Monday, June 30, 2014

Saved Through the Grace of Jesus

St. Peter and St. Paul, Apostles                     June 29th, Year of Our + Lord 2014
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches     Sidney and Fairview, Montana
Saved Through the Grace of Jesus
( Dear Friends in Christ:  On Sunday, June 29th I announced to Trinity and St. John that I have accepted the call received from the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod Office of International Mission to be a missionary to Sevilla, Spain.  My last Sunday here will likely be either July 27th or August 3rd. 
While Shelee and I are excited by the prospect of serving Christ’s mission in Spain, it is also very sad for us to be leaving our church family here.  We go forward in confidence, for the same God who has so richly blessed us all here will continue to shower blessings, in Sidney, Fairview, and Sevilla.  We will all continue to walk together, because of the One who is walking with us. 
We will be sharing much more about our new call, and there will be much information in the coming weeks concerning the transition for Trinity and St. John.  Feel free to contact me or other congregational leaders with any questions you may have. 
Peace in Christ to you and yours, Pastor Warner)

     Saint Peter and Saint Paul, heroes of the Church. Central figures in the Book of Acts, authors of Scripture, namesakes of thousands of congregations.  What words can we use to describe them?  How about… impetuous?  A braggart.  Short tempered.  Unreliable.  Conceited.  Coldhearted.  Murderous. 

     St. Peter and St. Paul are the Apostles who shine most brightly in Christ’s Church.  And yet they could quite fairly be described with these terrible words.  In the New Testament we see them being stubborn, prideful, impatient, angry, cowardly and hateful.  Peter dared to rebuke Jesus, to contradict and correct God in the flesh, when our Lord began to speak of His coming Cross.  Not wanting to hear about a salvation that comes through suffering and death, Peter dared to tell our Lord how to be the Savior.  
     For his part, Paul stood by, silently approving the murder of the Deacon Steven, stoned by a Jewish mob for declaring Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of God.  Paul, then called Saul, was too refined and educated to stoop and pick up a stone to throw himself, but happy to watch over the cloaks of the goons who did his bidding.  By his own admission, Paul considered himself holier than anyone else, a self-justifying, arrogant man.  

     Peter also denied His Friend and Master Jesus, at the most critical moment, when He had been arrested, and stood before the sham trial at the house of the high priest, Caiaphas.  Three times Peter denied he even knew the King of the Jews, even though Peter had just hours before promised to lay down his life with Jesus.  And yet, I would argue Peter’s worst moment was yet to come.  Peter couldn’t handle it when Jesus submitted to arrest and persecution, when He willingly walked to His coming death on the Cross.  Which isn’t surprising.  Jesus’ willing submission to the Cross is the most unfathomable, unthinkable, horrible event ever.  That Peter couldn’t muster the courage to confess Jesus in the midst of that terrible night means he is just like you and me: fallen, weak, unable to face the full gravity of human sin, a man needing to be forgiven and raised from spiritual death.  
     But later, after the sins of the world were washed away, after the Resurrection, after Jesus reinstated Peter to his office, after Peter had seen visions and performed miracles, after he had preached to and baptized thousands, after all of that, Peter betrayed Christ again.  Having been saved by grace through faith, apart from works, Peter stood by when this, the central truth of the Gospel he preached, was being perverted.  Certain Jewish Christians began teaching that  non-Jews who wanted to join the Christian Church had to submit to Jewish laws about diet and circumcision, or else they could not be saved, and should not be associated with.  Despite being the first in the Church to preach the pure Gospel of free forgiveness through faith in Jesus, despite having witnessed the death of God’s Son, and His Resurrection, Peter betrayed the faith.  In the face of this false teaching by some influential Jewish Christians, Peter chose racial heritage and family ties over the Truth.  
     Paul describes Peter’s failure in his letter to the Galatians, which he writes to combat the same false teaching which had reached their congregation.  In fact, the incident is described beginning in the very next verse after this morning’s epistle, Galatians 2:11.  Listen again to the end of our epistle, with a few more verses added on.  and when James and Cephas (Cephas is the Greek version of the name Peter) and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. 10 Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.
   11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”
     As we heard in our first reading this morning, Paul had been with Peter when he declared in a council in Jerusalem that all, Jew and Gentile alike, are saved by God’s grace alone.  However, later, when both Peter and Paul were in Antioch, Peter gave in to pressure from certain men, the circumcision party, who came teaching falsely, requiring circumcision and other works for one to be saved, thereby denying salvation by grace through faith, apart from works.  So Paul opposed Peter to his face, publicly, even using Peter’s own words to correct him.  Paul was bold , because Peter’s betrayal of the Gospel was a condemning error, for Peter, and anyone else who believed it.  For the sake of Peter and the whole Church, Paul corrects him, in essence repeating what Jesus had years before said to Peter:  Get behind me Satan – you have in mind the things of men, and not the things of God. 
     Do you remember that failure of Peter?  It actually follows right after today’s Gospel reading.  Peter by the revelation of the Father makes the good confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, a confession of faith that Jesus praises in the highest terms.  But right after that, when Jesus starts to explain what being the Christ means, that is, when Jesus starts to tell them of His coming Cross, Peter falls from his lofty pedestal.  Listen again.  [Jesus] said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah!  For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. 
     21 From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” 23 But [Jesus] turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
     We’re beginning to see a pattern in the life of Peter.  It almost seems like for every God-given good work that Peter does, along comes a failure, a denial, a betrayal of the Good News that God had used to save Peter, a twisting of the truth that Peter had just confessed.  Sound familiar?  Well, this pattern makes Peter just like Paul.  For Paul is the Apostle who, in Romans chapter 7, confesses that his whole life is a constant struggle with sin.  The good that Paul wants to do, this he does not do.  The evil, (and there is nothing more evil than perverting the free Gospel of forgiveness into a false teaching of works righteousness), the evil that I do not want to do, this I find myself doing.  In the end, as he describes his own struggle with sin, Paul cries out, “who will save me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  Which is another way of saying what Peter said in one of his better moments:  But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus."
     Why did our readings end before Peter’s failures were told?  Did our lectionary committee decide to gloss over the failures of Peter and Paul, not wanting to sully this day when we commemorate them?  More importantly, should we put a qualifier on their status as saints, because of their failures?  Not at all.  For the whole point of the ministry that God gave Peter and Paul is to teach this very thing, that salvation is, from start all the way to the finish line, only through the grace of Jesus.  Nothing excuses the betrayals of Peter.  Or Paul.  We should be appalled and frightened to know that they were both so susceptible to failure, even after becoming baptized believers.  Appalled, but not surprised.  The difficult truth of Christian living this side of paradise is that we are at one and the same time both saints and sinners.  Baptized believers are at the same time forgiven, beloved children of God, and also still hard-headed and hard-hearted sinners, deserving God’s wrath.  Simul iustus, et peccator, as Luther put it, at the same time justified and a sinner. 
     Our sins deserve punishment.  But God does not give us what we deserve.  We need to be clear, God does not excuse any sin.  No excuses, God hates sin.  God does not excuse our sin, but rather He takes it away.  God washes it away, forgives it for you and me and Peter and Paul, forgiving because Jesus has already paid the full price for all human sin.  This is what Peter meant when He said Jesus saves through grace.  Peter was referring to the forgiveness of sins, God’s free gift, given to all who believe, salvation completely apart from the merits of our works. 
     Sin is horrible.  All the pain in the world, all the hurt, all the death, is ultimately caused by sin.  Sin is horrible.  But God is greater.  In fact, the reality of Saints Peter and Paul continuing to struggle with terrible sins throughout their lives affirms the central truth of the Gospel, that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, apart from our works, saved always, from beginning to end, through the grace of Jesus.  It is not that we were forgiven back in time, when we were a sinner, but now we really aren’t sinners and really don’t need to hear of Christ crucified.  No, God’s grace is needed daily, for we daily sin much, and deserve nothing but condemnation.  But Good News, God in Christ has overcome all our sins, and continues to overcome all our sins, and will on the Last Day finally and totally free us completely, from all our sins, forevermore.  What a gracious God we have. 
     Peter and Paul are indeed rightly called saints, which means holy ones of God.  So are you and all who trust in Jesus alone.  (So is little Easton Ostrom, newly baptized, God’s newest saint, a holy one of God because Christ has come to him also with His forgiving word, in and with the water). (So will be, Lord willing little Easton Ostrom, to be baptized at Trinity this morning, God’s newest saint, a holy one of God because Christ will come to him also with His forgiving word, in and with the water.)  Saints are those whom God calls saints, for salvation belongs to God and to his Christ, and to everyone to whom the Holy Spirit delivers it, by His Word and Sacraments. 
     Like Peter and Paul, your sins are terrible, shameful, frightful.  We should not worship the idols of comfort and wealth.  We should not hate, should not hurt, should not speak ill of others.  We who have been brought into the Body of Christ know better, and yet we still betray our Savior.  If we say we have no sin, the truth is not in us, and we have no part with Christ.  But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just, forgives our sins and cleanses us from all unrighteousness.  These are the keys that Jesus gave to Peter and the rest of the Apostles, the authority to loose, or forgive the sins of all who repent, and to retain, to bind on to them the sins of those who refuse to repent, in hope that this frightful act will bring them to repentance, so they can be forgiven.  This is God’s goal, which He enacts through His Church, in the preaching of His pastors, and in the lives of His saints, day after day. 
     So, there is no point, and no need, for us to try to hide our sins.  Every day, moment by moment, we are called to live without sin.  And also, every day, moment by moment, we are called to confess our sins, in order to receive again the grace of Jesus, which is the only thing that can truly empower us to get up again and try to live rightly.  Every day, every moment, saved through the grace of Jesus, and living from the grace of Jesus. 
     Such is the God we have, the God who has won us for Himself by sending Jesus to us.  The God who sent Peter and Paul.  Apostle simply means “sent one,” a title we reserve for those men sent directly by Jesus Himself, the original architects of His Church.   Peter and Paul were “apostled,” sent, to build God’s Church.  And our God is still sending, sending His Word, sending pastors, sending His people, sending you into your daily life, rejoicing in His great love and declaring it, day by day.  As the Psalmist wrote in our Introit, “Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day.  Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples!”  And the most marvelous work of the Lord is the salvation He has won for us in Christ, for we are saved through the grace of Jesus, Amen. 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Fear Not, God's Promises Are For You

Reverend William Stratman preached in my stead this past Sunday, as I am on the road.  Below is my Sermon for the First Sunday after Trinity from 2013.  pw

First Sunday after Trinity, June 2nd, Year of Our + Lord 2013

St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana

Fear Not, God’s Promises Are for You  Genesis 15:1-6 and Luke 16:19-31

Fear not!  Do not be afraid...    Really?  Can we really live without fear? 

     What are you afraid of?  I find myself fearing the prospect of many things.  I’m not, like many, afraid of public speaking, at least, not if I have some idea of what I am going to say.  And, happily, I’m not fearful of a visit from my District President.  O.K., in the interest of full disclosure, my study is looking a bit neater than it usually does this week.  But really, are any of you going to complain if I try to impress my ecclesiastical supervisor by picking up a little?  My motives may not be pure, but fear driven or not, we can all agree any improvement would be a good thing.  But aside from not wanting Pastor Forke to see just how messy I really am, I actually look forward to his visits, because I know he will come speaking God’s Word.  And what is there to fear from God’s Word? 

     Quite a lot, actually.  As God speaks His truth to His people, and as God takes various actions to provide for the salvation of His people, we may find ourselves fearing any number of things He says and does, just like Abram. 

     After these things the Lord God spoke to Abram in a vision, and the very first words out of His mouth are “Fear not.”  Why?  Why did the Lord tell Abram not to be afraid?  Well, there could be lots of reasons, good reasons.  In the years to come after Abram, many of his descendents would quake whenever God appeared and spoke to them:  Moses, Isaiah, Peter, and Paul, to name a few.  Finding yourself in the presence of God is fearful for any sinner, so this may have been Abram’s reason. 

     Or, Abram’s fear could have something to do with “these things” that had just happened.  For the Lord appears to Abram, “after these things,” literally, “after these words.”  What words?  What things?  A quick check of Genesis chapter 14 reveals that Abram has just encountered Melchizedek, whose name means the King of Righteousness.  Melchizedek was the King of the city of Salem, which translated means “Peace.”  The back story is that Abram had just fought a little war, a battle necessary for Abram to rescue his cousin Lot.  Lot, you’ll remember, had chosen to live in Sodom, and  Sodom had been attacked by King Chedorlaomer, who then took Lot and his family prisoner. 

     When Abram heard that Lot had been taken captive, he pursued Chedorlaomer with 318 men, eventually falling upon  them at night.  War is hell, they say, and certainly always a fearful thing.  Fighting a war with the Lord God on your side is, I believe, even scarier, because if the Lord is on your side, you certainly should be bold and fearless in battle, no ducking allowed, even though the Lord usually asks His warriors to rush into battles that appear unwinnable. 

     We are not told in Genesis 14 how many men were with King Chedorlaomer, but he was allied with three other kings of cities, and Abram’s cohort was only 318 men, most of whom must have been herdsmen, since Abram had flocks and herds, not an army.  So, even though he won, Abram  may have suffered quite a fright, charging into the dark to do battle and rescue Lot. 

     And then there is the victory meal, when Melchizedek, King of Salem, shows up out of nowhere.  As the author of Hebrews notes in his explanation of the similarities between Melchizedek and Jesus, Melchizedek has no lineage; contrary to Biblical custom, we hear nothing of his father.  And,  Melchizedek is a priest of the Most High God.  Leading the prayers and the victory meal, Melchizedek, the King of Righteousness and the King of Peace, takes bread and blesses it, and distributes the cup of wine, celebrating the victory the Most High God has granted them.  Abram certainly recognizes Melchizedek as someone very important, sitting under his leadership of the prayers, hearing his proclamation, breaking bread and drinking wine with him.  Even more, Abram gives him a tithe.  Abram makes an offering to Melchizedek of one-tenth of all the spoils he gained in the battle.  It’s almost like Melchizedek is God, as if Abram understands making an offering to him to be the same as making an offering to God. 

     So, Abram has just fought a battle with God on his side, and he has just worshiped the Most High God, eating and drinking bread and wine with a very special priest of God, a mysterious figure, in whose priestly order, by the way, Jesus Christ serves, according to both the Psalms and Hebrews.  So, lots of reason to be afraid, and yet it could also be that Abram’s fear is more personal, that despite all his earthly rewards, despite his special status, despite the military victory Abram has just won, he is afraid because he has no heir, and he’s getting older day by day, and what he really wants is that son from whom the Lord has told him a great nation would one day come, and from whom also would come a particular Seed, a particular descendent, in whom every nation of the world would be blessed.   

      Whatever the cause of Abram’s fear, the Lord God appeared to him in a vision to dispel it, to drive out Abram’s fear with the perfect love of His promise.  God saves by faith, and so to create that faith, God makes promises for us to trust.  Abram is not finding confidence in the earthly rewards that God had given Him, but rather is looking for the fulfillment of God’s first promise to him.  God comes to drive out Abram’s fear by doubling down on His promises:  I am your shield.  Your reward is very great.  Go look at the stars, Abram.  Count them if you can.  That’s how many descendents you’ll have, descendents who will come from your own body, your own bosom.  Stop doubting and believe, Abram, I will fulfill My promises. 

     Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord counted his faith as righteousness.  That is, the Lord declared in His heavenly courtroom that Abram, despite his sin and doubt, was righteous, pure, an heir of the heavenly kingdom, simply because Abram believed the Word of the Lord.  And thus the Lord God drives out fear and draws the fearful into His Kingdom.  Abram didn’t trust in his earthly rewards, looking instead for the promise that only comes through a son of his own body, looking toward a particular Heir who would be a blessing to all nations. 

   Not so the rich man we hear of from Jesus today.  Consider these two, Lazarus, the poor sore-filled beggar and friend of dogs, and the nameless rich man, dressed in purple and feasting sumptuously.  Both of these very different men were, physically speaking, descendents of Abraham, as Abram was re-named by the Lord.  But the fundamental difference between these  two sons of Abraham had nothing to do with the quality of their lives on earth.  No, the difference was in the promises they believed, the rewards in which they trusted. 

     The rich man believed in the promise of earthly good things.  In his earthly life, he feared only losing his wealth.  The rich man was not afraid of walking by Lazarus without noticing him.  He was not afraid that the God of Israel is jealous for the poor and needy and desires to see them served.  The rich man believed he had it made, and that was all that mattered. 

     Lazarus might have feared his next day of pain, the hunger in his gut, or the shame of begging to survive.  He may have feared these things, or maybe not.  I once spent time in a colonia of Juarez, Mexico, a desperately poor squatters camp filled with Mexican families, hoping to find a way to survive.  They were many things, but I felt far more fear in myself than I observed in them.  Perhaps when you have nothing to lose, you have nothing to fear. 

     I don’t know about the fears of the desperately poor.  But I do know Lazarus, by God’s grace, believed in the same promises Abraham believed, the promises of the Lord God, to prepare a heavenly paradise, and give access to all who trust in the coming Savior.  All the other differences between the rich man and Lazarus, rewards vs. suffering, wealth vs. poverty, health vs. sickliness, fine friends  vs. furry friends, none of these were lasting differences, and none of these either excluded them from God’s Kingdom, nor earned their way in. 

      But as descendents of Abraham, as children of Israel, both the rich man and Lazarus had heard the Word of the Lord, the Law and the Promises of God, spoken to Abram, and Moses, and David, repeated daily and weekly amongst the people of the Jews for centuries.  Both had heard the Word, but the rich man ignored it.  The rich man had better things to do than  to meditate on what God had done and said.  He had sumptuous meals to eat, and great riches to count up in his treasury.  Lazarus, on the other hand,  had nothing but time to meditate on the Word, and nothing else to look to for good.  And while the rewards to be found in earthly goods are pleasant, for a time, it is only faith that saves, only faith in the promises of God that matters, faith in the Coming One, the Priest coming in the order of Melchizedek, the true King of Righteousness and Peace.    So, now that they have died, now that their earthly lives are over, now, and forever and ever, the rich man fears, and Lazarus rejoices. 

    The rich man fears, for himself, for the next moment of suffering that he knows is coming, again and again, forever.  He exists forever in fear, because he rejected the One who came to take his fear from him.  The rich man fears, also for his brothers and everyone who hears the Word of God but trusts in the things of this world.  The rich man’s fears are continually fulfilled, and there’s nothing he can do about it.  They say war is hell, but war is not really hell.  War is very bad, but hell is worse, far worse, and hell never ends. 

    The rich man fears forever, but all of Lazarus fears’ have been driven out by the perfect love of Christ, who, as Lazarus believed, and has now come to know, took all his sores and poverty and loneliness and suffering onto Himself, in order to qualify Lazarus to live with Abraham, and all the saints in light, forever. 

     So, what do you fear?  Do you fear the loss of your earthly comforts?  Do you fear the loss of your money and possessions, more than you fear the One who can destroy both body and soul in hell?  Do you fear losing your stuff more than you fear the shame of failing to help the needy person outside your gate?  Or perhaps you are relatively poor and suffering.  But do you fear your poverty and suffering so much that you too are worshiping the good things of this life, even though you don’t have them?  Pay attention to what you fear, for, just like your willingness, or unwillingness, to love your neighbor, so also the things you fear teach you where your faith is placed.  If you fear earthly poverty and suffering most of all, your fear is a sign of unbelief.  Likewise, if you see your brother in need, and ignore him,  your selfishness is a sign of unbelief.  Repent, turn away from your fear.  Repent, turn away from your selfishness.  Repent, and hear again how God addressed Abram’s fear. 

     The Lord God addressed Abram’s fear with His Word, removing his fear and replacing it with right faith, faith that looks not at the things of this world, good or bad, but rather faith which believes the promises of God.  And we are more blessed than Abram was, for he could only look forward to the promises of God, promises which now for us have been and continue to be fulfilled, in our midst, in the person of Jesus Christ, that Seed of Abram in Whom the whole world is blessed.  All who trust in the forgiveness Jesus won on the Cross are numbered among the stars Abram counted, numbered as descendents of that old man who believed God.  To Abram, and to you, faith in God’s promises is counted by God as righteousness, as worthiness to live before God, today, and forever and ever.      

     So, fear not!  Really.  Do not be afraid, forever.  This is God’s Word to you, for Jesus Christ, crucified for your sin, resurrected for your justification, and ascended on high to prepare a place for you, He is your shield and your very great reward.  In Him, and with all the faithful, you too can sing: 

Lord, let at last Thine angels come, To Abr’ham’s bosom bear me home, that I may die unfearing. 

And in its narrow chamber keep, My body safe in peaceful sleep, Until Thy reappearing. 

And then from death, awaken me, That these mine eyes with joy may see,

O Son of God, Thy glorious face, My Savior and my fount of grace. 

Lord Jesus Christ, my prayer attend, may prayer attend,

And I will praise Thee without end, 
in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. 

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Harvest Time

The Day of Pentecost                                                 June 8, , Year of Our + Lord 2014

St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches                   Fairview and Sidney, Montana

Harvest Time – Acts 2:1-21


     It’s time for the harvest festival!  Well, not here, not yet.  But in the land of Israel, Pentecost marks the end of the wheat harvest.  Given the climate there, wheat and barley are planted in the fall and harvested between March and May, for the most part.  So it is harvest time, actually the end of harvest, time to celebrate God’s rich bounty by bringing a first-fruits offering to Him, who has given us everything. 

     It’s harvest festival time in Israel, and it’s also harvest festival time here, on this Pentecost Sunday, albeit a different kind of harvest.


     Pentecost means fiftieth, as in the fiftieth day since the Passover, which was the designated day for the Feast of Weeks, appointed for Israel by God.  A Sabbath of weeks, 7 weeks after Passover, and then the next day Israel was to celebrate a feast.  Seven times seven is 49, and on the next day, the 50th, a feast, celebrating the end of the wheat harvest, a bookend for the grain harvest season.  The other bookend was the day after Passover, for in Leviticus 23, the LORD instructs that on the day after Passover the Israelites were to make an offering of the first sheaves of the barley harvest, barley being an earlier crop, in the Mediterranean at least.  So Passover also marked the beginning of the grain harvest season, and Pentecost, the fiftieth day, was another name given by the Jews to the Feast of Weeks, celebrating the end of wheat harvest.  The harvests of grains, which provide bread for living, are bookended by Passover and Pentecost. 


     What’s more, almost as if He had been planning ahead when He spelled out the festival season to Moses, 15 centuries earlier, God makes excellent use of the harvest theme in His New Testament.  As our God who gives our daily bread accomplishes His greater harvest plan, the harvest of souls, He also bookends this harvest with Passover and Pentecost. 


   On the front end, we have the Passover, which Jesus fulfills and transforms, fulfilling the ancient “freedom for Israel from slavery to Egypt” miracle with the even greater miracle of winning the freedom of every sinner from slavery to sin, death and the devil.  This is the sine qua non harvest, apart from which there is no hope for sinners.  For the wages of sin is death.  So, if you sin, death, that grim reaper, is coming, and if you can die, then you also know sin is real for you. 

     But Christ Jesus has taken your sin and its wages upon Himself, the Good Seed who fell into the ground, dying for sin, in order to defeat both sin and death, for you.  On the night when He was betrayed, Jesus takes the Passover meal and transforms it into the Lord’s Supper, giving heavenly bread and heavenly drink as His last will and testament to us sinners, that we might have forgiveness in His Body and Blood, broken and shed on the Cross the next afternoon.  Our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed, once for all, and so we rejoice to wave the barley sheaf of faith and thanksgiving on Resurrection morning, when Jesus reveals Himself alive, the Good Seed which is now ready to bear abundant fruit, 10, 30, even 100 fold. 


     There is nothing lacking in Jesus’ harvest of souls, and yet the harvest goes on.  For 40 days Moses stayed on Mt. Sinai, receiving the Torah, the laws and instructions of God.  In a similar way, Jesus stays 40 days after the Resurrection, teaching the Eleven Apostles, opening their minds to understand the Scriptures, so they could see Him written on every page of the Old Testament, and also so they could fill the New Testament with Him, the Christ of God, fully revealed, the center of all Scripture.  During forty days Jesus also  appeared, in various places, to the faithful, creating witnesses of the Resurrection, who would, with the Apostles, form the infant Church.  Then came Ascension Day, when our Lord Jesus took our humanity into heaven.  And not just into heaven, but rather, the Man Jesus, our brother by faith, sat down at the right hand of majesty, so the Man Christ Jesus rules over all things.  He guarantees our place in glory.  For Christ is the Head of the Church, and where the Head goes, the Body will follow, in its proper time. 


     Jesus ascended into heaven, and told the Apostles to wait, to wait for the gift of power from on high, the coming of the Holy Spirit.  And for ten days, they waited.  Do you suppose they were nervous?  You know how farmers get, just before the harvest.  The grain is rounding out nicely, approaching the perfect ripeness, just a few more days.  But what if there’s a hailstorm, or a wildfire?  What if unexpected rains come and flatten the ripening grain?  Will we make it to the reaping? 


     We have no word as to whether the Apostles were nervous after the Ascension.  But we do know that on just the right day, on Pentecost, the Feast of Weeks, the wheat harvest festival, on that most appropriate day, the Spirit came.  The Holy Spirit came, in tongues of fire and unlearned tongues, languages, that is, never learned, but given by the Spirit to the Apostles for preaching the mighty deeds of God to Jews from every nation on earth.  This was the beginning of the Mission of Christ’s Church, the kick-off day of the harvest of souls that continues down to this day. 


     So we see the bookends, Passover and the Feast of Weeks, Easter and Pentecost, the Cross, and Holy Baptism.  Holy Baptism?  Yes, for if we read on in Acts chapter 2, the harvest of Christ is delivered to 3,000 souls on Pentecost, as they were baptized into the Name of Jesus, into the Name that Jesus revealed, baptized into the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. 


     The harvest continues.  The promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call to Himself.  Yes, God continues to call sinners to Himself, using both book ends, Good Friday and Pentecost, in their proper focus.  Because we need both. 


     The Christian festival of Pentecost is the Birthday of the Church, the font of Mission, that joyous and spectacular day when God began growing His Church in earnest.  It is joyful and exciting and the never ending subject of our study for understanding how we are to go about being Church.  And yet, Pentecost without Good Friday and Easter would be meaningless, an empty pep rally with no lasting benefit.  For the Holy Spirit can only take up dwelling in a new creature, a new man or woman redeemed and made holy before God.  And the only thing with the power to make sinners holy is the Holy One, Jesus Christ, who has passed through death and hell in order to win holiness and righteousness for us.  And, if you read on in Acts 2, you will see that the Cross was fully proclaimed by Peter on Pentecost, the mightiest deed of God, the greater Passover in the death and resurrection of the first born Son of God.  The gifts given by the Holy Spirit on Pentecost or any other day are all directly tied to the victory won by our Suffering Savior.   


     The Christian Passover, the festival of Good Friday and Easter, is the climax of God’s salvation acts.  The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus is the righteousness of God, poured out for mankind.  The work of salvation is complete in Jesus, crucified and resurrected.  Without the Cross and Empty Tomb, there is no harvest festival, for without the Risen Christ, we are still in our sins, with no hope of being gathered into the Father’s glorious granary.  And yet, without Pentecost, the Cross and Empty Tomb are historical events to which we have no access.  You have no way to go back 2,000 years to see Jesus dead and raised, and so know and trust in Him.  It is like putting up a sign that says: Free Beer.  Free Beer, whether from barley or from wheat, sounds like good news.  But without knowing of the time and place to fill your glass, the good news is not really for you.


     The Good News of the Cross and Resurrection is much better than free beer; it is free forgiveness, and eternal life with God.  But the question is, where can you and I get filled up with this Good News?  Pentecost is God the Holy Spirit bringing Good Friday and Easter to you.  Free beer, here?  No, even better, free forgiveness and eternal life, here, in the preaching of Christ crucified, in Holy Baptism, in the Supper where the faithful are fed with forgiveness and so are joined to God. 


     On that first Pentecost, 2,000 years ago, God caused the Good News of Christ, crucified and resurrected for sinners, to be proclaimed into many languages, so that everyone could hear, and, by the power of the Holy Spirit working through that preaching, also believe, and so receive salvation, by the forgiveness of sins.  God has continued this work, right down to this very day.  He has even given me, the sinner, the great privilege of proclaiming Jesus in English to the precious people of the MonDak. 


     Now, to my great discomfort, I have two calls.  I still have, and value highly, your call to preach here, at St. John and Trinity, and throughout our communities.  And I have also been called to go to Spain, and preach there, in Spanish, to a people and culture that have become very secular and far from God.  Considering the two was causing me distress.  And so God sent a preacher, Arlo Pullman, via e-mail, to rescue me from despair and false belief.  Pastor Pullman, of St. John, Laurel, wrote the following: 


Very often when confronted with a choice or the need to make a decision we approach it with the intent of doing the right thing.  This implies that the other choice would likely be a wrong thing.  We want to do God's will and are tempted to think that of the options before us one is God's will and the other not.  Peace and rest become difficult under the threat of the wrath of God.


You and Shelee are at a fork in the road.  The signs do not say, "Heaven" and "Hell".  You do not have to wonder if some mischievous person switched them.  In fact there are no signs, no indicators, of which path you ought to take.  You have something better than a road sign.  You have promises from the one who started you down the road in the first place.  He gave you a promise when he sent you to baptize and teach.  He also said, "I am with you always, to the fork in the road," no, wait, "to the end of the age."  You can almost hear him saying to you in a ruthian voice, "Where you go, I will go."  


Another promise that is for you he revealed to Apostle Paul: "All things work for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose."  No matter which of the forks you choose, God will work that choice for good. I remind you of this not to make the choice more clear or easier.  I remind you of this for the sake of peace and rest so that when you have tired of standing at the fork in the road and begin moving down one path or the other, you can do so with a clear conscience and with complete confidence that your choice is pleasing to God and that he will bless you and the work that you do in his name.  Both paths lead to the same place: service to Jesus now, life with him into all eternity.


     What a blessing from God for me to hear.  And the comfort that Pastor Pullman offered to me I pray you also will receive.  There is a great deal for Shelee and I to consider as we stand at this fork, and I know, a good bit of worry for you.  I have greatly appreciated your words, words of prayer, and kind sentiments, and good council.  The decision is difficult. 


     But regardless of which way the Spirit leads us to go, remember this: The word of Christ has not been proclaimed within these walls for the last 8 decades because of my efforts, nor because of your efforts, but rather, God has willed it.  God has graciously gathered you and me, a bunch of other pastors, and thousands of faithful members, pastors and people together, to proclaim His mighty deeds of salvation, to wash and feed and correct and comfort, and also that we encourage each other, as the people of God in this place.  If Shelee and I go to Spain, we will all still have the same work to do together, albeit at a distance geographically.  If we stay here, we will all still have the same work to do together.  That work is getting the Good News of Christ into the ears and hearts of sinners, like you and me.  Both paths, for you and for me, lead to the same place, service to Jesus now, and life with Him into all eternity. 


     Rest in the peace and joy of the Spirit, sent by the Father, in the Name of Jesus, Amen. 

Monday, June 2, 2014

The Spirit of God

Seventh Sunday of Easter, Exaudi, June 1st, Year of Our + Lord 2014

Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, Montana

The Spirit of God, John 15:26 – 16:4, Ezekiel 36:22-38


     Shelee and I are bad dog owners, in at least one respect.  We have two lab-mixes, Jack, who is black, and Dan, who is tan.  We feed them well and give them a safe place to live.  We pay attention to them.  We also regularly walk them, often out by the canal behind the justice center in Sidney.  And here is where some might say better pet owners would gain some control. 


     When we walk behind the justice center, Dan is always looking for a fox that lives there.  If he finds the fox, Dan chases the fox.  Through the farmer’s fields.  For just as long as he wants, because we can’t control him.  We’re not happy about it.  We don’t want Dan running through the fields.  We wish he’d leave the fox alone.  And, we’re worried what would happen if he actually caught up to the fox.  (The fox does seem to be faster than Dan, just barely…)


     All the same, I have to say, I admire the fox’s spirit.  I’m not sure whether foxes live in family groups or not, so I’m also not sure whether the fox we see is a male or female.  I’m going to guess our fox is a female, mama, not papa fox.  But either way, the fox’s selfless, even self-sacrificing spirit, is a thing to behold. 


     The fox isn’t very big, like an oversized cat, less than 20 pounds, I’m sure.  Dan is 65 pounds, fast, and has great endurance.  So if Dan happens to spot the fox, off they go.  We’ve used the shock collar, to no effect.  Our calls to “come back here right now” apparently sound like encouragement to Dan.  Round and round they run.  Most times, the fox loses Dan, in and around irrigation pipes, or if the canal is dry, by running across it and into the North Meadows neighborhood.  Basically the fox does all the foxy, dodge and double back stuff that you see foxes do in Disney movies and nature shows. 


     But the last couple of times, the fox has been different.  Early last week, instead of lying low, hiding from Dan, the fox showed itself when we were still some distance away.  Off went Dan, and the fox led him off to the northeast, while Shelee, Jack and I  kept walking.  Then, when Dan grew tired of chasing, and started coming back toward us, running toward where we were standing on top of a side ditch, the fox started chasing Dan.  The little fox was running after Dan, and making this strange coughing, not quite barking noise.  (For those who have seen the music video, What Does the Fox Say?, I know.  I can even describe it for you if you like.) 

     When Dan realized he was being chased by his miniature opponent, he turned around and started chasing the fox again, for a bit, not long, because Dan was tired.  But whenever Dan again turned back toward us, the fox again started chasing him.  And that’s when we realized, we must have been standing over the den.  Eventually Dan decided to rejoin us, and the fox chased Dan all the way back to us, only pulling up 30 or 40 yards from Shelee, Jack and I.  The fox was using itself as bait to lure us away from its babies. 


     Last Friday morning, the fox did it again, this time without the dogs.  This time Shelee and I were out for a bike ride.  Again the fox showed itself, and raced off to the northeast.  As we biked along the big canal in that direction, the fox periodically showed itself, and then took off again, trying to make sure we followed it well away from its kits. 


     The fox showed a spirit of self-sacrifice, almost a spirit of love.  I don’t think animals have emotions in the same way we do, but certainly the fox’s acts were loving, in that they were a service to others.  The fox was willingly putting itself at risk to protect the family. 


     When I use the word spirit in this sense, it doesn’t mean spirit-as-in-soul, that is, the non-physical part of our human make-up as body and soul people.  Animals don’t have souls.  When I use spirit in reference to the fox, it means attitude or manner of living.  Regardless of what emotions a fox does or doesn’t feel, its actions displayed a spirit of service, love, and self-sacrifice.  And it occurred to me while we were riding away on Friday that the fox’s spirit of self-sacrificing love is a pretty good picture of God, who, despite our sinfulness, has willingly done whatever it took to rescue His children.   


     Only God is greater.  The spirit, or attitude of love, that God displays is even greater than the self-sacrifice showed by our bushy tailed furry friend.  For God not only risked Himself to save His children, God actually gave up His life.  God didn’t come thirty or forty yards from danger, then pull up short.  No, God in the person of the Son, Jesus Christ, went all the way.  Jesus suffered and died, in order to draw the danger away from His family.  And the danger to His children, which He took upon Himself, was not just from some third party enemy, but rather came also from His children themselves. 


     The devil is certainly prowling around, hunting God’s children, like my dog Dan chases foxes.  But God’s children, you and me, are also working against God’s good purposes, exposing ourselves to danger.  It would be as if the fox kits, instead of strictly obeying their mother’s barked commands to get down deep in the den and stay quiet, instead ran out into the open and called to my dog to come and devour them.   


     When you and I sin, we are running out of God’s protecting care and begging Satan to come and devour us.  And by devour us I mean to take us captive to false belief, in order to hold us in suffering, with him and all the fallen angels, forever and ever.  This is the risk of sinning, and yet, we do it, again and again.  No wonder God had to promise through Ezekiel that He would act, He would do whatever it takes to rescue His people Israel from their sinful rebellion.  The Lord promised: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”  All of these things God would do, not for the sake of Israel, not because they were so good and deserving of God’s care, but rather for the sake of His Name, by which God had swore to raise up from the children of Israel a holy people to live with Him forever. 


     And here we see how, yet even more, God is greater.  For there is another, greater, the greatest use, of the word Spirit.  God does indeed have a spirit, that is an attitude of love and self-sacrifice.  But even more, as God revealed at the Creation and throughout the Old Testament, as in our passage from Ezekiel, “I will put my Spirit within you,”  and most fully through the words Jesus spoke just before His ascension back to the throne of heaven, God is Spirit.  That is, God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the One true God who is also three persons, all three distinct, and yet still one true God.  God doesn’t just have a spirit; He is the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, the Helper, sent from the Father and the Son, to protect and build up the Church in these days, when the end of all things is at hand. 


     Yes our God is not only a good Father, looking out for wayward children.  Nor is God only the best Brother possible, the man Jesus who has taken all our sins to His Cross, willingly suffering in our place, in order to set us free from sin, death and the devil.  God is also the Holy Spirit, the Helper, the One who takes from what is the Father’s and the Son’s, and declares it to you, the One who by the power of His creating, sustaining, and regenerating Word truly removes our sins from us, truly creates new hearts in us, truly moves us to be self-controlled, sober minded, and above all things loving, all for the sake of His Good Name.  It is by the work of the Holy Spirit that we know how and also believe that God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, has loved us.   


     The fox does whatever it takes to draw our attention onto her, and away from her children.  The Holy Spirit works in  almost the opposite way, focusing all His efforts not on drawing attention to Himself, but rather doing all things to get you to focus on Jesus Christ and His self-sacrifice, declaring the story again and again so you can see the Father’s love, poured out for you.  Through this seeing and believing, this vision that comes to you through your ears, God gives you eternal life. 

     And so we need the Spirit to keep helping us, for the life of Christians is not always rainbows and puppy dogs.  Sometimes the gnashing and snapping teeth of our enemies are all too real.  To the unbelieving sinner that, sad to say, still exists in each of us, the witness of the Holy Spirit is condemnation and death.  And so our sinful nature does all it can to survive, trying to get us to believe something else about sin or salvation, anything else, in order avoid the Spirit’s voice.   Oh Lord I believe, help Thou my unbelief.   


     To the unbelieving world, there is something perverse and even dangerous in those who believe the witness of the Spirit about Christ crucified and resurrected, something subversive about people whose greatest good is not of this world.  As Jesus predicted, the Church has always and will continue to face resistance and persecution, as the world tries to conquer and destroy the Spirit’s message.  But have no fear, Christ has already conquered the world, and Satan.  Their power is limited. 


     The world promises we can gain power and glory and lasting pleasure right now, in the things of this world, especially those things that God has forbidden.  The world says your body is for your pleasure, however you like it.  God says the joy of being a man or a woman is found in marriage and family.  The world says that material things and wealth are to be accumulated and used to serve you own pleasures, always.  God says true riches are found in those good things that you can share with others.  The world’s temptations are empty lies, only able to divert our attention us from the truth of sin and death for a while. 


     The world’s threats against the Church and Christians, the threats of persecution and suffering, are proven meaningless when you contemplate the suffering of Jesus, which He did in your place.  The promises of life and peace and eternal joy with God are as sure the Cross and Resurrection, as solid as the Word of God, as good as the Holy Name of God.  Your place in God’s kingdom is secure, your seat at His table is reserved, by the power of the Spirit, through the sacrifice of the Son, in the love of the Father, Amen.