Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Latest Thing Is the Same Old Thing

Sixth Sunday of Easter
Sunday, April 27, 2008
John 14:15-21

In the beginning God spoke. That’s how He created the universe, by speaking it into existence. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. We know this because God has written it down the Holy Scriptures.

In those very same Holy Scriptures is written down man’s reaction to God’s Word. It is not too long before he’s saying of God’s Word, “Did God really say?” Okay, the serpent in the Garden of Eden was the one who said it, but Adam and Eve were all too ready to question God’s Word, going right along with Satan’s temptation. And you know what the rest of the Bible is? Man’s continued questioning of God’s Word to him.

So those people in the First reading from Acts? They were always wanting to talk about something new. What’s the latest thing? It’s sounds like a bunch of teenagers. The philosophy that was going around last week is old. We want something our itching ears will latch onto. But what they refused to listen to—surprise, surprise—was the Word of God, which says, “There is nothing new under the sun.” We’re about three thousand years from that statement in the Bible and about two thousand from those men who loitered around the marketplace attempting to discover the latest philosophical trend.

And you know what? Nothing has changed. There’s nothing new under the sun, after all. The latest thing is actually the same old thing, maybe just packaged a little differently. Every different spin on it is just another variation of those first words spoken in response to God’s Word—“Did God really say?” It doesn’t matter where you look in history, people are questioning what God says. Peter in the Epistle reading mentions the people who didn’t believe that God would destroy the earth with a massive flood. We know what happened there. So many people didn’t believe Jesus was God. Not even His rising from the grave could convince some of them.

We may not question the resurrection of Christ. We may not stand around in the marketplace of society seeking after new philosophies. But we may be enticed by those in Christianity who are popular and give a message that is nothing more than psychology, even though they tack on some Bible verses to it. Churches that are growing in massive numbers and that have exciting programs may catch our eye even if their message or programs offer what you can get outside of Christianity.

But God has given us His Word nonetheless. It’s kind of like when you tell your kids stuff they don’t understand and they want to know why you’re telling them. Things are the way they are even if they don’t understand it. God knows we don’t understand His ways. He knows we question Him. But that doesn’t stop Him from telling us what we need to know.

We have this incessant desire for something new. We don’t want the same old, same old. But when we look at God’s Word, we see that He doesn’t give us something new. He gives us what He has always given, and that is life. That is His care and compassion. It may sound boring, but can you imagine what it would be like if God kept changing the rules? If He told you one thing one day and changed it the next? We’re the ones who have questioned His Word, when in fact His Word has remained the same all along.

So when Jesus says He is going to give us the Holy Spirit, He’s not talking about something new, but about the very same Holy Spirit who was present at creation, hovering over the face of the waters. Since Jesus came to earth to suffer and die in our place, He has no need to remain on earth. He has ascended into heaven but didn’t want to leave us destitute. He has given us His Holy Spirit so that we may receive the comfort we need, especially in those times we question Him because we’re struggling.

A few weeks ago when I went to the LWML Rally and saw the performance of Katie Luther, I learned a few things about Martin’s wife that I hadn’t known before. I hadn’t realized that before Martin ever had an inkling of romantic interest in her that she had fallen in love with someone and they had even become engaged. After a few weeks he had to get back home for some business but she heard nothing from him. After a few weeks she became aware she would never see him again. He chose to cut off the relationship. Obviously, there are times when we are separated by distance from those we love, but generally, we need to be with them. We need to be face to face with them. We need a relationship with them where we’re actually in contact with each other.

And that’s why God was in contact with Adam and Eve walking in the Garden with them. That’s why God became flesh and dwelt among us. That’s why even though Jesus has ascended bodily He continues to come to us bodily in the bread and wine of His Holy Supper. It is in these ways that we see what God wants—He wants to be with us. He wants us to enjoy His blessings and grace. He wants us to experience the eternal love only He can give to us.

You may desire something new, but Jesus points you back to Himself. “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” If we think we don’t love Jesus because we don’t keep His commandments, we’re missing the thrust of His statement. We do love Christ—we love Him because He first loved us. And so, miraculously, we do keep His commandments. How is it that we who fail to keep His commandments, actually do? He says that “In that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you.” It always goes back to Christ. In Him we live and move and have our being.

There’s nothing new, really. His love for you never fails. He doesn’t come up with new stuff to surprise you, but with His unfailing steadfast love. Amen.


Sunday, April 20, 2008

What Believing in God Means

Fifth Sunday of Easter
Sunday, April 20, 2008
John 14:1-14

Why would Jesus need to tell people who already believe in God to believe in God? For the same reason He tells us to confess our sins daily. Why do we who believe in God sin? Because too often our belief in God is lip service and not loving Him with our heart, soul, strength, and mind.

We normally think of the atheists as the ones who don’t believe in God. We think of the agnostics as the ones who need to be told, “Believe in God.” This is brought home in the new movie Expelled—No Intelligence Allowed, by Ben Stein. Several scientists interviewed in the movie can conceive of nothing more untenable than belief in God. But here Jesus is telling His own disciples to believe in God. And in the same breath He is telling you and me.

Dennis Prager, a radio talk show host, recently engaged in a debate with an atheist. The atheist declared himself the winner of the debate because Dennis did not prove the existence of God. Dennis’s response to this was that he did not intend to prove the existence of God because you can’t. That’s why Jesus didn’t give proof to the disciples. He just said, “Believe.” He did point out some evidence, but evidence is not proof. Believing in God is just that, belief.

There are a lot of Thomases in the world. There are a lot of Philips. There are those people who won’t believe because there’s no proof. There are those who have doubts. Jesus had been waxing eloquently and Thomas lamely said, “Lord, we do not know where You are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus’ response was again eloquent but then Philip chimed in: “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Show us the way. Show us God. Prove to us that what You’re saying is true. It was not, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.” It was, “Give us something we can hold on to. We need proof.”

But this really isn’t the most difficult question we face. Since you can’t prove the existence of God, at the end of the day you have decide whether or not you believe in Him. But Jesus ups the ante. He didn’t come to foster a debate on the existence of God. He didn’t even come to prove it to us. No, He came primarily to do one thing. And that thing is so much more difficult of a matter to face that theologians have come up with a term to describe it: the scandal of particularity.

It’s found in Jesus’ statement to Thomas: “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” Not only can this not be proven, it’s a declaration of war. It’s drawing a line in the sand like no other issue human beings face. It’s truly His way or the highway. But it’s even more than that, it’s His way or hell.

Now tell me that’s not offensive. Tell me that’s not tough to hear. With Jesus, there is no middle ground. He is the way to the Father, and every other way lands you in hell. So with all due respect to those who struggle over the existence of God, we’ve all got a more serious issue on our hands. Jesus didn’t come to prove God exists, but to show us how to get to Him. Believing in God lands you in hell apart from Jesus Christ. He is the way and He alone.

Now you may be wondering how this applies to you and to your life. This is how: if the Almighty God declares war on you, well, you’d better listen. To ignore this is to face the consequences of His declaring war on you, which is being in hell for eternity. It may not seem like it applies all that much to you now, but you will find out soon enough that it applies to you forever.

You also might wonder, why would Jesus declare war on your sinful nature? Because your sinful nature is your enemy. It wants you apart from God for eternity whereas God wants you with Him for eternity. So He is going to defeat the enemy. How He does this, of course, is through Jesus.

But Jesus doesn’t even show us that He is The Way through power and might. Rather, it’s through humility and weakness. He endures scoffing and scourging as if to give the impression that He’s really not all that He’s cracked up to be. He clearly identifies Himself as God, so why does He give the impression that He can’t even stand up to a few men? God is more powerful than that.

But it is only through Him and His suffering that we can believe in God. Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father but through Him. And this is the way: through His suffering and death. It is the scandal of particularity because it is in this specific action of God, Jesus’ suffering and taking on the sin of the world, that access to God the Father is made possible. In our relativistic world people want to believe that there are many ways to know God and that Jesus is only one way. Our sinful flesh doesn’t want to submit to being named utterly sinful and having to put away its sin. Jesus is a stumbling block to the world and our sinful flesh.

But He’s not done. He ups the ante yet again. If we think it’s tough to believe in God when we can’t prove He exists; if we think it’s offensive that there is nothing good about ourselves and that our only hope lies in Jesus; what do we make of Jesus’ promise that “whoever believes in Him will also do the works that He does; and greater works than these will he do”?! How would people react to you if you told them that you do greater works than Jesus?

What we need to see is what we so often do not see. And that is the reason that God has made Himself known to us. Think about that. He hasn’t proven to us that He exists, but He has made Himself known to us. The reason? For our benefit. It is because He loves us and wants to take care of us. Jesus’ point in telling the disciples and us to believe in God is so that we will not be troubled. So that we will know comfort that only He can give. What we need to see is that God doesn’t do what He does for Himself, but for us.

Why would He make it so that we will do even greater works than what Christ has done?! Because He is always at work to help us. To give us what we need. To comfort us in our troubles. To forgive our sin. To strengthen us in our weakness. The greater works we will do are works that He accomplishes in us. We have been united with Christ in Baptism. We are Christ to the world. We who have been saved have the wonderful blessing of loving others with the love of Christ. The greater works Jesus accomplishes in us bring about the intended result. His Word does not return to Himself void. It accomplishes the purpose for which it was sent. And you are the one actually bringing it about. God loves to work through earthen vessels.

But how is it that we are the ones bringing it about? Isn’t God the one bringing it about? The answer is, “Yes.” Yes, we are the ones bringing it about, and yes, God is the one bringing it about. The reason we are able to accomplish greater works than Jesus is because of what He says next: “because I am going to the Father.” When Jesus came to earth, He purposely did not make full use of His eternal power. He was limited in what He could do in that He chose not to do everything that was in His power. He chose to become a man.

But who are we? We are very much limited human beings as well. But we also are a new creation in Christ. We are not our own. We are in Christ and the resurrected and ascended Lord accomplishes mighty things through earthen vessels like you and me. We who are in Christ are people who believe in God not because we can prove He exists. We believe in God because of Christ. Who He is and what He has done is what we look to and why we celebrate our Baptism into Him and our receiving of His Body and Blood in His Holy Supper.

It’s really remarkable, isn’t it? All the time we spend wondering about what proof there is for God’s existence when what He does is simply give us His Son. Far from proving to us how great and awesome He is, He simply comes to us to serve us. And that is how we know the Father. That is how we believe in God. That is how we accomplish works greater than even Jesus Himself—because He Himself counts them that way. He has come to serve us, to care for us, to lift us up, and that is by putting Himself in the role of servant. He washes us clean in Baptism and puts food on our spiritual table that is His very own self, His Body and Blood. Believe in God, believe also in Jesus, and let not your heart be troubled. Amen.


Sunday, April 13, 2008

Your Inner Fish

Fourth Sunday of Easter
Sunday, April 13, 2008
John 10:1-10

The belief that we human beings are descended from apes is widespread. Now, I find this belief to be ridiculous, but there are many people who think that our Christian belief that humans were created by God from the ground to be ridiculous.

If you look at an ape you see similarities between them and us. And of course, scientists like to remind us that our DNA is something like ninety-eight percent the same. So even if you find the belief ridiculous you can at least have some sense of how some people could believe that.

But it gets even more interesting than that. A scientist recently wrote a book telling how we descended from something lower than apes. That it goes way way back, 3.5 billion years ago. That not only do we have a lot in common with apes, but most organisms, including fish, insects, worms, yeast, and bacteria. The details are different, but we all share the same basic plan. For example, teeth, feathers, and breasts all develop from basic interactions between layers of skin; like worms, our bodies are segmented—not only obvious things like our vertebrae, but also the way nerves are organized; invertebrates like a worm don’t have backbones, but they do possess a stiffening line of nerves down the back.

The book was written because of a discovery that has been made. It was a fish-like creature that is a step toward the elusive missing link. It was more a “fishapod,” a transitional species between fish and four-limbed, land-living tetrapods, which means having four limbs. The name of the book is Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body.

So there you have it. You are descended from a fish. And when you look around you and see any animal or look through a microscope and glimpse tiny organisms, you can make a family tree. Not only are the people you were descended from your ancestors but also fish.

Or, what you could do is listen to another person’s take on your identity. It’s just as crazy and probably more offensive. While the belief that God is the creator of human beings—and that we were created intact, not through evolution—sounds ridiculous to those who don’t believe that God is the sole creator, what Jesus says about who we are is outright offensive to them. But even more importantly, it is offensive to us. That is, it is offensive to our sinful nature.

While there are scientists out there who are telling you that you’ve come from a fish, Jesus tells you that you’re a sheep. Where’s the dignity in that? Sheep are often thought to be dumb animals. They actually have a certain level of intelligence, but we do have to admit that it’s pretty stupid to go along with the herd without knowing why, especially when it can lead to danger. And the Bible points out that we all like sheep have gone astray. A sheep will take the opportunity to get out of the fence even though it means it will not be in the safety of the fold.

Many who hear this would just as soon believe that they’ve come from apes, or a fishapod, having evolved. The author of the book on evolution refers to our inner fish. But when we look at God’s Book, He refers to our inner flesh. The Bible calls it our sinful flesh. The belief that we are the result of evolution is the belief that God is not our creator. It is the belief that we don’t need God because we got here without Him. That’s what our sinful flesh is all about. It is about living as if God doesn’t exist. Sadly, there are a good number of people who don’t believe that God exists.

But what our Lord says to us is really not about what all those people out there believe. He wants them to believe in Him, of course. He sent His Son to die for them. But when He talks about us being sheep, He’s talking to those of us who do believe in Him. Who do believe that He created us. That we’re not just a cosmic accident. So what does He mean, then, by insulting us by calling us sheep?

Well first of all, He’s not insulting us. He tells us things the way they are, and that’s really what we need to hear. We need to hear not only that He has created us but that we have decided to stray from Him. We’ve seen that tear in the fence and have decided that our fur is thick enough to protect us from getting cut by wriggling through the fence.

We’ve seen our neighbor in need but look out beyond our pasture to activities that are more comfortable and enjoyable to us; wriggling through that fence with rationalizations of too many things going on, and leaving our neighbor to fend for himself. We’ve taken God’s good gift of marriage and have managed to redefine it as a quaint custom, or even just a religious custom, thereby giving us license to fantasize about those who we aren’t married to. We’ve come to the knowledge that others have gotten in trouble and have immediately assumed the worst of them rather than putting the best construction on what they’ve done. We have let our frustrations get the best of us at times and have not treated our parents with the respect due them. And in all of this we have placed our sinful flesh at the forefront of our lives, placing our selfish desires before God our Creator.

We haven’t evolved, we’ve devolved. We took the good gifts from our Creator and threw them away, choosing instead to make ourselves as our own gods. We like sheep looked beyond the Garden of Eden to what looked like greener pastures, only to find ourselves in a sin-infested swamp.

Sheep aren’t going to rescue themselves. They need a shepherd. Jesus is our Shepherd. Our bleating and crying reaches His ears. He knows us by name. And we know who He is. We know who He is because He leaves His eternal mansion of glory and comes through the door of the sheepfold. He comes to where we are and feeds us with His Body and Blood.

And when we stray? He leaves the fold and comes out to find us. He is the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd has laid His life down for His sheep. Jesus suffered on the cross as if He Himself were the one who has gone astray, as if He Himself were the one whose life was infested with sin. He has saved us from ourselves, our sinful flesh. You have no inner fish, you have only new life in Christ. You are Baptized. You are a new creation. Your Good Shepherd created you and has redeemed you. You will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Amen.


Sunday, April 6, 2008

More than You Know

Third Sunday of Easter
Sunday, April 6, 2008
Luke 24:13-35

How had it all gone wrong? Everything had looked so good. Jesus seemed to be the one. Now it appeared it was all over. He had given them hope. Now He was gone.

Even more puzzling were the reports that He wasn’t in the tomb any longer. That He in fact might actually be alive. Their world had turned upside down and things were getting stranger by the minute.

Two thousand years later, we know fully what those two guys on their way to Emmaus didn’t know. We’re flies on the wall. They’re wracking their brains trying to figure out the events of the past three days and all along we know the full story.

The one guy even says to Jesus, “Are you the only one who doesn’t know what’s going on?” Well, as it turns out, Jesus is actually the only one who does know what’s going on. But it’s not like He was the only one who had all the facts available to Him. They had the Scriptures which pointed directly to the Messiah. Jesus Himself had made clear to His disciples on more than one occasion what all was going to happen.

The reason nobody knew what was going on was because they didn’t believe. The reason they didn’t believe is because they wanted Jesus to do His salvation thing according to how they wanted it to be done. But Jesus was doing His salvation according to His mercy, not according to our limited human ideas of how salvation should be accomplished.

When things don’t make sense, we wonder if God knows what He’s doing—when, in fact, He’s the only one who knows what He’s doing. The salvation promised in the Old Testament could only come through the death of the Messiah, that’s why He suffered and died as He did.

The guys on the road to Emmaus, and all the disciples, thought they had believed in Jesus. I think we too readily rely on the fact that we believe in Jesus and so we’re okay. But they found out that they really didn’t. What about us? If we really believe in Jesus then why do we break His Commandments? When troubles hit us, why do we doubt that His will is perfect? Why do we wonder if God really knows what He’s doing?

How do we come to thinking there is some sort of goodness within ourselves when we stand utterly corrupt in the sight of God, as shown by Christ accomplishing everything needed for our salvation? Why do we too often treat the Lord’s Supper as simply something that we do rather than as something we ought to hunger for? Why do we so often neglect our Baptism, not rejoicing in this everlasting gift our Lord has given to us? Why do we so little dig into the Scriptures so that we may be fed by our Lord and comforted and strengthened?

You may think that it’s no big deal that you commit those little sins—the white lies, the bad thoughts toward others who deserve it, fudging on your income tax, the questioning of God’s will when things turn sour, nasty remarks you make to your spouse, the idle gossip you engage in behind other people’s back. But God is clear: these things are not no big deal but sins against Him—the holy God who stands as Judge over all. And that includes you and your so-called little sins.

I think twenty-first century people aren’t all that different from the first century people. They didn’t believe in Jesus and what He would do and we don’t either. Saying we believe is much different than what our actions show.

The problem is the same. The good news is, so is the solution. And the solution is Jesus Himself. That’s why Jesus came to those two fellows on their melancholy road to Emmaus. Each of us travels a road through life. There are times we commiserate with our friends, our loved ones, maybe even a stranger, trying to figure it all out.

But don’t fall into the trap that they did, that Jesus didn’t know what He was doing. Don’t say, well, sure, it was easy for them! Jesus came right up to them! When has He done that for me?

And the answer is often. Often. He has come to you often in exactly the same way He came to those two gentleman on that Easter Sunday afternoon. Notice that His two ways He revealed Himself to them had nothing to do with His physical presence before them, but with two ways that He still and often comes to you today: through the Scriptures and through the Lord’s Supper.

Jesus wanted them to know He did in fact know what He was doing, but not by standing next to them every hour of every day. Rather, by opening up the Scriptures to them. By revealing Himself to them in the breaking of the bread.

We know this because they didn’t see it until He revealed Himself to them in the breaking of the bread. And then He vanished. He has come to save and He comes to you often in His Holy Scripture and in His Body and Blood of His Holy Supper.

You may not always feel like Jesus is right there in your life, guiding you and helping you in the way you need. But you can have comfort, He knows what He’s doing. More than you know. He knows what you’re going through, more than you can imagine. He Himself experienced struggles and was tempted to sin.

What appears to be is not always what is. The water applied to you at Baptism was wet and clear to the eyes of everyone witnessing it. But what you received was Christ Himself. New life. Eternal life. The forgiveness of all of your sins. The bread and wine on this altar that you will eat and drink is ordinary food. And yet, what you receive is Christ Himself, His Body and His Blood. For the forgiveness of all of your sins.

You may think that He doesn’t know what He’s doing, but He’s the only one who fully does. You may wonder why God seems way out there somewhere, when He’s the one who is most with you. No, we’re not all that different from those guys way back then. He came to them in His Holy Scriptures and His Holy Supper and He comes to us today and often in exactly the same way. He sustains us through these means so that we may be with Him for eternity in heaven. Amen.