Sunday, June 29, 2008

Bearing Your Cross

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, June 29, 2008
Matthew 10:34-42

You’ll remember Simon of Cyrene, of course. The man who has been immortalized as the one who carried the cross of Christ. When Jesus could go on no longer, the Roman soldiers grabbed this guy out of his innocent-bystanderness in order to pick up Jesus’ cross so that He could go on to the Place of the Skull. The cross of Christ is the crux of history. We talk about Jesus bearing the cross. Does it take away from what He did knowing that He couldn’t even carry His cross to Calvary? Is it presumptuous of Jesus to say to us that we must bear our cross when He Himself didn’t even carry His own?

No, it doesn’t take away from what He accomplished, because He didn’t come to bear His cross but ours. He has no cross to bear. He did choose, however, to bear our cross. In the Roman form of punishment, the criminal was compelled to carry his own cross to the place of crucifixion. But though the Romans were crucifying Jesus, they weren’t dictating the form of punishment He suffered. God Himself was. Christ did not come to carry a wooden cross to a hill. He came to bear the burden of our sin. He walked that path to the hill on which He was crucified in order to carry a burden beyond what those Roman soldiers could imagine. Little did they know that the man they were prodding up the hill of Golgotha was the one who would be taking away all their sins.

So if Christ has born the cross for us, why does He say that if we do not carry our cross and follow Him we are not worthy of Him? It’s important for us to understand what carrying our cross is and what it isn’t.

What it is is suffering. What it isn’t is looking for suffering. Suffering on account of Christ doesn’t mean we go moping around. You know those people Jesus talked about who pray on the street corner so others can see how holy they are? In the same way that we’re not to do that, we are not to go around making sure everyone knows we are bearing a cross for Christ. Seemingly the opposite of what Christ is calling us to, it may not seem to the world at all that we are bearing a cross. We are in fact to be joyful in our enduring of our suffering.

Living as a Christian is kind of like a achieving a balancing act. If you think what the gymnasts have been doing the last four years in preparing for the Olympics this summer is impressive, they’ve got nothing on us. And I’m being serious. Obviously, physically speaking they are without peer in regards to balancing. But what a Christian needs to do in his or her life in carrying one’s cross doesn’t require talent, but something that has nothing to do with what a gymnast does. It requires faith. No matter how much talent, how much drive, how much work you put in, an Olympian, or even the greatest Christian, cannot accomplish the single thing that is needed to bear one’s cross—faith.

Faith is simple trust in your Lord Jesus Christ who bore the cross for you. It sounds simple doesn’t it? So why do you fail so miserably so often in your following of Jesus? It’s because you don’t see your life as a balancing act. You see it as a means to achieving happiness for yourself. Faith, by contrast, locks on to Jesus. Faith does not see bearing one’s cross as a necessary evil but as a natural part of following Jesus. But this is so unnatural to our sinful flesh, which is constantly concentrated on itself. Jesus’ call is to discipleship. To denial of self. To accepting suffering as the will of God in your life as a Christian. It means denial of self even to the point of loss of life itself.

What bearing one’s cross means is not that we can’t do anything we enjoy. God, after all, did create life and created it for our enjoyment of it. Bearing our cross does not mean we don’t have any fun. It doesn’t mean we become a monk or are miserable every second of the day. What it means is that we don’t seek our enjoyment of those things at the expense of bearing our cross. We certainly are not to hate our parents and family. God commands us to honor our parents and love our family. But we may be more concerned about how they feel about us than about what our Lord Jesus Christ thinks of us. If the things of this world are more important to us than what God wills for us, even if it means suffering, even if it means suffering unto death, then we are not worthy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Bearing our cross is not a way to gain favor with God. It is a way for God to show His favor to us. This might sound odd. If God wants to show His favor to us, why make our lives difficult? It’s like the saying, with friends like these, who needs enemies? But here is where we see one of the most important things that God does for us and how He does it: and this that He loves us. We know He loves us, of course. But the way He does it is not only by the Gospel, by the pure abounding grace He pours out upon us in His Son Jesus Christ. It is also through the Law. It is through His hammering work upon our stone cold hearts. This is truly an act and work of love by our gracious God. If something’s broke, it needs fixing. That’s what God does in His work of the Law. He breaks our stony hearts so that we may see our guilt and our need for His salvation. How loving would He be if He ignored our sin and let us go on our merry way to hell?

His work of giving us a cross to bear is similar. We may not like it, but it is His loving work He does in our lives. Without a cross to bear we would get soft. We might even think we don’t need God. But bearing your cross is not a demand on you. Our sinful flesh sees it as that and rebels against it, but it is actually a blessing from God. Jesus brings this home in the last two Beatitudes: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” He doesn’t say we are blessed by Him if our cross is removed from us, but if we bear our cross.

How do we bear our cross? We prayed this morning in the Collect of the Day for our Lord to “grant that we may gladly hear [His] Word proclaimed among us and follow its directing.” One of the simplest things we can do as Christians to bear our cross and follow Jesus is also one of the hardest: be in the Word of God. Read it. Study it. Meditate upon it. When there are so many other appealing things to read; or to watch on TV; or simply things to do—it’s hard to hunker down and really get into the Word of God.

Why did Jesus use the term “cross” to describe what a person must bear if he is to be a follower of Him? Because the cross is the premiere symbol of self-denial. Jesus makes this clear in His very next words: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” Consider the cross the Christian bears in light of the cross Jesus bore. Jesus denied Himself. He “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant.” Jesus is not asking of us to forget who we are or to get rid of everything that is important or enjoyable to us.

But He is straightforwardly telling us that He comes first in our lives. If we can’t do something as simple as be in the Word of God on a daily basis, how worthy can we expect ourselves to be? If this sounds like Law, that’s because it is. It is exactly what our selfish hearts need to hear. Because in hearing it we see what is behind it, and that is pure love; grace, mercy, and peace from God our Savior and our Lord Jesus Christ. He invites you to be in His Word so that you may be strengthened by Him to stand firm in the day of trial. He invites you to His Holy Supper so that you may be comforted and forgiven. He reminds you daily of your new Birth in Christ through the water and the Word so that you may know that this reminder is really nothing else than His granting to you of eternal life. Amen.


Sunday, June 22, 2008

Drowning in Pain

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, June 22, 2008
Matthew 10:5, 21-33

When I saw the headline in the Associated Press article, I thought maybe I was reading an article on the End Times. “Out-of-control weather, gas prices, economy chip away at American self-confidence.” The Bible is well known for giving lists of how bad things will get before the end comes. The thing is, those lists were written about 2000 years ago. Natural disasters and tough economic times have been around for that long also. Things can get pretty bad, but Christians are already warned about that from the Bible.

Nevertheless, it’s always hard, isn’t it? Something I heard recently has been haunting me ever since. A commentator on society said that if pain were water in the world, we would drown. I think that’s absolutely true. It’s discouraging how much pain is in the world.

When you see your spouse wasting their life away through the bottle, your heart breaks. When you yourself turn to the bottle because you’re looking for solace from your abusive spouse you wonder if there truly is a way to escape the pain. When you visit your loved one in the hospital or nursing home and you walk by cries of pain, you wonder why that kind of suffering is necessary. It’s almost impossible to bear when it is your own loved one who is in so much agony and you feel helpless to provide comfort and relief.

When you finally find someone to love intimately and they break your heart by cheating on you you don’t see how you can ever trust anyone again. When your child wants to have nothing more to do with you you wish that you could endure intense physical pain if it meant taking away the unrelenting emotional pain of wanting your child back.

You may not have experienced these particular things, but you won’t need long to think about the struggles you have gone through that cause you no shortage of pain. At times it may feel like we’re drowning in a sea of pain, at others we can’t help but be discouraged at the human capacity to inflict evil and pain on other humans. Wicked dictators leaving their citizens to live in unsanitary conditions. Leaving them to scrounge for food. To live with all sorts of illnesses with no chance of medicine or medical care. And some of them simply torture their citizens, even to death.

Where is God in all of this pain? Why does He allow us to suffer so much? He is good and created a perfect world, why does it seem to be drowning in despair?

One thing about God, He doesn’t hide behind a curtain like the Wizard of Oz. Jesus is forthright in dealing with the question. If we think it’s bad, He knows even more so how bad it can get. He knows what will come upon the disciples as He sends them out to bring the Gospel: “Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for My name’s sake.” At this point the disciples might have had second thoughts about what Jesus was sending them out to do. But as we struggle with the pain in our lives and look for what to say to those we love who are struggling, doesn’t it make a difference to know that our God is not so far away that He doesn’t know what we’re going through? That He in fact knows how bad it can get? That it’s not just powerful dictators that inflict evil on others but it can even come from our own family members.

When we’re suffering we want it to end. But Jesus says, “But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” Enduring the hatred of others often prompts us to question God or where He is. The answer, though, is in Jesus’ own words: “you will be hated by all for My name’s sake.” Where is God when others hate you because of Him? The answer is right with you, you know He’s with you by the fact that others hate you for being a Christian.

You think it’s going to be easy to speak the truth in love when when you do speak the truth people will think you’re being unloving? When we teach our kids that homosexuality is wrong and that marriage is only between a man and a woman, do you think people are going to stand in line wanting to hear the message of Christianity? That’s not the kind of God they want to hear about. We will be maligned and accused of being hateful and prejudiced. You think it will be easy for us to stay the course? To endure to the end, as Jesus says? No, Jesus is telling us that it will not be easy. Otherwise, why would it be necessary to endure?

Pain surrounds us. Pain wells up inside us. Pain weighs down on us. God is bigger and more powerful than all of it, but we feel so very inadequate to endure all of it. Where is He in all of it? We can say as a confession of faith that we know He’s with us, but when it doesn’t seem like it it’s hard to believe it, isn’t it? We want the all-powerful God to give us some stability. We want a straight path. What Jesus spells out for us, however, is the transitory nature of this life. His instruction to His disciples when they would face opposition was this: “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next.” Now, granted, Jesus is not saying to you and me that if society or our neighbors bring the hammer down on us that we should up and move. He has given each of us a vocation and that usually involves being where you’re at, being a light of the Gospel in your community. But that Jesus sent His disciples on this mission trip and told them to keep going if they ran into opposition, does tell us something about our calling from God. We cannot expect a comfy little life while being a light of the Gospel. We are indeed strangers and pilgrims on this earth. And if while we are struggling through the pain of it all we go again and again to the question of where God is in all of this, we should again and again go back to His words: “for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”

This seems something of an odd statement. It seems like He’s saying that the Second Coming, the Last Day, Judgment Day, will be coming even before they finish their little mission trip. When He said this Jesus had not yet even suffered and died on the cross and risen from the grave, let alone come again in glory on the Last Day, which still has yet to happen. So what does He mean by saying that they won’t get through all the towns before the Son of Man comes? One aspect is expressed in the Collect of the Day, which we prayed a little bit ago: His “abiding presence always goes with us.” The disciples were sent out by Jesus but were never all alone. He goes before us and with us. But the other aspect is just as important, and that is that Matthew never says that they did finish going through all the towns of Israel. They in fact did not complete their mission, as evidenced by Jesus’ own words before His ascension to go into “all nations,” Baptizing and teaching. He exhorted them, “keep going, I am with you.” What it tells us is that we can’t sit around waiting for something to happen. There are people out there who need to hear the Gospel, we’re the ones to tell them!

We sometimes forget, don’t we, that we’re the servants of Christ. He is our Master. We are not above Him. We won’t understand everything that happens. But we know that He is our Master for our good. When the world is crying out for answers in the midst of pain and suffering, we have something to offer them.

Look around you in life, what do you see? You see a world and lots of people and things in it. This is a physical world, but a temporary one. Your life on this earth is temporary also. We get discouraged at times with the pain we endure in this life. But Jesus’ words put perspective on our temporary suffering. There’s more to life than this life. He says, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” As bad as things are, they do not compare to what Satan can do to your soul. Your Lord saves you from that.

These are His words of comfort: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” How you know this is that He gave His life for yours. Pain that we cannot imagine He endured so that we may enter eternal life where there ultimately will be no more pain. Your very value in His sight is confirmed in Him Himself becoming a man. Taking on our flesh, suffering in our place, enduring the eternal torment God’s judgment. Our God is not a God who is far off, but one whose love extends even into our pain-filled world and our often painful lives.

