Saturday, July 30, 2011

Sit Down and Be Fed

The text for today is our Gospel lesson, Matthew 14:13-21, which has already been read.

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

            Those on the desert mountainside are weak.  They cannot journey any further without food.  The disciples realize this, but they wonder about their Master.  Doesn’t He realize what is happening?  Why does He let the crowd follow Him so blindly, so caught up in His miraculous healing and powerful Word that they forget about the very necessities of life?  And now it is evening and soon the people won’t be able to find anything to eat anywhere.

So the disciples come to Jesus and say, “This is a desolate place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”  Imagine the nerve!  Telling Jesus what to do.  Ordering Him about as if He has come to fulfill your every whim and wish, to be at your beck and call.  You’d never do anything like that, would you?  Of course you have.  I have, too.  How many earnest petitions have you put forth, failing to speak and think as Jesus taught and prayed: “Thy will be done.” 

But Jesus doesn’t take His disciples to task for their bossiness.  He simply says, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”  Jesus knows exactly what He is doing.  He has drawn them out to this desolate place on purpose.  Still it’s important to remember: neither the suffering, the pain, nor the fear come from Him—they are a consequence of man’s fallen state.  The truth be told, the crowd in the wilderness had followed Jesus, simply seeking earthly things, and they forgot to plan ahead.  Now they are so far gone they cannot return home without getting some nutrition or they’ll faint alone the way.

Nonetheless, Jesus will use all of this to their advantage in His mercy.  He draws them to a hopeless point.  There, in the hopeless situation, He provides for them.  He teaches them that there is only one place to look for sustenance.  He demonstrates that He is hope for the hopeless.  Thus, in suffering we learn faith.

            You know that.  This is nothing new.  You’ve heard it many times, many Sundays, many sermons.  And yet when you’re on the mountainside with grumbling stomachs, the pull of the flesh is so strong, the desolation is so intense, that your bones ache within you.  You’ve most likely been through such times.  Oh, probably not physical hunger, here in this land of plenty.  God produces so much food through our farmers in this country that we pay them not to produce certain crops and we burn our grain as fuel for our homes and automobiles. 

No, you probably haven’t been that hungry that you were literally starving, but you do know desolation.  You do know the emptiness.  You do know the deep-seated need of the Lord’s intervention and/or providence.  You’ve been through it before; perhaps you are even now going through it.  And, if somehow you haven’t experienced such desolation yet, let me assure you—you most certainly will.

            In such times, irreverent questions will occasionally rise from your heart to your lips, “So what God?  So what if you performed miracles and taught great things in the past.  So what if the future looks good.  Where are You now?  Where are those spiritual high points, those emotional mountaintops?  When will You multiply loaves for me?  I cry and I cry up toward heaven, but the clouds just roll on by!  What relevance in such desolation does the feeding of the five thousand have for me?  How can I pray for relief, when it has been my ceaseless prayer for so long, and for so long has gone unanswered.” 

How many times have you stood like Philip and said, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient.”  That is, there is no hope.  Or stood with Andrew and said, “There is a young boy here with five barley loaves and two small fish, but what are they among so many?”  That is, “It is impossible, Lord.  And while I believe all that Your Word says about You, when the black curtain of depression, despair, and desolation descends around me, cutting me off from loved ones and good things, it all seems irrelevant.  Oh, You who conquered sin and death, can You not too conquer my pain?   Can You not solve my problem?  Can you not provide for my need?  Well, then, why haven’t You?”

            Dear sad, lonely, needy friends, the impossible things, the insurmountable obstacles, the historical briar patches that have stopped mere mortals, these things are nothing to God.  For Him all things are possible.  He can, He does, conquer.  He has, He will provide. 

In the Sinai wilderness He fed two million people with bread from heaven every day for forty years.  On the mountainside, He fed five thousand men, plus women and children with five barley cakes and two fish, after spending all day healing their sick.  And then there’s His greatest miracle: Rising from the dead three days after giving up His life on the cross for the sins of the world.  From the most difficult of circumstances, from the smallest number of resources, from weakness and humility, indeed, even from death, Jesus grants the greatest gifts.

            You say, “What am I to do?  I am sad.  I am lonely.  I am sick.  I am depressed.  I am afraid.  I am in need.  I’m at the end of my rope.  I’m facing an impossible situation.  My problems are big and there is no where to turn.”

            And the Lord says, “Sit down.”  That’s what He says on the mountainside of miraculous feeding.  He has the people sit.  That is what He says to you.  He says, “Sit down.”

            Sit down and listen.  Sit down and wait.  You will be provided for in His own way, in His own time.  He will provide.  He will give you what you need, exactly when you need it.  He came to save you, and not only for the hereafter, but also for the here now. 

            Jesus looks upon the five thousand men plus women and children who have come to hear Him and He has compassion upon them.  They don’t ask Him for help.  It seems that perhaps they don’t even recognize the dire circumstances or their great need.  But at Jesus’ command, they sit down and He takes care of them. 

Jesus’ purpose in feeding the five thousand and providing for your needs today is to point to His everlasting provision for your soul.  Through that assembly He looks through the ages and down the centuries upon all His beloved children of all time.  He draws you to Himself in love and compassion.  He sees your hurt, your sorrow, your need.  He hears you cry, “Lord, I hurt!  I am in need!” 

            And He replies, “I know.  This broken world hurt Me, too.  I’ve suffered way beyond anything you need experience.  I’ve been hungry.  I’ve been sleepless.  I’ve felt the loneliness and despair.  I’ve been judged unfairly.  I’ve been falsely accused.  I’ve been mistreated.  I’ve felt the icy cold grip of the fear of death.  I’ve been tempted in every way as you are, yet without sin.  I’ve drained the cup of suffering down to even the last dregs—death on the cross. 

“But My Father did not leave Me in the grave.  He delivered Me from the depths of Hell.  So, too, will I deliver you.  My death is sufficient.  It is enough.  It covers all your transgressions, pays the debt of all your sin.  ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in [Me]… The sufferings of this present time are not worthy comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to [you]… For those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to [My] purpose’ (Romans 8). 

“Hang on.  Nothing shall separate you from My love.  I am here for you where I have promised to be.  There in those places is comfort, peace, and hope in these gray and latter days.  There is strength for the journey.  But only in Me.  I am the only Name under heaven by which men are saved.  No man comes to the Father but by Me.  There is no solace, no healing, no peace anywhere else. 

“So sit down.  Stop your braying, your vain introspection, your silly little superstitions.  Stop trying to make your own way.  Stop trying to manipulate Me as though I were your genie ready to grant you your every wish.  I am here to serve you, but not just with bread for this mortal body and life.  Hear My words of life, of love, of forgiveness.  Come.  Kneel before Me.  Let Me feed you with Bread that satisfies your very soul.  And know this: I am coming back to get you.”

The Lord hears you.  He knows your need.  He answers your prayers.  It is not the bare minimum, but abundant blessings.  Notice: Jesus did not feed the five thousand with merely enough rations to ensure that they did not perish there on the hill side, or even just enough to get them all home again, but He gave so much that each person ate until he was filled, and still there were twelve overflowing baskets left over.  Where God bestows His gifts, human vessels are filled to overflowing.  They cannot contain it.  The grace of God is bigger than your need.

            But that doesn’t mean that He will always satisfy the cravings of your flesh.  Jesus makes it clear that He is no Bread King, sent here to earth merely to keep your stomach, wallet, or social calendar full.  While He keeps His promise to provide for your temporal daily bread, Jesus brings you so much more—the Bread of Life that endures to eternal life. 

Jesus knows your weakness, your greatest need.  He knows your sinful, lowly state.  And He has done what you could never do for yourself—He has made full atonement for your sin.  He has reconciled you to God and declared you to be perfect in the eyes of the Father.  Though you remain weak and in constant need of repentance and forgiveness, Jesus never stops providing.  How the disciples must have marveled at how Jesus, who began with a few barley biscuits, never ran out of provisions in the midst of thousands!  So much more should you marvel at how Jesus, in the midst of a world of weak and sinful people, never runs out of grace, mercy, and love to forgive you and strengthen you for holy living! 

            Jesus comes to you today not because you’ve made a request of Him.  He comes to you because He’s promised to give you your daily bread.  Just as He supplies you with what you need to support this body and life, He also gives you what you need to prepare you for everlasting life. 

Jesus feeds you with more than bread to nourish the body.  He feeds you with the Living Bread that feeds your soul.  In His means of grace—His Word and Sacraments, He gives Himself to you.  He blesses you with spiritual nourishment here in His House, where you receive the forgiveness of your sins.  He provides you with the faith to trust in Him and believe His Word. 

And He does this through the hands of His called servants.  Did you notice how Jesus fed the five thousand?  He looked to heaven and said a blessing.  He broke the bread and gave the pieces to the disciples.  They gave the pieces to the crowds.  This would establish the pattern whereby Jesus would continue to feed His Church through His disciples after He removed His visible presence from them.  This is the way in which He continues to lavish His grace upon you today—through the Office of the Holy Ministry.  Through the hands and mouth of His called and ordained servant, Jesus feeds you with the richest of fare.

He has given you His Word, read and preached.  Listen to it!  Read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest it.  There’s comfort for you there.  There’s life, abundant life, life to the full, there.  There, you will find Jesus, because these Scriptures bear witness to Him.  There, you find Jesus, because the man in this pulpit speaks for Him, in His stead and by His command, by His authority and in His place.

            Christ also gives you His Body and His Blood through your pastor.  Come to the Lord’s Table.  There Jesus will strengthen and sustain you in this life, with preparation for the next.  In, with, and under the Bread and the Wine, He forgives your sins, washes your soul clean, and brings you into perfect communion with Him.  He gives you a foretaste of the heavenly banquet that will have no end.

            In Absolution, Christ Himself, who represents you as innocent in His wounds before His Father, speaks through the mouth of His servant and you are pure and holy as He is pure and holy.  He says to you: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” 

            These are the means for grace!  For the time being they do not take away all of your pain or suffering.  They do not even cure all of your doubts.  But they will give you the strength to carry on, to believe in the face of trouble.  They will pick you up when you fall.  They will keep you from fainting on the way.  And they will lead you to your destination where the cross will be traded for a crown, to the place where there are no tears, no regrets, no fear, no guilt, no loneliness, no depression, no hunger or sickness, none of the desolation left in the wake of sin.

So come to the waters that satisfy, that cleanse and refresh.  You have no money?  Come, anyway.  Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.  Are you depressed?  Lonely?  Are you afraid?  Are you in any need?  Come.  Sit down.  Listen to Him.  Hear His Words.  Eat His Body, drink His Blood.  These will feed you.  These will restore you.  These will heal you. 

Eat what is good.  Let your soul delight itself in Christ’s abundance, in His compassion, in His mercy.  Let Him fill the empty spaces inside you.  Incline your ear.  Come to Him.  Hear, and your soul shall live!  Jesus gives nothing less than Himself—the Bread of Life, His Flesh for souls conflicted and suffering under the cross and awaiting glory yet to come.  Come, for here, you are forgiven for all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Come, For Everything Is Now Ready!

            The text for today is our Gospel lesson, Luke 14:15-17: “When one of those who reclined at table with Him heard these things, he said to him, “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!”  But [Jesus] said to him, “A man once gave a great banquet and invited many.  And at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’”  Here ends the text.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Jesus accepts an invitation to dine at the house of a prominent Pharisee.  Surrounded by lawyers and Pharisees who are watching Him carefully, Jesus challenges their thinking on Sabbath traditions, humility before God, and mercy.  Picking up on Jesus’ banquet theme, hoping to demonstrate his own theological prowess, one of the men who reclined at table with Him exclaims: “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God.”    
The man’s statement is not false, but it’s wrong, because it’s incomplete.  It misses the main point: Jesus is the Kingdom of God.  The problem with this pious-sounding exclamation is the word “shall.”   For this exclamation is made to Him who is the Bread of Life.  He is the Kingdom of God Incarnate.  Jesus is the One who is getting all things ready for the eternal heavenly banquet. 
Remember how John the Baptist preached?  “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”  Which is to say, “Repent, because Jesus is here.”  God has come to us in our flesh.  He has taken up our cause.  He makes Himself a sinner in our place and endures all of the Father’s wrath, all that Hell can dish out.  As St. Paul writes: “For our sake [God] made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). 
Jesus’ Baptism at the Jordan River is not a washing, but an infection.  The water He is baptized with is filthy with our sin, and He soaks it all up in Himself like an activated charcoal filter.  And then Jesus carries that load of sin all the way with Him to the cross at Calvary.  Behold, the Lamb of God who bears the sin of the world.  He is the sacrificial Passover Lamb, the One who goes in your place, the One who gives Himself into death that you might die to sin and have everlasting life.  As we just sang, He has prepared this feast for our salvation.  It is His Body and His Blood, and at His invitation as weary souls, with sin oppressed, we come to Him for needed rest, for comfort and for pardon (LSB 622).
So the first point then is not that those who shall eat bread in the Kingdom of God will be blessed, but that those who heed the invitation now are blessed.  Those who eat the Bread of Heaven now are blessed.  There is no other blessing; no one will eat then who does not eat now.  Now is the hour of salvation. 
Cursed are those who reject the invitation of the King, who are too busy with their life to attend to their souls, who have little awareness of their sins or their need.  Cursed are those who think there is time… that they can fend for themselves… that God will understand.  Blessed are those who recognize the Kingdom in the weakness of Jesus’ suffering and dying and join Him now, here on earth, in the eating of His Body and the drinking of His blood.
The Kingdom of God is not some far away event in the distant future of which someday men shall partake—it is now!  In the person and work of Jesus Christ!  Blessed is he who eats bread in the Kingdom of God—now!  For of such is the Kingdom of God.  In them the Holy Trinity rules by grace and is present now.
So Jesus tells a parable.  It’s meant to show how God extended His banquet invitation to His chosen people Israel many times throughout history, but they rejected Him again and again.  So God will create His people from others—Gentiles, and “compel [them] to come in, that His House may be filled.” 
That’s how God deals with fallen sinners!  Like the Master of the House, He sends out His servants into the streets, and into the highways and hedges, to compel even outsiders to come to the banquet.  The point is clear.  It doesn’t matter who His servants get as they go out gathering people for the banquet.  He wants His House filled!  Any person will do!  Compel them!  “And how were they compelled?” you might ask.  The Master’s word compelled them: “Come, for everything is now ready.”   
But, of course, those originally invited refuse to come.  They all have one excuse after another.  So the Owner compels other people to come in their place.  And they come!  It is not that they earned some credit by coming; they are compelled to come by the grace of the Host.  But it is an enormous loss that others suffer by making excuses, by not understanding the urgency of the invitation.
Sitting here, we can clearly see the foolishness of such choices and behavior.  We are pleased that the Host invites the outsiders: the dregs of society, the poor, the lame, the crippled, and the blind, and that there is still room for more.  We are glad, for that means there is still room for us.
But for how long?  For this parable is about urgency, about the desperate, current need we have.  We scoff at the men in the parable who think themselves too busy to attend.  Perhaps we even feel sorry for them.  After all, it isn’t necessarily that they don’t want to come at all; it’s just that they aren’t ready to come when they’re invited.  Thus do proud and arrogant men think that they can prey upon the generosity and patience of God!  
This is especially true in our day.  Who hasn’t wanted the best of both worlds—the pleasures of the flesh, honor among men, luxuries, freedom, constant amusement and the joys and peace of heaven?  Who is ready to lose his job, his family, his reputation, and his wealth for the Kingdom of God?  We promised all of that our confirmation.  Did we really mean it?
We live in a culture that seeks immediate gratification at the expense of long-term gain.  And while that strategy is dubious here in earthly things, it is sheer folly in heavenly things.  Do not think that you can enjoy the forbidden fruit now and grasp heaven for cheap when it is more convenient! 
With this parable, Jesus is compelling us to come to His banquet now!  There is nothing more important!  This understanding has somehow withered away in our lazy, convenient, American Christianity.  It’s the same compelling word of command.  Come now!  Not some time in the future.  Not when it fits into your schedule.  Not when you feel like it.  Come, everything is ready now!  Come to church!  Come to My heavenly banquet and forget those excuses and misplaced priorities, or you may never taste of My eternal, heavenly banquet!”
Pastor, you’re not saying that I have to come to church to be a Christian, are you?  Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying.  For that’s exactly what Jesus is saying.  You have to come to God’s House to hear His Word.  You have to come to the Table He has set for you.  That’s how the Holy Spirit keeps you in the one true faith.  To do otherwise is to do as the Pharisees.  It’s marching to your own drum, trying to conform God to your idea of who He should be.
When did we lose this truth?  When did we lose the idea that gathering around the preached Word and Sacrament isn’t optional?  When did we stop saying what God clearly says: “Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy”?  What does this mean?  “We are to fear and love God so that we do not dishonor His Word, and the preaching of it, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”  It is so clear!
Now, this does not mean that everyone who simply goes to church is a Christian.  That would be the same as saying that someone, simply by stepping foot in a hospital, is automatically healed of disease.  That being said, church is not optional.  Worship is not simply one of several possibilities for a given day and hour.  It is the place where God has set His banquet table here on earth. 
God’s Word says, “Come!  Draw near!”  That’s a command.  Listen to what follows this command in Hebrews 10:22-27: “Draw near to God in full assurance of faith, with hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and bodies washed with pure water.  Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.  And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.  For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.”
So, do you need to go to church to be a Christian?  Absolutely!  For how else do you stay a Christian?  It is not by your own reason or strength.  It is by the Holy Spirit’s working through the preached Word and the banquet of the Lord’s Supper.  These are the means by which God keeps you in faith and brings you the forgiveness of sins.  This is the way by which you remain in God’s Kingdom. 
But I’m probably “preaching to the choir,” as the saying goes, for you are here today, and I suspect that most of you worship regularly.  But that doesn’t mean you’re not guilty of despising God’s Word or always gladly hear and learn it.  Who among us has not sat in the Lord’s house and wished the service was done already?  Who has not been bored in church and daydreamed not just of lunch and appointments for the week, not just of fame and fortune and dreams comes true, but sat in these very pews and dreamed of evil?  Even plotted to sin?  We’ve lusted and coveted, lied and blasphemed within sight of the Table of the Lord while the Word of God was read and His great love proclaimed, thinking that we can somehow have it all.  Who among us has not misplaced our priorities when it comes to our relationship to Christ and an eager acceptance of His gracious invitation to join Him now and in eternity?
 Are we ready for the final summons?  Are we eager and expectant?  Not quite.  I’ve talked to more than one mother who’s said she is not quite ready for Christ’s return because she first wants to see her children grow up.  I know plenty of people who say they want to go to heaven, but they’re in no hurry to get there.  I’ve even heard some that have the idea that eventually they want to take their faith more seriously in the future, but for now they want to have fun, as though life in heaven were some strict monastic order void of color and life and joy.
Repent!  That is pure nonsense.  No believer will be disappointed in the Day of Glory.  No believer will look back longingly on this vale of tears or desire anything in it.  What far better joy to have your children let out of this wearisome world early and to be joined to them in perfect communion in the presence of the Lord in heaven?  What earthly experience could possibly be a wonderful as any pursuit in which you might participate in paradise?        
I’ve also talked with people who are obviously near the end of life, of great age or poor health, and with great sorrow.  They tell me how frustrated they are that God keeps them here, that they are ready to go, and don’t know what purpose more they can serve here.  I tell them that I don’t know, either, but with those who love God and have been called according to His purposes, all things work out for good, and surely He will bring them home soon, just as soon as the time is perfect. 
But that desire for the end, that eager expectation should be in us all, regardless of age, health, or station in life.  For what have any of us to add to this world?  God does not need us here.  This is not our home.  “Come, Lord Jesus,” should be more than a mindless table prayer.  It should be our fondest desire and our most fervent petition.  And, yet, the sad fact is that sometimes we have behaved and thought on eternity as though we might be bored in heaven, that we might miss our beer, our lust, and our pride. 
Well, it is true that heaven is not a utopia of golf courses, stocked ponds, perfect pinochle hands, or packed shopping malls.  It is much better than that!  Heaven is the most interesting, delightful, and wonderful thing we can’t even begin to imagine.  There we will be free of sin and its consequences.  We will stop hurting ourselves and those we love with shameful, selfish behavior.  We will bask in the presence of our loving Father as His adopted family perfected in grace. 
But that joy to come, that glory to be revealed, is already now for those with eyes to see.  We are already God’s children, forgiven by grace, in whom He abides.  And already now—here—He gathers us around Himself, feeds us with food that money cannot buy, with Bread that will not waste, with crucified Flesh and spilt Blood that is not dead, which satisfies righteousness. 
So, come!  Stop playing games with your fate, planning to sin now and repent later.  Stop thinking that your sins are reasonable and bring no guilt or that you have some special relationship to God where He indulges your sins.  Repent!  Repent now.  There is but one case of death-bed repentance in all of the Scriptures, so that while no man should despair and think it is too late, neither should anyone presume he will always have more time.  Come, for everything is now ready!
Christ has done all things for you.  He has taken up your flesh, lived and suffered, died and rose for you.  He has endured the Father’s wrath and hell’s fire for you.  He has crushed the serpent’s head and dissolved the chains of guilt and shame that held you.  He has flung open wide heaven and removed the guards.  The flaming sword of Eden has been quenched in the Blood of the Lamb.  The angel of death passes over.  You are safe.  There is no one to accuse you, no one to keep you out.  God Himself loves you and beckons you to come to the feast. 
Come, for everything is now ready!  Leave behind these temporary things.  Get lost in the love of Christ that has loved you beyond all telling, that has forgiven every single flaw and sin and makes you new in Him.  Lose yourself and find your life.  Eat and drink without money or cost.  Be satisfied to the very depths of your soul and never thirst again.  You belong to God.  His Name is upon you.  You are baptized and He abides in you.  These highways and hedges are not your home.  He brought you here this day to His House and to His Feast.  Come.  Be wrapped in perfect, selfless love.  Eat His Body.  Drink His Blood.
Come, for everything is now ready!  Nothing is lacking.  He desires that you call upon Him and rest in Him.  He wants you here.  Whatever you’ve done, whatever excuses you’ve made in the past, whatever evil things you’ve dreamed and thought, whatever lies you’ve told and slander in which you’ve engaged—no matter what—God has paid for it all in His Son. 
And thus does the Spirit of Christ call: “Come, for everything is now ready!”  “Come, eat of My Bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.  Leave your simple ways, and live” (Proverbs 9:5-6).  “You who were once far off have been brought near by the Blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:12-13).  “You are forgiven for all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  Amen.
May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.          

Into the Wilderness

"Christ in the Wilderness" by Ivan Kramskoy Click here to listen to this sermon. “The Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out ...