Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Sermon for Thanksgiving Eve

                                                                        Thanksgiving Eve
                                                                        Lk 17:11-19

            There is much to be thankful for this holiday weekend … and I’m not talking about the turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie.  No, I am talking about college football.  This year the Thanksgiving holiday weekend is also the time when rivalry college football games are played. 
            These are passionate match ups that usually involve two schools that are located in the same state: Alabama vs. Auburn; Oregon vs. Oregon State; Georgia vs. Georgia Tech; Florida vs. Florida State … the list goes on and on. There is always close geographical proximity, even if it is bordering states like the Ohio State vs. Michigan match up.  The games are for bragging rights, and so they are interesting and important even when the teams aren’t very good – such as in the Indiana vs. Purdue game.
            These rivalries can be good natured, but more often than not they engender animosity – the schools and teams really don’t like each other.  An unsuccessful season can be salvaged by beating the rival.  And if that victory destroys the conference or national championship hopes of the rival, then the victory is all that much sweeter.
            If the Jews and the Samaritans had played football, it would have made for a truly great rivalry game.  Here you had two groups who lived in close proximity to each other – Samaria was located right in midst of Jewish land with Judea to the south and Galilee to the north.  They had a shared history. The people who would become the Samaritans had been brought in as replacements for the exiled people of northern Israel in the eighth century B.C. The Samaritans had taken up a form of Judaism, with their own version of the Pentateuch and they built their own temple on Mt. Gerizzim in Samaria.
            At the end of the second century B.C. the Jews had conquered the Samaritans. They destroyed the capital of Samaria and more importantly, they destroyed the temple at Gerizzim. The Samaritans responded at the beginning of the first century A.D. by scattering human bones on the Temple porches and in the sanctuary in Jerusalem in order to defile it. There were bloody incidents as the two groups came into conflict, and tried to play off the Romans against each other.
            These facts provide the background for the great surprise of our text tonight.  The Lord Jesus heals ten lepers, and yet only one of them returns to give thanks.  Only one returns, and then he turns out to be a Samaritan. The one who is the rival – the enemy - returns and gives thanks.
            Our Gospel lesson tonight begins with what is usually called a “travel notice” in Luke’s Gospel.  We are told, “On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee.”  Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and he enters a village that is located in the borderland between Samaria and Galilee.  As he does so, he is met by ten lepers who stand off at a distance and cry out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”
            “Have mercy,” such as when we say, “Lord have mercy” in the liturgy, is a cry for help.  The lepers were afflicted by some kind of skin ailment.  We can’t be sure exactly what kind it was, but we do know that according to the Torah the result was that they were considered unclean and were unable to live with the rest of the population. They were also prohibited from going to the temple in Jerusalem.
            At the report that Jesus was passing through, they stood off at a distance and cried out for help.  The reports about Jesus’ healing miracles were well known, and so here was an opportunity for relief.  They cried out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”  Nothing more needed to be said.  It was obvious who they were and the help they needed.
            We don’t know what the lepers expected Jesus to do – how exactly they expected this healing to take place.  Yet I think they were probably surprised by the response that they received.  Jesus didn’t say, “Be cleansed” and provide immediate healing.  He didn’t come up and touch them in order to deliver healing, as he had on other occasions.  Instead when he saw them he said, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”
            It was the priests in Jerusalem who could certify that a person was healed and no longer rendered unclean by a skin condition.  Jesus implicitly promised healing by telling them to go and show themselves to the priests.  It’s a rather understated miracle because it didn’t take place immediately.  Instead the Greek grammar is very clear that as they went they were cleansed.  The lepers believed and obeyed Jesus’ word, and so they were healed.
            All ten believed and obeyed.  Yet then we hear in our text that, “one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus' feet, giving him thanks.”  Ten are healed.  Only one returns and gives thanks.  It’s not a very good percentage. And then we learn the kicker as our text says, “Now he was a Samaritan.”
            Our Lord certainly noticed. He asked, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And then he said to the Samaritan man, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”
            In considering our text tonight and its setting in Luke’s Gospel, we see the reason we have to give thanks. It has nothing to do with turkey, stuffing, pumpkin pie, or even, college football.  It has nothing to do with the abundance of our land and the many blessings that we have the luxury of taking for granted.
            We find reason to give thanks because Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem.  At the end of chapter nine Luke tells us, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”  The time for the fulfillment of Jesus’ mission was approaching – a mission that would take Jesus to the cross and tomb on Good Friday; out of the tomb on Easter; and ascended into heaven forty days later. 
            He does this in order to bring salvation to all people – not just to the Jews who descended from Abraham.  He would be taken up in the ascension so that he could usher in the last days by pouring forth the Holy Spirit. The Spirit, his Spirit, would then send forth the saving message of the Gospel into the world.  Just before his ascension he said to the disciples, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
            Christ our Lord brings salvation to all people – even those who were the enemies of God’s people.  He has brought salvation to you who were enemies of God because of your sin. By his death and resurrection Christ has won you forgiveness. 
            Jesus heals the ten lepers.  In doing so he is the presence of God’s reign in their midst.  He is God turning back the forces of Satan and sin, and putting all things right.  And he has brought that same cleansing to you. After Paul had encountered the risen Lord on the road to Damascus, God sent Ananias to Paul to help him regain his sight. Then Ananias said to Paul, “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.”
            Like the lepers, you have been cleansed.  Their healing occurred as they received the Lord’s gift in faith. It happened as they trusted the Lord’s word and began to make their journey to Jerusalem. The same is true for you.  You received the cleansing – the washing – of baptism as you received it in faith.  Day by day you continue to receive salvation because you believe and trust in what God has done for you through water and the word.
            It is easy to take this washing for granted, just as it is easy to take salvation for granted.  It is easy to be like the nine lepers who when healed continued on their way in order to enjoy those benefits by “getting on with life.”
            It was the tenth leper – the Samaritan – who recognized the magnitude of what Christ had done for him.  Because he perceived this, he returned to give thanks.
            The day of Thanksgiving provides us with an opportunity to pause.  It prompts us to turn back from everyday life and to return to Jesus in order to give thanks.  Of course, we include in this thanks all of the items covered by the First Article of the Apostles’ Creed. We give thanks for clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children – all the things that make life possible, and make life good.  But chiefly we give thanks for the cleansing from sin that he has provided – a cleansing that will culminate in resurrection and eternal life with Christ.  We return and give thanks. And then Christ sends us out again to live the life he has redeemed for us as he says, “Rise and go your way; your faith has saved you.”

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sermon for the Last Sunday of the Church Year

                                                                                    Last Sunday
                                                                                    1 Thess 5:1-11

            A number of years ago, I walked into the furnace room that is at the east end of the church.  I had something that needed to be locked up in the heavy duty filing cabinet that we used to store important documents and a little money.  As I opened the door and turned on the light, I saw that the cabinet was open and that there were items scattered on the floor.  The metal of the bottom cabinet drawer had been wrenched apart and the drawer had been completely destroyed.  As I gazed at this very unexpected scene, the first thought that went through my head was, “Well that doesn’t look right.”
            After the moment of surprise had passed, I of course realized that the church had been robbed.  You don’t expect to be robbed.  It’s not something that you plan on happening.  And so it was the same sense of surprise that I experienced a number of weeks ago when I talked on the phone with Sue Linenberger and learned that the church had been broken into.  Nothing had apparently been stolen, but a window had been smashed in.
            When I arrived at church and walked into the sanctuary I saw that the window right there had been smashed.  I must say that it had never occurred to me that when a double pane window get broken, there is twice as much glass on the ground.  As I looked at the glass that littered the floor and the jagged remnants still in the window the thought that occurred to me again was, “Well that doesn’t look right.”
            Both of these experiences were unexpected.  And in both cases, the person or people who did it came at night.  Thieves and robbers don’t normally coming during the day.  Instead they come at night when people are gone; when no one will see them; when no one is expecting them.
            In our text this morning Paul is talking about the return of the Lord Jesus on the Last Day – what Paul calls “the day of the Lord.”  He says that it will be “like a thief in the night” in order to emphasize the point that it will be unexpected.  His words here on the Last Sunday of the Church year teachs us that we need to live as people who are ready for our Lord’s return.
            Many times, I have said that I really don’t know how pastors in other Christian traditions do it.  Because Lutherans embrace the catholic – that’s a lower case “c” – the universal practices of the Church we have a church year and a lectionary.  Apart from the range of the Old Testament, Epistle and Gospel lesson assigned for a particular Sunday, I don’t decide on the Scripture that will serve as the text of my sermon.  In essence, it has already been chosen for me.
            I simply can’t imagine what it would be like – how hard it would be – to keep coming up with new texts and topics to preach about every Sunday, year after year.  Instead, the lectionary is keyed to the church year.  And as we move through the church year, it provides the themes and topics for sermons.  Every year we walk through the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Every year together we walk through God’s salvation history.  And every year when we arrive at the end of the year, we focus our attention on the end – on the Last Day and the return of Jesus Christ in glory.
            Paul focuses upon this near the end of his first letter to the Thessalonians because of concerns they had about believers who had died before the return of Christ.  The Thessalonian Christians had believed the Gospel.  Earlier in the letter Paul says, “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.”  He reports that they “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.”
            However, since that time some Thessalonian Christians had died, and the Lord Jesus had not returned yet.  What did this mean for them?  The Thessalonians were concerned, and so just before our text Paul assures them that death can’t rob the Christian of the victory that Christ’s return will bring.  He writes, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”  Paul assures them that the dead in Christ will be raised first so that then, all Christian will always be with the Lord.
            Talk about the return of the Lord leads Paul into the topic of today’s text.   He says, “Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” 
            The apostle says that they know the return of the Lord will be unexpected. We learn from our text that there are two extremes that must be avoided.  On the one hand, anyone who tries to “read the times” and identify when Christ is going to return is just stupid.  Now “stupid” is not really a word that we are supposed to use around the Surburg house.  But in this case I am going to make an exception because it is just an accurate description of anyone who claims to be able to do something that Scripture explicitly says can’t be done.
            Yet there is another, more insidious error that must also be avoided.  Paul goes on to say, “While people are saying, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.”  The apostle warns about being content and at peace with the ways of the world.  And in our world today that is very easy because we are told that nice people are accepting of everyone and everything.  Be tolerant.  Be inclusive.  It’s all good.
            The apostle says otherwise. He says that sin has eternal consequences.  It’s a wrath thing – God’s wrath against sinners.  Like the Thessalonians you were once destined to receive that wrath. But through the Gospel you have been called to faith in Jesus Christ who died for your sin on the cross and then was raised from the dead by God.  He is the One who delivers you from the wrath to come.
            Paul’s frame of reference is the return of Christ.  He began this letter talking about Christ’s return.  He ends this letter talking about Christ’s return.  But the truth is that quite often it doesn’t function in this way for us.  Oh certainly we believe it will happen someday, but it doesn’t really impact our present.  It doesn’t really affect the way we think and live.  And that’s wrong. Paul contends that it needs to do so.
            He goes on to say in our text, “But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober.”
            Since we know that the Lord Jesus will return at a time that is unexpected – like a thief in the night – we need to live in ways that are ready for him.  We want to be found living as what Christ has made us to be.  After all, as Paul says we are children of the light and the day because of Christ, not children of the darkness and night.
            And so Paul says in our text, “But since we belong to the day, let us be sober.”  He says that we need to be self-controlled, living as what Christ made us to be.  The way we do this is by “having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.”  Faith in Christ who sacrificed himself for us is the thing that enables us to be self-controlled in living as children of light.  This faith in God’s saving love for us rebounds through the work of the Spirit with love toward others – for that is the love that Paul speaks about repeatedly in this letter.
            As we live life in this fallen world, we are able to do this because we have the hope of salvation.  Paul has just spoken about those in the world who grieve at death because they have no hope.  But that is not the way it is for us.  When Paul speaks about hope he is talking about the timing of things, not whether they are going to happen.  Our hope is anchored in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Because this happened nothing can separate you from salvation and eternal life – not even death itself.  Paul says at the end of our text, “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him.”
            No matter whether we are physically alive or dead our life is in Christ – it is with him.  And because Jesus rose from the dead, we know what we will too.  Through baptism you have shared in Jesus’ saving death – Jesus the risen One.  And so Paul told the Romans, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
            There is no doubt about who we are now.  There is no doubt about what will happen.  It’s just a matter of when it happens.  This hope is eager expectation of our Lord’s return and the resurrection he will bring.
            It is this faith and love and hope that we have in the present.  It gives us peace – real peace. Not the fake peace and security of the world that doesn’t even realize it will fall under God’s wrath on the Last Day.  Instead, we have the peace of knowing that we are the children of God; that we are children of light; that we will share in all the fullness of resurrection and eternal life. And because we know that Christ is going to return, this faith and love and hope prompts to live as children of light and children of the day in expectation of the Last Day.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Mark's thoughts: Four things Lutherans believe about the Law that are false ... and true

In our study of Scripture we return to the same texts, yet we often do not find them to be same.  Naturally the text hasn’t changed.  Instead we have changed in our knowledge and experiences, and so we recognize things that we had not noticed before.  We ask questions of the text that we had not thought of before.

In preparing for a sermon, I had occasion to read again 1 Thessalonians 4:1 in which Paul says:

Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. (1 Thessalonians 4:1 ESV)

As I read this, I was struck by the way it speaks to – and contradicts – four assumptions with which Lutherans have read Scripture since the middle of the twentieth century.

First, Lutherans have assumed that in texts like this the Law only serves to show people their sin.  Beyond this, since Lutherans have assumed that this is the only use of the Law that really matters for Christians, they have tended to believe that this is Paul’s true purpose in speaking these words.  Paul tells them to walk as they should and to please God (and to do so more and more!) in order to show them that they really can’t do this.  He seeks to show them their sin so that they will then embrace the forgiveness that is found in Christ.

Now only the Holy Spirit determines how the law is used, and so Paul’s statement may be used by the Spirit to show a person their sin (second use), or to restrain and kill the old man so that the new man is able to determine how the individual acts (third use), or the Spirit may do both of these at once.  Yet it is simply not true that Paul’s true purpose is to show them that they really can’t do this and are sinners.  Quite the opposite he writes these words because he wants them to do these things and he even believes that they are doing them (more on this in a moment).

Second, Lutherans have assumed that pastors who preach this way will drive people to despair.  The law always accuses and in speaking exhortation they only show people how they fail to do these things.

However, while the law accuses the old man, the new man rejoices to hear these words because they are exactly what he wants to do.  The Spirit can and does use words like this to restrain and hinder the old man, so that the new man can direct the actions of the individual.  Paul is not worried here about driving the Thessalonians to despair.

Third, Lutherans have assumed that pastors who preach this way will lead people into presumption and self righteousness.  If Christians are directed to focus on what they do, then they will take pride in them and lose sight of justification by grace through faith on account of Christ.

However, the result of such preaching can be righteous living.  When the Spirit uses the law to restrain and hinder the old man, the result of such preaching may be that the new man causes the individual to walk as he should and to please God.  Paul is not worried here about leading the Thessalonians into self-righteousness.

Fourth, Lutherans have assumed that when Paul says, “just as you are doing,” this can’t really be true.  Lutherans are so finely tuned in their perception of sin and its influence that they are not willing to grant that Christians actually live in ways that can be described as “walking as they should and pleasing God.” Sin pervades the individual so completely since the Fall that it is not possible to speak in this way.

However, it is an unavoidable fact of this text that Paul says they are doing it.  Similar language is found frequently in the Psalms when the psalmist asserts that he has lived in ways that please God (e.g. Ps 17:3-5).  Naturally such language does not mean that the old man is completely vanquished and gone, and ultimately it can only be true today of those who are in Christ.  Yet it does demonstrate that it is thoroughly biblical to talk about people living and doing in ways that please God.  In regeneration the Spirit creates the new man and this actually makes a difference.

These four points have been persuasive since the mid-twentieth century because they are mutually reinforcing.  More significantly, they have been persuasive because they are all true. They are all true.  However, they are not the only things that are true.  In each case, because we are dealing with Christian who is new man and old man at the same time, there is also another side to the story.  Error creeps in when we lose sight of the fact that both sides described in each point above are true.  So the law does show people their sin. It can drive to despair.  It can lead to self-righteousness.  The person’s actions are never entirely pure because they still have the old man. But likewise the law found in exhortation can help produce the result that the individual actually does what God wills.  Instead of despair it can bring joy, as the person says, “Yes! That’s exactly what I want to do.”  Instead of self-righteousness in can result in righteous living.  It can produce conduct that the Bible is willing to describe as reflecting God’s will.

In the context of Methodism, Baptists and American evangelicalism, it is understandable that some Lutherans are hesitant about embracing the second set of truths on each point.  At some level, it sounds similar to what these traditions have to say. It should not escape our attention that one reason these traditions are persuasive is because they take up language that is found in Scripture. It is placed in a faulty theological framework and it is emphasized in a one sided way, but error and heresy is often a truth pushed too far or viewed in abstraction from other biblical truths.  To emphasize and balance both sides of each point is not to be a “neo-Methodist” – it is instead to be a biblical and confessional Lutheran.