Saturday, August 27, 2005

Sermon on Matt. 16:21-26

In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The sermon text is the Gospel reading.

From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. "Never, Lord!" he said. "This shall never happen to you!" Jesus turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men." Then Jesus said to his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?

Dear Christian friends: if we stop for a moment to reflect on what St. Peter blurts out in this passage, we should be astonished at his audacity. What in the world was he thinking? Can a man rebuke God? Rebuke is more than just voicing your disapproval. It’s a harsh correction or reprimand against a wrong course of action. It was as if Peter was saying to Jesus, “Lord, you’ve chosen a terrible course of action. How could you think such a thing? You can’t suffer and die!” Peter obviously forgot who he was talking to—the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Creator of All things, the Son of God walking here on earth. So what was it that had Peter so set against Jesus’ course of action—what we might call the way of the cross? Well first of all, he had been infected with the thinking of the world, or as Jesus called it, “setting your mind on the things of man.” And second of all, because of that, he was now serving as a mouthpiece for Satan. And Jesus harshly rebuked him in return: “Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” In the passage just prior to this in Matthew, Peter had actually served as a mouthpiece for God the Father, when he made the true confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God. At that moment, his thoughts were literally the thoughts of God, as the very words he spoke were given to him by the Father. But how quickly his thoughts had turned back to the thoughts of men.

But Peter’s foolish rebuke was more than just his impetuous personality getting the better of him. His words were typical of the way we as humans think—trying to keep Jesus away from the cross and constantly setting our minds on the things of men, rather than God. And all too often you’ll hear unbelievers, and even Christians (!) rebuking or correcting God. There’s an ongoing struggle in humanity between the way of the cross vs. the way of the world. And it’s this worldly way of thinking that leads us to challenge God’s way of doing things—which is the way of the cross. Of course I already hear the silent cries of protest: “But I’ve never rebuked or corrected God!” Maybe none of you have ever made such an audacious rebuke as Peter’s, but let me show you how this can happen today.

I don’t know how often I’ve heard people say that they’ve thought of a better way of doing things than God has. I know that I have even had such wicked thoughts. For example, have you ever thought that it was just really unfair of God to only grant salvation through the name of Jesus? I mean, what about all those people who never heard? Wouldn’t it be fairer if God sent everyone to heaven, regardless? Or at the very least, it would certainly be more loving if God let all people into heaven who were really sincere in their beliefs, and led a really good life—even if they didn’t believe in the Triune God. Have you had thoughts like these? I know I have. And you and I must repent of them. Why? Because like Peter’s situation, we are claiming to be wiser, fairer, and more loving than God. We don’t usually realize it, but when we make such claims, we are basically saying that we are more loving than God! Stop and think about who we’re talking to! The King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Creator of all things! The God who IS LOVE.

It’s a serious sin to have such arrogance against God, and what has happened is that we’ve given the upper hand to the way of the world, and denied the way of the cross. I don’t for a second deny that these are some of the hardest things for Christians to understand, but don’t think that our limited scope of knowledge is an excuse for the kind of pride that makes us think we are wiser or more loving than God. Even with ‘pious’ intentions. Peter had pious intentions when he told Jesus that He must never go to the cross, suffer, and die. He thought he was saving Jesus from suffering and death, and ultimately from making a serious mistake. And the Lord had a strong rebuke for such pride: “Get behind me Satan!” And the Lord has a strong rebuke for such talk from us. But even though it stings, and is embarrassing to be rebuked by God’s Word, the pain and embarrassment fade as the sin is forgiven by Christ. Whereas left unchecked, this poison of devilish, earthly thinking will sicken our soul unto death. But Jesus died precisely to take that poison—to soak up our sin and to take us after Him so that we could be free of worldly ways and sin. This is why Jesus had to go the way of the cross.

So Jesus calls us to repent—to change our thinking—and deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him. What does it mean to deny ourselves? It includes forsaking our own ideas about how God should do things, and accepting that God is infinitely wiser and more loving than we are. To deny ourselves is to put away our sinful flesh, with its twisted thoughts, its sinful words, and its hurtful actions. It’s to admit that this whole sinful flesh of ours is woefully dead in sin, and that we can’t redeem it. It is to say, “Most merciful God, we confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean. We have sinned against you in though, word, and deed….” To deny ourselves is to admit we have done wrong, and we need help. More than just help, we need salvation—a total and complete rescue from sin and death. And this is why Jesus had to go the way of the cross.

