Sunday, June 28, 2020

What Does It Mean to Have a God?

Micah 7:18-20
Who is a God like Thee, who pardons iniquity and passes over the rebellious act of the remnant of His possession?  He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in unchanging love.  He will again have compassion on us; He will tread our iniquities under foot.  Yes, Thou wilt cast all their sins Into the depths of the sea.  Thou wilt give truth to Jacob and unchanging love to Abraham, which Thou didst swear to our forefathers from the days of old.

Sermon for Third Sunday after Trinity                                              6/28/20
What It Means to Have a God?
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

Various surveys say that 96 percent of Americans believe in God.  That single statistic underscores the main problem in our world today.  Language, particularly religious language, has lost its meaning for most people.  When you look at our society, it is clear that nowhere near 96% of the people know who God is, let alone live in a relationship with Him that we might call "faith".  So, it seems obvious that whatever they are calling "believe" is significantly different from what the Church calls "believe", or what the Bible means when it uses the word.  It also seems plain that we don't all mean the same thing by the word "God."

Of course, we knew that.  Islam means "Allah."  Hindu's have a number of deities, prominent among them is Vishnu and Siva.  Buddhists don't believe in a deity of any sort, generally.  Jews worship a deity who is not the Trinity, although they use the Old Testament still.  Jehovah's Witnesses have their "Jehovah-God" who is also not of the Trinity, and Mormons have their gods who have bodies - each one - of their own.  The word "god", in fact, is generally used to refer to any one of a number of deities, and by some to refer to a metaphysically superior being of indeterminate nature and origin and power – meaning that they do not know who or what they refer to when they say "God", it is just a word that refers to "something".

In such a diverse context, we need to be careful to be clear about what we mean when we use this language.  We need to be clear about precisely who we mean by the word "God".  We need to be clear about what is true and what is not.  Theology is properly the task of making distinctions and definitions to help be clear and communicate clearly.  Part of the question that needs to be answered in our culture today is addressed in our text.  That question is "What does it mean to ‘have a God'?".  Our theme this morning is the answer – what it means to have a God.

Now listen to the text again carefully.  "Who is a God like Thee, who pardons iniquity and passes over the rebellious act of the remnant of His possession?  He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in unchanging love.  He will again have compassion on us; He will tread our iniquities under foot.  Yes, Thou wilt cast all their sins Into the depths of the sea.  Thou wilt give truth to Jacob and unchanging love to Abraham, which Thou didst swear to our forefathers from the days of old."

What was Micah talking about?  What was the focus of his description of God? —  —  He spoke about God's forgiveness.  He talked about God's forgiveness and His "unchanging love."
What distinguishes our God from all the other so-called God's?  Forgiveness and love.  And how does that make our God unique?  He is a God whose attitude toward His children is love and compassion, and whose will is to bless.

The other Gods are terrifying.  Men sacrifice children and virgins to them.  People are terrified of them.  All they want to do is satisfy them and avoid their gaze.  Look at Islam.  The women are strictly controlled, covered, and fearful, with good reason.  Their religion gives the men the authority to kill them for any infraction of the will of Allah.  Children are chained to dungeon walls and beaten and forced to memorize the Koran word for word under the threat of brutality or death.  Even the men live in fear of being found to be "not quite zealous enough."  Islam is so rigorous and inhibiting that the people who worship Allah can easily strap bombs to their bodies and die rather than continue life in this world.  This behavior isn't an aberration in Islam like the war in Ireland was for Christians, where two political factions divided on the lines of religion make war, this is Islam wherever it is practiced.

Other religions are no better.  Hindus are terrified of Siva.  Siva is the god - or goddess of destruction.  Hindus believe they are caught up in a cruel and nearly endless cycle of re-incarnation, always seeking Nirvana - the state of perfection which allows them to merge into the great cosmic unity and lose their individuality and consciousness.  They long to cease to exist, and they live in terror and in the depressing theological certainty that life is empty, painful, and meaningless. 

Modern Jews feel like perpetual victims, and their religion no longer looks forward to a real Messiah.  God is awesome and angry, in their religion, and many of them believe He is no longer paying attention.  The book, "When Bad Things Happen to Good People," was written 30 years ago by a Rabbi. It said that God doesn't want bad things to happen, but He doesn't have the power to stop them.  Every other religion has a God that is angry and punishing, or distracted and unconcerned.  Salvation, to most of them, is just unconsciousness.  No more fear, and no more pain, and no more thinking!

Our God is good.  His will is tender and gentle and saving.  He wants to bless us and strengthen us and help us.  And this God I describe is not merely the God of modern America; of the rich and pampered and comfortable.  Actually, the rich and the comfortable usually reject Him and walk in their own futility.  This is the God of the Apostles and of Luther – of times in human history as difficult and dangerous as any place in the Muslim world today.  This is the God whose people rejoiced in His goodness and delighted in His blessings.  Because of their faith in Him, Christians established (by His blessing) what we call modern science and developed all the technology we find so convenient and pleasant today.

What does it mean to have a God?  Luther said that it means to look to Him for every good and blessing and only for good and blessing.  That is why the prophet celebrates God's forgiveness.  When our sins are forgiven, nothing stands in the way of God pouring out His abundant blessings on His people.  Forgiveness means good things, good times, great blessings.  It means that God's favor and love are focused on us.  When we believe we are forgiven.  We expect God to be good.  We expect God to be on our side, fighting every battle for us.  We expect life to be the best that life can be because God loves us.  He is not angry with us.  He does not wish to see us suffer or be hurt.  He has no ill will or evil thoughts toward us at all.  That's what it means to have a God.

Sadly, even some who call themselves "Christians" don't really have a god.  They have an academic appreciation of the contents of Scriptures.  They have a faith in the history, that it is true.  They have a timorous assent to propositions of low probability, but they do not have a god – at least not our God.  They fear tomorrow.  They expect failure.  They worry about having enough or getting by, as though they must tiptoe past misfortune for fear that it might awaken and wreak havoc on us.  They await the dropping of the other shoe – God is going to punish them, they say.  Wealth and health and happiness are unnatural conditions they have enjoyed far too long, and now they are uneasily certain that their run of good "luck" is about to end and the roof will cave in on them and God will deal with them just as they deserve.

I suspect that some of you may think that way.  But what it means to have a God is to trust Him and expect His love and goodness.  It means to look to Him for blessing and good.  It means that we expect life to be more a delight than a problem – although, for reason of sin, we know that life will have its pains and troubles.  But our sins have been forgiven because of Jesus and the cross, and so we expect God to be good – and when we need something, some good or blessing, the first and only place we look for it is God.  That is what it means to have a God.

And we have good reason to expect these wonderful things!  Micah said He will again have compassion on us; He will tread our iniquities under foot.  Well, our reason for such optimism is that He has had compassion on us and He has tread our iniquities underfoot.  He did it in Jesus.

God sent His only Son into the flesh, and took on our human nature in every way, except sin.  He lived just as any one of us might, and He did it in one of the less advanced and comfortable times of human history.  He wrestled with the devil, both face to face in the wilderness and in daily life and temptation, and still kept the whole will and Law of God perfectly.  Then He claimed our sins and the judgment due to us for our sins and He died.  He took our sins on Himself, and allowed us to nail Him to the cross, and He died there as payment of the penalty we have earned for sin.

Then He rose from the grave.  He rose just as Scripture promise that He would.  His resurrection was God's public proclamation that Sin was settled, we have been redeemed and forgiven, and our iniquity has been "passed over".

The result is that we are forgiven.  He has compassion on us, and He has tread our iniquities under His feet.  Micah wrote, Who is a God like Thee, who pardons iniquity and passes over the rebellious act of the remnant of His possession?  He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in unchanging love.   The answer, of course, is that there is no other God who pardons.  The anger of our God is trumped by His unchanging love.  He delights in loving us.  He calls us by name in Baptism and makes us His children.  He adopts us into His family!  You can search the literature of the world's religions and not find a God who makes His people His family, and claims them as His own children!

Then He nurtures us in the Word and feeds us with heavenly food.  Here in this holy supper, He fills us with Himself - the very body given for us, and the very blood shed for us.  He hides them beneath the form of bread and wine, to be sure, but they are there.  Faith takes God at His Word and knows what good things it receives in this Sacrament.  But make no mistake about it, whoever eats at this altar eats the body of the Lord and drinks His blood.  It does not require faith to do so at this altar – all it requires is participation.

Faith is required, however, to lay hold of the blessings of this holy meal.  Unbelief receives the precious gifts of Christ's body and blood, but it receives them blasphemously, receiving them without understanding, without appropriate thanksgiving, receiving them as though the gifts offered were merely cookies and Kool-Aide.  That is why we practice closed communion.  We do not wish to see anyone receive from our holy table the judgment of God in their ignorance where there should be blessing and health.  And God has promised that the one who eat and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself, if he does not discern the body present in the Sacrament.

It is all part of what it means to have a God.  It means to look to Him for every blessing and to expect from Him only blessing.  When we have a God, we have peace, and confidence, and hope.  It means to take Him at His Word and to trust Him to do precisely what He says that He will do, and to give us all that He has promised to give.  To have a God means to be confident that God is in control and His will for us is good.

And what is His will for us? (our salvation.)

And that is what it means to have a God.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Correction, Instruction, and Understanding

Proverbs 9:1-10
Wisdom has built her house, She has hewn out her seven pillars; She has prepared her food, she has mixed her wine; She has also set her table; She has sent out her maidens, she calls From the tops of the heights of the city: "Whoever is naive, let him turn in here!"  To him who lacks understanding she says, "Come, eat of my food, And drink of the wine I have mixed.  Forsake your folly and live, And proceed in the way of understanding."

He who corrects a scoffer gets dishonor for himself, And he who reproves a wicked man gets insults for himself.  Do not reprove a scoffer, lest he hate you, Reprove a wise man, and he will love you.  Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser, Teach a righteous man, and he will increase his learning.
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.

Sermon for the Second Sunday after Trinity                             6/21/20
Correction, Instruction, and Understanding

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
Some texts are easier to preach than others, just as some sermons are easier to hear than others.  The lesson from Proverbs this morning would be great for a theological lecture.  It has so many interesting facets.  As a sermon text, however, it covers too much ground.  It would be easy to get off the track and turn it into a moral lecture.  It also would be just as easy to ignore the words and preach a nice, happy little sermon.  The challenge of the text for me is to avoid either extreme and preach the Word of God before us as a pastor.  The challenge before you is to listen and to hear what it has to say.  Our theme, this morning, is Correction, Instruction, and Understanding.

At first glance, it looks like some sort of anthropomorphizing analogy about Wisdom, followed by a warning about the dangers inherent in teaching mockers.  I am tempted to ignore the first half of the text.  That is where the lecture material comes in.  If you read this chapter of Proverbs, however, you will find that at this end Wisdom is inviting the naive, and at the other end of the chapter, Folly makes her invitation.  One way is the way of life, the other way is the way of death.

And where do we find ourselves?  Reality offers us two "invitations".  We always confront the choices of right or wrong, of wisdom or foolishness, of faith or doubt, of faithfulness or rebellion.  This is, in a sense, where we live.  The invitation is extended to the "naive".  The Hebrew word there means "simple".  The invitation is to the young and simple, to the inexperienced and what Rush Limbaugh calls "young skulls full of mush."  Most of us are no longer inexperienced and naive.  We still hear the siren call of Folly, however, always inviting us to sin, always asking us to act as though we have no compass and no understanding.

That would be out of character, though.  That is one of the realities that grown-up Christians need to learn to face.  Sin and "folly" are out of character for the child of God.  They are unnatural, since we have been redeemed and set free from sin into the freedom of the children of God.  We who might consider ourselves mature Christians are those who have eaten at the table of Wisdom.  The new Christians and the young people among us are the ones to whom the invitation is spoken.

Wisdom has built her house.  It would be tempting to say that you are sitting in it, but that is not precisely true.  We, who are Christians, are the house.  1 Peter 2:4-5: "And coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected by men, but choice and precious in the sight of God, you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ."  We are the house of God, the house that Wisdom built.  The seven pillars are the Seven-fold Spirit, the one called the "Septiform Spirit", "the Spirit of the LORD, The spirit of wisdom and understanding, The spirit of counsel and strength, The spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD," named in Isaiah 11:2.  These pillars have been "hewn out" by being poured out on Jesus, the author of our faith, and the cornerstone of the Church.

Remember, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom."  That "fear of the Lord" means "Faith".  True Wisdom is built on knowing God, and trusting Him, and seeing the world through the knowledge of God.  This is not a natural perspective.  It is not even automatic for mature Christians.  It is a perspective that we learn, and one which we must daily set before ourselves.  It means to be deliberately a Christian, to choose to walk in the light of forgiveness, and the consciousness of our own weakness and susceptibility to sin.  "Proceed in the way of understanding," the text says.

The way of understanding is the way of the Gospel, through the passageways of the Law.  That is why the invitation is directed to the naive.  Generally, by the time you have gotten to your forties or fifties, or beyond, you have heard the invitations of both Wisdom and Folly, and you have accepted one or the other.  That is why the text speaks about the dangers of teaching the "scoffer" and the "wicked man".

Correction is one of the things that God's Wisdom does.  We are sinful men and women, and so we are always wrong, by nature.  And correction is never fun.  Being told that you are sinful, that perfectly natural passions and reactions to things are sin and death is both frightening and irritating.  The child of God takes the correction to heart, repents, and seeks forgiveness.  The scoffer and the wicked man just take offense and try to make it stop by creating as much havoc and pain in the lives of those they see as responsible for their correction as they can. 

The scoffer attacks what he sees as restrictions on his or her freedom.  The wicked man (or woman) simply attacks anything holy because having holiness nearby makes the wicked conscious of the evil nature of their wickedness.  They don't want to be seen as wicked or treated as the wicked people that they are – so they strike, they attack, they seek to humiliate, enrage and destroy – to turn away anyone they see as correcting them or reproving them, or to bring them down to their own level.

Scoffers are those who know better.  They are the free-thinkers.  They can see that old-fashioned religion and doctrines of the past are out of date, too conservative, and no longer relevant.  They scoff at God.  They scoff at faith, They scoff at truth.  They know a better, brighter, more modern and more acceptable way.  The wicked are those who do not believe, and do not care to be guided by truth.  They want to do what they want to do, and no one had better get in their way.  If you correct or reprove either of these you will find insults, scorn, derision, and hatred.

The wise man is the righteous man who takes correction to heart, who is instructed by the discipline of God, and who delights in learning because what he is learning is truth, and how to see himself and all of life through the perspective of the truth.  The wise man is the righteous man because, in this passage, wisdom is faith - "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom".  And faith is the means appointed by God to receive forgiveness, and the righteousness of Christ.

The "wise man" of our text is the Christian, whose hope is in the Lord, and whose greatest treasure is forgiveness, life and salvation.  Each of us would like to claim our place among those "wise" men, and yet I would guess that none of us feel that our forgiveness or salvation is always our greatest treasure.  We probably feel that way some of the time, and we know that it is true, but we don't feel it all of the time.

That is where reproof and correction come in.  That is why the text says Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser, Teach a righteous man, and he will increase his learning.  The Christian knows that he is not complete yet.  The more we know about God, the more we can believe.  And correction straightens us out and helps us stand firm and faithful, so we receive it gladly – even when it is painful and irritating.  The wise know that the problem is sin, not the correction, and not the one who is reproving us.

Having the beginning of wisdom, we press on to know the Lord, as the prophet Hosea encourages us in Hosea 6:3.  We seek to grow in wisdom and maturity, as Hebrews 6:1 instructs us.  We seek to grow not just because we want to get to heaven, but because, as our text says, the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.

What that means is that the better we know God, and understand His will and His ways, the more sense we can make of life.  Life isn't as terrifying, and it isn't as frustrating when we trust God. We know that God is providing for us and protecting us because of His great love for us – so we can be confident in every situation when we walk by faith.

We have, through our faith, sin and death stripped of their powers.  Christ has died our death, and we shall live His life.  That is "Wisdom".  That is what the proverb speaks about.  Wisdom answers the questions with Christ.  The uncertainties of this life are settled in knowing the will of God and trusting His promises and His care and keeping.  And what is the will of God? [Our Salvation.]

See how wise you are?  And doesn't it make life better, and make you happy to know that God's will is focused on your salvation?  The more you know about God and how He works among us and in us and through us, the deeper your faith – the more powerful it is in comforting you, in guiding you, in helping you live daily as the child of God in this dark and sinful world.

Faith comes by hearing the Word of God, and so, if we understand that faith is what the Proverbs refer to as wisdom,  Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser.  And, if you Teach a righteous man (a Christian, man or woman, made righteous by the forgiveness of sins in Christ Jesus), he will increase his learning.
The alternatives are Wisdom and Folly.  Since Wisdom is faith, Folly is unbelief.  Folly is sin.  Folly is the temptation to do what feels good, and reach for all the gusto you can get.  Folly says that it is my life and my body and I can do what I darn well please.  Folly is all those things we hear people say to look good or sound good, to justify themselves rather than confess and repent of their sins and be truly cleansed.  It is the natural way of life to men and women who are by nature sinful.  The proverb says, There is a way which seems right to a man, But its end is the way of death.  Actually two proverbs say it, in the same words - Proverbs 14:12 and Proverbs 16:25.  The way of death is easy and natural.  The way of wisdom is difficult and sometimes painful, and sometimes embarrassing, and sometimes humiliating because it involves correction - and repentance - and humility.  Jesus said, "Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide, and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter by it.  For the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it."  The narrow gate is the gate of Wisdom, the gate where we find Correction, Instruction and Understanding.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)

Sunday, June 14, 2020

How to be Righteous

Genesis 15:1-6
After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, saying, "Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you; Your reward shall be very great."  And Abram said, "O Lord GOD, what wilt Thou give me, since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?"  And Abram said, "Since Thou hast given no offspring to me, one born in my house is my heir."  Then behold, the word of the LORD came to him, saying, "This man will not be your heir; but one who shall come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir."  And He took him outside and said, "Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them."  And He said to him, "So shall your descendants be."  Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.

Sermon for The First Sunday After Trinity                             6/14/20
How To Be Righteous

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

Abraham had a problem.  He had no heir.  In the ancient world, that was a big problem.  Someone had to inherit.  Governments had not yet learned to be confiscatory.    It was the duty of the head of the house to select an heir and make his selection known before he died.  Abraham had been promised an heir, but so far, no such luck.

God knew what was on his mind.  God came to visit with Abraham  – still called Abram at the time, and greeted him in a vision with the promise and the word of their relationship.  Abram's response was something less than cordial.  He said, in effect, "Oh sure!  How am I going to get all of these blessings?  I have no heir, and I am getting old.  It looks like I am going to have to leave my stuff to my servant Eliezer of Damascus.  So How am I going to get all of this reward?"  Abraham was looking for family and offspring.  Having no sons was considered a sign of the curse of God.  The last thing on the mind of Abram was how to be "righteous."  But that is our theme this morning.  I invite you to consider our Old Testament lesson, this morning and see what it reveals to us about How To Be Righteous.

Abram was a man of faith.  Like any one of us, his faith was not always as firm as it might have been.  He had moments when the plan of God simply did not make sense to him.  He had left home and father and traveled to the promised land.  He was patiently waiting for the promise, but it had been ten or twelve years.  He was now in his late eighties.  Sarai was getting no younger either.  It was becoming less likely that God would do what He had promised, in the mind of Abram.  It was certainly seeming to be less possible.

God knew the weakness of Abram and saw that he needed to be encouraged, so God spoke to Abram in a vision, repeating the promise and inviting Abram to speak and ask and hear and believe.  Abram responded to hearing the familiar promise with his doubts and confusion over how things were progressing – over the timetable of the Lord.

And God corrected Abram.  He repeated the promise and told Abram that it would not merely be one born in his house, but one born of his seed – he would be the father of the one who would receive the promise.  He God took Abram outside, in the vision, and pointed his attention to the stars – all much more clearly visible from that place and that time than they are with all of our artificial lighting today.  Then God promised the childless man that not only would his own son inherit what God had promised, but that the line of Abraham would be too many to count, just like the stars!  And how fantastic and incredible the promise must have sounded to this old man who had never successfully fathered even one child, male or female!  But Abram believed the Lord, and God reckoned it to him as righteousness.

Now, we know from our place in history, that Abram did not understand fully the promise of God, yet.  He later thought that he could fulfill the promise with just any child he might father, which is where Hagar and Ishmael come into the story.  But Abram heard the Word of God, and he trusted God to accomplish what God promised – even though the wait was long, and nothing about his situation suggested to him that it was even possible.  And God reckoned it to Abram as righteousness, that is, God counted it or credited the trust as if Abram were a righteous man, which, on the basis of his own conduct, he was not.

Now, you have all known this story.  We have heard it over and over again.  But what does it mean for us?

It means that We can trust God to fulfill His promises to us, even when it doesn't seem very likely – or even when it doesn't seem possible.

People worry about their lives.  God knows what is happening, and worry is wasted.  It doesn't change reality.  Why worry when we can take it to the Lord, and simply trust God to be our God?

What does it mean to have a God?  It means to look to Him for good, all the good that we expect, and every good that we need.  So, when we trust God to be our God, we expect God to be good to us and do good for us and take care of us, just as He has promised over and over again.

Some people express the fear, for example, that our congregation will fail, that we will not have enough money to pay the bills and support the pastor and do the things congregations are supposed to do.  They don't trust that we will survive.  But we can trust God to fulfill every promise that He has made to us.

Now, has God made any promise to us that we will be strong and healthy as a congregation?  Has He promised success and survival for the congregation?  No.  There is no such promise.  This text tells us nothing about the survival of our congregation.

It tells us how to be righteous.  The way to be righteous is to trust God.  Abram believed the Lord, and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.  God has made many promises to us, but the one that says our life as Christians will be fun, or it will be easy, or that all of our endeavors will meet with success is simply not there.  He just promises us that if we trust in Him, He will bring us through whatever we will face, and finally take us to heaven with Him for everlasting life.

We see from the example of Abram that God keeps His promises.  We see in Jesus Christ, particularly on the cross, that God has taken sin out of the way.  Your sins are forgiven.  When you trust in God, you are righteous – but with a righteousness that comes to you from outside of yourself.  Your righteousness is Christ's righteousness because He took your sins on Himself and nailed them to the cross in His body.  When He died, you died the death that you deserved to die for your sins – you just did the dying through Him.  Now, when you live, you live His life – He just does His living through you!

The principle here is salvation by grace through faith.  Your faith is the means God has appointed for you to receive forgiveness and, therefore, perfect righteousness.  So, if you want to be righteous, you need to trust God – trust His promises, made about Jesus and about forgiveness in connection with the cross and with the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  You need to believe that Jesus was without sin and that He was and is true God.  You need to understand and believe that He died for your sins, and paid the penalty and that the resurrection of Jesus was God's declaration to the world that Jesus had satisfied the justice of God for all sin.  You need to trust the promise that because of these truths, He that believes and is baptized shall be saved.  And you need to trust that this applies to you, to your sins, and to your salvation.

And when it comes to questions like "will this congregation survive?", the answer is, "If God wills."  All we can do is to care for one another, love each other, and live in faith, trusting God to do what we need and to be our God, giving us all the good we need, and working through us that which is pleasing to Him.  I suspect this congregation will survive because we have what everyone in this community needs, the Gospel.  But our concern is first faith, and then faithfulness – "Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you."

And Abram believed the Lord, and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.  It wasn't earned by faith – Abram wasn't even looking for righteousness.  He was looking for an heir and asking God how He was going to fulfill the promises He had made to Abram.  When Abram took God at His Word and trusted God to do what He promised, God counted that confidence as righteousness.

He will count your confidence in Him as righteousness, too.  When you take to heart the absolution you hear in the service, then God does for you what you trust in Him for – not because of your faith, but through it you receive forgiveness.  When you eat and drink of the sacrament this morning, trusting the Words of Christ that here in, with, and under the form of the bread is His body, and that here, in, with, and under the wine is the very blood once shed for you, then you have what that body and blood purchased on your behalf – the forgiveness of sins.  Then, when you believe, God reckons you righteous with the righteousness of Christ.  You don't possess that gift because you believe, but through your faith.  You have it because Jesus won it for you, and because God is pleased to pour out His grace on us, and because God has chosen to reckon faith to us as righteousness.

People come to church for a lot of reasons.  They may not be sure what they are searching for, but they have come here in their search.  But, no matter why you have come, or how often, God reckons your trust in Him and in His promises, where it exists, as righteousness.  He forgives you every sin for Christ's sake.  He pours out grace and life and salvation upon you and calls you His own child

Abram was the pattern – the fancy word is "paradigm."  He believed and it was accounted to Him as righteousness.  God promises the same thing to us – John at the end of his Gospel writes, "Many other signs therefore Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name."  Faith in God and His promises and His love – that is how to be righteous.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)

Sunday, June 07, 2020

The ONE Important Detail

Isaiah 6:1-7
In the year of King Uzziah's death, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple.  Seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings; with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.  And one called out to another and said, "Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory."  And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke.

Then I said, "Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I live among a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts."  Then one of the seraphim flew to me, with a burning coal in his hand which he had taken from the altar with tongs.  And he touched my mouth with it and said, "Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away, and your sin is forgiven."

Sermon for Trinity Sunday                                              6/07/20
The One Important Detail
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

This is Trinity Sunday.  Today we take time to consider God as He has revealed Himself.   The best explanation of the Trinity is found in the Athanasian Creed.

It is one of the Lutheran Confessions.  It isn't ours alone.  We call it one of the "ecumenical" creeds because every Christian church either uses it or believes and confesses what it says.  If a church body, or even an individual "Christian", so-called, does not share that confession and does not believe what the Athanasian Creed says, that church or that person is not Christian, no matter how much "Jesus-Talk" they use, and no matter what they say.

Our text is the Old Testament Lesson appointed for Trinity Sunday.  In it, Isaiah details a vision of God.  Our theme is The One Important Detail.

One important detail?  Which one?  Isaiah gives us a lot of details.  He tells us when he had the vision, at least to the year.  We have this verbal description of the throne of God, and the train of the robe of God filling the temple.  We have the description of the Seraphim and hear their cry.  Isaiah tells us of the volume and power of their praise to God, and he tells us of the reaction he had to the entire vision.  Which details are significant?

All of them are significant.  Most are symbols.  The train filling the temple, for example, speaks of the glory of God in the temple, and of God's intended purpose for the temple.  The appearance of the angels tells us about the nature of the angels and the glory of God.  Most of the details are symbolic since they deal with invisible creatures, and with God who is only visible when He chooses to be visible.  What Isaiah saw and heard was theology in the form of object lessons.

For example, the cry of "Holy!  Holy!  Holy!' of the angels.  It is called the "Ter Sanctus", the "three holies" literally.  Some people imagine that it is just the way religious talk works, that the angels repeat themselves like that.  But it is more than that.  It is the angelic reflection of the Trinitarian nature of God.  What the New Testament makes so clear, is also reflected in the Old Testament.  The Triune God can be identified in His three persons at the creation in Genesis 1.  The Trinity is reflected in the Aaronic Benediction, with the threefold "May the Lord . . .".  He is here in this song of praise, and His three-in-one-ness is suggested in the account Abraham's Visit by the Lord before the destruction of Sodom.  We can trace the revelation of God's triune nature throughout the Old Testament.

But it is true that we see the Trinity most clearly in the New Testament, at the Baptism of Jesus, for example.  The word, "Trinity" or "Triune", is a Christian invention, of course.  It doesn't appear in the Bible.  It was made up to put a label on the truths which the Bible tells us about God.  First, the Bible tells us that there is only one God.  "There is no God but one", Paul shouts in 1 Corinthians 8:4.  The fundamental confession of Israel is Deuteronomy 6:4, "Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!"  That is the "one" part of three in one.

The three part comes from the places where the Bible calls the Father God and others where they call the Son, God.  And still, others which speak of the Holy Spirit as God.  Jesus says, "I and the Father are one."  Then there is the Baptism scene, where the Father opens the heavens and speaks, the Son is standing on the shore of the Jordan, and the Holy Spirit is descending visibly to land on and rest on Jesus in the form of a dove.  That is the "three" part.

We put them together in the light of the Scriptures and we end up with the Trinity.  The rest of the details you have confessed this morning, as you spoke the words of the Athanasian Creed, have been hammered out the hard way, by theological debate, and by correcting false teachers, and by demonstrating over centuries that if you say the wrong thing here about God, the Gospel falls apart, or, if you explain God's nature without certain difficult truths, the God you end up describing is not the One in the Bible, and He fails the test of being able to save us as the Bible says He has.

That's the real issue here.  The Trinity is fundamental to the Gospel.  You can talk about forgiveness and resurrection and stuff without accepting the Trinity, but it is rather like those museum displays that look so realistic from a distance, but if you get up close, all the little imperfections make them look so terribly phony.  If you don't have the Trinity, you lose several things essential to the Gospel and how the divine economy works.  The entire issue is really about the Gospel.

And that brings us back to the one important detail.  What is the one important detail in the Old Testament Lesson?  It is part in which forgiveness of sins is pictured for us.  Isaiah cries out, "Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I live among a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts."  He confronts the holiness of God and is utterly dismayed by his own sinfulness!  If we were to face God, we would be humbled and crushed by our sins as well.  No man can see God and live, or so God tells Moses when Moses says that he wants to see God's glory.  His glory is consuming, and yet we live.  And Isaiah was being consumed by His guilt by merely seeing the vision, and not God as He is.

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, with a burning coal in his hand which he had taken from the altar with tongs.  And he touched my mouth with it and said, "Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away, and your sin is forgiven."  And this is the detail.  The angel flew to the altar in heaven – the real thing of which all earthly altars are but pale copies, and with tongs, the angel took a burning coal.  He flew with the coal and touched the lips of Isaiah and cleansed Him.  He pronounced absolution,  your iniquity is taken away, and your sin is forgiven.

The one important detail, however, is the coal on the altar.  Ask yourself, when is there a burning ember on the altar?  It is after the sacrifice!  Only after the sacrifice has been made in heaven will we find the burning coals on the altar – evidence of the sacrifice.  The burning coal tells us that before God the Father, the sacrifice of His Son, the Lamb of God, was already complete.  From eternity, God's plan was accomplished, even while mankind awaited its coming on earth.

And this one picture depicts for us the Trinity.  We have the altar of the Father, the sacrifice of the Son, and the angel - literally the "messenger" who conveys the forgiveness of sins from the altar to us.  That would be the Holy Ghost, the One who sanctifies us or makes us holy.  He brings us the same good news each week.  You hear it in the absolution.  You hear it in the proclamation of the Gospel in the sermons.  And you receive it by mouth, just as Isaiah did, only you receive it in the Blessed Sacrament.  Here in this holy meal, you receive the evidence and the fruit of the sacrifice of the very Son of God for you.  You receive it as the gift is pressed to your mouth, and your sins are forgiven, and your guilt is cleansed away, and you are enabled to stand before the living God without terror or danger.

The entire account is true, and vitally important, but the fact of the forgiveness of sins already complete eight centuries before the time of Christ, that is the most important detail.  Without the forgiveness of sins, the rest of the vision is just information that cannot use.

But now your sins are forgiven!  And Jesus has left us this sign and gift in the Holy Supper, that we may eat, and receive, and be refreshed, and forgiven and comforted.  Your sins are forgiven!  And it is possible because your God is the Triune God, who is capable of being more and doing more than you or I can imagine.

The vision of Isaiah is inspiring!  It inspired Martin Luther to write the hymn, "Isaiah, Mighty Seer, in Days of Old."  It brings to our minds a sense of the majesty of God and the wonder of heaven.  But the one important detail is the one that speaks of our forgiveness!

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)

Thursday, June 04, 2020

Non-Festival Time

The Non-Festival Time
The long, green season of Trinity is here.  Trinity Sunday, which is June 7 this year, marks the end of the festival portion of the Church year and ushers us into the non-festival portion of the year.  There are few religious holidays until we enter Advent again on November 29.   We could celebrate the beginning of Lutheranism, the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession, on June 25.  Some churches also celebrate the secular holiday of the Fourth of July, but church holidays that are generally recognized and celebrated by the Church are few and far between until we get to Reformation Day on Halloween or Thanksgiving, November 26 this year.
The non-festival part of the year is primarily because we are entering into summer.  Churches used to confirm their youth on Palm Sunday because schools let out that week-end in Europe in the olden days, so the young people would be free to help with the planting and harvesting, and all the work in between while crops grew.  Society was primarily agricultural, back then, and there were no large machines to help with the labor; just the family.  After Easter, people did not want holidays to interfere with getting the crops planted, cultivated, and harvested.  So, the church backed off the celebration stuff.
When winter comes, the crops are in, supposedly, and the people were eager to have some merriment and the occasional party.  The church supplied much of that in the old days, with Advent and Christmas and Lent and Easter for a culture that took their religion very seriously and had fewer distractions and entertainments open to them.  That all changed in the 1970s for our culture, and technology made doing farm work less child-friendly and child necessary.  These days we have many other entertainments drawing our attention away from the Church year-round, and farming tech and social media have freed young people and even many adults from the need, and often from the desire, to focus on the church and its celebrations.
The past couple of months have pushed many people farther away from church.  The COVID hysteria has created a fear in people of gathering together, and many in the church have taken it as a reason to stay home and stay away.  The latest “science” on the issue has come to the position that the lockdowns were unnecessary and perhaps even harmful.  The mask hysteria has been shown to be misplaced, as masks do not accomplish what people had been led to believe and maybe even be harmful.  The effort to “flatten the curve” took about two weeks to be successful, but people have been given more than two months to become accustomed to staying home and staying isolated, and not attending church.
First of all, “science” has been misused.  Science is the process of falsification.  It can only prove something to be wrong.  Science cannot tell us the things that the “experts” have been saying it did.  The “experts” counted on people not understanding that and being baffled by the use of the word.  And they were.
It should have become apparent to people when the science was shown to be so wrong time and time again.  The death toll was wrong – greatly exaggerated.  The use of masks was said to be bad for you, then good for you, then necessary for you, and is now known to be harmful to healthy people.  In spite of science and common sense, our governors were forcing infected people into nursing homes where contagion spreads easily, causing the unnecessary deaths of many elderly.  Science can only learn by trial and error, and when no one knew what to expect from the virus, science could not tell us anything reliably.
But Christian faith can.  In prior pandemics, even the black plague of the middle ages, Christians put their faith first.  They trusted God and understood that He would keep them – and if they were to get sick and even die, they were in the hands of their Savior and they would be in His hand for eternity.  If the worst thing that can happen – death – is also the best thing that can happen – going to heaven – they understood and firmly believed that they really had nothing to worry about.
The non-festival portion of the church year is about living the Christian life day by day.  Every Sunday is a celebration of Easter, and every day is another opportunity to show forth the glory of God in the lives of His children.  Daily life is how we serve God, worshiping Him by living out what faith in Him means, and what the forgiveness of sins does to us.  See Romans 12:1-3.  When there is no difference between the people of God and the people of the devil (which is everyone except Christians), something is amiss.
Some things are the same for everybody.  Arithmetic works the same whether you are a believer or not. One plus one equals two.  There are many things that are not changed by faith in God, although the use we put them to may be.  The challenge of the Christian life is to discern where the differences lie and what we are to make of them as God’s children.  The challenge is not unlike the “game” I play in Bible Study, when I ask, “What does it mean that your sins are forgiven?”  Anyone who has played can tell you that the answer is not a definition.  The question is not “what does this mean?”, but “So what?”
During the non-festival portion of the church year, we are tasked with seeking out what difference it makes in us and in our lives that we are Christians – Lutheran Christians in specific – while the people around us are not.  Our answers are not delivered in a paper, or out loud in a Bible class, but in our living of our lives.  It changes how we deal with one another.  It affects our response to the common challenges of life.  Everybody faces the same challenges, but as the favored people of God, forgiven and blessed in particular, we can deal with the terrors and temptations of life from the basis of what God has told us and what He has promised us and our trust in Him.
Unbelievers have no knowledge and no hope in God.  We who know Him and hope in Him should be living that knowledge and that hope out and it should make us different.  After all, if we are not different, we are the same – in hope as well as behavior.  The non-festival portion of the year gives us pause to consider that and bear witness to God by how we answer those questions.
Yours in the Lord,
Pastor Fish