Thursday, March 24, 2011

Sermon for March 19-20, 2011

The Second Sunday in Lent
March 19-20, 2011
Text: John 3:1-17

Dear Friends in Christ,
John’s Gospel is thought to not be chronological in its presentation. That is the events didn’t necessarily happen in the order that John presents them. Rather, it is like a series of vignettes about the life of Christ. This account appears early in the gospel, but yet it sounds like it is happening later in Christ’s ministry. Why? Well because Nicodemus speaks of Jesus performing signs or miracles. Yet, the only one recorded for us to this point is Jesus turning water into wine, which John states clearly was Jesus’ first miracle. But Jesus is a famous person at the time he meets with Nicodemus. So this conversation might have taken place much later in Christ’s ministry, perhaps even near the end. If so, why does John place it here at the beginning? Because Jesus, in the conversation, clearly lays out the message of the Gospel. He gives us the content.

When did John write this? Traditionally, we have said quite late, in the 90's A.D. shortly before his death or as some think his assumption in to heaven. There is a tradition that John did not die but was bodily assumed into heaven, much like Elijah. But this tradition cannot be said to be reliable, though it cannot be entirely excluded either. Back to the time of John’s writing. There are some scholars who think that John wrote very early - perhaps as early as the late 30's. But this is based upon what is called internal evidence which is very subjective. And yet, how does an old man, sixty years after the fact remember conversations, word for word? It seems very far fetched. First, John may have published his gospel in the 90's but wrote notes much earlier. Second, in that day people did not write things down. Paper and ink was expensive. They trained their memories. We know that people with such trained memories can sometimes remember with almost tape recorder accuracy many years later. Thirdly, and most importantly, Christ told the disciples that the Holy Spirit would bring all things into remembrance. So God the Holy Spirit is providing John with such perfect recall. Can God really do that? God the Holy Spirit could take the most advanced Alzheimer’s patient and make him remember conversations from his whole life. As miracles go, I don’t even rank it in the first order.

Who was Nicodemus. He was a Jewish rabbi and a member of the Sanhedrin - that is the ruling Jewish religious council. The name Nicodemus is a Greek name. That does not necessarily mean that he was a Greek convert. Many Jews of this period had Greek names. Even among Jesus’ disciples we see the name Philip, which would be a Greek name. In some circles adopting Greek names and customs would be considered a mark of culture. This would suggest a Jew that was a bit more flexible than some. The school of the Rabbi Hillel was the more flexible version of Judahism. The school of the Rabbi Shamie was the more rigid. A great story of the period has a Greek man coming to the Rabbi Shamie and stating that he would become a Jew if the Rabbi would recite the entire Jewish law for him while standing on one foot. The Rabbi Shamie took a stick and chased the man out. The man then went to the Rabbi Hillel with the same proposition. Hillel stood on one foot and said: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all you soul, all your heart, and all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

Nicodemus comes to Jesus secretly, by night. He does not want anyone to know of this conversation. He is an important leader among the Jews after all. But Nicodemus comes in faith. He acknowledges that Jesus must at least be a prophet of God, at a minimum. The evidence had convinced him of this much. He wants to hear exactly what Jesus is teaching.

Christ begins by pointing baptism to and with baptism the need to be born again. Now this was not a foreign concept. It was used when Greeks converted to Judaism. They were said to be born again as a Jew. But Christ says that all human beings must be born again - they must be born of water and the Spirit. Unless a man is born of God, he cannot be part of God’s kingdom. This implies the idea of original sin. To say something is flesh is to say it is corrupt and sinful. Greek has another word for body that would simply mean something is physical. Nor should we take this as “spiritual” in some vague sense, rather we are born of the Holy Spirit.

When we are born again, that is when we are baptized, we get a new set of parents. God becomes our father. We are begotten of the Holy Spirit. The Church is our mother. As the great church father Cyprian said, “No one can call God Father, unless the Church is his mother.”

Now, where does Christ go next? He speaks of His crucifixion. He uses a type from the Old Testament: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” He is speaking here of His crucifixion. He would be lifted up and all who look to Him will be healed and restored from sin and death. Thus all who believe in Him would have eternal life.

It is curious that our text does not include a few more verses. For Christ than adds some very important things. “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (John 3:18) Notice here a couple things. Here Christ clearly is claiming to be God. He is attaching salvation to Him alone. And those who reject Him, will face damnation. Further, Christ speaks of His name. That’s a very important concept that Christ is bringing forward into the New Testament. People thought a god was where the idol was located. But Yahweh said that He is present wherever His name is present. You call upon the true God by His Holy Name. That name is now Jesus Christ. He is Yahweh, come to earth. Wherever the name Jesus Christ is placed, there Jesus Christ is. And not only is He present, He is present in grace. He is present to hear our prayers and respond to our needs. Now where is the name Jesus Christ present? Well, in your baptism it was placed, right here, upon your forehead. The baptized carry the name of Jesus Christ with them wherever they go.

Here John gives us a summary of the Gospel message. Jesus Christ came to die for our sins. In Baptism, we are made children of God. We are His offspring, as well as His Church’s offspring. As children of God we carry the name of Jesus upon us. We have life. We can live in the light because our sins are forgiven. We can live before God because we carry the name of His Son upon us. It is not about us at all. We are like infants who are born. They do nothing, their mother pushes them out into the world. So too are the children of God. We don’t make ourselves be born. We are begotten of the Holy Spirit and born of the Church. We are born forgiven because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Sermon for March 16, 2011

Second Wednesday in Lent
March16, 2011
Text: Romans 1:16-32

Dear Friends in Christ,
The Apostle Paul wrote the most books of the New Testament. Of the 27 books 13 are written by St. Paul. Two more are written by Paul’s associate St. Luke. Mark was also at times associated with Paul, though at other times, worked with Peter. And the anonymous writer to the Hebrews likewise frames his discourse in the same manner as Paul, though with a much more scholarly tone. So 17 of the 27 books are connected to St. Paul. St. Paul was a convert to Christianity about year after Jesus’ death and resurrection. He had earlier persecuted Christianity. Paul was a disciple of the great Rabbi Gamaliel who is mentioned prominently in many Jewish sources, as the greatest disciple of the greatest of all Jewish Rabbis, Hillel. Within the Pauline corpus, no book stands above the Epistle to the Romans. It was a letter sent by Paul to prepare for a future trip to Rome, and to ask support from the Roman Christians for a journey to preach the Gospel in Spain. The Roman congregation is a bit of a mystery. For Paul writes to it at a time when, as yet, none of the Apostles had been to Rome. Paul and Peter would both later make it to Rome, but neither were involved with its founding. One can only guess at its origins. But it would seem likely that some of those converted on Pentecost carried the Gospel back to Rome. Unlike most of Paul’s other letters, Romans is simply a discourse on the nature of the Christian faith. He is not addressing a particular problem. The letter is like a catechism. He is speaking in general terms about the things that are to be taught and believed about Jesus Christ.

After Paul’s initial greetings, He makes a brief but profound statement. He explains the nature of the Gospel and establishes this as the center of His message. Everything that follows is intended explain this brief introduction. “For 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. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” This by the way is my confirmation verse. Paul does not give a full definition of the Gospel at this point. He somewhat assumes that his readers will know this - though he does develop this at some length later on. But three clues are given here. First, the Gospel brings salvation to all who believe it. Second it reveals the righteousness of God. Third, the new life that comes from the Gospel is received by means of faith. Paul, right out of the gate is rejecting any works that we do. It is faith in Christ that saves. And the rest of our text will begin to offer an explanation of why that is.

Paul now warns that the wrath or anger of God is active against all ungodliness. Paul will first explain why God can do this, and then he will explain what he means by ungodliness.

How can God punish mankind? After all only a small portion of mankind had the Word of God, that is the Bible. Paul does not believe in what we call today natural law. Rather, Paul believed in a natural knowledge of the law. And with this comes a natural knowledge of the existence of God. Human reason can determine that God exists. How? It is really quite simple. Everything we see was made in some way. Either an artisan fashioned it, or biological parents produced it by procreation or some such thing. Thus it is reasonable to assume that there is a creator god simply by looking at the world. For if the world exists someone must have created it. We can delude ourselves and say this is not so, as the evolutionists do. That doesn’t change the fact that God has presented this evidence to us. God will still hold us accountable. While modern man has created the god of science, ancient man created the idols in all manner of images. The gods of the idols were not the creator of the world. They were either demons or the wild imaginings of mankind. In either case, the idols are part of the creation rather than the creator.

What happens when mankind rejects the true God, Jesus Christ? God hands them over to their sin. God lets them sink deeper and deeper until they create their own hell on earth. Either it leads to repentance, or more often, they die in their sins. Paul’s list is graphic and blunt. He pulls no punches. Homosexuality, both male and female is a mark of their rejection of God. These sins in particular, mark not only a rejection of God but also of God’s created order. It does not take a genius to figure out that human beings were made to function, biologically, in certain ways. Homosexuality violates God’s command as well as God’s created order, often with catastrophic consequences both here and in eternity. Why does Paul spend extra time on homosexuality? Because it was widely accepted in the Greek world and at that time, increasingly, in the Roman world. Originally Roman culture had not adopted the sins of the Greeks. But by this time, that was changing. Nero and his public homosexual antics were yet to come, but the Emperor Caligula would have been in recent memory at the time. Paul then goes on to offer a whole laundry list of sins. The most ironic thing on the list is that men are “inventors of evil.” We keep finding new sins to commit, as if the old ones aren’t bad enough.

Why does Paul offer this discourse on sin? Well, first he is establishing what sin is. He makes it clear that these things displease God. Those who do them will die and God is just in punishing in this way. He is just because man knew this was wrong and did it anyway. The only remedy to sin is the Gospel. The Gospel, that Christ died for our sins, in our place offers the only escape from sin. That’s why Paul started with that. But Paul is not done. He will continue to hammer on sin. His point is to convict everyone. He wants to show that its not just those guys over there, but rather it is us. We are the debauched sinners. We are guilty of all the things listed in our text, either by action or by approval of others. How many Christian parents cannot bring themselves to tell their homosexual children that they are sinning? And by refusing to speak up, they give approval and become guilty themselves. In end we all need that salvation that comes in the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, Who died for us and our salvation.

Sermon for March 12-13, 2011

The First Sunday in Lent
March 12-13, 2011
Text: Matthew 4:1-11

Dear Friends in Christ,
There was a song a few years ago called “Holding Out for a Hero.” It was recorded by Bonnie Tyler and was included in the sound track to the movie “Footloose”. It speaks of this girl who was just barely holding on waiting to be rescued by her hero. The video was set in the old west and she was being attacked by villains dressed in black. At the very end she was rescued by a man in white. We have all sorts of versions of this. One of the oldest is the Swiss hero William Tell, the great crossbowman who shot an apple off the top of his son’s head. Another hero of this period was Robin Hood. Many stories about knights in shining armor fall into this genre. Zorro, which means the “the fox” was a hero from the Spanish Pyrenees Mountains who gets relocated into America. There are Zorro stories set in both North and South America as well it’s original local in Spain. Then we had the Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, and the Cisco Kid in the old west. As we moved forward we had the comic book heros, Superman, Captain America, Wonder Woman, Batman and Robin, the Green Hornet, the Shadow, and the like. When I was in high school we had “The Greatest American Hero,” a television program that parodied the old hero stories. They really are all the same story, when it comes down to it. They are all about the helpless victim, often a woman, who needs to be rescued from the villain. And the hero always comes at the nick of time to save them. The very first hero story is in the Bible. It goes all the way back to Genesis 3 where God promised a hero to rescue us from sin and death.

We don’t like to think of ourselves as victims, as hapless heroines. And yet, that is one the images we see for mankind the Bible. We are trapped by Satan, sin and death. We are in bondage to the devil. This is what happened when mankind fell into sin. We can no longer fight for ourselves. We are powerless. As Martin Luther say of us when try to fight the devil: “Soon were our loss effected.” That mean we are quickly defeated. We cannot stand up to the power of the evil one. Christ Himself calls us slaves to sin.

This is the problem that we have. We want to fight the battle ourselves. We don’t want to let someone fight for us. We want to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and spit in the devil’s face. But we have no power in this fight. We are helpless. We have no power against Satan. We are like the heroine tied to the saw mill, slowly moving toward the spinning blade. Such is the power that sin exerts over us. Sin is the devil’s weapon to destroy us. So long as we are in sin, we belong to Satan. We are his property. And we have no power to change this state of affairs.

Our only hope is that a hero comes and rescue us from sin and death. At His baptism, Christ accepted the role of our hero. He now stands in our place and everything He does counts as if we had done it. It is credited to our account. So immediately after His baptism, Christ is driven out into the desert to be tempted by the devil in our place. He is here enduring our temptations. He faces the devil we cannot face. One of the aspects of Christ’s work that is often forgotten is His obedience. Here we have obedience in the face of Satan’s direct temptation. We are disobedient. We sin. No matter how we struggle this never changes. Sin is like an onion. We put some sin out of our life. We think we’re doing well. Then God pulls off the next layer and we see that we haven’t been very good at all. So we strive to do better and we clean up that layer of the onion, then God pulls back another layer, and we see that we are no better then we were before. I have often commented that maturity of faith is found in the recognition of our sins. The more mature our faith, the more profoundly we recognize our sins. Fighting our sins, by our power, is, in the end a fruitless task. For even if we can make some outward change, it does not change the fact that we are sinners. But Christ is obedient. He does not sin. He faces the devil and fends him off. He does this in our place. His obedience becomes our obedience. We who are sinners are counted as obedient because Christ faced the devil and did not sin.

Of course this is just the beginning of the battle between Christ and Satan. The temptation was the opening salvo, the first campaign. They would continue to battle for three years. The final decisive battle would come in Jerusalem. Christ, as a victim would win the day. He would give His life as our ransom. He would pay the price of sin, He would bear our punishment. Then, just as the devil and his minions were dancing for joy that God had died, Christ burst from His tomb, victorious. Satan’s power was broken. It was broken because his power is sin. Without sin, Satan has no power over us at all. Now, because Christ has shattered the ranks of hell, one little word will fell him. And that word is liar. Satan is a liar. Everything he says is either a lie or spoken for some false purpose. And so when we confront him as a liar, he must flee. He must flee because Christ has already rendered him powerless. Christ has castrated him and stripped him of his ability to propagate his evil. He is reduced to being a powerless liar.

Many Christians think that they have the ability to fight the devil. In fact much of what claims to be Christianity in America is completely Christless, leaving us in our sins and at the devil’s mercy. We have no power to defeat the devil. Only in Christ, do we find the victory. Christ fights Satan for us. This is our battle, but Christ fights in our place. This is the very center of who we are as Christians. We are people who depend upon a hero. That hero is Jesus Christ. Christ defeated Satan. Christ was obedient in our place. He died for our sins. He rose victorious over sin and death. This is what the Christian faith is all about. It is about Christ and what He has done for us.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Sermo for March 9, 2011

Ash Wednesday
March 9, 2011
Text: Joel 2:12-19

Dear Friends in Christ,
For the people of this age, life has allowed them to believe a lie. Even our older people who should know better, have in some cases forgotten. Let me brag here for a moment. I have not forgotten. But I can claim no credit for this. It was a lesson learned early and painfully. It was taught to me by my oldest sister - Sandy. I was a small child, at that age where you get carted from pillar to post - to small to be left home, to small to be in school, but old enough to be a complete pest. So basically, most every place my mother went, I got dragged along. I remember my mother had a small tape measure in a pink metal case that she kept in her purse. I remember because I saw here using it all the time. What was she measuring? Headstones. My sister Sandy had died about five or six years earlier - two years before I was born. She had been just ten years old. She had been buried in a new plot in the newest part of the church cemetery. They had not as yet, put a stone on the grave. Then one day, Dad stayed home from work and he went with us to look at head stones. Eventually a brown granite stone was selected, Dad poured the foundation for it, and it was installed on the plot, with Sandy’s name engraved in one of the small windows on the stone, with the family name wrote large in the center of each side. What is this lesson that Sandy taught me? That we die. That death cannot be cheated. It is a reality. We can’t run away from it.

It was many years later that I finally came to understand that Sandy died because she was a sinner and that I would likewise die because I too am a sinner. Sin brought death into the world. Every human being, born in sin, is doomed to die. We cannot curse death, because we have no control over it. Our curses will not chase it away. We cannot run from death. The father of fitness guru Jim Fixx died of heart disease at a young age. Fixx thought if he was fit enough, he could run away from death. He literally tried to run from death. But, like his father, he died young of heart disease, in spite of all his efforts. Death cannot be beaten, it cannot be cheated. It will claim us all.

Sadly, many Americans, because of our great prosperity, have forgotten this reality.
Often it is times of prosperity that lead people to turn away from God. They hide death under the blanket of our earthly success. So too with ancient Israel. The more successful they became, the more they turned away from God. The more they ignored the reality of death. Then God would send prophets like Joel to remind them.

Our text is not so much reflecting the attitude that the people had, but the attitude that they should have. Martin Luther, in the first of his “95 Theses” said that the whole Christian life should be one of repentance. He might well have had Joel 2 in mind. We are to be mournful over sin. Nor is this to be only an outward show. But we are to mourn in our hearts. And with this mourning over sin, ought to be a desire to turn from sin, to amend our lives.

Why are we to this? It goes to very nature of God Himself. God is just. He punishes sin. He condemns sinners to eternal flames. But He is also “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.” God will forgive the repentant of their sins. He will restore them to His presence. Otherwise, there would be no point to repentance. Why should we admit guilt if it changes nothing. But here with God, He forgives the sins of the repentant. He will not punish them.

What we know from ancient Israel is that ultimately they were not repentant. They continually returned to their sins. And this seems to be much the same in America today. We are caught up in the economy. We are worried about jobs. We are worried about taxes and health care coverage. But these are earthly things. They pass away and one day will be of no importance. This whole world will come to its end. And how many people of this world, so caught up in these things, have no time for the things that will last for eternity. God gives us clear warning. Hell is real. Condemnation is real. But the grace of God is real as well. It is there for all people. Only some choose to reject it. Let that not be us.

Today/Tonight we being the season of Lent. It is a season were we take extra time to focus away from the things of this world and focus upon the things that are eternal. It is a time for us to focus on cleansing our hearts and clearing away our sins. It is time when we focus on the reality of Christ’s suffering for our salvation. It is also a time for us to spend more time in the Word of God. Not only should we do this privately, but as couples, families, in small groups and in church. This is why we have extra services as this time. But also consider things like Bible study on Sunday mornings. These are all ways that we can dedicate ourselves to the eternal things. We do this because we know we have a God who is forgiving. We have a God who Himself paid for our sins and our salvation. And when we turn to the Word we are learning ever more about the things that God has done for us. We are learning about the things that will not pass away - the things that are eternal. We are learning about life with God, in Christ.

Sermon for March 5-6, 2011

The Last Sunday After the Epiphany - The Transfiguration of Our Lord
March 5-6, 2011
Text: Matthew 17:1-9

Dear Friends in Christ,
The stories are quite common. Someone isn’t who they appear to be. The crown prince of England stumbles upon a boy who looks exactly like him. Then they trade places. They both have some wonderful adventures until the crown prince is caught up and carried off. Right at that moment the king dies. The crown prince is desperate to get back to the palace but only manages it in the nick of time with great difficulty. All the people he met in his adventures were shocked to learn that he really was the crown prince. Mark Twain wrote this improbable tale of the Prince and Pauper. A Scottish youth is kidnaped and put aboard a ship that is to take him to America. The ship is wrecked and the boy escapes. He discovers that his uncle was behind it. Unbeknownst even to the boy himself, he was the heir of a great estate, which is uncle currently held, illegally. He falls in with a Scottish revolutionary and they have many adventures on their way to confront the uncle. The story is told to us by Jonathon Swift and simply entitled Kidnaped. A more recent story of this type would be the movie True Lies where Jamie Lee Curtis discovers that her husband, Arnold Schwarzenegger is not a computer salesman, but really is a top secret agent. There is a great line in the movie when Curtis realizes her husband’s true identity: “Oh, my God, I’m married to Rambo.” There are many other such stories in the literary world.

In many ways the first such account is the New Testament. Jesus of Nazareth was a poor, itinerant rabbi who gathered a group of disciples. He styled Himself the Son of Man. More literally, according to the Greek text, Son of Mankind. The significance of this is found in a vision in the book of Daniel. In the vision the Ancient of Days speaks to the Son of Man. It is clear that this the Father speaking to the Son. So Jesus is picking up on that vision and using that title for Himself. It is a claim of divinity, though a less than obvious one. Peter even expressed the idea that this Jesus was the Messiah or Christ - God’s Anointed One promised from ancient times. But even saying that, does not convey the reality. While some of the theologians understood that the Christ was God Himself, I think most of the common people assumed the Christ was a super prophet. So Peter was still not really clear that this was God.

Toward the end of Jesus’ ministry, He took three of His disciples, Peter, and the brothers James and John up a high mountain in the north of Galilee. Some people think that perhaps it was Mount Hermon. We don’t know that for fact, but Mount Hermon would be one of the tallest mountains in the region. It certainly fits the descriptions in the Gospels. I don’t know what they expected, but they were about to get the shock of their life. While there, praying, according to Luke’s account, Christ was transfigured before them. He was no longer this poor, bedraggled figure. He shone with a magnificent light. His clothing was so bright it was unbearable to watch. He was suddenly the crown prince of heaven - God the Son. He was the beautiful Son of Man depicted in Daniel. The disciples rightly go into a panic. But even in their terror they see something else that is remarkable. Moses and Elijah were speaking to Jesus. As an aside people often ask how they knew it was Moses and Elijah. Moses of course is easy. He’s the one holding the stone tablets. Actually, we don’t know how they new this. They just knew. I suspect that for that moment it was like heaven where we will know everyone perfectly.

Peter than offers to built three tabernacles. Our translation has tents but that’s hardly adequate. Why tabernacles? What is a tabernacle? A place of worship. So what he’s proposing to set up, in essence, is temples for each of them. Peter is thinking in terms of worshiping these prophets. That of course is completely wrong headed and I’m sure Moses and Elijah would have told him that. They were not to be worshiped. They were sinful men. At that moment, a cloud covers them. This is like the cloud that covered Mount Sinai in the days Moses. It is a cloud that covers the glory of God so that sinful men are not destroyed by the Holy Presence. Now, the Father, the Ancient of Days from the book of Daniel, speaks. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”

What was happening here? Why was it Moses and Elijah? Moses and Elijah are the greatest of the prophets. They both spoke with God on Mount Sinai. They represent the common division of the Old Testament into the Law and the Prophets. The Law is the five books of Moses. Elijah would represent all the others - the latter prophets. They were there to point to Christ. God the Father speak and tells to listen to Christ. Does this mean that we stop listening to what the prophets wrote. Not at all. But we understand what Moses and Elijah did, the Old Testament in there to point us to Christ. Christ is the final fulfillment of their ministries. If we listen to Christ, we will be listening to the Old Testament. We will be listening to the prophets. And they will be speaking about Christ to us. They will be pointing us to Christ.

This is the moment of revelation. This is the moment when the veil comes off. We see Christ for who He is - God the Son. There is no more doubt. Yet, for the three witnesses, I suspect that they did not fully understand until after the resurrection. Only then did they understand the full glory of God.

God gives us these little glimpses. But these are only to wet the appetite. We would finally see God fully revealed in the cross and the empty tomb. That’s where God wants us to be looking. And indeed, it is right after this that Christ begins His final journey to Jerusalem. These little glimpses are there to clue us in to what is happening when we get to the city. They remind us that this is no accident. This is God the Son, the Son of Man, enacting the will of God the Father, the Ancient of Days.

The mount of Transfiguration is a terrifying place. It is a place, we sinners cannot stand. We cannot stand before a Holy God. But this mount is there only to point us to a smaller, seemingly insignificant bit of rejected rock - Mount Calvary. This One who spoke with the great prophets of old, reveals Himself in another way. It is a way we can bear. He reveals Himself to us as our Savior - as the perfect Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world. And so we look to both mountains, but we dwell with Christ on Mount Calvary, in the shadow of that cross that saves us and gives us eternal life.

March 2011 Newsletter

From the Disk of the Pastor March 2011

Dear Friends in Christ,
We live at a time when we feel tossed about on the deck of the incompetently helmed ship of state. We feel helpless. We are warned about all sort of looming problems. Now with Lybian oil off the market, there is fear that we may actually see gasoline rationing. The world seems to being going insane with the Tripoli massacres.

Yet, this is hardly new. Let me tell you about a pastor from a long time ago. Philip Nicolai was a young pastor serving his first parish around the year 1600. On a typical Sunday he preached to about five hundred people. Then the plague came to that part of Germany. Whole families were struck down. The funerals started. The study of young Pastor Nicolai looked out on the church cemetery. He could see the fresh graves from his desk. He was averaging six funerals each day. This continued for six weeks until he had buried half his congregation. In the midst of this, the young pastor began to write a long poem, to express his confidence in Jesus Christ. He called this poem “Mirror of Joy.” A couple years later, he turned back to the poem he had written in those dark days. He selected two sections and wrote melodies, in order to set them to music. They were published as the hymn “Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying” and “Oh Morning Star How Fair and Bright.” They quickly become known as the King and Queen of the chorals, that is, the greatest of all Lutheran hymns.

In midst of that great trial, this man of God wrote: “You shine with God’s own truth and light, Aglow with grace and mercy”. (LSB 395, v.1) He adds “We enter all, The wedding hall To eat the Supper as Thy call.” (LSB 516, v.2) Nicholai’s hymns fairly drip with confidence in Christ. When the whole world is coming unglued, Christ does not waver. Salvation does not change. Yes, these earthly events are certainly terrible. We would not wish such times upon the worst person we have ever met. But Christ still is the One with all authority in heaven and on earth. He’s still in charge.

Why does Christ give us such trials? That is a complex question. Specific answers are impossible to give, short of Christ directly telling us. Such revelation is rare indeed. But we can say how God has used such trials in the past. In the Old Testament, the people of Israel, after the time of King Jehu, thought that they were right with God. They had cleansed Israel of the worship of Baal. But they were still worshiping God through an idolatrous image - that of a golden calf. They had golden calf shrines at Bethel and Dan. The golden calf was intended to be an image of the true God. In addition, because they had written their own theology, instead of listening to what God had given them, they were very unjust. The rich lived in luxury and oppressed the poor. America is not an exact parallel. But in the prosperity of the last quarter century, many learned to trust their wealth instead of God. Even among our retirees, morality was at low ebb. If you doubt this, consider the epidemic of STD’s among senior citizens in the state of Florida. Even those who didn’t engage in such overt sins, often lived in leisure, with no concern for anyone else. Younger people spent all the energy working to earn enough money to live such a life when they retired. And what was happening theologically? Liberal churches were blessing the most perverse of all sins. Evangelical churches were preaching how good we are and we can make ourselves even better. America, as a nation, had made the self god.

What do we need at this time? The Word of God. We need to be ever more focused upon the gifts of forgiveness and life that God gives to us. We need to be deeply in prayer for our neighbors, our nation and the world. At the heart of that prayer needs to be repentance. Then we need to share this with those around us. When you hear someone complain, tell them to pray. Tell them to turn to Scripture, to go to Church, to go to the Lord’s Supper. I cannot say that this will make the troubles go away. But I can say that this is always God’s will for all people. This is what we need to be about. If this does not result in earthly peace, it will bear fruit before God and in eternity. For if we are repentant, we are children of God. We are property of Christ. And that is far more important than what is happening to our bank accounts.
Rev. Jody R. Walter
Through your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way.
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. Psalm 119:104-105

Sermon for February 26-27, 2011

The Sixth Sunday After the Epiphany
February 26-27, 2011
Text: Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Dear Friends in Christ,
The book of Deuteronomy has been called the world’s longest sermon. The book is essentially a sermon given by Moses to the Children of Israel before they entered the promised land. Moses knew that he was not going to enter with them. He would turn the leadership over to Joshua.

God made two covenants with ancient Israel. The first is the messianic covenant. In this covenant, God alone is the actor. He is unilaterally giving His gifts and the actions of man have no bearing upon the end result. At the root of this is the promise that God would atone for sin. He would send His Anointed One through the line of Judah. The second covenant is the civil or earthly covenant with the nation. This covenant is quite different. It is about earthly things and mans actions play a critical role. It is this second covenant that is the basis of our text.

To understand this we must understand the role of choice in the Christian life. This is perhaps the most misunderstood thing in current day America. We like to think that we have total free will. But the reality is quite different. A person might choose to be a major league baseball player, but in order to do that you need to be able to hit a baseball. Or throw one really hard. Of all the kids that sign contracts to play professional baseball, only about 1% will make it in the majors. Only about 5% even crack the majors at all. So it might be my choice to be a major league baseball player, but that doesn’t matter. It isn’t going to happen. Even major leaguers sometimes find that they have little choice. Denny McClain thought he’d be a cracker jack shortstop. When he signed with Detroit it was not clear which way his career would go. He was the best hitter on his high school team after all. But he found in the pros, he wasn’t much of a hitter. So he just became the last 30 game winner in the major leagues, helping the 1968 Tigers to the World Series.

