3 June 2012 - Trinity Sunday

It has become very fashionable today for people to declare that they are atheists. Books written by atheists, promoting atheism, are devoured and revered with the kind of eagerness that one otherwise sees in the attitude of conventionally religious people toward their sacred scriptures. This new atheism is also supposed to be some kind of heroic and brave departure from convention.

It will not surprise anyone to hear that our church does not embrace or encourage atheism. We Lutherans - we Christians - believe in the existence of God.

But of course, we are not the only people who do. And we are not the only people who have something to say, to challenge the arrogant and poorly-thought-through presumptions of the new atheism.

I recently read an article by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks - of Australia - who offered these thoughts:

“Freud said that religious faith is the illusion - the comforting illusion - that there is a father figure. But a religious believer could say to Freud that atheism is the comforting illusion that there is no father figure, and you can get away with whatever you feel like doing. So I don't know why atheism is somehow considered more heroic than theism; I call that an adolescent dream.”

There is a certain moral adolescence among those who don’t want there to be a God, because they chafe under the idea that there is a moral and governing authority higher than themselves, to whom they are accountable. And this moral adolescence sometimes coexists with an otherwise highly-developed intellect - as with Sigmund Freud, and as with many of the leaders of the new atheist movement today.

Trinity Sunday, however, is not simply a day on which we affirm that we do believe in the existence of a righteous God. It is not a day defined by our declaration that we are not moral adolescents. There is more to being a Christian than believing in the existence of God.

We believe in a God who does not merely exist, but who speaks and acts. And we believe in a God whose speaking and acting can be known, by human beings.

We believe in a God who holds us accountable, but who does not allow us to hold him accountable to our human standards and expectations. We believe in a God who demands to be the master of all aspects of our existence, and who does not allow us, with impunity, to compartmentalize him into a limited “religious” sphere of life, while ignoring him in all other spheres of life.

All of these things are included in our confession of the Triune God, who has revealed himself to the world in the Christian gospel. The Father, who created the world, sent the Son into that world to redeem it from sin and death. And the Father and the Son send the Holy Spirit to the hearts and minds of men, through the Word of God and the Sacraments of Christ, to convict, convert, and confirm us in a saving faith in this redemption.

In a sense, every Sunday is Trinity Sunday. Every Lord’s day, we sing:

“Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.”

Indeed, every day that begins with an invocation of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is a day on which we confess the Triune God. Trinity Sunday, specifically, is not the only day on which we think about who our God is, and what he is like. Trinity Sunday, as a distinct day in the church year, is something like Reformation Sunday.

It is a day on which we focus, with special emphasis, on certain fundamentally important articles of our faith, even though those articles of faith are acknowledged and believed on every other day too. And it is a day on which we think about those providential events of Christian history that served as a context for clarifying the form and content of the church’s apostolic faith, when one or another aspect of that faith was challenged or attacked by false teachers.

St. Patrick was not an apostle. He was also not one of the authors of the historic creeds which we use in worship, and which explain and confess the doctrine of the Trinity.

But he was a missionary who put the theology of those creeds into practice, in his preaching and teaching among the people of Ireland in the fifth century. He was also the author of the original text on which the choir anthem, that we will hear in a short while, was based.

That hymn is a marvelous confession of the God in whom we believe. It does not simply assert that some kind of God exists. It is also not limited to an explanation of the mystery of the doctrine of the Trinity itself - the mystery of One God existing as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

St. Patrick’s hymn goes beyond that, as it acknowledges that all things in our life-experience - and all things in this world - belong to God, and serve God’s purposes. This was not self-evident to many people in Ireland in the fifth century.

The Druid priests in Ireland believed that the forces of nature were under the control of the idols whom they worshiped and served. And they believed that their spell-casting and curses could manipulate those forces - indeed, that they could manipulate those forces against Patrick, and against what he and his fellow missionaries were doing, in preaching the message of salvation and eternal life through Jesus Christ.

That message was a threat to the Druids, and to their dominance in Ireland, because it was a message that brought liberation to those who believed it. The gospel of Jesus Christ - and the Triune God who was revealed in that gospel - brought liberation from the power of sin, from the fear of death, and from the intimidation and control of the Druids.

Every morning, before they went out to do their work among the Irish people, Patrick and his brother missionaries sang this song. They considered the truths confessed in it, to be like a “breastplate” of supernatural armor: to protect them from the satanic attacks of the Druids; and to bolster their faith as they went forth to make it clear to the Druids that the souls of the people of Ireland will no longer be theirs.

By singing this song, they, as it were, bound to themselves the protection of the true God. They “wrapped themselves” in the almighty and powerful name of the Holy Trinity, so that this name would guard them against all falsehood and deception; against all devilish intrigues and schemes; against all sin and wickedness.

One of the stanzas of this “breastplate” hymn has these words:

Against all Satan’s spells and wiles, Against false words of heresy,
Against the knowledge that defiles, Against the heart’s idolatry,
Against the wizard’s evil craft, Against the death wound and the burning,
The choking wave, the poisoned shaft, Protect me, Christ, till Thy returning.

Patrick knew that God, in Christ, has redeemed the people of Ireland, and had staked his claim upon them. And the Holy Spirit, through the preaching of the gospel, and through the regenerating miracle of baptism, was now claiming those souls for the Triune God, to whom they rightfully belong.

St. Patrick and his brethren also confessed the truths of their hymn against the attacks that Satan would bring against them more personally - against the inner temptations that could, if indulged in, ruin the faith and ministry of the missionaries. And so another of the stanzas went like this:

Against the demon snares of sin, The vice that gives temptation force,
The natural lusts that war within, The hostile men that mar my course;
Or few or many, far or nigh, In every place and in all hours,
Against their fierce hostility I bind to me these holy powers.

To St. Patrick; to those who worked alongside him in evangelizing Ireland; and to the people who joyfully received the gospel from them, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity was not an intellectual abstraction.

This doctrine was the reality of everything that was going on all around them. The confession of one God in three Persons was the reality of everything that was being accomplished in and through them, all the time.

And that’s the way it is for us today as well. The God who creates, who redeems, and who makes us holy through his Word and Sacrament, is the only God there is.

And he is a God who is everywhere. There is no room for any other competing gods, because the Triune God claims as his own all places and persons, all corners and crevices of the universe, all human souls. All idolatrous claims to the contrary are myths and legends, lies and heresies.

Your earthly life - and all the godly blessings of home and family, work and play, science and the arts, that you enjoy in this life - ultimately would make no sense, and have no meaning, apart from the Triune God who makes all these things happen, and who gives all these things to you.

Your spiritual life - and all the blessings of grace and forgiveness, love and hope, peace and joy - that shape your heart and conscience, and that shape your values and convictions, would be only an illusion, without a true and living faith in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

And so, as the Athanasian Creed confesses, “we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in unity.” This is the God whom you worship.

You do not fully understand this God. You do not know why he does and allows everything that he does and allows. But you do “worship” this God.

You worship him, and acknowledge him to be the Lord, when you admit your sins against his law, and repent of them. You worship him, and confess him to be a God who does not lie, when you believe his message that the death of Jesus was a death that he suffered in your place, and that his resurrection was also for you.

You worship him, and embrace him as the loving Savior he is, when you believe his promise that your sins are now forgiven, and that you belong to him. And you worship him, as the one who has bestowed eternal life upon you, in everything that you do as a fruit of your faith, and in everything that you endure for the sake of his kingdom.

With St. Patrick, therefore, you are able to sing:

I bind unto myself the Name, The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same, The Three in One and One in Three.
By Whom all nature hath creation, Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation, Salvation is of Christ the Lord. Amen.

10 June 2012 - Pentecost 2 - Genesis 3:8-15

Marriage and family are gifts from God. That’s the way it’s been since the original joy and harmony of the Garden of Eden, before sin entered the world. But even with the reality of sin in the world as it exists now, it is still God’s will to bring people great blessings through marriage and family.

If you think back on the happiest occasions in your life, I’ll bet that most of them involve events related to marriage and family: your wedding or the weddings of your children, the births of your children or grandchildren, buying your family home, or going on a particularly enjoyable family vacation.

And that’s also why the most painful memories in people’s lives tend to be of disappointments or acts of betrayal within the context of marriage and family. The people who are closest to you are the ones from whom you expect the most.

And therefore they are the ones who are able to wound you most deeply. A spouse or a child, a sibling or a parent, can hurt you in ways that others can’t.

And as you reflect on the sins of your own life that you regret the most, I’ll bet that most of them involve things you did or said that caused harm to your family members. Your brothers and sisters - your parents and children - had the right to expect better of you. But you really let them down, and so you are deeply remorseful and ashamed.

This kind of pain and disruption within human families also goes back to the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve, in their sin, led each other astray, and turned on each other.

Eve misused the trust of her relationship with Adam, to tempt him into joining her in her rebellion against God, under the influence of the serpent. And then, as today’s text from Genesis recounts, Adam blamed her for his failure to do the right thing - and for his failure to correct her when he saw that she was not doing the right thing.

The Lord God said to Adam, “Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.”

Our first parents were now alienated from God because of their sin. And they were now alienated from each other as well, because of their sin.

They had been created to be partners, and to build one another up in their mutual worship of God, and in their mutual service to God. But now they were dragging each other down, and were backing away from each other into the loneliness of self-justification and excuse-making.

Satan, who made himself an enemy of God by his own pride and rebellion, has also made himself to be an enemy of humanity. He hates what God loves. He hates most, what God loves most. And that is us.

It should not surprise us, then, that Satan is very active in trying to bring pain and suffering to people precisely in the context of their marriage and their family. More generally, he also wants to undermine marriage and family as enduring institutions.

Marriage and family have the capacity to bring much godly happiness and contentment to people. But when the power and the promise of these institutions are betrayed, the worse kind of soul-destroying sin is the result.

It is the devil’s will that is being accomplished, in every case of adultery and child abuse. He’s behind it each time.

And when a society dissuades people from the stability and fruitfulness of marriage as God instituted it - by glamorizing fornication in movies and on TV, and by decreeing that an unnatural union between people of the same sex has the same moral standing as natural marriage - the devil is behind that too.

When the conception of a child - even if it takes place in difficult circumstances - is not seen as a wonderful gift from God, but is seen instead as a human failure that can be dealt with by killing the child, this is the darkest and most devilish example of what I am talking about.

Anything that contributes toward the weakening of marriage and family, contributes toward Satan’s agenda: his agenda of separating people from supportive and stabilizing relationships with each other; his agenda of separating people from a relationship with God.

That’s the way he has operated, behind the scenes, throughout human history - beginning in Eden, and still today. And that’s what we can expect from him until judgment day.

We, in our inherited fallen condition, desire things that will actually lead to pain and misery - for us and for those who are close to us. The devil amplifies these inner temptations. And he manipulates us at the point of our greatest weakness - whatever that may be in each individual - in order to prompt us to destroy ourselves, and our families, through sin.

Jesus, the Son of God in human flesh, experienced many joys in his family life, during his time on earth. His mother and step-father loved him deeply, and raised him in a pious and respectable home.

On at least one occasion, Jesus was called a carpenter. This means that, as a boy, he didn’t just watch Joseph work. He worked with Joseph, learning his trade from him, and in that process no doubt built a close relationship with him.

But Jesus also experienced the kind of disappointments that often characterize family relationships in this sinful world. He grew up in a home with several brothers and sisters. But during the time of his earthly ministry, his brothers did not believe in him.

In today’s Gospel from St. Mark, we see evidence of this: “Then [Jesus] went home, and the crowd gathered again... And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, ‘He is out of his mind.’”

Jesus’ family members - excluding his mother, we assume - did not understand his mission on earth, or his true identity. They did not understand what it was about him, that drew the devotion of so many people.

They did not understand what it was about him that caused him to spend so much time with the poor and the downcast, the sick and the lame, the outcasts and the sinners. But instead of being humble about their lack of understanding, and giving themselves a change to learn these things from their brother, they jumped to the quick and cruel conclusion that he was “out of his mind.”

Jesus would have appreciated their support and encouragement. According to his humanity, this would have been important to him.

But that’s not what he got from them. Instead, they insulted him, and belittled him.

And in so doing, without intending to do so, they were making common cause with Jesus’ real enemies among the scribes - who weren’t just making fun of him, but who wanted him dead. These scribes, as tools of the devil, blindly accused Jesus of being a tool of the devil.

Right after his description of the attitude of Jesus’ family members toward him, St. Mark reports: “And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, ‘He is possessed by Beelzebul,’ and ‘by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.’”

The scribes didn’t want people to listen to Jesus. Satan didn’t want people to listen to him, or to understand him.

Satan didn’t want anyone to be able to receive from Jesus - through repentance and faith - the salvation from sin, and the enlightenment in God’s truth, that Jesus had come into the world to give to all men.

As Jesus faced the attacks of the scribes - and through them, of the devil - his brothers abandoned him. They turned on him, when he needed them most.

But Jesus still loved them. He went on to die for them, and to atone for their sins.

He went on to rise again for them, to open for them the way of everlasting life. In regard to one of these brothers in particular - James - St. Paul tells us that Jesus appeared to him personally, after his resurrection.

This James then ceased to be an unbeliever, and became instead the leading pastor of the church in Jerusalem for the rest of his life. He had accused Jesus of being crazy. But his brother - his Savior - forgave him.

And Jesus forgives you too, for the sins you have committed against your brothers and sisters, against your parents and children. Jesus died for every unkind word that has ever passed between you and your spouse - for every betrayal, for every insult, for every failure to love and honor the one whom you vowed to love and honor.

Christ, the promised Seed of the woman, bruised and crushed the head of your tempter and accuser, in his death and resurrection.

And in his resurrection, Jesus brings to you his deep, divine healing - his healing of all the emotional wounds that have ever been inflicted on you by the members of your family. The risen Christ is the head now of a new family - the family of his church.

And you have been incorporated into that family by his Spirit - the Spirit of adoption - by whom you now call out to God, in faith and in love, “Abba, Father.” Jesus himself speaks of these things in today’s Gospel:

“And his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him, and called him. And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.’”

“And he answered them, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.’”

The devil is still active in this world, seeking to kill and destroy. He wants to destroy souls. He wants to destroy marriages and families, because he knows that God can do so much good through them.

But the Holy Spirit is also active in this world, through the Word and Sacraments of Christ, bringing forgiveness and healing to those who have been misled and harmed by the devil’s intrigues and lies, and bringing strength and wisdom to those who are still threatened by those intrigues and lies.

When you bring your earthly family into the larger family of God - so that spouses, parents, children, and siblings worship together, confess their sins together, and receive God’s grace together - the devil loses. God wins. You, and your family, win.

When you repent of your trespasses before the Lord, and receive his forgiveness for yourself, you thereby learn how to forgive each other.

When a husband and wife in a strained relationship pray together, from the heart, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” important relationships, on two levels, are changed.

Their relationship with God is renewed, when God, in his absolution, breaks down all the barriers that their trespasses against his law had erected.

And the barriers fed by pride and stubbornness, anger and resentment, that they had erected between each other, are, in that moment, also torn down by God. Jesus, who makes all things new, makes all things new for them.

When competitive brothers patch up their differences, and shake hands; and when squabbling sisters embrace each other, and agree to a fresh start with each other, there is a return, in Christ, to the harmony that the first human family knew in Eden, before the fall.

And if someone who is all alone in this world - as far as family connections are concerned - is drawn by the gospel into the embrace of Christ, the church of Christ becomes his or her family: where love and encouragement are given and received, where burdens are borne together, and where joys are shared.

Indeed, even those who come to the Lord’s house with a family, find that they are all now a part of something bigger, something deeper, and something eternal.

Jesus instructs us that in the resurrection, people neither marry nor are given in marriage. In the resurrection, and in God’s eternal kingdom, husbands and wives, parents and children, no longer relate to one another as they did in this life.

They are all one, in Christ. They are all brothers and sisters forever. The fellowship of the church on earth, in view of our common baptism into Christ, gives us a taste of that.

Marriage and family are gifts of God. For that reason, they are under constant attack by the devil and his allies.

But God, in the gospel of Jesus Christ, heals, restores, and protects marriages and families. God, in the gospel of Jesus Christ, heals, restores, and protects you within your marriage, and within your family.

And God, in the gospel of Jesus Christ, brings you into a new and eternal family - the family of his church. And in the church triumphant - in the family of God triumphant - Jesus wipes away all tears, and removes all sadness and disappointment. All sin is forgiven, and forgotten, in Christ. And the joy of God’s love will endure forever. Amen.

17 June 2012 - Pentecost 3 - Mark 4:26-34

In today’s Gospel from St. Mark, Jesus speaks this parable:

“The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.”

A man scattering seed on the ground represents the spreading of the message of salvation in Christ all across the world. St. Peter, who was present when Jesus told this parable, explains this to us in his First Epistle:

“Love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for ‘All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.’ And this word is the good news that was preached to you.”

As a rule, people enjoy listening to an engaging and well-rehearsed speaker, and they usually shy away from a boring and unprepared speaker. This applies to what goes on in church, too.

Pastors - through laziness or disorganization - should not make it difficult for people to pay attention to what they are saying when they preach. It is a sign of disrespect for God’s Word, in fact, if a minister presumes to proclaim that Word carelessly and unnaturally.

But it is not the wittiness or eloquence of the pastor that makes his preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ to be powerful and effective. His message is powerful, in itself, if it is an accurate summary and application of the message of Scripture.

If his message is effective, and makes an impact on people, it is only because the Holy Spirit, from within the message itself, has supernaturally impressed himself onto the minds and hearts of those who are listening.

Some preachers are more reserved and soft-spoken than others. Some preachers are more exuberant and dramatic than others. But both kinds of preachers can serve their flocks faithfully, if the content of their preaching is sound.

A highly polished speaker does not add something to the gospel that is not already there, just because of his special giftedness. A more challenged speaker does not subtract something from the gospel, just because of his shortcomings and weaknesses.

The full forgiving and saving power of God’s Word is present and active in all cases where a preacher is a faithful sower of the seed of God’s Word. And that’s because God’s forgiveness and salvation in Christ resides in the seed that he plants in the souls of his listeners, and not in his particular method or technique of planting the seed.

This is also why lay Christians can be confident in their ability to help in fulfilling the great commission, even though they are not trained to be teachers in the church. Whenever you privately share the message of Christ with your neighbor, you are a servant of God also, in planting the seed of his kingdom into the life of your neighbor.

A lot of people hesitate to speak of spiritual matters with other people, because they don’t think they have the skill or ability to participate in a thorough discussion or debate regarding theological issues. But even if that is so, it doesn’t really matter.

When you tell your friend - in the words of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans - that “all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,” something supernatural happens. A seed from God - which has its own life within it - has been planted.

And if your friend might get a little defensive when you speak to him of matters pertaining to his soul and his eternal destiny, and he asks you with a bit of an agitated tone, “Are you trying to convert me?,” you can answer honestly that you are not.

Nothing that flows forth from you, from your personality and style, can make a spiritually dead person come to life. If your friend does ruminate on what you said, and eventually is won over to believing it, it won’t be because of how much of your personality or persuasive energy you put into the delivery of the message.

It will be because of the objective content of the message itself. The power and divine life that reside in the seed of God’s Word are what create faith, whenever faith is created.

So, as a Christian who is called by your Lord to confess him before men, you have done your duty when you declare to the people you know what you believe to be true about the person and work of Christ, about grace and redemption, about the forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation.

It is not you duty to try to make them believe it too. That’s what the Holy Spirit does, through the gospel itself.

Sometimes people believe the gospel in the first moment they hear it. Sometimes the gospel lodges itself in their memory, and works on them from the inside for years, before it sprouts, and they believe it.

But in each case, it is the objective truth of the gospel - the potent seed of the kingdom of God - that produces faith, and the fruits of faith.

It is not only the message of grace and forgiveness in Jesus Christ that has this kind of supernatural power. The kingdom of God is not spread by a God-given faith in the gospel, until a God-given repentance has been worked in people by the law of God - which comes before, and done its necessary preparatory work of showing people their need for the gospel.

Human persuasion can sometimes make people feel guilty and remorseful for the improper things they have done - ashamed that they got caught, and fearful of the consequences of their misdeeds. We can each probably think of certain people in our family who are particularly good at making us feel this way.

But true penitence and conviction of sin before God - with an awareness of the damnable nature of all sin - is worked in us only by the Holy Spirit, through the message of the divine law.

The Smalcald Articles explain this. They first mention “coarse, evil people, who do evil whenever they have an opportunity.” Then they describe the “hypocrites” and “false saints” who “become blind and presumptuous, imagining that they can and do keep the law by their own powers.”

In response to both of these kinds of people, the Smalcald Articles then confess:

“The foremost office or power of the law is that it reveals inherited sin and its fruits. It shows human beings into what utter depths their nature has fallen and how completely corrupt it is. The law must say to them that they neither have nor respect any god.”

“This is something that they would not have believed before, without the law. Thus they are terrified, humbled, despondent, and despairing. They anxiously desire help, but do not know where to find it.”

God’s Word of law says, “You shall not.” But you have done what God tells you not to do. And the Holy Spirit convicts you of this. You have failed, and there is nothing you can do in your own strength to undo your failure, or to help yourself.

But, “our help is in the name of the Lord.” Our help is in the Word of the gospel - the revelation of the death and resurrection of God’s Son, in our stead, and for our salvation.

A pastor, as a “spiritual father,” is called to do something that literal parents also often do with their children. In his teaching of the law, as God’s representative and mouthpiece, a pastor preaches, in effect, “Do as I say, not as I do.”

I can tell you without any hesitation that the force and authority of the law that I preach against your sins, and against the sins of the world in which you live, do not arise from my holiness and obedience. The law of God convicts me, too, even as I preach it.

Rather, the force and authority of the law reside in the law itself. The law, too, is like a seed, that contains within itself the power to produce what God wants it to produce - that is, to convict, and drive to repentance, all people in whom it is planted.

If a fellow Christian - with plenty of flaws of his own - shares a rebuke or a warning from God’s law with you, regarding a certain rebelliousness against God that has become a part of your life, your first reaction may be to say, “Who do you think you are, to be criticizing me? You’re no better than I am.”

And if you say something like that, in a situation like that, you will probably be correct. But it’s all beside the point. The personal imperfections of a speaker of the law do not nullify or discredit the perfection of the law that he speaks.

The Large Catechism teaches us that “the authorities, fathers and mothers, and even brothers and sisters and other good friends are under a mutual obligation to reprove evil wherever it is necessary and helpful.”

When your friend reproves you, he is simply doing his duty before God, in the fear of God, as a sower of seed; just as you are, when - on other occasions - it is necessary for you to reprove your friend.

The law of God always has the same convicting and curbing power, regardless of who speaks it. It is like the seed of the gospel in this respect. It’s power and authority are within itself, and do not come from the person who plants it.

And speaking of the seed of the gospel, that seed is planted in us in yet another way, and bears fruit in us in yet another way. The second-century church father Irenaeus illustrates how the body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper is also like a seed - a seed of Jesus’ resurrection, which on the last day will sprout up in the form of our own resurrection in Christ.

He says: “When the chalice...and the bread...receive the word of God, the eucharistic elements become the body and blood of Christ, by which our bodies live and grow. ...”

“The slip of a vine planted in the ground bears fruit at the proper time. The grain of wheat falls into the ground and decays only to be raised up again and multiplied by the Spirit of God who sustains all things. ...”

“In the same way our bodies, which have been nourished by the eucharist, will be buried in the earth and will decay, but they will rise again at the appointed time, for the Word of God will raise them up to the glory of God the Father. Then the Father will clothe our mortal nature in immortality and freely endow our corruptible nature with incorruptibility, for God’s power is shown most perfectly in weakness.”

So far Irenaeus.

Indeed, as Jesus says at the conclusion of today’s parable, “when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” It’s also obvious that the communion celebrant today has nothing to do with making any of these things happen on the last day.

When the Word is joined to the earthly element, the element becomes a sacrament. And when the sacrament is joined to us, and planted in us, we, in faith and hope, become alive in Christ.

It’s all about the divine seed, not the human sower. It’s all about the divine message, not the human messenger. It’s all about Christ, and the Spirit of Christ, as God himself, through the means of grace, builds up his kingdom within us, and among us.

“The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground.” Amen.

24 June 2012 - Pentecost 4 - Mark 4:35-41

The story that we heard in today’s Gospel from St. Mark is very familiar to us. The account of the storm on the sea, and of Jesus’ calming of the storm, has always been taken as a metaphor of the way in which Jesus takes care of us and protects us through the many storms and trials that we face in this world.

The imagery of today’s story does indeed lend itself to such general applications. But imbedded within today’s account are a couple details that may not often be noticed, and that can help us to be comforted and instructed by this text in even deeper ways.

The first thing to notice, is that the reason why the disciples set out to sail across the lake on that day, is because Jesus specifically directed them to do so. “On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was.”

So, the storms of life in which Jesus protects us are not just the storms that we happen to stumble across, or that come upon us by surprise. Often, the vocations that we are given by Jesus deliberately lead us into such turbulence.

Sometimes we know that a storm is coming, when we step forward to fulfill the duties that Jesus has entrusted to us. But that doesn’t give us the right to run away from those duties. If God has indeed commissioned us to perform a difficult task, in a difficult circumstance, then we are obligated to do so, regardless of the outward strain and stress that we may experience in the process.

I knew a woman many years ago who was diagnosed with a degenerative neurological disease. She was now going to face a long and difficult journey into increasing weakness and discomfort, until finally her mortal life would probably be taken from her by this condition.

But she didn’t expect to face this alone. She was married.

She and her husband were regular worshipers at the Lutheran church in which they had exchanged their vows of lifelong, mutual love and faithfulness - “in sickness and in health” - many years earlier. God had united them in holy wedlock - “til death us do part” - and had called them to be faithful and supportive to each other in all eventualities.

But my friend’s husband sinned grievously - against her, and against God. He divorced his wife, because of her health condition. And before long he was remarried, while his true bride and life-companion languished, alone and forsaken, in a nursing home.

Jesus had, in effect, told this man to cross over to the other side of a stormy sea with him. He had promised to remain with him - in the boat of his life and of his marriage - throughout all the emotional turbulence that was going to come upon him. He had pledged that he would keep him safe in his faith, and strong in his love for God and for his wife.

But this man refused to heed the Lord’s calling in his life. He abandoned the duties that God had entrusted to him in his vocation. He did not fear, love, or trust in God above all things.

He avoided that storm. But he brought upon himself, I fear, a darker and more dangerous storm - a storm of unbelief and rebellion, against the good and gracious will of God, that knows no peace, in this world or in the next.

In your own life, you may never have done something like what my friend’s husband did. But if you are like me - and I think you are - you surely can recall many times in the past when you did turn away from what God wanted you to do, in a self-chosen effort to protect yourself from a trial or struggle that God was actually calling you to endure for his sake, and for the fulfillment of his purposes.

Jesus has asked you at various times to cross a stormy sea with him. And you have refused. You could see what was coming, and you didn’t want it to come to you.

You knew what the right thing to do was. Yet you didn’t do the right thing, because you concluded that the right thing was the difficult thing. But when you, in such a way, turned away from a duty or a task that had been entrusted to you by God, you sinned.

Secretly, you may even be running away from God’s directives to you right now. Or you may be contemplating how you are going to respond to something hard and challenging that God is calling you to, right now.

As you think about the mistakes of the past, and even more so as you think about the callings that are upon you today, please do know that whenever Jesus asks you to cross a stormy sea, he always, always stays in the boat with you. He does not remain in safety, while sending you forth into danger.

He faces every danger with you. He is your companion in all trials.

By his word of forgiveness, he renews and strengthens you when you falter and stumble. By his word of comfort, he sustains you in all temptations.

He never sends you to a place that he is not willing to go to, with you, every step of the way. Even if you do suffer in some ways as a result of following his will - emotionally, physically, financially - he keeps your soul safe, in every way that really matters.

Christ the Lord is the almighty Son of God, and your Savior from sin and death. What we read in the Epistle to the Hebrews therefore certainly refers to him, and to his faithfulness:

“He has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’”

And in the book of Deuteronomy, we read: “The beloved of the Lord dwells in safety. The High God surrounds him all day long, and dwells between his shoulders.”

In Christ, God surrounds you in all danger. In Christ, God dwells within your heart, and fills you with hope and faith. And this brings us to another point in today’s text that we should make sure we don’t miss.

We read that the disciples awoke Jesus - who had been sleeping peacefully in the midst of the crashing waves and howling wind. And they said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. And then he said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?”

Because Jesus was with them, they should have known that they would get to the shore, in spite of the waves and the wind. The word of Christ is to be believed. When he says, “Let us go across to the other side,” we will get to the other side.

But as the disciples were feeling the spray of the storm, and the violent rocking of the boat, their perception of what was going to happen was not governed by faith in the word of Christ. It was governed instead by what they were seeing. They were not walking - or sailing - by faith. They were sailing - and it seemed sinking - by sight.

I think it is fair to say that Jesus calmed the waves, and quieted the wind, because of the disciples weakness in faith, and not because they actually would have perished if he had not intervened in this way. With Jesus in the boat, that would not have happened.

Jesus was calmly sleeping, and was not worried, because he knew that they were indeed going to reach the other side of the lake. The disciples should have known this too. But they didn’t.

The Epistle to the Hebrews instructs us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” In the midst of the storms of life that you very vividly see and feel - as you, with God’s help, pursue your calling under Christ - the Gospel of Christ, in Word and Sacrament, assures you that “for those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

You believe this promise - which is recorded for you in the Epistle to the Romans - not because you can see a lot of outward evidence that it is so, but because God’s Word tells you that it is so. And in the Epistle to the Romans we are also told that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”

Christ is your companion in the storm - your vocal companion - by means of his word. In the boat in today’s story, the divine master of all wind and waves was hidden beneath the humble human form of the carpenter and rabbi from Nazareth, sleeping soundly in the stern.

In the story of your personal storm - whatever it may be - the eternal truth and power of God is hidden beneath the humble forms of Holy Scripture; of preaching and teaching; of water, bread, and wine.

In one sense the Lord’s house, where we partake of the means of grace, is like a harbor from the storm. But in another sense, it is the place where you are renewed and strengthened while still in the midst of the storm.

You don’t come here to escape from your calling in Christ - even temporarily. You come here while still in the very midst of that calling, and while still in the very midst of the emotional, physical, and financial turmoil that may be upon you because of that calling.

In the absolution of Christ, and in the sacrament of the Lord’s body and blood, you do not receive peace as a substitute for the storm that swirls around you. You receive peace - true, inner peace - in the midst of that storm.

You receive the assurance that all sins of the past, and all your previous running away from God’s call, are forgiven and washed away in the blood of Christ. And you receive the assurance that the living Savior is with you now, in the callings that are upon your life now.

Perhaps Christ is, in a sense, “sleeping” - as a sign of the calmness and rest that his word also brings to your heart. But he is there nonetheless, never abandoning you or forsaking you.

And by his grace, you will get to the shore. In Christ you will live, and not die. For whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

Be still, my soul; thy God doth undertake
To guide the future as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence, let nothing shake;
All now mysterious, shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul; the waves and winds still know
His voice, who ruled them while He dwelt below. Amen.