Saturday, August 23, 2014

Who is the Son of Man?

Sermon on Matthew 16:13-20
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
August 24, 2014 (Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost)

“Who do people say the Son of Man is?”  If you took a survey today and asked people what they thought of Jesus, the answers you would get back would be just as varied as the answers the people gave when Jesus asked the question in our text.  Some would say that He was a great teacher, a great moral example.  Others, like the Jews, would say that He was a fraud.  Others, such as the Muslims, might call Him a great prophet, one of the more honored predecessors of their own prophet Mohamed.  Atheists would say He was really a nobody who just so happened to have a myth get named after Him.  That is, if they even believe He existed at all.  Other people you ask might not care who Jesus was.  This last group are the ones we are more likely to meet, in fact, many of them are our friends, neighbors, and even relatives.  They have never even given the question of who Jesus is much thought.

But the question is an important one.  It is important because who Jesus is determines who we are.  This is why after hearing the answers the apostles had gleaned from the people around them, He asked the question again, only now it was personal.  “Who do you say that I am?”  This is a question we all must face if we are to be sure that what God has to give us, namely salvation and eternal life, is indeed ours.  It is a question we face as we examine ourselves in preparation to confess our sins and receive Holy Absolution, as we examine ourselves in preparation for the Lord’s Supper, and especially as we daily examine ourselves in preparation for Judgement Day, which could come at any time.  Who do you say that I am?  What do you believe about Jesus?  Who is He?  How do you answer that question?  Being a Christian, after all, is not a matter of looking at myself to see how I’m doing, but receiving the gifts God has to give through Jesus’ death on the cross.  Which means that the doctrine regarding who Jesus is and what He has done, is the very heart and center of Christianity.

In our text, Peter spoke up in behalf of all the apostles when he said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  Peter confesses his faith that Jesus is indeed the Son of God, the Creator of the Universe, who has become man in order to save us.  Peter’s confession is not just his own, it is the confession of all the apostles.  Peter becomes their representative, their spokesman.  In fact, in making this confession Peter represents the entire Church, both of the Old Testament saints who expected Christ’s coming, and of the New Testament saints such as you and me who look back to His first coming and forward to His return in glory.  “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”  “I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord.”

But listen to what Jesus says to Peter next: “This was not revealed to you by man, but by My Father in heaven.”  The knowledge that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, comes only from God Himself.  You see, God must first speak to us before we can speak back to Him.  After all, like Peter, we are sinners.  We are not able to believe what God wants us to believe in our natural minds.  The fact that this Man Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, is a fact that seems impossible to human reason, and in our sinful pride we think that our reason must be the judge of all truth and falsehood.  Our sinfulness causes us to reject Jesus our Savior because who He is and what He is don’t go along with our reason and our senses.  It is only when God reveals the truth to us and gives us the ability to believe it by creating within us a clean heart that we are able to believe, and to confess, what He has said to us.

And that’s what “confession” is.  It is saying back to God, and to each other, and to the world around us, what He has first said to us.  He tells us that we are sinners.  We repeat back to Him what He has said to us when we say that, yes, we are sinners, as we do every Sunday morning and every day when we pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  God then tells us that we are forgiven for the sake of His Son, Jesus Christ.  We repeat back to Him what He has said to us by confessing our faith, as we do on Sunday morning in the words of the creed, as well as in all the other words of the liturgy which speak of our salvation through Christ.  We also confess to each other and to those around us as we comfort and encourage one another in Christ and testify to those outside the Church what Christ has done for us.  We speak what God has first spoken to us.

Through our speaking what God has spoken to us, God Himself speaks through us.  God has given me the vocation of preaching His Word to this congregation and administering His Sacraments.  Through my mouth and my hands, Christ’s Word and Christ’s hands work on you to give you salvation.  I don’t speak my own word, but God’s Word (and of course one of your responsibilities is to make sure that what I say is in fact God’s Word by cross-checking my preaching against the Holy Scriptures).  If I speak God’s Word, which He has first spoken to Me, then He is speaking through me to you.  As you confess to your neighbors who do not know Christ concerning the salvation that He has given you, as you comfort and encourage one another with the Gospel, and even as you confess your faith through the words of the liturgy and hymns here on Sunday morning, and as you teachers help these children’s parents to teach them regarding what Jesus did for our salvation, God is speaking through you.  He is speaking the same words He has first spoken to you, but He is now speaking through you.

