Thursday, February 28, 2019

Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany

Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany (C)
February 24, 2019
Text: Luke 6:27-38

            It’s all about mercy.  Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36; ESV).  That is to say, be who you are in Christ, and act toward your neighbor accordingly.  Your Father in heaven is merciful toward you.  That’s almost an understatement.  Your Father does not count your sins against you.  Your sins are a rejection of Him as your God, a rejection of His love, yet He does not reject you.  He sent His Son to take your sin, your rejection of God, upon Himself, and put it to death in His body on the cross, so that you be forgiven all your sins and reconciled to God, adopted as His own dear child in Holy Baptism (as we saw again this morning with Hilde) and made an heir with Christ of the Father’s Kingdom.  You who were God’s sworn enemy He has reconciled to Himself by sending His Son to die, for you, in your place, to suffer your punishment.  If you even begin to remotely appreciate the profundity of God’s mercy toward you, you will be merciful to others.  You will forgive their sins against you.  You will love even your enemies, as God loved you, who were once His enemy.  You will do good to those who hate you, as God sent His Son for you, who once hated Him.  You will bless the one who curses you and pray for the one who abuses you.  You will die to yourself.  You will die for your neighbor.  For that is mercy, the mercy bestowed upon you by God in Christ, that now flows through you and toward your neighbor.  God’s mercy is the power behind your mercy.  Be who you are, and act accordingly.  You are a baptized, forgiven child of God.  You are in Christ, who died for you, a Christian, a little Christ.  Be Christ to your neighbor.  Even, and especially, to your enemy. 
            This sounds like crazy talk, but it’s really part of the backwards reality we talked about last week.  Jesus turns everything on its head, because you and I, in our fallen nature, have everything upside down and inside out.  Human wisdom is to love those who love you and do good to those who do good to you.  On the other hand, we don’t love those who hurt us.  It doesn’t come naturally to us to turn the other cheek.  Actually, we love to judge others, condemn them.  They have it coming.  I hope there’s a policeman up ahead for that guy who sped past me and cut me off.  I hope the repairman who overcharged me gets a taste of his own medicine.  You want to insult me?  Get ready, my friend, because I have a few choice words for you.  This somehow makes us feel better about ourselves.  It’s the old trick of tearing another sinner down to size so I appear to be not so bad in my own eyes and the eyes of others.  This, by the way, is what Jesus means when He says “Judge not, and you will not be judged” (v. 37).  He doesn’t mean don’t make moral judgments, as this verse is so often abused by the world and even by well-meaning Christians.  Of course you should make moral judgments.  When something violates the clear Word of God, that thing is sinful, and it harms people, and it harms the sinner’s relationship to God.  Love for the sinner demands that you call the sin what it is.  But not judging the person means you don’t condemn the person.  The person is a sinner.  Great.  So are you.  You’re not the judge.  God is.  Let Him do His job.  You do yours, which is to repent.  You have enough sins to worry about of your own without condemning another.  And be merciful.  For God forgives you all your sins for Jesus sake.  You are to forgive your neighbor.
            You have a hard time with this, needless to say.  The answer to that, by the way, is not to say, “Oh well, I can’t do it, but I’ll wait for Pastor to say the Gospel so I’m off the hook.”  No, the answer is, repent.  You really should do these things.  Jesus commands them.  You really should want to do these things.  After all, Jesus has done them for you.  And that is really the point.  What Jesus commands you to do in our Gospel this morning is first and foremost a description of Himself.  He loves His enemies.  You.  Unto death on the cross.  He does good to those who hate Him.  You.  He saves you.  He blesses those who curse Him and prays for those who abuse Him.  He prays from the cross, both for those who are carrying out His execution, and for you who nail Him to the cross by your sin: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).  He gives His back to those who strike and His cheek to those who pull out the beard (Is. 50:6).  They divide His cloak among them and gamble over His seamless tunic.  He gives not only His possessions, but Himself, His very life, to those who beg.  He is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.  He is kind to sinners.  He dies for sinners, for the forgiveness of sins. 
            Now, Jesus is the Judge.  It is Jesus Christ, crucified and risen from the dead, who will return visibly on the Last Day to judge the living and the dead.  We are not to judge lest we be judged.  He is to judge, for He has been judged in our place.  He swallowed up all the abuse sin, death, and the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh could throw at Him.  He swallowed up God’s righteous wrath against sinners and sin.  He was condemned, so that we will not be condemned on that Day.  So don’t condemn your neighbor.  All your sins are forgiven because Jesus turned the other cheek for you.  So you forgive your neighbor.  Even if he doesn’t deserve it.  Even if he doesn’t want it.  How many people did Jesus suffer and die for who ultimately reject it?  None of us deserve it.  None of us is really even all that sorry most of the time.  And many don’t want it at all, this forgiveness and salvation Jesus gives, and so they reject it all the way to hell.  Still, He does it all for them, and for you. 
            Forgiving someone who has sinned against you is hard, and it’s true you’ll never do it perfectly in this sinful flesh.  Stop using that as an excuse.  When you’re having a hard time forgiving, repent.  That’s your sin.  Yes, you’re forgiven in the Name of Jesus.  But that’s not the end of it.  Get back at it.  Practice forgiveness.  It’s a thing we always have to be practicing, because we don’t get it perfect until heaven.  But do practice it. 
            In my pastoral experience, the most freeing thing we can know about forgiveness is that it is not an emotion.  People get this all backwards and think forgiveness is having warm and fuzzy feelings about the person.  Forgiveness is not how you feel about a person.  Because love is not an emotion, not a feeling.  To forgive a person is to love that person.  And love is a decision and action to seek the good of the person.  That’s what Jesus is telling you to do.  How do you forgive someone?  Jesus tells you here.  You pray for them.  You bless them.  Not in that vindictive way where you self-righteously say with disdain in your voice, “I’ll pray for you.”  That’s Old Adam trying to get his licks in again.  Kill him.  Back to the font.  But really pray.  Go into your closet, get down on your knees, and say, “Almighty God, you have had mercy on me and made me your own in Christ, forgiving me all my sins by His blood and death for me.  Have mercy on this person who has hurt me.  Forgive his sins.  Give him faith in Jesus Christ and eternal life.  Bless him and keep him.  And grant me to keep loving him by praying for him and seeking his good.  If I am to do this, O Lord, You must do it in me, for there is no good in me to do it of myself.  But I commend all into Your hands, and if you do it in me, it will be done for Jesus’ sake.” 
            And do you know, there is nothing so freeing as giving your sins and the sins of your neighbor against you into the pierced hands of Jesus for forgiveness, hurling them into the abyss of His inexhaustible mercy and love.  This is conventional wisdom and not even really the Bible, but it is true that refusing to forgive your neighbor really just holds you in bondage to their sin against you.  They may not even be worried whether you forgive them, but you’re all tied up inside, bound by the chains of whatever they’ve done to you.  The Greek word for “forgive” literally means to “release.”  Jesus releases you from your sins when He forgives you.  You release your neighbor and yourself from their sins by forgiving them. 
            And then there’s this.  As we said a moment ago, in His suffering and death on the cross for you, Jesus swallows up all God’s wrath against your sin, and all the bitterness and curse of sin itself, so that it spends itself on Him and cannot harm you.  When you forgive your neighbor, you are dying a little death for him.  That’s why it’s so hard, why Old Adam kicks against it so furiously.  You don’t want to die.  But Jesus says die to yourself, take up your cross, and follow Him.  And when you do, you swallow up all the wrath so that it can’t harm anybody else.  Not your neighbor who is sinning against you.  Not anyone.  I’ve seen this myself.  Someone comes against you with all their anger and malice, and it’s like a great wave of wrath that washes over you.  Now, if you fight that wave with a wave of your own, it gives energy to the chaos of the whole thing, and the wrath multiplies and leaves all sorts of destruction in its wake.  But if you just take it, and respond with blessing instead of cursing, prayer instead of bitterness, it’s like a great chasm opens that swallows the whole thing.  You rob the wave of all its energy and it can’t hurt anyone anymore.  Well, except it does hurt you.  I’m not gonna lie.  Because it is the death of you.  You’re doing what Jesus did.  And talk about loving your enemies, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).  To die in this way can make your enemy your friend.  It is certainly to treat him as a friend.  But we know what happens to the One who gives Himself into death for sinners.  He rises from the dead.  And so it will happen to you.
            Well, I don’t usually go to the movies to make the points in my sermon, but the kids have me watching Star Wars lately, and there is the most amazing scene in the first movie (the real first one, from 1977).  The gang is trying to make it safely off of the Death Star while Obi-wan Kenobi battles Darth Vader in a spectacular lightsaber duel.  Obi-wan is fighting for his friends, and we should always fight against evil for the sake of others.  He matches Vader strike for strike.  He’s not at any disadvantage.  But as soon as he sees that his friends will be safe, a knowing grin of acceptance spreads across his face.  He stops fighting and he holds his lightsaber up to his forehead and closes his eyes.  Vader strikes him down.  But in killing Obi-wan, Vader has lost his power over him, and over the rest.  Obi-wan has swallowed up the wrath.  In death, he is more powerful in life.
            But we don’t have to go to movies to see this truth.  We have Jesus.  Like Hilde, we’re baptized into Jesus.  We eat and drink Jesus and His Body and Blood courses through our veins.  And we have the martyrs, our Christian brothers and sisters throughout the ages and across the globe who loved their enemies and died to themselves.  And though they died, they live, and they are more blessed in death than they were in life.  Jesus faced down the devil to deliver us to safety and salvation.  And when His work was finished, He commended Himself to the Father, bowed His head, and gave up His Spirit.  In killing Jesus, our real enemies, sin, death, and the devil, lost their power.  When you die for your neighbor, which is to say, love him and forgive him, sin loses its power.  God grant us all to do that very thing.  Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”  It’s all about mercy.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.            

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany (C)
February 17, 2019
Text: Luke 6:17-26

            Either Jesus gets everything backwards, or we do.  I think you know the answer to that, but just consider for a moment how utterly backwards our Lord’s blessings and woes sound to our fallen human ears.  Blessed are you who are poor?  Who are hungry, who weep, who are hated, excluded, reviled, spurned as evil?  And then: Cursed are you who are rich?  Who are full, who laugh, who are well-spoken of by others?  This is the opposite of the American Dream.  We consider those blessed who are wealthy and happy and have a good reputation.  And the poor?  They should get a job.  Those who weep need to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.  Most people with a bad name have earned it.  What on earth is going on here?  What does this mean?  Four blessings, the beatitudes.  Four curses, the woes.  And all is not as it appears.  Jesus turns everything on its head, as He is wont to do, because you and I, as we are wont to do, have everything utterly inside out and upside down.
            The question, really, is not how much money you have, how much you eat and drink, or whether you are persecuted and reviled.  These are but the symptoms of the greater issue, and circumstances change.  The issue is not one of outward appearance, but of being.  Who are you, and to whom do you belong?  The issue is one of faith.  The issue is one of Christ.  And the Prophet Jeremiah makes this clear in our Old Testament reading (Jer. 17:5-8).  You either trust in man, whether it be yourself, or other men, or the stuff of men, the stuff of this life.  Or you trust in the LORD, YHWH, the one true God, the Father who sent His Son to become flesh, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, to suffer and die on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins, your life, and your salvation.  If you trust in man, if flesh is your strength, if your counting on your wealth or your possessions or your honor, or even and especially your own good works, then you may be rich now, and full now, you may laugh now, and be respected now, but when the drought comes, you’re like a shrub in the desert.  For all your riches, you’re really destitute.  Turns out you have nothing.  You shall not see any good come.  You shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness, an uninhabited salt land, which is just another way of saying, hell.  No God, no good.  That’s hell.  That’s what trust in man gets you.  Hell. 
            But if you trust in the LORD, and Jesus Christ, whom He has sent, then you may be poor now, hungry, mourning, and persecuted now, but what can any of those bad things do to you?  The LORD God is on your side.  He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for you to death on the cross, how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give you all things (Cf. Rom. 8:32)?  So when the drought comes, you are like a tree planted by the water, sending out your roots by the stream.  And what is the water but that which is included in God’s command and combined with God’s Word, the water of your Baptism into Christ?  The worst drought the devil, the world, and your own sinful flesh can throw at you cannot rob you of the water.  It cannot rob you of Christ.  So you do not fear.  Your leaves remain green.  You are not anxious in times of economic crisis or famine, when the money dries up and the tummy rumbles, nor in times of grief or persecution, when you come face to face with death, when people hate you and exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil on account of the Son of Man.  You can rejoice and be glad in that day, for the tree planted by this water, the one in Christ, cannot be moved.  And so their fathers did to the prophets who were before you.  Learn from the prophets what it means to be rich in poverty, full in scarcity, filled with joy even in the midst of grief, to rejoice in persecution.  They did not love their lives unto death, and their reward is in heaven.
            That is why you are blessed when the world would call you anything but.  You poor, you who, even in the midst of worldly wealth, know that you have nothing… Yours is the Kingdom of heaven. 
            You who are hungry now, take the long view.  Your hunger is for this earthly life only.  It is the blink of an eye.  This is not to say that we should not feed the hungry.  Quite the contrary.  But it is to proclaim good news to those who lack.  You shall be satisfied!  The sign points to the reality of that Day.  Remember how Jesus fed the 5,000 men plus women and children on five loaves and two fishes?  And twelve baskets full were left over.  Jesus is the living Bread from Heaven.  He will not leave you empty. 
            And you who weep now, who know the sorrows of this world, who have been beaten down by the changes and chances of this life, who know the cold sting of death… Take heart!  You shall laugh.  Your mourning shall be turned into dancing.  Jesus is the end of death. 
            And to all of you in the holy faith of Christ, who are despised and rejected by the world, mocked and ridiculed, shunned by family members and those you thought were friends, those you thought loved you, simply because you confess Christ and His Word… that is now, but rejoice for what will be.  Your reward is great in heaven.  Leap for joy.  Thank God that you have been counted worthy to suffer for the Name of Christ.  You may lose your business if you try to run it according to your biblical convictions.  You may have to pay fines or lose your livelihood.  Your Christian confession may be labeled hate speech.  And the day is coming sooner than later when Christians will suffer imprisonment and death once again.  It has happened before.  It is happening now in other places throughout the world.  Don’t think that you are immune.  But let not your heart be troubled.  Your Father in heaven sees.  He hears your prayers.  He will come to your aid.  He will deliver you.  He will never leave you or forsake you.
            So you are blessed.  That is the reality Jesus has pronounced over you.  But the most important thing you have to understand about these beatitudes is that, before they can be about you, they are first and ultimately about Christ.  This is a description of your Savior.  He is the poor man.  Literally, born into poverty, in a stable in Bethlehem.  His parents have to give the sacrifice of the poor when He is presented at the Temple, two turtledoves, or two young pigeons.  He is raised in a carpenter’s home.  He is not rich.  But even more profound, St. Paul preaches to us, “you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9; ESV).  His ultimate poverty is that of the cross.  There He is the Sin-Bearer.  He who knew no sin became sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21).  He who is everything becomes nothing on Golgotha, a worm and not a man, hungering and thirsting for our righteousness, for our salvation, with shame and grief weighed down, hated by all, excluded, reviled, spurned as evil.  Not just by man, but stricken by God, smitten by Him, and afflicted (Cf. Is. 53).  Jesus, our blessed Lord, becomes the Curse for us, for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Gal. 3:13; Cf. Deut. 21:23). 
            But what happens in His accursedness?  He defeats it.  He rises from the dead.  The Kingdom of God is His.  He is the Kingdom of God in the flesh.  And He has purchased you by His own blood to be in His Kingdom as His own beloved citizen and as a child of His heavenly Father, to live under Him and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.  Where Jesus is, we are, by virtue of our Baptism into Christ.  Who are you, and to Whom do you belong?  You are baptized into Christ, a Christian, and you belong to Christ.  No identity crisis for you.  You are not your job.  You are not your wealth and possessions.  You are not your good name and reputation.  And you are certainly not your good works or merit before God.  Your identity is all wrapped up in the flesh and blood of Christ.  Let me say it again: Who are you, and to Whom do you belong?  You are baptized into Christ, and you belong to Christ.  Therefore you are blessed.  And He sets a Feast before you, His own Body and Blood, which is just a foretaste of the eternal Feast to come.  You are filled.  You are satisfied.  And you laugh and sing and rejoice at this Feast, as you will for all eternity, for this is just the beginning of your reward which is great in heaven, all of which is pure gift from the Lord Jesus.  The beatitudes are about you, because they are first and ultimately about Jesus. 
            Now, we’ve talked about the blessings and the woes, but we dare not neglect the introduction of our Gospel reading where we learn what happens whenever we gather around Jesus to hear His Word.  He touches us at the very core of our poverty and lack and grief.  And He heals us.  He forgives our sins.  He fills us with Himself and all of His gifts.  And He frees us from all that binds us.  He heals our sickness and disease.  He puts the demons to flight.  He gives us life where once there was only death.  And notice, that all these people who came to hear Him sought to touch Him, and power came out from Him and He healed them all (Luke 6:19).  Well, here we are, gathered around Jesus to hear His life-giving Word and be healed by Him.  And now we long to touch Him, so that the same power comes out from Him to heal us.  And that is what happens at the altar.  His Body.  His Blood.  Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins, to put the demons to flight, and to heal you of all your afflictions.  The ultimate healing, of course, happens on that Day when Jesus comes again in glory to raise you from the dead.  But the beginning of that healing is here, now, in the gift He gives when He touches you.  That is the power that comes out from Him.  Our whole life is lived around the altar, because our whole life is lived around and in Jesus.  Our identity, our very being, is Jesus. 
            Woe to all who trust in man.  They have received their good things now.  Their punishment awaits.  But blessed are you who trust in the LORD.  No evil can finally harm you.  Not really.  For you are baptized into Christ.  You belong to Christ.  He is your wealth, your satisfaction, and your eternal reward.  He is your whole identity.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.          

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany (C)
February 10, 2019
Text: Luke 5:1-11

            The boat, the Word, the water, and the nets.  A sinful man, a fisherman by trade, named Simon, and the people who have come to hear the Word of God from the mouth of the Lord Jesus.  That is the scene.  The crowd is great in number, and they are pressing in on Jesus.  He gets into the boat belonging to Simon and asks him to push out a little from the land.  And there He sits and teaches the people from the boat.  Jesus is in the boat, speaking His Word across the water while the fishermen are washing their nets.  And this is how it will be now that the Kingdom of God has come in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth.  For the boat is a picture of the Church.  The Church is the ark by which we are saved through the flood of Baptism.  We even call the sanctuary of the Church where you are sitting “the nave,” a nautical term.  We get the word “Navy” from the same root.  It is in the Church where Jesus sits, speaking His life-giving Word to those gathered to hear Him.  He gathers them by the Gospel in the water, the nets in the sea, the water included in God’s command and combined with God’s Word.  He gathers them into the boat, into the Church.  And in this way, they are saved. 
            The sinful man, Simon (we know him as Peter), is at the helm of the boat.  He and his partners (his brother Andrew and the sons of Zebedee, James and John) know how to fish.  Or so they thought.  But here they’ve toiled all night and caught nothing.  Now Jesus, who has finished His sermon, tells them to put out into the deep and let down their nets for a catch.  Well, that’s just silly.  It’s not the right time for fishing.  If we didn’t catch anything all night, we’re not going to catch anything now, in the light of day.  And who are You, anyway, Jesus, to tell us how to do our job?  The disciples had not yet been called, but they did know Jesus.  Why, it wasn’t so long ago that Jesus had healed Peter’s mother-in-law of the fever, and many others of their afflictions and cast out demons in front of Peter’s house.  So, while the request is rather absurd, let’s humor the Preacher once and do what He says.  At Your Word, Jesus, I will let down the nets.  And what happens?  Such a large number of fish the nets begin to break!  Both boats are filled, and they begin to sink!  It’s such an over-the-top miracle, which is just like Jesus to do.  There is always more with Jesus, more than we can think or ask.[1]
            And Peter is terrified.  He’s a sinful man.  And Jesus is holy.  It’s a rerun of our Old Testament reading (Is. 6:1-13).  Isaiah, the sinner, the man of unclean lips in the midst of a people of unclean lips, believes he is a dead man in the presence of the thrice-holy God.  And he’s right!  He would be, were it not for the cleansing that comes from the altar, the coal with which the angel touches his lips to purify him.  Here in our Gospel, Peter falls down before the Lord Jesus, confessing his sins.  And Jesus absolves him, takes away his sin.  Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men” (Luke 5:10; ESV).  Do not be afraid.”  “I am not here to condemn you, Peter.  I have not come to kill you, but to forgive you and give you life.  And I have come to call you as my own, and ordain you my Apostle, a preacher in my stead, to pilot, not just a fishing boat, but my holy Church.  The net you will be casting is my Word, the preaching, the Gospel.  And this forgiveness of sins I have bestowed upon you, you and your fellow Apostles will bestow upon others as my own mouthpiece.  You will cast the nets into the water.  You will wash my people clean.  That is the Office I here create.  The Preaching Office.  The Office of the Keys.  The Office of the Holy Ministry.” 
            From now on you will be catching men.”  Actually, that doesn’t quite catch the Greek.  Better would be, “From now on you will be catching men alive!  What a beautiful phrase.  Not only will you not be catching men unto their death, as you have been catching fish, but you will actually be catching men into life.  That is what happens when you catch men by the Gospel in the water and bring them into the boat that is the Church.  They live.  They do not die.  For the first time in their lives, they live!  Because Jesus is in the boat.  The Gospel is the Word of Jesus.  The water is that included in Jesus’ command and combined with Jesus’ Word.  Therefore it puts the very life of Jesus into those who were dead in their trespasses and sins. 
            So Jesus is in the boat, and at His Word, the nets do their thing, and in comes the catch.  Get it?  When Jesus is not in the boat, and has not given His Word, Peter and the guys fish all night and catch nothing.  No matter how hard they work.  No matter what tricks they try.  But when Jesus is in the boat, speaking His Word, the Word does what He wills it to do.  It reminds us of what we confess in the Augustana, Article V: That we may obtain justifying faith in Christ, “the Ministry of Teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted. For through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Ghost is given, who works faith; where and when it pleases God, in them that hear the Gospel, to wit, that God, not for our own merits, but for Christ's sake, justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ's sake.”[2]  The Spirit works faith when and where it pleases God in those who hear the Gospel.  Christ is in His Gospel.  The Gospel delivers Christ.  Men are caught, that is, come to faith in Christ, as it pleases God to make it so in the preaching. 
            And not when we’re trying our own gimmicks and tricks.  Not by our hard work, toiling all night.  Not by our know-how and ingenuity.  Men aren’t caught and the Church doesn’t grow by Church-growth principles, denominational programs, or religious fads.  Men are not caught by attractive people in skinny jeans with drums and guitars singing meaningless mantras that ape the culture and may or may not even mention Christ.  Certainly withholding certain doctrinal articles, keeping mum certain teachings of Christ because they might be offensive to newcomers will never catch men.  There is only one thing that catches men.  Jesus in the boat, speaking His Word. 
            And by the way, we don’t always see the spectacular results.  Here we are, trying to launch a boat, a brand new congregation, and we know Jesus is with us in the boat, speaking His Word of life, but we’re not in any immediate danger of sinking because we have too many people.  That would be great, but that isn’t the promise here, and you’ve missed the miracle if you think it is.  People come to faith where and when it pleases God in those who hear the Gospel.  The catch is up to Him.  Not you and me.  We are not called to success.  We are called to faithfulness.  We are called to take the boat into the deep and let down the net.  We are called to go into the deep darkness of this world and proclaim the Gospel.  And it’s silly.  We often toil all night and seems like there’s no reward for our work.  You really want us to keep at it, Jesus?  To keep preaching the Gospel to a world that doesn’t want it?  Okay.  We’ll humor you.  At your Word we will let down the nets.
            And, of course, we’re blind to the miracle it is any time a baby is baptized.  Or an adult, which is an even greater miracle.  We’re blind to the miracle it is when sinners repent of their sins and believe the forgiveness given in the Absolution, when men and women, young and old are catechized in the faith by Jesus’ continued teaching, when the crucified and risen body and blood of Jesus Christ is placed into your mouth to give you life.  You are the miracle!  You’ve been caught by the net of the Gospel in the water.  You’ve been brought, by grace, into the boat.  Because Jesus sent His disciples fishing. 
            Do not be afraid,” Jesus says to Peter, absolving his sins.  And He says it to every Christian pastor, and to every Christian.  Do not be afraid.  You are a sinful man, but your sins are forgiven.  I take them away by my death.  I nail them to my cross.  I cover them with my blood.  I bury them in my tomb.  I am risen from the dead, but your sins will never rise.  They are separated from you as far as the east is from the west.  They no longer accuse you.  And such Absolution always leads to mission.  You, being forgiven of all your sins, declare that forgiveness to others.  The Church is the lifeboat for sinners, forgiving their sins.  Peter and the sons of Zebedee heard this forgiveness, and they got up and left everything to follow Jesus.  They became the first Christian preachers.  Understand, the fishing business was much more lucrative and prestigious than we give it credit for.  Remember how John was able to gain entrance to the High Priest’s house because he was known to him?  Probably the High Priest was a customer of John’s.  It’s a big operation, this fishing business.  And they leave it all, their livelihood, their possessions, in the case of James and John, their poor father.  It reminds us of the seminary students who leave lucrative and influential positions in the world to study for the Holy Ministry.  I’m not talking about myself, by the way.  I came to the seminary right out of college, and my whole education was theology and preparation for ministry, so if this doesn’t work out for me, I’m in trouble.  But these guys are the real heroes who leave everything behind, secure employment and large salaries, pack up their wives and children to become servants of the Word.  What on earth possesses them?  Jesus and His Word of forgiveness.  Their sins are forgiven.  That drives them to preach it to others. 
            But it isn’t just pastors.  It’s you.  Here you are in a mission congregation.  Okay, maybe we’re not a mission congregation anymore now that we’re self-standing, but for all practical purposes.  We don’t even have an office or a building to call home.  We’re totally at the mercy of our gracious hosts, and we’re very thankful for them.  But again, we’re just trying to launch a boat.  It’s hard work.  Humanly speaking, things are not all that certain.  The experts said we wouldn’t make it this far.  What on earth possesses us to do such a thing, to engage in such a venture?  Our sins are forgiven.  And that drives us to preach that forgiveness to others, to confess Christ to our community, to our friends and family and neighbors, to invite them to Church, to welcome them here as our own, members of our family, fellow forgiven sinners, caught by the net of the Gospel in the water, hauled into the boat where Jesus is, speaking His Word.  Do not be afraid,” Jesus says to us.  Whatever happens here, Jesus is doing His thing.  The Holy Spirit is working faith where and when He pleases.  The Gospel is preached.  Sinners hear.  Men are caught.  Faith is bestowed.  The dead are brought to life.  That is what happens when Jesus is in the boat, speaking His Word.  And so it is, here and now, today.  So let down the nets, beloved.  Let’s go fishing.  Invite your friends to Church.  Bring them to hear Jesus in the boat, that their sins be forgiven.  God will bless it.  He has promised.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.            

[1] Arthur Just, Lectionary Podcast.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany (C)
February 3, 2019
Text: Luke 4:31-44

            Our Lord forgets not the afflicted (Ps. 10:12).  He hears their desires and strengthens their hearts (v. 17).  Which is to say, He forgets not your afflictions, your sorrows, your grief, your sickness and pain and regret.  These things sin has wrought in this fallen world and in your life.  These bitter things are symptoms of the death to which we are all condemned, to which our first parents enslaved us by their rebellion in the Garden.  It would certainly not be unjust of God to forget us in our afflictions, to abandon us in our rebellion, and let death takes its course to hell, and drag us down with it.  But that is not who our God is.  Our God is the God who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex. 34:6; ESV).  He does not abandon us.  He does not forsake us.  He is the God who arises, who lifts up His hand (Ps. 10:12) to defeat our enemies, to rebuke demons and fevers and heal our afflictions.  He lifts up His hand to be pierced, affixed to the wood, to bleed, to writhe in agony, to go limp in death to save us from death and hell, and then to be filled with life again, and, nail-print intact, to grab ahold of us and raise us up out of our death and rebellion to life and righteousness and eternal salvation.  He forgets not the afflicted.  He heals and He saves.
            So it is that we find Jesus this morning casting out unclean demons and healing diseases and afflictions.  This morning’s Holy Gospel follows fast on the heels of last week’s (Luke 4:16-30).  Jesus preached in Nazareth.  He proclaimed.  The most important thing, as we learned, is the proclamation, the preaching that creates reality.  Jesus preached that He is the fulfillment of Isaiah 61, in other words, that He is Messiah, come to save His people from their sins.  The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).  Then, having rolled up the scroll and sat down, Jesus begins His sermon with the words, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (v. 21).  Jesus preaches, He proclaims this good news, and in the proclamation, it is accomplished.  The poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed… these are relieved of their afflictions in the preaching.  The Kingdom of God has come in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth.
            Now Jesus is in Capernaum, and once again He is preaching.  He is teaching them in the synagogue, and the people are amazed because He preaches with authority.  That is to say, once again, His preaching is creating reality.  He doesn’t just speculate.  He doesn’t just talk about God’s Word.  He speaks God’s Word, and that Word forgives sins and restores sinners to the Father.  And now amazing things begin to happen.  A man with the spirit of an unclean demon is in their midst.  He cries out that Jesus is the Holy One of God, a rather curious thing for a demon to say.  Isn’t it interesting that demons know what the rest of the crowd does not?  It is as St. James writes: “Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (James 2:19).  This teaches us something about faith.  Faith is not simply believing things to be true.  Faith is trust that these things are true for you.  Demons believe the facts about Jesus.  You believe the facts about Jesus are true for you and for your salvation.  Now Jesus commands the demon to be silent and come out of the man.  And when Jesus speaks, things happen.  Even the demons must obey.  Jesus is the God even of the demons.  The demon throws the man down and comes out of him.  And because Jesus is on the scene, casting out the demon, the man is unharmed.  The people are amazed, not simply by the miracle, but by the power of Jesus’ Word: “What is this word?” they exclaim.  For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and they come out!” (v. 36).  Jesus speaks, He preaches, and His preaching creates reality.
            And here we learn about the new reality in His Kingdom.  Where Jesus is, there is no more room for demons.  Jesus comes to cast out Satan and His minions.  So also, He comes to undo all the damage they have done.  His Word undoes real afflictions.  He raises Peter’s mother-in-law out of her fever.  He heals all those brought to Him that evening who are sick with various diseases or oppressed by demons.  The miracles prove His authority.  They are confirmation of His preaching.  He is who He says He is.  He has come to do what He says He has come to do.  He is God in the flesh.  He has come to save His people.  First there is the preaching.  Then there are the miracles that confirm the preaching. 
            Now, you’ve probably never thought of it this way, but is this not the very pattern of how our Lord deals with us in the Divine Service?  First there is the preaching, what we call “The Service of the Word.”  You can easily see how that part is the same.  There are the Scripture readings, just as Jesus opened the scroll in Nazareth to the appointed reading of the day from Isaiah 61.  Then there is the sermon, just as Jesus preached to the people in Nazareth and in Capernaum.  There is the liturgy of the Synagogue to accompany and complement the preaching, and so there is here at Church in the Divine Service.  But what about the miracles that confirm the preaching?  Where is the miracle?  I mean, if we did miracles here after the sermon, one would think we’d be bursting at the seams with people who want to be healed of their afflictions.
            Christ Jesus grant recovery of sight to the blind and open your eyes to see.  What greater miracle could there be than that Jesus speaks and bread and wine become His true Body and Blood?  First you have the preaching, then comes the miracle.  And the miracle is for your healing.  It goes right to the heart of the problem, the mortal disease, inherited from Adam, that is your sin.  The very Body of Jesus, the hand of God lifted up to be pierced, the very Blood of Jesus, the Blood that poured out of His hands and streamed down His arms and His Body onto the ground at Golgotha, that Body and that Blood are given to you under bread and wine for the forgiveness of your sins.  But not just for forgiveness.  For strength.  For fortification against temptation and the attacks of the devil.  For protection.  To protect you against the fiery darts of the evil one.  For healing.  Spiritual healing, certainly.  That is the forgiveness you receive and the faith in Christ that these gifts impart.  But also mental and physical healing.  Oh, this is not to say that suddenly your cancer will be gone if you take Communion.  But it is to say, who knows how many sicknesses you have not suffered because you received this medicine of immortality, and who knows how many sicknesses you’ve recovered from because of the Great Physician’s remedy.  At the very least, we know because of the Lord’s Promise, that this holy Meal is a down payment on the perfect healing you will be granted in body and soul on the Day of Resurrection.  The Body and Blood of Jesus Christ is given to you for life.  Eternal life.  The Lord of Life gives you Himself.  He is your Food, and you are what you eat.  So, for the same reason the people in Capernaum brought all the sick to Jesus, that He might lay His hands on them and heal them, you come here with all your afflictions of body and soul.  Jesus remembers your afflictions.  He hears your desires and strengthens your heart.  He touches you with His Body and Blood, and you are healed.
            And what a beautiful picture it is of the Christian life when the people, after hearing the preaching, bring their loved ones to Jesus for healing.  Peter and the disciples ask Jesus to help his mother-in-law.  They pray to Jesus, and He heals her.  The people bring the sick to Jesus for healing.  They pray to Jesus on their behalf, and they bring them into His presence.  They pray and they bring them to Church, and He heals them.  You pray for your loved ones, especially when they are suffering.  You pray to Jesus and, if they’ll let you, you bring them here into the presence of Jesus, where He does the miracles.  You bring them to Church.  You do this because you, likewise, know the healing of the Lord.  You’ve heard the preaching.  You’ve received the miracle.  And now you live in the reality of the Kingdom.  Like Peter and the crowd in Capernaum, you bring your loved ones to hear Him and be healed by Him.  Like Peter’s mother-in-law, you get up to serve, doing works of love for your neighbor.  Jesus frees you up from your afflictions so you can do this very thing. 
            There is the preaching.  There is the miracle.  This is the Divine Service.  Jesus sets the pattern.  And this is why you come to Church.  Because you know you need this healing and this life.  The world is a fallen place, and you live the midst of many dangers and afflictions.  There is only one sure remedy for all that ails you.  It is Jesus.  It is the forgiveness of sins.  It is His Word, His miracle, His Meal, His healing.  The remedy for death and hell is Christ crucified and risen for you.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.