Monday, April 23, 2012

A Flesh and Blood Savior

3rd Sunday of Easter, April 22nd, Anno + Domini 2012                                                  
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana

Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?  See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself.  Touch me, and see… And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”  They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them. 

Mary Magdalene and the other women had told them.  Simon Peter himself had told them.  The Emmaus disciples had just finished telling their resurrection story.  But still it is so hard to believe.  Because Jesus’ chosen path to God opposes all that makes sense to us.  That the Creator of all things would allow Himself to be tortured and killed by His creatures.  That He who knew no sin would become sin for us, the righteous for the unrighteous, the Holy One for us sinners, this Great Exchange that angels could not bear to watch.  That life, true, abundant, eternal life, should come through death.  All this is so hard to understand.

Wouldn’t it be better, we ask, if Jesus would accommodate our ideas a little?  Couldn’t He have worked into it gradually, winning His kingdom in stages?  Couldn’t He have done it differently, staying around, using His impressive abilities, personally leading a movement, teaching and doing miracles to convince the world that God’s way is better?  Why does the Gospel of Christ have to have so many sharp edges, so much struggle on the way to victory, so much pain on the way to joy?  Why does the Gospel of Jesus have to have the Cross?  It is so hard to understand, so hard to believe.  Jesus Himself must open our minds to understand the Scriptures.  He must overcome our doubts, our weak understanding, our sin and selfishness.  His way is hard to believe, and painful to walk, but it is His way, the way of salvation of the only true God, the only Savior of sinners. 

Even after several of the company of the first disciples said it was true, even after Mary Magdalene, Peter, Cleopas and others had seen and testified to Jesus’ resurrection, still it was hard to believe.  So finally Jesus Himself appears to the whole group.  That’ll do it.  Now they finally will believe, right?  Not quite.  They want to believe, they are overjoyed to see the Lord, but doubts arise in their hearts.  So Jesus, God in human flesh, offers Himself to them, physically.  Look at my hands and feet.  Touch me, and see.  It is I, Myself.  Joy rises in their hearts, the battle for faith is almost won. 

“Do you have anything to eat?”  With broiled fish, Jesus closes the deal, eating with them, proving He is not just a spirit, not just in their imagination.  He is a man, flesh and blood, chewing on the fish.  A Heavenly Man, oh yes, with a resurrected body, a different body, better, the eternal model, much better than our fallen bodies.  But still a body, eating fish, capable of touch, God in the flesh, our Risen Lord. 

This is what it takes.  We who do not even understand the depth of our own sinfulness need the Lord to open the Scriptures to us.  We who are trapped in dying bodies need a Savior who has died and risen.   We flesh and blood sinners need a flesh and blood Savior, who comes to us, at the table. 

And so last Tuesday, as I stood at Dale Hill’s bedside at Billings Clinic, clasping hands and talking to him, I asked a question.  “Dale, I know you cannot eat and drink the sacrament right now, but would you like for us, for Sharon and your son and daughter-in-law, would you like for us to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, here, around your bed?”  At that point, Dale could not speak, for the breathing tube, and he could not open his eyes.  But he was hearing and could respond with finger raises and hand squeezes.  So I asked Dale if we should celebrate communion there, around his bed in the ICU. 

For a man with terminal cancer, Dale’s grip is surprisingly strong.  Yes, he squeezed, yes, let me hear, and be near, and who knows, maybe even smell the cup, as my loved ones are fed with salvation.  Dale squeezed yes, and so we did.  And so, in Word and Sacrament, Christ came to us, Christ fed us, Christ met Dale in the midst of his suffering and dying, to strengthen his faith, even as his body fails.  Renewing the promise of new life, new bodies, new and everlasting joy, for Dale, and Sharon, and their kids, God gave what we need to believe, and rejoice, even as death draws near.      
Christianity has changed the world.  More important, Christian faith is the only hope for us sinners.  So we forgiven sinners dare not sit back and allow the world to change Christianity, to tame it and sand away the rough edges.  Jesus does not offer a comfortable faith, but a radical one, a radical faith, that saves.  It’s not that we are radicals.  God is.  God and His salvation are radical.  Faith in Christ is not just a nice thing, a pleasant feature of a good life.  Christ by your faith defeats Satan, the evil one, who is mightier than any of us.  Christ by your faith defeats Satan, who otherwise would destroy you, moment by moment, forever.  Rescuing you and me from our sinfulness, rescuing us from Satan, this is the work of God on earth. 

God in this work has bound Himself to His Word.  And so we are bound, to His Word, with joy.    For it is wonderful to follow Christ.  Not easy, but wonderful.  None of us like the struggle it takes to stick to God’s Word.  But in the midst of the struggle, even in the midst of our doubts, we rejoice, for Jesus is with us, even with His Body and Blood.  And at the end of the struggle, we are with Jesus, our flesh and blood God, face to face with our Savior, as all our struggles fade to nothing, and God is all in all for us, forever and ever, Amen. 

Monday, April 16, 2012

Our Doubts, God's Answer

Second Sunday of Easter, April 15th, Year of Our + Lord 2012
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, Montana
 John 20:19-31
     Two weeks ago, as we celebrated Palm Sunday and Confirmation, I thought about incorporating in the sermon the various verses the confirmands selected for themselves.  In the end,  I went a different direction, in part because between St. John and Trinity we had 12 young people confessing their faith and gaining access to the Lord’s Supper, and so I was afraid that using all of them in the sermon would make an already long service way too long.  Still, it would have been fun, because they picked some great verses. 

     Emaline Banta, who was also baptized that same day, chose John 3:16, as did Tyler Echols.  This was a great choice for both of them, but especially for Emaline, still damp from the washing of Water and the Word.   Choosing the capstone verse of Jesus’ late night discussion of baptism with Nicodemus served as a great reminder for all present of the gift in Baptism, which is the victory of the Cross, by which God loved the world, giving His only begotten Son.  Amara Linder chose several verses of  Psalm 139, describing how God is with us, always, a Psalm that goes on to talk about how God was present at the beginning of each of us, weaving us in our mother’s wombs, at work in the hidden places, working out the days He has written for us in His book.  This foremost of pro-life passages was the basis of Wednesday’s Catechism class, as we spend our last sessions together exploring and rejoicing in God’s love for human life.  Lexi Joslin, aware of the difficult time we have been passing through, chose to use the same verse that Sherry Arnold did 31 years earlier, Joshua 1:9: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go,” an amazingly appropriate verse for Sherry, and for you, and all Christians, every day.  Sydney Webster chose a verse from Daniel that gives a vision of the Son of Man, our Savior, as He appears in glory.  Great stuff.  I could go on, and I am tempted to do so. 

     But still, as wonderful as the verses chosen by our confirmands this year are, none of them is my favorite.  No, being a lover of plays on words, my favorite selection of a confirmation verse is the one that is in our Gospel today, the verse chosen by Thomas Schaffer last year, John 20:28:  “Thomas answered Him, ‘My Lord and My God.’”   I love it because of the name sharing, between the doubting disciple and the Schaffer’s oldest son.  But even more I love it because of how well it fits with confirmation, with publicly confessing faith in Jesus Christ as God and Savior.  Thomas, steeped in three years of personal teaching by Jesus, none the less struggles to believe, caught between doubt and hope, unbelief and faith.  John 20:28, the confession Christ called forth from Thomas, is much like one of my favorite verses, Mark 9:24.  “Lord I believe, help Thou my unbelief,” is the cry of the father of a demon possessed boy who is calling out to Jesus for  help, “Jesus if you can, help my son.”  “If I can?” replies Jesus. 
Confronted by Jesus for doubting His ability to save, the man’s cry nicely sums up the nature of Christian existence as it is lived in this fallen world, the cry of believers, who still struggle with doubt and sin:  “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.”  Both to this struggling father and to doubting Thomas, Jesus inserts Himself and His Word, dispelling unbelief and calling forth faith.  And so the boy's father cried out, "I do believe; help my unbelief," and “Thomas confessed, ‘My Lord and My God.’” 

     Doubt and questions fill our days.  “Do you think it will rain?” we asked each other last Thursday, and again yesterday afternoon, as the clouds built up.  “I doubt it, at least not enough to matter.”  And so it was, barely enough rain to settle the dust.  Do you think the next election will result in positive changes in our nation?  Do you think you’re really going to lose weight on your new diet?  Do you think that truth and justice will be the end result of the Trayvon Martin case?  In matters large and small, doubts prevail, and for good reason. 

     Our daily experiences with disappointment and doubt constantly insert themselves into our faith, into our relationship with Christ.  Can we really be sure of our salvation?  Was Jesus really who the Church says He was, and is?  And can we even say what the Church says anymore, when there is so much division and arguing?  Part of our problem trusting God’s promises has to do with the complete otherness of God’s way of salvation.  In every earthly endeavor, what you receive depends very significantly on what you give, what you do, what you contribute.  Your choices and your actions do not determine everything, but they are crucially important, your good efforts creating the possibility for you to overcome any number of obstacles.  On the other hand, if you do not apply your talents and abilities, if you do not make the best of your situation, you will have to admit that most of your misfortune is your fault. 

     The Scriptures, however, present an entirely different reality when it comes to being right with God.  Christianity is not about you making the best of what you have.  No, you were lost, opposed to God, dead in trespasses since your conception, and the dead can do nothing to resurrect themselves.  But God, rich in grace and mercy, has made you alive together with Christ.  With man, salvation is impossible, but with God, all things are possible, and so you were born into God’s family, reborn, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but born of God.  By grace you have been saved, through faith, apart from works, lest any man should boast.  Salvation from start to finish is entirely a gift, an undeserved, unearned gift, given to a dead sinner, by the Risen Christ. 
     Really God?  Are you sure it works this way?  You don’t need anything from me, no effort, no decision, no contribution in order to save me?  Tragically, since God’s way is so different from our experience, and because God’s way is so humbling to our egos, throughout history people have repeatedly changed God’s teaching about how we are saved, inserting human works, sometimes many, as in you have to work off every sin you commit since Baptism, sometimes just a few, or even just one, to truly give Jesus your heart.  Very rare are false teachers who want to claim sinners can do all or even most of what it takes to be saved.  But very common are the false teachers who give Christ most of the credit, but leave you some works which you must complete, in order to be saved.  They say you will need God’s help of course, but still some works are required, in some misguided teaching so many required that you can expect to go to purgatory after you die, to finish what you don’t get done here.  Others say there is only one thing you must do, you must accept, respond, open your heart to Jesus, who has done everything else required.  It is for you, it is your choice, they say. 

     Thank God you are a Lutheran, for with Luther we believe, teach and confess that we are saved entirely by God’s action, by His grace, by forgiveness received by faith, faith which is also a gift from God, not a work.  Thank God, and be careful, for this false idea about our works is not just out there, for other Christians to worry about.  No, this false teaching is constantly trying to spring up in the heart of each of us.  In our sinful pride, we are always susceptible to thinking that surely God needs my contribution to save me. 

     In every case, because of our ongoing struggle with sin, these required works, whether they are many, or only one, always become the focus.  Have I done enough?  Did I do the one thing required authentically?  Did I really make a decision for God?  Did I properly respond to God’s offer?  Am I living a life that is worthy of the name Christian?  Every time we look to our own works for salvation, we are forced into uncertainty, for even our best efforts are still stained by our sin.  Have I done enough?  Did I do it right?  Well, honestly, no.   

     No, you and I have not done enough, not done things right, but again, thanks be to God, this is not how salvation works.  God must save you, for you were dead in your trespasses and sins, incapable of doing what God requires.  But God, rich in mercy, has declared you are forgiven, and so not guilty before His judgment seat, for Jesus’ sake. 

     It is understandable, in one sense, that we think we must do something to contribute to salvation, for God’s Word does require a lot of us.  There are many laws in the Bible, things we are to do, and things we are not to do.  And God is serious about His law.  But the declaration of a law does not create the ability to perform it. 
For example, some years ago from Washington D.C. it was declared that there would no longer be any child left behind in our educational system, that every child and every school would be made to attain a certain level of performance.  Sadly, however, some children and some schools are still behind, the law did not change reality. The law did not create the ability for schools to obey it. 

     It is similar with God’s law.  Outwardly, we may be able to follow God’s Law, somewhat, not murdering anyone, not committing open adultery, not stealing from Reynolds when we go to get groceries.  But God wants His law followed perfectly, outwardly and inwardly, happily and consistently.  This we cannot do.  No.  Not at all.  And so no, we can make no contribution, even though God’s law makes many demands of us.  Even as the redeemed of God, even as baptized, believing Christians, we only do those good works that Christ works within us.  Before and after conversion, all the credit, all the glory, goes to Jesus. 

     As it should be.  Jesus lived a sinless, servant life, doing the good works in our stead that God’s law requires.  Jesus died on His Cross to pay for the sins of the whole world, paying the price in punishment that God’s law also requires of us sinners.  Jesus could do these things in our place because He is God, God’s eternal Son, become man.  And so, on top of leading us into doubt and despair, if we claim to be making a contribution to salvation we are also devaluing and dishonoring Christ the Crucified.  To say and believe and try to do works to earn even a fraction of salvation is to look at Jesus life and death and say, ‘Not quite good enough.”  It is to say “Jesus is the once for all sacrifice, except for this thing, that I must do.”  God the Father, in a mystery too deep for words, has poured out all divine anger against sin onto Jesus, on the Cross.  He will not tolerate us taking away from what His Son has accomplished. 

     For the sake of Christ’s honor, and for the sake of our salvation, we reject all such mixing of our works into God’s salvation.  Our salvation must be, and is, 100% God, no contribution from us, whatsoever.  And so Jesus comes to Thomas, to dispel His doubts.  Not even the making up of Thomas’ mind was left to Thomas.  Jesus comes to show how impossible it is for us to even assent, to decide to believe, impossible, until Jesus comes and makes the impossible happen, by the power of His Word.   Stop doubting, and believe.  

     You may be a bit jealous of Thomas, since Jesus gave him a special, face to face sermon, to dispel his lingering doubts.  But keep listening, because Jesus goes on to say:  “Blessed are you, who have not seen, and yet have believed, for indeed, these things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.  Stop doubting.  Believe.  Rejoice,  Jesus is your Lord and your God, Amen.                 

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Holy Silence, Heavenly Noise

The Resurrection of Our Lord, April 8th Year of Our + Lord 2012     
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, Montana
Mark 15:42-47, 16:1-8 and John 20:1-18

Silence.  How do you like silence?  That depends, doesn’t it, on why you are in silence, on what the silence means.  Silence may be very bad, or very good, depending on why it has come.  Sometimes we crave silence, when the riotous cacophony of our frantic world makes our head pound and our thoughts scramble.  Then we want nothing more than some peace and quiet, to rest our ears and our hearts.  But other times, when we are crying out for someone, when we are in need or danger, when we are lost, then silence can be suffocating.    

You probably were not expecting silence, here, on this morning, were you?  Today we celebrate the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the joyous revelation of His complete victory over sin, death and the devil, His Good Friday victory which Easter morning reveals is also our victory, His great gift of grace, delivered to us in Word, Water and Wine.  This is a morning for full throated singing, Jesus Christ is ris’n today, Alleluia!  We know that  Christ is raised and dies no more! 

And yet, there are silences.  We began this service with Mark’s words from the end of Good Friday, and from Holy Saturday.  And I inserted a silence as I read, a silence between that Sabbath rest, while Jesus’ body lay in the tomb, and the next morning, for certainly there was a deep silence then, on that Saturday, the silence of sorrow, of complete loss, because the best Man anyone had ever known was dead.  Jesus, who had shown such power in serving others, did nothing to defend Himself.  All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.  He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth;  like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so He did not open His mouth.  By oppression and judgment He was taken away.  Yes, indeed, there was the silence of sorrow, and guilt, guilt for having fled from His suffering, guilt for having killed the Son of God, as even the Centurion recognized, when it was too late, guilt for being part of a human race that could so turn on its own Creator. 

We were not there, we did not know that silence, on that Holy Sabbath, so many centuries ago, but we still hear the echo of that silence.  The silence of sorrow, when someone who has loved you well suddenly is gone, dead, or ordered to another corner of the world, your beloved taken from you, leaving you with no words to say.  The silence of pain, when life is all against you, and no one understands or seems able to care about your needs, your fears.  The silence of loneliness, when you long for someone or something that you can’t even quite name, let alone find, loneliness which deadens your ears to the sounds of joy in the world.  And the silence of rejection, when the one person you most need to hear say, “I love you,” refuses to speak, refuses to be with you.

This last, the silence of rejection, was, I suspect, heaviest on the ears and hearts of Jesus’ followers, on that long ago Holy Saturday, and early on Sunday.  Some of them, Martha and Peter and others, had confessed Jesus to be the Son of God, God come into human flesh.  All of them believed and confessed Jesus was sent from God.  Now, humanity had killed God’s agent, God Himself, actually, the only-begotten Son of God tortured, and killed by crucifixion.  Now, what would God do to a people such as us?  What else could He do  but utterly reject us all? 

God was silent on that Saturday, the body of Jesus resting, fulfilling the Sabbath commandment, for us, in preparation for the great surprise, coming in the morning.  The women, faithful in death, headed to the tomb, to give Jesus’ a decent burial, speaking little, in hushed tones, no doubt, when they had to, such as to discuss the problem of the stone.  "Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?"

It was then that God began to speak again, first with the moving of the stone, for the women, so they could look into the tomb, to see and hear the young man, the white-robed messenger from God, sitting where Jesus had lain, speaking God’s word of peace:  "Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has risen; he is not here.  See the place where they laid him.  But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee.  There you will see him, just as he told you."

Next came a different kind of silence, the silence of surprise, the silence of hoping against hope for an unexpected proclamation to be true.  The silence of wanting this good news to be true, but fearing another disappointment, fearing to look up in hope, hesitant to believe, lest they be struck down again, into sorrowful silence.  And so they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.  For a time, still silent.  But this Word could not be held in.  The news is taken to Peter and John and the others, trembling words of hope are shared. 

And finally, Jesus steps into the silence.  Still caught between surprise and fear and doubt, Mary Magdalene is first to hear His voice.  “Where have you taken Him,” she asks the man whom she thinks is the gardener.  “Mary,” Jesus calls her name, and the silence of her heart is dispelled, the chorus of heaven breaks out, and she now has a word to speak:  “I have seen the Lord.”

The enormity of sin, and the fearfulness of God’s way of salvation still conspire to cause silence, even in heaven.  In Revelation, chapter 8, the Lamb, Jesus Christ, slain from the foundation of the world, but now reigning in glory, breaks the seventh and last seal on the great book of life, about to reveal His final victory, and then there is silence in heaven for about half an hour.  Imagine that, half an hour of silence, holy silence, in heaven. 

In the book of Revelation, this silence serves as a marker, before John returns to another cycle of sevens, the seven trumpet angels, who will rehearse the same symbolic description of the life of the Church of God on earth, until the Last Day.  Seven seals, seven trumpets, seven plagues are all used to describe the life of Christ’s persecuted Church on earth, leading up to the return of Christ.  Holy silence followed the breaking of the seventh seal, the end was not described, but we know the end of the story.  We know what follows the breaking of the seventh seal, and the seventh trumpet, and the seventh plague, because we know that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.  Sin was swallowed up in His sacrificial death, and now death no longer has power over Him.  Indeed, for all who are united with Him, all sins are washed away, and death is just the portal to life everlasting.  This free gift is for you, and for all who repent of their sins and believe in His Name. 

 It’s enough to leave you speechless.  The Holy Spirit will call forth your joyous confession of faith, sweet music to God’s ears, and good news for all the nations.  But there is also time for silence, amazed, joyful, holy silence, because what seemed to be utter loss, the deepest silence of sadness and rejection, has instead been revealed to be your new life.  Jesus has come to dispel the harsh and hurtful sounds of this world, and also the accusing voice of Satan, giving you instead His peace, peace with God won for sinners when He shed His blood.   

Life in this broken world, life as believers who still struggle with sin, is going to have painful silences.  But you can endure and even break these silences, because Jesus has also come to fill them.  Dispel sad silence by proclaiming the sweet Name of Jesus, the resurrected Savior of sinners.  He has come to be your friend in sorrow, your companion when all others reject you, and your forgiver, when it is your own sin that leaves you sorry in silence.    Whether you struggle with noise or silence, Christ has come give sweet peace, and heavenly noise, the sweet song of salvation, for you. 

And so, a few holy silences now and then as we worship are appropriate.  The red letter instructions in the order of Confession and Absolution call for silence.  Just before we actually confess our sins, and our sinfulness, the rubrics say: Silence for reflection on God’s Word and self-examination.  The silence of repentance for sin is indicated here, for much of God’s Word to us is Law, His will for our lives, His specific dos and don’ts, which, upon self-examination, always show us our sin, for which we deserve His rejection.  It is as the Psalmist writes:  When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away, groaning all day long.    

Silence for self-examination is indeed appropriate before confessing our sins.  But don’t get stuck there, you know what comes next.  Christians confess their sins in order to receive the absolution.  God’s Word does indeed contain damning law, but even more, God’s Word reveals and delivers the crucified and resurrected Jesus, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.  In your silence before confessing your sins, remember how this Psalm continues, I acknowledged my sin to You, And my iniquity I did not hide; I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the LORD"; And You forgave the guilt of my sin.  Before you confess, marvel in this grace-filled silence, for all that God has done for you, even forgiving your sins! 

Again, in just a few minutes, there will again be holy silence.  As those who will commune at this altar come forward, we kneel in silence, silent even as the congregation sings around us, silently awaiting from the Lord a gift that leaves us speechless:  Take, eat, this is my body, take drink, this is my blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.  We eat and we drink, silently proclaiming the Lord’s death until He comes, for we know that Christ is risen, He is risen indeed, Alleluia.

United by faith to the risen Savior, forgiven and strengthened again by His Word and Sacrament, you need not fear silence, nor deafening noise, because Christ is your holy silence, and your heavenly noise, the very song of forgiveness, both for today, and forever and ever, Amen. 

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Seeing the Face of God

In Memory of Sherry Arnold
Trinity Lutheran Church, Sidney Montana, (held at Sidney High School)
March 30th, Year of Our + Lord 2012
Seeing the Face of God – 1 Corinthians 4:6

Sherry Lee Arnold
Born February 13th, Year of Our + Lord 1968
Baptized into Christ March 10th, Year of Our + Lord 1968
Confirmed in Christ April 19th, Year of Our + Lord 1981
Died in Christ January 7th, Year of Our + Lord 2012 
Soli Deo Gloria – To God Alone Be Glory

I was so thankful for the babies.  On January 7th, on that dark Saturday, and in the dark days that followed, images of hope were hard to see.  But very soon, little Henry arrived, and Eva, and her baby sister Claire.  These and others of the youngest family members of Sherry came, and blessed the family in the midst of their grief.  As the family and friends suffered together, people would look into these babies’ faces, blessed for that moment to smile and rejoice and know that there is still good in the world, good to be seen in the face of a little child.

I was so thankful for the faces of the babies, because in those dark days, we saw the face of evil.  Evil is out there, we all know that.  And there is some evil around us.  The most honest of us admit that evil lurks within us.  But such pure evil acted out, such senseless, hate-filled evil, most of us had never faced before.  But now, we have.  The loss of a mother, a wife, a daughter, teacher, and friend like Sherry is hard, no matter the circumstances.  But these circumstances, random, violent, cruel, were like a cold knife in our hearts.  We all struggled through that week, praying and hoping and searching, until what we had hoped and prayed against was proven true.  The face of evil had risen up against us, and we were afraid.  Afraid, and angry, justly angry.  But feeling anger so deep, it also frightened us.  We felt defeated, crushed.      

We saw the face of evil, and so we clung to the blessings God gave to us through the faces of others.  The family held the babies, and hugged and spoke to the people, so many people, who came, and helped and comforted and cried.  Searchers, police officers, FBI agents, friends, strangers.  From all over came expressions of sorrow and concern, and great acts of service, food and drink, support for the family and the searchers, people serving in large ways and small.  And in these people, through these faces, God was serving us.  Luther speaks of the masks of God, how God serves us through others, hiding  behind the faces of people, using the farmer and the baker and the store clerk to deliver our daily bread to us, and so much more.  God served Sherry’s family, friends and community through beautiful, tear-streaked faces, serving and sharing in the loss. 

We rightly give thanks to God for serving us, every day, and especially in our times of greatest need, God serving us through the caring actions of other people.  Nothing of this world can make up for the loss of Sherry, but we have been blessed to witness people serving as masks of God.  A community, two states, a network of friends and strangers across the country and around the world, giving of themselves to support a family in great need. 

And, proclaiming Christ.  We’ve had a regular potpourri of preachers today, but far more people have been preaching Christ during this struggle.  I was so thankful for the babies, who gave hope in the midst of tears, and for all who gave of themselves to serve.  And I am even more thankful, and awed, by the many people who came and spoke God’s word, speaking with a laser-like focus on Jesus, speaking boldly of the victory of God through His Cross and Resurrection.  Even on that dark Saturday in January, even then, God moved His people to speak of another Saturday, almost 2000 years ago, when all was lost, the saddest of Saturdays, because the day before, on Friday, evil had shown its ugly face, and seemed to win a complete victory. 

On that long ago Saturday, as Jesus lay in the tomb, all was loss.  So many had such high hopes in Him, but after the events of Friday, there was no doubt, no question what had happened.  Evil had won.  Outside Jerusalem, on a Roman cross, the friends and family of Jesus had seen evil do its worst, in full public view, and they were helpless to stop it, too weak and afraid to even try. But the darkness of that Saturday almost 2,000 years ago did not last, evil had not won,  In fact, the power of evil had been broken, and on Sunday morning God revealed that everything had changed, everything had been re-created, made new, in the risen Jesus. 

During our dark days, I have again and again been privileged to hear the Name and Promise of Christ spoken, by so many.  To proclaim confidence in Christ in the face of great tragedy is not easy, but what the Apostle Paul said is still true today:  We also believe, and so we also speak.  The greatest service God has provided to the family and our community during these dark days has been Christians daring to speak of the forgiving victory of God,  won for sinners by God’s Son, lifted up on a Cross.  There Jesus swallowed up all our evils, in order to give forgiveness and new life, to all who believe in Him.  For, again as Paul teaches us, God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 

The utter mess of this world is the fault of humans and our sin.  We all share in the guilt.  Even still, God cares for you, and all the world.  God is grieved at human suffering, and works through human masks to give relief to each one of us.  Without God’s protection, our world would soon descend into chaos.  God limits evil, so that we continue here today.  But this blessing falls short.  Our greatest need is not met in the restraint of evil.  It is good to see the providence of God coming to us through the faces of others, but this gift does not save, not from sin, death, and hell.  For our greatest problems, only one face will do, the face of Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God who became a man in order to rescue us from sin and death, forever.

This is the gift we all need, most of all.  For we are all victims of sin, and we are all perpetrators, and sin separates us from God, who is Holy and Good.  You may not think you are much of a sinner.  You may like to compare yourselves to the “worst sinners” and so feel good by comparison.  But there is another thing this tragedy has revealed, the guilt that each of us is carrying around.  A terrible thing happened, for which no one in this room is responsible.  And yet, literally dozens of times I have spoken with people, with many of you, and heard you cry out, “If only.”  “If only I had done this.”  Or “How could I have left this undone?”  “Why couldn’t I save her?”  “Why was I not a better person, when I had the chance?” 

Your ‘what ifs’ about Sherry make no sense.  None of you are guilty in this tragedy.  But many of you, already struggling with sadness and fear and the deepest anger, are also feeling guilt.  This message of guilt is a lie of Satan.  This guilt is a lie, but it’s an effective lie, because we are all sinners, and in the face of this tragedy the devil all too easily twists our hearts and minds into guilt and defeat, eating away at your faith in a good and loving God. 

For our guilt, real and imagined, there is only one solution, to see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, given to love the world, by washing away all the sins of all people, the once for all sacrifice.  And praise be to God, Sherry had this vision.  Sherry knew her sin, she knew her need for peace with God, and she knew how God has won peace for all sinners.  And, Sherry knew where to go to receive and be renewed in the  peace of God.  Sherry knew and took advantage of her access to God’s forgiving love, poured out for us in Jesus Christ. 

Sherry could do this, because first God brought Sherry to Himself.  God reached out to Sherry, early and often, to show her the loving face of Jesus.  On March 10th, 1968, at this very font, Sherry was claimed by God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, through the washing of water and the Word, Holy Baptism.  Reborn by water and the Spirit, Sherry was raised up in the Word of Christ.  At the altar on which that cross and those candles normally rest, Sherry confessed the faith of her Baptism, confirming her faith and gaining access to His table, the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, where she came, time and again, most recently just before Christmas, kneeling in faith to be fed the forgiveness of sins given through the Body and Blood of Christ. 

On that very dark Saturday in January, when Sherry was stolen from us, all of us were tempted to ask:  Where was God?  I am not here to defend God against the evil in our world.  No, I am here to proclaim to you this Good News:  God does not stay up in heaven, waiting for sinners to free themselves from evil and find their way to Him.  No, God, revealed in the face of Jesus Christ, comes down, to seek and to save.  God did not turn away from us in our sinfulness, but rather, because God is love, He entered into human life, becoming a child, living among us, suffering with us, even as He taught and served, and walked His way toward His Cross, where He took all our suffering into Himself.  And now, today, this same God continues to reach out through the power of His forgiving Word, to draw us to Himself, both for today and forever. 

Because Sherry was united to Christ in Baptism, because she trusted in all the promises God had made to her, because her faith was continually fed by His Word and Sacrament, she was never alone.  Even in the worst suffering, Sherry was never alone.  For God is always with His children, never letting them out of His hand, always working for their eternal good, even when evil seems to be winning. 
The loss is profound; the evil is great.  Sherry was special to many, many people.  Sherry taught my children, and many of you.  We loved her generosity, her competence, her bright smile, and her even brighter eyes.  Sherry is even more special to God, so special that He sent His Son to be her Savior.  And so, Sherry was and is forever perfect in His sight, not because she was perfect in her life, but because she trusted in the forgiving love of Christ.  We mourn for Sherry, but we do not mourn as those who have no hope.  We weep and cry, but we also rejoice, because we know that Sherry’s soul rests with Jesus, awaiting that Final Day when He will share His resurrection with all His own. 

So now what?  What do we do tomorrow?  Many of you have resolved to live better, because of this tragedy, to live for others, to love, to serve, to care.  Good.  Sure, be used by God to serve others.  But never be fooled into believing your salvation depends on what you do.  For the Son of Man was lifted up, not so that you could overcome evil and save yourself, but precisely because you can’t.  And you don’t have to.  The Son of Man was lifted up, Jesus was crucified, so that by believing in Him, you could be forgiven all your sins, and receive His eternal life, the free gift of God’s love.  And this saving faith, this believing in Jesus, comes by hearing His Word, and receiving His gifts. 

So, as you go on with your life, first, last and always, rest in God’s forgiving peace.  Rest in God’s forgiving peace by going to the places He has promised to be present, delivering His forgiveness.  Gather where the life, death and resurrection of Jesus  are proclaimed to sinners.  Gather where the blood-bought victory of Christ is delivered freely, in preaching and Baptism and Holy Communion.  God through these means delivers forgiveness and life to all who repent of their sins and look to the glory of God, in the face of Jesus Christ.  Rejoice, for God’s Son, your Savior, has faced evil, and defeated it, for Sherry, and for you, Amen.