Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Son Sets You Free

Sermon on John 8:31-36
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
October 27, 2013 (The Festival of the Reformation)

In the Bible, the sort of slavery that is being talked about is different from the brutal racially-based slavery which most Western nations, including our own, imposed on  those who were forcibly brought from Africa, in which slaves were often prohibited from being taught to read and write, and were only to do the most menial of labor.  In ancient times, a slave was usually treated, not as an animal, but as an important part of the household. The pedagogues, those who taught the master’s children, were slaves, and to do that they needed to be educated men themselves.  The household steward, who kept the books and was responsible for seeing to it that contracts were kept and bills were paid, was a slave.  Slaves of the king often had a considerable amount of authority, because a king’s household includes his entire nation.  Joseph was Pharaoh’s slave, but in Pharaoh’s name he ruled Egypt and was singlehandedly responsible for the survival of Egypt as well as many other nearby areas, including Canaan, during a famine.  Daniel was Nebuchadnezzar’s slave, but he was also his most trusted confidant and, in fact, ruled the entire Babylonian Empire when Nebuchadnezzar went insane.  The word slave had a very different meaning in most ancient cultures than it did a couple of centuries ago in Europe and in other lands settled by Europeans, including the United States.

The primary similarities between ancient slaves and the more recent racist forms of slavery, however, were that the slave was not free to leave and seek other employment, and he would never be considered an heir of anything in the household (except in the rare case where the head of the household was childless and adopted a slave as his own, as almost happened in the case of Abraham before Ishmael and Isaac were born).  It is those two aspects of slavery, in particular, which Jesus speaks of in today’s text.

If you’re a slave, you can’t leave.  That’s what sin does to you.  You can’t leave.  You may be able to overcome one particular sinful action, and that’s a good thing.  But there is nothing you can do about your underlying sinful condition.  Very often, conquering one sinful behavior makes you enslavement to sin worse, because it leads to the sin of pride.  You’ve done a good thing in overcoming a habitual sin, and, hey, that means you’re a pretty good person, right?  Well, thinking you’re a pretty good person makes it harder for you to see yourself as a poor, miserable sinner.  Now, of course, I’m not saying that we should be careless about our various pet sins.  Sin hurts our neighbor, and so changing our behavior is necessary in order to serve our neighbor in love.  But it doesn’t help our underlying condition, it only masks the symptoms.  And because the symptoms are masked, you no longer think you need any help.  You end up willingly participating in slavery.  As the Jews said, we have never been slaves of anyone!  Ironically, that statement itself proves just how deeply enslaved these men were.  (Not to mention that it’s factually untrue.  Egypt, the Philistines, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome had all held the Israelites captive at one time or another.  But I digress.)

The condition of slavery in ancient times was actually not very different from the situation of the master’s children.  Children also are not free to leave, and while they remain children they cannot benefit from their inheritance.  The difference, however, is that children eventually grow up and can choose their own way in life, and when their parents die their money and possessions become theirs.  A slave may in some cases be loved as dearly as a child, and in many cases he will be as educated and capable as the master’s own sons and daughters, but he will never inherit the estate.  He will still be treated as if he were a child his whole life, and he will die in that status.  He will never be given the freedom and the authority that comes with growing into adulthood.

As far as God’s kingdom goes, our slavery to sin excludes us from becoming heirs.   In fact, we’re rebellious children who have run after another master.  We who were children in God’s household rebelled as if we were mere slaves, as if God’s discipline were mere punishment rather than being intended as a learning and growing experience, and so we ran away to serve other masters.  Freedom is not freedom if you become dependent upon someone or something else, and that’s what happened to humanity: the sons, by rejecting their Father’s discipline, became easy prey for sin, death, and the devil.  Children who would have become heirs, became slaves with no hope of freedom.

And so the true heir of the Kingdom, the one who is God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, became a slave for us.  He chose the path that would lead Him right into our enslavement.  He had everything, because as the Word of the Father, He is the Heir of the Father’s glory and love.  And yet He willingly stooped down, taking on the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men, and became obedient (like a slave) unto death, even death upon a cross.

But the Son of God Himself cannot be a slave by definition.  And so the chains were broken, the walls knocked over, and the prisoners were released.  Only the one who has the authority that comes from the Father Himself can declare slaves to be, not only free men, but heirs of the Kingdom.

The problem, however, is that our slavery to sin, death, and the devil is a tricky thing.  It actually looks like freedom, at least at first.  And to those who have managed to get good at hiding their sin, it is extremely deceptive.  The idea that we can spiritually control our own destiny and earn our own freedom is what led those who were enslaved to sin to become Pharisees during Jesus’ day, monks or buyers of indulgences in Luther’s day, and pietists (those who measure their closeness to God by their own devotion to Him rather than by what He has done for them) in our own day.  But it’s all an illusion.  It’s like decorating a prison cell with wallpaper and fragrant flowers so that we don’t have to see the bars or smell the stench of unwashed prisoners, and using lots of spices, the good china, and decorative sprigs of parsley to distract ourselves from the fact that gruel is the main dish.

It’s only the Son, the Heir, who can share His inheritance with us.  And that’s what He does.  Instead of letting us fool ourselves about our own status by hiding our chains from ourselves, He breaks them.  Instead of allowing us to cover up the stench of our sin with perfumes and flowers, He washes us clean.  And instead of allowing us to pretend that the gruel isn’t so bad, He feeds us with the finest wheat and the best wine, that of His own body and blood.  The Son has sent his messengers to tell you that you are free, and that you are welcome back home.  You are free, indeed.  Amen.

+Soli Deo Gloria+

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Patient Widow

Sermon on Luke 18:1-8
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
October 6, 2013 (Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost)

The church is the bride of Christ.  She has as her adversary the devil.  She keeps pleading that the Judge would give her justice against her adversary.  And yet, the Bridegroom, the Judge of all the earth, seems to take way too long to show up and defeat him.  It almost seems as if her husband isn’t even there and that she’s left as a widow.  And justice isn’t something that is easily found in this world.  Everyone in this old world is corrupted by sin and therefore there is no such thing as justice under the sun.  Even what seems like justice may be the exact opposite, as criminals go free and the innocent are jailed or even put to death, all because judges and juries and witnesses make mistakes, and some of them are even corrupt, such as the judge in today’s parable.

That judge seems like an unlikely stand-in for Christ in this parable, and in one sense he isn’t.  His reason for giving the widow justice is, of course, the complete opposite of the reason why the true Judge will give justice to His bride, the Church.  He only wants the woman to go away so that he can get some rest.  He doesn’t care about her or about her adversary.  He’s being completely selfish and just wants to put the whole thing behind him, so that this annoying widow will leave him alone.

But isn’t that how we are tempted to think about our Lord?  Isn’t that how the world describes Him?  After all, if He’s really able to do anything, how can he let evil and injustice go on for so long?  Why doesn’t he directly intervene to rescue His people when the unscrupulous and evil take advantage of them, mock them, and even persecute them?  If there really is an almighty God, how can He let Christians be martyred for their faith?  Why doesn’t He stop all the injustice?  Why does the Church so often look like a widow here on earth, poor, lonely, and neglected?  If He really is God, why doesn’t He save us from everything that plagues us in this damaged, deranged, messed up world?  If He really is the Son of God, why doesn’t He even come down from the cross and save Himself?

Well, that’s the point, isn’t it?  There are two, and only two, ways of dealing with the problem of sin in the world.  He can either destroy it with a wave of His hand, or He can allow it to kill Him.  To wipe out injustice and evil by His sheer power would not give justice to His bride who begs Him day and night.  To wipe out injustice and evil by His sheer power would destroy everything He has made, and especially His bride, whom He loves.  And so He takes the harder road.  He allows the evil and the injustice and the sin of the world to destroy Him.  He who is perfect is treated like a common criminal.  He who by definition cannot die, dies.  He becomes the victim of the unjust judge.

