Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, July 8th, Year of Our + Lord 2012
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, Montana
Mark 6:1-13 and Ezekiel 2:1-5
The work of salvation is entirely done by God, from start to finish. From deciding to save sinners before the foundation of the world, to sending the Son into human flesh, to the Sacrifice of the Cross and the victory of the Empty Tomb, to the ongoing, current day work of the Spirit, converting and saving sinners by the Word of forgiveness, all of the saving work is done by God. This is very good news, because this means your salvation is not put into doubt by your weaknesses, but rather is guaranteed by God’s faithfulness. But it also creates some strange realities and real difficulties for us limited, fallen creatures, living in this dying world. We heard some of this strangeness in our readings today, in particular the jarring news that at a certain point, after He has sent His Word to stubborn, rebellious sinners, God may say enough is enough, and move on, taking His Word to others.
To Ezekiel the LORD said: , "Son of man, I send you to the people of Israel, to nations of rebels, who have rebelled against me. They and their fathers have transgressed against me to this very day. The descendants also are impudent and stubborn: I send you to them, and you shall say to them, 'Thus says the Lord God.' And whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house) they will know that a prophet has been among them. As our hymnwriter sings: Oh what of that, and what of that?
Jesus Himself, God in the flesh, comes to His own, to His hometown of Nazareth, preaching the Word about Himself, preaching the Good News that God’s plan of salvation was coming to fulfillment, right now, in the next few months and years. How did the people of Nazareth respond? “Eh, what could Jesus know? Why should we listen to this one we have known since he was a child?” No matter that His Word was true to the words of the prophets, no matter that His Word came accompanied by miracles and wonders, the people of Nazareth disregarded Jesus and His message. So Jesus marvels at their unbelief, and moves on! Oh what of that, and what of that?
Salvation is entirely God’s work, done by Him through His Word, and if we, as we naturally do, reject or ignore His Word, God may move on to others, leaving us in order to preach to them. Yikes. That God does it all in salvation is good news in view of our sinfulness, in view of the reality that we cannot do what it takes to please God and save ourselves. Since I would only muck up anything that I was required to contribute, it is very good news that God is doing all the work. But the ‘God aloneness’ of salvation is also scary news, because we have no control, and in our sinfulness, which we can’t overcome on our own, we might reject God’s Word and miss our chance. Oh what of that, and what of that?
If this warning from Ezekiel and Mark wakes you up this morning, good. It should. Pray fervently “Thy Kingdom come,” that is, pray that God will keep you from despising His Word, but rather cause you to gladly hear and learn it. Pray that the Spirit would keep you strong in faith, so you live a godly life, both now, and in eternity.
And, if these readings give you freedom in proclaiming Christ in the callings of your daily life, if you realize that all you are called to do is confess the truth of God’s Word and that the results are, thankfully, in God’s hands, then rejoice. Rejoice, and go forth in gladness, ready to give the reason for the hope that you have.
But I was reminded this week that there is another way we poor sinners can hear this news, a much more difficult and painful way. I started this week simply marveling at the “that’s that” nature of our readings. If they hear, or if they refuse to hear, they will know a prophet has been among them. Shake off the dust from your feet, if they don’t listen to you, and move on to preach elsewhere. Oh what of that, and what of that?
But then on Wednesday, a friend called me. He apologized for ruining my Fourth of July, but needed to talk a bit, because last Saturday he attended the memorial service for a young friend of his, who had committed suicide.
I was immediately struggling for words. And I hesitated to include this in my sermon, knowing it would be very hard for some of you to hear. But then I remembered that we give more power to any difficult topic we refuse to interpret under God’s Word. Worse yet, we leave it to Satan to use against us. So, with God’s grace we can talk about suicide, too.
Suicides bring extreme sadness, and feelings of helplessness and loss. I could tell that this suicide had changed my friend, and I hurt for him. Oh what of that, and what of that? I know nothing of the situation of the young man who ended his own life. My friend who called didn’t want to share many details; he just wanted to touch base, just needed to tell me it had happened, just needed to include me in his struggle.
But we don’t need to know the details to know more than enough, do we? I have never, and I pray never will have someone close to me kill himself. I am sure many of you have suffered through this, for it is all too common. But whether you’ve seen it up close, or only from a distance, when we are forced to deal with suicide, the hopelessness is suffocating. Oh what of that?
Now we need to be clear, suicide is not the unforgiven sin. The unforgiven sin is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, that is, denying the Spirit’s witness to Jesus Christ. It is, in a nutshell, hardened unbelief. And who but God can say where a person’s heart is at that utterly alone moment of suicide? Is mental illness a factor? Is there truly no faith, or is it an act of extreme emotional distress and spiritual confusion? Did God grant repentance and faith even in the moments before death?
These are questions we should not presume to answer, and of course, we are called to put the best construction on everything. Never the less, suicide is very frightening, and rightly so, because it certainly casts doubt on faith, it surely seems like an act of unbelief. We will take care to only say what we have been given to say, and to rely on the grace of God. But still suicide is a frightening and sobering thing. And suicide is far too common a problem, one which makes wrestling with our readings this morning all the more difficult.
Because the “that’s that” aspect of our Lord’s Words might easily be taken by someone struggling with despair to mean that God doesn’t care. This is not true. God cares more for each of us than any of us care for ourselves. I know this. And yet, when my friend called, I was immediately assaulted by all the questions of “Why God?” It’s a frightening thing, to live as a Christian while still wrestling with doubt and unbelief, and we all struggle with doubt and unbelief. It’s a difficult thing, trying to reconcile our confession of faith with the harsh realities of life. Oh what of that, and what of that?
And yet, even in the midst of grief, we all want to speak “hope” to the hopeless. We may be afraid, we may not know what to say, but, as my friend who called me Wednesday now knows in his gut, after a suicide, we desperately wish we could have said something to make a difference. In the face of a life cut short, a life that everyone else saw as good and valuable, in the face of the tragedy and sadness of the aftermath, those who loved the dead have a tremendous desire to prevent the next one, to somehow reach out and give hope to everyone they love, just in case they too might unexpectedly be at risk of hurting themselves.
And so it should occur to us that trying to give hope to a person who is despairing of life and contemplating death is very much like evangelizing, very much like trying to give sinners hope through the death and new life of Jesus. In fact, in the end, whether the person who faces death apart from Christ does so through ignorance, through stubborn, hard-heartedness, or through despair, evangelizing is all about giving hope to dying people through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. For, while we may turn someone from suicide today with any number of hopeful ideas, at the end of all things, there is only one true source of hope, only one God who gave Himself for us, only one Savior who has conquered all our sin, so that we might live with Him forever. This is what evangelizing is, this is what preaching is, whether done from a pulpit, over the phone, or over a cup of coffee. Evangelizing is to speak hope to people who do not know or who are doubting the one true hope that God has given to us. Oh what of that, Lord, what of that!
There is no short cut way to preach Christ crucified for the salvation of sinners. It’s difficult. Satan assaults us with self-consciousness. The message is resisted. Preaching the Gospel of forgiveness requires also preaching the Law that points out and condemns sin. Evangelizing takes time, and patience, and repetition. And even as we forgiven, believing sinners try to confess Christ to others, we will not have all the answers, because God has not given us all the answers. When the Lord might turn from our land, because we have scorned His Word too long; why some believe, but others angrily turn away; why death still seems so powerful, even though Jesus has risen; for these and many other hard questions we have no answers that completely satisfy our troubled minds. But we do have the Word of the Cross. We do have Jesus. Oh what of that, Lord, what of that!
We have the Word of the Cross, so we can say this: God has not yet turned away from us, not today, not by a long shot. God is still actively reaching out, by His Word and Spirit, to draw sinners to Himself by the forgiveness of sins, even right here, in Fairview and Sidney, Montana. We have the Word of the Cross, so we can say this: every sin, every sadness, every failure, yes, even every suicide, God already knows, has already suffered over, has already atoned for on the Cross at Golgotha. We have no guarantee that when we carry the word of Christ to hurting people that we will see the results we hope for, but we can speak His Word anywhere, for it is God’s Word, and God’s promise, not ours. We are just messengers.
That’s what we have, at the end, the remarkable good news that God’s Son, Jesus Christ, has truly taken all the pains and sufferings of the whole creation upon Himself, draining them of their power over us, even as His life blood drained out of Him. We are afraid, and confused, but joined to the resurrected Christ we are also alive, and ready to speak, to speak the truth that life is worth living, because Jesus died, to declare that death is not the victor, because Jesus rose. And so we live, and speak, and look forward in hope, to that day when Jesus will return, the dead will rise, and Christ will gather His Church into everlasting joy in His presence. Oh what of that, Lord, what of that! Amen.