So what does it mean then, to take up our cross? Didn’t Jesus die on the cross so that we wouldn’t have to? Yes He did. If Jesus died only as an example for us, and by ‘taking up our cross’ He meant for us to follow His example in patient suffering, death, and resurrection—we would certainly fail. The cross of sin is not ours to bear. Neither being old and wise nor young and energetic; neither being rich enough nor poor enough; or even being ‘Lutheran enough’ enables us to carry that cross. The cross of sin is far too heavy for any of us to bear. No, Christ took the heavy burden of our sin and laid it upon His cross. He took up our heavy yoke and gave us a light and easy yoke. Christ bore all our sin on His cross, and forgiveness comes to us as pure gift by faith in Him.

So what is ‘our cross?’ Or where do we find our crosses? The answer is that our cross comes from following Jesus, and we find our cross in our vocations—our callings in life. Christians have many vocations or callings—the places in life where God has called us to serve our neighbors in love.

Many of you have the vocation of father or mother or grandparent to a child—all of you have or have had the vocation of being a son or daughter to your parents or guardians. These are only some of the numerous vocations we have in our family. Some of you served in a vocation as a factory-worker, a businessman, a teacher, a stay-at-home mom, a clerk at a store, or maybe a manager. These are just some of the vocations we have done in our work. And there are also vocations in the church—the Pastor, the choir and choir director, the Sunday school teachers, the students and the hearers. And if you don’t fit into those first few categories, I know you all fit in the last two! But our vocations are as countless as our relationships to our friends, family, co-workers, church members, etc. Vocations are the callings in life where God has placed us to serve one another in love. And these vocations are where we find our crosses.

The crosses we bear in our vocations are those sufferings that come from faithfully following after Jesus. Crosses are sufferings that are God-chosen, not chosen by us. Suffering that Christ teaches us to endure by His example of patience and humility. Crosses appear in all of our vocations—the rough marriage, the frustrations of raising children, strife in the family. A worker that faces financial troubles when the economy is bad, sometimes even being jobless for a time; or having to work under a difficult or unfair employer. A student who struggles to learn, or gets picked on in school; the pressure to cave in to using drugs or participate in underage drinking. And the greatest crosses we face are those related to our Christian faith: facing ridicule for believing in Jesus and His way of the cross—what seems foolish to the world. All these crosses and countless others are what Jesus calls us to bear as we follow Him.

Our temptation is like Peter’s, to try to skirt suffering—avoid the crosses. But all of our crosses and trials in this life are God’s way of testing us and strengthening us to resist temptation. It’s not a game for Him, but seriously real. We are being tested and made firm by our crosses, so that we will resist Satan and our sinful flesh in the time of temptation. Our crosses teach us about our weakness and dependence on God. Because we can’t even bear our crosses alone. Understanding our cross isn’t always necessary or even possible, but they should always be directing us back to Christ. Suffering builds endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. Our crosses don’t save us, they strengthen us for battle. The one cross that saves us is Jesus’ death on the cross. For only His suffering is redemptive. Yet because He was despised by the world and suffered for it, so must we face the scorn of the world.

And though from a worldly perspective it may not seem wise for us to go the way of the cross; to follow after Jesus is ultimately what Jesus means when He says that whoever loses his life for Jesus’ sake will find it. Because the enticements of the world—money, power, possessions—may delude us into thinking we’re gaining the world; but it is all for nothing when we die. For gaining the world is to lose our soul. But to take up our cross and follow Jesus is to lose our life in this world. To surrender ourselves to the way of the cross—faith in Jesus Christ, and the suffering that comes as a consequence. But to lose our life here is to gain it for eternity! For even though we stumble and fall in this life, carrying our crosses, Jesus has gone before.

And it was Divine Necessity that brought Him to THE cross at Calvary. It was divine necessity that He “go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and that He must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” No obstacle of Satan’s could prevent Him from fulfilling God’s will for Him. No worldly ambitions could swerve Him from His cross. No pleadings from His disciples, even Peter—could deter Christ from losing His own life at Calvary for our sake…because He was to find both His life and ours in His resurrection! For in crucifying and burying our sin, He broke the bonds of death for us as He rose again from the dead—truly finding Life eternal.

So when we lose our life for Christ’s sake, we ultimately find it in Him. That’s why there is no gain for us in the world—because to gain the whole world is to lose our life. But Christ lost His life to gain the whole world of sinners. He gains what we have lost and gives what we could never have gotten: life eternal. This was why Jesus had to go the way of the cross. The small sufferings we endure in this life are but a short struggle until this earthly life is over and we have eternal life with Him. We may stumble with our crosses in this life; often times the journey is too much for us. But Christ our Savior carries our crosses with us, restoring us by His Word of forgiveness, and by His sacraments that make that Word visible and tangible to us. Promises from God that we can literally grasp, touch, eat and take hold of. Giving us the very life and forgiveness He promises, in a way that we can take hold of and say “This is for me!” For Christ Himself is present with us through His Word and Sacraments, directing us and strengthening us on the journey home, as we bear our crosses for a little while until the resurrection is fully ours in Him. In Jesus name, Amen.

Now may the peace of God which passes all human understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Zoom Zoom Sputter

Well, after completing my vicarage, I had one exciting trip home. What should have been a two day trip turned into a four day affair. I left Sunday after church and then decided to stay one extra day in St. Louis at my friends' place. Then I left early Tuesday morning to drive the last leg home, and was making really good time when my engine died just before the I-55/ I-80 interchange, which was about 6 hours from Detroit. All of a sudden the engine just stalled and I coasted to a stop, fortunately I still had a shoulder because I was about 50-100 feet from a construction zone w/ no shoulders (thank God!). So after examining the oil, antifreeze, etc, and determining that the engine hadn't overheated and the fluids were fine, I tried to restart it---which it did, and I was preparing to merge back into traffic when it stalled again, and this time I couldn't restart it. I ended up walking about a mile to a factory and they let me use their phone to call AAA. They came to tow the car, and by the time he arrived, he was able to start it to drive it up onto his flatbed truck. So I got to the repair shop and they said it was about an hour and a half from closing, and that even if they got to look at it, they'd probably need till the next day for parts. I said no problem, I've got two sisters in the Chicago area and I'll go stay w/ one of them. They gave me a free loaner car (meanwhile I'd found out that one of my sisters was out of town) so I drove to my sister Dori's place about 1 hour away. I waited at their house about 2 hours before I tried calling back to my parents only to find out that BOTH sisters were out of town! What Luck! (Murphy's Law). So I drove back toward the car repair and found a motel for the night. In the morning I talked to the mechanic and they said they ran the car for 2 hours and couldn't get the engine to fail to reproduce my problem, and drove it for 12 miles and couldn't either. They said the diagnostic computer said everything was o.k., including the fuel pressure. Nevertheless, they suspected a weak fuel pump was the culprit, but at a $600 repair, they said they didn't want to replace that on a guess. I was thankful for his honesty. He told me that the engine
would fail again, and there was no telling when it would happen. So I drove
on towards Michigan, praying the whole way that God would let my engine make
it home (or at least to the next stretch of road with a shoulder :)
Fortunately God kept me safe the whole way home, and it didn't quit in any
construction areas. But it did die on the freeway once again in Indiana, but after
10 minutes I got it started again. I drove to Battle Creek Michigan where I
stopped at a rest area and couldn't get it started there for over a half
hour, but finally got it going and made it safely home Wednesday evening.
Needless to say, God heard the prayers of everyone praying for my safe travel,
and despite the difficulties, things could have gone far worse. I was
curious to see how much weight was in the car when I got home, and my dad
and I weighed the luggage and found that I had 1100 lbs in the car
(including my weight) and the max. cargo capacity according to the owner's
manual is 850 lbs. :) Well, that probably had something to do w/ my engine
being overstrained (did NOT overheat), but I did take it very easy and slow to be gentle on it ;) God is good, this is true.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Time keeps on ticking...

Vicarage is nearly over! Tomorrow after church I'm heading home! Since my computer will be disconnected and I'll be traveling, I probably won't post in the next ~2 weeks...but I'll be back. I feel like this is a significant milestone in my education, and only one year left!