If You Continue In My Word – Sermon for Reformation 2015

If You Continue In My Word

John 8:31-36

Reformation Sunday

October 25th/26th, 2015

Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

I never really appreciated history until I started studying it at Seminary. Maybe that’s because I was finally studying areas of history thhere-I-stand-martin-lutherat interested me. Maybe it’s because for the first time I understood that I was studying the history of how thought, culture, and worldview developed rather than simply memorizing a series of names and dates. Maybe it’s simply the natural result of approaching the subject in my mid-20s instead of in my teens. Whatever the reason, it wasn’t until Seminary that I truly enjoyed studying the past. I mention that because we are celebrating Reformation Sunday, the commemoration of not only an isolated historical event, but the celebration of an entire era and movement in history. On October 31, 1517, the then monk Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg. That event started a chain reaction of events that led to the church we are familiar with today. Certainly Luther wasn’t the only one involved, there were many other faithful men and women who contributed along the way, but if Doc Brown and Marty McFly were going to get into their DeLorean and go back in time to stop a single event from altering the course of Reformation history, that would be the one.

So here we sit, 498 years later. Here we sit in a church bearing the name of Luther not because we hold him in such high regard, but because of the way he relentlessly pointed people to the Gospel of forgiveness and reconciliation. Here we sit nearly half a millennium later about to sing “A Mighty Fortress” in front of a chancel decorated with Luther’s seal. Here we sit celebrating the well-known Reformation confession of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, revealed through Scripture alone. Here we sit, a living object lesson illustrating the point Jesus is trying get his disciples to understand in today’s Gospel reading. “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” “If you abide in my word,” says Jesus. Any good Lutheran would ask, “What does this mean?” What does it mean to abide in the Word of God? Some translations render this phrase as, “If you continue in my Word.” Abide. Continue. These are words that describe an ongoing reality – and that’s precisely the point Jesus is trying to make.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll almost certainly say it again, so I’ll say it today.  I often feel like we live in a world that approaches life like it’s a movie. I feel like we keep waiting for the final credits to roll. It’s like we engage problems or difficulties in our lives as if there will come a point when everything will wrap up neatly at the end. We approach politics as if once we get the right person elected all our nation’s or our world’s problems will be fixed. I remember as a kid there was a sweeping victory for the Republican Party in Congress or the House of Representatives or something. I remember because I was in the car the next day listening to Rush Limbaugh singing along to James Brown’s “I Feel Good.” He was celebrating that now that his people were in charge, the political fortunes of this country would begin to look up. Fast forward a few decades to the inauguration of Barrack Obama, and the same tune was being sung by the other side of the political aisle. The audacity of hope. We will finally see some real change. Now, almost 8 years later, political division runs more deeply than ever. Because life goes on. Getting the right person into political office in next year’s Presidential Election, or in any other election, is not the end. Time marches forward.

We often approach marriage in the same way, as if life is a romantic comedy in which bride and groom move happily along to the altar, overcoming whatever obstacles stand in their way until they finally say I do. And then the credits roll. At least they do in the movie, but real life keeps going. Real love and real marriage last well beyond the dancing at the reception. The words Happily Ever After may be spelled out in calligraphy on the wedding album, but once that evening is over the bride and groom must continue as husband and wife, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness or in health, as long as they both shall live. You speak words of promise on your wedding day, and then spend the rest of your life continuing in those words. Abiding in those words.

“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the Truth will set you free.” Luther may have driven the nail into the church door 500 years ago, and there may have been some needed and important changes that happened in the wordchurch as a result.  But here we are today – half a millennium later. The credits have not yet rolled on the story of God’s Church. Time marches forward; life goes on. Being a child of God is a journey, not a destination. It’s a journey through the trials and temptations of a fallen world. It’s a journey through the sadness and heartache of watching loved ones suffer, maybe even die. It’s a journey through a world filled with injustice and hatred and bigotry and betrayal. It a journey through a world that, at every turn, seems to take the idea of a loving and merciful God and throw it back in your face. “How?” we ask ourselves? “How can I believe in a loving God when my child has cancer?” “How can I believe in a loving God when I see those whose lives have been ripped apart by abuse?” “How can I believe in a loving God when I see the way people in Syria are being driven from their homes?” “How can I believe in a loving God when there is so much evil and pain in the world?”

Jesus’ answer to those questions is the same words he spoke to the Jews who had believed in him. “If you continue in my Word, you will know the truth.” To continue in God’s Word means to live in it, to study it, to meditate on it, to allow it to be the lens through which we view reality. To abide in God’s Word is to listen when he says to you through that Word, “In the world you will have tribulation, but take heart, for I have overcome the world.” Or when he compares the suffering of this life to the refiner’s fire so that the “genuineness of your faith – more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”[1] Or when He assures you that the “sufferings of this present age are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”[2] To continue in the Word of God is to know the truth that sets you free. And here is the truth: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.”[3] We may not see the final results of that yet, but that promise has been given to us in His Word. If you continue in that Word, you will know that truth, and that truth will set you free from the burden of doubt. Yes, the world can be a painful place to live right now, but we are waiting for the new heavens and the new earth. Because of what Jesus has done for us on the cross, we know the truth of our salvation, and we are free to be people of hope in a world of sadness. For the truth has set us free.

But perhaps we misunderstand this freedom. Perhaps we confuse freedom with autonomy. Perhaps we try to use our freedom like a spoiled toddler always demanding his way. Or, better yet, perhaps we attempt to use our freedom like a new high school graduate who has left home for the first time. Without the watchful eye of parental supervision, these young men and women often give into the whims and temptations of the flesh. They are “free” to do whatever they want for the first time in their lives, or so they think. But their “freedom” often ends in crippling debt, failed college classes, STDs, broken relationships, or any number of emotional scars. Why is this the case? It’s because “doing whatever you want” is a terrible definition of freedom, and it’s certainly not the freedom that Jesus is talking about today.

At the District Convention this past June one of the presenters told a story about freedom. He told of a young eaglet who fell out of her nest and into a gopher hole. She was raised with the gophers, living in the tunnels. Of course, her developing talons and beak were not great for tunneling and digging, but she did the best she could. She didn’t really enjoy the vegetarian gopher diet, and her growing wings made navigating the tunnels harder and harder with each day that she grew. Then, one day, she found a tunnel that led to the surface. She crawled out of that tunnel, covered in matted dirt, and when the fresh air hit her nostrils, she somehow knew exactly what to do. She knew what those wings were for. She spread them out and soared into the heavens. She was finally free, free to live the life she was designed to live, soaring majestically through the clouds, the eyes of a huntress Bald_Eagle_strike_Robert_OToole_Photography_2012spotting her prey from high above, the sharp talons snatching fresh fish instead of whatever it is gophers eat. Her freedom was found not in some mythical autonomy to be whatever she wanted. No, it was found in being who she was created to be.

That is true freedom. That is the freedom Jesus is talking about today. That is the freedom that comes from abiding the Word of God, from continuing in His Word. You don’t set a fish free from the water. You don’t take a fish out of the tank and put it on the sidewalk and tell it, “Now your free to go wherever you want and to be whatever you want and to do whatever you want! Go be free little fish!” To do that is to kill the fish. No, the fish’s freedom is found in the water – in being who it was created to be.  So also our freedom in Christ. “If you continue in my word, you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” What truth will we know from the Word of God? We will know the truth of our sin and our salvation. We will know the truth that Luther recognized and posted as the first of those 95 Theses all those years ago: “The entire life of the believer is lived in repentance.” We will know that our righteousness comes to us as a gift from God, the righteousness of God himself credited to our account. We will know the truth that there is nothing we could ever hope to do to save ourselves. Trying to win our own salvation would be like a fish trying to live as an eagle or an eagle trying to live as a fish. The fish would suffocate in the eagle’s nest, the eagle would drown in the fish’s bed. Their freedom is found in living as God created them to be.

