Sunday, May 31, 2020

Sermon for the Feast of Pentecost - Acts 2:1-21

                                                                                                Acts 2:1-21

            “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
            This was John the Baptist’s preaching as he was in the midst of his ministry.  It was certainly a message that had a “fire and brimstone” feel. And this was for good reason, because John declared that the coming one would bring God’s end time judgment. However, he also proclaimed that this one would baptize with the Holy Spirit, and based on what the Old Testament prophets had said this could only mean the end time salvation from God.
            John the Baptist was so right.  But his location in time meant that he could not understand how he and why he was right.  During the forty days that Jesus was with the apostles after his resurrection he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
            Jesus promised that they would be baptized by the Holy Spirit.  He said this was important, for in this way they would be “clothed with power from on high.” And this power had a purpose. The Lord said in Acts chapter one before his ascension: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” 
            It had been ten days since Jesus had spoken those words. For ten days the disciples had been waiting for this to happen. Then, when the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  Divided tongues as of fire appeared and rested on each one of them.  And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them thte ability.
            It was the fulfillment of John the Baptist’s words – just not in the way he expected.  The Spirit was poured out and there were flames.  But the flames were not a destroying fire of judgment.  Instead they accompanied the outpouring of the Spirit who enabled the disciples to proclaim what God had done in Christ in many different languages.
            There were faithful Jews from all over the Mediterranean and Near Eastern world living in Jerusalem. As they heard the sound of the apostles speaking they were drawn to the location. They were amazed that these Galileans, who as far as they were concerned were from a rather backward part of the world as far as they were concerned, were speaking in their own languages. It was such striking thing, that some mocked saying, “They are filled with new wine” … they are drunk.
            But Peter addressed the crowd and brushed aside the accusation.  It was absurd, since after all, it was only nine in the morning.  Instead, something amazing was happening. He said, “But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: ‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.’”
            Peter declared that God had poured out his Spirit in fulfillment of what he had said through the prophet Joel.  This meant that they were living in the last days – the end times of God’s work to bring salvation and judgment.  God had given his Spirit so that his people could prophesy – so that they could speak his word.
            Today we are celebrating the Feast of Pentecost.  Naturally Pentecost makes us think about God’s gift of the Holy Spirit. Yet Peter’s sermon goes on to make it clear that the Spirit was given on Pentecost because of what God has done in Jesus Christ.    His sermon goes right for the jugular as the apostle directs a nuclear strike of law.  He said, "Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know-- this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.”
            This law strikes us no less than they.  We too crucified and killed the holy One by the hands of lawless men.  It was our sin that caused Jesus to go to the cross. It was the Father’s plan to save us.  But for our sins to be forgiven, Jesus the Son of God had to take our sins as his own.  He had to take our place in receiving God’s judgment.  That’s what happened on Good Friday as Jesus suffered and died for your every angry word; your every covetous thought; your every action that puts God second in your life.
            On Good Friday, Jesus dead body was buried in a tomb. However the events of Pentecost were happening because Jesus did not stay there. Peter declared: “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it,” and he added that he and the apostles were all witnesses that God had done this.
            Ten days ago we celebrated the Feast of the Ascension of our Lord.  Peter referred to this event as he went on to say, “Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.”  Jesus Christ has not only been raised from the dead.  He has been exalted to the right hand of God in the ascension, and as the exalted One he has poured out His Spirit upon the church.
            Peter concluded his sermon by saying, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” The people were cut to hear and asked, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter told them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” 
            Pentecost was an event that happened ten days after Jesus ascended into heaven.  But its meaning did not stop there because the Spirit’s work did not stop that day.  Instead, Pentecost was the beginning of the Spirit’s work in these last days that started in by the Son of God’s incarnation life, death and resurrection.
            You have received the forgiveness of sins through Holy Baptism.  And in that baptism you received the Holy Spirit.  St. Paul wrote in Titus chapter three that Godsaved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.” Paul says that God poured out the Spirit on us in baptism. In fact, he uses the exact same Greek verb found in the verse from the prophet Joel quoted by Peter: “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.”
            You have received the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Now the primary purpose of this, as described in the book of Acts, is to empower the speaking of the Gospel.  Jesus told the disciples that through the Spirit they would receive power to be his witnesses. 
            This remains a central work of the Spirit in our lives, and we must ask whether we are embracing it. Do we see being a witness for Jesus Christ to be an important part of our life?  If we don’t, then we need to ponder whether we are ignoring and squandering the Spirit’s work within us.  After his resurrection Jesus said, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”  You have received the Holy Spirit to empower your part in this work as it now takes place in Marion, Carterville or wherever you live.
            And at the same time, the gift of the Spirit is not only about the work of witnessing.  Immediately after the Pentecost account, we hear a description of the early church in Jerusalem.  Luke tells us: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”  This is a description of what it means for the Church to have received the Spirit. 
            We are to be people who are devoted to the apostles’ teaching.  Those who have received the Spirit want to listen to what the Spirit says in the Scriptures. They want to study God’s Word for there we have the apostles’ teaching – a teaching that gives the blessing of salvation, and guides us as we live as the people of God.
            We are to be committed to receiving the Sacrament of the Altar.  The Spirit who has made us a new creation in Christ – who has created the new man within us – continues to feed the new man through food of the true body and blood of Christ.
            As we each receive the body and blood of Christ, we are joined together as the Body of Christ. We are united in communion – in the fellowship of Christ’s body.  But this fellowship is not something that merely exists at an altar in church.  Jointed together as the Body of Christ, we are led by the Spirit to love and support one another out in the world. We care for each other; encourage each other; love each other because we have received the Holy Spirit.
            And finally, the gift of the Spirit enables us to dedicate ourselves to prayer.  If we are to pray, we need to know what to pray about. This again means that we see our lives as part of the fellowship created by the Spirit in Christ.  We seek to know what is happening in the lives of our fellow believers – their struggles; their sorrows; their challenges; their joys.  And we then take these up in prayer as we go to our heavenly Father in the name of his Son.  Those who have received the gift of the Spirit are enabled to take up this Christian service on behalf of others.
            At Pentecost, John the Baptist’s words were fulfilled in a way he did not expect.  And yet at the same time, Pentecost reminds us that they will yet be fulfilled exactly as he expected. It is the ascended Lord who poured forth the Spirit. And the Lord who has ascended will return in glory.
            The Lord Jesus is the coming One who will sit in judgment and unleash eternal punishment on those who have rejected him and his forgiveness as they remained in their own sin. And at the same time the Spirit he has given to believers is the means by which we will be raised and share in Christ’s resurrection.    St. Paul told the Romans, “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.” The Holy Spirit empowers and leads us to live as God’s people in these last days. We live in hope as we eagerly await the Lord’s return when by the Spirit he will raise us up on the Last Day.   





Sunday, May 24, 2020

Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter - Exaudi - Jn 15:26-16:4

                                                                                                Easter 7
                                                                                                Jn 15:26-16:4

            As I have watched my children advance through school in math, I have been reminded about how much learning you take for granted – about how many pieces must be put in place before you can do more advanced work. There is the need to learn addition and subtraction, and then these operations with multiple digits. One must learn the multiplication tables, and then learn division, and then learn to do these with multiple digits.  There are fractions and decimals. There is geometry and algebra.  It takes years to advance through these stages, and until you have completed the earlier learning you are not capable of handling what comes later.  Until a person has been prepared, they are not capable of learning the new information.
            This same basic truth describes what is happening in Jesus’ discussion with the disciples in our text today day. The Gospel lesson for a number of the Sundays of Easter comes from John chapters fifteen and sixteen. This material is often called the “Farewell Discourse.” It was spoken as Jesus and the disciples were making their way to the Garden of Gethsemane, and the general tone of it is one of farewell because Jesus talks about how he will be leaving to return to the Father.
            Our Lord recognizes the disciples’ current state of learning and preparation.  He says in chapter sixteen: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” The disciples weren’t ready for more. They couldn’t handle it. And so Jesus talks about what is going to happen in the future.  He talks about a time when he will send the Holy Spirit, the Helper. Jesus says at the beginning of our text, “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.”
            Our Lord says that he will send the Spirit of truth from the Father – the Spirit who proceeds from the Father. Immediately after our text Jesus says that his approaching departure from the disciples is in fact a good thing for them.  He says, “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.
            On Thursday we celebrated the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord. Our Lord was exalted as he departed in the ascension and was seated at the right hand of God.  We may wonder why it is that Jesus must depart in order for him to send the Spirit.  God’s Word provides us with no explicit explanation.  We are simply told that this is how God works.
            Of course before he departed Jesus had work to do.  Last week we heard how Jesus alluded to his own crucifixion by talking about Moses and the bronze serpent on a pole.  He said, “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.”  
            Earlier in the Gospel Jesus had said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”  Jesus had come to be lifted up on the cross as the sacrifice for sin. He was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
            By his death he has taken away your sin.  He has freed you from slavery.  Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
            We like to think of ourselves as being independent and self-sufficient.  We can take care of things, and we can do it on our own terms. But this is the lie of the devil.  For when it comes to our standing before the holy God everything we think, do, and say has been infected by sin.  It’s not just that we do things that are wrong. Even when we do things that are right, we do them with mixed motives. Sin permeates these things too and so in God’s eyes all our good works are as filthy rags.
            Yet by his death on the cross, Jesus Christ has won forgiveness.  And then on the third day God raised Jesus from the dead.  Because of Jesus, death has been defeated.  Those who believe in Jesus have forgiveness and eternal life now.  And Jesus will share his resurrection with all who believe in him.  Our Lord said, “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
            This is the Gospel.  But for people to believe the Gospel it must be shared with them.  And so Jesus says in our text, “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.”
            The apostles had accompanied Jesus during his ministry. They had heard his teaching. They had seen his miracles – his signs that he performed. Most importantly they would meet the risen Lord as he demonstrated to them again and again in unmistakable ways that the One who had been crucified was now alive.
            This section of John’s Gospel speaks about what the Spirit will do.  It becomes clear that the apostles will be the means by which the Spirit will work.  Earlier the Lord said, “And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father's who sent me. These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”
            Jesus promises that the Spirit will teach the disciples all things and bring to their remembrance what Jesus has said.  And then after our text the Lord goes on to say, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 
He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”
            The Spirit takes what belongs to Jesus – the saving work he has accomplished for us – and he makes it known to the disciples.  The Spirit is the One who enabled the apostles to bear witness to Jesus, both in speaking to others and in what they wrote.
            The Spirit borne witness continues in our midst today through the Scriptures the Spirit has inspired. After his first miracle that Jesus performed at the wedding at Cana in which he turned water into wine, John tells us, “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.” Then at the end of the Gospel John writes, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 
but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
            We see the signs that call us to faith and sustain us in faith through the witness the Spirit has given us in Scripture.  It is there that we encounter the Spirit’s work through the apostles of bringing to remembrance what Jesus said and making know what belongs to Jesus. Through these Spirit breathed words we now believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and so have life in his name.
            And it is through these words – this witness – that the Spirit enables us to face the challenge that Jesus describes in our text.  He says, “I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me.” 
            Because of the work of the Spirit you are different from the world.  You have been born again of water and the Spirit in Holy Baptism.  Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” The Father has drawn you to faith in Christ through the work of the Spirit. Earlier in chapter fifteen Jesus said, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”
            The world is on the side of Satan, sin, and death.  But the good news of the Gospel is that Jesus Christ has freed you from this.  By his death and resurrection he has conquered them all. And he has sent the Spirit to give this victory to us through faith. Through the inspired witness of the Scriptures the Spirit continues to make known Jesus’ saving work to us.  He has called us to faith.  He has given us rebirth in baptism. Because of the Spirit of truth we now recognize the lie that Satan tells.  And instead we believe in Jesus who is the way, the truth and the life.


Thursday, May 21, 2020

Sermon for the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord - Lk 24:44-53

                                                                                                Lk 24:44-53

            Luke is the only Gospel writer who gives us a literary introduction to his work.  He begins by acknowledging that “many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us.”  He adds that the things reported about Jesus in these writings are “just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us.”  And then he adds: “it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.”
            Luke tells us that the eyewitnesses who had become ministers of the word – the apostles – had delivered Jesus’ words and deeds.  Luke himself had been able to look into these things closely and provide a well ordered account – an account that begins at the beginning with the incarnation of the Son of God.  He wrote the Gospel so that Theophilus would have certainty about the things he had been taught concerning Jesus.
            Luke is also unique, in that his Gospel is only the first volume of a two volume set.  He continues on to write a literary introduction to the Book of Acts in which he says, “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.”
            The ascension of Jesus Christ serves as the “hinge” which joins together the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. And indeed, as we hear in our Scripture lessons tonight, Luke narrates an account of the ascension in the last chapter of the Gospel and in the first chapter of Acts. The Gospel tells us about the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus.  The Book of Acts, tells about how the Holy Spirit poured out on Pentecost enabled the church to bear witness to Christ in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth, just as Jesus had said they would.
            However, the ascension of Jesus is about more than just his leaving so that the Holy Spirit can do his work. And the work of the Spirit in Acts is about more than just making disciples now that Jesus is gone
            We first hear about the work of the Spirit in relation to Jesus in the Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary.  In response to her question about how she would conceive a child since she was a virgin, Gabriel said, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy--the Son of God.”
            Jesus Christ, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary was the incarnate Son of God – true God and true man.  His ministry began as he was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. When he had been baptized, as Jesus was praying, the heavens were opened,  and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
            We might wonder why the One conceived by the work of the Spirit now has the Spirit descend on him.  But it soon becomes clear that this has been integral to Jesus’ saving work.  Luke tells us that after his temptation, “Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and a report about him went out through all the surrounding country.” The Holy Spirit empowers Jesus in the saving work given to him by the Father.
            Then at Nazareth Jesus takes up the scroll of Isaiah and reads these words: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.” And then Jesus said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
            Jesus Christ, conceived by the Spirit and anointed by the Spirit had come to free those who were oppressed by sin and death.  He came to free you from the sin and guilt for all the angry words you have spoken to family and friends.  He came to free you from the sin of lust and coveting that continually bubbles up from your heart.  He came to free you from the fear of death – death by virus; death by cancer; death by accident.
            On Good Friday, Jesus was numbered with the transgressors as he hung upon the cross. The One who had been anointed by the Spirit fulfilled the mission given to him by the Father by dying. He suffered and died as the sacrifice for our sins.  He received God’s judgment so that we never will.  Instead we receive forgiveness.
            The Old Testament had said that anyone who was hung upon a tree was cursed by God. Dead and buried, everything looked so clear.  Jesus has been a false Messiah – a false Christ.  He had in fact been cursed by God, and that was the end of it.
            But this was exactly what Jesus had told the disciples would happen. And he had told them that on the third day he would be raised.  On Easter, God raised Jesus from the dead.  And on that evening he appeared inside the locked room and showed the disciples that he was alive – that he had risen from the dead.  As we learn in our text he said, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”
              Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 
and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”
            Jesus said that all which was necessary had been fulfilled.  And now repentance and forgiveness of sins was to be proclaimed in his name to all nations. The disciples were the witnesses who would carry this out. But Jesus said that first they needed to receive the One promised by the Father. They needed to wait in Jerusalem until they had been clothed with power from on high.
            Next we hear in our text:  “Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.”
            In his ascension, Jesus withdrew his visible presence. And to us that doesn’t seem to make much sense to us. Before he ascended, he told the disciples they would be his witnesses.  But first they needed to receive power from on high.  We know, of course, that this empowerment took place on the day of Pentecost as the Holy Spirit was poured out upon them.
            On that day, Peter preached a powerful sermon.  He spoke about how the Jews had killed Jesus.  And then he said, “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.”
            Peter announced that Jesus Christ had been exalted in the ascension – that he was now at the right hand of God.  As the exalted Lord he had received the Spirit – he was experiencing a new aspect of the Spirit’s work, for now it was he who had poured out the Spirit upon his Church. And so Peter could declare, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
            The ascension is the exaltation of our Lord.  Jesus Christ gave himself into death on a cross for us.  He was hung on a tree. He was indeed cursed by God – cut off so that we never will be.  But in the resurrection and then in the ascension, God has vindicated and exalted Jesus. He has declared to all that the cross was Jesus’ saving work for us.  And he has exalted Jesus as the Lord – true God and true man – who pours forth the Spirit.
            The ascension is the withdrawal of Jesus’ visible presence. But this is not the absence of the risen Lord.  Instead it is the exaltation of Jesus so that he can give the gift of the Spirit by whom Christ is present with us in power to give faith and the forgiveness of sins. Because Jesus has been exalted in the ascension and has poured out the Spirit, he is the Lord who is present with us everywhere the Spirit is at work.  The Spirit of Christ is the risen Lord present and giving salvation to us.
            The ascension of our Lord Jesus is the definitive declaration of his victory.  It shows that the Lord defeated death by passing through it and then rising from the dead.  But it also declares that we too will share in Jesus’ resurrection because the Lord who has ascended will return in glory on the Last Day. In our second reading, Luke’s account in Acts, we learn that two angels said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
            The ascension tells us that risen and exalted Lord will return on the Last Day to give us a share in his resurrection. We have the living hope of the resurrection.  We also have the expectant hope of Christ’s return to raise the dead and renew creation.  And so we fervently pray: “Come Lord Jesus!”






Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord

Today is The Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord. Forty days after His resurrection, Jesus Christ ascended into heaven and was exalted as our incarnate Lord He took His place at the right hand of God.

Scripture reading:
In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.  And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”  So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:1-11).

Collect of the Day:
Almighty God, as Your only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, ascended into the heavens, so may we also ascend in heart and mind and continually dwell there with Him, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter - Rogate - Num 21:4-9

                                                                                                Easter 6
                                                                                                Num 21:4-9

            Do you remember March 21?  It’s understandable if you don’t.  It was, after all, an eternity ago.  On that day Illinois Governor Prizker’s stay at home order went into effect.  It began on that day and was set to go through April 7.  At that time, the nation lived in fear that scenes we had viewed from Italy would play out here.
            We had learned that Covid-19 was extremely contagious. We knew that it compromised the respiratory system of its victims.  There were models that predicted hundreds of thousands of deaths. And the great fear was that the virus would overwhelm the critical care infrastructure.  There are only so many ICU beds, and only so many respirators.  A massive rise in the need for these would swamp the system and force terrible decisions about who would live and who would die.
            We were told that there was a need to “flatten the curve” – to contain the spread of the virus and the rate at which it was infecting people so that the critical care system would not be overwhelmed.  Based on everything we knew at the time, it made sense.  Once things had been explained in this way, I think most people were willing to accept that this temporary inconvenience in life was a necessary adjustment.
            The problem is that it is no longer March 21 or April 7.  It’s May 17.  We’ve been living with these restrictions for two months now. Some things have been loosened a little – at least we are now allowed to gather as ten people in church. Some things are even more restrictive – we all now have to wear masks when we go in contained public areas.
            On March 21 were told it was about “flattening the curve.”  But in the governor’s announcement of the plan to “open up” Illinois, we have learned now that the requirements for the lifting of restrictions – including the masks that make us all look so silly – is a vaccine or treatment for the virus. The goal seems to be now that we live with restrictions until no can die from Covid-19. And that means we really don’t know when this will come to an end.
            As a result of this, many people are just fed up with the whole thing. We are tired of living this way. The economic devastation mounts by the day.  Our understanding of the virus has grown, and while there is much that is no yet understood, it has become clear that the virus is not as deadly as initial models predicted.  We’ve learned that those who are most at risk of death live in nursing homes and care facilities.  And there is growing body of scientists – legitimate experts - who argue that the lock down approach is in fact counterproductive at this point.  There is rising frustration and anger about the fact that we are being forced to live this way and have no say in the matter.
            In our Old Testament lesson this morning, there is also frustration and anger.  The Israelites too were living in the midst of challenging circumstances and they were tired of it.  The difference is that while in our situation there is the possibility of disagreement about the best course of action to take, in the case of Israel there was no room for varied opinions.  To complain and grumble about how things were being handled was to complain against Yahweh himself. It was to sin against God.
            Our text begins by telling us, “From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way.”  Yahweh had delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt with a mighty hand.  He had sent nine devastating plagues on the Egyptians. And in the tenth plague, the Passover, he had killed the first born of the Egyptians while sparing the Israelites.  Pharaoh had sent them out of the land, only to change his mind and send the Egyptian army after them.  At the Red Sea God had dramatically saved Israel as they walked through the sea on dry ground, while the water crashed back in and drowned the Egyptians.
            At Mt. Sinai, Yahweh had entered into a covenant with Israel.  He had taken them as his choice possession and given them the Torah to live in this covenant.  He had brought them to the border of Canaan – the land flowing with milk and honey he had promised to give them.  Yet there they had rebelled against God. They had refused to enter Canaan, and so God said that they would wander in the wilderness for forty years.  All those twenty years and older would die during that time and would never enter the promised land.
            Feeding a huge group of people on the move takes a feat of logistics.  But Yahweh had no problem doing so.  He fed the people with manna, a substance they gathered from the ground each morning except the Sabbath. And he sent quail upon the camp to give them meat.
            In spite of this we learn in our text: “And the people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.’”  Now where do you begin in analyzing this statement?  There are three facts that the Israelites conveniently ignored.  First, Yahweh had freed them from slavery in Egypt when he brought them out. Second, they were wandering in the wilderness because they had rebelled against God when he wanted to bring them into the promised land.  And third, God was providing them with food, and also with water. They lacked for nothing to keep them alive.
            Like the Israelites, we sometimes complain about the circumstances of life. We blame God for the difficulties he has allowed.  Yet, like the Israelites, we too conveniently ignore that often it is our own actions that have caused the circumstances in the first place.  God has given us the Ten Commandments because they describe how he has ordered his world to work.  If you try to do things your own way – if you ignore his ordering – the outcome is predictable. Things will not turn out well.  You will hurt yourself.  You will hurt others.  And you have don’t get to blame God when it was you who rejected his direction; when it was you who sinned.
            Or like the Israelites we find that God is providing, but he isn’t providing according to the standards we think he should.  His provision just doesn’t measure up to what we expect. An you know what? God doesn’t care.  He has promised you food and clothing and nothing else.  He has promised you daily bread, not filet mignon.  And our grumbling and complaining; our coveting what others have because they have it “better” is sin against God.
            The people had spoken against God and Moses. And we learn in our text that God responded by punishing the people.  He sent fiery serpents among them, and they bit the people, so that many died.  The people knew that they had brought this upon themselves. They came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you. Pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.”
            So Moses prayed for the people. And in this action we see one of several ways that Moses is an Old Testament figure who points to the fulfillment found in Jesus Christ. St. Paul told the Romans, “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.”  The exalted Lord Jesus – whose ascension we will celebrate this week – is at the God the Father’s right hand and intercedes for us.  He speaks on our behalf, and the next event in our text reveals why his words have force – why they are honored by the Father.
            Yahweh said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” 
Moses did so – he made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And just as God had promised, if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.
            Jesus tells us that this bronze serpent was a type of his own cross.  It was something in the Old Testament that pointed forward to how Jesus Christ would win forgiveness for us.  Jesus told Nicodemus in John chapter 3, “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.”  Jesus was lifted up on the cross in order to win forgiveness for us by his sacrificial death.
            Yet a death that ended in death would not be a source of hope for us. And so on the third day – on Easter – God raised Jesus from the dead.  He vindicated Jesus and his sacrifice.  He showed us that all who believe in Jesus have forgiveness and eternal life because Jesus lives.  He has defeated death for us.  We already enjoy eternal life with God that death cannot end. And Jesus will give us a share in his resurrection on the Last Day when he returns in glory and raises our bodies.
            In our text God says, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.”  God attaches his promise to an object – to something right there in the midst of the people.  He says, “everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.”
            We see here that God works in a sacramental way – he works through located means.  Because we are physical people who lead a bodily existence, he identifies things in our midst that he uses – means whereby his gives forgiveness.  He attaches his promise to these things that are located in our midst.  We do not have to wonder about where God is present giving us forgiveness.  He has given us the object for our faith, because as Luther reminds us, faith needs something to believe in.
            That is what Christ has given us in the Sacrament of the Altar, and that is one of the main reasons have been so eager to return to services at church – to return to the Divine Service.  Here Jesus has added his word of promise to bread and wine.  He had told you that this bread is his body given for you; that this wine is his blood shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.  Faith receives something tangible to believe in, because Jesus is still the incarnate Lord who is true God and true man.  He deals with us as people who are body and soul. And in so doing he shows what awaits us for our Lord has said, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.
            Forgiven and fed in this way, the Holy Spirit then leads and strengthens us to receive our Lord’s other gifts with thanksgiving.  We receive our daily bread as a gift from God, and seek to assist others with their needs. We give thanks for the blessings God gives to us – blessings that support our body and life.  We live as those who trust God’s promise of forgiveness and eternal life because Jesus who was lifted up on the cross has risen from the dead.