Sunday, May 31, 2009

When the World Comes to You

Early on, the people got together and said, We can do anything. We don’t need God. We’ll build a tower and reach the heavens.

But God knew that their attempt to reach the heavens would only land them in hell. He wiped out their plans. He then scattered them. The way He did this was by causing them to speak different languages.

Is it any wonder we have trouble communicating? The world is full of people who speak different languages, have different cultural customs, different needs. Oh, and that little thing about being sinful.

Nothing has really changed since the Tower of Babel. There will always be miscommunication with our sinful minds and hearts at work. The only difference is that now we’re all over the place.

It’s interesting how the Pentecost account begins—they were all together in one place. (Acts 2.1) Kind of like back with the Tower of Babel. But this time they weren’t trying to reach up to heaven, God was coming down to them. The Holy Spirit descended upon them in a display of power that shook them up a bit (read the account in Acts 2).

What happened then was the apostles began speaking in many different languages. That’s because the world had come to them. People from all over the world were there and were now hearing the Gospel proclaimed to them in their own languages.

Whereas God had used at the Tower of Babel the creation of different languages to confuse them, He now was using different languages to bring different people to Him.

We’re in a similar situation in the world today. In America we don’t have to go to far off countries to bring the Gospel to people of other languages and cultures—people from all over the world are coming here. Even in your own home you have the world at your fingertips with access to the internet.

We of course continue to send missionaries all over the world, but the world has in a real sense come to us. What we continue to communicate to the world is what the Christian Church has always communicated to the world: the Gospel. It began in a bunch of different languages at Pentecost in Jerusalem and continues in far-flung countries around the world, in our own country, and even in our homes, where we can interact with people from all over the world.

At Pentecost Peter’s proclamation was of Christ crucified for the world. That continues to be our proclamation today to a world that is increasingly diverse but at our own doorstep.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Lord, Teach Us to Pray

Seventh Sunday of Easter
May 24, 2009
John 17.11-19

John the Baptist was a faithful teacher. He taught his disciples the Word of God. He preached the Gospel to them. He guided them spiritually, fed them spiritually. He taught them to pray. His disciples were fed by the Word of God because John carried out his calling to feed his followers with the Word of God.

Jesus taught His own disciples. On one occasion His disciples asked Him, Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples. Jesus’ answer was the Lord’s Prayer. This is how you should pray. We learn how to pray from the Lord’s Prayer. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we not only pray, we learn how to pray. Jesus is our teacher.

You can well imagine that John the Baptist spent time in prayer for his disciples. He was their teacher, their spiritual shepherd. Spiritual shepherds not only teach their flock, they pray for them.

This is what Jesus did also. Today’s Gospel reading gives us one of Jesus’ prayers for His disciples. He not only taught them to pray, He prayed for them. But in praying for them, He didn’t simply pray for them, He also taught them to pray. We learn from Jesus to pray. We don’t just tell God stuff and then call it prayer. We pray in the way Jesus has taught us to pray.

Jesus has given us His prayer, which we call the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus Himself prays to His Heavenly Father. His praying isn’t any different. What He has given us to pray for is what He Himself prays for. Jesus said, “When you pray, say, ‘Our Father, who art in heaven.’” In the same way, He prays to His holy Father. And whereas He teaches us to hallow His name He prays that His Heavenly Father would keep His disciples in His name. His teaching us to pray that our Heavenly Father’s Kingdom come is coupled with His own prayer that His disciples may be one even as He and His Heavenly Father are one.

All of that sounds wonderful and exactly the kinds of things we’d like to be praying for. It’s when He begins teaching us to pray according to the Heavenly Father’s will that we become uncomfortable with prayer. We pray it all the time in the Lord’s Prayer: Thy will be done. In Jesus’ prayer He Himself prays that His Heavenly Father’s will be done. What is this will? He prays: “Now I am coming to You, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have My joy fulfilled in themselves.” We can live with this will of our Heavenly Father, but Jesus goes on: “I have given them Your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that You take them out of the world, but that You keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.”

