Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Not a Small God, But a Great God Who Hides Himself

Feast of Herod - Lucas Cranach the Elder
In the writing for the observance of The Martrydom of St. John the Baptist in Treasury of Daily Prayer, Martin Luther once again speaks of God "hiding" Himself in the midst of Christian suffering.  I find these words a great encouragement to hold on in faith especially in the toughest days knowing that the greatness of God's glory will one day be revealed for all.  For now we live in the shadow of the cross, where God's glory is hidden and His strength is seen as weakness, but we believe that word of the cross, of Christ crucified, is the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:18 ff.).  As children of God, "we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him" (Romans 6:16).  

May the Lord grant us each greater patience and faith as we await the day for this to all be revealed, trusting that Christ is indeed in control of all things and working them for the good of His people. 

"Christ is risen from the dead, has ascended to heaven, and sits at the right hand of God in divine power and honor.  Nevertheless, He is hiding His greatness, glory, majesty, and power.  He allows His prophets and apostles to be expelled and murdered... He allows His Christians to suffer want, trouble, and misfortune in the world.  He acts as He did in the days of His flesh, when John the Baptist had to lose his head for the sake of a desperate harlot, while He, the Savior and Helper, said nothing about it, departed thence in a ship and withdrew to the solitude of the wilderness (Matt, 14:a0 ff., Mark 6:17, 32).  Is He not a petty, childish God, who does not save Himself and allows His children to suffer as if He did not see how badly they were faring?... [I]f He sees and knows but cannot help, then He has no hands that are able to do anything, nor does He have power to enable Him to save.

"Hence the prophet Isaiah correctly says of God: 'Verily Thou art a God that hidest Thyself, O God of Israel, Savior' (45:15)... Now He lets our adversaries treat His Word, Sacraments, and Christians as they please.  He lets us call and cry and says nothing, as though He were deep in thought or were busy or were out in the field or asleep and heard nothing as Elijah says of Baal (1 Kings 18:27)...

"Meanwhile Christians, baptized in His name, must hold still, must permit people to walk over them and must have patience.  For in the kingdom of faith God wants to be small, but in the (future) kingdom of sight He will not be small but great.  Then He will show that He saw the misery of His people and heard their crying and had a will inclined to help them, also power to help them... For this appearance of the glory of the great God we must wait."

Writing from Martin Luther, pp. 281ff. in Ewald Plass, comp., What Luther Says, copyright (c) 1959, 1987 Concordia Publishing House
 

Friday, August 24, 2012

You Turn Things Upside Down!


The Bible Turned Upside Down

The text for today is our Old Testament lesson, Isaiah 29: 11-19, which has already been read.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Like the plot of a good action thriller it goes down to the wire.  At the last minute God mercifully intervenes to deliver Jerusalem from the Assyrian horde poised at the city gate.  But something is wrong.  The people do not see beyond the immediate threat they have just avoided.  They fail to recognize the hand of the Lord or their sin and idolatry that brought them so close to utter ruin.  God’s deliverance does nothing to turn them to repentance and the promises of the Messiah.  And so the deliverance will only buy them a few more years until the Babylonians come and destroy Jerusalem and the temple.  Now that’s judgment!
But Isaiah reveals another aspect of God’s judgment: He will give the people of Jerusalem what they want!  They are to continue in their unbelief and rejection as long as they wish.  They will see God’s deliverance but will not turn away from sin.  They will hear the message of the Gospel but continue to resist God’s grace.  God will even prevent them from hearing and seeing the truth and believing it!
Yes, you heard that right.  God will prevent them from hearing and seeing the truth and believing it!
The Old Testament is a history of God’s dealing with sinful humanity.  God reaches out by grace.  No human effort or thought moves God to create Adam.  Or call Abraham to be the father of His people.  Or bring Israel out of Egypt and into the Promised Land.  Or promise a Messiah who will undo sin and overcome death.  No human faithfulness makes God fulfill His promise.  God does all these things for His own sake solely by grace without any merit or worthiness on anyone’s part. 
Many believe the wonderful promises of God and trust in His grace.  But the human heart can be so perverse.  Not long after God brings the Israelites out of Egypt, they make a golden calf and worship it.  The Lord threatens to consume them with His wrath, but Moses intervenes.  And for the next forty years God patiently endures their grumbling while He tests His people in the wilderness.
During the period of the judges, the people of Israel repeatedly sin against God.  He disciplines His rebellious, idolatrous people, sending them difficulties to call them to their senses.  They repent and return to the Lord.  But the pattern persists.  And sinful cycle escalates.  Things get so bad that at the end of Judges we read this sad news: “Every one did what right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).
When we come to the time of Isaiah, we reach another level in the war between faith and apostasy.  God’s people can no longer even be moved by His discipline.  The close call with Assyria doesn’t wake them up.  They refuse to listen to the prophets that God sends them.  They do not return to the Lord.  The sad judgment of God at this point is to allow them to persist in their unbelief.  He sends them a deep sleep so they cannot learn the truth.  When they hear the truth it does not penetrate their faithless hearts, but only serves to confirm their unbelief.    
Ironically, Isaiah writes some of the most beautiful promises recorded in the Scriptures.  His book has even been called “The Fifth Gospel.”  Yet the majority of his own countrymen never understand it.  They remain rebellious and sinful unbelievers.  Isaiah’s prophesying only hardens them in their unbelief. 
Still, God’s promises are fulfilled.  Although a majority of those living in Jerusalem and Judah do not believe, there is still a remnant who remain faithful to the Lord.  They trust in Him and treasure the wonderful promises of the Messiah who will save them from sin, death, and the devil.  Isaiah ministers to them, giving them hope, strength, and comfort. 
A remnant remains, but the majority understand nothing of these promises.  Their hearts are far from the Lord.  That’s not to say they’ve left all the outer trappings of the one true faith.  They are very religious.  They still have the temple… priests… and rituals.  But these are now used for idol worship.  At the temple, the priests perform rituals for false gods.  Blinded by their sin, they believe this is pleasing to the one true God, but they have lost the true essence of God’s revelation.  They do not understand His grace and the promises of the Messiah.  No wonder they don’t recognize and accept Him when He comes. 
This passage does not speak only of people whose hearts are not in their religion.  It also speaks of those whose hearts are sincere and devout but whose beliefs are wrong and without Christ.  Such people believe they are worshiping the true God when they follow rules taught by men, or doctrines hatched by demons.  Many are devout and zealous in their beliefs, but they are without Christ.  Such was Saul of Tarsus before his conversion on the Damascus Road.  So it is with the devout adherent of Islam or the sincere Buddhist or dedicated Latter Day Saint.  
Even those within the visible Church of Christ can have hearts that are far from the Lord.  When they abandon the message of the cross and adopt social issues and political agendas, they begin to adhere to rules taught by men.  Whenever the free and gracious gifts of God become rewards earned by human behavior, worship and religion become hollow ritual, not meaningful spiritual communion with the Lord. 
Isaiah compares the sinful and rebellious human heart to a potter and his clay pot, imagery that dates back to the account of God forming Adam.  For the clay to command the potter turns things upside down.  How foolish for the pot to deny its maker, to challenge his authority, or to claim that its maker has no knowledge or skill.  Yet sinners do deny their Maker and so challenge the knowledge and action of the Lord and Creator of all. 
Think about it.  Every time we sin, every time we write our own religion, we do, in fact, claim to be superior to the Lord.  When God says, “Do not…,” the sinful heart says, “I know better.  I’ll do it anyway.”  When God says, “By grace you are saved through faith,” the perverse human heart says, “I must have to do something to earn God’s favor.” 
Sin turns everything upside down.  The sinful heart does not want the God of the Bible—the God who promised and sent Christ.  The rebellious heart resists the grace of God and wants instead a god without the cross of Christ… a god who accepts good intentions and sincere effort… a god who will not punish sin… a god “who accepts us just the way we are”… a god who ignores human depravity.
Through Isaiah, the Lord declares to such people (to people like us): “This people draw near with their mouth and honor Me with their lips, while their hearts are far from Me, and their fear of Me is a commandment taught by men.”  The Lord isn’t about to be molded by His rebellious people to fit their sinful desires.  Instead, He condemns their idol worship for the false doctrine that it is. 
The warning of our Old Testament lesson is quite simple, frightening, and timely: for those who do not have a proper fear of God the Scriptures will remain a sealed book.  Unbelievers cannot comprehend the Word of God.  However this does not stop them from thinking they do—that they have the correct understanding and that believers have it wrong.  Thus, the Word of God will often be invoked to defend all sorts of false teaching and sin. 
That’s the warning.  Here’s the Good News: the Lord is always faithful.  For along with the words of judgment, the Lord also repeats His promise of the Messiah.  He declares that He will “do wonderful things.”  What will these wonders be?  He spells it out.  The deaf will hear.  The blind will see.  The meek will obtain joy in the Lord, and the poor among mankind will “exult in the Holy One of Israel.”  The Holy One, the Savior, will come.  He is the Promised Wonder. 
You hear of the Holy One in our Gospel.  Jesus is in the midst of His ministry.  He is making the blind see and the deaf hear.  He is giving hope and joy to the poor and the meek.  The Lord has kept His promise, and wonderful things are happening!  
The Pharisees and the scribes are unhappy with this Messiah, though.  He is turning their whole world upside down.  And their present complaint is a biggie: Jesus’ disciples do not wash their hands before they eat! 
Don’t laugh.  This is a serious matter to the scribes and Pharisees.  They’ve made it a law that you have to wash your hands before you eat.  It’s not in the Bible, but they’re teaching it’s a sin to not wash your hands before you eat. 
Just to be clear, I do appreciate good hygiene.  But what’s going on here is far more sinister than your mother making you stand at the sink and sing “Happy Birthday” while you wash your hands with soap and hot water. 
And it doesn’t have anything to do with germs (although the Pharisees are a lot like a seven-year-old on the playground who’s afraid he’ll catch “Ruthie’s germs” if she happens to touch him).  The hand washing they insist upon is to get rid of any uncleanness they might pick up from contact with the Gentiles! 
But this is just a symptom of something even more insidious happening here.  In their painstaking care of the Law, the Pharisees have falsely concluded that you’re saved by keeping the Law—most certainly including all the little rules they’ve added to it themselves.  They’re teaching salvation by works!
How can this be?  After all, this is not what the Bible teaches, and they are the professional biblical interpreters and teachers.  But because they have no faith in the promised Messiah, they cannot rightly understand the Word.  However, they are completely convinced that they’ve gotten the Word right.  And if they are right, that can only mean that Jesus is wrong!  Thus, they reject Jesus, all the while believing that it is the godly thing to do.  They’ve turned everything upside down. 
They’ve rewritten God’s plan for salvation, and now they expect the Son of God to conform to their revision.  But once again, the Master Potter refuses to be molded by the clay.  And He rebukes them for their unbelief.  You know what happens then: the Pharisees and scribes plot to kill Jesus, eventually succeeding.  If God isn’t going to approve of their religion, then it’s time to kill off God. 
God gives us His Law and we have two possible reactions.  This first reaction is this: We see the demands of God and realize that we are failing miserably, and try as hard as we might, we cannot keep God’s holy Law perfectly.  The Law shows us our utter hopelessness.  At this point, if we don’t hear about God’s grace, about Christ coming to keep the Law for us, we don’t have anywhere to turn when the Law does its full work—revealing and convicting us our sins, condemning us and killing us.
The other reaction to the Law is potentially just as dangerous.  We may look at the Law and conclude that we are doing just fine.  This, I fear, is the most common among us.  It is this reaction to the Law that pushes us very close to living down to the charge that we are hypocrites, that we are Pharisees at heart.
How often when you hear a preacher talk about the sins of society do you think to yourself: “Well, I least I’m not doing that!”  Dear people of God, it doesn’t matter what sin we speak of, you and I are guilty of it.  Jesus always pushes God’s Law to our breaking point.  He sets the bar so high that no one can reach it.  He does this not to push us to despair but to draw us to Him as our Savior. 
It is only in seeing that we are “poor miserable sinners” who “sin in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and left undone” that we can see our total need for Christ—His saving work for us, His atoning death as paying the debt for our sin, His perfect life of holiness and righteousness lived for us.
That is the purpose of the Law.  To show you your sin.  To expose your weakness.  To reveal your spiritual impotence and poverty.  To drive you to repentance, casting yourself upon the mercy of God.  So that you might behold the wonderful things God has done for you in His Son, Jesus Christ.
Wonder upon wonder, Jesus, the Holy One of Israel, has come for you.  He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary for you.  He lived a perfectly holy life and kept the Law for you.  He laid down His sinless life for you on the cross and then took it up again for you.  
Through His holy Word preached and read, He speaks His grace to you.  He gives you faith.  He opens your ears to hear the words of His book.  He opens your eyes to see His cross. 
In Holy Baptism, He cleanses you of every spot, stain, and blemish of sin so that you might be His holy bride forever. 
In Holy Communion, He feeds you with His very body and blood to strengthen and preserve you in body and soul unto life everlasting. 
All that you might see and hear and believe this wonderful Good News: 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, August 12, 2012

Put off Depravity; Put on the Likeness of God (Ephesians 4:17-24)


Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!
I don’t remember the details exactly.  Let’s just say, a particular Moeller boy, probably around the age of three, had carelessly broken one of his mom’s “pretties,” and then had hidden the evidence under his bed.  (In hindsight, it was not exactly the brightest strategy, considering it was his Mom who cleaned his room; but then you can’t expect a three-year-old to come up with really brilliant plans, no matter how precocious he may be.)
Anyway, I do remember his Mom finding something destroyed that should not have been, and asking him if he knew anything about its mangled state.  From the look on his face, his Mom knew he did.  She also was pretty sure she knew who it was who had done the damage and the hiding!  Just to be certain, however, she stated simply and clearly: “You broke it and then tried to hide it.” 
That did it.  Tears flowed.  His hands went up to his ears.  His mouth opened and out came these fascinating words: “Don’t tell me that!”
What an interesting reaction!  Viewing the mangled “pretty” had troubled the boy.  Having that youthful indiscretion discovered certainly bothered him.  But what really hurt was having to hear with his own ears that he was the one who had broken it!  His three-year-old solution?  Cover his ears!
What had happened?  The Law of God had done its work.  Yes, even upon one so small!  The Apostle Paul wrote in his Epistle to the Romans: “Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the Law… Apart from the Law, sin lies dead” (7:7-8). 
In John 16:8, Jesus tells us this exposing of sin by the Law is actually a work of the Holy Spirit.  “When He comes, He will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8). 
What this means is that just by his mother stating what was true—that the boy had done something he should not have done (in this case, broken the Seventh Commandment by not maintaining and protecting someone else’s property)—the Holy Spirit convicted the boy of his sin as surely as the words of the prophet Nathan convicted David of his sins with Bathsheba. 
Being so confronted, David repented.  Without such a confrontation, David would’ve remained dead in his sins.  That is, David’s adultery and his murder of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah would not have caused David to repent.  In fact, without Nathan bluntly stating the obvious, David would’ve kept on living his life—probably in much the same way as I—I mean “the boy”—would have continued to live with that broken knick-knack tucked away under the bed!
But this reaction to the Law of God is not unique, is it?  Each of us, at one time or another, has done the very same thing.  In fact, it just may be that the Church at large itself is currently in the process of lifting up its hands collectively to stop its ears and screaming out to its pastors: Don’t tell me that!
What do I mean?  Well, it seems that there is a general uprising in the Church against any preaching, teaching, and music which would involve the Holy Spirit, through God’s Word, convicting hearts of sin, and consequently, causing guilt.  It seems that what modern Christian ears want to hear, what Christian minds want to contemplate, what Christian emotions want to feel, is not guilt but joy!
What Christian could be against such a longing?  After all, joy is a fruit of the Spirit as noted by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians (5:22-23).  Certainly if given the choice between guilt and joy, it would be a no-brainer: Joy would win out every time! 
But is the joy about which Paul writes simply a surging emotion—no matter what its cause or reason?  More to the point: Is the joy which is a gift of the Holy Spirit the result of simply overlooking, denying, or ignoring sin?  That is, of shoving sin under our beds, so to speak, and trying to forget about it?
To go at this question in another way: Should this mother have, upon finding the mangled knick knack, simply ignored it and rejoiced that her son had so much energy?  “Boys will be boys, after all.”  Should the boy have, upon hearing that he had broken his Mom’s “pretty,” simply denied the fact that he had done it, and rejoiced that no one could prove it beyond a reasonable doubt?  Should David have, upon hearing that he had committed adultery with Bathsheba and then murdered her husband, Uriah, simply rejoiced that he was king, and therefore he could do whatever he wanted and no one would dare question him?  If not, why?
Well, the joy of the Christian is not simply some common type of joy like we experience when we hit a homerun in the bottom of the ninth or receive a promotion at work.  It is a joy that flows from the relief of guilt experienced by a three-year-old boy who’s broken one of his Mom’s favorite treasures.  It is the joy that can only follow the confession of sin and the conviction that sin has been forgiven because Christ died on the cross for that sin.  
So David, after being confronted by Nathan, does not speak of common joy, but of the joy of salvation being returned to him, knowing that his sins had been forgiven: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.  Cast me not away from Thy Presence, and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me.  Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation and uphold me with Thy free spirit.”
So if Christian joy is tied so closely to guilt, why the running away from guilt?  Has the Church simply come to the point of wanting to skip the “guilt” part of life and go right to the joy?  Has the Church discovered that it is easier, more peaceful, and more appealing, to shun guilt and to promote joy?
You may be thinking: “Well, isn’t that what the Church—of all institutions in society—should do?  Shouldn’t the Church simply welcome, with open arms, anyone and everyone, regardless of how they live?  After all, didn’t Jesus eat with tax collectors and prostitutes?  Who are we then to condemn anyone?  Who are we to make anyone feel guilt?  Shouldn’t the Christian life be a life of joy based upon not having to worry about who we are, and what we are doing?”
The only problem with this line of thinking, of course, is that Jesus Himself frequently spoke about sin and guilt.  In fact, Jesus’ first public sermon was this: “The kingdom of God is near.  Repent and believe the Good News.”
The importance of repentance in a Christian’s life led Martin Luther to assert in his 95 Theses: “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent,’ He meant that the whole life of the believers should be one of repentance.”
Now what’s that mean?  How can the entire life of the Christian be one of repentance?  Doesn’t that mean the entire life of a Christian should be one of guilt?
No, it does not.  It does mean, however, that the Christian life should be real.  The Christian, of all people, should realize that he is still confronted by sin!  Being confronted by sin, the Christian himself should not shy away from its existence, but admit, that yes, sin does exist and he is, indeed, sinful.  Repentance is therefore not a once-in-a-while type of situation, but a Christian’s state of being.
Yes, a Christian, through faith in Jesus Christ, has been redeemed by Christ and is now considered to be justified before the Father in heaven.  The Christian, through the Word of God and the Sacraments, has received and continues to receive the Holy Spirit, who works within the Christian to produce His fruits, one of which is joy.  The Christian’s sin, however, remains.  It remains to bother, to haunt, to trouble, to perturb, and ultimately to kill.  Until Christ’s return, a Christian’s joy is always tempered by the ongoing reality of sin—both those sins we actually commit and the sin that permeates us from conception to natural death.
As long as the Christian realizes this, spiritually he is in a “good place”, as people say.  When a Christian ignores or runs away from the fact that sin is still a daily part of his life, trouble begins.  He begins to believe that his heavenly Father loves him for the good things he does, or worse yet, that God doesn’t care what he does.  In effect, saying to any preaching of the Law: “Don’t tell me that!”
Unfortunately, the Christian Church nowadays, in its attempt to appeal to the masses, seems to be encouraging this very type of pseudo-Christian life by making itself a guilt-free zone.  To accomplish this makeover, certain aspects of Christian life are being jettisoned.  Sermons which would seek to establish the guilt of sin have to go.  Hymns and songs which speak of such guilt have to go.  Confession and absolution?  Gone.  The Law of God … it must not be mentioned!
Well, that is not completely true.  The Law of God certainly is mentioned in the Church nowadays, but only as a standard.  Put in another way, the Law of God is not used to make anyone feel guilty, to strike fear and terror in their heart, but simply to give Christians a goal to attain or measure progress in sanctification.
Unfortunately, this has led many Christians to think they don’t really need to worry about the Ten Commandments anymore.  Haven’t Christians been freed from the Law?  Can’t Christians simply live the way they want to live, free from the fear of doing something that our heavenly Father wouldn’t like?  Can’t Christians live lives of joy, regardless of how they live from day to day?”
That’s the way the world thinks.  That’s the way our Old Adam wants us to think.  But Paul won’t let us get by with it.  In our text, he writes: “Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds.  They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to the hardness of heart.  They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity” (Ephesians 4:17-19).
Paul contrasts this pagan worldview with the holy life expected of a Christian: “But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about Him and were taught in Him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former way of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”
There is a clear-cut, irreconcilable difference between the unregenerate and the regenerate person.  Still, the truth is, each of us is a little of both.  We are at the same time sinner and saint.  The Christian created in Baptism to be like God in true righteousness and holiness is given the strength to fight sin and the old Adam.  Still, this has not changed the corrupt old man that resides within each of us. 
This is a very sobering thought.  The old man is constantly corrupting himself.  The lusts and desires of the old man are so dangerous to Christians because they are so deceitful.  They seem to promise happiness, joy, and life, while in reality, they ruin a person that follows their guidance—both in body and spirit—until he is lost forever. 
There is only one remedy to this darkness, to this depravity, and that’s the Christian solution that was taught to the Ephesians: “to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through sinful desires; to be renewed in the spirit of your minds.”
This is not easy.  A life of repentance requires diligence and persistence.  But more than that, it requires the work of the Holy Spirit, who convicts of sin through the Word of Law and who awakens faith and a resolve to do good by the Gospel.  Putting off the old man, being renewed in the spirit of the mind, and putting on the new man are a continuous, steady process.  We must be daily renewed by the Holy Spirit through God’s means of grace, lest the old sinful nature once more gain the upper hand. 
This is why Luther directs us to our Baptism, where the Holy Spirit works faith and creates in us new life with the power to overcome sin.  “Our Baptism indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” 
By Baptism we have been made to share in Christ’s death and resurrection.  As He has buried our sin, so we, too, can and must daily overcome and bury it.  And as He is risen from the dead and lives, so we, too, can and must daily live a new life in Him.  Every time we recall the Triune Name into which we were baptized, in church or by ourselves, we recall, claim, and confess before heaven, earth, and hell all the blessings that God has given us in our Baptism. 
And so, dear Baptized, I send you home today with this exhortation: Put off depravity; put on the likeness of God.  Put off your old self with its deceitful desires and put on your new self created in true righteousness and holiness.  Repent and believe.  You are forgiven of 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.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Ask a Stupid Question; Get a Perfect Answer (John 6:22-35)

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!
I’m sure you’ve heard this before: “There’s no such thing as a stupid question.”  It’s my experience that this is the kind of thing said at a question and answer session when nobody is asking questions.  It’s meant to encourage more interaction between the speaker and listeners.  And it’s been said so often that it’s become a truism—an “accepted fact of life.”  But is it true?
No, there really are stupid questions—at least questions that have less merit than others.  Some people seem to ask questions just to gain attention.  Others people like to “play devil’s advocate” or “stir up the pot a bit.”  A few already know the answer but want to test the speaker or to prove their own expertise.  And some people just plain don’t think before they speak.  So, yes, there are stupid questions.  But have you ever noticed how a skillful teacher can take even a stupid or off-point question and still use it for a teaching opportunity?
Over the past few weeks our Gospel has us sailing back and forth across the Sea of Galilee.  Hearing about the death of John the Baptist, Jesus loads His disciples in a boat and heads to a desolate place.  There Jesus miraculously feeds the five thousand with five barley cakes and two small fish.  The crowds love it.  They want to make Him king by force.  So Jesus makes His disciples get back in the boat and go to the other side while He goes up on the mountain to pray.  Seeing His disciples are in trouble, Jesus decides to go out to them on foot.  It was another “messianic sign”—Jesus walking on the Deep, Tehom, the swirling chaotic waters.  The Lord of creation is free to walk anywhere He pleases, even defying the “laws of physics” and “forces of nature.”
Of course, Jesus walking on the stormy sea in the middle of the night scares the wits out of His disciples.  But once they hear His voice, they are more than willing to take Him on board.  So when they land on shore, this leaves the crowd a bit puzzled.  The boat left without Jesus; now it lands with Jesus.  So their first question seems a logical question.  “Rabbi, when did You come here?”  What they’re really wondering is “How did You get here?”
Now, of course, the simplest answer is: “I walked.”  But that would have raised a lot more questions than given answers.  How He gets from one place to another is as irrelevant as how water is Baptism or how bread and wine are the Body and Blood of Christ.  The Lord is free to do whatever He pleases with His creation.  Instead of satisfying their curiosity, Jesus switches the focus to a more important issue: faith.  Where was their trust?  Why were they following Him?  What did they want?  “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” 
Why is this crowd following Jesus?  It’s not because they “saw signs.”  Sure they “saw” Jesus miraculously feed a crowd of over 5,000 people.  They “saw” Jesus healing all the sick people who were brought to Him.  They saw the miracles, but they did not see them for what they really were—signs pointing to the Messiah.  They “saw” these things, but they did not see who Jesus truly is—the Son of Man, the Messiah, their Savior.
Jesus is not chastising them for being hungry and seeking food.  Hunger is natural for humans in a fallen world.  Jesus Himself experienced hunger—far more than even those people, most of whom had to scrape and scrap every day to keep their bellies from rumbling.  No, food for their bodies is a good gift; but Jesus offers more: “Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.  For on Him God the Father has set His seal.”
There are two kinds of food: Food you work for, and food which is given.  Food that perishes and food that endures to eternal life.  You know about the first kind of food.  That’s one reason you go to work even when you don’t feel like it—to put bread on the table.  That goes all the way back to the Fall: “From the sweat of your brow you will eat your bread until you die,” God told Adam.  But that wasn’t how it was in the beginning.  Food was plentiful.  It grew on trees.  Nuts and fruits hanging on the branches, waiting to share life-sustaining nourishment. 
In the beginning, it was all gifts and no work.  But disobedience and death changed the ecology and the diet.  No longer fruits and nuts, but bread.  Daily bread.  Food you work for.  Perishable food.  Food that eventually kills you.  Working uncooperative ground.  Fighting weeds, heat, bugs, and drought.  Planting and reaping.  Grinding grain.  Kneading dough.  Baking bread.  Work, work, work.  Sales quotas, production schedules, budget constraints, government regulations, unreliable suppliers, cranky customers, mean bosses, lazy workers, and endless piles of paperwork.  Ecclesiastes calls it “futility,” endless chasing after the wind. 
God has rigged it that way.  He’s made work a sweaty, frustrating business to teach us work is not the way to life.  It’s simply work.  We cannot work our way to heaven; we can only work our way to the grave.  The food we work for perishes.  It spoils.  It rots.  It gets moldy and smelly.  If you don’t believe that, just come back by the trash compactor at Walmart after the disposed fruits, vegetables, and dairy products have been fermenting a couple of day in 100 degree heat.  That’s why we have refrigerators and freezers.  We’re just trying to slow the decay. 
This was true even of the manna in the wilderness.  If you tried to store it for the next day (except for the Sabbath), it rotted and was full of worms.  Our food, like our world, is dying and decaying, and all our work to “save it” can only delay the decay a bit.  It’s the death of Adam worked out in the cosmos.  As St. Paul says, “The whole creation has been subjected to futility and decay.” 
And so we shouldn’t be surprised.  All that doom and gloom stuff in the headlines—pollution, global warming, melting polar ice caps—it’s all part of the grand death that is the wages of sin.  And there’s no turning the clock back, no undoing the Fall or its effects.  We can only manage the death, much like a hospice that doesn’t try to cure the patient, but offers palliative care.  Our food is dead and we die along with it.  And even though the manna was wonder bread from God Himself, the people who ate it still died.  A whole generation.  The bread Moses gave couldn’t save them from death, no matter how miraculous it was. 
Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you,” Jesus says.  He offers a food that requires no preservatives, no refrigeration.  It endures to eternal life.  And guess what?  It preserves the eater to eternal life, too.  Talk about “health food”!   This has vitamin supplements and nutrition shakes beaten hands down!  This is better than any age-defying antioxidant or flavonoid out there!  We spend oodles and oodles of money on “health food” and nutritional supplements,” and here is free food from the hand of God that preserves body and soul to eternity!
And yet the world—including you and I here this morning—pays more attention to belly food than eternal food, to daily bread than the Bread of Life.  We lavish more devotion on our daily bread than our daily devotions.  We spend more time reading nutrition labels than we do our Bibles.   We’re more concerned about Sunday brunch than we are about the Supper of the Lord.  Our taste buds are not naturally inclined to eternity.  Our palates are not naturally pleased by Paradise.
Look at the Israelites.  They were fed by God’s hand in the wilderness.  And what did they want?  The menu of Egypt—leeks, garlic, cucumbers, melons, meat, and wine.  All the good stuff in exchange for what?  Freedom!  That was the food of their slavery.  Our fallen appetites are not geared for liberty, and we’d be willing to sacrifice most anything for a loaf of bread if we were hungry enough.
The food that endures to eternity is not a food you work for, but a food that’s given you free, gratis, from the Son of Man, Jesus alone, and there is no other.
A long answer to a short question, to be sure.  And, as often happens, Jesus doesn’t really answer the question that was asked, but rather addresses in great detail the question that should have been asked.  How did He get here?  It doesn’t really matter.  What is important is the gifts He brings to the table.
But the crowds are still thinking about works.  “What must we do to be doing the works of God?  After all, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.  You don’t get something for nothing—and you certainty can’t get something that will never perish or spoil for nothing.   So tell us Jesus.  Give us a list.  Give the process and procedures to perform.  You’ve whetted our appetites—now give us the recipe.  What must we do, to do the works of God?”
You have to admire Jesus’ patience.  He has already told them that the Son of Man would give them food that never spoils.  What part of give do they not understand?  But fallen man will always possess in his heart the false teaching that he needs to work for salvation.  This is the teaching of every non-Christian religion and belief system.  And man believes this because man has the Law written upon his heart.  Everyone knows by nature the Ten Commandments—even if we do not have our Catechism memorized.  It is our fallback position. 
Free gifts are not the normal course in this fallen world.  It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there.  You have to work for whatever you get.  So the Law leads our hearts to question: “What must we be doing to do the works of God?” 
So Jesus explains further: “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” 
“Aha!” says our sinful heart.  “There is something that we must do.  There is something that we must add to Christ’s work—we must believe it.  We must have faith.  We must accept Jesus as our personal Savior and invite Him into our hearts.
But alas, dear sinner, Jesus is once again one step ahead.  For the command He gave was believe; but He corrected something that the people had said.  Did you catch it?  The people wanted to know what works they should be doing; but Jesus corrected it to a singular—work.  And He did not call it the work of believers; He calls it the work of God. 
Dear friends, do you realize the full weight of this?  Your Lord has just told you that your faith is the work of God.  It is not a personal quality that God expects of you; rather, it is an instrument that God gives you that you might receive His grace for the sake of His Son.  St. Paul fleshes this out in Ephesians 2: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast” (vv. 8-9). 
Any works you and I do are built on the work of God in Christ.  It’s not our good life that saves us, but Jesus’ perfect life, His sacrificial death, His victory over the grave, all given to us freely as a gift and received through trust God works in us.  “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” 
The questions get more direct.  “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you, Jesus?  Moses had bread from heaven, what do you have for us?” 
And though they still miss His point, Jesus has brought them right where He wants them.  And us, too.  At the place where He gives Himself.  You see, the bread He gives is Himself.  “I AM the Bread of Life,” Jesus says.  “Whoever comes to Me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in Me shall never thirst.”   
When God the Father, by the faith creating work of the Holy Spirit, gives you His Son Jesus, He gives you everything you need for this life and for all eternity—physical food and spiritual food.  Daily bread and the Bread of Life.
You have temporal needs—needs that come and go—and so God gives you the ability and opportunity to earn a living.  This is how He most often provides you with your daily bread: food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, money, and other goods.  But sometimes He gathers other Christians around you to provide for those bodily needs in time of emergency or crisis.  He’ll send someone to lend a listening ear when you are experiencing one of the trials of life in this fallen world.  Or He’ll use their arms to hold you when you mourn the death of a loved one.
But Jesus knows that you have even greater needs.  You’ve hurt your spouse, children, or parents.  You’ve been angry or unforgiving toward others.  You’ve been greedy for yourself and have neglected the needs of others.  You’ve lusted or coveted for that which God has not given you.  You’ve grumbled against the Lord—sinning against Him by accusing Him of being responsible for all that is wrong in your life, or questioning if He really cares what happens to you.
With these sins comes guilt, shame—and as God says in His Word—everlasting punishment and death.  Your greatest need is to have these sins and all your sins removed.  And so you come asking God: “What must I do?  What’s the recipe, Jesus?  Go to church?  Pay my tithe?  Have my children baptized?  Take them to Sunday School?  Live by the Golden Rule?  What else must I do, Jesus?  Just tell me, so that I can get all these sins wiped off of my permanent record.” 
“This is the work of God,” Jesus says, “that you believe in Him whom He has sent.  I AM the Bread of Life.  By My death on the cross in your place all the work has been done.  Whoever believes this and is baptized shall be saved for eternal life: You are forgiven for all your sins.”  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Into the Wilderness

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