Monday, May 27, 2013

Trinity, Series C

 Okay, so I seem to have forgotten to post my sermon yesterday.  Here it is.  Better late than never.

Sermon on John 8:48-59
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
May 26, 2013 (Holy Trinity)

“If I honor myself, My honor is nothing.  It is My Father who honors Me, of whom you say that He is your God.”  Jesus has no need to make himself look good to those around Him, because He has all the honor and glory and dominion and authority He could possibly need or want because of His relationship to His Father.  He is the Second Person of the Trinity, coequal with the Father, participant in the creation of the World.  There is no higher honor than being honored by God the Father.  And that’s the honor that belongs to God the Son.

Of course, if it were us who were in that high, exalted status, we’d make sure everyone knew it.  We wouldn’t tolerate any insult, any slight, anything that might cause others to question just how high and exalted we are.  For us sinners, there’s nobody more important to us than ourselves, and we spend all our effort making sure everybody knows it.  Even when we outwardly serve God and our neighbor, so often our real motivation is to impress others with our skill or our wisdom or our hard work, to make them think well of us.  For that matter, even though we aren’t nearly so high and exalted as Jesus is, so often seem to be convinced that we are that high and exalted.  We get angry when someone insults us or crosses us.  We are by nature convinced of the rightness of our own opinions, our own ideas about how things should be, and can’t stand it when someone else gets his way at the expense of our own.  It sometimes gets so bad that we’d rather see it all go down in flames rather than let someone else have their way or be in charge.

Jesus doesn’t need any of that.  He is honored by His Father.  But when we look at how His Father honored Him, it doesn’t look so good.  Christ was harassed throughout His ministry by those who considered themselves to be the holy and upright people of God, He was plotted against, captured, falsely accused, beaten and tortured, falsely convicted, and finally nailed to a cross and left to die.  And yet, He says that He is honored by His Father.

Christ’s honor is found in things that don’t look like honor to us.  He doesn’t do what He does to get praise from men.  His service is selfless.  He shows Himself to be God, not by power and majesty, but by hanging from a cross.  The true honor that belongs to the Son of God is not found in being high or exalted, but in showing selfless love for His creatures.  God is, after all, love.  He is the creator, the one who made and provides for us, even those who ignore and reject Him.  His very identity is one of love and self-sacrificial service.  And there is no greater example of self-sacrificial service than giving up one’s life for the salvation of everyone else.  And so Christ’s honor is to be found in what look like the dishonorable and horrifying events of Good Friday.  That is how we see Christ’s honor.  In His death for our sins.

Here is the answer for us who are constantly seeking honor for ourselves but always finding that we come up short and that others get the honor we think we deserve, who by the very act of looking out for our own reputations make ourselves look that much worse in the eyes, not only of those around us, but of God.  He has taken our sins and our guilt away from us and put them on Jesus Christ.  We are honored, not because of ourselves, but because He took our sin upon Himself and put us in His honorable place.  We are declared innocent, not because we have been innocent, but because Someone else was declared guilty in our place.  Our justification, is not in what we do, or how well we argue our case and try to make ourselves look good.  Our justification is in the fact that Christ has borne our punishment and given us His righteousness.

And so, when your conscience accuses you of sin, or when others around you accuse you of some fault or some sin or some mistake, what is your response?  The natural response of our old sinful selves is to try to defend ourselves, to get angry and bitter.  But the response Christ enables us to make is to confess our sin, our fault, our blame for whatever it is that happened.  The response of Christ Himself was to suffer instead of trying to vindicate himself, because He knew that His Father would vindicate Him.  Our response to our sinfulness and our guilt is to confess rather than trying to make ourselves look good, because, “If we confess our sins God is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  Our honor is not found in ourselves but in the forgiveness which is ours through Jesus Christ.  Our justification is found in His innocent suffering and death, and it is proclaimed in His glorious resurrection.  Our declaration of innocence is found in the words, “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  Just as Christ’s honor came from above, from God, so also our honor comes from above for the sake of Christ to Whom we belong.  If we try to honor ourselves, our honor is nothing.  It is our heavenly Father who honors us, by forgiving us our sins and granting us the gifts of eternal life.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Pentecost, Series C

Sermon on John 14:23-31
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
May 19, 2013 (Day of Pentecost)

