Friday, February 27, 2009

Sermon on Matthew 9:9-13, for Ash Wednesday "Why Does Your Teacher Eat With Tax Collectors and Sinners?"

Note: This is Part 1 of a Six-Part Lenten Sermon Series on the Subject: "Questions about Jesus that they don't want answered." Keep posted for the remainder of the series.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today with Ash Wednesday we begin the solemn season of Lent, a time for putting to death our sinful passions, a time for heightened awareness of our sin, and most importantly a time for focusing on the sufferings of Jesus Christ for our sins. The ashes on your forehead remind you that ever since the Fall into sin, the curse of death is that “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19b). In keeping with the focus of Lent on Jesus’ death for sinners, our Lenten sermon series that will lead us forward to Holy Week and Easter is going to be titled: “Questions about Jesus they don’t want answered.” These sermons will center around six questions about Jesus to test who He was, that come from the Gospel of Matthew. As we look at each of these questions, we’ll see that when they find out the real answers to these questions, they aren’t going to want to hear them or believe them, because the answers reveal Jesus to be the Christ, the promised Messiah. And that revelation of Jesus as the Messiah may have uncomfortable implications for both His hearers and us as well. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Perhaps it comes as no surprise to us that in the time of Jesus, tax collectors weren’t the most popular citizens around. As we are entering tax season, I’m sure you can all appreciate your own fondness for the IRS. But compared to back then, the tax system was very corrupt, and tax collectors regularly skimmed off the top and taxed people at higher rates than what was owed to the government. Tax collectors were looked down on as crooked and greedy. They were at the bottom of the social pecking order, regularly grouped together with prostitutes, swindlers, the unjust, gluttons, drunks, and all-around sinners. In other words, being a tax collector didn’t put you in the best company when it came to reputations. But Matthew, one of the 12 disciples and the author of this Gospel, humbly records his own calling from his occupation as a tax collector to become a follower of Jesus. “Follow Me” Jesus said, and as simple as that, he left his work behind. Then Matthew invited his newfound Rabbi home for dinner.

Many other tax collectors and sinners came to join Jesus and the disciples for dinner. A real ragamuffin crowd. This drew the attention of the Pharisees, who asked the first question of our series: “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” The jab in their question is: “Doesn’t He know who He’s hanging around?” At this point, they probably still have a fairly high, if somewhat skeptical opinion of Jesus Himself—recognizing Him as a wise rabbi or teacher. But they’re surprised that He would surround Himself with such a sinful crowd—and eat with them no less! He ought to know better! We’re the ones He should be eating with, not these cheats and scoundrels.

Jesus hears their question and gives them an answer they don’t want to hear: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Jesus told them He came not for the righteous, but the sinners. This answer of Jesus put them in a pickle. Either they had to claim they were righteous, and that Jesus was not for them, or admit they were sinners on a level with the tax collectors and sinners Jesus ate with. It exposed the Pharisees’ arrogance and pride in claiming that they were righteous and not sinners. But for them to do so, put them squarely against the Scriptures they knew so well. Psalm 14:3 says of mankind, “They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.” Ecclesiastes 7:20 observes: “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.” As upright as they were as citizens, and as meticulous as they were in trying to outwardly keep the law, they didn’t have a leg to stand on when it came to claiming they were righteous, against the testimony of Scripture. But they certainly didn’t want to admit to being sinners, and being classed with those tax collectors
and other undesirables that Jesus was eating with. They didn’t like this answer.

But as always, Jesus’ answer is the necessary answer. Even if we’d rather not hear it. It’s an answer that calls both them and us to repentance. Not identifying someone else as a “tax collector or sinner,” but you yourself. We can’t apply the law to others unless we’ve first applied it to ourselves. Jesus’ answer identifies Himself as the true physician of both body and soul, who came not for the healthy, but for the sick. Those who won’t acknowledge their sickness won’t be healed. This is the hard part of His answer—that they had to acknowledge their own sin. This is the difficult part of repentance, to take a long, hard look at your own life, and realize that it falls woefully short of God’s standards. And further, to know the consequences of sin…that it isn’t some surface blemish that is corrected merely by coming up with a more rigorous set of rules and guidelines and working harder to follow them. But that sin is a deep and pervasive corruption of our human nature—inherited from Adam’s sin, and multiplied by our own participation and sin. That sin, like a chronic and invasive cancer, has but one final outcome: death. So we need to recognize that we are sick with sin. We need a doctor—we need the true physician of body and soul, Jesus Christ.

To be a Christian is to daily repent of our sins and look to Christ for forgiveness. But how do we repent? Too often repentance is taken lightly; just a casual or automatic “I’m sorry.” Or we point out the sins of others, but not ourselves. But true repentance would be to hear these words: “You are all of no account, whether you are obvious sinners or saints in your own opinions. You have to become different from what you are now. You have to act differently than you are now acting, whether you are as great, wise, powerful, and holy as you can be. Here no one is godly…” but this stern word of the law that shows our sin and inability is followed by the sweet promise of grace through the Gospel, which causes us to “become different, act differently, and believe [Christ’s] promise” (SA III). The hard thing is to apply the law to yourself and see that you’re a sinner. And more than just “I’m not perfect.” Even the self-righteous Pharisee would admit that much. No, repentance goes much deeper than that. In the reading from the Prophet Joel, God calls us to repentance by returning to the Lord “with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.”

True repentance ought to cut deep—to the heart. “Rend your hearts, not your garments.” This deep recognition of our need comes from examining our life in the light of God’s 10 Commandments. Even with the illumination of God’s Law, we still as sinners can’t see “how deep the rabbit hole goes.” No one can remember and know every sin that they’ve committed. There are even unknown sins that we’ve committed. So it’s not a question of ‘if,’ but ‘how’ or ‘when’ we have broken the commandments. Read them tonight in Exodus 20 or in the Small Catechism, and examine your own life in their light. What wrong have you done against the commandments? What good have you neglected to do, which the commandments instruct? Remember that keeping the commandments isn’t just about the “Not’s and Don’ts,” but that Jesus summarized the commandments with the word “Love.” So there is a positive duty for us to keep also—not just avoiding the wrong. And when we have fully taken stock of our lives in this light, there can only be one conclusion: that we have utterly failed to keep God’s Law, and that we’re poor, miserable sinners who’ve justly deserved God’s present and eternal punishment. Every fiber of our old sinful nature resists and strives against this conclusion. We want in every way to excuse or explain away our sin. But this necessary conclusion of our total guilt and corruption before God is just what the doctor ordered.

Because Jesus diagnoses the sin-sickness of all people, even if they do not see it themselves. He diagnosed the guilt of the Pharisees who thought they were righteous on their own, or were better than other ‘sinners.’ Jesus diagnoses our sin-sickness by showing that the Law isn’t merely an outward matter, but is an inward matter of the heart also. So how’s this conclusion of our own guilt just what the doctor ordered? Remember? Jesus came not for the healthy, but the sick. He came to call not the righteous, but sinners. In that deep conclusion of our guilt, in the rending of our hearts from our sorrow over sin, Jesus administers the cure. He takes our broken heart and He’s “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and He relents over disaster.” God doesn’t bring disaster upon us, but is compassionate and abounding in steadfast love. “He heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds” (Ps. 147:3). Jesus is the true physician because it’s in His crucifixion and His wounds that we’re healed (Is. 53:5).

Jesus took the deadly sin-sickness upon Himself, that through His death He’d destroy death. “Why does our teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Because He’s the True Physician, who came for us sinners, to heal us. And behold, today He eats with us sinners. Today He spreads a table before us in the presence of our enemies, and our cup overflows. In the Lord’s Supper, Jesus abounds in steadfast love for us by pouring out the overflowing cup of His blood for the forgiveness of our sins. Jesus gives us the Bread of Life in His body broken and given for you. Truly Christ eats with sinners! Christ eats with us. And for those who hunger and thirst for righteousness it’s satisfying indeed to eat with our Savior. Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Sermon on Mark 9:2-9, for Transfiguration Sunday, "Life in the Valley"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Our sermon text is the Gospel reading you just heard recited and summarized in song by our preschool children, the story of the Transfiguration. This special Transfiguration Sunday comes at the end of the church’s season of Epiphany, that means the special revealing of Jesus as God’s Son. Epiphany began with the visit of the Wise Men that we remembered in early January, and ends with this unparalleled revealing of Jesus’ glory in His Transfiguration. This coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of our journey into Lent. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could all have a religious ‘mountaintop’ experience like the disciples witnessed at the Transfiguration? High on a mountain, alone with the Lord, Peter, James, and John had an experience like no other, seeing Jesus unveil His glory as true God. Plenty of people today chase after an elusive religious experience—wanting some mystical encounter with God. “If God would only show Himself to me, then I could believe He exists!” “God, just give me a sign!” Life in the world of the mundane, the ordinary, workaday routine seems so unspiritual to us. Miracles, the supernatural, the voice of God, all seem inaccessible or even far-fetched to us. They’re beyond our everyday experience, and so rare is it for anything unusual to intrude into our daily life, that we’ve a hard time believing that it can happen. So we want the visible proof in our own life—our own personal religious ‘mountaintop’ experience. Maybe it would even be convenient if it were tailor-made to our particular needs or desires. But we can’t live off of the supposed “mountaintop” experiences.

The disciple Peter tried. He was so overwhelmed and terrified and amazed by what he saw, that He tried to make the experience last. In his confusion he suggested to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three tents—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Whatever sense of joy or elation at this experience, Peter wanted to stretch it out so that it wouldn’t come to an end. Looking back down from the mountaintop into the valley or the plain of life seems pretty uninteresting. We want excitement and grandeur, not the steady, seemingly boring life on the plain…wake up, go to work, come home tired, go to sleep, start all over again. But when Peter spoke up to make his well-intentioned, but misdirected suggestion, he was interrupted by a voice from the cloud that enveloped them: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to Him!” Another extraordinary event—God’s own voice speaking from heaven, identifying Jesus as His beloved Son—reminding them to listen to Him! It would become clear to Peter that he couldn’t live on the mountain, but would have to return to the valley below—back to the ordinary plain of life—but that he was to listen to Jesus there.

But let’s look a little more closely at what happened. The original Greek word that we translate “transfiguration” is where we get the word “metamorphosis.” You know, like when a caterpillar undergoes metamorphosis to change into a butterfly? It’s transfigured, or it’s form changes from one form into another more glorious form. Jesus underwent a metamorphosis, albeit a temporary one, to change form and reveal His true glory for the disciples. He’s truly human in every way, but hidden within that unassuming exterior, He’s also truly God. God in human flesh. So for ever so short a time, He allowed only those three disciples to see His glory and get a glimpse of who He really was. This must have forever changed the way that they looked at Jesus. The radiance and brightness of His clothing became so pure white that it says no one in the world could have bleached them that white. It’s like they’re grasping for words just to describe how dazzling and blinding His appearance was. Even though the disciples knew from His miracles before that He had extraordinary power—this was altogether unexpected—and confirmed that He really was who He said He was.

In fact Jesus didn’t even need to speak for Himself here; God the Father spoke from heaven to identify Jesus as His Son whom He loved. This is directly parallel to the only other time in the life of Jesus that it’s recorded that God spoke audibly from heaven—and that was at Jesus’ baptism. Almost the same words were spoken at His baptism, “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well-pleased.” Jesus’ identity was clear, and it was clear that He had God the Father’s approval. Lest the disciples miss the importance of this, or fail to get the point, God reminds them, “Listen to Him!” Do we need that kind of reminder sometimes? Of course the voice of God isn’t going to boom from heaven to tell you to Listen to Jesus. But it’s there in black and white in our Bibles. It’s there in the voices of the children reciting His Word to you. “Listen to Him!” In searching for the miraculous voice from heaven or the great religious mountaintop experience, we’ll miss the still, small voice of God coming to us through His Word, reminding us to Listen to Jesus. We won’t find it high on the mountain, but here in the valley.

You also notice that during Jesus’ transfiguration, He was accompanied by two people who weren’t originally with the disciples. They saw not only Jesus, but Moses and Elijah with Him. Who were Moses and Elijah? Why were they there? Moses was the greatest leader and Old Testament prophet, who’s known for leading the Israelites out of their slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land of Canaan, sometime around 1445 BC, some 15 centuries before Christ. God performed miracles through Moses’ hand to demonstrate to Pharaoh that God was able to deliver Israel from Pharaoh’s hand. Moses also is known for his personal encounters with God on Mt. Sinai—encounters that’re described in very much the same way as the Transfiguration on the Mountain in today’s reading. During Moses’ encounter with God on Mt. Sinai, he received the 10 Commandments, and all of the rest of God’s Law for Israel. Moses wrote all this down in the first five books of the Bible, which are called by various names: either the Torah, which means ‘Law’ or ‘Teaching;’ or the Pentateuch, which means ‘five books.’

Listen to Moses’ description of a greater prophet he said would follow him: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen” (Deut. 18:15). Not at all coincidence that God the Father said, “Listen to Him!” The Greater Prophet that Moses predicted was now here, confirmed by Moses’ special appearance, and by the witness of God the Father who said, “This is my Son, whom I love, listen to Him!” Moses said this Greater Prophet would have the words of God in His mouth, to speak all that God had commanded Him. Jesus was this Greater Prophet, and because He had the Word of God in His mouth, we are to listen to Him.

And another prominent Old Testament prophet, Elijah, appeared with Moses and Jesus. Elijah was another one who had great religious ‘mountaintop’ experiences with God. He’d seen God’s power in a contest with the prophets of a foreign god on Mt. Carmel. He’d gone to the same Mt. Sinai where Moses had walked centuries ago, and God showed His presence to Elijah in a remarkable way. First a powerful wind, then a earthquake, then a fire passed by Elijah, but the Lord was not in these. And then the presence of the Lord came to Elijah in a still, small voice. A gentle whisper. Moses and Elijah were among the select few who had such direct and miraculous encounters with God on the mountain, and together they represented all of the Old Testament—the Law and the Prophets. Moses the author of the Law, Elijah the great Prophet. Here they were once again, participating in another miraculous mountaintop encounter with God. Yet they had both died centuries ago!

What does this tell us? First it shows the truth of the resurrection, that God is the God of the Living, not of the dead. Believers in God, Old Testament and New, are together with God in heaven, alive. Also, the fact that Peter and the disciples recognized them, gives us good reason to believe that when believers die and go to heaven, we’ll be able to recognize our loved ones and they’ll recognize us. We retain our unique individuality, and aren’t absorbed into a meaningless sea of blank faces. We don’t become anonymous or turn into angels, but our soul is glorified, to await the resurrection of our bodies on the Last Day when Christ returns. Even to the disciples who’d never seen nor met Moses and Elijah, they were instantly recognizable. So we may take comfort to know that we’ll be able to see those who have died in faith in Jesus, and know them, and even saints we never knew will be as familiar to us as Moses and Elijah.

But for as miraculous as this Transfiguration of Jesus was for the disciples, just as quickly it was over, the glory was gone, and the disciples saw only Jesus. When the dazzling light and glory, and the appearance of Moses and Elijah was gone, it was only Jesus. Jesus, who strictly charged them not to tell anyone what they’d seen, until He’d risen from the dead. His glory could not be fully revealed again until He’d died on the cross and risen from the dead. Why not? Jesus could’ve walked around like a dazzling light show, blinding and terrifying everyone with His presence. But God’s intent was for His glory to be cloaked. For His full glory to shine out after He’d carried the full weight of the cross, and the sin that bore Christ down. This was Jesus’ pivotal challenge, His battle—and the glory would not come until He’d earned it through His death and resurrection. And without the miraculous sign of His Resurrection from the dead, who could believe that He was really the Son of God?

The truth is that Jesus couldn’t just come down on earth in God’s unveiled glory. Moses and Elijah both knew this, from their encounters with God. Moses had begged to see God directly—to see His face. God warned, “You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live” (Ex. 33:20). Sinful man would perish in the presence of God’s holiness. It would be like putting paper in front of a consuming fire. But God did permit Moses to get a shielded glimpse of the glory of God, by looking at His back. Likewise, Elijah couldn’t face God in the windstorm, the earthquake, or the fire, but God instead came to him in the gentle whisper. This is what Jesus gave us. This is what Jesus gave the disciples. He came from God, shielding His glory in the humility of His human nature. Yet with all the brilliance and fire and authority of true God. The glimpse of this for the disciples at Transfiguration was enough to show them and us who He was, but not to blind them, not to let them perish in the brightness of His holiness.

And when the glory faded, He brought them back down from the mountaintop to live in the valley and on the plain. Life there might seem pretty mundane and unspiritual. But the glimpse of the Transfiguration, this glimpse of heaven lifted their spirits and ours as we walk through the valley. But there’s a way that Jesus’ Transfiguration is carried forward in you, and that even the ordinary life is made holy in service to God. The reading from 2 Corinthians today says: “We, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into His likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” That word transformed is actually the same metamorphosis or ‘transfiguration’ that shows up in Jesus’ Transfiguration. It’s saying that we’re being transfigured into Jesus’ likeness by the Holy Spirit. But why would we be transfigured into Christ Jesus’ likeness? Because in our fallen, sinful state, we again would perish in the uncovered splendor of God’s holiness. So we must first be transfigured into Jesus’ image of purity and holiness, of utter sinlessness. And this can only happen through Jesus’ death on the cross and the forgiveness He won for us there. Through His death and resurrection we’re clothed with His innocence, His righteousness. Our clothing will be bleached whiter than anyone can bleach it, dazzling and whiter than snow (Is. 1:18). Clothed in Christ, transfigured by forgiveness into His holy image—then we can stand in God’s presence one day.

So in this life, by faith the Holy Spirit is transfiguring us, causing us to undergo a metamorphosis as we repent and put away our sins, and trust in the beloved Son of God, Jesus Christ for our forgiveness. And like a caterpillar entering its chrysalis, our body must one day die, after which we’ll emerge transfigured into Jesus’ image in the resurrection of the body. For then at last, we’ll have arrived at our final destination. Then at last the glory of Jesus and the glory of God will be fully seen and unveiled. For our destination is the heavenly mountaintop (Is. 25:6) where the glory will last, and the sad, mundane life in the valley will be forgotten, and we will stand worshipping in God’s presence, not perishing from His holiness, but alive and reflecting its brilliance. Then we will no longer leave the mountaintop, but will truly say, “It’s good Lord to be here!” 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. Have you ever had a religious ‘mountaintop’ experience? What’s the problem with chasing after such an experience, or trying to live off such experiences?
2. How did Peter try to prolong the experience? What did the voice of God tell him to do instead?
3. Transfiguration comes from the Greek word, “metamorphosis.” How was Jesus transfigured, and what did it mean?
4. Who were Moses and Elijah, and what did their presence indicate? What Biblical hope does their presence bear witness to? What does it imply about our condition in heaven?
5. Why did Jesus’ glory need to remain cloaked or hidden while on earth, until His death and resurrection? Why can’t humans see God (yet) in His unclothed glory?
6. How are we as believers being transfigured, and why? How does this transform our mundane or earthly lives into spiritual lives? What mountaintop destination are we headed for, and what sights await us?

Monday, February 16, 2009

Sermon on Mark 1:40-45 for the 6th Sunday after Epiphany, "I am Willing; Be Clean!"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text is from Mark 1, the Gospel reading. Last week we saw how the weight of Jesus presence drew the crowds to Him. Today’s reading has a man cleansed from leprosy spreading the news all around, with the result that Jesus couldn’t openly enter a town to preach anymore, but had to carry on His mission outside in desert places. In any case, we’ll look more closely at the cleansing of the leper, and consider how Christ has made us clean as well. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

How does the case of the man with leprosy apply to us today? None of us have leprosy, and in recent times this debilitating and dreadful disease has been able to be treated with much success. And we don’t live under the formal system of laws of cleanliness and purity that ancient Israel had. There were precise regulations to follow about how long a person had to wait after they were cleansed, about what sacrifices and offerings Moses commanded them to make to the priests, when they could move back in their house, etc. Even though our society today doesn’t have organized rituals and laws about cleanliness, or necessarily even use the terms “clean” and “unclean” much in a personal sense, those categories still seem to operate in our mind. Except we use the vocabulary of germs, dirt, antiseptic and sterile.

We still draw those kinds of distinctions, even if they aren’t part of a formal system of “purity laws,” like in ancient Israel. But I’m talking about more than just concerns about hygiene. Sometimes it does take the form of looking down on those who don’t match up to our standards of hygiene; but perhaps more often it takes a different form. Like making human distinctions between those who work in an occupation that seems beneath us, as common labor, who talk or act differently, have a lower level of education, or whatever. God’s distinctions of clean and unclean are based on His holiness and defined through His Word. Human try to make distinctions based on personalities, “family, race, caste, class, or nation;” yet none of these define what is clean. In Hinduism, you are clean or unclean by virtue of which caste of society you are born in. If you’re born beneath the lowest caste, in the category of the “untouchables” you're forever cursed to be unclean, regardless of what hopes, aspirations, or abilities you have. But in Christianity, you aren’t classified or found clean or unclean on the basis of your abilities, talents, health, strength, etc, nor on the basis of what sins you have committed in your past.

God has said that we aren’t to call anything impure, that God has made clean (Acts 10:15). The same applies to how we treat a repentant and restored sinner. That we wouldn’t treat such a person as “unclean.” It’s one thing if we’re openly and willfully continuing in those sins, in a way that despises God’s law or claims no need for His forgiveness—then our sin must be called to account, as Jesus said, “Go and sin no more.” Instead, if we’ve left sin behind, turned away from it and Christ has spoken us clean, then no one should hold that sin against us or call us unclean. When we’ve been forgiven, God has separated us from our sins as far as the east is from the west (Ps. 103:12).

Think for a moment, however, about what it means to be “unclean.” When something is unclean, we usually mean that it had been pure, but now is contaminated or defiled by something else. Something foreign and dirty has mixed with it or gotten on it. And it doesn’t take much to make something unclean. 10 gallons of clean water would be made unclean and unfit for drinking if you put even a single drop of sewage in it. Sin (& false teaching) work in the same way. It is something foreign and unclean, and it contaminates and defiles us. This is why even after we’ve been forgiven, some sins leave us with the lingering feeling of uncleanness, or defilement. A regretful act of violence, or being the victim of some violence against yourself can leave a person feeling defiled or unclean. They may carry it around as a sense of shame or embarrassment, even long after they’ve received God’s forgiveness. Certain sins we’ve committed or experiences we’ve had, or sins others have committed against us may leave us feeling “dirty.” Maybe there are even unwholesome images we’ve allowed to enter our mind but can’t erase or forget. Or maybe we’ve accepted God’s forgiveness for ourselves, but others continue to lay a stigma on us.

So we come to Jesus like the man with leprosy, and in humility we beg, “If you are willing, you can make me clean!” We come as those defiled by sin, with scars and deep wounds on our hearts and mind, with pain that we are longing to surrender to Him, with shame and uncleanness—crying out to our Lord for cleansing. And how does our Lord receive us? How did our Lord receive the outcast leper, who was defiled and stigmatized, who was alienated from worship and from community by his leprosy? Christ’s answer, simple and full of compassion is this: “I am willing; be clean!” And when Christ makes us clean, He removes our uncleanness, our stigma, and our shame as well. He sends us away cleansed and forgiven, with a clean slate, washed and cleansed and holy. We no longer have to live as those marked by our sin, but can let His forgiveness permeate our lives and our conscience as well.

What great compassion Christ has! Jesus felt compassion as we were meant to feel it—as a true human emotion, moved out of concern for the afflicted. His compassion, like every other emotion Jesus expressed shows how we were truly meant to feel and act on them as perfect human beings. In His compassion, His love, even His righteous anger at hypocrisy or injustice, we see what it means to be truly human as God intended in perfection. In His compassion we see how we ought to feel compassion when a person is in need around us, and we’re able to help in some way—even if only by prayer. In His compassion He not only was willing to heal and cleanse the man with leprosy, but He actually touched him. Don’t underestimate the significance of Jesus’ human touch! No one would touch a leper. But by touching the man with leprosy, Jesus willingly became ritually unclean. He was willingly defiled and took the man’s uncleanness on Himself, so that the man might become clean and whole again.

Jesus willingly takes our uncleanness on Himself so that we can be clean. How did He take up the uncleanness of humanity? At the beginning of His public ministry Jesus, a clean and righteous man, underwent a sinner’s baptism, washed in our sins. Throughout His ministry He healed and touched the unclean; Jesus took upon Himself our infirmities and carried our sorrows to the cross (Is. 53). Through His death He made us clean. Our uncleanness, our stigma, our defilement of body, mind, and soul, everything unholy and unclean has been transferred to Him, for He became our sin (2 Cor. 5:21) and uncleanness. But the power of Jesus to cleanse wasn’t merely in His touch, but in His spoken Word: “Be Clean!”

What do you mean, “He speaks” and I am clean? How can just words do that? Not just words! The Word of God who calls light into existence—“Let there be light!”, the Word of God that calls forth dead Lazarus from the tomb—“Lazarus, come forth!”, the Word of God that says to a crippled man—“Your sins are forgiven, rise and walk!” This is the Word of God that is powerful to accomplish what it says, the Word that calls life and all things into existence, and does what it says. When Jesus says “be clean!” it isn’t wishful thinking, a hopeful blessing or warm sentiments—it’s the powerful word of God declaring you clean, and you are. It’s done!

The difficulty comes in actually believing in what God has accomplished for you and how Christ has cleansed you and made you whole. The shame, the images that stain our mind may linger—maybe we have the emotional or physical scars of our past—but we’ve trouble believing that Christ really has made us clean. That we’ve truly been given a new identity —the purity and holiness we’re given in baptism. What does Scripture say about baptism? Not that it is an external washing or cleansing of the body (like a bath), but that “Baptism…now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 3:21). How’s that! Baptism saves us as an appeal to God for a good conscience and it happens through the resurrection of Jesus. That clean conscience is yours through your baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection. By repentance in baptism we surrender our guilt, shame, uncleanness to Christ.
When Jesus cleanses us who are unclean, He makes us “fit for God’s holy presence. In Baptism he removes [our] impurity, like unclean clothing, and takes it on himself; then he gives [us] his purity and holiness as [our] new dress, so that [we] can clothe [our]selves in him.” We may come and worship God with a clear conscience, not in pride or arrogance toward those around us. Not in pride over having stripped ourselves or cleansed ourselves of sin. But rather in humble thankfulness and adoration to the One who has taken our impurity on Himself to crucify it on His cross and rise so that we may be given His purity and holiness to wear in our baptism.

The word of God continually works to cleanse and purify our mind and thoughts, and helps us to find healing and peace from our past. If our minds and lives are stained or defiled by sin, and we long to be clean again, like the man with leprosy—we come to Jesus, with the prayer: “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” And there’s no doubt that Jesus is willing! He does desire to make us clean, and He speaks us clean through His Word and through the cleansing of baptism! Christ continues to convey His cleansing power to us today through Word and Sacrament. His Word spoken, read, and preached to you, is just as effective to cleanse and restore you now as then, because it’s Christ’s own Word, and He’s willing and able to cleanse us. Jesus is willing to make that trade with us, to exchange our sin and guilt and shame for His righteousness, innocence, and holiness. The more we’re active in the Word—in worship, in Bible study, in private or family devotion—the more opportunity for it to work in our lives and cleanse our minds and consciences; purifying our thoughts of unclean things so that we instead set our minds on things above.

Then what remains for us as forgiven and cleansed sinners but to live joyfully and obediently with the knowledge that: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” Do you desire to be that person whose sins are covered, against whom the Lord will not count sin? Then Christ says to you, “I am willing; be clean.” 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. What kind of uncleanness do you find or feel in your own life? What sin or shame do you carry that makes you unclean?
2. What posture do we take before Christ, to seek cleansing? Where does it put our trust?
3. Who have you considered unclean, though Christ has declared them clean? How has that changed how you treated them?
4. How did Christ show compassion? How is He the model of true human compassion? How does this change how we look at and treat those in question #3?
5. What is the power of Christ’s spoken Word? Examples? How does He bring it to us today?
6. In what ways did Jesus take on the uncleanness of the man with leprosy? In what way is our uncleanness given up to Him?
7. Where was our substitution finally accomplished? What benefits do we receive in exchange for our sin and uncleanness that was given to Christ?

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Sermon on Mark 1:29-39, for the 5th Sunday after Epiphany. "The Weight of Jesus"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text is the Gospel, Mark 1:29-39, and I want you to listen and watch for how Jesus’ life impacted and transformed everyone and everything He came into contact with, and also think about how it impacts and transforms your life today. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Throughout the gospel reading, you get this sense that everything is pulled toward Jesus, almost by some invisible magnetism or gravity. He leaves the synagogue after the Sabbath, and late in the evening the whole town was drawn to Simon Peter’s house, bringing the sick and demon-possessed to Jesus to be healed. Jesus leaves very early in the morning, in the dark, to pray alone for awhile, and the disciples found Him there, saying “Everyone is looking for you!” Jesus left the village so He could continue preaching unhindered. His presence just made such a deep impression on everything and everyone around Him. Crowds were constantly following on His heels. Think of the world around Him like a trampoline, and we’re like little marbles or grains of rice scattered over the trampoline. When Jesus steps onto the earth, everyone and everything is drawn to Him, even those who couldn’t stand Him, like the Pharisees, the demon-possessed, etc. Everyone who crossed His path, and encountered the man Jesus Christ, was impacted by Him. It was impossible for your life not to be changed in some way by Jesus.

After preaching in the synagogue, Jesus went to Simon Peter’s home and learned that Simon’s mother-in-law was very sick with a severe fever. Jesus extended a personal touch, and lifted her by the hand, and the fever was gone. Without any need for recuperating, she was instantly well and began to serve Jesus. Our lives are transformed in a deep and encompassing way by God’s Word, and the salvation that we’ve received in Jesus Christ. We’ve received the full and free forgiveness of sins. Jesus gives us His very body and blood in the Lord’s Supper to strengthen and preserve us—to forgive our sins that we may enjoy His new life.

Will our lives be committed to service, just as Simon’s mother-in-law showed her thankfulness and appreciation to Jesus? We gather in worship to receive God’s saving gifts and mercy, to be renewed and restored from the fevered pace of our lives. It is then our response to go out in service toward our neighbor. Betty Jean, our dearly departed sister-in-Christ, said the way she wanted people to remember her was by donating an hour or two of their time each month to volunteering. She knew the Lord’s healing forgiveness in her life, and lived in service out of thankfulness to her Lord. What opportunities for service lie open to you? Out of about 720 hours in a month, 2 hours is less than 3/10ths of a percent of your time. For we who have received such a great salvation in Christ Jesus, and who’ve been freely given His love and forgiveness, volunteering is a small way for us to freely give to others. Jesus transforms our lives into one’s of service.

Again, after sunset the crowds were drawn to Jesus. Why after sunset? You may remember that the Pharisees and others of Jesus’ time were very strict about observing the Sabbath day, and not carrying heavy loads or working on the Sabbath (Luke 13:14). Probably the people were trying to avoid breaking the Sabbath by carrying the sick, or being healed on the Sabbath. Jesus later made it clear that it was good and right for Him to heal and save life on the Sabbath (Mark 3:4). In any case, Jesus wasn’t impatient, but again showed compassion, and healed the crowds that came to Him. Truly only the Son of God could have such abundant compassion and patience. He could have had His disciples drive them away. But neither was He doing it for show or for attention, and He strictly commanded the demons He cast out not to speak—because they knew who He was.

Yet even with His compassion and desire to help others, Jesus also needed time to withdraw by Himself in prayer. Still very dark outside, He went and prayed alone. This is another way in which Jesus can transform each of our lives. Setting aside time for quiet meditation on God’s Word and prayer, draws our attention away from the distractions and interruptions of life and back to Jesus. It’s too easy for the physical cares and needs of life to push our spiritual health out of focus. Private time for prayer turns our attention back to God.

Martin Luther told a story about “St. Bernard, who complained that he could not finish a Lord’s Prayer without being interrupted by foreign thoughts which impeded his praying. When a friend expressed surprise at this, St. Bernard bet him a stallion that he could do no better. The friend took up the bet and began to pray, “Our Father who art in heaven…” Yet this thought had crept in before finishing the First Petition, “would the saddle belong to him also, in case he won the horse?” He stopped the prayer and conceded victory to St. Bernard. Luther concludes, “If you are able to speak one Lord’s Prayer without any other thoughts of your own, I shall consider you a master. I cannot do it.”

I know this same difficulty in prayer. Perhaps you do as well. As I say my prayers at bedtime, I rarely get through a whole prayer before my thoughts have wandered to some events of the day, a concern on my mind, a task at church or home left unfinished, the friends or family I haven’t talked to recently enough, the television program I was watching, etc, etc. So how important for us to at least separate ourselves somewhat from outside distractions. Otherwise they will only add to our internal distractions. But Jesus couldn’t even escape these external distractions. Before He had finished in prayer, the disciples found Him, saying “Everyone is looking for you!” Again the weight of Jesus’ presence in the world drew all people to Him. Perhaps moms and dads with little children know best what it’s like to constantly be sought “Mommy, Mommy! Daddy, Daddy!”, and to not have a minute to themselves. Maybe husband and wife can take turns giving each other a chance for their own “time out” to pray and reflect, or spend time in prayer together after the kids are put to bed. However we make time for private prayer and God’s Word.

But for all the attention that Jesus drew because of His healing ministry—for all the crowds that flocked to Him for His miracles—He made it clear that this was secondary to His real purpose for coming. So when Jesus moved on to another town or village, He said it was so that He could “preach there also. That is why I have come.” Those words ought to stop us. The healing and miracles were visibly amazing! People’s lives were openly changed for all to see. This drew crowds and fame! It was the quickest way for Jesus to accumulate followers. But He sidestepped this kind of fame and set His mind on preaching the Gospel. This was what He came for. And why was preaching the heart and purpose of Jesus’ ministry? Physical healing lasts only through this lifetime, but we’ll all still die. To believe in Jesus’ Word, though, brings an eternally lasting benefit. Like the crowds, our attention is easily drawn to only our physical circumstances and problems, while we may be unaware of more serious spiritual problems.

Jesus didn’t divorce His care for the soul from His care for the body, and so it’s also appropriate that we would care for people in both ways. But He gave primary importance to the soul, and the changing of a person’s heart to be right with God. He was preparing people to receive Him as the Son of God and their Messiah, as He would go to His death on the cross as the final payment for sin. This was the point of greatest weight and glory in His earthly life—the climax of all His teaching and healing ministry. The cross was the hinge point on which everything turned, and there He would draw all men to Himself (John 12:32-33). There at the cross was the point where His life would have the greatest and most enduring impact throughout history. There the foundations of the earth were literally shook as death swallowed up the Author of Life. And in three days Christ burst the gut of death and broke forth from the tomb to rise to a glorified and immortal body. Truly at His cross He would draw all men to Himself. He drew all our sin to Himself, like sucking poison from a wound. Our celebration of the Lord’s Supper that He instituted as His last will and testament compels all mankind to look upon the death of Jesus on the cross as the salvation of all men. Paul wrote, “As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). The Lord’s Supper, together with Baptism, and the continuing preaching of Christ crucified in Christian pulpits throughout the world, magnetizes and draws the eyes of all mankind to this ignoble death on the cross. Even today He draws all men to Himself at the cross.

We preach because Christ preached, and He commanded that same message of forgiveness of sins to go out to all the world. His weight and the impact of His life is not lessened in this world, as He promised that He is with us always, even to the end of the age (Mt. 28:20). His presence continues through the Lord’s Supper. We preach because the death of Christ for sinners is what gives His ministry it’s greatest weight and impact. And His ministry is carried on through the preaching of the Gospel all throughout the world. Through His cross, through the Word of God and prayer, through His Holy Spirit active in our lives, He lives in us to make our lives weighty and full of impact, so that we might put His Word to work in transforming the lives of others. Through us, Jesus’ Word is also active in transforming the lives of others. And we, like Simon’s mother-in-law, and like our own BJ, can commit our lives to service. As we have been served by Christ, now go and serve others! 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. What made Jesus spiritually “weighty” or “significant,” that drew all people to Him?
2. Have you ever thought about trying to “gain spiritual weight?”  What means of grace does God use to transform our lives, to make them lives of significance?
3. What ways can you take on BJ’s challenge to volunteer more? Where do you have a heart to serve, and what gifts or talents do you have that you can use?
4. How does prayer help shape our life with God? How does the Lord’s Prayer “teach us to pray”? When can you set aside private time for prayer?
5. What was Jesus’ central purpose for His ministry? How did healing and casting out demons figure into that larger purpose?
6. What did Jesus’ preaching (and in fact all Christ-centered preaching) ultimately point to, as the culmination of His ministry?
7. How was Jesus’ death on the cross the weightiest and most significant moment of His earthly ministry? How does the Lord’s Supper draw our eyes to that sacrifice?