Monday, February 24, 2014

Sermon on Matthew 5:38-48, for the 7th Sunday after Epiphany, "Perfect Love"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Welcome again to all our preschool families, and we’re glad to worship God with you today! The Bible lesson for our message comes from Jesus’ teaching in Matthew chapter 5. We’ve been reading through sections of this for the last several weeks, and they all come out of Jesus’ great “Sermon on the Mount.” In the section from last week and this week, Jesus is reviewing the Law of Moses and responding to popular opinions of it. So Jesus says several times, “You have heard that it was said…” and then either quotes and Old Testament law and/or a version of what people in His day thought it meant. Last week He was teaching on the commandments against murder, adultery, and lying, and showed how God’s Law is not only concerned with what we do on the outside, but also with the thoughts and intentions of our heart. Rather than “lowering the bar” and “opening loopholes” in the Law to make it easier and more achievable for us, He actually shows how deeply the Law of God searches our hearts, minds and actions. Of course the consequence of this is the deep and even painful realization of our guilt and our failures, how we have fallen short of God’s commands. But far from leaving us despairing and without hope, we’ll see how God saves us from our failures in Jesus Christ.
Today you heard Jesus refer to two laws. The first, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was an Old Testament law about retribution or retaliation. The law reflects a rather ugly reality of human life—when someone injures us, offends us, or wrongs us in any way, we instinctively rush to thoughts of revenge. How can I get back at them? How can I get even, or make them pay for what they did? What could I say or do that would insure that they never mess with me again? And whether it’s fighting back with violence or words, or whether it’s delayed and plotted—these kind of thoughts reveal that ugly thirst for revenge. It’s just one of the ways our sinfulness shows itself. And revenge is a downward spiral, because retaliation almost always increases a notch each time around. However, the law “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” placed a limit on retribution, and together with laws like we heard in our Old Testament reading, Leviticus 19, said “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” So people couldn’t take revenge into their own hands, but were to love instead. We’ll return to this one again in a moment.
But Jesus takes the example of this Old Testament law “an eye for an eye” and aims far higher with a new and greater ethic: Matthew 5:39–42 (ESV) “But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” This is such a dramatic “raising of the bar” that we begin to worry that perhaps it has gone too far. How far does Jesus mean to for us to take the command to “turn the other cheek” or to “give to the one who begs from you?” It’s hard to accept such non-resistance and willingness to be wronged or taken advantage of. What is Jesus trying to teach here?
The law of “an eye for an eye” leaves no thought for love or for mercy. It only considers equal to equal. But Jesus’ command calls us to the deeper truth of mercy and love. He teaches what St. Paul would later call, “overcoming evil with good.” It should be obvious to us that revenge and retaliation heal no wounds, and they are a purely negative solution to our problems. But the way of love and undeserved kindness is infinitely harder. And yet only love and mercy has the real potential to improve a situation; and when God is at work, to even heal physical or emotional wounds, and repair relationships.
This leads us into the second law that Jesus talks about. He says, (Matthew 5:43–45) “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” “Love your neighbor” is quoted right from our Old Testament reading—but you don’t read there: “hate your enemy.” Where did that come from? The Old Testament reading from Leviticus 19 also says specifically “You shall not hate your brother in your heart.” So where had the people in Jesus’ day “heard it said: ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy?’” Had they imagined that since it only said not to hate your brother, that it was ok to hate your enemy? Since this quote is found nowhere in the Old Testament, the most likely source were a group of Jewish contemporaries of Jesus, whose writings taught that they should love their neighbors and brothers, but hate any “sons of darkness” who were not part of their community. Jesus was probably responding directly to this idea, and sets the record straight that God commands us to love our enemies as well as our friends. Jesus says to only love your friends is to do no better than any ordinary unbeliever. But we’re called to a higher love.
How high? The real clincher in Jesus’ review of these laws and God’s high calling, is when Jesus ends with, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” At last it’s clear how high Jesus means; how great a love He is talking about—perfection. And perfection by God’s standards. Ok, so we start thinking to ourselves, “Sure, I prefer the idea of love and mercy instead of revenge, and yeah, I agree that things would be a lot better if we loved our enemies, instead of hating them, but be perfect? Even if I wanted to, I could never be perfect.” And the truth is plain enough that our lives don’t match up to the perfect love that Jesus describes here.
When perfection hangs in the balance, there’s no room for any error, a deviation, any mistake in the slightest. Especially when the standard of perfection is God the Heavenly Father. Watching a figure skating program or other competition in the Olympics, and seeing a “perfect” performance is not quite the same, even if we are not able to detect tiny imperfections. A razor sharp knife with a clean straight edge might look perfect to the naked eye, but under the microscope, tiny imperfections are revealed. So if Jesus’ life had to be perfect, in God’s exacting detail, there was no margin of error. And thanks be to God that He perfectly loved His enemies, prayed for His persecutors, and turned His other cheek to those who struck Him. Because Jesus’ perfect love alone is as perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect. Jesus perfectly practiced all that He preached, most clearly when He went to the cross and showed perfect love, even in the midst of hostility, evil, and hatred against Him. He bore every insult without lashing back with venomous words, and He did not resist the evil men who were set against Him.
But it was no sign of weakness or helplessness on Jesus’ part, but rather a tremendous show of self-control and restraint, and even more, perfect love. It was completely within Jesus’ power to stop what was happening. For example, when He told Peter not to resist the men who came to arrest Jesus in the garden, He said that if He wanted to, He could’ve called a legion of angels to His rescue. Before His death He said that no one took His life from Him, but He laid it down of His own accord. Jesus complied because it was all part of God’s plan to work out our redemption. And because in Jesus’ perfect love, He was obeying the commandment of God to the fullest—to the highest and best ethic that He Himself had taught—to turn the other cheek, and to love your enemies and pray for your persecutors. And in God’s redemption plan, Jesus’ perfect love takes the place of our sins, our failures, our so-far-from-perfect love.
Since it is under Jesus Christ’s examination that we pass, by faith in Him, it had to be a perfect score. What was at stake was not obsessive compulsion to have everything “perfectly arranged”, but what was at stake was perfect love. Love that would not err, would not betray, would not fudge or lie in the least, love that would always be patient, kind, rejoicing in the truth, enduring all things. It had to be this kind of perfect love, and none other, because this is the perfect, wholesome, and redeeming love of our Heavenly Father, and it’s the love of Jesus Christ His Son. What was at stake was our salvation. Everything hung on a love that did not sin, could not be found guilty in the least, but a love that had to be declared innocent and pure. Everything hung on Jesus, hanging on the cross, loving as no one else had ever loved—giving up His life not only for His friends, but also for His enemies. Jesus Himself had said that all the Law and the Prophets, meaning the whole Old Testament, hung on these two great commandments of love—to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. And there at the cross, all Jesus’ perfect love for God and neighbor hung upon His shoulders like gold medals—declaring perfect victory.
But His love did not end there. God vindicated Jesus’ innocence by raising Him from the dead, and Jesus is alive! And His perfect love is given to those who believe in Him, so that the impossible “be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect”—becomes possible by faith. Not perfect because of ourselves, but by the gift of Jesus. And as His perfect love lives in and takes root in you, your love is shaped and transformed into a love like His. However imperfect to our eyes its beginnings, and whatever ongoing struggles we face in this life, God is at work perfecting His love in us, teaching us how to love, to forgive, to return evil and insults with kindness, and to overcome evil with good. He teaches us the love that can even love our enemies, so we can pray that as we too were once enemies of God also, that they might be set free from the power of sin, and Jesus would enter their lives as well. In Jesus’ Christ we all have access to God’s perfect love; and may His love warm and change us all to be more like Him. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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

  1. The passage in our Gospel reading today comes from the “Sermon on the Mount” that includes Matthew 5-7. Several times Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said…” With these words He introduces a common interpretation of the Old Testament law, and then presents His authoritative interpretation, correcting any misunderstandings. In 5:38 He quotes the “eye for an eye” rule out of Exodus 21:23-24, or Leviticus 24:17-22. While strictly speaking, this rule is fair, it leads to a rather brutal way of living. What alternative does Jesus point us to, instead of retaliation? How does St. Paul echo this? Romans 12:17-21.
  2. How great is our human urge to physical retaliation or at least to lash back verbally, when we have been insulted, hurt, taken advantage of, or otherwise wronged? How does this affect the situation, and also the relationship, if any is involved? Does it add “fuel to the fire?”
  3. Jesus shows an entirely different way—one of not retaliating, of yielding, of giving, or of being taken advantage of. This involves self-control, patience, mercy, and generosity. How does this effort have the potential to affect the situation? Where does such self-control, patience, etc come from? Galatians 5:22-23.
  4. How did Jesus love His enemies, and practice what He preached, when it came to turning the other cheek, not resisting the one who is evil, etc? Romans 5:6-10; Matthew 26:47-56, 66-68; 27:27-31; Luke 23:34, etc.
  5. How does Jesus’ love become the foundation and source of Christian love? 1 John 4:7-21, especially verses 10 & 19. Matthew 5:48 tells us, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Since Jesus alone meets this standard, how are we counted as “perfect” in God’s eyes? Romans 3:24-26. How does Jesus’ love overflow into our lives? 1 Timothy 1:12-16.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Sermon on Matthew 5:21-37, for the 6th Sunday after Epiphany, "Law and Gospel"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. In the Gospel reading today, we hear a section of Jesus’ great Sermon on the Mount, where He teaches on the 5th, 6th, and 8th commandments in particular. The commandment on murder, adultery, and lying. Jesus’ teaching will confront us on many angles and leave us all convicted of our sin. He is rooting out our sinful human tendency to try to escape from God’s law by various tricks. Sometimes we try to narrow down God’s command into a category that doesn’t apply to us, so we don’t recognize that we’ve disobeyed. In particular, when we think of the law only outwardly, and not applying to the heart and mind—or when we try to find loopholes that will justify our behavior, saying the law doesn’t apply to our situation, so we can still feel we are righteous. But instead of allowing that, Jesus closes all the loopholes, leaving us condemned by the law. The law finds us out, and there is no escaping it. If the Law was our hope for salvation, we’d indeed be lost. We look for a way out of under the law, but as we’ll discover, there is only one Way, and that’s for Jesus Christ to come under the law, and redeem us from under the law.
And one thing that is unmistakable is Jesus’ deadly earnestness about sin. Careless and hateful insults are deserving of hellfire. Anger makes us liable to judgment, and the sins of the heart are condemned just as justly by God as acts of violence. Lust in the heart is already adultery, and worse than losing an eye or hand, is the thought of our whole body perishing in hell. Divorce is not permitted except on the very narrow grounds sexual immorality, and marrying a divorcee is adultery. Oaths sworn to God must be performed or not taken at all. God has no use for broken promises.
If we thought the law was only going to catch the “big offenders” who have actually killed a person, or who have physically committed adultery, or have told blatant lies, we were mistaken. The crushing force of the law is a weight that neither we nor our ancestors could bear. And yet we are forced to admit the meticulous goodness of God’s law. Not only should I never do the unthinkable act of murder, but so also should I never rise up in anger against a brother or sister and insult them, mock them, or hate them. I know that my heart should be pure of all those evil and hurtful thoughts, and my mouth and tongue should be clean of bitter and callous words. I understand that if I have wronged someone, it’s my duty to quickly go and reconcile with them, confessing any wrong.
We admit that God intended for marriage to be one man and one woman faithful to each other for life, faithful not only with our bodies, but with our eyes, thoughts, and words. We are to honor God and one another by keeping the marriage bed pure; keeping our intimate affections for our spouse; and devoting our thoughts to faithfulness and self-giving toward them. That our words would continue to declare our unchanging love for them. This too, we know is good, and that strong marriages make for stable families and strong society.
We admit that lies, slander, and gossip have no place in our mouth, but that we should always speak the truth in love. We should guard and protect our neighbor’s reputation as we expect that ours would also be protected. We admit that to swear an oath is meaningless if it is ever broken, and that we must not take such a casual attitude about making and breaking promises. We should not take oaths, but simply be true to our word, which should reflect our integrity, trustworthiness, and honor.
All these things we know, and yet we look back on our life and are ashamed at how badly we’ve failed. It would be incredible if anyone could say that after close examination of their life, by such a thorough reading of the Law as Jesus taught, that they could find nothing wrong in themselves. Or that they could conclude, as a rich young man once said to Jesus, “All these things I have done since my youth.” He was deceived about his own righteousness, and thought that he could stand before God based on his own law-keeping.
If we would have any such self-deceptions, God’s law drives them from us. We must acknowledge we’re not judged by the sins anyone else has committed, but we’re compared to and held accountable to God’s standard alone. His law is the measuring stick, and Jesus keeps the law raised to its full height, while our sinful nature wishes to keep pulling it down. We hope that by lowering the law, we can get it to match our “own level” of righteousness. If I’m about this good (raise hand for measure) in my own estimation, then it would be good if the law stands about here (lower hand a notch). But that’s telling ourselves that “All these things I have done since my youth.” But when Jesus comes and holds God’s standard up to its full height, and shows it’s pervasive look into our thoughts, words, and actions, we feel impossibly small and sinful underneath the law. And then we’ve gotten the message.
This insight helps us understand the verses just before our reading, that we heard last week. There we find some Gospel and some hope for our terrible situation. Let me read them again, from Matthew 5:17–20, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
A couple of observations: Jesus isn’t getting rid of the law or negating it, but fulfilling it—we’ll come back to that in a moment. Secondly, God is not pleased with any tampering with His law, relaxing or lower it, and teaching others to do the same; it’s all going to be accomplished. And finally, Jesus is saying that an even better righteousness than that of the scribes and Pharisees is needed to get into heaven. Their righteousness, by the way, was of the self-confident variety, like the rich young man who thought he’d kept all the commandments since his youth. The problem is Jesus says even this righteousness doesn’t cut it. So where does the true and saving righteousness come from? None other than Jesus Himself, who fulfills and accomplishes all the law for us!
You see, the Law is astonishingly hard and demanding if we study it in its fullness, with Jesus. Jesus didn’t come to cut us some slack, and write off sins. He kept the law at its fullest height, and proceeded to fulfill and accomplish every last thing it required. He obeyed the law down to the last dotting of the ‘i’ and crossing of the ‘t’. Jesus “played by the rules” and won the promise that no one else could—the promise of eternal life. The Law is not a cruel, impossible code, but rather a reflection of God’s very goodness. How so? Jesus reflected the highest value and love for life, in keeping the 5th commandment, “You shall not murder.” The furthest thing from using violence, force, or hatred to accomplish His Father’s will, Jesus even bowed His head under the murderous hands of those who crucified Him. And the way that He honored human life was evident from His care for the lepers and crippled, His raising from death the only son of a widow, and His refusal to strike back at those who wounded Him. He sought reconciliation even with His enemies, even when He had done no wrong, He came to us and gave everything.
Jesus reflected the highest value and love for sexuality and marriage, in keeping the 6th commandment, both in His single life of celibacy, and in His defense of marriage and in particular upholding the rights of the women who stood to suffer the most. He protected them against the fallout of easy divorce at the husband’s whim, by only permitting divorce for unfaithfulness. He also showed mercy for the adulterous woman who was going to be stoned, and turned away her accusers, before telling her to “go and sin no more.” And in an even bigger sense, not just in Jesus’ earthly life, but in God’s whole experience with the Israelite people, the 6th commandment reflects God’s complete and amazing faithfulness, even to an unfaithful people. The OT book of Hosea is a living parable about God making a covenant like marriage with His people, and sticking with them, even when they were unfaithful and went astray. It’s a beautiful story of redemption, about how God tenderly brings back His wayward people. And Jesus continues that faithfulness today to His bridegroom the church. Marriage faithfulness is an echo of the greater faithfulness of God to His people.
The 8th commandment reflects Jesus’ highest honor for truth; it was Jesus who declared  “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” He said that “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37). Telling the truth can sometimes be painful, and Jesus did so, even when it exposed the hypocrisy and lies we tell ourselves. He taught that we should not take oaths or swear by heaven, earth, Jerusalem, or by our own head, because when God swears, when God makes an oath, it is impossible for Him to lie (Hebrews 6:13-20). God wants us to know that His promises and His purpose are unchangeable, unlike our failing human promises.
So Jesus upholds God’s Law because it reflects God’s character and goodness. And when Jesus says in the last verse of Matthew 5, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect”, He asks of us the impossible. We’ve plainly seen that we could never reach the perfection of God’s Law. So how can we be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect? With man this is impossible, but with God, all things are possible. It is only by the undeserved gift of faith. When God grants us to believe and trust in His Son Jesus Christ, we receive as pure gift, the perfect life of Jesus lived for us. He is perfect as His heavenly Father is perfect, and “we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified” (Gal. 2:16).
The Good News, the Gospel, is that Jesus lived perfectly in obedience to God’s law; not as an impossible example to follow, to fill us with despair, but He is the Righteous One of God, keeping the law in our place and for our sake. All the sins and broken commandments that mark your record, are paid for in full by Jesus’ death on the cross. Your guilt and shame is washed away in the cleansing of His blood. All of the good that you left undone, the thoughts, words, and deeds that should have daily been yours, have been forgiven, as surely as God’s Word of promise, and Jesus’ perfect obedience is now counted as yours. We need His true righteousness, His true perfection, the only record that can stand before God’s examination. And when we have faith in Him, God counts that record as ours. We pass under Christ’s examination. That is what it is for God to justify us by faith in Jesus. All who stand in Christ Jesus, and repent of their sins, face no condemnation, because Jesus sets us free from our guilt and gives us His innocence in its place. Not only does this free us from the impossible burden of the law that none of us could bear, but it saves us by grace—the free, undeserved gift (Acts 15:10-11).
So hear God’s law in all its fullness and goodness, and see in it the reflection of your sin and God’s goodness. Repent of your sin; then hear the Good News of the Gospel, that Jesus Christ has paid for your every sin, and His righteousness has already been examined and found perfect in the eyes of God, the True and Only Judge, and He has made this known by raising Jesus from the dead and making Him both Lord and Christ (Acts. 2:36). To God be the glory for His free gift of forgiveness and life! In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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

  1. Which of the commandments does Jesus teach on in Matthew 5:21-37? How does Jesus show the full extent of the law? Why are we tempted to reduce the extent of the law? Why is this a “dead end” solution? Galatians 3:10-14; James 2:10-11
  2. What must be our hope for salvation instead? Galatians 4:4-5; Matthew 5:17-20. Describe the extent of the 5th commandment, regarding murder and the value of human life. Confess your sins of thought, word, and deed according to the commandment. Now state positively the good that you ought to do, according to this commandment.
  3. Describe the extent of the 6th commandment regarding sexuality and the sanctity of marriage. Confess your sins of thought, word, and deed according to this commandment. Now state the good you ought to do…
  4. Describe the extent of the 8th commandment regarding lies and the sanctity of truth. Confess your sins. Now state the good you ought to do.
  5. How did the apostle’s regard the possibility of keeping the law to God’s satisfaction? Acts 15:10-11; Romans 7:1-14.
  6. How does Matthew 5:17-20 point us to the One who did keep the Law to God’s satisfaction? How thoroughly did He do so? How was Jesus’ life a reflection of all the goodness of the commandments? How do we see in them God’s holiness?
  7. How do we attain the righteousness that is greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees, or those who build their confidence in their own righteousness? Galatians 2:16; Romans 8:1-11. How did God declare Jesus innocent and vindicate His life and death on the cross, given freely for us? Acts 2:36. Describe how the sweetness of the Gospel heals the painful surgery of the Law, and what it means to have new life in Christ.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost, "Wisdom from the Spirit"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. There are many things that the church—both worldwide and in the local congregation can do, according to the varied gifts and talents that God entrusts to individuals and communities. They can sponsor schools, hospitals, ministries to the disabled, the homeless, to youth or to families. But there is above all, one thing that the church must do, and that is to proclaim Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Without this central message, without Christ crucified filling and shaping the church’s life, it ceases to be church, and becomes something else. It disconnects from the wisdom of God and pursues in vain the wisdom of the world. Without Jesus Christ and His cross, the church loses its reason to exist. Paul said it very clearly to the church in Corinth: “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” He likewise told the Romans: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” (Romans 1:16, ESV)
Because this is the heart and center of the Christian faith, Paul turns the attention away from himself, and toward Christ. He admits he’s no great speaker, and has no impressive appearance, but actually is glad, because he doesn’t want them to believe on account of himself or his wisdom, but on account of the wisdom and power of God. Later in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, God told Paul that “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). God counted Paul’s weaknesses as a strength, and because of them the power and grace of God were made all the more evident in Paul’s life and preaching. Nothing has changed today. The church of Christ should never form on the basis of the popularity, the impressiveness, the cleverness or fine speech of the pastor or messenger of the gospel, but rather on the content of the message, which should always center on Jesus Christ crucified for our sins. And such a plain and simple message has its power from Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, whether preached by the simple country parson or the pastor with two earned doctorates in theology. For it must be the Gospel that shines, not human achievements or cleverness. So quite despite ourselves, the Gospel has its power to save.
Our faith should never rest on the personality of the messenger or their persuasiveness, but on the content of the message—the gospel that is the power of God for salvation. The office of pastor exists to exalt and glorify Christ, not the pastor. And God grant that we learn that same humility of Paul. Paul was at pains to show that he did not come as a salesman or slick talker, but that he strove to speak the sincere and honest truth. Likewise the church should be leery sales or marketing techniques to try to win people to the Gospel, and favor instead a plain and open statement of the truth. Trusting that the Holy Spirit will convert and convince people’s hearts (2 Corinthians 4:1-6; 2:17). That Paul urges this is not to say that he ever shied away from an opportunity to speak the Gospel, or chose to be passive or silent, but rather determined not to be manipulative or cunning, but rely on the message itself to win people to Christ.
Last week we talked about “seeing but not seeing” and what it means to gain true insight and understanding taught by the Holy Spirit. Our reading from 1 Corinthians continues that thought as Paul describes the earthly wisdom of this age, which relies on our own faulty intelligence, and which God reduces to nothing and proves incapable of understanding the things of the Spirit. In our fallen human intelligence, we often try to reduce God to an understandable size, or to rationalize the mysteries of God. But this is foolish, as the Psalmist remarks: “How great are your works, O Lord! Your thoughts are very deep! 6 The stupid man cannot know; the fool cannot understand this” (Ps. 92:5-6). Or Isaiah remarks: For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8–9, ESV) These passages teach our place beneath God, and remind us that God’s deep thoughts and higher ways are beyond our human understanding. After all, God would be very small, and not really God, if we could reduce Him down beneath our understanding.
But if God is demoting this human wisdom that lacks understanding, He is at the same time promoting His own wisdom; the way to true insight and understanding. The Holy Spirit teaches us. Faith is not the rejection of reason in the favor of ignorance, but it is the rejection of earthly wisdom in the favor of a higher spiritual wisdom. This spiritual wisdom seeks to know Jesus Christ and Him crucified. That cross of Jesus seems to our human minds like a sign of contradiction. A paradox. The weakness and suffering, the humiliation and shame, as the vessel for God’s strength, glory, and power. The most accursed death on a tree bringing blessing, life, and honor. A rejected and hated man receiving God’s singular approval and love, above all others. God giving His Son Jesus to bear down all of our sins to His cross and grave, and all the mockery and shame, without so much as a taunt or cry for revenge in reply. God was most of all satisfied with this love, this sacrifice, and this pure goodness that overcame evil and hate. God was pleased with His beloved Son Jesus, who did His Father’s will. God chose seeming weakness and foolishness to bring low our earthly power and pride.
And this wisdom of God is so far above our earthly wisdom or understanding, that we don’t even have a scale to compare it by. We can’t even imagine the greatness and the goodness of what God has done for those who love Him. Do you get that? That “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9, ESV). Beyond our imagination, God is incredibly good! And He has incredible things in store for us. Since this is so, it should be unimaginable to us that heaven could be anything but the best God can give us—and truly it will be, because God is giving us Himself! To know Him, to be in His presence, and to share in His goodness and holiness forever.
And just as the wisdom of God is not in the cleverness of the preacher, but in the simple, plain statement of the truth, so also it is not known by the wise, the writers and debaters of this age, the powerful or those of noble birth, but the wisdom of God is revealed to the foolish, the lowly, and despised (1 Cor. 1:20-29). To shepherds, to outcasts, to tax collectors and sinners. This understanding is not on the basis of your IQ or who you think you are, but it is on the basis of the Spirit’s generous giving. The Holy Spirit doesn’t discriminate based on age or on earthly wisdom, but works where He pleases God is pleased to give this “window” of revelation and insight into His person and His love, through the Holy Spirit, and He gives it not to the proud and mighty, but the humble and lowly. God has opened His heart to us in the person and life of Jesus Christ, in His love on the cross, and in the sending of His Holy Spirit to teach us all things. God has not revealed to us all the mysteries of existence or the mysteries of His being, but He has revealed to us the mystery of salvation. The mystery of His love unfolding for us in the unlikeliest of ways, in the humblest of ways, that the world just cannot grasp. This He desires for you to know with His Spirit, so that “we might understand the things freely given us by God.” 
In the Spirit we know Jesus most of all as merciful, generous, and loving. We know He freely gives His blessings. We know He does not put up with human pride, arrogance, or wisdom, but freely gives us all that we are lacking when we come to Him in humility. Rather the wisdom of the Spirit turns us away from pride and boasting in ourselves, our works, or our wisdom, and turns us to the humility of Christ, the continual hearing and receiving of His Word and gifts, and the constant recognition that we have more to learn. True wisdom never concludes, “I have arrived!”—and have nothing more to learn—but always remains in a humble posture toward God, ready to continue receiving His free gifts and understanding. Not only ready, but eager for them! God has given a salvation beyond our imagining, and prepared a goodness beyond our knowing for those who love Him, and He has opened and revealed His heart to us in Christ Jesus. Let us pray for His wisdom to be upon us. Lord Jesus, the Wisdom from God, grant us an understanding heart and mind, to hear and receive your Word with gladness, and gain true insight. Send us wisdom from your Spirit, that we might never boast in anything except You, crucified and risen for us. For You are our Life and Salvation, sent from the Father Everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Why did Paul not rely on “lofty speech or wisdom” to proclaim the message of God? 1 Corinthians 2:5. What did his message focus on by contrast? 1 Corinthians 2:1. Why must this also be the heart and center of our proclamation?
  2. The Corinthians thought that Paul sounded impressive in his letters, but gave a weak appearance when speaking in person. 2 Corinthians 10:9-12; 11:5-6. Paul accepts this criticism (1 Corinthians 2:3-4). Why does he argue that this keeps from obscuring the power of God? 2 Cor. 12:9-10
  3. After contrasting a wisdom of men from a wisdom of God, Paul states that he does indeed impart the wisdom of God to people. This wisdom of God seems like foolishness to the world (1 Corinthians 1:18-31), but it is the power of God for salvation. How does Paul use this wisdom of God against the wisdom of the world? 2 Corinthians 10:4-6; Acts 17:2-4, 17ff; cf. 1 Peter 3:15.
  4. In 1 Corinthians 2:9, Paul paraphrases the Old Testament, most likely Isaiah 64:4 and borrowing ideas from some other verses, like 52:15. What does this passage tell us about the salvation God has prepared for us? How does it feel to know that we as humans don’t even have a “scale” for imagining or understanding how great it is?
  5. The world understands little to nothing at all of God’s works, and even we understand only glimpses, as “through a mirror darkly”, but then in the final consummation of God’s plan, we shall see, “face to face.” (1 Corinthians 13:12). What is the basis of the knowledge or understanding of God that we do have? 1 Corinthians 2:10-16. How does this spiritual insight and understanding illuminate for us the glory of the cross of Jesus Christ and its centrality for salvation? What comfort does it bring to believers? 

Monday, February 03, 2014

Sermon on Luke 2:22-32, for the Purification of Mary and the Presentation of our Lord, "Do you see what I see?"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today is a minor festival, that doesn’t often fall on Sunday: the Purification of Mary and the Presentation of our Lord. Before we zoom in on the details of the story, let’s first zoom out and see the big picture, and the importance of the setting. This took place at the Temple in Jerusalem, which was the center of all the worship life of the Jews. At the Temple God located Himself for His people. At the Temple God placed His Name and His presence, to hear His people’s prayers, to receive their repentance and accept sacrifices for purification and for the forgiveness of sins, and to make His Name great throughout the earth (2 Chron. 6).
The significance of the Temple as where God located His mercy and forgiveness is huge—and especially when we consider that the New Testament teaches that this “located-ness” of God’s mercy moves from the Temple to the person of Jesus Christ (John 1:14; 4). This transfer or movement began with His incarnation—where God took on human flesh and Jesus became the dwelling place of God with man. It continues with Jesus’ first arrival in the Temple, and throughout His continued teaching ministry both at the Temple and from afar. It culminates in His death on the cross where the Temple curtain was torn in two, showing that Jesus our Great High Priest has entered the Holy Places by means of His own blood, to secure our eternal redemption (Heb. 9:13). Finally, when the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD, God confirmed that His presence was no longer located there, but that in Jesus Christ true believers worship Him in Spirit and Truth. No longer in the Temple, but now in Jesus Christ we find God’s name, His presence, His mercy, and His forgiveness for His people.
So if on the grand scale of things, these movements were underway, and God was recentralizing worship from the Temple to the person of His own Son Jesus as the New Temple of God with man (John 2:19-22), then what was happening on the micro scale of ordinary time? If we can see these events with 20/20 hindsight and the benefit of the whole witness of Scripture, what did Simeon, Mary, and Joseph see? Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, but they saw a lot. Simeon invites us to behold Jesus, the Christ child, and asks us, “Do you see what I see?”
We’re all familiar with “seeing, but not seeing.” It happens when my wife sends me to the cupboard looking for something, and I see the shelf and everything on it, but don’t see what I’m looking for. It happens when a lay person peers over the shoulder of a computer programmer and sees a screen full of programming code, but in reality sees nothing. It happens when a child who hasn’t learned to read picks up a book with no pictures, and sees lots of text, but understands nothing. Physical sight is one thing—to see an ordinary event that happens every day—a mother and child being brought to the Temple for purification and dedication—but to perceive, to understand, to have insight into what is happening, is another. A blank stare is not sight nor understanding. But to truly see is to find what you are looking for, to understand and make sense of the code, to read the text and understand. To perceive, have insight, is to see with Simeon, that this child Jesus is no ordinary child, but that He is “the Lord’s Anointed.”
Computer programmers and adults who can read, have a leg up on lay people and children because they’ve been instructed—they’ve been taught so they understand. Simeon had the best of teachers, the Holy Spirit and the Word of God. Filled with the Holy Spirit, God had promised him that before he died he would see “The Lord’s Christ.” It may help to explain that the word “Christ” or “Messiah” is not Jesus’ personal name, but a title that means “Anointed One.” Anointing marked a person for the high offices of Prophet, Priest, or King. They had been chosen for a position of honor, and entrusted with great responsibility. So Simeon was promised that before he died, he would see “the Lord’s Anointed One”—the One God had chosen and anointed for the great responsibility of redeeming His people, giving light to the Gentiles, and glory to Israel.
And today Simeon saw it with all the insight and understanding give by the Holy Spirit. And with the infant Jesus in his arms, and what must have been an intense joy and satisfaction in his heart, he lifted his voice and blessed God with what we now remember as the “Song of Simeon” or Nunc Dimittis. “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” Do we hear Simeon’s joyful song? Do we hear him inviting us to see the Christ child, and saying, “Do you see what I see?” There’s no reason for blank stares at Simeon’s joy and peace—it was plainly because he had at last seen the Lord Jesus Christ.
Who can face their own death with such peace and joy? Who can say my cup is filled to overflowing with the goodness of the Lord, and I can walk through the valley of the shadow of death, and fear no evil? Who can live so unafraid and so satisfied? The Christian can! The one who has seen the Lord Jesus Christ, and His salvation, with the eyes of faith and the understanding and insight given to him or her by the Holy Spirit. You Christian, can know the peace and joy and satisfaction of the Lord. There was nothing artificial, forced, or self-made about Simeon’s joy—it was the joy produced in him by witnessing God’s promises come true before his own eyes. Spontaneous and free joy, and a peace that declared his life complete.
Peace is all too often a fleeting possession in this world. There are all too many things that disturb our peace, from problems international and foreign, right down to the domestic affairs of individual households, where peace may be in short supply. And while some forms of peace will never be fully realized or permanently experienced until Christ comes again, Jesus comes bringing a peace of a present and lasting sort—the peace of sins forgiven before God. The peace of salvation, sung first by angels at His birth: “peace on earth, goodwill toward men” and then announced by Jesus after He rose from the grave. The peace of salvation is the peace of sins forgiven, of death defeated, of the Lord’s Anointed granting us a calm and confident conscience, cleared of sin and guilt by His cross. The peace that Simeon received and sang of, and the peace that only God can give and the world cannot take away.
Simeon’s song is one of four such songs found in Luke 1-2, that quickly found their way into the enduring song of the church, as with saints and angels we praise Jesus Christ, and God’s salvation. For centuries Simeon’s song was sung in the service of Compline, as a song of praise for the closing of the day. But uniquely, Lutherans also adopted this song as a closing hymn of communion, to acknowledge that here we have seen with the eyes of faith and spiritual insight, the salvation of the Lord. Here in Jesus’ body and blood, we have seen and received His salvation, according to His Word. How can we say this? How can we compare Simeon’s amazing experience of holding the baby Jesus in his arms with receiving the Lord’s Supper?
We already said how God located Himself in His merciful presence, before at the Temple, but now in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus is no longer to be found in the manger, or the arms of Mary or Simeon, or even on His cross or in His empty tomb. Jesus was at or in all of these places, and in doing so He fully accomplished our salvation. But you can’t go to any of those places to find Him, or to access the merciful presence of God. Those are the places He’s been, but where is He now? Far away in heaven out of reach? So where do you go to find Him? Better than this, Jesus comes to you! He comes to you just as He promised, according to His Word. Jesus promised that He is with His church always, even to the end of the age. And in the meal that He prepares for us to remember Him, He says, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me. This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:24-25). Here at the table of the Lord, Jesus has located Himself for us in His body and blood, for the forgiveness of our sins. It’s not our physical eyes, but the eyes of faith, opened by the Holy Spirit, that see Jesus in the breaking of the bread. Jesus comes to us, just as He first came to the Temple, to Simeon and all the saints, and came to die on the cross and rise again to life. Jesus comes to us in His Word and in His Sacraments, revealing His light and salvation as new today as 2,000 years ago.
So Simeon’s song is perfectly and appropriately placed after we receive the Lord’s Supper, so that we too can sing praise to the Lord and say that we can “depart in peace according to your Word”. Heaven has come down to earth, and even greater than holding the infant Jesus in our arms, we cradle the body and blood of our Lord Jesus in our hands and in our mouth. And whether we depart as from our last communion, and may die this week, or whether we depart for another week lived in the grace of our Lord, we can go in peace. For to live is Christ, and to die is gain (Phil. 1:22). We can leave the sanctuary confident that God has kept His promises according to His Word, that Jesus forgives us our sins, and need not even fear death.
This Christian joy, peace, and confidence is ours wholly as the outcome of Jesus’ faithful life and obedience for us. And instructed by the Holy Spirit and God’s Word and promises, we have genuine spiritual insight, we see and know Who we are looking for when we come to worship, and that is always Jesus. And instead of us having to find Him, He comes to us. Week by week and day by day His Word enters our hearts and fills us with the peace that surpasses all understanding. Knowing that this peace is yours in Christ Jesus, go and live in that peace! Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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1.      What did the Law of Moses require for purification of a child and mother after birth? Leviticus 12. What provision was made for those who could not afford a lamb? What did the Law of the Lord require for the presentation of a firstborn son? Exodus 13:2; 34:19-20; Numbers 18:15-16. How would Jesus be dedicated to the Lord?
2.      How does Luke 2:25-32 emphasize that Simeon was led by  and speaking from the Spirit? What was the hope he was waiting for, and what unique promise had been given to him? Isaiah 40:1-2; 57:14-21. Cf. 2 Corinthians 1:3-7
4.      The word “see” is used in the first place to refer to physical sight, but also can indicate understanding or insight that does not relate to the “eyes.” How does this theme run through Luke’s Gospel? Beyond physical sight, how can eyes be “opened or closed” to the Gospel? Luke 4:20, 28-29; 6:39-42; 10:23-24; 19:42; 24:16, 31(!)
5.      What did Simeon see that others did not? What did he prophecy about Jesus’ future? Luke 2:29-35. The “Christ” is the Greek title for “the Anointed One” (Messiah in Hebrew). The “Lord’s Christ” simply means that it is the Lord’s own Anointed, the man of His choosing, which carries a tremendous significance, tying to all the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah. Jesus is “the Lord’s Christ.”
6.      Why could Simeon now face his death in peace? What consolation had he received in the events of that day? This Song of Simeon or Nunc Dimittis (“Now you let depart”) has long been used in the church as a closing song after communion. What has the believer seen in worship and received that they can depart in peace? Why is this a fitting place for this Biblical song to be used in worship?

7.      What additional significance is there to Jesus coming to the Temple, not only on this occasion, but throughout His life? John 2:19-22; 4:21-26; Colossians 2:9; See also Haggai 2:6-9; Malachi 3:1. How would worship be “recentralized” from to Temple to Jesus? Why is true worship of God centered in Him? See John 4:21-26.