Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter, Series C

Sermon on Luke 24:1-12
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
March 31, 2013 (Resurrection of our Lord)

Why do you seek the living among the dead?  It sounds like kind of an unfair question, at first glance.  Jesus was, after all, dead.  He didn’t just swoon or pass out, the sword pierced his pericardium and his heart muscles, causing blood and water to flow from His side.  Even if He hadn’t been dead already at the point when the soldier stabbed Him, a sword piercing one’s heart is not a survivable wound.  He was dead.  And so for the angel to ask that question seems to be a bit unfair to the women.  They had no way of knowing that Jesus’ condition was anything other than what it had been on Friday when they watched Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus put Him in the tomb.  They were only being reasonable to assume that their sad duty of completing the half-done job (due to the Sabbath) of properly preparing His body still lay before them.

But on another level, it’s a very logical question to ask.  “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”  You see, the angel wasn’t merely referring to the fact that Jesus was now alive.  Jesus wasn’t like Lazarus.  Lazarus had died and been raised to life again, it’s true.  But Lazarus’ death was natural, and his resurrection was not by his own power.  Lazarus didn’t raise himself from the dead, someone else came and raised him.  And that someone else was no ordinary man.  He was true man, yes, but not any ordinary man.  As He Himself said to Lazarus’ sister, Martha, just before Lazarus was raised, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.”  He’s not just somebody who happens to have the ability to raise dead people.  He is the Author of life itself, the one who created all living things, who fashioned the first man from the dust of the ground and breathed into him the breath of life, who fashioned the first woman from the first man’s side.  He is Life itself.

And so, let’s look at that question the angel asks the women who came to the tomb again.  “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”  Because of how the Greek language works, oftentimes adjectives can stand by themselves as nouns, instead of needing a noun nearby for the adjective to lean on.  Therefore, we might translate the angel’s question, “Why do you seek the Living One [capital L, capital O] among the dead?”  The angel isn’t just mentioning the fact that the man who had been buried there happens to have been raised to life again, as wonderful and miraculous as that is.  The angel is asking the women why they would look for the One who is the Resurrection and the Life Himself in a grave, a place of death.  He was asking them why on earth they would think that the Word by whom we all were made would be anything other than living and active, sharper and more vibrant than any two edged sword.

You can’t kill the creator of life itself without destroying death.  You can’t make God into a sinner and pay him the wages of sin, without sin itself being undone.  You can’t bruise the heel of the promised Seed of the Woman, without crushing the head of the serpent who deceived her.  This is who He is.  Resurrection from the dead is not merely something that happened to Jesus.  Resurrection from the dead is who He is.  Good Friday happened precisely because it would lead to Easter.  They may look like opposites, but they are really the same event from God’s perspective.  The old corruption of this world, all the disasters and disorders and diseases that flow from Adam’s sin and lead to death for all his descendants, are themselves destroyed and done away with.  The new, perfect creation itself, in which death no longer exists, comes into existence in the body that was crucified but which could not stay dead.

How often do we forget that?  How often do we look at our problems, whatever they may be, as if they are something that God can’t deal with?  How often do we see the difficulties of living in a world messed up by our own and others’ sin as something God might not have an answer for?  The problems we face in this old world are serious, yes.  One could even say they are grave.  But grave problems, including the gravest problem of all, namely the grave itself, are no match for Him who is the author of life.  What is the worst that anyone or anything in this old world could do to us?  Kill us.  But so what?  Why do you look for the living among the dead?  Why do you act as if the Author of life has not already overcome the grave?

After all, you died with Him.  You were nailed to that cross, back in 33 AD.  You were put to death with Him that first Good Friday.  You were buried with Him through baptism into death.  And so, just as He is risen from the dead, so are you.  Baptism transcends time itself, to connect your eventual death, and your resurrection on the last day, with Jesus’ death and resurrection almost 2,000 years ago.  You belong to the new creation now, even though you still live in the midst of this old one.  And your body has touched and tasted and taken into itself that which is part of the new creation.  Jesus’ body and blood are of the new creation, not this old one, and so your body, which has taken and eaten and drunk His resurrected body, is now to be transformed into that which cannot die.  Why do you look for the living among the dead?  You are now those who are the living, because you belong to the new creation.  You do not belong to this creation any more, and therefore it can’t touch you.  Why do you look for the living among the dead?  Christ is the Resurrection and the Life, and you are His body.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Friday, March 29, 2013

Good Friday

Sermon on John 18 – 19
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
March 29, 2013 (Good Friday)

The world would rather avoid Good Friday.  When you look around at the way the world celebrates Easter, you don’t see anything about Good Friday.  Of course, you don’t see very much of what Easter is really about either, namely the Resurrection of our Lord, and that’s because in order to have a Resurrection somebody has to die, and as I said, the world doesn’t like Good Friday.  The world celebrates Easter as sort of a general springtime festival, a celebration of the yearly cycle when the trees and the flowers come to life again.  And of course the way that the whole world seems to come to life again in the spring does provide us with an illustration of what happened on that first Easter morning.  But the problem is, the annual cycle of seasons, where plants go dormant for part of the year and everything seems dead, is natural.  Nature is supposed to look dead during the winter and come to life again during the spring.  It’s the way God made the plants so that they could deal with the extreme temperatures of the winter season and still be able to put forth leaves and flowers and seeds when the warmer season comes again.  But Good Friday and Easter Sunday are something else entirely.  The death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ were a one time event.  And Good Friday especially is an uncomfortable holiday to observe.

It’s bad enough that Good Friday is about a Man dying.  It’s even worse that the Man in question was executed by the government for trumped up, false charges.  These aspects of Good Friday are already depressing.  But what the world really wants to avoid when it skips right over Good Friday to its paganized form of Easter, is the fact that it was our sinfulness that caused this Man to be killed.  We by nature don’t want to face our own sinfulness.  We would rather pretend that sin didn’t exist.  And even though we know deep down that we have done things wrong, we like to pretend that it’s not that bad.  Everybody does it.  Everyone’s a sinner.  And God will forgive me anyway, so why should I stop doing what I’m doing?  Even those of us who because of our upbringing know clearly from the Ten Commandments the difference between right and wrong tend to view sin far too casually.  We take God’s forgiveness for granted.  We view forgiveness of sins as a formality we have to go through in order to “get off the hook” for whatever it is we have done, and since God forgives us every time we might as well keep doing whatever it is we are doing.

But Good Friday cuts to the heart of all of that kind of self-deception and shows us how serious our sin really is.  We were the ones who put our Lord Jesus Christ on that cross.  It was our sins He came to suffer and die to release us from, and it was our sins that caused His terrible pain and anguish.  When we read the passion history together last Sunday, I assigned the part of the various crowds in that story to the congregation.  Someone mentioned to me during the Bible class how hard it was to say the part where the crowd was shouting, “Crucify Him, crucify Him!”  It is hard to do that because we don’t like to admit that it was our sin that put Him there, that it was what we did, and what we still do every day, that caused our Lord and our Savior this much very real pain and suffering.  It was hard to do that because it means that every time we disregard God’s Law and do what He forbids, it is as if we really are shouting, “Crucify Him, crucify Him!”

The world would rather avoid Good Friday, because worldly people would rather avoid talking about their own sin.  But we are not of the world.  We who have been crushed by the Law into repentant sorrow, we to whom the declaration of forgiveness has been proclaimed, have a new perspective on Good Friday.  We view Christ on the cross not with the thief who mocked and ridiculed Him, but with the thief who repented and pleaded with Christ to have mercy on him.  To us, Christ on the cross is not an image we flee away from and try to hide, it is an image we cherish and treasure, because it is from the cross that Christ says to us, “Your sins are forgiven,” which is what He says to the repentant thief when He said, “Today you will be with Me in paradise.”

The image of Jesus dying on the cross, whether it is a statue or a painting or a stained-glass window, is an image that the Church has cherished for many, many centuries.  Even when Jesus isn’t hanging on the cross, the symbol is still the same.  It is a symbol of Jesus’ death.  (By the way, some people have said that an empty cross doesn’t symbolize Jesus’ death, but rather Jesus’ resurrection.  That’s not really true, because if you think about it all that an empty cross means is that they took Him down and buried Him.)  But the Church has adopted the cross as its most prominent symbol, putting it at the top of every steeple, and in the front of every church building, either on the altar or on the wall, or both.  Using a cross as the symbol of the church would not seem to be very good public relations, since, as we mentioned earlier, Good Friday makes worldly people, as well as repentant Christians, very uncomfortable.  But the Church has Jesus’ death as its symbol because this is where the center of our faith is.

Everything we teach at this Church has its center in this event.  Salvation, eternal life, the forgiveness of sins, the new life of good works, etc., all of these depend upon Christ’s death.  We would not be saved, except that He paid the price we deserved for our sins.  We now live because He died in our place.  We will live eternally with Him because we died with Him through Holy Baptism, when we ourselves were marked with the cross, marked as ones redeemed by Christ the Crucified.  When we eat His body and drink His blood in Holy Communion, we are eating the body that was given into death for us and the blood that was shed on the cross for us.  That’s how Jesus Himself describes it in the Words of Institution.  And of course those words themselves were given the previous night, when Jesus knew He was about to die.  It’s no wonder that the Church has chosen this seemingly depressing picture as its most important symbol.  Such a symbol might be seen foolishness or even sickly morbid by the world.  But to us who are being saved it is the power of God and the wisdom of God.  It is in Christ’s crucifixion that we find our salvation.  This tree of death is now for us the tree of life.  And the fruit of that tree is now our food, His body and blood, of which we eat and live forever.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Holy Thursday

Sermon on John 13:1-7, 31b-35
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
March 28, 2013 (Holy Thursday)

Most families have traditions as to how they celebrate certain holidays.  The same things happen every year and give the holiday something of a timeless quality.  The same foods are served, the same kinds of things are said, the house is decorated the same way every year.  In my family we would get up early, to see if the Easter Bunny had brought us anything, and then get ready and go to Church.  After Church several relatives who lived in Fort Wayne would come over for the big dinner.  Churches also have specific traditions connected with holidays.  There are evening services on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, with the altar being stripped at the end of the Maundy Thursday service.  There is a Tre-Ore service at Lutheran High every year.  Even with a new pastor who may do some things a little differently, most things don’t change.  The paraments go through the same cycle of colors, from Lenten purple to to nothing on Friday, to white with full decorations and Easter lilies on Sunday.  We sing many of the same hymns, and hear the same story every year.

The Jewish Passover was like this for Jesus and His disciples.  In fact, the traditions surrounding the Passover meal were quite a bit more rigid than our own Easter traditions.  Certain things were said in a specific order, certain psalms were sung, and certain foods were eaten at specific times, with specific explanations given to remind the people of specific aspects of their deliverance from bondage in Egypt.  Everyone went through this ritual meal every year, and everyone probably knew it by heart; even if they couldn’t recite it from memory word for word they would know if anything was different.  And so when Jesus diverged completely from the Passover ritual toward the end of the meal, it probably made a big impression on the disciples.  Something new was happening.  What Jesus was saying was different from what they expected to hear.  They weren’t expecting Him to connect the meal they were eating with His body and His blood in this way.  Instead of looking backward to the Passover when the Israelites escaped from Egypt, Jesus was looking forward to His own death.  This particular Passover was different from all the others that had gone before, because the next day the Passover itself would be fulfilled when the Lamb of God Himself was sacrificed for the sins of the world.  The people of God stood at the junction between the Old and the New Testaments, and Jesus changed the Passover ritual to reflect that fact.

The purpose of the Passover meal was, of course, to remember and to proclaim the events of Israel’s release from slavery in Egypt.  Israel’s very identity as a nation came from that series of events.  God sent Moses to Pharaoh to tell him to let the Israelites go.  When Pharaoh refused, God sent the ten plagues to punish Egypt for keeping Israel captive.  The last plague was that God killed the firstborn sons of every Egyptian family, and even the firstborn of all the cattle.  The Israelites were to sacrifice a lamb without blemish, and to put some of its blood on the doorposts and lintels of their houses, so that the destroying angel would not harm their own firstborn.  They were to eat that lamb as their final meal that night, along with unleavened bread.  Afterward, they were to eat a similar meal every year to remember the great victory which the Lord won for them that night and the next day over the Egyptians, and as part of the meal the head of the household was to preach to the whole household concerning these events.

The first Maundy Thursday was at the time of the Passover, when every household would gather to hear the story again and partake of the meal which the Israelites had eaten.  If you read the Passover liturgies, you will see that the Israelites didn’t just think of the Passover as a historical reenactment.  Even generations later, even after many centuries the people of Israel thought of themselves as the same people who had been led out of Egypt by the pillar of cloud and fire, who passed through the Red Sea on dry ground, and so on.  It wasn’t just that God had freed their ancestors from bondage in Egypt, it was that God had freed them from bondage.

Of course, the Angel of the Lord, who was with Israel in the pillar of cloud and fire, who guided and protected them, who spoke with Moses at the Tabernacle, and who provided the community with food and water, was none other than the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, whom we know as the Son of God.  This very same Person was the one who took upon our flesh and sacrificed Himself for our sakes.  The man Jesus who presided over the Passover meal that first Maundy Thursday was in fact the same Person who had appeared to the Israelites in the cloud and fire and who had freed them from their bondage.  He had every right to change the Passover ritual, because He was the One who had instituted it in the first place.  The Angel of the Lord who led the people out of Israel was now changing the Passover ritual to reflect the new thing He was doing for His people.

In fact, when He first instituted it back in the Old Testament, the Seder meal was intended as a symbol of what He Himself would do for His people.  He would become the true Lamb of God, whose blood protects His people from destruction.  His death gives us life, not simply a temporary protection for the firstborn sons of our families, but permanent protection from eternal death and damnation.  We have been delivered, not just from physical bondage to earthly rulers, but from spiritual bondage to sin, death, and the devil.  The Passover sacrifice, as well as all the other sacrifices of the Israelite Temple, pointed forward to the sacrifice of the Son of God.  Everything that happened to Israel during that first Passover in Egypt was a picture of the salvation God would accomplish for the whole world on Good Friday.  Instead of killing our firstborn, God allowed His own firstborn Son to die, that we might have life.

An important part of the Passover was that the blood of the sacrificial lamb would be sprinkled on the door frames of the houses where God’s people lived, as a sign for the destroying angel to pass over that house.  In this way the sacrificial lamb died that the people in the house might live.  Christ, who died on the cross, gave Himself so that we might live.  He has sprinkled us with His own blood, not on the outside, but on the inside, where it counts.  He gives us to drink of His own blood, and thus He marks us repeatedly as His own.  Since we have that mark, the destroyer passes over us and does not bring us down to eternal damnation.  Instead we inherit the promised land of eternal life.  Come and receive the blood of Christ which marks you as one who belongs to Him and who will inherit eternal life.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Palm Sunday, Series C

Sermon on John 12:12-19 and Luke 22 – 23
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
March 24, 2013 (Palm Sunday)

People are fickle.  Fashions which are all the rage one year are seen as completely out of touch the next year.  The government swings from Democrats to Republicans, depending upon which party is seen as the lesser of two evils by the people that year.  Musical groups can be wildly popular one day and completely hated the next, especially if the group is one whose appeal is to teenagers.  Some people even change their friends, or even worse their husbands or wives, as quickly and easily as they change clothing styles or hairstyles.  Even some churches have gotten into this habit of constant change, striving continuously to keep up with whatever musical style is popular at the time.  Unfortunately what often happens is that the church can’t quite keep up fast enough, and sooner or later the crowds who were attracted to that church by its popular style will move on, and the church will be left with nothing.  It has been said that the church which marries itself to the spirit of the age will be a widow in the age to come.  And the reason is that people can often be downright fickle.

The liturgy today contained two different Gospel lessons, and in them we get two very different pictures of the people who were in Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover.  In the reading at the beginning of the service, the crowd sang His praises, singing, “Hosanna in the highest; blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”  They waved palm branches and laid them at His feet along with their cloaks to cushion His way.  In the passion history which was read just a few moments ago, there was a very different kind of crowd there, a crowd which wanted Jesus’ blood and which would stop at nothing to see Him dead.  Of course, these were two different crowds of people; many of the people who had welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem were probably cowering in fear during His trial, like the disciples were, and not thirsting for His blood.  But there were probably some of the same people too, people who thought that Jesus’ kingdom was an earthly kingdom which would overthrow the Roman governor and restore Israel to its rightful position as a major world power, and who were disappointed when Jesus’ kingdom was not of this world.  In any case, the contrast between Palm Sunday and Good Friday shows us how quickly a person’s fortunes can change when he becomes a public figure and his welfare is connected to popular opinion.

But unlike the latest popular music group or the latest fashion or the latest popular TV sitcom, Jesus’ mission isn’t affected by what people think of Him.  He didn’t come to be a popular earthly ruler.  He didn’t come to be popular at all.  To be sure, it was good and right for the crowd to welcome Him to Jerusalem.  After all, it is truly meet, right, and salutary that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to Him, because He has redeemed us and overcome sin, death, and the devil for us.  The crowd on Palm Sunday were simply doing what we do every Sunday when we welcome Him as He comes to us in His body and blood.  But the ironic thing is, the crowd which wanted His death, which cried, “Crucify Him, crucify Him,” on Good Friday, was also asking for the very thing Jesus had come to do.  He had come to be crucified.  Of course, the crowd on Good Friday had the wrong motivation; they were filled with hate and anger at Jesus for disrupting their religious complacency and self-righteousness.  In fact, that is the reaction of all of us by nature to God’s Law.  But what these people wanted when they asked for Jesus’ death was according to God’s plan.

You see, even though the crowd on Palm Sunday which sang His praises didn’t realize it, Jesus Christ came to Jerusalem for the very purpose of dying on the cross.  They knew that He had come to be their Messiah, but they didn’t know fully what that meant.  Even the disciples were frightened and hurt by what happened to Jesus on Good Friday.  When the crowds put their cloaks down to cushion His path and waved palm branches to shade His way, they really were welcoming the Messiah who was about to come into His glory.  Everything was going according to plan.  The celebration on Palm Sunday really was for the true King of Israel.  He was about to be enthroned during the course of that week.  But what nobody knew, what nobody could know until afterward, was that His throne was a cross.  They could not know that the crown with which He was to be decorated was made of thorns.  They had no way of knowing that the way in which He would become our Lord and King was through His own suffering and death.

What they did know, however, was that He had come to Jerusalem to be their Savior, their Messiah.  Even though they didn’t know fully what that meant, they got that part of it right.  When they sang, “Hosanna in the highest, blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord,” they joined the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven who laud and magnify His glorious name.  As John points out, after Jesus had risen from the dead the disciples remembered that they had done these things for Him.  They realized that despite the horrifying events of Good Friday they had done the right thing on Palm Sunday.  They realized that Jesus was entering Jerusalem to fulfill His purpose, to die for us.  He didn’t fail, and His death was not a mistake.  The sacrificial Lamb was approaching the altar where He would give His life for the sins of the whole world.

I suspect that when John mentions that the disciples later remembered Palm Sunday and what they had done for him there, he is hinting at why these words have become part of our liturgy.  John wrote his gospel probably between 30 and 60 years after these events happened, and by that time some of the basic features of the liturgy we now use were already in place, including the canticle we know as the Sanctus.  Just as the crowd of disciples in Jerusalem welcomed their Savior with these words, so also we welcome Him who comes to us in His body and blood in exactly the same words.  He came to Jerusalem to give Himself up for the sins of the whole world; and He comes to us now to give us Himself, so that we too can receive the benefit of His great sacrifice.  The apostles probably started including these words in the liturgy precisely because they realized what they had done for Him on Palm Sunday was in fact meet, right, and salutary.

And we still sing these words, because Christ still comes to us in His Word and His body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins.  Over against the world which is always fickle, always moving from one style to another, from one fashion to another, the Church has sung this same song every Sunday for almost 2,000 years.  Our needs have not really changed, even during this modern era when it seems everything changes too rapidly to follow.  We still need a Savior from our sins.  And that Savior still comes to us to give us forgiveness and salvation.  These things have not changed, and so we the Church have not changed what we sing to welcome Him who comes to us in the name of the Lord.  Even as the apostles did, and the Church throughout the ages has done, we still sing, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.  Hosanna in the highest!”  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Lent 5, Series C

Sermon on Luke 20:9-20
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
March 17, 2013 (Fifth Sunday in Lent)

When you use someone else’s property, whether for a place to live or a place to work, or if that property is a car or truck, you’ve got to pay rent.  It’s not your property, it belongs to the property owner.  And so you pay him for the privilege of using it.  But these renters didn’t want to pay the rent when the owner sent his slaves around to collect.  They beat the slaves and sent them back empty-handed.  After the first time this happened, most owners would get a little more forceful; they’d either call in the authorities, or the next slave would have a weapon up his sleeve to defend himself.  I know that when a person simply says “no” to the IRS they don’t take it lying down.  But three times this owner simply sent his slaves into the vineyard, unarmed, hoping that the tenants would repent.

In fact, he goes even further.  He sends his own son to the tenants, hoping that they will listen to him if they listen to nobody else.  Now, these tenants had proven by their actions that they were violent, bloodthirsty men who didn’t care what the owner of the vineyard thought; they were going to do what they were going to do and nobody was going to stand in their way.  Why would the owner send his own beloved son unarmed to try to reason with these characters?  I don’t think any human owner of a rental property would ever do something that foolish.  And of course, the tenants are true to form.  They kill the son, thinking foolishly that by doing that they will somehow become the heirs of the vineyard.  Of course, that isn’t going to work.  Finally the owner loses patience, comes with soldiers, kills the tenants, and rents the vineyard out to others.

Of course, this parable was about the nation of Israel.  The people of Israel had been given a good land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  God had given them the land and had defended them against their enemies.  He had treated them much better than the owner in the parable treated the tenants.  He had treated them as His own children.  But they continuously refused to recognize Him, and instead continued to worship other gods, to disobey the Lord’s commandments, which had been given for their own good.  The Lord sent His prophets to Israel a lot more than three times during their history, and each time the prophets were killed by the leaders of the nation who did not want to hear the message.  This trend culminated in the beheading of John the Baptist.  Instead of destroying Israel outright the first time they sinned, which He could very well have done, the Lord had mercy on them and kept sending His preachers to them, to give them more opportunities to repent.  While many individuals did listen to these prophets and mend their ways, the nation as a whole kept sliding back into idolatry.

Finally God sent His own Son, Jesus Christ into Israel’s vineyard.  The nation’s leaders, the Sanhedrin, knew exactly who Jesus was.  They knew that God had sent Him to them to get them to turn away from their corrupt and selfish ways and to trust in God as the one who gave them every blessing they enjoyed as a nation.  They also knew that if they were to repent in this way, it would mean the loss of their own power, and so they decided to kill Jesus so that God would maybe leave them alone.  Of course, it didn’t work.  Because Israel’s leaders rejected Christ, the nation was destroyed by the Romans a few decades later, the Temple was torn down, and the land was turned over to the people we now know as the Palestinians.

Although Jesus told this parable specifically about Israel’s religious and political leaders, the lessons in it are for us as well.  While we are not part of an earthly nation that has been specifically chosen by God for some special purpose the way Israel was, we Christians are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.  The Christian Church is the spiritual continuation of the people of God, the people who were known as “Israel” in Old Testament times.  We have been given many blessings by God, and every day His blessings are new.  But do we thank and praise, serve and obey Him as we ought?  No.  Even if we strive to do these things, even if we try our hardest to produce righteous fruits, the old sinful nature is right there with us corrupting everything we do.  And more often than not, we don’t even try that hard.  We would prefer that God leave us alone and stop expecting so much of us.  We’re only human, after all.  What does God want, that we’re perfect or something?

In fact, that is exactly what God wants.  But by nature we can’t do that.  We aren’t perfect.  And so instead of coming down with the heavenly hosts right away to punish our sinfulness and send us to eternal torment, He sends His Son.  He sent His Son to pay the penalty we deserved by our sins.  He sends His Son even now to nourish and edify our faith in Him.  But just as the tenants in the vineyard, just as the Israelite leaders, we put Him to death.  When we hear His Word and receive His body and blood, and then go out and continue to live the sinful live we have always been living, without even making a serious attempt to resist temptation, we are the ones who kill Christ in our own hearts.

But of course Christ isn’t like the other prophets who came before Him.  The other prophets were silenced by their deaths.  Christ’s death doesn’t silence Him; instead it gives Him the victory.  He preaches even louder to the whole world by rising to life again on the third day.  No matter what you do to Christ, it will turn out to be a victory for Him.  This is both a warning and a comfort for us.  It is a warning, because as sinners we are by nature His enemies.  It is a comfort, because as those who have been baptized into Him and who hear His Word and eat and drink His body and blood we win the victory with Him.  Christ cannot be defeated.  He is the rock, and no matter whether His enemies fall on Him or He falls on them, they’re gonna lose.  What looks like His greatest defeat is in fact His greatest victory.  Good Friday and Easter Sunday are two sides of the same coin.

The tenants in the vineyard sealed their own fate by killing the son of the owner.  Satan and those who followed him, namely the Israelite leaders, sealed their fate by killing the Son of God.  But for us for whom He paid that price, we are now the ones who inherit the vineyard.  We are now the ones who inherit the blessings that God gives, not just in this life, but for eternity.  We are now the ones who are God’s people, the new Israel.  Because of Christ’s death, we need not fear death; death has become the gateway to everlasting life.  Because Christ became sin for us, we will live forever in a place where there is no sin.  Because Christ suffered for us, we will be with Him forever, and He will remove all suffering from us.  We now inherit the richest vineyard imaginable, and we partake of the fruits of that vineyard even now.  The great feast of victory which we will celebrate with Christ eternally is available for us now in His own body and blood.  The perfect life of good works which we will live eternally before Christ’s throne becomes ours even now as we are transformed by this feast into His saints.  He is not only the owner of the vineyard, He is the vine by which we are strengthened and nourished.  We are the ones to whom the vineyard has been given, and we now partake of its fruits for our eternal salvation.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Lent 4, Series C

Sermon on Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
March 10, 2013 (Fourth Sunday in Lent)

Which of these two sons are you?  The son who went and wasted his father’s inheritance, or the one who stayed and worked like the father wanted him to?  At the beginning of the story, the younger son is the bad guy, who demands his share of his father’s property, and then goes and wastes it all by living selfishly and wastefully.  The older son is the good guy, who faithfully continues working in his father’s fields and helping out, even after his younger brother has run away with a third of the property.  I think most of us would rather be seen as resembling the older son, the one who obeyed his father and strove to do what is right, rather than the younger son, who lived life in the fast lane, and who came up short.  But the end of the story has a surprise for us.  The younger son is the one who is present at a feast given in his honor and for his benefit, while the older son is not present at the feast, and is instead left out in the darkness and cold.  I ask again, which son are you?

Let’s take a closer look at each of the three main characters here.  First, the younger son.  I don’t think we always realize how hurtful his actions were to his father.  It wasn’t just that he had wasted what his father had given him; it wasn’t just that he didn’t stick around and help with the family farm.  This young man’s first sin was that he wanted his father dead.  That’s what he was saying when he asked for his share of the inheritance.  After all, what you leave to your children in your will doesn’t become theirs until after you die.  They have no right to ask for it beforehand, and if they wish they had it right now, what they are saying is that they wish that you were dead.

Amazingly, however, the father gives it to him.  In those days the younger of two sons would have inherited about a third of his father’s property, which was evidently a pretty good sum of money in this family.  But the father gives it to him, he sells it for cash that he can take with him on his travels, and he leaves.  He goes as far as he can get from his father and from his home, like many rebellious children do, and there he lives life in the fast lane.  The riches his father has given him seem inexhaustible at first, and so he spends it wastefully, and gets into the habit of living high on the hog.  By the way, we don’t know for sure whether his lifestyle was grossly sinful or not.  His brother later accuses him of consorting with prostitutes, but we don’t know for sure if what the older brother said is true or not.  What is bad enough is that he lives selfishly, not working, only living luxuriously and wastefully.  He abuses and thereby destroys the treasure his father had given him.

Later, he comes to his senses.  He realizes that his own sinfulness and ingratitude toward his generous father has caused his own ruin, and he knows that his father will be very angry with him for wasting a good-sized portion of the family’s wealth.  He decides to go back to his father anyway and take the heat.  He figures that he will eventually be able to work his way out of debt to his father, and that then his father will forgive him.  Of course, what he doesn’t realize is that his father is going to forgive him anyway.  When he comes back, the father falls on him with kisses, and then throws a feast in his honor, because the one who was dead is now alive; the one who was lost has now been found.  The younger son finds his father’s love and forgiveness is a gift to him, not something he has to earn.

Do you recognize yourself in this picture?  You should.  Every one of us has given in to the impulse of the sinful nature to use God’s gracious gifts to us of life and health and property for selfish and wasteful and even sinful purposes.  Every one of us has been brought back to God by the Holy Spirit working through the Word we have heard.  Every one of us has been surprised by God’s free grace in forgiveness, when we expected to work our way back into His favor.

Now let’s look at the older son.  The older son stays at home, working on the family farm during all the time that his younger brother is away wasting their father’s money.  He is outwardly a good, obedient child.  But his heart isn’t right.  His attitude toward his father is just as rebellious as his younger brother’s is.  Listen to what he says: “Look!  All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed orders.”  Evidently his obedience to his father was all an act.  He refers to his father as a slave-driver.  He wasn’t serving his father out of love and gratitude for having raised him and provided him with food and clothing and everything else he needed.  His obedience was all focused upon himself, because he was thinking he deserved some sort of reward for his good works.  And so his pride causes him to turn away from his father’s generous feast to celebrate his younger brother’s return.  And of course his attitude shows no love for his formerly lost brother.  Instead of being happy that his brother has come back, he is angry and unforgiving, and even accuses him of spending the money on prostitutes, even though he has no way of knowing whether that’s true or not.

Again, we should all recognize ourselves in this parable.  It is impossible to do a good work or live uprightly without thinking that we deserve a reward for it.  We are selfish by nature, and so when we do something good there’s always the voice in the back of our heads that thinks that God had better reward us for this good work.  But of course, that’s selfish.  Righteous living is simply the way we are supposed to live.  We don’t earn anything by it.  Everything that God gives us is given freely, out of His goodness and love.  To try to earn what God wants to give us freely is to give way to pride, selfishness, and arrogance.  It is to turn away His gifts, and to focus upon one’s own self.  The proper motivation for keeping the law is the love of the neighbor.  But a selfish person keeps the law simply in order to be better than everyone else.  A person who thinks he is righteous doesn’t see his need for God’s forgiveness and generosity, and so he will refuse to partake of the gifts of Word and Sacrament when they are offered to him.  In the end, the temptation to be like the older brother is far more dangerous than the temptation to be like the younger.  The younger brother was forgiven; the older brother turned away forgiveness.

Now let’s look at the character of the father in the story.  What he does is surprising at every turn.  When the younger son demands his share of the inheritance, and effectively wishes him dead, he gives it to him.  That’s not the way that any father I know would react.  And then of course, when the younger son comes back, he throws a spectacular feast for him, even though if the son hadn’t acted stupidly and selfishly in the first place, there would be no reason for the celebration.  And he doesn’t even scold the older son for his selfish and insulting attitude toward his father.  Instead he invites him as well into the feast.  None of this is expected behavior on the part of the father.  But all of it shows his capacity for love and forgiveness, his capacity, in other words, to give.

In this, the father in the parable shows us God.  God is the one who has given us our lives, and He sustains us in this life with everything we need: clothing and shoes, house and home, etc.  He even does this for those who have turned away from Him.  He makes the sun shine on the just and the unjust.  He gives each of us our share of the inheritance in this life whether we deserve it or not (and in fact none of us do deserve it).  And when the Word of His Law crushes our hearts and we come crawling back to Him, He forgives us freely.  We have been baptized into His Son, Christ Jesus.  Our baptism is renewed through the Word of forgiveness in Holy Absolution.  We who were dead are now alive.  We who were lost are now found.  And in our honor He gives a feast, a meal richer and more wonderful than any banquet ever given here on earth.  He gives us His Son’s own body and blood as our meat and drink, and with it everything He won for us, including nothing less than living forever with Him.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Lent 3, Series C

Sermon on Luke 13:1-9
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
March 3, 2013 (Third Sunday in Lent)

Back in 2001, I’m sure all of you remember the massive destruction that took place in New York City as a result of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11 of that year.  Now, there were some well-known televangelists who said that these attacks were the punishment of God on the United States for its toleration of homosexuality and other sins, and they were rightly criticized and condemned for saying that.  Disasters, both natural and man-made, happen all the time in this old, messed up world, and for the most part you can’t draw any sort of connection between a disaster and the sin of its victims.  Otherwise we would have to conclude that the victims of the earthquake, tsunami, and resulting nuclear meltdown in Japan almost two years ago were also worse sinners than the rest of humanity as well, and that’s just not the case.

In our text this morning, our Lord discusses two disasters that took place in His own day:  Pilate murdered several Galileans while they were offering their sacrifices in the temple, and  also an old tower in Jerusalem which collapsed and fell on eighteen bystanders, killing them instantly.  The people who asked Jesus about these disasters thought that the victims were probably worse sinners than average, and therefore the disaster was a punishment sent by God.  However, these disasters were far more than that.  They were warnings for us.

Jesus himself said in our text, “unless you repent, you too will all perish.”  Those who died in those disasters weren’t any worse sinners than those who asked Jesus about these things.  They weren’t any worse sinners than we are, either.  Jesus’ warning applies to us as well: “repent, or you too will all perish.”  We are all sinners by nature.  Our hearts, our souls, and our minds have been corrupt since the day we were conceived.  Even notorious, gross sinners such as pornographers, abortionists and other murderers, thieves, adulterers, homosexuals, and so on are only showing the symptoms of the same inherited sinful condition we all share.  If they need to repent of their sins, so do we.  Before God, their sins and our own are equally offensive.

But what does that mean, to repent?  Most people think that it means to “turn over a new leaf,” to improve our behavior in order to turn God’s anger away from us.  By nature we think that if we stop doing whatever it was that caused God to be angry with us in the first place, He will no longer be angry with us.  What we forget, however, is that when we are slack in our love toward God or our neighbor, or when we perhaps commit gross sins, we are only showing the symptoms of the disease of original sin.  No mere resolution to stop sinning will remove this disease from us.  Any “repentance” we produce leaves us firmly in sin’s power, and is bound to be temporary in any case.  True repentance is the life-long denial of our natural selves, with all our natural desires and longings.  As Martin Luther said in the first of his 95 Theses, “the entire life of believers [is] to be one of repentance.”  Repentance is thinking of ourselves as belonging to someone else, namely God.

When you look at it this way, a one-time resolution to “turn over a new leaf” is the exact opposite of repentance.  When I make a decision to fix some aspect of my life, that aspect of my life is still in my control rather than God’s.  Such a decision may in fact be deadly to true repentance because it causes our own pride to grow until there is no room for God.  True repentance, true reliance on God, cannot be a decision we make, a “turning point” in our lives that we bring about.  Anything we do, anything we decide on our own, is a denial of genuine repentance and an insult to God.

To illustrate the importance of true repentance, Jesus then tells a parable about a barren fig tree.  This tree had been standing in a certain vineyard for years, and had never borne any fruit.  The owner of the vineyard had every right to expect this tree to bear fruit, and yet it continued living without fulfilling its purpose.  This is a vivid picture of what we look like to God under the effects of original sin.  We are fruitless, barren, selfish creatures.  We consume God’s gifts of food and drink, clothing and shoes, house and home, yet fail to thank Him or act as His hands to give them to others.  The owner said to the gardener in the parable, “Cut it down!  Why should it use up the soil?”  God could very well say about us, “Why should these creatures of Mine keep using what I have given them for their own selfish purposes?  Why should they take up space in My creation?  Cut them down!”

Thankfully, however, this is not the only picture of God in this parable.  The gardener in the parable also represents God.  But he presents us with a very different picture of God than the owner did.  While the owner gives us a picture of God as He appears to us apart from Christ, the gardener gives us a picture of God as we know Him in Christ, the God who loved the world so much that He sent His Son to die on the cross in our place.  This is a picture of Christ who stands as our High Priest and pleads with the Father on our behalf.  “Leave it alone for one more year,” he says.  Every day God continues to grant us life on this earth, giving us the blessings we need for body and soul, is evidence of God’s grace.

But did the gardener simply leave the tree alone for a year and see if it would bear fruit on its own?  Of course not.  It had borne no fruit for three years; why should it suddenly start bearing fruit now?  Trees can’t hear human conversations and human threats.  Instead, the gardener feeds and waters the tree.  He goes out of the way to make sure the tree receives what it needs to bear good fruit.  He digs around the tree and fertilizes the ground.  He makes sure the tree has plenty of everything it needs to be healthy and to produce the fruit that it was created to produce.

God does the same for us.  He has connected us with the streams of living water in Holy Baptism, and He continues to give us that water of life through Holy Absolution.  God gives us His Word, in which we hear the promises of a Savior sent to take away our sins, and the fulfillment of those promises.  When the Word is preached, we are strengthened and fortified to live repentantly our whole lives, relying in faith on God who has promised us every blessing.  He gives us His Word as food to nourish us on our journey through this life.

The gardener put forth a lot of time and effort in order to make sure the tree had enough nutrients to put forth fruit.  But what our Lord does for us is infinitely greater.  He gives us His own body to eat and His own blood to drink.  The body that was hung on that cross to die for us and the blood which was shed for us have become our meat and drink, which gives us the strength and stamina we need to bring forth our fruit: a repentant life in His presence.  Since He conquered death by dying, His risen body and blood are now our antidote to eternal death.  If this food gives us eternal life itself, it will certainly sustain us for a repentant life in this world.  The fruit of the tree of the cross, Christ’s own body and blood, now enables us to bear fruit for Him and His kingdom.  And we do bear that fruit as we serve our neighbor out of love, each of us within his own calling in life.  Through our loving service God serves those around us and thus we become fruitful trees in God’s vineyard.

God had mercy on the barren fig tree by allowing it to stand another year.  Every year we are granted in this life is a gift from God, since He would be well within His rights to cut us all down right now.  We live here on this earth solely by His grace, and because of His mercy.  Everything we have is an undeserved gift of God, just as the tree in Jesus’ parable did not deserve the extra year the gardener gave it.  But our blessings extend even further than that.  Not only are we allowed to continue in this world, but when we eventually do die to this life we will be gathered into eternal life.  God has given us far more than an extra year to live.  He has given us an eternity to thankfully receive His gifts to us and to sing His praises.  The spiritual food and drink we receive in the Word and Sacraments does far more than cause us to be fruitful during our lives here.  This food grants us eternal life itself.  It is the medicine of immortality.  It is itself the fruit of the tree of life.  Come, let us eat and drink, and so live forever.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +