Sunday, October 7, 2012

Ready, Aim… Engage!

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Commemoration of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, Pastor
October 7, 2012
The writer of the book of Hebrews gives this warning in today’s Epistle reading: “Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.” When he was the dean of Duke University Chapel, William Willimon on one occasion got up into the pulpit said something along the lines of, “We now do something not often done today, we go to ancient book and read from it.” While there are brilliant people in the world and profound insights are put forth in our day and age, when we gather here we do something that the culture often ignores—we read from an ancient book.

That’s what Pastor Willimon was there for for those students. It’s what the Church continues to be for for us. Each Sunday we go to an ancient book and hear from it. The Bible is thought by some to be just another ancient book with no more relevance to us today than any other ancient book. We know differently. We hear the words from the Bible as the very word of God. The author of Hebrews, inspired by the Holy Spirit, tells us plainly, we need to pay attention, note how he says it, to what we have heard. Not what was written, not even what was spoken—what was heard. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of Christ. The Holy Spirit brings faith to us through this act that is really not an act on our part at all, for we are the receivers. He is the giver, the one doing the action. He does it by speaking. We hear the Word of God. We must continue to do so or we will drift away from it.

So if the world thinks us foolish in hearing the Word of God proclaimed, we will continue to revel in our foolishness and hear what He proclaims to us. Today’s Gospel reading is an important confluence of teachings that speaks to each of us here today, to how we interact with the culture, and to how we are taught by our Lord Himself that doctrine is not doctrine for doctrine’s sake but rather that it all works together in a holistic way. Specific doctrines do not stand on their own but interact with each other.

The best way to hear our Lord is to submit to Him and take His words to heart. The Pharisees came to Jesus in the opposite way. They wanted to trap Him. So many people in the world come at Jesus already with their minds made up that He’s wrong. To those people Jesus will do what is necessary to call them to repentance. So Jesus’ answer to them is not what we might expect. He directs them to the Bible, yes, but in such a way in which they think that they have been successful, where they can use the Bible to back up what they want.

The Pharisees test Jesus on the matter of divorce. It so happens that an allowance for divorce is in there. That is, the Bible. There you go, Jesus, we got You. If You say divorce is wrong, well, You’re going against the Word of God, aren’t You? And if you say it’s right, well, you’re just giving a green light to married couples to ditch each other at their convenience. So we gotcha. They quote the relevant passage, the one Jesus asks them about, and it’s clearly there before Jesus: the Scriptures say that you can divorce.

Now Jesus shows them how to rightly interpret the Scriptures. It’s true it says that, right there in the Bible. But look again at what today’s Old Testament reading is from. It’s from Genesis, not Deuteronomy, where the Pharisees quoted from. It’s from Genesis, where Jesus quoted from. These two aren’t in contradiction of each other, they’re both fully the Word of God. But why did Moses allow for divorce? Because of your hardness of heart. That’s what Jesus says to the Pharisees. Because of your hardness of heart. Not, “Well, you see Moses did that because of the Israelites’ hardness of heart.” It is yours and that is what you rest on.

Not on the creation and design of marriage in the first place which God gave to Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis. This is what Jesus quotes from Genesis: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” That was the quotation from Genesis, now listen to what Jesus says in regard to this: “So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” That’s quite a bit different than allowing for divorce. God created marriage for our blessing, how dare we go against His design and will by separating what He has joined together.

Here is where we learn how this ancient book speaks to us today; to us as well as the culture. These are the kinds of things that many in the culture and many of us won’t want to hear. One way to deal with this would be to not deal with it so as not to turn people away. A much better way though is to deal with it in a way in which we can show people that God’s way is a truly great way. Today’s Gospel reading deals with at least two major issues the culture is dealing with, marriage and family. The Gospel reading also deals with at least two major issues that the Church is dealing with and that it should engage the culture with, the Word of God and Baptism.

The Pharisees started this whole thing off by asking Jesus about divorce. After their exchange with Jesus the disciples follow up on the matter, asking Him about it. The difference is that the Pharisees asked Jesus about it for the purpose of testing Him, to try to trap Him in His words. The disciples simply asked. There are many people in the culture who will come at us as the Pharisees did Jesus. But there are also those who have all kinds of questions as the disciples did. Notice how Jesus’ response was different to each group. It’s not that His answer was different. But the way He responded was in correlation to how they approached Him in asking Him.

We need to do so as the writer of Hebrews exhorts, to pay attention to what we have heard. We need to do so as the disciples did, asking our questions of the Lord and seeking what He gives us rather than having our minds made up at the outset.

Too often the culture will come at the Christian Church in this way. Too often our response is something along the lines of “ready, aim, fire!” We set our sights on those who attack marriage as being one man and one woman, as God designed it, and we fire away. You can be totally right in what you say, but so often what you say is not heard because of how it’s said. Rather than firing away at the culture, it’s often better to engage the culture. Instead of “ready, aim, fire!”, we should make much more of an effort of “ready, aim, engage!”

We’ve already seen how to be ready. We pay closer attention to what we have heard. We need to be in the Word ourselves, we need to hear it proclaimed, we need to receive our Lord’s gifts in His Holy Supper. It’s so easy for us to condemn the culture when our own house often is not in order. While we lament the breakdown in society of marriage as one man and woman and the belittling of the importance of family, how are we treating one another in our own households? Do we cherish our own spouse? Do we honor our own father and mother? Do we treat our children, our siblings, our spouses with respect and love and honor? Do we seek to serve each other in our home? Are we content and grateful for the spouse and children and siblings God has given us or do we covet what others have?

God gets us ready by first taking aim at us. He does that with His Law and you can see that in how Jesus addresses the Pharisees. If you want to live by the Law then that is what you will get from Jesus. And His Law will point out to you your hardness of heart. You can see it in His indignance with the disciples as they attempted to prevent the children from coming to Him. The Hammer of God’s Law swings down hard and woe to us if we only see it as needing to come down hard on the culture. We must first get our own house in order, we first must be the ones to repent. In this we then hear and pay attention to the light as a feather yoke He places upon us, the glorious Gospel. The forgiveness of every sin we commit against our family and against those in the world. He forgives, period. Of our sins, of our sinfulness.

He then prepares us for engaging the culture. This is where the ‘aim’ in ready, aim, engage comes in. Simply speaking the truth to the culture doesn’t necessarily do the trick. We need to aim at the culture, not for the purpose of blasting away at it but for the purpose of applying Law and Gospel to the specific things they say and the specific struggles they have with the teaching of the Word of God. Do they have honest questions or concerns? Firing away at them with condemnations and proclamations of pure doctrine wouldn’t exactly put them in a mood to listen to that pure doctrine. Are they simply confused because they have heard well meaning Christians explain the truth of God’s Word in a way that wasn’t clear or that was inaccurate? Blasting them out for their misconceptions wouldn’t exactly put them in the mindset of wanting to hear what God’s Word really has to say. Are they indeed antagonistic? Perhaps patiently and calmly responding to them will get their attention more so than ourselves going for the jugular. The aim part takes work. It means listening to others and recognizing what they say and acknowledging its importance to them.

This leads into the third part, engaging them. Instead of firing way at the culture we can engage the culture. We have something to offer them they can’t get from the culture! Whatever people think of the Word of God it speaks to every human and their deepest needs. When we are treating our own family members with love and honor people notice that and we are able to show them the blessings God has intended in marriage and family. When we sin against one another we can also show the blessings that come from confessing our sins to each other and forgiving each other.

It may seem like what Mark tells us next in the Gospel reading is a different topic but it’s really what flows out of marriage. When people were bringing children to Jesus they were doing what is characteristic of what happens in the Church. We are brought to the Lord. That is, we don’t come to Him of our own accord. This happens in Baptism. In Baptism we are blessed by Jesus and given the Kingdom of God. This is why it’s so important that, even as we take care of our children from the moment they are born and give to them what they need, we also give to them what they need spiritually. We bring our children to Jesus when we bring them to be Baptized. Just as babies are in need of physical care from the moment they’re born, so are they in need of spiritual care from the moment they’re born. That’s why we bring them to Jesus to be Baptized.

Just as our Lord has engaged us we are then set to go engage the culture. Just as our Lord came to us as a servant, even suffering and dying for us, we’re equipped to go to those in society with all their questions and problems and engage them with the Gospel. Just as we have been brought to our Lord in Baptism we can bring the Gospel to those in the culture. Ready, aim, engage! Amen.


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