Sunday, July 29, 2012

Of Rainbows and Slow Learners

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, July 29th, Year of Our + Lord 2012
The Baptism of Olivia Lake and the Installation of Vicar Jason Toombs
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, MT
 Mark 6:45-56 and Genesis 9:8-17

Which to choose?  We have two great themes before us.  First we have the promise of God declared in rainbows, which goes very well today with little Olivia, fresh from the waters of Holy Baptism, God’s smiling promise shining down through the water, refracting the light of His love in this place. 

At the same time, we have men struggling through their preparation to be ministers of Christ in His Church, 12 disciples, slow to learn and hard-hearted, not yet able to grasp the Good News unfolding before their eyes, ever so slowly and fitfully heading to the day when they would preach Christ to the nations.  The 12 have already seen Jesus calm the stormy sea.  They have seen Him heal the sick, lepers and paralytics and many others.  Three of them have seen Him raise the dead little girl, the daughter of Jairus, and they all were servants at the feeding of the 5,000, distributing the miraculous bread.  But on this night, of these remarkable sights they have no memory, and no faith.  They should not be shocked that the Messiah can walk on water, but as the Lord comes to them, walking on the water, they are afraid, thinking Jesus must be a ghost. 

This text is a good reminder, for all of us, but especially today for Jason Toombs, about to be installed as Vicar, that it is not the quality of the man God puts in the office of the Holy Ministry that accomplishes God’s mission, but rather it is Christ who gets His work done, Christ, working through the Word the man speaks, Christ, sustaining both preacher and hearer, Christ, overcoming the limitations that plague every minister of His Church. 

So, which to choose?   Rainbows, or hardhearted, slow to learn ministers?  I choose both.  We will dig into both rainbows and hard-hearted servants, for in truth both of these themes go with little Olivia, and with Vicar Toombs, and with each of you. 

First, of rainbows and the baptized.  Here we have Noah and his family, just off the ark, just delivered through water, water which destroyed the wicked, hard-hearted, unbelieving world, but also water which floated Noah and his family in safety, surrounded by destruction, but kept safe in the ark.  That’s the Church.  That’s you.  When you look around today, you still see threatening waves, you are in peril on the sea.  God has promised to never again destroy the world with a flood, but daily we face a flood of sin and temptation and evil, a world that rejects and opposes the message of Christ crucified, a world which mocks Christ’s Baptism as an empty, superstitious ritual. 

Worse yet, when you hear God’s condemnation of the sins of the world, when you consider your own lives in light of what the people around Noah were doing before the flood, when you honestly judge your thoughts, words and deeds, you know you share in much of the same guilt and sin as the unbelieving world.  You have been taken aboard the Ark of God’s Church, but by your actions, you deserve to be thrown overboard.  This is true for you, and for me, and, even though we commit Olivia to God’s hands this morning, praying she grows up strong in the faith and Church, we know she too will sin.  Olivia too will seek to jump overboard, to leave the Ark, because the sinner that remains in each of us does not want the things of God, but rather prefers to see faith drowned, and to return to waters of death in which the world so merrily swims. 

But the Captain of God’s Ark is still on the bridge, still guides the wheel, and still watches over His crew.  When we look out at the threatening waves of the world, or when we look inward to see if our hearts are receptive to Christ, in both places we see defeat and destruction. 

So look up.  Enough of considering the threats of the world.  Enough of worrying that you have not reformed yourself, that you have not been able to control your sinfulness.  Confess yours sins, and look up, to the Captain of our Ark.  Look up, to the exalted one, the one lifted up, on a Cross, for He is always eager to forgive and restore.  When you look to Jesus Christ, visible to you through His Word and Sacraments, you see the true and final sign of God’s promise, the guarantee of all God’s promises.  For Noah and his family, the rainbow was a foreshadowing sign of God’s promise, the promise not to destroy, not to count our sins against us, not to cast us off, but rather to forgive, restore, and guide.  The rainbow was a sign for Noah, and still is a sign for us, but we are more blessed.  We are more blessed, because we also have the sign fulfilled, Christ crucified, taking away the penalty and guilt and curse of sin, once for all. 

A rainbow is light, refracted through water, a bow of color to which God connected His Word of promise for Noah, a promise not to destroy, but to save.  Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected, is the Light of the World, shining the light of His forgiving love into every dark corner, shining in and through the waters of Holy Baptism, shining in our hearts with a rainbow of eternal promises.

Christ and His self-sacrifice to take away the sins of the whole world are wonderful news.  When the Holy Spirit brings us to hear and trust it, this good news gives peace and joy and new life.  But the message of Christ is still received by faith; our physical eyes do not get to see the rainbow of God’s love shining from the Baptismal font.  Our eyes can only see Noah’s rainbows, up in the sky, now and then after a rainstorm, pretty, but not a sign from which we naturally draw all the promises of Christ.   We believe in rainbows, that they exist, and in fact we imagine that physicists have explained all there is to know about refracted light and the electromagnetic spectrum.  We have great confidence in what we see from science.  But we doubt, or simply forget, the Word of promise God has attached to rainbows. 

We tend to ignore God’s promises and trust only the things we see, and what our eyes see in the world and in ourselves does not give confidence that God would love us.  What do we see in the terror in Aurora, Colorado that gives us hope?  Why would God love the people of a nation in which violence is a fantasy and family is a failing institution?  Worse, when tragic events in the news or personal struggles and pain weigh us down, we are all too susceptible to the lies of people and institutions which claim that God isn’t even real, or at least deny there is any way to truly know God.  Certainly, from what we see in the world and our lives, it is hard to believe that God loves us.     

God is real, and God has loved the world, atoning for all sin through the blood of the man Jesus Christ, who is also the eternal Son of God.  God’s mission to the world is to save sinners, through the Word of Christ.  The visible outworking of this reality is the 2,000 year history of the Christian Church, 2,000 years of continued proclamation, despite errors and sins from within, despite continual resistance from the outside.  Some would say that the many struggles the Church has suffered, the splits, the internal arguing, the perversion of her ideals that have occurred, time and again, are more reason to doubt God’s existence, or at least His love.  But the struggles and failures of the Church are simply proof of the sinfulness of mankind.  Indeed, the continued proclamation of the forgiveness of Christ, despite all our failures, is strong evidence of the Holy Spirit’s continuing presence with His Church. 

God’s promises are trustworthy, and His Church will endure, but we, like the disciples on the boat, need more help if we are to continue in faith.  We are all naturally slow to learn, just like the disciples, our hearts naturally hardened against God’s message.  For us to believe requires God to give us new hearts, and to renew them, again and again.  For this purpose, God has instituted the office of the Holy Ministry, calling men from His Church to be public proclaimers and public distributors of His Gospel gifts, men set aside to study the Word, so they can speak God’s truth, to and for you.  Today begins an important year in the preparation of Jason Toombs to be placed into that office, a year for him to practice, to serve, to grow in knowledge and skill.  Today we are witnesses to God putting a man at risk, because to be a sinner called to preach to God’s people and the world is to be exposed.  Seeking the office of bishop is a good thing, but it is a good thing that is sure to expose all your faults, all your weakness, all your failures. 

And yet, through the preaching of sinners, God chooses to work.  It’s miraculous.  Likewise, through the lives and words of His Baptized people, God also chooses to work, filling His people with faith and knowledge and a heart for sinners, so that in your daily callings you can give the reason for the hope that is in you, so that you too can proclaim Christ, to the people God brings into your life.  This too is miraculous.  The Captain uses every soul on His Ark in some way, in His ongoing mission of plucking sinners out of the sea of destruction, to bring them safely into the saving Ark of Christ’s Church. 

When we consider their situation in this world, as sinners surrounded by temptations to sin and unbelief, both Olivia and Vicar Toombs are at risk.  So are you.  So am I.  But both Olivia and Vicar and you are safe in Christ.  The rainbow God put in the cloud for Noah is a reflection of the Rainbow that surrounds God’s throne in heaven, where the Lamb of God, who has been slain, stands.  There, in the heavenly throne room of the Almighty, the resurrected Jesus Christ stands, for Olivia, for Jason, and for you, guaranteeing your inheritance with all the saints in light.  Through the weakness of Baptism, through the weakness of the men called to be pastors, through the weakness of the message of the Cross, the power of God shines through, creating and sustaining faith, overcoming all that is weak in His pastors, and in His people, that we might be forever safe in His presence.  This is the promise of rainbows, and of Baptism, the promise of preaching, the promise of salvation, for you, Amen.

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