Sunday, June 26, 2011

Hard Words from God Are Good Words

Second Sunday after Pentecost
Commemoration of Jeremiah
June 26, 2011
Romans 7:1-13

We want to hear good things from God. We don’t want to hear bad things from Him. The good news is that what we hear from Him is good. He doesn’t tell us bad things.

But if you open the pages of the Bible and read for any length of time you will hear words that are hard. If you come to terms with what God says in the Bible you will see that He doesn’t give a message that can be reduced to “I love you.” He most definitely does love everyone. But for Him to say He loves us and leave it at that wouldn’t be real love.

If a person commits a crime and society decides it’s going to respond to him by saying, “We love you, continue on with your life as you were,” that would not really be loving that person. He would receive the message that what he did was okay, even good, and is free to do it again. It certainly would not be loving toward the victim of the crime. The victim would not be receiving justice, and that is not good.

Loving others not only means the words we love to hear, like “I love you,” but also the hard words. These are words such as to the criminal, “You are found guilty.” The criminal may not hear those words as good words. Society as a whole will recognize these words as good words. Society works well in a structured environment. Paul even uses the example in the Epistle reading of the woman who goes against the law if she commits adultery. In fact we see in our society how God’s good creation of marriage is rapidly eroding in our society. It is becoming acceptable to go against marriage as between one man and one woman with homosexuality, heterosexual adultery, living together apart from the bond of marriage, and a host of other perversions.

These are hard words that many people don’t want to hear. Not only in society do people want to hear that it’s wrong and not good to go against marriage of one man and one woman, but even many Christians don’t want to hear this. This is one example, there are many others we could address. To us good words are words that we want to hear. Hard words we hear as bad. If we recognize that God is good and He loves and that what He tells us is for our good and because of His love for us then we will see that even His hard words are good words. That may not make them easier to hear though.

Why is it so hard for us to hear God’s words that are hard words as good words? When things started out there were no hard words. There was simply, “Everything that is before you is for you and for your good. There is only one thing that is not for you and that is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” Now that sin and evil are in the world there are a lot of things that are kept from us. We don’t like that. What we often fail to realize is that God keeps those things away from us for our own good. It was for Adam and Eve’s good God kept the one tree away from them. It is for our good that He keeps, for example, adultery away from us. When we desire and take those things God keeps from us it harms us.

Here’s what God wants, He wants to say to us, “Everything I have created is yours, it’s for your benefit.” With sin and evil in the world, and with us being sinful ourselves, He brings in a new word. It’s the word of the Law. It’s a message of commandment. It deals in restrictions and judgment. It deals in words that are hard words. But these words are also good. They are also beneficial to us. They are not words that are words of hatred as opposed to words of love. It is out of His love for us that God speaks His word of Law to us. Without it we would be lost in our sinfulness and separated from Him forever. With His word of the Law we see how much He loves us, that He is calling us to repentance so that we may be restored to Him.

Does this mean we’re going to be excited about hearing it? No, usually not. More than likely, we’re going to recoil at hearing this from God. God’s people weren’t all giddy when Jeremiah told them that God’s message to them wasn’t peace but rather judgment. Since they refused to repent, Jeremiah had no choice but to give them God’s message of the Law. It’s even harder to hear when it’s coming from a fellow human being. Who was Jeremiah to think that he could talk to them that way? Did he think he was better than they were? We often don’t want hear hard words from others because it seems like they are putting themselves above us. But Jeremiah knew that he himself was under the same judgment he was proclaiming if he himself did not repent.

But let’s be honest, it’s not just that we don’t like hearing the hard words from God just because they are spoken by another human being. We don’t want to hear them from God Himself. Who listens to the words of Jesus, God in the flesh, in today’s Gospel reading and does not squirm? “I have not come to bring peace but a sword.” “I have come to set family members against one another.” “If you do not love Me more than your family you are not worthy of Me.” “If you do not take your cross and follow Me you are not worthy of Me.” “If you find your life you will lose it, if you lose your life for My sake you will find it.”

The words from Jeremiah are God’s words, simply spoken by a man. The words of Jesus are God’s words as well, spoken by God in the flesh. They’re all hard words. They are words intended to cause us to squirm. They are words to bring us to repentance. Do you seek what you want or what God gives to you? Do you desire things that God keeps from you or what God freely bestows on you? Do you hear His hard words as bad words or as the good words they are? Do you see that if you seek what you think is important and it takes you away from fearing, loving, and trusting in God above all things then you have made something else your god?

This is the hard work of God. He doesn’t want to do it but He does it because He loves us. He doesn’t want to judge us and condemn us but He does it in order to restore us. If we think God’s hard words to us are hard for us then we should think about how hard they are for God. Parents only want to love and hug and care for their children. They don’t want to discipline and punish and lay down the law. But out of love they do. If the kids think it’s hard, it’s even harder for the parents. This is the way it is with God’s hard words to us.

Paul talks in the Epistle reading about the role of the Law in the life of the Christian. We don’t live by the Law. We are freed from God’s Law. The Law brings us death. But Paul is adamant in pointing out that it’s not the fault of the Law. This is important because to say it is the fault of the Law is to say it is the fault of God. That’s why Paul makes it clear that the Law is good. God’s words are good, they are good in and of themselves and they are good for us. Sin is the problem. We are the problem. We don’t like to hear God’s words to us in the way He gives them to us because we want to hear what is pleasing to us rather than what is actually beneficial to us.

How is it this way? Because the problem is ours. The problem is so much our problem that we can’t get ourselves free from the problem. Only God can and He does it by hammering us with His Law. The Law is good but it brings to light our utter sinfulness. We can say that it’s okay to have homosexuality or heterosexual adultery or living together apart from marriage, but not only are we harming ourselves, we are killing ourselves eternally. We can hold on to our grudges and our hatred toward others but we are removing ourselves from God’s love and grace for us. We can go right down the Law and see how God shows us what is good and how going against His Law is harmful. If we look at the Ten Commandments and think that we’re doing okay with any of them then we are ignoring the hard words of God to our eternal peril.

But there’s another thing about the hard words of God that are hard for us to come to terms with and that is what He Himself does with them. God doesn’t just dish out His words of Law and judgment and condemnation. Parents aren’t just going to discipline and punishment their children and leave them in that state of guilt and sorrow. Afterward there are soothing words and hugging. The hard words of God are seen most clearly at the cross. If we hear the hard words of God and we can’t bear them then we are not hearing them in the way He has given them. He says them to us in light of His action at the cross. His word of Law was spoken to His only-begotten Son on the cross. His judgment and condemnation was handed down on His beloved Son at the cross. God draws us to repentance so that we may see His love for us and the way we see His love for us is by seeing how He loves us in His Son suffering and dying for the sin of the world.

That’s really why we don’t understand the hard words of God. We want to see them in some unattached sense. Rather, our Lord draws us into His Scriptures by showing us His Son. He speaks to us His Scriptures in light of and on account of what He has accomplished at the cross and the empty tomb. We can only understand God’s words to us through that lens. His words to us at the cross and in the empty tomb can be summed up in two words: For you. All He has done has been done for you. He gives His Son for you. He Baptizes you for you and your eternal salvation. He gives in the Holy Supper of His Son His Son’s very body and blood for you for the forgiveness of sins. These are not hard words but flow easily and naturally from His mouth to you. By His grace He gives you ears to hear. Amen.


Sunday, June 19, 2011

Creation. Re-Creation.

The Holy Trinity
First Sunday after Pentecost
June 19, 2011
Acts 2:14, 22-36

We should never underestimate the importance of Creation. The Bible doesn’t begin with the beginning just because it makes sense to begin with the beginning. What happens at the beginning of the Bible, namely, the beginning, the Creation account, sets forth what God does in His most important work: re-Creation. The Bible begins with creation because that is the story of salvation. The creation account is inseparably linked with the account of salvation.

Today we celebrate the festival of the Holy Trinity. Some people don’t deal with the Trinity. They don’t want to concern themselves with doctrine and things they don’t understand. Especially when they hear something like the Athanasian Creed. The name of the creed alone is enough to make people wonder what it is we are saying. But then when you get into the words themselves you can easily get lost in what is being confessed. If you ask your average person, even your average Christian, to read the Athanasian Creed their eyes may very well glaze over. It is heavy on theological jargon. Some may get the impression that theology is dry and boring or doesn’t pertain to everyday life. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s true that as fallible human beings we can make theology sound dull or impractical. It’s true that as sinful people we are not as enamored with theology as we should be.

If we dig into God’s Word we will find that theology is anything but dry and what God has to say to us is in every way practical. The Athanasian Creed says that this is catholic faith, the word ‘catholic’ meaning the universal Christian faith: “that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance.” The holy universal Christian faith is that God is the Triune God, one God in three Persons, three Persons in one God. There is one God, not three. God is not divided up but is in unity. The three Persons of the Trinity are distinct, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

As we saw moments ago when we confessed the Athanasian Creed, the creed goes to great pains to stress the nature of God as the One in Three and the Three in One. But it would be all for naught if it did not get to the main point of it all, which is what the Apostles’ and the Nicene Creeds also confess, that God is not just God, He’s not even just the Triune God, and He’s not even just the One True God—He is the God of salvation. He is the God of Creation and of re-Creation. His work of salvation is His work of re-creation.

God creates. He brings into being things from nothing. This is not theological dogma or jargon, this is the very essence of life. Or, if you want to hear it in even more practical terms, this is the basis for who you are and how you live day to day. You are who you are because God is who He is. In other words, God is the Triune God, He is the Creator, He is the one who brings you into being and gives you life. Not only that, He is at work re-Creating you. He not only gives you life He gives you new life. He has created you and He re-creates you.

How He does this is by giving you Himself. Now what does this mean? It means He is not only the one who creates and gives new life, He is the one who does it by doing it in Himself. Today’s Old Testament reading is the Creation account of Genesis. God created the world in six days. In six days He brought into being what is. That was His work of Creation. Then the Bible says that God finished all the work He had done. He completed it, it was now in a state of having been created and was now existing. What happened next? God rested. The Bible says that on the seventh day He rested.

Have you ever wondered why God did this? Was He tired? Was all that work of creating the universe in six days so much that He was just plain exhausted? So He created the universe and then He needed a rest. Actually, yes, He needed a rest, but not in the way we are thinking of. God was not exhausted, He didn’t need to put His feet up and have a nice cold drink. He needed to rest not because of His work of Creation but because of His work of re-Creation. What God accomplished in His work of Creation is in direct correlation to His work of re-Creation.

In six days He completed His work. God finished all that He had done. If we can borrow a phrase from elsewhere in the Bible, when God completed His work of Creation He said, “It is finished.” That place in the Bible you might recall was on another sixth day, the day we refer to as Good Friday. On the cross Jesus was moments before death and He cried out: “It is finished.” The first six days of Holy Week were leading up to this, His work of re-Creation. On the sixth day God finished all the work He had done in creating the world and on the sixth day God finished the work He had done of re-Creating the very people He had created on the sixth day of Creation; the very people who had fallen into sin, fallen from the pure creation God had brought about. He had now restored it.

On the seventh day, the day after creating the universe, God rested. He didn’t need to. He wasn’t tired. But He did need to, because He needed to show that even though His precious people He created would fall away He would do His more marvelous work of re-Creation, His work of salvation. So on the seventh day He rested. When Jesus cried out on the cross “It is finished” He then bowed His head and died. He was placed in a tomb and on the seventh day, the day after His work of re-Creation, He rested in that tomb. In the creation account God says that God made that seventh day holy. Now we know why, Christ made it holy by His rest in the tomb.

God declaring the seventh day holy is the end of the creation account. It moves on from there to the account of the fall into sin. Jesus’ rest in the tomb on the seventh day, however, is not the end of the story as far as God’s work of re-Creation goes. There is a new day after that. We would normally think of it as the first day, that is, the first day of the new week, Sunday. But another way to think of it is as the Eighth Day. The day of the New Creation, or God’s re-Creation. That is the day Christ rose from the tomb.

The second reading today gives the continued account of Pentecost. Last Sunday on the Day of Pentecost, we heard the account of the Coming of the Holy Spirit. Today we hear the sermon that Peter proclaimed. The festival of Pentecost may very well be the festival of the Holy Spirit, but Christ is the one who is proclaimed. Peter makes a special point to show that it is the work of the Triune God to make known to us how the Triune God goes about His work of re-Creation, His work of salvation. Peter says that Jesus “being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.” The reason God sent the Holy Spirit was in order to make known Jesus Christ. Peter emphasizes Jesus’ work of salvation, that even though He died, even though He was buried, He was raised up. The Jesus who was crucified is the one who is Lord and Christ. The Triune God, as we confess in the Creed and as the Bible makes known to us, is the God who specifically reveals Himself to us in the second Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ. Not only that, He specifically reveals Himself to us in His work of re-Creation in His suffering, death, and resurrection.

What this means for you and me is that our lives have meaning. If you think in terms of who you are and the life you live and the things you do, God’s work of re-Creation makes a difference. Consider just one thing, which happens to be a very big thing. Today is Father’s Day. Now Father’s Day is a day that has huge significance for all of us because we all have a father. It’s true that some have never known their father, some have been abused by their father, some are at odds with their father, and we could add to the list of how Father’s Day for some is a sad day, including some who would like to be a father but are unable to. But the fact that each of us has a father means something important. It means that what God accomplished in the Garden of Eden in creating us, bringing us into being, is a continued work. We are brought into existence not in the way Adam was, from the dirt, or in the way Eve was, from a rib, but from God’s creative and creating work, from a source, namely, a father.

Whether people believe in the Triune God or not, the fact is, God has continued His work of creation through the temporal means of fathers. This is a testimony to the fact that God is Himself the Father of us all. The Triune God is the God who Himself is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and from whom the Holy Spirit proceeds. We shouldn’t think of God in terms of our earthly father but rather our earthly father in terms of God our Father. Someone who has been abused by their father may not be able to see in God a loving Father. But what we ought to see in God is the perfection of a Loving Father and in comparison how our earthly fathers in many ways fall short. When you consider your father, you should be moved to consider the Heavenly Father who has given you His Son by the Holy Spirit. If you have issues with your father you should look to the Heavenly Father who loves you in this way: He gave His only-begotten Son to die on the cross for the sin of the world and in the work of His Holy Spirit has given you new life in your Baptism.

This is what Jesus was getting at when He gave his Great Commission as we have it recorded in today’s Gospel reading. The way disciples are made is not through our efforts but through the work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The way God’s Church is continually renewed and re-Created is not by our own work but by the work of the Triune God in Baptism and teaching.

The reason why this is so important for you in your daily life is because your life is filled with things you do. That’s great, of course, but the things you do ultimately bring about your failure. As Adam and Eve fell into sin so do you on a daily basis. God is the God who creates and re-Creates. We can never look to ourselves or others for what we need in order to live as God calls us to live. Even a man like David was unable to bring about what is necessary for God’s people to live as God’s people. Bluntly, Peter said that David was in the grave and the grave was still there to that day. It is only Christ who can bring it about. Because the Triune God reveals Himself in the Person of Jesus. The Triune God creates and re-Creates in the work of Jesus.

God the Father Almighty, the Creator of the heavens and the earth, is the Father who gave His only-begotten Son to create us anew by His Holy Spirit in Baptism. Amen.


Sunday, June 12, 2011

What Does This Mean?

The Day of Pentecost
Ecumenical Council of Nicea, 325
Confirmation Day
June 12, 2011
Acts 2:1-21

Anya and Cory, don’t ever let anyone tell you you shouldn’t ask questions. You are a Christian. You are a disciple of Christ, a child of God. Children ask their parents questions. Students ask their teachers questions. You may have a lot of questions and throughout your life you will have a lot of them, so ask them. Don’t ever let anyone tell you you shouldn’t.

But now let me take the liberty to tell you how you should ask them. Fire away with your questions, but ask them in humility. Don’t go to the Scriptures thinking you are right in what you feel or think and that you can make the Bible say what you feel or think. Don’t ask God your questions in a demanding way. Seek the answers to your questions in humility, ready to hear what God has to say to you.

While you should always feel free to ask questions, you should be aware that some questions are not really questions. They are veiled attempts at attacking God’s Word. When you ask in skepticism, you are not really asking. When you ask in doubt you are not really seeking. When you ask in humility you are truly asking and that is exactly what God wants of you. He doesn’t expect you to know all the answers. He knows you don’t. But as a loving Father and a faithful Teacher He is ready and willing to listen to your questions and answer them.

It’s good to ask questions. You need to do it in humility. Now I will tell you how you will be able to ask questions in the right away. Hearing. You will be able to ask your questions in humility by hearing the Word of God. Hearing is a receptive action. You are doing something, but you are the one receiving. True enough, real hearing means listening. You have to pay attention to what you’re hearing. If you’re daydreaming then you aren’t really listening, and so are you hearing? Notice the true miracle that happened on Pentecost Day. It was hearing. Yes, the apostles were speaking in all different kinds of languages, the Holy Spirit giving them that ability at that moment. But why was that? It was so people could hear. It was so that they could receive the blessings of God, the promise of His salvation.

What happened at the Tower of Babel? Nobody could understand what anyone else was saying. They heard words but couldn’t understand what was being said. God had confused their speech. Why did He do this? Because they decided they didn’t want to hear God. They wanted to listen to themselves. They were asking questions, but only questions that suited themselves, to bring about means for their own good. What is to prevent us to build a tower that will reach the heavens?

Now, Cory and Anya, you may not lately have planned on building any towers to heaven. But how have you attempted to go beyond God? You’ve gone through two years of Confirmation instruction. Will you seek to continue to be instructed in the faith your whole life through? Will you make the effort to hear the Word of God to better understand it and grow in it?

God likes to use language to communicate with us. You and I speak English and that’s how we communicate with each other with the Word of God. There are thousands of languages in the world, it doesn’t really matter which one you speak. The Word of God is made known in all of them. When the people at Pentecost heard the Word of God being spoken they heard it in their own language. They kept asking, How is it that we hear the Word of God being spoken in our own languages? And as good Lutheran catechumens who learned from the Small Catechism, you’ll appreciate their next question: What does this mean?

People were asking this question long before Martin Luther came on the scene and put that question down in response to the things of the faith. It’s a good question. You should be asking it your whole life. Some of the people at Pentecost were skeptical. They assumed that the apostles were drunk. Some were genuinely seeking what God had to say to them. Did you catch how Peter responded to all of these people? Whether they were genuinely wanting to know more about God or whether they were mocking Him, Peter said to them: “give ear to my words.” Don’t just hear the words, pay attention to what is being said.

Anya and Cory, when you ask your questions, because you will throughout your life, do it with the intention of giving ear to the Word of God. Pay attention to it. Listen carefully to what it says. God doesn’t just say things. As the question “What does this mean?” suggests, the things God says have meaning. When God speaks, the words have meaning. It’s not just that when God says something it’s important. It is very important, of course, but it also brings about what it says. You may not be able to remember most of what I’m saying in this sermon, but if you are hearing it and giving attention to what is being spoken then you are hearing it in the sense that you are receiving what it says.

When you go up to the altar today for the first time to receive the Lord’s Supper you will be hearing the words that you already know, because you have learned them: Take, eat, this is My body, and Take, drink, this is My blood. These words have meaning. They bring about what they say. When you hear these words and you ask “What does this mean?” give ear to them. Pay attention to them. Jesus is speaking to you. He is bringing about what He says to you. He is giving you His very body and blood for your forgiveness.

The entire liturgy is filled with this kind of stuff. If you just go through the motions you’ll miss most of it. But if you listen, if you pay attention, you will hear stuff that you can’t get anywhere else. After you receive the body and blood of Christ today listen for the words that come next. You’ll probably recognize them because you’ve heard them many times before. But today and every time you receive the Lord’s Supper you will be hearing them spoken to you. After giving you the body and blood of Jesus I will say, “The body and blood of your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ strengthen and preserve you steadfast in the true faith, now and to life eternal.” Now there’s a lot there—and you should probably be asking, What does this mean?—but for now, I want you to pay attention to one particular word in there, ‘strengthen’.

Do you know what this means? It means that the body and blood of Christ are confirming you. Today you are going to stand before this altar and confess the Creed. You are going to promise to be faithful to the Creed and to your Lord Jesus Christ even to death. You will be confirming what has already been given you in your Baptism. And you should do that. But what I really want you to hear today is the other confirmation that is going on. What I want you to go away with today is the word ‘strengthen’ ringing in your ears. I want you to go from here this day knowing not just that you promised to God that you would be faithful to Him but especially that He is faithful to you. He proves this by strengthening you, confirming you in His Body and Blood. I want you to hear these words and hold fast to them, because they are going to be what gets you through, not your own promise you made. You will falter at times, you will be weak at times. You will wonder at times what it all means.

In those times, go back to the Word of God. Go back to the words of your Lord in which He has said to you, Take and eat, this is My body, for you. Take and drink, this is My blood, for you. In going back to those words then you will know that that is exactly what you have received, His body, His blood, for you. The very body that hung on the cross for the sins of the world, which includes yours. This is given you to eat for the forgiveness of your sins. The very blood that was shed on the cross for the forgiveness of the world, which includes you. This is given you to drink for the forgiveness of your sins. These words mean something. These words bring something about. They mean you are forgiven. They bring about your very forgiveness. The body and blood of Jesus strengthen you. They confirm you.

There’s one more thing. When I say to do this in humility I don’t mean that you need to approach this altar in fear and trembling. As I’ve taught you in how to be an acolyte, we do approach the things of God in reverence and awe and even in a certain respect, fear. But when you approach the altar of God and hear His Words in humility that means another thing as well. It means you hear Him in joy and gratitude. When your parents give you a gift that you never saw coming and it’s something better than you ever expected, are you somber? No, you are grateful and joyful and humbled that they would love you in such a way! That’s the way it is here. That’s what it means. Amen.