Sunday, November 3, 2013

Declaration of Dependence

All Saints’ Day [Observed]
Twenty-Third Sunday after Trinity
November 3, 2013
On this All Saints’ Day, I hereby make known this proclamation, which shall be called The Declaration of Dependence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all saints are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable blessings, or beatitudes, that among these are being poor in spirit, meek, and hungering and thirsting for righteousness. To this end, and with all due diligence, we renounce as saints our independence and joyfully declare our dependence on our Lord and Savior.”

On All Saints’ Day we recognize that the saints who have gone before us model the pattern for who we are as saints today. In the same way they were utterly dependent upon their Lord, so we are in utter dependence on the same Lord.

The Beatitudes don’t tell us who we should be or what we should be like, they tell us who we are and what that means for us. They tell us who we are as saints, namely, sinners who are completely dependent on Christ and His salvation. What that means for us is that we are blessed. We are in exactly the state we ought to be in. Far from being blessed because things go so well for us, we are blessed because they don’t.

As sinners we declare our independence. As saints we rejoice in our dependence. As sinners we seek glory, as saints recognize our completely humble situation.

Perhaps the first thing to recognize about being saints is that we are indeed saints. Too often we think of the saints only as the ones who have gone before us and are now enjoying the fullness of being in the presence of the Lord, as described in the first reading today from Revelation. They are the ones who have come out of the great tribulation and have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb. They are indeed saints. They are the holy ones, the ones God has called Home to the eternal Promised Land.

But they were once like us, weren’t they? They once were in the situation we are in: living in a fallen world, with evil and sin and sorrow all around. They too were bound up in sinful flesh as we are. However, they weren’t first declared saints when they passed from this life to the next. They were declared saints the moment they were declared justified; holy, forgiven. This happened by the Gospel, just as it does with us. This is the way the Bible talks about the saints of God. For example, when Paul and the other apostles write to their brother and sister Christians, they write to the saints in Corinth or the saints in Colossae. Saints are living, breathing human beings, whether standing before the Throne of God or struggling down here in this vale of tears.

That’s the first thing. You and I are saints. When you are Baptized, you are washed clean and declared holy. Saints are holy ones. Saints are those whose sins are forgiven. That’s who were are. We need look no further than Baptism to know this.

The second thing, then, is to realize that what it means to be a saint is to be dependent. In our sinful nature we want to be independent. We want to go our own way. We want freedom in our desires. In the Epistle reading John says that we are the children of God. Children are dependent on their parents. And thank God for that! They need their parents. Their parents are given the vocation by God to raise them, care for them, and love them. It’s good that children are dependent. This is who we saints are, we are the children of God.

That you and I are dependent on God is a very good thing. From the world’s perspective, it doesn’t look like much. The Beatitudes express this. It is a glory, but it is hidden glory. It is found in the humility and dependence of the saints of God. It is a glory that is bestowed on you. Nothing is achieved by the saints of God as Jesus describes His blessings in the Beatitudes. Everything is bestowed, given outright. Even here the world might want to have nothing to do with this, as humility and weakness coupled with nothing to achieve seems a pathetic existence.

It is, though, a very fulfilling existence and one with great purpose. When you seek to remain according to your sinful nature and your independence, you are left to yourself. In being utterly dependent on God, you are blessed with all the eternal blessings of God. That’s why Jesus doesn’t give you a list of things you need to do or to be in order to be blessed. Rather, in giving the Beatitudes, He gives a description of who the people of God are, who the saints are, and what their lives look like. And then He simply pronounces the blessings, what they receive.

What does a blessed life look like? What does it consist of? You have the things you want? Your life goes well as you would like it to? The circumstances of your life are favorable, as opposed to trying or even brutal? If these things were the evidence of being the recipient of the blessings of God, Jesus’ Beatitudes would look very different. Blessed are the strong in sprit, blessed are the powerful, blessed are those who don’t face death and trying circumstances, etc.

His Beatitudes are sobering. The poor in sprit, the ones who mourn, the ones who are meek, those who are hungering and thirsting for righteousness. It is the painting of a description of the saints of God, of His very own children, that is very unappealing to the world. Then again, how God Himself chose to reveal Himself to the world itself is not all that appealing to the world. God, who is all-powerful, was stuck inside the womb of Mary for nine months. And talk about dependence, once He was born, He was crying like every other baby, being in need of nourishment and diaper changes and cuddling from mom and dad. And while there is certainly power and spectacle attached to His miracles—think of casting out demons, healing scores of people at a time, feeding thousands at a time, even raising people from the dead—ultimately, there is one thing we must point to to see who it is that God is.

There is one thing He shows us about Himself that reveals who He is as God and what He thinks of us and does for us. If there is any scandal or offense taken for who God is, it is in this one thing, that the God of the universe not only humbled Himself to become a man but to be utterly humbled in suffering. Not only to suffer Himself to be at the mercy of those who mocked and beat Him, but to suffer at the hands of the holy God in His righteous wrath upon sinners. If people won’t want to have anything to do with the humility and the weakness of the life of being a child of God, it is because of the humility and weakness of God Himself in suffering in the place of sinners.

In the final analysis this means that you and I and every person is not a saint but a sinner. A person created by God but steeped and born in sin. Under His wrath and utterly dependent on something outside of ourselves for deliverance from our sin. In the final analysis, there is only one thing we can look to for this help, and that is the bruised and blood-stained Lord hanging on the cross. The Beatitudes can never be rightly understood or lived out apart from Jesus hanging there on that cross delivering the purest blessing of all: reconciliation with the holy God.

Because of it the holy wrathful God is the gracious God toward us who calls us His very own children. Because of the righteous wrath poured out on His Son, the God who is forever set apart from us is the God who declares us holy, His very own saints. Washed white in the blood of the Lamb.

This is how you see that the life of being a saint is very good in being a life of dependence. This is how you see that your life has purpose. Where you do not look to strength. Or power. Not in being in command of your own destiny. Rather, dependent, completely under the grace of your God who has given you His Son.

But what about all those circumstances we endure? What about the being poor in sprit, the mourning, the being meek, and the hungering and thirsting? Why is life difficult as a saint? The answer is in the Beatitudes themselves. The blessings of God are not in given through favorable circumstances, but rather the humble, the weak, even the brutal circumstances. Once you see that your independence is your downfall, because it’s really dependence on your sinful flesh and therefore your destruction, then you will see that it is good to be humbled. That in persecution you can rejoice and be glad. The same thing happened to the saints who have gone before you. The same glory they now realize is the very glory that will be given to you.

There is one more thing, lest you think that it’s something you don’t have now and must wait. It is given to you even now, though you do not realize it in the fullness of its glory. We say it in the Communion liturgy. As we gather for this Feast of our Lord at this altar, we gather with the angels and the archangels, and all the company of heaven, and therefore we laud and magnify our Lord’s glorious name, evermore praising Him. That’s why the Communion rail is designed the way it is. Instead of completing the circuit, it is stopped by the wall, as a visual way of showing you that while you gather around this half, beyond that are the saints in glory, communing with you. Blessed are you in your dependence on your Lord that you have everything you need, even all the blessings of God. Amen.

SDG

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Heart of Reformation: Christ

Reformation Day [Observed]
Twenty-Second Sunday after Trinity
October 27, 2013
What is the need for reformation? We confess in the Creed the holy Christian and apostolic Church. Is there something deficient about the Church that it needs to be reformed? Believers in Christ make up this holy Christian Church; is there something about them that is lacking, that they need to be reformed? What do we say? “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Christian Church, the communion of saints.” Saints are ones who are holy. The Holy Christian Church is the Communion of the holy ones. God’s Church is holy, pure. What is the need for reformation?

The need most certainly is not with God. His Church He created is indeed pure, holy. His saints He has gathered into His Christian and apostolic Church are indeed saints. They stand in His presence without their sins counted against them, with the righteousness of Christ accounted to them. This is you. You are a saint. You are one who is holy, one who is among the Communion of Saints.

God created the universe in perfection. He has created His Church in perfection. No evil and ungodly people will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. So, no, the problem is not with God. His Church does not need reformation, because, man, He just didn’t quite it right the first time; so we’ll try it again; we’ll reform it.

The problem, and therefore the need for reformation, is with you and me. You and I are saints. But you and I do not live as we ought, do we? You and I sin, don’t we? We fall short of the glory of God. You and I reject the notion that we are in bondage, don’t we? If you don’t think this is so, consider this: the fact that you sin shows that you reject the notion you are in bondage; just like those people Jesus was speaking to in the Gospel reading.

You don’t fully realize the bondage you’re in. That’s why you do things you know are wrong and against God’s will. You act on your emotions or you plan ahead of time how you are going to get back at someone. But you don’t even need to act on these things to willfully sins against God. Your thoughts alone condemn. The disgraceful thoughts you think toward others. The egotistical things you think about yourself. The way you go through the motions regarding God’s Word and being a steward of the time, and the abilities, and the money and possessions God has given to you. The way you hoard your things for yourself instead of being freely giving of them to serve others.

You are in bondage and you don’t even realize it. You minimize your sin. Well, that’s just the way we are, right? We can’t help sinning, so it’s not like I can do anything about it. I may be in bondage, but I can’t help it, so there’s nothing I can do about it, right?

Wrong. Stop sinning. Stop doing those things you have rationalized away. Stop thinking ill toward others and start praying for them. Better yet, reach out to them and befriend them and love them and find ways you can serve them and help them. Instead of going through the motions, be deliberate in your devotional reading of God’s Word, and your study of God’s Word in Bible Class, and your hearing of God’s Word in the worship service. Put yourself in the background and hear what God has to say to you, not what you would like to hear.

Only the truth will make you free. Your sinful nature would like for you to think that you are free already. The world and Satan would like for you to go their way because then you will not be bound by the rigidness of God’s holy will. You will be able to fudge a little or lie a little or spread a little gossip or not take to heart God’s Word or ignore the person who needs your help. Only the truth will make you free. The truth is, you are a sinner. The truth is, you are not free. The truth is, you are condemned already, you are in eternal bondage. Jesus said, “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.”

The Jews Jesus was talking to wouldn’t hear anything about being slaves. They were offspring of Abraham. They were the recipients of the promise of God to Abraham and his descendents that they would be the ones who would inherit the earth. They weren’t slaves. But that’s the problem with our sinful nature. It wants its freedom according to the ways of the world. It doesn’t want to hear of the Law of God, which strikes through the sinful heart. You are in bondage. You are a sinner, and unless you realize this and confess it and repent of it, you will remain in your bondage; you will remain in your condemnation; and it will be forever.

Only the truth will set you free. Jesus comes with the truth. The freedom He brings is not freedom to do what you wish but freedom from your sin and freedom from the condemnation for your sin. The freedom He brings is freedom He brings about. It is not a plan for your escape from this bondage or even a guiding you out of it. It is freedom that He actually brings about. He says in the Gospel reading, “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” He doesn’t say that you must become free but that He sets you free.

There are billions of people who have walked the earth, all of them sinners. All of them in bondage. You and I are numbered among them. You and I share the same condemnation. The Epistle reading says, “there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” There is one among all, though, who likewise has walked this earth, but with this distinction: He alone is without sin. Pure, holy, unstained. Jesus walked this earth for one purpose, to set you free from sin. There is only one who accomplished the entire Law God requires of us. It is this one. There is only one who has suffered the condemnation for sinners in the place of sinners. It is this one. There is only one who was confirmed in His accomplishing of salvation by rising from the dead. It is this one.

The Son sets you free. You don’t. You don’t even try. You keep sinning. You “have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” And yet, even as all are in sin and don’t measure up to the glory of God, the Epistle reading says further: all “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”

At the heart of your life is yourself. Your sinful nature makes certain of that. You are in bondage to your sin and your sinful flesh. That is why you need to be set free. That is why you need reformation. The heart of reformation is not you, or doing what pleases God, or trying to overcome your sin. The heart of reformation is Christ. The Son sets you free. Jesus, the Son of God, your Lord and Savior, frees you from the bondage of your sin.

The Son sets you free. You want to remain in your sin. Remain in His Word. Rest in it, abide in it. Here is reformation. Here is Christ, for you, for eternity. Amen.

SDG

Sunday, October 20, 2013

What Does It Mean to Believe in Jesus?

Twenty-First Sunday after Trinity
October 20, 2013
What does it mean to believe in Jesus? As Christians, we believe in Jesus. It would seem self-evident that we know what that means. Since today’s Gospel reading Jesus teaches us exactly that, let’s go with the assumption that we need to understand what it means to believe in Him. To understand what it means to believe in Jesus is to know that understanding Him is only part of the equation. There is an aspect of intellectually grasping that Jesus is true God even as He is true man. Not that we can understand this. But we can intellectually know that Jesus is no mere man, that He is truly God, and conversely, that God actually came in the flesh in the person of Jesus.

But actual faith, belief in Jesus, is not simply intellectual understanding. If it were, the man in the Gospel reading would not have started going back home to his son. He asked Jesus to come to his home in order to heal his son. When Jesus said to him, “Go; your son will live,” the man went. He believed Jesus. It’s simply not possible that he understood intellectually how Jesus would bring his son from imminent death to full restoration. Especially since the man requested Jesus to come to his son. Jesus simply spoke to the man. Your son is going to live. You can go to him.

That the man did shows us what faith is. This is what it means to believe in Jesus. Believing in Jesus is not intellectual understanding. Nor is it a general notion that God is all-powerful or that He is loving. It is specific. It is concentrated into one thing, and that is Christ. To be even more specific, it is God in the flesh. Jesus is true God and is known to us as the Person who walked this earth and did things like restore a child to life without even seeing him or going to him.

The man’s initial request actually was met with a rebuke from Jesus. Too many people refused to believe in Him unless they witnessed the miraculous. You won’t believe in Me simply because I say I am who I say I am. You must see Me do something to prove it, and then you will believe. But Jesus’ rebuke is not met with resistance or rationalization. It’s met with a simple plea. Lord, my son is going to die, please come.

At this, all rebuke is washed away. He does for the father what the father has requested. His son will live. Jesus will restore his little boy to a life in which he will play and go to school and eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

But Jesus did this in a way the man didn’t request. Jesus didn’t go with the man. He didn’t lay His hands on the boy. He simply told the man his son would live. And what did this man do? He believed. He went as Jesus told him. Far from requiring miraculous signs, the man took Jesus at His word. When he found out exactly when his son began to recover he was pleased to know that his faith was not in vain. Everyone in his family believed this simple thing. What was it? It was the word of Jesus.

This is what it means to believe in Jesus. It is something very specific. It is not something He does which conforms to our conditions. It is rather the gift given which He gives by speaking it. What it actually is is the Word of God that is given. The Word of God is the Person of Jesus Himself. He is the Word made flesh. The eternal God became a human being.

The man had heard about Jesus. Jesus had indeed performed some miraculous signs. I will go to Him and ask Him to come do the same for my son. Nothing else can prevent him from dying. What the man got was the Word of God. Jesus stood before Him and spoke to him, “Your son will live. You can go back to him now.”

The true miracle Jesus performed was speaking faith into that man. He believed, yes. But his request of Jesus was according to his own conditions. Jesus dispels him of any such notions. If you are going to believe, simply believe. Your request is that your son be spared death. That is all you need. I bring it about simply by bringing it about, not by corresponding to your conditions.

And because Jesus spoke faith into that man, he believed. He spoke no further. There were no protestations. No, “Are You sure you won’t come down to my house, you know, just to make sure he’ll be all right, just to make sure that there’s nothing more needed like You placing Your hands on him?” No, the man believed and went home. He found exactly what Jesus had said.

And of course, Jesus had said it. That’s what it means to believe in Jesus. It is to take Him at His word. It is not to think that you somehow have a part in it. Or that there must be certain conditions placed on it.

This teaches us four things about faith:

First, faith goes to the source. It goes directly to Jesus. It holds fast to Him. It doesn’t look within. If you are looking within yourself for some sort of feeling or confirmation, that is not faith. That is you sinful nature. Your sinful nature looks within. Faith looks to Christ.

Second, faith receives. Faith is utterly humble, recognizing that of yourself you are nothing in the presence of Christ. You will never believe unless you see signs and wonders. Faith does not count on itself to muster itself up. It simply, and humbly, receives. It hears the word of Christ and rejoices in it. It doesn’t rejoice in itself. Look at how wonderful my faith is! It sure is such a good thing I have strong faith! No, it simply, and humbly, hears Christ. This is nothing other than flowing out of number one—faith always, always goes back to the source. It also goes back to Christ and receives Him.

Third, faith is bold. Since faith receives from Christ what Christ Himself delivers, faith is bold. It has to be! If it’s timid, it’s not faith. Or at least it’s weak faith. Faith that looks to Christ, that clings to Christ, that humbly receives what Christ offers, that faith is bold. Because it simply responds back to Christ what Christ Himself has delivered in the speaking of His Word and has imparted to you.

Fourth, faith is never alone. It is not static. It is dynamic. It is alive. It brings along with it acts of love and service and compassion. It lives itself out in serving others and loving them in Christ-like love.

That faith is centered in Christ and is authored and perfected by Christ, as it says in Hebrews, means that it never rests in itself. No, it is produced by Christ and then sustained by Him. When He gives you faith, He gives you His Holy Spirit. His Holy Spirit strengthens you in faith in the Gospel and the Sacraments. How can you be sustained in faith if you remove yourself from those ways He comes to you to sustain you in your faith? How can you serve Him if you are not being equipped by Him in the very means through which He equips you?

In these means the Holy Spirit delivers to you what Christ accomplished in His suffering and dying on the cross. Faith latches on to that. This is what it means to believe in Jesus. Amen.

SDG

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Everything Is Ready

Twentieth Sunday after Trinity
October 13, 2013
One thing about Jesus, He can tell a story. Some of His parables are beautiful pictures of the grace and love of God. They come to mind when we want a picture of what kind of love God has for us and how He loves us. The prodigal son, the shepherd seeking out the one lost sheep, and so on. Today’s Gospel reading presents to us a rich, beautiful picture with a king and the lavish feast he prepares for his guests. It’s a marvelous image of all that God prepares and His gracious invitation.

But there’s something about this parable that is jarring. If you’ve ever been to a family gathering and relatives began arguing, it certainly mars the occasion. The Church is a family, and it’s sad to say, but things such as voters’ meetings sometimes have brother and sister Christians treating each other in very un-Christian ways.

This beautiful picture of the wedding feast of the king for his son is marred by the callous rejection of the invitees. It’s not just that they said, “No thanks, we have other things going on,” it’s that some of them made sport of their refusal. And what is sport to some is heinous by most peoples’ standards. Some of those invited to the feast “seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them.” What is going on here? Why such a horrific reaction to a gracious invitation?

And if this beautiful picture of the wedding feast and gracious invitation doesn’t come to a jarring halt with the actions of those who were invited, we are further jolted by the response of the king. “The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.” What should have been a joyous event turned into a murderous spree and the king responding in kind, putting the murderers to death and burning their city.

The thing about parables is that they’re stories. Stories come in two kinds. There are ‘true stories,’ as they’re often called, stories about actual events. And then there are fictional stories, or as some like to refer to them, ‘not real.’ Even so, fictional stories, that is, stories that don’t recount actual events, often are told for the purpose of delivering truth. The events recounted may not be actual, but the truth conveyed by the telling of the events is most definitely real.

This ultimately is why Jesus is such a good story-teller. It’s not just that He’s good at telling stories, and He is. It’s that what He is bringing across in the telling of the stories, is the truth. And it’s not just stuff that’s true. It’s the Truth, as in capital T truth. He is telling His parables in order to proclaim to us the ultimate truth of the Gospel.

That’s the reason why some of His parables end up being so jarring. Why we have regular people responding to an invitation with murder. Why we have the king dealing with that response with putting them to death. Why when the wedding feast is finally filled with guests, there’s a man who has no wedding garment and the king throws him out into utter darkness, where there is eternal torment.

This kind of stuff doesn’t sound like Gospel to us. Somewhere deep down we wish these kinds of things didn’t roll off the tongue of our Lord Jesus Christ. We’d much rather hear the good stuff, the beautiful portrayals of God’s rich grace and mercy and love. We’d rather not have to come to terms with the murdering stuff, and the casting out into eternal darkness stuff. Where’s the Gospel in that? Where’s the love? Where’s the grace?

It’s in this. It’s in Jesus’ brilliance as a story-teller. You can be a great story-teller and still not tell the ultimate truth. When Jesus tells His story it’s always about the ultimate truth. It is the Gospel. The Gospel is pure grace. The Gospel is the pure love of God. It is the pure giving of all blessings on the part of God with no conditions attached to it.

The sad fact is, and this why Jesus speaks the way He does, is that some people reject this pure Gospel. Some people want nothing to do with the grace of God. Some disdain the pure love of God and His gifts and blessings. Jesus knows this. He knows that we sinful people are inclined to disregard the love of God. He knows this and so He speaks to it. His beautiful picture of the grace of God is marred, so to speak, by the brutal details of rejection and murder and casting into utter darkness, because we sinners mar His gracious invitation of eternal glory.

Jesus is not afraid to speak the truth. He does it because it’s His love for us that drives Him to be utterly honest with us. He has prepared a lavish feast and we so often disdain it. That’s why He speaks as He does about the brutal details. This is His warning to us. It is His making us aware that we shouldn’t take lightly the gracious invitation God extends to us. It is to our eternal peril if we do.

The only way the Gospel can be given is with another message first given. It is the Law. The Law is the opposite of grace. The Law is not a message of a gift given, but of demands that must be met. It is the message that you do not meet that demand. It is the message that you are therefore under condemnation. That’s jarring, there’s no doubt. It’s not what we want to hear. We want to go straight to the part that sounds good. But Gospel apart from Law is no Gospel.

On the cross Jesus dealt with the demands of the Law. In other words, Jesus didn’t just die because that was part of the plan. Jesus suffered on the cross for the very purpose of meeting the demands of the Law. What God demanded of you He exacted of His Son. What God rightfully ought to have demanded of you, He laid on His Son. And when the righteous holy wrath of God was assuaged in forsaking His only-begotten Son, His only-begotten Son declared, “It is finished.” The sin of the world was paid for. The atonement of God with the world was accomplished. The peace of God toward the crown of His creation shone brightly. God and man were now at peace. Jesus Christ accomplished it all. The proof of this was the resurrection of Christ. In rising from the grave, God was saying, “What My Son accomplished in suffering and dying is good for every person for all eternity.”

It is finished. It is accomplished. It has all been done. Everything is ready. There’s nothing left to do but prepare a Feast. A rich feast. An eternal feast. A feast so lavish that it defies description. Perhaps the best that can be done is what Christ Himself did in saying, simply, “Everything is ready.” Everything, as in, there is nothing else that is needed, or can be done, or might need to be worked out somewhere down the line, or that you might have to worry about at some point. If you want to know what you need to know for your sin and how God has dealt with it, look at the cross and Jesus’ words, “It is finished.” These words flow right into the King’s words, “Everything is ready.”

All you need to do is, well, nothing. I suppose you could say that you need to enjoy it, and rejoice in it, and give thanks for it, and believe that it’s true. You might point out that it would be a good thing to marvel at the amazing invitation of God to participate in such a feast. But none of that wouldn’t really be doing anything, would it? No, it couldn’t be, because, as Jesus said, “Everything is ready.” Everything has been done. All has been accomplished, and you simply get to enjoy it.

It is the Eternal Feast. It is eternal glory in the presence of God. You don’t experience it in the fullness of this glory yet, because your Lord has not returned in glory yet. That will come in His own good time. In the meantime, every time at this His Table He prepares His Feast for you it is this Feast of everlasting glory. When you partake of this Feast, partaking of His body and blood, you are participating in this Feast with angels, archangels, and countless Christians who have gone before you, the whole company of heaven. You are participating in it in the fullness of its blessings even as it is not in the fullness of its glory. And yet it is nevertheless a foretaste of the Feast to Come.

Every time He prepares His Meal here for you, His invitation is the same: everything is ready. There’s nothing you need to do. You don’t have to bring something with you or think of something nice you can do for Him. In repentance and humility you see that your sins make you very undeserving of this rich and lavish gift. But your Lord tells you that it is for these sins He gives you this rich and lavish gift, forgiving your sins in it.

Jesus tells it straight. Our sins require that. If you want to hear Him speak of His grace and love, consider the prayer we prayed in the Collect of the Day: “O Lord, grant to Your faithful people pardon and peace that they may be cleansed from all their sins and serve You with a quiet mind.” It is through pardon and peace. It is through being cleansed from our sins. Only then may we serve our Lord with a quiet mind. And when we wonder, how exactly does this happen? How do I know it’s real, because I don’t necessarily feel it, and I sometimes have doubts about it. There is a way we end every Collect, and it’s almost always the same: “through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.” How? It is through Jesus Christ, God’s Son, our Lord. He lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

This is the God who extends His invitation to you, here at this altar often, and for eternity in heaven, “Come, for everything is ready.” Amen.

SDG

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Hidden God

Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity
October 6, 2013
There are some who don’t believe in God. Then there are those of us who do. Some say, “I can’t see, God, why would I believe He exists?” Those of us who believe in Him are well aware that He can’t be seen. Why, then, do we believe in Him? Why would we take that leap of faith and believe in something so spectacular, when we can’t simply point to Him and say, “There He is. There’s the God I believe in.”? For many, that He can’t be seen is a liability. To them, it shows how ridiculous it is to believe in an unseen, all-powerful being. And even for us, it’s not the easiest thing to believe, is it? Sometimes it’s hard to trust in God when He seems far away, especially when we’re going through rough times.

God is hidden. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Would you rather be able to see Him, or are you content in believing in Him, not by sight but by faith? Some will say, “If only we could see God, we would know that He exists, and therefore we would believe in Him.” The sad fact is, this is not the case. When Jesus rose from the dead, His enemies knew and believed He rose from the dead—but they still didn’t believe in Him as God and Lord. They refused to believe in God even though they saw God with their own eyes.

Today’s Gospel reading shows us that God being hidden is a good thing. I was driving down a major street the other day and drove past a church. How many hundreds of people pass by that church every day? How many people know about that church who otherwise wouldn’t have if they hadn’t been driving on that major road? How many more people visit that church simply due to it being prominently positioned?

All of these thoughts went through my mind as I then thought about our own little church, tucked away here on a cul-de-sac. Out of the way from the central part of the community. Way back in here in this residential area. Thousands of people who derive down Waring Rd. are oblivious to this church building being only hundreds of feet from them. Prince of Peace Lutheran Church is what you would call a hidden church.

The thing about things that are hidden is that they are real. They exist. They are actual things. They just can’t be seen. They can’t be seen because they are hidden. It doesn’t mean they don’t exist, they simply aren’t prominently displayed. If something is hidden you could be right next to it and never know it’s there. If you know it’s there, on the other hand, then you have full confidence it’s there even though you can’t see it. You know that it’s hidden but is every bit as present and real as those things you can see.

God is real, but He is hidden. He exists, but you can’t see Him. It seems that it would be better if He were right out in the open. But consider what happened when it actually was that way. In the Garden of Eden, Adam walked with God. He spoke to Him face to face. It didn’t take long for Adam and Eve to look elsewhere. God was present among them, but they sought Him in a way He in which He had not made Himself known. They promptly fell into sin and removed themselves from the grace of God, which  was nothing else than the presence of God.

In the Gospel reading Jesus responds to a need brought before Him by forgiving the man’s sins. His friends brought Him to Jesus because he was paralyzed and they sought healing from Jesus for him. What did He do? He forgave the man his sins. What did the religious leaders see? They saw a man forgiving the sins of another man. The problem with this is that it is in God’s place to do this, not man’s. He is the one who has the prerogative and authority to forgive people carte blanche. Since Jesus, a man standing before them, was, well, a man standing before them, He was blaspheming. He was putting Himself in the place of God and therefore committing the worst sort of sin.

What did the religious leaders see? They saw a man. What did they believe? They believed He was a man. God couldn’t be seen, but here was a man claiming to be God. What they didn’t believe was that the unseen God is the God who is hidden. Even though He’s hidden, He makes Himself known. He does this in hidden ways. First and foremost He does this in His Son, Jesus Christ. An ordinary man, a man who is no more and no less a human being than you and I are. It’s no wonder many people don’t believe in God. Why would God reveal Himself in an ordinary man? Why would the All-powerful, Almighty, Omni-present God make Himself known in a man who, as the Bible says, wasn’t much to look at, and who never mustered up more than twelve disciples to be His right-hand men, and one of whom, at that, ended up betraying Him?

This is what some people just can’t get beyond. God needs to make Himself known in a way where it will be clear to me. What exactly, though, will it take? There is nothing God can do to get people to believe in Him if they have their own conditions for what God needs to do to make Himself known. Again, just look at the resurrection. If that didn’t convince some people, what will?

We’re different. We believe in God. We believe He has made Himself known in the person of Jesus and that He died on the cross for all of our sins and rose from the grave. But the hard part is continuing to trust in this hidden God. To live by faith every day. To know that just because He’s hidden, doesn’t mean He’s not present and doesn’t care. If Adam and Eve were face to face with God and they sought Him elsewhere, how much more difficult will it be for us?

What did those four men in the Gospel reading do? They went to Jesus. Jesus explains why this is. Their faith. Faith is only as good as its object. And if that object is Jesus, then you know the faith is good. The trust these men had in Jesus was reliable trust because the one whom the trust was in was reliable. What they didn’t expect, what no one there expected, was that this one, this man who was like all of them there, was going to do for this man what He had come in the flesh to do. Forgive this man his sins. No one there expected that because the man brought their friend for release from paralysis.

The religious leaders said that no one can forgive sins but God alone. They did not see and believe that God was hidden in the man who stood before them, this man Jesus. How many people today refuse to believe that in ordinary water God is present? How many scorn that God comes with forgiveness in simple bread and wine? How often do we long for some sign that God is with us when He has made known that He present, albeit hidden, in the pure proclamation of the Gospel? How many times do we doubt that God is with us when we have been Baptized into His death and raised in that Baptism to His resurrection? How long will we continue to seek God through feelings and things going well in our life and countless other ways when He comes to us in the bread and wine of His Meal He gives us? The bread of which we eat, is it not a full participation, a communion, with the very body of Christ? His body is hidden, no doubt, in and with that bread—but very much there! The cup of which we drink, is it not a full sharing in the very blood of Christ? Yes, His blood cannot be seen; it’s hidden. But very much given you in that wine of which you drink.

That God is hidden in these things is good. How else would you know where to find God? You wouldn’t. The hidden God very purposefully comes to you in these means so that you may know He is for you, comes to you, forgives you, and is with you.

This has tremendous implications for our lives as Christians in this world. We await the day our Lord takes us to heaven. We know it exists, but it’s hidden from us. We can’t see it. It’s only by faith that we know He will take us there for eternal glory and grace in His presence. For now, we live in this world among the world. The people of this world do not believe in heaven as God has made it known. They do not believe in Him as He has made Himself known. But we live as His people. We are Christ to the world. Christ is present in this world, but hidden in our actions, our words, our serving others.

To the world, we look weak. To the world, it looks like there’s nothing special about us. It’s somewhat like this church. It’s largely hidden from view, tucked way back in here. But look at what happens here! Our Lord comes to us with all His grace and blessings and forgiveness. In water and words are hidden God Himself. In bread and wine are hidden the Lord of the universe, all His power concentrated in that bread and wine to forgive you and strengthen you. Ultimately, it comes down to that, forgiveness. That’s what Jesus said to the man. It’s what He says to you. Hidden though it is, it’s as real as can be.

And your life. Real as can be as well. Others will not see Christ in you, He is hidden after all. But we pray they will come to know Him through your love for them as you forgive them, are merciful to them, and simply, are Christ to them. Your sins are forgiven. That was His word to the man who was brought to Him, it is His word to you. It is why He hides Himself in these Means here, water, word, bread, wine. In these ways you know that your hidden Lord is truly your Lord, who comes to you in mercy and forgiveness. It is why you serve in the world. The world doesn’t simply not see God, it doesn’t believe. Show them the hidden God. Love as He loves. Forgive as He forgives. Be merciful as He is merciful.

It is, after all, not you who are truly loving them but your Lord Himself. For though He is hidden He is very much present and always ready to forgive. Amen.
SDG

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Gospel of ‘Success’

St. Michael and All Angels
Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity
September 29, 2013
Do you know what an outlier is? An outlier is someone who is at the edge. In the middle you have the masses. At the extremes are the outliers. Today we’re talking about the ones who are at the high end of the scale. The ones who have achieved success. The cream of the crop.

In many ways our country is built on the idea of success. Making your way to the top is viewed as laudable. Those who excel in their field are extolled. Someone who has achieved what no one else has is revered. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with any of this. Striving to be the best you can be is a good thing. Looking up to those who are at the pinnacle of success can be a great motivation for achieving success yourself.

The thing about success, though, is that we tend to look at the outliers for how we view success. When a person is a true outlier, not in the middle like most of us; truly great at what they do, not just good like most of us; at the top, not somewhere down here like most of us, we tend to look at who the outlier is and what he has done to achieve his success. We tend not to factor in all that is completely out of the control of the outlier. We tend to think that the person who is successful is successful because of what she has done, not because there were a whole series of events or factors that fell into place for them.

If you take two people of equal intelligence or ability and put one in a situation where there is ample opportunity for the person to hone his skills and put the other one in a situation where there is not opportunity for that at all, which one is likely to succeed? Even though those who are successful generally have achieved a lot through their hard work, dedication, and accomplishments, it is equally true that there have been a lot of people and other factors that have played a role in that person’s success.

Our culture prizes individual success. Perhaps we need to recognize more the role we all play in others’ lives. Think of all the factors involved in the star athlete’s success. The head coach, the assistant coaches, the teammates, the parents, the athletic facilities the athlete makes use of, the money spent in providing for all the resources at his disposal, and on and on. If he achieves success, it is by no means because he has done it on his own.

Even more so in our culture, this is what we ought to learn in the Church. Who we are, what we have, what we look to, is anything but what we alone can achieve. In the Church, success is even more important than it is in society, although this success is very different from what we normally think of as success. Too often we think of success in the Church in the same way we do in society. And this is not a new thing either. And it’s not even something that is exclusive to our American society.

This is the question the disciples ask Jesus in today’s Gospel reading: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Top CEOs would love this kind of initiative. If I can find out who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven, then I can set out to overtake him. I can learn how to be like him and be succcessful myself. Who is the greatest in God’s Kingdom? When you find out, you can look to that person, who she is, what kind of person she is, what she has done, and then you know what it takes to be the greatest. Guess where all the focus in this is? On the individual.

This question by the disciples is a devastating commentary on us as Christians. We are to be humble. We are to serve. We are not to see ourselves as better than others. We are to be lowly. But the disciples show their true colors. Will you and I be able to see our true colors? Will we be able to see ourselves for what we are, that we want to achieve our success and we want it to be due to us? That, far from being content with how God places us in His Kingdom, we want to achieve a higher status, be ranked as greater in the Kingdom of God than others?

To the question the disciples asked, there was an answer. To put Jesus’ answer in terms of our opening illustration, in the way the world views things, we are to be outliers. Not so much in the sense that we as Christians are to be the cream of the crop, reaching the pinnacle of success, but rather in the sense of being at the edge. Whereas the world is a mass of humanity in the middle, we Christians are to be out of the norm. We are to be outliers.

As an exhibit Jesus puts before the disciples a child. Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven? The one who is as a child. The one who is not a self-made person, but rather is entrusted solely to the care of his parents. The one who doesn’t seek success of her own power or desire, but rather rejoices in the success she has been given through many factors that are out of her control.

This gives us perspective to understand the meaning of this day, the festival of St. Michael and All Angels. We don’t talk about angels much. We don’t think about them much. This is not really a bad thing. Angels are far more important than we probably realize. But there are many things we don’t think about or talk about much that are really important. Often these things are what keep us going so that we can simply live and carry out the work God has called us to do. Your heart is essential to your life and yet you don’t think about it all the time. The engine of your car is vital to getting you where you need to go, but you don’t spend all your time thinking about it. The life you have and living it out is what you ought to be focusing on, not your heart pumping out blood to your veins. Using your car to get you where you need to be is more important than pondering the importance of your car’s engine.

Angels fit into this category. They are spiritual beings, so you can’t see them. They operate outside of time and space, so you’re not aware of their workings. Perhaps most important, they are servants of God, so they don’t really want you focusing on them. Their job is to protect you. Their job is to use the Gospel to defeat your enemy, Satan. Their work is to serve you so that you may be the recipient of what God has accomplished in the Gospel.

The disciples’ question of who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven is lacking in something. It is lacking in the true greatness of God. When we think of success, we think of being the best, or at least being better than most. We think of success as achieving something or accomplishing something. With God it’s just the opposite. There is no success we can achieve. Born into sin, we are already defeated. Living in this fallen world, we are constantly attacked by Satan, our sworn enemy. The reading from Revelation warns us of him: “the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”

Brothers and Sisters in Christ, you have no chance in this fight. You are born in sin and attacked mercilessly by the devil. You continue in your sin every day. You will achieve nothing but the condemnation you deserve.

But St. Michael the archangel has shown you the way out. It is by the blood of the Lamb. It is by the word of the testimony. Michael conquered Satan, as the reading from Revelation shows. He did it not by his own power, but by the blood of the Lamb. He did it by the word of the testimony. That word is the Gospel. There is only one testimony given in the New Testament, and it is the testimony that the one who shed His blood is the one who rose from the grave. What Jesus accomplished on the cross is what brought Satan his defeat.

Michael is an archangel. He is powerful. But he didn’t fight against Satan of his own power. He used a little thing called the Gospel. And this brings us back full circle to Jesus’ answer to the disciples. What is it about the child that He said to the disciples, you must become as a child in order to be great? What it is about the child is that the child is dependent. The child must be entrusted completely to his parents. A child simply trusts his parents and knows they will take care of him.

God in fact brings you success. It is not of this world. You may never be rich or powerful. You may never gain fame or honor. But God is successful. He achieved salvation for you on Calvary. He gained the victory by conquering the grave. He sent Michael to cast out Satan, by the blood of the Lamb and the Word of the testimony. This is truly the Gospel of success, what God has accomplished for you so that you may live as His child, and in humility and joy carry out what He has called you to be and do. Amen.

SDG

Sunday, September 15, 2013

God Has Visited His People

Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity
September 15, 2013
Where do you start? With life? Or death? Do you start where God started it all, with life? Or with where we’re at, with death? If you start with where it all started, with life, you see very clearly that you are not where you started, with life. Because death is the norm. You were born into this world, given life, but you are going to die. You are born into this world, but you are born of this world, and that means you are born into sin and you are spiritually dead. Even if you start with life, you can’t really grasp what it is. You can’t know what it truly means to be alive; to have life as God intended for you to have it. Without sin. Without imperfection. Without sorrow or trouble.

So start with death. Start where it was with the woman in the Gospel reading. She lost her husband. Now she lost her only son. We meet her where she was at. In death. She was alive but staring straight into the face of death. This is where it started with her. If you are to see what it means that God has saved you, you must start where you’re at. With death. You are staring it straight in the face, because you are no different than that woman. She was alive, but her life was consumed by death. Her husband, now her son. At some point she too would die, and even so, certainly was sad to live the rest of her days without her husband and now her son.

So yes, this is the place to start. This is where we’re at. And this is where Jesus starts. He meets the woman in her sorrow. His beginning with her is in her experiencing death. And the people who witnessed His raising this young man from his death got it right: “God has visited his people!” In our current state, we were in death. But God visited His people. God came to us in our death. He who began with life came to us in our death. So that’s where we should begin. With death. We should begin with where we’re at. We’re born into death, we’re living in death. We are going to die.

Now coming to church is supposed to be uplifting, so we certainly don’t want to talk about death the whole time. But would our time here in God’s House truly be uplifting if we ignored the clear state we are in? Would it really help to ignore the fact that we are wrapped in sinful flesh and that our life thus ultimately ends in death? It wouldn’t do us any good. It rather would end up harming us.

Even so, we don’t focus only on death. After all, when Jesus came to the woman where she was at, in the midst of death, He did bring life. He truly brought her out of her sorrow. He physically brought her son back to life. Just because we start with death doesn’t mean we continue in it. But as they say, naming the thing you’re battling is half the battle. So let’s name it. It’s death. You and I are spiritually dead. Of our own sinful nature we are rotting corpses that ultimately will burn eternally in the lake of fire. And it is a fire that will never be quenched. Ignore this to your peril.

There’s another plain fact, though. You’re here. You’re exactly where you need to be to face this death head-on. If you are critically ill, you need to be rushed to the hospital. Otherwise death will overtake you. You will succumb to it. The man in the Gospel reading didn’t even outlive his mother. On a very basic level, this place, the House of God, is a hospital. Here you are healed. You come here so that you may receive the medicine you need to keep you from dying eternally. Here you are given the spiritual care for your soul so that you may not die but live forever. This is how meeting the problem head-on actually is uplifting. When you see what you’re facing you can then see how to face it.

The woman was given grace to see this. In her grief, God visited her. Jesus came to her in her need. God saw that her problem was death. She could not escape it. But He began everything with life. Even though our experience begins with death; even though He meets us where we’re at, in our living with death; He brings into the midst of it life.

How does He do this? By coming to us. God has visited His people. God has come to us where we’re at. He has brought life into our death. The one thing that the entire Bible, the Old Testament and the New Testament, hones in on is that thing. God has come to us where we’re at. He has brought His life to us in our death in the person of Jesus. God has visited His people. The one who brought life into existence is the God who brings dead people back to life. He does it by Jesus coming to us right where we’re at. And we’ve already established where we’re at, we’re in death. There’s no sense in ignoring it. It’s to our ultimate ruin if we do.

But if we boldly face it, well, then we’re in a position to be brought back to life! That’s what Jesus does. He brings back to life. So you and I are here today for just that purpose. You and I are waking up each day to a day in which we are spiritually dying; our sinful flesh bringing us to our ultimate ruin. It is only by the act of God visiting us, coming to us in this death we have, that we are able to be raised up to new life. In Baptism God visited you, His son, His daughter. In Baptism He touched the coffin of your sinful flesh and spoke to you to get up. And you did. Because He raises from the dead. He brings people to life. As He spoke creation into existence, He speaks new life into you by His Gospel; by absolving you of your sins; by giving to you His body and blood, saying, “Take and eat, this is My body, for you. Take and drink, this is My blood, for you.”

He doesn’t do this to you and for you because you’re alive, but because you’re dead. On your own, you’re dead. But when He raises you to life, well then you have life! Only then are you able to live; and live eternally!

Our problem is that we want to think that on our own we’re alive when we’re really dead. We want to think things are okay when they’re really not. We want to ignore what we need to face head on. When we come here, into the House of God, into this place, and are diagnosed with our sickness, namely, death, then we’re able to see clearly that we need to be treated. We’re also in the place where God does what He does, and that is bring dead people back to life! Ignoring that you are dead and need to be brought back to life by God is ignoring Jesus and Him dying on the cross for the sin of the world. Jesus would not have suffered for the sin of the world if it were not needed. If you aren’t spiritually dead then Jesus wouldn’t have gone through the trouble of dying for you.

Our problem is that we don’t want to deal with our problem. We want to be uplifted without facing what stands in our way. But the good news is that God visits His people. He comes to us right where we’re at, even if we’re not hot on seeing that we’re dead. We need help. We need to be revived. We need to be brought back to life.

So turn things around. Instead of thinking of heading your problem straight on as a discouraging thing, that you’re spiritually dead, realize that this is a blessing from God. He is working for you just as the doctor would in telling you that are critically ill and need to be treated. Your doctor is acting for your good. Your doctor is doing what you need.

This is why God came in the flesh. It is why the entire Scriptures point to Christ and are centered in Him. You are dead and you need to be brought back to life. He is how it happens. You can’t do it on your own. That woman wasn’t able to bring her husband and son back to life. Her son certainly wasn’t able to raise himself back to life! He was dead and only Jesus could bring him back to life. And He did! The woman was experiencing the effects of death and only Jesus could bring life to her, and He did!

This is what He does for you. He died so that you may live. He rose so that you may rise with Him. He Baptized you so that you could die with Him and rise with Him. He gives you His body and blood in His precious Supper so that you may partake of the God who visits His people. So that you may eat and drink of the very flesh and blood of the one who came in the flesh and shed His blood on the cross for all of your sin. So that in partaking of His body and blood you may be brought back to life. So that you may have life and have it in abundance.

Going back to the start, where we debated how to start, whether with life or with death, there is one answer. Christ. You start with Christ. In Him you have both life and death. In His life you have life, in His death you have life, in His resurrection you have life. In Baptism God comes to His people because you are united with Christ in His death and resurrection. In your Baptism you have death and life. The putting to death of your sinful nature and the rising to life of your new Man, your new and eternal life in Christ.

You don’t need to wonder if you should start with death or life. Start with Christ. Because it ends with Him. But even so, it doesn’t so much end with Him as it continues with Him. Forever. Amen.

SDG