Sunday, June 28, 2009

Vanity and Dignity

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Commemoration of Irenaeus of Lyons, Pastor
June 28, 2009
Mark 5.21-43

There it was, on the front page of the San Diego Union Tribune, two stories side by side that put together say a lot about us. I doubt the editors purposely put the two stories right next to each other as a statement about ourselves, but I couldn’t help but think that they were perfectly juxtaposed. One story was about a new trend in the world of technology, which is quickly becoming the world of just about everybody, even people who don’t know, or even don’t even care, much about technology. But with hundreds of millions of people who are on Facebook and Twitter and other social networking web sites like it, all kinds of people are part of a technological revolution in which they are socializing with people they know and don’t know all from the comfort of their own home or in the comfort of Starbucks on their laptop or their cell phone.

That’s what made this story so interesting, though. Because no matter how much things change the more they stay the same. And it’s true in the ever expanding world of technology. There’s a huge rush to have your own web site address, which people usually want to be their own name. They call these web site addresses “vanity addresses.” It’s all about getting people to your web site so that they can find out more about you. So even though the technological means for doing this didn’t exist for most of history, let alone even ten years ago, vanity is as old as anything.

Right next to it was an interesting story about the White House being inundated by flies. It was so bad that during an interview of the president, a fly was bugging him. President Obama was able smack it so that it couldn’t bug him anymore. Now here was the part that struck me: PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, complained about the president’s action. Since flies are living creatures, what right do we have to take their life in such a way?

These two stories, present us with a picture of ourselves of the two extremes in how we view ourselves as humans. On the one hand, there’s vanity—good old-fashioned pride. On the other hand, there is false humility, a debasement of the crown of God’s creation—people. Pride is taking God’s creation of us and placing that very creation, ourselves, above the Creator, God. False humility takes what is a command of God—that we are to be good stewards of God’s good creation, the environment and animals—and place it on a par with the crown of His creation, people, as if plants and animals are equal to the people God made to be in relationship with them.

Ironically, these two extremes, though they seem the opposite of each other, are at essence the same thing. So we can put whatever name we want on it, but it really all comes down to going against the First Commandment: You shall have no other gods. In our pride, we want to put ourselves first, above God. In our false humility, we actually do the same thing, because we are taking the way God has made His creation and saying that, no, it needs to be the way we make it; and in so doing, we place ourselves once again above God.

When vanity rears its ugly head, humility takes a beating. We don’t acknowledge that we are truly humble before the Almighty God and Creator. When false humility steps in, dignity gets crushed. We don’t acknowledge that, while all of God’s creation is wonderful, human beings hold a special place in it and in the eyes of God the Father.

So how do we beat down our pride? How do we lift ourselves up from our false humility to the dignified place God wants us to see ourselves in? The Gospel reading gives us its own picture. It shows us what our sinful flesh considers extreme—our utter deficiency of ourselves and our total sufficiency in Christ.

You can’t get more helpless than watching your twelve year old daughter getting sicker and sicker before your eyes. You can’t get more in need than twelve years of different doctors, different treatments, different medications, only to find your condition hasn’t improved. And when your twelve year old girl ends up dying, we see that ultimately there are things that are out of our control and ability and we are simply left deficient.

But you can’t be in a better position than being utterly deficient of yourself. Because when Jesus comes into your life you can see yourself for who you really are: one whom the eternal Creator, Almighty God, loves and cares for. You have no dignity of yourself, but you have dignity in Christ. He created you and He loves you. He helps you in your need. Pride gets you nowhere but left in your deficiency. False humility leaves you with yourself, and with yourself is only ultimate deficiency.

With Christ there is nothing you need to try to bolster yourself with. There’s nothing you need to convince Him of of how unworthy you are. He knows you. He knows your need. He knows where you stand before Him. He knows you can manage your 401K, or hire someone to do it. He knows you can drive yourself to the doctor and the store to get your medication. He knows you can fill out an application and beat the bushes to try to get a job in this tough economy. He knows you can fight for the rights of those less fortunate than you. He knows you make hundreds of little decisions each day in which you control what you do and how you do it.

But He also knows that at the end of the day you know yourself, that you have no control over your life, whether you will live or die tonight or thirty years from now or live but end up in a coma. He knows that you know that while you may not think about it a lot, you cannot convince yourself that you are really fine without Him. That you really are deficient of yourself, that you are completely dependent upon Him in what will happen to you when you die.

Our pride wants to be in control. It wants to dictate. It wants to hear what’s good about ourselves. If offended or made to feel bad about ourselves we turn against those who tell us what we don’t want to hear about ourselves. Or we simply turn them off. But the Word of God is not interested in telling us what we want to hear, but what we need to hear. Our pride will scoff at it. The Word of God will chop off any notions we have of false humility. This is the irony that God presents us with: we are nothing of our own selves and everything in Him. We are the crown of His creation and yet deserve eternal damnation because of our sin. We are by nature sinful and unclean and yet loved by God so much that He comes to rescue us, giving His very own life on our behalf.

God’s Word is like a hammer, breaking down our pride in order to bring us to repentance. It brings to us the truest humility there is, the ultimate humility—God Himself becoming a man. God Himself suffering as if He were the sinner. God Himself taking upon Himself the eternal punishment we deserve, all because of His eternal love for us because He created us and wants nothing more than to restore us to the eternal relationship He has with us.

We don’t need to puff ourselves up with pride or worry about our dignity or have any pretenses of humility. Our sufficiency is in Christ. Our life, our hope, our eternal care is in Him. Gladly boast of your deficiency in and of yourself. Humbly confess your sins before Him. Rejoice in His total sufficiency. Full and free forgiveness is yours, now and forever. Amen.


Sunday, June 21, 2009

God Is Our Father In His Son Jesus Christ

Third Sunday after Pentecost
June 21, 2009
Mark 4.35-41

The festival of Pentecost is the festival of the Holy Spirit. And the Nativity of Our Lord, Good Friday, and the Resurrection of Our Lord are high festivals of Jesus. But is there a special festival of God the Father? The Church Year is designed around salvation history centered in the life of Christ. There is only one God, of course, and the Triune God is at work when the Holy Spirit, the Son, and the Father are individually at work. But that God shows Himself to work in distinct ways in the distinct Persons of the Godhead shows us that it’s more than just an interesting phenomenon. His work as Father, His work as Son, His work as Holy Spirit mean things for us and our salvation. Since today is Father’s Day, it’s as good a day as any to examine the work of God the Father and what that means for us.

But the Gospel reading shows us the work of God the Son, Jesus Christ. It also show us, however, the work of God the Father. The Father is not mentioned, but His work is accomplished in the Gospel reading. As in everything He does Jesus is carrying out the will of His Heavenly Father. But in a specific sense, Jesus’ action brings about exactly what God was saying to Job in the Old Testament reading: “Or who shut in the sea with doors… and prescribed limits for it and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed’?”

God is speaking to Job of His work of creation. He tells Job of it for the purpose of making known His work of re-creation. The God who is the Creator of the earth and the seas is the God who re-creates. He restores His fallen creation. In the Gospel reading the disciples need immediate salvation. Jesus saves them by exhibiting His power over His very own creation. He brings about the very thing God the Father stated to Job, what He did at creation and what God the Son is doing now in the boat. Just as at creation the seas came into existence at the speaking of His Word, now the waves halt at the speaking of His Word. Just as He set boundaries for them at creation, so now He stops them in their tracks.

Upon seeing this display of power the disciples are afraid. Who is this? Who is this who commands even the wind and waves to obey Him? He is the very creator of the wind and the waves. And He’s the Savior. When God the Father spoke to Job about the salvation He would accomplish, His work of re-creation, He had in mind the giving of His only-begotten Son. The power God exhibited to Job in coming out of the whirlwind was nothing compared to the re-creating, saving work of giving up His Son. The power Jesus exhibited in stilling the storm was a cloak, the ultimate exhibition of His power coming in giving Himself up on the cross—power over the forces of sin, death, and the devil.

This is where we see how God the Father is who we need to look to in order to obey the Fourth Commandment—Honor your father and your mother. It’s where we see how those who are fathers learn what it means to be a godly father. Honoring our father and being a faithful father is possible in God the Father’s giving of His only-begotten Son Jesus Christ.

Can a person honor their father if he is not a Christian? Yes, they can. And not only that, they must. God gives you your father. If he’s not a Christian the highest way you honor him is to pray for him and speak the Gospel to him so that he may know the eternal love of the Heavenly Father. Is it hard at times to honor your Christian father because he falls short at times as a father? Yes, but the Fourth Commandment isn’t dependent on how good of a father you have.

And how is a Christian man who is a father to be a faithful father, exhibiting the love of God the Father, when he himself continually falls short of exhibiting unconditional love; when he himself is every much of a sinner as his children? Only by and through the love of his Heavenly Father as exhibited in His Son Jesus Christ. A father’s children are commanded to honor him, but a father must wake up each morning and strive to live in such a way that it is a joy for his children to honor him.

How do we do these things? Through the love of God the Father in Jesus Christ. The love of God the Father is not a generic love. It is not simply that He loves us. It is His specific grace and mercy toward us in His Son Jesus Christ. You honor your father because of Jesus Christ and Him crucified. That is how God the Father loved you. How much more, then, can you honor your father? You are a faithful father when you love your children with the full and free forgiveness your Heavenly Father has given to you and your children.

God told Job that He had created the universe. He then pointed him toward the greatest of all His power and work, His work of re-creation. It is His work in giving His Son. We see that work being brought about in the Gospel reading. God the Father is at work there on the lake, in the boat, in the stilling of the storm. He loves His creation, He loves His children. That’s why He gave His Son. This is how we can live each new day as obedient children of our earthly father, how we fathers can love our children not simply with our own love but the eternal love we ourselves have received.

This week dozens of children will be roaming the halls and rooms of our church for VBS. Some are here every week. Some attend their own church. Some will be hearing the Gospel for the first time. All are in need of it, though, just as we all are. May our prayer be that each one of them hears that Gospel and receives the blessing promised through it, the forgiveness of their sins. May our prayer be that the father of each one doesn’t simply send them here for the week but daily blesses them with the love of the Heavenly Father in His Son Jesus Christ. That each father loves his children by reading the Word of God to them, praying with them, bringing them to God’s House each week to be renewed in the gracious presence of the Triune God and His never-ending love for them.

May this prayer be for us as well. When your dad would rather spend time doing his own thing rather than be with you, his child, honor him. Do not despise or anger him, but honor him, serve and obey him, love and cherish him. Forgive him, he’s a sinner just like you are. And why should you honor him even in those times he’s not faithfully carrying out his duties as a father? Because of the love God the Father has for him and for you. Because He sent His own Son to forgive him and you.

When you as a father provoke your children, repent and ask for forgiveness. Pray your Heavenly Father to give you the strength and selflessness you need to be a godly father to your children, loving them as your Heavenly Father has loved them and you—in His Son, Jesus Christ.

As Christians we cannot talk about honoring our fathers and about being godly fathers apart from Jesus Christ. We must look to God the Father to know how we are able to honor our fathers and to be godly fathers. In the same way, we cannot talk about God’s love apart from the love of God the Father in His Son Jesus Christ. Receive gratefully the care of your earthly father, the food and home he provides. Fathers, feed your children not only daily bread but also God’s Word. Your Heavenly Father gives you His own Son in the Gospel and in His Son’s Holy Supper. You love with this love He has loved you with, love in His Son Jesus Christ. Amen.


Sunday, June 14, 2009

What You Don’t Understand Is What You Know

Second Sunday after Pentecost
Commemoration of Elisha
June 14, 2009
Mark 4.26-34

Do you know what November 26 of this year is? You might be able to guess. If I tell you that it’s the last Thursday in November you’ll know that it’s Thanksgiving. But how about November 22? It’s a Sunday, and therefore is a specific day in the Church Year. If you don’t know the Church Year well, you probably won’t know that it’s the Last Sunday of the Church Year and will mark the Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost. That’s five months from now and twenty-three Sundays from now. The season of Pentecost is a long one compared to the others, which usually last a few weeks. But whereas there’s usually a lot of action in the other seasons because they’re concentrating on the life of Christ, the Pentecost season can seem like it’s going nowhere with each Sunday simply growing in number after the festival Pentecost: the Second Sunday after Pentecost, the Third Sunday after Pentecost, and so on, all the way down to the Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost on November 22.

But there’s a reason for that. It’s because it is the season of growth. That’s why the color has now turned to green and will stay that way, with the exception of a couple festival days, until we change it for the season of Advent. Green is the color of growth. When there is abundant growth a lush green usually marks that.

But if the season of Pentecost seems like it’s going nowhere slowly so does actual growth itself. A seed planted in the ground doesn’t sprout the next day. For a long time it seems like nothing is happening. But growth is occurring. Early into this Pentecost season it’s good for us to know that this is what this season is all about. It may not seem like much is happening, but in hearing the Gospel week in and week out you are growing.

The Gospel reading today orients us on this path of growing. It does it with two parables, one which we know well, the Parable of the Mustard Seed. Jesus is specific in how this growth takes place. The Old Testament reading and the Epistle also lend assistance to the process by which we grow as Christians.

Simply put, it is by faith. It is not by sight, as the Epistle reading says. It is not by power or strength as the Old Testament reading alludes to with its symbolic language. It is not by understanding as Jesus makes clear in the Gospel reading. It is, simply, by faith.

This doesn’t mean it’s simple. It doesn’t mean, either, that no understanding is involved. It means that the Triune God is the one who brings about the growth. When the seed is sown, it grows. The man who planted the seed didn’t understand how the seed grew into a plant, but it grew. You don’t understand how you grow in faith, but you do. You do because God creates the faith. He causes the growth. The man didn’t understand how the growth was taking place but he knew there was growth.

We don’t usually think about the process of growth. We see the flowers and plants and trees and their beauty. It’s remarkable, isn’t it, that these beautiful things come from tiny seeds? But it doesn’t seem all that remarkable when they’re actually growing. If you look at the place in the ground where the seed was planted you’ll get bored quickly if you’re waiting to see an actual sign of growth. It’s over the long term that you see the results. When you plant the seed, in addition to watering and ensuring sunshine, you have to take it on faith that the seed will grow into a plant and that the plant will keep growing.

How does one grow in the faith? How do you and I grow as Christians? How do we grow in sanctification, more and more living as God would have us live? What does God say? “I bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish. I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it.” Most of us aren’t biologists or botanists. If we want a garden we’ll plant the seeds and tend the garden, but we won’t concern ourselves with how in the world those seeds and plants are growing. We simply want to enjoy the fruits of the garden. When it comes to our growth as Christians, God is clear that He is the one who brings it about. He causes the growth and sustains the growth.

If you are dried up spiritually God will cause you to flourish. If you are down in the dumps God will lift you up. This is what God says: “I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it.” If you don’t understand how He does it, well, He doesn’t say anything about you understanding it, does He? He simply says, I will bring it about. I will do it. I am the Lord. He is the one who plants the seed of the Gospel and causes you to grow and flourish.

God says that He brings low the high tree and dries up the green tree. Those who put their faith in how much they do for their Lord and Savior raise themselves up and come to the point, perhaps without realizing it, where they don’t need Him. So He brings them down. So many times we hear the Scriptures and when they don’t comport with the reality of our reason or even common sense we try to explain them away, or even dismiss them. God goes to work to dry up this ungodly reason.

The growth He brings is not through our understanding or through how good we are, but through the humble ways of the Gospel. He doesn’t tell us to chuck our minds and reason, but to let His Word stand as the final say. The mustard seed isn’t much, but grows into something beyond what you’d expect. The Gospel, also, doesn’t seem like much, but produces things greater than we could ever imagine.

Do you think about your Baptism much? That’s because you think that not much can really come of it. But if you walk by faith, rather than sight, you will see that the waters of Baptism actually bring new life and life that never ends. This is something you can never understand, but you do know, because the Holy Spirit has given you the faith to know it and believe it. Does it seem that simple bread and wine sitting on this altar isn’t much? Yes. But though you can never understand how Jesus Christ delivers to you His very Body and Blood in and with that bread and wine you know He does.

Faith is not understanding. Faith is not what you do. Faith is not sight. It is not reason, explanation, or anything that can be quantified. It is, simply, faith. It is what trusts solely in the one man who was born of Mary and suffered in the place of the world. The one man who conquered the grave by raising Himself from it. The one man who ascended into heaven and even now brings Himself to you in His Gospel and His Sacraments. Why? So that you may be forgiven. So that you may grow. So that you may be sustained in faith. So that you may know that He is the one who sustains you in your growth.

He doesn’t insist that you understand but invites you to hear. What you hear, then, is not what you understand but is what you know. You are forgiven. You grow in faith. He creates it and causes you to bear fruit. He gives you life in which you will continue to grow and life in which you will live forever. Amen.


Sunday, June 7, 2009

Preaching to the Choir (and Everybody Else)

The Holy Trinity
First Sunday after Pentecost
June 7, 2009
John 3.1-17

One thing you’re not supposed to do when you’re preaching is to tell how you came up with the sermon, you just preach it. But you know what’s coming, don’t you? I came up with the idea for this sermon two Sundays ago, about twenty minutes before the worship service. Someone was telling me about a Lutheran church that has decided to skip a day of worship and go out and help people instead.

Another thing you’re not supposed to do is think of an idea for a sermon and then fit it into the Scripture passage you’re using. But as you can see, I felt compelled to address this situation long before I sat down to prepare for this sermon. However, I already knew it would be Trinity Sunday and had a pretty good guess that John 3 would be the Gospel reading, so I did have a pretty good idea already of how it would fit.

Yet a third thing you’re not supposed to do is preach to the choir. Preaching to the choir goes something like this: Murder is wrong. You are committing great evil when you unlawfully take the life of another person. When you preach this way the people of God sitting in the pews rightfully disdain those who would do such a thing. The problem, however, is that most Christians haven’t done this and have no intention of doing it, so they also quietly congratulate themselves for not doing such a horrible thing. Preaching goes to the heart of the matter to the people being preached to. When it comes to murder, all are guilty. Every one of us has harmed others in our actions and our thoughts. The one who murders a doctor who aborts babies is every much of a murderer as the abortion doctor. Likewise, the one who hates or wishes ill upon that abortion doctor has sinned against God’s fifth commandment even as the abortion doctor has. Preaching is for sinners. Preaching to the choir is not really preaching.

So if I stand here and rail against that church that decides to skip out on worship, I’m simply preaching to the choir. You’ll agree with me that they should be in worship as you are, and you’ll be feeling really good about yourself that you’re here.

So what can we say about this? It makes no sense for me to tell you that you should be here, you’re here. But it’s also true that if your living out of your Christian life consists of being here in the House of God but you’re also not out there helping others and sharing the Gospel, then there’s really not much to your Christian life.

Well, if you were to decide that today would be a good day to skip out on church because it’s just as important to help others, what you’d be missing out on is the Festival of the Holy Trinity. Now, would this cause you to lose your salvation? No. Would it make a deep impact, negatively, on your faith? Not necessarily. Is it essential as a Christian to celebrate Trinity Sunday? Certainly not.

But what you would be missing out on is God helping you. Notice I didn’t say you’d miss out on how God wants to help you, but on His actual helping you. And you know what happens when God helps you? You help others out. There is something tragic about pitting worship and serving others against each other.

One of my professors pointed out that Trinity Sunday is the only festival in the Church Year that observes a doctrine, not an event—and, if you’re going to do that, then shouldn’t the doctrine you celebrate be the doctrine of Justification, the chief doctrine of Christianity? But at the heart of the doctrine of the Trinity is justification. The doctrine of the Trinity is not an abstract theological concept—it’s the teaching that God is dynamic, living, eternal, incomprehensible, relational, the one true God. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three in one and the one in three. The One true God, not three parts of one God and not three distinct Gods, but one holy God in three distinct persons.

The festival of the Holy Trinity is not about God, it’s about who God is and what He does for humanity. Some mistakenly believe that we can chuck worship and go out and meet people where they’re at, meet their needs. The Lutheran church I heard about that was doing this was now the second time I’ve heard of this kind of thing. The first was with a non-Lutheran church who had people at a house over on Eldridge St., so that when our members were driving here to church they saw what was going on. And how did they know that that was what was going on? Because they were wearing shirts that said: “Don’t go to church, be the church.”

But I’m preaching to the choir, aren’t I? You’re the ones who are here, aren’t you? You’re not skipping church for the good cause of helping people. So why am I preaching to the choir? Because that’s who needs to be preached to. And there’s another group of people that needs to be preached to, and you can see from the title of the sermon who it is: everybody else.

I will not for a minute discount the intentions of those who say, We can’t just go to church, we need to be the Church. Their intentions obviously are good. But the real question is not, Which one do you do? The real question is, How do you do both? The way you do both is by being here. Here is where what happens that needs to happen for you to go out and serve and help others. If you are not served and helped by God, what will you be able to offer others?

When Jesus was preaching to Nicodemus He wasn’t preaching to the choir, He was preaching to Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a faithful believer in God. But what did he need? He needed to be born from above. He needed God. He needed Jesus. He needed the Holy Spirit to bring him new life in the waters of Baptism.

God the Father loved the world in this way: He gave His only-begotten Son to die on the cross for the sin of the world so that whoever believes in Him would not perish but have eternal life. This is who God is. This is how He works. He gives Himself. He serves. He forgives. He gives new life. He does this because we need it. Not just those people out there. Us. You and me. We need it. We may be the choir but it’s the choir that needs to be preached to.

And yes, there’s everybody else. All those people out there. They need it to. So, yes, we do need to get out there and help, and serve, and bring the Gospel to everybody out there. Not instead of, but because we have been served by our Lord. Because He has washed us with the waters of renewal and regeneration. Because He has fed us with the very Body and Blood of Christ in His Holy Supper. Without these, we have no forgiveness, and therefore, nothing to bring people.

Oh, we could help them. But don’t we want to give them what they really need? We want to give them Christ, just as our Heavenly Father gave Him to us. The helping people in their physical needs is a wonderful way to be in their lives, to manifest the love of Christ in a way that they can tangibly experience. This is not just a way to bait them and then start preaching to them as if that’s really all you wanted to give them. Helping others is a natural outgrowth of the eternal help that God gives to us. Why would we not help those who are in need? And in the same way, why would we not share with them the Good News that God loves them in this way, He gives them His only-begotten Son so that they may have eternal life.

Nicodemus was having a hard time letting God do His work in him. How can a man be born when he is already old? We, too, need to let God do His work in us. We need to be in the place where He works in us new life through the forgiveness of our sins and the strengthening of our faith. The new life He accomplishes in us produces in us the desire to serve others. We who have born again need to be sustained in the grace and mercy of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit through the hearing of the Gospel and partaking of the Lord’s Supper. God loves us in this way and by His grace we love others in Him. Amen.