Monday, August 26, 2013

Strive to Enter through the Narrow Door

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The text for today is our Gospel lesson, Luke 13:22-30.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
It’s a common question, one often discussed by Jewish teachers during the day of Jesus’ ministry and the focus of speculation in our own day: “Lord, will those who are saved be few?”  Some of the rabbis taught that all Israelites would have a share in the world to come; others, that only the spiritually elite (like them) would make the cut.  Jesus’ answer is quite different, a sobering warning that should cause everyone to think—especially us who consider ourselves Christians. 
You see, once again people are asking the wrong question.  And they are concerned about the wrong person.  “Instead of being so concerned about an abstract ‘How many?’ Jesus says, “You strive to get in.”  Instead of wondering about others, check yourself.  Will you be saved?  Will you enter the kingdom of God?  Will you recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets?  Or will you will be cast out and left on the outside where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth?  Will you hear those dreadful words: “I tell you I do not know where you come from.  Depart from Me, all you workers of evil”?  
Theoretical questions, framed in the third person, put off repentance and do not lead to saving faith.  So Jesus will not let us examine others without first examining ourselves.  It’s a sobering truth: Some people are going to be rejected from the kingdom just as they have rejected the King.  “Strive to enter through the narrow door.  For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.”
Several of Jesus’ kingdom parables compare salvation to a great feast, or a banquet, given by a king.  That is also the picture He uses here.  Entrance into the banquet hall is by a single door.  Notice, it’s a narrow door.  That prevents great crowds of people from entering all at once. 
I picture the corral and narrow chute that we would use for counting sheep or vaccinating cattle.  You might think of a queue line at a fair with the turnstile that only allows you to enter one at a time.  That is the point that Jesus is trying to make.  Entrance into the banquet is gained by going through the door one at a time.  There is no group admission.  It doesn’t matter if you were born of the Israelites, or if you’ve come from a long line of church-going Christians.  Entrance into the banquet is gained by going through the door one at a time.  And that door is Jesus Himself.  One enters the banquet hall by way of Jesus, the Lord of the Banquet. 
Jesus urges His hearers: “Strive to enter through the narrow door.”  Now Jesus isn’t saying that you earn your way into heaven.  Indeed, He was on His way to complete that task for you.  What He is saying is that once saving faith is created in your heart, you are engaged in a terrible struggle to keep it.  You must guard against everything that threatens to destroy it.  And to show how difficult it is, the Greek word translated “struggle” or “strive” is the word from which we get the word “agony.”  And indeed, such a struggle is agony.  It’s hard and it’s constant.  And what do you agonize over?  Well, certainly your sinful condition and the fact that you fall short of God’s glory.  Old Adam constantly wages war on your new nature, enticing you to follow the desires of your sinful heart. 
So, do you agonize over that?  Do you know the agony of fighting against your sin?  Or have you become comfortable with your sin, doing whatever you want without fearing God’s wrath?  Do you give in to sin too easily thinking it is okay because God will forgive you anyway?   
Dear friends, this should not be!  As God’s beloved children you must strive against your sin with every ounce of strength.  And to show the extent to which that struggle goes, consider today’s Epistle: “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Hebrews 12:4).  No, you haven’t blood.  Not one pint.  Not one drop.  Yet such struggle must be your aim.
And if that weren’t bad enough, Satan will do whatever he can to destroy your faith.  And that makes the struggle doubly tough.  You can’t “see” the devil; but you still have to fight against him.  And that struggle doesn’t end until you rest in peace—in Christ.  You agonize over sin and temptation, the devil, the world, and your own sinful flesh, until you are laid to rest in the grave where you will lie until the resurrection of all flesh.
Now, of course, you do not strive or struggle alone.  For you have One who has resisted sin to the point of shedding His blood.  Our Lord Jesus went to the cross and suffered the ultimate agony over sin—for you.  For you, He shed His holy, precious blood.  For you and your sin, Christ suffered God’s fiery wrath.  For you, Jesus not only endured pain, humiliation, and thirst, but suffered the torments of hell.  For you, Jesus gave up His spirit, that He might give you His Holy Spirit.  He did all of this that you might believe His Word and receive His forgiveness, so that you might live as His dear child now and dwell with Him forever.
The struggle through which one enters the kingdom of God is repentance, which is actually a work of God in the human heart.  The struggle is produced when the Word of God—such as the teaching of Jesus here—calls you to repent and trust in Christ, but your sinful nature rebels against God’s Word.  The struggle is only resolved if you give up or your old Adam is put to death by the Law and you are raised to new life with Christ by the power of the Gospel.
St. Paul offers a window into this inner struggle in Romans 8:13: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”  This ongoing, lifelong struggle characterizes the lives of all who are baptized into Christ.  In the Small Catechism, Luther describes the baptismal life: “The Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”
So, how do you enter the narrow door?  Only through Jesus, of course.  By God’s grace and power, repent of your sins, confess them, receive Christ’s forgiveness, and believe His promises of eternal life.  Just like you did at the beginning of the service.  Remember? 
You confessed to almighty God, merciful Father: “I, a poor miserable sinner, confess unto You all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended You and justly deserved Your temporal and eternal punishment.  But I am heartily sorry for them and sincerely repent of them, and I pray You of Your boundless mercy and for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of Your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to be gracious to me, a poor, sinful being.” 
And Jesus spoke to you through His called and ordained servant: “I forgive you all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  That is the essence of the struggle.  That is how you strive to get through the narrow door.  It’s actually quite simple; but it’s never easy!
You can’t enter on the strength of your own efforts; rather, you enter only in the arms of Jesus as He carries you in.  Thus, your striving to enter the kingdom is to receive Jesus and all that He has done for you even as you strive against the sins which would entice you away from Him.  Entrance through the narrow door is gained by those who repent and see in Jesus the Lord of the Banquet, for this door opens up into the house in which the end-time feast is to be celebrated. 
Notice the sense of urgency.  Time is of the essence.  The time will come when the Lord is going to close that door.  There will be some who will come knocking on the locked door demanding entry, but He will not open.  Just as the time will come when the individual tree will be cut down, so also the time will come in each individual’s life and in the history of the world when the entrance to salvation will be closed.  The message is plain: Don’t delay, but strive to enter now before it is too late.  “For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.”
So heed this warning: Not everyone will make it into the kingdom of God!  It is a narrow, difficult way.  But you need not despair, nor should you exhaust yourself futilely struggling to get through the door by your own efforts.  Those who enter the kingdom of God pass through the door by grace, and the examples from the New Testament encourage as well as instruct. 
One of the clearest examples of this is found in Acts.  After Peter’s sermon on Pentecost the crowd asks a similar question to the one posed in our text, but there is an important difference.  Convicted of their sins, they ask it in the first person: “What should we do?”  The answer given is that Baptism in the name of Jesus—a Baptism of repentance to the forgiveness of sins with the gift of the promised Spirit—provides all that is necessary for entrance (Acts 2:37-39). 
St. Luke goes on to tell us those that were baptized were added to the number of those being saved.  They also remained steadfast “in the apostles’ doctrine, in the fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers” (Acts 2:42).  In other words, they remained in Christ’s Word—His Word and Sacrament.  They joined with their fellow believers in worship and the Lord’s Supper, thus anticipating and rehearsing each Lord’s Day for the unending, end-time feast.
And so Jesus ends His discourse on the kingdom of God with a description of the people sitting at the banquet tables.  As is to be expected, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the prophets are there.  But then comes a surprise: many of Jesus’ contemporaries will find themselves on the outside looking in.  Those who considered themselves to be among God’s people, the religious elite, will not gain entrance.  They will see that other people from all over the world will be sitting in their places at the banquet of salvation.  Those who first had the opportunity to respond to Christ’s preaching will find themselves left out; those at the very ends of the earth who heard the Gospel message last will find themselves honored with choice seating at the heavenly banquet
Now, in the upside-down, inside-out, topsy-turvy way of the Gospel, both those in heaven and those left out will be surprised.  Many of those on the outside will say, “I don’t deserve this.”  But of course they do, because they refused the gift of life when it was offered to them or they gave up in their struggle against sin and entering the narrow door.  Perhaps they even looked for another way in, relying on their religious heritage, good works, or a passing knowledge of Jesus. 
Those on the inside will also say, “I don’t deserve this.”  And they are absolutely correct.  They don’t deserve it.  By God’s grace in Jesus’ death on the cross, all the sins of the world were atoned for.  By God’s grace and as a free gift, He created saving faith in you.  And it’s that faith that will get you through the narrow door, for it clings only to Jesus and His forgiveness. 
That’s why it’s so important to guard your gift of faith.  That’s why it’s important to be diligent and faithful in attending the services of God’s House.  For in the Absolution, the preaching of the Gospel, the partaking of the Lord’s Supper, you receive forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life in the kingdom of God.  In these means of grace your faith is strengthened and you are empowered to continue in your struggle against sin.
“Lord, are only a few going to be saved?” asks the man in our text.  But Jesus doesn’t answer his question—at least not with a yes, a no, or a number.  As He often does He directs His students to what is really important, what really matters, what has eternal consequences.  Jesus warns that the door is narrow, so that you strive to remain faithful to His Word.  But, He also has Good News for you: His grace is sufficient and the door is wide enough to gather people from all nations, from the four corners of the earth, into His kingdom.
And you, dear Christians, are among those gathered.  Of this you can be sure, for you are forgiven for all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Calling for a Division of the House

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The text for today is our Gospel lesson, Luke 12:49-53.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I know for most of you “parliamentary procedure” is a dirty word.  But I must confess I am a fan of Robert’s Rules of Order.  I’ve actually taught courses for Jaycees and judged state FFA parli pro contests.  Well done parliamentary procedure really does make for shorter, more orderly meetings, assuring that while the majority opinion prevails, the rights of the minority are also protected.   
One of the more interesting parliamentary procedures originated in the Roman Senate.  Ordinarily, the Romans used voice vote.  But if there was a vote that was disputed or considered too close to call, one of the members might rise and call for a division of the house.  Those who were voting divided themselves up—the “ayes” on one side of the house and the “nays” on the other side.
The call for a “division of the house” is still useful for verifying the results of a voice vote.  It can also be a method of putting pressure on people and calling them to account.  Voice votes are comfortably anonymous.  But a call for a division of the house forces you to take a public stand, and likely, to take the heat or consequences for your stand.
That’s the kind of division our Lord speaks about in our text.  The kind of division where people must take a stand for or against, where there is no neutral territory, no safe ground.  In fact, Jesus talks about a literal division of the house: “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division.  From now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three.  They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law” (vv 52-53).
Wow, Jesus!  As if family life weren’t already difficult enough!  Families divided?  Not peace, but division?  Perhaps most unsettling about this is that Jesus is the cause of this division.  Actually, He is the point of division.  He is the reason for the division.  And nothing is more important than on which side of this division you stand: on the side with Jesus Christ and His Word or on the side apart from—and that means against—Jesus Christ and His Holy Word. 
Where people stand on Christ divides families, and in fact, it divides the whole Church, into true and false, committed and uncommitted, true believers and hypocrites.  It can cause anguish and suffering.  It can cause embarrassment by exposing your hypocrisies and inconsistencies.  It can even cause division and strife between your Old Adam and your new man, so that, even inside you there is division.  Jesus comes to bring division.  Not peace, but division.  That statement in itself is troubling.  How do you square this passage with the Gospel’s message of peace and love and forgiveness?  It sounds terribly out of step with the Gospel.  A strong dose of the Law at best.  Contradictory and antithetical to the Gospel at its worst.  But it is not.  It is really a blessed division, one for which to give thanks. 
Let me explain how.  Consider the world apart from Jesus.  How could it best be described?  Sinful.  Unrighteous.  Dead.  Enslaved to sin.  Evil.  Damned.  Make no mistake, those who are dead in sin are hostile to God.  And because of that sin, we all faced God’s judgment.  In other words, we were all united, together—it’s just that we were united in sin, death, and condemnation. 
Jesus came to save us from sin.  That is to say, Christ came to divide us from sin, hostility, and God’s wrath.  That’s why He became flesh.  That’s why He lived a perfectly holy life.  That’s why He submitted Himself to endure death on the cross.  That’s why He rose again three days later and ascended into heaven.  All of this was for you and for all the world—to open the gates of heaven once more, that “whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Jesus came to restore communion with God, to bring you back into the presence of your Creator.  This is entirely a gift of His grace.  He offers it to all by means of His Word, but He forces it upon nobody.  Not everyone will hold onto His gift of life: many in their sinfulness will reject it, throw it away.  There will be those who repent and those who do not.  There will be believers and unbelievers.  There will be the living dead and those who live as though they have died.  That is the division that Christ brings, that Jesus gives.  But it is a blessed division.  You see, apart from Christ, all would be lost.  Because of Christ, many are saved. 
Think of it this way: We are rightly troubled at the news of a disaster, such as a plane crash or a terrorist attack where many are killed.  We mourn their death.  But we also give thanks for those who survive, for those who are divided from the dead by still being alive.  We give thanks for the work of medics and the triage nurses who go to disaster areas; for even though they cannot save all who are injured, they do save some. 
Likewise, we give thanks for this division Jesus brings: we rejoice that while not all are saved, many are—solely by the grace of God.  Furthermore, we rejoice that the Lord doesn’t limit His atoning grace.  He does not divide out some for salvation and say to the rest, “I desire that you be divided and lost.  I want you to be separated from Me in hell forever.”  No, the Lord desires all to be saved.  He delights in the death of no one.  He wants all to be united in Him!  Those who remain divided from Him do so by their own sinful rejection of His grace.
To read Jesus’ words about bringing division and determine Jesus to be spiteful or mean is completely to miss the point of this text.  In fact, we must read it in the context of the verses which precede it.  Jesus says, “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled!  I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is My distress until it is accomplished!” 
Fire destroys whatever it can burn away.  It also purifies what remains.  Jesus says that He has come to destroy all that would divide you from the Lord and the life that He has for you.  But because the Holy Spirit has worked faith in you, His fire does not destroy you.  It purifies you.  It purifies you by removing all of your sins that would divide you from God.
And how does Jesus cast this fire on the earth?  It is by His baptism that He must undergo.  Jesus is not referring to His watery baptism in the Jordan River, but His fiery baptism on the cross, although the two are actually closely connected. 
At His baptism in the Jordan, the sinless, pure Son of God takes His place among sinners.  He declares that He has come to bear all of our sins, and He will take all of our impurities, all of our unrighteousness to the cross.  With every sickness Jesus heals, every sin He forgives, every dead person He raises, Jesus is both releasing creation from its bondage and absorbing into His body all the fallen world’s sickness, sin, and death in order to take it to the cross.  There, on the cross, Jesus takes our place and suffers God’s fire.  Jesus satisfies God’s wrath for sins.  That’s the baptism of fire that He speaks about.  And that’s a blessed division.  
See, if you faced God’s fiery wrath for sin on your own, it would destroy and purify—but there would be nothing left of you, because there is nothing pure in you.  So Christ has faced that fire in your place.  He has been destroyed in your place.  He suffered hell in your place before His death and resurrection.  Because the fire destroyed Him on the cross, now He purifies you.  He divides you away from sin and death, and sets you apart as a holy child of God.
So let no one read Jesus’ words that He has come to give division and conclude that He is gleefully causing problems.  The division Jesus brings is really only a revealing of our true standing before God—as believers or unbelievers.  And the stakes are high.  Jesus is dividing people from death to life at the cost of His own blood, at the price of His own life. 
Today’s Epistle describes the hostility our Lord Himself experienced and tells us that we can expect hostility too: “Consider Him who endured from sinners such hostility against Himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.”  Jesus said that anyone who would be His disciple “must take up his own cross and follow Me.”  Therefore we are being foolish and naive if we think that there will be no difficulties in our lives.  Actually, every Christian can expect trials.  Every Christian should expect trials.  But we don’t, do we?  It’s ironic, really.  We confess every week that we deserve nothing but temporal and eternal punishment.  But let a little trouble come our way, and we think we’re getting a raw deal, that God has forsaken us.  Actually, we’re only experiencing a small portion of the temporal punishment we deserve—and God is using even that for our good, to discipline us, to purify our hearts, to test the genuineness of our faith.
Just remember, when things get hot, it is the Lord’s purifying fire, refining your gold from the dross, even as He separates you from an unbelieving world.  Trials are a normal part of life for God’s children.  Division is inevitable.  Christ is calling for a division of the house, but He does not leave you to stand on your own.  By the hostility He Himself endured, He enables you to stand on His side.
So let’s make some applications to your Christian life.  For these divisions are often presented as “evidence” that the Christian faith is untrue, wrong, hypocritical, or possibly even immoral.  When division arises, it’s the Gospel that often gets the blame.  But it doesn’t make sense to blame the Gospel.
Picture the aftermath of a shipwreck with survivors flailing around in the water trying to escape drowning.  A rescue ship arrives on the scene, with rescuers pulling survivors aboard, dividing the drowning from death to life.  But instead of joining those on board ship, imagine that some refuse, insisting that they be saved by another way.  Imagine that they would say that the rescue ship should not take anyone in until it is ready to accommodate everyone’s preferred method of rescue.  
That’s the position in which the Church finds itself today in the world.  We proclaim that there’s plenty of room on board; but the world will declare that we are divisive for proclaiming life in Christ alone.  So there will always be pressure exerted to change our confession to something like “Jesus is one way to heaven.”  But that says that every false god is as worthy of honor as Jesus.  That leaves everyone without hope, united in hopelessness: everyone’s sinking, and there’s no true Savior to rescue.  No, it is far better to rejoice in the dividing Savior, to declare, “Jesus is the one true Lord and Savior—and He has died to save you, too!”
A worship service creates division, too.  Everyone is invited and all are welcome to attend, but a worship service is designed foremost as a family meal, where the Lord feeds His beloved children.  Some will visit a worship service and not like what they hear—I’m not so much speaking of style as I am of content.  The fact is, apart from faith, people will not like the Gospel.  To Old Adam, the Gospel is as threatening as fire to Frankenstein’s monster, or daylight to Dracula.
Now, a lot of “worship theory” these days says that a worship service is primarily to attract unbelievers who may or may not come, not the family of God in that place.  And those who hold to this view say that the proclamation of the Gospel should be minimized so as to not offend.  But if we take such a view, we are saying that the Gospel is the problem, not the false beliefs that others hold.  We are saying that we would rather settle for a superficial peace rather than boldly proclaim the crucified Christ who seeks to divide sinners from death.
So we do well to examine ourselves: if visitors find us distasteful because we are unfriendly, that is our problem and a reason for repentance.  But if they do not like the Gospel that they hear, we do not blame Jesus or the message.  Instead, we give thanks that they were here to hear that Word, and pray that the Holy Spirit will continue to work by that Word they’ve heard to bring them to saving faith; in other words, to divide them from death to life.
As long as sinners remain, the division Jesus brings will be apparent.  This is an important truth to accept, because many will argue that division is proof that Jesus isn’t there.  Many will argue that peace and quiet is the proof of God’s presence.  This isn’t really new.  Look at the Old Testament lesson for today.  God complains about the false prophets whom He hasn’t sent, but who claim to have gone out in His name.  And what do they proclaim?  They proclaim that “all is well” when it is not, that “no disaster will come upon you” when disaster is going to destroy the city.  They proclaim “peace, peace” where there is no peace.  This is the very sort of “peace” that Jesus comes to destroy, because it’s a false peace.  So it’s left to Jeremiah to declare that God’s judgment is about to fall.  Then, who gets the blame for causing division?  Jeremiah—for telling the truth.  But while he received the blame of men, then, the prophet now rests from his labors in heaven.
Do not try to measure the presence of Jesus by how much peace you feel.  You know Jesus is present in His Word and Sacraments, no matter the storms around.  He promises to be!  We do well to remember Luther’s observation that a superficial peace may mean that people have departed from the faith so far that the devil sees no need to trouble them anymore. 
Don’t place your hope in some superficial worldly peace.  Instead, give thanks that, no matter the storm, you know that for Jesus’ sake you’re not going to drown.  Because Jesus comes to divide.  He divides you from death to life, from sin to holiness, from grave to heaven, from “enslaved to the devil” to “child of God.”  He has done so by taking on your sin and enduring the cross, that baptism of fire which damned Him so that you might be purified and blessed for His sake.
And you are blessed!  For Jesus has come to divide you from sin, death, and the devil.  He’s even doing it right now.  How?  With His Word, with this Good News of peace with God: 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, August 11, 2013

Have No Fear Little Flock, the Kingdom Is Yours

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The text for today is Luke 12:32: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
The last time we sang our sermon hymn at St. John’s was for my installation.  As we planned the service Pastor Boeder mentioned he was using a shepherd theme.  “What I’d really like to do is sing ‘Have No Fear Little Flock,’” he said.  “Do you think the members of St. John would be offended?”  I said, “No, this is a little flock.  I know that.  They know that.  And from a worldly standpoint there are many things to fear: the devil, the world, and our own sinful nature rage against us.  Without God’s provision no church is going to be around for long.  I think it would be very appropriate.” 
St. John’s is a little flock.  Just look around… about 30 souls here in the pews.  That’s a little flock by any standards!  But not all that different than the little flock gathered that day as Jesus tells His disciples: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
Notice, this is not Law, but Gospel.  It’s not a command, but a promise.  And that’s a big difference.  It’s more like a mother comforting her child who has just had a nightmare: “It’s okay.  I’m here for you.  You don’t need to be afraid.”  Rather than a careless counselor who chides: “Just get over it, you worry wart.  Quit your belly aching!”  And that’s important!  Ordering someone “Do not be anxious” will not generally keep them from being anxious.  If anything it will make them more anxious.  But when Jesus says it, it comes with a promise, a Word that is powerful enough to bring about that for which it calls.  “You don’t need to be afraid any more.  You have all that you need for life in His kingdom.”
Last week, we heard that life is more than the abundance of possessions. Today we hear that life is more than the essentials—food and clothing.  Jesus zeroes in on our basic, core anxiety—our everyday needs.  And He says, “Don’t be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will wear.  For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.”
That would appear to run counter to our experience.  Life is more than food?  That’s hard to imagine when it’s the season for fresh fruit and vegetables: sweet corn, green beans, radishes, onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelon, and peaches.  Life is more than food?  The body more than clothing?  We need clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home.  Those are primary needs.  In fact, we’re not going to worry about anything else until those are taken care of.  And Jesus comes to us this morning and says, “Don’t worry.  Don’t be anxious about your life, or even your most basic needs.  Your Father in heaven has you covered.”
Don’t worry?  Has Jesus looked at the economy lately?  My retirement fund? The unemployment statistics?   Health care costs?   Insurance?   The aging population of our community?  My checking account balance?  Has He seen my medical files?  The assortment of prescriptions in the medicine cabinet?  Come on!  Who is alive and aware these days and not worried about something having to do with the means to support this body and life?   Don’t be anxious?  Get real!
But here is the reality: Anxiety is a liturgy.  It’s the worship we offer our false gods when they’ve failed to deliver on the goods.  When we realize that our religious transactions aren’t working and we are left without an apparent safety net under us, the anxiety mounts and grows.  Sleepless nights, churning stomachs, headaches, heart palpitations, stress—the list of symptoms goes on and on.  Anxiety is like a cancer of the soul, consuming us from the inside, paralyzing us, disordering our lives, our eating, our drinking, our priorities.  Anxiety eats away at us like rust, corroding our souls until we are nothing but a shell.
“Don’t be anxious,” Jesus says.  He knows what He’s talking about.  He’s the Lord of creation.  He’s the One who died and rose again.  And He’s intimately familiar with our anxieties.  He dealt with each of our stressful circumstances to an extent we can’t even begin to imagine.  He suffered in every way as we do, yet was without sin.  Do you feel at times as though you’re carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders?  Well, Jesus literally bore the weight of the world’s sin upon His shoulders.  He was the “Man of Sorrows,” intimately acquainted with our grief.  Do you imagine that didn’t involve some potential anxiety?
Jesus knew His disciples’ hearts and He knows ours.  He knew that He had called them away from their fishing boats and tax collector’s office.  And there were probably days when they wondered aloud, “What are we going to eat today?  How will we afford clothing when ours wears out?”  They were following someone who had no place to lay His head, who didn’t promise them health and wealth like the prosperity preachers you hear today.  Jesus never promised them any of that.  Instead He promised them hardship and persecutions in this life, and eternal life in a kingdom that has no end.
Consider the ravens, Jesus says to His anxious disciples.  They neither sow nor reap nor store in barns, and yet God feeds them.  Yes, they spend the bulk of their day looking for food.  And yes, they work their feathered tails off building nests.  But in the end, they can only play the hand they are dealt.  They can’t rearrange their environment the way we humans can.  “And yet God feeds them.”  And if He cares about the birds, don’t you think He cares about you?  You are worth so much more that a bird.
Consider the lilies and all their beauty.  They don’t weave or spin or shop at the finest stores in the mall, yet even Solomon in all his splendor wasn’t decked out like them.  And aren’t you worth more than plants, which are here today and gone tomorrow?
For that matter, what good does it do to be anxious anyway?  Does anxiety put daily bread on the table?  Not a crumb.  Does anxiety put clothes on your back?  Not a stitch.  Does anxiety pay the mortgage or the rent?  Not a dime.  Does anxiety add a single hour to your life?  No.  In fact, continuous stress and anxiety can actually cut time off of your life.   And it will certainly make the hours you do have most miserable.
Jesus calls His anxiety-ridden disciples “little faith ones.”  It’s a mild rebuke that comes throughout the Gospel accounts, typically after people underestimate God or His Son.  Little faith is better than no faith, I suppose, but it’s still not the way of faith to be anxious over things.  Anxiety shows a lack of trust in God.  It may have many causes—physical, psychological—but at its heart it is a spiritual issue.  At its root is sin—a result of being fallen people living in a fallen world. 
Faith is trust, trust that your Father in heaven knows what you need even before you ask.  Trust that your value to God is so much greater than the birds and the flowers.  Trust that He is able to and desires to give you good things.  A pastor friend of mine describes faith this way: Faith is much like a little kid who is promised a candy bar the next time they go to the store.  He waits for it, expects it, can’t wait to go to the store and get it.  And finally, the trip to the store comes, and the little guy can’t wait for the candy aisle.  When they get to it, he runs and grabs his favorite one in complete confidence.  And if there is the slightest piece of parental hesitation, he’ll say with a quivering lower lip, “But you promised.”
Jesus encourages His disciples to trust in God, their heavenly Father, since He provides for all their needs.  We also need to take this exhortation to heart, because our fallen nature makes it difficult to look past ourselves and depend upon another—even if He is our Savior and Lord of all Creation.  But God’s faithfulness far exceeds our needs.  He provides as He sees fit, giving us an abundance we may share with others.
The Bible speaks of both strong faith and weak faith.  Strong faith is better able to resist temptation and accomplish more good works than weak faith.  Think of it this way: if you have a heartbeat, you are alive.  You’re alive whether your heartbeat is weak or strong—though a strong heartbeat is far better than a weak one.  Likewise, you are alive in Christ whether your faith is weak or strong—though a strong faith is far better. 
How is your faith strengthened?  Romans 10:17 tells you: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ.”  The Holy Spirit gives and strengthens your faith through the Word of God. 
That’s why you rejoice daily to remember your Baptism, where God gave you faith by water and the Word, and made you an heir of righteousness!  That’s why your faith can’t wait to get to church, to hear the Word of God, and gather strength!  That’s why your faith longs to confess all your sins and receive Christ’s Holy Absolution!  That’s why your faith delights to feast upon the Savior’s body and blood, present in, with, and under bread and wine by the Word of God. 
In short, faith is a gift given by God, as it was to the saints in our Epistle.  Faith clings to Jesus and His forgiveness, as did the saints in our text.  Faith comes by hearing the Word—as you and the saints in our text have heard God’s Word.
Therefore, if you believe that faith is something you’ve done in order to please God, repent.  It’s His gift to you for your salvation.  To claim it’s your doing is to rob God of glory for yourself.  If faith is something you do, then it is your work and it’s never certain.  If faith is God’s gift, then your salvation is sure.
If you believe that faith is all about getting God to do what you want Him to, repent.  God is not some mythical genie waiting to grant your every wish.  Sometimes He says “No,” because He knows that not everything you desire is good for you.  Faith is about clinging to Jesus and His forgiveness, and faith always prays, “Our Father, Thy will be done, not mine.”
Where you have neglected to hear and read God’s Word on a regular basis, or have not availed yourself of His Supper, repent.  In doing so, you have withheld food from the faith God has given, and so you have weakened that gift.  You may believe it has made no difference, but it has.  Repent, and rejoice that Christ has died for this sin, too, that you might be forgiven and strengthened in faith once more.  God gives you faith and counts you among His saints for Jesus’ sake. 
“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  That’s the Gospel good news today that speaks to your anxieties and fears.  Your Father’s good pleasure is to give you the kingdom, and He works everything together for you to receive the kingdom.  You have it all, thanks to Jesus.  His death and life has purchased what you cannot afford on your own: life with God—eternal, abundant life.  You have His Word on it.  He clothes you in Baptism.  He feeds you in His Supper.  You have the kingdom.  You trust Him with the big stuff.  Why not also trust Him with the little things of this life?
This doesn’t mean we don’t work and plan and store in this life.  But we hold things loosely, lightly, with a dead hand of faith.  Give freely.  Take care of the poor.  Store up treasures in heaven, eternal treasures that don’t corrode or decay, that can’t be stolen, that moths can’t eat, that won’t wear out.  Seek first the kingdom and God’s righteousness, trusting that your Father in heaven, who has saved you by the blood of His Son, knows what you need.
Have no fear little flock, the kingdom is yours.  The Father has promised it.  The Son has won it.  The Spirit delivers it.  Don’t be anxious about your life.  The Lord has you covered.  He’ll take care of all your needs—especially the ones involving your eternal life and destination.  He already has in Christ.  In Him, you have forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.  Indeed, for His sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins. 
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Striving after the Wind? Or Led by the Spirit?

Click here to listen to this sermon.

The text for today is Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, & 2:24-26.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Vanitas, Vanitatum by Salvador Dali
In the opening words of his book, Lutheran Theology, Steven D. Paulson makes this thought provoking statement: “Lutheran theology begins perversely by advocating the destruction of all that is good, right, and beautiful in human life.  It attacks the lowest and highest goals of life, especially morality, no matter how sincere are its practitioners.”  He goes on to say “Luther said the ‘sum and substance of,’ Paul’s letter to the Romans ‘is to pull down, to pluck up, and to destroy all wisdom and righteousness of the flesh’” (p.1).    
As I prepared for today, the thought occurred to me that the Preacher of our text must have been Lutheran.  No, he didn’t hold potlucks in the church basement with egg coffee, casseroles, and lime jello.  But led by the Holy Spirit, he did seem to understand that “the first task of theology is to witness to sin and make it great, so great that it kills.”  As St. Paul would three thousand years later, the Preacher magnifies sin until it is revealed in the very hearts of the righteous, those who “proving themselves to be wise, became fools” (Romans 1:22).
This is done, not as a means to an end itself, but to make way for the declaration of a completely foreign, a new righteousness, a new wisdom, that has no Law in it at all.  We must be taught a righteousness and wisdom that comes completely from the outside of us.  And therefore our own righteousness, our own wisdom that is born in us, must first be plucked up, so that the wisdom and righteousness of Christ may be planted and built in us.  No righteousness, no wisdom that comes from us, from our doings, or our heart will endure before God.  Only Christ’s righteousness and wisdom lives for eternity. 
We’ll talk more about that in a little bit.  But let’s first check in on one of Jesus’ forefathers who had to learn this lesson the hard way, by bearing his own cross of fame and fortune, success and excess, vanity and emptiness.
With our imaginations we travel back in time to ancient Jerusalem.  Before us looms the magnificent temple, which took thousands of the king’s best workmen seven years to build.  Suddenly the king and his entourage arrive.  Known throughout the world for his unmatched wisdom and fabulous wealth, Solomon wears a crown of gold and scarlet robe.  But as our attention moves from the trappings to the man himself, we see the face of an old man.  His eyes betray a weary sorrow.  His is a story of grandeur, but also of great tragedy. 
The sacred historian puts it this way:  “For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father.  For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites.  So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and did not wholly follow the Lord, as David his father had done… Therefore the Lord said to Solomon, ‘Since this has been your practice and you have not kept my covenant and my statutes that I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you and will give it to your servant’” (1 Kings 11:4-11).
This man who stands before us is, in many ways, a shell of his former self.  He stands condemned before God.  And his speech is anything but encouraging:  “‘Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher, vanity of vanities!  All is vanity’” (Ecclesiastes 1:2).  The Hebrew word translated “vanity” is hebel, literally “mere breath.”   This idea becomes very vivid on a cold day, when we see our breath, only to see it quickly vanish.  St. James captured this thought when he wrote, “What is your life?  For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14). 
How accurately this describes life on earth!  Beneath all the hustle and bustle, the tinsel and glitter, lurks that terrible sense of emptiness.  It was not that way in Eden before man fell into sin, but it is part of God’s judgment upon sin.         Then the king becomes very personal.  “I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem.  And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven.  It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with.  I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:12-14).
The Scriptures record the extent of his wisdom and fame.  “And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and breadth of mind like the sand on the seashore, so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east and all the wisdom of Egypt… He also spoke 3,000 proverbs, and his songs were 1,005.  He spoke of trees… of beasts, and of birds, and of reptiles, and of fish (1 Kings 4:29-34).
With this vast intellectual treasury, wise King Solomon set out to discover the meaning of life on earth.  The first thing he observed was the most obvious.  “It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man.”  The expression Solomon uses is literally “sons of Adam,” drawing our thoughts back to the fall of the first man.  Conceived and born in sin, mankind struggles under the curse of sin.     Solomon continues: “I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold it is vanity and a striving after wind.”  The King James Version translates this expression as “vexation of spirit.”  Since the Hebrew word for “wind” and “spirit” is the same, either might fit the tone of Ecclesiastes.  Yet the idiom “striving after the wind” seems to give us a better picture.  In and of themselves, all human endeavors are but futile attempts to grab hold of the wind.  You clench it in your fist and what do you have?  A handful of nothing!  No matter how much you see and learn, that’s what you end up with.
Solomon continues: “I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool?… So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it.  This also is vanity and a great evil.  What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun?  For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation.  Even in the night his heart does not rest.  This also is vanity.”
This passage is reminiscent of Jesus’ parable about the rich fool, who “stored up things for himself” but was not “rich toward God” (Luke 12:13-21).  Verse 18 has the same ring to it as God’s words to the rich fool: “The things you have prepared, whose will they be?”  But Solomon’s concern about the person who will come after him is not simply a generalized statement of truth.  Perhaps, when he wrote this, he was having serious doubts about his son Rehoboam, who did bring many of Solomon’s spectacular achievements to ruin (1 Kings 12).
Solomon’s conclusion?  “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil.  This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from Him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?  For to the one who pleases Him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God.  This also is vanity and a striving after wind” (Eccl. 2:24-26).
Having examined wisdom, foolishness, pleasure, achievements, and everything else under the sun, Solomon has found it all wanting.  No matter how hard you try, none of these things last.  Death comes to us all, and not even the rich man with bins full of grain can buy off the Grim Reaper.  Desperation or futility—these are the end products of striving after the wind. 
Desperation reasons that you only have so much time to look out for yourself because life is short and it just isn’t fair.  Futility reasons that, since time does run out, what’s the use of even trying?  It just isn’t fair, so why bother? 
But there is a more excellent way than finding your identity in your labor or possessions, or of bemoaning the unfairness of life.  The good news is this: God isn’t fair, either.  And that’s a good thing.  Fair means according to the rules.  If God were fair, the plan for salvation would stop with this: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and your neighbor as yourself.”  Do this and heaven is yours.  Don’t do this and you’re condemned.  Do you see?  If God were fair, we would already be in hell.
But God is more than fair.  He is gracious and merciful.  Consider verse 21 once again: “Sometimes a person has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it.”  There is such a Man, and His name is Jesus.  As far as wisdom, He is no less than the wisdom of God, who makes us wise unto salvation.  As far as knowledge, He alone knows the Father, and makes Him known to us so that we might have eternal life.  As far as skill, see Him heal and perform miracles; hear Him proclaim eternal life and confound the enemies of God.  Truly, He does all things well.
So this is the Man of wisdom, knowledge, and skill, and He applies it to His labor.  Although He is the One who has created the heavens and the earth, He puts no claim upon them, even though all is His.  No, He walks the earth in simplicity, and has only garments to be divided among the soldiers when He is put to death.  He keeps God’s Law—not just outwardly, but with all of His heart, soul, and mind.  He does not do this for Himself, but for you.  Having fulfilled all of God’s commands, He gives you the credit.  Although He deserves all worship and glory, He devotes Himself in service to others and remains faithful to His Father in heaven.  He dies scorned by the world; but He dies there for you. 
This is the Man whose labor is with wisdom, knowledge, and skill, and He leaves His heritage to a man who has not labored for it… that would be you, and that would be me.  But while the suffering is His, the salvation is yours.  He serves others and dies, that you might be forgiven for trampling others in your pursuit of personal gain.  He practices perfect contentment and dies, so that you might be delivered from greed and covetousness.  He credits you with His virtue, and dies in punishment for your vice.  It’s not fair, is it?  No, but that’s how you are saved!
Consider v. 26 again, in the shadow of the cross: “To the one who pleases Him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner He has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God.” 
Jesus is the Man again—the Man of wisdom who pleases God, and the sinner who gathers and collects.  God gives to Him wisdom and knowledge and joy, for Jesus is good in His sight.  The Father announces that this is His beloved Son, with Him He is well pleased, and gives Him all knowledge and tells us to hear Him.  He also gives Him joy, but a peculiar joy to the world: For the joy set before Him, He endures the cross and scorns its shame (Hebrews 12:2).
Jesus goes to the cross, gathering and carrying all sin with Him.  There, God makes Him who knows no sin to be the sinner, and judges Him for the sin of the world.  Because Christ is punished in your place, you are forgiven and pleasing in God’s sight.  Therefore, the Lord gives to you the wisdom of salvation, knowledge of Him, and the joy of the certain hope of eternal life—all for the sake of Jesus.
Ironically, it’s Jesus who looks like vanity to the world, for sinful man pictures Him as a good teacher who unfortunately dies for no purpose on the way.  His cross, it is said, is futility that accomplishes nothing.   But you know better.  What Christ has accomplished is no vanity; it’s your life and salvation.  And that, dear friends, is your identity and worth.  Ultimately, your identity is not based upon who you are and what you do, but whose you are and what He has done.        You are the Lord’s, and He has died to redeem you.  By His blood you are saved from your sin and delivered to eternal life.  By His doing your life is transformed from a futile striving after wind to a grateful response and service as you are led by the Spirit.  By His grace, the things that you have are no longer gods that must be attained and kept, but gifts placed under your stewardship to be used in service to God and others. 
While this may not be the legacy you hoped for, it does keep matters straight and true.  Those things which you possess will not last forever; therefore it is only sensible not to trust in them for help, and to see them only for what they are—lifeless things that cannot save you.  On the other hand, you now will live forever—not because of the name you make for yourself, but the Name that has been placed upon you.  You are the Lord’s, for He has made you His own.
Oh, at times you will be tempted with covetousness and the desire for more, as your Old Adam seeks to convince you that eternal life and God’s gracious favor aren’t enough.  When your sinful nature leads your mind astray, repent.  Confess to the Lord your preoccupation with things, trusting that Christ has died for this sin, too.  Give thanks to the Lord for those things that He has entrusted to you, and make use of them in service to others.  Go about your daily tasks with joy, knowing you do so as one redeemed.  Annoy your Old Adam further by demonstrating your freedom from covetousness, allotting a generous portion of the material blessings you have been given, and giving it regularly to the Church in service to the Lord.  Do so out of joy, for Christ has set you free to do such things.
At times you will be tempted to vanity and futility.  Hard work will show little progress, fervent sowing will reveal little to harvest, and you will wish to throw up your hands and say, “What’s the use?  I’m getting nowhere, so I quit.”  At such times, confess your frustration to the Lord, confident that He has died for such sins.  Remember that servanthood often appears futile, as did the Lord’s death on the cross.  But even as the victory over sin was won there, the Lord is often behind the scenes accomplishing His will.  Never believe for a moment that you’re getting nowhere.  You’ve already been gotten into the kingdom of heaven because the Lord has died to make it so.  Therefore, go about your work with joy, knowing that your destination is already achieved for Jesus’ sake.  And should you look back upon past years and regret that much was done in selfishness, be assured that the Lord still made use of much that you have done to care for those around you. 
The way of the world is a striving after wind, where you are to gain all you can for yourself.  But as we’ve seen before, there is no happy ending for the Old Adam.  The one who pursues possessions will either die like the rich man of the Gospel lesson, without hope; or else he will end up like the Preacher, collapsed in futility when he discovers that possessions cannot save.  With the Old Adam running the show, it’s absolutely true: All is vanity, and you can’t win.
But you, my friends, have been delivered from all this.  Jesus Christ—the God-man—has saved you by His perfect life and atoning death.  Rather than striving after the wind, you are led by the Spirit through His means of grace.  In Baptism, you are a beloved child of the heavenly Father, an heir of all the riches of heaven—eternal life, salvation and forgiveness.  Indeed, for the sake of the triune God’s work and His Name 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 ...