Saturday, January 25, 2014

Follow Me

Sermon on Matthew 4:12-25
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
January 26, 2013 (Third Sunday after Epiphany)

“Follow me,” says Jesus.  Of course, when Jesus said that, Simon, Andrew, James, and John were literally supposed to follow Him.  Jesus was physically walking around here on earth, and when He said “Follow Me,” it was an invitation to literally get up from what they were doing, and walk around with Him.  He went to specific places here on this earth, and they physically followed Him around.  Following Jesus in this way was a somewhat unique thing that could only happen because at that time in history, in that part of the world, Jesus was physically walking around and preaching.  At our point in history, however, Jesus doesn’t physically come walking (or driving) through Racine and say to any of us, “Follow Me,” and we put down whatever we are doing and, put on a warm coat, hat and gloves, and follow Him up Lathrop toward the McDonald’s on 16th or wherever.  Following Jesus in the literal sense we see in today’s Gospel lesson is something that just doesn’t belong to our time and place in history, because we live after the Ascension, and so His presence among us today is not a matter of Him walking around looking for all the world like an ordinary human being, but rather a matter of being present in, with, and other, His proclaimed Word, the water of Holy Baptism, and the bread and wine of Holy Communion.

But the words, “Follow Me,” weren’t the only things Jesus said here.  He also told these four men that they would become “fishers of men.”  His choice of words here was an obvious reference to what their daily vocation already was.  They were fishers of fish.  They served God by being His hands to provide His people with daily bread in the form of seafood.  Now Jesus was calling them to study and learn from Him so that their vocation of fisherman would become transformed so that instead of dragging the net through the water and pulling in the fish caught in it, they would drag the net of the Word through humanity and pull in those caught by it through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Both vocations are valuable, that of fisher of fish and fisher of men, but Jesus wanted these particular men to become the latter, even though they had been the former.  And by the way, they never completely stopped being fishers of fish, either.  It’s what they did to pass the time after Jesus’ resurrection while they were waiting for Him to appear to them in Galilee.  For that matter, when He and His disciples were supposed to pay the temple tax, it was a coin found in the mouth of a fish that Peter had caught which was used to pay the tax.  So, in that sense, they became fishers of men even though they were still fishers of fish as well.

As Christians, we do follow Jesus.  Yes, we often need to be reminded that following Him is simply what Christians do, but I think perhaps we tend to think of following Him as a good work that contributes somehow to our relationship with Him.  See, we obeyed Your command, we left everything behind to follow You!  The fact is, though, that following Him is not a good work but a reality that God creates into us when we become Christians.  We follow Jesus not so much by trying to be like Him, asking ourselves constantly what He would do in a particular situation (though that can sometimes be a helpful question as we wage the war going on within ourselves), but simply because God has put us to death and resurrected us in His image.

These four fishermen didn’t really know what Jesus was asking when He said, “Follow Me.”  Yes, He told them that they would “catch men,” but into what?  What were these people who would be caught being caught into?  What is the point of all this catching of men?

Jesus asked His disciples to follow Him to the cross.  He asked them to follow Him to what appeared to be the total destruction of His ministry, to witness their Lord, their Leader, their Teacher undergo the most brutal form of execution mankind has ever devised.  They followed Him so that they could witness Him undergoing nothing less than the torments of hell.  “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?”  In fact, they followed Him into their own deaths, as all of them but John were also executed for being Christ’s apostles and preaching Him.

But the death of God leads to resurrection.  That’s also where these men followed their Lord.  These four, especially, were among the first to witness the fact that the tomb was empty and that Jesus had risen again.  They saw the risen Lord face-to-face, and even ate fish with Him along the shores of the very same lake where today’s Gospel lesson takes place.  A man risen from the dead?  Impossible, we might say.  Impossible, they certainly would have said if they hadn’t seen it with their own eyes.  That’s what Jesus invited them to see, as well, when He asked them to follow Him.

But they didn’t just follow Him to see these things, they followed Him in undergoing these things.  And so did all of you.  As St. Paul points out in Romans 6, those who have been baptized into Christ have been baptized into His death, so that even as Christ is risen from the dead, we too may walk in newness of life.  Christ made you to follow Him before you were even aware of it, in most cases.  You followed Him through the cross to the empty tomb when you were baptized, so the life you now live, you live to God.  Jesus caused you to follow Him through death and resurrection already at the very beginning of your being a Christian.  That’s what being a follower of Jesus really means: you are one who died with Him and therefore has risen with Him.

So, what does Jesus do, right after He calls His first disciples to follow Him?  He heals the sick, drives out demons, makes the lame to walk and the blind to receive their sight, and so on.  And here is where the whole question of following Jesus and imitating Him would seem to break down.  We simply can’t do miracles the way He can.  God simply hasn’t given anybody the gift of being able to heal at will.  Yes, miraculous healings can and do still happen, but no human on earth can command these sorts of things to happen just by saying so, or even by praying so.  And so we might well ask what “following Jesus” means when it comes to feeding the hungry, healing the sick, clothing the naked, and so on.  Well, we can’t do these things miraculously, but we can (and do!) do them all the time.  God’s people pray every day for daily bread.  And every legitimate job in the entire economy is part of the process by which God’s people get daily bread.  Healings happen all the time.  Usually it’s medical knowledge and technology on the part of doctors and other caregivers, rather than miracles, but the sick are healed.  “Following Jesus” when it comes to alleviating the many and various problems caused by original sin, does not mean that we have to devote our lives to the Church as an institution.  What it does mean, is that everything we do is done as those who are already risen again with Christ and who therefore are free to do whatever we do as a loving service to our neighbor and a small picture to him of that place where hunger, thirst, sin, and sorrow, will never afflict us again.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Lamb of God Takes Away the Sin of the World

Sermon on John 1:29-42
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
January 19, 2013 (Second Sunday after Epiphany)

“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”  Sitting here almost 2,000 years later, this confession on the part of John the Baptizer may sound very ordinary.  Of course Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  We sing that every Sunday during the Communion liturgy.  We’ve known that since we were little.  Jesus is the Messiah promised in the Old Testament.  Jesus is the one who will take all our sins to the cross and die for them so that we can be forgiven.  There’s nothing new here.  We know this.

Well, at the time, it was a very bold statement.  Israel’s entire history, going back not just to Moses, not just to Abraham, but all the way back to Adam and Eve, had been for the purpose of bringing forth the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed one, the Seed of the Woman who would crush the serpent’s head.  And so for John to point to this man, coming toward him, and say that he is the Seed of the Woman promised all the way back in Genesis 3, is an extremely bold and controversial thing to say.  But John does know whereof he speaks.  The Hebrew word messiah and the Greek word christ both mean the same thing: anointed one.  And, as we mentioned last week, God the Father and God the Holy Spirit testified that this guy really is the promised one.  God the Father calls Him His Son, and the Holy Spirit remains on him, the way anointing oil in those days would normally remain on someone who had taken a bath.  And so John has no doubt that his outlandish and controversial statement is true.  Jesus is the Anointed One, the Christ, the Messiah.  He’s the Lamb of God.

Another thing I suspect we don’t always think about here is that Jesus, the Lamb of God, takes away the sin of the world.  Very often our focus is on the specific sins we have committed, and the fact that Christ’s death on the cross covers those specific thoughts, words, and deeds, especially the ones we happen to remember and feel bad about that particular week.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with that, but there is a bigger picture here.  Firstly, it’s not just specific sins that the Lamb of God takes away.  He takes away sin, singular, rather than sins, plural.  Yes, that means that each of our specific sinful thoughts, words, and deeds is covered by His righteousness, and yes, that’s a great comfort to us as we feel the weight of God’s Law pressing down upon us who have failed to follow it.  But the specific sins of which we are ashamed are not the issue.  They are mere symptoms, not the disease itself.  Sin is the disease, and it sets us up as enemies of God and allies of nobody but our own selves even before we are capable of thinking, speaking, or doing any sinful things.  It is the disease that rots us to our very core, so that even when we try our best not to do sinful stuff, our focus is still on ourselves and how righteous we think we’ve been, which is itself a sin of pride and a violation of the First Commandment.  It is that sin, singular, rather than mere sins, plural, that the Lamb of God takes away.

