Sunday, September 30, 2007

What Has God Said?

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, September 30, 2007
Luke 16:19-31

How did the serpent put doubt in Eve’s mind? “Did God really say?” God has this funny way of communicating with us. He speaks. He gives words. He makes known His message through spoken and written words. So what does the devil try to do? Get us to question those words. Place doubt in our minds; to wonder if God is holding out on us. Has He given us all we need?

The rich man apparently had all that he needed. But then again, Adam and Eve actually did have all they needed. God withheld nothing from them except one tree. Satan capitalized on that. Was the problem with the rich man that he was rich? Was it even that he didn’t help poor old Lazarus out? No, those weren’t the real problems with this guy; there are plenty of rich people going to heaven even as there are plenty of poor people going to hell. And there’s lots of nice people who are going to hell even though they help others profusely. And you’d even be surprised that some of those people you think aren’t so nice will be in heaven.

The problem is shown in how he lived his life. Look at how he clothed himself. Look at how feasted. With the very best of attire. Celebrations are normally reserved for truly special events. But this man’s daily eating habits were spectacular feasts. The man’s life was filled up with himself. Not God.

On the other side of the fence was Lazarus. His life is devoid of anything good. He is clothed with sores and not even faring on any food, wishing only that he could get some scraps from the rich man’s feast. At least there were some beings around that showed some compassion on him, even if they were only dogs that licked his sores.

When he dies a figure well-known to us comes into the picture. And this is where we see that though Lazarus’ life was bleak in this life, he was filled with something that makes the rich man’s wealth look like pennies. Nearly every time Abraham is mentioned in the New Testament it is in connection with the promise God gave to him. What is that promise? It is the promise of the Savior. It is the promise God gave to Abraham and fulfilled in Christ.

So while Jesus here in His story didn’t spell it out—that is, how Lazarus got in to heaven—by showing us that the angels carried him to Abraham’s side, Jesus actually is spelling it out for us. That it is in Him that Lazarus received eternal life. But we even see it in the name of Lazarus. Lazarus is the Greek name of the Hebrew Old Testament name Eliezer, which means something like “God is my help.” We even see a real life example of that in the Scriptures with Jesus raising His friend Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus, even in the grave, was helped by his God.

After the Lazarus of our story died, the rich man also died. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that he knows who Abraham is? It truly is a dangerous thing to live in this life ignoring the Word of God. In hell, those who didn’t believe in Christ in this life will know without a doubt who He is. James even says that the demons even believe—but they shudder. It’s also fascinating that the rich man calls him “father”. You can almost feel the longing in his soul to be part of the intimate relationship with this father figure. Do you think maybe Lazarus had sought that as well in his lifetime with the rich man?

In his short life on earth the rich man feasted as if there were no end to it. Now he is in constant and eternal torment. What is it he asks for from Abraham? Mercy. The very thing Lazarus had sought and the very thing the rich man denied him. When Lazarus had been at his gate even the smallest of crumbs would have given him some relief. Now in torment the rich man asks for a drop of water that he may have the slightest bit of relief. But we see that God’s desire for Lazarus was not simply to grant him relief from his hunger. He filled him completely, bringing him to Abraham’s bosom and eternal rest in heaven. Whereas in hell there is not the slightest bit of relief granted but the torment is complete and unending.

The rich man strangely enough had called to Abraham as “father”. Abraham now addresses him as “child”. Even though the man had had no regard for anyone else, and most notably Lazarus, Abraham regards the rich man’s plight as if to remind him that he had placed himself above others, including God, and never humbled himself to acknowledge that he is merely a child, as we all are. Abraham then uses brutal logic on the man, as if to say, “In your lifetime you got exactly what you wanted. You wanted to have nothing to do with God and now He has given you exactly that—you are separated from Him eternally.” On other side, Lazarus in the midst of his suffering realized that God truly was his help, the suffering he endured in this life could not compare to the glory that would be revealed to him.

But even if Abraham had wanted to help the rich man he couldn’t. It is appointed for man once to die and then the judgment. When you die, you die either in faith and are welcomed into heaven or in unbelief and are cast into hell in torment. There’s no chance after you die. And if you’re in heaven there’s no chance of ending up in hell.

It’s funny, in an ironic way, how the rich man had no regard for Lazarus while he was alive. Now in hell he’s requesting of Abraham for Lazarus to do all sorts of things. Help him in his torment, warn his brothers… When you’re in hell everything becomes clear. The demons do indeed believe, but shudder. There is no time after you die. But Jesus tells this story to us while we’re alive so that we may end up where Lazarus ended up and not where the rich man ended up.

The rich man’s second request of Abraham introduces to us what is at the root of our problem. We have already seen that the purpose for Abraham being in this story is to show us that salvation is in Christ alone; in the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham. We surmise from this that the rich man rejected that promise. In other words, he rejected Christ as his Lord and Savior. Now he’s grasping at straws, trying to figure out a way to prevent his brothers from doing the same thing and ending up in the same place. The same disregard the rich man had toward God in life he continues to have in hell—his thoughts are not of glorifying God, but of being relieved of suffering and in his brothers not ending up suffering.

Abraham’s answer is profound. If we took his answer to heart we would see how much like the rich man we really are. We have Moses and Prophets. In other words, we have the Word of God. The Bible. We have readily available to us the message of God in written form for us to see and read and hear. But do we? Do we see that we are like Lazarus in that we have nothing of our own in the sight of God? That He alone is our help? That it is only through the promise that is fulfilled in Christ that we have hope of being with Abraham and the whole company of heaven rather than in torment with the devil and all unbelievers? Or do we seek comfort in our possessions and the things of this life? Abraham’s response is simple: Let them hear the Word of the Lord.

The rich man’s response is eerily similar to the serpent’s temptation of Eve: Did God really say? The rich man does not listen to what Abraham says. He questions it. It can’t be. The Word of God alone can’t be enough. If someone rises from the grave, that will convince them. And that’s the way it will always be until Christ comes again. We will always be questioning the Word of God. What has God said? It can’t be enough. We need some other sign that’s powerful enough to show us that, yes, this is really true that there is salvation in no one else than Jesus Christ.

But Abraham knows about these things. He, too, had doubted God’s Word at times. He, too, asked for things from God on his own terms. But God’s Word is always sure. It is always true. And Abraham speaks the truth that if they don’t listen to the Word of God then they won’t believe even if someone rises from the dead. That is shown, in fact, in the real life Lazarus, who was raised from the dead, providing an opportunity for many people who didn’t believe to now believe. But just the opposite happened. Some were convinced even more so that Jesus was of the devil.

But the best example is Jesus Himself. He rose from the dead. He gave the greatest evidence of all, not just in being raised from the dead, as Lazarus was, but in rising from the dead Himself. If you don’t believe the Word of God not even Jesus’ own resurrection will convince you. So that’s why we must go back to our question: What has God said? But not as a way of questioning God, as the serpent and the rich man did. But asking “What has God said?” in the way of going back to what He said. In His Word, the Bible, we see what He has said. And we abide by it. We listen to it. We Mark it. Learn it. Meditate on it and memorize it and take it to heart.

What has God said? He has said that He is our Help. He is our salvation. Jesus Himself was covered with the sores of our sins and clothed in our guilt in His suffering and death on the cross. He traded His kingly robes for blood-stained garments. He has marked for us in His Word His promise to us: that when we die His angels will carry us to the place of everlasting peace and feasting. Amen.


Thursday, September 27, 2007

Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing

Have you ever noticed how when you’re talking to someone else about what they believe on a particular doctrine and when the two of you believe differently that you both appeal to the Bible as the reason for why you’re right and they’re wrong?

So how do you tell? Do you just assume that they’re still wrong because they’re being blinded by their denominational preconceived notions? Do you begin to think that maybe you have denominational blinders on? Or do you begin to think that maybe both of you are making more of this than you should?

Sometimes we can lose sight of the main thing. We can’t see the forest clearly because the particular trees we’re disagreeing on are clouding our understanding of what is true and right.

There’s a lot in the Bible. There’s a lot in there that makes a lot of sense. Some things are tough to understand. Some things really stand out; some may not seem that important to us. And so on.

But there’s always that stuff in there we disagree on—and we both sincerely believe we’re right. How do we go about determining who is right? (And by the way, the purpose of determining who’s right and who’s wrong is not so we can win an argument—it’s so that we can be faithful to the Word of God.)

Someone has said that all theology is Christology. There’s one thing in the Bible that shines through clearly. One tree in the forest of the Bible that rises above the rest. The one thing that is the main thing. The one thing that if we do not keep as the main thing then we will not be interpreting the Bible correctly or understanding individual doctrines correctly.

Christ is the center of the Scriptures. He is the main thing. And if we do not keep the main thing the main thing then the other things will end up getting skewed. It’s true that we don’t get into heaven for perfect doctrine. But we must seek to be faithful to the Word of God.

The lens through which we view the Scriptures is Christ. He is the source of the Scriptures and the one to whom the Scriptures point. God Almighty has revealed Himself in the Scriptures and preeminently in Jesus. The Triune God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and the Son is always at the center.

Any doctrine we hold to that does not hold up Christ in giving Him all glory is one that is not Biblical and therefore not true. The Bible points us to Christ and Christ Himself points us to Himself. His life, suffering, death, and resurrection are the hub from which the spokes of all the Biblical doctrines emerge. Our key to believing all doctrines correctly is to ensure that we are not believing anything that detracts from the main thing—Christ and who He is and what He has done for the sins of the world.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

The Cost of Discipleship

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, September 9, 2007
Luke 14:25-35

See, today your Lord sets before you life and death. And what will you choose? Will you immediately say you will choose the good that your Lord offers? See, your Lord sets before you today a blessing and a curse, good and evil. Will you know in confidence that you desire nothing from your Lord but His gracious blessing? That there is nothing evil you would seek from Him but only good? Do you seek nothing else than to obey His voice and hold fast to Him? Is your Lord the one you do in fact love with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind?

See, this is what your Lord sets before you today—Himself or eternity apart from Him. It is all or nothing. Your Lord is the Lord alone and He calls you to place Him as such in your life. In all your thoughts. In everything you do. When others see you. When you’re alone and there is no one else to know what you do or don’t do. In your good, bad, and ugly moments. In your life. In the waning moments of your life as you prepare to die.

See, your Lord is your Lord in your ordinary moments and your moments of glory. He is your Lord when you honor Him as such and when you forget about Him. He sets before you today a call. It is the call to discipleship. It is a matter of life or death. Of blessing or curse. Of good or evil.

See, your Lord brings before you all His glory, honor, majesty, and immortality and sets Himself before you as a man. He is the Lord, there’s no question. But He’s a man. He’s one who comes unassumingly. First in a womb of your common Jewish girl. Then in a feeding trough among your common barn animals. Then as a guy who’s walking toward the crowd in such a way that no one would have known who He was had not John the Baptist announced “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

Then as one who speaks to some people on a particular occasion. See, this is your Lord, standing there in front of some people. Luke tells us they were crowds accompanying Him. They weren’t following Him. Jesus is going to talk to them about that. They were merely accompanying Him. Much like we often do when we think we’re such faithful followers of our Lord and Savior. After all, we’re here week in and week out. We help those who ask of us and we’re pretty decent people, which is a fantastic witness to that world of people out there who don’t always act so decent.

So we’ll see ourselves today for who we are—as those among the great crowds that accompanied Jesus on that day when He turned and called them to discipleship. What does the life of discipleship consist of? The life that has been set before us is this: life or death, blessing or curse, good or evil. Does it consist of being here week in and week out? Of being those good people we think of ourselves as being?

