Sunday, August 12, 2018

Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity - Lk 18:9-14

                                                                                                Trinity 11
                                                                                                Lk 18:9-14

            What would it have been like in first century Palestine to have a Pharisee as a next door neighbor?  Now I am sure your initial response is negative.  After all “Pharisee” has basically become a pejorative term.  Jesus’ statements about the Pharisees and his interaction with them have shaped our understanding.  We see them as being legalistic, self-righteous, self-serving and arrogant.  They were utterly opposed to Jesus and sought to kill him.
            But if you were a Jew in first century Palestine, it is quite likely that you would have had a rather different view. You probably would have looked up to him.  Most likely, you would have respected him.  After all, for the most part, a Pharisee was a person just like you.  While there were Pharisees who had special training like the apostle Paul before his conversion, for the most part Pharisees were a “lay group.”  They were ordinary Jews who had made a very serious commitment to live faithfully according to Yahweh’s Torah.
            In some ways, this life took on demands that went beyond the Torah.  The Pharisees took requirements of the Torah that were meant for priests, and applied them to themselves.  The ritual washings you hear about in the Gospels are an example of this.  The Pharisees created a whole body of oral law that interpreted how to live the Torah, and then they rigorously sought to live according to those rules.  Of course the irony was that in many cases the strict following of their rules actually made the Torah easier to keep.
            While you probably would have respected the Pharisee, he would not have felt the same about you.  If you weren’t a Pharisee – if you weren’t taking on the “tradition of the elders” as they called their oral law – then you weren’t serious about being part of God’s people.  You weren’t up to the level of the Pharisee, and so you were beneath him.
            We see this in our Gospel lesson this morning.  Luke begins by telling us that Jesus “also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.”  By the time we have reached this point in the Gospel, it is already clear that our Lord addresses this parable to the Pharisees.  And sure enough, one of the characters in the parable is a Pharisee.
            Luke tells us that they were doing two things. First, they were trusting in themselves that they were righteous.  It’s not that the Pharisees thought they were justifying themselves solely by their own works.  The covenant and the Torah were all based in God’s grace, and Judaism never forgot this. 
            However, first century Judaism had a very positive view of a person’s spiritual abilities.  And while God’s grace may have been the basis for the system, the emphasis fell on a person’s righteous living.  St. Paul, who had been a Pharisee, described the situation when he told the Romans, “For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.
For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness.”
            The second thing we learn is that they treated others with contempt.  If you have chosen to go over and above, it becomes easy to look down on those who do not.  They are beneath you.  In the later literature of rabbinic Judaism this can be seen very clearly, and not surprisingly Luke tells us that this was present in the first century as well.
            Jesus said, “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.”  Our Lord immediately establishes complete opposites.  On the one hand you have the Pharisee who is all that is pious in Judaism.  And other hand you have a tax collector.  Perhaps if we were telling the parable today, we would make him an ambulance chasing lawyer.  This was a profession that was looked down upon and was assumed to be shady.  Beyond that, in first century Palestine it also carried the connotation of collaboration with the Roman occupiers.
            Both men went up to the temple to pray.  We have heard this parable so many times that we probably overlook the initial surprise we encounter here. Jesus is going to tell us about a praying tax collector.  He may be a tax collector, but he is going to the temple to pray – he is putting faith in the God of Israel into action.
            We learn that the Pharisee stood by himself – a position that called attention to him.  He said, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.”  The Pharisee began by thanking God that he was so great.  He thanked God that he wasn’t a sinner like other people … especially the tax collector who was there at the temple.  Instead he was really serious about living as a person who was just before God.
            The Pharisee claimed this about himself.  However, in the Gospel Jesus had already said, “Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.  Luke has already told us that the Pharisees were lovers of money and that our Lord had said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.”
            As fallen people, the desire to justify ourselves is always inside of us.  We want to explain away our failings and make excuses for them, so that we won’t be responsible. We want to compare ourselves to others in ways so that we come out better than they do.  And since we are “better” in education, or athletics, or career, or wealth, we get to look down on others.  We wouldn’t say it in polite company, but in our heart, we get to despise them.
            Unlike the Pharisee, the tax collector, stood far off.  Insofar as he could, he hid himself in that public space.  He didn’t even lift up his eyes to heaven, but instead he carried out the repentant action of beating his breast, as he said one simple thing: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  Here was repentance and confession of sin.  The tax collector wasn’t just going through the motions.  He admitted his sin. He regretted it.  He confessed it before God.
            This must be our attitude as well.  We don’t come before God with anything we can offer.  There is no bargain to be made.  There is no way to justify our actions or ourselves.  Instead, we are sinners who in thought, word and deed sin against the holy God by rejecting his will; by acting like we are god. We can do nothing else except admit we are sinners and ask for God’s mercy.
            Then Jesus concluded the parable by saying, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” It was the repentant tax collector who went home just in God’s eyes.  He had humbled himself before God by confessing his sin. And now God had exalted him by sending him home justified – forgiven.
            Like the tax collector in the parable, we come before God and confess our sin.  We say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  Yet we do so at God’s invitation.  More than that, we do so at God’s urging.  For you see, God has already humbled himself for you.  The Son of God became man, without ceasing to be God.  He submitted himself to a baptism of repentance as he stepped into your shoes and took your place.  He went to the cross to bear your sin and to receive your judgment.  And then, having been faithful to the Father’s will, he was exalted as he rose on the third day, ascended into heaven and was seated at the right hand of God.
            Because of Jesus Christ we confess our sins and say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  We do so in the knowledge that God has already shown us mercy.  He did it in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Now through faith in the risen Lord we know that are justified.  Baptized into his death, we live as those who are in Christ through the work of the Spirit.  We have been clothed with Christ’s righteousness in baptism and so we are indeed just in God’s eyes.  As the apostle Paul said, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
            What comfort it is to know that when we stumble in sin, our God is merciful because of Jesus Christ and forgives!  Yet if we stop there we have not really taken the Gospel to heart.  It is our Lord Jesus who taught us to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  Or as the apostle Paul told the Ephesians, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
            To live as a forgiven Christian is to live as a forgiving Christian.  The forgiveness that we have received in Christ does not stop with us.  In fact, Jesus teaches us in the Lord’s Prayer that it cannot stop with us.  Instead, Christ’s Spirit moves us to forgive others; to share the forgiveness that we have received. 
            The Spirit makes this possible through the Means of Grace by which he gives us forgiveness and strengthens faith.  We come before God like the tax collector as we say, “God be merciful a sinner.”  He forgives us on account of Christ.  He sends us home justified. Freed from our sin, we then freely forgive others because of Jesus.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Commemoration of Lawrence, Deacon and Martyr

Today we remember and give thanks for Lawrence, Deacon and Martyr.  Early in the third century A.D., Lawrence, most likely born in Spain, made his way to Rome. There he was appointed chief of the seven deacons and was given the responsibility to manage church property and finances. The emperor at the time, who thought that the church had valuable things worth confiscating, ordered Laurence to produce the “treasures of the church.” Laurence brought before the emperor the poor whose lives had been touched by Christian charity. He was then jailed and eventually executed in the year 258 by being roasted on a gridiron. His martyrdom left a deep impression on the young church. Almost immediately, the date of His death, August 10, became a permanent fixture on the early commemorative calendar of the Church.

Collect of the Day:
Almighty God, You called Lawrence to be a deacon in Your Church to serve your saints with deeds of love, and You gave him the crown of martyrdom.  Give us the same charity of heart that we may fulfill Your love by defending and supporting the poor, that by loving them we may love You with all our hearts; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Trinity - Lk 19:41-48

                                                                                    Trinity 10
                                                                                    Lk 19:41-48

            We think of the Roman army as being an incredibly powerful force.  And certainly it was – how else was Rome able to conquer an empire that extended from England to the Middle East; an empire that encompassed the Mediterranean Sea?  But at the same time the Roman army as it existed in the first century A.D. had some significant limitations.
            Under Augustus the army had become a professional force.  It was a standing army of paid soldiers, many of whom had made the army their career.  The problem is that an army like this is very expensive.  So while it was of an extremely high quality, there were always limitations on how big it could be.
            In 70 A.D. when the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem and captured it – thus effectively ending the Jewish revolt that began in 66 – they gathered four full legions, detachments from two others, along with significant number of auxiliary cohorts, and troops from vassal kings. During the five month siege, one seventh of the entire Imperial army was gathered at Jerusalem. The Oxford University historian Fergus Millar has observed, “Nothing could have served to emphasise more clearly the degree to which the coherence of the Empire depended on at least passive acquiescence by the provincial populations, or at the very least the absence of any coherent local or regional nationalism which might offer a challenge to Rome.” Economics limited the number of troops Rome could field.
            The other limitation was that the Roman army was essentially a heavy infantry force that excelled in siege warfare. The areas it conquered were all societies that were based on fortified cities protected by infantry.  Here the Romans knew no equal.  However, ultimately the Romans weren’t able to colonize Germany because in that land there were no fortified cities to conquer and the population could simply withdraw further into the forested regions. Likewise, as the Romans moved east and fought Persia they ran into real problems as they faced the Persian cavalry in the large open spaces.
            Yet when they laid siege to Jerusalem, the Romans were in their element.  They were experts at siege warfare and there was no question about the outcome.  They did exactly what Jesus describes in our text this morning as they captured the city, destroyed its wall, and tore down the temple.
            Our text takes place on Palm Sunday as Jesus approached Jerusalem.  Luke tells us, “As he was drawing near--already on the way down the Mount of Olives--the whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, saying, ‘Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!’” Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples.’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.’”
            We learn in our text that as the Lord drew near and saw the city, he wept over it. He said, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”
            Jesus weeps in sorrow because Jerusalem had rejected him. The comments by the Pharisees as he approached the city are representative of the fact that the people of the city had not believed in Jesus.  Jesus laments that they had not responded in faith. They had not recognized the things that make for peace. They did not know the time of their visitation.
            Jesus Christ is the One had come to bring peace.  In him, the visitation of God had occurred to bring the reign of God – the kingdom of God.  Filled with the Holy Spirit, Zechariah had declared at the naming of John the Baptist, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people
and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old.”
            In the Old Testament Yahweh had promised that he would send the Christ – the Messiah – who would descend from King David. This One would free God’s people from all that sin had done to them and to creation itself.  John the Baptist would prepare the way for this One. As Zechariah went on to say, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.
            As the Son of God incarnate by the work of the Holy Spirit, and born of the virgin Mary, Jesus Christ was God’s visitation that brought peace.  The angelic host announced this on the evening of his birth as they sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” 
            Jesus was present to overcome all of the ways sin oppresses us – even death itself.  At Nain he raised the widow’s son from the dead.  Fear seized the crowed, and they glorified God saying, A great prophet has arisen among us!’ and ‘God has visited his people!’” They were right.  In Jesus the reign of God was present to bring forgiveness and peace.  The Lord forgave a repentant woman and told her, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
            Yet the city of Jerusalem as a whole did not receive Jesus in faith. They did not recognize in Jesus the things that make for peace. And so our Lord declared that these had now been hidden from their eyes. God had given them over to their rejection of Jesus, and there would be judgment.  It arrived in 70 AD when the Romans laid siege to the city and destroyed it. 
            Jerusalem had rejected Jesus because they refused to accept Jesus on his terms.  They had their own ideas about what a Messiah should look like. They wanted to hang on to their own views about who God is and how he works.  They did not want to repent. They wanted to hold onto their own ideas about how to live life.
            This is always the temptation for us.  We have our own ideas about how life should work, and when it doesn’t go that way we get angry with God or decide he doesn’t really care.  We have our own ideas about what we should be able to do, and when they conflict with God’s Word we just ignore God.  We have our own ideas about what makes for peace – we look to money and career and other individuals instead of God.
            Many times, we know that we are wrong – that we are rejecting God’s Word and will.  We just choose to ignore it.  We can find ourselves unconcerned because after all, in the end, God isn’t really going to condemn us. 
            Yet Jesus’ words this morning are a call to repentance.  They are a reminder that the Christian life is a call to struggle against sin, and not just to acquiesce to it. The way of sin gets easier and easier.  The way of unbelief gets easier and easier. We cannot live in the assumption that everything will still be ok.  Jesus says in our text today to Jerusalem: “‘Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.’”
            Instead, as Christians we struggle against sin.  As Paul said, “So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”  God’s Word becomes the tool we use to do so.  When you are hearing and reading the Scriptures, the Spirit uses that to assist in the struggle against sin.  Better yet, as we learn the Scriptures by heart – as we commit them to our mind and our mind to them – they are present and ready for the Spirit to use in assisting us.  So consider: When was the last time you bothered to memorize – to learn by heart – a new Bible verse?
            Jesus Christ was the visitation by God bringing peace for you.  He was numbered with the transgressors in your place as he died on the cross for your sins. Yet Christ did not merely “get us off the hook” from judgment against sin.  He also began the new creation that has been freed from of the ways sin warped and twisted things.  In his resurrection he has begun the Last Day – he has begun the resurrection and restoration of all things.
            Because of Jesus Christ we now have peace.  In fact, peace was at the heart of some of the risen Lord’s first words to the gathered disciples.  He appeared in their midst on Sunday evening and said, “Peace be with you.”
            Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we have peace.  We have the peace of sins forgiven.  We have the peace of death defeated.  We have the peace of a resurrection future in the new creation.
            This kind of peace is not something that can be kept to oneself. Instead, it simply must be shared in word and deed.  It is shared most directly as we tell others about the source of this peace – Jesus Christ.  It is shared as we speak words of forgiveness and reconciliation and encouragement to others.  It is shared as we act in ways that help and support others.
            By God’s grace, we know the things that make for peace. We know that God’s saving visitation has occurred in Jesus Christ.  And we also know that this same saving work continues to visit us through our Lord’s Means of Grace here and now.