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Sermon for Lent 4 – Luke 15

March 14, 2010 Leave a comment

Sermon for Lent 4 – Luke 15

Augustana, 2010

16 Sermon for Lent 4 MP3 Audio

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Jesus tells three parables within the earshot of the tax collectors and sinners and the scribes and Pharisees.  We’re concerned with the last one, commonly referred to as the parable of prodigal son.  This parable is not primarily about a spendthrift, good-for-nothing younger brother but rather about the relations between God and the sinner and the self-righteous.  Try to stay with me as we get a few things out of the way as quickly as possible.  The request of the son is a tremendous insult to the father that to him the father is better off dead than alive.  This boy was lost long before he ever left home.  Maybe this will be understood a little better here in Catawba County than in other places I’ve served.  What is happening here is that the younger son wants his portion of the estate.  In the ancient near east what was the estate?  Flocks, herds, land and perhaps orchards.  This ingrate child is selling off the family estate, portions of the family farm, the family identity.  He is cutting himself off not just from his father and family and intimate community, but from the wider community as well.  What he is doing is unheard of and unrecorded in ancient literature except here in the mouth of our Lord.  He wants his father dead.  As an unbelievable act of love, the Father grants his request.

All the rest of this stuff you’ve heard.  He goes to a far off country.  He better, he is not welcome in his own community.  He spends his wealth on wild living.  He looses everything, has to work for a gentile feeding pigs.  Even the gentile wants nothing to do with this kid so he doesn’t pay him except pig slops.  Suddenly it dawns on him his father’s servants have bread enough and so he hatches a plan to try to go home and be a servant.  This is not repentance, per se.  He doesn’t want to be a son; he still wants to call his own shots.  He returns home and before he can get his pitch out to his father, his father has run (first century Palestinian heads of household don’t run anywhere, by the way, they don’t in the 21st century century either—you won’t see sheiks running anywhere, it’s not becoming, but this one runs) to meet him on the road and hears nothing of his little pitch for servanthood but instead restores him to full sonship, robe, ring, fatted calf, etc. etc.  You know the story as well as any in Scripture.  Before we move on I want to just highlight again, the unbelievable love of the father.  As Jesus tells this parable this father is an obvious symbol for God our heavenly Father.  This father calls it like it is: “For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”  This father had every reason to wring this boy’s neck, not throw his arms around him.  He chose to forgive and restore.  Remember now who is listening to this parable, tax collectors and sinners and scribes and Pharisees.  Who are the tax collectors and sinners in this parable?  Right.  The prodigal.  Who has not been mentioned in the parable yet?  Right, the older brother.  Of all the people listening to Jesus who is the older brother?  Right, the Pharisees.

Now basically this is where this sermon starts, with the older brother.  Where was the older brother as all of this was going on?  In the field, doing the work of the father.  In most sermons I’ve heard on this passage, the older brother pretty much gets a pass.  Sometimes a preacher will note that we are often stuck up like the older brother and they really should be more forgiving toward those who return to the church but I’m convinced it’s deeper than that.  The older brother insults the father in every way possible here and in fact, I think, to a greater extent than the younger son.  Kenneth Bailey, a Biblical scholar for many years at the Near Eastern School of Theology in Beirut, Lebanon, counts seven direct insults of the father: 1) the older son addresses his father with no title, 2) he demonstrates an attitude and spirit of a slave not a son, 3) he insulted his father publicly and still says, “I have never disobeyed your commandment,” 4) he accuses his father of favoritism, 5) he declares he is not part of the family by calling his brother, “your son,” 6) his concept of joy is celebrating with his friends not his family, not the recovery of his brother from the dead, 7) he attacks his brother by accusing him of living a life of sin and thereby insulting his father for forgiving it.  The older son is every bit a prodigal as his younger brother, if not more so.  Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, I am the older brother.  I confess it.

Years ago, as a youth, I was on a youth trip.  We had a girl on our trip who was a smoker.  The rule for the trip was that if anyone were caught smoking in the van or in the facilities in which we stayed, they would eat a cigarette in front of the group.  Well, you guessed it, she smoked.  And she was hauled up in front of the group.  And she was forgiven.  I cried out for justice.  And then in some kind of surreal moment where everything goes wrong, my pastor, somebody I liked, somebody I thought was on my side, recounted my sins of the trip back to me.  If I wanted justice, I would have to suffer the consequences of my sins.  Which did I want justice or mercy?  Her sins were worse than mine, I remember thinking, and I mean to tell you that lasted for years for me.  But they weren’t.  Chief of sinners though she be, Andy Smith was worse than she.  Trust me.

But today is the fourth Sunday in Lent, the most joyous of the 5.  If we did such things we would have not purple on the altar but rather pink, not the color of penitence but rejoicing.  So what is there to rejoice about you might wonder?  Your brothers and your sisters who were dead are now alive.  Come in and join the feast.  The older brother in trying to set himself up as more loyal and faithful than his brother actually committed a greater sin; he failed to rejoice in what he had been given by his Father.  He chose to live like a slave instead of a son and he chose to look at his gracious and loving father as a slave master rather than as a loving father who had given him everything.

Lent offers us a tremendous opportunity to reflect on who we are and how far we’ve come in life.  It is a chance to explore humility.  Dennis Ockham, in a recent book I read, offers two thoughts I think are applicable here.  [Humility] is grounded in a realistic acceptance of who we are—our unchangeable past, our inherited DNA, our innate gifts and aptitudes, our failures and successes, our weaknesses and strengths, and our relationships with others and with God.” (70)  And, “If a person possesses a realistic assessment of who she is, whence she’s come, and where her place is in the scheme of things, she has a good change of accepting others for who they are, whence they’ve come, and what their place is in the scheme of things—without necessarily approving of all that is included in the assessment. (71)  I think this is excellent advice on how not to be a Pharisee or in our case, an older brother.  “What humility does then is it puts us in the right posture to receive God’s grace.  Humility opens us up to receive God’s grace.”  (74)  And I would add and recognize when God is working by his grace in the lives of others just as he has done for us.

Ockham continues with this story:  “I live near the southern California beaches, and occasionally we see or hear about rescues of those who have been swept out by a riptide.  Lifeguards promptly assess the situation and rush out to save the person who is struggling futilely against the stubborn current.  In order to be saved, the swimmer must stop fighting the current and the lifeguard and give in.  The problem is that by the time the two get back to the curious crowd on the beach, the lifeguard—the one who can save himself and another—is lauded and the rescued is written off as a fool for ignoring the warning signs of a rip current or being a weakling.  It’s humiliating to be saved because it requires that I acknowledge my enslavement to narcissism and the riptide pull of tendencies that I prefer not to admit—even to myself.  But if I persist in believing the inflated percentage of my self-approval rating, then I will never admit that I really need God.  (74-75)

That is the profile of the older brother.  That is the profile of the Pharisee.  That is my profile.  And while I think there may be some of us here who are just glad to be restored to our position in God’s household, most of us, I would bet, are more like the older brother.  We labor in the father’s vineyard not in the joy of father’s love, not in humility, but out of a sense of obligation, or perverse pride, boasting of our own self-righteousness compared to that of others.

God’s way for us is recognizing that we are nothing but those having been given to.  Life in God’s house then is rejoicing with our father that our brothers and sisters who were dead are now alive and joining them at the feast.  And so, just as the parable is left unresolved by Jesus, I leave it with you.  But I leave it with the final words of our loving father.  “Child, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”  Amen.

Sermon for Lent 3

March 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Sermon for Lent 3 – Luke 13:1-9

Augustana, 2010

15 Sermon for Lent 3 MP3 Audio

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The text for the sermon this morning is the Gospel reading for today.

“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

Repent.  That’s Jesus’ word to these folks who approached him with the news of the Galileans Pilate had killed.  Repent, or you’ll be even worse off than they are.  So, let me try this out.

Pastor, did you hear what happened down in Haiti?  Isn’t that terrible?  Why would God allow something like that to happen to those poor people?  Did you hear what happened in Chile?  And what about the one in Taiwan?

Well, I suppose you can go with one answer: the earthquake in Haiti is God’s divine retribution for Haiti having sworn a pact with the devil while under French colonial rule.  That works so long as those folks are worse sinners than you are.  But they’re not.  And the only answer is Jesus’ answer:  “Repent.”  Do you think that those folks are worse sinners than all other people?  The Chileans?  The Taiwanese?  “No,” Jesus says, “repent.”  Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.  By repenting, you admit the seriousness of your sin.

Jesus uses an example from the headlines of his day so I should probably explain a little bit.  There were these small groups of rebels who would occasionally rise up against the Romans.  This group of Galileans, apparently, was one such group whom Pilate’s soldiers tracked down while they were in Jerusalem making their sacrifices at one of the festivals and were killed there in the Temple precincts.  We don’t precisely know the details here and we can only infer in this way but Jesus’ response remains the same.  Repent.  When terrible things happen to others, it should get your attention and remind you that you’re no better than they are.  The same thing could happen to you, or worse.

Now I want to be clear about this.  Jesus is reacting against a specific idea prevalent in his day and in ours, that is:  good things happen to those whom God has blessed.  If bad things are happening to you God is zapping you.  That idea has lessened a little bit in our day, now it’s more like, if bad things are happening to you, God is not protecting you but the result is the same, somehow you’ve fallen out of favor with God.  This is precisely the kind of idea reflected in Jesus’ question to those who brought him this news.  “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way?”  They are trying to play on his hometown sympathies and to draw him out on the side of the Galilean rebels and therefore put him at odds with Pilate.  But Jesus doesn’t bite and then he shares some news of his own.  “Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem?”  That is, God does not zap people for specific sins.  He doesn’t zap Hatians, Chileans, or Taiwanese anymore than Americans, or folks who live in Hickory.

And just in case we’ve been watching too much Kenneth Copeland or Creflo Dollar or Joyce Meyer or Benny Hinn or Joel Osteen, God does not just bless those people who are obedient in measure to their obedience.  If we were to follow that line of theology, all of us good church-going people would be the Donald Trumps of this world and all the Donald Trumps of this world would be on unemployment.  How many wives is he up to now?  The cross is always a good laboratory for testing any theology.  If we take this idea to the cross, Jesus, the perfect Son of God, should have floated down from it with angels tending to him, instead he died a horrible death for sins he never committed.  This idea is what’s called the prosperity gospel and it is dangerous and robs us of our salvation.

The parable tells us everything we need to know.  “A man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and did not find any. 7 “And he said to the vineyard-keeper, ‘Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?’ 8 “And he answered and said to him, ‘Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer; 9 and if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down.’”

The fig tree is a symbol of Israel and symbolized the religious leaders of Jesus’ day who were not producing the fruit of faith.  Now the church father, Augustine, whom Luther was so fond of, said, “The gardener’s manure is the sinners’ sorrows.”  And that they who repent, repent in filthy robes; if, that is, they repent aright and repent in sincerity and truth.

Later in his gospel, Luke records Jesus parable of the Pharisee and the Tax collector.  “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 “The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 ‘I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ 13 “But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ 14 “I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

If the earthquake and subsequent devastation in Haiti or some other place in the world doesn’t make us stop and not just be thankful for what we have, but bring us to repentance, we are far more like the Pharisee.  Like the prayer of the publican, we cry out, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!”  “I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto You all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended You and justly deserved Your temporal and eternal punishment.” Those words shouldn’t come so quickly or blithely off the tongue.  Penny told me a story about a visitor who came to the church sometime before my time.  He said something to the effect of, “I’m not a poor miserable sinner and I won’t be back.”  “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us…” I think that visitor would feel more comfortable at Joel Osteen’s church rather than at Jesus’ Church.

There is no way for us to know whether, how much or why or how God was involved in these earthquakes and natural disasters.  But that does not leave us without an answer at all.  Yes, these people died because they were sinners.  The wages of sin is death.  But they are no less sinners than we are.  Pat Robertson is wrong to condemn the Haitians because of their sins.  Rather he should have taken the tragic opportunity to reflect on his own sins and to encourage his viewers to pray the prayer of the publican rather than the prayer of the Pharisee.  In the words of the great Lutheran Bible scholar, R.C.H. Lenski, “Every calamity that sweeps men away is a divine call to repent and a divine warning to escape perishing forever by repenting in time.” (Luke, p. 725)

We should always remember, too, the second half of that rite of confession, which we are to confess in confidence, “and I pray You of Your boundless mercy and for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of Your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to be gracious and merciful to me, a poor sinful being.”  God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  So, repent.  Remember the gardener is coming to inspect your fruit.  Bear fruit in keeping with your repentance.  And never forget the merciful God to whom you are returning.

From the prophet Isaiah,

“Seek the LORD while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near.

7 Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return to the LORD, and He will have compassion on him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.”

Hear again those beautiful words of mercy from the prophet Ezekiel:

As I live!’ declares the Lord GOD, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live.”  Amen.

Sermon for Lent 2 – Luke 13:31-35

March 2, 2010 Leave a comment

Sermon for Lent 2 – Luke 13:31-35

14 Sermon for Lent 2 MP3 Audio

Note: I was asked to post this sermon at Göttinger Predigten, a sermon depository originally conceived by Professor Ulrich Nembach, who teaches homiletics at the University of Göttingen, Germany.  I was asked by the editors to become a member of the community of authors for this year.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Believe it or not, there is disagreement today across groups of Christians about the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion.  When I grew up, we learned very early in Sunday School that Jesus died on the cross for our sins and the sins of all people.  Today, that’s isn’t always the case in the broader Christian community and even among ourselves, I would guess that we often fail to see the true importance of the cross of our Lord as the center and very source of our ongoing life with God.  A good example of how other Christians see this is that Lutherans seem to get accused of being great Good Friday Christians, but poor Easter Christians and even worse Pentecost Christians.  I think what our critics would have us believe is that the Christian faith is more than just Jesus’ death on the cross; it’s about new life in God and a spirit-filled life with God.   I am the first person to say that yes, the gem of the Gospel has more than one facet, but first and always the faith of orthodox Christians is rooted firmly in the cross, that is the suffering and death of Jesus Christ for sin.  The cross of Jesus is the center and source of our faith.

In the Gospel reading today, these are Jesus’ own words.  Jesus himself says his suffering and death in Jerusalem is the purpose and reason he is sent into this world.  Now some would dispute this claim.  They look to modern scholars and say that all this talk of the importance of Jesus’ cross came from Paul and the later Christian community who put these words in Jesus mouth well after he was gone.  After all, it’s from Paul that we get, “we preach Christ crucified!”  They want to create a division between Jesus and Paul where none exists.  They would have us focus on the more positive aspects of Jesus life and ministry rather than on the dark brooding of the cross which later Christians made up anyway.  Our reading this morning is not just helpful but essential in this debate.  We have here the Words of our Lord speaking clearly and prophetically about his mission and purpose in this world.  “Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course. 33 Nevertheless, I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following, for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.”  It’s the prophecy about the third day that trips them up.  But nevertheless, these are Jesus’ own words.

These words foretelling his death stand at the center of the narrative surrounding his travel to Jerusalem.  Scholars who do these kinds of things note that this passage occurs right in the middle of the so-called “Travel Narrative” of Luke’s Gospel.  All that means is that in what Luke records as the stories surrounding Jesus’ travel out of Galilee, into Judea and then up to Jerusalem, our passage today stands quite squarely in the middle of that section.  This should not surprise us as we know that Luke has set down an “orderly account” of the life and ministry of Jesus.  But it makes Luke out to be a tremendous theologian by putting this section at the very center and Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem at the center of this passage, the center of the center, as it were.  With reference to the third day and noting that as a prophet, he must go to Jerusalem to die, as appointed, there is no doubt what future event Jesus is foretelling.  These words foretelling his death stand at the center of the narrative surrounding his travel to Jerusalem where he will die on the cross.

In the first half of what Jesus says here, he sounds like a prophet describing the ministry of the long promised Messiah.  Casting out demons and healing the sick have been the draw for tremendous crowds to see Jesus.  Jesus seems to be saying that these miracles in themselves testify to the mercy of God being poured out on the people.  But there is a shift in his tone.  “On the third day, I am brought to my goal,” he says.  Just as Jesus has been releasing people from the bondage to sickness and demonic forces he will be brought to the goal when the final release for all people is won, on the third day, his day of resurrection.  The goal is what Jesus was sent by the Father to accomplish in this world.  In the previous chapter he has already spoken of his bloody baptism on the cross as accomplishment.  It could only be clearer if Luke had recorded Jesus’ words at the cross as “It is accomplished.”  He didn’t; John did.  But nevertheless, Jesus’ cross the center and purpose of everything he came into this world to accomplish.

And so for us then here is a lesson.  The center of faith is not carrying out the Great Commission, or feeding the poor, or even treating one another as you yourself would like to be treated.  As important as those things are, the center of faith must be the cross of Jesus our Savior because it is the source of our faith.  It was on the cross that he stretched out his arms and gathered us to himself to protect us, to rescue us, to save us from sin and death and the devil.  It is under the outstretched arms of Jesus our Lord that he pours onto us the water from his side, washing away our sins in his death.  There in his own death we have life.  The wages of our sin have been paid in his bloody body hanging as cursed for sins and transgressions under the Law.  There his blood is poured out for us as a blood covering, a propitiation for sin.  The cross is not just the center of our faith, but the source of our faith.

Too often we stray from this center.  Many of us stray from the shelter of the cross, certainly because there is so much work to do in God’s kingdom.  For those of us who stray off in this direction it is as if the cross shows us the need for sacrifice for others or how hard following Jesus and continuing the work of the kingdom might be.  And the tricky thing is, it is! But we focus here, the true center and source of faith and love begins to fade softly into the background.  Faith then really slowly stops being about what Jesus has done for us and becomes more about us and what we think should happen in his name, he must decrease so that we might increase, to turn the phrase on its head.  There are other directions too.  There are some who simply and flatly reject that Jesus accomplished anything on the cross.  The Pharisees of Jesus’ day would certainly fall into that camp.  Modern day Jews, and Muslims, Unitarians and many people who bear the name Christian reject any sense of Jesus being punished for the sin of the world and make faith out to be something we do, we believe, we drum up as if God is lucky to have us believing in him and so anyone who does this act of believing no matter what the center is, it is God pleasing.  This is clearly not the case.  In Jesus own words, he has longed to gather his people under his wings.  No, the center of our faith is the cross of Jesus.  It is the focus and object of our faith and Jesus intends it to be.

Does that mean that all we are to do is stand huddled under the dripping blood of our Savior?  Well, yes and no.  No, in the sense that there are hungry people to feed and naked people to clothe and sick people to heal and homeless people to shelter.  But we don’t do those things from any sense of altruism or philanthropy, that is, not out of the bigness of our hearts, but precisely because we know how corrupt our hearts really are.  We do it because we ourselves have been fed and clothed and healed and even sheltered at the foot of the cross of our Lord.  And so in this sense, yes, we stand here pulling others in out of the scorching heat, out of the hunger and out of the nakedness of the world and into the Church were we have found our shelter and protection—under the wings of Jesus.  In this way the cross is the center and source of our faith in God and love toward others.

The cross of Jesus is the center and source of our faith.  Jesus stretched out his arms and died gathering us to himself.  He longed to do so.  He gathered us.  In the shelter of his cross, the holy Church, we reach out to others so that they might be washed and fed and clothed with Christ.  Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

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