God continues to speak to us.  He continues to give us life through the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments, as well as through the conversations and the comforts we receive from each other.  It is only through God’s speaking to us, both in the spoken Word and in the edible and drinkable Word of the Sacrament where He gives us the body and blood of Jesus, that God strengthens us.  To receive the Lord’s Supper is also to confess your faith  that this Jesus whose body and blood we receive is in fact the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  This body and blood will strengthen us in our confession to God and our neighbor of what He has done for us.  Which means that we are blessed, for this was not revealed to us by men, but by our Father, who art in heaven.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Dogfood

Sermon on Matthew 15:21-28
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
August 17, 2014 (Tenth Sunday after Pentecost)

Why do bad things happen to good people?  Why doesn’t God help me out when I’m suffering?  Why doesn’t He seem to care if He’s supposedly such a good God?  These are questions that theologians and philosophers have pondered over for thousands of years.  And they’re not just an academic exercise, either.  Suffering is very real all around us and in our own lives.  If God truly is all-powerful, He should be able to deal with all of this so that we don’t have to.  But very often God’s response to our prayers seems to be the same kind of seemingly callous and insulting response we read that Jesus gave to the woman in today’s Gospel.

Now, many times we can’t know specifically the reason why God allows these sorts of things.  But in general, we know from Scripture that God uses these things to make us rely on His promises more firmly.  God’s promises to be with us and to preserve us and to comfort us depend only on the fact that it was He who spoke them.  His promises to us are true even if the whole world and everything we see and feel seems to contradict them.  His promises to us are true even if He Himself seems to be ignoring us and rejecting us.  Sometimes God puts us through experiences like that of this woman to remind us of that fact, and to strengthen our faith so that we rely more firmly on the promises rather than testing Him and trying to see physical evidence of His care for us.  Our confidence in God’s protection and care, and more importantly our confidence in His salvation, should not depend on whether or not we feel or see His care and protection in our lives.  Our confidence in God’s love for us and His care for us depends solely upon His promises to us in the Holy Scriptures.  But all too often we like to rely upon other things besides God’s promises to support our faith, whether those things be our emotions or good feelings about God, or whether those things be the fact that things are going well for us, or whatever it may be.  For this reason, sometimes these blessings are taken away from us precisely because we are using them as a crutch in the place of our faith or making our faith depend on them rather than Him.

Notice also that even though Jesus didn’t come right out and call the woman a dog, she more or less admitted herself to be one when she said that even the dogs eat the crumbs which fall from the master’s table.  God’s care for us and His protection of us also don’t depend on our own worthiness.  We can’t come to Him and say that He should do things for us because we’re such good people or because we have tried to do what is right or whatever.  The fact of the matter is that we aren’t good people.  None of us have done what God required.  Before God’s throne we have to admit that we are nothing but poor, miserable sinners.  And many of us can name specific sins we have committed that are pretty terrible.  If we were to have a conversation with God the way this woman did, we too would be forced to admit that we aren’t worthy for God to do anything for us.  We too would have to admit that we are nothing and worse than nothing, and that God would be perfectly within His rights to ignore us and to forget about us and allow us to go straight to hell after our deaths.

But God has promised not to do that.  And it is His promises that give us the reassurance that He won’t do that.  It is His promises in the Holy Scriptures that we hold on to.  God keeps His promises.  This woman stubbornly held God to His promises after He had cut out from under her any other reason for Him to help her.  He wasn’t going to help her because of her nationality, because she was not of Israel.  She was a Canaanite, a group of people whom the Jews of those times often referred to as “dogs.”  He wasn’t going to help her because of her crying and yelling after Him.  He helped her only because His nature was of love and mercy.  He helped her because not only the Israelites but all people were among those who are to humbly and thankfully receive God’s gifts.  He helped her not because she was worthy of the help but because He is the one who helps people and upholds them.  That’s who He is, that’s His identity: the life-giver and life-sustainer, both here and in eternity.

God has not promised to take away all our pains and griefs and troubles in this world.  After all, if He did away with everything that’s wrong with this world the easy way, He’d do away with us sinners too.  But He has promised to take away the guilt of our sins and to give us eternal life.  In eternal life we will have no more problems, troubles, and fears.  In eternal life every tear will be wiped away from our eyes.  In this life we may experience times that feel an awful lot like hell to us.  Sometimes those hells are of our own making, whether because we have refused God’s Law and done what we ought not, or whether we have refused the Gospel, disobeyed the First Commandment, and imprisoned ourselves in a nightmare of guilt and self-blame.  But we have His promise that this too shall pass.  And we believe His promise, we have faith in His promise, not because we see Him working, not because we feel Him working, but because He is the one who gave us this promise.  Despite everything we might see and feel, He is still there watching out for us and providing us with daily bread, and more importantly with the forgiveness of sins, eternal life and salvation.  Even we dogs, we poor miserable sinners, get to eat the crumbs which fall from the master’s table.  And these “crumbs” are nothing less than the body and blood of Jesus Christ Himself.  These “crumbs” grant nothing less than eternal life and salvation to those who receive them.  We don’t deserve it, but God has given us to participate in the eternal feast of victory which has no end.  God may not always seem to be gracious to us if we only use our five senses.  But to the eyes of faith, which see the promises of His Word and the body and blood of His Supper for what they are, the richest blessings imaginable are ours.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Daily Drowning

Sermon on Matthew 14:22-33
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
August 10, 2014 (Ninth Sunday after Pentecost)

We’ve all been in situations where we felt like we were overwhelmed.  There have been times in all of our lives when there are so many demands on our time, our energy and our abilities that we cannot even concentrate on our ordinary, day-to-day tasks.  Whether we have been overcommitted at work, or at school, or found it difficult to balance family with other obligations, or even something as simple as forgetting an important family anniversary or birthday, this kind of hopeless feeling is not all that uncommon, especially in our busy age.  The hopeless, sinking feeling we get is the figurative equivalent of the hopelessness and doom Peter felt when he was literally sinking into the waters of Galilee.  And as with Peter, the worst part of it all is the fact that we are to blame for the impossible situation we are in.  We are responsible, and we will be doomed when the whole thing comes crashing down around us.  In extreme cases, we feel our life will be over.  Sometimes those who cannot face the consequences of their actions may even commit suicide to avoid the condemnation they are sure the world is going to heap upon them.

I suspect that there is a reason that we human beings so easily give in to despair and overwhelming guilt.  We know deep down that we are at least partially to blame for many of our problems.  And even the non-Christian knows, even though many of them won’t admit it, that there is a God who made the universe, who is angry over sin, and who will condemn the sinner.  And the truly frightening thing is that apart from Christ, they’re right.  Apart from Christ and His Gospel and His Sacraments, God is an angry God who condemns the sinner.  This knowledge colors everything a man does and thinks, especially when he is burdened with guilt.

The reaction of depression and despair is natural in those who know nothing of a loving God in Christ Jesus.  However, to us who know Christ, whose foreheads are marked with His cross in Baptism, the reaction of helpless, paralyzing despair that many of us experience, the reaction that Peter probably was experiencing as he sank into the waves, is a reaction that demonstrates unbelief.  It is a reaction that shows doubt in a God who loves and cares about us and will see us through these kinds of problems.  Our Lord chastised Peter for his lack of faith.  That admonition applies to us as well.

But when you are in the midst of a situation where it seems the world is caving in on you, where nothing you do can avert disaster, simply saying that your reaction to the situation is a symptom of doubt and unbelief doesn’t help.  It only increases the guilt and despair, for not only have I let down everyone on this earth I love, but I’ve let down God as well.  Indeed, there is only one thing that does help such a person in any truly lasting sense, and that is for God Himself to come to that person in His Word, His baptismal water, His body and blood, and tell that person that his sins are forgiven, and that no matter what the outcome of his current problems he will be with God in heaven for eternity.  This is what our Lord did for Peter in the sea of Galilee.  He pulled him out of the water.  He demonstrated His love and His forgiveness by saving the very man who was doubting His promises.  It was only after Peter was safe that he scolded him for his lack of faith.  His first response was to restore that faith by saving Peter.

But Peter did die in the sea of Galilee that day.  That’s right, I said that Peter died there in the water.  Now, before you go accusing me of saying that the Bible is lying to us, let me explain.  The Peter who doubted our Lord’s promises, the Peter who gave in to despair and fear, that Peter did not survive.  When Jesus stretched out His hand and pulled Peter out of the water, it was a different Peter he pulled out, a Peter who believed our Lord’s promises and relied confidently on His ability to save.  In a sense, the old Peter, or rather the old Adam in Peter, was drowned so that a new Peter, a new man in Christ, might come forth and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.  By saving Peter, Jesus killed the old Adam who thought that Jesus could not save him.

What really happened out there on the sea of Galilee was that Peter was returned to the time when he was baptized.  Most scholars assume that the disciples Jesus chose had been baptized by John the Baptist, since we never read of them being baptized by Jesus.  Back there at the Jordan river, God worked though the hands of John the Baptist to drown the old Peter so that a new Peter could arise.  Just like every one of us, though, the old Peter refused to die, and so he had to be drowned again every day.  As Luther says in the Catechism, “Baptism signifies that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins, and that daily a new man should come forth to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”  What happened to Peter on that day in the sea of Galilee was simply an unusually graphic example of this process at work.

Now, this daily renewal of our Baptism doesn’t usually happen in such an extraordinary way.  But God is rich in His grace.  Often in the midst of the worst despair a verse of Scripture, the memory of a particularly powerful sermon, the forgiveness of a caring friend, or on Sunday morning the forgiveness of God Himself in the words of the pastor’s absolution, or any one of a host of other things will come into our minds and reassure us that we do have a loving God who will see us safely through all our earthly troubles so that we can be forever with Him in heaven.  We have all experienced such comforts in times of trial.  But we don’t usually think of them in terms of death.  But that is what happens when God speaks through a friend or a pastor to remind us of God’s promises.  The old Adam is put to death, and the new man, the new Christ in us, comes out of the Baptismal water to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.

