Cruce Tectum

Cruce tectum, hidden under the cross, a blog for Epiphany Lutheran Church, Dorr, Michigan

Location: Dorr, Michigan

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (B—Proper 23)

October 11, 2015
Text: Mark 10:17-22

            Is it wrong to have wealth?  Is it wrong to enjoy the good things that money can buy, to enjoy luxuries, even count them as blessings of God and give thanks for them?  No.  That is not what our text says.  And there is this verse from St. Paul that is misquoted all the time: Paul doesn’t say “money is the root of all evils,” as it is all too often the proverb.  Paul says “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils” (1 Tim. 6:10; ESV; emphasis added), and so the writer to the Hebrews exhorts us, “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’” (Heb. 13:5).  Some Christians suffer great pangs of conscience when they hear our Holy Gospel, because they think Jesus is telling them to sell everything they have and give it to the poor.  Well, you’ll be relieved to know that is not the case, either.  Jesus doesn’t give this commandment to you.  He gives it to the young man.  Our Confessions make this clear for the sake of tortured consciences: “Because not all callings are the same, this calling does not belong to everyone, but only to that person with whom Christ speaks.  In the same way we are not to imitate the call of David to the kingdom [1 Samuel 16] or of Abraham to slay his son [Genesis 22].  Callings are personal, just as business matters themselves vary with times and persons.  However, the example of obedience is general” (Apol. XXVII (XIII): 49 [McCain, p. 244]).  So you aren’t called to sell all your possessions and give to the poor.  You are called to obedience to God in your own vocations and station in life.  Whew!  We can keep our stuff.  What a load off!
            But not so fast!  This episode wouldn’t appear in the Holy Gospel if it weren’t in some sense addressed to you.  As it happens, it appears in all three Synoptic Gospels, which would seem to indicate Jesus wants you to take it to heart.  So what does this mean… for you?  Notice that the account is left open ended.  We don’t know what happens to the rich young man.  He goes away sad, because he has great possessions (Mark 10:22).  Does that mean he keeps his stuff and turns his back on Jesus?  Or does he go away and think it over and decide to follow Jesus and His command after all?  Why aren’t we given the end of the story?  One reason is, I think this rich young man is our Gospel writer, John Mark himself.  That isn’t “Thus saith the LORD,” that’s just my own humble speculation on the basis of a well-developed theory by some seminary professors.  John Mark is traditionally thought to be a man of means, the son of a well-to-do woman who provides the upper room for Jesus and His disciples on the night He was betrayed.  John Mark is probably the naked youth who runs away when the soldiers come to arrest Jesus.  Ancient writers have a way of writing themselves into the story in this way, not unlike an artist painting himself into his picture.  And in Acts 15, we find out Paul doesn’t want to take John Mark on his Second Missionary Journey, because during the First Journey, Mark chose safety and comfort over the perils and hardship of missionary work for Jesus, a situation that sounds remarkably similar to this account of the rich young man.  But be that as it may, the real reason this account is left open ended is that your Lord wants you to think about some very hard questions.  What if this command to sell all your possessions and give it all away to the poor was addressed to you?  Would you do it?  Could you do it?  Joyfully?  Or begrudgingly?  Paul tells us “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7), but what about a giver who only gives because God commands it?  Who gives half-heartedly, or resentfully, or reluctantly, because that is what is expected?
            Repent.  You have the same problem the young man has!  And that is the point of this whole text.  You would be disheartened, too.  You would walk away sorrowful, too.  Because, while you may be generous (and I know many of you are), Jesus is talking about a total handing over of everything; a complete giving of the self; faith that rejects mammon entirely and trusts that Jesus will always take care of you, always provide your daily bread, always give you what you need for this body and life, and so much more.  This is a First Commandment issue.  Who or what do you fear, love, and trust the most?  That person or that thing is your god.  It’s easy to say “Jesus” when He isn’t commanding to you to give everything away.  But what about when He does?  Then it isn’t so easy, is it?  The young man has a fear, love, and trust conflict between his riches and Jesus.  He has to choose between them, and he’s not sure which one he should choose in spite of the fact that the answer is obvious to us.  But his conflict exposes your own.  What do you fear, love, and trust above Jesus?  Money?  Your spouse?  Your kids?  Your job?  How about your life?  Think about those Christian martyrs in Oregon who saw their brothers and sisters slain for the faith, and still stood up and in the face of the shooter and confessed, “I am a Christian.”  Those were the last words they spoke on earth.  That doesn’t happen naturally.  That takes the Holy Spirit.  It’s a miracle, the miracle of faith.  Blessed are they.  What would you do?  I ask myself that question constantly.  And I pray the Holy Spirit would give me (and you!) the courage to follow the example of these dear saints. 
            The problem for the rich young man isn’t just his riches, it’s the question he asks.  The man asks a Law question: “what must I do to inherit eternal life” (Mark 10:17; emphasis added).  So Jesus gives a Law answer.  You know the Commandments.  Just do them perfectly, and you’ll live.  It is true that if you could keep the Law perfectly, you would earn eternal life.  The amazing thing is, the rich young man thinks he has.  “Teacher, all these things I have kept from my youth” (v. 20).  That is why Jesus goes for the jugular.  You may have kept these Commandments outwardly.  If so, good for you.  But that doesn’t get you anywhere with God.  God looks at the heart.  God wants you to keep them inwardly.  And that is impossible for sinners like you and the rich young man.  The man goes away sorrowful.  Even if he sold all his possessions and gave the proceeds to the poor, he hasn’t fulfilled the Law.  His sorrow gives him away.  He is full of greed and covetousness, and he fears, loves, and trusts in wealth as his god.  Ask a Law question, get a Law answer.  But the way of the Law always ends in despair for sinners, for you.
            This text exposes our hopeless idolatry.  But thank God, this text is also filled with beautiful Gospel.  To begin with, Jesus asks this puzzling question of the young man: “Why do you call me good?  No one is good except God alone” (v. 18).  Our Lord wants the young man and you to connect the dots here.  If Jesus is good, and no one is good except God alone, then Jesus is God.  And this God, Jesus Christ, reveals Himself as a God who is consumed with the matter of your salvation.  He takes the time to patiently teach the young man… and you.  He does a Catechism lesson with the young man… and you, taking you through the Ten Commandments and the Creed, teaching you Law and Gospel, showing you that you cannot do anything to inherit eternal life, as if you earn an inheritance in the first place.  You cannot fulfill the Law, but Jesus can, and He does, for you.  And the amazing and comforting thing is, though the rich young man boasts that He has kept the Law from his youth, though He is self-righteous and arrogant, and flubs up his whole theology, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him” (v. 21; emphasis added).  In spite of it all.  Jesus loves sinners.  Jesus loves the rich, self-righteous young man.  Jesus loves you, O sinner, O greedy and covetous, O idolater.  He loves you as His own.  He loves you to the end.
            This is how He loves you: “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).  You see, what He told the young man he would have to do if He wanted to become righteous by the Law, Jesus Himself did on behalf of the young man and on behalf of us all.  He who is very God of very God, became Man.  He humbled Himself, literally “emptied” Himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  He gave it all.  He gave everything.  He gave His very life.  And He gave it to the poor.  Which is to say, He gave it to you.  And now you are rich in Him.  You possess as His gift to you all of His righteousness, all of His perfect keeping of the Commandments, His death which forgives your sins, His resurrection life which means that you will live eternally and He will raise you bodily from the dead, and the very Kingdom of heaven.  And as if all that were not enough, He makes you God’s own child in Holy Baptism, so that you can call upon Jesus’ Father as “Our Father.”  He preaches His Gospel to you.  He gives you a home and a family here in the Church.  He gathers you around His altar to feast on His Body and Blood with your brothers and sisters in Christ, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.  And He serves you as gracious Host, as loving Brother, as your Lord and as your Savior. 

            And this sets you free: Free to enjoy the blessings the Lord has bestowed upon you by His goodness, free to enjoy creation, love, friendship, food and drink, house and home, music, art, electronic gizmos, and everything else.  And it frees you up to give it all away, to be generous for the sake of your neighbor in need, to sacrifice, as Christ sacrificed Himself for you, because you know Jesus Christ will never forsake you.  He is your God.  Money isn’t.  Your stuff isn’t.  Wealth always fails as a god.  Jesus never does.  He is an unfailing fountain of good.  His gifts never dry up.  He love for you never runs out.  He looks at you in your sin and loves you.  And thanks be to God, eternal life doesn’t depend on you and what you do.  It depends on Jesus and what He has done.  Salvation is not the result of your faithfulness to Christ.  It is the result of His faithfulness to you.  So let’s ask the Gospel question.  Let’s get the question right: Good Teacher (God in the flesh), what have You done that I inherit eternal life?  And He answers: “I love you, I died for you, I am risen for you, and I live for you.  And I give you my Word and Spirit, my Washing of Regeneration, my Body and my Blood, for you, for the forgiveness of all your sins, and that you inherit eternal life.”  He has spoken.  There you have it.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.          

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (B—Proper 22)

October 4, 2015
Text: Mark 10:2-16

            “The LORD GOD said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone’” (Gen. 2:18; ESV).  “God settles the solitary in a home” (Psalm 68:6).  “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Ps. 127:1).  “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24).  “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mark 10:9).  “And God blessed them.  And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28).  “Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward.  Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth.  Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them” (Ps. 127:3-4).  This morning our Lord teaches us about marriage and family.  All the Bible verses I just read to you are only the beginning of the theology of marriage and family our Lord gives to us in Holy Scripture.  Family is foundational for life.  It is the most basic unit of society where individuals live together in relationship.  Everyone has a place.  Everyone has a role.  Husband and wife, mother and father, parent and child, brother and sister, grandparent and grandchild, aunts and uncles, nephews and nieces, the household and its relationship to the extended family.  Society as a whole is made up of these little units of society.  And God did this on purpose.  Because man is created to live in fellowship.  Life is lived in relationship to others.  Not everyone gets married.  Not everyone has kids.  But we all have a place by God’s design, or at least that is how He would have it.  And in the family, when it works how it is supposed to, we get a little picture of the inner-relationship of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, three Persons, living in continuous and harmonious relation to one another.  And we get a little picture of how that inner-relationship turns outward to create a new object of love: man, who is to live in relationship to God and to his fellow man.  God loves within Himself, which love creates man to be a receiver of that love.  Husband and wife love within their one flesh union, which love begets children to be receivers of their love.  That’s the ideal.  That is how God originally created it to be. 
            So marriage is to be the lifelong union of one man and one woman in love and fidelity.  Sexuality is to be kept holy, reserving this expression of love for marriage alone.  The marriage bed it to be kept pure (Heb. 13:4).  No adultery, which is to say, no mixing in of another by sexual activity outside the marriage.  And from this expression of love, husband and wife beget children, who are loved and provided for and protected by a father and a mother, and raised by them in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Eph. 6:4).  Again, not everyone has to get married.  Not everyone has kids.  But this is the family blueprint God gives us as a gift in the Holy Scriptures.  This is how we order our relationships among one another.  God gives us this blueprint for our good.  This is how we can all thrive in our life together.  These are holy vocations to which God calls us, to give and receive, and together, to flourish.
            But we also know we’ve messed this all up.  Christians are not excluded from this indictment.  Husbands and wives are unfaithful to one another.  Spouses are abandoned.  There are messy divorces.  Evil words are spoken.  Spouses and children are threatened and hurt by violence.  Our culture would have us believe that sex outside of the loving and safe commitment of marriage is normal, to be expected at a younger and younger age, and can be consequence free.  That’s how our children and all of us are catechized by the television set and the internet and every other form of mass media.  And we who regard sexuality as holy are looked upon as prudes, stuck in the past, as judgmental, as hateful.  Meanwhile, porn use is at an all-time high.  Easy access, right there on all your electronic devices.  It is destroying homes.  It is destroying lives.  It has reduced especially our young women, but also our young men, to a commodity, a thing to be used and abused for our own enjoyment. It is demonic.  Lord, have mercy.  Then there is homosexuality and so-called same-sex marriage, which is entirely opposed to the natural law (two people of the same gender cannot beget a third), and to God’s Law, His gracious plan for us as revealed in Holy Scripture.  So we mess up our marriages.  We make marriage meaningless.  And then we butcher our children in abortions and sell their body parts for research.  We guilt the elderly and the terminally ill into hastening their own death, lest they become a burden to us.  We call it “death with dignity.”  A theologian of the cross should call a thing what it actually is: Suicide.  Murder.  Christ, help us. 
            He does.  The sadness you feel as you hear these things, and the guilt you suffer as you come face to face with your own role in them… this is the Holy Spirit working repentance in your heart.  This is God calling His people, His dear children, to Himself for forgiveness and healing, to be made whole in the wholeness of Christ and His redemption.  Are you divorced?  Have you been abandoned?  Have you been unfaithful?  Repent.  And rejoice.  Christ Jesus will never leave you or forsake you.  He is faithful.  He keeps His Promises.  And He holds you in the pierced palm of His hand.  Nothing can snatch you away from Him.  Have you been abused, or are you an abuser?  Have you abused your own body by uniting it with others, becoming one flesh with those to whom you have no intention of committing?  Have you lived together outside of marriage?  Are your eyes and your heart full of lust and dissatisfaction with what and who God has given you?  Have your eyes looked upon things they should not, things that are evil, things that are demonic?  Have you used the flesh of others like meat to be consumed, rather than as precious bodies and souls for whom Christ died?  Repnt.  And rejoice.  The blood of Jesus washes away your sins.  Let him who is without sin cast the first stone at the one caught in the sins of the flesh (John 8:7).  If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  But if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:8-9).  Have you failed to speak up for the defenseless: the unborn, the elderly, the weak, the vulnerable?  Have you supported an abortion, advised an abortion, had an abortion?  Have you failed to care for your elderly or ill parents and loved ones?  Have you sought to hasten their death with a lethal dose of drugs?  Repent.  And rejoice.  Our Lord survived the womb of His mother for the sake of those who did not, to die for them and for all of us who have blood on our hands, to wash our hands and our hearts and our whole being clean in His Blood.  The Lord Jesus was obedient to Mary and Joseph, He honored them, served and obeyed them, loved and cherished them, for us and in our place.  He cared for His dear mother, placing her in the care of the Apostle John even as He was dying on the cross.  In Jesus, every life is sacred, from conception to grave, because He gave that life in the first place, and He has redeemed it by His death on the cross. 
            Jesus forgives.  Jesus restores.  And Jesus blesses.  Oh, how He loves the children.  He is indignant with His disciples when they turn the children away.  “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belong the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:14).  And He takes the little ones up in His arms and He blesses them.  This is what He does for our precious children and for each one of us in Baptism.  That is where He takes us into Himself and blesses us with the very Name of God.  That is where He makes us children of the Heavenly Father.  Beloved, do not hinder your children.  Bring them to Jesus.  Bring them to Baptism.  Bring them to hear His Word in Church.  Every Sunday.  This is part of being a parent, guys.  Bring them to Sunday School where they can learn more about His Word.  Bring them to Catechism instruction so they can join us at the Table of Jesus’ Body and Blood.  That is what this text is about.  And do not hinder yourself.  Because all of this is for you, too.  You are a child of God.  You belong to Him.  Jesus has made it so.  Rejoice.  Because here you have a home.  And here there is always a place for you at the Family Table.  And that frees you up to live joyfully in the relationships in which God has placed you.  Love your spouse.  Delight in your spouse, and be faithful.  If you’re living in sin, repent and make it right.  Believe in Christ’s forgiveness.  Love your children.  Delight in them, and bring them to Jesus.  Love your parents.  Honor them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them.  Love your extended family and your circle of friends, your neighborhood, your community, your nation, and the people of the earth.  Love your Church and, as you do so well, love your pastor. 
            Things are messed up in this fallen world.  There is no such thing as the ideal family.  None of us perfectly follows the blueprint our Lord has given us.  And for this, we repent.  But though we be unfaithful, the Lord doesn’t stop being faithful to us.  He sets us in a family.  He gives us a home.  He brings us to His Church.  This is great comfort for all of us, but especially for those who are single, who long to share their life with someone, but it just hasn’t happened yet… Or those who long to have children, but for whatever reason, can’t… or those who suffer loneliness and isolation, those who mourn a spouse or a parent or a sibling or a child they have lost…  This is comfort for you.  Look around you, brothers and sisters.  This is your family.  This is your home.  These are your parents and your siblings and your children.  Now, we’re not perfect.  To be sure, we fail and we fight and we have to forgive.  Love takes work.  It is not an emotion, this love.  It is a decision and an action.  But here you are, and you are loved.  Warts and all.  And you are called to love the person next to you, warts and all.  Because in this family, we live by grace.  In this family, we live in the forgiveness of sins.  In this family, we live by the cross and empty tomb, by the death and resurrection of Jesus, by the cleansing water of Baptism and the life-giving food of His Body and Blood.  And we live by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God.  Here in this family, beloved, you are never alone.  You are always in the bosom of your mother, the Church, with your brothers and sisters in Christ, attended by the holy Angels.  And always, always, wherever two or three are gathered in His Name (in His Baptism!), there is Jesus.  And wherever Jesus is, there is your Father, and there is the Spirit.  In Jesus, God brings you into the inner-relationship of the Trinity.  In Jesus, God begets you as His beloved child.  In Jesus, you are home.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.               

Saturday, October 03, 2015

In Memoriam +Audrey Jean Pfauth+

In Memoriam +Audrey Jean Pfauth+

October 3, 2015
Text: Matt. 11:25-30

            It may sound strange at first, but on September 25, 2015, our dear sister Audrey received the best birthday present anyone could ever get.  With one nurse and any number of angels in attendance, Audrey met her Savior, Jesus Christ, face to face.  And He took her home to Himself in heaven.  Audrey Jean Pfauth was born into this world on September 25, 1933.  She was born into heaven to await the resurrection with Jesus on September 25, 2015.  This year, more so than any other, September 25th was a day for rejoicing.  And that is true, not just for Audrey, but for the holy angels and all the company of heaven.  And it is true for you, even in the midst of your tears.  Because for Audrey, the race has been won.  The strife is over, the battle done.  She has died, and yet she lives.  She lives with Christ.  She is with Christ, who is risen from the dead.  And she knows that the Day is coming, coming soon, when the risen Christ will raise her from the dead.  Yes, beloved, let there be no misunderstanding: This body will rise from the dead!  Cancer free, free of sadness, free of pain, risen in the image of the risen Lord Jesus.  And as for her tears, well, to God they are precious, and He is even now wiping them from her eyes (Rev. 7:17).
            Audrey was tired.  She was weary and burdened.  It had been a year since she had let her beloved husband, Hank, go to his rest in Jesus.  And as she told some of us, there were a number of deaths and anniversaries that were troubling her soul in recent days.  Then, of course, there was the cancer she didn’t even know she had, making her tired physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  The faithful Christian is not immune from the griefs of this earthly life.  They are not a punishment.  They are simply the reality of life in this sin-fallen world.  And our gracious God uses them, precious, holy crosses that they are, to drive us to Himself for comfort and relief, for help in every time of need.  The point was not lost on Audrey.  She believed what our Lord says to us in the Holy Gospel: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28; ESV).  She came to Jesus here at His house, with His people, here in the holy Church, where Jesus Himself, week after week, day after day, spoke to her the consoling, forgiving, life-giving Word of the Gospel, and fed her with His Body and Blood.
            I wonder if this is the verse Jesus spoke to her as she leapt into His arms on September 25th.  “Audrey, come to me.  It’s time to rest.  It’s time to rejoice.”  This is one of the last verses I spoke to her in the room at hospice.  And then we sang the beautiful hymn we sang again just moments ago, the bedtime prayer which, if I understood her right, is one of the first her mother taught her when she was a little girl: “Now the light has gone away; Father, listen while I pray, Asking Thee to watch and keep And to send me quiet sleep” (LSB 887:1).  What a beautiful prayer to sing in your last days.  And even though she wasn’t speaking much toward the end, she did sing the first verse with me, from memory, with tears in her eyes.  And then there is the third verse: “Let my near and dear ones be Always near and dear to Thee; O bring me and all I love To Thy happy home above.”  She was ready, and she prayed that the dear Lord Jesus would come and take her to Himself.  But also (and never forget this), she prayed for you in her last hours, that you would know Jesus, believe in Him, and so be reunited with her and with Hank and with the Lord in heaven.
            Audrey has her rest in Jesus.  But she wants you to know that you can rest in Him even now.  He speaks these words to you today: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”  You are weary, too, aren’t you?  Burdened with grief (today especially), burdened with sadness in a world that doesn’t work the way it should, burdened with your sins and the weakness of your flesh, with your own aches and pains, injuries and disease.  Perhaps things are not going well at work, or at home, with your children, with your marriage.  Perhaps you struggle with depression, or addiction, or loneliness, or anxiety.  There is war in the world.  There is war in your soul.  You are broken.  It’s okay to admit it.  We’re all in the same boat.  We’re all broken.  This doesn’t mean God is against you.  This doesn’t mean He does not love you.  Remember all that our beloved Audrey suffered in this life.  Remember that in all these things that weary and burden us, Christ Jesus holds out His pierced hands and calls to us: “Come to me… Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” 
            Audrey, and Jesus, would have you do what she did: Come here to Jesus at His house, with His people, and hear Jesus Himself speak His consoling, forgiving, life-giving Word of Gospel.  Be fed by the Bread of Life, the Bread of Heaven, the Savior who was crucified for your sins and who is now risen from the dead.  He is risen, and He will raise you, with Audrey and Hank and all people, and give eternal life to you and all believers in Christ.  There are any number of ways we seek rest in this life, whether it be a weekend at the Lake, or a round of golf, or a bottle of booze.  The truth is, none of them work.  Not really, not permanently.  Do you need rest?  Rest like Audrey needed rest?  The only rest that is real and true and permanent, rest for body and soul, rest that is enduring and eternal, is the rest Jesus gives.  Because Jesus’ rest makes you who are broken, whole again.  Whole spiritually now.  Whole and complete, in your body, on that Day when Christ comes again in glory.

            God put His Name on Audrey in Holy Baptism, the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  He marked her with the holy cross, as one redeemed by Christ the Crucified.  Which is to say, He set her apart to be made whole eternally on the Day of Resurrection.  Are you baptized into Christ?  This Promise is for you.  Cling to it with rejoicing, even in the midst of your tears.  Are you not baptized?  Let’s talk about getting baptized and coming to Christ for rest and for life.  For this Promise is for you, too.  This rest is for you.  Jesus speaks to you, and Audrey wants you to clean out your ears and listen up.  Jesus says to you: “Come to me.  Lay down your burdens and your cares.  Lay down your sins.  I take them into myself and nail them to the cross.  Come to me.  Hear my Word.  Trust my Promise.  I will be your rest.  Because when you are with me, you are home.”  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.          

