What is Man? Sermon for June 11/12, 2017

What is Man?
Psalm 8
Trinity Sunday (Final Sunday)
June 11th/12th, 2017
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

 

There’s a certain pride that comes along with being asked to do something important. Imagine a young student who has been asked to carry a note to the secretary in the school office. Out of everyone in the whole class, the teacher chose that one person for such an important mission. That child holds the note securely, walks confidently down the hallway to the school office, and proudly places the note on the secretary’s desk. And the whole time, the student stands a little taller, head held high, feeling honored and special that they were chosen for such a task. Were you ever the student chosen for that task? Do you still feel proud when asked to do something important by someone you respect?

 

Or maybe you don’t feel honored in those situations. Maybe you feel terrified. Maybe you look at the task given to you by your boss and, instead of standing taller and walking with your head held high, you shrink back at the thought of what might happen if things go wrong. A young doctor who is responsible to diagnose and treat diseases might be more intimidated than excited by the task at hand. After all, failure could be fatal.  When the boss looks to you to be the one to close the deal with that huge client, you might find yourself worried about messing up more than being honored to be chosen for the job. When we are asked to do important things by people we respect, our response is usually a mixture of pride and fear.

 

There’s a similar sentiment running through the Psalm we chanted today. I invite you to have the Psalm in front of you.  You’ll notice that Psalm 8 opens with a confession of God’s greatness and grandeur: “O Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth. You have set your glory above the heavens.” The name of God here refers to his reputation, a reputation that the Psalmist says is readily accessible and clearly known all throughout the earth. In fact, the majesty of God is so obvious that he doesn’t need volumes upon volumes of great theological masterpieces to defend him against his accusers. He is defended by those things that seem weakest in the eyes of the world. “Out of the mouths of babes and infants.” It takes nothing more than what infants can babble to defend the glory and majesty of God, for it is readily seen in the handiwork of creation itself, visible to anyone who will take the time to look.

 

The glory of God is seen in the power of the ocean and the height of the mountains. It is seen in the vastness of the land and in the horizon that’s always out of reach. It is seen in the multitude of the stars. And when the psalmist David looks out and considers the magnitude and scope of God’s creation, he is left to wonder, “Who am I, that the God who did all this would remember me?” “What is man, that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?”

 

The awe of the psalmist reaches beyond feelings of insignificance. It touches on those emotions of pride and fear that arise when we realize the importance of a task we have been given by someone we respect. As verses five and six of today’s psalm put it: what is man in the midst of this great creation that you are mindful of him? Why should the majestic Lord remember something as insignificant as humanity, whose individual lives are far shorter than the lifespan of the stars and mountains, who are so small that we are like ants on the ocean? Why should God remember us? “And yet,” David says, “you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands, you have put all things under his feet.”  The actual Hebrew word in verse five that is translated as “heavenly beings” is, in fact, the word “Elohim,” which means God. Many translators would render the thought like this: “In the grand scheme of your majestic creation, what is man that you are mindful of him? Yet you have made him only a little lower than God himself. You have crowned him with glory and honor by giving him dominion over the work of your hands. You have put all things under his feet.”

 

Talk about a momentous task. As we heard from Genesis, God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them. And he said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over it.” Ever since he completed creation, God has chosen to continue his work in it through people. He works in and through the things of this world, and he has placed humanity in dominion over it. To care for it. To steward it. Talk about intimidating. God regularly places the health, safety, and wellbeing of human beings into the hands of other human beings. He cares for and provides for infants and small children through their parents. He cares for and protects adults through the hands of the police, doctors, and first responders. He places people in charge of governments and private industries to cultivate this world and wisely use the resources available here. He provides for the widow and orphan through the charity of other people. He continues to work in and through this creation by working in and through people. When we look out at all that this world and contemplate all that it is comprised of, we too should ask ourselves, “What is man, that you are mindful of him? Who am I, that you have made me a little lower than God himself? That you call upon me for such a task as this?”

 

The Gospel reading for today ups the ante even further. On the Mount of Ascension, Jesus looked out over the eleven and said, “It is time for you to leave this place and go back to daily life. And in your daily life, make disciples of all nations by baptizing and teaching them.” So not only has God chosen to work in and through people to continue his work of creation, he has chosen to work in and through people to continue his work of salvation, of calling others to faith, of sustaining the church in this world. Not only has God entrusted the physical health and wellbeing of children to parents, but even their eternal salvation. He could blast his Word from heaven with a bullhorn, he could speak directly into each person’s thoughts and minds the words he wanted that person to know, but instead he has chosen to work through people. He has called his church to proclaim his Word. He has chosen to work through sinful and imperfect people to deliver his holy and perfect Word. That’s incredible! What is man, that you are mindful of him? What is man, that you have given him such a task as this?

 

The task is overwhelming. The thought intimidating. And left to ourselves, we would surely fail. But our joy is that our Lord has not left us as orphans. In the same breath where Jesus told the eleven to make disciples, he promised that he would be with them always, that he is with all his children always, to the end of the age. That is his promise to you, too. He has given you a task for which you are completely unqualified, but he has promised that he will be with you every step of the way. His power is made perfect in our weakness. That’s why we cling so firmly to his Word, for it is through the Word of God that Christ is present among us. And it is ultimately Christ who is at work through us. The task may be great, but it is his task. It is his work. We are the instruments, he the musician. We are the tools, he the farmer. We are the masks, he the actor. This is his creation, we are just the stewards. This is his church, we are just the stewards. In the face of such a monumental task, find comfort in the reality that our Lord is in control, and he loves you. Find comfort in the promise that he is ruling over all things for your benefit, for the benefit of all his children. And find encouragement to approach each day with the desire to be faithful to the task our Lord has given.

 

In the four years I have been privileged to serve as a pastor here at St. John, I have been intimidated by the task at hand more than once. I have been humbled that the Lord would entrust a place such as this into my safe keeping, at least in part. There is so much history here. So many people call this place home. I feel blessed for the time I have served here at St. John. I am thankful for the relationships that have formed, the friends that I have made, and the memories I’ll take with me.  I’m humbled by opportunity I have had to bring the Word of God to the people in this place. I’m humbled that our Lord would send such a man as me to do his work in his church. And I find comfort in remembering that this is, indeed, his church. While our Lord may have placed St. John into my care for four years, I never walked alone. No pastor ever does, for while pastors come and go, the Word of God remains forever. When I look out over the fruit of faith I see here at St. John today, I rejoice in Paul’s reminder that Pastor Smith or Pastor Merrill or maybe even Pastor Majeski, Narr, or Weber may have planted, and I may have watered, but it is God who gives growth. The next pastor whom God brings to St. John will continue to serve God’s people here. He will continue to plant. He will continue to water. But never forget that it is God who will provide the growth for this congregation and for her members. It is our Lord’s church, we are just the instruments he uses to accomplish all that he would have done.

 

It’s incredible, when you think about it. What is man, that God would be mindful of him? What is man, that God would use him to accomplish his heavenly and earthly purposes? What indeed? But the simple truth remains that God has given humanity great and wonderful things to do in his church and in his world. God has given you great and wonderful things to do in your family, in your church, and in your community. No matter who your next pastor may be, God will be faithful. He will provide for you. He will work through you. For you are his children. He has made you just a little lower than the heavenly beings, and he has crowned you with glory and honor.

 

I pray God’s blessings for each of you and for St. John Church and School as you continue to do God’s work in this place. +INJ+

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.

[1] https://www.bls.gov/tus/charts/#leisure

[2] 1 Cor 10:5