Our freedom is in the same place – living as the people God created us to be. Even more importantly, our freedom is found in living as the people our Lord has redeemed us to be, continuing in his Word of forgiveness, abiding in the words of new creation spoken over us in the water of baptism. Our freedom is found in confessing our sin, being free from the burden of guilt that would suffocate to us. Our freedom is found in forgiving those who have sinned against us, being free from wallowing in the bitterness and hatred that would drown us. Our freedom is found in spreading the wings of compassion and living in self-sacrifice toward the people around us, providing for those in need, providing for the future generations of Christians who will be fed in this church and school for years to come. Our freedom is not an excuse to selfish living; our freedom is finally being released from shallow and short-sighted living of the world to live as the people we were created to be, to soar above the pettiness and bitterness of the world and, trusting in our forgiveness, show what the Apostle Paul calls a more noble way – the way of love.

For the credits haven’t yet rolled. Life goes on, and will continue to go on until the day our Lord decides to return and bring us home. Until then, we continue in his Word. We continue in the message of the Reformation – Faith Alone, Grace Alone, Scripture Alone, Christ Alone. As Jesus said, Because we continue in His Word, we know the truth. And the truth will make us free.

[1] 1 Peter 1:7

[2] Romans 8:18

[3] 1 John 3:8

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Unity in Christ – Sermon for Sept. 27/28, 2015

Maintaining the Unity

Ephesians 4:1-6

17th Sunday After Trinity

September 27th/28th, 2015

Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

            Family is a unique gift from God.  It is a tremendously important and fundamental part of this creation because it is a place where you are shaped in a way unlike any other. You can choose your friends, but you don’t choose your family. You get the parents you get, you get the kids you get, you get the siblings you get. You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit. Each person in the family comes with a personality all their own, and one of the great gifts of God is that he has placed us from birth into a situation where we have to learn how to get along with other people. He creates us to live lives of love and service, and has built into creation a place where we do this from before we learn to walk. From our earliest days we are learning what it means to live together with others, to get along with and appreciate people who might have different interests or passions. We learn that, in spite of our differences, it is what we have in common that is most important. The bond header-familythat holds family together is powerful. Two people who may have next to nothing in common and who might have never even been friends under different circumstances might end up with the closest of relationships because they are brothers. That’s just part of being in a family. Something you have no control over inextricably binds your life and existence to the life and existence of another person: your parent, your child, your sibling.  No matter what our differences might be, we’re family.  And that counts for something.

Paul is writing of something similar in the section of his Epistle to the Ephesians read just a few moments ago. In those verses Paul exhorts the Ephesians, and us, to walk in a manner worthy of our calling. He is talking about what it means to be a member of the household of God, to be a child of God, part of his family.  It is a family we were brought into through adoption in the water of baptism. There is tremendous joy found in this family, but like our earthly families, we don’t get to choose our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Yet also like our earthly families, the unity we have with them is a special gift from God that should not be lightly cast aside. This is a unity that is found in Christ. In Baptism, each of us is individually united to Christ. I no longer live, Christ lives in me. But there is only one Jesus, which means that all who are united to him are also united to each other. ephesians4-5It is a unity we possess as the family of God. Communion works the same way. When I feast on the body and blood of Jesus, I am united to that body and blood; I am united to him. But there is only one Jesus, which means that I am also united to every other Christian who has been united to our Lord in this blessed sacrament. “For there is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”[1]

This is a unity that God himself creates and that God himself maintains. It is not some sort of contrived unity like the kind practiced by those who pretend that denominations don’t have different confessions. There is a different word for unity of doctrine. The Latin word is concordia, like the Book of Concord that contains all our official teachings or like Concordia University where those teachings are passed on to future church workers. No, Paul is not writing about concordia, but unitas. It is not unity of doctrine. It’s not unity we create at all. Some unity is man-made. Take, for instance, the old saying, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Sometimes, when circumstances demand it, people voluntarily put aside their differences and temporarily unite themselves toward a cause. But such alliances are temporary by nature. Such alliances are forced. Paul is writing not about unity we create, but unity we maintain. The unity is already ours in Christ. It is true unity, unity that overrides our personal differences, unity that comes from God himself.  Spartans or Wolverines, jocks or drama kids, republicans or democrats, Ford or Chevy, we are one in the body of Christ. Paul encourages the Ephesians, and us, to walk in a manner worthy of the calling we all have together as the body of Christ, and which we each have individually as members of that body.  According to the Apostle Paul, this worthiness includes several things.

First, he calls us to walk in humility and gentleness. Humility doesn’t come naturally to us, but it is a necessary part of any lasting relationship.  There are many in our world who consider humility a weakness. But without humility, relationships are doomed to fail. One person I read commented that humility is the “deep sense of one’s own smallness and insignificance,” an attitude that Paul says Christians are called to cultivate. Walking in humility means that we do not consider ourselves better than others. When we consider ourselves to be better than the people around us, we are prone to short tempers and sharp criticisms. We will be quick to condemn and slow to help. Such attitudes are lethal to the unity we possess as the family of God. C.S. Lewis said that the result of being in God’s presence is that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object. That’s the humility Paul is encouraging. Rather than indulging rivalry and bitterness, we walk in humility and gentleness. We see our own need before God, our own sin, our own shortcomings, and our own inability to save ourselves. We see the great z13gift of reconciliation we have been given through the death of Christ. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly. He died for me. And he died for you too. We are each forgiven, each renewed in Christ, not because of what we have done, but because of what has been done for us. Living in that reality breeds the humility that Paul is talking about, humility that leads to gentleness in conduct, gentleness in conversation. When I know what my Lord has done for me, how could I not live in gentleness toward others?  After all, he has died for them too. If that person sitting next to me is someone that Jesus was willing to be tortured for, executed for, someone for whom Jesus left heaven in order that they might spend eternity with him in paradise, who am I to treat them poorly? No, in humility, we live in gentleness toward each other.

Paul also points out that we are called to live in patience toward each other. Like humility, patience is challenging. I don’t know if you saw it last week or not, by one of my friends on Facebook shared a part of an interview with a New York City school teacher. He commented on how differently he approached his own kids compared to the way he approached his students. With his students, there was a healthy disconnect. He could look at a student who had some personality quirk that got on his nerves and deal with it for 45 minutes a day. He could look at a student who wasn’t living up to her potential, and while he worked hard to pull that potential out of her, eventually the decision was hers. If she steadfastly refused to apply herself, he could move on as a teacher and find the next student who needed help. It’s different with your own kids; with your own kids, there’s a different level of emotional investment. It is frustrating to see someone not living up to their potential, but it is twice as hard to be patient with that person if they are your own child. It is hard to deal with the quirks of a coworker, but it is doubly hard to deal with the quirks of someone who lives in your house, who you see all the time. It takes patience to live in a family.

