Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Tenth and Eleventh Sundays after Pentecost

Guest Pastor, The Rev. Douglas Taylor

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 13, 2017


Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
August 20, 2017

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost


Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (A—Proper 12)

July 30, 2017

Text: Matt. 13:44-52

            You are not the hero of this story.  Old Adam figures if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.  So he hears the parable of the treasure buried in the field and the pearl of great price, and he inserts himself into the story as the one who sells all that he has, gives up everything, to buy the field, to purchase the pearl.  Yes, that’s what the Kingdom of Heaven is like, says Old Adam.  I get to show how committed I am to Jesus, how much I love Him, by my great sacrifice, by my glorious work.  We like that interpretation.  It’s probably what you’ll find in most Bible commentaries.  It’s definitely what you’ll find in the latest Christian bestsellers.  And it is absolutely what you will find in your heart.  Repent. 

            Really?  You think you’re the one who purchased the Kingdom of Heaven by your great sacrifice?  Or, another way to ask the question is, you think you’re the one who redeemed Jesus?  Now you can hear how silly that sounds.  Let’s plunge Old Adam back under the baptismal water where he belongs, and God grant us ears to hear the parables with Jesus in the lead role.  The Kingdom of Heaven works this way.  There you are like a dumb box of rocks buried in a field.  It’s not just picture language.  That’s what happens when you die and we bury you.  Now you know your part in the story.  It’s to lay there dead.  Jesus seeks you and finds you and, miracle of miracles, He declares you, by grace, to be a great treasure.  (In our first Communion hymn we’re going to sing that Jesus is the Priceless Treasure.  That’s true, and I love that hymn, but it’s not an interpretation of our parable.  I picked it because the irony is so delicious.)  You are the treasure.  Not because you’re so great.  You’re a rotting, maggot infested corpse, a poor miserable sinner, spiritually blind, dead, and an enemy of God.  You have your father, Adam, to thank for that.  You’re the spitting image of him.  The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.  But Jesus comes along and declares you to be a treasure, not because of your merit or worthiness, but because of the price He pays for you.  He sells everything… gives it all up, His glory, His majesty, His divine omnipotence… He gives it all up on the cross.  The price on your head, to make you His own, to bring you to life, raise you from the dead, is His holy, precious blood, and His innocent suffering and death.  And He pays it.  With joy, He says (Matt. 13:44).  That is the love of Jesus.  It fashions its own object.  Jesus raises you, His beloved, to life… spiritually now, by faith in Him, and on the Last Day, in your body when He comes into the field, the cemetery, takes you by the hand, and lifts you out of the casket.  Jesus is the hero of this story.  Jesus, crucified and risen for you.

            The treasure in the field tells us about the universal atonement.  Jesus buys, redeems, not just the treasure, but the whole field.  The field is the world.  Jesus redeemed the whole world in His sin-atoning death.  The treasure is the Kingdom, which is to say, those who believe in Him, as He says elsewhere, “the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:21; ESV).  The Kingdom is the Holy Christian Church.  That is the treasure.  So the first parable teaches us that in redeeming the whole world, Jesus buys for Himself a people, a Church, “chosen… to be a people for his treasured possession,” as our Old Testament reading has it (Deut. 7:6).  The pearl of great value teaches us that what He did for all, He did for you.  The merchant goes in search of fine pearls.  The Greek says “good margaritas,” which is the word for pearls, so I guess we’ll see you at La Casa Lopez after Church.  The merchant is discerning.  He looks through many pearls and He finds the one He wants and He sells everything to buy it for Himself.  Jesus finds you.  You singular.  You.  And He gives it all up on the cross, His very life, to redeem you and make you His own. 

            Now, why does He choose you?  You plural, the Church?  You singular, as in you yourself?  Moses gets this right.  It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples” (Deut. 7:7).  That’s what he says to Israel, God’s chosen people, and his words apply to the Church, and to you.  It’s not because He finds you so gosh darn cute and irresistible that God chooses you and makes you His own by the blood of His Son.  Moses says, it’s “because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers” (v. 8).  It’s because God promised, and He cannot lie or break His Word.  In His steadfast love and faithfulness, He sends His Son to buy you for Himself.  This is the very essence of God at work for you.  God is love.  God is faithfulness.  So He delivers.  He saves sinners.  He saves you.  God is the life-Giver.  So He raises you from the dead and gives you life in Himself.  Freely.  By grace.  Because He is good. 

            But just here we run into the great paradox.  Jesus buys the whole field, redeems the whole world, but not all are saved.  You are brought to eternal life with your Lord.  Some are lost and go to hell.  If it is all by grace and all the Lord’s doing, why are some saved and others not?  The paradox is between the universal atonement and eternal election.  If the sins of all people of all times are forgiven on account of Christ, why doesn’t everyone go to heaven?  To be sure, it is because some believe and others don’t, and those who don’t believe are the ones who are condemned.  But we just said your part in the whole thing is to lay there like a box of rocks until Jesus gives you living faith, as He does, by His Spirit, in His Word and Holy Baptism.  What about those He doesn’t enliven?  You can’t answer that question.  It’s not for you to know.  God knows, and that is enough.  We can only say what the Scriptures say.  God loves all people and wants them to be saved.  He redeemed all people by the blood and death of His Son.  If you come to faith, that is because God has given you faith in Christ as a gift.  If you do not come to faith, that is your fault.  We do not believe in double predestination, where God eternally predestines some to heaven and eternally predestines others to hell.  That is not what the Bible teaches.  The Bible teaches that you are saved because God has eternally predestined you to salvation.  You are His elect.  He chose you.  You did not choose Him, but He chose you.  But He does not predestine the others to hell.  You cannot solve this logical conundrum.  You are butting up against the hidden will of God.  Here you must simply put a finger to your lips and zip it.  Jesus says, “many are called, but few are chosen” (Matt. 22:14).  Just rejoice that the Holy Spirit has called you by the Gospel and enlightened you with His gifts, and that He sanctifies and keeps you in the one true faith of Jesus Christ, by grace.  Give thanks to God that it all depends on Him, His bringing you to faith and His keeping you in the faith.  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” (Rom. 8:29-30).  It is all His work.  And He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion on the Day of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:6).    

            Jesus describes that Day for us in the parable of the net.  The Kingdom of Heaven is like a net cast into the sea that gathers fish of every kind.  Didn’t Jesus tell the apostles they would be fishers of men?  By the preaching of the Gospel, Jesus gathers men unto Himself.  On the Last Day, the net is hauled ashore, and the angels have the job of sorting through the fish.  The good fish are those who believe the Gospel.  They are kept for eternal life.  The bad fish are those who do not believe the Gospel.  They are cast into the fiery furnace, which is to say, hell, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  From this we learn that there is a Judgment Day and there is a hell for those who do not believe.  In fact, it is for those who insist on paying their own way into the Kingdom, buying the field and the pearl for themselves.  That isn’t Christianity.  That is the religion of the unbelieving world and most Christian book stores. 

            But we also learn how wide and deep is the love of the Savior that He calls even you to be His own, and chooses you for Himself as His precious treasure and pearl.  How wide and deep is the love that does all this?  Jesus sells Himself into death to bring you into His Kingdom.  Every scribe who has been trained for the Kingdom of Heaven, every pastor is to bring out of the Scriptures what is new and what is old.  That is to say, he is to bring out the New and Old Testaments and show that they are, finally, not about you.  They are about Jesus for you.  You are not the hero.  Jesus is.  And the crucifix is the picture of Him paying the price for the field, paying the price for the pearl, paying the price for you.  Rejoice.  Your name is written in the Book of Life in the ink of Jesus’ blood.  And what can erase His blood?  What can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus?  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  You belong to Him.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.            

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (A—Proper 11)
July 23, 2017
Text: Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43

            It is not the main business of the Church to root out hypocrites and manifest sinners from her midst.  Nor is it the main business of the Church to make the world in which we live pure or perfect.  There is a time for Church discipline, and to be sure, the Church must oppose false doctrine.  So also we should love and serve our neighbor and make his life better as we are able.  But this is not the main business of the Church.  The main business of the Church is to spread the Seed of God’s Word through the preaching and nurture that Seed as it grows up into faithful and fruit bearing Christians.  So the primary work of the Church is what we are doing here: Receiving.  Word and Sacrament.  It is Scripture, preaching, Baptism, Absolution, and Supper.  And it is prayer; prayer for ourselves, prayer for the whole Church of God in Christ Jesus, prayer for all people according to their needs.  It is not to build heaven on earth.  It is not to purify or perfect this world.  The Church is in the business of the forgiveness of sins.  The Church is in the business of caring for forgiven sinners.
            Our Lord’s parable this morning is very much related to what we heard from Him last week in the Parable of the Sower.  You’ll remember that Jesus Himself is the Sower.  The Seed is God’s Word, and it is good Seed, always accomplishing what our Lord desires, even when, in His mercy, He casts it about recklessly.  In that parable, you are the soil, and it is the good Seed that makes the bad soil (the path, the rocky and thorny ground) good.  In our parable this morning, the field is the world.  Jesus sows His Seed in all the world.  The preaching goes out to all the world, liberally and recklessly, yes, even to the world that will not receive the Seed but will reject it outright.  The Lord sows His Seed, but His enemy, the evil one, the devil, comes along and sows bad seed among the good.  The bad seed is every word that casts doubt upon God’s Word.  It is false doctrine.  It is political correctness and the stuff in which the media and academia and Hollywood specialize.  It is the word of man, human reason, human emotion, anxiety, depression.  It is the whispered hiss of the serpent that God is holding out on you, that God’s giving His all in the Person of His Son on the cross cannot possibly be for you, could not possibly have won the victory over your sin and death, and that anyway, you’d be better off being your own god, knowing good and evil for yourself.  That seed the devil casts just as liberally and recklessly, and that seed is a weed.  It takes root and thrives in nearly every kind of soil.  And it chokes out the good Seed, chokes out the wheat that has been sown by the Lord.
            Now, Christians think (and pastors especially are the very worst about this) that the good Seed of God’s Word can’t make it in the field unless we help it along.  “Lord, do You want us to go and gather the weeds, root out those knuckleheads and hypocrites that are ruining Your Church, vote out those shysters who are ruining the American experiment, take some action that will help Your Seed along?  Because there is no way the Seed is going to work by itself.  Not in this environment.  Lord, You really need us.  We don’t want to be rude, but Your plan really isn’t going to work.  We have people that specialize in making the Word of the Lord grow.  Let us handle it, Lord.” 
            And do you know what the Lord of the harvest says to His overzealous pastors and Christians?  “No!”  He says, “No!”  “No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them.  Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn” (Matt. 13:29-30; ESV).  Why must the weeds and the wheat grow together in the field of the world and even in the Church until the harvest, which is to say, Judgment Day?  Because you and I don’t know who is a weed and who is wheat.  We think we do, but we don’t.  We say to ourselves, or maybe even to others, “Look at that woman over there.  If these other Christians knew who she was and what she’d done, that she is a sinner, they wouldn’t allow her here.”  “Look at that man over there.  See how he struts around like he owns the place.  Everyone thinks he’s such a good Christian, but he can’t be, the arrogant so and so.”  And what you’ve done when you go weeding your way around the field is you’ve set yourself up as judge of who is weed and who is wheat.  But you can’t know.  Only God can see into another’s heart.  You think you can, but you can’t.  Repent. 
            The Church of God, the wheat of the field, is invisible.  It is invisible because faith is invisible.  There are visible marks of the Church, namely, the things we said are the Church’s business: Scripture, preaching, Baptism, Absolution, the Supper, and prayer.  So also there is the Communion of saints, the mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren, and the holy cross.  We can know by the marks where the Church is, but we cannot know by her attendance, or even by her membership rolls, who is in it.  For the Church is all believers in Christ.  Thank God, a 7 year old child knows this (SA III XII), the Church is not a building or a body of voting members or a denomination.  It is the congregation of those who believe in Jesus Christ.  It is a congregation of sinners, like that woman, that man, you, who are forgiven, set free from sin and guilt and shame, who will be gathered into the Lord’s barn by His grace on the Last Day, when He raises you from the dead.  You’re already in it now, by Baptism, by faith.  You’ll see that this is the reality on that Day. 
            If you go weeding the field now, several disastrous outcomes may happen: You might pick a weed that is really wheat, that you did not recognize as wheat, and so cast aside one of these precious little ones who believe in Christ.  You might pick a weed that by God’s grace will become wheat in the end, through the preaching of the Gospel.  And some other overzealous Christian or pastor may just come along and pick you and toss you aside for the burn pile of hell.  God forbid it.  The reality is, much of the time the wheat looks like weeds.  Christians act according to their sinful nature.  And much of the time, weeds look like wheat.  Non-Christians do an awful lot of good stuff in the world.  I’m no farmer, but I do know there is a particularly deceptive weed called darnel that looks just like wheat until the time of harvest.  These are probably the tares Jesus is talking about.  How can you tell the two apart?  A farmer might be able to, but the rest of us can’t.  Even if we grew up on the Palouse.  Jesus knows the difference between His wheat and the weeds, but we don’t.  Even if we grew up in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod.  Your job is not to root out all the bad players in the Church or in the world or even in politics.  Your job is to let Jesus be the Lord.  Receive the good things He gives here in His Church, the fruits of His cross, the triumph of His resurrection, and love and serve your neighbor.  Tell others about Jesus and let the good Seed do its work.  Support the Church and the ministry with your prayers and offerings.  And sure, vote according to the best of your God-given wisdom and give some money to feed the hungry.  But more than anything else, just receive.  Receive what God gives.  Receive Jesus as He comes to you here in His Word. 

            Beloved, the harvest is not yet.  “The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps. 145:8).  He is patient, so that weeds may become wheat by the working of His Word.  Judgment Day is coming, but at a time known only to God.  In the meantime, there will be hypocrites and sinners, politicians and terrorists.  The Lord knows what He is doing.  He does not need your help.  God is accomplishing His purposes in ways you could not begin to comprehend.  Repent and wait upon the Lord.  Trust Him.  He’s got it all figured out for your good.  And the proof is Jesus on the cross and in the Supper.  Christ crucified is the ultimate evil, the ultimate miscarriage of justice, accomplishing your ultimate good, your eternal salvation.  The Supper is the distribution of the body and blood of Jesus, crucified for you, for the forgiveness of your sins, now risen from the dead and giving you life.  The Seed of the Word has been planted and grown into faith.  You are wheat.   The Supper nourishes you and keeps you alive in a world full of weeds.  Pray for the harvest.  Pray, “Come, Lord Jesus.  Come quickly.”  But so also pray for workers for the harvest field, that more Seed of God’s Word may be sown, more preaching, more bad soil made good, more weeds made into wheat.  And know what will finally happen when the harvest comes.  The weeds will be gathered together and thrown into the fire, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  There is a hell.  It is a real place where those who finally reject Jesus really go for all eternity.  That is the warning.  But the wheat will be gathered into the Lord’s barn to live forever with Him.  The righteous, which is to say you who have received Jesus’ righteousness as your own by faith, will shine like the sun in the Kingdom of your Father.  The main business of the Church is not to sort the weeds and wheat before the time.  That job belongs to the holy angels on that Day.  The main business of the Church is to preach.  The main business of the Church is to hear the preaching, be forgiven, and live, in Christ, forever.  Your sins are forgiven.  You shall not die, but live.  The Lord of the harvest declares it so.  His Word does what it says.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.               

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost


Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (A—Proper 10)
July 16, 2017
Text: Matt. 13:1-9, 18-23
            Jesus is the Sower.  The Seed is the Word.  You are the soil.  Jesus sows His Word into your ears, and so into your mind and heart and soul.  This is the meaning of the parable.  A parable, you have been told, is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.  Okay.  But if that is the case, Jesus paints Himself and His Father as reckless fools by any earthly standard.  The economy of the Kingdom is not like the economy of this world.  That’s just the point.  God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and His ways are not our ways.  The sower in our Holy Gospel is reckless.  He’s wasteful.  He throws the seed every which way, knowing that some will be picked off by birds, scorched by the sun, and choked by the thorns.  I’m no farmer.  Nor am I a betting man.  But if I was, I’d bet you dollars to doughnuts John Leendertsen at least tries to hit the field when he sows his seed.  He’s not in the business of feeding the birds or padding the pavement with wheat and garbanzos.  He’s strategic.  He’s careful.  He plans ahead.  He sows where he knows there is good soil, where his crops have the most likely chance to bear fruit.  There’s a great design in all of this.  It’s what I love about the Palouse.  You drive past the wheat fields and somehow all the stalks are orderly.  They’ve grown up in their place like soldiers on a parade ground, and when they dance in the wind it is a beautiful thing to behold. 
            If Jesus worked for John, He wouldn’t last through the first planting.  Helter-skelter, He casts His Seed.  He intentionally throws it where it would take a miracle for it to grow and bear fruit.  He sends His preachers.  He plants His Church.  And when all is said and done, His harvest doesn’t look all that great.  You know this.  The Church does not appear to be prospering these days.  Not in the West, anyway.  The cathedrals of Europe sit empty, and the congregations in America are shrinking.  And here we are starting a mission Church.  In enemy territory, no less, a university town.  And who knows what will happen?  We’re here by faith, not because we have some insight into the best place to plant a Church or a surefire method for making the Church grow.  Here Jesus scatters His Seed.  He sends a preacher.  He plants His Church.  Right here and now in Moscow.  On C street.  And against all the advice of those who know and the best of human wisdom, we’re trusting what God says through the Prophet Isaiah, that the Word He so haphazardly casts will not return to Him empty, but will accomplish His purpose and succeed in the thing for which He sends it (Is. 55:11).  And it does.  You’re here.  You hear the voice of your Shepherd and you gather around His preaching.  He washes away your filth and feeds you from His Table.
            Well then, you must be the good soil from the parable… Good, Missouri Synod Lutheran soil.  But not so fast.  Do you really think that in all His reckless casting, Jesus got lucky and found His target when He hit you?  You understand, right, that if that’s how you interpret this parable, you’re saying there’s a quality about you that’s better than all those other schmucks who are the bad soils where the Word cannot grow up and bear fruit.  In other words, you’re saying there is some merit or worthiness in you that moves God to save you.  You do play some part in your salvation.  This is the Roman Catholic idea of preparing yourself for grace, or the Protestant idea that you make your decision for Jesus or give your heart to Him.  But it’s not very Missouri Synod Lutheran of you.  Here’s the point.  When Jesus describes the path and the rocky and the thorny soil, He’s describing you.  What are the things that can keep the Word from taking deep root in us and bearing fruit?  First of all, Jesus teaches us that there is an evil one, the devil, who delights to come and snatch away the Word from us.  He and his demons are constantly assaulting us with temptations and accusations, fear and doubt.  “God can’t really love you.  Not after the things you’ve done.”  Then there are the rocks, the trials and tribulations of this earthly life that scorch faith when it gets hot.  It’s easy to be a Christian when things are going well.  When life gets tough, the temptation is to stop going to Church.  Or, think bigger than just our first world problems.  It’s easy to be a Christian when you aren’t under threat of beheading or crucifixion just because you’re baptized.  It’s a great temptation when you can escape persecution just by renouncing Jesus.  Just a simple, “Jesus is accursed,” and you’re free to go.  And of course, there are the thorns, which are a particularly affluent American temptation.  These are the cares of that choke out the Word.  “I have so much to do, I can’t possibly come to Church.”  “Sunday is my only day to relax.”  “God helps those who help themselves (incidentally, a phrase which is not in the Bible and is absolutely opposed to the Gospel), so I have to make as much money as I can, save up that rainy day fund, make sure my family and I are provided for.  I’ll think about spiritual matters later.  I have other things to do now.”  And so it goes. 
            Do you hear yourself in any of that?  The birds?  The rocks?  The thorns?  You should.  You should hear yourself in all of the above in some way.  Beloved, you are not good soil.  Not in and of yourself.  Repent.  Repent of thinking you’re better prepared for God’s grace than others.  Repent of all the things that prevent the Word from taking deep root in you so that faith grows up and produces fruit.  Repent, and know that you are here by God’s free gift, by Jesus’ reckless sowing of His Word even on you, so that by an extraordinary miracle of His mercy, even you have received His Word through your ears, and it’s taken deep root in you so that you believe in Jesus Christ, your Savior.  And in leading you by that Word to repentance and faith, He’s plowed the soil, driven away the birds, cleared out the rocks and thorns and made you good soil, by grace.
            “(F)aith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17; ESV).  Faith is what grows up from Jesus’ planting His Word in you.  So notice that faith itself is God’s free gift to you, bestowed on you in the Word.  It’s not a decision you’ve made or an emotion you’ve stirred up within yourself.  Faith is not something you get by your own effort.  It is planted in you, by God, in His Word.  Jesus gives you ears to hear.  Jesus gives you faith to believe.  It is all His work.  Faith, then, as it grows and matures, bears fruit.  That fruit is works of love.  Now, you are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, apart from works.  There is no question about that.  But faith is never alone.  It is always busy loving its neighbor.  Now, not everybody bears the same fruit, or even the same amount of fruit.  Some yields a hundredfold, another sixty, and another thirty.  But they all bear fruit, and they are all saved, not because of their fruit, but by grace through faith in Christ.  What it all comes down to, though… the common denominator of it all, is the Word Jesus plants even in you
            He plants His Word first by the water of Holy Baptism.  Even in newborn babies.  Talk about reckless.  And even in newborn babies that Seed grows into faith, and as it matures it will bear fruit.  He plants it in preaching and in Scripture.  He plants it here at the Supper.  What do we so often pray in the post-Communion collect?  That we would grow in faith toward God and fervent love toward one another.  And what does that Word do in all the forms in which it is planted in us?  What is God’s purpose for which He sends it?  It gives you Jesus and all His benefits.  It gives you Jesus, the Word made flesh.  Just as Jesus was preached by the angel into the ear of the Virgin Mary and took root in her womb, so Jesus is preached into your ear and takes root in your heart, mind, and soul.  The Word delivers Jesus.  It takes you into Jesus and puts Jesus into you.  It gives you His death.  Your sins are forgiven.  It gives you His resurrection.  You are saved and you have eternal life.  The Word is the vehicle of the Holy Spirit.  It is that by which He comes to you and dwells in you and creates faith in Christ and produces the fruits of faith, which is love.  The Word restores you to the Father.  God’s own child, I gladly say it.  Our Father who art in heaven, we pray.  It is a creative Word.  “Let there be…” and there is.  It is a performative Word.  “I forgive you all your sins…” and they are. 
            Recklessly sown, this good news is.  And it really does what He promises.  It’s a miracle.  It’s a miracle that this sorry bunch of sinners that we are has been gathered in this place to be forgiven and declared righteous and fed and nourished and called saints of God.  The Word does that.  This is Jesus throwing His Seed to the four winds.  Pentecost is “the green season of the Church Year.”  We grow in the Word.  We grow in faith.  We grow in love.  Jesus does it, recklessly casting His Seed. 

            But as it turns out, His recklessness is not as chaotic as it first appears.  He meant it to hit the path and the rocks and the thorns.  He meant it to fall upon you and sink in and make the bad soil good.  From all eternity this was His plan, that you… yes, you… receive His Word, have it planted within you so that it takes deep root and grows up into a living and fruit-bearing faith.  He wants you for His own.  He will have you, even at the cost of His precious life.  He loves you.  He has engraved you on the palms of His nailed-pierced hands.  You are His.  And not even the demons can snatch you away from Him.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.               

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (A—Proper 9)
July 9, 2017
Text: Matt. 11:25-30

            The very best of human wisdom, the philosophers of antiquity and the middle ages, the Enlightenment thinkers with their triumph of reason, modern man in the age of scientific discovery and technological revolution, with all their great intellect and ability to comprehend the most complex systems… cannot by their own reason or strength understand the simple Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  Jesus says, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children” (Matt. 11:25; ESV).  In some sense, Jesus means this quite literally.  What the wise and understanding are unable to comprehend, the Father reveals to little children, infants even, by His Spirit in Holy Baptism.  There they come to faith in Jesus.  But in another sense, Jesus is calling all of us who believe in Him “little children.”  In fact, He says in another place, “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3).  That is to say, unless you repent of being wise and understanding in your own eyes and confess that you are nothing, and worse than nothing, a sinner, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.  Unless you confess that what you know of God must be revealed to you by God, unless you trust His Word and believe the things that He says even when they are beyond your comprehension, as a little child believes his father, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.  We are babes before God, helpless, ignorant, and totally dependent upon Him for everything: for our daily bread, for every moment, every breath, every heartbeat, and for our eternal salvation.  And it is precisely to such babes that the Father reveals the Holy Things, the things of Jesus, who is Wisdom Incarnate, the human face of God, and our only Savior from sin, death, and hell.  Knowledge of these things cannot be attained by human reason or any human effort.  They can only be revealed by God.  He reveals them in Christ, the Word made flesh.  He reveals them in the Word inscripturated and preached, splashed on your head and placed in your mouth.
            There is a natural knowledge of God.  That there is a god, a creator or creators of some kind, this is clear to human reason.  For example, we know that someone designed and built this building.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t know much about the builder, except that he, or she, or they are good at building buildings.  And what is true of the building is true of creation.  The writer to the Hebrews says, “For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God” (Heb. 3:4).  There is a design inherent in creation that indicates a Designer.  This could not have happened by accident, not even after a big bang and billions of years.  So also, we know by nature that there is a Lawgiver.  We know this because there are immutable laws in nature, like the law of gravity, or the laws that govern procreation (e.g. it takes a male and a female to bring forth offspring, and so marriage and sexuality are written into the very laws of nature).  We know this also because we all know, by nature, that some things are right and some things are wrong.  This is called natural law, or the conscience.  We all know it is a crime to murder.  Even murderers and unbelievers know this.  We all know it is wrong to cheat on our spouses.  Even the pagans agree.  All of this is available for investigation by reason and the reflections of human wisdom.  But we cannot know much beyond this.  Not by human reason.  We cannot even know if the Designer and the Lawgiver are the same person or persons.
            And we cannot know that this Designer and Lawgiver is a merciful and forgiving God of love.  We only know that in Christ.  We only know that by the Spirit working in the Word.  In Christ, we know God as “Our Father who art in heaven.”  In Christ, we know God as the Son who became our brother, taking on our flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary and bearing our sin to the cross to put it to death in His body.  In Christ, we know that we are reconciled to God and have eternal life and salvation.  These things are not available for discernment by human reason.  These things are only available by the self-revelation of God in His Word.  And they are only received by God-given faith, childlike faith which is the free gift of God in Jesus Christ, given in the Word and Baptism. 
            Jesus says, if you know the Son, you know the Father.  If you do not know the Son, you do not know the Father.  There is no Father apart from the Son.  So much for the idea that Jews and Muslims worship the Father, as if you could worship the Father apart from Jesus.  Our God is not their god.  Their god is no god.  Their god is a demon.  Our God is a man, Jesus Christ, with the Father and the Holy Spirit.  Jesus reveals this God to us in all His fullness, “For in [Jesus] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9).
            And in Jesus, we know we have a God who saves, rescues, and delivers.  He is not a harsh Judge who delights in damning us.  He is a God gentle and lowly in heart, a God who loves us.  He is an every-present help in the day of trouble.  “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).  Jesus gives you rest.  Rest from your enemies.  Rest from sin.  Rest from the demands and threats of the Law.  Rest from all that burdens you in body and soul: pain, sickness, injury, heartache, depression.  He gives you rest from death.  He gives you rest from hell.  You are resting this very moment, resting in the good news that all of these things that afflict you have been put to death in the body of Jesus on the cross, and you are renewed and reinvigorated by the risen body of Jesus given you to eat, and His risen blood given you to drink, even as His living Word breathes the Spirit of life into your ears. 
            Now, this is not to say that you will not suffer in this life.  That is a demonic lie pedaled by so many false teachers today, that being a Christian means God will make your life easy with health and wealth and great prosperity.  That’s not what Jesus says.  Jesus says there will be a yoke to bear in this life.  The yoke, the burden put upon an ox so that he draws the plow or the wagon, is what Jesus elsewhere calls the cross you are to take up daily and follow Him.  This is not a cross you bear for your salvation.  That is all accomplished by Jesus on His cross.  This cross that you bear is the sufferings and afflictions of this earthly life.  It is whatever you suffer as a Christian, in faith, waiting upon the Lord to deliver in His way and in His time.  In the case of many of our brothers and sisters, it is persecution for the Name of Christ.  It is also the sicknesses and pains you bear at the instigation of the devil, who cannot stand to let you have a moment of peace, but in afflicting you would lead you into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice.  And these crosses, these yokes, are ultimately laid upon you by God your heavenly Father, who knows what you need.  He has this way in suffering of causing you to despair of yourself and your own resources, and to cast yourself solely upon His Son Jesus Christ for help and salvation.  This is what He says through His servant David: “call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me” (Ps. 50:15).  Or as St. Peter says, cast “all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). 
            And so we find that, though there is a yoke to bear as Christians, in Christ that yoke is easy and the burden is light.  This is not to diminish your present sufferings, but it is to give perspective.  As you bear the yoke, the holy cross, Jesus bears you.  Here I’m going to ruin your favorite poem, Footprints in the Sand.  It is never the case that there are two sets of footprints, or if there are two sets, it is because yours are running the opposite way!  The plain truth is, Jesus is always carrying you.  Always.  You never walk on your own two feet.  You are always in His arms.  Often struggling and hitting and kicking to get free, you little rebel!  But He carries you, faithfully, to the Father.  Stop struggling.  Relax.  Rest in Him.  There is an end to your yoke bearing.  There is an end to your suffering.  Jesus is carrying you to a goal.  He is carrying you through the desert wilderness of this life, through the valley of the shadow of death, to the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.  There the yoke is cast off.  There you are free. 

            Now, none of this makes sense to human reason.  Victory through the bloody death of God on the cross?  Life through death?  The love of God through suffering and affliction?  This is why the world thinks you Christians are stupid.  But you’re not stupid.  You’re just little children.  Children of the heavenly Father.  Children to whom the Father has given a Savior.  Children who believe the Father’s Word.  That Word is Jesus.  That Savior is Jesus.  Rest, beloved.  Lay down your burdens.  Rest.  You are safe in the Father’s house.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.         

Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Presentation of the Augsburg Confession

Presentation of the Augsburg Confession
June 25, 2017
Text: Rom. 10:5-17

            “For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” (Rom. 10:10; ESV).  On June 25th, 1530, 487 years ago today, Philip Melanchthon (Luther’s right hand man) and the princes, dukes, and nobility of the provinces and towns where Lutheranism had taken hold, formally presented their confession of faith to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Augsburg (a Diet is like a congress).  The document, chiefly written by Melanchthon, came to be known as the Augustana, or the Augsburg Confession.  And make no mistake… This is not some academic treatise on the finer points of theology, better left to historians and divinity professors.  This confession gets to the very heart of the Christian faith, maintaining against the Roman Pope and Curia and the entire Holy Roman Empire that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, as revealed in Scripture alone!  Good works are good to do, but they have no place in the equation of our justification before God.  They are a result of justification, not a cause.  Article IV states it beautifully: “Our churches teach that people cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works.  People are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake.  By His death, Christ made satisfaction for our sins.  God counts this faith for righteousness in His sight (Romans 3 and 4 [3:21-26; 4:5]).”[1]  This is the central article of the Confession, and of our faith, the article by which the Church stands or falls.  You really should read the whole Augsburg Confession.  It’s not very long.  You can read it easily in one or two sittings.  The Augustana defines what it means to be Lutheran.  As a matter of fact, the other documents in the Lutheran Book of Concord, particularly the Apology of the Augsburg Confession and the Formula of Concord, are commentaries on the Augustana.  And this is why we celebrate this document today, hold a Festival Divine Service in thanksgiving to God for it.  These men believed the Gospel, and so they confessed it, at great personal risk, I might add.  And we, their children, confess it, and though we don’t risk much in confessing it at the moment, the day is coming when we will.  Today we are celebrating Lutheranism, to be sure, which is a good gift of God.  But it’s so much more than that.  When we celebrate the Augsburg Confession, we celebrate the very Gospel of Jesus Christ.  And we celebrate the grace of our God who makes this Gospel of Christ known to us, and by His Spirit gives us to believe it and confess it.
            What is a confession?  We use the word in two ways.  We confess our sins, and we confess our faith.  The Greek word translated “confession” is ὁμολογέω, which literally means “to say the same thing.”  When we confess, we say the same thing as God.  When we confess our sins, we say the same thing God says about our sinful condition.  Then we hear the Gospel, the Absolution, and we say “Amen,” which is to add our yes to God’s Word.  “Amen” is always a confession, which is why you should always say it boldly and clearly.  Don’t mumble it.  Say it like you mean it.  When we confess our faith, we say what God says to us in Christ.  We say what God says to us in the Holy Scriptures.  So confession, in either sense in which we use it, means to say the same thing God says, which is a pretty good thing to say. 
            And what is the source of this confession?  It does not come from within ourselves.  It is the gift of God.  With the heart we believe, St. Paul says in our Epistle, and faith comes by hearing the Word of Christ.  Faith is God’s gift.  And then what happens as a result?  That faith wells up into confession.  With the mouth we confess.  We say what God says in His Word.  God’s Word is the source of faith, confession is the fruit of faith.  And this teaches us about the relationship of our Confessions to Holy Scripture and to faith.  Holy Scripture is the inspired and inerrant Word of God.  Scripture alone is the rule and norm of our faith.  Scripture is the Norma Normans, we say in theology, the norm that norms.  The Confessions, on the other hand, are the Norma Normata, the norm being normed by the Bible.  Now, don’t get lost in the Latin.  This is important because Lutherans are often accused of placing the Confessions on a par with the Scriptures, or even above them, which could not be further from the truth.  The Scriptures alone are the source of our doctrine.  The Confessions are not inspired and inerrant in the way that the Scriptures are.  But we unconditionally subscribe to the Confessions because they are a faithful exposition of Holy Scripture, normed by Scripture.  In other words, we subscribe to the Confessions because they say the same thing God says.  The Confessions become your confession, and you say your Amen to them, when you recognize that they say what God says.  And this, by the way, is why you say Amen at the end of the sermon.  If I say what God says, my sermon becomes your confession.  The sermon, like the Augsburg Confession and the other documents in the Book of Concord, is a Norma Normata, a norm being normed by the Holy Scriptures. 
            Now, we confess when we say “Amen” to a sermon or a prayer or in the liturgy.  How else do we confess, say the same thing God says?  This seems to me to be a very important question for a mission congregation.  The essence of mission is confession.  Maybe we should call ourselves a confessing congregation, which is a more scriptural word than mission.  But what does that mean?  How do we confess?  There are the obvious parts.  We preach and we teach.  Most of that falls on me, but what else do we do as a congregation?  In many ways, we make this too complicated.  Understand, your very coming to Church on Sunday morning, and whenever you come, is a confession.  That you come to this Church is a confession that you believe what this Church teaches.  Whether you know it or not, you’re confessing the Augsburg Confession every time you come here.  Every time you trace the sign of the Holy Cross upon yourself or say “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” you are confessing the Triune God and the gifts given in your Baptism.  When you come to the Lord’s Supper, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes (1 Cor. 11:26).  That’s a confession.  You confess that you are receiving the true body and blood of Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins, and that you are in unity with the doctrine of this congregation.  The liturgy itself is a confession of faith.  There are the Creeds, which are a clear confession, but the whole thing is confession of faith from end to end.  The liturgy comes right out of the Bible.  That’s why the historic liturgy is so important to this confessing congregation.  Our music sounds different than what you hear out there in the world.  That is a confession.  And if our music sounded like what you hear out in the world, that would also be a confession, but it would be a very different confession than we make here, for then we would be saying the same thing as the world.  Our hymns are a confession of faith set to music.  It matters what we sing.  This is why we sometimes sing very difficult hymns.  Don’t be afraid of them.  The hymns we sing are a strong confession of faith.  God’s Word is placed on your lips in the hymns.  You confess as you sing.  And the tunes are very carefully and intentionally married to the text of the hymn so that the confession is enhanced.  Sometimes we have special music during the service (and I’d love to have more).  And that music is a confession of the Gospel.  That is why we don’t just sing everything and anything.  During Holy Week we had a wonderful selection of choir tunes, and Christy brought me the lyrics and music beforehand, because she wanted to make certain that the choir presented a strong confession of the Gospel and our Scriptural doctrine.  Now nobody ordered anybody to do anything, and no one is trying to be tyrannical in this, but that’s how seriously we take our confession in this confessing congregation.  Our practice says something about what we believe.  Everything we do should somehow be a confession of faith.  When we build a church, our architecture should preach.  It should confess.  We shouldn’t just pick plans that look nice.  We should ask what it means that we build what we build in the way we build it.  What does it say?  What does it confess?  And I hope we fill the thing up with sublime artwork that preaches.  (Not kitsch.  We don’t just need smiling pictures of Jesus or Precious Moments angels.)  Good, historic or contemporary, but biblical, preaching art.  The name of our congregation, whatever it turns out to be, should be a preaching name, a confessing name.  It shouldn’t just sound pretty.  It should say something (and no, I’m not contending for any particular name… all our choices are good).  Everything in the Church, the sights, the sounds, the touch (your hymnal, for example), even the smells should confess!  And taste.  Taste and see that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8), His body, given into death for you, His blood, shed for you, for the forgiveness of all of your sins.
            Last week, Pr. Rossow told us that evangelism as we understand it today is not really a biblical concept.  Ah, but confession is.  We confess to our family when we teach them the faith.  We confess to our friends and neighbors when we talk about Jesus and invite them to Church.  We confess when we speak against ungodliness and point to a better way, the way of Jesus.  And, of course, we poor sinners so often fail to confess.  We don’t speak when we should.  Then we speak when we shouldn’t, and we say things that don’t really say the same things God says.  God help us.  Repent.  But also, rejoice.  Your sins are forgiven.  Even your failure to confess.  And confession is God’s gift.  It is God’s gift to you.  He sends a preacher.  He gives a Church.  He fills you with His Word and faith, and that is the source and content of confession.  Confess!  Say what God says.  There is no pressure here.  Not on you.  The Lord does what He will do with what He has given you.  Most of your confession takes place when you are unaware.  For finally, to confess, is simply to be a Christian, abiding in Jesus and in His Word. 
            And here is this tremendous Promise God proclaims to us by the Prophet Isaiah.  His Word does its thing.  Always.  It does not return to Him empty.  It always accomplishes that which He purposes and succeeds in the thing for which He sends it (Is. 55:11).  You know that is true because you are here.  Someone said what God says to you.  Your parents brought you to Baptism and Church, or someone spoke the Word to you later in your life.  And now you say what God says to one another.  You’re doing it right now in the Divine Service.  You do it as you live your life in Christ.  And we do it here and now in a Lutheran Church because 487 years ago today our fathers did it in Augsburg on pain of excommunication, persecution, and death.  This is a Church of the Augsburg Confession.  So this morning, with God given faith in your heart, you are confessing with your mouth.  In fact, you’re confessing the Augsburg Confession.  Now, go home and read it.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.            



[1] McCain, AC IV.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Second Sunday after Pentecost

Second Sunday after Pentecost (A-Proper 6)
June 18, 2017
Text: Matt. 9:35-10:8
Guest Preacher: The Rev. Timothy Rossow - Lutherans in Africa
http://lutheransinafrica.com/