Sunday, August 26, 2007

Are You Left Out in the Cold?

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, August 26, 2007
Luke 13:22-30

All you baseball fans know what an achievement a perfect game is. Maybe some of you have seen a perfect game and know that you have seen something that not many see. For those of you who think baseball is about the most boring thing around and you’d sooner watch grass grow, you might actually wonder if the game will ever end and what exactly the point of the game is if you were witnessing a perfect game. A perfect game is when the pitcher gets every batter out. Three up, three down, for nine straight innings. It’s been done only fifteen times.

Imagine if you are watching a perfect game in progress. Each inning toward the end is more intense. Finally, the pitcher has two strikes on the final batter. All he has to do is get one more strike, but throws three balls instead. George Will in his column this past week talked about the umpire who was behind the plate at just such a moment. History is about to be made, and yet, the umpire called the pitches for what they were—balls, not strikes. And the last pitch? Also a ball, spoiling a chance for history. But George Will points out that though one kind of glory was lost that day, another one was achieved: the integrity of rules. The pitcher could very well have been feeling that the umpire took away his glory and spectacular of achievement of that day.

It’s a sinking feeling when the authority tells you that you’ve come up short. Kind of like when you get to the door of an event you were really looking forward to like a show or a sporting event and you realize you lost your tickets. The people at the gate can be the nicest people in the world, but they’re not going to let you in without a ticket. Or if you’ve maintained a 4.0 grade average but in one of your classes you make enough mistakes to bring you below that. Your teacher may feel for you in giving you a lower grade, but gives it nonetheless.

A good friend of mine was a model of health. He took care of himself, was in good shape, and was very healthy. But he died instantly from a heart defect from birth. It had never affected him. He didn’t even know it was there. He didn’t even know he died when he did. It was a small tear that eventually broke wide open and killed him instantly.

What’s it going to be like on Judgment Day? Do we think about that much? Or do we tend to ignore it with the thought that it doesn’t really affect us here and now? There are times, though, aren’t there, where we wonder about it all? How many will be saved? Will God go ahead and just save everybody? Or just most people, leaving only the vilest of people to rot in hell? Or do most people have no chance? Will there only be a few who are saved? And we might even wonder at times if anybody has a chance. These questions are back there somewhere in our mind, if not troubling to us more often than just occasionally. Because at the heart of it is the question, will I be saved? And how can I know?

The non-Christian, the one who doesn’t believe in Jesus, might not think twice about these things. The Christian might just as easily think that he’s in, no worries. But the pitcher was sure he was one pitch away from a perfect game. And the people going to their concert were excited about getting in to see it. And the student was convinced he had the 4.0 in hand. And my friend was expecting to live a good long life.

We’re sure we’re going to be saved, aren’t we? That if it’s only a few who are saved that the many are certainly a lot of people “out there”. But ought we to be so sure? What’s all this talk from Jesus about struggling to get in through the narrow door? Is He warning us that we shouldn’t be so confident of our salvation after all? The people He describes at the big feast are shocked that He won’t let them in. Is He trying to tell us that this is us? That’s not a very comforting prospect.

Jesus makes clear that He doesn’t come to save only some. The door is open. It’s open for all. But it’s narrow. Not all will want to go through the narrow door. The wide door is also always open. But being wide it will appeal to many. So Jesus doesn’t just usher some through the right door. It’s just that He offers His salvation in only one way, and that’s why it’s narrow. The wide door is the one that appeals to many because it doesn’t exclude them if they don’t believe in Jesus, or no matter what they believe, for that matter.

The narrow door is exclusive, however. Like that umpire who didn’t just give the perfect game to the pitcher, or the ticket taker who doesn’t just let people in without a ticket, or the teacher who gives a lower grade even though it means the student is out of the 4.0. The authority is rigid and unwavering. My friend looked like he had a long life ahead of him, but he had no chance against a little defect.

That question—will I be saved?—is a disconcerting one. Because we have doubts. On the other hand, we might have no doubt at all. What’s even more disconcerting is Jesus’ answer. He seems to put those of us who see ourselves as among the few who are saved among the many who are left out in the cold. But Jesus isn’t assigning us to hell. He’s not saying we have no hope. Otherwise, why would He bother telling us all that He says here? If we had no hope He would just say so and leave it at that.

But there is hope. That’s why He keeps saying “you”. You struggle to enter through the narrow door. You will be standing outside and not let in. He will say, “I do not know where you come from.” You will say, “But we ate and drank with You and You taught in our streets.” And He will say, “I don’t know you,” and “Depart from Me, all you workers of evil.”

I know. It’s scary stuff. It’s as if He’s saying, “You think you’re saved? Think again. You’re going to hell.” But that’s not what He’s saying. He’s warning us. And that is the greatest kind of love and grace. He’s making us aware of what could be before it happens. So that it won’t happen to us. He doesn’t want it to happen to us. Otherwise, why would He go through such pains to warn us? Why would He come at all?

And most of all, He makes known to us that it will be a struggle. We don’t want to hear this, of course. You mean it’s going to be hard? You mean there’s difficulty to this? It’s not just an easy ride?

If it were, why would Jesus leave the eternal throne of glory and become a man? Talk about difficulty—He’s living proof! But this is really where He’s going with this. It always is. He never points us to ourselves when it comes to salvation. He does point out, yes, that we of ourselves are on the outside looking in if we’re content with our own righteousness. That’s what all the “you’s” were about. But the reason He uses all those “you’s” is so that when we look to Him—where our only hope is to be found—we can hear the “you’s” He speaks to us in our Baptism and His Holy Supper.

I forgive you of all your sins. He says to you, “Welcome into My eternal feast of glory.” Take and eat, this is My body, given for you. Take and drink, this is My blood, shed for you. The reason it’s a struggle is because our sinful flesh is always wanting to focus back on itself rather than on Christ. But Christ focuses our attention to Him. Where He has endured the supreme struggle, taking the sins of the world upon Himself in His suffering and death. He died for you. He rose from the grave so that you may live forever. Amen.


Thursday, August 23, 2007

When It All Falls Apart

Okay, before I get to what I’m going to say, let me say that if you want to know what the actual lyrics of a song are you really have to read them. When you hear the singer sing them some of the words sound different than what they really are.

The next thing I want to say is that, in my humble opinion, the best thing about the “Bourne” movies (The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, and The Bourne Ultimatum) is the music. Especially the song they play at the end (which is called “Extreme Ways” by Moby). What a fun song!

Anyway, as I was listening to the song I first thought the refrain sounded like “Oh babe, then it all fell apart.” But then I thought, it must be saying (fitting in with the theme of the movies), “Obey, then it all fell apart.” And it really sounded like that to me.

Well… I looked up the lyrics, and it’s “Oh baby, then it all fell apart.” (I think the singer must be singing “babe” rather than “baby”.)

The point of all of this is that I would like to go with the idea of “obey, then it all fell apart.” After all, doesn’t our Lord command us to obey Him? And doesn’t our life have times where things fall apart? It’s very tempting to not obey since it doesn’t always seem to make things better for us. I mean, look where it got Jason Bourne? He obeyed his government and it all fell apart. (He ends up being hunted down by that very government.)

But I would like to suggest that this is the very reason we ought to obey our Lord and Savior. He doesn’t say, after all, “Follow Me and all will be well.” What He says is, “Take up your cross and follow Me.” I guess we could kind of paraphrase this to say, “Obey Me even though it means it will all fall apart.”

Because who do we need if everything is going along just fine and dandy? Oh yeah, we’ll know we need Jesus. We’ll say it, we’ll be believe it, we’ll even think about it now and then.

But will we act like it? Will we really live like it? The fact is, we need Jesus and nowhere is that more apparent than when it all falls apart. And it’s tough to obey Him when that happens, right? You bet it’s tough, that’s why He said so—take up your cross and follow Me.

But you know what happens when it all falls apart? When you wonder if the same Jesus who said “I am with you always” really is with you at those times? You don’t say, Well I guess I’m just not obeying enough.

You look at the one who was obedient unto death. You look to the one who obeyed His Heavenly Father only to see it all fall apart. Every disciple splitting the scene. Every religious leader and soldier mocking Him. Every sin placed upon His shoulder. Every drip of the cup of God’s wrath poured out upon the obedient Lamb.

He knows what it means to have it all fall apart. And He knows what He’s talking about when He tells you to take up your cross. Because He knows a little something about that kind of stuff. When it all falls apart you may not trust fully in Him, but He will always remember His promise to you—He will never leave you nor forsake you. He is with you always. Even when it all falls apart.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Sending of Fire

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, August 19, 2007
Luke 12:49-56

"I came to cast fire on the earth…"

Do you know what a fire camp is? I didn’t until I saw one. On our vacation one of the roads we needed to go on was closed because of bad fires in northern Montana. Thankfully, the road was reopened and we were able to go on it. As we were driving we saw a sign that said “Slow, Fire Camp Ahead”. We wondered what that was until we got to it and saw that they had set up a temporary camp for all the firefighters and other people helping fight the fires.

We never saw the fire but we saw plenty of smoke. We also saw the tremendous amount of people and resources poured into stamping the fire out. Fires are a mighty force. If you’re in the way of a wildfire you have no chance, you will lose. It’s a sad fact that there are fire fighters, people who are trained to be safe and skillfully attack fires, who lose their lives in action. Wild fires are destructive and powerful. That there are people willing to put their lives on the line to put them out, to save homes and lives, shows how wild fires can be very bad.

So why would Jesus come to earth to cast fire upon it? Fire will destroy most of what’s in its path. Why would Jesus come in order to bring something that destroys?

Well, it sounds kind of strange, but Jesus is delivering something to us that we need. To understand this, think for a moment about life. You don’t have to think long to acknowledge that things are not always clean in life. Life is messy at times. It’s difficult at times; more often than not, seemingly. The fact is, circumstances in life are not always what we’d like or what seem best.

Why does God allow things to not go smoothly in our lives when that time could be better used to serve Him? Why does He allow us to suffer illness when we could be using that time to witness to other people? We tend to look at our circumstances and think of them as negative if they’re not ideal for us. We know it’s true, that things won’t always go the way we want them to. And yet, when they don’t go well for us we struggle not only with that, but with why they don’t always go well.

The way Jesus answers this problem is not by taking our problems away but by stating straight out that as Christians things will be difficult for us. And not only that, He will be the source of some of those difficulties. That doesn’t make sense to us, but He’s not coming to us with the intent to have things meet with our understanding. Part of the mess we’re in is because we want to have things go according to how we’d like them to be. Jesus says, Nope, it’s gotta be the way I will show you how it is.

So the real question we should be asking is not, why is it so difficult to live as a Christian, but what is Christ doing in my life for my benefit? We know a lot about how we think things should be but come up short when it comes to discerning God’s will for our lives.

How we know what God’s will is for us is by looking to Jesus. I know that sounds pretty straightforward, but really it’s not. When we look to Jesus we need to see Him for who He really is and what He came to do. In the case of what He says here He says that He has come to bring fire on the earth. And He has come to bring not peace but division. Okay, so now instead of scratching our heads and wondering why He would say something so strange or complain that that’s not very Jesus-like for Him to do this, we should be looking to Him for the answer. The answer is not in what is happening to us in this life. The answer is in who Christ is and what He has done.

What that is is undergoing a baptism. This is something more than the Baptism He received at the Jordan River from John. This is a baptism of fire. This is something no one would want to go through. No one, that is, but Jesus. And even He according to His human nature sought from His Heavenly Father a way to avoid it. What Jesus really did was choose it willingly.

When we hear that He’s bringing fire on the earth we react negatively toward that. Whereas He willingly chooses the suffering. Do we complain because we’re suffering? Look at what Jesus said about the time until He would suffer His baptism by fire: “how great is My distress until it is accomplished.” What Jesus brings upon the earth—fire, division—does not compare to what Jesus Himself underwent. The fire and division Jesus brings upon the earth must be seen and understood in light of who Jesus is and what He came to do. That’s why He alerts us to His baptism of fire He underwent for the world.

Jesus willingly stood in the path of the fire to be destroyed so that we could escape the ravages of the fire of God’s wrath for our sin. There’s no question Jesus has brought upon the earth a destructive force to destroy it. That’s because we need to be destroyed—more specifically, our sinful flesh. Our life will not last forever on this earth. What comes at our death is either heaven or hell. He does not want to see us suffer in hell forever, that’s why He came to save us.

That’s fantastic, obviously. But why does He want us to suffer now? Why bring the fire and division upon us in this life when His ultimate desire and work is to bring us to heaven where we’re free from all the hardship and division of this world? Again, we must look to Him for the answer. Who He is and what He has done. The answer is found in His baptism at the cross.

If we lament that we suffer here; that it’s hard being a Christian; that God doesn’t seem to be helping us out—we’re not looking to the cross. We’re not looking to the trial and division Jesus endured for us. We’re not looking to that one place where He answers all of our questions and meets all of our fears and confusion. We’re looking rather to our current circumstances and how we’re fed up with them.

Jesus didn’t just come to bring fire and division upon the earth. He came to bring Himself to the earth. He brought salvation with Him, undergoing a blessed event of being anointed in Baptism by His Heavenly Father and the Holy Spirit at the Jordan and a stunning and terrible event in His baptism by fire on the cross. He bowed down before the blaze of God’s wrath. He was cut off from the presence of His Heavenly Father. He was a man of sorrows, but with only one thought foremost in His mind and heart: you, me, and the world. Christ suffered in such a way so that we may live forever.

When wildfires start on their own they not only destroy the trees and vegetation, but also a lot of built up dead leaves, vegetation, and wood, that is a burden on the forest. A wildfire clears that away making way for new growth to come. New trees pop up. New vegetation springs up. The forest in a sense is reborn.

So are we in Baptism, where Christ casts His holy fire upon our sinful flesh, melting it away. What emerges from this amazing event is new life. We spring forth into new life because the fire of God’s love has not only destroyed our sinful flesh but has purified us as His very own people. Amen.


Sunday, August 12, 2007

More than Food and Clothing

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, August 12, 2007
Luke 12:22-40

There are some people who truly are anxious about basic necessities of life, such as food and clothing. If you don’t have enough to eat and have only rags to wear it’s hard not to worry about how you’ll survive. For many of us, though, we take these basic things for granted. We have enough to eat. We have clothing. So we’re usually not worrying about these things.

Now if we’re prone to worrying about things in our lives then Jesus’ words strike home because food and clothing are used by Jesus for all those necessities of life we have. How easy is it to get good health care? And affordable health care, at that? How much money do you keep pouring into your car that’s breaking down more and more before you bite the bullet and buy a new car?

Jesus’ answer isn’t necessarily satisfying: don’t worry. The birds and flowers don’t spend their time worrying and yet God takes care of them. Life is more than food and clothing. And this is where we really see that no matter who we are we so often miss the point of what God really wants to give us.

We spend our time worrying about how we’re going to get by another month when things are tight. Or we simply take so many things we have for granted, rarely thinking about what tremendous blessings they are.

Life is more than food and clothing. If we really thought about that and took it to heart we’d spend less time worrying about the things of this life and being more humble and grateful for the many ways God takes care of us and provides for us. What does Jesus say? Seek the Kingdom of God.

How much of our lives do we spend seeking the things of this world and not the world of the next? The things of this life which is temporary instead of the things of eternal life which is, well, eternal. God knows we need food and clothing. That’s why He provides those things for us. When we’re in need it’s tempting to worry. But what we need to do is trust in God.

How does the twenty-third Psalm say it? “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” When we have the Lord as our Shepherd we have everything we need. We know He will take care of us. What does He lead us into? “He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.” Our Good Shepherd is mostly concerned with giving us the things we need for eternity, not this short life. Look at how He is described when things are dark in our lives: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

Our Lord is described as one who invites us to sit down and feast at a banquet in the midst of the dark times of life. That’s why it’s remarkable that when Jesus tells us in the Gospel reading for today that those await on their master will receive not a master but a servant—one who girds up before them to serve them.

You see, life truly is more than food and clothing. In fact, what God wants to give to you is the very robe of righteousness and the very heavenly food only He Himself can give you. If we’re constantly worried about the things of this life, how will we see that God is giving us so much more than we think we need? If we simply take the things of this life for granted, how much more might we take the spiritual blessings of God for granted?

Our loving Lord has given us life and provides for us in life. But there is much more to it than food and clothing. He clothes us spiritually and feeds us spiritually. Listen to the picture God gave to Zechariah in chapter 3 of his book:

Then He showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. And the Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, O Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?” Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments. And the angel said to those who were standing before him, “Remove the filthy garments from him.” And to him He said, “Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments.”

This is how God clothes us. In Baptism our Lord puts on us the robe of Christ’s righteousness. Filthy and stained by our sin we are clothed in the clean garments of Christ’s righteousness.

Dressed in the forgiving love of God we are ready to enjoy the banquet He provides for us. He feeds us with forgiveness also. Just as we are clothed with Christ we are fed with Christ. His very Body and Blood are given us to eat and drink. Life is more than food and clothing. The life Jesus gives to us in Baptism and His Holy Supper is much more than we often think we need.

The forgiveness God gives us, His spiritual blessings He provides for us, are not something that happens out there some place. They are delivered to us where He has promised to give them to us: in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. What do we do in our need? We pray. We ask God to help us. Jesus Himself in the Lord’s Prayer said pray for our daily bread. But our prayer doesn’t feed us. We don’t pray and then feel satisfied because our stomachs are now full. What God does is answer our prayer at the table, with real food that we eat and fill our stomachs with.

It’s the same with our prayer for forgiveness. We aren’t forgiven because we pray. He answers our prayer at the Supper Table—specifically, the Lord’s Supper. Having clothed us with the righteousness of Christ who served us by giving His body into death and shedding His blood for our sins he now serves us with that same Body and Blood for our forgiveness. He always gives more than we seek. Amen.