Saturday, June 28, 2014

You Shall Have No Other Gods

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“You shall have no other gods” (Exodus 20:3).

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

Our summer sermon series is on the Ten Commandments. Before we start on the Commandments themselves, however, we should reflect on why they were given in the first place. We go back to the father of the Hebrews—Abram—and to the covenant that God had made with him and his descendants. The Lord promised Abram a son, and, through that son, many heirs who would inherit the land He showed him. But Abram’s offspring would first live as slaves in a foreign land for many years until the time was right to bring them to the Promised Land.

At the time of our text, the children of Israel had been in Egypt for 430 years. Though once treated favorably for Joseph’s sake, a new king had arisen who neither recognized Joseph, nor more importantly, Joseph’s God. Jealous of their fruitfulness and strength, Pharaoh set taskmasters over the Israelites and afflicted them with heavy burdens. But the more they were oppressed, the more fruitful and strong they became. The people groaned and cried out to God for deliverance.

The Lord heard their cry and He remembered His covenant. He sent them a deliverer—Moses a man born of the house of Levi, who had been raised and educated in Pharaoh’s house. Forty years had passed since Moses had fled into the wilderness as a fugitive, after his failed attempt to administer justice and save his people on his own terms. Moses was herding his father-in-law’s sheep on “the mountain of God.” The Lord appeared to him in a burning bush and called him to lead Israel to the Promised Land. It took nine plagues and then the death of the oldest male child in each Egyptian household before hard-hearted Pharaoh finally permitted the Israelites to leave. When he changed his mind and chased them, God miraculously provided safe passage for His people through the Red Sea.

Now Moses had led the people back to “the mountain of God.” And there on Mount Sinai, God had Moses gather the people in sacred assembly. There was thunder and lightning, the air filled with smoke, and the entire mountain trembled violently. Then a stillness fell upon the area. Out of the stillness God spoke. Israel could hear His voice and understand what He said. God spoke “all these words,” the Ten Commandments. In this way, God made a covenant with the nation of Israel: “I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God” (Exodus 6:7).

The real event of Sinai, therefore, was the establishment of this covenant. God promised He would care for His people, whom He had brought out of slavery in Egypt, so they could be His special people. The Ten Commandments became part of the laws that indicated how God expected His people to live.

I remember one of the confirmation classes I taught, where we addressed the Sixth Commandment. Given the age of our catechumens—young men and women entering adolescence—this always seems to be a challenge. They are informed enough to know a lot of basic facts of biology and human anatomy, but generally not so mature to properly apply the ethical principles.

I read the Sixth Commandment, “You shall not commit adultery,” and explained how in this commandment God demands sexual purity and decency before and after marriage. Then I asked, “Why do you think it is wrong to commit adultery?” I was hoping to get a discussion on how God wants to protect marriages and families, how harmful premarital sex is emotionally and physically. Instead, one of the students said, “Why is it wrong? Because God said so.”

I have to confess that I was not thinking that way. I was psychoanalyzing the commandment—making it into a “good suggestion” rather than a command and ordinance. I was following the American pattern of persuasion and pleading and nagging, trying to sell them on the benefits of sexual morality: “Please do this. It’s for your own good.”

But really, the student was right. Every good parent realizes there is a time when you just have to answer: “Because I said so.” Of course, it’s better for your child in the long run if they listen. But when it comes right down to it, no explanation is really necessary; it is more important to do that to understand why. In essence, this student realized that better than me. God said it; that makes it final!

It was with that sort of understanding that Martin Luther begins each of his explanations to the Commandments with these words: “We should fear and love God so that we…” We fear God above all things when we revere Him alone as the highest being, honor Him with our lives, and avoid what displeases Him. We love God above all things when we cling to Him alone as our God and gladly devote our lives to His service. Simply put, God is God and we are not. If we fear and love God, we will obey Him, trusting His will for us is best.

Still, God Himself does not need our obedience. The good Lord isn’t sitting in heaven, wringing His hands hopefully, as He waits to see if you or I will show Him the proper respect. He isn’t like a movie critic during the worship service, checking to see if we are doing things properly. He’s God. He will be just fine whether we thank, praise, serve, and obey Him or not. Don’t worry about God. When we talk about doing good works, we must never believe that God benefits from them. All talk of God is about what He does for us, not what we do for God.

This is true even in the Ten Commandments. While they are not merely suggestions, they are not, strictly speaking, “commandments,” either. The Ten Commandments are literally “The Decalogue,” “The Ten Words.” We could call them the ten statements or the ten principles or, better yet, the ten descriptions of God’s children. They aren’t even imperative statements, grammatically speaking. They are descriptions of the people over whom God reigns. God says to His people, “You will not kill. You will not commit adultery. You will not have any other gods.” He’s describing you and me.

Klemet Preus offers this illustration in his book, The Fire and the Staff: “Remember when you were a kid and your dad was called into the principal’s office to discuss your behavior? That happened to me. I was accused of showing disrespect to a teacher. It was a false accusation. She had me confused with another guy. My father said, ‘My son is not disrespectful. He will not show disrespect.’ Grammatically, that’s the same as ‘You will not kill.’  Dad did not give me an order. He described me.” Preus goes on, “I suppose someone might think that this understanding of the Ten Commandments gets us off the hook. The opposite is true. What if I had, in fact, been disrespectful? Imagine if my dad’s description of me were not true. I would have made him a liar. His statement would have elicited more anguished repentance than all the imperatives in the world. Imperatives don’t work. Descriptions do. The Ten Commandments describe us.”

The Ten Commandments are given so we can know how God blesses us and how He uses us to bless others. God does not need the commandments. We do. For by them, God shows us how He has blessed us in the past, continues to bless us now, and will bless us in the future.

The Bible makes a distinction between the “words” given us in Exodus 20 (the Ten Commandments) and the “laws” (the rules and regulations pertaining to the conduct of Israel as a nation) that follow. God first spoke the “words,” the Ten Commandments, directly to all the people. The “laws” that follow He gave first of all to Moses privately on Mount Sinai. The “words” were later written by God on two tablets of stone and given to Moses. The “laws” were written by Moses upon scrolls after he came down from Mount Sinai. I mention these things to emphasize the unique and prominent position that the “words” occupy in the giving of the “Ten Commandments.” They are given first; they are basic; they are spoken to all of the people. And God introduces them by saying, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

“I am the Lord your God.” This is the “I AM” God speaking, Yahweh, the Lord who appeared to Moses once before at this same place and revealed Himself as the God who had spoken to the patriarchs—to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He is a personal being, a God who moves with unlimited freedom, timeless, constant, unchangeable, and above all a covenant-Lord who promised to redeem His people and had kept that promise. Recognizing their complete dependence upon the mercy and grace of God, and trusting in His continued promise of help, Israel was now to respond obediently by following the commands they were about to receive.

It is important for us to understand the Ten Commandments in light of this introductory statement by the Lord. He did not give the “words” so that Israel should obey His commands and thereby earn a favorable relationship with Him. God established from the get-go what this relationship was. He was their Savior-God. He had proved that to them in many ways. In love He had adopted them as His chosen covenant people. He now showed them by these Commandments how they could respond to His grace by living according to His holy will. From this same moral code, they could determine in what ways they still fell short of that perfect standard, how much they still transgressed His law, and how much they still needed the forgiving love that only a gracious Lord could freely grant them.

God still speaks His word of promise and hope today. He says to you and me: “I am the Lord your God. I am the Lord your God, who loved you so much that I sent My one and only Son. I am the Lord your God, who loves you so much that I went to the cross to pay for your sins. I am the Lord your God, who loves you so much that I make you Mine in Baptism, fill you with spiritual gifts, come to you in Word and Sacrament, and keep you in the faith unto life everlasting.”

What is your response? Do you hear and obey the First Commandment? Do you “Have no other gods before [Him]”? Do you fear, love, and trust God above all things? Above all others—even yourself? Do you do so perfectly? All the time?

The god in whom you fear and trust says as much about you as it says about him or her or it. We all, by our sinful nature, tend to fashion our gods in our own images, for our own purposes, to fulfill our own desires. For example, the different deities of Hinduism are called upon to fulfill different purposes. If you wish to be artistic, you worship the goddess Saraswati. If you wish to succeed in business, you become a devotee of the god Ganesh. Criminals, typically, worship the black goddess of death, Kali. And warriors worship the fierce god of combat, Skanda. We worship gods like ourselves, or we become like the gods we worship.

At the time of Moses, the Israelites were tempted to worship the Baal gods of Canaan—fertility gods and goddesses. Like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob… and even Moses, the Israelites had been nomadic shepherds before they entered the Promised Land. They had to learn to farm. From whom? From the Canaanites, of course, who were already farming the land. And how did the Canaanites farm? Well first, in spring, before the planting, they went to the nearest Asherah pole and consorted with the temple prostitutes. That would supposedly excite the Baal gods and goddesses to activate the fertility of the soil. If you wanted a good crop, you had to please Baal and Ashteroth.

In declaring to the people, “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods,” the one true God was not only revealing what kind of God He is, but challenging Israel to realize their identity as His chosen people. What kind of people would the Israelites become in this land? Would they become like the Canaanite farmers, or would they be the light to the Gentiles that God intended them to be? You see, the kind of god you worship determines the kind of people you will be. People who worship a licentious god become licentious. People taught a stern, forbidding god—whether Islamic or Christian—become stern and forbidding. People who worship the true God can become like Him—loving, kind, and compassionate. Jesus said, “Your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).

God says, “You shall gave no other gods” because He wants us to become like Him. Do we worship with such intensity and purpose that we become like Him? That’s what is supposed to happen to us as God’s people. In Romans 12:1-2, St. Paul urges Christians: “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

God calls us to worship, to prayer, to the study of Scripture so that His Spirit can fill us: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5). Worship is to make us different from the world around us.

Worship is hard work. It is warfare against our greatest enemies: the world, the devil, and our own sinful flesh. It is a battle of God’s Spirit within us to conquer our old ways and thoughts and to fill us with His ways and thoughts. So that we won’t conform to the world. So that we’ll conform to God and show what His will is, what is “good and acceptable and perfect” for all people.

But then comes the real question for us worshipers. Do we really want to become like God? Is that why we come to His house? Or are we here basically to use Him for our purposes? Do we pray that we will be changed? Or do we pray that God will change our circumstances? Do we pray that God will change everyone and everything around us, including Himself, His will, and His Word, but somehow leave us alone and give us what we want?

Who is the god we really worship? The god we fear, love, and trust above all things? Often it is ourselves. It is our will that we want done. It is our kingdom we want to advance. It is our name that we want to promote. With that objective, attending worship often is empty and pointless. We don’t really want anything to happen. We don’t really want to change. We don’t really want to fear, love, and trust in God above all things—especially not above ourselves.

Some surveys boast that 95 percent of our society believes in God. But does this truly mean that they “fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” Not likely. Rather, I think it means that 95 percent of the people believe that God exists. It does not mean that they trust in Him. It does not mean they have no other gods.

Most of our society may not openly be atheists, but certainly are practical atheists. Obedience to God is not their primary goal. The god they seek is more of a Santa or genie than a Savior and Judge. They don’t want to serve Him; they want Him to serve them. They don’t want to be transformed, but are happy being conformed to the world. They certainly don’t want to live and act with the awareness that one day they must give an account to their Maker.

And neither do you—at least not your old Adam, that sinful nature in which you were conceived and born. And yet, God, in His mercy and grace, still calls you His own. You are His people, not because you are better than the world around you, but because He chose you and called you.

Why? Not because of you, but because of Him. God is love. God is mercy. God is grace. Thank God that He is! He didn’t leave His people, the Israelites, when they chased after other gods in Canaan. He doesn’t leave you when you chase after contemporary gods like wealth or success—not even when you forget about Him all summer because you have more pressing things to do. He remembers and serves and protects you each day. He rejoices to forgive and restore and renew always, even enduring the pain and shame of the cross. In Christ, God fulfills His promise: “I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God.”

For Jesus’ sake, the one true God continues to deliver and save you through His means of grace. By the power of His Holy Spirit, He brings you out of the slavery of sin and into His heavenly Promised Land, leading you to repent of your sin and trust in His promise: “You are forgiven of all of your sins.”

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

Saturday, June 14, 2014

(God's) Image Is Everything

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“So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground’” (Genesis 1:27-28).

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

“We’re all made in the image of God.” You’ve heard that line before. It’s often invoked by those who are demanding equal rights, to demonstrate that we are all equal, that we’re all the same, and that we should all be treated that way. And, in a culture that lauds equality, it has a ring of truth.

But the truth is that in our world we are not all equal. Not all life is considered the same. Today, a lot of children still in the womb aren’t considered all that valuable by many. Neither are those in nursing homes, or on life support, or who are mentally and physically handicapped. Sadly, in the eyes of the law, and in the minds of many, they also are somehow less than human. And honestly, even in our everyday personal lives we make value judgments about people all the time. Is this person worth our time? Our effort? Our energy? Our money? (Pause)  Weighing the pros and cons, we determine that some are and some are not.

One example of this in recent history caused no small dispute and contention. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, a fund was set up to compensate the victims’ families for the loss of their loved ones. But each did not receive the same amount. A determination was made as to what each life was worth in dollars and cents. Was a father worth more than a single man? Was an executive worth more than a blue-collar worker? What about potential for future earnings? And what about the rescue workers?

The task of determining what each family received fell to one man. After he’d completed his task, he said he’d never do something like it again. How can you place a specific value on human life in terms of dollars and cents? How can you compare the value of one human life to another?

There is one thing that gives meaning and purpose and value to every human life—we were each made in the image of God. Today, as we celebrate God the Holy Trinity, we will do so by focusing on “the image of God,” which was given to humanity at creation, lost in the Fall, and which is now being restored and recreated in us for the sake of Jesus Christ.

A television commercial some time ago asserted, “Image is everything.” That philosophy explains why corporations spend millions of dollars every year trying to create a positive and attractive image for themselves. That’s why sports stars and celebrities are paid the big bucks for their endorsements. Companies want to create a certain image for themselves and their products.

Yet consider how quickly and suddenly this image can be lost with one product that has to be recalled, with one misstep by a corporate executive, with one scandal. Think what happened (at least for a time) to the stock of the companies who were associated with Martha Stuart. Or how quickly the Walmart spokesman issued a statement regarding the recent New Jersey turnpike accident this week. Even Kobe Bryant and Tiger Woods saw a drastic reduction in their endorsement opportunities on the heels of their personal scandals.

The image of God given to Adam and Eve was lost quickly also, with one simple act. Ironically, when Adam abdicated His God-given role as head of the family and Eve gave into Satan’s temptation “to be like God,” God’s image was instantly lost. And try as we might, we cannot re-create this image for ourselves. Only God can, through the one He sent to restore His image, His Son, Jesus Christ. For the Christian, His image is everything!

So what does it mean to be made “in the image of God”? As Dr. Nathan Jastram notes in his recent study, Man as Male and Female: Created in the Image of God: “The simplest and most comprehensive definition of the image of God is that it means ‘to be like God.’” God Himself equates the two in our First Lesson: “Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). To be made in the image of God is to be like God. But “to be like God” in what way?

Made in the image of God does not mean that mankind looked like God, but that we were created in righteousness, with perfect knowledge of God, and true fear and confidence and trust in God. Adam and Eve truly knew God as He wishes to be known and they were perfectly happy with Him. They were righteous and holy, doing God’s will.

To be made in the image of God also means that mankind is special in God’s eyes. For in the beginning, when God created all things, man received what nothing else in all of creation received. Yes, everything was made “good,” and all creation was “very good,” but of no other creature in heaven or on earth can it be said that they were made in the image of God. Not even the angels. This honor was given only to man. The crown of God’s creation, mankind, was given dominion over all the earth. Adam, with Eve, his helper at his side, was given God’s authority and told to act in His place as steward in His stead and by His command. God blessed the man and woman and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1:28).

But on the day Adam and Eve sinned, this image of God was lost to them, and subsequently to us, their children. No longer do we fear and love God as we ought. No longer do we have natural knowledge of God as our loving Father. No longer do we have confidence in Him, but we take matters into our own hands. No longer do we seek to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Sin has broken creation. It has broken us. We’re different from what we were created to be, and we consider others differently. Our consciences accuse us. Not wanting to be seen “naked,” or as we are without the image of God, we try to create substitute images for ourselves. Ashamed of what we’ve become, conscious of the fact that we are much less than we were intended to be, we cover ourselves with our own self-righteousness, much like the fig-leaf hastily put together by our first parents. And so, perhaps, you’ve created your own religious mask, so that people will think you’re holier than you really are. Perhaps you wear an image of bravery to hide your fear. Or maybe, like many others, you’ve hidden yourself behind the cry, “We’re all made in the image of God, so that must mean that God has made me this way,” and you’ve used that as an excuse so that others won’t condemn you for who you are! And on and on and on we go.

But when all is said and done, we’re still broken. We’re still sinners. We may be able to hide who we are from each other, but we can’t hide from our conscience that accuses; we certainly can’t hide who we are from God. Whatever images we create for ourselves are poor images indeed, for they are false images. They’re poor substitutes for being clothed in righteousness, for being made in the image of God.

But the God who created man in His image does not leave us fallen and broken. The God who creates also re-creates, and He is busy restoring His image in a fallen and broken world. And that is Good News! For we can try to create images for ourselves all we want, but only God can create something out of nothing—in the beginning and still yet today. And so, after sin entered the world, after the image of God in us was lost, God acted on our behalf. Even as He confronted the sly serpent and the shameful man and woman, God promised a Savior. The Seed of the Woman would crush the serpent’s head. The lost image of God would be restored through the Incarnate Son of God.

In the course of time, the Father sent His Son into the world. In the Son, who is the true and exact image of the Father, God shows us true man, without sin. In Jesus, the image we lost lives and is fully restored to humanity. Jesus is the one who knows His Father perfectly. Jesus is the one who has complete trust and confidence in His heavenly Father. Jesus is the righteous and holy one.

Yet the Son of God didn’t come into the world to restore the image of God in the world for only a time, but for all time. He didn’t come to show us it could be done or merely to be our example. He came as one of us. So He took upon Himself our sin and shame, our punishment and death, our broken, sin-stained image, and carried it all to the cursed cross. There He gave up His spirit, dying for our sins. Risen from the dead, He returned to His disciples and gave His Spirit to them and the Church. Now through the Holy Spirit, we are re-created, made new, and are being conformed into the image of Christ, who is the image of the Father.

This is the work of the Holy Trinity for us. The Father, who sent His Son, who sends the Holy Spirit; and the Holy Spirit, who joins us to the Son, who takes us to the Father. That work is what this day is all about. We celebrate Holy Trinity Sunday not simply to proclaim who our God is—the Trinity in Unity and the Unity in Trinity, although we certainly do that. Today we also proclaim what He has done and is doing for us. We proclaim that the Holy Trinity is applying Himself to the world for the life of the world. For your life and mine. To restore His image in us. To give us what we cannot create. If He didn’t give it, we wouldn’t have it.

With that understanding we can perhaps look at the words we heard in our Gospel for today in a new light—as Gospel rather than Law. “[Jesus] said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age’” (Matthew 28:18-20).

With these words, the triune God once again gives His authority to men restored to His image through His Word and Sacrament so that they might “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). But those words, the Great Commission, are not so much an order as they are a blessing. They are not so much about what we are to do as they are about what the Holy Trinity is doing among us. They tell us what the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are doing through His church, as God is applying Himself to the world.

God is making disciples—baptizing, teaching, feeding, raising, forgiving—through the means that He has given: His Word and Sacraments. The voices and hands and feet may be ours, but the work is our triune God’s. It’s His water, His body and blood, His words. Through these means He is once again restoring, re-creating, and making something out of nothing. Creating order out of chaos. Creating again children in His image, conforming us to the image of His Son

The fall in the Garden of Eden caused devastation to our world. It has affected every one of us. The task of recovering what was lost that day fell to one Man, and He determined that each life was worth His own. And so Jesus gave His life for your life. He suffered the shame and nakedness of the cross and then rose from the dust of death, that all who believe in Him might be raised with Him and live not only forever, but already now, in the image of God. And after He had completed His task, He said it need never be done again. It is finished. You are whole. You are healed. You are forgiven and re-created.

“Blessed be the Holy Trinity and the undivided Unity. Let us give glory to Him because He has shown His mercy to us.”

Indeed, that is what this day is all about. The Holy Trinity in mercy giving Himself to us, and we in turn giving glory to Him. And not simply here in church, but daily in our lives, living the image we have been given again. Living as Christ in the world. Giving to the least. Determining that each life is worth our own. Not just because they are made in the image of God, but because we are re-created in the image of God. By God’s grace we are like Him: holy, righteous, and blameless, free from sin, death, and the power of the devil. For once again we have heard these wonderful words of God’s love and grace: “You are forgiven of all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Amen.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Holy Spirit Is Poured Out to Lead You to Christ

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The text for today is Acts 2:1-21.

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

Moses had had enough. His patience was about as thin as the flakes of manna left with the dew each morning. These ungrateful people! Nothing was ever good enough for this rowdy rabble. God had delivered them from the bondage of Egypt and was on the verge of bringing them into the Promised Land. But then the grumbling had started, and Moses was taking the brunt of their criticism. They were tired of manna; they wanted meat to eat. They were tired of following Moses, and longed to return to the heavy yoke of Pharaoh.

Frustrated, Moses cried out to the Lord. At first, it seems that his complaining was much like Israel’s, but it was different in an important way: Moses turned to the Lord in his feelings of insufficiency and frustration, so his complaint did not degenerate into rebellion. Moses cast his cares upon the Lord and the Lord came to the aid of His weak and distraught servant. He provided a steady supply of meat for the people and then He provided help for His servant. Moses was to select seventy elders upon whom the Lord would put His Spirit.

The next morning they presented themselves at the Tent of Meeting. The presence of the Lord in the cloud of fire settled over the tabernacle. As promised, the Spirit was poured out upon the elders. They began to proclaim God’s Word. This extraordinary manifestation of divine power was only temporary, but it served to validate the authority of the 70 men. This outpouring was an extension of the work of the Spirit, rather than a partitioning. One Bible scholar has said that it was like lighting 70 candles from one candle. In such a procedure, an extension of the fire and light is accomplished without diminishing the light of the first candle. The Holy Spirit and His gifts are not divided but multiplied when shared.

For some unknown reason, Eldad and Medad, two of the men selected, had not presented themselves at the Tabernacle. They, however, began prophesying in the camp. Some, including Joshua, felt the two men should be stopped. Moses, however, assured him that the Lord gives His Spirit under various conditions for the same purpose. He wished all of the people would receive the Spirit.

Fast forward nearly 1,500 years. Since the days of Moses, the Jewish people had gathered annually to observe the Feast of Harvest. We know it as Pentecost, a word that comes from the Greek meaning “fiftieth,” for the feast took place 50 days after the Passover Sabbath. Singing psalms to the music of a flute, the farmers would process to the temple, bringing their baskets of food from the barley harvest to present to the priests as a wave offering. This was followed by a time for worship and prayer in a ceremony of renewal, where the people promised to follow the teachings of God’s covenant.

But God had special events in mind for His people on this Pentecost at Jerusalem in A.D. 33. “When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:1-4).

The “all” who were “together” most likely included the entire group of Jesus’ disciples mentioned in Acts 1:13-15: the Twelve apostles, the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, the Lord’s brothers, and the rest of the company of persons, in all about 120. They may have been gathered in the house where the upper room was located, in one of the meeting rooms in the temple area, or in another place. They were gathered for worship and prayer, no doubt. Since they were sitting, they were most likely listening to one of the apostles speak.

The sound that filled the whole room did not merely come from the sky. It came from the dwelling place of the Most High. It came from God. Here was the fulfillment of John the Baptist’s prediction: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16) and Jesus’ promise: “In a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:5). The baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire was occurring there in that place on that day.

The tongues of fire came to rest on each person present. They all received the baptism of the Spirit, for each would have work to do in carrying out the Great Commission. Loudly and clearly all of them spoke in languages other than the language they normally spoke. They did not speak all at once, but each spoke as the ability was given. This was not babbling or incoherent speech; it was perfectly understandable to those who knew the languages.

The believers were now equipped and prepared to begin to carry out the assignment that the Lord had given to His Church. The dramatic signs—the sound, the fire, the ability to speak in other tongues—were signs for that particular time. Such signs did not always accompany the preaching of the apostles or the testimony of other believers, so we need not expect them today. However, the Spirit sent by Jesus is always present and active when the Gospel is spoken. He gives the Word its power, and He gives believers the power to speak the Word.

Because of wars and persecutions, also because of their business activities, Jews had been scattered throughout the Roman Empire and beyond it. They were known as Jews of the Diaspora, the “dispersion.” For various reasons they were in Jerusalem on this special day. Some of them had come just for the feast and would go back to their adopted nation once it was over. Others had come to live out their golden years back in their ancient homeland. All of them were “God-fearing”; that is, they tried to live in faithfulness to the God of Israel and in compliance with the Law of Moses.

When they heard the sound “like the blowing of a violent wind,” a large number of them came together to check it out. Each person in the crowd heard and understood one of the apostles speaking the language of his adopted homeland. It was not the Aramaic of Judea, which most of them understood, or the Greek of the Roman Empire, which virtually all of them would have understood. Nor did they hear the dialect of Galilee, which they might have expected the apostles to speak.

It was natural for everyone who heard to inquire about the significance of such activity. But some of them refused to believe either the message or the miracle. They preferred to discredit both by an “explanation” that slandered the Lord’s spokesmen. They accused them of drunkenness.

“Nonsense!” declared Peter. “We never drink this early in the day. You’re missing the big picture here. The noise like a violent, rushing wind… the tongues of fire… and the various languages we speak… these all fulfill Joel’s prophecy about the coming of the last days. The last days are upon you!

“But here’s an even bigger surprise: the gift of the Holy Spirit is for you, too! For you men and women gathered here. For your sons and daughters, grandparents and grandchildren, and anyone else you can name. For everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ will be saved.”

With that last statement, Peter gets to the heart of it all, doesn’t he? “For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” That’s what this Pentecost outpouring is all about.

So the Lord equips the apostles with the Spirit. The Spirit will use their sermons to kill sinners in order to raise them from the dead. The Holy Spirit will give them the words to write down in Holy Scripture of their testimonial witness to the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ for a world of sinners. Words of Law and Gospel. Words of God’s wrath and God’s promises. Words of the Holy Spirit poured out for the apostolic ministry of His Church.

Are you jealous? Wouldn’t you like to see the Lord come down in a cloud and pour out His Spirit like He did for the 70 elders of Israel? Do you wish you had something like this first Pentecost outpouring? Wouldn’t it be cool to hear a noise like a violent wind rush through this house? See tongues of fire on the preacher? And hear all kinds of different languages? Wouldn’t you like to be there when God adds 3,000 to the number of His Church in one day?

Well, surprise, surprise! You have the gifts, too. The Holy Spirit and all His gifts have been poured out on you--through the language you hear today. I dare say there are not too many Aramaic, Hebrew, or Koine Greek speakers among us today. You hear this message in English. If you were in Germany, you could hear it in German. If you were in Mexico or one of our Hispanic mission congregations, you could hear it in Spanish. By God’s grace, the Gospel has been translated and is preached in almost every language around the world.

In fact, the Holy Spirit still works through St. Peter’s words, even though he was martyred about 1,950 years ago. The rest of his sermon is not in our text for today, but I can tell you this: he’s just getting warmed up! Peter continues to preach about Jesus, the Christ crucified for sinners, and everyone starts to realize he is talking about them and their sin. Of course, he’s talking about you, too! So feel free, in your mind, to put yourself among the crowd in Jerusalem on that Pentecost morning.

The work of the Holy Spirit (and the Lord’s preacher) is not to draw attention to Himself, but always to point to Christ. And so Peter does: “Jesus of Nazareth did many mighty works and wonders and signs to prove to you that He was sent from God. According to God’s definite plan and foreknowledge, you crucified and killed Jesus by the hands of lawless men! But God has raised Him up from the dead, like David prophesied: ‘You will not leave My soul in Hades, nor will You let Your Holy One see corruption.’   

“Now, David is dead and buried. His tomb is down the street. But he trusted that God would keep His promises that the Messiah would be one of his descendants. Led by the Holy Spirit, David foresaw the resurrection and ascension of our Lord. And we have seen it too! We are all witnesses!”   

And as you listen to Peter preaching about this man Jesus, and His death, and His resurrection, and all the promises of the prophet, it begins to click.  You must have sung those psalms a thousand times, but never knew what they were talking about. Now you understand—they’re about the Messiah, dead, raised, ascended to God’s right hand. It all makes sense now. This Jesus was the One, the long-promised, the long-expected. The Messiah has come!

And then the sermon gets very personal. Peter says: “This Jesus whom you crucified.” And though your mind and memory tells you that you didn’t have anything to do with His death, your conscience declares differently. Oh, you may have not shouted, “Crucify Him!” You may have not driven any of the nails into His hands and feet. But your sin did! The wickedness in which you were conceived and born did! The evil you’ve done did! The good you’ve failed to do did! The Righteous One was placed on that cross for your sins. He was wounded for your transgressions. He was crushed for your iniquities.

The realization hits you like a ton of bricks. “That was the Messiah, promised and sent by the Lord God. I’ve killed Him! It was my sin that put Him there on that cursed tree. It was me that deserved to die such a shameful death. What can I do? Is there any hope for me? Can I be saved?”

And at that point, the preacher throws you lifeline with some of the sweetest words that you’ve ever heard: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to Himself.”

It is such Good News, you rush home for your family and friends. You tell them about Jesus. About the promise of David. About death and resurrection and ascension, and about the Holy Spirit and baptism and the forgiveness of sins. And through your testimony of the Word, the Holy Spirit is poured out on them, too!

So it is, dear saints, that the Holy Spirit worked on the first Pentecost, and continues to work until this day. No, there generally aren’t the miraculous outward signs of the Holy Spirit’s activity, but He is alive and well. Every Sunday is a little Pentecost! The Holy Spirit is poured out on you in the Word read and preached, the Sacrament administered and received.

The only wind you hear today is the air that comes from my lungs as I read and preach. But in that hot air, the Spirit is at work, sustaining and strengthening you to trust in Jesus only. And in the everyday language of American English the sermon pours out the Holy Spirit upon you. He kills you in your sins, raises you from the dead just as Christ is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity.

At the baptismal font, the Spirit was poured out upon you with the water and Word that you might be Christ’s own and live with Him in His kingdom forever. In the same way, He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies, the whole Christian Church and keeps it united in the one true faith.

While it may not be as dramatic or flashy as the first Pentecost, the Holy Spirit is still at work in a mighty way! He will add many more than 3,000 to the number of Christ’s Church today. While only God knows the actual number, reasonable estimates place the number baptized into the kingdom of God on a daily basis between 100,000 to 150,000 souls!

And with the Holy Spirit-filled Gospel there is always more. Jesus serves up Himself and gives you the privilege of sharing your faith. “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink,” He offers. “Whoever believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’”

The real miracle of Pentecost is repeated again and again and again. The Holy Spirit is poured out to lead God’s people to Christ. Every time a baby is baptized. Every time you hear a sermon proclaiming Christ crucified for a world of sinners like you and me. Every time you receive Christ’s very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith. Every time you confess your sins and hear His Absolution: You are forgiven for all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Prayer That Didn't Work?

Click here to listen to this sermon.

The text for today is John 17:1-11, which has already been read.

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

Shhh! Listen closely! Our Lord is praying in the Upper Room, and you and I get to listen in. But it’s not eavesdropping, for as He prays to His heavenly Father in the presence of His disciples, and then leads one of them by His Holy Spirit to record these words, Jesus invites you and me to listen, too.

It is the night of the Last Supper. Before He heads out for Gethsemane, Jesus lifts up His eyes to heaven and prays aloud to God the Father. This prayer has been called Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer because with it Jesus functions as high priest and intercedes to the Father, for Himself first, then His disciples, and then for all believers. It is a prayer such as only the Son of God could pray. Jesus prays chiefly for three things: (1) that He would be glorified; (2) that His disciples would be protected; and (3) that God would keep His Church united.

So, did Jesus’ prayer work?

Many, like Ted, the white-nosed sheep in our Agnus Day cartoon, would say, “Obviously Jesus’ prayer didn’t work. He asks glory for Himself and safety for the disciples and then He gets crucified and they get martyred. And unity? Just look at the Church today! There are so many denominations that you can’t begin to know who has the corner on truth. And so many Christians seem to think they’re at a religious salad bar where they can pick and choose for themselves what they do or do not want to believe and practice. Why, there are practically as many streams of Christian spirituality as there are Christians!”

So, did Jesus’ prayer work?

Well, let’s break it down, considering Jesus’ Word in its correct context, and using the proper division of Law and Gospel to see for ourselves.  

Jesus begins by praying for Himself and His mission: “Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son that the Son may glorify You, since You have given Him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given Him. And this is eternal life, that they know You the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. I glorified You on earth, having accomplished the work that You gave Me to do. And now, Father, glorify Me in Your own presence with the glory that I had with You before the world existed” (John 17:1-5).

Jesus prays to be glorified. But Jesus is not praying for the world’s idea of glory. The world defines glory in terms of power and pizzazz. The one who wins is the glorious one. The one who gets noticed is the glorious one. The one who is served by servile sycophants and followed by fawning fans is the glorious one. But Jesus defines His glory quite differently. The glory of the Son is to serve.

As He prays this prayer, Jesus has lived that life of work—He’s fulfilled the prophecies by His teaching and miracles. He’s been the righteous suffering servant, upheld by God as He’s mercifully exercised justice. He’s lived His perfect life for the world to credit all who believe in Him with His righteousness. Now, for the ultimate glory: Jesus is going to die for the sins of the world. But that glory will not become manifest until His resurrection and ascension, and will only be made full in heaven. When the disciples see Jesus alive after the grave, they see that glory, the glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Jesus’ thoughts turn next to His disciples: “I have manifested Your name to the people whom You gave Me out of the world. Yours they were, and You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your Word. Now they know that everything that You have given Me is from You. I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom You have given Me, for they are Yours. All mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine, and I am glorified in them. And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to You.”

Jesus has revealed the Father to these disciples. Literally, He has revealed the Father’s “name” to them. The “name” of God is everything that reveals Him to us, particularly His Word. And again, it is no coincidence that Jesus is also called the Word. In Him we know the Father.

These disciples were chosen beforehand by God the Father and given to Jesus. They have seen what Jesus did, listened to what He said, and held firmly to His Word—even when they did not understand it. That’s what distinguishes them from the many others who reject His Word.

Now they know that everything about Jesus comes from the Father because Jesus gave them the messages the Father sent Him to give. They have heard Jesus’ words and know, in truth, that His words come from God. And they believe God the Father has sent Jesus, His Son, to them.

Furthermore, with His name and Word, the Lord leaves other gifts as well. Add His Word and name to water, and there is Holy Baptism to cleanse the sinner. Speak His Word and name, and there is Holy Absolution, as sinners are forgiven in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Add His Word to bread and wine, and the Word-made flesh is present for the forgiveness of sins.

These are precious gifts that Jesus gives to His disciples as He prepares to be glorified on the cross: His Word and His name. By His Word, He speaks to them and tells them all they need to know about sin and grace, faith and life. He places His name upon them and declares them to be His; and by His name, they can speak back to Him and call upon Him at all times.

And so Jesus prays: “Holy Father, keep them in Your name, which You have given Me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” Jesus stresses the reverence that is due God’s name. Then He calls for the Father to keep and guard the disciples in His name. As I noted earlier, God’s name is everything we can know about Him. Here, God’s name clearly implies His power to protect them from evil.

When the disciples came to faith in Jesus, they became one with Him and the Father. This is the oneness of essence that belongs to the Father and the Son exclusively, and it isn’t merely an outward unity. It is oneness that is found among humble, penitent Christians who believe His Word and call upon His name. They are not just united on behalf of Christ; they are united in Him, for He is with them.

As the cross draws near, the disciples are given His Word and His Name. After Pentecost, these same disciples go out into the world, to make disciples of all nations. They will do so with the Lord’s Word and name, and nothing else. But that’s enough! In a hostile, sinful world that has demands and doubts and questions, they have the abundance of God’s Word to proclaim the saving answer. When troubled and persecuted, they have God’s very name to call upon for help.

These are great gifts, for sure; but not to the world. The world watches the disciples go forth. It sees them harassed and persecuted and executed. Thus the world decides that Jesus’ prayer didn’t work. But in truth, the disciples have glorious lives. It’s just that their glory is not that of this world, but of Christ. The disciples’ glory is Christ’s presence with them; and as He suffered, they suffer as well. Yet this is their glory: to do the Father’s will by His grace.

There’s a lesson here for us today. The glory of the Christian should never be measured by the world’s standards. The glory of the Christian is to do what the Lord has given us to do. To receive and make use of His Word and name, and to serve where God has given us to serve.

Two thousand years later, we confess in the Nicene Creed, “I believe one holy Christian and apostolic Church.” The Church is holy because her sins are taken away and she has been declared righteous. The Church is Christian because her sins have been paid for by Christ. And the Church is apostolic because, in a very real way, we live just as the apostles did—we continue in Jesus’ Word and in His name. We continue in Christ’s Word, living according to His commands and confessing our failures to do so. We rejoice in the forgiveness He announces in His Gospel. We continue in His name, as His holy people who call upon Him in time of trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks. And as long as we continue in His Word and in His name, we are one—one holy Christian and apostolic Church.

This is the life of the Christian—to live where God has placed us, to attend to the tasks He has given us, equipped with His Word and name. And where His Word and name are, He is present, too. Jesus dwells with us, with the glory of the forgiveness He has won. Mothers and fathers reflect that glory by caring for children. Single adults do so by leading a chaste and decent life in word and deed. Children do so by obeying their parents. All such behavior is mocked by the world as far too “goody two-shoes,” because the world has a false idea of glory; but God’s Word is clear: this is the life of the Christian, and it is good.

We are also under attack when it comes to the Word that our Lord Jesus gives. We live in the information age, bombarded with all sorts of data on a daily basis. Rather than say “I need more information,” we usually find ourselves saying, “I have too much information! I just want to know what I need to get by.”

This is fine when it comes to programming the DVR or using our smart phone; but our old Adam delights to make us view God’s Word in the same way. Rather than relish the rich depth and detail of our Lord’s holy revelation, we prefer to learn what we need to know and nothing more.  

The consequences are devastating. Believing that the bare minimum of the Bible is a good thing, many declare that we should ignore all differences among Christians. But with little grounding in the Word, Christians are apt to buy into all sorts of aberrant teachings. In personal struggles, they will find that a superficial knowledge of Scripture is like an anchor crafted in aluminum foil, which fails to give strength and security in the storms of life. It is a great victory for the old Adam when we fail to hold God’s holy Word sacred and gladly hear and learn it.

As the Lord’s glory and Word come under attack, so also does His name. Jesus can be one name to call upon, declares the world. But He’s not allowed to be the only One. There must be other gods with other names, depending upon one’s personal faith and preference. And unfortunately, the more shabbily and superficially Christians treat the Word of God, the more likely they are to agree.

The devil delights in this as well. Prayers to false gods are not answered and provide no help against the devil. Prayers to a Jesus who is just one name and god among many are not answered, because such prayers are not to the only-begotten Son of God. Those who offer such prayers might invent comfort for themselves, and might even experience glory in the world’s terms; but in their unrepentant hearts, they do not have the forgiveness of sins that Christ has won for them.

As we have already alluded, if the Word, name, and glory of Christ are all under attack, then so is Christian unity. Unfortunately, the world, and far too much of the Church, makes unity by agreeing to compromise on differences. “As long as we are together, it is pleasing to God” seems to be the rule of the day. But Jesus does not say that unity comes from sinners who simply compromise to agree. True Christian unity comes from His Word, His name, and His forgiveness. He gives these things for the express purpose of Christian unity.

Confronted with these attacks against Christ’s glory, Word, name, and unity, Christians respond with the same. We rejoice in the Word that the Lord gives us in abundance, this inexhaustible treasure of Scripture. Hearing His call for us to repent, we confess our sins against the third commandment and rejoice to hear His absolution. Rather than be shamed for believing that there is only one name to call upon, we give great thanks to God that there is a name at all. The Lord has not turned His back on this sinful creation, but still calls all people to salvation. He still hears our prayers and answers. He still saves us in the time of trial and delivers us to everlasting life.

No, we will not be shamed that there is only one name to call upon. Instead, by God’s grace we proclaim that name to all who will hear. And as we continue in His Word and name, we do so with great joy. We are united. Not just with each other here—no, we are united in the faith with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; with Peter, Paul, and John; and with angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven. We are not united because we say so. We are united because God says so in His Word, and because He places His name on us and makes us His.

This is why Jesus prays in the text today… that you would thankfully receive His Word and gladly hear and learn it. That you would call upon His name in time of trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks. That you would hear Him and call upon His name, rejoicing in the forgiveness He has won for you, giving thanks that He has united you with the rest of the Church. That you would then go about your daily tasks and vocations in service to others and share His message of forgiveness and love with everyone you meet. It may not seem glorious now, but the Lord says otherwise; and the glory will be revealed in full on the Last Day.

Until then, listen to the Lord Jesus pray. He prays for you as your great High Priest and His heavenly Father hears and answers His prayers for you as His dear son or daughter. And that prayer still works: Jesus is glorified. You, with all other believers are kept safe for eternity, in His body, the one holy, Christian and apostolic Church. And because Jesus continues to pray for you and gives you His holy Word and name, you are forgiven for all of your sins.

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

Into the Wilderness

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