Sunday, January 22, 2017

Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany - Mt 8:1-13

                                                                                                            Epiphany 3
                                                                                                            Mt 8:1-13

            The 1998 movie “The Thin Red Line” depicts the U.S. Army’s 25th infantry division as it participated in the final push to drive the Japanese off of the island of Guadalcanal.  The film portrays the assault at Mount Austen at the end of December 1942 and the beginning of January 1943.  There the Americans took heavy losses as they attacked a group of hills where the Japanese had built a strong defensive position.  Multiple camouflaged bunkers at the top of the hills protected machine guns with interlocking fields of fire.  The Japanese had sited in their mortars on the approaches of the hills where the Americans would have to advance.
            The movie portrays the beginning of the assault as the Americans advance up the first rise.  They walk through tall grass in silence.  After advancing some distance, the lieutenant leading the assault orders the men to halt as they as drop down into the grass. There is no sound except the wind blowing through the grass that now conceals them. 
            The lieutenant looks through his binoculars out toward the rise and the hills beyond it.  There is no movement.  There is no sound.  There is nothing except the tall grass swaying in the wind on the hill that rises up ahead of them.
            And then, the lieutenant motions to the two soldiers ahead of him and uses hand signals to indicate that he is ordering them to take point and advance ahead of the rest of the group.  The men look back at the officer and then at each other in fear.  The lieutenant again emphatically signals his order.  The two soldiers look at each other in resignation and then with a glance they try to encourage each other. They rise up and after they have advanced about twenty feet two shots suddenly ring out and they drop dead.
            The scene in the movie dramatically portrays the authority of the chain of command in the military.  The lieutenant is in command at that place and the soldiers he is leading are under his authority.  If he gives them an order, they must carry it out.  They don’t get to ask for a discussion to see whether the officer can persuade them that this is a good idea.  He has authority over them and so they must carry out his order – even if it means advancing into danger.
            In the Gospel lesson for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Jesus interacts with a man who knows all about how authority works.  He is a soldier – a centurion.  And he has come to Jesus because he has faith in Jesus’ authority to heal his servant.
            We learn in our text that when Jesus entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him as he said, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.”  At the time, Capernaum and Galilee were not under direct Roman rule.  Instead, Herod Antipas – a son of Herod the Great – ruled there as a petty king.  The Romans allowed him to rule this land, but there was no doubt about who was in charge – the Romans were.
            As a petty king, Herod Antipas could be called upon to supply military units to assist the Romans.  These auxiliary units were organized along the lines of the Roman army. The foundational unit of the Roman army was the century which usually had around eighty men. The unit was led by a centurion who usually had worked his way up through the ranks and had about twenty years of military service.  The centurions were the backbone of the Roman army, providing experienced tactical leadership for the most fundamental part of the army.
            There was no shortage of non-Jews – Gentiles – in that immediate area and it was not uncommon for them to be recruited into Herod’s forces.  They would, after all, have no compunction about acting against the Jews who inhabited Herod’s lands if the king ordered this.  This centurion was one such Gentile.
            The centurion said to Jesus, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.”  What is truly striking here is that a Gentile centurion addresses a Jewish civilian as “Lord.”  The centurion was the one who had the authority - he was the army, the force that maintained control.  And he was a Gentile, a group that looked down on Jews – especially in those boundary areas where Jews and Gentiles had historically come into conflict.
            Yet here this Gentile centurion comes to Jesus. He addresses Jesus as “Lord” and describes how his servant is ill and in need of help.  The centurion had lived a rough life.  He was no stranger to discomfort and pain.  So when he says that the servant is “suffering terribly,” it was probably rather severe.
            Jesus said, “I will come and heal him.” The centurion’s reply demonstrated that he understood who really had the authority.  He said to Jesus, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, 'Go,' and he goes, and to another, 'Come,' and he comes, and to my servant,'Do this,' and he does it."
            The centurion again called Jesus “Lord” and said that he was not worthy for Jesus to come to his house.  Instead, Jesus had the authority to speak and bring about healing.  It was as certain as the fact that if the centurion told a soldier to do something, he had to do it. The centurion had faith in Jesus.  He had faith in the authority of the Lord.
            That trust in the Lord Jesus and his authority is something with which we often struggle.  The circumstances of life bring difficulties and challenges, and it shakes our confidence in him.  Instead, we tend to doubt whether the Lord Jesus is really in charge.  And beyond this, we often don’t want Jesus to have authority.  We don’t want the Lord to tell us what we are to do through his word.  We want to be in charge so that we can do what seems best for me.  We want to be free to serve ourselves and to look out for #1.  We want to be free to do whatever we find enjoyable – whatever brings us pleasure.
            Yet this is a delusion that brings us harm.  It is sin that sets us in opposition to God – and that is always a losing proposition.  It is a path that in the long term leads to eternal judgment.  And it is a path that brings us harm because rejecting the way the Creator set up life to work does not turn out well.
            The centurion recognized Jesus’ authority.  He looked in faith to Jesus. He believed that Jesus only had to speak the word to heal his servant. When he saw this, Jesus marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.  I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Then he said to the centurion, “Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed at that very moment.
            During Epiphany we celebrate and remember that in Jesus Christ the saving glory of God was revealed in the world.  Matthew tells us that in his ministry, Jesus’ authority was revealed. The verse just before our Gospel lesson concludes the Sermon on the Mount and we learn that, “the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.”  In the next chapter Jesus will heal a paralytic to show that he has authority on earth to forgive sins.
            Jesus has authority because he is the incarnate Son of God in whom the reign of God entered into the world.  He is Emmanuel - God with us - as God acts to defeat Satan, sin and death.  Jesus’ death on the cross has redeemed you from your sins – he has freed you by winning forgiveness.  And in his resurrection from the dead he has freed you from death because in his resurrection you see the beginning of your own resurrection. 
            Jesus’ ministry took place two thousand years ago in Palestine.  But his authority is still here.  Literally, in our text the centurion asks Jesus to heal the servant as he speaks “with a word.”  That authoritative word of Jesus is still with us now in the word of Holy Scripture as it is read and proclaimed.
            We heard the authoritative word of Jesus this morning as Drew was baptized, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  It is the same word that was spoken in your baptism – the word that turned water into the means by which you have shared in the saving death of Jesus Christ.
            And we hear the authoritative word of Jesus every Sunday as he says, “This is my body … This cup is the new testament in my blood.”  This authoritative word continues to do what it says as our Lord uses bread and wine to give us his true body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. In the celebration of the Sacrament we receive a foretaste of the meal the Lord describes in our text – the feast of salvation when many will come from the east and the west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of God.
            This truth from our text gives us comfort and strength.  But there is also a caution here – a reminder that the Christian life is one of real faith. As Jesus praises the faith of a Gentile and describes how Gentiles too will share in salvation, he says, “the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  It was easy for the Jews of Jesus’ day to assume that salvation was theirs simply because they descended from Abraham.  Jesus says it’s not so.
            In the same way it is easy for Christians – Lutherans included – to assume that because their name is on a church roster; because their family has been Christian; because they go to Christmas Eve and Easter Sunday services, that salvation is in the bag.  But Jesus says it’s not so.
            Instead, those who have faith in Jesus have salvation.  And what does that faith look like?  Well, God’s Word tells us that it continues to draw near to the Means of Grace to receive Jesus’ authoritative word. It wants to hear that word proclaimed, to study that word and to receive the body and blood of Jesus that word provides.  For in these ways forgiveness is received, and faith is sustained and strengthened.
            And faith – if it really is faith – acts in love. It acts in ways that point to Jesus.  It acts in ways that Jesus makes possible – ways that follow in Jesus’ footsteps of service toward others.  As we see in our Gospel lesson, Jesus has authority. But he uses that authority to help others.  He used it to help you as he died on the cross and rose from the dead. And now the life of faith in the Lord provides the comfort of forgiveness, and it moves us to love and serve those whom God places in our life. 

Friday, January 20, 2017

Commemoration of Sarah

Today we remember and give thanks for Sarah.  Sarah was the wife of the patriarch Abraham.  She was childless, well into old age.  Then, in keeping with God’s promise she gave birth to a son, as God continued to work out the fulfillment of His promise to Abraham, “And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:3).  She is remembered and honored as the wife of Abraham and as the mother of Isaac, the second of the three patriarchs, and so was part God’s plan for the birth of the Savior, Jesus Christ.

Collect of the Day:
Lord and Father of all, you looked with favor upon Sarai in her advanced years, putting on her a new name, Sarah, and with it the promise of multitudinous blessings from her aged womb.  Give us a youthful hope in the joy of our own new name, being baptized into the promised Messiah, that we too, might be fruitful in your kingdom, abounding in the works of your Spirit; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Feast of the Confession of St. Peter

Today is the Feast of Confession of Peter.  This event reminds us that there are incorrect answers and a correct answer to Jesus’ question: “But who do you say that I am?”  In Matthew’s account of this event, we are told that it was the Father who enabled St. Peter to make this confession (Matthew 16:17).  Through the work of the Holy Spirit, we continue to answer our Lord’s question today in our use of the ecumenical Creeds of the Church.  The confession of the person of Jesus as Christ is then immediately tied to His work as our Lord goes on to predict His passion for the first time.  Jesus’ words teach us that the confession of Christ will often prompt us to take up the cross and follow Him.

Scripture reading: 
And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him.  And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”  And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it. (Mark 8:27-35).

Collect of the Day:
Heavenly Father, You revealed to the apostle Peter the blessed truth that Your Son Jesus is the Christ. Strengthen us by the proclamation of this truth that we too may joyfully confess that there is salvation in no one else; through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany - Jn 2:1-11

                                                                                                Epiphany 2
                                                                                                Jn 2:1-11

            On a normal day, at some point after 4:00 p.m., I have a glass of wine.  By then I am home from work and any homework that needed assistance or checking has been completed.  It’s not yet time to start thinking about dinner and any assistance that I need to provide in helping to get things ready.  Instead, for twenty or thirty minutes I can sit down and relax.  I enjoy sipping a glass of wine while catching up on the news, looking at social media or browsing through a train book.
            I used to drink white wines, but along the way – I think it was about ten years ago when we arrived in Marion – I shifted to red wines.  I enjoy a Merlot, or a Cabernet Sauvignon or a Shiraz.  One thing that has not changed is that I drink relatively inexpensive wine.  We usually buy the large 1.5 liter bottle, and I am not going to pay over $12 for it.
            Now I am certainly no wine connoisseur.  I am perfectly content drinking the wine that we buy.  But once in awhile I get a chance to drink something better.  My parents have similar, reasonable purchasing habits when it comes to wine.  However, when there are special family occasions, like when everyone is home for Thanksgiving, they like to splurge and buy something better than normal. 
            It doesn’t happen very often, but on those occasions when I get to drink more expensive wine, I am reminded that there really is a difference.  Better wine tastes … better.  In this case, it is more expensive for a reason.  And I have found that it would be really easy to get used to drinking it if finances allowed.  As it is, we will stay with the $10 to $12 1.5 liter bottle and focus instead on sending our kids to college.
            In the Gospel lesson for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany the man in charge of a wedding feast tastes some wine that has been brought to him.  He recognizes that this is good wine – better than what had been served thus far in a wedding feast that was well under way.  This is a source of great surprise to him because the best wine has not been served until everyone has already drunk freely.    Yet he doesn’t even know the real surprise.  The wine itself is part of sign that is revealing the glory of the Son of God who has become flesh and is dwelling in this world.
             We are in the season of Epiphany.  The word “Epiphany” is derived from a Greek word that means “to appear.”  During Epiphany, we are celebrating the fact that the saving glory of God appeared in our world through the incarnation of the Son of God, Jesus Christ.  As I described in my newsletter article this month, originally four events were often viewed together as appearances – “epiphanies” – of this saving glory.  The early Church grouped together the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, the visit by the magi, the baptism of Jesus and the miracle of turning water into wine at Cana. Continuing in this tradition, three of those were mentioned in our processional hymn this morning – “Songs of Thankfulness and Praise.”
            We celebrated Christmas on Dec. 25.  On Jan. 6 we celebrated Epiphany – the visit by the magi to the Christ child.  And then last Sunday we celebrated the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River.  Today, we take up the fourth of these, the miracle at Cana.
            We learn in the Gospel lesson that there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee.  Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited.  While they were there, disaster struck the celebration – the people putting on the wedding feast realized that they had run out of wine.
            This summer Brittany Drury will be getting married.  Imagine how all those involved in the wedding would feel if they realized that they didn’t have enough champagne for all of the guests at the wedding reception to take part in the traditional toasts.  They would certainly be upset and somewhat embarrassed.  Yet the situation at Cana was a far more embarrassing and humiliating event because of the importance of the wedding feast and the expectations about celebrations in the ancient world – there had to be wine.
            Jesus’ mother said to Jesus, “They have no wine.”  Mary knew who Jesus was and that he would help.  Yet Jesus replied, “Woman, what does this have to do with me?  My hour has not yet come.” The tone of Jesus’ answer probably surprises us.  But the thing we really need to pay attention to is the reference to his “hour.” 
            In John’s Gospel, the “hour” is when Jesus is crucified.  Jesus is carrying out the saving mission given to him by the Father, and this mission is following a specific timetable.  On several occasions we learn about how people want to seize Jesus in anger, yet each time they are unable to do so because John tells us, “his hour had not yet come.”  It is not yet Jesus’ hour.  But we soon learn that the event at the wedding in Cana points forward to this hour.
            Jesus did, in fact, take an interest in the situation.  He had servant fill six large stone jars with water.  Then he told them to draw some and to take it to the master of the feast.  When he tasted it, the water had been turned into wine.  And in fact, it was better wine than had been served thus far at the wedding!
            Then at the end of our text John adds this crucial statement: “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.”  John calls the event a “sign” and says that it manifested Jesus’ glory.
            John has begun his Gospel by saying about Jesus, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.  John tells us that Jesus is God in the flesh.  He is true God, begotten of his Father from all eternity, and is also true man, born of the virgin Mary.  In this miracle and others that follow Jesus begins to reveal his glory.  He begins to reveal who he is.  And he moves towards the goal of his mission when he will be glorified.  As Jesus said during Holy Week, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”
            In John’s Gospel Jesus’ glorification occurs in his crucifixion.  But it is not limited to this.  Instead, it includes the cross, enters the tomb, and then leads out of the tomb in the resurrection and on to the Father in the ascension. So John can say about the event of the entrance to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, “His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to him.”
            John describes the miracle at Cana as the first sign that Jesus did – a sign whereby he manifested his glory.  We begin to learn here that Jesus’ saving glory is fully revealed at the hour of his crucifixion. During Holy Week Jesus said, “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." And then John tells us, “He said this to show” – literally, “to sign” – “by what kind of death he was going to die.”
            Jesus did this because we live in a world of darkness.  He did it because we were trapped in this darkness – a darkness of sin and death. Our Lord said, “I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.”  Jesus offered himself on the cross as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  And then he rose on the third day as the One who is the resurrection and the life.
            In his death and resurrection Jesus has been glorified as the One who gives forgiveness and eternal life.  John tells us that the miracle at Cana was the first sign that revealed his saving glory.  You and I weren’t there to see it.  But John wants us to know that we are not therefore cut off from this revelation.  Instead at the end of his Gospel he writes, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
            We see the signs that evoke and support faith in the words of John’s Gospel.  In fact, it is the Spirit who reveals Jesus’ glory to us through these words.  Jesus said to the disciples, “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.  And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.”
            Jesus worked a miracle at a wedding feast that involved wine as he manifested his saving glory.  And now Jesus continues to work a miracle in our midst that uses wine – a miracle that points to the marriage feast of the Lamb in his kingdom which has no end.  He uses bread and wine in the Sacrament of the Altar to give us his true body and blood, given and shed for you. He reveals his saving glory – he gives you the benefits of his cross here and now so that you will also share in the glory of his resurrection on the Last Day.  As Jesus said, “For whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the Last Day.”
            This is what Jesus is doing through his Means of Grace. This is what Jesus wants to do.  Yet for this to happen, it is something that must be used.  It is something that must be received.  Only in this way do we receive the signs that reveal Jesus’ saving glory.  Only in this way are we sustained in faith that leads to eternal life.
            And only in this way can we be what Jesus intends for us to be because of him.  At the Last Supper Jesus washed his disciples’ feet and then he said, “You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am.  If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet.  For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.”
            Jesus loved and served us so that we can love and serve others because of him.  He said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." You don’t have to look in order to find the people you are to love and serve.  They are right next to you in these pews.  They are right next to you at the dinner table at home. Their head is on the pillow right next to you in bed each night.
            Jesus works a miracle this morning in our Gospel lesson. He turns water into wine – a sign that manifests his glory.  It is a sign that points to his death and resurrection for you. And now in Word and Sacrament the he continues to give you signs – signs that reveal his saving glory here and now as he gives you forgiveness and eternal life.