Sunday, September 30, 2012

Pentecost 18 (Proper 21), Series B

Sermon on Mark 9:38-50
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
September 30, 2012 (The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Series B)

In the first few verses of today’s Gospel, John wishes to put a stop to a man who is casting out demons in Jesus’ name.  But Jesus tells him not to.  John simply assumed that if a person were not part of the group which followed Jesus around the countryside and was constantly listening to His preaching, that this person therefore was not a disciple of Christ and therefore ought not be using Jesus’ name in such a way.  The fact of the matter is, this man probably couldn’t afford to follow Jesus all the time, for financial reasons or reasons of health, or whatever it may have been.  He had evidently heard the message, though, and he had believed that Jesus was the Messiah, the one whose Presence drives out all sin and sickness and the work of the devil.  God had evidently given him the gift of being able to cast out demons in Jesus’ name, and this despite the fact that he could not follow Christ and hear His preaching as often as he would have liked.

There is a lesson in this for us.  Not every Christian can attain to the same level of service to the Church.  Not every Christian can attend church with the same degree of frequency.  Not every Christian can show forth the same number of good works, or have the same temperament or whatever it may be.  In his commentary upon this passage of Scripture, Lutheran professor Paul E. Kretzmann had this to say: “If others cannot bring the services and sacrifices for Christ which we think proper, we have no right to question the sincerity of their Christianity.”  Those who are not as actively involved as we are in the life of the Church certainly have room to improve, it is true, and it is incumbent upon all of us to encourage our fellow members to attend church more often, to attend bible class, to volunteer for the various programs and activities connected with the Church, and so on.  But we dare not fall into the trap of thinking that they are not Christians on account of this.  Perhaps they are praying for, or doing good works for, their friends, neighbors, and family, good works of which we know nothing.  Simply being a good husband or wife, a good father or mother, a good worker at our respective jobs, and so on, are greater and higher good works than any amount of activity here at the Church.

However, while we ought not judge each other on the basis of how they serve the Church, on the basis of whether or not our brothers and sisters in Christ measure up to our own standards of good works and Christian service, it is also true we ought to judge ourselves very strictly.  Christ even goes so far as to say that those parts of our bodies which cause us to sin should be cut off, for it is better to die a Christian but missing some part of the body than it is to die in unbelief and unrepentant sin with our whole bodies intact.  The capability of sin to destroy faith is that serious, and every one of us is susceptible to it.  None of us ought to think he is immune.  Every one of us needs to watch himself diligently to guard against falling prey to lust, covetousness, greed, hatred, anger, and whatever other sins may trouble us.

The trouble is, it’s not so easy to remove the cause of our sin from us.  Original sin doesn’t just live in the hand, the foot, the eye, or any other specific part of our body.  It inhabits our whole being, and not just our bodies, but especially our souls and our spirits.  If we want to cut out the part of ourselves which causes us to sin, we have to cut out everything we are, body, soul and spirit, and there will be nothing left of us.  If we remove those parts of ourselves that cause us to sin, we will all die, for our entire being is corrupted with sin.  If we really want to get rid of all the sin that lives within us, then we have to kill ourselves.

Fortunately there is another way.  Christ was killed in our place.  He took our sins upon Himself and was killed for us.  In His death He destroyed death by killing the sin that causes death.  All of us who have been baptized into His death have had our sinful natures killed on the cross with Christ.  We have already died.  Instead of cutting off a foot or a hand or an eye, our entire sinful selves have been killed in the death of Jesus Christ, so that we need not live in sin anymore, nor do we need to go around cutting off parts of our bodies in order to escape the dominance of sin in our lives.  We live in righteousness and purity because He is risen from the grave and we rose with Him when we were united with Him in our baptism.  We now have the ability to live before God as He would have us do, in service to our neighbors and to our God.  We have been united with Christ, and Christ now acts through us, and often He does good works through us that we don’t even realize we did.

It was not so very long ago that salt was used to preserve meats so that they would not spoil on long journeys.  Now, of course we use various chemicals, many of which aren’t really good for us, but they do have the advantage of not tasting like anything, unlike salt, which makes everything it is used on taste like, well, salt.  And until various antibacterial soaps and chemicals were invented, one way to sterilize cooking implements, surgical tools, and other metal objects was to hold them in fire.  Salt and fire both have the ability to kill the bacteria which would otherwise infect the body.  They purify because they kill.  Bacteria simply cannot live in the presence of that much salt, or that much heat.  The old sinful nature cannot live in the presence of Christ who came to dwell in us at our baptism.  Christ is the one who purifies us, and it is he who gives us strength to battle and keep down our old sinful natures.

