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+

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(Mostly) Luther on Psalm 23

The Lord is My Shepherd[1]
Psalm 23
Third Sunday of Easter (Misericordias Domini)
April 10th/11th, 2016
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

Jesus-the-Good-Shepherd

The Lord is my shepherd. The Lord is your shepherd. We are his sheep. An appropriate comparison, for as Martin Luther once noted, a sheep must live entirely by its shepherd’s help, protection, and care. As soon as the sheep loses its shepherd, it is surrounded by all kinds of dangers and will certainly perish, for it is quite unable to help itself. It is a poor, weak, simple little creature that can neither feed nor rule itself, nor find the right way, nor protect itself against any kind of danger or misfortune. It is by nature timid, shy, and likely to get lost. When it does wander off and leave its shepherd, it is unable to find its way back to him; indeed, it merely runs farther away from him. It strays about until the wolf seizes it or it perishes some other way, like falling off a cliff or being swept away by the current while trying to drink from running water.

Still, however weak and small an animal a sheep may be, it nevertheless has this trait about it: it listens.  It is very careful to stay near its shepherd, to take comfort in his help and protection, and to follow him however and wherever he may lead it. And if it can simply be near him, it worries about nothing, fears no one, and is secure and happy; for it lacks absolutely nothing. If you wish, therefore, to be richly supplied in both body and soul, then above all give careful attention to the voice of your Shepherd, listen to His words, let Him feed, direct, lead, protect, and comfort you. Hold fast to His Word; hear and learn it gladly.

Our Shepherd will bless His Word so that it will accomplish its purpose and bring forth fruit in us. Through the Word he will give us His Spirit, who will assist and comfort us in all temptations and distresses and will also make our hearts safe and sure so that we will not doubt that we are safe in our Lord’s flock. He will treat us gently as His poor, weak sheep. He will strengthen our faith and provide us with other spiritual gifts; comfort us in all our troubles; hear us when we call upon Him; keep the wolf, that is, the devil, from being able to do us harm; and finally redeem us from all misfortune. Thus the psalmist can boldly confess that because the Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.

Of course, there will always be hardships in this body and life. Sin has corrupted the world in which we live. We will experience disease and economic hardships. Our relationships will be strained. Our lives will feel the same pressures felt by everyone else, whether they’re Christian or not. We may look at our circumstances compared with those of the unbelieving world and wonder whether or not our Lord is truly providing as a Shepherd ought.   But the words “I shall not want” are a confession of faith. The eyes of faith know that in real temptation we can find counsel and comfort nowhere else but in clinging to God’s Word and promise, evaluating our circumstances on the basis of his Word and not on the basis of the feelings of the heart. Then, when we despair of ourselves, our own abilities, our own failures, our own estimation of the situation, then help and comfort will surely follow, and absolutely nothing will be lacking.

The Word of God is the key. And yet, sadly, it remains a Word we so often undervalue and take for granted. It is as if the Psalmist were saying, “All people and kingdoms on earth are nothing. To the outward eye they may be richer, more powerful, and more splendid than the People of God. They may glory in their wisdom and holiness. But with all their glory and splendor they are a mere desert and wilderness, for they have neither shepherd nor pasture, and any sheep who wanders there will certainly go astray, starve, and perish. But though we are surrounded by many deserts, we can sit and rest here, safe and happy in Paradise, in a pleasant green pasture, where there is an abundance of grass and of fresh water and where we have our Shepherd near us, who feeds us, leads us to the watering place, and protects us. Therefore we shall not want.

We should learn to let the world glory in its great riches, honor, and power while it still can, for these are temporary, uncertain, perishable things that God lets foolish men scramble for. What does it matter for God to give wealth to someone who in turn blasphemes and slanders Him, or to a kingdom that will endorse evil at every turn, or other temporary honors and possessions to wicked people on this earth. What of it? All these will turn to ash one day.  To His children, as David says here, He gives the genuine treasure. Therefore, as the dear children and heirs of God, we ought to glory in neither our wisdom, nor strength, nor riches, but in this, that we have the “pearl of great value,” the precious Word, through which we know God, our dear Father, and Jesus Christ, whom He has sent. That is our treasure and heritage, and it is sure and eternal and better than all worldly possessions. Whoever has this treasure may let others gather money, live scandalously, be proud and arrogant. Let us not be troubled by such things, though we be despised and poor in the eyes of the world. It does not matter how rich and glorious we are here on earth; if we keep the treasure of his Word, we are exceedingly rich and sufficiently honored.

