Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent (December 3), 2017

Text: Isaiah 64:1-9

            Beloved in Christ, I would like to ask Isaiah: “Why are you so anxious? You are one of the greatest prophets who ever lived. Nobody has painted a more beautiful picture of what Christ would do. You foretold that He would comfort God’s people, that He would be the Suffering Servant who would bear the sins of the world, and that He would make everything right when He would return in glory. Indeed, in chapters 60 through 62 you portray how God would restore His people. You describe the church as a rebuilt Jerusalem, where the nations gather, where God is the light of His people and there is no need for sun or moon. So after all those wonderful words, words of hope and promise, why are you such a gloomy Gus? Why do you rain on your parade? Why do you pour forth your lament in chapters 63 and 64, including today’s text?”

            Well, I imagine that Isaiah could turn around and ask us some similar things: “Why are you so anxious? I lived before the Messiah came and did His work of redeeming the world from their sins. But you live after Jesus has come and won salvation for you. Why then are you so anxious? Why in fact do many of you find this entire time of the year so depressing? What could be more thrilling than to prepare to celebrate the birth of the Savior? And yet you are frazzled by all the shopping and the parties. You stuff yourselves with chocolate and eggnog, but you are still sour on life. You surround yourselves with friends and family, but feel so alone. You brighten your streets with festive lights, but you act as if you are living in great darkness. Why are you so anxious in this Advent season, when great joy is around the corner?”

            The truth of the matter is that both Isaiah and we have some grounds for feeling dissatisfied. Isaiah may well have known about what Christ’s arrival would mean for the earth. But He was still living in a time when people cared little for the LORD God, let alone for the salvation He would bring. Instead, they preferred worshipping their idols, no matter how often the false gods would disappoint them. So it is understandable that he would break out in a lament, weeping for the circumstances in which he found himself. And we too share in some of that same frustration that Isaiah did. For, even if it is true that Christ has already come and redeemed the world from slavery to sin, the ancient regime of the devil still holds sway over much of the earth. We have not yet received the fullness of our salvation, as we will when He returns in glory. And so sometimes the very sweetness of God’s promises in Christ leave a bitter aftertaste in our mouth, for we know that they are not yet fulfilled.

            But, beloved in Christ, if we listen to Isaiah’s lament today, we can get back on track. We can turn an anxious Advent into a blessed one. For Isaiah teaches us three good lessons that we should learn especially in this Advent season.

           First of all, Advent is all about God coming into our midst. In Advent we look forward to God coming in the future. We say with Isaiah, “Oh that You would rend the heavens and come down!” We want mountains quaking and the heathen shaking at the presence of the LORD God. We want no one to be able to doubt that there is a God and that He is exactly the one whom the apostles and prophets have proclaimed. We can hardly wait until Christ, the Son of God, returns in glory as our king. We want to see “every knee bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of the Father.”

            But it is not just about the future. In Advent we look back at the past and see how God has come into our midst then, too. For us that means recalling the birth of Christ and His whole earthly ministry, including His riding humbly on a donkey into Jerusalem. But even Isaiah could recall how God had come into Israel’s midst before.

            He recalled a time when God “did awesome things that [His people] did not look for” and when “the mountains quaked at [His] presence.” He is probably referring to the time when God poured out the plagues upon Egypt and then led the Israelites through the Red Sea. Then they came to Sinai, where the whole mountain trembled as the LORD God descended upon the mountain. Even though it had been several centuries since those events had happened, Isaiah rightly remembered God coming to free His people from slavery. In the same way, it may be centuries since Christ was born and freed us from our slavery to sin and death, but we rightly remember His sojourn among us, even as we desire His return.

            But in the meantime, as we recall the past coming of Christ and await His return, we perceive that God still is with us today. Isaiah put it this way in his prayer to God: “You meet him who joyfully works righteousness, those who remember You in Your ways.” When we meditate upon God’s Word and call to mind all the things He has spoken, we meet Him. No, not visibly, as Christ appeared two thousand years ago and will appear sometime in the future. But the Triune God is with us, as we hear His Word and embrace it. And that truth helps us to live in these days between Christ’s past coming and His return. God is with us, even now, even in our anxious Advent days.

            But if God is coming to us constantly, why would we ever having an anxious Advent? Why wouldn’t we always rejoice? From Isaiah we learn a second truth: Advent gets us to acknowledge our sins. “We sinned” and “[God was] angry.” No, it isn’t just that we sinned, but that “we have been a long time in our sins.” The sins that disturb us most aren’t the casual, one-off sins. We can convince ourselves that they are a fluke. They don’t represent who we really are. Rather it is the sins we repeat again and again, the sins we resolved last December 31 finally to conquer, only to see ourselves repeating them this year.

            Sin leaves a mark on us over time. “We have all become like one who is unclean,” like a leper that nobody wants to have anything to do with. “All our righteous deeds” in the end turn out to be “like a polluted garment,” Isaiah says. Actually, “polluted garment” is a cleaned-up way of expressing it; I can’t say in polite company what it really means. Or to use a different metaphor: we are a shriveled-up leaf that is blown in whatever direction the wind of our iniquities sends us.

            And so we come to the heart of our anxiety: Whether God comes or not, it doesn’t calm our anxiety over sin. If He doesn’t come, His absence shows that He is still angry about our sins. If He does come, His presence terrifies us because of our sins. But thank God that He comes to restore us to fellowship with Him!

            And this leads us to the third truth we learn from Isaiah: Advent is calling us back to childlike trust in the LORD God. It is not enough to know that God comes, especially the second Person of the Trinity, namely, Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Neither is it enough to know that our sins make us fear His coming and His absence alike. Instead, we must know that God comes to be our redeemer. He had brought His people out of Egypt to Mount Sinai, not because He wanted to scare the living daylights out of them, but because He wanted them to be saved from the grinding slavery to the Egyptians and to know Him as their loving God.

            In Advent we learn to confess, “O Lord, You are our Father; we are the clay, and You are our potter; we are all the work of Your hand. Be not so terribly angry, O Lord, and remember not iniquity forever.” Let us work our way backwards through those thoughts. First of all, in Advent we learn that God will “not remember [our] iniquity forever.” We have sinned. We have ingrained sin into our being. But because Christ has redeemed us by His holy life, suffering, and death, God will not remember our sin forever.

            Not only does He not remember it, He purposely forgets it, because it has already been dealt with. Therefore, there is no reason for Him to come in anger or be “so terribly angry” against us. Instead, we can acknowledge that He is “our Father” and that “we are all the work of [His] hand.” We can call upon Him as our beloved Creator rather than as our terrifying Judge.

            But can this all help us when we face the winter blahs and when it seems as if the festivities all around us are pointless cheer? Yes, it can. For God comes to us in the midst of our sorrow, no less than in our joy. He doesn’t gloss over our problem—sin—but neither does He come to destroy us for that reason. Instead, He comes to make us His beloved children once again. That, beloved in Christ, is the antidote to an anxious Advent. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Isaiah 55:6-9 and Matthew 20:1-16

            Beloved in Christ, God made us in His image. And for millennia now we have been returning the favor and trying to make God in our own image.

            I don’t mean that as a compliment. When God created us in His image, He was bestowing upon us good gifts. He was endowing us with reason, so that we would not have to live purely by instinct. More importantly, He gave us holiness and righteousness, so that all our actions would be noble and praiseworthy and so that we would live a life of trust in Him. But what did we do? We threw away that gift. Instead of holiness we pursued sin. Rather than being governed by reason, we often follow our basest desires and do so unthinkingly. But to top it all off, we started trying to create God in our own image. We pretended that He was exactly like one of us—more powerful than us, to be sure—but otherwise indistinguishable from you and me.

            We cut God down to our size by calling Him “the Man Upstairs,” as if He were a slightly older human being, but with all our foibles and quirks. We assume that He is as fickle as we are, and that He has basically the same moral outlook we do. Indeed, whatever we happen to think about a particular subject, we assume that it is His view as well, for we are smart, reasonable beings and God must certainly be like us if He is worthy of the name God.

            But then we are confronted with those words from today’s Old Testament reading: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, declares the LORD.” We may try to get God to conform to our expectations and our way of doing things, but we won’t succeed. God will remain God, not a creation of our imagination.

            Therefore, when we come to the Scriptures, we shouldn’t expect to see the LORD God confirming our preconceptions about Him. We are selfish people; the LORD God isn’t. We are tainted by sin; the LORD God is holy. We are limited in our understanding; the LORD God knows all things. Therefore, we should actually be expected to be surprised when we read the Scriptures and learn more about the LORD. This is especially true if we haven’t been Christians all that long or if we have read very little of the Scriptures or if we have read the Bible very superficially. We should expect that the LORD will surprise us when He tells us exactly what He is like.

            And so we should expect that God will demand something greater of us in the way of morality than we would. After all, we are looking for the easiest way out. We are looking for ways to justify our selfish behavior. But if the LORD God is holy and wants us to be holy too, He will have to ask for more out of us. You see, we take the saying “no harm, no foul” and recraft it as “no blood, no sin,” as if you have to harm someone badly enough that they end up in the hospital before it counts as a sin. And since we haven’t done anything that horrible, or done so only very occasionally, we look pretty good.

            But God tells us to get a deeper morality than that. Sure, He forbids us to murder others, but He also tells us not to be angry with them or call them names. Sure, He forbids us to commit adultery, but He also orders us not to look at others with lust in our eyes. Our words and our thoughts are as much subject to His scrutiny as the crassest of our deeds, and they must pass inspection no less than our actions.

            But God’s thoughts are about more than mere morality. That is one of the ways that His thoughts are so much higher than ours. The best we can think to come up with is a mediocre morality. But God wants to establish a relationship with us that is based on something even better than morality: His love, mercy, and forgiveness.

            We see that in today’s Gospel. There we see a man who hires a crew of workers at the beginning of the day and promises to pay them a denarius, which was more than fair pay for a day’s work. Three hours into the workday he realizes that he will need more workers and so he hires some more. He does so again at the sixth hour and the ninth hour. Finally, at the eleventh hour, one hour before quitting time, he hires a final batch of workers. He then pays everyone a denarius. The people who were hired first don’t like it. I suppose that neither would several federal agencies today. Sure, we would allow him to pay the last group of workers a denarius, but only if he upped the pay for the first group of workers to twelve denarii.

            Why do we instinctively have a problem with what the man in the parable? It is because we do not understand grace, that is, when God gives us something that we don’t deserve and couldn’t in fact earn. We look at God as if He were our boss, and anything we get from Him as our wages. If we work hard, we expect to be highly compensated. If we are good people, living upright lives, we expect God to give us high-paying jobs, prestige in society, a great family, and a pleasant life. And if we or someone else messes up and violates one of God’s commandments in a serious way, we expect some misfortune to strike. When it comes to our salvation, we do things the old-fashioned way: we earn it.

            And so we are scandalized by the idea that God would forgive sins, that He would give people something better than what they deserve. We ignore the fact that, if God truly paid people the wages they deserved, everyone would be condemned to hell, for all people have sinned against Him. But let’s say that we were able to live a perfect life and received as our due wages eternal fellowship with God in heavenly bliss. Now imagine that God gives the same gift of eternal life to someone who hasn’t been perfect. We would consider it grossly unfair, especially if that person wasn’t even close to our level of perfection. We would complain that we were being cheated somehow.

            But the man in the parable asks some pertinent questions. He told the workers who worked all day, “Did you not agree with me for a denarius?” Whatever the man gave the other workers, he had not violated his agreement with them. By the same token, God promises that all who are perfectly obedient to Him will receive the rewards of heaven. That agreement is not violated simply because God decides to show mercy to sinners. The man in the parable goes on to ask, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” And that is what it boils down to: We have no right to begrudge God’s generosity. If He wants to show mercy, we have no right to complain, as if we were being robbed somehow or another.

            Far from being cheated, we ought to realize exactly how generous God is, for even the best of us are more like the workers hired near the end of the day than those hired at the very beginning. We will enter heaven not based on our works, but as a free gift received from the LORD God, paid at the great cost of Christ’s suffering and death.

            Now this parable usually leads people to ask the question: If we all can get the same free gift of salvation regardless of whether we trusted in Christ early in life or late in life, then why should we become a Christian early in life and take the faith seriously and strive to live a godly life, when we could turn to God on our deathbed and equally be saved? There are two answers. First of all, you might not have the chance to lie on your deathbed and mull over your life and consider returning to the LORD God. You might die quite suddenly, when you least expect it, without a chance to repent. That is why the Scriptures state repeatedly: “Today is the day of salvation.” There may not be a tomorrow. But there is another reason: we don’t want to miss out on fellowship with God. You see, we embrace the Christian faith not as something laborious but as a gift from God. Or more accurately: where God Himself is the gift.

            It is not a burden to hear the invitation, “Seek the LORD while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near.” It is not a burden because we know that “He [will] have compassion on” us and “will abundantly pardon.” Therefore, beloved in the Lord, let us rejoice that God’s thoughts are higher than ours, and let us ponder what He has revealed about Himself. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, 2017

           Beloved in Christ, it’s not easy dealing with other people, especially people who have wronged you. Like the Apostle Peter, we may be willing to cut other people a little slack, even when we feel the sting of the injury. But, come on, be reasonable. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. And so being willing to forgive someone seven times is unspeakably generous. For Christ’s sake we might venture to do that. But then Christ says, “Not…seven times, but seventy times seven.”

Joseph Forgives His Brothers
Lithograph, 1907
            That is a tall order. But in today’s Old Testament reading we see someone who is living by exactly that principle: Joseph forgives his brothers who at one point contemplated murdering him, but instead sold him as a slave to some traders passing by because it seemed more profitable than murder. Let’s be honest. We have all been hurt by others and we have felt severe pain because of it. But most of us have not experienced something on the scale of what Joseph experienced. Therefore, the way that he forgave his brothers is worth thinking about.

            First of all, we should note that his brothers had consciences that would give them no rest. Time heals all wounds, we say. By the same token, we reckon, time should lead us to forget about all the wrongs we have done over the years. But it doesn’t work that way. If we are aware that God or one of our brothers or sisters has something against us, it may bother us for years. Consider that it had been thirty-nine years since his brothers plotted against Joseph. Indeed, it had been seventeen years since they had seen Joseph again, been forgiven by him, and invited by him to live in Egypt. For seventeen years Joseph had treated his brothers with sheer kindness. He did everything to comfort them. But it hadn’t assuaged their guilty conscience.

            You see, Joseph’s brothers assumed that he was being nice simply because he didn’t want to treat them horribly while their father was still alive. As soon as their father was dead, he would treat them as he really had wanted to all along. They thought that even their father’s dying words would have little effect on Joseph. They were willing to enslave themselves voluntarily if only that would turn away his wrath and keep him from killing them.

            When your conscience accuses you, nothing will give you rest. Even the good things God gives you won’t comfort you, because you assume that He is just softening you up before He damns you for good. This is why we must pay careful attention to the words of forgiveness that God speaks. He is not lying. He is not joking. He is not talking idly about things. When He pronounces absolution upon you, this is to be taken seriously. Even if your conscience is burdened, even if you think that there are hundreds of people rightly against you, this is the God’s honest truth: your guilt has been removed and you have been reconciled to God for Christ’s sake.

            Because we ourselves have been forgiven by God for Christ’s sake and because we see that others have been forgiven as well, we take seriously the idea that we need to forgive others too. And so we come back to Joseph and ask: why was he so willing to forgive his brothers? You can say that there are three considerations he took to heart.

            First, he asked the question, “Am in the place of God?” Every time we exact vengeance upon someone, we are acting in God’s place. You see, God is holy. He is also our creator. Therefore, He has the right to act as judge. Since He brought us into the world, He has the right to take us out of it. And because He is holy, He doesn’t let personal feelings get in the way. Whatever judgment He pronounces is righteous and fair.

            But when we judge, we don’t have the same qualifications. We didn’t create the person we are judging and therefore we do not have the right to wish them to cease to exist. Also, we are temperamental, self-serving people—and our justice would be as well. Therefore, we do not have the right to prosecute mercilessly, as if our intense examination of another person’s soul would be accurate and true.

            Now I hope you understand that I am talking about how we deal with other people as individuals. I am not talking about what happens in the law courts. After all, God instituted government to administer a modicum of justice and to keep order in society. And so a judge has rights to fine people, send them to prison, or even to execute them. They should do so impartially and not because they wish to carry out a vendetta against them. But today we are not talking about how the courts of law treat people, but rather how ordinary people like you and me interact with other people. We are not “in the place of God,” and so we must be careful not to act as if we were.

            The next truth that Joseph considered was this: “[His brothers] meant evil against [him].” Joseph forgave his brothers, but he was realistic about what they had done. He didn’t say it was all a “misunderstanding.” He didn’t call it an “accident.” He didn’t say that his brothers had had good intentions but done things in a ham-handed way and so caused harm. No, he acknowledged that they “meant evil.” It takes no effort to forgive someone who has accidentally hurt you, who stepped on your toes because they didn’t see you. It is also relatively easy to forgive someone when you realize that you misunderstood their intentions or they misunderstood yours. Once you clarify things, you see that they weren’t so bad and their offenses are easily overlooked. But when people are doing things out of malice and spite, it is much harder to forgive. But it is precisely those more difficult things that need forgiveness rather than the more mundane things.

            But there is another truth that we have to keep in mind as we acknowledge the evil that is done with evil intent all around us. Namely, while others may have “meant evil,” “God [means] it for good.” In Joseph’s case, when he was sold as a slave, it set in motion events that ended up saving not only his brothers’ lives later on, but the lives of the Egyptians and many neighboring peoples. It is not always easy to see what good God intends to make out of the evil that people plot. And probably the more horrible the evil, the less easy it is for us to understand. But we know that the LORD God is in control of the entire universe. And that means that ultimately even the wicked will serve the LORD’s purpose. And if that is true, then it is easy to forgive people who aren’t all that forgivable.

            I could stop the sermon there and say that Joseph is a fine model for us Christians to follow. And that would be true. But as much as we Christians admire the saints of both the Old and New Testaments, we love and think about our Lord Jesus Christ above all else. And so it is useful for us to consider how those three statements of Joseph would apply to the way that our Lord forgives sins.

            First, Joseph had asked the question, “Am I in the place of God?” Clearly, he wasn’t. It was not up to him to render the final judgment upon humanity or even one individual. But Christ was not just “in the place of God,” He was the Son of God in human flesh. And so He is perfectly authorized to deal with sin. He has the right to condemn all who sin and to condemn them for all eternity. But “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.” If God wants to see the world free from His righteous condemnation, how much more should we Christians love to see the same!

            Next, just as Joseph understood that his brothers had “meant evil against” him, so our Lord understands the depth of our sin. If we had no sin—serious sin—then we need no Savior—no serious Savior, at any rate. And Christ could very well have stayed in heaven and left us to muddle along on our own. And there is an increasing number of people, even self-professed Christians, who wish that He had. They deny that breaking some of the Ten Commandments (such as the commandments against adultery or lying) would be a serious sin or even a sin at all.

            But our Lord knows better. We have “meant evil against” Him. Fortunately, for us, He as “God meant it for good.” We crucified Him because we didn’t like His meddling. But He turned that awful event into something good, a way “that many people should be kept alive,” not through some kind of famine (as in Joseph’s case) but for all eternity in fellowship with God.

            And so, beloved in Christ, let us cherish the fact that we have a God who is more forgiving than even Joseph was. And let us share that same forgiveness with others. In Jesus’ name. Amen.