Right before Jesus spoke the words in our Gospel lesson for this morning, one of His disciples had asked Him a question.  And it’s an important question for understanding what this particular day in the Church Year is all about.  Judas (we usually call him and the letter he wrote “Jude” to distinguish him from Judas Iscariot) had asked Jesus, “Lord, how is it that You will manifest Yourself to us, and not to the world?”  It’s a good question, especially for those of us who are confronted daily with the unbelief of the world around us.  It would be so much easier if God could give us some physical, observable sign that He is with us, protecting and watching over us, forgiving our sins and giving us life and salvation.  It would be so much less stressful to be a Christian if the existence of God and His lordship over the world and over the Church were something that were easily observable to all men rather than being something that is an article of faith.  Now, to be sure, the existence of the world itself is powerful evidence for the existence of some sort of intelligent Designer, and one must perform some pretty amazing leaps of logic and philosophy to believe that it came about by any sort of random process.  But believing in the existence of some sort of an intelligent designer is a far cry from believing in the Triune God who not only made us but sustains and upholds us, even to the point of sending His own Son to die on the cross and rise again so that we can be saved and live forever with Him.  You can’t get the specifics of the Christian faith as we Lutherans confess it from natural observation.  And so Jude’s question, about Christ revealing Himself only to believers and not to everybody, is very pertinent.

Jesus’ response is that only those who love Him are ready to receive Him.  We can see this, of course, from what happened to Jesus during His earthly life, and especially what would happen only a few hours after the conversation recorded here took place, as Jesus was arrested, falsely tried, and executed for claiming to be what He really was, the Son of God.  It is only by the Holy Spirit’s power that sinful, self-centered hearts, which is what all of us are by nature, are transformed into those who love God and their neighbor.  The natural man rejects the things of God even when God makes it perfectly plain and obvious what the real situation is.  And so there’s no point for Him to make it blatant and obvious to the world.  Even if the world is forced to admit that, yes, God exists, and, yes, He made everything, and, yes, He has the authority to set up certain laws for His creatures for their own good, the natural heart of man will still not accept the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the source of our salvation and the center of our relationship with Him.  Only the Holy Spirit can bring that into a person’s heart.  The natural man will constantly look to his own works to find some sort of evidence that God is pleased with him.

Now, of course it’s true that in various times and places God has done things that make it perfectly plain and obvious that there’s something unusual going on.  The events which took place on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2 are a primary example of this.  But notice that it was not the sound of the mighty wind or the tongues of flame, or even the fact that the disciples spoke in various languages they had not previously learned, that caused those who witnessed these events to become Christians.  It was the Word of God, of Law and Gospel, both spoken and in watery form through Holy Baptism, which caused 3,000 people to become Christians that day.  That’s the Holy Spirit’s true activity.  Preaching the Word of God, both in spoken form, and in the forms in which it is attached to the visible elements of Baptism and Holy Communion.  Jesus Himself says it.  “The Helper will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.”  The Holy Spirit is to be found in the Word.  That is how Christ will be revealed to believers but not to unbelievers.  He is present, by the Holy Spirit’s power, in the Word of God, and so He comes to those who receive it in faith.

But that still puts us in what seems like it should be a rather uncomfortable position.  After all, we preach as being absolutely true a message for which we have no visible, physical evidence other than the a series of events that happened almost 2,000 years ago, and the interpretation of those events given by the apostles in their writings.  A message which tells us that all men are, not just prone to mistakes, but sinful, self-centered and corrupt from their very conception, and in need of salvation solely by a gift of God: that message is offensive to human pride.  A message which tells us that our salvation does come solely by a free gift of God and not from anything that we can do for Him: that message is even more offensive to human pride.  The message that we hear from the Word, the message we are to confess to our friends and neighbors, is offensive to those around us.  Worse, it is offensive to our own hearts according to the old sinful nature.  That we are to preach and confess this message without any visible or tangible evidence of its truthfulness seems like an intolerable burden.  It’s no wonder that the disciples were upset that Jesus would no longer be with them visibly as He was before.  The task they were being given was simply too great for them.

