Sunday, February 24, 2008

God's Problem

Third Sunday Lent
Sunday, February 24, 2008
John 4:5-30, 39-42

There are several things we have in common. One of those is that we all have problems. Some of you have some really big problems you’re facing right now—maybe you have severe health problems or maybe money is really tight. Some of you are dealing with a bunch of little, but very annoying, problems—but they’re all seeming to pile up at once. Some of you may be thinking that you’re life actually is going pretty smoothly right now and you’re happy that you’re not dealing with heavy-duty problems—but you still know they’ll come. You still are dealing with the effects of problems you’ve faced in the past.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be free of problems? Couldn’t we be so much more productive if we didn’t have to deal with problems? Wouldn’t we be so much happier if we had problem-fee lives? Everyone endures problems. No one is perfect. No one is immune to pain and suffering.

Wouldn’t it be great to be God? Wouldn’t it be great to be above the fray? To have everything at your disposal; not be caught up in all the stuff that can go wrong? Wouldn’t it be great not to have any problems?

That would be great, all right. There’s only one problem: and that is that God has a problem. I know that’s easy to say. I know if I were standing before Him and His holy throne I’d be scared to death to say, “God, You have a problem.” But it is true. He’s a got a problem—and the even weirder thing is that I have an agnostic to thank for bringing this to my attention.

Normally, I would take anything an agnostic has to say about God as wrong or misinformed. But there’s a scholar who just wrote a book called God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer. Now, he’s wrong that the Bible fails to answer the question of suffering. And he’s wrong about what God’s problem is. But he’s actually right that God has a problem.

The Gospel reading for today shows us what that problem is. Jesus is in Samaria. Not really a place that a devout Jew likes to be in; the Jews and Samaritans didn’t exactly get along. But He’s there—because if He’s not going to make His way through the place, He’ll lengthen His trip from Judea to Galilee way farther than what most people would want.

So there He is in Samaria, and He’s tired. He’s thirsty and He’s gotta get off His feet. But He doesn’t have anything to drink. He’s got a problem we all face at times. We get tired, we get thirsty. We need to rest and find some water.

You might be thinking, “Well, if that’s God’s problem, then what’s the big deal?” And, as far as problems go, this certainly isn’t that big of a problem. Of course, He’s hungry, also. But that’s not really that big of a deal either, is it? But it’s just not enjoyable to be away from home; tired, thirsty, and having to wait for your friends to bring you some food. Jesus shouldn’t have much difficulty with this kind of a situation, though, since, after all, He’s God.

And that’s just the thing. God has a problem because He has chosen to have a problem. While we wish we could get rid of our problems, God takes on our problems. But not just our problems. Not just the stuff that goes wrong in our lives. Jesus went through all of those kinds of problems. He had bad days, He got tired, He experienced grief, people treated Him shamefully. But God’s problem is specifically our main problem. The problem. It is the problem of our sin. It is the problem of our guilt before Him. This is the problem He has taken on.

So if we think we’ve got problems, consider the problem God has. It is the weight of the sin and guilt of the world. Of every person who’s ever lived. Consider how we can’t escape the judgment of God. The woman at the well could not hide from Jesus her sin. It’s actually the thing that got her to see that He was more than just a man. And this is the man who chose to take on this woman’s problem. Not just all the stuff that was going wrong with her life—her messy divorces, her shacking up with some guy. Her PROBLEM. Her sin and guilt before the Almighty God. It was all her fault. She chose to sin against God. And yet, Jesus chose to take her sinfulness upon Himself. He chose instead to give her Living Water. Forgiveness for all of her sins. A clean slate.

No piling on more guilt on her already heavy problems. Just a simple offer of clear, refreshing Living Water. This is water that would make a mountain spring seem lacking. While it refreshes, it leaves you thirsty again. The Living Water Christ gives does not leave you thirsty. It leaves you with true refreshment. It actually gives you life. Water will keep you alive as long as you keep drinking it. The Living Water of Christ gives you life that is forever.

Someone has made the observation that if pain were water in the world we would all drown. There is a lot of pain, isn’t there? We all have problems. It would be wonderful if we could be relieved of our problems. But even God, who is perfect and above the fray, has a problem. His eternal love for the people He has created prompted Him to take on this problem. It is the problem of our sin, and taking it on Himself is the only solution for our problem of sin and guilt. He gives us Living Water so that we won’t drown in our Problem. We’ll still have problems, but our Lord has come to relieve us of our most serious and basic problem—our sin.

He’s got a problem, all right. But He dealt with this problem on the cross. Jesus didn’t just come to identify with us. He doesn’t just let us know that He empathizes with us in our problems. He who knew no sin came to be sin for us. He drank the cup of wrath of the Living God that we may drink of the Living Water of His Heavenly and eternal love for us. God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

He offered the woman at the well Living Water. He offers you today the very same Living Water. If you think you’ve got problems, welcome to the club. We’ve all got them—including God. But while we’re all in the same boat with our problem of sin, our problem has actually become God’s Problem. He offers you today the very same Living Water. Drink from His Well. Hear His Word to you that you are forgiven. Remember that you are His, He has Baptized you with water and His Word. Receive His body and blood in His Holy Meal He gives you often. It is never too much of a problem for God to forgive you and give you rest for your soul. Amen.


Sunday, February 17, 2008

A Modern Day Parable

Second Sunday Lent
Sunday, February 17, 2008
John 3:1-17

Nick never wanted to be in the limelight. Sometimes your calling puts you into the limelight to a degree. He had always wanted to serve in the church in some fashion. When he was a boy he would gather his little brothers and sisters around himself to play “church.” He would be the pastor, of course, and they would have to sit there and listen to his sermons and give of their allowance for the offering.

In high school he received great joy from being involved in the youth group servant events and counted as the highlight of his youth the mission trip he took to Estonia. He couldn’t speak or understand a word of Estonian but would never forget the grateful look on the little boys and girls’ faces as he played with them and helped build a new church for them.

He wasn’t happy only when he was doing “spectacular” things like mission work, though. He liked helping out around the church. And received especially great joy when people congratulated him for his maturity and faith that seemed to be beyond his years. Many people talked about how the Church at large would be blessed if such a fine young man were to go into the ministry. And recalling those days when he would play “church” with his brothers and sisters, he, too, had often thought about and prayed about whether he should go into the ministry.

As he found himself in college he felt like he couldn’t quite get a handle on how best to serve the Lord. There were many opportunities he could take advantage of as he had done in high school with all the servant projects. But it seemed so much more hollow now. Being in college there weren’t as many people around to give him accolades. To urge him on in his service to the Lord. There was an emptiness in him that hadn’t seemed to be there before. If people in his home congregation had thought he was so mature and strong in faith beyond his years, what was now happening to him, now that he was older, and supposedly wiser?

He didn’t have his pastor to talk to anymore now that he was so far away from home. Well, he could call him, but that just didn’t seem the same. But now that he really thought about it, did he ever really talk to his pastor that much anyway? He just kind of took the whole God and service thing for granted and never really seemed to have that much of a need to talk to him. Everything had seemed so fulfilling. Would any of his friends here at college understand what he was going through?

He had heard of people and even known a few who ended up giving up on the Church altogether. They were searching for something that they couldn’t find in Church. They were seeking help from God in their problems that didn’t seem to be anywhere in sight. I wonder how those people were doing now, he thought. Then a striking thought came to him—he could pray for them. And he felt guilty about how little he had thought to pray for people in his life. He was much more comfortable in the physical activity of helping people than in the spiritual care of them.

It sounded kind of odd, but maybe this was a sign that he was actually maturing. He was actually now seeing things for what they really were rather than what they appeared to be to so many people. Even worse, he was beginning to see himself for what he really was as opposed to what so many people thought he was. If he had to admit it, he would have to say that he was a hypocrite. All of his serving he had done in the church wasn’t really about God but about himself. About how it made him feel. Oh yes, he loved God and wanted to serve Him, but he was much more fulfilled about the feeling he got from knowing that so many people thought highly of him.

Was he really the strong and caring Christian so many people had thought? And if not, what did that mean for him? If he was in fact a hypocrite, then what could he do about it? Would simply confessing his sin and trying to do better help him feel better? Would it actually make him better? Would it replace the emptiness he felt? The way the people he had helped in the past felt was what he wished he could feel from God. But that feeling was out of reach.

So what could he do? How could he change things around so he could feel that he was truly serving God and not feel empty inside himself? How could he feel that God really did love him and that this wasn’t just some game where he would do things and people would ooh and ahh over how wonderful of a blessing he was? Right now the only thing stable in his life was the church he was attending while away from home. It didn’t seem to fill that emptiness inside, but there was something about being in God’s House week after week that gave him some sense that there was an anchor in his life.

He tried praying more. He even tried finding some service projects to do to give himself a sense of fulfillment. And while it was nice to be able to help people there still seemed to be a hole in his faith life. When he returned home for the summer break he wasn’t sure how the people in his congregation would react to him. Surely they would notice how much he had changed. Surely they would be able to tell that he wasn’t the same old kid they had known so well. He knew they would see right through him to his disillusionment.

But when they saw him it was as if he had never left. They treated him like a year had never gone by. He was the same old Nick to them. They were every bit as proud of him, especially now that he was a big time college student. It seemed that all he had to do was be who he was and they saw something in him that he knew was not really there.

This made him feel even worse. He now felt like he was living a lie. Oh well, he’d go through the motions during the summer and then at least he’d be able to go back to school and he wouldn’t have to deal with the uncomfortable situation of feeling like he was pretending to be something he was not. But that was just the thing. He wasn’t pretending. They were the ones who were making him into something he was not. He was increasingly seeing that he was anything but a faithful servant of God. That, if anything, all those wonderful things he did for others was every bit as much for himself as it was for them. It would be a long summer.

It did start out that way. One of the members of the congregation owned a hardware store. He offered Nick a job and his parents thought it would be a good idea to learn a line of work like that, even if he were going to go into the ministry some day, or some other vocation.

So to the hardware store he went. Learning about tools. The different kinds. The different uses. The differences in quality. He also found something interesting happening to him. He began enjoying talking with the customers about the tools. What they needed, what they were attempting to do. He was beginning to get good at helping them pick out the right tools for them. And he was enjoying helping people in this way, even though it seemed like it was anything but a spiritual form of service like he had done so much in the past.

But perhaps the best part about the job was being able to talk to the owner during those times when they would do inventory. Nick was really beginning to like him. The owner never pried into his personal life, and yet was humble and likeable and interested in Nick as a person, that he found himself opening up more and more to him. He also found something that he had never really experienced before, and that, as odd as it sounded, was someone who was serving him. Someone who was taking time to help him. Nick had never really felt he needed help. He had always thought of himself as the one who serves others, not needing others to serve him.

The summer was quickly coming to an end. Soon he’d be off again to school, and, he feared, to the emptiness he had felt all last year. Should he open up so much as to let his new found friend in on his secret? Should he risk the hurt of maybe being rejected?

He worked up the courage and decided it was worth the risk. He knew something had to be done. All his life he had placed his life in his own hands. Time to place it in someone’s else’s. He had gotten himself nowhere but in an empty search for meaning. Maybe his friend really could help. Maybe he would indeed be everything he had been—a friend, a brother in Christ, even a person God had put in his life for just this time when he really needed something, someone, anything.

It was the hardest thing he had ever done. Really, so much of what he had done in life was easy, now that he thought about it. So many things came naturally for him. Serving people was the easiest thing in the world. Receiving the accolades of others was par for the course for him. But this… this was tough. Never in his life had he dreamed he would be spilling his guts to someone. And for that matter, in a hardware store! But God works things in ways we don’t always expect, and in its own way this was a very freeing experience. He actually felt lighter. He didn’t spare any details. He didn’t try to make himself sound better than he really was. He thought more than once that the owner of the hardware store would react judgmentally, explaining how he sure wasn’t the person he thought he was!

But what he received instead was silence. Nick had carefully explained all his feelings, all his confusion. His friend sat there the whole time listening intently. Never bored, never reacting negatively. Just listening. Seeking to understand exactly where Nick was coming from. And when it was all over, he just sat there in thought. Appearing as though he had something profound to say but not sure of exactly the right words to use. Nick sat there also. What does he think of me now? What will he say? Will he tell my parents that I have some serious problems?

When the owner finally did speak, it was soft but deliberate: “What you need to do is die.”

Now this was something Nick had never expected to hear! A good chastising might have actually been better to receive than this! What was he talking about that I need to die? Every Christian knows that suicide is a sin. Maybe he was so worked up in telling his own story that he misheard. “Excuse me, maybe I misunderstood you, did you say I need to die?”

“Oh you heard me just fine. That’s exactly what I said.” But his tone was not harsh. In fact, it was very soothing. It had a comfort to it as if what he said would make all the sense in the world and put the matter to rest.

Okay, so he heard him right, but certainly did not understand what he could possibly mean by that. His owner was a straightforward kind of guy, so he decided to just come right out and ask him what he meant by it.

Again there was a pause. As if he were pondering over his great sympathy for Nick. But again, this did not make Nick feel at all as though the man were looking down on him. His very demeanor, in fact, gave Nick a sense of comfort, of safety.

The pause this time wasn’t as long and when he spoke this time it wasn’t as cryptic. “You are the victim of a sense of Christianity that it’s all about you and your life. You may never have asked God directly, What are You going to do for me today?, but your life actually revolves around that sense of entitlement. As if God owes you something. As if all those accolades were exactly what God thinks of you and ought to think of you.”

As he was talking, Nick was struck by two things. The first was that he was immediately convicted. He was not enjoying one bit hearing these words. But at the same time, hearing them was a relief, because he knew everything he was hearing was true. He had even known it already, but had just never been able to admit it. The second thing was that there was no hint in this owner of the hardware store of any self-righteousness. He was not coming off as if everything he was saying applied to Nick but not to himself. Nick was actually feeling even lighter, as if a burden was being lifted off his shoulders at the very moment. That this man was telling him this stuff not to bury him in his wretchedness but to lift him out of it!

But he still was not getting the connection between this newfound insight and the fact that he needed to die. His friend continued: “Well, this is where we so often get Christianity confused with what the world wants. Or maybe we should better say, what we want. Because aren’t we so often more in tune with the world than with Christ? Why did Christ come? It was to die. That doesn’t sound like a happy, self-esteem promoting message, but isn’t that why He came? He’s God and lives forever. The reason He came to earth was to die. And the Bible says that if we go on living as we do then we’ll die eternally. That’s because we’re wrapped up in sinful flesh. But if we die… If we die, well, then we’ll live. No, I’m not talking about committing suicide, I’m talking about Baptism. I’m talking about what actually happens when we’re converted—about what happened when you were Baptized.

“You’ve seen firsthand how your life, as wonderful as it looks on the outside, is really a hollow shell. It’s really death with a happy face on it. But when you die, then you live. If Jesus hadn’t died, we would have no life. If we do not die with Christ in Baptism, we are not raised with Him. So often we don’t realize that Christ didn’t come to die to make our life better on earth, but to save us from eternal death. He came to give us life forever with Him in heaven. All the stuff you do to help others is not stuff you do so much as God’s love for you in Christ overflowing to others. You’ve been feeding off the good feeling that comes from serving. But you’re dead. It’s no longer you who lives but Christ who lives in you.”

At this point it was Nick’s turn to be silent. And the owner of the hardware store sat perfectly content in the silence. Nick had a strange sensation. He felt a contentment he had never really known before. But the weird, even wonderful, thing about it was that it wasn’t one of those feelings that everything from here on out is going to be okay. The very contentment was actually in knowing that everything wouldn’t be okay. But it was in just such circumstances that Jesus came. It was just for such people as him that Jesus came to die. And if he could receive a blessing from this man he had come to know in a hardware store when he never expected it, he could see that God had great things in store for him. That heaven, in fact, was in store for him. That between now and then God would be giving a little bit of heaven to him in the Lord’s Supper that he would eagerly look forward to receiving often. That in receiving such a gift he would know that all of this wasn’t about him but about his new life in Christ. Amen.


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

On Earth As It Is in Heaven

Lenten Midweek
Matthew 28:16-20

Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me.” Here is how we see what the will of God is. In instituting Baptism here at the giving of the Great Commission, Jesus is hearkening us back to His giving to us the Lord’s Prayer. The third petition is “Thy will be done.” But it’s not just that God’s will be done. “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” He has become a man. He has suffered. He has risen. He is now about to ascend into heaven. But before He does, He has something to tell His apostles: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me.”

And He will now give the Great Commission. He will now institute Baptism. When He directs us to pray in the prayer He gave us, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” one way we see how His will in heaven is indeed done on earth is in Baptism.

He first directs His eleven disciples to a mountain. There is a lot of speculation about Baptism. A lot of disagreement. This will always be this way when it comes to the most important things in life and of the life to come. Why is it so hard for us to simply go where Jesus has directed us to go? For the disciples it was the mountain He told them to go to. For us it is His Words we have before us: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, Baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Avoid any speculation about your Baptism. Know that you are indeed Baptized, Jesus says it right here. This is where He has directed you, this is where we know the certainty that His heavenly will has indeed been done on earth. He places His name on us in Baptism. Where His name is, there is certainty. Where His name is, there is salvation.

The sinful flesh is stubborn, though. Even when we go where Jesus has directed us to go, we fall into doubts, don’t we? The disciples made their way to the mountain where Jesus was. There they worshiped Him. That seems an appropriate response. But Matthew also tells us the troubling detail that some of those disciples doubted. Doesn’t that cast doubt on the whole Great Commission? Doesn’t it put the institution of Baptism in a bad light? Just the opposite, we see that the things our Lord has given us rest on His power and authority alone and not on the individuals there. We have doubts just like those disciples did. We are not always faithful in our worship of Him. But He is always faithful to us in His promises. You may have some doubts, but flee to His Word, His promise, His institution of your Baptism.

Matthew doesn’t record Jesus’ response to their doubting. Or maybe He does. Maybe He just went right into what He had brought them there for. Whatever dialogue there may have been on the mountain, the Holy Spirit has recorded for us what we need to know. Jesus tells the apostles that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Him. It’s a no-brainer for us that God has all authority in heaven and on earth. He’s God, after all. So why does Jesus, who is God, say that all authority has been given to Him? Because He is the selfless servant. Because He has chosen to humble Himself. He became a man. He is not afraid to be in a position where He is receiving.

This has so much more to say about Baptism than we may realize. What it says first is that what is behind Baptism is all authority in heaven and on earth. God Himself is behind our Baptism. What it says second is that this is indeed God’s will. Don’t ever let anybody tell you that your Baptism is no big deal. Don’t fall for the line that it’s just a symbol. Don’t think for a minute that it’s some simple act you do to show God that you believe in Him and follow Him. Baptism is all about God’s will for you, on earth as it is in heaven. It is all about Him forgiving you your sins and giving you new life. What it says third flows right from this, and that is that Baptism is all about receiving. It’s not about doing, but receiving. If receiving is good enough for Jesus, who is God Almighty, then it should be good enough for us. In fact, we should rejoice in it! That as our Lord Himself humbled Himself to receive all authority in heaven and earth, we in humility receive the gift of salvation in Baptism.

The Lord who has received all authority is the one who then gives. What does He give? One of the most well known things there is to Christians: the Great Commission. It’s simply this: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” In another amazing display of humility we see that our Lord, the God Almighty, is not ashamed to use simple people like you and me to carry out the wonderful task of making disciples. I’m a control freak when it comes to certain things. There are some things I don’t want anybody doing but me. But when it comes to this our Lord is not too proud to let us in on what He’s got going.

But He doesn’t just tell us to go make disciples of all nations, He tells us how. By Baptizing and teaching. There is no one He does not want to be a disciple. There is no one He does not want to be Baptized. There is no one He does not want to be taught. All nations means all nations. God wants all people to be saved. The way He brings people into His eternal Kingdom is through Baptism. This is His will, the heavenly grace coming to earth in water connected with the Word of God.

When He directed the disciples to the mountain and He was greeted with some doubt He didn’t leave them in their doubt. He didn’t give up on them. He directed them to something else. They wouldn’t be able to stay on the mountain forever. He would be ascending into heaven shortly. So He gave them something they could hold on to. He directed them to Baptism. Despite our doubts, He doesn’t leave us be.

Baptism saves us but it is not alone. Just as a person is born and then fed and nurtured so when we are Baptized we are fed and nurtured on the Word of God. The Church Baptizes and teaches. People are brought in to the Christian Church and then are taught the Word of our Lord. This is how He sustains us in our Baptism.

It’s tempting to think of the Great Commission as a command. We might even be tempted to think of Baptism as something we have to do. But God doesn’t give what He gives just so we have to do certain stuff. He gives because He loves to give. He loves to lavish His grace upon us. And in the Great Commission all we should be seeing is lavish grace. Lest we forget this, He reminds us that He is with us always. From heaven above to earth He came. His will is done on earth as it is in heaven. In a rugged cross we can see heaven’s will. In ordinary water we can see heavenly grace poured out upon sinful people.

Heaven rejoices over one sinner who repents. We rejoice that His will is done. Amen.


Sunday, February 10, 2008

Sticks, Stones, and the Word of God

First Sunday Lent
Silas, Fellow Worker of Peter and Paul
Sunday, February 10, 2008
Matthew 4:1-11

Just when you think you know someone. Have you ever found out something about someone you knew well that shocked you? You might even have said, “I thought I knew you.” There is often more to people than meets the eye. We may think we know people very well and then find out differently.

Well, there’s someone we need to get to know better, because we probably don’t know him as well as we think we do. But let me immediately rephrase. Because this isn’t someone we want to get to know. But we do need to know who he is. So often we treat him as an afterthought.

He’s very real. He has some power. And he’s not afraid to come after us. After all, he came right up to Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. He’s the devil. And if you think you know him, or even who he is, think again. He’s not just a scary guy with horns on his head or even a being that comes to you in a more seductive way to harm you.

One reason why Jesus was tempted as He was is so that we can know exactly what we’re up against. In giving his account of the temptation of Jesus Luke refers to the devil as the “the devil” four times. Matthew does also. However, Matthew also refers to him as the “tempter” and as “Satan”. These different terms for the devil tell us much about him and what we’re up against.

Matthew first says that Jesus was tempted by the devil. We’re so used to referring to the devil as the devil that we might not think twice about what the word means and what it means that he is the devil. In English it simply means that he is the supreme agent of evil, God’s foremost enemy. We have almost come to think of it as a position. What is at the essence of who the devil is? The Greek word in the Gospel reading is “diabolos”. This is where we get our word diabolical from. It refers to one who engages in slander. The devil is very much a slanderer.

Jesus began His Ministry in celebration. He was commended by His Heavenly Father and anointed by the Holy Spirit. This was His commissioning. His ordination. His anointing. He was now ready and willing to serve and be the Messiah. But there was no time for any Ministry just yet, because He was thrown into the desert by the Holy Spirit in order to be tempted. So much for celebration. Here He was welcomed by the Father and the Spirit only to be attacked by the devil.

Matthew tells us how the devil attacked Him, too. He says that the “tempter” came to Him. We are all tempted. There are many people that tempt us. But none of them is the “Tempter” except this one. This is who he is. This is what he does.

Matthew has called the devil both the slanderer and the tempter. But Jesus gets personal. At the end of it all Jesus calls him Satan. The name Satan means “adversary”. And he is every bit that, using slander and temptation to attack Jesus. Jesus knows exactly who He’s dealing with. The devil has been a liar from the beginning. Jesus is also very aware that Satan knows what he’s doing. He himself uses God’s Word. This means that he knows the Word of God. But when Satan uses it, he twists it and distorts it.

He did this with Eve. He came up to her under the pretense of talking to her about the Word of God, but put doubt in her mind—“Did God really say?” He does the same thing with Jesus, starting off with the most recently heard Word of God, that of God the Father at Jesus’ Baptism: “This is My beloved Son.” So, the devil says to Jesus, “If You are the Son of God, turn these stones to bread.” In other words, God said You’re His Son, so prove it! It’ll help You out a lot, too, as hungry as You are after not eating for forty days. And what’s the big deal, it’s just a little way of getting something out of this raw deal You seem to have gotten from God, Your Father. If You are His beloved Son, then why has He left You out here in the desert to practically starve?

So Satan had been listening. He had heard the Word of the Heavenly Father at Jesus’ Baptism. But it’s one thing to hear the Word of God, it’s another to believe it and take it as it stands. Satan rebels against it and slanders God. Jesus knows the Word of God also and uses it against Satan: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every Word that comes from the mouth of God.” So He’ll stand with the Word He has just heard from His Heavenly Father, thank you very much. And every other one, for that matter. God’s Word may not satisfy His stomach, but Jesus knows it will sustain Him in His fasting and in His temptation from Satan.

But Satan is not deterred. This time he goes to the written Word of God. He says He loves You, He promised to protect You. Turning the stones to bread would help You but no one else would know that You have all these great powers. Why not show the people who You are and how God makes good on His promise to protect those He loves? If You were to jump off the temple and not hit the ground in death, that could only be a good thing for You and God—you’d get all kinds of followers. And isn’t this exactly what so many people want? Some kind of sign? Some spectacular display of power to show that Jesus is truly God? Satan knows exactly which buttons to push.

But if he knows the Word of God and how to twist it to his evil ends, Jesus knows it more so and exactly the purpose for which it was given. So He comes right back at Satan with the Word of God. Yes, what you say is true that God will protect those He loves. But you are not to test Him. He is the one who helps you in your need. You don’t go looking for trouble just so that He can rescue you.

At this point we see that it’s true that the Word of God sustains those who trust in God and flee to His Word for help in times of trouble and temptation. We tend to forget how human Jesus was. He was completely human. He was born a man, just like you and I have been born men and women. We are fleshly creatures in a physical world. What we see is as real as it gets. And when someone waves at you a whole lot of stuff you don’t have, well, that’s enticing for just about anyone. Including Christ.

He had stepped off His throne. Granted, He did it willingly. But when we choose to do something noble and the going gets rough, don’t we have second thoughts at times? Like when you embark on an exercise program. Things are going well, but after a while, sitting on the couch and eating chips is a lot more appealing than laboring on the treadmill. Or when you experience that excitement of volunteering at a nursing home and you feel rewarded at bringing joy to people who may not have much of it. But when your schedule gets crazy, and you’re getting a little run down yourself, the passion for helping out can vanish very quickly. Or what about when money is tight? Isn’t it more tempting to cut out giving your offering to God than other important items in your budget?

Jesus knew what He had chosen to do. He was God, and yet, very human. The Heavenly glory, the eternal power, the unearthly joy He knew must have seemed a distant memory now. He loved the world, but at what cost? Now where did He find Himself? In the middle of a desert. No food. No one to talk to. His Heavenly Father and the Holy Spirit weren’t around anymore so they could celebrate like they did forty days ago. At least that was something. Here Satan was at least talking to Him. And offering things that would even put Him in a better position in the eyes of the world.

All it would take would be one simple act. And would it really be that big of a deal to bow down to Satan just once? Jesus could even do it without His heart being in it. That’s really all Satan was asking for anyway. Just like with Eve, just one little taste. It can’t do much harm and it sure will be satisfying.

This is what we’re up against, then. Death, lies, a diabolical adversary who will stop at nothing to bring us down with him for all eternity. But Jesus knows that it’s all or nothing. There is no little taste or simple act of worship and then you can go on from there with your allegiance back to God. His final quote of the Word of God is coupled with a command: “Be gone Satan! You shall worship the Lord God and Him only shall you serve.”

This is the one thing Satan didn’t do. It’s the one thing we are most tempted not to do. It is abundantly clear that it is all or nothing with God. Even in His salvation. He went all out to save us. He faced even further temptation as He headed to the cross. But He never veered, even though it meant His life so that we may have life. Christ’s temptation and overcoming of it is anything but an interesting story. Here is the battle between eternal life and death. We all know the saying “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Well, Satan doesn’t need sticks, or stones, or anything else to hurt us. He often uses simple words. Even the Word of God itself. And had Jesus turned those stones to bread all would have been lost.

Jesus held firm on the Word of God and that will never fail us. Amen.


Wednesday, February 6, 2008

What You Most Treasure

Ash Wednesday
Wednesday, February 6, 2008
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

During our midweek Lenten worship services we will hear the Words of our Lord as set forth in the Catechism. I say the Words of our Lord because it’s a misconception to think of the words of the Catechism as the words of a human being. I suppose the reason this is is because the title of the little book we know as the Catechism is Luther’s Small Catechism. The meanings Luther attached to the Catechism are indeed his words. But the words of the Catechism itself are straight out of the Bible, with the exception of the Apostle’s Creed, which is a compilation of phrases that are straight from the Bible or based directly on the Bible.

Think about what the Catechism consists of: The Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, Baptism, Confession and Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper. These are all from God in His Word. If we think of them as only human made things it is easy to dismiss them. But if we recognize and believe and take to heart that they are given to us by God then we will hold them in the high esteem they deserve. This is one of the reasons we have Lent. We need times of reflection. We need times where we meditate on God’s Word. We are so inundated in our lives with human words that we may hear very little of God’s Word.

Jesus brings this home with His words in the Gospel reading:
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

What do we think of God’s Word? We Christians believe it’s the Word of God. That it’s entirely true and profitable toward salvation. But do we treasure God’s Word? Is it more valuable to us than earthly riches?

This is really brought home when we take a look at a portion of God’s Word such as the Ten Commandments. It’s hard to treasure words like these, isn’t it? Even though we know they’re fully the Word of God. It’s hard to treasure them because it’s hard to hear them. Even harder to take them to heart. It’s impossible for us to obey them perfectly. We try, but we fall short.

Yet treasure the Words of God is what God calls us to do. Even these. The ones that put demands on us. And you know something about God? When He makes demands, it’s as if that’s not even enough to put on us. It’s as if He makes it even harder. How does Jesus describe the kind of life He calls us to in the Gospel reading? When you do things that are pleasing to God, don’t do it in a way that people will know about it. In other words, we’re not to do them so that others can see how good we are. Holiness is not spectacular. It doesn’t seek the spotlight.

The only one getting the spotlight is Jesus Christ. And He set the example for us. He rightly belongs in the spotlight and yet He humbled Himself. He did this for us. He suffered and died so that we may have salvation. That we are called upon by God to be holy is an outgrowth of the salvation He has given us.

In the Gospel reading Jesus summarizes the second table of the Law with His words on helping others. Commandments four through ten describe how this looks. We honor our parents and those in authority. We do not seek harm against others and we don’t hate them. We honor the marriage bond, both in our actions and in our thoughts. We leave other people’s stuff alone and help them take care of it. We honor the reputation of others and do not drag it through the mud. We remain content with what we have and do not look upon the possessions of others as what we should have.

Though these things are hard to do, it’s pretty straightforward. What Jesus is getting at is why we do it. And that extends into how we do it. When we’re good boys and girls that makes us feel good. It makes us feel really good when other people notice. And if that’s the reward we want, that’s the reward we’ll get. But God gave us the Ten Commandments so that we may help our neighbor, not to be well thought of by others.

If there’s one thing the Ten Commandments drive home it’s that it’s not about us. Against the Ten Commandments we see just how much we fall short of God’s will. Do we always treat others the way we want to be treated? How often do we say things about others that are speculation and don’t build up their reputation? And why do we feel that it’s perfectly fine to talk back to our parents? But even if we were to convince ourselves that these things aren’t that big of deal, we are soon brought down to size, because Jesus once again ratchets things up a notch.

After He’s through talking about how we are to love our neighbor, He goes to the first table of the Law. Here is probably where we most see that we would like our righteousness to be known by others. We can do a fine job of convincing ourselves of how good we are. But there is no getting around the one thing that puts to rest our mistaken notions: you shall have no other gods. Ultimately, we want to please ourselves. We so often do not look to God for our highest good but seek to please ourselves. What we most treasure is ourselves.

But God has a treasure, too. He treasures us. He loves us. He has done all things to bring about salvation for us. And it is His gift to us. He offers it freely. He doesn’t demand that we obey the Ten Commandments first. He forgives our falling short of it. He placed His demand on His only-begotten Son. This is the greatest treasure of all. The abundance of blessing He pours out on us doesn’t end just with our salvation but also in the opportunity to serve others as He has first served us. Amen.


Sunday, February 3, 2008

Jesus Alone

The Transfiguration of Our Lord
Last Sunday after the Epiphany
Sunday, February 3, 2008
Matthew 17:1-9

Have you ever needed a lawyer? Has someone ever taken you to court or brought legal matters before you you had to address? Or maybe in your business another party you were dealing with had different ideas than you and you weren’t equipped to address those things on your own. Especially if someone has falsely accused you or even wants you or your company to go in a different direction than you, it is a confidence builder to know that you’re legal counselor will be able to handle matters that you would get buried in. You don’t have to go into it alone.

Have you ever sat there in the hospital room waiting to hear the results of a test or surgery? So many people go through their lives never thinking about their health and even trying to avoid going to the doctor or hospital. But in times where you suffer from serious illness, you’re unable to get through it on your own. It’s scary sitting there in the hospital room. But can’t it be comforting to hear the doctor explaining what exactly is happening to you, what can be done about it, and that everything possible will be done to help you? Someone who has the knowledge and skill to hit your problem head on.

But even in simple things like having a bad day—isn’t it nice to be able to unload your burdens on someone else? It’s hard enough having a bad day. Going through it alone adds even more misery. There’s all kinds of suffering in this world. Being alone is suffering like no other. And that’s why we celebrate the way we do—we get together with others. We eat, we talk, we enjoy each other’s company. We feel good not just because of what we’re celebrating, but because we’re with those we love and who love us. Without that, even being with others can leave us feeling lonely.

Jesus’ Ministry began with celebration. At His Baptism God the Father was there. Glowing down in pride in His only-begotten Son. Speaking words of His pleasure in His Son and exhorting all to listen to Him. The Father making Himself heard, the Holy Spirit also present, making Himself seen, appearing as a dove. And Jesus was there, of course, taking it all in. It’s like the celebration a family has at graduation. The proud father, speaking to all who will hear, “This is my son! The graduate! He’s going to some fancy-schmancy university!” The equally proud mother, expressing her love with an arm around her son. The one at the center of it all, basking in the celebration. Heaven is going to be like that—one big party. We will be in the presence of the Triune God, we’ll take it all in.

At the Baptism of Christ we have this glorious celebration of the Triune God, three Persons in one God and one God in three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the one true God. In His infinite wisdom the one true God chose to become a man. A human being. To step from His eternal throne and become part of His creation.

But God the Father did not walk the earth. God the Holy Spirit did not eat and sleep. Jesus, the second Person of the Trinity, the Son, did. What would this look like? What would it be like? Would the Father and the Spirit say, “Don’t worry there, Jesus, we’ll be with you every step of the way. It’ll be just like all of us doing it together.”? Well, at the beginning of His Ministry there they were. Present. Celebrating. Glorying. Taking it all in. Being together.

But how did it play out? Was Jesus’ Heavenly Father always by His side? Was the Holy Spirit always ready to help Him, ever-present with Him in some form? Let’s jump ahead to the event we celebrate today, the Transfiguration. Who was there? Well, Jesus brought along with Him three disciples. Moses and Elijah showed up. Oh yes, and God the Father was there again, the Proud Papa. Speaking about His Son, glorying in His Son, giving exhortation to listen to His only-begotten Son. And it seems every bit as much of a celebration. Maybe even more.

Except. Except the Holy Spirit. Where was He? No descending as a dove. No manifestation of the glory that God brings. Was this another sign of God’s infinite wisdom, something that we’ll just never know; why the Holy Spirit decided no longer to be involved in the Ministry of God becoming a man?

God’s infinite wisdom, yes. Not having a clue as to what the Triune God, and notably the Holy Spirit, had in mind here, no. And for that we need to jump ahead to one more event and we see exactly what God is up to.

It is the one that is most known to Christians: the crucifixion. Jesus is present at the cross, of course. But this time there’s no celebration. The Holy Spirit is every bit as absent physically as He was at the Transfiguration. But perhaps the most surprising thing is that God the Father is seemingly nowhere to be found, either. He says not a word. At the cross, it’s Jesus alone. At the Baptism, God the Father speaks. The Holy Spirit gives His affirmation, as well, by descending as a dove. At the Transfiguration God the Father speaks again but the Holy Spirit isn’t present. Here at the cross, God is very present, but it’s Jesus alone.

At the cross God speaks once again, but this time we do not hear the Father speaking, only the Son. The Bible records Jesus speaking seven times on the cross. Whereas in His Baptism and Transfiguration His Heavenly Father speaks His pleasure with His Son, when Jesus cries out on the cross, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”, there is only silence. No response from His Heavenly Father. No words of comfort. On the cross Jesus is alone. There is no Father. There is no Spirit. There is only Jesus.

At the Transfiguration, once God the Father speaks and the disciples cower in fear, Jesus tells them to get up. When they look up, they see Jesus only. And that is what the Transfiguration is all about. That is what the Ministry of Christ is all about. That is what God and His salvation are all about. It is about the cross. It is about Jesus. Alone, on the cross, suffering, dying.

At the Transfiguration it was glorious. On the cross it is wretched. At the Transfiguration His face shown brilliantly. On the cross His face was marred more than any man. His appearance was humiliating. There was no celebration, only sorrow, sadness. There was Jesus, alone. All our sorrows, all our infirmities, all our loneliness, was encompassed in the man Jesus Christ as He hung on the cross, giving up His life for the world. Jesus was alone on the cross so that we may not be alone for eternity. He was forsaken of His Father so that we may hear our Heavenly Father say to us, “This is My beloved son, this is My beloved daughter.” He was alone on the cross because it is in Him alone that we have salvation. It is in Jesus only that all our sins, our infirmities, and our loneliness may be forever put to death. He suffered scorn so that we may join in on the eternal celebration of heaven that Moses and Elijah were already enjoying.

If Peter thought it was great to be up there on the mountain, just the three of them with the two prophets and Jesus, he hadn’t seen nothin’ yet! Jesus knew that the true celebration would come only through the cross. And only He alone would suffer to make it happen. He has. And we are never alone for He is always with us. Amen.