Psalm 61:3

Hear my cry, O God, listen to my prayer; for You have been my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Repentance Is Hope

“John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  Oh man, here it comes.  It is the repentance sermon.  John is telling everyone who rotten they are and we’re going to get it too.  Yes you are, because you need it.  I need it.  And God will not leave us without it.

                There was a man named Hosea, whom God commanded, commanded mind you, to marry a prostitute.  Her name was Gomer, not a nice name-especially for a woman-but it is what it is.  Hosea chose a wife, not from among the many young women from the families around him, women who were prized for their beauty and virginity, but a woman who had been used and abused, who had sold herself to the night and embraced many men.

                Hosea married Gomer, and they had three children together.  Perhaps life was even good, content, peaceful.  Yet one day Gomer grew restless, and she left.  And where was a women to go after leaving her husband for no reason?  Only back to the life from whence she came.  She went back to the brothel.

                Perhaps Hosea had given up on his bride.  Good riddance to the women who did not desire to be faithful.  Yet God was not done.  He commanded Hosea, commanded once again, to go and bring his wife back.  Retrieve her from the sexual slavery that she so readily welcomed.

                So he did.  Hosea went down to the brothel and called his wife back home. 

                Perhaps we could imagine the scene.  Hosea is banging on the door or Gomer’s private room, demanding that she come out, that she come back home to their life, to their children; demanding that she repent.

                And Gomer is thinking: All he is doing is making me feel guilty for my choices, giving me grief over the life I have embraced.  Why can’t he just leave me alone?  Why can’t I simply go about my business?  This is the life I have chosen.  Go away!

                Hosea calls Gomer to repent.  And perhaps she resents it, at least at first.

                There is a similar thing going on with John the Baptist.  John is out there in the wilderness calling the people to repent.  Worse than that, he is making them feel bad.  John wore camel’s hair and a leather belt.  He made their tunics and tassels look gaudy by comparison.  John ate locust and wild honey.  He made their meals, kosher though they may be, appear extravagant and gluttonous.

                And John was insisting that the Jews, all of them, be baptized.  That was something reserved for Gentiles.  Was John saying that the Jews were as much in need of repentance and forgiveness and the pagans in the world around them?  Yes, yes he was.

                John was preparing the people for the greater one, for the Christ to come.  Yet not everyone was happy about it.  Some just wanted him to shut his trap and go away.

                So we too may hear the word repent, and roll our eyes.  Have I really done anything that bad, Pastor?  Do I really need to examine my life for sin in the same manner as a prostitute or an adulterer or a thief or a murderer? 

                Or we don’t want to hear it because we don’t want to leave those sins behind.  Gomer was happy to be a prostitute.  The Jews were happy, some of them, to ignore the poor and the hurting around them.  John was upsetting their contentment, and the Law of God does the same to us. 

                Can’t we just stop reminding me about what God’s Word says?  I have made my bed and now I am going to sleep in it, content with my choice.  I know it dishonors my parents, causes harm to another, is blatant fornication, stinks like a rotten lie, but I don’t care.  Just shut that Word of God up.  Leave me alone.

                Why can’t I just ignore my sin?  Why can’t God just ignore my sin?  I don’t want to repent.  I don’t want to hear about it.  Just go away!

                And He does not.  God never just goes away.  His Word endures forever, even if we ignore it, if we despise it.  Hosea did not stop until Gomer relented.  John kept preaching and baptizing until Herod took his life.  The Law of God will continue to call people to repentance, to acknowledge their sin, until their dying day.

                The reason we push back against God’s call to repentance is that we fail to see it for what it is.  Repentance is not a reason to despair.  A call to repent is a call to hope.

                Think about it: why does God call us to confess our sins?  Why pester us?  Does He just love to rub our faces in our faults and failures?  Does He just want to make sure we know how big of a mess we have made of our lives?  No.

                God calls us to repent of our sins so that He can forgive them.  He calls us to confess so that He can absolve. 

                 Hosea went after Gomer so that he could bring her home.  He did not want to leave her as a sexual slave.  He wanted to restore her as his bride, to make a family once again.

                John did not baptize just to watch the people squirm, not to get a simple rise out of them.  John was not there for his health or his own amusement.  John called the people to repent because Jesus was coming.  He was coming to die for them, to save them, to forgive them, to restore all things.  They needed to be made ready.

                 God speaks His word of Law to us so that we will be ready to hear the good news.  If you hear God pointing out your sins, take heart, because He is also about to announce your forgiveness.  He is about to apply the death and resurrection of Jesus directly to your situation. 

                Hosea calls Gomer to repent, and the result is marriage.  John calls Israel to repent, and the result is Jesus.  God calls you and me to repent, and the result is forgiveness, life, salvation.  The Law is spoken and the result is Gospel.

               A husband more dedicated than Hosea has come.  A prophet mightier than John has been born.  He is Jesus, the Christ.  His death and resurrection is the reason we can stop fearing repentance.  We can confidently confess our sins to our God because He has guaranteed that He will forgive them. 

              The way is being prepared.  The highways are being cleared for Jesus to come.  The Law is proclaimed to turn our hearts away from sin, to show us our great need for Jesus.  And the Gospel is proclaimed to give us Jesus. 

             He was born for you, lived for you, died for you, rose for you.  And Jesus Christ will return to restore you to life forever and ever. 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Christians, Your Good Deeds Are Not Filthy Rags

Christian, your good deeds are not filthy rags or polluted garments in the sight of God.

Yes, I know, this is every Lutheran pastor's favorite verse to quote when proclaiming the Law:
We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. (Isaiah 64:6a)
And to an extent this is true.  It is true for the person is is without faith, for the one who is apart from Christ.  The context of Isaiah 64 suggests not a faithful people redeemed by their God, but a stiff-necked people wantonly wallowing in their sin:
"Behold, you were angry and we sinned; in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?" (Isaiah 64:5b)
Men and women who have been baptized into Christ, however, are not in this state.  Christians are redeemed by the blood of Jesus and all their sin has been covered.  Their good deeds, therefore, do please God, despite their sin.

Saint Paul declares in Romans 14:23, "Whatever does not proceeds from faith is sin."  The entire argument that Paul is making for the Romans assumes that the inverse of this statement is also true: "Whatever does proceed from faith is not sin (i.e. is righteous)."

So it is right to say that a person's works, apart from Christ, are nothing but filthy rags.  But we must always add that proviso.  We cannot say that a Christian's good deeds are filthy rags because a Christian is, by definition, redeemed.  Their good deeds necessarily please God and are seen by God as righteous for the sake of Christ.

This is where the rub occurs.  As Lutherans we want to give Jesus Christ all the credit for our salvation.  We are justified by grace through faith, not by works.  That line is stark and sharp.  It may not be crossed.  When we stand before God we plead to have no righteousness of our own, but only a righteousness that comes by faith in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:9)

Yet the good deeds of Christians please God.  They are not the cause of our salvation.  Quite the opposite.  They flow out of our justification.  In baptism we become a good tree, and a good tree bears good fruit.

This strikes at the heart of the Reformation: How can I be sure that my works please God?  The Roman Church had built up a system of man-made works that were supposed to atone for sin.  The reformers were at pains, not only to point out that these works were not necessary for salvation, but that there are works which God actually commands, and which actually please Him.

Once our works are released of the weight of having to earn our salvation they can be properly seen as actions that God delights in because through them He serves our neighbor.  God's people were freed from trying to earn salvation with man-made works to do that actual work of God as taught in the Ten Commandments.

Are my good works tainted with sin?  Yes, but God does not look at that because of what Jesus has done for me.  Assurance of God's good pleasure comes from being grafted into Christ.  So now all that I do pleases God because I am in Christ.  Anything done apart from faith is sin, so anything done in faith is not sin, but righteousness.

So to deny that the good works of a Christian please God is to deny the Gospel.  How could God not delight in the obedience of His children?

Christian, God sees your good deeds apart from your sin for the sake of Christ.  Every good work that you do is a delight to your Father in heaven because Jesus has washed out the sin and left only righteousness behind.  

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Children's Hymn for Holy Week

From earth below up to the cross
Christ bore our burdens and our loss,
And there a full atonement made;
gained glory that shall never fade.

He enters Zion as her king.
The people all his praises sing.
"Give honor now to David's son,
Hosanna to the holy one."

Forth from the temple courts he drove
The money changers, lamb, and dove.
"My house shall be a house of prayer
For all who come and worship there."

With schemes and questions did they come
To test the right of David's son.
He answered all their queries told
And showed himself now David's Lord.

He prophesied the coming night
When none shall work, so filled with fright.
No man can know that day or hour.
The king will judge in righteous power.

In humble dress he washed their feet;
Portrayed a love for all to meet.
Then gave his body and his blood;
A sacrifice of holy food.

Betrayed by all he called by name
He carried cross and sin and shame.
The punishment of man came down
From God's own hand upon his Son.

His body in the tomb was laid.
Now all the world from sin was saved.
In him the world receives its rest.
His brood he gathers to his breast.

Behold, the stone is rolled away
And linen cloths now empty lay.
The women run to share the word
That Christ is risen, our God and Lord.

Where is thy sting, O death and sin?
For now the grave cannot hold in
Those baptized into Jesus Christ,
Who share the resurrection life!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

You Are Too Easily Satisfied

“I will rescue my flock; they shall no longer be a prey.  And I will judge between sheep and sheep.  And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd.  And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them.  I am the Lord; I have spoken.”

Our problem as American Christians is not that we do not expect God’s goodness.  We do.  We expect that God will do good things for us.  He will bless us, prosper us.  He will heal our diseases, find us a job, keep our blessed ducks in a row.

                Our problem, our sin, is that we expect far too little from God.  We are satisfied with far less than God would give us.  We are contented with the minor blessing of this world, rather than the major blessings of the world to come.

                You see this in our culture’s satisfaction with fornication, pornography, and adultery.  People are perfectly satisfied to get the momentary pleasures of random copulation rather than to receive the greater satisfaction of marriage, fidelity, and commitment.  In other words people are satisfied with raw lust, rather than waiting for true love.

                When it comes to the church we are satisfied with more money in the plate, more rear ends in the pews, and more peppy pastors.  We are worried less about faith, hope, and love.  We are satisfied to be entertained, rather than to be challenged.  We are content to be appeased, rather than to be converted.  We are satisfied with good feelings, rather than good news.   

In Ezekiel 34 God promises the people of Israel that He will give them new and better shepherds.  He will give them greener pastures.  He will punish their enemies.  He will be their God forever.

                God will keep His promise.  No more enemies.  Better shepherds.  Better pastures.  Grace and abundance forever.  It will happen.  God has spoken.

                And it does happen.  The people are brought back from exile.  They had been taken captive and held in the land of Babylon for a few decades, but then God sent them back home.  He delivered them back to the greener pastures of Israel, back to the promised land.  And, more or less, they were satisfied with that.

                They were satisfied to have a king, a shepherd, who was their own.  Forget that these kings and rulers were no David.  They were not even descendants of David.  At least they were Jews. 

                The Jews had many priests, many kings and rulers over the course of several centuries.  They established a few new orders, the Pharisees, Sadducees, the scribes and elders.  They obeyed the Law as best they could, and that was that.  They were satisfied.  

                But God wanted to give them so much more.  He wanted to raise up for them, not just any ruler, not just any old king, but the true heir of David, the rightful king, the Good Shepherd.  They were happy to have their little local shepherds, when God wanted to give them His Son.  He wanted to give them Himself.

                And perhaps we can apply this lesson to the church today.  Each congregation has its own little shepherd.  And we can get a little too satisfied with that.  We like our pastor and so we sit back content and relaxed.

                Now, I want to tread carefully here, because on the one hand pastors are necessary.  Pastors are called to do the work of God, to proclaim His Word.  And that is where the problem lies precisely.  We become satisfied with the man and forget about His work.  Because His work is to give us something far greater than Himself.  He gives us JESUS!

                If you are satisfied with me because I can preach without notes, because I have a cute little family, or because I am a Saint Louis cardinals fan, then repent.  Be satisfied with nothing less than Christ Himself coming from my mouth in Law and Gospel, in doctrine and practice, in every action and every phrase.

                Pleasure is not the goal of human sexuality.  Marriage and children are.  Entertainment is not the goal of worship.  Forgiveness is.  Pastors are not the ultimate shepherds.  Jesus is.  Thanks be to God.

                It was Jesus whom the Jews should have been looking for, but they missed Him by and large.  While they were satisfied with these little shepherds, Pharisees and Sadducees, THE SHEPHERD was in their midst.  

                Jesus, their great Shepherd, led them to the greener pastures of God’s Word and fed them with truth and righteousness.  He bore the weight of their transgressions to the cross and delivered them from their enemies of sin and death.  He exited the grave so that His sheep might follow Him through death and into a life that will never end.

                Why are we satisfied with less when God wants to give so much more?  It is sin.  Repent.  And receive here the best stuff that God as to offer.  Not a mere man dressed in a white robe, but a message, a promise from God.

                Your sins are forgiven because of your Good Shepherd.  God is pleased with your service because of Jesus.  You will rise from the dead because of Jesus.  And that, my friends, is where we shall be ultimately satisfied.

                JESUS IS COMING BACK!  The dead will be raised.  Every sin will be forgiven.  Every disease will be healed.  Every weakness will be strengthened.

                God gives us good gifts in this life, but they are not there to satisfy us, but rather whet our appetite.  You think you have had a good marriage, just wait until the real bridegroom comes.  You think that you have tasted food.  Nu-uh, not until you feast with Christ in His kingdom.  You think you have lived?  No way, not until you have risen.

                Take all of the good you have received from God, multiply it times one million, and then you are beginning to see the joy of just the first drop of the river of abundant life that Jesus will unleash when He returns.  When you understand that, nothing in this world will truly satisfy you.  

                Yes, we can receive the gifts of marriage, the gifts of a faithful Church, or a good pastor, with joy.  We can appreciate them.  But we will never be satisfied with them.  

Only Jesus Christ can satisfy the desires of every living thing.  And He will. 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Armor of Light

  They day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.  It will come on quickly as labor pains come upon a woman full with child.  To those who are living in darkness, the return of Jesus will come as a complete and utter shock, mostly because they don’t expect Him to return at all.

                That might seem like a little bit of a “duh” statement.  If you don’t believe that Jesus is God, or you don’t believe that He even existed, then you certainly will be flabbergasted when He returns in glory.  They are not looking for Him to appear so it is really going to freak them out when Jesus shows up out of heaven.

                And what happens when Jesus shows up unannounced?  It will be destruction for those who are not looking for Him.  As we heard from Amos last week, the day of the Lord will be darkness, calamity, death, for those who have no faith in Christ.  

                Jesus will return as the judge of the world.  He will be the vengeance of God, the agent of wrath upon those who persist in rejecting God’s great and abundant mercy.  

This is, of course, all just a fancy way of saying that when Jesus returns, those who have not been waiting for Him, those who are not expecting His return, will go to hell.  They will be separated from the love of God forever.  They will be placed in the land prepared for the devil and his demons, made ready for eternal torment and everlasting death.

But we, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness.  We are not destined for wrath, judgment, or destruction.  The day of Christ’s coming should not, and will not, surprise us at all.  In fact, when Jesus comes pouring over the clouds, our reaction should be, “Hey, there He is, just like we have always hoped!”

We have been destined by Jesus Christ for salvation.  We have been brought, by God’s grace, out of darkness and into the light.  And it happens at the darkest day the world has ever known.

On Good Friday, as the world turned dark, the light had won.  The Sun was eclipsed, but so was the power of death.  And on Sunday morning, when the stone was rolled away, when the Sun broke over the horizon, the Kingdom of Light reigned supreme.  Darkness was destroyed. 

The death and resurrection of Christ has opened the kingdom of the light to us.  His blood erases the sin of those who dwell in the dark, even those who love the dark.  

Jesus brings us into the realm of light by applying his death and resurrection directly to us.  In baptism we are buried into His death and resurrected into His life.  In the Lord’s Supper we eat and drink the sacrifice of Christ in real time.  The body that died, the body that lives, that gives life everlasting, is placed in our mouths. 

Daily, through contrition, the remorse over sin, and through repentance, receiving forgiveness in faith, the Light rules over us.  God forgives us every day for the sake of Christ, and draws us out of darkness and into light.  

The coming of our Lord Jesus should then not catch us off guard.  We are ready.  He has prepared us.  He has given us everything we need to be ready both today and every day.  Every grace, every blessing, is your in Christ Jesus.  You lack no spiritual gift.  You lack not one single ounce of the Light.  So act like it.

Those who dwell in darkness live as drunken fools, aimlessly stumbling from one depraved sin into the next, until they pass out on the doorstep of the wrong house and fall asleep in their own vomit.  

Rather, because we live in the day we are called to sober lives.  Christ has freed us from the nonsense of living in darkness so that we might live in the light, live sober and awake.  

Because we belong to the kingdom of light we wear the armor of light.  And that armor, Paul says, is the breastplate of faith and love, and the helmet of the hope of salvation.  Faith, love, and hope are the pieces of armor we wear as citizens of the light, to protect us from the darkness.

The Spirit of God gives us faith so that we might receive the blessings of the death and resurrection of Christ and trust them fully.  It is nice to say that Jesus died, even that He rose.  But that does me no good without faith.  Faith catches the flaming lies of the devil and snuffs them out. 

By faith, born of Word and Spirit, God gives us repentance.  He gives us forgiveness, life, and salvation.  He gives us all the treasures of heaven.  Faith trusts whole-heartedly the promises of God, that this Christ who has died, who has risen, has done so for you, for me.  

And through that faith God also gives us love and hope.  

Love seeks to serve others.  Love lays down its own life.  It lives for others.

As Paul says elsewhere: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.”  As citizens of the light we live in love. 

Faith also gives birth to hope.  If we need to make a distinction between the two, we could say that faith looks back to what Jesus has done for us in the past.  Faith trusts that Jesus has suffered and died for us.  

Hope, then, looks forward to the future.  It trusts the promises of God that Jesus will return, that He will raise the dead, and that He will save us from sin and death forever.  

Hope does not disappoint.  Hope is not the weak, flighty thing we have often thought.  No, hope is certainty.  It is confidence, unwavering firmness, that God will do what He says, what He promises.  

These three remain.  These three protect us as we live as citizens of the Light.  Faith keeps us anchored in Jesus and what He has already accomplished at the cross and empty tomb.  Love keeps our hands busy here and now serving God and our neighbor.  Hope keeps our eyes fixed on the world to come, literally looking forward to the future when Jesus will return and fulfill all His promises.

We are not in darkness brothers and sisters.  We have been drawn by God’s grace into the Light.  Jesus’ return will not catch us off guard.  It will not surprise us.  

Jesus has given us faith, he has taught us to love, he has called us to hope.  He will keep us ready and in the Light until that great day, the day He will return and make all things new.