The last verse of today’s Gospel lesson pretty much sums up the point of the whole lesson.  Have salt in yourselves, and have peace with one another.  In other words, you can’t tell whether or not another person is a Christian, but you can examine your own heart.  Fight the battle within yourself before you judge anyone else.  Certainly it is true that if we see our brothers or sisters in Christ falling into sin we should go to them and point out to them that what they did was wrong, but doing that is not the same thing as judging what is in their heart.  That we cannot do, and we must not do.  We are to live at peace with them, as Christian brothers and sisters, and attend to the battle that is within our own hearts.  Christ is with us in that battle, in fact He is the salt and the fire that allows the old sinful nature to be put down and destroyed.  Christ has destroyed our old sinful natures in the fire of torment and pain that He endured on the cross for us, and in rising again, he has given us a new self which will survive the fire purified and shaped in His image like metal which has been heated and poured into a mold.  He joined us to Himself in that death and resurrection through Holy Baptism, and gives us His resurrected body and blood so that we too may live forever in both body and soul.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Pentecost 17 (Proper 20), Series B

Sermon on Mark 9:30-37
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
September 23, 2012 (The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Series B)

Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?  Kind of an odd thing to be arguing about, when you consider that Jesus had just told them He was going to suffer and die for the sins of the world.  But then again, it’s also a perfectly natural thing for them to be arguing about.  After all, our old sinful selves are always concerned about where we stand, what we can get out of whatever situation we are in.  And so, since they didn’t want to ask Jesus what He meant by His prediction of His own death and resurrection, and in fact they didn’t even want to think about it, their minds jumped ahead to the part that they could understand (or so they thought).  Their minds jumped ahead to the glory they figured would be theirs once Jesus finally restored the kingdom to Israel.  They were still assuming that, even after all the crucifixion and resurrection stuff (whatever that was about), Jesus’ purpose would still be to bring about some sort of military revolution in which the Romans would be defeated and the earthly kingdom of Israel would be restored to its rightful glory, and when that happened they would have seats on His cabinet.  They were jockeying for position at the table.

We Christians are really not that much different today.  Instead of pondering on the great mystery of God dying so that His creatures could have life, we get focused all too often on which church is growing the fastest, which mega-church pastor has the most power and influence in this world, has books on the best-seller list, and so on.  God dying is uncomfortable.  It’s uncomfortable because we put Him there.  It’s uncomfortable because it means we couldn’t fix our relationship with our Creator ourselves, and so He had to do it.  It’s uncomfortable because instead of boosting our pride in our own abilities and accomplishments, it destroys it.  It’s uncomfortable because it reminds us we are helpless.

But it’s precisely the helpless that God helps.  It’s precisely the powerless that God rescues.  It’s precisely those who can’t even feed themselves that He gives the bread of life.  That’s why children, even the very young, even infants, are models for us of what it means to become one of God’s children, adopted into His family.  It’s precisely those who cannot do anything for themselves that He can be God to.  After all, to be God doesn’t mean that He sits up in heaven and congratulates Himself that He’s got all these worshipers.  He doesn’t need our praise or our songs for Himself, since everything we are and everything we have were his already anyway.  Instead, to be God means that He is the one who made everything and still sustains it.  It means that He is the one who gives us everything we are and everything we have, and that He is the one who loves and takes care of us.  He wants us to praise Him, not because His ego gets stroked by it (as if God’s “ego” could be affected by our pitiful attempts to praise Him), but because He delights in us the way a loving father delights in his children, especially when they recognize and look to him for every good thing.  Parents put their children’s scribblings up on the fridge, not because they’re objectively great works of art, but because they were made by their children, whom they love.

Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?  The most helpless.  The most pitiful.  The one who can do nothing for himself but rely on God’s mercy, love, and pity to take care of him.  That’s what Jesus became in His death on the cross, and that’s what we are in Him: those who receive mercy even though we don’t deserve it, simply because our Father loves us, sent His Son to die in our place, and wants us to be with Him forever.  Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?  The most helpless.  Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?  Jesus, and those who have become part of His body through holy baptism.  Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?  His children, whom He loves, whom He will gather in His arms and hold forever.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19), Series B

Sermon on Mark 9:14-29
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
September 16, 2012 (The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Series B)

Right in the middle of today’s Gospel lesson, there’s a conversation that takes place between Jesus and the father of the boy with an unclean spirit.  The man asks Jesus to heal his son, if He can.  And Jesus says, a little sarcastically, “If I can?  All things are possible for one who believes.”  It’s a little bit of a strange conversation, because it almost sounds like Jesus is suggesting that if the man had sufficient faith he himself would have been able to heal his son.  But even the disciples weren’t able to cast out the unclean spirit, so there must be more going on here than meets the eye.

What the man forgot, of course, is who Jesus really is.  He is the almighty creator of heaven and earth, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Word that is such a perfect expression of what is in the mind and heart of God the Father that He is Himself God.  It was through Him that the heavens and the earth, and everything in them, was made.  Compared to that, healing this boy is almost nothing.  That’s why Jesus is almost a little sarcastic in his response to this man.  Of course I can heal the boy.  I made him in the first place, and I know, better than anyone else, what he was originally created to be.  Anyone who believes in Me has whatever he asks for, in accordance with My will.

And the man’s response is one of the most famous passages in Scripture for illustrating what it means to be both a saint and a sinner at the same time.  All Christians believe, and yet we all have unbelief, despair, and other great shame and vice, at the same time.  We all have the old Adam who is supposed to have been drowned and died with all sins and evil desires, but who keeps bobbing to the surface to take a breath, and so we need to fight daily to keep his head under the baptismal water.  We all have that unbelief which wonders if God can take care of us and provide what’s best for us in whatever situation we find ourselves.  And yet, so long as we are Christians, we also trust in God above all things, that He who made us will provide for us in the way He deems best, both for this life and for the life to come.  Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.

I think sometimes it’s too easy to look at some of the men and women in the Holy Scriptures who say things indicative of ignorance or doubt or other false ideas regarding God, and especially about God in human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, and think that we would have done better than they had we been there.  The fact is, we would have done no different than they.  What this man says about the struggle inside of him between faith and doubt is exactly what St. Paul describes in himself in Romans 7.  It’s exactly what we see in St. Peter on any number of occasions when a statement indicating profound faith is followed up almost immediately by words or actions indicating the worst sort of doubt or misunderstanding of Jesus and His mission.  I don’t think we should be surprised that we see the same struggle going on within this nameless father, not to mention the fact that we ourselves struggle with exactly the same things.  It’s simply a part of life in this old world that faith and doubt are constantly at war inside of us.

And that’s exactly why God does help us with our unbelief by reassuring us again and again, not only in audible words but even in His Son’s own body and blood, that our sins really are forgiven and that heaven really is our home.  That’s the entire reason why the Christian Church exists, and why we meet here every Sunday to hear His Word and receive His body and blood.  We believe, but only He can help our unbelief.  Without Him continuously putting to death our unbelief and raising up within us the faith which trusts Him for life and salvation, our belief in Him would not last very long.

One odd note about this event, by the way.  The disciples could not drive out the spirit which afflicted the boy, and yet Jesus simply says, “Get out of him and don’t come back,” and the spirit leaves, never to return.  When they ask Him privately about this, he says that this particular type of spirit only comes out with prayer.  But Jesus simply ordered the spirit to leave and it left.  Again, remember who Jesus is.  He’s the one to whom Christians are to pray.  He is God Himself.  Prayer isn’t powerful in and of itself.  The only power that prayer has is because the One to whom we pray is powerful.  And Jesus, the one who loves us and comes to meet us here and dwells with us every day in our hearts through His Spirit and His body and blood, is the one to whom we pray.  He does help our unbelief, by giving us again and again that in which we believe.  Our God is one who can be trusted.  He is the one who answers prayer.  He is the one with whom we will spend eternity.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Pentecost 15 (Proper 18), Series B

Sermon on Mark 7:24-37
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
September 9, 2012 (The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Series B)

The healing of a deaf and mute man is a great miracle.  This man had been deaf from birth and therefore could not speak very well, either.  Deaf people often have trouble learning to talk, because the sounds we use to make words are formed partially by movements on the insides of our mouths which cannot be seen.  It is only as we hear that we are able to speak, not so much for medical reasons but because hearing and speaking are the two sides of one form of communication, and we learn to speak rightly by hearing rightly.  But this man could do neither.  He could not hear, and so his speech was distorted as well.  But as soon as Jesus opens his ears and his mouth, he not only can hear rightly, but he can also speak rightly.  You would think that he would still have to gradually learn how to talk over the course of the next few weeks or months, now that he can hear the difference between how he’s talking and how others are talking.  But, no, he immediately begins to talk rightly.  It is as if he had never been deaf at all.  This shows us how great a miracle it is that the man is healed.  Not only is the medical condition that caused the problem healed, but all the effects of that medical condition are taken away as if they had never existed in the first place.

In this the healing of this deaf-mute is a picture of how God handles our sin.  It’s not just taken away, its taken away in such a way that, as far as God is concerned, it never existed in the first place.  We are transported to that place, which we will experience and enjoy in eternity, where all the problems and sufferings and sorrows that exist for us in this world because of sin, no longer exist.  We become citizens of God’s kingdom and heirs of eternal life itself.  And because the sin that is blocking our spiritual ears is taken away, our mouths are opened as well.  We speak rightly, we confess, because we have heard.  It is as if our sin never existed in the first place.

But there is another side to this picture.  Notice how it is that Jesus heals the man, what physical elements he uses.  A spoken word, his own fingers, and his own saliva.  How commonplace.  How ordinary.  Not exactly what you would think would be a high, holy, and spiritual way of going about healing this man.  And the fact that he speaks a word, “Ephphatha,” meaning, “Be opened,” makes no sense at all.  How can a spoken word have any effect on a deaf man?

But here again, that’s how God works with us, as well.  Words spoken to those who are spiritually deaf.  Water poured on the head.  Bread and wine touching the tongue.  None of these things is particularly spectacular or spiritual, either.  There have been many who can’t seem to grasp the idea that the high, holy, mighty creator of heaven and earth would, or even could, join Himself to these humble, lowly, ordinary things.  Entire churches deny that Christ’s body and blood is really present in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper (even though they might affirm that Christ is somehow really present among us in our partaking of the supper), because it doesn’t seem fitting or right that the holy and almighty God would humble Himself in such a way.  But He does.  He comes to you, with all His power and glory and majesty to heal you, but He does so in this ordinary way so that you can be healed, rather than destroyed, by His power.  He comes to you in the fullness of His Godhead, but cloaked in His manhood so that your healing, your forgiveness, life, and salvation, will be apprehended by faith and not by being scared out of your wits into it.  He comes to you with the same powerful, creative word by which He called the heavens and the earth and everything in them out of the void, the creative Word that is addressed to things that cannot obey it (just like the word was addressed to a deaf man who could not hear it here) and makes them to be what the Word declares, by the power of that word alone.  But He comes to you with that powerful word on the lips of a mere sinful human being like yourselves so that it will not overwhelm you but comfort you.  The whole reason why God comes to us in ordinary things, the way he came to the deaf-mute, is because He comes to us in love and forgiveness and grace, not in wrath and judgment.  It’s a matter of Gospel, first and foremost.  The Law is only there to serve the Gospel, not the other way around.

Another odd thing we notice about this particular miracle is the fact that Jesus sighed or groaned aloud as He healed the man.  What’s with that?  Jesus is the Son of God, able to do anything.  His resources aren’t limited in any way.  Why would He groan or sigh when healing someone?  Compared to the work of creating heaven and earth in the first place, this is a piece of cake.  The answer is found in the reason why Jesus came to earth in the first place as both God and man.  This man was deaf and dumb as a result of sin in the world.  It wasn’t his own sin, of course, but the simple fact that sin had entered the world through Adam and therefore things in this world no longer work the way they’re supposed to.  Jesus came to take away sin in this world, and in so doing He takes away the effects of sin as well.  But He takes away sin by taking it upon Himself.  He doesn’t just wave His hand and, poof, it’s gone.  He bears it and carries it and puts up with it all the way to the cross.  This is why Jesus sighed or groaned when He healed the man of his deafness.  Here was another of the effects of sin which He Himself was bearing and taking away by nailing it to the cross.  He was taking it off this man and putting it upon Himself.

And, of course, that is how Jesus deals, not just with the effects of sin, but with sin itself.  Your sins are forgiven.  They are no more.  To God it is as if they never were in the first place.  But it’s not that God’s just a nice God who doesn’t care about sin and will let us do whatever we want.  Sin is offensive to Him.  It is a denial and repudiation of His wisdom in setting the world up the way He did in the first place.  And so He can’t just wave His hand and make it go away.  He could, but that would be unjust, and God is never unjust.  Rather the price for sin is paid by His own Son, Jesus, on the cross.  God in the person of Jesus Christ takes our sin upon Himself and dies a bloody, painful, miserable death for it.  The price of your forgiveness is Jesus pain, suffering, and death.  What He did so that your sins could be taken away is neither insignificant nor trivial.  He gave up everything so that you could have everything.  This is what should keep us from taking forgiveness for granted.  It was won by our Lord by a lot of groaning and sighing, far more than just the one inarticulate noise he made in today’s text.  He gave up His life so that you could have life.  He became sin for us so that our sin could be forgiven.  He gave up His hearing, His speech, His vision, His ability to move around freely and became sin, sickness, and death, so that all the effects of sin in the world on us would be done away with.  All this He did for us.  Because He has now opened heaven to us, He has now opened our lips.  Therefore we cannot help but thank and praise, serve and obey Him.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Pentecost 14 (Proper 17), Series B

Sermon on Mark 7:14-23
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
September 2, 2012 (The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Series B)

When the secular world thinks of Christians preaching the law, very often what they think of is self-righteous people pointing an accusing finger at others “out there.”  Very often the stereotype is that Christian preachers all talk about how it is “those sinners” who are a bad influence to be avoided.  I mean, they drink alcoholic beverages!  They smoke!  They dance!  They even (gasp) play cards!  We might also think of those preachers who urge their sheep to keep themselves pure by avoiding the movies, television, and “secular” music, so that they can avoid accidental exposure to scenes involving violence, sexuality, or other sinful behaviors.  Now, to be sure, it is good to be cautious and discerning when you’re choosing among entertainment options for yourself and your children.  After all, one of the temptation strategies the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh use against us is the idea that “everyone else is doing it,” so avoiding shows where gratuitous sex or violence is portrayed as normal or even as a good thing is probably a good idea, in general.  But when the source of sin is portrayed exclusively as something that comes from outside of us, something that we can avoid by staying away from the cinema or the television, and only listening to “Christian” music, then there’s a problem.

As Jesus points out, the source of our sinfulness is our own heart.  We were born defective.  We were born enemies of God.  Even when we outwardly do what is loving and good and right in this world, we are doing it to make ourselves look good to others, ourselves, or even God, rather than relying on God for every blessing we have.  Our best good works are often done in violation of the First Commandment, because they are done with the motivation of making our goodness come from ourselves, that is, they are done with the idea that we are our own gods.  The theologians call this the doctrine of original sin.  The fact is, sin isn’t just something we learn how to do because of bad influences we encounter as we go through life.  Sin is something we were born with.  Sinfulness, being an enemy of God who wants to try to save himself, is something we inherited from Adam and Eve, something that was in us already before we were born.  Sin isn’t something that comes at us from the outside first and foremost, it’s something that comes out from the inside.

Now, as I mentioned, that doesn’t mean we can simply go watch and do whatever we want, because as those who are born sinful we can’t help it.  The symptoms of our sinful condition are learned from, and influenced by, our fellow sinners.  And so it’s a bad idea to go and watch something you know will tempt you to do something selfish and unloving toward your neighbor.  Our text mentions that Jesus declared all foods clean.  But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to go and eat something that will destroy your health.  Poison is still poison, and it’s simply a matter of wisdom to avoid that which is going to hurt you.  And so what Jesus is saying here should not be seen as encouraging carelessness.  Rather, Jesus is speaking against the idea that we can actually keep ourselves pure by avoiding things.  We can’t.  The impurity is already there from our birth.

There is only one man whose heart contains good things.  Only one human being has ever lived that has not had the stain of original sin permeating His body and soul.  That Man is Jesus Christ.  What proceeds out of His mouth is life itself.  What He says is the opposite of defilement.  In fact, the Word that He speaks recreates in us a clean heart and renews in us a right spirit.  His Word puts the old self to death and resurrects us to a new life that is predicated on His Word, His righteousness, and His eternal life with His Father.  Out of His heart comes nothing but the goodness and love that flows from His Father’s love for those whom He has created.  Out of His heart comes love for the neighbor, kindness, gentleness, and forgiveness.

And that’s true even in a very literal sense.  Not only when we think of the “heart” somewhat poetically as the seat of our emotions, but even when we speak of the literal bodily organ called the heart, the muscle that pumps blood through the body.  Out of Jesus’ literal heart, when it was pierced, came His blood.  And even His blood itself brings us these things.  It is supernaturally united with the wine those of you who are communicants will be receiving in a few minutes.  His blood, coming from His heart, gives us nothing less than the kindness and love of God the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.  And it gives us these things not only in this life, but more importantly, His blood gives us that eternal life, love, and happiness in the Father’s presence forever.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +