Sunday, January 26, 2014

You're Not a Fisher; You're a Fish

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While walking by the Sea of Galilee, [Jesus] saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And He said to them, ‘Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.’  Immediately they left their nets and followed Him.  And going on from there He saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and He called them.  Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed Him” (Matthew 4:18-22).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ! 
At the risk of sounding heretical, let me say this up front: You are not a fisher of men!  I know, over the years, you’ve heard a lot of pastors preach a lot of sermons encouraging you to be “a fisher of men.”  But that is not your calling.  That was the calling to Andrew and Peter, to James and John, on that day Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee.  You are not a fisher; you are a fish.
Jesus isn’t necessarily calling you to change vocations in order to serve Him.  Father Zebedee was just fine tending to the fishing business, but Jesus needed the boys for other purposes.  There were plenty of tax collectors in Israel, but Jesus needed Matthew to collect disciples.  Jesus calls some to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, teachers and shepherds in order to equip the saints for the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:11f).  But He doesn’t call everyone.
The Office of the Holy Ministry and the men who hold it are Christ’s gift to the Church.  They are sent to cast the net of the Gospel—to purely proclaim God’s Word and rightly administer His Sacraments.  But not all are called to this office.  Most members of the Body of Christ live out their faith in their daily vocations.  We’ll talk more about what that means for you in a bit.  But first, we hear more of the catching of the apostles, those men first called to be fishers of men.
About a year has passed since Jesus was baptized in the Jordan and declared to be the Lamb of God by John the Baptist.  John is cast into prison for having the temerity to faithfully preach God’s Word.  The greatest born of woman is arrested and treated like a criminal.  The one who came in the spirit and power of Elijah is off the scene.  The voice calling in the wilderness is silenced.  This is how it goes with the kingdom of heaven.  It suffers violence and violent men lay hold of it.  It is vulnerable and appears weak to the world.  It always comes with a cross.
Jesus withdraws from Judea to Galilee, not only because of the opposition He had been experiencing, but primarily because the prophet Isaiah had foretold His Galilean ministry.  Jesus makes Capernaum His home and the headquarters of His ministry.  It was centrally located on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and on the road from Damascus to the Mediterranean Sea in the territory that had been assigned to the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali. 
Galilee was populated by many Gentiles in addition to the Jews who lived there.  Not all of the Canaanites had been driven out when Israel occupied the land.  Furthermore, in the 8th century B.C., the Assyrians had taken many Galileans into captivity and had replaced them with Assyrians and other Gentiles.  This had a profound effect on the religious life of the people.  The God of Israel was not unknown there, but the worship of God had departed considerably from the forms of worship that the Law of Moses called for.  The people were “living in darkness” as Isaiah had foretold: the darkness of wickedness and unbelief. 
But then Jesus, the Light of the world, comes to Galilee.  He attracts huge crowds of people who follow Him from place to place to hear Him preach and see Him perform miracles.  The message Jesus proclaims is the same as John the Baptist’s: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  The kingdom of heaven has come to earth in the coming of Jesus, and this calls for repentance—a radical change of heart and mind, followed by a corresponding change in behavior. 
Jesus’ call to repentance is an invitation as well as a command.  The people could not respond positively to that invitation unless the Holy Spirit prompted such a response.  To repent and believe the Gospel is not a decision anyone can make on his or her own.  He or she must be called by the Gospel.  The kingdom lays claim.  “Repent.”  “Be baptized.”  Jesus calls four fishermen away from the nets and their boats with the simple words: “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
This is the beginning of the apostolic ministry.  The four fishermen are not simply the first disciples; they are also the first apostles—the ones sent out in the world with the Gospel message.  That’s what Jesus means when He says: “I will make you fishers of men.”  They used to catch fish in their nets.  Now they will be sent to catch men for the kingdom in the net of Jesus’ death and resurrection, making disciples by baptizing and teaching in His name, with His authority.
That also explains the change in vocation.  Not everyone is called to leave their line of work to become a disciple of Jesus.  Most don’t.  But these four did.  They left their nets and their boat and began a new vocation.  This also explains leaving Zebedee behind with the boats.  It’s not that he wasn’t saved, that he didn’t repent and believe.  It’s only that Jesus didn’t select him to be one of the apostles.
This initiated their training—three years with Jesus, hearing His teaching and preaching, seeing the miraculous signs of healing every disease and affliction.  They would see Him through His arrest, His cross, and His resurrection.  They would see Him disappear into the clouds at His ascension.  And they would go forth to gather the Church that confesses Jesus the Christ, the Son of God.
Did they know what they were getting into?  How could they?  None of Christ’s undershepherds really know what they are getting into before they heed His call—present company included.  They simply trusted Jesus.  They took Him at His Word.  And in that trust they left their livelihoods to join the band of twelve disciples who one day would be apostles.
And it is a most unlikely band at that.  Four of them were fishermen.  One was a tax collector.  Another was associated with political terrorists.  And one would betray Him.  Yet Jesus gathered them, taught them, and sent them out as His ambassadors for the kingdom, dropping the net of Jesus’ own sacrificial death and resurrection into the sea of this world and dragging whatever they caught into the Church, yet, sometimes against their will.  No, correct that—always against their will.  Have you ever met a fish that wanted to be caught?  (Other than sorry ol’ Charlie in the Star-Kist tuna commercials).
My job at Wal-Mart has furnished me with some experience at netting fish—not from the sea, but a fish tank.  I’ve found that the best way to catch a fish with a net is from below.  They have a blind spot there.  From above, forget it.  And it won’t do to chase them from behind, as fish can see behind them as well as they can see in front.  You can put a net in front of them and scare them into the net, but the best way is to scoop them up from below.  They never see it coming.
I think that’s a good illustration for how Jesus and His kingdom operate.  He sneaks up from below.  We would expect God to come from above, to be make a big heavenly show of it.  And if God were to chase us, we’d hightail it out of there.  But God sneaks up on us from below.  The Baby in the manger.  The boy in the temple.  The carpenter of Nazareth.  The teacher in Capernaum, Galilee of the Gentiles.  The kingdom begins small, like a mustard seed, and grows to embrace the whole cosmos with the net of Jesus’ death and resurrection.     
And why does this happen?  Well, solely by God’s mercy and grace, without any merit or worthiness on our part.  As we look at ourselves in the mirror of God’s holy Law, we must confess that we certainly aren’t qualified to be disciples of Jesus!  No one is.  But thank God!  Being Jesus’ disciple has nothing to do with our qualifications, any more than a fish has to be qualified to be caught in a net.  But it does have everything to do with Jesus. 
Think of Jesus’ first disciples.  Did they choose Jesus; or did He choose them?  Jesus chose them.  He spoke the word, “Follow Me,” and they followed Him.  And, it is the same every time.  The Word, Jesus Himself, has to capture us so we can be His disciples. 
Why is this?  Because of our fallen nature, something else has already captured us: our sin, death, and the power of the devil.  That’s the reality of being born into this fallen world.  And that’s why the Lord has to capture us by His Word.  So that He can rescue us from the tyranny of the devil and the punishment we deserve for our sin. 
When did the Lord’s Word capture you?  It was when the Holy Spirit combined our Lord’s Word with water in your Baptism.  There He brought you into your Lord’s kingdom.  There, the net of Jesus’ life-giving death did its life-saving work.  The net of the Word, of Baptism, saves you, gives you eternal life.
You are not a fisher; you are a fish.  You are a fish caught in Jesus’ Gospel net.  And you know what happens to fish caught in a net, don’t you?  They die!  And so you did, in the water and Word of Baptism.  In Baptism, you died and were buried in Christ’s death.  But that was a good death, all that you may be raised with Him in His resurrection (Romans 6:3-5).  Death and resurrection to life is the way of Jesus—and of all who follow Him!
You are a fish.  And you’ve been caught in Jesus’ net.  And that has eternal implications.  Do you remember Jesus’ parable about the net?  Jesus said, “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind.  When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad.  So it will be at the close of the age” (Matthew 13:47-50).  This Gospel net that has captured you will drag you to the shore and raise you to life on the Last Day.  This is a rescue net, cast to save you from your sin, death, and anything else that would harm or destroy you.
You are a fish; not a fisher.  It is not your vocation to publicly proclaim the Gospel, to baptize, or to administer the Lord’s Supper.  Christ established the apostolic ministry for this task.  Jesus called the apostles and sent them out into the world with His authority and Word.  They, in turn, trained and ordained pastors to administer Christ’s means of grace in the local congregation, and that Office of Holy Ministry was given to the Church to make disciples of all nations by baptizing and teaching Christ’s Word, and distributing His body and blood for the forgiveness of sins, confident of His presence among us even to the end of the age.
 You are not a fisher; you are a fish.  That being said, it doesn’t mean you don’t share your faith.  To be a Christian who doesn’t share the Good News of Jesus Christ through word and deed would be as unnatural as a fish trying to breath out of the water.  You just are not called to do so publicly.  You do so, personally, in your daily vocations.  I’ve often said, I have more opportunity to share the Gospel with unbelievers in my work at Wal-Mart than I have as a pastor.
Life is just full of opportunities to share God’s love in Jesus Christ.  While the Lord can accomplish His will without us, He delights to use us as His instruments.  People hear the Word from Christians, and come to Church to hear more, to be instructed in the ways of the Lord.  Some of you will teach Sunday School or Vacation Bible School.  But most of you have opportunities even closer to home.  You also can share your faith with the people you encounter in everyday situations that are just ripe for sharing the Gospel: good days, bad days, the loss of loved ones, the birth of babies, sickness, marriage, and many others. 
Fathers and mothers, you have unique and special opportunities to share our faith.  Get your children baptized.  Read them Bible stories.  Teach them the basics of the Christian faith from the Small Catechism.  Pray for them; teach them how to pray.  See that there is time for family devotions and that worship service attendance is a priority for your family. 
It all looks so ordinary.  But ordinarily, that’s how the Lord works.  After all, He created this world and set it up to run normally according to His will.  So the Lord’s normal way of doing things will generally look quite normal and ordinary.  Therefore, rather than have bread fall from heaven each day, He ordains that seeds sprout and grow into grain that is harvested, ground, and baked.  But as He uses farmers and bakers to supply bread, so He uses His Christians to draw others into His Gospel net rather than send His holy angels out on evangelism calls.  And He uses His Word and sacraments to deliver forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.
The Lord’s way of evangelism may seem ordinary and it may even seem inefficient as the Church plods along toward eternity   But be assured: Christ Jesus will not fail to send forth His Word to save all who will believe.  He will not lose one of His beloved children out of His Gospel net.  And as He fulfills that promise, you and I—in our respective vocations—have the privilege of being His chosen instruments.  The Lord continues to visit His people, wherever they are, with life and salvation because He has shed His blood and given His life to win that gift. 
Dear Christians, that promises includes you:  Through His means of grace, the Lord casts the net of His Gospel, to draw you to Himself.  So that you might be saved.  So that you might have eternal life.  So that you might be His good fish.  That is to say, so that you might be forgiven for all of your sins. 
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

"Who Is My Neighbor?"-- A Sermon for Sanctity of Life Sunday

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The text is Luke 10:25-37, the story of the Good Samaritan:
25 On one occasion an expert in the Law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
27 He answered: ”‘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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
37 The expert in the Law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
“Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  On the surface it looks like a good question.  It seems this man is serious about his faith.  He is concerned about the hereafter and the upholding of God’s Word.  He even seems to be pulling it off… or at least he thinks he is.  But our text tells us that his motives are not so pure.  His purpose is to test Jesus.
Looking closer, we see that his question is strangely put, for it can hardly be said that heirs do anything to get the inheritance.  They just need to be named in someone’s will.  Someone else has the real commitment—he or she must die with a valid will in place!  The expert in the law would have expressed his meaning more truthfully if he had said, “What must I do to earn eternal life?”
Have you ever noticed how Jesus has this disconcerting habit of answering a question with a question, especially with those who are trying to trip Him up?  He does it here, referring this expert of the Law back to the Word of God he thought he knew so well—the very Law that he interpreted and taught professionally.  “What is written in the Law?  How do you read it?” Jesus asks.
The man demonstrates his knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures by quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 verbatim: “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, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 
“You are perfectly right,” Jesus says, “all you have to do is to live up to your answer and you will surely live!”  It is one thing to know the Word of God and the requirements of the Law, but it’s an entirely different matter to do them.  If it were possible for one to keep the Law perfectly, then one could earn eternal life.  The Law itself promises blessing and life to those who keep it.  But there is the rub.  By the works of the Law no man is justified before God, because there is no one that does good and does not sin. 
Jesus has just made this Law expert look foolish, so the man feels the need to “justify himself.”  He’s convinced himself he’s always kept the commandments, and he resents Jesus’ implication that it may be otherwise.  So the lawyer asks a further question, seeking a legal definition of the term neighbor.  If the word is narrowly defined enough, perhaps he would gain a little wiggle room.  Maybe he would still be able to technically fulfill this command. 
Generally among the Jews, a “neighbor” was defined as a fellow countryman, a close friend, someone who is worthy of our love.  The story that Jesus tells sets such an understanding on its head.  Three men came upon the bloodied body of one who had been robbed and abandoned for dead.  A priest and a Levite both saw the man but did not stop to help.  In fact both of them purposely went to the other side of the road.  Surprisingly, it was a Samaritan, a despised foreigner, who cared for the stricken man, and he did so in a manner which far surpassed ordinary obligation.  This Samaritan showed himself as the one who fulfilled the command to love one another, in this case even an enemy.
To the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus answers: A neighbor is anyone who is in need of our mercy.  But Jesus goes a step further with the question he now puts to the lawyer: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor…?”  For Jesus, the real question is not “Who is my neighbor?” but “How does one prove to be a neighbor to others?”  Being a neighbor is more important than legally defining the term neighbor.  Jesus makes this Samaritan a model for true neighborliness.  He sees beyond the divisions of this world to the will of God, which bids us to love our neighbor regardless of whom that neighbor might be.
It would be an easy mistake to moralize this story, so that it becomes an exhortation only to help our needy neighbors.  I’m sure you’ve heard it taught that way before—in Sunday School, maybe even a sermon or two.  That moralistic approach would seem to work quite well for our purposes today.  After all, loving our neighbor is what Sanctity of Life Sunday is all about.  The explanation of the Fifth Commandment seems to reaffirm that idea: “We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.”  We should be merciful, kind and forgiving toward our neighbor.  As the teacher of the Law answered, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  A neighbor is anyone in need of mercy.  A neighbor is anyone who shows mercy. 
Who is my neighbor?  My neighbor is the pregnant teen and her unborn child.  My neighbor is the comatose woman kept alive by artificial life support, and her family who are facing difficult end-of-life decisions.  My neighbor is the woman or man feeling the guilt of a past abortion decision.  My neighbor is the single mother trying to provide for her family.  My neighbor is the embryo in cold storage, facing death by deterioration or genetic experimentation. 
How do I show myself to be a good neighbor?  I volunteer at the local crisis pregnancy center.  I join with a group from church to sing Christmas carols for shut-ins and nursing home residents.  I sew quilts and donate them to the shelter for victims of domestic abuse.  I support those who are enrolled in the foster care system.  I visit and pray with members of our congregation suffering from failing health or loneliness.  I support pro-life candidates and ballot initiatives.  
In general, you and I are pretty good at helping those kinds of neighbors.   But we must not limit our definition of neighbor to these people or we’re no better off than the teacher of the law in our text.  We’re simply trying to justify ourselves or attempting to gain God’s favor with good works.  Oh sure, we’re showing mercy to people in desperate circumstances, but we’re picking and choosing our neighbors, showing mercy to some, but not loving all.
Who is my neighbor?  Certainly all of those already mentioned.  But my neighbor is also the director of Planned Parenthood who raises my blood pressure every time I hear her speak on television.  My neighbor is the doctor who sneaks into town twice a month to perform abortions.  My neighbor is the radical feminist who accuses me of trying to take away one her most important “rights.”  My neighbor is the pragmatic politician who is “personally opposed to abortion” but “supports the woman’s right to choose.”  My neighbor is out-of-state group that hides its true agenda in misleading ballot initiatives.  My neighbor is the research group grabbing for money by promising cures using embryonic stem cells. 
These are my despised Samaritans.  These are the people I find it impossible to love.  If getting to heaven depended on me showing love and mercy to them, I would never get there!   On my own, I can’t love them.  I certainly do not want to show them mercy.  I have no desire to even pray for them.  But Jesus can and does love them!  Jesus can and does show them mercy!  Jesus can and does pray for them!  Just like He does for every other poor, miserable sinner!
We must be careful to not teach this story simply as a moral lesson or we will fall into the trap of thinking like the expert in the Law.  Such an interpretation would turn this parable of Gospel into Law.  And it would convict each and every one of us.  No one can be saved by the Law.  A proper interpretation of this parable must be Christ-centered.  It must be Gospel-based or else we are all lost!
Somewhere in the midst of this dialogue, Jesus has shifted the dynamics of the question in the way He told the story.  If He had wanted to teach a Jew to include Samaritans (and others) in His definition of “neighbor,” Jesus would have made the injured man a Samaritan.  But the injured man is only referred to “a man.”  He could be anyone.  Furthermore, Jesus also posed the concluding question in reverse: not “Which of these three considered this injured man his neighbor?” but “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor…?”
The Gospel reveals that such doing flows only from having received God’s mercy.  Legalists who cross-examine Jesus make no progress until they recognize that they are the man half dead and Jesus is the one who shows mercy as neighbor.  Who is my Neighbor?  Jesus is!  Jesus is the True Neighbor.  He is the Good Samaritan.  Only Jesus perfectly fulfilled the commandments to love.  Only Jesus was able to love the Lord with all His heart and with all of His soul and with all of His mind.  Only Jesus was able to love all neighbors as Himself.
The law expert says, “I will act to love my neighbor as myself; tell me who he is.”  We say the same thing.  Well, maybe not out loud, but our actions or lack of actions speak much louder than words.  But Jesus answers, “You cannot love, you cannot show mercy, for you are dead.  You need someone to love you, to show mercy to you, to heal you, to pay for you, to give you lodging, to revive you, to go beyond any reasonable expectations for your care.  And just for you, but the love and mercy needed by a whole world of sinners.  I am the one you despise because I associate with sinners; but in fact I am the one who fulfills the Law, who embodies the Word, and who brings God’s mercy.  I am your neighbor and will give you the gifts of mercy, healing, and life.  As I live in you, you will have life and will do mercy—not motivated by laws and definitions, but animated by My love.”
In To All Eternity (The Essential Teaching of Christianity), we read, “When Jesus’ disciples first heard the parable of the Good Samaritan, they did not comprehend its full meaning.  Today, we can see Jesus’ parable about compassion in light of His own sacrifices.  Finding us stripped of our righteousness, Jesus took pity on us.  He bandaged our wounds, provided for our healing, opened the treasures of heaven, and paid for our care.  Jesus became poor so that we might become rich in God’s righteousness, life, and peace.  Because of His ultimate sacrifice, we have the power to help others to care for all they are and possess.”
Who is your Neighbor?  Jesus is!  And having adopted you in the water and Word of Holy Baptism, He gives you the power to begin loving your neighbor and to show him mercy—the unborn baby, the pregnant teen, the elderly man who is slowly dying, the family facing difficult end-of-life decisions, the woman or man weighed down by guilt from a past abortion decision, the caregiver who is worn down physically and emotionally from caring for their loved one—even the one who is your enemy in sanctity of life issues!   
Having been given new life in Christ, you support the sanctity of all human life from womb to tomb.  Having received forgiveness for Christ’s sake, you forgive others.  Having been loved by God’s perfect love, you love others.  Having received mercy, you show mercy.  Having been blessed by God the Father in Jesus Christ, you bless those who curse you, and pray for those who can’t or won’t pray for themselves.  Having been reconciled to God through Jesus, you have been given the message of reconciliation, and you seek to share it with others, often finding the opportunity to do so in the midst of the most trying or inconvenient  circumstances. 
And when you fail to love you neighbor?  For although you must love, you won’t always, not perfectly.  Well, remember this: God’s grace covers all of your sins—even those times you fail to love your neighbor and show him or her mercy.  Then, repent!  Confess those sins.  Daily put to death that pharisaic Old Adam through contrition and repentance; so that empowered by the Holy Spirit your new Christ-like man may rise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.  Go out and love your neighbor, believing that the Holy Spirit will give to the strength to do so, and trusting that all of your less-than-stellar attempts to love are covered by the grace of your Good Neighbor, Jesus Christ.  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 

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Let Not Your Hearts Be Troubled: Sermon for the Funeral of Virgil Severtson

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
On Wednesday, January 15, 2014, death came to Virgil Doane Severtson’s broken and battered body; and he was taken from our world.  Yet because he is a child of God, Virgil did not have to face what the Bible calls “the second death”—spiritual and eternal death, but rather only the first death—physical death.  For God gives such grace to His children that physical death need be the only death they experience.  And even physical death, daunting though it undoubtedly is, is effectively reduced for God’s children to merely being a doorway to the immediate presence of God, His saints, and angels—the “host arrayed in white.”
I find it fascinating to consider that we humans were created differently with regard to death than both the animals and angels.  Animals, with no immortal souls, were created with only one death that awaited them—namely physical death.  Angels, although created to be immortals, can still face death if they sin and that one death would be, although not physical, nevertheless, final and eternal.  God’s Word tells us that is why God created hell for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41).
Yet when God created humans, He created us with the option of not one, but two deaths—physical and eternal.  Medically speaking, death is the irreversible cessation of heart, lungs, and brain.  Theologically speaking, physical death is the separation of the soul from the body, while eternal death is the separation of body and soul from God and His grace.  Both of these deaths are the divine judgment on sin.  Both have a respective certain finality.  Yet they are still not the same, and thus, it is mercifully possible to experience the one, but not the other.
Hence the comforting statement from Jesus in our text for today, John 14:1-3:  “Let not your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God; believe also in Me.  In My Father’s house are many rooms.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to Myself, that where I am you may be also.”
“Let not your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says.  As you know firsthand, there are days in this life when that is easier said than done.  The death of a loved one, perhaps even more so, the illness and the dying of a loved one, is very troubling, indeed.  For God did not intend us to die, but to live forever.  Every death tears at the very fabric of creation. 
As they met in the upper room on Maundy Thursday for His Last Supper, Jesus’ predictions of His upcoming passion and death troubled His disciples greatly.  So He spoke to calm their fears.  Jesus pictured His Father’s house.  He was leaving His disciples in order to prepare a place for them there.  Furthermore, He would come back and take them to Himself, so they could be together again.  Then He added, “You know the way to the place where I am going.”
We can understand what Jesus meant by remembering what He was about to do—namely, to die on the cross as the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world.  The bitterness and painfulness of Christ’s passion and death has no equal in all of human history.  But that temporal, physical death was nothing compared to the second death—being forsaken by God the Father, this being revealed in His cry of anguish:  “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46). 
We can understand the meaning of Christ’s being forsaken by God only if we fully accept the central truth of Christ’s substitution for us.  Christ in Himself was no sinner.  But “God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21).  When Christ was forsaken of God, He felt the sin and guilt of all men in His soul as His own sin and guilt.
That Christ was but temporarily forsaken of God is explained by the fact that in addition to being fully Man—bound by time and space, He is also fully God—the eternal, divine Son of God.  When the Person who is God was forsaken of God for a little while, this was the equivalent of all sinners being eternally forsaken of God.  There for those few hours on the cross, the sinless, infinite Son of God bore the Father’s eternal wrath for the sins of every man, woman, and child who has ever lived, is living, and will live. 
But here the question arises why Christians, though they have forgiveness of sins, still must die.  Scripture teaches two things regarding the death of Christians: (1) All Christians, except those living when Judgment Day arrives, must pass through death as a judgment upon the sin dwelling in them (Romans 8:10).  While we have been declared righteous for Jesus’ sake, our old sinful nature stays with us in this life, like an invisible, evil, horrid, conjoined twin.  (2) Nevertheless, the dying of a Christian is no longer death in the full sense because he or she is delivered from the thing that makes death unbearable—the wrath of God.  St. John writes: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him might not perish but have everlasting life” (3:16).
So—do you have faith in Jesus?  Do you hear His Word?  Then, “Let not your hearts be troubled.”  Even though you face physical death, fear not, for Christ has saved you from that which is far worse—eternal death.
Now, when things are going well, there is a tendency it seems (for most people) not to think about going to heaven.  We may think about it when we are at a funeral, like this one this afternoon, but most of the time we don’t think about it at all.  In fact, we live in a world where most of us don’t even want to talk about it.  Why?  Because we are afraid.  Afraid of the unknown.  Afraid of what we know about ourselves.  Afraid that if we say “death” out loud it might claim us, too!
But if only more of us appreciated that Jesus Christ, crucified and risen again, has conquered sin, death, and the devil, then Jesus’ victory would have the impact on all aspects of our lives that it deserves to have!
For a start, we would come to Jesus regularly to receive forgiveness for our sins, and for help in other times of trouble—such as our bereavement at the departure of a loved one.  We would come to Jesus and find that our hearts were not so troubled as they would be without Him.  For Jesus’ Word is living and active.  “Let not your hearts be troubled” is not simply a wish, or an encouragement to think positively; it is a command that brings with it the power to soothe a troubled heart in the way that only our Savior can do.
With this in mind, we who believe that Jesus is preparing a place for us, will regularly come to that same Jesus for the grace and the peace of conscience that only He can give.  We will do this because even though we remember our baptismal identity as God’s holy children that old sinful side of us keeps offending God making it necessary that we confess our sins and seek His forgiveness.
And that is part of the reason why we are to long for that time when the new life begun in Christ, and prepared for us by Him, will finally be brought to completion.  When He will raise our mortal bodies and put on immortality, where the corruptible will be replaced by the incorruptible.  And we will take up permanent residence in our Father’s house.  When we will be with the Lord and all our loved ones who have died in the faith.
For that reason alone it is good for us to talk about death and the resurrection—and to sing songs, such as “Behold a Host Arrayed in White” to remind us that we are waiting for the work that faith began in us to be brought to completion.  We look to that great day where our bodies will be raised from the dead and glorified and we will be at our Savior’s side.  Trusting in the unchanging and eternal Word of God gives us the ability to go forward through life in peace. 
Through His Word and Sacraments, Christ applies that love of God to us.  God applied His love to Virgil through Holy Baptism.  In the water and Word he was baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, clothed with His righteousness.  The heavenly Father adopted him as His beloved child, giving him an eternal place in His house.  As he heard the Word of God, Virgil was led to confess his sins and to receive forgiveness through Christ’s called and ordained servant.  At altars like this one, Virgil received Christ’s His true body and blood for the forgiveness of his sins and the strengthening of his faith unto life everlasting. 
Those means of grace are here for you as well so that you might also have Jesus calm your troubled heart.  As the Holy Spirit works faith in your heart, He produces a quiet trust in the Lord of all things.  He enables you to wait patiently while the Lord accomplishes the end that He intends.  Through the eyes of faith, He helps you to see that the Lord is compassionate and merciful, even when things would seem to indicate otherwise.  In the face of death, faith remembers that God’s Son also died, carrying away your sins upon His shoulders, that you might be able to face God free from sin and guilt.  He was crucified to pay for your pardon and raised from the dead for your justification before God.  By doing that for you, God was demonstrating that He is both loving and faithful beyond question toward you.
In the days ahead, may God bring to your mind His many blessings and moments of joy that each of you shared with Virgil over the years.  May God move each of you to trust Him so that your hearts not be troubled.  May He enliven and strengthen such faith in you, that you may always live by His grace, knowing His wonderful compassion and mercy, resting in His love and peace, making use of His gracious gifts that are supplied through the Church for all who are the children of God.  May you continue to hear and believe this Good News of salvation and eternal life: For the sake of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven for all of your sins. 
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

To Fulfill All Righteousness: Sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord

Click here to listen to this sermon.

The text for today is our Gospel lesson, Matthew 3:13-17.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
You were born as one lost and dead—lost in sin and dead in your trespasses.  By nature, an enemy of God, under His just wrath and displeasure and doomed to eternal damnation.  A slave to sin and subject to Satan, an unholy child of disobedience and unrighteousness, helplessly being led into the very jaws of hell.  A sad state of affairs, to be sure; an unnatural condition that God did not design or intend, but nevertheless, one that that describes every man, woman, and child conceived and born in sin since Adam and Eve.  Life in this world (even if lived in blissful ignorance) is still a whirlwind tour whistling through the graveyard.  In truth, apart from the triune God, His love and grace—it is really a living death. 
Yet, since that living death is the only “life” you had known it seemed normal; and to the old sinful flesh that clings to you that old way still seems normal.  By experience, you understand that you’re not perfect, but by nature you believe that you’re probably good enough.  By nature, you believe, along with the rest of humanity, that life is about doing your best to get along—bending this rule and breaking that one if necessary.  By nature, you like the companionship of the world as it shuffles on its way—and those old sinful ways feel comfortable like an old shoe; they’re okay if no one gets hurt.  And by nature, you live in fear—the constant fear of death, that this life is all there is and that the clock is running out. 
But I have Good News for you: You’ve been rescued from all of that!  You have been snatched from hell’s gaping mouth, redeemed, brought again into the Father’s favor and grace.  Not by your work, not by your self-justification, not by your sincere intentions, but solely by the Lord’s work and mercy.  The Lord earnestly desires to gather you to Himself as a hen gathers her chicks. 
How far would He go to gather you to Himself?  In the past few weeks, you have already heard of one great milestone: He would go so far as to become flesh for you, to be born in Bethlehem to redeem you from sin.  But that’s not all.  We hear more of His redeeming work for you today.
Jesus comes to the Jordan River, to John the Baptist, to be baptized just like all those poor, miserable sinners gathered there, all who, by nature, live apart from God, and who fail to love their neighbor as themselves.  Jesus comes to be baptized, and John tries to prevent Him.  John is baptizing for the forgiveness of sins.  But Jesus is righteous, holy.  He does not need forgiveness.  And He’s God in flesh, so He does not need to be reconciled with God, either.  So then, why is He baptized?  For you and me.  For this world of sinners.
Imagine a huge flock of sheep all gathered on the bank of the Jordan.  One by one they go down to the Baptist, standing there in the river.  Now these sheep are filthy, disgusting, covered in mud and their own filth.  They have burrs and thorns caught in their wool, and they are ragged, nasty looking sheep.  That’s all the people who came to the Jordan to be baptized by John.  That’s you.  That’s me. 
And as these sheep step into the water and John pours water over them and says, “I baptize you for the forgiveness of all of your sins,” then all of the muck and filth washes off of these sheep, and they walk out of the river pure, white, and gleaming.  Sheep after sheep comes into the water, and all of the dirt and uncleanness is washed off.  Sheep after sheep is washed clean, while the water is covered with gunk, like a slough or an oil spill.
Now imagine that in the middle of all of these dirty disgusting sheep there is One Sheep who is white, gleaming, stunning to look at.  This Lamb is without spot or blemish, perfect in every way.  And now this perfect white woolly Lamb comes to the edge of the water, and John sees Him, and tries to prevent Him coming into the filth, saying, “I need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?”
But this perfect Lamb answers, saying, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”  So this perfect Lamb steps into the water, and as He does all the filth and muck and stain and thorn and dirt and blood that is swirling around on the water is absorbed onto Him.  His wool is saturated with your uncleanness and my unrighteousness.  All of it.  And this Lamb walks out of the river bearing all the filth of all the sheep of all the world.  And now the water is clear and pure, and this Lamb is nearly unrecognizable.
And there is John, in the river, and He points to this Sheep and says, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”  This is Jesus, who knew no sin, the One whom God made to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.  
Dear saints, in this image we have the baptism and the death of Jesus and our baptism all wrapped up together, how they should be.  For the baptism of Jesus is the first step of the ministry that ends at the cross.  And at Jesus’ cross He fills up the promise of the forgiveness of all sins, the gift that Baptism gives to us.   
So John baptizes Jesus, and what happens just afterwards?  God the Father declares, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.”  And then the Holy Spirit descends upon Him; God anoints His Son with His Spirit.  What happens here is the fulfillment of prophecy, for Jesus is baptized in order not to break bruised reeds or quench smoldering wicks.  He isn’t baptized to make all those sinners even more separated from God.  He is baptized to identify with them, because He is taking their place.
So much does Jesus desire to gather in these people, that He’s become flesh like them, and now He’s been baptized like them.  He’s making the substitution, taking their place to suffer God’s judgment for their sin.  As they are baptized, their sins are washed off of them; when Jesus is baptized, all their sin (and yours and mine) is washed onto Him and He soaks it up like a great “sin sponge.” 
Jesus will carry that loathsome load to the cross and destroy it there.  He will bear every last sin in the world, every sin that separates man from his fellow man, and every sin that isolates man from God and would leave him in eternal death.  And Jesus will suffer that ultimate death on the cross as He cries out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”
That’s why Jesus is getting baptized with all those sinners—He’s taking their place to go to the cross.  That’s why the Father says, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”  And that’s why He is anointed with the Holy Spirit.  All of this is part of what Luther calls the “Great Exchange.”  Jesus takes our sin, our death, our wretchedness, the wrath and hell that our iniquities have earned, and in return gives us His kingdom, His name, His holiness, His righteousness, His Holy Spirit, His life, His hope, and His resurrection.  As St. Paul writes: “For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
If you want to see what we have given Jesus, then we simply look to the cross.  That’s where He really gets it.  There we see the shame and loneliness, the forsakenness and suffering, the wrath and condemnation that we and our sin so justly deserve, hung out like dirty laundry for all the world to see.  But that which is ours, is joyfully and gladly embraced by Jesus in His mercy, compassion, and boundless love as He fulfills all righteousness.  And in return, He graces us, He gives us all that His: His righteousness, His obedience, His Spirit, His life.
All of this is brought to us personally in the gift of our Baptism.  That is where the exchange is completed.  There at the font.  Jesus gives us what is His—His name, His life, His joy, and His forgiveness.  There we are reborn as children of the heavenly Father, adopted as God’s children, made heirs of the eternal kingdom, and rescued from sin, death, and the devil.
Remember the words that the heavenly Father spoke of Jesus at His baptism?  Well, they apply to you as well.  Even the good pleasure of His Father, our Jesus shares with you in your baptism.  “You are Mine.  I am well-pleased with you because My Son has died for those sins that brought you loneliness and isolation, and so I no longer hold them against you.  Therefore, you are an heir of heaven and have the hope of eternal life.  Until then, remember: when I baptized you, I promised that I am with you always, even to the end of the age.  I keep that promise.  I visit you by My Word, and I gather you to My Supper.”
You are not lost in sin.  You are not dead in your trespasses, because you have been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection.  Christ fulfilled all righteousness by being your Substitute.  He carried that awful load of your sin God’s beloved Son suffered God’s righteous wrath for your sin in your place.  You’ve been adopted as a child of God, an heir of the kingdom of heaven.  Jesus became the Sinner so that you might become a son.  He died so that you might live.
But remember that you live in a dying world; and that, as long as your sinful flesh still clings to you, those old ways of the world will still seem perfectly natural, right, and good.  The world will still call you back to the living death you once had—and the world’s ways will seem so sensible and reasonable and workable.  That is because your own sinful flesh still wants to do those things, which are sinful, which separate you from God.
It is tempting to believe that Baptism is the ultimate free ticket, that now you can commit whatever sin you wish; but that is utter foolishness.  “May it never be,” says St. Paul.  To continue in sin after Baptism is to say, “Since I’ve been released from prison, I will now go back into my cell and pretend I am free.”  It is like saying, “Now that I have been adopted into a splendid mansion, I will go back and live on the street and imagine I am cared for.”  It is really to say, “I was baptized, given new life in Christ, but I have left that life behind for death once more.” 
That is not for you.  Christ has died your death, given you His life.  Sin need no longer hold you.  So as Old Adam coaxes and seeks to seduce you to this or that sin, make the sign of the cross—remember Jesus’ death that He has joined you to, and say, “I am baptized.  Once, I was lost, but now I am found.  Once, I was a slave to sin, but now I am free.  Once, I was dead in my sin and transgressions, but now I am alive in Christ.  Shall I continue in sin?  May it never be!”
And yet, you will still give in to temptation all too often—all Christians sin daily and much.  The devil will delight to hold these sins before you in order to tempt you to believe that you’re not set free from sin—that you’re not a Christian at all.  When the devil haunts you with your sin to prove that you’re not worthy of God’s grace, make the sign of the cross and say, “So what?  I know I’m not worthy of God’s grace.  But I am baptized.  And there, by water and the Word, God said that I am His forgiven child and that He no longer sees the sins you hold before me.  I am not saved by my worthiness, but by Christ’s worthiness, for He has shared His life, death, and resurrection with me!”
You’re no longer a slave of sin: that’s what Romans 6:6 says.  Sin is like the robber who lurks in the alley: it can jump out and assault you, but it is not your lord.  You are no longer a slave to sin.  You are baptized.  For Jesus’ sake, you are a child of God and an heir of heaven.
We quickly note here that all Christians are troubled by their ongoing sinfulness.  If your sins do not trouble you, it does not mean that your heart is pure; rather, it means that your heart is hardening.  If you don’t feel the guilt of your sin it means that your conscience is becoming calloused.
By faith, then, you trust what God’s Word says about you and how sinful you are.  You remember that you are indeed sinful and unclean.  You have sinned against Him by thought, word, and deed.  You are a poor, miserable sinner who has offended God, and justly deserves His temporal and eternal punishment. 
But you also trust what God says about His grace in Christ.  You confess those sins and you say, “I am baptized.  And while my stubborn heart for now will not let me acknowledge God’s grace as I ought, I know He forgives me for this sin, too.”
As long as you have sinful flesh, you still face the death of your body unless the Lord returns first.  The specter of death is a haunting thing, and as it approaches you can be sure that the devil will use it as his final attempt to make you doubt the Lord’s promises.  At such times, should you wonder whether or not God loves you, remember the answer and say, “I am baptized.  God’s beloved child.   Jesus joined me to His death—and He also joined me to His resurrection.  Just like sin, death is not my master—for if death no longer has dominion over Jesus, then it has no dominion over me.  Just like sin, death is like that would-be robber who would seek to destroy me; but it is also a conquered enemy, one that Christ will use to deliver me from this world and raise me up to eternal life.”
Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River by John to fulfill all righteousness, so that He might take your place in death and share with you His resurrection.  The same Jesus was just as present at the font when you were baptized, washing away your sins by water and the Word.  That same Jesus is present in His Supper today, to give you His body and blood for the forgiveness of sins and the strengthening of your faith.  The same Jesus is present in the words of Absolution spoken by your pastor.  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.

Into the Wilderness

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