Sunday, February 25, 2018

Sermon for Second Sunday in Lent - Reminiscere - 1 Th 4:1-7

                                                                                    Lent 2
                                                                                    1 Thess 4:1-7

            You don’t have to read the apostle Paul’s letter for very long before you realize two things that are seen very clearly in this morning’s text.  The first is that he talks about how Christians are to live all the time.  Paul teaches what the Christian life should look like.  Frequently this takes the form of exhortation and encouragement, just as we find this morning.
            The second thing is that Paul speaks about the subject of sex quite often.  The topic appears repeatedly in his letters, and when he talks about it he usually does so in weighty and serious terms.  And sure enough, this also is what we find in the epistle lesson this morning.
            Our text launches into both of these, and that’s really all it does.  Yet to do the same in our discussion of what Paul says would be to put the cart before the horse.  This is true because what Paul says here is based upon some critical assumptions – some key presuppositions of the apostle’s thought.  And this is, of course, chapter four.  Paul has said things in getting to this point that must frame the way we hear and understand his words.
            First Thessalonians is probably the earliest letter of Paul that we possess.  Paul had preached the Gospel in the Greek city of Thessalonica on his second missionary journey.  Sadly, intense resistance from the Jews forced Paul to leave, and the other Christians took him to the province of Achaia in southern Greece.  Paul was concerned about them, and eventually Timothy brought word about how things were going.
            The apostle began this letter by saying, “We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.”
            Paul describes the Thessalonians as those whom God had chosen – he had called them through the Gospel, and now their lives were characterized by faith in Jesus Christ. They had heard the word of God proclaimed.  Paul says, “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.”
            The word of the Gospel had given them faith.  Through this word God had called them. And this was no small matter.  Paul says in the first chapter that all the Christians in Greece knew about what had happened.  He wrote, “For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.”
            Jesus had died on the cross.  He had been raised from the dead.  Because he has done this, Paul says that the Lord Jesus will rescue the Thessalonians and us from the wrath to come – from the judgment of God against sin.  The Thessalonians believed in Jesus, and so as Gentiles they had turned away the idols of Greco-Roman paganism that were to be found everywhere they looked.  Instead, they had turned to the living and true God – the One who had acted in Jesus to rescue them from his wrath against sin on the Last Day.
            Paul was thankful to receive the word that they were standing firm in this faith.  But he was still concerned.  It seems likely that Timothy had brought word that there was reason to be concerned about the Thessalonians.  So in our text, Paul draws out a conclusion from what he has just been saying.  He writes, “Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus.”
            It is possible that when Paul says “just as you are doing” this is part of the ancient rhetorical convention in which a speaker says something positive to encourage the hearer – but he says it because the behavior is not happening.  What is clear is that Paul is reminding the Thessalonians about what they had been taught, and is urging them to do it more and more.
            Now as I mentioned at the beginning of the sermon, Paul does this all the time.  Hopefully, it is something that you recognize as being in your pastor’s preaching on a regular basis.  But why does Paul do it, and why does the Church continue to follow his example?
            The reason is that while Jesus will rescue you from God’s wrath against sin on the Last Day, and the Holy Spirit is at work in you so that you can engage in the work of faith and labor of love with steadfast hope in our Lord Jesus, sin continues to be present too.  We live in the “now and the not yet.” We have the Spirit so that all of these things are possible and do happen. And yet until our death or the Last Day sin continue to be present in us. The old Adam is still there and he fights against the new man created by the Spirit.
            There is an ongoing struggle against sin in all areas of life.  In our text, Paul is not telling the Thessalonians something they don’t know. He says, “Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus.” They same thing is true for us. 
            But the apostle shows that we need to continue to hear it. We do because the Spirit uses this word to beat down, suppress and restrain the old Adam in us. The same Spirit who supports the new man in the struggle, hinders the old Adam through this word of God, so that the new man determines our actions.  Don’t forget: God actually cares about what you do.  He wants you to walk according to his will.  As Paul says in our text, it pleases him.  And so we need to continue to hear the word of God that exhorts and encourages us to live in these ways.
            This is the task of the preacher.  But it’s not just my job.  It’s your job too to make sure that you are receiving this word daily. You need to be in God’s word so that you continue to hear the Gospel.  You need to be in God’s word that you continue to hear about how you are to live because of the Gospel – the ways the reflect God’s will and are pleasing to him.
            As I mentioned at the beginning of the sermon, in our text Paul talks about a topic that appears over and over in his letters: sex.  He says, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality;
that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you.”
            Paul talks about sex so much because it is a fundamental reality of human life.  God created man in his own image as male and female.  He created woman from man to be complementary to one another.  He created us to be sexually complementary so that in intercourse husband and wife become one flesh. He created this one flesh union to beget life and gave the command, “Be fruitful and multiply.”  This command is hardwired into us as men and women.  We have a sexual drive that is a basic physiological need.  This drive unites husband and wife, and science has taught us that the physical act creates emotional bonding. It produces children which God says are a gift and blessing.  Sex is a powerful and good part of the way God created us.
            The problem is not sex. The problem is sin. And because sex is such a fundamental and powerful part of the way God created us, when sin warped and twisted us there arose a great problem; a great challenge.  Paul could see this on display in the first century world.  We can see it in our twenty-first century world as well.
            Paul reminded the Thessalonians that they had received from him how we ought to walk and please God.  He taught them that sexual intercourse was only to occur between a husband and wife.  Sex between anyone else is sin.  This is true if the man and woman are not married.  It is true if the act involves two men or two women. It is sin, and Pauls says the “Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you.”
            Paul had to remind the Thessalonians about this because it was the complete opposite of what the Greco-Roman world believed.  In the world of Thessalonica sex by a husband with a prostitute was not considered to be adultery.  It was perfectly acceptable.  In fact, the Roman government provided brothels for poor men to use. Men of any means didn’t need this because they owned slaves and it was assumed that they used their slaves for sex. The culture was suffused with sex – explicit pornographic images could be found painted everywhere.
            It’s not hard to perceive how similar world is to that of Thessalonica.  Sex between two unmarried people is considered normal – no matter what the living arrangement is; no matter what sex they are.  Our culture is suffused with sex in music, television, movies, and of course, the internet which has become the electronic conduit of pornography which is destructive to individuals in ways that had never been seen before.
            As we think about the way our world presents sex and tells us to use it, we need to listen carefully to Paul’s words in our text.  Twice he describes the abuse of God’s gift of sex as a denial and rejection of God. First he urges, “that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor,
not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God.”  Notice that to use sex in this way is to act like pagans who don’t know God at all.  And then later he adds, “Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.”  Paul says that to ignore his instruction is not to ignore him.  Instead, it is to ignore God who gives the Holy Spirit.
            Paul tells us this morning that this is not how we are to live.  He says, “For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.”  Our starting point is the recognition that God has called us.  He has given his Son on the cross and raised him from the dead to rescue us from his wrath against sin.  He has called us to faith through the word of the Gospel.  He has given us his Holy Spirit.  All of this now directs the way we live.  By his Spirit God enables us to see sex as the blessing he created it to be.
            And because the old Adam is still present, he keeps reminding us through his word. What the apostle wrote to the Thessalonians speaks directly to us today as well: “Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus.  For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God.”


Friday, February 23, 2018

Commemoration of Polycarp of Smyrna

Today we remember and give thanks for Polycarp of Smyrna, Pastor and Martyr.  Polycarp was a central figure in the early church.  According to his pupil the church father Irenaeus, Polycarp was a disciple of the evangelist John. After serving for many years as bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp was arrested, tried, and executed for his faith on February 23, c. 156. An eyewitness narrative of his death, The Martyrdom of Polycarp, continues to encourage believers in times of persecution.  When given the chance to recant his faith in Jesus Christ, he replied, “For eighty-six years I have been His servant, and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme by King who saved me?” 

Collect of the Day:
O God, the maker of heaven and earth, You gave boldness to confess Jesus Christ as King and Savior and steadfastness to die for the faith to Your venerable servant, Polycarp.  Grant us grace to follow His example in sharing the cup of Christ’s suffering so that we may also share in His glorious resurrection; through Your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Mark's thoughts: Praying the Litany during Lent - A brief history and explanation

Lent is a penitential time of preparation and during Lent the Church makes a number of adjustments in the liturgy of the Divine Service as she acknowledges the unique character of this season.  Having said farewell to “alleluia” at the end of the Divine Service on the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, all uses of this word are omitted.  The Hymn of Praise, the Gloria in Excelsis is also omitted at the beginning of the service. 
Lent is an ideal time use the Litany - a prayer form deeply rooted in the piety and history of the Church.  The Litany is an ancient prayer form that dates back to at least the fourth century A.D.  The name Litany is derived from a Greek word that means “prayer” or “entreaty.”  Martin Luther highly valued the Litany.  He regarded the Litany as, “next to the holy Lord’s Prayer the very best that has come to earth.”  It is because of the care and attention Luther directed towards the Litany that the Lutheran church continues to use it to this day.

The Litany is a responsive prayer form, but it can also be used by the individual Christian as he/she prays both halves.  The Litany has held a place in the Church for nearly two thousand years because of the way it combines a mood of adoration with a penitential tone.  It grounds its requests for mercy in the saving work of Jesus Christ, and while including the needs of the individual, it focuses on prayer for the needs of others.  Liturgical scholar Luther Reed summarized the character of the litany well when he wrote, “The Litany is a responsive prayer of the church, penitential in character but unselfish in its intercessions for all human need and mighty in the grasp of the grounds for divine compassion.”

The Litany as it has come to us began as a prayer form used in processions outside of the church building.  The chanted responses gave the people a way to participate and became very popular during the medieval period.  During this time the litany began to include invocations of the saints and eventually the processions of which it was part were thought to be beneficial in gaining indulgences (hundreds of days off of time in purgatory).

At the time of the Reformation, Reformed churches and those of the radical Reformation rejected the Litany altogether, just as they did with so much of the catholic (universal) heritage of the Church.  However, Martin Luther took a very different approach.  He recognized the great spiritual benefit of the Litany.  He removed the objectionable parts such as the invocation of the saints, and intercessions for the pope and the dead.  He altered the order slightly and added some material that was more concise and specific than the medieval Litany.  His work was so successful that Thomas Cranmer relied heavily on Luther’s work in producing a Litany for the Anglican Book of Common Prayer in England.

The Litany has a repeated and insistent feeling that recalls the persistent friend in Jesus’ parable about prayer (Luke 11:5-10).  It establishes a mood of adoration as it begins with the Kyrie (“Lord have mercy”) addressed to the triune God. The next section is comprised of deprecations (from the Latin deprecari, meaning to avert by prayer) which begin with the word “from…” and ask God to deliver us from various threats and dangers.

Next come the obsecrations (from the Latin obsecrare, meaning to ask on religious grounds) in which we pray “Help us good Lord.”  This petition sets forth the reason we can confidently ask for Christ’s help.  Introduced with the words, “By the mystery of…” the Litany narrates our Lord’s saving work from incarnation through ascension and sending of the Holy Spirit.  Because He was done this, we know that He will answer our prayer for help.

This is followed by the supplications, which are specific prayers we ask on behalf of ourselves.  The striking thing about them (especially when compared with the intercessions that follow) is how brief they are.  We pray, “In all time of our tribulation; in all time of our prosperity; in the  hour of death; and in the day of judgment: Help us good Lord.” We ask for God’s help in good times and bad times; in the hour of our death and on the Last Day.

The intercessions are the last section and they are the largest.  In our prayers, there is a tendency for us to focus on our own concerns.  We pray for our own needs, and if we pray for others these tend to be people who are close to us.  However, St. Paul wrote, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:1-4).  The intercessions include prayers for the Church and for people in many different situations.  This is a helpful corrective and reminder for our prayer life in general.  Perhaps the final intercession, “To forgive your enemies, persecutors, and slanderers,” is the one we need the most.  Our Lord said, “     You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44).  We often forget to do this, and the Litany holds up this need before us.

Having begun with the Kyrie (“Lord have mercy”), the Litany also ends with the Kyrie.  This is followed by the Lord’s Prayer and then a Collect. Treasury of Daily prayer provides a series of different collects that can be used to conclude the Litany.  If you don’t have this resource, take home the bulletin or the insert from Sunday and use the Collect of the Day printed there.

The Litany is found on pg. 288 of Lutheran Service Book and on pg. O-53 in Treasury of Daily Prayer.  I encourage you to use the Litany daily during Lent.   It will enrich your Lenten preparation in particular and your prayer life in general.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Sermon for the first mid-week Lent service - Ex. 1:1-22

                                                                                    Mid-Lent 1
                                                                                    Ex 1:1-22

            “What have you done for me lately?”  In a results based world this phrase indicates that past history doesn’t mean anything.  For the aging sports star or the product line of a business, past performance is irrelevant.  What matters are the benefits produced now and those that can be expected in the future. Anyone or anything that that doesn’t produce now is expendable. The past doesn’t matter.
            In our text tonight, we learn that this is the position in which Israel found herself.  That past had been remarkable.  Joseph had been sold into slavery by his brothers and taken to Egypt.  However, God had cared for Joseph and blessed him.  Eventually, God used Joseph to reveal to Pharaoh, the leader of Egypt, that seven prosperous years were coming followed by seven years of famine.  Pharaoh made Joseph second in charge over all of Egypt as he made preparations during the seven good years by storing up grain, and as he then began to sell it during the seven bad years.
            Joseph’s family in Canaan was effected by the famine and traveled to Egypt to buy food.  As a result, they learned that Joseph was alive, and that he forgave his brothers who had mistreated him.  Eventually Joseph’s father Jacob and the entire family came to live in Egypt.  There Joseph was able to provide for them.
            Yahweh had promised Abraham that he would give him the land of Canaan along with numerous descendants.  In our text we learn that his grandson Jacob went down to live in Egypt and that the entire family amounted to seventy people.  Jacob’s family left the land God had promised to them, and while they were away Yahweh kept his promise about many descendants.  We hear in our text: “But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.”
            God’s blessing arrived in an unexpected way.  Israel didn’t become a nation while in the land of Canaan that God had promised to give them. Instead, they became a numerous people while sojourning in a foreign land – in the land of Egypt.  We see here that God gives his blessings in surprising ways.  He works to bless us in ways that we don’t expect.
            That doesn’t mean everything that happens is what we would consider good.  Joseph had been the reason that Egypt had been saved from the famine. Through his plan and administration, Pharaoh’s wealth soared.  But we learn in our text: “Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”
            Time passed and the actions of Joseph were forgotten.  When the new Pharaoh looked around, he now saw in Israel a threat and a resource.  He said, “Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.”
            Though we can’t be certain, the circumstances of the time may have shaped his view of the Israelites.  The eastern Mediterranean was ravaged by a group who are described in the ancient sources as the “Sea People.”  They threatened Egypt too.  As Pharaoh faced this threat from a foreign people, it may have caused him to look inside his own land and see the Israelites as a potential threat.
            The Israelites may have been a threat.  However, they were also an opportunity. The Egyptians began using the Israelites as forced labor.  Moses tells us, “Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens. They built for Pharaoh store cities, Pithom and Raamses.”
            Yet something unexpected happened yet again. The more the Egyptians oppressed the Israelites, the more the more they multiplied. The result was that the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel. So the Egyptians increased the pressure.  We hear: “So they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves.”
            The Egyptians enslaved the Israelites. And then they took steps to control the numbers of men who might threaten them.  We learn in our text that orders were given to the Israelite midwives that male babies were to be killed. When they didn’t comply, Pharaoh commanded his own people: “Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live.”  Male babies were to be drowned in the Nile River.  They would not be allowed to grow up as a potential threat to Egypt.
            Slavery and death – that’s what we find in our text tonight.  In the exodus, Yahweh will rescue Israel from these.  The Old Testament refers to this using the word “redeem.”  Originally the word “redeem” came from the world of commerce.  It meant “to buy a person out of slavery.”  Eventually it took on a more general meaning: to free from slavery.
            That is what Yahweh does in the exodus.  He redeems Israel – he frees her from slavery and death.  In time, the New Testament would take up the word “redeem” and apply it to what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. St. Paul wrote, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” The New Testament teaches us that in Israel’s experience we see a picture of what God has done for us.
            Slavery and death – that’s what describes life.  It has been that way since the event that we heard about in the Old Testament lesson on Sunday.  Adam and Eve rejected God’s ordering of the world.  Being the crown of God’s creation wasn’t enough.  Being the only creature made in the image of God wasn’t enough.  Instead, they wanted to be like God.  They rejected the one limitation God had placed upon them as creatures. Adam and Eve were to show that they feared, loved and trusted in God above everything by not eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
            Yet instead they tried to be God.  They ate. They sinned. And they learned that the wages of sin is death.  God told Adam, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” 
            “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” That’s what we heard last Wednesday.  As descendants of Adam and Eve, we are conceived and born as slaves to sin.  And that sin always leads to one outcome: death. 
            Because this is so, God acted in his Son Jesus Christ to redeem us – to free us from this slavery.  During Lent we are preparing to remember the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus.  We will follow him to the cross because by his death and resurrection he has redeemed us from sin and death – he has freed us.
            We are freed because on account of Christ God no longer charges us with our sin.  Instead, we are innocent in his eyes. We are freed because death can no longer hold us.  Instead, in Christ we already have eternal life.  And in the resurrection of Jesus, our resurrection has already started.  Sin and death have not ceased – we still fall into sin, and until Christ returns we will die.  But through repentance and faith in Jesus we have forgiveness and the certainty of resurrection on the Last Day.
            We know that this is true for us because we have received Holy Baptism.  St. Paul told the Romans, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”  You have been redeemed.  You have been freed from the slavery of sin.  You have been freed from the slavery of death.  Through water and the word God has given you the redemption earned by Jesus on Good Friday and Easter.