Sunday, August 30, 2009

Are You Also Without Understanding?

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 30, 2009
Mark 7:14-23

There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.

Mark says the disciples asked Jesus about His little parable. I wonder what they asked. They had just seen the Pharisees go down in flames, Jesus upholding the action of the disciples in eating with unwashed hands. Now Jesus speaks to everyone within earshot this little parable. Were the disciples embarrassed to ask Jesus what He meant by that? Or did they maybe want to preserve Jesus’ honor by challenging Him in private: Jesus, You’ll have to convince us of that. Whether they were honestly trying to understand or they simply recoiled at the notion Jesus put forth, the result was the same: they were without understanding. As if that weren’t enough, they now came to find out that there was nothing within them consonant with the will of God—there was only their own depravity.

Jesus had made clear that even stellar actions on the part of the Pharisees could not cover up their hearts which were far from God. They placed their own ideals above the Word of God. They sought their righteousness in themselves, not in God and His Son Jesus Christ.

The disciples? They were still hangin’ with Jesus. Jesus had not blasted them as He had the Pharisees. But then Jesus had to go on talking, this time to the disciples; and to everybody else. He now made clear to them that they understood no better than the Pharisees had. There was nothing within them that was any better than what was in the hearts of the Pharisees. The disciples maybe were now wishing they hadn’t asked.

We don’t know how this episode ended. Did Jesus continue on with His explanation? Did He immediately leave the house, giving the disciples a chance to mull His words over? Did the disciples continue to question Him, trying better to understand this major blow to them? We don’t know. All we’re left with are the words He spoke to them, and they don’t exactly make us feel warm and fuzzy. We’re left simply with this: we are utterly corrupt from our hearts, and left to ourselves we design and conspire to feed our sinful flesh whatever the cost.

We’re not only left hanging—Jesus blasting us away and our utterly depraved hearts—the very next thing we find is that He goes away from there to another place. And He was specifically trying to get away from people. As you might expect, His plan failed. A woman came right on in where He was and pleaded for help for her daughter who was demon possessed. It’s apparent why she was doing this. She knew she was powerless over the grip Satan had on her daughter. Her daughter was powerless, she was powerless. Her only hope was in Jesus. He had power over Satan. He alone could release the girl from the grip of Satan. He shows us how He exercises this power over Satan, with His Word. He declares to the woman that her daughter is freed from the demon.

What could help us understand what Jesus is getting at when He says three times in our Gospel reading that it is what comes out of our heart that defiles us? That our sinful flesh has a grip on us as Satan did on that little girl. That we are in fact without understanding, even thinking that we can’t be all that bad. Aren’t there some things that come from our heart that are good? Or are we really as corrupt as Jesus makes us out to be?

In seeing the hold Satan had on that little girl we see the hold our sinful flesh has on us. With Jesus showing the power of His Word over Satan, to release her from Satan, we see the power of Jesus’ Word over our sinful flesh, to release us from it.

Jesus doesn’t leave us hanging, after all. He is intent on getting the message across. How much would we see the need for His death and resurrection, His Baptism He washes us with, His Body and Blood He gives us for forgiveness, without understanding the depth of our depravity—which is total.

The Old Testament reading draws the line in the sand in the same way: “You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you.” When obvious examples are known to the world, it’s easy for us to understand that some, such as the church body the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have departed from the Word of God; thrown it under the bus for the sake of the tradition of being tolerant and nonjudgmental and working toward compromise and consensus. Declaring something to not be a sin—namely, homosexuality—when the Word of God plainly declares it to be a sin comes from the depraved heart of man. We rightly see this as a travesty.

What may not be so clear to us is that we also are without understanding when it comes to such things. That it is out of our hearts that come the very same things. Jesus makes it clear that there aren’t some who are virtuous while others are in the doghouse. Look at His list. You can’t read it and escape the truth that you’re included. It all begins with our evil machinations within us, scheming to fudge the rules. Waiting for the chance to park your car in front of your neighbor’s house because you’re sick and tired of him parking his five cars in front of your house. Scheming for a way to get an undue advantage over your coworker in order to get a raise or a promotion. Jesus’ list isn’t just for those people out there who have publicly disdained the Word of God, but also for those of us in here who have disdain for them and haughtiness of ourselves, glad that we are not like them. This is the foolishness Jesus is talking about to close out His list, that we are somehow exempt from all the rest. He asks of us today: Are you also without understanding?

May we answer in humility, Yes, Lord, we too are without understanding. We too have thrown Your Word under the bus. We need to be here. To hear Your Word and trust in it alone. We need to approach Your altar in meekness but also expectancy, with a hunger and joy to receive Your very Body and Blood as food to our soul. We confess to You, O Lord, that out of our heart comes nothing good and everything evil, but as You, as we prayed earlier in the Collect, are the source of all that is just and good, we pray You to nourish in us every virtue and bring to completion every good intent that we may grow in grace and bring forth the fruit of good works.

Jesus did this for a little girl right after the words He spoke in our Gospel reading. He does this for you today and each day, as you are Baptized—given a new heart, a new mind, a new life. Amen.


Sunday, August 23, 2009

got water?

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
August 23, 2009
Mark 7:1-13

Our retreat theme last week was “got water?”. It was a take-off on those commercials for milk in which someone would be eating, for example, chocolate chip cookies, only to find out that the milk jug was empty. Each commercial would close with the words “got milk?” on the screen. Water may not go as well with cookies as milk does, but water is essential to life. We can picture a commercial about a person who just finished exercising only to find their water bottle empty. The words “got water?” would then be put up on the screen.

This is what the Pharisees were saying to Jesus. Water was essential to living according to God’s will. When the disciples ate with unwashed hands, they should have seen that it was the same as if they had no water after exercising. Or no water when they needed to take a bath. Or no water to clean their dishes after a meal. It’s inconceivable to not drink after exercising or not to keep yourself clean or wash your dishes. It was inconceivable to them to disobey the tradition of the elders.

How many hurt feelings have been caused in families because certain beloved traditions were thrown out in favor of something new or different? How many factions have sprung up in churches because concern wasn’t taken for the way things had always been? A husband thinks it’s not a big deal at all to visit his in-laws on a regular basis, when the wife is set to do it for the rest of their lives. One group has always taken care of the Christmas decorations in a church which were donated by founding members of the congregation when another group comes along and decides that different decorations should be used. It is not hard for us to understand where the Pharisees are coming from at all. Traditions have a way of becoming law to us. Traditions are the way it is; the way it should always be; the way it must be.

This where the Pharisees were coming from. Why couldn’t Jesus see it? Jesus, don’t you have any water for your disciples? It’s an easy enough thing to do, to wash before you eat. Why do you let them defile themselves by not abiding by God’s will?

This is where the Pharisees tip their hand. If they were to exhort the disciples to a salutary practice, that would be fine, even laudable. If they were to show them the benefits of this, both physical and spiritual, they would be helping the disciples. But that is not what they do. They force upon the disciples something that is not God’s will. Something that is their own will. They seek to control others by what they think is right.

Jesus does not speak out against traditions. He knows traditions are beneficial. He knows they can provide physical and spiritual guidance and grounding. But He does speak against placing traditions over the will of God. And this is where water comes in. God is not afraid to use physical things to do His spiritual work. He is not above using common things to bless people in a heavenly way.

The Pharisees were all too ready to seek their justification in washing. Washing their hands before eating, washing of cups, of pots, of copper vessels, of couches. By following this strict code, they knew they were purified—not just physically, but also spiritually. They could look into their own hearts and see that they had done what was necessary to cleanse themselves inside and out.

But Jesus shot down such a notion. Washing yourself with water does nothing more than washing the outside of yourself. Washing a cup does nothing more than make it clean so that when you use it you won’t get sick. There’s only one thing that can cleanse you inside. Only one washing that will purify you spiritually. That’s the washing God gives you.

Amazingly, He uses water. But the key in His washing is not the water. It’s what the water is connected with: His Word. That’s the thing the Pharisees were missing: the Word of God. The Tradition of their own elders, laudable as it was, was more important to them than the Word of God. It had for them replaced the Word of God. They had come to put their trust in the tradition of the elders rather than keeping their trust in the Word of God. Jesus comes along and says, Yeah, use the water, but not just by itself. Wash your hearts. Wash your minds. This can only be done by the washing of water with the Word. God’s Word tells us what His will is, not any tradition or any other human source.

God’s will is that everyone be saved. Jesus died for every person. God’s will is that we be cleansed of our sin. That’s why He’s all for the washing idea the Pharisees proposed to Him. Just not in the way they proposed it. They proposed a righteousness in themselves. He proposed a righteousness outside of themselves but applied to them. They proposed a washing they could see, He proposed one that would cleanse what they could not see, their sinful hearts.

The Pharisees come at Jesus with a challenge. It’s really an attack. They see themselves as righteous in themselves. They don’t need Jesus, they have themselves. They are righteous in their own eyes because they have their tradition they keep, and therefore they are certain God is pleased with them. Jesus responds with a counter attack. An attack on their undeniable unrighteousness, their wholehearted sin against a holy God. But we ourselves miss the point of Jesus’ words if all we see is an attack on them. His point is not to tell them they’re wrong so much as it is to free them from their bondage. In attempting to be holy they have placed themselves in the place of God and have bound themselves in their sin and therefore eternal damnation.

Jesus wants to give them true freedom. A washing that will free them up not just to follow salutary traditions, but to serve others, to rejoice in God’s grace, to live under the favor of God rather than their own attempts at self-righteousness. Baptism is life giving water. It is a doing away of all that is inborn in us, the sin, the curved-in-on-ourselves nature we bear, and the incessant drive to convince ourselves that we’re okay as we are. Baptism purifies us. It cleanses us. The words Jesus speaks to the Pharisees are as true for us as they were for them.

Next time you drink a cold glass of water, think of the refreshing waters of your Baptism. Next time the waters flow over you when you take a shower, be reminded of the cleansing and purifying waters you were washed with in your Baptism. Know the will of God for you. It is in His Word. It is in the washing that is connected to His Word. He cleanses you so that you may be clean. He washes you so that you may rejoice that what He desires of you He grants you in Baptism and forever. Amen.


Sunday, August 16, 2009


Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
August 16, 2009
John 6:51-69

The life of faith is daily taking a plunge, often wondering if you’re going to drown, even though you know that through it you’ll be saved. Being a Christian is being submerged when the world and your own brain tell you that you’re done for. The life of faith begins with Baptism. One becomes a Christian when the waters rush over him and drowns the Old Man that was born in sin.

And while we have gathered for our retreat under the theme of “got water?” and are seeing how God saves us through the waters of Baptism, in seeing this we are seeing nothing less than the salvation God gives for a life of faith. Jesus preaches that life of faith in the Gospel reading. It could appear that Jesus’ words with all of its imagery of eating His flesh and drinking His blood have nothing to do with Baptism and being brought through the waters to salvation.

But Baptism doesn’t just concern water. It doesn’t just concern what happened to you that day when you were Baptized. It concerns your entire life. It has everything to do with your daily life. It is not only the entrance into eternal life but also at the heart of the daily life of faith.

Living the life of faith is as difficult for the Christian as believing in Christ is for the non-Christian. The people in the Gospel reading heard the words of Christ and couldn’t wrap their minds around an individual who would use such grotesque imagery for believing in Him as eating His flesh and drinking His blood. But is what happens in Baptism any less unnerving? Where one is actually drowned in the waters of Baptism? Where the sinful flesh is crucified with Christ?

Many on that day turned away from Christ. He turned to His twelve disciples and asked them if they would go too. “Lord, to whom shall we go?” was their response. “You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that You are the Holy One of God.” This is what we have. We have what our Lord gives to us and not a carefree existence in which we don’t have to think about what it means to believe in Jesus and live in the trust that He brings us through the waters even when they rise.

What Jesus says in the Gospel reading may have nothing to do with water but it has everything to do with the life of faith. He already laid the groundwork for this in John chapter 3 where He says that unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter the Kingdom of heaven. The is where you are submerged. Daily you take the plunge and realize that the beginning of life begins with death. Death to the Old Man. The drowning of our sinful nature. The crucifixion of our sinful flesh. And the life of faith only brings you deeper and deeper into waters that seem increasingly to rise.

Your sinful flesh hangs on, not wishing to drown but to thrive. To get a hold of you and seek ways for that carefree existence. Where we can blame our difficulties on a God who obviously doesn’t care or evidently is not powerful enough to prevent problems and financial hardships and illnesses and doubts.

It’s no wonder so many people walked away. Who wants to hear about eating the flesh of Jesus and drinking His blood when it can be a challenge to put food on the table? When it’s hard to get out of the cycle of eating each other up with our snide comments and impatient demands. When it seems that our time is consumed just keeping our head above water with all the demands on our time and energy in daily life.

It’s no surprise that those who left Him were also disciples. Jesus is preaching the life of faith, preaching Himself as the substance of faith, driving His point home with the reminder that “it is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is of no avail. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” Remember His words to Nicodemus in chapter 3?: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”

If you are submerged at the beginning of this new life and throughout the life of faith and you feel like you’re barely able to keep your head above water, then know that it is your Lord who daily drowns you so that daily you may arise to new and eternal life. That when the waters rise it’s not a reason to give up hope but an opportunity to be washed anew and renewed through those trials.

The people of God at the Red Sea thought that they had come to an end but God brought them through those waters. The flood meant destruction for every person but in His mercy God brought eight people safely through those flood waters. In this same way Baptism saves you. As a Baptized child of God daily you eat of the flesh of Christ and drink of His blood as you recall your Baptism and repent of your sins; as you read and meditate on the word of God. A torrent of sins flooded Jesus on the cross, the mercy of God overflowing to you, that you may bathe in the promise that He will bring you through the waters that rise up in your life to bring you safely to the shore, where He will welcome you into the eternal rest of heaven. Amen.


Sunday, August 9, 2009

No Better than My Fathers

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 9, 2009
John 6:35-51

Elijah was in despair but he was right, he was no better than his fathers. How many times had he seen the hand of God in his life and in the life of the people of God, and yet, there he was, wanting to give up on it all.

The people in dialogue with Jesus in the Gospel reading did a pretty good job of showing that they, too, were no better than their fathers. They just couldn’t get their minds adjusted to the fact that this man they knew, the son of Joseph and Mary, was God and the only one in whom there is salvation.

It would be easy for us to sit here today and content ourselves with the notion that we know better. We have seen with our own eyes the Scriptures which tell us of the death and resurrection of Christ for salvation. We have been Baptized, we have the assurance that we are a new creation in Christ. We believe what our Lord tells us in the Gospel reading “that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in Him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

Does this mean that we are better than our fathers? Have we come to a point where we can say that we are better than those who have gone before us? It’s easy enough for us to look around us and compare ourselves to those we know, thinking of ourselves as better because we don’t use profane language like they do, and we don’t treat others condescendingly like they do, and we are here every Sunday, unlike them. And, well, we could go on and on, couldn’t we?

We do think we’re better than others, don’t we? But how does Paul talk to the Ephesian Christians in our Epistle reading? They are distinct from those who “are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. [Those who] have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.” Why then does Paul go on to exhort the Ephesians to live like they are distinct? Why does he have to tell them to live the way God commands us to live and not live in the way He commands not to?

The answer is simple: they are no better than their fathers. And we must hear the words of Paul in the same way they did, as the Word of God to Christians who are always on the verge of despair as Elijah was, because there is never any hope of ourselves but only hope in the one who has made us a new creation. That’s why we must continually confess that we are no better than our fathers.

Jesus is blunt because He tells us what we need to hear. He says in the Gospel reading: “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.” I don’t mean to sound morbid, but this is a great verse. They were fed bread from heaven. God gave them manna so that they could live. And yet, they all ended up dying, didn’t they? Food will keep us alive only in this world. The Bread of Life will ensure life without end. There’s really no point in trying to fool ourselves. Elijah was right. He was no better than his fathers. The people in the Gospel reading were no better than their fathers. All those in the church at Ephesus who thought they could be Christians and keep living in the way of the world were no better than their fathers.

Jesus has no interest in helping us get better than those who have gone before us. He has one goal in mind and that is to slay our sinful flesh. Beat it down and bring it to an end. His work is to bring us to life eternal. To give us life in which we are a new creation. To free us up so that we may freely serve.

All this talk in the Gospel reading about fathers was going nowhere so Jesus turned things in a new direction. He would talk to them about the Heavenly Father. Jesus is equal to the Father. His claim to be so irritated them to no end. And yet, Jesus’ claim to be God, His declaration that He and the Father are one, did not detract Him from submitting to the will of His Heavenly Father. He did not consider Himself slighted in the least that He would give Himself up for the life of the world.

He had no problem stating straight out that He is God and that salvation is only in Him. He’s not simply better than our fathers, He is the only one born of a woman who is without sin. The only one in whom there is no guile. The only one who has lived in accordance with the perfect and holy will of the Heavenly Father. The only who can stand and not need fear to fall.

His purpose is not bragging rights, as if to say, we’re no better than our fathers and He is better than we are. No, His purpose is simply to make clear that it’s not that we’re no better than our fathers, it’s that we stand before God condemned, in a state of spiritual death. That our only hope is in Him but that our life is wrapped up in Him so that we may have hope. That He who is without end chose to die so that we who deserve eternal death may live forever.

Today, take a page from the life of Elijah, and realize and confess that you are indeed no better than your fathers. You are by nature sinful and unclean. But realize also that you need not despair as he did, because confessing your sin is for the purpose of repenting. Your confession is responded to by your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ with Absolution. He forgives you all your sins. Elijah needed to be lifted up, to be fed. So that’s exactly what God did for him, He fed him.

It’s what He does for you as well. He forgives you. He feeds you with His Body and Blood often in His Holy Meal. He strengthens you for the journey ahead, which ultimately leads to eternal life in heaven. Amen.


Sunday, August 2, 2009

This Is the Work of God

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
August 2, 2009
John 6:22-35

Are you weary? Then be renewed in the grace and mercy of Christ. This is the work of God.

Are you hurting? Then receive the healing balm of Christ. This is God’s work He does for you.

Are you weak? Then be strengthened by the power of Christ. God is at work for you.

You are in need and yet you continue to labor in vain. The work of God is to bring about what it is you need. What you need is faith. So believe in God. Trust in Him. Rely solely on His grace, mercy, and power.

Take comfort in this, that it is not of you or from you. It is you doing it because God is at work in you. What He requires of you He accomplishes in you and for you because of and in His Son Jesus Christ.

The people in the Gospel reading couldn’t wrap their minds around this kind of religion. What kind of religion—what kind of God—tells you that you don’t work to gain the favor of God? To get yourself out of the trouble you’re in. To get what it is you need. Doesn’t God want us to work hard rather than let Him do all the work for us?

This is why we have such a skewed view of our Christian lives. Do we think of ourselves primarily as Christians, or merely as people like everybody else but who happen to be Christians? God is the only source for our lives. Do we think of ourselves as people who deserve more from God or as people who are endlessly blessed by a God who for all we know could have better things to do than help us out in our own little world?

The simple truth is the God of heaven and earth loves you. The eternal God helps you out in your day to day affairs. He heals you, is compassionate to you, strengthens you, and is with you.

How does He do this? Jesus. What does Jesus say in our Gospel reading? God gives us the eternal blessings we need by giving us “the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

Everything we need is given us in the man Jesus. Because Jesus is God in the flesh. All we could ever ask for is answered in the work that He accomplishes. Because all the power of God is concentrated in what Jesus has done and does.

But we live in the real world, don’t we? We don’t think of the spiritual realm as being as real as the physical world we live in. But it’s very real. In a sense it’s even more real in that it will last, whereas this world will not. But this world we live in is the one we tend to set our sights on for what we need in this life. Not that that doesn’t necessarily make sense. It’s just shortsighted if that’s all we want. God wants to take us to heaven. He wants to give us those blessings that last forever.

The people in the Gospel reading had been fed by Jesus in the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. Wouldn’t it be great if He kept it up? That’s what, after all, God did for the Israelites in the wilderness as they wandered around for forty years. But is that why Christ came? To feed people bread?

No, He came to bring life. He came to feed people with the Bread of Life. To give Himself to people. Yes, the manna was bread from heaven—God was the one who gave them the bread. But Christ is truly Bread from heaven—heaven is His dwelling place and He came down from heaven to bring to people on this earth true life.

Have you ever thought about what a person who is dying needs? One who perhaps is slipping into an unconscious state and cannot rationally understand what is being said when the Gospel is proclaimed to him or her? If that person’s salvation depended upon them doing something to show evidence of their faith how could we be sure that they have any?

That’s where the work of God comes in. He accomplishes the faith in that person. We speak to that person of their Baptism. What God accomplished in that person when the refreshing waters flowed over him. When their sinful flesh joined in Christ’s death only to be raised up to eternal life. We speak to that person the Gospel, which sustains them in faith.

Let this be our comfort, that there is a purpose in any adversity we may face, whether we be weary, or hurting, or weak. Such adversity must cause us to look even more so to the Gospel. This is the work of God, that even in those times we are spiritually depleted, or physically, or emotionally, that God is at work. That it is in our weakness He is most powerful. That when our flesh and blood is not enough we may eat and drink of His flesh and blood. That we may draw deeply from the well of everlasting life and be refreshed in His abundant mercy. His forgiveness and His comfort. His strength and His power.

There’s plenty of room for us to work. We will help others. We will be there for them, serve them, and comfort them. But we will do this because it is the work of God at work in us. This is what Paul means when he exhorts us in Philippians to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling.” He goes on to say: “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13 ESV)

Otherwise we simply labor in vain. What Christ rather wants is for us to draw deeply from His well, to feast sumptuously on Heavenly Bread, Christ Himself. He delights in working for us, helping us in our need. It was joy that brought Him to suffering at the hands of sinners as we are. Joy that drew Him to the cross to suffer on behalf of the world. Because this is the work of God, in Christ, for us. Amen.