Serpents & Doves – Sermon for April 5, 2017

Serpents and Doves
Matthew 10:16-23; 1 Peter 3:8-17
Midweek VI
April 5, 2017
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

Sheep and wolves, serpents and doves. No, it’s not the passenger list for Noah’s Ark or the table of contents for a volume of Aesop’s fables. It is the animals Jesus speaks about in tonight’s reading. “Behold,” Jesus tells the Apostles, “I am sending you out as sheep among wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Sheep and wolves, serpents and doves.

The sheep and wolves imagery is pretty straight forward and easy to understand. As sheep among wolves, the Apostles will be stalked. They will be hunted. They will be attacked. They might even be devoured, for that is exactly the kind of thing one can expect a wolf to do to a sheep. But Jesus tells them to go anyway, go out and proclaim the good news of the kingdom. But do so with eyes wide open, Jesus says. Make no mistake about what kind of reception you should expect. Be not naïve about how receptive people will be to the message you bring. You are not going out as honeybees among the flowers. You are not going out as frogs among the lily pads. You are going out as sheep among wolves. So be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.

The wisdom of serpents lies in their heightened awareness.  Ophiologists will tell you that snakes have such awareness because they sense vibrations in the ground, which allows them to feel predators coming from any direction, or that their tongue can both smell the air and sense the body heat of other animals in their vicinity. The point is, it’s next to impossible to sneak up on a snake, almost as impossible as sneaking up on a fish in the water. They feel you coming. They sense your presence. They’re aware of danger.

Jesus tells his Apostles to be as wise as serpents. Do not be deceived, Jesus says, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. And wolves love to eat sheep. I am sending you out into harm’s way. Beware of the danger. Be as wise as serpents. Don’t hide your head in the sand. Don’t close your eyes to reality. Be alert. Be aware. Be prepared. They will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues.  You will be dragged before kings for confessing the name of Christ. You will be hated for my name’s sake. They will persecute you. Danger is coming. Be ready for it. Be as wise as serpents.

But also be as innocent as doves. The innocence of doves lies in their helplessness. It lies in their inability or unwillingness to fight back or to defend themselves. Sometimes doves get eaten. Sometimes they fly away. In the case of the Apostles, this dovely innocence is bound up in willingly following Jesus’ commission to place themselves in harm’s way. Jesus is telling the Apostles: Yes, you are going out as sheep among wolves. Yes, the wolves will seek to devour you. Yes, you should be as aware of impending danger as a serpent who senses potential threats. But go anyway, as innocent as doves, willingly suffering opposition and persecution when it comes upon you. Do not be anxious about what you will say in the face of such persecution, for the Holy Spirit will give you the words you need. And when the persecution gets totally out of hand, then, like a dove, spread your wings and fly on to the next town. There are more than enough people who need to hear the Gospel. Don’t beat your head against the wall. Martyrdom may come, but don’t seek out a chance to turn yourself into a martyr for the cause. If people will not listen, if the threat gets too great, fly on to the next town and find someone there to whom you can deliver the good news of the Messiah.

I am sending you out as sheep among wolves, so be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. That’s the message Jesus leaves with his Apostles. What does it have to do with us today?

We too are sheep among wolves. It takes no great cultural analyst to see that Christianity is not well loved in our nation today. If we’re honest about it, it’s not just Christianity that’s on trial but truth itself and the very nature of existence. It’s whether or not there’s any meaningful difference between girls and boys. It’s whether or not it’s in the best interest of a child to be raised by a mother and a father. It’s whether or not the best interests of a child matter at all, or whether the ideology or the needs of the state takes precedence. Truth itself is under attack. We live in a world that can’t agree on what it means to be a person. And if we can’t agree on what it means to be a person, we certainly won’t agree on what purpose people serve or why we’re here. And if we can’t agree on why we’re here, then we certainly won’t be able to agree on what we should honor and esteem, what we should aspire to and hold forth as admirable and noble.

Even speaking of such things will be met with resistance. We live in world addicted to destruction. We live in a world that loves to tear down the gifts and institutions of God. We live in a world that wants to destroy marriage and the family and the church and all manner of other supposedly evil institutions, and they do it all in the name of freedom. But after the world has supposedly freed us from our family and church and God-given identity, it has nothing to put in their place. It leaves people staring into the abyss, frightened and alone. And when people are frightened and alone, they lash out. The world will lash out at you when you speak the truth. The world will lash out at you when you speak of sin. The world will lash out at you when you speak of the Savior. The world will lash out like the alcoholic who takes a swing at anyone who threatens to take away his bottle or the addict who is a danger not only to herself, but to anyone who would confiscate her stash. The world loves the lie. It is addicted to it. It will not give it up willingly. We who cling to the truth are, indeed, sheep among wolves.

So let us also be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. We are called to confess the truth today, to speak of our Savior and all he has done not only for us, but for the world. Let us approach this task with the wisdom of serpents. Let us be realistic about the challenge ahead of us. Let us expect opposition.  But let us also be as innocent as doves. Let us take heart in this simple reality: we confess the truth, and the truth has a way of surviving. Yes, some people will revile and hate us for our confession. But others will be brought back from the edge of the abyss, brought to repentance through a knowledge of their sin and yearning for salvation, brought to life according to God’s design, a life lived in family and church. We have the only cure.  Jesus has placed it into our hands, into our mouths, into the keeping of his church. He has placed it into your hands as a child of God. We have the Word of truth, which means we have the medicine people need. Let’s give it.

To use the words of the Apostle Paul, let us speak the truth in love. In speaking the truth, we confess faithfully what our Lord has revealed in the pages of Scripture.  As the Apostle Peter says, we do so with gentleness and respect. We need to sense the danger like serpents. We don’t need to yell and scream and rant and rage as if that will change the world or the people in it. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling. Yelling only leads to more yelling. Responding to anger and name calling with more anger and name calling is never the answer. Be as wise as serpents. See the danger in the way the world holds conversations, if you can call what goes on today “conversation.”  Sense the danger in simple stereotypes and clichéd villainy.

And be as innocent as doves.  Speak the truth in love. When the world reviles us, we bless in return, for to this we were called. We do not give in to fear; we listen to the words of Jesus. Nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. The lies of the world will be unmasked one day. The spotlight of God’s Word will drive Satan from the shadows, and he will be shown for the liar he is. Maybe that will happen in your lifetime, maybe not. What of it? Do not fear the things or people of the world because they can kill your body. Your soul is safe with Jesus.  Rather, fear only God, for he alone has the power to destroy both body and soul in hell. So confess the truth in love, with gentleness and respect, and let the chips fall where they may. For whoever confesses Jesus before men, Jesus will also acknowledge before the Father in heaven, but whoever denies Jesus before men, Jesus will also deny before the Father in heaven.

Sheep and wolves, serpents and doves. There’s a lot of animals involved in confessing the faith. It may not be Aesop’s Fables, but the message is still simple: confess the faith. Don’t worry about what will happen or how it will go, just confess faithfully. So that’s what we’ll do. We will confess faithfully, with our lips and our lives, in our jobs and in our families and in our nation. We will confess faithfully, even if we are sheep among wolves.  We will confess faithfully, as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. We will confess faithfully, for the Lion of Judah is watching over us.


Jesus, the Resurrection – Sermon for April 2/3, 2017

Jesus, the Resurrection
John 11:1-45
Fifth Sunday in Lent
April 2nd/3rd, 2017
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

            Spring is in the air.  Finally.  Maybe. You can never quite tell in Michigan, can you? One day it’s sunny and beautiful, the next it’s snowing and sleeting. But regardless of what’s going on with the weather, we have turned the calendar to April. Every morning when I get dressed I can hear the sound of birds chirping outside my window.  The days are getting longer. March Madness is almost over, baseball season is here. But the surest sign that warmer days are ahead is the return of the construction barrel, that ubiquitous orange decoration that frustrates drivers across the state from the first thaw until the winter chill returns at the end of next fall.  Yes, construction season has returned, so get ready for some detours. The barrels are already out on Garfield, and I hear Schoenherr between 15 and 16 Mile roads will get torn up too, not to mention the major closure on I-75 South between Detroit and Downriver.  If you are headed in those directions, better plan on being rerouted.

Today’s Gospel reading tells of a rerouting of sorts.  It tells of a detour. Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem where he would be greeted by throngs of people waving palm branches as he enters the city riding on the colt of a donkey.  But that’s the reading for next week. Before we reach the triumphal entry of Palm Sunday, we take a slight detour and visit the cemetery.  This detour might have taken us to the deathbed of a dying Lazarus, but as you just heard in the reading a few moments ago, when Jesus heard that Lazarus was ill, he waited for two full days before going to him.  We visit a cemetery instead of a hospital bed because Jesus waited.  He waited for Lazarus to die.

When He finally arrived, Martha, the sister of Lazarus, greeted him with the following words: “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.”  Jesus had a reputation for miraculous healing. That’s why crowds of people would bring their sick loved one to Jesus. Martha knows Jesus healed a veritable army of strangers, but when his friend is deathly ill, he doesn’t drop everything and rush to heal him? Why in the world would Jesus wait? Why would he do that to her? In her grief she comes out and accuses Jesus of being responsible for her pain.  “Lord, if you would have been here, my brother would not have died. If you wouldn’t have forgotten about Lazarus, if you would’ve only gotten here on time, when I told you to be here, then my brother would be alive, and I wouldn’t be hurting.”

Jesus comforts her by reminding her, “Your brother will rise again.”  And Martha admits knows that Lazarus will be raised on the last day.  But that offers little comfort to her right now.  Right here and now, Lazarus is still dead.  This isn’t what Martha had in mind at all.  This isn’t how Martha planned it. This isn’t what her life was supposed to be. So Jesus tells Martha, “I am the resurrection.  I am the Life.  I may not have been here on your time table, but I am here now, here in my time, here for you.”  But Martha didn’t understand.  What Martha wanted was for Jesus to have healed her brother and protected her from feeling grief.  But Jesus didn’t do that. Jesus had something else in mind.

Lazarus’s other sister Mary also greeted Jesus, much in the same way as her sister Martha.  She also tells Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.”  And then she breaks down into tears, overrun with grief at the death of her brother.  Jesus, seeing her grief, weeps with her.  The sadness and grief he feels is evident by his own reaction to the situation. But some of those who had gathered at the tomb saw Jesus weeping and said, “Couldn’t he who opened the eyes of the blind have kept this man from dying?  Couldn’t he have prevented this pain?”  From their perspective, Jesus is to blame for this pain. Jesus should have done something to keep Lazarus from dying.  Then Mary and Martha wouldn’t have to experience the terrible grief of losing a family member.  Then Mary and Martha would know that Jesus loved them, if he shielded them from the hurts and afflictions of this life.  But Jesus didn’t do that. Jesus had something else in mind.

It’s in the words of Jesus that we see what that “something else” was. “I am the resurrection and the life.”  Resurrection.  Now there’s a loaded word.  For while resurrection certainly calls to mind images of life, in order for there to be a resurrection there must first be a death.  If there is no death, there can be no resurrection.  When Jesus tells us, “I am the resurrection and the life,” what he is also saying in these words is “I bring death.”

“How can Jesus bring death?” you may be asking yourself.  “Didn’t Jesus tell us that he came in order that we, his sheep, may have life, and have it abundantly?  How can Jesus bring death?”  And yet we’re left to meditate on what Jesus really said, not just on what we wish he would have said. “I am the resurrection,” he said. Jesus brings death.  Jesus brought death to Lazarus. He waited to go to the house until Lazarus had died. But death doesn’t get the last word because Jesus doesn’t bring death to just Lazarus. Remember, this stopover at the tomb of Lazarus is nothing more than a detour on Jesus’ journey to his own tomb.  Don’t forget where Jesus goes when he leaves Mary, Martha, and their resurrected brother.  Think of where this road is taking him, from Bethany to Jerusalem: to Palm Sunday, to Maundy Thursday, to Good Friday and the cross.

“Hosanna!” the people will shout when he arrives in Jerusalem, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Have mercy on us.  Save us!”  And save them he will, but not in the way that they expect. Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.  Behold, the perfect sacrifice, bloodied and dead under the judgment our sins deserve.  Behold, he who is the resurrection and the life. But for there to be resurrection, there must be death first.

All too often, we too would have Jesus simply protect us from our daily pain and affliction.  Like Mary and Martha, we look at the problems and hurt in our lives and say, “Lord, you could have prevented this!  Why did you let this happen to me?  Where were you?”  We look at Jesus as the one to deliver us from financial or emotional difficulties, to heal our earthly infirmities or cure our cancer.  To make everything right and comfortable and to put things just the way we want them. We cry out, “Lord, have mercy on me where I tell you to, where I think I need it.”  But Jesus has something else in mind, something greater.

Jesus didn’t take on human flesh in order to make us comfortable or to give us what we think we want.  He didn’t come to make us only feel better for a little while.  He came with the true cure.  He came to make us his own.  He didn’t come to put a band-aid on our sinfulness.  He came to kill it, to crucify it with himself on the cross.  If anyone would follow him, let him take up his own cross. “Or don’t you know, all of you who were baptized into Christ were baptized into his death?”  The road from Bethany to Jerusalem, like all roads in the life of Christ, leads to death.  The entire journey of Lent is a journey of death, a journey of repentance where our old Adam daily drowns and dies, along with all sins and evil desires, and a new man arises to live before God in righteousness and purity for ever.

Jesus is not impressed with our perception of the problems in our lives; he knows what the true problem is: sin.  That is why he came.  That is why he went to Jerusalem.  That is why he lived. That is why he died.  There were no construction barrels that could keep our Lord from reaching his destination.  There was nothing that was going to keep him from reaching the cross.  He didn’t come to give us what we want.  He came to give us what we need.

“I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus said. He came to earth, took human flesh, and traveled to Jerusalem for one reason: to die and rise again.  And through our baptism we too die with him there.  But death is not the final word; Jesus is the resurrection.  And Jesus is not only the resurrection, he is our resurrection.  He is your resurrection. Now we live in our baptism, living in repentance, dying to our sinful flesh, united to Christ in his resurrection.  The resurrection lives within us.  Christ lives within us.  Jesus did not give Mary and Martha a temporary solution or quick fix.  Jesus came to bring true life and true freedom, the life and freedom which can only be had through death . . . and resurrection.  Such is your life as a child of God, a life of death and resurrection.  So live as the children of God you truly are! Repent! and die to your sins.  Repent! and be made alive in him who is the resurrection and the life.  Repent! and live in Christ, never to die again.

Paul in Athens – Sermon for Midweek 2; Lent 2017

Paul in Athens
Acts 17:16-34
Lent Midweek II
March 15, 2017
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

“Whoever Confesses Me before men, I will confess before my Father in heaven,” Jesus says. Whoever confesses me. That’s the theme for our meditation this Lent. Last week we heard the account of the Jewish man who was cast out of the Synagogue for confessing Christ.  We considered how confession often meets opposition, even within the church. Today we see another instance of confession in the New Testament. This time, it is the Apostle Paul who confesses Christ before men, and this time, the men are unbelievers, the pagan philosophers and mystics from the city of Athens.

This record of Paul’s actions is a gift to us, for we live today in the midst of an unbelieving audience. Our world is not Christian. Most of your coworkers are not Christian. When you students go off to college, most of your professors, classmates, and roommates won’t be Christian. Our government is not Christian. The overwhelming majority of our news media is not Christian. The overwhelming majority of our popular entertainment is not Christian. Not only do most of the people around us assume the teachings of the Scriptures to be childish and old fashioned, they consider them bigoted and hateful. But notice that I said the teachings of the Scriptures are assumed to be these things. The unbelieving world assumes it knows what the Scriptures teach. It assumes it knows what the Church believes.

Our call to confess Christ includes challenging these false assumptions and clearly confessing the truth of our Lord’s Word. That’s what Paul did in Athens. Although it was home to the Parthenon and technically dedicated to the goddess Athena, Athens was a virtual buffet line of various theologies and philosophies, much like America today. All kinds of different people there believed all kinds of different things. Paul engaged those people and their beliefs in three different ways, each of which can guide us in confessing the truth today.

First, and most importantly, he preached the Word. Look again at his confession. He proclaimed the truth that God is the Creator. He proclaimed the truth of sin and our separation from God. He proclaimed the truth that in his love for us, God reached out to save us in our sin. He preached Christ crucified and risen as God’s gift of redemption. He preached the Word, for the Word of God alone creates faith. Paul knew he was just a messenger. He knew that he was given work to do by God, but that the Holy Spirit gave growth. So Paul just preached the Word and let the chips fall where they may. He did not attempt to coerce or force anyone into faith. He did use threats or scare tactics. Neither did he compromise the confession to entice people or make his message more palatable to pagan ears. He simply proclaimed the Word, trusting that God would work through it as he saw fit. We too can approach our confession with such confidence. We are called to be faithful, to proclaim the truth of God’s Word, and to let God take care of the rest.  The first and most important thing we can learn from Paul is to boldly and faithfully proclaim the Word, even to an unbelieving world.

The second thing we can learn from is the way Paul intentionally engaged the philosophies of the Stoics and Epicureans.  He preached the truth of God’s Word, but he also engaged the false philosophies of his day. If you don’t know what Stoics or Epicureans are, that’s fine. It’s not really the point. The point is that he engaged the secular philosophies of the people. Of course, that means he would have had to be familiar with those philosophies first. While we are not given a transcript of their conversations, we can be sure Paul challenged their assumptions and presented the truth of God’s Word in their midst.

Are we prepared to engage the philosophies of our time? Do we even know what the philosophies of our time are? Do we know the different answers people will give about what it means to be human, what it means to exist, what history is, what knowledge is, how we gain knowledge? Do we know why these answers matter. It may sound harsh, but the honest truth is that we live in a sea of paganism. We need to wake up to the reality that the world around us is not Christian. It’s not just that people don’t live like Christians. They don’t even think like Christians. Sometimes it’s like we’re not even speaking the same language. It’s no great shock that people starting from unscriptural places and thinking according to unscriptural philosophies will reach unscriptural conclusions. It’s next to impossible to have a productive conversation with someone about something controversial when we don’t agree on what it means to be human, whether objective knowledge is possible, or whether history is always marching forward to the good. We must be prepared to engage the Stoics and Epicureans of our own day by studying our Lord’s Word and not blindly drinking whatever cocktail Hollywood or Washington puts before us this week.

Does that intimidate you? Does that make you feel unequipped or unprepared? Do you cringe at the prospect of studying metaphysics or epistemology? Take heart. The often ignored truth is that most people outside the church can’t articulate their philosophy either. They’ve never been asked to seriously reflect on the nature of truth or existence, of knowledge or history. What they have done, like us, is absorbed pagan philosophies through music and movies and education. While that kind of absorption can be toxic, the good news is that because the truth of God is written on people’s hearts and built into creation itself, not everything that Hollywood puts out automatically leads people down the path to perdition.

That’s the third thing we can learn from Paul today. Paul uses the tools of the culture to confess the Faith. Like a wrestler can use an opponent’s momentum to gain an advantage through a counter move, Christians can turn aspects of popular culture into opportunities to confess the Faith. Paul quoted pagan poets who accidentally stumbled upon some truth in nature. He used glimpses of truth that the people already knew as a springboard for a fuller presentation of the Gospel truth.

Such springboards exist in our world today.  For example, our world feels a powerful internal pull toward justice. Political movements seek to rid the world of injustice and inequality. Movies that chronicle a crusade against injustice ring true in our ears. We cheer for those who fight injustice. Groups today are quick to organize protests against injustice. But where does this desire for justice come from? If the world is truly a randomly developed evolutionary machine, then there would be no justice or injustice, only survival.

And yet we can’t help but to fight injustice. We write stories and songs about heroes and their quest for justice. The desire for justice is an indication that such a thing does exist, that this world is, indeed, unjust and broken, and someone needs to put it back together. The Christian confession is that Jesus is the one who puts it back together in a way that political movements and social crusades never could. The Christian confession is that Jesus will make all things new, that the lion will lie down with the lamb, that all tears and sorrows will be wiped away, and that God himself will dwell among his people. The desire for justice and intuitive recognition that this world is broken open a door for Christians to preach the Gospel.

Relationships are another prime place for Christians to use Hollywood to begin conversations about the truth. All around us relationships crumble. The number of healthy marriages portrayed on screen is almost non-existent compared to the number of abusive, affair-ridden, neglectful marriages.

Yet people still seek out romantic companionship. We can’t stop writing love stories and love songs. People want a happy ending, which almost always includes some level of commitment between lovers. The overwhelming cultural support for homosexual marriage is odd when compared to the systematic ridiculing and destruction of marriage that we have seen over the last several decades. But there is something instinctive in people that desires these relationships.

And it’s not just romance. Even the most ardent introvert doesn’t want to be alone all the time. People seek friendships and sibling relationships. How many books and movies praise the value of friendship and community? The philosophies of the world will try to tell you that such impulses are rooted in the desire for food or reproduction. But that explanation hardly does justice to the feelings evoked in us by a good tale of friendship and loyalty.  

The Christian confession is that God has created us to live in relationships, that relationships are the places where we live out the Ten Commandments and his design for creation, where we learn the value of self-sacrifice and the security of unconditional love. The Christian confession says that it is the gift of forgiveness that makes meaningful relationships possible in the long-term, and that the forgiveness of sins we have through Jesus has restored our relationship to God so that we can live in right relationships with each other. The overwhelming desire for relationships offers an opportunity for Christians to proclaim the Gospel.

The same could be said of beauty and spirituality, to say nothing of the moral law that resurfaces throughout history regardless of place or time. The point is, this is our Lord’s creation, and each person in it is our Lord’s creation, whether they acknowledge him or not. And as our Lord’s creation, each person has certain aspects of God’s design written on his or her heart. We can use these elements of design to point people to the fullness of truth revealed in God’s Word. In Paul’s case, many mocked his confession of Christ and the resurrection. But others wanted to hear more about it. And through further conversation, some believed. In the same way, the “echoes of God’s voice” that people can’t seem to get out of their heads offer us the chance to proclaim the Gospel. But we dare not forget that it is the good news of Jesus that will bring people to faith. As Paul says in Romans, faith comes by hearing the Word of Christ.

So much more could be said, but I’ve gone on too long already. I’ll leave you with this concluding thought. This is the Lord’s world – take comfort in that. Yes, the culture around us is unapologetically pagan in a way that America has never known. But such paganism is not unknown in the history of the world; just look at Paul’s Athens.  In it all, our Lord remains constant. He is our rock. He is our fortress. And for all the arrogance and hubris of humanity, we remain people created by God. Every person out there is a person created by God, whether they acknowledge it or not. Every one of them, just like every one of us, is a sinner in need of forgiveness. We all recognize that this world is broken, and we are all longing for something to put us back together. As the people of God, we have the joy of seeing where the philosophies of the world fall short and the responsibility of sharing that knowledge with others. But we also have the joy of knowing our Savior who has given us hope through his life, death, and resurrection. We can give names to those longings people feel within themselves, the longings which express themselves through music and art and movies. We can point people to the Lord who gave them those longings. And we can show them the fulfillment of those longings in Christ.

That’s how Paul confessed in Athens. It’s a pattern we can follow in our confession today.

May our Lord grant us the words to speak and the opportunity to speak them, that the world may know his love and trust him alone for salvation.

Competing Voices – Sermon for March

Competing Voices
Genesis 3:1-21
1st Sunday in Lent
March 5th/6th, 2017
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

            The most recent data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the average American spends almost 3 hours a day watching television.[1] That’s over 20 hours each week spent absorbing information, worldview, and perspective from the world around us. That’s almost a full day of each week spent letting the world tell you how to view sexuality and gender, how to view religion and ritual, how to understand the flow of history and our place in it. That’s almost a full day each week where the sinful and unbelieving world gets to mold and shape your perspective according to its assumptions, sample-letter-introducing-yourself_21331731creeds, and worldview. It’s well over 1,000 hours each year where the chisel of the world gets to sculpt you in its own image.

This is not to say that Christians shouldn’t watch television – that’s not the point at all. The point is to emphasize how important it is to understand the world in which we live. Christian speaker Tim Elmore says that Christians are to be like thermostats, not simply thermometers. Thermometers tell the temperature. They monitor the temperature, but they don’t do anything about it. Thermostats, on the other hand, don’t merely monitor the temperature – they respond when the temperature gets too high or too low. While a thermometer passively lays there and lets the air around it affect it, the thermostat responds. He says Christians are called to be thermostats, not simply sitting by passively as the world around us changes the temperature, not merely reflecting the too hot or too cold temperature of our world like a thermometer would, but responding when the temperature gets out of balance. My point in bringing up the data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics is not to say Christians should stop watching all television, but that Christians should be aware of how great an impact our entertainment culture has on shaping our perspective, our assumptions, and our presuppositions. It is a competing voice, and we should not sit back passively and let the competing voice control our thoughts.  Instead, as Paul says, we should take every thought captive to Christ.[2]

God’s people have always struggled with competing voices. In fact, there are many theologians (myself included) who would argue that each temptation, at its core, is the temptation to listen to a competing voice above the voice of our Lord. We see it in the very first temptation, the very first sin. Our Lord placed Adam and Eve in the Garden to tend it and work it. He gave them everything they would ever need. He gave them food through the trees of the Garden. He gave them companionship in each other. He gave them purpose through their task of tending the Garden. He gave them language not only to name the animals but also to communicate with each other. He gave them the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil to remind them that they need not eat of that one, for all their needs were provided by their loving Creator. The tree was a reminder of their creatureliness, of their place as those who relied on God to provide for them, to protect them, and to act in their best interests. He gave them himself to tie it all together in perfect harmony. Their life was perfect.

But a competing voice came in and said, “So God has told you not to eat from this Tree? It is not because he loves you, but because he knows that in day you eat of it you will become like him, knowing good and evil.” And Eve listened to the voice of the Serpent instead of to the voice of her Lord. She ate the fruit, and she fell. Adam listened to the voice of his wife instead of to the voice of his Lord. He ate the fruit, and he fell. Make no mistake about it – it was a voice crafty in its deception. “You will not surely die,” the voice said. And they did not keel over immediately the instant the forbidden fruit touched their lips. There was a truth-sounding deception in the temptation. “You will be like God, knowing good and evil,” the voice said. And it was right. After the bite Adam and Eve did 121022snakeoilindeed know evil for the first time. Before that, all they had known was good. Now, they knew good and evil. Of course, the question, “Is evil something you really want to know?” was never asked. There was a truth in the voice’s deception. But Adam and Eve found out too late that knowing evil is not all the Serpent had said it would be. But the voice is sweet sounding. It is seductive. It is temptation.

And it’s not the voice of our Lord. It’s not the voice of the Creator. But it is a voice that whispers into our ears today. It is a voice that has already seduced the world in which we live, and it’s message is not so different than it was in Eden. The voice tempted Adam and Eve to reject their place as the creatures of God. “Become like God,” it said. “Be a creature no more.” The voice speaks the same temptation today, and sadly, much of our world has listened. Even worse, much of the church has listened, for Christians are not immune from the temptations of the evil one. “Are you really content to be merely a creature?” the voice asks. “Aren’t you so much more than that? Has God really created you male or female?” the voice says.  “It is not for your good,” the voice says, “but this talk of creatureliness is simply holding back your true authentic self. Your body is not part of who you are,” the voice says, “who you really are is inside. Maybe your body reflects your identity, maybe it doesn’t. But that doesn’t matter,” the voice says. “Just embrace your true identity. Be a creature no more. Do not let some Creator God control your identity. Determine it for yourself, however you see fit.”

And our world, seeing that the notion of being god of my own identity is desirous for eating, reaches out and takes a big bite.  And they turn and offer you a bite with every television show, internet meme, or expert interview that argues biology simply gets in the way of identity. And Christians are tempted to take the bite. We know what our Lord’s Word says, but we are confused. We want to be compassionate. We want to be helpful. We want to be people of mercy. The problem is, like Adam and Eve had no notion of what it really meant to know good and evil, we have no idea where this ideology ends. Like Adam and Eve had no idea what it meant to know both good and evil, we have no idea what is at stake if we give up the notion of being God’s creatures and try to be like God ourselves? We are called upon to trust our Lord’s Word in this matter and to faithfully confess that biology matters when it comes to identity, marriage, family, parenting, and every other 150-male-female-signs-vector-imageaspect of life. God created them male and female for a reason. God created you male or female for a reason. The voice of God says to receive your sexuality as a gift, a fundamental part of your identity given not by mistake, but by design. The competing voice says differently. The temptation is there.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking this is just about gender or biology. Already through something known as CRISPR technology scientists possess the ability to manipulate genomes. It basically works like editing a document on your computer. Scientists can look at the genetic coding of a living thing, isolate certain aspects of the genetic code, and change it. What does that mean? It means they can manipulate an embryo’s genetics to rid that person of potential diseases, but they can also manipulate the embryo to choose eye color, hair color, height, and other physical characteristics. They can manipulate it to increase athletic ability, intelligence, or other desirable traits. The world in which we live, and we the people living in it, are always tempted to cast aside our rightful place as creatures and to try to be a god unto ourselves.

The examples multiply quickly, but the central point remains the same. Like Adam and Eve, we live in the midst of competing voices. Like Adam and Eve, the competing voice is seductive and sounds truthful. But it is not the voice of our Lord. The voice of our Lord points to Jesus and says, “Listen to him.” He is the image of the unseen God. And he took on human flesh. As we considered this past Ash Wednesday, his incarnation makes it clear that our place as creatures in God’s creation is not a place of shame or dishonor. The creator became a creature to save his creatures. He lived, suffered, and died as one of us in order that we might live in him. There’s no shame in that. He endured the cross, despising its shame. Our merciful Lord saves us body and soul. He forgives our sins in soul and body. He speaks his life-giving word of forgiveness into our ears to save our soul. He feeds us with his own body and blood in the sacrament of this altar to save our bodies. He places us into families and communities and congregations to live lives of faith toward him and love toward others, love that expresses itself bodily, physically, as we live out the Ten Commandments and God’s design for creation.

There is no shame in being a creature of God. You are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works which God has prepared beforehand that you might walk in them. Don’t be a thermometer that sits passively by and changes with the world as the temperature of public opinion rises and falls. You are a thermostat, called to measure the world’s temperature according to the Word of God. The world who does not know God is destined to cast aside its place as his creatures. We embrace it. We receive it for the gift10551023_10201708589791639_2922373848503096485_n that it is. And we look forward to the day of resurrection when we, the creatures of God, will be given new and perfect bodies in a new and perfect creation.

Until that day, we listen to the voice of our Lord. We come to the services of his house to hear the proclamation of the gospel. We make time for Bible Study and personal devotion, allowing the voice of our Lord to speak to us each day, competing against the voice of the television shows and movies we watch. For he is our Creator, the one who knows what’s best for us and for this whole creation. He is our Redeemer, the one who reached out in love to save us and this whole creation when we brought the curse of sin upon it. He is the one who crushed the serpent’s head, the one who continues to speak to us in love.

May God grant us the ears of faith to hear his voice and to live lives that reflect the hope that voice gives us.


[2] 1 Cor 10:5

Whoever Confesses Me – Ash Wednesday, 2017

Whoever Confesses Me
Matthew 10:32-33
Ash Wednesday
March 1, 2017
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

            Jesus said, “Whoever confesses me before men, I will also confess before my Father who is in heaven.” The word ‘confess’ comes from a Greek word that could be literally translated as ‘same-speak.’ To confess means to speak the same words as someone else. In the Scriptures, there is a difference between witnessing and confessing.  Witnessing is telling someone about your personal experiences. Think of what a witness is allowed or not allowed to do in the courtroom. The witness can tell the court what he or she witnesspersonally saw or experienced. If a witness says something out of bounds the attorney objects and says “hearsay” or “conjecture.” A witness is only allowed to speak about their own experience. That’s what witnessing is: speaking about personal experience. So Jesus tells his Apostles they will be his witnesses, witnesses of his resurrection as they travel around Jerusalem and Judea and to the ends of the earth telling people what they saw and heard and learned from Jesus. Peter says that he was an eyewitness to the glory of God when he personally saw Jesus shining on the Mount of Transfiguration.  Witnessing is speaking about personal experience.

But confessing is a little different. Confessing is ‘same-speaking.’ Confessing is saying the same thing as someone else. To confess is to faithfully repeat the things you have been told, to pass along what you yourself have first received.  “Whoever confesses me before men, I will also confess before my Father who is in heaven” Jesus says. Simply put: we are called to confess Christ – to ‘same-speak’ about Jesus. Whoever confesses Christ, Christ will confess before the Father in heaven.

“Whoever confesses me.” That is the theme for our meditation this Lent. This year, 2017, marks the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. As this new banner hanging in the chancel reminds us, in 1517 Martin Luther nailed 95 talking points to the church door in Wittenberg. Those talking points sparked a theological controversy that culminated in Confession – same-speaking. The commemoration of the Reformation is the inspiration behind our theme of confession this year, but confession did not begin in the 16th Century. God’s people have always been called to confess – to faithfully speak the words he has given us to speak. We see examples of people confessing in the Scriptures as well as in different historical settings. We are called to confess Christ today. Throughout Lent we will meditate on several examples of confession from the history of the Church, both what happened in those instances and what we can learn as we confess the truth today.

8de6dcb2e82ff1cf648905a704cbb7a4            But today, rather than considering what we can learn from the confession of others, we take a moment for confession ourselves. And not just confessing our sins, although repentantly speaking back to God what he has first said to us about out sin is no small thing. The very first of the 95 Theses states that when our Lord Jesus said repent, he meant that the whole life of a believer is lived in repentance. He meant that repentance is not so much an act that Christians undertake every once in a while, but that repentance is a way of life for the believer. And repentance is confession – that’s why we call it confession and absolution. The truth of our sin is that it blinds us to reality. We would never know or admit the true depths of our sin without the Word of our Lord revealing it to us. The Word of God comes in and reveals our sin to us, and we confess those words, we ‘same-speak’ them back to God. We ‘same-speak’ them to each other.

But our confession includes more than just admitting sinful thoughts and actions. Jesus did not say that he would confess before the throne of heaven whoever confesses his or her sinful actions. “Whoever confesses me,” Jesus said. Our confession of sin must include a confession of Jesus, which is exactly what we do today, for Ash Wednesday calls upon us to confess the humanity of our Lord – the incarnation. You might be thinking that the incarnation is more of a Christmas thing, and you’d be right. The incarnation is something we typically confess at Christmas. But the incarnation finds its fullest confession on Good Friday. For to confess Christ is to same-speak what the Scriptures say about him, and the Scriptures say that he was God and man. Thus, to confess Christ is to confess the incarnation.

But today – Ash Wednesday – forces us to confess that the incarnation was necessary because of sin. Jesus took human flesh because of my sin. To confess the incarnation is to confess that I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. To Crucifixconfess the incarnation is to confess that I have sinned and done what is evil in the sight of the Lord. To confess the incarnation is to confess that because of my sin, my flesh is destined for death – for death is the wages of sin. To confess the incarnation is to confess that the curse of sin in my flesh made it necessary for my Lord to take on flesh of his own, to stand in my place, to be my substitute, to take upon his flesh the curse that my flesh deserves – for cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree. Jesus hung on the tree of the cross for me. He hung there for you. His flesh suffered because our flesh is dying in sin.

Yet how often we try to silence this confession! How often we slide past the incarnation to focus on things that are supposedly more important! “Sure, Jesus took on human flesh,” we say, “but so what? What did he say about Christian parenting or Christian finances or Christian time management? What did he say about protecting the nation of Israel or the manifest destiny of the United States? What did Jesus say about immigration reform or refugees or gun control or transgender bathrooms?” We want to get past the incarnation stuff and focus on something we consider more practical and applicable in daily life.

But nothing could be more practical than the incarnation. Do you want to know what Jesus said about transgender bathrooms and immigration reform? He said, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” He said don’t make a treasure out of this world. Don’t make political or social or financial concerns the primary focus of your life. He knows the depth of our sin
and the blindness of our hearts. He knows that we are incapable of seeing past this life. How could we not be? This life is all we’ve ever known. A child who has never experienced anything outside the home thinks that everyone celebrates Christmas or Halloween the same way their family does. When that child grows up and experiences other traditions, they see things they could never had imagined based solely on their personal experience.

Jesus knows that our experience is as limited as that of a small child who spends every waking moment with mom or dad. He know this life is all we have ever experienced. He knows we are tied to it, that we cannot see past it. He knows we have not witnessed anything different, so he witnesses to what he has seen. He tells us what he knows, and he calls upon us to confess it – to say the same thing, even if we didn’t see it for ourselves. He tells us not to store up treasures in this life, for this life is temporary. Moth and rust destroy. Thieves steal. Treasures spoil. Bodies decay. You are dust, and to dust you will return. That’s what Jesus says, so that’s what we confess. That’s our confession this Ash Wednesday; that’s the confession spoken by the ashen cross on your forehead. It is a confession that you will die one day, and that even though we cannot imagine what it will be like, even though we have never experienced what is waiting for us on the other side, yet we confess – we ‘same-speak’ what Jesus has spoken to us. We confess the mystery and the gift of the Word made flesh who took on skin in order that it might be pierced for my transgression, who took on flesh and blood that he might spill that blood to wash away your sin and give you life. “Whoever confesses me” Jesus says, “I will confess before the Father in heaven.” So here we are to confess Jesus. To repent of our sin and acknowledge it as the reason the incarnation was necessary. Our sin made the humiliation and suffering and death of our Lord necessary. It was our sin. Our fault. Our own most grievous fault.

hqdefaultBut do not ignore the end of the phrase. “Whoever confesses me,” Jesus says, “I will confess before my Father in heaven.”  There is our great and final hope. We confess here tonight because the Holy Spirit has worked in us through the proclamation of God’s Word to create faith that expresses itself in word and deed. But our great and only hope is not in our confession. It is in the confession that Jesus makes to his Father on our behalf. We confess that Jesus took on flesh to pay for our sin. So also we confess that the price has been paid. Jesus is our substitute. And now he speaks to the Father in heaven as our advocate, confessing the truth that you are forgiven, baptized into his name most holy. He confesses that even though the wages of sin is death, the free gift of God is eternal life. Jesus speaks words of forgiveness and life and hope not only to us, but before the throne of heaven.

Our journey this Lent will lead us to meditate on the nature of confession. In this world, we humbly confess our sin to our God and to each other – speaking back what our Lord has spoken to us. In this world, we follow in the footsteps of those who have gone before us by confessing the faith both inside the church and out. But before the throne of heaven our Lord Jesus confesses us, speaking words that give us life. He is our advocate with the Father, the propitiation for our sins, and not only for ours but for the sins of the whole world. Jesus Christ, the righteous one. It is his confession that matters. It is his confession that gives us hope.

May God grant us repentant hearts and a firm faith to trust in the confession of Christ.


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.

Spiritual People – Sermon for Feb. 12/13, 2017

Spiritual People
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
6th Sunday After Epiphany
February 12th/13th, 2017
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

Are you a spiritual person? Most people in our world today would answer yes to that question. Most people consider themselves spiritual, but many would quickly add that they are not religious. The desire to be spiritual but not religious is widespread today. It is the standard answer of almost every celebrity when he or she is asked about their personal faith. “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” But what does that even mean? What does it mean to be spiritual? What does it mean to be religious? Can you be one without the other?

For much of our world, spirituality has to do with things of the soul. Religion is seen as the invention of men – as an imperfect system of rules and beliefs that do more harm than mm-dating-spiritual-people-screen-shot-2good. Religion is seen as an imposing force that comes from outside people to oppress them and stifle their true identity. Spirituality, on the other hand, is seen as authentic. It comes from inside a person. It is not defined by any outside power, it is whatever a person decides it is.

Going through life as spiritual but not religious reflects humanity’s desire not to be bound by any rules or specific beliefs. It is the perfect fit for people who don’t like the demands of religion but aren’t quite ready to say they have no soul.[1]  It is a return to the age-old temptation to declare myself God, to be the master of my own destiny, to make the rules for myself. It’s wildly popular, but that’s because it’s easy. It requires nothing of you. It demands nothing of you. It’s basically saying “I’m health nut, but I don’t eat right or exercise.” It’s just empty words, words with no substance, words that almost have no meaning at all.

And it’s dangerous. From a Christian perspective, it’s dangerous because, “To be ‘spiritual, not religious’ is to have a god that doesn’t talk. [For] as soon as God opens his mouth, there is religion, doctrine, and assertions. As soon as God talks, there is truth, and the truth is always distinguished from error.  [. . .]  Conveniently for the spiritual-but-not-religious, if god is mute, then god doesn’t say anything about what is right or wrong. The mute god of the spiritual-but-not-religious is very supportive, but it never tells me anything I don’t know. It never tells me that something I am doing is wrong. It never tells me anything at all.”[2]

Contrast this with the reading from 1 Corinthians we heard today. Paul tells the Christians in Corinth that he could not address them as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh. What is Paul saying here? What kind of spirituality is he talking about?  Remember last week’s reading when Paul explained to the Corinthians that the secret and hidden things of God had been revealed by the Holy Spirit – for who knows what’s in the heart of a person except that person’s spirit. That spiritual wisdom is not given to the spiritually immature – to people who insist that they should be given their own way. No, it is for the mature, for the Spirit of God reveals the heart of God. Paul says this wisdom is imparted in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit.[3]

Being spiritual-but-not-religious is dangerous because it worships a silent god. “Christians have a God who speaks. This is a fundamental Christian truth: God talks. In doing so, He not only gives us truth, but He also gives us life.  God speaks, and there is light. God speaks, and there is life. God speaks, and the world is full of living things, and the world is good. God speaks, and sinners are forgiven. God speaks, and the dead are raised. God’s speaking is our hope and our life, our confidence and our comfort.”[4]

That’s Paul’s message to the Corinthians. It’s the same message we see in today’s Old Testament reading. God tells the Israelites through Moses that he is placing before them the choice between that which is life and good and that which is death and evil. If the Israelites obeyed the voice of the Lord and walked in his ways, they would experience life and good. If they ignored his voice and went their own way, the result would be death and evil. The voice of the Lord is heard in his Word. In the verses leading into today Old Testament reading God tells his people that his word is in their mouth and in their heart to acff65b0f757ca3d156a18daf016ea22renew their minds. It is not hidden in the heavens or across the sea so that it is out of reach or impossible to access. It is near you. It is his Scriptures. The way of life Moses talks about is simply walking in the Word of our Lord.

The Psalmist picks up on the same thing in the Psalm we chanted today. Psalm 119 is a beautiful meditation on the gift of God’s Word. Blessed are those who walk in the Word of the Lord. Oh that we may be steadfast in keeping his statutes – his promises of forgiveness! Following our own way is the way of death. The Word of God is the way of life. As Psalm 119 famously goes on to say, the Word of God is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path.

Yet we are so easily tempted to follow our own ways and to blaze our own paths. We are gods in our own minds. We act as if we understand this life and this world better than our Lord. This, finally, is where the notion of spiritual but not religious comes from – the desire to be in control. “No one will tell me what to do!” we cry. But buying into the world’s notion of spiritual-not-religious is nothing more than deceiving ourselves and playing word games. Even if we reject all established forms of religious practice, that doesn’t mean we’re free from religion. It simply means that we’ve invented religions for ourselves. We invent manmade ways to try to clean our consciences. We feel the shame of sin, there’s no denying that. And we want to be rid of that shame, to make it go away.  Much of what goes on in our world is simply people trying to justify themselves, to find a way to cleanse their conscience from the guilt and shame of sin. But rather than seeking forgiveness through our Lord’s Word, we try to eliminate the shame by pretending as if the things that make us feel guilty aren’t actually sinful. We’re just born that way, no need to feel guilty. You aren’t hurting anyone. It’s a victimless crime, no need to feel bad. Your action was legal, no need to feel bad.

We try to conquer sin by not calling it sin any longer. If nothing is sinful, then there is no need for a savior. If there’s no need for a savior, then there’s no need for Jesus. If there’s no need for Jesus, then there’s no need for the religion that comes with him. We can be spiritual but not religious. We can invent a personal religion that tries to cleanse a guilty conscience in ways that already appeal to us. No need for sacrifice. No need for growth or maturity. We just spend our time doing what we feel like doing and calling it spiritual because it stirs something in our emotions. Cleansing the environment, or donating time or money to charity, or campaigning for social causes and marching to change the world all become attempts at self-atonement. They become ways that we try to justify our existence. Ways that we try to balance the cosmic scales that we instinctively know are tilted against us.

But the Word of God will allow none of that. Refusing to call something by it’s name notlisteningdoesn’t stop that thing from existing. That’s like a child who doesn’t want to tell their parents they failed their math test so they hide the test paper in their backpack or try to throw it away before anyone sees it. But hiding the paper doesn’t change the grade. It’s just an exercise in self-deception. So also our sin. We can play word games with our culture and in our own minds, but ignoring sin won’t make it go away. Such an approach is childish. It is the way of death and evil, not the way of life and good.

As Jesus says in the Gospel reading, our righteousness must exceed that kind of phony righteousness. We can’t appease a guilty conscience with the word game that because we didn’t physically act on a sinful impulse that we’re therefore innocent. Jesus says whoever holds hatred or lust in his heart has sinned with the mind and is accountable to God. We can’t console ourselves with the notion that because we didn’t break the law we’re not guilty in the eyes of God. Just because someone can get a certificate of divorce doesn’t make divorce right in God’s eyes. The same can be said for any number of sins that are generally accepted and even legalized in our world. Legal and godly are two very different things. We can’t get rid of our sin by hiding from it or trying to redefine it. That is a false and worldly righteousness. Actually, it’s no righteousness at all.

Our Lord has given us a better way. He has given us the way of life and good. He has given us his Son. Jesus was perfect where we are not. Jesus fulfilled the demands of the law in our place. And Jesus gives that righteousness to us as a gift – to make us right with God and to renew our minds in this life. He gives us his Spirit through his Word so that we can boldly and confidently confess the truth of our sin, for we also know the truth of our Savior. He gives us his Spirit through his Word so that we become his spiritual people. Not spiritual in the sense of ‘spiritual but not religious,’ but Holy Spiritual people – people of the Holy Spirit. People in whom the Holy Spirit lives and moves and has his being. People who are being shaped back into the image of God.

Law-Gospel2God doesn’t redefine our sin, he forgives it. He pays for it. And he gives us comfort and hope through his Word. He works through his spoken Word as you sit in this place and hear of your sin and salvation. He works through his sung word as we join our voices in praise and confession. He works through his written Word as you study the Scriptures and pray them in your daily devotions. He works through his visible Word as he brings people into his family through baptism and as he feeds and nurtures our souls with his body and blood so that we can bear the trials of this life with patience and hope until he grants us deliverance.  It’s God at work in us. And yes, it’s religion. But it’s is not a manmade religion. It’s not the invention of a human mind. It is the true religion given to us through the Word of God. It is the way of life and good. We don’t need to be ‘spiritual-but-not-religious.’ For we have the Spirit of God and the religion of forgiveness that he brings.

So we cling to the Word. While the world struts about masquerading the idolatrous worship of the self as if it’s somehow more spiritual than the Word of God, we stay rooted and growing in the Word. For that is where the Spirit of God comes to us. That is what makes us truly Spiritual people – people of the Holy Spirit.


[1] Mollie Hemmingway “Faith Unbound” Christianity Today, September 20, 2010

[2] Bryan Wolfmueller Has American Christianity Failed?

[3] 1 Corinthians 2:6-16

[4] Wolfmueller, ibid.