Sunday, February 28, 2016

Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent - Oculi - Lk 11:14-28

                                                                                                Lent 3
                                                                                                Lk 11:14-28

            “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”  Abraham Lincoln lived at a time when the language of the Bible was part of American culture.  Speakers could allude to biblical passages and phrases, and expect that their hearers recognized they were doing so.
            Lincoln’s words were based on what Jesus says in our Gospel lesson, and in the parallel accounts in Matthew and Mark.  He spoke them in 1858 at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield as he argued that the United States could not remain partially free and partially slave holding.  The Dred Scott decision had declared that a black individual was not a person who could be an American citizen, and therefore couldn’t sue in federal court for their freedom – even if taken into a state where slavery was not allowed.  It also stated that the federal government had no power to regulate slavery on federal land that had been acquired after the original creation of the United States.  It is a helpful reminder that yes, the Supreme Court does make huge mistakes.  It is not some kind of infallible arbiter of truth.
            Lincoln made the speech as he accepted the Republican Party’s nomination to run for the U.S. Senatoe.  The speech launched his campaign in which he ran against Stephen A. Douglas.  Lincoln and Douglas went on to debate seven times around the state of Illinois. The third of those took place just south of us in Jonesboro.  It interesting to note that while these words are famous, the campaign they initiated failed.  Lincoln lost to Douglas – one of many failures in his life.
            Lincoln was of course correct.  The nation couldn’t remain divided part free and part slave.  He didn’t express himself in the exact form that the words occur in our text where Jesus says: “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste.”  However, this is certainly what happened.  In bringing about an end to this division there were 1.1 million American casualties and at least 620,000 deaths.  The south was the setting where most of the battles and the movement of armies took place, and it was devastated – a fate exemplified in the destruction wrought by Sherman’s march to the sea from Atlanta to Savannah.
            In our text this morning, Jesus takes a point that is common sense and applies it to the spiritual reality of what is happening in his ministry. He refutes the charge that he is in league with the devil.  Instead, the exact opposite is happening.  In his ministry, Jesus is the presence of God’s reign that is overcoming the devil.
            Our text begins by telling us, “Now he was casting out a demon that was mute. When the demon had gone out, the mute man spoke, and the people marveled.”  Now obviously it was not that the demon was mute.  Instead the oppression by the demon prevented the man from speaking.  Jesus cast the demon out of the man, and when the crowd saw it, they were amazed. 
            Luke’s Gospel emphasizes how Jesus did signs and wonders, such as casting out demons and healing people.  These miracles did two things.  First, they freed people from a form of the oppression that Satan and sin had brought into the world.  And second, they bore witness to Jesus.  Jesus performed the kinds of miracles that the prophets in the Old Testament had done – especially Elijah and Elisha.  They showed that Jesus was a prophet. But he was not just any prophet.  He was the great prophet like Moses whom God had promised – the One to whom the people were to listen.
            The people were amazed.  How could they not be?  But we learn that some there said, “He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the prince of demons.”  Beelzebul was another name for the devil that was present in first century Judaism.  These people attempted to discount Jesus’ miracle by saying that Jesus was actually cahoots with the devil!  He was some kind of spiritual “double agent” who appeared to be working against the devil by casting out demons, but in fact really was on the devil’s side.
            Jesus immediately rebutted the accusation and pointed out its absurdity.  He said, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household falls. And if Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? For you say that I cast out demons by Beelzebul.” The argument was just plain dumb.  The history of the ancient world was filled with kingdoms that had been brought low because of internal division.  Nobody intentionally fights against himself.
            And then Jesus raised a different possibility – the true one.  He said, “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.”  Jesus used the same phrase that we hear in our Old Testament lesson today.  When the Egyptian magicians were not able to replicate the miracle that Moses announced, they knew that they had encountered something that was beyond them. They said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.”
            Jesus announced that if it was by the finger of God – by the power of God – that he was casting out demons, then there was one inescapable conclusion: the kingdom of God had come upon them. As many of you know by now, when Jesus referred to the kingdom of God, he was not talking about a place.  Instead he was referring to God’s action – to the reign of God that was present in Jesus to free people from Satan, sin and death.
            As the One who brought God’s reign, Jesus had the power.  And he was using that power to overcome the devil.  He went on to say, “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are safe; but when one stronger than he attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil.”
            The bigger, stronger man wins.  We see this in football all the time.  It is an impressive sight to see an offensive line dominating the game as the team runs the ball again and again.  They blow the defense off the line, and linemen get down field to lay crushing blocks on defenders as the offense marches the ball down the field and takes what they want.
            Jesus says that he is casting out demons because he is the stronger One.  He is the One in whom God’s reign had arrived.  Jesus had been anointed with the Spirit as his baptism. And then at Nazareth in the very first sermon in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus read the words of Isaiah:  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And then he said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
            Jesus came to proclaim release to the captives of sin and to make this freedom a reality – to free us from enslavement to Satan.  The problem is that we have a tendency to forget what he has done … or at least to overlook it.  We get so busy doing all the things we do in the world that we lose our spiritual glasses.  We fail to see that our existence is lived in the midst of a winner take all spiritual conflict.  You belong either to Jesus or to the devil.  And though you have been freed by Christ, the devil is making every effort to get you back under his control.  He is working every angle – and our culture today gives him so much stuff to work with. He doesn’t want you to think about life in these spiritual terms because then you make for a much easier target.
            On the other hand, Jesus instructs and commands you to recognize this.  He does so because he loves you dearly and has paid an incredible price to free you.  I mentioned earlier that in Luke’s Gospel we learn that Jesus is a prophet – the great prophet like Moses promised by God.  But here’s the thing about God’s prophets in the Old Testament – they suffer and they die.  Jesus had come to be the ultimate example of this.  He came to be far more than just a prophet because he is true God and true man.  He came to be the suffering Servant – the One numbered with transgressors in order to take your place and receive God’s judgment against your sin.  On the evening of Easter Jesus said to the disciples, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
            This is what Jesus did as the anointed One to win freedom for you, people who were captives of Satan and sin.  And then in Holy Baptism he delivered this freedom to you.  He caused you to be born again of water and the Spirit.  He washed away your sins.
            You received God’s reign through baptism and the Word.  It was by the finger of God that Jesus cast out the devil as your lord because of his death and resurrection.  And now, in the face of an enemy who still wants to control you, you continue to need God’s saving reign.
            This too is something that we are prone to forget.  God has given his Means of Grace.  He has given us the Word, Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution and the Sacrament of the Altar.  Certainly God could have given us just one.  But instead he has given us multiple Means of Grace.  He has surrounded you with a variety of ways by which he forgives sins and strengthens faith.
            Yet this abundance should also lead us to the recognition that God thinks we really do need it – we really do need to be sustained in the faith.  We live in the ongoing struggle against the old Adam within in us.  We face the continuing battle against the devil and the world.  The devil wants to use every means at his disposal to separate you from Christ and bring you back under his control.  And you know what?  Most of those ways seem easy. They seem pleasant and enjoyable. They are, after all, the broad path that leads to destruction.
            It is for this reason that God has given us all of the Means of Grace.  He has given them to deliver the forgiveness won by Jesus’ death and resurrection.  He has given them to nourish and strengthen us in the life of faith – to keep us as his own. 
            And it is through these means that the Holy Spirit leads and enables us to live as those who are on the winning side.  You received the reign of God that Jesus Christ brought into the world. The power of God’s reign has freed you from the devil. And now that same power is at work in you so that you can seek to live like you belong to Jesus.  



Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Sermon for second mid-week Lent service: Table of Duties - Of Civil Government and Of Citizens

                                                                   Mid-Lent 2
                                                                   Table of Duties:                                                                    Of Civil Government; Of Citizens                                                                    2/24/16

            Last week will not go down in the books as one of my all time favorites.  Now thankfully, I did feel better than the previous weekend when I was sick in bed and had to miss church.  But as you could hear last Wednesday and then on Sunday, I was still trying to get over whatever I had. I was functioning and felt better, but I didn’t feel great.
            And then on top of this, most of the free evenings during the week were spent doing one of least enjoyable things that Amy and I have to do. They were spent getting our tax information ready.  Now nobody like doing taxes.  It’s a pain.  You have to make sure that you have all the information assembled that is needed – and somehow, no matter how careful you are, there always seems to be a form or a figure that you have to track down.  Often this means searching through that filed paper work, or navigating some website that wants a long forgotten password, or waiting on the phone forever to talk to someone.
            This is not fun.  And it’s not just that the job is tedious and time consuming. I find it to be a little stressful because I don’t want to make a mistake.  After all, you are dealing with the IRS.  And if there is one government agency that I don’t want to end up on the wrong side of, it is the Internal Revenue Service.  They have tremendous power and don’t strike me as a particularly understanding bureaucracy.
            Oh, and did I mention that I don’t like doing taxes because it means I see how much money the federal and state governments take from me?  I don’t want to see money leave my pocket.  And when you consider some of the ways that the government uses our money – and wastes it – it makes the whole experience pretty frustrating.
            Paying taxes is one of the most direct ways that we experience the topic of the two items from the Table of Duties that we consider tonight. We take up “Of Civil Government” and “Of Citizens.”  On the one hand, these topics are very straightforward.  But they also confront us with challenging questions – questions that the Christian faith answers in ways that are different from the world.
            The Small Catechism’s Table of Duties provides only one verse for the topic “Of Civil Government.”  And to be honest it is really all that we need.  In Romans 13 Paul says, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”  Paul says in a straightforward manner that governing authorities have been instituted by God – he is the One who has provided them.  Since God put them there, to resist the governing authorities – the civil government – is to resist God.
            The role of the government is very simple: it is to restrain wrongdoing and maintain order. Paul goes on to add: “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.”  Paul can even describe the government as “God servant.”
            Civil government exists because of one reason: sin.  It is the means God has established to restrain and control evil. To understand how crucial this is, consider what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, or closer to home – in Ferguson, MO when crowds did not feel constrained by police.  The veneer of civilization is a very thin one indeed.  When given a chance, sinners will do terrible things. That is why God established governing authorities.  As Peter says in the verse included under “Of Citizens”: “Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.”
            The government is God’s servant.  The irony is that it plays this role, even when the government itself rejects the idea of God; even when individuals in the government do so.  Remember, Paul wrote these words when the government was the Roman Empire and the leader was the emperor Nero.  And by the same token, since the government functions in this way, it is easy to understand why it is entirely a God pleasing thing for Christians to serve in the government, in the police and in the armed forces. These are important vocations which carry out God’s work.  With good reason Luther included good government among the blessings listed under “daily bread” – life without government is a frightening thing; think of Somalia’s recent history.
            Nothing is free, and so government and what it does, costs money.  From ancient times, governments have raised money through taxes. The Roman world was no different and so Paul went on to say in Romans 13: “Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.”  Paul told Christians to obey the authorities God had placed over them, and to do so by paying taxes.  In saying this, he was repeating Jesus’ own teaching when he said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
            Civil government is a great blessing from God.  It carries out a challenging job as it restrains sin.  And so Paul said in 1 Timothy 2 that Christians are to pray for their leaders and government as he wrote: First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior.”  When you were baptized, you made a part of the royal priesthood of God’s people. And part of your priestly service is prayer. Certainly we do this together in the Divine Service each week.  But prayer for our government and leaders needs to be part of our daily life as well.
            Overtly, we probably all keep the Fourth Commandment in this way.  I am not aware that any of you have been arrested or prosecuted for a crime. But it is not simply the external action that counts before God.  The right thing done grudgingly and out of coercion is not a good work in God’s eyes.  It is sin.  And so these verses confront us all.  Yet again, the Law reveals our sin.  It shows the reason that we have Lent.
            During this time in the Church year we follow our Lord as he makes his way to the cross and Good Friday.  He goes there as the sacrifice for our sin. By his death he was won forgiveness, and by his resurrection he has given us life.
            But as we think about civil government, we see that in his death he has provided something else as well.  Paul probably wrote the words of Romans 13 during the first five years of Emperor Nero’s rule.  They were good years as he was guided by his teacher, the Stoic philosopher Seneca. However, as an unstable individual, Nero eventually turned on Seneca and forced him to commit suicide.  Nero’s rule soon descended into madness and injustice. Before it was done he was having Christians burned as torches at night.
            Civil government itself can be warped by sin into something that does wrong.  It can become something that commands things that are contrary to God’s will.  When this happens, the apostles were clear as to how Christians respond when they said, “We must obey God rather than man.”
            When this happens, we are called to suffer. True, we work as citizens in our form of government to bring about change.  But where this does not succeed, we are willing to suffer for what it true and good.  In the same chapter of 1 Peter in which the verse in the Table of Duties is found, Peter goes on to say to slaves: “But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”
            Peter says that Jesus’ suffering provides a model for us by which he teaches us to entrust ourselves to God.  Now this is not a model that we want. We don’t want to experience injustice.  We don’t want to be wronged and harmed. But Jesus’ model is also the reason that we are able to do this. The Holy Spirit who created faith in Jesus also enables us to walk in faith.  Christ’s death and resurrection for us is the reason that we know we can trust God in the midst of any circumstance. God the Father has revealed his love and care in the death and resurrection of his Son. And therefore we are able to trust him in the midst of challenges.
            Civil government is a great blessing from God.  It restrains sin and allows us to live in peace.  Our vocation as citizens is to obey the government, pay our taxes and pray for those who govern us.  Yet when the government acts unjustly, or when it commands things that violate God’s will, we are called to follow our Lord in entrusting ourselves to God in the midst of suffering.  We do this knowing that, just as for our Lord, this way leads to life and resurrection for us.



Feast of St. Matthias, Apostle

Today is the Feast of  St. Matthias, Apostle.  Matthias is one of the lesser known apostles.  He was chosen by lot to fill the vacancy in the twelve apostles left by the death of Judas.  The account of his election (Acts 1:12-26) tells us that Matthias had been a follower of Jesus Christ during His whole ministry – from the baptism of John the Baptist until the day of the ascension.  Church tradition indicates that he engaged in missionary activities and was martyred.

Scripture reading:
In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) and said, “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” (Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness, and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their own language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.)  “For it is written in the Book of Psalms,

“‘May his camp become desolate,
and let there be no one to dwell in it’;


“‘Let another take his office.’

 So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also called Justus, and Matthias. And they prayed and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles. (Acts 1:15-26)

Collect of the Day:
Almighty God, You chose Your servant Matthias to be numbered among the Twelve.  Grant that Your Church, ever preserved from false teachers, may be taught and guided by faithful and true pastors; through Your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.