Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Time to Keep, A Time to Cast Away

The text for today is Ecclesiastes 3:1-8:  “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.”  Here ends the text.

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

Admit it!  Many of you (especially those of you from the baby boom generation), can’t hear this passage of Scripture without hearing Roger McGuinn’s twelve-string guitar or the “Turn! Turn! Turn!” chorus added by Pete Seger and sung by The Byrds in their folk rock version of this passage.  But even without its inclusion in popular culture and the peace movement, these verses form one of the most famous and best loved portions of Ecclesiastes.  With one short poetic line after another, Solomon skillfully drives home the truth stated in the first verse:  “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”

Now, all of these things are true, and most are applicable to marriage, but there is a particular reason why this passage seemed appropriate for this day.  As I considered what I would write for this special occasion, one pair of opposite seasons and times kept coming to my mind: “A time to keep, and a time to cast away.”  A time to keep, and a time to cast away. 

Why this half verse?  Well, how can I put this?  Let’s just say that Marissa will never be featured on one of the episodes of “Hoarders.”  She’s much more likely to cast away than to keep.   She probably wouldn’t have any of her papers, ribbons, or trophies from school if her mom had not rescued them from the garbage can. 

And I know Derek is at least a little bit the same.  It was his birthday.  Someone sent him a card.  He opened it up at our house.  He read it.  Then he took it over to the garbage and cast it away.  When questioned by one of the “keepers” in our house, he simply replied, “I read it.  It was nice.  Why do I need to keep it anymore?”  Makes perfect sense to me.

There is a time to keep, and a time to cast away.  And, Derek and Marissa, today I’m going to emphasize a few of those times those words will serve you well in your marriage.  And to help you to remember, I have two gifts.    

The first is a wooden chest.  In itself it is a keepsake.  It is one of a kind.  It was made by the loving, skillful hands of Grandpa Bob.  Use this to keep mementos of both the big occasions and milestones, but also to hold those little memories that you will find often end up being more significant when you look back on them.

The second is a waste basket.  Purchased at Wal-Mart, it is mass-produced consumable, meaning that there are a lot of them and that they expect that you will keep coming back for more when this one is no longer useful to you.  Use this for those items that need to be cast away or thrown out.

There is a time to keep, and a time to cast away.  I urge you, first of all, to cast away the world’s conceptions of love and marriage and keep the proper, godly understanding of marriage and love that you’ve been taught. 

We live in a season and time when there is much misunderstanding about marriage.  You’ve heard the frightening statistics.  As you’ve met with Pastor Nix, I’m sure that he has reminded you that good marriages do not just happen.  They require much work and sacrifice.  There are many forces, spiritually and socially, that battle against the union of marriage.  No wonder the rite of holy matrimony begins with this warning: “Marriage is not to be entered into inadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.”

There is a time to keep and a time to cast away.  Keep confessing and casting out sins, one to the other.

God Himself instituted marriage in the Garden of Eden before the fall into sin as a means to preserve and prosper human life in His good creation.  This is why I prefer to use the term holy matrimony.   Marriage is holy because God, who is holy, instituted it.  He makes the two individuals into one flesh, and He blesses all creation through this union.  Because God instituted marriage, it is used in Scripture as an illustration of the relationship between God and His people.  This reality is particularly recognized in the Church’s teaching concerning holy matrimony.  “‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’  This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31-32).

Like holy matrimony, there is much confusion about the nature of love.  It is frequently mistaken for a mere emotion, a feeling in the gut or the heart, a state that one can fall into and out of almost randomly.  Certainly, love brings all sorts of pleasant feelings, but real love is, oh, so much more.  Especially the kind of love spoken in the New Testament, agape, a favorable regard based on one’s choice, a commitment.  It is often allied with notions of sacrifice, one for the other. 

One of the most familiar Bible verses is: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son…” (John 3:16).  It is important to note that this verse does not say, “For God so loved the world that He got the “warm fuzzies.”  God’s gift of His Son was a result or consequence of His commitment, His deep resolve to secure our salvation.  God’s love results in action, specifically the action of self-giving or self-sacrifice expressed in 1 John 3:16: “By this we know love, that [Christ] laid down His life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.”  And St. Paul connects Christ’s self-sacrifice and human marriage in Ephesians 5: “Husband, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her” (v 25). 

This is the definition of real love.  Real love considers the needs and well-being of the other person first, regardless of cost.  Over the years, emotions will wax and wane, but love, agape, chooses to serve the other because of thanksgiving and gratefulness for the mercy shown to the sinner in Christ.  Hear how Paul talks of the loving relationship: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).  Cast away all selfishness, envy, rudeness, or resentment.  Keep Christ at the center of your marriage.  Let His love be the fountain and source of your love.

There is a time to keep and a time to cast away.  Keep your relationship a high priority.   Relationships require time.  You must spend time together or you will grow apart.  You demonstrate what is important to you by how you spend your time.  How can you maintain your relationship as a high priority?  Many couples schedule a weekly date night even after the wedding.  Make the necessary arrangements.  Call the babysitter.  (I might know one or two people who would be available from time to time for a very reasonable price :-).  This ensures that you will focus on each other.  Communicate every single day.  Pray together.  Read Scripture and devotional literature together.

Even more importantly: Keep the Sabbath day holy together; that is, do not despise preaching and God’s Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.  There is no love greater than the love that God shows toward His rebellious children by granting the forgiveness of their sins.  This is one reason why it is extremely important for your family to be present regularly in God’s house when the Gospel is purely preached and the Sacraments are administered according to Christ’s institution.  As you hear that you are the recipient of unselfish divine love, that God in Christ has made the ultimate sacrifice on your behalf, God’s Spirit melts the hardened me-centered heart and leads to forgiveness.

“Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”  We’ve heard this line many times; but it’s wrong.  The forgiver may not need an apology, but the one being forgiven certainly needs to say it.  By acknowledging your sinfulness, you are open to hearing God’s word of forgiveness.  A heart calloused and hardened against sin is not able to love or be loved.  Know how to say you are sorry.  Be honest enough to admit when you are at fault.  As you become more aware of your own personal failings and of God’s amazing grace and steadfast love, you can become more patient and able to forgive others.

The Christian life is a struggle for as long as we live in this world.  The forces of spirit and sinful flesh are perpetually at war inside us.  Believers are simultaneously sinners and saints.  We are accounted by God to be saints by virtue of Christ and His sacrifice on our behalf.  Yet we continue to transgress the Law of God in thought, word, and deed.  It is a paradox.  And this paradox increases exponentially in Christian marriage, which starts out with two sinners and two saints.  If you put two people together long enough, they will inevitably sin against each other.  That is the state of our condition until the resurrection on the Last Day when our glorification in Christ will be made perfect. 

Meanwhile, we must find ways to live together in peace.  Repentance and forgiveness are the empowering dynamic of our life together in this world.  The wrongdoer admits his guilt and determines to change his behavior.  And the other part graciously grants pardon.  Repentance and forgiveness are the key to a happy marriage.  Keep confessing and casting out sins to one another.  When you both abide in the forgiving love of Christ, your marriage will be able to weather any storm.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” And I believe that it’s now time for your vows and the consecration of your marriage.  Amen.

A Little While

The text for today is our Gospel lesson, John 16:16-22, which has already been read.

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

Before I begin, I must issue the following warning: This sermon contains an illustration featuring the exploits of one of my adorable grandchildren.

A couple of years ago we were in the van headed to Gillette, Wyoming for a wedding.  My grandson Abbott started fussing.  So I just said: “Ten more minutes and then we’ll stop.”  Much to my surprise, he quieted down.  And in ten minutes, I kept my promise.  After a quick diaper change and a bottle of formula he was good to go for another 200 miles.  Then he started fussing again.  Since it worked the first time, I decided to try the same line again: “Ten more minutes.”  It seemed to work so well that I used it over and over again.

Now, as biased as I may be about my grandchildren’s advanced abilities, I realize Abbott didn’t really understand.  He was only four months old at the time.  But even though he didn’t understand, that voice seemed to reassure him.  And the running joke seemed to pass the time more quickly for us adults than a crying baby.  At the same time, it was a reminder to me that the day will come when Abbott will ask that age-old question: “How much longer until we get there?”  And now that he’s almost three we’re getting pretty close to that time. 

The key to good communication is to speak to someone’s level.  Not too far below as to be condescending.  Not too far above, as to be unintelligible.  What do you say to a young child, who has no real concept of time or distance?  You tell them: “We’ll be there in a little while.”  They don’t really understand “10 minutes” or “15 miles,” but they do learn to understand “a little while.”

And that’s what Jesus is doing in our text.  He’s speaking to His disciples, who are like young children, theologically speaking.  They don’t understand His plan of salvation.  They don’t realize that God, who is not bound by time and space, looks at time and space in a much different way than we mortal, finite men and women.  And so to explain to them what is going to be happening in the next few terrible days and in the glorious age to come, He says to them: “A little while, and you will see Me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see Me… because I am going to the Father.” 

“A little while.”  We’ll come back to that phrase.  But before we do, we need to understand the context in which Jesus spoke these words.  “A little while” could be a few days if you’re waiting for Christmas, but not much more than a minute or two if you really have to use the restroom.  And so it’s helpful for us to have a better understanding of the situation Jesus and His disciples faced when these words were spoken.

Our text is part of Jesus’ last discourse with His disciples in the Upper Room as He prepared them for the difficult days ahead.  The disciples were still laboring under misconceptions as to what the Messiah would do for Israel and were bewildered by the change in mood in Jesus since Sunday, when He had purposely fulfilled messianic prophecy and had entered the city to acclaim as the Son of David.  Concerned about the growing conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities, they waited for Him to establish His kingdom here.

But now He was talking about going and suffering and dying.  He was telling them that they would be denying Him and be put out of the synagogues and killed.  And if that weren’t enough, Jesus was trying to explain the work of the Holy Spirit and the interaction of the Trinity, and indicated that He had many other things on His mind He wanted to share with them, but they were more than the disciples could bear at that time.  No wonder they were confused and bewildered.

Indeed, their hearts were breaking.  They had left their homes behind.  They had given everything just to be with Jesus.  He was their home now.  Wherever He went, they followed.  And being with Him was enough.  Hearing that voice, sometimes so gentle and sometimes so stern.  Looking into those eyes, sometimes filled with laughter and sometimes sparking in anger.  He was their Jesus.  He was their home.  But now He says that He is going away and that they cannot come with Him.  Their hearts were breaking.  He tries to help them understand.

“I am not leaving forever.  I am going away.  Going to the Father.  You will not see Me.  But then you will see Me.  Truly you will have sorrow.  You will cry and weep and the world will go on oblivious to your pain, in its own happiness.  But look… though you will be sorrowful, your sorrow will be turned into joy.”

The look on their faces must have told Him that they did not understand.  They were not following what He was trying to say to them.  So He explained further: “Look, it’s like this.  A woman, when she is in labor has sorrow because her hour has come.  She’s in pain.  It hurts.  It hurts badly.  But it doesn’t hurt forever.  No.  There comes the moment when the little baby is laid beside her and she looks into his face.  She embraces her in her bosom and her joy is total and complete.  The sorrow and pain are forgotten.  The anguish is gone.  Her heart swells with joy that a human being has been born.  Her little baby.”

Jesus looked around at their faces.  “Do you understand now?”  There was the dawning of understanding written on their faces.  They understood what He had just said, but they were not sure of its application to them.  So He goes on: “That’s how it is with you and Me.  Now you will have sorrow.  Your gut will feel as though it’s being ripped in two.  Your heart will feel like it’s being pulled out.  You will cry out in your pain.  Because of what’s about to happen to Me.  You are going to lose your home for a little while.  You are going to lose your companion for a little while.  You are going to be alone for a little while. 

“A little while.  Do you hear that?  ‘A little while.’  Cling to that.  Through the hours and days to come, keep saying to yourself: ‘a little while, a little while.’  Because I will see you again.  Though death bars the way, though the grave closes its gates upon Me, I will see you again.  Me.  The One speaking to you now.  Not a phantom.  Not a ghost.  But Me, the flesh and blood Me that you have known lo these three years.  You will see Me again when the time of sorrow is through and when you do… and when you do… such joy will fill your heart…. such rapture will seize you… such happiness will flood your very being that you will be forever changed.  You will have planted in you a joy that no one and nothing has the power to take away.  Because you will see Me again.  And then you will understand.  Joy abounding.  Joy forever. 

Their heads were nodding now.  Pain was ahead.  Bad pain.  The pain of their own weakness, their own betrayals of Him, their own denials and running away…. the pain of watching their Beloved hanging on the tree, in agony.  Knowing that it was their sin and the world’s sin that put Him there.  Knowing that there was nothing they could do to help the One they loved.  Having to stand by and watch Him die, utterly helpless and alone.  Pain indeed.  But it wasn’t forever.  Not for Him, and not for them and not for you.  It was only for a little while.  And when it was over, there was the promise of joy that never ended, the joy of Jesus alive, seeing them again.

That joy was theirs when He came and stood among them and said to them:  “Peace be with you!”  And their hearts burst with joy as they saw it was indeed the Lord, risen and alive with life that never ends.  And the promise He brought them was that He was only the firstfruits, the beginning.  There were many to follow.  Yes, them too.  He would raise them from the dead as He had been raised.  He, who conquered death, would set all His children free from its power.  Joy abounding and overflowing.

It was indeed a joy that no one could take away from them, no circumstances could rob of them.  They went out into the world a laughing, joy-filled, celebrating people.  They marched out into the world where death and the sadness of sin held sway, and by the news they brought they set free then people who dwelt in darkness and the shadow of death.  Those who all the length of their lives were held in bondage by fear of death, they set free.  Everywhere they went they announced: “Your sins have been answered for completely.  Your guilt has been taken away.  Your death has been destroyed.  You are loved by God in His Son.  Repent and believe!  Taste and see!  Your Lord is good to you!”

And they did not forget to tell the rest of the message.  What Jesus had said to the Apostles in the Upper Room illumined for them the way Jesus’ people were to walk through all the sorrows of this world.  The Apostles tell us flat out: “In this world you will have trouble.”  All kinds of troubles. 

In this world your heart will break.  You will grow old and begin to fall apart.  You will have disappointment and heartache and trial upon trial.  You will watch your closest friend turn his back on you just when you need him the most.  You will suffer the consequences of your own sinful actions and the decisions of others.  You will watch helplessly as a loved one struggles with a terrible disease… perhaps, even dies.  You will face the day of your own death.  But do not despair.  Learn to say to yourself: “A little while.” 

And a little while and it will be over.  For it is true that Jesus will see you again.  He will see you again in His kingdom, on that day when He wipes the tears from all eyes and comforts and heals all hurts and gives eternal joy to His people.

In the meantime, we know that we are God’s children now, and what we will be hasn’t been revealed yet, but that when He appears we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.  And when our hearts are overwhelmed and the joy of Jesus Christ seems far away, we learn to say inside: “a little while, it’s just for a little while.”  We lift our eyes to the heavenly City and see the joy and feasting that awaits us up ahead and so we go on.  We journey towards the goal. 

And for the moments when we are so weary that we do not know if we can go on, when we are bone tired and the thought of our own failures to win the battles against the flesh and our betrayals of the new life in Christ and our sins weigh heavy and we feel discouraged and down, Jesus reaches out to us with the food of the pilgrims, the waybread of His people, His Supper. 

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Bed Is Too Short in Your Covenant of Death

This is the message I shared as part of the opening devotion at today's quarterly meeting of the South Dakota Lutherans For Life board of directors.

“A Lutheran pastor, a Jewish rabbi, a Baptist minister, and a Roman Catholic priest walk into a hearing…” 

It sounds like the setup for a bad joke, doesn’t it?  But it was anything but a joke.  LCMS President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison joined the Most Reverent William E. Lori of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Dr. C. Ben Mitchell of Union University, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik of Yeshiva University, and Dr. Craig Mitchell of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in speaking in defense of religion and conscience before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in Washington, D.C on Thursday, February 16, 2012.

Expressing concern over the January 20th U.S. Health and Human Services ruling regarding health-insurance plans and the recently required coverage of contraceptives, Harrison said, “I’d rather not be here, frankly.  Our task is to proclaim, in the words of the blessed apostle St. John, the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanses us from all our sin… We haven’t the slightest intent to Christianize the government.  Martin Luther famously quipped one time, ‘I’d rather have a smart Turk than a stupid Christian governing me.’  We confess that there are two realms, the church and the state.  They shouldn’t be mixed—the church is governed by the Word of God, the state by natural law and reason”

Harrison went on to say, “I’m here to express our deepest distress over the HHS provisions… While we are opposed in principle, not to all forms of birth control, but only abortion-causing drugs, we stand with our friends in the Catholic Church and all others, Christians and non-Christians, under the free exercise and conscience provisions of the U.S. Constitution.”

It was a masterful statement, a wonderful paradigm for us Lutherans For Life to follow as we strive to be “Always Prepared to Make a Defense for Life.”  It trumpeted the “two-realm theology” first put forth by Christ (Matthew 22:17-22), then St. Paul (Romans 13:1-7), and later emphasized by Martin Luther that properly informs our involvement with life issues in both the civil and religious realms.  It was also one of the most concise confessions of the Gospel you will ever hear proclaimed in the public square: “the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanses us from all our sin.”  

Echoing the apostles’ response to those who would force them to violate their consciences in Acts 5:29, Harrison concluded: “We fought for a free conscience in this country, and we won’t give it up without a fight.  To paraphrase Martin Luther, the heart and conscience has room only for God, not for God and the federal government.  The bed is too narrow, the blanket is too short.  We must obey God rather than men, and we will.  Please get the federal government, Mr. Chairman, out of our consciences.  Thank you”

With all that is said in a few short minutes, it’s difficult to catch everything in Pastor Harrison’s statement when you hear it; but there is one line in that final paragraph that I noticed when I read the transcript.  He said, “The bed is too narrow, the blanket is too short.”  It sounded strange, but vaguely familiar.  It should have.  It was an allusion to Isaiah 28:20, where the prophet writes: “For the bed is too short to stretch oneself on, and the covering too narrow to wrap oneself.”

Now, people in the public square often quote Bible passages or parts of Bible verses to make their point.  But all too often they’ll take the passage out of context, and it ends up saying something that was never intended by the prophet or apostle as he wrote.  I decided to look at the textual and historical context.  To do this is, I backed up a bit.  Let me share it with you, beginning with verse 14:

Therefore hear the word of the Lord, you scoffers, who rule this people in Jerusalem!  Because you have said, ‘We have made a covenant with death, and with Sheol we have an agreement, when the overwhelming whip passes through it will not come to us, for we have made lies our refuge, and in falsehood we have taken shelter’; therefore thus says the Lord God, ‘Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion, a stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation: “Whoever believes will not be in haste.”  And I will make justice the line, and righteousness the plumb line; and hail will sweep away the refuge of lies, and waters will overwhelm the shelter.

“Then your covenant with death will be annulled, and your agreement with Sheol will not stand; when the overwhelming scourge passes through, you will be beaten down by it.  As often as it passes through it will take you; for morning by morning it will pass through, by day and by night; and it will be sheer terror to understand the message.  For the bed is too short to stretch oneself on, and the covering too narrow to wrap oneself in.  For the Lord will rise up as on Mount Perazim; as in the Valley of Gibeon He will be roused; to do His deed—strange is His deed!  and to work His work—alien is His work!  Now therefore do not scoff, lest your bonds be made strong; for I have heard a decree of destruction from the Lord God of hosts against the whole land” (Isaiah 28:14-22).

How subtle!  How refreshing!  How appropriate!  How profound!  How condemning!  How comforting!  When I first heard Pastor Harrison talking about the bed and the blanket I thought he was just saying this isn’t going to work.  That perhaps if he had grown up down South instead of Sioux City, Iowa, he might have said, “That dog ain’t gonna hunt.”  But the reference goes much deeper.

As the Lord spoke through His prophet Isaiah, the leaders of Judah had made an alliance with Egypt for protection against the Assyrians.  There was “hope” in Egypt—a hope that would never be realized.  Isaiah characterized the alliance as a “covenant with death,” an agreement with the grave.  No one, of course, publicly used those words.  But the political leaders, together with the drunken priests and lying prophets described earlier, were confident.  To them, it was an alliance that would protect them from death and the grave.

They had done everything to secure themselves and the nation against the coming of Assyria—except one thing.  They had not turned to the Lord for help and protection, but to their alliance and to their own political machinations. 

Isaiah called this alliance a lie and a falsehood.  It would not protect them at all.  In fact, the Lord would allow Jerusalem to be destroyed as a sign of His judgment upon their unbelief.  Their covenant with death would be annulled.  Their agreement with the grave would not stand.  Much like a whip, the Assyrian army would deal out a scourging punishment on Judah and Jerusalem.  They would be mercilessly and repeatedly beaten.  Thus Isaiah concludes the section with a little proverb: “The bed is too short… the covering too narrow.”  All their efforts would not be enough to bring protection or comfort.

Fast-forward about 2,600 years. Our nation has it own covenant with death.  Abortion on demand has stood as the law of the land for 39 years.  States protect the “right” to assisted suicide.  Health care professionals ignore the Hippocratic oath.  Organizations that supposedly laud parenthood make millions from the deaths of the innocent whose only crime is to be “unplanned.”  Political and religious leaders have allied themselves with such lies and falsehoods in order to enrich themselves at the expense of the poor and the weak.  And the signs of economic, cultural, and moral decay are all around—even in the Church. 

Is the judgment of the Lord beginning in the House of the Lord?  Will persecution cause us to wake from our slumber?  Like the people of Jerusalem, we are often tempted to take refuge in pleasant sounding lies.  It seems so much easier to “go along” and “get along” than to hold fast to the truth and speak up for those who have no voice.  Have we fallen victim to the covenant of death?  The agreement with the grave?  The promise of hope that is not really hope? 

We must repent and believe the Gospel!  There is only one Hope.  There is only One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  There is only one Rock and Shield.  There is only one Redeemer.  There is only one precious Cornerstone.  His name is Jesus Christ!   Whoever believes and builds on this Foundation will find the power of sin and death annulled.

Jesus lived the perfect obedient life that you or I could not.  He died on the cross to pay for the sins of the world—yours and mine included.  Three days later, He rose from the grave.  With His very own life blood, Christ established a new covenant of forgiveness, salvation, and life.  All who trust in Him will be saved.  They will not be dismayed.

What a wonderful message you and I have to share as Lutherans For Life!  Unlike the world’s covenant of death, we have the Good News of God’s promises of eternal life.  Unlike the kingdoms of this world that will one day be turned to rubble, we, by God’s grace, have an eternal kingdom kept in heaven.  Faith in God, not in human resources, provides the only solid basis for hope.  Jerusalem, Israel, Egypt, Assyria—all earthly kingdoms, even our own beloved country, will one day be destroyed; but the Lord will not give up His plan to build an indestructible Zion, made up of living stones and founded on a precious cornerstone—Jesus Christ and His Church. 

Indeed, He already has!  Amen. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Christ Is the Content, Center, and Key to All the Scriptures

The text for today is Luke 24:44-47:  Then [Jesus] said to them, “These are My words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”  Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”  This is the Word of the Lord.

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

Dr. Mortimer Adler taught a class at the University of Chicago on “The Great Books of the Western World.”  On one occasion Dr. Adler turned to one of his brightest students and asked her to summarize one the books for the class.  She had just gotten a high A on her examination for that very book, but she had to sheepishly admit: “I have no idea what it was about, Dr. Adler.” 

Adler instantly realized that he had been preparing his students for the examination on a book, but he had not taught it to them.  His students could get 100 percent on an examination, yet not understand what the book was about!  He said he changed his whole approach to teaching that afternoon.  From that time on Dr. Adler had his students read a book primarily to learn what the book was about. 

Unfortunately, too many people read the Bible in the same way as Dr. Adler’s students had been reading their assigned books.  They can answer a lot of questions about it, but they can’t tell you what it is really about!  They get bogged down in the minutiae and subplots, and end up ignoring the main character and major plot. As a consequence, the Bible remains for them a closed book. 

A good example of this approach is the Jehovah’s Witness or Mormon missionary who comes knocking at your door.  In all likelihood, if you ask, they will tell you that they take a very high view of the Bible’s inspiration.  But they do not acknowledge the centrality of Christ in all of Scripture.  And, consequently they do not confess Christ crucified and risen for the justification of sinners.

But this position is not found only in cults outside of Christianity, it is unfortunately also held by many mainline liberal Christians, who treat the Scriptures as simply a collection of moral lessons for wise living, but even then, make certain to highlight their own tolerance and open-mindedness—that, of course, you’re free to pick and choose your own morality. 

And then there are the more socially conservative Christians who call themselves American evangelicals.   Unfortunately they tend to emphasize the “American” more than the evangelion, the Gospel, so the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ takes a back seat to “reclaiming our Christian heritage.” 

As a result, much of the preaching in today’s American churches is just as Christless as the teaching of the Enlightenment deists.  The “Christ” preached in many of these congregations seems to exist in order to aid the hearer in his or her pursuit of successful living—whether that be financially, relationally, or psychologically.  And for that kind of “salvation” there really is no need for a Savior who dies on the cross, is buried, and is raised again on the third day according to Scriptures.  I suspect that is probably why Jesus just makes an obligatory cameo appearance on many Sundays in those congregations.    

What is the Bible about?  It is about Jesus Christ and His work of salvation.  Martin Luther said that Jesus Christ is the “center and circumference of the Bible,” meaning that its fundamental content is Christ—who He is and what He did for us in His death and resurrection.  To miss Him as the center and key to Scripture is to remain in darkness and ignorance. 

In taking this position, Luther was not dreaming up some novel way to read the Scriptures.  He was simply reflecting what Jesus said.  Jesus confronted the Pharisees: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about Me, yet you refuse to come to Me that you may have life” (John 5:39-40). 

Or think of the story of the risen Lord walking with the dejected disciples on the road to Emmaus.  On that first Easter, Jesus teaches the Bible study of all time: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:27).

Later that night, Jesus appears to His disciples as they gather together in the locked room, as recorded in our Gospel.  After assuring them that He has come in peace, and this it is truly Him risen in the flesh, Jesus reminds them: “These are My words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 

It is evident in these and other passages that Jesus really thought He is the major subject of the Old Testament Scriptures—from Moses all the way through the prophets.  He believed that they were all writing about Him!  This is either highly inflated ego, or Jesus was giving His disciples (and us, by extension) the key to understanding what all of Scripture is about.

This seems like a “no-brainer.”  Not many Christians would object if you were to say, “I’ll tell you something really radical: the whole Bible is about Jesus Christ!”  Many would yawn as they reply, “Tell us something we don’t already know.”  But ironically many evangelical Christians treat the Bible as if it were some handbook for good living like William Bennett’s Book of Virtues or a collection of inspiring Chicken Soup stories, and they never really see Christ at all.  If we were to read any other book this way, actively ignoring the major character and the plotline, we would never come to a correct understanding of that book. 

Let me reemphasize this: The Bible is about Christ—about Him from start to finish, from Genesis through Revelation, from the Seed of the Woman promised in Eden to the Lamb of God on the throne in the New Jerusalem.  If one does not see this, he or she will inevitably have no idea what the Bible is actually saying. 

The entire Old Testament was laying the groundwork for God’s eternal plan of salvation through His Only Begotten Son… the Offspring of Abraham… the Prophet Greater than Moses…the Son of David who reigns eternally as David’s Lord … the virgin-born Immanuel and Suffering Servant of Isaiah… Job’s Redeemer who lives to bring bodily resurrection to His own… Daniel’s Ancient of Days who convenes His heavenly court.  The Bible is the record of the Mystery dwelling among us… the eternal Word by whom all things were created… the great I AM, who speaks to Moses through the burning bush and leads His people through the wilderness into the Promised Land by pillar of cloud and fire.     

Embedded in that history of Israel—all of its battles, its ups and downs, successes and failures, strengths and weaknesses—is this singular message: Jesus is the Christ.  He suffered, died and rose to save sinners.  Sinners like you and me.  Jesus shed His blood on the cross for your sin.  He rose for your justification.  The Bible is all about the proclamation of full forgiveness for sinners in Christ’s name.  And where there is forgiveness in the Name of Jesus there is life and salvation.

Of course, this knowledge and understanding do not come naturally to us.  The Scriptures tell us that one of the consequences of the Fall was that our intellects were darkened in respect to any knowledge of our Creator and His will toward us.  We do not see the centrality of Christ in the Scriptures on the basis of our own reason or strength, but solely by the grace of God.  As was the case with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and those gathered in the locked upper room that first Easter, He must open our eyes to understand the Scriptures.  The Holy Spirit must use the Gospel to open our eyes to Christ and His work on our behalf.

Christ is the content, center, and key to all Scripture.  Our very salvation rests entirely on Christ’s person and His finished work… and that is very Good News!  You see, you and I are beggars before the Lord.  We bring absolutely nothing to the table—nothing, that is, but our sins and sinfulness.  Our sins put Jesus on the cross.  It is for our sinfulness that Christ shed His innocent blood.  It was not just the Jewish leaders and Pontius Pilate who were responsible.  You and I denied the Holy and Righteous One.  You and I killed the Author of Life!  That’s why it was necessary that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead—to fulfill God’s perfect justice and His amazing grace and mercy.

The background to this is the nature of God and His Law.  The Law demands absolute obedience—not just in outward behavior in accordance with the Ten Commandments, but inwardly as well.  We are to love God and our neighbor perfectly from the heart.  Anyone who does not measure up to this unchanging and non-negotiable standard of God’s Law stands under God’s just condemnation now and forever.  And my Christians friends, that includes me, and that includes you.  None of us measures up to God’s perfect standard of holiness, none of us is righteous, none of us is perfectly obedient or loving. 

But from the foundation of the world, God planned salvation through His Incarnate Son.  The manner in which Jesus accomplished this was to lay down His sinless life as a ransom for the sins of the world.  He was the great Substitute, the real Sacrifice prefigured in the Old Testament sacrificial system.  He was and is the great High Priest who sacrificed Himself on our behalf.  Christ died for us, bearing our sins in His body on the cross and He rose again for our justification. 

The Gospel described in the Scriptures has 100 percent to do with what Christ did and 0 percent to do with us—our hearts, our inner experience of Him, our Christian life and piety, our works of love to our neighbor, our anything! 

Not even our faith.  Contrary to most of American evangelicalism, Scripture’s emphasis is on Christ and His death, not on our faith.  Yes, we confess with Scripture that we are saved by God’s grace through faith, but this does not mean “on the basis of faith.”  The justification of the sinner is solely on the basis of Christ’s cross, Christ’s shed blood, and Christ’s resurrection for our justification.  To “preach Christ crucified” is to preach Him and His saving death, rather than to preach our faith in Him as what saves. 

This may sound like hair-splitting, but it is not.  It is the difference between a Savior who saves and human faith that does not save.  It is the difference between an objective Gospel that saves and another “gospel,” a subjective one, that is no gospel at all and that does not save.  The ground of your justification is Christ and His innocent sufferings and death.  Period. 

Your faith in Christ does not save you, Christ saves you.  Christ’s death!  Christ’s shed blood!  Christ’s three-day entombment!  Christ’s resurrection!  Christ—His person and His word—alone saves you!  Christ is the center, content and key to all Scripture.  Christ is your life and salvation.

That is the message Christ commands His disciples to continue proclaiming in His name to all nations in our Gospel lesson.  That is the message that St. Peter proclaims to the crowd gathered at Solomon’s Portico in our First Lesson.  That is the message that been written in the Law and Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms—all of Scripture throughout the ages.  By God’s grace, that is the message you hear from this pulpit each time you gather to receive Christ’s Word and Sacrament.

Therefore, this is the message proclaimed to you today: Repent and believe.  For the sake of Jesus Christ, our crucified and risen Lord, you are forgiven for all of your sins.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.    

Into the Wilderness

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