Friday, September 25, 2015

Scandalous Savior, Scandal-less Faith

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[Jesus said:] “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched’” (Mark 9:42-48).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
The last few weeks we’ve been reminded over and over how slow Jesus’ disciples are in getting the Good News of Jesus Christ. Jesus foretells His death and resurrection, and Peter gets up in His face and tells the Lord it is not going to happen on his watch. Jesus rebukes impetuous Peter: “Get behind Me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” A couple of weeks ago, we heard how when Jesus’ disciples are unable to heal a boy with an unclean spirit, Jesus has to teach them a lesson on humility, faith, and prayer. Last week, we heard about the disciples arguing about which of them is the greatest in Jesus’ kingdom. Jesus uses a child as an object lesson to teach them true greatness comes in humble service to all.
And to think, these are the men Christ has chosen to be His apostles, His ambassadors to a dying world—men who are slow to learn, too proud to ask for help. God does, indeed choose the foolish, the weak, the low and the despised to accomplish His plan of salvation. That, in itself, is so scandalous that many who might otherwise follow Christ, dismiss Him and His wisdom as foolishness.
I don’t know about you, but I’m comforted by the disciples’ slowness in understanding, because I see the same thing happening to me. I’m sure you do, too. We say we believe. We say we trust Jesus entirely for our salvation. And yet we still cling tenaciously to our deeds, our creeds, our credentials, and whatever else we think we might need to open the pearly gates, just in case God’s grace isn’t free after all, and we need a little something in our pockets to bribe St. Peter.
It is easy to forget that even our recognition of Jesus Christ as Lord is a gift from God. But it is! It is God’s gift even that you and I are here this morning to worship Jesus Christ as Lord. We’re apt to think that we’ve got something to do with it. We’ve made the right choices. We’ve done the right thing. And it’s just a darn shame that more people wouldn’t do the same thing. We forget that before we even lifted a finger to do anything, while we were yet dead in our sins and trespasses, God did everything for us in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The death and resurrection of Jesus is so counterintuitive, we Christians even fail to appreciate just how scandalous it is to Old Adam. It messes with our minds. It lays waste to our neat and tidy ways of doing things. And very often, we simply don’t get it. And that was true of Jesus’ disciples as well. Even when Jesus patiently, repeatedly explained to them that He had to die and rise, they didn’t get it. His teaching would usually just go right over their heads and they were afraid to ask Jesus what He meant. When they did catch on to what He was saying they would refuse to accept that such a thing to could happen to their Lord.
Like in today’s Gospel. With the object of Jesus’ lesson about greatness still running around the house in Capernaum that Jesus and His disciples call home and headquarters, John files a complaint: “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” Don’t worry, Lord! We took care of the problem. You’ll have no unauthorized use of Your name going on here as long as we’re around!
I’m sure that Jesus’ disciples thought He would approve. But He doesn’t. Instead, He says something that sounds a little strange to us: “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in My name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of Me. For the one who is not against us is for us.” That’s right. “The one who is not against us is for us.” We usually say it the opposite way, the exclusive way: If you’re not for us, you’re against us. But Jesus turns it around and stands it on its head. It’s inclusive: The one who is not against us is for us. You see, the only way out of Jesus’ kingdom is to rebel against it, to oppose it, to resist it, to reject it. We must never seek to prevent others from preaching and proclaiming Christ, even if they are not part of our specific group. We must proceed carefully, leaving the final judgment to Christ Himself. Who knows through whom the Lord will work?
One of the great geniuses of the Lutheran reformation was that it didn’t create a new church. There was no such thing as a Lutheran Church, simply Lutheran churches. Churches that taught the same thing about how a sinner stands justified before God, declared righteous, innocent and blameless for the sake of Jesus Christ alone. But they didn’t form a new church; they simply reformed the churches. And they were able to see the church in any gathering in which the Gospel was purely taught and the sacraments were correctly administered. In other words, the Lutheran reformers allowed for the “unknown exorcist,” the one who proclaims the kingdom even though he isn’t “one of us.”
But it isn’t always that way. Sometimes we act as if we think if they aren’t Lutheran, they aren’t Christian. And Jesus would remind us: If they aren’t against us they are for us. There’s the key to understanding the kingdom of heaven that Jesus is bringing by His dying and rising. It is both exclusive and inclusive. It embraces the world inclusively; yet it is exclusively Jesus who does it. The world has no other Savior, nor does it need one. Jesus Christ is the all-sufficient sacrifice of atonement for sin, the perfect Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
It also reminds us that we have no exclusive claims on Jesus, even though He has an exclusive claim on us. That means we don’t assume that God hasn’t arrived on the scene until we have. It means we’re more inclined to listen to what God has done before we got there. He has His secret agents scattered all over the place: the Eldads and Medads who prophesy in the camp of Israel, the unknown exorcist who is casting out demons in the name of Jesus, the nurse who prays with her patients, the trucker who tells others on the road the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ, the pious Russian grandmother who baptizes her grandchildren when the churches are destroyed and the priests are taken away, or the stranger who speaks a gentle word of Gospel while sharing a cup of water. God is sneaky and subversive. He has agents lurking all over the place. And no one is absolutely necessary to the success of the kingdom. Certainly not you or me.
This means when we start hearing or seeing stuff we don’t like or approve of, we need to take a deep breath and be careful not to cause someone to stumble in their trust in Jesus. That was one of Luther’s defining pastoral principles, similar to the first rule of Hippocrates in medicine: “First, do no harm.” With Luther, that went, “Don’t cause the pious faithful to stumble in their faith.” That’s why Luther was so slow and intentional and careful in instituting changes, even changes like receiving both the Body and Blood of Christ in the Supper. He didn’t want anyone to think that God was now pleased with them because they were “doing it right.” Or that God was pleased with them for ignoring the Pope. Or that God was pleased with them for any reason other than the death and resurrection of Jesus. If we fail to understand this, we place stumbling blocks to people’s faith.
And it’s stumbling from faith that Jesus is concerned with in our text. The word is skandalizo, from which we get the word “scandalize.” It means cause to stumble or fall. What Jesus is saying is that anyone who causes a humble believer in Jesus, a little one of faith, to stumble in his or her trust in Jesus ought to have a millstone tied around his neck and be thrown into the deep. Oh, to be sure, people will be scandalized by the Gospel. Just try telling people that every sin and every sinner is forgiven in the one death of Jesus—they’ll be scandalized, all right. But let’s make sure that they are scandalized by the Gospel and not by us. Our words and actions should not be scandalous, but “scandal-less,” without scandal.
What Jesus says next makes more sense if skandalizo is understood as “stumble from the faith” rather than “cause to sin.” If your hand scandalizes you, that is, causes you to not believe in Jesus, you’d be better off cutting it off and entering life with one hand than to burn in hell with two. Likewise your foot and your eye. But it wouldn’t keep you from sin. Your hand doesn’t cause you to steal or harm your neighbor. Your foot doesn’t carry you to forbidden places. Your eye doesn’t cause you to covet. Your tongue doesn’t cause you to lie or gossip. Your private parts don’t cause you to lust or lead you into carnal sins. You could cut them all off and you would still sin. The problem goes much deeper than body parts. As we discussed a couple of weeks ago, it’s the heart that is the source of sin, and Jesus doesn’t suggest we carve out our own hearts. He does that through His means of grace! And He promises us a new, clean heart to go in its place.
No, Jesus isn’t preaching morality and ethics here. Jesus is preaching the kingdom, a radical kingdom that justifies the ungodly and declares sinners to be righteous in a righteousness not their own. And the religious world would throw a big speed bump in front of you and say, “Wait a minute, you’ve gotta do something to be saved.” And that, my friends, is what Jesus is talking about. You see salvation by grace alone through faith alone for Jesus’ sake alone is a scandal, a stumbling block, to the religious world, because all religions, save one, are in the business of doing things to get right with God. And it’s all that religious doing and religious seeing that’ll land you straight in an unquenchable fire and undying worm of a hell that is entirely unnecessary because Jesus has died for it all on a cross.
And if you think this is all overstated or just some rhetorical excess, remember where Jesus is going as He says these things. He’s going to the cross. He’s going to suffer for the world’s sin. He’s going to have His hand and feet pierced. He’s going to be blinded in the darkness of Death itself. He’s going to suffer the outer torment of the fire of hell you deserve, the inner agony of the worm that never dies. He’s going to the cross to save you, to prepare a place for you, to take that stumbling carcass of yours through death to life, to win for you a salvation that your hands and feet and eyes could neither conceive of nor accomplish for yourself. Your life, your forgiveness, your salvation, your faith, cost Jesus His life on the cross. That’s why He’s so protective against anyone who would cause you or any of His little ones to stumble in their faith. Losing a hand or a foot or an eye is nothing compared to losing your salvation.
Nothing is more important than retaining faith unto eternal life. Do not place a stumbling block before your neighbor’s faith. Let nothing come between you and the Savior. Live in your Baptism through daily contrition and repentance. Come to the Lord’s Table often to receive His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith.   Hear Christ’s Word of forgiveness through His called and ordained servant. 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.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Perfect Love Story: Sermon for the Wedding of Logan & Samantha Moeller

Click here to listen to this sermon.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
The way they looked at each other and held each other’s hand as they walked through the mall told a story in itself. I would guess them to be well into their 80s. But what you noticed was not so much their age as their obvious concern for one another. Occasionally, she would glance at him with a twinkle in her eye as if to say, “You are my man and I love you.” He, in turn would smile a well-practiced smile and with only a look reply, “I know, and I love you, too.” It was obvious they were partners, friends, and lovers.
As this nameless couple walked side-by-side their love told a story for anyone who would take the time to watch. It was a story without words. If words were necessary, they could doubtless fill many chapters, recalling times of challenge and joy, struggle and success. As I sat on the bench and watched, I couldn’t help but find myself imagining their story, filling in the details in my own mind.
First their eyes met. They both turned away when they felt a glance become an uncomfortable stare. Both chanced a second peek when they thought the other would not be looking. Later, they mustered the courage to actually speak to each other. Well, she did more talking than he. But he managed to string together enough words to ask her out on a real date. Soon they would be seen together at every church social and community event.
A year later, they were married in a simple ceremony in a little church (much like this one). Their early years together were not easy, but neither seemed to mind. He worked extra shifts to help save up for a down payment on their dream house. She cooked from scratch and canned their garden produce to reduce expenses, and spent her spare moments doing all of the little things that make a house a home. It was a struggle, but they succeeded by working together.
Soon they moved from being a couple to being a family. As children arrived, they sometimes had to sacrifice what they wanted for the things their children needed. But what they lacked materially, they made up for in warmth, humor, and tenderness. When their kids entered school, the evenings were filled with church and school events, and helping with homework. Still they made time for family meals and devotions. The teen years were probably the most challenging period of their life together. Their parenting skills were tested virtually every day. To be sure, they made their share of mistakes, but each day they prayed that God’s love and grace would fill out their insufficiencies.
Before they knew it, it was time to send their children out to write their own stories. For this couple, it was a time of writing a new chapter for themselves, too. It was a time of reconnecting, but in a new way. Now they had time, once again, to center their lives on each other. It was a time of making readjustments, renewing old interests, and reprioritizing their time. It seems one day they were changing diapers and getting kids ready for school; the next day, they were focusing on planning their retirement together.
That day came much sooner than they expected, too. They bought a used recreational vehicle. Stayed in Arizona for a couple of months each winter. Visited their family often enough to sufficiently spoil their grandchildren, but not so much as to wear out their welcome. The last couple of years each had taken a turn nursing the other through a serious health scare, but now both were doing well. Through each joy and sorrow shared their love for one another grew and deepened.
I have no idea whether any of this remotely resembled the life this couple in the mall had shared. But I’d like to think so. It seemed obvious that they had a story to tell, a love story. They could teach us much about what it means to be married—to have the kind of partnership God intended for us in marriage. You see—marriage is not only our story; it’s God’s story, too. He wrote love and romance right into the plotline from the very beginning.
The book of Genesis tells the story of the first couple to begin their journey together as husband and wife. We know their names—Adam and Eve. God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” Looking around, God saw there was no other created being that could be this for Adam, so He made one especially for him. He took a rib from man and used it to fashion a woman, someone perfectly suited to love, support, and complete the man. Adam and Eve were created to walk as partners, friends, and lovers. That is God’s perfect plan for marriage: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.”
In the beginning, the first couple were perfectly united. They worked and functioned as a team. But they were also very much unique individuals. Each had something to contribute as they walked side-by-side, supporting each other throughout their story, year after year, and chapter after chapter. They were God’s gift to each other.
And you, too, Logan and Samantha, are God’s gift to each other. God willing, you, too, will write many chapters in your own love story. Some will be written for you. No chapter will be exactly the same. Only God knows exactly how your story will unfold. But then, mystery is an element of good story telling, isn’t it?  
In your story, there will be movement and growth. There will be surprises. There will be adjustments and readjustments. It won’t always be easy (just ask any older couple at the mall). There may be times when you let each other down. There may be days when you become angry and say things you wish you’d never said. But be assured that you will never be alone. God, who brought you together, will always be walking with you. Remember, this is His story too.
As I already mentioned, God’s love story began with Adam and Eve. Created in God’s image, the two were like God in many ways: holy like God is holy, loving the way that God is loving, righteous as God is righteous. Adam and Eve were perfect for each other because they were perfect—literally, perfect! But unfortunately, it didn’t last. Adam and Eve blew it. They sinned and, by doing so, lost the image of God. They were no longer the perfect couple for the simple reason they were no longer perfect. The rest, as we say, is history.
But it’s not just history. The rest, sad to say, is part of our story, too. When Adam and Eve lost the image of God, we lost it, too. The sin of our first parents has been passed on to all of their descendants. We’re not like God any more, either. Holy? Not by a long shot! Loving? Not always! Not unconditionally. I know that you have discovered this about each other—neither of you is perfect. One thing that I’ve always admired about Logan is his honesty and openness about his imperfections and insecurities. Sometimes uncomfortably, almost embarrassingly, honest. That’s what makes him a good writer. And Samantha, as we’ve visited, I’ve come to know you are well aware of your own faults and foibles.
The hard, cruel reality is that each marriage since the first one in the Garden is the union of two sinners. If someone is expecting perfection or near perfection from his or her spouse, then he or she will soon be disappointed. Each person in the marriage is, as the ancient liturgy sets forth, a poor miserable sinner, who justly deserves God’s temporal and eternal punishment. Left to our own resources, it would be a sad short story, indeed.
But I have Good News for you, Logan and Samantha, and everyone else gathered here: Though it would have been well within His rights to do so, God did not end the story there. To the first man and woman who had fallen into sin, God promised a Savior, who would defeat sin, death, and the power of the devil. He would redeem this fallen couple and their descendants that they might have eternal life. He would restore unity and love to relationships broken by sin.
Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise. In His death and resurrection, He brings to a glorious climax the story of God’s love and mercy. Our Lord Jesus shows us His love by giving up His life on the cross so that we might live as God’s chosen people, God’s dearly beloved children. And as Christ shows His love for His bride, the Church, He gives us the perfect model for marriage. Wives submitting to husbands as to the Lord. Husbands loving their wives as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her. Through His Word, God empowers Christian marriages to be a human echo of that relationship—one of submission and service, forgiving and building up one another. This is the perfect love story. It is the story I most love to tell, the story we love to hear. Logan and Samantha, it is your story today as you begin your life together in His name.
Who knows? Perhaps one day, after many chapters of your life have been written, you may be walking along in a mall and someone will look at you and see a story, a story without words, a story of love and forgiveness. They will see in you, a Savior who has guided you every step of the journey and who promises heaven at the end of your days. It’s your story, but it’s really His story, God’s perfect love story.

It is my prayer for you, Logan and Samantha, that your marriage will be a reflection of the perfect love that Christ has for His bride, the Church. May you continue to receive God’s grace and forgiveness through the lifelines of love, His Word and sacraments. As the Holy Spirit works faith and love in you, may you continue to write your own perfect love story. Amen. 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

God Gives More Grace

“But He gives more grace. Therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble’” (James 4:6).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
A farmer had a wonderful, faithful dog. It was a fine animal in every way—strong of body and of heart. The dog’s coat was shiny and well groomed. It was gentle—forgiving of the toddler who inadvertently stepped on it tail or purposely pulled its ears, but ferocious in defending the barnyard from uninvited visitors. Whenever any of the family came outside, the dog would come to them eagerly bounding, its tail wagging so vigorously that its entire hindquarters moved with it!
But, the dog had a secret—a dark, ugly secret. It lived a double life. For you see, it acted one way around its master, and another way when it thought that no one was watching. Each night, after the last of the lights in the farmhouse were extinguished, the dog would leave its station and take to the field. There, just over the second hill, the dog would meet up with a pack of other dogs and hang out.
And no, the dogs didn’t just lay in the grass enjoying the cool evening breeze and exchange stories of how obedient they’d been earlier that day. No, it was nothing like that! The dogs became as one. They reverted to their own nature and became wild, with one intention—to kill and destroy! The pack would attack and sink their sharp teeth through the wooly fluff into the flesh of a helpless, hapless lamb, biting and tearing until the lamb was silent and kicked no more.
But one night, the dogs lingered too long in their revelry. The master arose earlier than usual, and as he walked outside, his “wonderful” dog wasn’t there to greet him. After a couple of minutes of calling out in the crisp morning air, he saw his dog in the distance, making its way home as fast as its powerful legs could take it. He was very relieved.
The master’s delight soon turned to horror, for as his beloved dog approached, he could see blood smeared around its muzzle and chest. At first, he thought that his precious dog had been injured, no doubt risking its own life to protect the farm. But when he examined his dog more closely, the truth came out. The truth was there were no wounds. The blood on the dog wasn’t its own. And then the master’s heart sank. The undeniable evidence was found. Stuck between his panting dog’s fangs was a bit of wool and fresh lamb’s flesh!
The dog’s master got up and walked away. His heart was broken. His beloved dog had betrayed him! It had been leading double life. Loyal and obedient in the master’s presence. Wild and ravenous when it thought no one was watching.
Dear friends, you, too, live a double life. As I do. We all live a double life. On the outside we look like pious Christian “dogs.” In fact, some of us even wear a collar! We know, don’t we? We know what our heavenly Master expects of us. We know the Commandments and their meanings. If asked, most of us could recite them without missing a word or pausing for a breath. Much like a dog, we might even hope someone would notice us. And rather than pat us on the head or scratch us behind the ears and say “Atta boy!” we hope that they’d stroke our ego with their complimentary words: “Oh, what a good Christian you are!”  But, much like the wayward dog that knew what its master expected but didn’t do it, we, too leave our Lord’s side and meet up with others on the second hill over and willingly embrace a double life. We all so often return to those base, sinful desires within us!
And so, what is it that beckons you to go to that “second hill over” when you think that no one is watching? Is it bitter jealousy and selfish ambition? Is it quarreling and fighting to get your own way? Is it lust and covetousness? Adultery and murder? Where do you find that the world’s friendship is more appealing than God’s?
St. James provides a list for our consideration and contemplation in our Epistle. He first mentions jealousy and selfish ambition. Selfish ambition says, “I want better for me”—be that better things, better friends, better stations in life, whatever. Jealousy says, “I deserve those better things that my neighbor has.”  You can see how well those two sins work together in order to produce every sort of vile practice: “Because I want the better things my neighbor has—and because I deserve those things, I’m going to go ahead and take them from my neighbor.”
If you want to see examples of this behavior, just watch a couple of toddlers for a while. One sits at the table. Another wants to sit in the same spot. And in his mind, it only makes sense to walk over and shove the other little guy off the chair. Of course, the conflict only escalates from there. I mention this because we dare not forget that jealousy and selfish ambition are part of original sin. We don’t have to learn it, but it is simply the way we are conceived and born into this world.
It’s not just kids, either. Look at the disciples in today’s Gospel. Jesus tells them that He is going to die on the cross and rise again. What do the disciples discuss instead? They argue about which of them is greater. Each is ambitiously seeking an important place in the kingdom of Jesus. Each of them is jealously disputing the others’ argument. But what makes it worse is that their jealousy and selfish ambition prevent them from hearing the Gospel, the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ, His death and resurrection.
The same thing can happen to us as well. If you don’t believe me, just go to a church where its members are engaged in a power struggle. Or where the members are at odds with the pastor. Or look at a synod that is marked with error and division. A whole lot of evil can result. But the worst is that the proclamation and hearing of God’s Word is hindered, for that may have eternal consequences. All sins against God and one another can be forgiven—but only when God’s Word of Law convicts us of our sins, can His Gospel comforts our repentant hearts.
Which leads us back to our Epistle and St. James’ list of the vile practices that follow jealousy and selfish ambition. He speaks of quarrels and fights, lust and covetousness, adultery and murder. Bear in mind, James isn’t writing to a prison population or the staff at the nearest Planned Parenthood clinic. He’s writing to the Church, to Christians scattered throughout the nations. Even among believers these sins take place, destroying families and lives and faith.
Regarding quarrels and fights, consider a church where a group wishes to change the doctrine and practice away from God’s Word for their own self-seeking purposes, perhaps the desire to be friendlier with the world. The strife will necessarily follow, distracting energies away from the proclamation of the Gospel.
As far as adultery and murder, imagine a man who simply wants to indulge his own curious lust by looking at a few racy photos, which leads to more and more as the world encourages and markets whatever catches his fancy. The desire eventually leads to an illicit affair, and a believer has become an adulterer, not only in his heart, but in deed as well. Imagine further that the woman conceives in the affair, and it seems best for all to terminate the pregnancy, rather than endure the shame and guilt. Adulterers become murderers, professing Christians look like hypocrites, and it just starts with a glance. The same pride at the root of their original sin prevents them from repentance, and their faith begins to dry up.
Can’t happen to believers? Just read 2 Samuel 11, where David starts out as a righteous conquering king walking on the palace rooftop and ends up a murderous adulterer 27 verses later. Such things will happen—they can happen to anyone. James warns Christians because we are susceptible to these temptations, too. And it will only grow worse as many churches not only condone sexual immorality and death, but herald them as societal advancement under the seemingly innocuous names of “alternate lifestyles,” “reproductive choice,” and “marriage equality.”
So don’t be friends with the world. Don’t run with the wild dogs. Avoid temptation. Flee from it. As more than one pastor has said before, draw the line where the temptation begins, and then take a good many paces back away from it. Few people start out the day intending to jeopardize their souls in such catastrophic sins, but it still happens. It’s always advisable to avoid temptation, to not put yourself in such situations in the first place. Given that you’re made of sinful flesh to begin with, it’s just foolish to see how good you are at resisting temptation!
But here’s the next tricky part, just in case you think you’re free and clear: Where exactly does the line get drawn? When exactly do thoughts become sinful thoughts? When does appreciation of God-given beauty turn into lust? When does admiring the neighbor’s new car become coveting? When does taking care of your own things become idolatry? When does your zeal to contend for truth cross over into unrighteous anger against those who seek to depart from it? When does taking care of yourself so as not to become a burden on others become selfish ambition?
And, just to make it even more difficult, we’ll ask this: if you draw the line and step way back behind it, when does your stepping back become pride in your ability to resist temptation? See, the devil never takes a day off and he doesn’t play fair. He’s happy if you ruin your life by falling into terrible sin and resisting repentance. But he’s also quite delighted if you grow proud that that you haven’t sinned terribly and therefore don’t really need much forgiveness.
What’s the point? The point is this: this text clearly warns you of sins to avoid, and you do well to heed this Law and not disobey it. Indulge in these sins, and you stand a good chance of great heartache in this life, if not in eternity. But even if you think you heed this Law, don’t be deceived. You can be sure that sin still clings to everything that you do. Even if it looks to everyone else like you’ve never left the farm, you’ve made your way to the second hill a time or two. You’ve tasted your share of forbidden lamb chops. You’ve been a bad dog.
When we left our story, we weren’t told what happened to the dog. But, having been raised on a farm myself, I know what happens to dogs like that. If that sheep-killing dog had been on our farm, the master, when he turned to walk away from the dog, would have returned in a few minutes… carrying a loaded rifle!
You see, the penalty for sheep-killing dogs is death! The killer dog is given no second chance. It doesn’t matter how good of dog it had been in the past. It can no longer be trusted. Even if the dog lays on its back submissively, whimpering and crying, the master must make sure that no more sheep are killed by that dog! St. Paul says it simply and accurately: “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23a).
But here’s the Good News: Although you’ve been like the dog in our story, leading a double life at times, the Lord God does not give you what you deserve. Not at all! God gives more grace! In fact, it’s all grace!
This is what sets Christianity apart from every other religion: God makes the first move… and the second move, and the third, all of the moves, in fact. He gives grace to you—not because of your works or good living, but because Christ has won it for you by His perfect life, death, and resurrection. To put it another way, God doesn’t say, “If you keep My commandments, you can be My friend.” He says, “Because Jesus kept My Law and died for your sin, I call you friend. Because My Son redeemed you, I call you My beloved child, and I will never leave you or forsake you.” You have plenty of sin, it is true; God gives more grace!
So that you might know that all this is so, God comes to you through His Word telling you over and over of His love and grace. He washes you clean of your sin in Holy Baptism. And He feeds you with the flesh and blood of a lamb—the very Lamb of God, who has taken away the sin of the world. And through His called and ordained servant, He speaks to you the Good News of salvation: For Jesus’ sake, 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, September 12, 2015

I Believe; Help My Unbelief

Click here to listen to this sermon.

“Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’” (Mark 9:24).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
I’m sure most of you have heard the phrase, “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” It describes someone who is so caught up with the minutiae of the moment that he ends up not fully understanding the situation. The same thing happens to people when they fail to look at a passage of the Bible in its broader context—they miss important details. The incidents described in today’s Gospel place us in the middle of a larger series of events. Examining those actions and events before and after is very helpful as we seek to plumb the depths of Jesus’ teaching.
In the passage following our text, Jesus is quietly traveling through Galilee. He takes advantage of this momentary privacy to repeat the prophecy of His own death and resurrection. His disciples listen in silence. They don’t understand what Jesus is saying, but are too afraid to ask Him what He means. Confused by Jesus’ talk of suffering and death, the disciples return to a subject they know well—themselves. When they get to the house at Capernaum Jesus asks them, “What were you talking about on the way?” But shame keeps them silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who is the greatest. Jesus teaches them that greatness in God’s kingdom comes in humble service.
In the verses preceding our text, we have the account of Jesus’ Transfiguration. Jesus takes three of His disciples up on a mountain where He is “transfigured.” The three are given the opportunity to see the full glory of Jesus for a few moments, no longer hidden under His human nature. And what does the divinity of Jesus look like? Like overwhelming light, a brilliance so radiant that sinful human eyes cannot look at it. The disciples are terrified.
Then a cloud surrounds them and they hear the voice of God telling them Jesus is His beloved Son, and they should listen to Him. This is so amazing, Peter babbles on incoherently. Jesus warns the three not to tell anyone about this. So they keep the matter to themselves, even as they try to wrap their mind around what Jesus means when He speaks of the Son of Man “rising from the dead.”
Meanwhile, down below another event is unfolding. Something totally different. The other nine disciples do not see the power and majesty of God. Rather, they are embroiled in a battle against evil powers in both human and demonic forms. A certain father has brought to them his son. A beloved son, also, you can be sure. His only son, according to St. Luke.
But this son is not basking in the glory of heavenly light. He is in a hellish darkness, possessed by an evil spirit. The demon plays with this son, much like a cat plays with a mouse until he gets bored or hungry. And it is a “playing” that will end in death if not interrupted by some greater power. The father is at his wit’s end. He pleads with the nine disciples to take pity and help his son. But they can’t. In the face of this demon, they are helpless.
But should they be so helpless? It isn’t as if the disciples have never dealt with demons. Not long before Jesus had sent them out by twos, and had given them authority over the unclean spirits. The disciples came back to Jesus with glowing reports. In fact, they had been a bit cocky about their successes. But now? Now, nothing. They are helpless in the face of this demon. And they can’t understand it.
So, put those two stories together. Three disciples up on the mountain with Jesus—and they can’t comprehend what is happening. Nine disciples down below, trying to cast out a demon, with no success. To make matters even worse, the scribes are arguing with them in the presence of the crowd, and the nine are having trouble defending themselves.
And so, Jesus’ return is timed perfectly.
“What are you arguing about with them?” He asks. And it is the father of the troubled lad who answers: “Teacher, I brought my son to You, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid.”
The picture the father paints of his son’s condition is woeful. But the really sad part is that the disciples have been unable to heal the boy. That explains Jesus’ next words. “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you. How long am I to bear with you?” Jesus’ words are more an expression of His disappointment than a rebuke of the disciples. At this point, Jesus is approaching the culmination of His ministry. The Twelve have been with Him for the better part of three years. He has not only taught them, but authorized them to go out in His name to teach and to heal and to cast out demons. Twice now He has told the disciples about His approaching death and resurrection. Both times they do not understand, but are too afraid to ask what He means. No wonder, Jesus is disappointed. His disciples still have much to learn, and they have not yet learned the most important lesson: When you do not understand, you have to ask the One who does understand to teach you.
Jesus asks that the boy be brought to Him. When the evil spirit sees Jesus, it immediately throws the boy into a convulsion. He falls to the ground and rolls around, foaming at the mouth. Jesus asks the boy’s father, “How long has this been happening to him?” “From childhood,” he says, “And it has often cast him into fire and water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” The father’s faith has nose-dived because the disciples have been unable to help him. But Jesus encourages him, “If You can? All things are possible for one who believes.” The father in his anxiety cries out, even as we must so often do in this life of ours, “I believe; help my unbelief!” It is a confession Jesus honors. Jesus both heals his son and strengthens the father’s faith. Even though many say, “He’s dead,” when Jesus lifts him by his hand the boy is completely healed.
Jesus’ disciples still don’t understand what has happened. But they’re getting smarter: they go to the One who does understand. “Why could we not cast it out?” they ask Jesus. “This kind,” Jesus said, “cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” What a cryptic answer: “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” Most commentators seem to key in on the words “this kind,” supposing that there is some kind of hierarchy of power in the demonic world, that some demons are more powerful and resistant to exorcism than others. This may well be true, but I daresay none of us has the power within ourselves to cast out any demon, no matter how far down the totem pole it is in the demonic world.
Such speculation misses the real point, and tends to take the focus off of Christ and put it back on us. And that’s exactly what Jesus is trying to teach His disciples and us. It is when we start thinking primarily of our own understanding and efforts and skills that we get in trouble. When we finally understand that it is only when we realize our own weakness and rely on Christ’s strength, then we can be used of God. When we finally come to God as beggars, relying only on His mercy and grace—God hears our prayers for the sake of Jesus.
That’s fine and dandy, you might say. But it doesn’t seem to answer the disciples’ question about how Jesus is able to cast out the demon when they cannot. Jesus says the key to this exorcism is prayer. But did you hear a prayer in this text? Certainly Jesus prays often throughout the Gospels, but this doesn’t appear to be one of those times. If Jesus is trying to teach His disciples how to pray to cast out demons, you would think His prayer would be recorded, wouldn’t you?
Ah, but it’s not Jesus’ prayer that is answered; it’s the father’s prayer! And it’s not the heavenly Father who answers this prayer, but the Son! For prayer is speaking to the Lord, is it not? And this father of the demon-possessed boy is speaking to the Lord God Himself, veiled in human flesh, at that very moment.
Let’s look at his prayer.
First, the man states his problem: “Teacher, I brought my son to You, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked Your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” And then he pleads more earnestly: “It has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”
With His gentle correction, Jesus shows us that our prayers do not have to be perfectly worded in order to be heard. He takes the prayer as stated and answers, even as He teaches a better understanding of prayer. “If You can! All things are possible for the one who believes,” Jesus says to the man. It’s not “if You can” but “if You are willing.” God can do anything He wants. That’s not the issue. The only issue is if He is willing. The man should have said, “If You are willing, have compassion on us,” just as we pray “Thy will be done” because we don’t know what God’s will is for any particular circumstance other than our salvation. But it’s not a matter of whether Jesus can do something, but only if He is willing to do something. And faith is open to all possibilities.
That’s how we can pray for a miracle and go to the doctor and accept a sickness all at the same time. Nothing is impossible for God, and all things are possible for one who believes. That doesn’t mean that you get everything you want if you believe hard enough and in the right way, but that faith is always open to every possibility because with God nothing is impossible.
That goes to the heart of things and of this man. Now we hear some honest faith talk. The father cries out and prays the best prayer of all: “I believe; help my unbelief.” You can’t say it any better than this. It’s a very Lutheran kind of prayer. He is simultaneously believer and unbeliever. This is no self-justifying, self-referencing “faith.” This is how faith sounds—I believe Lord, and only You, the author and perfecter of my faith, can deal with my unbelief.”
Faith is not something to boast about. It’s not even something for us to talk about. You hear it far too often. “Oh, she has such great faith.” Or, “I have my faith.” The truth be told, we are a mixed bag of great faith and great unbelief. The Lutheran confessors write: “Worthiness does not depend on the greatness or smallness, the weakness or strength of faith. Instead, it depends on Christ’s merit, which the distressed father of little faith enjoyed…” (FC SD VII 71).
Chemnitz writes, “We are justified by faith, not because it is so firm, robust, and perfect a virtue, but because of the object on which it lays hold, namely Christ, who is the Mediator in the promise of grace” (Chemnitz 8:932). The minute you start asking if you have enough faith, you’re asking the wrong question. It is not a matter of if you have enough faith; it is a matter of if you have enough Christ.
And Christ is more than enough! What Jesus does for that boy and his father is just a foretaste of what He does for all on the cross. Think of the death of Jesus as an “exorcism.” Jesus has absorbed sin and death and devil into Himself and with a loud cry in the darkness of His death He casts out the devil and conquers humanity’s greatest and fiercest enemy, death itself. Having risen, He baptizes you into His death and resurrection, and in Him you conquer, too. Nothing can harm you eternally. Nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.   
Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief. That’s the daily prayer of a Christian, a baptized believer. By the grace of God we believe. But as sinner/saints there is still that unbelieving heart of old Adam in us. We are a strange mixture of faith and unbelief all wrapped together as one. Every day is a day for repentance, a change of mind, a turning from unbelief to faith. Every day, a baptismal dying and rising in Christ. Every day until the day we finally die and the hand of Jesus reaches down to our grave and raises us up to life, we repent of our sin and unbelief and believe Jesus’ promise: “You are forgiven for all of your sins.”

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

Friday, September 4, 2015

Ephphatha!

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“And they brought to [Jesus] a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged Him to lay His hand on him. And taking him aside from the crowd privately, He put His fingers into His ears, and after spitting touched his tongue. And looking up to heaven, He sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’ And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly” (Mark 7:32-34).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Jesus is in the Decapolis, a region heavily influenced by Greek culture laying east of the Jordan River and southeast of the Sea of Galilee. He’s just come from Tyre and Sidon, where He healed the daughter of a faithful Syrophoenician woman. Jesus is healing and preaching to the Gentiles, emphasizing that He is not just the Savior of the Jews, but of all people.
Jesus had been here once before (Mark 5:20). That time the people had begged Him to leave when they suffered the loss of a large herd of pigs. But the demon-possessed man who Jesus healed had gone throughout the area proclaiming Jesus’ power and mercy. This one-man witness brought a remarkable change. St. Matthew tells us that when Jesus returns, the crowds gather and bring their lame, blind, crippled, mute and many others to Jesus to be healed (15:30-32).
Mark relates just one of the healings Jesus performs. The case is pathetic, beyond the ability of any physician to heal or even to improve—a man who is deaf and mute. The loss of any sense is terrible, but this is a dreadful combination. The man is isolated, unable to hear the sounds of the environment around him, much less those who try to talk to him. He can’t speak intelligibly, even if he is in dire need of assistance. Believing the Word they’ve heard about Jesus, his friends (or family) bring the man to the Savior.
Jesus takes the man aside privately. With some improvised sign language, Jesus makes the man understand what He is about to do for him. Jesus places His fingers in the man’s ears to show He will give him hearing. Jesus spits and touches the man’s tongue, indicating He will give him the ability to speak clearly. By looking up to heaven, Jesus shows that the cure He brings comes from God.
I would suggest that this is also related to why Jesus sighed or groaned. The verb used here has the same root as the noun St. Paul uses to describe the Holy Spirit’s work in bringing our prayers before God (Romans 8:26). Just as the man’s friends begged Jesus to heal the man, Jesus begs His heavenly Father for healing, though it is without an uttered word. It is a simple prayer, unintelligible to human ears, but perfectly understood, even as the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groaning too deep for words when we do not know what to pray.
Then Jesus speaks one distinct word, “Ephphatha!” It’s the Aramaic word that means “Be opened!” And just like that, the man’s ears are opened; his tongue is released. He begins to speak plainly, whereas before he had only been able to utter unintelligible sounds. The man is immediately and completely cured!
It’s got to be one of the strangest acts of healing in the Bible. No, I’m not talking about poking your fingers in someone’s ears, spitting, and touching someone’s tongue. Certainly, those actions are all more than a bit weird and too homeopathic for us and our modern medical methods. No, I’m talking about the impossibility, of calling out to a deaf man, and then having those words give him hearing and speech. If nothing else, it shows that this healing comes completely from outside of man, but is solely sourced in Christ and the power of His Word. Even the grammar highlights this fact. Though the verb is an imperative, a command, it is also in a passive form showing that the activity is something accomplished in the man by someone else. Jesus’ command, “Ephphatha!” does for the deaf man exactly what Jesus says: It opens his ears and mouth.
Just as the eternal Word had called forth creation from nothing with His “Let there be…” so now Jesus calls forth hearing and speech where there was none. Just as the dead man, Lazarus, was raised to back to life, when Jesus called him to come out of the grave, so the deaf-mute man is given hearing and speech when He hears the Savior speak. Jesus is not just another sinful human being. He is the Incarnate Word. He is the righteous Son of God. He comes to reverse the curse brought by the first Adam and the fall into sin. Sin brings deafness, so Jesus opens ears. Sin brings darkness, so Jesus opens eyes to see. Jesus opens our lips and causes us to confess our sin and praise His name.
All of this is a fulfillment of the prophecy you heard in our Old Testament lesson. When the long-awaited Messiah comes, He will confirm His calling by performing miraculous signs: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute shout for joy” (Isaiah 35:5-6). So as Jesus performs these miracles, He’s establishing His credentials, proving Himself to be the long-awaited Savior.
But those aren’t the only prophecies He fulfills. There are others, including Isaiah 53:4-5: “Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken by God, and afflicted; But He was wounded for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His stripes we are healed.” Being Messiah is not just about healing; it is mostly about the cross.
Jesus isn’t staying in the Decapolis, but is gradually making His way to a hill outside Jerusalem called Golgotha. On His way to the cross, He bears the sins of the world. He bears the world’s infirmities, too. He takes the man’s deafness and muteness away, and takes it on Himself. It is part of the heavy load that He carries as the Redeemer. On the cross, He fulfills the prophecy: He is wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, and we are healed by His stripes.
This is probably why Jesus tells them to be quiet about this healing; they don’t have the full story yet. They know about the miracles, but not about the cross. Telling the half-story is likely to lead people astray. It’s going to give them the wrong impression. If they think that the Savior is all about—and only about—working miracles and healings, they’re going to look at Him on the cross and say, “That doesn’t fit—I guess He isn’t the Savior after all.” But the cross is Jesus’ victory over sin, sickness, and death. His resurrection is not only proof of all He claims, but is His greatest miracle.
One who is able to raise Himself to life can and will certainly heal you as well. In fact, this is your hope because the same Jesus who healed the deaf-man and rose from the dead is your Savior, too. Don’t forget the reasons we’ve already talked about for Jesus’ miracles (a) to establish His credentials, (b) to fulfill prophecy, and (c) to prove He is the Savior. But there is one more important reason: to give you a foretaste of what lies ahead. The Lord will heal you of all your diseases and infirmities—on the Last Day, if not before.
The trouble is, you and I want our miracles on demand, when and where we want them to happen. But the Lord works according to His holy will and wisdom. His thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are His ways our ways. The Lord heals in His time, according to His plan. This is important to understand, because some have looked at the New Testament miracles and said, “As soon as people came to Jesus for healing, He healed them. Therefore, if you pray to Jesus for healing, He will heal you right away; and if He doesn’t, you must not have enough faith.”
This is a lie. It slanders God and it endangers faith. The Lord doesn’t promise to heal you when you want, but when He wills for your good. That may be sooner or later in this life. It may be on the Last Day, when you are raised from the dead. But it will happen, for Jesus has died to make it so. He has borne all your sicknesses and infirmities to the cross to make it so.
Healing and forgiveness are both miracles brought about by the cross; and this is another reason to rejoice in our Gospel. Even if you were born with fully functional ears and tongue you were still born deaf and mute before God. You were born in sin. You were born unable to hear God’s Word and keep it. You were born unable to sing and speak His praise. This is what David is getting at in Psalm 51 when he cries out: “O Lord, open my lips; and my mouth shall declare your praise.” David wasn’t mourning the loss of hearing and speech; he was grieving his sin. He had committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband killed. He had done great damage to his faith; and if he was to recover, it would have to be the Lord’s doing. It would have to be a miracle. The Lord would have to grant forgiveness—which He did. God used the mouth of Nathan the prophet to say, “The Lord has taken away your sin.” In other words, “Be forgiven.” In other words, “Ephphatha! Be opened!”
The Lord has done the same to you. In the waters of Holy Baptism, He cleansed out your ears with His Word. He gave you faith—ears to hear His Word. By opening your ears, He also opened your mouth; for by giving you faith, He gave you the joy of declaring His praise.
   Now, here’s the part that most people don’t think about: This forgiveness—this healing from sin—is a far greater miracle than the one in our text. If you are forgiven, you have the promise of eternal healing. But if you are healthy in body, but have no faith, only death and destruction await.
No wonder this text was taken up by the Church in the ancient baptismal liturgies, as early as the 4th century in Rome and Milan. Before entering the church, the pastor would take the candidate for baptism, baby or adult, touch his finger to his tongue and then put his finger to the candidate’s ear and quote Jesus’ words: “Ephphatha, that is, Be opened.” Martin Luther thought it very fitting and therefore also included this practice in his Order of Baptism from 1523.
Both Jesus’ healing of the deaf-mute and the ancient rite of baptism sound strange, don’t they? But they remind us of an important point: Throughout history, the Lord uses means, physical elements, to do His work.
In the Old Testament, God uses the blood of the lamb, spread over the doorposts, to save the children of Israel from the angel of death. He uses Moses’ rod, lifted over the water, to part the Red Sea and make a path of dry ground for His Church to walk through. He uses the pillar of cloud and fire to lead His people through the wilderness. He uses the bronze serpent, lifted up on a pole by Moses, to heal the people. He uses a coal, taken from the incense, to purge Isaiah’s sin. He uses the humble Jordan River to wash away Naaman’s leprosy. In the New Testament, Jesus uses spit or mud or well or the hem of His garment or His touch or His spoke Word to do the work of healing. This is how the Lord chooses to deliver His gifts, His healing, His salvation—through means.
And it is no different today. The same Lord, who speaks to the deaf-mute and heals him, also speaks His healing, life-giving Word to you. In Baptism, the same Lord, who spits and puts His fingers into that man’s ears, uses water and His Word to cleanse you and make you His child. In simple bread and wine, Christ touches your tongue, giving you His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith. Salvation is yours because Jesus consented to have His blood shed and His body nailed to the cross for you; and because He still works to deliver His Word, body, and blood to you now.
Through each of these means of grace, the Savior is with you. He speaks to open your ears to hear His Word of Law and Gospel. He speaks to you so that you might open your mouth to sing His praises. He speaks to you that you might open your lips to confess your sins, so that you might hear and believe His “Ephphatha” that opens the gates of heaven: “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 ...