Saturday, October 30, 2010

John 8:31-36; Festival of the Reformation; October 31, 2010

So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. ” (John 8:31–36, ESV)

(Outline from sermon by The Rev. William M. Cwirla )

Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Chirst.

Today is Reformation Sunday. How many of you can tell me what Reformation Sunday is all about? Martin Luther (not King!). The Reformation of the church. Birthday of the Lutheran Church. The 95 thesis. Rediscovery of the Gospel. Indulgences.

There is a saying that goes “The Church is always being reformed.” And it’s true the church is always changing. It’s really God’s Word that continually changes it. When we hear it, it has an effect on us. It kills and makes alive. It shows us our sin, and we repent. It shows us our Savior and we rejoice. It is both painful and joyful at the same time. The Holy Spirit is always at work in the church, it calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies, the whole Christian church on earth. That’s reformation! That’s also what today’s service (and every service here is all about).

Today our text talks about reformation. It talks about remaining in the Word of Jesus. “If you remain in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” (my translation)

What does Jesus mean when he says, “If you remain in my word”? The word “remain” in Greek (the language that the book of John was written in) is often also translated “abide” or “live” or to be “united.” So what Jesus is talking about is living in, or being united with The Word of God. Jesus himself is the Word of God. “The Word made flesh and dwelt among us,” says John. Jesus, the Word incarnate, was conceived and born, our Savior. He lived a human life, and was nailed to the cross to redeem the whole world from sin. He was raised from the dead to make us right with God again. To abide in the Word means to rest in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and to believe that what Jesus did he did for you, so that he might call you his very own child.

That’s what he did at your baptism. To abide in Jesus and his word is to live in your baptism. He called you his own, when water was poured on your head and you were given Jesus very name. You became a member of the body of Christ. You were washed with water and the Word. That is to be immersed in the Word of God and in his name. You are covered with the righteousness (that is the perfection) of Jesus, instead of your sin. To abide in Jesus is to abide in and remember your baptism.

“Faith comes by hearing.” St. Paul says. To abide in Jesus and his Word is to hear the word of God and cling to it in faith, and obey it. Whenever we gather together to hear God’s word read and explained we are living in, and abiding in the Word of Jesus. That’s one of the things that we really gained from the Reformation, started by Martin Luther. He knew that if people heard and understood the Word of God, the Spirit of God would work in their hearts. Luther said that the church was God’s “mouth-house.” It’s the place where God speaks and instructs his people. That is the place where the Gospel is preached and heard.

To abide in the Word of God is also to receive the gifts that he gives. His body and blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. “Take and eat, this is my body… Take and drink this is my blood.” Jesus said. And with those words he gives us his very body and blood to eat and drink. Those words speak to our greatest need, “given and shed for you for the forgiveness of all your sins.” To abide in Jesus is to live in him and receive from him the nourishment we need. We abide in Jesus when we take and eat, and take and drink.

But we can reject God’s word instead of living in it (abiding in it). God forces his word on no one. People regularly reject the things of God. Bibles remain closed on shelves gathering dust. We forget our baptism and forget God’s promises given to us through baptism. We live as if it means nothing to be a baptized child of God… and many times our lives are totally indistinguishable from the lives of those who don’t claim any faith at all. The Lord’s Supper can be avoided or taken lightly, or even taken for granted. And sometimes we even just go through the motions without remembering what Jesus is really giving us there. When we reject and ignore the things of Jesus, we ignore his word. To reject the word of Jesus is to reject Jesus himself.

When we abide in the Word of Jesus we are given a very wonderful promise: “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” God promises for us freedom when we abide in the Word of God. But, our lives are ruled not by freedom but by slavery. Jesus words remind us of the slavery that we live under. “Whoever commits sin is a slave to sin.” From the smallest little white lie to our evil inward desires they all deserve God’s wrath and punishment. Try just for a day to go without sinning, you’ll soon realize how much of a slave to sin you are. Sin abides in us, every breath, every thought, is utterly covered with it. We are indeed slaves to it.

Jesus Christ came to free us. He took the very nature of a slave, was born a human being, so that the slaves might go free. He purchased and won us from slavery by his life, death and resurrection. He offers that freedom to you here today, just like he does every time he offers his word to be heard, water to be poured, and his body and blood to be eat and drunk. You are free! Jesus says, and he seals the promise in his very own blood. “And if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

When we abide in the Word of Jesus we are truly free. We are free from guilt and punishment. “There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” The law that accused us is the very same law that nailed Jesus to the cross. Our guilt was placed on him there. God looks at us and instead of seeing our sin he sees Jesus. He looked at Jesus on the cross and punished him for our sin there. Our guilt and our punishment died with Jesus and doesn’t have to be a part of our lives anymore.

When we abide in the Word of Jesus we are free from the slavery of sin. It is true that we still struggle with sin every day and we will continue to struggle with it every day until we die or Jesus comes again. Our old sinful nature still clings to us and prevents us from being truly as free as Jesus makes us. But he hasn’t left us alone to struggle by ourselves. We no longer live under the lordship of sin; it isn’t the driving force in our lives any longer. We live under the lordship of the cross of Jesus. When sin wants to clap its chains on us we hold our hands up to the cross and the bonds are broken. The sins that plague us don’t have to control us anymore.

We are really free to be the children of God. We can pray to God as “Our Father who art in heaven.” “With these words God tenderly invites us to believe that He is our true Father and we are His true children, so that with all boldness and confidence we may ask Him as dear children ask their dear Father.” To abide in Jesus’ Word is to be the children of God, to have a relationship with God again. Sin no longer blocks that relationship. We can freely approach God and ask him for whatever we need.

Freedom in Christ also is freedom from fear. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39 NIV)

Though devils all the world should fill,
All eager to devour us,
We tremble not, we fear no ill,
They shall not overpower us.
This world’s prince may still
Scowl fierce as he will,
He can harm us none,
He’s judged; the deed is done
One little word can fell him. (LSB 656)

That “little word” is Jesus Christ. He is the one who lived and died, was crucified and raised again for you. Abide in His word and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free. Amen.

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

Friday, October 29, 2010

For Reformation. 95 Theses Rap.

Filmed at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.  My Alma Mater.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Genesis 4:1-15; Luke 18:9–17; Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost; October 24, 2010;

Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him. ” (Genesis 4:1–15, ESV)

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

I know how we have usually heard about this account. God didn’t like Cain’s sacrifice because his heart wasn’t in the right place. God loved Abel’s because he was giving with a true heart. As we usually tell it Abel brought the best of the flock, first born, giving up his best to God. Cain’s sacrifice was second best. He picked out second rate veggies to offer, giving to God only after he had picked out the best for himself. It occurs to me that this is one of those passages in scripture that we have grossly misunderstood and mis-taught. I think we can see what is really going on here much better because of the reading from Luke today, Jesus’ parable of Pharisee and the Tax collector.

[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” ” (Luke 18:9–17, ESV)

The answer to understanding the account of Cain and Abel is right there in the first sentence. Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteousWhoa! This parable is about people who do and don’t think they need Jesus! Look at it again! The Pharisee singles himself out and stands where everyone can see him, separate from everyone so as not to defile himself. He exalts himself. He holds up the good stuff he’s done. God look at me, at what I’ve done. I’m soooo much better than other folks around here. I’m not one of those ‘drop off your kids for Sunday school’ parents. I’ve never put football over church. There are no Sunday morning deer antlers in my garage. I volunteer twice a week to mow the lawn. Drop my regular check in the plate. I make sure the pastor knows he’s just what we need around here, paid my fair share for the organ, and keep a hawk like eye on the budget. God, you must be soooo happy with me. God, look at what I have for you. You must love me soooo very much. I am such a good member of the church.

The tax collector was different. In his mind he had nothing to offer God but his sin. “Lord, have mercy! Christ, have mercy! Lord, have mercy! I’m a sinner, save me!”

Jesus says that the tax collector is actually the one who is forgiven. The difference is clear. The Pharisee sees good in himself that he thinks God must recognize. He offers his good works up to God in his hands. The tax collector sees nothing he does as anything God would want. Martin Luther says it like this:

Therefore we have no right to indulge in much bragging and boasting when we step before God. Even if we were members of the highest aristocracy on earth and were prone to take pride in this, before God we would still be nothing but bags of worms or bags of manure, infested with lice, maggots, stinking and foul. [1]

Luther has a nice earthy way of saying things doesn’t he? He’s not really saying anything other than what Isaiah said.

We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. ” (Isaiah 64:6, ESV)

So back to Genesis; old Cain brought his sacrifice forward, he probably fussed a great deal over it, and picking out the absolute best veggies and fruits he had. No spots and blemishes on his stuff. He waxed up the apples and polished up the grapes. He spent time, thinking that God was going to be soooo pleased with his work. I’m not just guessing here either. I get this from Cain’s reaction.

…for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell.

If he had done a half hearted attempt, if he had offered a second rate offering, he wouldn’t have cared if God didn’t like it. Like the student who works hard on a paper, thinking it’s the best they’ve ever done and gets a ‘D’. “I don’t deserve this.” If they do a rush job, half hearted, no effort they accept the ‘D’ as what was deserved. No, Cain held up his stuff, his heart even, to God with pride. “Look at what I’ve done for you God. Look at what I have for you! You must really love me for this.”

Abel was different. He picked out a first born spotless lamb. Slit its throat, so the blood poured out. “God, this is what I deserve. Lord, have mercy! Accept this lamb’s death instead of mine. Be merciful to me a sinner.”

The difference, they say, is positively biblical and so very relevant to us. Today we are gathered before God, just as the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, just as Cain and Abel. The question is, are you here to give stuff to God, or to receive his mercy.

This is just a bit confusing though isn’t it? After all these days “worship” is verb. The word is most often used in the context of what we do for or to God. “We are going to go to church to worship.” What do they call the emotional build up of music at the beginning of those contemporary church services? Worship time. In fact most of those songs say the same thing over and over again. 7 / 11 songs. “God we are just gonna worship you.” Seven words Eleven times. God you’ve just gotta love us because we tell you how great you are. In God’s economy of worship, that’s backwards. In fact, just look at the first page of today’s worship service in the hymnal page 184. It says “Divine Service.” Divine is another word for God. God’s Service, you could say. God serving us. God giving to us. This is what true worship is about. Just listen to a few of the words we’ve already said.

I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto You all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended You and justly deserved Your temporal and eternal punishment. (LSB 184)

Lord, have mercy upon us. Christ, have mercy upon us. Lord, have mercy upon us. (LSB 186)

O Lord God, Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us. (LSB 188)

Now don’t get me wrong, we do praise God for who he is and what he does. Mostly that is what our hymns are, praise. But take some time to think about them. They don’t blindly say that God is great, big, powerful, and awesome. They say why, exactly he is worthy of praise. Our hymnal is caulk full of hymns that specifically talk about Jesus Christ, his work on the cross for the forgiveness of ours sins. And here then we are on the receiving end. In God’s church, the highest form of worship is to receive the forgiveness of sins the God gives through faith in Jesus; Sent out to us in his Word; Poured over us in Holy Baptism; Poured into us in Holy Communion. Here, in fact, it is better to receive than give.

That’s Abel’s sacrifice; messy; bloody; painful; a proper response for a sinful person to take before a perfect and holy God. Not because he’s killing an animal. The author of Hebrews tells us:

For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. ” (Hebrews 10:1–4, ESV)

The death of the animal itself does nothing, because and animal can’t bear the sins of a person. Only a person can do that. Someone has to die for your sin. And that someone is you. But it’s worse than you think. It’s not just slitting your throat and letting your blood spill, it’s your banishment from God’s presence forever. A perfect and holy God can’t tolerate sinful human beings, bags of worms or bags of manure, infested with lice, maggots, stinking and foul. The guy who stands before God and holds up his good stuff to God saying, “Look at all the good things I’ve done for you” when they are all just a pile of sinful rubbish. That’s what hell is for. Permanent separation from God. Permanent punishment for sin. Forever and ever suffering the consequences of our pride, arrogance and selfishness.

“Lord, have mercy! Christ, have mercy! Lord, have mercy!”

That also is what Abel’s sacrifice is about, God’s mercy in Jesus Christ. No animal can bear the sin of a person. But a person can. Hebrews also says,

And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. ” (Hebrews 10:11–14, ESV)

The bloody sacrifice of Abel’s lamb was a reminder to God and Abel of God’s promise to take on human sin himself. Jesus blood is poured out, shed for the forgiveness of sins. On the cross he is the single offering, worth more than all others, in fact of infinite worth, because he is God, and a God sized sacrifice. Our cries for mercy are answered in Jesus Christ. The blood of millions of bulls and goats are answered in Jesus Christ. Shed for the forgiveness of sins. But let’s be specific. Shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins. Abel’s sacrifice said “Accept this lamb’s death instead of mine. Be merciful to me a sinner.” Christ’s sacrifice is that for you. It is a plea to God for mercy for you a sinful person. But it isn’t just your plea, it is God’s plea. Jesus plea, “Father forgiven them…” “It is finished.” Forgiveness is yours in Jesus Christ.

You sinner, forgiven. You who would hold up your filthy rags to God to bribe him to accept you. You who are tempted to think that your good deeds are better than your neighbors. You sinner of the worst sort, forgiven. God does not want your works. He doesn’t need them. They are only offensive to him. He has already redeemed you through the blood of his only Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus has done every thing you need to do in God’s eyes. So what are you to do? Serve your neighbor. Do for him. Sacrifice your life for his. Show him Jesus in your actions. Point him to his Savior and yours. Amen.

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

[1] (Luther, M. (1999). Vol. 22: Luther's works, vol. 22 : Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 1-4 (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (V 22, p 133). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.)

Friday, October 15, 2010

Genesis 32:22-30; Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost; October 17, 2010;

The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” (Genesis 32:22-30, ESV)

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

What do you do when God is your enemy? Life is full of moments like that when you are at odds with God; when it feels like He’s against you; and you are against Him. When there is a death in the family, trouble with your neighbors, illness that won’t / can’t be healed, rejection by the community, conflict in the church, and unfair treatment on the job. When things like these happen God just doesn’t seem to be doing his job. Instead of being there to help you and make things go better, go your way, God seems to be the problem, ignoring you and your prayers, or even blocking the way of progress. I don’t deserve this! You pray. You feel like Jacob, alone in the desert, wrestling with God.

Jacob, spent his whole life wrestling with God, his family and himself. He fought with his brother, Esau, over who should receive the family blessing from their father. You might remember how he plotted with his mother to steal it. Isaac, their father, sent Esau out to hunt for food, bring it back to him and receive the family blessing. He was the older son, he was entitled to it. While he was out Jacob’s mother prepared a sheep in a way to fool the old man. She dressed Jacob up in lamb’s skin so he would feel and smell like his older brother (apparently a hairy man!). Jacob took the food to his father, deceived him into thinking he was his brother, and received the blessing. He had to flee for his life. Esau pledged to kill him as soon as the funeral and mourning time were over. Jacob wrestled. His place in the family wasn’t to his liking. He took matters into his own hands to receive the blessing. It cost him his home.

And that’s not the end of Jacob’s story, or struggles. When he left his father’s house he went his live with his uncle Laban. He agreed to work for him and in return, after seven years, he would marry Laban’s younger daughter Rachel. When the seven years were up, Laban fooled him and when the wedding night was over, Jacob discovered he had married the wrong girl, Leah the old sister. So Jacob was forced to work another seven years to marry Rachel. Jacob wrestled. He wanted one girl and, just as he had deceived he was deceived. Another seven years and he had his “preferred” wife. But Jacob’s wrestling had just begun. Leah, the older, less attractive woman was very fertile. She had four boys. This didn’t set very well with Rachel, since she couldn’t seem to have any, she offered Jacob a servant girl. She had two sons for Jacob. Leah wasn’t to be out done. In response she gave Jacob her servant and she had two more sons. Leah had two more and a daughter. And finally, Rachel was remembered by God and had a son of her own, his name was Joseph. Jacob wrestled. While his wives had a birthing battle to prove who was the favorite wife, Jacob was caught in between.

But that’s not all. After working so many years for Laban, Jacob felt he hadn’t earned enough just by having productive wives and servants. He made a scheme to relieve Laban of a portion of his flocks. Under the agreement, Jacob’s flocks grew until Laban wasn’t happy with the arrangement anymore. Jacob was forced to flee again. Jacob wrestled. He had gained wealth and a huge family, but now he was homeless again. All he had spend his whole life struggling with his family.

That brings us to our reading for today. Jacob returns home to the brother who swore to kill him. He sent everything he had on ahead to meet Esau first as a buffer against his brother’s anger. Then all alone, he wrestled with a stranger all night. It is a very mysterious account. Jacob not giving up and the stranger touching his thigh putting it out of joint. Still Jacob refuses to give up the struggle. “I will not let go until you bless me!” The stranger changes his name from Jacob to Israel. “Because you have wrestled with God and with men and have prevailed.” “Please tell me your name,” Jacob insisted. He receives a blessing. Oh, by the way, do you know what Israel means. “He struggles with God.” And just so you don’t miss the point, Jacob names the place where this all happened, Penuel. Penuel means “The face of God.” So in some mysterious, miraculous way, Jacob wrestled again. This time it was with God who was a man. And he limped away with a blessing and a new name. What was the blessing? We’ll talk about that in a moment.

So here we are, also wrestlers with God. Sometimes we wrestle with him because of our own sinfulness. His Word enters our ears while we sit in the pew and strikes our hearts hard. We want to grab hold of God and wrestle Him into submission. We want God to conform to our standards of living. If God would just bend the law a bit for me, so I can do what I want to do and have a blessing and religion, too. We struggle with God over things we want. We want wealth and power and things, and we are not above bribing God to get it. If I win the lottery I’ll give a big gift to the church. God give me what I want and I’ll come to church more. Heal my sickness and I’ll tell everyone you did it. Put my family back together and we’ll spend our time serving the church.

Sometimes we wrestle with God because He just seems so absent. We pray and it seems we receive no answer. We are lonely and God doesn’t send anyone to visit. We are sick and God doesn’t heal us. We struggle with finances and God doesn’t give us what we need. We fight in our families and God doesn’t give us peace. We wrestle with God over what seems to be so right, and yet God does what God does. A lot of the time, God seems to be the enemy. He seems to want only suffering and pain for us. He seems to want us to disagree with our neighbors about what the bible teaches. He seems to want us to struggle. We don’t think we deserve this kind of treatment from God.

The truth is that God is involved in the very smallest details of our lives. He’s present even when we think He is not. He wrestles with us in our struggles. That’s when we see most clearly our need for God to intervene, for God to be in control. God engages us in the midst of a world that struggles because of sin, every day.

God comes down to be in the midst of us. God came to Jacob in human form and wrestled with him. Jesus, God in human flesh, does the same. He is God’s gift, God’s promise to Jacob. Through Jacob’s children’s children’s children God was made man in Jesus Christ. That’s the blessing that was given to him. It is the blessing given to us, through him. Jesus wrestled with the sin and brokenness of the world. He set things right. He made them new again through His death on the cross and His victory, His resurrection from the dead. God gives us a new name. He actually gives us His name, and a blessing. That’s what Holy Baptism does. We are connected to Jesus and His struggle with sin, death and hell. We come out victorious because Jesus won the victory for us. Jacob was far from the end of his wrestling. We wrestle every day too. But every day again God renews our connection to Jesus. In the face of discouragement, and loneliness, and hardship and pain and failure, He reminds us of our membership in His family, our belonging to Him.

I like this picture of Jacob clinging to the stranger. He’s in pain. He frightened. And yet he is determined, clinging to God because he knows only God can save him. That’s faith; clinging to Jesus, no matter what. That’s really hard in the face of trouble. That’s really hard when it feels like God is a million miles away. That’s really hard when we are in pain. It’s really hard when God himself seems to be the problem, wrestling with us putting our hip out of joint. But it’s God’s promise that is important here. He doesn’t bless us because we hang onto him. We hang on to Him because He is the only source of our blessing. Jesus is the fulfillment of our promise, God in the flesh, who lived and died and rose again to rebuild our relationship to God. To assure us that no matter what happens in life, God is on our side.

Jacob limped away from his encounter with God. When God wrestles with us we often are left with an injury. We limp away but God goes with us. He calls us by name. He uses us, wounded though we may be to get done what he wants done. That’s what He did with Jacob. That’s what He does with you and me. Amen.

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

Monday, October 11, 2010

Ruth.1.1-19a; Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost; October 10, 2010

In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband. Then she arose with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the fields of Moab that the Lord had visited his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she was with her two daughters-in-law, and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept. And they said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters; go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons, would you therefore wait till they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.” Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. And she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more. So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. And when they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them. And the women said, “Is this Naomi?” (Ru 1:1-19, ESV)

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

Two men were traveling in a deep woods. All at once they were confronted with a huge bear. One of the men, thinking only of his own safety quickly climbed a tree. The other, who was unable to climb, was now unable to fight t ferocious animal by himself flopped on the ground and played dead, because he had heard that bears won’t touch a dead body.

It must have worked because the bear sniffed at the man for a moment and then being satisfied that he was indeed dead, left him be. When the danger was past, the man in the tree came down, saying, “It almost looked as if that bear whispered something into your ear!”

“He did,” answered the other. “He said it isn’t wise to keep company with a person who would desert his friend in a moment of danger.” The story is one of Aesop’s fables.

There’s an old joke about a motorcyclist who took a girl named Ruth for a ride, hit a bump and so he continued on “Ruthlessly.” Really there’s more of a pun there than most of us realize. You see, the name Ruth actually means “friend” or “companion” so the ruthless biker was also “friendless.” But the name can also mean “to be satisfied” or “refreshed.” It’s actually what we find in the book of Ruth that God has given to us. In that account we see that Ruth is a true friend, in the very best sense of the word. She refreshed Naomi her mother-in-law even when Naomi was old.

The story is a particularly wonderful one. It takes place at a time before Israel had a king, some 400 years before Jesus was born. There was a man named Elimelech. He lived in Bethlehem with his wife, Naomi and his two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. When a famine struck the area they packed up all they had and moved to Moab (which was on the exact opposite side of the Dead Sea). Moab was a well watered highland so the drought and famine didn’t affect the people there. While they were there, some ten years, Naomi lost her husband. We don’t know why he died there is no reason given. Soon afterwards it seems, the sons married Moabite women. Their names were Orpah and Ruth. Then tragedy struck again and the two sons also died. Again we aren’t told why, weather it was a plague or an accident, doesn’t really matter. Naomi and her two daughters-in-law were left to themselves. Now since she heard that the famine in Bethlehem was over, Naomi decided to return home.

At first the two women joined her. But Naomi insisted that they go back to their parent’s homes, where they could begin their lives again. Both women refused the first time but after a second pleading Orpah did exactly what was asked. Ruth, however, vowed to stay no matter what. And here is where we find the words that we most often associate with Ruth. “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” (Ruth 1:16-17, ESV) These words are words of true friendship; they go far beyond family loyalty and duty. Ruth lives up to her name by becoming Naomi’s friend, companion and comfort.

Naomi and Ruth seem to have a remarkable friendship, almost twin like. Similar to the bond we sometimes see in “identical” twins. Some of you may have been fortunate to have that kind of friendship. For some it is in marriage. Some find it in bonding with a child who has grown. Still others find this kind of relationship in old school mates, co-workers, army buddies, neighbors, fishing companions, or teammates.

These people are people you trust. You enjoy their company and seek out times to be with them. You enjoy the same kinds of activities, talk long into the night, relax, work, laugh and cry together. Most of the time and in most ways… you are true companions. There is something wonderful about that kind of partnership, that kind of relationship. They are a glimpse of the kind of relationship God would have with us.

But there are always times when friends can’t be in complete agreement. Imagine two people standing in a rowboat. If both of them leaned over the same side of the boat they’d both end up in deep water. Sometimes friends, too, have to disagree and “lean the opposite way” for the benefit of both. None of our earthly relationships are trouble free. When we expect that we usually end up alone.

Many people expect that their relationship with God will be trouble free, too. You have maybe been guilty of that, just as I have. It’s easy to say that we should turn our troubles over to God, when we really mean that we intend to give them to God so he can fix them and fix them now. And then we get disgusted with God when he leans the other way. And our troubles persist. What we really want from our “friendship” with God is someone who’s bigger than we are to take care of the things we can’t handle. And sometimes we forget that God’s ideas, plans and expectations for our lives may be very different from our own. It can be very unpleasant when God leans the other way.

But, God is more than just our good friend. His love and care for us is way beyond our understanding. He fixes our problems in ways that we never could understand. Sometimes, because he knows what is best for us, He even allows problems to persist in our lives because it helps us to understand that we need him beyond the need to be free from pain or trouble. Because he is more than only our friend He doesn’t always allow us take the easy road.

It’s a picture of God that we see in Ruth’s friendship with Naomi. There was no guarantee that she would be better off with her mother-in-law. In fact, quite the opposite was true. When she said where you die I too will die be buried, she may have well expected it to be soon. Such was the fate of widowed women in those days. Yet, she sacrifices herself not just for the sake of their friendship, she gives her very self for the old woman. It seems she loved Naomi more than she loved herself. Her willing sacrifice turns out to be their salvation. For Ruth it all paid off in the end. She married a wealthy Jewish man, had children and lived a full new life. But, it was no accident. Ruth became the great-grandmother of King David, and an important link in the line of the promised Savior. She was a part of God’s plan to build a friendship to you.

God’s love for you is no accident either. In fact, God guarantees your future through the Savior who was Ruth’s distant great-great-great-great… grandson. God builds a relationship, a friendship with you through His own self sacrifice. We hear Jesus echoed in Ruth’s words… “For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people… Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried.” That’s what Jesus did. God, himself in human flesh, lived where people live, walked were people walked, ate and slept where people ate slept. And most importantly died as people die, and was buried. That’s God extraordinary love for you and me that he lived as any man would have lived, except he lived as a perfect friend, always loving completely, always giving completely. That giving completely is most clearly seen on the cross where he dies, like any human being would die, except not like any human being. It’s there that Jesus shows that His friendship is so much greater than any friendship we could ever hope to have. Jesus death on the cross is not just Jesus giving himself for one friend, or a certain group of people. It’s not just Jesus taking care of you and me. It is Jesus bleeding and dying for the sins of all the people of the whole world. It is a complete and total giving of himself for everyone. We don’t have friends like that, we aren’t friends like that. But Jesus is. He is because His love compels him to be.

Ruth said to Naomi. “May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” It was a promise she made probably slashing a finger across her throat, as if to say, “I’ll die before I desert you.” Jesus promises you and I even more than that, with his friendship. And he seals his promise in his own blood. One way to look at it is this. Ruth could have died for Naomi. If she did it would have been a wonderful self sacrifice. But Ruth still would have been dead the next time Naomi needed help. Jesus isn’t dead. That’s the most powerful thing about what he has done for us. He died, but didn’t stay dead. He suffered death for you and me, but he got up and walked out of the tomb. That’s exactly why Paul could right these words for us; For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Ro 8:38-39, ESV)

Jesus is our best friend because he dies on the cross for us. But He’s our greatest friend because he rose from the dead, and lives with us right now, in every day of our lives. He does something no human begin could ever do.

It still doesn’t mean that in whatever you choose to do he won’t lean the other way. He doesn’t promise that your life is going to be easy and free from trouble. But what he does promise is that He is your Ruth, your friend, your companion, your comfort. He is right there right in the middle of your pain and suffering. And he also promises one more thing that Ruth couldn’t promise Naomi. He promises that through it all you he will be your friend, it won’t last forever, and it really will be alright in the end. And the proof of that promise is seen in the empty tomb… Jesus empty tomb… and yours. Amen.

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

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Luke.17.1-10; Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost; October 7, 2007

And [Jesus] said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin. Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. “Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’ ” (Luke 17:1-10, ESV)

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

Well, it’s another text on forgiveness. Doesn’t Jesus ever get tired of talking about forgiveness? The think is whenever Jesus talks about forgiveness he always seems to be asking the impossible. Well, just listen to what he says,

…if [your brother] he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.

It just sounds to me like an invitation for someone to take advantage of me. It’s that seven times that gets me. How do I know someone is really sorry for a sin against me when they say, “I repent?” especially if they do the same thing seven more times? When I forgive, I want there to be a change of heart. I want the person who hurts me to really be sorry. I want them to come crawling to me begging for forgiveness. Then, I’ll know they really mean it. Then I can dangle my forgiveness over their heads for a bit to show how much they really hurt me. I need to put conditions on my forgiveness. I like to wait a while to make them think really hard about what they’ve done, let them stew in their guilt for awhile before I offer forgiveness. Then they’ll really appreciate it. Maybe I’ll even hold that forgiveness as a bargaining chip for later on when I’ll really need it. And when I do forgive I want everyone to know how good I am, how forgiving I am. I want people to say, “Wow! He really is a super Christian he can even forgive someone who has done that really, really bad thing to him.”

The problem is that all those attitudes are the sin that Jesus is telling us to avoid. Temptations to sin are sure to come. The sin he’s talking about here isn’t the sin other people do to us; it’s our sin in not forgiving those who sin against us. Jesus says temptations are sure to come. Our problem is that even though we believe God’s Word and want to follow it we have difficult time forgiving people as Jesus would have us do. And when we don’t forgive it is just like we don’t believe in God’s promises of forgiveness to us. It’s difficult for us because we are so easily hurt. And there is so much trouble in our lives. Every day we run into people that hurt us. Just like the text says, it is sure to come. The cashier cheats you at the checkout. The mechanic takes advantage of your ignorance. Your neighbor schemes to take away the land you’ve been working all your life. Your friend lets you secret slip. Members of the church ignore all the work you do to keep things going. That’s the way people are. That’s the way our relationships work. It’s difficult to forgive people when they are so often thinking about themselves first. And of course Satan has his part here too. He never lets you rest, telling that you have every right to settle the score, take revenge and withhold forgiveness when you are hurt.

Jesus says we are to be different. We are not to listen to Satan’s word. When Jesus says, if your brother sins… he uses the word brother to tell us that he is especially talking about how we live together as a church. How we live together as a Christian community. Our relationships with each other are to be very different. We are to be in the forgiving business. Jesus says forgive seven times a day but that doesn’t mean we should keep a tally:

“Well that’s six for Joe, you better watch it there Joe, you’ve only got one left. Sally you’ve only got two, you’re doing well. John, that’s eight for you. I’m sorry we can no longer forgive you.”

When Jesus talks about seven times he means “as often as it happens.” In the church, forgiveness always follows repentance. Forgiveness is freely given without condition. Forgiveness is never to be held over someone’s head to get them to change. Jesus makes this most clear when he uses that “m” word, must. You must forgive him. When a brother or sister comes to us for forgiveness we are required to forgive.

But we think that Jesus simply can’t mean that. What he really means that after someone changes he is to be forgiven. There have got to be conditions. We have to make sure the repentance is real. We have to make sure they are really sorry for their sin. Anything else just doesn’t make sense to us. Anything else is simply impossible. That’s because we want to be in control of weather we forgive or not.

ü I can’t forgive so-and-so for what they did to me. It just hurt me so much; I’ll never be able to forget it.

ü I just can’t forgive you now. Give me some time then maybe I’ll be able to forgive you.

ü Well, I forgave you, now it’s your turn to do something for me.

You know what? The disciples had the same problems. When Jesus said these words to them they looked at him and said, “Increase our faith!” We can’t do that; make us stronger so we can. Give us what we need to do the “must.”

Jesus strikes down their request. Not because he doesn’t want their faith to grow, but because they really don’t understand what faith is. They think faith is some quality in them that allows them to do what God wants them to do. The bigger it gets the more they can do God’s will. The bigger it gets the more they are able to forgive. Jesus says it’s not the size of faith that matters, the smallest faith does the impossible. What matters in faith is what the faith is in and where it comes from. It is what the faith is looking to that makes the difference. The faith that Jesus is speaking about here is utter dependence on God and his Word. It is complete reliance on Jesus Christ and his life, death and resurrection for us. Faith is looking to God to do it all. There is no part in faith for “God does his part now I can do my part.” When you try to forgive you are placing your faith in you. Jesus wants you to trust solely on him for your forgiveness. He wants you to give his forgiveness to others.

The longer I am a pastor the more I appreciate how simply Martin Luther expresses what the bible actually says in the Small Catechism. It’s no wonder that Christians have treasured this small book for all these years. We have it in printed for us in the hymnal. Open it up and turn to page 302. Look at what he says.

The Fifth Petition

And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

What does this mean?

We pray in this petition that our Father in heaven would not look at our sins, or deny our prayer because of them. We are neither worthy of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them, but we ask that He would give them all to us by grace, for we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment. So we too will sincerely forgive and gladly do good to those who sin against us.

Notice how it doesn’t say that we forgive because we try so hard to do it. Notice it doesn’t say that we forgive because our faith is bigger than a mustard seed. Actually look at where it starts. We forgive because we have been forgiven. We only give what we have received. We don’t deserve forgiveness, so we know that other people who sin against us don’t deserve it either. In fact, they don’t have to deserve forgiveness. If they did, we would have to deserve forgiveness too! No, God gives forgiveness to people who don’t deserve it. He gives it to people who can’t forgive each other. He gives it to people who hold a grudge. He gives it to people who take advantage of each other. He gives it to people who are very slow to forgive. He gives it to people who want to use forgiveness as a way to control each other. He gives forgiveness to you, sinner that you are, unloving as you are, undeserving as you are. So you give that very same forgiveness to those who sin against you. It isn’t yours to give. It is God’s gift to you and through you.

You see, it is all about Jesus. He does what you are unable to do. He forgives because you can’t and often don’t want to. When he was hanging on the cross, in extreme pain, he forgave those who hung him there. Just think of it. From the cross, Jesus looked out over those men who drove nails through his flesh and forgave them. He said “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34, ESV) From the cross, Jesus looked out over the Jewish leaders who manipulated the government to kill him to keep control of their own power and forgave them. From the cross, Jesus looked out over the disciples who forsook him and left him alone and forgave them. From the cross, Jesus looks out over you who are slow to forgive, who are unable to forgive, and forgave you. From the cross he looked out over the whole world and said, “It is finished.” Right there he made it possible for you to forgive, through his forgiveness. Jesus forgives because he can forgive. He earned forgiveness. The blood that dripped from his hands and feet and head and side onto the ground were the payment he paid. The pain he suffered was punishment for sins he didn’t do. It was punishment for sins you do. It was the punishment for those who sin against you. And so when Jesus tells you that you are forgiven, you can believe that it is true. His resurrection from the dead is proof that he did what he says he did. If he has forgiven you, who don’t deserve it, he also has forgiven those who sin against you, even though they don’t deserve it either. Because of Jesus you forgive just as you have been forgiven.

We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.

That’s how the reading ends. It’s saying the same thing that we pray in the Lord’s Prayer:

And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

The forgiveness we offer isn’t ours to give. It is the forgiveness Jesus offers through faith in him, through trusting that his life, death and resurrection are sufficient to forgive even the sins that hurt us deeply. Our faith in Jesus means that we give the forgiveness that he has given us. If you’re looking for that kind of forgiveness outside the church, outside of Jesus gift of faith you’re not going to find it. Here, in the church, is where God gives his forgiveness through Jesus Christ, his Word and Sacraments. Here is where he gives faith. We know what it is suppose to look like. We pray about it every time we take the Holy Supper.

We give thanks to You, almighty God, that You have refreshed us through this salutary gift, and we implore You that of Your mercy You would strengthen us through the same in faith toward You and in fervent love toward one another; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

“Faith toward you and fervent love toward one another.” Those are wonderful words. Through God’s gift of faith in the forgiveness of sins we are able to live them, even though we struggle to do them perfectly. But that’s why we are here, to receive forgiveness and pass it on to others; the forgiveness that Jesus gives freely, without condition. Amen.

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