Monday, August 27, 2012

Holding to the Tradition of the Elders or Holding to Jesus

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost                                                  August 26th, A.D. 2012
St John and Trinity Lutheran Churches                                        Fairview and Sidney, MT
Mark 7:1-13                                                                                   Vicar Jason Toombs

Grace, Mercy, and Peace be to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

     Is it wrong to hold to traditions?  This needs to be talked about now more than ever.  There are people who like to claim that all traditions should be abandoned.  They try to apply what Jesus said about holding to the tradition of the elders to all tradition.  Is that what Jesus was talking about in today’s lesson?  No. Jesus wants to know what His hearers will hold onto.  Will they hold to the tradition of the elders or will they hold to Him?
    Each one of us has traditions that we follow.  Some of these traditions we realize when we do them, others we don’t.  Some of our traditions are handed down by our families.  My family celebrates Christmas at Thanksgiving on my dad’s side of the family so they can be with the other family at Christmas.  Some are handed down by the culture in which we live.  On the first day of school there is a special breakfast and pictures taken here in Montana.  Others are handed down by our American forefathers.  Even the church has traditions.  It is not wrong to hold to traditions, but we need to know why traditions are followed.  If traditions are followed for the wrong reason, then they could be wrong traditions, and should be though about before following them.
One of the traditions that needs to be avoided at all cost is blind tradition.  Blind tradition is tradition that is followed without question.  This is the easiest tradition to abandon.  Whenever someone is following a tradition, they should ask, “What is the purpose of this tradition?”  If they cannot think of an answer to that question, then it could be a blind tradition.  But we don’t normally call something blind tradition, it goes by a different name.
     The name that it commonly goes by is blind faith.  This is when you believe something without any proof, any rational reason, or anything else.  When you simply believe something without knowing why it is that you believe it.  There needs to be a reason why something is done, otherwise it is simply a blind tradition, or belief, that should be abandoned if you cannot find a reason for it.  You might not know the answer.  If that’s the case, please talk to other people about it before abandoning it because there could be a good reason behind this tradition: phone a friend, poll the audience, or even do a web search.  Even Wikipedia can get the answer right sometimes. 
     Today’s gospel lesson does not deal with blind tradition or blind faith.  It deals with something closer to us.  It deals with historical tradition, the tradition of the elders.  “For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders.”  The Pharisees pointed out that Jesus’ disciples were eating with defiled, that is, unwashed hands.  Their hands were not cleansed according to the tradition of the elders.  No good Jew ate without washing their hands.  But this isn’t the same as telling your kids to wash up because suppers almost done.
The Pharisees were talking about a ritual washing that was handed down from the elders.  If you went to the marketplace you hands were considered unclean, defiled, or common.  Money was traded for goods in the marketplace.  Your hands had come into contact with money, with dirt, and possibly even with Gentiles, the common people.  A good Jew had to ritually wash their hands to make them clean again.  After all, they were the set apart people of God.  They traced their lineage back to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.  They were not common people, they were clean people. 
In the Law of God handed down to Moses there were many ways to be considered unclean or defiled.  A few examples include: touching any dead animal or person, going into a house where a leprous person was, touching an unclean animal like a pig or a mouse, and many others that were handed down by God.  If you were unclean, you would be cast off from the people and had to make a sin offering before you could join the congregation at worship.  But that’s where it ends with the Law of God.  The only time that God specifically calls for a ritual washing is for the priests who served in the temple.  Only the priests had to perform a ritual washing in order to serve the people.
     The ritual washing that the Pharisees accused Jesus’ disciples of not following was a tradition of the elders, not a tradition handed down by God.  The disciples were not holding to the ritual washing handed down by the elders.  They did not ritually wash their hands, not to mention the cups, the pots, the copper vessels, or even the dining couches.  The disciples had eaten the bread with common hands.  What a blasphemous action that Jesus’ disciples were doing in the eyes of the Pharisees.  They had come to the table with unwashed hands.  The Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”
     Jesus answers their question with a reference to our Old Testament reading this morning, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”  Jesus heads right to the point of the matter, will they hold to the tradition of the elders or will they hold to what God hands down?  Jesus rightly pointed out that in all of the Law of God handed down to Moses the ritual washing before a meal never comes up for the Pharisee and Jew.  The Jews were holding to the tradition of the elders rather than to what God had commanded them.  The Jews had played lip service to the Torah, the Law of God, but their hearts were far from Him.  Jesus condemns them for it.
     Are we any better off?  We don’t hold to tradition for tradition sake, do we?  Lord willing we don’t.  There have been times that we have modified certain traditions within the church.  We have updated the Bible translation that we use because of more modern language and wanting to stick closer to a natural translation, rather than a paraphrase.  We have updated our hymnals to include some new songs that proclaim the gospel in song.  Lutherans hold to certain traditions because they were handed down by God.  The traditions that we follow fall into two different camps, those based directly on Scripture and those through Scripture.
     We echo the words of St. Paul from First Corinthians 2, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.”  We hold fast to Jesus, the crucified one.  We cling to the cross because Jesus went there for you.  He loved you so much that He suffered and was crushed by your sins upon the cross.  He paid for your sins there and has taken them from you.  You should no longer cling to your sins.  Instead, cling to Jesus on the cross.
     We also agree with St. Paul from Romans 6 because we were also baptized into His death.  This tradition was handed down by Jesus in Matthew 28.  He washes you clean of all of your sins.  The word for the ritual washing is the same word that is used for baptism.  But this washing is no mere ritual washing passed down from the elders.  This was instituted by Christ and is His tradition.  He has all the authority of heaven and earth and baptizes us with water and His Word.  In your baptism you are baptized into Christ.  You are made one body through Him, you have been engrafted into His bride, the church. 
     He also commands that we teach the baptized.  We have the kids learn and recite Luther’s Small Catechism.  Some claim that this is simply a tradition that has been passed down and should be avoided.  They miss the point when they claim this.  Luther’s Small Catechism is nothing but a basic summary of the Bible.  Luther formulated this so that parents, godparents, and everyone could help the children learn what God has done for them in Jesus Christ.  The Small Catechism keeps the focus on what God has done for us, sending forth His Son to die upon the cross for your sins.  The catechism allows all people to know what the central teachings of the Bible are: the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, Confession and the Office of the Keys, and the Sacrament of the Altar.  These six chief parts are summaries of what God has given to us, a true confession of what the Bible teaches. 
     This is also what the liturgy is designed to do.  Some people like to claim that “Traditional, Liturgical Churches” are simply following a tradition passed down from men.  They claim that the liturgy is “old fashioned” and should be avoided.  This was a charge given to those who gathered to bring together the Lutheran Service Book.  If you open the hymnal to almost any page you will see in smaller black print the scripture verses that are directly quoted or paraphrased.  Even the hymns have this wonderful feature.  Most of the parts of the liturgy are scripture verses that God has handed down to His people.  The liturgy forms these into sections and puts them into the mouths of the speakers.  We are basically saying, chanting, and singing the Bible, God’s Word, back and forth to one another.
We have seen that the church has been washed in the blood of Christ and made His bride.  She has also been given His Holy Word to hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.  This is the chief reason that the scriptures are read in the service.  We are to hold to Jesus by holding fast to what He has given us.  He wants us to know His saving truth.  This was the reason that God inspired the scriptures.  They are not the musings of men, they are the very Word of God.  They have been penned by the saints who have come before us, some who have seen God, while others have heard His voice.
     The apostles heard God speaking to them in Jesus Christ.  They were there with Him when He instituted His meal for His people.  He took bread and gave it to His disciples.  Over the last few weeks we have heard that Jesus is the true bread from heaven.  Keep this in mind as His body is true food for His bride.  He also gave true drink to His bride so that she would never thirst again.  He poured out His blood on the cross for you and gives it to you in His Supper.  We hold fast to Jesus when we partake of the meal that He instituted for the forgiveness of your sins.
     The church holds fast to Jesus and what He has given to her.  She holds fast to baptism, the washing of water combined with God’s Word.  She feeds her members with Our Lord’s very body and blood in His Supper.  The pastors proclaim the absolution because Christ has handed over the keys to loosing and forgiving these sins.  Everything that is done within the church service is done to the glory of God.  We do these things because we honor the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Everything that we receive from the Lord is His gift given for you.  Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord.  Amen.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Christian Education – The Fear and Joy of the Lord

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Mission Sunday,  August 19th, Year of Our + Lord 2012              
Trinity and St. John  Lutheran Churches
Sidney and Fairview, Montana
John 6:51-69

     The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, all those who practice it have a good understanding.  The particular purpose and goal of Christian education, of becoming wise in Christ, is to know the fear of the Lord, and have a good understanding.  And, also, out of this fear and wisdom, that we rejoice.  Not that we just fear and tremble, which we sinners will do when we come into the presence of God, but that we also rejoice in the fear and wisdom of the Lord.  For the Psalmist completes his verse about the fear and wisdom of the Lord by proclaiming:  His praise endures forever!  Christian education also has as a primary goal the joyful praising of the Lord, especially in a congregational setting, as we heard from the same Psalm: Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation. 

Rejoicing in fear.  Wisdom as the foundation of congregational worship.  Do you think about education in this way?  The Scriptures bind teaching and growing in wisdom firmly together with faith and worship and the saving presence of God in the midst of His people.  If these associations seem natural and proper to you, thanks be to God.  But I suspect that if last Thursday afternoon someone had asked you what is the purpose of education, you wouldn’t have made any immediate connections to right worship.  I doubt that any of us would immediately have said education is all about teaching people to fear God rightly. 

And yet, if you read what the Bible has to say about teaching and wisdom, you will find that even when speaking of categories of knowledge that seem quite earthly, like how to build the wall of Jerusalem, or how to organize people, or how to wisely execute the laws of a nation, the Author of Scripture connects these earthly things to heavenly realities, indeed, to the right knowledge and fear of the Lord. 

In our culture, we tend to divide our lives between the worldly and the spiritual, and so consider education in practical things like reading, writing and arithmetic as something distinct from learning the wisdom of God.  But when, following the example of God’s instruction to His people Israel, Martin Luther made the very practical suggestion that all children be taught to read, his intended purpose for this innovation was so that people would be able to read the Bible.  The resulting increase in literacy had tremendous benefits for the society and economy, a major reason for the development of the modern world.  These unintended benefits were true blessings from God, but Luther’s primary concern was for the teaching and reading and understanding of the Word of God, that the Holy Spirit might give Godly fear and eternal wisdom to more and more people. 

We Christians should always to keep this distinctive purpose of education at the forefront of our minds, and especially today, as we celebrate this Mission Sunday for Martin Luther School in Bismarck and for Concordia Seminary in St. Louis.  We need to remember God’s goals in education, because our educational efforts are very much subject to failure.  Whether we are talking about VBS or Sunday School, about a Lutheran Parochial School,  or about a Seminary preparing men to serve as pastors in Christ’s Church, whatever the educational context, if we don’t remember the distinctive purpose of Christian education, our efforts will fail to foster a right fear of the Lord.  And if we fail to foster a right fear of the Lord, we will miss out on the joy of right worship.  If we forget God’s goal in giving us His wisdom when we plan and pursue our educational efforts, they will in the end fail to be Christian at all.  

Sadly, examples of Christian educational efforts which have been perverted over time into empty, worldly, anti-Christian institutions are quite numerous, like Harvard and Princeton, former divinity schools that now teach the rejection of Biblical truth.  Even our own Concordia Seminary St. Louis became, in the 1960’s, the entry point to the Missouri Synod for the rejection of Biblical authority.  There was a difficult and bitter fight to restore the authority of Scripture at Concordia St. Louis in the early 1970’s, a struggle which included a walkout by professors and students, and eventually led to a split in our Synod, with dozens of congregations leaving our fellowship, and also leaving behind resentment and strife between many who remained within Missouri.  Biblical authority was maintained in our Synod, but the cost was and remains high, all because we lost our focus on teaching the true fear and wisdom of the Lord. 

The potential for mischief is found at every level.  We may be tempted at our local congregation to choose empty, moralistic, works righteous VBS or Sunday School materials, because such materials tend to be packaged so neatly, organized so well, and are so pleasing to our desire to take pride in ourselves and our goodness.  Teachers at Martin Luther School in Bismarck may be tempted to avoid the hard work of showing the many problems with the teaching of evolution, tempted to just let their kids be swept along with the tide of the world, which denies the work of God in Creation.  Instead of humbly passing on to another generation of pastors the faith once handed down by Christ, professors at our Fort Wayne and St. Louis seminaries may be tempted to write and teach in such a way as to impress their peers in the broader academic world, and the world wants nothing to do with the true fear and wisdom of the Lord. 

At every level, understanding that our purpose in Christian education is centered on repentance, faith, and a right fear of the Lord is absolutely vital, because, while worldly wisdom is very impressive and can bring many benefits to us in this life, apart from a right knowledge of God and His salvation, none of it matters.  Apart from Christ, nothing endures, nothing gives lasting peace.  It would be tremendously bitter to suffer in torment for eternity, knowing that we used God’s gift of intellect to teach others false, human understandings that end in ruin, especially if we did it under the banner of Christian education. 

Jesus has, as we have heard for the last three Sundays, been trying to impart this God-taught, divine wisdom to the crowds which were following Him after the Feeding of the 5,000.  John’s Gospel makes available to us a crucial lesson in the purpose and way of God’s instruction.  And certainly the mystery and fear of the Lord comes through loud and strong in Christ’s classroom.  “I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” declares Jesus.  “If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”      What?      How can this be?      Who ever heard of such a teaching? 

These Jews, up to now quite impressed with Jesus for His wisdom and His miraculous power, now find their reason and their sensibilities offended, and they grumble.  Jesus, knowing that fallen, dying sinners cannot grasp the truth of His salvation, presses forward with His fearful teaching, in order to put to death, and then give new life to the spirits of His hearers.  So Jesus says to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”   Strange as it is, says Jesus, it’s my way or no way at all. Jesus teaches that if you reject His Word because it doesn’t fit with your understanding or your sensibilities, then you reject Jesus.  And if you reject Jesus, you will have no life, no access to God’s favor.  Jesus declares that the only chance to escape death’s grip is found in His flesh and blood. 

This is a desperately hard teaching, a fearful thing.  We may be used to the words, especially if we have grown up in the Church.  But if we ponder it, wow, Jesus is a radical.   And He seemed much more so when He first said it.  Many of the Jews who had believed in Jesus now turned away and stopped following Him.  Too hard, too radical.  Still today, people don’t like Jesus’ words.  Many who want to follow Jesus try to explain away all that seems unreasonable about Him and His Supper and His Cross and the true worship which only He gives us.  Many churches, despite the plain words of Scripture, deny that Jesus can give His Body and Blood in the Lord’s Supper, saying it’s impossible, that His words are just a metaphor.  But the reaction of the crowds to Jesus suggests they weren’t thinking metaphorically.  They thought Jesus meant what He said.  And He did. 

Even for the 12 disciples it was very hard to believe.  Notice that when Jesus asks them if they want to leave also, Peter’s doesn’t say, “Of course not Jesus, we’re completely comfortable with all this talk of eating your flesh and drinking your blood.”  No, Peter and the rest are bothered as well, but by the Father’s grace, they cannot leave Jesus, because they have been drawn to Him, drawn to believe that only Jesus has the Words of eternal life.  Jesus’ teaching is hard, but Peter knows the truth.  Lord to whom can we go?  We don’t get it, but we can’t leave. 

Peter and the 12 are troubled, like you and I are troubled, by the radical, mysterious teaching of Jesus in John 6.  But God the Father, through His Spirit, gave them ears to hear the joyful promises Jesus also made:  “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”  “For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink;  Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.”  “As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me.”  “This is the bread that came down from heaven, not as the fathers ate and died;  Whoever feeds on this bread,” says Jesus, “will live forever."

Christian education is about life and death.  The wisdom of the world crashes and burns against the harsh reality of death.  No matter how much we learn about electromagnetics and biology and chemistry and astronomy, still, the world has no satisfactory answer to the problem of death.  Some of the worldly wise, in anger at the inability of mankind to overcome the problem of death, try to deny that it matters.  For many, the first requirement of worldly wisdom is agreeing that we’re just random accidents, that human life has no higher meaning, that there is no God above, that man is the measure of all things. 

But most people don’t believe that.  Far more of the world’s people seek a different wisdom, one which acknowledges some concept of God and a world beyond our senses.  However, the default religion of the world says that if we just do our best, we can earn enough points in this life to receive a good life in the next.  That’s not what Jesus says.  He says “I am the bread from heaven.  Only I give eternal life, through my flesh and blood.  I am the only way for you to be freed from sin and death.  I am the very wisdom of God, sacrificed unto death, for you. 

God the Father protected and continued drawing Peter and the others along, desperately clinging to Jesus, despite all the hard things He said.  Only Judas disbelieved, rejecting Christ’s way, and so fulfilling the prophecy that one of those closest to the Christ would be the one to betray Him.  All the others, God the Father drew along, with Jesus, so that on a rocky hill outside of Jerusalem they could be our eyewitnesses to the breaking of Jesus’ Body and the pouring out of His Blood. 

God the Father by His Spirit also sustained them through three long days in the valley of the shadow of Jesus’ death, so that they could also be our eyewitnesses to the Resurrection of Jesus, which reveals and declares that God in Christ has overcome sin and guilt and death, the Resurrection which reveals that the breaking of Jesus’ Body and the pouring out of His Blood is, by God’s grace, the best news we sinners could ever hear.  For in these fearful things our sins are forgiven, our death is defeated, our new and eternal life is guaranteed. 

It is a joyful thing, this Fear and Wisdom of the Lord, revealed in the dying and rising of Jesus.  God from these most unworldly events, starting with Eleven Apostles and a few hundred followers, created the Christian Church, built on the foolishness of the Cross.  For 2,000 years, day by day, week by week, year by year, the Church of the Cross, the Church of the Supper, the Church which knows the true fear and wisdom of God has lived on, not by her own strength, but solely in the strength of the One who gave His flesh and blood, His very life, in order to win forgiveness and new life for sinners.

As we teach, as we prepare minds and hearts for life and service in the world and in the Church, God grant us His fear and His wisdom, that we might ever cling to His Jesus, rejoicing in the only One whose Word is eternal life, Amen. 

Monday, August 13, 2012

Jesus, Living Bread from Heaven

(Note:  We are blessed to have welcomed Vicar Jason Toombs, a seminarian from Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN, who will be completing his one year vicarage, or internship, with us this year.  Below is the first sermon he preached at Trinity and St. John)

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, August 12, Year of Our + Lord 2012
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, MT
John 6:35-51

Grace, Mercy, and Peace be to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Todays sermon is based on the Gospel lesson from St. John, chapter 6.

Jesus said to them, I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.  This verse brought to a close last weeks Gospel lesson and it begins todays Gospel lesson.  Those who prepared the church readings wanted to make sure that we dont miss this point, for Jesus is the bread of life and anyone who comes to Him shall neither hunger nor thirst.  And in much the same way, we have the concluding verse this week being the beginning verse for next week, I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.  I dont think that any preacher has had an easier first sermon reading for a new congregation.  For JESUS IS THE LIVING BREAD THAT CAME DOWN FROM HEAVEN TO GIVE THE WORLD HIS FLESH.

Jesus came down from heaven, not to do His own will but the will of Him who sent Him.  This is not the only time that Jesus has said a similar thing.  On the night in which He was betrayed, after He took bread and a cup and gave it to His disciples, He went out to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray and said, My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.  He desires to accomplish what He was sent forth to do, to die upon the cross.  Even before He left His splendid throne, He knew what the cost was, His own life for you.  He emptied Himself, took the form of a servant, and came down to join His creation and die as a criminal.  The creator did the unthinkable, He joined His creation in a creaturely way.  He came down as the baby born of Mary, not as a fully grown man as some would have supposed.

The Jews pointed out that His earthly father was Joseph but thats where they end it.  They dont look into the matter further.  What more proof do they need?  After all, they know His father and mother.  They have seen Him playing with their kids.  They have seen Him in the temple.  They were there with Him while the Torah was read.  They know everything about Him.  Yet they know nothing about Him.  They, the world, and we, sometimes only focus on His humanity, discounting His divinity.  They can see Him with their own eyes but dont hear the message that He came to proclaim.  His message was too different.  His message has authority, You have heard that it was said ... But I say to you ...  They couldnt understand that He had come down from heaven.  They believed that Elijah had to come again in a similar way as going up into heaven, in a whirlwind.  This Jesus came down from heaven in an earthly way, and yet a glorious way, being born of a virgin.

His coming down to earth was not for His glory.  No, He came for you and to give you glory.  He didnt come to force people to believe in Him. He continues to spread His message through what the world sees as weakness.  He does not demand obedience or warfare but comes to bring peace to the world.  He comes to restore humanity back to the Father of all humanity.  He came for all of the times that you grumble or think, Whats the point in being here on a beautiful Sunday morning.  For all of the times that your husband, wife, mother, father, kids, siblings, your boss, has told you something but it went in one ear and out the other.  For all of the times that you have doubted His forgiveness.  And to take away all of your other sins.  But He also comes to give you something.  He gives you His peace, His perfection, His holiness.  He comes to give you Himself.

He comes to give you what you need.  He gives you Himself.  For He Himself said, I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger.  Last week He said that the crowds were coming because they had their fill and wanted more, they were hungry again.  Their bellies had been full, they got a free meal, and wanted more.  But thats not us, right?  We never take advantage of people, we never tag along for a free meal.  We always reach for the bill right away, ask the waitress, or waiter, to split the check.  Nope, we can be just as selfish as they were.  We desire food, we crave it.  We know that if we dont eat or drink, ultimately we die.  Its one of the reasons that babies cry, they are hungry.  But this bread that we eat lacks.  This cant be all that there is.

But wait, theres more.  Theres always more with Jesus.  For He said, I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger.  And, This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.  And, I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.  Jesus came to give more than earthly bread, far more.  He came to give us His very body and blood.  He gives His flesh for you for the forgiveness of your sins.  His flesh and blood are true food, they, along with baptism, are the only thing in the entire world that counts for anything before God.  Without Christ giving His life for you, you are lost.  But you are not lost, He has found you and has claimed you.  You have been claimed by the Father through the Son in baptism. 

You are able to taste and see that the Lord is good.  This small portion of a meal that we receive, this little portion of bread and this sip of wine, hold more than it seems.  Though our eyes see this as a small portion, through the eyes of faith we know that this is enough.  The Lord has given His body and blood in an earthly way to you.  You have been called out of the world, called to be in His true family, and are given a meal that He knows you need.

He knows that you need to be constantly reminded that your sins have been forgiven for His sake.  The entire Divine Service revolves around this fact.  You are reminded of your baptism at the beginning, hear the Words of Christ in the words of absolution, hear the Scriptures proclaiming this message, hear the pastor expounding this saving truth, pray that your sins are forgiven in the prayer that He handed down, come to the meal that He instituted for this forgiveness, and are reminded that the Lord has blessed you at the close of the service.  He is constantly working forgiveness for you. 

In this meal we also make a proclamation.  As often as we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim the Lords death until He comes. Amen, come Lord Jesus.  We say that our Lord and Savior died upon the cross, shedding His blood for you, was buried, rose victorious over sin, death, and the grave, and ascended into heaven.  But it doesnt end there.  He will come again on that appointed day, the day that only the Father knows.  When He comes on the last day, He will raise all of the dead.  Jesus said, This is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in Him should have eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.  Everyone who believes in Jesus will be raised on the last day and enter eternal life. 

The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Work of God

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 5th, Year of Our + Lord 2012
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, Montana
John 6:22-35
     "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent."  No works, just believe in Jesus.  That’s hard to believe. 

     It’s not hard to believe in general, that is, it’s not hard to have a system of beliefs.  Most people believe in some religion, others in the idea of a purely material, naturalistic world with no God.  Everyone believes in something, some over-arching narrative or idea through with we process and understand the world and our experience, our emotions, desires, and ways of thinking.  There are no blank slates, everyone is trusting in some God, even if they call it an idea, or a theory.  Atheists often display a very strong and often emotional attachment to their belief that there is no Higher Being, no God.  Everyone believes in something. 

     You, I suspect, are not an atheist, given that you have crawled out of your comfy bed early on a day when you could have slept in, or worked in the garden.  Instead, you have risen early, showered, dressed and come here, to hear the Word recorded in the Bible, and listen to me explain it, and even to eat and drink the simplest of meals, which we confess is the true Body and Blood of Jesus, made so by the power of that same Word which you have come to hear.  You confess, along with countless others, that Jesus of Nazareth is Lord, the Son of God, distinct and yet completely and eternally one with God the Father and the Spirit, the Son of God who became a man in order to be the Savior, in order to make it possible for you to please God. 

     This is all true, and it is worth celebrating when a person confesses these things.  But this is not yet saving faith.  To believe and confess that Jesus of Nazareth is both true God and true Man, who came down from heaven to open the way of salvation for sinners, is right and true and wonderful.  But this is not yet the full teaching of Christ, not yet the faith that saves. 

     There is a saying that the devil is in the details, but I say the Savior is in the details.  I suppose if we get the details wrong, then the devil is in them, for it is quite possible for us to believe a lot of right and proper things about God and Christ, and yet fundamentally be trusting in the wrong things, to be fooled by Satan and walking the road that leads to destruction.  As Matthew reports, the Lord Jesus Himself says, "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of My Father.  It is possible to believe and confess some true things about Jesus, but miss the details that make all the difference.  So the devil may be found in the details, if we have them wrong.  But by God’s grace, today we will find the Savior in the details, details which Jesus takes us into this morning. 

     The crowds that are coming to Him are excited, for Jesus is full of signs and wonders and blessings, miraculous meals and healings and authoritative teaching.  They believe, at minimum, that Jesus is a man of God, and want to learn more about God’s way from Him. 

     Jesus warns them not to seek Him in order to fill their stomachs.  In other words, don’t think you have all you need from God when He answers your prayer for daily bread.  Daily bread is great.  Having a nice house and clothes, food in the fridge and some money in the bank are blessings from God.  But eternity is forever.  Daily bread and all the stuff of this life only last for a short time, but eternity is forever.  So Jesus warns everyone to labor for the food that does not perish, the food that sustains you for eternal life, the food that the Son of Man, Jesus, will give to you.  

     Jesus is setting them up.  “Don’t labor for food that perishes,” He says, “but for the food that endures for eternal life, which I will give to you.”  That’s an odd sentence, labor for food that I will give to you.  Is it a gift, or is it wages earned for labor completed?  Well, apparently the people assumed Jesus meant wages for labor, because then they ask:  "What must we do, to be doing the works of God?" Now Jesus has them set up, right where He wants them. 

     They ask a good question.  After all, Jesus says we must do the will of His Father to enter the kingdom of heaven, that we should labor only for the food that never perishes.  “So,” the crowd asks, “What, exactly, are we to do, Jesus?  Give us a list, please”  The God of Israel had certainly given them plenty of laws, dos and don’ts, along with the punishments earned by failures.  These Jews, like so many people, were caught in between.  On one side, they had the clear way of the Law:  do these things, avoid these things, and you will please me, says the Lord.  On the other, they had their failures, their inability and unwillingness to keep God’s Law.  Salvation by keeping God’s Law seems reasonable, until you actually learn the Law and try to keep it.  Because, while the degree of failure varies, you always fail to fully keep the Law, and God’s requirement is full obedience. 

     So, these Jews already knew the works God requires:  Love the LORD your God with all your heart, soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.  Straightforward, clear, but entirely un-kept, a law never kept by these Jews, nor by anyone else since Adam.  These Jews seeking Jesus know they cannot make it by the Law of Moses.  They are hoping Jesus, who seems to be from God, will offer another way.  Jesus uses this caught in between-ness to draw them in, so that He can turn their faith upside down.  "This is the work of God,” Jesus replies, “that you believe in him whom he has sent." 

     Huh?  Simply believe?  Like their ancestors in the wilderness, the first time they saw the Manna, their daily bread on the ground, these Jews don’t know what to think.  Jesus’ definition of the work of God is not what they expected.  They were hoping for a doable law, a Moses-lite kind of law, that perhaps they could manage to keep.  “Try hard, do more good than bad,” that’s the kind of Law we really want, that’s what so many people think is true.  But God isn’t interested in watering down His Law.  Jesus instead came to fulfill the entire Law of God for us, removing it’s burden from over our heads, and putting faith in its place.  “The Father doesn’t want you to do anything,” says Jesus, “just believe in him whom he has sent.” 

     No works at all?  Just believe in Jesus, even though God’s Law demands so much?  That’s hard to understand.  God doesn’t require us to do any works for salvation? 

     No, none at all. And this is the detail that makes all the difference.  For we hold with Paul that we are made righteous by faith, apart from works, lest any man should boast.  We rejoice with Isaiah that the Lord has done all our works, for us.

     Sadly, many misguided teachers in the Church have tried to work out this paradox by turning  faith into a work.  They imagine that God with His Gospel presents to you the person and work of Jesus, and then they say the “work” of faith is for you to decide whether you’re going to believe it or not.  Make a decision, choose Jesus, give Him your heart, that’s the work of faith, say some. 

     But faith is no work, for to try to make yourself believe something is self-deception, not faith.   Even more, the reply of the crowds to Jesus shows that they understand faith not to be a work, but simply to trust someone else, to believe in what someone else has done.  Jesus tells them only believe, and they ask Jesus why they should believe in Him.  What sign would Jesus do, in order that they might believe in Him?  Faith is caused by the work of the One in whom faith trusts.  So, what will you do, Jesus?  Show us something to believe in.    

     They are very near to salvation.  And Jesus could have pointed them directly to the Cross and Empty Tomb.  As He does another time with the Pharisees, He could have told them the only sign they would receive would be the sign of Jonah, that the Son of Man would be three days in the earth, and then rise again.  Or, He could have said “Tear down this Temple,” meaning the temple of His body, “and in three days I will raise it again.” 

     But on this day Jesus is thinking of them, and of us.  Jesus is thinking of His flock of sinners, of our need for an ongoing sign.  Jesus is thinking of feeding His lambs, and so this time Jesus starts taking them to toward the fruit of the Cross, His Supper.  Jesus connects faith with eating, taking the crowds towards the Holy Communion He would soon institute for His Church. 

     Come and feast on me, says Jesus, for I am the True Bread from Heaven.  Just as He offered the water of life to the woman at the well in John 4, here in John 6 Jesus offers the Bread of Life, mixing metaphors freely as He teaches.  “The bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." The people say, "Sir, give us this bread always." Jesus replies, "I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.  Eat Jesus.  Believe in Him, and you will never hunger, never thirst.   

     Again, this is hard to believe.  Which is kind of the point of this whole passage.  Salvation is as simple as faith in Christ.  For those who trust in Christ alone as Savior, God the Father requires no works for entering His kingdom.  Saving faith is that simple.  But it’s not easy.  Faith is full of hard things, for at the heart and center of faith is the death of Jesus.  Faith in Christ has saving value because the center of Jesus’ work for the life of the world is His self- sacrifice.  The strength of faith is not in how strongly we believe, but rather the strength of faith is the Strong One, who submitted to suffering, the Pure One who submitted to humiliation, the Life of the world, who submitted to death.  The center of Christ’s work, in which we believe, is the terrifying prospect of God the Father punishing Jesus for our sins, so that we can be forgiven. 

     That’s hard to believe.  God loved the world in this way, giving His only begotten Son into the suffering of the Cross, so that whoever believes in Him might never perish, but live eternally.  This is a frightening and beautiful mystery, when we consider what it says about God, so focused on His requirement that justice be served, and yet even more focused on loving a world full of sinners.  The result is that God meets His  requirements within Himself, between the Father and the Son, despite the pain it caused them both.   

     The Cross is a frightening, beautiful mystery, when we consider what it says about God.  It is a painful indictment, when you consider what it says about you.  What it says about me.  About all of us.  For the Cross only makes sense if our sins are so bad in God’s eyes that there is nothing we can do to even begin to win God’s favor.  You and I do not fully understand how truly sinful we are.  But God does.  If there were any other way that anyone could be saved, surely God would have chosen it.  But there isn’t.  The entire work of salvation is, and indeed must be, carried out by God, for no work that we sinners could ever do can earn even a small fraction of our salvation. 

     This is a bitter pill to swallow.  Bitter, but true.  And, when God forces it down your throat, this pill of the truth about your utter sinfulness prepares you for the medicine of immortality.  The work of the Cross reveals, indeed it is, the very love of God, who would not have the sinner die, but rather that he turn from His sin and live.  And so Jesus has died, to turn you from your sin, and give you life, through His victorious resurrection.  And Jesus is still working, coming to you here, through His Word, in His meal, creating faith, driving out your unbelief, feeding you for eternal life. 

     Jesus isn’t done with this crowd.  In fact His discussion of God’s way of salvation is just beginning to be difficult.  Next week, Lord willing, we will hear more of the mystery of faith and salvation through eating and drinking, as Vicar Toombs expounds God’s Word to us.  But enough for this day.  Rest in Christ.  Faith is hard, but God is up to the task.  He has removed your burden of sin, and He is here today,  doing His Work, forgiving, comforting, feeding your faith.  Believe it.  Receive it.  If you have publicly confessed the faith of this altar, come then and eat and drink, for salvation.  And in all these things, rejoice, for Christ is in these things, Christ, who pleases His Father perfectly, and shares the Father’s pleasure with you, both today, and forever and ever, Amen.