Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Blessing Book

The Second Sunday of Easter, April 27th, Year of Our + Lord 2014
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
John 20:29 – 31         The Blessing Book

     Jesus said:  “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."  Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

     Bibles, those books in which the amazing signs and promises of Christ are recorded, are very popular gifts.  At confirmations, for Mother’s Day, at births and birthdays, and even at deaths, buying or passing on Bibles is very common, among lots of people, including some who barely ever darken a Church door.  A study Bible intended to serve a new confirmand for many decades, the Bible from Mom or Dad’s desk, falling apart from use, your most precious inheritance at their death, a baby’s Bible board-book, covered with teeth marks from her efforts to literally eat the Word, or the Story Bible, which we give away freely here: all of these and a thousand more examples abound to prove the popularity of giving Bibles as gifts. 

     And this is good, for God has given us His Word, recorded in the Old and New Testaments, translated into a thousand languages, in order to bless us.  God has been causing the Word about Jesus to go out to every corner of the world, all so that Jesus can call you blessed, and call you by name, as He did for Mary Magdalene outside the tomb on Easter morning.  Christ has given us His Word, so He can forgive you all your sins, by announcing the Peace with God He has won through His suffering, death and resurrection.  

     It seems like doing mission work would be pretty simple, then, doesn’t it?  Just give people Bibles.  And we do intend to be involved in God’s Mission when we give away these Story Bibles.  Just the other week, I met a young man, one of the workers installing (the new windows at Trinity) (our new windows), a man with a wife and three kids, commuting from Glendive.  In our conversation, he mentioned they are looking for a church.  I gave him a Story Bible to take home, and told him about Pastor Hageman and all the saints at Our Savior Lutheran Church, our sister congregation in Glendive.  My prayer is that his whole family will be blessed by the Story Bible, that the Word of God would ring out in their home, and that they get will connected and become members of a faithful congregation, like Our Savior’s.  Missions is easy, right? 

     Well, no.  If giving away Bibles was all that was needed, then the Gideons would have converted the whole world by now, and hotel rooms would be called sanctuaries.  But that’s not how it works.  The Bible is indeed wonderful, a vital and authoritative gift from God, truly a book of blessings.  But the growth of God’s kingdom involves more than just giving away copies of  the Bible.  In fact, for more than three-quarters of Christian history, almost nobody had a Bible, and yet the Church grew. 

     Not until Gutenberg invented the printing press and began printing in the 1450s, leading to the availability of affordable books, and not until the next century when Luther and Reina and Tyndale and Wycliffe and others made good translations of the Bible into the common languages of the people, and not until literacy became widespread, not until really the late 1500s or early 1600s did lots of people own Bibles.  It wasn’t until sometime in the 1700s that more than half of all the people in England could read.  And yet, despite the lack of Bibles and literacy for most of her history, the Church grew.  It really is an odd and depressing coincidence that in many ways the Church has lost influence in the world at the same time as the rise of literacy and the proliferation of very inexpensive Bibles.  Today almost everyone can read, and the Scriptures are available on your smart phone for free.  But this has not led to overall greater Biblical knowledge, nor to any observable numerical growth of the Church.  

         So we see simply owning a Bible, simply having one on your bookshelf or in your phone doesn’t bless you.  God’s Word is not a good luck charm.  This limits the missionary impact of simply giving away Bibles, because faith comes, not from owning, but from hearing the Word of Christ.  The Bible is the Blessing Book, and it is a good thing to own a Bible, but the blessing of the Bible comes through its use, most often in the context of gathered believers, because the blessing of the Bible is in hearing and believing.  The blessing of the Bible comes through the doing of the things it says. 

     Now, I want to be clear.  I don’t mean that the blessing of the Bible come through you and I keeping God’s commandments.  Not that there aren’t real blessings in keeping the commandments.  The more we keep the Law, the better neighbors we are, the better daily life is, no doubt.  If no one is stealing or hurting or killing or trying to sleep with someone else’s spouse, life is certainly better.  If no one was lying or jealous or selfish, if no one was running around cursing in God’s name, if everyone gathered together on the Holy Day, the world would have less pain and more joy.  But the real blessings of the Bible do not come from us keeping the Law, because we don’t do it. 

     In fact, coming at the Bible as an instruction book for good living is to walk into a trap, a trap set by our own weakness, a trap happily used by Satan, as he seeks to prevent us from being truly blessed.  Even when we try really hard to keep the Law, and we should try, really hard, still, our sinfulness breaks through, in small ways, and sometimes, too often, in large ways, always revealing the same sad truth:  Even though the Law of God is good and true, we because of our sinfulness cannot earn the blessings of God by keeping His law.  By works of the Law shall no one be justified. 

     No, the real blessings come in hearing of the signs Jesus did, and through this hearing, coming to  believe that He is the Christ, the Son of God.  This is the real blessing of the Bible, because by believing in Him, you have forgiveness and new life, real life, everlasting life, in His Name.  And, not coincidentally, the signs Jesus did all have to do with the fact we cannot achieve real blessings through our keeping of God’s Law.  Jesus had to make a new way for us to be blessed.  Because we are sinners through and through, and cannot save ourselves, Jesus had to take on the whole task of salvation, from living the sinless life God’s Law requires, to dying the sacrificial death that our sin demands.  And He has done it.  This work is finished, for you.  The Bible is the Blessing Book both because it tells that glorious story, and also because the Word of God, spoken, written and sung, is the Spirit’s means, His tool, for delivering the victory Christ has won for sinners.  The Blessings of the Bible come from the doing of the things it says, and Christ by His Spirit is the One doing the things of the Bible. 

     God in His mercy and mysterious wisdom chooses to include sinners in His great work, using sinners like Gutenberg to print Bibles, and sinners like Luther to uncover and proclaim the Biblical truth that the world always tries to cover up, sinners like parents and pastors and teachers who speak the truth of God’s Law and Gospel.  God causes people no better and no worse than you and me to read and speak and hear the Good News He has recorded in Scripture.  God causes people to wash and forgive and feed His flock with the forgiveness Christ has won.  God uses His effective, powerful, glorious Word to create faith in human hearts.  Even though you have not put your finger into His side like Thomas, Christ gives you the same faith that cries out to Jesus:  “My Lord and my God!” 

     God’s Word is powerful, and long lasting.  This past week I spoke on the phone a number of times with a woman, we’ll say her name is Jane.  She was married here at Trinity, in the 1970s.  As she and her fiancé were studying with Pastor Erber in preparation for their wedding, he discovered that she had never been baptized.  Pastor Erber insisted, since Jane was asking God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to bless her marriage, that she first receive the greater blessing that comes in that Name, the blessings of forgiveness, adoption, and new life that are given through the Water and Word in Baptism. 

     Through Pastor Erber’s encouragement and instruction, Jane was baptized a few days before her wedding.  And she attended services here at Trinity for a time, even though, as she told me, she struggled to understand God’s Word.  Eventually they moved, and her life has gone on, with struggles and joys, and heartaches.  She suffered a divorce.  She lost a son.  But now, today, God is calling her back.  She was contacting me to find out the date of her baptism, as another pastor at another church wants to verify it, as she works toward communicant membership. 

     While we were on the phone, as God would have it, she decided to ask me some questions, about faith and life and where God was leading her.  I was given the privilege of pointing her to her Baptism, God’s first Gospel gift to her, which never expires, and to point her to the gatherings of God’s baptized children, where He comes to meet us and bless us.  I told her how, when God’s people gather in the Name of Jesus, He is there, as He promised, and He brings with Him the souls of the faithful departed.  For the dead in Christ are never separated from Him.  So the closest we can be in this life to Christians who have died before us is in the Divine Service, as we hear Christ speak and celebrate our baptisms, and kneel around His Table with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.  I encouraged Jane to get into the habit of gathering with God’s people around the Word of Christ, for that is God’s desire for her, the place where He promises to bless her. 

     She thanked me, in particular for helping her understand God’s Word better.  I thanked God, for allowing me to witness His ongoing work, in her life, and mine, and yours. A good Word, from Jesus, through Pastor Erber, sparked a faith that God is still sustaining, even through the difficulties of life, because God is building a people for Himself.  Very cool.  

     Christ is Risen!  (He is Risen indeed, Alleluia!)  You are saved by faith in the crucified and risen Christ, who has freed you from your sins.  God creates and sustains your faith by the hearing the Word of Christ.  By all means, yes, reading your Bible is a good thing.  You might even read it out loud.  But even if you can’t read, God is still pursuing you, and all people, through His Word.  This is His Mission, in which we are blessed to be caught up, for our life, the life of the world, and the glory of God, forever and ever, Amen. 

Monday, April 21, 2014


The Resurrection of Our + Lord, April 20th, Year of Our + Lord 2014
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, Montana
Surprises - John 20:1-18, 1 Corinthians 15, Isaiah 25:6-9

Christ is Risen!  (He is Risen Indeed, Alleluia.)  

     Everyone seems so surprised by the Resurrection of Jesus. 

     In at least one sense, the Resurrection shouldn't surprise us.  Now, I know, none of us have ever seen someone rise from the dead, especially not on the third day, after dying on a Cross.  I know that death has quite an air of finality around it.  The dead don’t rise, so, yes, in this sense, the Resurrection is surprising.  But if we begin from the understanding that Jesus is God, well then of course He rose from the dead.  God is that being who is all powerful, and the source of life, the source of everything, the eternal creator and sustainer of all things.  From this perspective, that Jesus should rise from the dead isn't really surprising.  The Crucifixion is the surprise.  Or go back a step farther: the Incarnation, the eternal Son of God becoming a flesh and blood human being, that is a surprise.  And then that God, once He had taken on human flesh and blood, would suffer and die, for His enemies?  Who would ever have imagined?  Very surprising. 

     The Resurrection of Jesus Christ really should not have been a surprise to His followers, given the multiple times Jesus predicted it.  Again and again Jesus said plainly:  We are going to Jerusalem, where the Son of Man, (Jesus favorite name for Himself), will be betrayed into the hands of sinners, suffer, and will die.  But on the third day He will rise!   Jesus told them, but the disciples couldn’t hear it, couldn’t grasp it.  Perhaps because of the horror of the prediction of suffering and death, they were plugging their ears before Jesus got to the end of His prediction.  They should have known, Jesus told them.  And yet, the Resurrection is a big surprise to them, seemingly a complete surprise.

     The first people to be surprised were the faithful women, Mary Magdalene, Salome, and those various other Marys that I can never keep straight.  These faithful women, who intended to give Jesus a proper burial, are surprised to see the stone is rolled away from the entrance to the tomb, and even more that there is no body inside.  Their reaction?  Fear, and confusion.  How long did they rush off in fear, and in what direction, before they thought to go tell Peter and the others?  We don’t know, only that their initial reaction was surprise, with fear, not joy. 

     The Disciples, the remaining Eleven of those men whom Jesus had specially chosen and taught, for three long years, the Eleven to whom Jesus predicted His suffering, death and resurrection multiple times, they were nevertheless also surprised.  Hearing the women’s story, Peter and John ran to the tomb.  Finding that Jesus’ dead body was not there, they were surprised, and confused.  They doubted what the women had said, their report of the angel’s words: “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, He is Risen, just as He said”  The disciples dismissed their report as idle women’s chatter.  But hey, lock the door, just in case, something strange is going on. 

     The Resurrection of Jesus should not have been a surprise, but even for the Eleven, the men closest to Jesus, it was.  Not until Jesus appeared physically could anyone believe it.  Mistaking Jesus for the gardener, Mary Magdalene asks where he has taken the body.  “Mary.”  Just a Word from Jesus, and suddenly her tears give way to unspeakable joy.  “Rabboni.”  “Teacher.” Surprise!  “I have seen the Lord!” 

     Later that day, the Lord appears to Peter, then to 10 of the 11 that evening, and to two other disciples on the road to Emmaus, the biggest of surprises, that changed their lives, and the world, forever. 

     From the surprise of the Resurrection grew the most important force in human history, but even more, the most important force in eternal history.  Billions of people have heard the surprising news of Easter, and were recreated by that Good News into different people, who then lived their lives differently, people who, if they held fast to the word to the end of their earthly journey, now rest in the peace and glory of Jesus Christ.  And the surprising impact of the Resurrection goes on today. 

     Consider Paul.  The surprise of the Resurrection, as well as the Ascension of Jesus into heavenly glory, caused a complete 180 degree life change for him.  Paul had been firmly, bitterly convinced that Jesus was a fraud, and that those who were forming this breakaway Jewish sect in His Name had to be stopped, arrested, tortured and killed if necessary.  Then surprise, surprise, the Resurrected Christ, now Ascended to God’s right hand, appeared to Paul, stopping him on the road to Damascus, making Paul a believer, a believer whom God used to spread the Word of Christ all around the Roman world, and to write almost half of the New Testament. 

     The surprise of the Resurrection has affected not just those who became believers, but all people.  It is very trendy today to speak ill of the Church, to portray Christendom as an evil blight on history, and of course there are all too many failures of Christians and Christian institutions which have caused real damage.  Christians are, in God’s mysterious wisdom, still sinners in this life. The glory of the Church is not in her people, nor in their works.  And yet, the impact of the Church on the world is profound.  Hospitals, universities, charitable organizations, the foundations of science, widespread literacy, child labor laws, the abolition of slavery, art and architecture, the rule of law: the Church and Christians majorly influenced or completely caused all of these powerful forces for good.  The kingdom of Jesus is not of this world, but it still has a surprising impact for good, on this world. 

     Whether you believe it happened or not, a fair consideration of history will teach you that no other event has had as surprising and profound an impact on the world as the Resurrection of Jesus.  There are thousands of religions in the world, including a few that have grown very large.  But none is as big as the Church of Christ, and none had a less promising start.  It’s not that the first believers in Jesus were so few, although they were but a few hundred souls in a backwater part of the Roman Empire.  But many religions started out small.  And it is not that they were frequently persecuted, although this story too is full of surprises.  Persecution was a major cause of growth for Christianity.  However, the truly surprising thing about Christianity is its beginning, on a Roman cross.  The surprise of Christianity is this message: the One who died on that Cross is God Almighty, the Savior of the World. 

     Christianity has a strange growth method, too.  Isn’t it surprising that the Resurrected One only showed Himself to a few hundred people?  Wouldn’t you think the best way for the resurrected Jesus to impress the world would have been to go public, to demonstrate His power over death visibly, to everyone?  But the way of Jesus is not the way of earthly power and glory.  Rather, it is the way of humility, and suffering, the way of simple Words, and hidden miracles.  As God and His love was cloaked in the crucifixion, so also new birth is hidden in the simple washing of Baptism, and in heavenly food, the forgiveness you eat, hidden under simple bread and wine.  These are God’s surprising Church growth methods, a surprising plan, the power of which is hidden from the world, visible only to eyes of  faith.  

     So, what’s the point?  Is there any surprise here for you here this morning?  Well, the Resurrection of Jesus has caused you to be here.  Whether you are a regular, week in week out Christian, or your attendance at the services of God’s house is sporadic, or maybe you are not a member of any congregation, whether you have a confident faith in Christ, or you are full of doubts, or maybe you go back and forth in your heart and mind between confidence and doubt, still your presence here this morning has ultimately been caused by a Roman execution, followed by the Resurrection of Jesus.  You are here.  But, what’s your surprise?   

     Well, first of all, despite what most people think, God’s purpose in bringing you here today is not to scare you straight.  The Cross is scary, no doubt, for there the wrath of God against our sin was revealed.  God’s Son died, because God hates sin, and Jesus became sin for us.  But God does not intend to scare you straight, because fear does not lead to love.  Fear can make you hate sin, and even hate your sinful self, but that is the end of the power of the law.  Fear of punishment cannot make you stop sinning, or set you free from guilt. 

     No, the greatest and most powerful surprise of the Resurrection is what it says about God, and His disposition towards you.  For the Resurrection of Jesus, on the third day after His fearsome death, declares that God loves you, that He smiles at you.  The Resurrection declares your sins are forgiven, and you are right with God, through Jesus.  In Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected, your sins, my sins, the sins of the whole world have been swallowed up.  Death, which is sin made visible, no longer has any power over Jesus Christ and those who belong to Him, for on the mountain called Golgotha, He by His death has taken away the power of death, which is sin. 

     The great surprise of Christian faith is the Good News that in the risen Christ, God says to you: fear not, your sins are forgiven.  Stop doubting, and believe. There is nothing for you to do.  There is nothing you can do.  Jesus has done it all.  It is finished.  Despite what your many sins deserve, the glorious surprise is that God counts you righteous for the sake of Jesus, who lived a perfect life in your place, and then took all your sins to His Cross, and buried them forever in His tomb.  Surprise, your sins are truly forgiven, by God.  Believe it, the free gift of forgiveness and eternal life is yours.  

     Yea, but as the Geico commercials say, “Everybody knows that.”  Or do they?  The surprise of free forgiveness is vaguely known by many, maybe most people, but is all too often rejected, not believed, forgotten, or even despised.  Indeed, people have always accused preachers of free forgiveness of leading people to sin.  They say that without threats and demands, people will never shape up.  But Christ is the One who proclaims free and full forgiveness, apart from any reformation or good works required to earn God’s favor.  Faithful preachers just repeat what Jesus said. 

     We do need to understand that the surprise of free forgiveness is no “license to sin.”  Do not imagine that the grace of God gives you a “license to sin, because God will forgive me.”  God forbid that you think that!  If you do, if I do, when we think like that, we need to look again at the suffering of Christ on the Cross.  For in the Cross we see what God thinks of sin, and sinners.  In the Cross we see what’s in store, forever, for those who think to mock God, and treat as nothing the suffering Christ endured.  God grant that we repent of despising the Gospel by turning it into a license to sin!  God grant us repentance, that is, true sorrow for our sin and a desire to be rescued. 

     God grant us to repent, to turn, and see the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus, for what it is, the surprise that sets us free to live in harmony with God.  For the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus is love, from God, for you.  The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus  gives life with God, a life of real joy, not the self-serving temporary pleasures of sin, but everlasting, wonderful, love God and love your neighbor joy, disappointment-free and guilt-free joy, that begins now, and lasts forever. 

     Christ is Risen!  (He is Risen Indeed, Alleluia.)   Christ is Risen with new life for you, the very best surprise, that lasts forever, in the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Monday, April 14, 2014

His Blood Be on Us and On Our Children

Palm and Passion Sunday – Confirmation Sunday – April 13th, Year of Our + Lord 2104
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
His Blood Be on Us and On Our Children – Matthew 11:25

     "His blood be on us and on our children!"   Is this a self-condemning curse, or a wonderful prayer for eternal blessing? 
     In its original context, 20 centuries ago in Jerusalem, this cry by the Jewish crowds is certainly frightening.  Through the centuries, people, including Christians, have used these words as an excuse to discriminate against Jewish people, along the lines of saying: “they asked for it, didn’t they?”  This is absolutely wrong.  The bloodthirsty cry of the crowd outside Pilate’s courtroom is a frightening thing, to proudly claim the blame for the death of Jesus, God’s own Son, claiming the blame, not just for themselves, but also for their children.  It was surely a sin. 

     But as Christians, our prayer for Jews, as for all people, is that they would come to trust in this same Jesus as their Savior, receiving His forgiveness, which is the center of our life as Christians.  There is no excuse for Christians hating or mistreating any group of people, for we are called by God to love our neighbor as ourselves, even the neighbor who is our enemy.  We are called to speak the truth in love.  Now, speaking the truth will certainly include the truth about sin and God’s wrath against human sin, and this may well be perceived by others as mistreatment.  Hearing the truth about humanity’s sinfulness, about your sinfulness, is painful.  But we know that telling someone the truth about sin and their plight before God is truly a loving thing to do, for apart from knowing the truth about sin, there is no way we can understand or believe the truth about God’s radical plan of salvation. 

     The Christian should know better than anyone how wrong it is to mistreat others just because they are unbelievers, for God did not treat us in this way.  Some of us in this room were converted to Christianity as tiny children, others later, as adults perhaps.  But in every case, every Christian was at one time naturally opposed to God, conceived and born sinful, an enemy of the Truth, deserving the Lord’s eternal rejection.  But we did not receive what we deserved.  Instead we received the cleansing blood of Jesus.  And, day by day, we still do not receive what we deserve.  Sin still clings to us, and yet God does not reject us, because the blood of Jesus covers all sin.    

     "His blood be on us and on our children!" This indeed can be rightly understood as a wise, faith-filled prayer, the proper prayer for this day especially, as we celebrate the confirmation of these young Christians.  Today we hear their public confession of the faith into which they were baptized.  Today they make the good confession which leads to their invitation to take and eat, take and drink, the Body and Blood of Jesus, their invitation to receive the Gospel that we take into our bodies, for forgiveness, and strength for Christian living. 

     "His blood be on us and on our children!" Once this was, and for far too many still is, a frightening challenge to God, to punish us, if He can.  And yet, it can also be a cry of faith, a prayer for endurance by the believer, that the Lord will keep us as His children, by the blood of the Lamb who was slain.  And so we see, faith in Christ makes all the difference.  Or maybe I should be more specific:  right faith in Jesus Christ makes all the difference.   Right, or true faith in Christ makes the blood of Jesus a blessing, instead of a curse. 
     This is why receiving the Supper is such a big deal.  The blood of Christ is eternal blessing and joy for the soul who confesses and repents of their sinfulness, but also trusts that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection have forgiven all my sins and opened for me the way of eternal life with God.  However, for the person who denies Christ, for the person who says that His sacrifice is a myth, or that His death is only a partial solution for sin, for the person who denies that God can make the bread and wine also be the Body and Blood of Jesus, for anyone who does not have right faith in Jesus, then, as Paul warns, the blood is curse, not blessing.  So we who trust in Christ alone, and know He is present with His Body and Blood in the Supper, take care to help people receive it as blessing, and not curse. 

     Which is the whole point of Confirmation.  Because we want the blood of Jesus to be a blessing, we teach our children the Word of God.  We teach all our catechumens, our Christian students, young and old, all about Christ, who He is, what He has done, and why He had to do it.  With the Bible as our authority, we teach about the sinful, lost condition that we all inherit from Adam, and of the sinless, perfect Son of God, who became a man in order to save men, women and children from their sins.  We teach how He continues to reach out, through His Word, through Baptism, and through His Supper, delivering the Gospel in many forms, to meet us sinners where we are.  For we cannot save ourselves, or find our way to God.  God must, and does, find us, and save us, by the forgiveness found in Jesus’ blood. 

     We know it is the Lord’s desire to gather every sinner at His Table, and so we also earnestly desire for all people to rightly receive the Lord’s Supper.  We pursue this goal with our eyes open, for we know our sin, and we know what God has said in Scripture.  We know that to treat lightly the Holy Things of God is to court disaster.  Our young members go through at least two years of instruction before communing.  Today is the culmination of that journey for Dylan and Ally/Trey and Erin.  Adults study for varying lengths of time, depending on each individual situation, but the material and the goal are the same:  a public confession of the true faith, which cries out for Jesus’ forgiving blood to be on us, and in us, for our salvation. 

     Uffdah, Pastor, pretty heavy stuff.  Why be so serious?  Maybe you are a visitor here this morning, and you’re thinking, man, lighten up, isn’t Confirmation Day a celebration?  Or maybe you are a member, and you also think we shouldn’t focus so much on such hard things.  Why dig so deeply into a very uncomfortable subject?

     For the joy!  For true joy!  For everlasting joy!  For freedom from guilt, a clean conscience, and a cheerful heart, that knows, despite my sins, I am safe with God.  We can have no more serious text before us than the suffering, crucifixion and death of Jesus.  Why read it?  Why, more fundamentally, did Jesus endure it?  For the joy, of having you, for His very own.  Christian faith and life is serious and joyful, because Jesus is serious, and joyful.  Our Lord was serious, honest, and unflinching, about sin and the cost of salvation, for the sake of giving us joy, the joy that comes on Easter morning, the joy of knowing nothing can separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

     His blood be on us and on our children, every day, until Christ calls us home, or comes again on the Last Day.  His blood be on us and on our children, by His Word, in our Baptisms, and in the Lord’s Supper, giving us strength to endure, and rejoice, by the power of the Spirit’s daily washing, daily cleansing, daily forgiveness, the love of God which enlivens us and overflows in our lives to others.    
     Endurance in Christian faith is hard.  Their exists in our midst the horrible idea that Confirmation is graduation from Church, that once confirmed, the Christian does not need to grow in faith, does not need to study, does not need to continue to gather with God’s people to be washed and fed again.  It is really not so hard to have people become members of the Church.  Faith in Christ, after all, is God’s work on us.  Learning about Christ, and all He has done to save you, and confessing that faith publicly, is interesting, and exciting.  

     The real struggle, for every baptized believer, is endurance.  Every congregation has members, once faithful, who now attend infrequently, or hardly at all.  Christians drift away from Christ, displeased by all the human foibles they encounter in the Church.  But what do we expect?  Christ came for sinners, not for righteous people.  Any gathering this side of eternity will be a gathering of sinners, who are coming together to receive forgiveness.  We will disappoint one another, and ourselves.  We may be truly hurt by a fellow Christian.  Worse, we may even commit sins that we think cut us off from Christ.  We may think we are unforgivable, that the sins we have committed are too bad.  But that is a lie.  The blood of Jesus covers all sin, for He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  All of it.  The sins against you, the sins you have committed, there is no sin too big for Jesus. 

     Dylan, Ally/Trey, Erin, remember, you did not make your own way to God.  None of us could, and none of us did.  God found you, and me, and every Christian, that is the only way to be saved.  Salvation is when God comes and puts the blood of Jesus on you, making you believe that He has redeemed you from all your sins.  God has saved you in His way, and His way  is the way of congregations, the people of God gathering together, warts and all, to be washed clean, again and again. 

     The Lord’s way also includes prioritizing.  There is nothing more important than being in communion with God, knowing that He loves you and looks forward to having you with Him, forever.  Your lives will get busier and busier, and you will continue to struggle with sin.  Be warned, Satan will use both the fun things of this world and your own failures to try and keep you away from Church.  A thousand and one things tempt us away, from sports to cars to work, pretty girls, and handsome young men.  When you get married, sometimes your spouse will support you in the faith, and sometimes they will discourage you, and you will do the same to them.  If God blesses you with children, you will find that getting to Church with little children is a real challenge. 

     Endurance in Christian faith will be hard for you, just as Christ’s endurance, all the way to the Cross, was hard for Him.  But when you struggle, remember this, the answer is not in you, but in Christ, who has endured the Cross, giving His life, for you.  Confess your struggles, your sins, to the God who rode a donkey into Jerusalem, and carried a cross out to a hill called Golgotha.  For He is truly present, and rejoices to hear you confess that you have fallen, and need the help only He can give.  God loves to pick you up, for the sake of Jesus, who has covered you with His Holy, cleansing, blood. 

     The blood of Jesus be upon us, and our children, unto life everlasting, Amen.  

Monday, April 7, 2014

Entering Holiness

Fifth Sunday in Lent, April 6th, Year of Our + Lord 2014
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, MT
Rev. Dr. Arthur A. Just, Guest Preacher
Hebrews 9:11-15    Entering Holiness 

Greetings in this Fifth Sunday in Lent from President Lawrence Rast and the faculty and staff of Concordia Theological Seminary.  It’s an honor to be with you this morning, and later today for the topic “The Sunday Service and the Mission of God.”  And to be with your pastor and his wife.  Pr. Warner is a former student, and it’s wonderful to see them both again.

Today’s lessons place us in the center of salvation history, which means to say, in Jerusalem, in the temple, in the place of God’s holiness.   Even the Old Testament lesson is about the temple, for the place where Abraham was to sacrifice Isaac was Mt. Moriah, and when Solomon built the temple, he built it on top of Mt. Moriah.  So at the very place where Abraham was going to shed the blood of  his son Isaac, he instead, of course, shed the blood of a lamb.  Solomon built a temple on the spot where priests would now shed the blood of many lambs as a foretaste of the blood of Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. 

That’s how John’s Gospel begins.  With John the Baptist declares of Jesus: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

So God provided a lamb for Abraham, and in Jesus, a lamb for the world and for us.  So the place of the temple, Mt. Moriah, is called “The Lord will provide.”  And he has provided for you, in the supper here prepared for you – body and blood -- for the forgiveness of all your sins.

So the world of Abraham and Isaac, of Jesus, and of the Jews in today’s Gospel who said Jesus had a demon, their world was defined by the purity code -- who was clean or unclean, who was worthy or unworthy, who was holy or unholy.  For the Jews, to be clean was to be a true child of Abraham.  And they knew that in Jesus all of this was being challenged.  For not only was Jesus claiming that Abraham was his father, Jesus was going further than anyone had ever gone before -- he was claiming that God was his Father and that he, Jesus, was God’s only begotten Son, and that he was present in the world to make things holy as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

That is why the theme of our lessons today is holiness, specifically, entering holiness.  For that is the goal of our Lenten pilgrimage.  To journey with Jesus to the altar of his cross and to watch how in the most horrific, shameful, unclean deaths imaginable -- the death of a criminal -- God would cleanse the world of its sin, making it holy.  We enter this holiness today -- in hearing God’s word and receiving his body and blood.  The six weeks of Lent are nothing more and nothing less than a prelude to this reality: the celebration at Easter that Jesus Christ, the High Priest of the good things to come, has entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his blood.

Jesus enters the Most Holy Place by blood.  His blood.  Not the blood of bulls and goats, not the blood of Isaac whom Abraham was ready to sacrifice at God’s command, but the blood of Christ, Lamb of God, pure and holy.  And Jesus must shed his blood to make right what has gone so terribly wrong.  What was so right by God’s creative hand in that first Garden, became so wrong when our first parents ate of the forbidden fruit. Jesus must make right what had gone wrong.  And he can only do this through the shedding of his blood.
Blood is necessary to make whole what has been broken -- to make clean what is unclean -- to make holy what is unholy.  The Jews thought that Jesus was a threat to them because they could see that he was from God, that he was here to make right what has gone wrong.  But they could not bear to hear his word because, as Jesus said, their father was not God, it was not even Abraham.  Their father was the devil, who was unclean, unholy, a liar.

The tragedy of our world is that it is no different than their world.  Like their world, ours is broken by sin, death, and the devil.  Everywhere you turn, something is broken: marriages, parishes, nations, families, institutions.  It is our nature to break and destroy.  Our world is broken at our own hands, every time we try to make things whole we make things worse.

Hebrews tell us how God makes whole what is broken: “But Christ having come as a High Priest of the good things to come . . . by his own blood entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.” This is his testament to us as the Mediator of a new covenant.

And so Jesus Christ must be the High Priest of the good things to come. His temple is a hill outside Jerusalem; his altar a wooden cross planted in a rock pile on that hill; his grave a tomb in a nearby garden.  Passersby see hanging on the tree a Galilean carpenter’s son. And then they read the sign, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”  But this is no ordinary Nazarene.  Jesus, King, is both victim and priest – Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world – High Priest entering the Most Holy Place.

And this High Priest has one final liturgy over which he must preside. A liturgy that accompanies his making right what had gone wrong.  And so Jesus intones this litany for God and man over his own flesh as Paschal victim on the altar of Golgotha.

The Paschal Lamb without spot has now been offered to God.  His blood sprinkles all creation and sanctifies it.  A creation that had gone wrong had now been made right -- lepers are cleansed, paralytics are healed, the blind see, sinners are forgiven, demons flee, consciences are purged from dead works, and the dead rise up and walk around the holy city.  The new creation has arrived.

The temple curtain tears open -- the Holy of Holies is laid bear.  No more sacrifices need to be made.  No more blood of bulls and goats. Separation from God’s holiness has ended.  God’s blood is poured out. Access to God’s holiness is through the flesh of Jesus Christ, the Mediator of a new covenant – a covenant of his blood.

Entering into his Most Holy Place – into heaven itself -- we enter by his body broken, his blood poured out: “Take eat, this is my body, given for you.  Take drink, this cup is the new testament in my blood, poured out for you, for the forgiveness of your sins.” His liturgy of death is now our liturgy of life. A world that had gone wrong over forbidden fruit is now made right at the banquet of the Lamb in which our host is our food -- Paschal victim is now our Paschal bread and cup of Paradise.  These are the good things to come from Jesus Christ, our High Priest.  In the words of T. S. Eliot:

            “The dripping blood our only drink,
            The bloody flesh our only food:
            In spite of which we like to think
            That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood --
            Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.”[1]

[1] T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets.