Saturday, April 27, 2013

A Little While (2.0)

Click here for an audio version of this sermon.

Another adorable grandchild.

The text for today is our Gospel lesson, John 16:16-22, which has already been read.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Before I begin, I must issue the following warning: This sermon contains an illustration featuring the exploits of one of my adorable grandchildren.  But then, since I plan on being here for awhile you might as well get used to it. 
A few years ago we were in the van headed to Gillette, Wyoming for a wedding.  My grandson Abbott started fussing, so I just said: “Ten more minutes and then we’ll stop.”  Much to my surprise, he quieted down.  And in ten minutes, I kept my promise.  After a quick diaper change and a bottle of formula he was good to go for another 200 miles.  Then he started fussing again.  Since it worked the first time, I decided to try the same line again: “Ten more minutes.”  It seemed to work so well that I used it over and over again the whole trip.
Now as biased as I may be about my grandchildren’s advanced abilities, I realize Abbott didn’t actually understand what I was saying.  He was only four months old at the time.  But still that voice seemed to reassure him.  And the running joke seemed to pass the time more quickly for us adults than a crying baby.  At the same time, it was a reminder to me that the day will come when Abbott will ask that age-old question: “How much longer until we get there?”  And now that he’s almost four, I suspect that time is now at hand. 
One of the keys to good communication is to speak to someone’s level.  Not too far below as to be condescending.  Not too far above, as to be unintelligible.  What do you say to a young child who has no real concept of time or distance?  You tell them: “We’ll be there in a little while.”  They don’t really understand “10 minutes” or “15 miles,” but they do learn to understand “a little while.”
And that’s what Jesus is doing in our text.  He’s talking to His disciples, who are like young children theologically speaking.  They don’t understand His plan of salvation.  They don’t realize that God, who is not bound by time and space, looks at time and space in a much different way than we mortal, finite men and women.  Besides that, Jesus really doesn’t have too much time left with them and He’s still got so much to say—more than they can understand and process right now, more than they can bear at this time. 
But no worries about their recalling and understanding in the near future.  Jesus promises them the Holy Spirit who will lead and guide them into all truth, thereby putting Jesus’ stamp of approval on the New Testament.  What Jesus has from the Father, He gives by the way of the Spirit.  And the Holy Spirit leads the apostles to pass on that Word to the Church.  From Father to Son through Holy Spirit by way of the apostles and the Church passed along through the centuries to you today.  And by God’s grace, to His people throughout all eternity.
Jesus prepares His disciples for His soon-to-come death and resurrection.  But the death of a loved one is never easily understood, much less accepted; and though eternity is written in our hearts, it’s impossible for us to wrap our minds around it.  So to explain to them what is going to be happening in the next few terrible days and in the glorious age to come, Jesus simply says to His childlike apostles: “A little while, and you will see Me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see Me… because I am going to the Father.” 
“A little while.”  We’ll come back to that phrase.  But before we do, we need to understand the context in which Jesus speaks these words.  “A little while” could be a few days if you’re waiting for Christmas, but not much more than a minute or two if you really have to use the restroom.  And so it’s helpful for us to have a better understanding of the situation Jesus and His disciples face as these words are spoken.
As Jesus speaks with His disciples in the Upper Room on the night in which He is betrayed, the disciples are still laboring under misconceptions as to what the Messiah will do for Israel.  They are also bewildered by Jesus’ change in mood since Sunday, when He had purposely fulfilled messianic prophecy and entered the city to acclaim as the Son of David.  It seemed He was ready to establish His kingdom, but now He is talking about going and suffering and dying.  He’s telling them that they will be denying Him and be put out of the synagogues and killed. 
And if that isn’t enough, Jesus is trying to explain the work of the Holy Spirit and the interaction of the Trinity, and indicates that He has many other things on His mind He wants to share with them, but they are more than the disciples can bear at this time.  No wonder they are confused and bewildered. 
Indeed, their hearts are breaking.  They’ve left their homes behind.  They’ve given up everything just to be with Jesus.  Wherever He goes, they follow.  And being with Him is enough.  Hearing that voice, sometimes so gentle and sometimes so stern.  Looking into those eyes, sometimes filled with laughter and sometimes sparking in anger.  He is their Jesus.  He is everything.  But now He says that He is going away and that they cannot come with Him.  Their hearts are breaking. 
Jesus tries to help them understand.  “I am not leaving forever.  I am going away.  Going to the Father.  You will not see Me.  But then you will see Me.  Truly you will have sorrow.  You will cry and weep and the world will go on oblivious to your pain.  But look… though you will be sorrowful, your sorrow will be turned into joy.”  In a little while, by the close of that day, Jesus would be dead and buried.  And then, in a little while—three short days—He would rise, and they would see Him again, and their sorrow would turn to joy. 
Would that all our sorrows lasted but three days!  Wouldn’t that be nice?  Wouldn’t be great if all the pain and suffering and loss of this life could be packed into a Friday and over with by Sunday? 
In a very real and profound sense, it has!  It is all there in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  His death is your death, your loved one’s death, the death of the world.  His life is your life, your loved one’s life, the life of the world.  “Behold, I make all things new,” Jesus says.  And He does it by His suffering, death, and resurrection. 
But all that’s a lot to take in at once.  And the look on the disciples’ faces must tell Jesus that they still don’t get it.  So He uses an analogy of a woman about to give birth (normally a hazardous thing for a man to say, because the usual response from women is “You have no idea what it’s like”).  But Jesus is the all-knowing Lord, so we’ll have to take Him at His Word and run with it.
“Look, it’s like this.  A woman, when she is in labor has sorrow because her hour has come.  She’s in pain.  It hurts.  It hurts badly.  But it doesn’t hurt forever.  No.  There comes the moment when the little baby is laid beside her and she looks into his face.  She embraces him in her bosom and her joy is total and complete.  The sorrow and pain are forgotten.  The anguish is gone.  Her heart swells with joy that a human being has been born… her little baby.”
Jesus looks around at them.  “Do you understand now?”  There is the dawning of understanding on their faces, but they are still not sure of its application to them.  So He goes on: “That’s how it is with you and Me.  Now you will have sorrow.  Your gut will feel as though it’s being ripped in two.  Your heart will feel like it’s being pulled out.  You will cry out in your pain.  Because of what’s about to happen to Me.  You are going to be alone for a little while. 
“‘A little while.’  Do you hear that?  ‘A little while.’  Cling to that.  Through the hours and days to come, keep saying to yourself: ‘a little while, a little while.’  Because I will see you again.  Though death bars the way, though the grave closes its gates upon Me, I will see you again.  Me.  The One speaking to you now.  Not a ghost.  But Me, the flesh and blood Me that you have come to know. 
“You will see Me again when the time of sorrow is through and when you do… and when you do… such joy will fill your heart…. such happiness will flood your very being that you will be forever changed.  You will have planted in you a joy that no one and nothing has the power to take away.  Because you will see Me again.  And then you will understand.  Joy overflowing.  Joy abounding.” 
Their heads are nodding now.  Pain is ahead.  Bad pain.  The pain of their own weakness, their own betrayals of Him, their own denials and running away.  The pain of watching their Beloved hanging on the tree in agony.  Knowing that it is their sin and the world’s sin that puts Him there.  Knowing that there is nothing they can do to help the One they love.  Having to stand by and watch Him die, utterly helpless and alone.  Pain indeed.  But it isn’t forever.  Not for Him, and not for them, and not for you.  It is only for a little while.  And when it is over, there is the promise of joy that never ends, the joy of Jesus alive, seeing them again.
That joy is theirs when He comes and stands among them and says to them:  “Peace be with you!”  And their hearts burst with joy as they see it is indeed the Lord, risen and alive with life that never ends.  And the promise He brings them is that He is only the firstfruits.  There are many to follow.  He will raise them from the dead as He has been raised.  He, who conquered death, will set all His children free from its power.  What joy!  Abounding and overflowing.  It is indeed a joy that no one can take away from them… no circumstances can rob of them. 
They go out into the world a laughing, joy-filled, celebrating people.  They march out into the world where death and the sadness of sin hold sway, and by the news they bring they set free people who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.  Everywhere they go they announce: “Your sins have been answered for completely.  Your guilt has been taken away.  Your death has been destroyed.  You are loved by God in His Son.  Repent and believe!  Taste and see!  Your Lord is good to you!”
And they do not forget to tell the rest of the message: how to walk through all the sorrows of this world.  Life under the cross is real life.  There is genuine suffering, heartache, brokenness, and death.  There are tears and disappointments and grief.  Luther called it the “theology of the cross,” and he pointed to such times of testing, tentatio, along with prayer and meditation, as the chief components for learning to truly understand God and His Word.  God hides Himself in suffering, and promises to use all things—even our suffering!—for our good. 
Still, any attempt at a Pollyannaish attitude toward life in this world is foolhardy, even destructive.  Can you imagine telling a woman about childbirth and leaving out the birth pains?  Of course not!  It would be downright dishonest.  With pregnancy, as with life itself, it’s the whole thing or nothing at all.  You have to embrace all of it.  If you are going to embrace life, you must also embrace death.  If you are to know the joy of the resurrection, you must endure the cross. 
The Christian has one foot in Good Friday and the other on Easter Sunday—now and not yet.  That’s the clear message of our text from the Revelation: Our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.  And that glory is already present in a hidden, sublime way, in, with, and under our present sufferings.   
The apostles tell us flat out: “In this world you will have trouble.”  All kinds of troubles.  In this world your heart will break.  You will grow old and begin to fall apart.  You will have disappointment and heartache and trial upon trial.  You will watch your closest friend turn his back on you just when you need him the most.  You will fail so miserably that you’ll want to crawl into a hole and die because of the shame and guilt. You will suffer the consequences of your own sinful actions and the decisions of others.  You will watch helplessly as a loved one struggles with a terrible disease… perhaps, even dies.  You will face the day of your own death.  But do not despair.  Learn to say to yourself: “A little while.” 
And a little while and it will be over.  For it is true that Jesus will see you again.  He will see you again in His kingdom, on that day when He wipes the tears from all eyes and comforts and heals all hurts and gives eternal joy to His people.  In the meantime, remember that we are God’s children now, and what we will be hasn’t been revealed yet.  And when our hearts are overwhelmed and the joy of Jesus Christ seems far away, we learn to say inside: “a little while, it’s just for a little while.”  We lift our eyes of faith to the heavenly City and see the joy and feasting that awaits us up ahead and so we go on.  We journey towards the goal. 
And for the moments when we are so weary that we do not know if we can go on, when we are bone tired and the thought of our own failures to win the battles against the flesh and our betrayals of the new life in Christ and our sins weigh heavy and we feel discouraged and down, Jesus provides us with a heavenly meal.  He says to us: “Eat and drink.  My body and My blood for you… to get you through.  I will strengthen you as you walk the road until the day arrives when you need this food no more, when you will sit down with Me at the Table of the Father’s household.  Your place is waiting, child.  Think of it, and rejoice.  It’s only for a little while that the sorrow lasts; the joy goes on forever.”
That’s the motto, then, people loved by God.  The motto of us pilgrims.  Carry it in your hearts.  It is the word Jesus gives His friends to get them through the hour of sorrow.  Words from the lips of Jesus to carry in your hearts always.  Say: “A little while.”  A little while of sorrows… then an eternity of joy. 
How do you know this is true?  Jesus died on the cross for your sins.  “A little while” later—three days, in fact—He rose from the dead.  Before ascending to the right hand of the Father He promised He will return… in a little while.  As I mentioned earlier, God’s perspective of time is much different than ours.  In this case “a little while” is nearing 2,000 years.  But then as St. Peter remind us, “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.  The Lord is not slow to fulfill His promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:8-9). 
Christ will return.  He has promised, and He always keeps His promises.  Even now, as you await that day, He comes to you in His Word and Sacraments with His grace and love.  Though there will be sorrow for “a little while,” no one can take this joy from you: For Jesus’ sake, His suffering, death and resurrection, you are forgiven for all your sins. 
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

A Good Shepherd for Dirty, Wandering Sheep

"The Good Shepherd" by Thomas Cole

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
No image of the Lord and His relationship with us strikes closer to the core of our being than the one we see as our theme for today: the image of the Lord as our Shepherd and us as His sheep.  We sing about this relationship in our hymns for today: “I Am Jesus’ Little Lamb,” “Have No Fear Little Flock,” and “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us.”  We hear it in the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not be in want.”  In Revelation: “The Lamb at the center of the throne will be their Shepherd” (7:17).  And in our text for today, John 10:27, Jesus tells us, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.”  
Shepherd and sheep: Why do you suppose this image has such power for us?   Perhaps it’s because we link them together with peace and quiet.  “He makes me lie down in green pastures…He leads me beside quiet waters.”  Or maybe it’s because of how we think of sheep.  A number of people have sheepskins to cover their car seats.  The wool is soft and clean and fresh, warm in the winter and cool in the summer.  Surely the animal that gave it must be like that: soft and gentle, clean and fresh, without fierce teeth or sharp claws. 
Scripture tells us Jesus, the Lord, is our Shepherd, and we are His sheep.  If only more of us knew how sheep really are, this might make us feel a bit sheepish about ourselves!  My own personal experience leads me to believe that all it would probably take would be to help someone shear sheep one time.  You see, all that thick, soft wool picks up a lot of dirt and smells as the sheep lives from day to day.  What comes to us as clean and soft, starts out as filthy and full of manure.  And as you hold the sheep for the shearer, the oily lanolin and smells just stick to your clothes and skin.  You have to really scrub to get them off.  And it takes even longer to get the distinctive odor cleared from your nasal passages. 
Those who’ve tended sheep know that they have other unpleasant characteristics, too.  Sheep are prone to wander from the flock.  The sight of some greener grass catches their attention, and they go off until they find themselves far away.  Sheep can be stubborn, willful creatures; but they’re also more than willing to just follow along in whatever direction the rest of the crowd is moving.
Still, Scripture tells us we are God’s sheep.  And though we might not want to admit it, it’s a very apt description.  For example, have you ever noticed how just like sheep, we have an amazing ability to pick up dirt from our surroundings?  How often we find our lives are not pure and soft and white, but that we’ve managed to pick up the same unpleasant characteristics of the world around us.  It might be very hard for a stranger to recognize that we’re any different.  While we may not be able to help passing through the valley of the shadow of death, when we begin to walk like those who are spiritually dead, that becomes a problem.  For at that point we are very much in danger of the worst sort!
With that in mind, we look at ourselves in the mirror of God’s Law.  When we do, we’re dismayed by the sight of the filth and mess in our life!  Instead of delighting in the oil the Lord pours over our head—and whatever good things He pours into our cup—we covet the delights of this world.  Instead of trusting God to vindicate us in the presence of our enemies, we fear them, smear them, speak all kinds of evil against them, and gloat when we see them stumble.  Isn’t it true?  Yes, sadly, every time we gather for worship, as soon as the name of God is placed on us, we find we must confess that we are poor, miserable sinners.
As God’s sheep, we have a tendency to wander.  Perhaps something hurtful is said to us, maybe even by other sheep, other people of God.  Or we experience some horrible, shocking event—a sudden death we can’t possibly explain in our understanding of a loving God, a rejection by a loved one that doesn’t make sense when we’ve been committed and faithful. 
Or maybe we catch sight of greener grass just over the next ridge—those worldly goods that draw us away, or a catchier sounding philosophy or religion.  We wander from God’s house—become angry with Him, lose faith in Him, lose confidence that His simple Word and Sacrament are the richest table anyone could ever spread before us.  And the next thing we know, months or even years have gone by, and we find ourselves alone, without Him.  Isaiah said it well: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6). 
And like sheep we can be stubborn, too.  When things don’t go our way, we dig in our heels and force others to drag us along.  Instead of praying, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we pray, “My will be done in heaven and on earth—or else.”  And even when it’s obvious we can’t have our way, we decide to make things miserable for everybody else.  We are dirty, wandering sheep.  And so serious is our problem that God has taken a radical step to solve it.  Let me use this illustration.  And remember, this is a true story even though it sounds like it’s not. 
Once upon a time there was a big, bad wolf who lived in a cave.  And this wolf had it pretty easy.  Whenever he was hungry he would just go outside and there grazing right by his door were sheep.  He would eat as many as he wanted to satisfy his hunger.  Day after day, the more he ate the fatter he got and the fatter he got the more he ate.  It was an unending cycle.  And each and every sheep knew that one day the wolf would come out of his cave and eat him or her.
Now one day the wolf woke up and went out of his cave to eat again.  And right there on his doorstep was the biggest, fattest sheep he had ever seen.  He couldn’t believe the nerve of that sheep to be grazing right there on his doorstep, so he let out a big scary howl that the sheep promptly ignored.  He ran right up to the sheep and he blasted him with his breath.  And his breath smelled bad, in fact the wolf himself smelled bad, because this wolf had a name, and his name is Death.
So the wolf tried to frighten him and he said, “Don’t you know who I am?”
The sheep answered, “Yes, I know who you are.”
“Well, aren’t you afraid of me?”
And the sheep looked at him and blinked and said, “…of you?  You’ve got to be kidding.”
Now this made the wolf really angry.  “That does it,” he said, “I’m going to kill you, and it’s going to be slow and painful and it’s going to be awful and it’s going to hurt a lot.”
And the sheep answered, “I know.”
Now the other sheep had gathered around to see what was going on, because nothing like this had ever happened before.  No sheep had ever spoken to the wolf in that way.  “Maybe,” they thought, “it will be different this time.” 
But when the wolf pounced it wasn’t any different.  So the sheep scattered.  And just like he promised the wolf made his meal slow and painful and awful.  When it was done, he belched out his victory to the other sheep.  And they scattered even further.  Then the wolf went back to his den. 
“Wow!” he said to himself.  “That was the best lamb chops I’ve ever had.”  And in fact he thought it was quite strange that that one sheep had satisfied him and he didn’t even feel hungry.  He went to bed.  But when he got up in the morning he wasn’t feeling himself.  He had a bellyache.  Throughout the day it began to grow worse and worse and he began to wonder about that sheep he ate.  Could it have been poisoned? 
In the middle of the next night the wolf couldn’t take it anymore, because something inside of him was alive.  And it was poking and prodding from the inside.  Then all of a sudden there was a ripping sound and his belly was torn open.  Death’s stomach was torn wide open, and out stepped someone that looked like a shepherd.  Now the shepherd walked around the den and he laughed and he laughed and he said to the wolf, “Well my old foe, do you recognize me?”
The wolf recognized the voice.  It was the sheep that he had eaten three days before. “You!” he said, “How could it be?”
The shepherd replied: “You kept your promise to me, you made my death painful and slow and awful, but what are you going to do about me now?  You’ve got a hole in your belly that’s never going to heal.  You go ahead and eat my sheep.  I promise, I’ll lead them right out of your belly just as I myself have come out of your belly.  That hole you have is forever.”
Now the shepherd went out the door and he gathered all the sheep together.  And he said, “Look, the wolf’s going to be coming out in a few days and he’s going to be just as hungry as ever.  And yes, he’s still going to eat you.  But see, he’s got a hole in his belly and I’ll lead you through it just as I went through it.”
That’s the Good Shepherd who is the Lamb.  When we were lost, without hope and without God in the world, Jesus wandered far from His heavenly home in search of us.  He descended to earth and became one of us, though without sin.  His search took Him to a lowly virgin in Nazareth, to a humble cave in Bethlehem, throughout Galilee, to Jerusalem, and, finally, on a dark and lonely Friday afternoon, to an accursed tree on Mount Calvary.  There, He walked through the valley of the shadow of death on our behalf.  He conquered our willfulness by yielding His own will to that of the Father—even unto death.  Freely, lovingly He offered Himself up for us through the Spirit to the Father. 
The Shepherd became a sheep—the Paschal Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  The sinless Lamb of God was made to be sin for us.  God laid on the Righteous One the iniquity of all humanity.  He died in our place as a sacrifice pleasing to the Father.  God accepted His fragrant offering, and Jesus was raised to life.  After showing Himself alive to His apostles and followers, He ascended into heaven and is now seated at the right hand of the Father.  He has averted God’s wrath from us and brought us goodness and mercy and grace.
The Lamb has become our Shepherd, our Good Shepherd.  He feeds us in the pasture of His Word.  He leads us beside the still, deep waters of Baptism.  Even in the midst of jangled nerves and troubled hearts, the Lord gives us peace with God and hope for eternity.  Our Shepherd restores our soul.  There are times when we feel alienated from God, as if He has forgotten us.  Yet the Lord promises to restore us and renew us with His Word.  He satisfies our hunger by giving us the heavenly bread and the cup of life, His own body and blood. 
Through these gifts, He guides us in paths of righteousness for the sake of His name.  In our pilgrimage of life, our own sinful inclinations, the world, and the devil still threaten to lead us astray.  But our Lord is at work within us, moving us to will and act according to His good pleasure.  God guides us past danger and temptation in our daily life because He’s already been that way before Himself.  He’s already opened up a hole in our last great enemy—death itself.
Which brings us to our reading from Revelation: St. John takes us to where people are living with God in the next life.  We see a great multitude that no one can count, from every tribe and nation, people and language.  They are standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.  And who are these people, this great multitude?  They are those who have come out of the great tribulation—that is, out of the sufferings of this life, through the valley of the shadow of death.  They’ve laid aside the burdens and battles, the stresses and strains of walking in the valley, and now they’re in the throne room of heaven.
What enables them to stand in the unveiled presence of God?  They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 7:14).  They’ve been washed in the water and Word of Baptism.  They’ve been given faith by the power of the Holy Spirit, and with that faith they have received the forgiveness of sins achieved by Jesus on the cross for all humankind.  Christ’s body and blood strengthens and preserves them in body and soul unto eternal life.
Think about what comfort this is.  Who do you miss that has passed from this world?  We often say that we just don’t know what it’s like for those who have died, that Scripture is silent, and in a really big way that is true—except for this passage.  John is telling us what those departed saints are doing: “For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their Shepherd, and He will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
No wonder these white-robed saints are singing with special joy: “Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever.  Amen!”  Right now all those loved ones of ours who have died in the faith wouldn’t come back to us for anything.  They have Jesus.  They have everything they need.  They have passed through death into eternal life. 
One day, we will join them.  By God’s grace, our destination is with them.   But we can join in their song even now.  Having been washed in His precious blood, we are no longer dirty, wandering sheep, but members of His flock.  On the Last Day, Christ will return from heaven with all His holy angels.  In a moment, in a twinkling of an eye, at the sound of the last trumpet, the dead will be raised with imperishable and immortal bodies, and all those still on earth will be changed.  And all of us who are in Christ Jesus will be gathered into one flock, united with our Shepherd and Lamb, Jesus.
As you await that great day, your Good Shepherd loves you, feeds you, leads and guides you through all the perilous ways of this life.  He speaks and you listen, for by that Word He gives faith, forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.  He reassures you that no one will ever snatch you out of His hand… you are His sheep… no longer dirty and wandering, but righteous and blameless.  That is to say, you are forgiven for all your sins. 
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Who Is Worthy?

Click here to listen to this sermon.

"Adoration of the Lamb" by Jan van Eyck

The text for today is Revelation 5:1-2: “Then I saw in the right hand of Him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals.  And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?’”  This is the Word of the Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Three readings today, three different views of Jesus.  Each of them, vitally important.  All of them together give us a picture of who Jesus is for us and what He is doing.  We’ll look at them chronologically (at least from an earthly perspective).  (1) Jesus as He appeared on earth to His disciples sometime during the forty days between His resurrection and ascension.  (2) As He appeared to Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus about three years after His death and resurrection.  And (3), Jesus as He appeared to St. John during His exile at Patmos shortly before the end of the 1st century A.D.  The same Jesus, crucified and risen.
In our Gospel, St. John describes an appearance of Jesus to seven of His disciples on the shores of the Sea of Tiberius, the same lake where Jesus originally had called the fishermen to make them fishers of men.  Whether on account of discouragement, confusion, despair, or boredom as they wait for Jesus to meet them in Galilee, we don’t know why, but now they seem to be returning to the fishing business.  Peter says, “Let’s going fishing,” and the others disciples agree.
Just like the previous time, the night goes by without any fish in the nets.  At daylight a figure stands on the shore.  He calls them “children” and asks if they have any food.  When they say “No,” He tells them to cast their nets on the right side of the boat.  Again, an illogical bit of advice.  How is the right side going to differ from the left for catching fish?  What difference would a few feet in one direction or the other make?  But at His word, they do… and it does!
Once again, the net is full—big fish this time; and even so, the net doesn’t burst as they struggle to bring it to shore.  John gives the count: 153 fish.  A number that means absolutely nothing except that it rings of fact.  Someone took the time to count them, and John took the trouble to record it so you would believe what he was writing, right down to the smallest detail.  That’s how it is with eyewitness testimony.  Witnesses tend to remember strange, often insignificant details.  Like 153 large fish—all of them “keepers.”  It’s the kind of thing you’d expect a fisherman to remember.  It was their livelihood, their business. 
Recalling the prior catch of fish—the one that took him away from the fishing business and set him on the road to follow Jesus—John tells Peter: “It is the Lord!”  Peter puts his robe back on and jumps into the water.  Isn’t that strange?  How many of you, if you were out on a boat and decided you wanted to go for a swim, would take the time to put on more clothing.  What’s up with that? 
I submit to you that Peter realized He wasn’t dressed properly to greet Jesus.  But being stripped down to his underwear was the least of his concerns.  Peter was aware of his own unworthiness.  He knew he had failed the Lord miserably.  He had denied even knowing Jesus, this bold disciple who was always so quick to speak.  And so he put on the robe for cover and jumped into the water, which baptismally speaking is not a bad idea.
Our clothing before the holy God is our baptism, which we wear like a garment.  Christ’s robe of righteousness covers our shame.  You’ll recall the Fall and how when Adam and Eve sinned against God they became self-aware and realized their own nakedness and tried to cover themselves with fig leaves?  But it was God who had to clothe them with animal skins.  He covered them with the death of another.  The first blood shed for sin.  And so we have this reflex, too.  We don’t want to be caught undressed.  We feel vulnerable, exposed.  Some even have a recurring dream of showing up to work and forgetting to get dressed.
Hastily robed, Peter jumps into the water.  Can’t be having the Lord see him in his undies!  When the disciples get to shore, Jesus has breakfast waiting: bread and fish.  Again, another miracle is recalled—the feeding of the 5,000.  This time it’s just seven that Jesus is feeding.  It seems He’s always feeding. 
John wants you to think of the Lord’s Supper here.  You are the invited guests.  Jesus takes what we bring to the table and makes it so much more.  He takes our simple gifts and makes them into His gifts, and with His gifts come all that He died and rose to win for us—forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.  Not simply breakfast, but a feast.  Not simply bread and wine, but His body and blood.  Not simply nourishment for this body and life, but soul food—food for eternal life.
The Lord also appears to Saul on the road to Damascus.  This is a man who earnestly believes in his mission.  No one questions the zeal of Saul, and no one wants to get in his way.  He’s no vigilante, but has the sanction of his superiors.  There’s little doubt that much of the population agrees with him.  But Saul isn’t really worried about public opinion.  He’s operating on the utter conviction that he is doing is God’s will.  And if God is for him, who will be against him?
So Saul leaves on his first, and last, missionary journey as a Pharisee.  His mission is to find anyone who calls on the name of Jesus.  And when he finds them, he is to arrest them and haul them back to the chief priests for a trial.  If they have to die, so be it, because they’re destructive to his religion.
Saul is an admirer of Moses and the law; and he’s based his whole existence on keeping the rules.  God spoke to Moses directly on Mt. Sinai from His cloud of glory.  What could be better?  But these Christians have a different message.  They teach faith in Jesus Christ.  Rather than insist on perfect obedience, they declare that Christ forgives them for their sin.  Saul will not tolerate this for it threatens his worldview; and Saul fervently believes that his way is God’s way.  In the name of the one true God, then, he’s going to destroy anyone who call themselves the Way.
On the road to Damascus, Saul gets to be like Moses.  The glorious Lord speaks to him from the midst of a bright light.  But there’s no comfortable affirmation.  The great I AM who speaks to Saul identifies Himself: “I AM Jesus, who you are persecuting.”  When Jesus leaves, Saul is blind and in despair, his world is turned upside-down.  His entire life and creed has crumbled to dust.
Three days later, the Lord speaks to a man named Ananias and sends him to Saul.  He tells Ananias to go and make a disciple, baptizing and teaching him what the Lord has said.   So the reluctant pastor goes to Saul.  He speaks God’s Word, and Saul can see.  He baptizes him, and Saul is forgiven.
From there, we see the grace of God at work in Saul.  He immediately goes to the synagogues and preaches that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.  Once he used Moses and the law as his reason to stamp out Christianity, from now on he’ll show how Moses pointed to Christ.  And he will go on more missionary journeys as Paul, the Lord’s foremost missionary to the Jews, Gentiles, and kings. 
And his message is always the same.  He proclaims Christ crucified and risen.  He emphasizes the importance of pure doctrine and Holy Baptism.  He writes about the Lord’s Supper and insists that it be kept according to God’s Word.  That’s what Saul would be all about.  Keep the Lord’s Word pure with the focus on Christ and His means of grace; and get that message out to the ends of the earth.
What happened that day?  There really is no explanation than what the text gives us.  Saul encountered the risen and glorified Jesus that day.  He saw Jesus in His risen and ascended glory and it forever changed him.  People don’t generally retool their theology so quickly.  And it’s a reminder to us that the Lord is still active today.  He’s not “gone” in the sense that He’s not here.  He just can’t be seen.  He’s very much alive and active at the right hand of God, lording His death and resurrection over the whole creation.  He’s still calling and sending preachers of His Gospel now through the means of His Church, which is His body.
Speaking of His body: Did you notice what Jesus said to Saul that day?  “Why are you persecuting me?”  Saul was persecuting Christians not Christ.  He didn’t know.  But you see, to persecute Christians is the same as persecuting Jesus.  He takes it personally.  To persecute the Bride is to persecute her Groom.  They are one flesh.  You cannot claim to love Jesus in one breath and yet hate His body, the Church, in the next breath.  They are joined together as one. 
John was worshiping on Sunday on the island of Patmos with other persecuted Christians when he was privileged to see Christ in His glory and see the heavenward side of worship, the side we can’t see but confess when say, “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.”  We can’t see this with our own eyes yet, but we are given the gift of John’s report in the Revelation.
John sees a scroll with seven seals in the right hand of God.  It contains a prophetic message that for the moment is closed to everyone.  It would remain closed and its contents unknown until the worthy person came to claim it.  A mighty angel sends out the call: “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?”  But there was no such figure in all of God’s creation, not even among the angels.  No one was worthy, for no one had earned the right to stand before the presence of God and lay legal claim to the scroll. 
John senses the great need that someone be found to receive the scroll, for he began to weep.  One of the elders comforts him, introducing John to Christ as “the Lion of the tribe of Judah” and “Root of David.”  Both titles from the Old Testament refer to Christ’s human origin and descent.  From the tribe of Judah the Messiah would come; and the lion was the symbol of His messianic reign and power (Genesis 49:8-10).  He would be a direct descendant of David, and as such would be the everlasting King upon whom all the nations would place their hope for salvation (Isaiah 42:4; 49:1, 6).  He is the Lamb who was slain.  He would earn the right to take the scroll and open it by His death and resurrection. 
John’s eyes are completely focused on the victorious Lamb, who is about to be received by God and about to have conferred on Him the royal authority to receive and open the scroll.  The Lamb of God is both God and man.  He stands in the center of the throne because He and the Father, although two separate persons, are one God from all eternity.  Jesus became fully human in order to be slain and take away the sin of the world.  He appears here as a victor whose work is finished. 
All that we know—and all we can ever know—about the mystery of the Trinity is depicted in John’s vision of the throne.  Verse 1 describes one throne with one person holding the scroll.  John sees the Lamb “in the center of the throne,” possessing seven horns and seven eyes, “which are the seven spirits of God.”  Previously, John spoke of the Holy Spirit as the seven spirits before the throne (1:4; 3:1; 4:4).  Jesus sends the Spirit from the Father “into all the earth” to testify about Him.  There is only one throne, but three distinct persons occupy it.
It becomes evident as the Lamb opens each seal that the scroll has to do with events on earth from the time of Christ’s victory and ascension to the end of all earthly things.  The prophetic message is about the tribulation and suffering the human race will experience, but its ultimate purpose is to strengthen the Church’s faith and to encourage her in the midst of all the sufferings to remain faithful to Christ and so to attain the promise of everlasting glory.  Humanity is not under the guidance of some mindless force and is not subject to the ambitions of people, but rather it is under the will and power of God as now exercised by Christ who rules everything on behalf of His heavenly Father for the benefit of His Church, so she will be protected in faith and hope and enabled to carry out her mission to the End.
St. John’s account is a picture of the exaltation of Jesus Christ at the right hand of God as it appeared from heaven’s view at His ascension.  As the disciples saw the Lord taken up from them to disappear into the heavens, Jesus was enthroned and crowned as Lord so as to rule everything on behalf of His Father. 
What John sees, in earthly time, had taken place some years before at the Mount of Olives.  However, the celebration that began some two thousand years ago was initiated at the Lord’s enthronement is still going on and will continue into eternity.  Heaven broke into a joyful song and celebration that will go on forever: “Worthy are You to take the scroll and to open its seals, for You were slain, and by Your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and You have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth…
Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”  
Who is worthy?  The Lamb who was slain.  He feeds us.  He forgives us.  He sends us.  He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  We come to Him broken, lost, confused, rebellious, self-righteous, blind, and dead in our sin.  Jesus gathers us, He calls us, He baptizes us, He gives us His Spirit, He grants us faith to see Him for who He is.  He feeds us with the bread of His body; He refreshes us with the wine of His blood.  He sends us into a broken and lost world with the good news of His victory on our lips.
We are reminded today too that being a Christian is no exemption from suffering.  Saul would learn what it meant to suffer for Jesus’ name’s sake.  We too will learn in the school of experience.  John suffered exile on an island because of Jesus.  Peter was crucified upside down confessing the Name of Jesus.  We have no idea what awaits us in the days and years ahead, although we can be sure that living as a Christian will only get more difficult as the end grows nearer.
But we do know this.  We belong to the Lord.  We are baptized into His death and life.  We have died with Christ.  We’ve been raised with Him.  We are glorified with Him.  He is with us, with His gathered people, in a most profound way—feeding, sending, forgiving.  We do not worship some dead and departed religious figure or some merely inspirational leader.  We worship the crucified and risen One, the Lamb who was slain but lives, the Lord of creation whom even the wind and waves and fish obey.  The One seen by Mary Magdalene, by the apostles, by Saul on the road to Damascus, by John on the island of Patmos. The One we will see again on His Day when He appears in glory.
“To Him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”  Amen

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Coming through Closed Doors, Hearts, and Minds

Click here to listen to this sermon.

The text for today is our Gospel lesson, John 20:19-31, which has already been read.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I have some discouraging news for you on the religious front.  A study released by Rasmussen Reports on Good Friday found that 64% of Americans believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead.  That is down significantly from only a year ago when Rasmussen released a poll finding that 77% of Americans believed the resurrection to be a historical fact.  A staggering 13 point drop! 
Now, polls can be misleading, but you have to admit those numbers are discouraging.  But not near as discouraging as it would have been on that first Easter.  You see, the 64% of Americans who reportedly believe in the resurrection in 2013 is 64 percentage points higher than the total number who believed in Jesus’ resurrection on Good Friday in 33 A.D.  No one believed it!  And that includes all of Jesus’ disciples, who were huddled together behind locked doors. 
It is very easy to become discouraged.  Pastors know that, especially when it seems their hearers do not take seriously the message they preach.  Far too many people despise preaching and God’s Word rather than hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.  Others, like those who opposed Peter and the apostles in our First Lesson, hear the Word, but reject it because it doesn’t fit their own preconceived notions or personal agendas.  Sadly, all of them are shutting their hearts and minds to the Gospel and are in danger of losing their salvation. 
Parents also know this kind of discouragement.  You faithfully raise your children in the fear and admonition of the Lord.  They grow up, and rather than embrace that faith, they begin expressing an increasingly indifferent or negative attitude toward God’s Word. 
Perhaps you feel discouraged as you come here today.  Worship always seems like “the same old thing.”  You wonder if you’re really getting what you need in order to grow in faith.  Or maybe, you look at your life, how you seem to fall into the same sins day after day, and you wonder why you don’t see much improvement.  You might struggle with doubt, like Thomas, wondering if all this stuff is really true.  The rest of the world seems to be getting along fine—or at least just as good as you are—without it.  Perhaps the circumstances of your life have so beaten you down, that you’ve begun to wonder if there really is a God.  Or if there is a God, if He is powerful enough or cares enough about you to help you. 
 Or maybe you’re concerned about some of your fellow Christians who are no longer joining us in worship.  You wonder if we did something to offend them, if there is something we could do to draw them back.  You look around on Sunday mornings and see all the empty pews and you wonder just how long this little church of yours will be able to stay open.      
The truth is we all feel discouraged from time to time.  We all have doubts.  Doubt and discouragement—these are results of sin.  The sinful nature that we were each born with.  Specific sins in our own lives.  The effects of the sinful actions of others.  And the fiery darts aimed at us by Satan.  As the disciples gathered together that first Easter, they faced these same things.  They hid behind locked doors, filled with fear, inundated with doubt and discouragement.  
But there is One who removes fear and doubt and discouragement with His Word of peace—Jesus Christ!  We don’t know much about His resurrected body, but we do know that Jesus left a sealed tomb with even the grave clothes intact.  Now, He appears inside a locked room.  Jesus’ resurrected body is not hampered by time, space, the rock of the tomb, or the walls and the doors of a building.  This is very Good News to us who receive His Body and Blood in Holy Communion—the risen Christ is able to be present anywhere at any time He chooses. 
Because they had abandoned the Lord on Good Friday, the disciples may well have expected rebuke; but Jesus calmed their fears.  “Peace be with you!” He said.  Then He showed them His hands and side—the marks of the nails and the spear.  Jesus clearly identified Himself as being there in true flesh and blood.  He is not a ghost, but fully human with the same body they had seen so often.  This gives us an important understanding of our own resurrection: not just our souls, but also our very same bodies will live forever with the Lord.  With Jesus’ presence and comforting Word, the fear evaporated, the discouragement and doubt melted away.  Jesus’ disciples knew that He was alive and they rejoiced. 
Reemphasizing that peace He brings, Jesus prepared His followers to expand His church after His ascension.  “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent Me, even so I am sending you.”  Jesus’ followers would carry on His work of salvation, bringing the world the message of peace and forgiveness Jesus earned on the cross. 
Jesus further explained how this work would be carried out in His name: “He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.’”  The Church has called this authority the Office of the Keys because this action either unlocks or locks the way to eternal life.  It works because Jesus did His work and gives His disciples the authority to carry it out in Jesus’ name. 
Have you ever stopped to consider what a wonderful gift this Office of the Keys is for those who doubt or are discouraged?  By His words and works, Jesus provides you with certainty that your sins are forgiven and the gates of heaven are unlocked and open to you.  In Holy Baptism, God sealed you with His triune name and made you His child.  In the Sacrament of the Altar, Christ gives you forgiveness you can taste and touch and smell and see.  By giving the keys to the Church, Christ provides a way for you to hear His words of forgiveness in your own ears so you may know for certain that all your sins are forgiven.
Unfortunately, many churches do not correctly understand this wonderful gift of the Office of the Keys, and fail to appreciate it.  Most Evangelical churches rarely, if ever, mention the keys.  They consider confession useful only for counseling, but not for the remission of sins.  Sadly, they stumble on the same stone the Jews did in Luke 5:21.  They insist only God can forgive sins, missing Jesus’ promise to continue forgiving sins through His Church. 
Many churches have removed the confession and absolution so that they do not offend visitors.  After all, it makes people uncomfortable to say we are poor miserable sinners deserving God’s punishment.  Instead of using Christ’s Sacraments and His keys, these churches direct people to live a life of obedience to the Law, which they believe gives evidence of faith, thereby assuring salvation.  The worst thing about this false teaching is that no one can ever be certain if he has done enough to please God.  
Other churches attempt to use the keys.  They pronounce forgiveness to penitent sinners, but then add an extra step beyond Jesus’ instruction.  Instead of receiving the pure Absolution of Jesus, sinners are told they must do “something more to make amends for the sin”—they must do penance.  Sadly, this mixing of the Gospel of forgiveness with the Law of works will lead sinners to uncertainty and cause them to focus on their own actions.
The need for certainty is why Christ has given His Church the Office of the Keys.  Luther’s Small Catechism explains: “Confession has two parts.  First, that we confess our sins, and second, that we receive Absolution, that is, forgiveness, from the pastor as from God Himself, not doubting, but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven.”  This doctrine allows pastors to say boldly, “Upon this your confession, I, by virtue of my office, as a called and ordained servant of the Word, announce the grace of God unto all of you, and in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  These words are keys—unlocking the one who hears them from the prison of sin, and opening the door to heaven itself.  And because it does not depend on you, but Christ, it frees you from doubt and discouragement. 
Now, I’m not trying to pick on any particular church.  We Lutherans don’t have much to brag about, either.  Though, by God’s grace, we have the correct Biblical understanding of the Office of the Keys, we often fail to administer them correctly.  Though we rightly do not insist that everyone must go to private confession or do penance, far too many of us neglect the blessing of individual confession and absolution. We also often fail to carry through on administering church discipline.  When Jesus gave to His church His keys, He commanded not only to forgive sins, but also to retain or bind sin.  Luther explains: “For ‘the key which binds,’ indeed, is nothing but a divine threat with which God threatens the hardened sinner with hell” (LW, vol. 13, p. 329).
What is a “hardened sinner”?  Some people may believe “hardened sinners” are those who are in prison.  But most hardened sinners are not in prisons with bars; they have imprisoned themselves away from the means of grace.  All people struggle with sin and fail daily.  To remain free, Christians need to receive Christ and His Word of peace.  Those who begin to drift away from the body of Christ, finally drift so far away that they no longer have a desire for Christ and His Word.  This is how the devil gradually and deceitfully “hardens” their heart.
Pastors should constantly evaluate their ministry and ask: “Am I proclaiming the clear Absolution of Christ in worship services?  Am I carefully watching members of the flock when the devil tries to tempt them and to harden their hearts?”  Please note: This is not just the responsibility of the pastor or elders.  Each member of Christ’s church should be fully concerned about every other member so that the devil cannot lead them into doubt or despair. 
When you see another member going astray you should first go to him privately, gently.  Understand, when you first contact him, he—like Jesus’ disciples on Easter evening—may be expecting a rebuke.  Certainly there are times when that might be necessary, but generally you have to first let him know that you love him, that you care for him.  Remind him of the forgiveness Christ has available for repentant sinners in His Word and Sacraments.  If patient and loving admonition and encouragement fails it may be necessary remove him from the congregation.  But, if after hearing the whole counsel of God, the person sees his erring ways and repents, the unconditional, life-saving Gospel needs to be spoken clearly to him.  Jesus says: “Your sins are forgiven.”  When these words are repeated in His name and by His command, there is no room for doubt.  You have won a brother back!  Even the angels in heaven rejoice!
This sounds so overwhelming.  And believe me it is not easy.  In fact, it is impossible for you and me to accomplish these things.  But we are not called to results.  God’s Word will bring the results.  We’re called to faithfulness.  Where we have failed to be faithful, we need to repent, receive forgiveness, and, in so far as possible, make right our wrong.  As we lovingly reach out to our straying brother, we find confidence knowing that it is Christ who gives us His authority and power to forgive and retain sins.  And He gives us God’s Word to do so. 
Incidentally, this is why God’s Word is the focus of our worship, rather than the innovations of man.  We follow the historic liturgy because it is drawn directly from God’s Word and points us to the forgiveness earned by Christ on the cross.  We sing hymns from the hymnal not because of some old-fashioned tradition, but because when we sing these Gospel-based hymns we can be certain we are proclaiming Christ’s forgiveness.  We have a high view of the Sacraments for we believe that through these means of grace, God grants us His certain forgiveness. 
Discouraged pastors can take heart from our text.  Just as He was able to appear to His disciples through closed and locked doors, Christ and His Word are more than able to pass through any closed hearts and minds.  God opens hearts to believe the Gospel.  Through the power of preaching the Word Christ miraculously enters hearts and minds that were once closed, locked, and barred by sin and doubt. 
This text is Good News for parents, too!  When you feel frustrated or afraid concerning your children’s reactions to the Word, rejoice at the miracle of Easter evening!  Just as Christ miraculously entered the locked Upper Room, He is also able to pass through the seemingly closed doors of your children’s hearts and minds.  When the living Word of the living Christ is spoken to them, it goes to work in their hearts and minds, forming Christ in them. 
Parishioners, when you notice one of your brothers or sisters is missing, reach out to them in love with the peace of the Lord.  Invite them, encourage them, and pray for them, confident that God’s Word opens hearts and minds. 
When you become discouraged with worship, remember that “the same old thing” can be a good thing if it is the right thing.  Can you imagine ever getting tired of a loved one telling you, “I love you”?  Isn’t that what the Lord is doing through the Office of the Keys?  “Peace be with you,” Jesus says.  “I love you.  You are mine.  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 ...