Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Defense Never Rests

Click here to listen to this sermon.
For a number of years, I’ve had a Bible verse on the signature line of my email account. I chose that verse as a sort of mission statement. I think it sums up my calling as a pastor and also to share the faith in my daily vocations as husband, father, neighbor, co-worker, friend, etc. So it is really no coincidence that that it happens to be our text for today

 “But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Pastor Terry Jones drew worldwide attention when his small congregation (about thirty members) staged a “trial” of the Koran on March 20, 2011 in Gainesville, Florida. News of that event incited riots in Afghanistan and allegedly provoked an attack on a United Nations facility that killed seven people.

Jones then planned a Good Friday rally outside the largest American mosque in Dearborn, Michigan. Jones stated, “We have made it very clear that we are coming there with very, very peaceful intentions,” but added, “We will be armed. We do have concealed weapons permits.” Banned in court from holding the protest outside the mosque, Jones finally staged a rally near the site a week later with a half dozen supporters. He had to cut short the rally when he was drowned out by about 700 protesters who shouted and tossed their shoes and water bottles at him. Undaunted by the protests, Jones claimed his fight is not about hate, but about standing up for America and combating the radical Muslims.

Other churches have taken a much different approach: They have actually opened their facilities to Muslim groups. Heartsong Church near Memphis, Tennessee, reportedly allowed members of the Memphis Islamic Center to hold Ramadan prayers in its building. Steve Stone, Heartsong’s senior pastor, said, “No thought at all was given to the political ramifications… The decision was firmly based only on our understanding of the mission and nature of the church.” He also pointed out that “there was no trading of theologies. They are Muslims; we are Jesus followers; both of us are clear about that.”

How about another example of polar opposites in church bodies dealing with “controversial topics” in the public area? Take Westboro Baptist Church, a congregation, started by Fred Phelps, which first gained notoriety in 1998, when members picketed at the funeral of Matthew Shepherd, who was murdered in Wyoming because he was gay. Since then, the members have protested at the funerals of public figures, children killed in accidents, and soldiers killed in war.

Shirley Phelps-Roper, the church spokeswoman at the time, said they want God to punish Americans for tolerating homosexuality. They picket funerals to make people angry. They want people to reject God and be condemned to hell. “Our job is laid out,” she says, in comments sprinkled with biblical references, “we are supposed to blind their eyes, stop up their ears and harden their hearts so that they cannot see, hear or understand, and be converted and receive salvation.”

Compare that to the comments of Rev. Mark Hanson, the former Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. When asked about the hundreds of congregations that have left the ELCA since it voted in 2009 to allow gays and lesbians in committed relationships to serve as clergy, Hanson said those defections represent a small percentage of the church body’s 10,000 congregations.

Hanson declined to state his personal view (or more importantly the biblical view) on whether God can bless gay and lesbian relationships, stressing that his job is to help all sides feel safe and free to discuss their differences. Hanson declared, “Our unity is in our diversity.” Then he added that congregations holding the traditional view that the Bible condemns same-sex relationships are still welcome.

Two pairs of extremes. Two pairs of diametrically opposing approaches to “defending the faith.” The one “in your face” confrontational, the other bending over backwards to appease. Each trying to deal with difficult issues: the rapid spread of Islam and a campaign for the acceptance of homosexuality. None coming to the correct Biblical conclusion. All sadly missing out on their opportunity to make a defense to anyone who asks for a reason for the hope that we Christians have in Christ Jesus, our Lord; doing so with gentleness and respect.

But as difficult as these issues are for us today, are they anything compared to Peter’s day? The apostle writes to encourage people who have already begun to experience persecution for their faith under Nero; but he predicts that worse ordeals are still to come. Not having the right of citizenship, they could be arrested and imprisoned, held without bail or habeas corpus rights for any length of time, physically abused, subjected to seizure of property, exiled, sent to work as slaves in government mines, and even killed for no other reason than being Christians.

Peter could well understand these Christian’s bewilderment that God’s sons and daughters should undergo this kind of treatment—he himself had once expressed shock and horror at the idea of Jesus’ suffering and death, and he had to be rebuked as though he were Satan himself. In the upper room on Maundy Thursday, Jesus had told him: “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31, 32).

Peter’s experience of failure, repentance, forgiveness, and restoration uniquely qualified him to write to other struggling Christians. He’s been there. He writes his letter to help his brothers and sisters see that their painful trials are temporary, that hardship will purify their faith, and that God’s real goal for His children lies beyond this dying world. Peter wants them to lay hold of this living hope and to share the reason for that hope whatever their circumstances.

Peter undoubtedly has to smile to himself as he writes these words about nonviolent passivity. After all, is he not the one who was armed in Gethsemane? Is he not the one who drew his sword and gave Malchus the earectomy? He was ready to go down in a bloodbath, thinking that he would thus be honoring God.  

Peter can also understand the urge to run and hide. When Jesus was led away to the high priest’s house, Peter followed at a distance. A servant girl’s innocent question was all it had taken for him to deny even knowing the Lord. But his Master had taught him well. Jesus prayers for Peter’s faith to not fail were answered. Peter repented and was reinstated.

Here, Peter issues an inspiring call to confessing the faith even under the threat of persecution. Christians are not to bash their enemies over the head, nor are they to cowardly run away when confronted. You are to always be prepared to make a defense of the faith to anyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope that is in you. This is the ultimate in loving one’s enemies—what better way could there be than to seek to share the message of eternal life with them?

Notice, Peter isn’t talking here of make evangelism calls, where you go door-to-door, talking to complete strangers who know nothing of you and your situation, nor you of them. There is a context: you’re living as a Christian, enduring some hardship, and someone asks you why you are living the way you do. Why aren’t you hopeless or bitter or vengeful or silenced? Why do you stick with the faith?

The Lord uses the situation to raise questions so that you might have the opportunity to speak His Word. You don’t necessarily even have to start the conversation: people come to you. It may be the one inflicting the suffering. More probably, it’s the bystander who may well be suffering, too, but without any hope. Why do you have hope? Can you make a defense? Can you give the reason for your hope?

St. Peter tells us how to do this. He begins: “In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy…” Does this sound obvious? Do you need to be told this? Of course you do. People hate hypocrisy, and they can smell religious hypocrisy at 200 yards. And unfortunately, you are hypocritical. You like other people to think you are better than you really are. And much of the time, you try to fool yourself, too. You want to believe you’re doing better than you really are. I know, because I do, too!

The selfish poisons inside of you seep from your sinful nature, and that Old Adam needs to be rebuked and contained each day. The new man in you needs to reaffirm his faith every day—every day repenting, every day praying for strength to stand up for the truth, every day listening to the Savior’s voice through His wonderful Word. And when your own heart is full of gratitude for being rescued from death and hell, you will be ready to speak, and your speech will have depth and conviction. You will not taste or smell or sound phony.

The next step is “always being prepared…” This is not just a Boy Scout motto. You prepare for other less important things. So, why not prepare to share that which is most important to you: “the reason for the hope that is within you”?

God opens up the door for each of us to share the Gospel. So be prepared. Think about what you might say beforehand. Do it now, when the pressure does not seem so noticeable. Can you summarize the Christian faith in a few sentences?

Here is a simple four-keyword summary of the Bible’s Law-Gospel message that you can keep in mind to help organize all the Bible facts you know.

The first word is sin. Tell people how we are separated from our Creator at birth, that no human being can lift himself up to God’s standards of holiness, that all people by nature are God’s enemies and under His curse.

The second word is grace. Tell people that for Christ’s sake, God loves us anyway. He sent His Son to live and die in our place and pronounced the world not guilty because of Jesus.

The third word is faith. Tell people that all of these good things—forgiveness, peace, spiritual life now, life forever—flow into our lives personally as the Holy Spirit uses God’s Word to lead us to believe these wonderful promises.

The fourth word is works. Tell people that the Spirit of God comes to live in believers and enables them to live for God. Believers see God’s ways as a delight rather than a burden, and find joy in conforming their will to His will.

Thus prepared, you are ready “to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you…” The word translated here as “a defense” is apologia, a positive testimony and witness to the truth of the Gospel, particularly in the face of opposition. The word translated as “a reason” is logon, literally, “a word,” preferably a word of Scripture. Christianity is “reasonable.” It stands up to scrutiny and investigation because it is true. Christians are to be prepared to tell others about this truth whenever they have the opportunity.

When you talk to people, you don’t have to argue with them. You don’t need to deliver the perfect sales pitch or try to make God’s ways logical or reasonable to them. You don’t need to be clever, or take on the burden of converting them yourself. Just tell them what you hope for in God through the merits and work of Christ. Let the Holy Spirit do His work through the Gospel! 

As you do so, you must avoid the extremes of unnecessarily offending others in your Christian witness, or neutering the message to appease the modern gods of tolerance and political correctness. You must not unnecessarily antagonize them, nor should you pull back from them if they object. Just speak the truth in love.

St. Peter says, “Do it with gentleness and respect.” But even such a gentle and respectful approach will not avoid all criticism or conflict. That’s why he adds: “having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.”

You should not be surprised when you suffer, not even when you suffer for doing right. You live in a fallen world, where all of us are subjected to the consequences of sin in our daily existence. God said to Adam: “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread’—and to the woman—“I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing.” Since that time every human being has suffered—even Jesus. He suffered more than you or I ever will—and He was perfectly righteous.

That’s why Peter lifts up our eyes from our own circumstances to the objective reality of the victorious Savior: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.”

Your sin and guilt are more deserving of suffering than you care to admit. Even one sin is deserving of God’s temporal and eternal punishment. And you’ve committed thousands of sins—more than you even realize. But these words point you to what someone else has done for you, on your behalf, in your place: the suffering and death of the God-man, Jesus Christ.

Christ also suffered “once for sins.” Although you sin repeatedly, Christ’s one act of atonement covers all your sins. This is the Great Exchange: “The righteous for the unrighteous.” The Father loaded the blame for the sins of the world upon a righteous substitute and then had Him executed on a cross in our place. He is the Lamb of God who bears the sin of the world.

Christ did all of this “that He might bring us to God.” You cannot lift yourself up to God. Christ has lifted you up to God. Christ has reconciled you to His heavenly Father. Christ—His suffering, death, and resurrection—are the heart and center of the Bible. This is really the only Good News that you have to share with a world that is lost and dead in its trespasses. This is the Gospel that you need to hear again and again and again for it is the only Word that saves you… that brings you eternal life… that brings you a good conscience.

This is the reason for the hope that is in you, no matter what your outward circumstances: “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring [you] to God.” Though He was put to death in the flesh, He was raised to life and has ascended into heaven at the right hand of God, where He intercedes on your behalf and brings your prayers before the heavenly Father. Even so, He is here with you today and always, coming to you in His Word and Sacraments, where He brings you salvation and eternal life, bringing you this Good News: You are forgiven of all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Way and the Truth and the Life

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Jesus said to him, “I Am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Our text for today, is one of the best-known passages of what Martin Luther calls “the best and most comforting sermon preached by Christ while on this earth.”1 In chapters 14-16 of his Gospel, St. John records and transmits the words spoken by Jesus after the Last Supper on the night in which He is betrayed. With this sermon, Jesus wants to comfort and strengthen His disciples both against the present sadness occasioned by His departure, and also against the suffering they will endure because of the devil, the world, and their own conscience as they go out into the world as heirs of His kingdom and His ambassadors.
Jesus’ predictions of His own suffering and death have greatly troubled the disciples, so He speaks to calm their fears. He encourages them to continue to believe in God and in His Son despite what their eyes and hearts tell them. Though the way be dark with the shadow of death, Jesus is on the road to glory—for Himself and for them. Jesus is leaving His disciples in order to prepare a place for them—His Father’s house. Furthermore, He will come back one day and take them to be with Him. Then Jesus adds, “And you know the way to where I am going.”
We can understand Jesus’ meaning by remembering what He is about to do, namely, to die on the cross and rise from the dead. Human beings by nature have no place in God’s house because sin has barred the way. But Jesus’ death will atone for all sins and prepare the room. His resurrection will signal that all is ready.
Jesus’ disciples already know the way. He has been showing them for three years. But they are slow to catch on, as we often are. Thomas gives voice to their bewilderment. How can they know the way when they don’t even know the place? He’s missed the spiritual impact of Jesus’ words.
But Jesus patiently teaches His disciples everything they need to know for salvation: “I AM the Way and the Truth and the Life.” Everything of God has its source in Christ and is reached through Christ and only Christ. Jesus is the Way. We can only approach the Father through Jesus. Jesus is the Truth. We can trust Jesus because all that is real and true is found in Him. He is God the Word, and through His Word He reveals His salvation. Jesus is the Life—the source of physical and spiritual life. Whoever believes in Him has eternal life.
This teaching is exclusive. What a contrast to the popular teaching that says all religions reach God, but just follow different paths. Christ teaches that there are no other paths: “No one comes to the Father except through Me.”
Jesus goes on to say, “If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also. From now on you do know Him and have seen Him.” To know the Son is to know the Father. The disciples should have already known this, but they can’t see past their earthly limitations. Only after Jesus’ work of redemption and the sending of His Holy Spirit will the Way and the Truth and the Life be clear.
Thomas isn’t alone in his confusion. All the disciples are struggling to understand. Philip offers what seems a simple, logical solution: “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Apparently he feels Jesus can have God the Father make some sort of appearance and everything will become clear to them.
Jesus chides Philip: “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know Me, Philip?” Then He states the simple truth: “Whoever has seen Me has seen the Father.” Philip needs only to open his eyes and see Who is standing right in front of him. The one true God is standing before him veiled in human flesh.
Jesus emphasizes His unique oneness with the Father. Jesus is never separated from the Father. He is in the Father, and the Father is in Him. The Father speaks through the Son. The Father works through the Son. Jesus does and says nothing that doesn’t further God’s plan of salvation. “Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me, or else believe on account of the works themselves,” Jesus tells His disciples. Jesus reaches our hearts with His words, and He points to His works as evidence that His words are true.
Then Jesus adds, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in Me will also do the works that I do, and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.” Jesus first mentions the works He does in the physical realm, such as healing the sick. The disciples, by Jesus’ power, will do similar miracles to substantiate the Word they preach. But the greater works are the miracles in the spiritual realm that He will work through them. In sharing the Gospel, every Christian can have a part in His miracles: opening eyes that are spiritually blind, giving eternal life to the spiritually dead, opening heaven to lost sinners.
But that’s not all! Jesus makes another astounding promise: “Whatever you ask in My name, this will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” And just to make sure His disciples understand, He repeats: “If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it.” The promise is absolute. It covers whatever the believer asks, and it carries Jesus’ assurance: “I will do it.”
Do you see what Jesus has done here? He has begun by pointing His disciples and us to our ultimate destination—the place He has prepared for us and then He has shown us the way there—the only way there—through Himself, who is the Way and the Truth and the Life. Next, He tells us how the Way and the Truth and the Life is ours even here and now. He gives us faith through the words He says to us spoken by the authority of the Father; and we, in turn, ask blessings of the heavenly Father in Jesus’ name, according to His will and Word.
We follow in His Way. We listen to His Truth. We have Life in His name. And we have all of these even now. You see, this passage doesn’t just refer to the heavenly dwelling places Jesus has prepared for us. The Way and the Truth and the Life is the Christian life—here and now. But like many spiritual truths it is not necessarily visible to our eyes; in fact, it often appears contrary to what we might expect. We must rely on something outside of ourselves. We need someone to lead us and guide us. That is where Christ’s means of grace and prayer enter the picture.
John Kleinig explains: “Imagine, for a moment, that you are completely blind. You cannot use your eyes to see where you are or what is going on around you. Like all blind people, you have to learn to ‘see’ with your ears. If you wish to travel, you can use a cane to supplement your ears and to find your way as you walk along by yourself. But it is best to have a guide dog to lead you or, better still, someone to travel with to tell you where you are and where to go.
“Spiritually speaking, we are blind. We walk through life on an unseen journey, since we live by faith here on earth. There is an unseen world all around us that we can sense but never see, a world of radiant splendor and of abysmal darkness, a world that surrounds us like a fifth dimension and more. That world is not an imaginary world. In fact, it is much more real than the world we know from our senses. Our access to that world comes to us via our ears rather than our eyes, ears that are attentive to the Word and Spirit of God. By faith we go on our invisible way through life. We learn to travel along that way by walking with our invisible traveling companion, Jesus. Traveling step-by-step, we listen to Him as He speaks to us. He is, as it were, our eyes. We use our ears to see our way.
“Our spiritual journey is unlike any other journey. It is a heavenly pilgrimage, a journey from our earthly location to God’s holy place, and a holy journey from earth to heaven… On their annual pilgrimages the Israelites went to meet with God so they could receive His blessing and share in His holiness; as holy people they then took that blessing with them to their homes and their communities. We, however, do not just go on pilgrimage occasionally; our whole life is an invisible pilgrimage with Christ.
“There are, in all, four dimensions to our unseen pilgrimage. First, we travel with the whole Church throughout the ages, beginning with Abraham, on its historic journey from this world to the world to come, from our earthly homes to the heavenly city. Second, we travel with the people in our congregation on its weekly journey from earth to heaven and back again in the Divine Service. Third, we travel by ourselves and our families on a daily journey into the Father’s presence in our daily devotions. Fourth, we travel by ourselves in our personal lifelong journey through death to eternal life with Christ in the Father’s presence…
“The way of discipleship has two sides to it. On the one hand, it is a journey in which we live by the grace of God. As we travel with Christ, God the Father reaches out to each of us in the same way through His Word. Through His Word He generates and maintains our faith; through His Word, which is enacted in proclamation, absolution, Baptism, and Holy Communion, where He gives us the Holy Spirit and all His gifts…
“On the other hand, in our journey we live by faith in the multicolored grace of God, just as plants live by the light of the sun. By faith we have access to God the Father through the Son by the Holy Spirit. By faith we again and again receive all the benefits that Jesus has won for us by His death on the cross…  By faith we receive the Holy Spirit and rely on the Spirit to transform us in our personality and mentality, our behavior and our lifestyle, so that we, each in our own way and in our unique cultural context, mirror some of the fullness of Christ. Our whole experience of life is shaped and illuminated by faith, the faith that comes from hearing God’s Word and receiving His Holy Spirit.
“Although in our spiritual journey we live by the grace of God, in practicing it we concentrate on the life of faith. It is true that we, both as creatures in the world and as children of God in the Church, receive everything from God as a gift. That’s the foundation of our faith, its bedrock. Yet while faith is always trustfully receptive, it is never inactive and unproductive…
“We who have access to God’s grace use our faith to approach Him for help and to bring help to others. We exercise our faith by practicing our piety, whether it is by going to church or by saying grace before meals, by meditating on God’s Word or by praying, by examining ourselves in the light of God’s Law or by confessing our sins, by fasting or by presenting our offerings to God. Faith is meant to be used, and grows as it is used. We are not called to live as practical atheists, people who, theoretically, believe in God, and yet act as if God has nothing to do with their daily lives; we are called to rely on God’s provision for us at all times and in all places…
“Exercising our faith involves the constant interplay between the Word of God and our experience of life, what God has to say to us each day and what happens to us each day. These two belong together; they interpret each other. God’s Word interprets our experience. Our experience of life helps us to understand what He says and so confirms our faith in His Word. His Word teaches us to see ourselves and our experience from His point of view; the school of experience shapes our minds and souls, so that they are attuned to His Word and His good and gracious will for us…
“In practice this means that our spiritual growth, our spiritual health and maturity, is the product of the interaction between work and prayer, for the same God is equally at work in both. In prayer we receive what we need for our daily work. In our daily work we discover what we need to pray for. By prayer we receive the Holy Spirit, so that we can live and work by the power of the Spirit.”2
Do you see how freeing this all is? It frees us from our sin and sinfulness. It frees us from an angry, capricious God. It frees us from the lies of Satan, the world, and our own sinful flesh. It frees us from bondage to the Law and guilty consciences. It frees us from depravity and death!
To the ancient peoples, the gods acted much like modern organized crime. You did your religious duty to keep them off your back and out of your lives (like a protection racket) or to entice them to do you a favor (bribery or kickbacks). The Gospel runs counter to religious thought across the world: the God who reveals Himself in the Holy Scriptures is the only real God in all the world.
And the claims of Christianity go even further: This one God provides one and only one way of salvation throughout the ages. Not all religions lead to the true God. In fact, Jesus makes the claim that He and only He can lead us to God. “I Am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6).
Church teachers sometimes call this the “scandal of particularity.” Christians go out into the world with the scandalous message of Christ crucified for sinners. They do not preach that Jesus is a way of salvation or that He is one option among many. Only Jesus, true God and true man, can lead people to the love of God the Father. Outside of faith in Jesus, no one can have God’s love, grace, and forgiveness. Apart from a personal faith in Jesus, no one in all the world throughout all history could be saved.
What does this mean for you and me? It means that we have a great privilege and important mission here on earth. Only through faith in Jesus Christ can any human being in any place on earth receive God’s love, forgiveness of sins, and eternal life. And as member of His holy priesthood, Christ has called us to share that message with others and to offer up prayers on their behalf. And we have Christ’s promise that as we do, He will be with us every step of the way.
That is truly a great adventure! And that is why this has become one of my favorite prayers: Lord God, You have called Your servants to ventures which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go but only that Your hand is leading us and Your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 
Like Jesus’ disciples, you and I face uncertainty, perhaps even doubt and fear. We don’t know what the future—even this very day—may hold for us. But we do know Who holds us and the future. Jesus Christ is the Way and the Truth and the Life. Through Him you may confidently come to your Father with all of your cares, concerns and requests, confident that He will do these things in Jesus’ name. After all, in Baptism, He has already given you His name. In Jesus’ name, you have forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. Indeed, you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
1Luther, M. (1999, c1961). Vol. 24: Luther's works, vol. 24 : Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 14-16 (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (24:7). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House
 
2Kleinig, John (2008) Grace upon Grace: Spirituality for Today. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House

Monday, May 12, 2014

Knowing the Voice of the Shepherd

Click here to listen to this sermon.
The text for today is our Gospel lesson, John 10:1-10, which has already been read.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!


Are you good at recognizing voices? My first boss, Ralph Korn, was exceptionally good at it. Someone he hadn’t seen for twenty years or so could call him and he’d know immediately who it was. God certainly knew what he was doing when he gave Ralph that gift. Even as Ralph’s eyesight was failing as a result of multiple sclerosis, he would still recognize most everyone when they came into the feed store as soon as they said, “Hello.”

Since that time, I’ve discovered that recognizing voices is a skill that can be learned and practiced. The trick is to really focus on that voice and listen for distinguishing traits. The more you hear that voice and the closer you listen, the more distinct and recognizable that voice is to your ear.

In our Gospel lesson for today Jesus speaks to the Pharisees. He has just healed the man born blind and they are seething at Jesus’ implication that they are spiritually blind; so blind, in fact, they are completely oblivious to their condition. Now, in essence, Jesus accuses them of spiritual deafness as well.

Jesus begins “truly, truly, I say to you,” a phrase He often uses to emphasize that He is about to teach a very important spiritual lesson. Then He paints a word picture to drive the point home, using a figure of speech called paroimia, literally translated “a veiled saying.” A saying that uses a concrete image to convey a spiritual truth. As with a parable, the meaning is not always obvious to outsiders.  

The image Jesus pictures is of sheep that are kept in a stone-walled, open-air pen. Only the shepherd has access through the one gate to the sheep. Anyone finding another way into the pen is up to no good. He is a robber and a thief.

The watchman protecting the gate opens it only for the shepherd. The sheep recognize the shepherd’s voice as he calls each of them by name and leads them out. They follow because they know his voice. But they do not follow a stranger. They fear strangers and flee from them because they do not recognize their voice.

As Jesus speaks, we might expect His Jewish audience to understand at least some of His figurative language. Much of it is used throughout the Old Testament. The sheep are God’s chosen people. The strangers and thieves are those who would harm them. The shepherd is the Messiah sent by God to care for the flock. But the Pharisees don’t fully understand the implication of Jesus’ words. Maybe they really don’t catch on, or perhaps they won’t follow it because they don’t believe in Jesus and aren’t ready to conclude that they themselves are among the strangers. Obviously, they don’t recognize Jesus’ voice as their Shepherd.

Seeing that they do not understand, Jesus patiently starts again with a slightly different twist and a more direct application. “Truly, truly, I say to you,” He emphasizes, “I am the door of the sheep.” Jesus is not only the shepherd and caretaker of the sheep, He is the only way to reach the sheep and the only way for the sheep to go for nourishment.

Many “strangers” came prior to Jesus, and many more will come after, each trying to reach His sheep. But the false prophets and false christs do not come by the way of Jesus. They do not find Christ in the Scriptures and point Him out as the way of salvation. They are thieves and robbers who come to steal, kill, and destroy. But Jesus comes so that the sheep might have life to the full.

Jesus first addresses these words to the Pharisees, who regard themselves as the spiritual shepherds of God’s people. They are very serious and knowledgeable about their religion. They are deeply committed to living by God’s will—as they understand it. That’s important for us to remember. It’s very rare that a false teacher, one of the thieves and robbers, sets out to lead anyone astray. Especially as they begin, they are generally very serious about their faith and truly wish to do what is right. No one, or at least hardly anyone, intentionally decides to be a heretic. They have good intentions. But as the saying goes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Blinded to the truth by their own arrogance and self-righteousness, tone deaf to the Good Shepherd’s voice, the Pharisees are simply misled by the lies of Satan, the world, or their own sinful flesh.

These men who claim to be spiritual leaders of God’s people hear from Jesus what it really means and what it takes to be His undershepherds. The only way to enter God’s flock, either as a shepherd or a sheep, is through the gate. And Jesus says that He is that gate. Only those who approach God and His people through Jesus will enter the safety of His flock. Others are dangerous intruders.

Jesus makes an astonishing claim: He is not just one gate among many gates—He is the Gate. He is not just one way among many ways that lead to eternal life—He is the only Way. He is not just one truth among many truths—He is the Truth. Jesus is not just a source of life—He is Life itself, Life to the full, Life in abundance. Jesus makes claims to uniqueness and exclusivity and sovereignty that offends many—even still today, perhaps especially in our day in which “tolerance” and “diversity” is touted as the primary virtue.

In effect, this is what He is saying to the Pharisees: “If you want to belong to God, if you want to lead God’s people, you have to do it through Me. If you do enter God’s flock through faith in Me, you will be well taken care of. I have life in its fullness for you. If you try to lead God’s people without accepting and obeying Me, you will only hurt and deprive God’s flock. And, you will lose your salvation too. What will you be—a true shepherd of the sheep or a thief and a robber? What will you do? Will you be one of My sheep who hear My voice and have abundant life, or will you listen to the other voices who will lead you to death and destruction?”

Many in every age, including our own, present themselves as God’s representatives and spokespersons, as leaders of His people. Here Jesus gives us a reliable gauge by which to evaluate them. True shepherds lead others to God and His flock through Jesus. They know and trust in Jesus as their Savior. And they invite and encourage others to find their way to God through Him. No one who ignores or denies Jesus can be trusted or followed.

There are a lot of other voices out there in the world today. Voices who would lead you away from the safety and comfort of family, friends, and fellow Christians. Voices dangling the prospect of greener pastures in order to lead you away from the safety of the sheep pen, away from the relationships established by God and before God, even away from the Good Shepherd Himself. Voices who promise freedom, excitement, fulfillment, and happiness, but will ultimately lead to bondage, pain, and destruction for you, perhaps even to some of the innocent bystanders whom you love and who love and care about you.

So, how do you keep away from those voices? You keep listening to the voice of the Good Shepherd. Listen long enough and close enough to the Good Shepherd and you will know His voice whenever and wherever He calls. You will not be fooled by false prophets, you will flee every stranger’s voice, for you will know that it sounds not like the Good Shepherd who promises you full and abundant life, but rather a thief and robber who comes to steal and kill and destroy.

Throughout the years of my ministry, I have given the new students beginning catechism class a set of 380 flashcards with questions and answers drawn from Luther’s Small Catechism that we will use to study and review each week. I tell them they will be able to answer most of these questions if they just learn their memory work on the six chief parts of the catechism. I also tell them that at the end of their final year, I will narrow that set of questions and answers down to thirty that they must know in order to be confirmed.

Why do I do that? Well, it’s certainly not to make my job easier. It would be a lot easier to just go along with the flow of modern education that seems to dismiss any memory work of any sort rather than having to constantly keep encouraging the students (and their parents) to keep up with the memory work.

And it’s not because I think that the catechumens just need more to do. No, I think most of these young men and women are already overcommitted and overwhelmed with school work and extra-curricular activities. No, it’s because I don’t want those lambs entrusted to my care to go out into the world without being reasonably certain they are able to distinguish between the Good Shepherd’s voice and the other voices competing for their heart, mind, and soul.  To not properly prepare them would be irresponsible and derelict in my duty to them.

But as I’ve thought about it—perhaps I have been irresponsible and derelict in my duty anyway. For I’ve not emphasized these teachings for the whole flock. I must teach these things to all of you as well. Why? Because learning and growing in faith and knowledge of Christ is not just for the lambs; it’s for Christ’s sheep of all ages. So that all His sheep might recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd.

Toward that end, I’d like to share a few of the questions and answers that are most helpful as a firm foundation for distinguishing truth from error. And if any of you would like a copy of the flashcards to work on yourself just let me know after the service. I would be more than willing to accommodate you. J    

1)  “What is the source of all Christian doctrine?” (The Bible).

There are voices who say that Christian doctrine is derived merely from human opinion, there is no absolute truth, but truth is relative or determined by the situation. Even some of the voices who say that doctrine is determined by the Bible insist it still must be subject to human reasoning for proper interpretation. Other voices say that doctrines can be declared by sacred tradition, the decrees of councils or popes. And still others rely on their own feelings to verify the truth.

Following the voice of our Good Shepherd, we teach that the Bible is the sole source of all Christian doctrine. When it comes to interpretation, Scripture interprets Scripture; that is, the more clear passages of the Bible are used in their proper context to clarify and help us understand the less clear passages.

2)  “What is the difference between the Law and the Gospel?” (The Law shows us our sin; the Gospel shows us our Savior.)

There is much confusion about Law and Gospel in the Church today. This is very dangerous to the Christian faith. The proper distinction between Law and Gospel is the only means for a correct understanding of Scripture. In fact, without this knowledge, Scripture is and remains a sealed book.

Some of the competing voices misrepresent Christ as a new Moses, or Lawgiver, and turn the Gospel into a doctrine of works. Many voices fail to preach the Law in its full sternness, or the Gospel in its full sweetness, as they mingle the two together. Other voices teach that the Law is to be used as a club or a carrot-and-stick rather than as Scriptures clearly teaches—as a curb, mirror, or guide. Still other voices dispense the Gospel too cheaply, by failing to preach repentance, consciously overlooking sin, or dismissing the great price Christ paid for our redemption—His holy and precious blood and His innocent suffering and death.

This potential misunderstanding is solved when we reflect that there are in the Scriptures two entirely different doctrines—the Law and the Gospel. The Law shows us our sin; the Gospel shows us our Savior. The Law shows us what we must do to be saved; the Gospel shows what God has done for our salvation through His Son Jesus Christ. The Law is partly known by nature; the Gospel is unknown to natural man but must be revealed by God in His Word. The Law condemns; the Gospel sets us free. The Law tells us what we must do, but it doesn’t help us keep its commands; whereas the Gospel calls for faith and then gives us the faith it demands.

3)  “Who is a worthy communicant?” (He or she that has faith in these words, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”)

In this day, many voices clamor for tolerance, few seem concerned about who is actually a worthy communicant. A church body like ours that still maintains the ancient practice of closed communion is labeled as narrow-minded, too strict, perhaps, even arrogant. But properly understood this teaching is seen to be most loving and caring for individual souls.

In 1 Corinthians 11:27-29, God sets out the standards for those who propose to attend Holy Communion. Briefly, God expects that the prospective participant knows what is involved in Holy Communion according to Scripture and that he or she examine himself or herself spiritually. God takes Holy Communion and the forgiveness of sins seriously. God indicates that unless a person honestly examines himself, he eats and drinks judgment upon himself. God will not tolerate anyone taking lightly or wrongly His Sacrament, even in ignorance.

When a Lutheran pastor declines to give Holy Communion to a person unknown to him, he is not acting as a judge of that person’s faith. Quite the contrary! The Lutheran pastor is deeply impressed by what Holy Communion is. It is his sincere desire that all receive it in faith and for their blessing.

The protecting of the unknowing person is a loving act. We do not exclude people from the sacrament, but require they first be instructed by the pastor in what this sacrament is, what God offers here, and what God expects of us, so that we can be confident they are taking it for their benefit and not to their judgment.

4)  “What has the Holy Spirit done to bring you to Christ?” (He has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified, and kept me in the true faith.)

There are many voices out there telling you what you must do to be saved. Some point you to good works: do enough of them and they will outweigh your sins. Some try to turn your faith into a work. They tell you that yes, Jesus died for your sins, but you have to decide to accept Christ as your personal Savior. Other voices say you must belong to the right church. But those are only the voices of thieves and robbers. If you listen to them, they can steal your soul and lead you away from the flock. Don’t listen to them! God, in His grace, has given you a much better way—listen to the Good Shepherd and what He says in His Word.

The Holy Spirit works through the means of grace to make sinners into saints. Through Holy Baptism, the Holy Spirit creates saving faith and calls you to be a child of God. As you continue studying and hearing God’s Word, the Spirit enlightens you and helps you mature in faith. Through daily repentance and remembrance of your baptism you are sanctified, being made holy. In the Lord’s Supper, you receive forgiveness and your faith is strengthened. Though the progress is often imperceptible, the Holy Spirit works through these means to conform you to the image of Christ and bring you to eternal life in God’s   kingdom.     

5) “Do you hope to be saved? Why?” (Yes, because Jesus lived a perfect life and died in my place for my sin.)

This is the most important question of all. It sums up all the other questions. There is only one way to heaven and Jesus is the gate. Whoever enters through Him will be saved. Jesus has come that you may have life, and have it to the full. You are saved only by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ who lived the perfect life that you could not, and who died on the cross for your sins, and who rose victoriously from the grave. You are saved by the Good Shepherd. Listen to His voice, which reassures you again and again: You are forgiven of all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Living and Abiding Word of God

Click here to listen to this sermon.
The text for today is our Epistle lesson, 1 Peter 1:17-25.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Once upon a time there was a beautiful little village nestled in a valley between two mountains. In the center of the village was a well. The well provided water to all the inhabitants of the village. People came from all over the world to drink the cool, clean, crisp water that was drawn daily from the well. Countless people remained in the village and made their homes there. They loved the water.

The one well was sufficient for the people of the village. No other wells graced the cobblestone streets of that mountain town. There was no need. No one ever suggested that they might like some other well more. The well was sufficient to satisfy all their needs, and it seemed that no matter how many people came to dwell in the village there was always enough water. Whenever anyone went to the well, from the smallest child to the mayor himself, water was always there. The well was predictable, trustworthy, and always dependable.

The people depended on only the one well, and that well never let them down. The well and the water went together. You could not have one without the other. If you went to the well, you always had water. There was no water without the well and no well without the water.

One day, a stranger came to the village. He tasted the water, as had every visitor before him. The visitor said, “This is good water. But I know another source that can give you water just like this well. Perhaps even better.”

The people were divided. Some said, “Impossible. Water comes only from this well.” Others were curious, maybe they were missing out on something.

The visitor took another drink and said, “This is a good well. But I don’t think that we can depend on the well.”

The people were divided. Some said, “No need to worry. Water always comes from the well.” Others were curious. So the townspeople discussed two questions. First, was it only the well? Was that well sufficient enough? Second, was it always the well? Was the well powerful enough?

The stranger proposed an experiment. “Why not cover the well? I’m sure that there will be water from some other place. The well is not sufficient. I don’t think we can afford to rely on it forever. The well is not powerful enough.”

But the people protested. “No, the well and the water belong together. If you cover the well, we will not have water.”

Scornfully, the stranger replied, “You faithless people. You are well lovers. You should love the water. Don’t you think that God can give us water from anywhere He wants? Are you trying to limit God?”

That talk of “God” seemed so pious and godly. Of course the people did not want to limit the power of God. So they covered up the well.

And, alas, in a very short while, all the people in the village died of thirst.

This has got to be the saddest fairy tale you have ever heard. I can’t take the credit for it. Reverend Klemet Preus tells this story in his book, The Fire and the Staff. But this really isn’t a fairy tale. It’s more of an allegory. Think of this story again, only change “village” to “church.” Change “the well” to “the Word.” And change “the water” to “the Spirit.” You’ll see that what happened to that village in the fairy tale is what has happened to countless churches throughout history. They separated the Word and the Spirit, and they ended up dead.

How do you know if the Spirit is active in a church? There is only one way. If the Gospel of Christ is proclaimed, then the Holy Spirit is active. And if the Holy Spirit is active, then there must be the proclamation of the Christ crucified and risen for the forgiveness of sins. There can be no wordless Spirit and there can be no Spiritless Word. The Holy Spirit works only through the Word of God.

Martin Luther writes in the Smalcald Articles: “Therefore we should and must insist that God does not want to deal with us human beings, except by means of His external Word and Sacrament. Everything that boasts of being from the Spirit apart from such a Word and Sacrament is of the devil.”

But Luther did not come up with this on his own. He got his doctrine from the Holy Scriptures. “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ,” St. Paul writes in Romans 10:17. St. Peter writes in verse 23 of our text, “You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding Word of God.” God works graciously only through the Word.

God the Holy Spirit works through the Word as it is spoken, read, preached, or received in the Sacraments. Without the Word, there is no faith. Without the Word, sinners do not know of God’s grace. No human mind could imagine what God has done out of undeserved love for sinners. No human could come to faith in the God of love without the Gospel, just as no human mind could know sin except through God’s Law. God has chosen to enter human hearts through His Word. Attempting to draw from any other source only leads to death. That’s why we must take the teaching and preaching of God’s Word so seriously. God’s Word is the means He has given to the Church to make disciples of our Lord.

The primary message of God’s Word is Christ crucified. Through Christ’s perfect life, sacrificial death, and victorious resurrection God has made you His own, to live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. St. Peter, in our text, talks about what it cost God to make you His own. You were redeemed from sin, death, and the power of the devil not with silver or gold, but with Christ’s holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death. The Father is that serious about claiming you! He has given His only begotten Son. The Son is that serious about rescuing you! He has willingly laid down His life as the perfect sacrifice for your sins.

The blood of Jesus Christ has done what no other religion or philosophy in human history could do—remove sinful guilt from human beings and put in its place God’s own righteousness; and all this as God’s gift, received by faith. The Father showed that He accepted the Son’s sacrificial gift by raising Him from the dead and glorifying Him at His right hand. This is our faith. This is our hope. This is the message of the living and abiding Word of God.

As you continue to study and grow in God’s Word, as the Spirit of God enables you to comprehend God’s Word, that Word will bring peace and joy to life. Through the living Word you “grow in respect to salvation” (1 Peter 2:2). No longer will sermons and Bible studies based upon the Word be boring or seem irrelevant. Instead, these will be like banquets and feasts for your hungry soul.

An important key to understanding God’s Word is a proper distinction of Law and Gospel. God’s living Word contains both the Word of the Law and the Word of the Gospel. We must not confuse the two. The Law kills, but the Gospel gives life. The Law shows us our sin; the Gospel shows us our Savior.

When these two Biblical teachings are mixed, the clear teaching of what God has graciously done for us in Jesus Christ becomes confused. Mixing Law and Gospel causes the precious, life-giving medicine of the Gospel to be diluted, losing the power to overcome the sickness of sin. On the other hand, the Law can be diluted to the point where we do not see ourselves as deathly sick, in need of the life-giving Gospel. Ultimately, confusing or mixing Law and Gospel robs us of forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.

We must continuously distinguish the Law and Gospel. The Gospel is living, active, and life-giving, because it creates faith connecting us to Jesus Christ, who Himself is life. The Law is also “living and active,” actively convicting and condemning us because of our sin. However, even though the Law is living, it is not life-giving. The Law kills! Only the Gospel gives life!

Then comes the greatest of all God’s blessings for you. Through His Spirit, God’s living Word enables you to see and also be connected to Jesus, who is the living and incarnate Word of God. Tragically, many people never experience the joy of meeting and being connected to Jesus. Too often those who only occasionally read the Bible seek little more than momentary religious guidance, a sentimental lift, or an inspirational feeling similar to that received from reading the latest “Chicken Soup of the Soul” book. Many people never come to a Bible study, where they can learn with other Christians how to read and interpret God’s living, powerful Word themselves. Many people prefer to hear an entertaining and motivating speech rather than hear the clear Word of God preached—the Law in all its sin-condemning sternness and the Gospel in all of its cleansing sweetness.

As you read, study, and meditate on God’s living Word, you will see Jesus, the living Incarnate Word. Jesus Himself stated clearly that the Scriptures “bear witness” of Him. Jesus makes that point clear in our Gospel lesson for today. As He walked with friends along the road to Emmaus following His resurrection, Jesus showed them how all of Scripture points to Him and His work for our salvation. It’s no coincidence Jesus’ disciples recognized Him when He gave thanks and broke bread. In God’s living Word and Sacrament you see Jesus.  

God’s living Word is Good News for you. The Word of God is not merely a collection of burdensome religious rules nor a set of suggestions for successful living. The Word of God is alive because it is the Word of the living and life-creating God Himself. Just as God through His Word created life in the beginning, He now brings new life to those who are spiritually dead. In our text, Peter writes: “You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding Word of God” (1 Peter 1:23). God makes you alive through His living Word, and this same Word continues to work in you and cleanses and purifies you before God.

The cleansing power of God’s Word begins to change your selfishness into selfless, genuine love toward other people, especially your brothers and sisters in the faith. And as the Holy Spirit begins these changes in you through His living and abiding Word, you begin to “love one another earnestly from a pure heart.”

Jesus said, “People will know that you are My disciples if you love one another.” Christians in the early church became famous for sharing with one another, taking care of the sick and needy among them, for their hospitality and generosity, for treating with dignity and respect people who did not rank high in their society: slaves, widows, the elderly, and children. This happened as a result of God’s living and abiding Word working in them. As the Word was preached and taught, as they sang hymns and spiritual songs, as they gathered together to receive the Lord’s Supper, they grew in their love for God and one another.

Nothing has changed in two millennia. Today congregations not only teach God’s Word, but also demonstrate Christian love. Peter’s point is that true love is more a matter of the head than of feelings. It is more of an act of the will than of emotion. Real love is a choice—choose to show it in your lives!

How? Congregations can make sure that everyone is welcome in our midst. We can bear one another’s burdens, helping those who are in need with our prayers and financial support. We can show love and forgiveness, patiently bearing each other’s failings, always putting the best construction on one another’s words and actions. We can encourage one another and build up one another in the faith.

Slander, gossip, and backbiting not only destroy Christian fellowship, they also discourage seekers from wanting to come back. But when people who are hungry for God and His love find people who love one another, that is a powerful attraction. The world that many unchurched people live in is cold, heartless, cruel, impersonal, and uncaring. As they find love and acceptance from Christians, they will also be led to discover love and acceptance from the heavenly Father.

God’s Word is alive! It works faith in your heart. The living Word works regeneration and gives you a new life. The living Word directs your thoughts toward heaven. God’s living Word works to strengthen you and enable you to face the challenges of everyday living. God’s living Word empowers you to share your faith. God’s living Word motivates you to love your neighbor.

None of these blessings are available from the world or found in worldly things. No amount of silver or gold can buy what only God can give you through His living and abiding Word. It is a power that accomplishes God’s will in you. Accept no substitutes!

When you, by the Spirit’s power, are connected to Jesus, God’s living Word, you are connected to the same power that God used to raise His Son Jesus from the dead! That living Word brings you life and flows to your family, friends, and neighbors. “And this Word is the Good News that was preached to you” this day: Through the precious blood of Jesus you are forgiven of 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 ...