Saturday, October 25, 2014

You Shall Be Free Indeed

Sermon on John 8:31-36
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
October 26, 2014 (Reformation Day, transferred)

Whoever commits sin is a slave to sin.  With these words Jesus shatters a whole world full of illusions and self-deception.  Most people think of the ability to commit sin as a matter of freedom and rights.  The more options you have open to you, the more choices you can make, the freer you are.  Especially in areas where Christianity and most other religions for that matter have identified your behavior as wrong.  That’s the way most people think.  To say that sin leads not to freedom but slavery, as Jesus does, seems alien to many people in the world today.

But it’s true.  God created us in such a way that we are to serve Him and our neighbor.  Our hereditary defect of sin, however, causes us to always be looking out for ourselves, to always be trying to figure out what I can get out of any situation.  And the sins we commit themselves capture us.  Habits form.  Even when we no longer want to be the way we are, it’s so much easier to keep making the choices we’ve made before rather than break those habits.  Even when we know its wrong, even when we know it will be hurtful to ourselves or to our relationships with each other or our God, we find ourselves doing the same things, committing the same sins, over and over again, often without even realizing we did it until after the fact.  Sin enslaves us.  It doesn’t seem so bad at first, but when the consequences catch up, they catch up with a vengeance, and usually only after the sin has become habitual and very difficult to resist.  Especially when you consider that even outward righteousness doesn’t really free you from this slavery.  Even the Pharisees, the most outwardly righteous people who lived in Jesus’ day, are slaves to sin, because their behavior shows that their decisions are dominated by it.  The fear of sinning which causes a person to follow an overly-complex set of man-made rules and regulations is itself a form of slavery, and it was also this kind of slavery from which Jesus came to free us, and against which Martin Luther later fought so hard in terms of the Roman papacy of his day.  The Pharisees followed their complex system because they were afraid of sinning.  The medieval church also created that kind of fear in the hearts of the people, as we can see from the amount of money they were willing to shell out for indulgences.  A person who is constantly afraid of sinning is dominated by sin just as much as is someone who is constantly giving in to the temptation.  He is simply not free.  And besides, often this extreme fear of sinning also causes people not to do good when they have the opportunity, for fear of sinning.  Fear of sin paralyzes a person and causes him to sin by not doing what he should do, because he’s afraid of sinning by doing what he shouldn’t.  And this only makes the cycle worse.

Over against the slavery to sin, both the slavery of indulgence and the slavery of fear of sin which leads to the sale of indulgences, Christ stands and promises to set us free.  “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed.  And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”  He is the one who can set us free, for He as God has authority over sin, death, and the devil which have enslaved us.  He is the Son of God the Father, and as the Son he can free those who are slaves.  The power of sin is not broken when we try our hardest to not sin.  The power of sin is broken when the sins we have committed, and those we will yet commit, are forgiven and no longer held against us.  This breaks the fear and the despair which lead us either into works-righteousness and paralysis or deeper into the addiction to actual outward sins.  Forgiveness carries with it the power of the Holy Spirit to amend our sinful lives, and to live as God’s free children rather than as hired servants in His world.

We have become the adopted children of God’s house because the Son of God became one of us and became our brother.  His innocent life, his suffering and death, and His resurrection and ascension set the pattern for our life, death, resurrection, and eternal life.  Where Christ has gone there we shall go, and in fact we have already gone through those things in Holy Baptism.  We already in this world partake of the feast of Heaven in the body and blood of Christ Jesus.  We already have a life that is free from sin, though while we yet live in this world this is hidden underneath the old sinful nature and the old troubles, pains and hurts.  But even while we are troubled by temptations and by guilt from our sins, and even while we suffer and must put up with life in this sinful world, we are already living the new life which Christ has given us.  We have already died and been raised with Christ, and this freedom gives us the ability to live as God’s free people in this sinful world.

This is the kind of freedom that the Reformation was about: not a political freedom, not a freedom from government authority, not a freedom to do whatever we want, and not even the noble freedoms we enjoy as Americans, but freedom from sin, freedom from condemnation, freedom from hell.  The Gospel, which grants us this freedom, is what the Reformation was all about, and it is still what the Lutheran Church is all about.  The Festival of the Reformation is not just a celebration of an old historical event or the Lutheran equivalent of a patriotic party.  The Reformation is not about bashing other Christians, even though we must recognize and clearly point out that many other Christian church bodies are indeed wrong about what this freedom means for us as well as about certain other things the Bible teaches.  The Reformation is not even about the church war between the Lutherans and the Pope, even though it’s true that many of the concerns Luther raised in his day are still a concern to us Lutherans today.  Instead, the Reformation is a commemoration of the larger war against sin, death, and the devil which was won by Jesus Christ by dying on the cross and rising again for our justification.  Sin, death, and the devil no longer enslave you.  The Son has set you free, and so you are free indeed.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, October 18, 2014

God's Image and Inscription

Sermon on Matthew 22:15-22
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
October 19, 2014 (19th Sunday after Pentecost)

The Pharisees and the Herodians were not honestly seeking to learn from Jesus by asking the question they asked.  They were trying to trap Him.  These, in fact, were people who almost never spent time with one another.  The Pharisees wanted to bring back the glory days when Jerusalem, under king Solomon, ruled the known world.  The Herodians were those loyal to the Roman puppet king Herod, allied with the hated tax collectors, of all people.  The fact that they even showed up together was a huge, flashing red light that something wasn’t right here.  They make it even worse by prefacing their question with all sorts of compliments which already make Him sound dangerous to both sides.  And then they purposely asked a question for which both answers were problematic.  The question is a trap.  Either answer is bad for him.  It’s like the question, “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?”  Either a yes or a no answer is bad for the person, because the assumption behind the question is wrong.  He either upsets the people, who think He’s the one that will bring back the greatness of the kingdom, or He openly advocates rebellion and gets Himself put to death as a traitor.  Of course, that’s the accusation that got Him put to death only a few days later anyway, but if He’d fallen into the trap here the accusation would actually have been true.

But Jesus gets out of the trap by pointing out that it was Caesar who issued the money in the first place.  His face and his inscription are on it, and so it really belongs to him anyway.  Since Caesar issued the money, he has a right to demand it back.  But, by the same token, we are also to render to God the things that belong to Him.  And that means that there are certain boundary lines Caesar should not cross.  If Caesar demands that his subjects do things that are against God, those subjects have the duty to disobey him, even though they still obey him when his commands are within the sphere of authority God has given him.  Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.

Now, that’s not to say that any one particular form or government enjoys God’s special favor.  We happen to live in a constitutional republic (sometimes mistakenly referred to as a democracy).  All our human rulers swear to uphold a higher ruler than themselves, known as the Constitution.  And, since the highest law of our land guarantees us the freedom of religion, we do give thanks that God has graciously allowed us to be relatively free of religious persecution here.  This is a good thing.  But obviously Jesus wasn’t talking about the United States here; it would be some 1800 years before our Constitution would be written.  He was talking about the hated oppressor Caesar.  Every government, even ones that we would regard as oppressive and horrible, are also used by God to keep peace and order in society.  Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship was terrible, but He was an equal-opportunity oppressor.  He was a Muslim, but his second in command was a Roman Catholic.  As a secular ruler, he was very effective from keeping the Islamic majority in Iraq from killing or driving out the Christians in that country.  The sort of thing ISIS is doing right now is what results when you remove that stabilizing force.  Even Communist regimes keep the roads paved and the electricity flowing, which are blessings even for those who have to worship in secret.    And so governments are to be respected, precisely because it is God who is keeping peace and order in society for our benefit through them.  But they belong to this world, as do money and the things that it can by.  They and their money also belong to God, and so they are to be respected, but only when they keep to their own sphere, that is, the things that belong to this old world.  And, by the way, this includes not just rulers of nations, but everyone who has authority in one way or another, beginning with parents, and including bosses and whoever else has a claim on our time and resources in this world.

But there’s more here than just a clever way out of an attempted trap set for our Lord.  The coin they brought to Him had the image of Caesar and the inscription of Caesar stamped upon it.  And so, because it bore Caesar’s image and His inscription, it was Caesar’s.  It belonged to this world, just as Caesar does.  But how do we know what is God’s?  The same way.  By God’s image and God’s inscription.  And where do we find that image of God?  What things bear the image of God?  We learn from Genesis that mankind was created in the image of God.  This means that everything we are and everything we have is God’s, because we bear His image within ourselves.  This isn’t just a matter of giving to Church or to charity, although one way we confess the fact that we are His is by giving generously to the Church and to those who need our help in our midst.  This is a matter of confessing that everything we are and everything we have is His.  There is no part of our life, no aspect of our being, that He does not claim.  His image is upon all of it.  We are created in His image.
Of course, mankind lost that image when he fell into sin.  We have all inherited that sin from Adam and so are separated from our Creator.  This is why He sent His Son Jesus Christ to die and rise again so that our old sinful nature could be drowned and die in Holy Baptism, and a new man come forth and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.  In Holy Baptism a new name was inscribed on your hearts, the name of Jesus Christ.  Christ claimed you again as His own, so that you could live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness.  You were recreated, reborn, in that font, so that now you have once again the image of God in you, not only in your heart but in your whole being and in the living out of your life.  Where do we find that which is God’s?  Where His image and inscription are.  Where are that image and inscription?  On our hearts and in our lives.

We belong to God.  Yes, that is a great responsibility, but it is also a great comfort.  Part of the duty of the government is to watch over and protect us from those who would hurt us.  But the police and the sheriff’s deputies can’t be everywhere at once, and even though in our nation we also have the right to keep and bear arms to defend ourselves, we also can’t be everywhere at once.  Sometimes our fellow sinners are still able to take advantage of us, to rob us or even rape or murder us.  But God’s vigilance over us never fails.  Nothing happens that He does not know about and use for our benefit.  Even the ultimate evil that could happen to us, namely death, is now the gate of life for us.  And how do we know we have eternal life?  We have God’s image and His inscription.  We belong to Him.  And He will defend and keep what is His own.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, October 11, 2014

LWML Sunday

Sermon on Luke 11:14-28
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
October 12, 2014 (LWML Sunday)

“Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it.”  Most Christians, including many Lutherans, would paraphrase this passage from the end of today’s Gospel in this way: “If you hear God’s word and do what it says, God will bless you.”  But a more accurate paraphrase of what Jesus actually said here would go something like this: “Treasuring God’s Word in your heart and mind, will be a blessing to you.”  On the surface, those two paraphrases don’t sound all that different.  But really, there is a huge difference there.  The first version emphasizes doing what God says, and really doesn’t have much at all to do with what God did for us.  Not to mention the fact that in this old world, doing what God says doesn’t always have any connection to the sorts of blessings we may or may not have here.  There are plenty of people who live corrupt, dishonest, and downright sinful lives who have huge houses, fancy cars, and so on.  And there are many outwardly righteous people who barely manage to scrape by.  The world hasn’t ever been fair since Adam and Eve, and it never will be until Judgment Day.  And so the idea that if we follow His Law He will bless us, just doesn’t hold water.

God’s blessings come from treasuring the Word of God in our hearts, like Mary did.  The word keep here actually means to defend, to regard as important, to treasure something. The Word we are to treasure isn’t just God’s Law (in fact, God’s Law isn’t even the first and foremost thing we are to treasure).  The most important thing we are to treasure in our hearts is the Gospel, the good news that God sent His Son to be the only possible sacrifice for the sin of the world, the only sacrifice which is well-pleasing to God, a sweet aroma rising to Him.

And that brings us to the theme that the LWML has chosen for this day, based on the second verse of our epistle lesson.  It is Jesus who offers the perfect sacrifice for our sins.  His righteousness, given to us in the washing of regeneration and renewal, is what covers our sins.  To borrow the metaphor from today’s Epistle, the sweet aroma of His sacrifice is what covers over the stench of our sin.  It’s only because of His sacrifice that anything we do could possibly be pleasing to Him.  Outside of Christ’s sacrifice, we might do good things that help our neighbor, but God isn’t impressed.  All our righteousness is filthy rags.  It’s only when the white robe of Christ’s righteousness, given us in Holy Baptism, covers our sin that anything we do can possibly please Him.  After all, believers’ righteousness isn’t their own.  It’s only Jesus who is pleasing to His Father.  And that’s true not just of His earthly life, but of the life He lives in, with and under our lives here on earth.  It’s not we who do good works, it’s Jesus.

And that brings us to the LWML, for whose work for missions and human care we give thanks today.  We do thank God for the many ways in which this organization has helped any number of missionary and charitable projects conducted by various elements of our church body.  They’re very good at what they do.  But their work doesn’t please God either, unless those works are done in faith.  The LWML’s work isn’t pleasing to God by itself, no matter how much good they may do.  It’s only when Christ’s righteousness covers their sin, too, that anything they do is pleasing to Him.  While we do give thanks to God for their work, we dare never forget that nothing we or they do helps us before His throne.  Only Christ can do that.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Rent

Sermon on Matthew 21:33-46
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
October 5, 2014 (Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost)

Obviously the tenants were being stupid.  How could they possibly think that by committing murder, murder of the owner’s own son, no less, that they would inherit anything from the owner?  Who in his right mind would think that by beating up or killing the guy that came around to collect the rent check that they would become owners of the apartment?  It just doesn’t make any sense at all.  Of course they would be evicted.  And not only would they be evicted, they’d be thrown into prison, and possibly (depending on what state they lived in) sentenced to capital punishment.  What kind of stupidity is this?

It’s the kind of stupidity that comes from the same place in our hearts as the place where Eve’s idea that she could be like God came from.  God is the owner of everything.  He is the one who made it all, and so He’s the one that gets to decide what to do with it all.  We’re merely tenants when it comes to this world.  Even the stuff we legally own from the perspective of this world and its social order, isn’t really ours, because even the social order that determines what we do and do not own, is something God made.  We’re strangers here.  We only inhabit our homes, use our cars, and even use our own bodies for a short period of time.

But we like to think we own these things, don’t we.  The classical definition of the word “property” is that you get to determine what happens to something.  If you are the one who determines whether to sell or keep something, whether to give it away or not, how much you’re going to sell it for if you do decide to sell it, and so on, that thing is your property.  And in this old world, that idea is very important, because it keeps people from abusing each other by simply taking what they need without regard for the needs of the original owner.  The Seventh Commandment has something to say about that.  But where we get into trouble is when we start to apply the idea of ownership to our relationship with God.

We don’t own our own bodies, God does.  We don’t own our own stuff, God does.  We don’t even own our own reputations.  God owns all of that stuff.  And we don’t like that.  After all, there are plenty of things we could do if God didn’t have a claim on our bodies and lives.  In fact, we do that stuff anyway, don’t we?  Disobedience and hatred for those in authority, murder, lust, theft, gossip, are all things we do, as if we owned our own bodies and possessions and could do whatever we wanted with them.  What’s worse, is that we think we own our relationship with God Himself, as if we could get Him to do what we wanted.

But that’s not the case.  The vineyard isn’t ours.  We’re disobedient, hateful, and lazy tenants.  When this is pointed out to us, our old sinful natures rise up and want to kill those who point it out.  Some even get so mad at God that they wish He didn’t exist (and that’s what most–but not all–modern atheists are, by the way, not people who objectively believe He doesn’t exist, but people who resent His existence and and wish He weren’t there).  We don’t want to pay the rent, because it would mean admitting that someone else owns what we think is ours.  And so we kill the Son.  We are the ones who, by our rebelliousness drove the nails into His hands and feet, the crown into His head, and the sword into His side.

But when it comes to our relationship with God, and the fact that He is our landlord and we merely tenants, our response to Him becomes even more bizarre.  Yes, we try to kill Him and pretend that we owned ourselves and our stuff.  But what rent is it that He demands?  Most would say that He is looking for good works.  Most, even among Christians, would say that He is looking for works of charity.  Or that He’s looking for a pure life in which we, by our own willpower, resist temptations to sin.  Some would even say, as silly as it sounds, that God is looking for the good work of saying the Our Father, the Creed, and the Hail Mary a certain number of times.  And it is true that God doesn’t want us to break His commandments, as much for our own well-being as because He told us to do these things.

But these good works, by themselves, are not the rent which God demands of us.  The “rent” He would have us show is very easy and very light.  In fact, it’s something He creates inside of us.  It’s not something we can or should bring forth in and of ourselves.  Why we would rather kill God than pay the “rent” He is looking for is completely absurd.  The “rent” He demands of us is simply that we believe and trust in Him as the one who forgives our selfishness.  And even this trust is something that He did, that He created.  He was the one who created in us a clean heart and renewed a right spirit within us.  He is the one who put us on that cross that we used to try to kill Him.  He is the one who made us into creatures who trust in Him.  He is the one who sustains and nourishes that new self by giving us His own body and His own blood, which we nailed to the cross, as our heavenly food.  The “rent” he demands is that we receive from Him the good gifts He gives.  In other words, it’s not really rent at all in the sense in which we use this term.  What God expects is what He Himself gives.  We pay our “rent” by getting gifts from Him.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +