Monday, February 24, 2014

Scripture Alone

Sexagesima Sunday, February 23rd, Year of Our + Lord 2014
Trinity and Saint John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, Montana
Isaiah 55:10-13, Luke 8:4-15
Scripture Alone

     Scripture Alone, that is to say, the Holy Word of God is the only source of doctrine in the Church, and it is only by the proclamation of the Word of God that salvation comes to sinners. 

     We have before us today the parable of the Sower, the Crazy, Wasteful Sower, some of you farmers might call Him.  It does not surprise us that the seed is the Word of God.  For, in the beginning, God says, “Let there be…” and there it is.  God’s Word is creative, making the things it says exist, creating and sustaining reality.  What does surprise is how that seed is to be sown, by casting it around willy-nilly, a sowing method which results in the seeming failure of its purpose far too often.   A strange lesson for these disciples, learning their way to apostleship. To whom should they preach, and how?  And how should they judge their success?  Crucial questions, for them, and for us.  So Jesus tells this parable.

     The sower went out to sow his seed, and in his sowing, this is what happened.  In Greek the sower and the seed all come from the same root.  You could say the seeder went out to seed the seed, and in his seeding, here’s what happened.  Our Lord’s repetition of this seed word is on purpose – this parable is not about the soils, not about the rain or the sun, but about the Seed and its Sower.  Scripture Alone, the Word Alone, and how we proclaim it, that’s the main subject. 

    Of course no farmer plants the way Jesus does, then or now.   It would be like broadcasting sugar beet seeds from helicopter spreaders, into the fields and the river and onto the highway and our front lawns. No, there’s a whole science to figuring out what various soils have and need so that seeds will grow, and a whole science to tailoring seeds to particular soils.  The beet farmer buys just the right seeds for his various soils, and plants those precious seeds neatly in rows, just where the science has told him to put them.  If he just throws the seed wherever, he’ll go broke.  And surely farmers in Jesus’ day, while they didn’t have the research center and Tom Lorenz and Duane Peters, still knew you couldn’t farm the way Jesus suggests.   

     So the way Jesus means to sow the Seed of His Word is surprising.  He scatters the same seed everywhere, not looking at the soil first to see what might grow there, not checking to see if it’s too rocky or too compacted or whether he’s thrown seed there already.  The Word of God is for everyone, and for everyone the same: repent and believe the Gospel; Jesus is crucified for your sins and your sinfulness, and raised to give you life.  This preaching is not “plan B.”  It is “plan A,” and there is no “plan B.”  The preaching of Christ is an essential part of the God’s plan of salvation.  “Thus it is written,” Jesus says, about all the Scriptures, “that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his Name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”

     The Word is how God saves, specifically the Word of Jesus, who is the Seed that must die and fall into the ground that He might bear an abundant crop of believers. The saving Word of God is for all, and apostles and pastors and all believers are to sow it everywhere, just like Jesus, the Sower who went out to sow.  As one hymn puts it, “Preach you the Word and plant it home; To men who like or like it not, The Word that shall endure and stand, When flow’rs and men shall be forgot.”  And if it should seem somewhere not to be bearing fruit at the present time, “Oh, what of that, and what of that?”

     Well, easy for Jesus and the hymnwriter to say, but how do you and I take the apparent failure of the Word?  We protest like beet farmers told to use a helicopter spreader.  There is a cost to spreading God’s Word, and we expect it to work, consistently and predictably.  There is even a cost to receiving God’s Word in ourselves.  For we could be doing something else with our time, rather than sitting here and having it implanted within us.  We could be satisfied for a time to be filled with all the world’s other seeds, which might sprout into who knows what.  But the seeds of the world and of our desires can only grow for a time.  They will perish in the end, and we along with them, if we are trusting in them.  Only the Word of the Lord endures forever. 

     But even if we are receiving the true Word unto salvation, still, there’s the cost of spreading that seed around.  And so we are prone to looking at the soils around us and trying to figure out if it’s worth it.  
     That one looks pretty rocky.  He’s scratched and banged me up before.  What’s God’s word of forgiveness going to do for that one, besides let him know I’m a sucker, ready for another beating?
     This one is pretty well choked in the weeds of this world’s pleasures.  I’d rather enjoy some of that with him, instead of trying to plant the seed there.
     This other one’s a pretty well-worn path.  Everything that could be tried, he’s done.  What use will he have for God’s Word?  Best to save my breath.  It’s probably not going to work, this bit about the  ‘forgiveness of sins for Jesus’ sake.’  If I try and it doesn’t work right away, I’ll be embarrassed.  I’ll hold onto the Seed.  I won’t cast it on him. 

     We are not called to be frugal with the Word of God, but for our fears and feebleness of faith, we often are.  Lord, forgive us for our stinginess with Your Word.

     Being a worker in the Lord’s field is tough business, just like farming.  So we, like the apostles, have to be trained and retrained to apply the seed liberally, even where we don’t think it’ll work, even where it hasn’t worked before, even where we think we might just be wasting our breath.  Because through that breath that seems so wasted to us, God’s Spirit breathes eternal life, where and when it pleases him. 

     Of course, the “where and when” can be frustrating for us.  We hear of God’s speaking the world into existence at the beginning, and think with our speaking of God’s powerful word that the immediate results should be just as spectacular.  If the Word of God is a living and active two-edged sword, we want to see immediate results.  But Jesus prepared his disciples for the reality we know so well: some seed falls on the path, and the birds eat it.  Or rather, the devil comes and snatches the Word away from hard, un-penetrated hearts, so they don’t repent and believe.  Other seed falls on the rocks, where it springs to life in the sunshine and morning dew, but dies when it fails to put roots down to moisture.  These hear the Gospel gladly in a good time, but in a time of testing fall away and dry up.  And then there’s seed that falls among the thorns, the Word choked out in a believer’s heart by all the cares and riches and pleasures of this life, by the planting of other busy seeds that spring up not into eternal life,  but into sin and death.

     We know these stories.  We know these people.  We see a degree of each in ourselves.  This is the reality of the world into which the Apostles are sent to preach, and the reality of our world, a world that naturally ignores or even despises God’s Word.  This world needs redemption.

     And so, we who have been brought by grace to faith in the Word of Christ want to see it save everyone, easily, and right away.  But, Jesus reminds us, it is not this way. The Word will be preached and perhaps only the fourth part of the hearers will sprout in faith and bear a hundredfold, in this life, and for the world to come.  This doesn’t mean the Word doesn’t work as it should.  This doesn’t mean the Seed is suspect or God’s plan weak, or that we should tinker with it till it works better.  It does mean that the Word’s work is sorely opposed by that old unholy trinity, the devil, the world and our flesh.  And still, God’s answer to all this remains in His Holy Word.   Scripture Alone is our authority in understanding and participating in the teaching and plan of Christ. 

     Jesus tells us of the troubles His Word will face, but not to discourage us—besides, we know it from our experience.  No, He tells us so that we will not doubt the great power of the Word He has given us, that it should be implanted and grow in our hearts, and that we should spread it around freely.

     There aren’t certain people for whom God’s grace and forgiveness are meant, and others not.  The Sower sows everywhere, and He is not a fool for doing it.  For at the day of harvest we see a vast multitude, from every tribe and nation, who have believed the word of Jesus and been saved in Him.  Do not forget Saul, also called Paul, the persecutor of the church, whom Jesus brought to faith and forgave and made His special Apostle to the Nations.  Remember Peter, who denied Christ and always wanted things his own way, but whom Jesus made into a faithful shepherd, none the less.  Remember those Corinthian sinners of great sins, of whom Paul says, “and such were some of you…”  Indeed, remember what the Spirit through the Word has done in and for you.  For as Paul says “… you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”  This is God’s goal for us sinners, hard and stony ground that we often are, God accomplishing His goal in the hearing of his holy Word: faith in Jesus, the forgiveness of sins, and eternal life.

     Therefore, take care how you hear, and rejoice!  By this very Word your sins are forgiven, all of them, and you have eternal life with God by faith in Jesus, the Seed who has died and sprung forth as the living Vine.  Apart from Him you can do nothing, but in Him you bear much fruit.  May God’s good seed take root and grow in you, and bear abundant fruit, for the planting of yet more of the good seed, one hundredfold or more, in the hearts of your family and friends and neighbors, for salvation, peace and joy, in this life and even more in the life that is to come, through Christ Jesus our Lord.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Of Bungee Cords and Boats

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, February 2nd, Year of Our + Lord 2014
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
Of Bungee Cords and Boats –Matthew 8:23-27

Law and Gospel, and a One Hook Bungee Cord
     Crossing the parking lot at Trinity the other day I noticed a rubber tie-down strap.  My excitement at my find was soon dashed, though, as the hook was torn out of one end.  It’s useless for tying anything down without a hook on both ends.  Maybe it could serve as a weapon to beat someone, but for its original and proper purpose, it’s useless.  I tossed it in the dumpster, until I realized it had a theological use, as an aid in teaching Law and Gospel.  So I went back out and dug it out of the trash.  I don’t think anyone saw.   

     God’s Word can be compared to a tie down, or bungee cord.  Bungee cords are very useful for holding down loads, securing valuable items that might otherwise be lost or damaged.  Bungee cords and rubber tie-down straps are vital when you are hauling things on top of your car, or in your pickup bed, or of course, when you go out on the lake in your boat and the wind comes up.  Bungee cords are useful, unless they are missing a hook. 

     God’s Word is useful, eternally useful, and it also has two hooks, both of which are needed for it to work as God intends – the Law, and the Gospel.  God’s intended purpose for His Word is to save sinners from eternal condemnation through repentance for sins and faith in Jesus Christ.  To offer  a couple of Scriptural examples, the first chapter of John declares  “the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ,” and that grace and truth is most certainly the Good News.  Then at the end of Luke, Jesus sends the Apostles out to “preach repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, to all nations,” sending them to preach the Law, which brings sinners to repentance, for the sake of the Gospel, which forgives sins, the two key teachings of God’s Word.  And so God’s Word is precious and necessary, but if either hook, if either the Law or the Gospel are not in their proper place, the Word does not do its work. 

     God’s Law is the Word that tells us His expectations of us: what we are to do, and refrain from doing, the rules He has established for humanity.  God’s Law is right and good and true.  To a certain extent, it is written on the hearts of everyone, and when people try to keep the Law, life on this earth is better.  But the Law cannot save, because we are unable to keep it to the standard God has set, we are not able to keep it perfectly.  In the end, the Law always shows us our sins, always reveals the sad fact that our thoughts, words and deeds are not what they should be.  The very best thing the Law can do for us sinners is show us that on our own merits we are lost, doomed to condemnation for our sinfulness, and in desperate need of a Savior.  If your boat is sinking you send out a distress signal, an SOS.  Well, in regards to the Law, the SOS “Shows Our Sins.”  The Law shows the hole in our hull that is sinking the ship of our souls.  But the Law cannot fix the hole.   

     God’s Gospel, or Good News, is the Word that tells us what Christ has done to overcome our sin and condemnation.  The Gospel tells of God’s completed plan of salvation, completed in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of the only begotten Son of God, who became a man in order to save mankind from our sins.  The Gospel is God’s answer to our plight, the SOS that Shows Our Savior. 

     The Gospel is also the power of God unto salvation, for by the declaration of sins forgiven in Christ, God the Holy Spirit creates faith and delivers forgiveness to us sinners, thereby declaring us righteous and re-creating us as children of God.  Fear not, your sins are taken away.  He who believes and is baptized will be saved.  Take eat, take drink, the Body and Blood of Christ, given and shed for the forgiveness of all your sins.  God delivers His Gospel in many different ways, always using His Word, spoken from the mouths of pastors, parents, friends and neighbors, using Words, and other earthly things, like water, bread and wine, meeting our dirty, hungry, thirsty, doubting souls with Good News that satisfies our every need. 

    Law and Gospel is the key to rightly understanding and using God’s Word.  Without the Law, without the clear revelation of our hopelessly lost and sinful condition, we in our sinful pride do not want to hear about a salvation bought by innocent blood.  The story of the Gospel seems strange and cruel, until we know that there was no other way to save sinners like us.  Without the Law, without its stark declaration of our lost and condemned state, the Gospel is either foolishness or a scandalous offense. 

     Without the Gospel, the Law is nothing but a cruel taskmaster, somewhat akin to using a one-hook bungee cord as a weapon.  If the Word is only used as Law, revealing sin, and condemning sin, and demanding better performance from sinners who are not capable of meeting its demands, then those sinners will learn to hate God and despair of salvation.  Unless, of course, through careful cultivation of an outward appearance of righteousness, the sinner instead pretends they can and do keep the Law, becoming self righteous Pharisees.  Sadly, we have all heard God’s Word used as only Law.  Indeed, I have fallen into this error, as, I suspect, have most of you parents out there.  When anger mixes into our relationships, it is an easy trick for the devil to get us to demand obedience to the Law, without ever offering grace and mercy. 

     But the most common, and so most deadly, misuse of Law and Gospel is to mix them.  The Law points out and condemns sin.  The Gospel points out Christ and the forgiveness, free and full, that He has for all sinners, for every sin.  But we doubt that the Gospel will really work, and so we like to sneak a false law in the back door.  Rome teaches that your Baptism forgives original sin and the sins you commit before Baptism, but the rest of your sins are yours to work off, perhaps for a few million years in purgatory.  Depressing, soul-crushing, and untrue. 

     Holiness preachers say you are saved by faith in Jesus, but now that you are saved, you can and must become perfectly holy, in this life, or else you will be cast out.   Law, Gospel, Law, and lifelong uncertainty.  Never mind that Jesus told Peter to forgive his brother 70 times 7 times.  Never mind that John taught us that if we say we have no sin, the truth is not in us.  Never mind that Paul despaired of being a wretched sinner, at the same time he was a forgiven saint.  Never mind that Paul said “by works of the Law shall no man be justified.”  Good works are an important part of the life of a Christian, but adding a requirement for works onto the Gospel in order to be saved is evil.  It plagues Christians with doubt, and robs Christ of honor.

     And, to be sure, we Lutherans seem to have our favorite model of mixing Law and Gospel, when we want to raise money or do more outreach.  How often have you heard this:  “Jesus loves you, and so, if you really love Jesus, you’ll give a bunch of money, or tell all your neighbors about Him”?  We’re supposed to preach the Law in all its severity, and then proclaim the sweet Gospel of free and full forgiveness in Christ, and then trust His Spirit to motivate cheerful giving and a life filled with the confession of Christ.  But bottom lines, bank loans and mission goals can turn preachers into taskmasters, insinuating that if you don’t give enough, or do enough mission work, then you don’t really love Jesus, and so perhaps He won’t really love you.  Or, biggest lie of all, God’s mission will fail, unless you do enough work. 

     Mixing Law and Gospel is bad, false, and counterproductive.  It’s like having a perfectly good bungee cord with both hooks, ready to do its proper work, but instead deciding to use it as a weapon, a two hooked whip, and then wondering why there is no joy in the congregation.  God save us from mixing Law and Gospel.  Both are Godly and right and true, but when we mix them, we injure faith and prevent people from doing truly cheerful good works, which are the only ones acceptable to God. 

     Law and Gospel are both needed, but they need to be kept distinct, in their proper places.  And the cord that keeps Law and Gospel in their proper place is Christ Himself.  With Christ as the Cord that distinguishes Law and Gospel, the sinner hears the Law and its condemnation, and so despairs of saving themselves, and yet with Christ right there, the fulfillment and resolution of the Law is revealed, for Jesus has kept the Law on our behalf. 

     With Christ kept close to the Law, we are prevented from despairing.  Likewise, with the flesh and blood Christ kept close to the hook of the Gospel, we prevent the Good News from becoming an abstract idea about some nice “man upstairs.”  This too is necessary, because the abstract idea of mercy does not save.  What saves is the truth of mercy found in the suffering, sweat and blood of the man Jesus.  Flesh and blood sinners need a flesh and blood Savior, and He is Christ.  Even more, the flesh and blood good news of free forgiveness and salvation does not become an excuse to do nothing, but rather it fills forgiven sinners with gratitude, Holy-Spirit-generated gratitude which moves them to naturally do good, cheerfully, because of the joy that comes from being rescued by Christ. 

     When both hooks are in place, when both Law and Gospel are proclaimed and applied in proper distinction, with the flesh and blood Jesus clearly present in the middle, God then through His Word creates and sustains true faith, God delivers forgiveness and joy, God saves sinners.  So when you read, when you hear, and when you speak God’s Word, remember and look for both hooks, both the Law and the Gospel, for by them, God is saving you, and building His Church.  Alleluia, Praise the Lord! 

     So, let’s try it briefly, with today’s brief Gospel, about Jesus and the disciples in the boat during the storm.   And when [Jesus] got into the boat, his disciples followed him. 24 And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. 25 And they went and woke him, saying, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.” 26 And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. 27 And the men marveled, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” 

     So, what’s the Law in this passage?  Well, the storm is a revelation of the Law, because the wind and the waves were a threat to human life.  Every threat to human life is connected back to the Fall, when death came into the world and the Creation was subjected to futility, because of human sin.  Anything that threatens to kill us is ultimately a sign of God’s judgment against sin.  If you’ve ever nearly drowned, or if you’ve ever been in peril at sea, then you know up close the existential terror which in truth is never far from any one of us.  Facing death is a declaration of the Law, and death is nearer to us than we prefer to imagine. 

     That’s tough Law.  But it gets worse.  The disciples are followers of Jesus, the Son of God, so the Law has even more bite for them.  They know God.  They know the Savior.  They have the Savior with them.  And yet they still fear the wind and waves and the death they threaten.  Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?  Followers of Jesus ought not fear, ever, for God has promised to deliver us.  When we fear, we reveal that we do not fully trust God’s promises. 

     Jesus’ words, “Why are  you afraid, O you of little faith” were a deafening condemnation, roaring in the disciples’ ears much more powerfully than the wind and the waves.  They were so loud, they still echo in the ears of Christians today, in Dr.’s offices, when bad news comes, and in living rooms as parents wait up for a child not yet home, and in retirement homes, as finances drain away and bills pile up.  Why are you afraid?  God has promised to take care of you in every situation.  Why is your faith so weak?  The hook of this Law, the condemnation of fear in the hearts of followers of Christ, is some of the harshest Law ever spoken, a razor sharp hook on the Lord’s bungee cord, an accusation that none of us can deny, for every one of us sinners fears many things. 

     Thanks be to God, Jesus stays very close to the hook of this Law.  Jesus can and must speak this Law, but see how close He stays, see how quickly He rescues.  Such is our poor, miserable condition: we believe, and yet we doubt, and fear, and are frozen by fear.  Christians who claim never to fear are only adding lies on top of their sin of doubt.  The accusing hook of this Law from Jesus pierces us all, but Jesus is close by, ready to rescue and heal and deliver.  Jesus rises from sleep, even more, Jesus has risen from the dead, and rebukes every threatening wind and wave of life, rebuking everything we are so afraid of.  Be quiet, cancer.  Be quiet, addiction and anger.  Be silent, shame and guilt.  Say no more, wicked world.  Be quiet and be still, evil one, do not threaten my people anymore.  I am the Lord of Heaven and Earth, and I say they are justified, forgiven, protected, beloved of God.  Be calm, threatening waves, be silent, howling winds, these sinners are with Me. 

     This is Christ’s good news to you, that nothing, not even if the wind and waves take your life, still nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.  What sort of man is this?  The man who stands in the sinking boat with you, pointing out your sins, so that you can see again that He is your forgiveness, your life, your rescuer.  In death, in life, in joy and in sorrow, Christ is for you and with you, forever and ever.  Good news indeed, Amen.