From Sorrow to Joy

Here is the sermon I gave for Easter Sunday, based on the Resurrection account from the gospel of Matthew.

In trying times some people try to offer consolation through the phrase, “things could be worse.”  As in ‘It could be worse, you could have lost your job completely.’ But for the disciples and all those who hoped and believed in the salvation Jesus promised it truly was on Good Friday the worst possible scenario.  In a matter of hours Jesus was betrayed, publicly condemned, humiliated and then crucified.

The disciples were all together with Jesus during the Last Supper and before they knew it, he was asking them to pray with him at Gethsemane, asking them to stay up with him and keep watch.   As they were falling in and out of sleep Judas, one of their own betrayed Jesus.

He was seized by a small army as if he were a criminal.  The trial was a mockery of justice and filled with deceit.  An unlikely alliance of various factions who conspired in the darkness against Jesus.  His own people soon called for his crucifixion out of fear of the authorities and hardness of heart.

And through it all they failed their Lord! Peter denied him three times for fear of the same cup of suffering Jesus was given to drink.  One disciple fled so hastily that he was in only his under garments.  How could things go so wrongly- how could evil prevail so completely?  How could Satan prevail?

The women who were on their way to anoint Jesus shared in this same sorrow. They had brought costly oils and spices to Jesus as the last gesture of love they could do for Jesus.

And then in a moment it all changed.  Christ is risen!  Death did not have the last word after all, evil did not triumph.  An earthquake announces the shattering change.  An angel descends from heaven to roll back the large stone covering the tomb so as to allow the women to get inside.  The angel shone in splendid dazzling white in the same manner of how Jesus shone in His Transfiguration.

The unbelieving guards are overwhelmed with fear, but the two women who came to see Jesus hear the message of assurance from the angel: “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here, for He has risen, as He said. Come, see the place where He lay”

The announcement was made, sorrow turned to boundless joy.  And it was just as God planned all along.  What seemed like Satan’s triumph, what seemed like the most bitter defeat, was all according to God’s plan, Jesus has risen just as he told them.  It was not the worst possible scenario- but actually the best!

Surely they must have began to feel how needless their doubt was- everything went according to what Jesus had told them.  Jesus taught about his death and resurrection to the disciples all along, with parables and illustrations from nature.  Now they could put all the pieces together as they saw for themselves what it meant for Jesus to willingly lay down his life and to rise again.

How wonderful to fully grasp for the first time that what seemed like tragedy, was actually an amazing demonstration of God’s great love for us.

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

If their sorrow and defeat made disciples question everything about the past- every blessing from God they received, every moment of fulfillment and hope, then the news of the resurrection would now give them every assurance about the future.  Just as he promised, he has risen from the dead, just as he promised he will go before them to Galilee.

2 Corinthians puts it well: But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”—

After the angel spoke Jesus himself appeared to the two women, and offered greetings.  It kept getting better.  Jesus told them to go and tell His brothers.  Because of the cross those who abandoned him, those who deserted him were now forgiven and cleansed of their sins so that he called them “brothers”.   Jesus considers us brothers, and sisters because we also have been cleansed of our sin by His death on the cross.

We heard in our short Epistle reading from Colossians how we ourselves through our baptism have died with Christ and have risen with Him.  We have been connected to His death and Resurrection because we have been joined with Him.  Like the disciples we have experienced the sorrow and bitter pain of this fallen world.  But no trials of this world can bring us down- because we already have died with Christ.  And since we have died with Christ we have the joy of Christ always hidden in us.

In this month’s Lutheran Witness magazine President Matthew Harrison wrote an article referencing Luther’s writings about the resurrection entitled: “Only the Christian’s left foot remains in the grave.”

Unbelievers are like those who are running backwards, they fall into the grave and death takes them suddenly and unawares.  But as Christians we have already experienced our death in baptism.

-And because of this death, our resurrection in Christ has already happened.  We enjoy the advantage of already having the right leg out of the grave.-

Luther writes that “when Christ was born from the dead (as in his resurrection) it was like a child’s birth, the hard part is the head, the rest comes shortly afterward easily – just a little travail remains and we too shall see the resurrection.”

1Corinthians chapter 15 declares: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.”

As His brothers and sisters we confess with joy that because Jesus has overcome death we too shall rise with Him.  Our risen Lord has united us with him through the cross.  Together we confess that he has given us a hope that cannot be taken away.  We are now as his brothers and sisters equal heirs with Him.

As His heirs we alone have a correct knowledge of God in which to share with others.  Every year as Holy Week comes around you will see specials on the History channel, an occasional magazine cover article in Time or Newsweek that shares a secular perspective about Jesus.

Often the Biblical accounts about Jesus are described as part myth as compared to a secular viewpoint of who Jesus is.  Other times a view of Jesus is described that gives privileged attention to ancient writings about Jesus as far removed from the actual events as one or two centuries after the New Testament was written.

Tragically these media outlets are blind from seeing that the Bible itself is firmly grounded in the category of a historical writing- filled with countless references to geographical locations and people such as kings and governors that all are verified by Archeology and secular histories of the time.

In contrast, writing of other religions and heretical writing about Jesus that occurred many generations later, such as the gospel of Thomas, contains virtually no references to places and dates and known figures in history.  There is no comparison.

The only logical explanation for the folly of University religious studies departments and secular scholars that question the accuracy of the Bible or whether Jesus really was seen as the Son of God by the earliest Christians-  is the influence of Satan. The evidence itself gives no indication of what so many public university scholars teach.

We can see Satan’s influence in all those voices in our culture that imply that what Jesus really originally taught was different than what the early church recorded in the New testament about who He is as the Son of God.

But as heirs of Christ we testify to the truth of what the scripture teaches of who Jesus is and what his death on the cross and resurrection means to our world. A detail of fact that makes all the difference in the world to those who are on the fence questioning in their faith.

As heirs of Christ and brothers and sisters in Christ we do not proclaim the resurrection as islands unto ourselves, we do not live our faith in isolation.  We feast together in the marriage feast of the lamb.    The prophet Isaiah foretold how Christ would conquer the power of death with language of feasting together. We hear from Isaiah chapter 26

“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And He will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations.”

In just a short while we will feast together as the body of Christ.  We will receive the Lord’s Supper together, as fellow heirs of Christ’s resurrection.  Often we think of taking the Lord’s Supper as that which is important business between me and God.

But we also receive the Lord’s Supper together, a meal that unites us in the forgiveness and love of Jesus.  All the more reason why Christ has desired that we seek Him often in this meal.

Together we encourage one another, together we face the persecution of this world- the darkness of this world that despise the truth that Christ brings.  Together we live in the joy of the resurrection.   Together we press on with one leg already out of the grave, awaiting Christ’s return.

True glory in the cross

Blessed is he who comes in the Lord, Hosanna in the highest!  With great excitement people welcomes Jesus into Jerusalem.  It was already an exciting week no matter what, the week of the Passover, with hundreds of thousands of people flocking into Jerusalem from throughout the countryside for the highest holiday of the year.  The Passover was the remembrance of how God delivered Israel from death through the blood of the Passover lamb.

This year excitement was at a fever pitch as word spread of how Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead just a few miles from Jerusalem.  Jesus had already provided a taste of the deliverance from death He had come to bring to Israel.  People wondered if he would now institute God’s kingdom among them. As Jesus entered Jerusalem on that lowly donkey, it was a glorious time in the sight of the people.

But the true glory of Jesus entering Jerusalem was not what people anticipated. The glory of Jesus was not the acclamation of the people, not the cheers in Jerusalem with palm branches waving and colorful cloaks spread along his path that brought glory to Jesus, but instead the true glory of his entrance into Jerusalem was his fixed determination to continue on the path toward the cross.

The glory of Jesus is that he willingly undertook this journey: We hear in Isaiah chapter 50 “I gave my back to those who strike and gave my cheeks to those who pull out the beard.”  He did not let the suffering along the way deter him, but instead continued on His path out of faith in the Father’s purpose or him. Again we hear from Isaiah chapter 50: “But the Lord God helps me, therefore I have not been disgraced. Therefore I have set my face like a flint and I know I shall not be put to shame.”

Jesus’ sacrificial entrance into Jerusalem changes our perspective of what is glory. So often we become wrapped up in human standards of greatness.  We entertain thoughts about how good we look to others.  It seems to be human nature to either elevate ourselves to a kingly status or to venerate others, world leaders, movie stars, sports stars or our favorite sports teams who we hope for championship victories.

In Fall of 1898 another person made a famous entrance into Jerusalem.  Kaiser Wilhelm, the last emperor of Germany and King of Prussia made a plan to visit the holy city.  He visited the city under the pretense of dedicating a Lutheran Church on the reformation observance of that year.  He hoped the visit would forge ties with the Ottoman Empire against England, France and Russia.

In preparation for the visit the Sultan had buildings demolished near the Jaffa gate and parts of the gate itself taken down just to allow for the one time passage of the expected large entourage of Calvary traveling with the king.  In the days immediately preceding the visit barking dogs in the city and beggars were relocated to nearby villages for the duration of the visit.

As for Wilhelm himself:  A large, luxurious tent encampment was built for him and his large delegation just outside the city walls. It had 75 residential tents, six lavishly furnished hospitality tents provided by the sultan, and six fully equipped kitchen tents.
All tents were comfortably appointed with furniture and carpets borrowed from wealthy Jerusalem families.

At last Kaiser and his wife entered Jerusalem amid countless photographers and journalist from around the world, cheering crowds and a 21 gun salute.  His entrance was so different than that of Jesus, so worldly in its purpose that it is laughable and shameful to our ears.

Instead of seeking glory for ourselves or delighting in the glory of those we elevate in our culture, Jesus calls us to change our mindset toward the mindset of a servant- seeking to serve others with no attention to human accolades.

“Have this mind among yourself which is yours in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing…”

It is a sad irony that he professed reason for such an extravagant visit by Wilhelm was to attend a church opening dedication.  We ourselves need Jesus to enable us to live humbly. By our nature it is hard to humble ourselves, to willingly acknowledge that we are not always right, we do not always have the best approach to a decision in our family, our workplace, or even in the church.  It is hard to accept what we want may not be what others want.

However, when we find ourselves right in the midst of the worship themes of Holy Week, when we meditate on and listen to the events of our Lord’s Passion we can’t help but see ourselves differently.  As we see the selfless sacrifice Jesus made for us, wanting to have things our way in life all the time, no matter what, feels like foolishness.

Humility comes in our awareness that we are forgiven not for what we have done ourselves, but because of Christ’s perfect love for us.

We want to be able to witness our faith from a mindset of humility.  Our pride about ourselves is not going to communicate the love of Christ to people.  What is the most common perception unbelievers have about Christians?

People who ‘think of themselves as better because they dress up and go to church every week.’

If the only message I give to an unbeliever is that my faith and attending church is important to me, then I may come off as boastful about my devotion and discipline to live out my faith.  Instead from the position of true humility we may tell people, I am a Christian only by the grace of God, only because of what Jesus has done for me.

And we may demonstrate the sincerity of our faith, not by describing how often we go to church or how much of our time we spend at church in board meetings- but through serving and helping others.  Through putting God’s love into action.

Before God, the time we spend in church is important and valuable- even if it is not something we want to boast to unbelievers about.   This week we will have the opportunity to glorify God with our voice and hear his love for us in the context of his passion.

In addition to this morning, we have the opportunity to gather in worship on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.  And next Sunday we will join with the church around the world in celebrating our Lord’s resurrection from the dead.   The highest festival of the church year, and nothing that we boast about ourselves.

Have you ever heard the phrase “We must be out of our minds!”  I’ve heard it a lot in advertising, as in, this sale is so great that we are practically giving away our new 2017 model cars.  We must be out of our minds, take advantage while you can!

In a way we as Christians should strive toward this position, to be out of our minds.  I don’t mean that we should be pushing an advertising slogan, or that we should be reckless with our decisions.  Instead we should think with a different mind than what we once had.  We should think with the mind of Christ.

We have begun holy week.  We are going to listen to the account of our Lord’s suffering for our sake.  Let the hearing of God’s Word change your hearts, and prepare your minds for the good news of Christ crucified for us and risen for us. Amen.

Dry Bones Resurrected

Here is the sermon I gave On April 2nd at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church for the 5th Sunday of Lent.  Introduction illustration and general outline from Concordia Pulpit Resources.

Europe has some of the largest and most beautiful cathedrals in the world. Built centuries ago, these structures display how architecture and theology came together to give an ongoing witness to the unsurpassed beauty of Christ and His work to redeem sinful humankind.

Underneath these magnificent cathedrals, you can find large crypts that appear very different from the beautiful structures above. But beauty comes in different forms.  Beyond the formal crypts with the vaults of kings and queens and other nobility, you will find the bone rooms.

In an endless maze of tunnels lie the bones of thousands and thousands of people.  Skulls are stacked from floor to ceiling as far back as the eye can see.  Here the dead rest, waiting for the resurrection from the dead.

We confess every Sunday in the creed that we believe in the resurrection of the body.  But how can dead bones live?  The prophet Ezekiel was given a vision not unlike the crypts of European cathedrals: A pile of dry lifeless bones.  Through this vision, the Lord shows Ezekiel exactly how dead bones are raised to life.

Where did the dry bones come from?  The answer is simple, verse 11 says that the dry bones are the whole house of Israel.  Through transgression of God’s law the people of Israel suffered the fate of death.

Ezekiel was a prophet during the time of the Babylonian captivity.  Israel’s disobedience brought the fall of their nation and exile to the land of Babylon.  Through this ruthless conquest dead bones were an all too common sight to Israel.

What was once a great nation has now become a pile of lifeless bones.  A few verses after our reading ends, we hear how Israel’s bones were dried of God’s Spirit because of their sinfulness.  They were both physically and spiritually lifeless.

As Ezekiel gazed on this overwhelmingly hopeless landscape, an entire valley of dry bones, God asks him a question. “Son of man, can these bones live?”  By human reason the obvious answer is that these bones cannot live.

Ezekiel cautiously affirms the possibility that God can make them live.  Even while Israel was hopelessly lost in their sin and suffering the consequences of exile, God indeed had a plan to restore Israel.

God asks Ezekiel to speak His word to the lifeless bones, to offer this prophecy: “O dry bones hear the Word of the Lord, thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live.  And I will lay sinews upon you and will cause flesh to come upon you and cover you with skin, and put breath in you and you shall live and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

I love how God describes the specific steps by which He makes the lifeless bones take form and flesh and eventually the breath of life.  What seems impossible suddenly becomes a reality, finalized by the gift of the breath and Spirit of God.

Not only does God physically restore Israel in giving them life, but He also restores them spiritually by bringing them back to the land of Israel.  Listen to God’s words in Ezekiel chapter 36: “Thus says the Lord God, on the day that I cleanse you from all your iniquities, I will cause the cities to be inhabited and the waste places shall be rebuilt.”

As dramatic a reversal as this reading describes, even today God breathes life into us.  The Spirit of God breathes life in us through the cleansing of our sins.  Although we haven’t experienced the violent conquest of our nation seen in Ezekiel’s day-  we ourselves have been broken and exiled from God’s presence through our sin.

The dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision are the whole house of Israel, including the New Israel in the Church.  Because of our sinfulness we become dried of our spirit.  Because of our sin, one day our bones will also become dry bones.  Our disobedience of God’s law causes not only physical death, but spiritual separation from God as well.

By God’s grace we are saved from this death.  His Spirit blows into us and brings us back to life.  In Christ we are spiritually restored, which means we also will one day be physically restored. On the last day our bodies will be raised from the dead just as Christ was raised from the dead.

Just as we heard about dry bones coming to life step by step, bone to bone, sinews, flesh and skin- so also God gives us the gift of life, step by step.  The Holy Spirit breathes life into us through first through the means of the waters of Baptism and then through the life giving words of the Holy Spirit found in the scripture.

His breath of life comes to us as we receive the words of forgiveness, in worship and in our own personal prayers of repentance.  Through the Lord’s Supper our faith is strengthened as His very body and blood is given to us to renew us with His Spirit.

It doesn’t seem possible that something as simple as an application of water on our heads at one time and a hearing of God’s Word another time with our ears, a tasting of the gifts of the Lord’s Supper with our mouths should be the means by which the breath of God’s Spirit enters us and continues to give us life day by day. – And yet this is what Christ has instituted in His church.

Jesus has come not just for our deliverance on the last day, but so that though the gospel that we would live in hope today.  Maybe you feel like parts of your life are hopeless, unfixable, kind of like dry bones.

Have you been emotionally hurt in a close relationship before in your life where you don’t think you will ever be able to fully trust another person again, or even the person who has hurt you if that relationship has still continued in a less than ideal manner?

Through the power of the forgiveness we have in Christ what feels like a lost cause, whether a family relationship, a friendship or a marriage, can live and thrive again. For when the divine gift of forgiveness is imparted into our relationship, barriers that divide us fall away.

Do you struggle or know someone in your life who struggles with an addiction that feels unbreakable?  Does it seem like the conscience that should say no to what is clearly not right is now dead in a particular area of life? Through the power of the Holy Spirit, what seems like a dead conscience can come to life.

Maybe you feel your ability to pray and focus on God’s Word is not what it used to be.  You feel less than optimistic about your ability to grow spiritually or feel distracted by some particular reoccurring concerns in life.  By the power of the Holy Spirit your prayer and devotion life can be renewed.

Instead of feeling that you are failing God for not being able to focus, The Spirit can breathe life into you so that you start to experience time with God’s Word or time reflecting on God’s promises to you in prayer as time of celebrating and recognizing how Jesus upholds you in your life with his forgiveness and love.

In our gospel reading we see how even as Lazarus had died and rested in the tomb for four days, Jesus was able to give him new life.  How much more is God’s Word able to bring new life to us through the promise that Jesus is the resurrection and the life.

During the time of the Babylonian exile Israel had lost so much, but the prophecy of Ezekiel brought hope to a troubled people.  Their journey was long. Their lives, like dry bones were with little faith in what God would do for them.

Yet God brought hope through the prophet’s words as the bones came together and were resurrected from their dry state.  Then God put His breath into these dry bones, giving them life just as he did with man’s original creation.

The church is finishing her journey this Lenten season as we wait for the passion, cross, and resurrection of our Lord.  It is only in Christ that the Church finds her hope, in Christ who dies on the cross and after three days rises from the dead.

Like the bones of those who have gone before us, our bodies will come together in the end.  God’s Spirit gives life now and will give life at the Last Day. On the last day  our graves will be opened and our bodies will be raised, where we will join with all the saints in the presence of our eternal God.

 

Drink deeply from God’s Word

Here is the sermon I gave at St. Peter’s on Sunday March 19th.

You learn how much you appreciate something when it is in short supply or no longer available.  Case in point lately, warmer weather and daylight first thing in the morning.  By the end of the winter you really appreciate how valuable it is to be able to spend time outside comfortably, to spend an afternoon gardening, barbecuing, or to go for a walk.

Unlike the seasons, the living water Jesus gives to us, the relationship we have with God through our Savior does not come and go- but stays with us. As a result we can easily take for granted this gift that is so basic to our lives and our well being.

The opening psalms and verses and hymns we sing or speak at the start of worship would not be things we could say if we did not have this living water Jesus provides without limit- this new life in Christ.

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, come into His presence with Thanksgiving?  If we were still estranged from God and enemies of God how could we make glad sounds of joy before the Lord, how could we even come into his presence?  Instead of longing for the courts of the Lord, we would fear God and want to hide from God.  We would not be able to invoke his triune name to begin our worship, we would not receive his name upon us, because we would not know God as our dear Father.

The fact is we do have the living water that Jesus gives. There is no shortage.  In our Epistle reading we see that we have this priceless gift because,  “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”  The church has living water from the well of salvation because Jesus allowed himself to be broken on the cross.

While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us!  The people sinned against Moses in the wilderness, demanding of Moses water, even threatening revolt and his death.  Yet despite this great sin God still provided water from the rock Moses struck.  While Israel was yet in sin and rebellion against God, they were given a living spring to drink from.

Elsewhere in scripture St. Paul describes Christ as the rock that Moses struck, making a literary connection between Moses striking the rock to receive life giving water from God, and how Jesus was stricken on the cross for our sins, giving us life giving salvation.  The common link between these two events is that while we were yet sinners, God provided His gift to us.

In our gospel lesson we meet a woman who is clearly not without sin.  Her choices in life and scorning of God’s design in marriage were so shameful to her that she seems to have developed a habit to draw water at noon, during the heat of the day- to avoid contact with everyone else who would come earlier in the morning or toward evening.

She does not know about how to worship God or how to relate to Jesus, and yet Jesus meets with her and talks to her.  While yet deep in her sin, Jesus offers her living water.

She who has failed at marriage and continues to struggle with the same sin is given the chance to meet with Jesus at a well, the very same well where Jacob met his wife.  You can see a theme in the scripture where wells are places that are associated with marriage, Isaac meets Rebecca at a well and Moses also meets his wife at a well.

The Holy Spirit is showing how this woman is receiving the gift of the one true and perfect marriage between Christ the bridegroom and she as the church the bride of Christ- receiving living water from Jesus, the gift of salvation while we were yet sinners.

Once the Samaritan woman received this faith in Jesus, she could not help but tell the town that she believed she had met the Savior.

While the unbelieving world is yet in sin, we are called to love them and offer them the living water of Christ! In chapter 7 of the gospel of John Jesus describes the work of the Holy Spirit in the church: “Whoever believes in me as the scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.”  We have the same gift of living water to give to the world as Jesus gave to the woman at the well.

We give this gift with great joy.  Isaiah chapter 12 proclaims: “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation, and you will say in that day: “Give thanks to the LORD, call upon his name, make known his deeds among the peoples, proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing praises to the Lord for he has done gloriously; let this be made known in all the earth. Shout for joy O inhabitant of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy one of Israel.”

When we drink deeply from the well of salvation we can’t help but point others to the great deeds the Lord has done for us.  We can’t help but acknowledge how great is his name in our lives.

As we make know God’s name among the nations, we share this living water to a world that is yet in the darkness of sin.  Sure it’s often hard to love those who hold many social and political values that seem to make a mockery out of God’s Word and God’s law.

It’s hard to love those who may hold human pride as their god and give no recognition to the one true God, who call evil good, and call good evil.  Who may call us bigoted or prejudiced or even fascist, simply for holding to a position that salvation is found in Christ alone and none other, or through our affirming that we hold that all of God’s Word is inspired even those parts that may condemn the sins of particular neighbors in our community. While yet sinners, Christ died for the world.

Jeremiah chapter 2 records the sin of Israel over looking living water provided to them.  “For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.”

How sad to think that so many people today chose to make their own broken cisterns, slowly perishing of thirst as these flawed vessels consistently fail to hold any water. This imagery of the poorly crafted cistern full of cracks accurately describes what is happening when people try to find fulfillment and meaning in life apart from God.

When you have the opportunity to talk with someone who does not place their hope in Christ- try asking them questions about what brings them fulfillment and meaning in life.  Find out what if anything they look to for hope.  Likely they will either identify little that gives hope, or hope will be defined in terms of what they can create and shape with their own efforts.

Jesus told the Samaritan woman that everyone who drinks of the water of Jacob’s well will be thirsty again.  Whatever fulfillment people find, whatever thirst quenching they can dig up on their own, will be only temporary.

When we see people quenching their thirst for fulfillment in such a temporary and futile manor, we should not keep it a secret that in Jesus we have fulfillment and life in an unquenchable abundance, a spring flowing into eternal life.

Even within our own families and with our brothers and sisters in Christ here at St. Peter’s, we should encourage one another to drink deeply from the well of God’s Word.

If you have children who are enrolled in Lutheran Central, certainly make a point to talk to and invite new parents in the congregation to consider and look forward to enrolling their children in Lutheran central, a school that allows children to be filled with God’s Word in their daily schooling!

If you enjoy a topic from Sunday morning Bible Study, tell others in the congregation what they are missing out on and invite them to also drink from God’s Word with you in this capacity.

If you would like to have a fellowship that meets in your home about two times a month, where you learn and discuss God’s Word and encourage one another in your faith, pursue making this opportunity to drink from the well of salvation in your home with others a reality. Any pastor would be more than happy to walk you through how to make this happen. Drink deeply from the well of salvation here at St. Peter’s.

If you would like to be a part of a group that meets at church one evening a week to read through the Bible one book at a time, a simple Today’s Light study, this can be arranged, there is plenty of room in the church- don’t let the phrase “We’ve never done this here before.” Stop you from drinking deeply from the well of God’s Word.

While we were yet sinners Christ died for us.  God loves us for who we are, not for what we have done or promise to do from God.  Receive the gift of living water from our Savior, not out of guilt or obligation, but in simple thanksgiving. Share this gift with others and rejoice in how great our God’s name is on the earth. Amen.

Be perfect?

Here is the sermon I gave at St. Peter’s last Sunday:

Have you ever noticed most children’s board books about the Bible seem to use the same few Bible scenes: Creation, Noah and the ark, Jonah and the whale, Daniel and Lion’s den, the birth of Jesus, and the resurrection of Jesus.  You might see some other variation, but one picture book page you probably will never see, is Jesus teaching the disciples and the crowds to love your enemies and pray for those who hate you and persecute you.

We don’t teach this to children at the youngest of ages.  Perhaps it’s too strange a concept to teach to children, to think about loving enemies and praying for those who are unkind to us or even hate us.  Come to think of it, it might be a confusing message for adults.  Wait aren’t those the bad guys, why are we loving the bad guys, when there are plenty of good folks all around to love?

The going school of thought for the people of Israel, and just as well for us, is to like those who are good to you and dislike those who are threatening to you.  Jesus reflects this assumption as he begins his teaching with “You have heard it said.”

43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  With authority Jesus reshapes our view of how we should see the world.

Jesus is not contradicting the Old Testament when he references it and provides clarification, but He is addressing the true meaning that has been obscured by how teachers of that time interpreted the Torah.

In last week’s reading from Matthew we heard Jesus talk about the true intent of permitting divorce as not being about approving separations, but about protection for those who are put away by their spouse.

In the same way the commandment about eye for an eye tooth for a tooth was intended to provide a fair guideline for punishments for wrong doers, preventing escalation of violence and revenge.  The commandment was not giving permission to hate those who wrong us, but instead calling for loving consideration in administration of punishments.

It is part of our sinful human nature that we take something like a command to provide for fair punishments and see it as justification for making people pay for their transgressions against us.  It is human nature for violence to escalate in a cycle that keeps getting greater.

In other words, if people are in the wrong, we want to let them know it and we don’t want it to be forgotten.  In recent years with the growth of social media and online chat forums our society has experienced communication of the right and the wrong on a large scale.  I generally make the choice to stay away from social media, but I have heard many people tell me how emotionally taxing it is to read comments of people writing back and forth with great anger over opposite political viewpoints.

Through the anonymous nature of the internet people often display less inhibition and restrain, letting their anger pour out at people they do not even know or see face to face. We can easily lose sight of how destructive anger is to our well being.   The teaching of Jesus to love your enemies is essentially scorned by us in the midst of a self conviction of being right.  A conviction of being right no matter what, and viewing those who disagree as enemies is a state of being that has lost touch with the humility that we ourselves are not the all knowing God.

For Jesus’ disciples there is no such thing as keeping tabs on the transgressions of others as contrasted to their own rightness.  As disciples of Jesus, even the enemy is to be treated like a neighbor.  This does not mean that we allow others to harm us or take advantage of us, but simply that we approach everyone from the starting point of God’s love and compassion.

We here at St. Peter’s are called to see the world with a humble awareness that we do not see as God sees. Think of how different the world can look when you have sunglasses on.  Depending on the lenses the colors can look darker or brighter, the glare from the sun is neutralized.  Things can look different through sunglasses.  What if we could wear a type of glasses that would allow us to see as Jesus sees! What would we see in other people if we could look without our sin, if we could look from the perspective of the perfect love of Jesus.

I’m not about to take out a patent for the idea of such a type of glasses, but God’s Word does provide essentially this same service.  The scripture tells us that God provides to both the good and evil, “He makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”  God gives his gifts to all.  This is true not only of the gifts of creation, but also of Jesus, who came to give his life as a ransom payment not for a few, but for many!

On the cross Jesus prayed for those who crucified him, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.”  Out of this perfect love Jesus showed, the church also learns what it means to love the lost and even those hostile to the gospel.

We show ourselves to be sons of the Father in heaven when we love our enemies.  The purpose of loving enemies is to show the truth and reality of our relationship with the father.  That because God is holy and loves all, we also shall love all.   We show the world how great a love Jesus has, that his disciples love even their enemies.

At the close of our gospel reading Jesus illustrates the selfishness of exclusively greeting our friends.  “What more are you doing than others, do not even the gentiles do the same?

In the society of status and patronage that existed back then and exists just as much now, you want to give to those who give to you in order to build up a series of claims over others.  Because accumulating wealth possessions, status and honor are important to many in our society today, who we are friends with and who we choose to greet can have implications for how much success we have in life.

In the next chapter of Matthew Jesus will announce “For where your treasure is, there will be your heart also.”  If wealth and status is our treasure, how much greater will be our temptation to greet only those who we call brothers.

Jesus intended that the disciples find their treasure in Him.  As a result he follows up the statement about greeting only your brothers, with this statement of summary of what it means to love your enemies: “You therefore must be perfect, as Your heavenly Father is perfect.”

We know the drill when it comes to God’s expectations of us to be perfect.  On our own we fail every time, we discover that we cannot earn our own salvation, we fall short of perfection, we need a Savior.  But this is not what Jesus means about being perfect.

Jesus does not mean that we are to be perfect in the manner of earning our salvation apart from Him, or perfectly fulfill the law.  What he means is that we live our lives abiding in him, instead of living our lives by our own terms.  God is holy and we as heirs of the promise are also called to be holy.

It is as if Jesus is saying, ‘don’t think you can just take a short cut and skip this one because it is hard’, we are to be perfect towards others in the sense of following the clear command to love because God first loved us, to forgive because God first forgave us.

To be perfect is to strive toward meeting our vocation and purpose as disciples of Jesus.  We see this is Ephesians 4:13 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,

In other words, even though it seems near impossible for us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, these actions are exactly the type of things that life in Him should lead to as we continue to mature in our faith.

The call to be perfect is a call for maturity, completeness, and perfection.  Trusting in Christ we press on toward this completion.  This call to maturity suggests that as a congregation we should not become overly complacent and comfortable with our progress of growing in the faith.

Instead we should look past the minimum standards of attending worship and teaching our children the basics of our faith.  We should strive to grow together as a congregation to attain a unity of how to live as disciples in the challenging surroundings that we find ourselves in today.  Seeking every opportunity to be built up with God’s Word against the temptations of life in our culture today.

This was exactly the message pastor Barlow taught last Sunday from 1Corinthians chapter 3, the need to continue to change from immaturity in our faith to maturity.  The need to avoid spiritual malnutrition, and find true sustenance through letting the Word of the gospel dwell in us richly.

We have been given the blessing to be the body of Christ, with the result that no challenge is too great, even the calling to love our enemies.  May God grant this to us through the power of our perfectly patient Savior, Amen.

 

Salt of the Earth

Here is the sermon I gave at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church Brownstown, IN for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany series A.

Have you ever had a baking mishap? Picture making chocolate chip cookies and using one cup of flour instead of two, the cookies are just not the same.  Or picture a pan that is too small so that as it bakes the dough rises out of the pan and spills out onto the oven rack.  The appearance is less than desired.  My personal favorite type of baking mishap story would be anytime salt in a cup on the kitchen counter is accidentally used instead of flour or sugar.

Myself I try to stay away from baking mishaps and baking altogether.  Baking is often compared to Chemistry- you need the right proportions and actions and you get the right result. I never liked chemistry,  I would rather saute, simmer, and slice and dice, and best of all to cook outdoors over an open wood flame or charcoal. No confining recipes or predictable cooking times.

But sometimes nothing warms up a home like baking.   Fresh baked bread, homemade apple pie, cookies and  spice cakes, all these things bring about an aroma that makes a home feel warm and hospitable.

In our gospel lesson Jesus gives a specific recipe for the world’s well being.  The key to this recipe is the insight that a little salt goes a long way.  So it is with Christians in the world. God leaves it up to us to show the light of Christ to the world.  Jesus leaves it to us to reflect and shine the light of Christ into the darkness of our world.  We are called to shine the light of Christ to the world for the purpose of making the world palatable to live in.

God does not appoint and deploy angels in specific geographical locations in the world to ensure that the light of Christ lightens the darkness of the world.  Instead God appears to leave this vital task of proclaiming the good news of the kingdom to chance. As in, God leaves it to us.  But this is not altogether chance, as Jesus has given us his Word and has carefully prepared the church to play this role of shining his light in the world.  Jesus knows just the right recipe of how much salt is needed to flavor the earth.

We are called to be salt and light to the world.  This is a favorite passage of scripture in the church. The imagery of salt flavoring the earth, and light lighting the darkness of the world is a grand broad sweeping imagery of how God works in the world through us.

As light set on a hill, we give hope to the world.  So often the world reflects hopelessness.  There is no awareness or acknowledgement of God being present.  Our task is simply to let those without hope know that God is there for them, in fact in Christ, God is always there for them.

As the body of Christ we, the church, shine the light of Christ through our love and care for others.   We have a freedom nobody else in the world has to do good works out of love for God and neighbor.  We don’t need to do these things to impress others or prove to others that we truly are spiritual and good people.

Our Old Testament reading gave an example of how people would do empty fasts and other sacrificial acts not out of love and thanksgiving for God, but out of self interest.

Sometimes we may become discouraged that the way we live our lives is nothing that unbelievers are going to notice or care about.  But the fact is people really do see the love of God in the world.  The role the church plays in being salt in the earth is so widespread and thorough, that people can only not see it if they choose not to see.

Often we think of the church’s calling to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth through community outreach activities. We might think of an activity like having a kid’s against hunger food packing day at church or any number of other activities designed to help people in their situations of need.  Such efforts are certainly worthy expressions of the gospel and valuable opportunities to be the light of the world.

Yet the most frequent opportunities we have to be salt and light to the world are within our own families and within our own daily life contexts of career and activities.

We have begun considering and exploring our Christian vocations in the world this Epiphany season.

Consider the ministry of Lutheran Central.  Through the long heritage of Lutheran education St. Peter’s has been blessed to offer schooling that provides to students values of forgiveness, service to others, and unconditional love in the name of Jesus.

When youth are shaped by these values they are put in position to be as the salt of the earth both during childhood and also during adulthood here in this this County and many other places.  The world is made a better place through the calling of youth to be salt and light to the world.

At first glance the task of a Lutheran school and raising children in the faith may seem like an ordinary predictable activity, nothing too earth shattering to our society.

But as Christians we do not approach these ordinary actions and roles with an ordinary is plenty good enough mindset.  Instead to be salt and light to the world involves living out our vocations with the extra ordinary excellence of God’s perfect love to us in Christ!

Through Christ we live out our vocations through the excellence of forgiveness, steadfast devotion, and unwavering hopefulness for God’s work of redemption in our lives and in the world.

Through this excellence in which we live out our vocations in love, we are able to be salt to the earth in a way that nonbelievers do not offer.

Parents as you teach your children about confessing sins and receiving forgiveness both in church and in daily life, you are providing your children with a life long example that will carry over into their adult lives.

Parents you have in your children the opportunity to bless the world with the salt and light of the gospel in places you never will go yourselves, in situations you can never foresee.  The investment we put into the faith development of our children is an investment that can pay off a hundred fold.

It’s not just in our family life where we see the church as salt and light to the world, it is also in the very currents of history. During the days of the early church the love and care of Christians changed the world as people knew it. – Where it was once common practice for children to be seen as expendable and to have no rights, the first Christians set a precedent of caring for the most defenseless of children.

The practice in the Roman empire was to leave unwanted babies outside to die of exposure.  Christians rescued these babies and taught them about Jesus as they grew up.  Even today it is the church that is at the foundation of efforts to care for the rights of those who are most vulnerable.

A few weeks ago the March for life in Washington D.C. had its highest ever attendance and with Vice President Pence speaking at the march, it marked the first time that a President or Vice President has appeared at the event. The church continues to be salt to the world, continues to preserve the world from getting lost in darkness.

This congregation continues to be called to be salt and light to the world.  We are called to do this not out of compulsion or self interest, not as an empty fast, as is described in our Old testament reading,  but out of what comes naturally to us from our living faith.

Jesus said you are the salt of the earth and you are the light of the world.  He did not say, you should be, or you will be if you do the right things in life. Because of our identity as disciples of Jesus we are the salt and light of the world.

We can understand this to be a challenge, we can understand this to be an expectation of our Lord, but above all we can understand this to be a blessed calling that was exactly what his recipe for spreading the light of Christ to the world called for. Amen.

Wisdom of the Cross

Here is the sermon I delivered for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany:

There is a saying that sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction.  A novelist may write a story about a whole series of unexpected events occurring in the life of the main character.  The story may contain exotic travel and danger and certainly a healthy sprinkling of romance.  But a story always has limitations in how realistic and real of a character a writer can create.

A biography of a real person creates a much more vivid picture of someone.  From the information presented in the biography the reader can ponder whether the times make the person or the person makes the times.  Think of well known and influential figures in history, inventors, and pioneers. George Washington, Thomas Edison, Abraham Lincoln – the true stories of their lives are more amazing than anything someone could make up.

The same can be said about the history of our salvation.  God’s very intervention in history is more amazing, more unlikely than any human imagination could make up.  The role of the cross is entirely more amazing and unexpected than any fiction the mind of man has ever written.

“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God.”  The Word of the cross is unlike anything else the world teaches.  To the world the cross is folly because it is a message that is based on weakness and suffering, vulnerability and helplessness.  Unbelievers scoff at how a person could trust in something with no power, wealth or prestige attached to it.

Islam views the word of the cross foolish to the point where they believe it is offensive to say that Jesus, a prophet of God would suffer and die on the cross. They instead teach a contrived alternate reality where someone else took the place of Jesus on the cross.

The word of the cross has the greatest power in the world, the power of life victorious over death.  It is not always glamorous and pretty talking about the cross. It does not provide the type of teaching and encouragement that best selling inspirational books thrive off of.

Embracing the word of the cross requires that we are honest with the reality that life lived under the cross is not always perfect and problem free.  We are honest with ourselves to know that the most well practiced positive mindset and trust in God cannot take away all difficulties in life.   To embrace the wisdom of the cross is to acknowledge that life is accompanied by suffering and eventually death.  This wisdom of the cross is not about escaping death, but instead a story of our mortality and finitude and God’s eternal deliverance to us.

“For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified.”  The wisdom of the cross is not about signs that prove when God will deliver us as the Jews sought, or illusions that there is a wisdom that will lead to perfection of life as the Greeks thought.  Instead St. Paul teaches the truth of God’s suffering for our sake.  God suffering so that we will one day be risen to eternal life.  What the world sees as folly  shows to believers the very glory of God.

Along with the preaching of Christ crucified is the truth that the world does not center around us, but centers around Jesus and his love for us. It comes very natural for us to think of ourselves as the center, after all we do see and experience the world from our own perspective. But the wisdom of the cross helps us realize that God did not create the world for our selfish enjoyment and consumption, but for our worship, and service to God and service to others.

The wisdom of God is that it pleased God to save us through a way that generally turns off those who put their faith in the wisdom and power of man.  “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.”

The wisdom of the world means that life is about earning our place in life, even if it needs to come at the expense of others.  Works righteousness is the wisdom of the world.  The harder you work, the better life will be for you- especially in regards to your eternal destiny.  In this way it is scandalous to the world that our salvation is an unearned gift, that Jesus died on the cross while we were yet sinners.

In many ways in our culture it is seen as scandalous to believe that God provides for us in life to the extent that we can make decisions in how to live our lives different from what is seen as the thing to do in our culture.

A few weeks ago movie star Ryan Gosling thanked his wife upon reception of a golden globe award. He acknowledged that he could not have won the award for his film role without his wife supporting him by taking time away from her career to care of their daughter, their unborn expected child, and her brother with cancer.  This once common public recognition, was met on various public forums with anger and accusations that Gosling is a sexist for having his wife stay at home with kids.

Those following the extreme positions of the modern day feminist movement considered it a threatening example to other women for an actress like Eva Menendez to willingly put her career on the backburner.

This is exactly what 1Corinthians is describing about how the cross is a great folly to the world- to put the interests of others above yourself as Eva Menendez did is threatening to the values of our world.   To live under the cross means making sacrifices for others, a spouse, children, a brother- even as they are not perfect and may not be perfectly appreciative.

The scripture describes how Christ died for us while we were yet sinners.  This is undeserved love. All service in Christ to our neighbor is done to people who may be imperfectly deserving of our love.

In Matthew chapter 16 we hear from Jesus the amazing command: “If anyone would come after me, he must take up his cross and follow me.”   Jesus described following him as relating a choice of self denial.  This taking up our cross is a choice we willingly make for the good of others in love.  To take up our cross means sacrificing our own desires and wishes for the good of others.

To follow Jesus is to de-emphasize carrying for ourselves because we know and believe by faith that God will take care of us both now and in eternity far better than we can take care of ourselves.

Veith and Moerbe in their book Family vocation observe: “When some Christians find themselves arguing with their spouses they become disillusioned and want to leave and start over- seeking another chance for the dreamed of perfect Christian marriage.”

Staying married, even though your marriage is not the perfect Christian ideal you thought it would be, is to take up the cross in love for your spouse and other family members. To take up the cross in family life is to make compromises and concessions to the needs of others.  It is to put the interests of others above yourself.  As we make sacrifices we put ourselves in position to be as Christ to our spouse.  This is the beauty of the wisdom of the cross, it leads to a more loving way of life than we could ever design on our own.

In our gospel lesson we also hear about the beauty of life lived in the kingdom of God.  The teachings that we call the beatitudes are standards of living that apart from Christ we could not meet.

Instead of being poor in spirit, our sinful nature leads us to pride. Instead of mourning for our sin and the sins of the world, our human nature is to celebrate our accomplishments and convince ourselves that we will never need to mourn- that bad things only happen to other people out there.

Instead of being meek our human nature desires for us to have as much power and control as we can get a hold of.  Instead of hungering and thirsting for righteousness, living by the wisdom of this world we will seek to have our way at the expense of others.

But in Christ we live according to an entirely different way, the wisdom of the cross, the wisdom of God’s reign and rule in our lives. In Christ we are able to live as those pure in heart.  Through our faith we have pure hearts that look past all of the manifold temptations of this world, from wealth to power to greed to hate.  With pure hearts we instead see God at work in the world through Christ crucified.

With pure hearts we can approach the task of being a church here at St. Peter’s, making decisions for our future from the starting point of seeing how God is at work in our relationships with one another and our relationships in the world.  We approach the task of developing an identity and ministry plan for the future through the wisdom of the cross.  We do not boast in ourselves and our own wisdom, but instead we boast in our great God.

Through Christ we live our faith to the point where those who do not believe may desire to persecute us.  And through Christ even this persecution will not shake us, as the very suffering we experience for our faith ties us ever more closely to God’s kingdom.

The world may see our faith as folly. The world may scoff at a belief that the power of God comes through the weakness of the cross.  But rejoice and be glad, for yours is the kingdom of God.  Yours is the power of God, leading unto salvation forevermore. Amen.