Who is Jesus – Sermon for January 18/19

Who is Jesus?

Mark 8:27-9:1

Confession of St. Peter

January 18th/19th, 2015

Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

             Who is Jesus?  According to Webster’s New World Dictionary, Jesus is “the who_is_jesusfounder of the Christian religion.”  That’s it.  That’s all you get.  To me, that’s like saying Michael Jordan was a minor league baseball player or Bill Clinton was a famous saxophone player.  The statement may be factual, but it misses the point.  There is so much more to be said.  Almost anyone, Christian or not, has heard of Jesus.  Ask almost anyone in America today if they believe in Jesus and they know exactly who you mean.  People certainly know of Jesus, but do they know who he is?

The identity of Jesus is the topic of conversation recorded for us in the Gospel reading today.  While travelling with his disciples, Jesus poses the question: “Who do people say that I am?”  The disciples, probably recognizing that this is a rhetorical question designed to teach them something, answer with what appear to be the popular theories of the day. Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah.  But when Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter’s answer is the right one.  The simple truth is that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, the Word become flesh, the one who came into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.  But this simple truth isn’t really so simple to see.  Sin has blinded the world to the truth.  Many have missed the point of who Jesus really is.

So, who is Jesus?  The answers vary among those outside the Church.  Some will tell you that Jesus was a prophet of God, a remarkable teacher who demonstrated how to live a moral life.  They are willing to give some respect to the teachings of Jesus, or at least those teachings that they are comfortable with, but they don’t believe any of that nonsense about those so-called miracles, and definitely nothing about resurrection.  They’re willing to admit that some of the things Jesus taught are ok; they tend to take those and newsweek-457x620leave the rest of the Scriptures behind. Others will tell you that Jesus was a man whose name was abused by his followers, that his memory was manipulated by a corrupt organization known as the church to force millions of people into submissive obedience.  There are some who claim that Jesus was a man whose legacy has been perverted by those who are supposed to be his followers.

These sad statements are unfortunately common coming from the voices outside the Church.  But we Christians know better, right?  We Christians know better because we know what is in the Bible.  We Christians know better because we know the story, right?  But then again, look at the disciples.  Not only did they know the story, they lived the story.  Yet somehow even they got Jesus wrong.  When Jesus began to teach them plainly that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again, Peter’s response was to rebuke him!  Peter actually rebuked Jesus and told him that he was wrong!  Can you imagine the nerve?  The arrogance?  Who would actually think so much of themselves and their own understanding that they would take Jesus aside and rebuke him?  Certainly we would never be guilty of such pride!  Certainly we know that Jesus came into this world to suffer and die.  Certainly we understand who Jesus is!

And if you believe that, I’ve got some ocean front property in Arizona to sell you.  The truth is, even with all the facts, we still miss the point of Jesus even today.  Who do Christians say that Jesus is?  In some cases, our answers don’t really sound all that different from non-Christians’.  How often do we hear that Jesus is the ultimate example, clinging so ardently to the teachings of Jesus that we miss what he actually accomplished as a person?  It seems to be everywhere you look in the Christian book store.  Jesus has been turned into a moral magic eight-ball, just shake him up and ask yourself: What Would Jesus Do?  Jesus has been perverted into a mere template, a how-to manual, by those closest to him, those who know the facts, by those who should know better.  It seems that no one knows who Jesus is anymore.

The sad truth is, if we were one of the disciples in the region of Caesarea Philippi that day, we wouldn’t have understood Jesus any better than Peter.  Even in our own lives today, left to ourselves, we can’t know for ourselves who Jesus is.  Our sinfulness blinds us, and we don’t recognize Jesus even when he is standing right next to us.  Just like Peter, we look at him and proceed tell him how he should act, how he should not go to the cross.  Jesus says that any who would follow him must pick up their cross to do so.  We brazenly reply “Come down off that cross, Jesus, and show me how to live.  Show me how to save myself.”  We scold him for not knowing how a Savior should act, and then we proceed to tell Jesus that the way to our salvation is through decisions we make, lifestyle choices we adopt, or other holy works of some sort.

But thanks be to God that Jesus is not swayed by our misunderstandings any crossmore than he was by Peter.  He continued on to the cross, completing the purpose for which he came.    He offered himself as the perfect sacrifice to cover the sin of the world, and because he has completed that sacrifice, there is no other name under heaven given to humanity by which we can be saved.  Today is the day in the Church calendar that we remember the Confession of Peter.  It is a day we set aside to remember Peter’s statement that Jesus is the Christ.  But it is also a day we remember exactly what it means to be the Christ of God, to remember what he came to do: to free us from the power of the devil.

He has freed us from the power of the devil by freeing us from bondage to sin.  The power of the devil is first found in fear and despair.  The devil is a master deceiver.  He whispers temptations into our ears, planting the seeds of lust and greed and pride that lead to actions of the same.  He tempts us to take those hateful thoughts in our hearts and turn them into hateful words.  He tempts us to take the pride in our soul and turn it into contempt for the people around us.  He tempts us to view the tasks of each day as burden, an unreasonable demand on our precious time and attention rather than seeing the relationships we have with our spouse, children, and family, and friends as gifts from God.  He tempts us to act out in sin, and then when we do, he holds that sin before our eyes.  He accuses us with it. “You call yourself a Christian?” he asks.  “How can you call yourself a Christian and then do terrible things like that?”

But Jesus is the Christ.  He has destroyed the power of the devil.  Where the devil would hold our sins before our eyes in an effort to drive us to despair, Jesus holds the nail marks in his hands and the spear hole in his side.  Where the devil would drown us in despair Jesus reminds us that we have already been drowned in the water of baptism.  1325915347196Where the devil would have us taste the bitterness of our failure to live as God demands, Jesus gives us the taste of our forgiveness in the bread and wine of his altar.  In these things we have confidence, for in these things we are given the righteousness of Jesus himself.  Jesus has undone the power of the devil because he has taken away the devil’s ability to accuse us in our sin.

But the devil doesn’t just work through fear and despair, he also works through pride.  Once he sees that we will not fall victim to his frontal assault against our conscience, he attacks from the rear.  He fosters smugness in our hearts as we begin to believe that maybe we have done enough to keep our Heavenly Father happy.  He tells us that the most important question we can ask of Jesus is simply, “What would he do if he were in my shoes?”  And then he convinces us that whatever answer we arrive at is the one Jesus would have chosen too.

But his goal remains to take our eyes off the cross.  Jesus came to destroy the power of the devil, so the question we should be asking is not, “What would Jesus do?” but rather “What has Jesus done for me?” The answer is the cross, an answer that destroys pride and despair alike.  It destroys pride because it holds the reality of my sin before my eyes.  My sin is real enough and serious enough that God himself had to die to fix what I have broken.  But despair is overwhelmed too, for in the death and resurrection of Jesus we have hope – hope for deliverance, hope for resurrection, hope for restoration.  That hope is in what Jesus alone has done, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we can be saved.

That is why we take time to remember the Confession of Peter.  That is why we pray that the Lord would give us the gift of faith to make it our confession too.  For the simple question remains: Who is Jesus?  But as the simple question remains, so does the simple answer: He is the Christ.  He is the one who came to this earth to suffer on the cross in our place, to be our substitute under the weight of God’s judgment and to pay the debt we ourselves owed.

He is the one who continues to come to us today not merely to give us an example for jesus-died-for-you2godly living, but to give us the gift of purity and cleansing through his death.  He gives it to us through the proclamation of his Word of forgiveness, when the pastors of his church stand before you and announce unto you that Jesus is the Christ, and that by his command your sin is forgiven.  He comes to you in the very body and blood that was given and shed for you all those years ago.  He comes to you to strengthen you in the gift of faith unto life everlasting.

That is what the unbelieving world just doesn’t understand.  We are not here simply to talk about morality.  We are not here simply to pat each other on the back for being good people.  We are not here to commiserate about the decline of society or the sinfulness of our culture.  We are not here simply to help people realize their full potential by unlocking their hidden power.  We are here because Jesus is the Christ, the one who God our Father sent into the world to undo the works of the devil.  We are here because this is where the Christ continues to come to us for our forgiveness, life, and salvation.  We are here because the gifts given in this place, God’s Word proclaimed in this pulpit, God’s Word joined to bread and win at this altar, can’t be found anywhere else.

That is why we will never give up gathering together around God’s Word, for here is our life and hope.  Peter’s Confession is certainly worth remembering, for it is our confession too.  Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and there is no other name, under heaven, given to men by which we can be saved.  May our Lord keep us faithful to this confession unto life everlasting.

In Jesus’ Name,

Amen!

 

Funeral Sermon for Kathy Hacker

Kathleen Rose Hacker

Funeral Sermon

John 15:1-5

January 10, 2015

Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

             Just yesterday I had the opportunity to spend some time with the 7th grade class in our school.  They asked me to come in because they had questions that they wanted the pastor to answer.  It felt a little like going before the firing squad, but I’ve always enjoyed working with kids as they are maturing into young adults, so I didn’t mind.  They asked many wonderful questions, but one in particular sticks out in my mind today.  One boy asked: “What’s heaven going to be like?”  It’s a question that I’ve certainly discussed before as a pastor, and I had some thoughts ready to go.  In the Book of Revelation especially, heaven is discussed in such a way as to call to mind the Garden of Eden.  Other places in Scripture describe heaven as a restoration of creation to what it was before sin corrupted it, when Adam and Eve walked with God in the Garden.

I was struck by that again this week because for those of us here at St. John who knew Kathy, she will always be remembered as someone who loved gardening.  After visiting with her children this past week I know that she was much more than that.  I heard of her dedication as a mother and how she worked tirelessly to raise you in the faith, making sure that you always made it to church, no matter how tired she was, even if that meant she might fall asleep herself during the service.  It was important to her to see you there.  I heard how her strength of faith, even in difficult times, served as a wonderful example for her children and grandchildren.  She was a hard worker, but when she did take time for herself, there was usually sunshine involved, whether that was something special like a family vacation to sunny California when the kids were younger, or the daily desire to simply find a few minutes to lay down out in the sunshine, or, most of all, to spend time in the garden.

It’s the gardening that people here seem to remember most.  I was struck this past week that as news of her death spread through the congregation even the newer members who didn’t yet know her by name knew her as the tiny blonde who was alwaysclx-gift-guide-gardening-de working in the flower beds.  She was active in so much around St. John.  Whenever there was a big event going on around church you were sure to find her in the back helping out without need of recognition.  But it was when the big events were over and the crowds went home that she showed her true colors, coming back here every week to tend to the flowerbeds out front, to clear leaves off the parking lot, to live out her love for gardening.  She never missed; she knew that those flowers needed continuous attention if they were to survive.  So that attention is exactly what she gave.

It is similar care and nurture that gives us hope today.  For Kathy was a child of God, and just as she invested so much time in her plants and gardens, so also our Lord has invested himself in her.  He planted the gift of faith in her when he washed her with the waters of Holy Baptism on July 21, 1944.  But he didn’t just plant that faith and then leave it to tend itself.  He has been cultivating that faith in her ever since.  He has been watering it with the living water of his word of promise.  He has been strengthening her faith through the gift of daily forgiveness.  Just as a flower flourishes when the dead petals and bulbs are removed, so also our Lord, through his gift of forgiveness, removes the sins and guilt that cling to his children so that they may flourish in the sunshine of his love.  That is what he did for Kathy for so many years.  He continually came to her with his word and revealed her need for a savior, and he revealed himself to be that Savior, removing the stain of guilt and shame in order that she might flourish in him.  He carefully and tenderly tended to her as his precious child, for as Jesus himself says, he is the vine and his children like Kathy are the branches, and he tends to those branches so that they bear much fruit.

And Kathy knew it.  Her hope was in the Lord.  She believed Jesus when he said, “I am the vine, you are the branches.  Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”  Kathy believed that Jesus was her vine, so she continued to abide in him.  She faithfully came to the services of our Lord’s house to hear the proclamation of his Word.  She faithfully gathered together with other Christians in this place to pray together, to encourage and uplift each other, to sing God’s Word to each other.  She faithfully came to this very altar to receive the body and blood of Jesus for the forgiveness of her sins.  She knelt at the altar rail as a humble child of God, and here she was united to Jesus himself.  He lives in her.  He who was dead but is now alive lived in her.  He who the tomb could not hold now holds Kathy, so the tomb cannot hold her either.  She remained in the vine, and she bore much fruit.

She is still in that vine, still united to Jesus.  That gives us hope in the midst of john15_5grief, for our Lord is faithful.  There is definitely grief today, for a dear friend, a mom, a grandma is no longer with us.  There is grief, for although her health had been in decline for a while now, when her death came it came swiftly and suddenly.  There is grief because death is not what our Lord intended for Kathy or for any of his creation.  In this world created for life death is the ultimate corruption.  But when the vinedresser saw that his garden had been infested with this deadly disease, he did not abandon it.  He came down into it.  He walked among us as one of us, feeling the pain and grief that we feel, dying the death we deserve so that we might be given the life that is his.  For as many as have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death, united to him in a death like his so that we might also be united to him in a resurrection like his.

In these promises of our Lord we find hope amid the grief.  He has clothed Kathy with the garments of salvation; he has covered her with the robe of his righteousness.  As the earth brings forth sprouts and the garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up, our Lord planted and nurtured the gift of faith in Kathy so that it sprouted up and flourished.  That gift has now been harvested, for Kathy has been taken out of the great tribulation of this world and brought into the joy of paradise, in that place where she is before the throne of God night and day, where she hungers no more, neither thirsts anymore; the scorching heat of the sun does not exhaust her, for the Lamb of God on the throne is her shepherd.  He is guiding her to springs of living water, and he is personally wiping away every tear from her eyes.

Our hope is found in these promises that our Lord made to Kathy – and to all his children.  In the midst of heartache and grief, don’t forget that these are our promises too.  church_easter_2007-139-web.gifOur hope is found in the promise that all who die in the faith will be reunited in paradise.  This hope leads to our prayer that our Lord would tend to our faith as intentionally has he tended to Kathy’s, as carefully as she tended to the gardens she loved so much.  Our prayer is that our Lord would continue to water our faith with the living water of his word, that he would feed it with the heavenly food of his own body and blood, so that when our last hour comes we might experience the joy of deliverance.  So Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is plentiful redemption.  And he will redeem his people from all their iniquities.  Thanks be to God that he has fulfilled this promise for Kathy.  May he would fulfill it for us too.

Great Expectations – Sermon for Epiphany 2015

Great Expectations

Matthew 2:1-12

The Epiphany of our Lord

January 4th/5th, 2015

Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

             What are your expectations for the coming year?  Have you made New Year’s Resolutions?  Do you plan to eat healthier? Exercise more? Go to bed earlier?  Maybe you’ve resolved to read more, or to get through a specific book or two by the time 2016 gets here.  Maybe there are projects around your house that you’ve been putting off that you finally intend to cross off your list.  Maybe you want to get your finances back under control.  Have you tried to gaze into the crystal ball in order to figure out what this year holds?  What are your expectations for the coming year?

Expectations are funny things.  On the one hand, they are an absolutely necessary part of a healthy life.  If you don’t learn from past experience you will never mature as a person.  If experience has taught you that getting 5 hours of sleep just isn’t enough for you, then you can expect to function at a lower level if you don’t get to bed early enough.  If experience has taught you that it takes you 20 minutes to get to work, then you can expect to be late if you leave 10 minutes before you’re supposed to be there.  If experience has taught you that a certain person is not trustworthy, then your expectations will shape your behavior toward that person.  Expectations factor into our lives every day.  Sometimes our expectations are flexible, especially if we haven’t had enough experience to come to a firm conclusion about what we think will happen.  Other times our expectations are immovable, especially if we feel like we have been through that situation so many times that we know exactly what will happen.  On the one hand, expectations are good and necessary, but there are other times where our expectations blind us to different possible outcomes.  There are times when our expectations are flat out wrong, and could in fact prevent us from something good.  Just think of a child who Green_eggs_and_hamhas never tasted a specific food and expects to hate it.  There’s a chance that the child will end up loving the food, but that child will never know if he or she allows expectation alone to determine whether or not they will even try it.

Expectations.  Sometimes they are an asset; other times they are a crutch.  I wonder what the wise men were expecting when they set out to follow that star.  We sing of them as the three kings of orient, but the Scriptures don’t call them kings.  They’re called “magi,” a word which has the same root as our English word “magician.”  They were likely astronomers or scholastics of some sort, not kings.  If they were kings, Herod would almost certainly have greeted them with a more kingly reception and probably would even have accompanied them to Bethlehem, for Herod was nothing if not politically astute.  He would not have insulted visiting royalty by sending them off on an errand for him.  Neither does the Bible say that there were actually three of them, only that they brought three gifts.  There could have been only two, or there could have been a dozen.  We don’t actually know.  What we do know is that according to Matthew, magi from the east set out to follow the star.  I wonder what they expected to find.

It seems likely that they expected to find something noteworthy; otherwise they would not have made such a great journey.  It seem likely that the expected something more impressive than the tiny village of Bethlehem.  After all, when they left to follow the star they went first to Jerusalem, the city of the palace, the city of the King.  They went to Jerusalem, the city of the Temple and of the High Priest.  They went to the capital city, the place where all foreign dignitaries would have gone, the place that was the economic center of the region, the place that had been the center of the Jewish universe for a thousand years.  It seems a fair expectation to find the Messiah in such a place.  Jerusalem is the city of God, the place of Mount Zion.  And yet the Messiah was not there.  In fact, the Scriptures seem to indicate that no one there was even aware of the star or the possibility that the Messiah had been born.  The city of God was completely oblivious to what God was doing.  When the men asked about the one who was born king of the Jews, they were sent to Bethlehem.  That would be like someone from a distant land coming to the United States and going to New York or Los Angeles or Washington D.C. to look for the promised child, and being told to seek him in Romeo or Marlette.  It defies expectation.  Why would one so important as the Christ not be found in a place as significant as Jerusalem?  Why would the Messiah be in such a small village as Bethlehem?

But unlike the stubborn child who refuses to try a new food, the Magi were not slaves to their expectation.  They heard the Word of God and believed it.  The Prophet nRywN0qMicah spoke of Bethlehem in the land of Judah, so the Magi went to Bethlehem, even though it seemed to all appearances to be the least among the rulers of Judah.  But that’s what faith does: it hears the Word of God, it trusts the Word of God, and it follows the Word of God, even if that Word leads it places it never expected.  That’s what the faith of the Magi did.  That’s what your faith does too – it clings to God’s Word and is thereby led to the place where the Christ is for you.

Our world has many expectations about how God should act, about what God should be like, about where God should be found.  So often we unwittingly allow these expectations to shape our own.  Our world expects God to be fair and just, and so our world cries foul whenever it sees something it considers unjust.  But our world’s definition of justice is not the same as our Lord’s.  Accepting our world’s idea of justice, we too cry foul and claim to be victims whenever something difficult enters our lives, never allowing for the possibility that there is no such thing as an innocent person before God, for there is no one who is righteous, not even one.  We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  We have sinned in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone, and we deserve the punishment of God both temporally, right here and right now as we walk this earth, and also eternally in the fires of hell.  Our world expects God to love according to its definition of love, which basically amounts to nothing more than expecting God to ignore us and allow us to follow our hearts’ desires even as they lead us away from him.  We too find it difficult to speak out against sin, and instead opt for silence in the name of tolerance, pretending that the loving action is to coexist as we silently watch loved ones follow paths that lead off the edge of a cliff rather than speaking out for fear that we might hurt their feelings, or worse, that they might point out our own sin.  How quickly and easily the world’s expectations of God become our expectations of God.

But the faith of the Magi trusted God’s Word above the expectations of men, and they shortly found themselves in the presence of the Christ.  Our Lord’s Word speaks to our faith today, shattering our worldly expectations and giving us Jesus instead.  As we celebrate Epiphany today, let us take time to remember what we are celebrating.  The word Epiphany has to do with perception or insight, with that moment when the proverbial light bulb turns on over your head and you finally get it.  The season of Epiphany in the Christian Church deals with God helping us understand the Christ as he truly is, not simply the Christ of our expectations.  If Christmas is the season when God gave the greatest gift ever to the world, Epiphany is the season when he unwraps it for us so that we can see what it is.  Our expectations fall away like bows and ribbons and wrapping paper under the Christmas tree, and we see Jesus, the real Jesus.  This week we see the child visited by Magi from the east and worshiped as King of the Jews.  Next week we see the Lamb of God step into the waters of the Jordan River to fulfill all righteousness, medium_Epiphanybaptized into our sin that we might be baptized into his righteousness, he into our death that we might join him in life.  The following week we will see the King of Creation turn water into wine, the first of his signs that will point people to the truth about his identity as the Son of God.  Then we will see him transfigured on the top of the mountain, shining with a glory that dims the sun, before finally seeing his fullest revelation of the Father’s love as he climbs back down that mountain and on to the cross to die the death we deserve in order that we might live the life we don’t.  That’s Jesus as God’s Word reveals him to us.  That’s the Jesus revealed throughout Epiphany.

That’s the real Jesus, the Jesus who continues to come to us today in ways that defy our expectations.  He comes to us through his Word, and not just through sitting down and reading the words off the pages of your Bible.  When you read his Word in other devotional materials that proclaim the condemnation of God’s Law and the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ, those words serve as a vehicle for our Lord to come into your life today.  When you sit here and listen to the proclamation of what God has done, when your children or other Christians tell you what God has done, when music or any other means proclaims to you the saving work of God, the Word they proclaim is Jesus coming to you to give you faith and strengthen your faith.  He comes to you in his body and blood in the sacrament of this altar to strengthen you in faith toward him and in love for others.  It may not meet our expectations of greatness, this simple taste of bread and wine, but it is our Lord for us.

He comes to us in worship as we gather together as the body of Christ.  As we kneel together and confess our sin, we hear the voice of other sinners confessing their sin – and we are reminded that we are not alone.  As we receive the gift of forgiveness spoken in the stead and by the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are reminded that the sinners around us are forgiven just as we are forgiven, and we set about to live in that forgiveness.  Gathered in the name of Jesus, he is here among us in the people around us.  He is here in us for the people around us.  When the world looks in from the outside it sees merely a gathering of like-minded people.  But reality exceeds expectation, for this is the dwelling place of our Lord.  He is here through the words we sing as we praise him, encourage each other, and teach each other of his wondrous deeds.  This is where and how our Lord comes to us.

Satan would have us doubt.  He would have us worship our expectations instead of worshiping our Lord.  He would have us stubbornly dig our heels in on the steps of the palaces of the world and demand that the King of the Universe come to us there in ways the world will respect and admire.  But that is not the Lord we have.  Satan would have us act like a mule and refuse to be brought to Bethlehem, instead remaining defiantly in the Temple courts of Jerusalem demanding that our Lord show himself in the biggest and most recognizable religious buildings and institutions of our time, things that an unbelieving world would acknowledge.  But that’s not the Lord we have.  We have the one born in the manger of Bethlehem, not the Palace or Temple of Jerusalem.  Follow the example of the Magi.  Don’t let the deceiver fool you into believing that God only comes to you through grand displays of health or wealth or prosperity.  Rather, rejoice in the Lord who is here for you now in his Word, in his Supper, and in his Church, for this is the Jesus that is revealed to us.  This is the Jesus who defies the world’s expectations in order that he might give us more than we ever dreamed.  This is the Jesus who saves us.  This is the real Jesus for you.