Sunday, September 19, 2021

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20B)

September 19, 2021

Text: Mark 9:9:30-37

            Jesus’ method of winning and running a Kingdom seems to us entirely backward.  All this talk of being delivered into the hands of men to be killed, and then this bit about rising again after three days, sounds like nonsense.  We can’t understand it.  Well, maybe because we know the rest of the story and can look upon it all in hindsight, it makes some sense to us.  But put yourself in the shoes of the disciples when Jesus makes this prediction.  It sounds fatalistic to them.  It’s like He’s giving up without even trying.  And they know His potential.  Jesus can draw a crowd like no other.  He can hold them by the thousands with His teaching.  And the miracles!  The people have already tried to make Him King because of the loaves.  One Word from Him, just the slightest indication that the time for revolution has come, and He’d have an army at His command.  And God would be on their side.  The Romans wouldn’t stand a chance.  So, delivered over?  Killed?  After three days rise?  They just don’t understand.  And they are afraid to ask.  Not because Jesus will answer them harshly.  But because they are afraid of the answer itself.  They are afraid He may actually mean what He said. 

            So instead, they turn to one of their favorite subjects; namely, which of them is the greatest.  This is the second of three times Jesus predicts His Passion in Mark, and after each of the three times, the disciples make a major bungle of things.  The first time Jesus tells them plainly of His suffering and death (Mark 8:31 ff.), is the time when Peter decides he is, after all, the Pope, and if anyone can talk some sense into Jesus, it’s him!  He rebukes Jesus for this kind of talk, and in return, he is soundly admonished to “Get behind me, Satan!  For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (v. 33; ESV).  If Peter thought he was the greatest in the Kingdom, he had another thing coming. 

            In the third Passion prediction (10:32 ff.), no one tries to dissuade Jesus, but James and John think they can make an end run around everybody else by going directly to Jesus with their request.  Let us sit, one on Your right, and the other on Your left, when You come into Your Kingdom.  It was an audacious move, but if you’re going to get anywhere in this world, you have to put it all on the line.  Make one of us Prime Minister, and the other General Secretary.  They don’t know what they are asking.  And they’ve only made enemies in the ranks.  The others are indignant, and… undoubtedly wish they had thought of it first. 

            Falling in between, this second Passion prediction, our text, the disciples have it out among themselves.  Maybe each was vying for his own position within the Twelve.  I suspect everyone knows it’s between Peter, James, and John, or a close outlier like Andrew.  Maybe they’re picking teams and forming political parties.  But the common theme between the disciples’ reactions after each one of the Passion predictions is rejection of the cross and suffering, and the expectation of a golden age marked by power, exaltation, and glory.

            And that is your way, too.  It is the way of things common to fallen man.  Look around you.  What controversy, what scandal, in the Church or in society, does not finally come down to the question of who is the greatest?  To give just two examples that loom large over our life together these days, politics and COVID.  “I know all the right answers, and you don’t.  I am wise, and you are not wise.  That is to say, I am the greatest, and you are not.  So if you don’t do what I think you should do, it is because you are evil, but I am good.  If you don’t believe what I think you should believe, it is because you are evil, whereas I am good.  If you’d just realize that, we could save a lot of time and grief.”  James makes this point in our Epistle (James 3:13-4:10).  Jealousy, selfish ambition, boasting, the passions of our sinful nature, these are the cause of every quarrel among us.  It leads to murder.  Sometimes murder in the heart, when we despise our neighbor.  All too often to actual bloodshed.  It leads to friendship with the world and enmity with God.  It is pride within us that insists, “I am the greatest.”  It is self-idolatry.  It seeks all power, fame, glory for the self.  It wants to be admired, liked, honored, praised… above everybody else.  So it tears down others.  Gossip.  Slander.  Grumbling.  Comparing yourself favorably over against an unfavorable view of your neighbor.  That is the way of the flesh.  Look where it gets you.  Beloved, repent.      

            How different is Jesus’ way.  He comes not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).  He wins His Kingdom precisely by all the things He predicted… in giving Himself over, being betrayed into the hands of sinners, suffering, bearing His cross, shedding His precious blood, dying.  For many.  For all.  For you. 

            Because in Jesus’ way, greatness is measured not in commanding a Kingdom, but in humble service to the least and the last.  Even to an insignificant little child.  By becoming Himself Least and Last, in order to raise up the least and last to greatness.  That is what Jesus does for us poor sinners in His death on the cross.  He takes our place under death and condemnation, to raise us up to life and salvation.

            And as He does this, He follows the bidding of the beautiful Psalm (37:4-7) we sang in our Introit: He commits His way to the LORD and trusts in Him.  He waits on His Father to act (v. 5), which the Father does decisively on the Third Day when He raises Jesus from the dead, just as He said. 

            Whereas our way results in jealousy, selfish ambition, and quarreling, Jesus’ way results in trust toward God and mutual trust in one another, the building up and advancement of others, forgiveness and peace that flow to us from God and out toward others.  Whereas our way results in murder and violence, hatred, and bitterness, Jesus’ way results in holding all life sacred and binding up wounds, love that gives itself sacrificially for the other, and the sweetness of life lived always under the grace and mercy of God who loved us and gave Himself for us.

            James tells us to die to ourselves and our own way.  That is what he means when he tells us to submit to God and resist the devil, to cleanse our hands and purify our hearts.  He is bidding us examine ourselves and repent.  And then to draw near to God in humility, and in full faith that He draws near to us, to forgive us, and enliven us with His own life.  That is what He does in Christ.  James is bidding us leave our own way behind, and go the way of Christ.  Which is the way of the cross.

            It does mean suffering.  That is why we don’t like it.  That is why the disciples were afraid to ask.  For one thing, it hurts to admit we are not the greatest, and instead to willingly take the place of the least and the last.  It’s not easy to humble yourself all the way to serving an insignificant little child, which is, incidentally, why our society has so much trouble doing that very thing, why our birth rates are so low and we unapologetically slaughter precious little babies by the millions.  It’s not easy to humble yourself all way to serving the poor, the suffering and ill, the marginalized, the exploited, the outcast, and the sinner.  But that is what Jesus does for us, and He promises that whenever we do that, whenever we receive one such child in His Name, we receive Jesus Himself, and with Jesus, the Father who sent Him. 

            But it also hurts to consider others more significant than yourself, as St. Paul bids us do in his letter to the Philippians (Phil. 2:3).  To put the needs of others ahead of our own.  To build others up, even at our own expense.  To advance them, even when that means sacrificing ourselves.  But that is love.  And that is precisely what Jesus has done for us.  That is His way. 

            It hurts to repent.  It hurts to deny our sinful passions, to turn against them, and act in opposition to them.  And above all it hurts to confess the saving faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, His cross, His suffering and death for our sins, His resurrection, only to be rejected, mocked… to lose friends, to lose loved ones… with the very real possibility of persecution, the loss of a job, the loss of home and possessions, arrest, torture, and even your life, as so many of our brothers and sisters have suffered throughout history, and still suffer today throughout the world.  We’ve had it pretty good, Americans.  Thank God for that.  But we are not promised that such will always be the case.  Quite to the contrary.  We don’t want that.  But that is Jesus’ way.  Suffering at the hands of our way.   

            Yet we know the result of Jesus’ way: “after three days he will rise” (Mark 9:31).  And so He did.  Having atoned for the sins of the world.  Having paid the price of our redemption.  Having freed us from our bondage to sin, death, and the devil.  That all who believe in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.  He is risen and lives.  He ascended.  He reigns.  And what does He still do, Almighty God, the King of Creation?  He stoops down here, now, today to speak His death and His life into your ears, and hand feed it to you in His Body and Blood.  He still does it His way.  And you can’t understand it.  But you need not understand it, and you need not be afraid to ask.  Simply believe it.  Because He who arose on the Third Day will raise you on the Last Day.  You can count on it.  So as you go Jesus’ way, and suffer for it, as He suffered, do what He did, and what we sang: “Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act.  He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday.  Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him” (Ps. 37:5-7).  Fret not.  Your deliverance is only a matter of time.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19B)

September 12, 2021

Text: Mark 9:14-29

            Beloved in the Lord, do you have enough faith? Jesus says, “All things are possible for one who believes” (Mark 9:23; ESV). Oh, really?! Then why is it that so often life seems impossible? Why won’t the cancer go away? Why is my marriage in trouble? Why won’t the kids behave? Why did I lose my job? Why did God take my loved one away from me in death? Why do I still have to die? Why is it that my faith CANNOT move a molehill, much less a mountain? All things are possible for the one who believes? What can this possibly mean?

            It’s easy to fall into this line of thinking. And when we do, we inevitably begin to ask ourselves the question, “Do I have enough faith?” What is so sinister about this question is the logic behind it. If my cancer isn’t cured, if my marriage falls apart, if I don’t have a job, if my loved one dies, it must be because I don’t have enough faith. Or maybe I don’t believe at all. Many are the false prophets who would burden you with this false law preaching that says when things go badly with you, it’s because you either don’t have faith, or you don’t have enough faith. If you believed enough, these false teachers maintain, you would have perfect health, significant wealth, and you would live in prosperity. This is the “name it, claim it” crowd, or the “Word-Faith Movement” as it is called, represented by televangelists like Kenneth Copeland, Joyce Meyer, and Joel Osteen. This is the theology represented in the Prayer of Jabez book that was so popular a few years back. But it’s false doctrine, beloved. It’s a lie. Don’t believe it. Don’t give in to it. The devil loves it when he can convince us that God is punishing us and we cannot enjoy His blessings or salvation because we don’t have enough faith.

            Of course, you don’t have enough faith. If you want to quantify faith, nobody has enough of it. It’s impossible. Only Jesus has enough faith. We fallen humans always need more, always need our faith to be strengthened. We always have our doubts. We’re always afraid God can’t handle what ails us. We’re always searching for something else that can solve our problems. We always find ourselves fearing, loving, and trusting things and people that are not God because we can see them, touch them, grab onto them. And these things and these people, which are concrete to us, become our idols. Money becomes an idol. Possessions become idols. Politicians become idols. Our spouse or our child or our parent becomes an idol. Good gifts of God become idols because we think we can trust them more than we can trust God. We too often think of God as an abstraction. We think we have to see to believe.

            This is true even of Christians who have comparatively strong faith. That is why the prayer of the man in our text, the father of the demon possessed boy, must become our prayer as well: “I believe; help my unbelief!” (v. 24). It is both a confession of sin and a confession of faith. It is a confession of sin in that it admits the deficiency of our faith in this respect: It is never strong enough. We always struggle with doubt as long as we live in this fallen world. We’re always afraid our problem, whatever it happens to be at the moment, is something that God, something that Jesus, cannot handle. “If you can do anything…” we pray along with the anxious father in our text. “If you can…” We doubt. All things are not possible for us. But all things are possible with Jesus. Where our faith is weak and lacking, Jesus’ faith is perfect, strong, as strong as it is possible for faith to be. Of course He can! He’s Jesus! He’s God in the flesh! And He wants to help. He wants to help the demon-possessed boy and He wants to help you in all your sorrows and struggles and temptations, in your sin and in your death. “I believe; help my unbelief.”

            But this is also a confession of faith. Help my unbelief, yes, but you wouldn’t even make such a request if you didn’t believe at all. I believe. It’s just that my faith needs to grow. Even when the father in our text says, “If you can,” he’s still making a request of Jesus that takes faith. He wouldn’t even have asked, wouldn’t even have approached the disciples in the first place if He didn’t think Jesus could help. The “If you can” part betrays his doubt. But the request itself is a confession of faith. Jesus helps the man in our text move from an attitude of “If anybody can help, Jesus can,” to a faith that confesses, “Jesus CAN help, and He will, in His own way, in His own time.” As it happens in our text, the time is now and the way is Jesus’ authoritative Word. In a demonstration of His divine authority over all things (even demons!), Jesus commands the demon to come out of the boy and not to return to him again. The demon convulses the poor boy and comes out. And then there is a death and resurrection of sorts. The boy is lying motionless, like a corpse on the ground. But Jesus, the Lord of life, who on the third day would rise again in His own glorious body, takes the boy’s hand and raises Him up.

            What a gracious Savior we have. How compassionate. He really does care about us. He who is very God of very God came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary. He descended into our mess of a world, our mess of a life, into our problems, into our sin, into our death. He became a man for us men and for our salvation. He who is very God did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking on the form of a servant, taking on our flesh, humbling Himself even to the point of death on a cross, our death, the death we deserve in punishment for our sin. And in so doing He delivers us from the main problem, the worst problem, the problem that is sin. This is the problem that rots us to our very core. This is the disease that kills us. It results in death every time. Jesus conquers it in His death. The cross means forgiveness for us. So great is our Savior’s compassion, so great is His love for you and for me that He willingly sheds His blood in order to snatch us out of the jaws of hell. And here’s the real kicker. He is risen! He is risen, just as He said! Death could not hold Him. He is victorious. His redemption worked. We’re saved. And if that’s true (and it is!), how can we doubt that He is able and wants to save us from the rest of our infirmities? “If you can…” we say to Jesus. “All things are possible for one who believes,” He responds. “Just watch what I’m about to do. I forgive your sins. If I can forgive your sins, which only God can do, surely I can make everything else right again.”

            Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” We must keep coming back to this prayer because our faith is weak. And the hard part is that even though Jesus promises that He is making all things new, even though He is willing and able to help you in your afflictions, He does it His way and in His time, not your way or in your time. You have to bear the cross in this life. You have to suffer in this life. You have to bear sadness. You have to be ill. You have to suffer broken relationships. These things come to you now, for a little while, to crucify your flesh, lead you away from your idols, and drive you to Christ alone for mercy. The cross has this way of making evident the fact that your faith is weak, weaker perhaps than you thought. It has this way of driving you again and again to the prayer: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.”

            Some Christians have stronger faith and some have weaker faith. And at one time or another, your own faith may be stronger or weaker. We all need a stronger faith. We all need to grow in the faith. But here’s what really matters: God has given us faith in the first place, faith in Jesus Christ, trust in His sin-atoning death and victorious resurrection, that there is forgiveness of sins in His blood. Faith is God’s gift to us. And whether you have more or less of it, you have it, and it receives. It receives God’s gifts. It receives Christ. Faith is the receiving hands of the believer in Christ Jesus. Christ doles out Himself in His gifts. Faith appropriates those gifts for the Christian. You do not have enough faith. You never do in this fallen world. But the faith God has given you is sufficient. It is sufficient to receive Christ. For all that really matters, is Christ. You should always give thanks to God that for the sake of Christ, the Holy Spirit has brought you to faith through the Gospel and continues to sustain you in that faith, through all its highs and lows, by means of the same Gospel.

            And what about when you particularly struggle with a weak faith? Immerse yourself in that same Gospel. Come to Church to be absolved of your sins. Private confession and absolution is a great way to do this. Hear the Word. Read and study it. Mark it, learn it, inwardly digest it. Trace the sign of the holy cross upon yourself and remember that you are baptized. And do as our Confessions say. Come to the Supper of Christ’s true body and blood. The Supper is precisely for the weak in faith. I’ll let the Confessions have the last word:

            "Some Christians have a weak faith and are shy, troubled, and heartily terrified because of the great number of their sins. They think that in their great impurity they are not worthy of this precious treasure [of the Lord’s Supper] and Christ’s benefits. They feel their weakness of faith and lament it, and from their hearts desire that they may serve God with stronger, more joyful faith and pure obedience. These are the truly worthy guests for whom this highly venerable Sacrament has been especially instituted and appointed… Worthiness does not depend on the greatness or smallness, the weakness or strength of faith. Instead, it depends on Christ’s merit, which the distressed father of little faith [Mark 9:24] enjoyed as well as Abraham, Paul, and others who have a joyful and strong faith."[1]

            Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” “I am able,” says Jesus. “Take, eat, this is my body. Take, drink, this is my blood. It is given and shed for you, for the forgiveness of sins.” In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] FC SD VII:69, 71 (McCain, pp. 573-74).

Monday, August 30, 2021

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17B)

August 29, 2021

Text: Mark 7:14-23

            “Follow your heart,” we are told.  We hear it constantly, and perhaps even say it ourselves.  We emblazon it on t-shirts and other apparel, so that we wear it on our bodies, and some even tattoo it into their flesh.  “Follow your heart.”  That is, do what feels right, or at least what feels good, what you think will make you happy and fulfilled, what squares with your own self-generated identity.  Go where your passions lead you, and do what they command.  And do not apologize for any of it.  For you alone are judge of yourself, your motives, your actions, your very being, and you alone are master of your own fate.  Other phrases, nearly as prolific, offer similar assertions.  “Go with your gut.”  That is, follow your instinct, which surely cannot be in error.  “Be true to yourself.”  “Believe in yourself.”  I’m sure you could add more declarations to the list, but you get the point.  These are all variations on a theme.  And they are, all of them, articles of faith that make up the creed of the world’s dominate religion.  That is, secular humanism.  And it is the second oldest religion, for it is the religion that rejects all other authority, and grasps what is forbidden because it is desirable, in the quest to be wise, and to know and determine good and evil for oneself.  It is the religion of being like God.  It is to be one’s own god.  And it is the original sin, passed down from parents to children, generation to generation, flowing through the heart of every one of us.

            That is why the last thing you should do is follow your heart.  For what comes out of your heart?  Jesus says, it is all that defiles you.  Out of your heart come evil thoughts.  That is, sin.  And the list is long.  Sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery.  Coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality.  Envy, slander, pride, and downright foolishness.  And it should go without saying, but it cannot go without saying, that all of these things are bad.  They are wicked.  They are evil.  All the Commandments, God’s good and gracious will for you, are included in this indictment.  Every one of them you have broken.  And that is what defiles you. 

            And where will it lead you, this following of your heart?  To hell, beloved.  Not to happiness.  To hell.  Because it leads you away from God.  It rejects God in favor of itself.  It sells the birth right for a mess of pottage.  This is what you do every time you allow the world, the culture, your friends, your family, to convince you that things are otherwise than God says in Holy Scripture; that the things the Scriptures say are wrong, are really right; that things the Scriptures say are right, are really wrong; that the old biblical faith is backwards, outdated, outmoded, ignorant, and hateful; that God surely would approve of what you are doing or the new things you believe because they feel right and they make you feel good.  And they make others feel right and feel good, and accepted, and affirmed.  Just like your mother… you are attempting to know good and evil for yourself.  Just like your father… you are listening to the words of another who is not God, and who is not given to speak His Word, and you are taking and eating food God has commanded you not to take and eat, from one who is not given to administer God’s food.

            The preacher of this second oldest religion is the serpent, and that ought to tell you something.  But there is a religion older than his, and it is the true religion.  And the Preacher of the true religion is God Himself.  It is our Lord Jesus Christ.  And He is Truth incarnate.  His preaching does not come naturally to sons and daughters of Adam and Eve who are fallen captives of sin and death.  That is, it does not flow from within you, from your heart.  All religions that encourage you to look within are the serpent’s religion.  But the true religion, the religion of Jesus Christ, comes from outside of you.  It is alien.  It is foreign.  That is why what proceeds from Christ, what comes from His Word, what is true and beautiful and right and good, is so often objectionable to you, and appears to you as untrue, ugly, wrong, and evil.  Because it is opposed to the things that flow from within you, from your heart. 

            In fact, it is as objectionable to you, and about as appealing and desirable, as a man in medical scrubs coming at you with a scalpel and a rib spreader, proposing to rip open your chest and tear out your heart.  Because, spiritually speaking, that is precisely what Jesus proposes to do.  You need a heart transplant.  The old one is no good.  It will kill you.  It will damn you.  The things it leads you to believe and do?  Those things are the end of you.  But there is hope.  And there is healing.  Jesus has come into your flesh, where it all went wrong with Adam and Eve and you and me, to be your new heart.  And your new mind.  And your new life.  He has come to be the Word God has given, and the One God sent to preach it to you.  He has come to be the Food God has given, and the One to feed it to you.  For your righteousness, and life, and salvation. 

            Jesus, God’s own Son, is born into your flesh to take your heart and all that is you and  yours, your evil thoughts and all that defiles you, the wickedness that flows from you, from within, thought, word, and deed… and go where your heart leads Him.  Because your heart’s final aim is to kill God.  Crucify Him!  Crucify Him!  So that is where He goes.  To the cross.  To God-forsaken hell.  Bearing the sin-filled hearts of the world.  Bearing your heart.  But this is just the gruesome procedure that must take place if you are to be healed, if you are to be saved.  He goes where your heart leads, and suffers all that it means to reject God and not have Him as your God, so that you go where His heart leads, and enjoy all that it means to receive God as your own God, your Father, and have all His gifts and benefits and His very Kingdom as your inheritance.  That is how Jesus accomplishes the heart transplant, the Great Exchange, your heart for His, His heart for yours.

            He gives it to you in Baptism.  There you die with Christ.  And there you are raised to new life in Him.  Yes, Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.  Having died your death, death could not hold Him. The tomb is empty.  Jesus lives.  And so you live, in Him.  Now your heart beats with His life.  Now His blood, which He gives you here to drink, flows through your veins, and you breathe His Spirit.  It is the old religion, the very oldest, and yet, everything about it is ever new.  Including you.  Now you are in Jesus, and Jesus is in you.  And what flows out from Jesus in you?  Faith does.  And faith’s fruits, which is to say, love.  Love for God.  Love for your neighbor.  A love for God’s Word and His good and gracious will for you and for all.  St. Paul calls this love the Fruit of the Spirit.  And this fruit is in direct opposition to what flows from the old sinful heart.  The Fruit of the Spirit, Paul says, is love, which is to say, “joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23; ESV).  It is not just a matter of outward behavior.  It is the disposition of the new heart given you in Christ.  (A)gainst such things there is no law,” Paul says (v. 23), and he even gives a little commentary on the very heart surgery we’ve been talking about, for “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (v. 24), for they now “live by the Spirit” and “keep in step with the Spirit” of Jesus and the Father (v. 25).

            Now, it is true, in this life and in this world, the serpent still preaches, and your flesh is inclined to reject the new heart given you in Christ in favor of the old heart the serpent keeps in his pocket.  In other words, this life is still a struggle and a battle against sin and temptation.  But we live in Christ, and in His perfect forgiveness, and we must never forget it.  So we have our Epistle this morning (Eph. 6:10-20), in which Christ outfits us with His own perfect armor, that we may stand against the schemes of the devil and extinguish the flaming darts he aims at our hearts.  And what is that armor?  The belt of truth.  That is His Word, which we no longer reject, but hear and believe and treasure.  Even when it is painful to us, we recognize that it protects us from Satan, who would lead us back down the road to death.  Then, the breastplate of righteousness.  This is first of all Christ’s own righteousness, His justification, given to us as a gift, and received by faith.  And then it is the righteousness He works within us by His Spirit as we keep in step with the Spirit and live according to His Word.  Then the readiness of the Gospel of peace given as shoes for our feet.  For we no longer follow our own hearts, but the very heart of God, revealed in the flesh of Jesus.  We go where He leads, which is to life and salvation.  The shield of faith in Christ, believing His preaching, and not that of the serpent.  The helmet of salvation that protects our minds, taking every thought captive to the Word of Christ.  And the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word.  The Word, the Word, the Word.  Always the Word of God.  That is our whole armor.  And prayer, by which we hold God to His Word, holding up His promises to Him, and placing all our confidence in His faithfulness to that Word, and so to us. 

            When Jesus calls a disciple, He does it by His Word.  And what does He say?  Follow me!  For God’s sake, beloved, do not follow your own heart.  Follow Jesus.  Your heart leads to death.  Jesus leads to life.  Do not go with your gut, which is often wrong, and bloated, and as Jesus tells us in this morning’s Holy Gospel, really only good for expelling.  Go with Jesus, and His Word, which is always sure.  Do not be true to yourself.  Be true to Him, for He is always true to you.  And do not believe in yourself.  You make a very poor god.  As Adam and Eve found out right away, your fig leaves are no good when it comes to covering sins, and your faith in yourself will always get you expelled from Eden.  Believe in Christ.  Trust Him.  Have faith in Him.  He shed His own blood in order to cover your sin and shame with Himself.  Follow Him.  Cling to Him.  Rejoice in Him.  Find your true identity in Him.  The Day is coming when the struggle will end, and the old heart Satan keeps urging upon you will stop beating once and for all.  But that won’t harm you.  That will be your freedom.  For Jesus is your heart.  And He is, after all, risen.  He lives eternally.  And He will raise you. 

            Also, as a result of all of this, and this is important… Go enjoy some bacon, or shrimp, or lobster.  Give thanks and feast.  For Jesus has declared all foods clean.  But more importantly, He has declared you clean, because He has created in you a clean heart and renewed a right spirit within you.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.       

Sunday, July 25, 2021

A Wedding Sermon


The Holy Marriage of Taylor Comfort and Anna DeTray

July 24, 2021

Chehalis, Washington

Text: Matt. 19:4-6

            Do you have any idea how countercultural you are at this moment?  Ironically doing the very thing people have been doing since the dawn of time, the very thing God designed us to do from the beginning, His institution, even before the fall into sin.  You’re getting married.  It’s like you’re hippies, or something, only reverse hippies, rebelling by doing the thing the hippies (or in our day, the postmoderns) rebel against doing.  You’re swimming against the tide.  Man and woman.  Making vows.  Pledging your faithfulness.  Forsaking all others.  To have and to hold from this day forward.  For better or for worse.  For richer or for poorer.  In sickness and in health.  To love and to cherish.  Until death parts you.  And you mean it.  It’s really weird.  

            But good for you.  This is how God designed us as human beings.  He designed us for marriage.  He designed marriage for us.  This that is happening here today, before God and these witnesses, this thing that is so countercultural, Holy Marriage, is God’s gift to you.  And you are God’s gift to one another.  ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’  So they are no longer two but one flesh.  What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt. 19:5-6; ESV). 

            It is God who joins you together as husband and wife this day, and He does this thing the way He always does His things, which is to say, by His Word.  He pronounces it.  He declares it.  Why would He do such a thing?  Why would He give such a gift?  Well, as long as we’re being rebellious and countercultural, we may as well get really funky and ask what the Scriptures have to say about it.  Marriage is by God’s design.  And according to the Scriptures, God has designed the gift of marriage to fulfill at least three purposes: 1. Companionship, 2. Procreation, and 3. Holy Sexuality.

            In the creation that was “very good” (Gen. 1:31), there was one deficiency, even before the fall into sin, as God Himself points out in Genesis Chapter 2.  It is not good that the man should be alone” (2:18).  God created man to live in relationship, in communion.  And here was Adam, utterly alone, the only soul on earth.  But God knew just what He would do about it.  I will make him a helper fit for him,” literally, corresponding to him.  And here we are making the revolutionary assertion that men and women are, in fact, different, physically, mentally, emotionally, in such a way that they complement one another.  They complete each other.  As a general rule, things work out best when they are in relationship to one another. 

            But things were so good in Eden, God had to make a special point of this to Adam, that there was an absence that needed to be filled.  Thus the parade of animals.  You remember this.  Adam names every living creature as God marches them past.  And it is not that Adam is naming them “Spot,” “Rover,” “Mr. Snuggles.”  What is he doing?  He is engaging in scientific classification.  He is studying them.  Remember, Adam is no caveman.  Pre-fall Adam is undoubtedly the greatest intellect who ever lived, operating with the unmarred image of God, the height of human reason and sophistication.  And as he carefully observes each living creature, he notices something important.  There is a Mr. Buffalo and a Mrs. Buffalo, a Mr. Rhinoceros and a Mrs. Rhinoceros.  You get the point.  Each male has a counterpart corresponding to him, and vice versa.  And all at once, Adam ruffles his brow and scratches his head and says, “Wait a minute… Where’s mine?  I need that.  I am incomplete.”  Perhaps he even prayed, as single Christians should and do, “Gracious God, please grant to me a Christian spouse.” 

            And God puts Adam into a deep sleep, and from his side, God fashions a woman, Eve, and He brings her to the man.  And this is the first wedding, the first marriage.  God gets to define marriage, because He created it in the first place, for our good, according to His eternal design.  Adam was beside himself.  This at last,” he says, as so many men do when they’ve met the love of their life, at last!  This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man” (Gen. 2:23).  And then we get the Words of Institution for Marriage, quoted by Jesus in our Holy Gospel: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast,” cling, cleave, to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (v. 24). 

            So companionship.  Not just good friends, though certainly that.  But intimate relationship, communion.  And from that come the next two purposes, and they go together.  Procreation.  Let’s have no talk about “reproduction.”  We’re not on an assembly line, pushing out product.  Husbands and wives are given to be participants in God’s creative act.  God blessed them.  And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28).  It is a blessing to have children, and every child, no matter the circumstances of conception and birth, is a gift from God.  We don’t know yet whether, or how prolifically, God will bless you with fruit and multiplication.  But I’m warning you, I pray He blesses you generously.  We need some more kids around here.  As far as I’m concerned, you can get started tonight.  But then, you know how that happens, right?

            Holy sexuality.  And we should think of it that way.  We’ve made sex into something dirty, unclean, unseemly, unfit for Christian sermons.  But we’ve done that by misusing and abusing what is one of God’s most precious gifts.  Because it is the bodily consummation of the companionship, the communion, for which God created marriage.  And it is the means by which God makes a marriage fruitful, so that the love between husband and wife flows out now creatively in the begetting and raising of children.  St. Paul sees this as really important, and he warns husbands and wives not to deprive one another of physical intimacy, except perhaps for a brief and agreed upon time to concentrate on prayer, but then immediately to come back together, so that we may avoid temptation and loss of self-control (1 Cor. 7:5).  But also because within the context of marriage, within the lifelong union of one man and one woman who have vowed themselves before God to one another in love and fidelity, sex is holy and God pleasing.  It is His gift to you.          

            So for these purposes God gave marriage to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, a perpetual estate for every generation to follow.  It was to be the ultimate expression of communion between a man and a woman, the living picture of man’s communion with God, and the reflection of the Communion of Persons within the God-head in the Tri-unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  But you know what happened.  Sin.  Rejection of God.  The breaking of Communion.  The husband blaming his wife, and blaming God for his wife.  The wife blaming the serpent.  Humans blaming everyone but themselves.  And we, their children, the fruit of their union, born into their guilt, and taking after their rebellion.  That is why marriage is in the state it is in in our society these days.

            It is not good for our communion with God to be broken.  If God does not restore it, it leaves us alone, separated from God, separated from one another.  But through the rubble of Paradise lost, God preserved marriage.  He kept it for our good.  And by it He brought forth for Himself a people, a people who lived by a Promise: The Seed of the woman who would crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15).  Through many generations of husbands and wives and children, God preached and preserved that Promise, until an angel came to a poor virgin girl in the town of Nazareth, Mary, who was betrothed to Joseph, now found to be with Child, God’s own Son.

            He would grow up, that Son, to be the faithful Husband Adam was not.  And to restore communion, He would give Himself up into the death of the cross for His beloved Bride, the Church, to present her to Himself in splendor, without spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; that is, sins forgiven, holy and blameless, righteous with the righteousness of her faithful Bridegroom.  God put Jesus into a deep sleep, the sleep of death.  And from His riven side, by water and blood, God formed for our Lord a Bride washed and redeemed.  And you belong to her.  Which is to say, you belong to Him, the fruit of this holy union, born anew in baptismal water, redeemed by His blood shed for you.

            Your marriage will not always reach the ideal of Eden.  In fact, it never will.  But as a Christian marriage, ordered by God’s Word and institution, it will always be a living picture, and icon of Christ and His holy Bride, the Church.  That is, your marriage is a countercultural confession to the world, and to one another, of the love of God in Christ that redeems sinners and makes us His own.  And your marriage is, and will always be, lived out in His grace, forgiveness for every failing, healing for all that is broken, His steadfastness always preserving you and your union.

            So let’s do it, let’s be countercultural and revolutionary.  Make your vows today, and mean them, and keep them.  Live as husband and wife according to God’s order.  Love one another.  Be faithful to each other.  Delight in one another.  Speak well of each other in the hearing of others.  Exult in your marriage.  Hold it in high esteem.  Have lots of kids, if God so wills, and raise them in the fear and admonition of the Lord.  Be the living picture of Christ and His Bride, the Church.  To live such a life is to live by faith.  And it is to live a rich and fulfilling life, all redeemed and sanctified by the Lord who here declares a new beginning.  In just a few moments, He will pronounce you husband and wife, and so you will be, for the Lord has spoken.  Thus you will leave father and mother, and cleave to one another, no longer two, but one flesh.  And what God here joins together, let no one separate.  God has designed you for this.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.    






Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11B)

July 18, 2021

Text: Mark 6:30-44

            When Jesus feeds the five thousand in our Holy Gospel, He is quite literally fulfilling Psalm 23.  Seeking just a little bit of solitude and solace with His disciples, as He comes ashore in this desolate place, He sees a great crowd.  They had run ahead of Him on foot.  And when He sees them, He has “compassion on them, because they are like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34; ESV).  And if there is one thing Jesus cannot stand to see, it is sheep without a shepherd, sheep in disarray, scattered abroad, lost, exposed to danger and predators, where there is no food, where there is no drink, wounded and alone.  So there by the waters He gathers the flock together.  He congregates them.  And He makes them to recline on the green grass, to lie down in green pastures.  And He restores their souls by speaking… He teaches them many things.  He leads them in the paths of righteousness for His Name’s sake, and the Word He speaks to them is the Word of life, the rod and staff that will guide and comfort the sheep, and protect them from all evil, even though they walk through the valley of the shadow of death.  And speaking of shadows… as they lengthen into evening, what does the Lord do but set a Table before His sheep.  Bread and fish.  His goodness and mercy overflowing in abundance.  All eat and are satisfied, and there are twelve baskets full left over.  So there can be no doubt.  This Jesus who miraculously multiplies the loaves and fishes is the Lord, who is our Shepherd, and we shall not want.  He opens His hand and satisfies the desire of every living thing (Ps. 145:16).

            From this text we are to learn that Jesus cares about our every need, even our bodily needs, right down to whether we get enough to eat.  He cares, and He is able and willing to provide for us.  This is a great comfort to us in an economy that is anything but certain, in times of political instability and social unrest.  None of us knows the future, what will happen, but we do know the Good Shepherd who is leading us through it.  We know He can feed us and comfort us in all the desolate places we find ourselves, that He can do a lot with a little, that with Jesus, there is always enough, and even more than we need. 

            Now, He may bring us through some lean and scary times.  The promise is not that we avoid the valley of the shadow, but that He will bring us through.  Remember, the crowds in our text only knew their tummies were rumbling and it was getting dark.  They had no idea what Jesus would do about it.  The disciples thought they could avoid the trouble altogether by planning for the future, sending the crowds off early enough that they could purchase something to eat for themselves in the villages.  In any case, the disciples did not think there was any possible way the Lord could provide for all these people here in the middle of nowhere.  And we smile, and we laugh at their littleness of faith, but then we stand on their shoulders, and we know what happened, because it was written for our learning.  The Lord provides.  And He does it through the hands of these very disciples. 

            And isn’t that just like our Lord, to bring about something out of nothing, to fill the hungry with good things, to pour out His gifts upon us, grace upon grace.  And if we’re honest, isn’t it just like us to doubt whether He can do it, or whether He will do it, and like the disciples, to incredulously present our very reasonable objections, and suggest to Him a better way to resolve the situation (“Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?” [Mark 6:37]… “Come on, Jesus!  You’re being ridiculous!  Follow our plan for once.  We know what is needed.  We know what to do.”)  Yet, Jesus delivers anyway, though we doubt, and though we do not deserve it.  He gives His instructions, and He fills the hands of His disciples, and everyone walks away satisfied when the Lord hosts the meal.  I don’t know about you, but when I think back over my life and see how the Lord has provided for me, for my family, and for my loved ones, there are times I couldn’t tell you how He did it.  How did those five loaves and two fish feed the multitude?  There were some awful lean times where by every human standard it shouldn’t have worked out and we shouldn’t have had enough, but we did, and we survived, and we had plenty.  And we had joy.  The Lord brought us through.  The Lord provides. 

            But there is more going on here than simply the assurance that the Lord fills our bellies.  When the Good Shepherd gathers His sheep into a congregation, what He gives them is the Divine Service.  Did you notice the shape of the whole encounter in our Holy Gospel?  Jesus has compassion on the crowds, who are like sheep without a shepherd, out here in this desolate place (He literally suffers in His guts for them, that is the meaning of the Greek word).  So He gathers them together beside the water, and He teaches them, and then He feeds them.  Water, teaching, feeding.  Do you get it?  Baptism, Word, Supper.  And so that you don’t miss it, what does He do with the bread and fish?  He takes them, gives thanks, breaks them, and gives them.  Does that sound at all familiar? 

            Now, this is not to say, of course, that this is the Lord’s Supper.  It is most certainly not.  He has not yet instituted the Supper at this point, and there is no wine, and we don’t have fish in the Sacrament.  But what this is, is a foreshadowing of the Supper, a dry run, if you will.  He is showing us the pattern, what He does for us, how He cares for us, as the Lord who is our Shepherd, so that we shall not want.  He provides.  He feeds us.

            Jesus provides all we need for this body and life.  Our Father gives us each day our daily bread for Jesus’ sake, and that is not unimportant.  But even more, the Bread we need above all else is Jesus Himself, whom God feeds us here, when He gathers us together as His Church.  In this desolate place, in this world where nothing is as it should be, where all is fallen and broken, and we ourselves are broken and snared by the mortal grip of sin and death, Jesus comes to rescue us.  He has compassion, He suffers it in the guts for us, because apart from Him, we are like sheep without a shepherd.  We’re in disarray, scattered abroad, lost, exposed to danger and predators, where there is no food, where there is no drink, wounded and alone.  Jesus knows just what we need for that.  We need to hear His Word.  That is what restores our souls.  So He teaches us.  He calls us together, calls us by name, and we recognize His voice.  He gives us a place at His Table.  He gathers us in groups, a hundred here, fifty there… in other words, He places us in a Christian congregation.  And He ordains the disciples He has called and appointed for the purpose, to give out His gifts, to take what is His and distribute it to the sheep, to you, to feed you, to make sure you get what you need, and to gather together whatever is left.  Or as Paul says, to be “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1).

            And this is to say, whenever you find yourself in a desolate place… wherever the desolation touches you… when you are sick, when you are sorrowful, when you are beaten and broken by your enemies, the devil, the world, and your own sinful nature… when your marriage is troubled, when mom and dad just don’t understand you, when your job is in jeopardy, or when just can’t seem to make ends meet… when your mind is in a fog, when you are tired, exhausted… when those you love are suffering or making bad decisions… when a loved one dies and you find yourself in the midst of grief… when your sins burden you, when the devil tempts you, when your body fails you, and when death approaches… wherever the desolation touches you, what you need is what God gives you here in His Church.  Jesus.  You need Jesus.  His green pastures, His still waters, the Bread of Life.  And He will provide it.  Here is Jesus, for you, always, in divine compassion, beside the water, teaching you, feeding you, healing you, forgiving your sins, making you whole, and giving you life.  You should never say, when you find yourself in desolation, when you are suffering or in want, “The Church is not for me…  That is not what I need right now.”  “I don’t feel like it,” or “It’s not safe,” or “I’m not worthy enough or holy enough to go to Church.”  Church is precisely where you should be when you are suffering or worried or oppressed by temptations, or the devil, or the guilt of your sins, when you know you are unworthy or unclean, when you find yourself a sheep without a shepherd.  For it is here in the Church, gathered together with those who are just like you, who have the same problem you do apart from Christ…  It is here, in the water and the teaching and the feeding, where your Good Shepherd Jesus applies the healing balm of His death and resurrection for your forgiveness, life, and salvation.  He teaches you the way you should go, and strengthens you for the journey with the Bread of Life that is His very Body.

            The feeding of the five thousand was not just a one-off, spectacular miracle designed to wow you with Jesus’ divine, glorious power.  It was a demonstration of just how your Good Shepherd, Jesus, at this very moment, cares for you and provides for all your needs of body and soul.  We love the 23rd Psalm because we long for a Lord who cares for us the way the Good Shepherd cares for His sheep.  In Jesus, that is just what you have.  And, by the way, look there at the altar.  Do you see how He is still multiplying the loaves?  It will happen again in just a moment.  You will come, and you will eat, and you will leave here satisfied, soul restored, forgiven, healed, and whole.  Psalm 23 is fulfilled.  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow you all the days of your life, and you will dwell in the House of the Lord forever.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.