Sunday, February 26, 2023

The Birth of Death

 Genesis 3:1-21

Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made.  And he said to the woman, "Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden'?"  And the woman said to the serpent, "From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it or touch it, lest you die.'"  And the serpent said to the woman, "You surely shall not die!  For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil."

When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate.  Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings.

And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.  Then the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, "Where are you?"  And he said, "I heard the sound of Thee in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself."  And He said, "Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?" And the man said, "The woman whom Thou gavest to be with me, she gave me from the tree, and I ate."  Then the LORD God said to the woman, "What is this you have done?"  And the woman said, "The serpent deceived me, and I ate."

And the LORD God said to the serpent, "Because you have done this, Cursed are you more than all cattle, and more than every beast of the field; on your belly shall you go, and dust shall you eat all the days of your life; and I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise Him on the heel."

To the woman He said, "I will greatly multiply your pain in childbirth, in pain you shall bring forth children; yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you."

Then to Adam He said, "Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree about which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat from it'; Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life.  Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field; by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, ‘till you return to the ground, because from it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

Now the man called his wife's name Eve, because she was the mother of all the living.  And the LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them.

Sermon for Invocavit – the First Sunday in Lent               2/26/23

The Birth of Death

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

Everything in human experience has a beginning and an end.  Nothing is forever, except God – and now, in Jesus Christ, the new and everlasting life which He pours out on us and which we receive by grace through faith.

Even death had a beginning.  It seems strange to think of it that way.  We tend to think of death as an end, not a "creature" that might have a beginning.  But it is!  Death was not part of the original design.  It is a "thing" in the eyes of God, and it has both a beginning and an end.  The beginning of death – and of things dying, and of corruption, and decay – is in our text this morning.  The end of death is in Jesus Christ, in His victory over sin and death and hell.  He is the Death of death.  Our text this morning describes for us the Birth of Death.

"The wages of sin is death."  Adam had been commanded not to eat of a specific tree.  God had freely invited him to eat from every bush and tree in the garden – just leave the one in the center alone.  Do not eat from it, for it is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and on the day that you eat of it you will surely die!  You have to admit that it was pretty simple, straight forward, and clear.  Break this one rule and you will die, just like St. Paul says, millennia later, in Romans 6:23.

Of course, we don't know if they had any concept of "good" or "evil."  The tree was supposed to be the tree of that knowledge.  But I suspect that they understood the concepts – at least as much as a definition.  What they lacked was the personal experience of evil.  They knew about it like you know about space-walking.  But you just don't know space-walking until you have done your own "extra-vehicular activity" in orbit around the earth.

Similarly, we cannot be sure how they understood death at that point in time.  There was none yet.  Nothing died.  Nothing.  If they had not sinned, we would be able to find them and meet them, and see the ‘famous' trees, and walk in the still fresh garden, probably on the same grass as they first walked on!  It seems reasonable, however, to imagine that God gave them a conceptual understanding of death – or dying, otherwise, the threat of the commandment would have been empty and meaningless.

It might as well have been, considering their response to it.  Of course, who are we to judge?  We know the truth of death, and we have lifetimes full of experience with evil and the consequences of sin and evil, but that doesn't make us more careful, or more moral.  We continue to do things that place us under the same curse as Adam and Eve – and we haven't had to face the full wiles of the devil in person, not yet.

The Old Snake was tricky that day.  Did you ever think about the fact that when we refer to someone as "a snake," we are doing so because of this encounter with the devil?  Deliberate deceit for wicked purpose is what we call "being a snake".  The serpent in the garden was very clever.  He began, as the devil always begins, with the question: "Did God really say . . .?"  He questioned the Word of God, and when Eve answered with the Word, he questioned her exegesis.

He started by suggesting that God and His Word were a little radical and unfair – God didn't really say that, did He?"  To Eve's credit, she confessed what God had said.  To her sorrow, she added to the Word.  She said that God had forbidden even touching the fruit.  In her answer, she revealed that she had accepted the devil's emotional premise that God was extreme and unfair, even while she supported the commandment as being from God.  After that, she was like fruit, ripe for the picking.

The devil then questioned her understanding of the Word of God, and suggested that it didn't really mean what she thought, that it didn't apply to her the way it sounded like it applied, and that here was some advantage in disregarding God's clear Word and doing her own thing.  I know, you probably think I am being silly about this – that it was disobeying the rules that was the problem, but it was not.  The Law is never the real problem, it just makes the truth of our spiritual condition evident.  Look at what God cursed Adam for: listening to the voice of his wife.

The consequent behavior of eating the forbidden fruit is also named, but the first problem was that Adam ignored God's Word in favor of someone else's.  The problem was not that he listened to his wife.  God intended them to talk to one another.  It wasn't that it was a woman, or a wife – she was the only other person in existence.  If he was going to listen to anyone, we might imagine it would have to be her.  The problem was that her word was more authoritative for Adam than God's Word.

How was he supposed to know that she was wrong?  The same way you are to tell the true from the false – by turning to the Word of God.  She said, "Don't listen to God, you won't die, this is a good thing to do."  God said, "From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die."  Of course, Eve could say, "Look!  I ate some of the fruit, and I am not dead, am I?"  She was – and she knew it, but now she was working for Satan.  Adam listened to her words, and judged by what he saw and felt instead of judging by what the Word of God said, and took the bite that doomed us all, and gave birth to death.  Then God spoke those famous words, "By the sweat of your face You shall eat bread, Till you return to the ground, Because from it you were taken; For you are dust, And to dust you shall return."  These were the words of God which said, "You asked for it, and now you've got it.  You are going to die."  And Adam died spiritually right then – he also had earned physical death and torment in hell eternally.

And I imagine that they both felt it.  Suddenly they were conscious of being exposed – naked.  What they were feeling, although they did not understand it yet, was guilt and shame.  It felt like, "Surely everyone can see that I have done that evil thing!"  You all know the feeling, if you are honest with yourselves.  It is the fear that somebody will see it, that somebody will uncover your secret shame.  For them it came as the need to hide something, and that something was their bodies.

Then they heard God coming.  God walked with them in the garden.  It was a daily routine.  They had delighted in their communion with the heavenly Father.  I suspect that when He walked with them, that He used a physical form, and it was probably the form the world would one day know as Jesus, but that much is pure speculation.  In any case, the Scripture tells us that they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.  They heard, and, for the first time, they were frightened.  They felt the grip of guilt and sin and death, even if they did not recognize what it was – although I suspect they did.

I suspect that they knew what it was they were feeling.  I suspect that they were saying to themselves how now they knew evil, and once they had known good, and so the devil had tricked them.  He had not made them wiser, he has simply enticed them into exchanging the experience of being  good and holy for the new experience of being evil.  And I suspect that they felt their sinfulness as a sharp pain of some sort, and knew from the very heart of their being that they were dead, even while they lived.  We don't feel it because we were born dead, and our flesh continues in that death until it finishes with it and dies and is buried.  They gave birth to death, on that day.

I am pretty sure that they knew it, because when God asked Adam "Who told you that you were naked?  Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?", Adam began the blame game.  It was the woman – the one You gave meHe blamed God! – and Eve, of course.  Eve, in turn, blamed the snake.  God held everyone accountable.  He cursed the Serpent.  Leglessness for snakes is not simply a curse, it is a reminder for us of the garden and what happened there.  There is something about snakes that cause unease and even fear in people.  That is left-over from the garden.

The curse on the serpent, on the other hand, was aimed at the devil, and became a Gospel promise – the first Gospel promise – for us.  "And I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, And you shall bruise him on the heel."  It is wonderfully complete!  It promises the coming Savior.  It suggests the Virgin Birth (the seed of woman).  It speaks of the unreasoning hostility of the world, of sinful man, toward Jesus and all that is His.  It tells us that in the battle, the devil will strike, but not the fatal blow, and Jesus will utterly destroy the devil and all that is His.  

And Adam and Eve heard this curse on the serpent as the promise of divine intervention and salvation, just as you should.  How do I know this?  Chapter 4, verse 1.  Eve gives birth to her first child, and she calls him "I have gotten a man, the Lord." - that is what "Cain" meant.  She was wrong in identifying Cain as the savior – talk about mistaken identity, but she showed that she was believing God's promise, and already looking for the One.

Then God delivered a little taste of death to woman, probably to keep her eyes fixed on the goal.  He gave her pain in childbirth, and set in motion that complex of emotions and needs that sin has turned into the battle of the sexes.

Then God turned to Adam.  Because Adam did not obey the Word of God, or honor God by faithfulness, God cursed the entire creation.  He cursed it with corruption and death and the difficulties we call "work".  He made what had been a joy, and natural and good into toil, and sweat and trouble.  He created what we now call "Murphy's Law."  "If anything can go wrong, it will."  God said it this way, "Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree about which I commanded you, saying, 'You shall not eat from it'; Cursed is the ground because of you; In toil you shall eat of it All the days of your life.  Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you; And you shall eat the plants of the field."

Gone were the easy and delightful fruits of the trees.  Now it would be work, heavy work like a farmer.  Now it would be the plants of the field, and the sweat of the brow.  And things won't grow easy, like they did – and weeds will happen.  This too was a little piece of death every day to keep us remembering that we died on that day, even if we did not stop breathing right off the bat.  It is all so that we remember about sin and death, so we place our hope in the promise, and rest on God, and work at doing faithfulness.  And learn that we should listen to God when He speaks!

Well, the Savior came.  He died, but rose from the dead, so the wound Satan administered was less than death and destruction.  But by His death and rising to life again, He has put to death the devil and vanquished sin, and killed death once and for all!  Your sins have been forgiven, and you have been given eternal life once again in your Baptism.  We don't get to see it or feel it, just like the Tree did not look as deadly as it was, to Adam and Eve.  God wants us to do what Adam and Eve did not, on that sorry day.  He wants us to trust Him, to take Him at His Word, and believe.

He hasn't even put a tree before us, or any law.  He tells us, instead, that He loves us.  He proved that love by sending His Son to become one of us, to live among us even though the sin of men and women must have been ever-so-offensive to Him in His holiness, and then to die for us.  He told Adam and Eve, "You have life – over there is death, stay away!"  He tells us, "You are dead, over here is life!  Listen to Me and take Me at my Word – and trust Me."

So, listen to the Word of God – and believe.  Take heed, and take a warning from God's account of the birth of death.

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

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

A Wounded Savior for a Wounded People

 Joel 2:12-19

"Yet even now," declares the LORD, "Return to Me with all your heart, And with fasting, weeping, and mourning; And rend your heart and not your garments."  Now return to the LORD your God, For He is gracious and compassionate, Slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness, And relenting of evil.  Who knows whether He will not turn and relent, And leave a blessing behind Him, Even a grain offering and a libation For the LORD your God?  Blow a trumpet in Zion, Consecrate a fast, proclaim a solemn assembly, Gather the people, sanctify the congregation, Assemble the elders, Gather the children and the nursing infants.  Let the bridegroom come out of his room And the bride out of her bridal chamber.  Let the priests, the LORD'S ministers, Weep between the porch and the altar, And let them say, "Spare Thy people, O LORD, And do not make Thine inheritance a reproach, A byword among the nations. Why should they among the peoples say, ‘Where is their God?'"  Then the LORD will be zealous for His land, And will have pity on His people.  And the LORD will answer and say to His people, "Behold, I am going to send you grain, new wine, and oil, And you will be satisfied in full with them; And I will never again make you a reproach among the nations."

Sermon for Ash Wednesday                                                           2/22/23

A Wounded Savior for a Wounded People

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

This year our sermon series theme is based on the prophecy in Isaiah 53:5,  But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.  Our series theme is "He Was Wounded for Our Transgressions".

Lent is a penitential season.  It is a time for us to consider again how deep our need for a Savior is, and recalling our sins, and the great price they demanded, we should repent.  With that Lenten emphasis in mind, we will consider aspects of the wounds of Christ on our behalf.  We will examine how our sins have wounded Him or added to the suffering of the Passion of our Lord.  Tonight we consider the wounds of Christ under the theme, A Wounded Savior for a Wounded People.

The book of the prophet Joel is generally believed to have been written between the time of the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the final destruction of Jerusalem – in other words, between 721 B.C. and 585 B.C.   The situation in Judah is not too unlike our situation today - things are not going well, and people are frightened, and Joel is calling on the people to repent, in order that, possibly, God will relent from their troubles and they will find peace and prosperity again.

Scholars believe that among the problems the prophet Joel was facing was a famine caused by a swarm of locusts and drought and wildfires as a result.  Judah was no longer the great and glorious kingdom, but a small, relatively insignificant nation on the world scene, beset by neighboring countries and their expansionist plans, a struggling economy at home.

Remarkably, Joel begins this section of his text with an appeal from God and an offer of blessings:  "Yet even now," declares the LORD, "Return to Me with all your heart, And with fasting, weeping, and mourning; And rend your heart and not your garments."  The implied promise is that if they humble themselves and repent sincerely - if they rend their hearts and not just their garments - that God will relent and turn from the troubles they have been experiencing and bless them with good.  So Joel writes, Now return to the LORD your God, For He is gracious and compassionate, Slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness, And relenting of evil.

The body of this prophecy is a detailed description of what true repentance might look like.  He calls the people to a fast – not to starving in the midst of a famine, but to setting aside the food they do have, for a time, and showing the depth of the sincerity of their repentance.  He calls for people of every age - he mentions the elders and he names the nursing babes.  He summons them to set aside their daily routines and the seemingly important things of their lives to return to their God, calling even the bridegroom from his wedding preparations, and the bride from her bridal chamber to come out and humble themselves and repent, and call upon the Lord for mercy.

For us, the call would be the same: set aside the ordinary business of life and repent!  He might focus on other things, on jobs or on trips to visit family or go to the doctor.  He would call us from our favorite activities, from any of the dozens of things that crowd our lives and slowly squeeze time for Bible study and prayer out of our days.  He would call us to gather and repent, that we, too, might see days of blessings and abundance again.

Except, our relationship with God is not a national covenant, and we ought not to be dealing with God for merely external goods.  We have an abundance, like almost no other time in history.  Oh, sure, a couple of years ago, the economy was clicking along, and people were more optimistic and people were enjoying their blessings.  Except they were not giving thanks as they surely ought to.  And they were taking the abundance for granted, as permission to accumulate toys and fancy clothes, and to take long trips and such-like.  Most didn't receive the blessings in order to serve the Lord more fully, or to help our less fortunate brother out.  We took it as a personal treat to be spent on our own pleasures.  We lived like kings – better than most kings in human history – and dreamed that it would go on for the rest of our lives.

Today things look spooky.  The economy is tanking.  Consumer confidence is down, inflation is getting worse, and gloom is dominating the national psyche.  For most of us, things haven't really changed - except our mood.  But we need to be aware that we depend on God's blessings, or else things can go really bad really fast.  Just as He did through Joel, God calls us to repent.  We need to set aside the ordinary things of life, and take time to confess our sins and sincerely ask God for forgiveness and blessing.

Chief of all the blessings we need is faith.  We need to remember the One who was prophesied, the One who was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities.  He bore our sins on the cross to rescue us, not from a bad economy or from the gloomy prospects of the future of America, but from our sins and from the condemnation we have so richly deserved.  We don't have to wait and wonder, as did the people of the time of Joel, to see if God will turn and bless us.  He has done it already!  He has forgiven us by the death and resurrection of Jesus, and has filled us with the hope of resurrection from our graves and of life everlasting with Him in glory.

Whether the economy rebounds or continues to sink, we have the final and ultimate questions answered already.  Perhaps God will raise up again the good life and we shall celebrate abundance in this life again, but even if He does not, we can celebrate forgiveness, life, and salvation!  As Job declared, "Behold, how happy is the man whom God reproves, So do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.  For He inflicts pain, and gives relief; He wounds, and His hands also heal."

We are a wounded people, in need of the wounded Savior.  The difference between us and Him, however is that our wounds are self-inflicted, and although He bore them willingly, His wounds are ours – Surely He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.

The hope of the people in Joel's time was that God would return prosperity and abundance to them.  Our hope is that He will sustain us in faith, forgive us our sins, and count us worthy for Christ's sake to be His holy people and serve Him here in time and there in eternity.  We know that He returned to bless them back then, and we can be confident that He will bless us now, for Christ's sake.

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

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Grace Illustrated

 1 Samuel 16:1-13

1 Now the LORD said to Samuel, "How long will you grieve over Saul, since I have rejected him from being king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and go; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have selected a king for Myself among his sons." 2 But Samuel said, "How can I go? When Saul hears of it, he will kill me." And the LORD said, "Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the LORD.' 3 "And you shall invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for Me the one whom I designate to you." 4 So Samuel did what the LORD said, and came to Bethlehem. And the elders of the city came trembling to meet him and said, "Do you come in peace?" 5 And he said, "In peace; I have come to sacrifice to the LORD. Consecrate yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice." He also consecrated Jesse and his sons, and invited them to the sacrifice.

6 Then it came about when they entered, that he looked at Eliab and thought, "Surely the LORD's anointed is before Him." 7 But the LORD said to Samuel, "Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart." 8 Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. And he said, "Neither has the LORD chosen this one." 9 Next Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, "Neither has the LORD chosen this one." 10 Thus Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel. But Samuel said to Jesse, "The LORD has not chosen these." 11 And Samuel said to Jesse, "Are these all the children?" And he said, "There remains yet the youngest, and behold, he is tending the sheep." Then Samuel said to Jesse, "Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here." 12 So he sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, with beautiful eyes and a handsome appearance. And the LORD said, "Arise, anoint him; for this is he." 13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers; and the Spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day forward. And Samuel arose and went to Ramah.

Sermon for Quinquagesima                  2/19/23

Grace Illustrated

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

The word "grace" has about a dozen definitions.  Some are precise and some are sloppy.  Some are illustrations and some are theological.  I teach my confirmation classes this; "Grace is the new attitude of favor in God toward us (sinful man) for Christ's sake." Other definitions include, "God's riches at Christ's expense," God's choices for God's reasons," and, "The unmerited gift of God, purchased by Christ on the cross."

Some define grace as if it were almost a substance, something that could be poured out on you, like the oil Samuel used to anoint David in or sermon text.  You could accumulate grace, or, sinning, lose grace.  Almost all religious uses of the term include forgiveness of sins.  My purpose this morning is not to rigorously define "grace," but to show you how our text illustrates the grace of God.

From our place in history, it is easy to dismiss the tensions that surrounded this event.  This situation was as charged politically as any could be.  Saul had disobeyed the Lord by keeping Agag the king of the Amalekites alive when God commanded that all of them be killed, and he had allowed the people to keep the best of the sheep and oxen of Amalek when God had commanded that they all be destroyed in their defeat to show the glory of the Lord.  1 Samuel 15:2-3  Thus says the LORD of hosts, 'I will punish Amalek for what he did to Israel, how he set himself against him on the way while he was coming up from Egypt.  3 'Now go and strike Amalek and utterly destroy all that he has, and do not spare him; but put to death both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.'"

Now Samuel told Saul that he was going to be replaced, so it was reasonable to expect Saul to try to thwart the prophet by killing him if he looked like he was going to do anything like that.  God did not accommodate Samuel's fears.  He told him how to approach the problem in a way that would not draw Saul's attention. But Samuel had to go and do all that the Lord told him to do.

Samuel obeyed God, but he was caught up in the cultural expectation that the oldest would be the receiver of all good things.  God said, No."  1 Samuel 16:6-7  Then it came about when they entered, that he looked at Eliab and thought, "Surely the LORD's anointed is before Him."  7 But the LORD said to Samuel, "Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart."  

So, Samuel looked at each of Jesse's sons, in order.  The only one missing was the youngest - a mere lad – who was watching the sheep in the field.  He was so young, nobody gave a thought to his being the chosen one of God  – except, of course, God.

There you have grace illustrated. The youngest son, contrary to expectations: contrary to cultural norms.  We don't have any detail as to why the family of Jesse was so honored.  God simply made His choice of all the men of Israel, an unexpected choice and difficult to explain, except the Lord chose him.  The grace of God.  Whatever we might imagine David would fall short in, the Lord would provide at the right time.  God seemed to have favored those situations that looked unlikely if not hopeless, and He would make it work.

Now let us turn to you.

You have been chosen of God, just like David.  You have been anointed by God through His spokesman, just like David.  The only difference is that you were baptized with Water and the Word – David was anointed, the sign of the choice of God (what we might call election), with oil - probably olive oil.  David was the youngest in the family, and you were chosen of God in infancy, in all likelihood.

David was chosen to become king, one day.  You were adopted into the family of God, made the brother of the very Son of God, and sealed unto everlasting life with God.  

David, of course, had to grow up, kill Goliath, do all those marvelous things Scripture tells us about, survive many years of persecution by Saul, and finally become king - although he was God's chosen king from the moment that Samuel poured oil over his head.  You are of the household of God, chosen by Him from the moment of your baptism – although you will have many years of life, of persecution , of testing, and of service to God in this world before you assume your office in glory in the resurrection.

David did nothing to earn or deserve the choice of God.  He did not always act like the chosen of God that he was.  He sinned, and needed to repent and seek God's forgiveness.  And he was forgiven, at least one time accompanied by the absolution of God spoken by Nathan the prophet.

You did nothing to deserve the choice of God either.  For most of us, it happened while we were still babies, carried about by our parents and God-parents.  None of us has acted at every moment like the chosen child of God.  Each of us has sinned, and needed to repent and seek God's forgiveness.  And we, too, have been forgiven – accompanied frequently by the absolution spoken by the man called by God to speak His Word to you – your pastor, whomever he was at the moment, called, empowered, and commanded by God to absolve you, just as I did this morning.

Your sins are forgiven because Jesus atoned for them on the cross, and died the death you deserved on your behalf, and poured out His grace - the choice of God for God's own reasons - on you.  You possess that new attitude of favor and forgiveness in God towards you, the sinner, for Christ's sake – that is because of what Christ has suffered for you.

You have done nothing to merit it, not before the fact, and not since the fact.  It is just grace - illustrated for us by Samuel anointing David, the youngest son, because he was the one God chose to be king for His own reasons.

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

Sunday, February 12, 2023

The Promise that Challenges Us

 Isaiah 55:10-13

"For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there without watering the earth, and making it bear and sprout, and furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater; so shall My word be which goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.  For you will go out with joy, and be led forth with peace; the mountains and the hills will break forth into shouts of joy before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.  Instead of the thorn bush the cypress will come up; and instead of the nettle the myrtle will come up; and it will be a memorial to the LORD, for an everlasting sign which will not be cut off."

Sermon for Sexagesima Sunday                                              2/12/23

The Promise that Challenges Us

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

Modern fund-raising techniques provide us with a good analogy for the promise of our text.  Perhaps you have heard of something called the "challenge grant."  The challenge grant is money given under the condition that the gifts of others match the amount of the grant.  The appeal usually comes to us that some anonymous person has given a grant – a challenge grant – for matching donations to the cause up to a certain dollar amount.

I want to use the challenge grant as an analogy for the promise of our text, the promise that challenges us, just as the challenge grant challenges would-be contributors.  Our theme, this morning, is the promise that challenges us.

Actually our text contains several promises, but they are not all as challenging as the one to which our theme refers.  For instance, there is the promise of joy and rejoicing and peace.  That is a promise we can all look for with eager anticipation.  Yes, it requires faith – we must believe it, but essentially, it is the promise of the Gospel.  Christians are already there.  You aren't a Christian if you don't believe the Gospel.

All the peace is about forgiveness.  We have peace with God.  We have no reason to fret or worry about eternity or our place in it.  Jesus has won eternal life for us and gives it to us.  Look at the cross and see there the payment for your sins.  You know what you have done, where you have failed.  Jesus brings us peace because the cross reminds us that there – on the cross – Jesus died for our sins and took our punishment, and bore the wrath of God against us.

That promise is the source of our joy and rejoicing as well!  We have the gift of everlasting life.  This life will end, but our life will not.  We will live with God eternally.  Even these poor, tired bodies have a promise of resurrection and renewal and being outfitted for life beyond death and without end.  This life, which is nearly over for most of us, is not the whole shooting match!  We are just beginning, and it is because of Jesus and the cross!  We have good reason for rejoicing.

The promise that challenges us is the other promise: "For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there without watering the earth, and making it bear and sprout, and furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater; so shall My word be which goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it."

The challenge of this promise is, in one sense, no different than any other.  It is the challenge to believe it.  The promise of forgiveness is a promise that either you believe it or you do not.  It doesn't task you.  You cannot feel forgiveness.  Either you accept that it is so, and are comforted, or you don't.  The promise of the resurrection is similar.  It is a promise for the future, and you don't expect to see it in this world, so either you accept it or you do not, but it matters little to day-by-day things for most people.  Life will still go on no matter how you think about the resurrection – at least until you need the resurrection!  But believing the resurrection isn't going to make today a whole lot different.

The promise that challenges us will change your life and your living of it significantly, if you believe it.  And there's the rub!  It is so hard to believe!  Churchmen through the ages have stumbled over it.  Our age staggers in its presence like a cartoon comic drunk.  The promise is that God's Word works.  We want to use programs and gimmicks and such.  We want to devise ways to be effective and find things we can do around the Word to make it seem more powerful, or feel more substantial, or accomplish our goals clearly and demonstrably.  But the problem is, God's Word doesn't accomplish our goals.  It was never intended to.

The promise challenges us to trust God, and take Him at His Word, and stand back and see the glory of God!  Our flesh often wants to see something else –like our own glory.  We want numbers.  We want the admiration and approval of the community, and of the Synod.  We want to feel something special when we leave the worship service.  We want financial security, maybe even prosperity!

But that is not what the Word of God promises.  It is about the member who comes to the pastor and says, "I used to be troubled by growing old and the prospect of dying.  Now, thanks to what you have preached and taught, I am no longer afraid."  You might want to ask, "But how does that help the congregation's bottom line?"  I would answer that it does not matter.

The Word of God was not spoken to enhance the bottom line of the congregation.  It was spoken to comfort, to heal, to forgive, and to save.  In the example I gave, the Word of God accomplished what it was spoken to accomplish, the comfort of a child of God as he or she faced the great and frightening questions of illness and death.  It brought that peace, of which the prophet spoke so eloquently by the inspiration of God.

The challenge of the promise is that it takes us and our ambitions out of the equation.  God says, "My Word will not return unto to me void – empty – without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it."  So what if the Word doesn't accomplish what you desire?  It isn't your word.  It isn't my word.  What it accomplishes is what God intends it to accomplish, because it is His Word.  And it accomplishes it every time.

Now, our modern and very empirical sense tells us that it cannot be 100% effective.  We look around us and see how the church is faring and we say, "It must not be working!"  We jump at the opportunities that seem to present themselves and we calculate, and labor, and program, and organize, and do everything we can to achieve a measurable and pleasing result.  But the truth is, the Word works every time.  I don't say that because I see it, I say it because God says it!  It will not return without accomplishing what He spoke it to do!

All that is required of us is faithfulness.  We need to use the Word.  We need to learn the Word.  We need to live the Word.  We need to study the Word.  We need to speak the Word.  And we need to trust the Word.  And we need to do all of that faithfully.  We don't need to dress it up so it can be more acceptable.  We don't need to structure our presentation of it so it can be more effective.  We don't need to decorate the church so the context of the Word is more inviting.  None of those preparations is evil, but none is absolutely necessary.  The Word works because God gives it the power to do so.

Many of our problems as a Synod, and as a congregation, are often based in the reality that we don't trust the Word of God.  We talk a lot about it, but we don't really expect it to work.  We think we have to make it work.  We think it is our effort and our programs that make the church grow and strengthen our Synod – but it is just the opposite.  Our Synod grew fastest when we trusted God and clung to His Word faithfully.  When we got all modern and intelligent about it we began to falter.  And when our lack of faith and our quibbling with the Word of God resulted in our stumbling effectiveness, the "experts" said, "See! You can't just trust the Word!" as though they ever did, and  "You gotta be smart about this stuff!" and they led us farther astray.

That is why the promise challenges us.  It flies in the face of our expectations.  It ignores our ego's.  It says something that strains against our human nature.  Just use the Word of God, be faithful, and trust God, and everything will work out right – not "everything will work out pleasantly," or "every moment will be happy," or "you will be the envy of the community," but it will all work just the way God wants it to work.  And what is the will of God?  (Our Salvation).

That is the chief thing.  God wants us to know Him, to trust in Him, and to live with Him in joy and peace forever.  The peace is the fruit of trusting God, and believing that your sins have been forgiven, and expecting that when you stand faithfully with Him, it can't get any better than it is or will be.  Our flesh wants to see things.  We want to be able to measure and appreciate what is happening.  But the Church happens in the hearts and lives of men – it is not a quantifiable thing for us, only in the eyes of God, who speaks His Word to create and sustain His Church.  It is our hunger for the measurable results that makes social ministry so inviting – you can count coats distributed, you can count the money donated to "worthy causes," you can measure ‘how much' and ‘how many' and feel like you are accomplishing something.

But the work of the Church is accomplished by the Word of God – not by our efforts and fund-raisers and what-not, however good and praiseworthy such acts of charity may be.  God's Word works.  That is the promise that challenges us.  And it doesn't always do what we want or think it ought to do.  Some people in our circles believe that if the Word of God is effective, then good things must be happening.  That is true, if believers are involved, if faithfulness is being exercised.  The comfort and salvation of men is the proper work of the Word of God.  

But there is that work which theologians call the alien work, the strange work of the Word of God.  That work is to judge the unrepentant, and to condemn and make more guilty those who reject the work of the Holy Spirit in them to bring them to repentance and faith.  Sometimes guilt, and shame, and anger, and rejection, and walking away from the Church is the work of the Word, the thing which God sent His Word to accomplish in those that stubbornly will not believe.  This is another of the things that makes this the promise that challenges us.  We are challenged to see that when the Word brings division to the visible church and the cross to God's faithful people, that it is what God intended His Word to do, so that the truth and error, faithfulness and unfaithfulness, belief and apostasy might be clearly distinguished.

The Church belongs to God, and it is His creation.  We belong to God and He is free to deal with us in any way He sees right and good.  The Word is His and it accomplishes what He spoke it to do, not what we want it to do.  The promise we rejoice in is the promise of forgiveness, salvation, and life – peace and rejoicing just as Isaiah said in the final verses of our text.  The promise that challenges us is the promise that His Word will not fail ever, but will succeed and will accomplish what He desires.  It challenges us to trust.  It challenges us to faithfulness.  It challenges us to be in the Word, and speak the Word, and cling to the Word like our lives depended on it – because, frankly, they do.  It is the promise that God will do it, that challenges us to deny the flesh and walk humbly in faith with our God.  This is the promise that challenges us!

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

Sunday, February 05, 2023

Quarreling with Moses

 Exodus 17:1-7

Then all the congregation of the sons of Israel journeyed by stages from the wilderness of Sin, according to the command of the LORD, and camped at Rephidim,  and there was no water for the people to drink.  Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, "Give us water that we may drink."   And Moses said to them, "Why do you quarrel with me?  Why do you test the LORD?"  But the people thirsted there for water; and they grumbled against Moses and said, "Why, now, have you brought us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?"  So Moses cried out to the LORD, saying, "What shall I do to this people?  A little more and they will stone me."  Then the LORD said to Moses, "Pass before the people and take with you some of the elders of Israel; and take in your hand your staff with which you struck the Nile, and go.  Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb; and you shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it, that the people may drink."  And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel.  And he named the place Massah and Meribah because of the quarrel of the sons of Israel, and because they tested the LORD, saying, ""Is the LORD among us, or not?""

Sermon for Septuagesima Sunday                                              2/05/23

Quarreling with Moses

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

I would like to begin this morning with a fairly obvious point.  Jesus was not an American.  Of course, you say.  He lived long before there was an America.  It follows quite logically, then, that Christianity is not American.  Christianity and the political and social philosophies of the United States are not identical.  They are not all that similar, even.  Therein lies the lesson for this morning – more or less.

The American ideal is independence and individuality.  Freedom is our shibboleth, our password.  Nine out of ten Americans do not understand the word or the concept of freedom in the way that those who died to win it did, but it still is the password.  It means to many that anyone can do anything that they desire, and no one else has the right to interfere, regulate or stop them from doing it.  That is a fiction, when understood like that, but that is the general sense of the concept in modern America.

Christianity, on the other hand – I mean orthodox, faithful, Biblical Christianity – is not in philosophical agreement with our culture.  America is individualistic, and the Church is a group thing, the communion of saints, the body.  America is all about independence, and Christianity is all about dependence, interdependence, and being the slaves of God.  America is about freedom, usually misunderstood to exist without concomitant responsibility.  The Church and the faith are about liberty in the context of responsibility.  We are never free agents in the Church, but slaves of God, having been set free from sin and death and hell.

As those who are owned by God, and as those who have been made a part of the body of Christ which is the Church, we are under the authority of God, which He exercises through His Word.  All of this sets you up for the text about Moses and His situation in relation to the children of Israel.  He is set by God in the place of leader, but clearly the leader under the direct authority of God.  Nevertheless, every time the people have a problem, they grumble against Moses and they quarrel with Moses.  Our text is the Old Testament lesson, and our theme is "Quarreling with Moses."

Never has there been another people like Israel.  God dealt with them in a unique way.  He chose one man, and made his family into a nation of people in accord with a promise and a covenant spoken to that one man.  God took personal action with these people.  He spoke to them directly through their leaders.  He did not hide a thing from them.  Even the years of slavery, and the subsequent rescue that we know as Passover and the Exodus were prophesied – promised in advance that it would happen, and they were given a precise time table for the events.  All they really needed to do was check the time table, trust God to do what He had promised, and wait.

Israel had trouble doing that.  They did not trust God, so they forgot the promises, and they were extremely impatient.  I can't blame them, life became difficult, and freedom became slavery, and prosperity swiftly became poverty, a series of changes that seems awfully familiar today.  It did not look like God could do what He had promised, or that He would do it.  Then along came Moses.

Moses was the man chosen by God to lead them.  God called Him and sent Him, and worked the ten plagues and brought them out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm!  That is how God liked Moses to refer to it.  It reminded the people that God could do what He promised, and that He did accomplish all that He has promised to do – the very things that they had not trusted in Him to do.

Now they are out in the wilderness.  This desert, not just some rural area.  They have limited water supplies with them, and they cannot see where they are going to get more, out here in the desert.  They still have not learned.  They still do not trust God.  They cannot imagine that God can do what they need Him to do, and they are so far from trusting God that they blame the guy – the miracle worker, the one who got them sprung from Egypt.  The messenger of God is their whipping boy.  Let's blame Moses!

We know how it ends.  God tells Moses to strike a rock in the presence of the leaders of the people -- called the elders -- and He makes water fountain out of the rock.  There was absolutely no way that God could give them all water in the wilderness, so God made a way.  If they had only trusted God, once again.  If they had expected that the God who loved them enough to rescue them from bondage would have a plan, and have the power to provide for them in whatever circumstances into which He led them.  But they did not.

They took to quarreling with Moses.  Their problem was with God, but their target was the messenger.  Moses pointed out what they were doing.  He said, "Why do you quarrel with me?  Why do you test the Lord?"

I imagine that you know where I am going with this.  Now and again, we have demonstrated a tendency not to trust the Lord.  We don't know what is happening, and we don't like the way things are going, and we don't pause to exercise our faith in God.  Instead we grumble.  We quarrel with God.  And, when you quarrel with God, it seems that you frequently quarrel with Moses, that is, you quarrel with the messenger whom God has called and sent to speak His Word to you.  But really, you are quarreling with God.

Jesus once said, Luke 10:16, "The one who listens to you listens to Me, and the one who rejects you rejects Me; and he who rejects Me rejects the One who sent Me."  He spoke those words to His disciples, but they apply to every messenger that He calls and sends to speak His Word.  When you quarrel with me, your pastor, over the Word of God, our doctrine, or our practice based on the Word of God, your argument is not with me, but God.  When you attack me, you are attacking God first.  When you conspire against me or politic against me, you are working against God.

Now, if we are talking about what color to paint the restrooms, your opinion is as good as mine.  The Word of God has nothing to say about the color of restroom walls.  But if we are dealing with doctrine, or those practices which flow out of our doctrine, your recourse is to the Word of God.  If I am not faithful to the Word, you not only can disagree with me, you must, to my face.  But if what I teach and what I do is from the Word, or faithful to it, your argument is not with me, but with God.  Too often, our discussions are about personal feelings and opinions which have nothing to do with the Word, while the topic at hand does have to do with the Word.  All such quarreling is like quarreling with Moses.

And the cause of it is often the same as it was among ancient Israel.  Too often we respond from how things seem, how they feel, how they look to us, rather than responding from our knowledge of God and our trust in Him.  I said earlier that there was never another people like Israel.  I was exaggerating.  Israel enjoyed God's presence in a unique way – the pillar of cloud and fire and the Tabernacle and Moses, who spoke with God as a man speaks to His friend, face to face.  But when it comes to blessings, and when it comes to human weakness, we are every bit like Israel.

God dealt with Israel in a unique way.  He deals with us in a unique way as well.  For them He chose one man to make His offspring a nation.  For us, God has chosen one man, His only-begotten Son Jesus Christ.  He made Jesus carry our sins and die in our place on the cross, that He might call us all together out of many nations to be one people, the holy Christian Church.  He has knit us together into a family, and made us a people – God's holy people.  Then He called our names in Baptism, and He has gathered us together here at Immanuel.  We are a family!  We are the body of Christ in this place!

With Israel of old, God spoke directly to His people through the men He called to speak His Word.  He is still speaking to His people in the same way.  Back then, they called them "prophets."  Today, His messengers are called "pastors".  But through those men He calls, He still speaks His Word, and makes wonderful promises to us.  He promises forgiveness.  He promises resurrection from our graves.  He promises us everlasting life in glory with Him.

Just like back then, there are troubles and tests and pains and such that the people of God will face.  God told us about them even as He did the descendants of Abraham.  Jesus predicted the animosity of the world and the hatred of unbelievers.  He predicted that the devil would attempt to sow discord among the people of God.  And He promised to keep us, to bless us and to sustain us.  When these troubles arise, we really need to do nothing more than check what God warned us would happen, and trust God to do for us what he has promised to do.

Just as on the Exodus, God is dealing with us personally.  He is present in His Word, and His body and blood, given and shed for us.  It is like Manna of old, a miraculous food, given by God, and only by God.  Unlike Manna, it doesn't just appear with the morning dew – but it does things that Manna could not; cleanses us from our sins, unites us into the one body as we all partake of the one bread.  It prepares us, body and soul, for death and resurrection.  It comforts us and strengthens us and prepares us to worship our Lord with holy lives lived out in the world to be seen by evil and wicked men!

Israel had trouble trusting God when confronted by the harsh and tangible realities of life – they couldn't see how God could do what He had promised He would do.  We often struggle with the same thing.  Life is real and urgent and oh-so-right there in front of us demanding something and trying to tell us that there is no God and there is no help and there is no salvation awaiting.  It can be quite challenging to take God at His Word and trust Him, that He has it all accounted for.

We are called to believe.  We are called by God to trust Him.  We are called by God to take Him at His Word, and follow Him where He leads, whether it is where we think we should go or not.  He calls us to place His order and His fellowship and His ways above and before the ways and ideas of our culture.  We are called by God to be Christians – aliens in a hostile environment – rather than Americans.

It is a challenge.  Not everyone is willing to do it.  People have made the church over into the American image – decision theology making them free and powerful in their own minds, rather than slaves, bought and paid for.  They have made their religion a personal thing between God and them, while God has made it a family affair, between us and the Church and God, all at work together.  Sometimes it is mighty easy and inviting to listen to culture and try to go by how it seems rather than how God says we should, or how God says that He will.  But every time we do, we end up joining the children of Israel in quarreling with Moses.

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