And so we really shouldn’t lose heart, because our praying and begging day and night that He would come and give us justice against our adversary is heard.  Many have given up praying to Him, because to all the world it looks like we are talking to a brick wall rather than the almighty Creator of heaven and earth.  It’s tempting to give up.  It’s tempting to look for other messages, that have to do with this life, rather than wait patiently for eternity, and go after preachers who scratch their itching ears by giving them good advice rather than the good news.  Many of these have even done so in the name of “evangelism.”  By the way, when St. Paul says “Do the work of an evangelist,” that really should be translated “Do the work of a Gospel preacher,” which is to say, “Do the work of a preacher of the good news of the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation,” not, “Get every warm body you can inside the church building by giving them whatever message they want to hear.”

Because of all these pressures, probably every Christian out there has, in fact, given up praying for a time.  Even the eleven disciples couldn’t watch with Him for even one hour in Gethsemane, and so it shouldn’t surprise us if we give up at times too.  But our praying is heard.  Our bridegroom’s prayer was heard.  On the cross, He cried out “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”  But this wasn’t only a cry of anguish and despair.  It’s the opening line of Psalm 22, a psalm which sounds like despair, but halfway through changes to joy and resurrection.

We know that our prayer is heard because our Bridegroom’s prayer to His Father was heard.  We know that our salvation is coming because we too were crucified with Him and rose with Him from the dead, by the power of water and the Word.  It’s not just the historical facts of what Jesus did that comforts us here.  It’s that we ourselves became participants in those events through water and the Word.  It’s that we already feast at His marriage banquet.  It’s that we ourselves are already participants in the judge’s righteous verdict.  The Holy Christian Church, who looks like a widow, begging for deliverance from a judge who seems uncaring and far off, is really the bride of Christ, who has been joined with Him in the blessings of eternity.  And the Judge Himself, rather than being far away and uncaring, is here in our midst, giving us, the Church, His own crucified and risen body and blood as the guarantee that He will come and take us to be with Him forever.  Amen.

+Soli Deo Gloria+

Saturday, October 12, 2013

LWML Sunday

Sermon on Luke 24:44-53
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
October 13, 2013 (LWML Sunday)

There are some words that we use both in a church context and a secular context, and we think of very different things depending the context in which the word is used.  One such word is witness.  When someone uses that word in a church context, we usually tend to think of it as a synonym for evangelism, going out and telling people about Jesus.  And that meaning is what has developed from passages like today’s text, where Jesus tells the apostles that they will be His witnesses.  After all, the preaching of the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation through Jesus’ death and resurrection is what Jesus says they will be doing, and it’s what the Church is still to be about today, and so the word witness really does refer to our proclamation and confession of what happened on that cross and that tomb outside Jerusalem nearly 2,000 years ago, and what it means for us sinners and our relationship to our creator.

But when we hear that word in a secular context, we usually think of something different: a courtroom.  Witnesses are called in to tell the court what they saw, so that the judge and jury can make an informed decision about what happened.  Usually it refers to people who saw or heard the events in question with their own eyes and ears, though sometimes it can simply refer to someone who has knowledge or expertise regarding some aspect of what is alleged to have happened.  In this sense of the word, witnessing simply means that you’ve seen or heard something, and you’re willing to talk about it.

When Jesus was talking to the apostles, the first New Testament pastors, right before His ascension, He was actually using the word in the sense of witnesses in a courtroom.  The eleven had literally seen Jesus crucified, they had seen Him alive again, and watched Him ascend into heaven immediately after He had spoken these words.  They were to testify (sometimes literally in court!) concerning what they had personally seen and heard regarding the basic facts of Christianity: God the Son became man, died bearing the guilt of our sins, and was raised for our justification, and therefore we too, though we die to this old world, will one day rise again to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.

Now, here’s the question: since we were born close to 2,000 years later, and we didn’t see His death and resurrection with our physical eyes, can we really call ourselves witnesses?  After all, we’re the ones Jesus is talking about when He says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”  Can we really count ourselves as His witnesses?  Or is that a word that is only reserved for the apostles and not to the generations to come?

