Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Mark's thoughts: What do you think provides the pattern for preaching?

During the past two years I have taken part in an ongoing discussion about new obedience, “sanctification,” the third use of the law, and biblical exhortation.  I have learned much in this discussion by returning to the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. 

It is easy in this discussion to get lost in arguments that go into great detail about Law and Gospel, new man vs. old man, “the Simul,” second use of the law and third use of the law.  But in the midst of extended and detailed discussions it is easy to lose sight of the real issues and what is at stake.

Jordan Cooper has helpfully identified the basic problem as one of Law-Gospel Reductionism.  I think he is correct.

The same issue can be identified in another and related way that may be even more direct.  Many who deny a robust presence of exhortation in preaching operate on the basis of this fundamental presupposition:

The Scriptures are the content of preaching not the pattern.

That is to say, the Lord Jesus and the apostolic writers such as Paul, John and Peter give us the theological content that is to be preached – a message of Law and Gospel – but in the way they actually speak they do not provide a model or pattern that we can or should follow.  One regularly hears that Paul’s letters are “not sermons” and therefore cannot be used as a model of exhortation that is grounded in Gospel (see my discussion of Titus chapters 2 and 3 in Would Paul want pastors to preach and teach about good works?).

I believe that for those who are observing this discussion, the clear presentation of this presupposition is very helpful.  It raises important questions that we need to ask ourselves: 

1. Do we really believe that the inspired revelation – the only word that God has given to us – does not provide the pattern we are to follow in preaching to Christians?

2. If they don’t provide the pattern, then what serves as the source for the pattern we are to use? 

3. Why are these other sources superior to the Lord Jesus and his inspired apostles?

When stripped away of its theological window dressing and boiled down to this basic and fundamental point that guides preaching, it becomes clear that the position simply is untenable and must be rejected.  

It also soon becomes clear that historically this has not been true of Lutheran preaching since the days of Luther.  Lutheran preaching has followed the dominical and apostolic pattern of exhortation grounded in the Gospel as the source of our life in Christ.  Instead this new approach is a creation of mid-twentieth Lutheran theologians (a point very helpfully set forth in Scott Murray’s book Law, Life and the Living God: The Third Use of the Law in Modern American Lutheranism).  It does not follow Christ and the apostles, and so it should not guide us.


Sermon for First Mid-week Lent service - Mt 21:12-22

                                                                                                Mid-Lent 1
                                                                                                Mt 21:12-22

            “A green thumb.”  All of us know what the expression means.  It describes someone who is very good at raising plants – someone who is able to make them thrive and produce great flowers and fruit.  In England they use a similar expression – “green fingers.”
            We all know what it means.  What is interesting is that there is disagreement about the source of this expression.  Some say that it originated in England during the reign of Henry I who is reported to have loved fresh peas and kept a group of servants removing peas from the pods.  In doing so their fingers were stained greened.  A more likely explanation is that it originated in the fact that the clay pots used by gardeners became encrusted with algae and this stained fingers green.  And it may be that while “green thumb” describes the same thing as “green fingers,” it has a completely separate derivation.  Those who raised tobacco would remove the flowers from the plants so that the leaves would grow in size and weight.  Colonial era farmers often did so using their thumb which became green in the process.
            We may not be sure how the expression “green thumb” came to be, but we do know for sure what it means.  And we can say for sure that in our text tonight, our Lord Jesus does not have one.  Jesus encounters a fig tree that has no fruit.  In reaction to this, he causes the fig tree immediately to wither and die.  At first glance, it’s a really odd event. But when we see its connection with what Jesus has just done and said in the temple its meaning becomes clear.  And it is a word that we need to hear during Lent.
            The events of our text take place on the day that Jesus entered into Jerusalem.  After riding into Jerusalem to the cheers of “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!,” we learn that Jesus makes his way to the temple.  There he drives out all of those who are involved in buying and selling – the money changers who exchanged money into the form used in the temple, as well as those selling animals to be sacrificed.  As he did so, he said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.”
            Now it’s not the buying and selling of animals that is the problem. After all, the sacrifices had been commanded by God as part of the Torah he gave to Israel.  If you are going to have animal sacrifices, you need animals that are suitable for sacrificing. And if you are going to have people come from all over Israel to sacrifice, they will need to be able to buy animals.
            Instead, when Jesus uses the phrase “den of robbers” he provides the clue we need to understand what is happening.  In the sixth century B.C. the prophet Jeremiah had announced that the temple was going to be destroyed because of Judah’s unfaithfulness.  In doing so, he described the temple as a “den of robbers.” 
            In both cases, people were going through all of the motions of what they were “supposed to do.”  But spiritually, their attitude was all wrong – especially that of the religious leaders.  In Jesus’ day they were focused on what they did and their expectations of how God should work, rather than looking in faith to the reign of God that was present in Christ.
            Those who had no illusions about their own need were drawn to Jesus all during his ministry.  And it was no different here in the precincts of the temple itself.  We learn in our text that the blind and lame came to Jesus and he healed them.    These wondrous deeds were accompanied by the cry of children who said, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” as they echoed Jesus’ entry into the city. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that Jesus did, and heard the children crying out in the temple they were indignant.  Their reaction demonstrates what was wrong at the temple.
            Jesus withdrew outside the city to Bethany for the night. We learn that the next morning as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. He saw a fig tree there along the road. He went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves, at a time when it should have had fruit. So he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.
            It seems like a strange action.  Yet the background for understanding it is provided by the Old Testament and the events in the temple of the previous day.  The prophet Hosea described Israel as fruit on a fig tree, and Jeremiah and Micah both compared Israel to a barren fig tree.  When Jesus causes the barren fig tree to whither, it is an action prophecy of judgment against Israel that has rejected its true king and proven to be unfruitful. They are going through the motions and doing what they are “supposed to do.”  But they are not looking in humble faith for what God is doing in Jesus Christ.
            Our text tonight is a warning to us. It is easy for us just to go through the motions of being Christians.  It is possible to be doing what we are “supposed to do” – to go to church – and yet have this be disconnected from what happens in our life the rest of the week.  It is possible to fence God off in that hour or two on Sunday morning while we claim the rest of the time in the week for ourselves.
            The need for self-examination and repentance in our life never ceases.  In reality we are probably not capable of doing it at the same intensity all of the time.  And that is why the season of Lent is a blessing in our lives and the life of the Church.  For a period of time, we are called to focus upon our lives and God’s Word.  We are called to examine ourselves and confess the sin that is present.  We are called to repent and turn in faith to Christ who provides forgiveness and strength to turn away from sin.
            In our text tonight we see Jesus in the temple during Holy Week.  This combination of place and time provides the assurance that in repentance and faith we find the forgiveness of our Lord.  The temple was of course the place where the sacrifices commanded by God took place – sacrifices that would find their fulfillment in the death of Jesus Christ that was about to take place on Friday of that very week.
            The sacrifices were about God’s forgiveness.  And in particular, the sacrifices of the Day of Atonement removed the sin that stood as a barrier between God and his people.  It removed the sin that cut them off from fellowship with him.  Jesus Christ offered himself as the sacrifice for all – the sacrifice for you.  He provided himself as the ransom in your place by which you have received forgiveness and eternal life. And in his resurrection from the dead he has begun the life that will be yours on the Last Day.
            During Lent we have the opportunity to examine our lives and recognize those ways in which we are just going through the motions.  And at the same time, the season of Lent leads us back to the source that enables us to live as what Christ has made us to be. 
            Lent leads us back to our baptism, for it leads us to the first service of the resurrection - the Vigil of Easter.  It leads us back to a faith filled remembrance of what God has done for us through water and the word.  It leads us to the source of our Christian life, for through baptism the Spirit has joined you to the saving death of Jesus.  And through baptism the Spirit has begun the work of Christ within you.  It is the risen Lord through his Spirit who provides strength to live in faith – to live out the faith in the world instead of just going through the motions.


Sunday, February 22, 2015

Sermon for First Sunday in Lent - Invocabit Mt 4:1-11

                                                                                                Lent 1
                                                                                                Mt 4:1-11

            In the movie “13 Going on 30” a thirteen year old living in 1987 wakes up and finds herself in 2004.  Jennifer Garner then plays the role of thirteen year old 80’s girl living in the body of a thirty year old woman.  The formerly unpopular girl now leads a hip life, but finds that it isn’t what she thought it would be.
            This is, of course, the movie plot for a romantic comedy.  And while it is interesting to project life forward, it is probably more intriguing to consider what it would be like if you could project backwards.  If you could, would you go back to being thirteen years old?
            For me, the answer to that question all depends on whether I would still be the person I am now.  After forty five years of life, I have a pretty good sense of who I am.  I know what is important to me, and what is not.  I know what I like and what I don’t like.  I know what I am good at and what I am not good at.  I am comfortable with all of those things and if someone else doesn’t agree or doesn’t approve, it doesn’t really bother me.
            It would be great to go back to thirteen with forty five years of life experience.  I would know to avoid mistakes I made – like being infatuated with the same girl from sixth grade to my senior year … yikes! What was I thinking?  I would enjoy things more because I would see them for what they really are and wouldn’t care what other people thought about me.
            However, if going back to thirteen meant living the whole thing all over again just like I experienced it the first time through, there is no way I would ever go back.  Early adolescence is a time when you begin to figure you who you are – but really don’t have any clue yet.  It’s often a painful experience as you try to figure out the answers to all of those questions I just mentioned.  It’s a time when you are very worried about what other people think about you.  A trip back to that? No thank you.
            In our Gospel lesson for the First Sunday in Lent we see Jesus at the beginning of his ministry.  We find that he knows exactly who he is, and that this guides all of his actions.  We learn that because of Jesus, we know exactly who we are … something that at times we are all to prone to forget.
            Our text begins by saying, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” The word “then” points us back to what has just happened.  Jesus has just been baptized by John in the Jordan River.  Jesus went up from the water, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him, and a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
            At his baptism, Jesus is identified as God’s Son.  Jesus is, of course, the incarnate Son of God – the second person of the Trinity.  But in his role as the incarnate One he is also the Son who plays a unique role in God’s plan of salvation.  We heard about this earlier in the church year when Joseph obeyed the angel’s warning and fled with Jesus and Mary to Egypt in the middle of the night.  They only returned from Egypt after the death of Herod the Great.  Matthew tells us about that event, “This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’”
            In the Old Testament, Yahweh had said to Pharaoh through Moses, “Israel is my firstborn son.” Yahweh called the nation his son. Later, he described the kings descended from David as his son. The king was Israel reduced to one.  Now the Father calls Jesus his Son, and we learn that he is fulfilling the role of Israel.  Just as Israel had passed through the water of the Red Sea, so Jesus passes through the water of his baptism.  Israel had been identified as Yahweh’s servant, and in his baptism Jesus was identified as the Servant of the Lord.
            Israel had gone from the Red Sea into the wilderness, and there again and again the people forgot who they were.  They forgot about the unique status God had given to them, and they failed to trust in God.  Now after his baptism the Spirit of God leads Jesus into the wilderness in order to be tempted.  He goes where Israel had failed.  He goes because Israel had failed for it is in Jesus that all that Israel was meant to be will be fulfilled.
            In our text, Jesus is tempted by the devil.  Each of the temptations is an attempt by Satan to get Jesus to forget who he is and what he has come to do. They are attempts to get Jesus to serve himself rather than to obey the Father’s will and serve us.
            After Jesus had fasted for forty days, he was hungry. The devil came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Israel had often not trusted God and had grumbled about food.  But Jesus answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”  Though he would miraculously provide bread to thousands of others, he would not use his power to serve himself because this was not the word he had received from God the Father.
            Next the devil took Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and said, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and
‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” The devil wanted Jesus to force the Father’s hand; to test God’s power.  But Jesus replied, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” The Lord knew and trusted the Father’s power. The Son had come to obey the Father, not to test him.
            Finally the devil took Jesus to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. He said, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”  The Father had set before the Son a way of service and suffering that led to glory. The devil offered the easy way, if the Son would just forget who he is.  But Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’”  Jesus knew who he was.  He was the faithful and obedient Son.  He was the faithful and obedient Servant of the Lord.
            Jesus never forgot who he was.  He never forgot the saving role that the Father had given to him.  During Lent we will follow Jesus as he makes his way to the cross of Good Friday.  There, as he hangs on the cross, we hear an echo of his temptation.  Those passing by speak the demonic words, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” The chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mock him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’”
            Jesus did not come down from the cross.  Instead he was the faithful Son and Servant of the Lord who stayed on the cross for us.  He gave his life as a ransom for us, and in so doing carried out the Father’s will as he redeemed us from sin.  And through faithfulness to the Father’s will, he received the thing that the devil offers in our text.  On the third day he rose from the dead and on another mountain the risen Lord said to the disciples “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”
            In our text this morning we see that Jesus knows exactly who he is.  And that is good news for you, because you are prone to forget.  You forget that through baptism Christ has made you sons and daughters of God.  You forget about what you are, and go off trying to achieve worth and status through what you do and what you have.  You forget that you are God’s dearly beloved child, as you worry about things you want but don’t need.  You forget about who you are, as you take up the world’s ways of treating others.
            The good news of Jesus’ temptation is that Jesus knew who he was.  He never forgot.  Even when tempted to veer off from the Father’s will he defeated the devil and remained faithful.  And he has given that victory to you. Through the water of Holy Baptism he has given you a share in that ultimate victory that he won by his death on the cross and resurrection from the dead. He has given you a status that you could never earn for yourself.
            In a text that is shaped by baptism, the apostle Peter put it this way: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
            This is what the Son has made you to be through the washing of water with the Word. And through the work of the Holy Spirit who gave you new life, our Lord now leads you to live as what you are. In our text today we see that Jesus the Son was faithful and obedient to God as he walked a way of service to us.  The Spirit now leads you to live in service to others.  Just as the Son of God did not have to look for ways to serve, but rather had been given a calling by the Father to fulfill, so it is with you.  He has placed you in callings – in vocations in life – where you serve others.  He has made you a husband or wife; a father or mother; a son or daughter; a member of this congregation; an employer or an employee. And in each of these settings he uses your service to provide for the needs of others, just as he worked through the service of Jesus to provide your new status.
            In our Gospel lesson today, we see that Jesus knows exactly who he is.  He is the Son who fulfills God’s will for Israel.  He is the Servant who wins forgiveness for others.  He knows the Father’s will.  He trusts the Father plan.  Secure in this he defeats the devil’s temptations as he begins his journey to the cross for you.  Through baptism he has given you the new status that he won by his death and resurrection.  You are baptized into Christ.  So remember who you are. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Sermon for Ash Wednesday

                                                                                    Ash Wednesday
                                                                                    Joel 2:12-19

            Well, I thought this might be the year it finally happened.  During the eight and a half years that we have lived in Marion, I don’t think we have made it through school year without the kids missing at least one day of school because of winter weather.  However, the snow that fell Sunday night, Monday morning and Tuesday night caused all of the area schools to cancel classes yesterday and today.
            We really have no reason to complain.  So far, it has been an easy winter – nothing like what we had last year. Yet even with the very cold temperatures that we had last winter, it still was nothing compared to what the New England area is currently enduring.
            This past weekend another snowstorm hit the Boston area.  It dumped a foot of snow on top of the almost six feet of snow that had already fallen in the last month.  This onslaught of snow has created all kinds of difficulties for life in the city along with some unique logistical problems. 
            It is one thing to remove the snow in order to clear off roads, parking lots and sidewalks. The National Guard from Massachusetts, along Vermont and Maine have been brought in to help. But in order to do this, you have to have somewhere to put the snow.  There is a limit to how high you can pile the snow along roads.  So the city has created five “snow farms” on vacant sections of land in the city.  Snow is brought there and then industrial snow melters are used to melt the snow.  But even this solution has faced challenges as at different times the various snow farms have approached the full capacity of snow they can receive.
            When the weather causes great hardship like this – or causes destruction – people don’t expect to find the explanation for it in God and his judgment.  While as Christians, we don’t doubt that the weather remains under God’s control, we also don’t try to connect specific events with God’s judgment against sin because we have no way of knowing why things take place.  We have no means of revelation from God about what is happening, and so we can only presume that in some way it fits into his will.
            Things were different for ancient Israel.  In the time before Christ and the Church, Israel was the unique people of God.  They alone amongst all the peoples of the world had been chosen by God to be his own.  They were the means by which God was working out his salvation for the world, and Israel was intended to a light to the nations.
            God dealt with them as a nation.  He had called them to live faithfully in the covenant with him.  When they didn’t, he punished them, as a father punishes his son.  And one of the things that was unique about their experience was that God sent his prophets to explain this to them.  There were times – like the drought during the days the prophet Elijah – when God told them what he was doing because of their sin. And there were times when Yahweh explained through the prophets that a disaster Israel experienced was a call to repentance.
            We find an example of this in our text for Ash Wednesday from the prophet Joel.  The occasion for Joel’s prophecy was a terrible locust plague that had struck the land.  He writes about it in the first chapter: “What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten. What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten, and what the hopping locust left,
the destroying locust has eaten.”  Joel describes this swarm of insects like a conquering army and you can almost see them jumping and eating when you hear his words: “As with the rumbling of chariots, they leap on the tops of the mountains, like the crackling of a flame of fire devouring the stubble, like a powerful army drawn up for battle.”
            Joel tells the nation that this locust plague is an act of Yahweh’s judgment.  In fact, he calls it the “day of the Lord.”  At the beginning of this chapter Joel writes, “Blow a trumpet in Zion; sound an alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming; it is near, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!”
            Joel says that in the face of Yahweh’s judgment there is only one thing to do: Repent!  He calls them to come to God’s temple.  He says, “Put on sackcloth and lament, O priests;
wail, O ministers of the altar. Go in, pass the night in sackcloth, O ministers of my God! Because grain offering and drink offering are withheld from the house of your God. Consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly. Gather the elders
and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the LORD your God, and cry out to the LORD.”
            Joel calls the nation to repentance. And of course, tonight on Ash Wednesday we enter into Lent – a season of repentance.  If you have done this for any length of time in the church, you know how it works.  The paraments and vestments here in the chancel are purple.  On Ash Wednesday we have ashes marked on our forehead.  On Sunday we cease singing the hymn of praise, the Gloria in Excelsis.  On the Wednesdays during the rest of Lent we have a mid-week service.
            There is, however, the danger that all of this becomes merely perfunctory.  It can become all about achieving a certain kind of feeling which makes the Easter celebration seem all the more joyous and exciting.  In the midst of “doing Lent” we can lose sight of what Lent is really all about.
            Through Joel, Yahweh warns against just going through the motions.  He says in our text, “‘Yet even now,’ declares the LORD,‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.’”  Like Joel, the Lenten season calls you to repent.  It calls you to confess your sin. 
            This requires that you consider the Ten Commandments.  You must honestly examine your life and confess the things that you put before God.  You must confess the ways in which you hold hate in your heart and refuse to forgive.  You must confess the ways you lust and covet and steal.  You must confess the ways you serve yourself instead of your neighbor.
            And in doing so you return to God. You return to God, and in our text tonight Joel offers comforting words about what you find when you do.  He says, “Return to the LORD your God,
for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.” God is gracious and merciful.  He is slow to anger. He abounds in steadfast love.
            Joel reveals this in words.  And during the Lenten season we prepare to remember again that God has shown this in action.  He sent his Son into the world, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.  Jesus Christ, the incarnate One, obeyed the Father’s will that led him to the cross.  There, because God is gracious and merciful to you, Christ submitted himself in your place to God’s anger.  The Father did not relent of his judgment but instead poured out his full wrath against your sin.  The Lord Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” as he experienced damnation in your place
            God is gracious, merciful and loving.  In the death of his Son he provided for the atonement of our sin.  He removed the sin that separated you from him – that cut you off from life and fellowship with God.  And then in the resurrection of Jesus on the third day, he defeated the death that held you the sinner in its grasp.  Death may now claim your body, but it cannot keep it.  For by his death and resurrection Jesus Christ has claimed you – body and soul. 
            He will raise your body up on the Last Day to be like his.  And in preparation for this – in the guarantee of this – he has given you his Spirit as the first fruits and down payment.  The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the end times.  As the risen and ascended Lord, Jesus poured forth the Spirit to carry out his life giving work.  Peter said on the Day of Pentecost as he quoted the words of Joel: “‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.’”
          You have received the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Spirit in the water of Holy Baptism. The Spirit has joined you to the saving work of the crucified and risen Lord.  Because of this, you are forgiven and you will be raised.  And so in faith you repent.  You confess your sin. And you return to Go because he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.