SERMONS - MARCH 2014
2 March 2014 - Transfiguration - Matthew 17:1-9
“And [Jesus] was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. And Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.’”
On the mount of transfiguration, Peter, James, and John saw something they had never seen before. And Peter wanted this extraordinary and intriguing vision to continue.
They were on a mountaintop, which was no doubt more chilly and windy than the plain below. Peter suggested that he might make some shelters for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, so that they would be inclined to stay there for a while, and to prolong this marvelous experience.
Not long before these events, Peter had made his famous confession to Jesus: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
And on that earlier occasion, Jesus had responded to him by saying: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”
So, Peter did already know that Jesus was the Son of God. God the Father had revealed this to him, and by faith he knew that it was true.
From this perspective, Peter would already have understood at least a part of the meaning of the transfiguration. What he had previously known by faith, he was now seeing with his own eyes.
Jesus was not an ordinary man. He was indeed the Son of the living God - “in whom the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,” to borrow a later phrase from St. Paul.
Therefore, when the voice of God the Father sounded forth from the cloud, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” this truth - in itself - was not a new revelation for Peter.
To be sure, he was frightened and startled by the way in which this truth was renewed to him - by means of a booming and penetrating voice, sounding forth from a cloud.
That would startle anyone, regardless of what was being said. But what was being said, was something that Peter already knew and believed.
One part of what that divine voice declared did, however, offer a correction to Peter - to reshape and redirect his thinking at that moment in time. The Father said: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
Not watch him, but listen to him. Just before this, Peter had said, “I will make three tents here.” In saying this, he was certainly trying to be helpful. But he was thereby serving his own purposes, too.
Implicit in Peter’s offer, was an expression of his desire to be able to keep on watching what he was watching. Peter was investing a lot of importance in this vision. He wanted it to last as long as possible.
But implicit in God’s statement, is that this vision of heavenly brilliance, shining forth from Jesus, was not going to last.
God the Father did not want Peter and the others to think that this temporary visible manifestation of Jesus’ divine glory, would be the ongoing source of their assurance that Jesus is the Son of God. He wanted them to know that Jesus’ words and teaching - to which they would have access in perpetuity - would be that source.
For the apostles, and for us today, the ongoing certainty that Jesus is the Son of God will be based - fundamentally - on the light of revelation that shines forth from the Holy Scriptures, in which the voice of Jesus can always be heard.
This certainty will not be based - fundamentally - on the light of divine glory that came forth from Jesus on the mount of transfiguration.
We do believe, of course, that the transfiguration happened. And we believe that is was a beneficial manifestation of the essential divinity of Jesus Christ for those who witnessed it.
These are among the things that we believe, when we believe the Scriptures - in view of the fact that the eyewitness testimony of Peter, James, and John is recorded there for us. Concerning this, Peter writes as follows in his Second Epistle - read a few minutes ago:
“We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”
But you and I - by means of our own eyes - do not have personal access to this vision of Jesus. We did not see it then, and we cannot see it now.
However, by means of our own ears, we do have personal access to the words of Jesus. We cannot see him today. But we can listen to him today.
When we listen to Jesus - as his voice sounds forth from the inspired Scriptures - we do hear about the transfiguration. We hear what Jesus said to the apostles about the transfiguration.
But we also hear much more from Jesus about who he is, and what he has done for us. We hear his command to us, to repent of our sins; and his invitation to us, to believe in him for forgiveness and salvation.
We hear his assurance that he will always be with us, and will always protect us.
When we stumble and fall, we hear Jesus’ absolving words - words of pardon and cleansing that set us right with God, in the mercy of God.
When we hunger and thirst for Jesus’ grace and help, we hear his sacramental words: words of creative power, that speak his body and blood into the bread and wine of his Supper; words of redemption and healing, that also speak his forgiveness into those who partake of his body and blood - in repentance and faith.
From one perspective, we might say that there is a certain kind of “chain of custody” of Jesus’ words. These words of Jesus go from his lips, to the ears of the apostles, to the Scriptures, to our pastor’s lips, to our ears.
But these words are not diminished as they travel this mediated route from Jesus to us. They are and remain the words of Jesus, every step of the way.
The words of Jesus are filled with the Spirit of Jesus. They are like a precious diamond, which retains its inherent beauty and value even when it changes hands many times over.
The words of Jesus retain their beauty, and their potency, so that when those words do reach us, it’s as if Jesus were standing right next to us, or right in front of us, speaking them to us. And in truth, Jesus is right there, speaking these words to us.
He says, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Jesus is not with us as one who continually glows with visible glory. That happened only once.
And we should not seek after similar extraordinary visions either - as if Christian faith cannot survive without an ongoing exposure to visible signs and wonders, of one kind of another.
But Jesus is with us, in an invisible yet real way, as one who continually speaks - and as one whose speaking causes real changes to take place in our lives.
Jesus’ words change our standing and status before God - from condemnation to justification. Jesus’ words change our eternal destiny - from damnation to salvation. Jesus’ words change us - from enemies of God who hate him, to children of God who love him.
In regard to all these words of Jesus, and in regard to Jesus as he speaks these words - words of warning and comfort; words of enlightenment and encouragement - God the Father says to you: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
Listen to him. Listen to him always. Listen to everything that he says.
Listen to what he says personally and directly. Listen to what he says, by his Spirit, through his prophets and apostles.
In a few moment, our friend Sean will be confirmed as a Confessional Lutheran.
After a careful study of the Scriptures, and a careful reflection on the Scriptures, he will today confess his faith before us, and before the Lord. And we will invoke the Lord’s blessing upon him, in his faith.
I dare say that the reason why Sean is here today - confessing this faith, in this church - is because he has indeed heeded the directive of our Father in heaven: “Listen to him.”
He has listened to Jesus. And now he is confessing - as completely true, and as truly complete - everything that he has heard.
We rejoice with him in this. And we join with him, in listening to Jesus.
As we listen, we know that Jesus is the Son of God. As we listen, we know that Jesus died and rose again for our salvation.
As we listen, we know that our sins are forgiven, that we have a living fellowship with God through Christ, and that we will live forever in the kingdom of Christ.
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” Amen.
5 March 2014 - Ash Wednesday
As Christians, we recognize that there are many blessings in our lives that all come from God - spiritual blessings and material blessings; small blessings and large blessings. We sing: “Praise God from whom all blessings flow...”
But even when we recognize this, our relationship with God sometimes goes sour - or seems to - when these various blessings don’t seem to be fitting together as they should.
Occasionally, in our spiritual life, the things of God don’t appear to be lining up, and falling into place, as we would expect them to. At such times, we don’t quite know what to think of God any more. And we don’t quite know what God is thinking of us any more.
It can be like those times when your computer is not doing what it is supposed to do. It’s freezing up, or crashing, or just not responding to the keyboard.
Programs aren’t performing as they should. They no longer seem to be properly connected to the operating system, or to each other.
At such a time, the thing to do is to reboot the computer. Restart the operating system. Reload all the programs, in their proper order, and with a reestablishing of their proper interfacing with each other.
And at such a time in your life of faith - when the blessings that come from God don’t seem to be where they should be, and when your faith in God seems not to be connecting with him in the way that it used to - your relationship with God, in a sense, needs to be “rebooted.”
There needs to be a “restart” in your walk of faith. The blessings that come into your life from God need to be “reloaded” into your life - in the proper order, and with the proper interconnections.
Lent is a time for such a restart. Ash Wednesday in particular - the first day of Lent - can be a day for the rebooting of your relationship with God; and for the reloading of all the components of your life with God, in the proper order.
When Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, and gave to his disciples his true body and blood under the form of bread and wine, he indicated the fundamental blessing that would come to penitent communicants, by speaking specifically of “the remission of sins.” In commenting on this, our Small Catechism states:
“The benefit which we receive from such eating and drinking is shown us by these words: ‘Given and shed for you for the remission of sins,’ namely, that in the Sacrament forgiveness of sins, life and salvation are given us through these words. For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.”
Forgiveness, life, and salvation are all spiritual blessings that come from God, through the means of grace. But these blessings are not without differentiation, and they are not without prioritization.
Among them, the primary blessing is forgiveness. The other blessings will not be received if this primary one is not received. And when the primary blessing is received, the other ones will necessarily follow.
But there is a reason why the forgiveness of sins is indeed primary, and most fundamental, among the gifts of God. This is not arbitrary. It is because sin is humanity’s primary and most fundamental problem.
If that problem is not addressed, nothing else matters. When that problem is addressed, everything else will fall into place.
St. Paul tells us that the wages of sin is death. He also teaches that because of sin we are by nature children of wrath - under the judgment of God.
Our sin alienates us from God; and causes us - in our fallen humanity - to hate God and the things of God, and to be at enmity with him.
This is such a serious problem - buried deeply within human nature - that human nature cannot solve it. But God can solve it.
And God has solved the problem of human sin, by sending his Son in the likeness of sinful human flesh - though being without sin himself. As a man for all men, Jesus Christ bore the burden and judgment of all sin, and offered himself as the sacrifice for all sin.
Jesus’ resurrection showed that his sacrifice was accepted by God the Father as complete, and as having accomplished its saving purpose. After his resurrection, as Jesus explained to his disciples what their mission in the world would now be, he told them that they were to go forth to all nations to preach a message of “repentance and remission of sins.”
Remission of sins is the primary blessing that penitent sinners know they need. And remission of sins is therefore to be the primary content of Christian preaching.
Sermons in the Christian church can and should be about a whole range of subjects - as pastors proclaim “the whole counsel of God,” on the basis of the full Scriptural revelation. But first and foremost, any Christian sermon needs to be about the forgiveness that Christ won for all - and that Christ bestows upon those who trust and call upon him, and who believe what he says.
When your relationship with God is, as it were, “rebooted” - by repentance and faith - the first blessing from God that will be “reloaded” will be the forgiveness of your sins.
Whatever you have said or done to erect a wall between you and God, is torn down in an instant. Whatever has become stale and confused in your spiritual life, is instantly rejuvenated by God’s Spirit - in the newness of God’s grace in his Son.
Your sins are washed away. Your guilt before God is lifted. Your fellowship and peace with God is restored.
The forgiveness of sins - received by faith - reconnects you with God. And then through that connection flow all the other things that characterize a Christian’s relationship with God.
All the other aspects of that relationship - all the other blessings that God promises to give - will find their proper place, as they flow to you by means of the primary blessing of divine forgiveness; and as they are built on the foundation of divine forgiveness.
Today is a day for you to be rebooted and restarted. Today is a day to recognize your deepest problem - your sin - and then to recognize God’s solution to that problem in the cross of Jesus.
Start at the beginning again, today. Return to your baptism, in humility and hope - today.
And then let everything that God wants to be present in your life, once again begin to assume its proper place in your life.
When that happens, everything that God has revealed about Christ, and about who you are in Christ, will start to make sense again. Everything that God has graciously bestowed upon you through Christ, will be seen to fit together again, and to work together again, according to the Lord’s loving purpose.
Forgiveness loads in first. Forgiveness is always first.
Then come life and salvation. And after that, come all the other things that God wants you to have, through which he will bless you, and help you, and encourage you.
May it be so, that as the season of Lent continues, with its special discipline of study and reflection - centered on the Word of God and on the cross of Christ - all the blessings of God that are yours, will come back into focus for you. And may it be so, that the paramount blessing of forgiveness will remain as the brightest and best of all blessings. Amen.
8 March 2014 - Mary Colville Funeral
The day before Mary departed from this world, I was visiting with her and with Jack in their home. While there, I was shown a Bible that belonged to Mary.
In that Bible, only two passages of Scripture were highlighted. I don’t know the significance of this, or why more passages were not underlined.
But the two verses that were highlighted do tell a story. They tell a story of faith. They tell the story of Mary’s faith.
The first highlighted verse was Psalm 51:5: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”
The Psalm from which this is taken is King David’s prayer of repentance, as he reflects on some grievous sins he had committed. He acknowledges his personal fault. But he also acknowledges that he was conceived and born already with a sinful nature.
David was not a sinner because he sinned. David sinned because he was a sinner. And what was true for him, is true for everyone.
This is the universal human legacy of Adam’s fall in the Garden of Eden. In our conception and birth - by which we come into existence as descendants of Adam and as human beings - we also, from the very beginning, come into existence as sinful human beings.
Mary Colville acknowledged this difficult but undeniable truth in her own life. Every Sunday, as she worshiped in this sanctuary, she - with all the other congregants - acknowledged her sinfulness, and her own sins.
She admitted that she was “by nature sinful and unclean.” She admitted that she was “a poor miserable sinner.”
Psalm 51 taught her this. And her own experience confirmed it.
Mary was not a proud, self-righteous person. It would be hard to imagine that anyone who had underlined that verse in her personal Bible, could be. And she wasn’t.
But she was not a dour and depressed person, either. We might expect that, of someone who took the Biblical teaching of original sin so seriously, and who admitted that in her own birth as a human being, she had inherited a sinful nature.
But King David’s words about being born in sin, are not the only words in the Bible that speak of a “birth.” And King David’s words are not the only words that Mary had underlined in her Bible, either.
John 3:3 was also highlighted. We read in that verse: “Jesus answered [Nicodemus], ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’”
David had spoken of the first birth - an earthly birth, and a human birth. Jesus now speaks of a second birth - a heavenly birth, and a divine birth, by which the children of Adam become children of God.
Mary had experienced this birth, too - a birth that ushered her into the eternal kingdom of her Father in heaven. In her case, she was baptized into Christ, her Savior from sin, at a very early age.
Her faith and spiritual life in Christ was nurtured by God’s Word. Her faith and spiritual life was then sustained and strengthened also by the Holy Supper of the body and blood of God’s Son - given and shed for her for the remission of her sins.
Every Sunday, in this sanctuary, Mary did not just confess her sinfulness, because of her first birth. She also confessed her baptism; and she received the forgiveness that God promises to his believing children - who have been born again of his Spirit.
Every Sunday, pretty much before she heard anything else, Mary - with all the other congregants - heard the words: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” By these words, God himself had come to Mary in baptism, and had given her a new spiritual life.
By these words, God himself had stayed with Mary, and preserved that spiritual life within her - as she lived out the meaning of her baptism through daily repentance, and through a daily trusting in Jesus Christ, who died and rose again for her.
Mary’s life, and her understanding of the meaning of her life, were defined and shaped by these two births, and by the passages of Scripture that testify to these two births - passages that she personally underscored in her own Bible.
The words of King David taught her that God did not owe her anything, and that she deserved nothing from him except judgment.
The words of Jesus taught her, however, that God is merciful and loving in Christ, and that God’s true desire is not that we would perish because of our sins, but that we would live forever.
When God washes away our sins in Christ, and when God gives us a new spiritual birth and a new beginning in Christ, this does not bring gloom and sadness. Rather, an inexpressible joy arises in those who know this grace, and who live in this grace.
The ordinary joys of life are deepened, with a greater joy. The trials of this world are endured, with a greater patience.
And whenever we do falter and fail; and turn to the Lord, seeking his help, God’s forgiveness will always lift us up, and set us back on the pathways of God.
Mary’s joys in this world were focused chiefly on her family. But her enjoyment of her relationship with Jack - and with her children and grandchildren - was made that much more joyful through her knowledge that these people were gifts of God; and that she also had been given by God to them, to love and serve them.
In the last and greatest trial that she faced, with her prolonged battle against cancer, Mary did want to live. But she was willing to die. And she was ready to die.
I could see this, in my last two visits with her - as we talked about what may come; and as she partook, one last time, of the Lord’s Supper. And this was because she knew, in Christ, that what was on the other side of death, was a greater and more glorious life, with God.
For those who have been born of God, the life that they have received from God does not come to an end, when their time on earth comes to an end. This heavenly life endures; and those who have been supernaturally birthed into it, endure - beyond the grave.
Jesus says: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”
That’s quite a promise. But it’s a promise that he keeps for those who have been born, not once, but twice.
It’s a promise that Jesus has kept for Mary. Through the second birth from God that she experienced, and in which she lived and died, Mary lives now, with Jesus.
And on the last day, when the last trumpet sounds, her baptized body will also rise from the elements of the earth, and be reunited with her soul. And Mary - together with all of the Lord’s saints - will enjoy forever the fullness of what God has planned for his children.
“Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”
“Jesus answered [Nicodemus], ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’”
Mary learned much from these passages of Scripture, about the first birth, and about the second birth. And she lived by what she learned, in humility and in hope, as she lived in Christ.
May all of us likewise learn from these passages of Scripture, the sobering truth, and the uplifting truth, that they teach us.
May we, with Mary, understand from what David tells us, the reality of what we are in ourselves, before a righteous and holy God, as we are born the first time into this fallen and corrupted world.
And may we, with Mary, understand from what Jesus tells us, the reality of what we are in Jesus - and of what we will be forever because of him - as we are born a second time by the Spirit of a loving and forgiving God. Amen.
9 March 2014 - Lent 1 - Genesis 3:1-21
“The Lord God called to the man and said to him, ‘Where are you?’”
Through the Prophet Isaiah, as God there addresses Israel and the human race, he describes himself in this way:
“My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts [higher] than your thoughts.”
In comparison to the limitations of human knowledge, God knows everything. He is not spatially limited either. He is everywhere.
But in his interactions with humanity - in his speaking, and sometime in his manifestations - God often reveals himself, and expresses his thoughts, in very human-like ways. He wants to be understood by us, and so he makes himself known to us in ways that can be understood.
That’s the way he interacted with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Our Old Testament text from the Book of Genesis tells us that “they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.”
It would seem that God had been accustomed to interacting with Adam and Eve, and demonstrating his love for them, by “hanging out” with them in a human-like form - or at least, in some way, by making himself tangibly present in the garden, so that he was personally accessible to them.
God, in his divine existence, does not have a physical body. But God - from time to time, in the Garden of Eden - seems to have assumed a temporary bodily form, in order to be as inviting as possible to Adam and Eve.
But in the account that today’s text gives, the Lord’s visit to Eden on that day was not welcomed by our first parents. Something bad had happened - something tragic and horrible - which caused them instead to hide from their creator.
When the Lord made his appearance in the garden - in a human-like manner - he also called out to Adam - in a human-like manner: “Where are you?” Ponder this for a moment.
What is God expressing in these words? That he literally doesn’t know where Adam is? No, he knows. He is God, and God knows everything.
But in human-like fashion, in order to make a point that can be understood by human beings, he is expressing his divine anguish, and his divine grief, that a breach has occurred between himself and his most beloved creatures.
In January, when my two-year-old grandson John was staying with us for a couple weeks, I took him with me to the church one day, when I came here to print bulletins.
A couple church members were also here when we arrived - although they were just about to leave. When they left the building, I was in the office working with the computer and the printer. I did not see them go.
And I had sort of lost track of John, too. But I knew that he was somewhere in the building. Or at least I thought I knew that he was.
After some time had elapsed, I realized that I hadn’t seen or heard my grandson for a while. And so I called out for him. “John, where are you?”
Silence. No answer. My heart skipped a beat.
I called out again, “John, where are you.” Again, no response. My heart skipped two beats.
John was supposed to be with me. We were supposed to be together. And now he was gone. A deeply anguished feeling instantly came over me.
I went from room to room - to the classrooms, to the fellowship room - calling out to him. He didn’t answer.
Of course, my thoughts took me to the fear that John had somehow slipped out of the building when that couple had left - unbeknownst to them. But before I went outside, to look for him there, I looked one more time in the church nave - this room.
And there he was, standing in the shadows, silently smiling at me. All of my fears that something horrible had happened to him were alleviated in an instant. Life then went on as normal.
There was a happy ending to this story. But there was not the same kind of happy ending to the story in today’s text, when God called out for Adam - as a father, or a grandfather, would call out for a missing child.
Adam was supposed to be with God. They were supposed to be together, where Adam would be safe, and loved, and protected.
But they no longer were together. And the reason why, is because something horrible had indeed happened to Adam - and to his wife Eve.
Adam did timidly respond to the distant call of the Lord. He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.”
And the Lord then said to Adam, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”
That is exactly what had happened, of course. There was now a breach - a tragic separation between God and humanity - caused by the sin of humanity. And this breach, this alienation, was and is profoundly harmful to man.
This breach did not harm God, in the sense that God was diminished in his divinity. He was not less divine that he was before, because of the departure of Adam and Eve from their companionship with him.
But God was grieved. His heart ached. And this divine heartache at the loss of his fellowship with his greatest and most beloved creatures, was expressed in a way that all of us can understand.
“The Lord God called to the man and said to him, ‘Where are you?’”
Insofar as you were in Adam, and Adam is in you now - in your human sinfulness - this is the anguished call from your creator that sounds forth, from a distance, also to you.
This is the grieved and anguished call of the God whom you have alienated because of your sins - your proud disobedience, your selfish rebellion, your following after the lies of the devil rather than the promises of your God.
“Where are you?” “Where are you?”
In your sin - when you turn your heart and mind away from the Word of God, and from the love of God - you, in that moment, are not where you are supposed to be.
When you say “no” to God; and when you say “yes” to the world, the flesh, and the devil, a separation between you and God sets in - just as happened in Eden, so many millennia ago. But there is a solution.
There is a way back to God - for Adam, and for you. There is a way back to the place - with God - where we should all be; and to the relationship with God that we should all have.
In the garden - even in the midst of his grief over Adam’s sin - God, in effect, invited Adam and Eve to approach him again, by means of his promise and pledge that someday, the woman’s seed would bruise the head of the lying serpent - crushing him with a death-blow.
God invited them to put their trust in this promise and pledge.
In God’s own mind - his all-knowing, unlimited mind - what was in the future for Adam, was a present reality for God. In God’s own heart, the forgiveness that would someday be won, by Mary’s Son and his, was already a reality.
And God did forgive Adam and Eve. He covered them with garments of skin - skin that came from animals that had been slain by God for them, and for this purpose.
This covering, which required the shedding of a substitute’s blood, testified to a reconciliation between God and man in Eden - because it pointed forward to the ultimate sacrifice that would be offered by the seed of the woman. That’s another detail that God’s prophecy covered.
Yes, the woman’s seed would bruise and crush the serpent’s head. But in the process, the serpent would bruise and wound that Savior Son, of God and man.
Jesus would die. But he would not stay dead. He would arise. And as the living Lord - the living bridge between God and man - he would indeed bring us back to God.
St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Romans that “while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” He goes on to explain:
“God shows his love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.”
“For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”
When your disobedience and rebellion, and your distancing of yourself from God, are atoned for by Christ, know that it is God himself - in the person of his only-begotten Son - who is thereby drawing you back to himself, and reaching out to embrace you.
In Christ, your separation from God is over. As far as God’s thoughts about you are concerned, his grief and anguish are gone.
Reconciliation has come. God no longer calls out to you, “Where are you?” In Christ, you are where you belong: close to God, and safe with God.
“The Lord God called to the man and said to him, ‘Where are you?’”
But there is now, in Jesus Christ, a different kind of calling, spoken by God to you - but spoken “up close” this time. Again, through the Prophet Isaiah, the Lord declares to his people:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” Amen.
23 March 2014 - Lent 3 - John 4:5-30, 39-42
Early on in his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well - as reported in today’s text from St. John’s Gospel - Jesus sought to impress upon her, her need for the Holy Spirit in her life. He used the imagery of the “living water” that he had come into the world to give to people - in forgiveness, in regeneration, in justification, and in eternal life.
“Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink,” you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’”
But she did not understand what he was talking about. And so Jesus spoke to her more pointedly, about the sinfulness of her life - referencing in particular her ongoing lifestyle of disrespect for the Sixth Commandment.
“Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come here.’ The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet.’”
Yes, he was a prophet. And more than a prophet. But as a prophet, and a preacher of God’s Word, Jesus wanted her to understand how spiritually “thirsty” she really was.
Sin “dries up” the soul. One who is a captive to sin, and who has surrendered to the power and enticement of sin, is in a seriously parched condition. But this kind of thirst is a thirst that people are often not aware of.
Here in Arizona, people who go hiking under the hot sun, or who work outside when the temperature reaches 100 degrees or more, are often reminded by their friends and coworkers of the need to keep drinking water - whether or not they feel thirsty. In such conditions, a person will become dehydrated, and will be “thirsty” - that is, in need of re-hydration - even if there is no dry feeling in the mouth and throat.
Those who are captive to sin, and whose spiritual life has been drained and dried out by sin, don’t realize how much they need the life-giving refreshment that Jesus offers.
The preaching of the law - as Jesus preached it in today’s text - shows them that need. The law of God reveals to all of us our true inner thirst.
But, as is so often the case with us as well - when our conscience has been pricked and probed by God - the woman in today’s story was not comfortable talking about this subject.
The law of God does make us uncomfortable in our sin. We therefore figure out little techniques - little “mind games” - to avoid having to listen to God, and to avoid dealing with what God wants us to deal with.
And so - as we also likely would have done - the woman at the well changed the subject, to a safer topic. The woman diverted the conversation away from this personal and sensitive point, by asking a liturgical, ceremonial question - regarding a long-standing point of dispute between Samaritans and Jews. She said:
“‘Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.’”
“‘...the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’”
It is often pointed out by critics of liturgical churches, that God does not want to be worshiped with rote prayers that are repeated mindlessly from week to week. And we would agree.
Jesus himself criticizes the “vain repetition” of those who think that the number of times they repeat a prayer makes an impression on God. Jesus also speaks judgment on those who think that the external trappings of worship are the essence of worship.
Quoting Scripture, he says, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
But the alternative to this “vain repetition” that is often proposed by critics of the Liturgy, doesn’t really solve the problem. Instead, it creates even more problems.
When Jesus says in today’s text that “true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth,” this is taken to mean that we must be sincere in our worship - that we must really mean what we are saying.
But there is a big difference between the idea of truth, and the idea of sincerity. There are a lot of people in this world who are very sincere in the mistaken beliefs that they hold.
When I lived for several years in the former Soviet Union, I was personally acquainted with some people who formerly had been very sincere in their communism. They really believed in communist ideology, and were not just “going along” with the old Soviet system - as many people were in those times.
But they were wrong - from beginning to end - in what they sincerely believed back then.
The particular people I am talking about had become Christians by the time I got to know them. And they were, at that later point in time, very sincere in their new Christian beliefs.
The difference between their old beliefs and their new beliefs was not a difference in sincerity. They were sincere in their adherence to both belief systems.
The difference is that what they now believed, as Christians, was true. And the reason why they knew that it was true, was not because they believed it sincerely, but because they believed it on the basis of what God’s Spirit has revealed to them in the gospel.
Back when my eastern European friends sincerely believed in the writings of Marx and Lenin, and praised Marx and Lenin accordingly, they were worshiping idols, under a Satanic deception.
Now, as they sincerely believe God’s Word, and praise Father, Son, and Holy Spirit accordingly, they are worshiping the only God who really exists - “in spirit and truth.”
That’s what Jesus is explaining to the woman at the well. God wants to be worshiped by Jews and Samaritans - and by Gentiles, of every description - on the basis of his Word.
His Spirit informs, shapes, and guides our spirits - so that we ask for the things that God wants us to have; and so that we thank him for the things that he has actually given to us.
God wants our adoration, our gratitude, our reverence. But most fundamentally, he wants us to believe what he tells us.
The woman at the well was not going to be able to avoid thinking about her past and current immoral life indefinitely, even though she had - for a time - changed the subject. Jesus changed the subject back again, and he came at her again on this matter, from another angle.
God’s Spirit, through the voice of Jesus, was going to continue to probe and prick her conscience, and to make her think about her sin and need for a Savior. He was after her heart.
God was not going to give up on her until she had turned away from her sin in repentance, and until - by the working of his Spirit - she had embraced the truth that his Son was offering to her.
God was offering her the forgiveness of her sins in Christ, the cleansing of her conscience in Christ, and a new eternal hope in Christ. He was offering her the “water of life.”
Only when she would embrace this gift, would she truly be able to worship God in spirit and truth - not merely as a matter of external ritual or physical location; but as a matter of inner trust in the Savior who had embraced her.
Only then would she worship a God whom she had actually come to know, by faith.
Sometimes, when you come to church, the lessons that are read, the hymns that are sung, or the prayers that are spoken, may touch on things that make you squirm in your seat a little bit. Maybe there are some secret or not-so-secret areas of your life that you think are not quite ready to be probed by God.
You wish he would just pass by those old sore issues that are not yet resolved; or those current sins that are not yet repented of and forsaken; or those moral obligations that are hanging over your head, but that you have always tried to ignore.
And you feel uncomfortable when God seems to want to start probing them anyway. So, when the Holy Spirit begins to prick your conscience on these matters, maybe you’d like to change the subject.
But it’s not easy to do this, at least not here. Worship services that are based on God’s Word, and that are constructed around what God wants to say to the human race, are the kind of worship services that will indeed prod and challenge us.
In a liturgical church such as ours - with appointed texts that are permeated with God’s message of law and gospel, and that keep the focus on Christ and on what he wants to talk about - we as individuals don’t get to divert the conversation to another topic.
We don’t get to make the service be about us, and about what we are comfortable discussing. Jesus is in charge of the conversation he is having with us - just as Jesus was ultimately in charge of the conversation he had with the Samaritan woman.
And in that conversation, with that woman, after all these things had been said, she made this statement to Jesus: “I know that Messiah is coming... When he comes, he will tell us all things.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”
Yes, indeed. The Messiah - who is Christ Jesus our Lord - does tell us all things.
Jesus tells us that vain, mindless worship is not really worship at all. If your mind and heart are not engaged in the hymns you sing and in the prayers you speak, you are not engaged.
But Jesus also tells us that the truth of his Word - his message of law and gospel directed to our conscience - is to govern and guide us in our worship. He is the one who gives shape and definition to what happens when he encounters us.
And in that encounter - that conversational encounter; that liturgical encounter - he leads us to think about, talk about, and deal with those things that he knows have to be addressed in our lives.
And this remains the case, even if you and I might get defensive, or might think that we do not want those things to be addressed. Jesus is going to talk about what he wants to talk about.
And there’s one more very important thing that Jesus tells us - as he tells us “all things.”
These words - which he spoke to the woman in today’s story - are words that he speaks also to you, as you do repent of your sins, and turn to him for help:
“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
By the grace of God, in the power of the gospel, you know the gift of God. As a baptized child of God, you know who is speaking these words to you.
You have asked him for the living water. And he has given it to you. And you know as well that the water of life will always be available to you.
Jesus gives you this water. And as he gives it, it continues to flow: to you, and through you. It is, in truth, the Spirit of Christ, who continually flows to and through you, and who keeps your faith alive.
It is the Spirit of Christ who keeps you focused on the cross of Calvary, where your sins were atoned for; and who keeps you focused on the empty tomb, where your victory over death was accomplished.
It is the Spirit of Christ - the living, supernatural “water” of God - who leads you to see your continuing need to repent of your sins; and who also continually washes those sins away for the sake of Christ.
That Spirit - that “living water” - refreshes your weary soul, and reinvigorates your mind and will for a life of faith and service to God.
And looking beyond this world - as Jesus himself promises - “whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty forever. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Amen.
30 March 2014 - Lent 4 - John 9:1-41
Like pawns in a big chess game. That’s how common, ordinary people in this world often feel about how they are treated by those who are powerful in society.
They perceive that those who are rich and strong often use and exploit the poor and the weak for their own self-serving purposes, and then uncaringly cast them off. This happens in the realm of big business, in the realm of politics, in the realm of organized religion, and in many other arenas of human life.
In today’s text from St. John’s Gospel, some might think that the same sort of thing is going on also in how Jesus treats the man born blind, and in how the Pharisees likewise treat him. We read:
“As [Jesus] passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. ...’”
“Having said these things, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva. Then he anointed the man’s eyes with the mud and said to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ ... So he went and washed and came back seeing.”
This man’s congenital blindness, and the miraculous healing that he received from Jesus, served a greater purpose. According to Jesus, this man’s being healed from such a condition was not only for the purpose of granting him personal relief from his troubles.
The extraordinary things that were done to and for him would serve as a display of the works of God. And the reputation and standing of Jesus would benefit as well from this very public miracle.
It would get the attention of the crowds, and would demonstrate to them - at the very least - that a divine power was at work in and through Jesus. It would also provoke the enemies of Jesus, so that the ultimate reason for his presence in Jerusalem - his arrest, and his suffering and death for the sins of the world - would be set in motion and brought to fulfillment.
So, in the midst of all this, the man born blind may have felt like a pawn in a big chess game. He may have felt that Jesus was using him for his own larger purposes, with little regard for him as an individual.
And if he might have felt this way in regard to Jesus, he certainly would have felt this way in regard to the Pharisees. At this point in time, they were constantly looking for something which they could use to discredit Jesus and make him look bad.
Soon after his healing, the man who had been born blind was brought to the Pharisees. St. John tells us what happened then:
“Now it was a Sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. So the Pharisees again asked him how he had received his sight. And he said to them, ‘He put mud on my eyes, and I washed, and I see.’ Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.’”
Some of the Pharisees thought that a case could be made that Jesus was an irreligious man, who broke the Law of Moses and violated the Sabbath. But others among the Pharisees didn’t think that would fly. They asked, “How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?”
Not all of the Pharisees were willing to believe - at first - that the man had actually been born blind. If they could prove that he was not really blind before his encounter with Jesus, then Jesus could be proven to be a fake and a charlatan.
But when the parents of the man were brought before them, they testified that he really had been blind for his entire life, until that day. His parents declared:
“We know that this is our son and that he was born blind. But how he now sees we do not know, nor do we know who opened his eyes.”
After calling him in for a second interview, or interrogation, the Pharisees got angry with the formerly blind man - especially when he pointed out how irrational and spiritually blind they were.
St. John reports: “They answered him, ‘You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?’ And they cast him out.”
In the end, the Pharisees were frustrated by their inability to use this man in their efforts to discredit Jesus. And so they dismissed him, and thought no more of him.
Like a pawn in a big chess game, this man was used, then tossed aside, and finally abandoned. But the story does not end here.
At this point, the crowds dispersed - the crowds that had been watching Jesus, and the crowds that had been watching the Pharisees.
Nothing is being said or done now with respect to this man - by Jesus, or by the Pharisees - for the purpose of demonstrating or proving anything to anyone. The man who had been born blind, and who was now able to see, was no longer being used by anyone.
He was by himself now. But not for long. St. John tells us that
“Jesus heard that they had cast him out, and having found him he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ He answered, ‘And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and it is he who is speaking to you.’ He said, ‘Lord, I believe,’ and he worshiped him.”
After all the hubbub and confusion, the clamor and the controversy, Jesus looked for this man, and found this man, and spoke with personal concern and compassion to this man.
Jesus did care about him as an individual after all. Jesus did care about this man’s soul, and his salvation, and his relationship with God.
Jesus invited his faith, and Jesus received his worship. In a very personal way, Jesus then spoke these words to the man:
“For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.”
Jesus’ gift of physical sight to this man had indeed served as a display of the power of God to those who witnessed this miracle. But this loving act had also served as a display of God’s power to the man himself, and was for the benefit of the man himself.
It pointed him to the deeper gift of spiritual sight, and faith, that the Lord was also bestowing upon him.
The works of God to which the bodily miracle had testified, were, in the final analysis, the works that God performs in the heart of man: his work of exposing the arrogant blindness and pride of human sin; and his work of enlightening the penitent sinner with the brilliance of Christ’s divine forgiveness and healing grace.
Do you sometimes feel that you are being treated like a pawn in a big chess game? Does it sometimes seem to you that you are being taken advantage of by people who want to use you for their own self-serving purposes, but who do not really care about you as an individual?
In the fallen world in which we do live, that sort of thing may very well be going on - sometimes on a smaller scale, and sometimes on a larger scale. There is much injustice and exploitation in this world, for which an account will be demanded on judgment day.
And you might feel that even God is guilty of this. That’s what the man born blind might have thought, initially, when Jesus healed him so “that the works of God might be displayed in him.”
But this is not true of God, and of how God relates to you. And for two reasons.
First, God actually has the right to use you for his larger purposes. We are his servants, and he is our master.
To those who presume to think that God somehow owes man an explanation for what he does to us, or allows to be done to us, the Lord would reply with words like these, from the Book of Isaiah:
“My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts [higher] than your thoughts.”
To those who presume to think that God needs man’s permission to do with us as he pleases, according to his infinite wisdom, the Lord would say what he said to Job:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? ... Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. ...”
“Do you know the ordinances of the heavens? Can you establish their rule on the earth? ... Who has put wisdom in the inward parts or given understanding to the mind?”
According to your calling in life, God does indeed use you for purposes that are often hidden from you. God calls you to do things, and to endure things, that are beyond your understanding.
But this does not diminish his rightful authority over you. He is the creator. You are the creature. He is the potter. You are the clay.
But when God, in his unsearchable and unquestionable sovereignty, does use you, he does not then discard you. You may indeed be a part of a bigger divine plan. But you are also at the center of a very personal divine plan.
In the Book of Jeremiah, God declares: “I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”
The Lord doesn’t tell you everything you may want to know about what he does or allows to happen in your life. But he does tell you what you need to know - about who you are as his beloved creature; about who you are as a redeemed citizen of his kingdom; and about who you are as his adopted child and heir in Christ.
When the world and its power-brokers use you, and then cast you out, God, in Christ, finds you, and speaks these things to you. And he promises: “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
Each of you, as an individual, has been baptized into Jesus Christ and into his body. And Jesus Christ cares about each of you, as an individual. Do you remember these words from him?:
“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
You are not just an anonymous part of an undifferentiated crowd to Christ. He knows that you are a unique person, with unique problems and fears, and with unique aspirations and dreams.
Each of you, in your relationship with Christ your Good Shepherd, is the one lost sheep whom Jesus reclaims for his flock. Each of you can therefore say, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
He forgives you. And when he forgives you, he thereby lifts from your conscience the guilt that your own specific sins have brought upon you.
When he promises to be your companion in your trials, this means the specific temptations and challenges that you are facing. You are not just a pawn in a big chess game - at least not as far as God is concerned.
God does use you for purposes of his own that are bigger than you. But God also notices you personally, and takes care of you personally, and saves you personally.
As he comes to you in the person of his Son Jesus Christ, through the gospel of Jesus Christ, he opens your eyes - the eyes of your faith - so that you can see him, and believe in him, and worship him, in the person of his Son Jesus Christ.
Jesus is the Savior of the world. He takes away the sin of the world. And Jesus is your Savior. He takes away your sin.
In today’s Introit from Psalm 27, each of us sang of a very personal kind of ongoing prayer to our God:
“One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.”
And with the God-given confidence that is ours in Christ - who has gone to heaven to prepare a place for us; and who promises that no one will be able to pluck us out of his hand - we also sang these words:
“For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will lift me high upon a rock.” Amen.