Martin Luther was often assailed by doubts and fears.  After all, he had a big job.  There have been Lutherans around for almost 5 centuries, so we may not realize what he was up against.  In Luther’s day, the true doctrine seemed new.  False doctrine had been taught by the Church’s highest officials for centuries.  In this kind of environment, its not surprising that even Luther himself sometimes doubted whether or not what he was doing was right.  Satan would taunt him mercilessly, trying to get him to forsake the reformation he had started.  But in the moments of his worst doubt, his worst despair, Luther would cry out, “Nevertheless, I am baptized!”  The fact of Luther’s Baptism was his comfort against the doubts and tricks planted by Satan in his heart.  He knew that even if some of his ideas were a little off (they weren’t), even if what he had done was more of a harm to the church than a help (it wasn’t), that God had still claimed him as His own and would still take his soul to be with Him at the end.  He knew that on the last day his body would be raised, and he would, as he put it, “live before God in righteous and purity forever.”    Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Bread and Compassion

Sermon on Matthew 14:13-21
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
August 3, 2014 (Seventh Sunday after Pentecost)

What is a god?  Luther in the Large Catechism answers it this way: “A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress.”  In other words, whatever is the most important thing to us, whatever it is we look to for strength when the going gets rough, that is our god.  Of course, only the true God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, can actually satisfy the needs of humankind when it comes to Luther’s definition here.  Only the true God can be so powerful and yet at the same time so merciful, that He really can be, without failing, “that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress.”  In fact, it is His merciful, loving nature that makes Him God.  He is the one who made  us and all creation, and He’s the one who orders it for our good.

So, when today’s Gospel says that Jesus “had compassion” on the great crowd, it’s not just telling us what emotions the man Jesus happened to be feeling.  It’s telling us that this Jesus is the one who “made me and all creatures, … given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them.”  It’s not just that Jesus has compassion, it’s that He is compassion.  It’s not just that He has mercy, it’s that He is mercy.  The very definition of the word god emphasizes that He cannot do otherwise than give and support His creatures.

Jesus had been in the wilderness before.  He had been asked to make bread before.  He had been asked to show that He’s God before.  “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread.”  And what does the Word Incarnate say to this?  He quotes the Word that’s written down.  “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”  And yet here He is, in the wilderness, making bread.  Only, He’s making bread for others, not Himself.  God is God not in proving simply that He’s powerful and can do stuff.  God is God in having mercy and compassion.  He has no need to prove Himself, but He does provide for His creatures.

“If you are the Son of God, come down and save yourself.”  Satan spoke through the mouths of those who stood nearby and mocked Jesus at His crucifixion, with the same temptation he had given Jesus in the wilderness.  If you are the Son of God, save yourself.  Do something for yourself.  Do something besides, well, being God.  Don’t provide for Your fallen creation, do something impressive for yourself.  Don’t give Your life as a ransom for many, prove you’re God by denying everyone eternal salvation and defending Your own pride and honor.  The problem is that, precisely because He is God, He can’t go around proving that He’s God.  God is almighty and infinite and all-knowing and so on, but it’s not these things which make Him God according to the way we Lutherans talk about Him.  What makes Him God is the fact that He uses His infinite power and wisdom in a way that provides for and nurtures His creation.  God has all sorts of attributes, but He is love and mercy and compassion.

And so the God who refused to make bread in the wilderness for Himself, makes bread in the wilderness for His people.  After all, that’s what He’s always done.  Not just feeding 5,000 here or 4,000 there as we read in the Gospels, but for a whole nation for over forty years.  But even that is nothing compared to what He does for His people now.  By His death He gives us Himself as bread, as we journey through this wilderness we call this old, sin-sick world.  He allows us to live forever in His new creation, by being buried in this old one.  He who is the resurrection and the life gives us Himself.  The bread we break here is His body and blood.  It comes straight from the Cross, it is partaken of by millions of Christians every Sunday, and has been for almost 2,000 years.  If you want to talk about miracles, talk about that.  Coming down from the cross would have meant nothing.  Providing for His people by staying up there so that He could work a greater miracle and give His people the new creation, is the greatest miracle of all.  Resurrecting us who belong to this old world and who are dying its death, by giving us bread that belongs to new life, is what God does.  It’s what He is.  Compassion.  Mercy.  Pity.  Love.  That’s what God is about.  He serves us by burying Himself in us sinners under bread and wine, and thereby brings us to Himself in eternity.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +