Saturday, July 26, 2014

God the Treasure Hunter

Sermon on Matthew 13:44-52
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
July 27, 2014 (Sixth Sunday after Pentecost)

The first two parables in today’s Gospel both portray for us men who find one thing that is so important or valuable to them that they give up everything they have to get that one thing.  Now, in today’s society, surrounded as we are by all sorts of “stuff,” it’s hard to imagine anything being so valuable that someone would want to sell everything he has for it.  But that is, in fact, what the kingdom of heaven is compared to here: something so valuable that it is worth giving up everything a person has in order to get it.  And, for a believer, that simply makes sense.  The kingdom of heaven will last forever, while we only spend a few decades here.  Nothing in this old world will last forever.  What doesn’t rust or wear out or break down will be left behind when we ourselves rust and wear out and break down.  As the old saying goes, you can’t take it with you.

But what God demands of us is not just that the “stuff” we will have in eternity be more important than the “stuff” we have here.  What He demands in the First Commandment is that He be more important to us than everything and everyone else.  After all, He is the One who made us.  He is the One who gave us our very lives, and still sustains us, not to mention that He created and gave us everyone and everything we have here in this life.  And the most important part of eternity is not just that we will have perfect bodies not subject to illness or infirmity, nor that we will have all our loved ones who died in the faith with us, nor that the things we have will not be subject to rust or decay or manufacturing defects (leaving aside the fact that we have so little understanding of eternity that we really have no idea what “things” we might have there anyway).  The most important thing about eternity is that we will be united with our Creator and share in the love and fellowship that exists within the Trinity Himself, because we will be, and already are by faith, members of the Second Person of that Trinity, our Lord Jesus Christ.

The problem, of course, is that here in this old world we can’t really see any of that.  We can’t see or measure what lies ahead for us on the other side of the grave.  For that matter, we can’t prove or disprove by the scientific method that God exists, and apart from the Scriptures we can’t even imagine that He is Triune, that He loves His creation, and that the historical Man named Jesus of Nazareth is, in fact, His eternal Son sent into the world to redeem us and bring us the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.  Granted, the very existence of the world strongly suggests the existence of some sort of creator, but who He is and how He sees us and what happens after we die is a complete mystery apart from the Holy Scriptures, while the people around us in this life, and the things we have, such as houses and cars and food and clothing, seem very real and concrete to us.  Thus the temptation to disregard eternity in favor of what we can see and feel here and now is very strong, and it’s a temptation we give in to more often than not.  How many of us are being completely honest when we sing that line in “A Mighty Fortress:” “And take they our life, goods, fame, child, and wife, let these all be gone, they yet have nothing won.  The kingdom ours remaineth.”  If you think you can, with your whole heart, pray that line honestly, you are simply fooling yourself.  Nobody is completely free of the idolatry that attaches us to this old world.

That’s why God had to come to us: by nature we can’t free ourselves of this old world’s entanglements.  That’s why God the Son had to condescend to be born among us, become one of us, live our life in this old world, suffer and die our death.  As far as anyone could tell, we were like a vacant field with no special value to anyone.  He died for us while we were still sinners.  He gave up everything for us.  Only He could see the hidden treasure, the new man in Christ, recreated in His image, to live before Him in righteousness and purity forever.

So, which is it?  Are these two parables about how nothing should be more important to us than God, or about how nothing is more important to Him than us?  I’d say the answer is both.  After all, we can only love God because He first loved us.  We are only capable of giving up everything for Him because He gave up everything for us.  It’s only because He redeemed us while we were still sinners that we can see, and obtain the treasure that is eternal life.  He bought us so that now we can see Him where He has hidden Himself.  An ordinary field with buried treasure doesn’t look like anything special.  Neither does an ordinary man standing in front of church on Sunday morning.  Neither does ordinary water poured on someone’s head.  Neither do ordinary unleavened wafers and wine.  But there’s treasure hidden there, too.  The forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are hidden here, but revealed to those who have faith in God’s Word.  Nothing is more important than that.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

The Wheat and the Darnel

Sermon on Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
July 20, 2014 (Fifth Sunday after Pentecost)

Last Sunday, we heard about the parable of the sower.  In that parable, the seed was the Word of God, and the soil was the hearer of the Word.  This Sunday we also hear a parable that uses agricultural imagery.  But this time the symbolism is a bit different.  The field is not the Christian, nor is it the Church (despite the way some have interpreted it this parable is not an argument against the practice of Church discipline).  Rather, the field is the world.  The plants growing in the field are humanity, including believers and unbelievers.  Some are planted by God, and some are planted by the devil.  Now, in reality the interplay between believers and unbelievers is more complicated than that; every analogy or parable starts to break down if you push it too hard.  Believers can become unbelievers, and vice versa, and in any case each and every believer also has an unbeliever living with him in the same body.  But for the purposes of this parable, Jesus is asking us to look at things from the perspective of Judgment Day.  Some will be saved, and others won’t.  It’s that simple.

Now, to us who have to live in this old world until the harvest, the fact that sin and evil dwell here too isn’t exactly pleasant.  People die.  Natural and man-made disasters happen.  Those who are simply trying to live humbly and serve their neighbor so often struggle to get by while those whose personal lives are a mess (as we can see every time we go through a supermarket checkout lane) are so often rich and successful and have money and possessions to spare.  And ultimately, whether good or bad, the same fate awaits us all from the perspective of this world.  Under the sun, all is vanity.  In fact, one of the most common objections atheists will raise against belief in God is that a God who is good and all-powerful would do something about the bad stuff that happens in the world.  Now, this isn’t really an argument against God’s existence (which is what they are trying to argue against) but His goodness (which, simply by virtue of being God, He gets to define for Himself; we can’t come up with our own standard of goodness and make Him follow it, because then He would end up being our servant, and not God at all).  But in any case, the question of why bad stuff happens to those who are trying to do good is a heartfelt question also for believers.  Life in this old world is hard, and we all wish all the unfairness and injustice and suffering and pains and sorrows could be done away with.

But here’s the problem.  Until Judgment Day there is simply no way of distinguishing the weeds from the wheat.  The word that is used for the weeds here refers to a plant called “darnel.”  The thing about darnel is that until harvest-time, it looks exactly the same as wheat.  The reason why God doesn’t command His angels to uproot the darnel and throw it away until the harvest time, despite how it takes some of the nutrients and water and sunlight which properly belong to the wheat, is because they look exactly alike.  By the way, you will often hear preachers saying that the reason why not to uproot the weeds is that there is a risk of damaging the wheat’s roots since they are tangled up in one another.  That may be true, but the point here is not about simply damaging the wheat, but that the wheat would be destroyed entirely because nobody can tell the difference at that point.

In other words, the reason God lets all the suffering and sorrow and injustice and so on continue to happen, is because you can’t destroy evil without destroying the good.  Good and evil people, from God’s perspective, aren’t determined by how outwardly good their actions are, but by what is going on in their hearts.  And the fact is, all of us believers and heirs of heaven have within us an unbeliever who is just as sinful and selfish and murderous and lustful and covetous as the worst unbeliever.  And so any attempt at uprooting evil in the world before the final judgment will simply end up in disaster for all involved.

And that’s why the way God deals with this field is to allow both to grow together.  He is the one who sends His water, His nutrients, His sunlight onto the field.  The Church is sent out to make disciples by baptizing and catechizing as we go on through our lives in this world.  The water and the nourishment of the Word do what God says they will do.  And Jesus Himself, who is the true Light, shines down on us and gives us His own food in His body and blood.  That’s the way the wheat seeds grow up unto into the fruitful harvest of eternity.  In fact, to depart from the parable’s analogy for a moment, that’s how even the darnel plants (which is what we all, in fact, are according to our old nature) become wheat plants.  God, instead of destroying them, transforms them into those who bear the fruit of eternal life by His Word and His body and blood.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Christ Is the Good Ground

 Due to an argument I've been having with my computer, the last couple of sermons didn't get posted.  So here they are, as well as tomorrow's, all at once.

Sermon on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
July 13, 2014 (Fifth Sunday after Pentecost)

It may seem stupid to fling the seed randomly at every type of soil instead of carefully testing the soil by doing market surveys and using other techniques to find out where the best soil is.  But it’s the only thing we can do in the Christian church.  Despite what it seems like to human reason, there is no way to tell whether a particular person, a particular neighborhood, a particular region of the country will react in any of the four ways we see in our text.  Often it’s tempting for church officials to “invest” the mission dollars where the money is, in growing suburbs populated by those who have money to spare and who would seem therefore to be better able to support their congregation and the church body to which it belongs.  Of course, that ends up being a way of making decisions based on what the church can get out of people rather than the love for people and concern for their eternal well-being which Jesus would have us exhibit.  But apart from the question of selfishness, the fact is, all of the sociology in the world is useless in figuring out who will and will not bear the fruit of salvation.  After all, the fruit we are looking for isn’t an externally healthy church (though that’s certainly helpful).  It isn’t a lot of mission dollars for the District or Synod (though that can be an important way we as a congregation give thanks for the blessings God has given us).  The fruit we are looking for is souls in heaven.  And that’s something you can’t predict or analyze with human reason.  Jesus’ statement about those who hear yet don’t hear means that in every plot of ground there will be some of each of the four categories.  And the seed can often bear fruit in places that look to human wisdom as completely unlikely and wrong.  Indeed, those whose lifestyles have been overtly contrary to God’s will are often more receptive to the Gospel of forgiveness than are those who think of themselves as good, upstanding citizens.  And so instead of engaging in marketing tactics and all the other nonsense that so many refer to as evangelism in our day, we simply preach the Word and administer the sacraments here on Sunday morning, and we confess our faith to those we encounter in our lives.  Whether it be in our day-to-day business or in some intentional outreach project, we still simply confess what we have heard.  That’s how God’s kingdom grows even in the most unlikely places.

The next question that this parable raises in our minds, of course, is the question about us as individuals.  What kind of soil am I?  Am I the hard soil that doesn’t even let the Word sink in but lets the devil snatch it away?  Am I the rocky soil which, even though the Word begins growing in my heart, it is not allowed to get very deep roots and so it doesn’t survive long?  Am I the thorn-infested soil that simply has too many other things going on around me to allow my faith to grow and mature?  What kind of soil am I?  This question is, of course, a natural question to ask for anyone who is concerned with their own salvation.  And it may be helpful for us to see if any of these things is true of us so that we can fight against these things in ourselves.  But it can also be a dangerous question, because if I conclude that in some ways I’m like the hard path or the rocky or thorny soil, then I might give in to despair because I can’t hope to be saved.  It’s too easy to look at these four categories and assume that everybody falls into only one of the four, and that’s that.

Fortunately it’s not that simple.  All of us fall into all of these four categories.  We are by nature sinful and unclean, and we are constantly bombarded with the attacks of the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh as we hear the Word of God.  According to our old sinful nature we are hard-packed, rocky, and thorn-infested all at the same time.  But according to the new person that has been recreated in us by Christ, we are good soil, which will produce the hundredfold fruit of everlasting life.

The hard-packed soil didn’t even let the seed in.  Sometimes the Word simply doesn’t make it into our minds and hearts at all.  Sometimes we think that we are too busy to stay and listen to God’s Word in the first place.  We don’t even come to where it is being preached at all.  Or we come and we doubt the truthfulness of what we are told.  Or the preacher says something in his sermon that hits us the wrong way and we tune out the rest of what he has to say because of anger.  Or we are simply too tired to stay awake during the preaching of the Word.  These kinds of things can happen to any one of us, and in this way the devil snatches the Word of God away from us and prevents it from taking root in us that day.

The rocky soil allowed the seed to start growing, but it didn’t allow a good, stable root system to develop.  We are always tempted to base our confidence in God in things that are shallow.  Emotions such as feelings of happiness and warmth are a good thing; they are a good response to the Christian message.  But they are shallow and they can change.  The true joy and peace that Christ gives are not the same thing as warm feelings.  The true joy and peace of Christ are still ours even when we don’t feel particularly happy or particularly peaceful.  Too many people in our world think that they have lost their faith because they don’t feel the same way about God or about going to Church as they did when they were younger.  And so when things in this world go badly for them they don’t think that Christ is still there for them to rely upon.  The world is a cruel enemy of the Christian, and often things do go badly for people precisely because they do believe in Christ.  Unless faith is grounded in something deeper than feelings and emotions, it’s not going to be able to stand up to the blistering heat of the world’s attacks against Christianity.  Only God’s Word itself can create the truly deep roots that a Christian needs to survive even when everything in the world seems to be going against him and his shallow emotions no longer hold him upright steady in the faith.

The thorny soil allowed the seed to grow, but then it cut off the light that it needed to continue to grow and bear fruit.  Our old sinful flesh pays attention to all sorts of other things besides the Word of God.  We are by nature easily distracted from God.  Even perfectly innocent and good things can distract us from God’s Word.  Things like our work, our hobbies, sports, caring for our families, and the desire to sleep in at least one day a week can distract us from continuing to bask in the light of God’s Son.  Our old sinful flesh wants to keep our energies away from sustaining the faith that has been planted in us.

But God has recreated our hearts.  His Word acts as a plow to break up the hard soil, to turn up the rocks and remove them, and to destroy the thorn bushes.  The rocky soil may not bear fruit one season, but the roots that the plants tried to put down will eventually over the course of the years break up the rocks and turn them into good soil.  The same thing is true of the hard path.  Plants and even big, strong trees can grow even in hills composed largely of flint and limestone.  The devil, the world, and our sinful flesh are beat down and killed by the dying and rising again of Christ our Lord.  He is the good soil, because ultimately He is the one who bears the fruit of eternal life.  His good soil is spread upon our poor soil through Baptism, preaching, and the Lord’s supper, just as good, black dirt is often put on a garden or a flower bed to make up for the poor soil already there.  In this way he remakes us in His image.  We become part of Him.  And through Him we will become a hundred times more than we are right now, because we will be reborn, perfect, on the last day when He comes to harvest us and take us into the barns of His eternal presence and joy.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Your Burden is Light

Sermon on Matthew 11:25-30
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
July 6, 2014 (Fourth Sunday after Pentecost)

“My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  Um, really?  Doesn’t He also say that we are to love God with all our heart, mind, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves?  Doesn’t He say that we will endure suffering and even death for His name?  That we can expect to be treated by the world the same way He was treated?  That the road to eternal life is the narrow one that only a few find?  That He came not to bring peace but a sword?  How can He say that His burden is light?  When you consider all that becoming a disciple of Jesus entails, it doesn’t look all that easy or light at all.

That is, unless you compare it to the alternative.  Every religion in which man’s relationship to his god is dependent upon what man does, involves a hellish merry-go-round of good works.  In Hindu societies, it is forbidden to give charity to those of a lower caste than you, because if you help them to much you will mess with their karma and they may end up reincarnated as a lower form rather than a higher one.  Which, of course, means that life is incredibly hard for those of the “untouchable” caste.  Of course, we are all aware of how harsh many of the different Muslim sects can be in terms of what they demand of their followers.  And many of the ancient polytheistic religions, such as those of the Canaanites or even the Greeks and the Romans, involved horrific rituals, sometimes involving self-mutilation or even human sacrifice.

But even within Christianity, when Christians misunderstand their religion as one where our works are the important part of our relationship with God, the merry-go-round is there too.  Luther pretty much destroyed his health during his early adulthood when he was trying to find assurance that God was pleased with him by following the monastic regimen of works and fasting and daily devotion and prayer.  He scrubbed and scrubbed the floors, symbolical of his own heart; he prayed and prayed, and still it wasn’t good enough.  And many Protestant groups aren’t much better.  Many Christians spend their entire lives unsure of their standing with God.  They make a decision for Him, they dedicate their lives to Him, they promise their sincere intention to make Jesus the Lord of their life as well as their Savior, but it never quite works out that way.  The pet sins are still there.  The doubts are still there.  And so they make another decision for Christ, and they’re really, really sincere this time, since the last one apparently didn’t “take.”  But the pet sin rears its ugly head again, whether it’s a tendency toward anger and rage, or gossip, or covetousness, or alcoholism, or lust, or simply a tendency to be lazy and sleep in on Sunday mornings.  Many modern “evangelical” churches teach that consecrating your life to Jesus will give you a victory over those sins, and that having that improved life, that cured sin, is the evidence that you really are a Christian.  And, because you were the one who decided to bury your sin and turn your life over to God, you are the one who is in control of your relationship with God, or so you think.  That’s how Pharisees and modern-day pietists are made.  But often, after the excitement wears off, the sin is back, and worse than ever.  And so, since you apparently weren’t sincere enough or consecrated enough, you goes through the whole process again, and again, and again.  But you’re still imperfect, still a sinner, and because you still haven’t gotten that whole “giving your life to God” thing right, you still don’t really know what your standing is before God. A Christian will end up spiritually exhausted and willing to give up on the whole “religion” thing entirely.

A couple of years ago, there was a survey of the members at many so-called “evangelical” churches, mostly mega-churches and wanna-be mega-churches.  One startling result of that survey was that it was those who were considered most mature in the faith, the ones who were the most active in the programs and activities of their church, who were also the ones most likely to be seriously thinking about leaving the church entirely.  They were simply burned out.  For one thing, how the dedication and maturity of their members was measured was how active was their prayer-life, how much time they spent in “quiet time” and in journaling, and those sorts of things.  Not only are these things the Christian is allegedly supposed to do, that is, Law, but they’re laws that you won’t even find in the Bible.  They may be good advice for a person’s mental health if he actually has time for them, but these aren’t the ways God has promised to work.  God comes to us in words, whether quiet ones or loud ones, not in our meditations or our own writings.  What their church was giving them was a steady diet of law, law, and more law, and they were trying and failing to keep all of it, and the only encouragement they ever got was that God would help them to do better next time.  Full and free forgiveness of sins, which is the only message that can actually help a person in that situation, is in most cases, simply not talked or preached about at all in those churches.  If it’s talked about at all, it’s addressed to those who are visiting, as a means of encouraging them to join the church in the first place.  But once a person joins, the Gospel is almost never mentioned again.  It’s all about what the Christian is supposed to do, and that is what is falsely referred to as “discipleship.”  It’s no wonder the most committed and most active Christians were the most burned out.  When you think about it, that sort of life is not all that different from what Luther went through as a monk.

Compared to all that, Jesus’ yoke really is easy, and His burden really is light.  You see, our relationship with our God, where we stand in His sight, doesn’t depend on how well we’ve done at keeping His law.  No matter how hard we’ve tried, we’ve at best kept it very poorly, and if you include the thoughts and desires of the mind and heart, we haven’t even come close to keeping it at all.  But because our relationship with him is dependent not on how well we’re doing, but on what He has done for us, and the promises he makes to us in the Scriptures, we can be confident that our heavenly Father is still our true Father and we are His true children.  Should we strive to do good and avoid sin?  Yes, of course we should.  Do our failures affect our relationship with God?  No they do not.  Our confidence is not in what we do, but in what He has done.  When Jesus says “learn from Me” in our text, which, by the way, is another way of saying, “be My disciples,” He’s talking about hearing and learning the Gospel of the free and full forgiveness of sins.

And that is just plain liberating.  As one of my professors at Fort Wayne, Dr. David Scaer, puts it in his commentary on James, the forgiveness of sins gives us a certain recklessness in doing good.  And doing good doesn’t mean focusing on ourselves or our supposedly sanctified life.  It doesn’t refer to the time spent in private devotion or meditation, as beneficial as those things can sometimes be.  It means serving our neighbor, including our family members, coworkers, neighbors, and so on.  In other words, living out the daily life of a Christian precisely in the world.  Because our relationship with God is secure, our failures, including our future failures that happen out there in the world, are already forgiven.  Now, that doesn’t mean we should carelessly or deliberately sin.  But it does mean that we are free to serve God and our neighbor as well as we can without worrying about the fact that we won’t be perfect at it.  Our relationship with God is grounded in His forgiveness and love, not in our commitment or decision.  And so we really do have an easy yoke and a light burden.  What we do in service to God and our neighbor isn’t weighed down by the fact that we never quite get it right.  Our heavenly future is secure, even though we may stumble and fall during our earthly walk.  God has already forgiven us.  We already know what the verdict on Judgment Day will be: “It is finished.”  And so our burden really is light, because eternity with God doesn’t hang in the balance.  That’s been taken care of by Christ on the cross, and given you day after day and Sunday after Sunday in His Word and His body and blood.  You’ve got heaven.  You don’t need to work for it.  Your burden is light indeed.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +