Monday, September 2, 2013
Some Things Never Change
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The text for today is Hebrews 13:7-8: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the Word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
In an essay entitled “On the Reading of Old Books,” C.S. Lewis encourages the reading of old books to gain a broader perspective: “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one until you have read an old one in between,” he writes. “We all need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century lies where we have never suspected it. None of us can fully escape this blindness. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.”
One of my favorite “old books” is actually a recently published book called At Home in the House of My Fathers, a collection of sermons, essays, letters, and addresses written by the first five presidents of the Missouri Synod. Now, I realize some of you find anything written 150 years ago to be drier than the dust that covers old books. But the documents in this book offer important insights to dealing with issues the church faces today.
Matthew Harrison, the LC-MS President, explains his reasoning for translating these documents and making them available: “It’s far too easy to ignore the fathers of the church—intentionally or not—and to conclude that they have nothing to say worth hearing today, that their times were somehow simpler and less complicated, or that they were grand men of faith impervious to the foibles and weaknesses we so often behold today in our church and in ourselves.
“The documents in this volume demonstrate both views to be profoundly flawed. In the maelstrom of life through civil war and world war, in the face of unprecedented technological advance, in the face of American religious pluralism and paganism, economic catastrophe, presidential assassination, and even the rise of abortion, [these men] helped guide a course of absolute fidelity to the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions… And they led the church in spite of their own human weaknesses and flaws.”
None of these five men were larger than life heroes. Three of them suffered mental and physical breakdown from the weight of concern for the church. Each struggled along with the church with theological discord, the limits of churchly freedom in questions of worship, church fellowship, church structure, and with congregations hard on pastors and pastors hard on congregations. But each knew from his own struggles how sweet is the Gospel of free forgiveness for the sake of Christ alone. Each of them believed deeply that they had something to say to their world, to world Lutheranism in particular, and Christianity in general. Because of this, they still have something to say to us today.
Some things never change.
For one: Our Old Adam’s rebellious, self-centered nature does not change. Oh, the way we express it may change. The ways that sin is manifested in our lives as we age may change. The view of sin as culture goes from ancient to modern to post-modern may change. But the core of our sin, our sinful nature, does not change. So also the core of salvation does not change. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. He is the Lamb slain from the foundations of the world, one time for all times, one Death for all. That doesn’t change. And so the Church’s message does not change—at least not the message that Christ has given His Church to proclaim: repentance and forgiveness in the Name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who is the same yesterday and today and forever.
Our text is part of a sermon of encouragement and exhortation originally written to Hebrew Christians in a time of upheaval and change. The synagogue had grown hostile to Christians. Faith in Christ divided families and neighbors. The government was growing hostile, believing that Christians were not “patriotic” because they didn’t participate in civil religion.
Some things never change.
It was so bad that some of the Hebrew believers were tempted to go back to their Jewish roots—to the synagogue and temple sacrifices, to Moses and the old covenant. And so the preacher makes his seven-fold appeal for the supremacy of Jesus Christ: Christ is greater than the angels… Christ is greater than Moses… Christ brings a greater covenant of forgiveness… Christ brings a greater Sabbath rest… Christ has a greater priesthood than Aaron… Christ serves in a greater temple… and Christ offers a greater Blood once for all as sacrifice for sin.
The old has given way to the new in Jesus; you can’t go back. You can’t undo what God has done. You can only reject it and so be lost forever. There is life and forgiveness and salvation no where else and in no one else but Jesus. And He is the same yesterday and today and forever.
Some things never change.
No, we are not likely to be tempted to renounce our baptisms and the Gospel and go back to the old covenant. And there is no temple for sacrifice, so we probably won’t be slaughtering bulls and goats any time soon. No, we are more likely to abandon faith in Christ for the Law… for the health, wealth, and success promised by the prosperity gospel… for the practical advice of purpose-driven pastors… the fun and frivolity of seeker-sensitive “churches”… or whatever the latest fad may be. Our Old Adam loves novelty, and we are religious junkies seeking the stuff that gives us temporary uplift and escape. We like those things that promise to pull us out of the dirt and sweat of our mundane existence.
That thirst for the latest and greatest shows up even in our worship, where we are often more easily attracted to extraordinary experiences rather than the ordinaries of the liturgy, or those dusty old Scriptures, or that pulpit-bound preacher, or those difficult old hymns, or that same old bread and wine.
Some things never change.
The sickness hasn’t changed since Adam and Eve. We still fall for the serpent’s same old lies and promises of something better. “Did God really say…?” “You will not surely die.” “You will be like God.”
But, neither has the cure changed—the shedding of blood for the forgiveness of sins. The garments of righteousness provided by the Lord to cover the shame of our sin. The Seed of the woman who crushes the serpent’s head. The death and resurrection of the Lamb of God, who is the same—yesterday and today and forever—and the trustworthy Word that delivers His salvation.
Still, the lust for novelty infects the way we look at our baptismal lives. We look for mountaintop experiences, and we fail to see the holy in the mundane, the ordinary, our daily vocations. The harder and closer we look for holiness, the less we are able to see it. For we live in a world that far from holy, and we are, by nature, poor, miserable sinners. We will only find holiness extra nos, that is, “outside of ourselves.” That’s why the preacher winds up with a few short paragraphs of exhortation, painting a description of the life of the baptized believer, so we don’t get any goofy notions about what that really looks like.
“Let brotherly love continue,” the author urges. Consider the kind of love and concern you would expect to see among those born from the same womb. Much more is love to show among those who are born of the same Spirit. We have the same heavenly Father. We have the Church as our baptismal mother. We share Christ’s body and blood. Love is a mark of a Christian. “This is how the world will know you are My disciples,” Jesus said, “that you love one another.”
And that love extends to strangers: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” God has welcomed us into His house and His Table; so we open our homes and tables to others. God extends unlimited hospitality to us in Christ; so we do the same.
Our fellow Christians enduring hardship also need our brotherly love. “Remember those who are in prison,” the author urges. He isn’t talking about “prison ministry,” but about Christians who have been imprisoned for the faith. It happened in those days; it happens today in many parts of the world. Freedom of religion is a relatively new and daring, if not tenuous, concept. We’ll see how long it lasts here. Who knows? We, too, might be visiting our own in prison one day. The question we need to be asking now is this: Would we be willing to go to prison for our faith in Christ? Would we remember those who do?
But even if none of us should ever end up it prison, these words still apply. We are to extend love and mercy to those congregation members who are suffering. Why? Because we are one body, one family. We share in the same Savior, Baptism, and Supper. What goes on with our fellow believers is especially important. Remember: When we give a drink of water, a piece of bread, an article of clothing… when we visit the sick and imprisoned… when we do it to the least of these our fellow believers in Christ… we are doing it to the Lord Jesus Himself.
Then the preacher takes what seems to be a sharp and sudden turn of direction, but it is another area where love is expressed. “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled,” he exhorts.
Scripture says that marriage is a public, lifelong union between one man and one woman where the two become one flesh. Therefore the marriage bed is to be reserved for only husband and wife. Simply put that means no shacking up, no hooking up, no gawking at pornography, no divorcing, no homosexuality, and none of the other ways we have of messing up God’s good gift of marital love.
The author singles out sexual sin as a great danger. Sexual sin is like battery acid to the soul. It corrodes our lives spiritually, psychologically, and physically. Sexual sins disregard the community, family, and God. Sexual sin is all about living for yourself—the opposite of love. Therefore, God judges sexual sin severely. STDs, devastated families, violence against women and children, are all God’s shots across the bow, warning us to keep the marriage bed undefiled.
But please hear this as well: Breaking the Sixth Commandment is not the unforgiveable sin—only unbelief and impenitence condemns. Where we have failed to honor marriage as God’s holy gift there is forgiveness. Jesus bore all of our sins on the cross—including sexual sins. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Next the preacher speaks about another kind of love, a negative one to avoid: the love of money. Coveting is a form of idolatry. When the heart is unbuckled from the fear, love, and trust in God above all things, it latches onto things. Money represents the power to buy and own things. The love of money, Paul says, is the root of all kinds of evil. God’s children hold their money and things with a loose, dead hand of faith, trusting He will provide.
The preacher to the Hebrews never loses sight of his goal. Weakening Christians are to be encouraged, wandering ones warned. That’s why he points his readers to their leaders: “Remember… those who spoke to you the Word of God… Obey your leaders and submit to them for they are keeping watch over your souls as those who will have to give an account.”
The Good Shepherd is forgiving and merciful even to His undershepherds. I believe that, and I’m banking on that. But as your pastor, I will have to give an account for what I have taught you. St. Paul says our work will be put through the fire to see if it holds up. Such awesome responsibility challenges every pastor, demanding that he gives the best he can in every sermon, lesson, and visit.
Such serious responsibility also makes demands on every sheep in the flock. When the sheep follow willingly, the shepherd’s task is joyful, the work of the pastor is not unduly burdensome. When the sheep balk or even disobey, the shepherd’s joy turns into groaning, and forward motion for the flock slows or even stops. “That would be of no advantage to you,” the author warns.
Some things never change.
God preserve us from shepherds who watch more for their own fame or finances than for the flock. God preserve us from being sheep who follow only when we feel like it and who obey only when we want to. The baptized life is a life of humility, giving way to others, considering others better than ourselves, recognizing that the Lord we trust and serve suffered reproach and gave His life “outside the camp.”
Some things never change.
The world didn’t applaud Jesus then, and it doesn’t applaud Him today. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever, and unfortunately, so are His detractors and the world that would rather keep Him dead. And it’s the same for His baptized believers. We live as strangers and pilgrims in this world. Our citizenship is in heavenly Jerusalem. We have no lasting city here. What lasts eternally is the city that God builds, into which you have been baptized, the city that is founded and grounded on Jesus, the rejected Rock.
Jesus took His place among the least, the lost, the lowly, and the dead. He was baptized with sinners. He ate with outcasts, drank with tax collectors, hung out with prostitutes, and touched the leprous. In our Gospel for today, Jesus told the proud Pharisee to take the lowest seat and wait to be invited forward. The Lord told him to open his own table to the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, those who cannot repay. Because that’s what God’s banquet table looks like—a table of grace to repentant sinners, all for the sake of the crucified and risen Jesus.
Some things never change.
So, I’ve told you nothing new today, because there’s nothing new to tell you. But that’s okay. In fact, it’s good. It’s Good News! No matter how much the world around you seems to be changing, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. And your life in Him is the same—yesterday and today and forever. You are holy. You are righteous. Indeed, for Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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