Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Commemoration of Elijah

 Today we remember and give thanks for the prophet Elijah.  Elijah, whose name means, “My God is Yahweh [the Lord],” prophesied in the northern kingdom of Israel, mostly during the reign of Ahab (874–853 B.C.). Ahab, under the influence of his pagan wife Jezebel, had encouraged the worship of Baal throughout his kingdom, even as Jezebel sought to get rid of the worship of Yahweh. Elijah was called by God to denounce this idolatry and to call the people of Israel back to the worship Yahweh as the only true God (as he did in 1 Kgs 18:20–40). Elijah was a rugged and imposing figure, living in the wilderness and dressing in a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt (2 Kgs 1:8). He was a prophet mighty in word and deed. Many miracles were done through Elijah, including the raising of the dead (1 Kgs 17:17–24), and the effecting of a long drought in Israel (1 Kgs 17:1). At the end of his ministry, he was taken up into heaven as Elisha, his successor, looked on (2 Kgs 2:11). Later on the prophet Malachi proclaimed that Elijah would return before the coming of the Messiah (Mal 4:5–6), a prophecy that was fulfilled in the prophetic ministry of John the Baptist (Mt 11:14). 

Collect of the Day: Lord God, heavenly Father, through the prophet Elijah, you continued the prophetic pattern of teaching your people the truth faith and demonstrating through miracles your presence in creation to heal it of its brokenness.  Grant that your Church may see in your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the final end-times prophet whose teaching and miracles continue in your Church through the healing medicine of the Gospel and the Sacraments; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Trinity - Rom 6:19-23

                                                                                             Trinity 7
                                                                                              Rom 6:19-23

“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” That’s how the apostle Paul began this chapter of his letter to the Romans. Paul had just described how God had responded to the sin of the one man, Adam. He had written, “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous.”

The apostle has just described God’s answer to sin in Jesus Christ. At the end of chapter five he had told of how God’s grace had outstripped sin in order to give us life. He said, “Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

God’s grace in Jesus has abounded beyond sin in order to give us eternal life. God’s righteousness – his saving action to put all things right – has justified us through faith in Christ. The apostle has made it clear that all of this is a matter of God’s grace, and not of works. It can’t be earned. Instead it is God’s grace in Christ that has overcome sin.

You are forgiven. You don’t have to do anything. In fact, you can’t do anything. But as fallen people, we are always looking for an angle we can work. If I am forgiven by God’s grace in Christ and I don’t have to do anything, doesn’t this mean that I am now free to do what I want? Paul answers this directly with that rhetorical question in the first verse of chapter six as he asks, ““What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?”

Paul says that it can’t work this way because we have shared in the death of the risen Lord. The apostle takes us back to our baptism. In now famous words he writes, “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.”

When you were baptized you were buried with Christ. Only one kind of person is buried – a dead one. The apostle is saying that in baptism you shared in the saving death of Jesus. His death became yours, and therefore you received the saving benefits he won for you. Martin Luther described this as the “great exchange.” Jesus Christ received your sin and judgment. You received his righteousness and the status of being a child of God.

Jesus Christ died for you. But then, on the third day, God raised him from the dead. Now Jesus’ resurrection provides the guarantee that you will be raised too. In 1 Corinthians Paul describes the risen Lord as the “first fruits” of the resurrection – he is the first part that assures us all the rest will follow. God raised and transformed Jesus’ body, and therefore you know that he will do the same for you on the Last Day when Christ returns in glory.

But in this section of Romans, Jesus’ resurrection and defeat of death has another significance. It is one that applies not to the future, but to the present. Paul says, “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.” The connection Paul makes is between Christ being raised from the dead and we as Christians walking in newness of life.

At this point in the letter the connection remains implicit. But in chapter eight Paul makes it clear. The Holy Spirit is the One who links Jesus’ resurrection with how we live now. He says, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” 

The Holy Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead is in you as well. On the Last Day, the Spirit will do to you the same thing he did for Jesus. But it’s not as if the Spirit is just “hanging out” until then. Instead, the Spirit is at work in Christians to enable them to live in ways that fulfill God’s will. The power of the resurrection is already at work in you to help you live as a child of God.

Now if that was all there is to it, I could stop this sermon right here. In fact, we could end the service right now. But unfortunately, it’s not. While we are a new creation in Christ through the work of the Spirit, we are also still old man. The sinful, fallen nature still clings to us. That’s why Paul will go on to say in chapter seven, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” We find it easy to act in selfish ways. We find it easy to act in ways that ignore God and our neighbor, and instead serve me.

Because of this reality, just before our text Paul writes, “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.”
Because of the work of the Spirit we have been brought from death to life. And so Paul urges us to present our bodies to God as instruments of rightouesness. The apostle says that we are slaves to whatever we obey. He writes, “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?” 

So in our text Paul goes on to say, “I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.” The apostle says that before the Romans were Christians they presented their bodies to sin in a way that simply resulted in more sin. But now he urges them to present their bodies as slaves to God’s saving action which results in their sanctification. It makes them holy before God’s eyes because of Christ, and also through God’s Spirit causes them to live in ways that are true to God’s will.

This past Monday we celebrated the Fourth of July – Independence Day. We celebrated the fact that our nation became free from England and then went on to guarantee freedoms to the citizens of this nation. We like to think of ourselves as being free. But the apostle says that when it comes to spiritual matters, there is no freedom. We are either slaves of sin, or we are slaves of God and his righteousness. Paul says in our text, “For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.”

You can be free from doing things God’s way. But that only means that you are a slave of sin. And to be free from God’s and his righteousness – his action to put all things right – can only result in death. Those are the wages of sin. That is what sin gets you – death. It brings physical death. It also condemns to eternal death – to separation from God.
On the other hand, those who have been freed from sin are still enslaved. Yet now they are enslaved to God. And where God’s saving righteousness is at work it produces the fruit of sanctification. It produces fruit that leads to eternal life.

It produces fruit that leads to sanctification and eternal life because the source of this fruit is the righteousness of God. It’s not what we do that produces this life. Instead, as Paul says at the end of our text, “but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
You have died with Christ in baptism. You have been buried with him. Because of Jesus the risen Lord your sins have been forgiven and now the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead is a work in you. This is a gift. You have received it only because of God’s grace – his undeserved loving favor. You receive it only by faith and not by doing. In Christ the righteousness of God – his saving action to put all things right – has given you salvation and eternal life.

Your calling now is to be what God has made you to be. This can only happen if your life remains focused on what God used to make you a justified believer in the first place. It must remain focused on God’s Means of Grace. We return in faith to baptism for there we have the certainty of forgiveness and the source of the Spirit’s work in our life. We listen to the life giving Word of God preached to us. And we come to the Sacrament for here Jesus feeds the new man.

Through these means God enables us to listen to Paul’s words in our text when he says: “For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.” We do this because of what God has done for us; because of what God has made us to be. We do this because we know that “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Trinity - Mt 5:20-26

                                                                                                    Trinity 6
                                                                                                     Mt 5:20-26

Do you have a “know it all” in your life? You know what I mean. Is there a person who always has to correct what you say? Is there a person who just can’t leave a statement you make alone and instead always adds some additional piece of information? Is there a person who always has to one up you when you say something to show that he or she knows more or has experienced more?

Normally we find this annoying. It becomes a grating experience to say something and then just know that this other person can’t leave it alone. Every time we say something around this person we cringe as we wait for the inevitable comment or correction.

Well in our Gospel lesson today, Jesus is a know it all. In fact, for more than half of a chapter in Matthew our Lord does nothing except play the role of a know it all. We hear him say in our text, “You have heard that it was said to those of old.” And then after supplying the content of the statement Jesus then adds, “But I say to you.” Jesus does not just do this once. In fact, he does this six times in a row before chapter five is done. “You have heard it said … But I say to you.” “You have heard it said … But I say to you.” “You have heard it said … But I say to you.” “You have heard it said … But I say to you.” “You have heard it said … But I say to you.” “You have heard it said … But I say to you.” 

Our text is found in the Sermon on the Mount that takes up chapters five through seven in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus goes up on a mountain, sits down and his disciples come to him. Then Jesus begins to teach. He starts with the famous words of the Beatitudes. He says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus begins by saying that because of him, those who are helpless in the face of sin already now have received God’s saving reign. In Jesus, the saving reign of God has entered into the world, and therefore already now they enjoy the end time blessing of God. It’s the same point that Jesus makes in the last beatitude when he says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Of course, at this point in the Gospel Jesus hasn’t even died on the cross and risen from the dead, much less returned on the Last Day. So in the middle six beatitudes, Jesus speaks of this blessing as being one that is yet to come. So he says in the second beatitude, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” It is classic expression of the “now and the not yet” of the Christian life.

This statement of Gospel determines how we are to understand everything that follows in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus speaks to those who have received the saving reign of God in Jesus Christ. It is a gift. It is a gift that Jesus will explain more clearly as the Gospel moves on. In chapter 20 he will tell them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.” And shortly after this he states, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus brings the reign of God by dying on the cross for you. He gives his holy life in exchange for your sinful one. And because it is God the Father who sent him to do this, his sacrifice gives you forgiveness. This is the very thing that he gives you now in the Sacrament, for as our Lord says in this Gospel at the Last Supper, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

Because of this you are forgiven now. You enjoy the blessing of the reign of God now. But Jesus didn’t just die. He also rose from the dead. Resurrection is a Last Day thing. Yet in Jesus, the Last Day has already begun. And so now we live as people who are waiting for Jesus to raise us up and transform us to be like him. For that reason, the middle six beatitudes are expressed as being something that will occur in the future. 

Our Lord declares that this is what has happened. This is what is already true for you. This is also what will be true for you. And simply stated … that makes a difference. Immediately after the Beatitudes Jesus says about us, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

It is not that the reign of God frees us to do whatever we want. In the verses just before our text Jesus says very clearly, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Jesus came to fulfill them by accomplishing the saving work of God promised in the Old Testament. He also came to fulfill them by providing the authoritative and clear understanding of what they mean – of what life in the reign of God looks like.

Our text begins as Jesus says, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Now there are two things to understand here. First, we can’t understand this verse in a way that contradicts the Gospel opening of the sermon. Jesus is not saying that you do things in order to be saved!

And second, we need to be sure we understand who the Pharisees really were. We think of the Pharisees as being a legalistic group that set stringent standards and then considered themselves righteous and special because they did them. 

However, this is only partially true. In their “tradition of the elders” they did add rules to life – things like the ritual washing of hands that were in fact only commanded of priests. They focused on these kinds of things – much like the medieval Catholic church focused on their own made up works like going on pilgrimages. But in many areas of life, the Pharisees actually made the law easier to keep by focusing only on the letter of the law in their explanations.

That’s what Jesus blows up in our text. Six times Jesus says, “You have heard it said … But I say to you.” Each time he takes a superficial and incorrect understanding that was present in the Judaism of his day and tells us that it is wrong. He is, after all, the true know it all because he really does know it all. He is Emmanuel – God with us.

Jesus states, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”

People like the Pharisees said that Fifth Commandment meant: “Don’t kill someone.” But Jesus says it is far deeper. It is about the anger of the heart that is the source of murder. It is about the attitude of the heart that dismisses another person as worthless – the attitude that really says they shouldn’t live.

Jesus’ words cut us. That’s what the Law does to sinners. We know that we have anger towards others. We know that we dismiss others as of little value. We call people “idiot” and the like.

Yet as those who have received the reign of God in Jesus, we also know how to respond to this. First off – and this is really important – we view anger as sin. We take Jesus’ perspective on this, not the world’s. The world says that you should be angry – that you should speak and act in outrage. The internet is often one big cesspool of anger.

But because of what Jesus has done for us in his death and resurrection, we say, “No. That’s not ok.” Instead, when we feel anger at another person we confess to God that it is sin. In faith we return to our baptism through which we know God has given us forgiveness. In faith we come again to the Sacrament of the Altar to receive the body and blood of Christ, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.

And then, we deal with it as those who have received the reign of God in Christ. We forgive others, even as Jesus teaches later in the Sermon on the Mount when he teaches us to prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
We don’t just forgive, but we seek to be reconciled with others. In our text Jesus goes on to say, “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”

Jesus describes a situation in his day when the temple was in operation in Jerusalem and faithful Jews offered sacrifices there as God had commanded. But note, our Lord is not just saying if you are angry to go and be reconciled. Instead, he goes a step beyond that and says that if “your brother has something against you” drop everything, go and be reconciled. If we are to seek reconciliation when we have caused another to feel angry, how much more are we to seek it when we ourselves feel angry!

It is the Spirit of God who enables us to view this in the way of Jesus and then act upon it. It is the Spirit who caused us to be born again through water and the Word. It is the Spirit of Christ who has created faith in Jesus and brought us into God’s reign. 

Jesus has changed everything for us. We are now the forgiven children of God who have the assurance of resurrection and eternal life because of the Lord. We no longer see things in the way of the world. And because of Jesus we choose to act differently. We see anger as sin. We forgive those who have wronged us. We seek to be reconciled with those who have wronged us and with those whom we have wronged. After all, we have received the saving reign of God in Jesus Christ.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Trinity - Lk 5:1-11

                                                                                                   Trinity 5
                                                                                                    Lk 5:1-11

Over the years, I have preached and taught in a number of different settings. When I was a student at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, you were assigned to a field work church for the first two years. In this setting you began to lead parts of the liturgy, to teach Bible class and to preach for the first time. The third year was vicarage, when you were assigned to a church somewhere in the U.S. and worked there for a year under the oversight of a pastor as you learned and gained experience.

When you returned to the seminary for the fourth year, there were no longer any requirements on Sunday. You were free to attend church wherever you wanted. During this time, many seminarians took part in pulpit supply – they would fill in and preach in Missouri and Illinois congregations in order to gain experience and make a little money. During that year, and then the next year when Amy and I were both doing graduate work I did this quite a bit. And then while I was doing doctoral work in New Testament studies I continued to preach and teach in north Texas congregations.

I have preached in old pulpits where the surface for the sermon manuscript was so small that I had to take scissors and cut off all of the margins of the sermon so that nothing but the words remained. I preached at a pulpit that was nothing but plexiglass and it felt more like I was on a spaceship movie set than at a church.

I have preached from raised pulpits, and in settings where the raised pulpit was directly above the altar. Some of these settings had balconies and I always found it odd to look down on most of the congregation and then look my right and left at people who were exactly at eye level with me. And then recently when I was up in Canada I preached at a church that was originally built as a monastery. There the pews were all set up in choir – they were on each wall facing one another. So when I looked straight forward where you would normally see the congregation there was no one there. Instead, in order to make eye contact I had to keep going back and forth from left to right looking at each wall. It was a very odd experience indeed!

Over the years I have taught in church basements and classrooms. I have taught in fellowship rooms and large multipurpose rooms. I have taught at the Concordia Seminary auditorium and in large hotel conference rooms. But in all of those experiences I have never been forced to improvise like Jesus does in our text this morning. I have never taught people along the shore of a lake while sitting in a boat. Jesus is forced to do this because a crowd is pressing in to hear him. When we look back at the end of chapter four that leads into our text, it’s not hard to understand why. Jesus had gone to Capernaum and was teaching there. Luke tells us, “And he was teaching them on the Sabbath, and they were astonished at his teaching, for his word possessed authority.” People could tell that Jesus’ teaching was just different. 

Then Jesus rebukes a demon and casts it out of man after it cries out, “Ha! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.” The people were left wondering: “What is this word? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and they come out!” And the word about Jesus went out into the surrounding area.

Next Jesus went to Simon Peter’s home, where his mother-in-law was ill with a fever. Jesus rebuked the fever and healed her. And then Luke tells us, “Now when the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to him, and he laid his hands on every one of them and healed them. And demons also came out of many, crying, ‘You are the Son of God!’ But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Christ.” The people wanted him to stay – it’s easy to understand why! But Jesus said, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.”

In our text we learn that Jesus was standing along the lake of Gennesaret – another name for the Sea of Galilee - as the crowd was pressing in on him. We hear that Jesus saw two boats on the shore, with their owners cleaning the nets after a night of fishing. Our Lord got into the boat that belonged to Simon Peter and asked him to put out from the shore. And when Peter had done this, Jesus taught the crow on shore as he sat in the boat.

Considering what has just happened in Luke’s Gospel, it’s not hard to understand why Peter grants Jesus’ request. But then, our Lord tells Peter to do something that made Peter wonder. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” 

Now Peter made his living as a fisherman. He knew that on the Sea of Galilee you do your fishing at night when the fish come into shallower water. You don’t do it in the middle of the day. But it was Jesus who had told him to do this. So he replied, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.”

At Jesus’ word, Peter did something that made no sense. The result was astonishing. The nets enclosed such a large number of fish that they started to break. In fact, Simon Peter signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and when they came and filled both of the boats to the point that they began to sink because of the weight of the fish.

And how did Peter respond? Did he rejoice at the tremendous catch of fish that defied all the normal rules of fishing? Did he get excited about the great money they would make that day from the sale of the fish? No, we learn in our text that he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”

At that moment Peter recognized that he was in the presence of God at work. As he found himself in such close proximity to God he was overcome with an overwhelming sense of dread. All that he could perceive was that he was a sinner and he had no business being there with Jesus.

That’s the way it is in the Scriptures when people find themselves in God’s presence. When Isaiah found himself before Yahweh on the throne his response was same: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”

The recognition of our sin is something that we try to avoid. We seek to minimize it by comparing ourselves with others. After all we don’t those terrible things. We seek to minimize it by defining away sin. And in this, the world pitches right in to help us. Breaking the Eighth Commandment by harming our neighbor’s reputation is not sin – that’s just the way you act on social media. There’s nothing wrong with looking at those images or video - after all it’s not hardcore porn.

Yet these attempted evasions do not change the fact that our sin is an affront to the holy God. They don’t help us to escape the consequence of sin. If we are honest, they don’t really help us to escape the knowledge that we are sinners before God.

Peter confessed what he was. He confessed that he was a sinner. And then in his response Jesus said two things. First he told Peter, “Do not be afraid.” Our Lord tells Peter not to fear because of who he is and what he had come to do. In the previous chapter Jesus began his public ministry by preaching at the synagogue in Nazareth. There he declared that these words of Isaiah were being fulfilled in his ministry: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.”

Jesus came to proclaim the good news that through him there is release from sin. Jesus came to bring forgiveness – he came to bring release from all of the ways that sin has warped and twist us and our lives in this world. That’s what we see Jesus doing already as he casts out demons and heals the sick. He came to defeat sin by his death on the cross as he was numbered with the transgressors and offered himself in our place. 

And then in his resurrection on the third day Jesus began the release from that final enemy – death. Because of Jesus the risen Lord there is no need to fear. Already now we have forgiveness and eternal life with God. And we know that just as our Lord rose bodily from the grave, so also he will raise us up to be like him on the Last Day. 

The Lord Jesus told Peter not to fear. And then he went on to add: “from now on you will be catching men.” Jesus called Peter to be part of this saving enterprise. No longer would he use nets to catch fish. Instead, he would use the preached word of the Gospel to catch people for Christ. He would use the Gospel to bring sinners into the boat of Christ’s Church. And sure enough, Peter and his companions brought their boats to land, left everything and followed Jesus.

Jesus has not called you to the specific vocation of preaching the Gospel in the same way that he called the apostle Peter. But through baptism he has made you part of his body the Church. And this means that your life shares in the purpose of his Church. By what you say and what you do you are to live lives that look to draw in others. 

This needs to become our mindset – the way in which we daily approach life. We seek to share Christ’ love with others through deeds. We look for opportunities to tell others about what Jesus Christ has done for them. We patiently live in this way because of what God has done for us in Christ. And then we leave the final results of the catch to God.