Mistaken Identity – Sermon for June 7/8, 2015

Mistaken Identity
Luke 16:19-31
First Sunday After Trinity
June 7th/8th, 2015
Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

            The television show Undercover Boss uses hidden identities to create comical, uncomfortable, or heartwarming moments.  If you not familiar with the show, the basic premise is this: a chief executive or owner of a major corporation leaves the corporate 23692407_BG1headquarters works for a week at an entry level position in his or her company. Disguised as an average Joe, the boss spends a work week interacting with entry-level employees and managers, dealing with costumers, and getting a taste of what it’s like working for the company instead of running it.  The goal for the executive is usually that he or she wants to be a better boss or cultivate a healthier working environment by experiencing life in the trenches. As the camera follows the undercover boss, the audience gets to see how he or she is treated by people who think he or she is just the newest hire. Sometimes the boss is treated kindly, other times the boss is harassed or hazed or insulted. At the end of the week the boss calls the other workers to the corporate headquarters and reveals his or her true identity. Often times there are promotions, bonuses, or other rewards for the workers who proved themselves good employees. For those who treated the boss or the job poorly, the result is usually extra training courses, not to mention the public shame and embarrassment of having a nationwide audience see you make a fool of yourself  to your boss.  In this case, the old cliché holds true: You can’t judge a book by its cover. You can’t always tell who someone truly is simply by looking at them. Sometimes that beggar in the marketplace is really the princess in disguise.

Yet we continue to focus on outward appearance, not so much tattoos or hair color or piercings, although those tend to have a far greater influence than your average teen or twenty-something is willing to admit. No, we look at the things of this world. We tend to evaluate our spiritual health and the spiritual health of others based on what we can see physically. But this can often lead to tragic cases of mistaken identity.

Take the words of Jesus we read together a short time ago. There was a rich man who had the best life had to offer. He lived in luxury, wearing the finest clothes, driving the finest cars, drinking the finest wine, eating the finest food. He lacked for nothing. All his desires were met at a moment’s notice. He had the best this life had to offer. And he went to hell. He had nothing in the life to come except the agonizing desire to have his torment relieved by a single drop of water. No, the one who was wealthy for the life to come was Lazarus, the same Lazarus who lived in the street outside the rich man’s estate. He didn’t luke_16_rich_man_and_lazarus1have a home of his own. He had to scavenge through the trash looking for scraps to make up his next meal. His body was cursed with illness, and he was so weakened by disease that he couldn’t even stop the dogs from licking his wounds or gather the strength to shoo them away. I’m sure he stunk to high heaven. He was the kind of person you didn’t want to be in line behind, the kind of person you didn’t want to sit next to on the bus, the kind of person you wanted to avoid at all costs. But he was the one who was truly wealthy, for he was the one who found himself at Abraham’s side in the end. He was the one who found himself in paradise. He was a child of God. Most people, and we have to include ourselves in this if we’re being honest, most people if they met these men on the street would consider the rich man favored by God and Lazarus cursed. But that would be a case of mistaken identity.

How often do we fall victim to mistaken identity, not only in the way that we estimate the value of others, but in the way our world evaluates us! The cultural winds have changed direction in our homeland. The Epistle for today from 1 John reminds us of the importance of love, that our God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God. That all sounds well and good, but at the risk of sounding like an old SNL classic, what is love? According to our world, love seems to demand that you live and let live. Just keep your mouth shut – that’s true love to our world. Christians, whose God is love, Christians,stock-footage-close-up-head-shot-of-a-guy-with-his-mouth-covered-with-duct-tape-and-the-words-don-t-speak-written who love because he first loved us, Christians whose whole existence is tied up in the receiving and living in the love of God are branded as unloving because we take a stand on the truth of God’s Word. Our world doesn’t care about truth. Our world flees from truth like roaches from the light. Our world takes its stand on feelings and experience. Now, it’s true that you can’t control another person’s experiences of joy: you can’t tell another person which color should be their favorite or which genre of movie or music should be their favorite.  But we live in a world that silences any attempt to speak against pretty much any experience at all. We live in a world that believes that just as you can’t say which colors or movies someone ought to like, so also you can’t say which gender a person should have intimate contact with or even which gender they ought to be. It considered unloving to speak as if you know the truth or to claim that someone else is wrong.

But think about the inconsistency here. We get so upset, almost militant, about the dangers of secondhand smoke or other known carcinogens. The truth as discovered by medical studies is trumpeted from the rooftops. Smoking is outlawed in public places, in front of buildings, and any place where if may have adverse effects on bystanders. All this is done out of concern for the bystanders; you might say it’s done out of love. But when Christians try to do the same with moral choices, to speak out about the murder of the unborn, the sexual corruption of our time, the institutionalized greed and self-centeredness of our time, we are branded as the unloving ones. When we speak of the dangers these behaviors pose to the fabric of society or to the souls of its people, when we speak of the dangers of moral actions in the same way we speak of medical dangers, we are villianized. Granted, our words aren’t always as kind and gentle as they could be, and in such cases we must own our mistakes, repent, and change our rhetoric. But even when we do explain everything in the kindest possible way, the message is still rejected. We will continue to be rejected, and with even more fervor in the years to come. We don’t fit the world’s standard of success and tolerance. The rich man in Jesus’s example was decked out in the finest clothes and luxuries of this life while Lazarus remained an outcast. The currency of today is tolerance, is having a mind so open that your brain falls out. The so called love of today demands that each of us sit in our little bubble, keeping entirely to ourselves. It doesn’t matter if you have never done anything hateful or hurtful to someone you disagree with. The very act of disagreeing gets you put outside in the gutter, left scrounging for scraps to survive.  When it comes to the currency of our world, we are indeed beggars, a 21st Century Lazarus.

But take heart, Lazarus.  It is nothing more than a case of mistaken identity.  We may be poor like Lazarus, but like Lazarus, we have something more than the acceptance of this world waiting for us. Something better. Something eternal. Something that far exceeds the fleeting comforts available this side of the grave. Like Lazarus was an outcast in the world of his day, we will increasingly be outcasts in ours. We will be more aggressively marginalized. We will be told more emphatically that our faith ought to be entirely private, that it has no place outside the walls of this building, that our beliefs must be kept to ourselves at all times.  Just look at the way our government now speaks about freedom of worship instead of freedom of religion, as if they were the same thing. But take heart, for our true identity is not found in what this world considers us to be. It is found in Christ and what he has done for us. Our true identity is found in our baptism, in the new creation given to us through water and  the Word. Our true identity is found in the promises of God. The things of this world will pass away. The grass withers and the flower fades, but the Word of God stands forever. Our true identity comes from that Word, the strong Word that speaks us righteous.  Like Abraham, trust in the promise of God is credited to us as our righteousness. It may not change our appearance or status in the eyes of an unbelieving world, but it changes our identity before God.

To the world we will still look like Lazarus. Our lives will often look no different than the lives of the world around us. We will still struggle with illness and addiction. We will still struggle with financial hardships and unemployment. We will still struggle with pride and the temptation to self-justification. We will still lose our temper, act on our lust, indulge our greed, and stroke our egos. Apart from the gift of repentance, we are no different from the Dives and Lazarusrich man in today’s reading. Apart from the gift of repentance, we will be the ones begging for a drop of water to relieve our eternal torment. But if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come![1] This new creation is not readily visible to the eyes of the world. In the eyes of the world, we are Lazarus. But so also are we Lazarus in the eyes of the Lord. In the eyes of our Lord our true worth is seen.  Even though we are already God’s children now, what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when Jesus appears again on the last day we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.[2]

The struggle and joy of the Christian life is that it is cruciform, meaning our lives follow the shape of the cross. As we just heard a moment ago from 1 John, as Jesus was so also are we in this world.[3]  Our lives follow the pattern of Jesus.  Jesus encourages us in today’s reading to listen to Moses and the Prophets, to listen to the Word of God, for the Word of God is enough to show us who we truly are and to reveal reality to us. And the word of God is clear: in our lives we will share in the sufferings of Jesus, for in baptism we are united to him.  He is the image of God into which we are being reshaped. When we look at the details of Jesus’ life, we see clearly that things aren’t always what they appear to the human eye.   When the word became flesh, the world did not know him. He came into his own, and his own received him not. He was treated as an outcast. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows. They considered him stricken by God, smitten by him and afflicted. He suffered mockery at the hands of sinful men. He was constantly questioned and tested as if the message he brought was not from God. He was stripped and beaten and executed.  But in the resurrection his glory was revealed. That is the same glory that we participate in as we kneel to receive his body and blood, the body and blood of the risen Savior given to us so that we might be joined to that body here in this life and into the life to come.

The world did not see Jesus for who he truly was. They could not, for that takes the eyes of faith. The world cannot see us for who we are in Christ, for that takes the eyes of faith. We have the eyes of faith, so let’s use them. Let us not be mistaken about who we are in Christ or who we are in this world. We are children of paradise. We are the redeemed ones of God. We still live in this world and struggle against sin, death and the devil. But the victory has been won. See that. Believe that. Trust that. For in that promise is our hope. That is the true identity of God’s children. That is who we are in Christ.

[1] 2 Corinthians 5:17

[2] 1 John 3:2

[3] 1 John 4:17

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Confidence in the Storm – His Time Radio Homily

Confidence in the Storm

Acts 27:27-44

His Time Radio Homily

August 4, 2014

 quote-Mark-Twain-to-succeed-in-life-you-need-two-100473Author Mark Twain once quipped: “To succeed in this life you need two things: ignorance and confidence.”  Anyone who has witnessed a toddler fearlessly leaping into a swimming pool with no clue as to what will happen if there is no one there to catch them understands where Twain is coming from.  There is a certain confidence that one might have when he or she is clueless about the consequences.  But this confidence pales in comparison to the confidence that fills your soul when you are absolutely certain of the outcome.  Scary movies are not as scary the second time around when you already know how they end.

Such is the confidence that Paul had in the midst of a terrible storm at sea.  The waves crashed against the boat.  The rain fell so violently that hardened sailors were praying for morning.  Fearful that they might be crushed against the rocks, the soldiers sought to escape by using the ships lifeboats, desperate for any hope of reaching shore.  They were convinced that their ship was a lost cause.  In the midst of the panic, there sat the Apostle Paul, urging them to eat something.  What gave Paul such tremendous confidence in the face of petrifying conditions?

He knew the outcome.  He knew how that story would end.

Paul-shipwreck_1349-361You see, Paul had been visited by an angel, a messenger sent from God, who told Paul, “Do not be afraid, you must stand before Caesar.”[1]  Paul knew that he would survive the storm, for he had been told as much by God.  Paul knew that the soldiers, sailors, and other prisoners on the ship, 276 people in all, would survive the storm, for he had been told as much by God.  Paul had the confidence not of being oblivious to possible dangers, but the confidence of knowing that no matter what dangers reared their ugly heads, he and his travelling companions would survive the journey, for he had the promise of God.

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, we too have the promise of God.  We too have the confidence that comes only from knowing how the story ends.  As Paul himself wrote in Romans, the sufferings of this life are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed to us at the end of the journey.[2]  So often our lives are laid siege by fear and doubt and uncertainty.  A disease threatens our lives or the lives of loved ones.  A job loss ushers in the uncertainty as to where we will come up with the money to meet our bills.  The loneliness of a broken relationship or a relationship that never materialized fills us with uncertainty about the future.

In such moments we, like Paul, are called to put away our fear and remember the promise of our Lord.  No matter what hardship this life throws at us, we have the promise of salvation through the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  We have the hope of deliverance given to us personally through the cleansing water of baptism, a hope that is strengthened and nourished as we feast on our Lord’s Supper.  And while the knowledge of this promise doesn’t take the problems away or make our lives smooth sailing, it does give us the confidence to sit and eat in the midst of the storms.

We, like Paul, know how to handle whatever this life throws at us.  We know how to be brought low and we know how to abound.  We know the secret of being content in any circumstance, be it good or bad.  We know the secret of facing plenty or hunger, abundance or need, sickness or health.  We can handle anything through Christ who gives us strength,[3] for we know that we do not handle it alone.

We have the promise of God that he will see us through.  He will provide comfort for us in the promises of his word.  He will provide for our needs in the fellowship of his church.  He will not abandon us to the rocks and waves.  So the next time you find yourself terrorized by one of life’s storms looming on the horizon, or by the crashing of the waves as they threaten to overwhelm you, fear not.  Take heart.  Don’t let Satan drive you to despair.  You are a baptized child of God – you will make it safely to your heavenly home.

Easter_Christ_is_risen

[1] Acts 27:24

[2] Romans 8:18

[3] Philippians 4:11-13

God Used It For Good – Genesis 50 (Sermon for July 13/14)

God Used It For Good

Genesis 50:15-21

4th Sunday After Trinity

July 13th/14th, 2014

St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

             Each of us has a scar.  We all have bruises.  For each of us has undergone some form of suffering.  We have all faced adversity at one point or another.  Some have scardefinitely endured more pain than others, but each of us has shouldered a burden at some point or another.  Maybe cancer or some other disease attacked you or your family.  I know it has mine.  Maybe a car accident or some other sudden tragedy shattered your world as you knew it into so many pieces that it will never be put back together the way it once was.  I know it has mine.  Maybe it was a job loss that led to a home loss that led to an overwhelming sense of helplessness as you wondered where the money to pay the next bill was going to come from.  We have all experienced hardship, for in this fallen creation there is nowhere to hide from the effects of sin.  It is going to get to each of us.  It certainly got to Joseph.

Joseph experienced an avalanche of hardship throughout his life.  Like going to a water park with your kids and watching as the big drum of water fills up, waiting for it to turn over and drench anyone who happens to be standing under it, the first part of Joseph’s life reads like a story of waiting for the vat to be dumped again.  It was only a matter of when, not if, the next adversity would arrive.  In fact, his life story is so compelling that not only is it a staple in almost every single Sunday School Curriculum produced, it even inspired its own Broadway Musical.  Anyone who’s heard the story of Joseph will not soon forget it.  His brothers plotted to kill him, but instead of carrying out the murder they opted for the more financially advantageous opportunity and sold him into slavery.  The boy Joseph spent time as a slave before eventually rising to a position of authority in his master’s house, but it was only a matter of time before the bucket dumped out again.  Joseph held his position until false accusations led him to captivity once again, this time in an Egyptian prison.  While in prison he was betrayed by a man he helped, and ended up spending extra years in chains.  It was only after he interpreted the Pharaoh’s dream and saved Egypt from famine that Pharaoh exalted Joseph to second in command in the entire kingdom.  It was in that position of authority that Joseph was reunited with his family.  When his father died, his brothers feared retribution for the evil they had done to him.  And who could blame them, for their jealousy led them to knock over the first domino that set off a chain of hardship that characterized their brother’s life.  But Joseph’s answer to them was simple: “Am I in the place of God?  You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”[1]

Joseph’s life had indeed been filled with adversity and suffering, but in the end he recognized that behind it all God was working things out for the best.  That, in its simplest form, is the Christian’s answer to the problem of pain and CSLewissuffering in the world – a confession that behind it all God is working things out for the best.  The unbelieving world finds that answer totally unsatisfying, often accusing Christians of burying their head in the sand.  They say it’s too easy, and that we Christians are simply fooling ourselves.  The question of how a God who is supposed to be all-powerful and all-loving can coexist with pain and suffering is such a common question from unbelievers that it gets its own name in theological circles: theodicy.  Christians throughout time have pieced together all manner of justifications and explanations for the presence of pain in this world.  Some of them are, in my opinion, quite compelling and make for very good reading.  But that’s not the point.  Philosophical or theological rebuttals to such attacks are never the full story.  They may “justify God,” but they fall short.  For Christians, the truest answer to the presence of suffering and pain in the world is seen in Joseph.  It is trust that no matter what my life looks like from my perspective, God does have my ultimate good in mind, and that his understanding of good is better than mine, that his ultimate goal is going to be better for me than the one I might have for myself.  The Scriptures never promise that our lives will be easy or painless, only that in all things, be they easy or hard, our Lord works for our good.[2]  Faith’s response in the midst of struggle is to cling to this hope.

Through the pain and suffering endured by Joseph, our Lord saved a multitude of people who would have otherwise starved in the famine.  The suffering Joseph endured ended up being for the benefit of others.  Joseph recognized that because of his life, one man’s suffering saved the lives of many. [3]  Sound familiar? One man suffers so that many may live.  We have in the story of Joseph a beautiful foreshadowing of the life and suffering of Jesus.  Joseph is betrayed by his brothers who intend to do him harm.  Jesus is betrayed by Judas, one of his closest followers, who intends to do him harm.  Satan manipulates the actions of men so that they condemn our Lord, sending him to his death.  But not without suffering first.  Not without pain.  Satan wants to hurt our Lord.  Satan wants to make Jesus suffer, and so Jesus does.  Beaten.  Whipped.  Humiliated.  Mocked.  Nailed to a cross.

But as with Joseph, what they intended for evil our Lord used for good.  What they did with the intent to harm Jesus, God intended for the good of accomplishing what has now been done: the saving of many lives.  Every drop of blood that Jesus shed in his suffering was shed for you.  Every bead of sweat the dripped off the brow of our Savior in his agony was for the person sitting next to you.  Jesus certainly suffered, but the suffering that he endured was for each and every person who has ever existed, or who will ever exist.  The reality that even Jesus suffered gives us a different perspective on our hopesuffering.  As our Church President wrote in a reflection on the 10th Anniversary of 9/11, in times sufferings we still lament, but because of Jesus we lament with hope.  We cry out, but we cry out with hope.[4]

We have hope.  Suffering in this world is nothing new.  It has been around since sin entered creation and wreaked havoc with a once perfect existence.  Suffering was certainly not God’s design for his creation, but now that this world is fallen, suffering is so much a part of it that our Lord himself did not escape it when he became man.  Yet in the midst of it, we have hope, for our Lord himself suffered.  The almighty endured pain.  Take that in for a moment – as Jesus was sustaining the life of men who have no existence apart from him (for in him all things live and move and have their being[5]), those same men are using their existence to press thorns into our Lord’s scalp, to ridicule him and smear his reputation, to turn his family and friends against him.  Yes, our Lord suffered everything that we suffer, and while the reality of our Lord’s suffering does not eliminate suffering from our lives, it certainly gives us a different perspective on it.

Remember that at the end of all his suffering, Joseph was blessed to see how everything turned out.  He was able to say with confidence that God worked it out for good because he was living in the good.  At the end of Jesus’ suffering, God and man had been reconciled.  The Temple curtain was torn in two.[6]  Sin had been forgiven.  Salvation had been won.  At the end of Jesus’ suffering, God had worked all things for the good of all people.  So also with us and our suffering.  We may not know what God has in store for us on this side of the grave, but we trust that whatever it may be, it will be for our good.  That is why the Apostle Paul can write, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.  I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.  I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”[7]  It is the comfort of Jesus’ suffering that lead the Apostle Peter to write to other suffering Christians, telling them, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.  But rejoice insofar as you share in Christ’s suffering, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.”[8]

There is tremendous comfort in knowing that our Lord understands whatever suffering we endure.  There is tremendous comfort in knowing that our sufferings are swallowed up by the suffering of Jesus.  We know what resulted from his suffering.  And so we can rest in the confidence that eternal life in paradise will is waiting at the end of ours.

“Eternal life is all well and good,” you might say, “but what about now?  What does this suffering do for my life today, for my life tomorrow?”  When you struggle with such thoughts, it is helpful to remember some words the Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in2-Corinthians-1-4-web-nlt Corinth, where he said that God is “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.  If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer.  Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.”[9]

Our Lord comforts us in our afflictions with the promise of eternal life.  Our Lord comforts us in our affliction by giving us friends and family whose shoulders we cry on, whose ears listen to our complaints, and whose arms embrace us when we feel alone.  Our Lord comforts us in our affliction with the promise that even though we don’t understand how, he will turn even this moment of pain and heartache into something good.  He comforts us so that we in turn will be able to comfort others when they face affliction.  Now, knowing and believing that doesn’t make suffering hurt any less.  It doesn’t make the pain any less real.  It doesn’t remove hardship from our lives entirely.  But the promise of deliverance does give us the hope to persevere.  The promise of deliverance does give us the strength to remain faithful even during those difficult times.  The gift of faith clings to this promise so that one day, as we are being ushered into our eternal paradise, we too can look at Satan and all his minions and say with Joseph, “You intended to harm me, but God used it for good to accomplish what is now being done: the salvation of my soul.”

May God grant it to us for Jesus sake. Amen.

[1] Genesis 50:21

[2] Romans 8:28

[3] Genesis 50:20

[4] “A Hopeful Lamentation: President Harrison’s statement on the 10th anniversary of 9/11” http://www.lcms.org/page.aspx?pid=1216

[5] Acts 17:28

[6] Matthew 27:51

[7] Philippians 4:11-13

[8] 1 Peter 4:12-13

[9] 2 Cor. 1:3-7