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.

 

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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.

Come Follow Me

Here is the sermon I gave at St. Peter’s Brownstown, IN on 1/22/17.  Thematic content inspiration comes from Concordia Commentary on Matthew by Dr. Jeffrey Gibbs.

Have you ever had a good fortune fall into your lap in the most unexpected of ways? Maybe you have your phone in your pocket and it dials someone in your address book that you didn’t intend to call. Through that call you end up talking to an old friend which leads to an idea about where to spend a future family vacation or a different career direction to take. Sometimes one phone call, one email can change the course of a day, a week, or even our whole life. Sometimes things happen in our life through the most unexpected ways.

God comes to us in the most unexpected ways.  In the first four chapters of the gospel of Matthew, leading up to today’s reading we see these amazing ways in which God comes to us. Right at the start of the Matthew’s gospel the genealogy of the birth of Jesus references five women. In the ancient world it was customary for only men to be listed in the genealogy, Fathers begat sons and so on.

But in the genealogy of Jesus, we hear about Rahab the Canaanite, and Ruth the Moabitess, both gentiles. We also hear about Tamar and Bathsheeba, women whose stories we know as connected with the sins of Judah and king David.  The line of Jesus comes to us in a way completely different than the wisdom of man would expect.

The next unusual circumstance is when the angel appears to Joseph and tells him that the birth of Jesus will come in a way completely different than the expectation of pious believers.  A completely new thing will happen in the virgin birth of Jesus in a manner that will appear to the unfaithful as scandalous.

Next the birth of the Savior is celebrated in most unusual circumstances. Poor and lowly shepherds from a nearby field are the ones who are given the first birth announcement.  Pagan gentiles, the Magi from the East appear to acknowledge the birth of Jesus, while Jews in the royal capitol are unaware of the birth of the true king of the Jews.

As Jesus reaches adult years John the Baptist appears to prepare the way for Jesus, preaching and baptizing in fulfillment of the scriptures.  But when Jesus appears to him, John is amazed, how can this be that Jesus is seeking to be baptized by John, Jesus is submitting to taking the place of a sinner in the river Jordan!  This is nothing like what John expected.

Immediately prior to our reading today, Jesus overcomes the temptations of Satan in the wilderness, emerging victorious.  But instead of going to Jerusalem to be king, after John is arrested he withdraws to lowly Galilee of the gentiles to begin his ministry and fulfill the Old testament prophecy.

“People who have walked in darkness have seen a great light”   The people of Galilee were victimized by circumstances of geography. Galilee was on the very Northern border of Israel and thus was exposed to attack from outsiders, as well as loss of identity through migrations of peoples of different culture and religious beliefs.

As a result they were as the scripture described people who experienced gloom and anguish. They were seen in contempt by the heart of Israel in Judah.  They were down and out, and certainly not highly regarded.  Out of this lowly place Jesus chooses to go, to bring a great light and hope to those who were in darkness.

From this context of offering one amazing surprise after another Jesus begins his public ministry. We heard those first words Jesus spoke, Matthew 4:17 “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  Jesus was announcing that in his very person, the reign of heaven, God’s visitation of the world had begun.

The kingdom of God is near, because in the person of Jesus, everything that has to do with God’s reign in the world is present.  The coming of God’s kingdom is none other than Christ himself.  Through Jesus God is doing his work of restoration, freedom, and redemption in history.  Whatever is disruptive to God’s kingdom coming to us, like our sin and unbelief, Jesus works to remove.

This reign of God’s kingdom is not something we see in expected ways like fire and brimstone and angelic hosts singing around the throne of God. Instead it is seen through the servant love of Jesus.  Through the forgiveness Jesus will win on the cross.

The reign of God’s kingdom is not limited to those who are in the right place and the right time in life, those who are most esteemed in society or those who are most religious. Instead God’s kingdom comes to the most unlikely candidates, sinners and those like ourselves who have nothing to offer in ourselves before God.

This reign of God in history, among us, is also present today through the unlikely means of the Word of God and the sacraments. How unlikely that the specific reading of God’s Word in this place on this day should be the vehicle by which God’s forgiveness and restoration are given to us today.  How unlikely that I should even be here preaching God’s Word, as months earlier I had not even heard of the town of Brownstown, IN.

Next while walking by the sea of Galilee Jesus calls out to Peter and Andrew: “Come follow me”. Peter and Andrew were likely skilled fisherman, but they were improbable candidates to be the first disciples Jesus called. They were not learned men or men with great authority.  God calls unlikely candidates both to hear the good news of the kingdom, and to proclaim it.

These two fisherman were invited to drop everything in life and follow the Son of God.  Come follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.  Follow me and enter into a life that has a completely different purpose.

In the context of Matthew chapter 4 as Jesus first proclaimed the coming of the kingdom and called the first disciples by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus has in his very presence brought the kingdom of God to the world in all of its fullness.  Yet he had not yet died on the cross as the climax of this reign of God.  At that time He had not yet risen from the dead and given the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church.

We experience the reign of Jesus as now and not yet.  Jesus has fully won for us our salvation, yet Jesus has not yet brought this salvation to consummation- he has not yet returned to perfect our bodies and create the new heaven and earth.

Today we eagerly await his return in glory.  But in faith, we already find in Christ that we have everything.  As we live our normal routine everyday lives God’s kingdom In Christ comes to us in power.  When we walk through the dark shadows of life God’s Word gives us light and salvation.  Even at times when we feel down and out, God’s kingdom comes to us in power through the word and promise of our Savior who walks with us every step we take.

In the context of the nearness of God’s reign, Jesus called his first disciples.  We see the same pattern in the calling of both sets of two disciples and can recognize it also as a pattern for us. Nobody becomes Jesus’ disciples by his own initiative.  Unlike any other teacher disciple relationship, Jesus calls humans to completely trust and serve him.  He is sharing the very initiative of the Son of God.

Jesus offered to the disciples at this calling a future plan for them: “I will make you fishers of men.” They will be made fishers of men in time, as Jesus teaches them and eventually gives them the authority to go out in his name.

We are not given the specific authority of the apostles, for we are not given the privilege of being physically present with Jesus and representing him in the way the Apostles were charged with. However we are given the call to follow Jesus in the form of being believers.  Jesus calls all of us to repentance and belief in him as Lord.  “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

Jesus continues to come to us in unexpected ways.  Through the kind word of a friend or family member we are encouraged to seek God’s Word.  Through a book we read or something we hear on the radio our faith is renewed, and we experience Jesus making himself present to us, appearing to us in the form of His Word.  We have in His Word that invitation, “Come follow me”

Part of the urgency of repenting that the kingdom of God is here is the awareness that Jesus will return again.  We do not have unlimited time with which to get on track in our lives toward God’s kingdom.  We don’t know when he will return, but we do know that he Will Return.

It is as if He has already returned when in worship we delight in praising God for the gift of salvation.   As we experience the joy and comfort of having our sin forgiven, it is a foretaste of the feast to come when our Lord returns.   This delight is the essence of our Lord’s invitation: “Come follow after me.”

 

From Heaven Above to Earth I Come: Unity

Here is the sermon I gave for the Midweek Advent worship service at St. Peter’s Brownstown, IN  on 12/7

Is unity just a dream, just an ideal we strive for?  Is unity only for the new heaven and earth when our bodies are perfected, when sin is no more and when we are worshiping before the throne of God?  When God’s Word speaks about Unity, just what exactly does it mean?

Unity is not just something for the far off future, it is for the body of Christ today. Psalm 133 describes how wonderful a thing it is when we have unity within the Church:

Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!  It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron,
running down on the collar of his robes!
3 It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion!
For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.

Unity is likened to images of God’s blessings showered down on us from above. This short and beautiful Psalm provides imagery of God’s blessing and favor to his people as manifested in the service of Aaron as the first ever high priest.  The anointing of oil represented God’s forgiveness and salvation to his people. The oil dripping down his beard and the dew drops accumulating into water and streaming down the mountain are parallel pictures of God’s abundant blessing showered upon His people.

Likewise, our unity is a gift from God, a blessing that comes from above and that also gives a picture of our salvation. For as we hear Jesus teach in John chapter 17 “that they may become perfectly one, so the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”   Our unity in Christ shows the world that Jesus is sent by the Father, and that the Father loves us just as much as He loves his Son.  Just like in Psalm 133 our unity is an illustration of God’s blessing and love come down from above.

As the body of Christ our unity comes simply through our common submission to Jesus as our Savior.  Ephesians chapter 4 makes this clear as it describes the reason for the pastoral office in terms of our unity of faith.

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 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,

God’s Word makes clear that the design of the pastoral office and other teachers in the church is to build up the body of Christ with firm doctrine. Unity is a natural result of all of these teachers proclaiming the same message of Christ crucified.  We can think of the same unity of message from all those pastors we have all known over the years. Maybe different styles of preaching and teaching, maybe different personalities, but the same message.

We have a remarkable degree of unity in our national synod.  It is no small thing that we can take for granted that any church we visit, any members we talk to, are going to agree that the Bible is God’s inspired Word that we want to learn to follow and listen to as much as possible.  This is not the case with many other church bodies.

At our most recent tri annual Convention, the LCMS was unanimous in the resolution to provide protection for the consciences of women objecting to conscription for military service.

These reasons include the biblically-ordered relationship between men and women, women as God’s vessels for bearing life, and the requirement for husbands to love and honor in a way that follows Christ’s own sacrifice for His bride, the Church. Other reasons are found in natural law and several serious reason-based arguments.

Just as important our church body consistently with one voice opposes the greatest evil of our times, the legal rights to abortion.  We can be proud to be moral leaders in our society through our unity on supporting the cause of life from conception to the end of life.

unity ultimately comes from The Holy Spirit. The message of Christ as Savior that God ordained be taught is a message that is given through the Holy Spirit.  We have been united in our baptism to a common gift of faith.

1Corinthians proclaims: For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.

Dieterich Bonhoeffer in his book Life Together relates the inestimable value for Christians to have the opportunity to live among other Christians.  Bonhoeffer identifies the default mode of life as a Christian before the Last Day as one of remaining alone scattered in far countries.  Just as Jesus experienced his disciples deserting him to die alone on the cross, the Christian today finds life in the kingdom lived among enemies.  In the midst of this solitary environment “The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer”

Those are some amazing comments made by Bonhoeffer. We don’t often think of one another as an incomparable source of joy and strength.  But imagine what it would be like if every time you came to worship in the next few weeks you were the only one there other than the pastor and the organist. You would sure miss the other members of the congregation. We can easily overlook or take for granted how important the presence of fellow believers in our congregation is to us.

We may not always like each other, we may have had our feelings hurt or been misunderstood by one or a few people in the church at one time or another, but we actually derive great comfort from the presence of others.

Some people have asked me what it is like to have a 90 minute drive to come here? If I were to come only to sit at a desk and work at a computer it would seem like a long distance to drive. But driving 90 minutes is a very small cost for the opportunity to worship with so many members of the body of Christ.  To be in the presence of many believers is an invaluable privilege, not a sacrifice.

Part of the Western European heritage that so many of us share is reluctance to share feelings and be open about our appreciation and love for others.  In a way the unspoken myth is that we ought to be self sufficient unto ourselves and always be able to answer the question of how are you doing with “I’m fine, or even better, I’m blessed in Christ.” Yet Bonhoeffer makes a case that it is entirely Biblical to desire the fellowship of other believers and be encouraged by this:

“The believer feels no shame, as though he were still living too much in the flesh, when he yearns for the physical presence of other Christians.  Man was created a body, the Son of God appeared on earth in the body, he was raised in the body, in the sacrament the believer receives the Lord Christ in the body, and the resurrection of the dead will bring about the perfected fellowship of God’s spiritual–physical creatures.  The believer therefore lauds the Creator, the Redeemer, God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, for the bodily presence of a brother.”

Unity is not only within our congregation, but also within our family relationships.  The basic unit in our society as God has created and designed is the family and specifically through marriage. Even if you are single, you are defined by the circumstances of family and marriage that led to your birth.

Unity exists in our families in the same way, as a blessing from God above.   Ephesians chapter 5 describes the church’s submission to Christ as the model by which husbands and wives love each other.

Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands…In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.  He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church,”

Unity comes in our families comes from this foundation of husband and wife loving each other as Christ loved the church.  Submission is of course an unpopular word in our culture. But the submission described in God’s Word is not a ‘do as I say or else submission’ , but a practice of willingly accepting God’s blessings from above.  Submission in marriage is simply accepting the blessings from above of the forgiveness we have in Christ.

Unity is something we already have in Christ, and is something we can continue to strive for as we grow into the fullness of our faith. During this time of Advent, as we consider how the world changed at the birth of Jesus, let us pause and appreciate the cause for unity that our Lord’s birth brings to us.