O how often we struggle with this! How often we fail to evaluate our situation rightly! We are so easily caught up in the rat race of modern life, forever chasing the next promotion, the newer car, the nicer house, the fancier clothing or more extravagant vacation.  We put our effort and time into the many things we want to do for our families and give to our families: a good education, the chance to excel in sports or music, a comfortable life, wonderful memories and experiences. But where does the Word of God fall on that list? Why do we so often fail to treat it as the treasure it truly is? Why do we find ourselves too tired to worship or attend Bible Study but always have enough energy to pick up some overtime if it means getting paid time-and-a-half?  All other things in this life will pass away. The grass withers and the flower fades, but the word of God stands forever. The Psalmist rejoices in that Word, and that through that Word he has everything he would ever want, regardless of his standing in the eyes of the world, regardless of how his life stacks up against the people three doors down.  For this Word is the green pastures that feed our soul, and it is the still waters that calm our troubled hearts.

Whether we are rich or poor in the eyes of the world, there will always be trouble in this life. We walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Being a sheep in our Shepherd’s flock doesn’t make those attacks any less intense. In fact, if anything, it makes them worse, for as soon as the Word is preached and as soon as there are people that accept and confess it, the devil quickly appears with all his angels and arouses the world with all its might against this Word, to stifle it and completely destroy those that have it and confess it.  Baptism not only make one a child of God, it also makes one an enemy of Satan. Are we then to look for shelter from these attacks in money or fame or the things of this life? No, there is no shelter there. And yet in the midst of these attacks, we fear no evil, for the Shepherd is with us to protect and comfort us with his rod and staff. Rather than living in fear, we sit at the table prepared by our Lord. The more raging and raving and insane the devil and his minions are toward us, the less we worry about them; yes, instead, we are secure, happy, and cheerful. And that is true only because we have God’s Word. It gives us such strength and comfort in the presence of all our enemies, so that even when they rage and rave most violently, we feel more at ease than when we are sitting at a table and have all that our hearts desire: food, drink, joy, pleasures, music, and anything else.

Even a man so highly blessed as King David exalts and praises the Word of God above all else, for by that Word we gain the victory over the devil, the world, the flesh, sin, a guilty conscience, and even death. When we have the Word and in faith cling to it firmly, these enemies, who we could never defeat on our own, lay down their weapons and let themselves be taken captive. It is not only a wonderful victory, but also a very confident and joyful attitude on the part of believers that we may compel and conquer all of these horrible and mighty enemies—not by resisting or striking back, but by sitting, eating, drinking, and resting, for we aren’t the ones who are actually doing the fighting.  We rest in the protection of our Shepherd. All of this is accomplished through the Word.

The Lord has prepared a table for us, and the meal on that table is the paschal lamb, Christ himself given in order to destroy our enemies completely. While the world continues to spew rhetoric of hatred and bitterness and vengeance, even then the dear bride of Christ can sit down at the table of her Lord, eat of the paschal lamb, drink of the fresh water, be happy and sing: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”  Therefore let us learn to cling to the rod and this staff of our Lord’s Word, and to find our way to his table when sorrow or other misfortune appears. Then we will surely gain strength and comfort for everything that worries us.

This is the promise that is ours as the sheep of our Lord’s flock. He is our Shepherd. He has given us all we need, therefore when we have him through his Word, we shall not want. His Word will lead us into green pastures to feed and nourish and strengthen our souls. And when sadness or grief overtakes us, his Word will soothe our troubled hearts with the cool water of healing.  He restores our souls. He will speak to us through his Word to lead us down the paths of righteousness, showing us how to live in forgiveness and mercy and in keeping with his design for creation. And even though that path in this life takes us through the valley of the shadow of death, we fear no evil, for he is with us, guarding and protecting us with the rod and staff of his Gospel, deflecting away and fending off the assaults of the evil one. And while he is fighting off our enemies, we will sit at the table he has prepared for us; he will anoint us as his people, and fill our souls to the point of overflowing with the gift of his love. So as long as we are in this life, his goodness and his mercy will follow us as his Word continues to speak words of forgiveness and hope into our ears until that day when we take up our dwelling in the house of the Lord forever.

+INJ+

[1] Much of this sermon is from Luther’s 1536 commentary on Psalm 23