The same is true for the family of God. It is one thing to patiently bear with the sinful actions of the unbelieving world – for we have low expectations where that is concerned. But the call is to live patiently within the family of God, maintaining the unity we have been given here, and that can be more difficult. When someone we don’t care about says something hurtful toward us, it can be easily dismissed. When someone in the family says something hurtful, that’s harder to deal with. When another member of the family pokes fun at us, or belittles us, that can be harder to stomach. And in those situations, the person who said something hurtful should absolutely repent. But the offended person is called to forgive, to live in unity, to patiently bear their brothers and sisters in Christ with all their faults and all their flaws. That’s not to say there is never a time to exercise “tough love,” because there certainly is. But those cases are the exception, not the rule. The rule is patience. The general approach to our life in the family of God is putting up with one another in order to preserve the unity we have in Christ.

There is much to be excited about at Saint John these days. Yes we are still operating with a deficit budget, but the deficit is less than anticipated because overall giving is up. We have a plan in place to pay off the new gym floor before next spring. And finances are only part of the story. There is more excitement to be found in the relationships and atmosphere around our Church and School. We are certainly not perfect; no place this side of heaven filled with sinners ever could be.  But our principal received a phone call this past week from a parent who was visiting our gym from another school for a volleyball game. She wanted to let our school know that she was impressed excuses-quotes-1when she saw one of our students helping a little girl from the other school find the restroom. One of the teachers from Fraser public schools who taught here briefly this year took a job in a different school district. She made sure to tell each of our teachers before she left that this is a special place, that the students and parents and teachers create a welcoming environment. There are certainly more examples I could draw from, but the point is that we are blessed as a congregation.

But those blessings can disappear as quietly as they came. If we do not walk in ways that maintain the unity we have, division will soon follow. If we are a people who do no walk in humility and gentleness, if we are a people who hold grudges and wallow in bitterness, the atmosphere will change. If we are a people who are impatient with those around us, the atmosphere will change. The unity is not ours to create, but we are called to maintain it by living in humble repentance and bearing with one another in love. We are all in this together, united together as the body of Christ.  So let us continue to confess our sin together. Let us continue to receive the gift of God’s forgiveness together. Let us continue to join together at the table of our Lord. Let us continue to sing together, to pray with each other, to pray for each other, to have coffee and dounts together, and to study God’s Word together. Let us walk in a manner worthy of the unity we possess in Christ. After all, we’re family here – the family of God.

[1] Ephesians 4:5-6

The Good Samaritan – Sermon for August 30/31, 2015

The Good Samaritan

Luke 10:23-37

13th Sunday After Trinity

August 30th/31st, 2015

Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

Jesus once sent out seventy-two people in groups of two into each town and place where he himself was about to go. They were sent as laborers into the harvest. They were to carry no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, for God would provide for their needs. They were to greet no one on the road, for their mission was too urgent to be sidetracked by chit-chat. In each town they came to they were to heal the sick and proclaim that the shutterstock_144254032-660x350Kingdom of God was at hand. If the town rejected them, they were to wipe the dust of that town off their feet and move on. There were more than enough people who needed to hear the Gospel that the seventy-two didn’t need to waste time preaching to those who refused to listen. The seventy-two went out and did as they were told, and when they returned they were filled with great joy. They came to Jesus and said, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us!” Jesus said, “I know. I have given you authority over serpents and scorpions and the demons, but do not rejoice in that. Rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” And turning to his disciples privately he said privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”

For thousands of years, the kings and prophets of Israel waited for the arrival of God’s Messiah. They longed to see the fulfillment of all that God had promised. They longed to see the age of the Messiah that the disciples were now enjoying. And yet, not all of God’s people recognized what exactly the Messiah was sent to do. And so in the midst of all this talk of having your name written in heaven and rejoicing in the arrival of the Messiah, one of the educated men in the crowd stands up and asks Jesus, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” The man, like many of his day, like many of ours, missed the point of il_340x270.512348667_edyithe Messiah. He was looking for a way to save himself. So Jesus answered his question with a question: “What is written in the Law of Moses?” The man’s response? “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus said, “You have answered rightly. Do this, and you will live.”

Do this and you will live? Sounds easy enough. “I love God,” we tell ourselves. “I love my neighbors; I’m generally nice to people.”  It all sounds well and good until you begin to truly think about it. It’s easy to say, “I love God.” It’s even unfortunately easy to convince ourselves that we do. And, in the interest of fairness, to some extent, we’re probably right. I don’t doubt for a second that each person here today, myself included, loves God. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t. But do we love him with our whole heart? With all our mind? With all our soul? If so, we have a really odd way of showing it.

Pick one of the commandments, it doesn’t matter which one. Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy.  Do we actually do this? Do we joyfully come to church each week to be fed by God’s Word? If so, why do we need an attendance policy for school families? We have 1200 members, but our sanctuary only holds 500 at most. Why aren’t we spilling out of the pews into the aisles? Why does our attendance drop by 100 people a week in the summer? Why don’t we have to hold Bible Class in the sanctuary or gym? There’s no way we should fit in the cafeteria. If there’s almost 500 people in worship on any given Sunday, why are there only 100 in Bible Class? Is it that much of a burden to study our dozing-in-church1Lord’s Word, to delve more deeply into its truths, to let it shape your understanding of our life in this world? Are the other things on the calendar really that important? If we truly loved God with all our heart and mind, then nothing would keep us from the study of his Word or the services of his house.

We can try to convince ourselves that we truly love God with all our heart, but reality is far from it. If we truly loved God with all our heart then we would bend over backward to support the work of his church. Instead of having dozens of people at a voters’ meeting we would have hundreds. We would have so much money supporting the ministries here that not only could we easily build a new wing of classrooms or install a gym floor, but we would be able to pay our teachers to scale and even hire on new staff and engage new ministries within the church. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. This is not intended to be some backhanded sales pitch or fundraising effort.  I know full well that life is full of bills and financial obligations.  Neither is the point simply to berate the stewardship life here. It may not be what it could be, but that’s true of every congregation. In all reality, while anyone could easily become discouraged when thinking of all that we could do around here, I am also incredibly grateful for all that we already do in our Church and School, and for the support that we already have.  No, the point is simply to expose our flimsy attempts at self-righteousness.  If we tell ourselves that we love God enough to earn our salvation, then we’re lying to ourselves. We certainly don’t, and we show it by the way we treat his church.

The same could be said of any of the commandments.  Honor your father and mother? We are called to honor the authorities God has instituted in this creation. If you want to see if you truly love God, look to see how you treat authority. How do you treat your boss? Do you grumble? Do you complain about those who have authority over you? Do you look down on the person who schedules shifts at your work?  Do you respect the office of President or Congressman even if you didn’t vote for or don’t approve of the actions of the individuals holding those offices? Do you hate the order of creation or society? Do you

Stock Photo by Sean Locke www.digitalplanetdesign.com

Stock Photo by Sean Locke
http://www.digitalplanetdesign.com

look for ways to avoid supporting the government with your tax dollars? Do you try to find ways around city codes? Do you ignore traffic safety laws? If we do not completely honor and obey the authority figures God has placed in our lives, we cannot claim to love God perfectly. For whoever loves God listens to his Word and gladly puts it into practice.

The point of the parable, then, is two-fold. First, it is a strict condemnation of our silly self-righteousness. When confronted with a self-righteous question from a self-righteous man, Jesus doesn’t even bring out the big guns. He doesn’t attack the way that we don’t love God with all our heart and soul and strength. He simply demonstrates that we don’t love our neighbor as ourselves. You know the story, so there’s no need to rehash it. But it is worth thinking about it in contemporary terms. Do we love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves? People will stand in line for days before a Black Friday Sale or when the new iPhone comes out. Are there lines of people waiting for their turn to help at a homeless shelter in Detroit? Is there a waiting list of names for people who are eager to help with MCREST? Of course not. There’s no way we can legitimately claim that we love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves. There’s no way we can legitimately claim that we love anything as much as we love ourselves.

Which is where the central point of the parable comes in. For as much as we want to consider ourselves people who can at some level love God with our heart, soul, and mind, and people who love our neighbors as ourselves, the reality is much different. The Word of God will not allow us to live in that lie. The Law overtakes us like a band of robbers on the road.  It unceasingly accuses us in our sin, and each accusation is like a fist to the face or a kick in the gut. The hammer of God shatters our pride and leaves us lying by the side of the road in a bloody mess. And that’s exactly where we need to be, for that is where our Lord comes to rescue us. That is exactly where Jesus picks us up and carries us someplace safe.  He brings us into the inn of his church where he feeds and nourishes us.849463109_orig He binds up our wounds pouring on oil and wine. Oil was at one time commonly used in the service of Holy Baptism. Wine is a central element in Holy Communion. Jesus heals and strengthens us in his church through the gifts of the Sacraments. He does not leave us to die in our sin – he rescues us and takes care of us.

Jesus is the Good Samaritan.

He is good because he loves the unlovable. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.  We were laying there dead in our sin, unable to offer anything worth having, laying in a heap on the side of the road. And our Lord took pity on us. Our Lord acted in mercy toward us. It didn’t matter that sin had made us his enemies. Samaritans and Jews hated each other. They treated each other with contempt. They had a long and bitter history of mistreating one another. They were enemies. Paul says that our sin has made us enemies of God. Our selfishness, our failure to love God and serve our neighbor has made us enemies of the Almighty. And what did the Almighty do when he saw his enemy beaten and bruised by the crushing power of the Law? A bruised reed he did not break. A smoldering wick he did not extinguish. Instead, he picked us up and nursed us to health.  He brought us back to life – new life in him.

Jesus is the one who loves God the Father with all his heart, soul, and mind. He listens to his Father’s Word and obeys it even to the point of death.  Jesus loves his neighbor as himself, even more than himself. The ultimate message of the parable hinges on the last few words. “Which of the three men in the parable proved to be a neighbor to the men who fell among the robbers?” asked Jesus. The lawyer’s answer? “The who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”

You go, and do likewise. Do you think you can earn God’s favor by showing that jesus-died-for-you2kind of mercy? Do you think you can fulfill the Law of Moses? Do you think you can love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind? Do you think you can love your neighbor as much as you love yourself? If so, you’re simply deluding yourself. The Word of God is truer that our excuses and self-justifications. It will expose our flimsy lies and excuses and leave us battered and bruised by the side of the road. But when we confess our sin, when we acknowledge the truth of God’s Word, when we acknowledge our failure to love God or our neighbor in the way we are called to, that is when our Lord picks us up and tends to our wounds. “You go, and do likewise,” says Jesus. And in a humble confession of the truth we say, “Lord I cannot.” And he replies, “Take heart, for I have done it all already.”

And then he binds our wounds. He heals our injuries. He brings to us the gift of new life in him.  And with the gift of the new creation given by our Lord, a new creation that includes a new will and sanctified desires, we set about loving our Lord and our neighbor to the best of our ability, never trusting that such love will earn us a ticket to heaven, but simply rejoicing that because our price has been paid we can now live as the people we were created to be: people who love our Lord, people who support the work of his kingdom, and people who tend to the needs of those around us.

May God grant it for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

The Spirit Brings Life – Sermon for August 23/24, 2015

The Spirit Brings Life

2 Corinthians 3:4-11

12th Sunday After Trinity

August 23rd/24th, 2015

Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

            I wonder how many people out there have been broken by politics. Maybe you have. I read something this past week that speculated the reason Donald Trump is getting such good poll numbers is because he is simply not an establishment guy. Is he Democrat? Is he Republican? Is he Libertarian? Is he Independent? No one really knows for sure. But what people do know is that he is not a career politician. He has not spent the last 30 years of his life in Washington building relationships with lobbyists and special interest groups.  Whether a Trump presidency would be good or bad for America is donald_trump_for_president_2016_poster-r5c416f83f1144568b91b9fe0a08ef8a7_ww8_8byvr_324something we will probably never know, but what seems certain is that a Trump presidency would not simply be more of the same. And more of the same is exactly what people grow to expect of politicians and candidates. Big promises that will never be realized. Special interest groups having too much pull. Corruption in every level. Maybe the problem is simply that too many people are overly cynical, but I truly believe that there are people out there who have been broken by politics.

I wonder how many people have been broken by our culture. This past week saw the release of the seventh undercover video exposing what really happens behind the curtain in the abortion industry, especially at Planned Parenthood. The trafficking of human organs, even organs surgically extracted from children who were still alive. Doctors admitting to altering their technique in an effort to preserve certain organs so that they can be sold later. Nurses admitting to harvesting the organs of the babies without ever telling the mothers that’s what was happening. The list goes on and on. The evil and barbaric details get more and more discouraging, or infuriating, or nauseating, or all of the above.  But the national outrage over the whole thing has been almost nonexistent. The internet blows up over a dead lion in Africa but not about a newborn baby being dissected for parts in our own backyard. People are more concerned with getting spoilers about their favorite TV show that will start up again this fall or keeping current with celebrity gossip. There is cecil-the-lioneven a group who made a parody video about how the real horrors of Planned Parenthood were the fact that the nurses asked for medical histories and took vitals. We live in a country that would prefer to poke fun at infanticide rather than deal with it. I wonder how many people can’t take it anymore. I wonder how many people have been broken by the callousness of our society.

I wonder how many people have been broken by the church.  I don’t mean broken by Jesus. I mean broken by those of us who put ourselves before the world as his representatives.  I would venture to guess that each of us can think of someone who has been broken by the church. Maybe you have. Maybe someone in your family. Maybe someone at your work.  I bet you know someone who truly believed that Jesus was indeed their salvation. Someone who confessed the faith. But somewhere along the way they got the idea that Christianity was all about performance, about doing the right thing. Somewhere along the way they got the idea that once they became serious about being a Christian that they could eliminate sin from their life. Sure, they were sinful before they truly committed their life to Christ, but they believed that things would get better once they took their faith seriously. They sat in some pew week after week and were told that they should be progressing in holiness, improving their behavior, ridding their lives of sin. They said their “Amen” week after week, but when they go home their life wasn’t like that. They weren’t getting better.  If they did make some progress in controlling one sin, they started struggling with another. They expected things to get easier, but instead they just got harder and harder.

To make matters worse, the more time they spent in church the more they saw the flaws of the other people there with them. The people in pew in front of them still did things that were sinful. People still gossiped in the narthex before and after the service. People still aired other people’s dirty laundry and treated fellow members of the body of Christ with contempt instead of compassion. And rather than finding comfort in the forgiveness of Jesus, they became obsessed with looking to find other evidence of improvement. But when they finally came to grips with the reality that the church is full of sinners, when they finally came to grips with the reality that they themselves weren’t really doing that much better at following God’s Law even after they had tried their hardest to, they started to lose hope.  In desperation or despair, they finally gave up trying. If they aren’t seeing improvement even after trying so hard, then why bother. And they leave the church. Broken.

