Sunday, December 28, 2014

Church, Mission and Christmas

1st Sunday after Christmas, Year B, 
Dec 28, 2014, Trinity Lutheran Church, Miles City, MT
Isaiah 61:10- 62:3, Galatians 4:4-7, Luke 2:22-40

The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations,
     and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.
Oh sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things! 
     His right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him.
The Lord has made known his salvation;
     he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel. 
     All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises!

     The right hand of Almighty God, His all-powerful arm, ready to achieve in time the salvation of our God, is wrapped in swaddling clothes, a 40 day old infant, held in the arms of a faithful old man named Simeon.  This tiny but mighty arm of the Lord is also the Silent Word, the
Unspeaking Subject of the irrepressible telling that comes from the mouth of an ancient widow named Anna.  Righteousness has come down from above, and so praise breaks forth from God’s people, and before the nations, as the love of God beams forth from the face of a little child. 

     Merry Christmas.  It is an extra Christmas blessing to be with you here today, to gather around Christ’s gifts, and to tell you about the adventure my wife Shelee and I are entering, as I have accepted a call from the Mission Board to be a Missionary, a Church Planter, in Seville, Spain.  
     I pray that your week has been filled with the Good Tidings of great joy that Christ is born for you today.  I also pray that your week has been filled with joyful gatherings of family and friends, times of remembrance of joyful days gone by, and the making of memories for the future.  This is how we best love Christmas, when it is filled with homecomings, reunions with our loved ones.  Shelee and I were particularly blessed in just this way, as our son Jeremy came to Billings from Fargo, bringing both his sister Madeline, and his fiancée Teresa.  It was a bit crowded in our temporary apartment home in Billings, but we had a grand time, a Merry Christmas indeed. 

     It is, of course, always a little risky for a preacher to talk about what a great Christmas he has enjoyed, because some of you may not have experienced the same.  Perhaps your Christmas has not been quite so fine, because this is the first one spent without someone very special to you.  Or perhaps the hoped for joy of a family reunion did not materialize.  Perhaps travel plans did not work out, or they did, but tension and anxiety and simmering conflicts stole away the joy you hoped for.  Christmas can be the most wonderful time of the year, and it can also be the most difficult.  The devil works overtime to make fully visible the sin that infects our world and each one of us, as he seeks to spoil our celebration Jesus’ birth.  I dare say all of us over the age of 25 and most of us under the age of 25 have experienced our share of strife and sadness during the season of joy.  I hope this has not been the case for you, but I know that it is for some.  

     If your Christmas has not been all you hoped for, do not despair.  And, if your Christmas has been wonderful, be sure to still remember the True Center of the Holy Day.  For your best homecoming, best this side of eternity at least, is happening right now, right here, as the Holy Spirit has gathered us once again to receive God’s love.  The Lord knows how difficult life in this world can be, and so He is always working to gather us and bless us again, to have His herald announce to all, “Fear not, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which are for all people, for born to you in the city of David is a Savior, Christ, the Lord.  God’s desire today is to give you the confident faith and praise-filled peace that Simeon and Anna received, when they were gathered into the presence of the infant Jesus.  

     Christmas has always been a time of homecomings, of family reunions, from the house of David in Bethlehem at the command of a Roman emperor, to our houses today, filled with favorite foods and football games.  Security and love within the bonds of family are precious gifts from God, and vital for our lives, vital for us, and also for Joseph, Mary and the Baby Jesus, huddled in a stable, borrowing furniture from the animals. 

     And yet God’s Arm has been revealed in that Manger, and so we move quickly from home to the mission field, from gathering as the people of God in this place, to sprouting up before the nations, bearing the righteousness of Christ and singing His praises, by which the nations also come to hear of the Salvation that extends to all.  This movement of God’s people, gathering together to receive His Word and Gifts, leads to the movement of God’s salvation, the sprouting up of righteousness before all the nations.  Gathering and going, to and from the Christ Child. 

     It is quite simple, but the Church is filled with foolish sinners.  We are so prone to infection by worldly ideas.  We should learn almost all we need to know about Church and Mission from the Christmas stories, from the Shepherds and the Wise Men and from Simeon and Anna.  From them we learn of gathering around the Christ Child, in order to be sent out singing His praise and telling His story, gathering and going, each in the vocations and stations of life that God has given.  Gathering and sending, sending both near and far, sending as royal priests and as called ministers, each with a unique role to play in God’s plan - this is God’s unending pattern of mission.  

     Gathering and sending are mutually supportive, but too often we Christians resort to pitting these two movements against each other.  Simply “being in Church,” being the family of God, secure, receiving, protecting, enjoying, is too often pitted against “being in mission,” out before the world, risking, telling, seeking.  Our sin-limited minds think one is more important than the other, or that we can’t do both.  There are layers of error in this thinking, errors which satan uses to discourage and confuse and wear us down.  One mistake is thinking we are the ones really doing things.  Another is thinking that gathering and reaching out are opposed, rather than understanding they are the breathing in and the breathing out of the Body of Christ.  Another error is assuming a plan that does not fit earthly models can’t work.  Remember, God’s mission is exactly that, God’s mission.  The Mission of the Church belongs to God.  He is the one who planned it, who energizes it and who moves it.  We are useful and involved in God’s Mission only as He moves and leads us.  As we heard from Isaiah, “the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to sprout up before all the nations.”

     God does mission precisely this way:  First He gathers, in order to then reach out, that yet more may gather.  The Herald of God’s people cries out in service to God’s gathered people.  Again from Isaiah, “For Zion's sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem's sake I will not be quiet.”  The herald preaches for the sake of God’s people, to increase their faith and steadfastness, to see them grow in Christ.  And through this pastoral care for His people, God causes the nations to see and hear, both by leading her to send missionaries near and far, and also by acting through the daily lives of each Christian.  And so Isaiah concludes His discussion of Church and Mission.  The herald keeps proclaiming, “until [Zion’s] righteousness goes forth as brightness, and her salvation as a burning torch.  The nations shall see your righteousness, and all the kings your glory. 

     Christ is the burning torch of salvation, the light which enlightens the Gentiles, and the glory of God’s people.  Today, the light of Christ shows forth when His people gather to hear the glorious story of God’s grace and mercy.  Christ first, in the fullness of time, and Christ still today, working through the words and actions of His people to reach yet more people. 

     Christ first.  You see, long before any Christian sprang up to praise Him before the Nations, Christ Himself sprang up.  The Son of God became infinitesimally tiny in the womb of Mary, a helpless baby in the arms of Simeon, a young boy growing strong in the Lord, at just the right time.  The willingness of Jesus to set aside His heavenly glory and pass through all the stages of human growth is a marvel of humble love, love for His Father, and love for you. 

     But the incarnation and growth of God’s Son born of Mary is only the first light of His Love.  Starting on His eighth day, continuing in our Gospel this morning, and each day of His thirty some years walking on this earth, Jesus perfectly fulfilled every demand of God’s Law, not for Himself, (it is His own Law, after all), but for you, and me, and everyone.  And then even more, much, much more, Jesus, who loved most of all doing His Father’s will, suffered in our place. 

     Dreading the pain to come, the One who was held by Simeon in the Temple knelt in the Garden,

and prayed.  Jesus, on the night when He was betrayed, prayed Abba, Father, if it is possible, let this cup of suffering pass from me.  But not my will, but Thy will be done, Abba Father.  The Father’s will was done, and so, out of Jesus’ love for His Father, and out of His love for you, your sins have been taken away.  You and I and every other sinner on this globe were under the Law, under its condemnation, for we are sinners.  But now, the Law is fulfilled for you, by the life of Jesus, and your sins against God’s Law are forgiven, washed away in the blood of Jesus.  Your eternal peace and glory are guaranteed, in the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus. 

     The will of God, His great desire, is to rescue you from sin and death, and God’s will has been done.  So now we, who in our baptisms have been clothed in His garments of righteousness, are thus privileged to add our joyful Abbas to the Gethsemane prayer of Jesus.  Because Jesus fulfilled His Abba Father’s will, you can call His Father your Father, your Abba, your God.  Your Savior has taught you to pray with Him to His Father, ‘Our Father, who art in heaven,’ so that daily you might be reminded who your true Abba Father is, through the grace of Christ. 

     If that is not enough of a Christmas present, just wait, there’s more.  Even when you fail, even when you turn your back on God by falling, yet again, into sin, still God pursues His will to have you with Himself in glory forever.  You have been clothed in garments of righteousness, the pure white robes of Christ’s righteousness given to you in your Baptism, where God covered all your sins, and called you by a new name, calling you His beloved and forgiven child.  When you sin, when I sin, we soil the garments Christ won for us.  When we Christians defile the perfect gift we’ve received from our Father, any reasonable person would be done with us,   

     But not your Father in Heaven.  Even when you fall into sin, God is not done with you.  The Baptized ought never sin, but we do.  To our great shame, we who know Christ as Savior still fail to live as God’s children should.  And yet, despite what you deserve for your sins, the Lord is pleased to wash your garments clean again, to remove the stain of sin with His Word of Forgiveness, to purify you inside and out through His Holy Supper.  Great are the mercies that our Lord God has drawn us to, once again here, today, blessings for you, the people of God, and also a blessing for the nations.  This is why, as we leave Christ’s table, we sing with Simeon, Lord, now you let your servant go in peace, for your Word has been fulfilled.  

     And still God is not finished.  Christ first, and Christ still today.  This inward movement, the gathering by the Holy Spirit of God’s people around the Word and Signs of Christ, is exactly the beginning point of God’s plan to reach out to the nations.  God drew Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, bearing Christ, in order that the angels could herald his birth, drawing the Shepherds in to worship, and then sending them out to tell their neighbors all they had heard and seen.  God drew the Wise Men by the star to the home of Jesus, so that He could send them back out to the nations, carrying this good news that a new king has been born for all people.   God drew Simeon and Anna to the Christ, to reveal the Savior to them, and immediately their voices broke forth in praise, announcing to the nations that this Child is for them, too.    

     My wife Shelee and I are being sent to Spain, to an historically Roman Catholic place, where Mary is firmly in the center of their faith.  And yet, most Spaniards are Roman Catholic in name only, almost never gathering for services.  Worse still, in Spain more and more young people are denying Christianity altogether.  Spain is a wonderful place, but the missionary task will not be easy.  So, we are thankful to be gathered here with you this morning, to be strengthened for the work ahead.  Because of our shared confession of Christ, we are bold to ask you to support us.  Please support us with your prayers.  Know what to pray for by signing up to receive our newsletter.  And also, please go to your Abba Father in prayer, and ask Him how He might have you support our mission financially, both as individuals, and as a congregation.  

     Remember us, and also remember, God sends you, too.  Whether you are a banker or a rancher or a grade school student, whether you are a parent, grandparent, brother, sister or child, whether you are eloquent or shy, God sends you into your daily callings, and He goes with you.  He is not calling you to preach on the street corner, but rather to love your neighbor, and to be ready to give the reason for the hope that you have.  If you’re not sure how to best live out your role in God’s Mission, if you’re nervous about giving the reason for the hope you have, there is a simple solution.  To be better prepared for your tasks in God’s Mission, you can simply gather more, study more, hear more, and receive more.  Be filled up with Gods’ pure Gospel, and the Holy Spirit, working through the Word and the Supper, working through the instruction and wisdom of your pastor, will prepare you to fill just the role God has in mind for you.  

     Merry Christmas.  God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is thrilled to reunite again with you today, thrilled to take your sins and give you His garments of righteousness, thrilled to love you and give you peace.  Here your eyes see the salvation, which the Lord has prepared before the face of all people, a light, to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of God’s people, the New Israel, the Church of Christ.  Go forth in His peace, singing His praise, Amen.  

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Exporting Oil to Spain

Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost, November 9th, Year of Our + Lord 2014
Our Savior Lutheran Church, Hutchinson, Minnesota
Exporting Oil to Spain

This morning I’m here to speak with you about exporting oil to Spain.

    I’m David Warner, formerly a member of Concordia Lutheran Church in Forsyth, MT, which explains my connection to your Pastor Oster, who served my family there, before coming to serve you here, in Hutchinson.  More recently, for the last ten years to be precise, I served as pastor of Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches of Sidney and Fairview, Montana, two congregations nestled in the western end of the Bakken Oil Shale region.  Through our decade in Sidney, my wife Shelee and I experienced life in an oil boom, a life filled with change, challenges and opportunity. 

     In June I accepted a call from the Board for Intl. Mission to be a Church Planter in Seville, Spain.  Pastoral calls are often a bit mysterious, and I have not always immediately had an answer for those who asked why I received this call to go to Spain.  But now, having heard this morning’s Gospel reading, I think perhaps I get it.  The mission board decided it made sense to call me, a pastor from the oil patch, in order to export oil to Spain.     

     You see, Jesus tells us the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom, five foolish virgins, who took no oil with them, and five wise, who carried flasks of oil along with their lamps.  Jesus is teaching about the End, about the Last Day, the Day when He will return in glory to usher in the new heavens and the new earth.  Jesus is the Bridegroom, and the Virgins are us, Christians, or at least outward members of the Church.  The key point is that for us to be truly ready for the kingdom of heaven, to be truly ready for the return of our Bridegroom, it is not enough to look like a Christian.  As we consider the wise and foolish virgins, we learn that to be ready, we must always have oil for our lamps.  And, when Christ our heavenly Bridegroom returns, there will no longer be time or opportunity to get the oil you need for your lamp.   

     The oil which the virgins need in their lamps is the pure Word of God.  The oil is God’s Word of Truth, the truth about human sin, which requires God’s just punishment, and the truth of God’s grace and mercy, which led Him to make a way for us sinners to be freed from the punishment we deserve, and instead be welcomed into the wedding feast.  The Word of Life, the oil we need, is the goods news that through the life, death and resurrection of the Bridegroom, Jesus, we receive forgiveness, life and salvation.  The oil in the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins is the pure Word of God, by which the Holy Spirit creates and sustains a living faith. 

     Now, maybe you’ve asked a question about this parable.  When the cry rang out, “Wake, awake, the Bridegroom approaches,” the foolish virgins ask the wise to share their oil.  But the wise say no, they can’t, there won’t be enough.  Does that seem harsh?  If the oil in this parable is the pure Word of God, shouldn’t the wise virgins have shared?  Were the wise virgins being selfish? 

     The wise virgins were not being selfish, there simply was no time.  Remember, this parable is about being ready at the End, on the Last Day.  Elsewhere, Jesus tells His disciples to work while it is day, before the night comes, and no one can work.  When the End comes, when the Father sends the Son to bring this age to its close, the time for work will be over.  The Wise Virgins were not being selfish, there was simply no way, no time.  In the end, none of us can believe for another.  Each of us needs to hear the Word, each of us needs to be brought to repentance daily, each of us needs God’s gift of faith for ourselves.   This parable is about being ready for the Day when the time for being filled with the oil of God’s Word will be over.  When the foolish virgins asked the wise for oil, there was no time left.    

     But there is still time today.  There is still time for us to share the oil we have.  And we are living in oil boom country, spiritual oil boom country.  Despite all the problems we see around us, despite the struggles faced by every congregation and every Christian, we still live in a place overflowing with the oil of God’s pure and precious Word.  The night is coming, when no one can work.  But today, we can gather whenever we want to fill our flasks.  Sundays, Wednesdays, school chapel, Bible studies, God has raised up many opportunities here at Our Savior for you to be filled up.  And you can supplement the gatherings here on your own, reading, praying and meditating on Holy Scripture in your own devotions.  We are truly blessed to live in spiritual oil boom country, with gushing opportunities to hear the Good News of God’s gift to us in Christ. 

     We enjoy gushing opportunities to be filled up with God’s Law and Gospel, and that’s a good thing, isn’t it?  We need the Good News, desperately.  Because it’s embarrassing, shameful really, how you and I sin.  You don’t know my sins.  I don’t know your sins.  But we both know how, like the Apostle Paul, we far too often commit the sin we hate, and fail to do the good we would so much like to do.  We cannot free ourselves from sin.  But from the pure oil of God’s Word a light shines, the light that teaches us to confess our sins, knowing that God’s response to our repentant confession is always the same:  I forgive you. 

     And if that isn’t enough, God gives more.  We can also confess our faith, and then kneel at this altar to receive the true Body and Blood of Christ for the forgiveness of all our sins.  Jesus our heavenly Bridegroom is busy every day, delivering to us the one thing we need most of all.  And so yes indeed, there is time today, time to be filled up with the oil of God’s pure Word, time to see the light of faith shine, time to rejoice in anticipation of the return of Jesus. 

     There is time for you and me to be filled with the oil of God’s Word.  And, there is also time for Spain.  Indeed, there is a new time in Spain, today.  Five centuries ago, the good news of the rediscovery of the pure Word of God by Martin Luther and his companions made it to Spain.  In the 16th century, God’s pure Word began to do in Spain what it always does; it began to bear fruit.  The fire of faith in Christ alone began to burn in Spain. 

     But that fire was quenched.  The Spanish Church and the Spanish Crown moved swiftly to oppose the Lutheran Reformation in Spain.  In a truly dark episode in Church history, around 40 evangelically minded Spaniards were burned at the stake by the Spanish Inquisition in the 1540s and 1550s.  Hundreds more reformation minded Spaniards fled their homeland.  With support from the king, the Good News of the Lutheran Reformation was violently crushed in Spain, by the very church officials who were supposed to be caring for God’s people.  And so, for centuries, it was illegal to proclaim the full and free forgiveness of sins in Spain. 

     But there is a new day in Spain.  In the 1980s, religious freedom came to Spain, and in the year 2000, the Lutheran Church of Argentina, with support from our Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, began mission work there.  The work has been difficult.  Due in large part to their history, many Spaniards want nothing to do with anything churchly.  The Lutheran mission in Spain is still very small.  But the pure oil of the Gospel is being proclaimed, and there is a small but growing group of Lutherans in Spain.  I have accepted a call to join this mission.  My wife Shelee and I are preparing to go to Spain, to bring more of the good oil of God’s pure grace to a land desperately short on reserves. 

     Outwardly, Spain appears to be a Christian country.  Christianity has a long, long history in Spain, all the way back to the first century A.+D.  But for centuries the Gospel has been severely clouded there.  From the brutality of the Spanish Inquisition in the 16th and 17th centuries, to a heavy influence on praying to Mary and other saints today, in Spain the central message of Christianity has been set aside. 

     The main point of the Christian message is God’s gift of salvation, won completely on the Cross by Jesus, and distributed freely to sinners through the Word and Sacraments today.  The forgiveness of sins for Jesus’ sake should always be the main focus of all we do in the Church.  But this main point is rarely heard and even less often believed in Spain.  Despite the outward veneer of Christianity in Spain, the message proclaimed in the Church there is very deformed.  Like putting dirt and water in fuel oil, the false teachings that abound in Spain make it very hard for a flame to burn, very hard for faith to survive.  Without any Good News, the exodus from the Church in Spain by young people in the last three decades has been enormous.  And most of those who still claim to be in the Church hardly ever gather to hear God’s Word.    

     And so, why should we do mission in Spain?  Because Spain needs the pure Word of God.  Why do mission in Spain?  Because we can.  Why do Lutheran mission in Spain?  Because they asked.  It was a handful of Spaniards, who discovered Lutheran teaching on their own, who first asked for a mission to be started there.  Ultimately, there is a simple reason for doing mission work in Spain: Christ died and rose for the people of Spain.  We can seek to do mission work in any land, because Christ has taken the sins of the whole world to His Cross. 

     The Bridegroom has done it all.  Jesus has paid the Bride Price, that is, He has earned His place as the Bridegroom, by living the life of good works that God desires, perfectly fulfilling for us the command to love God and neighbor.    And Jesus has also paid the Dowry.  He has paid what we owed, the debt of suffering our sin deserves, paying for all our sins with His innocent death.  All that God requires for you to be His beloved child is completed in the Son, Jesus Christ.  Now, the Wedding Banquet is prepared.  The Son of God could not be held by death, for He is the Author of Life.  Jesus the Crucified is now Resurrected.  Jesus, alive forevermore, is now Ascended on high, awaiting the call to open the banquet doors. 

     And so, while there is still time, let us share the oil of God’s pure Word, with each other, and with the world.  I am bold to ask you this morning to come alongside the Lutheran Mission in Spain.  Help me export oil, the oil of the Gospel, to Spain.  I even have a simple, three point plan for you to be involved in God’s Mission to Spain. 

     First, fill your flask.  To share the pure Word of God with others, first you must have the pure Word of God yourself.  Be filled up with the Gospel.  Be greedy for God’s Word.  Gather to confess your sins and receive the Absolution.  Hunger and thirst for the Sacrament.  Fill up your flask, for this is what we all need, the rich and daily forgiveness and strength of God, delivered by His Word.  Be filled with the Gospel, for in the Gospel of Christ is your true and everlasting peace.  Be filled with the Gospel, and by this Jesus will prepare you to be of use in His Mission.  Fill up your flask with God’s Gospel oil. 

     Second, make sure your oil pumping station here in Hutchinson is running well.  Pastor Oster has been given to you to lead the way in freely distributing in this place the most precious thing in the world.  Your first mission concern, the proper first mission concern of every Christian, is your home congregation. 

     Third, consider Spain.  You can start by being connected.  Sign up for our newsletter, on one of the clipboards in the narthex, or by sending me an e-mail.  Check out our website,  Be informed and encouraged about the work God is doing, and learn how you can pray specifically for the Mission in Spain.  Be connected, pray for Spain, and pray about supporting Spain financially.  My call is to go there and freely distribute the pure oil of God’s Law and Gospel.  Simple enough.  I am eager to be about the work, to join the devoted people who are already there working.  You can help that happen.  You can be a part of exporting the oil of the Gospel, which so enriches our lives, today and forever.  You can be a part of exporting the oil of the Gospel to Spain, as a congregation, and as individuals, by supporting us financially.  I ask you to prayerfully consider becoming an oil exporter to Spain.   

     Jesus says: Watch therefore, for you do not know the day nor the hour of His return.  This is a serious message.  We are all called to be watchful.  But remember, you watch with your ears, and your mouth.  God makes you ready for Christ’s return, not by demanding you do this or that, but by reminding you what He has done, for you.  Watch and be ready by listening, listening to His
Word, which tells you how Jesus loves you, that He has loved you, to death, and to new life.  Listen to His voice that says, “Take eat, take drink, my Body and Blood, given for you for the forgiveness of all your sins.”  Listen, and receive, and you will see that your greatest treasure is the oil in your lamp, the truth of God’s forgiving love, which makes you ready for His return,

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Broken Missionaries

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 4th, Year of Our + Lord 2014
Zion and St. John Lutheran Churches, Gwinner and Oakes, ND
Broken Missionaries - Matthew 21:33-46

Grace, mercy and peace to you, from God our Father, and Our Lord Jesus Christ.   
     It is a distinct pleasure for my wife Shelee and I to be with you here this morning, receiving God’s gifts in Word and Sacrament, and also telling you a little about our journey to Spain, where I have been called to serve as a Church Planter.  The day to day content of this first part of my missionary call is raising prayer and financial support, by going around, preaching and presenting to Lutherans in America, in order to find the people God will raise up to partner with the Lutherans in Spain.  So, as I stand before you this morning, I have to ask a question of your pastor. 
     Rev. Dr. Richard, “What kind of Mission texts are these?”  The LORD’s lovely vineyard yields wild grapes, so God is going to remove the protective hedge and allow the vineyard to be destroyed?  God seeks justice, but behold, bloodshed; God looks for righteousness, but behold, an outcry?  I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish?  And finally, from the mouth of our Lord, “the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”?  Where’s the happiness, the Word of the Lord growing, rejoicing in the Lord always, the sweetness and light passages?  Where’s the bold commission text, the fearless servants bravely venturing to the end of the earth?  Come on, Pastor Matt, this is what you give me to work with?  

     I’m kidding.  The readings are not your pastor’s fault.  Indeed, they are not anyone’s fault.  Taking what the lectionary, the reading system of the Church year, gives us to read is good for us.  For pastors to pick their own readings is a dangerous thing, because we all have the parts of the Bible we like, and the parts we like to avoid.  But we need to hear the full council of God, not just our favorite passages, or our pastor’s favorites.  Using the assigned lectionary readings is a good thing. 

     And, despite the harshness they contain, today’s readings are excellent texts for understanding God’s Mission, and our role within His Mission.  Because there is a necessary harshness, a brokenness even, to being involved in the Mission of God.  

     What comes to mind when you hear the word Mission?  Maybe you think first of helping people?  Certainly Jesus helped people.  We are in the middle of a series of readings all set during Holy Week, the days leading up to His Cross.   Jesus does a number of things which heighten the anger of the religious elite, including riding into Jerusalem like a king, accepting the praises of children, and telling very pointed parables against the scribes and priests, as He does today.  But back at the beginning of chapter 21, you’ll also notice Jesus was healing the lame and blind.  Helping people in need has always gone hand in hand with God’s Mission. 

     In fact my new boss, Rev. Ted Krey, Area Director for Latin American and Spanish Missions, and also a missionary pastor in the Dominican Republic, wants every Church within his mission area to also have a Mercy House.  In the Dominican the Mercy House is a home for developmentally disabled youth.  In other places it might be a school for the poor, or an orphanage.  In Spain we are going to be looking for the opportunity to pursue life ministries, as my wife Shelee has years of experience serving women in crisis pregnancies.  This is how it should be.  Christ in his earthly ministry was always caring for the sick and hurting, so Christians share His concern for helping people in their earthly needs. 

     But helping people with their earthly hurts and needs is not the heart of mission.  Jesus healed many sick and lame and blind, but these healings did not save their souls.  So also, while Christian mission is  rightly accompanied by human, earthly care, and while serving our neighbors is an important way we earn opportunities to tell them about Jesus, God’s Mission finally requires something different.  In fact, true Christian Mission requires harshness.  Scandal even.  An offense.  God’s Mission is centered on a rock that either breaks you, or pulverizes you, a stone of stumbling and offense, of scandal.  Certainly harsh.    

     In fact, as strange as it seems, Jesus is doing mission work as he verbally attacks the elders and scribes and priests.  This is the harsh part of mission work, the preaching of the law, in this case the declaration of the truth that these religious leaders were in truth working against God’s mission.  Despite their outwardly religious  appearance, the Pharisees, Elders and Chief Priests of the Jews all rejected God’s way of salvation.  They were fine with a certain amount of helping the neighbor, and very happy to go about appearing pious and law-abiding, making a show of setting a good example.  And they thought they were very much a part of God’s mission in doing these things. 
But no, says Jesus, they are wicked tenants, who have abused God’s vineyard, abused their positions of authority in His Church, and rejected the central point of God’s Mission of Salvation – the offense of the Cross.  When prophets speaking God’s truth came to Israel, calling them away from their sin, again and again, the people of Israel, leaders and people, rejected the message and abused the messengers.  Being a prophet to God’s people was never an easy calling.  And as in all things, Jesus is the greatest prophet, God’s final Word to His people, and the world.  So the Jewish religious leaders reject Him most of all.     

     Jesus is the rejected stone of Psalm 118 which becomes the chief cornerstone.  Jesus is the stone of stumbling, the rock of offense, of scandal.  In Jesus God fully reveals the central mystery of His plan of salvation.  And this mystery is one we sinners quite naturally reject.  Yes, it’s not just the chief priests and elders.  We all like to sidestep, ignore or outright reject the scandal that is Jesus, because it is unpopular with the world, or maybe because of what it says about us.  The fact that saving sinners like you and me required the unjust execution of the sinless Son of God is crushing news to our spiritual egos.  But it is the truth, a truth without which we cannot be ready for the Gospel.    

     And so we see Jesus is the rock.  He will either break you, or He will pulverize you.  Jesus said, “the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him."  This is His warning to the chief priests, scribes, elders, to anyone who is proudly confident that by their own contributions and efforts and goodness they are earning their place in the kingdom of God.  If you persist in your self-righteous, stubborn resistance to the cornerstone, you will be crushed. 

     The alternative to being crushed doesn’t sound much better.  The alternative is to be broken, but then restored.  That is, everyone of us must be broken on the rock that is Christ, in order to be restored and brought into the kingdom.  For we are all sinners, naturally opposed to God and His Way.  To complete His Mission of Salvation, God must break us from our love of sin.  Consider Peter, broken by his threefold denial, as the rooster crowed, broken by his inability to follow Jesus to the Cross as he had sworn.  Or consider Paul, an enemy and persecutor of the Church, broken by the light, the blinding appearance of Christ to him on the road to Damascus, asking him Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?  Consider Martin Luther, torturing himself in a monk’s cell, trying to earn the favor of God, until the Word of God broke through, revealing that God gives righteousness as a free gift, received by faith, for Jesus’ sake.  

     As for all these famous Christians, so also for you, and for me.  We must be broken out of our complacency, or out of our pride and self-assurance.  We must be broken from our habit of loving earthly pleasures more than God and His Word.  We must be broken of our love of sin.  We all must be broken by the Law, both at conversion, and also throughout our earthly lives, broken so that with His Good News, with His Gospel of forgiveness and mercy, Jesus can restore you to wholeness, and present you to His Father, whole and blameless and beloved. 

     Jesus is the cornerstone of the Church, which is a building made of living stones, sinners who have been broken, but are now restored, made new, and joined to Jesus.  And as in all things, Jesus leads the way.  For He has already given Himself into brokenness, in our place.  Jesus is One man who had nothing to be broken for, the One with no sin for which to suffer.  But out of love for His Father, and love for us sinners, Jesus chose to be broken, even crushed, by all our sin, the sin which requires our death and punishment.  Jesus, the sinless one, the Son of the Master of the Vineyard, Jesus, Almighty God become a man, was crushed, becoming the sinner in your place, body broken and blood shed on His Cross, in order to restore you, with free and full forgiveness.  You are forgiven, all your sins are washed away, by the blood of Jesus.   

     This is the Mission of God, restoring broken humanity through the once broken but now resurrected body of the Son, Jesus Christ.  The Cornerstone is now set.  Jesus Christ, the head of His body the Church, now rules over heaven and earth. By His Spirit He now empowers His mission, which takes the Lord’s marvelous doing out into the world, proclaiming peace between God and sinners.  And, when God has brought us through the harsh things, then there is great joy.  Being caught up and involved in God’s Mission is wonderful, amazing, the best thing in the world.  It is also the one thing in this world that lasts forever, the gift of righteousness and eternal salvation delivered to a sinner, today, by the power of God’s Word. 

     This is the message that God has called Pastor Richard here to preach to you.  This is also the message that I have been called to preach in Spain, a land that very desperately needs to hear this truth.  For in Spain, the way of the Chief Priests and Scribes and Elders, the way of human pride and human accomplishment, the way of human works required to complete salvation, this false way is, sadly, the way the Christian faith has been presented for centuries. 

     Spaniards through their history have been taught a very works righteous misunderstanding of Christianity.  They are very much in need of the pure Gospel, and, since 2000, the Lutheran Church of Argentina, with LCMS support, has begun proclaiming it.  The Lutheran Mission in Spain is small, and spread out.  But Lutheran Mission is there, and the people are hungry for more Good News.  My particular task in Spain will be to come alongside the first Spanish Lutheran pastor, Juan Carlos Garcia, who serves a small congregation in Seville.  I am very much looking forward to working with him to reach out with the Gospel in Seville, and then see God grow His Church. 

     But first, my work is finding partners, Lutherans in America who want to partner with the Lutherans in Spain, and see the Gospel spread there.  God will raise up the partners He has in mind, prayer partners, and financial partners.   My wife and I are very thankful for the commitment you have already made to this work as a congregation.  As we rejoice in our shared restoration, I ask you to ask God how much more He might want you involved. 

     Are you feeling a desire to be more involved in God’s Mission?  Being involved is pretty straightforward. 
     Step 1, be fed, be filled.  As you are doing today, hear the Word, receive God’s Absolution, take, eat, and drink, for the forgiveness of all your sins.  Be filled with the Gospel, for this is how God prepares His people to be of service in His Gospel Mission.  When you are filled to overflowing with the Good News of God’s love in Christ, His Spirit then moves you to be a part of giving the gift to others.  Step 1, be filled, and keep on doing step 1.  The more you are filled with the Gospel, the more you will be ready to be involved in God’s Mission.   
     Step 2, attend to your own congregation’s mission first.  Zion/St. John Lutheran Church is God’s mission in this place, for God is always working through congregations, pastors and people together.  Step 2, attend to home first. 
     Step 3, look beyond.  Ask God how you can best be connected to efforts to proclaim His Law and Gospel to a world so much in need of God’s Truth and Love, revealed in Christ.  By your invitation for Shelee and I to join you today, and by the prayers and commitments you have already offered, you are already doing step 3.  I will go to Spain as your missionary, and that is an honor.  What more might God want to do through you for Spain? 

     As we move forward together in service within God’s Mission, first, last and always, rejoice in the righteousness of Christ that God has given you, rejoice that Christ has made you His own.  Marvel at the Stone the builders rejected, who has become your Cornerstone.  And the Peace of God, that passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, Amen.  

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Where You Finish

 Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 28, Year of Our + Lord 2014
St. John Lutheran Church, Laurel, Montana
Where You Finish – Matthew 21:23-32, Philippians 2:4-11

   It’s not where you begin that matters, but where you finish.  The sinners and prostitutes obviously started badly, but hearing the message of John the Baptist, they repent of their sinfulness and trust in the coming promise of God that John announced.  The chief priests and elders of the

people, on the other hand, seem to have made a good beginning.  After all, religion was the center of their lives.  They even serve as authorities, publicly demonstrating their Godliness.  But, they reject the repentance, and the promise, that John the Baptist preached.  They refuse to believe his message, even though an examination of the Scriptures would teach them John’s message was true.  They reject John and his message, and so were, according to Jesus, setting themselves outside God’s favor.  The chief priests and the elders are the second son, who said he would go and work in his father’s vineyard, but in the end refused, finishing badly, outside the favor of the father.     
    Where you finish is an appropriate question as I come to you today speaking of our Lutheran mission in Spain, a country with a long Christian history, a land with many visible signs of the Church, but a place where the true center of Christian life, repentance for sin and faith in the promise of Jesus Christ, is rare.  The same problem plagued the Church in Luther’s day.  Indeed in every day and age our natural human tendency is to make Christianity about human authority, or outward appearance, or popular approval.  We want to make Christianity about anything, anything but repentance for sin and faith in Christ.  We resist simply receiving the true faith from God’s Word, as God presents it, because God’s truth makes the sinner in each of us very uncomfortable. 

     Martin Luther was God’s unlikely instrument to bring repentance and faith back to the center in 16th century Europe, and the world.  But sadly, the power of the Roman Church, and especially of the Spanish Inquisition, meant that the Good News rediscovered by Luther did not receive much of a hearing in Spain.  The Reformation had a tiny beginning in Spain, but was crushed and driven out by the Grand Inquisitor.  Many evangelical reform minded Christians were burned at the stake in Spain during the 1500s. 
     But the story in Spain is not finished.  That is to say, God is not finished with Spain.  Today we, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and the Lutheran Church of Argentina, are working together to try again, returning to Spain with the message of repentance for sin, and faith in Christ alone, who is our righteousness before God the Father.  I have accepted a call to join this work, to be a Church Planter in Seville, Spain. 

     Of course, going to Spain as Christian missionaries is a bit tricky, because most people would say that Spain has historically been a “Christian” nation.  Spaniards might well take offense at Lutherans suggesting there is something deficient in their faith, much like the Chief Priests and Elders took offense at Jesus.  The setting of our Gospel this morning is Holy Week, the days between Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and His arrest and crucifixion on Good Friday.  The day before our reading for this morning, Jesus had ridden the donkey into Jerusalem to cries of “Hosanna to the Son of David.”  Then He drove out the money changers from the Temple, and proceeded to heal the lame and the blind. 

     Feeling threatened by Jesus, the priests and elders, the religious authorities, confront Jesus, demanding to know by what authority He acted.  As a condition of revealing His own authority, Jesus very cagily asks them to say what they think of John the Baptist’s authority, where did it come from?  Jesus’ condition shuts down their questioning.  On the one hand the chief priests and elders do not want to acknowledge that John the Baptist had any real authority from God.  But on the other they are afraid to disparage John before the crowds, who loved John the Baptist and held that he was a prophet sent by God. 

     Upon their refusal to answer, Jesus presses the point, telling the story of the two sons, in order to point out the sinful hypocrisy of the chief priests and elders.  The first son is initially rebellious, but later turns to the way of the father.  The second son is outwardly compliant, but in the end refuses the father’s will.  Jesus then praises the repentance and faith of prostitutes and other obvious sinners, who like the first son, started badly, but finished believing in John the Baptist’s message.  Then Jesus rejects the pride and self-righteousness of the religious elite, who pretended to care about God’s Word, but finished by rejecting His messenger.  It’s not where you begin that matters, but where you finish.  

     Jesus’ verbal assault enrages the priests and elders.  If you read on in Matthew 21, you will discover Jesus continues piling on, very pointedly revealing their sins, and promising that God would reject the scribes and priests and elders, because of their refusal to believe in Him.  They don’t like this very much.  Indeed, it drives them to seek Jesus’ death. 

     Do you ever find yourself behaving like the chief priests and elders?  Are you attracted by feel good preachers who never really point out your sins, but instead spend all their time encouraging you to believe in yourself?  Do you get tired of having your sins pointed out?  Of confessing “I, a poor miserable sinner?”  I know I get tired of being reminded that I am holding out on God, again, guilty of being selfish and unloving to my family, again, caught up in the idols of money and ease and self-satisfaction, again.  It is a painful thing, to face this most difficult truth.   

     But, when I’m forced by God, working through His Word and His preachers, forced to confess my sins and my sinfulness, it is a good thing.  Because it’s true.  True for me, and true for you.  It’s true, and necessary.  Knowing and confessing my sinful inability to meet God’s standard is not yet salvation, but it is a necessary precursor, an irreplaceable preparation.  The sinners and prostitutes confessed and repented of their sins, for the joy of the promise.  But the pride of the priests and elders caused them to reject John and his message.  Humility is right and necessary for us sinners.     

      Christians do well then to proclaim the truth of human sinfulness with great personal humility.  After all, Jesus does it with great humility.  Now, you could argue He is kind of hard on the priests and elders, but consider for a minute who He is.  Jesus is Almighty God, the Creator and Sustainer of all things.  Every breath his enemies ever took was a gift from Jesus, and yet they attack and despise Him.  Jesus could have rightly responded to the priests and elders by utterly destroying them.  But He doesn’t.  Instead, Jesus loves the Chief Priests and Elders, just like He loves the tax collectors and prostitutes.  Jesus loves them all, even though they are all sinners.  Yes, loving them means He must speak some painful truths to them.  But He speaks this on His way to the Cross, where He will make their pain His own, where He will love them, and the whole world, unto death. 

     Indeed, Jesus speaks in this way to the Chief Priests and elders in order to bring on His Cross.  And there, on a pile of stones called Golgotha, bleeding on a Roman Cross, Jesus finished His work by profoundly humbling Himself.  More than He did when He became a human being, even more than He did when He lived a simple life of poverty, Jesus humbled Himself, by dying for sinners, for prostitutes, for chief priests and elders, and for you and me.   

     Humility is key to Jesus’ great work of salvation, and so it is also key for us, who trust in His salvation.  Whether one is serving as a missionary in Spain, or seeking to witness to your neighbors in Laurel, humility is indispensable.  Humility is important on a human level, to prevent people from thinking you are self-righteous, “Holier than Thou.”   Even more, humility is important because humility is so central to the story of Christ. 

     The mission of God requires humility in God’s people, and, it also, requires knowing how to finish.  We should be humble, but we need also to finish well, to be bold to speak the truth at the right time, to dare even to speak of the Cross.  Because there, on the Cross, we discover the finish.  The sin of both sons is damnable, the first son who refused and the second son who lied, promising but then refusing.  The sin of both is damnable, because sin is rebellion against God.  The sin of both sons is damnable.  But the sin of both sons is covered, washed away, atoned for, by Jesus, on His Cross.  There on the Cross, you have already finished well, for there, Jesus declared, “It is finished,” for you.   

     My wife Shelee and I are here today to tell you about God’s exciting work in Spain, to encourage you with this Good News.  And we are also here to ask you to do more in your Father’s vineyard, specifically to consider partnering with the people of Spain by financially supporting us.  But before you decide, before you even consider partnering with the Lutherans in Spain, we need to be clear.  Working in the vineyard is important, each of us playing our part in God’s mission is vital.  God desires and commands it of His sons and daughters.  But your place in the family vineyard does not depend on your work in the family vineyard.  Rather, your ability to work depends on you first being brought into the family.  And this work is the Work that Jesus has finished, for you.  In Christ, the Father favors you, forever and ever.  This Gospel, this good news, that “it is finished,” is what the Mission of God is all about proclaiming.  And so first and foremost, hear God’s Good News for you.  The “it” of your salvation is finished. 

     This “It is finished” Good News is what pastors and congregations together tend in the vineyard of God.  The stewardship that God has given to His Church is not about money.   Let me repeat, stewardship is not about money;  rather stewardship is about the Gospel.  Our treasure to invest in the world is not gold or silver, but rather the precious blood of Jesus which covers all sin, your sin, my sin, the sin of prostitutes, chief priests, and elders.  So, to be a good steward, first, be filled with the Gospel, as you are doing today.  Hear, say, sing, pray and eat the Good News that Christ has finished the work of salvation for you.  This is how God prepares you to be useful in His Mission, by filling you up with His Gospel. 

     Then, as you are filled to overflowing with the joy of God’s love, remember that this congregation is your first mission concern.  As you rejoice in your salvation and all the blessings God has showered on you, support the work of St. John.  Then, go beyond, remembering that God’s Church is universal.  As God gives you ability, support His mission with your prayers and talents and gifts for work beyond St. John.    Like the work in Spain.  Or Papua New Guinea.  Or Sri Lanka.  As you are connected and support the Mission of God with your prayers and your money, you will receive joy, the joy of knowing and participating in God’s ongoing work around the world.   

     As we are gathered together today to receive God’s Gospel gifts and also consider the work that grows and continues around the world, I can think of no better way to ‘finish’ than to hear again from St. Paul:  Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.  Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, and did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, nevertheless made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on 
earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ 
is Lord, to the glory of God the Father, Amen.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Mercy, Not Sacrifice

St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist, September 21st, Year of Our + Lord 2014
St. Peter and St. Paul Lutheran Churches, Belfield and Beach, Montana
Mercy, Not Sacrifice, Matthew 9:9-13

     Jesus said, "But go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,' for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners."   Jesus confronts the self-righteous prejudice of the Pharisees, who are offended when our Lord eats with tax collectors and other sinners.  In this confrontation, our Lord  quotes from the Prophet Hosea, where the Lord teaches that He desires mercy, not sacrifice, from His people.  Given that the sacrificial worship life of Israel, the Temple and all the appointed animal and grain sacrifices, were instituted by God, this passage from Hosea has always confused.  God orders us to make sacrifices, and yet says He doesn’t want our sacrifices?  God commands sacrifice, but He really just wants us to be merciful?  Well, which is it?  Is the life of the child of God to be filled with making sacrifices to please God, or not?  If we just need to be merciful people, why did the Lord appoint so many sacrifices, of bulls and goats and lambs and birds and grain?  They are a lot of work. 

     It might not even dawn on us that while simply being merciful sounds easier than making sacrifices, the reality is we don’t do mercy very well, either.  Regardless, through the ages, people have wondered about sacrifices, wondering what role exactly they play in God’s plan. 

     This question persists still today.  It is an honor and a pleasure to serve you this morning with God’s Word, and tell you a little about God’s reign in Spain, about my call to be a missionary to Spain, to go and join the work already started there, the work of telling the people of Spain about God’s mercy in Christ Jesus.  My prayer is that you will be moved by God to partner with the work in Spain, to be connected, to pray for the Lutheran mission in Spain, and to support it financially.  But first, we have this text, which we will do well to understand rightly, lest all our efforts, here or across the sea, be in vain. 

     Understanding this text rightly is very important in Spain, where Christ is named, but the Good News of His gift of free salvation is understood and trusted by few.  It is important in Spain, and in North Dakota too, since every one of us is driven by our own sinful nature to think that we can, and must earn God’s favor. 

     Happily for me in my efforts to find partners for my missionary call to Spain, there is a great movie that shows very well the dominant understanding of Christianity in Spain, and why the Lutheran mission there is so needed.  The movie is from 2010, and it is called “The Way.”  The setting is northern Spain, and it focuses on four travelers, who join the thousands each year who walk from the border with France, 500 miles across Spain, to Santiago de Compostela, following the ancient pilgrimage route that  has been walked by millions of Christians over the centuries, El Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James.  This is a sacrificial journey to the church in Compostela, where it is claimed, the bones of St. James the Apostle are kept.  How the bones supposedly got there is a whopper of a story, too long to go into here.  But the central point is that people have been told over the centuries, by the Church, that if they make the arduous pilgrimage to Compostela and then worship before the supposed bones of St. James, they will receive mercy from God.  It is as if a translator got today’s text totally wrong, totally backwards.  Jesus said: I desire mercy, not sacrifice.  But it’s like someone instead taught God’s people that Jesus said, I desire sacrifice, and if you make enough sacrifices, I will have mercy and compassion on you. 

     The main character in the movie is an American named Tom, a lapsed Roman Catholic, who is walking the Camino carrying the ashes of his son.  Tom’s son had come to Spain to walk the Camino, but had died in an accident in the mountains his first day out.  Angry with God, and feeling guilty because of his bad relationship with his only son, Tom embarks on the journey, torn spiritually and emotionally, seeking escape on the Camino.  At the climactic moment, Tom approaches a cross that stands next to the Camino, near to the end of the pilgrimage.  This particular Cross, La Cruz de Ferro, is surrounded by a mountain of stones, placed there by travelers who have carried them from France.  Tom too, has a stone, given to him at the start of his journey, for what reason he didn’t really know.  Now, at La Cruz de Ferro, Tom suddenly desires to practice his religion again.  So, standing at the foot of the Cross, Tom tosses his stone on the pile, and recites the following prayer:  “Dear Lord, may this stone, a symbol of my efforts on the pilgrimage, that I lay at the feet of the Cross of the Savior, weigh the balance in favor of my good deeds that day, when the deeds of all my life are judged.  Let it be so, Amen.” 

     Could the irony be any thicker?  It would be laughable, if it weren’t so eternally tragic.  The Cross of Jesus is right there.  Tom even refers to our Lord as the Savior.  But in Tom’s mind Jesus is not a Savior who really saves, apparently.  Standing at the foot of this Cross, a symbol remembering the Roman Cross where the once for all sacrifice was made, Tom reveals His understanding of Christianity.  Christianity for Tom, and for many people in Spain, and all around the world, is all about doing what it takes to make amends with God for our sins.  The whole journey has been, Tom hopes, a sacrifice to atone for his sins, in order that at Judgment Day, the Lord might have compassion, mercy, on him.    

     But Jesus said, "go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,' for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners."  Tom, like the Pharisees before him, hopes to make himself righteous by doing sacrificial acts.  But Jesus calls Matthew the tax collector, a Jew who worked for the hated Romans, a traitor despised by all.  Jesus calls unrighteous Matthew not merely to be a follower, but to be one of the Twelve, one of the Apostles upon whom Jesus would build His Church.  All of this is part of Christ’s effort to help people understand that God does not desire our sacrifices, but rather the Lord delights in mercy, in compassion.  And, (spoiler alert), God does both, sacrifice and mercy, on His Cross, for us.   

     Now, I need to be clear.  God does not desire our sacrifices, but He did demand them.  The command to make sacrifices for sin in the Temple was not a cruel joke, not a mistake by God, who changes His mind in the New Testament.  The Temple sacrifices are very much part of God’s plan of salvation.  But the sacrifices God commanded His people to make, indeed, the sacrifices God continues to demand His people make, are not the main thing.   Our sacrifices have never saved anyone.  Rather, our sacrifices, from those of the Temple in Jerusalem three thousand years ago, to our sacrifices of praise today, are all intended to point us and others to the Main Thing, which is the once for all Sacrifice that Jesus made, of Himself, on His Cross, in order to have mercy on sinners. 

     The Old Testament sacrifices were commanded by God, as the heart of the worship life of His people Israel, to teach them that blood must be shed to atone for sin, because the wages of sin is death.  But these commands to sacrifice sheep and oxen and goats were given to a people God had already made His own.  First God made promises, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to Moses and all the children of Israel.  Only after He had rescued them out of slavery in Egypt, only after they were His people, only then the Lord gave them the sacrificial system, to point them to the coming Sacrifice of Jesus.  The Old Testament sacrifices were only good and right when they were made by people who believed God’s promises, people who trusted not in themselves and their works and sacrifices, but rather who trusted in the mercy of God.  The imperfect sacrifices of the Israelites served true faith, by pointing to the coming perfect sacrifice. 

     All of the Temple sacrifices God once commanded were fulfilled, swallowed up, superseded, and set aside forever, in the once for all sacrifice of the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.  The Cross ended the Temple sacrifices, and also fully revealed their purpose.  For the blood of bulls and goats could never atone for the sins of the world, but the blood of God’s Son could, and has.  The promise that the Lord would save us Himself served to cover the sins of the people of Israel, until that perfect day when Jesus washed them away, forever, with His blood.    

     Always remember, the name ‘Jesus’ means ‘the Lord saves.’  The Lord promised to save, and in the Cross of Jesus, the Lord has saved.  This is the proper meaning of the Cross, the meaning that Tom the pilgrim on the Way to Santiago completely missed.  This true meaning of the Cross, that there Jesus has saved us sinners, completely, this the message that the people of Spain so badly need to hear, the message that every sinner needs to hear. 

     But what about life now?  Do believers in Christ make sacrifices?  Absolutely, but never for sin, for faith knows that all our sins are taken away, by Jesus.  The  sacrifices Christians have to make are never for sin, but rather are sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving, and also sacrifices of love. Christians are called to give of themselves, to sacrifice time and effort and resources in service to the neighbor, and especially to give time and talent and treasure to support the proclamation of the Gospel.  But all of these sacrifices are pleasing to God only when they flow from, and are founded in, the mercy of God for sinners.  We can only make worthy sacrifices when we are trusting in the mercy poured out in the once for all sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross, mercy poured out for you, and me, and for the people of Spain, mercy for all people, all sinners, everywhere.  Mission starts, and lives from, the Cross of Jesus. 

    It is hard for us to keep this straight.  It’s easy to pick on Roman Catholics and their error in teaching that Christians must make ongoing sacrifices for sin.  This is especially easy in Spain, where a purely works righteous understanding of Christianity is very prevalent.  It’s easy to pick on Roman Catholics, but we must watch ourselves, lest when we think we stand, we fall.  Because we all do it.  We all think that when we sin, we better fix it, or God’s going to get us.  Sadly, it is part of our sinful nature to believe we must, and we can, do what it takes to atone for our sins.  But we can’t.  Our sinfulness trips us up before we even begin.  Our daily imperfections mean our sacrifices are not perfect, and so are not an acceptable atonement for sin.  We can’t make an acceptable sacrifice for sin.  So God in Christ has done it all, for us, so that we can be His own. 

     We struggle to keep this teaching straight, and God knew this would be a problem for us.  So He has never left us.  Where two or three gather in Jesus’ Name, wherever the teaching of the Apostles is proclaimed, there is Jesus Christ Himself, giving His Spirit, and delivering us to His Father.  And along with the Apostles, the Lord has given His Church gifts, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints, for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.  By His Preached Word, and in Holy Baptism, and in the Supper, Jesus comes seeking not the righteous, but sinners, like you and me.  Jesus comes correcting our Pharisee ideas, reminding us that only one Sacrifice is good enough.  Jesus comes forgiving our sins, even again today, here, forgiving, and restoring, freely.  Because the Sacrifice that was needed because of our sin is complete, finished.  Jesus by His death and resurrection has made peace between God and sinners, and so God comes  to us in mercy, compassion, and love, again and again. 

     This is the Good News that I was called to preach in Sidney and Fairview for 10 years, the Good News that Pastor Hojnacki is called to preach to you here.  Now I have been called to preach in Spain, to preach to a people who have for centuries heard that Christianity is all about you making yourself righteous, a people who most definitely need to hear the clear, pure, life-giving Gospel. 

     Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today.  Now I ask you, “Will you partner with the Lutherans in Spain?  Will you serve your neighbors in Spain, Lutheran Spaniards who have taken a great leap to leave Roman Catholicism, and the other Spaniards God has in mind for this mission?  The Good News of forgiveness in Christ has brought you here today.  Will you partner in the work of getting the Good News to Spain, by financially supporting me, so that I can go and preach Good News to them?  Will you partner in prayer?  Will you partner in telling others about God’s new work in Spain?  Maybe you know someone with a connection or interest in Spain.  Can you tell two others about the work in Spain?  By praying, telling, and through financial support, you will be supporting the work already begun in Spain by our Argentine partners.  Most of all, you will be supporting the Spanish people.   

     I pray that you will be moved to partner with the Spanish people.  And I know that God will raise up the partners He has in mind.  For ultimately it is always God who raises the support needed for the spread of His Gospel.  It is in His hands.  Good thing, too.  All things are in His hands, and so, rest in God’s peace, the peace of knowing that the sacrifice for your sin is complete, the righteousness of Christ covers you, and Jesus rejoices to dine with you, today through Word and Sacrament, and one day face to face, with the Father and Holy Spirit, at the very throne of God in heaven, forever and ever, Amen.