6 September 2009 - Pentecost 13 - Mark 7:31-37

For those who are unable to hear or speak, sign language is an indispensable means of communication, by which they are able to understand what others want them to know, and by which they are able to express themselves to others. Sign language consists in certain gestures of the hands and the body, which picture or symbolize specific words or thoughts.

But such gestures can be useful also to others - not as substitutes for spoken words, but as a means of reenforcing and underscoring the meaning of those spoken words. We’re not talking now about a full acted-out vocabulary of hundreds or thousands of words, as would be the case with the kind of sign language that deaf people use.

But there are various gestures, or symbolic bodily actions, that can help even hearing people to focus their attention on the meaning of the words that someone may be simultaneously speaking to them. In our culture there are lots of gestures like this.

When you recite the Pledge of Allegiance, or sing the national anthem, you are expected to place your right hand over your heart, as a gesture of loyalty and love of country.

When a lady enters a room in which people are seated, the men who are there are expected to stand up, as a sign of respect for, and deference to, a representative of the fairer sex. And when someone is introduced to you, you are expected to shake his hand, as a symbol of friendship and of your good intentions toward him.

In today’s Gospel, from St. Mark, Jesus shows that he also has a keen understanding of the value of sign language - or something like it. Specifically we’re thinking of the deaf man described in the text, who also had a speech impediment.

The healing that Jesus performed for this man was, of course, accomplished by the power of the word that he spoke: “Ephphatha!” - which means “Be opened!” But the man who was receiving the healing, and who needed his ears to be “opened,” would not be able to hear Jesus speak that word.

He was deaf, after all. And so Jesus, on this occasion, used a series of gestures and outward bodily actions, in conjunction with the speaking of the word, in order to communicate to the man the meaning of that word.

We read: “And taking him aside from the crowd privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue. And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’

First, we notice that Jesus took the man aside, and dealt with him privately. This means that the gestures Jesus then used were intended for the personal comfort of that man.

They were a form of communication from Jesus specifically to this person, for his benefit. Jesus did not engage in these actions for their own sake, but in order to teach something to the deaf person about the nature and source of the healing that he was about to receive.

And then we notice what Jesus did. He put his fingers into the man’s ears, to testify to him that by the power of his word he was going to open his ears, and remove the affliction of deafness from which this person suffered. And Jesus put his own fingers into the man’s ears - not a swab that had been dipped in some kind of medicine.

He was thereby telling him - through this unique kind of sign language - that he himself was his healer. Jesus himself was the “medicine.”

After that the Lord took some of his own saliva, and put it on the man’s tongue. Remember that this person’s deafness was accompanied by an inability to speak intelligibly. Jesus showed the man, by this action, that he himself was going to solve that problem too.

And then Jesus looked toward heaven, and sighed. The miraculous healing that was going to occur was going to occur because of God’s love for the man.

Jesus was not a magician. He was the Son of God, who was in prayerful communion with his Father, and whose actions were governed by the will of his Father.

As he was performing this healing, he thereby invited the deaf man - through this gesture of looking upward to the Lord - to pray to the Lord himself, and to acknowledge that his healing was an act of divine grace.

And finally, after Jesus had helped the deaf man understand what was happening, and why it was happening - through the use of these bodily gestures - he then spoke the word of healing that actually accomplished the miracle this man needed. “Ephphatha!” “Be opened!”

And the ears of the man were opened, so that he could hear. His lips were also “opened,” as it were, so that he could now speak plainly, as the text tells us.

The word, spoken by Christ, had accomplished this. But the sign language that Jesus had used, in conjunction with the speaking of the word, had testified to the divine power of that word.

Jesus’ gestures and symbolic actions conveyed to the deaf man, in a way that he was able to grasp, the meaning of the word of divine healing that he spoke. In this way the deaf man was able to know that God was healing him through Christ, his Son, so that he could place his trust in God - and in the Son of God.

But the deaf are not the only ones who can benefit from the kind of ceremonial gestures and symbolic actions that Jesus employed in today’s text. God knows that all of us need to have the message of his Gospel reinforced to us, and underscored for us, through the use of outward signs that accompany the spoken message.

He knows how easy it is for us to be distracted from what he wants to tell us. In our weakness, and lack of faith, we can easily lose interest in his proclaimed word.

After a few minutes of listening to a sermon or a reading from Scripture, it is very easy for us to begin to think about something else. Our hearts are sluggish. Our devotion to God’s Word waxes and wanes, depending on what else might be going on around us, or in our own minds.

Don’t look around at each other, but I even wonder how many people who are here right now are still paying close attention to what I am saying at this moment, and who are not daydreaming about something else.

The attention of all people - both the deaf and the hearing - can be heightened, and brought into sharper focus, when God’s spoken word is accompanied by gestures and bodily actions that in a sense “paint a picture” of what it is that God wants to impress upon us.

In his institution of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, Jesus specifically commanded his church and its ministers to carry out certain ceremonial actions, as intrinsic parts of those sacraments. Without these divinely-commanded sacramental actions, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper - as Jesus established them - would simply not exist.

Without the physical act of applying water to the body of a person, done in conjunction with the speaking of the Trinitarian words that Jesus gave us, there would be no Baptism.

Baptism itself, of course, is not a symbol. It is the reality of God the Father bestowing the Holy Spirit upon the person who is being baptized, so that the Holy Spirit can wash away the sins of that person through the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son.

But within the rite of Baptism, the physical act of applying water does also serve as an outward visible testimony to the deeper supernatural cleansing of the soul that is also taking place in the sacrament.

That’s why the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews writes this: “let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water.”

Those of you who were baptized in adulthood, and who can therefore remember what it felt like to have the water running down over you, can also remember the great joy that came from believing the promises of God: that your sins, too, were at that same moment being washed away for the sake of Christ. But even if you cannot remember your baptism in this way, you can still be comforted to know that this is indeed what happened to you, because God’s Word tells you that this is what happened to you.

And whenever you have the privilege of witnessing a baptism, you can rejoice for the sake of the person who is being baptized, that his soul is being cleansed of all sin and guilt by the grace of God, even as his body is being cleansed by the water. That’s the “picture” that the physical ceremony of Baptism paints for us, as the true supernatural gift of Baptism is simultaneously bestowed on the recipient.

The Lord’s Supper, too - like Baptism - is not in itself a symbol. It is the reality of Christ - God and man - coming to us in his body and blood, and intimately uniting himself to us: to forgive our sins, and to strengthen within us the hope of eternal life that is ours through his death and resurrection.

But the physical act of eating the consecrated bread and drinking the blessed wine, which is a necessary component of this sacrament, does also illustrate - in a very vivid way - what it is that is happening, at a deeper level, in and through that eating and drinking.

In St. John’s Gospel, Jesus speaks these words of comfort to his disciples: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. ... I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.”

In the ordinary course of life in this world, the eating of literal bread satisfies your bodily hunger, and the drinking of literal wine quenches your bodily thirst. So, too, when you by faith receive Christ into your life - supernaturally “eating” him, as it were - your starving soul is filled with his grace and forgiveness, and your parched spirit is refreshed and rejuvenated with his peace and righteousness.

By the power of Jesus’ Words - which he spoke on the night in which he was betrayed, and which his called servant speaks in his stead here and now - the body and blood of Jesus are truly present in the bread and wine of his Supper. And therefore Jesus himself - the Bread of Life from heaven - is truly present.

In this sacrament he comes to you, and speaks to you, personally. He invites you to believe in him, and put your trust in him, once again.

When you physically feel the bread and wine entering into your body, know that Christ himself is also entering into you, to claim you as his own precious possession, and to make you his own special dwelling-place.

For someone who has no access to the sacraments - like the thief on the cross - the spoken Word all by itself would still be able to bring Christ and his Gospel of salvation to a sin-stained and spiritually-hungry soul.

But isn’t it wonderful to consider that Jesus wishes to bring his Gospel to us also in these sacramental ways - in ways that involve a special “sign language” that he addresses to us personally, as he comes to us in the washing of Holy Baptism, and in the eating and drinking of the Sacrament of his body and blood?

You should never underestimate your need for the sacraments that Christ has established for his church - just as you should never underestimate your need for the proclaimed Gospel in general. Your mind can so easily wander, and your heart can so easily become distracted, even when God in his Word is speaking to you.

But you should also never underestimate the patience that Christ shows toward you, and the love that he manifests for you, when he uses the sacraments - with their ceremonial actions and physical gestures - to regain your attention, and to make sure you notice and understand what it is that he is doing for you, and how he is doing it. Amen.

13 September 2009 - Pentecost 15 - Mark 9:14-29

Today’s text from St. Mark’s Gospel contains a lot of important information. It also contains some things that may not be easy for us to understand, or to apply to our own life of faith. But it won’t hurt us to take a look at this passage, and ask the Lord to teach us something through it.

We notice first that Jesus and three of his disciples - Peter, James, and John - come upon an argument between his other nine disciples and the scribes, with the crowd looking on. Within the crowd was a man with a serious and tragic problem. His son was possessed by a demon, whose presence in the boy caused various horrible physical effects - deafness and epileptic seizures.

Of course, not all instances of deafness or epilepsy are caused by a demonic presence. Usually these maladies have a natural origin. But sometimes, such as with this case, a demonic possession results in physical symptoms that mimic these conditions.

But in any case, the man had brought his son to where he thought Jesus would be, so that Jesus could cast the demon out and heal his son. Jesus was not there when he arrived, so the disciples tried to cast it out themselves. But they failed.

And then an argument broke out between them and the scribes, who were probably taunting them over their lack of success. Each side was driven to this argument by pride.

The scribes, who for the most part opposed Jesus, welcomed an opportunity to make his followers look foolish and unreliable. For their part, the disciples didn’t like being treated in that way, and reacted with anger and defensiveness.

But what was quickly forgotten, it would seem, was the poor demon-possessed boy and his desperate father. It was now more important to win the argument, than to continue to try to do something to help someone in his deep spiritual need.

When Jesus arrived, the troubled father was glad to see him. And he was not disappointed in Jesus’ reaction to the situation. He immediately started paying attention to the real issue.

He spoke with the father, and gave him some necessary religious instruction, about faith and about his own divine power. And then he cast the evil spirit out of his son. And he also gave some humbling instruction to the disciples, about their failure, and about the reasons for their failure.

Jesus does the same sort of thing today, when we have allowed ourselves to forget what is really important in life. We often lose our perspective, and begin “majoring in minors.”

We all too often get ourselves worked up over things that don’t really matter, and start to ignore those things that are supposed to be our primary concerns in life: our relationship with God through faith in Christ, and the duty of love and service that we owe to others in accordance with our particular calling.

But then Jesus breaks into that confusion with the convicting power of his Word, which jars us back to a realignment of our priorities. He calls us back to faith. He calls us back to the services of his house, to his Gospel.

He steps in where we have been negligent - or callous, or prideful, or selfish - and with his forgiveness sets things right again. According to our need, he teaches us some humbling lessons, and then sends us forth with better knowledge, and a renewed faith.

Getting back to today’s lesson from St. Mark: In the context of the exorcism that Jesus performed, he also teaches us something timeless about faith, and about the lack of faith. And he teaches us that he - Jesus - is and must always be at the center of our faith. We don’t just have “faith,” or consider the power of faith itself. We have faith in Christ, and we consider the power of Christ in faith.

Let’s listen in again to the conversation Jesus had with the distressed father of the demon-possessed boy:

“And Jesus asked his father, ‘How long has this been happening to him?’ And he said, ‘From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”

“And Jesus said to him, ‘If you can! All things are possible for one who believes.’ Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’”

As Scripture teaches elsewhere, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Faith does not only recognize that certain things are possible. Faith recognizes that certain things are so.

Today’s lesson prompts us to consider something that our dogmatic tradition had defined as “heroic faith” or as “charismatic faith.” That’s the kind of faith that Jesus wanted to bestow on the father in today’s story, so that he would believe not only that Jesus could heal his son, but also that he would do so. This is the kind of faith that the disciples also would have needed, if they were to have been successful in expelling the demon from the boy.

This is not a reference to the kind of faith that every Christian has - which grasps the promises of Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and which accepts as true everything that is revealed in God’s Word to be true. A heroic faith is a certainty that God will do something, in the realm of temporal or bodily blessings, that the Scriptures themselves do not necessarily promise he will do.

This faith is a special gift bestowed by the Holy Spirit. It is a “charismatic” gift, we might say.

The general rule, of course - which we all learned from our catechism - is that when we pray for something that the Bible does not promise to everybody, we add the qualification, “if it is according to your will.” But if God miraculously has given us a heroic faith, we are able to know that something of this nature definitely is God’s will, and that he will in fact do it.

You might be suspicious as to whether this idea is a genuine Lutheran teaching. But this is what Franz Pieper says about it in his well-known Dogmatics:

“God has bound us to the appointed means. We shall leave the performance of miracles to God. Of course, there is a miracle-working faith which is not bound to rules. He that has this gift knows when to use it.”

Pieper gives an example of this kind of extraordinary heroic or charismatic faith from the life of Luther. He writes:

There are cases in which Christians have asked unconditionally for temporal blessings, as, for example, when Luther prayed unconditionally for the prolongation of Melanchthon’s life. Luther himself says: ‘There our Lord God had to give in to me; for I threw down the sack before His door, and rubbed into His ears all His promises - that He would hear prayer - which I could enumerate from Scripture, saying that He would have to hear me if I were to trust His promises.’” Unquote.

Pieper continues: “But such cases belong to the domain of [heroic faith] and are not subject to the general rule. It is the business of the Holy Spirit to direct the prayer of the individual Christian in special, exceptional circumstances. Who will dare to circumscribe His power?”

J. T. Mueller, another well-known conservative Lutheran theologian, adds this important thought:

“we should use the divinely ordained means, both in the realm of nature and [in the realm] of grace, and not presumptuously demand miracles on our behalf... The [heroic faith], which, with extraordinary confidence in God, performs miracles, is not judged by this rule; but let the person who endeavors to perform miracles be sure that his ‘faith’ is really [heroic faith] and not presumption.”

This warning should dissuade us from quickly thinking that God has bestowed such an extraordinary certainty upon us, when we pray for something that we really want to happen, even though the Bible doesn’t directly promise that God will always answer such a prayer in that way.

So, if someone we care about is suffering from a painful or heartbreaking malady, which we really want the Lord to lift from that person, our wish that it be done must not be translated in our own minds into a certainty that God will lift it. Maybe - probably, in fact - he will let it remain; but with the assurance that his grace is sufficient for us, and that his power is made perfect in our weakness.

But you know, that’s not our usual problem. Our usual problem is not that we are too willing presumptuously to believe something that God has not made known to us. Our problem is that we are unwilling to believe those things that God has made known to us - and to all people - concerning the work of salvation that he is always willing to perform through his Gospel and sacraments.

And that’s how we can apply the words spoken by the demoniac’s father to ourselves, and to the struggle between faith and unbelief that is always taking place within us: “I believe; help my unbelief!’”

We believe that it is possible for Jesus to forgive sin. He died on the cross. That is something that objectively happened.

He cried out from the cross, “It is finished.” That is something he actually said. The work of atonement has been fully accomplished.

He rose from the dead, and was seen by many witnesses. The Savior has defeated Satan, and has overpowered him in his victory over the grave.

So, all of that we do believe. It is possible for Jesus, the Son of God in human flesh, to forgive sin.

But what we sometimes have a hard time believing is that he wills to forgive our sins specifically. Sometimes we are plagued by guilt over particularly bad things we have done - inexcusable things; deliberate things; things that have hurt the people we love. We doubt Jesus’ willingness to forgive those things.

Or, we think that we must earn his forgiveness, by making a good effort to change our lives, or to make up for our sins by a new pattern of good works. Once we have in these ways “proven ourselves,” we think, then we might feel somewhat confident to call upon the Lord without shame - or at least without as much shame - to forgive the sins of the past.

But all of that is just a species of unbelief. It is an example of trusting in our own works, or our own efforts to reform ourselves - at least in part - in order to make God less angry with us. But the Bible says: “Let it be known to you...that through this man [Jesus] forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law.”

If God didn’t want you to believe in his forgiveness of your sins, he wouldn’t proclaim that forgiveness to you. But he does proclaim it. And therefore he wants you to believe it.

Dr. Preus, the president of the seminary I attended, used to state this logical syllogism in some of his sermons: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. I am a sinner. Therefore, Christ Jesus came into the world to save me.” It can’t get any simpler, or any more profound, or any more wonderful than that. Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.

When Jesus encouraged the man in today’s text to believe that he could and would heal his son, he gave him something on which that heroic faith was to be focused: namely, his word of authority, directed to the demon, which accomplished what the father believed would be accomplished.

“he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, ‘You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.’ And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out.”

Whenever the apostolic Gospel is proclaimed to you, Jesus is giving you something on which your saving faith is to be focused. When the forgiveness of your sins is explicitly pronounced to you in the absolution that Jesus authorized; or when the forgiveness of your sins is impressed on you in more general and indirect ways - in Scripture readings, in sermons, and in hymns - Jesus is thereby saying to you: “Believe this!” “This is the truth.” “This is how you now stand before God.”

The way for your faith to become strong, and for your unbelief to be transformed into faith, is not by engaging in internal mystical exercises, or by trying to prop up your spirituality with greater religious earnestness. The way of faith, instead, is the way of hearing the promises of God.

When God speaks, he always speaks truthfully. When God speaks truthfully, what he says is to be believed. By the working of his Spirit, who is always present and active in the preaching of the Gospel, what God says is believed.

That’s why you are here today. You are here because God’s Word is here. You are here because the voice of Jesus can be heard in this place - a voice that overpowers the most vile of demons, and that calms the most troubled of consciences.

When Jesus speaks to you in the means of grace, the demons in your life - literal or figurative - are vanquished. When Jesus, in Word and Sacrament, declares your salvation to be the established fact that it is, your conscience is calmed. Your unbelief is helped. Your salvation in Christ is assured.

Faith is a living power from heaven Which grasps the promise God has given;
A trust that cannot be overthrown, Fixed heartily on Christ alone.

We thank Thee, then, O God of heaven, That Thou, to us, this faith hast given
In Jesus Christ, Thy Son, who is Our only fount and source of bliss. Amen.

20 September 2009 - Pentecost 16 - Psalm 37:4-7

The first line in today’s Introit, from Psalm 37, says this: “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” As we hear that, we would probably be inclined to jump ahead and focus our attention mostly on the last phrase in that sentence: “the desires of your heart.”

We know that this isn’t just talking about the various mundane desires or wishes that we might have in the course of a day. For example, when I get up in the morning, I “desire” a cup of coffee.

But my desire for a cup of coffee in the morning is not one of the “desires of my heart.” That more weighty phrase would refer to those fundamental wishes and goals in life that serve to define me, and my understanding of who I am, and of what my purpose in this world is.

What are the desires of your heart? What are your fundamental goals in life? What is it that you are thinking about, as the ultimate reason why you do anything that you do?

For some people, the desires of their heart are godless and wicked things. Those who live for the purpose of exploiting other people sexually and collecting sexual “trophies,” or for the purpose of stealing from others, will probably not spend much time thinking about God, or about how God might help them in fulfilling their self-defined purpose in life.

But I’d like to think that most people are able to rise above these degrading and animalistic desires, and to orient their lives toward more noble and worthy things. And when the goals of your life are not overtly wicked or sinful, then you wouldn’t be embarrassed to consider how it might be possible to find a way to get God to give you “the desires of your heart.”

At different stages of life, the desires of your heart will likely be different. Teenagers usually consider it to be very important to be popular and well-liked among their peers - to be thought of as “cool” by their friends.

And so, almost everything they do is oriented toward that goal. The way they dress, the activities in which they engage, and the kind of music to which they listen, are all calculated to help them “fit in” with the other “cool” people whose approval and acceptance they seek.

College students have largely grown out of this compelling need to be accepted by the group, and are more likely to be pursuing their individual dreams. The ones who are somewhat serious about their future will probably put a high value on good grades. They know that this is the key to being able to get a lucrative job after graduation.

People who are married and raising children have likely moved on to a different set of life-goals. What they live for is probably oriented around their family.

The desires of their heart now include things like being able to provide for their loved ones, and seeing to it that their children are given a good start in life. More often than not, a wish for material prosperity is tied up with these desires, with the thought that the things children need are things that their parents must buy for them.

And for those who are aging, and who are on the downhill side of life, yet another set of desires and deep wishes will begin to emerge. Older people probably think much more than others about their bodily health.

They want to remain physically strong and healthy for as long as possible. Their heart is set on staying independent, and not becoming infirm so that they would be a burden on others.

Wherever you may see yourself on this time line, and whatever the “desires of your heart” may be at this particular stage of your life, you would probably be pleased to think that God wants to be involved in helping you to achieve your basic wishes and dreams.

God is almighty. He is in control of everything. Wouldn’t it be great if God could be persuaded to pull the strings of human affairs in such a way as to bring about the things that you want to happen, in fulfillment of your goals?

It’s good to have friends in high places, who can help you along and do favors for you. Imagine the benefit that would come from having God as your friend in this way!

So, we are very interested in what the Psalmist says to us today. “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” O.K. If delighting myself in the Lord is what I need to do, to get what I want, then delighting myself in the Lord is what I will do!

But what does that mean? What is “delighting” in the Lord? Is it a religious technique, or a method of praying or church attendance, by which we impress God and win him over? It is not!

The Hebrew word that stands behind the English phrase “delight yourself” has an interesting literal meaning. It means to be “soft” or “pliable.” So, a precisely literal translation would go like this: “Be soft or pliable in regard to the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”

That sheds a different light on this whole matter, doesn’t it? “Delighting in the Lord” is not something we do, as part of a hard-and-fast pre-determined agenda to get what we want in life.

It is a softening toward God; a surrendering to God’s will; a submission to the influence of God. So, when you “delight yourself in the Lord” as you look to the future, the wishes or goals that you start out with, may not be the ones that you end up with.

If your heart is pliable as far as God’s influence is concerned, then the desires of your heart may very well be altered and transformed by God. Your priorities, and the things that are most important to you, may undergo a reformation and a reshaping.

Or perhaps the things that you wish for will remain, but God will give you a deeper understanding of what the fulfillment of these wishes would really mean for you as a Christian.

So, a teenager may still have a deep desire to “fit in” and be accepted by others. But the circle of friends that she seeks out will now be friends who share her beliefs and values, and whose influence will be a force for good in her life.

A college student will still be eager to get good grades, to be able to get a good job after graduation. But he will not forget the spiritual education that he also needs to have in this formative period, so that the Lord’s house will not be a strange or unfamiliar place during the college years.

And as he considers what kind of job he someday wants to have, he will ponder this in terms of discerning what his unique calling from God might be, in light of the gifts and abilities that God has given him, and not just in terms of what kind of job brings in the most money.

Someone who has gotten married and started a family, and who is concerned about raising children, will remember that the highest calling of a parent is to train up a child in the way that he should go, according to God’s Word; and that God’s Word is to have pride of place in the home, Monday through Saturday.

It goes without saying that the place for all generations of a Christian family on the Lord’s Day is in the Lord’s house, where the spiritual instruction received from the pastor is to be valued and heeded. But as Pastor Luther said in one of his sermons,

“Every father of a family is a bishop in his house, and the wife is a bishopess. Therefore remember that you, in your homes, are to help us [pastors] carry out the preaching office, as we do in the church. If we do this, we shall have a gracious God, who will defend us from all evil, and in all evil.”

“In the Psalm it is written: ‘He appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers to teach their children, that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments...’”

And the older people will still be concerned about their health. After all, life is a gift of God, and it is to be treasured and honored in gratitude toward God. But as the desires of their heart are molded and shaped by the Lord, a concern for spiritual health and well-being will become more important for seniors.

We should all love our life, and appreciate it as a gift of God. But life in this world cannot become an idol, which we value above all other things.

We should not unnecessarily hasten death by foolhardy antics or dangerous habits. But when death comes, we know that eternal life in Christ is on the other side of death.

We know that we will be wakened from the grave on the day of resurrection. Being sure of that is more important than doing everything possible to prolong our present life. Our hope in Christ is, and must be, the chief desire of our hearts - the chief desire of the hearts of all of us.

And that’s where we come to a consideration of when, where, and how we do in fact delight ourselves in the Lord, as God’s Word defines this.

We delight ourselves in the Lord whenever the Lord himself comes to us in the means of grace.

We delight ourselves in the Lord, and are softened toward the Lord, wherever his Gospel is made available to us - in public worship at church, or in private Bible reading at home.

We delight ourselves in the Lord, and become pliable to the influence of the Lord, through the preaching and teaching of God’s Word and the administration of the Sacraments.

So you see, at the deepest level, our delighting in the Lord is a gift from the Lord. God sends his Spirit to convict us, and to work in us repentance of our sins - that is, a humble admission that we have been wrongfully delighting in our own ambitions, and not in him. But then God gives us his own beloved Son, whose forgiveness “softens us up” as far as God is concerned.

The desire of Christ’s heart is that you and I would be saved from our sins, and from all the pain and grief that sin brings. In fulfilment of the will of his Father - in whom he delighted - Jesus endured much suffering, and even an agonizing death on the cross, so that this driving desire of his would be fulfilled.

Everything that he did during his earthly ministry, he did with the fulfilment of this wish in view. Your salvation, and reconciliation with God, was and is the goal of his life.

And everything he does now - as he governs the world and the universe from the right hand of the Father, for the benefit of his church - he does so that this desire can be fulfilled among us, today.

He is the one who is speaking to you here and now, in his Word. He is inviting you to be softened toward him, so that he can guide you to see what your deepest goals and wishes in life should actually be; and so that he can then grant these goals and wishes to you.

In his Holy Supper, too, where he comes to you with great solemnity, and where he invites you to approach him with great humility, he renews to you a promise that he so deeply wants you to hear and embrace:

“Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” Amen.

27 September 2009 - Pentecost 17 - Mark 9:38-50

When someone warns you of danger, and tells you how to avoid that danger, do you listen? I suppose your answer would depend on who it is who is giving the warning, and whether or not you consider that person to be believable.

Some people are alarmists. They are always afraid of some impending catastrophe. But their fears usually don’t come to pass, because they tend to exaggerate the level of danger that really exists.

Therefore, if you perceive that a person who is warning you of danger is an alarmist, you probably won’t heed that particular warning. You will, instead, ignore it, and go about your business as usual.

At other times, though, you may get a warning of a future danger from a person whom you recognize to be reliable and level-headed, and who is in a position to know what he is talking about. On such occasions, you would be inclined to heed such a warning, and to consider it to be legitimate.

But then, it is important also to listen to what this knowledgeable person says about how to avoid the impending danger. If you believe that something undesirable is going to happen, so that you would want to avoid it, you need to make sure you follow the directions of the person who knows how that undesirable thing can in fact be avoided.

And so, for example, if a wildfire or a flood is bearing down on your house, and the authorities tell you to evacuate, the first thing is that you have to believe them, and act. But the second thing is that you have to act properly and responsibly, and do as they say, to avoid being engulfed by the impending disaster.

You will not be saved from a massive conflagration by staying at home and grabbing your garden hose. You will not be saved from a massive deluge by staying at home and going up to the second story.

What is your reaction to the words of warning that Jesus speaks to you in today’s text, from St. Mark, about the danger of damnation? He speaks very starkly and very alarmingly about hell, as a very real possible destination for those who do not heed his warnings.

He also describes it in some frightening ways. According to Jesus, having a great millstone hung around your neck and being thrown into the sea, would be a far better and less hopeless fate than the fate of those who are cast into the outer darkness of hell.

The word that Jesus actually used - Gehenna - which is rendered in English as “hell” - would have conjured up in the minds of his original listeners the thought of an ever-burning pile of stinking, rotting garbage. This imagery of what damnation is like was then accentuated by the other things he said on this occasion: about the “unquenchable fire” of hell, and about hell as a situation “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.”

At the deepest level, of course, the agonies of the damned are not simply in the realm of physical suffering. St. Paul speaks of the character of hell in a less figurative way in his Second Epistle to the Thessalonians. He writes there that the damned “will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.”

And so, even if we conclude that Jesus is speaking metaphorically in his description of what it is like for a soul to be “away from the presence of the Lord,” and to be separated from God’s love in the next world, that doesn’t minimize the spiritual horror of what such an existence will be like.

But are you listening to these warnings? Do you take Jesus seriously when he speaks of these matters?

Or do you react to his warnings of this spiritual danger in the same way you would react to the warnings of someone you consider to be an unreliable alarmist, by ignoring him?

A belief in hell is not popular today. The main reason why people don’t believe in it, is because they don’t want to believe in it.

But God’s Word continues to testify to the reality of this state of existence - this separation from presence of the Lord - as the eternal fate of those who in their hearts are separated from the presence of the Lord even now, and who act accordingly in this world.

Friends, preaching about hell, and the possibility of damnation for the souls of the wicked and unbelieving, is something I don’t enjoy doing. You probably notice that I don’t mention it in too many of my sermons.

I don’t enjoy believing in this either, and I suppose I would say, in all honesty, that my own faith in this doctrine is a weak faith. It is not a truth that I deeply relish, or that I embrace eagerly.

But as your pastor, I am not called to preach only about the things I enjoy believing. I am called to preach the whole counsel of God.

And I am not called to preach only about those things in which I have a strong faith. I am called to preach about everything the Bible teaches to be so, even those things that I myself struggle to accept and understand.

And therefore today, I am telling you - and reminding myself - that if Jesus Christ says that damnation is a real possibility for human beings, then damnation is a real possibility for human beings!

He knows what he is talking about. He is not an irrational alarmist. He is to be believed.

There are, or course, many people who will refuse to believe this. It doesn’t matter that Jesus says it. They don’t want it to be so, and therefore, in their minds, it is not so.

There are probably some people in the path of a wildfire or a flood who also decide to believe what they wish would be true, and not what the authorities have told them is true. They, too, are quite convinced - in their own minds - that they are not actually in danger, and don’t need to evacuate. Right up to the moment that they are consumed, or washed away.

But once you realize that Jesus is to be believed when he warns you of the possibility of damnation, you need to continue to listen to him. Don’t start guessing as to how this danger is to be avoided. Heed what Jesus says about the way to be delivered from this threat.

Many people in the world do recognize the existence of hell, and when the time of their passing from this world comes, they want to avoid it. But the methods by which a large number of these people think they can avoid hell will not work.

In fear of damnation, they try to avoid doing evil deeds, and they try to do a greater number of good deeds. Their assumption is that on judgment day, their lives will be weighed in a giant set of scales.

All their bad deeds will be “piled up” in the pan on one side, and all their good deeds will be “piled up” in the pan on the other side. And then God will step back and watch, to see which pan goes up, and which pan goes down.

If their good deeds outweigh their bad deeds, then - it is thought - they will be admitted into heaven. But if the pan that is loaded down with their wicked and evil actions sinks lower than the other pan, they will be damned.

But this superficial expectation of what judgment day will be like is a figment of fallen humanity’s imagination. It severely underestimates the seriousness of human sin, and the seriousness of God’s expectation of human holiness.

It is definitely not the way of avoiding damnation that Jesus presents to us. Listen again to what he says:

“And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.”

“And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell.”

“And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell.”

Notice this significant repeated term: “If” your hand causes you to sin; “if” your foot causes you to sin; “if” your eye causes you to sin.” Jesus is not actually saying that your hand, your foot, and your eye are the cause of sin.

They are instruments of sin to be sure - sins of thought, word, and deed. But they are not the underlying cause.

Jesus is, however, making a deeper point. And these somewhat shocking expressions are serving as vivid illustrations of that point.

And the point is this: if one of these valued body parts were the actual cause of sin, then you would need to do what was necessary to get rid of it, regardless of how important you might think it to be. A gangrenous arm must be amputated, otherwise the gangrene will spread to the whole body and cause death.

So, too, in the realm of sin and salvation. You must be willing to part with whatever it is in you that does cause sin, regardless of how much you may otherwise value that thing, and regardless of the extent to which your identity is tied up with that thing.

If you don’t get rid of the true source of the problem, the problem will overtake you and destroy you. And you will perish forever in hell.

We mentioned before that it is a misguided human delusion to think that a sinful person can earn his way to heaven, and avoid hell, if his supposedly good works outweigh his evil works. That doesn’t mean, however, that genuinely good works are unimportant or unnecessary.

They are important. Good works are important, for the benefit of our neighbor who is the beneficiary of them.

And they are necessary. They are not necessary for salvation, with the idea that there is a direct and simple correlation between doing good works and being admitted to heaven. But good works are necessary as the fruit and evidence of a good heart.

And that, my friends, is what we do need to think about, when we consider what it is that we must get rid of, so to speak, in order to avoid hell. You and I don’t need to get rid of our arms, our legs, or our eyes.

We need to “get rid” of our sinful hearts. We need to get rid of our inner selfishness, our inner pride, our inner rebellion against God.

Jesus said: “from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

And in place of this evil heart, we need a new heart - a new inner nature, with new desires, new values, new priorities.

This surgery of the soul, as we might call it - wherein the old sinful heart ceases to be the driving force of our life, and a new righteous heart is put in its place - is surgery that can be performed only by the Great Physician, Jesus Christ himself.

Jesus died to redeem us: to neutralize the power of sin lurking within us, and to pull back the guilt of sin hanging over us. And now, as our resurrected Lord, he applies his redemption to each of us personally in his Gospel. In this saving work, which he accomplishes in us by his grace, he saves us from hell, and sets us free from the fear of hell.

Through your baptism - which remains with you every day - and by the power of his Word, your divine-human Savior fulfills for each of you what he had spoken of through the prophet Ezekiel:

“I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone... And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and be careful to obey my just decrees.”

The Lord also expresses these thoughts in the form of an invitation, issued through Ezekiel, addressed to those whom he is calling to faith:

“Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!”

If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. If your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out.

But if your evil heart - your corrupted inner being - is what really causes you to sin, and to be placed on a pathway to hell, then cut it out; tear it out.

In Christ suppress it, through repentance of all your sins. In Christ remove it, through a trusting in the Lord’s forgiveness. And in Christ replace it, through a living faith in the God whose Spirit now graciously lives within you.

On my heart imprint Thine image, Blessed Jesus, King of Grace,
That life’s riches, cares, and pleasures Have no power Thee to efface.
This the superscription be: Jesus, crucified for me,
Is my life, my hope’s Foundation, And my Glory and Salvation. Amen.