Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Sermon for Thanksgiving Eve

                                                                                                Thanksgiving Eve
                                                                                                Deut. 8:1-10

            Not every meal at the Surburg house is met with thanksgiving.  There are several younger individuals – I won’t name names – who have strong feelings about what they don’t like. And sometimes, they are not hesitant to make their feelings known.
            Now admittedly, none of us likes everything equally well.  There are some things we really enjoy.  There are some things that we think are just ok. And then there are some things that we really don’t like all that much.  However, part of growing up is realizing that it’s not polite to express dislike in a straightforward way. There is a time, a place and way to share what you really think.  However, right before dinner when the menu is announced is not the time, and this is not the way to do it: Ehhhh!!! I don’t like that!
            During the wandering in the wilderness, God provided manna to Israel.  Each morning, when the dew disappeared, there was a fine, flake like substance on the ground – fine as frost. Moses told the people that this was the bread from heaven and they were to gather up as much as they needed for that day.  The people had never seen anything like it.  In fact the name “manna” could be translated as “whatchmacallit.” 
            Now this was not the reaction of people who were about to sit down to a meal they could not wait to eat.  But if you are hungry and facing the possibility of starvation, I suppose you eat what is available.  And to be honest, it doesn’t sound all that bad.  We are told that the taste of manna was like wafers made with honey. God provided this manna all during the forty years in the wilderness. 
            The people ate the manna; and ate the manna; and ate the manna.  And one day they said, “Ehhhh!!! I don’t like that!”  They said, “Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”  They did not exactly react with thanksgiving for the life sustaining food that God was providing.
            In our Old Testament lesson for Thanksgiving, we learn there was a reason that God did this.  Moses says, “And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.”
            Moses said that God was humbling the people of Israel.  He was humbling them in order to test them – to see what was in their hearts.  He was testing them to see whether they would be faithful to Yahweh by keeping his commandments.  In fact, God was using the manna not just in order to provide for their physical needs.  He was using it to teach them that man does not live by bread alone, but instead by every word that comes from the mouth of Yahweh.  He was using it to teach them that life was lived by relying on God – by listening to him, and by believing and trusting his word.
            God had done this with food.  He had also done it with clothing and their physical well being. We hear in our text, “Your clothing did not wear out on you and your foot did not swell these forty years.”  God had seen to it that their clothing lasted and that their feet did not cause them problems.  Of course, this is also to say that they didn’t get much in the way of new clothing and that they were journeying on foot during those forty years. As Moses says, “Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the LORD your God disciplines you.” 
            Moses reminds the people about this because they are about to enter into the promised land.  Their situation is about to change dramatically.  God had provided for them in ways that humbled and disciplined Israel.  He had sought to teach them that man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. 
            Yet very soon all of that was going to change.  Moses says, “For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing out in the valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper.” 
            They were entering into a land of plenty.  That was great.  But there was also a danger that awaited them.  Just before describing that land, Moses says in our text, “So you shall keep the commandments of the LORD your God by walking in his ways and by fearing him.”  They needed to do this as they entered the land for two reasons.  They need to do this because it was God who was giving it to them. And they needed to to do this in the midst of plenty, because there would be the temptation to forget Yahweh.
            Immediately after our text Moses says, “Take care lest you forget the LORD your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”
            There was the danger that in the midst of plenty they would forget that Yahweh was the One who had rescued them from slavery in Egypt.  Moses goes on to say, “You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day. And if you forget the LORD your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish.”
            In the midst of plenty, the Israelites would need to remember that Yahweh was the One who had redeemed them from slavery.  He had freed them – not because of who or what they were.  Instead, he did it out of his grace.  Yahweh did it because he had taken Abraham and his descendants into a covenant.  He had promised to make Abraham into a great nation and to give the land of Palestine to Abraham’s descendants.
            On this evening, we are reminded that God has done the same thing for you.  By his grace, God has redeemed you from slavery.  He has freed you from slavery to Satan, sin and eternal death.  He has taken you into a covenant – the new covenant that includes all people.  He did this by sending his incarnate Son, Jesus Christ to give himself on the cross as the ransom – the price for your sin.  By the shedding of his blood on the cross he has established the new covenant that includes Jew and Gentile alike.  Through the water of Holy Baptism he washed away your sins and made you part of his people.
            And now, like Israel, you are journeying in the wilderness. You are living in a fallen world.  You are making your pilgrimage to the promised land – to the new creation which Jesus Christ will bring about when he returns in glory and gives us a share in his resurrection from the dead.
            But unlike Israel during their journey, you aren’t exactly roughing it.  You aren’t living in tents.  You aren’t eating the same manna, day after day.  You aren’t wearing the same clothes day after day.  Instead, you live in the most affluent culture the world has ever seen. You consider to be normal and take for granted things that most people in the history of the world have never enjoyed; things that most people in the world today do not enjoy.  You may not have the most and the best, but simply by living here and now you have more and better than millions and millions of people.
            And that is one of our greatest challenges. For you see, Yahweh used the conditions of the time in the wilderness to humble Israel.  He used it to teach them that man does not live by bread alone.  Instead, man lives by reliance on God; by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Though humbled in the wilderness, Israel soon forgot that lesson.  When they entered the promised land and enjoyed it benefits, they forgot Yahweh and worshipped other gods.
            As we live in the mist of plenty, that is our great challenge.  We live in a world that is constantly producing new gods – new things that Madison Ave tells us are “must haves” in order to have the “good life.” The challenge for us at Thanksgiving – and during the rest of year – is to remember that God is the source of all that we have.  The challenge is to remember that man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.
            We need to recognize that real life – abundant life – is found by remembering that life is found in the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. He is the true bread from heaven which gives life.  He is the One who promised, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in my shall never thirst.” He is the one who said, “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
            When we place this One – Jesus Christ – at the center of our life, we are then ready to give thanks for all the other blessings God gives. When we see him as the greatest blessing and rejoice in the forgiveness and salvation he provides by grace, we then also rejoice in the many good things he has given to us.  When we live by faith in Christ, we are then able at Thanksgiving to eat and be full, and to bless the Lord for the good land he has given to us.





Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Mark's thoughts: Advent - Looking forward to looking back, and looking forward

Sunday, December 1 is the First Sunday in Advent.  The season of Advent begins the liturgical year of the Church.  It is a season that exhibits a tension – a tension that underscores our Christian life in the “now and not yet.” 

During Advent we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem.  In this season we look forward to looking back at God’s humble yet dramatic action when the Son entered into our world in fulfillment of God’s promises and was laid in a manger.  It is a time of expectant joy as we look forward to celebrating once again the wonder of our Lord’s incarnation – the fact that for our salvation the Son of God came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man.  During Advent, we look forward to looking back to the birth of Jesus Christ during our celebration of Christmas.

At the same time, as we prepare to celebrate our Lord’s first coming, Advent always points us forward towards our Lord’s second coming on the Last Day.  We are reminded that the Son of God who came humbly as a baby in a manger will come again in glory and might.  The God who kept His promises in the Old Testament by sending the Christ will also keep His promises to bring about the consummation of His saving work in the resurrection of the dead and the restoration of creation.

Advent prepares us to celebrate Christmas and the “now” of our salvation.  Christ has come and died for our sins.  He has risen from the dead and assured us that He has conquered death.  Because of this we stand justified – forgiven – before God and we already know the verdict of the Last Day.  As Paul wrote, “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1).  Already, now, we exist in a state of peace with God because of Jesus Christ.

Yet Advent also reminds us that we are still living in the “not yet.”  We are still awaiting Christ’s return when He will raise the dead and restore creation.  We are still awaiting the “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13).  Advent continues this theme from the end of the liturgical year as we start into a new year in the Church’s life.  We end the liturgical year and begin the new liturgical year of the Church in the recognition that we are still keeping watch as we look forward to Christ's return.

Advent underscores the “now and not yet” of the Christian life.  And so it is not surprising that it is characterized by two seemingly contradictory attitudes: repentance and joy.  On the one hand, during Advent we recognize that we are people who still struggle with sin.  We are reminded that we too must repent of all those things that would prevent our Christmas celebration from being one that is focused on Jesus Christ.  This repentance gives our worship a restrained tone as we omit the Hymn of Praise in the Divine Service, the Gloria in Excelsis.  On the other hand, Advent prepares us to celebrate the gift God has already given – the dramatic revelation of His saving love for us in the flesh of Jesus Christ.  In joy we prepare to celebrate the peace God has given us in His Son as we look forward to hearing the angels sing on Christmas Eve, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to His people on earth” (Luke 2:14; the opening line of the Gloria in Excelsis).

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Mark's thoughts: Preparing to celebrate the coming of the Lord - the propers of Advent

Sunday, Dec. 1 is the First Sunday of Advent.  As we prepare to begin this first season of a new church year, it is helpful to look at the propers (the assigned Introit, Collect of the Day, Gradual and Readings) for the four Sundays in Advent of the One Year Lectionary and see how they develop the themes of Advent and prepare us to celebrate the incarnation of our Lord at Christmas.

Each of the Sundays in Advent in the One Year Lectionary (often called the historic lectionary) has a name.  The name is taken from the first few words of the Latin translation of the introit for the Sunday.  The introit for the First Sunday in Advent is from Psalm 25, and begins with Ps. 25:1 “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.”  The Latin translation is “Ad te Domine levavi animam meam” and so the name for the Sunday is Ad Te Levavi.

The name “Advent” comes from a Latin word that means “coming” and during Advent our attention is focused on the two comings of Christ: His first coming to die on the cross and rise from the dead and His second coming in glory on the Last Day.  Ad Te Levavi starts the Church year by reminding us about the goal of the incarnation that we are about to celebrate at Christmas.  The Gospel lesson, Matthew 21:1-9 is the account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of Holy Week.  As the crowd shouts, “‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’” (Mt. 21:9) we are reminded that Jesus the Christ comes into the world to suffer and die for us.

Because He has done this, we are able to sing the words of the introit, “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust; let me not be put to shame” (Psa. 25:1).  We wait for our Lord’s second coming, and in confidence sing in the Gradual that “none who wait for you shall be put to shame” (Psa. 25:3). The Collect of the Day is from the Gregorian Sacramentary (a collect of prayers used in church services in Rome) and dates to at least the 600’s A.D.  As we prepare during Advent to celebrate our Lord’s first coming and look towards His second coming, we pray, “Stir up your power, O Lord and come.”

The Second Sunday in Advent is called Populus Zion.  This name is based on the opening words of the Introit, “Say to the daughter of Zion” (Isa. 62:11).  The second Sunday in Advent points forward to Christ’s second coming.  The Gospel lesson (Luke 21:25-36) contains Jesus’ words about His return on the Last Day.  In the Old Testament lesson (Malachi 4:1-6), we hear from Malachi, “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch” (4:1).

As the readings indicate, preparation to celebrate our Lord’s first coming at Christmas points us forward to His second coming as well.  The Introit announces to us, “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your salvation comes’” (Isa. 62:1) and we cry out, “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved!” (Psa. 80:3).  The Gradual assures us, “Our God comes; he does not keep silence” (Psa. 50:3).  And in the Collect of the Day  (from the seventh century Gelasian Sacramentary) we pray: “Stir up our hearts, O Lord, to make ready the way of Your only-begotten Son, that by His coming we may be enabled to serve You with pure minds.”

The Third Sunday in Advent is called Gaudete. This name is based on the opening words of the Introit, “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:4; Gaudete in Domino semper).  The Old Testament lesson is the prophecy about John the Baptist in Isaiah, “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord’” (Isa. 40:3).  John the Baptist came to prepare the way for the ministry of Christ, and now during Advent we are called to prepare to celebrate His coming in Bethlehem.  In the Gospel lesson (Matthew 11:2-10) Jesus answers the question sent to Him by John the  Baptist about whether He is “the coming one.”  Jesus answers, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” (Matt. 11:4-5).  We learn that we prepare to celebrate the birth of this One, because in Him God’s end-time salvation has arrived.

The Son of God entered into our world in order to take away our sin.  Preparation to celebrate Christmas therefore also involves repentance from sin.  The season of Advent is a time of repentance. That is why the Hymn of Praise - the Gloria in excelsis - is omitted and flowers are not placed in the chancel during Advent.  However, on Gaudete Sunday this is eased.  Flowers are permitted and the third candle of the Advent wreath is pink instead of purple in order to signify this lighter tone.

Finally, the Fourth Sunday in Advent is called Rorate Caeli.  This name is based on the opening words of the Introit, “Shower, O heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain down righteousness” (Isa. 45:8; Rorate caeli desuper et nubes pluant iustum).  As we are on the verge of celebrating the birth of Christ that week, the Old Testament lesson (Deuteronomy 18:15-19) teaches us that Jesus is the prophet like Moses promised by God – the One to whom we must listen.  In the Gospel lesson (John 1:19-28) John the Baptist confesses that he is not the Christ.  Instead he prepares the way for the One whose sandals he is not worthy to untie.  The powerful One is about to arrive in a manger as the fulfillment of God’s promises.  He brings with him righteousness and salvation for us.


Sermon for Last Sunday of the Church Year

                                                                                                            Last Sunday
                                                                                                            Isa 65:17-25

            My parent’s dog Aussie had belonged to my grandpa Surburg at the end of his life.  When grandpa died in 2001, he became my parents’ dog until this year when old age finally caught up with him.  Aussie was a faithful companion and illustrated that truly unique character of dogs in general – the very reason they have been described as “man’s best friend.”
            I will always have one vivid memory of Aussie that illustrates this.  We were visiting my parents in Bloomington, IN and had gone to a state park near their home for a picnic.  All of us were in the process of gathering up wood to use in the fire that would cook the hot dogs, and of course, toast the marsh mellows for smores.
            The kids were picking up sticks and Michael, who was about three years old, was a little off from the whole group.  I noticed that suddenly, Aussie snapped to alert and was looking over in the direction of Michael.  He bolted, ran beyond Michael and then stopped.  When I looked, I realized that there was a couple that was nonchalantly coming our way.  Aussie had put himself between Michael and the couple.  He looked directly at them and began to growl.  The couple was no real threat, but Aussie had perceived a possible threat to Michael and had instantly reacted to protect him.
            I have heard it said that the unique relationship between human beings and dogs is probably the best illustration we have of what things will be like in the new creation.  Humans love and care for dogs – they become members of the family.  Dogs obey, love and care for humans.
            Isaiah refers to that new state of things in our text this morning. His words at the end of our text recall earlier words in his prophecy that spoke about how a time is coming when the animals will live in perfect harmony with one another, and with human beings.  On this Last Sunday in the Church year, our Old Testament lesson sets forth the future that awaits us and calls us to live in hope.
            Hope is indispensible for life. Where there is hope, we can keep going and get through almost anything.  Yet where hope has been lost, life becomes nearly impossible.  In fact the loss of hope often brings death.  In prisoner of war camps throughout history, it has often been the case that those who maintain hope about eventual release and return to family are able to keep going and survive, while those who give up hope soon die.
            The enemy of hope is uncertainty and doubt.  When we feel uncertainty about the future; when we feel doubt, we find ourselves living in fear.  We fear the future because we do not know what it will bring, and so more often than not we fill in our expectations of the future with bad things.  Our mind is very good at creating the worst possible scenarios and it fixates on them.  This fear of the future can then paralyze our present.  It robs life of its joy, as instead we dwell in fear.
            This is a struggle that we face in many areas of life.  We live in uncertainty and doubt about our health, our career, our family, our finances. The spiritual reality is that these are all just different forms of idolatry.  They are all prompted by the fact that we do not fear, love and trust in God above all things.  We place something before God.  We don’t trust God to provide for us, because the way he does it may not be what we want. We don’t trust that God’s will is better than our will.
            Our Old Testament lesson this morning is all about hope.  It’s about the ultimate hope that God provides to us – the hope that allows us to look beyond our doubt and uncertainty.  It’s about a hope that can give us joy and peace in Christ as we live in the midst of this fallen world.
            Our text begins by saying, “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.” God speaks of what he is going to do in the future, and he promises a new heavens and a new earth.  He promises a renewal of all things that will wipe away the memory of what has happened in the past.  He promises a future that is so good, that it will make the struggles of the present irrelevant.
            This future is one joy and gladness – that’s for sure.  In fact in two verses Isaiah uses the same basic roots about gladness and joy three times.  He writes, “But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress.”
            Isaiah speaks in Old Testament language.  He writes at a time when Israel alone was God’s people and the temple alone was the place where God’s located presence was to be found.  We now live at the time when the temple has been fulfilled and replaced by the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ.  Sacrifices no longer need to be offered at the temple because Jesus Christ has offered himself once and for all on the cross as the sacrifice for our sin.  No longer are God’s people bound to look to Mt. Zion because God has promised that now, his saving reign is to be found wherever Christ’s Means of Grace are present – wherever the word of the Gospel is proclaimed and the sacraments are administered.
            Yet what Isaiah speaks in Old Testament language still addresses our needs and concerns.  Our text says, “They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.” 
            Through Isaiah, God promises the hope of permanence and dependability. We live in a world of change, and therefore we are always at risk that what we have will be no more.  There was a day when the company Blockbuster seemed to have a store on every corner.  Everyone rented video tapes there. They had blimp. They had a football bowl game.  Today no one rents video tapes and this month Blockbuster announced it is going close its last three hundred stores. 
            We live in world that lacks certainty, permanence and stability.  Yet that is the future that God promises to his people.  That is the future that he holds out before us to give us hope.  He promises the future of a new heavens and a new earth.  He promises the future that is one of peace and harmony. And because of what God has already done, we can embrace this hope as it enables us to live with peace in the present.
            In the last verse of our text we hear, “‘The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox,
and dust shall be the serpent's food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,’ says the LORD.”  God promises the day when his creation will be very good once again.  He promises the day when sin will no longer cause death – even within the animal world.
            And in this statement we receive the key to understanding how this is going to happen.  We receive the key to understanding why we can embrace this hope. Our text refers us back to Isaiah chapter eleven. Isaiah writes, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him.”  God promises the descendant of King David who will have the Spirit upon him. This one will judge righteously and slay the wicked.  He says, “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them.”
            Jesus the Christ is the One who came forth from the stump of Jesse.  God put his Spirit upon Jesus at his baptism.  He went to the cross in order to provide the answer to sin; to provide the sacrifice that redeems us.  But if that were it; if that were the whole story, there would be no hope. And so the reason that we can have hope - the reason that we can embrace this hope – is that on the third day he rose from the dead.  On the third day he began this new creation that Isaiah describes.
            Because Jesus Christ rose from the dead, we have the hope of the new heavens and the new earth.  Because Jesus Christ rose from the dead, we have the hope of the day when things will be permanent and certain.  Because Jesus Christ rose from the dead, we have the hope of the day when the wolf and the lamb shall graze together; of the day when the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
            And so we do have hope.  We have hope that gives us joy and peace in the present – joy and peace in the midst of struggles and hardships.  We have hope that allows us to look beyond the struggles and entrust our present to the Lord, because we already know what our future will be.