It’s hard at times to hold fast to the confession of faith we make to our God. But make no mistake, the one denies their Lord Jesus Christ before men, He also will deny before His Father in heaven. Do not fear if you have done this, however, because such fear comes from those who know that their only hope is in their Lord Jesus Christ. It is that very one who has also this promise: “So everyone who acknowledges Me before men, I also will acknowledge before My Father who is in heaven.”

Whatever you are experiencing is no worse than any who have gone before you. We heard Jeremiah’s cry of pain to God in the Old Testament reading. He came from a family of priests and his family rejected him. In the Old Testament reading we see how God’s call to follow Him is not easy but painful. Jeremiah spoke the Word of God faithfully to people—many false prophets surrounding him were telling people what they wanted to hear. If we do the same, people will be glad to hear us, but at what cost? Possibly of the loss of their souls for eternity. Sticking with the Word of God will guarantee people hating us or accusing us of being unloving. That is the price we will pay. Being a Christian will not remove pain from your life.

But in the midst of pain there is always hope. Nowhere was there more hope than in the suffering of Christ on the cross. If you’re drowning in pain, take heart. You are Baptized. You are the very child of God. For you Christ died. He drowned your Old Adam in your Baptism. You are forever His. He is with you through the pain here and throughout eternity in heaven. Amen.


Sunday, June 15, 2008

Was Jesus Bitter?

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, June 15, 2008
Matthew 9:35—10:20

Generally speaking, when people think about Jesus, what do they feel about Him? He’s nice. He’s loving. He’s a servant. Generally speaking, people think of Jesus as a great person. He was a famous teacher who did a lot of good for this world.

Have you ever known someone who was like this? They were a good person, dedicated to helping others, selfless with their time and kind-hearted. But as time went by they became hardened. Their words and demeanor showed an increasing bitterness. It was sad to see how this person who had been such a positive influence on others now was becoming more and more of an emotional drain on others. You would listen to them and wonder how it was that after so much giving that they could now be so bitter.

Does this describe Jesus? As Christians, we’re probably quick to react against such an assertion. Jesus? Bitter? Of course not! Jesus was, in fact, loving, kind, generous, a force for good in the world. The things He said were positive. There’s a reason so many people think of Him as a nice person—because He was.

But there are two definitions of bitter dictionaries that give a telling story:
• characterized by intense antagonism or hostility: for example, bitter hatred.
• resentful or cynical: for example, bitter words.
Do these apply to Jesus? Can we say that He was bitter? I can think of someone people who would not hesitate to say that Jesus was in fact bitter. The Pharisees, I would think, would characterize much of Jesus’ words to them as bitter words. The relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees was very much antagonistic and hostile. And it wasn’t that the Pharisees were the mean guys and Jesus was always like a dove. It wasn’t even that the Pharisees perceived Him as bitter. Jesus’ words toward the Pharisees were often harsh and judgmental.

So does this mean that Jesus was bitter? Our Gospel reading today paints a picture at the beginning of the Jesus we know and love so well: compassionate and humble. Here to serve and help. No bitterness there, only positive and loving things to offer. But as the Gospel reading goes on, do we see a change toward a darker and bitter Jesus? It’s almost a subtle enough of a change that it might not be noticed at first. He’s talking about reaching out, helping, bringing the Gospel to others. Sending out servants to carry out the good work of the Gospel.

But what about when things turn sour? Does Jesus continue with a positive disposition? Or does His disposition turn sour as well? How are the apostles to react when they are met with resistance? Jesus says that “if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town.” What is behind this kind of treatment? Couldn’t the loving and nice Jesus just say to His trusted disciples, “If they don’t listen to you, that’s too bad for them, but just be on your way”? Wouldn’t it be kinder and gentler not to go on about the horrific judgment that will befall them? After all, do these words sound like one who isn’t bitter?: “Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.”

Plus, what is all this judgment about anyway? Why does a loving God need to hand down judgment against those who reject Him? Doesn’t it take one who is bitter to bring down upon others such harsh punishment on others? Jesus is God. He is the Creator of humans. Is there some bitterness, then, to Jesus’ prediction about what the apostles will find when they go out? “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for My sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles.” These aren’t very high hopes for those whom He has created.

But it gets even worse. Remember what He ended up saying about these very own apostles: that they would all fall away from Him. Did Jesus become cynical toward the end when He knew it was all about to come crashing down? He did pray three times for His Father to take the cup of suffering from Him. Was He bitter that the cup of God’s wrath had to fall on Him? Was He bitter that He stood before Pontius Pilate, a peon in the scheme of the universe that Jesus Himself had created, when He was humiliated before this peon who thought that he, Pilate himself, was really something as Roman ruler? Is that why Jesus attempted with His words to “put Pilate in his place”?

You and I may think some of these questions as strange. You and I may wonder why they would even be brought up. But there are many in the world who do not see a kinder gentler Jesus. They see a bitter Jesus. They see one who acts out upon the people of this world with undue harshness. In fact, out of bitterness. Pettiness, even. Shouldn’t the God of the universe be above that sort of action? But they also look at Jesus’ followers. They look at you and me. They look at Christians. And make no mistake, they base judgments on Christ and Christianity on you and me and how we act. Bitter Christians reflect poorly on Christ and the Christian Church. They wonder either why Christians would be bitter if God is so great or they would say that it’s expected that Christians would be bitter considering that their Master, Jesus Christ, was bitter.

We have to cut through all of this to get at who the real Jesus is. Was Jesus bitter? We know better. We know He wasn’t. But it is true that Jesus was “characterized by intense antagonism or hostility.” There’s no doubt about this. We’ve already pointed this out in His dealings with the Pharisees. His relationship with them was antagonistic. He was intentionally hostile to them. It’s even more important for us to recognize, though, that Jesus is this way with us. How, you wonder? And maybe why? Well, first it’s important to realize that it’s not in the way of the other definition of bitter that we heard, resentful or cynical. But it is actually in a way that is the opposite of bitter. It’s perhaps best described at the beginning of the Gospel reading, telling us that Jesus was compassionate toward the people. His heart went out to them. His words and His actions followed. Ultimately, His life itself followed. Delivering Himself even up to death. Taking the bitter pill of the Cup of God’s wrath upon sin and sinners.

No, there’s no bitterness in Jesus. There’s nothing in Him that seeks retaliation, revenge, or even hatred. It’s all pure love for us and all of the crown of His creation, the human beings that He created in His very own image. Every once in a while you hear something that goes to the essence of an issue. For me, one of those things was what I heard on Monday: a professor from the Fort Wayne seminary giving an answer to the very troubling question of why people have to go to hell. His response was that everyone—note, everyone—gets better than what they deserve. We might wonder how it is that those who are in hell get better than what they deserve. It’s because God is in fact not a God of bitterness but of mercy. What we all—again, note, all—deserve is eternal damnation. There are any number of twists we can put on this—God is too harsh, God is unfair in this judgment, etc.—but the fact remains that God is just and we deserve nothing—nothing—from Him of His blessings. But blessings are exactly what He gives. Grace and mercy are exactly what He rains down upon us. People don’t deserve life, they deserve eternal damnation. But God doesn’t go around damning everyone, He gives freely and willingly life to people. He provides them with many blessings in this life. But especially, He gives His most precious gift of all: His own Son.

This is not what can be described as bitter. It is what can be described as indescribable. Beyond comprehension. It is pure mercy. It is receiving what we do not deserve. It is being offered freely and without strings attached, eternal life and glorious life beyond compare. It is being handed keys to the eternal mansions of glory in return for no price to you. It is all at the cost of His own Son who was in fact not bitter but joyful in His serving you in this way.

Even though Father’s Day is a day to honor and give thanks for the gift of fathers, for those of us who are fathers, today is a day also to give thanks for the privilege of being a father. But how often do we end up not graciously and lovingly guiding our children but instead being bitter over our frustrations with them? How much can we provoke our children before we end up embittering them? We fathers are to love our children in a patient and gentle way, but so often we let our pent up stress and annoyances get the better of us and our children see in us not God’s grace but fear. Let’s not be bitter but joyful in our loving and disciplining our children, being compassionate with our children as our Heavenly Father is with us.

It’s so very sad when we know of those we love who are Christians who become bitter. It eats away at them inside and spews forth on the outside. It’s sad when we begin to see in ourselves bitterness welling up. Questioning the goodness of God and harboring ill thoughts toward others because they are causing us hurt and harm. It is a tragedy when faithful people of God lose sight of the grace and immeasurable mercy of God and can think only on what is wrong and what might have been and what should be. Who can only count the grudges they have against others and the reasons why they have so many doubts about God.

The world and our own sinful flesh would respond to this by either blaming God or giving up on Him. Thank God He has given us hope. It is in the bitter pill swallowed by Jesus Himself. If He appears to be bitter it is only because His eternal and compassionate love for all of us is driving His every word and action. The only way we can know this is because of what He actually came to do and that is suffer in our place. That is to die the death of eternal damnation so that we may not know the bitterness of eternal separation from God but eternal life with Him. Amen.


Sunday, June 8, 2008

On the Way with Jesus

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, June 8, 2008
Matthew 9:9-13

We’re all traveling through this life. We’re all on the way. The question is, which way? On the way, some of us make our way into this place once a week. Why is that? Why do some of us see the need for making a stop in here along the way every week? Why do some think that it’s a nice place to drop into only once in a while? And there are those, of course, who don’t see the need at all to find their way in here as they travel through this life.

It would be easy enough to divide everybody up in that way. There are those who go to church, those who do not very much, and those who pretty much don’t at all. But along the way, as we travel through life, there’s another traveler. And this traveler isn’t so much concerned about which category we fit into. What he cares about is which way we are making our way through this life. But that’s why he’s making his way through it, also. He wants us to join along with him on the way.

You can register for a tour of the Holy Land or the journeys of St. Paul or the significant historical places of Luther’s life. A tour guide who knows the history and the geography will guide you through those places and tell you all about them. You will follow that guide along the way and be enriched for the experience. But that’s not the way it will be done in your journey through life. Your life is not a tour, it is a journey.

They have these people now who will be your personal life coach. They won’t take you on a tour, but they will put together a personal life plan, just for you, tailored to what you need for a fulfilling life. But that’s not really the way your journey through life should work either.

You don’t need a tour guide or a life coach. You don’t want to just be along for the ride. And when it comes to your life, you certainly don’t want someone dictating to you your every action. What you need is someone to follow. While you’re on the way in this life you need to be on the way with someone who will get you through. We don’t really know what it means to follow because we simply think of it as the opposite of leading. But Jesus doesn’t lead. He goes on the way with us and invites us into His eternal glory.

It really doesn’t matter who you are. It doesn’t matter where you find yourself in life, Jesus comes directly to you. He finds you as you make your way through life. When we hear about Jesus’ call of Matthew we may not think much about it. God has called quite a few people in history and here’s another one. But really think about this one. Matthew as the inspired writer of this Gospel account does not paint himself in a glowing light. He in fact describes himself to us as he is—an outcast and not a very likable person. The reason is that he made a pretty nice living by ripping off his own countrymen.

But here he is, doing exactly this and the God of the universe comes up to him. If this doesn’t present hope for us all, nothing will. Because while we’re on the way in this life, Jesus comes down to walk the way with us. He didn’t wait for Matthew to get it together first. He didn’t compel him to straighten up and fly right. He just came right up to him, right where he was at, in the midst of his own misguided way through this life, and called him out of it.

And the call was to follow Him. To follow Jesus. But that didn’t mean walking around behind Him. There were plenty of people who did that. Very few times Jesus actually used the words “Follow Me,” to people. But there are many instances in the four Gospels of people following Him around. And we know where they all were when it came time for them to really put their actions where their mouths were. They were nowhere to be found. They didn’t follow Him to the cross. They didn’t follow Him into His suffering and death.

What it means to follow Jesus is to live a life of repentance. If it were just going through the motions, walking around following Jesus, like going to church, doing all those nice things we can think of to do which good people do, then it would be easy enough to do. But what happens instead is Jesus going to Matthew’s house. It almost seems odd, Jesus in fact following Matthew home to be with him in his home. But that’s what Jesus does, He comes to us where we’re at. Even if we’re outcasts. Even if we don’t fit in. Even if we’re undesirable. Even if we don’t deserve it. He comes to us in our lives, the way we are, with all our faults, mistakes, and unpleasantness.

Jesus not only ate with Matthew but told him he could invite all his friends. Well, you know who they were. More of the same undesirables. More of the same kind that decent people wouldn’t associate with. As you’re making your way through life, who do you find yourself identifying with? Matthew and the ones who were looked down upon? Or with the Pharisees who wondered why Jesus might just as well have been saying to that vagabond group that they were okay just as they were?

It seems as though Jesus is writing off the Pharisees. Since they’re stuck in their self-righteousness, He hasn’t come for them. Only those who are broken down by the Law of God. Who see their need for forgiveness. But that isn’t the case. Jesus came for the Pharisees also. He came for everyone. It is not the healthy who need a physician but the sick. If only the Pharisees would see themselves as sinners just as Matthew and his cohorts were! If only we could see that we are suspect in our actions as Matthew and company were as well as a bit too full of ourselves as the Pharisees were.

We have these masks on as Christians. We show up to church with faces that show each other that we’re good people. But during the week when we’re full on in our journey through life we’re suddenly cut off by someone who sneaks into the parking space that we were already taking. Our thoughts are not of how grateful we are that that other person got such a good parking space but of how angry we are that they stole it from us. We’re so caught up in our journey through life that we may not think twice about all the many thoughts of ill will we have toward others, while on the other hand we may get so bogged down in guilt from our sin that we end up not trusting that God truly can free us from our sin.

While we’re on the way, it’s necessary for us to know where we are in our journey. Without that we’ll be wandering aimlessly. What Jesus wants is to come into your life and dine with you. In other words, He wants to come to you where you’re at and befriend you. He won’t treat you as if you don’t belong. He will welcome you, saying that you do belong. His words are a comfort but they might cause us to pause. For those who are at the end of their rope, His invitation is to dine with you. For those who are wondering why He invites those who don’t deserve it, His call to you is a call to repentance.

If our journey as a Christian were as simple is being in church every week we really wouldn’t need to draw any lessons from the call of Matthew. But the journey we take involves a lot more hours than just the one we spend here. At the beginning of His ministry, Jesus spoke the words: “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The force of His Words were that the entire and daily life of a Christian should be one of repentance. So here with the call of Matthew and to us: when He says, “Follow Me,” the force of those words are that our entire and daily life should be that of following Him.

How we do that is not by wandering around behind Him putting on a good show for the world, watching what we say, doing good things so that we can be worthy. It’s by going with Jesus to the cross. It’s by daily dying and rising with Him. It’s by daily calling to mind your Baptism and the new life you have which flees from envious and lustful thoughts and thinks on the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, and the like. It’s by reclining at the Table here at this altar so that Jesus may dine with you. Not just eating with you, but giving Himself to you as the staff of your daily and eternal life in Him. We don’t celebrate Christmas and the Transfiguration of Christ and Easter and Pentecost as the religious equivalents of secular holidays. We celebrate them because we are following Him. We are on the way with Jesus. We are on our way through this life and He comes along the way with us. Our life is taken into union with His life. We’re not just making our way through this life, we’re sojourning toward eternity. On the way, our Lord invites us to bring others also. So that they may know that He indeed has come to save sinners. Amen.


Sunday, June 1, 2008

Does Jesus Want You to Be Better?

Third Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, June 1, 2008
Matthew 7:15-29

There is a trend in Christianity today in America to seek the good life. To improve your lot. To become a better Christian. A better person. A better force in this world, in our society, in your home. There’s a natural tendency for us to latch on to this. That’s certainly God’s will, isn’t it? To become a better person. A better Christian. A better follower of Jesus Christ.

But that’s not the way Jesus speaks. With Him it’s all or nothing. You’re not a better or worse Christian—you’re either one or you’re not. Your spiritual house is either built on the rock or not. If it is you will stand on Judgment Day. If it’s not you will not.

There’s something missing in today’s pop Christianity. When it’s reduced to how you can become a better person, there’s no mystery, no majesty. The Gradual uses the word “unsearchable.” It says God’s “greatness is unsearchable.” Where do you find that kind of mystery in modern pop Christianity, which is often nothing more than pop psychology? Presenting Christianity as being a better you, or finding the drive to improve yourself as a person, is taking Jesus’ Words as nothing more than a motivational speech.

But Jesus is talking about life and death. He’s talking about much more than a better life. He’s talking about life itself, in direct contrast to death. You can build a better house, improve your life, become better and better, be as good of a person as you can be, but if you’re not building on the Rock, your house will fall. And great will be the fall. The man who built his house on the rock didn’t work at being better, he simply built his house on the rock. And the house stood firm in the midst of the storm. He lived whereas the foolish man entered into eternal damnation.

It may come across as judgmental or petty to attack the many out there who are popular and presenting a message that sounds Christian but really is just telling people what they want to hear. But Jesus did not come to be popular. He definitely did not come to tell people what they wanted to hear. Who was glad to hear Him call them wolves in sheep’s clothing? It was Jesus who hours before His death stood alone, as all either led Him to the cross or fled from Him in His hour of trial. Jesus didn’t come to be popular, He came to save. Our downfall will be great unless He warns us of it. Our destruction will be eternal unless He dies for us.

So will you be content to hear what the world says but under the guise of the Christian message? Will you satisfy yourself by knowing that you are trying to get better every day? Or will you listen to the Words of Jesus and do what they say? He says, “Everyone then who hears these words of Mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” His warning is likewise clear: “Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.”

It sounds right that we should want to be better. But this is slippery. Try building anything other than a sand castle on sand. Your structure will not stand up against the forces of nature. Your best life now will not stand up against the wrath of a Just God on Judgment Day. It is now that you are building your house for eternity. Will it stand or fall? Build it on what will last. On the Rock. On Jesus Christ. Not on psychology. Not on improvement. Not on motivation. Build it on what will last. On what will stand the test of time and stand into eternity.

Those who teach that we follow God’s will by being the best we can be are telling you to build your house on sand. Don’t fall into their trap. Matthew says that “when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at His teaching, for He was teaching them as One who had authority, and not as their scribes.” Don’t listen to the many voices out there. There are false prophets in the Church. They sneak into your living room through your TV. They ride along with you in your car by way of the radio waves. They launch themselves onto the bestseller lists. They lure you with their promises of a purpose driven life and your best life now.

They will quote the Scriptures. They will look good. They will sound good. They will tell you about Jesus. They will get you excited about doing good works and being a good person and serving God. Jesus tells us about those false prophets: they will stand before Him on the Last Day and say, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and cast out demons in Your name, and do many mighty works in Your name?” Christ the Lord Himself will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you workers of lawlessness.”

If this sends shudders down your spine, you are hearing the Word of Christ. It is never an easy sell. It is never what you want to hear. But it is always what you need to hear. Jesus loves you too much to send you away feeling good about yourself while your spiritual house erodes into the sand. He cares too deeply for you to leave you in the lurch. When the storm of Judgment Day comes upon you, He wants you standing before Him, not annihilated.

But how could Jesus really pour out His wrath upon those who are trying so hard to live a good life? How could He actually damn people for eternity if they’re not vile people like the worst of the worst, like an Adolph Hitler or a Saddam Hussein?

The question should rather be, why are we taking the grace of God and trampling it under our feet? Why are we despising the holy God who has given us His only-begotten Son? Why are we taking the mercy of God Almighty and slapping Him in the face by our continual sin against Him? We are drawn to the message that we can try harder and be okay, when all we end up with is improvement in rationalizing away our sin and feeling good about how better of people we are becoming.

Instead, may our prayer be that of the Collect we prayed earlier: “Lord of all power and might, author and giver of all good things, instill in our hearts the love of Your name, impress on our minds the teachings of Your Word, and increase in our lives all that is holy and just.” This prayer takes Jesus’ Words for what they are: the work that He accomplishes in bringing about in us new life and sustaining us in this life. Is there improvement that will be occurring in our new life in Christ? You bet. Will we want to seek to do better? Most definitely. But our focus will be on Christ. It is by His authority and power and grace and mercy that we are who we are. That we have new and eternal life. And that we have the opportunity to live it out in service to others.

We will look and live more like Christ. But it will all be by the grace of God and because of Christ. Our focus will be on Him and the life that He lived, living in humility, not seeking better or greater, but compassion and suffering. He didn’t come to stir people on to do better but to call them on their sin and die for them. He wasn’t slick or motivational, but ended up blood-stained, hanging limply on a cross. His work of salvation was a matter of giving up all. This won’t make the bestseller lists or motivate people to be better people. But it will save them. It won’t be glorious, but it will stand the test of time.

That’s a mystery we don’t want to get a handle on, but rather marvel in. His greatness is unsearchable, but never out of reach, for Christ comes to you in His flesh and on Him you will stand for eternity. Amen.