Monday, June 21, 2010

Sermon on Luke 11:2, for Father's Day, "Our Father's Love"

Sermon Originally delivered by Pastor Mike Hintze of Our Savior Lutheran Church, Westminster, MA on Father's Day, June 20, 2004.

Grace, Mercy and Peace from God our Heavenly Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The text is taken from the Gospel reading Luke 11:2, Jesus told them, “When you pray, say Our Father in Heaven.” This is the Word of the Lord.

He said, “Say, ‘Our Father in Heaven,’” so say it: (Congregation: “Our Father in Heaven”). All over the globe that prayer rises up to Him, morning and evening, and I know a lot of it’s rote, but a lot of it isn’t. Our Father in Heaven, our Father who art in Heaven, day after day, day after day. And fear not little flock it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom, it is your Father’s good pleasure to answer the prayer from all over the planet for the last 2,000 years. Our Father who art in Heaven. What does this mean? Dear Luther says in our catechism, “God would by these words tenderly invite us to believe that He is our true Father and that we are His true children so that we may with all boldness and confidence ask of Him as dear children ask their dear Father.” I know He’s not everybody’s Father. As a matter of fact He wasn’t always ours; you must be born again. But once by grace alone He has given us birth through His powerful and everlasting work, then Jesus says, “Now, now say ‘Our Father,’” call Him by that name.

Father is a powerful word. It’s not at all the same as parent. Although some silly people want us to pray, “Our parent who art in heaven.” But that’s not what we were told to do. And anyway it doesn’t mean the same thing. Why not? Father means ‘kind,’ so does mother. Father means ‘wise,’ so does mother. Father means ‘good,’ so does mother. So what’s the difference? Father means ‘strong.’ And although mother certainly can be, strong in intellect, strong in will, strong in virtue, strong in so many ways; you know perfectly well that if the van breaks down in a terrible part of town, both the child and the mother are very glad to have the father with them. Father means, ‘the strong one.’ Who loves you so you’re safe. So that a true father, he’d be strong in every way. Strong kindness, strong wisdom, strong goodness, strong love.

They say that millions of people suffer from the lack of the kind of father-love they were made for, but the truth is worse than that. As a matter of fact, every human child since Cain and Abel has suffered from the lack of the kind of Father-love they were made for. Even us whose dad’s were fantastic. Some were kind. But not strong. Some were strong. But not wise. None was perfect. You and me, we were invented to be raised by human fathers who were always wise and always strong and always good in every way. We were made for Eden. We were made for Adam the way he was before. But ever since, sin broke father Adam, we’ve all been shocked, we’ve all been disappointed, we were all born expecting a dad who was always wise and strong and good. But ever since Adam fell, every man’s been born a sinner and none of us has had the father we were born expecting. And that’s one reason why it hurts, so profoundly to see your dad, your wise dad, be foolish. You know what I mean? And to see your good dad, do something wrong. Or to see your strong dad be weak.

Nevertheless, nobody, and not even your dad has to do without the love of that perfect Father we were born expecting. Nobody has to live without the strong, wise, good one, who loves you. For God Almighty tenderly invites you to believe that He is your true Father. He sent His Son to invite us to believe this unbelievable thing. This unbelievable thing. I know, I know, I know. They’re plenty of barely Christian, or face it non-Christian theologians who love to chat about the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. And for them to call God Almighty, ‘Father’ is no shock, is no jolt. And that is because the God that they have in mind is a very weak one, who’s not a whole lot kinder or wiser or better than all of His sincere and well-meaning children. As far as they’re concerned, why not call Him Father? When after all, He’s so much like us! Just bigger.

But to any real theologian, from Moses to Luther, to any real Christian, to any sane and realistic human being, what kind of jolt, what kind of shock is it, what kind of sweet surprise is it, to hear God’s own Son tell us, us unkind, foolish, weak sinners as we are…to hear God’s Son tell us, “Be quiet. Call Him, call Him Father.” That the maker of heaven and earth, that the judge of all things, the One in heaven, the Righteous, the Holy, the All-Powerful, the Infinitely Strong One—that He would tenderly invite us to believe that He is our true Father. And still invite us to believe in spite of all our unbelief. You know the sinful nature does not like to call God ‘Father.’ And it’s not only because suspicious hearts can’t believe that God would be that close to us. It’s that sinful hearts don’t want to be that close to Him.

You may have noticed how some people are badly disappointed in their parents, will sometimes get even in a little way by calling their parents by their first names. You’ve seen that? They don’t say ‘mom’ or ‘my mother,’ they say Shelly, or whatever. They don’t talk about ‘dad’ or ‘pop,’ they call him Jack, or whatever. It’s a put-down, of course. It means, “Well, he is who he is, but it doesn’t really involve me.” That terribly, terribly, is how the sinful nature feels about the God of all comfort. Only without the excuse of ever having been disappointed in Him. See if I call Him just ‘God,’ or even ‘Lord,’ well that’s who He is…but it doesn’t necessarily involve me. Whereas if I call Him ‘Father,’ He’s got me. I’m His. If He’s just ‘God,’ I can pretend He’s distant, and live as I like. But if He’s Father, kind, wise, and good—where’s my excuse for sinning against Him? If He’s only the Lord, then sure, yes He’s the strong one, but I’m not saying He’s done right by me. But every time I say, “Our Father,” I’m admitting that I know He loves me. Listen to the difference: “Why is this happening? God knows.” As opposed to “Why is this happening? My Father knows.” What a difference it makes. And how it exposes the pride and rebellion in our hearts towards Him. Distrust. And how incredible that His Son still tells us, “say ‘Our Father’” and still this morning, right now by these words would tenderly invite us to believe that He is still our true Father. And that we are still, as we are and praise God as we’re gonna be, we’re His true children still, that He is the Strong One and that we’re the Loved Ones. That we’re the Loved Ones. That He’s the Kind and the Wise and the Good One. And that we’re the small ones and the weak ones. Who ride safe on His shoulders, riding safe on His shoulders through every sorrow. Through death, riding on our Father’s shoulders.

And this is true also for those of us whose human fathers weren’t safe at all. Let me say it gently. Some of us had fathers who neglected us or even abused us. And if they were strong, that just made them dangerous. So what does that mean? I’ve been told that if that’s our experience, then we can never really know what ‘father’ means. That it will always be hard for us to relate to God that way. But that’s not true. Beloved, if that’s you or me, the reason that we were so angry, the reason that we were so hurt is because we knew what ‘father’ meant. Whether we could say it or not. We knew that father means kind, wise, good, strong, safe. The whole reason we felt betrayed is because we knew a father wasn’t supposed to be like that. We knew the strong one is supposed to love you. And you know something? Whatever our experience, whenever we’ve met anybody who was truly fatherly, we loved them. We didn’t have any trouble having relationships with them. Only with God. And that is because, let me say it as tenderly as I can…like every other sinner in the world, we’ve been angry with people and taken it out on Him. We’ve been sinned against by other sinners, and we’ve gotten even with Him. We’ve been hurt by men, and retaliated by backing off, with wide-frightened eyes from Him. And making Him pay for what they did. With our rebellion and our distrust. It isn’t fair. It isn’t right.

And our Father in heaven knows it, and He’s sent His Son to tell us, “Child, come home. All is forgiven. Come home.” That the God who is in heaven, Jesus, the Father, the Father of all comfort…He knows it all, and He would by these words tenderly invite us to believe that He, He is your true Father. And that whatever you’ve known and wherever you’ve been, you are His true child. You have a Father in heaven and you are all the world to Him. You must be, as the old hymn says, “Yea so dear, did He esteem me, that His Son, He loved so well, He hath given to redeem me, from the quenchless flames of hell. Nothing else will long endure, but my Father’s love is sure.” I know, because no living sinner has ever seen His face. But we’ve seen His heart on Calvary.

Did you know that Martin Luther was a father? Know that? He had a housefull. And he adored his kids. I often think that when he wrote this, “God would tenderly invited us to believe that he is our true Father and that we are His true children, so that we may with all boldness and confidence ask of Him as dear children ask of their dear father,” I think he had in mind all his babies climbing all over him. And saying, “Papa can we…papa can you…papa…” And when they’re real little, and they don’t think you’re listening to them, they grab your face, you know. “Daddy! Daddy!” May the Holy Ghost teach me to pray like that. Anyway, {I think I’ve told you this before, but it’s worth repeating} Luther’s firstborn was a daughter, Margaret, whom he loved with his soul. And when she was twelve years old she got desperately sick, and for a long, long time he prayed and he prayed that the Lord would heal her. But he didn’t. And in her last days, Luther sat at his little girl’s bedside. And he prayed with her and he talked with her about how wonderful heaven is, and when she died in his arms…he was glad, so glad, that she knew her Jesus. And she was home now. And then he threw himself on her body shouting, “No! No! No! No! No!” He couldn’t save her.

But she had a Father in heaven who could. And who did. Thank God you have a Father in heaven who saw us all dying, and dead in our transgressions. Lost to Him through our own fault, through our own faithlessness…dead to Him, headed for eternal pains. We have a Father in heaven who threw Himself down over us crying, “No! No! No!” With a love strong enough to save His children. With a love so strong He gave His only begotten Son to die to bring the children home. When we were lost, our Father found us. When we were dead, our Father made us alive together with Jesus Christ. And He who withheld not His only Son, but freely gave Him up for us all; how shall He not with Him freely give us all things? Here and in heaven and in the world without end, we have a strong Father in heaven. We have a Father in heaven who’s going to raise up Luther and his Margaret and His, all His babies, and all my babies, and your babies, and you and me, and everyone who repents and believes. That He is our True Father, and we are His true children, for Jesus’ sake, Amen.
The peace of God that passes understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
Read past sermons at:
Listen to audio at:

1. Look in your Small Catechism (starts on pg. 321 in our hymnal if you don’t have one at home…or ask Pastor for a free pamphlet copy). Read the First Article of the Creed, and the explanation. What has God the Father done for you? Also in the Small Catechism, read the Introduction to the Lord’s Prayer and the first question, “What does this mean?” How does the privilege of calling God our Father invite us to pray? See also Matt. 6:8; 6:26ff; 11:25-30; Luke 12:32; 15:11-32; John 10:29, etc.

2. Is the image of father a positive or negative one for you? If it was negative, were there other “father-figures” in your life? How does God our heavenly Father embody and supply all that was lacking in our earthly fathers, however good or bad they were?

3. What does the strength of God our heavenly Father mean for us? How is it true that every human being is missing out on the kind of “father-love” they were meant for, if they are apart from God?

4. Why might our sinful nature not want to call God ‘Father’? How does calling Him ‘Father’ involve us with Him?

5. Imagine yourself riding on your father’s shoulders. What does that mean you can face when your are riding on your heavenly Father’s shoulders? If God is the Strong One, we are the Loved Ones.

6. How do we sometimes take out the hurts we have received from others, on God? What has God done for us when He saw us dying in our sinful state?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Sermon on Luke 7:36-8:3, for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, "Greater Gift, Greater Gratitude!"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today’s Gospel lesson contrasts two sinners, and their response to Jesus’ message of forgiveness. The first, Simon, was a Pharisee and doubtless a well-respected, righteous man in the community. The second, a nameless woman, was known through the city to be a great sinner. As we can see in their example and the parable that Jesus teaches, the greater the gift someone receives, the greater their gratitude is toward the giver. I want us to reflect today on how great a gift we have received, so that we might show gratitude for it. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The stage for this encounter between Jesus and these two sinners was in all likelihood, literally staged. I mean that whenever the Pharisees arranged to meet Jesus, there was usually a setup, a hidden agenda. Test Him out, trip Him up in His words. A couple of things tip us off. First is that when the sinful woman washed Jesus’ feet, Simon the Pharisee scornfully thought to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” Apparently part of the reason for this invite was to feel out whether Jesus was really a prophet or not. Apparently Simon was considering the possibility that Jesus was a prophet, until this sinful woman came and touched Him. Then Simon’s mind quickly changed—showing that he had a fundamental problem with God’s plan—that it involved sinners.

Do we sometimes have that “problem” or resentment with God’s plan? That it includes “sinners”? That maybe we secretly think that the church should be filled only with people pretty much like ourselves? Someone who’s responsible enough, mature enough, clean enough, or respectable enough? Of course when we use our own measuring stick to measure ourselves, we usually conclude that we’re pretty good on average. We may admit we don’t do a perfect job of worshipping and obeying God, but we’re still above average…or so we think. But if we were to measure ourselves by God’s measuring stick—by His Law—then we’d quickly find that our own sins leave us just as guilty before God as anyone else. As Jesus said, “for with the measure you use, it shall be measured back to you” (Luke 6:38). Instead, we should humble ourselves before God and welcome repentant sinners of all types and sizes among us, just as Jesus did.

So when people enter our house of worship, will they fear they’re entering the house of the Pharisee? Hopefully they’ll know that they come to stand among fellow sinners who offer the same warm welcome and mercy that Christ showed to all who were broken and sorrowful for their sins. How can we show such a welcome? Simple things like a welcoming smile, a friendly greeting and offer for any assistance. “Is this your first time here? Could I explain anything to you about our worship service to help? Is there anything that I can pray for you about? I hope you’ll join us again. God’s peace go with you!” Do we carry God’s peace on our lips? Are we speaking it often to each other and to strangers? When Jesus forgave her sins, He said to her, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Her faith latched onto that saving force of His forgiveness. He sent her with peace—the peace of sins forgiven and reconciled with God. Any and every one of us can be bold enough to speak God’s peace to a stranger. God’s peace be with you! A broken and troubled heart just might reach out for that peace of God, like a thirsty person reaching for a cold glass of water.

The lack of proper welcome was a second clue that Simon’s dinner invite was a setup to catch Jesus. Simon neglected, possibly even on purpose, the most basic courtesies and hospitality offered to any guest in a Jewish home. It was standard that a servant would wash off the dusty feet of a traveler as they entered for a meal. A kiss of greeting was a standard sign of welcome similar to our handshake or a hug for a close friend. Offering olive oil to anoint the head or was the hands was a special courtesy extended for a guest of honor, such as a prophet, rabbi, or teacher. Since Simon had invited Jesus as just such an honored guest, neglecting these courtesies was more than mere forgetfulness—it was an insult. Jesus could easily have stood up and said, “I see that I’m not welcome here!” and left.

