Sunday, February 26, 2012

Why I Love Lent

First Sunday in Lent
February 26, 2012
I love Lent because it’s about victory. Lent is a solemn time, there’s no question. Some don’t do well with it at all because it can be downright depressing for them. And when we think of victory, we would normally think of Easter, what with the victory over the grave in Christ rising from it. But make no mistake, Lent is all about victory. And I love it.

I love it because it doesn’t take a Pollyannaish look at the Christian life. It takes a hard look at it. It’s real in its assessment of it. It’s gritty and not afraid to get down in the dirt with the hard questions of Christianity and the challenges of living the Christian life. Through this all there is the victory that Lent ultimately is all about.

Lent is a paradox in a world that wants easy answers. Lent doesn’t hide behind beautiful pictures of the Christian life that so often are promised to people who are hurting. Lent steps right into the world of hurt and embraces it. Lent doesn’t ignore very real threats to the Christian life and our often fragile faith, such as temptation. Lent meets temptation head on and spurs us on to duke it out with Satan.

I love Lent because it goes against so much of what our society values. I love Lent because it forces me to examine what it really means to be a Christian, to live in society, to have to wait until God calls us to His eternal home. When society tells me that I have rights Lent cuts me down to size and reminds me that when all is said and done I am a poor miserable sinner. There is something immensely freeing in seeing things as they really are rather than as I would like them to be but with no hope of them ever being that way. There is something enormously gratifying about knowing that even as I live in society I am not of this world; of knowing that even as heaven is my home that I nevertheless am called by my Lord to take up my cross and follow Him, to serve Him in many ways in society with my time, my talents, and my treasure. There is something tremendously fulfilling in knowing that even as my culture will tell me that I am a rugged individual that I am always reliant on my Lord who went it alone to the cross so that I may not be alone but serve others with all the many gifts God has given me.

Lent is above all a time of repentance. And I love that. Why? Because I need that. I love it because what I really love the most, in my heart of hearts, in my inner being, at the core of who I am, is myself. When God says “You shall have no other gods,” He says it because He knows that I am first and foremost my own one true God. Repentance shatters all that. And it’s only in repentance that I can see myself for who I was created to be—God’s own child, a new creation, a person redeemed by Christ. No, repentance is not fun. I don’t love Lent and repentance because it’s fun, or even particularly enjoyable.

But it’s real. It’s substantive. It’s lasting. Unlike my own thoughts, and desires, and wants, and needs, and basically everything else that has to do with me, Lent points me outward. It points me to something other than myself and my inborn sin, my wretched nature. It, at its essence, points me to Christ. That’s why I love Lent. Lent shows me Christ. It teaches me Christ. It teaches me that temptation is not something to be ignored. Or underestimated. Or dealt with on my own. It teaches me that Christ is the one who is the Victor, I am a poor miserable sinner. I am one who listens to the voice of Satan and succumbs to temptation.

But that’s why I love Lent. Because it shows me what I can’t know within myself. That there is something else. Someone else. That something, that someone, is Christ. Lent shows me that. Lent shows me victory where I end up in defeat. There is a reason the First Sunday in Lent always has as its focus the Temptation of Christ. Temptation is real. It’s hard-hitting. Don’t ever let anyone fool you into believing that Christianity is easy, that it’s a glorious life, that you’ll come to a point where you’ll overcome sin, and perhaps above all, that you have reached a point where you are more spiritual, or a more faithful Christian, than some of those other Christians you know. You are nothing else than a poor miserable sinner. And Lent tells you that. That’s why I love Lent.

Lent doesn’t allow you to skip right to the Resurrection. There is no resurrection without the cross. And really, there is no cross without Lent. Jesus didn’t come down to earth and step right up to the cross to be nailed to it. He was born. As we see in our Gospel reading today, He was Baptized. As we also see, He was tempted. As we further see, He proclaimed the Gospel, He carried out the holy ministry. Jesus in a fashion went through Lent. Before going to the cross He went through the desert, the wilderness. He endured temptation at the hands of Satan. Lent shows me that He did all of this for me. Specifically, for victory.

If I am under the illusion that my Christian life is an easy ride, then I ignore much of what Jesus has done. Jesus met head on with the pain and suffering and discouragement of people’s lives. He met head on with the thing we cannot withstand, the temptation of Satan. All you really have to do is look at Adam and Eve. They were sunk the moment they gave the serpent an audience. They went it alone and they got nailed. Only God can crush Satan under His feet. We get strangled by Satan’s lies. That’s why Jesus met Satan’s temptation head on.

Mark doesn’t say much about the temptation. It happened, that’s about as much as we get from him. But even so, we do get an amazing context, in that Jesus was Baptized, anointed by the Holy Spirit, declared the Beloved Son of the Heavenly Father, and then is immediately driven into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. The stunning development is that He is driven into this mess of temptation by the Spirit! What kind of love is being shown here by the Father and the Spirit?

