worst thing the devil could do to Jesus, namely having Him killed in the most gruesome manner possible, was used by Jesus to win the victory.  The death of Jesus Christ was not a defeat for Him.  It was rather a defeat for Satan.  Christ’s resurrection on the first Easter Sunday proves this.  There is nothing that Satan can do which the Son of God Incarnate cannot use for His own good purposes.  Everything in Satan’s household has been conquered by Jesus Christ and taken by him as spoils from that battle.

It might be nice to be a relative of this Jesus, who is even stronger than Satan.  After all, despite the weakness she showed along with His brothers at the end of today’s Gospel, His mother Mary has had a very prominent position in the minds of Christians through the centuries, and those who were known as His brothers became prominent bishops in the earliest Church.  But we have a much closer relationship to Him than that.  We have become those who are among His true relatives, as He has become our brother, and thus His Father has become our Father.  We have been washed clean of the stain of Satan’s influence through Holy Baptism, and we are returned daily to that cleanliness through the Word of God which grants us again the forgiveness of sins.  We have eaten His body and blood, the same body and blood which were crucified to win the victory, and we continue to have the opportunity to do so today.  Mary was greatly blessed to become the mother of the Messiah.  But all Christians are even more blessed to be of the spiritual family of God.  Satan cannot harm us because we are protected by the strongest Man of all, the God-Man, Jesus Christ. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Holy Trinity, Series B

Sermon on John 3:1-17
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
June 3, 2012 (The Holy Trinity, Series B)

I saw a sign once on the door of a professor’s office at the Seminary.  It went something like this.  “We hope that we have answered your questions.  Unfortunately, our answers have only caused you to raise new questions for which we have no answers, leaving us as confused as before.  However, we feel that we are now confused on a much higher level, and about much more important things, than before.”  That’s probably the way Nicodemus felt after his conversation with Jesus in our text.  He went to Jesus to get clarification and information about Jesus’ message and mission, so that he could help the Sanhedrin get some idea who and what they were dealing with.  However, the answers Jesus gave him only confused him more than ever.  Born again?  I can’t go back again into my mother’s womb and be reborn, can I?  The whole idea is absurd!  And then Jesus chides Nicodemus that he didn’t already understand these things, despite the fact that he was a teacher of Israel.  Isn’t Jesus being just a bit unreasonable here?  Shouldn’t he have been more patient with Nicodemus and spent the time to try to help him understand?

The problem is not with Jesus’ presentation of the subject matter.  The fact is, what Nicodemus was asking wasn’t something that can be conveyed as mere information.  When we are dealing with the great and deep mysteries of the Christian faith, there comes a point when more explaining and teaching will not help matters any, in fact it’s more likely to cause problems than to help.  Granted, sometimes we need to do a lot of explaining so that we can clearly see that certain ideas are contrary to the Christian faith and to be rejected—that’s the origin of the Athanasian Creed which we confess today and every year on Trinity Sunday.  It was written to clearly reject the wrong ideas that some were teaching in those days regarding the Holy Trinity and regarding the union of God and Man in Jesus Christ.  But the Athanasian Creed, or any creed for that matter, is an attempt to confess a revelation which doesn’t make sense to human reason, and so there does come a point beyond which the explanations simply aren’t going to be helpful anymore.  The reason for this is that when we talk about Christian theology and Christian doctrine, we’re not talking about a subject like science or mathematics, where one studies inanimate objects or logical ideas from a “scientific” or neutral perspective to find out what makes them tick.  The study of Christian theology is the study of relationships between conscious persons, both relationships between the persons of the Holy Trinity, and also the relationships between the Holy Trinity and we His creatures.  And as with any study of the subject of interpersonal relationships, you can’t get too far in it if you’re trying to be “objective,” “neutral,” or “scientific” about it.  In order to understand a relationship between persons, you have to be part of that relationship.

This is the point that Jesus was trying to make to Nicodemus when he said that he needed to be “born again” in order to see the kingdom of God.  Nicodemus was what all of us are, namely sinful and unclean, opposed to the true God and inherently hostile to any living relationship to Him.  As such, He could not have the relationship to God that was necessary for the answer to his questions.  A new Nicodemus had to be created, one who had been washed clean of all his sinfulness and who was perfect and holy as God had intended him.  This new Nicodemus would be in relationship with the Triune God because he would be a branch of the true Vine, Jesus Christ.  It is only by being born again through Holy Baptism that any of us are able to see the Kingdom of God.  It is only by being brought into relationship with the Holy Trinity that we are able to understand or appreciate the meaning of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.  This is why Isaiah objected to being in the presence of the Living, Holy God in our Old Testament lesson.  He could not have survived being in God’s presence unless he was cleansed from his sin, unless he was, as Jesus says, born again through the Holy Spirit’s power.

So we need to be in relationship with God, that is, we need to be born again and made into new creatures, in order to partake of God’s Kingdom and understand Him rightly.  This is not surprising when you think about it.  After all, we are created in God’s image.  That means that we are created to be in relationship with other persons, whether those be friends, parents, children, husband or wife, or God Himself, we are not created to be alone.  After all, God Himself is not alone.  He is one, but He is also three Persons, each of whom is in an eternal, perfect, loving and giving relationship with the other two.  The mystery of the Holy Trinity tells us that we are not meant to be solo or independent.  And the highest relationship for which we are created is the relationship with God Himself, the relationship that was broken by our sinfulness and has now been restored through our new birth into God’s kingdom and family.

This new birth in us happens by the Holy Spirit’s power in Holy Baptism, where our sins are washed away, and God’s Word which declares us righteous actually accomplishes what it says and makes us into new, righteous and holy creatures.  In Baptism we become holy creatures capable of standing in the presence of the holy God.  We are restored to the relationship with God for which we were originally created.  We become participants in the love, the fellowship, and the joy which is shared among the Persons of the Holy Trinity.

Of course, if we are honest with ourselves, we realize that we are still sinners as well.  The new man which has been created in us by Holy Baptism is perfect and righteous, but until we die our old sinful selves are clinging to us as well.  And so we constantly need to return to the waters of our Baptism to again be restored to the righteousness and the purity that was given us there.  This happens through the preaching of the forgiveness of sins, in the Word of God and in the sermon, and especially in the Holy Absolution, in which the names of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are again spoken over you as the Holy Spirit again strengthens and feeds the new, perfect creation in you which has been hurt and injured and perhaps even destroyed through your sin.  Through the proclamation of forgiveness also the Triune God restores you to the relationship with Himself that He created you to experience.

And how is this fellowship expressed?  He takes up residence in us and is with us to bless us and comfort us all the time.  But we can’t see or touch or taste Him in our heart.  We can see and touch and taste the bread and the wine in which He gives us His body to eat and His blood to drink, however.  By taking into ourselves His body and blood, we express and experience the close fellowship we have with our God.  By the Holy Spirit’s power Christ Himself enters into us and sanctifies us as His temple, and the Father Himself adopts us as His children for the sake of His Son Jesus Christ who has given His life for us and has now made us His own.  We become included in the infinite love, the infinite joy, and the infinite peace that the Persons of the Trinity share with one another.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +