Sunday, July 28, 2013

You've Got a Friend in Me [Jesus]

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The text for today is James 2:23: “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God.”
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
The Toy Story movies are among my favorites.  Which is a good thing, because with Abbott around, this Papa has seen each one at least 100 times.  Much like my own children, I’ve watched Andy grow up from an imaginative little boy to a young man headed off to college.  I’ve enjoyed the antics of Woody, Buzz, and the supporting characters.  And I’ve heard the same theme song: “You’ve Got a Friend In Me.”  That’s very fitting, because in the end the predominant theme of Toy Story is friendship.  And that is our theme for today as well. 
We begin with Abraham, the patriarch of the Hebrew people.  Called by God’s grace out of idolatry and unbelief, Abraham left his home in Haran at the age of seventy-five and headed for the Promised Land.  Through many trials and errors Abraham was sustained by God’s promises.  Abraham became a friend of God.  More importantly, God was his Friend.  God loved Abraham first.
We see how far this friendship has developed in today’s Old Testament Lesson.  It takes up from last Sunday where we heard of Abraham’s hosting three visitors, one of whom was the Lord Himself.  The Lord gave Abraham specific assurance that within a year, Sarah, in her old age, would give birth to the promised son through whom the world would be blessed. 
But there was a second reason why the three heavenly visitors have come to Abraham’s home: God wants to inform Abraham in advance about His plans to send judgment on Sodom.  God does not want to proceed with His plans before getting Abraham’s reaction.  Abraham is His “friend,” and here God shares a confidence with His friend.  Isn’t that an amazing thought? 
God has chosen Abraham not only to continue the messianic bloodline, but to teach through him two particular truths about God’s judgment.  The first is quite simple—whenever God enters human history to pronounce judgment on a person or a group of people, He does so to show that He hates idolatry and unbelief and must punish it.  The second truth is more difficult to see—God’s judgments are always carried out in such a way that they serve the deliverance of His elect.  In mercy God delayed the flood so that Noah could preach repentance.  Here, God withholds His judgment to give Abraham an opportunity to plead for the righteous.  
When the two angels leave, Abraham detains the Lord and intercedes on behalf of Sodom.  Some think of Abraham as haggling with God, but really he is praying.  Abraham uses his status as friend of God to plead with Him to spare the city for the sake of the righteous, the believers. 
There are some characteristics of Abraham’s prayer that are worth noting:
First, his prayer is based upon mercy, not merit—Abraham knows that he doesn’t deserve God’s mercy any more than the inhabitants of Sodom and it’s only God’s grace that keeps him safe from God’s righteous anger. 
Second, it is an unselfish prayer—Outside of Lot and his family, Abraham has no personal stake in the fate of the citizens of Sodom, but he wants others to experience the same mercy he has.
Third, it is bold.  There is a holy shamelessness to Abraham’s prayer.  Six times he dares to plead the cause of God’s mercy against God’s justice. 
Fourth, Abraham believes God listens to his prayers.  Think about that: God actually condescends to take our prayers into consideration as He rules the world. 
More than anything else, I would like to be good at praying.  That’s what I have been called to do as a disciple of Christ.  That’s my basic task as a pastor.  I truly believe that much more is accomplished by prayer than anything else I do.  Yet I must admit that I have often been anything but a man of prayer. 
And I suspect that most of you feel the same way.  A sense of spiritual frustration, coupled with the longing for spiritual fulfillment, is common among Christians.  Our disappointment is magnified by the difficulties that we experience in prayer and in our personal devotional life.  Our sense of failure is worsened by much of the current teaching on prayer that implies that if only we were more disciplined and more methodical and more spiritual we would succeed. 
Yet, no matter how hard we try, we just can’t seem to meet our spiritual goals.  Again and again we set out to improve and develop a disciplined practice of daily prayer.  We succeed for a while, but it doesn’t seem to last.  Disappointment sets in.   Worse yet, we feel guilty about our failure.  The guiltier we feel, the harder it is to pray.  Satan uses our guilt to undermine our faith so that we give up.
Be honest.  Wouldn’t you like to pray like Abraham?  Wouldn’t you like to see God answer your prayers soon in concrete ways?  Wouldn’t you like to pray boldly and selflessly on behalf of others?    
It’s not really so difficult.  But most of us need to change our course 180 degrees.  We need to approach God as beggars with nothing in our hand, trusting that the Lord will answer our request not for our sake, but for His sake.  God did not grant Abraham’s prayer for Abraham’s sake; He granted Abraham’s prayer for His own sake.  God called Abraham to be His friend.  Abraham believed the Lord’s promises, and the Lord counted it to him as righteousness. 
That basis for our Christian life somehow gets lost too often when it comes to prayer.  We believe that Jesus lived, died, and rose for the forgiveness of our sins that we might have eternal life.  We believe in justification by grace through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.  Yet, in practice, we all too often fail to live by grace and faith.  In our spirituality, in our devotions and praying, we, all too easily slip back into justification by works and reliance on our own performance. 
The basic assumption of pop spirituality is that prayer is something that we do by ourselves.  So success in prayer depends on our willpower and capacity for spiritual self-improvement, our persistence, and our performance.  These teachings disconnect prayer from Jesus and His atonement.  They seldom teach that prayer is God’s doing, something that God produces in us.  That is the secret that Abraham learned, having failed so many times when he had taken matters into his own hand. 
And that is the way that Jesus teaches His disciples to pray.  The one thing that Jesus emphasizes about prayer, repeatedly and forcefully, is the importance of faith in Him, His saving work, and His holy Word rather than self-confidence and the presumption of spiritual expertise.  Jesus teaches that God-pleasing prayer depends entirely on Him rather than the person at prayer.
 Our Gospel lesson shows this clearly.  Stimulated by Jesus’ example, one of His disciples asks Jesus to teach them how to pray.  He is right in asking Jesus for help.  That’s the starting point for all of us.  Like His disciples, we are all inept and inexperienced when it comes to praying.  Left to ourselves and to our own resources, we can’t teach ourselves to pray, we need to be taught by Jesus.  He is the only expert in prayer.  Without His coaching, we are unable to pray. 
Rather than teach method and content of prayer, Jesus instead gives us His prayer.  He alone has the right to address God as Father.  And so the fact that He urges us to use this prayer is quite remarkable.  Jesus gives us His own status as God’s Son and allows us to act as if we were Him.  Still, it gets even better than that.  Notice, Jesus does not just address God as His own Father, but as “our” Father.  He goes so far as to pray for our daily bread, our forgiveness, and our protection in temptation, even though He Himself needs none of those things.    Jesus identifies Himself with us and our needs, sins, and temptations.  He joins Himself to us so that we can join Him in prayer and borrow everything from Him.  He swaps places with us so that we can be where He is before God the Father. 
Our Gospel reveals another unexpected way Jesus teaches us to pray:  He sends needy people to make demands on us.  In the parable of the unexpected visitor, Jesus compares God the Father with a grumpy next-door neighbor.  Like the person in the parable, we are often confronted by people who require something from us, physically or spiritually, that we are unable to provide for them ourselves.  For example, what help can we give to a person who is sick with cancer or who has lost faith in God?  Like the person in the parable we have nothing to set before them.  But we do have access to a Friend next door to us: God the Father, who has all we lack.  We may shamelessly borrow what is needed from Him. 
We may, indeed, have nothing to give to anyone, let alone to God.  Jesus therefore gives us His own prayer, so that we can use it, quite boldly, to borrow whatever people need.  By using it to pray for others, we borrow what they need from our heavenly Father.  Like Abraham, we use our status as God’s friend, to ask Him for the help that is needed, trusting that He will answer in a way that is best. 
We don’t need to use prayer to wear God down, like demanding children pestering their reluctant parents; nor do we need to inform Him about what we need as if He were ignorant of our plight.  We come to Him as our Friend expecting to receive all good gifts from Him.  He is not reluctant to give.  The problem lies with us; we are reluctant to ask for what He wants to give us.  So Jesus helps us by commanding us to ask for what we need and promising that God the Father will give us what we ask for. 
Jesus explains this by comparing prayer to knocking at the door of His Father’s house.  When we knock at the door of our parents’ house, they don’t ask us what we want; they invite us in.  Like our parents, God the Father opens the door for us when we come to ask Him for something and He lets us in.  Therefore, we don’t just get something from God when we pray; we receive God the Father, His company, and life with Him.  That is the unexpected bonus of prayer!
But that’s not all!  Jesus also speaks about the Father’s giving of His Holy Spirit to those who ask.  On the surface, this promise seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with the request for teaching on the practice of prayer.  Yet, at a deeper theological level, it has everything to do with the practice of prayer.
Jesus recognizes that the basic problem for us is our inability to pray as we would like and as God requires.  His solution to that problem is to provide the Holy Spirit as our helper, who prompts and empowers us to pray.  Even though we do not know how to pray, or what to pray for, the Holy Spirit helps us to pray.  Since we don’t know how to pray, He takes over from us and intercedes within us by getting us to pour out our hearts to God.  When we pray, we can follow His urging, even if it is evident only in sighing and groaning and deep distress.
All this has a very practical application.  When we are at the end of the rope, we can cry out to Jesus, like a beggar, with the words “Lord, have mercy!”  When we feel that we can’t pray at all, we can cry out to Him for help, like a speechless infant to its mother who knows what the child needs far better than the baby itself.  We can hand ourselves over to Him and let the Holy Spirit take over for us.
Prayer, then, is a gift of the triune God.  When we pray, we engage with the three persons of the Holy Trinity.  We pray to the Father; we pray together with the Son; and we pray by the power of the Holy Spirit.  What we do when we pray depends entirely on what the Son gives us in His Word and on what the Spirit does with us through our faith in Christ.  Our ability to pray does not come from us, but from faith in Jesus Christ and His Word.  Faith that receives the gift of prayer.  Faith that receives eternal life and salvation.  Faith that makes you a friend of Jesus.  Faith that believes God and is counted as righteousness.  Faith that trusts all of His promises, including this one: You are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

The Merciful Lord and the Unrighteous Steward

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The text for today is our Gospel, Luke 16:1-13.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
A while back I read an article in Christianity Today, entitled “What Makes a Good Bible Study?”  The author states: “Remember that the point of all Bible study should not be to simply impart knowledge.  It should produce change... We can study the Ten Commandments until we’ve completely dissected them, but if we don’t figure out how to obey them, that will be meaningless.”
Fuddy duddy Lutheran that I am, I disagreed.  I replied online: “I need a Bible study that shows me Christ as He is revealed in all of Scripture.”  That, to me, is what makes a good Bible study.  It has to show me Christ.  It has to teach Law that shows me my sin; and it has to teach the Gospel, showing me how He came to save me and a world of sinners with His perfect life and atoning death.  
Jesus told the Pharisees: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life, and it is they that bear witness about Me, yet you refuse to come to Me that you may have life” (John 5:39).  The Pharisees took God’s Word very seriously; they just misunderstood it.  They thought it could bring them eternal life, if only they could learn to keep it good enough.  But you already know what’s wrong with that: None of us can keep the Law perfectly. 
This misapplication of Law and Gospel describes much of what passes for biblical teaching today.  It’s all Law.  Do this and you will find your life’s purpose.  Do that and you will have a perfect marriage and well-behaved children.  Too often the Bible is used simply as a handbook for morality.  That’s dangerous!  For those who come to realize the futility of reaching perfection, it leads to hopelessness.  For those who think they’re somehow pulling themselves up by their own spiritual bootstraps, it leads to false security and self-righteousness.  Both paths lead to hell.
Now, don’t get me wrong, the Bible does teach morality.  That’s what the Law is—the holy will of God, how to live a God-pleasing life.  But the primary purpose of God’s Word is not to make you a better person, but to save you.  St. John’s summary of his Gospel applies to all Scripture: “These things are written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ and that by believing you might have life in His name.”  God’s Word is not about what you must do to be reconciled to God; it’s about what Christ has done to reconcile you and the world to God. 
Our text for today is a perfect example of what happens when you put the emphasis on the wrong thing.  It is often called “The Parable of the Unrighteous Steward,” but that misses the main point.  If you think this parable is about the steward, you’re going to get it all wrong.  After all, what sorts of lessons are there to learn from the steward?  If you slack off or waste your boss’s goods, don’t get caught?  If you do get caught, decide you’re too proud to beg, too weak to work?  Use your boss’s business to gain friends by losing more of your boss’s money?  Do any of these lessons sound like something you want to teach your child?  Hardly.  This guy is the reason that when someone gets fired, they hand him a box with his personal effects and the security guard escorts him out the door. 
No, if you think this parable is about the doings of an unrighteous steward, you’re in for a bumpy ride.  There’s one thing to learn from the steward.  There’s one thing that the steward does that all of us ought to do; but we’ll get to that later on.  Right now, let’s get to what the parable is really about: the steward’s lord.
The steward’s lord is a just man who runs a good business, and he employs the steward to look after things.  When he finds that the steward is wasting his goods, he tells him that he’s fired and the day of reckoning is coming.  That only makes sense.  But here’s the part that doesn’t: the lord leaves the steward in charge of his business until that future day of reckoning.  Talk about the fox guarding the hen house—and in this case it’s a fox with the smell of feathers on his breath!
The steward makes the most of his time before the day of reckoning by taking the lord’s profits and giving them to others.  And then the lord commends the unrighteous steward for his shrewdness.  Kind of a strange story from our Lord, yes?  This obviously isn’t meant to teach a moral lesson.  Neither is it a real-deal message about how to succeed in business.  Nope.  This is a parable about mercy. 
To understand what the lord in the parable is doing, we need to first talk some about stewardship.  Relax, I’m not going to preach about increasing your offerings, although that could certainly be relevant.  Toward the end of our Gospel Jesus speaks of using money wisely for His kingdom.  No, I’m specifically talking about the man who is left in charge of his lord’s business affairs.  He is a steward.   Our text uses the word “manager.”  But a steward has a great deal more authority than a manager of a business.  He is like a regent, ruling on behalf of the king. 
This is important because the lord in the parable will and must honor the deals that the steward makes.  If the steward says, “Take your bill and write fifty,” then it’s fifty.  He has the authority, the power of attorney, if you will.  To renege on the new bill would be like the lord going back on his own word.
So far, so good.  The lord might do that simply out of honor or to uphold the law out of fear of punishment.  But here, the lord commends the steward for what he has done.  He praises him!  That’s the real surprise.  This lord wants to forgive debts.  He wants to give away his kingdom.  He was displeased before because the servant was wasting his possessions.  How so?  We’re not explicitly told, but we are given an important clue: The ESV calls this steward “dishonest.”  The Greek says “unrighteous,” which tips us off that this is a lesson about sin and forgiveness.
In our daily lives, possessions are wasted by spending them frivolously, by throwing good money after bad, by not paying attention.  But if giving away the lord’s possessions for free pleases the lord, then how were they wasted before?  By keeping them.  By holding debtors to their debts. 
This parable should be shocking to your sensibilities.  Jesus means it to be.  Because your vanity is forever thinking God is like you.  But His ways are not your ways; His thoughts are much higher than your thoughts.  Your old Adam is small and petty, incapable of separating temptation from sin.  You can’t and don’t love your neighbor as yourself.  But you most assuredly love yourself, and from early childhood on, covet being treated fairly above all else.  “That’s not fair!” is one of the first appeals made to higher authorities—most often Dad or Mom. 
But do you really want fairness?  Do you really want to get what you deserve?  Think about it.  Your Lord has created you.  He has given you your body and soul, eyes, ears and all your members, your reason and all your senses, and still preserves them.  That makes you the steward to whom the Lord has entrusted His “business” of loving Him above all things and your neighbor as yourself.
So, how’s that stewardship thing going for you? 
Your Lord gives you possessions with which to serve others, and instead you want more for yourself.  The Lord gives you a mouth to sing His praise, but you put it to use for gossip, deceit, or malice.  The Lord gives you eyes to see the beauty of His creation, but you use them to indulge your fleshly lust.  The Lord gives you ears to hear His Word, but you let them be filled with coarse words and crude jokes.  The Lord gives health and fitness and you’re tempted to vanity.  You are the unrighteous steward, wasting the things your Lord entrusts to you.  So the Lord declares that the day of reckoning is coming.  It’s only fair.  It’s only just.
But thank the Lord, the Lord isn’t just just.  He’s also merciful, and here’s the part of the story that doesn’t get mentioned in the parable: The Lord has sent His Son to be your Savior.  From conception on and throughout His life, Jesus went about His Father’s business.  He kept the Law perfectly, fulfilling every requirement without sin.  He loved His neighbor and served His Father in heaven.  In other words, Jesus was the perfect, righteous steward. 
And then what?  He was crucified in your place.  He gave up His sinless body to death for you.  He shed His holy, precious blood for the remission of your sins.  He was made to be sin for you, in order to suffer the just judgment for your sin.   In other words, at the cross, Jesus was accounted as the unrighteous steward of the world.  Good Friday was the day of reckoning where the Lord condemned His Son for the sin of all the world.  And He has made you His steward.
As His steward, the Lord sends you out with simple instructions:  “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into eternal dwellings.” 
Money is unrighteous because it has no forgiveness to give.  It’s only for this world.  Do you make use of what you have in service to others, particularly for the spread of the Gospel so that others might be friends in an everlasting home of heaven for the sake of Jesus?  Or do you find yourself hoarding it all, still using what you have in service to you?  The Lord says, “If you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?”  
And how well do you make use of true, everlasting riches?  Do you begin each day remembering your Baptism, giving thanks to the Lord that you’ve already died the second death and have eternal life?  Or do you regard it as just a point of history that has little relevance for you now? 
Do you eagerly desire to hear the Absolution, knowing that it is only by the Lord’s forgiveness that you have the hope of salvation?  Perhaps.  Or perhaps you regard His grace as a safety net, as you decide which sins will be useful to you in the coming week.  Or perhaps you think that you’ve heard enough of forgiveness to last a while, and no longer desire to hear of the Lord’s love for you. 
Do you take the time to prepare for the Lord’s Supper, marveling that the Lord visits you, to serve you, to give you His very own body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith? 
An honest examination in the mirror of God’s Law will show you are far from a faithful steward of the Lord’s riches.  Sadly, you are probably more careful with gifts of unrighteous wealth that provide for this body and life than you are with the gift of Word and Sacraments that bestow righteousness and eternal life.  The day of reckoning is still deserved.
But once again, look how your merciful Lord treats you.  Although you often take His means of grace for granted, He does not relieve you of your stewardship.  From now until the Last Day of reckoning, He keeps you as His steward.  He wills that you continue to make use of His means of grace, so that through them He might forgive you for the sake of Jesus.  Furthermore, He wills that you use them to erase the debt of others.  As you encounter sinners who are burdened with a load of killing sin, you do not tell them to erase half the debt and go from there.  No, you tell them that Christ has died for all of their sins.  You share God’s grace with everyone who will receive it.
Does our Lord grow angry that you give out His grace so freely?  No, not at all!  He commends this as the mission of the Church.  “Freely you have received,” He declares; “freely give” (Matthew 10:8).  The Lord has more mercy than you could ever give away.  His supply is inexhaustible.  It is infinite!
How abundant and excessive is the Lord’s mercy for you!  Because His Law demanded a level of righteousness you could not muster, He became flesh, gave the accounting, and suffered the judgment for your sin.  So that you might be forgiven, He continues to pour out His grace upon you by His Word and Sacrament, proclaiming you righteous for His sake—by His work, not your own.
By the grace of God, you trust in the Lord’s mercy.  You confess your sin and unrighteousness to Him, trusting that He who gave His own life to redeem you will continue to save you now.  You pray that He would forgive your trespasses as you forgive those who trespass against you for His sake. 
And so He does.  Your Lord commends you today with these words, “You are saved by My mercy this day, not because of what you have done or haven’t done, but because your sin was accounted to Me at the cross.  So I declare you righteous.  I declare you holy and clean.  I declare you pure and blameless.  Indeed, I declare: You are forgiven for all of your sins.” 
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Distracted? Anxious? Sit at Jesus' Feet!

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The text for today is our Gospel, Luke 10:38-42, which has already been read.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
“Martha was distracted…”  Now there’s a phrase we can relate to.  Finally, here’s a person in the Bible we can really understand.  Martha is a woman after our own hearts.  Distracted… and there is much to be distracted about.  Jesus has come to her village.  She has “welcomed Him into her house.”  He is an honored guest and that means much preparation.  We don’t know how many have come with Jesus, but there could perhaps be dozens.  That takes a lot of food.  And in the days before carryout, refrigerators, or microwave ovens, that means first going to the market or garden to get fresh meat, fruit, and vegetables.  And then preparing everything from scratch, spending hours over a hot stove.
Well, you get the idea.  There are simply a lot of things that need to be done.  “Martha,” the text says, “was distracted with much serving.”  She is being pulled around the house concerning the many things of serving her guests.  Martha is busy… she is busy with the things of life… she is busy with the things that need to be done.  And that is where we can relate to Martha.  Life is busy.  There are lots of things to do.  Have you said or heard any of these things at your house?
“Didn’t we say that we’re going to slow down and not do so many things?”
“After the corn is planted things won’t be so rushed.  We’ll have a little time for a breather.”
“I know I said I’d help you, but the house still needs to be painted.  I’ve been trying to get to it for weeks now and it still isn’t finished.”
“Mom, did you forget I had to be at the fair today?  I’m supposed to work at the food booth.”
“This is Dr. Smith’s office calling.  We had you down for an 11:30 a.m. appointment.  Do we need to reschedule?”
“Honey, I’d really just like to stay home tonight.  When was the last time that we all sat down together for a family meal?”
“Hello Joe, this is John.  I’m serving on the nominating committee at church.  I know you are already serving as a Sunday School teacher, but…”
A thousand things pulling us a thousand different directions.  And it never seems to stop.  Back and forth.  To school.  To work.  Back home.  To church.  Busy and distracted.  Anxious and troubled by many things.  That’s why we can relate to Martha.  She, too, is being pulled back and forth.  To the kitchen to check on the food.  To the bedrooms to check on the beds.  So many places to be at once.  So much running around to make sure everything is ready.
Well, at first reading we might get the idea that there is something wrong with what Martha is doing.  Because, after all, Jesus does give her a minor rebuke.  But the truth of the matter is that she is doing a good thing.  Especially as far as the culture is concerned.  You have to take care of your guests.  Look at all the trouble Abraham went through when he had visitors.  Gave them a place to wash up and rest.  Set up a banquet with the finest food and drink available.  Abraham went to a lot of trouble to take care of his guests.
Martha wants to serve Jesus out of her love for Him.  He has come to her house at her invitation.  She wants Him to be comfortable.  As a more recently famous Martha might say: “It’s a good thing” for Martha to want to serve Jesus.
But there is a very strong contrast in this reading today.  Look at the text again.  Before we are even told how busy Martha is, we are told about Martha’s sister, Mary.  And what is Mary doing?  That’s right!  She is sitting at the Lord’s feet, listening to what He has to say.  Mary, too, is motivated by her love for Jesus.  But she is not distracted.  She sits at Jesus’ feet listening to Him.
Well, the contrast does not go unnoticed by Martha, either.  And she’s not very happy about it.  I imagine she, too, would like to be able to sit at Jesus’ feet listening to Him.  But there are things that need to be done.  And I can imagine the conversation that began to take off in her mind.  “Doesn’t Mary see that I am busy?  Why doesn’t she help me for a little bit, so that I can listen, too?”
That’s when the fireworks begin.  It’s like a scene straight of Chef Ramsey’s Hell’s Kitchen.  The roast is in danger of being overcooked.  The vegetables are getting soggy.  The temperature in the kitchen is rising.  And it’s getting a little hot under Martha’s collar, too.  Distraction leads to anxiety.  And anxiety gives way to anger.  Martha slams her spoon down, storms out of the kitchen, and lashes out.
And at whom does she lash out?  Not her sister!  No.  Her guest!  The One she is totally focused on, the reason for all of her feverish preparations.  She lashes out at Jesus!  “Lord!  Don’t You care that my sister has left me to serve all alone?  Don’t You care that I’m in the kitchen slaving away over a hot stove while she sits there all doe-eyed at Your feet doing nothing?  How about cutting the chitchat and telling her to get her lazy rear end in the kitchen to help me!”
In a way, this real life episode illustrates the point of the parable we heard last week about the Good Samaritan.  The Law says love God and love your neighbor.  This is a good thing.  A very good thing.  And yet, the Law cannot produce this love.  If you think you can work up love for God and love for the neighbor yourself, you will end up as distracted and anxious and troubled as Martha.  The very guest she loves and wants to serve becomes the object of her anger, which spills over to her sister.   And therein is the problem.  If all we have to work with is divine rules and regulations, whether Ten Commandments from Moses, or twelve life principles from Joel Osteen, or the laws of attraction from Oprah, or the 613 dos and don’ts of the Pharisees, if all we have is the Law, we will end up hating God and hating our neighbor.
Martha’s problem is not her service, but her lack of freedom.  She wants to please Jesus.  She wants to serve Him with her very best.  And yet, it all fails.  She winds up yelling at Jesus and getting angry with her sister.  She is distracted by much service, anxious and troubled about many things, when only one thing is necessary.   Sometimes a person has to choose between the lesser of two evils.  But, in this case, we might say that Martha has to choose between the greater of two goods.  There is the good of serving the Lord.  And there is the good of sitting at His feet and receiving Jesus’ Word.  Both are good.  But one is better!
Get this—and let it be forever etched in your memory: the good of receiving Jesus is better than the good of serving Him.  Busily working for Jesus and hearing Him in the preached Word are both good.  But hearing Jesus in the preached Word is better.  Serving others and receiving Jesus in His Supper are both good.  But receiving Jesus’ body and blood for your forgiveness is better.  Actively working for the Lord and passively receiving His Word are both good.  But if forced to choose, it is better for you to be passive and to receive from Christ.
This truth is so deep and runs so much against our nature and popular opinion that we have to let it rewire us even when we come to worship in the Lord’s house.  We naturally want to be a Martha when we come to worship.  We want to be doing something for the Lord, just like her.  Our natural understanding about worship is that it is all about what we do for God.  But that’s wrong!  Worship is really about what God does for us!
Jesus, in effect, says: “Don’t just do something… sit here!  During this sacred hour, I, the Lord, am doing the work.  I am the One who feeds you through the Word read, preached, announced, and distributed.  It is only after I have fed you with My Word, then you are to serve, as you go from this place into the world.”  As He said upon another occasion: “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”
In the midst of Martha’s busy, distracted life, Jesus Christ comes to serve her.  In the midst of our busy, distracted lives, Jesus Christ has come to give us the one thing that we need most—Himself!  Jesus Christ comes to serve.  And He serves us far beyond all our ability to serve ourselves.  Jesus is the one necessary thing.  We need nothing but Jesus and His life-giving Word.
And yet, don’t we often find ourselves in Martha’s shoes?  Busy with so many things that we have no time to rest in the Lord?  So busy that we have no time to hear His Word, to receive His body and blood.  Distracted by this thing and that other thing.  Thinking about what we must do in order to please God.  But if we are to please God at all, there must first be faith.  And faith comes by hearing, sitting with Mary at Jesus’ feet and being given to.
We need to repent of our busyness.  We’ve let many things get ahead of the one important thing.  We’ve let so many things get between us and Jesus.  The symptoms are all there.  Frustration, anger, snapping at each other, griping, finger-pointing.  When you sense that in yourself, read the symptoms of busyness and hear the gracious invitation of Jesus: “Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”  Just be quiet for a while and listen.  I know; it’s hard to do.  We’re so tuned to being busy.  The way of our world is Martha, not Mary.  But the way of the world leads to death.  Sit and listen.  Jesus is here to give to you.  There’s plenty of opportunity to serve, but what good is our service if it simply burns us out on the Lord and on each other?  So sit down at Jesus’ feet for a bit.  Listen to His Word of grace and peace.  Let Him serve you.
He already has.  When we deserved death because of our sin and selfishness, Jesus served us by dying for us.  When we deserved God’s wrath and punishment for our rejection of God’s control of our lives, Jesus served us by enduring that wrath and punishment.  When we deserved to die and stay dead, Jesus served us by rising from the dead and breaking death’s hold on us forever.
But that isn’t all.  Jesus is here right now to serve us again.  We gather together before Him bringing our load of sins: “We have sinned against You in thought, word, and deed.”  “Have mercy on us,” we pray.  “Serve us, Lord Jesus.”  And He answers with forgiveness through His Word.  He comes to His Table here both as host and food, serving us with forgiveness of sins.  He regularly comes to serve us here, and we come to be served.  Jesus knows the one thing needful and He comes here to bring it to us, week after week.
Yes, but even so, there’s still a lot of Martha in each of us.  We are so easily distracted.  Life is so distracting it invades our thoughts even here in worship.  Don’t show your hands, but answer this question silently to yourself: How many of you have been thinking about something else today, rather than listening to the sermon or focusing on the words of our hymns?  I know it happens, because sometimes I’m so busy thinking about what I need to do next in the service that I don’t really hear what God’s Word is saying to me, either.
Let’s face it!  There are a lot of things that can distract us—even a lot of good things.  Just think of all the things that have to happen just so we can gather together here for worship.  There is much service going on.  There are ushers, elders, cleaners, greeters, and the organist all serving Jesus.  The communion ware needs to be set up.  The hymn numbers have to be posted.  The bulletins are copied and folded.  The offering needs to be counted.  There are parents who have to get up early to get their kids fed and dressed for church.
All of these things are helpful.  All of these things are good.  All of these things are done because we want to serve Jesus.  Jesus has come to this house and we want to serve Him.  But our minds can be pulled back and forth with all the preparation.  We can be easily distracted from the one thing that is necessary.  We can forget that the reason we are here is because Jesus is here, and He brings the gifts He has won for us by His life, death, and resurrection.
But Jesus never forgets.  Jesus is never distracted.  Jesus always comes.  For the one thing that is necessary—for Him to serve you and me.  So, clear your mind.  Sit at Jesus’ feet.  Jesus is here.  He has gifts to give you.  Listen.
Jesus is saying to you right now, “My child, My child.  I am here today.  I know that you love Me.  Don’t be anxious.  Don’t be troubled.  Don’t be distracted by all these many things.  Right now I am saying things I want you to hear.  I am bringing you the one thing that is necessary, the one thing you cannot live without—My Word.
“In My Word you have everything you need.  You have the good portion, which will not be taken away from you.  You have eternal life and salvation and forgiveness without end.  Why, I even forgive you for your distraction, anxiety, and worry.  Indeed, I forgive you for all of your sins.”
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Ask a Law Question, Get a Law Answer

Click here to listen to this sermon.
The text for today is our Gospel lesson, Luke 10:25-37, which has already been read.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Live by the Law; die by the Law.  Ask a Law question, and you’ll get a Law answer.  The question (two of them, actually) comes from a synagogue “lawyer,” one whose job it is to make the Bible reasonable and doable.  His question to Jesus is naturally a Law question: “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
It is a reasonable question.  It is the most fundamental of all religious questions.  One asked by spiritually inquisitive people throughout the ages.  What must I do to get to heaven?  What do I have to do to be saved?  What do I have to do to be good with God?  It’s not a bad question in itself; but it is a dangerous question to ask Jesus, especially when asked this particular way: “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
Parse the original question for a moment.  Start with the word “inherit.”  What do you have to do to inherit anything?  Well, you have to do virtually nothing.  Someone else has to die, and you have to be in his good graces and on the receiving end of what he has already earned.  Oh, and according to Jewish law, you also had to be a son to receive the inheritance.  So while “to inherit” is the way to eternal life, it is not about “what shall I do?” but rather what someone else has done for you and your relationship to them.
This was the fundamental error of the Pharisees in Jesus’ day.  They saw the Law as a law of works, works that need to be done to accomplish the righteousness of God.  In other words, do those 613 or so things and you’re in.  You have eternal life with God.  But then it’s not an inheritance but wages earned.  Something you do to deserve it, not something God does for you.
That’s the way it is, I’m afraid.  The Gospel, the good news gift of God always deteriorates and degenerates into a religion of works.  This is what prompted the Reformation in the first place.  The Good News of sins forgiven for Christ’s sake through faith had degenerated into a religion of good works aimed at meriting God’s grace.  The Gospel is foreign to our Old Adam.  Our default position is always the Law.  But the Law cannot save, it only condemns and kills.
Here’s a word of advice to keep in mind: Don’t get into an argument about the Law unless you really know more about the Law than the other person.  You’ll lose every time… and though the lawyer in our text is an expert in the Law, a professional interpreter and public teacher of the Law, our Lord Jesus Christ is the sole author, keeper, and fulfillment of the Law.
Jesus knows He is being put to the test, so He answers the lawyer’s question with another question—another Law question.  “What is written in the Law?”  By “Law” Jesus does not necessarily mean “commandments,” but simply the books of Moses, the Torah, the first five books of the Bible.  What did Moses say?  What is in the Law?  How do you read it?  Jesus leaves the question open.
The lawyer responds with the Law, Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”  That is what he believes one must do to inherit eternal life: Love God; love your neighbor.  And that would be correct—if he were asking a different question.
It’s basically the same answer that Jesus gives when another lawyer asks Him: “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”  Jesus says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the great and first commandment.  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
That is the two tables of the Law—love God and love your neighbor.  Do this and you will have eternal life.  Pretty simple.  Ah, but there’s the rub.  The Law promises life… if you can do it.  The Law promises grace and blessing to all who keep the commandments… if you can keep the commandments perfectly.  That’s why Jesus responds: “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”  Implied is the opposite: “Don’t do this and you’re dead.”
This makes the lawyer very uncomfortable.  Something’s nagging at him.  Perhaps it is that poor beggar he passed by on the way to the synagogue without even making eye contact.  Or maybe it is the grudge he is holding against his brother for a bad business deal.  “Love your neighbor as yourself,” the Law says.  The lawyer knows he loves God (or at least thinks he does), but the neighbor is another matter.  God is perfect.  God is love.  God is very loveable.  If you can’t love God, who can you love?  But be honest: some neighbors aren’t so loveable.  That’s why we build walls and fences: “They make for good neighbors.”  Ironically, it seems to love our neighbor it is easiest to do it from a distance.
The lawyer is, not surprisingly, a legalist… someone who seeks salvation through works of the Law rather than grace… someone who emphasizes the letter of the Law rather than the spirit of the Law… someone who stresses manageable Law rather than the Law that shows our sin, kills, and condemns.
Legalists generally soften or modify the great spiritual principles of “love God” and “love your neighbor.”  Somehow they have to make the Law of God accommodate their imperfect and selective performance.  That’s why the Pharisees came up with their own 613 rules to keep the Law.  It’s the only way they can live within their system.  They want the Law to say just “Try your best,” a law system that approves merely outward performance.  But Jesus’ “do this” makes this man fully aware that he does not do it consistently and that he doesn’t have the pure heart a perfect obedience would require, so he squirms and “justifies” himself.
Seeking to justify himself, the lawyer asks Jesus a second Law question: “And who is my neighbor?”  See where all this Law talk goes: self-justification.  Get “neighbor” right and you get love right.  Get love right, and you win the big prize.  So who is my neighbor?  Just tell me and I’ll go and love him right now!”
And so Jesus tells a story that has the ring of real life.  The road between Jerusalem and Jericho was a treacherous highway.  Packed with pilgrims and thronging with thieves.  If you traveled alone, you were an easy target for the roaming gangs of robbers.  And that’s just what happens to the man in Jesus’ story.  He falls among robbers, is stripped, beaten, and left half dead in a ditch.
Now it so happens that a priest is coming down the road on his way home from Jerusalem.  He sees the man lying there motionless and bleeding in the ditch.  He may want to help; there’s nothing that says he doesn’t.  But the Law of Moses says if the priest touches something dead he will be unclean and unfit for service until he undergoes a lengthy purification process and offers an expensive sacrifice.
Caught between a rock and a hard place.  That’s what the Law will do to you.  The Law says, “Love your neighbor,” and then God tosses out a neighbor who’s very inconvenient and even difficult to love.  So now what do you do?  The priest passes by on the other side.  Doesn’t come near the man.  He chooses the way of purity.  It’s safe.  It’s more precise.  It follows the clear cut rules set down by God Himself in the Law.  The Levite, a priestly assistant, does the same thing.   Both men can argue they’ve kept the Law.  Both men can justify their actions.  But neither man loves his neighbor as himself.
Then comes the unexpected plot twist.  A Samaritan comes down the road.  The Jews, like the priest and the Levite, despise their Samaritan neighbors.  They considered them half-breeds and heretics, impure in race and religion.  Samaritans didn’t worship in Jerusalem, so this man is likely on a business trip.  He isn’t clergy of any sort.  Just an ordinary guy doing about his daily vocation.
But not bound to works of the Law for salvation, this man is free to love his neighbor in need.  He sees this broken, half-naked, bleeding man in the ditch and has compassion on him.  He gets down into the dirty ditch with him, bandages his wounds, puts him on his donkey, and takes him to an inn in town and spends the night taking care of him.  The next day he leaves two day’s wages with the innkeeper and runs a tab for the rest.
Having finished His story, Jesus then asks a question that turns the lawyer’s original question 180 degrees: “Which of these three men, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”
You notice the lawyer can’t quite bring himself to say, “The Samaritan.”  That’s too much to bear.  But he can say begrudgingly, “The one who showed him mercy.”  And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
Notice what happens.  Jesus changes the man’s “Who is my neighbor?” into “Which one was being a neighbor?”  The man’s question looks at others to see if they are worthy; Jesus’ question probes inside us to see if there is readiness in us to act lovingly.  We don’t get a chance to pick and choose our neighbor.  Our neighbor is whoever God places in our path, no matter how inconvenient he may be, the one in need of our love at that time and place.
Do you think the lawyer left with any hope of inheriting eternal life?  What about you?  Can you go and do likewise, and on the basis of that doing, know that you will inherit eternal life?  No.  Live by the Law; die by the Law.  Ask a Law question, and you’ll get a Law answer.  Ask Jesus what you must do, and He will tell you what you must do.  But you won’t be able to do it.  Come to Him in empty-handed need, and He will give you what you need.
What shall you do to inherit eternal life?  Absolutely nothing!  It’s already been done for you!  The good news Gospel answer is that the inheritance of eternal life comes not from our loving God with our whole heart, soul, strength, and mind… or in loving our neighbor as ourselves… but in and through Jesus who became a neighbor to us… who had compassion on us… who joined us in the ditch of death.  Jesus is our Good Samaritan neighbor.  Despised and rejected by sinful man, He nevertheless took on flesh, loved God and a world of neighbors so perfectly and purely that it covers al sin.  He pours the healing oil of the balm of baptism on you.  In that water and Word He adopts you as His son.  You have an eternal inheritance in the kingdom of God.
Christ binds up your wounds with His wounds.  He brings you into the company of His Church with His forgiveness.  He gives you the bread of His body and the wine of His blood for nourishment and strength.  He keeps the Law for you.  He pays your debt of sin in full… so that you can begin to love the Lord your God… so that you can begin to love your neighbor.
Only one who is free from the Law can even remotely begin to do the Law.  Only the Samaritan, free from the Law, unlike the priest and Levite, could do the Law.  By His perfect life and death, Jesus has freed you from the Law, and qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.  It’s an inheritance.  It comes through the sacrificial death of Jesus and is received as a gift through faith.  There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
So in the end, this parable (like all of Scripture) is about Jesus: Jesus, who fulfilled the Law in your place.  Jesus, our Good Samaritan, who became neighbor to us in the ditch of our death.  Jesus, the Son, who shares with you His inheritance of eternal life.  Jesus, your Neighbor, who loves you again and again through His means of grace—His Word and Sacraments—that you might hear and believe this Good News:  “You are forgiven for all of your sins.”
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”.  Amen.

Into the Wilderness

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