But there’s an even bigger picture here.  The Lamb of God takes away not just my sin, or even our sin, but the sin of the world.  That means everybody.  It means your neighbor.  It means the guy that cut you off in traffic, the student who refused to pay attention in class, the joker who only pretends to work while he’s on the clock, the neighbor who plays his music too loud, the boss who is too hard on you, the policeman who pulls you over and not that maniac who just sped past you like you were standing still, and so on.  The Lamb of God died for their sin, too.  He died for everybody’s sin.

But let’s pull the camera back still further.  The Greek word that’s translated “world” here is cosmos.  With our telescopes and other instruments, we can see how big and how wonderful a creation this is.  We look around us with our own eyes and see the beauty of the flowers, the trees, the glorious singing of the birds, the vastness of the ocean, the huge variety of different animals that live on both land and sea.  But even here, there is death.  While animals don’t bear the moral responsibility for sin that we humans do, they, too, have been affected by sin.  The wages of sin is death, says St. Paul.  And there is plenty of that, not only among men, but also among the animals.  Animals hunt and kill each other.  Some sting, some bite, and some, like snakes, wrap their coils around and crush.  Animals were given to man for food after the flood, but it wasn’t always so.  And sometimes, due to the fallen nature of our whole world, mistakes happen.  Dogs and cats run out into the street in front of cars, as do deer.  The whole world, not just the humans, has become damaged because of man’s sin.

But it is precisely the sin of the world, not merely the occasional sins of human beings, that the Lamb of God takes away.  It is precisely the new cosmos, the new creation, that already exists in the Lamb’s resurrected body.  It is precisely the new creation which is born in us when the Holy Spirit descends on us in the water and the Father declares us His beloved Son.  It is precisely the new creation which we eat and drink, literally, every Sunday.  It’s a new world He won for us.  It is precisely a resurrected, restored, perfect creation which we will inhabit once we are resurrected from the dead.  The Lamb of God takes away the sin of the world.  Amen.

+Soli Deo Gloria+

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Made Sin for Us

Sermon on Matthew 3:13-17
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
January 12, 2013 (Baptism of our Lord)

John’s baptism was for repentance.  Repentance is not necessary for those who have not sinned.  And so John’s question is a pertinent one.  How could the sinless Son of God need repentance?  You might as well ask how the sinless Son of God could die.  After all, death is the wages of sin, right?  So how could God die?  How, for that matter, could God sin?  He created us, and therefore He’s the one that gets to decide what is, and is not a sin in the first place.  Accusing Him of sin is, not only offensive, but ultimately illogical.  And yet here he stands, willingly asking for a baptism of repentance, and thereby standing in the place of the sinner.

But that’s what He came to do.  He came to take our place.  As St. Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  Becoming sin without actually being a sinner was the whole point, the whole reason why He came to earth in the first place.  If he were here merely to teach how God wants us to live in order to escape hell, or even how to have a better life here on earth, He need not have bothered.  And He certainly would not have become such an offensive figure to the religious authorities that they wanted Him killed.  No, He came to do what no one else but God would, or even could, do, and that is become sin without sinning.

When you take a bath or a shower, you wash off the dirt and grime and sweat that previously covered you.  Same thing when you wash your hands: whatever you got your hands into is washed off.  You become clean.  But what happens to the dirt and the sweat and whatever else you may have gotten into?  Does it simply disappear?  Of course not!  The water takes it somewhere, either to a sewage treatment plant or to a septic tank.  The water carries it away from you, but it still needs to be dealt with somehow.  The same thing is true with the Sacrament of Holy Baptism.  You are washed clean of your sin, both the original sin you have inherited from Adam, and every actual sin you have committed in your own life.  In fact, this water washes you clean, not just of past sins, but of future sins as well.  But the sin has to go somewhere.  God doesn’t just wave His hand and make it disappear.  Where it goes is onto Jesus.  Where it is dealt with is on the Cross.  And so, in a sense, Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan is the counterpart to when we received the Sacrament of Holy Baptism.  What is washed off of us, is washed onto Him.

And so, that’s why Jesus had to be baptized.  He who knew no sin was made sin for us.  He washed us clean by becoming dirty.  He made us pure by becoming impure.  We who have done everything wrong, are treated by God as if we have done everything right, precisely because He who has, in fact, fulfilled all righteousness, became sin for us.  We inherit eternity with the Father, Himself, and the Holy Spirit, precisely because of what He experienced when He cried out, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?”

That’s also why, by the way, the Father and the Holy Spirit put in an appearance here.  It is precisely the fellowship of the Holy Trinity we enter when we are baptized.  We are in Christ, and being in Him we participate in the love of God the Father and the communion of the Holy Spirit.  When Jesus later institutes Holy Baptism, He stipulates that it should be done “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  Baptism involves the full fellowship of the Holy Trinity Himself.

Which is why it is especially remarkable that the Father would call Jesus “My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased,” in that very moment in which He publicly showed Himself to have been made sin for us.  But that’s no more paradoxical than Jesus giving the disciples His body and blood while reclining right there next to them on Holy Thursday, or of His ruling heaven and earth as the almighty, creative Word while at the same time needing to be fed by His mother and have His diaper changed.  We have a God who does things paradoxically, because we have a God who is Himself a paradox: three Persons, one God, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance.  We have a God whose very existence is something that cannot be comprehended by human logic or reason.  And that’s a good thing.  Human logic and reason would tell us that sin (even if you don’t call it that) earns its own bad rewards, either in the form of eternity in hell, or in the new-age concept of “karma,” in which everything you do comes back at you in one form or another.  It is precisely a God who transcends our reason that can treat us sinners as saints.  It is precisely a God who transcends our reason who can be made sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Our King Shines Forth from the Cross

As I post this sermon (late Saturday night), we are unsure whether the weather (pun intended) will allow us to gather for Divine Service tomorrow morning (our sister congregation, Iglesia Luterana Santa Cruz, has already cancelled services for tomorrow due to the extreme cold approaching our part of the country), and so this sermon may or may not end up being preached out loud.

Sermon on Matthew 2:1-12
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
January 5, 2013 (Epiphany of our Lord)

These men didn’t show up in Judea by accident.  The Lord had led them there.  Exactly how He did that is something of a debate among Christian historians.  Some think they were simply pagan astrologers who saw a particular star in the heavens that corresponded to their own system of reading important events, and that, because God wanted them to show up, He made it so that their astrology happened to be right this one particular time.  Others, including myself, suspect that these men were students from the order of scholars in Babylon, the same order of wise men of whom the prophet Daniel had been the wisest during Judah’s exile in Babylon.  In this case, these men would have been believers in the coming Messiah on the basis of that portion of the Old Testament which had already been written at the time of the exile.

There are also many theories about the nature of the star they saw.  Virtually all modern depictions of the manger scene include a large, highly visible star in the sky over the stable where our Lord was born.  But because it was only these men from the east who noticed the event, I doubt it was nearly as far out of the ordinary as most of our modern Christmas artwork portrays it, but was rather something the average person would have dismissed as simply another star, but which only had meaning to those who spent their lives studying the movements of heavenly objects.  If that’s true, then what was it, exactly?  Was it a confluence of various planets?  Was it really a star God miraculously caused to shine in that time and place but which ordinarily wasn’t there?  And if so, was it a supernatural miracle or did He use the natural phenomenon we know as a supernova, where a star explodes and becomes more visible in telescopes, or even to the naked eye, than it previously would have been, before fading again?

The fact is, there is a huge amount of information we don’t know about the visit of these men from the east.  We don’t even know if some or all of them were kings, or how many of them there were, despite the popular idea of the “three kings,” one for each of the gifts they brought.  But their visit is significant not so much in how it came about, but in what it signifies about the Child they came to worship.  And yes, the text does say they came to “worship” the Child.  Whatever else they did or did not know about the prophecies of the coming Messiah, they knew that this Child was God in the flesh.  They knew that none other than the creator of heaven and earth was present before them, receiving their worship and adoration.

The contrast between these men and those who were in power among the Judeans of that time is obvious.  Last week we talked about the bloodthirsty dictator called Herod who slaughtered all the male babies under two years old in and around Bethlehem in a vain attempt to kill this supposed usurper of his throne.  The religious leaders were troubled, too.  Their own power over the people of Judea was also being challenged here.  Unlike Herod, they clearly knew Who they were dealing with.  Micah’s prophecy they quoted to Herod was clearly about the coming Messiah, the Seed of the Woman, the Suffering Servant, the Son whom the virgin would conceive, Immanuel, which means “God with us.”  These same religious leaders would hound Jesus during his whole ministry, eventually putting Him to death for being the One they, in fact, knew Him to be, namely God the Son.

We’d like to think we would have been among the wise men and not those in Jerusalem who were upset by the whole thing.  Or perhaps we would have been among the humble Old Testament believers who already lived in Judea, such as Mary and Joseph themselves, Zechariah, Elizabeth, and their son John, Simeon, Anna, and so on.  That’s where we’d put ourselves in the story if we had to imagine we were part of these events.

But it troubles us when the Scriptures remind us of God’s Law, doesn’t it?  It troubles us when we’re reminded that we haven’t been perfect.  And it’s not just that we haven’t been perfect.  It’s not just that we’ve done a few things wrong.  It’s troubling to us when we realize that even our best and most pious good works are stained by the corruption of selfishness and pride which stains everything we do.  It offends us when we are reminded that our relationship with our creator is not going along happily and swimmingly the way we’d like it to.  In this we aren’t so different from the religious leaders in Jerusalem.  For that matter, we’re not so different from Herod himself.  Anything that puts something other than ourselves on the throne of our hearts becomes an object of our wrath and hatred.  Anything that reminds us that there is Someone more important than ourselves who can call us to account is met with discomfort at best, and murderous hatred at worst.

But being the object of hatred and murder was why Jesus came here in the first place.  You heard me right, God came into His creation for the purpose of being hated and killed.  He wasn’t among those infants killed by Herod immediately following today’s Gospel, because it wasn’t His time, but the absorption of all of our hatred and rebellion against Him was why He was born.  The absorption of all the hatred of all mankind against Him was why He was born.  Which means that it is all mankind, not just the members of that nation God had originally chosen to be His ancestors and relatives, which had their hatred and violence against their creator taken away from them by His act of dying on the cross.  Of course, anybody can still reject this wonderful news, and many do to their eternal judgment, but the fact is it was the rebellion of the whole creation against its creator that died on Good Friday, and an entire new creation newly aligned with its creator’s design which rose again Easter Sunday.

What this means for us is that we are among those who have died with this old world and who have risen as citizens of the new heavens and the new earth.  We are the ones who belong to His heavenly court and share in His heavenly banquet.  Which means, ironically, that He is now the one who brings us the true treasures of eternal life.  Our stuff, or money and possessions and even our very bodies, become the gold of heaven which He dispenses freely in love toward Him and service toward our neighbor.  Our prayers become the incense which is pleasing to Him for the sake of Christ and which He answers in the way most beneficial to us and to our neighbors.  And our very graves (which, admittedly, now use embalming fluid rather than myrrh, but the point is the same) become the beds from which we will awake from sleep to live forever in His kingdom.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +