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Sermon for Pentecost 14

August 30, 2010 Leave a comment

Augustana, 2010

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

Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest and let Thy gifts to us be blessed.  Amen.

Many of us start our meals that way, don’t we?  After reading the Gospel lesson for today, I wonder how serious we are when we pray this.  Do we really want Jesus to come to our dinner table?  It appears like, Jesus was not always the most pleasant of dinner guests.  Another question, “Does your dinner table really resemble the Lord’s table?”

So here’s the setting.  Jesus is invited to a Sabbath meal at a leader of the Pharisees’ house.  When he arrives he notices the social climbing going on and sees that all the guests had chosen for themselves seats, or rather probably couches, near the host, places of honor.  No sooner than Jesus shows up he starts laying into the other guests for what appears at first to be poor etiquette.  And so he tells a parable.

In this parable, Jesus sets up a very interesting parallel between the Sabbath meal, and in reality even our supper tables, and the great banquet, the heavenly supper table of the Lord.  “When you are invited to a wedding feast…” act this way.  “But when you make dinner party…”  these are the folks you should invite.  Now on the first level, Jesus’ instructions are about humility.  One should never presume to be the most important guest at dinner party, lest you be humiliated by having to move to the lowest place.  “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”  And when you have a dinner party, invite the folks are who typically not invited, the poor, the disabled, the lame, and the blind.  Humility and hospitality are great virtues, but Jesus is not Socrates crossed with Emily Post.  Jesus is getting at something more than mere moralism.  We’ll come back to this, because what Jesus is saying is not just a spiritual thing—it should have an impact on our day to day dealings with people.  However, true humility and our true hospitality are not, in fact, cannot, be generated by mere moralism.  We have to get to this place by another way.

“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”  This is first and foremost a description of Jesus’ life and ministry.  He who was exalted, lowered himself, even to death.  This is the heart of the “Great Reversal” theme which is key to Luke’s Gospel.  What began in the Magnificat continues throughout the Gospel.  The greatest is now the lowest.  Jesus even says at the Last Supper, the greatest is not the one who sits at the table “but the one who serves.”  Jesus’ the Messiah of God, the anointed one, the holy one, suffers and dies a bloody death.  And then it reverses again.  The one who suffered and died is lifted up, resurrected and has ascended back to the right hand of the Father, THE place of highest honor.  Jesus is talking about something far grander than who we should be inviting to supper and how we should behave at a dinner party.  He himself gives the reason, “for it will be repaid to you in the resurrection of the righteous.”

“Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest.”  Jesus is making the connection between the supper table he is reclining at and the great end times banquet and he’s doing it by way of the great reversal.  Who would do we normally invite to dinner?  We usually invite our friends or people we would like to get to know better.  Maybe, we even invite people if we would like them to know us a little better.  Lunch is much more informal.  We have dinner with people we like or would like to like.  But what is Jesus command here?  Invite the sick, the lame and the poor.  Invite the people you can get nothing from; invite those from whom you get no benefit by dining with them.  Invite those from whom you can expect no payback or even social points.  “Look who he hangs out with?”  Why?  “For it will be repaid to you in the resurrection of the righteous.”  You’ll get your payback at the great feast to come.  Jesus is making the connection between the supper table he is reclining at and the great end-times banquet and he’s doing it by way of the great reversal.

Very probably, there were many prominent people at this leader of the Pharisees’ house.  I believe I used the technical term last week, big shots.  It’s interesting to me to imagine Jesus at this kind of intimate get-together.  Jesus is well-known, but, by no means, a big shot.  Jesus is known for eating with tax collectors and sinners, not the big shots.  And so here is already a picture of the reversal Jesus comes to bring.  The ruling-class Pharisees think they are righteous by excluding the blind and the lame and the tax collectors, but in reality they are sinning against God and denying his grace.  Jesus doesn’t welcome the big shots to the table but rather he welcomes those down on their luck, the sick and the oppressed.  Meeting Jesus at his table is where he teaches about the new kingdom he comes to bring and eating with him is an expression of this new era of God’s kingdom come.  Jesus invites to His table those who repent of their Pharisee-like behavior and look to Jesus alone for righteousness before God.  The kingdom of God does not belong to the Pharisees of Jesus’ day who rejected his message of the kingdom any more than it belongs to the Pharisees of today, whether they call themselves Christian or even Lutheran.  If we expect to participate in the kingdom, in the great reversal, there is no room for any arrogance or any notion that we have even any right to a place at the Lord’s table.  We must always search our hearts for the last shred of self-righteousness and confess it before God, that we might come to His table lowly and come away lifted up.

The Lord has called us who were once shunned from the presence of God to his house as his privileged dinner guests.  He welcomes us, on account of Christ who was shunned in our place and give us the honor reserved for Christ alone.  On the last day, we will have seats of highest honor at the great banquet of our God and Lord.  Today, we have a place at the foretaste of the feast to come through the same Jesus Christ our Lord.  There is a connection between the supper table and the Lord’s Table.  There is a cosmic connection between our Lord’s heavenly banquet table and Jesus’ table here today.  This connection extends even to our own supper tables where the mercy, and grace of our Lord is to be shared with those who eat there, our family, friends and even those in need.  As redeemed children of God, we can’t afford to lose this connection.  We should think of the supper we receive every day as from the Lord.  And now, thankfully, after the hard work of many pastors and theologians, in many churches today it is now as ridiculous to have a Lord’s Day without the Lord’s Supper as it is to have a day without a supper.  The heavenly banquet table, the Lord’s Table, your table, they are connected.  The peace and grace we receive from heaven itself today at this table we share at our own tables at home.  This is the way we connect to true humility and true hospitality, not through our own efforts at trying to be more humble or hospitable, but through Jesus Christ and his humility and his ultimate hospitality.

This works itself out in a number of other ways, too.  I notice that many of you, week after week, sit in the same pews for worship.  Thankfully not here, but there are congregations where families have bought their pews.  This is made known to all by the plaque on the end of the pew.  You, or your parents, did not buy your seat in the Lord’s house; Jesus did by His precious blood shed for you on the cross.  Remember that always.  Because one day, the Holy Spirit who calls and gathers us together just might call and gather into your seat someone else one Sunday.  Even if that person looks a little rough, praise the Lord when that happens for that means the Lord has counted another person worthy as He once did for you.  The kingdom of God has just been extended and there is now someone else to gather together with to receive the gifts of our gracious God.  Amen.

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

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Wordle for Leviticus

August 23, 2010 Leave a comment

This is a Wordle, I guess that’s a combo word for word doodle.  There is an engine than takes your text, in this case I dumped in the entire text of Leviticus, and based on word frequency makes a piece of art.  I’m fascinated by these things when they show word frequencies of whole books of the Bible.

Anyone who has ever read Leviticus might not be surprise by this one, the Lord is the most frequent followed by offering.  I’m surprised law and even sin are so small.

By the way, you can make your own wordle from any text you want at http://www.wordle.net.

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Sermon for Pentecost 13

August 23, 2010 Leave a comment

Luke 13:22-30

Augustana, 2010

Click here for MP3 Audio

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

The text for the sermon today is from the Gospel lesson for today, Luke chapter 13.

Jesus is on His way to Jerusalem.  He has been on his way to Jerusalem since the end of chapter 9 when Luke tells us that Jesus had set His face toward Jerusalem.  On his way, he teaches.  We’ve already seen a couple of instances where someone in the crowd will pipe up and ask a question of Jesus.  This is what’s going on here.  Someone says to Jesus, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?”  This is an interesting question is it not?  Have you ever heard others ask it?  Of course you have.

People have been asking this question for thousands of years.  In Jesus’ day, this question was debated among the rabbis.  Many wondered whether all those who called themselves children of Abraham were really among the people of God.   The thought was that there were a whole bunch of folks who talk and look like God’s people, but in reality, there were very few who were truly God’s people.

We have the same question today don’t we?  “Pastor, what about those Baptists or those Roman Catholics?  Will they be saved?  Or what about those Mormons or those Jehovah’s Witnesses?  These are obviously two different categories.  There are those Christians who do not agree with us in every point of doctrine but still confess what is essential to faith, that is that Jesus is the Narrow Door, the only way to salvation.  And then there are other groups who have such a corrupted understanding of Christ, they are not Christian.

A quick story.  We’ve had a Jehovah’s Witness fellow stopping by the house for about 6 months now and he had always talked to Kim.  But two Saturdays ago I was home.  I met him at the door.  Now Kim had told me this guy said he had once been Lutheran and left.  I asked him if that was true that was true.  He said, “Yes.”  And then I turned into prophet mode.  I told him that he had better turn and repent from the false teaching he had come to believe about Jesus before it was too late.  I said, “Friend, don’t believe these lies.  They have stolen your salvation in Christ.”  He asked me if he could read a Scripture and I told him, “No.”  And what I wished I had said was, “No, not from that book of lies you cannot.  You of all people should be smarter than that.  You should never follow the teachings of anyone who starts out by corrupting the Holy Bible.”  But I wasn’t that quick.

In case you’re not familiar, Jehovah’s Witnesses use a translation of the Scriptures called the New World Translation.  They say that it is a more accurate translation from the Greek.  I can assure you it is not.  About Jesus they say that He was created by God.  If Jesus was created by God, He died for his own sins, not yours.  In short, if this man holds to this teaching, he is attempting to enter through another door, not the narrow one.  But this is the long way around to Jesus’ answer.  Let’s get back to the question.

Someone says to Jesus, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?”  Jesus doesn’t answer the question directly.  He doesn’t say, “Yes,” or, “No.”  Instead, he says, “Strive to enter through the narrow door.”  What does Jesus mean here?  What is the narrow door?  The narrow door is Jesus.  In John’s Gospel, Jesus even refers to himself as the door.  “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved,” (John 10:9).  This stands in perfect agreement with Jesus’ statement in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  So Jesus answer is, “Strive to enter through me.”

The question in our minds might be just what did Jesus mean by the command “strive”?  We believe teach that we cannot even believe in Jesus or come to Him except that the Holy Spirit has enlightened us to believe and that He has called us and gathered us into the place where that faith is lived out, the Church.  This is not our striving.  No, our striving comes after we have been called to faith.  It is the striving we must do to keep the true faith and the true doctrine about Christ in the midst of so many enemies who would try to steal it away from us.  And it has another dimension and it’s personal.  You see, Jesus won’t let this question remain a theoretical theological question from the crowd.  Jesus doesn’t let a questioner examine others without examining himself.  It’s not about how those other folks get saved, it’s about you.  How will you be saved?  “Strive to enter through the narrow door.”  The struggle then is the repentance, the humbling of yourself to ask yourself the question.  How will I be saved?  And we ask ourselves this question in the midst of a war between our pride and the clear Word of God.  It is the personal struggle that comes from realizing that everything Jesus says is true, about you.  And we confess, “I, a poor, miserable sinner.”  I struggle against that because, hey, I’m a pretty good guy, at heart.  The struggle only ends as one puts the old Adam to death and the person of faith is raised to new life.  Paul shows us the depth of this struggle in Romans chapter 7.

For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.

21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.  (Rom. 7:15-25)

This is the struggle.  It is a struggle against this body of death.  The answer is Jesus.  All other doors are false hopes.  Entrance through the narrow door is gained by all who repent and see only in Jesus the true escape from sin, death and hell.

Jesus follows up his instruction with a description of the kingdom of God that catches many people by surprise.  The picture is of a banquet.  The kingdom of God is often pictured by Jesus as a great banquet.  Who normally gets invited to big gala banquets?  Anyone here ever been invited to the White House for dinner?  How about the governor’s mansion?  No, it’s the movers and the shakers, the “in” crowd who get invited to those things.  This is the heart of the matter of the guy in crowd’s question.  Who’s invited to the banquet?  In Jesus’ day, and I think its true today, most church people assume they’re invited.  Are you?  Jesus throws a wrench in the works here.  He says, at some point, He will stand up and shut the door and no one else will be allowed in.  Jesus explores this.  There will be some outside who call to him, “Lord, open to us.”  And he will say, “I do not know where you come from.”  What kind of folks are these?  They are folks who know Jesus, folks who’ve eaten with him; they are folks who thought they had an automatic invite.  But they’re shut out.  This looks mean doesn’t it?  It’s not.  The only entrance to God’s eternal banquet is through Jesus.  That’s not mean; it’s specific and that’s different.

This fellow in the crowd, the crowd, the Jews who heard Jesus answer all have their warning.  There is no other way in.  All the unbelievers, those who worship false gods, even the Jehovah’s Witnesses, they all have their warning here, right here.  You and me, we have our warning for Jesus’ word is truth.  Dr. Luther said in a sermon once, “For even though you know that He is God’s Son, that He died and rose again, and that He sits at the right hand of the Father, you have not yet learned to know Christ aright, and this knowledge still does not help you. You must also know and believe that He did all this for your sake, in order to help you.” [1]

For the Jews of Jesus’ day, Jesus’ answer must have angered them.  There will not be a few who will be saved.  On account of Christ, people will come from east and west and north and south and recline at table in the kingdom of God and they will all have struggled to enter through the Narrow Door, Jesus Christ alone.  You will be among them because Jesus did it all for your sake.  Jesus is not being a bad host when he shuts the door but is rather ushering in the kingdom of God in all its wonderful finality for those who believe.  It’s already begun; God’s ultimate hospitality was shown when Jesus was rejected on the cross in order to open the eschatological banquet door to all.  He was shut out so that we might be let in.  He did it all for your sake.

Today, Your gate is open,

And all who enter in

Shall find a father’s welcome

And pardon from their sin

The past shall be forgotten,

A present Joy be giv’n,

A future grace be promised,

A glorious crown in heaven.  (LSB, 915:2)  Amen.

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


Luther, M. (1999). Vol. 30: Luther’s works, vol. 30 : The Catholic Epistles (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works (1 Pe 1:12). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

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Sermon for Aug 15 – Festival for St. Mary Mother of Our Lord

August 17, 2010 Leave a comment

Sermon for the Festival of St. Mary, the Mother of our Lord

Augustana, 2010

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

The text for the sermon is the Gospel for today.

In the Lutheran Church, and not just the Missouri Synod, but I’m talking about the broader Lutheran Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the church that Luther belonged to, the church that Walther belonged to before he came to America, and the church that even other Lutherans belong to though not of our synod because of doctrinal differences.  In the Lutheran Church, we honor those who have gone before us in the faith.  We had that reading from Hebrews last week commending the faith of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Sarah.  We honor them; we give thanks to God for them.  We do not worship them or pray to them, or even ask them to pray for us.  Instead, today is an occasion to give thanks to God for the glorious revelation that occurred today in a little house up in the Judean hill country.  There in that little house of Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, the Holy Spirit filled His servant Elizabeth and she prophesied.  She announced the truth that Mary is the mother of her Lord and God.  Her unborn son, John, leaps in her womb at the sound of the voice of the mother of God.  And Mary sings her beautiful song of praise, the Magnificat, and shows that she knows the depths of her understanding of these profound truths.  Today we give God thanks for his servant Mary, the mother of our Lord.

Mary and Elizabeth provide us with examples of great humility.  Mary is the one highly favored by God.  In terms of rank, Elizabeth should be serving her and yet, Mary obeys God’s teaching to respect her elders and although highly exalted, lowers herself to travel a great distance to serve her cousin.  Elizabeth too, shows great humility.  Though she is older, she humbles herself before the young girl saying, “And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”  Humility is not one of those godly virtues we try to outdo one another with today, is it?  Look at the culture of celebrity we have fostered.  People are famous in America just because they’re famous.  I’m talking about people like Paris Hilton and those like her.  She’s not even and movie star or a TV star.  And this has crept into how we think about ourselves.  We have to be the best or the brightest or the fastest or the strongest.  We have to have the newest thing or the most expensive model.  All of us feed that inner Paris Hilton when the get something special, be it beauty, skill, money, or a new truck or whatever.  And yet, all of it, even the greatest earthly wealth and the greatest earthly honors are worth no more than dust compared to the great grace which Mary has in her womb.  Never before has a human being on earth been so privileged.  Even the angels call her the mother of God.  And yet she does not act like she’s a celebrity.  She does not act like a diva.  Her response is, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”  She remains humble and serves her cousin and serves us as well and bears into the world the Son, who is the Savior of us all.  Mary is a great example of humility.

The greatest thing however, is the Magnificat, the song that Mary sings.  Luther said that by the Magificat Mary “manifests the prowess of a doctor or mast of theology and teaches us how we should [behave] ourselves toward God.” (House Postils, 3:347).  Mary has already shows us how we should behave toward one another and now she shows us how we should behave toward God, with praise and thanksgiving.  Before God shed does not deny who she is, even though she is humble.  She doesn’t show a false humility.  You know what I’m talking about.  A rich guy drives through town in a new car and someone says, “Wow, you must be rich!”  He say, “No, not really.”  And then he starts telling about how poor he really is.  That’s not humility, that false humility which is really pride.  And what’s worse, it reflects back on God poorly.  When God gives a gift, whether its intelligence, beauty, or wealth and someone praises us for it, we ought to say, “thanks be to God, I have this gift.”  Whatever God gives, he is the giver and we ought not deny the gift because when we do we deny the giver.  What lady, when complimented on a new piece of jewelry she’s wearing, doesn’t say, “Thank you, yes, my husband bought it for me.  He’s very good to me.”  Is it not the same with God’s gifts or are we so arrogant as to think that we earn everything we get in this life?  And so it should be with us that when others see that we have something, admit that we have it, but that we do not have it of ourselves because God has given it.

This is what Mary does.  Elizabeth says to her, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43 And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”  And Mary doesn’t say, “Cousin, you are too generous in your compliments.”  She says, ““My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.”

We sing this song in Advent at Evening Prayer.  I learned this song singing it with the other students at chapel on Tuesday evenings.  I learned the version in the Lutheran Worship.  When I was deployed, I would sing it, sometimes quietly to myself, at sunset up on vulture’s row while we were underway of the coast of Pakistan.  It’s a text and tune that’s just stuck in there maybe not quite as deeply as the Lord’s Prayer, or even the “Create In Me” but it’s getting there.  That service, that liturgy and that Word connected me to people that I was separated from by thousands of miles and thousands of years.  It connected me.  I was praising God with them and giving thanks to Him for them.  I can go through the Magnificat and list the wonderful doctrines that Mary expounds.  In fact, I’ve done that, I did back in Advent.  I don’t give thanks to God for St. Mary or sing the Magnificat because I want to be a Roman Catholic.  No, I do these things because I am a part of something larger than myself.  I sing with all the saints of God and we’re not magnifying Mary, we’re magnifying the Lord for what He has already accomplished, for what He has already done and brought me and you in to be a part of, the great song of alleluia praise to God for the salvation He brought to earth through the cross of His own Son, Jesus Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, divinely begotten by God before all worlds and very God of very God, and yet fully man, born of the virgin Mary to be our Savior from sin, death and the devil.  Back on the ship at sunset in the Northern Arabian Sea when I used to sing this song, I would hear in my mind the other voices of those who taught me to sing this song.  And I would think that one day, hopefully one day soon, the Lord would bring me safely home.  And now when I sing this song, I not only hear those other voices, but I can feel the warm breezes and I remember the feel of the steel deck under my feet.  And the hope is still the same, that one day the Lord will be me safely to my heavenly home.

I’m sure you have passages of Scripture and hymns memorized that well too.  They’re different than mine, I’m sure; we sang from different books.  But I’m sure they’re there.  We’re a part of something, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, a confessing movement within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.  Now we sing together from the same book and we magnify the Lord and we give Him thanks for His Son Jesus born of His servant Mary, born for us, born to be our Savior.  Amen.

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

Note: I am greatly indebted to Dr. Martin Luther for the direction and much of the content of this sermon which was inspired directly from his 1532 sermon on the Day of Mary’s Visitation.

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Sermon for Pentecost 11 – 8 August

August 17, 2010 Leave a comment

Sermon for Pentecost 11 – Hebrews 11:1-16

Augustana, 2010

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

The sermon today actually grows out of all three readings for this morning.  As you can see all three readings have as their common theme, faith.  Abram believed the Lord and the Lord counted it to him as righteousness.  The Epistle is the beginning of the great catalog of saints whose faith is supposed to encourage us to “run with steadfast endurance the race for which we are entered” (12:1).  In the Gospel, our Lord Jesus Christ preaches to His hearers to trust in God’s providential care, and then encourages them: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  Even in the Collect of the Day which we have already prayed we have asked almighty God that He would “grant that we may walk by faith, and not by sight.”  The result of all this faith is that our real treasure is in heaven and not on earth.

I was at the hospital this week to see someone there and a staff member, one of the cleaning crew (a very important job in hospitals) stopped me.  She needed to ask me a question; it was something about the sermon her pastor had preached the previous week.  Her concern was over this phrase.  “God won’t give you any more than you can handle.”  Her preacher got her attention when he said that this was one of the devils lies.  She said she thought it was in the Bible.  It isn’t.  She confessed to me that she was confused by what her preacher had said and confessed that she had often used this phrase to comfort people in the midst of terrible distress.  The phrase that is in the Bible is from 1 Corinthians 10:13, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”  I assured her that her preacher was correct in saying that the phrase was nowhere in the Scriptures and that it was one of those nice things that people say to one other when they’re trying to be nice.  On top of that, the First Corinthians passage points people to the way of escape from all temptation, Jesus; the other doesn’t point to anyone other than oneself.  She wasn’t evil for having said it, her intentions weren’t wicked, but I said, “Think about it.  It’s not even true, is it?  No.”  Think of all the people who have died holding true faith in Christ, they certainly received more than they could handle.  Think of all the faithful brothers and sisters around the world persecuted by governments and other groups simply for being Christian.  They often receive more than they can handle.  They’re killed for the faith.  We call them martyrs and they are truly heroes of our faith.  What usually comes before or after this little well-meant phrase is what?  “You gotta have faith!” the untroubled say to the troubled.  And they think they have somehow helped the person or the situation.  Let me ask you.  Have you ever been in a tough spot where someone has said this or something very like it to you?  How did it make you feel?  I’ll bet that it did not relieve the burden but perhaps even increased it.  That is, if you had more faith, then perhaps, you wouldn’t feel so bad, so undercut, so devastated, so alone.  And so in the midst of our weakness and our pain, our well-meaning brothers and sisters give us God’s Law, more demand and we are not comforted or else we are led to the false comfort of our own self-made variety.  We are not troubled because we have ginned up enough faith.  Goodie for us.  God is lucky to have such a soldier of the cross on his side.

And then there is the true way, God’s way, the way of the Gospel and the way of comfort and assurance in the midst of terror.  We don’t point our troubled brother or sister to themselves and their faith, but to the Lord and His faithfulness, to the cross and His suffering, to the resurrection and His grace to call us unto himself, to the sure promises of the end of all temptation.  We may not feel it right away.  We may not feel it for some time, but He is there.  We know it.  Our Lord Jesus Christ suffered for us to put an end to all suffering.  We was tempted in all things and yet did not sin.  He died for us to put an end to all death.  He brings us into the very misery of the cross by the mystery of His presence with us and we know it.  The cross of our Lord is the escape from all temptation and fear.

See, what’s really going on here is that Lutherans talk about faith differently than many other Christians.  When we talk about faith we are usually talking about THE faith, that is, the objective truth of what I just told you: God in human flesh was born for us, to suffer and die for us and to be raised again so that we would know we will be raised like Him and live in righteousness and purity forever.  That’s THE faith; it’s the content of what we believe.  How do other Christians talk about faith?  Faith is typically something we need to do more of when we’re down; faith is our act of believing.  Let me see if I can do it this way.

Many other Christians will say that we should not be baptizing infants.  Why?  Because, they say, those little babies don’t have faith.  What do they mean by that?  What they mean is that those little babies don’t know enough, don’t understand enough, and can’t consent to God’s working in their little lives.  But that’s not what we usually mean by faith, and it’s not how the Bible usually defines it.  We recite this in our baptismal rite from Mark 10: “And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. 14 But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. 15 Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” (Mk 10:13-15) Jesus commended the faith of the little ones people brought to him.  The Lord commends Abram’s faith.  He accounts him righteous for it.  But Abraham would have never qualified as faithful in any of our churches today.  He didn’t wait to see how God would fulfill his promise.  Abram and Sarai’s act of faith was more of the variety of “God helps them to help themselves” when Sarai offered her servant Hagar as a surrogate to bear Abram’s son.  They sought to fulfill God’s promise their own way.  No, that’s the kind of thing that will get you kicked out of a church, not heralded as a model of faithfulness.  So faith is something different than so much of what we do and how we typically talk.  Our Lord says, faith is something Abram had.  Faith is something little infants are capable of, so says our Lord.

Brothers and sisters, it would be far more helpful if we defined faith not as an act of conscious belief but rather as expectation, something like innate trust.  Faith is expecting the Word of God to come true, trusting that the world is what our Lord says it is, trusting that He has done all things well, trusting that he was born in this world, trusting that he suffered, died and rose and ascended, and certainly expecting that he will come again.  Faith is trusting that God made us and all our parts and that He will continue to daily and richly provide for all our needs of body and soul just as He has.  Faith is trusting that Jesus has bought us by His own precious blood shed at the cross and trusting that the Holy Spirit has called us and gathered us here, and continues to enlighten by the Gospel.  As my colleague in ministry, Larry Peters says, “Over and over again we must remind folks that faith is trust and not the general Protestant definition of knowledge, understanding, and consent.  Over and over again when we speak of God’s Word, we must distinguish a Word who is a living voice from one that spoke once a set of propositions to be believed or behavioral rules to be followed.”

And so Biblical faith is something infants certainly have because they don’t know enough to doubt it.  God puts faith there by His Word and we should not doubt it for where the Holy Spirit is there is the work of the Holy Spirit and not just faith, but love, and joy and peace and rest of the fruits of the spirit.  When an infant cries, he trusts the ones who hear that cry will tend to the immediate need.  Food, clean pants, and relative comfort, those are the true needs in life.  We like to think that we outgrow those needs and that we are so superior to our infantile needs but we don’t.  Jesus even clearly commends this kind of faith to us.  If we think we’re righteous before God because we are cleverer than the next guy or more faithful we’re only deceiving ourselves.  God counts us righteous solely on account of Jesus Christ’s death in our place as payment of the penalty for our sins and His perfect life obedience in our place under the Law.  We are only what we have been given by Christ.

And so it was that when I spoke to this well-meaning, thoughtful Christian in the hospital this week, she had little or no idea what I was saying.  I was speaking a foreign language to her.  I might as well have been speaking in the tongues of angels until I said this: “Never point people back to themselves.  They can never be faithful enough.  Point them, instead, to Jesus.  Point them to Jesus on cross in their place.  Point them to the one who was faithful enough for all of us, faithful enough for all people.  Point them to God’s own sacrifice for sins, and point them to the resurrection of Jesus and the beginning of the end of death forever.  Always point people to Jesus.”  And I then thought I saw a flicker of understanding, a fruit of faith, but faith itself she already had through the preaching of her pastor.  God, grant it that we may walk by faith, and not by sight, in the way that leads to eternal life.  Amen.

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

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Sermon for Pentecost 10 – Luke 12:13-21

August 2, 2010 Leave a comment

Augustana, 2010

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

The text for the sermon today is from the Gospel for today.

The crowds are following Jesus and listening to him as he teaches.  Someone from the crowd asks Jesus to interpret and apply the Torah to his specific situation.  This was not an uncommon practice in Jesus’ day.  It was common for Jewish people to ask rabbis for advice with regard to a particular situation.  This happens to me all the time.  But this is a little different. This is a property dispute and notice Jesus’ reaction.  He refuses to get into the middle of this kind of question.  Jesus came into this world to free all people of their covetousness, not enable it, or let himself be used in the justification of it and so, instead of granting the man’s request, Jesus takes this as an opportunity for what teachers call “a teachable moment.”  And he tells a little parable after framing it with a little more clear teaching.

Our text reads,            “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”  There is actually a little more edge to this in the Greek.  More literally, it could be read, “Be watchful, and guard against every kind of greed.”  I like this more literal rendering for the fact that it sounds a little more like what it is we really should be doing.  Be on guard.  Greed is the kind of enemy that will attack when you least expect it.  There’s nothing wrong with the word covetousness.  It’s just not a word we use very much today.  I’m not sure if we have even as much a working definition for it as we do for things we’ve just recently learned about like “static kills” of oil wells.  On the other hand, greed is…  Well, we know what greed is.  It’s one of the seven deadly sins.  And even though Lutherans don’t really work off Pope Gregory the Great’s list we know that greed is the beginning of stealing.  It’s the intense desire to take something that belongs to somebody else.  It’s the beginning of the sin.  That’s why there’s two commandments against it, 9 and 10, and that’s why Jesus says here to be on watch and guard against it.

The second short teaching from Jesus is very simply, “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”  In other words, possessions are not the source of true life or even wealth not in relation to God.  The person who gives himself over to a life of greed, a life of accumulating possessions is a person who is trying to measure the meaning of life by what he has.  “He who dies with the most toys, wins,” so goes the bumper sticker.  Sadly, a person living life this way can never understand who they are in relation to the One who put them on this planet to begin with, oh, and by the way, gave them a purpose too.  Jesus is right.  Not even when a person has an overabundance of possessions is his meaning for being and purpose derived from those possessions.  He just happens to be one of those people God has blessed and has blessed abundantly.  Or more simply, “He who dies with the most toys, still dies.”

Jesus expands this general principle by telling a story about a man who had a lot of worldly wealth.  For us, the proper understanding of this parable centers around the meaning of gift.  “The land of a rich man produced plentifully.”  Even to what he has more is added as a gift: his land is fruitful.  All his possessions are pure gift and even his very life is a gift bestowed.  These all come to him apart from his own efforts.  It was the land that produced plentifully.  Any hobby gardener can testify to this, much less a farmer.  There are good years and lean years.  This was a good year and so this is the question that confronts him.  What should he do with the gift of abundance from the land that has produced so plentifully?  Will he share with the neighbor as God would have him do or will he greedily hoard the gift?

The center of the parable is the decision from this wealthy man.  He has a little speech where he asks himself what, or what will he do?  Instead of sharing with his neighbor he will “tear down” his old barns and “built up” new ones, bigger ones, to hold the increase.  This language of tearing down and building up comes straight out of the prophets.  It is language that God uses to describe what he will do with Israel, what He eventually accomplishes through His Son on the cross.  It is profoundly theological language that describes the courageous acts of faithfulness on the part of a God who will suffer to accomplish them for the sake of his people.  And here this noble OT language is shamefully cheapened by this overindulgent rich man who is determined that he, and he alone, will consume these good gifts from God.  Even without the end of the parable this should be a lesson to us that we cannot ever allow ourselves to being to think that Social Security is our true security, that an individual retirement account will ever give us true independence, that our 401k is our salvation.  Worldly wealth does not secure life much less eternal life.

“And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’”   This poor man actually congratulates himself on the wisdom of his plan.  “So, I says to myself, ‘Self,’ I says, ‘that’s a good idea, take it easy, retire.’”  In addition to the tragedy of his decision, another great sadness is that he is so completely alone in his decision.  This is something that I think might be lost on us today in the me, myself, and I generation of today.  It’s not called a wePod, is it?  It is a sad and wicked thing  that his greedy heart has sentenced him to celebrate his newfound wealth alone.

But before he can seemingly enjoy one grain of that newfound, self-pronounced security, the Giver of every good and perfect gift speaks to him.  Uninvited.  Greed leads only to death.  “‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’”  This rich man was rich but still a fool.  It never dawned on him that God had provided the surplus from his land.  He is further surprised to find out that even his life was a gift from God that may be demanded back when God so wills it.  This was a man who was so concerned about gaining the whole world that he did, in fact, loose his life.  This is the reason why he’s a fool, because the possessions that possessed him in life are now meaningless when that life is demanded back by God.  “Whose will they be?” God asks.  Solomon is quoted in Ecclesiastes 2 as having said, “I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, 19 and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. 20 So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, 21 because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil.”  The wisdom of Solomon and the wisdom of the one who is wiser than Solomon, considered together suggest that the remedy for worry and anxiety over wealth is to give away one’s surplus.  Those given an abundance of God’s gifts in this world may fear and love God, enjoy his gifts in community and freely give what God has freely given.  This kind of freedom eliminates the worry over what one’s heirs will do with such a large inheritance that might cause nasty disputes after one is gone as well as curb healthy ambition in this life.

“So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”  The godly response to wealth is faithful thankfulness to God and the free giving of those possessions in response to that faith, which means sharing them with others rather than accumulating them for oneself.  To be rich toward God is to believe that God is the giver of all things, including life.  To show that one believes is to share with others the gifts God gives.  This is the consistent teaching of Jesus in his many words about possessions and wealth.  Underlying all of Jesus teaching about worldly possessions is the Gospel of grace.  The worldly things we have, we have by the gift of God.  It is a perfect mirror to the same spiritual gifts that come from the same gracious Giver of all things.  The Gospel of grace is that forgiveness of sins, salvation, and eternal life are yours again, as God’s gift to you.  Now is the time to freely give of all those gifts we have been freely given.  After all, we are nothing but given to.  Amen.

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

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Sermon for Pentecost 9 – Luke 11:1-13

August 2, 2010 Leave a comment

Augustana, 2010

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 for today, Luke’s account of Jesus teaching the disciples to pray and what prayer means.

Jesus teaches that Christian prayers are unfailingly heard because God our Father has promised to hear us, and he always keeps his promises.  Prayer depends on God not on us, not on our proper formula, not on our right words, not on our right attitude or the proper inclination of our heart, not because of anything we have done.  Prayer depends on God, our Father.

Jesus’ disciples ask an important question of Jesus.  They want to know how to pray.  They want to be men of prayer like Jesus.  They want to be the kind of men that run to the Lord and bend his ear at every need.  They don’t to be like the people who think why should I pray?  “I work hard.  I get what I deserve, what I’ve worked for.  Prayer is for the weak and the needy.”  They don’t want to be like the people who wonder whether God even hears their prayer and so they do not pray.  They don’t want to be like the folks who think that others pray and that’s enough and so they don’t have to pray.  You don’t know anyone like these folks do you?  No, the disciples knew God’s command and knew their duty to pray and they wanted to be men of prayer.

What is prayer?  Some Christians, I’m told have a private prayer language.  This was encouraged by some even in Missouri Synod congregations during the height of the charismatic movement.  This kind of babbling distracts from the kind of prayer Jesus directed his disciples to pray.  I won’t go so far as to say they aren’t prayers, but they certainly seemed to suggest that that kind of prayer was more effective that plain old prayer.  “Our Father who art in heaven…”  “Come Lord, Jesus, be our guest…”  God teaches us in the Second Commandment that prayer is simply calling upon God in every need. He requires this of us and has not left it to our choice. Christians cal upon God, it’s our duty.  When we call upon God’s name and pray, His name is honored and used well. God has given us his name to call upon him personally.  And too often his name falls from our lips as a curse, or worse.  And so it matters if we don’t pray.

We can never act as though it doesn’t matter if we don’t pray, or as if prayer was commanded only for pastors or nice religious ladies or any of those we think are holier and in better favor with God than we are.  Really what we’re talking about is our nature.  Our heart which is such that it is not inclined toward God but rather always runs away from God and, if we let it, our sinful heart imagines that God our Father does not wish or desire our prayer.  Yes, we are all sinners, this is true.  But God does not hear any prayers because the one praying them is worthy to whisper into his ear but rather because he has promised to hear them.  He draws us to Himself [John 6:44], so that we might humble ourselves before Him [1 Peter 5:6], cry our about this situation we find ourselves in, and pray for grace and help [Psalm 69:13]. Therefore, we read in the Scriptures that He is also angry with those who were punished for their sin, because they did not return to Him and by their prayers turn away His wrath and seek His grace [Isaiah 55:7]›.  How about that?  Truly our God is a God of great and undeserved grace and mercy.  It matters that we pray to God.

Luther says in his Large Catechism:

16 You should say, “My prayer is as precious, holy, and pleasing to God as that of St. Paul or of the most holy saints. This is the reason: I will gladly grant that Paul is personally more holy, but that’s not because of the commandment. God does not consider prayer because of the person, but because of His Word and obedience to it. For I rest my prayer on the same commandment on which all the saints rest their prayer. Furthermore, I pray for the same thing that they all pray for and always have prayed. Besides, I have just as great a need of what I pray for as those great saints; no, even a greater one than they.”…We must know that God will not have our prayer treated as a joke. But He will be angry and punish all who do not pray, just as surely as He punishes all other disobedience. Furthermore, He will not allow our prayers to be in vain or lost. For if He did not intend to answer your prayer, He would not ask you to pray and add such a severe commandment to it.

The example that Jesus gives in Luke’s Gospel this morning is the kind of attitude God has toward us when we pray.  He has not only commanded that we wake him up and ask for bread in the middle of the night, but He wants to make sure that we know he is the kind of God who delights in such requests.  God has added a promise to his command to pray and declared that it shall surely be done for us as we pray. He says in Psalm 50:15, “Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you.” Our Lord says here, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek and you will find, knock and to the one who knocks it will be opened.”  These are promises concerning prayer.  Such promises certainly ought to encourage us and put a fire in our hearts to come before our Father in heaven and lay it all out there with pleasure and delight and confidence.  God testifies with His own Word that our prayer is heartily pleasing to Him and that it will be granted.  We pray not because of our own ability or personal holiness but because of God’s command and promise which cannot fail us and cannot deceive us.

We pray and we pray especially the Lord’s Prayer because our Lord’s gave it to us to pray.  We repeat back to him what he has said to us, repeating what is surest and truest, the very Word of God.  So the Lord’s Prayer is not some cultural symbol of identity it’s the very Word of God.  Think about it.  When do we pray it?  We pray it at a Holy Baptism with hands on the person’s head just before baptism.  The ancient tradition was that catechumens were not given the Lord’s Prayer until they were baptized on Holy Saturday night, during the baptisms on the Vigil of Easter.  Pastors are ordained into the Lord’s office of preaching and teaching by the laying on of hands and praying the Lord’s Prayer.  We pray the Lord’s Prayer just before the consecration of the elements at the Lord’s Supper.  We pray the Lord’s Prayer on couples at weddings and next to the casket and once again at the graveside during the rites of burial for our brothers and sisters in Christ.  If we were to follow Luther’s instructions in the Small Catechism we would pray the Lord’s prayer upon waking up and before going to bed, before every meal and certainly at other times.  It is certainly one of the first things children learn and I can tell you from the experience of many an elderly person suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s, they often remember the Lord’s Prayer even when they have forgotten everything else, even their own name.  The Lord’s Prayer encompasses the entirety of the Christian faith, the entirety of the relationship we have with God that allows us to approach Him and ask his favor.  The Lord’s Prayer is not a formula, it’s a gift from God.  We pray it because our Lord gave it to us to pray.

I’ve been trying to emphasize in the Bible Class on Leviticus that all these very precise levitical instructions are not there because our God is so persnickety, but because he wants his people to know how to do the sacrifices and where to do them and when so that they know they are doing it according to God’s instruction and therefore are confident of the blessing that comes from them.  Yes, the OT Law was Law, however, God intended Israel to be blessed through it.  In the same way He gives us the very words our lips should pray.  The psalmist prays, “O Lord, open my lips, that my mouth will declare your praise.”  That is in effect what the Lord’s Prayer is.  Doctor Luther also took great comfort in the Lord’s Prayer.  He said, “This ‹the Lord’s Prayer› is a great advantage indeed over all other prayers that we might compose ourselves. For in our own prayers the conscience would ever be in doubt and say, “I have prayed, but who knows if it pleases Him or whether I have hit upon the right proportions and form?” Therefore, there is no nobler prayer to be found upon earth than the Lord’s Prayer. We pray it daily [Matthew 6:11], because it has this excellent testimony, that God loves to hear it. We ought not to surrender this for all the riches of the world.

Think about the many ways others have turned prayer into something other than what our Lord intended it to be.  They turn prayer into a stepladder to God or to personal holiness.  And so when we don’t feel particularly holy after we’ve prayed, we think, “Aagh, what’s the use?”  And then we realize those kinds of prayers and methods of prayer are not prayed from obedience to God and faith in His promise. They are not prayers of need but prayers of how we can help God, if he should be so lucky.  Prayers like this are unwilling to take anything from God, but wish only to give Him something.

True prayer comes not from a full heart but from the emptiness of our need.  We need to be able to see where God can be God and fulfill our lack.  That’s why we need to learn to pray by praying the Lord’s Prayer, because it serves as a reminder of all our needs.  We all have enough things that we lack. The great problem is that we often do not feel or recognize this. God requires that you weep and ask for such needs and wants, not because He does not know about them [Matthew 6:8], the Lord knows your every need.  But he asks us to learn to pray so that we learn our needs so that we turn to him in every weakness and trouble and receive his ever greater gifts.  As the psalmist says, “O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted; you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed, so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.”  (Ps. 10:17)

All of us then, should form the daily habit of praying for all our needs.  We should pray whenever we notice anything affecting us or that of other people around us.  We should pray for preachers, the government, neighbors, and always (as we have said) to hold up to God His commandment and promise, knowing that He will not have them disregarded.  This is a different way to pray than I think many people pray.  We need to know that all our shelter and protection rest in God alone. Whenever a godly Christian prays, “Dear Father, let Your will be done” [see Matthew 6:10], God speaks from on high and says, “Yes, dear child, it shall be so, in spite of the devil and all the world.”

This is our encouragement.  This is the reason we pray.  We have a strong God who has promised to hear our prayers.  Amen.

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

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