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Lent 3—Vespers

March 28, 2011 Leave a comment

Note: this sermon is adapted from Revelation for Lent, published by CPH in 2006.

The Letter to Thyatira:  Immorality, Highway to the Grave

23 Sermon for Lent 3 – Vespers mp3 audio

1 Kings 16:29–33; Revelation 2:18–29; Matthew 25:31–46

Theme Verse

You tolerate that woman Jezebel .  .  .  .  I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling.  (Revelation 2:20–21)

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

The text for the sermon this evening is the letter to the Christians in Thyatira from Revelation chapter 2.

Unlike the congregations in Ephesus, Smyrna and Pergamum known for their high culture, Thyatira is more working class.  Christians in Thyatira were a hardworking congregation, not only in church work but also in the market, factory, and workshop!  Thyatira was known throughout the ancient world as a source for wonderful purple fabric that was as fine as any that could be found in the Roman Empire.  The people of Thyatira were solid citizens of the Roman Empire.  The Christians there exhibited a faithful character by taking time away from their work to attend church services, even though it cost them money.

The church had difficulties as it continued to grow.  Instead of leaving the sinful ways of the world behind, some of the Christians brought the world into the church.  That troubled Jesus, so He sent a special letter to them.  It was not a suggestion for improvement.  It was a life-and-death message from the divine Son of God “whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze” (Revelation 2:18).  We can learn from it too.

Throughout the season of Lent, I’ve been working from the premise that these are not just dusty old letters to Christian congregations of the past but that each of these letters speaks to issues we face as a congregation today.  Think about the threats to godliness you face.  We talked about how the cities of Ephesus, Smyrna and Pergamum were assaulted daily by the emperor cult, the extravagances of wealth, the arrogance of those steeped in human philosophy.  But Thyatira was different.  It was a much smaller town of working people—craftspeople and merchants.  There were no temples to Rome or Caesar to contend with in Thyatira, only the usual shrines to Artemis and Apollo.  High culture and religious zeal did not put Thyatira on the map; rather, it was the water in their rivers, which was perfect for dying cloth, and the quality of their products, which are sought-after by the rich.  Swap cloth for furniture and we’re not far away from a letter to the Christians in Hickory.  And although, Thyatira lacked some of the bigger cultural amenities, they had their share of temptations.  The devil doesn’t leave small cities alone.  Perhaps it is even harder to be a faithful Christian here.  Being small means each of you knows everyone else’s business intimately, intensifying the pressure to conform.

In Thyatira it was a matter of their craft guilds.  If you made and sold a product, such as the lovely purple cloth for which Thyatira was famous, you were expected to be a member of the guild.  If you didn’t join, your business suffered.  People didn’t buy from you.  Neighbors didn’t talk to you.  To survive economically, it was almost essential to join a guild.  But joining a guild often placed Christians in some awkward situations.  Membership in a craft guild was more than showing up at the meetings and discussing quality control, new technologies, and better marketing strategies.  Part of the meeting involved a meal in which everyone eats meat sacrificed to Apollo or Artemis.  And several times a year, guild members participated in pagan festivals—festivals that could involve ritual promiscuity.  When Christians said yes to Christ, they also said no to such shameful things.  But joining the guild was the key to prosperity.  If you stayed out, your business might really suffer.

And then there was Lydia, a former member of the community, a Gentile but also a God-fearing woman.  She would not “pay her dues,” so to speak.  As a dealer in purple fabric, she chose to move to Philippi to remain in business.  She became a baptized Christian.  When she heard Paul preach the Good News of Jesus’ suffering and death for her sins and His resurrection from the dead, Lydia received this message by faith.  She was so dedicated to Christ that the first meeting place of the church at Philippi was in her home.  God richly blessed faithful Lydia and she is an example to us all in her faithfulness.

Maybe I’m wrong, but in my learning about the area, I don’t think the unions or Freemasonry ever had the kind of impact in this area that the craft guilds did in Thyatira but things like these “guilds” exist in lot of places.  They can be anywhere.  This may be true, but it is more difficult than ever to be a Christian.  I think about the pressure our high school youth are put under to conform to the world’s values.  And pressure intensifies in college.  If the reports about college campuses are even half true, they have become local franchises of Sodom and Gomorrah.  And I am not naïve enough to think that the hook-up culture doesn’t continue out into adulthood after college.  And what is that culture but a pagan one?   One that says, “You are your own.  Seek your own pleasure.  Do what you want.  Life is short, enjoy it while you can.”  Whenever we compromise to fit in with our pagan neighbors we’re essentially doing what Jesus is warning the Christians in Thyatira against.

It’s so easy to compromise and join the group.  We justify it to ourselves and say, “We really don’t believe in what they’re doing, so what difference does it make if I join in?”  Well, Jesus says it does matter.  He used the example of a “Jezebel” in Thyatira, a compromising woman in the congregation there.  “Jezebel” was not her real name, of course, but she conformed to the type, the original Jezebel, wicked King Ahab’s wife.  She was the Baal-worshiping daughter of the king of Tyre and Sidon.  Her goal in life was to destroy Israel’s faith in the one true God.  Jezebel invited the prophets of Baal to eat at the king’s table.  Jezebel slaughtered hundreds of the Lord’s prophets.  She brought false charges against Naboth so he would be killed and she could seize his vineyard as a gift for her husband.  Because of Jezebel’s evil influence, all the members of the royal family died violent deaths—her husband, Ahab; her sons; and all who might have a claim to Israel’s throne.  When they were all dead, Jezebel tried to seduce the new king of Israel, Jehu.  With painted eyes and a fancy hairdo, she appeared in a tower window of the palace, welcoming Jehu to her bed.  He wasn’t impressed.  Instead, Jehu called to her servants, “If you are on my side, throw her down.” They did.  Her body was left unburied and was eaten by dogs.  (See 2 Kings 9:30–37.)

All the ugliness of Jezebel’s story could become the story of the church at Thyatira if they listen to this woman among them, or even this congregation if we begin compromising the faith, if we believe we can serve Jesus and the false gods of our neighbors as well, if we believe we can enjoy the forgiveness of sins and continue to indulge in promiscuous lifestyles, or whatever other compromise to culture we make.  Let’s make no mistake, we can’t compromise the truth of God’s Word.  The heart of this is idolatry where we have made ourselves the god and made God’s Word second place to our own knowledge.

What’s worse is that some in the church might think that our behavior and our beliefs are private matters.  We might even be tempted to think that no one else will notice or be affected.  But Holy Scripture says: “None of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone” (Romans 14:7).  All we do and say is observed and evaluated by others and impacts their lives.  Ahab’s entire family died because of the evil he allowed into his home through Jezebel.  And Jesus says to all of us, “I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely.” (Revelation 2:22–23)  And we know from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Jesus views the sin of adultery to incorporate every aspect of marital unfaithfulness in thought, word, and deed.  Jesus continues, “unless they repent of her ways.  .  .  .  I will strike her children dead.”

The terrible thing is that Jesus does not mean physical death, He means spiritual death.  He means a journey to the grim doors of hell because the heart is calloused by false doctrine and immoral behavior.  This journey involves a growing darkness of mind and heart, and infection with fear and guilt, which eat away at the soul.  Before you come to hell, it comes to you.  Worse, if we continue on this spiritual journey, others—friends and family who love and trust us—will imitate what we do and bring on themselves the same fate.  Although we think our actions are done in secret, they never are.  The one who has “eyes like blazing fire” always knows (Revelation 2:18).  “I am He who searches hearts and minds,” says the Son of God who is coming in judgment.  “I will repay each of you according to your deeds” (Revelation 2:23).

But be assured that even though Jesus is the all-seeing Judge of heaven and earth, Jesus knows you and loves you, and on account of His shed blood for you, all your sins are washed away, even those of unfaithfulness, of idolatry to self.  Jesus forgives.  God is pleased with you today.  He has accepted you because of the sacrifice of His Son, Jesus Christ.  These gifts of love have been given to you by the Holy Spirit, who strengthens your faith in the hearing of God’s Word, because were the God’s Word is spoken, there the Holy Spirit is working and sustaining faith.  In this way, God keeps you steadfast in the one true faith.  Continue in this faith and dedication.  “Hold on to what you have until I come,” says your Lord (Revelation 2:23).  He will help you.  Your suffering will last only a little while.  Remember this when you feel the temptation to compromise.

Dear Christian friends, you have entrusted Jesus with your eternal life, your ultimate destiny.  You have believed that He died for you and lives again, forgiving all your sins and earning for you a place in heaven.  If you trust Jesus for all this, can’t you trust Him to meet your daily needs, even those needs for friendship and satisfaction in life?   The apostle Paul has written: “He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all—how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32).

It may look as if your needs will not be met without compromising your faith and values.  Many think how can I expect to stay in a relationship with someone without compromising my faith and values?   But that is Jezebel’s lie.  Look where listening to her got Ahab and his family.  Jesus wants nothing but good for you, and as you remain in Him by faith, you will experience His goodness in abundance.  He says: “To him who overcomes and does My will to the end, I will give authority over the nations” (Revelation 2:26).  Why submit to the compromising authority of some Jezebel or any other influence that would rob you of a peaceful conscience and enslave you?  You have the promise of Jesus that you will reign with Him in heaven.  Why “give in” when you can “go up” and spend eternity with Jesus, the bright morning star?

Only Jesus, the Morning Star, will take you safely past all the threatening Jezebels to the Promised Land where He is king and royal purple isn’t what you sell but what you wear.  Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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Maybe a helpful tonic

March 28, 2011 Leave a comment

If anyone thought I went a little far in the last sermon equating the words of the preacher with the Word of God, first of all, I got that form Luther.  And I don’t think he was exaggerating to make a point.  When the preacher preaches in harmony with the doctrine of the apostles, this is the living voice of God among the people.

That means the preachers need to pay attention to the task at hand.  At the of the sermon, he must be able to say, “Thus saith the Lord.”

Today we share the same Bible with the worst of the sects.  The true church is gathered not around Scripture, but around the rightly understood, the purely and correctly interpreted Bible.  It is the task of the church’s confession to express the right understanding of Scripture which the Church has reached.  Thus pastors are helped to proclaim only the pure doctrine, and congregations are protected against the whims of the preacher and the misinterpretation of Scripture.  In this sense the church’s confession is servant of the Word.  — Hermann Sasse, *We Confess:  Jesus Christ* p. 84.

From Weedon’s Blog.

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Sermon for Lent 3

March 28, 2011 Leave a comment

Sermon on John 4:5-26

Augustana, 2010

Note:  I’m deeply indebted to Luther’s thoughts on this text as referenced at the end of this sermon.  Also this sermon was one I submitted to the Goettinger Sermon archive.

22 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 for today from the Gospel.  “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”  This is our text.

The account of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well is one of those beautiful accounts in John through which we come to know Jesus, and through Jesus the very heart of God the Father.  Like so much of John’s Gospel, this story is not in the other Gospels.  I’ve said it before in other venues, and yes, it’s something of an overstatement to make a point, but I would venture to say that in the other Gospels, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we come to know about Jesus.  He can calm the storm and cleanse the leper.  He preaches great sermons and teaches in parables.  He can cast out demons with a word and walk on water.  But in John’s Gospel, Jesus makes water into wine, talks to the Samaritan women at the town well, weeps at Lazarus’ tomb, washes the disciples’ feet, and from His pierced side flows blood at water down the spear of the centurion.  And what do we see first?  We see the true humanity of Jesus, wearied by His travels sitting at Jacob’s well.

In addition to seeing a glimpse of His human weakness, we also get a wonderful look at the heart of our Savior.  Jesus asked this Samaritan woman for a drink of water and engaged her in conversation.  Historically and culturally, there was tremendous animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans.  The Samaritans had decided that the true place to worship was on Mount Gerizim in the north.  The Jews insisted that the worship of the only true God must take place only at the temple on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem.  Parallels to modern or more recent situations are hard to come by.  This is perhaps something closest to black-white race relations in the deep south of the United States in the 1940’s and 1950’s.  In this instance, both groups are Christian but they are separated by skin color as well as socio-cultural baggage of what we call race.  John is sure give us a glimpse of the cross-cultural encounter.  “The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?’ (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.)” (v. 9)  If we extend the reading just a bit we see the reaction from the disciples that Jesus is not just talking to a Samaritan but a woman.  “Just then his disciples came back. They marveled that he was talking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you seek?’ or, ‘Why are you talking with her?’” (v. 27)  But of course that He is talking to the Samaritan woman is not so much nearly as important as what He says to her.

So after Jesus asks for a drink form this Samaritan woman and the woman gets over being startled that this Jewish man has spoken to her, Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”  “If you knew the gift of God,” Jesus says to her.  This word for gift is not the standard word in the NT, there is something more here.  There is an emphasis here on the overabundance of God’s giving.  Doctor Luther paraphrased this verse in this way.

“I would be happier to reverse the order and give you a drink. In fact, this is the reason for My presence here. I am asking for a drink to quench My physical thirst that I might have occasion to give you a drink. If you only realized what a gift is now to be found on earth, you would ask Me for it, and I would give you a drink that would taste better than this water. It is of the utmost importance to recognize this gift and to know Him who gives it. But neither the gift nor the Giver is known.”[1]

Do we know the gift?  Do we know the Giver of the gift?  Or do we instead look for something else in place of the gift because we think the gift is too plain nor not what we thought it would be?  We who claim to be followers of Christ, disciples fail to see the greatness of this gift and thus fail to recognize the Giver.  How few there are who hold this treasure highly and as genuine treasure, as an eternal gem, as the everlasting life Jesus says it is.  “The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”  In Matthew chapter 13 we read of a man who found a pearl in a field and he sold all his possessions in order to buy pearl and field. (Matt. 13:45–46)  So there are some but not many.  The far larger crowd says, “It’s just words.”  They think little bits of metal mined from the earth are real treasure and so they would labor night and day to get what thieves can steal and what rust can destroy.

What a great victory for the kingdom of God it would be if we could gradually train our hearts to believe that the preacher’s words are God’s Word.  As a matter of fact, it is not an angel or a hundred thousand angels but the Divine Majesty Himself that is preaching there.  And yet all we see with our eyes and hear with our ears is the voice of the preacher, or of my brother or father, and I see only a man in front of me.  But I see the picture more clearly I see with the eyes of faith that the voice and words of the preacher are not his own words and doctrine but those of our Lord and God.  I hear Him who declares that He is able to dispense the water of eternal life. If we could believe this, we would have all we need in this life.

People generally think: “If I had an opportunity to hear God speak in person, I would run my feet bloody.”  This is why people make pilgrimages all over the world.  Today people flock to Lourdes in France because they Mary will help them but only if they come there.  If I go to Lourdes and say, “I know of a place in the world where God speaks and anyone can hear God there”; and if people come here or any other place where a humble pastor is baptizing and preaching, and if I assure them:  “This is the place; here God is speaking through the voice of the preacher who brings God’s Word.”  What will they say?  They would say, “I see only a pastor.” I can’t blame them, I would love to have God speak to us in His majesty.  But you have the Word of God in church, in books, in your home; and this is God’s Word as surely as if God Himself were speaking to you.

Our Lord Jesus says to the woman at the well: “You do not know the gift.”  He is speaking to us too.  We recognize neither the Word nor the Person of Christ, but we take offense at His weariness that needs rest and water. When God wants to speak and deal with us, He does not avail Himself of an angel but of parents, of the pastor, or of my neighbor. This so confuses us and blinds us that we fail to recognize God, who is talking with us through the person of the pastor or father.  This prompts Jesus to say, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ then I would not be obliged to run after you and beg for a drink.  You would run after Me and ask Me for the living water.  But since you do not know the gift and do not recognize Him who is speaking with you, you despise Me.”  His treasure for us is forgiveness of sin and redemption from death, devil, and hell.  We can never express the value of this treasure adequately.  We shall always fall short of recognizing it fully and of esteeming it as we really and truly should.

This is spoken to all of us.  One of the professors I learned the most from while at seminary was an older man.  In his preaching at chapel and in the classroom he always expressed the Gospel in this way, as gift for us, gift received.  I saw him walking across campus one day with a couple of volumes of Doctor Luther under his arm and I politely asked him what he was reading.  And I have forgotten what he said but the next part I did not forget.  He said that he was beginning to understand what Luther was talking about.  I had already experienced much of what seminary had to offer.  I had already learned a great deal and the great thing about learning is learning enough to know what you don’t know.  Pastors can sometimes be thought of as know-it-alls.  Most pastors I know are the furthest thing from know-it-alls.  They may know quite a bit but if they know anything, they’re acutely aware of how much they don’t know.  Pastor Mueller was, for me anyway, something like this.  Jesus speaks to all of us, we don’t know the gift, not nearly as much we think we might know it.

We are just 6 years away from the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Lutheran Reformation.  This is an exciting time in Lutheranism around the world.  Our seminaries are educating men to understand the best of Lutheran doctrine and how to preach it to people who do not know the gift.  It is beginning to dawn on us again that God’s speaking to us is an inexpressibly precious gift and that we are honored to be God’s pupils and disciples. This is what is meant by knowing the nature of the gift and the person of Jesus.  Doctor Luther put it this way: “Dear Christian friends, regard it as a real treasure that God speaks into your physical ear. The only thing that detracts from this gift is our deficient knowledge of it. To be sure, I do hear the sermon; however, I am wont to ask: ‘Who is speaking?’ The pastor? By no means! You do not hear the pastor. Of course, the voice is his, but the words he employs are really spoken by my God.  Therefore I must hold the Word of God in high esteem that I may become an apt student of the Word.”  (AE, 22:528)

“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”  Jesus gives you living water today, water welling up to eternal life.  For the one who became a wellspring of eternal life for you did so at the cross for you when His side burst forth with blood and water.  From the side of His very body, Jesus became a fountain of life-giving water for you, a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”  Amen.

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


[1] Luther, M. (1999). Vol. 22: Luther’s works, vol. 22 : Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 1-4 (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works (Jn 4:10). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

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Religious happiness hustlers

March 28, 2011 Leave a comment

What are we about at Augustana? I stumbled across this quote last week that helps to define what I am about as I pastor this flock.

“. . . the churches, and Lutherans in particular, need to find fresh ways to proclaim the sacramental and communal nature of Christian existence. The sad truth is that many, if not most, of our Lutheran people believe that a personal relationship. with Jesus is what really constitutes being a Christian, with Baptism, Eucharist, Confession and Absolution as perhaps helpful addenda. The idea that being a Christian means most essentially sacramental incorporation into the Body of Christ and discipleship in a committed community is, let us admit it, frequently absent from Lutheran piety. [Martin] Marty and others are correct in observing that those Lutherans are making a massive strategic mistake who would downplay or abandon the sacramental and catholic dimensions of Lutheranism in order to compete in the marketplace of consumer religion. Second-rate Lutherans make fourth-rate Baptists. Diluted Lutheranism is a washout when it attempts to peddle superior spiritual highs. The future of Lutheranism does not depend upon a new gimmick but upon a renewal of evangelical catholic practice and preaching. Given the shape of things short of the Kingdom, the Church will always have a mission among those who recognize the need for sacramentally sustained community in a world that is better explained by the Cross than by the death-defying illusions of the religious happiness hustlers.”

It’s an old Richard John Neuhaus quote from the November 1979, Forum Letter.

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Sermon for Lent 2 — Vespers

March 22, 2011 Leave a comment

Note: this sermon is adapted from Revelation for Lent, published by CPH in 2006.

21 Sermon for Lent 2 Vespers mp3 Audio

Idolatry Is the Deadliest Sin

Numbers 22:1–20; Revelation 2:12–17; John 6:26–33

Theme Verse

You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam.  (Revelation 2:14a)

The text for the sermon this evening the reading from the Revelation of St. John, the Letter to the Christians in Pergamum.  This is now the third of the letters we’ve looked at in our Lenten journey together.  I’ve said that these letters to the churches of Asia Minor are surprisingly applicable to the church today and I think this one is no exception.

This letter is the words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword.  Back in chapter one, Jesus appears in all His heavenly glory with a double-edged sword coming out of his mouth.  Jesus has such authority He need only speak and the deed is accomplished and in this case His words are like a sword.  These words are words of judgment because the sword is a symbol of judgment.  I’m sure many of you are already thinking, “…The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.  (Heb 4:12–13).  Jesus’ sword slays the unrepentant who cling to idols but it also comforts and defends His people.

The Christians in Pergamum were surrounded by people who worshiped all kinds of gods.  Religious pluralism is one of the highest virtues of our land.  There is a very famous quote by then President George Bush in an interview with an Al Arabiya Television reporter, “I believe in an Almighty God, and I believe that all the world, whether they be Muslim, Christian, or any other religion, prays to the same God.”[1] He sums up what most people out there and maybe even what many of you might believe.  But the Christians in Pergamum were faithful in their holding to the apostolic doctrines.  In fact, because they refused to acknowledge any other god but the one True God and because they rejected the countless other deities worshiped in their city, their neighbors saw them as a threat. We hear the same things from people today.  They call fundamentalist Christians the equivalent of suicide bombers.  Intolerance, they say is the crime here.  If you believe in the unique truth claims of Christianity, you are considered intolerant, undesirable. How long before you will be labeled enemies of the state?

Ah Pergamum—wealthy, educated, and sophisticated Pergamum. Maybe the Chicago to Rome’s New York City?  Pergamum once had a library of 200,000 volumes before Marc Antony had the books carted off to Egypt.  Parchment, the finest and most long-lasting writing surface, was invented here. On top of the hill on which Pergamum is built are numerous temples dedicated to every god imaginable. There is a colossal altar to Zeus, chief of all the Greek gods, carved from the mountain’s solid rock. There are temples to Athena, Dionysus, and even Asclepius, the god of medicine.  Of course, no truly Roman city would be complete without temples to the newly divine Caesar Augustus and the goddess Rome.  Like Mars Hill in Athens, there is even a monument to “the unknown god,” just in case one might have been left out.

The people of Pergamum are deeply religious but they are deeply offended that the Christians do not join them at their festivals or invite them to theirs. They consider the Christian teaching that only the baptized in Christ have a home in God’s kingdom and a place at His table to be rude.  The Christians separated themselves and did not participate in the immoral rites of the many pagan temples.  This seemed more than just impolite, it seems judgmental and it made their neighbors angry, enraged to the point of murder.  So much for their tolerance.

That is why these words are words of comfort for the Christians in Pergamum.  “I know where you live—where Satan has his throne” (Revelation 2:13). With every god but the true God exalted in Pergamum, it is no wonder that Christian suffering has intensified, as it has in the other cities in Asia Minor.  Poor Brother Antipas was put to death because he refused to recognize all the gods as being equally divine with Jesus. Although his martyrdom terrified the Christians there, they remained faithful.

But then as today, there is a more subtle enemy, one not from outside the congregation but from within.  Some claim you can be faithful to Christ even while adopting the values and way of life practiced by the pagans. Such individuals are among us in the broader Church, and so far, we have tolerated them. “I have a few things against you,” says the Lord Jesus, “you have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality” (Revelation 2:14).

You remember the story of Balaam, don’t you? He was hired by Balak, the king of Moab, to curse the Israelites who were on their way from the desert to the Promised Land. No one had been able to stop them. The Amorites had fallen before them, and Moab was next in line. “I will reward you handsomely and do whatever you say. Come and put a curse on these people for me,” King Balak had pleaded with Balaam, a renowned pagan prophet. (See Numbers 22ff.)

But no matter how hard he tried, Balaam could not curse the Israelites. All he could utter was blessing upon blessing for Israel, so he tried another tactic. Balaam would get the Israelites to make spiritual and moral compromises. If he could coax the Israelite men into the tents of the Moabite women, Israel’s threat would be neutralized. It almost worked. The Bible says, “The [Israelite] men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods” (Numbers 25:1–2). The result was a plague on Israel that didn’t end until the leaders of this apostasy were put to death.

Balaam has been dead for centuries, but his spirit lives on in people such as the Nicolaitans. These Christians claimed Nicolas, one of the first seven elders of the church, as their leader.  They advocated spiritual and moral compromise in the church at Pergamum and in many other congregations in Asia Minor.  “Believe in Jesus,” they said, “but join the party too!  What could be wrong with a meal at the temple of Zeus or Athena if it promotes civic unity?  Why not join in the fun with the ladies down at the temples?  In fact, why not do whatever you please? After all, our God is a God of grace.  He forgives us in advance.”  Sound familiar?

Good Christian friends, turn a deaf ear to these poisonous words. They are nothing more than the lies of Satan. Have you not heard the words of St. Paul, who, like Antipas, died for the faith? “What shall we say, then?” asks Paul. “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:1–4).

Dying to sin and living to righteousness—this is the calling of those baptized into Jesus. Enabled by the Holy Spirit through the Word of Christ. They say no to Balaam and his lies. They say no to the easy, compromising religion of the Nicolaitans. They say yes to the faith of Antipas, who followed Jesus even to the point of death.

Ultimately, this double-edged sword of Jesus is no threat to the faithful Christian, though Christians, like all people, need to repent. The sword has two edges for a reason. One edge is for judgment. It proclaims the wrath of God to all who will not repent of sin and seek His mercy. This is the edge reserved for Balaam and Nicolas and their followers, for those who choose idolatry and immorality and spurn God’s offer of grace and forgiveness in Jesus. It is the sharpened edge of God’s Law that, when violated, earns His retribution. The other edge of the sword of Christ defends the humble sinner who comes to God for mercy. This edge slays every enemy of the soul: sin, death, and the devil. This edge eternally protects all who hide behind it. It is the comforting edge of the Gospel, which never cuts but always heals and saves. May you find yourself behind the Gospel edge. “Repent therefore!” Jesus pleads with you. “Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of My mouth” (Revelation 2:16). There’s one sword and two edges: One to fight for you, and one to fight against you. Which will it be?

Jesus has confidence that you will choose the Gospel edge. Why? Because you are standing firm in faith. “Yet you remain true to My name,” says your Lord. “You did not renounce your faith in Me, even in the days of Antipas, My faithful witness, who was put to death in your city” (Revelation 2:13). Well done! Continue to stand firm! As you do, there’s a promise to you from the Holy Spirit: “To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna” (Revelation 2:17). This manna is God’s gift to all for whom Jesus has died and who have been baptized in Him. In the desert, God’s people were fed and sustained by a food that miraculously appeared each day. For all the years of their wanderings, manna was always available. But once in the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey, manna was no longer needed, and it disappeared.

So it is for you who live in a hostile city surrounded by the enemies of Jesus. Heavenly food graces your table each time you celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Jesus is present, miraculously strengthening you, sustaining you, and defending you. But one day the Holy Meal of His body and blood will no longer be necessary because you will see your Lord face-to-face and join Him at the eternal feast in heaven.

How can you be sure of this future reality? Because of the white stone of innocence. “To him who overcomes,” says Jesus, “I will also give . . . a white stone with a new name written on it” (Revelation 2:17). All the acquitted, all those who are declared not guilty, possess this white stone. The divine Judge has heard the charges against you. He has seen the wounded body of Jesus, His arms outstretched, pleading for you. He has seen the garments of Christ’s righteousness covering you in Baptism. The decision has been reached. Almighty God has taken out the two stones—the black one for guilt and the white one for innocence. By His grace in Christ Jesus, the white stone of acquittal has been given to you. On it is inscribed your new name, a name that declares you to be a child of God, a forgiven sinner, one who is righteous by faith.

These are the words of Him who has the sharp two-edged sword.  They are living and active, they discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  Jesus’ sword judges the unrepentant who cling to idols but it also comforts and defends His people.  Be comforted that “for us fights the valiant one, whom God Himself elected.”  Amen.

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Sermon for Lent 2 – Genesis 12:1-9

March 22, 2011 Leave a comment

20 Sermon for Lent 2 mp3 Audio

Augustana, 2011

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

The text for the sermon this morning is the Old Testament reading for today, God’s call to Abraham.  “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  This is our text.

I was looking at the Old Testament reading on Monday.  I had agreed to write up a short piece for the Sunday readings study group at Lenior Rhyne and one of the first things I read was the note on this passage in The Lutheran Study Bible.

Go from. The Lord called Abram out of idolatry (Jsh 24:2), in which he deserved nothing but condemnation and eternal death. This was not because Abram merited God’s favor. Instead, God demonstrated His mercy and grace in calling an idolater out of pagan surroundings and affiliations, setting him apart from the world of false belief to live by the promise of His grace. By choosing Abram, an idolater, God demonstrated that it is not by works but by grace that we are saved.

Did you get that?  Now, I read that note and said to myself, why is it that I never had thought of Abraham, Father Abraham, as a former pagan?  This really captured my imagination.  There was Abraham in the city of Ur, in the land of the Chaldeans, the area we know as Iraq today, and God called him to leave Ur, with Sarai, his wife.  After a stay in Haran, God calls him to leave Haran and head out to the land of Canaan.  Why?  Not because God saw any particular merit or worthiness in him, but only because God acted in mercy to call him.

It was either last year of the year before I was preaching out of Hebrews for Lent and we read from chapter 11, that great passage about faith:

8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. 9 By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. 11 By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised.  (Heb. 11:8-11)

But I didn’t get from any of that that Abraham was pagan, an idolater.  But Doctor Luther in his lectures on Genesis reminds us of what Joshua said at the end of chapter 24.  “And Joshua said to all the people, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “Long ago, your fathers lived beyond the Euphrates, Terah, the father of Abraham and of Nahor; and they served other gods. 3 Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan, and made his offspring many. I gave him Isaac.”’” (Jsh. 24:2-4)  Now I get it, now I get what the big deal is in Hebrews 11 and therefore now I get the big deal here back in Genesis 12.  This is huge.  Abraham goes from following the gods of the Chaldeans to following the one true God, the Lord.  God does not deliver Abraham from slavery to false gods because Abraham is faithful to God, that’s a logical non sequitur.  God simply chose him, pitied him.  After the exodus and the wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, God is ready to lead the people back into the Promised land, and He speaks to them through Joshua and reminds them how He pitied great Father Abraham; he served false gods.  God delivered him, led him through the wilderness to Haran in modern day Syria and then down into Canaan, modern day Palestine and Israel.  As the Lord chose Abraham, so He chose Israel, Abrahams descendants.  And not because they had deserved this but because the Lord had loved them and was keeping the oath that had been given to their fathers, to Abraham and his children forever.

God acts to save His people.  God acted to save Abraham.  God acted to save Israel from slavery in Egypt.  God acted to send His Son to redeem his people from sin, death and hell.  God acts to save.  To all this, Doctor Luther adds, “In this passage we see that the beginnings are in agreement with the end. For what is Abraham except a man who hears God when He calls him, that is, a merely passive person and merely the material on which divine mercy acts?”  How could I have missed the connection?  Well if the great rabbis Nicodemus and Paul initially missed it, then I much feel better.  Nicodemus knew that Jesus was sent from God because of the great signs that he could do which up to this point consisted of changing water into wine and maybe cleansing the temple and telling the Jews who questioned Him about His authority, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”  That’s it.  Nicodemus comes to him based on those signs alone and tells him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” (Jn. 2:2)  And Jesus gives Nicodemus one more sign to look for, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”  This is the sign of the Jesus’ cross.  It’s to this sign that Jesus attaches the promise of eternal life.  But Jesus goes on to say why God chose Abraham and why God rescued Israel and why God sent His Son, because of love.  “For God so loved the world…”  “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

In some ways, Paul explains it better by laying it out nice and neat.

“What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” (Rom. 4:1-3)

“For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression. 16 That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all…”  (Ro 4:13–16)

I have two questions for you.  Who is your spiritual father or mother?  That is, who is it that taught you the faith as you know it today?  Who is it that laid such a foundation in the faith for you that nothing could ever shake you from it?  And then my next question is for whom are you a spiritual father or mother?  Where are your spiritual descendants?  There is among us an awful tendency to see the Christian faith as something that is only private and personal.

I meet these folks all the time.  Whenever I meet someone new, it invariably comes up that I’m a pastor of a church.  And then comes the awkward justifications for why the person hasn’t been in church for a while.  They all boil down to, “Well I’m just as much a Christian as I’ve ever been, even though I haven’t been in church.  Perhaps even more so because I’m not polluted by all those sinners at church.”  Really?  What happens when you cut yourself off from the people you’ve been called to?  How are you to be a blessing to them?  How are you to bear one another’s burdens if you never see them or eat with them?  Let’s just go one step beyond the mere command to “Honor the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy.”  We know what this means, it means we should fear and love God so that we do not despise the preaching of God’s word but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”  How can you do that it you don’t come to church?  How are you doing that when you don’t provide for the preaching of God’s word?  Coming to church is not optional.  It’s not something we do when we don’t have something better to do.  Keeping the Sabbath holy is making the Sabbath the priority and putting other things in around it.

But as I said, let’s go one step further than that.  Let’s say Father Abraham acted like many Christians today and decided it was a wonderful experience that he had hearing God but he wasn’t going to leave Haran, he wasn’t going to obey and leave what was familiar to him and he was just going to keep his faith private.  Well, we wouldn’t be calling him Father Abraham would we?

And what about you?  For whom are you spiritual fathers and mothers and where are your spiritual children?  With whom have you shared God’s call to leave the idolatry of this world and follow the true God?  God is working through you to be a blessing to others not just to bless you and have it stop there.  The stupidest thing I have ever heard a supposedly Christian parent say is, “I’ll let her make a choice when she gets older.”  From God’s perspective that is spiritual child neglect and abandonment.  No, the pattern of faithfulness is God calls, purely out of love and we obey, purely out of the love with which God has called us.

In this season of Lent we are exhorted and encouraged to hear again God’s “Go!” away from the idolatry of this age and our lives and to respond with spirit-filled obedience to head out in that direction.  Like Abram, God continues to call sinners to repentance in order to make us His own and to lead us into His blessing, promise and favor.  He is faithful to do as He has said. He made Abram into a great nation, blessing all the world through the Son. As Abram’s offspring by faith, we have the blessing of God’s forgiveness and life without end and we are a blessing to others.  Amen.

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

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Homily for the Funeral of Margaret Eckard Hahn

March 22, 2011 Leave a comment

March 17th, 2011

 

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

The text for the sermon today is the Gospel reading from John 10.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep… I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”  This is our text.

Many people in the Bible were shepherds.  I’m sure you can think of a few right off the top of your head like, Able, Abraham, Moses and David.  Today sheep herding is not one of those professions that people really want to sign on for.  It’s just not a part of modern life today and so we miss much of the meaning of what Jesus is saying in this passage.  Shepherds in Jesus’ day knew each sheep, its individual traits, and its special needs.  They didn’t tend the sheep in order to slaughter them unless they were to be used for sacrifice.  No, sheep were an investment; shepherds kept flocks so that they would get what the sheep produce wool, milk, and lambs.  And therefore when a shepherd used a sheep for a sacrifice, it was a true sacrifice, a personal loss, an admission that the reason this creature died was because God takes sin and the consequences of sin very seriously indeed.  So when Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd,” he was also saying that He is unlike all those other shepherds; he is unlike Able and the patriarchs and Moses and David, who although are praised for their faithfulness, they often failed God and sinned against him.  Jesus is the innocent shepherd who dies for the lives of his sinful sheep.  It’s not that all those other men of God were unfaithful hirelings but that Jesus proves himself to be the Good Shepherd who buys His sheep with His own blood.

Jesus was Margaret’s Good Shepherd.  The Good Shepherd knew Margaret and laid down His life for her; Margaret never forgot this.  A year ago this week, I was at Margaret’s house planning the funeral for her husband George.  We sat around the kitchen table there and picked the readings and the hymns.   Her kids would chime in with an idea and I remember Margaret vetoing one or two.  But when it came time to picking the Gospel reading, we went through two or three until we came to this one.  As soon as I read it, she started nodding her head and said, “Yes, that’s the one I want.”  And so when it came time for me to sit down at the table again with you all to pick the readings and the hymns for today, the thought was that we’ll do essentially the same service because Mom picked out what she liked.  Just as Jesus never forgot George so Jesus never forgot Margaret.  Margaret knew that Jesus was her Good Shepherd; she never forgot that the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  Jesus was Margaret’s Good Shepherd.

Matthew, Mark and Luke do not record these words, only John.  The gospel writer John has this amazing knack, inspired by the Holy Spirit to be sure, but still he has this uncanny ability to record the most personal of Jesus’ sayings.  I’m sure that this is why Christians hold John’s Gospel so dearly and perhaps why we turn to it so often in times of trouble or need.  We know Jesus can calm the storm, we know he can preach a great sermon on the mount, we know Jesus can turn a phrase or make a profound point about the kingdom of God in a parable but He doesn’t do any of those things in John’s Gospel.  No, in John’s Gospel we see Jesus dealing speaking one-on-one with a Samaritan woman at a well, speaking gently and yet firmly with the woman caught in adultery and forgiving her sins, we see Jesus weeping at the death of His friend, Lazarus, and we overhear the depth of His heart in the high priestly prayer, this most intimate conversation with Jesus and His Father.  This might be a bit of an exaggeration for the sake of my point, but I would venture to say that in the other Gospels we learn about Jesus: in John’s Gospel we come to know Jesus.  Margaret may not have expressed this quite this way, but that’s part of what I think was going on when she nodded so strongly and said, “That’s the one I want.”  Margaret knew that Jesus was her Good Shepherd; she never forgot that the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

Margaret used to do this thing that I’ll probably never forget.  As many of you know, it’s been a long time since she could come forward to the communion rail.  So, no problem here, if it’s simply too difficult to come to the rail, the elder and I bring the sacrament to folks in their seats.  Margaret used to always look at me right in the eye when I pronounced the dismissal, “The body and blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, strengthen and preserve you in body and soul to life everlasting.  Depart in peace.”  And when I would say, “Amen,” she would say, “Thank you.”  Now, the proper response at the dismissal, is to say, “Amen,” as many of you know this is Doctor Luther’s, “Yes, yes, it shall be so.”  But for Margaret, that “Amen” ran deeper and so it didn’t come out as a churchly “amen” but what I saw was a very sincere “thank you.”  Margaret knew Jesus as her Good Shepherd and in that “thank you,” I always perceived a very sincere thanks to Jesus for laying down his life for her.

Now, to many people, maybe even to some of you today, this may sound like the religion of an old lady, a religion of doilies and tea pots and a religion for men with soft hands and softer heads.  But if you knew Margaret at all, you know that picture doesn’t fit her; she was far tougher than that and that kind of religion would not have lasted her very long in the struggles of the past 5 years, struggles that included George getting sick, her own diagnosis with liver and colon cancer and the awful chemotherapy she put up with for so long, not to mention George’s death, Dan’s death and all the everyday struggles.  Margaret’s religion was not one of the parlor but rather one of the kitchen table, normal, humble, everyday, focused on blessing given and received, focused on sin and forgiveness, focused on Jesus blood shed for sin.  Margaret’s religion was not just that the Shepherd is Good, but that He lays down His life for his sheep.

Being an undershepherd of the Good Shepherd is often a humbling experience.  One of the most humbling things I do is hear people confess their sins.  Margaret typically used the form for general confession that we use in church but toward the end, she got weak and the last couple times I used a question and answer format with her.  “Do you confess to almighty God that you are a poor, miserable sinner?”  “Yes.”  “Do you confess to our merciful Father that you have sinned against Him in thought, word, and deed?”  “Yes.”  “Do you confess that you justly deserve His temporal and eternal punishment?”  “Yes.”  “Do you believe that our Lord Jesus Christ died for you and shed His blood for you on the cross for the forgiveness of all your sins?”  “Yes.”  “Do you pray God, for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of His beloved Son, to be gracious and merciful to you?”  “Yes.”  “Finally, do you believe that my forgiveness is God’s forgiveness?”  “What?”  That’s what she said.  And I clarified, “Do you believe that the forgiveness I speak to you is God’s forgiveness?”  “Yes.”  “Let it be done for you as you believe.  In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  “Amen.”  Maybe it’s because I haven’t used it very much, but it seems much more personal than the one we use in services.  Private confession is just that—confession and forgiveness personally spoken.  What great joy it is to hear the deep sighs of relief and to see the muscles in the face relax from one who knows for absolute certain she or he stands forgiven in the eyes of almighty God.  The Good Shepherd knows us and wants us to know He has laid down his life for the sheep.

Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd.  I know my own and my own know me.”  These are personal words from our Lord.  The Good Shepherd is not just concerned with the sheep here at Augustana, or with Lutheran Sheep, Jesus goes on to say in our reading this morning that He has other sheep, not of this sheepfold.  There is no sheep the Good Shepherd does not know and there is no sheep that He has not laid down His life for.  He knew Margaret.  He knows you.  There is nothing that you have done or thought or said that He does not know.

Our lives often do not go in the direction we expected they would go and rarely do things happen exactly the way we plan them.  All of us, even pastors, look at our lives at times and wonder, “How did we get to this point?”  And the temptation is to look at today with the reality of not just Margaret’s end, but our own and wonder if any of it is worth it all.  Where is the hope if it all ends with death?  Most people believe that life starts at birth and proceeds toward the end.  But what if we’re wrong?  What if life, at least our life’s meaning, starts on the day we’re buried and it works backward through time, each event, struggle, illness, the death of a loved one, a birth, an anniversary, a celebration, deriving  meaning from the end we know is sure.  Jesus said He lays down His life for his sheep.  Jesus’ death on the cross is the fixed point for Him.  Why wouldn’t it be the same for us?  And if we believe that we have been buried with him, so then we too will live a new life.  What joy it is then to know our end even as we struggle now.  The Good Shepherd knows you.

Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep… I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”  Amen.

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