Saturday, February 22, 2014

Be Perfect

Sermon on Matthew 5:38-48
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
February 23, 2014 (Seventh Sunday after Epiphany)

“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  This sentence pretty much sums up the section of the Sermon on the Mount we’ve been hearing from in our Gospel lessons the past few weeks.  It isn’t good enough to keep yourself from actively and outwardly breaking the various Commandments, you must sincerely love God and your neighbor and keep the Commandments from that basis.  It’s not good enough to refrain from outright murder, you must actively help your neighbor in his bodily need, and do so from a loving heart.  And, as today’s Gospel lesson points out, that’s true even when your neighbor is trying to harm you or use you or walk all over you.  If it truly helps your neighbor to let him strike you, let him strike you.  If he forces you to carry his stuff, offer to help him by carrying it even after he relents.  If he takes something you need, offer to help him in any other needs he has as well.  After all, it is God who gives rain and sunshine to those who are His enemies.  Or, as Luther puts it in the Catechism, “God certainly gives daily bread to everyone, even without our prayers.”  In fact, it is He who gave, not just rain and sunshine, food and drink, clothing and shoes, house and home, and so on, to His enemies, He died for them.  He died for us while we were yet sinners.

Of course, the neighbors whom God has given you first and foremost are those in your own household, your spouse and children.  And if helping a random stranger would severely disable you from helping them, they do come first.  But this isn’t a matter of being selfish, it’s a matter of recognizing that your particular place in life is where God put you as a father or mother, son or daughter, husband, wife, or worker.  But even a random stranger, even an enemy, even the boss who is a jerk or the demanding and unreasonable customer or the guy who nearly ran you off the road because he just doesn’t care about other drivers, are all among those God commands us to love rather than seeking revenge.

The whole point is that perfection, as God defines it, doesn’t just involve outward actions such as making sure you don’t actually kill somebody or cheat on your spouse or take something that belongs to someone else.  It involves being as loving as He is, being as giving as He is, being as self-sacrificing as He is.  It involves self-denial of the highest order.  And that’s true of anything we outwardly do for others as well.  If it’s not wholly and completely motivated by love for God and the neighbor, if there’s even the slightest hint of a thought of our own reward, whether in this life or the life to come, it’s not perfect.  And if it’s not perfect, it’s not good enough.

Actually, there was only one thing that a Man has ever done for his fellow men that is perfect.  That Man Himself said so.  He said, “It is perfected.”  Actually, that’s usually translated, “It is finished.”  I’m speaking here of Jesus on the cross.  But “perfect” and “finished” are both basically the same word in the original Greek.  God the Son became man, lived a perfect life, and died an innocent death for you and me and everyone else in the world.  That’s the kind of love we are talking about here.  Love that caused God Himself to die for us sinners while we were yet sinners.  Love that sends forth His Church to proclaim peace between God and man even when the world doesn’t want to hear it and actively rejects it.  Love that can only come from God Himself.

I should point out here that even though the English Standard Version, which is what I read from this morning, translates it as “you . . . must be perfect, the original Greek can also be translated as “you shall be perfect,” as a statement of fact rather than a command.  And when God makes a statement of fact, He doesn’t lie.  Even if what He says wasn’t already true, it becomes true by the power of His Word.  The blind receive their sight.  The deaf hear.  The dumb speak.  The lame walk.  The diseased are cured.  This sentence from the Sermon on the Mount is a command, but it’s more than a command.  Commands from God are always more than commands.  They are His creative Word.  “There shall be light.”  And there was light.  “You shall be perfect,” and you are.

Of course, that perfection, that completion, came at a price.  Only when the Son of God dies does he declare that our perfection is accomplished.  Only then does he say that everything is fulfilled.  His rising to life again on the third day, His ascension into heaven, and His being seated at His Father’s right hand, are all proclamations of the victory that has been won, but the victory itself came on that cross.  And that also reminds us of the sort of perfection we are talking about here: perfection in love and service to God and the neighbor.  It is precisely in His death for us sinners that He is perfect just as His Father is perfect.  It is precisely in serving we who were still His enemies that He wins us as His brothers and His Father adopts us as His sons.  And, because His Word does not return void, that’s what you are.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Judge, the Bridegroom, and His Oath

Sermon on Matthew 5:21-37
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
February 16, 2014 (Sixth Sunday after Epiphany)

For practical reasons, we have to cut the Bible into bite-sized chunks when we read it, study it, or preach it.  You just can’t read whole books at a time (well, except maybe for Philemon or 2nd or 3rd John).  But cutting the Bible into chunks like that does have its disadvantages.  When we forget to look at the context, we run the risk of turning Gospel into Law or Law into Gospel.  Last week’s Gospel and this week’s Gospel, which are consecutive parts of the Sermon on the Mount, are connected in this way.

Last week’s Gospel ended this way: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” which forms a pretty good summary of the whole lesson.  This Sunday’s Gospel comes directly after that verse.  The sections of today’s Gospel aren’t separate discussions of the Commandments.  They are also not intended simply advice on how to do a better job of keeping them.  They are examples and explanations of what Jesus means when He says that our righteousness needs to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.  In each case, he’s pointing out that instead of making the Law more severe by imposing extra commandments, the Pharisees actually reduce the force of the Law by making it do-able (and making it do-able is, in fact, the point of all these extra regulations).

Now, I should point out here that when I say that the Law isn’t do-able and that therefore we’re helpless and hopeless under the Law, that does not mean that we should ignore it.  Remember also that Jesus said in last Sunday’s Gospel that He came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it.  The Law really is a description of how creation was intended to function.  Mankind is the only part of creation other than the angels that actually has moral responsibility for its actions.  The Law is both a description and a commandment as to how we are to relate to Him, each other, and the rest of creation.  We really do ignore it at our peril.  It is still God’s will for our lives, and simply making the Gospel an excuse to put it aside is to tell God that He messed up when He made things how He did in the first place.  Telling God He messed up, and fearing, loving, and trusting in Him above all things, are simply mutually exclusive.  And that includes loving and trusting in Him when He tells you your sins are forgiven.  That’s right, I said that ignoring the Law also means ignoring the Gospel.  It’s why the Church practices excommunication when someone continues in stubborn unrepentance for a public, outward sin.  Ignoring the Law and simply doing whatever we want is simply not a possibility for the Christian who wants to remain a Christian.

Reconciliation with your fellow Christian follows upon that.  When you refuse to forgive your fellow man, you are wishing that he were eternally dead.  The only way we come to eternity is by being forgiven (precisely because the Law is impossible for us to keep), and when we harbor anger at somebody, we are criticizing God for forgiving him and taking him to heaven.  And we dare not do that because God’s forgiveness of the other guy and God’s forgiveness of you come from the same place, namely the cross.  To deny that someone is forgiven is to deny that you yourself are forgiven.

And the same thing is true of all the other commandments.  You cannot keep them perfectly, because it’s not just about outward words and deeds, it’s also about thoughts.  Even cutting off body parts doesn’t save you, because thoughts and feelings can’t be cut off so easily as an eye or a hand can.  Lust isn’t just a matter of the body, it’s first and foremost about the mind.  Neither men nor women can completely keep themselves from looking at members of the opposite sex they consider attractive.  That does not mean we should give in to lust (there again, the Gospel is not an excuse for outward sin), nor that we should condone or excuse divorce for anything less than actual unfaithfulness (In fact, because the two are one flesh the sin of one in fact brings guilt and shame even on the innocent party, as Jesus points out) but it does mean that only in Christ’s perfect love for His imperfect and unfaithful bride, the Church do we find relief from the guilt and shame that comes from these particular sins.

Again, in the case of using God’s name or even the names of things He created, there is no perfection to be found.  Jesus’ command to let your yes be yes and your no be no is not a legalistic requirement that we never take an oath in court or sign on a dotted line that the information we have provided is correct to the best of our knowledge when we fill out legal paperwork (and by the way, signing such paperwork is the equivalent of taking an oath in court, since such paperwork is automatically evidence against anyone who goes against what he is signing to), including, by the way, that inevitable piece of paper we all sign this time of year, IRS form 1040.  It’s because mankind is so sinful and untrustworthy that we must at times take oaths and certify by our signatures that we are telling the truth.  Here again, just like in the case of divorce, sin is so powerful and pervasive that even innocent parties who only want to tell the truth are forced to take oaths and thus become virtually guilty as if they were in the habit of telling lies without such oaths.

Indeed, even God Himself has been forced by humanity’s sin to take oaths.  He has been forced by humanity’s sin to swear by Himself that His promises are true, lest we fail to believe Him.  But then, it’s His love for us that forces Him to take these oaths.  His promise to Adam and Eve that the woman’s offspring would crush the serpent’s head.  His promise to Abraham that in him all nations on earth would be blessed.  His promise to David that his ultimate Descendant would sit on the throne of the true Israel, the true people of God, and judge them using justice He Himself had procured for them.  And so on.  God is made a sinner because of the sin of His people, just as His people make each other sinners all the time.  But God did it deliberately and with a specific purpose in mind.

You see, You can’t accuse God of sin without accusing sin of sin.  You can’t place upon God the wages of sin, namely death, without death being paid back to death in the form of resurrection.  And so, even though it was because of our sin, our failure to trust Him when He merely says our sins are forgiven, that He is forced by His own love for us to sign a last will and testament, a legal contract and binding oath that becomes effective when the person signing it dies.  His love for us forced Him to die as if he were a sinner so that He could promise and give us Himself, living and risen from the dead.  Jesus’ last will and testament to us is what He gives us today, precisely for the forgiveness of our many grave sins.  It’s the only last will and testament that promises gifts that can only come from one who is living.  It’s the only last will and testament that gives life itself.  Jesus has sworn an oath that His death forgives your sin and takes away its wages, and He has died in order to seal that testament.  It is yours.  Which means He is yours, forever.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Salt and Light

Sermon on Matthew 5:13-20
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
February 9, 2014 (Fifth Sunday after Epiphany)

The Law isn’t arbitrary.  It’s not a list of things God just made up on the spot in order for human beings to follow because it happened to amuse Him to tell us a bunch of random stuff to do or else He’d sadistically watch us burn in hell.  Instead, He created the world to function in certain ways, and when we deviate from the way the world is supposed to work (and we do that all the time), it creates very real problems.  That’s part of the reason that the Law is written, not only, and not even primarily, on stone tablets, but on men’s hearts.  Since we’re all descended from Adam and Eve, of course, we tend to come up with all sorts of reasons and excuses as to why we don’t have to follow the law in this or that instance.  But when someone does something against us, and the law written on our own hearts comes out full-force in wrath toward that other guy, usually resulting in our breaking the Law against him as well.  And so the vicious cycle continues.

The fact is, the Law is God’s design.  Jesus’ death on the cross frees us from its accusations and condemnations, but this does not change the fact that it is an inherent part of this world’s creation.  In fact, if anything, it enhances it.  It’s not merely just some “boo-boos” or some minor bumps in an otherwise pretty decent record of upright living that Jesus came to die for.  It’s the fact that we are such poor, miserable sinners that even our outward good works are damnable sins (in fact, they’re some of the worst sins of all, in the sense that they lead to pride, which is nothing less than idolatry of self).  It’s the fact that our sins have even defaced and vandalized creation itself to the point that now it will need to be torn down and replaced eventually.  Anything which lessens or compromises that message simply washes away the saltiness of Christian preaching and Christian confession.

The Roman Church accused Luther of diminishing the severity of the Law because of his emphasis on the complete and total forgiveness of sins through Jesus’ death on the cross, which completely removes any possibility that good works have anything to do with salvation.  What they said was that such preaching will lead to people sinning more and doing fewer good works, because the carrot of heaven and the stick of hell can’t be used to persuade them to do good rather than evil.  In a sense, they accused Luther of making the salt of the Law less salty.

But in fact, the complete opposite is true.  Whenever the Law is preached as if it’s a matter of individual sins rather than our helpless and lost condition as enemies of God slated for destruction, the Law is made easier to follow.  And making the Law easier to follow is to diminish what the Law actually says about us.  And it’s not just the Roman Catholics who make this mistake, either.  Many if not most Christian preachers today, including  many of those popular “evangelical” preachers who would be horrified to think that they resembled Rome in any way at all, in fact agree with Rome on this point.  What such preachers claim is that following the Law is actually possible.  They may give all sorts of advice, guidelines, “biblical principles,” and whatever to help people not break the law outwardly, and they may even promise that God will bless their lives here if we follow their principles, but it is those who preach manageable, allegedly “doable” law, who reduce the force of the Law’s impact.  It is they who dilute the salt to the point that it’s good for nothing anymore except for keeping the owners of car washes in business during the winter.  In fact, it was the Pharisees who taught people that it was possible to follow the Law and thereby have your “best life now” by following their complicated set of “biblical principles.”  It was they who were guilty of relaxing the Law, not Jesus and not Luther.

You see, the reason the Law is to be preached so severely that nobody can hope to meet its demands, is precisely because of the One who has met its demands in our place.  Any preaching of the Law which makes it sound like we can actually do it, robs Christ of His glory and hides His light.  It is precisely Christ’s death in fulfillment of the Law and His resurrection free from all our sins that is the light of the world.  It is precisely the true doctrine that God accomplished everything for our salvation that we dare not hide under a bushel.  It is precisely the freedom that comes from being one who has been made dead to sin and alive to Christ Jesus through the waters of Holy Baptism that allows our light to shine before men.  Works done in the attempt to fulfill the Law by ourselves are not light, they are us casting a shadow in front of that light.  Works done by Christ through us for the sake of His body and blood coursing through our veins and illuminating us as merely lamps in which He shines, are works that shine before men.  Works done to try to make ourselves look good, make God look bad, because our own works, even when allegedly done in His name, are at best a pale imitation.  Works done as those who already possess eternity and whose hearts are illumined by the resurrected and ascended Head of whom we are the body, these cause men to glorify God the Father.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Presentation of our Lord

Sermon on Luke 2:22-40
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
February 2, 2014 (Presentation of our Lord)

When God led Israel out from Egypt and led them to the base of Mt. Sinai, Moses didn’t just go up there to receive the Ten Commandments, though that was the most important thing God gave him.  God also gave him a large series of fairly complex civil and ceremonial instructions which were to govern Israelite life as well.  Of these, probably the most important and central were the instructions as to how to build the Tent of Meeting, the central place where God would meet His people to hear their prayers and proclaim His Word to them.  And probably the most important part of those instructions was a set of directions on how to build a wooden, gold-plated box, the Ark of the Covenant, which would contain the tablets where the Commandments were inscribed, a sample of the manna they had eaten in the wilderness, and Aaron’s rod that had sprouted.  The lid of the box was decorated with two golden seraphim, and the space between them was known as the “mercy seat,” the place where God had chosen to be present for His people’s benefit and blessing (especially the ultimate blessing of the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation).  Once that tent had been assembled, and the Ark had been placed there, that was the place where the pillar of cloud and fire that had led them out of Egypt would stay until it came time for the Israelites to move on in their journey through the desert.  There were many other instructions having to do with the Tent of Meeting, including a rather complicated system of burnt offerings and sacrifices, but the most important thing about it was that it housed the Ark.

The pillar of cloud and fire, as most of you know, signified the presence of God Himself in their midst.  Specifically it signified the presence of the Speaking of God, the Word of God, which St. John identifies as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, also known as God the Son.  Down through the years and centuries, that box would continue to be God’s mercy seat, where God chose to dwell with His people.  The tabernacle served as Israel’s house of worship for a long time, even after the Israelites had settled in the promised land.  It wasn’t until King Solomon’s time that God gave instruction to build a much larger and more permanent stone structure to house the Ark of the Covenant.  But even there, it was the Ark itself, not merely the building or even the sacrifices, that made it the dwelling place of God.

Now, this Temple was destroyed when the Babylonians invaded and took the tribe of Judah (the last remaining tribe) captive.  When they returned to the land 70 years later, they once again rebuilt the walls and the Temple building, and for centuries afterward the Temple and its sacrifices continued to be the center of Jewish worship.  But there was something missing.  The mercy seat of God, in fact the entire Ark of the Covenant, had gone missing.  The building itself had never been the point of the temple.  God had dwelt in a tent, of all things, for a long while before the first Temple had been built.  The Ark of the Covenant was where the Word of God had His presence.  But the Most Holy Place, the room designed to house it, was empty.

That is, until today’s Gospel lesson, when God the Word once again entered the Temple.  Instead of a wooden box, He now dwelt in human flesh.  Forty days after His birth, Jesus Christ enters the building that stood on the same mountain where He had already been dwelling for generations on the mercy seat.  It was not until this moment that the second Temple, the one built after the return from exile, once again had God’s gracious presence dwelling within it to bless His people.  The glory of God had once again entered His temple.

The irony, of course, is that even though He entered the temple in order to be presented to the Lord as specified in the Law of Moses, He was the one who had been dwelling above the mercy seat itself for centuries.  He now came to fulfill the law which He Himself had given to Moses those many centuries ago.  He no longer dwelt above a box, but in human flesh.  He came not to give the Law but to fulfill it.  He came, not to reestablish the temple, but to become the temple.

This is why Simeon and Anna had been waiting all these years in the building called the temple.  They were waiting to see God Himself return to His temple.  They were waiting to see the promised one who would fulfill all of the promises of the Old Testament and become the sacrifice that gave meaning and power to the Old Testament sacrificial system, which by itself wasn’t able to do anything.  Simeon had been promised that he wouldn’t die until he saw the Old Testament fulfilled.  And now the true sacrifice, the true Ark, the true Temple, had now come to that place where He had formerly dwelt for so long.  Now Simeon was ready to die, because He had seen the purpose of the Temple fulfilled.

In our houses of worship, we also have a place where God has chosen for His name to dwell.  In fact, we have several.  There are the pulpit and the lectern, where God’s Word is proclaimed to His people, the nave (where you all are sitting), where His people confess and proclaim that same Word through liturgy and song.  There is the baptismal font, where His people die and are reborn with His name on their head and in their hearts.  But perhaps most central among these places is the altar, where the same Jesus who is both God and Man, the same Jesus who entered the temple as a baby but who had been dwelling there for centuries, now gives His body broken for you and His blood shed for you from the cross.  You see, the new temple, the new Ark of the Covenant, the new place where His name dwells, is where He now is present for you not only as God but also as man, for your eating and drinking.

Like Simeon, this means we are now ready to die.  Death apart from God is eternal death, a death that goes on forever separated from the one who made us and upholds us.  This is what we get simply for being descended from Adam and Eve.  But it is God Himself who died on the cross in your place.  The death of the infinite and eternal God is what is necessary to win you back from the fate of dieing forever that would otherwise been your lot.  But you can’t kill the God who is eternal, without death itself being undone.  Which is why His body and His blood, both crucified and resurrected, are now the center of our worship.  This is why Christian churches who have a high respect for the Lord’s Supper (including the Lutheran Church) usually put crosses either on or above their altars, often in the form of crucifixes.  It is precisely where God causes His name to dwell that His blessings of forgiveness, life, and salvation are to be found.  Instead of the cherubim, we now have the cross as God’s mercy seat.  It’s precisely where His body and blood are that receive eternal life.  It is precisely because we receive God Himself into ourselves that we are prepared to die in faith and therefore inherit, not death, but eternal life before His true throne in heaven.  Lord, now let your servant go in peace, your word has been fulfilled.  My own eyes have seen Your salvation which You have prepared before all people, a light to shine on the nations, and the glory of Your people Israel.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +