Sunday, July 31, 2011

Ah, The Feast of 5,000 (Matthew 14:13-21)

     Ah, the feast, 5,000 families fed: bounty, joy, a potluck on steroids, with more left at the end than we had at the beginning!  We are very glad to talk about the Feast of the 5,000. 

     We are not so eager to talk about Paul’s Word of personal anguish for the unbelieving Jews:  I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.  Like Paul, we all have family or friends who have rejected Christ and His Church. It hurts, and we worry. 

     Even less do we want to deal with the end of our Epistle reading, where Paul reminds us that the Lord said:  Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.  The harshness of these words about Esau, Isaac’s oldest son, make us doubt God, and worry that He may not love us.  You remember Jacob and Esau right?  Twin sons of Isaac, born into the promise, but both unworthy of their inheritance, mutual exemplars of the lack of brotherly love that dominates and devastates our world.  But what does the Lord mean:  Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated?   The rejection by the Lord of Esau is even more troubling for us this morning if we remember that Esau’s problem came due to his desire for a feast. 

     Do you remember the story?  Esau, the firstborn of Isaac, sold his birthright to Jacob in exchange for a bowl of stew.  Jacob had cooked a tasty stew, and when Esau came in from the field he was famished.   Esau said to Jacob, "Please let me have a swallow of that red stuff there, for I am famished." Therefore his name was called Edom, [which means red]. But Jacob said, "First sell me your birthright."  And Esau said, "Behold, I am about to die; so of what use then is the birthright to me?"  Jacob said, "First swear to me"; so he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob.  Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew; and he ate and drank, and rose and went on his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright, sold it, just like that, in order to fill his belly.  (Genesis 25) 

     Feed your belly now, worry about your eternal inheritance later.  That’s what Esau did, and despising God’s good gifts, given through Isaac and Abraham, had consequences, for Esau, and his descendents, the whole nation of Edom suffering because Esau in his unbelief cut himself off from the promises, for the sake of a full belly. 

     Which is also a problem for the folks at the Feast of 5,000.  Great crowds of people were pursuing Jesus all about the Galilean countryside, listening to His teaching in parables, yes, but mostly interested in being healed of diseases, or now, after the miraculous meal, of being well-fed by Jesus.  And there is no blame in that, we’d all like some of our struggles relieved, we all need, and love, to eat.  But physical healings and full stomachs, as good as they are, are not the lasting gift that Jesus came to give.   

     The miracle of the five loaves and two fish was a very good thing, but we have to be careful not to love the wrong thing, careful not to love the gift, instead of the Giver.  The Feeding of the 5,000 was a joyful, miraculous, exciting gift from God, which met a real need of real people, which is what our merciful and loving God is always doing.  It was a visible miracle, obvious to all who were there, a good blessing from God, just like the manna from heaven given to the Israelites in the wilderness, centuries earlier. 

      And, as the manna in the wilderness foreshadowed the feeding of the 5,000, so also the feeding of the 5,000 foreshadows greater things in the Church.  It was great, but not the greatest, a real gift, but not the main thing.  It was not salvific, no one was eternally saved by this miracle in our Gospel reading today.  By it Jesus did bless the people, then and there, but even more He sought to prepare, and teach and prophesy. 

     The Feast of 5,000 was great, but the Supper of our Lord is the true feast, even though the Sacrament of the Altar is an invisible miracle.  Indeed, our confession, that we receive, under the bread and wine, the true Body and Blood of Christ, is considered foolishness by the world, and has even, very sadly, become a source of great discord and strife between Christians.  But regardless of what we say or think about the Lord’s Supper, according to the Word of God it is the meal that truly matters, for in this meal Jesus, the True Bread from Heaven, gives Himself to us.  And it isn’t just that God gives Himself to us in some general way, but very specifically, He gives us His Body and Blood, given and shed on the Cross, for the forgiveness of all our sins.   

    Why wasn’t the miracle of the 5,000 the real deal, the final answer?  Why did Esau get in trouble for trading his birthright for a bowl of stew?  Because the miraculous bread and fish could not deliver the forgiveness of sins, and eating the treacherous stew of Jacob was a rejection of the promise of forgiveness given to all the sons of Isaac.  And forgiveness for our sins is what we most need. 

     Esau put his belly first, not worried about his standing before the Lord God Almighty, because, as he claimed, he was famished, a short term desire fulfilled, but with lasting consequences.  The crowds in Galilee would eventually do much the same thing. Thousands of Israelites eagerly followed Jesus because He was filling their bellies and healing their diseases.  But when, in the following weeks and months, the way of Jesus changed from providing for immediate needs to dying for the sins of the whole world, well, then the crowds begin to dwindle and disperse, not so enthusiastic to be around Jesus as He approached this ultimate miracle. 

     You are just the same.  So am I.  We prefer pursuing our appetites over following Jesus to the Cross, for at least three reasons.  First, it feels good.  It’s no use denying the immediate pleasure of earthly goods.  Filling an empty belly feels good, whether you earned your bread or stole it.  Satisfying our desires, good or evil, right now, is our default position, indeed, the attitude we were created with.  Adam and Eve were supposed to simply take and eat from the good fruit of the Garden, whenever they were hungry, with no cost, no limits, no negative effects. 

     They were not, however, created to desire evil.  They were forbidden to even seek theknowledge of evil.  Now, for us, their descendents, our desires are fraught with problems. We too often desire what is forbidden and harmful, and even when we desire good and right things, we are very prone to confuse the good things God provides for God Himself, worshiping things of the creation instead of worshiping the Creator who gives them to us. We naturally worship the god of our belly, the god of our desires, and so the God-Man Jesus, who calls us to forsake all others and bear His yoke, threatens us and our natural inclination to self-indulgence.

     Second, feeding the God of our appetites allows us, for the time being at least, to ignore the God who hates evil and threatens sinners with condemnation.  We quite naturally agree with Satan’s suggestion that God’s threat of retribution isn’t real, or at least isn’t a concern for today, or that God doesn’t really mean the things you do are sin.  We may even defiantly pursue evil, perverse things, losing ourselves in that pursuit, in order to forget about God’s threat.  How often does one sin lead not to repentance, but to another sin?  I curse my friend, then slander his reputation to justify my sin, then bury my guilt in beer, or in ceaseless busy-ness, or some other distraction, all to shut my ears to God’s warning.  But God will not be silent.  He even sent the Word into flesh, sending the Son to speak to sinners, in person, warning us not to be drawn away by the cares and pleasures and riches of this world, not to be choked to death with the here and now.      

     Third, following Jesus exposes us.  His life, His ministry, His death, His Word, everything about Jesus exposes us for who we are, and reveals what we rightly deserve. The healings and the miraculous meal kept the crowds chasing after Jesus, until His path led to conflict with the Pharisees, until His words and deeds started to be opposed by the powers of the world.  As Jesus heightened His rhetoric against the works righteous religion of the Pharisees, as He more and more risked persecution, and even death, the crowds started to drift away.  As He stopped talking about our sin and started paying for it with His suffering and death, the crowds were far away.  Was it because they simply feared for their own safety?  Or was it because, deep down, they loved the religion of works that the Pharisees preached? 

     Whatever the reasons, in the end no one stuck it out with Jesus, nobody desired Him enough to walk His way.  Even the Twelve, even these men chosen by Jesus to learn mysteries hidden from prophets and priests and kings for centuries, even these men who eye witnessed so many miracles, even they deserted Him, all but one, Judas, who. instead of deserting our Lord, chose to betray Him.  Which brings us to the miracle meal that matters, the feast to which the manna in the wilderness and the Feast of 5,000 both pointed, the supper on the night when Jesus was betrayed. 

     As in the wilderness, when it was evening, Jesus gathered with the 12.  As when Jesus instructed the 12 to bring Him the 5 loaves and 2 fish, so again Jesus instructs them to prepare the meal, which He will transform with His  divine power.  As when He hosted the meal before the great crowd, Jesus in the upper room also took the bread and, after giving a blessing, broke it.  Jesus turned the five loaves into a meal for many, with 12 baskets left over at the end.  Even greater, Jesus by the power of His Word, transforms the bread and wine of the Passover into His own Body and Blood.  Jesus did not give the multiplied bread and fish directly to the people, but gave them first to His disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds.  Likewise, Jesus gave His meal to only the 12, who in turn have given it to the Church, who eats and drinks for the forgiveness of all her sins. 

     And this, for all the similarities, is the one great difference that makes this Supper of Jesus uniquely powerful and precious.  Unlike the Israelites daily manna from heaven, unlike the Feast of 5,000, Jesus directly connects this meal to His Cross.  The Cross, and the Empty Tomb, are what make the simple meal of the Lord’s Supper into the miracle meal that matters eternally.  For on the Cross, Jesus freely and willingly suffered for the sins of all mankind, the sins of Esau and the sins of Jacob, who both despised God’s grace, the sins of the crowds and disciples, who followed Jesus in good times, but abandoned Him at the critical moment.  Jesus shed His blood, accepting His Father’s wrath against all the sins of every man, woman and child of all time, for you, and for your friends and family who reject Him. 

     Our sinful inclination to reject Christ must be overcome by the blood bought grace of the Cross;  this is what salvation is.  To rightly bring a repenting sinner to the Lord’s Supper is to do this, for the Supper is forgiveness, life and salvation for all who eat and drink in repentant faith.  This is what we need, and what our friends and family need.  This is our prayer, for each other, and for the world.

     Jesus has risen from the dead, the eternal Victor over sin and death, so you can rejoice in the best of all feasts this morning.  By the blood of Jesus your sins are forgiven, you need not fear God’s anger, Jesus covers you, the Father loves you, the Spirit comforts you.  Give thanks, for even more than the 12 baskets of bread, the Supper of Christ abounds, continuing everywhere God’s people gather around Word, Bread and Wine, receiving again the miracle that will continue, until that glorious day when we will be seated with all the saints and angels, at the heavenly banquet, to feast forever, in the presence of Christ, Amen. 

Sunday, July 24, 2011

God's Bargain (Matthew 13:45-46)

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.   Matthew 13:45-46

A Conversation Between a Pearl-Vendor and a Merchant

"Good day sir," the Pearl-Vendor greeted the Merchant entering his shop.  "Oh, it's you," he continued, his face darkening for just a moment.  "Since when are you working as a merchant, being so busy as You are, ruling the universe, and all?  It's the last thing I'd expect You to be doing, I mean, considering where You live and Who your Father is.  Why should You be out buying pearls?" 

"I don't really need to, you're right," responded the Merchant.  "But I want to, and Father thinks it's a good idea.  We're looking for something we can add to our Home, something beautiful to have with us, a treasured possession, to be ours forever, you know."    

"Really?" hissed the Pearl Vendor.  "Well, then, what are you interested in?  I have some very special pearls I could offer you."  The Pearl Vendor reached into his front display case and pulled out some very large, dazzling pearls.  "Here's one, I call it Power.  The owner of this could rule the world!  Or here is one called Self-service; with this pearl all your needs would be met forever.  And there's my favorite, Popularity.  Everyone loves to be popular; this pearl could be just the thing for You." 

"Mmmm..."  the Merchant rubbed His chin thoughtfully.  "No, I think I'll just look around a bit till I see what I want.  Somehow I'm sure I'll know it when I see it," said the Merchant.  The Merchant proceeded to go through the stocks of the Pearl Vendor.  He seemed to know just what He was looking for, passing by many fine and shiny pearls, intently looking for one in particular.  Finally, wandering into the back work room, the Merchant made a selection, a pearl, wet and slimy, lying in a moldy dark corner, covered in mud, just what the Merchant was looking for.  "I think I'll take this one," He cheerfully informed the Pearl Vendor, holding up the dirty, cracked, deformed Pearl, slime oozing and dripping off His hand. 

The Pearl Vendor's face fell.  Then with great concern in his voice he said, "Oh Merchant, I don't think you want that one.  I mean, look at it.  It's filthy, and it doesn't clean up well.  It's misshapen and full of flaws.  It may have been nice once, but shortly before I acquired it, actually just as I was acquiring it, it suffered a Fall, damaged, beyond repair, I think.  This Pearl hasn't been any good since I got it.  No, I really insist, you can do better than that Pearl.  Here, look at Popularity or Power again."     Pearl Vendor lifted up these bright, shiny pearls before Merchant's face, hoping to convince Him to choose one of his "good" pearls. 

"Thank you for your honesty, Pearl Vendor, but still, I think I'd like this Pearl.  I know you're right, it is covered in filth and no doubt has flaws, but I think that My Father and I could still really do something with it.  How much do you want for it?" Merchant asked, opening His wallet. 

"Mmmm…"  The Pearl Vendor took his turn rubbing his chin, contemplating his next move in the bargaining.  He hated that slimy, cracked Pearl, but he couldn't stand to see it owned by anyone else, least of all by this Merchant and His Father.  Pearl Vendor took grim satisfaction in keeping that Pearl in the back room, down in the muck, slimy and hidden away from the light.  He decided to try and scare the Merchant off with a ridiculous price.  "Put your wallet away, Merchant, you can't buy that Pearl from me with silver or gold.  If you want that Pearl, first you'll have to come and live here, in the back room, and earn it."

"Done!" the Merchant shouted with glee.  "I thought I might need to do something extraordinary, so I told Father that I would be gone a while.  Where do I sleep?" 

The Pearl Vendor was flabbergasted.  He hated that Pearl all the more, because the Merchant wanted it so badly.  He couldn't bear to see it leave, but the Merchant had called his bluff.  As if He had planned it all along, the Merchant was settling into His new home, even starting to straighten up a little in the back room.  Pearl Vendor couldn't easily back out of the bargain, but the final price wasn't set yet. Maybe he could still scare off the Merchant.   "Living here is just the first installment on the price," warned the Pearl Vendor, "it's going to cost you quite a bit more." 

"I know," smiled the Merchant.  He held the dirty Pearl in His hands and looked at it like it was a beautiful child.  The Pearl Vendor grew angrier. 

"That Pearl is going to cost you too much," Pearl Vendor continued. 

"Let Me decide how much is too much," Merchant replied. 

"People will mock You for buying such a terrible pearl.  People will say You are a fool, people will hate You." 

"So be it."

"You don't understand.  Every flaw that Pearl has must be paid for, and the price is blood, and suffering, and even death.  That Pearl is not worth such a great price. 

"It is a Pearl of Great Price," observed the Merchant.  Pearl Vendor's hope rose for a moment as it seemed the Merchant was considering the full cost.  "It's a deal, Pearl Vendor.  I'll take it."  The Merchant was already cleaning the Pearl in His own robes, wiping away its filth and beginning to bring out its shine. 

"No, I won't have it," screamed the Pearl Vendor.  "I will not let that Pearl go; it will stay and rot in my back room forever."

"You will let it go, Pearl Vendor," the Merchant stated calmly.  "The Bargain is made, it is finished, the Pearl will be mine.  You stole it from My Father and Me, our Spirit longs for its return.  Our perfect plan will not be spoiled by you." 

"Oh but it will be spoiled," sneered the Pearl Vendor.  "Your Father hates that Pearl, with all its flaws and faults.  He will not accept your Bargain.  He will never accept such a damaged Pearl. He will destroy it." 

"You're partially right again, Pearl Vendor.  This Pearl cannot enter my Father's house with all its flaws.  But I will remove them.  All that My Father hates about this Pearl, I will correct.  I will suffer, I will bleed, I will give up my Spirit and die.  And then I will rise.  I will rise from death to claim this Pearl for My very own, a treasured possession, to present to My Father, flawless and perfect, forever.  That's My Bargain, and I'm glad to make it." 

The Merchant has made His Bargain.  Jesus Christ gave up everything, leaving His seat in glory at God's right hand, coming down into our squalid, filthy world, in order to buy back His Church.  Those chosen by God before the foundation of the world were stolen by the Pearl Vendor, Satan.  Fallen into sin, no one could overcome the Devil's claim on humanity except God.  And so God came.  Jesus, the Father’s only Son, gave up all He had, even becoming one of us, a human being, born of the Virgin Mary, come to live as a man, in order to suffer and die in our place. 

Satan took the bait, the Father accepted the sacrifice, and now Jesus is preparing His Pearl.  He is cleansing and polishing His Church through the washing of water and the Word.  Jesus is making His Church beautiful by covering our sins with His spotless robe of righteousness.  Jesus is paving your path to heaven with the forgiveness of sins, delivered by His powerful Word.   Jesus is strengthening His people through His Supper, where He gives us His Body and Blood, for the forgiveness of sins, life, and eternal salvation.    

Satan works hard to drown out this Good News.  When struggles and unkind words make you feel like you have no worth, Satan smiles.  When the Abortion industry tells parents that unborn babies aren’t people yet, the demons grin.  When you stumble or fail or don’t look as pretty or as handsome or as slim and fit as you think your are supposed to, the residents of hell rejoice, and tempt you to think their jeers are true.  But God speaks better of you.  God thinks this much of every human being ever conceived:  He sent Jesus to wash away every sin, every blemish, every imperfection, for the whole world, all people, including me, and including you.  That is how precious you are to God:  Jesus came and died and rose again, for you. 

Do not be fooled by Satan's lies.  It is true that your sins are a serious problem.  Your sins are ugly, unfitting for a child of God and worthy of condemnation.  Do not sit in your sins, flee from them.  But when Satan says that God cannot love you because you are a sinner, you tell that liar that God has loved you, by sending Jesus to take away all your sins.  Jesus has purchased your forgiveness, with His blood.  God has sent His Son to make you His treasured possession, a chosen and holy people.  Repent of your sins, and believe the Good News.  The Merchant has made His Bargain, the purchase is complete.  By your Baptism into Christ, God has made you His treasured possession, His Pearl of Great Price.  Amen.