Well, here’s the thing.  God’s Word is no ordinary word.  It doesn’t just describe things, it creates what it declares.  The reason God can’t lie is because His Word is Truth by definition.  What that means is that when He says something that isn’t yet true, reality itself conforms itself to what He says.  And that means that when God’s Word says that we are crucified and risen with Him, it’s true.  And as that Word is proclaimed down through the ages, heard by Christians and then confessed by them to those they meet, it’s not mere hearsay.  The Word does what it says.  Which means that the salvation accomplished by Jesus on the cross is our salvation, His death is our death, and His resurrection is our life.  It really happened to us, and therefore we also are His eyewitnesses.  Even under persecution and the threat of death, Christians testify faithfully what they have seen and heard by becoming dead to their sins and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

And so, witnessing is not about us.  When someone is on the witness stand, he’s not supposed to talk about how he felt about the events he describes, or what those events did for him personally, he’s simply supposed to describe the events themselves.  What those events mean to him personally doesn’t help anybody decide a court case.  The facts (to quote detective Friday), are what matters.  In other words, witnesses are supposed to be objective, not subjective.  And that’s true of Christian witnessing as well.  It’s not about how our own lives have been changed or how we feel about Jesus, it’s all about what He did for us in order to bring us out of sin and death to eternal life.

And so, its the objective report, the objective description, of what Jesus did for us that forms the content of our witness.  But it is precisely through that report, that testimony that the Holy Spirit works.  God’s Word really does do what it says.  Even today, when His Word is proclaimed from the pulpit and confessed by Christians wherever they may be, the Word creates in its hearers the reality of repentance from sin and faith toward God.  And, because we ourselves are sinners, it’s the power of the Word itself, not any power within ourselves, that does the converting.  The Holy Spirit Himself makes His hearers into those who can report concerning what they have seen and heard.

That’s simply what Christians do.  They testify concerning what they have seen and heard.  It’s what we do every Sunday morning as we say and sing back to God and to one another what He first spoke to us.  It’s what we do when, in our natural conversations with our friends and neighbors, the subject of our faith becomes the topic of conversation and we get the opportunity to tell the good news of what Jesus did for them as well.  And it’s what we do in more organized fashion when the Church sends missionaries and pastors out to preach that Word publicly.  It’s what we do when we support those missionaries in various ways, using the time, talents, and treasure He has given each of us.  In our own church body, the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League has been a very successful organization at organizing and focusing that support, not to mention encouraging and assisting its own members to testify when and where the opportunity arises to the great things they’ve seen and heard concerning Jesus’ death and resurrection.  This is a valuable service which has promoted in many, many ways the witness to Jesus Christ throughout the world, and we certainly give thanks for everything that has been accomplished by means of this organization.

But, even though it is a good thing to recognize and thank God for what He has done through this and other organizations, the testimony itself is not about us.  It’s not about what we may have done for the kingdom.  It’s not even about what the LWML has done for the kingdom, or the Cross and Crown Society.  It’s about what God does for us in sending Jesus to die and rise again, in washing us clean from our sins by joining us to that death and resurrection, and in giving us His own body to eat and His blood to drink.  That’s what we testify.  That’s what God proclaims through us.  That’s what the Word does, as we witness, as we testify, what happened to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

+Soli Deo Gloria+

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Mulberry Tree and the Tree of Life

Sermon on Luke 17:1-10
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
October 6, 2013 (Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost)

Do you want God to thank you for everything you’ve done for Him?  Do you want a compliment from Him for all the great things you’re doing in His service?  Do you think that God will reward you for how you’ve consecrated yourself to Him?  It won’t work.  Everything you’re doing is already something that is your duty.  In fact, we haven’t even lived up to our duty.  Even the thought that we can do anything that will impress Him is itself a failure to do our duty.  It’s a selfish thought, and selfishness is not service to God.  It’s tempting, though, to think that something we do, especially if it has to do with our outward association with churchly things, sets us apart from the rest of those who just go to church on Sunday morning and do “secular” things the rest of the week.  It’s tempting to think, like the Roman church does, that there are such things as “works of supererogation,” or works that are done over and above what God requires in His law.  Of course, we formally reject that theology, but the temptation is still there to think of our works as better than someone else’s work.

