Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Servant Heart of God

Fifth Sunday in Lent
The Annunciation of Our Lord
March 25, 2012
For those of you who struggle through Lent with its somberness and solemnity, you can take heart because it’s nearing the end. The Fifth Sunday in Lent today will give way to Palm Sunday next week and along with it Holy Week. That, as we know, is the prelude to Easter, and most people who have a difficult time with Lent have a sort of relief in the celebration of Easter. This isn’t a denigration of any of this, simply an observation. It’s what some people experience and it’s good to understand where we’re coming from as we make our way through the Church Year.

Having made our way through almost the entire season of Lent it might be tempting just to treat this Sunday as one more Sunday in Lent and the last one before the big day of Palm Sunday. But the Church Year is much more powerful than simply a bunch of Sundays in a particular season that simply fade away when a new season in the Church Year takes its place. Each Sunday is designed to grab a hold of us and impact us in a meaningful way.

The real beauty and genius of the Church Year is that it takes us in the way of our Lord. When we observe the Church Year we are being brought along in a way in which we’d otherwise not go. Our way is so often the way that skips the cross, going right to the glory. Glory here, though, is a relative term. Glory is something we don’t see rightly or clearly because we just want glory, period. Jesus is all about granting glory, and glory beyond what we can imagine, but His way of granting it to us is through the cross.

And so we see that James and John were ordinary Christians showing up to church on the Fifth Sunday in Lent, wondering if this penitential season was ever going to end and wanting to get straight to the Alleluias of Easter and the glory that that magnificent celebration brings. And so we see that the other ten disciples were equally ready to get through the Lenten season, a little put off with the two Zebedee brothers, but mostly ticked at themselves that they didn’t bring up this alteration of the Church Year with Jesus before the Zebedee boys had.

Jesus being the liturgical guy He was was not going to let them get away with this. He did, however, entertain their notion of dispensing with the Church Year observance of Lent and wanting to go directly to the Easter season. You say you want glory, but are you able to undergo the suffering necessary to attain glory? They didn’t hesitate. Of course we are. When you have your sights set on glory everything else pales and the worst of things seems not so bad. Perhaps they were sincere. No matter, they weren’t seeking the true glory Jesus was offering because they were preempting the giving of it; much like the prodigal son: Dad, just give me the inheritance I have coming to me now.

Nevertheless, Jesus maintained His liturgical purity even as He continued down this path James and John were traversing. You will. You’re right. You will suffer the suffering that comes from being a follower of Christ. They were looking ahead where they had no business looking. Jesus was looking ahead because He knew what was ahead. Jesus knew that they would grow and mature, that they would come to appreciate being humble enough to observe the liturgical year and walk the path that He Himself walked. He knew that though it wasn’t for Him to grant to them being placed on His right and left they would indeed come into glory with Him.

The reason He knew this is that His sights were set not on glory but on the cross. Yet, that’s not quite right. His sights were set on glory. You see, it was His glory, and His Father’s glory, that He go to the cross. It was glorious in His eyes that He would be handed over. That He would suffer. That He would die for the sins of the world. That He would rise from the grave. Of course He knew the joys and glory of heaven that James and John would share in. He knew that eternal salvation was the ultimate goal of all of this.

But thank God that He knew that the true glory of all of this is the cross. It is the servant heart of God. It is the love that drove Him to the cross.

If Lent ever seems dreary to us it’s not the fault of Lent or of observing the Church Year. It’s our own fault. It’s our sinful nature rising up to rebel against the Lord of all coming in humble willingness to lay down His life for sinners. It’s in us mistaking solemnity for dreariness. It’s in us setting our eyes on glory when they ought to be set on the cross. It’s astonishing, really, how dense these disciples were. Mark, inspired by the Holy Spirit, does not give us a glowing portrayal of these men. And not just James and John, but the whole bunch of them.

Just in chapter 10 alone, in the verses before today’s Gospel reading, we have Jesus exhorting that “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” And here they are arrogating to themselves the highest places of honor—Lord, when You come in Your glory, grant to us that we may sit at Your right and Your left. Children are naturally humble in their being in submission to those over them. James and John and their fellow disciple buddies could have used a few lessons from children.

Not long after that Jesus repeated one of His patented lines: “many who are first will be last, and the last first.” So, of course, what did J & J want? To be first, what else? What do we want? We want what’s best for us. And what’s best for us is the best. So why would they and we ask for anything less? Were they daydreaming when Jesus talked about the last being first, and the first last? I doubt it. Probably just that were very much like we are. We hear the Word of God. We know who we are in Christ. We know what we should do. And what do we do? The opposite, of course. We go against everything we know, everything our Lord has taught us, everything He has called us to.

The First Commandment easily lays waste to any notions we have of being pretty good, or at least not so bad. No, we have no regard whatsoever for God and His holy will. We should fear, love, and trust in Him above all things. Sadly, and shamefully, we seek our own will. We seek our own glory. We seek what is best for ourselves apart from God’s will. We skip right past the cross in order to gain glory.

But perhaps the most striking thing about their request was it being in the context of Jesus’ first words in today’s Gospel reading: “he began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.’” At the very least they could have shown some deference to Him by bringing their outrageous request to Him at a time when perhaps He was talking about the Padres or the Chargers, or something clearly not on the scale of His suffering and dying for everyone.

It’s not necessarily that Jesus said this and then they immediately dropped the bomb of their arrogant request, they of all people being granted being placed at His right and His left. The Holy Spirit has given us what He has given us in His Word so that we may learn of Christ, so that we may receive Him, so that we be shown His servant heart, His love that drove Him to the cross. So whether the events played out exactly as they’re written in the Gospel reading or there was some discussion after Jesus’ sobering announcement, or perhaps some silence, or perhaps some talk about something else, what we have here is what we need to know. It’s what the Holy Spirit has given us to know so that we can see how utterly dense we are, how supremely arrogant we are, how pathetic it is when we Christians seek glory apart from the cross.

And if that’s sobering, it also is at how patient Jesus is with them and with us. He knows us. He knows we’re dense. He knows our sinful nature is always recoiling against all that talk of the cross, of suffering, of dying, of repentance, of Lenten solemnity and somberness. He knows. And that’s why He came. That’s why He went to the cross. To deliver us from all of that. To deliver us from our seeking of glory apart from Him and His cross. Of our pathetic arrogance that thinks there is something better for us apart from Him and His cross. He loves us. He knows us. He is compassionate. The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve. He came to give His life as a ransom. His heart is a servant heart, not of an arrogant lord or ruler. The rulers of this world lord it over others.

It is not to be so among us. It is to be the way of Christ. It is to be the servant way. It is to be the way of the cross; and yes, that means suffering. It means that glory comes only through the cross. It means that we ask our Lord to give us a calm heart as we make our way through Lent. A repentant heart. Even a somber heart and one that is content in solemnity. Where we are tempted to be despondent, we ask our Lord to bring our focus back on Him and His cross. Where we see that there is no despair there at all. Where there is no defeat, but rather victory. Where, in an astonishing switch, there is glory. It is the glory of the Lord who is the servant. The God who is the Savior. Amen.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

In This Way

Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 18, 2012
Probably the most well-known verse in the Bible is John 3:16. You probably know it by heart or you easily recognize it when you hear it: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” When things are well-known they can become stale. When you hear it you may automatically not pay as much attention as you would to something you’ve never heard before. This is normal.

Sometimes things we know well can take on new life when we hear them presented in a different way. This verse may seem to have new life to it in the way the original Greek words present it. The English of the translation we’re using, The English Standard Version, presents it the way we’re so often used to hearing it: for God so loved the world. It’s along the lines of, God loved the world, so He did something, namely, He sent His Son. Or perhaps along these lines: God loved the world so much that He gave His Son. These both capture God’s love for the world and what He did in His love; He sent His Son. The Greek has it more along these lines: God loved the world in this way—He sent His Son.

This doesn’t just tell us that God loved the world and that He did something about it. It doesn’t even tell us that God loved the world so much that He did something about it. It tells us that God loved the world, and a lot, and this is the way He loved the world: He sent His Son. In this way we see the essence of God’s love. We see that it’s incomparable love. We see that He loves the world and the way He loves the world. In this way we also see something about ourselves because we are the recipients of His love and the way He has loved us. We also see the way that it now is with us because love that is given in this way cannot simply be an action in which we receive. It is love that produces something in us.

Instead of being eternally separated from God we have eternal life. Eternal life is life without end. It is life without eternal punishment and not being separated from God forever. It is eternal glory in heaven. But in the way that God shows us His love, and not just shows us, but actually loves us, we see that eternal life is so much more than eternal glory in heaven. If that were all that eternal life were, we wouldn’t have eternal life now. We’d have to wait for it. Of course, we do have to wait for the eternal glory of heaven. But we don’t have to wait for eternal life. God has given it to us now. In giving us eternal life He has given us new life and a new way to live.

In this way we live, we are in Christ. We live and breathe in this new life not as ones who are dead, “following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air,” as the Epistle reading puts it. Rather, as the Epistle also says, God “made us alive together with Christ… and raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” This new life we have is all by God’s work, all by His mercy, all by His grace, and it is all through faith. It is all a gift of God so that no one can boast. The new life we have is one in which we are in Christ, and we serve in the good works we do. These aren’t works we do in order to be saved or so that God will love us. They are works, as the Epistle says, “which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

In this way we live. If this doesn’t sound amazing it’s probably because even though you were dead in your trespasses and sins and now you’re not, and you were by nature children of wrath but now you’re not, your sinful flesh still rises up daily to bring you down. Your Old Adam wants to continue to live in the way the Epistle reading describes: living “in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind.” To our sinful flesh, new life in Christ as serving others, carrying out good works for the benefit of others, doesn’t exactly sound exciting. It doesn’t capture our attention as the greatest thing ever. We’d much rather act on the things that do capture our attention. We’re far more ready to think about what appeals to us rather than contemplate God’s love for us in Christ and how that translates into serving and helping others.

That’s why Jesus said He must be lifted up. If something is lifted up then it’s readily seen. He said of Himself that He must be lifted up. We usually don’t think of Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross in this way, but that’s the way He used it here. He was lifted up. He was affixed to the cross and it was raised up. The Romans raised those crosses high so that common people could see those horrible criminals and they would be warned not to follow in their path lest they be lifted up in this violent form of punishment. And though they did this to Jesus they didn’t realize that He had already chosen for it to happen. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness so must the Son of Man be lifted up.

In this way God loved the world and in this way we see what our lives truly are. How could you think of your life as your own when you have been given new life in Christ? How could you continue to seek out your own desires apart from God’s will when He has loved you in such a way as to give you His own Son? How could you trade this eternal life for temporal desires of your heart and mind? The Son of Man has been lifted up on the cross for all the world to see. It’s not just decoration that there’s a huge cross hanging on the wall above the altar. It’s lifted up high so that you can see it. It’s been raised up so that you can set your sights on that and see there who Christ is and what He has accomplished in being lifted up.

In this way you see more and more that who Christ is and what He has done for you means that who you are is more than just a person who lives life in order to bring about how you would like things to be. How you would like things to be is not nearly as good as what you think they are. But even more importantly, how you would like things to be is actually eternally condemning. It doesn’t seem so, of course. But that’s because your mind and your heart is clouded. It’s darkened by sin.

How often are we like the Israelites, the people of God in the Old Testament? In the verses just before today’s Old Testament reading they were delivered by God from a king who wanted to destroy them. The Israelites were understandably relieved, and very grateful to God. It wasn’t long, though, before they became very ungrateful. No sooner had God delivered them than they doubted whether He was going to take care of them. Jesus’ description of fallen humankind in the Gospel reading is apt: “the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.”

In this way God shows us the new life we have in Christ. He, as Jesus says in the Gospel reading, gives us the judgment. He tells it to us straight. We are by nature sinful and unclean. We are fallen, we are in darkness. We are so dead in our sin and guilt that we don’t even see it clearly.  Is it any wonder the Son of Man had to be lifted up? Otherwise, I think we’d miss it. Even when the Bible is clear, that this is all a gift, that it is all God’s work of saving us and forgiving us and giving us new life; that it is all by Jesus Christ being lifted up on the cross, dying for the sin of the world; we still so often miss it. In this way we have new life. In this way we are shown what we need to see. In this way we are given a great gift: that of getting ourselves off of ourselves and onto Christ.

We are, after all, in Him now. We are one with Him. He gave His life, He served us. We are now in Him and we now serve. Do we do good works? Most definitely. So often people get the idea that Lutherans don’t believe in good works. Too many times people have the notion that Lutherans teach against good works. The plain truth is that we do believe that we Christians do good works. The question really is, why? An equally important question is, how? The answer to both questions is Jesus Christ.

In this way God loved the world, He gave His only Son. In this way we do good works: God has prepared them from beforehand for us to do. We are most certainly not saved by good works, we’re saved by grace after all. But we are saved for good works. He has prepared them for us so that we may walk in them. In this way we see that it has always been and always is about Christ and Him crucified. He was lifted up so that we may see this and live in this way. Amen.


Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Lord and His Cross; Your Lord and Your Cross

Second Sunday in Lent
March 4, 2012
There’s the Lord you want and there’s the Lord there is. There’s the life you want and the life your Lord gives you. There’s the Lord you imagine—glorious, above the fray—and the Lord who comes to you—in humility, in weakness; suffering, going to a cross. There’s the life you pray your Lord to give you—free-flowing, glorious—and the life your Lord gives to you—where you suffer in weakness, where you bear your cross.

There’s the sermon you’d like to hear, where everything’s going to be all right, God will remove you from your hurt and your sorrow and your trials. And there’s the sermon you’ll hear, where you are to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow your Lord in the way of the cross, the way of suffering and trials.

It’s not that God doesn’t want you to have glory. It’s not that He wants you to be miserable. Just look at the Old Testament reading and it’s clear that God wants you to be blessed. His words to Abraham is a message that directly applies to you. His promise to Abraham was that he would be the father of many nations. At another point He tells Abraham that all peoples will be blessed through him. In the New Testament we are told specifically how we are children of Abraham, it is by faith. It’s not that we are the genealogical descendents of Abe. It’s that we are his children because of the promise made by God to Abraham that was fulfilled in Christ. That’s why Paul says in the Epistle reading that we are justified by faith.

There is glory here. There is victory here and we can latch on to it as Abraham did. But notice how it’s brought about. It’s not in glory. It’s not a cakewalk. It’s through humble means. How would God’s promise to Abraham be brought about? Through a son. Sarah, who was unable to have children, would give birth to a son. This is a great blessing, of course. But think about what God is saying to him. Through this one child, Isaac, will come multitudes. Here the stage is set for not relying on our own visions of grandeur. God could have blessed Abraham with many children in order to bring this promise about, but He didn’t. He said it would be through one. And this promise ultimately would be brought about through one other, the only-begotten Son of God. Going back to Paul in the Epistle reading: “since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” It is in Christ alone that we have this ultimate glory, peace with God, a status in which we are right with Him eternally.

This is your Lord. He is the one who brings about this glory. To this we’re all ears. Bring it on. Bring me into this glory so that I can enjoy it. This is the kind of life we want from our Lord. He’s God, after all. Why should we expect anything less than glory? Why should we settle for less than a life we can fully enjoy? This certainly was the way Peter was thinking. In the Gospel reading he showed his command of Christian theology. He knew who Jesus was. He believed in Him.

But oddly enough Jesus told him and the other disciples to keep quiet about it. It would seem that the best course of action would be to make this known. Since it all started with Jesus asking them what the general consensus was of who He was and that it was way off, it would seem the best thing for Him to tell His disciples was, You guys need to pound the pavement and get people on the right track. Tell them who I really am, I am the Christ, as you have confessed. Some were thinking He was John the Baptist having come back from the dead, some Elijah come back from the dead, some one of the prophets come back from the dead. At least the disciples could have put a dent in the misconceptions so many people had of who He was.

But no, Jesus’ MO is, Be quiet. Don’t tell anyone. Keep it to yourself. Some glory. Jesus was God in the flesh, why wouldn’t He want as many people to know as possible?

The answer is in our Lord Himself. It’s in who He is and how He comes to us. He comes to bring glory but He doesn’t come in glory. He comes to share His glory with us but He does it through humility and suffering. The answer of why Jesus told them to keep their mouth shut was in His next words to them. Our Gospel reading says that “He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.” This is who our Lord is. This is how He comes to us. He is the Lord and bears His cross. It is the cross of suffering. It’s not just that He underwent a terrible ordeal. It’s that He went to the cross to pay a penalty. He suffered a specific suffering. It was being the recipient of the wrath of God upon sinners and their sin. This is who our Lord was. This is how He came. This is why He came.

Did the disciples know this? Nope. Yes, they knew who He was, He was the Christ!, but they didn’t really know who He was. Good old Peter took to his bully pulpit again and rebuked Jesus. What kind of a Messiah do You think you are? How do You possibly think that it makes sense for You to suffer and even die? What kind of glory can be gotten from You going to the cross?

For all the misconstrued ideas people had about Jesus, the disciples weren’t much different. Neither are you and I. We don’t really want a Lord who comes in weakness and even suffers. We don’t really want a Lord who has to go to a cross. We want a Lord who is God in all His power, glory, and majesty. We want to share in that glory. Instead we get one who was rather pathetic as He hung on the cross. Think about it, the Lord, God Almighty, meekly consented to a bunch of religious leaders to trumped up charges in order to get Him crucified. Think about how the eternal God quietly submitted to a bunch of soldiers mocking Him and slapping Him and scourging Him. Think about the hands that formed the universe in all its beauty now being nailed to wood.

A strange God indeed. A strange Lord. He is basically saying that He’s not the Lord of glory but of the cross. He came to bear His cross. When we think of Him otherwise we are thinking the things of men, not of God. We are letting Satan control how we view, no, believe in, God. I mean, Jesus was pretty pointed in His response to Peter: “Get behind Me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

There is method behind the madness, so to speak. Our Lord is our Lord because of who He is. That is, He’s glorious and Almighty and all that good stuff, but primarily He is loving, He is merciful. He doesn’t come to you in glory because that wouldn’t do you any good. He comes to you in mercy because that does all the good in the world. Or rather, in all eternity. And if this sounds great, it is. Paul makes that abundantly clear in the Epistle reading. He did all this for you. While you were still His enemy, while you were still a sinner, Christ died for you. Yes, this is all indeed wonderful, glorious, and fantastic.

And true to form, we’d like to keep it right there. Thank you Lord, that You have finally given me the glory that I want. Thank you that in Your suffering You have brought me the glory that I seek.

To that there’s something else your Lord has to say. He rebukes you. Bringing you this glory doesn’t mean that you have an easy ride now. What it means is that now you bear a cross. I have borne the cross for the sin of the world. Now you bear a cross. It’s your own. I save you from eternal suffering, now I call you to a life in which you bear a cross. Yes, that means suffering.

If you don’t like the sound of this, join the club. Get in line behind Peter. Paul wasn’t on board at first either. None of us are. It’s part of the nature of bearing a cross that it’s not something you relish. It’s not something you seek. It’s something you’d just as soon dispense with. But glory in it, you can. That’s what Jesus is getting at. It’s what Paul’s getting at in the Epistle reading. I’m not sure why they used the word ‘rejoice’ there, because the word is more along the lines of ‘boast’, or ‘glory’, or even ‘take pride in’. Be that as it may, your Lord gives you a new life. You’re not always going to like it, certainly not always enjoy it. But you can glory in it. In fact, in your new life in Christ, you do. Why? Paul lays it out nicely in the Epistle: “we [glory] in hope of the glory of God. More than that, we [glory] in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

The Lord is the Lord because He went to the cross. That is how He is your Lord. Your Lord is the Lord who gives you your cross to bear. You may not see any glory in that but neither did anyone see at first glory in His bearing the cross for the sin of the world. It is because He bore His cross that you may bear yours. Bearing a cross is by nature difficult and not enjoyable. But Jesus as He drew all men to Himself in His cross will draw you to Himself in your bearing your cross. He is your Lord, He will not leave you without hope and strength as you bear your cross. He has strength to give you as He has undergone what you could never imagine. When you bear your cross you won’t always see how you can bear it, how you can bear up under the pressure and the strain of being ostracized for believing in Christ, for serving and helping those who have taken advantage of you, of deferring present glory for humility and suffering.

But He has given you His promise through Abraham. He has justified you by faith. He has gone to the cross so that you are the recipient of these promises. He gives you the very body delivered on the cross to you in His Holy Supper. You drink of the very blood that was shed on the cross. He is your Lord, He will give you strength to bear your cross. He will finally bring you to glory beyond compare. This is something to glory in. Amen.