Monday, March 25, 2013

Sermon on Luke 23, for Palm Sunday, "Calm our deep distress"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. It’s a short trip from the gates of Jerusalem and the palm-strewn roads, to the agony of the cross. As we arrive at Holy Week, we’re pulled into a roiling mix of emotions and clashing events. No wonder the cross makes us so uncomfortable. Side by side there’s cruel laughter, mockery, and scorn, and heart-wrenching love and sorrow. Everything gets turned inside out, including us. Ruthless men are turned from laughing to mute astonishment and fear. Bold and loyal disciples are turned into cowards in hiding. Meek and trusting women cast away fear and stand in grieving shock and hopeless adoration before the cross. Proud and callous rulers hesitate at innocence, but commit themselves to wicked injustice at the bloodthirsty demands of a crowd. The mob which gathers in furious glee—by the end dispels in mirthless lamentation.
Things had not gone down as planned. Had Jesus “played the part” and answered back with hatred and contempt—they would’ve had their grim satisfaction. Had He scorned them in return, it would’ve fueled their miserable rage. But instead He went humbly, silently, without protest. Pity and compassion and love showed down from His face instead. THAT, they were not prepared for. Know that when we draw near to the cross of Jesus, it will turn us inside out too. But stand there, with Jesus, and hear His voice—the few meager words He can manage, and let Him transform you.
The sins and hypocrisy of the mob and the mockers, are plain enough for us to see. But do we allow the crucifixion of Jesus to likewise expose who we are, with our sins? Do we hide from that “moment of truth”? At the cross our excuses and defenses for sin become paper thin and transparent. The old hymn asks, “do we pass that cross unheeding, breathing no repentant vow? Though we see you wounded, bleeding, see your thorn-encircled brow? Yet your sinless death has brought us life eternal peace and rest; only what your grace has taught us calms the sinner’s deep distress.” The hymn tells us not to ignore or avoid the cross—but to face the cross and be moved to repentance. To confess to God what we’ve done wrong. Jesus’ sinless death brings us eternal peace and rest, and only His grace calms our deep distress. However painful to watch, to bear, to be pulled into the gravity of Jesus’ cross, it is here that Jesus calms our deep distress. The cross is the gravitational center of the Biblical worldview. We would run from the cure, but here He is.
We don’t want to see that it was our sin that He suffered for. Do we measure the sins of others with a longer measuring stick then we measure our own, or do we take the painfully true view of the Bible, that “Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost”? It’s a trustworthy saying, worthy of full acceptance. The realization that somebody else’s sins don’t matter in my relation to God. I’m not being compared to how sinful they are. Their sins matter in their relation to God. And I am of no use to help them unless I first deal with my own sins, rightly and humbly. It’s my sins, my pride, my defenses that Jesus topples down. The thief on the cross anticipated Paul’s words: “Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” with his own rebuke and confession: “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” He assumed the responsibility of his own guilt, reminding his fellow that their penalty was justly deserved. Even the onlookers are called to account, when in the fear of God he looked to his own guilt, and Jesus’ innocence.
From Matthew and Mark we learn that earlier, this thief also mocked. But something changed him. Jesus changed him, turning his laughter and cruelty into dismay over his own sin, and the injustice of what was unfolding before his eyes. The Holy Spirit changed him, because of what he saw happening in Jesus’ sufferings.
We all need to ask ourselves how we would endure such vehement false accusations, mockery, and contempt. None of us have ever experienced such scorn and aggressive hatred as Jesus did in those awful hours. We might lash back in anger, with choice words of our own (if not with violence also)—or we might wither under the cruel words, and wish we could crawl into a hole and die. But Jesus did neither. Instead, He felt great sorrow—not for Himself(!)—but for those cruel and abusive mockers! And He forgave them! “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Jesus’ answers to hell’s fury was forgiveness to His persecutors. And this is nothing else than divine love.
And I believe these very words of Jesus sunk into the thief’s heart and produced his repentance. It was a straight shot to a dying, sin-darkened heart, that brought death to his sin (I deserve this), but spiritual life to a man whose eyes were now open. It was the work of God to kill and make alive, to wound and to heal this very sinner. But it was not the wound of an enemy, but of an unexpected friend as the proverb says: “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of the enemy” (Prov. 27:6). The shame he now felt over his sin was a faithful wound from Jesus, a friend. But why would He love me, when I have been so mercilessly wounding Him? Why would He forgive us and feel sorry for us, when He bears intolerable abuse and mockery? Because of who He is. What is this strange wound I feel, from one who would be my friend? From One whose hands are helpless?
A wound like the incision of a surgeon, aimed to bring healing. The conviction of my guilt to bring me forgiveness. The repentant thief now finally saw the matter aright. And may we see it with him. He saw with new clarity, what countless others refuse to see. That Jesus, the innocent Son of God, was dying and forgiving the world’s sins—and not just the world’s sins—my own sins, as the chief of sinners. That I too could be forgiven—need to be forgiven. He saw this grave injustice, but that God was working through it for our salvation.
But the dismay over his sins and this unjust scene did not envelope him in despair. Rather, the repentant thief’s heart pounded with new spiritual life as he now spoke faith-filled dying words: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The Holy Spirit’s work in this man’s life was just begun—even as he was dying. Because this new birth now meant eternal life for him! He received the very forgiveness Jesus had spoken: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And in that forgiveness and the Spirit’s gift of faith, he was finally a new man. He saw Jesus for who He was—truly the King of the Jews—truly the King of God’s heavenly kingdom, and the Door to everlasting life. He saw in the bloodied and dying person of Jesus, the unmistakable power of God alone, to forgive. He saw Divine Love on full display, with Jesus harboring no ill will or hatred toward the cruelest enemies, but only pure, redeeming love. He heard Jesus welcoming him into His kingdom: “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that the profound, dying conversation between Jesus and this repentant thief; how he rebuked the crowd and confessed Jesus’ innocence and Lordship, caused all the hideous mockery to die down and disappear. The words of this repentant thief mark a dramatic shift in the account, from the glee of circling bands of mockers, to dumbfounded silence and awe. From here forward, no one mocks. Darkness falls over the land, the light of the sun fails, telling of the greater spiritual darkness at hand. A fearful thing happens in the Temple--as the curtain to the Most Holy Place is torn in two. Jesus speaks His last words: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And death. The Greatest Injustice was done. The only perfectly innocent man, and Son of God, was dead.
Had any of the mockers found satisfaction in His death? Faith crops up in another unlikely suspect, a Roman centurion, who stood watch over Jesus’ death, also proclaims Jesus’ innocence, and praises God! And the mourning and grieving intensifies, and crowds who had come to see a grand spectacle, left shocked and ashamed at this Greatest Injustice. The question is, will that shame—caused by the faithful wounds of Jesus, the friend—will it stir repentance, and then faith in our hearts too? As it did for the thief and the centurion? God demonstrates that He alone is God as He kills and makes alive; wounds and heals. No one else holds this awesome power over life and death, over injury and healing. No one else can raise the dead as God did for Jesus Christ! And no one else can create faith in hearts that seemed so calloused and deadened in sin to God, as God did for the thief and centurion.
We can hardly remain unmoved by Jesus on the cross. But our distress, our sinner’s deep distress at the cross, is nothing in comparison to what Jesus endured. But as Hebrews reminds us: “[Look] to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. 4 In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Heb. 12:2-4). Speaking of strange contrasts and emotions at the cross, who would expect that amidst such suffering and sorrow, Jesus would at the same time be enveloped with Divine peace and even joy—the joy that carried Him through the shame of the cross so He could accomplish our redemption. So come, watch with Him one bitter hour, confess your sins before you, and kneel in reverent awe before His love and His sacrifice. And hear those words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And know the calm that your sins are forgiven, and that Jesus will remember you and not your sins, when He comes into His kingdom. In the holiest name of Jesus, Amen.

