Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Simple Faith

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 27, 2009
Mark 9:38-50

Sometimes you’re met with a passage of Scripture and the only thing you’re convinced of is that you don’t know what it means. You struggle with interpreting it, understanding the meaning of it, and you walk away with an uneasy feeling, that maybe your faith is now a little weaker. You wonder that if it’s this hard then maybe it’s better just to stick with the basics, Jesus died for you and has saved you. You know that. Faith ultimately tells you that. Your faith at least clings to that.

If you look at the words of Christ in the Gospel reading and you’re left scratching your head, know this—He is doing His usual thing: He’s preaching Himself into your life. He’s calling you to and instilling in you faith. And if it seems it makes no sense then take comfort that He’s calling you to a simple faith.

This in no way means a simplistic faith. You might not want to hear it, but it doesn’t mean an easy faith, either. But it is simple.

Life often is not easy. Some seem to have a simplistic life. Most people I know have anything but. Lots going on all over the place and difficulty trying to keep up with it all. We might wish to come in here on Sunday morning, away from our hectic lives, and hear a nice simplistic message from God. But God’s life and message are not simplistic anymore than our lives are not simplistic.

But simple is something He is very willing to offer. Simplistic things don’t have much to them. Simple things can be as profound as anything. This is what we have here. Far from not having much to it, the simple faith Jesus calls us to and instills in us has more to it than we can ever imagine.

We tend to approach faith, our Christian life in a simplistic way. We get a little too full of ourselves and think that the Kingdom of God will go astray if it’s not under our tight control. Jesus nudges us back a little and says, “Don’t worry about it, the Kingdom of God will increase by all those people over there preaching the Gospel in a way that doesn’t fit into our mold.”

But what about heresy? What if they’re teaching false doctrine? Shouldn’t we be spending our time preventing those people from engaging in Ministry that could lead people astray? Jesus Himself vehemently attacked those who were leading people astray. Didn’t He strictly warn us about those who are wolves in sheep’s clothing? Is Jesus going soft on us in today’s Gospel reading?

No softer than when spoke on the cross: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. Preaching or teaching false doctrine is an attack on Jesus Christ even as nailing Him to a cross was. Jesus came to seek and save the lost, even those who oppose Him in their false teaching. Jesus died on the cross for everyone—it includes them. Paul says to the Philippians: “Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the Gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of rivalry, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.” (ESV) It’s as if Paul was taking his cue from Jesus, hearing the simple message from his Lord: Chill out.

Jesus’ ways are never our ways. We desire a strong faith. A mighty faith. A faith that can move mountains. Jesus calls us to a simple faith. That is what He instills in us, through His very preaching as we have it here today in this Gospel reading. He never justifies false teaching, but even He can work through it. He even uses us in our lives even though we remain sinners.

And maybe that’s the point. We get caught up in personalities and mannerisms and customs and Jesus wants us simply to see Him. A simple faith. That’s what He is calling us to. How else could a simple cup of water be such a big deal in God’s eyes? Anyone can give a cup of water to anyone who’s thirsty and go on their merry way feeling pretty darned pleased with themselves. But to Jesus this is as if it is the very key into the gate of heaven. He will by no means lose his reward.

A simple faith has no thought of it this way. A simple faith simply clings to Christ. It sees in one who is in need not an opportunity for extravagant claims to God of righteousness within oneself but rather simply an opportunity to serve. A simple faith does that. With no thought to it. With no claim to eternal reward but simply out of thanks for that eternal reward. If this were simplistic Jesus would just say: Help people out who are in need so that you may be rewarded for it. That is the way of the world and is therefore the dominant world religion. Jesus counters with a simple faith: cling to the one who hung on the cross and thirsted so that we may drink freely of the water of life and share that simple cup with others.