But a most astonishing thing took place. This sinful woman had found that Jesus would be dining here, and had to see Him and express her gratitude. She must have heard Jesus’ preaching of forgiveness, as Simon and the rest had, and knew that He was a merciful man of God, whom she could approach. She had bought an expensive bottle of myrrh, a rich and fragrant ointment to pour on Him. A costly expression of her thanks—knowing Jesus had given her the far more costly gift of forgiveness. But to her amazement, the host of this feast had rudely neglected to give Jesus the customary foot-washing. So this uninvited guest, not even a member of the household, took what she had and shocked Simon and the other guests by supplying her own lavish hospitality to make up for the lack of theirs. With no basin or water to clean His feet, she wet them with her tears. With no towel to dry them she lowered her own hair to dry them. With costly myrrh she anointed and kissed His feet. All of her focus was on Jesus.

Here was a person who truly was grateful for what she’d received. Jesus used this opportunity to teach Simon the meaning of forgiveness and gratitude. A simple parable of a moneylender who is clearly supposed to be God. Two debtors owed different amounts, but they held in common that neither one could repay him. A denarius was about a day’s wage—so 500 denarii was well over a year’s pay, while 50 denarii was nearly two months’ pay. Substantial sums, but neither could pay. Then the moneylender, who the listeners begin to realize is Jesus, forgives both debts. The debt was canceled. When Simon answered Jesus’ question, “which debtor will love him more” by saying the one with the larger debt, he was hooked by his own words. Suddenly the situation was reversed, and he was no longer judging Jesus and her, he was the one being “measured by his own measure.” Suddenly he couldn’t escape his lack of love, gratitude and hospitality, when even this uninvited guest showed greater courtesy to Jesus.

Rather than being shocked or offended by this woman’s actions, like He was expected to, Jesus approved them. “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much.” She was the debtor in the parable who owed the greater debt, and so loved God more gratefully. We probably can’t imagine the shame and embarrassment a woman like her risked by showing up at this Pharisee’s house, just to show Jesus her thankfulness. But there are many people today who fear to enter a church, because they’re ashamed of their sins and what people might think of them. It’s a reminder to all of us to look again at that person, one whom you might have written off. Take a second look at that person through the eyes of Jesus, and see a sinner for whom Christ died, just like yourself. The problem is that if we measure our sins to be small, then it will be no surprise if we look down on other sinners. But beware! Judge not lest you be judged, or we may end up like Simon, as the one judged by the same scrutiny we used.

So why is it that we need to hear the same message of salvation through Jesus Christ’s death on the cross for sin, again and again? Why is it that we need constant reminders in preaching, and why is it that we should grow in the depth of our knowledge about what God has done for us? We need it so we’re always increasing in our knowledge of the depth of love that God has shown to us in forgiving the debt of our sin, and so that our gratitude will also grow. So we aren’t estimating the size of our personal debt compared to someone else. It’s easy to become complacent and think that our lives are well-ordered and pleasing to God, and that we’re the “righteous ones” and look down on “sinners” around us. It’s easy to feel as though you’re a pretty good person and are well-deserving of God’s forgiveness. We feel as though our debts to God are only small and trifling—nothing in comparison to how some people live.

But the more we study and grow in God’s Word, especially through hearing regular preaching, by studying the Bible together with other Christians and in our family, and by our personal study of Scripture—the more we learn how desperately we’re in need of God’s love. The more we learn that however much our “personal debt” before God is, that we’re hopelessly unable to repay it on our own. The more we put the cross of Jesus front and center before our eyes. That is to say that we need to constantly hear, read, and study God’s Word centered in Christ Jesus, so that we can begin to know the height and the depth and breadth of Christ’s love (Eph. 3:18). To see what it meant for Jesus to give up everything to repay our debts. The more we’re filled with that knowledge, and understand how great a gift we’ve received through Jesus’ forgiveness, the more and more that we’ll grow in our love, gratitude, and appreciation of that gift. The more we’ll be transformed from the judgmental self-righteousness of Simon the Pharisee to the overwhelmed and heartfelt love and thanksgiving of the sinful woman.

Actually the response of the sinful woman to Jesus is a neat parallel to what happens in our worship. She came in tearful repentance over her many sins, and fell at the feet of Jesus for mercy. We gather in worship and first approach God through humble repentance of our sins in the confession. Some churches even kneel at this point, as a sign of humbling ourselves before God. Then she worshipped Jesus with her tears and act of loving service, washing His feet and anointing them. So also we worship Jesus with sacrificial acts of love and praise, as we sing songs of thanksgiving for all that He has done. All our worship and focus should be on Him—just as the woman gave no thought to the embarrassment she faced, or the snickers that people may have scornfully made at her. Our focus is on Jesus, as the one who’s shown us God’s mercy. She received the words of absolution—“her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much”; and again, “Your sins are forgiven.” Let those words ring in your ears: “Your sins, which are many, are forgiven. Your faith has saved you, go in peace.” Consider yourself (you! Not someone else!) to be the chief of sinners, and rejoice in the unmatched love of God for you in Jesus Christ, that He died even for your sins, to have you as His own.

In the worship service we hear of the forgiveness of our sins again and again. The absolution I proclaim by the command and authority of Christ, that upon your confession, your sins are forgiven. The preaching of the sermon announces to you the great depth of God’s love, and how He’s redeemed you from all sin to be His own. The creeds and prayers that confess our forgiveness in baptism and the promised resurrection. The forgiving words of Christ spoken in the Lord’s Supper: “This is my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” Dear forgiven sinners, we are surrounded on all sides by forgiveness! We can then respond like the sinful woman, who joyfully went in peace. Now whether she was one of the three women mentioned right at the end of our reading, Mary, Joanna, or Susanna, or whether she was another of the women disciples of Christ, she went on into joyful service of her Lord. Those three women provided for Jesus and His ministry out of their own means. Their thankfulness was transformed into gratitude and joyful service. And so also in our worship, our response for all the gifts of salvation that have been given to us, is to joyfully give back to God in love and service. To go out each week between Sundays, and carry His good news and His peace on our lips. May Christ always strengthen and enable you to do so. In His name we pray, 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:
Read past sermons at:
Listen to audio at:

1. What clues are there that Jesus was being “set-up” at this dinner? Cf. Luke 5:20-26; 5:30-32; 6:1-11, esp. verse 7; What was the response that the Pharisees expected Jesus to have toward this sinful woman?

2. Who do we identify with in the story? Do we sometimes resent the fact that God’s plan of salvation involves sinners? Do we look down on certain people because of their sin? Or are we completely thankful that we as sinners are spared from God’s punishment?

3. What is the “measuring stick” by which we evaluate ourselves and others? Read Luke 6:37-38; Rom. 2:1-5; Gal. 3:10-14.

4. What was standard courtesy or hospitality for a guest such as Jesus? How did the sinful woman make up for the neglect of the host, Simon the Pharisee? Does our gratitude compare with his or hers? How can we show our gratitude and love to Jesus for all that He has done? How did Jesus accept and approve her actions?

5. What is our personal debt to God? Does it matter how great someone else’s is if we couldn’t even pay ours? Psalm 49:7-9, 15.

6. How can we increase in our gratitude? Eph. 3:18. Describe how great God’s love for you is, and all the wonderful things He has done for you through Christ Jesus. Reflect and pray a prayer of thanksgiving. How can we share that same warm welcome of Jesus with other sinners?

7. Draw some parallels between the woman’s acts and Jesus’ response, to what happens in a worship service. How does it feel to know that your sins, which are many, are forgiven, and that you can go in God’s peace?

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Sermon on 1 Kings 17:17-24 & Luke 7:11-17, for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, "Comfort in Grief"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today in two of our readings we see the nearness of God to those who grieve—in particular, how He raised the dead sons of two widows. The Old Testament reading is about Elijah raising the son of the Widow of Zarephath, and the Gospel reading is about Jesus raising the son of the Widow of Nain. Whether we experience grief from the death of a loved one, or whether our grief stems from something else, one thing stands sure. The words of the Psalmist, as true today as when they were penned some 3,000 years ago by King David, state this lasting truth: “The Lord is near to the broken-hearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Ps. 34:18). Today we’ll reflect on what grief is, and how God brings comfort in grief. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Grief could be described as overwhelming sadness. A deeply felt sorrow, usually over some loss or suffering. Many of the Psalms are songs or prayers of someone experiencing great grief, and calling on God’s help and mercy. Grief is more than just the emotional aspect of tears and sadness, it can have a physical effect as well. The Psalmist was physically exhausted because of his grief—the moaning and the tears wore his body out (Ps 6). Body and soul were filled with grief and weakened by sadness, even his bones ached (Ps. 31). Some of you may know just what this kind of grief feels like, that takes away your energy and leaves you physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. It may seem to cast a dark cloud over everything, and sometimes everything is shadowed by that grief for a long time. It may seem that no one else can understand the grief or loss you feel.

However, it’s also likely that some haven’t yet experienced such deep grief. Or, the grief they’ve experienced may have been much shorter. Some may feel near to another person in their grief, others may feel isolated and alone. Each person deals with grief in their unique way. But in whatever circumstance we find ourselves in, it remains true as I quoted before—God is near to the broken-hearted.

What are some of the causes of grief? What griefs have you experienced? The loss of a job? The grief of a broken relationship, perhaps through a divorce or loss of a long-held friendship? The loss of our health? The grief of a wayward child going the way of world? While the griefs we may have experienced may be greater or lesser compared to another, shorter or longer-lasting, our griefs are our own, and affect us each differently. For each of the widows in today’s reading it was the loss of their only son. In those times a widow had almost no other financial means of support apart from her husband or son. The widow of Zarephath, mistakenly thought that this death of her son was God’s punishment on her because of her sin. Was it some particular past sin that grieved her, and she felt that God was punishing her for this? Or was it because she felt aware of her sin in general because of the prophet Elijah, and she thought it was bad luck to have him stay with her and her son?

In any case, I think we can all identify with her feeling, that sometimes we wonder if difficulty or tragedy is God’s punishment for some particular sin. In our grief, we search for a cause and explanation even if there isn’t one available. It’s kind of a “bad luck theology.” It’s kind of superstitious in a way, and it’s so common and easy to fall into. I have often felt that same temptation to think in this way. Lutherans call it the “theology of glory”—which basically means that we think we can read the events of our life like an indicator of whether God is happy or angry with us. Instead of finding those answers in God’s Word, we look at all the events of life, and if things are going well, then we feel God must be pleased and satisfied with us. But if things are going poorly, we begin searching for what’s the hidden cause for this suffering or loss—why is God angry at me? What did I do? This theology of glory, or “bad-luck theology” was just as common in Bible times as today—as the first widow shows.

But part of the reason why we need God near to us in times of grief and suffering, is to learn that this is not true. It’s not true that our daily events and circumstances can be read like a weather gauge that tell us if God is favorable to us or angry. We need God near to us to learn true theology, the theology of the cross. The theology of the cross teaches us that the true way to know God’s attitude toward us is not by sticking our finger in the winds of life and trying to deduce where the Spirit is blowing. Rather the sure and certain way of knowing God’s heart and attitude toward us is by looking to God’s revealed Word and to the cross of Jesus Christ. There at the cross we can find a sure and certain knowledge of how God loves us and has forgiven us our sins. Can you imagine what Jesus would’ve concluded if He lived by the “theology of glory”? He felt the greatest abandonment and loneliness and suffering imaginable on the cross. Yet even in death, He did not doubt or fear whether He was in God’s arms. He prayed in His dying breath, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” He prayed “Father!” He still trusted in God and knew His relationship to God—though it was completely hidden from His eyes.

It takes faith to hold the theology of the cross. To know that even sufferings may come upon us, and that this is not a sign of disfavor from God. Suffering can be a sign of testing and God’s discipline (Heb. 12), or it may have no understandable reason or purpose. But what it does not mean is that God doesn’t love us or hear us. The prophet Jeremiah, knew great grief when he saw the destruction of the beloved city of Jerusalem and the exile. He even wrote a book of grief, the book of Lamentations, where these comforting words are found: “For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men” (Lam. 3:31-33). God does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men. Despite what some think of God, He is not arbitrary or malicious, He doesn’t delight in death or suffering. It’s not His will to grieve or afflict us. But God presides over all things in a world that is utterly disordered and broken by sin. Sinful human beings and the hurt that we cause each other—the intentional evils. But also the unintentional affects of evil in the world—diseases and natural death.

In such a world there is and will be grief—yet God will have compassion. He brings peace when sadness seems unbearable. His love is overflowing. He could’ve chosen to never get involved at all in this disordered and broken world. He could’ve kept His hands “clean” by never getting down into the earthly life of mankind, mixing with sinners and lepers and mourners in a funeral procession. Nothing required God to be present or to involve Himself in our suffering. Yet in the person of Jesus Christ, as the very Son of God, God entered and lived among us. He took up our sorrows and sicknesses. He ate with sinners and He touched lepers and the dead.

Someone might cynically say that God raising the two sons of these widows may have comforted them, but what about us? What about our dead? The point is that even those resurrections were only temporary reversals in the natural order of death and decay. Those boys were raised to a natural life again, still in this disordered and broken world. But they would eventually still die a natural death again. The point is not that for God to comfort us, He must personally enter each life and situation and perform such temporary reversals. The point is that Jesus Christ had entered into the world as God, and that these miracles were signs of the greater and final reversal God was bringing into the chaos of a sin-filled world. Those miracles are proof that God has entered the world and begun the process of ordering and recovering this world from sin. His own resurrection from the dead to a truly glorified and eternal body was the first true and permanent resurrection.

This is the basis of our comfort in grief. This is how God draws near to us who are broken-hearted. For everyone who has faith in His Son who has conquered death for us, God has begun the internal reordering of our sinful souls and lives. God has entered into us and started the process of reversal. His new life is like the life of a seed germinating inside us—the physical body must eventually die and fall off, so that it may blossom into eternal life. The whole of this old and disordered creation must finally pass away before the full plan and completion of God’s restoration can take place. Death is the final enemy to be destroyed, Scripture says.

Our comfort in grief is to have God near to us—near to us because He lived, suffered, and died like us. Near to us because this suffering accomplishes a restoration for us. It’s the beginning of the ordering, the setting of everything right again. God is putting “Humpty-dumpty” together again, and all of us “cracked saints” are God’s treasures that He is piecing together again by His abundant love and forgiveness. By faith we already participate in the new life He is preparing for us. By faith we’re comforted in grief, knowing that even when hardship, difficulty, and death come upon us—even when grief steals our happiness and dampens our joy, that Jesus promises us a hope and a future together with Him. By faith we see that even when we as Christians bear our crosses in life, this doesn’t mean that God is punishing us or that we’ve lost favor with Him. But rather we see God’s favor as sure and certain toward us because of the cross of Jesus Christ—the clear and certain proclamation of God’s forgiving love for us. May this comfort of God strengthen you in all grief, in Jesus’ name. 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:
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1. Read Psalm 34 especially verse 18. What is God’s relationship to those who are broken-hearted? Why does God hear them?

2. What is grief, and what are its effects? Psalm 6 and 31. Cf. Matt. 26:38; Luke 22:44. What kind of grief have you experienced? How did you deal with it? Who could you share it with?

3. What did the widow of Zarephath in 1 Kings 17 think was the reason her son had died? What kind of theology is this? What are some popular examples of this thinking today? What are some Biblical examples? Consider the friends of Job. What is wrong about this way of thinking (a theology of glory) about God?

4. What is the true and certain way of knowing God’s attitude toward us? Where can we look to and be sure of how God thinks of us? How is suffering and bearing our “crosses” a testing point for us to believe in God’s goodness and favor toward us?

5. How did Jesus show this faith, even in His greatest hour of difficulty?

6. What does the Bible teach us about difficulty? Heb. 12. Read Lamentations 3:31-33. Does God desire that we be grieved?

7. What does God do about the chaos and disorder of a sinful world? How do the two resurrection stories in the OT and Gospel reading show us a preview of the reordering and restoration that God is undertaking through Jesus? Explain how God is near to us in suffering.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Sermon on John 8:48-59, for Holy Trinity Sunday, "I AM...Greater than Death!"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today’s Gospel reading from John describes the end of a lengthy and heated exchange between Jesus and the Jews. They were claiming Abraham as their ancestor, and God as their Father, but Jesus had some very pointed words for them. Because they did not accept His teaching and message, it showed that they were NOT the children of Abraham or of God, because they rejected the one whom God had sent, and the one whom Abraham looked forward to in faith. Look closely today at the line of questioning they raise to Jesus, and how He ultimately proclaims to them that He is greater than Abraham, greater even than death. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

As anyone who knows me well can attest, I love asking, answering, and discussing lots of questions on all kinds of topics. I guess I was born with an inquisitive nature. In the course of teaching, either in school or in Bible study, I’ve often repeated the phrase: “There’s no such thing as a stupid question.” The point is always to encourage people not to hold back their burning questions, but to seek out answers. But as we can learn in today’s reading, not all questions have a valid starting point or deserve an answer—or sometimes they’re not even looking for answers. Questions like these in our reading today can actually be thinly veiled accusations. Questions can also be deflections from searching out the truth. People that disbelieve the existence of God can often throw up lots of accusing or distracting questions to confuse a Christian. Not because they’re searching for real answers to the questions—actually they’ve no real interest in the answer because they’ve already made up their mind.

This was the case with the first question the Jews asked Jesus: “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” They already presumed the correctness of their judgment of Jesus—He was nothing but a Samaritan-lover and a demoniac. Yes, Jesus did love the Samaritans and sinners—loving them enough to speak to them and call them to repentance and life in Him. He scandalously talked with the Samaritans whom every Jew looked down on. Jesus even spoke to a Samaritan woman who’d lived a shameful life. No self-respecting Jewish man would talk to an adulterous Samaritan woman. And who was this Jesus to make such provocative statements about them? Asking them why they were out to kill Him. Saying that when they rejected Him they were also rejecting God, whom they claimed as their father. Saying their real father was the devil because they couldn’t bear the truth and thirsted after His death. This question was no question at all—they were charging Jesus with being demon-possessed—that His teachings were lies and falsehood.

Jesus was not evasive at all in His reply—saying that He had no demon, but rather sought always to honor His Father—yet they dishonored Him. When we itch and chafe under Jesus’ words, and deny them, then we dishonor Him also. The Truth isn’t always easy to swallow. When they questioned Jesus’ challenging and provocative statements, He didn’t explain them away, but often heightened the challenge. After their initial question, Jesus goes on to say that if anyone keeps His word, they’ll never see death. This provoked them even more. “Now we know that you have a demon! Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, ‘If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death.’ Are you greater than our father Abraham who died? And the prophets who died? Who do you make yourself out to be?” They were confronted by the inescapably bold statements of Jesus. The same words that must confront us today. Their next round of questions amounted to this: “Are you saying that you are greater and more holy than Abraham and all the Old Testament prophets? Are you greater than death itself? Not even they escaped death. Who do you think you are, God or something?”

To modern ears, the words of Jesus sound just as fantastic. Who can promise eternal life? Who can say they are greater than death? Death is inescapable! Everyone dies, from the most good and righteous person to the most wicked sinner. Death seems to be the great, irreversible enemy of mankind. This is the line where many depart from Jesus. Many are willing to accept a good deal of His teachings. To believe that it’s better to love your enemies and to forgive them, than to seek revenge. That we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us. That we should avoid hypocrisy and legalism. All these things are well and good. But the line where many depart from Jesus is that He claims to be very God Himself, and have power of death. It’s almost as if some have given death itself a god-like status. If someone believes that death is really and truly the end, and there’s nothing beyond…then this is just what they’ve done. They’ve said that nothing is greater than death.

Ancients and moderns ask the same skeptical question of Jesus—“are you greater than death?”—assuming they already know the answer. But their answer is NO, even though it’s obvious to them that Jesus’ answer is “YES,” I am greater than death. That’s exactly what Jesus is saying—that He is God and that He does have power over death. Of course He’s greater than Abraham and the prophets, because He’s God in the flesh. Jesus isn’t seeking to glorify Himself though. He knows that self-seeking glory is worthless. But God the Father glorifies Jesus. God the Father would glorify Him and show Him to be truly His Son when He died on the cross for sin, and rose from the dead. Not really the proverbial nail in the coffin, a final point of proof—but rather a nail in the hand on the cross. A final point of proof that God’s love for His people was so strong that He would even endure their skeptical questions, mockery, ridicule and abuse…His love was so strong to take their guilt on Himself, and die for it. Jesus death would bring glory to His Father. His Father would glorify Him and call Him Truth by raising Him from the dead.

So yes, Jesus is greater than death, and He proved it to all the skeptics. However unbelievable or seemingly fantastic His claims were—that He was God, that He was greater than death—He couldn’t deny them. He couldn’t pretend that He didn’t know God. He couldn’t lie about where He came from, in order to make Himself more believable. He was eternal from before all time, and even their ancestor Abraham looked to the day of His coming with joy. There can be no excuses or apologies for the incredible Easter news that Jesus hold’s all power over death. However incomprehensible it seems to us—however startling to our ears—Jesus is unmistakably more powerful than death. He can truly promise you that if you keep His Word, you will never see death. As Jesus says in John 5:24, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” Hearing and believing Jesus and God the Father who sent Him is the way to eternal life.

Only after Jesus proved it by His rising from the dead, did people really start to believe and understand it was true. Jesus really was God and had ultimate power over death. He wasn’t a demon-possessed person spouting off nonsense—He didn’t just speak empty words. He showed that He was the real deal. He rose in full life. Many saw Him and believed, many disbelieved the reports as fantastic. They remained unconvinced that there is a power greater than death.

The final rub for the Jews was when Jesus said that He knew Abraham. They scoffed at the idea that a man less than 50 years old knew Abraham, who’d died some 1,800 years earlier. Again, who did He think He was? God? Precisely. And to drive the point home one more time—to make it unmistakable what He was claiming for Himself, He spoke these words: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” We don’t quite catch how inflammatory those words were, or why they wanted to stone Him until we realize that the words “I AM” were the personal name of God. God had given His Divine Name to Moses some 1,500 years earlier on Mount Sinai. God called Himself “Yahweh” or “I AM, who I AM.” Calling Himself “I AM” was nothing short of taking God’s personal name as His own. This finally was what drove them to crucify Jesus a short while later.

They never stopped to consider whether His Word might be true. But we have all the benefit of hindsight. We know and believe in His resurrection from the dead. They doubted that Jesus was greater than Abraham and the prophets. They scoffed that Jesus thought He was greater than death. But now we know that this man who rose from the dead some 2,000 years ago, this Jesus Christ, is the Great I AM—the God of Abraham, the God of the living, not of the dead. And this Great I AM…He is most surely greater than death. By trusting in Him alone do we have deliverance from mankind’s greatest enemy, and all the fears that death inspires. Dear Jesus, we put our trust in you—the Great I AM and the conqueror of death; in your name, 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:
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1. Note on the Athanasian Creed: The end of the creed makes reference to all people rising and giving an account concerning their deeds, and that those who’ve done good will enter into eternal life, and those who have done evil into eternal fire. Examine these Scripture passages that refer to the judgment: Matt. 12:35-37; 25:31-46; John 5:21-29, esp. vs. 24, 29 & John 6:28-29; cf. Rom. 8:1. While works are examined in the final judgment, those who have faith are spared judgment and condemnation on account of Jesus’ righteous life.

2. Read the context before today’s Gospel. John 8:12-47. Why by the end of this dialogue, were the Jews so infuriated with Jesus that they wanted to kill Him? What claims did He make for Himself? What did He claim about them, and why?

3. Why would they have called Jesus a Samaritan, when it was well known that He was a Jew from Nazareth? John 4:1-45. Why is it such great news for us that Jesus loved Samaritans and sinners? How does Jesus call us to live our lives after He has called us?

4. How did the questions they asked show lack of faith, and made-up-minds rather than genuine inquiry and desire to learn?

5. What difficult words of Jesus require an extra measure of faith for you to believe? What does the fact that Jesus is greater than death mean for you? How do you see skepticism about this belief today?

6. What did Jesus mean by calling Himself, “I AM”? Exodus 3:13-15. What did this reveal about who He was and His power?