Monday, May 28, 2012

Life Breathed into Dry Bones


The Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones
Gustave Dore
The text for this Day of Pentecost is our Old Testament lesson, Ezekiel 37:1-14, which has already been read.

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

It sounds almost like a scene out of one of my favorite movies, The Sixth Sense.  The young man talks to his counselor, a ghost.

“I see dead people.”

“In your dreams?”

“No.”

“While you’re awake.”

“Yes.”

“Dead people like, in graves?  In coffins?

“No, they’re in a valley, a valley of bones.  Dry bones.  Long dead and completely lifeless bones.”

But this is not a Hollywood movie; it is a biblical account.  The young man who sees dead people is the thirty-year-old prophet, Elijah.  And the Counselor with whom he speaks is the Holy Ghost, the Spirit of the Lord, who has brought Elijah to this valley.  And the “dead people,” “the dry bones,” that Elijah sees are the Israelite refugees returning from Babylonian exile. 

As Elijah writes this, Israel is, for all intents and purposes, dead and gone.  The ten northern tribes were conquered by Assyria 150 years earlier.  They were wiped from the face of the earth and replenished with foreigners transplanted from other vanquished nations.  Now the southern tribes are captives in Babylon, far from the rubble that was once Jerusalem.  That is how nations and peoples disappear in the ancient world.   Resistance is futile; you will be assimilated.

Ezekiel is the prophet called by God to speak to the remnant of Israel held captive in Babylon, and one would think that it will be his job to put the nation to bed and say goodnight.  All that God gave them is gone because of their own stubborn refusal to follow His Word.  But the Lord declares that He has different plans for His rebellious people.  Even if they are faithless to Him, He will remain steadfast.  He will not forget His promises.  That’s Good News, right?

Unfortunately, the faith of the child of God is constantly threatened by two opposite dangers: overconfidence and despair.  This is certainly true of the people of Israel.  In chapter 36, the prophet had preached scathing Law to them in order to convict them of their pride and self-conceit.  Here, in our text, Ezekiel has to now overcome their reluctance to accept the Gospel of restoration.  Because the heart of the exiles was “deceitful…and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9), they did not greet the glorious promise of redemption with jubilation, but with the doleful lament of despair: “Our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off” (Ezekiel 37:11).

In His mercy and grace, the Lord grants Ezekiel a vision of a valley of dry bones that is to convince his hearers that their despair grows out of their refusal to believe in a Creator who “calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17).  They are struggling because they do not trust in the One for Whom “nothing will be impossible” (Luke 1:37) according to His Word.

God’s question to Ezekiel—“Can these bones live?”—normally would have to be answered in the negative.  Ezekiel’s reply is interesting.  He says, “O Lord God, You know,” implying that only the Person who made all those bones could make them alive again.  The Lord promises to do just that. 

At His command, Ezekiel prophesies to these lifeless bones the Word of the Lord, and there is a rattling noise as bone comes together with bone.  To Ezekiel the valley seems no longer to be full of disconnected bones but of skeletons—an improvement to be sure, but still not exactly the poster children for life.

Ezekiel prophesies again, sinews and flesh fill out the bones.  Now the valley resembles a battlefield littered with corpses.  Human bodies, but still lifeless human bodies—a miracle in itself, but not enough.  They’re still dead people.  They have no breath.  Like Adam of old, they still need the Spirit of God to breathe life into them.  So God tells Ezekiel to prophesy again.  The prophet obeys, and breath enters the army of corpses.  They come to life and stand up. 

Through this vision, God reveals how He will recreate His people now apparently lost in Babylon.  Humanly speaking, Israel’s hopes for survival appear dead and buried in the exile.  Prospects of national revival are as unlikely as expecting a vast array of skeletons, dried and dismembered, to come to life again on their own.  It just isn’t going to happen.

Yet at God’s command, death must surrender its victims.  Against all odds, Israel will continue.  The Lord will give life to the nation.  He will bring the people back to their land.  He will raise them as a people from death to life, to be a blessing to all people—to be a blessing for you. 

That’s right… for you!  You see, the Lord has to bring Israel back so that a virgin might conceive and give birth to a Son in Bethlehem.  It is necessary that Jerusalem and the temple might be rebuilt, so that the Son of David might enter the city triumphantly at Passover, so that the King of the Jews might be led outside the city walls to a cross.  Simply put, the Lord raises that nation from the dead in Babylon so that He might raise you from the dead for the sake of Christ.  

In all of this we see the creative power of the Holy Spirit at work through the Word of God.  Don’t underestimate the Word; don’t ignore it.  By it all things hold together.  The Word creates, renews, sanctifies, and enlivens.  It rattles your, dry dead bones.  Bodies long dead are resurrected with new muscle and tendon and flesh and blood and skin.  All by the preached Word; yet not by the word of the preacher, but by the power of the Holy Spirit who breathes life into dry bones. 

Wouldn’t you love to have been there to watch Elijah preach life into dry bones?  Or maybe not?  It’s a little too weird, perhaps.  It would be much easier to chalk it up to a dream, a hallucination, or a vision—anything but real.  Then we could safely file it away in the past with those “primitive people and their silly superstitions.”  We are far too sophisticated to think that dry dead bones can shake, rattle, and roll their way together and live, just because someone preaches at them. 

The same could be said of the conception of Jesus.  A young virgin in some hick town in Galilee is told by an angel that the Holy Spirit will come upon her?  The power of the Most High will overshadow her?  She will conceive, and give birth to a son—the Son of God?  Inconceivable!  Can’t be!

Or how about Christ’s bodily resurrection?  It’s terribly inconvenient and uncomfortable to the old Adam in us to think that the tomb of a dead man is empty, His body risen.  Yet that’s the point of Pastor Peter’s Pentecost sermon: Jesus was not abandoned to the grave.  His body did not see decay.  God has vindicated Jesus by raising Him bodily from the grave.  “And we are all witnesses of the fact.”

Yes, this is the same Peter who wept bitterly when he shamefully denied His Lord three times just hours after he had proudly claimed: “Don’t worry, Jesus.  I’ve got Your back.  Even if the rest of these guys fall away, I’ll stand beside You.”  The same Peter who hid with the rest of the Twelve in the locked room for fear of the Jews.  Now he’s boldly proclaiming Christ’s death and resurrection and calling the crowd to “repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

What happened that Peter and his brothers, who just fifty days earlier had been so timid and frightened, would now preach boldly and fearlessly?  Jesus had been raised from the dead.  Jesus had breathed on them, bestowed His Holy Spirit, forgiven their sins, and then sent them out to forgive sins.  And that made all the difference in the world.

The creation of Adam.  The valley of dry bones restored to life.  The nation of Israel returned to her land.  The annunciation and incarnation of Jesus.  Christ’s resurrection.  His equipping the apostles for their ongoing work of testifying to His death and resurrection.  The Pentecost miracle.  What do these all have in common (besides the fact that they are impossible through natural means)? 

This: The Holy Spirit breathes life where there was not life.  And this is the case from creation all the way to Pentecost.  But the Holy Spirit didn’t stop on the day of Pentecost.  He continues to breathe life into dry bones like you and me. 

Like the exiles returning from Israel, there are times when we need to be shaken ourselves.  We need to have our bones rattled by the Word that says, “You are no more alive than those dry and dusty bones.  Dead in sin.  Dead in iniquity.  Dead in transgression.  Dead in lust and idolatry.  If you persist in this state you will be dead for eternity.  Not just physically dead, but spiritually dead.  Hellishly dead. 

But brought to contrition and repentance, we also need to hear the life restoring Gospel: Those bones of yours can live, and do live.  Not by your efforts, of course.  After all, what can bones do to live?  But God, being rich in mercy, has made you alive together with Christ.  You have been saved by grace through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.  And how does He do it?  “Not by might, nor by power, but My Spirit,” says the Lord—the Spirit who works through the Word.  For that is how the Spirit works—solely through the Word. 

We confess the Holy Spirit, “the Lord and Giver of Life.”  By the Spirit-Breath of God, we breathe; we have life.  The Spirit and the Word; the Word and the Spirit—the two always go together.  You can’t have one without the other.  The Holy Spirit is a preacher—calling, gathering, enlightening, and sanctifying, stirring up faith, forgiving sin, bearing fruit—all by the Word He causes to be preached, the Sacraments through which He bestows His gifts.

When that little congregation gathered together at Pentecost, there was the sound of rushing wind.  The Breath of Jesus blowing over His Church.  And there were tongues like fire, separating and resting on all the disciples.  Wind and fire were the unique elements of that first Pentecost.  They were like the fireworks and balloons at a grand opening.  God was inaugurating the Last Days.  The time of the end had come.  Christ had died on the cross for the redemption of the world.  He was raised again to life, for forty days being seen by over 500 eyewitnesses.  Jesus had ascended to the right hand of the Father, disappeared into a heavenly cloud, out of sight but not absent; rather, truly present by Word and Spirit.

Peter preached that day.  He preached boldly to thousands, where fifty days before he was afraid to even admit to a servant girl that he was one of Jesus’ disciples.  The resurrection of Jesus and the Spirit will do that to you—turn cowards into courageous preachers of good news.  Filled with the Spirit, the disciples spoke in a variety of languages and dialects, and everyone who was in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost heard the preaching of Jesus in His own native tongue.  It certainly was a marvelous, miraculous sight to behold.

But most the time the Holy Spirit flies under the radar.  He does not seek to draw attention to Himself, but to point to Christ.  He operates discreetly—even hidden—hidden in simple things like Word, water, and bread and wine.  This is even true of the day of Pentecost.  The lasting gift of Pentecost is not rushing wind or tongues of fire or speaking in fluent foreign languages.  The lasting gift is the Spirit-breathed Word of God.  The Word of God preached out of the mouths of men with the very breath of Jesus.  “The sins you forgive are forgiven.” 

At the end of that Pentecost day, three thousand were baptized.  Three thousand were born again by water and the Spirit.  Three thousand had the Word have its faith creating, faith enlivening way with them.  Three thousand were joined to Jesus in His death, His life, His glory.  Three thousand were clothed with Christ.  Three thousand became members of Christ’s body, continuing in the teaching of the apostles, in the breaking of the Bread, and in the prayers.  Three thousand who were dead in their trespasses and sins, were born to new life by the power of the Word and the Spirit.

Your personal Pentecost is your baptismal day, whenever and where that was.  There you were joined to Jesus by the Word and Spirit in the water.  And in a real sense, every Sunday is Pentecost when you hear that your sins are forgiven in Jesus, that your death is answered for in Jesus, that your life is hidden in Jesus, and His life—His own Body and Blood—are hidden in you.  Through these means of grace, the Holy Spirit breathes life into your dry bones.  You, who were once dead in your trespasses and sins, are given new life, eternal life. 

And this will be brought to completion on the Last Day.  The forgiveness of sin that the Spirit applied to you in the Gospel will bear its ultimate fruit in you.  The Lord and Giver of Life, sent from the Father and the Son, will raise your body from the grave.  Your dry dead bones will not only be raised to life, but to everlasting life!  Never to die again!  To be forever with the Lord! 

Can these bones live?  Yes, they can!  As surely as Christ is risen from the dead is sure, these bones can live.  As surely as the Word and breath of the Spirit blow over them, they will live.  As surely as the Holy Spirit breathes new life in Christ in you, you will live—you will live forever.  Just as surely as He brings you this Word of the Lord to you today:  You are forgiven for all of your sins.” 

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

In the Word and In the World: Jesus Prays for His Church


One in the Spirit,
composite digital image by L. Lovett, 2006
The text for today is John 17:11-19, which has already been read.

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

What has kept the Church going for the last two thousand years?  How do you explain it?  The Church has survived persecution, false teaching, and gross mismanagement.  It has survived dictatorships, demagogues, and democracies.  It has survived popes and councils, voters’ assemblies and synodical conventions, and the meetings that go on after the meetings.  Any human organization that operated this way would have long since disappeared, but the Church goes on. 

What is the key to the Church’s survival?  How could a ragtag band of 120 Jewish followers grow into a Church that quite literally embraces the world across all national and ethnic boundaries?  How could a Church whose first recorded official act is to cast lots to see who would succeed a traitor become, in a matter of thirty years or so, a movement that embraced the entire Roman world and dotted the Mediterranean with congregations who proclaimed life in the death of Jesus?  What protected them in a culture that was hostile to their message?  What propelled them into the world already chock full of religions?  How did the Church not only manage to survive all those years, but to grow robustly and thrive?           

One thing: Jesus prays for His Church.  That’s the thought of the day for this seventh Sunday of Easter.  The same Lord Jesus, who hung on the cross and rose from the dead and ascended to the right hand of His Father, prays for His Church. 

Nowhere is this more profoundly revealed to us than in the high priestly prayer of Jesus in the upper room on the night of His betrayal.  This is the room where He washed the disciples’ feet as a servant, where He instituted the sacramental meal of His Body and Blood, where He taught them about His love for them, their love for one another, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and their fruitful union with Him.  And now in this room, Jesus prays for His Church. 

This prayer is the true “Lord’s Prayer,” the prayer only the Lord Himself can pray as the High Priest of the world.  He lifts His nail-scarred hands before the throne of grace, and He prays continually for His disciples who are sprinkled like salt on the earth.  He prays for His Church, and His prayer upholds the Church. 

What does Jesus pray for His Church?  That she be successful?  Popular?  Powerful?  Wealthy?  Influential?  No.  Jesus prays that His Church be protected by the power of God’s Name, that the Church be one, that she be protected from the assaults of the devil, and that she be sanctified to be a sign of salvation for the world.  In other words, that she be “In the Word and in the World.”

In today’s text, Jesus specifically prays for the apostles, those the Father gave Him to send into the world.  We believe that the apostles, though unique, are not confined to those men who were with Jesus that night in the upper room.  We know that Matthias, as we heard in our reading from the book of Acts, was added later to fill the vacancy of Judas.  Matthias was not there in the upper room, but by the call of God was added to make a Twelve.  And there was Paul, number thirteen, the “untimely born” apostle no one really asked for or wanted. 

We believe that the ministry of the apostles continues today in what we have come to call the pastoral office or the office of the holy ministry.  The apostolic Church has an apostolic office, not by succession of persons, but by the action of the Word of the crucified, risen, and reigning Lord Jesus Christ.

Jesus prays for His Church.  He prays that His joy might be fulfilled in His apostles.  Apostolic ministry is to be joyful ministry, filled with the joy of Jesus who in His joy endured the cross and scorned its shame.  This is not the kind of joy that is based on outward circumstances.  It is nothing less than the joy of sinners justified for Jesus’ sake, the joy of sinners repenting and being forgiven. 

I’ll be the first to admit that the holy ministry can become a joyless task, and at times, even a burden.  Sometimes it’s our own fault.  We pastors can be a burdensome lot—complaining, whining, carrying on as if Jesus were not reigning from the right hand of God, acting as though everything is on our own shoulders, and the whole world wants to see us fail.  We are, after all, men of clay, conceived and born in sin, just like you.  We will, and do, sin.  We will fail.  We will doubt.

Other times though, this joy is lacking because the Church has come to expect anything and everything from her pastors except the one needful thing—the Word of life and salvation.  We want coaches, counselors, CEOs, motivators, you name it—everything but shepherds who will lead the flock to good pasture and clean, clear water.  But the joy of ministry is not in being liked or appreciated; rather, it is the joy of people coming to a greater awareness of their sinfulness, yet growing to a deeper faith in Jesus.  The most joyful work of a pastor happens at the font, at the altar, in the pulpit, in the confessional, in the hospital room, beside the deathbed—in short, wherever the Word of Christ is having its faith-making way. 

Want to be a joy and not a burden to your pastor?  Be in the Word.  Come eagerly to hear the Word of God he proclaims and teaches.  Regularly receive Christ’s Body and Blood from his hand and hear Christ’s Absolution from his lips.  That will bring him more joy than you can ever imagine.  That is the joy of Jesus, who prays that His apostles would be filled with His joy. 

But that’s not to say this life will be easy.  As the disciples overhear this prayer, Jesus reminds them that the world will hate them on account of the Word they have been set apart to proclaim.  Like Jesus Himself, His ministry is “in the world yet not of the world.”  And here we find the two great denials that occur.  The first is to remove oneself from the world, to live in isolation.  But Jesus prays that His ministers not be removed from this world but be immersed in it.  Jesus embraces the world in His death, and His apostolic ministry embraces the world in His Name.  That’ll bring you into contact with some parts of the world you might rather avoid—the misfits of the world, the untouchables, the lepers of our day.

The other great denial is that we become “of the world.”  We lose our saltiness.  We hide our lamp.  We become indistinguishable from the world.  “Not of the world” means that we are different.  You don’t expect your pastor to get drunk on Saturday, or any other night.  It wouldn’t be good if your pastor cheated on his income tax or didn’t show up for church on Sunday.  And this is not just because he’s the pastor and paid to be the pastor, but because he is to be an example to everyone of what it means to be in this world but not of this world.

Jesus prays for His Church.  And so, although in this passage He is praying for His apostles (and the pastors who follow in the office of holy ministry), He is praying for you, too.  You, who are the Body of believers gathered around the marks of the Church—“the pure doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacrament in accordance with the Gospel of Christ” (Ap VII and VIII (IV) 5).

And notice what the goal of Jesus’ prayer is: “That they be one, just as We are one.”  Jesus is praying for the unity of His Church.  Now, that might sound a bit far-fetched today, with thousands of denominations, everyone claiming a monopoly on the truth.  We might wonder, what happened to this prayer of Jesus?  Did the heavenly Father miss His Son’s memo?  What began as a fairly, though not entirely, unified movement that swept across the Mediterranean world, is today a movement so fragmented the idea of external unity is almost a joke. 

Jesus prays that His Church be one as He and the Father are one.  We Lutherans worry a great deal about “unionism,” about uniting with false teachers, and rightly so.  Even if Scripture was not clear about avoiding such entanglements the history of the Church would be enough to prove the folly of worshiping with others of differing confessions of faith.  The truth always ends up getting lost as everyone seeks a lowest common denominator to gain an outward show of unity.

But we should also expend just as much energy worrying about separatism, about creating needless divisions with the Church based simply on matters of personal preference.  There is one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all.  There is only one Bread and one Cup, one Body and Blood of one Savior named Jesus.  And wherever you see and hear Baptism and the Lord’s Supper and forgiveness spoken in the Name of the crucified and risen Jesus, you have an infallible and inerrant sign that the prayer of Jesus is having its way, keeping the Church together in the Name of God. 

Jesus prays for His Church.  Jesus prays that the Church will be protected from the evil one.  Jesus knows the enemy well.  He tangled with him one-on-one in the wilderness.  That very night He’ll wrestle with Him in Gethsemane.  And Jesus knows that the devil will give His Church no rest.  Doubts will creep in.  Unbelief.  Despair.  Failure.  Success.  All of these will seek to derail the Church from its mission.  And so Jesus prays for the Church’s protection.

Notice that Jesus does not pray that His disciples be taken out of the world.  He’s sending them into the world, where the action is.  Jesus doesn’t set up some cloistered camp or utopian society.  Oh, the Church has tried that route, and it still does.  But isolationism never sits well with Good News that demands to be preached.  The Church exists to proclaim the reign of Jesus, His death and resurrection for the life of the world.  And you can’t do that in isolation—whether that isolation is locked up in a monastery or locked away in your living room watching one of the “Christian networks” on cable television.  Jesus sends His disciples out into the world with His Word and His protection against the evil one.

I think we sometimes underestimate the danger.  We think the greatest enemy of the Church is mismanagement or disorganization, or perhaps a bad economy or shrinking population base.  But the greatest threat to the Church is the one you can’t see—the devil, who hates for people to be free, who hates when sins are forgiven, and who hates to hear the great Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection for the justification of sinners.

Jesus prays for His Church.  We are in constant need of this prayer.  We cannot stop the devil or protect ourselves from him.  But we have the Lord’s high priestly prayer, His intercession for us in which He pleads: “keep them from the evil one.”  That’s what ensures that Satan cannot harm us.  Oh, he may work some mischief; he may make our life miserable for awhile, as he is prone to do.  But as the Large Catechism reminds us, he is “God’s devil,” and whatever he does, God uses for His ultimate purpose to unite all things in Christ.

Toward that end, Jesus prays: “Sanctify them in the truth; Your Word is truth.”  As baptized believers in Christ, you are called to be different from the world; you are sanctified, consecrated, “holy.”  You are set apart by the Word that is truth.  You know the awful truth of your sin.  And you know the greater truth of salvation in Jesus Christ crucified for the forgiveness of your sins and risen from the dead for your justification. 

Jesus prays for His Church.  Remember this when you doubt, when you despair, when you fall and don’t have the strength to get back up.  Remember this when you think there is no future for the Church, when the Church looks so helpless, so out of touch with the world, so ill-equipped to meet the challenges of our day.  Remember who prays for the Church, for you—the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Word and the prayer of Jesus are what keeps the Church and her ministry going even after all these years.  It’s been nearly 2,000 years since Jesus ascended into heaven, and yet His Word is as living and active today as ever, creating faith, bestowing salvation and everlasting life, calling you to repent and believe this Good News:  For the sake of Jesus Christ crucified and risen, you are forgiven for all of your sins.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Monday, May 14, 2012

How to Overcome the World: A Sermon for Christians Only


Matthias Grunewald
Crucifixion
from the Isenheim Altarpiece
Musee d'Unterlinden, Colmar
1510-1515

The text for this morning is our Epistle, 1 John 5:1-8, which has already been read.

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

This sermon is only for Christians, those who have been born of God and are His children.  I know, that sounds harsh, so exclusive in our inclusive age; but it follows the text.  St. John makes it especially clear that he is addressing Christians in the verses following: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13).  And the fact is the actions for which St. John calls can only be done by Christians.  They are a fruit of faith, not a catalyst for God’s favor.  They can only be motivated by the Gospel not spurred by the commands of the Law.  We’ll look at that more in depth in a moment, but first permit me a brief illustration.

This week, in his blog, Pastor Matt Richard, brought to my attention a comedy sketch that featured Bob Newhart as a psychologist who offers five-minute counseling sessions.  A woman comes into his office to deal with her phobia. “I just start thinking about being buried alive in a box and I panic,” she confesses.

“Has anyone every tried to bury you in a box?” he asks. 

“No, but it really makes my life difficult,” she says.  “I can’t go into elevators or tunnels or anything boxy.”

“So, what you’re saying is that you’re claustrophobic?”

“Yes… yes, that’s my problem.”

“Okay,” he responds.  “I think we have enough here.  I’m going to say two words to you right now.  I want you to listen to them very carefully.  Then I want you to incorporate them into your life.”

“Shall I write them down?” she asks.

“You can, if it makes you more comfortable.  But it’s just two words.  Most people have no problem remembering them.”

“Okay,” she replies.

“Are you ready?” he asks, and she nods affirmatively. 

“Here it is… Stop it!

Now the sketch went on for another four or five minutes.  But I obviously don’t have the comedic talents of Bob Newhart.  And even if I did, you didn’t come here to be entertained, but to hear the word of God proclaimed. 

So why did I bring it up?  As a reminder to us who are preachers and parents.  Believing that simply telling sinners to “stop it” (that is, that speaking Law without Gospel) carries the power to exact lasting change, is as unrealistic as a psychologist telling one of his patients to “stop it” to cure them of their fears and neuroses.  In fact, it is worse, because at least the basis for psychological counseling is found in law—natural law.

Can you imagine Bob Newhart as a preacher? 

“My friends, do you keep on sinning?  Well, just ‘stop it!’  Do you have doubt, struggle, and worry?  Well… just ‘stop it!’”  Yet the sad reality is that this is the message that is heard from pulpits across America each and every Sunday.  Pastors give principles and bumper sticker-like slogans that are essentially Law in order for people to stop sinning and live a victorious life.  And it fails miserably. 

What is wrong here?  A failure to correctly understand, properly distinguish, and appropriately apply Law and Gospel.  Jeff VanVonderen summarizes the problem this way: “The greatest misunderstanding concerning the Law comes in the area of our perception of its purpose.  Somehow we continue to believe that the Law is God’s provision for people to live victoriously.”

So, how does this all fit in a sermon entitled, “How to Overcome the World?”  Let me explain.

The Law clearly limits sin through its threats of punishment and its promises of favor and well-being.  The Law can be used to regulate society, prevent us from doing some really stupid things to ourselves and other people.  The Law can make things bearable in a sinful world.  The Law can curb external sinful behavior for believers and nonbelievers.  But the Law is totally incapable and powerless in changing the attitude and behavior of the heart, let alone saving a person.  The Law commands, but it does not give us any power to fulfill its conditions.  On its own, the Law will only lead us to self-righteousness or despair.

My dear Christian friends, let’s keep in mind that the Law is good.  It reveals sin to us and shows us God’s perfect holy will.  However, the Law does not contain in itself the power to convert the heart or forgive sin, for that belongs solely to the Gospel.  The Law doesn’t “reform” the sinful nature.  No, it reveals our sinful nature; it leaves us exposed as sinners and drives us to Jesus!  Only the Gospel can bring lasting redemption and change (Titus 2:11-12).

So, how does this fit with our text?  St. John writes: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of Him.  By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey His commandments.  For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments.  And His commandments are not burdensome.  For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world.  And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.  Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”

On the surface it might sound like John is preaching conditional Law.  “Want to be a Christian?  Want to overcome the world?  Then obey God’s Law.  Love God.  Love your neighbor.”  But if you listen closely, you’ll find that such words are not written to make people Christians, but to people who are already Christians—to those who already have been born of God. 

St. John is just telling us how this rebirth will evidence itself in a person’s life.  If you have been born of God, you love God.  If you love God, you will automatically love people.  If you love the Father, you will love His children, too.  Real faith and real love are inseparable.  They are like heads and tails on a coin—two faces of the same power.  Loving God automatically involves being willing to submit to God, to put His thoughts and ideals into your head, to let Him steer your behavior, to view obedience as exhilarating, not demeaning.  Such obedience is possible for believers who have been regenerated and renewed by the Holy Spirit. 

This may come as a surprise to young Christians, who are still fresh from the thinking process they just went through in order to understand the concept of justification by grace through faith alone.  In that context we are taught by Scripture to say “No, we can’t” in regard to human works.  A human being by birth cannot do what God requires.  Paul also teaches this repeatedly: “You were dead in your transgressions and sins” (Ephesians 2:1); “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10); “not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:9).

But what is impossible for an unbeliever is not only possible, but essential in the life of a believer.  In each reborn Christian, God has forever forgiven all sin, changed the clothes from filthy rags of sin to righteous robes, snapped the power of sin to control, implanted the Holy Spirit, and changed the mindset.  The goal of saving us is not merely negative—to get us out of hell, but positive—to transform us into men and women who think and act like God.

Here’s another surprise: God’s commands now become joyful to obey, no longer burdensome.  The Law of God is indeed bad news to people without faith in Christ.  But believers love to hear God’s will and do it. The faith and obedience that connect us to Jesus enables us to share in His triumphs.  In John 16, Jesus tells His disciples: “I have said these things to you, that in Me you may have peace.  In the world you will have tribulation.  But take heart; I have overcome the world.”  Several hours later, as He dies on the cross, He crushes the head of the serpent for us and gives us His victory.  But like Christ’s overcoming the world through the cross, our overcoming the world is for the time being not readily apparent to anyone but those with the eyes of faith. 

What does this life under the cross look like?  In his book, “Grace upon Grace,” Dr. John Kleinig describes this way of life as receptive spirituality, a practice which presupposes that we are Christians, that we have been reborn of God, that we already have been given the gift of eternal life, and that we enjoy it now here on earth. 

No human teacher can teach us about that because no human teacher can give us eternal life.  Nor can we gain eternal life for ourselves merely by reflecting on our experience of God, or even by interpreting the Scriptures in the light of our personal experience.  In fact, if we attempt to gain eternal life with God through our own will and obedience, we will commit spiritual suicide.  Those who use their own reason and intellect to make a ladder for their devotional ascent into heaven will, like Satan, plunge themselves and others into hell instead. 

But we have no need to climb up to heaven on our own.  The triune God has come down to earth for us.  His Son has become incarnate for us.  He is now available to us through His Word and Sacraments.  The Holy Spirit uses these means of grace to teach us the things of God and to bring us to the Father for Jesus’ sake. 

But surprisingly, God’s best work in our lives is often done as we undergo and endure trials and temptations.  Luther makes the point that we discover the mysterious power of God’s Word, the hidden work of the Holy Spirit in and through the Word, most clearly in temptation and trial.  In temptation and trial we morel fully experience the Word of God at work in us. 

While this experience begins with the conscience, it touches all parts of us and integrates the whole person, mentally, emotionally, and physically.  The Spirit-filled Word attunes us to God the Father by conforming us to His dear Son.  It is not that we internalize Scripture and assimilate it to our being; rather, the Word assimilates us and makes us godly; it remakes us in the likeness of Christ.

Temptation reveals what is otherwise hidden from us.  It tests the authenticity of our faith and proves our spiritual health.  Though trials are unpleasant, at times even painful, they ultimately refine and purify us. 

As long as we operate by our own power, with our own intellect and our own too-human notions, the devil lets us be.  But as soon as we meditate on God’s Spirit-filled Word and draw on the Spirit’s power, the devil attacks us by stirring up misunderstanding, contradiction, opposition, and persecution.  He mounts that attack through the enemies of the Gospel in the Church and in the world.  The purpose of this attack is to destroy our faith and undo the hidden work of God’s Word in us, to drive out God’s Word that has been planted by the power of the Holy Spirit.

But paradoxically, these attacks are counter-productive.  They serve to strengthen our faith because it drives us back to God’s Word as the only basis for spiritual life.  We discover that we cannot rely on our own resources in the battle against Satan and the powers of darkness.  We realize that if we rely on our own wisdom and power, we will fail, and that our only hope is in Christ and His Word. 

Our spiritual weakness makes us trust in the power of the Holy Spirit and the wisdom of God’s Word.  Through temptation we learn to seek help from God in meditation and prayer, rather than rely on ourselves, our own abilities and resources.  We walk with Christ on the way of the cross.  We do not experience the splendor of union with our heavenly Lord, but we share in His suffering and pain.  We bear the cross together with our Lord as we suffer with Him.  Through the attacks of the evil one we are drawn further out of ourselves and deeper into Christ.  And He is the One who has overcome the world for us.

Overcoming the world is not something extraordinary.  It is not a superior way of being a Christian that is open only to a more advanced stage in spiritual life.  It is something given to every faithful Christian.  It is simply following Jesus.  It is the ordinary life of faith in which you receive Baptism and live in that Baptism through daily contrition and repentance.  You overcome the world as you attend the Divine Service, participate in the Holy Supper, read the Scriptures, pray for yourself and others, resist temptation, and work with Jesus in your given location here on earth. 

You are not raised to a higher plane above the normal, everyday, bodily life, but you receive the Holy Spirit from Christ so that you can live in God’s presence each day of your lives as you deal with people and work, sin and abuse, inconvenience and heartbreak, trouble and tragedy.  You are not called to become more spiritual by disengaging from earthly life, but simply to rely on Jesus as you do what is given for you to do, as you experience what is given for you to experience, and as you enjoy what is given for you to enjoy. 

Yes, many times the world, the devil, and your own sinful flesh will seem too much for you to overcome.  They are far to much for you to overcome on your own.  But take heart; our Lord Jesus has overcome the world for you!  He has fulfilled all of God’s Commandments for you.  He made Himself your human Brother, that through Him you might become the children of His Father and share in His great family of love.  He has given Himself into death on the cross, so that you might have forgiveness of sins, salvation, and eternal life. 

Indeed, in Him, you are forgiven for all of your sins.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Unless Someone (The Holy Spirit) Guides Me

The Baptism of the Eunuch by Rembrandt


The text for this morning is our First Lesson, Acts 8:26-40, which has already been read.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
It was a big moment, the biggest day of his life, and a defining moment of the young Christian Church, when this Ethiopian eunuch is baptized.  In modern terms it might be considered a victory for ethnic diversity and multiculturalism.  Certainly in its own day it demanded a significant shift in thinking, a realization that God chooses men and women for Himself from every nation, tribe, and people.  But for this man it was the difference between hell and eternal life.
That’s good news.  But Baptism happens so often that it’s easy to take for granted just what a miracle it really is.  So let’s take some time to consider the whole process, to think about everything that had to happen in order for this man’s Baptism to occur in this place at this time.  To do so, we need to back up a bit.
It started with a charge of prejudice, the politics of division.  In the early days of the Church, a complaint by the Hellenists, the Greek-speaking Christians, arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.  So the Twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the Word of God to serve tables.  Therefore, brothers, pick out from you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.  But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word.”
They chose seven men, including Philip, and consecrated them for their work.  “And the Word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem.”
But as we all eventually discover, life here in the Church Militant is not just smooth sailing.  The Church, by God’s grace, continues to grow; but it is not all one glorious moment after another—not in this life, where the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh wage war against Christ’s kingdom.  Stephen is martyred for preaching the crucified and risen Christ.  A great persecution arises against the Church in Jerusalem, and the believers are scattered.
Philip goes down to Samaria.  Though he meets with some challenges, his efforts are blessed by the Lord.  Many accept the Word of God that he proclaims, and the Gospel spreads throughout Samaria.  I would imagine that Philip could see himself serving this congregation for all of the rest of his days.
But the Lord has different plans.  He sends an angel with this message: “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.”
I daresay that if I was Philip I might have asked a few more questions.  You know, things like: “When do you want me to go?”  “Where exactly do you want me to go?”  “What do you want me to do when I get there?”  But Philip immediately obeys.  He just “rose and went.”  A distance of about 50 miles, a couple of days’ journey on foot through some very harsh terrain.
Philip comes upon a man from Ethiopia.  He is a deeply spiritual man, obviously committed to his faith, with a strong desire to learn more of God’s Word.  He has invested a considerable sum to purchase a scroll of Isaiah.  It took a lot of grit and determination to make the long journey from his native country to Jerusalem.  At the same time, his status as eunuch makes him ineligible for full membership in the Jewish community.  He could never enter the inner temple courts.  He would always be looking in from the outside.
Directed by the Holy Spirit, Philip runs up to the man’s chariot.  As he does, he can hear the words the man is reading, and so he asks: “Do you understand what you are reading?”
“How can I, unless someone guides me?” the man replies.  So he invites Philip to join him in the chariot.  The passage the man is reading is a beautiful section from Isaiah 53:7-8, which describes the Suffering Servant: “Like a sheep He was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so He opens not His mouth.  In His humiliation justice was denied him.  Who can describe His generation?  For His life is taken away from the earth.”
Wow, an outsider treated poorly with no hope for any descendants.  It sounded so much like him.  The eunuch just had to ask: “About whom… does the prophet say this, about himself or about somebody else?” 
Philip could hardly have found a more suitable text for proclaiming the Gospel.  Though all of Scripture points to Christ, Isaiah does so more often and more clearly than any of the other prophets.  Philip has the opportunity to show how Jesus is the fulfillment of prophecy.  Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, is the heart and center of Scripture and therefore the key to its true meaning. 
As they are going along the road, they come to some water.  And the Ethiopian, half in eagerness and half in fear, points to the water and says, “See, here is water!  What prevents me from being baptized?”
This question stems from the Ethiopian’s position within Judaism.  As a eunuch, he could never enter the inner courts of the temple.  He could never be fully accepted as one of God’s “chosen people.”  He would always be a bit of an outsider looking in.  And now that he has heard this Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ, he fears the same exclusion.
In baptizing him, Philip shows the Ethiopian that Jesus has removed all former distinctions between people.  There is no “chosen people” anymore—except as people chosen by God’s grace in Christ!  Any repentant sinner qualifies for that blessing!  And through the water and the Word, the Holy Spirit uses Philip the evangelist to add one more precious soul into the kingdom of heaven.
Our text describes the process that produces a new Christian.  Like Stephen, Philip has gone from “waiting tables” to becoming an effective evangelist.  When called upon by the Holy Spirit to interrupt his work in Samaria, Philip leaves and travels some 50 miles on foot to have contact with one person.
But notice who is the One really at work.  There are a whole lot of steps, many insignificant, but all necessary for this man to be brought to the waters of Holy Baptism.  And it is the Holy Spirit who is the Someone who guides the entire process.  Just as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth and keeps it united in the one true faith.  Though each individual story is unique, the Holy Spirit uses the same means over and over to guide the man to understanding and saving faith—God’s Word and Sacrament.
The Gospel is a disorganized, messy business, isn’t it?  We don’t like that.  We prefer it tidy and organized.  Perhaps it’s our being Lutheran or our German past.  Alles in Ordnung.  Everything in order.  God is, after all, a God of order.  But order doesn’t necessarily mean organized.  My desk may be utterly disorganized with piles here and there, but if I know where everything is, it is still in order.
Organized means that we’re in control, which is really the heart of things, isn’t it?  We want to be in control because we want to be God.  And deep down inside we think we’d do a much finer job of running things than God does.  So we have to organize things and make them fit our scheme of how things should work.  We make our own plans and develop our own programs.
Yet one of the very disturbing things about the book of Acts is how utterly disorganized everything seems to be.  There’s no planning retreats.  No mission statement.  No vision casting.  Apostles going here, there, and everywhere.  Table servers turned evangelists, then leaving thriving ministries in highly populated areas to wander about the uninhabited Gaza wilderness at the limited directions of an angel of the Lord.  Is this any way to run a Church?
We certainly wouldn’t do things this way.  We’d have boards and committees.  We’d interview the appropriate candidates and hire consultants.  And we certainly wouldn’t send one of our best evangelists after one longshot potential convert—a Gentile, an African, a eunuch, at that.
But the Holy Spirit is at work here.  He is guiding the process, in His usual messy, disorganized way.  This man is a “God-fearer,” a worshiper from a distance.  Imagine a person being told week after week, church after church, “You’re not welcome here.  You don’t belong.”  And yet, he keeps coming back.  Even travels hundreds of miles to a temple from which he is barred.
And there out in the wilderness, the Holy Spirit nudges Philip to run over to this chariot and hop on board.  Two strangers in the desert.  Two men who never, ever in this world would have been together for anything, are brought together by the Spirit around the text of Isaiah.  There you have the Church.  In that little chariot, a congregation has gathered.  Two or three gathered around the Word, and there the Spirit is, there the Lord is, there the Church is.  It doesn’t look like much to the world, but there is nothing more precious in the sight of heaven.
Philip opens his mouth and proclaims the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  It’s Good News, the news of forgiveness, redemption, life, and salvation.  This Suffering Servant “bore the sin of the many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”  This was Good News for the Ethiopian.  This Suffering Servant named Jesus died and rose to bring that Ethiopian eunuch into a kingdom that once excluded him. 
That’s the Good News for you, too.  The outsiders are in, in Jesus.  You, who were not a people, are in.  You are the people of God.  You are God’s Israel—a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a chosen people, God’s treasured possession.  What Good News!
And there’s even more good news.  There is water in the desert.  And so the eunuch points it out and asks, “What prevents me from being baptized?”
Now if Philip is operating in an organized sort of way, he’s thinking, “I’d better get my paperwork together, and there’s going to be an investigation in Jerusalem when word gets out about this, and what am I supposed to do because this sort of thing wasn’t covered in deacon training?”
What does Philip do?  He baptizes him.  You see, you can’t put a governor on the Holy Spirit when He’s running full throttle; and by now it is evident that He is obviously guiding the whole process.  That water in the wilderness is for the Ethiopian his Red Sea, his Jordan River, his burial with Christ, his resurrection with Christ, his washing of regeneration and renewal, his rebirth of water and Spirit, his clothing with Christ.  He returns to Ethiopia, to the court of the Candace, to his vocation as treasurer, as a new man, a baptized believer in Jesus. 
As for Philip, the Holy Spirit immediately carries him away to Azotus.  He preaches the Gospel to all the towns until he comes to Caesarea.  The next time we hear about Philip, some 20 years later, he’s still there in Caesarea with his four daughters.  A quick trip on the Gaza road and then 20 years of ministry in the same place.  There’s nothing predictable when it comes to the way the Holy Spirit works.  And that’s true for you as well as Philip and the Ethiopian.
There is water in your wilderness, too.  Baptismal water and the Word.  The raw material of the Spirit’s working.  You’ve heard that Word, too.  The same Good News that Philip preached and the Ethiopian heard.  You’ve been baptized with the same baptism.  That joins you as a living branch to the Vine named Jesus. 
That Gaza road of yours is a messy road, too, with unexpected turns and Greeks running up to our chariots and water in the wilderness.  God is anything but organized.  Ordered, yes.  He knows where it all is.  But to our eyes, quite unorganized.  And yet that is the way the Gospel works.  One person at a time.  The Word, baptismal water, the Spirit of God guiding it all.
There will be your chariots to chase after, too.  You never really know when and where the Spirit will blow, and it will be your turn to speak the Good News to one who asks you: “What does this mean?”
What will you do?  Speak.  Open your mouth and speak Good News to the outsider, to the eunuch, to the one seeking the Truth, to the one who is asking what makes you tick, what it is about Jesus that is so important that everyone should know.  Don’t try and organize it.  Don’t wait until you feel fully prepared.  Just do it.  Trust the Holy Spirit to guide the process.  It is, after all His Work to guide to understanding and faith in Jesus Christ in whom we have forgiveness, life, and salvation.
Just open your mouth and speak this Good News I share with you today: Jesus Christ gave up His life on the cross and rose from the dead for the world of sinners, including you.  In Baptism, you are buried in His death and raised in His resurrection.  You are one of His people, declared holy and righteous.  Indeed, you are forgiven for all of your sins.  In the name of the Father and of the Son of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.         




Into the Wilderness

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