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+

Finding Joy in Work – Sermon for Labor Day Weekend

Finding Joy in Work

Ephesians 2:8-10

Eleventh Sunday After Trinity

August 31, 2014

St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

 

LaborDayCard1            It’s Labor Day Weekend, one of my favorite long weekends of the year.  I went fly fishing on Friday, to the Michigan Game yesterday, and don’t have to get up early for work tomorrow.  It’s one last taste of summer before the school and church calendars get really busy.  Of course, even when the calendar gets crazy, there’s still the weekend.  For many, weekends in the fall will mean trips to the cider mill, hay rides, and corn mazes.  They mean Friday Night Lights and College Football Saturdays and NFL Sundays.  So much of our lives feel like we’re living weekend to weekend.  The atmosphere in the school hallways on Fridays is noticeably different than it is on Mondays.  On Fridays, the students and parents alike walk down the hall just a little quicker, excited at the prospect of a few days off.  Mondays, on the other hand, generally find the students dragging their backpacks instead of carrying them, tired days where the students and parents alike are a little worn out from the weekend’s activities.  But I don’t think that experience is confined to the hallways of a school – I bet you see the same dynamic in your workplace, and in office buildings across the country.

For me, it makes me contemplate the nature of work, a topic especially appropriate this Labor Day Weekend.  As we know, Labor Day is not just an excuse to barbecue one last time before summer ends, it is a holiday set aside to honor the contributions of the American work force in the development and ongoing support of this nation.  It is a holiday to honor all that is accomplished by those who work.  But reality seems to be that we are living for the weekends, for the vacations, for the times where we are not at work.  If that’s really what we think of work, then why honor it?  Aristotle believed that “we work to have leisure, on which happiness depends.”  He believed that we work in relaxingbeachorder not to work.  He believed that happiness was to be found not in the tasks we accomplish, but in the time we spend relaxing.  For Aristotle, and I think, if we’re beinghonest, for most of us, work is a means to an end.  We work for money so that we can buy food, home, clothing, and the other necessities of life.  We work so that we can afford to go on vacation.  We work so that we can retire in comfort.  We treat work as a necessary evil, working primarily so that we don’t have to work anymore.  And many of us, if we had our own way, would stop working altogether if we could afford it.

But the more I see this attitude in myself and in our culture, the more I think it robs us of the joy that our Lord would give us in our work. The more I study what our Lord’s Word has to say about work, the more I see this necessary evil mentality is really a gross perversion of what our Lord intended our work to be.  If working is truly a necessary evil, then it must somehow be an obstacle to who we truly are.  But that contradicts what our Lord says about work in the Scriptures.  Remember the story of creation as recorded for us in the book of Genesis: “Then the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.  And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. [. . .] The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it.”[1]  God created Adam for work.  God told Adam to work in the garden before sin corrupted the creation.  Work can’t be just a necessary evil that is yet another burden we must bear as a consequence of sin’s corruption.  God instituted work before the fall, so it is part of his design for who we are as humans.

God’s attitude toward work is exactly opposite that of Aristotle.  In the words of Luther, “Man was created not for leisure, but for work, even in the state of innocence.”[2]  Work was created before the fall, before corruption, which means it was created to give us joy.  Certainly work has been corrupted by sin, just like everything else in creation.  Again from Genesis: “And to Adam [God] said, “Because you have . . . eaten of the tree . . . cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you . . . By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground.”[3] Work was not tiresome or frustrating until after sin corrupted it, but it was there.  Adam and Eve were put in a perfect creation, and part of that perfection included working.

This has tremendous significance for how we approach the tasks that face us happy_workerseach day.  It is encouraging and uplifting to remember that work is part of our Lord’s design for us.  It’s not just a burden we bear so that we can have money for food or clothing or shelter.  Those things are important and necessary, but there’s more significance to our life of work than that.  It’s not intended to be something we must tolerate just so that we can go on vacation.  It’s not merely something we do just so that we can retire.  Work is an essential part of being human, a basic part of who we are.  The attitudes toward work that permeate our culture are a perversion of a once perfect gift, and they rob us of the joy found in a job well done.  In the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon wrote that He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income, for these things are vanity.[4]  Perhaps this is why so many people in our world find their work unsatisfying.  Solomon makes the problem clear.  If we work only for the money and live only for the weekend, we will never find fulfillment.  We will never be satisfied, for we’re chasing after vanity.  As another pastor put it, “Chasing after vanity [will give you] no rest.  The soul grows weary and uncertainty increases because in the depths of our hearts we know that temporal things have a habit of disappearing.  Stock markets crash.  Cars break down.  Banks go under. Economies suffer recession and depression.  Jobs are lost.  With them goes the certainty we once hoped for.  Despair overcomes us.”[5]

