Sunday, October 22, 2023

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost; October 22, 2023;

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace. We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” (1 Thessalonians 1:1–10, ESV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

I think it is fair to say, there is some conflict here. I’m not talking about the church at Thessalonica, I’m talking about the church at Grand Marais. I am not discouraged by it. It shows we are growing. By God’s design, we have strong personalities here with strong opinions. The topics of conflict, whether it is Closed Communion or whether we should have a full kitchen in our new church, or even how much the church will cost, are important. We care about them. Conflict over issues isn’t a problem, it is what we do with the conflict that is important.

Our problems may have seemed small to the Thessalonians, after all they were suffering under daily persecution. They were primarily a gentile church in the middle of a pagan community. They had members of their church who were martyred. They were mistreated by their own countrymen. How did they respond to their issues, Paul makes it clear. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.” (1 Thessalonians 1:6–7, ESV)

They received the Word of God, in affliction, with joy. Their response carried to the other churches in the area, so that they became an example of faith in Christ. When Paul hears about it, he writes this letter offering comfort and support.

He talks about their history,
“turning from idols to serve the living and true God.” (9)
Where once they served things of wood and stone, who were powerless, they now worshiped God, in Christ, who is able to comfort and sustain them even in persecution. In the power of the Holy Spirit,
For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything.” (1 Thessalonians 1:8, ESV)
They fearlessly proclaimed the Word of God. And we shouldn’t imagine that that word was some generic word, but the instead the story of Jesus Christ, crucified, dead and buried, risen, and returning.
“…you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” (1 Thessalonians 1:9–10, ESV)
Make no mistake, the message that was proclaimed to them, the one that gave them comfort in persecution was the message of Jesus. Paul said it to another church,
For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2, ESV)
Now Paul is very pastoral in this letter. He wants to encourage the congregation. He begins by reminding them who they are, where they came from. They were idol worshipers who heard the Word and came to faith in Jesus. Trouble came, but they remained full of joy in the Holy Spirit. So much so that the word about their joy spread to other congregations in the area. They were living out the truth from Scripture that Paul had taught. They were focused on Jesus and all that he had done for them. Paul makes it even stronger, building on the strength. (Ever wonder why we talk about strengths and weakness in our Strategic Planning? We take after Paul.)

In Chapter 4 he says,
“Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more.” (1 Thessalonians 4:1, ESV)
“Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another,” (1 Thessalonians 4:9, ESV)
The Gospel is indeed the power of God. They heard it regularly and they were walking the walk and talking the talk. They were treating each other with love and respect. Even in the face of great trials. When Jesus says,
“Love one another”
They were doing it. And yet, Paul encourages them to continue. Continue in your sanctification. Abstain from sexual immorality, control your bodies, don’t transgress and wrong your brother.
For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.” (1 Thessalonians 4:7, ESV)
for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you,” (1 Thessalonians 4:10–11, ESV)
In other words, he was saying, “Continue to live in light of the forgiveness you have received from Jesus.”

So, how would I as your pastor, encourage you as St. Paul encouraged the Thessalonians? What is going well? What are we doing that is right? What are our strengths? It begins right here. By the work of the Holy Spirit, God’s word of forgiveness is spoken in Jesus’ stead. Sinners are confronted with sin, and his forgiveness from the cross is proclaimed as the solution. We have comfort in the fellowship that only comes from forgiven sinners loving each other as Christ has loved us.

Speaking directly to our church conflicts, they are covered with sin. Pride makes me think (and you) that my ideas and opinions are the only good ones. But continually hearing God’s word, allows me to see my neighbor as one for whom Jesus shed his precious blood. It helps me to temper my ideas and to see things from his perspective, and to compromise when appropriate. When I see sin in everything I do and hear that Jesus has indeed covered my sin with his blood, I can forgive my brother and sister in Christ when they sin against me, because I know that the same is true for them.

When you look at each other, do you see the Holy Spirit at work in their struggles with the word? You should. No one changes overnight. It is the continual showering of God’s mercy that does it, over time. The continual blessing of Holy Baptism and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit who uses the word to change our hearts. That’s what happens here in this place that God has provided. God showers us with love through the gifts of the word about Jesus. Jesus crucified for your sin and mine. Jesus raised from the dead to assure your future with him. Jesus admonishing us to do the right things. Jesus giving his body and blood in, with and under bread and wine, in the most intimate of ways, to strengthen your faith. The Holy Spirit prompting you to give your hard-earned gifts to the church, they are your tangible response to God’s gifts. You do it because you see the value of them, and you want these gifts to continue.

And think of this. Life in Christ is a unique church. Our location here in Grand Marais is by God’s design. He has already built on a strength. As he assures the Gospel is preached here in its truth and purity, as he provides the forgiveness of Jesus proclaimed into each ear. He provides a place for guests and visitors to receive it also. We have lots of visitors, most of them will never become members. But while they are here, God pours out his love in Jesus through you and me. He pours grace into their ears though his word, though song, through action. And all that we gain through God’s gifts are here for our visitors as well.

This, I think, is the answer to why we want to build a new church building. We are reacting to what God has provided. He provides benefits of membership, the proclamation of the word, fellowship, encouragement, and comfort in times of trouble. He provides these also for his children who visit this part of his beautiful creation. We want a place that shows how important all of this is.

Will our church conflicts end? I rather doubt it. Just look at us, who we are, where we come from. We are Norwegian, German, Irish, or just plain old self-confident Americans. We are all stubborn beyond belief, and me more than any. But we can survive. Not by ourselves, but by turning our attention to Jesus on the cross. By reflecting on his blood shed for you and especially for those you are in conflict with. When you lay your sin at Jesus’ feet, and it is really all you have to offer him, he takes it into death on the cross and destroys it. His forgiveness pours over you. You see things with new eyes, Jesus’ eyes. And his eyes see your adversary in love and forgiveness. Amen.

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

Sunday, October 15, 2023

Matthew 22:1-14; The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost; October 15, 2023;

Life in Christ Lutheran Church, Grand Marais, MN;
And again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, “See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.” ’ But they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.’ And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests. “But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”” (Matthew 22:1–14, ESV)
Grace and Peace to you from Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

It’s a bloody mess, this wedding feast. The invited guests don’t want to come. They have other work that is more important. They kill the messengers. The king, understandably, is very angry, he kills them all and burns their city. After his gracious invitation, they responded with indifference and violence. He returns it in kind. But he isn’t done. The slain are not worthy of the feast, he has prepared everything for a joyous occasion. They rejected him, his son the bridegroom, his rule, and his kindness. But, everything is ready. The feast must proceed. So, he sends his messengers to the open road to invite everyone they can find. The servants did just that and brought in a new crowd of people. And the wedding hall was filled with folks, “both good and bad.”

Then this parable takes an interesting turn. The king came to look over the newly gathered guests. A man was there with no wedding garment. We might think that the man had an excuse. After all he was brought in from the highway. He wouldn’t have time to go home and dress for the party. But in those days, the special wedding clothes were provided by the host. He was in common street cloths, not fit for the celebration. He has dishonored the bridegroom, by his refusal to wear what was provided. He too is met with violence. He is tied up and cast out.

Jesus can hardly be accused of subtly in this parable. In fact, he has piled it on. According to St. Matthew, Jesus is teaching in the temple, in full hearing of the Scribes and Pharisees. When he gets to the line,
But they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them.” (Matthew 22:5–6, ESV)
I imagine him lifting his eyes and looking directly at the religious leaders for “and killed them.”

This is the third parable in a row where Jesus is talking directly to them. The first about the two sons, the first who says he will do what is asked and doesn’t. The second who says he won’t and then does it anyway. The second parable is the one about the owner of a vineyard who the tenants react with violence and kill the heir. After that one, Matthew tells us,
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them.” (Matthew 21:45, ESV)
It is rather obvious; Jesus is accusing them of murder. They would have arrested Jesus, but the crowds prevented it. And after this parable about the King’s wedding fest, they try to trap Jesus into speaking against paying taxes to Caesar. They will stop at nothing to get rid of Jesus. They want the Romans to do their dirty work.

I would remind people who see Jesus as an always loving, non-confrontational, itinerant preacher, Jesus was not only controversial, but he was confrontational. It was not above Jesus to bind cords together and beat people with them. That’s what he did when he drove the money changers out of the temple. Here he seems to be deliberately provoking the religious leaders to act against him. They do, and when they get the chance, with the help of the Romans, Jesus is nailed to a cross. I think they full well knew Jesus was the promised messiah. But he was not the one they wanted. He didn’t hold them up as examples of goodness and law keeping. Instead, he attacked them and rightly accused them of being hypocrites and murderers. Their response to God was, “Try again.”

As we look at this parable, what does it say to us? I had a seminary professor (Dr. Gibbs) who told us that our congregations are not the Pharisees. What he means is that they rejected Christ, but those gathered around Word and Sacrament do not. Well, this is a Kingdom parable. That means it tells us something about the Kingdom of God. Jesus says,
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son,” (Matthew 22:2, ESV)
The kingdom of heaven is like a wedding feast. We see this feast in our Old Testament reading for today.
On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.” (Isaiah 25:6, ESV)
It’s a glorious celebration. The best food will be offered. “Rich food” Isaiah says. It’s a celebration of Jesus and all that he has done for us. Specifically, death is defeated. “Death is swallowed up forever.” He puts an end to all mourning. He puts and end to the “reproach of his people.” That means he removes their sin. If ever there was a cause for celebration, this is it. It is what the Kingdom of God is all about.

But there is more. After being rejected, the King offers the kingdom to everyone. Even the “good and bad.” If it were not so, we would be out. He gathers his people from the far corners of the earth. And the wedding hall is full.

The parable of the seeds tells us about this. The reckless farmer spreads the seed of the Word everywhere without regard to how it will be received. Rocky ground, the path, shallow soil. But some fall on good ground and produce fruit. God is gracious in his offer to join the kingdom. But not all will receive it.

Our parable goes even further. God provides what we need to be there. A wonderful wedding garment. As I said before, the guest who refused to wear it is cast out. That is a rejection of Christ. Jesus knit the wedding garment with his own blood. He bound it together with the cords of his righteous life. The gown is the robe of the righteousness of Christ. He shed his blood on the cross for our forgiveness. He exchanges our filthy rags with his own robe of the perfect life he lived. It is provided without anything we do to earn it. We are invited. We show up. The robe is given, and we are forgiven. When God looks at us then, he sees Jesus. He sees a glorious robe that covers all our sins. That’s why the man who refused to wear it is cast out. God sees his sin, his filthy rags. He in essence is saying, “I don’t need a new robe. My clothes are good enough.” Martin Luther explains the rejection.
“The cause for this contempt for the Word is not God’s foreknowledge, but the perverse human will. The human will rejects or perverts the means and instrument of the Holy Spirit, which God offers it through the call. It resists the Holy Spirit, who wants to be effective, and who works through the Word” (FC SD XI 41).
For us, who are in the kingdom, this is telling. Our task, like the king’s servants, is to offer the invitation, through the Word. We are to proclaim the Good News of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for the forgiveness of sinful people, to people everywhere. We are not to regard the rejection. We should expect it (hopefully without violence!) We are fighting against the perverse human will. But it isn’t our fight. That fight belongs to God, the Holy Spirit, who works through the Word.

In a little bit we will be discussing the gifts that God has given us here to do just that (afterwards we’ll have a feast!). We have the Word, Christ himself, present with us. This Word is the means by which the Spirit works. We have the sacraments, Holy Baptism, and the Holy Supper. The Holy Spirit also works through these. If we are proclaiming the truth of Scripture, if we are administering the sacraments according to Christ’s command, we are doing all that is necessary. If we are meeting regularly to receive his gifts, we are doing all that is necessary. If we are working individually in this community to show God’s love and forgiveness, we are doing all that is necessary.

But with God there is always more. We have this property, graciously given to us for his use. How will we use it to increase what God does here through the Holy Spirit? How will we use it to further teach God’s Word about Jesus? Well, those are the questions we will ask ourselves. And with his grace accomplish what he has set before us. Amen.

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

Sunday, October 08, 2023

Isaiah 5:1-7; The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost; October 8, 2023;

Life in Christ Lutheran Church, Grand Marais, MN;
Let me sing for my beloved my love song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; and he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard, that I have not done in it? When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and briers and thorns shall grow up; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry!” (Isaiah 5:1–7, ESV)
Grace and peace to you, from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

It’s harsh. The law is harsh. It is meant to be. There is no way around it. There seems to be very little Gospel in this text. God means to destroy the vineyard. It is like the text in Revelation 3.
So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.” (Revelation 3:16–19, ESV)
God is angry about sin. He has always been so. He will always be so until the end when it is finally completely gone. He sets his law before people, and they break it. The Old Testament uses the image of God’s nose burning in anger against sin. It is important to note here in both these passages God is talking about the church. Of all people who should keep God’s law, it is God’s people. With love and care, God set up the vineyard, that is the church, with a hedge to keep trouble out. But when the church acts no different than the world, he tears down the hedge. The church is trampled by foreign invaders. The crops are destroyed. They were only sour grapes anyway, but none-the-less, they are trampled to nothing.

It is easy to see this in other churches that have forsaken God’s law. He tears down the hedge and they are further driven from it. Lawlessness begets lawlessness. The churches teachings are sour grapes, with the hedge gone, they are no longer even grapes. But we should not so quickly discount our own church, especially how we reflect on the law. Our particular sin, as Lutherans, is to sometimes see the law too lightly. To live in our own sin as if it didn’t matter. Divorce, living together before marriage, greed, selfishness is rampant in the church. Care for God’s servants is lacking. The poor go hungry. The homeless are ignored.

We are a gospel church, an evangelical church. Evangelical means “good news preaching”, and we do indeed preach the good news of Jesus our Savior. Jesus canceled our sin on the cross. Jesus fulfilled the law for us, so we don’t have to. Jesus rose again from death to save us from eternal punishment. It is a sweet message. But so often the way we say it comes across as making light of sin. Your sin and mine, cost our God a great deal. He suffered hell for you and me. Our Roman brothers and sisters get this sort of right, with the stations of the cross. They emphasize the worldly suffering of Jesus. They contemplate what it cost Jesus in pain to take our sin to the cross. But it is only half of the story. Jesus suffered, not only pain and death on the cross, but also your eternal punishment and mine. The eternal punishment due to all people for all time. The abandonment by God the Father. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” We can’t comprehend the cost. The Father grieved over the death of his Son. The angels wept. And the sins the Jesus suffered and died for are not only those in our past, but also the ones we haven’t even done yet. Mel Gibson, in the movie the Passion of the Christ, is said to have used his own hands to film the scene as the one who pinned Jesus to the cross with nails. It was a reminder that he caused Jesus’ suffering. Every sin we commit is painful to Jesus on the cross.
Ye who think of sin but lightly Nor suppose the evil great Here may view its nature rightly, Here its guilt may estimate. Mark the sacrifice appointed, See who bears the awful load; ’Tis the Word, the Lord’s anointed, Son of Man and Son of God. (LSB 451 )
It is only natural to want to pass over our sins very quickly and turn the Gospel. They are ugly and terrible. They leave our life in shambles. But our sins deserve more than a cursory examination. The Gospel, the Good News of Jesus, should make us hate our sin and make us dread committing them. The prophet Micah makes it personal; he speaks directly to individuals.
He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8, ESV)
Oh man of God, oh woman of God, God has these requirements for you. It’s that walking with humility that is key here. To walk humbly with your God means to understand all that he has done for you in forgiving your sin.

We say it with our confession,
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8, ESV)
If you believe you have conquered sin, if you believe that your sins are of no account to God, you are deceived (by yourself). The truth is not in you. That is not to walk humbly with your God. You don’t understand the depth of your sin, and you have a misunderstanding of the price Jesus paid. You can quit sinning on the surface. Sin is a darkness in your heart that makes you want to defy God. You can’t and never will destroy that until the old Adam in you is put to death permanently. The passage, our confession continues,
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9, ESV)
This is not a one-time thing, (the “if” is better translated “when”) it is continuous. Luther said that the Christian life is one of repentance. That means struggle against our human nature. A struggle against sin. An ongoing trip to the cross of Christ. An ongoing receiving of forgiveness offered there. Apply, rinse, repeat. If we could get rid of our sinful nature, we would only do the confession one time and be done with it. But that would make God and his Word a liar.

The bible is full of God’s faithful people struggling with sin and loosing. Adam, Eve, Moses, David, the Prophets, The Disciples (both before and after the death and resurrection of Jesus), Paul, and more. If you think you are spared this ongoing struggle…

Paul finally calls this what it is, a “body of death”, after talking about his own ongoing struggle with sin. You should expect, as a Christian, to continue your struggle with sin.

The church is a grace place, a mouth house where God continually tells you of Jesus and his life on your behalf, his death for yours, his resurrection promised also to you. God’s sure promise that your sin has been dealt with and it doesn’t mean eternal death for you. The condemnation of the law, that which says you should go to hell, is erased. There is no condemnation for you. You will not go to hell. Further in the church, God himself is present with you in your struggle against sin. The fight against it isn’t yours alone but through his word and promise he gives himself again in the Holy Spirit. He directs you against your sin. He gives you the power to resist thru the Gospel. And when you fail, he gives the comfort of the Gospel. It is the Trinity at work in your life. The Trinity at work in your struggle against your Old Adam, your sinful human nature.

We, as Lutherans, get very nervous when we hear about what God requires. We default to say, “Nothing, Jesus has done it all!” It is very true. Jesus has lived a perfect life in your place. He has satisfied God’s justice for your sin. You are destined for heaven and in the resurrection, you will rise to new life. But scripture is replete with calls for Christians to obey God and keep his commandments. Would these admonitions be there if there was no struggle, if we could in this life overcome our sinful nature? This admonition has nothing to do with your salvation but everything to do with you living as who you are. Because Jesus has done everything for you, you are now required to live a different life. Because we are one with Jesus, sin has no control over us, only when we (our sinful nature) allow it.
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions.” (Romans 6:1–12, ESV)
Notice how Paul pushes everything back to Jesus, your baptism, the death of your sinful nature, and your resurrection to a new life. You are his, you should live differently. And when you fail, and you will, you drag yourself back to the cross and receive forgiveness there. That forgiveness is the power to live your life differently. That forgiveness is life changing. Amen.

So, next week we will be having our Strategic Planning Seminar after Church. Is it a fair question to ask what God requires of us? Of course, it is. Especially considering all that he has given us. God has defied all odds here. We are not the church that should survive on the North Shore. Instead of liberal theology we believe, teach, and confess, the truth of Holy Scripture. He has graced us with this property. We are in the most ideal place for a church. He has even placed for our view a symbolic hedge of trees around it. This is all God’s work, a gracious gift from his hand alone.

• Will this be a place where God still defies the odds, and brings the Good News of Jesus to the community?
• Will this be a place where God’s word is continually and always taught in its truth and purity?
• Will this this vineyard be a place where people hear God’s law and Gospel, to convict stubborn hearts and gladden troubled hearts?
• Will this hedged in vineyard be a place where Christians can go with the trouble of their sin and find relief?
• Will this be a place where the Gospel compels us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God?

If the answer to these questions is “Yes” (and I believe it is), we have a lot of work to do. Amen.

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

Sunday, October 01, 2023

Philippians 1:18-26; The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost; September 24, 2023;

Life in Christ Lutheran Church, Grand Marais, MN;
What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.” (Philippians 1:18–26, ESV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

So, I think I’m about to make you uncomfortable. It is a part of my calling to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. There is a topic that we can talk about in Church as no where else. And even though it may make us uncomfortable, the Church is the only place that has a real answer to this problem.

What I’m talking about is death. Specifically, yours (and mine). You are going to die. With the noted exception that those alive when Jesus returns won’t, but we will talk about that more at another time. There is very little you can do about your death, much less determine the time. God says in Hebrews,
And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment,” (Hebrews 9:27, ESV)
There is an appointed time for your death and God knows when it will be. The way you will die is also appointed. It is set in concrete. As much as we’d like to choose our own death to make it easier, we can’t. It is all in God’s hands. Weather it’s a car accident, cancer, heart attack, violence, or and “easy” death in your sleep. (I’m not terribly convinced that that is the best death possible, but that’s just me). Your death could be said, is the most important event in your life. Harold Senkbeil, a Lutheran pastor, and author, once said,
“We live our whole lives graveside.”
He was not talking about someone else’s grave; he was talking about your own. And the noted philosopher Clint Eastwood sums up death, in the movie Unforgiven. He says,
“It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. You take away everything he’s got and everything he’s ever gonna have.”
Death is not your friend. It is in fact your greatest enemy. We have this understanding in common with the whole world. I have seen many deaths as a pastor, to call them blessed, in a worldly sense, is a stretch. Death is in no way a good thing. And moreover, God himself, hates it. He hates it because of what it does. It destroys relationships. It brings sorrow. It carries grief. Death is filled with pain. It ends what God has created to be an eternal good.

I have been asked, “Pastor, is it ok to fight death?” My answer is, yes. God’s gift of life should not be given up lightly. It is not his intention for you. God instilled in the body a desire to fight death to the very last. I have visited many older people who ask me, “Pastor, when will I die?” They are prepared for death, and yet, their body, by God’s design, fights it to the bitter end. That is exactly what you would expect from God’s eternal creation.

You were created to be an eternal whole person. Death tears that apart. Your body is separated, forcefully, from your soul. A soulless body, and a bodyless soul is not a complete person. That is the horror of death (not to mention the possible destination of soul and body in the end). Dylan Thomas’ poem talks about this fight. Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light. I am opposed to calling funerals a “Celebration of Life.” It denies the primary emotion for those affected by the death of their loved one. No one wishes death on anyone. It is true that death is an end to suffering for those who believe in Jesus, but when a loved one dies, we want them back. Talking about a celebration is disingenuous. And don’t get me started on all the pithy things people say in a vain attempt to asswage grief. “God needed another angel.” “They are in a better place.” “Their suffering has ended.” Our loved one is gone, and we are left with grief. Grief is not a thing that can be ended. It is a life-long process that we must go through. It is, in fact, another proof that the resurrection of the dead is true. We long for what we know to be true. Sin has done its terrible deed. We are without our loved one. We must grieve. There is only comfort for grieving people found in Jesus. His life, death, and resurrection with the real and sure promise of reunion.

You have heard that a pastor would rather do a funeral than a wedding. That’s true. But I’d rather do no funerals at all. It was the most surprising thing about becoming a pastor, that every funeral became harder that the last. Rest assured though, if I am called to do your funeral (God forbid!), I will, as far is it is in my power, shepherd your body to its final resting place, and speak only about the comfort found in Jesus. The assurance of the resurrection and the promise of a happy reunion for those who have faith in Jesus.

And that brings us to our text for today. Paul seems to have an almost cavalier attitude toward his own death. He seems to view his own death as a good thing. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21, ESV) But it is not death he is talking about as his gain. His death means he will be with Christ forever, that is the ultimate gain. God, as always, turns evil into good. He uses death to end the suffering and trouble of his saints. He uses the evil of death to gather his people to himself. Psalm 116:
Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.” (Psalm 116:15, ESV)
So, the death of the saints (all those who have faith in Jesus are saints) is precious to God. It is so because the saints are precious to him. He desires to have them with him. Because of sin, death is the means that brings that about. It is the ultimate example of a gracious God turning evil into good. This is the gain that Paul is looking for.

And, since death is our greatest enemy, and God is our greatest ally, we should expect that what is most true about God is that he has done something about death. He has, in fact. Jesus greatest accomplishment deals with death. His greatest miracle is his resurrection. Jesus did many miracles. He shows he has command over nature. He shows he has command over demons. He shows he has command of illness. But in his resurrection, he shows he has command over life and death itself. It is the proof that he is exactly who he says he is. As one of my favorite professors said, As his greatest miracle, Jesus could have caused hair to grow on a billiard ball. That would have been amazing, and completely meaningless, except for bald people. His resurrection has meaning for everyone because everyone faces death. Jesus deals with our greatest calamity through the miracle of his resurrection.

It is true, that if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, we are truly lost. Jesus is then a liar. He isn’t God. He has no power to save, and there is nothing to save us from. Death then means oblivion. It is then, the very end of everything for us.
And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:14–19, ESV)
Those are strong words. What they mean is that Christianity can be proven false. All you have to do is prove that Jesus didn’t rise. All you have to do is find his body. But, of course, that’s one body that will never be found. Jesus did rise from death. He did not stay in the grave. He was seen by a myriad of people. His resurrection is as provable as his walking on earth. All you must do is show that he was alive at one point, dead at another, and finally alive again. Of all the religions of the world, none but Christianity is based on a provable resurrection. In fact, for most religions, whether the primary founder existed or not makes no difference.

And what does this mean for you? Well, your faith is not in vain. In Corinthians Paul continues:
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Corinthians 15:20–26, ESV)
Jesus is the key. He is the answer to your death. It has no hold on you because the one who died also rose again from death. He is the firstfruits, Paul says. That means there is more to come. Because Jesus rose, you will rise. Death is not the end, but only the beginning of eternal life. He is returning to set everything right again. He has all authority and power, that means over death also. And you, if you are alive when he comes again, won’t have to die.

Until that time we walk beside death on the tightrope. It could come for us at any time. And it is a fearful prospect. Are you afraid of death? Well, that’s an interesting question. I am certainly afraid of death. But not because I don’t have faith in what happens after. I don’t look forward to the pain of death. I don’t look forward to the fearful anticipation. But because of Jesus, I will pass through the pain of death to be with him and await the resurrection of my body.

Saint Paul didn’t have an easy death. He was decapitated befitting a Roman Citizen. We know the place, there is a chapel there, and in the chapel, three springs, tradition says one for each place his head bounced after it was cut off. So ended the physical life of Jesus’ servant, Paul. He then joined his Lord to await the resurrection. He is past all pain now, after his life of service. He has the gain of which he was speaking. He is with Christ. And as wonderful as that is, he is also looking forward to a much greater thing. There is more to come as he looks forward to his resurrection, as he has been promised by his Lord. He has gained everything, with more to come (God’s math again).

Was Paul afraid at the end? I don’t know, afraid of the pain maybe. But he saw through it to his Savior. I do know, he fought death with every legal means at his disposal. In the end he went to his death in the peace of Christ.

Was Jesus afraid of death? That’s an interesting question that I think doesn’t have a good answer. He certainly suffered great stress in the Garden of Gethsemane, producing his “bloody sweat.” By the way that also shows he was completely human. It is a rare but known condition for people under extreme stress to bleed sweat (called Hematidrosis). Was Jesus bloody sweat caused by fear of death? That would be quite human. And scripture tells us that he experienced everything humans do, without sin. So, with Paul (and possibly) Jesus, afraid of death, if you do, you are in good company. At the very least God, himself, in Jesus, can sympathize with your fear.

Death is your greatest enemy. Unless, by God’s grace you are alive when Jesus returns, you will die. I don’t know when I will die, much less when you will die. For me, I’m sure, it will be sooner than expected. (Yikes!) Will it be quick or long suffering? Accident or violence? It really doesn’t matter, all of that is in our Father’s hands.

So, what does the church have to offer in the face of the fearful portal? We have what we have been given, Jesus, and Jesus alone. He has done something about death, more specifically your death. Nothing he says is more important for you. Nothing he promises is more powerful. The promise is yours. It is assured for you when God spoke his name over you in Holy Baptism. He was saying,
“When death comes to this one, he/she will pass through it to me. When time ends, he/she will be raised in a perfect body to be with me forever. There will be no more fear of death. There will be no more pain, or mourning, only life forever.”
Do you want more assurance? God provides it. Be here when he speaks continually his words of promise. Be here to receive the blessing of fellowship. Be here when we confront death in all its ugliness. Be here when he offers to strengthen your faith with his body and blood given in death for you. It is Jesus who gives it all. He is the firstfruits to pass through death to life. Will it bring an end to your fear of death? It could. But there is so much more to death than fear.
For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21, ESV)
That was Paul’s faith. Not that he could bypass death, but that through death is something even more wonderful than this life, and beyond that is a life that will be even more, though far beyond his understanding.

We don’t shade death here. We speak about it in all its horror. We speak the truth as we have been given it by Jesus. We will neither shade life. Now it is full of trouble and pain and fear. Your death is a terrible thing, yet a through it a gain for you none-the-less. Using God’s own words, “precious in his sight.” He looks forward to it with eager anticipation, because for you it means life, for you it means an end to suffering, and mostly an end to sin. Death will bring about for you the beginning of the blessed reunion. Firstly, and most importantly with Jesus, your savior. Then also, with every death on earth, you will see the preciousness of it as you are united with your loved ones in Christ. Then will come the unspeakable joy of the resurrection. Amen.

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