I don’t know if there’s a good solution for those who have been broken by politics. I don’t know if there’s a way to reach those who have given up on the media or on our society as a whole. But as for those who have been broken by the church, Paul’s words today are clear. “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”

Paul is speaking of the importance of distinguishing Law and Gospel in our Lord’s Word and in our lives.  Our Lord’s Word is filled with passages that tell us what we are to do and how we are to live. Too often we assume that the presence of these passages in God’s Word means that we must have the ability to fulfill them.  After all, why would God tell us to do something that was impossible for us? That wouldn’t make sense.  We read the letters of the Law, the commands of God engraved in stone and passed down from generation to generation. Why would God write these things down for us if it was impossible for us to fulfill them?  And yet, in the words of Paul, those letters brings death.

For the reality is that we are all of us dead in our sin, and all the righteous works in the world can’t fix that. The person next to you, the person in front of you, the person behind you, the person in this pulpit is no more able to reach perfection than you are. The command to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and strength and love our neighbor as ourselves is a perfect summary of the Law. You can devote your whole life to sinners-wanteddoing things that love God and serve your neighbor. Yet even after a lifetime of such noble deeds, we have accomplished nothing. As Luther put it, such a life would leave us with peas but no pods, husks but no corn. That is why the Law can be nothing more than letters. Though it is a holy and righteous Word from God, it remains on the surface. It cannot penetrate to the heart.

Without a change of heart, there will be no change of action. You can post a no trespassing sign in your yard, but those letters aren’t going to keep people out; people have to care enough to listen. You can put out an invitation to sign up for MCREST but those letters themselves aren’t going to get people to donate their time; people have to want to be here. You can vote to build new classrooms or install a new gym floor, but those actions remain nothing more than letters on a page if there is no change of heart; people have to buy in and be willing to make sacrifices in their own lives. It is a change of heart that brings about action. Simply telling people what to do will not inspire them to do it. They have to want to.  People will support causes they believe in. That support comes not from the letter of the Law, but from a change of heart.

The same is true of the Christian life. The letter kills, but the Spirit brings life. Without a change of heart, the Law is powerless to bring about life and salvation. If you are convinced that Christianity is about being a good person of fulfilling the demands of God’s Law, you are bound to be disappointed with yourself and the people around you.  Luther said that the 10 Commandments may as well be called the table of omissions, for no matter what positive spin we try to put on it, the Law will always point out our shortcomings and our failures to live up to expectation.  We can try to use the Law of God to show someone what progress they are making, but all they will see is how far they have left to go. For the letter of the Law brings death. It brings despair. The problem for those who have been broken by the church is not simply that they have failed to live up to God’s standard. That is a problem for all of us, broken by the church or not. The problem is that by being badgered incessantly with the commands of God’s law, they were abandoned to flounder in futility.

And as much as any of us puts our trust in our own ability to fulfill God’s Law, we are floundering too.  Jesus did not create his church in order to make people better citizens or better parents or better employers or employees. Jesus did not come to earth simply to give us an example or further instruction from God on how to live. We already had that information. We had those letters, but those letters result in death. Even the best peopleLaw-Gospel2 still die eventually. It’s no wonder that those who only hear the Law of God eventually get broken down by the same old thing: failure after failure, disappointment after disappointment. No, God’s Son came into this life because no one else could fulfill the letter of God’s Law.  Where the Law of God brings death to sinners, the Son of God brings life. We can preach the Ten Commandments until we’re blue in the face. It won’t bring about a change in heart. It would be no better than telling a starving man with no money in his pocket to hurry up and get something to eat before he starves, or telling a woman in the desert holding an empty cup to hurry up and drink something before she dies of dehydration. The words may be true, but something else is needed.

That something else is Jesus. The message of his life, death, and resurrection in our place is the true message of the church. It is that message that creates faith. It is that message that brings about a change of heart. It is that message that will heal those who have been broken by the letter of the Law.  It is that message that heals us. For the letter kills, but the Spirit brings life.  That doesn’t mean we stop preaching the letter of the Law. That doesn’t mean it’s ok or no big deal when the people of God gossip about each other or sin against each other. What it means is that the death those actions bring is not the final word. Forgiveness is. Life is. We are under the new covenant. Our sufficiency is not from ourselves, it is from God. Even in the midst of our failures and sins, we have confidence through Christ toward God. Not that our sin is meaningless – no, it is nothing of the sort. But neither our sin nor our righteousness, neither our failures nor our successes determine our worth before God. That comes from Christ alone. It is ours through faith alone. It is the simple freedom of the Gospel. Because of what Jesus has already done for me, I know I am right with God. I know I am forgiven. I know I have been reconciled and brought back into God’s family. And you have too. You are right with God. Your sin has been covered.

I don’t know if there’s a solution for those who are burned out by the same old politics. I don’t know if there’s a solution for those who are burned out by the moral bankruptcy of our world. But I do know that there is a solution for you if you are discouraged by the fact that no matter how hard you try you just can’t get it right. There is a solution if you are frustrated by the fact that even when you give it your best you still lose your temper, still feel lust, still lie and cheat and steal. There is a solution if you are frustrated by the fact that even here in our church and school people still gossip and say hurtful things. The solution is simple: repent. Call a spade a spade. You messed up. Someone else messed up. We all do; we’re all sinners. Confess your sin and forgive theirs. Then live in the joy of forgiveness.  Rest in the knowledge that Jesus has already paid for your sin, and for theirs. He has paid for all of them. Let go of the shame. Let go of the bitterness. Let go of the grudge. The letter kills, but the Spirit brings life. May our life together here in our Lord’s church be marked by his forgiveness, love, and reconciliation. May it be marked by the love of Christ.

+INJ+

Jesus Wept – Sermon for August 9/10, 2015

Jesus Wept

Luke 19:41-44

Tenth Sunday After Trinity

August 9th/10th, 2015

Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

Anticipation. Excitement. Joy. Fear. Like a bride waiting that final few moments before walking down the aisle to meet her groom, like a groom waiting for the music to start signaling the beginning of the ceremony, like a group of high school seniors who are all dressed in cap and gown waiting to hear those first few bars of “Pomp and Circumstance,” 140425-hsgraduation-stocklike a child all dressed and ready for the first day of school, waiting for mom to start the car. Anticipation. Excitement. Joy. Fear.

Certainly these emotions, and likely many more, were swirling away within the hearts and minds of Jesus’s followers. Not just the 12, but all those who had been following Jesus, watching him do miraculous signs and wonders, giving sight to blind Bartimaeus, calling Lazarus forth from the grave, giving reason after reason after reason for these people to believe that he was indeed the Messiah promised by God, the one who deliver Israel back to her days of glory. Yet, for a frustrating three years, every time someone asked Jesus about this, he changed the subject. He told the people he healed not to spread the word about what he had done. He didn’t want people to look at him and see a mighty magician who could lead Israel into battle against Rome. He deflected the talk of royalty and messiahship.

But not today. Anticipation. Excitement. Joy. Fear. For this same Jesus who had spent years deflecting talk of being Messiah was now suddenly acting like one. He who had walked everywhere for three years had sent two of his disciples to fetch him a colt that had never been ridden. That’s a royal privilege, not to mention what it means for the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah entering Jerusalem on a donkey. He who had hidden from the crowds when they wanted to make him King was now letting them place their cloaks on the road while he rode toward Jerusalem. He who had told so many people not to speak of the miraculous healing they had received from his hand now allowed the crowds around him to shout out, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” In fact, when the Pharisees told Jesus to silence the roar of the crowd, Jesus defended the shouts, telling the Pharisees that if the people would stop crying out then the stones themselves would start. Yes, this Jesus was finally beginning to act like he was indeed the promised Messiah.

And so you can picture the scene. On the journey from Bethany and Bethphage, excitement builds. With each step closer to Jerusalem, the tension grows. As they climb the back side of the Mount of Olives, the energy in the group climbs too. You can feel the anticipation in the air. It is bubbling furiously under the surface, so furiously that when theyJesus reach the crest of the hill, as they round the bend and finally catch their first sight of Jerusalem, the Holy City, the crowd can no longer contain itself. As the Temple glistens in the evening sun, the crowd cries out in joy that the Messiah has come to rescue the people of God. And in the midst of the shouts of victory echoing around him, in the midst of the joy and anticipation that are flooding through Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside at the prospect that this Jesus might now in fact be coming to reclaim the City of God, in this moment that held such great joy and anticipation for so many, Jesus weeps:

And when [Jesus] drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”

Jesus wept. I’m pretty sure that the only other time we know of Jesus shedding tears is just a few days earlier at the tomb of his dear friend Lazarus. Here, on Palm Sunday, Jesus is again in tears as he enters Jerusalem. Why tears? Why sadness on such a joyous occasion? Because, in his own words, the people of God did not know the things that actually make for peace. And their ignorance and stubbornness would come back to bite them in the end.

Their focus was in the wrong place. Their expectation was of the wrong thing. They set their sights too low. Had they been listening to what Jesus was teaching instead of being blinded by the desires of their own hearts, they might have seen more than the raw power of God. Luke makes it clear in the verses leading up to today’s reading that the people were honoring and praising Jesus during his triumphal entry not because they believed his words, but because of the mighty works they had seen.[1] That’s what brings Jesus to tears – he knows that despite the pomp and circumstance surrounding his arrival to Jerusalem, these people did not yet believe what he was saying. They were not looking for a savior from their sin. They had missed his message, and he knew where that would get them. And he wept.

The Apostle Paul is writing of the same reality in today’s Epistle reading from Romans 9 and 10. Hear his words again:

What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, 33 as it is written,

“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense;
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”

Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.

 Paul’s desire and prayer is that the Jews, the people to whom God had entrusted his holy Word, the people to whom God had continually sent his prophets, would begin to listen to that word and those prophets. That they would see Jesus as the Messiah that he truly is, not one sent for earthly gain but one sent to deliver the world from sin, death, and the devil himself. The Gentiles listened. They were not born into a culture that encouraged them to pursue God’s righteousness, they were born pagans. They didn’t know the first thing about the true God or his Messiah. But when they heard the message, they believed. Not so the Jews. The Jews had God’s Word, but turned it into a ladder to heaven, works of the Law that must be climbed rung after rung until you reach God’s side. Rather than building their faith on the firm stone foundation of Christ’s sacrifice in our place, they continued right past him in their efforts to save themselves by fulling God’s Law for themselves. But as they ran past the stone they stumbled. They fell. It would be impossible not to, For Christ is the end of the law as a means of righteousness to everyone who believes.

Jesus saw their fall coming, so he wept. He saw that they would reject his sacrifice, so he wept. He knew that even though he was riding into Jerusalem to save these people, they would refuse to be saved by him. So he wept.

I wonder if Jesus is weeping over us?

As the Church of God today, we are the new Jerusalem, the place where God dwells in his Word and Sacraments. Like the Israelites of old, we Christians today are the ones who have been entrusted with the Word of God. But are we listening to what it says? Do we recognize Jesus for the Messiah he is, or do we treat him simply as the Messiah we would like him to be?

It is undeniable that there are crowds of people today who are filled with joy, excitement, and anticipation about Jesus. But like the crowds who marched with Jesus toward Jerusalem that first Palm Sunday shouting praises for the mighty works he had done, are we simply excited because we want a Jesus that we can parade through the streets of Washington while we fix America’s problems? Are we blinded by God’s majestic power like the crowd on Palm Sunday? Do we only want Jesus who will flex his omnipotent muscle and make an example out of abortion providers who dismember the unborn for profit? Do we only want a Jesus who will call down the fury of the cosmos on all those who would shut down a pizza joint or run a bakery out of business over gay weddings? memories-pizza-indianaAre we only interested in a Jesus who punishes other people’s sins and makes sure that the bad guys of this world get what’s coming to them? If so, then like the crowd of joyful people who marched with Jesus to Jerusalem that first Palm Sunday, we have not known the things that lead to peace. They remain hidden from our eyes. If all we know of Jesus is that we can’t wait to see him judge someone else, then he is weeping over us too.

For Jesus did not come to earth in order to save Jerusalem from the Romans. He did not come into the world to judge the sins of anyone. He came to be judged in our place. He came to be the savior. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.[2] While it is absolutely necessary for us to speak the truth to our sinful world, we must remember first and foremost that Jesus is our savior. He died for my sin, because I am by nature sinful and unclean, because I have sinned by the wicked things I’ve done and the good that I’ve left undone. The message of Jesus is first and foremost about how he has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me not with gold or silver, but with his holy precious blood and his innocent suffering and death. Chief of sinners though I be, Jesus shed his blood for me. Each of us must embrace that reality. Each of us must confess our personal sin, our own need for a savior. For that is the savior we have.

When we treat Jesus as a loaded weapon designed for the destruction of our enemies, we have missed the point, and he weeps over us too.  Jesus used his power that first Holy Week not to judge sinners, but to take our judgment upon himself. He used his divinity to jesus-died-for-you2bear the burden that is ours, to suffer in our place, to die in our place, and to rise to life again promising us that we too will rise in him on the last day. That is what the power of God is for, not the destruction of Jerusalem, but the destruction of the chains and shackles of sin that bind our consciences. Rather than being so obsessed with the sins of others that we cannot see our own, let us confess the depths of our own fallen nature, and rejoice in the one who rode through the streets of Jerusalem to the cross for us, so that when the last day comes, the only tears Jesus sheds for us will be tears of joy as he welcomes us into his Father’s house.

[1] Luke 19:37

[2] John 3:17

The Carrot or the Stick? – Sermon for May 17/18, 2015

The Carrot or the Stick?

Ezekiel 36:22-28

The Seventh Sunday of Easter (Exaudi)

May 17th/18th, 2015

Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

 History is filled with famous duos, and not merely the likes of Batman and Robin, Sonny and Cher, or Cheech and Chong. No, I’m thinking of more timeless and substantial duos. For example, death and taxes, a tandem widely considered the only two certainties in this life. Likewise, it is commonly believed that there are essentially only two ways to motivate someone: the carrot or the stick. You can use the carrot to motivate, like holding a carrot out before a horse to coax it in a specific direction. You can try to motivate by holding out a reward of some kind in the hopes that another person will be inspired to pursue that reward. Or if such promises are ineffective, you can always resort to threats; instead of using the stick to hold out a reward, you can use it like a jockey in a horse race. In thatBizarroCarrotStick case, the fear of punishment might motivate action. If you want your child to clean her room, you can promise ice cream when the job is done or you can threaten to ground her if it’s not. Carrot and stick. If you want your employees to meet their quarterly sales goals, you can motivate them with promises of a Starbucks at home espresso maker for the top sales person, or you can fire the least productive member of your team each year. Carrot and stick.

But what about God? What do you use if you want to motivate God to forgiveness? What if you want God to act in your life? Do you motivate God with the carrot? Or with the stick? Do you promise God some reward in return for his action? Do you promise that if he acts in your life you will return to church, or give more in offering, or stop sinning some particular sin? Or do you try to motivate God with the stick? Do you threaten that if he fails to act in your life that you will turn your back on him entirely? Do you threaten to stop believing? To stop praying? To abandon him all together? How do you try to motivate God to act?

The ugly truth that we don’t like to admit, even to ourselves, is that we have nothing that could spur God to action. We can’t threaten him, for he doesn’t need us. He’s God. He doesn’t need anything. Threatening God is as useless as threatening to stop buying Lions tickets until the NFL does something about its player conduct. A multi-billion dollar organization doesn’t listen to threats like that because they don’t need my hundreds of dollars in ticket money when they make billions of dollars on television revenue. I’m small beans. Just like I as an individual can’t threaten the NFL to get them to do what I want them to do, so also I can’t motivate God by threats. I’m not that important.

Neither can I motivate him by promise of rewards, for what do I ultimately have to offer? My life? That’s not much of a gift. Jesus himself said that out of the human heart comes all manner of wickedness. Why would the holy God be motivated by me offering myself to his service when what comes with me is baggage and sin? If we are honest we will admit that we are sinful people. We lie. We cheat. We gossip. We fight over trifles. We mark-7_20-23assert our own rights over the needs of others. We are selfish, smug, self-righteous and self-important. We are spoiled brats who think ourselves more important than we actually are. We reek of entitlement, acting as if we are so important that God would be lucky to have us, as if we are doing him a favor by believing his Word or coming to church. But God is not sitting up in heaven like a teenage girl waiting by the phone for someone to ask her to prom. He is not anxiously waiting for us to finally give him the attention he somehow desires from us. The inconvenient truth is that attention from us is not all we imagine it to be in our own minds. No, our threats and our promises will not inspire God to act.

But that doesn’t mean he won’t act.  Listen again to the words he spoke to the prophet Ezekiel: “It is not for your sake, O House of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came.”  God is in fact motivated to act, but not by manipulation. He is not motivated by carrot or stick, but by his own holy name. He is motivated by who he is, not who we are. He is motivated because he is love. He is motivated because he is merciful and compassionate. And that love and mercy and compassion have motivated him to act for us – to vindicate his holy name.

Here again we ought to be careful, for we tend to miss the mark. Ask yourself: What does it mean that God will vindicate his name? We would like it to mean that God is going to do something so that all his opponents are silenced. We would like it to mean that he will do something to show all the evolutionists that they were wrong and we were right. We would like it to mean that we will finally be able to tell the unbelievers or the Muslims or Jehovah’s Witnesses that they were wrong and we were right. We would like it to mean that he will do something to show the sinful culture just how wicked it is so that we can tell them that we were right. We would like it to mean that he will do something to show all the enemies of the Gospel that they are doomed for all eternity, that they were wrong and we were right. In short, we actually want God vindicating his name to mean that he vindicates ours, that he silences our opponents, that he avenges the struggles we have endured.

But this is not how our Lord has chosen to vindicate his name, and when we miss that, we miss one of the great miracles, one of the great acts of mercy that our Lord has ever done. Our Lord vindicates his name not when he proves his rivals wrong, but whencross he proves himself true. He vindicates his name not in judgment, but in mercy. He vindicates his name when he keeps his promises, when he acts as the compassionate and loving God that he claims to be.    If you want to see the vindication of God’s holy name, look around the room today. Look at the people sitting here with you. Look in the mirror.

For who among us today is anything worth redeeming? Who among us today possesses that one skill, that one ability, that one piece of knowledge so vital that the Kingdom of God cannot survive without it, or without us? Who among us offers something invaluable to God? None of us. Not even one.  And yet God acts. God showed his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. God showed compassion and mercy of his name in that while we were yet dead in our trespasses and sins, lifeless beings with hearts of stone, he sent his Son into this world. He became one of us. He lived the life we could not. He died the death we deserved. He conquered death, he rose to life, he ascended into heaven, and he sent the Spirit to dwell in us. He gave us a new heart and a new spirit. He put his Spirit in us so that we could walk in his ways. He removed our hearts of stone and gave us hearts of flesh. Now we are alive in him. Now we are his people, not because we were worthy, but because he is love. And now we love because he has first loved us.

So be “self-controlled and sober-minded,” Peter says. Let us not think of ourselves more highly than we ought. Rather, in humble repentance, let us confess that apart from the new heart Christ has put in us, we can do nothing. We have nothing to offer. We have nothing to give. And in humble repentance, let us rejoice in the forgiveness we have been given and the new lives and hearts that have been placed in us. Let us keep powerloving one another with the love we have been shown in Christ, for such a love covers a multitude of sins. Let us not wait for the proper motivation to love, be it carrot or stick. Rather, let us love because of who we have become in Christ. We love in the way that he loved us. Such love bypasses the opportunity to hold a grudge and instead covers a multitude of sins. Such love lives together in hospitality, without grumbling. Such love does not envy the gifts of another, but rejoices in the gifts we individually possess. Such love does not demand its own way, but rejoices in the gift of community and the opportunity to walk together in love, sacrificing ourselves for the good of the community and the good of the Gospel.

We now live in such love. As each of us has received a gift, let us use it to serve one another, as stewards of the gifts of God that he gives with great variety. Whatever that gift may be, each of us uses it in such a way that God may be glorified through Jesus. We don’t wait until it is to our advantage to use it. We don’t wait until we fear punishment for not using it. We are not motivated by carrot or stick – but by the love from God that pours through us to our neighbors, to the community around us.

Our efforts to love might fail by worldly standards. We can expect to meet with resistance. “Don’t be surprised,” Peter warns, “when the fiery trial comes upon you.” Our love may be shoved back into our face by a world who doesn’t want it or doesn’t think it needs it. But we love anyway, for we are not motivated by the world’s carrots or sticks. The love of Christ compels us. We will continue to do the work of the church in this place, making use of the unique gifts God has given this congregation, not because the world offers us some carrot or stick, but because this is who we have been created to be. Regardless of what happens in the voters’ meeting after church, we will continue to live in the grace of God, to proclaim his Gospel, to shape the lives of the next generation with that Gospel in the classrooms of our school, and to bring the gift of that Gospel into the lives of the people in our pews, for we are not motivated by the carrots or sticks, the threats or rewards of the world.  Rather, this is who we are in Christ.

May the Spirit of God continue to produce such a desire among us, giving us living hearts of flesh to replace the lifeless hearts of stone, in order that through us the world might know of her Savior.

The Truth of the Word – Sermon for Ash Wednesday

The Truth of the Word

Psalm 51:1-7

Ash Wednesday

February 18, 2015

Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

History has many great things to say about King David.  He was God’s chosen King over Israel, anointed by the Lord’s Prophet Samuel while he was still a boy.  He was pulled out of tending his father’s flock in the fields and told he would one day live in the palace to tend the Lord’s flock.  He slew the mighty Goliath, penned many of the Psalms, some of the most beautiful poetry ever composed, and led the nation of Israel to the height of its political dominance.  There are many accolades that history would have us lay at the feet of King David.  Yet for all that he accomplished, King David will forever be 2-slice-bannerremembered for his failures. While it is true that David was a great king, it is equally true that he was a miserable sinner.  King David, a man with tremendous wealth and comfort at his fingertips, stood on the roof of his palace and coveted another man’s wife.  He lusted after the flesh of Bathsheba.  He acted on that lust by arranging for her husband Uriah to be placed in the front lines of battle, secretly orchestrating his death.  He then took Bathsheba as his own.  Yes, King David sinned against many people.  He sinned against Uriah by coveting his wife and sending him to his death.  He sinned against Bathsheba by lusting after her flesh, objectifying her and treating her as nothing more than an outlet for his passion.  He further sinned against her by sending her husband to a bloody grave.  He sinned against the each and every person of Israel by dishonoring his vocation as their king, using his office to satisfy his own sinful desires rather than using his God-given authority to defend and protect his people as God intended.

So the Lord sent the prophet Nathan to speak God’s Word to King David.  Nathan told of a wealthy man who stole a lamb from poor man, slaughtered it, and served it at a banquet. The man could have taken one of his own lambs and served it, but he took the poor man’s only lamb instead.  King David was rightly outraged and spoke the Lord’s judgment upon such a man.  He said that such a man in his kingdom (which, as the Old Testament kingdom of Israel is basically the kingdom of God) should face judgment. Then Nathan, using David’s own words of condemnation, showed him his guilt.  David was pronounced guilty not merely by the word of the prophet, but by the judgment of the King. He was convicted by his own words.

Convicted in his sin, David wrote Psalm 51, which we chanted to begin the service.  It is a psalm filled with striking language of repentance, language which is scattered throughout our liturgy.  And yet nowhere in the psalm is there mention of any of the sins that so famously inspired David to write.  Nowhere in the psalm do we find David repenting of lust, adultery, murder, or abuse of power. David knew that his guilt did not rest on those public sins alone.  He knew that his guilt was deeper than just those actions.  David saw that he was convicted by the Word of the Lord, a word spoken from outside himself.  David was convicted in his sin not only by his actions, but much more by the declaration of the Lord’s Word.  David was absolutely guilty because of the terrible things he had done.  But more than just because of his actions, David was guilty because the word of the Lord declared him guilty. Consider someone who commits a crime. If a person stole something they may be morally guilty of theft, but they only get into real trouble with the law if they are tried and convicted in a court of the law. A guilty person might very well get away with a crime. Similarly, an innocent person might be wrongly convicted of a crime he didn’t commit.  Innocent or not, it is the declaration of the court that matters.  If the court declares a person guilty, that person is guilty in the eyes of the law and will be sentenced accordingly. If the court declares a person innocent, that person will be sent home.  It is not simply the presence of actual guilt that condemns a person. In many ways, the official pronouncement or declaration of guilt is far more devastating. So it was with David. Not only had David committed several sins, he had been sentenced for them. He had been declared guilty by the Word of God himself.

Thus, in spite of all he had done to Bathsheba and Uriah, David writes of repentance to the Lord who had declared him guilty: “Against you, you only, have I sinned / and done what is evil in your sight, / so that you may be justified in your words / and blameless in your judgment” [Psalm 51:4].  David acknowledged that his sins justified God’s word of 3813forgiven-400x254condemnation over him.  David saw that the presence any sinful thought, word, or deed in our lives gives evidence that God’s judgment is accurate, that his Word is true.  Just as a person who stole something does not actually face judgment until the court delivers its verdict, it is ultimately God’s word, spoken from outside ourselves, that truly condemns us.  We are guilty not simply because of our sinful actions, but much more because the Word of the Lord has convicted us in that sin.  God’s Word has called a spade a spade, condemned our sin for what it is, and pronounced his righteous judgment upon it, and upon us.  David recognized that his condemnation had come from outside himself.  He recognized that his sentence was spoken by the mouth of the Lord himself. His guilt was deeper than any particular sins involving Bathsheba or Uriah.  He was guilty because of the Lord’s Word of Law spoken by the Lord’s prophet.  And because the verdict of guilt had come from outside himself, David looked outside himself to see the Lord’s salvation.

Have mercy on me, O God, / according to your steadfast love; / according to your abundant mercy / blot out my transgressions” [Psalm 51:1].  In his plea for mercy David appealed to the Lord’s steadfast love.  If we trace the use of that Hebrew word through Scripture, we see that the Lord’s steadfast love is his mercy in action, mercy revealed in continued faithfulness to his people in spite of their constant failure.  Psalm 136 is a wonderful example of this. In that Psalm the refrain, “his steadfast love endures forever” is interwoven into a confession of the different ways God has blessed his people throughout their history.  From creation to the deliverance out of Egypt to the deliverance of Israel into the Promised Land to his continued support of life in this world by giving food to all flesh, the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever. It is to this steadfast love of God that David turns in time of need.  It is in God’s track record of deliverance that David finds his hope.  David pleads that the Lord would have mercy on him not because of his contrition or sorrow, nor because of anything else found inside David, but because of the certain and inexhaustible mercy of the Lord; mercy that is not simply an emotion God feels out in heaven somewhere, but mercy in action, mercy delivered to us.

Because the mercy of the Lord that David appealed to is always mercy delivered, David also appealed to the place that mercy was found in the daily life of an Israelite: in the work of the Priests. “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, / and cleanse me from my sin! Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean” [Psalm 51:2, 7].  The way that an Israelite in the time of David would be cleansed by the Lord is through the words spoken by the mouth of the Lord’s Priest.  Hyssop was a plant regularly used in the tabernacle to sprinkle cleansing water upon those who were unclean.  David is pleading that the Lord, who rightly pronounced him sinful by his holy word, would by that same word pronounce hyssophim washed and clean, and through the gift of the tabernacle make him clean.  David knew that when the Priest pronounced him clean, that word was as sure and certain as the convicting word spoken through the prophet Nathan.  David trusted the cleansing water sprinkled from hyssop as God instituted it. As his conviction had come from outside himself, David looked outside of himself to find his forgiveness.

So it is with us.  Let David be our guide not in sin, but in our response to it.  Like David, we have been convicted by the Lord’s word of Law, a word spoken from outside ourselves.  Like David, our salvation is also found outside ourselves.  Just as the Lord’s word is true when he says that we are all sinful, so also is his word true when he says that we are all forgiven by the death of his Son.  But like David, we do not find this forgiveness inside ourselves.  We look outside ourselves, to the forgiveness of sins won on the cross, and delivered by the hands of the Church.  Like David, we appeal to the Lord’s steadfast love, his mercy delivered to us.  Like David, we are given the Lord’s mercy through the hands of another.  If the Psalm were composed today, instead of reading “wash me” and “cleanse me,” it might read “absolve me,” calling to mind the words of the Pastor the way that David spoke of the words of the Priest.  Instead of reading “purge me with hyssop,” it might say “refresh me with your own body and blood in the bread and wine of your altar.”  What was true for David when he wrote this psalm is still true for us today: our forgiveness is found outside ourselves, in our Lord’s Means of Grace, in his Word and sacraments, the very things around which we gather today.

This Lenten season we will spend time meditating on several temptations that God’s Word-and-Sacramentpeople commonly face.  As we embark on this season of repentance and preparation for Easter, we are given to see that like King David, we live in the midst of temptation.  And like David, we are sinners who have been justly condemned by the word of God’s Law.  But as David was also righteous in spite of his sin, declared washed and clean by the Word of the Lord spoken by the Priest, so we too are pronounced righteous by the Word of absolution spoken by the Pastor and distributed through the Holy Sacraments, forgiveness from outside ourselves, a gift from our Lord delivered by the hands of another.

So follow David.  Rend your hearts and receive your forgiveness in humble repentance. Feast on the body and blood of your savior. Have your sin purged with the blood of Christ. Have your impure lips opened that your life may sing forth God’s praise.  Receive the gift of a new heart that lamenting your wretchedness you may receive from your Lord full pardon and forgiveness. Come experience the steadfast love of the Lord as he acts in mercy for you at this altar, for in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

May God grant it for Jesus’ sake.