So what are we to do?  How do we find joy in our work?  The answer is to remember first and foremost that our identity is rooted not in our life’s work or accomplishments, but in God’s completed work for us. The work he completed for us, when he cried out on the cross, “It is finished” supplies us with perfect righteousness, pays off all our debts to God, and opens up the door to everlasting life, where we will enjoy perfect health with glorified bodies in a restored creation. But if that creation is really a restoration of this creation as it was before the fall, we won’t be sitting around playing harps all day.  We will be praising God through work, through using the talents and abilities he has given us in service of him and those around us.  That’s the way to find joy in our work today.  The work our Lord did in us when he gave us new life in the water of holy baptism, giving us a new creation to live and work before him in righteousness and blessedness, the work he will do in us yet again in a few moments when he will feed us with the body and blood of Jesus Christ to strengthen our souls not only gives us the promise of joyful work in a paradise of the future, it also redeems our work for today, tomorrow, and every day on this earth.

We will find no fulfillment in our world’s understanding of work because this is not work as our Lord designed it. We need to repent of viewing work as a means to an end and return instead to Eden, and to the proper understanding of vocation.  God gave us talents and abilities not so that we can make money to buy stuff for ourselves, but to love and serve our neighbors.  Think back to Eden once again.  Not only did our Lord create work before the Fall, he created it before he created Eve.  He put Adam to work the garden by himself, stressed-out-workerbut then looked and saw that it was not good for man to be alone.  It wasn’t good for man to be alone because then there was no one for Adam to love and serve with his work.  If Adam was in the garden by himself, then all his work would be for himself.  But this is not who our Lord created us to be, so he gave Adam Eve.  So also we tend to feel frustrated in our work when we are overly concerned with our own personal fulfillment or recognition.  We feel frustrated because there is no end to that journey.  There is always another promotion to chase, always another raise to pursue, and always another challenger nipping at our heels.  However, when we realize that we are not truly working for ourselves, but for the people around us, we will begin to experience the fulfillment of life as our Lord designed it, a life of community and mutual concern.

Our readings today emphasize our inability to save ourselves.  Cain’s sacrifice was unacceptable because it was not offered in faith, trusting in God’s promise.[6]  The Pharisee trumpeted his own accomplishments to God, who was unimpressed, while the tax collector who humbled himself in repentance went away justified.[7]  Paul does not mince words when he tells us we were saved by grace through faith, apart from works, so that no one can boast.  But don’t forget verse 10 at the end of that reading: “We are [God’s] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”[8]  What does it mean that God prepared good works in advance for us to walk in them?  Does that make us like characters in a cosmic video game who are being controlled and moved to the places God programmed us to be?  Does God have some master checklist of divinely orchestrated opportunities to perform good deeds he expects us to do each day?  No.  Paul is talking about vocation here.  He is talking about our everyday life.  He is talking about our work.  For as insignificant as our efforts are when it comes to accomplishing our own salvation, our Lord has placed us in a startlingly high position when it comes to our practical, everyday life.[9]

eph2_10Think about it.  God upholds this creation from generation to generation, but he has chosen to give people a large role to play in that process.  Children aren’t spawned from the dust of the ground, they’re born from parents whose vocation it is to raise those children who will one day become parents themselves.  No man is an island; we live in a community of interdependence, and that’s exactly the way God designed it to be.  Those are the good works he has created in advance – the work that needs to happen for life to continue, and not only our personal lives, but also the life of the community.  He created a world that needs parents and farmers and doctors and engineers and mechanics and garbage collectors and politicians and a whole host of other people to function.  He prepared those good works in advance, and then created people like you and me to fill those needs.  It works the same in the body of Christ.  Our Lord has created his church to be a place that needs pastors and music directors, but that also needs ushers and acolytes and trustees and elders and evangelism boards and stewardship boards and assimilation teams and treasurers.  He prepared those good works in advance, and now he has created you in Christ Jesus as his workmanship to do them!  He has created us to be a community not of mutually independent people, but of mutually dependent people who rely on each other to get things done.  We rely on those people sitting in around us as the members of this congregation with us today.  We rely on the people we never met who kept St. John open and running for the last 150 years so that it could be here for us today.  And we do our work humbly acknowledging that, Lord willing, there will be people here in another 50 years who are reaping the fruit of what we sow today.

Each of us can find joy in whatever work we contribute to the whole, for “God ordained that human beings be bound together in love, in relationships and communities existing in a state of interdependence.  In this context, God is providentially at work caring for his people, each of whom contributes according to his or her God-given talents, gifts, opportunities, and stations.”[10]  Each of us becomes a mask of God, for behind our work God is hidden, upholding and sustaining his church, indeed, his entire creation.  We find no joy in our work when our primary concern is whether or not we have received enough recognition.  We find no joy in our work when we are only concerned with the immediate results here and now.  We find joy in your work when we realize that because we are now redeemed and set right with God, because we are his workmanship, He is now using our efforts not only to sustain our lives and the lives of the people around us, he is sustaining those in the future who will one day benefit from our efforts without our ever knowing.

Embracing this work won’t get you a better seat in heaven, but it is the life God intended for you on earth.  It is the path to joy in your work because you’re not primarily concerned with how much money you can make, but rather you embrace using your talents and abilities, the ones God himself personally gave you.  They are yours on purpose; they are no accident.  Find joy in accomplishing the tasks that need to get done daily in order for life happyemployee-370x229to continue – in cutting the lawn or washing the dishes.  Find joy in putting effort into other things that needs to happen, like family picnics or trips to the park.  Find joy in doing what needs to be done for future generations, rejoicing in all that was done for you by generations since past.  Find joy in all your work, for in all your work, God is at work in you, using you to bless those around you.  Our work may not be for our salvation, but it is still important, and that fills our work with joy.  May God grant such joy in your work this Labor Day, and for all the days ahead.

+INJ+

[1] Genesis 2:7-8,15

[2] Commentary on Genesis 2:15 (AE 1.103)

[3] Genesis 3:17-19

[4] Ecclesiastes 5:10

[5] Pastor Tony Sikora – Sermon on Mark 10 (http://steadfastlutherans.org/?p=23816)

[6] Genesis 4:4-5; Hebrews 11:4

[7] Luke 18:9-14

[8] Ephesians 2:10

[9] Veith, Gene. Spirituality of the Cross p. 72

[10] Veith, 74

Peter and Paul, Apostles

Peter and Paul

Matthew 16

The Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul, Apostles

June 29th/30th, 2014

St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

 As many of you already know, my wife and I spent this past week in New York City to celebrate our 10th anniversary.  We saw three Broadway plays, took the subway to Battery Park to look out across the Hudson River at the 2014-06-24 19.19.08Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, walked to Ground Zero and the 9/11 Memorial, and even wandered the woods in Central Park.  It was a trip a few years in the making, so it was nice that it lived up to the expectation in my mind.  The weather cooperated, the shows were everything one hopes Broadway would produce, and the memories made will not soon be forgotten.

Of course, in order for us to stay where we did in midtown we had to set aside 90 minutes on Wednesday afternoon to sit down with a representative of a worldwide corporation specializing in vacation solutions.  Translation: we had to sit through a sales pitch for a time share.  What sticks with me most from the sales pitch is something small.  The salesman was asking his introductory questions, “Where are you from?”, “What brings you to New York?”, “How has your stay been so far?”  What struck me was that when he asked, “What do you do?” and I told him I was a Lutheran pastor, he had no idea what a Lutheran is.  He spelled it Litheran, with an “lith” instead of a “luth.”  Later in the conversation, he even asked me point blank.  “What is a Lutheran compared to all the other churches I see when I walk around the city with my wife?”  He wanted to know if we were more like the Catholic churches or more like the Baptist churches.

My answer probably sounded to him like I was dodging the question, but it was the best I could do.  What I told him is: “It depends on who you ask.  If you asked the majority of American Protestants, they think Lutherans are basically Catholic (because we believe that the sacraments aren’t simply symbolic but actually do something, we tend to have artwork and stained glass that many Baptist churches consider idolatry, and we tend to use a liturgy of some sort), but if you ask the Catholics, they probably think we’re more like the rest of American Protestants (because we don’t recognize the authority of the Pope and we have broken off from what is in their view the one true church).  Reality is somewhere in the middle.”  The salesman seemed satisfied with my answer and moved on to prepping us for how much his great offer would cost and how much he could save us if we acted right then, right there.peter paul

I was reminded of this conversation as I sat down to gather my thoughts for this morning.  After all, today we at St. John Lutheran Church are observing the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul.  That’s why the altar is decorated in red instead of the customary green.  We have set aside the regular readings for the second Sunday of the Trinity season to instead have special readings in commemorating two Saints.  But we’re not Roman Catholic, so why are we observing saints’ days?  The Augsburg Confession says this:

“Our Confession approves giving honor to the saints. This honor is threefold. The first is thanksgiving: we should thank God for showing examples of his mercy, revealing his will to save men, and giving teachers and other gifts to the church. . . . The second honor is the strengthening of our faith: when we see Peter forgiven after his denial, we are encouraged to believe that grace does indeed abound more than sin (Rom. 5:20). 6 The third honor is the imitation, first of their faith and then of their other virtues, which each should imitate in accordance with his calling.” [1]

First, we ought to give thanks to God for the lives and work of these two men.  These two men demonstrate different paths to the same destination as God’s children.  Peter spent many years with Jesus as his disciple, following him from the beginning of his earthly ministry.  Peter witnessed all the major events of the Gospel first hand.  He saw the transfiguration.  He saw Jesus raise the dead heal the sick.  He saw the crucifixion.  He saw the resurrected Lord.  But he also denied Jesus before others when the time got tough.  There in the courtyard of the High Priest Peter adamantly insisted that he did not know the man Jesus, only to be reminded of his betrayal as the voice of the rooster announced the arrival of the dawn, which brought with it the guilt and shame of betrayal.  And yet but a few days later Jesus sat with Peter on the shores of the Sea and told him: “Feed my sheep.”  Jesus forgave Peter’s denial, and Peter finally understood what forgiveness really is.  He understood who Jesus truly is.  He had known Jesus for years and was quite familiar with the Gospel stories, but the message took root in a different way when Peter experienced it on a personal level.

So also for many Christians today.  Many of us in this room today, myself included, have spent our entire life in the church.  I was baptized as a baby in a Lutheran Church, went to Lutheran preschool and grade school, Lutheran high school, Lutheran college, and finally Lutheran seminary.  I have never had what many would call a come to Jesus moment.  I have not prayed the sinners prayer or asked Jesus into my heart.  Rather than the flood Dripping-Faucet
gates of forgiveness overwhelming me, my experience, like Peter’s, might be more appropriately considered a persistent trickle or a slow drip.  I, as many others here today, have heard the Gospel of forgiveness proclaimed to me for my entire life.  Like Peter, who experienced Jesus first hand and was familiar with the story of salvation because he had lived it as a supporting character, many of us have been acquainted with the story of salvation since we were old enough to participate in our church’s Sunday School program since we were kids.  And like Peter, who even though he knew the story yet found himself in need of our Lord’s forgiveness, those of us who have known the story of salvation since childhood still find ourselves in need of our Lord’s mercy – mercy which he gives to us with the same care and loving kindness that Peter was shown all those years ago.  Yes, some of us are Christians in the line of Peter.

But others here are more like Paul.  Paul was an enemy of the Gospel for much of his life.  Not only did Paul personally reject Jesus as Messiah, he actively hunted and persecuted Christians as if his life depended on it.  Until, that is, he was met by Jesus on the road.  He experienced a conversion unlike any other – a true come to Jesus moment.  He saw the error of his ways and became one of the greatest advocates for the Gospel that the world as ever known.

tidal-waveThrough him the Gospel came to many nations beyond Israel, ultimately to the ends of the earth.  He was not a disciple from the beginning.  In fact, there were things he had done in his life that he was probably not proud of, things that probably haunted his dreams and drenched him in shame as they flashed before his mind’s eye.  But Jesus found Paul on the road to Damascus, Jesus forgave him and used him to spread the Gospel, and the world was never the same.

