Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sermon for February 14-15

The Sixth Sunday After the Epiphany
February 14-15, 2009
Text: Mark 1:40-45

Dear Friends in Christ,
Are you wearing clean underwear? Did your mother ever ask you that? Or did you ever ask your children if they were wearing clean underwear? What’s the old mother’s line - if you’re ever in an accident, I pray to God that you’re wearing clean underwear. As Bill Cosby noted, if he was in an accident, his underwear would not be clean any more. As you realize the car is about to hit a brick wall at a high rate of speed, first you say it, then you do it. No more clean underwear. But somehow, this logic never seemed to work on our mothers. But there are times when it’s important to be clean. If you’re going out on a date, you wash up, put on nice clothes and so forth. You might even put on a suit and tie or for the girls, a nice dress. I am convinced that if girls understood how guys see them, they’d wear a lot more dresses. There is almost a ritual quality to preparing for a date. Of course if I had daughters, the ritual would include a chastity belt, but that’s another story. You want to impress the other person. You don’t want to look like a slob. And if a person thinks so little of you that they won’t dress up, at least a little bit, will there be a second date?

What does it mean to be clean? Is it just a custom? In America, we like clean people? Or is there more to this? The old Puritans coined the phrase, cleanliness is next to godliness. Where did they get that idea? What might have influenced them in that direction? While the Bible never uses the phrase, cleanliness is next to godliness, it does have some basis in the Bible. The image of being washed clean is a frequent image throughout Scripture. Priests were required to wash before entering the temple. Before the Day of Atonement, when the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies, he had to take a special bath. Nor were all the washings done by the Jews actual washings. Some were just ritual washings. If a Jew bought a camel from an Arab trader, before he would used it, he would sprinkle water on it in a symbolic washing. They would do likewise with household goods like cooking vessels. It was even common at the time of Christ, for converts to Judaism undergo a ritual washing. This was to symbolize that the taint of foreign gods was washed away. The Greek word for this is Baptidzo, from which we get the English word Baptize.

But there was one thing that every Jew feared - leprosy. Now, leprosy, as they used the word, was much broader than our use today. We think of one specific disease, which is caused by a bacterial respiratory infection. But in those days, any form of skin ailment was considered leprosy. So any type of rash of scaling of the skin. Now, all these things put together would not be all that common. In terms of classic leprosy, 95% of the population is immune to the bacteria that cause it. So why were people so paranoid about these diseases? Because they made one ritually unclean. They could not go into the temple. They could not go into the synagogue. In short they could not worship God. They were not allowed into God’s presence.

This now takes us into one of modern America’s pet heresies. God is everywhere, I can worship God wherever. All that matters is me and Jesus. To put it bluntly, that is just so much male cow manure. God being everywhere is about as useful to me as God being nowhere. If I have business with the court, I don’t flag down the judge at a barbeque or at his fishing shanty. I go to where the court is in session. That’s where I have access to the court. So the question is not where God is present. It’s where I have access to God. It’s where I can transact business with God. Consider the world at the time of the flood. God established one way, and one way only, through which He would deal graciously with man. That was the ark which He had instructed Noah to build. Sadly, only eight people took advantage of the gift God had given them. God was still present with the people who were drowning in the flood waters. But they had no access to Him. Likewise, leprosy, denied one access to God. So it was catastrophic. It placed one outside of God’s people. In essence, it placed one outside the ark.

A man came up to Christ and asked to be cleansed of His leprosy. Christ touches the man and heals Him. Christ takes this man’s uncleaness and places it upon Himself. He then instructs the man to go show himself to the priest? Why? So that He can be declared ritually clean. So that He can again take his place in the worshiping community. Christ gives the man a puzzling instruction - he is not to tell others who had healed him. Many speculated that Christ was already getting too much publicity and was trying to keep a lid on things. But this misses the point. If the man stopped and told others about Christ, he would delay his reentry into the worshiping community. We know, of course, that the man could not help himself. He was compelled to tell others what had happened. We can hardly blame the man.

