Monday, June 08, 2009

Sermon on Isaiah 6:1-8, for Trinity Sunday, "Encountering God"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. On this Trinity Sunday, it may seem odd to talk about an encounter with the Triune God from an Old Testament passage. Isn’t the Trinity only a New Testament teaching? Not exactly. Of course the Three persons in One God are most clearly named and described in the New Testament, at Jesus’ baptism (Mt. 3) or at His commissioning of the disciples to baptize in the “Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 28). But the reality of God in three persons, blessed Trinity (LSB 507), is just as true in the Old Testament. Less obvious? Yes. The three-fold “Holy, Holy, Holy” addressed to the Lord God, already hints at His Triune nature. When He asks Isaiah whom He will send, He says, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” The Triune God speaks of Himself in the plural, “us,” just as He did at creation: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen. 1:26). So the Triune God Isaiah encountered in our Old Testament reading is the same One that we encounter in our worship today. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

So, let’s encounter God…but how? If we plan on entering His presence, we better know what we’re getting into. We’d better know whether it’s safe or not—after all, we’re not just talking about an earthly king, president, or emperor who exercises great earthly power over us. We’re talking God enthroned in heaven, supreme over all things, immortal, invisible, God-only wise, who holds all things in His hands. Encountering God isn’t simply a matter of coming into His presence. A seminary professor of mine used to say, “The presence of God is not yet the Gospel.” He meant that merely being in God’s presence was not yet good news. In fact it could be quite terrifying news. Consider how Isaiah responded when he saw God. He knew he was as good as dead. He was undone, would perish on the spot. He was sinful, and he knew the radiating glory of God would be like fire to the gasoline of his sin. If we are still in our sins, the presence of God is bad news. Greater men than us have fallen down as dead men in His presence from shock and awe. The Israelite people begged not to encounter God when they saw His fire and smoke and the earthquakes on Mount Sinai. So what kind of encounter are we planning on?

God in His holiness is inaccessible to us on our own. We need to be fearful about entering His presence on our own, because our sin puts us in danger. If we’d dare to barge into God’s presence on our own merits, we’d face His wrath against our sin. If the holy angels, the seraphim, who don’t have any trace of sin in them, must hide their faces and their feet with their wings when they’re in the presence of God—how much more do we unclean sinners need to approach God in humility and repentance? The tax collector in one of Jesus’ parables wouldn’t even lift his eyes to heaven when he prayed, “God be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). He knew He couldn’t face God on his own right.

To come into God’s presence on the basis of our own merits or works, would be like the guest that God threw out in the parable of the wedding banquet, because the guest rejected the wedding garment the master would’ve given the guests, and came dressed in his own clothes instead (Matt. 22:11-12). We’d be draped in the filthy rags of our own righteousness (Is. 64:6). Like Balaam the prophet, who blindly marched into the face of the Angel of the Lord, unaware of the destruction facing him (Num. 22). But since we can’t approach God this way, doesn’t mean that we can’t approach Him at all. We approach the throne of grace with confidence through the shed blood of Jesus (Heb. 9-10). This is the way to a safe encounter with God.

Author Gene Veith describes his experience when He first read the Bible “seriously.” He says that reading the Bible as a spiritual venture will bring us to confront God Himself in the most personal terms. “This confrontation is terrifying: An honest reading of God’s absolute requirements, His furious judgment against the smallest infraction, can only fill the reader with guilt, panic, and despair. [But] this confrontation is also healing—the reader comes to realize that this God of wrath is also the God of grace, that from the beginning He provided for sacrificial blood to cover His people’s sins, that He came in Jesus, that His wrath is swallowed up in the cross.” He goes on to describe how his first reading of the Old Testament was mixed with feelings of sublimity and horror. He began to realize that God was completely “other” and beyond his comprehension. He realized he “had been constructing God according to his preferences,” giving God qualities he liked and ascribing them to the deity he believed in. He admits he was “making God in [his own] image.”

