Monday, February 27, 2012

Sermon for 2/26/12--Lent I (LSB 1-year)



From the Beginning

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

We’re all familiar with the story of David and Goliath. David was a young man. He was no warrior. He was a shepherd who took care of sheep. His weapons were not swords and armor and the like. His “weapons” were a staff, maybe some small stones to scare away the wolves, and his voice. The way He led his sheep to follow him was not by force or power; it was by his voice. His flock knew his voice, and so would follow him wherever he went. That was what made the Philistines, with Goliath at the front, so offensive to young David. He knew that God is Israel’s true shepherd. They are to listen to his voice, and to follow him. But Saul and all of Israel had forgotten the voice of their true shepherd. They believed the voice of the liar. They believed the lie that they were weak and without strength, and that God Himself had abandoned them. For days Goliath had taunted them with his might and power, and they believed him. They had forgotten God’s promise that He would be with them, that He would fight for them, that they would win the battle by His mighty deliverance. But David remembered. David listened to the voice of the Lord, and won the battle with a stone and the promise of God to be with His children, not matter how great the adversary, no matter what the cost.

David’s son, Jesus, faced a similar battle a thousand years later. Only this time the enemy wasn’t a big Philistine; it was Satan himself. After Jesus fasted 40 days, Satan came to Him when He was weak. Satan believed that he could deceive the Son of God, just as he had deceived the people of Israel on the field with the Philistines so many years ago. He attacked by appealing to Jesus’ pride. If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread. What was the temptation for Jesus? The temptation was to take up His power and might as the Son of God and use it for His own benefit and well-being. It was really a temptation to glory. But Jesus, our great champion, would have none of Satan’s lies. He responded with the Word of God: “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word which comes from the mouth of God.” Jesus recognized that His nature as the Son of God led him to sacrifice, not to selfish glory. He heard the voice of His Father, who would not leave Him or forsake Him. He trusted in the promise of God when even His own eyes might tell him otherwise. 40 days is a long time to go without food. Did God know what He needed? The answer, of course, is yes. And so Jesus trusted in that Word of God.

That is the temptation that Satan seeks to put before you today and every day of your Lenten journey. We live in a world which on the one hand is much more spiritual than it was even a few years ago. This is a time of patriotism, of family, of tradition, and many other values which we as Lutherans can uphold and say with our fellow Americans, “Yes, that is what makes us who we are.” And yet these very same values which we hold dear as Americans can also be our greatest downfall. Where do we place our trust? Is it in our strength? Family? Tradition? Personal willpower? What is the source of your strength? This question is not simply one of priorities or career setting or whatever other short-term and long-term goals we may have. It goes deeper than that, for it gets to your very identity as a human being. Are we defined by what God Himself gives us by His Word and Spirit, or are we defined by what Satan, the world and our own flesh would have us believe?

Left to our own devices, surely we will fail every time. Even so early on in Jesus ministry, here at His temptation, it was the task of Jesus, day and night, to keep the Law because you cannot. As the new Adam and the greater David, Jesus held true to God’s promise, while we fail. Satan tempts us every day to give in to our passions. Do what you want! You deserve a break today! Give in to the world. And sadly, we do. We put on a good show for church, but deep down, you know that you fail in this fight against Satan. We are like the people of Israel, on the battlefield with the Philistines. In the face of so great an enemy, it is very easy to simply give in to despair, to turn over and not even engage in the battle. What’s the point? You might say in your fear and despair. I know I’m going to fail, so I might as well at least enjoy myself on the way. But this is not the way of faith; it is the way of unbelief and despair. For you see, Jesus knows the struggles you have. He knows your weaknesses and your pains. But more than that. He has lived your pain. His temptation means that He stands with you even now. Your trials are His trials. You need not fear that God doesn’t get your problems. You can hear His voice, and cry out to Him in faith. For when you cry out to God in faith, Jesus cries with you. That is why we can come boldly to the throne of grace.

So don’t be afraid. Christ our Lord goes through Satan’s temptations, and clings to the promises of God for you. You may approach God’s throne of God with confidence, knowing that God hears your prayers, because you pray with His only Son. And He gives you His very body and blood as a sure and certain sign that God’s love for you is everlasting. He will keep you from the evil one. Satan’s power over you is only in his twisted mind. We have a champion who will fight for us, and who will keep us always in God’s loving hands. In the name of the Father and of the Son (+) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.

Monday, February 20, 2012

SID in Convention: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Despite some evidence to the contrary, I do not like playing the political game. I've done it when I though it necessary in the young and callow days of my youth, though I am neither mentally nor emotionally equipped for a life of politics, whether it's the state or ecclesiastical kind. I've been bitten in the butt (if you'll pardon the expression) one too many times to enjoy that game, so I avoid these days it when I can. However, sometimes it becomes necessary to put your hand in the flame.

Last week, February 16-18, 2012, the Southern Illinois District of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod met in its 56th triennial convention. It was our duty to elect officers, to listen to reports concerning the district’s activities and health, and to act upon or reject various resolutions which had been submitted to the district for our consideration. Some of those things were fairly agreeable—for example, it took no great deliberation to thank former District President Herb Mueller for his service to the district, service which was interrupted by his sudden drafting into Synodical service as First Vice-President. Upon his departure, Timothy Scharr, who had served as the district’s First Vice-President, was elevated to the office of President; and it was our glad duty to confirm that elevation by electing him to that office so that he could continue his faithful service in that capacity. We also, with few exceptions, elected a fairly good slate of district officials.

However, even in as solid a district as ours, there is never full agreement or cooperation when it comes to our doctrine and practice. A fairly innocuous resolution to encourage the exclusive use of doctrinally pure liturgical materials was so watered down by amendments that it was unpalatable even to some of those who originally supported it. Words like "legalism" and "lack of trust" were thrown around by those who felt their liturgical freedoms were being endangered. At the end of a convention a resolution was introduced to bring the district's differences regarding liturgical uniformity to the Synod's Koinonia Project, a program designed "to discuss and clarify how faithful teaching (doctrine) and faithful doing (practice) are intimately connected and ought be congruent." (In other words, we'll discuss our differences so we'll understand each other better and hopefully find some sort of unity. We'll talk, and then we'll talk, and then we'll talk some more, until we've talked through all the things we need to talk about.)

One of the high points of the convention for me was spending time with y wife. She served as my congregation's lay delegate to the convention and as a member of one of the floor committees. We spent more quality time together in about 48 hours than we have in a long time. Our teenage daughter watched the Terrible Trouble Twins in our hotel room. Since the hotel and convention center were connected, we could visit the kids during breaks and were available in case of emergency. While they played games in our rooms, Faith and I sat together and enjoyed just being "alone" together without the kids getting jealous of our attention--something we don't get to do very often.

Another high point was the presentation of Bishop Wilhelm Weber of the Lutheran Church in South Africa. The LCSA is a mission partner of the Southern District, and it's encouraging to see fellow Lutherans in another part of the world clinging faithfully to the Word of God. In fact, it seems as though their faithfulness is a beacon to the rest of the world, just as Africa was a beacon of early Christianity through such worthies as Saint Augustine and Saint Ambrose. Perhaps they can teach us a thing or two.

The presence of LCMS President Matthew Harrison for the first evening of the convention was a tremendous blessing, especially considering the long day he had already had after testifying before Congress regarding the Obama administration's incursion into the First Amendment rights of both church bodies and individual Christians (and Jews, by the way). He received a standing ovation for his bold and faithful testimony before the princes of this world, and then he taught us boldly from the Word of God.

Something I had never seen before at a district convention was the opportunity for individual confession and absolution. Though I did not avail myself of this opportunity, the fact that it was even offered at what is, in essence, a business meeting, was an encouraging sign for our church body.

And of course, any time a group of pastors gets together, we tend to enjoy periods of relaxation around a Lutheran beverage of choice. Spending time with the brothers over a can, bottle, mug or glass of beer (couldn't find a stein anywhere) is always a pleasant way to pass a few hours time. The consolation of the brothers is a blessing not to be missed.

All was not wine and roses, however. I've already mentioned the lack of unity in doctrine and practice among the delegates. I don't want to dwell on that, lest I get frustrated and cynical (or even more so than usual).

In addition to the obvious disparity in doctrine in practice was what might have seemed a passing comment in a sermon. One of the preachers talked about birth control, saying that those who "close themselves to the possibility of children have something in common with those who are pro-choice." In other words, he taught from the pulpit that those who practice any form of contraception are sinning against the Fifth Commandment. To preach that from the pulpit, while possibly not untrue (though you'd have to have extremely clear and compelling evidence from Scripture to convince me), would require a lot of teaching on the part of a preacher before he could say such a thing without unduly binding the consciences of the sheep in his care. And to throw it in as an offhand statement? Let's just say *I* won't be preaching that from the pulpit any time soon.

For the most part, the convention was a pleasant surprise for me. Not that I'd want to do it all the time, but I suppose I can handle it every three years. I hope my pessimism will prove to be unfounded concerning the Koinonia Project, and I hope that the Lord will restore true unity in the Church. Nonetheless, I won't be surprised if our fellowship remains fractured as long as the Church awaits the return of Christ in glory.

Sermon for 2/19/12--Quinquagesima (LSB 1-year)



Lord, Have Mercy!

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Kyrie eleison! Lord, have mercy. It is perhaps the simplest prayer you could pray or sing. Yet within those simple words are packed more great stuff about God than we can hardly imagine. We pray them at least twice in our communion liturgy. We sing it this morning in the office of Matins. Lord, have mercy. The words roll off your tongue like you’ve been saying them your whole life. But what do they mean? What do they tell you about who you are as a sinner and who Jesus is as Lord?

Our text begins with Jesus taking his disciples aside to tell them what’s what. He takes them aside to tell them that he is going to be handed over to the Gentiles, spat upon and mocked, suffer as a common sinner, and die the death of a criminal. This is God’s future. The disciples had been with Jesus for over two years, but the point of His life was hidden from their understanding.

Before we go on to look at the blind man, let’s stop here for a minute. How often is it that you come to church, go to Sunday School or Bible class their whole lives, and yet miss the point? We like to think that just going through the motions is enough. But going through the motions is not the same as faith. Remember that Jesus’ disciples had been with Him every step of the way. Some had even seen Him transfigured before them. They had received a glimpse of God’s glory. Time and time again he had predicted His death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins. This was the point! Yet Jesus’ disciples couldn’t believe that He was going to die, even though it was right in front of their faces!

This is true in our own lives as well. Like the seed that went upon the rock or in the thorns from last week, many come week after week, but they don’t hear the simple truth of Law and Gospel: You are a sinner, and Jesus comes to save sinners just like you. It’s pretty straightforward, isn’t it? Jesus wants you to be in His house so that He can forgive your sins and bring you to heaven. This was the message that the disciples couldn’t get, and this is the message that we as sinners forget again and again week after week after week. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that some stop coming to church entirely.

Let’s move on. Jesus then is on the road to Jericho. While he’s on the road, a crowd of onlookers follows him around. As they are on the road, a blind man alongside the road hears the crowd and asks what’s going on. He heard from the crowd that it was Jesus who was passing by. When he heard this, he cried out, saying, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!Kyrie eleison! It is the cry of every sinner who needs Jesus. It is the cry of every soul that is weighed down by the cares of this life, by the trials that we all face as children of Adam. It is the cry that doesn’t try to manipulate God or make demands. It is the cry of faith. Kyrie eleison! Lord have mercy.

This blind man, upon hearing that Jesus was close by, cried out to the Son of David for mercy. And notice that this cry continued, even after the crowds tried to shut him up. The blind man cried out because He knew that God would give Him mercy. He knew that God loved Him with an everlasting love. He knew that God would hold him in the palm of His hand and would keep him forever.

Lord, have mercy. What does it mean? It means that the blind man recognized that Jesus is Lord. He recognized that Jesus has power over life and death. Because of this, he could cry out to this Lord for mercy. He asked that God would not give Him what He deserved. He knew that he deserved the blindness of his eyes just like we deserve the blindness that sin brings. But he prayed that God would open his eyes in sight just as He opens our eyes to see His mercy.

The blind man isn’t afraid to ask God what he wants. Are you? Are you afraid to ask God for forgiveness? Are you afraid to ask God to be with you in times of trouble? Are you afraid that God will abandon you when you need Him most? Don’t be afraid. This week’s epistle is the great love chapter--I Corinthians 13. It is perhaps the most beloved chapter in the Bible. But what some miss about this chapter is that Paul is describing God’s love, not ours. God’s love is so deep and wide that it will engulf the sinner in a flood of forgiveness. His love will put you back together when you are beaten and broken by sin and oppression. His love doesn’t look for the easy way out. God’s love goes the very hard road, the road to Calvary and death on a cross. That’s how far His love will go to save you.

This week we begin our Lenten journey to the cross. This is a time of deep reflection for the Christian. This is the time when we look at our sin with the eyes of the Law and realize the depth of our sinfulness. But this is also the time when we look to Jesus Christ, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising its shame. This is the time when we cry out with the Church of all ages: Kyrie eleison! Lord, have mercy. And hearing this prayer, even as He did for the blind man, Jesus opens your eyes to see His saving work for you. In the name of the Father and of the Son (+) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Sermon for 2/12/12--Sexagesima (LSB 1-year)



Hearing the Word

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Even to us who live in the midst of agriculture, the image of the sower who sows his seed by hand is something from the distant past. At one time, of course, before the coming of mechanized farming, the figure of the lone farmer hand-casting his seed was commonplace about anywhere in the world, giving this parable an immediate appeal; it was one to which most people could instantly relate. While He spent time in the cities and towns, much of Jesus’ ministry was spent in the little villages and the countryside of Palestine. As time passed, opposition to Jesus began mounting up. The teachers of the law had turned hostile toward Him. The Pharisees were beginning to gang up on Him. He had been driven from the synagogues and even from his hometown. There had been setbacks and discouragements. And now even His disciples and close followers began to show signs of discouragement. Was that great Kingdom of God to which Jesus had called them doomed to failure from the start?

The parables of Jesus normally follow the rules of popular story-telling, which means that the emphasis falls at the end; in this case, the abundant harvest. In spite of all hazards and losses, in the end the farmer reaps a splendid crop. Likewise, in spite of all frustrations and failures, the kingdom of God makes its way, and His harvest exceeds expectation. To be sure, the kingdom of God encounters opposition. It experiences what the world considers failure. Yet it triumphs. Just as unproductive pockets of soil belong to sowing, so opposition and failure belong to history and sinful human nature. But the kingdom of God belongs to the realm of eternity, and what we have to keep always in view is the harvest—not the failures.

To begin with, then, on the lips of Jesus this parable was a ringing encouragement to His disciples to not fear, to have faith in their God. It is still a clear call to all the fearful saints of our day. We see how many enemies have ranged themselves against the Church. We see the Church’s setbacks and failures. All around us are empty pews and dwindling, even dying, congregations. Spiritual apathy seems rampant. We must learn from Christ Himself that, however gloomy the outlook for the Church may seem to be, the Holy Spirit is unceasingly at work wherever the Gospel is preached. That “little flock” which the Good Shepherd gathered on the hillsides of Galilee continues to stand under the blessing of God, and will never be permitted to fade away. Our gracious God, who has already done so much for us through Jesus Christ, will continue doing even more, and can be trusted to complete the good work He has begun in us.

But this was not the only purpose Jesus had in mind when He told this story about the sower and his seed. Make no mistake about it: the description of the various soils is by no means accidental. It is a reflection of His own experience of preaching the Gospel of the kingdom, and His awareness of our need to hear it, to listen carefully and attentively to what He is saying.

How do we hear the Gospel? There are various ways of hearing. We can listen only with our ears, as often happens in polite conversation; that is a case of “in one ear and out the other.” This suggests the seed that fell on the footpath; it made no impression at all. Or we can listen with our minds only, as we might do to a great orator. As he is speaking, we may be thrilled and moved by his words and even persuaded, for the moment; but all of those responses evaporate as quickly as did the moisture from the shallow soil. Or we can be listening attentively, only to be distracted by other voices or other life concerns that take over our attention, like the thorns that choked the life out of the young shoots of grain. But, one day that same message is spoken to us in a way that we hear our own name in it; perhaps it is at a moment of sickness or weakness, or at the height of a profound temptation, or in the depths of sorrow and despair. And that is when we hear not with ears only, or with minds only, but with ear and mind and heart, and everything there is about us. Whether or not we are hearing rightly is a matter of life or death! This is the kind of hearing the Gospel calls for, and we must listen!

If we listen to this parable again with this kind of hearing, will we not ask ourselves questions like these? “What kind of soil am I? Am I hard, shallow, thorn-infested soil, or good soil?” Of course, we may brush aside these questions, and say, “I am just the way God made me and there is really nothing to be done about it." There are some who actually think that that is the Biblical view of who we are; but in fact, this sort of fatalism is really a denial of the truth of the Gospel. The grace of God changes hearts and lives! The real truth is that in each of us there is something of all four soils. Do not let the seed of God’s Word fall on hard ground. Don’t be so spiritually shallow that God’s Word cannot take root in you. Weed out those thorns. God will use His Gospel to make you His good soil, receptive to all He does, hearing well everything He says.

As you stand on the far side of the cross and resurrection, you know who the Speaker of the parable is. He is the “Word made flesh,” God’s own dear Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, true God and true Man. He is the one who give moisture to you in Holy Baptism, planting the seed of the Word in you and watering that seed to grow in you. He is the one who weeds out the thorny sins that would choke your faith to death with the words of Holy Absolution. He is the one who shed His blood and died to make your faith fertile, feeding that faith in the Holy Supper unto live everlasting.

What we do with Jesus and the Gospel is of everlasting importance. How we hear Him is everything. Pray to the Lord that, as He sows His Word among us, as He speaks His Gospel to us in Word and in Sacrament, our ears would be wide open to hear Him, and that our hearts would be that good and fertile soil which receives Him. He is the Lord of the harvest, and He will gather you in. In the name of the Father and of the Son (+) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Sermon for 2/5/12--Septuagesima (LSB 1-year)



The Unfair God

Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

To understand rightly the Gospel appointed for today, we need to remember two things. First, Jesus was answering His critics, the Pharisees, who were convinced that their piety entitled them to a special claim on God’s reward. Their complaint was that Jesus was opening the gates of God’s kingdom to all of the undesirable characters in Israel, perhaps even to Gentiles, which would have been unthinkable. The second thing is this: the real heart of the account comes with the settlement after sunset, and the astonishing generosity the owner showed to the late-comers to his vineyard, who, in the eyes of the Pharisees represented the tax collectors and “sinners.” And so, the point is that it is really not the story of the laborers in the vineyard. The owner is the chief character. And that gracious owner, of course, is a picture of God in his remarkable goodness.

Jesus is not talking about economics, but about theology. He is saying that reward in the kingdom of God is not measured by what men deserve, but by the pure grace and goodness of God. In the end, God treats sinners in the same way this vineyard owner treated these unemployed men. Of course, the One who told this parable knew the Father’s nature and will better than any other man born of woman, and what He tells us about God the Father is as true in the year 2012 as it was when first told. God is like that owner. When it comes to pouring out His grace and salvation, He makes no distinctions among His children. God has no red-headed step-children; all are His by creation and by recreation in Jesus Christ. In an earthly family, a good father will give to his children according to their needs and not according to their abilities or what they have deserved. So it is, and even more so, in that great Kingdom over which our heavenly Father rules. God is infinitely good to His children. As David had so wonderfully put it in the Psalms: “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy…He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor punished us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.

And yet, some are sure to object that this story is long out of date; the Pharisees Jesus answered are long since dead and buried. But are they really? Does not every age have their counterparts? Does not every generation produce its own crop of Christians who would make a “closed shop” of God’s kingdom, and try to keep out all who do not measure up to their standards, not God’s standards, but theirs? There are always people in the church who assume that their piety gives them a special claim on God’s favor, and they look with something less than the eyes of love on those who seem to them less worthy. Truly they have their reward, for they have earned the respect of their peers. There is no higher honor in this world; but their reward is a worldly one. They have received what they deserve; and to their everlasting regret, that is all they will receive.

How blessed you are that God does not deal with you according to your sins. Where would you and I be if God exacted strict justice for every idle word or thought, for every time you have lashed out in anger at another as a means of dealing with some other problem, for every time you have lied or cheated or in some way deceived your spouse or children or friends? The mercy of God is a wondrous thing. He deals with you in ways you would never deal with each other. For the sake of His dear Son, who bore all punishment for sin, He deals with you patiently, lovingly, forgivingly.

God’s thoughts and ways are not your thoughts and ways. The love of God is broader than the measure of a man’s mind. He sees and knows things about you and what the future holds for you that you cannot know. And a large part of faith is trusting the Lord to always know and do what is right.

God is impartial when rewarding his children with eternal life, for this is not a reward they have earned, but a reward of grace. Does this shock or startle you, that God would reward equally even the poorest and least worthy of Christians with the greatest of His saints? Granted, it does not make sense; and to human ears, this does not sound at all fair. But that is the will of God, and that is what makes it wonderful! After all, it made no sense that God would deliver up His own Son for your sins. It certainly was not “fair” to the perfect and holy Son of the heavenly Father to be punished for what He had not done. But as the parable said, does not the Father have the right to do as He pleases with what is His? And what He has been pleased to do is to offer His Son as the sacrifice for your sin, and then to call you all into His kingdom, that He might pour out on you the riches of His grace in ways that sinners will never fully comprehend! In the name of the Father and of the Son (+) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.