Today, we still have a form of leprosy among us. We call this sin. No sinner can stand before our Holy God. To be a sinner before God is be dead. Consider the reaction of the prophet Isaiah to seeing God: “In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple... And I said: ‘Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’” (Is. 6:1,5) Further, it is no cure to say, don’t sin or stop sinning. Sin is the very nature of man. Human beings cannot stop sinning. So like the leper, we must be made ritually clean. We must be made to be sinless before God. Christ must touch us and take our uncleaness from us and place it upon Himself. He does that in Holy Baptism. At the font, Christ washes us clean. And what gives the font this power? You might give the catechism answer - the words and promises of God. That is true, but let’s look a little deeper this evening/morning. What gives baptism the power to wash us clean - to make us acceptable in God’s sight? The cross. In Baptism, Christ takes our leprosy of sin upon Himself, and in the cross Christ pays the price of that sin in our place. So when we come before God, according our baptism, we are ritually clean. We are clean before the throne of heaven. This is why we begin our services by invoking the very name placed upon us in our Baptism - in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. We are reminding God and ourselves that we come into His presence as those baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That makes us clean.

Christ cleansed a leper. This is not just a flashing of divine power. It is again a miracle that points directly to Christ’s mission. He is making this man ritually clean, so that He can rejoin the worshiping community - so that he can have access to God’s throne of grace. In baptism Christ extends this cleansing to us also. He touches us and makes us clean. He gives us a place in His holy courts. He gives us access to God in a place where He has promised not to deal with us according to our sins, but according the cross of Jesus Christ. That is what it means to be truly clean.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Cheating in Baseball

Baseball is unique in that it condones cheating. In fact you could divide cheating in Baseball into three categories. The first two are okay, but the third one is absolutlig verbotten. Here's the difference in the categories.

The first category of cheating is actually in the rule book. It includes things like stealing bases. Or a pitcher faking throwing to one base then throwing to another. These are permissible. In fact great base stealers like Ty Cobb are the stuff legend. Likewise catchers who throw out runners who attempt to steal are glorified, as in Ivan Rodriguez.

The second category is legal if you can get away with it. This would be things like throwing a spit ball, or scuffing the ball. A hitter might cork a bat. Legendary ball doctor Gaylord Perry is in the hall of fame. The catch however, is that this kind of cheating only takes place on the field. It's a skill that some players develop, like hitting the ball, and we admire them for it.

So what kind of cheating is forbidden in baseball. Off the field cheating. Now what do we mean by that? Well, in the early days baseball some players were paid by gamblers to throw games in the World Series. That is something from off the field that someone brings on the field to change the nature of the game. The more recent version of this is steroids and other drugs. Players who use these drugs change their bodies to make themselves better players or lengthen their careers. But it destroys the integrity of the game. This is why steroids, HGH and the like cause such a big scandal. This why people say that records set by steroid users are not legitimate.

Sermon for February 7-8

The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 7-8, 2009
Text: Mark 1:29-39

Dear Friends in Christ,
When I want lunch, I go get something out and prepare it, or if I am away from home, I go to a place that serves food. I go to McDonald’s or Jim’s Chicago Hot Dog or Little Caesar’s. This time of year Little Caesar’s especially comes to mind because Mike Ilich, the owner of Little Caesar’s also owns the Detroit Tigers. So eating at Little Caesars is sort of an act of loyalty to my team. Now some people don’t like to cook. They’ll do anything to get someone else to cook or find an excuse to go out. Teresa, my brother Tim’s wife, is rather like that. But Jesus, well, He really outdoes everyone on this point. He wants something to drink, He turns water into wine. He wants to put on picnic, He multiplies five loaves and two fish to feed about fifteen thousand people. (Five thousand men.) And when He just wants lunch, He heals the cook. All I can say is that she must have had a really good recipe for pita bread.

We now continue our look at how Jesus displays His divinity in His great signs. To understand our text, we must first understand the nature of illness. Now, I’m not talking about bacteria and viruses and all that, though perhaps that is a good place to start. Science has taught us that bacteria and viruses are actually good. Often we are most healthy when we are exposed to many micro-organisms. Most of these tiny critters don’t make us sick at all. We think of the important role that they play. Without mircro-organisms we wouldn’t have cheese or wine, or beer. They occur naturally. In Belgium, the traditional way of brewing beer is to build the brewery in the middle of a farm field. When they have all the ingredients together they open the vats and the windows and let the wind carry the natural yeast off the field into the vats. Of course, our silly, persnickety health department would never allow such a thing in the U.S. Human digestion depends upon having certain bacteria in your body. Genetic engineering has opened up a whole new set of benefits from bacteria. Many of our medicines, such as most insulin used by diabetics, is made by bacteria. So what went wrong? Why do we sometimes become infected with micro-organisms? Why did things get out of whack? The answer to this is sin. When sin entered this world, so also did physical corruption. Nature no longer had the perfect balance with which God created it. Bacteria still do lots of good things, but because of sin entering the world, they also do great harm.

The point of this is to say that human illness is a side effect of sin in the world. Illness is simply part of the process we call death. See when God said that Adam and Eve would die if they ate of the Tree of Knowledge, it wasn’t zap you’re dead. But the whole process of illness, infirmity, physical corruption and the like began to take hold of the world. This is really what death is in the Biblical sense. So we rightly say that a person is dying from the moment they are born.

Christ healed people, like Peter’s mother-in-law to show that He has power over death. In healing people Christ was saying that He could undo the effects of sin. Healing is not just about flashing His power as God. It’s about why He came. Think about this. Christ could have said, see that mountain? And then moved it to another spot. He could have put a strip of land right down the middle of the Sea of Galilee. He could have transported everyone to the palace of Tiberius Caesar and back again. He could have done all sorts things that would be a lot more flashy. Plus, many of these things could be verified after the fact. It used to be one lake, now it’s two! Just think of all the new beach front homes we can build! But Christ’s miracles are normally tied directly to His mission to save people from their sins. So when He heals Peter’s mother-in-law, Christ is saying I have power over sin and death. He’s also showing that power to the world. Christ is not just a worker of wonders, like some Los Vegas showman. He is the One who breaks the power of sin and death. The healing miracles display this, by showing us a Christ who can undo the effects of sin.

Why are there no miracles today? First that is an assumption that may or may not be true. The question has to be rephrased. Why do we not have miracles today as we saw at the time of Christ and the apostles? Why do we not have visible miracles that are instantly obvious? Why don’t we see people getting up out of wheelchairs and regrowing limbs and the like? Miracles are signs. They were performed to point us to Christ. But Scripture is clear that miracles do not produce faith. That only comes through Baptism and the hearing of the Word of God. So we must ask, would miracles even be helpful today? Probably not. They’d just be a circus. Will there ever again be a miracle worker as their was in the days of Christ and the apostles? My gut feeling is no. But this I can say with certainty. God will only raise up such a miracle worker if in that time and place it would serve to point people to Him and make them listen to His Word.

For indeed, as we see in our text, this is what happened. Christ was able to preach the Word, because people had heard about the miraculous signs. He was able to travel about proclaiming the forgiveness that God intended for them. The signs pointed people to Him. In fact, the response was so extreme that He has to slip out of town, under cover of darkness just to have time to pray and to travel to the next village. They served their purpose.

Christ performed many signs during His ministry. More than one appears a little bit tongue in cheek. Christ healed Peter’s mother-in-law who then got up and made dinner. She must have been related to my mother-in-law. I am convinced that when she got to heaven the first thing she did was look for the kitchen. The point of miracles in general is to point us to Christ. They tell us that He is indeed God among us. They also tell us to listen to His Word. His miracles also tie into some aspect of His mission. The healing miracles are there to point us to Christ as the One who has the power to defeat sin, death and all their effects. This is important, for this is indeed our real enemy. For of what value would some earthly gift be if it does not lead us to a heavenly gift. This is Christ’s healing miracles. They are about restoring people as a foretaste of the restoration that we will receive in heaven.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Sermon for January 31-February 1

The Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany
January 31-February 1, 2009
Text: Mark 1:21-28

Dear Friends in Christ,
I want you to picture a scene. It’s February 1, 1945. We are in a town in Germany, on the western front. The town has just surrendered to the Americans. There are town officials and German officers there, as well as American officers. Then a jeep rolls into town. A man gets out of the jeep. He’s wearing a shiny helmet with three stars on it. He be begins to rattle off orders and point here and there with his riding crop. Everyone, even the Germans, jump to obey the commands as quickly as they can. Of course this is General Patton. He has the authority of the American army behind him. But more than that he has the reputation of a successful field commander. No one would dare to deny him his demands. He is General Patton after all. He commands respect and authority. Even his enemies respect and fear him. There is no mistaking him. He rides into town with authority. It’s in his very person. Authority just oozes out of him. We could contrast this to a feckless bureaucrat who cites rules and regulations. He might get compliance, but he does not have anyone’s respect. He might create fear of reprisal. If you don’t do this you might go to jail, that sort of thing. But no one feels any need to obey such a person just from the force of their personality.

A rabbi in the first century was rather like the bureaucrat. He had a borrowed authority. He simply repeated what the scriptures said and the teachings of the rabbis before him. You can picture a rabbi answering a question with a long dissertation that ends with “but on the other hand...” By this they are not giving a clear answer, but a convoluted one. This is written here, but over here we read that, and so forth. The rabbi can only give this sort of answer because he has no real authority of his own. Even his authority to teach the Word is only human authority. In this, a pastor has greater authority than a rabbi. The office of the ministry was established by Christ. The office rabbi was established by man.

Christ rolls into Capernaum and begins to teach. What is Jesus style of teaching? Moses wrote.... but I tell you. Christ claims no other authority than Himself. He does not deny the Old Testament Scriptures, for indeed those are His words also. But He goes way beyond what any of the prophets said. How can this be? How can anyone claim to teach about God by their own authority? Either they are writing their own ticket to hell, or they are God. Only God can teach about God by their own authority.

Now, lots people claim to be God. In fact if you go into any metal hospital you’ll find at least one person who claims to be God. So the obvious explanation here is that this carpenter from Nazareth has had a few screws come loose. Of maybe we should say pegs, since screws probably weren’t invented yet. But what happens? John, in his gospel, would call such events signs. It’s a good word. Because that’s what follows a sign. It points us in another direction. No, the carpenter didn’t go out in the desert and get His brain cooked. Something very unusual is happening here. You people in Capernaum had better pay close attention.

A demon possessed man cries out: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” Let’s stop right there and look at this for a moment. First we must understand that this is the demon speaking through the man. So the question is whether Jesus of Nazareth had come to destroy the demons. What an incredible question. I can’t destroy a demon. I suppose, in theory, I might have some small authority over them, but even that would be a borrowed authority. No human being could do this? But this demon is terrified of Jesus. Why is it afraid? There can only be one answer. There is only one with authority and power to so threaten the demons. That is the One who created all things including the demons. That is Yahweh - I AM, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Only this One could cause such terror in a demon. And indeed the demon goes on: “I know who you are— the Holy One of God.” The exact wording here is key. It’s not a holy one. It’s the Holy One. Once you add the article, that is the word “the”, it can only be God Himself.

Christ immediately orders the demon to be silent and come out of the man. The demon complies. In fact the demon has no choice in the matter. The people are astounded. He teaches by His own authority and even the demons are compelled by His commands. There is something very different happening here. It was clear to the people of Capernaum that this was not business as usual. Sadly, what we don’t see is that the people believed in Him. His fame spread. People knew that something was happening. But they didn’t understand what it was.

Why was this sign given? Why did Christ cast out the demon? To show the world who He is. He is the Lord over the demons. Only God Himself can claim that authority. By this act, Christ is claiming to be God. And as God He can destroy the forces of darkness. He can command them and force them to comply. He has the power to destroy them. He has the power to chain them up in the dungeons of hell.

Okay, Jesus is God. That’s great, but what does this specific claim have to do with me? When mankind fell into sin, we became the slaves of the demonic realm. Even if we could find some way not to sin, we would still be under the accusation of sin. Sin is the weapon of Satan and his minions against us. We stand under condemnation because we are sinners. And Satan is the prosecutor. We see this for example in Zechariah 3. This is somewhat speculative, but I believe that Satan was created to be the special advocate for mankind. His principle act of rebellion was to become our accuser. In order to have a charge that would stand up before God’s judgement, Satan led mankind into sin. Christ came to earth to defeat the power of the demonic realm. He came to break the power of sin and death, Satan’s weapons against us. He came to cast Satan out of heaven and earth and bind him in the pits of hell, where he could no longer accuse us. Then, in the court of heavenly justice, Christ takes Satan’s place and acts as our advocate before the Father. In place of Satan’s accusations, we have wounds of Christ, still flowing for our redemption. Notice that when you see a statue of Christ, He is depicted with the wounds visible. That is because those wounds will never go away. They are the power that breaks the power of Satan forever.

In Capernaum, Christ begins His ministry with a dramatic sign. He teaches by His own authority and casts out a demon. He shows that He, in Himself, has such authority. He had indeed come to destroy the power of the demonic realm. In Christ, their power is broken forever. Sin and death, the weapons of Satan, are overcome. There is only One who could do this. For such power and authority does not arise from within man. Only divine power and authority could do this. And indeed when Christ comes, divine authority just oozes out of Him.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Watch This Guy

Gov. Mark Sanford, (R) South Carolina, has come out to publicly against Pres. Obama's spendulous plan. This makes him unique even among Republican governors. Most have lined up with their hands out for federal funds. This one action shoots Sanford right up to the top of the list for Republican presidential candidates, along with Bobby Jindal and Sarah Palin.

It's Official

Yes, Wal Mart Officially announced on Wednesday, February 7, that January sales were up. It just goes to show that no matter how bad the economy gets, someone will be making money.