Or does it consist of something more than just accompanying our Lord? Putting Him above all. Everything. Everyone. Ourselves. Does it, perhaps, consist of something we wouldn’t expect to hear from our Lord—of hatred? Not just of sin and evil and the devil and all those things that are no-brainers for a well-trained Christian. But of hating those we care most about. Who, in fact, are gifts to us from our Lord Himself. Our father and mother. Our wife and children. Our brothers and sisters. Our own selves.

See, our Lord is not just here saying, I have come that you may have life—so come along for the ride. It’ll be fun! Just kick back and watch Me go. I’ll do all the work. You just so show up every week, make sure you do some good things during the week and make some time where you think about Me in the midst of your busy schedule. Your Lord is talking here about a brutal choice. It’s Him, or nothing. His way or the highway. But really we shouldn’t trivialize it in such a way. It’s His way or damnation. He truly is talking about life or death, blessing or curse, good or evil.

Which will you choose? Will you forsake all, even death, for your Lord? Your father and mother, your spouse and children, those you love the most, for your Lord? Accompanying Jesus sounds pretty good right now. Just being along for the ride. Why would our Lord call us to such a demanding choice? What is our Lord who is the author of the Ten Commandments and specifically the Fourth Commandment that we are to honor our father and mother getting at in calling us to the kind of discipleship that has at its base the hatred of those we are to esteem and love?

Perhaps we could translate the word Jesus used and remind ourselves that that’s not what He really meant. That when He said “hate” He meant something much softer. That would fit in much better with what we know of our Lord who is loving and kind and has given us our loved ones as people we are to love and cherish, not hate. But that won’t do much for those who seek to be disciples of our Lord. Because then we run into the problem of taking the words of our Lord and turning them into something other than His Words.

See, He says to you today: Hate. He didn’t say that they might have to take the back seat once in a while. He calls you today to bear your cross and come after Him. Don’t just come along for the ride, where you can have your cake and eat it to. Where your family can be every bit as important to you as your Lord is. Where your very own life can be at the forefront of your thoughts when it comes time for you to die.

Should we think that we should not have to bear a cross? Should we think that we should have things better than our Lord Jesus Christ? And why should we think that if we were to refuse our Lord’s will of hating our father and mother and those most precious to us that we would actually be following His will? Do we really think we can love them in the most loving and best way? Do we think that we really know better than our Lord? If bearing our cross is what our Lord is calling us to why would we think it would be easy? And why should we think that His words would be easy to digest?

See, our Lord is calling us to something that He knows will be hard for us to swallow. That is why He is doing it. So that we may see that we really do fall short in our love and devotion to Him. We think that we should love our father and mother and those dearest to us? Then why do we not love them as we should? Why do we sin against them? Why do we treat them shamefully at times? Why do we place our own desires ahead of theirs at times? We should talk about how strange it is that our Lord is calling us to hate them! We do a pretty good job of that without any coaxing on His part!

But no, He is not calling us to hate them in such a way that would break the Fourth Commandment. He is calling us to love Him above all things. If we place anything above our devotion to our Lord, even the people most dear to us, then we are not really loving them at all. How could we truly be loving others if our Lord is not first in our lives? We can be kind to others without being a disciple of our Lord. But are we showing them kindness for their soul? Are we sharing with them the greatest love of all—the love of Christ? No, Jesus knows very well what He is calling us to. He knows very well that our love falls short. That’s why He calls us to forsake all and cling to Him alone.

In that discipleship then is a new world in which we see with new eyes. A new vision opens up before us in which we see our loved ones not just as those we love and that are precious to us—but as very souls for whom Christ died.

See, we don't even know what hatred is that our Lord is talking about. He knows. He understands. He talks about things He knows about. We’re content to watch on the sidelines. He willingly chose to be the recipient of hatred. He Himself was forsaken by His precious Heavenly Father. He Himself was at the receiving end of the hatred of God’s wrath against those who sin against Him. This is righteous anger, just hatred against those who spite Him by refusing to acknowledge Him as Lord over all. Our Lord wasn’t the recipient of ill will against God Almighty but of damnation. He was turned away by His dear Father. He wasn’t just left for dead, He was damned by the eternal God.

Our Lord knows something about bearing the cross. He counted the cost beforehand—and chose it anyway. He knew what was set before Him: life or death, blessing or curse, good or evil. Not life, not blessing, not good was poured out upon Him but death. The curse of sin was laid upon Him. Evil was His lot. He suffered as no one could imagine and we see in Him that there is no cross that can be borne that is beyond what Christ Himself has borne.

We see that there was no standing idly by by Him. When one does not count the cost and determine whether or not he can complete his task he is ridiculed if he can’t complete it. Yet our Lord was ridiculed because He went through with His task. Because He completed it. When a king must fight against an army that is greater he asks for terms of peace rather than face a battle he can’t win. Our Lord went into the battle, however, as one against the devil and the host of hell. He laid down His life, appearing to have been defeated by His enemy. But in that act was our peace, our Lord laying down His life so that we may not die.

See, your Lord is calling you to discipleship. To renounce all that you have. Because without your Lord there is nothing that will be of lasting value. If you cling to those things you will simply be accompanying your Lord. But if you see that your Lord has set before you life in His suffering and death; if you see that He has set before you a blessing in your Lord Himself becoming the curse for you; if you see that He has set before you good in your Lord breaking under the weight of your evil—then you will see that the cost is great, but never beyond what you can bear. For, you see, your Lord has borne it all. He is your Lord and Savior. His yoke is easy and His burden is light. Come unto Him all ye who are weary and heavy-laden and He will give you rest. Do not think He has called you to misery or despair, for your Lord disciples you into life.

You do not merely accompany Him. You are His disciple. You are His beloved. You are one with Him. There is weeping for a time but joy comes in the morning. You bear your cross but the resurrection follows the suffering. You are united with Christ, you have new and eternal life!

Our Lord has given you ears. Use them! Hear what He says to you, that He has given His life to you that your life may be in Him. Amen.


Sunday, September 2, 2007

The Heart of God: Jesus

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Rally Day
Sunday, September 2, 2007
Luke 14:1-14

It’s a humbling experience to come to the realization that you’re selfish. It’s easy to see in others, isn’t it? But there’s so much we need to do simply to take care of ourselves, so many things we do simply to enjoy life, that we don’t see as we should that we very much are absorbed in ourselves. Don’t do it now, but some time take a hard look at yourself and ask yourself if you really can come to the conclusion that you’re not selfish. If you can come to that conclusion, well, there might not be much of a chance of you really listening to the Word of God and taking it to heart. Of hearing it as a message God intends directly to you, not all those other people here today. Or all those people out there who aren’t here. If you can see yourself as you really are, a selfish person, then humble yourself to realize that even this is something that God helps you to see and as something that only He can help you overcome.

Jesus is good at doing this. He’s God, after all. He’s good at whatever He does. And in this particular case—helping us realize that we’re selfish and in need of an overhaul in the humility department—what He does so well is not just lecture people on how they should behave in social situations. No, what He’s really good at—and what He’s really doing here, and, really, in everything He does—is bringing Himself into the center of our lives. The focus. The very core. The purpose for who we are and what we do. Jesus has better things to do than playing the part of Miss Manners, which He would do better than she does any way, even though she’s really good.

Jesus cuts to the chase. And He does that by cutting us to the heart. What is it really about? If we’re honest, our lives as we live them are really about us. What Jesus does is enter that life and show us that, no, it’s really about Him. That may sound kind of goofy, being that Jesus is putting all the focus on Himself. But He’s God, remember? The focus must be about Him.

But how does He do it? I don’t know about you, but if I were a powerful person, I would use it to my advantage. But Jesus doesn’t do that! He’s God, and does things that are for our benefit! Yes, the focus is all on Him, but He brings it about by being humble.

Take just the whole scenario itself of the Gospel reading. The Lord of all creation is taking time to be in an undistinguished house where a Pharisee lives. Okay, you might argue that Pharisees were not just ordinary people because they were spiritual leaders. But do you really think if Jesus had a head trip He’d be sitting there for a meal in a common Pharisee’s home? There are kings and Caesars and far more prominent people Jesus could have mingled with. But in all of creation and all of history He confined Himself for a few moments to this common abode where He witnessed several pathetic religious leaders try to show up one another. Their focus was most certainly not on Jesus but on themselves.

The humility and serving attitude Jesus is exhorting us to here is more than just sitting at the back rather than going to the front where we’ll be noticed. It’s more than just helping those who can’t pay you back. It’s a focus on Jesus. It’s seeing that He Himself has placed Himself at the back of the room. He Himself has invited all those who can’t repay Him to His banquet. So what if we sit in the back? What does it matter if we help those less fortunate than ourselves? Are these things going to get us into heaven? Will they win points with God? Will He take notice of us and give us a higher standing in eternity?

These are the kind of things we turn Jesus’ exhortations into because we’re selfish. What’s going to break us out of this kind of attitude? Jesus. That’s why He came. That’s why He healed the man with dropsy. It was not too small a thing for Him to help the man out. That’s why He took the time with those self-indulgent Pharisees. That’s why He didn’t cavort with kings and important people. He came for the ordinary person. The one who is caught up in all the things needed to do to live. The one who may not even realize that in so doing is very selfish and focused in on him or herself.

Jesus didn’t come to earth and say: “Hey folks! God here! Please bow before Me. Furnish for Me the finest of things. Luxury, a winter home, the very best food.” He came Himself almost indistinguishably. He looked very much like every ordinary person. Why did He do this? Because even though it’s all about Him, He is passionate about us. He created us, after all. We are the crown of His creation. He loves the human beings He created so much that He wants us in the eternal glory of the new Eden—heaven. So for Him it’s actually all about us. He comes not to say, “I’m the Almighty Lord of all creation so humble yourselves before Me.” He comes to say, “Be healed. Be forgiven. Take your place here at the front. Receive glory and honor. Your sins are washed away. There is only abundance of grace and eternal blessings.”

That’s why He has Baptized us. Because He wants to wash in a flood of grace all our sins away. That’s why He prepares a banquet for us today—His very Supper. So that we may feast on the richest of all food: our very Lord Himself, His body and His blood. In the Psalms God described His people this way: “They are a people who go astray in their heart, and they have not known my ways.” God has shown us His ways. While our heart goes astray God has shown us His heart. His heart is Jesus. If we want to see His ways we look to Jesus.

We’re not just talking about humility, even the humility of Jesus. We’re talking about the heart of God and the heart of God is Jesus. Jesus here in the Gospel reading is not telling us how to live, although if we lived in the way described things would be much better and we’d glorify God. Jesus is really showing us the heart of God and that’s why He came. That’s why He humbled Himself. That’s why we see Him doing the very things He exhorts us to do.

That’s why we see Him going to the back of the room and alone taking the sins of the world upon Him on the cross. That’s why we see Him inviting us into His eternal mansion when He knows we can never repay Him. I sometimes wonder if someone was making a joke when they created Labor Day and then gave everyone the day off. Well, this is kind of like the way it is with us and salvation. Payment must be made for our selfish and sinful nature. Work must be accomplished for us to gain salvation. But God tells us to take the day off. He says that we are to rest while His Son alone bears the burden of the work.

That’s why we have all the Bible Studies we have at our church. That’s why we have Sunday school for all the children. So we can grow in Him whose heart is for us and for our salvation. That’s why He continues to serve us through His Word and Sacraments, inviting us to come forward to the front so that we may feast with Him, our very Lord and Savior. So that we may know that the God of all creation has shown us His heart and it is in Jesus alone that we may know everlasting grace and mercy. Amen.