Sunday, June 30, 2019

Sermon for the Second Sunday after Trinity - Eph 2:13-22

                                                                                                Trinity 2
                                                                                                Eph 2:13-22

            In May of this year, there was a rather unusual protest in Carbondale.  Now of course, as a university town, protests of various types are nothing new there. But this one was quite different from anything I have ever heard about before.
            On the sidewalk in front of University Mall, a group known as the “Bloodstained Men” were protesting the practice of circumcision.  Dressed in white clothes, they had stained the crotch of their pants bright red and carried signs that said things like: “Circumcision harms humans”; “Circumcision is sexual mutilation”; and, “Foreskin is not a birth defect.”  The group was on a sixteen day protest tour in Missouri, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee as they spoke out against the practice of circumcision.
            Now this probably strikes most of us as being just weird.  Circumcision is not at all something we think about as being an important issue.  It’s a very common practice.  According to the CDC, about 81% of the male population is circumcised. As a nurse who has dealt first hand with this subject, Amy says that it’s a no-brainer – yes, it’s a good practice.
            While circumcision is something that we give almost no thought to, it was an incredibly important subject in the first century A.D. as the Church began to expand.  Circumcision was, of course, the sign of the covenant for Israel and those who descended from the nation – for the Jews.  Jesus came as Israel’s Messiah.  His apostles and first disciples were Jews.
            However, as soon as the Gospel began to be preached to Gentiles, circumcision became an issue.  Did Gentiles Christians need to be circumcised in order to be part of God’s people? This wasn’t just an abstract theological discussion. It was a highly charged emotional issue.  Circumcision set apart Jews from Gentiles. To Gentiles the practice was an abhorrent mutilation.  To Jews it was a point of great importance and solidarity that marked them off as God’s people.
            Writing to the largely Gentile church in the area of Ephesus, Paul says just prior to our text: “Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called "the uncircumcision" by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands--remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”
            Before they heard the Gospel, the lack of circumcision really did mean something for these Gentiles.  It meant that they were not part of God’s covenant people.  Instead, they were trapped in their sin, slaves of the devil and under God’s wrath.  Paul wrote at the beginning of this chapter, “ And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience-- among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”
            However, Pauls says in our text that the good news of Jesus Christ had changed all of that.  He writes, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”  Cut off from God by their sins, Jesus’ death on the cross had brought them near to God through forgiveness. And Paul says they had also received life through the resurrection of Jesus. The apostle has just said in this chapter, “even when we were dead in our trespasses, he made us alive together with Christ--by grace you have been saved--
and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”
            Because God has done this in Christ, Paul says in our text that he has reconciled Jew and Gentile into the one people of God – the Church.  He says, “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.”
            Now having heard all of this, it is quite possible that your response is: “So what?  What’s the big deal?”  After all, no one cares about circumcision any more. Well … no one except the “Bloodstained Men,” and I don’t think any of us are going to take them too seriously.  The one Church is now basically a Gentile church, and it has been that way for a long time. There is no great hostility as it existed in Paul’s day.
            And that is true.  But let’s think a little more about the implications of what Paul is saying.  The apostle has said that Christ is our peace – that he has brought peace. Then he adds in our text, “And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.”
            Jew and Gentile is not the only relationship where there is the need for peace.  So, how are things in your marriage?  How are thing between you and your children, or between you and your parents?  How are things between you and your brother or sister?  How are things between you and your extended family?
            When we look here, we find all kinds of ways that that sin – our sin and their sin – creates hostility and fractures peace. And Paul’s words about what Jesus Christ means for Jew and Gentile apply directly to these too.
            The apostle says, “For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.”  Christ’s death and resurrection provided access to the Father through the Spirit who has worked faith in Christ. The same Spirit has worked faith in each one us and has joined us together.  Paul says at the end of our text, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,
built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”
            Each of us is forgiven because of Jesus Christ. Each of us has been joined together with one another in the body of Christ by the Holy Spirit through baptism. This means that our calling as Christians is now to live in forgiveness towards one another.  Our calling is to seek to restore peace with one another.
            Paul says this very thing a little later in the letter:
“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called,
with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
            As Christians then, walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.  Your calling has been made possible by the death and resurrection of Jesus Chris for you. That’s why Paul says, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” 
            Christ calls us to live in peace with one another.  He does so because he has given us peace with God through his death and resurrection.  He does so because he has united us as one through the work of his Spirit.  Paul says in this letter, “There is one body and one Spirit--just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call-- one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
            Do you hear it?: Paul mentions one seven times - one body; one Spirit; one hope; one Lord; one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all. God has acted in Christ through the Spirit to unite us as one.  He has united us to forgive one another and act in love toward one another.  The apostle says in the last chapter of this letter, “Therefore be imitators of God as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and give himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
            We can do this because through baptism the Holy Spirit has made us a new creation in Christ.  As Paul says in our text, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,  built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.”
            In Jesus Christ the risen Lord we have the cornerstone that upholds our life and every aspect of it.  Upon this cornerstone we have the foundation of the apostles – the Spirit breathed apostolic witness in by which Christ sustains faith.  Though we were once far off as Gentiles, here Jesus preaches peace to us. Because he has, we are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.  And so we walk in forgiveness and peace with one another.



Friday, June 28, 2019

Commemoration of Irenaeus of Lyons, Pastor

Today we remember and give thanks for Irenaeus of Lyons, Pastor.  Irenaeus (ca. A.D. 130-200), believed to be a native of Smyrna (modern Izmir, Turkey), studied in Rome and later became pastor in Lyons, France. Around 177, while Irenaeus was away from Lyons, a fierce persecution of Christians led to the martyrdom of his bishop. Upon Irenaeus' return, he became bishop of Lyons. Among his most famous writings is a work condemning heresies, especially Gnosticism, which denied the goodness of creation. In opposition, Irenaeus confessed that God has redeemed his creation through the incarnation of the Son. Irenaeus also affirmed the teachings of the Scriptures handed down to and through him as being normative for the Church.

Collect of the Day:
Almighty God, You upheld Your servant Irenaeus with strength to confess the truth against every blast of false doctrine.  By Your mercy, keep us steadfast in the true faith, that in constancy we may walk in peace on the way that leads to eternal life through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Commemoration of Cyril of Alexandria, Pastor and Confessor

Today we remember and give thanks for Cyril of Alexandria, Pastor and Confessor. Cyril (ca. A.D. 376-444) became archbishop of Alexandria, Egypt, in 412. Throughout his career he defended a number of orthodox doctrines, among them the teaching that Mary, the mother of Jesus, is "rightly called and truly is the Mother of God"--Theotokos, "the God-bearer" (Formula of Concord, VIII, Ep VIII, 12). In 431 the Council of Ephesus affirmed this teaching that the Son of Mary is also true God. The writings of Cyril on the doctrines of the Trinity and the person of Christ reveal him to be one of the most able theologians of his time. Cyril's Christology influenced subsequent church councils and was a primary source for the Lutheran confessional writings.

Collect of the Day:
Heavenly Father, your servant Cyril steadfastly proclaimed your Son, Jesus Christ, to be one person, fully God and fully man.  By your infinite mercy, keep us constant in faith and worship of your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Commemoration of Jeremiah, Prophet

Today we remember and give thanks to God for Jeremiah, Old Testament Prophet.  Jeremiah was active as God’s prophet to the southern kingdom of Judah around 627 to 582 B.C.  As a prophet he predicted, witnessed, and lived through the Babylonian siege and eventual destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.  In his preaching he often used symbols, such as an almond rod and a boiling pot (Jeremiah 1:11-14), wine jars (13:12-14), and a potter at work (18:1-17).  His entire prophetic ministry was a sermon, communicating through word and deed God’s anger toward His rebellious people.  Jeremiah suffered repeated rejection and persecution by his countrymen.  As far as can be known, Jeremiah died in Egypt, having been taken there forcibly.  He is remembered and honored for fearlessly calling God’s people to repentance.

Collect of the Day:
Lord God, Heavenly Father, through the prophet Jeremiah You continued the prophetic pattern of teaching Your people the true 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.  

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Mark's Thoughts: Romans Chapter 1 and "LGBT Pride Month"

Over the last few years, June has become a month that I am always glad to see end.  June has been declared “LGBT Pride Month” in commemoration of the Stonewall riots that occurred at the end of June in 1969.  The month becomes one continuous rainbow display as all levels of government, as well as major corporations seek to demonstrate how “woke,” tolerant and inclusive they are.  The low point for me this year (train enthusiast that I am) was when the railroad Norfolk Southern shared on social media a picture of rainbow colored railroad tracks.  During June we are relentlessly hammered with the celebration of sodomy and every other perversion of God’s gift of sexuality. And of course the accompanying message is that if you are not on board with this, then you are a homophobic bigot who deserves no rights.

As it turned out, during June I have been working with the first three chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans.  Needless to say, studying Romans chapter 1 during “LGBT Pride Month” is an interesting experience!  In this chapter, the apostle Paul does not merely say that homosexuality is sinful. He also identifies it as one of the ways that God’s wrath is already at work in the world.

Paul opens the key message of the letter by writing: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (Romans 1:16-17).  The apostle identifies the Gospel as the power of God for salvation for all people, Jew and Gentile alike.  In particular he declares that in the Gospel, the righteousness of God is being revealed (Paul uses a present tense). This is God’s saving action to put all things right, and it causes those who believe in Jesus Christ to be justified on the Last Day.

Next the apostle says, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18).  Paul’s statement that God’s wrath is being revealed (once again, he uses a present tense) mirrors his previous statement that the righteousness of God is being revealed.
The apostle then explains why this wrath is being revealed.  He writes:
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.  For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly  perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. (Romans 1:19-23)
Paul says that although God has revealed himself in his creation, sinful man has chosen not to glorify God or give him thanks.  Instead, he has exchanged the glory of the true God for various forms of paganism (and though the primary focus here is on Gentiles, God’s people of Israel had their own history of doing this in the golden calf incident, and the pagan worship that plagued both the northern and southern kingdoms).

The apostle then describes God’s response to this as he writes: “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.” (Romans 1:24-25).  God’s wrath is being revealed in his action to give sinful man up to his lusts and the dishonoring of the body.  He does this because sinful man has chosen a lie over God himself.  He worships the creation instead of the Creator.

Next Paul adds:
For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged   natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. (Romans 1:26-27)
Sinful man rejects God and instead creates his own “god” to worship. And so God’s wrath is revealed as he hands men and women over to dishonorable passions. For the second time Paul says that “God gave them up” (or more literally, “he handed them over”) to sin. The root cause of God’s action is man’s sin of breaking the First Commandment.  The specific form that this takes may vary over the centuries, but the content is always the same (today the form is often the false of god of absolute personal autonomy).

God’s response is to give people over to their own sin.  In Romans 1, Paul specifically identifies homosexual behavior as an example of this.  It is not just that homosexuality is sinful (it is).  More than that, the desire and willingness to misuse sexuality in this way is God’s wrath being revealed against sin here and now. “LGBT Pride Month” doesn’t just celebrate sin.  It celebrates God’s wrath that is already being enacted against those who sin in this way.

Paul teaches us that the righteousness of God, and the wrath of God, both have a “now and not yet” character.  Through faith in the crucified and risen Lord, the Christian is already justified and has peace with God (Romans 5:1). At the same time the divine verdict of justification will be spoken finally on the Last Day (Romans 3:30; 14:10). Likewise, the wrath of God is already being revealed against sin as God gives sinners over to indulge in sin such as homosexuality (Romans 1:26-27). And yet the final judgment and outpouring of God’s wrath awaits the Last Day (Romans 2:5).

Romans chapters 2-3 go on to warn us that no person is in a position to condemn self-righteously the sins of others.  Instead we are all under sin (Romans 3:9) and “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).   Only through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ is there forgiveness for sin and salvation (Romans 3:21-25).  This invitation to forgiveness is open to all sinners, no matter what their sin may be.

Yet as we live in world that celebrates homosexuality and condemns those who refuse to accept it, Paul’s words in Romans chapter 1 teach us an important truth.  The practice of homosexuality is not just sinful.  It is in fact the wrath of God being revealed against sinners here and now.  


Presentation of the Augsburg Confession

Today is the anniversary of the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession.  In late 1517 when Martin Luther initiated the events that would result in the Reformation, he had no idea regarding what was about to take place.  Luther’s Ninety-five Theses were a call for academic discussion – not for thoroughgoing reformation of the Church.  However the discussions and debates that ensued prompted Luther to further study.  This process continued to reveal the extent to which the Church’s faulty practice was based upon theology which was not true to God’s Word.

Luther was excommunicated by Pope Leo X in 1520.  He was then summoned to appear before the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V at the Diet of Worms in 1521.  There Luther refused to recant and in the Edict of Worms Luther was declared to be “a manifest heretic.”  The edict declared that no one was to give assistance to Luther, but instead they were to take him prisoner and deliver him to the emperor.  The reading and distribution of Luther’s writings was forbidden.  It was Charles’ intention to deliver Luther over to Pope Leo X for the purpose of burning Luther at the stake.

In 1526 at the Diet of Speyer, an ambiguous edit was passed in which the German princes promised to carry out the Edict of Worms according to their own consciences.  This provided the setting in which Elector John continued his support of the Reformation in Saxony.  However, at the Diet of Speyer in 1529 Charles V corrected the ambiguity of the1526 edict and forbade expansion of the Reformation.  This led the German princes to issue a formal appeal or “protest” (it is from this event that the term “Protestant” arose). 

However, Charles V found himself limited in his ability to act against princes and areas that supported the Reformation.  In 1529 the Turkish army had laid siege to Vienna before being turned back.  Charles faced this threat from the east, and he also was engaged in a struggle with France.  He needed the German part of his empire to be united in order to assist him.  He also had a genuine concern about the condition of the Church in the areas that he ruled.
Charles V called for the Lutheran princes and cities to explain their religious reforms at an imperial diet that was to meet in the southern German city of Augsburg in 1530.  Luther was not able to travel to the diet because of edict passed against him in 1521and the Lutherans were led by his colleague, Phillip Melanchthon.  When the Lutherans arrived they found that a Roman Catholic opponent, John Eck, had produced a work entitled Four Hundred Four Propositions.  This work contained quotes from Luther and Melanchthon and mixed them in with heretical statements in the attempt to give the impression that the Lutherans supported most heresies known to the Church.

In the face of this, Melanchthon and the Lutherans realized that they would need to do more than just explain their reforms.  They needed to demonstrate that the theology they taught was true to the catholic (universal) tradition of the Church.  They need to state the biblical truth while condemning the false teachings that the Roman Catholics also rejected.

Melanchthon was able to draw upon some previous doctrinal articles that the Lutherans had written.  He produced the Augsburg Confession which has twenty one articles on doctrinal topics and seven articles on reform efforts.  Latin and German editions of the confession were prepared.  The Latin text was presented to Charles V and the German edition was read aloud to the diet on June 25, 1530.  
At Augsburg, the Lutherans confessed the truth of the Gospel in the face of a very real threat to their possessions and lives.  We continue to share in this confession as the Augsburg Confession is the foundational statement of what the Lutheran Church believes and teaches.  In the Augsburg Confession we confess the biblical and catholic (universal) faith before the world.

Collect of the Day:
Lord God, heavenly Father, You preserved the teaching of the apostolic Church through the confession of the true faith at Augsburg.  Continue to cast the bright beams of Your light upon Your Church that we, being instructed by the doctrine of the blessed apostles, may walk in the light of Your truth and finally attain to the light of everlasting life; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one  God, now and forever.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist

Today is the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist.  St. John the Baptist, the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, was born into a priestly family.  His birth was miraculously announced to his father by an angel of the Lord (Luke 1:5-23), and on the occasion of his birth, his aged father proclaimed a hymn of praise (Luke 1:67-79).  This hymn is entitled the Benedictus and serves as a Gospel Canticle in the service of Matins. Events of John’s life and his teachings are known from accounts in all four of the Gospels.  In the wilderness of Judea, near the Jordan River, John began to preach a call to repentance  and a baptismal washing, and he told the crowds, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has arrived” (Matthew 3:2).  John denounced the immoral life of King Herod Antipas, with the result that Antipas had him imprisoned in the fortress of Machaerus near the Dead Sea.  There he had John beheaded (Mark 6:17-29).  John is remembered and honored as the one who with his preaching prepared the way for Jesus Christ (Matthew 3:3) and pointed to “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

Scripture reading:
Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.” And they said to her, “None of your relatives is called by this name.” And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all wondered. And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him.

            And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying,
            “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
                        for he has visited and redeemed his people
            and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
                        in the house of his servant David,
            as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
            that we should be saved from our enemies
                        and from the hand of all who hate us;
            to show the mercy promised to our fathers
                        and to remember his holy covenant,
            the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us
                        that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
            might serve him without fear,
                        in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
            And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
                        for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
            to give knowledge of salvation to his people
                        in the forgiveness of their sins,
            because of the tender mercy of our God,
                        whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
            to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
                        to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
            And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel. (Luke 1:57-80 ESV)

Collect of the Day:
Almighty God, through John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ, You once proclaimed salvation. Now grant that we may know this salvation and serve You in holiness and righteousness all the days of our life; through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Sermon for the First Sunday after Trinity - Gen 15:1-6

                                           Trinity 1
                                           Gen 15:1-6

     I promise you that it will happen.  The Illinois Centre Mall here in Marion will spring to life.  Every store location in the mall will be filled high end stores. Every spot in the foot court will be filled with a variety of wonderful foods.  The mall’s parking lot will be filled all the time, and the mall will be thronged with customers.  In fact, the mall will have to extend its hours to accommodate the people who will come in from all over the area to shop there. 
     The Illinois Centre Mall will become the hub of social life in Marion and all of southern Illinois.  A trip to the Marion mall will be a family outing enjoyed by all.  It will be the place for youth to see others and to be seen as they cruise the mall, because the mall will be the place to be.
     Now, I am guessing that as you sit there, you are very skeptical about my promise. More to the point, no doubt you think that I have completely lost touch with reality.  Opened in 1991, the Illinois Centre Mall is now dead.  A couple of major stores still operate as independent entities, but if you went into the mall you would find nothing there. And any notion of a revived future for the mall must be blind to the fact that all malls are a dying breed.  The advent of online shopping has completely changed people’s shopping habits.  Physical stores struggle to hang on and survive as more and more people shop online.
     If my promise about the future of the Illinois Centre Mall sounds absurd, then you have a good introduction into how God’s promise to Abram must have sounded.  Yahweh had called Abram when he was in Haran, what is today southeast Turkey.  Abram had travelled with his father and family from Ur in southern Mesopotamia with the intention of going to Canaan.  However they had stopped in Haran and then ended up staying there.
     At that time, Abram was a pagan, worshipping the false gods of his family and area.  But Yahweh called Abram and told him what to do.  He said, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
     Yahweh told Abram to leave behind all of the family connections that grounded his life, and to go to a land that he would show him.  He promised to make Abram into a great nation, and that in Abram all the families of the earth would blessed. Abram listened to Yahweh, he believed and obeyed.  Later, Yahweh promised to Abram that he would give him the land of Canaan as the dwelling place for the nation that would come forth from him.
     The promise sounded great. But there was a serious problem.  Both Abram and his wife Sarai were old – far too old to have any hope that Sarai could conceive and bear a child.  It was just impossible. And beyond that, Abram had just experienced a reminder of how tenuous life can be.  His nephew Lot who lived in Sodom had been taken captive when a group of kings defeated the king of Sodom and took the people of Sodom as plunder. Abram had raised a force of his own men and attacked those holding Lot in order to free his nephew and his family.
     Abram had no hope that Sarai would bear a child.  He had just seen how dangerous life in Canaan could be.  This must have been a low point for him as he considered his life and his future.  Then we hear in our text: “After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: ‘Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’”
     Yahweh told him to cast away his fear.  Why should he do this? It was because Yahweh was his shield.  Yahweh, the creator of heaven and earth, was the One who was protecting and caring for him.
     Then Abram replied with the real problem that weighed on his mind and clouded his perception of the future.  He said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus? Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.”  Sarai remained barren.  Yahweh had not given Abram a son, and so someone other than his own direct family was going to be heir of Abram’s estate when he died.
     It’s not hard for us to relate to Abram.  We live in a world that is constantly reminding us about how tenuous life can be.  On social media we learn about tragedies that have struck others – often people that we actually know.  Trips to the doctor result in scans, or endoscopy procedures or biopsies in order to find out if something really bad is happening in our body. And the promise of God to love and care for us rings hollow when we see our struggles at work or school; when we see the difficulties our loved ones are experiencing.
     God knew Abram’s weakness. And so he replied, “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” Then the gracious God doubled down on his promise. He brought Abram outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”  Yahweh spoke his word of promise to Abram.  Then we learn that Abram, “believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.”  Abram believed God’s promise, even though at that moment he had nothing more than God’s word to go on.  And we learn that God “counted it to him as righteousness.” God considered Abram to be righteous before him on the basis of faith – because he believed and trusted in God and his word.
     For St.Paul, Abram is the proof that our standing before God is based on faith and not things we do.  God speaks his promise. It is an expression of his grace. Abram had done nothing to earn it – after all, he was just a pagan that God called to be his own!  There was nothing that Abram could do in order to make it happen. All that he coudl “do” was to believe and trust in God’s word – in his promise.  All he can do is believe and trust in the character of God himself.
     The apostle Paul told the Romans, “As it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations’--in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, "So shall your offspring be."  He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb.”
     Abram didn’t focus on the factors that made the promise seem impossible.  Instead, he focused on God, the One who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.  Pauls says, “No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God  fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”
     The apostle tells us that this belief and trust in the God’s promise is why Abram’s faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” And then he adds: “But the words "it was counted to him" were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”
     Like Abram, we are called to believe and trust in God’s loving care in the midst of all circumstances.  We are able to do this because our faith is in the God who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.  He is the God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that are not.  And he has demonstrated this by raising Christ, the Son of God, on Easter.
     Paul says that Jesus our Lord was delivered up for our trespasses.  God the Father gave the Son to be the sacrifice on the cross.  The Father gave the Son into the cross hairs of his own divine wrath and judgment.  But then, on the third day, he raised Christ from the dead.  Because of this we are justified. The verdict of the Last Day has already been spoken. Because we believe in the crucified and risen Lord, God counts us as righteous. God says that we are innocent and holy because of faith in Christ.  And it is God’s word that determines reality.  It alone decides how things really are.
      It is the Spirit of Christ who has worked this faith. It is the Spirit of Christ who enables us to see what God has already done for us in Christ. And the Spirit now leads us to apply this truth to the times when the promise of God to love and care for us seems open to question – when God’s promise and the events don’t seem to be matching up.
     God has given Abram to us as a model of how this works.  He is an example of how faith clings to the promise and character of God.  As Paul says in Romans, “He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”
     We are fully convinced that God is able to keep us in the faith and sustain us in the difficulties of life because God has revealed to us how he raised Jesus Christ from the dead.  Jesus lives!  Because he does, we have life. We have peace with God. On Good Friday it looked like there was no reason for hope.  But in the resurrection of Easter we have learned that God was in fact at work in the midst of the cross to fulfill every promise he had made to us.
     We now live as those who live by faith in the risen and exalted Lord. Paul expressed what his means when he went on to write in Romans chapter five: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”  We rejoice in the hope of the glory of God, knowing that Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning of our own resurrection on the last day.
     Because this is so; because God has given us his Spirit in Holy Baptism and made us a new creation in Christ, we are also able to approach the challenges of life in a new way. We see in them how God remains at work, building us up in Christ into the people of faith he wants us to be.  As Paul said:  More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”


Sunday, June 16, 2019

Sermon for the Feast of Holy Trinity - Jn 3:1-15

                                                                                                            Jn 3:1-15

            Now let’s be clear: Nicodemus was no lightweight.  First of all, John tells us that he was a Pharisee.  Because of the conflicts that Jesus has with the Pharisees in the Gospels, we tend to have a very negative view of this group within Judaism.  But we also need to recognize that these were people who were very serious about faith in the God of Israel.  They were committed to living in ways that kept the Torah. They were all about knowing the Torah – how to interpret it and live it.
            Beyond this, John describes Nicodemus as “a ruler of the Jews.”  He was someone of importance and influence among the Jewish people. This description of a Pharisee leads us to expect that he was someone who had advanced training in the interpretation of Scriptures and the Torah.  As I have mentioned before, the Pharisees were as a group largely composed of what we would call “laypeople.”  But there were also Pharisees who had advanced training.  The apostle Paul, in his days as the Pharisee Saul, is a good example of this.
            This expectation is confirmed by our text when Jesus describes Nicodemus as “the teacher of Israel.”  So Nicodemus was certainly well versed in God’s Word of the Old Testament.  He was an impressive figure whose authority was recognized by those around him.
            Nicodemus had seen the miracles that Jesus was performing, and clearly they had caught his attention.  There was no snap judgment of rejection in Nicodemus.  Instead, he sought Jesus out.  Now he did it at night, so obviously there was caution on his part about appearances.  But he came to Jesus and addressed him in a very respectful manner as he said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”
            But poor Nicodemus had no idea what he was getting into. His was a correct, but inadequate understanding of Jesus. Our Lord proceeded to reveal how inadequate it was in a way that left Nicodemus’ head spinning.  He ignored Nicodemus’ statement and replied, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  Nicodemus was completely puzzled as he contemplated how an adult could be born of his mother again.
            But Jesus didn’t stop there.  He added, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”  Our Lord spoke about the need for spiritual rebirth – to be born again – in order to enter the kingdom of God.  Jesus says that the flesh – the sinful, fallen nature – can only give birth to more flesh.  It is the Spirit of God who gives birth to spiritual people – to the children of God. And of course “water and Spirit” is the means of baptism that Jesus instituted after his resurrection.
            At that moment there was no way for Nicodemus to understand this.  He was still boggled by the idea of being “born again.” So Jesus said, “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”  Jesus told Nicodemus that the fact he didn’t understand how the Spirit works, does not change the fact that the Spirit does indeed work in giving rebirth.
            The last thing we hear from Nicodemus is the helpless question: “How can these things be?”  He doesn’t utter another word in the rest of the chapter.  He was out of his depth and completely confused.
            If I can pause here, I think it is safe to say that we often feel that way too on this particular Sunday.  Today is the Feast of the Holy Trinity.  Today we focus on the nature and character of God – on the knowledge that he has revealed about himself.  He had revealed to Israel in the Old Testament that he is the only true God. There is only one God – Yahweh, the creator of heaven and earth.  But God has also revealed in the New Testament that he is one God in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  As we will confess with great clarity in the Athanasian Creed this morning, each person is truly God, and yet there is only one God.  God is three-in-one – the triune God.
            That leaves us in the same position as Nicodemus, asking: “How can these things be?”  However, Trinity Sunday is only once a year, and so our thoughts probably don’t remain on that topic all that long.  That’s not to say, however, that we stop asking the question, “How can these things be?”  Instead our attention soon leaves the sublime things of God and returns to our lives. There we find hardships and struggles.  We find suffering and pain. We find the threat of death.  We are left wondering, “How can these things be?” And then wondering passes over into doubt and fear.
            In our text Jesus says to Nicodemus, “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” Then our Lord declared why he had knowledge of heavenly things. He said, “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” 
            We now fully understand that Jesus is the glorious Son of Man of Daniel chapter 7.  He is divine – he is the Son of God, who was with God in the beginning and through whom all things were made.  He is God the Son.
            But then Jesus adds, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”  Our Lord refers to the event in the book of Numbers when the people spoke against God and complained about the food.  God sent fiery serpents among the people who bit them and caused death.  When the people repented and asked for help, God told Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole.  All who were bitten and looked at the bronze serpent lived.
            Jesus describes how he will be lifted up on the cross.  He will die as the One who takes away the sin of the world – who takes away your sin.  Our Lord did this on Good Friday, and he promises in our text that whoever believes in him will have eternal life.
            And then immediately after our text he adds, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”  We often assume that the “so” is this verse means “so much” – as if the verse meant, “God loved the world so much that He gave his only Son.”  However, the Greek word translated here as “so” means “in this way.”  God loved the world in this way - that he gave his only Son.
            God loved you in this way, that he gave his only Son for you.  God the Father gave his Son as the sacrifice on the cross for you. And then, on the third day he raised him from the dead.  He took away your sin and defeated death.  The risen Lord invited Thomas to touch the marks in his body that were left by the crucifixion. And Thomas confessed, “My Lord and my God!”
            And it is here that we learn our very knowledge of the Trinity provides the answer to the “How can these things be?” questions that we have in life. The only reason that we know about the Trinity is because the Father sent forth the Son, as he became flesh through the work of the Spirit. The only reason we know about the Trinity is because God loved us in this way – by giving his Son for us.
            Stop and think about that.  Your knowledge of the Trinity has been caused by the fact that the Father gave the Son for you.  God the Father loved you so much that he loved you in this way.  He sent his only beloved Son with whom, and with the Spirit, he has lived in communion for all eternity. He sent him to become man, without ceasing to be God.  He sent the Son in order to condemn him – in order to pour out his holy wrath against the sin of the whole world.  Christ bore the sin of everything you have done against God’s will. He bore the sin of every atrocity that has ever occurred. Christ carried them all and became the focus of God’s eternal judgment as he was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. That is how much God loves you. 
            And we have learned that we believe now because the Spirit has acted upon us.  We have been born again in the water of Holy Baptism.  The Spirit has created faith in Jesus.  Though we came into the world as flesh – as fallen sinners – the Son became flesh in order to give us the Spirit.  He died to forgive our sins and then as the ascended Lord he poured forth the Spirit. Through the Spirit, God has worked faith, for Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.  I will raise him up on the last day.”
            As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so Jesus Christ was lifted up on the cross for you.  Because he was, you have life with God.  Dead and buried in a tomb, on the third day Jesus rose from the dead.  He defeated death, and so you have not only life with God.  You have eternal life.  You have life with God that not even death can stop.  And if you die, you will have bodily, resurrection life when our Lord returns in glory.  That is why Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”
            Jesus never promised that his earthly ministry would bring an end to the circumstances that cause us to ask, “How can these things be?” In fact, he said quite the opposite.  We hear about the mystery of the Holy Trinity – that God is three and one at the same time – and wonder, “How can these things be?”  But we know about the Trinity because our God has acted in love in the Son of God, Jesus Christ.  In him we have forgiveness and eternal life that overcomes all the circumstances we encounter. That is why Jesus declared, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world."