Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Mark's thoughts: When evil wins

I have found the celebration surrounding the abortion law signed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to be particularly sickening.  This law states that babies can be killed at any time right up to the moment of birth if the mother’s health is at risk.  However, since “health” is defined to include any physical, emotional or family factors that affect “well-being,” the law provides the ability to kill any baby.

The mind reels in seeking to understand how a person can accept this, much less celebrate it.  Yet the attention the New York law has received can cause us to overlook the fact that twenty three states – including Illinois where I live – already have such a law on the books.  Seven other states allow abortion at any time before birth, without even requiring the justification of the threat to a mother’s “health.”

We have recently seen another anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision come and go.  While there are many signs that real progress is being made to end abortion, the signing of the New York law at the time of the anniversary was a slap in the face – an ugly reminder that this unspeakable evil continues and has powerful people who seek to support and advance abortion.

For me personally, this is a source of great frustration.  And so it was helpful to come across Psalm 10 again in my personal devotions as I continue reading through the Psalms.  The psalmist begins by asking the question we ask: “Why, O LORD, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (10:1).  It can seem as if God does not care about this evil of abortion – the killing of babies.  The psalmist goes on describe the evil he sees and the people who do it:

In arrogance the wicked hotly pursue the poor; let them be caught in the schemes that they have devised. For the wicked boasts of the desires of his soul, and the one greedy for gain curses and renounces the LORD. In the pride of his face the wicked does not seek him; all his thoughts are, “There is no God.” His ways prosper at all times; your judgments are on high, out of his sight; as for all his foes, he puffs at them. He says in his heart, “I shall not be moved; throughout all generations I shall not meet adversity.” His mouth is filled with cursing and deceit and oppression; under his tongue are mischief and iniquity. He sits in ambush in the villages; in hiding places he murders the innocent. His eyes stealthily watch for the helpless; he lurks in ambush like a lion in his thicket; he lurks that he may seize the poor; he seizes the poor when he draws him into his net. The helpless are crushed, sink down, and fall by his might. He says in his heart, “God has forgotten, he has hidden his face, he will never see it.” (10:2-11)

We see an evil like abortion, and we want God to act. The psalmist calls for this too.  He says, “Arise, O LORD; O God, lift up your hand; forget not the afflicted. Why does the wicked renounce God and say in his heart, ‘You will not call to account’?” (10:12-13).

The circumstances make it appear like God does not care.  Left to ourselves, it would be easy to drift into cynicism and hopelessness about the evils of the world.  That is why the psalms are so important for us.  They are prayers to God in which we find our own thoughts and emotions expressed.  However, they are also inspired prayers.  They are prayers from God that reveal how we should think and speak as Christians. 

Very often in psalms that lament the fallen circumstances of the world, the psalmist ends with a statement of faith.  In Psalm 10 the psalmist begins by asserting that God does notice.  He writes, “But you do see, for you note mischief and vexation, that you may take it into your hands; to you the helpless commits himself; you have been the helper of the fatherless” (10:14).  The evildoer may say that there is no God (10:4) or that he will never be called to account (10:13).  But God is God, and nothing escapes him.  He does take note.  The psalmist calls God to act upon this: “Break the arm of the wicked and evildoer; call his wickedness to account till you find none” (10:15).

The psalmist doesn’t see this happening.  That is the reason for the psalm.  But he concludes with this note of confidence in God: “The LORD is king forever and ever; the nations perish from his land. O LORD, you hear the desire of the afflicted; you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed, so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more” (10:17-18).

The psalmist says that Yahweh is the king forever. He is the king who reigns (Psalm 93:1; 96:10; 97:1), and so he is the king who judges. As the previous Psalm stated: “But the LORD sits enthroned forever; he has established his throne for justice, and he judges the world with righteousness; he judges the peoples with uprightness” (Psalm 9:7-8; see also 96:12-13; 98:8-9).  In faith, the psalmist declares that Yahweh will hear the afflicted and strengthen them (10:17).  He will do justice to the oppressed and act so that the evildoers strike terror no more (10:18).

In spite of present circumstances, the psalmist expresses faith in God’s character and what he will do.  Evil wins, but evil cannot have the last word.  We have the same confidence, yet now it is a confidence based on the end time action of God in his Son, Jesus Christ.  Jesus brought the reign of God into this world (Mark 1:14; Matthew 12:28).  By his death on the cross and resurrection from the dead he has conquered sin, evil and death for us. Through faith and baptism we have been delivered from the righteous judgment that we deserved and are forgiven sinners – saints.

Jesus is the king, the righteous judge (Matthew 25:31; 2 Corinthians 5:10).  The ascended and exalted Lord will return, and those who do not repent; those who cling to their sin by celebrating the death of babies and promoting it will receive his judgment. The killing will end and eternal life will triumph.  Evil and those who do it cannot win, because in Christ they have already lost.   

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany - Mt 8:1-13

                                                                                                Epiphany 3
                                                                                                Mt 8:1-13

            For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes.”  A Roman centurion spoke these words to Jesus two thousand years ago.  And in two thousand years this basic truth about military life has not changed.
            Our son Timothy got to experience this first hand this past summer.  After enlisting in the Illinois National Guard in the first step of his planned military career, he spent his summer in basic training at Ft. Benning – or as I like to call it: “summer camp in Georgia.” 
            Of course, there was nothing leisurely or relaxing about his time there.  And from the moment he arrived he experienced what it is like to be under the authority of another.  His life was run by drill sergeants and their commands as they told him what to do.  When they told him to run, he ran. When they told him to do push ups, he did push ups. When they told him to eat, he ate – even when that meant eating things he would not eat at home.
            The centurion in our text was an important individual.  Now it should be said from the outset this he was not part of a Roman legion.  At this time there were three legions in this region of empire, and they were all stationed in the north in Syria.  In fact, strictly speaking, Capernaum wasn’t even Roman territory. Instead, it was part of the kingdom of Herod Antipas, a son of Herod the Great.  Kingdoms like that of Herod were a kind of buffer zone on the fringes of the Roman Empire. 
            However, Herod’s kingdom was certainly under Roman control and he could be expected to provide troops for Roman campaigns whenever they demanded. This close connection meant that Herod’s forces were organized along the lines of the Roman military pattern.  A cohort had about four hundred and eighty men and was comprised of six centuries, each with a centurion commanding it.  And while century mean “one hundred,” as you can see, a century normally had about eighty men.
            The centurions were the backbone of Roman forces.  Most often they had been promoted from the ranks. They were experienced, professional soldiers.  They also had to be literate because they were responsible for overseeing the large amount of paperwork that was part Roman military life.  You could probably compare them to a Captain in the U.S. Army.  They had social standing and were significant figures in the community.
            Our text begins by saying, “When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, ‘Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.’” From the start this is a surprising encounter.  The centurion was a Gentile, military officer.  Jesus was a Jewish civilian.  You don’t expect a centurion to approach a Jew and appeal for anything. And you certainly don’t expect a centurion to address a common Jew as “Lord.”
            However, the fact that he did immediately tells us something about the centurion.  In Matthew’s Gospel, it is only disciples and believers who address Jesus as “Lord.”  This man came to Jesus in faith.  He had come because his servant was paralyzed and suffering greatly.
            Jesus heard the centurion’s appeal, and he responded with care and compassion.  He said, “I will come and heal him.”  In Jesus the kingdom of God – the reign of God – had entered into the world.  He was here to turn back the forces of Satan and sin, along with all that they had done in the world.  He was here to undo what sin had caused. And that is what we see in Jesus’ miracles of healing. 
            But then, something unexpected happened. The centurion had come to Jesus asking for his help.  Yet now he said, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” 
            In the first century world, Jesus was not the social equal of the centurion – far from it.  Yet the centurion who in faith addressed him as Lord now says that he is not worthy to have Jesus come under his roof.  It’s a remarkable admission and recognition coming from this Gentile.  And it shows an insight that we are quick to forget.  After all, we are not worthy to have anything to do with Jesus.  We are sinful creatures who are continually turned in ourselves.  We create false gods of all kinds – things that are really the most important in our lives – and treat them as our lords.
            The centurion knew exactly where he stood in relation to Jesus.  Jesus was the Lord to whom he appealed for help.  He was not worthy even to have Jesus come to his house.  But he also had faith that there was no need for him to do so.  He expressed to the Lord, “but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.”  Literally the Greek has “speak with a word.” The emphasis falls on the word of Jesus which does things.  And the centurion was certain about why this word would heal – it was because of the authority of the One speaking the word.
            The centurion knew all about authority. He was under his commanders who could tell him what to do.  And he had soldiers and servants – slaves – under him who had to do what he told them to do.  The centurion’s word had authority.  It made things happen. But if that was true for him, how much more was it true for Jesus!  The centurion believed that Jesus’ word had an authority that could drive the illness from his servant.
            When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.”  Jesus held up the centurion as an amazing example of faith – faith that surpassed even what he had encountered among God’s people, the Jews.
            The centurion believed in Jesus’ authority.  He believed in the power of Jesus’ word.  This must define our lives as Christians. We believe in Jesus’ authority because he is the One who died on the cross and rose from the dead. The word that comes from Jesus is the word of the risen Lord.  After his resurrection, Jesus Christ said to his disciples who were with him on a mountain in Galilee: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” 
            Jesus’ authority as the incarnate Son of God was there with him during his ministry.  The centurion believed in Jesus as the One who possessed this authority.  And so Jesus responded, “Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.”  We learn that the servant was healed at that very moment.
            Jesus’ word did exactly what he said.  Matthew tells us that the servant was healed at that very moment.  But we should reflect upon how the centurion experienced this.  The centurion came to Jesus in faith in order to appeal to the Lord for healing.  He did this as one who believed Jesus could do it with his word because the Lord had authority. Jesus’ word did what he said, and healed the servant. 
            Yet the centurion had to return the exact same way he had come.  He had to return to his home in faith. All he had was Jesus’ word as he headed home – yet when he got home he learned that this was a word that had already done what Jesus said.  It had healed his servant.
            This is how we live as Christians.  We hear Jesus’ word in Holy Absolution as he says through the pastor in his Office of the Ministry: “I forgive you all your sins.”  We don’t see that anything has happened or changed.  Jesus’ word says of the bread and wine in the Sacrament of the Altar that it is his body and blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.  And yet it does look or taste any different.
            But because it is the word of the crucified and risen Lord we receive it in faith. We believe what Jesus says is true.  And like the centurion on the way back to his house, Jesus’ word has already done what he has said even when we have not received confirmation by some other means. His word of absolution removes sins and gives you the standing of a forgiven sinner before God – a saint.  His word in the Sacrament causes his true body and blood to be present in, with, and under the bread and wine.  And as we eat and drink believing his word of forgiveness – we have right then the very forgiveness of which he speaks.
            The centurion returned to his house believing Jesus’ word, but not yet having actually seen the results – not until he got home.  This describes our life of faith too.  Jesus has said, “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”
            Our Lord’s promise of care for the various circumstances of our life is true, even when we don’t see the results that we expect and want – even when we don’t understand what he seems to be doing.  We can believe and trust it is true because it is the promise that comes with the authority of the risen Lord Jesus.
            For now we live by faith and not by sight as we trust in Jesus Christ.  But our text reminds us that the day of sight will come. Jesus says at the end of our text: “I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
            Jesus Christ is the crucified and risen Lord. And on the Last Day every person will be confronted by the undeniable fact that their status for all eternity has been determined by the stance they took toward Jesus.  The way of faith – of believing and trusting in Jesus Christ and his word – leads to the feast of salvation with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob … and with the centurion at Capernaum. Jesus’ word does with he says.  Those who believe in Jesus already have the blessing of forgiveness and God’s care now.  And we will enjoy all the blessings of salvation with him that will be revealed on the Last Day.  



Friday, January 25, 2019

Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul

Today is the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul.  First named Saul, Paul was a Pharisee from Tarsus who came to live in Jerusalem.  He was a rising star in the Judaism of his day and was so zealous for the faith as he understood it that he actively persecuted the Church (Galatians 1:11-24).  As he travelled to Damascus to persecute the Church there, the risen Lord Jesus appeared to Paul and as a result of this, Paul became a believer and was baptized (Act 9).  Not one of the original twelve apostles, because he was called directly by the risen Christ, Paul was also designated as an apostle.  He was active in proclaiming the Gospel to the Gentiles as he went on at least three missionary journeys to Asia Minor and Greece.  Because he had persecuted Christ’s Church, Paul considered his call and conversion to be a dramatic demonstration of God’s grace, love and forgiveness (1 Timothy 1:12-17).

Scripture reading:
But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

 Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened.

For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” And all who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ (Acts 9:1-22).

Collect of the Day:
Almighty God, You turned the heart of him who persecuted the Church and by his preaching caused the light of the Gospel to shine throughout the world.  Grant us ever to rejoice in the saving light of Your Gospel and, following the example of the apostle Paul, to spread it to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.