Sunday, October 4, 2015

Sermon for Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity

                                                                                                Trinity 18
                                                                                                Deut. 10:12-21

            At some point, you probably have had this frustrating experience.  You need to print up something.  Perhaps it is the receipt for an online purchase.  Perhaps it is a recipe you want to try out.  The printer swings into action, and then it begins making that annoying sound that tells you it is out of paper. You reach for where you store the extra printer paper … and then you see it. The package is empty.  You have no more paper and so you won’t be able to print anything until you buy more.  Either you have to go out then and get the paper, or you have to put your printing on hold until a time when you have been out and had an opportunity to buy some.
            The next time this happens and you are feeling frustrated, think about Moses.  When God entered into his covenant with Israel, we are told in the book of Exodus that God gave to Moses on Mt. Sinai “two tablets of the testimony.” The tablets had writing on both sides. And we learn that, “The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets.”  God made the tablets of stone.  He wrote on them and gave them to Moses.
            When Moses came down from Mt. Sinai and found Israel worshipping the golden calf that they had asked Aaron to make for them, he took the stone tablets and smashed them before the eyes of the people. This action declared that Israel had broken the covenant.  God was ready to destroy Israel and start over with Moses, but Moses interceded and God relented.
            God took Israel back into the covenant.  And so he needed to write out another set of the tablets of the testimony. But this time, as we learn just before the start of our text, God commanded Moses: “Cut for yourself two tablets of stone like the first, and come up to me on the mountain.”  It was time for God to do some printing.  But this time Moses had to supply the material. And it wouldn’t be as easy as running out to Walmart or Target to pick up a package of printer paper.  It was going to take some elbow grease as Moses had to cut the tablets out of stone.
            In our Old Testament lesson this morning, we have the words that God spoke to Israel through Moses.  The book of Deuteronomy contains a series of sermons that Moses preached to the people of Israel as they were about to enter into the promised land in order to conquer it.  The timing was about forty years after the first time they had been poised to do this.  On that occasion ten of the spies sent into the land to do reconnaissance frightened the people with the report they brought back. The people of Israel rebelled and refused to enter the land.  Once again Moses interceded for the people and God relented from destroying them.  But he declared that no one twenty years or older would ever enter the land.
            Now it was forty years later and it was once again time to go into the promised land.  However, most of the people had been born after the exodus from Egypt.  Most had not personally experienced God’s rescue. And so in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses reviews what God had done.
            This morning we are thinking about the Ten Commandments.  We know, of course, that the Ten Commandments are Law.  They describe what we are to do.  But when you look at the Ten Commandments you find something surprising.  For you see, the Ten Commandment are introduced with a word of Gospel. The very first statement is this: “‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”
Yahweh, the Creator, announced that he is their God. And then he declares that he is the One who brought them out of slavery in Egypt.  He is the One who redeemed them.
            We find the same thought in our text this morning after Yahweh has just given the tablets for a second time.  First he says through Moses, “Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. Yet the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day.”
            Everything in creation belongs to God.  Yet Moses says that in his love God had chosen Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their descendants.  The contrast is a stark one.  Yahweh is the almighty Creator who possesses everything.  And yet he had chosen Israel – something that they had not earned and certainly did not deserve.  Earlier in Deuteronomy Moses had said about this, “For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.”
            God had chosen Israel as his people out of his grace.  And then he had acted in a powerful and dramatic way to rescue them.  As we hear in our text, “He is your praise. He is your God, who has done for you these great and terrifying things that your eyes have seen.”
            The exodus is the Gospel event of the Old Testament.  In fact the word “redeem” that is used to describe God’s rescue of Israel from slavery is used by the New Testament to describe what God has done for you in rescuing you from Satan and sin.  He redeemed you. 
And he did it in a powerful and dramatic way.  First God sent his own Son into the world as he was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.  God became man – one of us – and yet did not cease to be God.  Christ did this in order to take our place and bear our sin.  God the Father poured out his wrath on Jesus in our place in order give us forgiveness.  And then in a mighty act he defeated death by raising our Lord from the dead on the third day.
Now the Spirit of Christ has made you part of God’s people.  Though you did not deserve it in any way, through the water of Holy Baptism he joined you to Jesus’ saving death and caused you to be born again.  You are a child of God because God has done these great and mighty things.
In our text, Moses describes what this meant for Israel.  He says, “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good?”
Moses describes how they now are to live as result of all that God has done for them.  It is the life of faith. They are to fear and love God.  They are to serve him and walk in his ways. And as Moses points out, the things that Yahweh is commanding them are for their good.
The same thing is true for us.  We are to walk in faith as we seek to do God’s will.  And this will is for our good.  In the Ten Commandments God has told us about how he has ordered his creation.  He has told us about how things work and how we are to live in order to be blessed and live well.  And God knows what he is talking about – after all, he is the One set it up in the first place!
We know this.  We want to do this.  There are times when we do. But there are also times when we don’t.  In our text Moses says to Israel, “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.”  He calls Israel to repentance. God’s Word continues to do the same to us as well.  God’s law does show us our sin.  It leads us to confess, “God be merciful to me a sinner.”  But because of Jesus Christ we know that through repentance and faith we are forgiven.  We know that we can return to the water of our baptism and there find the assurance that all our sins have been washed way.
Israel had received God’s undeserved love. Moses says in our text that this simply reflects God’s character.   He tells them, “For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.”  In his love God had helped Israel when they were in the land of Egypt. And so now Moses tells them, “Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.”
Like Israel, we have received God’s underserved love in Jesus Christ.  He loved us when we were helpless.  He loved us when we were unlovable.  His sacrificial love has now brought us forgiveness and salvation. And so through his Spirit, our Lord now leads us to love others. He moves us to seek out those who need our support as we live in the various vocations of our life. He leads us to care for others who can do nothing for us in return. This is not something that we can do, but rather it is the work that Christ does through us.  It is not love that begins with us, but instead it is God’s love passed on through us.  As the apostle John wrote, “We love, because he first loved us.” 


Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Commemoration of Jerome, Translator of Holy Scripture

Today we remember and give thanks for Jerome, Translator of Holy Scripture.  Jerome was born in a little village on the Adriatic Sea around the year A.D. 345. At a young age he went to study in Rome, where he was baptized. After extensive travels, he chose the life of a monk and spent five years in the Syrian desert. There he learned Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament . After ordination at Antioch and visits to Rome and Constantinople, Jerome settled in Bethlehem. From the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, he used his ability with languages to translate the Bible into Latin, the common language of his time. This translation, called the Vulgate, was the authoritative version of the Bible in the western Church world for over 1,000 years. Considered one of the great scholars of the early church, Jerome died on September 30, 420. He was originally interred at Bethlehem but his remains were eventually taken to Rome.

Collect of the Day:
O Lord, God of truth, Your Word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path.  You gave Your servant Jerome delight in his study of Holy Scripture.  May those who continue to read, mark, and inwardly digest Your Word find in it the food of salvation and the fountain of life; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Mark's thoughts: Shall we look for another?

In Matthew chapter 11 we learn that from prison, John the Baptist sent his disciples to Jesus in order to ask a question.  John had been imprisoned by Herod Antipas because he had confronted the king about marrying his brother’s wife.  John had announced to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have her” (Mt 14:4).  So Herod showed John who was king and who was not.  He imprisoned the prophet.

In prison John the Baptist heard about the ministry of Jesus.  There was talk about miracles and wonders performed by Jesus.  Yet there remained John, a prisoner of Herod Antipas.  Matthew tells us, “Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’” (Matthew 11:2-3 ESV).

“Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”  Christians have often tried to explain away these words.  They have said that of course John the Baptist knew that Jesus was the One.  After all at Jesus’ baptism, John had tried prevent the event as he said, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14 ESV). They have explained that John sent the disciples with this question so that the disciples could hear the confirmation from Jesus himself.

Yet this is certainly wrong. During his ministry John the Baptist had proclaimed:

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:11-12 ESV)  

John had proclaimed the one who would bring God’s end-time judgment.  This one would bring the judgment of the Last Day, when God would rescue his people and destroy the wicked.  John knew Jesus to be this one.  Jesus had begun his ministry and was indeed doing mighty deeds.  However, the Last Day had not arrived.  The chaff had not been burned up.  Instead the wicked Herod Antipas was still in charge and the righteous John the Baptist was his prisoner.  This was not how things were supposed to work.  John was confused.

John’s disciples brought the question to Jesus.  He replied:
“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. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
Jesus’ answer used words from Isaiah chapter 35 and 61 – texts that spoke about God’s end-time salvation.  Our Lord’s answer to John was: “Yes! I am he!”   But then he added, “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”  Jesus acknowledged that things were not happening as John the Baptist and many others expected.

Jesus announced that in him, the kingdom of God – the reign of God – had arrived that was driving out Satan, sin and death (Matthew 4:17).  He declared, “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matthew 12:28 ESV).  He was the presence of God’s end-time salvation. 

But while Jesus was mighty and powerful, God’s plan for this salvation did not only include victory and success.  Instead, it arrived in suffering and death.  The turning point in Matthew’s Gospel occurs at 16:21 where after Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ the Son of the living God (16:16) Matthew goes on to tell us, “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matthew 16:21 ESV).  Later Jesus says, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28 ESV).

John the Baptist was wrong about Jesus … and he was right.  He was wrong in that Jesus did not bring the judgment of the Last Day at his first coming.  Instead his ministry was directed toward suffering, death and resurrection. But John was also right.  Jesus was the coming One. And he will in fact do all of the things that John declared when he returns in glory on the Last Day (see Matthew 25:31-46).

I find the text about John’s question to be of great help as we think about the Christian life today.  John the Baptist sat prison as Jesus brought the reign of God through his ministry.  God’s end-time saving work was present, and yet it didn’t seem to be making any difference for John.

Today the kingdom of God – the reign of God – continues to be present in our midst through Christ’s Means of Grace. Through the Word, Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution and the Sacrament of the Altar, Jesus Christ forgives sins.  His Spirit delivers the salvation Christ has won and strengthens us in the faith.

Yet at the same time, those receiving that reign of God continue to get cancer.  They continue to struggle with anxiety and depression.  They continue to experience fractured families.  Like John the Baptist sitting in prison, it can leave us confused.  It can leave us asking, “Are you the coming One, or shall we look for another?”

Jesus’ answer to us continues to be “Yes! I am he!  And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”  The “now and the not yet” of God’s salvation is the great mystery of the Christian life.  In Christ we already have forgiveness, salvation and eternal life. Yet we also await the consummation of the Last Day when Christ will transform our bodies to be like his resurrection body (Philippians 3:20-21) and we will never again be troubled by Satan, sin and death.

We feel like John the Baptist sitting in prison. The reign of God is here, and yet it doesn’t seem to be doing us any good.  This situation is a call to faith.  Jesus knew how things looked.  That is why he said,  “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”  We are called to trust in Jesus and his death and resurrection.  It is the resurrection of Jesus Christ that gives us hope.  The apostle Peter put it this way:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Peter 1:3-5 ESV)    

As we face the challenges of life in this fallen world we have the assurance that because of Jesus we are already the children of God.  We are forgiven, loved and saved.  The reign of God is present in our midst through Christ’s Means of Grace as the Spirit sustains us in this faith. And at the same time, we know what John the Baptist did not.  We know the whole story.   We know of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and so we have the living hope that sustains us as we walk day by day and look expectantly for the Last Day.

Robert Wilken compares evangelism in the early church setting and now

Robert Wilken is a highly respected scholar in the field of early Christianity.  In an interview format he makes some important observations about the setting of the Church before Constantine and today.  He highlights important differences that cannot elude our perception such as the fact that today we live in a culture that is post-Christian and he explicitly rejected Christianity.

However Wilken also notes three factors in the early Church that provide guidance for today. First, there is a desperate need for the Church to explain to people what she actually believes:
A lot of early apologetics was not defense but simple explanation. In his First Apology, Justin Martyr gave an account of Christian worship. He also talked about baptism. He didn't try only to establish a link to the larger culture or prove Christianity true. He also tried to tell people what Christians actually did in worship and what they believed.
Today I believe the most significant apologetic task is simply to tell people what we believe and do. We need to familiarize people with the stories in the Bible and to talk about the things that make Christianity distinctive. Many people are simply unaware of the basics of Christianity. They're rejecting something they don't know that much about.
Second, the Church needs to focus upon her existence as a close knit community with her own culture:
What about the tightly knit early Christian community—what can we learn from that?
I think that should be a main strategy of Christians today—build strong communities. The early church didn't try to transform its culture by getting into arguments about whether the government should do this or that. As a small minority, it knew it would lose that battle; there were too many other forces at work. Instead it focused on building its own sense of community, and it let these communities be the leaven that would gradually transform culture.
How did the early church build their community?
It built a way of life. The church was not something that spoke to its culture; it was itself a culture and created a new Christian culture. There were appointed times when the community came together. There was a distinctive calendar, and each year the community rehearsed key Christian beliefs at certain times. There was church-wide charity to the surrounding community. There was clarity, and church discipline, regarding moral issues. All these things made up a wholesome community.
Third, the liturgy of the Church's worship marked it off from the world and helped people to understand that what went on in the Church was completely different from the world. This he enormous implication for the Church's practice today:

I think seeker-sensitive churches use a completely wrong strategy. A person who comes into a Christian church for the first time should feel out of place. He should feel this community engages in practices so important they take time to learn. The best thing we can do for "seekers" is to create an environment where newcomers feel they are missing something vital, that one has to be inculcated into this, and that it's a discipline.
Few people grasp that today. But the early church grasped it very well.