SERMONS - JUNE 2015
7 June 2015 - Pentecost 2 - Mark 3:20-35
We usually do not look to Satan and his demonic hosts for an example that the church should follow. But in today’s text from the Gospel according to St. Mark, there is a sense - a limited sense - in which we might do this.
With reference to our Lord’s casting out of unclean spirits, together with the other miracles he had been performing, some Jewish scribes asserted that Jesus was “possessed by Beelzebul,” and that is was “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” Christ responded in this way:
“How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand.”
Jesus expected his hostile detractors to know, at the very least, that Satan was smart enough - and sly enough - to understand the need for himself and his minions to stay “on task” in their self-appointed mission of opposing God, and of snatching away from God as many deluded human souls as they could.
Jesus expected the scribes to see that even the devil, as furious and enraged at God as he is, would still not deliberately work at cross-purposes to himself; and that the devil, as the prince of this sinful world, would not allow the fallen angels who followed him to do so either.
Those evil beings - who are “the cosmic powers over this present darkness,” and who represent “the spiritual forces of evil” in the supernatural realm - are obviously joined together in a common purpose, and in a united effort.
They always cooperate in fulfilling their destructive designs. They are not a kingdom, or a house, that is divided against itself.
The time will come soon enough, when God, in Christ, will destroy their power, and loosen their grip on the human race. And so, they will not hasten their own destruction by attacking each other, opposing each other, contradicting each other, or pursuing individual and competing agendas.
Satan is their diabolical master. They obey him, as he coordinates their efforts.
The unity in purpose, and dedication to a common cause, that is evident in this cosmic demonic association, stands in marked contrast to the divisions and tensions that often exist in the human associations to which we belong - chiefly the family, and the church.
As far as the institution of the family is concerned, the kind of suspicions, disagreements, and uncharitable opinions that are reflected in Jesus’ family - as we get a glimpse of them in today’s text - can often be seen in our families.
We are told by St. Mark that when Jesus came back to his home after a preaching tour around the region, and when great crowds began to gather around him here too, his family “went out to seize him, for they were saying, ‘He is out of his mind.’”
It’s difficult to imagine that the Lord’s mother Mary had this opinion, but it would seem that his brothers and sisters did. What do you think it would be like for your closest relatives to think you are actually crazy, just because you are fulfilling the calling that God has given you in preaching the gospel, and in helping people in their bodily and spiritual needs?
There could be no harmony or peace in a family where one of its members was inaccurately thought to be insane, and was improperly treated as an insane person. In such a divided family, there would be no mutual support, no mutual respect, no unity in purpose and affection.
And there are many other kinds of conflict that can cause disunity in a family besides this. In our families, where we would expect to experience much contentment and happiness, we are often afflicted instead by turmoil and distress - when those we love betray us, or ignore us, or disappointment us in any number of ways.
Within a family there are often divided loyalties, divided priorities, and divided goals. And when a family becomes, in these ways, a house divided against itself, it cannot stand. That family falls.
And it can be even worse in a Christian congregation. On one occasion Jesus told his disciples, “You have one teacher, and you are all brothers.”
Jesus, of course, is that one teacher in his church. But how often do his professed followers truly listen to him, and learn from him, as they should? I’m not talking now specifically about our church, but about churches in general - which of course might include our church to one extent or another.
But churches are often incubators of clergy pride, when ministers get full of themselves because of the influence they have over others, and become arrogant and domineering. They sometimes neglect their divinely-given duties, and meddle in matters that are other men’s responsibility.
And the laity are not exempt from similar temptations, to pull power plays, to magnify their own importance, and to push their own agendas in defiance of the spirit of brotherhood and mutual respect and consideration that Jesus has taught us is supposed to prevail among his people.
Jesus has given us our commissions - both internal and external. Regarding the church’s worship and sacramental life, he has told us, “Do this in remembrance of me.”
Regarding the church’s outreach and theology, he has told us, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them..., and teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” But how often do his professed followers defy him and his authority, in these and related matters?
It’s bad enough when we do not love one another as we ought, at a personal level. But within Christendom, the doctrine of the church, and the very purpose of the church’s gatherings, are constantly being opened up for new criticism and for new revisions, on the basis of human criteria.
God’s Word is increasingly ignored, not just in the unbelieving world - which we would expect - but in the church. No wonder the institutional Christian church on earth has become a kingdom divided against itself. No wonder it is falling, and not standing.
But in today’s text from St. Mark, Jesus does show us, and give us, a way of healing and restoration - for our broken families, and for our broken congregations. It is the way of forgiveness, and the way of faith.
Jesus speaks very harshly against those who blaspheme the Holy Spirit - out of a hardened heart that attributes the workings of God’s Spirit to Satan. But there are also those who, in their human ignorance and weakness, may say wicked and foolish things regarding Jesus, and his words and deeds; and who themselves may do wicked and foolish things.
For them, the way of repentance is always open. Jesus says:
“Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter.”
The Ben Joseph family of Nazareth had blasphemed against the Son of God in human flesh - that is, against their brother Jesus - when they told people that they thought he was “out of his mind.” Saying that God’s Son is crazy is, in itself, the sin of blasphemy - even if this sin was committed in ignorance.
But this sin will be forgiven them. This sin was forgiven them.
St. Paul tells us that Jesus made a special appearance to his brother James after his resurrection. In the grace of Christ’s victory over death - for the sake of all humanity, and for the sake of the members of his own family - the criticisms, the uncharitable judgments, and the blasphemies, were forgiven.
The harmony, and unity of purpose, of Jesus’ family, was restored by the gospel. Jesus’ brothers never again thought that he was out of his mind.
But in time, the unbelievers around them no doubt thought that they were out of their minds, for believing now that their brother was actually much more than their brother; and for being willing to die for the sake of proclaiming that by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we can have life and hope, and the forgiveness of our sins.
James, the most prominent of Jesus’ brothers - who had become the chief pastor of the congregation in Jerusalem - was martyred in that city precisely for this reason, in the year 62 A.D.
Whatever pain and stress may be burdening your family now - and causing division within it - your family, too, can be healed by the resurrected Christ: who is here with you, in your struggles, and in your fears, to forgive you and to comfort you. He is alive, and he is the bestower of a heavenly life, on all who look to him.
Jesus, from the right hand of God the Father, declares, “Behold, I am making all things new.” He can make all things new in your family, as the members of your family together trust in him, together receive his forgiveness, and together rediscover his love.
And this is what Jesus can and will do for a troubled and hurting congregation as well. In the New Testament, the church and its fellowship are often described in terms of a family. We are brothers and sisters in Christ, adopted as children of God our heavenly Father, through the Spirit of his only begotten Son Jesus, who dwells within us.
And when we, as a Christian family, gather together in Christ’s name around the ministry of Word and Sacrament, we gather to be instructed in what God’s will for us is, and to allow our wills to be transformed and reshaped according to his will.
Jesus says in today’s text: “Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” And what is the will of God for us?
Believing in Jesus as our Savior from sin and death, and in humble faith receiving all the gifts of grace that Jesus bestows upon us, is the will of God for us. And then as a fruit of that faith, living a life that glorifies Christ, and treating others in the way that Jesus treats us, is the will of God for us.
In St. John’s Gospel, Jesus says: “This is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
And St. Paul writes in his First Epistle to the Thessalonians:
“We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.”
“And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
St. Peter, in his First Epistle, adds this: “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God.”
And St. John, in his First Epistle, gives us this final thought: “The world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.”
None of this can be done in our human strength, of course. “It is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure,” as St. Paul teaches us. But God does work.
God was at work in Christ, reconciling the world to himself. God is at work in the means of grace, offering and giving to you his pardon and grace, whenever the message of his Son’s atoning sacrifice is proclaimed and applied, in sermon and Supper.
God is at work in you - in your heart and mind - giving you the faith by which you receive this message, and receive him.
And God is at work in you, making your faith fruitful: in relationships with fellow Christians that are characterized by harmony and unity of purpose; that are characterized by a mutual commitment to the authority, doctrine, and calling of God; and that are characterized by a mutual implementation - among ourselves - of the patience, compassion, and kindness of God.
Jesus is not ashamed to claim us as his family - as his own beloved brothers and sisters - even though we are still weak in our faith toward him; and even though we do often falter in our love toward one another. He doesn’t look at us according to our successes or failures, but according to his grace.
As he did in the events of today’s text, so too does Jesus look about at those who are seated around him here - around his Word and Sacrament, through which he is present among us. And he says, “Here are my mother and my brothers!”
Jesus looks at you. Jesus sees you according to what his gospel has made you to be - justified in him, and washed clean by his blood. And Jesus says to you: “You are my brother, and my sister.”
The presence and promise of Christ can set us free from our conflicts and controversies, from our strivings and antagonism, from our callousness and indifference. Jesus puts us on a different path, and on a better path, as a Christian congregation.
Through the gospel, and its healing and restoring power, we are not a kingdom that is divided against itself. Through the gospel, and its clarity of teaching, we are not a house that is falling.
We are not divided, All one body we,
One in hope and doctrine, One in charity.
And we implore you, almighty God, that of your mercy you would strengthen us: in faith toward you, and in fervent love toward one another, through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord. Amen.
14 June 2015 - Pentecost 3 - Mark 4:26-34
I probably spend more time on Facebook than I should. But sometimes there is a benefit to this. This past week, a couple interesting things came across my Facebook feed that I want to share with you.
The first was a story about Kirk Cameron - who is a well-known Christian in Hollywood - and a man with whom Cameron had shared the message of Christ five years ago. Back then, Cameron had begun talking about the teachings and saving work of Jesus with a group of gang members on a street in Santa Monica.
One of them in particular became quite belligerent with him, and hostile and threatening in his demeanor. But his fellow gang members said “let him talk,” and Cameron kept talking.
When Cameron was done with what he had to say, they all parted company. And that was the last anyone ever thought about it, until five years later - that is, today.
That gang member who had opposed Kirk Cameron, and tried to shut him up, was recently seen on the street again, but this time with a Bible in his hand, dressed in a very different way, and with a totally different demeanor. When he was seen, he was interviewed. And he said this:
“I go to Bible study every day. I go to church... And I’m loving it. ... It saved my soul. It saved my life. And I’m different now. ... I’m not going sideways no more, or falling on my face no more. Life is beautiful.”
Jesus said: “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants.”
The second story involves a Christian missionary affiliated with a mission agency that is working - very discreetly - in the Middle East, who was recently contacted by a man who told him a remarkable story.
This man had been one of those notorious black-clad ISIS soldiers, and had personally participated in the murdering of Christians. In fact, he said that he had “enjoyed” killing them in the name of Islam.
But he reported that, with respect to one of the Christians he had killed - the last one, it would seem - as he was preparing to kill him, the Christian said to him: “I know you will kill me, but I give to you my Bible.” The last loving act of this believer in Christ - who is now at rest in his Savior - was to give his own Bible, as a gift, to the man who was about to murder him.
Contrary to what most would expect, the terrorist took the Bible. And contrary to what all would expect, he began to read it, and to believe what he was reading.
And now he was reaching out to this Christian missionary, asking how to become a follower of Christ, and wanting to be discipled as a servant of the true God - who had made known to this hardened and cruel man his merciful love in his Son Jesus Christ, and who had forgiven him all his sins in his Son Jesus Christ.
Jesus said: “The kingdom of God...is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
Both of these stories illustrate what today’s reading from St. Mark’s Gospel is teaching us about the kingdom of God; and about the way in which this kingdom starts out as a small and almost unnoticeable thing, in the lives of those whom it touches through the planting of the seed of the gospel.
But just as with a literal mustard seed planted in the ground, there is life in the gospel - God’s own life - which causes that seed to germinate, to sprout, and to grow into a healthy and fruitful plant.
The speaking of a few phrases about sin and redemption, about justification and faith, doesn’t seem like very much, in comparison to the rage and arrogance of a gang member’s embittered heart.
Some simple words on a page concerning the Word who was God becoming flesh in the person of Jesus - living and dying, rising from the dead and coming again - don’t seem to be a match for the captivating enchantment of the violent Mohammadanism that is now bringing about Islam’s reformation, and is leading that religious ideology back to its original bloodthirsty spirit.
But in both of these examples, and in millions upon millions of other examples in human history, the healing message of Christ crucified for sinners prevailed. For the California gang member, and for the Islamic terrorist, death was vanquished by life. Anger and hatred were overcome by love and forgiveness.
God’s kingdom in the lives of individuals, and God’s kingdom in this world - spreading from person to person, and from nation to nation - starts out as a small seed. God’s kingdom starts out among us, as virtually nothing, in comparison to its many intimidating and demonic foes in human lives and in human history.
But God’s power is packed into that seed. God himself is in the seed of his kingdom. And God is stronger than any natural or supernatural force that could ever be arrayed against him and his kingdom.
The message of the atoning sacrifice of God’s Son for all human sin, and the message of God’s pardon for penitent sinners through his Son’s saving work, will continue to be spread. It will never be silenced for as long as this world endures.
Reconciliation with God, and an inner peace that passes all human understanding, will continue to be experienced by those in every generation who turn away from sin, and trust in him. And God’s Spirit will continue to bear his fruit, in the lives of those whom he had regenerated, and restored to their fellowship with God.
This all happens by the seed of the Word of the Lord, which is continually planted, and which is continually growing. Jesus said in his explanation of the parable of the sower - which is very similar to the parable of the mustard seed - that “the seed is the word of God.” And that explanation can be applied here too.
“Verbum Domini Manet in Aeternum.” The Word of the Lord endures forever.
This was the motto of the Lutheran Reformation in the sixteenth century. May this also be our motto - because in Christ, this is our reality, as citizens of his kingdom.
Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed also teaches us something else that is important. When it is planted in its proper place, a literal mustard seed grows because of, and according to, the genetic encoding that resides in the seed itself.
The dramatic growth of the seed into a large and strong plant, is simply the unfolding of what was already in the seed, ready to burst forth and fulfill its own potential. This is how it is with God’s kingdom, too.
The Word of God has its own internal power, to produce what God wants it to produce. It is not necessary for a preacher to infuse his delivery of God’s Word with the energy or dynamism of his own personality - in order to bring that Word to “life,” and to impress it upon his listeners.
Rather, when God’s Word is faithfully and accurately presented on its own terms - without subtraction or addition, and without any unnatural distortions from human emotion or human showmanship - that Word will accomplish God’s purposes. It has its own divine life.
The Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us that “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
And St. Paul boldly yet humbly declares in his Epistle to the Romans: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”
God’s Word, on its own, will reveal the presence and harmfulness of sin in the lives of those who hear it, and will put the fear of God into them. And God’s Word, on its own, will cover over that sin with the righteousness of Christ, and wash away that sin with the blood of Christ.
When the seed of God’s kingdom is in such a way planted in the conscience of an individual, who is spiritually very far from God; and whose life is scarred by many years of bad decisions - and by many years of the bad consequences of those bad decisions - hardly anyone will notice the new beginning, and the new birth, that God is thereby bringing about for that person.
But in time people will notice: as this person is baptized into Christ, and lives out his baptism by daily dying to sin and rising in Christ; and as this person, as a new citizen of God’s kingdom, is continually nurtured at his Lord’s table, and continually grows into what the grace of Christ has already made him to be before God.
The mustard seed will sprout. The roots of God’s kingdom will sink deeply into that person. And God’s kingdom within him, will expand upward and outward, into a life of faith toward God, a life of hope in God, and a life of love for God - and for everything that is of God.
If you look at your life right now, and contemplate how much work God still needs to do in you - to repair all that has been damaged by sin; to make clean all that has been stained by sin; and to reform and change all that has been disfigured and malformed by the influence of sin, don’t be discouraged.
In the face of these big problems, don’t be discouraged by the seeming smallness of the simple words that are spoken to you, and planted in you, by God - such as these words, which St. Paul writes by divine inspiration in today’s Epistle lesson:
“One has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. ... If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
In these words, and in all the words of Holy Scripture, there is more power than the world could ever even imagine, let alone have. And when God plants these words in you, their power is unleashed.
This power is not a worldly power, which is calculated to bring about earthly success and prosperity. Remember, we are talking about the kingdom of God and of Christ, and Jesus plainly testified before Pontius Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.”
But that’s not the kind of power we really need anyway. We need a divine power that will change our whole way of thinking, and give us the mind of Christ, and not merely change our material circumstances. We need a divine power that will turn our hearts toward heaven, and not cause our hearts to be attached even more to the transient things of this world.
We need a divine power that is able to disconnect us from all those forces of evil that seek only our destruction, and our ultimate damnation. And we need a divine power that is able to reconnect us to God - to our Creator, who is now also our loving Father in heaven; and who is, and always will be, the source of all true joy, all true godliness, and all true wisdom.
This power - this power of God’s kingdom - is in his Word. This power is wrapped up in the small seed of Christ’s absolution, which goes unnoticed and unrespected by the world, but which comforts you with the certainty of the full remission of all your sins.
This power is wrapped up in the small seed of Christ’s Words of Institution in his Holy Supper, through which his body and blood mystically come to you, and bestow upon you his forgiveness, life, and salvation.
This power is wrapped up in the Word of God, in whatever form that Word comes to you. In the Lutheran Church we have always emphasized that the effectiveness of a pastor’s ministrations does not depend on his ordination, but on the inherent truth and power of the Word that he speaks in the stead of Christ.
And that means that when you privately speak the Word of God to your neighbor, and when your neighbor privately speaks the Word of God to you, the seed of God’s kingdom is also then being planted - in your neighbor, and in you.
This doesn’t make the pastor’s public ministry unnecessary. But it does assure you that God’s kingdom is planted and built, wherever and whenever God’s Word is spoken and believed.
This happens in large churches, and in small churches - such as ours. This happens in homes and in dormitory rooms, in the workplace and in places of recreation.
This happens in unnoticed corners of the world, where a weak and frightened Christian is comforted and encouraged by a brother or sister who gently recalls the Savior’s promise that he will be with us always, even to the end of the age; and who gently repeats the Savior’s invitation to all who are weary and heavy laden, to come to him for rest.
“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” Amen.
21 June 2015 - Pentecost 4 - Mark 4:35-41
In today’s Old Testament lesson from the Book of Job, God makes an important point with Job - about his having created the world, and all the forces of nature within the world - when he asks Job:
“Who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb, when I made clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed limits for it and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed’?”
Obviously it was the Lord who did this. He made the earth - and all other things in this universe. And the earth - together with all that God had made - was created for the purpose of glorifying God.
In many respects the earth does still does show forth the glory of God. But it is also so, that the earth was cursed at the time of the fall of Adam, because of human sin.
In the Book of Genesis, God said to Adam: “Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you.”
The earth is now corrupted by sin and death, and is no longer the good and pure thing that it was when the Lord made it. Because of this, the earth no longer reflects the harmony and peace that it originally reflected, before this corruption set in.
There are natural disasters and upheavals, tornadoes and hurricanes, earthquakes and floods.
In today’s Gospel from St. Mark, the disciples of Jesus were getting a taste of this, out on the Sea of Galilee - as a storm came up which threatened to swamp their fishing boat. For them, in this time and place, the earth and the forces of nature were not calm and peaceful. They were afraid for their lives.
St. Paul tells us in his Epistle to the Romans that “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility..., in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth.”
Paul is talking about the end of this world, and the new heavens, and the new earth, that Jesus will bring about and inaugurate when he comes visibly to judge the living and the dead. But until that day, we have no control over the natural disasters and upheavals that surround us.
These are, in a sense, the groanings of the earth under the weight of sin and death. They are something akin to outbursts of the earth’s frustrations, that will continue until the earth is finally purged, cleansed, and restored by Christ at the end of this age.
The disciples had no control over the storm that was threatening them on the sea. They could not calm it. St. Mark, in today’s Gospel, tells us:
“Leaving the crowd, they took [Jesus] with them in the boat... And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling.”
“But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’”
They were desperate. The disrespectful tone with which they spoke to Jesus reflected this.
They did not ask him for help, because they probably did not think he could help. But they did accuse him of not caring that they - and he - were on the verge of perishing.
“Misery loves company,” it is said. But Jesus was not a companion to the disciples in their misery, and in their terror.
He was asleep. I suppose that in their minds, this made their impending collective doom even worst.
We have no control over the forces of destruction that rise up from the earth in our time either - the earthquakes, floods, and tempests that occur with some frequency. We are helpless, in ourselves, to stop these storms, and to create an environment of peace and tranquillity instead.
But God can set limits to the destructive powers of a corrupted world. He can bring peace, where there is otherwise a wild upheaval. He can take control of the forces of nature, and compel them to obey his commands, when it is his will to do so.
And so, when the disciples were at their wits’ end, and seriously feared a death by drowning at sea, Jesus spoke peace to the stormy waves, and made the waves to be at peace. Jesus, by the power of his word alone, brought an end to the threat, and in an instant made everything calm and serene. This is how St. Mark describes what happened:
“[Jesus] awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?’ And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?’”
Who is this? This is the Divine Logos, through whom all things were made. This is the eternal God in human flesh, who, in the words of the Epistle to the Hebrews, “upholds the universe by the word of his power” - and who is now upholding his frightened disciples, in their weakness and frailty, by the word of his almighty power.
Death and destruction were now no longer immanent. The disciples of Jesus would now live, under the protection of his speaking and commanding.
These kinds of earthly upheavals, arising from the sin and death that now corrupt the earth, serve as reminders of our own personal sin before God. And our helplessness in the face of the earthly upheavals, also serves as a reminder of our inability - in our own strength - to rid ourselves of our own inner sin problem.
Self-destructive impulses seem irresistibly to rise up within our flesh, and to carry us into thoughts, words, and actions that we know are wrong even as we are being carried into them - bringing moral and spiritual harm to us, and hurting those who love us.
And yet we often feel unable to stop, and reverse, what we have been caught up in. We sometimes feel totally helpless, as we are driven and carried by the storms that are stirred up within our own breast, and as we are dashed against the rocks of divine wrath and a just judgment, because of our sin.
In his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul describes this feeling in this way:
“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. ... So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. ...”
“I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. ...”
“When I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.”
“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Truly, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Because Jesus, by the power of his word, can speak calmness and serenity into a conscience that is in turmoil and conflict - churned up by devilish temptations, and by human guilt.
Jesus can calm the storms that are inside of you, and he does calm them, when he - in effect - says to these storms, in his absolution, “Peace! Be still!” Jesus’ powerful speaking of his pardon to your mind and soul can remove from you the fear of a well-deserved hell and damnation, and instill in you the hope of heaven and of God’s kingdom.
Humanity was originally created as good and pure - just as was the earth, on which the first humans were placed by the Creator. But the first humans rebelled against God, and rejected his goodness, in favor of their own pride and desire to supplant God and to be like him.
And the turmoil then began - not only in the world, but also and especially in the heart of man: the tumult of animosity against God; the violent storm of unbelief, and of believing the devil’s lies instead; the upheaval of spiritual death, rather than spiritual life.
Man can do nothing to save himself from this. But God, in Christ, can do everything.
Jesus said: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”
These words are for you. This peace is for you. It is Christ’s gift to you, bestowed upon you in and through his Word.
Jesus speaks this peace into you when his gospel is proclaimed to you. This is the message of his life: lived out in harmony with God’s will; and offered freely on the cross as a sacrifice to reconcile God and man.
And this is the message of his resurrection, and of the “shalom” that he - as the risen Lord - now speaks to the world. Do you remember the very first words Jesus spoke to the apostles, when he appeared to them on the first Easter?
“On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’”
Christ spoke words of peace to his original disciples, and calmed their inner storms. Christ speaks words of peace to his disciples today, and calms our inner storms.
In the Lord’s Supper, Jesus speaks his true body and blood into the bread and wine; and he speaks his invitation to his prepared and penitent followers to eat and drink this sacred mystery, and so in faith to receive the remission of sins.
It is not surprising that the church - in its liturgical tradition - understands that the very next thing that should be said - as both pastor and people reflect on the deep significance of the Lord’s words - would be this: “The peace of the Lord be with you always.”
To all of Christ’s speaking of stillness into our stormy consciences; and to all of his calming of our inner tempests of guilt and doubt, by the ministry of Word and Sacrament that he has left in his church; we can apply these words of our Savior: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace.”
Jesus, lover of my soul, Let me to Thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters roll, While the tempest still is high.
Hide me, O my Savior, hide, Till the storm of life is past;
Safe into the haven guide; Oh, receive my soul at last. Amen.
28 June 2015 - Pentecost 5 - Genesis 1:26-28
I very seldom preach a sermon from a free text. I almost always base my sermons on one or more of the appointed readings for the day, according to the lectionary. But today I am departing from this usual custom.
St. Paul gives this directive to St. Timothy - and through him to all teachers and ministers of the Lord’s church: “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.”
A special “season” for specialized preaching was created two days ago by the Supreme Court of the United States. And so today’s text is from the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, beginning at the 26th verse:
“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’”
So far our text.
Marriage is an institution of God. It is not, however, an institution of God just for the church, and for religious people.
Marriage is an institution of God for the entire human race, as the members of the human race - believers and unbelievers alike - live out their calling to subdue the earth, to have dominion over all the other creatures of the earth, and to multiply and fill the earth with each new generation of human beings.
In Genesis, chapter two, God revisits the subject of marriage. There he gives us - through divine inspiration - a more detailed account of his creation of Adam and Eve, and of the special relationship that he established for them and between them. We again read:
“Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.’ ... So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.”
“Then the man said, ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.’ Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”
Marriage as God instituted it for the human race, involves the union of a male and a female in a conjugal relationship that, in principle, has the potential to result in offspring. God’s directive to our first parents to multiply and fill the earth was not an assignment of math homework, but was a commission to procreate.
This is one of the defining purposes of marriage. And the long-term rearing of the children who have been brought into the world by a married couple is closely related to this.
Human beings are not like rattlesnakes. When neonate rattlesnakes are born, they squirm away from their mother and never look back. Human children are different. They need to be raised.
And the optimum environment for their upbringing is the kind of environment that is in place when God’s institution of marriage is in place - as a lifelong union of husband and wife, father and mother, with the stability which that enduring union engenders.
The two shall become one flesh. They are to be united as one, not only in the procreative act, but in the companionship and mutual love that is involved in the ongoing commitment of marriage.
It is within the context of that commitment, that children are commanded by the Lord to honor their father and mother. And also within the context of that commitment - the commitment of husband and wife to each other, and of parents to their children - St. Paul instructs fathers, in his Epistle to the Ephesians:
“Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”
The family is the most basic building block of human society. And marriage is the foundation on which the family is built.
Most relationships between people are of no concern to the government. What sports teams I play on, who my drinking buddies and dancing partners are, and what clubs or organizations I belong to, are of no interest to the authorities - or at least they should not be.
But marriage has always been different, because marriage is the relationship that is designed by the Creator of us all, to be the relationship through which the next generation of citizens of any given society will be brought forth and trained. It has therefore been a concern of the government - any government - to regulate marriage, to protect marriage, to encourage marriage, and to reward marriage.
Any government - if it has a proper interest in the well-being of the nation which it governs; and in the survival of the culture of that nation - would think that it is a good thing for a man and a woman to commit themselves to each other for life, to produce children, and to raise those children with the values and ethics that will shape them into responsible and law-abiding citizens, and into productive participants in the society.
A civil society, as such, does not base its understanding of marriage on the Bible or any other religious text. A human national government does not derive its appreciation for the civil benefits of marriage from the tenets of a particular religion.
Instead, as was the case with the founding fathers of our country, these things are grasped on the basis of “the laws of nature and of nature’s God” - to quote the Declaration of Independence.
The objective facts of human biology are incontrovertibly clear, that it is the union of a man and a woman that produces a child. And the universal observations of human reason are similarly clear that the stability of a husband and wife staying together as a family, remaining faithful to each other, and raising their children together until those children reach adulthood, is the best formula for a enduringly stable society in each succeeding generation.
It is certainly true that some married couples are not able to have children - through no fault of their own. And death sometimes brings a marriage to an end before the children who were birthed from that marriage are fully raised.
These things do not change the objective definition of marriage as it was originally intended to be, but they simply provide the evidence that not all married couples are able to experience the full blessings of marriage.
It is also true that not all people are suited for marriage, or have the opportunity to get married, or are called to marriage. Marriage as God defines it is a necessity for the human race as a whole, but it is not a necessity for each individual human being.
For example, those who are afflicted with an unnatural same-sex attraction, are among those who are not suited for marriage. They certainly do have a place in the larger human family, and they are to be treated by their fellow human beings in a way that honors their human dignity.
The Christian church in particular holds out to them a special kind of healing and forgiving love, and gives voice to the invitation that Jesus speaks to them, and to all other people who are weary and heavy-laden, to come to him for rest.
Jesus died for them, and for their sins - for all their sins. And as they are humbled before him, he offers to them his pardon, and a new beginning with God.
But unless the Lord works in them the kind of deliverance from their unfortunate psychological burden that would allow them to enter into a marital union with someone of the opposite sex, marriage is not for them.
We read in Psalm 33:
“Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him! For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm. The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples. The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations.”
“The Lord spoke, and it came to be.” The Lord spoke, and created man in his own image as male and female. And it came to be. The Lord spoke, and inaugurated marriage as the lifelong union between a man and a woman. And it came to be.
The Supreme Court of the United States spoke, and it did not come to be. The Supreme Court of the United States spoke, and decreed that marriage can also be for two men, or for two women. And it did not come to be.
The idolatrous decree of the Supreme Court has not changed marriage. Marriage as God instituted it is woven into the very fabric of human existence, biologically and rationally. Marriage as God instituted it will never change.
But the decree of the Supreme Court has changed America. The effect of the court’s decision is that America is now an insane and irrational country, as far as God’s institution of marriage is concerned.
The Supreme Court certainly does deserve much criticism for what it has done. But those justices do not get all the blame. Our whole country is to blame for this. You and I are to blame for this.
Ever since the fall into sin, God’s institution of marriage has suffered, and has been attacked and abused by the very human beings whom it was intended to bless and serve. Sins against marriage are nothing new.
But the wholesale fornication and adultery, promiscuity and pornography, that over the past several decades have so polluted our rebellious land, and permeated our corrupted culture, paved the way for what has now happened. No-fault frivolous divorces, abuse and cruelty within marriage, and the mockery of marriage, created the perfect set-up for the foolishness masquerading as jurisprudence that has now been unleashed on our country.
And we are all to blame for this. We have met the enemy. It is not the Supreme Court. It is us.
By what we have done and said, and by what we have left undone and unsaid, we all share in the guilt of our nation, and of our nation’s highest court. This is not a time for chest-thumping, and self-righteousness on the part of those who disagree with the court’s decision.
This is a time for repentance. We have all been part of a culture that has been incessantly attacking the purity and wholesomeness of marriage, the honor and dignity of marriage, for generations.
We have been active and willing participants in this perverse culture. We have absorbed it into our own hearts and minds, and we have fed our own personal sins into it. We are all at fault.
Our only hope is Christ. And Christ is our hope. Jesus, who is the true bridegroom of his beloved bride, is married to his church. And this is the truest and purest marriage of all.
His spousal love for his church - for you and me - is complete and unswerving. St. Paul describes this love, within this eternal marriage, in his Epistle to the Ephesians:
“Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”
Jesus Christ, who gave himself up for us on the cross, now cleanses us in our baptism. And he cleanses us over and over again, as our baptism is brought to bear on our penitent consciences over and over again, in his Holy Absolution.
For the sake of Christ, your sins against marriage are forgiven. Your sins against your own marriage, if you are or were married; and your sins against marriage as an institution, are forgiven: in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus now presents you to himself, as his beloved bride, without spot or blemish, without wrinkle or stain. You are truly his once again. You are holy and pure once again. And, you now have a mission.
It is the duty of a state to preserve and protect marriage; and to instill in its citizens an appreciation for marriage, and a reverencing for marriage, as God designed it. But our state is now incapable of doing this.
Our state, tragically and sadly, no longer knows what marriage is. It falls to us, therefore, to teach others in our land - by word and deed - God’s loving plan for couples and families.
We believe that when an un-baptized person is in mortal danger, and no pastor is available, any Christian may and should step in, become an emergency pastor for that situation, and administer baptism - even though it is not the duty of a Christian layman to administer this sacrament in ordinary circumstances.
In a similar way, it is not the duty of the church in ordinary circumstances to teach the citizenry as a whole about the civil and human benefits of marriage. Or at least this is not supposed to be the church’s exclusive duty.
The state is supposed to be doing this, through laws that properly define marriage, and that properly encourage and privilege marriage. But in a situation where the state is not going to do this any more - or where the state is going to be doing this only in a deeply flawed and distorted way - then it becomes, more so than ever, our duty to do it.
It is our duty now, because of our love for our country and for all the people in it, to show our neighbors and our fellow citizens a better way. Even if we are hated because of our testimony and example, we will love those who hate us, and we will teach them.
With God’s help, we will teach them about marriage by honoring marriage. Through continence in single life, and through fidelity in marriage, we will show them. By a selfless devotion to our children, we will show them.
Will we show them perfectly, and without additional failures on our part? No.
We will never be without the need for forgiveness ourselves. Yet with Jesus as our faithful bridegroom, we will never be without the forgiveness that we will always need.
But more often than not, we can show them. Jesus says that we can. And with his help - his indispensable and gracious help - we will show them. In his sermon on the mount, he says:
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
But elsewhere in that same sermon, Jesus also says this:
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
We close - and we begin - with these words from the hymnist Magnus Landstad:
O blessed home where man and wife Together lead a godly life,
By deeds their faith confessing!
There many a happy day is spent, There Jesus gladly will consent
To tarry with His blessing.
O Lord, we come before Thy face; In every home bestow Thy grace
On children, father, mother.
Relieve their wants, their burdens ease, Let them together dwell in peace
And love to one another. Amen.