That’s where a simple faith is always looking to. Where it is always focusing on. Jesus. Christ and Him crucified. It takes the words that He says and takes them for what they are: an opportunity to be slain by the Lord Himself in order to be raised to new life in which we are sustained daily in simple faith. Being sustained in this faith means a daily dying and rising. While the picture of a man being weighted down to the bottom of the sea is a frightening one, and a warning to those who are in the faith, one who is in the faith cannot help but notice this is the kind of God we’re dealing with. One who likes to operate in this dying and rising mode. Jesus Himself going to the cross. Jesus Himself conquering the very death that had captured Him by rising from death. Jesus Himself slaying our sinful nature in the waters of Baptism. While His words of the Gospel reading are a warning, the actual occurrence of what happens in Baptism is that we drowned in those waters. We die. We are joined to Christ in His death. This is what faith always clings to and it is first given in Baptism. Faith makes that Old Adam come alive in the form of a New Man. The old sinful nature that clung to us is drowned and raised to new life.

It is a life of faith. Simple but never simplistic. It is a constant battle, one of scratching our heads of what is Jesus talking about? We look at His words in the Gospel reading and He seems to be all over the map. Maybe He’s trying to keep up with us. Because our faith, simple as it is, often seems to us simplistic and we find ourselves searching more. Things that entice us sometime get a hold of us. Our clinging to Christ seems to slip away. You are Baptized. You may lose your grip but He’s not going to let you go. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. Our sinful nature says: There won’t be any of me left! A simple faith says: Maybe that’s the point.

There shouldn’t be any of you left. Only Christ. It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. It is by faith I live. Simple. Constantly clinging to Christ, not those urges I have to tell a white lie, or think that that other guy over there is going about things all the wrong way, or sneaking a peak at someone else’s wife, or using your feet to go into places you shouldn’t be going—even if it’s a restaurant during the time you should be here.

A simple faith sees in the life God has given us an opportunity for sacrifice. Thank God you don’t have to get out your knife and start chopping yourself up when you sin. Christ has made that sacrifice. It was whole and it covers your sins. A simple faith clings to that and that alone. Your life is now a sacrifice. You can thank of it as a sacrifice of thanksgiving. This is the sacrifice of the whole body. Or rather, your whole life. Old Testament sacrifices were seasoned with salt—it’s amazing what you learn when you keep going back to the Scriptures. I didn’t know that, or had forgotten it long ago. You shall season all your grain offerings with salt. “You shall not let the salt of the covenant with your God be missing from your grain offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.” (Leviticus 2:13 ESV) Now Jesus is saying that we are the sacrifice. Rather than cut off your hand or pluck out your eye, your whole being, your life, all who you are is seasoned with the salt of fire.

A simple faith clings to Christ. It seeks what our Lord seeks. We subdue our selfish desires and seek to be at peace with one another. Have you tried that? It’s hard. It’s easy to argue, to get the upper hand. In fact, hey, I know some people like that. The disciples had just gotten through with a session of who is the greatest apostle. They had just tried to tell off an outsider that he wasn’t one of them so he should bug off. But to be at peace with one another, that often seems a fantasy rather than a reality.

But Jesus is simple in His call to faith and instilling it in us: Be at peace with one another. Have salt in yourselves. He doesn’t simply exhort us to that way of life but brings about what it says. Paul in Colossians says, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” I can only attribute it to the power and grace of God that I have held my tongue at times and have been at peace with certain people. A simple faith does that. Because Christ is, simply, your Savior. Amen.


Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Greatness of Weakness

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 20, 2009
Mark 9:30-37

He was teaching His disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him. And when He is killed, after three days He will rise.”

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

Why are you praying for strength when you ought to be praying for weakness?

Are you still caught up in the way the world looks at things that you would seek the opposite of what God thinks you ought to have? Do you so easily go through the motions of the liturgy that you don’t take time to meditate on what each part is saying to you, the faith that you are confessing, what it means for you?

In the Collect we prayed: “O God, whose strength is made perfect in weakness, grant us humility and childlike faith that we may please You in both will and deed.”

I have prayed for strength many times. I desire it often. Especially in times of need. Especially when I’m weak. It’s natural, isn’t it? Maybe that’s the problem. We’re weak, so we need strength.

But that’s not what the Collect says. It’s not what we prayed. It’s not what we ought to seek. What we’re praying for is weakness. It is in our weakness that we are strong. Not when we’re strong. When we’re strong we’re weak. Paul says God’s power is made perfect in weakness so that’s what we pray in the Collect.

We pray for strength. We pray everything will be all right. We ask God to turn things favorably our way.

But we don’t pray for weakness.

That’s why we need the liturgy. The liturgy helps us pray for what we ought to pray. It guides us in praying in the way we ought to pray.

And so we pray for weakness.

God is great, of course. We are comforted in knowing that we have an all-powerful God. But His greatness is not in His greatness but in His weakness. The genius of God is that He makes Himself known in weakness, humility. His power is made perfect in weakness.

Why were the disciples discussing among themselves who was the greatest? Was it because they were arrogant? Were they like many men who couldn’t keep from making a competition out of everything? Had one of them issued a challenge and the others couldn’t help but accept the challenge?

Mark says they didn’t understand what Jesus had been saying to them. Here’s the thing, it was the opposite of who was the greatest. Jesus wasn’t trying show them how He was greater than all of them combined, He was preparing them for His suffering and death and resurrection. They didn’t understand what He was getting at. And they were afraid to ask. We don’t have to deal with that now. It was a long trip back to Capernaum and they had to talk about something. Perhaps the failed attempt at casting out the demon from the boy was still fresh in their minds, sparking protests of fault and rationalization to go around.

There’s no weakness here. There’s no talk of Christ. It’s all about strength. It’s all about how you’re consumed with yourself and how pleased you are with yourself. How much better off you’d be if things would work out a little better in your life than they do. It certainly should follow that a great God—the Almighty God, Lord of Creation—would bring about great things in your life. But instead, He invites us, pleads with us, to pray for weakness. That’s where power is known. That’s how His greatness is perfected.

In weakness.

They didn’t understand. Will we? Will we see in His words what we need to know so that we may be content, even seek weakness? Jesus wasn’t just telling them He would suffer and die. He was laying out on the table how God brings about His power. It is in weakness. “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men.” He doesn’t say that He will walk up to that cross to die on behalf of the world. He will be handed over. Betrayed. He will willingly suffer the indignity of being falsely accused and arrested and mocked and led to the slaughter. He will walk to that cross in humility, in weakness.

The whole way through Jesus never prays for strength. He never seeks power from His Heavenly Father. He humbly goes the way in weakness.

How can you receive strength if you are praying for it? How can you expect power from God if you are seeking it? Instead, learn from the liturgy and pray for God’s strength to be made perfect in weakness. Learn from how we pray in the liturgy that after we are absolved of our sins we pray the Kyrie. The words “Kyrie eleison” mean “Lord, have mercy.” Why do we pray for mercy right after being absolved of our sins? Are we ever not in need of Christ’s mercy? Might we go from the Absolution and think that now we’re good to go? Might we walk away from there forgetting that it is always the mercy of God we need? Not power. Not strength. Not greater.

The Absolution is, of course, pure mercy. It is the pure forgiveness of sins, God’s mercy toward us in His Son Jesus Christ. But we tend to forget that, don’t we? Perhaps even in the seconds after being absolved. So there is the Kyrie to turn us back toward Christ. The plea for mercy. The prayer of the one who is weak, not strong.

Why are you seeking greatness and strength from God? Rather, seek weakness. He comes to you plainly. In ordinary bread. In ordinary wine. He said it to His disciples but embodied the words Himself: “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” There will be multiple times this week you will wish you had stronger faith—turn your thoughts back toward the very Body and Blood of your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It is in the humble means of bread and wine—not in power—that He has delivered Himself over to you so that you may receive Him in His Holy Supper.

God’s greatness is in His weakness. He made Himself weak so that you may be strong. Your strength is in weakness. When you are being bugged by people you will recall in the liturgy that it is in your weakness God has called you to be their servant. Glory in the fact that you are a poor miserable sinner. Mercy is your plea and mercy is what your Lord God grants you. He has come, after all, to serve you. Amen.


Sunday, September 13, 2009

A Life of Prayer

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 13, 2009
Mark 9:14-29

I imagine you haven’t attempted casting out any demons lately. Probably, you’ve never done so in your life. The disciples had. Why couldn’t they do it now? What was wrong? Why wasn’t it working? Things had worked so well previously when Jesus had sent them out with authority over demons. But now, nothing.

Why couldn’t they do it?, they asked Jesus. “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer,” He told them. So there you have it. If you’re ever in need of casting out a demon, you have the method straight from Jesus.

Does this imply that the disciples had not prayed in this instance? Does it mean that when they had been casting out demons previously that they had done so in prayer? And for some reason this time they forgot? Or that they had begun thinking a little too much of themselves and thought they could simply waltz over to the boy and cast that demon out?

We don’t know. What we do know is that they didn’t approach this situation in a prayerful manner. What we know is that Jesus cast out the demon immediately. Did He pray beforehand? Was he, as Paul similarly exhorts all Christians to pray constantly, in a state of constant prayer?

Jesus utters no prayer in this incident that Mark records. But could we see in Jesus’ cry of exasperation a cry of prayer? He is speaking of a world that is in unbelief, and yet, in that very cry we also see infinite longsuffering and mercy. “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” How long would He bear with them? Well, as long as it would take. Here we see the life of prayer of our Lord Jesus Christ. His life was a prayer. A willingness to offer Himself up as the servant of His Father to a lost and foundering world. His cry was not one of giving up but of a longing for the people He created to trust solely in Him.

This life that Jesus lived consisted not only of dying on the cross and rising from the grave, His life was one of living in such a way that you and I cannot. And perhaps more to the point, that you and I are unwilling to do. We all too easily pronounce the work of God as dead when He is at His most powerful. How many times have we thought that God was unable or unwilling to act when our loved ones lay helplessly on their death bed? How often have we questioned His power or His will when we are unable to see the light at the end of the tunnel when we are experiencing difficult times?

We’d like the work of God to be clean and easy, painless. Instead, we see God at work and it’s messy and even brutal. When Jesus came on the scene and discovered the affliction of the boy He could very well have ousted the demon and been done with it. But instead Jesus prolonged the agony of the boy by asking the father questions. Then, when Jesus finally ousted the demon, He allowed it to have one last hurrah, so much so that the boy was violently convulsed and looked to be dead rather than freed from the demon.

And though the child was not dead Jesus certainly showed what His work is all about. Or perhaps a better way of saying it: how He works. Through death and resurrection. The boy they thought was dead was now being raised up by Jesus’ own hand. The demon who appeared to have so much agonizing power over the boy was now merely a wisp in the wind. Jesus did indeed allow that demon to shake up the boy so that we can see that even when it appears that the forces against us are more powerful than God that God indeed is the one who is mightily at work, and who Himself is having the last hurrah. This was a prelude for Jesus’ own death and resurrection. Satan Himself was allowed by God to violently shake the world of Jesus, even bringing Him to His knees in death. But who was really exerting the power? It was Jesus Himself. In His humble and merciful way. Choosing a destiny far worse than what that boy had experienced. Jesus took on that boy’s sin. And the sin of his father. And every person’s sin, including yours and mine.

Some had accused the disciples of being fakes, they couldn’t even exorcise a demon from a boy. People said worse about Jesus Himself. The one who vanquished the demon from the boy was Himself vanquished on the cross. “Come down from the cross and prove to us You are the Son of God.” None of this becomes clear of why Jesus did this and what it means until He walks out of His grave. Things certainly hadn’t been clear to the disciples. They asked Jesus what was wrong. They didn’t understand that their Lord was the God who takes on Satan and sin head on by dying and rising.

How could they understand this if they were focused on this power they had over demons? The power they had over demons had nothing to do with anything inherent in themselves. It had solely to do with Jesus giving them the power. They had gone in headfirst without any thought of their Lord and Savior and their reliance on Him. This kind cannot by driven out by anything but prayer. They were following along with Jesus, but did they trust solely in Him? Following Jesus is living a life of prayer.

The father questioned whether Jesus could heal his boy. Jesus could have shown the father what was what—that of course He could heal the boy—but instead said that all things are possible for one who believes. This is what the disciples had been missing. A life of prayer. A life of faith. A life in which you see that you are not your own, your life is bound up in the one who is in the dying and rising business.

If the disciples had any further questions; if we have any doubts still; we can see what living a life of prayer means in the response of the father: “I believe; help my unbelief!” The life of prayer is one of constantly being aware that we are ever lacking in our faith, that we are always in need of the help and power and work of God. That in Christ alone is our hope of living even though we die. Of help even when all seems lost. Of comfort even when we’re in despair. That little or weak though our faith may be, the Holy Spirit has indeed given us faith.

That we prayerfully approach our Lord’s Table, knowing that without Him we can accomplish nothing. That the reason we need our Lord’s body and blood is because there is nothing inherent within us that can overcome the power of Satan. That no matter what we’re facing—spiritual struggles, or problems at work, or frustrations at home, or struggling against temptations, we may cry out, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!” That as our Lord has lived a life of humility in prayer He will hear yours. As He has gone to the grave Himself and walked away from it, He has united Himself with you in your Baptism so that you also have died and risen. He sustains you in the faith He has granted you in body and soul, now and to life everlasting. Amen.


Sunday, September 6, 2009

Why the Cross Is the Center of History

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Rally Sunday
September 6, 2009
Mark 7:31-37

If the Gospel reading were the crucifixion of Jesus you would obviously have good reason to focus on the suffering and death of Christ. If the Gospel reading were of Jesus speaking of His suffering and death it would make good sense to emphasize that.

What about today’s Gospel reading? There’s no talk of the cross. There’s no mention of Jesus suffering and dying. There’s miraculous action He accomplishes. There’s mercy shown. There’s a bunch of people making known how great all of this stuff is.

But no talk of the cross.

It would be a great passage to show how God exhibits His power in our lives today as He did with the man who had his ears and mouth opened. A jumping off place to encourage us to make known far and wide the glory of Jesus and His miraculous power even as the crowds did back then. An obvious place to remind us that the Lord who showed mercy on that man is the same Lord who shows mercy upon us.

Yes, this passage would be great for all of that.

But better to do is ask, What is this passage telling us? What is it getting at? If we look at it simply for what it’s showing us we will come to see that the thrust of the passage is how the cross is the center of history.

With no mention of the cross, how can that be? It can be because that’s what Jesus is all about, the cross. Who He is and everything He does is all about the cross. This passage shows us that.

The people bring the man in need to Jesus and they beg Him to lay His hand on him. Even in our day of modern medicine we understand the healing power of touch. There’s something about a loved one or a person of authority holding your hand or placing their hand on you that immediately makes you feel better. But perhaps because of our reliance on modern medicine we have lost much of the significance of laying on of hands and of touch. The request of Jesus had as much to do with the wish to receive a blessing as it did to receive some sort of healing touch, if not more.

Jesus’ response shows us that there’s more to His answer of the request than meets the eye. He’s not helping out that day simply to give these men, and that man specifically, more than they had expected. No, He was wanting to show above all how the cross is the center of history.

And how is that? In the very act of opening the man’s ears and releasing his tongue Jesus was fulfilling what Isaiah prophesied in the Old Testament reading we heard this morning: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.” Isaiah prophesied not of a miracle worker. Not of a healer that would be the talk of the town. Not of glory and power to be made known throughout the land. He prophesied of the Messiah. This was one of those many prophecies, allied with countless prophecies in the entire Old Testament, of the Messiah. The Messiah, the Savior of the world, would come to suffer and die in the place of sinners. This man who couldn’t hear and who had a speech impediment was one of those sinners. He received mercy that day. Not just in being able to hear and speak plainly, in being forgiven his sins because the one who touched Him was the Messiah, the one who went to the cross.

How we know the cross is the center of history from this remarkable event is because Jesus’ response to their response to Him doesn’t make sense apart from the cross. They had just witnessed a miraculous display of power and mercy. How could they not speak of it? Well, they could have obeyed Jesus. He charged them not to tell anyone. Why was that? Because the cross is the center of history. Not Jesus’ healing of people and not even His merciful helping of people in their needs. The cross.

The reason they disobeyed Him is because they didn’t understand this. They didn’t know. If we look at this passage and see no mention of the cross and deduce from that that the passage and the incident is not about the cross, then we’re as little understanding of who Jesus is as they were. They didn’t know about the cross. They were just gonna’ go tell everybody what they saw!

How the cross is the center of history is shown by Jesus trying to keep those people quiet about what they saw until after. After the cross. Because it doesn’t mean anything without the cross. Nothing.

It means nothing.

Apart from the cross nothing in the Bible makes any sense. Apart from the cross we have in Christianity one more religion among many. How the cross is the center of history is shown in Jesus’ emphatic but failed efforts to keep those people quiet. Because when it was time for the cross there was no one there. No one to speak of the glory or the power or the mercy or the miraculous. There was no one there because Jesus came for the cross, not for miracle working. There was no one there because no one wanted to have anything to do with a Messiah who would be beaten up and crucified.

But how the cross is the center of history is great and all, yet doesn’t quite tell us what we need to know. The sermon title isn’t how the cross is the center of history but why the cross is the center of history. You can know all about God’s power and miraculous work all you want, but you won’t get from that what you need to know, not apart from the cross. You can even know how the cross is the center of history but it will mean nothing to you if you don’t know why the cross is the center of history.

If we can rejoice in how people can blindly stumble into something good, then we can rejoice in those people who said something they didn’t understand but was very much true and of far greater importance than they had realized. “He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.” Yes, He did indeed do these things. And yes, He has indeed done all things well. Brothers and sisters in Christ, you know the reason He has? The cross.

The cross is how our Lord has done all things well. What those people spoke of was miraculous power, not suffering and death, and yet, even in their feeble attempts to glorify God, they spoke of the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah, that the Messiah would come to do these things. What those people would soon find out, and what we gratefully know, is that in doing those things He showed He is the Messiah. And what did the Messiah come to do? Die on the cross. Suffer on behalf of the world. Receive the punishment every sinner who has ever lived deserves. That’s why the cross is the center of history.

God comes to you in your life in the same way He did with that man that one day as recorded by Mark. In mercy. In power. In the person and work of Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Savior of the world. Your Savior. Baptizing you so that your ears may be opened to continue hearing His Gospel your whole life through. Daily forgiving your sins as you die and rise remembering your Baptism, confessing your sins, rejoicing in His manifold forgiveness. Giving you His very Body and Blood in His Holy Supper so that your mouth may be opened to eat and drink of them and then to proclaim His death until He returns in glory. Calling to your mind His promises as He brought them through Isaiah and the prophets, Paul and the apostles, when you’re flat on your back in the hospital and could use some miraculous healing, if not simply a hand to hold yours. Strengthening you in those dark times when you’re hurting because you feel alone or are carrying a burden. Your Lord is the Lord who opened the ears and mouth of a man who needed a Savior. He is the one you know is your Savior because He is the one who went to the cross.

Without the cross there is no salvation, no forgiveness, no restoration of God’s creation. The cross is the greatest miracle, it is the most astonishing display of power and mercy in all of history. Why the cross is the center of history is because God saw humanity in its lost condition and looked upon it as He did that one man and opened to us the gate of heaven. Amen.