Sunday, July 19, 2009

The God of Conflict

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
July 19, 2009
Mark 6.30-44

No one likes conflict. Okay, there are some who thrive off conflict. But most people try to avoid it like the plague. People have different ways of dealing with it, they’ll get angry, subdued, or defensive, but most people would do almost anything to avoid it.

God is not one of those people. God actively engages in conflict. He seeks it out.

How do I say this? The Bible gives ample description of God’s engaging in conflict with a host of things—but they really boil down to two things: Satan and our sinful nature.

Galatians 5 says that the Holy Spirit opposes the flesh and the flesh opposes the Holy Spirit. This is God actively engaging in conflict with us, opposing our sinful nature.

The Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are filled with God’s active engagement with people and Satan in conflict in the Person and Work of Jesus, God in the flesh. The Pharisees and other religious leaders are well known examples of this. They sought to destroy Jesus, and Jesus did not shy away from the conflict. He actively engaged in it with them.

There are a number of examples of Jesus fighting with Satan and the demons in His healings of people’s various infirmities. There are the conflicts He had with His own disciples; perhaps the most famous one when He called Peter Satan. You can read the four Gospel accounts with an eye toward Jesus engaging in conflict with Satan and the sinful flesh of man and you’d have a good understanding of what Christianity is all about.

So why did I choose this as the theme for the sermon this morning when the Gospel reading is the account of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, rather than one of those examples I just mentioned? There doesn’t appear to be much, if any, conflict here. It really appears to be the opposite, speaking of Jesus’ compassion for all and His action in serving them; of His power and love at work.

But this passage is precisely a clear example of God’s conflict with us, His people, who are by nature sinful and unclean. It is a great example of God’s continuing war against Satan who actively seeks to destroy us and against the world which wants to have nothing to do with God and His salvation in Jesus Christ.

The Gospel reading picks up where we were two weeks ago when Jesus had sent His disciples out on a mission. “The apostles returned to Jesus and told Him all that they had done and taught.” Jesus sending them out to proclaim the Gospel and heal people produced some conflict, with some rejecting their message. Now the apostles had returned to Jesus “and He said to them, ‘Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves.”

We know how these things go. At the moment there was no conflict. They were on a high. They had much to report to Jesus. They were excited to tell Him about all that had happened. They were also glad to have some downtime. Time where they could be by themselves, to rest, to get away from some of the pressure. But while they were feeling good now, could they hope it would last? Serving can drain a person. Did they know in the back of their minds that Jesus was expecting more of this from them, and their rest would be brief?

As if on cue, guess who showed up? The curiosity seekers. Along came the crowd that had seen and heard about the mighty things that had been done. “Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When He went ashore He saw a great crowd, and He had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” That was Jesus for you, always having compassion on people, especially ones that didn’t seem to deserve it or that most people wouldn’t give even a glance to.

And this certainly is the opposite of conflict, but have you thought about how this affected the disciples? What did they think about Jesus ignoring them after He had planned to have some downtime with them? We can imagine that Jesus’ actions here were in conflict with the disciples’ need for rest and rejuvenation. But that’s exactly why Jesus came, to produce this conflict in our lives. Where we would like to sit comfortably with Jesus and He wants to get us up off of our seats and keep serving others—even when they barge in on our times of needed rest. How many times have you declined to help people in need because it wasn’t convenient for you? How many times because you yourself were in need of someone serving you?

Well, no rest for the weary. Jesus welcomed the crowd gladly. “And He began to teach them many things.” He had compassion on them. He saw them and His heart went out to them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So what did He do? He taught them. He gave them what they needed. They came seeking a Jesus they had seen and had heard about, He gave them what would benefit their souls. He taught them many things.

I’m one of those people that wants to know what’s not said. Mark says Jesus taught them “many things.” I wonder, what things? How many things? Did He cover a bunch of the main doctrines of Christianity? Did He open it up for a question and answer session? We don’t know the words of what Jesus said that day when He taught them. But we do know what He taught them. We have ample passages in the Scriptures of Jesus’ teaching that we know what He taught them. He taught them God’s love for them in Him. He called them to repentance and proclaimed the Gospel of salvation in Himself. You can bet that there were many people there that day who were conflicted with His message that they were sinners in need of salvation—and that it could only come through Him.

What was their reaction? Speculation can take us only so far. Were there some who got up and left because they were offended? Perhaps. We know it happened on other occasions. We know that there were a lot who stayed because we’re told there were five thousand men in addition to the women and children who there. So even if no one or a few people left, we can imagine some sitting there the entire time taking issue with Jesus and not taking His teaching to heart.

“…It grew late, [and] His disciples came to Him and said, ‘This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.’ But He answered them, ‘You give them something to eat.’ And they said to Him, ‘Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?’” There Jesus goes again with more conflict. To the crowds He’s all about serving them. To His disciples, however, He’s an enigma. Why aren’t you just sending them way so they can get food for themselves and get home? But no, Jesus needs to stir up conflict. He needs to get the disciples out of their mode of serving people on their own terms and doing it on God’s terms.

You give them something to eat. How in the world are we supposed to do that? Now, what do you think is the kind of answer Jesus was expecting? Was He expecting the common sense answer that they obviously could not do such a thing? Or was He expecting some creative thinking on their part of how they might attempt to accomplish such a thing? No, what Jesus was expecting is what He always expects from us and that is the answer of faith. He was expecting them to acknowledge that while it was indeed impossible for them to do such a thing, He could indeed accomplish it through them and so they would trust that He would bring it about.

Why didn’t Jesus just do what He had planned to do? Because then there’s no conflict. And with no conflict there is no growth in faith. Have you ever noticed that it’s easy to believe in Jesus when things are going well but hard when it seems that you have no time for the rest and rejuvenation you need? This is why He is intent on being in conflict with us, because our sinful nature is all too eager to take the easy way out rather than the hard way of serving even when it’s inconvenient.

Jesus takes five loaves of bread and two fish and feeds thousands and thousands of people. This doesn’t seem to be much in the way of causing conflict in the lives of the people. It is in fact pure Gospel, Jesus feeding people who are hungry, feeding those He has just fed spiritually with His teaching. But Jesus is also doing much more than feeding people food for their stomachs. The language used to describe Jesus feeding the multitude is sacramental: taking the loaves “He looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples.”

Jesus hadn’t yet instituted His Holy Supper. But He knew what He would do. He knew He would be betrayed into the hands of sinners. He knew that He would suffer at the hands of sinners. He came to suffer and die for those very sinners, for every sinner. He came into the world to save the world. He came to produce conflict. It is the Gospel the Bible says is an offense. God brings conflict into our lives by bringing the Gospel into our lives.

Jesus coming to be our Savior means that we need to be saved. Calling us to eternal life means that we have no life of eternal value apart from Him and only eternal suffering without Him. Feeding us with His Body and Blood means that we need to be fed. It means that He calls upon us to respond to Him with the answer of faith, not of convenience or self-centered needs. This is the conflict He brings into our lives, always in opposition to our sinful flesh. But always to save us from our sinful flesh and Satan. Always to feed us and finally to bring us to that eternal Home where is no conflict but only eternal glory. Amen.


Sunday, July 12, 2009

Here’s What Will Happen

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
July 12, 2009
Mark 6.14-29

On the TV show Monk, the main character is a homicide detective who is on psychiatric leave and works as a consultant for the police department. He is called upon when there are particularly difficult murder cases and he always figures out the crime even though each one is done in some ingenious fashion. He has several idiosyncrasies stemming from phobias and compulsive behaviors. He has certain memorable sayings he uses over and over, such as when people marvel at his uncanny abilities, he will say, “It’s a gift …and a curse.” Or when he does something that makes people scratch their heads he’ll say “You’ll thank me later.” At some point in the show before he’s figured out what happened he’ll know who did it and he’ll say, “He’s the guy.” But his best line is what he says at the end when he has solved the case—he says: “Here’s what happened,” and then proceeds to lay out every brilliant detail of the plan.

Now Adrian Monk is no prophet. He’s a detective and tells what happened after the fact. The remarkable thing about him is that he’s the only one who’s able to figure it out, but he nevertheless can only tell you what happened after it has happened. Prophets in the Bible do that but also speak of what will happen. They won’t just say, “Here’s what happened,” they will also say, “Here’s what will happen.” But what about when people today make these kind of predictions? The Bible says that we aren’t to add anything to the Bible, so if anyone is making predictions that go beyond what the Bible has already said will happen, then that person is a false prophet. There’s nothing to make known beyond what is already given to us in the Word of God.

That’s why it intrigued me on November 3 of last year, the day before the national election of president, when a Lutheran pastor made this proclamation: “Tuesday’s Winner Prophesied.” There’s nothing wrong, of course, with predicting who will win a political race; people do it all the time, just as they do in sports and many areas of life. But if a man who is called by God to proclaim God’s Word makes such a prediction speaking under the authority of God, then that man is a false prophet. So, intrigued, I read what he had to say. Here it is:

Here is what will happen…

the Church will win. The Lord will provide. All things will work together for good. The Lord’s man will win the election tomorrow. It will be for the good of those who love God.

That is not to say that the winner will be good. I don’t think that is an option in our system. But what will be good is the will of the Lord that He will work for His Church.

Think on the good the Lord did through Caesar, through Leo X, through Napoleon and Hitler and Sadaam Hussein. Sure, I’d prefer restful days of peace. But the reality is that restful days of peace are dangerous. They lull us into complacency. The Church militant does not have the option of resting or suing for peace or finding a compromise. She fights until she is relieved of her burden. And when she is too weak to fight, when she gives in to temptation, when she tries to make her own way, then the Lord in His mercy brings the fight to her in the form of persecution—from within and without.

[He goes on to describe this persecution and then continues] I don’t see any easy days ahead. But I do see good days. I see days when men confess the Truth and learn to love not their lives to death, days when priorities become clear and the Word of God is cherished.

Trust not in princes. Empires fail. The Word of the Lord endures forever. He will provide. One way or another, there is always a Ram in the thicket, Our Lord in the wrath of His Father that we be spared and inherit the Kingdom for free. That Kingdom will not be overcome or cease. So cast your ballot tomorrow and then cast your cares away. It does not matter if your candidate wins or loses. The Lord will provide.

It’s been several months now since then and it’s easy to think about the political ramifications of what happened on election day and what has happened since then. But the reason I bring this up is not to talk politics, because that’s not what prophets do. Prophets proclaim the Word of God. And they don’t do it by involving themselves in the political realm. They do it, simply, by proclaiming the Word of God whenever and wherever they are called to do it. Amos was minding his own business as a shepherd when God called him to prophesy. The priest Amaziah didn’t like what this country boy was prophesying to the king and those in power so he told Amos to take a hike. It would have been very easy for Amos to cut and run but instead he said that he was simply doing what God had called him to do.

John the Baptist did likewise. You think he wasn’t a little bit nervous telling, in his case, a pagan king that he was sinning against God by committing adultery with his brother’s wife? But God didn’t call John to tell King Herod what he wanted to hear but what God clearly says in His Word. Amos said to the king, Here’s what will happen. That’s what God had given him to say. John said to the king, Here’s what you’re doing, and it’s wrong. It’s what God had given him to say. What the Lutheran pastor said in his “prediction” was right on. No matter who was to win, or what happens in this lifetime, the Christian Church always wins. God sustains His Church.

He has given us His Word and we have no predictions to make. We simply have the Word of God to proclaim and make known. That’s what the pastor was doing, just like Amos and John the Baptist. That’s what we do in our lives. We are all called by God to make known His Word in our neighborhoods and places of work and our families.

But here I will make a prediction. I will tell you straight out: Here’s what will happen. But it is really simple proclamation. It is a stating of what the Word of God says will happen. So it is not a prediction on my part but on God’s. What will happen to you is what happened to Amos and to John the Baptist. The faithful making known of the Word of God will do its work. The Holy Spirit will work on the hearts and minds of those who hear it.

But it’s not all that appealing how things turned out for Amos and John. When you share the Word of God with people, some, perhaps even many, will be resistant to it. Some will persecute, even to death. What will happen is that God will take you out of your comfort zone and into the lives of others. Just as God came into the lives of the people He created in the person of Jesus, He sends you into people’s lives. King Jeroboam needed to hear the Word of God and Amos proclaimed it to him. King Herod needed to hear God’s truth and John the Baptist spoke it to him. You know the people in your lives. They need to hear the Word of God. Bring it to them. Don’t worry about your life. God will guard you and guide you.

You don’t need to worry about if people will act like they’d sooner read the phone book than listen to what you have to say about God and His love for them in Jesus Christ or if they begin to hate you as Herodias did John. The Holy Spirit will work on their hearts and minds just as He did with Herod, when he was perplexed by John’s message and yet enjoyed listening to him. You don’t have to worry about what the world says, as Herod did, when he let his pride get the better of him rather than doing the right thing and not make his foolish vow in the first place or after he did to not carry out such a gruesome act.

You do not need to worry about what may happen because although it could turn out as badly as it did for John the Baptist it can’t turn out worse. God will guard you in your life even to death, even as He did John. Although the tragic story for John’s disciples ended in them laying their teacher in a tomb, this was the beginning of life without persecution or imprisonment or hatred or pain for him. They laid him in a tomb, even as a stranger did our Lord and Savior. John has not yet risen from his tomb. But he will on the Last Day. We know this because we know what happened to our Lord and Savior. He rose from His tomb. He is alive and lives forever.

Here’s what will happen. We will too. Amen.


Sunday, July 5, 2009

Love Is Patient, Love Is Kind… Love Offends

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
July 5, 2009
Mark 6.1-13

It’s a common mistake. One we all can easily slip into. We want to be loving. We want to care for others. We love the words of 1 Corinthians 13, love is patient, love is kind. We want to be patient and kind. But in these good intentions we end up avoiding telling people what they need to hear, telling them rather what they want to hear. But this is not love. This actually is not caring for the other person. What we ought to do is ask ourselves how we can humbly tell others what they need to hear even though they may get offended and even cut us off.

And what about when we’re offended? Do we immediately assume the other person is being unloving or judgmental? Rather, what we ought to do is ask ourselves if the reason we’re offended is because the other person is trying to hurt us or if we just don’t want to admit that we need to hear what they have to say.

Jesus has no such issues. He simply does what needs to be done. He tells us what we need to hear. It’s not surprising that people are offended by Him. Who He is. What He does. What He has to say. We don’t want it to be that way. We want His being loving toward us and caring for us to make us feel comfortable. We don’t want to be offended by Him.

In the Old Testament reading God told Ezekiel to tell the people what they needed to hear. He also told him that they wouldn’t like it. They would, however, know that a prophet had been among them. Did the people of Nazareth know that a prophet had been among them? When Jesus had returned to His hometown they knew that someone had been among them—someone who wasn’t the person they were wanting to be among them. They wanted their own Jesus back. Not some miracle worker. Not one who presumed to be a wise man.

To them, Jesus was not a prophet. He was just Jesus. The kid down the street they used play with in the street. The kid they had walked to school with all those years ago. The kid who had helped His dad make the end table still sitting in their house. The kid who was, well, just like them. Only now He was different. But different in a way they didn’t like. Different in a way in which they were still the same old people they used be and He was now suddenly different. Preaching to them. Doing all kinds of miracles. Who was He to preach to them? Who did He think He was that He could do that kind of stuff?

They were offended. They wanted nothing to do with this man who was no longer just Jesus, the kid from down the street. The kid who would have made a great carpenter if He had just stuck with it. He might have thought they needed Him but they would show Him that they were just fine, by themselves. They would be fine being the way they always were. They way He had been once. Now He was different.

So there was nothing for Him to do there, except marvel. Marvel at their unbelief. Marvel at their unwillingness to hear the Word of God, even from a source that was admittedly unexpected. But is that so different from us? Are we satisfied that Jesus comes to us in ways that are different from what we’d expect? How are we given the vault of heaven in simple water that is connected with God’s Word? Why is Jesus saying that He gives His very self, His true Body and His true Blood in a piece of bread and a drink of wine that is consecrated by His Word? This can’t be the way the God of the universe operates. And so we’re offended that we have to rely on our Baptism, that we need to receive the Lord’s Supper for the forgiveness of our sins.

But Jesus is not deterred that we’re offended. He wasn’t deterred that the people in His hometown were offended. He just continued on. He kept on doing what He does. He comes to bring to people what they need, not what they want to hear. And so He sent out His apostles. Do you think maybe they had a few questions themselves about Jesus? Why was He sending them out with nothing but a staff, a tunic, and sandals? How could they be sure people would take care of them? And why did He send them out knowing that they would be rejected by some? Well, maybe it’s because He sent them out with another little thing called authority. He gave them authority over all kinds of things people have no business having authority over: unclean spirits and diseases and things that human beings are powerless against.

They also were given authority to do something else. To walk away. To shake the dust off their feet. To testify against those who were offended. To not change the message to what people would want to hear so as to keep the peace. To to preach the message of repentance. To preach that they are lost in their sins and dead in themselves.

We’re not comfortable with the way Jesus comes. Whether it’s in water or bread and wine or His servants. People don’t want what Jesus offers, because they prefer their comfort zone. The people from His hometown had gotten comfortable with the Jesus they knew. That’s the Jesus they wanted. Not the Jesus that came to them with what He had in mind. Some of the people the apostles preached to had gotten comfortable with preachers that affirmed them for who they were.

We Christians tend to get comfortable with Jesus. Why do we need to rely on our Baptism? Why do we need to wake each morning with the knowledge that we are by nature sinful and unclean, that we deserve nothing good from God? That daily we need to drown to our sinful flesh and repent of our sins? Why do we need to examine ourselves and acknowledge our need for Christ and His sacrifice of His Body and Blood, His giving of His very Body and Blood to us in His Holy Supper?

Jesus has no interest in just offending us. His purpose is not to tick us off. He wants to wake us up. He wants us to see. He wants us to know that we’re in a world of hurt in our comfort zone. The only way He can do that is by telling us what we need to hear. That’s what brings us to repentance. Jesus isn’t just any old person. He’s not just a person we can feel comfortable with. He’s our Lord. He’s our Savior. He comes to take us out of the comfortable life we have and give us new life.

Life in which we serve one another and care for one another. Caring and loving enough to risk offending them. That doesn’t give us license to needlessly offend others. We aren’t to be harsh with others just because we’re right. Speaking the truth is loving, but we must also do it in love. The only way this can be done is in humility, knowing that we ourselves deserve nothing but judgment from God for how we act and the wicked thoughts that flow through our mind.

On this weekend in our nation we give thanks for freedom, with our celebration yesterday of Independence Day. We enjoy a wonderful blessing in being able to live in a country where there’s dynamic interchange of ideas and the privilege of having a say in how things will be run. We give thanks to God for this gift. But especially as Christians we see that any freedom given to us is ultimately an opportunity to serve others. And there is no greater freedom we have than that which comes not through living in a free country but through repentance. If we stay in the comfort zone of our sinful flesh we are bound up in sin, we have no freedom at all. But in repentance, in dying to sin, and being raised up to new life in forgiveness, we have freedom in which we are not bound by our sinful desires.

We see Jesus for who He is. He is our Lord and Savior. He loves us. He is patient and kind. And His love is so far-reaching that He is willing to offend us. He is willing to call us to repentance so that we may see our sin and turn from it. He is ever willing to do this so that we may then see our Savior, Himself. When we look to the cross we will see there the Savior who was not offended by any means by His Father but was forsaken by Him. Eternal love for the world drove Him to suffer in such a way and the Heavenly Father to condemn His Son in our place. When we daily live in our Baptism we see the Savior who is bound up in our life, giving us His righteousness to live. When we partake of His Body and Blood in His Holy Meal we see the Savior and indeed receive Him, participating in His very life so that we may serve Him and live forever. Amen.