Holy People – Sermon for Feb. 19/20

Holy People
Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18
7th Sunday After Epiphany
February 19th/20th, 2017
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

We seem to be living in the midst of a cultural identity crisis. I realize that we are often victims of what some have called the “tyranny of the present.” The tyranny of the present works like this: immediately after the Super Bowl ends in overtime or the college basketball championship game ends on a buzzer beater there are those who declare that it was the best game ever. Some declare the past election the most divisive ever, or the current president the worst ever. The tyranny of the present is the natural inclination to think too highly of recent experiences because the emotions are still raw or lingering. The tyranny of the present blinds us to the larger reality of history and leaves us enslaved to whatever emotion we happen to be experiencing at any given moment. There are countless places where the tyranny of the present rears its ugly head and distorts our perspective, which is why I won’t say that I think the state of affairs in America today is the most critical that it’s ever been or ever will be.

However, I do believe we are in the midst of a cultural identity crisis, even in the church.  It runs far deeper than the results or ramifications of any single election.  It is an identity crisis that touches on some of the most basic questions of existence. Of course, there have always been differing opinions and dissenting voices in any society, but the fact is that we are living today in open disagreement over some fundamental truths, and those disagreements over fundamentals show up in arguments over policies, laws, and expectations in the country and in the church. We have no cultural consensus on what the government is for. Is the government there primarily to provide military defense and infrastructure? Or is the government’s primary responsibility to institutionally solve poverty, hunger, disease, or any other problem life throws at us? Neither do we have cultural consensus on gender or sexuality. Is a person’s sexuality an objective binary trait he or she is born with? Or is the very notion of using binary words like “he” and “she” nothing more than a social construct forced upon people by outside forces? And speaking of people, what does it means to be a person. Is a person a person simply because they exist biologically? Or does a human have to be self-aware of their own existence before we can consider them a person? There are plenty of answers to these and other questions floating around in our world today. And the myriad of voices creates confusion. It creates an identity crisis.

The church itself is not immune to this identity crisis. As we continue to come to terms with our changing place in the cultural landscape, we are left struggling with some identity questions of our own. What is the church for? Is the church here primarily to serve Christians? Or is the primary purpose of the church to reach out to unbelievers? To what extent should the church mimic the culture in an effort to reach the people there? To what extent should the church try to create a sub-culture or counter-culture separate from the mainstream? And if the Church is made up of Christians, then what does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean to be a child of God? The questions are being asked quicker than we can answer them, and the answers that are given seem to come such intensity that we hardly have time to think about their implications – we’re expected to act immediately, if not sooner.  All of this works together to create an atmosphere of frenzied doubt, confusion and panic, inside and outside the church. We are living in the midst of an identity crisis. While it may not be the worst identity crisis that any culture has ever experienced in the history of the world, it remains a significant moment for the Children of God.

In the midst of the panic and chaos, our Lord calls us to rest. Remember the Sabbath, our Lord says. Slow down and hear my voice. That’s what we do today: we slow down and rest to hear the Word of our Lord. To listen to God’s voice reveal his truth. Today, in the throes of an identity crisis, we hear what our Lord says about our identity as his children, and it comes from the book of Leviticus, of all places. One of the least read and most misunderstood books in the Scriptures contains one of the clearest and most beautiful declarations of who we are as the Children of God. “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”

If we the church are going to have anything helpful to contribute to our cultural identity crisis, we first have to come to grips with our own identity.  And according to our Lord, we are his holy congregation. Now, it’s true that these words were first spoken to the Old Testament Israelites, which means we can’t just automatically assume that they apply to us. But in this case, they do. Paul makes that clear in the Epistle reading when we says that we are the holy temple of God.  This promise from Leviticus is for you just as it was for Moses, Aaron, Joshua, and everyone else who left Egypt. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” And make no mistake about it – that is a promise. Sometimes we hear these words as a threat or a demand, as if God was saying “You’d better be holy, or else!” But that’s not what’s going on here. This is a promise. “You shall be holy,” God says, “for I will make you holy.” There’s only one way to become holy. God alone is holy, and the only way for anything that’s not God to become holy is to be close to him. God promises the Israelites that they will be near him as his people. They will be holy, for he is holy.

That promise is for us today. That promise is for you. You shall be holy, for the Lord your God is holy.  We shouldn’t read the rest of this section and think that the Israelites will make themselves holy by leaving some of their harvest behind at the edges of their property or by not stealing or swindling or by doing no injustice in court. These actions don’t produce holiness; they reflect it. God makes his people holy, then their lives reflect that holiness. The same is true for us today. We are the holy people of God today. You have been made holy by the blood of Jesus given and shed for you. You have been made holy by the water of holy baptism where your Lord washed you and claimed you as his own. As Paul says, do you not know that you are God’s temple and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. That means you are holy, the holy ones of God. That is your identity in him.

You have been made holy by the holy Word of God that comes into your ears and produces faith in your life – faith that expresses itself in love. The gifts of God make you holy. And our lives today reflect that holiness. They reflect that holiness in ways like the reading from Leviticus describes. We care for those in need, we protect the interests of others, and we show no partiality. They reflect holiness when we refuse to retaliate and when we pray for our enemies, as Jesus describes in the Gospel reading.  Our lives reflect holiness in many ways, but the source of that holiness remains God himself. Thus, we pray in the Lord’s prayer, “Hallowed by thy name.” God’s name is certainly holy in and of itself, but we are praying in this petition that his name would be kept holy among us when we teach his Word in its truth and purity, and when we, the children of God, lead godly lives according to it. Our teaching and our living reflect God’s holiness, the holiness that he has given to us. That is our identity. That is who we are called to be: holy people who teach the holy word of God in its truth and purity and to lead holy lives that reflect God’s design for creation.

The gift of God’s holiness gives us our place in the cultural landscape. Yes, the church today is more on the fringes of society than it was 50 years ago. Yes, it will likely get worse before it gets better. I read recently that as many as 35% of young adults view the church as an institution that does more harm than good. Our culture has never been more hostile to the church or her mission than it is today. And it might get worse before it gets better. But let us not fall victim to the tyranny of the present. Do we really think we are the first Christians to live in a culture that is hostile to the Gospel? Do we really think a group of humans from any culture at any point in history could silence the Gospel? If Jesus says Satan and the gates of hell cannot overcome his church, why are we afraid of 21st Century America?

Yes, we, the holy people of God, will have to work harder to find ways to faithfully confess the truth of God’s Word to those who don’t want to hear it. And yes, we will have to find way to do it with gentleness and respect.  And ye, such a call is not glamourous in the eyes of the world. But it is the call our Lord has given us. As our synod has emphasized several times over the last few years, we were born for this moment, baptized to be the holy people of God in the here and now. We were not born in a different century or a different culture. We were born to live here and now, so here and now is where we live.

Such a call might not convert the masses on a global scale, but Jesus didn’t say that it was the road to heaven that was wide and well-travelled. We can’t allow ourselves to fall victim to the tyranny of the present. We can’t let the chaos and confusion of our world distract us from the reality of who we are. We are the holy people of the holy God, called to reflect his holiness through our teaching and living.  We hear the seductive voice of our culture sweetly inviting us to put aside the truth of God’s Word and walk instead in her ways, for her gate is wide and her pathway easy. But the way of the world is the way of death. We are people of life, called to strive for the narrow gate of our Lord, to be the salt and light of our Lord that stands in stark contrast to the world in which we live.

Such a call is challenging. But throughout the challenge, we remember that we are the holy people of God. That is our identity in him – an identity firmly rooted in his Word and the gifts that make us holy. The gift of his Word. The gift of baptism. The gift of his own body and blood, a gift prepared for you today. So we receive now the gift of God that makes us holy, and we leave this place as the holy people of God, free from the tyranny of the present, free from the chaos and panic of the world’s identity crisis, free to speak the truth in love.

May God grant it for Jesus sake. Amen.

Funeral Sermon for Hilda Quandt

The Lord Is My Shepherd
Psalm 23
Funeral Sermon for Hilda Quandt
June 6, 2016
St. John Lutheran Church and School, Fraser, MI

            The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. They’re familiar words. They’re comforting words.  They’re words that were near and dear to Hilda. We would sit in her living room and talk about all sorts of things. She would tell me about her trips to Eastern Market to sell produce from the family farm, and I would tell her about my own family’s trip to the market to buy flowers. She would tell me about her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and I would tell her about my own kids. She would ask about her friends and how they were doing. She would always ask about Alma, the lady who she used to meet up here to clean out the pews each week to get them ready for Sunday morning. And I’ve heard stories about how that used to look. Those of you who know Alma know she was a sparkplug, a fireball of energy.  Hilda, on the other hand, lived at her own leisurely pace. So Alma would barrel through three sections of pews in the time it took Hilda to finish one. But no one was upset. That was Hilda, gentle, sweet Hilda. She truly embodied the words of her confirmation verse: “Be kind to one another and tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

 

I really enjoyed the time I was allowed to spend with her. This past week her children pulled back the curtain for me and gave me a fuller picture of who she was.  I heard stories about E-Z Bake Ovens and Jellyfish. I heard about family trips to Grindstone City and the Wisconsin Dells. I heard how mom used to be able to soften up dad, so the kids would go to her first and let her get a head start before they asked him for something. I had to laugh when I heard about how she would take all three kids to pick beans at Aunt Jenny’s, but had to hurry home and get everyone cleaned up in time so that dad didn’t find out. I heard about the stray cat that she would allow the kids to treat like part of the family during the day, but had to go back out when dad came home. I didn’t realize she was hiding a bit of a rebellious streak, but then again, all those stories just further demonstrate something I already knew, which is just how loving she was as a mother, as a grandmother, and as a friend.

But the last few times we visited, Hilda didn’t want to talk much about Eastern Market or anybody’s kids. She simply wanted to hear some Psalms. Especially Psalm 23. She must have told me a dozen times in that last visit alone that she wanted Psalm 23 to be the text for her funeral sermon. So here we are. Remembering all that Hilda meant to us, and she is still pointing us to Christ. It’s as if she’s saying, “Stop talking about me already, and start talking about Jesus – the Good Shepherd.”  She found such comfort in the words of that Psalm. Today, we find comfort there too.

For the Lord is our Shepherd, and because he is our shepherd, we shall not want.  He provides all our needs of body and soul. He leads us into green pastures and beside still waters. As most of you already know, sheep are not intelligent creatures. They have a hard time fending for themselves. Without the shepherd to lead them, they would not find Jesus-the-Good-Shepherdgreen pastures for food. Without the shepherd to lead them, they might try to drink from rushing waters and be swept away by the current. But the shepherd guides them to green pastures and still waters where they can eat and drink and find their strength. That is what the Good Shepherd did for Hilda – that is what he does for you. He leads us into the green pastures of his Word. Hilda fed on that Word Sunday after Sunday sitting in these pews hearing the truth of her sin and her salvation. She fed on Christ himself at this very altar in the bread and wine that are his flesh and blood, and through that sacred meal her faith was strengthened and her sin forgiven.  She became a member of her Lord’s flock when she was baptized in May of 1928 just up the road at St. Peter in Macomb. From that point on the Good Shepherd fed and nourished her as his precious little lamb with his life giving word of forgiveness and hope.

He restored her soul so that it was no longer a lifeless soul of sin. He restored her soul and filled her with the gift of his spirit, leading her into the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Like the Good Shepherd in Luke’s parable, like the shepherd described by the prophet Ezekiel, our Lord restored Hilda’s soul for his own name’s sake, because he is a loving and merciful God who delights in steadfast love.  When the cares and concerns of this life wear you down, the Lord restores your soul with the promises of his Word.  He restores your soul today with the hope of resurrection and the comfort of eternal life. When sickness or disease or grief or sadness make you feel less than whole, the Lord restores your soul with his life-giving Word.  The Good Shepherd is always watching over his sheep.

It is truly a comfort to have such a shepherd, for this life is fraught with dangers. This life is, indeed, the valley of the shadow of death. And yet in the midst of this valley, we fear no evil, for Lord is with us. We fear not even death itself, for death could not hold our Lord. When our Lord saw that we were lost to death, he left to find us. And once he found us, he carried us home.  In baptism we are united to the death of Jesus, and if we are united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united to him in a resurrection like his. That is the promise God made to Hilda in her baptism, that is the promise he makes to you in yours. Therefore, even though our lives are a journey through the valley of the shadow of death, we fear no evil, for the Good Shepherd has found us. He has rescued us. He is with us still, protecting us with his rod and his staff. They comfort us, for we know that no matter what else happens in this life, our salvation is secure.

It’s not only a promise of future deliverance. It is also a promise of present joy.  It’s a promise of present comfort, even in the midst of the chaos that surrounds us.  For while our enemies are ranting and raving against us, we rest in the protection of the Good Shepherd. We have his forgiveness. We have his name on us in baptism. We have his rod and staff. We are protected, we are safe. We are so safe, in fact, that while the enemies of I-Will-Comfort-You-jesus-17382873-245-326sin, death, and the devil are fighting to get us, our Lord prepares a table for us to sit and eat. “Fear not,” he says, “for they cannot harm you. You are mine.” And he is so certain that we are safe in him that he prepares a table for us right in the midst of their attacks. He bids us come and eat. Sit and rest. He has taken care of everything.  The Lord has prepared a table for us, and the meal on that table is the paschal lamb, Christ himself both the host and the meal, given in order to destroy our enemies completely. While the world continues attack, even then we sit down at the table of our Lord, eat of the paschal lamb, drink of the fresh water, and joyfully sing: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” We are his favored guests, so our head is anointed with oil as a sign of the honor he has bestowed upon us by bringing us into his flock. Our cup overflows with his mercy and his love, more than enough to cover the sin and shame that clings to our flesh.

Hilda found tremendous comfort is found in these words. We do too. Because we live in the flock of the Good Shepherd, his goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our life, and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.  That is where Hilda is today: living in the house of the Lord, surrounded by his goodness and mercy. Find your hope in that. For that promise is not only for Hilda, it is for you too. It is for all those who are baptized into the flock of the Good Shepherd. That same shepherd is guarding you with his rod and staff. He is feeding you on the promise of his Word, revealing to you the truth of your sin, and restoring your soul with the promise of salvation. He leads you into green pastures and beside still waters. His goodness and mercy follow you all your days until you dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Hilda found great comfort in the words of Psalm 23. Let those words fill you with comfort today, too. For Hilda’s soul and the gift of faith in her has indeed been guarded and protected her whole life by the Good Shepherd through his Word. She is now alive in the house of the Lord. All we who are also part of the Lord’s flock through faith will also be in that house one day. We will look upon the Lord in the land of the living. We will see Hilda again in our Lord’s paradise.

So may the God of all comfort grant you peace in your grief, and may he fill you with the hope of resurrection, that as you continue on your own journey through the valley of the shadow of death, you fear no evil, but rest in his protecting hand until the day when you join Hilda in the house of the Lord forever.

 

+INJ+

Mercy in the Church

Mercy in the Church

Galatians 6:1-10

Lent Midweek II

February 17, 2016

St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

monkimage 

Mercy. That’s the theme for our reflection this lent. Mercy. Compassion. Love. Mercy that is more than a feeling or emotion, but mercy that expresses itself in action. Mercy that is fundamental to the identity of God himself and to his church. The very same mercy that we plead for at the beginning of the Divine Service. The service begins with the invocation, then a confession of sins, for we are indeed sinners who stand in need of forgiveness. Then, having our sins forgiven, we stand and, in peace, we pray to the Lord, “Lord, have mercy.” For this holy house and for all who offer here their worship and praise, we pray to the Lord, “Lord, have mercy.” The prayer for God’s mercy includes petitions for the peace from above, and for our salvation. It includes petitions for this holy house, but also for the peace of the whole world, for the wellbeing of the church of God, and for the unity of all. All around us in this world we see the results of hatred, envy, lust, and greed. So we, the people of God, plead to the God of mercy on behalf of the whole world. It’s the prayer of God’s people, a prayer that no one else is going to pray. It is a simple prayer, only 3 short words, simple enough that even the youngest in our midst can pray it with boldness and confidence. Yet it is a prayer of incredible depth, a prayer whose reach stretches as far as the consequences of sin in this creation, a prayer whose richness we could never hope to unpack in a single lifetime.

There is indeed incredible depth to the mercy of God. There is incredible depth to the mercy he calls us to as his people. We will spend the next several weeks merely scratching the surface of  implications this prayer holds for God’s people. Mercy for the sick and ill. Mercy for the family. Mercy for life. Mercy for community. Mercy for the church. But in meditating on the depth of God’s mercy, let us not miss the forest for the trees. Let us not miss the obvious right in front of us. Let us not miss the simple truth essential to any act or display or example of mercy: Mercy is never in isolation. Mercy requires a community, or two people at least. You can’t be merciful unless you have someone to be merciful to. You can’t show compassion unless there is someone who needs compassion. Mercy needs company.

Which is why the reading from Galatians for today is so interesting. Any student of the English language can tell you the frustrations of trying to learn our native tongue. As one picture I saw on line last week put it, in English you put I before E except when you run a feisty heist on a weird beige foreign neighbor. Or if that’s too abstract, simply reflect on why the plural of goose is geese but the plural of moose is not meese, and why mouse become mice but house doesn’t become hice. Yes, there is much to trip up someone trying to learn English. But one of the most confusing elements to our language, even for those of us who have spoken it from birth, is that if I am talking to one person, I am talking to you, and if I am talking to a group of people, I am still talking to you. When we come across the word “you,” context dictates whether we’re talking about one person or a group of people, and there are definitely situations where it is hard to tell which is which.

Like, for example, Paul’s exhortation read a few moments ago. “Brothers, if anyone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” Is that a you you, or as they say in Texas, a “y’all”? “Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” You? Or Y’all? “Bear one another’s burdens.” You? Or Y’all? You get the point. The not so simple fact is that throughout this section, Paul is switching back and forth between “you” and “y’all,” demonstrating both the corporate and individual elements of God’s mercy that is alive among us as his people.

Look again at the text. “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, all y’all who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. But let each of you personally keep watch over yourself, lest you too be tempted. All y’all work together to bear one another’s burdens, but let each one of you individually test his or her own work, for each one individually will have to bear his own load.” Paul is emphasizing this simple truth about the mercy of God and of his people: it requires a community, more than one person, to show mercy, for there has to be someone to be merciful to; but mercy is more than a community reality, it is required of each of us individually within the church of God.

The church is called to live in mercy, yet we are failures when it comes to showing mercy. Take, for example, Paul’s first admonition.  “If any of you is caught in the snare of sin, let the whole church restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” When’s the last time we did that as a congregation? That’s the pastor’s job, right? I’ll just keep my mouth shut. Or worse yet, when I see a brother or sister in Christ ensnared in sin, I’ll post cryptic things on social media. I’ll whisper in the hallway so that everyone else can share in the joy of knowing that at least we’re not as bad as that person. Greed? Well, who am I to tell another person how to spend their money? After all, the tithe isn’t technically commanded in the New Testament anyway, so who am I to judge. So what if we just read where Paul says that the one who is taught the word should share in all good things with the one who teaches. So what if we are willing to pay plumbers and electricians and doctors and lawyers for their services, willing to pay the for the knowledge they have acquired through study. But pastors and teachers and musicians and other church workers? We don’t need to pay for their spiritual guidance, after all they’re doing the Lord’s work, and that should be its own reward. Why should I put money in the offering plate to support the needs of those who work for the church? There’s enough people here that someone else will foot the bill.

Now, full disclosure, I don’t particularly like preaching about money and stewardship habits because as someone on the congregation’s pay roll, it always feels a little self-serving. But this text can’t be avoided. If you look at it in the original Greek, today’s reading is loaded with financial language. The language of debts and burdens and sowing and reaping and sharing good things, these are all money terms. While they certainly have a spiritual aspect to them, the fact of the matter is that Paul is writing to the Galatians about stewardship. It is writing about stewardship in the church. We are called to show mercy in the church, and according to Paul, that includes giving money to the ministries of the congregation. Or as one commentary I read put it, “Genuine concern for others must also include a willingness to share of one’s wealth.”   We are willing to provide toys for tots each winter and water for the people of Flint, all of which is good and right. Those people need those things, and we absolutely should be reaching out in their time of need. There is almost always a huge outpouring of support whenever there is a tragedy or crisis that demands our attention. And yet according to most recent surveys the average Christian gives only 2% of their income to the church. Why do we only show mercy when the crisis is catastrophic? What about the day-to-day mercy that happens in this building? Is that not worth supporting?  Considering how much we’re typically willing to pay for HDTV, vacations, cell phones, restaurants, Starbucks and the like, we can most likely find some money to contribute to the household of faith. Can we truly consider ourselves people of mercy when we fail so spectacularly at showing it when there is no tragic headline to tug at our heart strings? 

Because the stewardship Paul is writing about, the stewardship that is ours as God’s people, is not ultimately about money, it’s about mercy. It’s about growing in mercy.  It’s about providing a place where hurting people can hear the gospel of forgiveness. It’s about giving financially so that there can be a place where people can walk up and find a pastor in the building on a random Tuesday morning. We get people during the week who want to talk to a pastor, people struggling from PTSD, people hurting over the death of a loved one, people who feel lost in the confusion of this world. Maybe not every day, but often enough. Supporting the ministry here is not simply about keeping the lights on, it’s about having a hub where people can come find the mercy of God.  It’s about having a school where boys and girls can be raised in a Christian environment, immersed in the word of God and an atmosphere of forgiveness rather than the culture of bitterness around us. It’s about mercy, providing a place for those who cannot provide for themselves, a place of mercy, a home for the Word of God, where the truth of God’s Word rules the day. It’s mercy required of us as a congregation, and required of each of us individually.

And for all our failures to live out such mercy, thanks be to God that nothing compares with the mercy we have been shown by God himself. He didn’t give sparingly of his own mercy. He gave his all, his very life itself, in order that we might have life. He became obedient unto death, even death on a cross, that we might have life. And now, through the precious water of baptism, all that is mine becomes his, and all that is his becomes mine. My sin. My selfishness. My doubt and unwillingness to trust. All of that is his. And what’s mine are his righteousness and holiness, his brazen trust in the Father and faith in the Father’s word, faith that shows itself in action. Jesus’ command to love one another as he has loved us is one that I can never fulfill on my own. Yet because Christ lives in me, that command is already fulfilled in God’s eyes. 

Because we are united to Christ in Baptism, daily we are being shaped into his image. When Christ is alive in us through the preaching of his word and the gift of his sacrament, we begin to look more and more like him each day. We continue to be shaped into people of mercy, people growing in mercy.  In the words of Paul, we do good to all as opportunity arises, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. We support the needs of people around the world when the time comes, but we make it a special priority to support the work of God in this place we call home each and every day, for this is our church, our school. If we’re at 2% giving, maybe we won’t make it all the way to 10% in a year, but maybe we make it to 3% next year, and 4% the year after that.  God will help you grow in mercy. If we’re simply throwing an occasional ten or twenty in the plate from time to time, maybe we make it a priority to establish a regular giving pattern, maybe $50 a month. God will help you grow in mercy. After all, we are the people of mercy, people who belong to the God of mercy.

And ultimately the mercy of God is what truly matters. Maybe we never quite make it to that level of giving and trust that our Lord asks of us. Maybe we never fully embrace the attitude and life of mercy our Lord has placed before us in his church. That won’t change the fact that he had still embraced us. He has claimed each of us in the water of baptism, and is working each day to shape us into people of mercy. Whatever your attitude toward stewardship and giving was when that process began in you, and whatever it is when the process ends, God is still at work in you. You still belong to him. And because he is a God of mercy, he will make us to people of mercy, he will inspire mercy in his church. 

May he who has begun this good work in us bring it to completion today, and in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. +INJ+

 

The Fiery Trial – Sermon for June 1st/2nd, 2014

The Fiery Trial

1 Peter 4:7-14

Exaudi Sunday (7th Sunday of Easter)

June 1st/2nd, 2014

St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

 Do not be surprised, beloved, when the fiery trial comes upon you to test you, as though something strange and unexpected were happening to you.  For you know that the genuineness of your faith will be tested by fire to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.[1]  Did not Jesus himself say, “If anyone would follow me, let Christian_Persecution_02_230pxhim deny himself, take up his cross and follow me”?[2]  Did not Jesus himself say, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account”?[3]  Did not Jesus himself say, “In the world you will have tribulation”?[4]  Did not Jesus himself say, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth.  I have not come to bring peace, but a sword”?[5]  Yes, beloved, Jesus is clear.  We his children will have crosses to bear in this life.  We will have tribulation.  We will have fiery trials – so don’t be surprised when those trials appear.  Don’t act as if something strange were happening to you.  It is not strange.  It is life under the cross of Christ.  It is life as an enemy of Satan.  It is the life you now lead as a baptized child of God.

Persecution will find you, you don’t have to go looking for it.  Now, some trials that we suffer are the result of our own sinful actions.  As Peter says in the verse that immediately follows today’s reading, if you suffer because you are a murderer or a thief or a gossip or a rabble-rouser, then your suffering is simply the result of your choices and cannot rightly be considered persecution.[6]  Yet if you are insulted for the name of Christ, then you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.[7]  We should expect to suffer for the name of Christ.  I think we in the United States are only just beginning to get a sense of this type of suffering.  We haven’t really experienced it before because for the past several generations Christianity in the United States enjoyed privileged status.  Christian holidays were observed on a national level.  Nativities were displayed prominently in the courthouse lawn while Joy to the World and other Christian carols swelled the shopping mall and the church sanctuary equally.  The Christian view of marriage was accepted and unquestioned – at least on a cultural level.  Christianity was in the majority, and Christians led a fairly comfortable existence, one where we were allowed to worship and preach the gospel without fear of interference or retribution.

Those times are gone now.  Our government and our culture have changed.  No longer does Christianity hold privileged status.  We are not the lap dog any longer – we’re back in the pack with the rest of them, fighting for our scraps.  The definition of marriage in our land is not that which we find in our Lord’s Word.  Christian displays are not tolerated on the front lawn of government buildings, and where they are allowed, they are adrift in a sea of religious pluralism.  Music celebrating the birth of Jesus has been banned from many public places in the Christmas season, which has itself been renamed the “holiday” season so as not to offend those who celebrate something other than the birth of our Lord at that time of year.  Federal regulations regarding health care, birth control and abortions force Christian organizations to choose between conscience and compliance.  The leadership of our Synod has already put congregations on alert that the property tax exemption currently granted to religious institutions will likely go by the wayside sometime in the next ten years.  There are other changes that have happened or will happen soon that will change the way the church operates in the U.S.  We Christians in the United States are experiencing a culture shock of sorts as the culture around us evolves and morphs into something new.  I don’t know what the future holds, but I expect that being Christian in America in the years ahead will require a more ardent confession, for the convenience of Christianity will be gone.

chickenlittle2But we ought not turn into Chicken Little.  Yes, our cultural context is changing, but the sky is not falling.  Losing convenience isn’t always bad.  Losing privilege doesn’t have to be the worst thing in the world.  What we are just now beginning to experience is nothing compared to what other parts of the world have endured for the past 2000 years.  That is why we often pray for the persecuted church, for those who suffer on account of the gospel, like the Sudanese woman who is to be executed for her conversion to Christianity.  Her story made global headlines due to the fact that she was 8 months pregnant when she was sentenced to death, but her situation is not especially unique.  There are several nations around the world where conversion to Christianity is a capital offense punishable by death.  During the days of the Iron Curtain, stories of Christian martyrdom and persecution were quite common.  The dangers posed to Christians around the world far exceed what we currently face here in the United States, yet it is precisely in hostile environments like Africa where the Christian Church is growing so quickly that it’s hard to get enough pastors and resources for all the new congregations.  Our situation in America may be getting worse, but even we can thank God that our problem is being told not to say Merry Christmas instead of facing execution for confessing Christianity.

We ought to be careful not to equate loss of privilege with genuine persecution.  For just like talk of financial hardship rings hollow when we have high definition cable TV, smart phones with unlimited data, multiple vehicles to gas up and maintain, and are willing to spend thousands of dollars on vacations, so also talk of persecution rings hollow when the extent of the struggle we are facing is whether or not a secular government allows us to set up a nativity on public property.  I don’t think that’s the persecution that Peter is talking about in his epistle.  I do, however, think we in the United States are on a collision course with the exact type of experiences that Peter is addressing.  But we need not lose hope.  Yes, the world around us is growing ever more blatant in its paganism.  Yes, the open acceptance of sinful behavior is considered normal now.  Yes, we live in a culture that has no problem with homosexuality, pornography, or any other sexual actions that are contrary to our Lord’s design.  In fact, sexual pleasure of any kind is glorified as the highest good that this life has to offer.  We live in a world that has no problem with ending life when that life is inconvenient, so long as that life is unborn or aging.  But Ivy League Ethicists have been arguing since the 1970s that even infants should not be given preferential treatment, and if you find yourself in a position where you feel the need to kill your 1 month old, you should have the right to go ahead and do it.[8]  We live in a world that believes the purpose of existence is survival of the fittest, to kill or be killed, to exert your will on the weak so that you may be made strong.  But we need not lose hope.

We aren’t the first generation of believers to face opposition from the world.  Our world has always been at odds with our Lord, ever since the Fall, so if you are going to try to live according to our Lord’s Word, take Peter’s words to heart.  Don’t be surprised when you find yourself increasingly at odds with the culture in which you live.  Don’t be surprised when the voice of Christians is portrayed as unloving, uncaring, overbearing, and AB-IN-It-Not-Of-Itdownright evil.  Do not be surprised when the world cannot understand the Scriptures’ teaching on marriage and brands you as unloving for holding to it.  Do not be surprised when the world does not understand the value our Lord places on life and how such value is incompatible with abortion or euthanasia.  Do not be surprised as the situation gets a whole lot more serious than not being to put a nativity in the lawn at the capitol building.  Do not be surprised when you are insulted for the name of Christ, for if you are insulted in the name of Christ, you are blessed, because you have held to the confession of His Word, and through that Word the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.[9]

Don’t be surprised when that America arrives.  It’s coming.  In many ways it’s already here and has been for some time now.  Don’t be surprised, but don’t lose hope either, for keep-calm-remember-matthew-16-18Jesus said the gates of hell itself cannot overpower our Lord’s church.  Even the threat of death cannot silence the Gospel in Africa.  Neither will the gospel be silenced here, not as long as our Lord is active among us to kindle in our hearts a passion for the truth that sets us free.  Take heart, the church will survive.  We may lose privileged status, but we will not lose our Lord, for he will remain faithful.  We will not lose his Word, for while the flower withers and the grass fades, the Word of our God stands forever.[10]  So cling to that Word.  Don’t let the voice of the culture, of the music on the radio or the messages in the movies or the images on TV, don’t let the voice of the culture be the only voice that enters your ears and your eyes.  Hear the voice of our Lord in his Word, but do so knowing that as his word begins to give you a perspective on life that conflicts with the culture around us, the culture will not simply sit by and let you have your way.  It’s exhausting to swim upstream; you will get pelted with sand and dirt when you walk into the wind.  Do not be surprised when being counter cultural is difficult.  Do not be surprised when that fiery trial arrives, but rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.[11]  Be faithful unto death, and you will receive a crown of life.[12]

Don’t be surprised at the fiery trials, but don’t lose hope either.  Receive life’s challenges as a call to repentance and a reminder of our own sin and desperate need of salvation.  Rather than feeling victimized when someone scolds you for saying Merry Christmas or lamenting the fact that the rest of the world doesn’t accept the Christian worldview, repent of the sins of this culture of which we are each a part.  We have each contributed in our own ways to the world in which we live – and we are each called to repentance for it.  Rather than making excuses or finding loopholes to justify sinful actions and desires, repent of your sinful flesh and look to our Lord for deliverance.  While we will each of us suffer something in this life, we are like the thief on the cross, for we indeed suffer justly.  We get what we deserve for our sin.  It is Jesus who suffered unjustly.  It is Jesus who did nothing wrong but was left to face the consequences of our sin.  And he did so willingly, allowing himself to be captured rather than calling down legions of angles to defend him, giving up his spirit on the cross, laying down his life so that you could be his precious child.  He suffered great persecution so that we might have life beyond the grave.  He is the reason we cling to hope in the face of persecution, for who are we that we should be counted worthy to receive the same treatment our Lord received?  And even more, when this world has done its worst, when we have suffered the most, when death itself snatches our last breath away, even that is but the birth into the new heavens and the new earth.

Take heart in your suffering – for your salvation is secure.  Do not lose hope in your suffering – you are a child of God.  You are a child of life in a world of death.  Keep an eye on eternity during your time here, knowing full well that Satan does not want you to arrive safely in God’s eternal mansion.  Do not be surprised when fiery trials come upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.  You have been baptized.  You now have a bull’s eye on your back as a new creation and an enemy of the devil.  But rejoice insofar as you share in Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad SquarePeg-RoundHole-01when his glory is revealed, for when his glory is revealed we too will be seen for what we are, not simply people who don’t fit in quite right with our culture, but the saints of God who will spend eternity with him in the new and perfect creation.

May God grant it for Jesus’ sake.  Amen.

 

[1] 1 Peter 1:7

[2] Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23

[3] Matthew 5:11

[4] John 16:33

[5] Matthew 10:34

[6] 1 Peter 4:15

[7] 1 Peter 4:14

[8] http://www.equip.org/articles/peter-singers-bold-defense-of-infanticide/#christian-books-2

[9] 1 Peter 4:14

[10] Isaiah 40:6-8

[11] 1 Peter 4:13

[12] Revelation 2:10

Peace Be With You – Sermon for Quasimodo Geniti (April 27th/28, 2014)

 

Peace Be With You

John 20:19-23

2nd Sunday of Easter (Quasimodo Geniti)

April 27th/28th, 2014

St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

Fear.  Hiding.[1]  They seem to go together hand-in-hand.  Where there is fear, there will be hiding.  It’s been that way since the beginning of time.  There in the garden were the first man and woman, naked, exposed in their sin, and hiding.  But from whom are they hiding?  Do they really think that they can hide from the all-seeing eye of the all-present, all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the universe?  I’d hope not.  But then again, that’s probably exactly why they’re hiding.  They know he is the all-present, all-knowing, all-powerful adam_eve230212_02creator of the universe, and they know that they have sinned against him.  They know they have eaten from the tree of which the Lord said, “You shall not eat.”  They know they have been bested in a battle of wits against the serpent.  They know they are naked.  They, like God, now know the difference between good and evil – and they know which one they are.  They know they have sinned.  They are ashamed.  They are afraid, so they hide.

Fear.  Hiding.  They go together hand-in-hand.  The disciples hide for fear of the Jews.  The disciples hide for fear that they will be the next ones to be captured, the next to be put on trial before the Sanhedrin, the next to be sent to the kangaroo court before Pilate, then Herod, then back to Pilate again.  The disciples are afraid that they are going to be the next ones whipped and beaten within an inch of their lives, forced to carry the instrument of their own torture to the place of their death, nailed to a wooden cross and executed, condemned to endure one of the most excruciatingly painful forms of death ever conceived in the gruesome mind of sinful man.  The disciples are afraid, so they hide.

Fear.  Hiding.  They go together hand-in-hand.  We hide out of fear.  Like our first parents in the garden, we know our own sin.  We know all too well, better than anyone else, how sinful we really are.  We know the inmost desires of our hearts.  “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick; who can understand it?” wrote the prophet Jeremiah.[2]  We may be unable to fully understand our hearts, but we know all too well what they are capable of.  For out of the heart come evil thoughts, hatred, lust, sexual immorality, greed, lies, slander.[3]  These come from our hearts, and we know it, so we hide.

We hide behind walls of rationalization by lying to ourselves, saying that any desire we feel must therefore be natural or we wouldn’t feel it.  We hide behind walls of self-justification by playing the card of the Pharisees and measuring ourselves against other 20110312021240-bricksinners rather than measuring ourselves against God’s holy Law.  “I’m better than so-and-so,” we tell ourselves in a vain attempt to bury the guilt our conscience feels over our true condition.  “At least I don’t do drugs.” “At least I don’t cheat on my spouse.”  “At least I go to church.”  We hide behind a self-constructed wall of good intentions and bad excuses.  “I would have spoken up and defended my neighbor, but I didn’t know what to say.”  “I know that I technically cheated on my taxes, but it was only a little, and money is really tight this year.”  “I know that I watched that movie with lust in my heart, but it’s not like I said or did anything wrong.” “I know I really hate my boss, but he’s asking for it.”

Hiding.  All we are doing is hiding, hiding because of our fear.  Fear of being held accountable to a higher standard.  Fear of having our sins and shortcomings brought to light.  Fear of being seen for who we truly are: sinful and unclean.  Hiding and fear go together.  But like Adam and Eve could not hide from the all-present, all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the universe, where do we think we can hide where our Lord cannot find us?  There is no place that is safe, for our Lord Jesus is not Superman and our acts of kindness and charity are not lined with lead.  Our Lord sees right through our so-called good deeds to the truth of our hearts.  There is nowhere to hide.  He will find us, just like he found Adam and Eve.

And thanks be to God for that.  Thanks be to God that he does find us, even when we hide, just like he found Adam and Eve, just like he found those hiding disciples.  For remember that when our Lord found Adam and Eve hiding in the Garden, he comforted them with the promise of the one who would crush the serpent’s head.  He made them garments of skin to clothe their nakedness.  He escorted them from the tree so that they would not eat of it and be trapped living in their sin forever.  When our Lord found Adam and Eve hiding in the Garden, he had mercy on them.[4]  Remember what happened when Jesus found the disciples locked in the upper room for fear of the Jews.  The resurrected prcas2184Christ did not come in to interrogate them for their cowardice or scold them for their lack of faith.  He came to speak peace into 10 lives burdened with the oppressive weight of fear.  There stands the risen and victorious Christ in their midst, come to show them his wounds not to say, “Look what you did to me,” but rather “See what I have done for you!”

“Peace be with you,” Jesus says.  When he had said this he showed them his hands and his side.  Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.  Not afraid.  Joyful.  Mission accomplished.  10 lives now overflowing with peace where fear once ruled the day.  Death has been defeated, there is no need to fear, there is no need to hide.  Sin has been overcome, there is no need to fear, there is no need to hide.  Satan has been conquered, there is no need to fear, there is no need to hide.  Where there once cowered 10 fearful men who amounted to little more than a heap of lifeless bones, the Lord spoke
words of life.  Bone was joined to bone, flesh came upon them, and the breath of life filled their souls.  Jesus is risen, there is no need to fear, there is no need to hide.  Jesus is living, and through the power of his Word, now his Apostles were alive in him too. So alive, in fact, that our Lord sent those apostles out from their hiding place to share the peace they have received.

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.  JesusOnCross_01As the Father has sent me, so also I am sending you.”  As the Father sent me?  How exactly did God send his Son into the world?  “God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world
might be saved through him.”[5]  God the Father sent his son into the world to save the world.  Jesus sent the apostles into the world to save the world, not by dying for it again, no, Jesus had already done that.  Rather the disciples were sent out to save the world by delivering to it the peace just delivered to them through the Word they were given to speak.  Our Lord doesn’t want his gift of peace to stop with 10 souls, but wants it delivered to every person everywhere.

As Jesus sends them on their way, he gives them the tool that they need for their task.  For having sent them, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”  The peace that the apostles speak is not of this world – it is the peace of the Spirit himself, for it is the Spirit himself.  Into these men Christ breathes his Spirit and sends them out into the world to use that Spirit to deliver the gift of peace.    And so they did.  The disciples took up the ministry of reconciliation and began preaching Christ crucified all over the ancient world.  And churches began to sprout up: in Ephesus, in Galatia, in Corinth, in Rome.  In whatever places the Apostles delivered the message of peace that they themselves received, other lives were filled with peace.  And having delivered that peace, the Apostles then sent other men to do the same.  And so the Word of the Lord was sown.  The peace of the Lord was delivered as more and more people heard the message of reconciliation.  That very same peace has been delivered into your life by the spiritual descendants of the apostles, by the pastors who have baptized you, who have fed you the body and blood of the risen Lord, who have catechized you and preached to you from this very pulpit, who have stood before you in this place to declare your sins forgiven in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  But as with the apostles, so with you.  As Jesus delivered peace into their lives and then sent them to carry that peace to others, so also he has delivered peace into your life and sent you to deliver that same peace, the peace that surpasses all understanding.

keep-calm-jesus-is-the-risen-kingAnd yet so often we are hesitant.  So often we are too afraid.  While our Lord would have us go, we hide like Jonah.  Fear and hiding go together hand-in-hand, and so we often hide from the opportunities to speak our Lord’s Word of peace.  Maybe we’re afraid of saying the wrong thing.  Maybe we’re afraid of being called a hypocrite.  Maybe we’re afraid of not having the answers to the questions that so naturally arise in discussions about Jesus.  But never forget that before Jesus sent the apostles to deliver the message of peace, he first delivered it to them.

That is how our Lord works.  He didn’t send the apostles out to undertake an impossible task, but gave them everything they would need.  He does the same for us.  We can’t hide from our Lord, so instead we kneel before him in humble repentance.  He takes our doubts and fears and shame and bitterness and makes them his own.  He takes his faith and his hope and his life and his joy and gives them all to us.  He breathes his Spirit onto us through the words of the Gospel spoken through the voice of his pastors, spoken through the voice of your fellow Christians, written for you in the pages of Holy Scripture.  He does not send us out unequipped, but gives us the gift of forgiveness and new life in him, the exact things we need to go forth with no fear.

And so we do go forth.  We go forth from this place and bring reconciliation and peace into our relationships, into our families, into our school, into our workplaces, into our world.  Fear and hiding go together.  They always have, and they always will.  But our Lord comes into our hiding places with words of comfort and of peace, with his own crucified and resurrected body and blood to strengthen and preserve us body and soul as we take his words of comfort to a dying world.  May the Lord who has so graciously given us this gift of reconciliation and peace grant that by his Spirit we too may proclaim the good news of salvation so that all who hear it may receive the blessing of the peace that surpasses all understanding.

In Jesus’ Name.  Amen.

 

 

[1] This sermon draws on a sermon by Pr. Tony Sikora entitled, “Upper Rooms, Fig Leaves, and the Resurrected Christ.” I liked the correlation drawn between fear and hiding in the scriptures and in the lives of God’s Children today.

[2] Jeremiah 17:9

[3] Matthew 15:19

[4] Genesis 3:15, 20-24

[5] John 3:17

The God of Substitutes – Sermon for April 7, 2014 (Judica)

The of God Substitutions

Genesis 22:1-14; Hebrews 9:11-15; John 8:42-59

Judica Sunday

April 6th/7th, 2014

St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

 I don’t know what you’re planning on doing tonight after church, but for those of you who know me, it should come as no surprise that I’m going to go home to watch the NCAA Basketball Championship Game.  I’m not as excited for it this year as I was last year when my Wolverines were playing, but I still love to watch college basketball.  hrt-hc-uconnmenrutgers1320120107194542If you watch the game tonight, or any basketball game for that matter, one of the stats that the announcers consistently track is “bench production.”  They want to see which team gets more points from the guys who didn’t start the game.  The idea is that because both teams probably put their best 5 players out on the floor to start the game, whatever contributions either team gets from the guys who didn’t start could wind up being the deciding factor in who wins the game.  The implication is that the substitutes are not as good as the starters.  In fact, in sports in general, with the exception of perhaps hockey, there is a clear distinction between the starters and the subs, between the court and the bench.  And almost no basketball player wants to be pulled out of the game when it counts.  Almost no athlete wants to be replaced by a substitute.  In the sports world, you want to be the guy who’s subbed in, not the guy who’s taken out.

There’s a fair amount of substitution in the Scriptures as well, although in the Scriptures, it’s generally better to be the one subbed out.  Take the account of Abraham and Isaac that we heard a few moments ago.  Abraham had been told by God some 30 years earlier that all nations on earth would be blessed through his descendants.  God had eventually revealed to Abraham that Isaac would be the son through whom this promise would be fulfilled.  God identified Isaac by name as the one through whom Abraham would have descendants as numerous as the stars, but in today’s reading that same God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.  Genesis tells us God did this to test Abraham.[1]  The test was to see whether or not Abraham trusted God to keep his promise.  Isaac did not yet have kids, so if God was going to keep his promise to Abraham that Isaac’s descendants would be as numerous as the sand on the sea shore, then he would either have to stop Abraham from sacrificing Isaac or he would have to raise Isaac back from the dead.  Either way, Abraham trusted God’s Word of promise concerning Isaac.

But it’s the end of the story where the substitute comes in.  Once the Angel of the Lord had stopped Abraham from sacrificing Isaac, Abraham noticed a ram caught in the thicket by its horns.  Abraham sacrificed that ram instead of sacrificing his son.  God provided a substitute for Isaac, and Abraham recognized it as such.  That’s why he named the place “the Lord will provide.”  That’s why even unto the day of Moses, when the book of Genesis was written down, it was still said that on the mountain of the Lord it shall be provided.”[2]  God provides substitutes on a mountain in the land of Moriah.  k.Genesis22.14Fast forward a few hundred years to the days of David and Solomon, and a very interesting thing happens.  In the second month of the fourth year of Solomon’s reign, he began to build the Temple.[3]  He built the Temple in the place where the Angel of the Lord had appeared to his father David.[4]  He built the Temple on Mount Moriah.  The Temple of the Lord, the city of Jerusalem itself, was built in the same place where Abraham had almost sacrificed Isaac all those years ago.  The descendants as numerous as the stars that were born to Isaac through the promise of the Lord now worshiped that very same Lord in the very same place where Abraham’s faith in that promise was tested.  On that mountain, the Lord provided substitutes.

And provide he did.  Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, sacrifices were made on the altar of the Lord in the Temple in Jerusalem.  While the specific animal may have varied from bull to goat to bird, or while the specific motivation for any particular sacrifice might have varied from covering up an intentional violation of God’s Law to covering for an unintentional violation of God’s Law to the general spring cleaning that took place on the Day of Atonement, what remained consistent through it all was the substitution.  The animal sacrificed stood in as substitute for the Israelite sacrificing it.  You see, unlike in a college basketball games where he players generally don’t want to have a substitute take their place, in the Temple that’s exactly what you wanted.  And that’s exactly what you got: substitution after substitution.  4.The_16The blood of goats shed in place of human blood.  The blood of bulls shed in place of human blood.  The flesh of a heifer burnt to ash so that the flesh of the Israelites could be spared.  On that mountain in the land of Moriah, the Lord provided substitutes.

But all of those substitutes were incomplete.  While they certainly covered the sin of the Israelites, they did not remove it.  They did not take it away.  They were a spritz of perfume on a sweaty shirt.  They were a scented candle in a room filled with garbage.  The smell of the candle might cover the smell of decaying garbage for a time, but when that candle burns out you need to replace it, over and over and over again.  The smell keeps coming back.  To truly be rid of the problem you don’t just need an unending supply of candles, you need to clean out the room.  You need to take the trash out, to wash the floors and the walls, to remove what is causing the stink.  Then, not only will the garbage be gone, but the smell of the candles will flourish all the more, no longer merely covering up a rotten odor, but filling the clean air with sweet smelling aromas.  The substitution of goats and bulls and heifers, while important, was ultimately in need of a substitute itself.

But this is Mount Moriah.  This is the mountain on which the Lord provides substitutes.

So God provided yet another substitute, this time not in the Temple itself, but somewhere else on Mount Moriah, just outside the city walls of Jerusalem.  There was sacrificed the Lamb of God who not merely covers up, but who takes away the sin of the world.  There was the ultimate substitute, where God himself became human so that he could take the place of humans, subbing himself into our mess, sending us to the sidelines while he finished what we had started.  “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am,” said Jesus.[5]  He is the great I AM, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  The God who appeared to David and told the king to build him a Temple in this place.  The God of Solomon who filled the Temple with holy smoke and fire when the building was completed.  The God of the Israelites who provided and accepted the sacrifices of substitution offered on that mountain for generations.  Now, this very same God came to this very same mountain to be the sacrifice himself, to be the substitution.JesusOnCross_01

Because he is man, he was able to stand in our place.  Because he is God, his sacrifice counts not only here on earth, but also in the heavenly places.  For when Christ appeared, he entered once for all the holy places by means of his own blood.  He needed no substitute.  He entered himself, and in so doing he secured for us an eternal redemption.  For if the blood of animal substitutes purifies the flesh, purifies the surface, if the blood of animal substitutes acts as an air freshener in a smelly room, how much more will the blood of Christ purify us from the inside, moving past the surface problem to the conscience itself.  How much more will the blood of Christ, which is not sprinkled on your skin, but is poured over your lips, taken into your body, digested so that it literally becomes part of you, how much more will that blood cleanse the inside of you.  It doesn’t simply cover the stench, it cleans out the garbage in our hearts and in our lives.  It takes it away so that the source of the smell is removed, not simply masked.[6]

Because the blood of Jesus is inside you, now you are clean.  Sure, sin will come back.  As long as we are in this body and life, there will always be more garbage dumped into our hearts.  Sometimes we dump it there ourselves by speaking hurtful words to another, or by indulging in hateful thoughts, or by filling our eyes with lustful images or our ears with lustful lyrics.  Sometimes the garbage is put in there by others who dump the filth of their sin onto us, speaking hurtful words that cut to our own hearts, manipulating or abusing us physically or emotionally.  There is still a lot of garbage in this life.  But the garbage does not need to just pile up.  The world tells you to ignore the stench and soldier on.  The world tells you that the stench isn’t really a stench at all, that it’s natural because that’s what garbage is supposed to smell like.  The world tells you to dull your senses with alcohol or drugs or spa days or some other form of self-indulgence so that the smell doesn’t bother you as much.  But all the while, the pile of garbage continues to grow deeper and deeper.  Well, today is trash day.  It’s time to stop ignoring or justifying the trash; it’s time to take it out.  Come to the altar of our Lord, drink the blood of Jesus, that purifies your conscience to serve the living God.[7]

Jesus is your substitute.  He stood in your place and took the judgment for the sins you’ve committed.  But don’t forget the conversation from today’s Gospel reading, or any of Jesus’s other conversations where the Jews – his own people! – called him names and insulted him and hurled false accusations against him.  He is your substitute there too.  When the world insults you, remember that it insulted him first.  The world’s insults cannot speak a louder or truer word than the one spoken by Jesus.  Jesus speaks the truth, and he has declared you cleansed and forgiven.  When the world insults or attacks you, remember that those insults and attacks are absorbed by Jesus, your substitute, and in their place he speaks to you words of acceptance and forgiveness.

Rejoice in your substitute.  Rejoice because the Lord has heard your pleas for mercy and deliverance.  He has inclined his ear to you, and his answer is Jesus.  Come to that altar of our Lord and receive your substitute.  Come, and have your conscience cleansed.

bread-of-life

 +INJ+

 

[1] Genesis 22:1

[2] Genesis 22:14

[3] 2 Chronicles 3

[4] 1 Chronicles 21

[5] John 8:58

[6] Hebrews 9:11-14

[7] Hebrews 9:14

Thy Will Be Done – Midweek Sermon (March 26, 2014)

prayer 3 will

Thy Will Be Done

John 6:35-40; Genesis 50:15-21

Midweek Lenten Service (Lord, Teach Us to Pray)

March 26, 2014

St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

 

“Thy will be done.”  On the one hand, it sounds like a simple prayer.  “Lord, please break and hinder every plan and purpose of the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh.  For they do not want us to hallow your name or let your kingdom come.  Let your will be done instead of theirs.”  It sounds so simple at first glance.  God wants one thing for us, Satan wants something different, so we are praying that God’s will would be done instead of Satan’s.  But then the wheels in your head start turning.  The difficulty begins to present itself.  We begin to wonder how, if God is truly God, could his will not be done?  If he is truly the all-powerful creator and sustainer of the universe, then how could anything happen against his will?  If in him all things live and move and have their being, then doesn’t he have control over all things?  Sure, things happen against my will all the time.  But that’s because I’m powerless to stop them.  God’s not powerless to stop anything.  If he was, he wouldn’t be God.  And it does little good to talk about God allowing things he does not will, for that seems like nothing more than a matter of rhetoric.  Whether God is actively responsible for something or not, nothing happens without God’s approval.  If God was powerless to stop something, then there would be something more powerful than God, which is impossible.  So it appears that if God is truly God, his will always done.  But then why would Jesus have us pray for it?

As if trying to sort that out wasn’t bad enough, the world around us muddies the waters even further.  When we look around us we see bad things.  We see sadness.  We see death.  We see pain.  Poverty.  Sickness.  Abuse.  Neglect.  Rape.  Fraud.  Why are these things happening if God’s will is truly all-powerful?  If he can stop these things, why doesn’t he?  And if he can’t stop these things, why bother calling him God?  It’s quite the problem.

But if this question perplexes you – take heart.  It is a question that has been discussed and debated for as long as there have been people discussing and debating questions.  Take heart.  One answer to the question is simply that we don’t need to know.  We have the clear and certain words of Jesus teaching us to pray that his will be done, so if this problem troubles you, cling to those clear and certain words of Jesus, and continue to pray “Thy will be done.”

Mere-Christianity-Cover But if you’re interested a bit more understanding, more can be said.  In his monumental book Mere Christianty, C.S. Lewis addresses the conundrum of God’s will through analogy.[1]  He asks us to consider a mother.  It may be a mother’s will that her children clean up their mess and do their homework each night.  It may also be a mother’s will that her children learn to take personal responsibility for making sure those tasks get accomplished.  If you walk into her house one evening and find toys strewn across living room and an uncompleted math assignment on the kitchen table, you might assume that the mother’s will is not being done.  However, that is not necessarily the case.  The presence of things that contradict the mother’s will is not necessarily an indication that her children have conquered her.  Neither is it necessarily the case that the mother must have decided those things were suddenly unimportant and changed her will with regard to her kids cleaning up their own mess.  Rather, perhaps the mother’s will that the children take personal responsibility trumps her will that the house be clean and the homework be done.  Her will has not changed; she still wants her house clean and the homework done.  But it is also her will that her children to do these things, and that they do them gladly and without reminder.  This aspect of her will (namely, the desire that her children clean up on their own) allows for the possibility that her will for a clean house might not happen every night.  So her greater will – that her children learn responsibility – has taken priority over her will that the house be clean.  But you can be sure that when the in-laws are coming, when the dinner party is about to start, when it really matters, the mother will make sure the house is clean, even if she has to clean it herself.  Lewis compares this to the will of God on earth.  It is most certainly not God’s will that wickedness, pain, or suffering run rampant through his creation.  But the presence of these things does not automatically mean that God is powerless to stop them anymore than toys on the floor mean a mother is incapable of cleaning up.  Perhaps a greater will is in play for God; perhaps something more important than earthly circumstances is at stake.

And so our Lord teaches us to pray, “Thy will be done.”   When we pray these words, we are praying that all aspects of his will would be done.  It is a prayer that has implications both for daily life as well as for eternity.

The prayer that God’s will be done finds its ultimate fulfillment on the last day.  On that day the Almighty God will impose his will on a creation powerless to stop him.  Jesus tells us that his Father’s will is that all who look to the Messiah will have eternal life and will be raised up on the last day.[2]  That will happen; that day is coming.  When we pray “Thy will be done” we are praying, in part, that our Lord would bring about that day.  To borrow from C.S. Lewis’s analogy, we may live in confusion today about why the house that is this world is so messy, confused as to why things are out of order, out of place.  We might be tempted to wonder what is going on with God’s will.  How can God allow these terrible things to happen?  If he is all-powerful, why doesn’t he just impose his goodness on this his creation?  The answer is: be patient.  That day will come.  And when it does, the good and gracious will of God will be known and seen and experienced by all.  He will wipe every last drop of evil off the face of the earth.  He will put the house back in order.  He will usher in a new creation – a perfect creation free from the effects of sin.  On that day we, like Joseph at the end of his struggle, will have the benefit of hindsight.  We too will be able to look back over our days of struggle and say that what the world meant for evil God still used for good.[3]  Our Lord teaches us to pray for that day, and to wait patiently for him to answer our prayer, trusting that God is not slow to fulfill his promise according to the world’s definition of slowness.  Rather, he is patient, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.[4]  Take heart, the day of deliverance is coming.

But this prayer is not only a prayer for the last day.  It is not only a prayer that God would give us his gift of salvation and eternal life.  It is also a prayer that his will would be done on earth now, among us in our lives today.  To borrow from the analogy once more, it is a prayer not only that the house would be clean, but also that we his children would be willing and eager to clean it, or at least to clean our own room, gladly living the life he has created for us.

The Law of God shows us the life he created us to live; it is a marvelous reflection of his will.  Because we are unable to keep it to perfection, the Law of God is always accusing us, magnifying our shortcomings against the backdrop of its perfection, crushing our attempts at self-justification under the weight of its unattainable standards.  But the Law is not the problem, sin is the problem.  God’s Law is not some random set of rules that he invented so that he would have a reason to punish us.  God’s Law is a description of who he is.  God’s Law is a description of what he intended this creation to be.  It is a description of what the next creation will be.  It is a description of what he wants for us in our relationships with him and with one another.  It is a summary of his will for us.  When we pray “Thy will be done,” we are not only praying that he would take us to the new creation, but that he would shape our lives according to his design here and now so that they begin to look a little more like the relationships of the new creation already today.

Viewed in this way, God’s will is no mystery.  Do you want to know God’s will for you?  Look to the 10 Commandments.  God wills that you love him with all your heart, soul, and strength; and that you love your neighbor as yourself.  God wills that you fear, love and trust in him above all things, for he alone is able to provide for your needs of body and soul.  Because God alone can help, He wills that you gladly and willingly call upon him in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks in his name.  God wills that you be fed and nourished by his Word and Sacraments, for they are the means of restoration that He has provided.  God wills that your relationships would be peaceful and marked with self-sacrifice, that you would gladly honor those in authority over you and treat others well when you have authority over them.  He wills that you would neither hurt others nor be hurt yourself in your body.  He wills that you would live in the joy of sexuality as he created it rather than treating it as a means of self-gratification at the expense of objectifying and manipulating another human being.  He wills that you would neither steal nor have your property stolen.  He wills that you would speak the truth in love, putting the best construction on every situation, and that others would do the same for you.  And he wills that you would be grateful and joyful for what you have instead of living in discontentment as you obsess over other people’s lives.  This is the good and gracious will of God for you.  This is what your life will look like in the new creation.  You are praying that this will of God would shape your life here and now, not only in eternity.

jesus-garden But this is a prayer that is never fully answered for us – at least not this side of heaven.  Like the mother in C.S. Lewis’s analogy, certain aspects of God’s will are at odds with each other in this fallen creation, for we are toddles who stubbornly refuse to clean up after ourselves.  We are teenagers who rebel against the wishes of our parents for no reason other than they are the wishes of our parents, and we don’t like being told what to do.  And because we so foolishly and childishly, God sent his own Son to fulfill his will in our place.  Jesus always did his Father’s will.  Even when faced with the imminence of his own death, Jesus’ prayer was, “Take this cup of suffering from me, O Lord.  Yet not my will, but yours be done.”  And God’s will was done.  The Son was sacrificed, atonement was made.  The Son of God was dead and buried, then burst forth to new life in order that he might bring us to new life.  Our Lord desires that all men would be saved and would come to the knowledge of the truth,[5] that we would live in faith toward him and love toward one another.  But he will not compel us by force; he works through his word.  He speaks to us through the voice of Jesus, inviting us to live in communion with him, for that is who we were created to be.  He invites us to share the forgiveness we have received, living in self-sacrificing communion with one another, for that is who we were created to be.  That is the will of God.

Remember that while God may not yet impose his will on us by force, but he did impose his will on Satan.  From the moment he corrupted this creation, Satan was destined to have his head crushed by the Lord’s Anointed.  And there was nothing Satan could do to stop it.  Satan may be more powerful than we are, but he is not more powerful than the one who showed his love for us in that while we were sinners, he died for us.  God remains the Almighty Creator and Sustainer of the universe, and Satan is powerless against his will.  Sure, Satan has his moments, but he is ultimately powerless to truly stop the will of God when it really matters.  Where Satan’s deception ushered sin and brokenness into this creation, our Lord Jesus brings peace and restoration – and Satan couldn’t stop him.  When Jesus walked this earth, he put back together what Satan had broken.  He gave sight to the blind, speech to the mute, hearing to the deaf, life to the dead, and Satan was powerless to stop him.  Where Jesus is, creation is given a taste of its former and future glory.  The prayer “Thy will be done” is a prayer that the same Jesus would be living and active among us, that what is broken in us and in our relationships would be put back together as Jesus lives in us, that the Holy Spirit would work in our lives through Word and Sacrament, that the blindness and deafness and paralysis of our sin would be replaced with a new and contrite heart that lives a God-pleasing life in thought, word, and deed.

“Thy will be done” is not simply a prayer that this world would be more like what our Lord created it to be, but more personally, that we would be more like who our Lord created us to be.  Like a mother who not only desires a clean house, but also desires that her kids learn to keep it clean with a happy heart, our Lord desires that we would not only live according to his design, but that we would do so with a happy heart.  But that requires a new heart, a new creation given through the water of Baptism.  Until every person on earth is free from the effects of sin, the will of God will continue in conflict with itself.  There will be times when we wonder whether God is truly in control.  So we pray in this petition that as we wait for our Lord to bring about his will for all the world to see on the last day, he would continue to bring about his will among us even now so that Jesus would be living and active in our lives through his Word and Sacrament, giving us relationships in the present that are seasoned with a taste of their future glory.  This is God’s good and gracious will.  May it be done among us.

[1] Mere Christianity. Book Two: What Christians Believe “The Shocking Alternative”

[2] John 6:39-40

[3] Genesis 50

[4] 2 Peter 3:9

[5] 1 Timothy 2:4