Saturday, August 29, 2015

Your Lying, Cheating, Cold Dead Beating, Two-timing, Double Dealing, Mean Mistreating, Unloving Heart (2)

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Just when you think our culture has sunk as low as it can get, another headline hits the news: “Racial Tensions Heat Up on One-Year Anniversary of Fatal Shooting in Ferguson, MO.” “The Supreme Court Legalizes Same-Sex Marriage,” “Planned Parenthood Sells Tissue from Aborted Babies.” Some would lay the blame for our declining morals on the doorsteps of filmmakers and TV producers. But the media aren’t to blame any more than bathroom mirrors cause our pimples and wrinkles. The entertainment industry simply reflects the moral climate of our age. No, the source of the problem is elsewhere. In the immortal words of the cartoon character Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Too often we look to the world around us as the source of our moral problems. If we could just stamp out pornography, we think, we could get rid of sexual abuse. If we could clean up the lyrics to rock music we could solve the drug problem. Of course these issues do deserve our attention; we need to clean up the cesspool, for it is not healthy to live near cesspools. But remember, cesspools aren’t the source of sewage. Neither is the world the source of sin. The cause of moral pollution is found much closer to home. Jesus said: “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him… Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?… What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:15-23).
This is strong language. It’s tough to take. Reality is sometimes hard to stomach. And this is one reality we need to face head on: every last one of the horrifying sins in the world outside can be found inside our own hearts. The ugly fact is, we ourselves add to the pollution. Our nostrils might be offended by the smell of our moral climate, but the stench of death filters out of our own pores. And its source is the heart—my heart, your heart, “Your Lying, Cheating, Cold Dead Beating, Two-timing, Double Dealing, Mean Mistreating, Unloving Heart.”
If you’re a fan of country music, you might have noticed that this sermon theme is borrowed from the lyrics of an old Patti Loveless song. I know; it’s a pretty long title for a sermon. But it seems fitting for our Gospel for today, where Jesus combines twelve kinds of evil thoughts and actions in a dreadful litany of vices, which leaves no doubt as to the wretched impurity of the human heart.
Jesus says: “Whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him… What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man comes evil thoughts, (etc.)… All these evil things come from within, they defile a person.” I know, it seems counterintuitive, not at all the way that we would think about it. We think that what makes us “unclean” comes from outside ourselves. A man becomes a drunkard by taking in drink. A person becomes an addict by taking in drugs. A kid becomes a member of a gang by hanging out with the wrong crowd. From our vantage point, we are defiled from the outside in.
That’s why what Jesus says in our text gives us pause. It’s the opposite of what we might expect. We expect spiritual things to work just like everything else. We expect spiritual purity to come with our own efforts to “keep ourselves clean and pure.” Read the right books, watch the right movies, associate with the right people, stay away from the “worldly things.” That was the whole basis of monasticism: withdraw from the world, set yourself apart from the “unclean things,” and then you can be pure and clean.
That was also the wrong conclusion the Pharisees reached when applying the purity laws of Leviticus. It’s an easy mistake to make with all the rules about “clean” and “unclean” things involving almost every aspect of life. There were certain animals considered “unclean” for food, things like pork and shellfish. If you so much as touched them, you would be ritually unclean. And there were all sorts of other ways, too, to make yourself unclean. So it was an easy, logical step to think that it was what went into you that made you unclean. It was easy to start confusing ritual purity with spiritual purity.
Ritual purity was what set Israel apart from the other nations. God had given them a unique diet, unique rules and regulations governing every aspect of their lives. This was to remind them who they were—a chosen people set apart for a particular purpose, to bring forth in the fullness of time the Messiah. But none of these rules and regulations could purify the heart of the person spiritually speaking. In fact, all the Old Testament rules served to show how impossible purity is. If you could barely keep ritually pure, how on earth could you ever be spiritually pure?
Jesus turns it all upside down and inside out: “Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach and is expelled? What comes out of a person is what defiles him.”
Jesus gets a little “earthy” to make a point. Spiritual uncleanness comes from the inside out, not the outside in. This concept is so radical, the crowd in our Gospel doesn’t understand. The disciples don’t get it, either. When they are alone with Jesus, they ask Him about it and Jesus seems to be a bit impatient with them. “Don’t you see? Foods don’t make you unclean. Food goes in, it gets digested, and is expelled as waste, never touching the heart.”
It is important to understand that the “heart” Jesus is speaking about is not the muscle that pumps blood to every part of your body. Neither is the heart merely the seat of emotions, but rather it is the center of the will and springboard to action. So, Jesus is doing something more important here than letting you have bacon for breakfast or go to Joe’s Crab Shack. With these words, Jesus points the finger to the real culprit. It’s not the world that makes you unclean, unclean as the world may be. It is the heart—your heart—that is the source of sin. Listen to the filth that is expelled from your sinful heart: evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.
Evil thoughts are the beginning of all sorts of evil deeds. Murder includes anything one may do to hurt or harm (or fail to protect) his neighbor or support his bodily needs. Adultery and sexual immorality include all kinds of indecent words and deeds as well as desires. Theft is the consequence of covetousness. False testimony seeks selfish gain or advantage at the expense of someone else. Slander is an effort to promote oneself by running someone else down. All these evils find their roots and beginnings in the filthy, dark recesses of your cold, black heart.
This is not good news; but it is good to know. You need to know this. You tend to look outside and blame others for sin. But the finger of blame needs to point back to where it belongs—squarely on yourself and your sinful heart. It all begins in the heart, a heart steeped in sin, and turned in on itself.
This then is not simply the end of the Old Testament rules and regulations regarding clean and unclean; it is also the end of all “heart religion,” the business of giving one’s heart to God. Why would God want your heart? Your heart is a septic tank according to the words of Jesus. It’s a sewer pipe with all sorts of sludge spewing out of it all over the place. So any religion that includes “following one’s heart,” “praying from the heart,” “the goodness of one’s heart,” or anything “from the heart” is on the wrong track. You need a new heart, a heart transplant, if you will. God promises through the prophet Ezekiel: “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (36:26).
A pacemaker isn’t going to help. Quadruple bypass won’t do it. Valve replacement surgery is not going to be radical enough to save this old hardened sinful heart of yours. It is too far gone. Steeped in sin from birth, your heart is hopelessly mired in sin and is the source of all the stuff that comes out of you—the corrupt thought, the loveless word, the ruthless deed. This is the whole nature of “original sin,” or as the Lutheran Confessions call it, “concupiscence,” a word that sounds almost as awful as it is. You are conceived and born with an unclean heart that gives rise to unclean thoughts, unclean words, and unclean deeds.   
This is a fundamental thing you must remember: You are not a sinner because you sin; you sin because you are a sinner. It’s a heart problem. Sin comes from the heart. Even a tiny, “innocent” baby has a heart capable of all the evil things Jesus lists and then some. The only thing that prevents him from acting them out is lack of development of gross and fine motor skills, of intellect and reasoning. It’s only a matter of time before that little heart begins to spill out bilge, too—from resistance to a parent’s will to the willful assertion of her own will. And so it goes with you. Out of your heart flows your own idolatries, adulteries, murders, lies, deceits; whatever the sin, it all begins in your own heart.
The answer lies not in your lying, cheating, cold dead beating, two-timing, double dealing, mean mistreating, unloving heart, but in the loving heart of God. In the undeserved kindness and mercy of God in Christ Jesus. You need a new heart. A heart that beats to the rhythms of God’s Word and Spirit. A loving heart—a heart that’s alive and burning with faith toward God and love toward neighbor. That’s what God wants for you. That’s what God gives to you in His Son!
And it’s not so much like a heart transplant where one heart is removed and another is put in its place. If that were the case, you would already be without sin because the source of sin would be gone. But then, He would have to kill you and raise you to life, which He will do, in good time.
Instead, God does a kind of “piggyback operation,” and puts a new heart next to your old heart that is the source of all kinds of evil. Those two hearts beat together for a while, the old heart of Adam, the new heart of Christ. Luther called this being at once a sinner and a saint. To be certain, having two hearts is not an easy way to live. It would be much easier to reject that new heart and just deal with the old, dying one. But you know how that turns out, don’t you!   
So for the time being, God leaves you hanging in a bit of tension between the old and the new, between death and life, between sinner and saint, a life where by the power of the Holy Spirit you strive to live according to God’s will and Word, but repent and trust in God’s grace when you fail. You pray along with David, and your other brothers and sisters in Christ: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”
And the Lord says: “Trust Me, I am your God. You are My child. I have rescued you from your sins in the death of My Son Jesus. I have washed you clean, baptized you with My Word, claimed you as My own. Trust Me, that I know what is best for you. Don’t give Me your old lying, cheating, cold dead beating, two-timing, double dealing, mean mistreating, unloving heart; instead, I will give you My heart, the loving heart of My Son, Jesus, whose heart always beats to My will.”
It’s not what goes into you that makes you unclean. But it is what goes into you that makes you clean. It’s Who goes into you that makes you clean. Spiritual purity comes not from within, but from without, outside yourself. Baptismal water poured on you. Forgiving words spoken into you. Christ’s Body and Blood fed to you. Those are what make the unclean clean. God alone can do it. God alone has done it. And He does it for you here today through His means of grace.

For the sake of Jesus and His ever-loving heart, you are forgiven for all of your sins. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Love of God in Christ Jesus

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
I must admit up front: I don’t know much about Steve. The first time that I saw him was in the hospital room last week. I never had the chance to get to know the man who was your son, your brother, your friend. I never got to know the man who enjoyed hunting, fishing, spending time with his dogs, or hanging out at the lake. I don’t know much about Steve as a person, except what I’ve been told: “Steve was the type of friend who would give you the shirt off his back.”
While I’m sorry that I never had that opportunity, in some ways I consider it an advantage as I speak to you today. I consider it an advantage, because although it’s helpful to be able to personalize the message, a funeral sermon (as all sermons) should be focused on Christ and not the Christian. It should tell us what Jesus has done to seek and to save lost sinners like Steve and you and me. And so that is what I am going to do today.
The most important day of Steve’s life happened here at St. John’s on November 2, 1969. That is the day Steve was baptized in the triune name of God. That is the day that Steve was given the new birth of water and the Spirit. That is the day Steve was adopted as a son of God, made an heir of His kingdom. That is the day Steve was joined to Christ in His death and resurrection. That is the day Steve was clothed with the robe of Christ’s righteousness that covers all his sin.
Steve publicly confessed this faith here in the rite of confirmation on April 15, 1984. In the presence of God and this congregation, Steve acknowledged the gifts God gave to him in Baptism. As many of you have also done, Steve promised to continue to hear the Word of God and to receive the Lord’s Supper faithfully. He promised, by the grace of God, to live according to the God’s Word, and in faith, word, and deed to remain true to God, even to death.
Like each of us, Steve was not perfectly faithful to his promises. But then neither was his church, his brothers and sisters in Christ who welcomed him into the fold, and promised to support Steve with their prayers, ongoing instruction and nurture in the faith. Neither, was I, his pastor, who failed to seek out and find Steve until recently. We all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
Fortunately, our salvation does not depend on our keeping of promises, but rather rests in the mercy and promises of God. The promises that I would especially like to focus on this afternoon are from Romans 8:28-39, a passage that I shared with Steve and his mom in the hospital:
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, in order that He might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom He predestined He also called, and those whom He called He also justified, and those whom He justified He also glorified.
“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’
“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
God promises us everything and nothing: nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. Not tribulation. Not distress. Not persecution. Not famine. Not nakedness. Not danger. Not sword. Nothing. Not even death. Especially not death. God also promises everything: everything works for good for God’s children. Everything: the good and the bad. Everything works for good for those who love God. And nothing can separate us from God’s love.
Believing this is easier said than done in the face of real tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, or sword. Do we actually believe that as the baptized children of God our sufferings will one day be vindicated? Do we actually trust God’s promise that the hardships of our lives won’t simply be erased but will all turn out for good? Do we actually believe that there is purpose and meaning in what we suffer now? Do you believe this?
Well, it is true; and this is why: “For those whom [God] foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, in order that He might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29).
In eternity, the Father looks at His only-begotten Son and sees in His Son perfected and glorified humanity. In time, through His Son, God makes man in His image, to reflect the Son into the world. Adam wrecks it. He listens to another word, an alien word that draws him away from God to sin, to rebellion, to death, and headed to a hell that was never intended for him. Adam ceases to reflect the image of the Son into the creation, but instead reflects himself, his own mortal, frail, and fallen nature, and he passes that corruption on to his children. Such sin and sinfulness provokes God’s holy wrath and deserves God’s righteous judgment.
Sin’s corruption is so deep we are powerless to save ourselves. But the Father has a plan. He sends His one and only Son, Jesus Christ. In love, He gives His only-begotten Son in the flesh to die, so that whoever believes in Him will not perish but will have everlasting life.
Christ is the new and second Adam, undoing what the first Adam did, rescuing fallen humanity and restoring a creation that groans as it awaits the consummation of God’s promises, as He embodies in His own flesh all of sinful humanity and all of creation, embracing it all in His once for all death, and raising it all up incorruptible in His resurrection. Everything is done in Christ!
In Christ, you were foreknown by the Father. Apart from Christ, God does not know you or anyone. In Christ, God knows you as one of His own. In Christ, you were predestined. Even before you were conceived, even before creation, you were predestined to be conformed to the image of Christ. You were called in Christ, baptized into His death and resurrection, having heard the good news of Jesus and having the good news work its way with you. You were justified in Christ, declared innocent before God’s judgment throne. Not with your own innocence. You have none. But with an innocence from outside of yourself. You are justified. A judgment has been spoken over your head by the blood of the cross where the Son of God took away your sin. God declares you innocent, and if God says it, that settles it. Right now, as we speak, you stand before the all holy Judge, who is a consuming fire. You stand before Him spotless and blameless, clothed with the perfect life and death of Jesus. That’s what it means to be justified.
But wait, there’s more to this promise. Those whom He justified, He also glorified. Notice: that’s past tense. It’s spoken and done. You are glorified, even now as you sit here and listen to me. You are glorified in the glorified flesh of Jesus Christ. He embodied you in His death. He embodied you in His resurrection. And even now, He embodies you in His ascended glory. Your life is hidden in Christ, you are glorified in Christ. In yourself, it is anything but glorious. You suffer, you sin, and sadly, you die. But in Christ, you are glorified and pure and holy. God has done everything for you. It is finished! That takes everything eternal out of your hands and gives it back to the loving, powerful hands of God.
So then, who or what on earth or in heaven can possibly mess you up? If God is for you, (and He is, in His Son), who can be against you? If God gave you His one and only Son, (and He has) how will He not give you everything? If you are declared innocent in Christ’s blood, (and you are) who can bring charges against you? If God is the one who justifies you (and He is) who is left to condemn you? The devil? No, he’s been defeated. The world? What can the world say before the face of God? Yourself? Only if you claim to be greater than God. You see, when you say, “I can’t forgive myself,” you’re overruling God. Repent. God has forgiven you. Completely! 100%. See yourself as God sees you in Christ, not as you see yourself, or as the devil and the world try to present you.
Who can condemn you? No one! Jesus was condemned on the cross in your place. And the same Jesus appears before the Father interceding for you. He never lets the Father forget those wounds by which He won for us salvation and life. And He never lets us forget either, for whenever we eat the bread that is His Body and drink the cup that is His Blood, we proclaim His death until He comes.
What can separate us from God’s love in Christ? Throw the works at us—tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, or sword. Add anything you want. A bad childhood, a broken marriage, sickness, mental illness, anything. Death, devil, angels, powers, the past, the present, the future. High things, low things, nothing. In all these things, we are more than conquerors.
Now, I know, it doesn’t always look that way—especially on a day like today. On this side of the grave, that victory looks to all the world like defeat. Life looks like death. The Christian life appears crucified not risen. The victorious life of the Christian looks nothing like victory in this world. It is filled with tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword. The sheep under the Good Shepherd Jesus look like sheep being led to the slaughter. The sons and daughters of God often look like orphans, at times even runaways.

But we walk by faith, not by sight. We trust God’s Word, His promises. Christ has conquered. And in Him you conquer too. Baptized into Christ, God has put you into the safest place there is—into the death and life of His Son. And from that vantage point you can be sure that neither death nor life—nothing in all creation—will be able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen. 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The One Who Comes Before God as a Beggar Goes Home Justified

“But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:13-14).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
A couple of years ago, a friend of mine was on the news. Perhaps you saw the story. It was about the man in Rapid City who wanted to get his smile back. A succession of financial setbacks had prevented him from fixing his teeth. Finally, he decided to set up an account on the internet to ask people to help. “The hardest thing I've ever had to do is to do this, you know, to swallow my pride and ask for help," he said on Keloland News. In a short period of time, he raised about $3,000.
That’s not to say everyone was happy with his efforts. Along the way, he wrote, “I was feeling pretty beaten up today after talking to someone I know. He said, ‘Panhandling seems to be a good way to get a new set of teeth for yourself.’” My friend admitted he was having some doubts about the process. But then he received an encouraging message on Facebook. That was enough to keep him going. He had the procedure completed and his new smile looks great!
I’m happy for my friend. He got what he wanted, and it has certainly raised his spirits. But I must confess I was somewhat conflicted. Part of my dilemma was ethical. I wondered, “Is it even right to ask someone for help to pay for a medical procedure that would have be classified as elective rather than emergency?” But I’ve come to realize that most of my hesitancy is a matter of pride: I don’t think I could do it. I’m generally too self-reliant, too prideful to ask for help—and often I’m the poorer for it. And so I decided to help my friend. 
So, what would it take to get you to beg? What would it take for you to swallow your pride and ask for help from a total stranger, a passing acquaintance, even a close friend or family member? I submit that it takes at least two things to make such a bold request. First, it takes a sense of desperation, at the very least, recognition of a great need that you are unable to fulfill yourself. And second, it takes confidence that the one you are asking is able to fulfill that need.
Streets in the ancient world were filled with beggars that accosted those who passed by. These beggars had no assured livelihood; most of them had no family network of support and could not work due to a disability. There was no government-funded social safety net. They depended upon the mercy of the well-to-do for their livelihood. There was an art to begging. From bitter experience beggars knew that they were far more likely to receive a handout if they approached people and appealed to their better nature than if they were aggressive and demanding. So they usually appealed for help by saying, “Lord, have mercy!”
It was, of course, considered shameful to beg. Respectable citizens took pride in earning a living and in having enough money to support their family. Apart from some unscrupulous con men, no one chose to become a beggar. Desperation alone drove them to seek charity from others in public—and they begged only if they had no other option.
Therefore, it’s quite surprising how Jesus describes the life of a disciple in the first beatitude of His Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). Notice how Jesus commends spiritual poverty. The Greek word for “poor” is also the term for a beggar. Those who are poor in spirit have no spiritual assets. They have nothing to offer to God the Father; rather, they receive everything from Him. They receive the Holy Spirit as beggars who ask for what they do not have. They receive the Father’s kingdom as a gift for the sake of Jesus Christ.
This contradicts conventional wisdom. Popular piety presupposes our unrealized spiritual potential, which can be developed through spiritual disciplines. In contrast to this desire for spiritual self-improvement, Jesus teaches that we begin, continue, and end our spiritual journey with Him as beggars. We do not, as we follow Jesus, become increasingly self-sufficient. Rather, we learn, bit by bit, the art of begging. Christ teaches us to become beggars together with Him, until at our death we can do nothing but say, “Lord, have mercy on me!”
Martin Luther knew all about begging. On the evening before he died, he penned a short meditation how he had learned to understand the Scriptures through trial. His short reflection ends with the words, “We are beggars. That is true.”
Elsewhere, Luther writes that before God, we are beggars with empty sacks. We have nothing for ourselves—everything is a gift from God. This is especially true when it comes to righteousness; it’s not just that we’re generally good people who need a little more righteousness to put us over the top, but rather that we are by nature unrighteous, unholy, sinful, and enemies of God. We’ve got nothing to show, nothing to give in order to make God give us even the time of day.
But for Jesus’ sake, God fills up our empty sack. He fills us full of grace and faith, life and salvation. He fills us to overflowing. It is undeserved. It is all because Christ has died in our place, suffering the condemnation for our sin. We’re always in need of grace. In that sense, we’re always beggars.
Our Lord teaches this truth by way of a parable in our Gospel lesson for today—the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. But as you meditate on this text, keep in mind that beggars don’t always look or feel like beggars.
Traditionally, we hear the Pharisee’s prayer as boastful, especially since Jesus tells the parable against those who treat others with contempt. We hear, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.”
Now, this Pharisee may be pompous; but he might also be earnest and sincere: “God, I’m working hard at pleasing You. It isn’t easy—it’s tough to keep Your laws! Deep down inside, I’d rather keep a little more for myself than tithe. It’s not easy to think on holy things when my eyes would rather lust and my mind think adulterous thoughts. It’s tough to fast twice a week because I’d rather be a glutton. Sometimes I envy those tax collectors who just do what they do and don’t worry. But it’s wrong—I know that it’s wrong, so I thank You that I’m not like that. I don’t want to be like him. I’m working on it, Lord.”
That’s not a pompous-sounding prayer. That’s the prayer of somebody who’s struggling with sin, who’s trying to do the right thing, trying to keep the Law. You can probably identify with the temptations he’s talking about, with the struggle he’s having. This is a good guy. He’s trying to do the right thing.
But his prayer is all wrong, whichever way he means it. It’s just that the error is far more subtle in one case than the other. If the Pharisee’s prayer is “God, you’ve got to love me more than this tax collector because I’m better than him,” the sin is obvious. We say, “He’s no better than the tax collector. He’s sinful, too. He’s not saved by his works of fasting and tithing because no one is saved by works; and he shows his pride and his lack of love by how poorly he regards the tax collector. It’s obvious why he doesn’t go home justified.”
But what if the Pharisee’s prayer is the one of the earnest, sincere guy who wants to do the right thing, who struggles with temptation and works hard to be righteous? What if it’s the good-guy-neighbor next door who’s working hard to set a good example of what it is to be a follower of God? The answer is that he still doesn’t go home justified. Why? Because as sincere and earnest as he is, he still believes that he is earning God’s love by trying hard to do the right thing. He might be a nice guy and great neighbor, but he’s still an unjustified neighbor going to hell.
Whether the prayers sounds boastful or earnest, it treats others with contempt. Blatantly or subtly, it says, “God loves me more because of what I’m doing, or at least what I’m trying to do.” Worse, though, it treats Christ with contempt. It says, “I may have needed forgiveness at the beginning, but I need less and less of Jesus’ righteousness because I’m getting better myself.”
The tax collector in Jesus’ parable has no such assumptions about himself. He’s convicted of the truth that he’s got nothing at all to make holy God help him out. He knows he’s a beggar with the empty sack. He doesn’t even lift his eyes toward heaven, but prays, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” It’s a great, God-pleasing prayer of faith. Of himself, the tax collector says, “Here’s the sum total of who I am: I’m a sinner. There is nothing about me that deserves Your help.” Of God, the tax collector says, “Although You are righteous, you are also merciful; and so I ask that You would be merciful to me.” What a prayer of faith! The tax collector says, “I’m a beggar who’s got nothing and deserves nothing. So don’t help me because of who I am—help me because of who You are, God.”
The tax collector comes before God as a beggar, he goes home justified.
The problem with the Pharisee is his misplaced, proud reliance on his own righteousness (Luke 18:9). He is guilty of self-delusion, refusing to acknowledge his status as a beggar before God and a recipient of His gifts.
We face the same danger in our spiritual lives. It is easy for us to imagine that we are actors performing before God to gain His applause rather than beggars receiving His gifts. Nothing excites us more than the desire to do something great, achieve something extraordinary. Of course, we try to convince ourselves that we don’t do this for us but only for God! In truth, we often seek to use God’s gifts to gain spiritual kingship, power, and glory for ourselves, even as we try to say we use them for God and the growth of the Church! In the process, we become blind to the depths of our sin and the extent of God’s grace.
All too quickly our spirituality becomes an exercise in blatant self-deception and shameless self-promotion. We cover up before God and advertise ourselves as our own creation. We avoid full exposure to the scrutiny of God’s Law. We dismiss the call to repentance. We protect the old Adam from demolition and reconstruction by Christ. And all this because, like the Pharisees, we want to be approved, admired, and praised by those around us, rather than by God.
But we’ve got it all backwards. God always wants us to start where we are, rather than where we would like to be, on our spiritual journey. And where is that? Where do we begin? We are poor, miserable sinners who are justified by God’s grace. Our justification does not depend on our spiritual performance but on Christ and His performance. We can therefore admit our recurring failure to live as His holy people and people of prayer. In fact, our failure is meant to teach us to ask for what we lack and receive everything from Christ. The one who comes before God as a beggar goes home justified. And that is Good News!
You see, you came here this morning a beggar. You confessed before almighty God, your merciful Father, that you are a poor miserable sinner who justly deserves God’s temporal and eternal punishment. You repented of your sins and appealed to God’s boundless mercy for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of His beloved Son, Jesus Christ. And then Christ’s called and ordained servant announced the grace of God unto you and spoke Christ’s absolution to you in the triune name into which you were baptized.
With your fellow sinners you begged the Kyrie: “Lord, have mercy upon us. Christ, have mercy upon us. Lord, have mercy upon us.” You asked: “O Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us. Thou that takest away the sin of the world receive our prayer. Thou that sittest at the right hand of God the Father, have mercy upon us.” And God had mercy as He spoke His Word to you in the assigned readings for today.
Following this message, you will beg some more: That God’s name would be hallowed; that His kingdom would come among us; that God’s will would be done by us; that God would continue to give us our daily bread, that He would forgive our trespasses and enable us to forgive others their sins against us; that He would deliver us from temptation and the power of the evil one.
And the Lord starts answering that prayer immediately as He invites you to His Table: “Take, eat; this is My body, which is given for you… Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the new testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”
You beg some more: “O Christ, Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us. O Christ, Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us. O Christ, Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, grant us Thy peace.”
And then you come forward to receive the very body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ that strengthens and preserves you in body and soul to life everlasting. And you depart in peace according to God’s Word, having seen with your own eyes God’s salvation, which He has prepared before the face of all people.
You come here before God as a beggar; you go home justified. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.

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

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Jesus: True Food, True Drink,True Life

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
“Pastor, I need to talk with you,” she said. “I don’t think I should come to communion anymore.”
“Why is that?” I asked, knowing that there are many reasons people choose not to come to communion, but hardly any of them good.
This was someone who took her faith seriously. She asked some of the most thoughtful questions in Bible study, offered insightful comments in our Lutheran Confessions reading group. But she also came from a Christian tradition that does not teach the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. And this left her confused. “I shouldn’t come to communion, Pastor, because I don’t believe the same thing about the Lord’s Supper as you teach.”
Now, I could have seen this as unbelief, as a challenge to my teaching, but I took it as a good sign. It showed me that she took the Lord’s Supper seriously. Fortunately she also took God’s Word seriously. So we looked at Scripture, the institution of the Lord’s Supper. We read: “Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body.’ And He took a cup, and when He had given thanks He gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you, for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’” (Matthew 26:26-28).
“Do you believe these words?” I asked her. “Do you believe Jesus said these words just as they are recorded in Scripture?”
“Yes, I do,” she replied.
“Do you believe that God’s Word has the power to do what He says?”
“Yes, Pastor. At creation, God said, ‘Let there be…’ and there was. God made everything out of nothing by speaking His Word.”
“You believe Jesus is God, right?” I continued. She nodded affirmatively. “So, do you believe Jesus’ words have the power to do what He says?”
“Yes, I believe Jesus’ words. But I don’t understand how it can be.”
And I said, “Oh, I don’t understand how it can be, either. But believing is not the same as understanding. God tells me lots of things I don’t understand. But I find great comfort that I have a God who is so much bigger than me that I cannot understand. I think that’s what faith is. It’s trusting the words because of who said them, not because they all make sense to me at this time.”
The next Sunday, she came to the communion rail and received the very body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of her sins.
But it doesn’t always turn out so well. Jesus’ words are often troubling. Jesus’ words are often hard to accept. Many, even many who have followed Him, hear His words and walk away.
This is certainly true in our text for today, John 6:53-55:
Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him” (John 6:53-55).
This is a hard saying. These are troubling words. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” And just in case you thought you could “spiritualize” things and make them more palatable, Jesus shifts the verb to a much coarser one, a subtle variation which our ESV translation picks up: “Whoever feeds on My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life.” Not just “eats” but “feeds.” The word is located in the mouth and has to do with the teeth. There is no doubt about what Jesus is talking. He’s not talking about some spiritual eating in heaven or in you, but an eating that goes on in your mouth.
 Those are troubling, scandalous words. They appear to be the words of a psychopath! And anybody who thinks we’re going to believe such words is expecting us to be just as crazy or sick.
Many people in the crowd apparently thought along the same lines. Many of Jesus’ disciples turned back and no longer walked with Him. They no longer wanted to be seen in public with Jesus. They had no problem with a Jesus who teaches, a Jesus who casts out demons, a Jesus who walks on water, a Jesus who works wonders, a Jesus who multiplies loaves and fishes, but a Jesus that talks about eating His flesh and drinking His blood to have eternal life and be raised up on the Last Day? No, thank you. That’s just too weird.
There is no more scandalous teaching in the Church than the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. The world mocks it openly today. I’ve gotten comments on my blog from people who can’t believe anyone who would be so gullible to believe that their Savior comes to them in a piece of bread. Sadly, there are many within the Church who would spiritualize and marginalize and even deny this real food and real drink. Even worse is when we despise the Lord’s body and blood and act as if it’s an option we can take or leave. But that troubling verb Jesus uses for “feeds” takes place in the mouth, which is where the Lord wants His body and blood, the fruits of His sacrifice, to be.
Jesus’ words emphasize the immediate importance of the Incarnation for you and me. God, in the flesh, is truly with us. He doesn’t simply abide with us in the sense of hang around with us, walk with us, talk with us, tell us we are His own, and all that stuff. No, Jesus wants to feed us—true food and true drink. The only food and drink that brings the forgiveness of our sins, life, and salvation. Jesus wants to abide in us and we in Him. And He provides the way: “Whoever feeds on My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.” We abide in Jesus by faith, and He abides in us by our eating and drinking His body and blood.
This turns everything upside-down, religiously speaking. Think about it: In paganism, you feed your gods; in Christianity you feed on your God. I guess, we are by nature, all pagans at heart, and that is why this is not easy for us to accept. And unfortunately that is also why some leave.
Many of Jesus’ disciples left after He preached this sermon in Capernaum. They’d heard enough. They packed their bags and headed home. But Jesus didn’t go running after them, did He? Jesus didn’t say, “No, no, you misunderstood Me. I was only speaking metaphorically, spiritually. I didn’t mean literally eat My flesh and drink My blood. Of course not.” No, Jesus didn’t issue a retraction or try to reframe His words to make them more palatable to His audience. Jesus let His words stand as He spoke them plainly. And we dare not do any different!
Then Jesus turned to His Twelve, His inner circle. These were His chosen ones, one of whom would eventually betray Him, another of whom would deny even knowing Him, and the rest of whom would scatter when their Shepherd was struck. Even knowing all of this, Jesus asks them, “What about you? Do you want to leave too?” That’s a hard saying! Who can listen to it?
How about you? Do you want to leave when the teachings of Jesus get difficult, uncomfortable, perhaps even make you feel embarrassed or ashamed? Our sinful, self-oriented nature wants so badly to check out, to get away from these troubling words and back to safer ground. But Jesus loves us too much to leave us there. And so He challenges His would-be disciples: “What about you?”
As he often does, Peter answers on behalf of the group. By the power of the Holy Spirit, he makes the good and faith-filled confession: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life and we have believed, and have come to know, that You are the Holy One of God.” That’s what faith in Christ sounds like. It clings to the words of Jesus. He alone has the words of eternal life. The disciples had left everything they had to follow Jesus. They had no fallback position.
But by the grace of God, they trusted Jesus’ faith creating words. They had heard and believed, and trusting Jesus, they also trusted Him even when He pushed their reason and senses to the breaking point. When others were scandalized and fell away, they stuck with Jesus because they hung to His words as the most precious thing they had.
Did they fully comprehend what Jesus was saying? I doubt it! How could the disciples have known what Jesus would do on the night He was betrayed into death, when He took the bread, broke it, gave thanks, and gave it to those same disciples and said, “Take this and eat it. This is My body given for you”? How could they have known, that Jesus would take the cup after supper, give thanks, and give it to them with the words, “Take and drink of this, all of you; this is My blood of the new covenant which is being poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins”? They could not have possibly known exactly how Jesus would give them His flesh to eat and His blood to drink that they may have His life in them. But they trusted His words.
The Lord’s Supper is an exercise in that sort of faith in Jesus’ words. We hear Jesus’ living Word spoken to each one of us. “My body given for you… My blood shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.”   These are words of eternal life revealing, giving, bestowing, delivering into your mouth the gifts of the cross, Jesus’ own death, and life as your real food and real drink.
I’m sure you have your doubts. I know you do. I do, too. Doubt goes along with being called to believe things unseen, to accept things that cannot be measured, examined, reasoned, tasted, touched, smelled, only believed on the basis of the trustworthiness of the One who has spoken them to you. So, what do you do when your eyes and ears don’t agree? You go with your ears! You believe the words that Jesus speaks to you.
And what do you do with your doubts? Bring them to Jesus! Bring your doubts, your misgivings, your uncertainties, as well as your sin, your brokenness—bring all of that to the Lord’s Table. Bring all of you. Your whole life, your death, your fears, your anxieties. Bring them and let the Lord feed you with His words, with His body and blood, with the bread of life and the wine of heaven. Real food, real drink, real words from the One who is the Truth.
The hard words Jesus spoke in Capernaum cost Him His life. Not that people killed Him on account of these words, but that He had to die in order to fulfill them. His body had to be given into death. His flesh had to be offered as the atoning sacrifice, the perfect Lamb of God. His blood had to be poured out like wine. His life had to be given for our life, for the life of the whole world.
This meal of which Jesus hinted that day in Capernaum, and instituted that night of His betrayal, and gives us in the Divine Service, is the meal of the cross and the open tomb. Jesus’ death wins it, His resurrection clinches it—He alone has the words of eternal life. And we trust these words for no other reason than He alone is risen from the dead. And if someone can raise Himself up from the dead just as He said He would, He can certainly do anything else that He tells us—no matter how impossible, no matter how scandalous.
Take Jesus at His Word. Trust Him even with these outrageous words, “This is My body; this is My blood.” For with this food and drink He abides in you and you in Him, and He will raise you up on the Last Day. In this Word, Jesus, you have true food, true drink, true life. You are forgiven for all of your sins.

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

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Put Off Depravity; Put On the Likeness of God

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“Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:22-24).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
The details are a bit fuzzy after all this time. Let’s just say, a certain Moeller boy had carelessly broken one of his mom’s “pretties,” and then had hidden the evidence under his bed. (In hindsight, it was not exactly the brightest strategy, considering it was his Mom who cleaned his room; but you can’t expect a three-year-old to come up with brilliant plans, no matter how precocious he may be.)
Anyway, I do remember his Mom finding something broken that should not have been, and asking him if he knew anything about it. From the look on his face, his Mom knew he did. She also was pretty sure she knew who it was who had done it! Just to be certain, however, she laid it all out in the open: “You broke it and then tried to hide it.” That did it. Tears flowed. His hands went up to his ears. His mouth opened, and out came these fascinating words: “Don’t tell me that!”
“Don’t tell me that!” What an interesting reaction! Viewing the mangled “pretty” had troubled the boy. Having that youthful indiscretion discovered certainly bothered him. But what really hurt was having to hear with his own ears that he was the one who had broken it! His three-year-old solution? Cover his ears!
What had happened? The Law of God had done its work, even upon one so small! St. Paul writes: “Yet if it had not be for the Law, I would not have known sin… For apart from the Law, sin lies dead” (Romans 7:7-8). Jesus tells us this exposing of sin is actually a work of the Holy Spirit. “When He comes, He will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8).  
What this means is that just by his mother stating what was true—that the boy had done something he should not have done—the Holy Spirit convicted the boy of his sin as surely as the words of the prophet Nathan convicted David of his sins with Bathsheba. Being so confronted, David repented. Without such a confrontation, David would’ve remained dead in his sins. In fact, without Nathan bluntly stating the obvious, David would’ve kept on living his life—probably in much the same way as I—I mean “the boy”—would have continued to live with that broken knick-knack tucked away under the bed!
But this reaction to the Law of God is not unique, is it? Each of us, at one time or another, has done the very same thing. In fact, it just may be that the Church at large itself is currently in the process of lifting up its hands collectively to stop its ears and screaming out to its pastors: “Don’t tell me that!”
What do I mean? Well, it seems that there is a general aversion in the Church to any preaching, teaching, and music which would involve the Holy Spirit, through God’s Word, convicting hearts of sin, and consequently, causing guilt. It seems that what modern Christian ears want to hear, what Christian minds want to contemplate, what Christian emotions want to feel, is not guilt but joy!
What Christian could be against such a longing for joy? After all, joy is a fruit of the Spirit as noted by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians (5:22-23). Certainly if given the choice between guilt and joy, it would be a no-brainer: Joy would win out every time! But is the joy which is a gift of the Holy Spirit the result of simply overlooking, denying, or ignoring sin? That is, of shoving sin under our beds, so to speak, and trying to forget about it?
To go at this question in another way: Should this mother have, upon finding the mangled knick knack, simply ignored it and rejoiced that her son had so much energy? “Boys will be boys, after all.” Should the boy have, upon hearing that he had broken his Mom’s “pretty,” simply denied the fact that he had done it, and rejoiced that no one could prove it beyond a reasonable doubt? Should David have, upon hearing that he had committed adultery with Bathsheba and then murdered her husband, simply rejoiced that since he was king, he could do whatever he wanted, and no one would dare question him? If not, why?
Well, the joy of the Christian is not simply some common type of joy like we experience when we hit a homerun in the bottom of the ninth or receive a promotion at work. It is a joy that flows from the relief of guilt experienced by a three-year-old boy who’s broken one of his Mom’s favorite treasures. It is the joy that can only follow the confession of sin and the conviction that sin has been forgiven because Christ died on the cross for that sin.
So David, after being confronted by Nathan, does not speak of common joy, but of the joy of salvation being returned to him, knowing that his sins had been forgiven: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from Thy Presence, and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation and uphold me with Thy free spirit.”
So if Christian joy is tied so closely to guilt, why the running away from guilt? Has the Church simply come to the point of wanting to skip the “guilt” part of life and go right to the joy? Has the Church discovered that it is easier, more peaceful, and more appealing, to shun guilt and to promote joy?
Some would say: “Well, isn’t that what the Church—of all institutions in society—should do? A guilt-free zone? Shouldn’t the Church simply welcome, with open arms, anyone and everyone, regardless of how they live? After all, didn’t Jesus eat with tax collectors and prostitutes? Didn’t Jesus say, “Judge not, that you be not judged”? Who are we then to condemn anyone? Who are we to make anyone feel guilt? Shouldn’t the Christian life be a life of joy based upon not having to worry about who we are, and what we are doing?”
The problem with this line of thinking, of course, is that it’s based about wishful thinking and faulty interpretation of Scripture. Yes, Jesus said, “Judge not…” but the context clearly shows He means to reserve judgment upon someone else until you have seriously examined your own heart. In Matthew 18, Jesus actually speaks of the duty Christians have to confront a fellow believer caught in sin, in order to restore him or her to the body of Christ. Jesus speaks often about sin and guilt and the need for repentance. In fact, His first public sermon was this: “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the Good News.”
The importance of repentance in a Christian’s life led Martin Luther to assert in his 95 Theses: “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent,’ He meant that the whole life of the believers should be one of repentance.”
A life of repentance: Now what’s that mean? How can the entire life of the Christian be one of repentance? Doesn’t that mean the entire life of a Christian should be one of guilt? No, it does not. It does mean, however, that the Christian life should be real. You and I, of all people, should realize that we are still confronted by sin! Being confronted by sin, we should not shy away from its existence, but admit, that yes, sin does exist and you and I are, indeed, sinful and unclean, and sin daily in thought, word, and deed. Repentance is therefore not a once-in-a-while type of situation, but must be a constant state of being.
Yes, you and I, through faith in Jesus Christ, have been redeemed by Christ and are now declared to be justified before the Father in heaven. Through the Word of God and the Sacraments, we have received and continue to receive the Holy Spirit, who works within us to produce His fruits, one of which is joy. Our sin, however, remains. It remains to bother, to haunt, to trouble, to perturb, and ultimately to kill and destroy. Until Christ’s return, our joy is always tempered by the ongoing reality of sin—both those sins we actually commit and the sin that permeates us from conception to natural death.
As long as you realize this, spiritually you are in a “good place.” When you ignore or run away from the fact that sin is still a daily part of your life, trouble begins. You begin to believe that your heavenly Father loves you for the good things you do; or worse yet, that God doesn’t care what you do, in effect, saying to any preaching of the Law: “Don’t tell me that!”
Unfortunately, the Christian Church nowadays, in its attempt to appeal to the masses, seems to be encouraging this very type of pseudo-Christian life by making itself a guilt-free zone. To accomplish this makeover, certain aspects of Christian life are being jettisoned. Sermons which would seek to establish the guilt of sin have to go. Hymns and songs which speak of such shame have to go. Confession and absolution? Gone. The Law of God … it must not be mentioned!
Well, that is not completely true. The Law of God certainly is mentioned in the Church nowadays, but only as a standard. Put in another way, the Law of God is not used to make anyone feel guilty, to strike fear and terror in their heart, but simply to give Christians a goal to attain or a way to measure progress in sanctification. Unfortunately, this has led many Christians to think they don’t really need to worry about the Ten Commandments anymore. Haven’t Christians been freed from the Law? Can’t Christians live lives of joy, regardless of how they live from day to day?”
That’s the way the world thinks. That’s the way our Old Adam wants us to think. And Satan would be delighted for us to continue such a line of thought until our dying day. But Paul won’t let us get by with it. In our text, he writes: “Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to the hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity” (Ephesians 4:17-19).
Paul contrasts this pagan worldview with the holy life of a Christian: “But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about Him and were taught in Him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former way of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:20-24).
There is a clear-cut, irreconcilable difference between the unregenerate and the regenerate person, between the old man and the new. Still, the truth is, each of us is both. We are at the same time sinner and saint. The Christian created in Baptism to be like God in true righteousness and holiness is given the strength to fight sin and the old Adam. But this does not change the fact that the corrupt old man continues to reside within each of us, seeking to corrupt us.
This is a very sobering thought. The lusts and desires of the old man are so dangerous to because they are so deceitful. They seem to promise happiness, joy, and life, while in reality, they only lead to shame, burdened consciences, heavy hearts, and unresolved guilt. They promise the good life, but they ruin a person that follows their guidance—both in body and spirit—until he is lost forever.
There is only one remedy to this darkness, to this depravity, and that’s the Christian solution that was taught to the Ephesians: “to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through sinful desires; to be renewed in the spirit of your minds”—in a word: repentance.
This is not easy. A life of repentance requires diligence and persistence. But more than that, it requires the work of the Holy Spirit, who convicts of sin through the Word of Law and who awakens faith and a resolve to do good by the Gospel. Putting off the old man, being renewed in the spirit of the mind, and putting on the new man are a continuous process. We must be daily renewed by the Spirit through God’s means of grace, lest the old sinful nature once more gain the upper hand.
This is why Luther directs us to our Baptism, where the Holy Spirit works faith and creates in us new life with the power to overcome sin. “Our Baptism indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”
By Baptism we have been made to share in Christ’s death and resurrection. As He has buried our sin, so we, too, can and must daily overcome and bury it. And as He is risen from the dead and lives, so we, too, can and must daily live a new life in Him. Every time we recall the triune name into which we were baptized, in church or by ourselves, we recall, claim, and confess before heaven, earth, and hell all the blessings that God has given us in our Baptism.
And so, dear baptized, I send you home today with this exhortation: Put off depravity; put on the likeness of God. Put off your old self with its deceitful desires and put on your new self, created in the true righteousness and holiness of Jesus Christ. Repent and believe. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The introduction of this message is an adaptation of Paul Strawn’s introduction to his recent translation of Martin Luther’s Antinomian Theses, entitled “Don’t Tell Me That!” 

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Ask a Stupid Question... Get a Perfect Answer 2.0

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“Then they said to Him, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent’” (John 6:28-29).  
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
I’m sure you’ve heard this before: “There’s no such thing as a stupid question.” It’s my experience that this is the kind of thing said at a question and answer session when nobody is asking questions. It’s meant to encourage more interaction between the speaker and listeners. And it’s been said so often that it’s become a truism—an “accepted fact of life.” But is it true?
Some people ask questions just to gain attention. Others like to “play devil’s advocate” or “stir up the pot a bit.” A few already know the answer but want to test the speaker or to prove their own expertise. And some people just plain don’t think before they speak. So, yes, there are stupid questions—at least questions that have less merit than others. But have you ever noticed how a skillful teacher can take even a stupid or off-point question and still use it for a teaching opportunity? Certainly no one was better at this than Jesus, as He demonstrates in our text.
Over the past few weeks our Gospel has us sailing back and forth across the Sea of Galilee with Jesus and His disciples. Hearing about the death of John the Baptist, Jesus loads His disciples in a boat and heads to a desolate place. There, Jesus miraculously feeds the five thousand. The crowds love it. They want to make Him king. So Jesus makes His disciples get back in the boat and go to the other side while He goes up on the mountain to pray. Seeing His disciples are in trouble, Jesus decides to go out to them. The Savior’s stroll across the stormy sea scares His disciples senseless. They think He is a ghost. But once they hear His voice, they are more than willing to take Jesus on board with them.
When Jesus and the disciples land on shore, the crowd is a bit puzzled. The boat had left without Jesus; now it lands with Jesus. So it’s not surprising that their first question is already a little off the mark. “Rabbi, when did You come here?” they ask. What they’re really wondering is “How did You get here?”
Now, of course, the simplest answer is: “I walked.” But that would have raised a lot more questions than it provided answers. How Jesus gets from one place to another is as irrelevant as how water is Baptism or how bread and wine are the Body and Blood of Christ. The Lord is free to do whatever He pleases with His creation. Instead of satisfying their curiosity, Jesus switches the focus to a more pertinent issue: faith. Where is their trust? Why are they following Him? What do they want from Him? “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves” (John 6:26).
Why is this crowd following Jesus? It’s not because they “saw signs.” Sure they “saw” Jesus miraculously feed a crowd of over 5,000 people. They “saw” Jesus healing all the sick people who were brought to Him. They saw the miracles, but they did not see them for what they really were—signs pointing to the Messiah. Jesus is not chastising them for being hungry and seeking food. Hunger is often part of living in a fallen world. Jesus Himself experienced hunger—far more even than those people, most of whom had to scrape and scrap every day for bread. No, food for their bodies is a good gift; but Jesus offers more: “Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on Him God the Father has set His seal” (John 6:27).
There are two kinds of food: Food you work for and food which is given. Food that perishes and food that endures to eternal life. You know personally about the first kind of food. That’s one reason you go to work even when you don’t feel like it—to put bread on the table. That goes all the way back to the Fall: “From the sweat of your brow you will eat your bread until you die,” God told Adam.
But that wasn’t how it was in the beginning. Food was plentiful. It literally grew on trees. Fruits hanging low, waiting to share life-sustaining nourishment. And there was the tree of life, from which one could eat and live forever. In the beginning, it was all gifts and no work. But disobedience and death changed the ecology, economy, and nutritional regimen. No longer fruits, but bread. Food you work for. Perishable food. Food that eventually kills you. Working uncooperative ground. Fighting weeds, heat, bugs, and drought. Planting and reaping. Grinding grain. Kneading dough. Baking bread. Work, work, work. A cycle that is barely ended and must be immediately repeated day after day until the day you die.
It’s part of the curse. God has made work a sweaty, frustrating business to teach us work is not the way to life. It’s simply eking out a living. We cannot work our way to heaven; we can only work our way to the grave. The food we work for perishes. It spoils. It rots. It gets moldy and smelly. If you don’t believe that, just come back by the trash compactor at Walmart after the disposed fruits, vegetables, and dairy products have been fermenting a couple of days in 90 degree heat. That’s why we have refrigerators and freezers. We’re just trying to slow the decay.
This was true even of the manna in the wilderness. If you tried to store it for the next day, it rotted and was full of worms. Our food supply, like our world, is dying and decaying, and all our work to “save it” can only delay the decay a bit. It’s all part of the grand death that is the wages of sin. And there’s no undoing the Fall or its effects. We can only manage the death, much like a hospice that doesn’t try to cure the patient, but provide a little comfort in the last days.
Our food is dead and we die along with it. Even though the manna was heavenly bread provided by God Himself, the people who ate it still died. The bread Moses gave couldn’t save them from death, no matter how miraculous it was. Nor could the Law Moses gave save them. That’s our lot as sinners—death and decay. That’s what St. Paul means when he says, “The wages of sin is death.”
“Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you,” Jesus says. He offers a food that requires no preservatives, no refrigeration. It endures to eternal life. And guess what? It preserves the eater to eternal life, too. Here is free food from the hand of God that preserves body and soul to eternity!
And yet the world—including you and me—pays more attention to food for our bellies than eternal food. We lavish more devotion on our daily bread than our daily devotions. We spend more time reading nutrition labels than we do our Bibles. We’re more concerned about Sunday brunch than we are about the Supper of the Lord. Our palates are not naturally pleased by the portions of Paradise.
Look at the Israelites. God fed them in the wilderness. And what did they want? Leeks, garlic, cucumbers, melons, meat, and wine. All the good stuff in exchange for what? Freedom! You see, those delicacies were the food of their slavery back in Egypt. Our fallen appetites are not geared for liberty, and we’d be willing to sacrifice most anything for a loaf of bread if we were hungry enough. But the food that endures to eternity is not a food you work for. It’s given you without charge from the Son of Man, the eternal Bread of Life Himself.
Now, that’s a long answer to a short question, to be sure. And, as often happens, Jesus doesn’t really answer the question that was first asked, but rather addresses in great detail the question that should have been asked. How did He get here? It doesn’t really matter. What is important is the gifts He brings to the table.
But the crowds are still thinking about works. “What must we do to be doing the works of God? After all, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. You don’t get something for nothing—and you certainty can’t get something that will never perish or spoil for nothing. So tell us Jesus. Give us a list. Give us the process and procedures to perform. You’ve whetted our appetites—now give us the recipe. What must we do to be doing the works of God?”
You have to admire Jesus’ patience. He has already told them that the Son of Man would give them food that never spoils. What part of give do they not understand? But fallen man will always possess in his heart the false teaching that he needs to work for salvation. Free gifts are not the normal course in this fallen world. You have to work for what you get. So the Law leads our hearts to question: “What must we do to be doing the works of God?”
Jesus says: “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” “Aha!” says our sinful heart. “There is something that we must do. There is something that we must add to Christ’s work—we must believe it. We must have faith. We must accept Jesus as our personal Savior and invite Him into our hearts.
But alas, dear sinner, Jesus is once again one step ahead of us. For the command He gives is believe; but He corrects something that the people had said. Did you catch it? The people want to know what works they should be doing; but Jesus corrected it to a singular—work. And He does not call it the work of believers; He calls it the work of God. Dear friends, do you realize the full weight of this? Your Lord has just told you that your faith is the work of God. It is not a personal quality that God expects of you; rather, it is an instrument that God gives you that you might receive His grace for the sake of His Son.
The crowd still doesn’t get it, so they ask more questions: “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you, Jesus? Moses had bread from heaven, what do you have for us?” And though they still miss His point, Jesus has brought them right where He wants them. And us, too. At the place where He gives Himself. You see, the bread He gives is Himself. “I AM the Bread of Life,” Jesus says. “Whoever comes to Me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in Me shall never thirst.” When God the Father, by the faith creating work of the Holy Spirit, gives you His Son Jesus, He gives you everything you need for this life and for all eternity—physical food and spiritual food. Daily bread and the Bread of Life.
You have temporal needs—needs that come and go—and so God gives you the ability and opportunity to earn a living. This is how He most often provides you with your daily bread: food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, money, and other goods. But sometimes He gathers other Christians around you to provide for those bodily needs in time of emergency or crisis. He’ll send someone to lend a listening ear when you are experiencing one of the trials of life in this fallen world. Or He’ll use their arms to hold you when you mourn the death of a loved one.
But Jesus knows that you have even greater needs. You’ve been hurt or mistreated by others; you’ve hurt others. You’ve been sinned against; you’ve been angry or unforgiving toward others. You’ve been greedy for yourself and have neglected the needs of others. You’ve lusted for or coveted that which God has not given you. You’ve grumbled against the Lord—accusing Him of being responsible for all that’s wrong in your life or questioning if He really cares about you. With these sins comes guilt, shame—and as God says in His Word—everlasting punishment and death. Your greatest need is to have these sins removed.
And so you come asking God: “What must I do? What’s the recipe, Jesus? Go to church? Pay my tithe? Have my children baptized? Take them to Sunday School? Live by the Golden Rule? What else must I do, Jesus? Just tell me, so that I can get all these sins removed. What must I do to be doing the works of God?”
It’s the wrong question, but Jesus gives the perfect answer anyway: “This is the work of God,” Jesus says, “that you believe in Him whom He has sent. I lived the perfect, obedient life that you have not, would not, could not live. I loved the Lord, My God, with all My heart and with all My soul and with all My mind. On the cross, I credited all of that to you. I purchased and won you, not with gold or silver, but with My holy, precious blood and My innocent suffering and death. I rose from the dead on the third day so that you, your loved ones, and all others who die in the Lord, might be raised from death to everlasting life.
“Now, I sit at God’s right hand interceding for you, ruling all things for the good of My kingdom, even as I come to you in My means of grace. In Baptism, I’ve joined you to My death and resurrections. In My Supper, I feed you the Bread of Life, My very body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins and to strengthen your faith. All the work of God has been done. You are forgiven for all 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 ...