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

  1. Palm Sunday (Sunday of the Passion) begins Holy Week, and a strange tension or mix of attitudes and emotions. How did Jesus respond to these various forces that pushed or pulled on Him? How does His suffering on the cross have a unique gravity or magnetism that moves us to respond?

  1. Read verse 2 of “Jesus, Refuge of the Weary” (LSB 423). When have you passed by the cross of Jesus, without repentance? What sin still clings to you that you are reluctant to give up in confession? How does Jesus silently plead with us to lay it down?

  1. Why is it a harmful reaction to simply condemn the mob, but not see our sin at the cross? 1 Timothy 1:15-16; Matthew 7:1-5. What parallel is there from the thief on the cross’ confession, to Paul’s words in 1 Tim. 1:15? How does the cross of Jesus expose our sin?

  1. What about Jesus’ words and actions changed the thief? How did Jesus’ words cut right to his heart? Prov. 27:6. Why was Jesus’ friendship and love so unexpected? What would have fed the mockers’ fury instead?

  1. How does God “kill and make alive”; “wound and heal”? Deuteronomy 32:39; Galatians 5:24-25.

  1. How does Hebrews 12:2-4 remind us that Jesus has endured everything for us? What moved Him to do so?

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Sermon on Psalm 118, for Lent 6 Midweek, "Hosanna--Save Us!"

Sermon Outline:
·         Psalm 118 finds its prophetic connection to Jesus in the Gospel reading (Matt. 21). Triumphal entry: both Ps. 118 & 8 are quoted. Jesus coming into Jerusalem on the donkey, fulfilling Zechariah’s prophecy (Zech. 9:9). The people shout triumphantly the words of this Psalm to praise and acclaim Jesus as the promised Messiah. “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” Their confidence in His identity reached a fevered pitch. The city was exuberant with excitement, and the chief priests and scribes were trying their worst to quell the fervor. But when the celebration continued into the Temple courts, and the priests protested to Jesus, He replied with the words of Psalm 8, that “Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise.” God Himself had prepared this worship for Jesus from the mouths of children.
·         Perhaps as much as 1,000 years before those events of Jesus’ triumphal entry, and the Holy Week of His passion, His suffering, Psalm 118 and the other Psalms laid the events out in prophetic detail and through poetry. Like the other Psalms, this also reflects on His suffering and distress, His being surrounded by enemies and those who hate Him. The Psalmist describes being pushed hard, so that he was falling, but the Lord helped him. But in the midst of this great distress and uncertainty, the Psalm takes a decidedly hopeful tone, as the psalmist expresses their confidence that “the Lord has answered me and set me free. The Lord is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?” He is already certain of his answered prayer. And so was Jesus also confident of the Lord’s help in His distress.
·         V. 17-18 “I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord. The Lord has disciplined me severely, but he has not given me over to death.” Reflect on these words as they apply to Jesus: easy to see all, except perhaps the last phrase. First part, “I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord” is a confident witness of faith in the resurrection from the dead. It also happened to be Luther’s personal motto, and this Psalm was his favorite in all of Scripture, and said of all Scripture, he fell in love with this Psalm particularly. Beyond even the grave, we as Christians can confess that we will live to recount the deeds of the Lord. To recite the great and mighty deeds of salvation that He has accomplished for us. That the words, “The Lord has disciplined me severely” are descriptive of Jesus certainly causes no difficultly, when reflecting on the cross—but what about that last phrase “he has not given me over to death”? How could Jesus, or for that matter David or any other Christian have prayed that? Jesus, after all, died and went to the grave. David went to the grave. We are all headed there unless Jesus returns first. So what does this mean?
·         Borrow insight from Psalm 16:10, directly prophetic of Jesus according to the apostle Peter: “For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.” Jesus was not abandoned to the dark grave, and His body did not see corruption. In other words, He was not given over to death. He was not left in death’s cold hands, not a prisoner of war to the power of death, or held in subjection to it. Rather, as in the words of Hebrews, Jesus was for a little while made lower than the angels, so that by “the grace of God He might taste death for everyone” (Heb. 2:9). Far from being “given over” to death, Jesus experienced it, endured it, suffered it, but rose victorious over it! He entered into death’s tomb to burst it from the inside out! So the only way that both Jesus and we believers can pray that “The Lord has disciplined me severely, but he has not given me over to death” is because we know that even through physical death we stand in the victory of Jesus life. Death may take us briefly, but it has no hold on us.
·         Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, we can enter the gates of righteousness; enter and give thanks to the Lord. Jesus, the door or the gate to everlasting life. We can stand in God’s heavenly courts to recount His deeds in thankfulness. So when we sing and pray this Psalm, when we echo the cries of the crowds: “Hosanna (save us) O Lord! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”—we have our eyes on Jesus who saves us far more completely then the crowds could ever have imagined. Jesus saves us from sin and eternal death, a far deeper rescue than the crowds were hoping for, from the man they would have crowned king, but so quickly fell out of favor by the end of that same week. So let us all turn our eyes with focused attention to Jesus, who comes in the name of the Lord, and may our hearts and voices ever be filled with that great cry, “Hosanna! Save us Lord!” For the Lord is our strength and our song, and however dark our road, He has become our salvation!

Monday, March 18, 2013

Sermon on Luke 20:9-20, for the 5th Sunday in Lent, "Why did God become vulnerable?"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. This vineyard parable is complex in many ways, but today we’ll focus on why God became vulnerable?
The vineyard owner in the story takes a gamble in sending his son. Not a gamble we’d be willing to take. We’d expect him to opt instead for violence or retribution, seeking justice. Kenneth Bailey tells the remarkable story of King Hussein bin Talal of Jordan: learned from security police that 75 Jordanian army officers were plotting against him that night. Military overthrow. The police wanted to storm the building and arrest the conspirators. Instead, the king had a helicopter pilot fly him to the building, gave instructions that he should fly away immediately without the king if he heard gunshots. Entered the building unarmed, calmly told them he learned of the conspiracy, warned of the devastation to the country, the civil war, the thousands of innocent deaths at stake, offered them to kill him instead so only one man would die. “After a moment of stunned silence, the rebels as one, rushed forward to kiss the king’s hand and feet and pledge loyalty to him for life.” Gamble, calculated risk. Illustrated total vulnerability, that as the most powerful man in the nation, instead of resorting to violence to take down the offenders and plunge the country into civil war, he put himself into their hands.
Very different outcome from the parable, and of course Jesus’ own life—but it shows the intended effect of the action. Boldly threw himself in the way of danger, hoping to stoke some dying sense of honor within them. Shame at their actions, turn from their plotting to loyalty. In a way that gamble risked the king’s life, but even if they had killed him, it might truly have spared great bloodshed. It wasn’t a win-win situation, but the alternatives would have been far worse.
When we understand this parable is about God, we realize it was no gamble, and that He knew the outcome. God suffered no uncertainty about what the outcome would be, as Jesus was predicting the very end of the story by telling this parable where He dies at the hands of the tenants. Jesus knew the sum and total of the risk. He knew the awful suffering, shame, and humiliation He would have to endure. That He nevertheless went forward nobly, vulnerably, peaceably to His own death, is far more remarkable than the story of King Hussein, and far more powerful. God has the power to destroy us, but became vulnerable in Christ and came in mercy.
Jesus didn’t just rescue innocent citizens from the bloodshed of civil war—He rescued guilty sinners from their justly deserved death and eternal punishment. Also, Jesus could not let the power of the religious authorities, the scribes and the chief priests who this parable was about—to stand. It would be to allow sin and wickedness to stand. The servants in the story who were abused and mistreated and sent away before the son were the prophets of the OT, sent by God to warn the people to turn from sin. And far more than 3, there were dozens that were sent over hundreds of years. Their prophetic refrain was to repent of sin, turn back to God, and to watch for the coming of the Messiah, God’s chosen deliverer. Many were abused, mistreated, and sent away by the people of Israel.
From generation to generation, no different from today, people were deaf to God’s call, and their hearts were hardened. The sins of one generation may not have been the same sins as the next, but sin knows no bounds. We’re ever inventing new ways to sin, but it’s all really as old as the garden. Stray from God’s design, His command; sow doubt of His Word, teach falsely, the opportunities for sin multiply and abound, and we know no boundaries. No fruits of obedience from the vineyard.
Sin has no shame, and this story puts human depravity awfully on display—that they would even kill the vineyard owner’s son. When our conscience is hounded by sin and guilt and yet we stubbornly refuse to confess it and deal with it, we may go to remarkable lengths to cover, justify, or excuse our sin. In our sinful depravity, we’re not even above using hatred and violence to get our own way and defend our pride. The worst thing for us (we think, anyhow), is for God’s Word to expose our sin. We spring to defend our sins. But God’s remedy for sin is repentance and forgiveness.
This is exactly the intent of the Father in sending His Son, and opting for such vulnerability in the face of defiance and sin. He sent His beloved Son--that perhaps we would respect Him. The word “respect” here, can actually be more accurately translated, “feel shame before.” That they would feel shame before the Son. It was the same type of vulnerable appeal that King Hussein made to the conspirators—an appeal to their shame over the wickedness and evil planning they were engaged in, and an appeal to their sense of honor—that they would be prompted by his total humility and transparency to do the honorable thing and purge themselves of evil thoughts and motives, and recommit themselves to him.
God sent Jesus His Son, who, by the brightness of His coming, exposed the works of sin and darkness, but who came in vulnerable human flesh, to appeal to sinful humanity. An appeal to all of us, to God’s own people, to our sense of shame—to turn away from our sinful motives, thoughts, words and deeds. That the goodness of God’s Son would compel us to turn away from sin, and toward righteousness. And an appeal to our sense of honor, that prompted by Jesus’ total humility and transparency, we would do the honorable thing and commit our lives to Him, and return to Him some of the fruits of His vineyard.
But what happened instead, was that rather than turning people to repentance and humility before God, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day were fostering pride and legalism—they were assuming favored status with God because of their supposed pious works. We should be well-warned not to let false spiritual pride and self-righteousness take hold in our lives, but to remember our place as humble tenants, servants in the Lord’s vineyard. To remember our calling is to bear good fruit from the vineyard.
At the climax of the story, the son comes to the vineyard, and the tenants face their own turning point: submit to the son, repent of their actions, and supply the master with some of the fruit of the vineyard, or—as we know they chose, kill the son. They reasoned that if they killed the son, the inheritance (of the vineyard) would be theirs. This seems absurd to us; how they could possibly think that murdering the vineyard owner’s son could gain them the vineyard. But it’s explained simply enough, if we know that in Jewish culture and law, unclaimed land or property could be claimed by something equivalent to “squatter’s rights”, if they occupied the land for 3 full years. So if the owner was dead, and no one was there to claim it, they might stake their own claim.
But more importantly, when the lone and vulnerable son comes, their shame and honor is not stirred, but they mistake his vulnerability for weakness, and kill him. And of course this is just how Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion went. Mistaking God’s vulnerable appeal through Jesus Christ for weakness, they assaulted, wounded, and unjustly murdered the Son of God. But when Jesus ended the parable by telling those leaders, who would have laid hold of Him that very hour—that those wicked tenants would be destroyed and the vineyard would be given to others, they cried out in protest, “Surely not!” In our sinfulness and in the shame of disbelief, we recoil at the judgment, if we reject God’s Son—His olive branch of amnesty.
But Jesus’ vulnerability, His suffering and death, is no weakness—Jesus warns that rejecting Him is like dashing oneself against a rock. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone...everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.” Jesus’ saying is like an old proverb of the rabbis: “If a stone falls on a pot, woe to the pot! If the pot falls on the stone, woe to the pot! Either way, woe to the pot!” (Just, Concordia commentary Luke 9:51-24:53, p. 765). As the book of Hebrews describes Jesus—He has the power of an “indestructible life.” Everyone who stumbles against Him, or on whom He falls, will be broken or crushed. Woe to the pot! We’re the fragile and weak ones. But we all need to be broken through repentance, so that “we can be raised again as new beings, living stones in Christ, the temple of God” (ibid).
Jesus’ crucifixion; His rejection as the “stone”, in a marvelous paradox, becomes the very way in which He becomes the cornerstone, and the foundation of His glory (ibid, 764). While Jesus’ vulnerable appeal led to His own death—the greater good was that He was laying Himself as the foundation stone of God’s living temple on which we are built. When in baptism we’re crucified with Christ, our sinful nature is shattered on the stone, but we’re reborn, rebuilt on Jesus Christ as the chief cornerstone.
God’s inheritance that cannot be stolen, wrested away, or held by squatters’ rights in sin, God gives only by His immeasurable grace, after the death of His Son. God gave that inheritance, His vineyard, to those who believe in Him and bear His fruits. After the death of His Son, who gloriously rose and proved God’s honor and glory and self-sacrifice, and who ascended on high and gave gifts to men (Eph. 4:8). After we’ve been shattered and broken with our sin, Jesus marvelously makes us into something new—renewing us in the grace He poured out on us in our baptism, and grafting us into Himself as Vine, to bear good fruit. He gives out His inheritance freely to all who receive Him as Son, and shares with us the good gifts of His Father. Jesus, as the cornerstone, restores the vineyard, the kingdom of God, the church—to its rightful goodness and use. He makes it to bear fruit to the glory of God, and graciously entrusts us as stewards to work in His kingdom. Through His costly and vulnerable self-sacrifice and love, He has broken our sin from us, and secured for us His eternal kingdom. Here is the King we can truly pledge our loyalty to for life! All praise and honor to His name!
Now may 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 are the most astonishing things that happen in this parable? Who is the parable describing?
  2. What is the background of the vineyard imagery so common to Jesus’ parables? Isaiah 5:1-7; 27:2-6; Deut. 6:10-19; John 15. In what way was the vineyard prepared and ready for the people, without their effort? What was expected in return? How were God’s servants, the prophets, treated by the Israelites (tenants)? Jer. 26:20-21; 2 Chron 24:20-22; Mt. 23:34-37; Lk 13:34.
  3. What is so unbelievable about the master of the vineyard’s final plan to collect the fruits of his vineyard? How does this parallel the incredible love and vulnerability of God in sending His Son? In what way was it an appeal to both our sense of shame and honor?
  4. The tenants had the astonishing thought that they could take squatter’s rights of the vineyard if they killed the heir, the son. How does this parallel the thoughts of the Jewish leaders who recognized they were the subject of the parable? Matt. 21:45-46; John 11:45-53
  5. Though Jesus was rejected and killed, how did God honor Him and crown Him with glory? Matt. 21:42; Psalm 118:22-23. What is the consequence of rejecting God’s offered mercy in Christ? Mt. 21:43-44. Isaiah 8:14-15; Dan. 2:34-35. Why is the cross a stumbling block to people? 1 Cor. 1:18-25
  6. How did Jesus’ vulnerable self-sacrifice “pay off” in terms of what it accomplished? What was the result for Him? For us? For those who remain turned against Him?

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Sermon on Psalm 69, for Lent 5 Midweek, "Zealous Love"

Sermon Outline:
·         Prayed first by David, but amplified and fulfilled in Jesus. Quoted multiple times in NT, in reference to Christ: the hatred of Jesus without cause, His zeal in cleansing the Temple, the sour wine to drink in crucifixion, His betrayal by Judas, and Judas’ desolation afterward; Paul speaking about the hardening of Israel when they do not receive Christ.
·         Like Psalm 22, a portrait of the crucifixion—Jesus drowning in the waters, losing His foothold on life as He’s surrounded and attacked by those who hate Him and lie about Him. Describes His weariness and thirst, His longing for God’s help while facing apparent silence from God, the alienation and rejection from His own brothers. He laments the mockery and dishonor He’s faced, and His distress at the hiddenness of God’s face. He appeals for God’s vengeance against malicious enemies, that they would suffer God’s wrath and punishment, and not be counted among the righteous. He recounts His affliction and His pain, and appeals for God to rescue Him. The final verses of the Psalm take on a hopeful note as He praises God and remembers God’s faithfulness to the prayer of the needy and His ultimate deliverance of Zion, and the people of God.
·         Also may strike us as troubling: v. 4b-5 “What I did not steal, must I now restore? O God, you know my folly; the wrongs I have done are not hidden from you.” How can this Psalm be a prayer of Jesus if He’s confessing sins and wrongs? Or what about the prayer for vengeance against His enemies? Did not Jesus pray from the cross to forgive His enemies?
·         Bonhoeffer replies: David confesses his own guilt here, but Jesus confesses the guilt of all the world, for which He suffered the wrath of the Father. “The true man Jesus Christ prays in this Psalm and includes us in his prayer”. Really this passage gives us a window into what it meant for Jesus to suffer for our sin. As we heard last Sunday from 2 Cor. 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. Jesus so fully became one with us, that He bore all the folly of our sins and was made to restore what He did not steal. He made restitution for all our wrongs.
·         But what about the prayers for vengeance here and in many other psalms (the so-called “imprecatory psalms)? Bonhoeffer is again helpful here: never personal conflict that is at focus, only as they are enemies of God and God’s cause; revenge is never taken in one’s own hands, but the vengeance and it’s outcome is always left to God in His justice to deal out (and only God rightfully holds and distributes vengeance). Furthermore, that the “prayer for the vengeance of God is the prayer for the execution of his righteousness in the judgment of sin…I myself, with my sin, belong under this judgment.” But, “God’s vengeance did not strike the sinners, but the one sinless man who stood in the sinners’ place, namely God’s own Son. Jesus Christ bore the wrath of God, for the execution of which the psalm prays. He stilled God’s wrath toward sin and prayed in the hour of the execution of the divine judgment: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do!” No other than he, who himself bore the wrath of God, could pray in this way. That was the end of all phony thoughts about the love of God which do not take sin seriously. God hates and redirects his enemies to the only righteous one, and this one asks forgiveness for them. Only in the cross of Jesus Christ is the love of God to be found.” (Bonhoeffer, Psalms the Prayer Book of the Bible, 56-58).
·         So, in a sublime and holy paradox, Jesus prayed for the very fulfillment of God’s justice and judgment against sin and God’s enemies, and simultaneously stood under that judgment in the sinners’ place and for the sinner, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. So outside of Christ there stands only the severest judgment against sin, a snare, a trap, the outpouring of God’s anger against sin, punishment upon punishment with no acquittal—but inside Christ there is forgiveness and righteousness. There is a sure and certain refuge for His people. And this is how Bonhoeffer can say that “God hates and redirects his enemies to the only righteous one, and this one asks forgiveness for them. Only in the cross of Jesus Christ is the love of God to be found.” We’re reminded that we too were once enemies of God, and are only brought near by His reconciling love.
·         It’s a reconciling love, and it’s a zealous love—and I think that’s what we have so much trouble understanding. “Zeal for your house will consume me.” Luther: Zeal is the hatred or displeasure of “evil or vice in what we love.” So you can only be zealous if you first love something—and zeal and love are directed to the same object. “Love is that which loves and promotes the good in the object, while zeal is that which hates and removes the evil in it. Therefore Christ is called a zealous God in the prophets (Ex. 20:5; 34:14), because He especially loves righteousness and hates wickedness in His believers…Thus God is zealous for His saints while He imposes the world’s ills upon them, so that the evils of the spirit may not harm them. For that reason the world loves and hates destructively and in a way opposite to that in which God loves and hates.” (Luther's works, vol. 10 : First Lectures on the Psalms I: Psalms 1-75 (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.) This is what is so hard to understand, but is expressed for us in this Psalm, and lived out in the actions of Jesus in cleansing the Temple, in confronting hypocrisy, and in His suffering and death in the place of sinners: it is God’s zealous love—God who alone can perfectly hate sin and every evil, but love us with a perfect love. And it’s precisely in Jesus’ death on the cross that He performs this radical and life-saving surgery, where He cuts our sins free from us and dies for them, and grafts us into Christ’s life of righteousness. Thus in every way, our fate is blessedly tied to Christ. His death is our death, His life is our life, the hatred of the world for Him is also hatred of the world for us—but the love of the Father for Him is also the love of the Father for us. Truly our life is hidden with Christ in God, and in Him we have the righteousness of God. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Sermon on Luke 15:1-3, 11-32, for the 4th Sunday in Lent, "World's Best Dad!"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The parable Jesus tells in today’s reading is a profound picture of God the Father’s love for us. The story takes place in a time and culture where the community was shaped by honor and shame. Everyone in that community would have seen that the runaway son did a shocking dishonor to his father. It wasn’t like he’d just asked dad for a loan, and then spent it wastefully. Rather, it was as though he’d said to his father, “I wish you were dead! and all I care about is your money, so I can go have a good time.” Even though it was unthinkable, the Father granted this outrageous request. The son’s request was shameful to the family, and he would’ve been despised by the community. Probably few of us have grown up in a culture where honor and shame played such a powerful role in shaping expectations and behavior. The community wouldn’t have expected to hear back anything good about this son. Neither did the older brother. The Father alone watched for the runaway son to come home.
When the son’s resources ran out, no one cared to give him anything. He was so desperate that he craved pigs’ food—the ultimate rock bottom for a Jewish boy. Life didn’t seem so glamorous living in the pig pen. Back when he demanded his share of the inheritance, he certainly never imagined he’d end up like this. He’d severed all ties with home and family. He was, in the Father’s own words, “dead and lost.” He himself had treated his Father as dead to him. We might expect that there was nothing for him to go back to. He was a long way from home in more ways than one. But he came to his senses and realized that not even his Father’s lowliest servants were as bad off as he. In fact they all were well cared for, and had more than enough. So he determined to make a sincere and humble apology to his Father, and beg to be treated like a hired servant. At least that way he could have his basic necessities. He was a long way from home, but he remembered the goodness of his Father—but what he didn’t realize was his father’s love.
I wonder how we think about God our Father. If we’ve scorned Him or run away, or chosen to live only for ourselves and not for Him. If we’ve gone far from home, from God, I mean—do we forget not only His love, but also His goodness? Isn’t it common today to question whether God is even good, let alone loving? I doubt we often grasp the seriousness of how far sin takes us from God, and how great an obstacle our pride is to overcome and turn back to God. Are we ready to take those words on our lips, and say to Him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son (or daughter)”? Or is our plan to hold on to our sin and live outside His family?
Often our own sin is hidden from us beneath “what I want.” We don’t want to see how doing things my own way got me into trouble. But to confess our sins, to say that “I’ve sinned against heaven and before you”—admits that God makes the laws, not me. He sets what’s right and wrong, and not me. What’s best for me is not always what I want, but God’s will is best. And furthermore, I, I have sinned and done what is evil in His sight. This is to swallow our sinful pride, and to remember God’s goodness, and to look to Him for rescue. When we sin, it’s we who’ve forsaken our relationship to God—not Him changing His love toward us. Rather, we’ve walked out on His love and left our part in the family behind. We’ve devalued or forgotten His love for us, or worse, we’ve treated Him as dead to us.
But the lost son was ready to give up his sin, and his pride had been humbled. But he definitely wasn’t prepared for what came next. He was prepared to beg his way into the household as a hired servant. To be treated not as son, but as a worker or employee. He may have been prepared for a “walk of shame” and maybe the stern lecture or the disapproving stare of the household. That would have all been expected or deserved—and the son really knew it. But at least he’d have a warm place to sleep and be well fed. It was too much to expect, that he could return as part of the family again.
But here comes the next surprising turn! At the first glimpse of his son coming home, the Father is overcome with compassion. The Father didn’t leave the son hanging in the painful uncertainty. He ran to him, while still a long way off. A wealthy, respectable landowner would never run. Running was for children. But the Father threw off any sense of dignity and propriety, and ran to His son, threw His arms around him and kissed Him. Just so, God runs to us with a heart overflowing with love and compassion when we turn homeward to Him.
What follows is even more extravagant and unexpected. Not only does He make His love for the son crystal clear by His actions, and His loving embrace, but He further gives this son a rich and astonishing welcome home. He clothes the runaway’s sin and shame with His best robe. He adorns his finger with a ring, showing that he’s been restored to the family, and He puts sandals on his feet. In a few moments, the dirty, scraggly runaway was cleaned up, transformed, and re-clothed as a son. The Father, in His reconciling love, had instantly elevated him from beggar and outcast to beloved son, and the feasting and the celebration began, because this son was dead, but is alive again, was lost, but now is found. A more complete and unexpected reconciliation could hardly be imagined, and all at the Father’s initiative. Who could better deserve the title “World’s Best Dad”? What better picture for us parents of “untiring forgiveness” and love for children? Who could ask for a better Father than we have in God? Certainly there is no better “dad” to come home to. What could hold us back?
If we as parents have ever been called “world’s best dad” or “world’s best mom”—we’ve probably also known the painful honesty when we knew we weren’t the best parents to our child or children. Every parent who loves their child has had times when we’ve felt a failure, or fallen short of our own standards or expectations—let alone God’s standards or expectations. If our selfishness or impatience got the better of us, or whether we ignored our child to their distress or harm, or even when our best efforts seem to have gone awry, a parent can feel far short of “world’s best.” But as parents we were all children once, and we still are—parent or child, youth or adult, we’re God’s creation. God is truly the “World’s best Dad.” He’s endured the loss and heartbreak of countless younger sons or daughters who’ve run away, forgotten or forsaken His love. He’s sought after countless older sons and daughters who never left home, but have gotten lost in their own way, drifting away from their Father’s heart, to the point where they don’t love their younger siblings with the love of their Father.
Which brings us to the second part of the parable, aimed right at both us and the people who grumbled about Jesus “receiving sinners and eating with them.” People who may not have been runaways. People who, like the older brother would resent the Father receiving back such a disrespectful, disloyal, wasteful son. When the older brother reacts to the homecoming celebration, he doesn’t respond with the Father’s warm and reconciling love. Rather he reacts with anger and can we say, pouting? He complains first about how the Father had treated him, and second, about how the Father had treated the younger son. All of his words and behavior revolve around himself and his sense of injustice, as he recounts all the years he served the Father and never disobeyed, but was never rewarded for it. “I never got any special treatment!”
Then his tone turns plain ugly as he made it clear where he now stood in the family—disowning the brother with the words, “this son of yours.” Not “my brother,” but “this son of yours.” As if to say, “If this is the way the family is going to work, count me out!” He follows this up with accusations against his brother, maybe even going beyond what he had actually done. With these words, the older brother was quickly moving toward his own estrangement not only from his brother, but the Father as well. He was offended by the Father’s show of grace and forgiveness to the repentant younger son. The older brother saw himself as deserving of special treatment, and the younger brother as undeserving of forgiveness. But that’s just the point! None of us deserve forgiveness. We can’t earn it. It comes by God’s love and His own work to reconcile us to Him.
This is why so many people have pointed out that the parable is mistitled when it’s called the “Prodigal Son” or the “Lost Son.” First those titles neglect the fact that the older brother was lost in his own way, and second because they turn the attention to the son, and not to the Father, who is the real central character of the story.
So the case of the older brother speaks to us who may have never outwardly run away from God, but have nevertheless grown apart from our Father’s heart. The second son had become just as much a stranger to his Father’s love. He thought his place in the family, and in the Father’s love, was earned by his obedience. Both sons had a lesson to be learned about what it meant to be sons, and to be loved by their Father—and furthermore, how to love each other. Both had a lesson to learn about unconditional love—how the Father could love both of these self-absorbed sons, not because they deserved it, but because they were His sons. And that He would approach both of them, in the same tenderness and concern that would invite them both into the banquet, the celebration of a family reconciled, a community reconciled and at one again. See how the Father pleads with the older brother to be reconciled, to celebrate and be glad? The expectation of the Father is that His older son would be a true extension of His own reconciling love, that he would put aside any resentment, bitterness, and old hurts, and embrace his younger brother with joy; in harmony with the Father.
We can all identify with the brothers in the story, sometimes we’re more like the older brother, sometimes more like the younger. We have seen families torn apart, long periods of not speaking to one another, or an unwillingness to forgive. This parable is not just a lesson in forgiveness, although it is that—even more it is the picture of God’s reconciling love, and how God desires to draw us into that forgiveness and love through Jesus Christ His Son. In the words of our reading from 2 Corinthians 5, “God…through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making His appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.”
God has come to us in Jesus Christ, to reconcile us to Himself by taking on our sins at the cross. At great cost to Himself, He took our sin on Himself, and did not count our wrongs or offenses against us. He has done everything to restore our relationship with Him. We could not ask for a more loving and forgiving Father. And He now desires to draw us to have His heart and become His agents or ambassadors of reconciliation to one another and to the world. So that we too can bring forgiveness and healing to one another. So come home and come celebrate! God’s love, His forgiveness, and celebration are waiting for us, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. What was the great offense that the younger son brought on the Father and family by his request? Follow the astonishing actions of the Father throughout the parable. What is astonishing about His granting the request?
  2. How did the son’s glamorous dreams fall apart? Why is life empty apart from God our Father’s love? What is our spiritual condition apart from God? Luke 15:32; Ephesians 2:1-6. When have circumstances in your life pointed you back toward God? When have you ignored that call?
  3. Why did the son think it was a possibility to come home? What sort of reception did he expect? What sort of reception did he actually receive? What did he learn from this about the love of the Father? How does this invite us to return to the love of our God?
  4. How does God our Father shower extravagant and unexpected love on us? What are the gifts He gives to His children He has forgiven? Acts 2:38-41; Titus 3:5-8; John 3:16; Matthew 26:26-29.
  5. Why is God most deserving of the title “World’s Best Dad”? In what way was the older brother “lost” from the Father? How had he become distanced from the heart of his Father? When does this description fit us?
  6. How are both sons invited by the Father into an understanding of unconditional love? How would this kind of love change our families and relationships?
  7. How is 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 a description of God the Father and Jesus His Son’s joint work in reconciling us to God? What are we to do with that message of reconciliation entrusted to us as well? 

