Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Festival of Pentecost, Gen 11:1-9, Acts 2:37-47, May 27, 2007

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1Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” 5And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. 6And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” 8So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth. Genesis 11:1-9 (ESV)

Grace and peace to you from Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Did you know there is a controversy about what the world’s tallest building is, well at least there was? For years the question has always been whether you count spires and antennas or just go by the highest occupied floor? If you count spires and not antennae the twin Petronas towers in Kulua Lempur were the tallest at 1483 feet. But if you count antennae then the title was in the hands of the Sears Tower in Chicago at 1729 feet. Highest occupied floor honors were also held by the Sears Tower and the highest roof at 1483 feet. But really, all of it is academic now because a new “World’s Tallest Building” has eclipsed them all. Taipei 101, just finished this year in Taipei Taiwan has a spire that reaches to 1667, It also now holds the record for the highest roof and the highest occupied floor. They say that the new tower that will replace the WTC towers will be the tallest building by virtue of its 1776 foot spire. (The old World Trade Center towers were 1360 feet). But all of them will be eclipsed by the Burj Dubai tower now under construction in Dubai, UAE. It will soar 2,640 ft, that over half a mile. Its highest occupied floor will be number 160. It’s a full 500+ feet higher than a proposed tower in Russia, and almost 1000 feet taller than Tapei 101. Ironically the new tower is being built by the Bin laden family of Saudi Arabia. I’m still amazed at the cheek of the Americans though. Because in the 1930’s we built 3 of the world’s largest buildings, and two of them are still in the top 25. The Empire state building stood as the World’s Tallest for nearly half a century.

Tall buildings have always been an interest. Just look at the design the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed in the 50’s, it was building (called the Illinois) that was to be a mile high. (Lot’s of people suggested that it be built to replace the WTC). But what’s all the height about? What’s it all for? What’s the money spent in these endeavors really all about? Well, actually, I think it is bragging rights. Bragging rights are important to us as human beings. Be honest, how many of you thought that the Sears Tower should hold the record over the Petronas Towers and even the Taipei 101 because if you count its antennae its really the tallest. We want “our guy” to win, even though we really don’t have any more of a real connection to the Sears Tower than the Petronas Towers. The Petronas Towers are a center for world banking. Sears sold the Sears tower long ago.

Bragging rights is really what it’s all about. And that’s just what the people in our Old Testament lesson were talking about. “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” If we build a tall tower we will be important and we can stay right here and bask in our glory and our achievement. It’s the “If we build it they will come” idea on a grand scale. And they even talked about using the “state of the art” construction techniques that would be necessary to build such a tower. “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Most buildings in those days were built with dried bricks. They wanted their tower to last.

And the work began. They were proud of their accomplishments. It was the power of positive thinking at work. Slowly the tower rose, higher and higher. They must have thought that nothing was greater than their tower, and nothing was greater than the ones who were building it.

And then we have a very interesting turn of phrase in the text. 5And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. Moses, the one who wrote this text for us to read, is saying something important. Even though the “children of men” thought that their tower was the greatest thing since sliced bread, God had to “come down” to see it. Moses is using a literary device called Anthropomorphism to make a point. (That’s speaking about God as if he were a person.) The point is that from God’s vantage point the great work of these people wasn’t even tall enough for God to see without coming down. The picture he wants you to have in your mind is of someone squatting down with their face pressed against the ground to view an ant hill. After all their efforts at greatness their accomplishment this great tower they are building is really nothing at all from God’s perspective. It’s a puny little ant hill that God has to stoop down even to see.

So what exactly was wrong with what they were doing? What’s wrong with a little human ingenuity? What’s wrong with building tall buildings and making a name for yourself? Is God just afraid of losing power because “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. What’s wrong with building a tower anyway? The key here is a very small word in the first part of the text. “Let us build…” Let us do it… not “Let’s see if God would have us do it…” or even “Let’s do it for the good of all people. “Let us… according to our own will… according to our own power… according to our own ability.” What they were saying was, in effect, we don’t need God to reach the heavens. We don’t need God to be all that we can be. In fact if we stick together, if we are just unified, if we depend on one another, we can do with out God altogether. If we can unite in building this tower we can prove that we can do whatever we want. We can be in charge for ourselves. If we build this great tower we can build our own way up to God. And this tower itself will prove that nothing is impossible for us.

And on that point God agreed. “Nothing they propose to do will be impossible.” But, God’s mind is different than ours. God knows the evil that runs in the hearts of people. When God says “nothing they propose,” he knows what kind of evil will naturally result. He’s not worried about the building of great skyscrapers, that’s not the kind of thing He’s working to prevent. It’s the great evil that lives right in here even in our hearts. He knows about the lies that allow people to claim each other as property. He knows about the pride that leads to holocausts, slaughter of millions. He knows about the selfish ambitions the leaves thousands of dead soldiers lying on bloody beaches. He knows about the evil arrogance that leads to torcher chambers and mass graves in the desert. When God said, “nothing they propose will be impossible,” I don’t even want to know about the evil that he was acting to prevent, when he confused the languages and caused them to be scattered instead of unified he was protecting mankind for the evil that consumes us. But that’s where man is when he sets aside God, when he “goes it on his own.” History bears it out in spades. Just think what it could have become if people were unified in their evil with a common language.

Even now after God scattered the human race through the confusing of language. We continue to build. And God still kneels down to look at our puny towers… All the things we depend on instead of him. All the things we use to say, “We really don’t need you God. We can do it on our own.” We depend on technology; faster computers; smaller portable telephones; stem cell research; miracle drugs; bigger airplanes; we build it all to make names for ourselves. It’s not that these things are bad, just when they take the place of God; just when we turn them into towers of our accomplishment.

You and I have prideful towers we have built too. Just think for a moment about the things we use to help us to “make it on our own” and “make names for ourselves.” Just think about how we depend on all those things more than we depend on God. We really haven’t scattered far from that “baked brick structure.” We float along in life pretty well, feeling pretty much in control, standing at the foot of our man-made towers, using our Sunday church attendance to keep God right where he belongs. And when trouble comes we even may even pay God lip service through prayer. But really we believe that if we are just strong enough we can get through our problems by ourselves. Like when we have to face death in the family we say things like “I can get through this” or “I’m a strong person I’ll survive.” We live life and deal with trouble as if God lets us suffer so that we can show how strong we are. So we can build our own tower of strength and show how we really don’t need Him at all. So much for the towers we build for ourselves, weather they are built from burned bricks or silicone or just our own self-esteem. It all comes out the same. We want our bragging rights. We want to be in our own control. The sin of the people at Babel is our sin. That’s because all sin is rebellion, the desire to be apart from God. That’s our connection to those “baked bricks” of Babel.

Back at the Tower of Babel, God broke up the people’s pride by breaking up their communication. He scattered them across the face of the earth to prevent greater evil. He breaks our pride by allowing trouble and pain in our lives. That trouble and pain show us that we are fully and completely dependant on Him. Death shows us how helpless we really are. How scattered we become when we push God away.

But the God that scattered is also the God who gathers. The same God who took away the ability to communicate gave it back again. That’s what happened on Pentecost. The Holy Spirit came and turned dis-unity, scattered people, dis-united, scattered language, into unified people who each heard “the mighty works of God” in their own language. It was a return to Babel, actually it was “Babel undone.” But God didn’t bring this unity so that those people could once again build a tower, a monument to their own interests. He did it to bring the true unity in Jesus Christ. Remember the “mighty works of God!”

Human beings naturally want to take care of things themselves. It’s because of sin that is in the deepest parts of our hearts. We want to earn our own way. We think that if we just build a tower tall enough we can make it to God on our own. If we just do enough good things we’ll be right up there with him. But God undoes that plan by having Jesus, His own Son, accomplish salvation for us. Jesus does everything necessary for us to be with God. We want to build our own mountain to reach God. But God has Jesus climb the mountain of Golgotha and hang on a cross for us instead. We want to make it to God by making our own false religion where our good works and efforts count for everything. God give us the only true religion where we are brought to God only through the free gift of His only Son. He gives Jesus to die for the sins of the whole world. All the sin of pride, and self-promotion, all the sin of depending on the things we make with our own hands, all the sin of leaning on everything but God, all the sin of wanting our own bragging rights; all of our sin was taken to the cross of Jesus. The pride that separates us from God is put to death there. With all of that done away with, God can start building.

Yea, God is a builder. It’s God who really does the building that makes a difference. He’s a much better builder we are. Mile high buildings might be impressive to us but to God they are nothing. The building He does is right here (in our Church) and it’s nothing like any building that we could ever hope to do. St. Peter talked about it:

Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself. (Acts 2:39-38 ESV)

What is torn down is build up by God. What is scattered is drawn together by the Breaking of Bread. Just look at the difference.

41So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. 42And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:41-47 ESV)

The signs and wonders that we are told about here isn’t the building of skyscrapers, it is God turning hearts toward Jesus, through the work of the Holy Spirit. It’s the miracle of people being devoted to the Apostle’s teaching. That’s God building using His Word. It’s the miracle of God putting His name on people, making a name for them, through the Water of Baptism. It’s the miracle of God building up faith through the Breaking of Bread, the eating and drinking of the Bread and Wine and Body and Blood of Jesus. God’s building program seems to us to be un-impressive. Steel structures are more to our liking. They seem more important. But God’s way isn’t like our way. He’s the one who decides what is and isn’t important he builds in the way that he chooses, and he makes his building successful.

That what’s going on here again today, God’s successful building: Here we have the apostle’s teaching, the breaking of bread and prayers. It’s God building again. He’s building something more important that a tall-tower. In His Word and Sacraments, through the work of the Holy Spirit, He’s building up faith in you. Not so that you can take care of yourself, not so that you can depend on yourself, but so that you trust more and more in Jesus and less and less on yourself. You see, in the things of God all the bragging rights belong to Jesus. If you want to brag about something brag about him. As St. Paul says,“Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 10:17, ESV) Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 20, 2007, John 17:20-26

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20“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. 24Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. 26I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” John 17:20-26 (ESV)

Grace and peace to you from Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Here in this text Jesus prays for unity. I’ve been thinking a lot about unity. Maybe you have, too. What exactly does it mean to be “united?” It’s a tricky word for us, isn’t it? Do you think that we here at St. John’s are united? I’m not so sure. Actually, I think that unity is something the whole world is looking for. In some sense lots of the violence of the Middle East is about unity. And closer to home more and more, every day we hear again and again about the false unity of men who want to marry other men, women who want to marry women. Make no mistake; God is not pleased with such arrangement. It is wrong to pretend that it is ok. It is wrong not to tell our children that that behavior is sinful and against God’s commands. On the other hand, it should also be noted that we shouldn’t threaten people who desire these things badly either. God isn’t pleased with violence against anyone. But it isn’t wrong to clearly, out of love tell someone that a lifestyle they have chosen is against God’s plan for their life. There are other attempts at unity, too. It’s nothing new for a man and a woman to live together without being united in marriage. They believe that marriage isn’t necessary, and yet the statistics show couples who live together before they are married will most likely divorce. But more than that, this arrangement, too, is against God’s will. When we don’t stand up and say so, when we don’t encourage unmarried couples to change their sinful situation we are participating in the sin. God holds us accountable for what we don’t say and don’t do, especially for those who are in the church. Political correctness tells us that if we just say things the right way we can create unity by not causing offense. And I don’t know if you feel the pressure (but I certainly do) to say that Muslims worship the same god that we do, or to say that all religions are the really the same and each leads to God, each in its own way. Or even that it’s ok for our brothers and sisters in Christ in other denominations to believe false things about God’s Word and His Sacraments. We don’t have to look very hard at these attempts at unity to see that they really don’t work. They collapse under their own weight, because they are unity that is based on things that are not true. They are based on misunderstandings of the way that God had made things.

The church as a whole isn’t doing any better. It is very ironic that in a year that Hollywood gave us a great movie like “The Passion of the Christ,” the Christian church in American gave us the first openly gay bishop, “in the hope that the church can be more inclusive.” And the desire to be a united church, in spite of the differences that exist, in spite of the false teaching about many things, grows every day. But the kind of unity that is sought is the kind that simply ignores the reality of the differences in the teachings of the different church bodies. There are real significant differences in understanding who God is, even more importantly what He has done in Jesus Christ, and how He works in peoples lives. This kind of unity that is based on ignoring difference is not true unity at all. It is a unity that ignores the truth of God’s Word for the sake of an external coming together. This is the kind of kind of unity that promotes communion tables that are open to all comers without regard to what they believe or even the kind of teaching they support. It is the kind of unity where adultery, divorce, homosexuality and other sins are outright ignored; “for the sake of unity.” Even when those sins are present in those serve as the Church’s pastors. The Church, just like the world around it, is seeking unity. But it is a false unity that isn’t the unity the Jesus prayed for. It isn’t unity based on the truth of God’s Word.

And yet, Jesus prayed for the unity of the church; that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. Are we to believe that Jesus’ prayer went un-answered? I hardly think so. We can trust that what Jesus prays is true. He is the One to whom the God the Father said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased.” So when Jesus prays that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. We can know that it is true. The Christian church through out the whole world is united, just as Jesus said. It really isn’t a choice is it? What Jesus says is always true. He said of himself, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”

Someone said to me once that when we became Christians we gave up the right to choose who we would love. We are united because of Christ. According to Christ we are to love one another, even to the point of giving up our very lives for each other. It is true. You only have to look around you and know how the church is united. Sitting in the pews around are people who have helped you when you needed help. God has given us brothers and sisters in Christ who are here for us when we need them. We are united when we hear about God’s great love that sent Jesus to live and die and rise again for us. We are united when we gather at the altar and confess our common faith, and have the gift of salvation poured down our throats. We are united as we speak the words “in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” that were spoken, when Jesus united us to Himself in Baptism. We are united because we have been claimed from the jaws of death, rescued from sin, and saved from our own sinful desires. Our unity comes only from the work that God does and what God has done, not from anything we have done or could possibly even do. Martin Luther said it very clearly in his explanation of the third article. (p. 301 in LW)

I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers. On the Last Day He will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ. This is most certainly true.

Because we are united, we have a responsibility to love one another. We have the responsibly to correct one another, and accept each other’s correction, and even to hold one another accountable. It doesn’t matter if we are rich or poor, well dressed or poorly dressed, from the “right” family or the “wrong” family. We are united by the blood of Jesus Christ.

But we also know that we don’t always act very much like we are united. That’s because we are sinful people. That’s because the very nature of sin is separation. Sinful people are separated from God. Sinful people are separated from one another. Sin is divisive. That’s the problem with all human attempts at unity; they are filled with, and driven by sin. Sin calls evil good and good evil. For an example just look at so called “homosexual-marriage.” It is no real marriage at all. It is a false unity that is based on a lie, a lie that two men can have the same kind of unity that God has created for men and women. The sinful heart, your sinful heart and mine, think that we can say that this kind of unity is good as long as the people love each other. It isn’t that way according to God’s Word. When we say and believe such things we are calling evil good. Or even the example of live-in couples, claiming to have unity when there is none. Because the unity that God puts into marriage is based on a commitment to love, honor and cherish in spite of what trouble may come. It is the sinful heart, your sinful heart and mine that says it’s good for a couple to test the waters first to see if they are compatible, to see if they can get along. When we do this we call “good” what God calls “evil.”

True unity doesn’t come from sinful people. It can’t come from sinful people. It comes only from and through Jesus Christ. Jesus brings unity to a divided world. He brings restoration to a separated world. Through God’s Word made Flesh, we find peace, healing and wholeness; first, in restoration of our relationship with God; and then in our relationships to other people. It’s the Ten Commandments. The first three “You shall have no other Gods; You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain; Remember the sabbath day by keeping it holy;” talk about our relationship to God, the rest “you shall not steal, you shall not kill, you shall not commit adultery; all talk about our relationship with other people. Jesus keeps these commandments perfectly in our place. That is how in Jesus Christ we have true unity. He is the one who has knit us together into one body. That’s what Jesus is talking about when He prays that they may be in us. We are united to God and to one another through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

It works like this: When human beings were separated from God because of sin, God united himself to the human race by becoming a human being. Jesus was conceived by an act of God, a miracle in which God took on human flesh and became a full and complete person. He grew like any person, was born like any person, and was fed by his mother like any person. And although he was a complete human being he wasn’t like any other person, because He was without sin. Jesus is God and Man perfectly united together, completely God and completely human. In order to bring an end to the separation between God and man that is caused by sin, Jesus lived a substitute life for sinful people. He was a perfect “stand in” for us, because we can’t stand for ourselves. To better understand what I’m talking about, imagine that you are the star player of a basketball team. But, in the first few seconds of the game you foul out. You can no longer play in the game but your substitute comes in and plays for you. All the points that he scores still count, just as if you made them yourself. The other teams coach can’t contest those points because they were made by a substitute. Jesus whole life was lived perfectly, as our substitute, in perfect unity with God, the Father. So that, as Jesus prayed, they may be one even as we are one. And Jesus our substitute goes even further. Jesus doesn’t just do the good things we should do; He doesn’t just live the life we should live; He suffers the punishment we need to suffer. Jesus on the cross suffers and dies as the greatest sinner that has ever lived. Not because He was sinful, but because He substitutes Himself for sinful people. All of God’s anger at our sinfulness is re-directed to our substitute. All of God’s punishment for our sin is put on our substitute instead of us. Jesus became sin for us, and the very thing that prevents our unity with God is put to death. Sin is sent to the grave with Jesus. Jesus, our substitute, is made to be guilty and we are declared not guilty. With sin done away with, with its punishment paid in full, Jesus was raised to life again. Again He rises in our place, a complete human being dead and buried, raised again to live. You see, all that Jesus did He did for you, and you are united with Him through Baptism in it all, through faith in what He has done. It’s all Jesus. It’s all His work. It’s all for you.

Now look around you. It’s all Jesus. It’s all His work. It’s all for them, the young ones and the old ones, the brother in Christ sitting next to you, the sister in Christ sitting behind you. It’s for the person here that you don’t particularly like. It’s for the person here that you love more than any other. It’s for the person here who has hurt you deeply and even the one you have hurt deeply. That’s the unity that binds us. That’s the unity that is found in the true nature of Jesus Christ. It can’t be found or seen in any way other than in the truth about what Jesus has done, and for whom He did it.

And He did it for other people, too. Many don’t even know or care about what He has done for them. They aren’t united to Him, because they don’t trust that what He has done is for them. Jesus talks about that, too. so that the world may believe that you have sent me. He’s talking about taking the message of what He has done to people who don’t know Him. He’s talking about taking the message of what He has done to those who have been away from hearing the message for a long time. This Good News about true unity in the world isn’t just for you, and the people sitting right here. It’s for folks you know out there. It’s for the members who have neglected joining us. It’s for those out there who belong to other churches. It’s for those who don’t belong to any church. In our relationships here we share the unity that Jesus Christ has given us. In our relationships in the community we share the unity that Jesus Christ brings to all people through faith in what He has done. Jesus uses you to show what He has done to bring forgiveness of sins to the whole world.

The church will not find unity by ignoring sin. Unity is found in repentance and forgiveness that only Jesus gives. It will not find unity by setting aside real differences that take away from the truth about what Jesus has done for us. There is no “piece”, nor “part” of the Gospel that is unimportant. The world won’t find unity by wallowing in its own misguided sense of morality. It won’t find unity in speaking so as not to offend. The unity the world is looking for is found only in a relationship with the True God. There is no relationship with the True God outside of faith in Jesus Christ. He is God’s only way of uniting human beings with Himself once again. Amen.

The Peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Sixth Sunday of Easter, Confirmation, May 13, 2007, John 14:6

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Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Allissa, Thomas, and Jeremy; It is an exciting day for you. Confirmation day is the day you publicly stand up before the congregation and promise to remain faithful to what you have been taught, and that you would rather die than give up your faith. Over the past couple of years we’ve talked a lot about Jesus, about who he is and what he has done for you. You’ve learned all about it and you’ve learned it pretty well. You are ready to make this step toward Christ’s altar and receive his body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins. But first…

I want your confirmation to be a memorable one so let’s talk about today’s Gospel lesson just a little bit. Especially verse 6.

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6, ESV)

Now this text is one of the most beautiful statements of the Good News of Jesus that there is. And what’s more these words come from Jesus himself. He’s packed a lot in those two little sentences. Unfortunately, these words have been very often misused by Christians.

Like I said I want your confirmation to be memorable so listen carefully: [droning voice] in his 26th evening on May 1st, 1885 Rev. Dr. C. F. W. Walther stated in Thesis XV: "In the eleventh place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the Gospel is turned into a preaching of repentance." Now it should be noted that this thesis rightly follows Thesis V which was part of his 9th evening lecture of November 21, 1884 during which Dr. Walther stated that the grossest confounding of Law and Gospel occurs when Christ is represented as a new Lawgiver and the Gospel is turned into a doctrine of meritorious works. Got it? Yes? No?

Ok maybe not. Let’s try it another way. Imagine that I have stick… no let’s not imagine lets look at this stick. This stick is a John 14:6 stick. What does it look like? A sword. See it has a handle, that’s called the hilt, and a blade, and on the blade is written the reference to the bible passage “I am the way the truth and the life…”

Now how would you use this sword? Well, let’s imagine now that you have a whole pen full of chickens, hundreds of them. You job is to get the chickens into the chicken house through a small opening in the side. So you take this sword here and you wave it around at them and try to get them to go in. You can swing the thing at them, and shout the words of John 14:6 at them. You can even beat them with it. Of course, you know what’s going to happen. Chick Run! Mayhem and panic. You’ll chase those chickens around that pen all day with your sword and you’ll never get them to go trough the door.

Now this is church, and you know that in church we aren’t really worried about chickens. What we’re really talking about is people. We’re not trying to get people into a chicken house, but into the place that God has prepared, an eternal home with God forever. God’s desire is for all people to be with him now and forever. God wants you and me and all those billons of people scattered across our planet to be with Him now in His church, and forever in heaven.

That’s what Jesus is talking about in the text. He says that he is the way to God. He is the way that people like you and me, and all people everywhere can get from here in this sinful, broken world into God’s eternal and prefect world. Our problem is (everyone’s problem is) that we when we are born our relationship with God isn’t a very good one. In fact, according to the bible we are God’s enemies. We are born in the sin of our parents. It’s called original sin. Do you remember how we talked about that in class? Original sin is “not living in a perfect relationship with God.” That’s how we are born. Sinful people apart from a relationship with God. Jesus came to earth as a human being to restore our relationship with God. He came to be the Way to God. He was…

…conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell. The third day He rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty. From thence He will come to judge the living and the dead.

In the Gospel reading for today he talks about it, too. “And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the Way were I am going" (John 14:3-4).

You know the way. You have known it for many years. It’s been taught to you over and over again. You confessed “the Way” last Wednesday night. Jesus has been the way for you ever since your parents brought you to baptism here at this font. God gave you the gift of faith through the work of the Holy Spirit at this font or at another one. And he works through the Word spoken here to keep you in the way. But I want to be very frank with you. God has promised never to leave you. But you can walk away from him very easily. The place where your faith grows is here, in worship. You’re going to promise that you’d rather die than give up the faith. For most of us it’s not dramatic choice between giving up the faith and facing a martyr’s death. Like the British reporters who were abducted a few months ago, and chose to deny Christianity instead having their heads cut off. But we face that very issue every Sunday morning. If this is where your faith grows, you need to be here, every Sunday. It’s hard to get it done. You’ve so much against you; Transportation issues; Parents who can’t or won’t come with you; Other Sunday morning activities that seem to be much more important; friends that laugh at you; Every Sunday you miss, is easier to miss the next. God wants you to be here every Sunday, I want you to be here every Sunday. The voices that tell you not to be here every Sunday, or the voices that tell you that you don’t belong here, are speaking from Satan. He’s the one who wants you in Hell. The Good News is the news you’ve already heard. It’s what you’ve been taught, that Jesus is the only way to the Father, that there is no way to heaven except through Jesus. It’s Good News. Good News for you and for me because we don’t have to worry about what we have to do to get right with God. We don’t have to worry about what we have to do to restore our relationship with Him. God has done it all for us in Jesus. He’s made the way for us already. And through baptism he made it our way.

Now think about this sword again. You haven’t been chased with this sword, poked and prodded, or forced to believe in Jesus. The way to heaven isn’t through the sword of John 14:6 it isn’t the law to beat you over the head. The way to heaven is the Gospel, the Good News about Jesus. You see if you turn the sword upside down, You’ll see that it’s also a cross. Jesus made the way for you to get to heaven and be with God forever through his death on the cross.

The thing is it’s very easy to get it all turned around again. That’s because there’s a whole world out there that’s trying to tell you exactly the opposite. The minute you step outside these walls you’re bombarded with the idea that there are many paths to God and that any one is as good as any other. You’ll be told that if you’ll just allow for the idea that there are many valid expressions of faith you can believe anything you want. If you don’t you are unloving and intolerant. And what’s more, you’ll even hear the same thing said in the name of God in churches that claim to be part of the Christian church. “We’ve got to be careful not to offend people.”

The reason is that people don’t want God’s way of salvation. They want to make their own way. One of my Seminary professors once said that the essence of sin is that we want to kill God and take his place. We want to be in control and take the credit for our own achievements. Really, it makes the most sense to us. Our way of thinking about God is the same way we think about every other part of our life. Every day we have to earn our way along in life. It only makes sense that we should have to earn our way to God, too.

God’s Way of salvation goes against everything we think and feel. God’s Way of salvation takes our efforts completely out of the picture. And that’s why it’s such Good News because God’s Way of salvation is the only way that we can be sure of because it’s not found in our weak will and our imperfect good works. The Way to God is through Jesus. He had a perfect will. He always did what God the Father asked of Him, even when it meant death on the cross. Jesus whole life was full of perfect good works, too. His relationship with God is perfect, so when he died to take away our sins, He was raised to life again. Because you are a Baptized Child of God, Jesus perfect life, death and resurrection are yours. In other words, you have a perfect relationship with God through Jesus. Did you hear how it’s all God’s work in Jesus? Did you hear how you and I don’t have any part in our salvation? That’s the Good News. That’s the wonderful gift of faith. And that’s the hardest thing for us to accept, and why it’s so important that we hear the Good News over and over again. It goes against our nature.

That’s why God has given us this place to gather. He knows how hard it is for us to hold on. That’s exactly why he gives us his Word that he promise will work in our hearts. That’s why he attaches His Word to water in baptism. So that we can see what it means to have our sins washed away. That’s why Jesus comes to us in his very body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. He connects to us through the forgiveness that comes though the same body and blood that hung on the cross for you.

That’s what you’ll promise today. To hold on to Jesus and all that he did for you in faith. It’s just a promise to open up your arms and mouth and heart and receive the gifts that he gives here. Jesus has already done everything you need. Hold on to him in faith. Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 6, 2007, Acts 11:1-18

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Fourth Sunday of Easter, May 6, 2007

Now the apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party criticized him, saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” But Peter began and explained it to them in order: “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision, something like a great sheet descending, being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to me. Looking at it closely, I observed animals and beasts of prey and reptiles and birds of the air. And I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I said, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But the voice answered a second time from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common.’ This happened three times, and all was drawn up again into heaven. And behold, at that very moment three men arrived at the house in which we were, sent to me from Caesarea. And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. And he told us how he had seen the angel stand in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’ As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” (Acts 11:1-18, ESV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Once in a small town church on a Sunday morning as the worshippers were gathering almost ready to begin there was a huge roar out side the church. It was the deafening and unmistakable sound of machinery, motorcycles. The windows of the church rattled as the engines roared, and then there was silence. The congregation all looked at the pastor who was standing in front ready to begin. The silence was very loud. It seemed to last for a lifetime. The doors of the church opened and in walked two bikers. They were dressed in leather, unshaven, dark bandanas on their heads. The usher froze. He didn’t know what to do. One of the men grinned at him and took two worship folders. Still in shock the usher moved aside and the pair found a seat near the back of the church. For everyone the service felt odd. They did everything just as they had always done, and yet, it seemed different. When everything was finished, the bikers left greeting the pastor on the way out the door. “Thanks,” was their only comment. The others waiting to greet the pastor stood still until the sound of engines roared again and began to fade in the distance.

“Well, what do you think of that?” said one of the faithful, lifelong members. She was an elderly woman. “Pastor,” she said, “why do we let people like that into the church?”

“Well,” came the answer, “we let you in didn’t we?”

This is exactly what St. Peter is describing to the Christians in the church at Jerusalem.

“Peter, why do we let folks like that into the church? Those are gentiles! They are unclean. They do things that we don’t understand. They don’t bathe like we do. They ride scruffy donkeys. They wear weird cloths.”

Peter gives a simple answer. “When I preached the Word of God to them and told them of Jesus life death and resurrection, they received the Holy Spirit. They believed it. They trusted in Jesus for their forgiveness. They have faith. I had to baptize them.”

To understand this completely I think we could think a bit about another account from the bible. Way back in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, there was a prophet named Jonah. He was called by God to go and preach to the Ninevehites. Now, in case you’ve forgotten, the Ninevehites had a problem and it was more than just sinful behavior. They weren’t Jews. They were Gentiles. Oh, they were sinful alright, an very much so. They were blood thirsty warriors who piled up the dead bodies of their enemies at the city gates so the body could be witnessed by everyone passing by. They defiantly had that strike against them. But more to the point, and probably more important to Jonah, they were Gentiles. They didn’t deserve God’s love and forgiveness, they only deserved his wrath and anger. He didn’t want them to be saved. So he jumped on a boat in Joppa and headed out to sea as far from Nineveh as he could possibly get. God had other plans. He sent a storm to sink the boat. When the sailors found out it was Jonah’s fault the prayed that God wouldn’t hold them accountable and tossed Jonah overboard. I think it’s important to note that Jonah agreed with them. He would rather die than go to Nineveh. A great big fish (probably created for this very purpose) came and swallowed Jonah whole. And after three days in the belly of a whale, Jonah had a change of heart… mostly. He agreed to preach. The fish spit him out near his destination and he reluctantly walked into the city. “Forty days and Nineveh will be overturned.” It was a very Lutheran sermon. It had both law and gospel. The law: Nineveh will be overturned. The Gospel: forty days. In other words, God’s giving time to repent. And repent they did. From the king right down to every dog, cat and rat. They all dressed in mourning clothing and pleaded with God to forgive them. And that’s just what He did. He couldn’t way to forgive. In fact, as Jesus says, God answers our prayers even before we are finished asking. Nineveh wouldn’t be destroyed after all. No just to show how deep the distrust of folks who are different can go, Jonah wasn’t so sure. He sat outside of town waiting for the earth to open up and swallow it whole. It didn’t happen and Jonah wasn’t happy. A tree grew up over night and gave him shade while he waited, but he still wasn’t happy. The next day the tree died, and Jonah went into a tirade. But God put him in his place. Jonah! You care more for that tree than you do the people of Ninevehwho I died to save…

Wait a minute! Hold the phone pastor; I thought you said this was in the Old Testament? Jesus didn’t die yet. How could God have said that? Well, of course you are right. He didn’t say that exactly. What he said was that they were children who didn’t know God. But I think it is very telling they way God saved them. Jonah dies for three days. After he rises he brings salvation to the whole city. Sound familiar. That’s Jesus and us. Jesus died his death on the cross, stayed in the belly of the grave for three days and rose again to bring us salvation. It’s a great story. It’s a great story of God’s love and forgiveness. Jesus died to take away our sins. And through the water of Holy Baptism he brings you into the church… or should we say He “lets you in?”

The Jews in Jerusalem had a Nineveh problem with the Gentiles. They were actually shocked that the Holy Spirit came to them. It took God’s vision to Peter while he was on the roof trying to take a nap to turn even that great disciples mind about them. Peter had to see their faith. He had to see that they had received the Holy Spirit before he was completely convinced. In the end he said he simply had not choice. He had to baptize them because God had opened the door of salvation through Jesus life, death and resurrection even to Gentiles. And aren’t you glad He did? You and me sitting here, well there’s not a Jew in the pew. We are all Gentiles; people who were lost until faith in Jesus was planted in our hearts through God’s Word, water and the work of the Holy Spirit. And we’d be lost too if that same Spirit didn’t come to us every week right here in God’s Word, preached into your ears. Our faith would die of malnutrition if that same Spirit didn’t use the bread and wine, and the body and blood of Jesus to make it grow. When you look around the room here you can glorify God and say with the church at Jerusalem, Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life. (Acts 11:18, ESV)

Ah, but there’s always just a bit more isn’t there. In fact, we began today with a story that may have come at you in a way you didn’t like. We think we are pretty open to have the Good News of sharing Jesus with other folks. But I think, in reality we have a Nineveh problem. Well, it’s only natural. There are folks out there who are different. In Sioux Falls the racial fabric is changing pretty quickly. How many of you have thought to yourself that you’re glad we don’t have to deal with all that kind of change? When you first heard there would be a packing plant in Howard (before you know it was an organic packing plant) were you afraid we’d have an influx of neighbors from the south? How’s your Spanish? What about PBM? Are you glad that some of the shift workers there are only imported for a day? Or even closer to home. There are people right here in Howard, that you’d rather would just get up and walk out. “Why did we let them in here anyway?” And that’s the city we’re talking about, not to mention St. John’s Lutheran Church, 502 South Main St. Howard, South Dakota 57349. How would you react if someone like that walked into our church? Do you have a Nineveh problem?

Of course you do. It’s called sin. It comes from a sinful nature. It lives, and breathes death into you every day. It’s not just the Nineveh issue either. That three letter word with “I” in the middle is part of everything you do. You try to tackle it but you can’t. You try to ignore it but you can’t. You want to do better but you can’t. When you see that, that’s when you know you need a Savior. That’s when you rejoice that God “let you in” to the family through baptism. The water connected with God’s Word through the work of the Holy Spirit

…indicates that the Old Adam [that is the sinful nature] in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. [Luther’s Small Catechism]

…to quote the Small Catechism. It’s about Jesus and what He as done for you.

he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people. (Titus 3:5-8, ESV)

In that life giving water, God created a New Man that is devoted to good works. It rejoices in the spreading of the Good News of Jesus to everyone. So what about those Nineveh people out there? Well, Jesus shed His holy and precious blood for them, too. Faith in Jesus come by hearing (Romans 10:17). They belong here. You might ask the question, how do we get them to come? The answer is, we don’t. The Holy Spirit does. He uses you, He works through you, right were He has plopped you down to be His inviting voice. Pray that He would open your heart to the opportunities. Invite a biker to church, that’d be a good start. Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.