Sunday, July 26, 2015

Sermon for Eighth Sunday after Trinity - Jer 23:16-29

          Trinity 8
                                                                                                Jer 23:16-29

            During the last two weeks or so I have started to use Twitter.  Twitter, for those of you who do not do much online, is a very popular social media platform. It is in some ways similar to Facebook, but since you are limited to 140 characters per post – or “tweet” as they are called – they are far shorter and concise. 
            Now I have had a Twitter account for some time and if you look you will see that I have made 4600 “tweets.”  But in fact almost none of those occurred on Twitter itself.  In order to get my blog out in the cyber world a Lutheran pastor had shown me how to set it up so that certain kinds of items posted on Facebook also get posted automatically on Twitter – and vice versa.
            I have started using Twitter more because I have found that it is a great way to get current news and commentary from interesting people.  It works on the basis of “following” and “followers.” You set it up so that “follow” someone, and thus all their tweets appear in your feed.  The number of people who have done this is the number of “followers” you have. So I have 222 followers.  President Harrison has 1300 followers.  Taylor Swift as 61 million followers.
            I have been interested to learn, however, that not everyone on Twitter is real.  In fact it is estimated that at least one in ten Twitter accounts is fake.  There is a whole industry that produces, sells and runs automated Twitter accounts called “robots” or “bots.”  People purchase the service of these robot accounts – tens and hundreds of thousands of them. They do this so that their “followers” base looks bigger. This makes them they look more popular and also influences the way their account gets promoted on Twitter.  So if I wanted to pass President Harrison I could buy 1500 of these robot accounts.
            But that’s not the only kind of fake Twitter account.  There are impersonator accounts that parody real people.  This is legal, as long as the title has something in it to indicate it is not the real one.  And while I use the word “parody,” much of what goes on is not funny.  In fact Tony LaRusse tried to sue Twitter over a vulgar account like this.
            And then there are occasions when someone sets up an account and pretends to be someone else. This happened to a writer named JoBeth McDaniel.  She realized one day that there was someone using an account that had her name and picture.  The impostor was tweeting rambling statements about eating pizza and smoking marijuana.  And it turned out that the fake JoBeth had garnered more followers than the real JoBeth!  The problem was that the real JoBeth was in the process of applying for a big new job, and the last thing she wanted was for the prospective employer to search the internet about her and find these tweets that she certainly did not send.
            In our Old Testament lesson today, Yahweh uses the prophet Jeremiah to condemn prophets who were speaking in Judah with messages that he had not sent.  They were speaking lies that were misleading the people into disaster.  Instead of calling people to repentance they were leading them further astray.  The prophet’s words remind us this morning that speaking God’s Word is no small thing. We are called to listen to what God actually says, and to share this truth with others.
            The prophet Jeremiah wrote at the beginning of the sixth century B.C. and lived in the southern kingdom of Judah.  Judah was all that was left of God’s people. The northern kingdom of Israel had been conquered by the Assyrians in 722 B.C. and the entire population had been taken away into exile.  In their place, the Assyrians had brought in peoples from other parts of their empire as part of the “population swapping” that they used to control conquered peoples.
            Now, Judah faced the threat of the Babylonian Empire, the new superpower in the near eastern world who had taken out the Assyrians.  Yet if the external situation was bad, the internal one was even worse.  The people had been carried away in the worship of false gods from the surrounding pagan peoples.  In fact, the images of false gods had been brought into the temple itself in Jerusalem.
            The people who were supposed to teach the nation about God’s will which had been revealed in the Torah, were not doing it.  Instead they themselves were living in sinful ways.  Just before our text Jeremiah wrote, “Both prophet and priest are ungodly; even in my house I have found their evil, declares the LORD.”  He went on refer to the past about Samaria, the now destroyed capital of the northern kingdom and said, “In the prophets of Samaria I saw an unsavory thing: they prophesied by Baal and led my people Israel astray. But in the prophets of Jerusalem I have seen a horrible thing: they commit adultery and walk in lies; they strengthen the hands of evildoers, so that no one turns from his evil; all of them have become like Sodom to me, and its inhabitants like Gomorrah.”
            In our text this morning, Yahweh’s instruction is very clear.  Jeremiah writes: “Thus says the LORD of hosts: ‘Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD. They say continually to those who despise the word of the LORD, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.’”
            The prophets were speaking their own word, not Yahweh’s.  They were telling people who despised God’s Word and followed their own sinful heart: “No problem.  It’s all good.”  God says the problem with these fake prophets is that they have not stood in the council of the Lord to hear the real word of God.  If they had then things would be very different.  He says in our text: “I did not send the prophets, yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied. But if they had stood in my council, then they would have proclaimed my words to my people,
and they would have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their deeds.”
            As we listen to our text, it is hard not to think about the world in which we live today.  The problem was that the false prophets were not speaking the word of the Lord to the people. They were not saying the hard things.  They were not saying that Yahweh is the true God and that every other one is a false god – is a nothing.  They were not confronting sin and calling people to repentance.
            If you have been paying attention at all, you will notice that what I just said describes a big chunk of Christianity in America.  It describes a big chunk of those in the United States who identify themselves as “Lutheran.”  There is a refusal to say that Jesus Christ alone is the only way God has revealed by which sins are forgiven and a person can have eternal life with God. There is a refusal to call sin a sin – especially if it has anything to do with sexual activity.
            The root cause of this is a matter of how people view God’s Word – the Scriptures. Is it the authoritative Word from God that determines how life is to be? Or is it a word from man about God which we can sift and sort for the parts we keep based on our desires and wishes? You know what Jeremiah’s answer to that question was.
            Yet the truth of the matter is that you can’t get away from the question that easily.  For you see it is one thing to say it is the authoritative word from God that determines how life is to be.  It is another thing to acknowledge that it determines how your life is to be.  In our text Yahweh says, “Is not my word like fire, declares the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?”
            You don’t want to face the hammer of the law.  God’s word confronts you with the things you put before God – the things you show that you value more because you give them more of your time, attention and money.  It confronts you with the ways you love yourself more than your spouse, your sibling, your family members.  It confronts you with the ways that you nurse anger and hate in your heart, and then look for opportunities to act upon it.
            God’s Word is a hammer that breaks rocks into pieces. It shatters the way you want to do things and calls it what it is: sin.  But it is a word that God means for your good.  It is a word that calls you to repentance.  It is a words that forces you to confess your sin and all of the ways that you have no righteousness.
            Martin Luther called this work of the law God’s “alien work.”  By this he meant that God does not desire to judge.  He does not desire to condemn. Instead, over and over in the Old Testament we hear the words that the Lord is “gracious and merciful, slower to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”  Being gracious and loving is what Luther called God “proper work.” It’s what he really wants to do.
            And the evidence of this is our Savior Jesus Christ, who in fact appears in the same chapter of Jeremiah as our text.  For earlier in chapter 23 we read: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness.”
            Those who have been in Bible class will immediately recognize that this is a promise about the Messiah descended from King David.  God sent his Son into the world as the incarnate One, Jesus the Messiah.  He came to offer himself on the cross as the sacrifice for your sin and then to rise from dead.  He is your righteousness because he has taken away all your sins.  Baptized into his saving death you have been clothed with Christ and so now he gives his righteousness to you.  He gives you the ability to stand before God – not on the basis of what you have done but because of what he did for you.
            The message about God’s love in Jesus Chris is Gospel – it is good news.  And who doesn’t want to focus on good news? Who doesn’t want to speak about love?  It is easy to speak about God’s love.  But God’s love comes in the shape of a cross.  And where there is the cross there you have sin in the picture.  This means that as Christians we can never stop speaking the hard things; the things people don’t want to hear – because they are true things. They are true because they come from God. We can never stop speaking them to one another because it is in repentance and faith that we stand forgiven.  And we can never stop speaking them to others because it is only in the recognition of sin that we can understand the depths of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Mark's thoughts: Jesus didn't say homosexuality and same sex marriage are wrong?

In discussions about homosexuality and same sex marriage, you will often encounter people who deliver this as if it is a clear proof that homosexuality and same sex marriage are morally acceptable: “Well Jesus didn't say that homosexuality and same sex marriage are wrong.”  Because Jesus didn’t condemn homosexuality, the conclusion is drawn that it therefore must have been acceptable to him.  It is certainly true that the Lord never directly mentions homosexuality. Yet just a little knowledge about Judaism at the time of the first century A.D. explains why he did not and reveals what an absurd argument this is.

The first three chapters of Genesis lay the foundation for understanding everything that follows in the Bible.  The Jews of Jesus' day knew that God had created man in his own image, and had created them as male and female (Genesis 2:16-17).  They knew that man and woman had been created as a corresponding pair. God said in Genesis 2:18 “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make a helper fit for him” where the Hebrew translated as “fit for him” means literally, “corresponding to him.” God had instituted marriage as the union of man and woman in the Garden of Eden for we read in Genesis chapter 2:

So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. (Genesis 2:21-24 ESV).

Things were very clear.  God created man and woman for one another, and sexual union was shared by husband and wife in marriage. To take part in sexual union outside of marriage violated God’s will (Sixth Commandment).  Yet to engage in a sexual union of any kind besides between a man and a women also violated God’s will since it rejected the way God had ordered His creation.   A Jew of Jesus’ day read in Leviticus 18:22-23, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. And you shall not lie with any animal and so make yourself unclean with it, neither shall any woman give herself to an animal to lie with it: it is perversion (ESV) (see also Leviticus 20:13). Notice how a man having sex with a man is described as an abomination, and how it is set in parallel with a person having sex with an animal.  Both actions violate the way God has ordered His creation.

A Jew in the first century A.D. also knew what had happened at Sodom as reported in Genesis 19:

But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house. And they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know them.” Lot went out to the men at the entrance, shut the door after him, and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Behold, I have two daughters who have not known any man. Let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please. Only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.” (Genesis 19:4-8 ESV)

The language of “to know” someone is used to indicate sexual intercourse in the Old Testament (for example, Gen 4:1), and the fact that Lot offers his daughters to the men of Sodom indicates that their desire for the male visitors was sexual.  It is true that the Sodomites’ desire to assault the guests was wrong because it was an act of violence that violated near eastern expectations about hospitality provided to guests.  People today use this fact to try to say that the events at Sodom had nothing to do with homosexuality.  But this does not eliminate the fact that the homosexual act intended was itself also wrong based on what the Old Testament tells us.

More importantly for our topic, we know that when Jews around the time of Jesus talked about the events at Sodom, they focused on homosexuality as being the main issue.  This is not surprising based on what they knew from Leviticus 18:22 about homosexuality. So when the Jewish writer Josephus (first century A.D.) provided an account of these events he wrote:

Now when the Sodomites saw the young men to be of beautiful countenances, and this to an extraordinary degree, and that they took up lodgings with Lot, they resolved themselves to enjoy these beautiful boys by force and violence; and when Lot exhorted them to sobriety, and not to offer anything immodest to the strangers, but to have regard to their lodging in his house; and promised, that if their inclinations could not be governed, he would expose his daughters to their lust, instead of these strangers – neither thus were they ashamed. (Antiquities 1.11.3)

Likewise Jubilees (second century B.C.) focused on the sexual aspect of the event: “And he told them the judgment of the giants and the judgments of the Sodomites just as they have been judged on account of their evil. And on account of their fornication and impurity and the corruption among themselves with fornication they died” (19.5).

Judaism knew about the existence of homosexuality among the pagans around them, and also in the Greco-Roman world.  Because of what was in the Torah, in response to this they categorically rejected it as immoral and contrary to God’s ordering of creation.  In fact in his classic work Between Athens and Jerusalem: Jewish Identity in the Hellenistic Disaspora, the scholar John J. Collins writes: “No sin is denounced more frequently in Jewish writings than homosexuality” (pg. 159).  So the Jewish writer of the Sibylline Oracle Book 3 (second century B.C.) says of the Gentile kingdoms:

They will also oppress mortals. But those men will have a great fall when they launch upon a course of unjust haughtiness.  Immediately compulsion to impiety will come upon these men.  Male will have intercourse with male and they will set up boys in houses of ill-fame and in those days there will be a great affliction among men and it will throw everything into confusion. (3.182-187)

He sets the Jews in contrast to the Gentiles when he writes:

Greatly, surpassing all men, they are mindful of holy wedlock, and they do not engage in impious intercourse with male children as do Phoenicians, Egyptians, and Romans, spacious Greece and many nations of others, Persians and Galatians and all Asia, transgressing the holy law of immortal God, which they transgressed. (3.595-600)

Sybilline Oracle Book 3 refers to pederasty which was the form of homosexual behavior in the Greek world.  In this practice which was associated with the wealthy, the older man took a younger man as a lover.  Yet in this relationship the older man always sodomized the younger man, and the younger man was usually looked down upon.

However, it was not the difference in age, status or power between the two partners that offended Judaism.  Instead it was the fact that the homosexual act itself violated the way God had ordered creation. Probably writing in the first century A.D. the Jewish writer identified as Pseudo-Phocylides stated: “Do not transgress with unlawful sex the limits of nature.  For even animals are not pleased by intercourse of male with male. And let women not imitate the sexual role of men” (190-192). 

The first century A.D. Josephus wrote in Against Apion:

But then, what are our laws about marriage?  That law owns no other mixture of sexes but that which nature hath appointed, of a man with his wife, and that this be used only for the procreation of children.  But it abhors the mixture of male with male; and if anyone do that, death is his punishment. (2.25)

Likewise Philo (late first century BC to early first century AD) wrote:

And let the man who is devoted to the love of boys submit to the same punishment [death], since he pursues that pleasure which is contrary to nature, and since, as far as depends upon him, he would make the cities desolate, and void, and empty of all inhabitants, wasting his power of propagating his species, and moreover, being a guide and teacher of those greatest of all evils, unmanliness and effeminate lust, stripping young men of the flower of their beauty, and wasting their prime of life in effeminacy, which he ought rather on the other hand to train to vigour and acts of courage; and last of all, because, like a worthless husbandman, he allows fertile and productive lands to lie fallow, contriving that they will continue barren, and labours night and day at cultivating that soil from which he never expects any produce at all. (Special Laws 3.39).

In taking this position Hellenistic Jewish writers were not only reflecting what the Torah said, but also could align themselves with the significant parts of the Greek philosophical tradition that rejected homosexuality, including Plato, Antisthenes and the Cynics and the Epircureans (see Collins, Between Athens and Jerusalem, pg. 159).

A look at the Old Testament and the Jewish attitude toward homosexuality at the time of Jesus makes it perfectly clear why he did not say anything about homosexuality: There was no need.  The Jewish setting of first century A.D. Palestine was not a place where homosexuality was found practiced out in the open.  The statements of Scripture about marriage and homosexuality were clear, and the beliefs of Jews about homosexuality at the time of Jesus were firmly fixed against it.

When Jesus did talk about marriage, he returned to what Genesis 2 said:

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matthew 19:3-6 ESV)

In doing so Jesus provides the one God pleasing understanding of sex, namely that it is between a man and woman in marriage. And he provides the one God pleasing understanding of marriage: that is a one flesh union of a man and a woman for life.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Commemoration of Ezekiel, Prophet

Today we remember and give thanks for the prophet Ezekiel.  Ezekiel, son of Buzi, was a priest, called by God to be a prophet to the exiles during the Babylonian captivity (Ez. 1:3). In 597 B.C. King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian army brought the king of Judah and thousands of the best citizens of Jerusalem—including Ezekiel—to Babylon (2 Kgs 24:8–16). Ezekiel’s priestly background profoundly stamped his prophecy, as the holiness of God and the Temple figure prominently in his messages (for example, Ezekiel 9–10 and 40–48). From 593 B.C. to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 587 B.C., Ezekiel prophesied the inevitability of divine judgment on Jerusalem, on the exiles in Babylon, and on seven nations that surrounded Israel (Ezekiel 1–32). Jerusalem would fall, and the exiles would not quickly return, as a just consequence of their sin. Once word reached Ezekiel that Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed, his message became one of comfort and hope. Through him God promised that his people would experience future restoration, renewal and revival in the coming Messianic kingdom (Ezekiel 33–48). Much of the strange symbolism of Ezekiel’s prophecies was later employed in the Revelation to St. John

Collect of the Day:
Lord God, heavenly Father, through the prophet Ezekiel, you continued the prophetic pattern of teaching your people the truth faith and demonstrating through miracles your presence in creation to heal it of its brokenness.  Grant that your Church may see in your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the final end-times prophet whose teaching and miracles continue in your Church through the healing medicine of the Gospel and the Sacraments; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.