But the God he encountered in the Bible was very different from himself—filled with divinity, holy, and dangerous. “And yet He rang true.” He writes, “I probably never really believed in the vague, domesticated spirit of niceness that I had constructed for myself and found in my humane liberal theology. The real universe, with its danger and consequences and hard edges, such as cancer, shows no trace of having been created by such a sentimental deity. I probably knew, deep down inside, that I was making up a private little religion to make myself feel better, and that atheism made far better sense. But this God I was reading about in the Bible had hard edges. He is absolute, utterly mysterious, and despite all appearances radically righteous. I began to see God in a completely different light, the light of holiness. And I saw myself in the rebellious children of Israel, ungrateful, inconsistent, and idolatrous.” (p. 39-40)

But this kind of encounter with God, this trembling at His majesty and astonishment and awe at His power, is the effect of the Law. God’s Word of Law convicts us of our sin and awakens us to the need for redemption. That is the terrifying part of encountering God as we read the Scriptures. It fills us with guilt, panic, and despair. “If this is really who God is, then I’m toast! Woe to me, a man of unclean lips! I dwell among a people of unclean lips!” But Veith also mentioned that the encounter with God in the Bible is healing. This is the comforting and consoling aspect of reading the Bible. It’s found in the discovery that God always made a gracious provision for His people and their sin. This is the Word of Gospel. The Good News that God’s judgment isn’t the final word, because the new and better word of His Gospel brings us the forgiveness of sins. Because God the Trinity unfolded salvation through sending His Son to die as our substitute and awaken from death to be our life. He sent the Holy Spirit to create faith in the hearts of mankind, and to set believers apart for holy lives. To make us once again holy, to enter God’s presence not based on our own merits, but on those of Christ.

So Christ raises to us the cleansing coal of His body and blood, and places it on our lips. With holy fire burning our sin away, our lips are cleansed to proclaim purely the greatness of God. With our guilt taken away, our conscience leaps with joy for freedom from guilt and shame, and takes a new enthusiasm to live according to God’s will and design. With our sin atoned for, our old pattern of sinning for death is crucified and killed at the cross, and our new life of acting for righteousness’ sake and in love toward our neighbor is begun. Then we can echo the words of Isaiah, “Here I am! Send me!” Like someone who’s passed through the fire and been purified of the dross, the impurities that weaken metal, we face life head-on, unafraid and unashamed. We can live as ambassadors of the cross without fear, because there’s nothing the enemies of the cross can do to us—take our possessions, reputation, family, even our life—they still have nothing won—the Kingdom ours remaineth (LSB 657).

Have you encountered the holiness of the Trinity? Have you come face to face with the terrifying reality of your sin, and the guilt with which you bear? Have you felt that total unworthiness to even come into God’s presence, and to lift your eyes to the heavens? Have you wondered in your heart: “Surely God cannot accept me, a sinner?” Then know that God’s Law has done its work in you, and turn to God and be saved! Now He draws near to you in His presence—just where He promised to be. Not inaccessible in the heavens, far beyond our reach. Not at the top of a mystical ladder that we climb by our own meditation or good works. Not as cloudy vapor that surrounds you but cannot be grasped or touched. No, His promised presence is here in the body and blood of Christ, served to you in hand and mouth at the Lord’s Table.

His presence is not yet the Gospel, until we know that it is for us and for our forgiveness. If we come with unrepentance or without faith, His presence is judgment to us; but if we approach in repentance and faith, His presence is for our good. Here the Holy God of heaven, with all His blinding glory, clothes Himself in Christ, serves Himself under bread and wine. Here you have a living encounter with the Holy God, who’s divine body and blood are broken and shed for the forgiveness of your sins. Here you partake of a mystery that seems so simple and ordinary to human eyes. Nothing remarkable or extravagant with earthly eyes. But from heavenly eyes, a gathered feast of all the saints on earth and in glory, in the presence of angels and archangels, all the company of heaven praising and magnifying God, singing with the seraphim: “Holy, holy, holy Lord God of pow’r and might: Heaven and earth are full of Your glory. Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.”

Some old Lutheran churches captured the spiritual reality of this gathering of saints and angels beyond what eyes see, by building their altar rail as a half circle in front of the altar. That way, when they knelt together in a half-circle in front of the altar, they were reminded of the invisible other half of the circle that was completed by all the saints in heaven and loved ones who had died and gone to the Lord. They saw that here we don’t gather alone, with just these few, but that Holy Communion unites us in Christ, as they who have gone before are united in Christ as well.

But you may notice that while the song, “Holy, Holy, Holy” starts with the song of the seraphim, it continues with “Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the Highest.” From the lips of angels to the lips of children who made sweet hosannas ring (LSB 442) on Palm Sunday, we now greet the coming of the heavenly one into our presence. His coming, in humility, once on a donkey, now in humble bread and wine, but coming in the name of the Lord for us. Again we sing Hosanna, “Save us!” as the Lord descends to us with His presence. Now our encounter with God is not terrifying, but healing and forgiving, as He pours into your mouth His life-blood from His sacred veins (LSB 433:1). Now our encounter with God is restorative and life-giving…now we can hear the voice of the angel say as the body of Christ touches our lips, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” And we say, “Amen!” It is true!

Now our Triune God wants to send us into the world, bearing His holiness in how we live and act according to His will. He calls for workers in the harvest field, to gather in the lost souls, so that they too like grains of wheat may be baked into this common bread we break and share in this meal. All together as one loaf, one body in Christ. May these words be found on our lips, “Here am I! Send me!” Joyously forgiven and redeemed, ready to pour out the love and forgiveness that has been poured into us, through Jesus’ blood, shed for us for the forgiveness of sins. Amen. Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:

1. It has been said about the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, that what the Old conceals the New reveals. How is this true of the doctrine of the Trinity? Study these verses to see how the doctrine of the Trinity is hidden even in the Old Testament: Genesis 1:1-2, 26; 11:6-7; 18:1-21; Numbers 6:24-27; Psalm 110:1; Isaiah 6:1-8; 63:8-10; Zech. 12:10 etc.

2. What sort of encounter with God is unsafe, or dangerous? How did Isaiah experience this type of encounter? Gene Veith? How would you describe your encounter with God in the Bible?

3. Study Luke 18:13; Matt. 22:11-12; Isaiah 64:6; Numbers 22. What is the danger in approaching God on the basis of our righteousness? What is the alternative? Hebrews 9-10.

4. What does it mean to encounter God through the Gospel? How is the Lord’s Supper parallel to the burning coal that touched Isaiah’s lips? What do we receive/does it grant us?

5. Veith writes: “The issue is not our ascent to God, but God’s descent to us” (p.23, Veith, Spirituality of the Cross). How does this change how we look at the accessibility of God? How we encounter Him?

6. How are God’s Word, Baptism, and Communion the tangible means by which God descends to us with His gracious presence? How are these given and received?

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Sermon on John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15 for Pentecost, "Concerning Sin, Righteousness, and Judgment"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today on Pentecost Sunday we remember the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the apostles as they went forward with the mission to go and testify about Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. Since the readings all focus on the Holy Spirit, we’ll look at what Christian spirituality is. What genuine spirituality for the Christian is, and what the work of the Holy Spirit is, and how Christ and the cross stand at the center of true spirituality. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

While religious belief isn’t “in vogue” today, the generic idea of spirituality is. As author Gene Veith describes in his book, “The Spirituality of the Cross,” people today say they aren’t interested in doctrines, creeds, or institutions, but they are very interested in “spirituality.” “They are in the market for something that will give them a pleasant mystical experience and a sense of meaning and well-being, without making any uncomfortable demands on their minds, behavior, or social position. They want religious experience, without religious belief” (p. 14-15). Yet for all the types of religions, philosophies, methods and cults that claim to offer religious experience and meaning, there really can be no “spirituality without theology, no religious experience apart from religious belief” (p.15). So this is to say that the way that most people search for God and elusive spiritual experiences, is divorced or disconnected from Christ and His cross. That isn’t where unbelievers are looking to find God, and it’s even not where many professing Christians are looking to find God. The search for spirituality leads people down all sorts of strange paths, and many may even have a veneer of Christianity.

The average selection of so-called “Christian books” at the typical Borders or other bookstore is one example of this. You can read entire books that are about Christianity and spend a lot of time talking about spirituality or Christian life, but don’t have so much as a single mention of Jesus’ death on the cross for our salvation. You could easily get the impression the cross of Jesus really has very little to do with Christian spirituality. It might even cause one to wonder why it was so important for Him to die at all, if Christianity seems to get along quite well without mentioning His cross at all. But nothing could be further from the truth. Genuine Christian spirituality that is the work of the Holy Spirit is always intimately connected with the person of Jesus Christ and His accomplished salvation for us on the cross. It isn’t marginal or just one thing among many, but rather stands at the heart and center of the Christian faith and the Holy Spirit’s testimony.

This becomes obvious from the Bible’s descriptions of the work of the Holy Spirit. The apostles were filled with the Spirit on Pentecost, and what was it that they began to speak about in foreign languages? They were proclaiming the mighty works of God. When Jesus described the Holy Spirit or Helper that He would send, He clearly stated what the Spirit would talk about. The Spirit of Truth would bear witness or testify about Jesus. Remember from last week what the testimony of God is? “This is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in His Son.” So the Spirit didn’t come to testify about Himself, or to teach something new or different, or apart from Christ, but the Spirit instead points directly to Christ and His Word. It says that the “Spirit of Truth will guide you into all truth, for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak.”

Here is the heart of genuine Christian spirituality. It’s when the Holy Spirit is at work bringing people to trust in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins, and the work of salvation He accomplished for us. The Holy Spirit is the Helper or Comforter because after Jesus’ ascension to heaven, the Spirit remains to bring us faith and God’s Word. And while it was deeply saddening to the disciples for Jesus to be leaving them, it was for their good so that the Holy Spirit would come and accomplish His work. When Jesus described the work of the Holy Spirit to His disciples, He told them of three important purposes or results of the Holy Spirit’s work in the world. That the Holy Spirit would convict the world first of all concerning sin; second concerning righteousness, and third concerning judgment.
You can already see that this is a very different kind of spirituality than the world thinks of or desires. Jesus says that the Holy Spirit first convicts the world of sin, because they do not believe in Him. A spirituality that is divorced from Christ and the cross can still talk about sin—in just the bare sense of morality, and right and wrong. You don’t even need to have any deep religious beliefs to talk about morality. Every human has a conscience, whether they listen to it or not, and so to talk about morality doesn’t even require Christian belief. There are atheists who can be quite moral, and people of other beliefs as well. But it might surprise us that when Jesus says the Spirit will convict the world concerning sin, that He doesn’t run of a list of moral problems, but instead identifies sin as primarily this: that the world does not believe in Him.

Jesus goes beyond just outward acts of sin, which are the symptoms of the problem. He goes to the root of the problem, which is unbelief. From this sin stems all others. A person can clean up their morality all they want, but apart from faith in Christ, it doesn’t make them right with God. All sin, any disobedience to any of the commandments, is in the first place a lack of faith in God. This is because sin is always an act of self-will and determination, to do our own will rather than God’s, or to seek our good in a different way than God has given. We’d prefer not to hear about our sin, or to have it exposed by God’s Word. But this is the necessary work of the Spirit, and it’s where Christian spirituality begins—in the recognition of our sinful condition and the need to repent and turn from it. This knowledge comes through the conviction of the Holy Spirit by God’s proclaimed Word. And it’s not about us, it’s about belief in Christ.

The second way the Spirit convicts the world is concerning righteousness. What does it mean to be convicted concerning righteousness? Again it’s different from the way the world sees spirituality. A spirituality that’s divorced from Christ and the cross can still talk about righteousness, in the same way that it talks about sin—namely about being an outwardly good person. Plenty of people are law-abiding citizens or upright persons, and could be called righteous, in just a civil or earthly sense. Again we could expect Jesus to explain this righteousness in terms like these. Or to even mention or name some excellent good works that one must do to become righteous. But instead, the righteousness of which Jesus speaks is related to Himself and His departure to the Father, and that they would see Him no more.
What does this mean? Human action, effort, or achievement isn’t even mentioned by Jesus. He describes no pattern of good words or thoughts or some philosophy that makes one righteous, but rather says that righteousness is about Himself. He is talking about the kind of righteousness that God accepts and acknowledges. Not the kind of innocence or good deeds that count for something in human opinion. He’s talking about the true spiritual righteousness, the only righteousness that counts in God’s eyes, and it is concerning His Son. That is to say that righteousness is something entirely outside of ourselves. It has nothing to do with our deeds or actions, but depends on Jesus and His going to the Father. How does this have anything to do with righteousness?

Our creed says that Jesus ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father, and He will come to judge both the living and the dead. Jesus’ ascension and being seated at God’s right hand is proof that God accepted His life, His sacrificial death, and His resurrection. God has exalted His Son to the highest place of authority because He is completely satisfied with Jesus, that He perfectly lived and obeyed God’s commands. The spiritual righteousness that Jesus offers to the world is His own innocence. And why the Spirit testifies of this, because we will “see [Him] no longer?” Because this righteousness or innocence is given by faith. We do not see Christ, but we have faith, and trust in the testimony of the Holy Spirit given to us through God’s Word. We hear and believe the message and so receive this righteousness by faith, so that we can stand as innocent and acceptable in God’s eyes, not on our own works, but on Christ.

Third and finally, the Holy Spirit convicts the world of judgment, because the ruler of this world stands judged. Who’s the ruler of the world that now stands judged? It’s Satan, the devil, our adversary. But a spirituality that’s divorced from Christ and the cross doesn’t acknowledge Satan as the enemy of Christ who has been judged, nor does it acknowledge that sinners stand judged before a holy and righteous God. So it’s ripe for the devil’s attacks. This kind of spirituality not only fails to recognize the danger of the devil, it also fails to see Christ’s life and death as the judgment for sin. However, the Holy Spirit works to convict the world of judgment. Not because Jesus came to judge the world—rather He came to save the world. But a necessary part of His saving us from our sins, was to bring judgment against the ruler of this world, the devil. The devil is the accuser of mankind, and so long as he was able to bring accusations against our sin, none of us could have the righteousness that stands before God. We would remain in our guilt. But since Satan, the ruler of the world stands judged, he can no longer make accusations against us. Now he is judged and his fate is sealed in hell.

But his judgment comes with righteousness for us. With the perfect life and death of Jesus to which the Holy Spirit testifies, we have righteousness that does count before God. The righteousness of faith, the innocence of Jesus is ours. The Holy Spirit brings all of this to us in a genuine Christ-centered, cross-focused spirituality. Just as Jesus said, “the Spirit of truth…will guide you into all the truth…He will take what is mine and declare it to you.” So Christian spirituality flows from and back to Christ and the cross. The Holy Spirit does not speak from Himself, but what Jesus gives Him from the Father. What the Spirit speaks about is sin, righteousness, and judgment—and what He says in every way points back to Christ and the cross. Sin is before all else the absence of faith and trust in Christ—it is not just a moral exercise. Righteousness exists for us only in Christ, and is again received by faith, and not by sight, since Jesus ascended to His Father. Judgment is not about how we were judged, but rather about how the devil stands condemned before God through Christ. Sin, righteousness, and judgment. At the cross these come together as the heart of the Holy Spirit’s work, and therefore the heart of Christian spirituality. The spirituality of the cross—the place where Jesus accomplished salvation and went to forgive us all our sins. Amen.
Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
1. In what ways is “spirituality” (in general), popular today? What are some examples? How is this different than Christian spirituality, that has a definitely Christ-centered, cross-focused content?
2. Look in the passage from John again. What makes it clear that the Holy Spirit’s work is to direct people to Christ rather than Himself?
3. Why does simple talk about morality fall short of being Christian spirituality? What would such a spirituality without reference to sin look like?
4. What is the spiritual righteousness that counts before God? How do we get this rigtheousness?
5. The judgment that Jesus speaks of in this passage is directed against whom? How do we benefit from this judgment?
6. How can we keep our Christian spirituality Christ-centered and cross-focused?