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (B—Proper 20)

September 20, 2015
Text: Mark 9:30-37

            Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of God?  Actually, here the Sunday School answer works pretty well.  Jesus, of course!  And notice that the greatest, Jesus, makes Himself last of all and servant of all, giving His life as a ransom for all.  Which makes it all the more silly that the disciples are arguing about which of them is the greatest.  The very fact that they’re arguing about it disqualifies them.  There are undoubtedly a few favorite candidates among the Twelve.  There is Peter, of course, but then again, James and John, the “Sons of Thunder,” are also in Jesus’ inner circle.  And you can never count Andrew out.  Andrew, after all, is the one who first witnessed to his brother Peter: “‘We have found the Messiah’ (which means Christ).  He brought him to Jesus” (John 1:41-42; ESV).  The rest of the disciples probably picked sides with one candidate or another.  Perhaps Peter blushed as his devotees argued for his supremacy.  Perhaps those who would be the greatest feigned humility during the discussion, making them all the more attractive to potential supporters.  Though maybe not.  Certainly James and John did not blush to have their Mommy ask Jesus to exalt them to His right hand and His left as He comes into His Kingdom (Matt. 20:21).  Little did they understand what that meant, or how it is Jesus would come into His Kingdom.
            Jesus comes into His Kingdom on the cross.  Just read the sign above His head: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (John 19:19).  He is surrounded on His right and on His left by thieves, one of whom hurls insults and derides Him, the other of whom prays for mercy: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42).  None of this should surprise the disciples.  Jesus had been teaching them about this all the way through Galilee: “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him.  And when he is killed, after three days he will rise” (Mark 9:31).  It is the heart and soul of the Gospel, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  This is precisely what the apostles are called to preach.  But they don’t understand any of it.  They are afraid to ask.  Because they don’t know if they want the answer.  What does this all mean?  You can’t win a Kingdom by submitting to your enemies!  You can’t win a Kingdom by dying!  That’s just not the way it works in the world.
            Jesus turns everything on its head.  Jesus’ Kingdom, remember, is not of this world (John 18:36).  So He reminds Pilate.  This is how it works in Jesus’ Kingdom: “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35).  The greatest of these in Jesus’ Kingdom is the least of these in ours.  Our Lord illustrates the point.  He takes a child, a paidivon, a little wobbly toddler just learning to pull himself up on things… Jesus loves the little children… He stands him up in the midst of this rugged group of fishermen and tax collectors and zealots and whatever else they were, and He says this is an example of a great one, a foremost citizen in Jesus’ Kingdom.  He takes Him in His arms and says this is what you should be like.  A toddler.  A babe.  Simply trusting in Jesus.  For everything.  For the salvation of your soul and for every bodily need.  Believing His every Word, even if you don’t understand it and can’t give voice to it.  Adults have trouble believing.  We get in the way of our faith.  A little child serves as an example to us: Loved and safe in the arms of Jesus.
            Be like a child before God.  Not childish, but childlike.  God is your Father.  Jesus is your Savior.  Who cares whether your first or last?  It is enough just to be with Jesus.  And then have mercy on your brothers and sisters.  Put them first.  Put yourself last.  Consider others better than yourself.  Be a servant to all.  That is your joy in Christ who came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).  Jesus also talks about receiving one such child in His Name.  More on that in a few minutes.  For now, though, think about how shocking it was for those manly men, those tough guys all worried about who is the manliest of them all, to see Jesus pick out a child and say this one is great in the Kingdom.  And now think about all of us gathered here today, and all the children of our congregation, and how Jesus would find the most insignificant babe in arms and take him into His embrace.  It’s a beautiful thought.  Very comforting, even if a bit shocking.  Babies first.  Oh, eventually He would make His way to our esteemed president and our head elder and the other officers of our congregation.  Last of all, as to one untimely born, He would even embrace this poor excuse of a pastor.  He would have mercy on us all.  He would delight in us all.  But that baby, He would take in His arms immediately.  And, in fact, that is precisely what He does… at the Font!  For all of us babies in the faith.
            Who is the greatest?  Who is the best?  Is that argument not at the heart of every conceivable problem in the Church and in the world?  Sin entered the world because Adam and Eve wanted to be the greatest, as great as or even greater than God.  They forgot that the greatest in the LORD who gave them life.  And you want to be greater than your neighbor.  You’re always comparing yourself to others, tearing them down, building yourself up.  We virtually never gossip about the good attributes of another person.  We delight to wallow in their negative characteristics and spread the stories that knock them down a peg.  Because if I can tear you down, that makes me that much better in comparison.  At least in my own eyes.  And when it comes down to opinions about anything under the sun, I’ll tell you what, my opinion is the best I’ve ever heard.  Of course, I wouldn’t say it that way.  I’d offer up my humble two-cents and then secretly despise you if you didn’t take my advice.  If you did take it, that’s just confirmation of my theory.  You see how this works?  Who is the greatest?  Who is the wisest?  Who is the strongest?  Who is the fairest of them all?  Every argument from the color of the carpet to how best to prevent a nuclear Iran comes down to who is the greatest.  Repent.
            Jesus is the greatest!  And knowing that is freeing.  It frees you from the jockeying for first position, the competition to be number one.  It frees you to be a child in the Kingdom of God, to simply receive what the Lord has to give: His forgiveness, His life, His provision for every need of body and soul.  It frees you up to rely totally on Him, secure in His embrace.  And it frees you up to love and serve your neighbor, to have mercy on him, to put him first, give to him generously, defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.  Which is to say, it frees you up to serve as a Christian in your particular vocation. 
            This is true of all vocations, but this text has particular application to the vocation of parents.  “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me” (Mark 9:37).  What does it mean to receive one such child in Jesus’ Name?  In the wider sense, I suppose, it can mean receiving any person in the Name of Jesus, and caring for them as you would for a child.  But I think here receiving a child in Jesus’ Name has a more technical sense.  Where do you receive a child, literally, in Jesus’ Name?  At the Font.  In Holy Baptism.  Parents, bring your child to Baptism, where Jesus puts His Name on them (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), and takes them up in His arms.  And then keep bringing them to Jesus here at Church so they can live in their Baptism.  I’m convinced this is exactly what Jesus means when He says, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:14).  He’s talking about Baptism.  And life in Baptism.  And so here.  And this also means that it is a blessing when parents receive children into their marriage, into their family, as a gift from God.  Our culture is against having children, or certainly what our culture would consider too many of them.  That’s not what Jesus says.  Jesus is a Psalm 127 kind of Guy: “Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward.  Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth.  Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them” (vv. 3-5).  So go have kids.  (Get married first, of course.)  “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28).  It is the blessing of God.  And think how highly this speaks of adoption, or foster parenting, this receiving of children in Jesus’ Name.  And think how much more horrendous, how greatly offensive to our Savior, is the murder of babies in abortion.  Lord, have mercy.  Here in this text is a call to every one of us, parent or not, to speak up for the little children in Jesus’ Name, to defend them, to defend life, and hold it sacred.  And notice what happens when you do any of these things.  You become last.  You become least.  You become servant.  And you sacrifice yourself for the sake of the other in the way of Jesus Christ.  Which is really great.

            You can do this for children of all ages, in Jesus’ Name, because you have been received as a child of God in Jesus’ Name.  God’s own child, I gladly say it, I am baptized into Christ!  The Kingdom is yours!  Your sins are forgiven.  God is your Father.  Jesus is your Brother.  The Spirit of God dwells in you.  All things are yours in Christ Jesus, who was handed over for you, killed for you, and the third day rose again for you.  And He’ll raise you, too.  So you have nothing to lose.  Love and serve.  And know that Christ is your all in all.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.          

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (B—Proper 19)

September 13, 2015
Text: Mark 9:14-29

            Beloved in the Lord, do you have enough faith? “All things are possible for one who believes,” says Jesus (Mark 9:23; ESV). Oh, really?! Then why is it that so often life seems impossible? Why won’t the cancer go away? Why is my marriage in trouble? Why won’t the kids behave? Why can’t I find a job? Why did God take my loved one away from me in death? Why do I still have to die? Why is it that my faith CANNOT move a molehill, much less a mountain? All things are possible for the one who believes? What can this possibly mean?
            It’s easy to fall into this line of thinking. And when we do, we inevitably begin to ask ourselves the question, “Do I have enough faith?” What is so sinister about this question is the logic behind it. If my cancer isn’t cured, if my marriage falls apart, if I don’t have a job, if my loved one dies, it must be because I don’t have enough faith. Or maybe I don’t believe at all. Many are the false prophets who would burden you with this false law preaching that says when things go badly with you, it’s because you either don’t have faith, or you don’t have enough faith. If you believed enough, these false teachers maintain, you would have perfect health, significant wealth, and you would live in prosperity. This is the “name it, claim it” crowd, or the “Word-Faith Movement” as it is called, represented by televangelists like Kenneth Copeland, Joyce Meyer, and Joel Osteen. This is the theology represented in the Prayer of Jabez book that was so popular a few years back. But it’s false doctrine, beloved. It’s a lie. Don’t believe it. Don’t give in to it. The devil loves it when he can convince us that God is punishing us and we cannot enjoy His blessings or salvation because we don’t have enough faith.
            Of course, you don’t have enough faith. If you want to quantify faith, nobody has enough of it. It’s impossible. Only Jesus has enough faith. We fallen humans always need more, always need our faith to be strengthened. We always have our doubts. We’re always afraid God can’t handle what ails us. We’re always searching for something else that can solve our problems. We always find ourselves fearing, loving, and trusting things and people that are not God because we can see them, touch them, grab onto them. And these things and these people, which are concrete to us, become our idols. Money becomes an idol. Possessions become idols. The president (or the candidate you’re hoping will be the next president) becomes an idol. Our spouse or our child or our parent becomes an idol. Good gifts of God become idols because we think we can trust them more than we can trust God. We too often think of God as an abstraction. We think we have to see to believe.
            This is true even of Christians who have comparatively strong faith. That is why the prayer of the man in our text, the father of the demon possessed boy, must become our prayer as well: “I believe; help my unbelief!” (v. 24). It is both a confession of sin and a confession of faith. It is a confession of sin in that it admits the deficiency of our faith in this respect: It is never strong enough. We always struggle with doubt as long as we live in this fallen world. We’re always afraid our problem, whatever it happens to be at the moment, is something that God, something that Jesus, cannot handle. “If you can do anything…” we pray along with the anxious father in our text. “If you can…” We doubt. All things are not possible for us. But all things are possible with Jesus. Where our faith is weak and lacking, Jesus’ faith is perfect, strong, as strong as it is possible for faith to be. Of course He can! He’s Jesus! He’s God in the flesh! And He wants to help. He wants to help the demon-possessed boy and He wants to help you in all your sorrows and struggles and temptations, in your sin and in your death. “I believe; help my unbelief.”
            But this is also a confession of faith. Help my unbelief, yes, but you wouldn’t even make such a request if you didn’t believe at all. I believe. It’s just that my faith needs to grow. Even when the father in our text says, “If you can,” he’s still making a request of Jesus that takes faith. He wouldn’t even have asked, wouldn’t even have approached the disciples in the first place if He didn’t think Jesus could help. The “If you can” part betrays his doubt. But the request itself is a confession of faith. Jesus helps the man in our text move from an attitude of “If anybody can help, Jesus can,” to a faith that confesses, “Jesus CAN help, and He will, in His own way, in His own time.” As it happens in our text, the time is now and the way is Jesus’ authoritative Word. In a demonstration of His divine authority over all things (even demons!), Jesus commands the demon to come out of the boy and not to return to him again. The demon convulses the poor boy and comes out. And then there is a death and resurrection of sorts. The boy is laying motionless, like a corpse on the ground. But Jesus, the Lord of life, who on the third day would rise again in His own glorious body, takes the boy’s hand and raises Him up.
            What a gracious Savior we have. How compassionate. He really does care about us. He who is very God of very God came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary. He descended into our mess of a world, our mess of a life, into our problems, into our sin, into our death. He became a man for us men and for our salvation. He who is very God did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking on the form of a servant, taking on our flesh, humbling Himself even to the point of death on a cross, our death, the death we deserve in punishment for our sin. And in so doing He delivers us from the main problem, the worst problem, the problem that is sin. This is the problem that rots us to our very core. This is the disease that kills us. It results in death every time. Jesus conquers it in His death. The cross means forgiveness for us. So great is our Savior’s compassion, so great is His love for you and for me that He willingly sheds His blood in order to snatch us out of the jaws of hell. And here’s the real kicker. He is risen! He is risen, just as He said! Death could not hold Him. He is victorious. His redemption worked. We’re saved. And if that’s true (and it is!), how can we doubt that He is able and wants to save us from the rest of our infirmities? “If you can…” we say to Jesus. “All things are possible for one who believes,” responds Jesus. “Just watch what I’m about to do. I forgive your sins. If I can forgive your sins, which only God can do, surely I can make everything else right again.”
            “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” We must keep coming back to this prayer because our faith is weak. And the hard part is that even though Jesus promises that He is making all things new, even though He is willing and able to help you in your afflictions, He does it His way and in His time, not your way or in your time. You have to bear the cross in this life. You have to suffer in this life. You have to bear sadness. You have to be ill. You have to suffer broken relationships. These things come to you now, for a little while, to crucify your flesh, lead you away from your idols, and drive you to Christ alone for mercy. The cross has this way of making evident the fact that your faith is weak, weaker perhaps than you thought. It has this way of driving you again and again to the prayer: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.”
            Some Christians have stronger faith and some have weaker faith. And at one time or another, your own faith may be stronger or weaker. We all need a stronger faith. We all need to grow in the faith. But here’s what really matters: God has given us faith in the first place, faith in Jesus Christ, trust in His sin-atoning death and victorious resurrection, that there is forgiveness of sins in His blood. Faith is God’s gift to us. And whether you have more or less of it, you have it, and it receives. It receives God’s gifts. It receives Christ. Faith is the receiving hands of the believer in Christ Jesus. Christ doles out Himself in His gifts. Faith appropriates those gifts for the Christian. You do not have enough faith. You never do in this fallen world. But the faith God has given you is sufficient. It is sufficient to receive Christ. For all that really matters, is Christ. You should always give thanks to God that for the sake of Christ, the Holy Spirit has brought you to faith through the Gospel and continues to sustain you in that faith, through all its highs and lows, by means of the same Gospel.
            And what about when you particularly struggle with a weak faith? Immerse yourself in that same Gospel. Come to church to be absolved of your sins. Private confession and absolution is a great way to do this. Hear the Word. Read and study it. Mark it, learn it, inwardly digest it. Trace the sign of the holy cross upon yourself and remember that you are baptized. And do as our Confessions say. Come to the Supper of Christ’s true body and blood. The Supper is precisely for the weak in faith. I’ll let the Confessions have the last word:
            "Some Christians have a weak faith and are shy, troubled, and heartily terrified because of the great number of their sins. They think that in their great impurity they are not worthy of this precious treasure [of the Lord’s Supper] and Christ’s benefits. They feel their weakness of faith and lament it, and from their hearts desire that they may serve God with stronger, more joyful faith and pure obedience. These are the truly worthy guests for whom this highly venerable Sacrament has been especially instituted and appointed… Worthiness does not depend on the greatness or smallness, the weakness or strength of faith. Instead, it depends on Christ’s merit, which the distressed father of little faith [Mark 9:24] enjoyed as well as Abraham, Paul, and others who have a joyful and strong faith."[1]
            “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” “I am able,” says Jesus. “Take, eat, this is my body. Take, drink, this is my blood. It is given and shed for you, for the forgiveness of sins.” In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] FC SD VII:69, 71 (McCain, pp. 573-74).

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (B—Proper 18)

Sept. 6, 2015
Text: Mark 7:24-37

            Our Lord Jesus does all things well (Mark 7:37).  But that may not appear to be the case at the time.  How is the Lord doing all things well when you pray and pray and pray, and you still don’t have enough money at the end of the month, you still didn’t get that job, your kids still aren’t at Church, you still get sick, you still die?  How is THAT the Lord doing all things well?  I don’t know.  Neither do you.  It is a statement of faith, not sight.  This is a fallen world, and things go bad.  Because of sin.  Not necessarily some sin you’ve committed, but sin in general, the fact that we’re all sinners, infected by sin, born that way, sons and daughters of Adam and Eve.  And creation itself is subject to the curse.  And what is even more frustrating is that Jesus doesn’t deliver us from all that the way we think He should.  His ways are different than our ways.  His thoughts are different than our thoughts.  Which means you just have to trust Him, even when it looks like He’s not doing anything well.  In fact, you just have to trust Him, even when it looks like He is against you.  Come what may, you always hold on to the Promise of your Savior: “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb. 13:5; ESV).  Or, as He says in our Old Testament reading, “Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not!  Behold, your God will come… He will come and save you’” (Is. 35:4).
            The Syrophoenician woman has every reason to doubt the Promise.  She isn’t even an Israelite.  But the situation is desperate.  Her precious little daughter is possessed by and unclean spirit.  This is some sort of demon.  We don’t know all the gory details.  What does the unclean spirit do to her?  Does it make her say and do lewd things?  Does it cause her to sit in her filth?  We don’t know, but I suspect this is the same kind of spirit that infects our culture with all that is base and crude, the kind of spirit that possesses us with vulgarity and perversity, the hypersexualization of the culture, the kind of spirit that takes possession of us by drugs or pornography or any other enslaving addiction.  Which is simply to say, these spirits are still at work.  We’re just blind to them because they’ve convinced us they don’t exist. 
            At any rate, the woman sees the spirit for what it is.  And it is enough to make her throw herself at the feet of the Savior and beg.  She prays.  She pleads for Jesus’ help.  And Jesus tells her that it wouldn’t be right.  “Let the children,” that is, the Jews, “be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27).  He calls her a dog!  That’s what the Jews think of Gentiles like the Syrophoenician woman, like you and me.  Now, why would Jesus say that?  That’s not very nice, is it?  It’s certainly not the kind of behavior we expect from a Savior, from God.  But that’s just it.  Our God isn’t worried about living up to our expectations, which most of the time are simply wrong.  He does His work, which is good and right and wise and gracious, for us and for our salvation.  And we’re incapable of understanding why He does it the way He does it.  But here, the Syrophoenician woman becomes a model of faith.  If Jesus calls her a dog, she’s content with that.  Because the dog has a place in the Master’s house, at the Master’s feet (remember, she fell at His feet!), eating the children’s crumbs.  It is a tenacious faith that clings to the Promise in spite of all appearances.  Jesus appears to be rejecting the woman.  The woman holds Him to His Word.  Which is always what Jesus wants.  That’s faith.  “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter” (v. 29).  Jesus delivers in His own time, in His own way, at a time and in a way so far above our time and our way.  Our Lord Jesus does all things well.
            The Gentiles in the Decapolis have every reason to doubt the Promise.  Like the Syrophoenician woman, they are not Israelites, they are not members of God’s special people.  They are the dogs.  They are despised by the Jews.  Unclean.  Heathen.  Idolaters.  But Jesus had been to their region before.  This is where Jesus healed the demoniac who lived among the tombs, in the country of the Gerasenes (Mark 5:1-20), the guy who broke chains and shackles in pieces, the guy who said to Jesus, “My name is Legion, for we are many” (v. 9), quite the scary scene.  You remember what happened?  Jesus drove the demon into the herd of pigs, who then rushed down the bank and were drowned in the sea.  And the man, now delivered from demonic possession, dressed and in his right mind, begs that he might follow Jesus.  But Jesus tells him instead to “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you” (v. 19).  And the man does just that: “he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him” (v. 20; emphasis added). 
            So the Gentiles in the Decapolis had a Word from the Savior, the Word proclaimed by the former demoniac.  They had a Promise.  And they were holding Jesus to it.  So they bring the man who is deaf and dumb and beg Jesus to lay His hand on him (Mark 7:32).  But Jesus never does things exactly the way we prescribe.  He does them better.  He does all things well.  Now, imagine you are the deaf and dumb man.  You cannot communicate.  You cannot understand any complicated sort of communication.  Does the man even know who Jesus is?  Does he have any idea why his friends are carting him over to Jesus?  Our Lord takes him aside.  This miracle isn’t for show.  And by sign language, Jesus communicates what He is about to do.  Jesus puts His fingers into the man’s ears.  He spits and touches the man’s tongue.  It’s gross.  Ear wax and spittle.  Invasion of personal space.  Jesus touches his pain (Petersen).  He looks up to heaven and sighs.  What does this mean?  Jesus has come in answer to the man’s prayers, to heal his pain, to open his ears, to loose his tongue.  And before the man can hear, the Lord must speak His Word: “Ephphatha,” which is to say, “Be opened” (v. 34).  Now, what good does it do to speak to a deaf man?  We would never do the healing this way.  But when Jesus speaks, His Word accomplishes what He says.  The Creator has come to His creation.  He who formed the ear now gives hearing.  He who formed the tongue now gives speech.  And it works!  “And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly” (v. 35).  Now, think about how amazing it is that, not only can he now hear, but his brain can already make sense of the sounds and understand the language.  That is a miracle in and of itself.  And he can speak plainly.  How long does it take a child to learn to talk?  The man does it right away.  Our Lord Jesus does all things well.
            The man puts his speech immediately to use.  This is another one of those things we don’t understand.  The Lord doesn’t do it the way we think He should.  He commands the man and the bystanders not to tell anyone!  Whatever you do, DON’T go proclaim this miracle!  And we all scratch our heads.  Jesus doesn’t want these Gentiles to misunderstand His work.  He is not a magician.  He is not a witch doctor.  The miracles are not the point.  The point is the salvation the miracles proclaim.  Jesus releases us from demons.  Jesus opens our ears to hear His Word.  He opens our lips to sing His praise.  He touches our pain.  And He doesn’t tell US to keep it quiet.  He tells us to go and proclaim salvation in His Name.  He would have us bring our loved ones to Him in prayer, like the Syrophoenician woman.  He would have us bring our loved ones to Him for mercy, like the Gentiles from the Decapolis.  He would have us bring them to Church, which is the very best way to do evangelism.  And most of all, He would have us hold Him to His Word, hold Him to His Promise.  In spite of all appearances to the contrary, He would have us believe He loves us, He saves us, He heals us and gives us life.  He will never leave us nor forsake us.  He does all things well.
            And that is true for you in your pain, whatever it may be.  Jesus knows your heartache and grief.  He knows your guilt and shame.  He knows your fear of death and condemnation.  He knows every ailment of body and soul.  There are times it may not seem like He cares.  But hold on to His Promise.  Hold Him to His Word.  He who gave Himself into death on the cross for your sake will not forsake you now.  He who shed His blood for the forgiveness of your sins will not abandon you in the time of trial.  He is risen.  He hears your prayers.  He loves you.  And He saves.  He doesn’t do it the way you would prescribe.  He isn’t worried about living up to your expectations.  He does it by washing you in water and His Word.  He does it by speaking and opening your ears and heart to the Gospel.  He does it by touching your tongue with His very Body and Blood.  You have a place at His Table, even if it be at His beautiful feet.  And in the end, He will do it this way.  He will speak to your ears, closed in death.  He will say to you, “Arise.”  And you will.  For our Lord Jesus does all things well.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.    


Sunday, August 30, 2015

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (B—Proper 17)

August 30, 2015
Text: Mark 7:14-23

            It’s so contrary to our instinct.  We’re always guarding against things from the outside entering in and making us sick or unclean.  We worry about germs.  We worry about touching things that are gross.  We worry about what we inhale and what we ingest.  We carry around hand sanitizer to kill off anything we touch.  We wash with antibacterial soap.  We watch what we eat.  We are forever on a diet.  And almost daily in the news headlines we read about how this or that common food or drink or ingredient is going to kill us.  Now, not all of this is bad.  It’s true that germs make us sick.  It’s true that we should take care of our bodies and observe proper hygiene habits.  And it’s true that too much of some ingredients in processed food can do damage to our bodies, although I’m not sure we need all the sensationalism from the alarmist media.  But this is basically who we are.  We’re always worried about what comes into us.  Maybe for different reasons than the Pharisees, but we’re worried just the same.  And so it comes as a shocker when Jesus says: “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him” (Mark 7:15; ESV). 
            This is the fundamental problem of fallen human nature.  We’re always worried about defilement from the outside in, when the real problem is inside out.  “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.  All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (vv. 21-23).  This is what happened in the Garden, in the fall of man.  Suddenly Adam and Eve went from totally focused on God and His good and gracious will for them, to totally focused on self and the desires of the flesh.  So they died.  That is the way of death.  The fall of mankind isn’t just about sinful outward actions, what we call “actual sins,” bad things we do and good things we fail to do.  No, it goes much deeper than that.  In fact, it goes right to the heart of man.  We don’t just say our actions are fallen.  We talk about fallen human nature, what we call “original sin.”  And it effects every aspect of us.  We are rotten to the core, corrupt in our very essence.  We are born looking away from God, our only source of life and salvation, and looking instead upon ourselves.  Incurvatus in se, is the Latin theological phrase.  “Curved in on the self.”  We are navel gazers, self-involved and self-obsessed, narcissists, and so in our own self-interest, we cut ourselves off from God and off from our neighbor.  Repent. 
            This is why we have the Ashley Madison scandal that is all over the news.  This is the website I referenced last week that specializes in facilitating extra-marital affairs.  Their tag line is, “Life is short.  Have an affair.”  Lord, have mercy.  I’ll be honest, it takes a lot to shock me in this fallen world, and I’m not surprised so many men and women (mostly men) fell prey to this temptation (33 million accounts, over 23,000 in Grand Rapids alone!).  Those kind of numbers are a little too abstract to make it real, though.  What really put it in perspective for me is an article that revealed there are only three zip codes in the United States without Ashley Madison accounts: Nikolai, Alaska, population 94; Perryville, Alaska, population 113; and Polvadera, New Mexico, population 269.  That’s it.  That means you and I undoubtedly know someone with an Ashley Madison account.  That means there are accounts right here in Dorr, in Wayland, in Hopkins, and in all the places you live.  And the hackers are releasing names and all the juicy details.  Many Christians have fallen to this temptation, and they will be exposed.  I’m telling you, if your name is on this list, you’d better come talk to me right away.  It’s time for Confession and Absolution.  That’s the only way you’re going to get out of this mess.  This is the way the devil works (and make no mistake, there is a demonic power behind this website).  First the devil helps you justify the sin in your mind so that you feel comfortable, or at least excited about doing it.  Then, once you’ve committed the sin, he pulls the rug out from under you.  He accuses you and tells you God can never forgive you now.  He drives you to despair and puts you to shame before your neighbor.  And you know what can never help you?  Your heart.  Your heart is the problem!  For God’s sake, don’t believe the conventional wisdom that you should follow your heart!  Or be true to yourself!  Or go with your gut!  Or whatever recycled and warmed-over variation of that advice. 
            What is amazing is that even Christians, who should know better, tell you to “give your heart to Jesus” as if it’s some amazing present He’ll be thrilled about!  Like your heart is some kind of pure and precious jewel, and you’re somehow enriching Jesus by giving it to Him.  In Bo Giertz’ novel, The Hammer of God, the young pastor, Fridfeldt, wanting to teach his older, seasoned, superior pastor a thing or two about true faith, declares, “I just want you to know from the beginning, sir, that I am a believer” in Jesus… “I mean that I have given him my heart.”…  “Do you consider that something to give him?” asks the old man…. You see, “it is one thing to choose Jesus as one’s Lord and Savior, to give him one’s heart and commit one’s self to him, and that he now accepts one into his little flock; it is a very different thing to believe on him as a Redeemer of sinners, of whom one is chief.  One does not choose a Redeemer for oneself, you understand, nor give one’s heart to him.  The heart is a rusty old can on a junk heap.  A fine birthday gift, indeed!  But a wonderful Lord passes by, and has mercy on the wretched tin can, sticks his walking cane through it, and rescues it from the junk pile and takes it home with him.  That is how it is.”[1]
            Jesus is the Lord who has mercy on you and redeems you, body and soul, heart and mind, right down to your very essence.  Not because you’re so precious, but because He is so good.  He does it by taking on your nature, your essence, though Himself without sin.  Yet He becomes THE Sinner for you.  He takes into Himself all your sin and uncleanness, all that yucky stuff that oozes out of your heart, and He humbles Himself to the point of death, even death on a cross.  That is penalty for your sin.  That is the destiny of your heart.  Follow your heart if you want, but understand, it’ll lead you to the pit of hell.  Follow Jesus, whose heart for you led Him through hell on the cross… believe in Him,  Christ crucified and risen for you, and you have eternal life.  Jesus takes your heart and washes it clean and pure in His Blood.  Jesus takes you up into Himself and delivers you spotless before His Father.  Jesus forgives all your sins and creates in you a new heart.
            What is so backwards about all of this from our perspective, is that He does it by what He puts into you.  Salvation must come from outside of you.  Actually, what you take in, if it be full of Jesus, cleanses you, heals you, restores and enlivens you.  We are speaking, of course, about the Word of God, the Holy Gospel, the preaching that declares you forgiven and free.  We are speaking about the Holy Absolution, by which you return to your Baptism in which the risen Christ washes you of all sin, drowns your sinful flesh, and raises you to new life in Him.  We are speaking of the cleansing and nourishing Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, which He gives you here at His altar, for the forgiveness of your sins.  What comes out of you defiles you.  What goes into you from Jesus makes you clean.
            Indeed, the Lord Jesus gives you a new heart.  The old heart must die.  The new, you can only receive from Jesus.  You prayed for this very thing in the Introit.  You’ll pray it again after the sermon: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Ps. 51:10).  Give me a divine heart and soul transplant.  And Jesus says yes.  It is done in your Baptism.  It is done as you remain in our Lord’s life-giving Word and Supper.  Everything is upside down now.  What comes out is defiled, what goes in cleanses.  Confession of sin is what comes out of you.  Absolution, forgiveness from Jesus Himself, is what goes in.  Body and Blood of Jesus is what goes in.  The Gospel is what goes in.  What you think, do, and say is all sin and filth and death.  What Jesus thinks of you, does for you, and says to you is purifying, healing, and life-giving.  Giving your heart to Jesus doesn’t save you.  That Jesus gave His heart for you, now THAT is what saves you.  It is not about what you do for God, but what God does for you in Christ.  It’s all so contrary to our instinct.  It’s all upside down.  But as it turns out, in God’s economy, upside down is right side up.  And you, O sinner, are a saint.  Because of Jesus.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.           

[1] Bo Giertz, The Hammer of God (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1960/2005) pp. 122-23.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (B—Proper 16)

August 23, 2015
Text: Mark 7:1-13

            Jesus is not against washing your hands.  In fact, if your mother tells you to go wash up for dinner, Jesus wants you to submit to her and do your Fourth Commandment duty of honoring her, serving and obeying her, loving and cherishing her.  So also, the rest of us appreciate it when you observe proper hygiene habits, so love for your neighbor demands that you wash.  With soap and water, please.  It’s one of the unwritten rules of our life together. 
            But the scribes and the Pharisees are not concerned about germs.  Their concern runs much deeper.  It is a question of how one becomes and remains pure: Clean before God, sparkling before the neighbor.  The scribes and Pharisees were upset that Jesus’ disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed (Mark 7:2).  They were offended at this because the disciples were blatantly disobeying the traditions of the elders.  Note, this handwashing is not a command of God.  It is a tradition of the elders.  It is a commandment of men.  The Jews were afraid of becoming ceremonially unclean.  So in addition to observing the commandments of God recorded by Moses in the Law, they added extra traditions that went the extra mile.  They washed everything.  The word in Greek is “baptize.”  They baptized everything: Hands, cups, pots, copper vessels, and even their dining couches.  Because what if someone ceremonially unclean had touched those things?  What if (gasp!) a Gentile had touched those things?  What if an unclean person or a Gentile or a sinner had, unbeknownst to the pious Jew, brushed up against him in the market place?  The scribes and the Pharisees were worried about guilt by association.  We must wash off that filth!  Baptize those hands!  Baptize everything!  Wash it all away!  God will be impressed!  God will see how pure you have kept yourself!  You will shine in the eyes of your neighbors!  You will be clean!  But it’s hypocrisy.  Because as shiny as you are on the outside, any honest examination of the heart will turn up nothing but sin and death, evil thoughts, murder, adultery, covetousness, and every form of wickedness.  Jesus rightly says in another place, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness” (Matt. 23:27; ESV).  The scribes and Pharisees rely on their works, especially their works over and above God’s Law, to make them pure and clean.  And it works, on the outside.  People are impressed.  These are “good Christian folk.”  But God looks at the heart.  He is not impressed.  The heart is unclean.  The heart is evil.  In preferring the outward righteousness of the Law, the scribes and Pharisees reject God’s clear Word.  And so by what they do they make void the Word of God. 
            It’s easy to sit in judgment on the legalistic scribes and Pharisees.  We are always better at seeing the sin of another than we are at seeing our own.  The truth is, though, we do the same thing.  Like the scribes and Pharisees, we build a façade.  We present ourselves as holier than we actually are.  Think about it.  When someone at Church asks you how you’re doing, you don’t tell him about your struggle with lust or the evil thoughts you entertain about your co-worker.  Nor do you tell him all the judgements you’ve been making about him ever since he approached you.  You tell him you’re doing fine, because that’s what you want people to think about you.  “That is one person who’s got it all together!” you want us to think.  And you certainly don’t want them believing you actually mean what you say when you confess that you’re a poor, miserable sinner.  When you get right down to it, that’s probably why you don’t come to private Confession, because you don’t want the pastor to know that you have real sin.  But you do want everyone to know that you’re here, Sunday in and Sunday out, repenting sincerely, believing truly, and that you give to the offering and serve on this or that board… that you vote the right way and dress the right way and believe all the right things.  And incidentally, I’m glad if all of that’s true.  But I don’t for a minute believe that the hidden chambers of your heart are as clean as your public persona.  I say this in love, because I know myself, and I know fallen human nature.  More to the point, the Bible tells us what we are.  You and I, Pharisees that we are, are whitewashed tombs, beautiful on the outside, full of death on the inside.  Or as Jesus tells us today, all that running around being “good Christian folk,” doing the things we expect “good Christian folk” to do, and counting on that as our righteousness, our purity: that doing, our doing, makes void the Word of God.  Repent. 
            This whole Josh Duggar thing is precisely about this.  For those of you who don’t know who I’m talking about, Josh Duggar is the Christian kid from the reality show 19 Kids and Counting who was recently exposed for having molested his sisters a number of years ago, and more recently for having an account with a website that specializes in facilitating adulterous affairs.  Needless to say, the media is all over this.  Here is a Christian who has taken a mighty fall.  Josh’s Christian fans are horrified by the news.  But here is the thing they all fail to consider.  Get ready, because this will be a shocker.  Josh Duggar is not the exception, he’s the rule!  And the very fact that we love to stand in judgement of him shows us for the Pharisees we are.  Maybe your sins are different than his.  Do you think that makes you clean?  The truth is, you don’t want others knowing what you think, say, and do in secret, either!  You’d be horrified if we could all read your thoughts, because you know how nasty they are.  You can be as squeaky clean as we all thought the Duggars were on the outside, but that doesn’t cleanse you of your evil heart and your very real guilt.  If you think it does, you make void the Word of God.  And you are still in your sins. 
            Thank God, you are not made clean by what you do.  You are made clean by what Jesus Christ has done and continues to do for you.  The Lord Jesus is not just righteous, He is righteousness itself.  He is the Holy One, come down from the Father, the only-begotten Son of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.  He took upon Himself our flesh.  He went down into the dirty, stinking Jordan River to soak up your sin and the sin of the whole world.  And He took it to the cross, bearing it in His holy Body, to bathe in the one and only cleansing agent capable of the job: His Blood, the Blood of God made man, shed for you, for the forgiveness of all of your sins.  And now our risen Lord, Righteousness Incarnate, gives Himself to you as a gift.  He does it first in your Baptism.  He is not satisfied simply with baptized hands.  In fact, He is not satisfied with full-body immersion, if all the cleansing is is an outward bath.  When Jesus baptizes you, He cleanses you from the inside out.  He starts with your heart and with your soul.  He takes possession of you with His Holy Spirit.  And what begins at the Font continues in the Word of Preaching and Absolution, and at the Supper of His Body and Blood.  By these means He gives Himself to you to be your righteousness before the Father.  The Father doesn’t look at what you do.  What you do is all sin.  The Father looks at what Jesus does.  And He counts it as your righteousness.  You are clean.
            And now you can do things, like take care of your elderly parents, or give special offerings to Church, and yes, wash your hands before supper, not to impress God or your neighbor with how clean and pious you are.  You can do those things because the Spirit of God has created in you a clean heart, a new heart, a heart that beats with the very Blood of the Lord Jesus given to you in His Means of Grace.  You aren’t saved or clean or any better before God by any of those things that you do.  You are saved and clean because of Jesus.  Only Jesus.  It’s not about you.  It’s about Jesus Christ for you.
            I pray Josh Duggar knows that his “good Christian, family values” public persona is not, and has never been, what makes him clean before God.  Jesus Christ already made him clean by His sin-atoning work on the cross.  This is not to minimize the very real damage he has done to people by his sins.  But it is to say that he has salvation in Christ, and all his sins are forgiven.  Yes, even Josh Duggar, the hypocrite and molester and adulterer.  Josh Duggar is spotless before God.  Because he is covered in Jesus’ Blood.  And so are you.  Because you are in Christ.  Because you are baptized.  All your sins, every last deep dark secret of your heart, all of it is forgiven.  You are righteous.  You are clean.

            You can’t get that by washing your hands or your dishes or your furniture.  You can’t get that by anything you do.  You have it in Christ, by what He has done.  And it is free gift.  You’ve been washed at the Font.  You’ve been clothed with Jesus.  Now He brings you to His Table, because you’re clean and dressed for the Supper.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.