That’s the other side of today’s message about the Holy Spirit.  He works through His Word and Sacraments, even though we cannot see or feel evidence of His work.  He converts us, and those who hear us, despite the fact that we cannot do it on our own.  And so we don’t need to worry about it.  God’s Word will not return to Him void.  It will accomplish the purpose for which He sends it.  Certainly we do need to be intentional about confessing our faith to our friends and neighbors; we are, after all, in the midst of a war against the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh, all of which would rather we just kept our mouths firmly shut about this message of salvation and eternal life.  And we do need to be intentional about making sure that the Word is preached accurately, because the Holy Spirit doesn’t work through messages that are corruptions or falsifications of God’s Word.  It’s the devil himself that pretends to be the Holy Spirit when the message strays from Christ-centered, cross-focused preaching. But the point is, we aren’t the ones who are doing the real work when we confess our faith to our friends and neighbors.  God the Holy Spirit is.  And so we need not worry about the seemingly insurmountable obstacles which face us.  To God those obstacles in our hearts, and the hearts of those around us, are as nothing.  He made us.  He can remake us.  And He has done so in water, absolution, preaching, and in His Son’s own body and blood.  That’s the work of the Holy Spirit.  That’s how Christ reveals Himself to us and not to the world.  He does reveal Himself to the world, but he does so one at a time, by making them part of us through the Spirit’s activity in His Word.  The world does not know Him, but those whom the Spirit comes through the Word to are no longer of the world.  We love Him, and so He will take us to be with Him forever. Not as the world gives does Christ give peace to you.  Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Sunday after Ascension, Series C

Sermon on John 17:20-26
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
May 12, 2013 (Sunday after Ascension)

While I was at the Seminary, one of my classmates told me that when he was in grade school he used to hate Ascension Day.  He used to hate the idea that after everything that Jesus and His disciples had been through together, including His whole ministry, His death, and His return from the dead, after all that, Jesus would leave them alone.  Why would He do that?  It doesn’t seem fair.  It doesn’t seem right.  The disciples deserved to have Him around to guide and encourage them as they set about the task of building the new Christian Church which Christ wanted them to build.  But instead He leaves and ascends into heaven.  As this friend of mine grew up, and as he learned more about the Christian faith, he of course realized that Jesus didn’t leave on Ascension Day.  He was no longer visible to them with their human eyes, but He was still there.  After all, He was seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, and that means that He filled the whole creation.  He was with the disciples, and with us, in a way that is even more wonderful than His physical, visible presence on earth.  He, who is both God and Man, is glorified in heaven and with us on earth at the same time.  We who have been baptized into Him have Him dwelling within us constantly as we live out our lives in immersed in our baptismal grace; and that baptismal life is nourished as we hear Him speak to us in the proclamation of the Word, and we receive Him into ourselves through the Sacrament of the Altar.  He who is raised to God’s right hand is our brother, our fellow human being, and at the same time He is with us.  That means that where He is, we are there as well.

Christ describes this glorious reality in our text for today.  This text, by the way, is part of the great “high priestly prayer” which Christ prays on Maundy Thursday, on the way out to Gethsemane.  Before He suffered in our behalf, He prayed for us.  None of us, of course, were alive during Jesus’ earthly life.  We are those who, in His words to Thomas, have not seen and yet have believed.  We are the ones Jesus prays for in this section of the prayer, who believe through the word proclaimed by the apostles.  He prays that we may be one with each other and with Him, even as He is one with the Father.  He prays that we might be with Him where He is, and that we might behold His glory.  He prays that the love with which the Father loves the Son may extend to us as well.  He prays, in other words, that we might join Christ in His heavenly existence, that we might partake of the life of the Godhead Himself.

When Christ ascended into heaven, He showed to His apostles, and through their Word to us as well, that these things He prayed for have come true for us.  You see, where He is there we are as well, because He is part of us, and we are part of Him.  He is part of us, because He took upon Himself a human nature when He was born of the Virgin Mary.  We are part of Him because we were baptized into Him and have received His Word and His body and blood, and we have been nourished by Him as branches are nourished by the vine.  Where He is, there we are as well.  He is united with the Father, and we are united with Him, and through Him, with the Father.  He is glorified, and we are also glorified with Him.  He is loved by the Father, and we are loved with Him.  Of course, Christ was at the Father’s right hand all along; He was ruling the world all along; He was glorified all along; He was in the Father’s love all along, even while He was walking around here on earth.  But what happens in the ascension is Christ shows us that these things are true of Him also according to His human nature, and that because these things are true of Him as man, mankind shares in them.  We share in them.  In the words of our hymn of the day, “He has raised our human nature On the clouds to God’s right hand; There we sit in heavenly places, There with Him in glory stand.  Jesus reigns, adored by angels; Man with God is on the throne.  By our mighty Lord’s ascension We by faith behold our own.”

But as we think about that, as we think about the fact that we are with Christ where He is at the Father’s right hand, that we share in the love of the Father and behold Christ’s glory, this raises a question.  Do we show forth to the world around us that this glorious reality is true of us?  Does the world know through us that the Father sent Christ and that Christ has sent us?  That’s one of the things Christ prays for in this text.  Does the world know that we are perfectly united as one in Him?  Or does the world see the Church as just another human organization, full of silly fights and arguments and petty grudges and pride?  Putting it more personally, has your selfishness, your sinfulness, and your pride contributed to the negative view the world around us has of the Church here in this place?

If we examine ourselves with this question in mind, we will see that, yes, it has.  I think we can all identify incidents in our life when our behavior has contributed to the poor view the world has of the Church.  Fortunately the unity which Christ brings to us, the love of the Father which He shares with us, and the knowledge of God which Christ declares to us, these things are stronger than our petty little sins.  The Church is one.  We confess this in the Creed: “I believe in one holy Christian and apostolic Church.”  Wherever Christ is, there His people are.  Even though because of false teachers we cannot always recognize the Church in some places, Christ knows where His sheep are, and He is present with them, just as He is present with us, and through Him we are all one.  This unity may be hidden from the world sometimes, but it is there.

By the way, some people have used this Gospel lesson to argue that all the different churches that are around, the Presbyterians, the Roman Catholics, the Methodists, the Orthodox, the Lutherans, and so on, ought to ignore their doctrinal differences and become one big denomination.  This isn’t what Jesus is saying.  All that would happen then would be that we would all be arguing with each other about doctrine inside one church structure, rather than between different church structures.  But we would all still be as divided as we ever were.  As far as I’m concerned, if we are going to be divided about doctrine, we might as well be honest about it and keep our churches separate as well.  Of course, on the other hand, we as a Synod ought always to be talking with the denominations around us to see if perhaps we can resolve some of the doctrinal differences that keep us apart from others.  Where divisions within congregations and even within and between denominations have been caused by the sins of pride and self-serving ambition, rather than by the reaction of Godly people against false teachers, there our text does convict the sinner and bring him to repentance.  But unity at the price of truth is no unity at all.  Instead of a false, superficial, external unity between religious denominations, this text talks about the true unity that is granted by Christ Himself through His forgiving and renewing presence by the power of the Holy spirit.

Christ didn’t leave His apostles alone when He ascended into heaven.  Instead He showed them that because He is always with us, and we are always with Him, that we too now partake of the Father’s love, the Son’s glory, and the unity which we have by the power of the Holy Spirit.  What He prayed for on Maundy Thursday before going out to Gethsemane was shown to be true on Ascension Day.  And now Christ comes to us.  As we daily drown our old Adam in the water of our Baptism so that a new man daily comes forth and arises to live before God in righteousness and purity forever, as we hear the proclamation of the Word of God and study and meditate upon that Word, and especially as we receive into our bodies the body and blood of Christ Himself, we are continuously united with Christ and the Father, and through them with all other Christians, not only those who are living, but also those who have passed on before us.  The God-Man who gave up His life for us now unites us with Himself and with one another through His own body and blood.  This is why the Sacrament of the Altar is called “Holy Communion,” because not only is it a communion, a fellowship, between the bread and the body, and between the wine and the blood, but also it is a fellowship between Christ and us, and through that Christ creates and sustains our fellowship with one another.  As you receive Christ’s body and blood today, you will be showing to the world that you are one with Christ and that we are one with each other through Him, and that we recognize that unity in our common confession of the true doctrine.  We eat and drink of Christ and so be joined to the love and the fellowship of the Holy Trinity.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Easter 6, Series C

Sermon on John 16:23-33
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
May 5, 2013 (Sixth Sunday of Easter)

Prayer is something that I suspect we as Christians all too often forget about.  When we experience troubles in life, do we always take time to pray about them?  Or do we spend that time worrying and fretting and hoping that maybe we ourselves will be able to figure out a way out of our problem.  When things aren’t going well for us or our friends and neighbors, it sometimes can seem like a waste of time to pray to God concerning the problem, time which can be better spent trying to help out or find a way to fix things.

But on the other hand, I suspect that we are still more likely to pray when things are going badly for us than when things are going well.  Many people will eventually start at least trying to talk to God when things get bad enough.  But even the most upright Christian often forgets to talk to God if things are going well for him.  He forgets to thank God for the blessings he has received from Him, and only remembers to talk to Him if things are going badly.

But praying to God is something that He commands us to do.  The Second Commandment tells us not to take the name of the Lord our God in vain.  Luther explains this commandment this way: “We should fear and love God so that we do not curse, swear, use satanic arts, lie, or deceive by His name, but call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.”  Note that we are commanded to call upon God’s name in trouble, to pray, to praise, and to give thanks.  If we don’t call on God’s name in prayer, both for help in trouble and in thanksgiving for our blessings, we are committing a serious sin.  We are committing a sin against the same commandment, believe it or not, as when people misuse God’s name by swearing or cursing or by using it in certain pagan rituals.  God has given us a great blessing by allowing us to come to Him in prayer.  Not to make use of that blessing is to reject it and thus to reject God.  To pray frequently is not just good advice.  It is simply God’s will for us that we do this.

But like all of the other provisions in God’s Law, there are other and better reasons to do it than simply the ominous threat that God’s gonna get us if we don’t.  That threat is really only supposed to be used on the most hard-hearted and stubborn unrepentant individuals, though it can also be useful to us too during those times when our old sinful natures are tempting us to be downright lazy.  For a Christian, prayer, like worship, like reading God’s Word, like taking Holy Communion, is something we do frequently because we get to, not because we have to; because we regard it as a great privilege, not because we’ll get into trouble if we don’t; because we really can talk directly to the creator of everything, not because He’ll punish us if we don’t.  This great privilege is what Jesus speaks of in today’s Gospel.

Now, this is a privilege that we would not have if Jesus had stayed with His disciples and not gone on through the cross and resurrection to the ascension.  If Christ had not died and rose again for our justification, we would have no access to God.  We would still be dead in trespasses and sins, and anything we might say to God would be just as offensive to Him as our old, corrupt, hostile-to-God sinful selves were before we were converted.  It is only because of Christ’s perfect sacrifice on our behalf, His covering us with the white robe of His righteousness, and His pleading with the Father on our behalf that we are able to pray to God.  If it weren’t for these things our prayers simply wouldn’t be heard.  If it weren’t for Christ’s blood which cleanses us from all sin, the only response we would get for our prayers would be His wrath.  But fortunately Christ did die for us and rise again and ascend into heaven to plead for us at the Father’s right hand.  And so we can pray to Him in our trials, our fears, and our needs.  We can appreciate and thank Him for the many blessings we receive, both the blessings of this life and, more importantly, the blessings of this next life which we receive even now in His Word and His body and blood.  The fact that Jesus promises that His Father will hear our prayer is another piece of comfort that shows us the love He has for us that caused Him to give up His Son, and His Son to give up His life, for our salvation.

And God does hear our prayers.  That’s another thing to keep in mind here.  Jesus promises that what we ask in His name, the Father will give to us.  This doesn’t mean that anything we ask for we will automatically get.  It means that the Father will provide what is best for us and, just as a parent likes to have his children ask for the things that he is going to give them anyway, so also the Father wants us to bring to Him what is on our hearts and minds.  Doing so is a confession of faith that He is the one who can and does give us every blessing of body and soul.  When we pray in Jesus’ name we aren’t praying based on our own thoughts about what is best for us.  We are praying based on God’s promises.  That’s why when we pray for things that God hasn’t specifically promised, we usually say, “But Thy will be done.”  When we pray for things that He has not promised to us, no matter how good and necessary those things seem to us at the time, we need to realize that He knows what’s best for us.  And if we are basing our faith on whether or not God does what we want Him to do, we have a false faith, because it means we are in charge.  In other words, to pray in Jesus’ name means that what we pray for is conformed to God’s will and not the other way around.  That’s why Jesus can promise that whatever we ask in His name, the Father will give to us.  As we continue to grow up in the faith and be nourished by God’s Word, our prayers will indeed be more and more reflections of God’s promises rather than our own ideas about what’s good and right.  They will become more and more confessions of God’s Word and less expressions of our own personal notions and ideas.

And the ultimate prayer is of course that we can be with God and He with us.  This is the most basic desire of every human being.  That’s why even the mass of humanity that is in rebellion against the true God needs to find some sort of a god to worship, some sort of a false religion to follow.  But this most basic prayer, that God would be with us and be merciful and gracious towards us, He has fulfilled in sending His Son.  He fulfilled it by sending His Son to die on the cross.  He fulfilled it in raising Him from the grave, and by sending His Holy Spirit through the Word and His body and blood to sustain and guide us.  Our prayers that God would be with us are fulfilled in the most real and concrete way when we receive His Son’s body and blood in our physical mouths in, with, and under the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper.  God is fulfilling our prayers here today.  Let us thank and praise Him, for He is gracious to us.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +