Sunday, March 30, 2014

First Things First

Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, Montana
Laetare – The Fourth Sunday in Lent – March 30th, Year of Our + Lord 2014
First Things First – Acts 2:41-47
(To provide context for those unaware, Trinity and St. John were meeting this afternoon to consider a proposal to call a local retired LCMS pastor to serve as a part-time assistant pastor for outreach)  

     What’s more important, this service, or the meeting we will be holding after the service?    Some of you may be thinking, “Well, the service is routine, something that happens week after week, but the joint meeting is an unusual event, about an important decision.”  Doesn’t that make the meeting more important?  Of course, for Kinlee Jo and her family, today is the day for a once in a lifetime Gospel blessing direct from God, so I’m guessing they’ll side with the service.  Even without considering Kinlee Jo’s baptism, others may think, “We have the Lord’s Supper and the proclamation of the Word of God here today, so this service is more important than the meeting.” 

     Some of you may be thinking, “He left out the third choice, the pot luck!” 

     What’s more important, this service, or reaching out with the Word of God to people who are not connected to Christ?  You might think, “At the service we know what’s going to happen.”  God has promised to deliver forgiveness to us, to feed us with His Body and Blood, to bless us with His love, when we gather in His Name.  These things are sure and certain.  Our efforts to reach out with Gospel, on the other hand, may be received with joy, or apathy, or even anger.  Evangelism sometimes results in new members.  Sometimes outreach is ignored.  And sometimes reaching out can result in the persecution of the messenger.  Reaching out is very uncertain, without guarantees, except that it can be hard.  So, you might think the more certain thing, the service, is more important. 

     “Yes, but,” others may be thinking, “we who gather already have faith in Christ.”  Jesus died for the sins of the whole world, but salvation is only by faith in Him.  So carrying the Word of the Cross to unbelievers is the most important thing there is, isn’t it?  You might be thinking the more important thing is always getting the Word out to others who do not believe, praying that God will create faith in them, too. 

     Which is more important, the Sunday service, or doing outreach?  Which is more important on this day, this service, or the meeting about an outreach proposal that follows? 

     You’re not sure?  That’s o.k.  These are all essentially trick questions.  From the perspective of God’s work, it’s pretty much impossible for us to know exactly what God is doing when, pretty hard for us to determine what thing is more or less important.  On the one hand, Jesus was a regular at the Temple and the Synagogue.  Our Lord went to Church, a lot.  And yet, all through each of His weeks, everywhere He went, He was speaking words of life.  What was more important, the conversation He had with the Samaritan woman at the well, out in the middle of nowhere, when He brought her to faith, and used her to convert a whole village, or the dramatic preaching and teaching He did daily in the Temple courts during the days leading to His Crucifixion? 

     We can’t really say, can we?  We are not capable of judging the importance of the various things God is doing.  If God is doing something, how could it be less than totally important?  God is the One who does the eternally important things.  Conversion, our own or anyone else’s, doesn’t depend on us, but on the Holy Spirit.  Thanks be to God for that!
     From our perspective, it is not a question of importance, but rather of priority, what should come first, then second, and so on.  When and where He wills, the Holy Spirit works through the Word, spoken through the mouths of God’s people.  He acts, through the Word spoken between sinners gathered together in Church.  He also acts through the Word spoken by His people out there, all by themselves in the world.  The question for us isn’t “What’s more important,” but rather, “What comes first?”  What are the relationships between the various moments of our life in Christ?   What flows from what?  What should we do first, so that everything else follows naturally?  What are to be our priorities? 

     God does His great works of salvation in grand churches, and children’s bedrooms, at tables in coffee shops, and over long distance phone conversations.  We do not have to wonder which work of God is more or less important.  He will take care of that.  But it is important for us to know our priorities, to try to keep first things first for ourselves, because we know how easily we can wander off the path.  And today’s reading from Acts chapter two is a huge help in figuring out what comes first in the Church: the Apostles’ Teaching, the Fellowship, the Breaking of Bread, and the Prayers. 

     Our reading from Acts recounts the events following Pentecost, that day, 50 days after the Resurrection of Christ, when the Holy Spirit came and jump started the New Testament Church.  Our reading begins right after Peter’s ‘cut you to the heart’ sermon about Christ and His Cross, "Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ-- this Jesus whom you crucified." Our reading picks up right after Peter’s hearers, cut to the heart, cried out “brothers, what shall we do?.” The reading begins with 3000 repenting souls being baptized for the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Then, after these Church founding events, we hear this summary statement:  And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.        

     First things first – they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. But what are these?

     What is the Apostles’ Teaching? It is the Good News of salvation freely given in Christ, the Word about Jesus, that declares Him the long awaited Savior, who justifies sinners, declaring us righteous, by His death and resurrection.  The Apostles’ were Christ’s chosen foundation stones for His Church, men who built the Church by proclaiming, delivering, and recording the New Testament, the New Covenant between God and man, the covenant of  forgiveness and grace, the New Testament in Jesus’ blood, shed on the Cross, and given to us sinners in the Supper.  We have the record of the Apostles’ Teaching in a book that, by extension, we also call the New Testament.  The same teaching of Christ that the first Christians devoted themselves to is also the center and authority of our life together, the Holy Bible. 

     What is the Fellowship?  Fellowship translates the Greek word ‘koinonia,’ which refers to things held in common.  We translate the ‘koinonia’ family of words with a variety of English words, because it is used in a variety of ways in Scripture:  communion, participation, fellowship, sharing, common.  For reasons we will see in a moment, in this case ‘koinonia’ is best understood as the early Christians life together, which the tail end of our reading shows was very close, sharing property, giving to all as they had needs.  Now, the needs of those first Christians were intense.  Leaving the Jewish faith by confessing Christ as God would result in you being ostracized, kicked out of the Jewish community.  Homes, jobs, and property may have been lost by many, and so those Christians who still had worldly goods shared them to meet the needs of other Christians, all because they knew their greatest treasure was Christ, in whom they had forgiveness and eternal life. 
     Taking care of each other is still an important part of a Christian congregation’s life together.  Our situation is very different from those first Christians on Pentecost.  We are not under persecution.  Being a Christian does not cost us very much in worldly goods and comfort.  By and large all of us have tremendous earthly blessings.  We do not face a critical need to share all we have with each other.  But we should not, and Lord willing we do not, forget our obligations to each other, especially when situations change and needs become intense.  Remember how the Christian community responded to our need when fire damaged our building, twice.  Remember the times we have taken special offerings for disaster victims all over the world, and well as for anonymous members and neighbors in need.  Most of all, remember that the resurrected Christ is your greatest treasure.  He frees you to be generous to all, and especially to those of the household of faith. 

     What is the Breaking of the Bread?  This is the Bible’s first name for the Lord’s Supper, based on the beginning of the Words of Institution: Jesus took bread, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said...  The Breaking of the Bread is that pinnacle of the regular weekly worship service, that unique delivery of the Good News, the Gospel that not only strikes our ears, but also feeds our mouths and souls, with the true Body and Blood of Christ, given for the forgiveness of sins.   The earliest Christians gathered en masse in the Temple as long as they were allowed, rubbing shoulders with their Jewish neighbors.  These early Christians were just clinging to a familiar space, but God used this to create  outreach opportunity.  But it appears the Jewish authorities were not going to allow them to celebrate the Supper in the Temple.  So the Breaking of the Bread, the Lord’s Supper, took place in homes. 

     For us, it is flipped around.  We today are free to celebrate the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, in our church buildings, and we rejoice to do so.  However, for those members who cannot make it here, usually for health reasons, we do our best to take the Word and the Supper to them.  And taking God’s Word and Sacrament into the community very often results in the Seed being planted.  Neighbors, and family, and staff at hospitals and nursing homes observe our visits, and overhear the Word, and sometimes watch us celebrate the Supper.  So, as we seek to keep the Supper a priority, as it was in Apostolic times, God is also using it in His ongoing Mission. 

     What are the Prayers?  The New International Version, a translation many of us know well, translates this fourth phrase, ‘and to prayer,’ but the English Standard Version, along with other more literal versions, translates more accurately, “and the prayers,” plural, more than one.  The plural reference is to patterns of prayer, for the people of God have always gathered together to pray, and also prayed individually.  The praying of the congregation gathered together teaches me and leads me in my private prayers. 

     As a congregation we pray together regularly, in ways that are beautiful, memorable, and clear.  This teaches us and empowers us to pray at home, with our families, and by ourselves.  As usual, Jesus offers the best example.  He was a regular at the prayers in synagogue and Temple, and also regularly prayed with His disciples more privately, and also retreated to quiet places by Himself, to speak with His Father, all by Himself.  Lord willing, it is the same for us, gathering en masse on Sundays and Wednesdays, using the Psalms, and the hymnals and the liturgies, and also praying from the heart, and then continuing to pray through the week, praising God, giving Him thanks, and asking for His help with all our needs and concerns.     
     First things first:  the Apostles’ Teaching, the Fellowship, the Breaking of Bread, and the Prayers.  Then what?  The Good News of new life in Christ extends into daily life.  Christ who has joined Himself to us now works through us in our various callings in life.  Our reading continues:  And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

     The fellowship, caring for one another, critical because they were leaving the Jewish community by becoming Christians, is prominent.  God’s blessing of miracles done through the Apostles continues, a very helpful advantage for building a brand new Church.  And yet we know miracles were not the center, because Scripture says that miracles will pass away, and because healing miracles were not listed in the four central priorities.   Gathering together to pray, and hearing the Apostles’ teach, and breaking bread, and caring for each other, these four pillars dominated. 

     And then God used this focus on these four pillars to give this new body of believers “favor with all  the people.”  We know from the Gospels and from the rest of the book of Acts that the Jewish authorities tried to stop the Apostles’ from proclaiming Christ, but the favor of the people slowed down their persecutions.  The Jewish leaders were always afraid of the crowds.  In time, many of those who were impressed by these Christians eventually also come to hear the Word, and then believed in Christ, and so the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. The people of God were devoting themselves to the Apostles’ Teaching, the Fellowship, the Breaking of Bread and the Prayers, which don’t really seem like outreach.  But God was at work, in and through them, using the preaching of His ministers and the lives and deeds and words of His people to win the favor, and finally to win the hearts of unbelievers.

     What’s more important, the Sunday Service, or doing outreach?  Neither.  They are, from God’s perspective, both part of a seamless whole, a continuation of His Work, done by His Word.  There is a bit of a mystery to all of this.  The Church as an organization does not work like earthly organizations, for the real work is always done by the Spirit, through the Word, in His perfect timing.  So our priority is the life that lives from that Word.  From that Word we learn that we are free, and incredibly blessed, to gather around the Word of God and the Lord’s Supper, and also that we are free, and incredibly blessed, to live generous lives, ready to give the reason for the hope we have, resting in the promise that the Lord will build His Church, that He will add to our number, day by day, those who are being saved,

     in Jesus’ Name, Amen.  

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Seeing the Finger of God

3rd Sunday in Lent, March 23rd, Year of Our + Lord 2014
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
Seeing the Finger of God – Exodus 8:16-24, Luke 11:14-29

     The flag in Crimea has changed from Ukrainian to Russian.  The people of Kiev, the capitol of Ukraine, watch nervously as Russian troops mass on their eastern border, praying that Moscow doesn’t decide to claim more of their territory.  Meanwhile, Americans are busily fill out their NCAA tournament brackets, March Madness crowding out almost all the rumblings of a renewed Cold War.  And who could blame America for dreading the prospect of once more standing up to Russian aggressions in Eastern Europe?  The last time we took up that mantle, we spent four decades facing down the Soviets.  We haven’t yet finished the struggle with Islamic Terrorism.  Must we also take up a struggle that we thought ended 20+ years ago?  We don’t like strife and struggle.  We don’t want to think about it.  We’d like to ignore it and hope it goes away.    

     But strife and struggle are inescapable in this fallen world.  It all started between husbands and wives, as her desire was for her husband’s responsibilities, and yet he ruled over her, and not like a loving groom should.  Strife spread from husband and wife to brothers, one embittered with the other, of all things upset about the topic of right worship, a strange motivation for homicide.  And all along the way, the Deceiver, who first spoke through the serpent, sends his minions to torment and disturb the peace, sometimes even managing to take over a person, taking control of their bodies, making them a danger and torment to others. 

     There is no dealing with sin and evil without a struggle, whether sin and evil are manifest between nations, or in the life of one demon-possessed soul.  Dealing with sin and evil requires a struggle, a fight, a conflict.  And because we sinner-saints are involved in these struggles, at one moment fighting for God, and the next finding ourselves supporting the enemy, it can be hard to discern where the finger of God is moving.  Am I pursuing the Godly thing, or an evil thing?  Which side of this conflict is the Godly side?  This is always a difficult question, and one which the Pharisees and Scribes twist to try and defame the name of Jesus. 

     Jesus casts out a demon, but His opponents claim He does it is by Beelzebul – the Lord of the Flies.   Beelzebul is one of the Devil’s many names, hearkening back to the swarms of flies that ruined Egypt, but left God’s people in Goshen untouched.  From this fourth plague in the story of the Exodus, we can learn the same lessons that Jesus declares.  When a person, or a whole nation, is rescued from evil, this is “the finger of God,” a work of God, even if the conflict is frightening.  For Satan to be casting out demons would be for him to fight against himself, dividing his house and guaranteeing the fall of his kingdom. 

     God used Moses to deliver His people Israel from slavery in Egypt, using frightening signs, like the plague of flies, taking the swarms from Beelzebul and using them against the evil pharaoh.  In a similar way, Jesus is the stronger man, who has come to tie up Satan and plunder his kingdom, rescuing people like you and me from the devil’s clutches.  Pharaoh saw the finger of God in the work of Moses, and the Pharisees saw the finger of God in the work of Jesus.  Hardened hearts may still angrily reject Him, but the truth is plain to see.  Either we are with Jesus, resting in His victory and serving in His mission of gathering God’s people, or we are against Him. 

     In geopolitics and world diplomacy there are shades of grey, but not in the struggle between the Kingdom of Light and the Kingdom of Darkness.  In, or out.  For, or against.  There are only two options.  A house divided cannot stand, so the question  for us is whether we are in the falling kingdom, or the kingdom that endures forever.

     Perhaps all of this makes you think about our current considerations.  The proposal that I have asked you, through your leaders, to consider, to call Rev. Nicolaus as Assistant Pastor for Outreach, is a big deal, a big decision.  We all quite naturally get a little bound up inside, a little uneasy, regardless of what we think of the idea.  We have for some months now been talking, and praying, (you have been praying, haven’t you?), trying to discern whether this proposal is the finger of God, or not.  The question before each communicant member is this:  Is this proposal God’s will for our congregations, or not?  A weighty question.  Some of us are very much for the idea, some of us are quite set against it, and many of us have conflicting thoughts. 

     We may be feeling conflicted in our minds, but I want us to be careful not to confuse these differing opinions with the conflict described in our Gospel this morning.  This is Satan’s desire.  The evil one would be pleased if, as we consider doing something new for the Gospel, Beelzebul could use it to divide and conquer us.  If he gets his flies buzzing around in our hearts and minds, and makes us think that those with differing opinions about this proposal are evil, then Satan will have nearly achieved his goal of defeating our efforts to proclaim the Gospel to our neighbors.

     I hesitated to bring up this topic.  I have had many good conversations, with many of you, serious, considerate, worthwhile discussions of the pros and cons of this proposal.  But in a few instances, both from people supporting and from people opposed to this proposal, I think I might have heard anger and frustration expressed concerning “the other side.”  Now, I don’t know if you know this, but people are sometimes guarded in the comments they make to me.  I think it’s because I’m the pastor, although maybe it also has to do with me being a Marine.  Whatever the reason, experience has taught me that when I hear hints of something, often it is quite significant.  So these few expressions of “us vs. them” over the question of this call proposal have me concerned.  I decided I’d better speak. 

     Please listen carefully.  Those who think differently than you about this proposal to call an Assistant Pastor for Outreach are not evil.  If you are all for this proposal, and cannot understand why any member would be opposed to it, please do not let Satan get you thinking those opposed are unloving and unchristian.  In the same way, if you really think this proposal is a bad idea, please do not let Satan get you thinking that those who are for this proposal have ulterior, evil motives.  And, if you are divided in your own mind, struggling to come to a conclusion, do not think for a minute that your status with God depends on your arriving at the right conclusion.  Your status with God depends on Jesus alone.  Let us not become divided, from each other, or from God, over a question that belongs to the realm of Christian freedom.    

     There are differing opinions concerning this proposal.  But there is no “other side.” We are called together as one body, in Christ.  There are some things we clearly know we are to be about in our life together.  We are called to gather together, confessing our sins and rejoicing to receive God’s forgiveness, new every morning.  We know we are to cling tightly to the true teaching of Christ.  The doctrine of Christ is our life, so we must never give up the truth of God’s Word for the sake of convenience or worldly peace and popularity.  And, we also know that the same God who sent His Son to die on a Roman cross to win salvation for the whole world also desires that all people hear this good news.  The “finger of God” in our situation is that we have God’s pure Word of Law and Gospel, and God would work through us to carry His Word to others. 

     However, whether or not we should call Reverend Nicolaus to expand our outreach, about this we have no clear Word of Scripture.  The decision on the proposal is a question that God has left to us.  Being of differing opinions about exactly how we will live out our calling as God’s people is not to be confused with the division between the Kingdom of Light and Darkness.  Be careful not to let Satan turn you against a brother or sister in Christ, just because they have a different opinion.   

     I know this is easier said than done.  There are important questions before us.  There are valid concerns and considerations, for and against this proposal.  We poor sinners know from experience that trying to talk our way through difficult questions is not something we are naturally good at.  Sadly, such hard questions often bring out frustration and anger, causing us to speak in tones that cause offense, or say things we later regret.   We might be tempted to simply avoid such hard questions.  But if we never consider difficult questions, Satan has already won, because Christian life is hard, and full of difficult questions.  Christian life is full of difficult questions, which the Spirit of God promises to guide us through.  Indeed, the Spirit has already given us a big help this morning, in the example of Jesus.  As we approach the meeting next Sunday, let’s see what we might learn from the way Jesus handles the very real conflict that He faces in our Gospel. 

     First, as Jesus confronts conflict, He uses the Word of God.  Now, this is of course easy for Jesus to do, since He is God; everything He speaks is the Word of God!  But that does not lessen the truth; indeed, it helps us sharpen our focus.  As we encounter differing opinions, in others, or within ourselves, before we try to convince anyone of the truth, let’s be sure to first go to the Source of Truth.  Let’s search the Scriptures and see what God’s Word has to say about the question.  Now, you might say “Hold on, this proposal involves questions of finances and organization and the economic outlook and all kinds of worldly things, not just theology.”  But God’s Word reminds us that all things in this world are His.  We can interpret and understand everything in our lives through His Word.  So, as we proceed, let’s continually search the Scriptures, and turn to God in prayer, asking Him to guide us into all truth, as He has promised to do. 

     Second, take a breath, remain calm.  Jesus is insulted and attacked.  His foes want Him dead.  But Jesus replies evenly and calmly.  (Doing the first thing, considering what God’s Word says, will help us do this second thing.)  Jesus’ first words to the Eleven Disciples when He appeared to them after the Resurrection was “Peace to you.”  Turmoil and fears and inner doubts have always been a part of Christian life.  We shouldn’t be happy about this.  After all, God promises to take care of His Church, so the fear that leads to anger is really sinful doubt of God’s promises.  Sadly, we know we will not escape sinful doubt in this life. 

     However, we can take our doubts and confess them to God.  As you consider this proposal, keep firmly in mind the Good News:  Jesus has reconciled us to the Father, and so we have peace with God, through His forgiving blood.  Rest in His peace.  Marvel at this Good News, that God is pleased with you, because of Jesus.  We want to do the right thing, and we will seek to do the right thing.  But we can rest in this: even when we make mistakes, God’s peace is still ours, because Jesus, the One who took all our sins from us, is risen from the dead, and lives and reigns to all eternity.  He will never leave you.
     Third, when the time comes, vote your conscience.  Every baptized believer has the Holy Spirit.  We may struggle to understand, given what our situations look like, but God is working in our midst.  We may really struggle to see the finger of God in such a messy thing as a voters’ assembly.  But the truth is, God is and will continue working out His will for us, no matter what.  So vote your conscience, and, treat your neighbor’s conscience as the holy thing that it is.  For we are all children of God, given the great privilege of collectively addressing a very great question.  Hear each other out.  Remember we are all redeemed by the same Savior.  Then vote your conscience.  God will take care of the rest, regardless of the result of the vote.  

     Jesus has disarmed the strong man, entering into the devil’s house by becoming a human being.  Jesus entered into this sinful world in order to free every human being from the tyranny of the evil one.  Jesus by His cross has taken all of Satan’s power away from  him.  The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.  But Jesus has fulfilled the law and conquered death, so Satan’s ability to use sin and death against us is a mirage, an illusion, for all those who trust in Jesus.  God by His Gospel creates faith among us, and uses us to reach out to yet more people.  This is God’s good and gracious will.  We are caught up in the finger of God; He is working among us.  So, rejoice and be glad,

in Jesus’ Name, Amen.    

Sunday, March 16, 2014

A Christian Prays to Jesus

Second Sunday in Lent – Reminiscere, March 16th, Year of Our + Lord 2014
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
A Christian Prays to Jesus – Matthew 15:21-28

Come my soul with ev’ry care, Jesus loves to answer prayer…      Really? 

     Even though I know how it ends, this story of the Canaanite mother and Jesus’ treatment of her shocks me, again and again.  How can our Lord be so callous, so unfeeling, so rude, to this woman who comes begging, begging not even for herself, but for her demon possessed daughter?  One might even ask why the Son of God wasn’t more interested in helping this woman with her battle against a demon, given the fact that the demon possessing the little girl is one of the angels who rebelled against God, back near the beginning? 

    Maybe your reaction to Jesus’ harsh treatment of this Canaanite mother is more personal.  Maybe you feel like her, in your prayer life.  Do your prayers seem to go unanswered?  Do you beg Jesus to help you, to help your friends and family members, but He doesn’t seem to say a word to you? 

    Lord willing, the Canaanite woman will be a good teacher for us this morning, as good a teacher as she was for the disciples.  From her matching-of-wits with the Savior we can learn a great deal, about faith, and prayer, and the Church, her Mission, and most especially, her Lord. 

Christian prayer confesses the one true God, revealed in Jesus.  Knowing the Lord is the first thing we get to explore a bit today.  “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David”, cries out the Canaanite woman.  We have four young Christians seeking confirmation in our two congregations this year, and I will be thrilled to hear them confess as clearly and profoundly as this Canaanite mother.  By her cry, this woman confesses her faith, and her faith is very well informed.  To call Jesus Lord could simply mean that she acknowledges Him as master, as someone with greater spiritual or earthly authority over her, kind of like calling someone ‘Sir’ in English.  Or, it could mean she is confessing that Jesus is Lord, that is, Jesus is the LORD, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of King David.  When she completes her titling of Jesus with “Son of David,” to say nothing of when she falls on her knees before Him, it becomes clear what she means.  She confesses Jesus is the Son of David, the Messiah or Christ of God, the promised coming eternal King of Israel, who is the LORD God Himself, come to shepherd his people.  And so, she prays to Him. 

The only true prayer is Christian prayer.  Jesus was only sent to the lost sheep of the House of Israel, but word about Him has leaked, out beyond the Jews, to other nations, to the gentiles, and that Word about Jesus has created faith in our Canaanite mother.  The voice of faith is prayer, and so she boldly prays to Jesus: Have mercy on me, save my daughter!  Unbelief or false faith in a false god does not, cannot, pray like this.  Unbelief or false faith may cry out for help to some force or imagined power, but this Canaanite woman directs her prayer to the man Jesus, even kneeling down in worship before Him.  True faith and worship, and true prayer, is always centered on Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary.  There is a great deal of praying, done in the name of many religions, or in no name at all.  But all of those faiths say that mankind must do something to earn God’s favor, and none of them confess that God has reconciled the whole world to Himself through the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus.  So, as impressive as the prayers of the world may seem, and even though in our day it is considered very narrow and unloving to be exclusive, Christian faith clings to the words of the Bible.  Any prayer, however heartfelt,  that is not prayed through faith in Jesus as the only Savior, is, sadly, empty and without effect.  For no one comes to the Father, except through Jesus. 

The value and effectiveness of prayer depends on faith in Christ, and nothing elseThe disciples do not respond well to this Canaanite woman and her plight, their normal level of sanctification showing through again.  Remember, these future ministers and builders of Christ’s Church like to chase off children, and covet the favored seats in Jesus’ kingdom, and desire to rain down fire and brimstone on those they deem less faithful than themselves.  But, after the Resurrection and Ascension and Pentecost, as these disciples made to be apostles began to build Christ’s Church, the Canaanite woman’s faith and Jesus’ praise of her no doubt came to mind.  She was preparing them for the big surprise that they were to take the Gospel to every nation.  Perhaps she also helped them focus in on salvation by faith alone, not by good works, nor by one’s genealogy.  It has always been this way.  Salvation comes, not for being physical descendents of Abraham, like the Jews.  Salvation comes, not for the good works we do.  No, salvation comes to those who believe the same promises of a Savior that Abraham believed.  God reckoned Abraham’s faith as righteousness.  We are all sons of Abraham, true Israelites, by faith in Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. 

Christian prayer seeks and accepts the way and will of God, even when hard to understand and endureThere is no arguing that Jesus really exercises the faith of this woman, in ways that seem harsh, at least to us, although there is no sign she was ever offended.  God works as He works, for reasons that are often not clear to us.  Indeed, it’s pretty strange that Jesus did not actively take the Gospel to non-Jews, restricting His ministry to the people of Israel, only dealing with gentiles occasionally, when they forced their way to Him.  In God’s perfect plan, it is the Apostles who will be sent to the nations. 
     Yet still Jesus, missionary to the Jews, makes full use of the opportunity this woman’s faithful prayer creates, to teach His disciples about God’s way.  God’s way is not our way, His thoughts are not our thoughts, and God’s way is the way that works.  That God should choose to build His Church only after the Ascension of Jesus, that God should work through such an unlikely bunch of men like the Eleven, that God would continue to work through the weakness of pastors, that God would take His Word to every nation through forgiven sinners, like you and me, all of this helps us remember who is the One truly building the Church.  This also helps us remember that the will of God is always best, even when we cannot see it.  Lord, we beg you to help us in our difficult moments, and yet not our will, but Thy will be done. 

Christian Prayer is confident prayerThou art coming to a king, large petitions with thee bring.  Prayer is, among other things, begging God, for we poor sinners are definitely beggars, offering nothing of heavenly worth, and yet receiving everything good from God.  For prayer is not bargaining with God.  The Canaanite woman does not offer anything in return for what she asks.  How can we bargain with God when we believe that He has already given us every good thing in Jesus Christ?  This faithful woman simply prays boldly, asking what she knows the Lord has promised.  She holds God to His promises, which is exactly what He wants us to do.  Faithful Christian prayer rests on the knife’s edge that is the difference between this world, and the world to come.  Christian prayer is always looking forward, to life everlasting in God’s perfect peace, free from sin and all its consequences.  We are energized to pray for today’s needs by the promise of the new heavens and new earth.  From this forward looking perspective, Christian prayer is bold to ask for foretastes of eternity, today, for manifestations of what’s coming, today, and mostly especially for the defeat of evil and the expansion of God’s kingdom, which is what this mother prays for her child. 

Christian prayer confesses our sinfulness, and claims God’s superabundant mercy.  With my burden, I begin, Lord, remove this load of sin.  Let Thy blood, for sinners spilt, set my conscience free from guilt.

     "It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs."  Ouch.  Jesus just called her a dog.  The education of the disciples is especially pointed at this moment.  From the perspective of God’s kingdom,  being called a dog, an animal which is not a sinner, isn’t really as bad as being called a sinner, a wicked rebel opposing God.  The disciples, however, with their Jews first and Jews only attitude that they so often display, might well have thrilled to hear Jesus put this woman in the place they think she deserves. 

     But true faith already knows we are sinners.  Faith is all about confessing sins and sinfulness, for the sake of the good news that God was reconciling sinners to Himself in Jesus.  So, while we, and probably the disciples, think being called a dog is a terrible insult, the Canaanite woman thrills to this name, for now she has Jesus right where she wants Him.  Now the conversation has come round to ultimate truths. 
     "It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs”  "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table."  Yes, Lord, I am a sinner, and worse than a dog, but You came to feed me and every other sinner with forgiveness and eternal life.  Give me a crumb, Jesus, and I will have all I need, all my daughter needs, for all we need is You.  What a blessing to be so bold as to seek from Jesus a morsel of the bread that brings life! 
     Jesus loves to answer prayer.  Rejoicing in her confession of faith, our Lord exclaims in delight, "O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire." And her daughter was healed instantly.  What was there to hold back, when salvation by grace through faith in Jesus had so clearly come to her household?  Nothing at all, for they already had all things, including most importantly forgiveness, and a place at God’s table, by faith in Christ. 

Christian Prayer is simply the voice of faith in Jesus.  Christians believe in the mercy of God, revealed in Jesus, crucified and resurrected for the salvation of the world.  Christian faith includes trust in the promise that God wants to hear us pray, and will answer our every need, that it will be done for us as we have believed.  That is, I may not receive from God exactly the earthly benefit I think I need, but I will receive the eternal and glorious benefits that are accounted to me by faith in Jesus Christ. 
Christian Prayer is a Godly struggleWhile I am a pilgrim here, let Thy love my spirit cheer.  Christian prayer is not easy, for the life of the Christian is not easy, not while we remain on this sinful earth, not while we remain sinners.  Faith struggles with unbelief, by the power of God’s Word and Spirit, and Christian prayer is the play by play announcement of that struggle.  Sometimes the battle seems lost, but prayer goes on, because we know the victory is ours, in Jesus. 
     In your darkest moments, when all your prayers seem dry and you hear not a word from Jesus, keep praying.  Pray like Jesus, by praying God’s Word, as in the Psalms and the Lord’s Prayer, and then the Spirit will preach Good News to you, even as you pray.  Pray out loud, or silently, but always remember, you never lack for a word from Jesus.  For you never pray alone.  Along with the Spirit interceding for us with groans too deep for words, Jesus is also and always praying for us at the Father’s right hand, always praying for His Church, always praying for each one of His sheep, until the day when He comes to gather us into the Father’s arms, forever and ever, Amen.      

Monday, March 10, 2014

Under His Wings

First Sunday in Lent, March 9th, Year of Our + Lord 2014
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
Under His Wings – Psalm 91 and Matthew 4:1-11

You who dwell in the shelter of the Lord, who abide in His shadow for life,
Say to the Lord: 'My refuge, my Rock in whom I trust!'
     'And He will raise you up on eagle's wings, bear you on the breath of dawn,
     Make you to shine like the sun, and hold you in the palm of His hand.'
For to His angels He’s given a command, to guard you in all of your ways,
Upon their hands they will bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.

     “On Eagles’ Wings” is a well-loved hymn for a reason.  The promises it repeats, promises found mostly in Psalm 91, are fantastic, promises of angelic protection, of direct divine protection, from all sorts of evils.  Life is full of dangers, like accidents, and violent people, job loss and dangerous weather.  Those dangers come from outside of us.  Then there are disease, doubt, depression, addiction, loneliness, fear, dangers arising from within.  We long to be protected from all these dangers, and to know that our loved ones are protected.  And God makes just such a promise.  So we love this hymn, even though we struggle to believe it is true for us, since bad things still happen to us, even though we confess the Name of Jesus.  Are you tempted to doubt the promises God makes to you in Psalm 91? 

     Satan tries to tempt Jesus with the words of Psalm 91.  Taking Jesus up to the top of the temple, satan says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written,  'He will command his angels concerning you,'  and  'On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.' ".  There is a very great deal for us to learn from the devil’s temptation of Christ, but for this morning, let’s focus in on this one temptation, that Jesus should throw Himself down from the pinnacle of the temple, to force the Father to send angels to catch Him, putting God to the test, to see if His Word is true, if His promises made in Psalm 91 hold up. 

     Satan is confused, or perhaps is ignoring, the Nature of Christ.  Even though the evil one says, “If you are the Son of God,” the temptation is really aimed at the man Jesus, is it not?  The promises of Psalm 91 are made by the LORD God, to man.  Jesus is a man, and so He properly falls under the promise.  But Jesus is not only a man.  He is also God, the LORD Himself, entered into human flesh.  So Jesus made the promise of Psalm 91.  The promises of God are the promises of Jesus.  Jesus is the hen who gathers the people of God under His wings to protect them.  Jesus is the source of our hopes, the font from which flow the promises of God.  Only as a man would Jesus Christ need the protection of God’s angels.  As Almighty God, He needs protection from no one.    

     Of course, satan’s temptation to Jesus the man is also false, based on a lie, based on the twisting of God’s Word, as are all of the devil’s temptations.  For Jesus to swan dive off the top of the temple would be a failure as a man, an attempt to impress the devil by proving the ability to control God.  The promise of Psalm 91 is for the man who dwells with God, who loves God and trusts in Him alone.  The promise is “if you fall, if you are attacked, like by Satan, God will rescue you.”  The promise does not apply to someone who is seeking the devil’s approval.  Neither is there a promise that if you willfully try to hurt yourself, God will protect you, although often enough the LORD does protect us, even when we seek to hurt ourselves.  Still, to willfully put your life at risk to show the devil who’s in charge is utterly foolish, and it is certainly not the behavior of one dwells in the shadow of the Lord.  Psalm 91 promises protection to the faithful, not to the rebellious. 

            Jesus was not going to give in to Satan’s temptation, like Adam and Eve did.  Jesus is God. Jesus created the angels, including satan and the rest who rebelled and fell away.  Jesus is LORD, and  so of course, of His nature, He dismisses Satan’s temptation to act like a mere, and even sinful, man.  Jesus rejects the temptation to serve Himself, for He came not to be served, but to serve, and give His life as a ransom for many.  Here we find the real goal of satan’s temptations, trying to get Jesus to serve himself and avoid the Cross.  None of this was ever going to happen, no way, no how, no contest.  Be gone, satan. 

            But, have you considered this: the fact Jesus, because He is God, could not give in to temptation, this fact actually made enduring the temptation much worse?  His divine power to resist all temptation does not minimize what the man Jesus went through.  In truth, it increases His temptation, immeasurably.  Jesus could, and would, face far more temptation than we can even imagine, precisely because He would not succumb.  He would not give in to sin.  So, all the way to the Cross, Jesus had to face every imaginable temptation to give up, to turn from His path, every imaginable temptation, and no doubt many more that we cannot imagine.  Remember, the ordeal Jesus was being tempted to avoid was to suffer the entire wrath of God against all human sin.   

            We cannot imagine very far down the road of ever-increasing temptations, because we give in so easily.  I pray that you and I resist temptations.  We ought to, for how can we who died to sin through our Baptisms, how can we who have received the Name of God, how can we who confess Jesus as Lord, then turn around and live in sin?  We ought to resist, and we do, we try, but not very successfully.  Now and again we resist sin bravely, God be praised.  We may even, over time, more or less successfully set aside gross sins that once plagued us.  With discipline and support, alcoholics can avoid drink, and the violent can resist lashing out at people in anger.  But still, when we are tired, or confused, or angry, or embarrassed, whenever our human weaknesses show up in our lives, we are easy marks for all too many temptations.  Indeed, this is why, even though resisting temptation is important, the key to Christian living is returning to Christ, again and again, for forgiveness.  The key to Christian living is regularly confessing your sins, your failures to resist temptation, in order that Jesus can take your sins from you and give you Himself, again, for another day,  another hour, God forgiving and restoring you as often as it takes to lift you up, forever.    

            Why?  Why does God forgive us, again and again?  Why did Jesus fast forty days and forty nights, and then face satan’s temptations in our place?  Why did Christ go all the way to the Cross, never straying from the path His Father set for Him?  Why did He do all that He did, even though we do so little for Him in return? 

            Well, it’s not because God is just, although He is.  We see divine justice in the fact that Jesus suffered for the sins of the whole world, paying the price, once for all, so that divine justice is served, perfectly, completely, eternally.  And Jesus did not do what He did because God is all powerful, although He is.  Indeed, we see the almighty power of God in the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and in His Ascension on high, and even in the continued endurance and growth of His Church, despite all that the devil, the world and our own sinfulness does to defeat her.  No other power than God’s almighty power could keep the Church alive in a world like ours. 

            But neither God’s power nor His justice are the cause of Jesus’ actions.  No, Jesus, indeed God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, does what He does to win and deliver salvation to us, simply because God is love.  The love that flows, and has flowed eternally, between Father, Son and Spirit, has overflowed, to give us life.  God loves His people, the crown of His creation, loving us in spite of the  sad fact that we are fallen, sinful, runaway children.  And the way that God loves humanity is Jesus, the sinners’ friend.   

            This is our good confession, that the God-man Jesus Christ was tempted, without ever giving in to sin, suffered, without turning back, died, not just a physical death, but also a spiritual death, enduring the hell we deserve, in order to save you and me and the whole world.  Jesus denied all temptations, in order to gather you under His wings, the wings of His Cross, where all your sins were carried away, where your death was defeated, and where your new and eternal life was won. 

            This is the promise of Psalm 91 for you.  Danger and enemies and disease and all sorts of bad things will attack you in this life.  But the consequences of sin which ruin this world have no power over you, not ultimately.  God’s promise to raise you up stands, indeed, it is already fulfilled, in Jesus, who has risen to all glory, for you.  Because He has defeated temptation, you will defeat temptation.  Because He has died in your place, your death has no power to separate you from God.  Because He has risen to the right hand of glory, He will send His angels, to carry you to Himself. 

            So stay close to Jesus.  Stay close to Jesus, by staying close to His promises, to His Word, which have made you a believer.  And come to His Supper, where He gives you strength for living, by the forgiveness of all your sins,

in Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

By Faith Alone

Quinquagesima Sunday, March 2nd, Year of Our + Lord 2014
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, Montana
By Faith Alone - Luke 18:31-43

     Over these three pre-Lent Sundays, we have considered Grace Alone, Scripture Alone, and now today, Faith Alone. 

     The salvation that is found in Christ alone is given to us completely by God’s grace, his undeserved favor, for no other cause than that God is love, and so has freely chosen to love the world.  Grace alone.

     The Authority upon which the teaching, the doctrine of Christ rests, is the Holy Scriptures Alone, and it is also by the proclamation of that Word that the Holy Spirit creates faith and delivers salvation.  Scripture Alone.

     And finally, it is through Faith Alone, completely apart from our good works, simply by believing that what Christ did was for the forgiveness of my sins, through this faith alone we are counted righteous and declared holy, worthy to stand before God.  Faith, believing what God has said in Scripture about His Christ, believing what the Anointed One has done for us, this is the only way salvation comes to sinners like you and me. 

     Faith alone saves.  But faith is never alone.  Before faith is given, there is nothing, no true good works, no changed life, no hope, no selfless, agape love for God and neighbor.  We see a bit of this in the disciples this morning, who hear Jesus tell the full story of the Gospel, of His coming suffering, death, and resurrection, but lacking faith, lacking ears to hear and eyes to see, they could not grasp the Good News.  No faith, and so no hope, and no love.     

     But after the Holy Spirit through the Word creates faith, then many things happen, as we see in the blind man outside Jericho. 

     We are not told how this blind man came to believe in Jesus Christ as the promised Savior, the Son of David who would rule over God’s people forever.  We do know, from St. Mark’s telling of the same incident, that his name is Bartimaeus.  And we know that somehow he had heard the Good News of Jesus, because we know faith comes by hearing the Word of Christ.  And from this blind man we also learn some of the things we can expect to see after the coming of faith. 

     Faith listens.  Faith listens, hoping for Jesus to pass by.  Blind Bartimaeus struggled through his days, unable to see Jesus, or anything else, unable to do much but beg for a living.  But see how he is always listening, hoping to hear of Jesus coming.  We do well as believers if we remember and listen and look forward to the coming of Jesus, as He will on the Last Day, riding on clouds of glory to gather the faithful living and dead into His eternal joy.  We also do well as believers if we remember and listen for, and then get off our backsides and gather in those places where Jesus comes, every day, invisible to our eyes, but present to bless the eyes of faith.  Jesus comes, truly, whenever His Word is proclaimed and His meal is distributed. 

     Faith cries out.  Faith cries out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"  Bartimaeus cries out when he hears that Jesus is coming, and so also the Church cries out, as we hear of His coming in Word and Sacrament.  Bartimaeus, along with the Canaanite woman and the 10 lepers and the Centurion and so many others in Holy Scripture, cry out to Jesus, Lord, have mercy.  So also we, in the liturgy, and in our personal prayers, do well to cry out: Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner.  Lord have mercy, rescue me from all the things that threaten me, from sickness, from the way of this world.  Guard me from the devil, and save me from myself.  Save me from my own sin.  Faith cries out.

     Faith prays.  Faith prays big prayers.  “What do you want me to do for you?”  Jesus asks you, just like He asked Bartimaeus.  Pray big.  Blind Bartimaeus asks for his sight.   As a believer in the Savior, Bartimaeus knows that God’s will is better than his own, so if sight is not in God’s plan for him today, so be it.  But Bartimaeus still prays big, and you should too.  Pray big, trusting in the promise that in the end, when Jesus returns visibly, on the Last Day, blindness and cancer and Parkinson’s and every malady of body and soul will be removed from you, forever.  Pray big, and trust that Jesus still delivers healing, today, not every time, not always in the way we wish, but according to His perfect will, Jesus still heals.  So go ahead, pray big, always relying on the fact that no matter what happens, God has the very best in store for you, in and through Jesus. 

     Faith saves.  Recover your sight, faith alone saves you.  Do not be fooled by false preachers, or your own foolish heart, which say that salvation can’t be that easy.  Do not be fooled by the very reasonable idea that infects so much Christian preaching and teaching, the lie that God must require something from us before we can be saved. 

     Do not be fooled, because salvation was not easy.  Salvation was not easy, but it is free, for you. 

     Salvation cost everything, the very best things.  Salvation cost the suffering, bleeding, broken body and death of Jesus, God’s Son.  Salvation cost Him everything, so that it could be His free gift to you, by faith.  Believe it.  See your Savior through the Words of Promise. 

     O Lord, I believe, help Thou my unbelief.  In Mark chapter nine Jesus says: Everything is possible for the one who believes.  To which the father of a young man tormented by a demon, a father seeking the Lord’s mercy, cries out:  O Lord, I believe, help Thou my unbelief.  Faith, which is the gift of God, lest any man should boast, is powerful, leading the believer to do all things.  But faith is not powerful because it makes us powerful, but rather because faith receives Jesus Christ.  Indeed, faith is not even our possession, like some attitude or substance we can create or hold on to.  God the Holy Spirit must create our faith, and He must sustain our faith.  Every newborn believer in Christ, every washed, sanctified and justified person has faith which can move mountains, but only as long as the Holy Spirit sustains it.  And so we pray Lord, I believe, help Thou my unbelief, because we know of our own strength we will quickly give in to unbelief and despair.  We cannot keep faith alive, because we remain weak sinners. 

     Now, I don’t point this out to depress you, or to make you think the Holy Spirit might at any moment turn His back on you, and abandon you.  No, He will never forsake you.  But you and I try all too hard to forsake Him.  We live in an age of unprecedented access to God’s Word, and so also in an age of unthinkable neglect of God’s Word.  I dare say collectively we own twice, maybe three times as many Bibles as there are people in this room.  How much time do we spend reading God’s Word?  On the other hand, I probably average more than two hours of television and internet every day; what about you?  How come we can so easily relax, using the entertainment of the world, but find it so hard to rest  in the Word of Life?  God has blessed us with regular opportunities gather in worship, both here at home, and when we travel.  It is not hard to find a church.  But how often have we let minor inconveniences prevent us from gathering in the Name of Jesus?  How often does recreation come before being re-created by the Spirit?  Why are we like this? 

     Of course, we behave like this, neglecting the Word which creates and sustains faith, because we are still sinners.  The way of the world is easy, comfortable, and our sinful nature is still offended by God’s truth. O Lord, I believe, help Thou my unbelief. 

     Scripture clearly states our faith depends on the hearing of God through His Word delivering the forgiveness of sins to us, again and again.  O Lord I believe, help Thou my unbelief – this is the proper daily prayer of every Christian on earth, that daily the Spirit would come to us again, convicting us of our sins, again, for the sake of declaring once again the not guilty verdict that Jesus has won for you.  Through His unjust conviction, through His unjust death, and through His glorious and justice delivering resurrection, Christ has swallowed up all your sin.  It is removed from you.  Your debt to God is paid in full.  This is the Word of Christ for you: in Jesus, your are forgiven, and so you are precious to God.  Believe it, and rejoice.

     Faith saves, and follows.  Faith saves, and follows Jesus, like the no longer blind Bartimaeus, rejoicing and praising and glorifying God.  Bartimaeus shows us the joy of Christian living, as His eyes are opened to see Jesus, and he follows His Savior, glorifying God. 

     The devil, the world and our sinful flesh say it is foolish to follow a crucified man, that it is weak to live from a promise of forgiveness, that the wise of this age should find all the joy they can now, in the pleasures of this world, eternity be damned.   

     Jesus says recover your sight; do not be blinded by satan and the world.  Trust in me, says Jesus, I have saved you.  Do not worry what the crowds say.  Do not follow the wide easy way to damnation.  Do not doubt the power of my forgiving blood.  Trust me, says Jesus, follow me, and your eternity will be filled with true joy, which is yours today by faith.  Believe, have faith, in me alone, says Jesus, and your eternity will be glorious, filled with love from God, love that is yours today, and which remains, greatest of all,  forever and ever, Amen.