This is what Lent is about. It’s why I love Lent. Lent shows us that even as the love of the Father and the Spirit never wavered for God the Son, the love of Father, Spirit, and Son, was always and fervently focused on the brothers and sisters of Adam and Eve. That’s you and me. That’s what Lent is here for. Its purpose is to get you and me to focus on why the Holy Spirit was driving Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. Make no mistake—it was an ordeal. It was a trial such as you and I could not imagine. This was not a no-holds-barred tackle football game between friends. This was an assault by Satan on the one who came to be Savior. Would He survive this assault? The victory is in Jesus not fighting back of His own power but relying on God the Father and the Holy Spirit. In Jesus’ temptation, the angels came and were ministering to Him. Our only hope of enduring under temptation is to rely on God, not seek our own path.

I love Lent because the victory is true victory. It’s not a bait-and-switch. It’s not a promise of a pleasant life, but of actual hope and real strength in time of need. Our Lord, having withstood temptation and secured victory over Satan, gave us these words to pray: and lead us not into temptation. Many a Christian has puzzled over those words. Does the wording suggest that God might lead us into temptation? That we’d better pray He doesn’t, lest He does? I have my own thought of why He worded it that way but it’s nothing more than conjecture, so take it for what it’s worth: I think He might have done it simply to capture our attention. It’s all too easy to take things God tells us and quickly pass them by. But when things are worded in such a way, it really forces us to think about them; forces us to go back to Scripture where we continue to learn what God wants us to know and where He increases our faith. Be that as it may, the Bible makes it absolutely clear that God tempts no one, as we heard in our Epistle reading. So, no, God is not going to be leading us into temptation.

But when we do pray that petition of the Lord’s Prayer—lead us not into temptation—might we turn our focus to the place where our Lord Himself was led into temptation? Driven, even? Might we see in our Lord’s words of what to pray—namely, lead us not into temptation—an amazing comfort, an amazing promise? Specifically, that our God, the Holy Spirit Himself, drove our Lord into temptation, and therefore we can know that He did this in our place. That He will never lead us into temptation, He did so with Christ so that the victory could be won.

This is why I love Lent. Because with me, there’s only defeat. My sinful flesh conspires with Satan to bring me down. The world is all too happy to join in with Satan to kick me around and kick dust in my face. But Christ, He was victorious. He defeated Satan. He brought him down. He kicked him around.

And if that weren’t enough, He finally crushed Satan under His feet by destroying death with His own Suffering and Death. He finally put an end to the lie that we are our own gods and that acting on our sinful desires will bring us fulfillment. He gained this victory putting sin and guilt to death in dying for the sins of the world. And if that weren’t enough, He showed that His power knows no bounds because the grave could not hold Him. Satan has no power over one who willingly gives His life and actually is able to take on the sin of the world. He has no chance against one who by His own power can bring Himself back to life. Satan gave everything he could. He had no chance. That’s why the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. That’s why I love Lent. That’s why I love to confess in the Catechism the meaning of the Sixth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, Lead us not into temptation:

“God tempts no one. We pray in this petition that God would guard and keep us so that the devil, the world, and our sinful nature may not deceive us or mislead us into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice. Although we are attacked by these things, we pray that we may finally overcome them and win the victory.” Amen.


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Treasure of Confession and Absolution

Ash Wednesday
February 22, 2012
This Lenten season when we gather midweek we will be exploring the blessing of Confession and Absolution. Confession and Absolution is a big thing with Lutherans. We know well that we all are in need of confessing our sins. We know even better that the purpose of that is to receive Absolution, the forgiveness of our sins. What we Lutherans may be losing, though, is the treasuring of Confession and Absolution. Somewhere along the line it fell out of use as a regular part of the lives of Christians. The Confession and Absolution spoken of as the Fifth Chief part of the Small Catechism is something in addition to the general confession of sins and the general statement of Absolution that we do at the beginning of the worship service on Sunday mornings.

It’s what’s usually referred to as private or individual Confession and Absolution. Many people think of this as a Roman Catholic ritual. But it never has been that. It has always been at the heart of Christian life and the life of the Christian Church. If it’s been a while since you’ve looked at that section of the Catechism I would encourage you to look at it again. When it comes to the need for it, some people are unnerved by the thought of going to their pastor privately to confess their sins. This is understandable. For as much public awareness as there is of people’s lives on the internet Facebook and YouTube as well as the tabloids at the grocery counter, we live in a very private society. We don’t want anyone else to know our deepest darkest faults and thoughts. There’s also the fear that the pastor being a human will blab their sins to his fellow pastors, or worse, the other members of the congregation. Then there is simply the question of why it’s necessary. We get forgiven in the Absolution on Sunday. We get forgiven in the proclamation of the Gospel and in the Lord’s Supper. Not only that, we have direct access to God and are granted forgiveness daily. Why do we also need to do it in a private setting to the pastor?

These are real and understandable concerns and questions. The answers might best be seen in the context of why we’re here. We’re here because we’re starting the Lenten season. We’re here because it’s Ash Wednesday. We’re certainly here because of our need, our sinfulness, and in order to receive forgiveness. We’re here because it’s valuable to take time out of the normal schedule of our lives to hear and receive the Word of God; to hear the proclamation of the forgiveness of our sins. All of these reasons why we’re here tonight match up nicely with the value of private Confession and Absolution.

Even as the Lenten season is a season of repentance and meditating on the passion of Christ, our lives need to be lives of repentance. Throughout our lives we need to consider the suffering and death of our Lord and what that means for our daily lives. Individual Confession and Absolution provides this. Even as a setting of being here gives you opportunity for spiritual growth, a setting in which you confess your personal sins to your pastor gives you an opportunity to hear the words of the Gospel spoken to you in a manner that is personal, spoken directly to your situation.

In the Gospel reading Jesus is not directly speaking to Confession and Absolution. But He is talking about righteousness. If we may not see a major need for private Confession and Absolution we certainly can see the need for righteousness. Jesus talks in the Gospel reading about righteousness in a very private way. Do not practice your righteousness in a way in which it is a show. Do not live as a child of God in such a way that others notice it and your focus begins to be on yourself just as theirs is on you. Certainly do not seek to gain favor in the eyes of God by what you do, how you do it, how much you do, how well you do it, and countless other ways you can think of to consider yourself righteous. When Jesus speaks of the practicing of righteousness, as He does here, it’s in the context of the righteousness that He first declares to you.

And this is the treasure of Confession and Absolution. No one likes to admit they’re wrong. No one likes to have to say they’re sorry. But what a treasure this is. It’s a blessing to be able to get it out in the open instead of it staying hidden in your mind and heart. Especially to be able to be before God and confess your sin to Him is a treasure He has given us. If in the recesses of your mind that one sin that keeps plaguing you is still hanging around and you can’t shake the guilt then Confession and Absolution is medicine for you. When you sin against someone and you apologize to them face to face you get to receive forgiveness directly from them. You get to hear from their mouth the words, “I forgive you.”

This is what is happening in private Confession and Absolution. When you go to your pastor and confess your sins to him you are confessing them to God. He’s a person just as you are, but he’s not there simply as another person. He’s there in the stead of God. The vow he made was to hear confession and never divulge it. The reason this is a treasure is because when you’re talking with God all by yourself you can’t hear anything back. It’s true that He speaks to you in His Word, the Bible. But with private Confession and Absolution you get to hear the words spoken by God Himself through His called and ordained servant the specific words of forgiveness to you, for your sin.

Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” What is it that you treasure? What do you hold most dear? God Himself is a treasure. You ought to treasure Him above all else. You don’t, of course. But that’s why you continue to go back to repentance, confessing your sins, asking Him for His mercy. You do this because you know what kind of God you have. You have the God who looks at you and sees the waters of Baptism flowing over you. He sees you and sees you clothed in His Son Jesus Christ, in whom you were clothed in Baptism. When He sees you He can’t wait to tell you these words, I forgive you of all your sins. Now you can see what a treasure it is that God gives when He dishes out His mercy, beginning in Baptism, often in the Lord’s Supper, and with the open invitation to Confession and Absolution. Amen.


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Same New, Same New

We all get tired of the “same old, same old.” Whether you’re in a job where you do the same thing hour after hour, day after day, or you’re retired and you get stuck in certain routines, or out of habit you eat the same thing for breakfast every day, the same old, same old can get pretty, well, old.

Sometimes we can feel that way in our spiritual walk with Christ. Reading the Bible every day can feel like it gets old. Getting through chapter upon chapter of Leviticus or Job is tough slogging and reading these and other parts of the Bible doesn’t always feel very spiritual or spiritually renewing.

Going through the liturgy in worship Sunday after Sunday can sometimes feel like you’re just going through the motions rather than really worshiping.

But there is something that is coming around that is just the ticket for us. It is Lent. True, we go through this every year. Every Spring in the Church Year Lent comes around and it can seem like the same old, same old.

Lent itself can seem rather dreary and dull. All the talk of repentance and rending your heart and not your garments. All the focus on our guilt and the need for spiritual discipline. This isn’t exactly the stuff of excitement in our walk with Christ.

So when it seems like we’re stuck in the same old, same old, what do we do? How can Lent help us out here?

Though Lent does have an emphasis on guilt and repentance it is for the very purpose of renewal and being spiritually uplifted. How this happens is through that very process of repentance.

And that’s one of the reasons why we go through Lent year after year. Repentance is something we need to go through day after day. Even if it seems like the same old, same old, what actually is occurring is the new.

Repentance is an actual dying. It is dying to the world and the sinful flesh. What springs forth is renewal, new life in Christ each day.

That’s the way it is with Christ. It is always the same but always new. Life in Christ may seem like the same old, same old, but it’s actually the same new, same new.

His love for you is always the same. His forgiveness is always the same. The blood He poured out on Calvary is the same blood given to you often in His Holy Supper.

With Christ it’s always the same. And that’s a good thing.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

When to Speak and When to Listen

The Transfiguration of Our Lord
Last Sunday after the Epiphany
February 19, 2012
It might be a problem to not know what to say. A bigger problem is not knowing when to speak. What we learn today is that we need to listen before we speak. Ecclesiastes 3 says it well: there is a time to remain silent and a time to speak.

But it’s also important to not get ahead of ourselves. The Transfiguration is amazing, but it’s not the end result. It’s not even the main thing. It’s an event like no other but Jesus tells the disciples something curious on the way back from this event: don’t tell anyone.

Don’t tell anyone, that is, until another event of note has occurred, and that is the resurrection of the Son of Man. When I, the one whom you just saw transfigured before you, have gone to the cross, suffering for the sin of the world, and then have gone through an even more spectacular transformation than what you have seen on this mountain, going from death to life, then you can speak to your heart’s content.

There is a time to speak, but there’s also a time to be silent.

What we learn today from the Transfiguration is that we must speak only after we have first heard. Any telling people without having first remained silent and simply listened is speaking in the way Peter did—he didn’t know what to say and so he babbled. Babbling isn’t going to get the Gospel out, speaking after we have first heard our Lord will.

How were those groups of the prophets speaking in the Old Testament reading? Were they telling Elisha something he needed to know? Were they convinced that he might have a difficult time if suddenly God removed Elijah from him without him knowing it? Who knows? What we do know is that Elisha knew just as the groups of the prophets did. And isn’t it interesting what he kept telling them back? “Keep silent.” Some things are better left unspoken. There is, after all, a time to keep silent. Not every moment of our lives as Christians need to be spent in speaking. There are times where we need to simply hear and take to heart.

What is it that we are to hear? How do we know what we are to listen to? Peter, James, and John found out quickly. Jesus. Listen to Him. Moses and Elijah were up on that mountain and they were talking with Jesus. How much was that of Jesus speaking and them listening and how much was them speaking and Jesus listening? We don’t know; what we do know is that they were speaking as one with their Lord, the same Lord of Peter and James and John. How do we know this? We know it because they are there as representatives of the Word of God, at that time the Bible consisting only of the Old Testament. Moses and Elijah represent what the New Testament sometimes refers to as the Law and the Prophets; Moses representing the Law, Elijah the prophets. These men, as with all those who wrote the Scriptures, were inspired by the Holy Spirit. What they wrote was what God had inspired them to write.

As they stood now on the mountain with Jesus they spoke with Him. Now in a glorified state themselves, they spoke as one with Him. It will be the same for us when we are in heaven. We will not be talking with God about things that are not in line with His good and gracious will. It’s not that we won’t be thinking. It’s that God will restore to us a will that is perfectly in line with His good and gracious will. Peter might have gotten a clue if he had just listened to Moses, Elijah, and Jesus’ conversation. Even if he couldn’t hear what they had been saying, he should have realized that listening to Jesus and responding to Him was where it’s at. After all, what had Moses and Elijah and the rest of the Old Testament writers done? They had pointed people to Jesus. They had shown that Jesus was the one who was to come; the Savior; the one who would fulfill all things. Yes, He would definitely be the one to listen to.

But Peter was terrified. They all were. Peter, being the one who often spoke without thinking, decided to speak on this occasion. This is great! We’ll set up shop. We’ll make three booths. Moses will get one, Elijah will get one, and You, of course, Jesus, will get one. We can just stay up here forever! God the Father was the one who put the kibosh on that plan. Moses and Elijah were gone as quickly as they had appeared. Jesus was there alone, He was all the disciples could see. But that’s all they needed to see. God the Father spoke concerning Him, “This is My beloved Son; listen to Him.”

Don’t speak. Don’t think about what this all means. Don’t make plans. Just listen. Hear the words of your Lord, My only-begotten Son with whom I am well pleased. Even with Peter’s short reaction of how great all this was there was too much talking. Not enough listening. Not enough hearing of the words of his Lord. Notice what the Father says to Peter: Listen to Jesus. He says nothing about speaking. In fact, when Jesus gets around to telling the disciples about speaking it’s to tell them the opposite: do not speak! Don’t tell anyone about this.

See, Elisha wanted to hang around. Elijah knew he was leaving and Elisha wanted to be around him a little longer. Peter, James, and John wanted to hang around. They had not seen a sight like this before, of Jesus transfigured in a spectacular display; they wanted to remain a part of this. But Jesus never intended for this to be the final revelation of His glory. He had intended all along to go back down that mountain in order to ascend another one; one not quite as glorious, one where He would be transfigured before them all right, but into a bloody mess. Instead of rays of light gleaming from His face blood would be pouring down His cheeks. Instead of clothes shining brighter than any bleach could make them, He would be stripped and His clothes would be torn and tattered.

Funny how the disciples didn’t want to be around on that day. It was a solemn day. A tragic day. We who have heard our entire lives the good news that Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the world have trouble thinking about what that day was really like. It was the opposite of the Transfiguration. It was the antithesis of glory. It was the other extreme of the sentiment we’ll sing in our closing hymn, How Good, Lord, to Be Here. Who of His disciples wanted to be here, seeing their Lord hanging on the cross, His life slowly fading away? Which of them wanted to hear Him cry out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” There’s no way they could have felt worse than Jesus, but they would have traded anything to prevent this from happening.

But there is the problem. They didn’t do what God the Father had said to them: “This is My beloved Son; listen to Him.” Jesus had told them what it was all about. He must be delivered over. He must suffer. He must die on the cross. He must rise from the grave. If they had listened to Him they would have realized that the glory on the Mount of Transfiguration could not compare with the glory before their eyes on the cross. Look in the book of Acts and you will not see one sermon on the Transfiguration from the apostles. Of the suffering, death, and resurrection you will see many. Peter does point out on an occasion the glory of the Transfiguration in his second letter, but mostly what he and the other writers of the New Testament do is proclaim the Christ of the cross and the empty tomb.

The point of this isn’t that the Transfiguration isn’t really that important. It’s of utmost importance. The Bible makes that abundantly clear. The question really is, why is it important? The reason it’s important is because we haven’t learned to listen. We have big trouble hearing our Lord, just as Peter did. We need to listen first, and then we will be able to speak of what our Lord has given us to speak. When we hear Him we will have the words to say back to Him.

Hear the words of your Lord, listen to Him. His words were spoken to you at your Baptism: I Baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. His words are spoken to you at His Table: Take and eat, this is My body, given for you; Take and drink, this is My blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins. Listen to Him. If you’re too busy speaking of what you think and what you’d like then you’re missing what your Lord has to say to you. How do you know when to speak? You know to speak after you have listened. You need to hear God the Father’s beloved Son. That’s what God the Father said: “This is My beloved Son; listen to Him.” In Baptism and in the Lord’s Supper that’s exactly what you hear. He speaks to you. He speaks forgiveness to you. And in so hearing the words of the Father to His beloved Son you have the words to say. You speak back to Him what He has spoken. The beloved Son of God is your beloved Lord and Savior.

When it all was over the disciples saw no one but Jesus only. No more Elijah. No more Moses. There was no more talk of booths and hanging around. There was only Jesus. That’s what you get in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, Jesus. When you get Jesus you get it all. Now there’s something to talk about! Amen.


Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Heart of God

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 12, 2012
If you want to know the heart of God you need to go to the guts of God. When overwhelmed with sympathy we say that our heart goes out to the other person. In the ancient world they talked about their inward parts, their guts. When stirred with the emotion of sympathy or compassion they would talk about it as they felt it: it hit them in the gut. That’s what we feel deep down inside, when we’re moved by something we see, we’re moved to reach out, to have compassion. Maybe we have talked about our heart going out to the person rather than our guts because we’re a little more polite. Maybe it’s because we understand that it’s not really what’s in the gut that is the seat of our emotion or compassion, it’s the heart. At any rate, the Heart of God sounds a more pleasant sermon title than the Guts of God.

Even so, we’ve done a similar thing with the heart. The organ that’s pumping out blood into your veins isn’t the seat of your compassion anymore than your intestines are. We talk about the heart in the same way those in the ancient world talked about their inward parts, their guts. On Valentine’s Day when you tell your loved one that you love them with all your heart you don’t mean that you literally love them with your heart, that thing that is beating inside your chest. You mean that in your deepest feelings and thoughts you love them. Your heart very well may have been pounding the first time you saw him or her or when you were falling in love, but like the guts, your heart is a physical reaction to what’s going on with your emotions and feelings and thoughts.

This is maybe why we have such tough time loving others where God has no problem whatsoever. When we’re moved with feelings of sympathy or love we tend to equate that with love for the person. If we are moved with disgust at a person because they are spiteful or have harmed us or are just plain rude we don’t feel very much love for them, or sympathy for that matter. To have compassion on a poor soul who is in need through no fault of their own, compassion for that person comes easily. To someone who deserves nothing but the same vile treatment they have dished out, compassion for them is the opposite of what we think they should get.

How else do you explain Naaman? Naaman should have been left to rot in his skin disease. His king thought the world of him because he was a great commander and accomplished a lot for the king’s rule. But what about all those innocent people he had killed and taken from their homes? What about that little girl who was unjustly removed from her home and an ordinary life in Israel and was now a slave in a foreign land to pagans? We would even say that the leprosy Naaman had was what was due him. It served him right.

But not God. God sympathizes with him. He was moved to heal Naaman, to give him a gift. He saw one whom He had created. He saw a man who was rotting inside, spiritually. He saw a sinner who needed spiritual healing. Who else could heal him in that way but God Himself? So God reached out to him. Perhaps we need to become as little children to see this. In order to understand what it means to have the heart of God perhaps we need to see others as children do. That little girl might easily have rejoiced under breath that the man who ruined her life was suffering and rotting away in his skin and was going to die a miserable death. But she didn’t. She was moved with pity. She saw a man who was in need. She saw a person whom God had created, just as He had created her. She reached out in compassion—there’s a man who can help you, a prophet in Israel.

If you want to know the heart of God then look at that little girl. This is God at work. She was living by faith. All she knew was that that horrible man who had brought her here was suffering and she saw someone in need. If you want to know the heart of God, look to the one she had spoken of: the prophet who was in Israel. Elisha shows us where we can know the heart of God. It’s in water. Even though he told Naaman to go into the Jordan River, his point was not that that river was special as opposed to any other river. It was that there was the word from his mouth that was attached specifically to that river. And so the compassion of God was poured out on Naaman in that Jordan River where he dipped himself in seven times.

If you want to know the heart of God then you need to go to the water where Jesus reached His hand down to touch you and cleanse you. When Naaman came out he was clean. He was cleansed. His skin was like that of a little child. When someone is moved in compassion to reach out and act in compassion it’s in a tangible way. This is why God places water on us in Baptism. It’s tangible. It’s not simply a gut feeling on the part of God or His heart going out to us, it’s Him being compassionate and reaching out to us to cleanse us from our sin. Just as Elisha’s words, which were the words of God, were attached to the Jordan River, Christ’s words, which are spoken by a pastor, are attached to the waters that are poured on a person when they are Baptized.

This is what we see Jesus doing in the Gospel reading. He was moved with compassion for the leper. He touched Him. The man was cleansed. The Collect of the Day directs our attention to where it needs to be. It is indeed a blessing when God grants physical healing. Obviously it was for the leper Jesus healed. Obviously it was for Naaman. But if the Scripture readings today lead us to the notion that God sent His only-begotten Son to deliver us from our physical ailments then we really are to be pitied. That kind of Christianity is no Christianity at all, but wishful thinking in this temporal life. The Collect of the Day shows us exactly how we are like both the leper in the Gospel reading and Naaman. It also directs our attention to the fullness of healing our Lord gives: “O Lord, graciously hear the prayers of Your people that we who justly suffer the consequence of our sin may be mercifully delivered by Your goodness to the glory of Your name.” His healing may better be thought of as restoration. Ultimately, that is the purpose. In heaven there will be no leprosy or cancer or flu or colds or amputations or AIDS or any other illness or disease we suffer in this life.

The Collect is prayed because we stand before God not as lepers, or ones who suffer from cancer or suffer severe back pain, but as sinners. It’s true that we stand before God often as ones who suffer physically and our Lord invites us to pray for healing according to His good and gracious will. But our physical suffering can serve to humble us as Naaman needed to be humbled. It may serve to bring us to our knees as it did the leper in the Gospel reading. The healing we truly need is healing for our soul. We need to be cleansed from the inside, deep down inside our heart of hearts. The heart of God reaches out to us in His Son. That’s why in the Collect we prayed that we would “be mercifully delivered by [His] goodness.” His goodness is that He has compassion on us.

If you want to see the heart of God then you need to go to the place where He reaches out to give you healing in body and soul. The Lord’s Supper is strength and healing now and to life eternal, in body and soul. Think about what Jesus was doing when He touched the man. It’s not just that that was His way of showing compassion, it was deliberately in response to the social and religious system of that day, that an unclean person was not allowed to be part of society and public religious life. At the very least you would contract the leprosy of the person by coming into contact with him. But Jesus also touched the leper, this unclean man, because the priests were the spiritual gatekeepers. They determined whether you were clean. Jesus touched the man in defiance of this. He made the man clean on His own. The priests would not touch the person—Jesus does. In all of our filth, vileness, uncleanness of body and soul, He reaches out to us and touches us. He heals us in body and soul in giving us His body and blood in His Supper.

It’s no mere side point that Paul in 1Corinthians 11 appeals to the Christians in regard to their partaking of the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner by reminding them that some of them even became sick and died. There is power in the Lord’s Supper and we should not think less of the Lord’s Supper than it is. As the blessing says, “The Body and Blood of Christ strengthen and keep you in body and soul.” We entrust our life, our very person, body and soul, to God. He gives us strength and healing in body and soul in His holy Sacrament. With physical healing it’s always in His time and according to His will. Ultimately it’s realized in fullness in heaven. That’s why we pray for physical healing according to His will.

For the wretchedness that characterizes our heart and soul we have certainty of full and free healing and cleansing. God is moved to do so. You can see that at the cross where every aspect of the vileness of our sin and guilt was imparted to Jesus and He became the leper, the outcast, the one who is Unclean. This was your sin and mine and the person sitting next to you, and the countless people around the globe, and your neighbor who gets under your skin. If you want to see the heart of God then look at each one of those people and you will see Naamans and lepers, sinners whom God loves and who are the recipients of the heart of God. Then look to your Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the places where you are recipient of the heart of God, now and forever, in body and soul. Amen.


Sunday, February 5, 2012

Incarnational Living

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
Commemoration of Jacob (Israel), Patriarch
February 5, 2012
Have you ever thought about all the things Jesus did? We know the big stuff. He was born in a stable. He taught and healed and of course He died on the cross and rose from the grave. These are the things we know so well. But what did He do in His downtime? What did He do for recreation? Who did He hang out with when He wasn’t preaching and teaching?

We so often categorize our lives that we may forget something very important about them, the essence of them in fact. When you think of yourself and you categorize your life you may forget that who you are is not only more important than all those specific things you do in life but that the essence of who you are informs all the things you do. Because they’re not just things you do, or at least they shouldn’t be. They are things which flow out of who you are.

And that’s the way it is with Jesus. If we are going to look at who we are then we should look at Jesus because who we are is the people of God. We’re not just people. We’re people whose essence is defined by God. You can’t categorize that, it’s simply who you are. It’s not that you have a job and you talk with your neighbor now and then and you have children. All of those things are not just parts of who you are. You are a child of God who is called to serve in those and many other areas.

To see this we can look at Jesus. Knowing all the major stuff about Him, Mark tells us of an occasion where Jesus attempted to get away. Actually, He succeeded for an amount of time. But soon His disciples found Him. He had gotten away to pray. The disciples came to inform Him that everyone was looking for Him. We heard last week that that’s what was going on in the surrounding region of Capernaum. His fame was spreading. People were talking about Him and they wanted in on the good things that came about when Jesus was around. But it was time to move on. There were others in the next towns. He would go there and continue His preaching.

It might seem sensible that His getting away to pray was distinct from His ministry of teaching and preaching, of healing and exorcising demons. Even of going to the cross and rising from the grave. But this isn’t so. It’s all of a seamless cloth. Jesus is who He is. It’s not that at some times He taught, others He healed people, and then there was that other thing, as big as it was, where He died for the sins of the world. All of it is together. Who He is defines everything He did. It’s not that when He found a place away from everyone He was not ministering to anyone. To see this, it would have to be the case that Jesus would have had to be in specific teaching or healing of people around the clock for Him to be ministering to people. But that’s not what He did, and it’s not what He needed to do. That does not define who He is.

Jesus is God. He could have done anything He had wanted. On the Last Day He will have an audience of the whole world. Everyone will know instantaneously that He has returned in glory. But when He came the first time He made His way around on foot. His words on the Last Day will be heard by everyone at the same time. The first time He came He walked around from town to town. People heard Him here, and they heard Him there. Sometimes there were a few who heard Him, sometimes many.

What defines Him is that He is God and as God His nature is mercy. His essence is love. It’s not power, or glory, authority. God is all of those things but they don’t define who God is. Jesus in the flesh does. That’s how we see who God is. I recently heard the statement that God’s desire is that we love Him. While it’s most certainly true that He desires that we love Him, it’s not really accurate to say that His desire is that we love Him. God’s desire is to love us. That we love Him flows from who He is, His essence, how He makes Himself known in His Son, Jesus Christ. What we see in God should not be His desire that we love Him but rather His desire of loving us. How we should see God and understand Him is not that we need to love Him but rather that He loves us, and we see that in His Son.

If it seems odd to think that even when Jesus was off by Himself to pray that He was indeed ministering to people, think about what else consumed His time while He lived on this earth. On this particular occasion He apparently didn’t get much sleep because He got away in the early morning hours in order to pray. But Jesus slept, just as every person must. He ate. I imagine He joked around with His friends. Would He have watched the Super Bowl today? There’s no reason to think He wouldn’t have. It’s not that Jesus did ministry stuff and then He had to take care of basic necessities like eating and sleeping and having some downtime. Jesus is who He is. He is God. God loves us. He is our Savior. Who He is and what He does is all about that. Otherwise we’d have to say that He was only ministering to those people He came into direct contact with. And for as many people as that was, there were still a whole lot more people in Jesus’ three year ministry who never were the recipients of Jesus’ healing touch or of His words of proclamation. And when you consider that He was carrying out His ministry for only three years, well, that leaves thousands of years where He wasn’t.

Jesus came to show us something that we can call incarnational living. The Incarnation is God being in the flesh. It is God who is the creator of humans, becoming a man Himself. Jesus is God in the flesh. The very fact of Him being in the flesh is His ministry to we who are in the flesh. His being one with us in a body, living life on this earth, eating, drinking, sleeping, talking, working, watching the Super Bowl, this is incarnational living. He showed us that in all that He did, not just the stuff we normally think of that He did.

The first obvious way we see God coming in the flesh is in Jesus being born. However, when we saw last week that Jesus went into the synagogue at Capernaum we saw God coming in the flesh to those people. When we see this morning Jesus leaving the synagogue and going into Peter’s home we see God coming in the flesh for him and his family. When we see the people about to burst down the door to the home and Jesus healing them and casting out demons we see God coming to these people in the flesh. Even when He is off by Himself praying we see God coming to people in the flesh, for here is the very God of all creation not up on His throne but down on earth where the people He created are at and He is praying for them. And it goes without saying that we see God in the flesh when Jesus then says, Let’s get going to those other towns also.

But here’s the clincher. It’s not just that we see God in the flesh when we look at those passages of Scripture that tell us that Jesus did such and such and preached to so and so and drove out demons now and then and healed people here and there. We see God in the flesh when we see the disciples getting up off their duff and looking for Jesus. They went to Him because they knew that He was what the people needed. Okay, perhaps all they were thinking was that the people wanted Him and not them and they were very ready to comply since what could they do for the people? However they perceived their mission to find Jesus and tell Him that everyone was looking for Him, isn’t that what they needed to do, find Jesus so that they could deliver Him to the people?

And we see it in Peter’s mother-in-law. She was in need and the God who comes in the flesh helped her in her need. And we see here something else also. We see one who has been served by God and is then equipped to serve Him. When she was healed she got up and went right back to her calling in life and served everyone in the home. This is God at work.

This morning we prayed with the Church in the Collect of the Day that our Lord would keep His family the Church continually in the true faith that, relying on the hope of His heavenly grace, we may ever be defended by His mighty power. How is it we are kept continually in the true faith? The word Jesus uses is the way: preaching. The word Paul uses in the Epistle reading is the way: the making known of the Gospel. There is a reason for this. It’s not because the Church throughout the ages has always had a sermon be part of the worship life of the Church. It’s because the sermon is a proclamation. It is an activity in which God is at work. It is an event in which God is coming to His people in the flesh. You can’t see Him with arms and legs and a head and a body. But you can hear Him. His voice is heard by your ears because He is the one preaching. He preaches through His servants, as the apostle Paul laid it out for us: necessity is laid upon the preacher of the Gospel. Woe to him if he does not preach the Gospel. As it was with Jesus, so it is with the men God has called to proclaim the Gospel—this is why they have been called.

You can see the weariness in the people as they try to find their way to Jesus. Jesus being God does not grow weary. Obviously as a man He needed sleep. He needed downtime. But in all of this we see that what He did was what God the Father had called Him to do. When He went off by Himself to pray I imagine He was still very tired from the throngs of people who had been banging on the door of Peter’s house. God does not grow weary. We do. Even the youngest and strongest among us do. But not God. What He gives us is the Gospel. This is how He lifts us up and strengthens us. This is how we will be able to go on and not stumble and fall.

Think about the amazing fact of God being in the flesh. He is the Creator of all and yet not one star is missing without Him knowing it. If He is aware of every aspect of the universe, think about how important you and I are to Him. Not one of us grieves or struggles or gets sick or becomes sad without Him knowing. Not one of us is beyond His scope because He comes to us in the flesh. Jesus died on the cross for every person. No one was out of His sight when He did this. Paul describes it well, this incarnational living, in saying that as one who made known the Gospel he became all things to all people. You are not insignificant. You are not just another person. You are not beyond the care of the Almighty God, because the Almighty God is the God who loves you and cares for you. Why else would He have taken time to be in the home of Peter; to give His healing to Peter’s mother-in-law; to be there for every person who stood at the door; to go to the next towns? Why else would He have come in the flesh?

Incarnational living extends to the world because you and I serve. We are Christ to others. Many people do not know Jesus. They don’t know that He has come in the flesh, that He died for all of their sins, that He is the God of mercy and love for them. We are in many of these people’s lives. We live incarnationally in their lives, we are Christ to them. We serve them, we love them, we care for them, we pray for them, we share God’s love in Christ with them. How can we not? We are the recipients of incarnational living from God Himself. Remember, He comes in the flesh. He invites us to His Table to receive Him in His body and blood. You can’t get any more incarnational than that, God in the flesh, here, for you, and for the entire world through you. Amen.