Saturday, July 28, 2012

Don't Freak Out; It's Jesus!

"Jesus Walks on Water" by Ivan Aivazovsky
The text for today is Ephesians 3:20-21: “Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to Him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever.  Amen.”
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
You would think that the disciples would get it by now.  They’ve been with Jesus for some time.  They’ve seen Him preach with amazing authority, heal the sick with a touch, cast out demons with a word, raise the dead, calm a stormy sea, and feed thousands of people with only five loaves of bread and two fish.  Sent out by Jesus and acting on His authority, they’ve even personally participated in some of that powerful stuff.  You would think they would get it.  You would think they would begin to have an inkling of just who Jesus is and what He can do.
But then we come to our text.  Jesus sends His disciples back out on the sea while He goes up on the mountain to pray.  Evening comes.  Jesus, though deeply in prayer, is aware of their situation.  He sees the disciples are “making headway painfully, for the wind [is] against them.”  But He lets them struggle for awhile.
It is about the fourth watch of the night, sometime between 3:00 and 6:00 a.m.  The disciples are worn out and tired from their all-night struggle against the wind and the waves.  And suddenly Jesus comes out to them walking on the sea, unhindered by the wind and the waves and not bound to the laws of physics! 
When approaching the boat, Jesus walks as though He means to pass by them.  This was by design—to get the attention of the disciples and to test them.  What happens does not say much for them.  Superstition overwhelms them.  They don’t recognize Jesus, but rather think that He is a ghost and cry out in terror. 
As my son-in-law has taught my three-year-old grandson to say: They freak out!  Imagine that!  Jesus freaks them out!  He absolutely terrifies them!  And even though they have certainly been taught better than to believe such superstitious silliness, they find it easier to believe they see a ghost walking on the water than the Lord Jesus Christ.  The irony in their seeing something supernatural is that Jesus is supernatural, but in a more profound way than they could ever imagine. 
What does the Lord do?  Like He did for the hungry multitude in last week’s Gospel, Jesus has compassion on them.  Jesus shows them mercy.  He doesn’t wait until they “get it” to come to them.  He reaches out to them: “Take heart.  It is I.  Do not be afraid.”  That’s how it’s translated in the ESV.  But there is a deeper meaning in His words, for by these words Jesus is spelling out who He is.  “It is I.”  More accurately translated: “I AM.”  I AM.  Yahweh Himself.  The great I AM who spoke to Moses from the burning bush.  The Lord God who rescued Israel from Egyptian bondage and led them through the wilderness, across the Jordan River, and into the Promised Land. 
“Don’t freak out!” says Jesus.  “I AM the Lord.  I am here to help you.  I am the God of your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob come in the flesh.”  Then Jesus hops into the boat and the wind ceases.  It’s completely calm.  And the disciples’ fear turns to amazement.  But they still don’t get it.  St. Mark comments: “for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.”
The disciples do not fully understand what has taken place.  If they would have learned from the feeding of the five thousand, they would understand this miracle.  They would’ve learned that Jesus is the Lord of creation; all of nature is under His control.  But they don’t understand; their hearts are hardened.  This does not mean that they reject Christ or do not believe in Him as their Savior, but that they fail to grasp fully what He has done.  Their hearts are not open to all that Jesus is seeking to teach them. 
Mark is very candid about exposing the spiritual weaknesses of the disciples and very lucid in expounding the greatness of Christ.  He is truly “able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think.”  The disciples do not understand this because their hearts are hardened.  Like Pharaoh in Exodus.  Like Jesus says of His opponents later in Mark’s Gospel.  They are unbelieving, uncomprehending.  And sadly it’s going to get worse before it gets better.  When Jesus starts speaking more plainly about His death His disciples are going to really freak out.  
The cold, stark reality is that the disciples suffer from hardened hearts.  They know Jesus can do some amazing things.  Can’t deny that.  He’s got them out of a couple serious boating problems.  He has proved He can feed huge crowds with hardly any food.  He has a way with the sick.  He can even stand toe-to-toe with demons and death and prevail.  But do they believe He is the Savior? 
Yes, that’s right.  Can they trust this Jesus is the promised Savior of the world and of all sinners?  Savior for even them?
Do you?  Do you trust in Jesus as your Savior?  Or is your heart hard?  Are you willing to trust Jesus with every area of your life?  Or is there something about this Jesus that freaks you out a little bit, too? 
Jesus says to His frightened, hard-hearted disciples: “Take heart.  I AM.  Don’t freak out.”  This is not so much a command as a promise.  Jesus’ powerful Word does what He says.  The same eternal Word who spoke the heaven sand earth and everything in them into existence in six days, creates courage and faith by His Word alone.  And He continues to do so even today. 
It doesn’t make sense.  It’s hard to believe.  But Jesus promises to save you through His Word, His means of grace—Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and the Holy Supper.  In simple means like water, spoken Word, bread and wine, Christ exchanges your sin for His righteousness.  All the benefits earned by Jesus with His perfect life and atoning death are given to you.
Baptism is not just plain water, but it is the water included in God’s command and combined with God’s Word.  Baptism works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation who all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.  Christ our Lord says in the last chapter of Mark: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16).
How can water do such great things?  Certainly not just water, but the Word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this Word of God in the water.  For without God’s Word the water is plain water and no Baptism.  But with the Word of God it is a Baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit, as St. Paul says in Titus, chapter three: “He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:5-8).
Christ speaks forgiveness through His called and ordained servant.  The Office of the Keys is that special authority which Christ has given to His Church on earth to forgive the sins of repentant sinners, but to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent.  This is what St. John the Evangelist writes in chapter twenty: The Lord Jesus breathed on His disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven” (John 20:22-23).
The Sacrament of the Altar is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ Himself for us Christians to eat and to drink.  Where is this written?  The holy Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and St. Paul write: Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night when He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and gave it to the disciples and said: “Take, eat; this is My body, which is given for you.  This do in remembrance of Me.”  In the same way also He took the cup after supper, and when He had given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the new testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.  This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”
These words, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins,” show us that in the Sacrament forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given us through these words.  For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.
How can bodily eating and drinking do such great things?  Certainly not just eating and drinking do these things, but the words written here; “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”  These words, along with the bodily eating and drinking, are the main thing in the Sacrament.  Whoever believes these words has exactly what they say: “forgiveness of sins.”
Such grace is far beyond our ability to earn, attain, or grasp.  But the Lord brings it to us—not in some out-of-body, walk-on-water, top-of-the-mountain experience.  Not in “liver shivers” or “burning bosoms,” but always available, in His Word.  It’s right here on Sunday—in the hymns, liturgy, sermon, and in the Sacrament of the Altar.  It’s right there in your Bible at home.  And therein lies the “problem” for us sinners: the Word is so readily available that you’ll be tempted to take it for granted.  It seems so common, that you won’t make it a priority.  Or it seems so otherworldly that it will freak you out and you’ll try to avoid it in any way other than a strictly superficial basis. 
But this isn’t just a problem of the world and your sinful flesh: the devil doesn’t want you to hear the Word, either.  He wants you to keep the Bible next to your insurance policies—there if you really need it, but hoping that you’ll never have to use it.  He wants you to despise the Word because it is so easily at hand, and common.  But only by the Word is your faith strengthened, your sins forgiven. 
That’s why we pastors urge you be in the Word on a daily basis.  We encourage you to make weekly worship a priority, because here the Lord is at work to feed your faith and forgive your sins through His means of grace.  To deprive yourself of the Divine Service is to deprive yourself of grace.  And because we are the body of Christ, it deprives others as well: for as you sing and speak here, you put God’s Word into the ears of those around you.  When you are not here, your fellow Christians are deprived of your voice added to the faith we confess.
We encourage you to daily reading and meditation.  There are resources out there—The Treasury of Daily Prayer is one of them; but it may be as simple as opening your Bible and reading a psalm and a couple of other chapters.  Or taking the bulletin home and reading and reflecting on the week’s lessons.
If your concentration is frazzled as mine often is, read God’s Word aloud so that the words come out of your mouth and back into your ears.  Pick out a verse or two to memorize, to meditate upon.  Close the day with a passage, as your thoughts while asleep often dwell on your last waking thoughts.  If you have children, include them too.  Read Bible stories.  Memorize the Small Catechism bit by bit around the dinner table.  The Lord works through His Word to strengthen their faith, too.  For this is true: God strengthens your faith, imparts knowledge of His love, and dwells in you—by means of His Word.  If you are not hearing His Word, your faith is weakening.  Your heart is hardening.  It’s just that simple.
So we bid you to be in the Word at home and at church.  It’s not because we obsess on attendance numbers, or because you earn forgiveness every time you crack open a Bible.  It’s because the Word feeds your faith, like food feeds your body.  It’s a gift of God to keep you alive, especially in times of trial and suffering.  And you will encounter such times, perhaps are even now experiencing trouble—maybe even BIG trouble. 
You know your pains far more than anyone else, so I need not enumerate them.  But let’s analyze what happens when it’s given you to suffer.  When trouble strikes, you worry and dwell on it.  It occupies your thoughts.  The trouble with this kind of meditation is that we just fret about how troubling the trouble is.  We sinners don’t always think to pray or to hear the Word for help.  But the Lord has much to say to you in time of trouble.  Remember: by His Word, He forgives your sins, strengthens your faith, and makes you know His will. 
As you read God’s Word, the Spirit is at work to give you all of God’s blessings.  The Word becomes part of your meditation.  Along with the whispered fears in your mind, you will also hear, “God is our refuge and strength; a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1).  You hear, “God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability” (1 Corinthians 10:13).  You hear that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39).  These are not pep-rally words to get back in the fight; these are the promises of God to grant you strength in trial, for you are one of His beloved children for Jesus’ sake. 
Strengthened and informed by God’s Word, you pray.  You know better what to pray, because you’ve heard the help that God promises.  Having heard Him speak to you, you now speak back to Him.  And you even have help in your praying.  The Spirit intercedes for you with groanings too deep for words, crafting your prayer into one worthy for God’s ears.  And you know that God hears your prayers, because Jesus intercedes for you with the Father, and for His sake the Father delights to hear your prayer.  He also delights to answer your prayer.
This brings us back to one more bit of good news in our text: verse 20 declares that God “is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or think, according to the power at work within us.”  When God answers your prayers for Jesus’ sake, He does far more than all you ask or think. 
This is good to keep in mind.  When trouble strikes, you have no idea how much trouble you’re really in—for you fight against principalities and powers of darkness.  At the same time, when you pray, you don’t know how good your prayer is—for the Holy Spirit makes it far better than you can imagine.  And when God answers, you can’t comprehend how great His answer is—because He does far more abundantly than all you ask or think.  That is why His Word is such a blessing in a time of trouble; and dear friends, as long as this world lasts, you are in trouble every day of your lives. 
By means of God’s Word, you have all of these blessings.  Apart from it, you have none.  So be in the Word.  For there the Lord strengthens your faith through His Spirit in your inner being.  By means of that Word, Christ dwells in you.  By that Word, God grants that you might know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.  By means of that Word, you are filled with the fullness of God.  By that Word you have forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.  Indeed, 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, July 22, 2012

Come to a Desolate Place and Rest

"Feeding the Multitudes" by Bernardo Strozzi
The text for today is Mark 6:31:  “And [Jesus] said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest awhile.”
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Our text begins with the apostles returning to Jesus and telling Him all that they had done and taught during their two-by-two mission tour upon which Jesus had sent them.  But something important happens during this brief “vicarage internship.”  We dare not pass over it or we’ll miss the full impact of this passage.  St. Mark records the death of John the Baptist.  John, the forerunner of Christ, has been executed thanks to birthday boy Herod and his hasty oath.  John’s head is served on a platter, a gruesome party favor for Herodias and her daughter the dancer.  John’s disciples come and take his body and lay it in a tomb. 
The beheading of a prophet like John is big news.  Jesus hears about it.  He isn’t surprised.  That’s the way it goes with God’s prophets.  How much more with the Christ, the Messiah, the Savior, Jesus Himself!  He is rejected by His own hometown of Nazareth.  He has become the object of superstitious fear at Herod’s court.  As the reports of Jesus’ teaching and miracles reach him, the paranoid king worries that John has returned from the dead in the person of Jesus.  Fear and guilt have a way of making one’s imagination run wild.   
Oh, Jesus is not surprised by the report of John’s death.  But that does not mean He is unaffected.  And so when the apostles return to report of their mission tour, Jesus says to them: “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest awhile.”  For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.  So they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves (Mark 6:31-32).
Before we really get into our text, I’d like to draw your attention to one other thing.  At this point in the Gospel, there’s a subtle difference in Mark’s writing style.  Mark is usually an “immediately” guy.  Most accounts begin with action words: “immediately,” “now when,” “while he was still speaking,” etc.  Here, the evangelist slows things down a bit.  Jesus intends to give His apostles and Himself a breather—or at least it seems like He is going to give them a breather.  
Perhaps it is a chance to mourn John’s death… and to contemplate what will happen to Him.  As I was reminded once again this week, the death of a loved one has a way of making us think of our own mortality.  And fully God, Jesus knows where His ministry is leading.  It’s taking Him to the cross.  Betrayal.  Denial.  Brutal suffering.  A horrible death.  Fully human, Jesus understands the need for rest and reflection, instruction and prayer.  And so Jesus bids His apostles: “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest awhile.”
A desolate place.  Look up that phrase and you’ll find a definition like this: “A wilderness; an uninhabited place which offers no shelter or sustenance, especially one which is located in a remote area.”  And certainly by that definition, the other side of the Sea of Galilee is (or was) a desolate place.  But Jesus and His apostles aren’t there alone for long.  Crowds from the cities look for Him.  A whole mass of people, and they are already waiting for Jesus when He gets ashore.  So much for the little time of rest—at least rest in the sense that we generally understand it.  Perhaps Jesus offers another kind of rest?   
As usual, Jesus has compassion on the crowd.  After all, He’s not here for Himself.  He comes as the Christ for all people…whether they reject Him or receive Him.  The people are sheep without a shepherd.  In their synagogues, they are not given the spiritual food they need and are not being directed to the Messiah.  Christ, the Good Shepherd, who can provide them what they need, cannot withhold the food they so desperately desire—the very Bread of Life, Himself. 
Our Lord cannot resist meeting the greatest needs of the crowd and soon is in its midst preaching and teaching and healing.  The day passes quickly and soon it is late afternoon.  The apostles find it necessary to remind the Lord about their other, more practical, everyday needs.  “This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late.  Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”  Reasonable and rational… but totally wrong.
Jesus’ answer is short and sweet: “You give them something to eat.”  The apostles can hardly believe their ears.  What can they do?  Why, even eight months of wages wouldn’t begin to fill the rumbling stomachs of this crowd!  So Jesus tells them to take an inventory of their resources.  They scrounge up five loaves of breads and two small fish that, according to John 6:9, belonged to a young boy.  A barley loaf was flat and small, hardly enough for two people.  And the fish—pickled or smoked—was usually served as relish or garnish and eaten with the bread.  It wasn’t much, but at least this boy (or his mother) had enough sense and foresight to pack a lunch when nobody else did.
The disciples seem to finally catch on that something special is in the wind, for when Jesus asks them to seat the people they do so with asking any more questions or raising any other objections.  The sight must have been stunning—a large crowd grouped by hundreds and fifties, seated on the ground for an impromptu picnic.  The word group in Greek is even more picturesque, as it is the word used for beds in a garden, for orderly rows of vegetables.  All sit there on the green grass, lined up row-by-row, waiting to be fed by their Good Shepherd, but totally unaware of what is about to happen in this desolate place.
Jesus begins this meal as He begins every meal—by giving thanks.  Perhaps the meal prayer of the Small Catechism and Old Testament psalter: “The eyes of all look to You, O Lord, and You give them their food in due season.  You open Your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing” (145:15-16). 
It is the usual blessing but an unusual meal.  Jesus breaks the bread and divides the fish, giving it to the disciples, who then pass it on to the people.  Without saying a word, Jesus simply continues to multiply the bread and fish so that there is enough for all and even more left over—twelve baskets, one for each of the doubting disciples.  And don’t forget that more than five thousand had eaten; Mark counted the men but not the women and children.
Now, if we’re not careful we can get the wrong idea about what’s happening here.  We could fall into the Joel Osteen, prosperity preacher ditch and this notion that if you just play your cards right, your bread and fish will never run out, your wine and milk will overflow, your IRA and stock portfolio will grow and grow.  The lure of money for nothing is what keeps the casinos running, and the idea that God is an infinite vending machine of favors to the favored isn’t far behind.  St. John emphasizes that danger in his account.  The people want to make Jesus king on the spot.  A chicken (or fish) in every pot.  Bread on every table.
But Mark emphasizes the desolate place.  Three times within the space of five verses, this phrase is repeated: “a desolate place.”  Jesus intentionally brings His apostles to a desolate place for rest and recovery, instruction and prayer.  An unusual place for a retreat perhaps; but not really if you think about it.  The Lord does much of His best work when He brings His people to a desolate place.
Remember Israel’s wilderness wandering after being “exodused” out of Egypt?  Forty years’ worth of testing and trial and time for personal reflection and spiritual growth.  Forty years of desolation to learn to trust in the Lord and His provision of daily bread.  Forty years to drive home the lesson that “man shall not live on bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Deuteronomy 8:3).  Forty years in a desolate place to properly prepare them for the abundance that awaited them in the Promised Land.
And then there was the beginning of Jesus’ own ministry.  Baptized by John, with His heavenly Father’s declaration of well-pleasing Sonship still echoing near the Jordan, Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit to the wilderness, to a desolate place, to be tempted by the devil.  Though hungry after forty days of fasting, Jesus forgoes the temptation to use His divine power to feed His own human need, relying upon God’s Word alone for His strength.    
And so it goes today.  The Lord bids you to come to a desolate place and to rest in Him, to trust in Him.  Your desolate place?  There are as many desolate places as there as disciples.  Yours could be a healthcare emergency or chronic pain.  Mourning the death of a loved one.  Marital and other relationship problems.  Unemployment or financial frustrations.   Loss of confidence or identity crisis.  A guilty conscience that burdens your heart.  The consequences of sin (yours or someone else’s) that weigh you down.  Actually, a desolate place could be anything that makes you realize you have come to a point where you cannot count on your own resources, your own resourcefulness, that you must come to Jesus empty-handed, as a beggar, asking Him to fill your need.  All of this is to prepare you for your place in the eternal Promised Land, the kingdom of heaven.
Along the way, the Lord bids His people to come to a desolate place to rest in Him, to come to the ends of their own resources and to trust in Him alone.  The disciples found it difficult to trust Jesus with five loaves and two fish.  How about you?  What is it in your life that seems so immense that you won’t bother Jesus?  What problem is so huge that you can’t tell Jesus?  What sin is it that you won’t trust with Jesus?  Too big for Jesus you say?  Too hard for Jesus?  Nonsense!
With Jesus there’s always enough and even more!  More than you could ever expect.  Whether it’s cancer or freak accident, loss or crisis.  Whether it’s your sin or guilt, death or hell, or even five loaves and two fish to feed thousands.  Jesus is a bigger Savior than we can imagine.  His compassion has no bounds. 
“Bring the bread and fish to me,” He says.  “Sit on the grass everyone.  Relax.  I’ll take care of you.”  Then He looks heavenward.  Blesses the food.  Breaks the bread and says to His disciples, His called and ordained servants:  “All right, boys.  Start handing it out to these poor folks.”
The miracle happens as Jesus makes as little fuss as possible.  No hocus-pocus.  No lengthy praying.  No holy exhortations like: “I’ll feed you only after you give your hearts to Me!”  Just break it up and pass it out.  Jesus so underplays it that the bread and fish probably reach the back row of the crowds before the first row figures what’s going on.  And Mark tells us, “They all ate and were satisfied.”  Jesus took care of them.  And much more than they ever expected. 
Can you trust a Jesus who bids you come to a desolate place to rest?  Can you trust a Jesus with only five loaves and two fish?  Can you?  Yes.  And with anything else.  In fact, with everything!  Especially the most troubling problems of all, the most desolate of places: sin, death, and hell. 
For that there’s Calvary, for a few hours of eternity the most desolate place on earth, a place totally forsaken by God, a Son totally forsaken by His heavenly Father for your sins and the sins of this world.  Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world is also your Good Shepherd!  Salvation achieved.  Jesus lived for you.  Christ died for you.  Your sin is His.  His righteousness is yours.  Jesus took your desolate place so that you might find eternal rest in Him.
Now you sit here in rows listening to Jesus’ instruction and praying with your fellow saints.  From time to time, He invites you to come forward.  Take a little bit of bread and a little bit of wine.  What is that in the midst of your desolate place?  In the midst of all your enormous problems and sins?  It’s the Lord’s Supper.  His Body.  His Blood.  And His promise.  Eat and drink it for the forgiveness of your sins that He won for you on the cross.  And with this meal are more promises: life and salvation.  It is the medicine of immortality!
Jesus’ compassion for you knows no bounds.  No desolate place, no problem, no sin, no guilt, no death is too big for Jesus.  You can trust Him with anything and everything!  With Jesus there’s always more.  More than you ever expected, certainly more than you ever deserved—eternal life, salvation, and forgiveness that know no bounds.  Indeed, for Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Righteousness Exceeding Legalism and License

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The scribes and the Pharisees—for us Christians today those names conjure up negative images for they were the primary opponents of our Lord.  But it would not have been so in Jesus’ day.  The Pharisees were well-known and highly respected religious leaders who believed and taught that in order to live under God’s favor the Jews needed to separate themselves from the Gentiles and return to strict observance of Mosaic Law.  The scribes could trace their origin back to Ezra, the first priest called a scribe (7:11-12).  The title literally means a writer, a secretary who prepares and copies scrolls, but over the years, their role was greatly increased to being the chief interpreters and public teachers of the Law. 
Both groups were established with good intentions.  Prior to the Babylonian captivity, God’s Word had been so neglected that 2 Kings reports the discovery of a scroll of the Law of Moses in the temple during the days of Josiah (22:8-20).  Imagine: being shocked to find a copy of Scripture in a house of worship!  That says a lot about the spiritual decline of Israel.  To prevent this from ever happening again, the scribes devoted themselves to the studying and teaching of God’s Word.  The Pharisees developed their own traditions to make certain that they held to the letter of the Law, right down to its last jot and tittle.  They were expert legalists.
Now to be a good legalist you want to make the rules so that they’re easy enough you can keep them, but hard enough so that barely anyone else can.  The trick here is to convince everyone around that you’ve got a higher standard, a more rigorous law, a stricter interpretation of God’s commandments and you have the strength to pull it off.  But what you’ve really done is softened the Law and made it easier.  The Law is now doable, keepable, manageable.
In Luther’s Small Catechism we learn that there are three functions of the law: curb, mirror, and guide.  But the legalist only has one use: the measuring stick.  We say that the Law shows us our sin.  For the legalist, the Law shows his righteousness… or at least how much more righteous he is than everyone else. 
This is the context in which Jesus preaches the words of our text, Matthew 5:20:  “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  
Imagine the reaction to this statement.  The crowds must have thought: “What!  More righteous than the Pharisees!  Inconceivable!  If you have to be that good, how can anyone get into heaven?”  And the Pharisees would have thought: “Who is this guy and what is He talking about?  Is He a new Moses?”
But what Jesus is actually doing is wrenching the Law out of the hands of the legalists.  Those who would misuse the Law for their own purposes will now have the Law used against them.  Jesus shows the Pharisees they are not really upholding the Law, but have actually watered it down.  “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’  But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”
Now that does it!  Before Jesus says this we might have asked the Pharisees, “Have you kept the Fifth Commandment?” and they would’ve answered, “Of course!  I’ve never murdered anyone.”  So would we.  But Jesus won’t let the Pharisees (or us) off so easy.  He says that anyone who calls his brother a fool or insults him or is angry with him is guilty of breaking this commandment.  And He goes through the rest of the Decalogue the same way intending to make it clear that if you think you’ve managed to keep any of the commandments, you’re very mistaken, for sin is not just a matter of doing, but begins in the heart and mind.
Now Old Adam says, “Come on.  This is going a bit too far.  It’s one thing to hit a man on the head with a rock.  It’s another matter to mutter a few choice words about him under your breath when he cuts you off in traffic.”  But Jesus’ words make it clear and leave no wiggle room.  So, why would we argue?   
Perhaps it’s because we are legalists at heart.  We want to see how good we are doing, to justify ourselves and our sin.  Or maybe, it’s because we’re licentious?  We just don’t care who or what anybody says, we’re going to do what we want to do and to hell with anything that gets in our way.  
Legalism and license.  They seem so different.  But are they really?  One person lives his life striving for moral perfection.  The other one doesn’t really try.  The first is convinced that he can avoid sinning if he tries hard enough.  The second is convinced he can’t avoid sinning, so why bother?  “After all,” he says, “I like to sin.  God likes to forgive sin.  Sounds like the perfect arrangement to me.”    
While at first glance they may appear to be opposites, legalism and license have several very important things in common, including the basic assumption upon which they are built.  Legalism reasons: “God forbids me to sin.  God cannot forbid something I cannot avoid.  Therefore, I must be able to avoid sinning.”  On the other hand, license reasons: “I cannot avoid sinning.  God cannot forbid something I cannot avoid.  Therefore, I must have permission to sin.”  Although they come to completely different conclusions, both legalism and license share a basic assumption: “God cannot forbid something I cannot avoid.” 
This assumption is not Biblical, but rather based upon human reasoning—faulty human reasoning, at that.  God’s commandment doesn’t imply your ability to obey.  And your inability to obey doesn’t nullify God’s commandment.  St. Paul makes the point in the third chapter of his letter to the Romans that God’s commandments are given to show us our sin.  They highlight our inability to obey, and they hold us accountable for our sin and disobedience (vv 19-20).
Another thing that legalism and license have in common is that they both underestimate sin.  The legalist underestimates sin’s depth in the Christian’s life.  He thinks of sin atomistically: “There are thoughts, words, and deeds that I do that are sins; and there are thoughts, words, and deeds that I do that are without sin.”  The legalist’s goal therefore is to minimize the sinful thoughts, words, and deeds in his life; and to increase the sinless thoughts, words, and deeds in his life.  This reminds me of the kind of philosophy that Baloo sings about in The Jungle Book or that Joel Osteen preaches to millions of people each week: “You’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, and latch on to the affirmative.”  Of course, the Bible doesn’t support this view at all.  There is nothing we think, say, or do that is without sin.  Everything we do is stained by sin, even our good works.
License stems from a misunderstanding of how dangerous sin is in our lives.  The licentious person views sin as mostly harmless, and without serious consequence or penalty.  To do this, the licentious person must ignore not only the warning bell of his conscience, but also the constant drumbeat of Scripture warning that sin is dangerous and incurs God’s wrath.  We can clearly see from our text that Jesus took sin and its consequences seriously, warning any of us who’ve ever muttered at “one of those idiots” out on the road that we are actually flirting with the hell of fire.
Legalism and license have something else in common: Both of them prevent the Christian from truly struggling against his sin.  The legalist mistakenly thinks that he is struggling against sin successfully.  The licentious person has likely given up the struggle against sin altogether.  Neither is able to avoid sin or its penalty because neither is really struggling against sin.  Oh, the legalist thinks he is, but he is only struggling to keep the rules, and that isn’t the same.   In fact, the legalist’s rule-keeping is no better than the licentious person’s rule-breaking.  Both only increase sin and its power in their lives (Romans 7:7-13; 5:20). 
As you can see, legalism and license are not actually two different errors.  They are the same error expressed in two different ways.  Whether you travel the path of legalism or of license, you come to the same inevitable end.  Both ultimately ignore the saving work of Jesus Christ.  The legalist believes he can avoid sin and manage to live righteously.  If he is right, then the legalist doesn’t need the righteousness of Jesus, or only from time to time when he fails to avoid sin.  The licentious person believes he has permission to sin.  If he is right, then the licentious person doesn’t need Jesus to suffer the penalty for his sin.
If legalism and license are really the same error, it there one answer to both?  Yes, God’s Word—His Law and Gospel—properly distinguished and applied.
First, the Law.  The legalist needs to see that he is totally sinful, from top to bottom, from beginning to end.  The legalist needs to confess along with St. Paul, “I know that nothing good dwells in me,” and cry out, “Wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:18, 24).  The licentious person needs to see his sin for what it is: open rebellion against God.  Though he may take his sin lightly, God does not.  The licentious person needs to answer along with St. Paul, “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?  By no means!” (Romans 6:1-2).
The proclamation of the Law leaves the legalist with no place to stand; no thought, word, or deed—that he can call righteous.  Likewise, the Law leaves the licentious person on God’s enemies list; an impudent creature, spitting in God’s face with every sin.  The Law says, “I don’t care what you think of yourself.  You are a poor miserable sinner.  You have murdered and committed adultery and stolen and cursed and coveted and worshiped idols and slandered your neighbor and blasphemed your God, and for all of this you deserve the hell of fire.”  The  Law is swung like a hammer to demolish us.  It plucks out our stone cold, sin-hardened hearts that we might receive new hearts transplanted hearts. 
And so, the first answer to both legalism and license is God’s Word of Law that condemns sin completely.  What comes next is counterintuitive.  Many preachers think that they can cure people of licentiousness by preaching the Law more.  This is a good first step, but the Law is only the diagnosis and prognosis, not the cure.  Similarly, some preachers think that legalism can be cured by really driving the Law home to those who think they are keeping it.  Again, this is a good first step, but the Law alone cannot cure legalism either. 
The Law destroys the common, false assumption of both legalism and license: “God cannot forbid something I cannot avoid.”  The Law says to the legalist, “You cannot avoid sin.”  The Law says to the licentious, “There is a penalty for your sin.”  However, this is all the Law can do.  The Law cannot save.  The Law cannot motivate or empower godly living.  The Law accuses and kills.  Only the Gospel gives both the legalist and the licentious freedom from their error—not by avoiding sin, nor by indulging sin, but by forgiving sin.  Only the Gospel shows the legalist the exceeding righteousness of Jesus Christ, and the licentious the great penalty Jesus paid for sin. 
Some pastors are hesitant to preach the Gospel to the legalist and the licentious—especially to the licentious.  They mistakenly think that the Gospel needs to tempered with a dose of the Law, or Christians will become lax about sin or lazy in doing good works.  By doing this, pastors only reinforce the error of both and fail to share the only message that has power to save—the Gospel. 
The Gospel says, “Yes, God always forbids sin, and you can never avoid sin.  But the very sin you cannot avoid, Jesus avoided for you.  The very sin God forbids and condemns, Jesus took to the Cross in His body for you.”  Theologians call this it the active and passive obedience of Christ.  The Gospel replaces all the legalist’s efforts to be righteous with the righteousness of Jesus.  The Gospel shows the licentious person the true penalty for his sin paid by Jesus. 
The continual proclamation both of Law and Gospel is the only cure for legalism and license.  Not only that, but only the continual proclamation of Law and Gospel engages the Christian in the true struggle against his sin… repentance, contrition for sins and faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ. 
Once the legalist finds his righteousness in Jesus alone, and once the licentious person finds the penalty for sin paid in Jesus alone, then the struggle against unavoidable sin can really begin.  The former legalist will now struggle like he’s never struggled before, because he realizes there won’t be a single second in his life when sin will not be there close at hand.  And the former licentious person will struggle against sin, perhaps for the first time.  Now, he won’t be able to sin without hearing the Law’s condemnation and sin’s penalty.  The lives of both will become lives of constant, daily repentance and faith.
You may have noticed as we began this sermon that it was difficult to diagnose yourself as either a legalist or as licentious.  There is a good reason for that—because we are all both.  We go back and forth between the two every day.  We think we can avoid sin sometimes; we give ourselves permission to sin at other times.  But God’s Word will not permit our legalism or license.  It puts us in the impossible position of struggling against our sin, so that we might turn to Jesus and cast ourselves upon His mercy, His grace, and His love. 
Jesus takes your sin, the very sin that God forbids, the very sin that you cannot avoid, and then He exchanges it for His perfect righteousness.  Therefore you who stand condemned by the Law in every part also stand absolved by Jesus in every way.  The Law that was aimed at you, crushed Jesus instead.  And now His perfect keeping of the Law is credited to you.  You are His saints, His forgiven children.  You have that righteousness that exceeds the scribes and Pharisees.  Yours is the kingdom of heaven even now.  For 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, July 8, 2012

Just Jesus?

Jesus Unrolls the Book in the Synagogue - James Tissot

The text for this Sixth Sunday after Pentecost is Mark 6:1-13.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!
As usual, St. Mark gets right to business.  He tells us that right after healing the woman of a 12-year hemorrhage and raising a little girl from the dead in Capernaum, Jesus returns “to His hometown” (Nazareth) with His disciples. 
It is not a family visit or social call, a chance to renew old acquaintances and catch up with the homefolks.  Jesus returns as a rabbi.  And so that Sabbath, He can be found teaching in the synagogue.  The worshipers all know Him well.  He comes to share the Gospel with them.  But the question is: Are they ready to receive the Gospel from Him?  Or perhaps better stated: “Are they ready to receive Him as the one who embodies the Gospel in His person and ministry?”   
Unlike Luke’s account (4:16-30), St. Mark doesn’t give us any details about what Jesus preached.  He focuses, rather, on the reaction of the townspeople.  “Many who heard Him were astonished, saying, ‘Where did this man get these things?  What is the wisdom given to Him?  How are such mighty works done by His hands?   Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon?  Are not His sisters here with us?’”
Translation: It’s just Jesus, nobody special.  We remember Him when He was toddling around town.  We watched Him as He went about His daily woodworking.  He might be doing some special things, but He’s nobody special.  Certainly not any better than we are.  Who is He to act like this?  Who is He to put on airs?  Who is He to be speaking to us this way?
But there’s even more than merely “the hometown boy makes good” jealousy or the “familiarity breeds contempt” thing going on here.  St. Luke tells us they drove Him out of town… so they could throw Him down the cliff.  St. Mark tells us why: “They took offense at Him.” 
“They took offense at Him.”  These words are a warning to all Christians, including (perhaps especially) the one who is preaching to you.  The warning is this: God does not intend for preaching to compliment you.  Preaching is not meant to tell you how well you are doing.  Preaching should not be done to entertain you.  Preaching is not meant as a pep talk or even for teaching you how to be a better person.  Preaching has but one purpose, and that one purpose is to focus your eyes and ears and heart on Christ Jesus and Him alone.  Just Jesus… that’s ultimately who you should hear and see when God’s Word is proclaimed to you.
Now, in order for God to give you a good picture of your Lord Jesus Christ, He must first show you a bad picture of yourself—that is, a true, accurate, though unflattering picture of you and your sin.  In order for you to receive a good, healthy dose of the doctor’s medicine, you must first become aware of your disease.  In order to swallow that bitter pill that brings healing, you must first be made aware and accept the deadly seriousness of your condition.  In order for you to benefit from the forgiveness that Jesus earned for you through His death on the cross, God must first proclaim His holy Law to diagnose and warn you about your continual need for forgiveness because sin and death live within you.  The people of Jesus’ hometown took offense because they did not want to hear such things. 
That is really where things fell apart at Nazareth.  Jesus “came to His hometown… and on the Sabbath He began to teach in the synagogue.”  Everything was fine up until then.  Then, as we find out in St. Luke’s account, Jesus starts preaching about Jesus.  Just Jesus.  And “they took offense at Him.”   They were scandalized because of Jesus and the Gospel.  
You and I both should take a clear warning from this.  May God guard us against such unbelief and self-centered scandal!  May we allow our Lord Jesus Christ to say what He must say about us—our sin, so that we might focus on Him—our Savior.  So that we might repent of our sinful ways and continue to receive the gifts of salvation and life that come only from Him—just Jesus.
The second warning of today’s Gospel is this: a personal relationship with Jesus will do you very little good.  I know, that sounds shocking given today’s religious environment.  All the time you hear Christians saying, “You must have a personal relationship with Jesus” if you are to be saved.  But a personal relationship with Jesus, in and of itself, will not save you. 
Let me explain.  I think the text makes it clear that most everyone in the little town of Nazareth assumed they had a personal relationship with Jesus.  They’d seen Him grow up.  They knew His family—mother, four brothers, and sisters.  They even knew Him as an adult when He plied His trade as “the carpenter.”  Yet they took offense at Him. 
This is another serious warning, not only for us but also for many of our loved ones and neighbors who find it unimportant to come to worship!  Our text does not emphasize knowing who Jesus is or even having a personal relationship with Him. It does emphasize that we hear the words of Jesus and believe.  A simple claim to know Jesus or a claim to have personal relationship with Jesus might place you in danger of the fires of Hell.  Even the demons knew Jesus.  And so, it seems, did everyone in Nazareth.  Yet “[Jesus] marveled at their unbelief.” 
No, salvation is not based upon a personal relationship with Jesus, but rather faith given by the Holy Spirit through the Word.  “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned,” Jesus promises in Mark 16:16.  Believe in what or whom?  In Jesus.  Just Jesus.  Christ alone, and Him crucified. 
Jesus explained this Gospel to Nicodemus: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believe in Him may have eternal life.  For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.” (John 3:14-17).
It’s hard to believe, isn’t it?  The foolishness of unbelief, the disregard for things we consider common.  There stands the eternal Son of God, present with His people and speaking His powerful Word, and to them He’s just Jesus—no one special.  How could they do such a thing?  After all, they’d heard of His marvelous teachings and miraculous powers—even the power over disease and death.  You’d think they’d prepare for His coming, and that when He arrived they’d show Him the honor and reverence that is due to Him.  You would think that they would receive Him as Savior with open arms and listen to Him and believe.
But then again, the Old Adam makes belief very hard, and we must take care or we will fall into the same trap.  And if we have so fallen, then it is time for us to repent.  You see, the Lord is here, too.  Not just “spiritually present” as so many churches teach.  The Lord is as really present here as He was in that synagogue in His hometown.  There, He cloaked His godhood in flesh and blood.  Now He hides both His divine and human natures to visit you in His means of grace.
You’ve heard of this miracle and mystery many-a-Sunday before this one.  By means of Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and Holy Communion, the holy Lord Jesus Christ is wholly present here with you.  Furthermore, He is present for your good.  He speaks His Word of grace and life to you.  He forgives your sins for an awesome purpose.  He desires that you have eternal life with Him in heaven.  That is why He died on the cross.  That is why He comes to you in His means of grace.  And that is why He is present here.  The Son of God is here.  To save you.
Now the question I lay before you is this: What kind of welcome will He receive?  All over, as people got up for church this morning, Old Adam got up with them.  Among the discouragements that Old Adam whispered were these: “It’s going to be really hot in there, and the sermon is going to take a long time.  If we’ve got Communion, it’s going to take even longer.  And we’ll be singing the same old liturgy again.  It’s the same stuff that we do every week, nothing special.” 
The Old Adam whispers all of these things to all of us—maybe not this Sunday, but then some Sunday soon.  He does so for a reason.  Old Adam doesn’t want us to rejoice that Jesus is here.  Because, you see, Jesus is here.  He is present in these things.  In Holy Baptism, He placed His name upon you and wrote your name in the Book of Life.  As you hear His word proclaimed and sing His Word in the liturgy, He is working through that Word to give you grace.  As you receive His Supper, He shares His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins. 
Miraculous things are going on here—miracles far greater than healed hemorrhages and stilled storms, even greater than little girls brought back to life—because these miracles give you life forever—eternal life in the presence of God.  And yet, when the Old Adam prevails, we approach these things with a sense of apathy and boredom, unhappy with the same old Jesus.  Perhaps, even offended?
To illustrate the sadness of this sin, consider this.  You know that the car needs gasoline to get you places, and it’s the same routine each time.  Pull up to the pump and stop the motor.  Slide the debit card and pump the gas.  Put the nozzle and the cap back in their places.  Understanding the necessity of fuel, are you ever tempted to look for an alternative source of power for your car?  One might consider medical procedures as well, say dialysis or chemotherapy.  These are not enjoyable treatments, but those who undergo them understand the need.  They submit to the same treatment repeatedly, despite the inconvenience and side effects—even if it’s the same again and again.
Now, we need forgiveness repeatedly because daily we sin much.  The Lord gathers us here to give us forgiveness and eternal life, and He has prescribed His Word and Sacraments to get the job done.  Yet it is so tempting to approach this ongoing feast of forgiveness with the idea that it’s just Jesus, nothing special.
If this is true, it’s because your sinful nature is hard at work.  Your Old Adam doesn’t care if you trust in gasoline to get around.  And he is unconcerned that you might follow medical treatments.  You see, none of these things destroy him and give you eternal life.  But forgiveness does, and so the Old Adam works hard to make it seem like just forgiveness, nothing special.
So what is the problem?  Thanks to that sinful nature, it’s easy not to see how much we need forgiveness.  After all, we make use of medicine and gasoline because we see the need for these things.  Could it be that we are tempted to take our Lord’s presence for granted because we don’t really see the need for forgiveness?  Because we don’t really see how terribly sinful we are before God?
So I ask you: Did you come here today excited to be visited by the Son of God Himself?  Do you make your way here with at least as much enthusiasm as you would to a reunion with an old, dear friend?  Do you come enthusiastically into the Lord’s presence—as eagerly as you ought?
The answer is no.  Burdened by sin, none of us can honestly say “yes” in this life.  Why?  Is it that the Lord has changed and is no longer as holy, glorious, or merciful?  No.  He remains the same.  The trouble is with us, plagued by sin and all sorts of afflictions that prevent us from rejoicing as we ought. 
If we do not appreciate our Lord’s visit, it is not that the Gospel has changed; rather, it may well be that we have failed to hear the Law that shows us how much we need forgiveness.  Bogged down and burdened for one reason or another, and denying how sinful we really are, it is easy to come to church and say, “It’s just Jesus, nothing special.”
This is proof we are sick with sin, and this is confirmed by God’s Word.  But if you realize you are sick with sin, then take comfort.  Remember, it was the sick in the Gospel lesson who were healed.  It was those who didn’t trust in themselves, but confessed their weakness and trusted in Jesus who were healed.
So, here is the Good News.  No matter what frame of mind was yours as you came here this morning, the Lord is here—as faithful as always.  He remains more than “just Jesus and nothing special.”  He gathers you here to forgive your sins, to strengthen and preserve you in the one true faith unto life everlasting.  He removes your guilt from you, for He has died for your sins already.
How powerful is His grace?  Consider someone who drags himself in with little eagerness to meet the Lord, and who departs with no more emotional or physical energy than when he arrived.  Nevertheless, he hears the Word and receives the Lord’s Supper.  And as he goes, he can say, “Even though my body denies it with every step, the Lord came to visit me today.  And although I feel no different, He has removed my sin and strengthened my faith.  He will preserve me in that faith until the day He raises me from the dead.  Then, fully released from the bonds of sin and death I will be properly joyful at His presence with me.”
Take heart, dear friends.  The Lord is here to forgive your sins.  Jesus is in fact the holy Son of God, fully divine, infinitely and eternally powerful and merciful.  He is also fully human, who became flesh and died for your sins.  Today, He visits you by His Word and Sacrament; and though your Old Adam may say He’s just Jesus and no one special, your faith rejoices to receive Him and to hear Him speak this Good News through His called and ordained servant: I forgive for all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.
Now may the peace of God that passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting.  Amen.

Into the Wilderness

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