Sunday, February 22, 2015

God Tempts No One

Sermon on Mark 1:9-15
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
February 22, 2015 (First Sunday in Lent)

What is the Sixth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer?  “And lead us not into temptation.”  What does this mean?  “God tempts no one.  We pray in this petition that God would guard and keep us so that the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh may not deceive us or mislead us into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice.”  Okay, we can see where Luther got that explanation from the section of James that was read as our Epistle lesson for today.  But what it doesn’t explain is what happened to Abraham and Isaac in our Old Testament reading, or for that matter that it was the Spirit which drove Jesus into the wilderness in order to be tempted.  How can we say that God tempts no one if it was God the Holy Spirit who drove Jesus Himself, God the Son, into the wilderness precisely in order to be tempted?  How can we say that God tempts no one if it was He that put a test on Abraham to see if he would obey God or not?  After all, the Greek and Hebrew words for “tempt” and “test” are actually the same word.  Is it really true, as the Catechism and St. James teach us, that “God tempts no one?”  For that matter, isn’t it supposed to be Satan, not God, who does the tempting?  How can God and Satan be involved in the same activity together?

Let’s bring this a little closer to home.  If God is good, and He is almighty, how is it that we are allowed to wander into situations where sin beckons to us and crouches at our doorstep?  Can’t He stop us from being put into situations where someone has left their belongings unguarded?  Or where we know a bit of juicy gossip about someone that we can hardly resist sharing?  Or where someone else besides the one God has joined us to looks more attractive or even like a better fit than our own spouse?  Or when a loved one is dying and we have prayed with all our might that He would heal them, with seemingly no response, and it looks to us like perhaps God doesn’t even exist?  If God is almighty, can’t He simply prevent us from even experiencing the opportunity for “false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice,” as Luther puts it?

The fact is, however, if we were outwardly sinless and perfect (because temptation simply never came our way) that itself would be a temptation.  For us, the descendants of Adam and Eve, even keeping the Law is itself a form of temptation.  Look how good I’m doing.  Look how righteous I am.  I thank you that I’m not like that tax collector over there.  And instead of praising God, we praise ourselves.  In keeping us completely away from the more obvious temptations, God would then be tempting us with the subtle and most dangerous temptation of all, namely the temptation to put ourselves instead of Him on the throne of our hearts.

The problem of temptation is simply the problem of sin.  It’s not God’s will that sin be in the world in the first place.  It wasn’t His will that Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  It’s not His will that we face difficult choices in our lives, in which even though one path is clearly right and the other clearly wrong, the wrong path looks so much easier or more attractive.  It’s not His will that we face those even more difficult choices where both paths involve an element of sin and the only thing we can do is, as Luther put it, “sin boldly.”  None of this was what God created us for.  None of it is what He wanted for us.

But that’s where our Gospel lesson comes in.  It is precisely the sin, the brokenness, the hardship, the helplessness, and the hopelessness of living in a sin-filled world with sin-filled hearts, that our Lord became man in order to take into Himself.  He was tempted precisely because we are tempted.  He who knew no sin became sin for us.  And He won the victory over it.  The small victory he won over Satan in the wilderness foreshadows the much greater victory He won by staying on that cross and giving His life as a ransom for many.  The only way to deal with the problem of sin, and therefore the problem of temptation to sin, was to take it upon Himself.  The only way to deal with Satan was to defeat him so thoroughly that even his worst weapons, the temptation to false belief and despair, are now tools that He uses to bring us closer to Him.  Luther was fond of saying that the devil is now “God’s devil.”  The worst he can throw at us is now a tool God uses to drive us to His Word and Sacraments, to draw us closer to Himself.

And so it’s precisely when Satan tempts us that God is testing our faith, not in order to weaken it, but in order to strengthen it.  It’s precisely when we are given the occasion for false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice that we also have the opportunity to further refine and temper the true faith, trust, and righteousness that is now ours in Christ Jesus.  God doesn’t tempt us, but at the same time He does.  He tests us, not in order to knock us down, but as training so that we learn all the more to lean on Him and His righteousness when we know our own is completely worthless.  It is precisely when we are weak, in other words, that He is strong.  He uses testing to teach us that He is the one who is our strength, and we can’t learn that unless we first see how weak we ourselves really are.

God allows us to be knocked down so that He will be able to raise us up.  God puts Abraham in a no-win situation so that Abraham will rely solely on God’s promises that He will provide the lamb for the burnt offering.  It is precisely when Abraham thinks he has no choice but to murder his own son, that God puts faith in him that even so God will still fulfill His promise to provide the true Lamb who will take away the sins of the world.  It’s possible that he thought Isaac was that Lamb, that Messiah.  But the lamb caught in the undergrowth nearby served as the substitute, just as Jesus is our substitute, the one who undergoes temptation, suffering, and even death in our place.  God did provide the Lamb for the burnt offering.  God did take our place in the trackless desert of temptation, where we can’t find our way and it looks like all paths lead nowhere.  In His stead, then, we receive the straight road that leads to eternity, the road marked not by our own fleeting mirage of victory, but by His cross and seeming defeat.  Does God tempt us?  Did He tempt His Son?  In one sense, yes.  But in view of His ultimate purpose of salvation, no.  He only knocks down so that He can raise up.  He only breaks so that He can heal.  He only kills so that He can make alive.  He doesn’t tempt us for the sake of judgment, but for the sake of fixing our eyes on Jesus who won the victory for us all.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Dust

Sermon on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
February 18, 2015 (Ash Wednesday)

“Remember, O man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  This paraphrase of Genesis 3:19 is what is said when ashes are placed on Christians’ foreheads in many churches on Ash Wednesday.  While we at Holy Cross haven’t been practicing the imposition of ashes, the verse which accompanies it is worth keeping in mind.  God made Adam from the dust of the ground, and when we who came from him die we will eventually become dust again.  Life lived only for the sake of this world is simply futile.  Vanity, says St. Solomon.  Nothing that is done in this world will last.  We will die, and what we have built for ourselves will belong to someone else, who will eventually die and again it will become someone else’s.  And on Judgment Day, everything in this old creation that hasn’t already fallen down, been blown up, or washed away will be destroyed with fervent heat, as atoms and molecules and even smaller particles come undone at the command of their creator.

Humanity doesn’t want to be dust.  Humanity doesn’t want its works and its ways to become nothing.  Humanity wants to become its own god.  That, after all, was what the serpent in the garden whispered to us: “You shall be like God.”  We want to be admired.  We want to be worshiped.  We want to be remembered.  We want to impress.  But our Creator is, by definition, greater than anything we can come up with.  And so our desire to be worshiped convinces us to ignore Him and deny His very existence, as the very idea of an infinitely intelligent and infinitely powerful being stands in the way of humanity’s desire to become lord and master of all.

How ironic, then, that the way our rejected Creator solves the problem is not by boasting, not by demonstrating His mighty power (although He can and does do that simply by reminding us that nature itself isn’t under our control in the form of hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, wildfires and the like), but in becoming one of us.  He who created the dust itself was made man, made from dust.  He who breathed life into the first man suffers death at the hands of His fellow men.  The real Lord and Master of all doesn’t need to boast of His status and His greatness, and so it’s no problem for Him to become one of us, live a humble life, and die a painful and undeserved death.  He who built it all lived not for his own greatness but for the love of His fellow men.  He went down with the creation He made into the grave, so that He could rebuild it in His own resurrection.  And His greatest glory is found in this, that He did it not to brag or boast of His power, but for the love of His bride the Church.

Laying up treasures on earth is not only against Jesus’ command in today’s Gospel.  It’s also futile.  You are dust, and shall return to the dust.  Laying up treasure in heaven, however, doesn’t mean trying to impress people by being “spiritual,” either.  Things done for supposedly religious reasons in this world will also turn to dust.  It’s not just monuments like the Tower of Babel raised in defiance or rejection of the Creator, but also houses of worship which have turned to dust over the millennia.  Certainly it is good to praise God, to worship Him, and to confess Him before our friends and neighbors, but even that can be done for the wrong reasons.  Phariseeism is in all of our hearts, and it’ll be there until we do, in fact, return to the dust we came from.

Rather, laying up treasure in heaven means regarding as valuable and important those things which give us heaven.  Our true treasures are not those things we do, whether we do them for ourselves or even supposedly for God, but those things our Creator has given us that bring us into the new creation.  Our watery grave in which we died with Christ only to be resurrected with Him by water connected with and comprehended in God’s Word.  The speaking of our Creator, which comes true even if it had not already been true, which declares you citizens of the new heavens and the new earth, forgiven, restored to God’s fellowship, and perfect.  And the body and blood of our crucified and risen God Himself, the first-fruits of the new creation which will not turn to dust, rust, or be stolen.  These are your true treasures, the things God gives you that have Himself, His Father, and the Holy Spirit hidden within, and therefore grant eternity with Him.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, February 15, 2015

A Small Church?

Sermon on Mark 9:2-9
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
February 15, 2015 (The Transfiguration of our Lord)

In today’s text, we see Jesus choose His three closest disciples and lead them up onto a mountaintop.  This is the point in Jesus’ ministry when He sets His face toward Jerusalem.  He begins the long, slow journey that will eventually result in His death for our sins.  This journey would be a depressing and confusing one for the disciples, since to them it would seem like their Lord had gone crazy.  He is heading toward the one place where human wisdom and common sense tells them He absolutely must avoid.  He is heading straight for a sure and certain death at the hands of the chief priests and the Roman government, and that’s suicidal madness as far as worldly thinking is concerned.  And so the disciples would be sorely tried and tested over the next months, as they will have to face a series of events that will seem like the defeat and collapse of everything their Master has being doing throughout His ministry.

To prepare them for this, to strengthen them for this, Jesus undergoes the transfiguration we see in today’s text.  Because to the disciples it will look like their church is falling apart and being destroyed by their leader’s supposed mistake of going to Jerusalem, Jesus strengthens them and reassures them by letting them see the heavenly reality of Who it is that is with them.  He lets them see some measure of what He looks like to those who have been glorified in heaven.  He lets them see two of the saints who are with Him in eternal life, Moses and Elijah.  He does all this because the disciples need to know that there is more going on than what they will see with their own eyes.  They are not being misled or betrayed by Jesus when He gives Himself up into the hands of the authorities.  Instead, all these things are happening according to God the Father’s plan.  Jesus cannot truly be defeated because He is God the Son.  The cross is not a defeat for Christ, even though that is what it looks like.  Instead, death is swallowed up by death.  It’s sting is lost forever.

Now, it may be tempting for us to be troubled when things aren’t going as well for the Church as we would like.  It may be tempting to despair or doubt when we see that our congregation is not doing as well numerically as it may have in times past.  It may be tempting to feel that God has turned His back on us or that we are somehow doing something wrong in terms of the way we worship or the way we live as Christians.  It can be tempting to think that God has abandoned us.  But make no mistake about it, to think this way is a temptation is from Satan.  No one else but Satan would want us to think that God has abandoned us or is punishing us in some way because our congregation isn’t outwardly as strong or as healthy as we would like.  God has not abandoned us, even if we aren’t where we would like to be as a congregation right now.  He hasn’t abandoned us, any more than He abandoned His disciples.

There is one thing needful in our lives as Christians and as a congregation.  That one thing needful is Jesus Christ.  And with Christ comes a multitude of blessings.  With Christ comes the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation.  Giving us these things is the purpose of the Church, and so if we receive the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation from God here, our church is doing what it is supposed to.  Yes, it would be good to see more people here, especially younger people, and we should all encourage our friends and neighbors to join us here so that more do come to receive God’s salvation.  But if even only one person comes to faith through the preaching of the Word and administration of the Sacraments here—even if only one person is transferred from the realm of eternal death and hell into the blessedness of eternal life, our Church is serving its purpose.  Even if we don’t gain any new members, simply the fact that this Church is helping those members we now have to continue to be strengthened in their faith and kept on the narrow road that leads to the kingdom of God—this fact itself indicates that Christ is present with us and doing His work among us.  And that’s all we need to know.

And as I mentioned before, there are far more here than you can see and count.  The true number of those gathered here today is greater than anyone knows except for God alone.  For where Christ is, there all the saints are present as well.  Where Christ is, there are Moses and Elijah.  Where Christ is, there are Peter, James and John.  Where Christ is, there are Augustine, Luther, and all the other great theologians of Church History.  Where Christ is, there is the incredible number of nameless ordinary Christians who have fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith over the course of the centuries.  Where Christ is, there are our own loved ones who have died in the faith.  Where Christ is, there are our loved ones who are still living and continuing in the Christian faith in other places.  Where Christ is, there are the angels and the archangels and all the company of heaven.  And Christ is present among us now, as we have gathered in His name.  He is present not only in His Word but also and especially in His body and His blood.  We gather here to be strengthened by Him in their presence.  We join with them in their songs of “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth.”  We join them as they celebrate the victory feast of the lamb who was slain.

So, are we a small Church?  I’d say that, no, we aren’t.  There are thousands upon thousands worshiping with us today.  We all gather around the true altar where the Lamb makes Himself both the host and the meal in the victory banquet which is held in His honor.  This heavenly reality is revealed to us through God’s Word in order to strengthen us as we face the trials of life in this sinful world, where we cannot see or hear this great cloud of witnesses.  Our congregation, alongside every other Christian congregation in which the Word is rightly preached and the Sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, is nothing less than a visible manifestation of the otherwise invisible one, holy, Christian and apostolic Church which we confess in the Nicene Creed.  Are we a small church?  Of course not!  How can our Church be small, when all the host of heaven is here with us?  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, February 7, 2015

You Are Raised Up

Sermon on Mark 1:29-39
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
February 8, 2015 (The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany)

If it hadn’t been for the blizzard, we would have heard last Sunday about Jesus’ healing of a demon-possessed man who came forward to confront Him while He was preaching in the Synagogue.  Now he heals Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever, and then goes on to heal others and cast out more demons.  These are great and impressive miracles, of course.  Casting out demons, and healing people simply by speaking the Word is certainly not something you see every day.  It is a testimony to just Who Jesus is, that He has authority over even demons, not to mention mere physical illnesses.  But I think sometimes we might get caught up in the fact that Jesus is demonstrating His power here and showing that He is God.  There’s more to it than just the fact that Jesus is doing miracles.  It’s not just about Jesus’ sheer power.  Remember why it is that people get sick in the first place, and why it is that demons can possess people at all.  The creation itself has been fundamentally corrupted by the sin of its inhabitants.  All disease, hunger, thirst, injury, disaster, and, yes, even demon-possession, are symptoms of the fact that mankind, the crown of creation, is now subject to death, and therefore creation itself is subject to futility, instability, and breakdown.  Jesus’ mother-in-law’s fever, and the possession of various people by fallen angels, are things that are only symptoms of the basic disease of sin that was brought into the world by Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden.

And so, Jesus’ ability to heal people and drive out demons is more than just merely a miraculous demonstration of the fact that He’s God.  It’s more than just a rather dramatic way of proving His claim to be the promised Messiah.  It is, in fact, part and parcel of what He came to do.  He came to put to death the old creation in His own body, and raise up for us a new creation, in which we, cleansed and purified of sin and all its effects, will live forever.  He came, not just to do away with the effects of sin temporarily for a few people back in first-century Palestine, but to do away with sin itself, forever, and restore the creation to what it was originally intended to be.

Now, St. Mark actually hints at this in his choice of words to describe what Jesus does for Peter’s mother-in-law.  He comes to her and “raises her up,” says St. Mark.  Now, that doesn’t mean that she was actually dead and that He resurrected her.  But it is interesting that Mark uses the same word as what is later used to describe Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, and our own resurrection.  And then he says that the fever left her.  This one isn’t as easy to see in English, because Mark uses a Greek word that can be translated all sorts of ways, but the verb that is translated “left,” as in “the fever left her,” is actually the same word that is translated “forgive” when the object of the verb is sin.  Forgiveness and raising up go together.  Death is only in the world because of sin, and so the forgiveness of sin (and therefore of death, and therefore of disease that leads to death), results in the raising up, the resurrection, of those who are forgiven.

I mentioned last week, in connection with the fact that Jesus cast out, or exorcised, the demon in the synagogue, that Holy Baptism is actually an exorcism, a casting out of the chief demon himself, Satan, in order to make room for the Holy Spirit.  The same thing is true of Holy Absolution, the preaching of the Gospel, and the Holy Supper.  That which is corrupted, and desecrated by sin is destroyed to make way for the new creation that God will “raise up” to live before Him in righteousness and purity forever.

And I’m not just speaking of purely spiritual things, either.  Peter’s mother-in-law eventually died.  So did everyone else that Jesus healed during His earthly ministry.  But when Jesus forgives us and raises us up, He raises us up not just spiritually, but physically as well.  He makes us part of the new creation, the new heavens and new earth, in which righteousness dwells.  Even though the text doesn’t say explicitly, it’s a pretty good bet that Peter’s mother-in-law was a believer, and if that’s the case, even though she died, yet she lives.  Even though Peter himself was crucified upside down under Roman persecution, he lives in eternity.  You and I also, because our sin has been forgiven, are also raised up.  We will live forever, not just spiritually, but also bodily.  When Christ comes again to judge the living and the dead, we will be raised up from the dead to live forever with Him in the new creation.  Compared to this, the miracles recorded in our text are actually not all that spectacular.  They are merely dim foreshadows of the greater miracle that happens here every Sunday, where your sins are forgiven and you are raised up to eternity.  You become part of the new creation when you eat and drink the first-fruits of that new creation, namely the risen body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Instead of being granted temporary healing, we receive here a new and eternal life where neither sickness nor demons will ever come near us again.  You are forgiven.  You are raised up.  You will live forever with your Creator.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +