Sunday, January 25, 2009

Jesus Calls You to Die

Third Sunday after the Epiphany
The Conversion of Paul
January 25, 2009
Mark 1:14-20

In the Gospel reading we have an end of an era, a beginning of an era, and the one who stands in the middle of it all. John the Baptist was on his way out. Peter and Andrew, James and John, they were on their way in. Jesus, He was always there—before John was ever born, and long after the last apostle was laid to rest.

The Gospel, then, is never about John, or John, or his brother James, or Peter and his brother. It’s never about you and me, but always about the one who is in the middle of it all, the one who has been around long before we ever knew there was a Gospel.

If you look at what happened to John the Baptist and what would happen to Peter and John and their brothers, you might wonder exactly what good the Gospel is. John the Baptist gets arrested, and then decapitated. Peter, Andrew, and James, and all the other apostles were likewise martyred. John was the only one not martyred, and even then, he was sent to the island of Patmos to live out the rest of his days in isolation.

Where is Jesus in all of that? Jesus didn’t go get John the Baptist out of prison, He simply called more men to be martyrs for Him. And that’s exactly what He calls you and me to. Today. Every day. For our whole lives.

It doesn’t sound so great, does it? Maybe even kind of dreary… But it’s right there, in His very own words: “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” He is calling you to die. And in calling you to die, He is calling you to life. Just as He did with John the Baptist; just as with Peter, and Andrew, and James, and John. This wasn’t the end of one era and the beginning of another, after all. It was simply what our Lord has been doing ever since His first promise of the Gospel in the Garden of Eden. Calling sinners to repentance. Calling them to life.

When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said “Repent,” He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance. When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.

Everybody dies. There is no escaping death. The question is, what kind of death are you going to die? When Christ calls you, He calls you to life. But true life can only come through death. You cannot circumvent death. So He gives you life through death. Repentance is death to self. It is the drowning of the Old Man and the resurrection of the New. Repentance and faith go together: Repent and believe in the Gospel. Repentance turns away from the wretchedness of selfishness and sin. Faith clings to Jesus Christ and His righteousness. There is no true life without death to the sinful nature.

Jesus is always there in the middle of it. He didn’t go get John out of prison. He didn’t prevent John the apostle from being incarcerated on Patmos. Didn’t step in when the other apostles were martyred. Jesus, in fact, was only around for three years in His Ministry. That’s what He came for.

He came to do His thing. Not get us out of jams. Not pave the way for us so that things would go smoothly. Not to make everything work out for us. He came to minister. To serve. To save. He came, in fact, to die. That’s why He came. And that’s why He calls us. He calls us to die, too. He came to die in order to bring life. He calls you to death in order to bring you to life.

In that prison cell, John the Baptist had life. In his prison cell on Patmos John the apostle had life. In the moments before their martyrdom and in their deaths, the apostles had life. Jesus had given all of them eternal life in their Baptism. Daily they lived out their Baptism, repenting of their sins and believing in the Gospel.

You have this same life. Because you have died the same death. You, too, have been Baptized. You too, repent of your sins. You also believe that Jesus is your hope and salvation. You, too, have been called by Jesus. And you also endure suffering for the sake of Christ. There may come a day when you, too, will be martyred on account of Christ. There will come times when others see you as weak for leaning on a God you cannot see for your help and your hope. You will be derided by those who are offended at your certainty that there is salvation in no one other than Jesus Christ. Your life on this earth ultimately isn’t what your life is about. Your life in Christ is. Your life on this earth continues because you sustain your life. Your life in Christ is sustained by daily dying to sin.

As you go through life Jesus isn’t standing next to you, but He’s in the middle of it all. He is the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End, the one in whom you live and move and have your being. He is, He was, and He always will be. He is the eternal God who died for you. He is the eternal God who bids you die to bring you life that has no end. The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. God comes to you in His Son. He comes as the one born a baby of Mary, the one who was Baptized by John, the one who called Peter and James, the one who lived and suffered for people who are dead in sin.

And who are those people who are dead in sin? Your neighbor. Your boss, your employee. Your dad, your daughter, a person on the other side of the world you don’t even know. John the Baptist. John the apostle. Peter. You and me. We could go on with the list, but there’s no need. The answer is everyone. Jesus died for everyone who has ever lived. He wants all people to live forever with Him and that only comes through death. His death is what brings about life for everyone. You are brought to life when you die in Christ. This death occurs in your Baptism. That is how you die to sin.

Since while you live on this earth you remain in your sinful flesh, you must die daily. That’s what repentance is. You confess your sins. You turn from your sins and believe that Jesus is your salvation from them. You struggle daily against your flesh. It wants to feed your sinful appetites. But in the new life Christ gives you in Baptism you are fed by His Word and by His Body and Blood. That’s why you need to sustain yourself with Christ and not what you are tempted with.

How do you repent? How do you believe in the Gospel? The answer is Jesus. It’s how John the Baptist, Peter, Andrew, James, and John repented and believed and it’s how you do, too. When He calls you, He calls you to die. That’s how you repent. That’s how you believe. He is the one who kills you and He is the one who makes you alive. He has the power to do it, He is the Creator of universe. He has the love to do it, He died for the sin of the world. Repent and believe in the Gospel. Rejoice in Christ’s call to you to die, which is nothing else than His bringing you to life. Amen.


Sunday, January 18, 2009

Come and See

Second Sunday after the Epiphany
The Confession of Peter
January 18, 2009
John 1:43-51

Everything goes back to the First Commandment. When God says you shall have no other gods He means exactly that. It’s easy for us to say and believe we believe in God and therefore do not have other gods. But the fact is, we do have other gods. We do put other things before God. We don’t mean to. We don’t like to. It doesn’t seem that we do.

But we do.

When God says, “You shall have no other gods,” what does He mean? He means that anything that comes between Him and you is your god. He means that whatever you place before Him is you not believing in Him as your true Lord and Savior.

Am I saying that you’re not Christians, after all? That you don’t really believe in God? Yes, I am saying that. And yet, you do believe in God, don’t you. You who are Baptized and believe in Jesus as your Lord and Savior are Christians. So how can these two opposite things both be true? They are both true because in your heart you have other gods before the one true God and at the same time by God’s grace you believe with all your heart in the one true God.

If this doesn’t make sense, then you’re right where you need to be. It doesn’t make sense. The Bible makes no attempt to make sense out of it, and neither should we. Belief in God is not understanding that God exists and is the true God. Believing in God is trusting in Him above all things. And we don’t do that, do we? And yet, by God’s grace, we do.

If you wonder why Nathanael thought it was so amazing that Jesus knew him because He saw him under the fig tree, then you’re in the right position to be in. If you can’t figure out why Jesus said that this was so spectacular, then you’re right where you need to be. On the other hand, if you’re insistent on figuring this stuff out then that is your god. Yours is not the true God.

It’s fashionable among Christians to know God is real in your life because you feel it. It’s common in Christianity to go to great lengths to provide evidence for the truth of the Bible and the truth of Christ’s resurrection and so forth. There are strands in Christianity that state categorically that if things aren’t going well for you it’s because you don’t have enough faith. It’s sensible that if we clearly present the Gospel to others that they will “get it” and convert.

But these things become our gods. God gave us feelings, but we can’t rely on them. It’s valuable to build a case with the evidence for the truth of the Bible and the existence of God, but that’s not going to save anyone. If we think things should always go well for us, what need is there for faith? We are to share the Gospel with others, but should we expect that they will be converted? If they are not, do we despair of ourselves or of the Gospel?

Where is God in all these things? He’s not there. You can look for Him, but you won’t find Him. That’s why He’s given us the First Commandment. Because we are constantly having other gods. We don’t think we are. We may not mean to. But we are. We search for Him in all these other ways thinking that we’re finding God because it seems that it’s right in our hearts or we feel His power in our lives or we see the evidence of a person’s conversion because things are going so well for them now. These things are persuasive but have nothing to do with God. They have everything to do with us.

That’s what Nathanael wanted, wasn’t it? How can anything good come out of Nazareth? Certainly you can offer me something better than that. Surely this guy can’t be the real deal, I don’t feel anything special when you tell me about Him.

What should Philip do, then? Try to persuade him? Show him the evidence? Chide him for not having enough faith? We see a lot of that kind of stuff in the Church, don’t we? Maybe we do it ourselves, perhaps without even realizing it. We wonder why some don’t believe when we lay it all out for them. We’re amazed that people keep having the same problems in their lives even though they appear to be strong Christians. Perhaps your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ have left you feeling less sure of your faith in times where you need to be encouraged and strengthened.

Maybe Philip took the lazy way out. Let’s see, do I really want to take the time to explain things to this guy? I’ll just tell him to come see for himself. Actually, what Philip did was get out of the way. He let Jesus do the work. Far from taking the lazy way, Philip did exactly what Nathanael needed him to do: give him Jesus. Nathanael didn’t need Philip and all his evidence and persuasion and strong-arm tactics. He needed the Gospel. That’s it. The Gospel.

You shall have no other gods means exactly that. And when people need the Gospel, they need exactly that. They don’t need all kinds of other stuff that is only going to move them to place their trust in other things. They need the Gospel, which will instill in them faith, trust in the one true God. Because when you give them Jesus you give them everything they need.

And that’s why you have preaching. Not an extended Bible Study. Not a persuasive speech. Not a step-by-step of how to be a better Christian or parent or employee. Preaching. The Gospel. That’s what you need. It’s what Nathanael needed. It’s what Philip had received from Jesus and was now giving to Nathanael. Christ crucified is the Gospel. It has been preached for two thousand years. It will continue to be preached. Those who don’t want to hear it will content themselves with other gods. The one true God will keep giving you His Son, Christ and Him crucified. Come and see. Your Savior hung on the cross for all the world to see what good has come out of Nazareth. Only the salvation of the world.

Come and see, your Savior once again delivering Himself to you, this time not on a cross, but in bread and wine. You will find Him here. At His altar. Not in your heart, where your feelings reside and are ever so slippery. Here. At His altar. In bread and wine, delivered into your mouth so that you may not feel God’s presence but be forgiven of your sins. So that you may be strengthened in the faith He has given you in the Gospel. So that you may know that you don’t have to keep searching for evidence, or that your life is going pretty well, or whatever it is you seek from God. Come and see Him where He’s at and in the way He comes to you. His body hanging on the cross was tangible. His blood that was shed flowed freely. That very body and blood are given to you today in the Supper He has prepared for you.

Come and see. Don’t take the easy way out and seek comfort and strength in other gods through your feelings or evidence. Come and see the one who washes away your sins in the water of your Baptism. You will indeed feel very loved by your Lord at times. You will undoubtedly rejoice in how well things are going for you at times. You will certainly be strengthened by knowing that the evidence for Christ being true God is ample and overwhelming. But don’t seek these things for assurance. Know simply that you are Baptized. Know that your Lord has made you His own in your Baptism.

The whole episode of Jesus and Nathanael is odd, isn’t it? Nathanael scoffs at Philip’s invitation. And yet, Jesus appears to praise Nathanael as one who it without guile. Maybe a better way of saying it is that Jesus was commending Nathanael for being a straight shooter, he told it like it is. He wasn’t convinced. But that made no difference to Jesus. He doesn’t care which gods you place before Him, they’re all the same to Him. All He cares about is giving you what you need. And that’s Himself. It’s the Gospel. He never came to lay things out so that you could perfectly sort them out and understand them. He came simply to give you Himself. Come and see, just as Nathanael did. With Jesus you begin to see how foolish you were in all the different gods you sought after. You begin to see how grateful you are in how generous the true God is in inviting you to come and see Him in His Son. Amen.


Sunday, January 11, 2009

One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism

The Baptism of Our Lord
First Sunday after the Epiphany
January 11, 2009
Mark 1:4-11

God has called you. That’s something you may forget in the ordinary things you do each day. You may not see why it matters when you’re working at your job every day. You might not understand what it means at all for God to call you. You might see your life as made up of a hodge-podge of different activities and roles you carry out, with no apparent integration in your life.

But God has called you. The Scriptures show us this. When you look at the Scriptures you may see the same thing you see in your life. No apparent meaning for your day to day activities and experiences, uncertainty about its application for your life. The Bible may seem to you a bunch of stories of people and events that are unrelated to each other and even more unrelated to you and what you experience.

God has called you. Just as He called the many people we meet in the Scriptures. Of all the millions of people in the world, He wants you to know He has called you. Just as He wanted the many people we meet in the Scriptures to know He called them. What He called them to He calls you to. What He wanted for them He wants for you. What was true in their day is true for you in your life.

There is one Lord. He is your Lord just as He was theirs. What their Lord did for them He does for you. He called them, He calls you. There is no difference to the faith they believed in and the faith you believe in. There is one Lord and one faith. He brings His people into the faith through means. The promise from Him is that He will be your God and you will be His people. The promise He gives He makes good on through the means He institutes. In the Old Testament it was circumcision, in the New Testament it is Baptism. The one Lord brings you into the faith through Baptism. There is one Lord, one faith, one Baptism.

In the Gospel reading John the Baptist appears in the wilderness. But He doesn’t appear out of the blue. This is all part of God’s eternal plan. This is part of the unfolding of God’s calling of His people. The Lord John the Baptist pointed people to was the Lord of Abraham and David and Isaiah. The faith John the Baptist preached was the faith of Adam and Moses and Elijah. In introducing Baptism, John the Baptist was introducing something new in the sense that it was distinct from circumcision, but the same in the sense that the one Lord was calling His people to the one faith in the means of Baptism, just as He had done for centuries through circumcision. John the Baptist is the bridge between the Old Testament and the New Testament, both of which call us to the one Lord, the one faith, the one Baptism.

The Bible uses language the way we do. Sometimes it speaks literally, sometimes figuratively. When Mark tells us that “all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to [John] and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins,” he obviously didn’t mean that every single person in Judea and Jerusalem were going out to John. This is a way of speaking, that John’s arrival made a big impact. But it means something else, also. It means that the one Lord came for all. Not just those who came out to listen to John and be Baptized by him. For all. Jesus Christ came in the place of all. God desires that all people be His people. God gives the one Lord, to call everyone to the one faith, and receive the one Baptism.

When John came on the scene, what did he do? He preached, he baptized. He preached Christ, he Baptized with a Baptism of repentance. He came as a servant. He came to serve Jesus, the one Lord. He, John said, would Baptize with the Holy Spirit. And that’s exactly what Jesus does. He Baptizes you with the Holy Spirit; just as His people received the Holy Spirit through circumcision. He calls you to the one faith through the one Lord in the one Baptism with which He Baptizes you.

When Jesus came, what did He do? Did He Baptize? No, John was doing that. Did He preach? John was doing that, also. What Jesus did when He came on the scene was be Baptized. The one Lord is the Lord of the one faith and gives His one Holy Baptism that we may called by God. So why did He come and not start Baptizing? Why did He come and be Baptized Himself when He is the one who calls, not the one who needs to be called?

Because He is the one Lord of the one faith of the one Baptism. God doesn’t just call us, He calls us through Christ. He brings about faith in us through Christ, the one Lord. He calls us to eternal life through Christ, in whom we are united in Baptism. You are not called out of the blue. God calls you in Christ. He doesn’t call you to strive for obedience to Him, He calls you through the obedience of the one Lord Jesus Christ who came as Servant. All of Judea and Jerusalem needed the Baptism of John. They needed to repent of their sins. That’s because all people do. All people need faith. Jesus does not need to repent, He is the author of faith. He is the Lord.

But all are granted forgiveness through the one Lord who serves by taking their place. Jesus was Baptized by John for you. John didn’t want to Baptize Jesus because he knew Jesus is without sin. Jesus wanted to be Baptized by John because He knew that when He takes the place of sinners He is the one counted a sinner by His Heavenly Father and the sinners are declared without sin by His Heavenly Father. What God the Father declared to His only-begotten Son at His Baptism, God the Father declares to you in your Baptism. There is one Lord, one faith, one Baptism.

The one Lord is the one who suffered in your place, dying and rising for you. The one Lord is the Lord who brings you into the one faith, the faith of those who have gone before you and which is yours in Baptism. What God calling you means for you is that in your day to day life you possess eternal life. What God calling you means for you is that you are a child of God. God calling you means that you don’t just go through ordinary activities every day—that there’s meaning to your life. You’re a servant to your family, your friends, and the people of the world. Don’t you want to tell your brothers and sisters of this world the Good News that the one Lord Jesus has come to serve them and bring them into the one faith of eternal life? Just as the one Lord came in your place to serve and save you, you are in His place as you carry out your calling in your daily activities and interaction with the people in your life and the strangers you meet.

All are in need of the one Lord who has come to serve. All are in need of the one faith to which He calls us. All are in need of the eternal waters of Baptism. This promise is for you in your Baptism. God has called you to serve Him; He has called you to eternal life—by the one Lord, in the one faith, through the one Baptism. Amen.


Sunday, January 4, 2009

Do You Take Yourself too Seriously?

Second Sunday after Christmas
January 4, 2009
Luke 2:40-52

Jesus was an obedient child. Mary and Joseph were comfortable in leaving Him to come home with relatives in the group without checking in with them. They trusted Him. But when they needed to talk to Him they were struck with the realization that “boys will be boys” evidently applied to their son also. They still didn’t have an understanding of the whole Jesus thing. They were still somewhat stuck on themselves.

Why were they astonished at what they witnessed in the temple? Why did they insist that He should have been with them rather than in the House of God? Why did they not understand what their precocious boy was insisting on?

It’s because they took themselves too seriously. This is a characteristic of us Christians. I guess we should lump the non-Christians in here also. We’re always getting in the way of Jesus doing His thing. Notice how very unseriously He takes Himself. He obediently goes with His parents to Jerusalem for the Passover. When He goes, He seems to be the only one in the group—including His parents—who seems to know why they really were going there. He stays behind. Not to get into trouble as boys can be prone to do. To be in His Father’s House. To be about the business of what the Passover is all about.

And as we know from the New Testament, what the Passover is all about is Jesus. Jesus knew this, even at twelve years old. Jesus was in His Father’s House because it’s communion with Him that is the ultimate goal. The Passover of the Old Testament was the shedding of a lamb’s blood to be painted on the doorpost so that the Angel of Death would pass over that house and the occupants would be spared. By being in God’s House even at such a young age, Jesus was being prepared by His Heavenly Father for Himself being the very Lamb of God whose blood would be shed so that we may be spared eternal death and receive salvation, communing with God eternally in heaven.

Oftentimes precocious little boys can take themselves far more seriously than what they ought to. Not Jesus. He knows who He is, but when He is with the teachers in the temple He is listening and asking questions. Jesus is always Jesus. He is always God and always working His work to bring salvation. But He never is full of Himself. He always is coming in humility. And that is why even when everyone is amazed at His understanding and His answers, it’s not through standing up among men and teaching them a thing or two, but through listening and asking questions.

And even though He corrected His mom, He never once upbraided His parents. Rather, He went home with them and was submissive to them. That’s what we learn in the fourth commandment, and in Jesus it is fulfilled in perfection. That is because Jesus is the ultimate servant, delighting in God’s will. He never took Himself too seriously but always took seriously the passion and will of His Heavenly Father to save the people He created.

That’s why we need to get out of the way. So that we can stop dwelling on ourselves and get caught up in the salvation work of our Lord. It’s a shame we so often take ourselves too seriously. We’re very concerned about our rights. Kids want to make sure everything’s fair. But don’t we want our due? Aren't we envious of those who seem to have more or better when there’s no reason we don’t deserve it as much as they do? When we have difficult decisions to make, aren’t they often difficult because we want to get out of doing the right thing to ensure we can get what we want?

Perhaps you made new year’s resolutions. Look them over. What ways have you determined you’re going to improve yourself? Are they all concentrated on what you need to do to be better? Do they focus on how you can enjoy life more? None of this is bad. But are you taking yourself too seriously? Do you easily dismiss the true and eternal focus and basis of your life? Mary and Joseph did. He was right there with them. After twelve years of raising the Son of God they still took themselves too seriously. They still weren’t ready to see in Him the very salvation of the world. They still needed to think of themselves as the ones who were calling the shots.

They weren’t quite ready for kings bowing down before their baby. They weren’t thrilled with their twelve year old son who wandered off on His own to be about some business they didn’t quite understand. They weren’t ready for a son who went out and got Himself arrested and brutally beaten and killed on a cross.

We take all these things for granted because we’ve heard them so many times. But do we take ourselves any less seriously than Jesus’ parents? We might not have much problem with a baby who has come to save us. Or even a twelve year old. Or an adult. But how much stock do we put in our Baptism when things get rough in our lives? How much do we long for Holy Communion when we’re troubled by our sins? How much do we really take comfort in hearing the Gospel proclaimed to us for the forgiveness of our sins and the strengthening of our faith?

Mary treasured up all those amazing events in her heart. We ought to do the same. Because it was only through her Son that she had true life. It is only through her Son that we see we don’t need to take ourselves so seriously because He has taken seriously our condition and need for salvation. He has taken it so seriously that, even at age twelve, He was about His Father’s business. So seriously that He was ready and willing to suffer for our sin, for our guilt, and in our place. So seriously that it was not beneath Him to become a man as we are. To be a servant and delight in His Heavenly Father calling on Him to love and serve and save.

Do you take yourself too seriously? Try something refreshing for a change. Look to Jesus. Whatever He’s doing, He’s doing it for you. Whatever He is about, He’s about it for your salvation. When He Baptizes you, you’re Baptized—and that means He’ll never let you go. When He gives you His Body and Blood in His Holy Supper, that means He is giving you Himself—so that you know you don’t need to rely on yourself for the strength you need in life and for eternity. When He comes to you in the preaching of His Word, you know that no matter how seriously you take yourself, He’ll strip you down so that all you’ll be able to see are your sins and His eternal sacrifice on the cross that wipes them out. When He comes again in glory you will laugh, or maybe cry, at how seriously you had taken yourself. But because He loved you even when you were His enemy, you will rejoice that He is very serious about saving you and always working out salvation for you for all eternity. Amen.