Friday, February 27, 2015

Midweek Lenten Sermon (February 25, 2015): Fruit of the Spirit: Joy

            Beloved in Christ, “I don’t care if we are looking at the fruit of the Spirit,” many Christians would say, “This is not the time to talk about joy. Don’t you realize that we are in the middle of Lent? Lent is a gloomy time. Lent is a time to walk around with somber faces. Lent is the time to wring out every last drop of joy from our lives and embrace a level of grief and despair such as is known only to those who have just lost a loved one.”

            Says who? Not our Lord. Lent may be a time to fast, but our Lord warned us last week in Matthew 6 about going around all sad and grieving. If you embrace a spiritual discipline, and it pinches you a little, don’t let the pain show, for it isn’t about the hurt but about your relationship with God. And if you are fasting, it is not supposed to be about grieving a decline in your relationship with food, but about rejoicing in greater fellowship with God. Spiritual disciplines may be serious business, but none of them are gloomy. They are laden with joy.

            So too is the Christian life. There are Christians who believe that it is their divine calling to be killjoys, to make themselves and others as miserable as possible. But Paul knew different. He knew that the Galatians were laboring under the false impression that their men all had to be circumcised in order to be righteous before God. They thought that the truly spiritual thing to do was to undertake circumcision and other acts that left one howling in physical pain. But Paul argued in Galatians 5 that the Spirit produces joy. The Holy Spirit doesn’t push us to embrace a life of gloom and misery. Yes, we may have gloom and misery in our life, as we will talk about later, but the Holy Spirit is all about bringing joy—real, lasting joy—to Christians.

            Now we are easily confused about joy, as we are about many so many aspects of the fruit of the Spirit. People get confused about where true joy is to be found, just as they get confused about what real love is or what real peace consists of. People confuse joy and happiness, for example. Happiness is a fleeting emotion, here one moment and gone the next, and is based on our circumstances. When things are going well for us, we cannot help being happy; when things are going badly, we are naturally sad. But joy is something deeper. It can be present even amid great sorrows. To use an earthly example, we may rejoice that a loved one is getting married and moving across the United States where a better job offer awaits for the couple. But we may grieve because we know that we won’t see him or her all that often, anymore. In the same way, we Christians experience the same sorrows as other people do, but it is the love of Jesus Christ for us that enables us to find joy amid life’s ups and downs.

            Because joy is grounded more deeply than merely on the surface, we have to make sure that we don’t try to find joy in all the wrong places. In fact, you could say that this is one of the major tasks we undertake each Lent. The world says, “Eat, drink, and be merry,” as if that is where joy is to be found. But we recognize that there is joy to be found even amid fasting. The world says, “Raunchy sex is all that matters,” but we learn the joy to be found in chastity and marital faithfulness. The world says, “Greed is good,” but we learn the joy to be found in contentment. The world says, “Let me tell you a juicy rumor,” as if joy were to be found in gossiping and lying, but we learn that true joy comes from the truth, especially God’s truth. The world says, “Laziness is particularly delightful,” but we learn the joy to be found in fulfilling our vocations. Therefore, if we reject certain practices or avoid certain things the world is pushing, it isn’t because we are against joy, but rather for it. We want to find joy where it truly may be found. And that means we have to let the law of God clear away the clutter. We have to learn what it forbids so that we may not find great despair and misery instead of joy.

            This point is made quite clear in the reading from Jeremiah. It is obvious that God wanted to build up His city and make it a delightful place for His people to live. But that clearly was not happening in Jeremiah’s day. Instead, houses were being torn down “to make a defense against the siege.” They needed bricks and anything else sturdy they could find in order to block the siege mounds that the Chaldeans were building. They were even stripping the royal palaces for material for the defense works. Jerusalem was soon going to be filled “with the dead bodies of men.” This would be no happenstance of history, but God Himself would “strike [them] down in [His] anger and [His] wrath.” God loved His people, but they had turned to all sorts of idols, and thus God had to clean out the city.

            But as He explained to Jeremiah, He did all this because He wanted His people to have a greater joy. He promised that the city would be re-inhabited. God would heal His people. He would “restore [their] fortunes…and rebuild them.” He would “cleanse them from all the guilt of their sin” and “forgive all…[their] rebellion.” Life would return back to normal. Groom and bride would laugh. Songs of praise to God would echo in the city streets again.

            It is in this light then that we gather as Christians during this Lenten season. We want to find true joy, and we find it in Jesus Christ alone. He certainly had to find the deep sources of joy, for there was much that happened to Him in His last few days that surely would not make anyone happy. And yet, as the author of Hebrews reminds us, He “endured the cross” “for the [sake of the] joy that was set before Him.” We are used to saying that Christ endured the cross because He was filled with great love toward us. That is true. But we usually don’t say that Christ endured the cross because He was filled with great joy. But that is equally true. Just as Christ’s love for us kept Him going during the difficult moments, so too His sense of joy saw Him through the dark moments.

            What sort of joy did He have? He delighted in God His Father and He delighted in us. He was giddy with the thought of honoring His Father and of reconciling us to Him. It didn’t mean that He was free from pain. In fact, He suffered more agony and suffering than anyone in human history. But He “endured the cross, despising the shame,” thinking it unworthy to dwell upon when He knew all the good things that would happen as a result of His work.

            That sort of joy isn’t just for Christ. We too go through our lives, enduring all sorts of unpleasant things and even scorning its shame, because we know what comes at the end. Just as Christ was seated at the right hand of God, so we too will be glorified in the end. That is why we are urged to “look to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” and “run with endurance the race that is set before us.” And that is why joy is a fruit of the Spirit. If the Spirit is helping us genuinely to believe in Christ, then we will adopt His attitude. We will see that glory comes after the cross. And that glory, though sometimes dimmed by clouds in this life, shines through enough to bring us great joy.

            Therefore, beloved in Christ, may you be full of joy, not despite the Lenten season but because of it. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Sermon for Lent 1B, February 22, 2015

            Beloved in Christ, today’s Gospel may disappoint us if we are familiar with what Matthew and Luke tell of the same incident. Mark simply tells us that Jesus was tempted for forty days in the wilderness. He doesn’t bother to tell us what those temptations were. Matthew and Luke fill in the details. They tell us that Jesus was tempted to change stones into bread, to jump from the pinnacle of the temple, and to bow down to Satan. In each temptation Jesus was challenged to do these things to prove that He truly was God’s beloved Son. And in each instance Jesus quoted the Scriptures to refute Satan.

            Yes, Matthew and Luke have much more to say than does Mark. And yet today’s Gospel offers us a rich feast to digest, if we are but open to hear it. We see three vignettes: before, during, and after our Lord’s temptation. Let us look at what is happening in each situation.

            First of all, we see that before His temptation our Lord was given a Word by His Father. God said to Him, “You are My beloved Son; with You I am well pleased.” Before there can be any temptation, God must have spoken. Either God must have commanded us to do or not do something or He must have promised that He would do something for us. But if we have not received either a word of His law or of His gospel, there is not any way for us to be tempted. Brute animals have neither God’s commandments nor His promises. They cannot be tempted in the way we are. But every human being has the law of God written in their hearts, and this law is loudly proclaimed by our conscience. Therefore, every human being can be tempted, for we have that word of law, if nothing else, from God. But Christ knew more than just God’s law. He had this clear promise that He was God’s beloved Son, in whom His Father delighted.

            Now often when God speaks His Word to us, we feel spiritually strong and are overjoyed to hear that Word. This is the moment of glory before we enter into the wilderness to be tested. When Christ heard the good words spoken by His Father and saw the Holy Spirit descend upon Him, He must have been filled with joy. At last, His ministry was under way. He felt close to God, as close as He had ever been, and He was surely willing to march through any wilderness. He was unbeatable. But all this would be sorely tested when He was banished to a desolate place. In the same way we too delight to hear God’s Word in this church. We leave here, having been forgiven all of last week’s sins, and we are eager to take on the challenges that lie ahead of us. There is no foe that can stand before us, or so we think. This is the pattern of the saints throughout history. Abraham heard God promise that He would give him a child through his wife Sarah. And “Abraham believed God.” It was as simple as that. But in the moment of testing, that word seems to be taken from us. God seems to be not as reliable as He had appeared initially to be.

            And so it is not going to be here that we face our greatest temptations. Instead we face them when we leave this oasis and return to the wilderness of the world. There the sweet promises of God seem to be absent and His commandments seem to be irrelevant to daily living in a modern world. And so the Word of God we had just heard is directly challenged. If we truly are God’s beloved children, then why has He given such archaic rules to follow? Well, okay, maybe His law is good, but surely we have to admit that the times require us to take certain shortcuts, right? Maybe we can make up for the damage we’ve done later. And if we are God’s beloved children, why does He not fulfill all His promises quickly? Why do we suffer? Why do we grieve? Why are we lonely?

            Our Lord faced a similar challenge, but an even deeper one. You see, we are sinners and we have to admit that we have brought much of our grief upon ourselves. But Christ was the holy Son of God. Why then was He driven into the wilderness, by the Holy Spirit no less? He was the Lord of creation. Why then were the wild animals all around Him, possibly roaring or threatening Him somehow? Why wasn’t “the desert [blossoming] like the crocus” and showing all “the glory of Lebanon,” as Scripture had foretold? Was it fair for Him to be treated worse than a slave when He was the Son of God?

            But if you look more carefully, you see that all is not as it appears. Yes, Christ was in the wilderness, but He did not die there. Yes, He was surrounded by the wild animals, but He was not harmed by them. And He was not alone. The holy angels were there. They did not just stand from a distance and watch. They “were ministering to Him.” And so the wilderness was not as horrible as it might have seemed. He was still with God. He still had His Father’s promises. And our Lord clung to them.

            Christ knew that the Holy Spirit wanted Him there so that He could obediently cling to God’s Word in a way that all other human beings had failed to do. It doesn’t take much of a wilderness experience for us to succumb to sin. But Christ “was in the wilderness forty days.” He was not tested by his peers or by a demon of a lower rank, but by Satan himself. He endured this testing and clung to God’s Word because He was learning obedience. He had always been the holy Son of God from eternity. But now He was experiencing this profound testing in His body, indeed, a fiercer test than you or I or anyone else has ever undergone. Because He passed this test, He was then able to go on and suffer and die on the cross, so that our sins could be forgiven. If He had not been perfectly holy, including during this time of intense temptation, He would not have been qualified to be our Savior. Sinners cannot save other sinners. Only someone completely holy can save us. And just as gold cannot be discerned as true gold until it has gone through the fire and been tested, so He could not save us until He had shown that He was who He said He was: the eternal, righteous Son of God in human flesh.

            Christ learned to trust His Father in all things as He was driven into the wilderness to be tested. Let us also learn to trust God in all things as we find ourselves tested in our wildernesses. Yes, the Word seems to be absent there, but it is not. For Christ has gone into our wildernesses and He is with us as we are being tested. He has won the victory over sin. He has atoned for our guilt. He has reconciled us with His Father. Therefore, He bids us open our eyes and see what is really happening. Angels are with us, ministering to us. The wild animals are being held at bay and kept from devouring us. It may not be a pleasant place to be in the wilderness, but it is still a place where God is. And if we remember that and cling to God’s promises, we will be victorious.

            Today’s gospel doesn’t end there, though. Not only did our Lord win the victory when He was in the wilderness, He was empowered by the experience to begin His ministry and to do so with great vigor. It didn’t matter that John the Baptist had been arrested. Nobody could stop our Lord now. He proclaimed that God’s kingdom was at hand; this was the time that everybody had been looking forward to during the days of the Old Testament.

            Our Lord added the words, “Repent and believe in the gospel.” Above all else, this is what He wanted people to know after His wilderness experience. He had resisted temptation, not just to give us an example, but to make up for all that we had done wrong. We learn the wrong lesson from today’s Gospel if all we learn is to handle temptation better. Of course, I want you to learn how to handle temptation better. I don’t want you falling for the devil’s lies again and again. I want you to learn from your past mistakes, and I want you to vow to cling to God’s Word better and really strive to do so. But that in and of itself won’t make you a Christian. Christians know that they have not been perfect. They have yielded to temptation far too often. They cannot make up for their sins. Instead, they trust in Christ as their Savior from all their sins.

            You see, the real strength comes not when we turn away from the tempter, but when turn to Jesus Christ. Only then do we truly enter God’s kingdom and experience all that He has prepared for us.

            Beloved in Christ, may you cling to your Savior whether you are here in this church or stuck out in the wilderness of life. For Christ in due time will bring you through the wilderness into the Promised Land that He has prepared for you by His holy life, death, and resurrection. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Sermon for Ash Wednesday, February 18, 2015

            Beloved in Christ, something has gone wrong. That is why we are here. We are not the sort of people God would have us be. We are cold in our love toward God and toward our neighbors. If we are religious, it is often because we want to “be praised by others.” If we are going to do any good works, we want to “receive” the full credit of our “reward.” We are wicked all too often, and when we are not, we are often hypocrites. And so let no trumpet be sounded today. For we have “[laid] up…treasures on earth,” and “moth and rust [have destroyed]” them.

            But how do we get out of ourselves? It is tempting to look for new laws and new rules and new disciplines that will free us from sin and wickedness. We in America are particularly prone to this temptation. We have self-help books, life coaches, and the like, all of which claim to be able to set us free from ingrained vices. And the law and various rules and disciplines are not without their value. Our Lord spent the chapter before today’s Gospel exploring most of the Ten Commandments. Furthermore, our Lord commends the disciplines of almsgiving and fasting in today’s gospel. And so our Lord does not reject the law as useless, nor does He reject spiritual disciplines as something useless for Christians. But our Lord knows that more is required than just the law.

A medieval Fastentuch portraying the Passion of our Lord
(Fastentuch is a German word referring to a Lenten
shroud placed over the retable of an altar to indicate
that Lent had begun and it was time for all to fast)
            This is where we tend to go astray. We like to have seven easy principles or five simple laws. We try to reduce things to the minimum and then live our lives based on them. But Christ delved into the Ten Commandments. He didn’t just treat them as simple rules, but wise precepts that bear investigation and meditation. He knew that shallow treatment of each commandment makes shallow disciples.

            Similarly, our Lord knew that His disciples would adopt various spiritual disciplines. The Ten Commandments do not tell us in so many words to give alms or fast. And yet the phrase “You shall not murder” implies caring for our neighbor and the words “You shall have no other gods” implies avoiding gluttony. In that context, it would be natural to embrace such disciplines as almsgiving and fasting. But even these spiritual works are prone to be misused. There is no spiritual discipline that is so good and holy that it cannot be twisted into something wicked by our hypocrisy, love of attention, and other vices.

            The law will never make us perfect Christians. The only thing that can do so is the love of God in Christ Jesus. It is the gospel—the good news that Jesus Christ is God’s Son and our Savior—that sets us free from our vain selves. And so during this Lenten season our goal is not to strive harder to be holier, but rather to steep ourselves in the love of Jesus Christ. We will meditate upon Christ’s holy life and His innocent suffering and death on the cross. And we will prepare to celebrate His glorious resurrection from the dead that imparts His forgiveness to us and guarantees our own resurrection to life and holiness on the Last Day.

            Wherever this good news is proclaimed, the Holy Spirit is at work, creating faith in our hearts that trusts in Christ Jesus and all He has done. And wherever the Holy Spirit creates faith, He also brings other gifts. Just as a healthy tree bears good fruit, so the Holy Spirit’s presence in us bears His fruit. We call it the “fruit of the Spirit.” (This Lent we will be looking at the fruit of the Spirit in our midweek services.) Saint Paul talks about this in Galatians 5, where he warns his readers not to do “the works of the flesh,” but instead to enjoy “the fruit of the Spirit.” Notice the contrast between the two—and I mean more than just that the one is evil and the other good. The phrase “works of the flesh” is plural, but the “fruit of the Spirit” is singular. Wickedness comes in a variety of forms, but goodness is all related. And so when we think of the various items listed as “the fruit of the Spirit,” we should understand them as all facets of the same fruit.

            Furthermore, there is a contrast between “works” and “fruit.” We don’t say that an apple tree works to produce apples. Instead, we know that if an apple tree is healthy and is old enough, it is going to produces apples quite naturally. By the same token, wherever the Holy Spirit is at work bringing people to faith and steeping them in God’s Word, you naturally will see such things as “love, joy, peace, patience,” and the other virtues listed in Galatians 5. Far from being coerced by the law or pummeled out of us by our spiritual disciplines, these virtues flow naturally wherever we take the gospel seriously.

            Tonight, then, let us briefly consider the first aspect of the fruit of the Spirit, namely, “love.” It is the absence of love that creates all our problems. It is why we turn against God and others. It is why we prefer the road of hypocrisy, for we really do not want to love God. Even when we seek the approval of others, we don’t want to love them. No, we just want them to do good things for us without any obligation on our part to them. In fact, we don’t even necessarily want to receive their love, for that might mean we might have to love them in return.

            To break through our loveless attitude, God showed great love to us. He became as involved in humanity as He could be. The Son of God took on our flesh; the Father and the Holy Spirit fully approved of what the Son had done and blessed His ministry all the way. And when Christ had completed His dying and rising for us, God brought us near to Himself by baptism and communion. Lovelessness begets lovelessness; love begets love. And so those who have experienced God’s love in Christ Jesus and know the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit love. Love is the natural fruit of this gospel of love.

            And so, beloved in Christ, as we begin this Lenten journey, do so under the shadow of God’s love. And may that love shape you in the weeks to come to be even more loving. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday, February 15, 2015

Text: Mark 9:2-9

            Beloved in Christ, if you read Mark’s gospel carefully, you notice this pattern emerging. Christ casts out a demon. Sh. Keep it a secret. Don’t tell anyone. Christ heals people. Sh. Keep it a secret. Don’t tell anyone. Christ tells parables that confound people, while offering an explanation only to His disciples. But sh. Keep it a secret. Don’t tell anyone its meaning, for they will not understand. And then He does the most amazing thing. He is transfigured before three of His disciples. He shines as no human being has ever shone before. He is attended by Moses and Elijah, the two greatest prophets of the Old Testament era. But sh. Keep it a secret. Don’t tell anyone.

            Why did Jesus want to keep these things secret? Casting out demons and healing people are good things. Why not talk them up? And what would be wrong with His disciples telling the whole world that they knew for certain that Jesus was truly God, for they had seen proof of His divinity with their own eyes? Well, let me give you an earthly example. Imagine that someone has decided to throw a surprise birthday party. Now there are all sorts of things that have to be done. Invitations have to be sent out. A cake has to be ordered, balloons bought, and presents purchased. If the honored guest catches wind of even one of these details, the whole effect is ruined. It is only when everything is ready and assembled that the secret is let out of the bag. And in the same way our Lord knew that His miracles and especially His transfiguration would be misunderstood “until [He] had risen from the dead.” Only after His crucifixion and resurrection would we be able to understand what had happened.

            You see, God’s glory and majesty and power mean nothing to us in themselves. It would have been wonderful if Christ could have shone in great glory and convinced all people to turn from sin and believe in Him and be saved from eternal damnation. But it doesn’t work that way. The glory of God by itself does not convince sinners to repent. The Israelites who were alive in Moses’ day had seen God pour out ten plagues upon the Egyptians. They had seen all the firstborn sons of the Egyptians killed in one night by the avenging hand of God while they themselves had suffered no loss. They had seen the Red Sea part so that they could cross it. When the Egyptians had tried to do the same, they had drowned. These Israelites had seen manna descend daily from heaven. They had seen Mount Sinai smoking with God’s presence as if it were a fiery volcano. They had then seen a bit of that glory stay with them in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night that never left the camp.

            There has been no group of people in the history of the world who saw God’s hand so clearly as did that generation of Israelites who left Egypt. But what did they do? They constantly grumbled and complained. They behaved wickedly. They had heard God thunder from the mountain that they were not to worship any idols. And then, as the mountain was still smoking, what did they do? They made a golden calf and worshipped it.

            A similar thing happened in Elijah’s day, some six centuries later. The Israelites were worshipping Baal, a rain-god who claimed to be able to provide rain at regular intervals. So what did Elijah do? He prayed and God stopped any rain from falling in Israel for three and a half years. Some rain-god Baal proved to be! Then, to drive home the point, Elijah proposed a contest. Let those who worshipped Baal call on him to send fire from heaven to start a sacrifice. Elijah would do the same with the LORD God. Then they would see who the true God was. The worshippers of Baal prayed all day long but to no avail, but the LORD God consumed Elijah’s sacrifice. What a great victory for Elijah! But what did the Israelites do? They went back to worshipping Baal not long thereafter.

            God’s glory in itself will never change people. By itself it is a sign of judgment and thus it is a manifestation of the law. We can be terrified by His law for a while, but human stubbornness, selfishness, and sinfulness is more ingrained into us than is the fear of God. The effect of God’s glory wears off and we revert to our former wickedness. At best, a glimpse of God’s glory and the thundering of the law keeps us in check for a while. But it will not last for long. And sometimes it doesn’t even have that effect on us. Instead, we are so overwhelmed by the experience that we babble as Peter did.

            That is why God the Father didn’t tell Peter and the others to look more intensely at Christ’s glory. Instead, He said, “This is my beloved Son; listen to Him.” And at that time, when their ears were finally open to hearing Him, Christ was no longer transfigured or surrounded by the two prophets of old.

            Mark doesn’t tell us exactly what Jesus had been saying that Peter hadn’t been paying attention to. But Luke does. Luke tells us that Christ was discussing His upcoming mission to Jerusalem, where He would suffer and die on the cross before rising from the dead. And, indeed, Mark does relate that Jesus talked about those matters when He was coming down the mountain. Thus, it is clear that the most glorious thing that Christ could think about in His most glorious, transformative moment was the cross and the resurrection that would follow the cross. And that should be our focus too.

            You see, it is good to know that Jesus Christ is true God, but it is just as vital to know why He is true God in human flesh. He has come to save the world, and that could not be done while His face shone with glory. He had to be handed over to the authorities, and He had to look as if He were the least important person in all human history. The powers of that day had to think that He was the one person who could be manhandled with impunity because He was of no account. For He could not have died any other way.

            And yet Peter, James, and John were given this insight into Jesus so that they could have a different view of what was happening. Jesus wasn’t the weak, helpless man He appeared to be, but was the almighty Son of God. God hadn’t turned His back on Him, but rather approved of His mission of reconciling sinners to Himself. Christ was transfigured so that three of His disciples could understand better what He was up to. And we are told about His transfiguration so that we can understand His death and resurrection in a deeper way. Christ was no mere victim. He was no mere martyr for a cause. He was Almighty God, on a mission that only God could have accomplished.

            And this helps us to understand our lives too. If the Almighty Son of God did not show off His glory at all times, we too should expect that our lives here on earth will not always reflect the glory that will be ours in the resurrection, when we will receive our full adoption as God’s beloved children. If the Almighty Son of God put aside His glory and trod along the path that led to the cross, we too must expect to suffer while we are still here. But just as Christ knew that He was God’s beloved Son despite all that He would undergo, so we too should know that we are God’s beloved children, no matter what pain or grief we experience. Just as Christ continued to trust in His Father when His enemies beat and mocked Him, so we too should trust in our heavenly Father when we suffer, especially for our faith. God is still in control. Christ still is the glorious Son of God. Nothing we undergo can separate us from that truth.

            We know that our life here on earth is an episode in a much greater story. It isn’t the whole story. Yes, it is full of sadness and gloom at times. It is set in a dark valley, the valley of the shadow of death. But it is these dark chapters that set up a more glorious end to the tale. We think back to the glories that began the story and we press on to the glories that will be ours in the end.

            This is especially important for us to remember as we approach the Lenten season. Lent is a time when we take discipleship more seriously than we usually do. We might be tempted to grab onto a moment of glory and let it compel us to be better disciples than we have been. But that is just as foolish as Peter trying to build three tents and camp on the Mount of Transfiguration for the rest of his life. Instead we are sent back down into the valley and on a lonely, winding path that leads inexorably to the cross. It is in the cross of Christ that we will find our redemption. It is the cross of Christ that will renew us and make us better disciples.

            Therefore, beloved in Christ, keep this vision of Christ in your heart. Let it be a secret that sustains you on your Lenten journey and prepares you to celebrate Him who has risen from the dead. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Sermon for Pentecost 5B, February 8, 2015

            Beloved in Christ, last Sunday we saw our Lord expelling a demon. We heard that this was what His preaching was intended to do: to destroy the kingdom of the devil and to establish His own. Even now, Christ still triumphs over the devil and the forces of evil wherever His word is preached. Now this week we see that Christ also healed. We learn that wherever Christ came, He preached His Word and undertook His ministry so that He could bring healing to this broken world.

            It is at this point that the hard-boiled skeptic objects. They don’t mind us talking about God and demons, since they think that either such things don’t exist or are metaphors that may be useful for some. But when it comes to health and disease, they think they know it all. Disease is a matter of the body, and a spiritual teacher such as Christ has no business meddling in it. Disease is caused by pathogens or the wear and tear of the body. It is purely a mechanical process and it is fixed by mechanical processes—things such as antibiotics, medicines, exercises, and the like.

            But what fools our skeptics are! Of course, it is useful to rely on the vast knowledge that the medical sciences have acquired over the centuries. We Christians as a rule appreciate the advances of science in general and we want to enjoy the comforts that the latest technologies give us. But we know a deeper truth than the skeptics do: “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.” Now people knew back then how to build sturdy buildings that would last centuries. They knew how to stand guard and protect a city. But God’s faithful people knew that it took more than just knowledge. Even the best of human plans fall apart, sometimes for the smallest of reasons.

            Now we do not neglect modern medicine any more than an ancient bricklayer or stonemason would have ignored his art and relied on his piety alone. Instead, we expect our physicians to ply their trades diligently, even as we pour forth our prayers for healing to Almighty God. The builders must still labor, the watchman must still stand guard, and the doctor must still apply medicine. But all is for naught unless the LORD helps.

            You see, we Christians understand that we live in a broken world. Buildings crumble. Empires fall. People get sick and die. We may take ever so much good care as we can, but it will not be enough. “What is crooked cannot be made straight,” no matter how much ingenuity and hard work we apply. It wasn’t supposed to have been this way. God created the world to be a good place where death was unknown and where health prevailed. But ever since we rebelled against God, we have been living in a broken world. Nothing works the way it really should. And, worst of all, that is the case with our bodies. Ultimately, our bodies will die. In the meantime throughout our life our bodies are made to endure several illnesses, which are miniature forms of death, you might say.

            And thus we bear within our bodies disease and death. That is true of all of us. Now we might like to make comparisons with one another and assume that people with graver afflictions are worse people than those who are healthy throughout their life. But that is a silly way of thinking, for we all end up dead. We all show that ultimate brokenness. Some of us may be better at concealing it longer than others, but we all have it.

            What good news it is then to see Christ healing Peter’s mother-in-law and many other people. We see that Christ intends to restore not only our souls, but also our bodies. Forgiveness is not just a word that calms our souls, but brings about a restoration of all creation, including our bodies. And so Christ healed the many people in today’s Gospel precisely because He cared for them in body and soul.

            In so doing He pointed forward to what He would do on the Last Day when He returns in glory. On that day He will raise up our lowly bodies and make them to be like the glorious body He has enjoyed especially after His resurrection from the dead. That will be our ultimate victory. We will be holy in our souls and whole in our bodies. We will be perfectly at peace inside and out—with God, with our fellow human beings, and with creation around us. No more will there will be disease or germs to wage war against us, just as no person will fight against us or we against them. Instead we will know only a lasting peace for all eternity.

            But now we are still in the midst of the fray. The war still rages on inside of us. We battle against our own evil impulses, as well as the temptations offered by other people and by the devil. We find our bodies to be a battlefield, where righteousness and wickedness duke it out to determine which will rule over us. Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose. In fact, we would soon give up altogether, were it not for the fact that Christ has already won the war for us and that He will continue to forgive us when we fall and strengthen us so that we can stand.

            Consequently, we are not surprised to see disease and even death fighting against us, too. Sometimes we’ll rout those forces, and other times they will overwhelm us. In fact, we know that as many times as we may defeat illness and injury, one day death will defeat us. Any victory we have in our health is only temporary, at least when we consider that we will die. But here the good news about Jesus Christ gets better. Our Lord did more than heal people temporarily so that they could enjoy a few good, healthy years before they died. He Himself went into the unhealthiest of all places for us: death itself. He was beaten, wounded, and crucified. He suffered an agony deeper than that of any illness we will undergo. He even died and was buried so that He could deal with the very worst enemy of all, death itself. And then He rose from the dead.

            And so through this life’s hard struggle to become healthy and to stay healthy we have the good news that death has been conquered and healing has entered the world. Even if we must wait until the resurrection to experience the healing and new life in its fullness, we still experience forgiveness, peace, joy, and spiritual healing in this life. Many times (although not always) we also experience physical healing here too. Even when our Lord makes us carry the burden of physical pain or disease, we find it easier to bear after we have come to know the Lord, for we know that He shares our burden. Therefore, whenever we are healed, we thank God rather than merely chalk it up to the medicine. And whenever healing is held back from us, we still thank God and implore Him to let His strength see us through.

            Well, once we understand this about healing, what follows next? Here it is useful to look at the final paragraph of our text. After spending the entire evening healing people, Jesus got up early and prayed. We might have celebrated our success, had we been Jesus. Or we might have said that we deserved to sleep in after such a long, exhausting evening. But Jesus didn’t do either. He knew the grave spiritual danger that confronted Him. The people of Capernaum would have been happy to have held on to our Lord for the rest of His ministry. They would bring Him sick person after sick person all day long. Whenever any one of them had the smallest sniffles, they would go to Christ and ask to be healed. And human nature, being what it is, would soon have paid more attention to the miracle than the giver of it. People would also seek bodily healing but ignore the deeper spiritual healing that Christ has come to bring. They would have been content with Christ as healer of temporary maladies, but would have stopped Him from redeeming the world of its sin. Indeed, that is what has happened in a broad swath of Christianity, such as in Pentecostalism. And so Christ understood very well that He couldn’t stay in Capernaum, but had to leave.

            Christ spent the remaining years of His ministry traveling throughout Galilee. He didn’t heal every last sick person in that region, but He did go to many places and heal many people so that all would have an understanding of what He was doing by His holy life, death, and resurrection. And in the same way He reaches out and heals us, not necessarily of every disease and in the quickest way possible, but still often enough so that we take His message to heart.

            Therefore, beloved in Christ, let us take to heart this message of healing for both body and soul. Relish the forgiveness of sins He gives you and the new life and spiritual healing that flows from it. And then give thanks to Him who throughout your life “heals all your diseases and redeems your life from the pit.” In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Sermon for Epiphany 4B, February 1, 2015

Text: Mark 1:21-28

            Beloved in Christ, our Lord’s preaching muzzles the unclean spirits. We see that happening clearly in today’s text, and so I’d like to explore each aspect of that sentence: Our Lord’s preaching muzzles the unclean spirits.

            We begin with our Lord’s preaching. Our whole text today is about our Lord’s preaching. There was nothing like it, before or afterwards. When He taught in the synagogue at Capernaum, people recognized that “He taught them as one who had authority.” Of course, as we will see, part of His authoritative teaching involved His casting out unclean spirits. That is what led the people to say that He was “teaching with authority!” But there was something else remarkable about the way that He taught. He did not teach “as the scribes.” He was rather unique in His preaching, and the people recognized it and called it “a new teaching with authority.”

            That phrase gets at the heart of the matter. It is easy enough to teach something new, but it is difficult to do it with authority. That is true even in today’s society where we have a penchant for the new. Now we may change ideas and even life philosophies as often as we change underwear. This week we love what this one self-help guru is saying; next week we’ll be listening to some doctor with his healthy life hints. But in spite of our fascination with the new—or, more likely, because of it—we really are wary that there could be anything authoritative. If I know that the fad I’m currently enamored with replaced the fad I was into a couple of weeks ago, then how certain can I really be that this is the end-all and be-all of existence? We constantly upgrade and replace technology. We expect our newest gadgets to be obsolete in a few months or a couple of years. So how can there be something authoritative in an ever changing world?

            The problem that faced the people in our Lord’s day was the flipside. They weren’t the sort of people to adopt the newest thing; their motto was to stick with the tried and true. In many ways that philosophy served them well. God Himself had told them through the prophet Malachi, “Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.” That is one of the last verses ever written in the Old Testament. God was promising to send someone new, but in the meantime they were to stick close to what God had already given them. Indeed, for most of Israel’s history the problems had arisen when they had tried to innovate by bringing in idols and other spiritual practices that they found in the nations around them.

            Consequently, the rabbis were very careful in those days. They did not want to say anything that had not been said dozens of times by other rabbis. And so when they would preach on a particular passage of the Old Testament, they would say such things as, “I heard Rabbi Levi tell me that he had heard a conversation between Rabbi Simeon and Rabbi Reuben, where they said such-and-such.” These rabbis were not innovating, but neither were they authorities themselves. Instead they cited others who might be.

            What was needed was “a new teaching with authority.” You’ve heard me mention more than once that there are two Greek words for new: one that means “never existed before” and another that means “new and improved.” It is the latter that is used here. Our Lord wasn’t teaching something completely unheard of. He was not contradicting what Moses and the prophets had said, as heretics are accustomed to do. No, He was deepening what has been said, but He was building on them. Think, for example, of how our Lord explained the Ten Commandments. He took such phrases as “You shall not murder” and explained how it forbids anger, name-calling, and the like. Or think of how He insisted that the Old Testament wasn’t just a collection of old stories, but was a book that pointed to Him and His ministry.

            This is what Christ still does today. Yes, He does not walk physically into our churches and ascend into the pulpit. But His teaching is the basis of all faithful Christian preaching. This isn’t like a rabbi quoting another rabbi or scribe, all of whom are speculating on what God might be saying. No, Jesus Christ came as God in human flesh, to reveal to us all that is necessary for us to know for our salvation and to reveal it in the clearest manner possible. Faithful Christian preaching, therefore, is about taking Christ’s words seriously and seeing in them the “new teaching with authority,” the teaching that is as old as creation but is fresh and powerful, for God has revealed it not on a mountain obscured by smoke or in the hazy dream of a mystic, but by taking on our flesh.

            And so Christ came to deal with mankind’s problems in an authoritative way. But now we have to consider another aspect of our text, the unclean spirits. Now that we’ve talked about Christ’s preaching, we have to consider the opposition that Christ faces: the unclean spirits. They go by other names such as “demons” and “evil spirits.” Chief of them is Satan or the devil. But Christ preached because He wanted to smash Satan’s power. “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil,” wrote the apostle John. And today’s gospel reminds us of that truth.

            Several decades ago most people—even Christians—would have smirked when they heard such passages of the Bible or read today’s gospel. “Why,” they would say, “we are such civilized people that we don’t believe in all that mumbo-jumbo about a voodoo world!” But, of course, we have gone through such horrible decades of world war and concentration camps and gulags and genocide. And so now it makes a whole lot more sense to talk about supernatural forces of evil that goad on human beings to do an abundance of wickedness. No, we will not say that every person who committed some horrific evil was demon-possessed. But at the very least Satan and his minions are always stirring the pot. And humanity is naturally beholden to them.

            That is why even today where the gospel advances into new lands, demons are cast out and conquered. (If you want to hear more, you can read the book I am Not Afraid about how the Malagasy Lutheran Church has grown mightily in Madagascar precisely by taking seriously the need to defeat demonic forces; a copy is in the narthex.) Satan does not want centuries of idolatry to come to an end and fights overtime wherever God’s kingdom is advancing. And I dare say that as we live in an increasingly post-Christian country, we should recognize more and more the hand of Satan at work—and the need for him to be defeated and driven away. If we are slow to understand Satan’s influence today, we should take to heart what Helmut Thielecke said in the last century: “Evil cannot be seen by the evil just as stupidity cannot be perceived by the stupid.”

            Notice what we find out about the unclean spirit in today’s gospel. First, he is called “an unclean spirit.” He could have been called an “evil spirit” or some other term, but what Mark is emphasizing here is how Satan defiles people, making them unclean before God and others. This unclean spirit had no problem with the man attending the synagogue and hearing an interesting lecture on what rabbis of old had thought about this or that passage. But Jesus cut to the chase and proclaimed that He had come to redeem God’s people. Now all of a sudden the evil spirit had a problem. Unclean spirits have no problem with people being “spiritual,” for they know that they can twist whatever is spiritual out there for their purposes. But they do have a problem with Jesus, for they recognize Him as “the Holy One of God” and therefore the one who has “come to destroy” them.

            So how does Jesus deal with them? He muzzles them. Our translation says that Jesus told them to “be silent,” but “put a muzzle on it” would be more accurate, since the verb literally means “be muzzled.” In colloquial English we might say, “shut up” or “zip it.” It’s not the polite way to tell someone to be quiet. The devil loves to talk and talk and talk. You can answer him point by point, but he’ll come up with a hundred more senseless reasons for his foolish temptations. He’ll say enough of the truth—and certainly the unclean spirit in today’s gospel confessed the truth about Jesus—but he’ll still twist it for his purposes. You don’t outtalk or argue with the devil. You tell him to shut up. And he has to shut up because Jesus Christ died on the cross and smashed the devil’s kingdom by rising from the dead.

            Would that we would take this to heart! Let Jesus say, “Enough! Be silent!” Satan and all the forces of evil would like to talk you into believing that whatever feels good is right and that you need to change God’s law to conform to the times. Let Jesus say, “Shut up and scram!” The forces of darkness would love to terrify you and get you to think that you are haunted by ghosts and other forces you cannot control. Let Jesus say to those forces of darkness, “Zip it! Leave My people alone!” Satan would love to convince you that you are beyond redemption because of your sins. Let Jesus tell him, “Stuff it! Git outa here!” Because Christ has come, the devil and his minions have no right to say anything more against you, a beloved child of God. In short, Christ has come to make the devil literally shut the hell up. I don’t mean that as a vulgarity. No. The devil is spewing forth garbage from the depths of hell out of his mouth. He needs to be quieted. And he can be quieted, for Christ is the one who has conquered him.

            That is why we gather today and every Sunday. We say the words of Jesus, and it is Jesus who smashes the kingdom of the devil and muzzles the unclean spirits. May you live in that victory! In Jesus’ name. Amen.