Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Sermon for Ash Wednesday - Joel 2:12-19

                                                                                                Ash Wednesday
                                                                                                Joel 2:12-19

            Eastern Africa is currently experiencing the worst plague of desert locusts that has been seen there in twenty five years.  The outbreak is believed to have originated in Yemen, from which it crossed the Red Sea into Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya.
            The sight of billions of locusts – that’s billions with a “B” – is hard to fathom.  A swarm can spread over four hundred and sixty square miles, with forty to eighty million locusts per half-square mile.  Desert locusts can travel up to ninety five miles a day and eat their body weight in green plants, meaning that a swarm one kilometer square can eat as much food as 35,000 people in a day.  They devastate crops and there is fear about their impact on areas of East Africa already facing hunger due to civil war and poverty.
            In our day locusts are not something that we experience in the United States.  However it wasn’t always that way.  In 1875 a locust plague turned skies over the Midwest black as a swarm with trillions of Rocky Mountain locusts flew over.  This kind of locusts became extinct, but in the 1930’s there was another plague outbreak of High Plains locusts.  However they are now very rare, and North America is the only continent, apart from Antarctica, without a major locus species.
            Locusts plagues were a a great threat to life in ancient Israel.  The prophet Joel describes a locust plague that had come upon the nation.  He says, “What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten. What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten, and what the hopping locust left, the destroying locust has eaten.”
            Joel compares them to an army and uses language that sounds like the locusts eating when he writes, “As with the rumbling of chariots, they leap on the tops of the mountains, like the crackling of a flame of fire devouring the stubble, like a powerful army drawn up for battle.” 
            And the impact of the locusts had been devastating.  The prophet says, “The fields are destroyed, the ground mourns, because the grain is destroyed, the wine dries up, the oil languishes. Be ashamed, O tillers of the soil; wail, O vinedressers, for the wheat and the barley, because the harvest of the field has perished.”
            The prophet declared that this was not just some unexplainable natural disaster – a matter of “bad luck.” Instead it was the judgment of Yahweh against his people.  It was the “day of the Lord.”  At the beginning of this chapter he wrote: “Blow a trumpet in Zion; sound an alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming; it is near, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!”
            We do not know what sin had prompted this judgment by Yahweh.  But it clearly was sin that had caused Yahweh to send the devastating locus plague.  The prophet says in our text, “‘Yet even now,’ declares the LORD, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.’ Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.”
            The prophet called upon all the people – from the youngest to the oldest to fast and gather. He wrote, “Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Consecrate the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber.” Even those getting married were to interrupt this activity in order to take part in this ritual of national repentance.
            Joel chapter two is the Old Testament lesson for Ash Wednesday as today we begin Lent.  We begin a season that prepares us for Holy Week. We are prepared to observe and remember again the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. We will see Jesus numbered with the transgressors in order to die for our sin and win forgiveness.
            For there to be forgiveness, there first must be repentance. We must confess our sin before God and admit that we are sinners in need of forgiveness. The book of Joel is interesting because here we receive no details about how Israel had sinned.  But it’s not hard to guess. Invariably Israel sinned by worshipping the false gods of the surrounding nations. And the life of the nation was regularly one in which the wealthy and powerful took advantage of the poor and weak.
            It’s the same thing that describes our sin.  We are to love God with all that we are. We are to love our neighbor as ourselves.  Yet instead, we find no shortage of things that are more important to us.  In the ways we use our time and energy, God must take second place because there are activities, hobbies and interests that are just more important.  We put ourselves first and our neighbor second.  Worse yet it’s not that we simply ignore our neighbor.  Instead we hurt him or her by what we say and do.  We take pleasure in sharing information that harms their reputation and puts them in the worst possible light.
            Israel had sinned, and Joel called the nation to repentance. This would not be a matter of simply going through the motions.  Instead Joel said, “Yet even now," declares the LORD, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
            Why could the nation do this?  What could provide the assurance that God would receive them? Joel pointed them to the very character of God.  He wrote, “Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.”
            This statement about God – that he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love – is basically a creedal statement of the Old Testament.  It is repeated again and again as the Scriptures emphasize the amazing character of God.
            The reason that we can now approach God in repentance is because we have seen this character of God revealed in action.  Jesus Christ, the Son of God, went to the cross because God is gracious and merciful, and abounds in steadfast love.  God the Father gave his own Son as the sacrifice for our sins.
            In the previous chapter Joel had said of the locust plague: “Alas for the day! For the day of the LORD is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes.”  In our text’s chapter he writes, “Blow a trumpet in Zion; sound an alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming; it is near, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!”
            The day of the Lord was a phrase that referred to a decisive act of judgment.  And each “day of the Lord” – each action of judgment by Yahweh pointed forward the great day of the Lord. This occurred first on Good Friday. That was a day of darkness as darkness covered the land from noon until three in the afternoon while Jesus hung dying on a cross.  God poured out his judgment against your sin onto Jesus.  He did this in order redeem you from sin and give you forgiveness.
            Jesus faithfully carried out the will of the Father. And then on the third day God vindicated Jesus as he raised him from the dead.  Now as our ascended Lord we look for the last and final day of the Lord. We look for the return of Jesus Christ on the Last Day.  Joel’s words in chapter three point us towards this event.  He writes, “Let the nations stir themselves up and come up to the Valley of Jehoshaphat; for there I will sit to judge all the surrounding nations.”
            Yet for us who are in Christ, this day of the Lord will not be one of darkness.  Instead it will be the revelation of God’s final salvation for us.  As those who are justified through faith in Christ, we already know the verdict that the Lord Jesus will speak.  He will declare us innocent and not guilty because of his own sacrifice for us.
            We are those who have been baptized into his death.  We have been buried with him. We know that the forgiveness he won is in fact ours. And because Jesus has risen from the dead, we know that we will too. Our risen Lord will raise us with bodies transformed so that they can never die again.  And he will renew his creation to be the very good place he intended.
            Joel begins his prophecy by speaking about God’s judgment of a locust plague that was devastating the land.  He ends it by using Old Testament language to describe the new creation.  He writes, And in that day the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and the hills shall flow with milk, and all the streambeds of Judah shall flow with water; and a fountain shall come forth from the house of the LORD and water the Valley of Shittim.”
            We enter into Lent tonight and this season of repentance.  Yet we confess our sins to the God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.  Lent will bring us to Holy Week when we will again remember that God has given his Son as the sacrifice for our sins. And on Easter we will celebrate that God raised Jesus from the dead.  In his resurrection we have the firstfruits of our own resurrection, when Christ will renew creation to be very good once again and we will live with our Lord forever.      

Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent.  During Lent we repent of our sins and rededicate our lives to living out our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection.  

Scripture reading:
“Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD your God? Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Consecrate the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber. Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep and say, “Spare your people, O LORD, and make not your heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’” Then the LORD became jealous for his land and had pity on his people. The LORD answered and said to his people, “Behold, I am sending to you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied; and I will no more make you a reproach among the nations. (Joel 2:12-19)

Collect of the Day:
Almighty and everlasting God, You despise nothing You have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent.  Create in us new and contrite hearts that lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness we may received from You full pardon and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Commemoration of Martin Luther, Doctor and Reformer

Today we remember and give thanks for Martin Luther, Doctor and Reformer.  Martin Luther, born on November 10, 1483, in Eisleben, Germany, initially began studies leading toward a degree in law. However, after a close encounter with death, he switched to the study of theology, entered an Augustinian monastery, was ordained a priest in 1505, and received a doctorate in theology in 1512. As a professor at the newly-established University of Wittenberg, his scriptural studies led him to question many of the church's teachings and practices, especially the selling of indulgences. His refusal to back down from his convictions resulted in his excommunication in 1521. Following a period of seclusion at the Wartburg castle, Luther returned to Wittenberg, where he spent the rest of his life preaching and teaching, translating the Scriptures, and writing hymns and numerous theological treatises. He is remembered and honored for his lifelong emphasis on the biblical truth that for Christ's sake God declares us righteous by grace through faith alone. He died on February 18, 1546, while visiting the town of his birth.

Collect of the Day:
O God, our refuge and our strength, You raised up Your servant Martin Luther to reform and renew Your Church in the light of Your living Word, Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Defend and purify the Church in our own day, and grant that we may boldly proclaim Christ’s faithfulness unto death and His vindicating resurrection, which You made known to Your servant Martin through Jesus Christ, our Savior, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Sermon for Sexagesima - 2 Cor 11:19-12:9

                                                                                                2 Cor 11:19-12:9

            The risen Lord had confronted Saul on the road to Damascus as he was journeying there to persecute the Christians.  Blinded, for three days and nights he did not eat or drink. And then the Lord said to the disciple Ananias, “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.”
            This was probably not the assignment Ananias wanted to receive.  He 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.”
            However, the Lord replied, “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.”
            The reader of Acts soon discovers that the Lord was not kidding. After Paul begins preaching in Damacus there is plot against his life, and he must escape the city by being lowered in a basket through an opening in the city wall. In city after city he faces persecution from the Jews and must move on to the next city to proclaim the Gospel. At Lystra he was stoned to the point that people thought he was dead.  At Phlippi he was beaten with rods and thrown in jail.  In Jerusalem there was a plot against his life and he was imprisoned by the Romans for two and half years. On the trip to Rome his ship sank after a terrible storm.
            Yet as we listen to our text this morning, we quickly realize that Acts provides just a glimpse of the ways that Paul suffered for the name of Jesus. The Book of Acts is not exhaustive – it does not tell us about everything that Paul did and experienced.  In our text this morning, Paul gives a much more complete run down of the suffering he experienced for the sake of the Gospel.  He does it in order to respond to the challenge of false teachers who had come to Corinth.  Yet even as he provides his credentials as an apostle, he undercuts himself by saying that because of Christ, he will only boast of his weaknesses.
            In this section of Second Corinthians Paul is responding to false teachers who had come to Corinth.  Paul is deeply concerned.  Earlier in chapter eleven he writes, “But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough.”
            Paul leaves no doubt what he thinks about these false teachers. He says, “For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.”
            These opponents of Paul obviously presented themselves has being impressive servants of Christ, because Paul mockingly calls them “the super apostles.”  He wrote, “Indeed, I consider that I am not in the least inferior to these super-apostles. Even if I am unskilled in speaking, I am not so in knowledge; indeed, in every way we have made this plain to you in all things.” 
            The Greco-Roman world placed tremendous emphasis on rhetoric – on the specific ways and patterns in which you developed arguments, and then ornamented them with figures of speech. The entire education system focused on developing these skills.  And in this area, Paul was not very strong.  It simply had not been an emphasis during his education in Judaism. To be sure his speaking and writing was theologically profound. But it wasn’t presented in a way that was going to impress Greco-Roman hearers.
            Paul granted this.  But when it came to “super-apostles’” claims about being superior servants of Christ – this he could not let stand.  However, the refutation of this claim placed Paul in an ironic position, since it meant boasting about what he had done.  Though in this instance it was necessary to do so, Paul knew it was foolish.  He says just before our text, “I repeat, let no one think me foolish. But even if you do, accept me as a fool, so that I too may boast a little. What I am saying with this boastful confidence, I say not with the Lord's authority but as a fool. Since many boast according to the flesh, I too will boast.”
            In our text Paul says, “Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one--I am talking like a madman--with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death.”  Paul goes on to list the many hardships he has experienced.  Yet at the end of chapter eleven the apostle introduces what he really thinks about all of this, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” 
            This statement prepares us for what Paul then says in chapter twelve, the text about Paul’s famous “thorn in the flesh.”  Paul goes on to talk about visions and revelations of the Lord.  He relates that he was caught up into paradise, and heard things that cannot be told. This tops anything his “super-apostle” opponents can claim. 
            But then Paul says, “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
            There has been all kinds of speculation about what this “thorn in the flesh” was.  There is some evidence to suggest it was some kind of eye problem, but we really don’t know for sure. What is far more important is the spiritual role for which God used it.  Paul said it was used by God to keep him from becoming conceited. 
            None of us wants the difficulties and hardships that we encounter in life. And of course, we think of them as being bad things – things that hamper and hinder us from that best life that we should be enjoying. But because of the old Adam in us – the continuing presence of sin – that is not how God views them. Instead he allows them because we need them. In God’s loving care they serve a purpose that is spiritually beneficial for us. They crucify the old Adam in us.  They reveal that we are not in charge. They force us to turn to God and sharpen our spiritual focus on him. 
            Paul describes how three times he asked the Lord to remove this problem. Yet the Lord’s answer to him was, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” The Lord told Paul that his power reaches its goal – that it is present in the way God intends – in weakness.
            And therefore Paul goes on to say at the end of our text, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
            We gain some insight into what Paul means from what he said earlier in chapter four when the he was talking about his apostleship. There he said, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.  We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” 
            What is the power that is perfected in our weakness?  What is the power that enables Paul to say that “when I am weak, then I am strong”?  It is the life of the risen Lord Jesus.  Jesus Christ gave himself into the death of the cross.  He gave himself up to weakness, suffering and death.  He did it to give us forgiveness and a holy standing before God. And then on the third day God raised Jesus from the dead. He defeated death and began the life that can never die – a life that he has already given to us by faith and which he will give to us bodily when he raises us up on the Last Day.
            Jesus has given us this life through the work of his Spirit. We received it in Holy Baptism.  We continue to receive it through all of the Means of Grace. Because we know Jesus the risen and exalted Lord, we have the certainty of God’s love and care.  Through the work of the Spirit – the One present in us now who will raise our bodies on the Last Day just as he did for Jesus on Easter – we have the power that enables us to be strong in the ways that really matter when we are weak.
            The more we rely on the power of Jesus’ life, the better off we are – even if this means the presence of weakness in our own life. As the Lord said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Weakness and hardships are not the absence of God’s love. 
            Because we are baptized we know that instead they are God at work as he guides, and even forces us, to rely on him.  They are God at work for our good because they move us to rely on the one power that leads to resurrection and eternal life with God. They cause us to focus in faith and rely on the life of the crucified and risen Lord Jesus. For in his unending life we have the power that enables us to live as God’s children in this pilgrimage that leads to the Last Day. 


Friday, February 14, 2020

Commemoration of Valentine, Martyr

Today we remember and give thanks for Valentine, Martyr.  A physician and priest living in Rome during the rule of the Emperor Claudius, Valentine become one of the noted martyrs of the third century. The commemoration of his death, which occurred in the year 270, became part of the calendar of remembrance in the early church of the West. Tradition suggests that on the day of his execution for his Christian faith, he left a note of encouragement for a child of his jailer written on an irregularly-shaped piece of paper. This greeting became a pattern for millions of written expressions of love and caring that now are the highlight of Valentine's Day in many nations.

Collect of the Day:
Almighty and everlasting God, You kindled the flame of Your love in the heart of Your holy martyr Valentine.  Grant to us, Your humble servants, a like faith and the power of love, that we who rejoice in Christ’s triumph may embody His love in our lives; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Commemoration of Aquila, Priscilla and Apollos

Today we remember and give thanks for Aquila, Priscilla, Apollos.  Aquila and his wife Priscilla  (Prisca), Jewish contemporaries of St. Paul, traveled widely. Because of persecution in Rome, they went to Corinth where they met the apostle Paul, who joined them in their trade of tentmaking (Acts 18:1-3). They, in turn, joined him in his mission of sharing the Christian Gospel. The couple later traveled with Paul from Corinth to Ephesus (Acts 18:18), where the two of them established a home that served as hospitality headquarters for new converts to Christianity. 

Apollos received further instruction in the faith from Aquila and Priscilla. An eloquent man, Apollos “spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus” (Acts 18:25). He later traveled from Corinth to the province of Achaia, where he “showed by the Scriptures that the Messiah is Jesus” (Acts 18:28).  Aquila, Priscilla, and Apollos are all remembered and honored for their great missionary zeal.
Collect of the Day:
Triune God, whose very name is holy, teach us to be faithful hearers and learners of Your Word, fervent in the Spirit as Apollos was, that we may teach it correctly against those who have been led astray into falsehood and error and that we might follow the example of Aquila and Priscilla for the good of the Church You established here and entrusted to our humble care; for You, O Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, live and reign, one God, now and forever.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Commemoration of Silas

Today we remember and give thanks for Silas, Fellow Worker of St. Peter and St. Paul.  Silas was chosen by Paul (Acts 15:40) to accompany him on his second missionary journey from Antioch to Asia Minor and Macedonia. Silas, also known as Silvanus, was imprisoned with Paul in Philippi and experienced the riots in Thessalonica and Berea. After rejoining Paul in Corinth, he apparently remained there for an extended time.  Sometime later he apparently joined the Apostle Peter, likely serving as Peter’s secretary (1 Peter 5:12).  Tradition says that Silas was the first bishop at Corinth.

Collect of the Day:
Almighty and everlasting God, Your servant Silas preached the Gospel alongside the apostles Peter and Paul to the peoples of Asia Minor, Achaia and Macedonia.  We give You thanks for raising up in this and every land evangelists and heralds of Your kingdom, that the Church may continue to proclaim the unsearchable riches of our Savior, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Sermon for Septuagesima - Mt 20:1-16

                                                                                                Mt 20:1-16

            Recently I watched on Netflix the 2019 move, “The Irishman.” It tells us the story of how Frank Sheeran, who though he was Irish, became a hit man and loyal member of the Italian Bufalino crime family.  Frank drove trucks and so through his involvement with the Teamsters union and because of his connections with the mob, became a friend and confidant of the Teamsters’ president Jimmy Hoffa.
            Having known killing during his service in Italy during World War II, Sheeran finds it easy to begin committing murders for the mob as he goes on to kill many people during his career.  He rises in the organization, but learns the true cost of his job in 1975 when in order to show his loyalty and save his own life he must lure his friend Hoffa to a house and kill him because the mob now sees Hoffa as a threat. Eventually Sheeran spends time in prison because of his activities with the Teamsters.
            The movie ends with Sheeran in a nursing home after all of other mob figures are now dead.  He finds himself looking back on his life as he tries to reconcile with his alienated daughters.  One of them, Peggy, will have nothing to do with him because she suspects he was involved in Hoffa’s disappearance. Sheeran is troubled by what he did to Hoffa, and contemplates his own mortality and what will happen when he dies.
            At the very end of the movie, Sheeran meets with a Roman Catholic priest because of these concerns.  Though Sheeran says that he does not feel remorse about what he has done, the priest urges him to think about confession as an act of the will – the decision to confess before God that he has sinned – and they pray together.
            In the very last scene of the movie we hear the priest speaking absolution to Sheeran in his room.  He has evidently arrived at the point where he can confess the sins of his life, and the priest can now speak the forgiveness of absolution.
            Frank Sheeran in “The Irishman” is the perfect illustration of what Jesus is talking about today in our text.  We may ask: Can a person really live a life of terrible sin, and then at the very end repent and receive forgiveness and eternal life? That doesn’t seem fair, not when you compare it to the person who bears the cross as a Christian all through life – suffering for the sake of Christ and striving to live in ways that please God. We learn in our text and in the one that immediately proceeds it, that God is entirely fair and at the same time he is graciously unfair.
            The setting for our text begins in the previous chapter when a rich young man comes to Jesus and says, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”  Jesus tells him to keep the commandments.  And when the man confidently asserts that he has, Jesus replies, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Then we learn that when the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. 
            In response to this, Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”  This was shocking to the disciples. First century Judaism generally assumed that wealth was a sign of God’s approval and favor.  Yet Jesus said instead, that wealth was a hindrance in spiritual matters since it called attention away from God to itself.
            Now wealth was not a problem for the disciples! So Peter said in reply, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Our Lord acknowledged their sacrifice and the unique role of the apostles as he said, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” 
            Next he went on to add: “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”  Jesus makes it clear that God is fair in rewarding those who have sacrificed for the Gospel. What we do in this life actually matters to God. It doesn’t earn eternal life for us, but it is rewarded by him in the midst of eternal life.  Those who look like they are last in this life as they sacrifice and suffer for Christ’s name are the ones who will turn out to be first on the Last Day in the way God deals with them. God is fair as he deals with those who sacrifice for him.
            Talk about reward could easily cause a Christian to focus on ideas about earning something better, instead of on Christ and God’s grace that makes salvation possible. So in our text, Jesus tells a parable.  He says, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.”
            A denarius was a typical day’s wage.  This was a fair arrangement for all.  The master went out again at the third, sixth and ninth hours – at 9:00 a.m., 12:00 and 3:00 p.m. Each time he found other men standing around in the marketplace who had not found work, and each time he sent them to work in his vineyard. Finally, he went out at the eleventh hour – 5:00 p.m. – one hour before the end of the work day.  He found still more men whom no one had hired. And so he sent them to work in his vineyard too. 
            When the work day was done, the master told the foreman to pay the workers in the reverse order that they had been hired. Those who had been hired at the eleventh hour – those who had done only one hour of work – received a denarius.  Those hired at the beginning of the day were excited because they now thought they would receive more than a denarius. But in fact, they too received the denarius they had been promised. And so they grumbled against the master saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”
            However the master replied, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?”  And then in words that were very reminiscent of what he had just said, Jesus added, “So the last will be first, and the first last.”
            In the parable, Jesus teaches us about God’s grace.  He gives us what we don’t deserve.  He gives us what we haven’t earned.  As fallen people we are trapped in sin. We are conceived as sinful people. And then from the moment of our birth we show this in our actions as we sin all the time in thought, word and deed.
            The holy God judges us according to his law – that’s the standard. And the apostle Paul in Romans cites a basic biblical truth when says about God: “He will render to each one according to his works.”  When it comes to judgment Scripture also says again and again that God shows now partiality.  A person will get what they deserve. And the only thing we can deserve is hell – God’s eternal judgment and punishment.
            We were never going to be able to have eternal life with God based on what we do.  And so in his grace and mercy, God sent his Son into the world in the incarnation to take our place and receive the judgment against sin that we deserved.  Jesus came to give his live as a ransom for us as he died on the cross. And then on the third day God raised Jesus from the dead as the second Adam in whom a humanity that can never die has begun.
            This was pure grace. But God’s grace didn’t stop there because this forgiveness won by Christ can only be received through faith.  As fallen sinners, we could not by our own reason or strength believe in Jesus. And so by the work of the Holy Spirit God called us to faith through the Gospel.  Forgiveness in Jesus is a gift that we could never earn.  Faith that receives this forgiveness is something we could never obtain.  Yet God has given it all to us by grace. We who were last, have become first, and we had nothing to do with it.
            When we recognize this about ourselves, it must then impact the way we view and treat other people.  If I am a forgiven child of God purely because of his grace, then I must view every other person as being exactly equal with me. All of us need God’s grace and forgiveness.  None of us can do anything about it on our own.  The timing of that grace matters not at all – life long Christian or death bed conversion – we are all saved for the exact same reason. And for those who stand outside the faith, it is our prayer that they will yet be saved for this same reason.
            We are forgiven by God’s grace on account of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for us. Because God has done this for us, how can we do anything else than be gracious towards others? Because Christ has done this for us, how can we do anything else except to sacrifice for others?  Through his Spirit, God has made us a new creation in Christ.  So this gracious and sacrificial life is a matter of being what God has made us to be.
            And then we learn that when it comes to the way God deals with us, there is simply grace upon grace!  It is only God’s grace that enabled us to be his children who can live in Christ in ways that please him. Yet, as we saw earlier in this sermon, God turns around and promises that he rewards in eternity the faithful life. He rewards the thing that only he could make possible in the first place!
            It should be an encouragement to know that God actually cares about what we do – that he really does take note of faithful living and that he promises to reward it.  But our focus cannot be there.  Instead it is Jesus Christ through whom we have received this grace. For only through him do we have forgiveness.  Only through his Spirit do we have faith. Only through him have we received what we never could deserve. When we keep this as the focus of our life, we live by faith in ways that share Jesus’ love in word and deed. And our response to those rewards in eternity will be: “I never realized that I did anything.”



Saturday, February 8, 2020

Ellen Patterson funeral - Rom 8:31-39

                                                                                    Ellen Patterson funeral
                                                                                    Rom 8:31-39

            When I arrived at Good Shepherd in the summer of 2006, I did what many pastors do when they begin serving a new parish.  I started the process of visiting all of the members of the congregation in order to get to know them.  I don’t remember when I visited Ellen, but I certainly remember my first impression, because initially I wasn’t quite sure what to make of her.
            Ellen was very direct – at times almost brusque. She had no hesitation telling you what was on her mind.  If she thought something, she was going to say it.  I was, at first, somewhat caught off guard by this.  However, as I got to know Ellen a little better I realized that she was very loving and caring person.  She had herself experienced very serious health problems.  After being married to her husband John for over forty years, she had already lived as a widow for nearly sixteen years when I first met her. I learned that having experienced these things she was empathetic towards others. The genuine concern she showed when my wife had to have a brain tumor removed was touching, and right up to all but the very end she always asked about how Amy was doing.
            I learned that Ellen deeply loved her family.  When I began visiting Ellen as a homebound member I regularly heard about the members of her family. And of course, I heard the same stories several times. It was easy to tell that they were the joy of her life. That appreciation of family extended to others as well. She got to know my family and part of each visit was showing her the latest pictures of my children and telling her what they were doing as she enjoyed watching them grow up.
            And it soon became apparent that Ellen loved the Lord.  Almost every time I visited she expressed how much she missed being able to go to church.  As the years went by and her mind began to fail her more, I discovered that hearing and speaking the words of the liturgy, and receiving the Sacrament of the Altar had a remarkable calming effect on her. She knew it too, and always mentioned how much it meant to her.
            In our text from the end of Romans chapter eight, the apostle begins by saying, “What then shall we say to these things?” “These things” include a number of statements describing the difficulty of life.  Paul has said, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”  He has said, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” Or as Paul just wrote: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
            Paul has been talking about suffering and weakness.  And in our text he goes on to ask, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’”
            Sitting here today, it would be easy to think that Ellen has been separated from the love of Christ.  After all, she has died.  And even before she died, she was being lost to herself and to others as her mind deteriorated and her condition advanced.
            In this same letter, the apostle Paul tells us exactly why this has happened.  He says that “the wages of sin is death.”  Ellen has died because she was a sinner.  We can say lots of nice things about her, but none of that changes the fact that before God she was a sinner in thought, word and deed.  Like the rest of us, she was a fallen person living in a fallen world.  The illness that stole her mind from her and ultimately caused her death was a result of this condition.  It is the same condition that afflicts all of us, and it will produce the same result for every person here: death.
            That is how things look - that sin and death have separated Ellen from the love of Christ, just as they have separated her from us.  But appearance is not the reality. And so the apostle vigorously replies: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
            Why can Paul be so sure?  He has just laid out the reasons a little earlier in our text.  He began by saying, “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” 
            Sin cannot separate Ellen from God, because God gave his own Son, Jesus Christ to die on the cross for her sin. As Paul told the Corinthians, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  Ellen was baptized into Jesus’ saving death and in the water of baptism her sins were washed away.
            And so Paul can ask: “Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies.”  Baptized into Christ and living by faith in him, Ellen was ready for the Last Day. As Paul said earlier in this letter, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” 
            In Christ, we already know the verdict of the Last Day for Ellen.  She is innocent, not guilty because of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for her. Paul told the Romans, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
            Finally, in our text Paul asks, “Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died--more than that, who was raised--who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.”  Not even death can separate Ellen from God and the love of Christ, because the Lord Jesus has risen from the dead.  In fact, death now means being with risen and ascended Lord.  As Paul contemplated the possibility of his own death, he told the Philipians, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”
            Ellen is now with Christ, and for this we give thanks. She no longer faces the struggle against sin.  She no longer suffers from the condition that afflicted the end of her life. She is with the Lord, and that is far better.
            However, in her baptism Ellen received the promise that God is not yet done.  Instead, something even better awaits her.  Paul wrote about baptism in chapter six, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
            In baptism, Ellen received the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit who created and sustained faith in Ellen during her life, is the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead.  And so Paul says earlier in this chapter, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.”  In fact just before our text he went on to add, “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”
            Because Jesus has risen bodily from the dead, Ellen will too.  Through his Spirit our Lord will raise her from the dead with a body transformed to be like his – a body that can never die again.  As Paul told the Philippians, “we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”
            So on this day, we give thanks to God for the blessing that Ellen was in the lives of her family, friends and congregation.  We rejoice in the knowledge that nothing has been able to separate Ellen from God’s love in Christ Jesus.  Instead, justified by faith on account of Christ, she is a saint who is with the Lord.  And we look with eager expectation for our Lord to return in glory, for on that day he will raise Ellen’s body from the dead so that she can live in the new creation with Christ forever.