Sermon – August 25th/26

The Discipline of God

Hebrews 12:5-11

14th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 16C)

August 25th/26th, 2013

St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him.  For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives. [. . .] For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” [Hebrews 12:5-6, 11]

Discipline.  As a concept it is easily understood, yet I don’t think many people really like it.  Most parents don’t like to discipline their kids, and children certainly don’t like to be disciplined.  Adults like being disciplined even less than kids do.  When a boss or supervisor disciplines you as an adult, don’t you want to tell that person that you’re too old to be treated that way?  When the cop pulls you over for speeding, aren’t you are ready with you list of reasons why you don’t deserve a ticket?  When the credit card company or the bank penalizes you for a missed payment, don’t you get the tiniest bit indignant?  After all, you’re an adult.  You don’t need to be disciplined.  Sure, your kids need to be disciplined so that they grow up into responsible adults.  But you?  You’re already are an adult, and while you know you’re not perfect, you certainly don’t think you need to be disciplined.

Or maybe that’s not how you feel.  I know it’s how I tend to feel.  I don’t like to be reprimanded or told that what I’m doing is wrong.  I don’t want to be disciplined.  By anyone.  And yet the Scripture is clear.  I will be disciplined by God.  The Israelites certainly were.  Years wandering in the desert.  Poisonous snakes sent into their camp to bite them.  Years of drought and famine brought about by the Lord’s prophets.  Being led away in chains by Assyria and Babylon.  It’s discipline.  As a concept, it’s easy to understand, but it gets a little messier when we consider the discipline we might actually receive in our lives.

To muddy the water even further, the scripture also makes it clear that we are under the constant threat of attack from the devil.  The story of Job begins when Job is attacked by the devil, when Job experiences tremendous suffering at the hands of the devil.  Peter warns us that the devil is on the prowl like a lion seeking someone to devour.[i]  Paul warns us that we are not battling flesh and blood, but the spiritual forces of evil.[ii]  Luther commonly said that the devil would be most active among the children of God, bringing suffering and trials into our lives in an effort to entice us away from the mercy of our Lord.[iii]

So which is it?  Are the sufferings and trials in my life discipline that God has sent to me just as he sent drought to Israel?  Are these hardships an effort on God’s part to strengthen my faith?  Or are they the attacks of the devil, Satan’s attempts to get me to abandon my faith?

We have to acknowledge with the writer of Hebrews that God disciplines us.  Yet we tend to stop short of attributing to God any actual discipline in our lives.  We are uncomfortable saying that the cancer we or a loved one have is from God.  Yet we know he sent pestilence into Israel.  We stop short of saying that the unemployment or economic trouble we have is from God.  Yet we know he sent drought and famine to Israel.  We tend stop short of actually attributing to God’s hand any of the hardships we endure.  We are much more comfortable attributing those to the attacks of the devil.  But are they from the devil?  Or are they from God?  How can we know?

The simplest, and probably least satisfying, answer is that we can’t know which is which in our own lives.  We know that God sent snakes into Israel because he told us so in his Word.  We can’t know with 100% certainty whether or not the thing we are suffering is discipline from the hand of God or an attack from the hand of Satan.  However, we can keep a few things in mind when facing it.

Like the Road Runner.  Or, more accurately, like Wile E. Coyote.  Yes, that Wile E. Coyote, of the Latin Pseudonyms Eatius Birdius, Apetitius Giganticus, and Desertous Operativus Idioticus.  Wile E. Coyote, he whose use of ACME brand apparatuses never resulted in the desired mouthful of Roadrunner, but rather typically ended with a mouthful of desert sand, usually after a long fall, often times followed up by the crash of a large rock on his head.  Whether it was his rocket-powered roller skates, a deluxe high bounce trampoline kit, or a simple crate of do-it-yourself remote controlled missile bombs, whatever that silly coyote did to catch the roadrunner always backfired on him.  He always ended up on the wrong end of his own scheme.

So it is with suffering in the life of a Christian.

It is the nature of our limited knowledge that we cannot know whether any specific instance of suffering in our life is discipline from God or an assault of the devil, for both are active in our life at the same time.  Therefore, Luther had no problem saying that the same suffering comes from both God and the devil.  But here’s the beauty of it: in these moments of suffering our response is the same, for when the devil thinks he is working against God’s people, in reality he is helping to overthrow his own scheme.  Yes, on some level all hardship is discipline from God, for it is not the devil’s Law we have broken.  It is not the devil’s creation that our sin has corrupted.  As Paul makes so abundantly clear, none of us have lived a blameless life, so it is not from the devil but from God that we deserve discipline.

When such discipline comes into our lives, we ought to acknowledge it as a punishment which God allows his enemy the devil to execute, like in the case of Job.  But in the midst of such suffering, in the midst of such discipline, the new creation given to you in the water of baptism cries out with the voice of faith, looking to God for deliverance.  In the face of hardship the Christian turns to God in prayer.  To pray is to depart from the devil’s grasp, where we are left to stand in our sin against God, and to enter into the mercy of God, where we stand in the righteousness of Jesus.  The devil opposes God’s children, but succeeds only in driving us to prayer, putting us squarely back in the camp of our Lord.  The final outcome of Satan’s attacks against us is ultimately God’s victory over Satan in your life.  Like Wile. E. Coyote’s schemes always end up shooting him over a cliff, so the devils schemes to entice us to despair through suffering end up backfiring against him when we turn to our Lord in the midst of such suffering.[iv]

The trials and tribulations we face drive us closer to God; they benefit us rather than harm us.  They are the discipline of God that “seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”[v]  But only the eye of faith sees this, for the eye of faith looks to Jesus on the cross.  The eye of faith sees the God who suffered as one of us in order that we might spend eternity in his new creation, free from all trials and tribulations.  Yes, the hardships in our life come to us as something evil, but faith turns them into something good.  If faith does not believe this, then life’s bitterness remains something evil.  If faith does not trust in God’s deliverance, then we become jaded against God and angry, and Satan’s attack is successful.  It is the eye of faith that changes the reality of the suffering.[vi]  It is the eye of faith that sees Satan’s work undone.

So what are you suffering in your life?  What hardship or tribulation is troubling you?  Is it financial?  Is it health?  Is it a combination of struggles that seem to avalanche on top of you?  Do you feel that the light at the end of the tunnel is a rapidly approaching train?  Don’t let Satan use that trial to drive you into despair.  Turn his scheme against him, and send him barreling over the cliff.  As the old hymn says, take it to the Lord in prayer.  Believe our Lord’s when it encourages us to b cast our anxiety on him who suffered for us, for he will give us rest.[vii]  Look at these challenges with the eye of faith.

Remember that these struggles are the way that Christ leads us through our earthly life.  Paul said after being lynched and stoned in Lystra, “we must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.”[viii]  These struggles leave us humble before God, as Paul’s thorn in the flesh exalted the mercy and grace of God in the midst of human weakness.[ix]  These struggles strengthen our faith by moving us to prayer[x] and focusing our attention not on what we can see, but on things eternal[xi], on the promises of God rather than on our own perception of blessings and curses in the life around us.  Satan may attempt to use the discipline of God to drive us away from him, but as Luther said in his commentary on 1 Peter:

God afflicts us in this way in order that our faith may be proved and made manifest before the world, with the result that others are attracted to the faith and we are praised and extolled.

All Scripture compares temptation to fire. Thus here St. Peter also likens the gold that is tested by fire to the testing of faith by temptation and suffering. Fire does not impair the quality of gold, but it purifies it, so that all alloy is removed. Thus God has imposed the cross on all Christians to cleanse and to purge them well, in order that faith may remain pure, just as the Word is, so that one adheres to the Word alone and relies on nothing else. [. . .]

As long as we are still in the flesh, we can never become completely pure. For this reason God throws us right into the fire, that is, into suffering, disgrace, and misfortune. In this way we are purged more and more until we die. [. . .] When faith is tested in this way, all alloy and everything false must disappear. Then, when Christ is revealed, splendid honor, praise, and glory will follow.[xii]

Where the world sees only suffering and tribulation, the eye of faith sees God at work in our lives.  Where the sinful flesh resents and rebels against the discipline of God, the new man takes comfort that God works all things together for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.[xiii]  Where the sinful flesh is easily distracted by all the supposed injustice it must suffer, the eye of faith is firmly fixed on Jesus, who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, that we may not grow weary or fainthearted.[xiv]

So while it may not be easy, and it may not be fun, “do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him.  For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives. [. . .] For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”[xv]  That is why “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us,”[xvi] that on the day of our Lord’s return he would look to us and say “Well done, my good and faithful servants.  Enter into the joy of your master.”[xvii]

[i] 1 Peter 5:8

[ii] Ephesians 6:12

[iii] Exposition of the Sermon on the Mount

[iv] Wingren, Luther on Vocation. Chapter II, section 1

[v] Hebrews 12:11

[vi] Wingren, Luther on Vocation. Chapter III, section 6

[vii] 1 Peter 5:7

[viii] Acts 14:22

[ix] 2 Cor 12:7

[x] Psalm 18:6

[xi] 2 Cor 4:16-18

[xii]Luther, M. (1999, c1967). Vol. 30: Luther’s works, vol. 30 : The Catholic Epistles (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works (1 Pe 1:10). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

[xiii] Romans 8:28

[xiv] Hebrews 12:3

[xv] Hebrews 12:5-6,11

[xvi] Romans 8:18

[xvii] Matthew 25:21


Sermon – August 18/19, 2013

Abraham’s Faith

Hebrews 11:17-12:3

13th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 15C)

August 18th/19th, 2013

St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Hebrews chapter eleven.  Faith is a popular word among Christians, as it should be.  We hear of the heroes in Hebrews 11, of Noah and Abraham and Moses, and marvel at their faith, at the great things they accomplished for God.  We marvel that Noah had the faith to build the ark. We marvel that Abraham had the faith to leave his homeland.  We marvel that Moses had the faith to march into Pharaoh’s throne room and demand the freedom of the Israelites.  We marvel at these displays of faith and wonder where in the mundane of our day to day lives we could ever hope to show such courage, such faith.  We wonder whether our faith or our actions can ever be worth comparing to the great faith of these heroes.

Satan, of course, chimes in at this point.  He is more than willing to let us continue thinking of these heroes as if their displays of faith are well beyond our measly abilities.  “Where is your faith, O Christian?” he hisses in our ears.  “Where is your great trust?  Where is your grand display of faith?”  Satan loves to question the strength of our faith – and we tend to listen.  We hear that Noah had the faith to build an ark, and we wonder if we have enough faith to build a new building, much less a boat in the desert.  We hear that Abraham had the faith to leave his father’s house, and we wonder if we have enough faith to take the Gospel out even into the community and neighborhoods around us, or if we will remain safely hidden behind the church walls.    We hear that Moses had the faith to risk his life before Pharaoh, and we wonder whether we have the faith to risk our reputation or career standing up for our beliefs.  We hear of these great displays of faith and ask ourselves, what about me?  Could I do that?  Should I do that?  Should I try to live like Noah?  Like Moses?  Like Abraham?

But there is a detail that we so often leave out – and it is no small matter.

Take for example the account of Abraham and Isaac that is alluded to in the reading from Hebrews today.  That narrative is part of the larger history of Abraham, which itself is part of the larger history of Israel, which itself is part of the larger history of salvation.  God had spoken several specific promises to Abraham.  He promised Abraham that his descendants would possess the land across the Jordan, which is where it got the name Promise Land.  He promised Abraham that he would have a son, and that through that son Abraham would have descendants as numerous as the stars and as countless as the sand on the seashore.  He also promised Abraham that one of those numerous descendants would be the Messiah – the one through whom all nations on earth would be blessed.

Those four promises are in the background of every single story we are told about Abraham.  When Isaac was born to Sarah at time when she and Abraham were well beyond the age of childbearing, it was a miraculous indication to Abraham that God would fulfill all his promises.  As the writer of Hebrews reminds us, God specifically told Abraham that the other promises of descendants and the Messiah would be fulfilled through the children of Isaac.  Abraham had received a specific word from God regarding Isaac.  God had said in no uncertain terms that Isaac would have children.

Fast forward a few years to a time when Isaac is grown, but not yet married and not yet a father.  God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.  Again, Hebrews tells us that this was a test of Abraham’s faith, but what specifically is the test?  Is it to see if Abraham loves God more than he loves Isaac?  Is it a test to see if Abraham will blindly obey God’s directions?  No.  This is a test to see whether or not Abraham believes that our God is a God who keeps his promises.  Isaac did not yet have children.  God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.  But God had already promised Abraham that Isaac’s descendants would be as numerous as the stars and as countless as the sand.  God had promised Abraham that one of Isaac’s descendants would be the Messiah.  God had sealed that promise through the blood of circumcision.  And God does not break his promises.

Hebrews tells us that Abraham considered that God was even able to raise Isaac from the dead [Heb. 11:19].  Abraham knew that God could not allow Isaac to stay dead because of the promise God had already made.  Yes, Abraham displayed great faith, but his faith was in a word of promise that God had given him concerning Isaac by name: “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named” [Gen 21:12].  Faith is trust, but it is only as strong as that in which it trusts.  Faith is the hand that reaches out and takes hold of the promises of God. If window washer working on the top floors of the Renaissance Center loses his balance and falls, he is going to reach out to grab whatever he can.  Maybe he grabs hold of a rope.  If that rope is not connected securely to something on the roof, then it doesn’t matter how strong a grip the man has on it – it will be of no use to him.  The grip of the man is not as important as the strength and reliability of the rope.  Faith is the hand that reaches out and takes hold of the promises of God.  Abraham’s faith was strong because he trusted in God’s promise, and God keeps his promises.  Abraham’s faith was strong because the word of God that Abraham trusted is unbreakable.  So even though Abraham did not know how God would work it out, he trusted the sure and certain promise that he had concerning Isaac.

What strong and unbreakable promises has God made to you?

Earlier this morning, we welcomed the newest member into our Lord’s church through the waters of baptism.  God’s promises to you are connected to the water that you were washed with there.  Abraham had great confidence before God because of the promises connected to circumcision.  You have great confidence before God because of the promises connected to your baptism.  Sin, can disturb my soul no longer – you are baptized into Christ.  No longer can a guilty conscience weigh you down, for you have been cleansed in Jesus’ sacrifice.  Satan, hear this proclamation: you are baptized into Christ.  Drop the ugly accusations.  Now that to the font you’ve traveled, all Satan’s might has come unraveled, and against his tyranny, God our Lord unites with you.  Not even death can end this gladness, for you are baptized into Christ.  You are a child of paradise.  The sure and certain promise of our salvation, won by our Lord himself, given to us through the water of baptism, is the promise of all promises.

Moses was able to accomplish his daily tasks as the leader of Israel because of his confidence in God’s promise.  The promises that we have been given in baptism – that we are made a new creation set here to love and serve the people around us – enable us to live in our daily lives.

When we hear the history of these heroes in Hebrews 11, we are called to follow their example, but it is their example of faith that we are to emulate.  Our confessions put it like this: “Since callings vary, . . . the call of David to rule or of Abraham to sacrifice his son, are not for us to imitate.  Callings are personal, . . . so it is perfection for each of us with true faith to obey his own calling.”[i].  Maybe you haven’t done anything in your life that is of the same universal historical significance of Noah.  But God has not necessarily called you to that.  He has not given you a promise concerning that.  The examples of these men “are patterns for us only in that we should resemble them in their faithfulness to their tasks, not that we should make their tasks ours.  We must show faithfulness in our own tasks.”[ii]

And what tasks are those?  What has God called us to?

Luther would tell us to consider our stations in life.  As parents, he has called us to train up our children in his word.  He has called children to obey their parents, to honor their father and mother.  As citizens we ought to give to Caesar what is Caesars, and to God what is God’s, living peacefully under the authority of the government in our land, for there is no authority except that which comes from God.  Husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the Church, and wives are to submit to their husbands as to the Lord.  As employees we are to work wholeheartedly, as if we were serving the Lord himself, and not mere men.  Employers are to treat their workers fairly.  All of us are called to pray for others, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

How this works out in your day to day life will be different than how it worked out in Abraham’s.  It will be different than how it worked out in Noah’s.  It will be different than how it works out in mine.  But it is founded on the word that our Lord has spoken to us.  It always comes back to the promises God has made.  The Scripture is filled with examples of people who lived their various daily lives trusting in these promises of God, and “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.” [Hebrews 12:1-2]

We keep our eyes on Jesus because our righteousness is found in Jesus alone.  Our faith is in Jesus alone – in what he has done for us, and in what he has said to us.  Maybe you don’t ever build the ark as Noah did.  Yet if through faith in God’s word you build a life for your children, providing them with shelter, food, clothing, medicine, and whatever they need, then you have fulfilled your vocation just as he fulfilled his.  Maybe you never march into Pharaoh’s palace as Moses did.  Yet if you faithfully confess to your family and friends the truth of God’s word in the face of opposition from the world around you, you have fulfilled your vocation just as he fulfilled his.

You will almost certainly never be called to take your only son onto a mountainside and sacrifice him as a test of your trust in God’s promises.  Yet because our Lord himself sacrificed his only son on a mountainside in your place, you can live in the sure and certain confidence that all your sin is forgiven, and you are right with God.  Faith in that reality equips us for whatever manner of service happens to show up in our daily life.  We need not be bothered by Satan’s comparisons, by questions of whether or not our service compares to Abraham’s.  Rather we rejoice that our Lord would use us in his service at all.  We do not live under the burden of comparing our service to the service of Noah, but living in the knowledge of what our Lord has done for us, we are free to address our tasks at hand, whatever those tasks may be, confident that our service is just as pleasing in God’s eyes as the great deeds of Moses.  For it is done in faith toward God and in love for our neighbor.

May our Lord grant us the faith to trust his sure and certain promises to us, and lives that reflect his love to the people around us.  In Jesus Name.  Amen.

[i] Ap.XVII.49

[ii] Luther on Vocation, 182

Archive Sermon – August 15, 2010

As I began preparations for next weekend, I came across this sermon from a few years back and decided to share it with you:

The Signs of the Times

Luke 12:49-56

12th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 15C)

August 15, 2010

Cedar Crest Lutheran Church, White Lake, MI

The signs of the times.  We are all to familiar with them, and over time we become quite adept at recognizing them, even if we don’t realize that we are doing it.  All throughout our calendar, every season, every holiday, every milestone is marked by the signs of the times. 

 As the leaves begin to change, as the days get a little bit brisker, a little bit shorter, we recognize the arrival of fall, and we act accordingly.  At my house, we get geared up for football season, we get excited about Halloween and trick-or-treating, we go to the cider mill and pick apples, eat some warm, freshly baked donuts (sprinkled in cinnamon, of course), make some hot apple cider at home.  These are the signs that fall is here, and the signs that winter is just around the corner.

 Of course, winter has some signs of its own.  At first, the signs of winter are exciting and invigorating.  The lights come out of the attic and once again decorate yards and houses everywhere, people rearrange their living rooms so that they can fit in the Christmas tree, the stores are open later, the holiday music plays over the speakers, the cold air is almost refreshing as we count the days till Christmas.

 It’s too bad that winter doesn’t end with Christmas.  Because the signs of winter hang around long after the holly and jolly has worn off.  There is the muck and slush at the side of the road, the salt residue that sticks to your car and your shoes, the six weeks of overcast skies and gloomy weather, the long hours of darkness where you drive to work in the dark, drive home in the dark, and go days at a time without ever seeing the daylight.  All part of winter.  All signs of the times.  We see them, and act accordingly.

 We see the signs and recognize what they mean.  When the sky gets dark and the temperature drops, we move the party inside to avoid the rain.  Last week at my parent’s house, we experienced this exact thing, except we didn’t listen to the signs. 

 We saw the clouds rolling in; we felt the temperature drop, we even felt the first few drops of rain, but we decided that we would not move inside.  The rain fell harder, still we stayed outside.  The wind picked up a bit, still we stayed outside.  All the signs pointed us into the safety of the house, yet we ignored the signs and remained outside, right up to the point where a particularly strong gust of wind swooped in, picked up the umbrella from it’s base in my parents’ patio table and sent it into the air like a bottle rocket.  As the umbrella was headed toward orbit, it got caught on the table and twisted in the wind.  The torque of the umbrella against the glass table top of the patio table was too much for the glass to handle, so it shattered like it had been hit with a bullet. 

   The kids went scurrying toward the inside, some of them crying, the adults tried to grab the kids before they ran through the shattered glass, my brother-in-law and I grabbed onto the little pop-up tents that we had been sitting under for cover so that they didn’t follow the patio umbrella into the stratosphere.  It was a disaster . . . all because we ignored the signs.  We ignored the dark clouds.  We ignored the signs, and paid the price for it.

 The signs of the times.  These are exactly what Jesus is talking about in today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke.  He talks about it more clearly in Matthew, but his words read for us today have the same basic theme: “You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”  Jesus expects us to be able to read the signs, and so he has laid out those signs for us in detail.  In Matthew 24 he says, “And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.”  Earthquakes? Check.  Wars?  Check.  Rumors of Wars?  Check.  Famine?  Check.  All these signs lead to one conclusion:  The end times are now.

 All too often we hear people speak of the end times as if they are a distant reality, something that will begin at some future date.  But that is not that way that Jesus speaks of the end times.  “Look at the signs,” Jesus says, “and learn to read them!  The end times are now!”  We live in the end times.  The end times began when Jesus ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of God, and they will continue until he comes again to judge the living and the dead.

 And what a tremendous sense of urgency this should give us.  We don’t often think of it in this way, but the simple reality is that Jesus might come back before we finish this church service; he might come back before I finish this sermon; he might come back right now . . . well, I guess not, but you get the picture.  The very literal reality is that we don’t know if Jesus is coming back in ten thousand years or before we take our next breath.  But what we do know is that when he does come back, he definitely means business.

 “I came to cast fire on earth,” Jesus says, and so he did.  He came to bring division, division that always follows the introduction of truth.  Think about it like a football season.  There are 32 NFL teams and all of them have fans.  At the end of this season, only one group of people will be fans of the Super Bowl Champions.  31 other teams will be on the outside looking in.  There will be a division between them.  Families will be split.  Bets will be made.  Trash will be talked.  But at the end of the day, one person is right and another wrong.  There is only one champion.

 And there is only one Jesus.  You are either for him or against him.  Division.  Separation.  There is no half way with Jesus.  He is coming back at any moment, and when he does the fire will be cast, the division will be clear, and those who believe and are baptized will be saved, while those who do not believe will be condemned.  The time is coming.  Look at the signs.  The end times are here.

 But the promise of Christ’s return is for Christians just that: a promise, not a threat.  All the talk of judgment and fire and hell, it’s all true, but when it boils right down to it, that’s not for you.  When Jesus comes back, he is coming to take you to be with him in paradise.  He is coming to take you to the throne of his father.  And in these last days, we must never lose sight of that.

 Rather, we follow the example of such a great cloud of witnesses who went before us.  Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Rahab, among, others are all listed by the writer of Hebrews as shining examples of the effect that the eyes of faith have on the way you view life in this world, and how to act accordingly.  The pages of the Old and New Testaments are filled with many more examples, Joshua and Elijah, Paul and John.  All these examples have one thing in common – they kept their eyes focused on Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

 The last times are now, and Jesus is coming again.  But in your baptism he has already claimed you as his own.  We have nothing to fear when we think about the end of the world.  Rather, when we read the signs and see that Jesus is coming soon, we rejoice in the fact that his arrival here means our arrival in Heaven. 

 We don’t live our lives as if we have all the time in the world.  We don’t live in sin and just plan on repenting and cleaning up our act some time later.  Instead, we live seeing the signs of the times, recognizing that the second coming of Christ could happen at any time.  And recognizing that reality, we fix our eyes on Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.

 In his name.  Amen.

Sermon – August 4/5, 2013

Our True Worth

Ecclesiastes 2:18-26

11th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 13C)

St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

August 4th/5th, 2013

I’m sure you have all heard the saying, “You can’t take it with you.”  And how true it is.  Our world is filled with examples of things that people strive for, chase after, put immeasurable effort into achieving.  And yet all these things have one common element: You can’t take them with you.

 Sometimes the turnaround is quick, like in the world of sports.  Athletes work so hard to perform at their best when it’s game time.  They put in hours of practice, sweat over drills and exercises that will help them improve whatever aspect of their game they are focused on, all in the hopes that when the moment comes, when they are called upon to perform, they will be up to the challenge.

But one of the most rewarding, and perhaps most frustrating, aspects of sports is how fleeting it all is.  Within a game itself, take baseball for example, if all of a player’s hard work pays off and the player gets a hit, that doesn’t matter the next time that player goes to the plate.  Their previous accomplishments are gone, all that matters is the present.  The same is true game to game.  When each new game begins, the accomplishments or failures of the previous games no longer count.  The only thing that matters is the contest before you now.  The same is true in an entire season.  Sometimes, all of an athlete’s hard work is rewarded with a championship.  That championship is, of course, accompanied with the appropriate celebrations, parades, visit to the White House, etc.  But it only lasts a few months.  Years, maybe even a lifetime, of preparation to realize that moment of championship, but two months later you are back on the practice field, preparing for a new season.  Last year is over, you are no longer the champion of your sport, you are just another player, just another team trying to win this year’s championship.  All that effort in order to realize a moment, an experience that lasts but a short while, then is gone.  Vanity.  Vanity.  All is vanity.

“Wait,” you may say, “Once you are a champion, no one can ever take that away from you.”  True, but the moment is gone.  And one day, that championship ring will no longer be on your finger, because your finger will be in a casket 6 feet below the surface.

But maybe sports isn’t the best analogy for you.  It is obvious that the writer of Ecclesiastes is writing about the vanity of money, not just reputation or achievement.  Maybe, when it comes to the vanity of toil or hard work, the truth is so apparent that it needs no analogy.  Your Job. Your Career. Your Finances.  You can’t take them with you.  We’ve all heard it before.  We’ve been told countless times that money is not the key to happiness, that accumulating wealth is not the secret to a happy and fulfilled life, that no one on their deathbed says that they regret not having spent more time in the office.

In fact, that is exactly what the readings for today do talk about.  Vanity.  Wealth.  Greed.  And the hollow life that each ultimately offers.  The book of Ecclesiastes, generally believed to be written by older and wiser King Solomon, offers the following observations about a life spent chasing wealth and financial success.  Solomon, the wealthiest king in the history of Israel, eventually grew to the point where he hated the work he had done because he saw that he must leave the fruits of that toil all to someone else.  Solomon says that he gave up his heart to despair because he would have to leave all the fruits of his hard work to someone who did not work for them.  “What then,” he asks himself, “is the use of all my toil?”  Why bother spending your life accumulating something that you can’t take with you?

But while recognizing the futility of a life devoted to wealth is one thing, avoiding such a life is quite another.  Martin Luther once commented that as we age, Satan’s temptations against our flesh change.  When we are young, Satan tempts us primarily with the pleasures of the flesh, with sexual temptation, temptation to a drunken life, temptation to experience all the pleasures that this world can offer: the tired old cliché of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll.  But as we age, Luther observed, the approach of Satan’s temptations changes.  He begins to tempt us not with pleasure, per se, but with security and stability.  While a young person covets the fast cars and beautiful women that wealth brings, an older person covets the retirement lifestyle that a plush IRA can offer.  The details are different, but the greed is the same.

Which is why money is and will always be one of the most common idols that people face each and every day of their lives.  The idol of wealth, and the sin of greed.  It is a message we have heard before, but it is one that bears repeating.  Jesus told this parable to illustrate the vanity of wealth.  A rich man who thought he had it all figured out, died.  What good did his money do him then?  None.  So Jesus warns us, “Be on your guard against all kinds of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”  Your life does not consist in the abundance of your possessions.

No one’s life comes from their possessions, and death, the great equalizer, is the proof of that.  Cancer takes no notice of a person’s checking account.  It will kill a homeless person just as easily as it will kill Forbes’ Wealthiest man alive.  A fatal car accident in a fancy European import has the same result as a fatal crash in a beat up old hand-me-down.  While it can delay, wealth cannot ultimately stop death, and once you’re dead, then it doesn’t matter how much you were worth on earth.

What truly matters is how much you are worth to your Father in heaven, and that question has been answered in Christ.  By ourselves we are worth nothing before God.  On the basis of our wealth, we are worth nothing before God.  On the basis of our possessions, talents, or abilities, we are worth nothing before God.  As the apostle Peter says, our beauty does not come from wearing gold or jewelry, but it is the inner beauty that is of great worth in God’s eyes.  In Christ, we are worth infinitely more than all the wealth of this world.

In his death for us, our Lord Jesus claimed us as his own.  He washed away the filth of our sin and took us as his bride.  In Baptism, our old self was drowned and died and we were united to Christ, to his resurrection, and to his value and worth.  And in the words of Paul, “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set your mind on things that are above, not on the things that are on earth.”  We don’t set our mind on the things of this earth because they are striving after the wind.  We set our mind on things above because they are eternal.

That doesn’t mean that we can’t have nice things while on earth.  Our Lord has not called us to forsake all wealth and earthly comfort altogether.  What matters is our perspective.  We don’t work simply to accumulate wealth, we work to provide for the needs of our families.  But the needs of our families extend beyond what a paycheck can provide.  Our children need our attention, our time.  They need us.  Spending endless hours at work in the name of providing for your family is idolizing wealth if you are sacrificing the other things your family needs, like time and attention.  What matters are our priorities.  Being wealthy is not a sin – idolizing wealth is.  Set your mind on things above, not on things below.  Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, where thieves do not break in and steal.  It is important to do what you can to make sure your children have food and shelter right now, but it is more important to do everything you can to make sure your children spend eternity with you in paradise.

Jesus is the only treasure that matters.  He is the one treasure that does not fade away.  He is what counts in our relationship with our Father in Heaven.  It is easy to rejoice when we hear that our sins and shortcomings don’t matter, for Christ is our all.  But we must humble ourselves and acknowledge that neither do our successes or wealth matter, for Christ is our all.  He has done it all for us: lived for us, died for us, rose for us, so that we may be with him in eternity.

For almost 150 years now, there have been Christians here at St. John gathered around that truth.  As we inch closer to a great anniversary next year, let us thank our Lord for what truly matters.  Technology has changed, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.  Popular musicians have seen their careers rise and fall.  The economy in Detroit has seen the explosion and implosion of the auto industry.  Clothing styles have changed.  All the work that went into making those things happen has come to nothing.  It’s all vanity.  It’s all fleeting.  At St. John itself, buildings have come and gone.  Teachers have come and gone.  Pastors have come and gone.  But the Word of the Lord remains.  The Gospel remains.  Even as the culture has changed around Fraser and the world for the last century and a half, even as the work of men has crumbled under the weight of the sands of time, the message of Jesus and his work remains the same.

And the work of Jesus was not in vain.  The work of Jesus does not fade away.  The work of Jesus does not expire or spoil after a certain date.  Ecclesiastes says that our work is vain because we can’t take it with us when we die, because when we die we don’t know who will reap the benefits of all we did.  Well, Jesus knows who reaps the benefits of his work.  You do.  Jesus died so that you might have life, and so life you have.  That is your true worth.  That is my true worth. Our life does not consist in the abundance of our possessions; our life is in Christ, and when this Christ who is our life appears, then we also will appear with him in glory.

May God grant it for Jesus sake.  Amen.


Hey, That’s Mine!

My dear Wormwood, 

Men are not angered by mere misfortune but by misfortune conceived as injury…. Now you will have noticed that nothing throws him into a passion so easily as to find a tract of time which he reckoned on having at his own disposal unexpectedly taken from him. It is the unexpected visitor (when he looked forward to a quiet evening), or the friend’s talkative wife (turning up when he looked forward to a tête-a -tête with the friend), that throw him out of gear. Now he is not yet so uncharitable or slothful that these small demands on his courtesy are in themselves too much for it. They anger him because he regards his time as his own and feels that it is being stolen. You must therefore zealously guard in his mind the curious assumption ‘My time is my own’. Let him have the feeling that he starts each day as the lawful possessor of twenty-four hours. Let him feel as a grievous tax that portion of this property which he has to make over to his employers, and as a generous donation that further portion which he allows to religious duties. But what he must never be permitted to doubt is that the total from which these deductions have been made was, in some mysterious sense, his own personal birthright.[i]

 I have read The Screwtape Letters a few different times in my life – once in high school, once in college, and then again recently after the birth of my third child.  It wasn’t until after I had kids that the full impact of this particular section hit home for me.  How easy it is for us as parents to consider our time our own!  How easy it is to feel angered when someone else places a demand on “my time”!  How easy it is to play the martyr in our own mind when we graciously sacrifice “my time” to do things like change a diaper, hold a crying baby in the middle of the night, take our kids to the park, or any other of a host of activities that involve the needs of people other than ourselves.

 A moment’s reflection will make it abundantly clear that our time is not truly our own.  Each and every moment of life on this earth is a gift.  I may have the ability to end my own life, but I do not ultimately have the ability to extend it.  I do not cause my own heart to beat.  I do not cause the blood in my body to take the oxygen from my lungs and deliver it to my cells and organs.  All of this happens by God’s sustaining hand, or, as Hebrews 1:3 puts it, “[Jesus] upholds the universe by his word of power.”  “In him all things live and move and have their being” (Acts 17:28) says Paul.  Or if you prefer Luther, “I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that he has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them” (SC 1st Article).  Our time is not our own, it is a gift to us from our Father in Heaven.

 How then should we spend that time?

 We spend our time in our vocations.  In my God-given vocation of father, my children have just as legitimate a claim on my time as I do.  In my vocation as husband, my wife has just as much right to my time as I do.  No man is an island, entire unto himself.  I am not an island, entire unto myself.  My time is not exclusively my own because I live in relationship with the people God has placed around me – my wife, my children, my sisters, my parents, etc.  When I spend time with my children, playing in the yard or going to the park, they are not robbing me of my time.  I am not giving them my time.  It’s not my time in the first place – it is God’s time and he has placed me on this earth to be a father to my kids.  When I go for a walk with my wife or spend an evening around the fire instead of watching the game, I am not sacrificing my time, because it was not mine to begin with.  It was a gift.  Every moment I am alive on this earth is a gift given not only to me, but also to the people I am in relationship with, especially within my own home.

 Let us thank our Lord for the precious moments he gives us on this earth.  Let us think twice about selfishly bickering in our families over “my time” or “your time.”  Such comparisons are the language of the law.  Let us rather live in the joy of forgiveness, recognizing that we have not been given the judgment we deserve, but have been spared by the blood of Jesus.  We are not conformed to this selfish world’s view of time, but we are transformed by the renewal of our minds.  We present our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual worship (Romans 12:1-2).  As one of my former professors put it, “Baptized into the death of Jesus, believers are now to offer ‘spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ’ (1 Peter 2:5).  Spiritual sacrifices are bodily—they have to do with the stuff of ordinary life, a life that is lived by faith in Jesus Christ and in love toward the neighbor in the everyday places of vocation—in the family and on the job, in the congregation and in the community.”[ii]

 So the next time you are begrudgingly headed out to that Christmas party, or to your kids’ school function, or to any other activity that you feel is wasting your time, take a moment to reconsider whose time it truly is and maybe you’ll find yourself thankful for all the people in your life who want to spend some of their time with you.

[i] C.S. Lewis Screwtape Letters – Letter #21 (emphasis added)

[ii] Pless, Rev. John T. A Small Catechism on Human Life. St. Louis: LCMS Life Ministries, 2006. (p. 52)

Plagued by Pragmatism: How Your Actions Show What You Value

Within the next few days (maybe even hours) several MLB players will be officially suspended 50 games for using PEDs.  As one of our Tigers is on that list, the radio waves of the sports talk station here in the Detroit area have been flush with callers representing a myriad of positions.  Some think a suspension is too light a punishment, arguing that the Tigers should cut any player caught using banned substances.  Others argue that the problem is the rules themselves, saying that players should be allowed to use whatever substances they choose in an effort to make themselves the best athlete they can be.  What is interesting to me in the whole debate is how easily integrity is shoved to the back-burner.  Whenever I hear a caller bring up the integrity of the game or its players, they are usually met with a sympathetic nod followed with “But if you’re going to be competitive against other teams that are doing it, you might have to do it too.”

Maybe I’m over-analyzing (which I can admit I am prone to do), but when I hear statements like that I always think of the unintended consequences that arise when we jettison the concept of truth.  We are all aware of the ongoing conversations about the “big ticket items” like sexuality and abortion, but rejecting the notion of absolute truth affects every aspect of life, even sports fandom.  As Gene Veith put it in his book Postmodern Times, “Today people have little patience for systematic thinking and abstract ideals.  Pragmatic questions dominate contemporary discussions, from Congress to church boards”[i] (emphasis mine).  You might also add discussions about PEDs to that list.  In the absence of a universal standard of right and wrong, judgments about the acceptability of an action are often made on the basis of pragmatism (Does it work?).

We like to be entertained – we want our athletes to routinely execute feats which we could only dream of doing ourselves.  And if they have to break the rules to do it, many fans don’t care (as long as their players don’t get caught).  What bothers me about the whole discussion is how glibly and casually the notion of integrity is brushed aside like crumbs off a tablecloth.  But, I suppose, integrity is measured according to the moral standard one is attempting to uphold.  If pragmatic results like performance are truly all that matters, then we should not be surprised when players go beyond the rules in an effort to produce the desired results.  It also shouldn’t surprise us that owners who are looking to make a profit and manager and GMs who are looking to keep their jobs tend not to notice these things.  If everyone involved continues to make their money, then it is foolish for outsiders to expect change.

We can only control what we can control.  We ought to keep a close watch in our own families on what standard we are using to measure an action in our homes.  What are you teaching your kids is truly important in life?  What do your choices show your kids is important to you?  One of the things I remember getting disciplined for as a child was calling my sisters names.  I was taught from an early age that the words you use toward another human being, especially family, are important and not to be treated lightly.  I also try to teach my children that their words matter, that the tone of their voice is often times even more important than the words they actually say.  I want to teach my children that while using harsh words may get you what you want in the moment, it also alienates other people and drives them away from you in the long run.  There are bigger questions to consider than, “Does it work?”

Ultimately, the foundation in our families should be forgiveness founded upon the truth of our Lord’s Word.  In the words of the Apostle Paul, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience,  bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” (Col 3:12-13).  As we have been forgiven by the death of Jesus, so also we forgive those around us – especially in our own families.  Demonstrating this spirit of humility to our children will instill in them its importance.  Rather than cheating or manipulating the system to get our own way, we demonstrate lives of mutual confession and forgiveness.  Let this be the thing that impacts our children the most.

While the world around us is obsessed with pragmatism and results, let us hold firmly to the truth of our Lord’s Word to determine the worth of an action, confessing our sin when we have done wrong, and forgiving those who have wronged us.

[i] Veith, Gene. Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture. Wheaton: Crossway, 1994 (p.83)