Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Third Sunday after Pentecost

Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 6B)

June 13, 2021

Text: Mark 426-34

            The Seed is the Word of God.  The ground is the world.  The farmer is the one sowing the Word, originally the Apostles and all the disciples of Jesus.  It is the pastor who preaches, the Christian who confesses.  And this is how it works.  The Seed of the Word is scattered in proclamation.  And then you go to bed and let it do its thing.  You trust God.  You trust in His Word.  The Seed sprouts and grows, you know not how.  The earth produces by itself, αὐτομάτη in Greek, automatic.  That is to say, it is gift.  It is not your work.  The Seed has the power within itself to sprout and grow.  The Word has the power within itself to do the work of bringing people to faith in Christ.  You are called to scatter the Seed, to confess Christ.  The Church is called to preach the Word.  We are not called to be clever or cute.  No gimmicks.  No bait and switch advertising.  It doesn’t depend on you, or me, or our efforts.  The Spirit is in the Word.  He does it.  We’ve been given the Word.  Just speak the Word.  Then say your prayers and go to sleep and let God worry about it. 

            And what happens?  The Word of the Lord grows.  First, there is the blade.  Faith is born.  A baby is baptized into Christ.  A man or woman hears the Gospel and realizes that their sins really are forgiven in Christ.  God really does love them and wants them as part of His Family.  Then the ear… faith matures and grows stronger as it is nourished in the Divine Service from the Pulpit and at the Altar, in Bible Study, in devotions, and in Christian fellowship.  It grows through trials: pruning, fertilizer, manure, repentance.  And then the full grain in the ear… the fruit of faith: Complete dependance upon Christ and His gifts, prayer, Christian love, generosity, humility, self-sacrifice, the desire and effort to live according to God’s order.  And so the Kingdom grows, plant by plant, one by one, in this time of grace, as long as the world turns.  But then the harvest, when the grain is ripe, when the Lord knows that all who are appointed to eternal life have come to faith in Christ.  Then He puts in the sickle.  Then comes the gathering and the Judgment.  The wheat is safely gathered in.  The chaff is piled up and burned. 

            It sounds so easy.  And really, it is, in this sense: It all depends on God.  Relax.  The pressure is off.  You can’t make anyone believe in Christ.  You can’t make the Kingdom grow.  You can only give what you’ve been given, and that is the Word.  Luther famously said of the Reformation: “I simply taught, preached and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.”[1]

            What makes it hard is our impatience.  We want to see results, and we want to seem them now.  Plant that seed, and we ought to be harvesting fruit.  But when is the harvest?  At the End.  And we have a severely limited perspective.  We cannot see God’s grand, eternal plan as it unfolds.  We can only see here and now, this little snapshot of the Church.  Maybe worldwide Christianity at this moment in time, although let’s be honest, none of us really keeps a thumb on the Church’s pulse in all the other nations of the world.  Our Church body, the Missouri Synod?  Okay, maybe.  Mostly just our little congregation.  And it’s beautiful, but it looks awfully small and insignificant.  We don’t know what God will do with it.  Will it always be this tiny gathering of believers, or will we outgrow our current circumstances?  Will we ever have a building?  Will we even make budget?  And those are all legitimate concerns, and believe me, I share them.  But look how small they are compared with God’s grand, eternal, cosmic plan for His Kingdom.  See, we are not given to know how we fit into that, what our part in it is.  We are simply given to know and rejoice that we do fit into it, that we do have a part in it.  But only God sees all that clearly.  What do we see?  Just the Word.  Sinners gathered around the Word, to be forgiven, cleansed, and healed.  A little part of the vast field at various stages of growth, awaiting the harvest, the Lord only knows when.

            And the Kingdom always appears this way.  Small and insignificant.  Weak and on the brink of death.  When the Church appears to be thriving and wildly successful, that is the exception rather than the rule.  Because the Church is ever and always under the cross.  It is like a grain of mustard seed.  The mustard seed was the proverbial Hebrew expression for something really small.  As a modern equivalent, we might say the tip of a pencil or the head of a pin.  That is the Seed as it is sown.  That is the Kingdom as the Word has been planted.  We can’t believe anything will come of it.  But this is the Promise, and it is totally unexpected.  That tiny Seed will grow and become larger than all the garden plants.  And while there are some mustard bushes that get pretty large, this is where the parable is clearly not “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.”  Because this mustard Seed grows into a tree that fills the whole world, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade. 

            And this imagery is not without precedent.  In the ancient world, including in the Prophets, great nations and empires were described as trees that overshadow the earth.  In Ezekiel 31, Assyria is described as a cedar with its top among the clouds, towering high above all trees, the birds making nests in its boughs, and all nations living under its shadow.  In Daniel 4, Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, dreams that he is a great tree providing food and shelter for all, but which would be chopped down to its stump and roots, referring to Nebuchadnezzar’s humiliation, living like an animal in the wild.  We see how this is an appropriate image for great empires, growing and spreading their branches over the nations they have conquered.  One might even compare the United States to such a tree, spreading the branches of our influence, protection, and aid to many nations.

            But what is the purpose of this image with regard to the Kingdom of God?  Compared to these mighty empires and this great earthly power, the Kingdom of God looks as small as a mustard seed.  But don’t let appearances deceive you.  These empires have their day, but the Kingdom of God continues to grow, and on that Day, when the sickle is lowered and the harvest comes, all will see that the Tree of God’s Kingdom overshadows all the nations of the earth.  This will be devasting for all who have rejected Christ.  But for those in whom the Seed of the Word has taken deep root and grown into full and fruitful faith, they will find shelter under its branches and live eternally secure as God’s own beloved children.

            Ezekiel captures this in our Old Testament, doesn’t he (Ez. 17:22-24)?  The little sprig, lopped off the top of the mighty cedar (reminding us that God’s people will come back from Assyria and Babylon), God plants on the high and lofty mountain, undoubtedly Mt. Zion.  And in spite of all appearances, and against every expectation, it grows, and becomes itself a mighty cedar, and it produces fruit (do cedar trees produce fruit?).  And again, the image: “under it will dwell every kind of bird; in the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest” (Ez. 17:23; ESV).  In the Kingdom of God you find abundant food and shelter.  In other words, a home.  And it is the LORD Himself who does it.  Not you.  Not the pastor.  Not Synod bureaucrats or clever Church growth experts.  The LORD does.  He brings low the high tree, Nebuchadnezzar, Babylon, Assyria, the rulers of the earth.  And He brings high the low tree, the Kingdom of Heaven, the Church, you.  And how does He do it?  The Word.  I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it” (v. 24). 

            And, of course, is this not just like our LORD to plant a tree and bring about a great reversal?  For what else is the cross but the apparent bringing to nothing of all that is Christ and belongs to Him?  “Kingdom of God?!  What do you mean?  God is put to death there on the Tree!”  The LORD plants it, the instrument of defeat and utter destruction, near the garden on a hill outside Jerusalem, Mt. Zion, high and lifted up.  And there, what is smallest and least, and even accursed, grows up into the mightiest of trees, and it fills the whole earth.  Jesus sleeps and rises, and the Kingdom grows.  His Word is preached.  The Seed is cast.  The branches of the Tree spread over the whole earth.  It may be difficult for you to see, here, and now, in this place and time.  But you will see it on that Day.  In the meantime, simply believe.  Trust.  Take shelter here, in this little corner under the Kingdom’s boughs.  Eat of its fruit and remain under its protection.  Sow the Word.  Confess the faith.  Drink Wittenberg beer, or something like that, with your friends, and then go to sleep without a care.  The LORD still speaks, and He still does it.  The Seed is the Word and the Tree is the Kingdom.  And it is all in God’s merciful hands.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.           

[1] LW 51:77.

Monday, June 7, 2021

Second Sunday after Pentecost

Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 5B)

June 6, 2021

Text: Mark 3:20-35

            We all know family issues can be the most difficult waters to navigate.  If we are honest, we must admit that the ideal Christian family, where everyone is devoted to Jesus, and everybody thinks, speaks, and behaves the way they ought to, is nonexistent.  The Church hasn’t always been helpful in this regard.  While we should hold up the family ideal according to God’s order in the preaching of God’s Law, we must never paint a picture of the families in our fellowship as though they are immune from the struggles and brokenness of fallen people living in a fallen world, as though they aren’t real sinners with real sins that need real forgiveness and mercy from Christ.  When Churches paint that false image, it leads people in the real world to conclude that the Church must not be for them.  Or, people join the Church in the hope that this is the golden ticket that will make all their problems go away, and when it doesn’t work as advertised, they despair.  Or, again leading to despair, a Christian mother or father or son or daughter compares their own family to the other families in the Church, and they wonder why their family can’t get it together like it seems to be the case with everybody else.  Or, worst of all, it can lead to spiritual pride among Christians who appear to have it all together.  But it’s façade.  If you look closely, you will see the cracks, the fault lines.  Now, this is not to paint a hopeless picture of Christian families, either.  Christ is the medicine for all that ails us.  He is the Physician who binds up what is broken, restores what is shattered, heals what is diseased, and even raises the dead.  Nor is this to say that we shouldn’t order our families according to God’s Word.  Of course we should.  Things will go better for everyone.  We’ll be happier.  We’ll be healthier.  And where we fall, we’ll repent, and we’ll live joyfully in the forgiveness of sins.  But this is simply to say what we all know deep down to be true.  The brokenness touches us all, and we shouldn’t paint the family picture any other way.   

            Anyway, the Bible doesn’t paint families that way.  Cain murdered his brother Abel.  Jacob cheated his brother and had to flee from Esau’s lethal intentions.  Laban gave Jacob some of his own medicine.  Joseph’s brothers were jealous, thought about murdering him, and ultimately sold him into slavery.  What is Genesis but the continuing saga of messed-up family relations?  A messed-up family that was God’s chosen people, from whom would come the Savior of the whole world.  And so through the rest of the Scriptures.  Moses’ siblings resented his special relationship with God and office as God’s spokesman.  David’s brothers reviled the little twerp who came to watch the battle and ended up in mortal combat with Goliath.  Never mind David’s sons, one of whom raped his sister, another of whom murdered the offender, and then attempted a coup against his father.  Our Lord’s own family was not immune from these issues.  Frankly, they thought Jesus was insane.  Though they would come around after His resurrection, Jesus’ brothers were initially hostile unbelievers.  And yes, even the Blessed Virgin Mary had her sins of unfaithfulness.  Jesus was embarrassing the family.  She and His brothers wanted to get Him away from the crowd and back home where they could keep Him quiet.  It is no accident that Jesus was born into a family of sinners.  He comes precisely for sinners, to redeem sinners, to redeem the broken, individuals, families, you, and yours. 

            Admit it, you’ve got problems, sins to be confessed and absolved, and your family is as broken as anybody else’s.  The devil has done his worst to divide and isolate you from your spouse, your children, your parents, your brothers and sisters.  Every God-given relationship is a target for his poison darts.  And your sinful flesh is complicit.  You hang on to petty grievances, jealousies, and pride.  Repent.  Satan harnesses these things to put asunder what God has joined together.  And the world, of whom he is prince, is in an all-out war against the family, against marriage as God’s holy institution, against the reservation and preservation of conjugal intimacy within the holy union of man and wife, against children whom we slaughter by the millions in the name of autonomy and sexual freedom, and against our right to resist these things in preaching and Christian confession.  The devil, by the way, is against marriage, because from marriage comes children.  And he is against children because by a Child comes the redemption of the world and Satan’s ultimate defeat.

            So that Child comes into the world, the Son of Mary, the Son of God, to bind the strong man, Satan, and plunder His goods.  And that is to say, you.  To rescue you.  To deliver you.  To bring you out of bondage to Satan and into God’s Kingdom as a forgiven and beloved Child of the heavenly Father.  So He casts out demons and heals diseases.  He touches outcasts and cleanses lepers.  He eats and drinks with sinners and He raises the dead.  And all of the sin, all of the brokenness, all that separates you and I from God and from one another, He takes into Himself.  He takes it off of us and absorbs it into His flesh.  And He sheds His blood all over it.  He is crucified for it.  He dies for it.  To forgive it all.  To forgive you.  To cleanse you.  To heal you.  To justify you.  And He is risen, and that means that in Him, you have new life.  You are baptized into Christ.  You died with Christ.  You have been raised with Christ.  You live in Christ. 

            And that changes how you live toward one another.  Yes, you still live in a fallen world, a sinner in the midst of sinners, and you still sin.  You know that.  You live now in the paradox of the already/not yet, simul iustus et peccator, at the same time justified and a sinner.  But you know that all your sins are forgiven and that Christ’s new life is yours already.  And you know that your spouse’s sins, your childrens’ sins, your parents’ sins, your brothers’ and sisters’ sins, are all forgiven.  Christ died for them, and He is risen for them, and if He forgives them, who are you to hold their sins against them?  And that… that… is the secret for Christian families living together.  Not that there is no brokenness, but that the brokenness is forgiven.  By God in Christ.  By one another in Christ.  We live together with grace toward one another, with mercy toward each other, forgiving one another’s trespasses as God has forgiven ours, overlooking weaknesses, bearing with each other with the love of Christ that covers over a multitude of sins.

            Still, it is true, there isn’t always a happy ending for our families in this life, and many of you know that all-too-well.  Children leave the faith.  Spouses are unfaithful.  Parents neglect or abuse their children.  Not every family member receives the love and healing God wants to give them.  Some family members shun and reject us specifically because of our faith in Christ or our confession of His Word, as Jesus’ family tried to shut Him up when He was preaching.  We pray fervently and persistently for those family members, that God would turn their hearts by the preaching of His Word, bring them to repentance, to saving faith in Christ, and restoration to us.  It does happen, sometimes after years.  We should never lose heart.  Never give up on God’s gracious seeking of the lost.  But it doesn’t always happen.  And here we should say a word about the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit which Jesus says in our text, is the “eternal sin” that “never has forgiveness” (Mark 3:29; ESV).  What is that sin, and should we be worried we have committed it? 

            The blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is something very specific in our text.  The scribes, who were Jesus’ family members in a matter of speaking, the Jews, His own who did not receive Him (John 1:11), said that He was demonic, that He was possessed by Beelzebul, and by the prince of demons He cast out demons (Mark 3:22).  In other words, they were saying the Spirit within Jesus is the devil.  They were calling the Holy Spirit “Satan.”  That is blasphemy.  And it is not just that they thought the thought or uttered the words.  It is that they knew better, as Jesus points out in His rebuke.  Just as a house, a family, divided against itself cannot stand, so it would never work for Satan to cast out Satan.  The demons have their problems, but they’re pretty good at team work.  To cast out demons is nothing less than the work of God, as every scribe, every theologian, must know.  So the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is the conscious, informed, intentional, and persistent rejection of His testimony that Christ is Lord and Savior.  It is to know that the Spirit’s testimony is true, and reject it anyway as evil, satanic, as we see so often in the world today when Christians leave the faith they know to be true for more socially acceptable belief systems.  And it is not that the sin is unforgiveable because it’s so evil, as though there could be any sin for which Christ’s death is insufficient atonement.  No, the reason it is never forgiven is that it is the nature of this sin to reject Christ’s forgiveness right up to death or the Day of Judgment, until it is too late.

            Sometimes Christians are worried they have committed the sin against the Holy Spirit because of some evil thing they said or did.  But the plain fact is, if you’re worried you committed this sin, you haven't, because those who reject the Spirit don’t worry about sinning against Him.  Repent of your sins and know that you are forgiven for Christ’s sake.  And never forget His promise: “whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37). 

            In fact, what does He do?  He brings you in.  Into His House.  Into His Family.  Whatever problems you have in your own family, among your relatives, you always have a Family here with Jesus, in His Church, gathered around His Table.  Who are my mother and my brothers?” (Mark 3:33).  It isn’t a rejection of Mary and the boys outside when Jesus says this.  But it is the testimony to the even greater reality.  (L)ooking about at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!  For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother’” (vv. 34-35).  The Church is Jesus’ Family, the congregation of believers, for the will of God is that you believe and be saved.  Baptized into Christ, you are children of the heavenly Father.  The Church is your mother.  Your brothers and sisters are all around you.  Yes, they have their faults, their casual weaknesses, their sins.  So do you.  That is why we’re here.  Here our Lord cleanses us and tends our wounds.  Here our Lord feeds us.  Here our Lord protects us and gives us life.  Outside, the battle rages, and our enemies threaten and malign us.  But here we are safe in the Father’s House.  And because He is our Father, and because Jesus is our Savior, and because the Holy Spirit possesses us, this House will not be divided.  It will stand, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.  Beloved in the Lord, welcome home.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.