The fact is, though, that no matter how well we do our work, whether inside or outside the church, no matter whether professional or volunteer, we are only doing our duty.  Everyone serves God whatever he does.  I preach here on Sunday morning and visit the sick and shut in, but five days a week, for eight hours a day, I also serve God by being His hands to provide people with daily bread.  As the Catechism puts it, daily bread includes everything we need to support this body and life, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, and so on.  In our society, that also includes various computing and communication devices.  I am also a husband, a caretaker to 21 birds, a tenant in an apartment complex, a literal neighbor to my fellow tenants, a son, a nephew, an uncle, a brother, a friend, a licensed driver, and also many other things as well, depending on the situation.  These are all ways in which I serve God, and most of you could also come up with a list that is just as long, if not longer, of the many ways in which you also serve God in your various vocations.  In all of these things, God serves our neighbor, that is, everyone we encounter, through us, but He also expects perfection.  But there is no such thing as perfection for human beings, except Jesus.  We’re not earning any bonus points.  We’re not pleasing God by doing any of this stuff.  At best (and we are never at our best) – at best, we are only doing what is already our duty.

And so is your neighbor.  Your neighbor doesn’t serve you perfectly, either.  Your neighbor on the road might cut you off in traffic.  He might even collide with your car.    Your neighbor in church might get mad at you over some stupid misunderstanding, or even over a legitimate disagreement about things relating to a political or even doctrinal struggle within the congregation or the wider church.  Even if he happens to be right, he might let his anger get the better of him and say something that is uncharitable or even downright false.  Your neighbor up in the pulpit might say something that needlessly offends you, or he might fail to enunciate so that you can hear what he’s saying in the first place.  Your neighbor at your job might be lazy, causing you more work.  Your neighbor at home might let his dog poop on your lawn.  Your relatives might not always treat you nicely.  Your children might be rebellious.  And so on.  Nobody is perfect, which is why Jesus calls for an infinite amount of forgiveness.  He’s not just asking for us to forgive our neighbor seven times, and then he gets cut off.  He’s asking us to forgive our neighbor every time he sins, which is all the time.

But even in forgiving our neighbor, we never do it perfectly.  Even there we aren’t even doing our duty.  We hold grudges.  We remember how our neighbor has hurt us.  We are defensive.  We expect to be hurt again in the future.  In short, we don’t forgive.  And in failing to forgive, we fail to believe we are forgiven.  We don’t forgive because we don’t even trust that He has forgiven us.

And that’s what faith is, by the way.  It’s trust.  It’s not a thing within you that makes you capable of working miracles.  It’s also not something you can brag about, as if having a greater faith makes you better in God’s sight.  As I pointed out in my sermon on this text three years ago (the first sermon I preached at Holy Cross, by the way), this isn’t about the amount of faith.  It’s about the One in whom our faith trusts.  Even the smallest faith in the world, if that faith is in the One who can make mulberry trees not just plant themselves in the sea but even dance, if He wanted to, is enough to save us, because it’s not about the size of your faith, its about the One in whom you have faith, and what He is capable of.

But what He is about isn’t about silly things like making trees uproot themselves and walk around.  Instead of making a mulberry plant itself in the sea, He plants our cold, dead hearts in the water flowing from His side, making them bloom again with love toward Him and service to our neighbor.  Making a mulberry tree walk is nothing compared to what He did to the tree of the cross.  He hung from a dead tree, with the dead weight of our sins, infinitely more than a millstone, hanging around His neck.  But then He brought that dead tree to life in His resurrection, turning it into the tree of life, whose fruit, His body and blood, if a man eat of it, he shall live forever.  Instead of condemning us for our poor and lazy service to Him, He commends us as perfect and serves us the greatest meal of all.  Instead of holding a grudge against us, He forgives us, not just seven times, not just seventy-seven times, not just seven million times, but infinitely much and infinitely often.  Even though we are sinners, in other words, Christ died to save us.  Even though we are unworthy, He calls us worthy because Christ was worthy in our place.  Even though we are servants, He invites us to sit down at the banquet table where He is both host and meal, and partake in His feast of victory which has no end.  Amen.

+Soli Deo Gloria+