Monday, June 26, 2006

Musings on Death

While I was working on the sermon posted below, (not necessarily in relation to it though) I was thinking about a comparison between the experience of dying to the experience of being born. In the process of dying, people often endure great hardship and pain, perhaps even leading to confusion or uncertainty about what is happening to them or why. If we could see into the mind of an infant going through birth, I'd imagine we'd find their thoughts and experience to be quite similar. Both, are passing through narrow straits (figuratively and in reality). Yet for the Christian, passing through the narrow straits of death is the entrance to the broad and expansive freedom and bliss of heaven, in the presence of our Triune God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. The new joys of heaven will make the confusion of suffering seem like a distant memory, as must also be true of the birth of an infant, who passes from the narrow confines of the womb to a great and open new world. Yet unlike that birth of the infant, the heaven that a believer enters into after death is not a corrupt and sinful world. I just thought that this parallel might present some comfort as sometimes in the smallness of our perception, the suffering we endure in death does not show that God is not in control or that He is mistreating us, but rather death is without its sting because Christ has forgiven our sins by His death on the cross, and baptized into His resurrection, we rise too.

Those are just some rough musings, but perhaps someone else can explore the parallel a little more.

Sermon for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost: 2 Cor. 4:5-12

I forgot to post this one last week, I gave a sermon on Father's Day. I love you Dad!
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In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text is the epistle reading, 2 Cor. 4:5-12,

For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your bondservants for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed—always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So then death is working in us, but life in you. (NKJV)

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

I wonder how many of you here have treasures that you value greatly. Perhaps some family heirlooms or jewelry that has a sentimental or historic value. What do you keep them in? I imagine some are kept in beautiful jewelry boxes; some perhaps in a safe or in a safe-deposit box at the bank. Most likely a treasured painting would be set in a beautiful frame. Then again some might have their treasure concealed in a plain box or container, hidden away in an unlikely place. But unless our purpose is to conceal, we probably wouldn’t keep our treasure in a cheap, unattractive, or fragile container.

But in today’s text, we read that it is precisely this sort of container that God uses to hold an incomparable treasure—the treasure of the Gospel of Christ! St. Paul says that we have this treasure in earthen vessels, or clay jars so that the “excellence of the power may be of God and not from us.” Clay jars aren’t remarkable by any means. They are easily broken, and inexpensive to make. Among the great variety of shapes and sizes, not all clay jars are very attractive. So who would keep treasure inside a clay jar anyways? Especially since they’re so fragile? Who values a clay jar?

Judging by appearances, a clay jar doesn’t have much worth. Here Paul’s metaphor translates into the human experience in a way that we can readily understand. If we take honest stock of our sinful human nature, we realize that it falls woefully short of being counted as a “worthy vessel.” Paul especially made himself an example of this, describing later in 2 Corinthians how some were saying of Paul: “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech is of no account” (2 Cor. 10:10). We might be inclined to agree with a commentator, who noted that after seeing all the persecutions, beatings, and suffering that Paul endured, “He hardly serves as an attractive endorsement for the advantages of becoming a Christian. They would perhaps, more readily accept the counsel and censure of someone with a more regal bearing and a greater show of wisdom, strength, and honor” (Garland, 224). But then we are reminded that the “gospel is not about Paul and his strength and virtue. It is about Christ, who imparts strength and virtue to frail, weak human beings, and delivers them from Satan’s bondage” (Garland, 213). Remember how the text began? We do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ the Lord!

As with Paul, so also with us. Our sin and sinfulness can get in the way or present itself as an ugly thing to the world. Sometimes the Gospel is obscured by our sinful lives, so that people only see the sinful exterior, the clay jar, and not the treasure of the Gospel that we carry. Has anyone ever remarked cynically, “And you call yourself a Christian?” Though we all are experts at hiding our sin, being by nature sinful and unclean it inevitably comes out sometimes. And those very people we would like to evangelize, see that ugly clay exterior. A burst of anger that causes us to sin. Laziness or cutting corners on the job. Dishonesty. Selfishness. Lust. It doesn’t take long for those who know us to find out that we are sinners!

And so we wonder, “Why does God choose to use such clay vessels to bear His message? Why me? Why not a more glorious vessel?” Because God wants to use us “clay vessels” so that the Gospel is’nt obscured in such a way that it seems that any of the power comes from us! We can’t dress up the Gospel or make it more beautiful than it already is, or make it any more “effective” or “relevant.” The power does’nt come from us! It’s here that we must become contented with how we’ve been fashioned, and let God put us to whatever use He would have us, not presuming to think we know better than Him. When we examine ourselves and consider how worthless we are in our sinful estate, we are greatly humbled that God should so greatly esteem us to use us as vessels to carry His Gospel. How great a love to redeem such a fallen and broken life, and put it to such an honorable purpose! With such a deep knowledge of our sinful hearts, of all our failings and weaknesses, that He would still elect to use us for His glory, as bearers of the Gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection!

I asked before, “Who values a clay jar?” Now we see that it is’nt the estimation of others that gives a clay jar its worth, but the estimation of our Maker, God the Father! He is the One who values us so greatly as to send His Son to redeem us by His blood. It’s He who puts us to a higher use. As St. Paul writes to Timothy, “in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay, some for honor and some for dishonor. Therefore if anyone cleanses himself from the latter, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified and useful for the Master, prepared for every good work” (2 Tim. 2:20-21). Notice from these verses that becoming a vessel for the honored use of the Master does not come by being changed from a clay or wooden vessel into a golden or silver vessel, but by being cleansed! And we’ve been cleansed from our sin and its dishonorable uses in our Baptism into Christ, where we were set apart, sanctified for holy use. It’s through this—being redeemed and joined to Christ that we have value in the eyes of our Maker, and so we’re entrusted to carry His Gospel.

Since it’s only by seeing the treasure of the Gospel that we really recognize the value of a clay jar, it’s often difficult for us to give one another the honor and value that is deserved. We’re so prone to judge by appearances, as well as by what is “convenient” for ourselves. If you’ve any doubt, just look at how we treat the weak, the aged, and the infirm. Our culture has become so “compassionate” for the most vulnerable members of society, that we’d just as soon eliminate them or at best push them out of sight, out of mind so that we don’t have to face them or care for them. Tiny infants in the womb, especially those that are deemed “defective” or “inconvenient” are as readily disposed of as a misformed clay jar would be thrown in the trash by a potter. Those whose clay jar is worn, weathered, and aging from much use, we count of little value and often neglect. In churches we commonly assume that congregations of mostly older people are less “vibrant” than those with more youth, or alternatively that we think that we’re therefore incapable of participating in God’s mission. We determine a person’s value by what they can “do” rather than the fact that they are a redeemed child of God. Does God value an older person any less than a child or young adult? Does He value them any more? No, God counts us valuable because of Jesus Christ and His redemption of us—all alike are of value to God.

St. Clement of Alexandria spoke beautifully of this truth about us “clay jars”—that the visible appearance “cheats death and the devil; for the wealth within, the beauty, is unseen by them”…death and the devil cannot recognize the “‘treasure in an earthen vessel’ we bear, protected…by the power of God the Father…the blood of God the Son, and the dew of the Holy Spirit.” He warns us Christians also, not to be deceived by outward appearances, but contrary to the way of the world, we should gather for ourselves an “unarmed, an unwarlike, a bloodless, a passionless, a stainless host, pious old men, orphans dear to God, widows armed with meekness, men adorned with love” (see ref. in notes). Clement reminds us not to despise the lowly or humble Christians, but rather to gather them about us as guards for our bodies and souls, as through their prayers the might of demons is crushed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful indeed, and we’ve shamefully denied this truth in our culture by despising the aged and the infirm. Truly God does not value us by the condition of our “earthen vessel,” but sees us as precious in His sight for the sake of His Son.

On a brighter note, I’d also like to remind us of another variety of “clay jars” among us: namely our fathers! This Father’s Day, we give thanks for our fathers here on earth. Like any clay jar, we’ve seen their fallibility and sinfulness at times, but we’ve also seen them at times when they’ve modeled our heavenly Father—in their caring for us, their hard work to keep us fed and clothed, and in raising us. Their disciplining of us; as fathers who love us will do. We see in them a reflection of our Heavenly Father when they still love us through the times when we’ve been disobedient or stubborn—thought we knew better than them, but later proved wrong. Especially for those who have been blessed with a Christian father, we’ve seen the love of Christ exemplified in their self-sacrifice and love for their wife, our mother. By showing a Christ-like love for his wife, the husband in a small way depicts the love Christ has for His church. And most importantly, our fathers have the great and solemn responsibility to bring us up in the faith. Luther even wrote his small catechism for the explicit purpose of having fathers use it to teach the basics of the Christian faith to their household. And for those who have neglected this important duty, this is a reminder of one of your most important responsibilities as a father. Mothers, pastors, and teachers all participate in this task, but your leadership and example in this role is vital. So it’s fitting this day that we give our dads our thanks and appreciation.

In all these examples, if we can see them by faith, we learn what God is teaching us. He doesn’t use us humans, mere clay jars, because we are powerful, strong, and beautiful. He uses us because clay jars don’t obscure the surpassing power of God. Rather, they show forth that surpassing power of God, and how it’s able to preserve us from all evil. Paul speaks about how we may be hard-pressed, perplexed, persecuted, or struck down. Paul endured much of this, even to the point of despairing of his own life (2 Cor. 1:8). But he assures us that God won’t permit us to be crushed, left to total despair, or to be abandoned or destroyed. In all of our trials we may be put at considerable difficulty, but it won’t be beyond what we can bear—even if we don’t think so at the time. All this happens so that the power of God may be made more evident through our weakness! Hear again these words of Paul:

[we are] always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So then death is working in us, but life in you.

Suffering as a Christian indeed means “carrying about…the dying of the Lord Jesus,” but this is so that the life of Jesus may be revealed in us?

Puzzling, isn’t it? Yet it’s especially in our sufferings that the life of Jesus is made evident in our bodies, as the power of the Gospel produces in us an uncharacteristic love and endurance. In Christ we are able to show forth a love that is far greater than any human compassion can muster. Consider for example, what an incredible testament to the faith it was when the apostles suffered so much for the sake of the Gospel! How that must have bolstered the faith of the believers. Imagine if you saw your own pastors undergoing great persecution and suffering for the sake of the Gospel, as is happening in many parts of the world even now. How much we would be reassured that this Gospel we believe is indeed THE Truth worth dying for, and that the Gospel of Jesus Christ was not something that could be taken away from them, even by force and great pain. To see another Christian bear up under suffering with patience, or to respond to hatred and malice with love and forgiveness—we would see the life of Jesus evident in them. For this is a love and patience that no human being can supply, it comes from Christ alone. But in all this, we must remember that whatever sufferings we or any Christian endure, it is not redemptive. We can’t contribute anything to the perfect sacrifice that is our completed salvation: Jesus’ death.

Indeed, by all appearances, Christ’s death seemed like the breaking of an ordinary clay jar. The glory of Christ’s sacrifice wasn’t visible to worldly eyes. Though He appeared to worldly eyes as but a clay jar, He was in fact the most priceless treasure! His death portrayed anything but beauty and value, but in His precious death His dying vessel bled the most precious healing blood, that forgave the world’s sin. His body was the vessel for blood of priceless worth. But unlike our clay vessels, Christ’s body, life and death was the very demonstration of the surpassing power of God! His death unveiled that long-awaited treasure, but a treasure seen only by the eyes of faith, which could see in a dying man the Divine Savior. But the surpassing power of God couldn’t be held in a tomb! And it’s this Resurrection life, and the all-surpassing love of the God who would choose fragile, unattractive clay jars for His use, that shines like a glorious treasure, even in our dying bodies. This life of Jesus is made evident in our mortal flesh, until that day when our bodies are refashioned after His more glorious vessel. In Jesus name. Amen.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Just to prove I'm still alive!

So it has been a really long time since I've posted anything on my blog, and for the handful of folks who still check it occasionally, I apologize--and I can't promise whether I'm going to continue it much :) ...but I did just post a new sermon I preached yesterday at my home church.

In case anyone is wondering what's been happening lately, the good news is that I've graduated from seminary, and received my call into the ministry as an associate pastor. I'm scheduled for ordination this Sunday, and am expecting to leave early July for my call...which is to Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Kahului, Hawaii! Yes, it's true! I am going to Maui for my first call. I'm actually going to be serving in a unique situation--initially I will be a teacher for the 6th-8th grade science and religion classes, so I'm going to have the greater portion of my duties as a full-time teacher to start out. I will also be helping the pastor on a part-time basis, probably 25% of the time, as the teaching will demand much of my attention. I'm eagerly looking forward to it, as I get to teach my favorite subjects, science and religion (I was a biology major in college) as well as to learn from a Pastor who has had many years of experience in the congregation. And who knows? Maybe I'll learn to surf in my free-time? :)

So I may post the occasional update or sermon on the blog, but I'm not sure yet. I anticipate that it will be a busy first year, but I'm excited about it because now I'm finally going to be serving in the work for which I was called! I look forward to preaching and teaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ in my first congregation, as well as being a teacher, which should be a good experience for me. Until later, Aloha!

Sermon for Pentecost Sunday: Acts 2:22-36

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen. The text for this Pentecost Sunday is the reading from Acts. Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Today in the Church Year is Pentecost Sunday, 50 days after Jesus’ Resurrection. Pentecost means “fiftieth,” and was originally an Old Testament festival. It was transformed into a Christian festival when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the 12 disciples, and they spoke the Gospel in so many different languages. For the Old Testament Israelites, Pentecost was called the “Feast of Weeks” and was a harvest festival, where they offered the firstfruits of their grain harvest as offerings to God. Now, the 50th day after Jesus’ Resurrection, and 10 days after His ascension into heaven, the day of Pentecost would take on a whole new meaning. Instead of being a festival of harvest for grain, it would now become a harvest of souls! That day a large number of faithful Jews had gathered for this holiday, from Jewish communities all around the Mediterranean Sea, and they had not yet realized the import of these events that had taken place in Jerusalem. They had heard of these events, and knew of this great miracle worker and his signs and wonders, but they did not yet know who he was or what was the significance of His death and resurrection. So they were ripe for the harvest! Just as there are many today that have perhaps heard of Jesus, and have some vague idea of what He did, but don’t understand the significance of His death and resurrection. These are people who are ripe for evangelism, to hear the good news of who Jesus is, and what He did—to hear it from you and me! And that first Pentecost, God blessed the church with a harvest of 3,000 souls!

Lest we forget, it was the Holy Spirit who accomplished this great conversion, and He is always the one responsible for the results—we are simply to be bearers of the message. Sometimes we feel as if we have failed if we don’t see visible results immediately—but here we must realize that the Holy Spirit assures the harvest. We may not always see the harvest, but that should never stop us from planting seeds or watering. The ones who plant or water are nothing, but only God who gives the growth.

So when the Holy Spirit came on Pentecost, what was the message that he brought through the disciples? We might expect perhaps, that the Holy Spirit would come to give an autobiography of the 3rd person of the Trinity. We don’t know very much about the Holy Spirit after all. He has sometimes been called the “shy” member of the Holy Trinity. But why is it that the Holy Spirit didn’t give such a self-revelation or autobiography on Pentecost? Are we wrong to give special remembrance to the sending and work of the Holy Spirit this day of Pentecost? Not at all! When Peter addressed the crowd in this sermon, he said the promise of the Holy Spirit had been poured out “this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.” And what had they been seeing and hearing? The preaching of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection! This was the content of the Holy Spirit’s message. The Spirit did not come to speak of Himself, but of Christ, who reveals the Godhead! Just as Jesus promised, when He sent the Holy Spirit, the Spirit would glorify Jesus by teaching the disciples all the things of Jesus, and bring His teachings to their remembrance (John 14; 16).

So what was so life changing about the Spirit’s message that the apostle’s spoke, that it brought about the conversion of so many? Peter sharply addressed the crowd with the bold charge that: “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23). You can tell that Peter was no crowd-pleaser! He wasn’t likely to win much favor by telling the crowd that they were complicit in the death of Jesus! People aren’t any more receptive to hearing this today, than they were then. We don’t want to hear that our sins also helped nail Jesus to that wretched tree. Blame-shifting is a popular way of escape. There are plenty of “other” sinners we would rather point the finger at than hear the law directed at us. But we cannot hide from the charge that our sins made Jesus suffer—that the spiritual suffering from our sins weighed far greater on Him than the physical torture He endured.

Yet what is so surprising is not that Peter said that they shared in Jesus’ death, but that this happened “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God!” You see, Jesus death wasn’t accidental in any way. His death wasn’t some unfortunate consequence of backlash against a mere teacher of morals, or a more enlightened way of life. Some people, who would intentionally like to confuse Jesus with other religious teachers like Buddha, Confucius, Ghandi, or Mohammed—mere men, would like you to believe that Jesus death was nothing more than such an accident. But Jesus wasn’t just one who was made a martyr for promoting peace and love. No, His death had a much greater significance and purpose, because He was not just an ordinary man. Rather, His betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion at the hands of lawless men was part of God’s predetermined plan—the crucial event that became the turning point of human history as God’s plan to save mankind was fulfilled.

King David foresaw Jesus’ coming, and spoke prophesies of Christ in his Psalms. He spoke these words in Psalm 16, quoted in today’s text:

I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; my flesh also will dwell in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.

David knew that in all things, the Lord was at his right hand, and therefore he had nothing to fear. He wouldn’t be shaken. David’s heart was glad, his tongue rejoiced, and his flesh dwelled in hope. How was such gladness and joy possible? How could a king who faced warring enemies all the time dwell in hope? David speaks to God of Jesus, whom he refers to as “your Holy One.” So David’s hope rested in these words: “You will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption. You have made known to me the paths of life…” Though David spoke these words, Peter informed us and the crowd at Pentecost that they were not fulfilled by David himself, for he indeed died and was buried. His tomb was still among them for investigation, should they wonder if his body “saw corruption” or decayed.

Rather, Peter, speaking by the Holy Spirit affirms that we can say with all boldness and certainty that this does not speak about King David, but rather of the resurrection of Jesus Christ! Jesus was the one who was not abandoned to the grave nor did His flesh see corruption. And His tomb was still among them for investigation also! They could go investigate His three-day tomb and see that it was empty, for Peter and all of the disciples were eyewitnesses of this miraculous resurrection. Here is one of the most remarkable things about it: as Peter said, “God raised Him up, loosing the pain of death!” What tremendous news this is! We don’t have to look far to see how great the pains of death are. Right among us at Resurrection we know those who are suffering from those pains even now. Almost all have grieved the loss of a loved one, and some even now look with fear at the possibility of their own death. So to hear news that we have one who has loosed the pains of death is joyous news indeed! The kind of news that can win 3,000 souls to Christ!

So what does it mean for us that Jesus loosed the pains of death? After all, we still die. What it means is that Christ’s resurrection has broken the icy grip that death had on mankind. The sting of death is sin, but Christ defeated sin when He died on the cross according to God’s determined plan. Death no longer has any permanence over us, since by baptism we have been joined to Jesus’ resurrection. So now, even though we die, it is but a temporary sleep, because our life continues beyond the grave with Christ. The other side of death for us is eternal life! And because Christ rose in the flesh, so also will we be raised in the flesh on the Day of Judgment. So now we can understand how David could be glad at heart, rejoice with his tongue, and that his flesh would dwell in hope! For there is indeed hope for our mortal flesh. Being redeemed by Christ it will rise in the Resurrection of the Dead! After that resurrection, our flesh will never again see corruption or decay! We can share in that joy and hope, knowing that our greatest enemy, Death, has been defeated by our Mightier Savior!

We glorify God and marvel at His strength, that even the pains of death could not hold Him. When death comes to us or those we love, there will certainly be mourning and sadness. It is right to mourn death, because it is an invader in God’s creation. We were not meant for death. But because of Christ’s resurrection, His breaking those bonds of death, we do not mourn as those who have no hope! Rather we can with all boldness and confidence know that death will not be the end of us, for Christ has made known to us the paths of life. And He is that path, for He leads us on paths of righteousness for His name’s sake, as Psalm 23 puts it. When death draws near, we turn our full confidence to Jesus, for He has gone before us, and with such a Savior at our right hand, we have nothing to fear.

And this is the amazing news that we are privileged to share with others! Telling that good news to another person does not have to be a difficult or intimidating thing at all. Evangelizing all begins with this fundamental question that Peter addressed on Pentecost, namely, “Who is this Jesus?” If we pray for opportunities to share the Gospel, God will provide them. This Pentecost is a reminder that there is a harvest of souls ripe and waiting! Ask that person who they say that Jesus is, and you have the starting point for a conversation to explain just who Jesus is and what He has done for us in His death and resurrection! And the same Spirit that told Peter that God had made Jesus both Lord and Christ, will speak through us to bring about the conversion of those who do not yet know this truth about Jesus. Pentecost is not just about how God moved through His Holy Spirit 2,000 years ago, but it is a reminder that even today, the Spirit is here and working among us, building up and establishing our faith, and sanctifying us in Christ. Every day we go forth with the Spirit of Christ, with the hope of the resurrection filling us with a joy and gladness that the world cannot grasp apart from Christ. And so we pray that the Holy Spirit would ever bring to our remembrance the faith and knowledge of Christ who is our Lord, and give us the joy of His resurrection in the face of all fear. In Jesus’ name we pray it. Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.