Sunday, April 29, 2007

Sermon On John 10:22-30, Good Shepherd Sunday

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text for this 4th Sunday of Easter, Good Shepherd Sunday, is John 10:22-30. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Do you enjoy suspense? Novels, TV shows, movies, sporting events. We are surrounded by a world of entertainment, that draws much of its audience by the ability to keep us in suspense. Popular TV shows like “24” revolve around the ability to always keep you guessing about what’s going to happen next. I’ve always enjoyed good suspense, in books, in entertainment—the sense of something always hanging in the balance, the outcome is uncertain. Well, in entertainment, that might all be well and good, but how about life? We may know people who live their actual lives in constant suspense. How would you describe a life lived in suspense? Constantly worrying about what tomorrow will bring? How am I going to pay the bills? Am I going to be able to keep my job? That kind of suspense seems more like frazzled nerves and frustration than entertainment. But for some personalities, it might be an unusual sort of thrill or adventure.

But regardless, there is one area in life where we should not be living in constant suspense. The Jews in today’s Gospel identified that area: the matters of our salvation and belief. They complained to Jesus that He was keeping them in suspense, about whether He was the Christ. They insisted, “If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” But Jesus replied, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The miracles I do in my Father’s name speak for me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep.” His answer reminds us that He was not keeping them in suspense—they were creating the “suspense” for themselves by their disbelief. They were looking for hidden twists in the plot line, or waiting for the hero of the story to fit their own pre-conceived ideas. They weren’t satisfied with how the story of salvation was unfolding, and with whom God had chosen to be the hero of the story. Jesus didn’t quite measure up to their ideas of what the Christ would be like. “Christ,” remember, means the “Anointed One” or Messiah, the Savior who was promised of old, to deliver mankind.

For us, just as much as the Jewish listeners in today’s text, this is one area of life that should not be lived in constant suspense. We should not be in constant suspense about the most crucial matters of life—the matter of God, “in whom shall we believe?”, which leads directly to the matter of eternity, “what will happen to me when I die?” Sandwiched between these questions is the matter of “How do I become right with God?” In these matters, it’s not healthy to live in constant suspense. Today Jesus points us to Himself for these answers. Today on Good Shepherd Sunday, we are reminded of the words that Jesus spoke: “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father who has given them to me is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” In those few words, Jesus answers all the three questions we just raised earlier. In whom shall we believe? The answer is in Jesus and His Father, who are one. What will happen to me when I die? The answer is that to the sheep that follow Jesus, He gives eternal life. And How do I become right with God? Apparently Christ has that taken care of too, because His love for us is so great, that He won’t allow anyone to snatch us out of His Father’s hand!

But let’s explore this a little further. Someone has wisely said that we shouldn’t ignore the 800-lb. gorilla in the room. (All the kids are now looking around to see what we mean J) I mean the thousands of people on Maui and elsewhere, who are in spiritual suspense, about who or what to follow. Some have heard the voice of Jesus, our shepherd calling, but now waver between two opinions—who to follow? (1 Kings 18:21) Others have never heard the voice of Jesus calling them, because no one has ever told them the story of salvation, the Gospel of Jesus Christ who died for us and rose again. But all of those who are caught in this spiritual suspense, whether they are Christians or not, find themselves in the midst of competing voices. Which is the voice of our true shepherd? Who’s voice shall we follow?

Over ten thousand flocked to hear the Dalai Lama this past week, many gathering to find some spiritual answers as they pursue their own path to enlightenment. They looked to him for answers about how we can find world peace and happiness. Certainly we as Christians also hope for these things. If he thinks that many of the problems in this world stem from a lack of love and compassion, we could even agree with that much of his diagnosis. But it is the solution to the problem, the Dalai Lama’s answer to war and suffering, which shows us clearly that he does not speak with the voice of our Good Shepherd.

The title of his speech, “The Human Approach to World Peace,” reveals his belief that we are the solution to our own problems. According to the paper, he told the youth, that “Whether it will be a happier world or whether there will be more violence, it’s up to you…All these problems we created, it’s up to them [the next generation] to solve.”[1] If we are the solution to our own problems, then we have no need for Christ. If mankind can cure itself of its own disease, then we have no need for a Savior. The disease of mankind is sin. And it has a 100% death rate! So am I trying to destroy optimism? After all, so many people have been on a spiritual “Cloud 9” since the Dalai Lama came. Why darken our thoughts with sin and death?

First of all, I am certainly not opposed to optimism—just misplaced optimism! The optimism that the Dalai Lama preaches is a confidence in the inherent goodness of the human heart, and it’s ability to overcome the evils and suffering of this world. If history has taught us anything, it is this: that what the Bible teaches of our hearts is absolutely true: and I quote from Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick, who can understand it?” Or as Genesis 6:5 says, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” History shows again and again that the best efforts of mankind to transform itself have failed over and over. We cannot cure ourselves, because we are desperately sick! We cannot be the solution to our own problem! What would you think of a person who optimistically walked down the corridors of a hospital cheerfully telling the sick, “Heal yourselves! You can do it! The power lies within you!” We would rightly scorn that sort of optimism as being a mockery of the sick. Yet many would give a pass to the same sort of optimism when it comes to the far greater task of bringing about your own spiritual and also moral transformation, or that of the world!

This is where the teaching of the Dalai Lama, and the voice of our Good Shepherd Jesus are worlds apart. And it brings me to my “second of all.” Our genuine optimism as Christians is not found in ourselves, or in our hope that we can transform the world into a peaceful and happy place by determination and a will to love and respect each other, though we certainly also strive for these things. Rather, our real and lasting optimism rests in Christ Jesus as the true cure, the true answer, and the true solution to our fatal sickness of sin. We look outside ourselves to Jesus, not inside ourselves to find this cure.

All the optimism in the world can’t bring an end to war and suffering, if that optimism is trusting in human ability. And neither does Christianity promise that somehow we can bring about a total change to utopia here in this world. Rather, we recognize that as the Bible teaches, in order for this pattern of evil in the world to end, the whole sinful order of creation has to come to an end, and everything will be recreated in perfection. Jesus has planned for us a new heavens and a new earth, the home of the righteous. God will restore perfect peace and harmony, not in this life, but in the life to come. And in order for us to survive this radical upheaval of the sinful world, of which we are a part and are contributors, Christ had to die for us on the cross. The only way for Him to rescue us from the death penalty of sin, was to take that death penalty on Himself at the cross. There at the cross, Jesus erased our debt of sin. He is the antidote for our fatal sickness of sin. Our optimism is rightly placed in Him!

Truly, the sheep, the people of God, hear the voice of Jesus, our Good Shepherd. Amid all the competing voices and noise in our world, we hear the gentle voice of our shepherd calling to us through His Word. And what a blessing that He knows us! That we have been called by name to be His own and receive His blessings. Today Jesus calls another little lamb to be His own—Kayden, who is about to be baptized today. Christ, our Good Shepherd, leads us by the quiet waters of baptism, where He restores our soul. Here in Kayden’s baptism in the Name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, he is joined to Christ’s death and resurrection (Rom. 6), so that he is now dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. So were we also united with Christ in our baptism. By being joined to our Good Shepherd we are spared from the Judgment that is coming on this fallen world. We are in the hands of our loving Father, and Jesus will defend us with the watchfulness and care of a true shepherd, who guards the sheep from any danger or attack. In our baptism we are privileged to be joined with Christ in all His richest blessings—the forgiveness of our sins, and the promise of eternal life. We shall never perish.

In our reading from Revelation we got a glimpse of that eternal home, and how it is filled with a “great multitude that no one can count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” It tells us how they got there: “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb.” In a wonderful mixing of metaphors, Jesus is both our Good Shepherd and also the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. And believers who have gathered in heaven will wear the white robes that have been washed clean in the blood of Jesus—the forgiveness of our sins. Surely, we who have followed the voice of our Good Shepherd will have “Goodness and mercy…follow [us] all the days of [our] life, and [we] shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Ps. 23:6). I will end with those fitting words from Revelation, that describe that eternal house of the Lord:

they are before the throne of God
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them.
Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat upon them,
nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd;
he will lead them to springs of living water.
And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. (Rev. 7:15-17)

Praise be to our Good Shepherd! Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia! Now the peace which passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting, Amen.

[1] Maui News. “Dalai Lama: Compassion at the center.” Wednesday, April 25, 2007.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Sermon on Luke 24:33-49, Easter Sunrise

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia! The sermon text for this Easter Sunrise is Luke 24:33-49. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

“If Christ is not raised, then I am a liar!” This is essentially what St. Paul says in today’s Epistle. Listen again to his words, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ.” Worse than just being a liar, if Christ has not been raised, both he and I and all preachers of the Gospel are guilty of the greater sin of misrepresenting God!! What does all this mean? Paul explains that everything, EVERYTHING about Christianity depends on the historical, factual truth of this claim, that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. That Christianity really does hinge on the claim that Jesus walked out of the tomb this Easter morning some 2,000 years ago. Because without the resurrection of Christ, we are still in our sins, and our faith is futile he says. Without a real, living body of Christ, with heart newly beating and blood newly coursing through those veins that had bled dry on the cross, we have no hope.

But the sin of the church today, is that so many think that Christianity can get along just fine without Christ’s Resurrection or even His crucifixion. That the teachings of Jesus alone without His death and resurrection for us, is enough to make Christianity worthwhile. NO! Paul says that without Christ’s resurrection, our religion is worthless, and that I am a liar and misrepresenting God! Or some Christians have tried to “protect” the resurrection from the assaults of the unbelieving world, by saying that it was only a “spiritual resurrection.” That it doesn’t really matter whether His body rose, it was really just His spirit. Or we say that “He lives,” only really means that “He lives within my heart.” Not that He actually still lives and reigns to all eternity at the right hand of the Father. Away with all of these lies! These are the ones who have misrepresented God; who have misrepresented Jesus. Thanks be to God that none of that “spin” is true.

You see, the fact that Christianity really does rest on factual claims, on historical reality—is not our Achilles’ heel, or weak spot. It is in fact the very thing that makes Christianity so unique and so compelling. It’s what makes it objectively true. That is what is so startling about Easter, and that is what has made unbelievers from that very first Easter onward, scramble to find ways to disprove Christianity. Witness the recent attack of the so-called “Jesus Tomb” discovery. Have you noticed, by the way, that these TV specials trying to undermine the faith always come around the season of Lent/Easter time? Not surprisingly, the “Jesus Tomb” documentary doesn’t have a leg to stand on, as scholars, even non-Christian ones (!), have blown all kinds of holes through their claims. From the start, it’s highly doubtful that the inscription on the bone box even says “Jesus”! Look up a picture online; its less legible than chicken scratch, and that’s no exaggeration. But more importantly, these attacks show how determined the world is to demote Christianity from the realm of “objective truth” to the realm of personal feeling or sentimentality, a faith that isn’t rooted in anything real, but just wishful thinking. Do not cave into such attacks, do not retreat into the subjectivism that hides the real resurrection of Christ.

You and I have the privilege, the responsibility to go out to a world and even to many Christians, who are skeptics concerning the resurrection, and tell the truth! Rather than retreating, let us go forth boldly proclaiming the truth of the Resurrection. Just like the Emmaus’ disciples came back to the eleven and those with them, who were hiding from fear and uncertainty, some doubting, some believing that Christ had risen. Just like them, we can go out and proclaim the joy of the Resurrection. And Christ Himself appeared among them again, proving His resurrection. It’s actually rather unremarkable how He proves His resurrection if you look at it. After all, how do you prove someone is alive, and not dead? Simple really, if He is walking and talking in your midst, eating broiled fish, giving you His hands and His side to touch and feel. It’s pretty unmistakable! It doesn’t take anything extraordinary to prove someone is alive again. Common proofs for an uncommon Savior. Not like proving you’re the Son of God. That takes some miracles! Like feeding the 5,000; healing the sick and the lame; and physically rising from death to life again! And He did prove both that He was alive, and that He was the Son of God. This was no delusion of the disciples, no phantom in their midst, no hallucination or wild story cooked up to start a new religion.

There were literally hundreds of eyewitnesses of Jesus’ resurrection, as Paul records in 1 Corinthians 15. The disciples and many early Christians died martyr’s deaths defending and affirming what they saw with their own two eyes. Hardly something you would do to defend a lie. Certainly not a passive retreat from attacks on the resurrection.

But it hardly does us any good to just defend the truth of the resurrection, without realizing the significance of it. What did the Risen Christ reveal to His disciples from Emmaus, and then again here in today’s Gospel? He opened their eyes to see that He, the Risen Christ, was the key to understanding all the Scriptures and God’s plan of salvation. As He spoke to them, He reminded them of the words He had spoken before, that it was necessary (that is Divinely Necessary) that all the things written of Him in the Old Testament be fulfilled. It was written for Him to suffer and to die and be raised again on the third day. Why? For what reason? So that repentance and forgiveness of sins could be proclaimed in His name to all nations. And He said what of the disciples? That they were witnesses of these things. Eyewitnesses!

Jesus opened their eyes to see and understand the Scriptures as they had not fully understood before. He showed them how His death and resurrection was the Key to all the Scriptures, from Moses’ writing of the Law, to the Prophets and Psalms. All parts of the Scripture pointed toward Him, and without this central key of understanding, the Scriptures were a veiled book. What His death and resurrection unveiled, was the full understanding of how God was working out our salvation, from the very beginning of the world. Not only from the beginning of the world, but as we are told elsewhere, that we were chosen in Him (!) before the foundations of the world (Eph. 1:4). What a truly joyful discovery! To realize that we have been caught up into God’s mysterious and miraculous plan of salvation, long before we even existed. That in a way that defied all human expectations and methods, God descended into our midst as a true human being, to live under the same law He had created for us. That He was willing to be humiliated, shamed, and rejected by His own chosen people, by the very humans He had created. Humiliated, shamed, and rejected to death on a cross.

How can such a thing be? How could there be any sense to God acting in this way? Would we not deserve death for treating Him this way? Certainly we would. But Jesus Christ showed us the true meaning of love, a self-sacrificing love that He gave Himself up both for His friends and His enemies. That before the foundation of the world, He was so intent on redeeming us, to have us back as His own, that He would suffer all, even death, to bring us back to Him. To cross the great divorce between God and man because of our sin. To make us holy and clean so that we can stand in the presence of our Holy God and Creator, and not face death, but life eternal! This is why the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is essential to our faith, and must be defended by all believers, even to our own death! There was no fear in death for the disciples who died for their confession of Jesus Christ. There was no fear because Christ had removed the sting of death by taking away all our sin. This is the hope that can’t be removed from the Christian faith: the hope of the Resurrection from the dead. That just as we confess in the Creed: that I believe in the…“resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.”

So also, when we believe in the Risen Christ, our minds are opened to understand the Scriptures rightly. The veil is lifted and we can see that Christ is the Key and center to all God has revealed in the Scripture. We begin to read the Scriptures in a new light, the Light of Christ. We see how all the Old Testament points forward to Him, as the fulfillment of God’s promises. And we see how all the New Testament points us back to Him as the source and center of our faith and life. Like the disciples, we come to realize that the cross was not the tragic failure of God’s plan, but rather it was where Christ accomplished His victory over sin and death. We therefore proclaim Jesus Christ and Him crucified as the center of our message to all the world. Because His death was not in vain, but He has risen, risen to give us life, to give us a share in His Resurrection from the dead. So we can say with all boldness, together with St. Paul, “Christ in fact has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” He is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!

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