This is usually where our prayers break down. It’s that constant struggle between our will and God’s will. Our will often is to be removed from trouble—our Lord’s will is that we stay right in the midst of it. He has no illusions about this. He doesn’t tell us that just because we’re Christians smooth sailing will come our way, that everyone’s going to love us. There will be trials and there will be those who hate us. His will is not to remove us from this but to keep us in it. Why is this? We know His will for us is good, so why is it so difficult to swallow?

Because His will is the way of the cross, not the way of glory. Adam and Eve had grace and they threw it away for the sake of perceived glory. We, too, have grace but often seek the way of glory. How? By wishing that God’s will would conform to ours. By seeking His care for us as removing us from difficulty rather than by preserving us in the midst of difficulty. His will is the way of the cross because it’s the only way we will see our need for His eternal care. The way of glory—in other words, our way—would only cement us in our belief that we’re better off without God.

So we constantly need to learn to pray. And not only this, but Jesus Himself is constantly praying for us. His prayer here for His disciples is shortly before His departure, which He alone fully understood. It was His own cross. Bearing the cross for the sin of the world. He would be departing from the disciples because He alone could go to the cross for them and the world. But He would also depart after it. He would rise from the grave and then He would ascend into heaven.

All of this He knew, but they didn’t, really. They knew the Scriptures and Jesus had been teaching them, but they didn’t really understand what the way of the cross was all about. Their prayer was that He would remain with them, that everything would continue on as it was going. But He had come for this purpose, to go to the cross. Those who serve in the Armed Forces are prepared for the real possibility of laying down their lives for their country. But you can’t fully understand what that amounts to until you actually experience it. For the many of us who haven’t served our country in this way and who will never know what it is like to lose a brother in arms, we are grateful for their sacrifice and honor them on Memorial Day. Those who serve know that there may come a day where Memorial Day will be observed to include them. But that doesn’t stop them from serving. They are willing to lay down their lives in service to our country.

In a similar way, Jesus prayed on another occasion. Shortly after His prayer for His disciples which we have in our Gospel reading, Jesus found Himself in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying again to His Heavenly Father. His prayer is well known due to the intensity of it. It might seem that this was a last ditch effort to get out of this whole dying thing. But His words tell differently. He wasn’t praying, Father, please get Me out of this. He was saying, rather, If there is another way, let it be so. His prayer was consistent with what He taught us to pray in the Lord’s Prayer and in what He prayed regarding His disciples in our Gospel reading: Thy will be done. Jesus wanted what His Heavenly Father wanted.

Our prayer is often, God, get me out of this. Our Lord teaches us to pray the opposite: If there is another way, let it be so, but Thy will be done. The God who went to the cross will bring you through yours. The God who endured the cross will strengthen you to bear yours. Through it all we have prayer. Not just our own prayer, but Jesus praying for us. We have His words in the Scriptures, not just of Him teaching us to pray, but of Him praying for us.

In the book The Hammer of God an elderly man is on his deathbed. He was a faithful, godly Christian throughout his life but as his daughter watches him dying he is in great distress and not in his right mind. Episodes from his youth are coming to his thoughts and he is spewing forth profanity and other inappropriate things. His daughter is horrified and thinks that if he dies in this state he will go to hell. In a moment where he is lucid she pleads with him to think of Jesus. He is weary and responds to her that he cannot. But, he says, “I know He is thinking of me.”

This is the basis of our prayers. The Scripture even says that we do not know how to pray as we ought. But we have an intercessor. One who prays on our behalf. One who has interceded on our behalf for our sins and the sins of the world. One who sends the Holy Spirit to express groans that words cannot express. One who constantly brings us back to that eternal Word, the Word made flesh, who suffered, died, and rose so that we may be in the eternal care of our Heavenly Father, including the trials we experience now. Our Lord ascended on high and yet continues to come to us in His Holy Supper.

Have you ever noticed what is said in the liturgy right before the Words of Institution are spoken? The Lord’s Prayer. We pray the Lord’s Prayer right before we hear our Lord’s Words. We pray His will be done and then we are recipients of His will, receiving His very and Body and Blood for the forgiveness of our sins and the strengthening of our faith. We are not removed from the world, we’re not taken out of it. We’re sent into it so that the joy we have in Christ may overflow to others as well. Lord, teach us to pray that this will becomes our own. Amen.


Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Onslaught Against the Gospel

Sixth Sunday of Easter
May 17, 2009
John 15.9-17

You may not have noticed it. There comes a certain point where people don’t notice what is commonplace. So you may not have noticed that there’s an onslaught against the Gospel. Further, you may not have noticed it because you’re a part of it.

Now, you may be thinking I don’t know what I’m talking about. That I’ve got a lot of nerve. You love the Gospel! You’re not against it, you’re for it! Who am I to tell you that you’re against the Gospel? I am one who is part of this onslaught against the Gospel as well.

Don’t we latch on to the words of Christ of what we must do? Don’t we tend to take for granted the parts He has done for us? Don’t our ears hear the parts that command us as what must come first before He will bless us? This is the onslaught against the Gospel.

We can’t help it. We are by nature stuck on ourselves. We say we love the Gospel, but what we really love is some sort of command of Jesus of what we have to do to content ourselves with. Our sinful nature is so corrupt that we twist this into thinking that that’s the main thing, that we should not only want to do what Jesus has commanded but also focus on it. We feel better when we have a certain amount of control to being in God’s favor.

Why are we in an onslaught against the Gospel? Because by nature we are turned in on ourselves. The Gospel comes from outside of ourselves. Jesus brings this out in the Gospel reading. His words are dripping with Gospel. But it doesn’t seem that way to us because there are those words in there where He points out to us what we must do. These are the ones that really seem to jump out at us.

You hear this all the time in Christianity. You must obey God’s Law. You must believe and have more faith. The people who say these things are the ones who latch on to these phrases in the Gospel reading: “Abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love.” “This is My commandment, that you love one another.” “You are My friends if you do what I command you.” “You should go and bear fruit.” “These things I command you, so that you will love one another.”

Many Christians hear these things and the case is closed. They hear Jesus saying what we must do and then they set out to do it. And they set out to exhort other Christians to do them as well. And they lay a guilt trip on those who say we can’t do anything to gain God’s favor, that we’re saved by grace. And don’t we ourselves feel pangs of guilt that we’re not doing enough for God?

This is the assault of Satan and the world and our own sinful flesh on the Gospel. It is an onslaught, because until the day we die we’re going to gravitate toward those things that say to us what we must do rather than those things that tell us who Christ is and what He has done and what He continues to do for us.

What is more relevant to you in your eyes: being exhorted to live in a godly way in the coming week or being exhorted to come to this altar to receive the Body and Blood of Christ in His Holy Supper? Are you looking for some way to get a handle on how you can bear the fruit Jesus calls you to bear or are you realizing that you have nothing to offer God but your sin and need the forgiveness of your sin He delivers to you in and with His Body and Blood in His Supper? Do you think that what is done here in worship is all well and good but where the real work of being a Christian is done is in living out the Christian life during the week, the bearing of fruit Jesus was talking about, the keeping of His commandments He was referring to? It seems subtle, but this kind of Christianity is nothing else than an onslaught against the Gospel.

Now the words of Jesus are plain. No one can deny them. Jesus is clear as to what He is saying. The problem is that we are taking them on their own and ripping them out of the context in which Jesus is giving them to us. We do this because we want the starting place to be ourselves. That’s why and how we go against the Gospel. We convince ourselves that we know we’re saved by grace, but that faith without works is dead, so we still have to do something. We can’t just sit around and bask in grace.

But that isn’t the way God works. And it isn’t the way He speaks. We just think He does because we impose our own sinful flavor on His words. This is all part of our relentless onslaught against the Gospel. We want to take the good things of God and turn them into the things by which we can feel good about ourselves.

So do we obey? Yes. Do we bear fruit? Yes. But is that what Jesus is really getting at? Isn’t He getting at how these things are accomplished? And it’s in the words themselves that they’re accomplished. It is by His very speaking them to us that bring them about. You see, God has this little onslaught of His own going on, and it’s an eternal assault against the devil. The devil’s voice is the voice we like to hear because his voice tells us to latch on to those things that tell us what we are supposed to do. But God has given us His Holy Word to tell us about what He has done.

The eternal Word of God breaks through the void and brings into existence the universe. The eternal Word of God creates life, living breathing beings who are fashioned in His image and who enjoy the eternal fruits of His blessings. It’s when His creation seeks what they have been told not to do that all hell breaks loose. Why is this? Because they want to do something. They want to be able to control their destiny. They’re not content with just basking in the glory and grace of God. They see the green grass on the other side and think God is holding out on them. They had everything but it wasn’t enough for them to enjoy the eternal blessings God poured out upon them.

But God is all about grace. He is all about mercy. He is all about love. He didn’t let them go their own way but reached out to them. His work of creation has turned into His creating work of redemption. All our attempts to gain favor with God are attempts in the same vein as Adam and Eve’s attempts at going against the pure grace of God. Had Adam and Eve done anything in the Garden of Eden to gain God’s favor? No, they simply enjoyed all His blessings. That’s what He loves to do and that is why He has called us to eternal salvation. Everything we do flows from that.

All His commands and exhortations are in light of the fact that He has created us, that He has redeemed us, that He sustains us. “As the Father has loved Me, so have I loved you.” Love is never about what you must do for another, otherwise it isn’t love. Love is pure unconditional grace given to another, because the one who is loving wants to, not because an obligation has been fulfilled. We are able to keep His commandments because He gives us Himself, the one who alone is able to keep them in the only way they can be kept—perfectly. He speaks His Word of cleansing to us so that His joy may be in us and that our joy may be full. We who consistently attack the Gospel with our notions of attempting to turn His Word into a morality lesson are the recipients not of rules and commands but of Him laying down His life for us. He calls us His friends. We did not choose Him, He chose us.

All this He has done so that we may live in the way God created it and planned it: to enjoy His eternal blessings and bear the fruit that naturally comes from being connected to the Vine, Jesus Christ. Amen.


Sunday, May 10, 2009

A Dirty Job

Fifth Sunday of Easter
May 10, 2009
John 15.1-8

The first thing you need to do to a baby when they’re born is clean them up. They’re a mess. And moms know that there are many more messes to come. They spend a lot of time cleaning them and cleaning up after them. It takes a lot of work to keep kids clean and to keep the area they’re in clean. Moms have to get their hands dirty to take care of their kids. Along the way they teach their children how to take care of themselves, how to keep things clean, and how to keep themselves clean.

I’m sure many is the time moms wish they could speak the word and the messes would vanish and everything would be instantly clean. But one of the many reasons we are grateful for our moms is that even without such powers they are still able to miraculously get things clean—including the kids.

Jesus does have miraculous power, yet, does it seem like a big deal to us? He says in the Gospel reading: You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. He doesn’t put time or effort into it. He speaks and it’s done. It’s so far beyond our normal experience that we don’t really know what to do with it. We’re amazed at what moms can do, we’re not quite sure what to do with what Jesus does.

One of the amazing things about moms is how they keep at it. Once one mess is taken care of another pops up. With Jesus you are declared clean and you are clean. You are actually made clean by His speaking of cleansing to you. Even the most loving and caring mother will get frustrated and tired at the seemingly endless task of cleaning up kids and cleaning up after them. But it is precisely her love and care that drives her to do it. With Jesus there is never any frustration or getting tired. His boundless love prompts Him to declare you clean.

How does a mother raise her child? She doesn’t just clean him up. There are times when it seems that’s what it consists of, but there’s a lot of hugs that go with the scrubbing and boundless compassion to go along with the discipline. Moms keep at it. They keep loving and taking care of their children. When their kids get cleaned up she knows they’re going to get dirty again. But she will keep cleaning. That’s the way Jesus is. He doesn’t make you clean and leave you be. He knows you often turn back to the filth of sin. So God does the messy work of pruning. Those who don’t bear fruit are stripped away. Those who do are pruned. It’s the only way they can bear more fruit.

Even as a child will get dirty again, the thoughts, words, and deeds that come from your heart will continue to soil your soul. So how do you bear fruit? Jesus cleanses you of your sin, how do you remain clean? Abide in Me, He says. In the same way, He abides in you. This sounds simple enough. But is it so simple? He gives the reason why we abide in Him:

As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the Vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in Me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.

How do we do this? How do we abide in Him and He in us? This is His answer: “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” There is how it is done. At the end He takes you back to the beginning. It begins with His Word and it is continued with His Word. He is the Vine, you are the branches. Apart from Him you can do nothing, just as a branch will wither if it is cut off from the vine. Apart from His Word you have no life. You will wither and die.

Whereas the cleaning of dirt is a temporary condition, when Christ makes you clean, you are clean. He says, “You are already clean because of the word that I have spoken to you.” Whereas water will wash off dirt, the water of Baptism is connected with the Word of Christ and cleanses your whole being. You are truly clean. Your Heavenly Father sees you as He sees His only begotten Son, without sin or stain; holy. You are as He has called you to be: His own child. You bear fruit. You live the holy life He has called you to live. You delight in serving Him by helping others in their need, by comforting them with the Gospel, by serving in the vocation to which God has called you: whether that be mother, father, neighbor, or whatever occupation you have.

But how is this the case since you continue to sin? Are you holy or not? Are you clean or not? It’s somewhat like being a child in a home. Your mom loves you no matter what. She knows there will be times you disobey, times you make a mess, and times you don’t honor her as God has commanded you. But she loves you and cares for you. And this is what God does also. He loves you and cares for you. That’s why He gives you His Word.

Is it easy, this business of God making you clean, forgiving you of your sins? No, it’s not easy, Jesus did the dirty work of suffering in your place so that you may enjoy eternal glory with God. And it’s not easy to daily be in the Word, to read it, to meditate on and ponder what you have read, to pray about what you are studying in the Word of God, to repent of your sins and receive your comfort in your Baptism rather than some notion that you can do better. It’s tough to think about the spiritual sustenance you need when your stomach is telling you that what you need is food. Tough to set your mind on the higher things of the Word of God that nourishes you and the Body and Blood of Christ in His Holy Supper that strengthens you.

But these are the things God uses to prune you, to make you clean, to sustain you in His grace and forgiveness. To give you the strength you need to bear the fruit which He Himself produces in you. These things are your lifeline in a life that is daily filled with all kinds of temptations which seek to stain you and cut you off from the Vine. A mom might wish now and then for a break. The promise of “ask whatever you wish” is certainly a tempting one for us. For the mom it might be that the messes aren’t that messy, and the talking back ceases. For all of us it will be whatever we are tempted to absorb ourselves in. But the lifeblood of Christ flows through us and the prayer He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane and the prayer He taught us to pray is the prayer He is getting at here: Thy will be done.

We know what His will is: to do the dirty work of making us clean. To love and care for us in all of our needs, especially saving us eternally. Amen.


Sunday, May 3, 2009

Step Right Up!

Fourth Sunday of Easter
May 3, 2009
John 10:11-18

It’s as if you’re at a carnival. Step right up! Get yer chance to win a fabulous prize! Try your luck! Show your girlfriend what you can do and win her a cute stuffed animal.

Everywhere you go, it seems someone is hawking something. They’ve got the answer to inner peace. They’ll clean your carpet better than anyone else because they use a specially formulated deep cleaning. They’ll help you figure out the pathway to financial independence. They can show you how in three simple steps to add ten years to your life. They’ll offer you a better working environment and benefits package than the other company. They’re the candidate who will work for the poor.

And it goes on and on. Everywhere you go, someone’s attempting to sell you on their product, their idea, their religion. You hear all the claims. You ignore many. You’re intrigued by some. You’re angered by some, surprised by some, and confused by some. Some may not apply to you. Some you thought hadn’t applied to you, but now from the pitch you realize they do. Some you may ignore because it’s the same old thing you hear and you already know what you need.

Now Jesus is no salesman. He’s not hawking anything. But He does offer you something. Is it new? It it exciting? Will it change your life? Is it the best and the greatest? Is it far and away better than what the others offer?

All those people out there “selling” you on what they’ve got to offer, they all think that what they’re offering is the best and what you need. So to many what Jesus offers is just one more salesman hawking his stuff.

But Jesus isn’t offering to make your life better. He’s not selling you on how you can make your life better. He’s not convincing you that what He’s got is the latest and greatest.

What He’s offering is actually very simple. Himself. His life. He’s offering it to you in this way: He’s willing to lay it down for you. He’s powerful to take it up again. He won’t bamboozle you. He won’t twist your arm. He won’t hawk His blessings. He’ll simply give them to you. That’s what He does. That’s who He is. He’s the Good Shepherd.

There are many religions out there. They’re run by hired hands. They want you to step right up and give it your best shot. Because if you do God will be pleased with you and you’ll be blessed. This kind of carnival-like thinking infects the Christian Church as well. The people God has called are sinners just like the people they serve. And so though they’ve been called not to be salesmen, but servants, they sometimes prefer their own safety and contentment rather than the care of the people of God. These religious leaders who do this are hired hands. They don’t own the sheep. They care about themselves. And so they’ll try to sell you on things that will only leave you out in the open, where there are spiritual dangers.

What they offer is compelling. You need to live a moral life, the way God intended you to. You can be happier, if you just apply simple basic Biblical principles in your life. You shouldn’t have to go through life always being emotionally beaten down by others, you can live the victorious Christian life God has chosen for you if you change your thinking. And it goes on and on. If you really listen to it, it’s just another bunch of salesmen hawking, not Christianity, but anything and everything that has nothing to do with Christ.

Whereas Jesus simply gives you Himself. He doesn’t call you to strive for greater purpose, but to be crucified with Him in a death like His in Baptism. He doesn’t sell you on notions of greater happiness or contentment, but offers you His Body and His Blood in His Supper for the forgiveness of your sins. He’s no hired hand.

He’s the farthest thing from a salesman. He’s the opposite of a hired hand. But not in the way we might think. When He says the hired hands don’t own the sheep and therefore don’t care about the sheep, He doesn’t compare Himself to them by saying that He does own them. No, He says He knows His sheep. Does He own them? Well, yeah, He’s their Creator. But He’s not interested in compelling you to follow Him because He owns you. He wants you to know that He knows you and that you know Him.

The apostles in the first reading were no salesmen; they were no hired hands. They were undershepherds, shepherds under the Good Shepherd. They simply laid it out for the people: Jesus is the one who laid down His life on the cross and took it up again in the Resurrection. This is exactly what Jesus is saying in the Gospel reading. You can’t be sold on this. You can’t be convinced of it. It’s a gift. And the gift is not a better way, it’s a person. It’s God Himself. It’s Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, given up and given for you. He stepped up to the cross. He willingly laid down His life for you. He mocked death as if it could have any hold on Him, the Author of life.

You might wonder what Jesus has to offer you. Maybe it’ll get you a bigger paycheck, or inner peace, or less stress in your home. Or maybe you can simply see Him for who He is. Not as one among many, but one apart from all the rest. The one who alone went to the cross and moseyed on out of that tomb He had been in. You may hear the voice of your Good Shepherd not as one voice among many, but as the only voice that calls you home—to eternal rest in Him.

That doesn’t mean you have to wait until you die to receive comfort. Even now, even as you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, your Lord prepares a Table for you. It’s His Table. He’s not selling goods, He’s feeding you. He’s giving you Himself, which is what He always does. He gives His life for you. He conquers the grave for you. He Baptizes you and washes away all of your sins. He feeds you with His Body and Blood. So step right up to His Table and partake of the Meal of Immortality. The eternal God is the one who laid down His life for you and took it up again, with the promise that He will take you to heaven. As you await that day and as you serve Him in sharing Jesus with others, He will nourish and strengthen you. Amen.