Monday, March 04, 2013

Sermon on Ezekiel 33:7-20, for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, "Light or Heavy?"

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Our text is from Ezekiel, where God lays on him the solemn responsibility of being accountable for the people. Of particular concern is that he warn the wicked of their sin so that they can turn and live, and to warn the righteous who presume they are saved, to not build false confidence in their righteousness. Likewise pastors have the solemn charge to preach God’s Word of Law, to bring the wicked to repentance and to unsettle the complacent, and to speak God’s Word of Gospel to the repentant to give them comfort.
God’s Word from Ezekiel strikes a severe blow at our pride, and the pride of any who would cling to their own righteousness to deliver them from their sin. It disables the “balancing scale model of salvation”—that if we do enough good deeds to outweigh the bad, then we’ll live by that righteousness. This is so common, as to nearly be universal in our human thought. But God warns the “righteous” that if “he trusts in his righteousness and does injustice, none of his righteous deeds shall be remembered, but in his injustice that he has done he shall die.” You mean none of my past righteous deeds will buoy up those sins and injustices? The people cry out in the reading, “our rebellions and our transgressions weigh upon us, and because of them we are rotting away.” Who is going to help us with all this dead weight we’re carrying?
Typically we fail to rightly estimate the seriousness of our sins—we tend to take a “light view” of sin—not considering the gravity with which God weighs them. We find excuses or justifications for our sins, but ignore God’s warning, “O wicked one, you shall surely die.” Sin is far heavier than we would like to imagine. So if heavy sins weigh down even those who have acted righteous, what about the flip side? What about those who are known for having acted wickedly, but then have a change of heart? What about when they turn from the evil and come back to God? What if they do what is just and right? Shouldn’t they still be weighed down by their sins? What about all that dead weight? Astonishingly, God says, for those who have turned away from sinning, and come back to Him, “none of the sins that he has committed shall be remembered against him. He has done what is just and right; he shall surely live.”
We can almost hear the protest beginning: “But that’s not fair!!” “How did their sins get forgotten?” And the people said the same to Ezekiel, “The way of the Lord is not just.” But God answers—it’s not my way, but their way that is not just. There is no injustice with God, only with us. We have no room to argue with God about what is fair. We who always want to take the light view of sin for ourselves, and then give lip service to the heavy view of sin when it’s applied to others. We all know what that is—a double standard. The cry of “not fair” applies to us, not to God. But to go even further, we bitterly resist the heavy view of the law, because we see that our sins and transgressions “weigh upon us” and we think we ought to have the strength to lift them! All the while priding ourselves in our lightweight righteousness. Trying our best to bulk up and boast in the few good deeds we can scratch together for our record. Thinking that piling these onto the scale should lift the heavy boulders of our sin. We’ll never balance or tip the scales that way. In fact, if we dive deeply enough into the Scriptures, we’d take the even heavier view that even our righteous deeds—the best we can claim in this life, is but filthy rags to God. In all reality, they don’t even add up on the good side of the scale, but because they’re tainted with our impurity and sin, they too sit on the bad side of the scale.
Well pastor, that’s such a gloomy outlook, what hope is there? Well the hope is in the Gospel—the good news. And don’t worry—there’s plenty of that. But for now we must first be watchmen to warn the wicked to turn from their sin so they don’t die in their iniquity or guilt. To neglect this duty is to take the blood of the wicked on my own head. The watchman cannot proclaim safety and security while the enemy approaches and danger is at hand—but only when rescue comes or evil is driven away can he give the “all clear.”
So how does the rescue come? How is the evil driven away? God is the only one who can grant the possibility of life, and the only one who can lift the heavy weight of sin. And it’s not a joint effort between us and Him, it’s God’s job alone. And only Christ’s pure and innocent righteousness is weighty enough to leverage up the scales weighed down by all the world’s sin. Drop Christ’s weighty righteousness onto the scales, and it alone can tip the scales toward the good. Our own little balancing acts have all failed, and our sins are too heavy for us to lift. But that is so that we might turn to Jesus and see that He alone can do what we’re unable to do.
So it is astonishing and wonderful grace for God to tell us that He does not desire the death of the wicked, but that we should turn from our way and live! So turn and live! To the idolater who has raised false gods with your heart or your hands—now is the time to turn to the living God, believe and worship Him alone! To the profaner of God’s name, whose mouth is full of curses and the misuse of God’s name, and whose Christian life dishonors God’s name; now is the time to turn and to use your mouth and your life to give honor and praise to God’s name. To the despiser of worship and God’s word, who is neglectful and indifferent; now is the time to joyfully receive God’s good and gracious gifts. To the despisers of parents and other authorities, who live by no rule but their own; now is the time to learn to honor and obey those whom God has placed over us for our common good. To those disrespectful of life, who with words or with hatred, with our own hands or others, would commit violence or harm against others, now is the time to turn to God and help and protect our every neighbor’s body and life.
To the sexually immoral in any way, whether through infidelity, disregard, or distortion of marriage, to those whose thoughts are filled with lust; now is the time to turn to the purity and goodness of God’s good design, to set our thoughts on noble and praiseworthy things. To the liars and slanderers, whose mouths are full of gossip and ready to tear down our neighbor’s reputation; now is the time to turn and use our mouth to speak good, to build up, to encourage, to tell the truth and speak it in love. To the covetous, who set their hearts on all things that not rightfully theirs—a spouse or a house, a worker or any material things; now is the time to learn contentment with what you have, and to help your neighbor protect what is rightfully theirs.
See what even a cursory examination of our lives—both yours and mine (I do not speak as one who is innocent of sin either)—see what it reveals? Doubtless we’re all squirming a bit, because the Holy Spirit’s work in the Law is to convict the world concerning sin, righteousness and judgment. A watchman cannot stand guard in the city and fail to warn that the enemy has come. Likewise, if sin is crouching at our door—or worse—is already inside our house or business, we can’t just ignore the danger, or fail to sound the warning. And we should not think that because we’re sitting in the church we’re safely righteous, and that only outside are the wicked. The line between good and evil is not between “us and them” but a line that travels through the heart of every man, woman, and child. It’s our hearts that need to be ever turning with more fervent love to God.
It’s our hearts, it’s my heart too, that cries out, with those of Ezekiel’s day, “Surely our transgressions and our sins weigh upon us, and we rot away because of them. How then can we live?” We’ve arrived at a heavy view of our sin, and the essential plea of repentance that seeks life from God alone. “God, our sins are heavy and we cannot lift them. Our self-made righteousness that we trusted in was light and insubstantial, and cannot save us. Therefore we look to you alone for our help.” And there we stand at the turning point—the pivot of a life, one direction turns away from God, another turns toward Him—and God has us in His hands. And with the gift of His Spirit and with the readiness of a heart made new, He plunges us down to the depths and raises us up to the glorious heights—joining us to Jesus’ death and resurrection, we fall into His gracious and loving arms. The infinite weight of Jesus’ death on the cross plunges our sins down to the depths, never to be remembered again—and buoys us up to the heights of freedom, life, and salvation in His name. We know from the NT how the dead weight of sinners is lifted from the scale, how God takes sin away and remembers it no more for Jesus’ sake.
Like Ezekiel’s crowd, having heard and believed the message of judgment, and having repented, we too are ripe and ready for the message of restoration and hope. The remaining chapters of Ezekiel are filled with that hope (a hope spoken to the exiles). And as Christians who have laid our sins on Jesus, our ears are also tuned to see where a life joined to God now goes—to see the phrase “how then can we live” no longer as a cry of despair, but as a joyful request to God of “what do you have in store for me?” An eagerness to participate in His goodness, to walk in His statutes of life, to let God renew our life and let us live. Because the life of holiness for the Christian is not an anxious assignment to secure enough righteous deeds to drop in the scale to outweigh our sins—that plan is busted. Rather the Christian life according to God’s statutes is a freed exercise in loving our neighbor for their own good and benefit. And it’s the joyful knowledge that all our burdensome sins have been lifted by the worthy and righteous life of Jesus. And as we go forward in life, our ears and our hearts take delight in the promises of God and the hope of eternal life that He gives in Jesus’ name, Amen.