Sunday, May 25, 2014

To Pray in Jesus' Name

Sixth Sunday of Easter – Rogate – May 25th, Year of Our + Lord 2014
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
To Pray in Jesus’ Name – John 16:23-24, 1 Timothy 2:1-6, Numbers 21:4-9

Today’s Sermon is framed by Luther’s catechetical hymn on the Lord’s Prayer, Our Father, Thou in Heav’n Above.  The public domain version is included below.  

1 Our Father, Thou in heav'n above,
Who biddest us to dwell in love,
As brethren of one family,
And cry for all we need to Thee;
Teach us to mean the words we say,
And from the inmost heart to pray.

2 All hallowed be Thy name, O Lord!
O let us firmly keep Thy Word,
And lead, according to Thy name,
A holy life, untouched by blame;
Let no false teachings do us hurt; 
All poor deluded souls convert.

3 Thy kingdom come! Thine let it be
In time and in eternity!
O let Thy Holy Spirit dwell
Wiht us, to rule and guide us well;
From Satan's mighty pow'r and rage
Preserve Thy Church from age to age.

Amen, amen, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.  Until now you have asked nothing in my name.  Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.

     To pray in Jesus’ Name is to pray as the Baptized.  For it was in and through the water that He put His Name on you, claiming you as His own, a child of His Father, even inviting you to pray to His Father as your Father.  And oh, the promises that Jesus makes concerning your prayers. 

     Today is Rogate Sunday, the only Sunday in Easter or Lent named not from the opening words of the Introit, but rather from the Gospel reading.  Rogate is Latin for “Ask”” as in Jesus’ words:  Ask, and you will receive. 

     But perhaps Jesus’ promises seem too good to believe.  Perhaps your prayer life leads you to doubt that Jesus really meant what He said about prayer in His Name.  Or worse, maybe your prayer life leads you to doubt your faith, your inclusion in the kingdom, since your prayers don’t seem to be answered.  So, even though Vicar, soon to be Pastor Jason Toombs preached on this very same theme on this same  Sunday last year, it seems good to go over the same ground.  For understanding prayer, especially as Jesus describes it, is hard. 

     On the subject of Vicar Toombs, last year on this Sunday he laid out the problem of unanswered prayer in these terms:  God has promised that He listens to our prayers and answers them.  Which raises a difficult question for us, since we ask God for many things which we don’t receive.  I asked God for a wife but I still don’t have one.  
        Well, as you may have heard me announce a couple of weeks ago, there is good news on this front.  Jason is engaged to be married to an Indiana school teacher named Samantha Zon.  And, he will be bringing her back to Montana, as he has also been called to serve as Associate Pastor at First Lutheran in Helena.  Lord willing, at some point we will get the opportunity to celebrate in person with him and his bride this answer to prayer.  And so we see that timing is part of our problem with understanding Jesus’ promises.  Sometimes God answers our prayers, but not right away. 

     God works through means.  He indeed in the One giving Jason and Samantha to each other, but not by zapping her to his side, mid-sermon last Rogate Sunday, (although that would have been really cool).  No, God waited till Jason headed back to Indiana, and he worked through friends and dates and conversation to bring these two together.  Patience is necessary on our part, faithful patience that trusts God will deliver.  But there’s more to our problem with prayer than just timing.  So let’s discuss a bit more.    

     To pray in Jesus’ Name is to pray as the baptized, pure and holy, reborn saints of God, with new hearts which desire everything that God desires.  So, if we are asking for something evil, we can say that prayer does not proceed from you as saint, but rather from you as sinner, and so is not truly in Jesus Name.  Or we can more simply say that God doesn’t answer our prayers if they are evil.  If my prayers are motivated by greed or selfishness or lust, then they are most certainly not in Jesus’ Name.  And so part of our prayers is always, as Luther wrote in our hymn, that our Father would teach us no thoughtless words to say.

4 Thy will be done on earth, O Lord,
As where in heav'n Thou art adored!
Patience in time of grief bestow,
Obedience true in weal and woe;
Our sinful flesh and blood control
That thwart Thy will within the soul.

     To pray in Jesus’ Name is to pray in unity with Christ.  You the Baptized have been crucified with Christ.  You have been clothed in Christ, and sealed with His Spirit.  And so, as Jesus prays, so also we pray.  And the quintessential prayer of Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane, where He asked His Father to take away the Cup of Wrath, which was His coming suffering.  But Jesus’ prayer did not end there.  He continued, “And yet Father, not my will, but rather Your will be done.”  As much as Jesus dreaded suffering for the sins of the whole world, still He submitted His will to His Father’s will.  And so also, prayer in the Name of Jesus is always according to the will of God. 

     Prayer in the Name of Jesus is faithful prayer which knows the Father has given Jesus Christ into the Cross in order to rescue us from an eternity suffering in Hell.  Such a Father will never forsake us.  He will give us the best, even though, like the image of a serpent on a pole, or of Jesus on the Cross, it is often hard to see the good in the outward form of things.  But rest assured, just as the frightening image of the Cross is truly a picture of God’s love for all humanity, so also God’s will for you is even better than your own, far better, no matter what our individualistic world or the Devil try to get you to think.  God’s will may take us into unknown, scary places, but God’s will for you and me is good, the very best.

     Praying always “Thy will be done” is actually quite freeing.  It acknowledges we are sinner-saints who will not always ask for the best things, because we do not know what they are in every case.  But we are free to pray for whatever good things we desire, knowing that God loves to give good gifts, and will either give us what we ask, or something better.  After all, He’s already given us Jesus.  Prayer in the Name of Jesus is prayer that looks forward to our future in glory.  This enables us to pray and live confidently and joyfully now, whether we are in riches or poverty, whether in ease or suffering, because we already know how the story of Jesus, our story, ends.  

5 Give us this day our daily bread,
Let us be duly clothed and fed;
And keep Thou from our homes afar
Famine and pestilence and war,
That we may live in godly peace
Unvexed by cares and avarice.

6 Forgive our sins, that they no more
May grieve and haunt us as before,
As we forgive their trespasses
Who unto us have done amiss;
Thus let us dwell in charity
And serve each other willingly.

     To pray in Jesus’ Name is to pray in truth, honestly.  Which is why right there in the middle of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught us to pray “Forgive us our trespasses, our sins, our debts.”  Forgive us Lord, for we are still sinners.  To pray in the Name of Jesus as a sinner-saint is always to pray in repentance.  Prayer in Jesus’ Name is therefore humble prayer, never proud, never self-promoting, but always includes the prayer of the tax-collector: Lord, have mercy on me, the sinner. 

     And He does!  We must always pray repentantly, and we can pray repentantly, yet with confidence and joy, for God has taken away all our sins, in Jesus. 

7 Into temptation lead us not.
And when the foe doth war and plot
Against our souls on ev'ry hand,
Then armed with faith, O may we stand
Against him as a valiant host
Through comfort of the Holy Ghost.

     To pray in Jesus’ Name is to pray in faith, trusting the Word of God, like Jesus always did.  And most especially we can pray because of the promises God has made, because of what He has revealed about Himself through Jesus.  We pray, trusting in Paul’s Word to Timothy that we heard this morning, God our Savior … desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 

     Now, to be honest, sometimes we hate that passage, like when we don’t want to see it applied to our enemies.  And we all have enemies, sometimes real enemies, people who truly are against us, but more often imagined enemies, or people we consider enemies because of our prejudices.  Sometimes in our sinfulness, we don’t want to see them be saved.  But there it is, plainly stated in 1st Timothy.  Whether we want everyone to be saved is not important; God our Savior does.  And so prayer in the Name of Jesus is prayer for the whole world, for the salvation of all, even our enemies, salvation that comes through repentance for sin and faith in Jesus.  Sometimes our prayers must include repentance for our own small hearts, a prayer that God would shape our desires, and enlarge our hearts, so that we desire and seek the salvation of all, like He does. 

     Sometimes we love the promise of God’s desire to save all, but still it confuses us, or even frightens us.  For our minds cannot sort out that Almighty God desires to save all, and yet the Bible clearly bears witness that not all will be saved.  If God is all-powerful and desires all to be saved, and if salvation is solely God’s work, then why aren’t all people saved? Scripture says both things, that God wills all to be saved, and that not all will be saved, many times.  We can’t reconcile these two truths in our limited minds.  Scripture does not provide an answer.  And so also for this reason our prayers may falter.  If we think too long and hard on this question, we might even think God is lying or being fickle or something.  The promise of Jesus can become an accusation.  When we begin to doubt God’s desire to save, we will soon begin to doubt our own salvation, and so we may end up hardly able to pray. 

     And so we thank God for the Lord’s Prayer, and for the other prayers that He gives to us like the Psalms, the very Word of God, given you to pray.  And thank God also for the liturgies of the Church, and the Collects of the Church, faithful prayers drawn from the Word and crafted over centuries for us.  Thank God for your brothers and sisters in Christ, who join their voices to your faltering prayers.  And thank God for the promise that the Spirit and Christ Himself add their prayers to ours.  Thank God our Father for all His helps to prayer.  When we are confused or tired or angry or afraid to pray, we can fall back on all of these prayers, and eventually God and His Word will break through our confusion and fear and doubt, to remind us that we pray as the Baptized. 

     Because there are questions we can’t answer, and because we are still sinners, perceiving and trusting God’s sure promises can be hard.  But God’s Word is clear; we have a promise – as God’s children through the Water and the Word, all our prayers are heard.  When we pray in Jesus’ Name, if we say something in error, the Holy Spirit for Jesus’ sake corrects our prayer, and so in all our prayers the Father rejoices.  Because when He hears you, He hears Jesus, the One who has put His Holy Name on you. 

     To pray in Jesus' Name is to pray in faith, trusting in Him as the one Mediator between God and men, the Go-Between for sinners, who does not negotiate some reduced sentence for us, but rather who gave Himself as a ransom for all the sins of all people. Like Moses in the wilderness, asking God to deliver Israel from the fiery serpents, even more Jesus is our Go-Between and Intercessor before the throne of heaven.  In and through Him, we are free, free from our sins, and free to access His Father.  For Jesus Himself was lifted up for us on the cross that we might be saved and restored to fellowship with the Father.

     Look to Jesus, lifted up for you, and pray with boldness and confidence as dear children of God, Amen.  Yes, yes, it shall be so, Amen. 

8 Deliv'rance from all evil give,
And yet in evil days we live.
Redeem us from eternal death,
And, when we yield our dying breath,
Console us, grant us calm release,
And take our souls to Thee in peace.

9 Amen! That is, so shall it be!
Strengthen our faith and trust in Thee
That we may doubt not, but believe
That what we ask we shall receive.
Thus in Thy name and at Thy word
We say: "Amen. Now hear us, Lord."

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Unchanging Mercy

Fifth Sunday of Easter – Cantate – May 18th, Year of Our + Lord 2014
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
Unchanging Mercy - Isaiah 12:1-6, James 1:16-21, John 16:5-15

     James says that in God there is no variation or shadow due to change.  That God is a solid, consistent, unchanging Rock, is a very comforting promise, if life is going well.  But if life is going badly, if threats surround and the weight of suffering crushes, then an unchanging God is scary as hell.  When sun and light and moon and stars are darkened, when our dust is returning to the earth from whence it came, when we are unraveling, and our sins and the sins of our fathers bear down on us, this is not the time for anyone to wax poetic at how fearfully and wonderfully we have been knit together by our unchanging Creator.  Job sits, scraping his sores on the ash-heap, sitting there, waiting to be burned with all the other worthless things.  This is no place to prattle on ad nauseum, about on the unchangeable morality and justice of God’s laws, like Job’s three worthless friends did.  If that’s what you’re going to say to the suffering, you might as well cut to the chase with his shrew of a wife, who advised Job to curse God and die.  And if such a sermon about the unchangeable justice of God is wrong on the deathbed and the ash-heap of suffering, when is it good?  And yet, how often do we, on bad days and good days, agonize and wonder aloud, why God does what He does?  There must be some set rules, right?   We may not think it consciously, but at our core we hope that if we can figure out the rules, we will be able to checkmate God into doing things differently. 

     In fact, the corruption by sin of our minds and emotions reveals itself over and over again, in our thinking  and hoping that we will have a handle on God, if we can just get a handle on the rules of His creation, if we can just rightly understand His Law.  Adam named the animals, very systematically, and then thought that with just the added knowledge of good and evil, he’d be able to run the place all by himself, without God’s help.  He was wrong.  He sinned, missed the mark.  He aimed to become god, which was bad enough.  But he sinned doubly, aiming to become the wrong god.  Adam, in seeking the knowledge of good and evil, sought to be Lord of justice, the Master of legal formulas and recommended minimum sentences.  But God as punisher is only the God we see because of our sin.  To judge and punish is God’s alien work, His unnatural work, true and right and required by our rebellion, to be sure, but not God’s desire, not His essence.  God is something other than the sum of unchanging natural and moral laws.  Likewise, saving faith is something other than thinking if we follow these unchangeable rules, we’ll be able to play the game well, or at least well enough. 

     You see, if God was the merely the unchanging sum of all rules, the Scriptures we have before us today would be irreconcilable.  On the one hand, James says in God there is no shadow of turning, no variation, no change.  But on the other hand, what a change Isaiah speaks of!  O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, that you might comfort me.  And wait, there’s more.  For it is the Lord Himself who puts this promise of turning into the mouth of his redeemed people.  It is the Lord who declares, “You will say in that day:"I will give thanks to you, O Lord,  for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, that you might comfort me.” 

     But wait a minute.  The unchanging God instructs His people to sing for joy at His turning, his change, from anger and punishment to comfort and blessing? Is this another Bible contradiction to add to the pile of passages we don’t understand.  How can God never change, but also change his mind about us?  Doesn’t that break the rules? 

     God is not a box of rules.  James is right, God does not change.  But Isaiah is right too.  The thing that is without change in God is that, for His redeemed, for His people, God is always turning from wrath to mercy.  As Isaiah says, he is angry, but his anger turns, not so much turning away, but back.  The anger of God against sin is turned back, even upon God Himself. 

     This is not a human conclusion reached after observing the working of the rules.  Neither is this turning really only some moderation, a turning down of God’s wrath against sin, so we can handle it.  No, what God has said about His hatred of sin stands, unchangingly, without reduction.  But nevertheless, this Word of His turning He himself puts in us, implants in us.  “You will say,” he says, “in that day.”  Now  is that day of salvation, and God plants in us the Words He would hear us say back to Him:  “I will give thanks to you O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned back; and you comfort me.  I will trust, and not be afraid; for the Lord God is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation.”  And so we see, as James also said, “of his own will He has brought us forth by the word of truth.”  This is why it is all joy to “receive with meekness the implanted word,”  for it is “able to save your souls.”  This implanted word of God’s turning from anger to mercy is how the Spirit of Truth comes and guides us into all truth, taking what belongs to Jesus and declaring it to you.  All that the Father has is the Son’s, and the Spirit takes what is of Jesus, and declares it to you.  And that declaration is that God’s anger has turned away from you, and is no more, in Jesus.    

     This is God’s declaration to you-for you, and for others - this word of the God who is unturningly turning, unchangeably changing, always turning from wrath to mercy, from anger to comfort, from condemnation to deliverance, from Law to Gospel, for you.  This is not simply one metaphor among many, to help us understand God, not merely a rule for putting out sermons that might get things done.  Turning from wrath to mercy, from Law to Gospel, is not just one thing God did.  Nor is declaring this Truth just one thing among many that we do.   No, this is the way of speaking bound up in the identity of the God himself, who was angry at me, but His anger turned back on a rocky hill outside Jerusalem, so now God comforts me. 

     Wrath to mercy, anger to comfort, Law to Gospel, this is the way of speaking bound up in the Lord who is Jesus Christ, the Son whom the Father loves because he laid down his life for sin, as the Law requires, in order to take His life up again in justification, which is Good News for sinners.  The unchanging thing about God is how He shows His righteousness by putting his own life forward as propitiation, that is, the atoning sacrifice that wipes clean the slate of our guilt.  God shows us this righteousness by implanting His Word, creating the faith that receives God’s unchanging gift.  This unchanging turning of God, this Word of Law and Gospel, is the power of God for salvation, the very “the implanted word which, (unlike the law or your works) is able to save your souls.” 

     And we know this.  Yet we fritter our lives away waiting for changes, different changes, more exciting changes, trying to figure out the rules to make changes happen-especially pastors do this.  What will make a difference with the indifferent?  What’s going to sell an unchanging Word to a world that worships change?  What will keep the Church going forward, when pastors and people are scurrying in so many different directions?  What does God mean by not making things go the way I think they should?  How can I change his mind, by what rule and why and wherefore?

     Be still, and hear God.  For the Spirit says to Pastor and People, “You will say in that day, ‘You, O Lord, were angry with me, but your anger turned back, and you comfort me.’”  And precisely there, in the turning from anger to mercy, God is your salvation; you may trust and not be afraid.  “For this faith [in the forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake] God imputes,- he counts as - righteousness in his sight.”  Not our works, not our plans, not our understanding, simply our trust, in His blood bought mercy.  And “where there is the forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.”  This is your life and the Church’s life, and your holy charge, that with joy you may draw water from the wells of salvation, and shout and sing for joy, even in the midst of tears and suffering. 

     “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Jesus breathed on His Apostles, in the upper room, on the evening following Resurrection Day.  “Whosoever sins you forgive, they are forgiven, and whosoever sins you bind, they are bound.”  This is where the promise Jesus made in today’s Gospel was first delivered.  And still the Spirit is speaking the things He has heard from the Father and the Son, declaring to you what is to come.  The Spirit takes what belongs to Jesus and the Father and declares it, even commands it, to you.  For the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is the God who justifies the ungodly.  And this is not just what God does;  this is who God is, the One who was angry with me, and you, but His anger turned back upon himself, and now He comforts us. 

     And so Jesus is glorified, lifted up above the limitations of the rules and workings of this earth, lifted up to do His proper work, which is granting repentance and the forgiveness of sins, and thereby drawing all men to Himself.  “Grant, therefore, O God, that we may love what you have commanded and desire what You promise, that among the many changes of this world our hearts may be fixed where true joys are to be found,”  in your unchanging mercy, Amen.” 

Adapted from a sermon by Rev. Dr. John Sias at the 2014 Dual Circuit Pastors’ Conference, Southern and Eastern Circuits of the Montana District, LCMS, held at Concordia Lutheran, Forsyth Montana.   

Monday, May 12, 2014

5 Cs, and a J

Fourth Sunday of Easter, Jubilate, May 11th, Year of Our + Lord 2014
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, MT
5 Cs and a J – John 16:16-22

     Almighty God, You show those in error the light of Your truth, so that they may return to the way of righteousness. Grant faithfulness to all who are admitted into the fellowship of Christ’s Church, that they may avoid whatever is contrary to their confession and follow all such things as are pleasing to You. 

     Why do we err?  Why do we so often do the wrong thing, or say things about Christ and salvation that aren’t quite true, or think thoughts completely opposed to God’s Word?  Consider the Collect of the Day for this Sunday,  the summary prayer that collects the themes of the readings and which we pray together as we enter into the Holy Space God creates as we hear His Word.  A few minutes ago, we together asked God to return those in error concerning the Truth, that they be returned to the way of righteousness, and that those who have publicly entered into Christ’s Church be assisted to avoid all things contrary to their confession,  and that we follow Christ in a God-pleasing way.  No grand and glorious aspirations, today’s Collect is more of a prayer to be drug across the finished line of faith, a prayer for God to protect us from the ruin that is always nipping at our heels.  Which all too often is the prayer we need most. 

     Why do we err?  Why do we turn away from God and His Way?  Well, it is true to say, “Because we are sinners,” but is that all we can say?  Can we say more, understand a bit more, about why we sin?  I think so, and this morning we’ll use a little memory device that might help us understand and remember a bit more about this life as sinner-saints.   For Christians are sinners who have been declared holy by God, through faith in Jesus Christ.  The acronym is CCCCCJ.  5 Cs and a J.  O.K., that’s a lot of alliteration, but  maybe not the best acronym ever.  But let’s see how it works. 

Confusing:  The first C is for Confusing.  The Word of God is good and true and powerful, and without error.  But we often err in our understanding of the Word, like the disciples in our Gospel.  Jesus, speaking of His imminent crucifixion and resurrection, tells His disciples:  "A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me."  The Eleven don’t get it.  Even though Jesus had predicted His death and resurrection many times, they can’t seem to understand that Jesus is again referring to it.  This “now you see me, then you won’t, then you will again” is easier for us to understand, knowing the whole story, from this side of the Resurrection.  But that’s hardly the end of confusing statements in the Bible, or even in just today’s readings. 
     Like Peter’s declaration:  For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.  It is gracious, a gift from God, to suffer unjustly?  Have you ever suffered unjustly?  Is there anything that feels less like grace than taking the blame and suffering the consequences for doing the right thing?  Does this mean that we should go around, trying to irritate people with our pious living, so that they’ll attack us?

     It’s confusing, as the Word of the Lord is so often to us.  And why wouldn’t the Word of the Creator, the Almighty, be beyond us mere humans.  And yet, the Lord does not want us to remain confused.  So, let me give a brief explanation of the grace of suffering.  Being joined by faith to Jesus Christ also brings us into unity with His suffering, suffering which was entirely undeserved, but from which flows the grace of God for us sinners.  So, yes, suffering for being a Christian is a gracious thing, even a sign of faith, for we trust in and cling to the One who suffered in our place.  God is for us, and has proved this in Jesus, who suffered to save us.  So we can face all things, even suffering, in Him, and that is a gracious thing. 

     At the same time, while suffering as a Christian is a gracious thing, the Bible never tells us to seek suffering.  No, Christians suffer because they have been favored by God in Christ, and the world hates that.  To seek out suffering is perilously close to self-righteousness, as if by suffering persecution we are earning God’s favor.  Seeking to be persecuted is not a Christian goal.  Seeking closer and closer unity with Christ is the goal of the Christian, and in that pursuit, suffering will come, as God wills.  But we are not to seek suffering, which is a perverse way of trying to puff oneself up. 

     But back to confusion.  Our fallen minds are just as impacted by sin as our aging, aching bodies or our sinful desires.   Our minds cannot on their own understand what God has to say.  God’s Word is confusing to us.  This is especially true when evil surrounds us, when death threatens us, or takes one we love, when we really want the good, but we keep seeing bad.  The key thing to remember is that we must have the Holy Spirit’s help to rightly understand.  And He will help us.  We will not reach perfect understanding in this life, but God will keep us in faith, by His Word.  He has promised.  Confusion is not to be accepted, nor used as an excuse to give up trying to grow in the Word.  But confusion does not disqualify us from the kingdom.   

Confronting and Convicting:  The next two Cs are Confronting and Convicting.  Sometimes we may use confusion as an excuse to avoid the real reason we reject a particular Word of God.  Some passages of Scripture and some articles of faith are all too clear, and we don’t like them, because of the way they confront us in our sin.  We may willfully run away from the Word that says suffering is a gracious thing.  Or we may explain away or simply ignore the “Thou shalt nots” that we don’t like.  Every thought, word and deed that is contrary to God’s way of righteousness, every hint of selfishness, every perversion of a good gift into an evil excess, such as we do so well with sex and food and money and technology and freedom, every time we declare our independence from God, every time we sin, God’s Word confronts and convicts us.  And our sinful natures’ hate that. 

     Our sinful natures do not want to die.  Submitting to the truth of God’s Law, submitting our wills to His will, is to kill our sinful nature.  We may succumb to the power of sin and reject God and His Word.  The difficult truth, that this struggle with sin is a daily affair, may even tempt us to give up trying.  But because God wants you, His Word still comes.  The conviction that the light of His Truth brings into our souls tempts us to run away, defying and fleeing the God who seeks to be close to us.  But where can we hide from God? 

     And of course, conviction brings guilt.  At times the worst suffering of the Christian is dealing with the conviction that God’s Word brings, revealing sins we thought we had hidden, even from ourselves.  But however long we hide away, God continues to send His convicting Word, so that He can bring us to this morning’s final two Cs.

Conversion and Confession:  These last two Cs are Conversion and Confession.  When we are guilty, when we are broken, when confusion and conviction bring us to our knees, when our struggle to understand God’s Word combines with the realization that we are guilty sinners, unworthy of God’s continuing concern, then, God by His amazing grace converts us, again.  When we are weary and heavy laden, when we realize that our way ends in ruin, God sends His Word again, His better Word, His converting Word, the Word of Jesus, risen from the dead, reaching out His arms to show us His nail scarred hands, Jesus, saying “Peace to you.”  “Fear not, I have overcome your sin, your guilt, your death.”  “Fear not, you are forgiven.”  “Your sins, which were as scarlet, are covered over and made white as snow by my scarlet red blood.”       

     And so with Thomas we confess, “My Lord and My God.”  What joy in that Confession.  God re-creates our hearts by His word of grace, by the Word of Jesus, crucified and resurrected.  God re-creates our hearts, turning us from confusion and sin and guilt, turning us to see our Savior, reaching out to us again, speaking words of blessing, gathering us to His table, reminding us that the promises He made to us in our Baptism last forever.  In joy we confess.  Our hearts cry out “Yes, I believe.”  Tomorrow, this afternoon, all too soon we know that confusion and conviction will make us cry out again: “Lord I believe, help Thou my unbelief.”  But still, our hearts cry out.  Still we confess our faith in the One who has made us believe in Him for forgiveness, mercy and life.  We believe in the One who, for the Joy set before Him, endured the Cross, that He might have us for His very own.   

Joy.  The J, if you haven’t figured it out yet, is for Joy.  The light of the Gospel shines on us, and our hearts are filled with joy.  Like a mother, overwhelmed with love and joy to be holding her newborn baby, we rejoice in the Gospel, knowing that we have been re-born, through our risen Savior Jesus Christ.  Confessing His victory for us, we go forth in joy.  This is what we prayer for this day, and every day, and so, let us pray it again:  Almighty God, You show those in error the light of Your truth, so that they may return to the way of righteousness. Grant faithfulness to all who are admitted into the fellowship of Christ’s Church, that they may avoid whatever is contrary to their confession and follow all such things as are pleasing to You; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever, Amen.   

Monday, May 5, 2014

Why Seek Lost Sheep?

Third Sunday of Easter, May 4th, Year of Our + Lord 2014
Good Shepherd Sunday, Misericordias Domini
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, Montana
Why Seek Lost Sheep?          Ezekiel 34:11, John 10:11, 1 Peter 2:24-25

     Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out.  I am the Good Shepherd.   The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.  

     The pastures are greening up nicely, after the snow and rain.  Or at least they will if the sun ever comes out.  I have a drive to Great Falls at the end of this week, so I’ll be glad to see the growing grass as I head through Jordan.  So will the livestock. 

     The pastures will be greening up nicely, but last Sunday, Monday and Tuesday weren’t such good days to be a cow or a sheep, or worse, a calf or lamb.  Heavy wet snow followed by rain and wind is miserable, especially if you’re a newborn without much body fat to keep you warm.  A tough time for calves and lambs, and so also a tough time for ranchers and sheepherders, out in the pastures, early and late, checking on the stock, trying to help them, trying to provide the herds and flocks protection from the cold and wet and wind. 

     Why do they do it?  Why do livestock growers year after year face cold and dark and wind and rough country, to say nothing of dealing with the predicaments livestock are always finding for themselves?  Why search for that cow who always finds a way through the fence, or who insists on giving birth in the deepest ravine possible?  Why fight off disease, and coyotes?  Why bottle feed bum calves and do the thousand and one unpleasant chores that come with raising livestock? 

     Well, of course, it’s a living.  There is a profit involved, hopefully.  For a handful, it’s a very good living, a way to grow a family fortune.  But for most, the living is not so rich, the bank account not so fat.  Indeed, the smaller operations have narrower profit margins, and so more hard work to do, since they can’t afford to hire it done, or buy the latest technology that would make it easier.  And yet, for many ranchers and sheepherders, including those paper rich and dirt poor, they wouldn’t do anything else.  Why do they do it? 

     Well, they love the life.  They love the countryside and being out in it.  They love the sense of accomplishment, and the independence, the responsibility.  They love seeing things grow.  And, they love their animals.  But it can’t be for their beauty, at least I don’t think so.  A calf is cute, but a cow?  It certainly can’t be for the love the livestock give back.  A dog may be very affectionate and loyal.  Cows love you when you’re spreading cake, but that’s about it, right?  And yet, those who choose to ranch and raise sheep do love their animals, just the same. 

     Why do they do it?  I think many do it simply because that’s who they are.  Raised into it, or maybe not, still, their identity is all tied up with livestock.  They could hardly be anything else. 

     Why raise cows or sheep?  Why seek them out when they’re lost?  Why risk life and limb for animals?  Well, there’s a profit to be had, and a life of loving animals, and for many, their identity is all connected with the lifestyle.  It’s simply who they are.  And so they do the hard work of seeking after and caring for livestock, including during freezing winter nights and sloppy, wet, miserable spring storms. 

     Which brings us to our Good Shepherd.  Why does God do it?  Caring for livestock is one thing.  But caring for people, rebellious people, why do that?   Why try to save sinners from themselves?  Why rescue fools from the predicaments we make for ourselves?  Why do it? 

     God has and continues to do the work of rescuing His sheep from the wolfish schemes of Satan.  Satan uses God’s law against humanity, pointing out our sin and detailing what we deserve, aching to share his eternal misery with God’s people.  But God, the ultimate punisher of sin, postponed His just wrath.  Starting right after the Fall, God began putting up with human sin, overlooking rebellion and withholding full punishment, even rescuing His special people Israel from self-inflicted wounds, again and again, all to get to the real work of salvation.  Which is finished. 

     The rescue work is done, because God went even further.  He took on our flesh, our creatureliness, in order to take our sin upon Himself.  Ranchers and shepherds very often sacrifice greatly to take care of their herds and flocks.  They may even, from time to time, end up smelling like their animals.  But has a rancher ever become a cow, or a shepherd a sheep, in order to save his animals from slaughter?  No.  But God has become a man, in order to save us from the slaughter of eternal death.  We are in our third week of celebrating the revelation of God’s in the flesh victory for us, a victory won in death, a victory revealed with new life in the Resurrection.  So this is a good time to ask “Why?”

     Why did He do it?  Why did God the Father sacrifice the life of His only-begotten Son to save wandering, thankless sheep?  Why does God continue to work, sending out His Word of forgiveness, supporting His Church, keeping her going in the most unpromising circumstances?  Why? 
     Does God do it for profit?  Well, yes.  That may sound a little strange, but God does all the works of salvation in order to realize a profit, a gain.  It’s just that we don’t understand His method of accounting.  Looking at what God gives and receives in this salvation business, it doesn’t seem that God is coming out ahead.  But God gets to determine His own measures, and for God, the profit in salvation is you.  God’s reward for achieving human salvation is to have you with Him, along with countless other saints, forever.  Given what we know about people in general, and about ourselves in particular, given all the obvious faults and failings of humanity, God’s accounting is very strange.  Strange accounting, but very good news. 

     Does God do it for love?  Yes, most definitely.  God loves His whole creation, and most especially the crown of His creation, which is you.  You and I might expect God’s love for mankind to fade, since we humans, once we hear we are second only to God, immediately start thinking about knocking God off His throne.  Like Adam and Eve, we desire to be as gods.  It is not enough for us to be dependent on God who blesses us with all we need.  We want to be in charge, to make our own rules, and judge ourselves.  It would be quite right and fair if God, who is holy and righteous and all powerful, were to simply destroy us ungrateful usurpers.  But God still loves humanity, despite our sin, and so He has loved humanity, by sending the Only Begotten Son to save us, from ourselves. 

     What, in the end, happens to mankind if we insist on independence from God?  Look at the punishment Jesus suffered.  Look, and shudder.  But then, look again.  For in the same frightening Cross of Jesus we also learn that this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His only begotten Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Our just deserts, and God’s limitless, forgiving love, are both revealed in Jesus’ death.

     Why does God seek lost sheep?  Why does He save?  Because that’s who God is.  Good News, God is love.  Like the rancher who just doesn’t know anything else to be, even more so, God is love.  God is Savior, our Good Shepherd.  God is the One who desires a multitude of people to be in the closest possible communion with Him, in joy and peace and glory, forever.  Think of it.  How sure is your salvation in Christ?  Your salvation is the very identity of God, who is life, and love, and so has done all things necessary to share His life and love with you. 

     When wolves are circling, trying to bite your flesh, when enemies, like tempters in the world, or your own sinful desires, or struggles that lead to doubt, when these or any other predator of Satan are pressing you hard, remember, Jesus  is your Good Shepherd.  He loves doing whatever it takes to save you.  And the one thing necessary to save you is His specialty: forgiveness, delivered in the Word and Sacraments. 
     When your own heart is telling you God would never forgive what you have done, your Good Shepherd says “Rest in my peace, you are forgiven.”  When the evil you see in the world makes you doubt that good can conquer, your Good Shepherd, the One with scars in His hands, reaches those hands out to you and reminds you “I have overcome the world, enter into my green pastures.”  When you have yet again sinned your way into a real mess, and you think there is no way God will forgive and help you, remember, Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected is still seeking you, even into the valley of the shadow of death.  Jesus is still calling you to Himself, still preparing a table before you.  Your cup runneth over, because your Good Shepherd is filling it up, today, and forever and ever, Amen.