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).