So also for many Christians today.  Many people even in this room did not grow up in a Christian home.  Many were not familiar with the story of Jesus and lived their life in ignorance of the Gospel.  But something happened, something burst forth in blinding light and shattered the walls.  While some people may speak of these conversion experiences as if they are a necessary ingredient to true Christianity, as if those who have been raised in the knowledge of the Scriptures are somehow less Christian that those who have come out of a life of sin and unbelief, the reality is that in both Peter’s experience as well as in Paul’s, Jesus was the key player.  Jesus was the one who brought forgiveness to both of these men, and who brings forgiveness to each one of us here today.  They are, as our confessions state, examples of God’s mercy, examples that show us how all God’s children are washed in his mercy, whether in a flood of a conversion experience like Paul, or in the slow persistent trickle of extended time with Jesus like Peter.  In either case, our Lord is responsible.  The stories of Peter’s extended time with Jesus are not stories about Peter – they are the history of our Lord’s persistent patience and mercy with a man not so different form us.  The history of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus is not merely Paul’s history – it is the history of our Lord breaking through the shackles of sin and giving a man hope where there had been none, the same hope that he offers to us today.

Left to himself, Peter comes across as not much more than an impulsive man who gets himself into and out of scrapes.  That may make a good sitcom, but it’s not the Christian life.  Left to himself, Paul comes across as a man who experienced a tremendous change of heart and set about trying to make amends to appease a guilty conscience.  Again, a decent premise for a movie, but far from reality.  For the reality is that in either case, these stories are about Jesus, about being consistently forgiven by Jesus like Peter so that even if you can’t look back to that one moment where everything changed, you can cling to the gift of forgiveness received time and time again.  They are about being made new by Jesus, so that like Paul we too can put aside the foolishness of our former lives and ambitions, be made new by the work of Christ in us, and set about living the life he has created for us.  The example of these men strengthens our faith as we experience the mercy of our Lord active in our lives and as we attempt to imitate the way that each of them relied on Jesus for their forgiveness, and as each one lived a life of service as God’s new creation.

But our confessions also encourage us to praise God for the way these men used their gifts.  That is truly appropriate, for we have all benefited from what these men did.  In today’s Gospel reading Jesus assures us that the gates of hell shall never overcome the church.  Considering the church is found wherever the Gospel is preached and believed, keep-calm-remember-matthew-16-18and the Gospel went forth into the world through the efforts of the Apostles, especially Peter and Paul, it is safe to say that without their efforts, without their faithfulness to the point of death, without their insistence that the Gospel be proclaimed to the ends of the earth, you and I would not know of our sin or our Savior.  We would not know of all that Jesus had done for us.  We would not know that the gates of hell cannot prevail against us.  And so it is good to thank God for all that these men and all the Apostles did in their calling as Apostles, and it is good use that as inspiration to live faithfully in our own vocations.

For while we may not be Apostles, we are given our own vocations to fulfill.  If you are a parent, do so faithfully, recognizing that training up children in the fear of the Lord is just as important as getting them to the doctor when they’re sick or getting them to school so they can support themselves someday.  If you are a child, live faithfully recognizing that while you did not choose your own parents, God did choose them for you, so you ought to respect them and obey then as if you were obeying God himself.  We are all of us Christians, and are called to live lives of forgiveness and service – bearing with one another in love and forgiving one another just as in Christ, God forgave us.  We may not be Apostles, but because of the work of the Apostles who wrote down and first proclaimed the message of our salvation, we can live in the confidence that the gates of hell will not overcome our Lord’s church, a confidence which frees us to be faithful in our vocations as they were faithful in theirs.  Because of the work of the first Apostles, we can rest in the assurance that even when we fail in our  vocations, we know we remain covered by the blood of Christ, and we have the Holy Spirit alive in us, inspiring us to try again.

And that is why we take time out to commemorate Peter and Paul today.  It is not to worship them, for they are not God, but neither is their humanity a reason to ignore them.  We remember them not only because of their faithful service to our Lord, but because they are shining examples of our Lord’s service to those he loves.  We remember them to thank God for all that he accomplished through them, to praise God for all the souls who have been saved through their work, including our own, and to pray that the same God would make us faithful in our callings as he made them in theirs.  Today is the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul, Apostles.  May the Lord of the Church continue to prepare us for our lives of service as he prepared them for theirs.

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[1]Tappert, T. G. (2000, c1959). The book of concord : The confessions of the evangelical Lutheran church (Apology of the Augsburg Confession: 1, IX, 4-6). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Strive to Enter God’s Rest – Sermon on Hebrews 4:9-13 (Feb 23/24, 2014)

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Strive to Enter God’s Rest

Hebrews 4:9-13

Sexagesima

February 23rd/24th, 2014

St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

A prison warden went to see a man on death row the night before his scheduled execution and asked him what he would like to eat for his last meal.  “Well,” the prisoner replied, “more than anything else, I’d love a big piece of fresh, home-grown watermelon.”  “Watermelon?” the warden asked.  “But there’s a foot of snow on the ground!  The seeds haven’t even been planted yet, and it will take months before they grow ripe enough for you to eat.”  “That’s ok,” said the prisoner, “I don’t mind waiting.”

 Waiting.  Most of us hate waiting for things like stoplights and the next available teller at the DMV.  We consider it a major inconvenience to have to wait while the person in line ahead of us digs through their change purse to count out exactly 73 cents while paying for their groceries.  But, like the man on death row who didn’t mind putting off his execution a few months, there are other things we have no problem waiting for.  Students don’t mind waiting the whole summer for school to begin again.  Adults don’t mind waiting another year to do taxes after finally submitting this year’s forms.  But whether you enjoy waiting or not, you can’t avoid it, especially if you are a child of God.  For as God’s child, not only are you enjoying the fruits of forgiveness each and every minute you spend on this earth, you are also always waiting for the arrival of the New Heavens and the New Earth.  There is something else coming for the children of God, and we wait for it.

As today’s reading from Hebrews put it, there is a Sabbath rest for the people of God, a Promised Land that awaits us just as it awaited the Israelites as they left Egypt.  Our Journey parallels their journey in so many ways.  As they were born into slavery without their permission, so also we are born enslaved to sin and death, unable to free ourselves.  As their deliverance was the result of God’s gracious and miraculous actions, culminating in the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb whose blood covered the Israelites when the Angel of the Lord swept through Egypt killing firstborn sons across the empire, so also our deliverance is the result of gracious and miraculous acts of God, culminating in the sacrifice of Jesus, whose blood covers us and shields us from eternal death.  As they were delivered out of slavery to Egypt when Pharaoh and his army were drowned in the Red Sea, so also we are delivered from the army of sin and Satan when it is drowned in the water of Baptism.  As they were delivered into their Promised Land when they crossed through the water of the Jordan River, so also we are delivered into our Promised Rest through the water of Baptism.  As they were sustained on their journey from deliverance to rest by living off manna, miraculous bread from heaven, so also we are sustained on our journey through this life by feeding on miraculous bread from heaven: Jesus, who is himself the Bread of Life. But the parallel that the writer of Hebrews focuses on today is the goal of the journey: Rest.  Rest is the destination.  A little piece of paradise is what awaited the Israelites at the end of their exodus.  A big piece of Paradise awaits you and me and all God’s people at the end of ours.

There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God. Our Eternal Promised Land will be paradise, a place where we will rest from our Work as God rested from his on the 7th Day of Creation. God rested on the 7th Day because everything was very good, it was complete, it was exactly the way he intended it to be.  Now, instead of being focused on creating, he was focused on blessing, sustaining, and living in communion with his finished creation.  It’s like that moment where you finish renovating a room in your house – maybe the man cave.  You worked to build the entertainment center and shelving unit.  You worked to get cable or satellite TV hooked up.  You hooked up the Blu-Ray and Netflix.  You even moved that old couch in there so you’d have a place to sit.  But when your work is done, you just sit back and enjoy watching the Tigers with a few friends – no longer working, but simply enjoying the completed project.  You have entered a type of rest.  But it is no comparison for the Eternal Rest that awaits you, for in the man cave you still have to get up and go to the kitchen for snacks and drinks.  You still have to leave the man cave and go to work or the doctor or the grocery store.  You can’t stay in the man cave forever, although some have no doubt tried.  But God’s rest is true rest.  For God’s People, for you, when your last day comes you will enter into God’s rest, and will rest from your works as he rested from his.  There will be no more works needed to reconcile the broken relationship between God and man, for Christ has done it all.

What a wonderful time that will be.  But it’s not here yet.  At least for those of us sitting in this room today, that time has not yet come.  We are still waiting for our eternal rest.  What do we do while we wait?  Strive to enter that rest, lest we fall away like the first generation of Israelites, who never made it into the Promised Land. One of the dangers of waiting is that we are easily distracted.  When you wait in line at Meijer you find yourself surrounded by scantily clad women on the covers of magazines.  You find yourself flanked by candy and Pepsi and gum and a whole host of things you don’t really need.  If you’re not careful, you might find a lot of unintended items in your cart by the time you reach the front.  So also, as we wait for God’s rest, we find ourselves surrounded by many distractions – pleasures of the flesh, lustful desires, greed, pride, self-pity.  Any one of these distractions can be the beginning of our undoing.  Any one of these distractions can be eternally fatal, and so we are encouraged to keep moving toward our heavenly rest, to strive, struggle, and fight to get there at all costs.

 And so it is crucial to remember that the way into God’s rest is through his Son, through the promises we have been given in his Word.  The way to strive to enter God’s rest is by clinging to God’s Word.  That’s what the first generation of Israelites failed to do when they reached the borders of the Promised Land.  They sent in spies to survey the land, but the spies came back and declared that the nations and armies in Canaan were too powerful for the Israelites to face in battle.  They doubted God’s promise to give them the land.  They did not hold to his first word, therefore God gave them a new word: he told them that they would not enter.  Instead, they would wander in the wilderness until they all died off and their children would inherit the land.  Of course, the Israelites being who they were, suddenly decided to believe God’s first promise to give them the land.  But it was too late.  Ignoring God’s new word of punishment, they tried to enter the Promised Land without God’s blessing, and they were soundly defeated, sent away like a dog with its tail between its legs.  God’s promise made all the difference in the world.  If they would have trusted his promise the first time, they would have entered a land flowing with milk and honey.  A land filled with cities and roads and fields already cultivated for them – a land where they would find rest.  They would not have to clear forests to farm as the first settlers in Michigan had to.  They would not have to build homes or roads or any infrastructure; the land was ready to support a civilization. It was fully furnished; all they had to do was move in.  But they did not trust God’s promise.  They trusted their fears more.  They trusted their inabilities more than they trusted God’s abilities.  They gave in to the distractions and clung to doubt more than to God’s word of promise.  So instead of entering their rest, they were exiled to the wilderness, destined to die as a people without a home, until their children were old enough to take possession of the land instead of them.

Don’t find yourself doomed to the same fate.  That’s our warning from Hebrews today.  Strive to enter God’s rest, lest you fall by the same sort of disobedience.  The disobedience he is writing about here is not just breaking the 10 Commandments, it is unbelief, as he himself says chapter 3 where he writes, “To whom did God swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient?  So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief” [Hebrews 3:18-19]. And also, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.  But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” [Hebrews 3:12-13].  Since it is still called today, my encouragement to you is that you strive to enter God’s rest by clinging faithfully to the Word of God and promises he has given you therein.  Strive to enter God’s rest by Returning daily to your Baptism.  The Israelites did not trust that God’s Word of promise was more powerful than the armies of Canaan, and so they were denied rest.  So often we are tempted to believe that God’s Word of promise given to us in our baptism is not more powerful than our sin.  We are tempted to try to add our own righteousness to the righteousness given by Christ – but we have no righteousness to offer.  Rather than helping by adding our own righteousness, we simply make matters worse.  Trying to enter God’s rest by using the water of our own righteousness is like throwing water on a grease fire – it only makes matters worse.  The water of our righteousness will not put out the fire of our sin – it will only make it worse.  We need God’s water.  We need the water of baptism.

“Strive to enter the rest of God” means no stop relying on yourself or your own abilities, and rely instead on God’s promise given to you in Baptism.  So often we are tempted to believe that the enticements of the world are worth more than the Word of God, that the indulging the pleasures of the flesh will be more satisfying than a life lived according to God’s design.  So often we are tempted to feel like God is keeping something from us, holding us back, and so our attitude matches that of the Israelites who accused God of delivering them from Egypt only because he wanted to kill them in the desert.  Our attitudes and actions often reflect that we feel that God has given us a design for marriage and relationships just so that he can keep us from enjoying life.  The distractions of this life are always vying for our attention just like the candy bars and magazines in the checkout lane.  But our call is to see past the temptations and to strive to enter God’s rest.

Strive to enter God’s rest by relying on God’s Word, for it is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.  Earthly swords can be sharpened enough to cut through flesh and bone, but God’s Word is sharp enough to cut through spiritual realities.  This is a warning to us if we, like the first Israelites in the exodus, fall into unbelief.  God’s Word cuts through our excuses and self-justifications, leaving us naked and defenseless before him to whom we must give account.  And yet, that is not all God’s Word does.  Yes, it kills, but it also makes alive.  As the rain and snow come down from heaven and do not return to it empty, but water the earth so that it sprouts, so also the Word of God will not return to him without accomplishing the purpose for which God sent it.  And the content of the word is simple: We cannot bring ourselves into God’s rest; we must be brought there by being united to the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ through the waters of baptism.  God’s Word is not a mere vibration in the air like a human voice that eventually fades away, it is living.  God’s Word is not merely ink on a page, it is active.  The Greek word translated as “active” is literally “energy.”  God’s Word is full of living energy to carry out his will – either to bring us into the promised rest, or to send us away into the wilderness.  Strive to enter God’s Rest.  Trust his word of promise – for he alone can bring you into the Promised Land.  And in your baptism, he has promised to do just that.

 

Nobody likes waiting.  But the simple fact remains that the life of a Christian on this earth is entirely waiting, for a promise remains that we will one day enter God’s rest.  Do not become weary or distracted in your wait, but strive to enter God’s rest.  We are not there yet, but we are the people of God.  You are a child of God already today, adopted into his family through the water of baptism.  Just as he safely delivered his children into the earthly Promised Land in the days of Joshua, so also he will deliver you into the Promised Rest of the New Creation.  Strive to enter that rest.  Trust the Lord to bring you there, for he has promised to deliver you safely home.  He has given you that word.  And while the grass withers and the flower fades, the Word of our God stands forever.

Icons, Idols, and the Christian Life

Icon: an image or representation that stands for something else by virtue of a resemblance or analogy to it.

 Idol: an image or material representing a deity, or to which worship is addressed.

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Typically, when a pastor posts about idols and icons he will be writing about the appropriate use of art in church.  However, in a pastors’ gathering recently one of the older and wiser pastors present made a comment in passing.  It resonated in my ears and in my mind.  “Are you using your body as an icon or as an idol?”  Are you using the God-given gift of your body and life as an icon to point people to Christ?  Or is it your idol? Icons and idols.

The sinful flesh does not want to be an icon; it would set itself up as god.  The sinful flesh wants you to use your body as an idol, to make the pleasures of the flesh your highest good.  The sinful flesh wants you to give in to your desire for rebellion, hatred, lust, greed, dishonesty, and envy.  But pleasure is not god, so we should not use our bodies as idols to worship the god of self-gratification.  Instead, we ought to recognize them for what they are intended to be: icons that point others to God.  We are icons, not idols.

Paul encourages use to “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” [Col. 3:10].  Because we are the baptized, the Spirit of God is daily at work in us with the result that God’s Law is seen at work among us.  This shows itself, among other things, in how we use our bodies.  No longer are physical desires the dominating force in our decision making, but we live so that people may see through us to the reality of Christ and his design for this creation.  Our lives become icons that direct people to the truth of God’s Word by virtue of resemblance to that Word.  We show people what creation and relationships were intended to be.  No longer do we succumb to our desire for rebellion, but we humbly respect those in authority over us, and we do not abuse the authority over others that we may have been given.  No longer do we revel in our desire to hate and cling to grudges as if our life depended on it, but we look upon our neighbors in love.  No longer do we splash blithely in the pools of lust, but we let the world see godly sexuality in our relationships.  Greed and envy follow suit so that our entire life is one that reflects who we were created to be.  Icons, not idols.

Above all, we show the world what it is to be humble, to turn in repentance to a God of mercy.  For wherever the Law of God and his design for creation is present among us, even in the best sense, it is still showing us our failures and accusing us in our sin.  But rather than parroting the world incessant rationalizing away sin, we show the world genuine repentance.  For by daily that daily contrition and repentance, the old sinful flesh is drowned and dies, and a new creation is brought forth to live before God in righteousness and purity.  Through us the world sees what it is to live in a right relationship with God and with the people in our lives.  We are the masks of God.  Icons, not idols.