Monday, March 28, 2016

Sermon on Luke 24:1-12, for Easter, The Resurrection of our Lord, "More than Seeing"



Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!
When we see the resurrection of our Lord Jesus, what do we see? Someone could be a smart aleck, and say “None of us ‘saw’ the resurrection of Jesus.” But neither did you see the birth or death of George Washington, or Caesar crossing Rubicon River to provoke revolution in the Roman Empire. But of course none of us can “see” anything that happened outside our natural lifetime, except to believe the reports of reliable historians and eyewitnesses. And so today you hear the reliable report of the historian and Gospel writer Luke, who along with hundreds of eyewitnesses, records for us the unmistakable miracle of Jesus rising from death, and walking out of His now empty tomb, in a living, physical body. So what do you “see” or “perceive” about this historical event, that changed world history for the past 2,000 years?
Some of what we can see, the first eyewitnesses were unable to perceive on that first Sunday morning. They did not perceive at first that it was even possible. True, they had seen Jesus raise others from the dead—sometimes within hours of a person’s death—and in the case of Lazarus, even 4 days after he had died. But certainly that was not the same as Jesus dying Himself, and then raising Himself from the grave! At first, they couldn’t even conceive this as a possibility. They came to the tomb to find Jesus’ corpse, to honor Him with their burial customs. They did not come to the tomb to find it empty! But that’s just what they found!
How would you react if you went to a wake or a funeral, for someone whom you loved, and upon arriving, were greeted by angels, saying, “Why are you looking for the living among the dead? He is not here, He is risen!” You would be beside yourself with amazement and disbelief, just like the women and disciples. Nature moves us inevitably toward aging and ultimately death, and not even advances in health or cosmetic treatments can halt or reverse that universal pattern. Physical death seems universal, absolute, and final. But in contradiction to that, stands the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He leaves His tomb, not as a ghost or phantom, but as the Living Lord Jesus, in the flesh and blood body, still marked with the scars from the nails, and the spear in His side. In contradiction to the seeming finality of death, is the risen Jesus.
No scientific analysis can explain that—but any human with eyes to see can tell when a person is alive, walking, eating, talking, and well. And every Roman soldier on guard at a crucifixion was required by the threat of his very life, to be dead certain that the criminals under their charge were completely and utterly dead before removing them from the cross. The Romans dotted their i’s and crossed their t’s, by breaking the legs of criminals still alive, and in Jesus’ case, spearing His already breathless, lifeless body, to bring forth the flow of blood and water. There could be no uncertainty about either of the two facts: 1) Jesus was confirmed dead, and 2) He was confirmed alive again, three days later. Paul numbers the eyewitness of this as over 500, beyond the women and 11 apostles.
 So what do you see or perceive, when you are confronted by these two facts? One modern theologian has said, “If you want to make the absoluteness of bodily death the cornerstone of your entire worldview, I can’t stop you. If you choose to say here I stand, death is the end and nobody ever comes back from it and that’s just the way it is…well that’s where a lot of people were in the ancient world and that’s where a lot of people are in the modern world. I think that view is radically challenged by the strong evidence that points to the Resurrection of Jesus, but it’s up to somebody what they do with that challenge.” (–N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham).
For the person who is still in that place, that death is the end and nobody comes back from it, you have to either wrestle with or ignore the evidence. Assuming that most or all of you here today, believe instead that Jesus is really alive from His grave, and has defeated death—then there is much more that simply seeing the fact that He is alive, but what do you perceive Jesus’ resurrection means for us? Does it change your life? How you see what’s around you?
The women at the tomb needed a reminder—a reminder of the words of Jesus. The angels said, “Remember how He told you…” Through their grief, confusion, and perplexity, they needed a reminder of Jesus’ words, to realize that He had already told them He was going to die and rise! We need a reminder—whether we’ve heard that Jesus is risen only one time, or if we’ve heard it a thousand times—we need a reminder that Jesus said these things would be so, and He did it! The repetition of life, or the fears and worries of our world, can all dull and cloud our memory. They can lull us into a restless sleep, where we live an act as though Jesus were not really alive. All sorts of distractions and busyness can keep us from living with the alertness and clarity of a faith that lives and acts on the grounds that Jesus Christ really is risen from the dead. Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed, Alleluia!
So hearing the reminder of the angels, hearing again the words of Jesus, believe those words, that death does not have the final say, but Jesus Christ is the firstborn from the dead. He is alive! And yes, your life changes because that is true! First of all, see and perceive this—sin is the recipe for death. Or to put it in the words of Scripture, the wages, or payment of sin, is death. Death traces back to our sin problem. But Jesus’ death on the cross fills in our sin solution! Hung on the tree for our offenses, nailed to the cross with all the legal demands and accusations of our guilt, Jesus ended the record of debt that God’s law held toward us. Hang up your sin problem on the cross of Jesus, and take your sins there, in sorrow, and repentance, asking for your Lord’s mercy, to take them away. And as surely as Christ is risen from the dead, so surely does He want repentance and the forgiveness of sins, to be proclaimed in His name to every nation.
You can live life choking and buried under the burden of your sin and guilt, or you can come to Jesus and hang it up on the cross, because Jesus has already bore your sin for you. Jesus alive from His grave, means that your sin really does have a solution, and that believing in Jesus Christ really is the way to be free—free indeed!
Life changes now that Christ is risen from the dead, because you also live in Christ Jesus. Jesus sent His disciples to baptize—and 2,000 years later, baptized in those same waters, we are buried with Christ, and raised up to newness of life. See that Jesus risen from the dead, means you walk with Him in newness of life. The old has gone, the new has come. Day by day, we put that old sinful nature to death, repenting of our sin, dying to ourselves, so that day by day a new person might daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. Far from being “cut loose” from Jesus to face the enemies of sin and death on your own—you are baptismally “joined in” to Christ Jesus, for Him to defeat those enemies on your behalf. Simply receive. What must I do to be saved? Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Believe the Holy Gospel! Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed, Alleluia!
See, perceive, and believe the resurrection victory of Jesus Christ for you. Know that by constantly being immersed and flooded with the Word of Jesus Christ—by bringing the Word of God constantly to your remembrance—God works to drive away sin and fear and doubt from your heart. Only the work of the Holy Spirit can transform our hearts from a state of doubt, perplexity, and uncertainty, like the disciples on that first Easter morning, to a state of faith, clarity, and confidence.
When this earthly life confronts us with the specter of death—whether a terminal illness, the loss of a loved one, the threat of terror, or whatever—then we have the Word of Jesus Christ, and the Risen Lord Jesus Himself, to drive back that fear, and to create in us a new confidence. The confidence that says, “If the Lord Jesus is mine, then not even death can separate me from His love.” The confidence that entrusts our dying loved ones to the care and mercy of Almighty God, and that we proclaim to them the same victory over death, that Jesus promises to all who believe in His name. The confidence that says, “I would forsake all things, even my own life, rather than deny Jesus Christ my Lord.” As I said two weeks ago, we can count everything in this life as loss, for the sake of the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord. He is worth more than anything, and if I am His, the loss of everything is insignificant by comparison.
So I ask you again—what do you “see” when you see the resurrection of our Lord Jesus? You have seen that death is not the invincible absolute—but that Jesus has conquered it. You see that sin is deadly, and death is beyond our repair—but that Jesus Christ has died for sins and become our sin solution, and the Way to Everlasting Life. You see that the devil, the world, and our sinful nature will use all possible means to cause us to fall into spiritual sleep, doubt, fear, confusion or despair, if by any means possible, to make us forget that nothing can separate us from the love of Jesus Christ, our Risen Lord. You see that newness of life is possible, because you live and walk in Jesus, in the baptismal grace and calling that He has given to you. What can we do but give thanks and praise Him, and sing our loud Alleluias and fall down in worship before Him? What can we do but glorify and honor Him, and tell the great deeds that our God has done! Today is the day to praise our Lord and our King, and to celebrate His victory! Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed, Alleluia!

Monday, March 21, 2016

Sermon on Luke 23, for the Sunday of the Passion, "Unbreakable"



Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The cross of Jesus Christ is the convergence, the intersection, and climax of all the Old Testament prophecy, all of God’s plan of salvation, coming to realization in a crucial moment, the excruciating hours of obedience, and self-sacrifice. The Gospel reading from Luke documents the events as they unfold. We see how Jesus was treated, and we see how He, in return, treated those who accused, mocked, and mistreated Him. Jesus’ actions put flesh onto the words of Psalm 103:8-12, “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.”
At the cross of Jesus we see God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger. At the cross of Jesus we see God not treating us as our sins deserve, or repaying us according to our iniquities. Instead we see Him forgiving, loving, extending mercy. At every step Jesus was provoked and mistreated, He was mocked. But He did not treat them as their sins deserved. Jesus is treated as a liar and a revolutionary, false accusers slandering Him, while even Pontius Pilate could see that none of the charges could stick. Herod treats Jesus as entertainment or a spectacle of abuse, to amuse his soldiers, but is dissatisfied that Jesus won’t comply by performing miracles or reacting to the abuse.
Pilate receives Jesus back and treats Him as a political inconvenience to be negotiated away, but can’t find a way to get rid of Him, without becoming complicit in His death. Women treat Jesus as an object of pity, and He steers their pity back to their own sorry state, for the coming judgment and fate of Jerusalem. The soldiers continue to use Him for entertainment, and to gamble for His cloak, while crowds mock His kingship. But Jesus forgives them. The crowds and first thief think that Jesus is helpless, because He can’t save Himself, but the second thief treats Him as innocent, and a true king. Finally, after all that He has suffered, the crowds lament what they have done, and the pagan centurion even confesses, “Certainly this man was innocent!”
Whatever the many reasons and ways that people treated Jesus on that day, and whatever reactions they were trying to provoke out of Him, or miracles they expected Him to perform—He gave them none of it. He did not lash back in anger, He did not pull Himself off the cross, He did not feed their frenzy of hatred and false accusation. He did not unleash the judgment of God against them as their sins deserved. What height of presumption, for guilty men to condemn and crucify the innocent Son of God! But instead of turning judgment on them, as sins deserve, Jesus Himself bears the judgment. He is treated as our sins deserve. He was punished according to our iniquities or guilt. He does so, so that He can remove our sins as far from us as the East is from the West. Instead of treating us as our sins deserve, Jesus gives us the love of God, toward those who fear Him.
Finally after everything that was done to Him, the cruelty, the vented rage, the blind mockery—even hardened sinners, pagans and unbelievers, even the self-righteous crowd, began to see the terrible injustice that had been acted out upon Jesus. From Pilate and Herod finding Him innocent, to the thief on the cross rebuking his fellow and realizing Jesus’ innocence, to the crowd mourning at Jesus’ death, to the centurion—Jesus’ response had an undeniable effect on all those around Him. The conviction of their guilt settled upon them, and the awareness of Jesus’ innocence. The realization that they had been wrong.
When we witness the Passion of Jesus, when we contemplate His sufferings, and see how He treated those who treated Him so terribly—does it move us to repentance? Do we rend our hearts, and cry out, “God be merciful to me, a sinner?” Are we only angered by the sins of others, and blind to our own? Or do we cry out to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom?” Do we see that His suffering should be ours? Pray that your sins be forgiven—and know that they are! Pray that God would turn your heart to thankfulness and praise, that Jesus sacrificed Himself for you!
Fear not and see the salvation of our God! See how great and how high God’s love is! Put your trust in Him—see His innocent death, for you—and worship our Savior. We enter this Holy Week following our Lord, from the way marked with palms, to the palms marked with nails, spread in love upon the cross for us. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Sermon on Philippians 3:2-14, for the 5th Sunday in Lent, "Surpassing Worth"




In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Sometimes in life it seems like we get obsessed with counting. There are all sorts of things we might count or keep track of, for all sorts of reasons. Maybe counting beans, maybe counting our money, balancing and checking it. Maybe we are counting the days—till we finish school, graduate, move somewhere, have a baby, find out who the new president will be. Maybe counting the achievements we’ve made, or the hurts we’ve felt, or the possessions we’ve acquired, with a sideways glance to seem how we measure up to someone else. We use numbers and quantities, measurements and comparisons. We search for advantage to ourselves, counting up our gains, our profits, our rewards. Or we count up our losses, and worry what to do about them.
Counting life this way can be exhausting. Or it can fill us with pride and arrogance. It depends whether we’ve counted up ourselves on the winning or losing end. Paul knew some counters who thought they were on the winning end. They were counting their achievements, crediting their obedience to God to themselves, stacking up reasons why others needed to be like them. But Paul decided to beat them at their own game, just to show them that it’s always a losing game anyways. Let me explain. In Philippians 3, Paul is dealing with boastful men who are trying to put the laws of Moses back on the Philippians. They’ve counted their righteousness up, and concluded that they have a pretty favorable standing before God. But Paul butts in and says, “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” Paul is saying, if you’re going to count human reasons for boasting, I have more than all of you. I’ve got you beat at that game.
But then Paul takes a surprising turn, in verse 7, and leading into our reading with verse 8: “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” Surprisingly, everything that Paul just said he had grounds to boast about, he now rejects in the clearest and strongest of terms. “Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.” Suddenly he’s done a mathematical switch, and everything he’d counted as a positive, is now a negative, a damage, a disservice, a loss! Why? For the sake of Christ. “For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” Suddenly all of Paul’s achievements, his proud ancestry, his law-keeping, his status, his self-righteousness, he counts as the lowest and most worthless of all things. Calling them rubbish. More than just something we toss in the trash that might become someone else’s treasure—the word rubbish means filth, scraps, or even excrement. Something of no redeeming value.
When Paul makes that statement: “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ”, he acknowledges a total loss. But he counts that if he has gained Christ Jesus, he has gained something of immeasurable worth. To know Jesus Christ blows all the categories of counting, measurement, and quantities. Suddenly the equation and the math just can’t describe the reality anymore. Knowing Jesus Christ my Lord is something of surpassing worth. In the book of Ephesians, St. Paul launches into a similar litany of phrases, all falling short of describing how knowing Jesus is immeasurably greater than anything we could ask or desire, how God’s grace exceeds all of our comprehension. Except for infinity, math can’t grasp it.
But there is a shape and a form to this goodness of knowing Jesus. So what does knowing Christ equal? The verbs in our reading tell the story. Kids remember in school that verbs are “action words.” They tell us what’s happening. And if you search for all the verbs or action words, in our reading, you’ll come up with quite a few, that describe our relationship to Jesus Christ. Let’s pick out some of those phrases, and see what they tell us.
First is to be found in Christ. To be found in Christ is the positive result of us no longer being lost in sin and error. Paul defines being found in Christ as not counting our righteousness based on the law—that is, not building up our own righteousness—but rather receiving a given righteousness. The righteousness of God that is ours by faith in Christ. So out with the rubbish, the self-righteousness we would try to claim before God, and in with the freely given, perfect, complete righteousness of Jesus Christ, ours by faith. Having this righteousness, is being found in Christ. It makes our standing before God real and acceptable, because God Himself has declared it—not false and presumptuous, because we have declared our own righteousness.
Then in verse 10 Paul uses these verbs: know, share, becoming, attain. Knowing Jesus is to know the power of His resurrection. That Jesus Christ has defeated death, means you really ought to know Him! In Galatians Paul talks about knowing God, and then corrects himself: to be known by Him. Really knowing God comes about by Him first seeking after us, coming to us in Jesus Christ, and God making Himself known to us, and knowing us more fully and completely than we could ever know ourselves. Knowing Christ is not a matter of our needing to introduce ourselves to Him, or locate Him, but it’s a matter of Jesus coming to us, through His Word and Spirit, making entrance into our hearts and lives.
But along with knowing Jesus and His resurrection comes sharing not only in that resurrection power and glory, but also sharing in His sufferings as well. At first this might seem like all the positives and superlatives Paul is adding up, have run into a negative, something that should count as a loss. But Paul explains that in sharing Jesus’ sufferings, we become like Him in His death. In Romans 5, Paul explains that God actually has some positives that He can bring out of suffering: “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Suffering produces endurance, which in turn produces character, and ultimately hope—not a wishy washy hope, but a hope that does not put us to shame because of God’s love being poured into us. God does not run from us in our sufferings, He has not abandoned us in our sufferings or when we feel weakest and lowest. In fact we are closest to the cross and sufferings of Jesus when we go through the emptying and the humbling of our flesh. But God helps us to endure, to grow character, and to receive hope, as He proves His faithfulness and love to us again and again. Suffering, though it seems at first to be mainly a negative, is actually part of God’s testing us and increasing our worth, like gold refined in a fire.
All the while we are experiencing this suffering and growing in the likeness of Jesus Christ, God is drawing us to Himself. Paul reflects on this like an athlete striving and straining ahead for a prize—but he will not allow himself to boast of it or become self-secure. To do so would risk turning back to presumptuousness and pride. So sharing in his sufferings is so that by any means we can attain the resurrection of the dead. Paul admits he hasn’t already received this, or been made perfect, but he’s striving for it. Not that there is or can be any doubt about God’s promises, but again to make it perfectly clear that we are completely dependent on the mercy and grace of God, and that salvation is received purely and freely from Jesus as a gift.
With eyes on this goal Paul concludes the reading: “But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus . Forgetting, straining, and pressing are the verbs here. Forgetting what lies behind. One thing we may count and recount in life, is our sins and failures. Counting them and weighing them may leave us crushed under a burden of sins, too heavy to carry. It’s not that the guilt isn’t real, but only Jesus can forgive it. Only God can declare that He will forgive our sins, and remember them no more. If God has promised to forget our sins, when we confess them to Him, turn from them, and ask for forgiveness, then we don’t need to remember them any more. We can forget what lies behind, and strain forward to what lies ahead. The future, the goal, the finish line is ahead of us. God is calling us to Him in Christ Jesus.
So we run to finish the race, not becoming quitters or dropouts, but getting up and competing, contending, struggling on. We don’t count any of the weaknesses or struggles or losses as handicaps or hindrances from completing that race, because we compete and we finish in the power and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Everything, say it again… everything is loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus as my Lord. If everything earthly is a loss, then I’m not gonna count it. It’s all a minus in comparison with the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord. All earthly advantages and disadvantages are stripped away, and I am left with Christ alone. And Christ alone is worth more than the world, worth more than anything to me. He finished the race first—He finished for us. Right now we’re in the race, running, sometimes stumbling, struggling, and we pull each other up, we listen to the encouragement of the saints who have finished before us. But most of all, we push on through it all, with our eyes fixed on finally coming face to face with Him—our Lord. In Him we’ll begin to discover what true worth is—surpassing worth. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.  



Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Read Philippians 3:2-9. Paul is dealing with false teachers who are afflicting the Philippian Christians, and boasting of their law-keeping. How does Paul say he measured up (on a purely human level) against these antagonists? Why does Paul count all of these things as worthless?
  2. Why is knowing Christ Jesus as our Lord, of surpassing worth? Ephesians 1:17-19; 2:5-8; 3:8-9; 3:14-21; 1 Peter 1:7, 18-21
  3. Paul speaks in Philippians 3:8-9, about not having a righteousness of his own that comes from the law, but a righteousness from God that depends on faith. What is the difference between these two kinds of righteousness, and how they are received? What is the difference in how they mark our standing before God? See Romans 3:19-4:5; 11:6
  4. Though Paul dismissed his “positive” human achievements in v. 2-9 as worthless to him, now in Philippians 3:10, he is eager to gain not only the knowledge and power of Jesus’ resurrection, but also to share in His sufferings and be like Him in His death. Why can the Christian rejoice in sometime like suffering? Romans 5:1-5; Matthew 5:10-12;
  5. In Philippians 3:10-14, is Paul expressing doubt about whether he will receive the promised resurrection, or salvation? How certain are Jesus’ promises? John 11:25-26; 1 Peter 1:3-9. Since God’s promises are certain and He does not break them, why are humility and “honesty about our limitations and utter dependence on the grace of God”, entirely appropriate for believers? 1 Corinthians 10:12; James 4:13-16.
  6. Philippians 3:13-14 uses the imagery of pressing on toward the goal, or straining forward, like an athlete competing to finish a race. Is our race like a sprint or a marathon? What does it require in order to finish? Who has finished ahead of all of us, and won the prize for us? Hebrews 12:1-2. Who also stands at the finish line, encouraging us?
  7. What is God’s grace for us, in “forgetting what lies behind?” See Jeremiah 31:34; Isaiah 43:25; 65:17ff; 2 Corinthians 7:10. Why again, is the righteousness of God that we have by faith, so superior to anything we could do or earn on our own?

Monday, March 07, 2016

"The Father's Love", a hymn about the parable in Luke 15:11-32, the Prodigal or Lost Son.



The Father’s Love
Meter 48 44 88
Luke 15, the Parable of the Father’s Love

1. I ran away
My Father’s love I did betray
As if I said
“If you were dead
I’d take it all and run from home
I’d see the world—there I would roam”

2. He gave to me
It came from His own property
I spent it all
I felt the fall
Down to the bottom with the swine
God, can it be? This life is mine?

3. If only I
Could earn your love then I might try
I’d work it off
Redeem myself
But I could never be your son
Oh dear God!—what have I done?

4. But what is this?
My Father welcomes with a kiss
A warm embrace
His smiling face
This love was never earned by me
Oh dear God!—Your love is free!

5. “Son welcome home!
My heart finds joy you’re not alone!
Please come my son
We’ve just begun
To celebrate the lost is found
Fill up the house—and gather round!”

6. “Will you join in?
Your brother has come home again.
Please come my son
We’ve just begun.
How long I prayed for his return?
This is my love—for you to learn.

7. The Father’s Son
Christ Jesus is the Blessed One
The lost to reach
The hard to teach
Taught us to walk the extra mile
For ev’ryone—to reconcile