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Funeral Homily for Melba Flowers

October 27, 2011 2 comments

October 25, 2011

Click here for mp3 audio 57 Funeral Homily for Melba Flowers.mp3

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

It is a sad hour we now observe.  We are gathered steps away from the grave of a precious mother and grandmother and dear sister in the faith.  The Scriptures declare to us, “Weep with those who weep.”  So, now is the time to pour out our tears, as brothers and sisters sharing deep sadness.  Many of you know the battle Melba fought the last years of her life and how it intensified the last several months.  Melba bore a difficult burden in her body, a burden the Lord was not quick to take from her.  Those who saw her suffer suffered with her until last Friday when her suffering was over.  Melba showed us all what it was to declare with David, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.  For you are with me, Lord.  Your rod and your staff they comfort me.”

Those of us who watched Melba suffer so, were saddened not only by watching her suffer but were confronted with our worst fears, fears of suffering and death.  By nature, dear friends, there is something about death which terrifies all people.  And so today I stand in the pulpit and declare to you a word that is contrary to what has become a part of the popular thought among us.  Death is not a part of life.  It is not a part of the circle of life.  God created us for life, not death.  Death is not a natural end it is the wages of sin and that is why we fear it as we do.  Death is our enemy.  We can try to appease our fears with the platitudes of the day but it’s nothing more than whistling in the graveyard.  And when we leave behind all of those pagan thoughts about death in comes the truth that death is not an end but a summons, a serious command of God, a subpoena to stand in the courtroom of the judge of all people.  We look at the inevitability of that summons and anticipate either inexpressible blessedness or fear eternal punishment.  At the arrival of such a summons, any false confidence we might have had evaporates like morning mist and is transformed into troubling doubt and that doubt into our deepest fears.

Now of course, there have been a great many unbelievers who have met their end with a certain kind of peace.  But they are only at a level of peace which comes from a morbid acceptance of the unavoidable.  They think, “What good will it do for me to worry about it?  My fate is sealed at this point.”  But even believers, dear children of God, even true Christians can become gripped by the fear of death.  David wrote in the eighteenth psalm, “The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of destruction assailed me; the cords of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me.”  In the fifty-fifth psalm he says, “My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen upon me. Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me.”  Even the great apostle Peter denied Jesus three times because he was afraid of suffering and death.  And so death is truly terrifying even when it stares into the face of a believer.  No one is safe because death is not overcome by human strength but only by the grace of God is this prince of terror overcome.  It is to God’s grace we now turn.

David is an example of a child of God afflicted by the fear of death but in the twenty-third psalm we also see how his fear is overcome.  “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.  For Thou, O Lord, art with me.  Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”  I’ll stand in this pulpit and preach against the wisdom of this age on one more topic this afternoon.  God is not within you; He is not lurking around someplace inside you.  God is with us like a shepherd is with his sheep.  The very reason we have so much fear and so much doubt in hours like this is because so many people point us back inside ourselves to look for the spark of divinity within us or some such thing.  As much as we would like it if it were true, looking inside ourselves for comfort is even more terrifying.  So instead, I point you to your Lord.  He is very much outside of you, accompanying you, rescuing you, defending and protecting you from all the dangers and enemies that threaten you.  It is at Holy Baptism that God acts on us, pouring water on us, sealing us in name to make us His own, even clothing us with the righteousness of His Son Jesus.  All of these things are things that happen to us on the outside.  Look to Jesus Christ our Lord who on His journey to the cross walked through that lonely valley and suffered its punishment so that you who are buried with Him in Baptism might be raised with Him just as He was raised.  Look to our God who walks beside you through the valley of the shadow of death.

Melba, our dear sister in faith, suffered but she did not suffer alone.  Her Lord was with her, holding her hand, carrying her through that dreadful valley safe to the other side to be with Him forever.  Melba longed to be with her Lord in eternity.  She could have just as well written the words written by David, “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.  When shall I come and appear before God?” (Ps 42:2)  Oh how she rejoiced to hear a Word from the Lord and took comfort in the promises of the Lord that His mercies were renewed every morning.  Oh how she rejoiced to receive the body and blood of her Lord in the Holy Sacrament.  How she rejoiced to repeat with me the Lord’s Prayer and the twenty-third psalm.  Oh, how she rejoiced to receive the blessing of the Lord from the servant He sent to minister to her.  So it was in faith, that she labored until her last hour when the Lord granted her a blessed end.  May our dear sister now rest in peace until that great day of the resurrection of all flesh.  She has now come out of the great tribulation, washed her robe and made it white in the blood of the Lamb.  Be assured that Melba never lost sight of her Lord who walked beside her.  Be comforted in the promises of God made to Melba and that He makes to all of you.  Hold on dearly to blessings of God delivered to you by the holy cross of Jesus, our Lord.  Be steadfast even in the face of death because Jesus our champion has overcome that old enemy.

In closing, I’d like to leave you with the words of one of the founders of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, Dr. C.F.W. Walther.

Be thou steadfast in your faith,

In suffering be undaunted;

Let nothing rob you of your Christ,

Remain in God’s strong fortress.

When tears have finally ended,

With Christ you are ascended.  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 the Festival of St. James

October 27, 2011 Leave a comment

Augustana, 2011

Click here for mp3 audio  56 Sermon for St James.mp3

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

The text for the sermon is the first reading from Acts and the Epistle for today.

What’s written in this chapter happened around AD 49.  Paul had returned from his first missionary trip two or three years earlier.  He had experienced exciting and fantastic adventures we can read about in the two previous chapters in Acts.  Above all, he had experienced everywhere he went that heathens were prepared to receive the Good News about Jesus Christ.  There were Christian congregations far up in the highlands of modern day Turkey and also in Antioch, the most important city in the eastern half of the Roman Empire.  And the congregations were growing continuously.

However, there arose a great conflict in the church.  It was started by some Christians who had been Jews and were from Jerusalem.  They found it alarming that the Greek Christians didn’t follow the Laws of Moses.  They made no distinction about foods and they weren’t circumcised.  They thought they knew exactly what to say.  “You must follow the Laws of Moses, otherwise you won’t be saved.

After that, the conflict was unavoidable.  There are times when the purity of the Gospel itself is at stake; then there’s no room for compromise.  It was a matter of eternal salvation.  The Jewish Christians said that circumcision and the Law were prerequisites.  Paul knew that Jesus Christ was the only foundation, and that it was through faith in Christ—Christ alone—that we’re saved.

It was a standoff.  Their opinions were categorically opposed.  Both could not be true.  But then, something happened that would serve as a model for the all the times ahead.  They decided to gather the leaders of the church, the apostles and the elders and the priests and to listen to them, mainly the apostles, the ones Jesus Himself chose, the confessors of the faith in Jerusalem.  They would reason together and pray and present all of it to God.  That’s how the first church council met.

At the meeting in Jerusalem, Paul was supported by Peter.  He had put his finger on the decisive matter, clearly and convincingly: We believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus.  And at that point James, Jesus’ brother, agreed.  This was astonishing because Jesus’ brother James, or if you’re reading the notes in the bulletin, perhaps Jesus’ cousin, even though he lived as a law abiding Jew just as his Jewish ancestors did he sided with Peter on this matter.  Even James of Jerusalem, as he was known, even James the very Jewish follower of Jesus, even quoting the Amos the prophet, even James was completely convinced that the Law of Moses couldn’t be imposed on the heathens as a condition for salvation.

That’s how Bishop Giertz of Sweden began to explain this passage (To Live With Christ, 555-556) and how I intend to introduce St. James the Brother of Our Lord today.

By the time James writes his epistle, presumably within a year or two of the Jerusalem Council, the church is having difficulties with leaders teaching that the Law has no place in the life of the Christian and that good works done in view of the Law might even be harmful to faith or take away from it.  And while James might have been able to thread that needle very carefully at the church’s first council at Jerusalem, he seems to have to continue to argue both sides of the truth depending who he’s arguing against.  To the newly minted Christian libertine he must say, very famously “faith without works is dead.”  (Jas 2:17).  But to the classic Jewish Christian who insisted on upholding the Law of Moses, he had to say the only Law is the law of liberty (1:25; 2:12) and mercy always triumphs over judgment. (2:13)  Some would say that James is contradicting himself.

We might say he’s not so much contradicting himself as adjusting himself to the situation.  This is not situational ethics but rather application of the Law and the Gospel in the lives of real people.  If we’re wise we do this all the time.  To the child who is distraught over how badly they may have misbehaved, we don’t scream and punish, we comfort and console.  To the obstinate child who seems to try to never obey the rules, we have to put our foot down.  It’s not situational ethics, it’s applying chastisement and comfort, Law and Gospel.  By the time James writes, he’s already a respected leader in the Church in Jerusalem and he writes to Jewish Christians flung far away from Jerusalem, he calls them the Dispersion.  The Greek Diaspora, just sounds like a scattering of people far and wide.

He’s writing to them because they are suffering persecution.  He’s writing to encourage them, us too really, to take joy even in the testing of faith because that testing produces steadfastness.  Our faith gets tested, put through trials.  This is one of those key words in the New Testament that we should be somewhat familiar with.  And there’s quite a bit of misunderstanding about this.  God does not test faith to see if you’re good enough for Him.  The devil doesn’t test your faith to get you to crack.  I think James might be advocating we should be involved in testing our faith.  When they launch a new ship, it goes through a series of tests called sea trials.  They get underway and see what the ship can do.  Some might even say they try to break it to find out the limits and tolerances of the ship.  How fast it can go, how quickly it can stop or change directions.  It’s an active process and it’s no game.  At the end of the process the ship is declared sea worthy or the builder is contacted to make it right.

We are no different.  We been given this great gift called the faith.  It contains not all the answers to all life’s problems, but it is God’s answer to how it is we should live as His children.  We get this faith growing up and its explained in Sunday School and catechesis when were young but if we’re lucky, we have little opportunity to truly test it to put it through the paces and see what holds when the storms of life gather and the waters get rough and threaten to swamp us.  James himself uses the same image in verse “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”

Many of you have been through trials.  Many of you are undergoing them right now.  It’s not easy; it’s exhausting, actually.  What hope is there?  The strength of God that has been delivered to you is surest and strongest.  I’m not worried about how strong you are, I know how strong our God is.  He has promised the crown of life to you who are steadfast and immovable.  If you’re reading James and a little overwhelmed, don’t forget he was the one who was so firmly convinced of Christ alone as the sure foundation for eternal salvation.  “Blessed is the one who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” (1:12)  God Himself has promised it.  If you are in any doubt where you stand with God, rest assured, He has ratified your good standing with him through the cross of Christ Jesus.  By Christ alone, through the cross alone.  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 18

October 27, 2011 Leave a comment

Augustana, 2011

Click here for mp3 audio  55 Sermon for Pentecost 18.mp3
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The text for the sermon today is the Gospel just read.

Today’s exchange probably happened on Tuesday of Passion Week in the temple courtyards.  It is mere hours before the Last Supper and Judas betrays the Lord and Jesus is arrested.  Jesus is now being confronted by the religious leaders in Jerusalem at every turn.  They are trying to get Jesus to say the wrong thing and entrap Him.  When Jesus says these things is important because I think there might be a tendency to hear these teachings as merely bits of wisdom not as teachings from One who knows it’s a countdown to the cross.  We can hear Jesus teach about the active reigning of God on earth because we know He knew He was headed to the cross to ratify His kingdom.

For several weeks now, Jesus has been arguing with the Pharisees and the chief priests and the scribes, but this morning a new party is mentioned, the Herodians, supporters of the royal family, Herod, and politically aligned with Rome.  There couldn’t be two greater opposing factions in Jerusalem.  The Pharisees saw Herod as an illegitimate king of Israel so they would never have been in cahoots with the Herodians but, as they say, politics makes strange bedfellows and so now they have joined forces to try to set a trap for Jesus.  And look at what they do.  This is no mere “religious” discussion; this is politics.  They’re trying to get Jesus to say it’s wrong to pay the Roman tax.  There’s a little history here.  Josephus the historian records that about thirty years earlier, in the year 6 A.D. there was a Jewish Zealot named Judas of Galilee.  He led a revolt against the first Roman governor for precisely this reason.  Any true Jew would have thought paying the Roman tax to be dishonoring God and an acknowledgement of their slavery to the pagan Romans.  So, the Herodian trap was a fine one, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”  Either way Jesus answered would be bad for Him.  If He answered, “Yes,” He would loose the vast majority of His followers who hated Rome.  If Jesus said, “No,” He put Himself at odds with the Romans on charges of treason.

But Jesus was wise to their plan.  And so He answered the question in the way that He has answered such questions throughout His ministry.  “Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  Now, on the surface, this is a great answer.  Brilliant, really.  This is the way rabbis justified paying taxes even to pagan overlords, God was in control.  This is the link, by the way, with the OT lesson for today noting the Persian King Cyrus, a pagan, as the Lord’s anointed one.  That means messiah, folks.  Cyrus, pagan King of Persia, is used by the Lord to rescue His people out of exile in Babylon.  God is in control, even if pagans are in government.  So, yes, dear Christian brothers and sisters, pay your taxes.  But Jesus’ answer reflects something far more profound than that.

For those with ears to hear, Jesus is saying that the community He came to establish must be content to render to whatever Caesar is in power whatever belongs to that Caesar.  Jesus is describing how His disciples will live under the hidden rule of God in the kingdom of heaven for as long it takes for the second coming to come to pass.  And in this answer we have a clue to the true nature of these words from our Lord as Gospel, as Good News for us.

Give to Caesar what’s his.  Render to God, the things that are God’s.  As I mentioned with the children, in an indirect way, Jesus is saying something very radical about the nature of who we are.  You are God’s.  That’s what Jesus says hours away from the cross by which He would restore the image of God for all people.  Jesus paid the terrible price, He suffered the wrath of God for your sin.  You who have been baptized into Christ, like little Karl today, now once again bear the image of God.  You are His.  You have been reminted, as it were, given new value.  Each of you, Jesus has bought with the price of His lifeblood.  You know to whom you belong.  Render to God what is God’s.

The Southeastern District Conference I attended at the beginning of the week was about Christian stewardship.  So much of what we’ve learned over the years about stewardship is of the Law.  How much is a tithe?  How much are we supposed to give?  Ten percent.  Ten percent of my time.  Ten percent of my talent.  Ten percent of my treasure.   And if I give my ten percent, then God will bless me, quid pro quo.  He has to; it’s the Law.  That’s all Law and it it’s all wrong.  God doesn’t want ten percent of you because He did not save ten percent of you.  He saved you, every bit of you.  There is no part of you that is not His.  Through Holy Baptism, He has restored His image on you.  You are His.  He wants you to see that all your time has been given to you.  All your talent comes from Him alone.  All your treasure, even the means you need to survive, perhaps even thrive, in this world has come as a result of His benevolence and grace—all of it.  This is an essential truth to the nature of the Gospel.  Only those who understand the grace of God understand what it means to truly give as they have been given to.

Some people misunderstand this and then wonder if all their time must be given to work in the congregation.  No, and I say that in the hour when we need to elect officers for 2012.  We understand that husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, and children have God-given duties and roles in their homes.  These duties always outweigh the secondary duties of church committee member or leader.  It’s easy to confuse the organization that is the congregation with the kingdom of heaven.  I have seen it, though not here at Augustana, but I have seen an otherwise well-meaning Christian husband and father give so much time to the congregation as an organization, that he has confused the true Christian duty to his wife and children.  I have to watch myself so that duties to the organization that is the church do not take me away from the kingdom calling as Christian husband and father.  To turn the phrase, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole congregation, but to loose his family?”  The same can be said for talents and treasure.  So, yes, we need officers for our organization, in fact we need at least one more person to agree to serve on the board of deacons today.  These are the very valuable people who are charged with the stewardship of the congregation’s temporal affairs.   And we will pray the Lord to raise up for us someone to serve as He has those who have already agreed to serve but we could not in good conscience ask someone to give beyond what is right.  There is always a delicate balance.  We should never be stingy about giving from what we have been given but we should not serve in any position for which we are not given to serve.  To turn the phrase once again, “What does it profit a congregation to gain a whole slate of officers, but to loose their families?  Living in the kingdom of heaven should never be confused with volunteering in the congregation.

Living in the kingdom of heaven is living in the shadow of the cross on which Jesus shows us price He paid that we might be God’s own once again, our image restored.  Living in the kingdom of heaven is living as one among many who have been bought with great price.  Oh, what great joy it is to see others as Christ sees them, in the image of God, reminted after the image of His Son.  Oh, what great joy it is to see ourselves as Christ sees us, reminted, revalued, restored in the image of Jesus Christ.  This is as true today for you as it is for little Karl.  Jesus has said, “You are mine.”  Amen.

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Sermon for Pentecost 17

October 27, 2011 Leave a comment

Augustana, 2011

Sorry, no audio this week.

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, the parable of the wedding feast.

This is the second of the parables Jesus tells to the religious leaders in Jerusalem.  Remember, this is Passion Week.  The teaching of Jesus is coming to its culmination.  If last Sunday’s parable about the wicked tenants exposed the religious leaders neglect of their God-given duty, this parable condemns Israel as a whole and their contempt of God’s grace.

The kingdom of heaven is like this.  The kingdom has already dawned; invitations to the banquet have gone out and are being refused.  This wedding banquet is obviously the great messianic banquet which Isaiah had described long ago.  The king’s son is clearly Messiah.  The prospective guests to a major feast were invited in advance and then notified when the feast was ready, but these guests persistently refuse to come.  The kingdom of heaven is like this, the king not only graciously invites them again, even after their stubborn refusal but tries to entice them by describing the quality of the feast.  But those invited stay away for routine and selfish reasons.  They profoundly insult the king, whose invitation is both an honor and a command, and they insult the marriage, a time for special joy for the king and his Son and bride.  Those who didn’t even bother with a  flimsy excuse laid hands on the king’s servants, treated them shamefully and killed them.  They had no respect for the king and no fear of him.

Today, we are far removed from responding to royal summons.  We have to stretch the imagination to see why rejecting the king’s summon would be viewed as such an open act of disloyalty and rebellion.  But the king was angry and sent a detachment of troops to deal with such violent and treacherous subjects.  They were destroyed and their city was burned.  This is reminiscent of Old Testament style retribution and this kind of judgment is tinged with what will happen on judgment day.

This is certainly now no ordinary wedding feast.  The king sends his servants to the street corners, probably the crossroads where they would find many people.  There they invite all and succeed in drawing in all kinds of people, “both good and bad” (v. 10).  I think the best way to read this is that Jesus accepts those people that the Jewish rulers would regard as bad people.  Regardless of whether one is good or bad, there is appropriate attire for this wedding feast.  There is a nice note in the new Lutheran Study Bible that explains this a bit, “Israelites expected invited guests to wear festive wedding garments, which the host could provide. Thus, this fellow’s failure to dress in appropriate clothing, which was freely given to him, offends the host.”  He is tied and thrown outside into the darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

This parable is a simple allegory.  The king is our heavenly Father.  The bridegroom is His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.  The bride is the Christian Church, we and the whole world, in so far as we believe.  The wedding is the last day.

God sent his servants the prophets to invite the guests to the wedding.   Those originally invited did not come.  This is important because Jesus teaches this parable during Holy Week.  He has been arguing with the religious leadership of Israel since His entry into Jerusalem.  This parable is further indictment of their rejection of Him as Messiah of God Most High.  Remember not all the Jews rejected Jesus, many became His first disciples.  Jesus is at odds with the religious leadership in Jerusalem.  And before we get too comfortable, we could just as well understand the Apostles to be in the same role as the prophets.  If any will not listen to them, even though they are invited, they will not take part in the wedding feast.  And what a magnificent feast it is that the king has prepared, “See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.”  (Mt 22:4)

There are many who not here this morning who have not heeded the invitation to the feast today.  The see not the table prepared as a foretaste of the feast to come and do not desire to taste and see that the Lord is good.  However, I cannot preach to them.  I can only preach to you.  And so my question to you this morning is not, “Have you heeded the invitation?”  But do we not also risk paying little attention to this invitation and concentrate instead on the farm, on the business, or rather on the “busy-ness” of our lives rather than on the one thing needful?  Think about the role many people place on family today.  Family does need to be a priority but not at the expense of the one thing needful.  For too many, family has been elevated well beyond anything godly.  It is neither wrong to be in business, nor is it wrong to be engaged in any God-pleasing vocation nor it is wrong to love family.  It is wrong to allow those concerns to turn our attention away from the invitation of our king to come to the wedding feast.  Sunday is not a workday, if you can help it.  Sunday is not family day.  Sunday is the Lord’s day.

The second risk we run is accepting the invitation to the feast arriving but not dressing in the wedding garment.  Many of you, I’m sure have heard that it was common for hosts to provide the wedding garments for guests.  If this is case, it makes a wonderful picture of the garment with which the king has clothed us, the garment of the righteousness of God which covers all our sin.  Our king himself gives us that garment in Holy Baptism.  It’s part of the baptismal rite.  “The pastor may place a white garment on the newly baptized while saying: ‘Receive this white garment to show that you have been clothed with the robe of Christ’s righteousness that covers all your sin.  So shall you stand without fear before the judgment seat of Christ to receive the inheritance prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’”  We dare not think to approach God with our own religiosity, with our own righteousness.  It does not match what is required.  When it comes to the kingdom of heaven, there is no room for the one who sings the old song, “I did it my way.”

Jesus tells this parable to set up His pithy little conclusion at the end.  “For many are called, but few are chosen.”  All are called, but some refuse to come, and others who do come refuse to submit to the norms of the kingdom and are therefore not chosen. Those who remain are called “chosen” the elect.  This is a brief description of what we call the doctrine of election which is also found in other places in the New Testament.  The Jews of Jesus day could say, “All Israelites have a share in the world to come.” (Sanh. 10:1, Carson, 553), but Jesus rejects such a view.  The Gospel invitation goes far and wide, but not everyone who hears it is one of God’s elect.

Jesus tells this parable not to afflict those who are terrified that they may not be included in the kingdom of heaven.  Those who rest securely in the merit of Jesus’ cross as the payment for sin and as the ultimate in fulfilling the Law of God know, by faith, they are elect.  He tells this parable to afflict the comfortable, those who trust in their own religiosity and ultimately in themselves and who need so substitute, who need no Savior from sin.

Would you pray with me?  “Heavenly Father, we thank you for the mercy you show to us in Jesus Christ that you have called us to your holy mountain, to dine with you at the great banquet of your Son.  We thank you that by dining even here and now we are assured we will dine with You forever for there is but one table and one feast, just as there is one Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom we are invited.  Lord God, let us not only be clothed with Christ’s righteousness but let us dine on the rich feast you have prepared that we might eat even life, salvation and the forgiveness of sins.  We pray through Jesus Christ our Lord.  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 15

October 6, 2011 Leave a comment

Augustana, 2011

Click here for mp3 audio 54 Sermon for Pent 15

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

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

We have skipped ahead chronologically from where we have been.  Jesus has left Galilee and has triumphantly entered Jerusalem.  If we were going to read this passage according to when it happened we would read it during Holy Week, probably on Tuesday, if Mark is correct.  There is this growing antagonism between Jesus and the Jewish authorities.  Within a few days, of course, the chief priests and the elders will have succeeded in their plans to do away with Him.  But not before we get this teaching from Jesus about His authority.

We’re rolling now in the Wednesday night class.  I’ve challenged the folks attending that class not only to keep up with the homework but to also read the Gospel of Matthew through at least 3 times.  Normally we read just these snippets of Scripture on Sundays.  We call them pericopes, but the Gospels of course were written to be read to groups of Christians.  The Jews who began to follow Jesus were very familiar with what we know as the Old Testament today, but they then became familiar with the writings of the Gospel writers and the apostles’ letters.  They would hear large portions of the Gospels or even an entire Gospel read at one service.  And when we do this, we get a sense of a bigger picture.  Words start popping up and we can draw connections and equivalencies with them.  Authority is one of those words.  It just pops up throughout Matthew.  Early in Jesus’ ministry people recognized that Jesus taught with authority.  “You have heard it said, but I say to you…”  It was the pagan centurion who first recognized Jesus authority to heal with a word.  The centurion knew what authority was because he had it.  He could say to this one, “Come” and to that one “Go.”  And they did.  Certainly Jesus could heal with a word.  When Jesus forgave the sins of the paralyzed man and the argument broke out about whether He could do that or not, it was an argument about Jesus’ authority.  Do you remember what He did to prove that He had authority to forgive sins?  That’s right, He healed the man.  Part of the reaction of the religious leaders against Jesus is that the day before He cleansed the temple, which caused quite a ruckus.  They wanted to know, perhaps rightly what authority He claimed to do these things.  But they also wanted to give Jesus enough rope to see if he could hang himself too and so they tried to trap him with this question.

Jesus has authority to do what He did to teach what He taught because He had come from God; Jesus was God’s own Son.  Jesus had unique divine authority.  So did John the Baptist.  That’s why Jesus answers them the way He does.  He responds to their question with a question about the ministry of John the Baptist.  Jesus asks whether that ministry was from heaven or from men. He doesn’t ask this question as a simple rebuke—as if to say that if the authorities cannot make up their minds about John, neither will they be able to do so about him.  Jesus question is far deeper than that.  If they answer Jesus’ question correctly, they’ll have the right answer to their own question.  See, if they respond, “From heaven,” then they have to validate John’s ministry and recognize that John pointed to Jesus.  Jesus is not avoiding the question by asking one of his own.  He’s not a political candidate.  Jesus answers the way he does so that the honest seeker of truth cannot but see who He truly is.  At the same time Jesus’ question rather strongly hints to the rulers that their false step goes back to broader issues than Jesus’ identity.  If they cannot recognize Jesus’ authority, it is because their unbelief has blinded their minds to God’s revelation.  They are not just misinformed, they’re unbelievers.  Failing to recognize the authority of Jesus is failing to believe in God.

We often reject Jesus’ authority every bit as badly as the temple authorities.  We do it all the time without even realizing the seriousness of our rebellion.  Jesus commanded us to pray and yet we too often don’t and we certainly don’t do it daily and if we do pray we try to cram it in while doing something else.  That’s like trying to have a conversation with someone when you’re watching television.  It doesn’t work.  It’s not what we call quality time.  We’re not just too busy to pray; we’ve stacked our lives with activities and hobbies that leave us no possible time to do it properly.  In what way is that not rejecting the authority of Jesus?  And that’s just one example.

There’s a strong streak of anti-authority among us today.  There’s an anti-government streak out there because so many have abused governmental authority and this applies to both political parties, by the way.  All it takes is one corrupt policeman or one corrupt governor and the whole system is in question.  The most shameful examples of the abuse of authority lie within the Church, not just those other Christians, those Roman Catholics with their abusive priests and their enabling bishops but in our own church body too.  There is terrible abuse of authority aplenty even among us.  But should that cause us to reject even the authority of Jesus?  Or the authority of those who exercise authority rightly?  I want to point out all policeman are not corrupt nor are all governors nor are all pastors.  In our reaction against the abuse of authority by others we reject even the authority of the one to Whom all authority on heaven and earth has been given and we end up judging God.  Look at the language of the Old Testament lesson today.  God has the same problem with His people in Ezekiel’s day as in Jesus’ day as today.  “Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way not just?  Is it not your ways that are not just?’”   We’re not actually anti-authority; we are in fact claiming all authority for ourselves.

Jesus continues this interaction with a parable which to anyone is a thinly veiled criticism of the religious leaders, “the good son.”  They understood that Jesus was talking about them.  Jesus compared them to tax collectors and the prostitutes and said they will get into the kingdom of God first.  Jesus, presents such vile characters as more worthy of salvation than the religious leaders.

I think many Christians don’t think very seriously or don’t think seriously often enough about the battle we’re up against every day.  I think we’ve lived for years in this religion we’ve constructed for ourselves that I might call, the I’m a good enough religious person religion.  I’m a good person.  I do good things.  I come to church, at least sometimes.  I sing in the choir.  I pray, at least occasionally.  I read Scripture, of course not every day but hey, I’m not one of those religious nut people.  I got confirmed!  At one point I learned the catechism, of course don’t ask me about it now.  I could go on.  I think you know the people I’m describing.  We’ve been going through the kingdom teachings of Jesus all summer and one thing that has been working on me the whole time is how much I that kind of religion just doesn’t measure up to what Jesus taught.  Jesus came from heaven to bring with him the active reigning of heaven again on earth.  Jesus is radically reordering the world by His presence and His Word.  His idea of authority is so radical that Jesus, the one to Whom all authority had been given actually submitted Himself to the authority of those who falsely accused Him and unjustly condemned Him to death.  That’s a radical submission to authority.  And so my job is not to help you become a member of the good enough religious person church but rather to preach the kingdom of heaven into you.  That’s our salvation itself—the submission of Jesus even unto death.

I should also not the flip side to the I’m a good enough religious person religion and that’s the I’ll never be a good enough religious person.  Jesus very clearly says no repenant sinner is ever turned away, even tax collectors and prostitutes, even the repentant abuser, even a repentant I’m a good enough religious person who realizes they’re not good enough.  Turn and live.  Turn and live.  Amen.

Would you pray with me?  “Chief of sinners though I be, Jesus shed His blood for me, Died that I might live on high, Lives that I might never die. As the branch is to the vine, I am His, and He is mine.”  Amen. 

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

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