Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Take Heed Lest You Fall!

Click here for an audio version

The text for today is our Epistle lesson, 1 Corinthians 10:12-13: “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.  No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation He will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
“You’re only three Sundays away from never going to church again.”  I’ve told my own children that many times.  They laugh.  They think I’m exaggerating.  Or I’m just saying that because I’m a pastor, and it would look bad if they didn’t go to church.  But I’m serious.  Any one of us here may be only three Sundays away from never going to church again. 
The names of formerly active members who are no longer in attendance at worship on Sunday morning are scattered on the membership rolls of churches all around the world.  St. John’s is no exception.  Just look around.  There are “holes” in the pews, empty places that used to be filled by particular men, women, and children.  Some of them are your family members and friends—all of them are your brothers and sisters in Christ!  And the saddest part is that many of them don’t just drop out of a particular congregation, they fall away from the faith completely.
If you asked them, I’m sure most of them would tell you that they never intended for that to happen.  They can’t even really tell you how it came to be.  It was not a conscious decision.  Many of them were very active members, involved in leadership roles in the church and participating in groups and committees.  They brought their kids to Sunday School every week, maybe even taught Sunday School or helped with VBS.  They came to Bible study regularly and were pillars of the church.  Then something happened and they’ve just never made it back.
Before we proceed, let me emphasize that I’m not really going to be preaching about them today.  That would not be all that helpful.  I don’t mean that we shouldn’t care about them, or that there is no hope of them ever returning.  By God’s grace, many do make it back at some point.  And all of us need to keep reaching out to them continuously and regularly, inviting them to join us in receiving God’s good gifts in Word and Sacrament.  More importantly, we need to pray for them, that the Lord would bring back the erring and the straying, that He would gather His people as a hen gathers her brood under her wings. 
But I’m not preaching about those people this morning because I cannot preach to them!  They are not here to hear me.  But you are—and you and I are not immune from this very thing happening to us, too.  The only advantage I have over you is that I have an added incentive to be here.  You would probably notice if I happened to skip a Sunday or two!  At least, I hope you would. 
But seriously, any one of us could be only three Sundays away from never coming here again.  Think about it.  You miss one Sunday for whatever reason.  Maybe you aren’t feeling well.  Perhaps you just want to sleep in.  Or you are gone for the weekend.  It really doesn’t matter why; the effects can be just the same.  If you’re like me, you’ll probably feel a bit out of sorts, like something is missing from your whole week.  The next Sunday, it won’t take as much to keep you away from the worship service.  And you won’t feel near as empty as you did the week before.  By the third Sunday, you might not even feel much of anything at all. 
And shortly after that, you might feel bad enough about missing, that the devil or your own sinful flesh will whisper that people are going to talk if you come back.  They might make you uncomfortable by asking where you’ve been.  Or even worse, the other members might have just moved on fine without you.   The little voice might even tell you: “Why do you want to go there?  They don’t seem to care about you!  Did any of them even call to see why you were missing?”   
No, any one of us could be only three Sundays away from never coming here again.  Think it can’t happen to you?  Don’t be so sure of yourself!  The old Adam is weak and vulnerable to temptation.  Heed Paul’s advice from our text, “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. 
In our text for today, St. Paul isn’t specifically addressing church attendance.  I just use it as an example of one of the common temptations that we all face.  But Paul is writing to the Corinthians about misplaced confidence in one’s own strength, rather than trust in Christ.  Paul is well aware that such temptation could cause him to be disqualified from the blessings of Christ, even as he proclaims them to others.
For the Corinthians, too, the danger of being “disqualified” is real.  So Paul takes them (and us) to the Old Testament for an important spiritual lesson from the history of Israel.  Although the Corinthian church consisted mainly of Gentiles, the, like we, had been grafted into the vine of Israel and were therefore entitled to think of the fathers of the Jewish people as “our forefathers” in faith. 
Israel’s safe passing though the waters of the Red Sea foreshadows the waters of Baptism.  At the Red Sea, all the covenant people “were baptized into Moses.”  They submitted to his leadership as he guided them through the waters, and when they saw what the Lord had accomplished there, they “believed in the Lord and in His servant Moses.”  Accordingly, Moses was a type of Jesus Christ, the greater mediator of the new covenant, into whom we have been baptized.
Just as these Israelites received a type of Baptism, so they also received a type of the Lord’s Supper.  All of them were sustained by the manna, described by the psalmist as the “grain of heaven,” the “bread of angels,” which the Lord “rained… on them to eat.”  Its heavenly origin explains why it is called “spiritual food.”  It was superior to ordinary bread, just as the “spiritual body” with which the believer will be clothed in the resurrection is superior to the natural body.
Likewise all the Israelites received “the same spiritual drink,” which was water, but also corresponds to the wine of the Lord’s Supper.  Both at the beginning and at the end of their wilderness wanderings, the Lord provided them with the miraculous water from the rock.  Paul points to Christ as the true spiritual rock who accompanied Israel, ascribing to him the title “the rock,” which the Old Testament ascribes to the Lord (Yahweh) as Israel’s great protector. 
Five times in the first four verses, the adjective “all” is used to describe the recipients of God’s deliverance of Israel.  All of the Israelites received these high privileges as God’s covenant people.  All were saved in the exodus.  All were sustained in the wilderness.  But with the word, “nevertheless,” in verse five, Paul reminds the Corinthians that most of Israelites failed to reach the Promised Land, despite being the recipients of God’s lavish grace.  Out of the more than six hundred thousand men who left Egypt, only two—Joshua and Caleb—were able to enter Canaan because they trusted in the promises of the Lord.  The others paid the penalty for their disbelief and murmuring.  Over forty years of wandering, their corpses were scattered all over the Sinai wilderness. 
Paul’s purpose in drawing the parallel is this: just as many Israelites were disqualified because of their unfaithfulness and false worship, Christians also face the danger of being disqualified from salvation if they engage in false worship or fail to remain in repentance and faith worked by the Holy Spirit through the means of grace—the Word and Sacraments.
In its attitude toward the Sacraments, the church of all ages faces two equal and opposite temptations.  One is the danger to which most of the Israelites and some of the Corinthians fell: the adoption of a complacent, “magical,” view that there is spiritual benefit in simply “going through the motions.”  This takes the Sacraments for granted and forgets their purpose is to create and sustain faith.  Faith apprehends God’s grace, the benefits of Christ, His love and forgiveness. 
Faith should then lead to godly lives and appropriate works.  A Christian cannot participate in the Sacraments and then carelessly continue to live in sin.  The Corinthians seemed to have the mistaken notion that having participated in the mysteries of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper they had passed into a zone of spiritual blessedness that made them immune to spiritual danger.  They misunderstood Baptism and failed to grasp their baptismal unity in Christ.  They abused the Supper, so Paul had to admonish them and given them additional instruction about the proper preparation for and reception of Holy Communion.
The other danger the church faces in regard to its attitude about the Sacraments is to detract from the reality and power of the Sacraments as true spiritual food and drink, and reduce them to mere symbols.  This happens when Christians consider Baptism to be merely a demonstration of our faith, rather than an action of God which confers the forgiveness of sins, the Holy Spirit, adoption as God’s child, life, and salvation as the Scriptures affirm.  This happens with the Lord’s Supper, when Christians fail to discern Christ’s body and blood in the Sacrament, which bestows the benefits earned by Christ on the cross.
The Old Testament events described in the first five verses of our text are intended to vividly show the Corinthians (and us) that the God who has called them (and us) into communion with His Son is the same God.  He has bestowed His grace on us, as He bestowed it on Israel, but if we give in to the same sins, we will be punished just as Israel was punished. 
Mindful of this, we should not be complacent or arrogant.  It is only by humble faith that we continue to stand.  So Paul urges, “Take heed lest [you] fall.”  Paul’s concern reflects the proverb: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (16:18).  Christians who pride themselves on their power and freedom in the Spirit should be careful not to fall from grace.
Now, we’ve just heard a ton of Law.  There’s a danger that we might find false security in thinking we’re safe.  We’ve kept the Law, at least a whole lot better than most people.  We might even convince ourselves that we deserve God’s love.  There’s also the danger of complacency.  We might think that since God has already made us His children, we’re home free.  Paul’s strong dose of Law should rid us of any such thoughts.  None of us deserve God’s love.  Each of us is prone to wander.  Each of us can become complacent in our walk of Christian faith. 
But we must be aware of another danger as well—having heard such stern Law we might fall into despair.  We might be overwhelmed by the challenge of resisting temptation due to our fallen, sinful nature, throw our hands into the air and just give up.  To temper this possibility, Paul adds a word of encouragement.   “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man.  And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.  But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.”    
The temptations we encounter are those common to humanity, trials to which all sinners are susceptible.  Many of Israelites fell by the same temptations, as they spurned God’s Word and promises.  But nevertheless, God remains true to His promises.  God is faithful, even when we are not.
All of God’s promises are kept in His Son, Jesus Christ.  God’s promises are distributed to us through His Word and Sacraments.  It is no coincidence that Paul has previously stressed these means of grace, because they are the very means by which we are equipped to resist temptation.  They are the means that restore us when we have given in to temptation.  They are the “spiritual food” and “spiritual drink” that can sustain you and provide a way out the temptations you face.  That is why it is important for you to be here each Sunday.  Missing church takes you away from the very means that create and sustain faith.  Neglect of God’s Word and Sacraments separates you from God’s promises!
Baptism works forgiveness of sins, rescues you from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.  In the Lord’s Supper, Christ keeps His promise to “be with you always,” and gives you victory over sin and hell.  His body and blood strengthens you for the new life in Him. 
In His holy Word, Christ who overcame all temptation and defeated sin, death, and the power of the devil with His sacrificial death and victorious resurrection continues to promise: “My sheep listen to My voice; I know them, and they follow Me.  I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of My hand.  My Father, who had given them to Me, is great than all; no one can snatch them out of My Father’s hand” (John 10:27-29).
Christ battles for us against temptation as we pray.  In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray with Christ that God would guard and keep us so that the devil, the world, and our sinful nature may not deceive us or mislead us into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice.  Although we are attacked by these things, we pray that we may finally overcome them.  Remember: God is faithful.  He will not allow you to be tempted beyond your ability to resist temptation. 
And even when you are caught in the temptation, the Lord promises to provide a means of escape.  What is that means of escape?  Contrition and repentance.  Confession and absolution.  If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves; but if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 
So, repent and believe the Good News.  Yes, you have given in to temptation.  You have indeed sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  But in Christ and for Christ’s sake, you are forgiven for of all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Brood Who Would Not Repent

 Click here for an audio version of this sermon.

The text for today is our Gospel, Luke 13:31-35, which has already been read.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
When your enemies act like your friends, watch out!  You know things are getting dangerous when that happens.  The Pharisees are Jesus’ enemies.  And now all of a sudden they act like His best friends.  Taking an interest in His safety and well-being.  “Get away from here,” they warn.  “Herod wants to kill you.”
These Pharisees sound so helpful.  Are they different from the Pharisees who have been opposing Jesus every step of the way?  The ones that Jesus called hypocrites because they trumpeted their zealous keeping of religious traditions, all the while failing to love and trust God alone, and neglecting to show mercy to their neighbor in need?  Have they seen the light and turned a new leaf? 
No, they’re the same Pharisees whom Jesus spoke His woes against.  The ones who bristled at Jesus’ criticism, then “began to press Him hard and to provoke Him to speak about many things, lying in wait for Him, to catch Him in something He might say.”  It seems they might have invented (or at least, perfected) what we call “gotcha politics” today.  Try to catch your opponent with a slip of the tongue and then hammer him with it repeatedly until he loses credibility and support.
These are the same Pharisees about whom Jesus warned the people: “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy” (Luke 12:2).  Not averse to hiding their diabolical intentions behind masks of piety, it’s more likely the Pharisees were trying to deceive Jesus into abandoning His journey to Jerusalem, not so He would be safe, but for their own sake.  The Pharisees realize that any man who wants to be a leader of the Jews must establish Himself in Jerusalem.  Any ploy that could keep Him away from Jerusalem will surely foil His plans. 
No, these Pharisees are not being helpful.  They’ve already rejected Jesus and His purpose.  In fact, they’ve allied themselves with Herod and his people.  Talk about politics making for strange bedfellows!  They’ve been longtime, bitter enemies.  Still, St. Mark tells us that early in Jesus’ ministry “the Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against [Jesus], how to destroy Him” (3:6). 
Yes, this is a ruse.  But that is not to say that Jesus does not face some very real threats—only they come from the Pharisees themselves, not Herod.  Herod is more amused and intrigued by Jesus.  The Pharisees are scared witless.  St. Luke tells us in chapter 6 that after Jesus restored the withered hand of a man on the Sabbath, the Pharisees “were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus” (v. 11).
What’s more—Jesus already knows all of this.  The Pharisees aren’t fooling Him one bit.  In fact, Jesus knows very well not only what could happen to Him, but what will happen to Him.  But He seems incredibly unconcerned.  What’s the worst thing that could happen to Him?  He dies?  That’s what He came to do—to die for the sins of the world, to lay down His life and take it up again.  In fact, Jesus has been stating it clearly to His disciples: “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Luke 9:22).  Jesus knows full well what’s in store for Him, where He is going, what He is about to do. 
Nevertheless, Jesus will go to Jerusalem.  The Prophet who was “honored” with a parade out of Nazareth, and brought for a close up view of their town’s cliff, could have passed through this crowd, too.  The Valiant One who battled and bested the evil one in the wilderness has nothing to fear from the likes of Herod.  So He says to the Pharisees: “Go and tell that old fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course.’”  
There’s an unspoken sentence after this that I think we can safely plug in: “And no one is going to stop Me.”  That’s the comfort of this text.  Jesus is in complete control of His destiny.  He’s not living by the seat of His pants, outwitting His opponents for one more day like the Roadrunner with Wile E. Coyote.  He’s going to keep going about His ministry until it’s time for Him to go to the cross.  No matter how much Herod wants Him dead, the Son of God is going to stay alive for as long as He wills.  No matter how much the Pharisees want Him out of the way, He’s going to keep going about His Father’s plan of salvation. 
If the plan is to preach and heal today and tomorrow, He’s going to preach and heal today and tomorrow.  If it’s His will to finish His course on the third day, He’s going to finish His course on the third day.  He can’t be stopped from saving you.  Jesus will cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day He will finish His course.
The “third day.”  That’s an interesting phrase for Jesus to use.  Outside of this passage and a reference to a wedding and a shipwreck, “the third day” is only used in the New Testament to refer to Jesus’ resurrection.  So let this be a reminder, too, of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday.  On the first day, He dies willingly for your sin, and nobody can keep Him from redeeming you.  On the next day, He descends into hell to proclaim His victory, and not even the devil can keep Him from doing so or from leaving again.  And on the third day?  He rises again from the dead.  Not even death can stop Him!
Jesus knows His mission.  His course is set.  He will die and rise in Jerusalem.  No one could deflect Him.  Not the devil in the wilderness.  Not the devil that comes as His friend in the form of the Pharisees.  Not His own well-intended, but devil-inspired disciples.  Jesus follows the Father’s agenda.  As much as Herod and the Pharisees want Jesus dead, it will be on the Father’s terms.  Not theirs.  After all, Jesus says, “No prophet can die outside Jerusalem.” 
Jerusalem—the City of Peace.  What a reputation she had.  Hers was a reputation of killing God’s prophets.  Stoning to death those sent to preach to her.  As we heard in our Old Testament lesson, Jeremiah experiences this rejection first hand.  The congregation who hears him preach, lays their hands on him and says: “You shall die!”  And then they bring him before the officials, and the priests and prophets charge Him with prophesying against the city.  The people in Jeremiah’s day refuse to repent.  They (the political and religious authorities, in particular) think they were doing God a favor by killing their preacher. 
Hmmm… sounds vaguely familiar, doesn’t it? 
It is the same in Jesus’ day.  The Pharisees are very religious.  At synagogue every Sabbath.  Fast twice a week.  Give a tithe of everything they have.  Speak out against the evils of society.  Patriotic.  Moral.  Conservative.  Outstanding citizens.  They would probably fit right in at a Tea Party rally or pro-life march or VFW convention.  And yet Jesus says that all that isn’t good enough, for they will not repent.  That, the Pharisees can do without.  They are doing fine on their own.  They have their self-righteousness.  They have the Law.  They have their traditions.  And they have the courage of their convictions, and the willingness to follow through on them, even if they have to step on a few toes or crack a few skulls to do so.  “Repentance?  Why?  We don’t need no stinking repentance!”
What about you?  During this Lent can you do without repentance?  Are you a Pharisee at heart?  Are you getting along just fine on your own?  Are you afraid of Jesus?  Perhaps harboring a guilty conscience that is worried that His light might expose that wickedness you’ve kept hidden in the dark recesses of your heart.  Or maybe scared that He’ll take away all your good works and call them worthless?  Perhaps you are afraid that Jesus’ death and resurrection isn’t good enough?  That you must add something of your own?  A little self-justification, perhaps?  A little manageable law?
Jerusalem’s impenitence drove Jesus to tears.  “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!”  Unbelief breaks Jesus’ heart.  He takes it personally.  For when God’s faithful prophets and preachers are rejected, it’s really the Lord and His Word that are being rejected.  And it’s not the Lord who will suffer, but those who refuse to repent and believe.
You can hear the deep sorrow and bitter irony in Jesus’ words.  The holy city of Jerusalem and yet so unholy.  The City of Peace that kills God’s prophets.  Isn’t it amazing how the godly and ungodly can be so close together?  How truth and error can be separated by such a narrow margin?  And that’s true of the Church today.  The greatest faith and the worst of unbelief lie close beside one another.  Within the same congregation.  Within the same pew.  Often within the same heart.
The devil doesn’t care about what goes on in the world.  He’s the prince of this fallen world.  But he does care about what goes on in the church.  He’d rather you not be here.  But once you are here, he’ll do his best to distract you.  Get you to dwell on some pesky problem in your life rather than confess your sins and be forgiven.  He wants you to pay attention to the preacher’s many shortcomings rather than the sermon that proclaims Christ’s death and resurrection for you.
The devil is thrilled when churches fire their pastors for restoring individual confession and absolution.  For calling sin “sin” even when it offends and decreases membership.  For urging people to receive the Lord’s Body and Blood.  For daring to teach the historic practice of closed communion.  For calling people to repentance.  The devil delights in all this.  But Jesus weeps.  He wept over Jerusalem.  He laments their unbelief and rebellious spirit.  “How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not.”  A tender, yet tragic picture.  A mother hen clucking after her little ones.  Trying to gather them under her protective wings.  Willing to sacrifice herself to save them.  And yet they stubbornly refuse.
They say, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”  If that’s true, then what fury—and hell—awaits those who scorn a mother hen who longs to gather her chicks under her wing?  What fury is in store for those who spurn their Creator, the One who’s given them everything—including life itself?  What hell lies ahead for those who would even dare destroy the One sent to save them from such fury?
A gracious God has chosen Jerusalem to be His holy city, to receive a small measure of His attention and blessings.  But time and again, she rejects the men the Lord sends to deliver His message.  And now, in today’s text, the people of Jerusalem are on the brink of rejecting even their Creator and Savior as He comes to them in person, to reject the Prophet who is God Himself.  What fury! 
Yes, hell is waiting.  But that’s not the point of our text.  Instead, and amazingly, Jesus still longs to gather them, just as He still longs to gather all who time and again reject Him—all of us.  When Jerusalem has earned only wrath, the rejected Prophet will still go to the City of Peace that kills God’s prophets to suffer that wrath Himself.  He will still go to the brood that refuses to repent, to gather as many of those little ones under His saving wings as He can!
If anything should cause Jesus to reject Jerusalem, it should be their repeated rejections of Him.  How many times can one—even God—be hurt and not give up on loving?   We understand, we think.  We’ve reached out.  We’ve put our feelings on our sleeves.  We’ve loved or offered our love, and been rejected.  We’ve tried to share God’s Word with our loved ones and been shot down.  After a while, we pull pack, if for no other reason than self-preservation.  More likely out of disappointed frustration, perhaps even personal anger.  So we understand.
But do we?  Do we understand—really?—how often we’ve rejected Christ’s love extended to us?  We must face it, and Lent is a good time to square ourselves to the harsh truth that there is a little religious Pharisee and a little tyrannical Herod in each one of us.  We are constant trying to orchestrate things our way, to be little gods in place of God, exerting our wills to control others, and even, were it possible to control God.  We use religion as a bargaining chip.  We use politics as the muscle.  We use politics to bolster our religion, and religion to bolster our politics.  Herod and the Pharisees are alive and well in each of us. 
Like Jerusalem, we would not.  We would not be saved, were it left to our own devices.  We would not be children of God, but Christ has gathered us, against our wills, kicking and screaming at times.  We also are, in many ways, the brood that refuses to repent, the little chicks that reject the shelter and protection of the loving hen’s mighty wings. 
God makes us His chosen people, gives us eternal life, and we say, “Ho, hum.  What have you done for me that I can use today?  How about something that will help be a better spouse, raise perfect children, or live a victorious life, here and now?”  He comes to us today in His Word and Sacraments, and we want something more exciting?  Something more relevant?  Do we understand how deserving we are of the fury of a lover scorned?
For their rejection of the Messiah, Jerusalem will ultimately itself be rejected.  The beloved city, the City of Peace that kills God’s prophets, will be destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.  The Lord will take His honor and glory now to wherever Christ’s people gather around Him in Word and Sacrament.
But even knowing this in advance, Jesus’ heart for His people will still send Him to Jerusalem—for her and for us.  Nothing anyone could do, not even Jerusalem’s own rejection of her Savior, will prevent Him from coming to her one more time, the one more time that also brings Him to us.  On Palm Sunday, Jesus will come to Jerusalem and be acclaimed by these very words: “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord” (Luke 13:35).  Then He will be rejected and crucified.  He’ll suffer the God-forsakenness of hell. 
But this is precisely why He will come.  This has been Jerusalem’s paradoxical purpose throughout her favored history: the city that kills God’s Prophet will be the City of Peace—the place where God and man will be reconciled when Christ faithfully finishes His course all the way to the cross. 
That’s Jesus’ love for Jerusalem.  That’s Jesus’ love for His Church.  That’s Jesus’ love for you.  To extend His crucified arms over you.  To shelter you under the protection of His grace.  To hide you in His mercy.  He goes to Jerusalem to die for all.  Even for those who hate Him and want Him dead.  For those who have rejected His Word and insisted upon living their own way.  People like you and me.  All that you might repent and believe this Good News: 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.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Valiant One Fights for Us!

Click here for an audio version of this sermon.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Lutherans have always held the singing of hymns and the proclamation of the Word in sermons in high regard.  So it seems very fitting that we are combining the two in our joint Lenten services.  The sermon tonight is based upon Psalm 46, the introit we just spoke responsively a few minutes ago, which is also the basis for our Hymn of the Day, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (LSB #647).  This battle hymn of the Reformation will serve as an outline for our message.
What distinguishes Lutheran hymn writers is that their hymns are to be in theological agreement with the central message of all scriptures—“Salvation by the grace of God alone through faith alone in Christ alone as revealed to us in Scripture alone.”  In addition, Lutherans who write sermons and hymns are to be concerned with properly distinguishing Law and Gospel.  Therefore, not every hymn or song would be appropriate to preach on.  Some glorify the subjective feelings of the writer rather than the saving acts of God.  Compare, for example, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” to the contemporary Christian favorite, ‘Here I Am to Worship.”  Just the titles are enough to clue you in to the differences.  One points to God’s continuing presence with us and for us… the other repeatedly trumpets the presence of me, the worshiper, as if worship were all about what I am doing for God, rather than what God does for me.
Psalm 46 tells us of God’s work on behalf of His people.  It is not known for certain what historic event this was, but it fits well with the days when Jehoshaphat was on the throne of David and the nomadic tribes of the Moabites, Ammonites, and Edomites were gathered together in siege against the children of Israel.  Things looked very bleak for God’s chosen people.  In fact, only a miracle of God could save them, and they knew it.  So Jehoshaphat turned to the Lord. 
God responded through His prophet Jahaziel, “Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours, but God’s,” he said (2 Chronicles 20:15).  The armies of Moab and Ammon and Seir were filled with confusion and began to fight with one another.  The battle was fierce and the outcome was devastating.  The pagan nations ended up literally destroying one another.  And when the morning hours arrived and the children of Israel saw what had happened, they immediately knew that this victory was not theirs, but God’s.
Martin Luther recognized the close parallel between what he saw in the lives of the children of Israel and what he saw in his own life and the unfolding of the Reformation.  He picked up the emphasis of this psalm in his life and for the life of every other Christian.  Look at that first stanza.
A mighty Fortress is our God, A trusty Shield and Weapon;
He helps us free from every need, That hath us now o’ertaken.
The old evil Foe, Now means deadly woe; Deep guile and great might
Are his dread arms in fight; On earth is not his equal.

If we were to put that stanza into other words, it might be something like this: “Don’t you ever forget that your God is a mighty, saving God.  Yes, the Lord is truly and always will be the believer’s Refuge and Strength.  Whenever you think things are getting a little tough—or a whole lot tough—whenever questions begin to arise in your mind as to whether God really is aware of you and your problems—remember that our God is still a Mighty Fortress, a trusty Shield and Weapon against your enemies, including the most fierce: sin, death, and Satan.” 
Yes, the Lord fights for us.  He has freed us from every bondage that seeks to bind us for eternity.  He protects us and keeps us.  He was the Mighty Fortress in the times when Psalm 46 was written.  He was the Mighty Fortress in the days of the Reformation when Luther wrote the hymn.  He is still the Mighty Fortress today.  And He will ever be such a Mighty Fortress to the ends of time and beyond.
What Good News!  You see… If He is not our Shield and Weapon, then we must contend with Satan all by ourselves.  We must do battle with that old evil Foe who uses his immense power and deep guile as the one-two punch of his dreadful arms.  He means to cause us deadly woe.  No human being on this earth—you, me, the wisest woman, the strongest man, the youngest baby, the oldest person—is equal to the task of fighting and prevailing against the old evil Foe.  The second stanza begins with a reaffirmation of this truth:
With might of ours can naught be done.  Soon were our loss effected;
But for us fights the Valiant One, Whom God Himself elected.
Ask ye, Who is this?  Jesus Christ it is, of Sabaoth Lord,
And there’s none other God; He holds the field forever.

Imagine being the children of Israel surrounded by three armies and impending doom and destruction are but hours away.  Out of the depths of despair you pray: “Oh, dear God, we are lost.  You are our only hope.  Please deliver us!”  Before Luther came to a proper understanding of the Gospel, he knew what it was like to be totally lost, too.  Writing to a friend, he wrote: “I daily find myself approaching closer and still closer to hell.”  And he signed this letter, “an exiled son of Adam.”  But by God’s grace, Luther came to believe that he could not earn peace and forgiveness from God, but that peace and forgiveness have already been won for us through the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Nevertheless, there were still moments in Luther’s life when he felt something very nearly like despair.  Under the sentence of death by the authority of papal bull and the emperor’s decree, and under the constant spiritual assaults of the old evil foe, Luther had nowhere to turn but to the Lord.  But that’s not a bad thing!  With might of ours, absolutely nothing can be done to defeat our enemies.  Soon would be our demise, our downfall, and our destruction.  But thanks be to God, there is a Valiant One who has stepped out onto the battlefield for us! 
Of course, we would never have chosen Him.  A little Baby in a manger in Bethlehem?  A Man from Galilee who comes armed with and as the Word of God?  A bloody and beaten King who hangs naked on a cross?  This is the One whom God has elected to fight the battle in our place and stand in our stead.
Do you ask, “Who is this?”  Jesus Christ—the Messiah—it is.  There is no other God than the Lord God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  There is no other Savior than this Jesus, our Redeemer.  He stands by us upon the plain and holds the field forever.  The Valiant One fights for us, even today!
How does the Valiant One fight for us?  What is His trusty shield and weapon?  That’s where it gets even weirder.  It’s prayer.  Christ engages and defeats the enemy for us in a most unexpected way.  He joins us in the battle and prays for us, just as He prayed for His apostles.  So when He warns Peter that Satan will sift him like wheat, Jesus adds that He’s countered the impending attack by praying for him in advance.        In John 17, we see how He prays for His disciples.  The Valiant One prays for His heavenly Father to keep His disciples safe and protect them from the evil one after His death, just as He had, until then, kept them safe.  Jesus defends His disciples and delivers them from the clutches of the evil one by praying to God for them. 
The climax of Christ’s battle against the powers of darkness comes with His agony in Gethsemane.  There He overcomes the ultimate temptation of Satan by His prayer for the ability to submit to the will of His heavenly Father—for all temptation exploits the desire to do our own will and get our own way with God.  That victory in prayer is as much for us as for Him. 
It is instructive that when the Gospels describe Christ’s great agony in the garden, they do not just tell how He engaged in prayer for Himself in the face of impending death; they also tell how He urges His disciples to overcome temptation by their own vigilance in prayer.  Jesus gives the command, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation,” to His disciples both before and after His agony in prayer (22:40, 46).  So your victory over temptation depends on His victory over temptation, the victory that He won by His prayer that the Father’s will be done through His self-sacrificial death.  Through your prayer you share in His defeat of Satan because of your faith in Jesus.
The Church has always known about the importance of corporate prayer in spiritual warfare.  No one has been more acutely aware of its value than Luther.  He says: “Such prayer is a precious thing and a powerful defense against the devil and his assaults.  For in it, all Christendom combines its forces with one accord; and the harder it prays, the more effective it is and the sooner it is heard.  At the present time, for example, it is of real benefit as a defense and barrier against the many tricks which the devil might otherwise perpetrate through the members of His body.  Thus it is certain that whatever still stands and endures, whether it is in the spiritual or in the secular realm, is being preserved through prayer.”
Unfortunately, much of the modern Church has forgotten this truth.  The result has been a resurgence of the occult throughout the western world in many different guises.  Intercessory prayer has been and still is the strongest weapon that we have here against the occult and the power of evil.  It is our mightiest bulwark against Satan.  When we pray for others, we join together in defending the Church and the world against the powers of darkness.
Our security in the battle and our certainty of victory comes from the intercession of Jesus for us.  He, however, does not just pray for us; He gives us His own name and His own prayer that we can join with Him in praying for ourselves and for others.  The Lord’s Prayer is Christ’s gift to us and all God’s children at Baptism as an essential part of our equipment for spiritual combat.  It equips us for the daily combat together with Christ and His whole Church.  Thus, the third stanza:
Though devils all the world should fill, All eager to devour us.
We tremble not, we fear no ill, They shall not overpower us.
This world’s prince may still, Scowl fierce as he will, He can harm us none,
He’s judged, the deed is done; one little word can fell him.

The forces of evil still do a great deal of damage.  The psalmist declares that the nations rage, the kingdoms totter.  None will last forever.  Even our own nation will one day fade into the pages of history.  Perhaps much sooner than any of us could have ever imagined even only ten years ago.  There are wars within and without—some physical and some spiritual—which are being carried out today.  Islamic extremists seek to impose their satanic beliefs on us.  Atheists seek to impose their idolatrous unbelief on us.  Politicians seek to impose their immorality on us under the guise of “tolerance” and “choice.” 
Even worse, the devil leads the Church to in-fighting, division, and heresy.  Millions are lured into the wilderness of American spirituality, where popularity and excitement are mistaken for a move of the Holy Spirit.  The Gospel is replaced with a counterfeit message of manageable Law that is supposedly more relevant to seekers than the scandalous Good News of Christ crucified for the sins of the world.  The Sacraments are turned into symbols of our love and commitment to God and each other; rather than the means through which God delivers His grace.  But we need not fear.  None of these evil forces shall overpower us.  Our God is still a Mighty Fortress!  Christ, the Valiant One fights for us!
Early in the Reformation, Luther was summoned to the city of Worms to defend the faith and truth of God’s Word.  He was advised by both friends and associates not to go.  They were convinced that if he went, he would be arrested and put to death.  They had good reason to be concerned—there was a price on his head!  But Luther replied, “Even if there were more devils on the rooftops than clay shingles, I will still go to Worms and defend the truth of God’s Word.”
Such confidence does not come from individual strength within, but from the conviction that the Lord is leading one’s life even if it means death.  It comes from knowing that the devil’s purposes are thwarted by one little word.  What is that Word?  It is no secret and it is not magic—though it is powerful, mysterious, and miraculous.  One little word can refute the devil and all his works and all his ways.  One little word takes you from the kingdom of darkness and transfers you to the Kingdom of God.  That Word was heard from the cross.  We have to translate it into three words, but in the Greek, it is one word—telestai.  “It is finished!”
Spoken by Jesus as He died for us and defeated Satan for us, “It is finished” tells us the Good News of salvation being ours.  In the darkness of the cross and in the silence of that awe-filled empty tomb, we see the works of the Lord.  He says, “Be still, and know that I am God.  I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth!  I have overcome death!”  Which leads us to the fourth and final stanza:
The Word they still shall let remain, Nor any thanks have for it.
He’s by our side upon the plain, With His good gifts and Spirit.
And take they our life, Goods, fame, child, and wife, Let these all be gone,
They yet have nothing won; The Kingdom ours remaineth.

Lest you think this verse is merely pious speculation and false bravado, please imagine the following scene and pray that you never have to go through it.  Imagine that you are a parent, sitting in the upper room of your home in Wittenberg.  In your arms is your dying daughter, a young girl name Magdalena—your little girl you love so much.  Papa Luther said with tears flowing from his eyes, “Oh, how it hurts to lose my little Maggie.  But God wants her and she is His.  Therefore I release her into the hands of a gracious and loving God.” 
Perhaps you now get a better sense of the agony and the victory behind the words in this final stanza.  I am sure that your life—like Luther’s—has not been free from the troubles and trials, which so frequently bring tears to our eyes and sorrow to our hearts.  Maybe it comes in the form of illness, family troubles, or financial woes.  Perhaps you too, have had to stand at the deathbed of a daughter or son, mother or father, husband or wife, feeling the burdens of life as only these can weigh down upon us.  But in such times as then, and in the days that follow, those forces have not conquered you.  The Kingdom remains yours!  The Valiant One fights for you!
Turning to the end of Luther’s life, we find him going to Eiselben to mediate a dispute between two princes.  The trip was difficult.  Luther was not well, but he went anyway—working to the very end.  We are told of the chest pains he had, and he knew the end was near.  We are told of his standing at the window and praying, “The pain is so severe, God, but I am ready to come home to You, Father.” 
And shortly before His death, when he was asked, “Brother Martin, are you willing to die in the faith that you have proclaimed?”  Luther said with much gusto, “Yes, yes.”  A little later he fell asleep in the Lord—into the hands of the God who is our Refuge and Strength, a very present help in trouble. 
Though you may have tried to deny it, you know that the day will come when you also will cross the threshold of death, and face your God and Creator at the conclusion of your life.  Maybe six months from now—maybe six years or sixty year or many more.  But that day will surely come.  Thanks be to God that you also have come to know and believe in a Savior who has said, “I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine.”
Through His means of grace, the Holy Spirit continues to teach this truth that will set you free: The righteousness of God is yours through faith in Jesus.  You have indeed have sinned and fall short of the glory of the Father, but you have been justified by His grace.  You have been redeemed by the blood of Christ.  The Valiant One fights for you.  For His 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.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Full of the Holy Spirit and Led in the Wilderness

"Christ in the Wilderness" by Ivan Kramskey
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ! 
They had been attending worship faithfully each week for about two months.  Actively participating in two Bible studies each week, they just seemed to drink in everything, asking the most insightful questions.  This young couple was the kind of prospective members that we pastors just dream about.  “We think we’d like to join your church,” they said.  “But before we do, we want to know just what you believe and teach.  We’ve seen the summary on your website, but do you have a book or something more in depth that we could read?”
 I could have chosen a number of books, including the Small Catechism or the Book of Concord, but I gave them a book called “Spirituality of the Cross,” by Gene Edward Veith, a summary of his own odyssey through the American religious wilderness that ended at the Lutheran Church. 
Two days later they returned.  “Pastor, we’ve read the book you sent with us, and we just can’t agree with some of it.  We can’t, in good conscience, join, because we would like to become involved in teaching.  We know that we would always have some level of conflict with what you’re teaching.” 
Though it was disappointing, and I disagree with their conclusion, I could appreciate the importance they wished to place upon the truth.  In this day, where so many people find doctrine unimportant, here was a couple that was trying to use that criteria to determine what church they should join.  What I found hard to understand, however, was their final statement: “We’re really sorry to do this, because we really like your preaching and teaching.  We can just tell that you’re full of the Holy Spirit.” 
I never have been able to figure out how an honest seeker of Christian truth can disagree with a teaching, and yet admire the one who is teaching or preaching that doctrine because he is “full of the Holy Spirit.”  The only way I can reconcile these two contradictory positions in this case is that the couples’ previous involvement in the Pentecostal movement led them to confuse emotion and enthusiasm for the presence and work of the Holy Spirit.   
Which leads me to a few questions touched upon by our text: (1) What does it look like to be “full of the Holy Spirit”?  (2) How do you know someone is “led by the Spirit”?  (3) Why does it even matter?
In our text for today, Luke 4:1, the evangelist reports the events immediately following Jesus’ Baptism: “And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.” 
Included in this verse are two very important things for your everyday life. The first is that Jesus is full of the Spirit.  The second is that this same Spirit now leads Jesus into the wilderness.  Only Luke feels the need to explain to you that Jesus is “full of the Holy Spirit” after being baptized.  Sts. Matthew and Mark make no mention of this detail, but Luke believes this is necessary for you and for your upcoming week, and so he places it emphatically into today’s Gospel.  Luke wants you to know and to benefit personally from the news that after His Baptism Jesus is now “full of the Holy Spirit” as He is led off into the wilderness.
Probably one of the reasons why Luke took pains to tell you that Jesus is full of the Spirit is because Jesus does not look very spiritual after His Baptism.  Yes, when Jesus was baptized, “He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming on Him,” but He did not build a nest or remain perched on Jesus’ head from that day forward.  The visible image of the Holy Spirit’s presence at Jesus’ Baptism eventually disappeared.  When Jesus left the Jordan, He looked and acted and felt the same way He did before He arrived.  You could not tell, just by looking at the Man, that He was full of the Holy Spirit.  While He languished in the lonely wilderness, Jesus probably could not feel the presence of the Holy Spirit within Himself, either.  All He really felt was hungry and tempted.
So Luke takes pains in today’s Gospel to offer you assurances, as if to say, the lonely and hungry and exposed Man I am telling you about here?  He is “full of the Holy Spirit.”  The Man who feels the weight of His own human desires in this Gospel?  He is “full of the Holy Spirit.”  The Man who is here tempted in exactly every way that you are likewise tempted; the Man whose temptations only grow more difficult for Him as He moves forward through life and as the tempter continues to make every use of every opportunity from here on out?  Yes, that Man is “full of the Holy Spirit.”  It is almost as if St. Luke is saying to you, “You would never guess this by looking at this Man, but I assure you: Jesus did not merely have an experience of the Holy Spirit at His Baptism.  The Holy Spirit descended on Jesus and now remains upon Him and in Him as He is led into the wilderness.
Luke wants to press this point upon you because Luke knows that the Holy Spirit also came upon you and entered into you when you were baptized.  Luke might also know, based on his own experiences and temptations, that you do not always look or feel especially spiritual.  Stated another way, Luke knows it is probably much easier for you to identify the sensations of temptation and sin and hardship in your life than it is for you to identify the presence of the Holy Spirit.  So Luke emphasizes the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit in your life by pointing you to the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit in Christ’s life.  “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.”
How can this good news benefit and serve you every day of the coming week and beyond?  Consider doing what Luther suggests: each morning when you wake up, make the sign of the cross upon yourself and say aloud to yourself, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  This is the same sign that was made upon you and these are the same words spoken over you when you were baptized, whether your baptism happened last year or last century. 
After you make the sign of the cross upon yourself, pray the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer—just as these things likewise were prayed at your Baptism.  Then go off to school or to work or to do whatever it is you do during the day.  Go in complete confidence.  Proceed with the certainty and assurance that you are “full of the Holy Spirit” in the same manner that Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit in today’s Gospel. 
Think of each and every day as your own personal return up from the Jordan, your Baptism, just as Jesus returned from the Jordan in this Gospel.  Think of each and every day as the day during which God’s Spirit faithfully rests upon you and fills you, in the same way that Luke says of Jesus here: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.”
Luke wants you to think this way about Jesus because he wants you to think this way about yourself, not as having the gift and the presence of the Holy Spirit once in a while like at your Baptism or only during worship.  But Luke wants you to think of yourself as having the full presence of the Holy Spirit within you also during the dark times and trying times and tempting times and exhausting times of your life.  Because of your Baptism, you are now full of the Holy Spirit, even when you do not feel or look as though He is in you.
Now take a careful look at what the Holy Spirit does for Jesus.  I’ll bet Luke wants you to know and to believe that the exact same indwelling Holy Spirit does exactly the same thing for you: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.”
This experience in the wilderness was no picnic for Jesus.  He is fully God, vested with all divine power and authority, and yet He exerts none of that power to serve Himself.  While the Holy Spirit leads Him along into the wilderness, Jesus suffers hunger, exposure, loneliness, temptation, and every other human thing that can be experienced in this hostile, fallen world—this “wilderness,” if you will.
Jesus’ divinity offers Him no protection against these things.  He only has His Baptism, His pocket full of Bible verses, and the presence of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus cannot feel or see, but whom He must only believe is with Him.  The joy and the presence of the Holy Spirit seems to be so far away from Jesus that Luke emphasizes that the Spirit is indeed present, despite what Jesus is feeling and experiencing, or how it would look to any outside observer.
Jesus has not arrived in this wilderness accidentally, either.  Although His presence cannot be seen or felt, the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into this dark place.  This wilderness is exactly what God the Spirit intends for Jesus.  This hardship, which focuses Jesus’ eyes upon the Word and promises of God, is precisely what the Holy Spirit wants for Jesus.  This demonstration of God the Father’s faithfulness to Jesus—even in the midst of temptation and trial—is what the Holy Spirit wants Jesus to learn.  This wilderness is a good and blessed thing for Jesus.  This is why Luke explains that Jesus is “led by the Spirit” to this place.
It is purposeful and necessary in God’s plan—and surely also in Satan’s—that this confrontation take place immediately.  Satan, the fallen angel, the “prince of this world,” has to do his utmost to sidetrack God’s saving action in its very genesis.  Satan had succeeded with Adam, and he surely aspires to succeed also with the “second Adam.”  Just one sin by Jesus, and no one would be left to fulfill the demands of God’s Law.  Every soul would be lost to hell. 
What happens in the wilderness is an integral part of Jesus’ mission on earth.  Jesus’ suffering and death are, of course, necessary for the salvation of the world.  But just as necessary is His perfect keeping of God’s Law, His “active obedience.”  God’s Law is serious and binding, never abolished, and it has to be kept.  Just as He comes to pay on the cross for your failure to obey, so also Jesus comes to obey for you, to do for you what you would not and could not do for yourself.  To exchange His righteousness for your sin, His Life for your death.
Jesus wins the victory over the devil by using the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.  He does what Adam and the people of Israel had failed to do, what you have failed to do.  Like you, Jesus is tempted in every way (Hebrews 4:15); but there is a big, important difference: He is not overcome! 
In doing so, Jesus supplies you with the example of how you can use the Word of God to win victories over the temptations that come to you from Satan.  But we dare not leave it there.  Jesus as a moral example, a model, does not save you.  Christ the Substitute, the One who keeps the Law perfectly, the One who obeys His heavenly Father’s will willingly, the One who gives up His holy precious blood for you, the One who gives His innocent life into suffering and death in exchange for your sin and disobedience, He is the One who saves you.
See how Luke has layered blessing upon blessing for you in this Gospel.  He begins by assuring you that Jesus is full of the Holy Spirit, so that you yourself may be assured that you also are full of the Holy Spirit.  Now Luke wants you to know that the Holy Spirit deliberately and purposefully leads Jesus into the wilderness for you.  You can probably guess why Luke wants you to know this: Luke wants you to see and believe from this Gospel that the Holy Spirit has likewise led you to where you are today.
No, you probably do not feel the Spirit taking you by the hand and leading you (or dragging you) through your day.  Jesus likely didn’t feel it, either, soaked as He was in the fullness of your humanity, loaded down with the world’s sin.  No, you probably do not feel especially spiritual as you struggle with your family, your co-workers, or with the other constant obstacles that spring up in your path.  Jesus did not feel especially spiritual either.  All He had was Bible verses for His defense.  No, you probably do not feel terribly strong every single day.  You might feel weakened by the constant effort.  You might feel empty.  You might feel hungry for something that you cannot identify, much less satisfy. 
That is precisely why St. Luke has written you today’s Gospel in the manner that he has!  “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.” 
Because of God’s miracle of Baptism, you are within your rights to reword this sentence in today’s Gospel so that it speaks more personally about you.  In place of Jesus’ name, insert your own.  You might even write it in on a piece of paper and stick it on the bathroom mirror, or pack it in your lunch: “I, John (or Jane or whoever), full of the Holy Spirit, returned to my Baptism and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness.”
You might not feel the Holy Spirit as you leave worship today and head out into the wilderness this week, but He is with you nonetheless, poured out upon you in Holy Baptism, breathed into you by the Word of Christ’s absolution.  Because He is with you, you now possess all of His benefits and gifts—not the least of which are forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.  Indeed, through the work of the Holy Spirit and for the sake of Christ and His perfect obedience and atoning death, you are forgiven for all of your sins. 
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Into the Wilderness

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