St. Augustine was the one who cracked this whole conundrum of choice. Man has limited free will. We will always be hemmed in by our talents, our inclinations, as well our circumstances. The most brilliant scientist in the world in 1600 would have never discovered Penicillin. All sorts of other discoveries had to happen first. So our will is always limited. Most of all, the unbeliever, cannot of his own power, respond in any positive way toward God. That option simply doesn’t exist. Thus we say in the explanation to the Third Article: “I cannot by own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him...” God has to work upon us and convert us to faith. This literally is a resurrection from death.

The unbeliever cannot come to faith by his own power, the believer can leave the faith. Here is where choice becomes very real. We can chose to kill our faith and become unbelievers. We can jump ship. We can choose disobedience. We can remain in God’s grace or choose to reject God’s grace. Notice how I put that. We can remain in God’s grace. Notice there I didn’t say this was a choice. But it is a choice to abandon the faith.

This brings us back to Moses. Moses is outlining the civil covenant with God. If they obeyed the law God gave them at Mount Sinai, they would live peacefully in the promised land. But if they disobeyed, particularly if they started to worship other gods, God would punish them. God would curse them. Now we must understand this in context. Dumb modern Americans think that the Israelites would stop worshiping Yahweh, and start to worship some idols. But that’s not what happened. That’s not what God was warning about. The sin here was syncretism. Syncretism is the blending of things that aren’t supposed to go together. People in the ancient world had the attitude, I don’t want to make anyone angry, I need all the divine help I can get. So if they traveled around they picked up all the gods of the lands they traveled through. To understand this we must understand exactly what First Commandment says. A literal rendering of the Hebrew goes like this: “You shall have no other gods before My face.” This is first and foremost a liturgical command. You are not to mix the worship of the true God with the worship of false gods. Nor are you to worship God in a way other than was commanded. Now what is this about? Throughout Israelite history they kept making idols to represent Yahweh. They were in the form of a bull calf, often a golden bull calf. Moses is telling them that if they do this, God will curse them. What happened? They failed. They did not keep the covenant. And God punished them with many calamities. God divided the nation. Ultimately, God had both halves taken off into exile.

Now how does this apply to us? First we must say that God made this covenant with ancient Israel. It does not apply to modern Israel. Nor has God made a covenant with the United States. He has promised us nothing. He has no special obligation to this nation over any other nation. We reject all forms of Anglo-Zionism and Ammer-Zionism. We are not a chosen race. We are not a chosen nation. So any inference we would take from this text, in terms of the earthly affairs of our nation, would have to be general. It would have to apply equally to all nations. What we can say is that God is not pleased with the increasing immorality of this nation. God is never pleased with sin. We have become an increasingly decadent society. We have used our great wealth for our own indulgence rather than helping our fellow man. In this, I cannot excuse myself. It is tempting to say, ah, I’ve done more than others. But that’s not the measuring stick. The measuring stick is the needs that God has laid before me. And it is difficult, because we cannot possibly meet every need that we see. But our decisions are never made purely. In addition to our lack of charity, there is the overt sins of sexual immorality. How often do we ourselves wink at sin instead of bearing witness to God’s will?

We can say, that is seems that God is sending this nation many trials as a call to repentance. But that is an earthly matter. In the end, this world will pass away. It will be replaced by the new earth, a world not corrupted by sin. But civil obedience to God’s law does not get us into heaven. So here we have two different kinds of righteousness. There is the civil righteousness which is about this world. We can say that generally, God blesses nations that have a strong sense of civil righteousness. But this righteousness does not get anyone into heaven. It is always an imperfect righteousness. Before the judgement of God, we must stand in Christ’s righteousness. And that righteousness starts with our repentance. We repent of our sins and Christ takes our place. That is saving righteousness. So let’s keep this straight. Civil righteousness is about works and its about this world. Personal righteousness is always Christ standing in our place. That righteousness is about forgiveness salvation and eternal life. Both are important. But only Christ’s righteousness gets us into heaven.

Sermon for February 19-20, 2011

The Fifth Sunday After Epiphany
February 19-20, 2011
Text: Matthew 5:13-20

Dear Friends in Christ,
One of Rush Limbaugh famous tag lines is: “Talent on loan from God.” Many take offense at this and say oh, this is terrible, what arrogance. In reality, it’s just the opposite. It’s saying that the talent he has was given to him by God. It is a statement of humility. But it is cleverly packaged so that many miss the point. Their missing the point says more about them than about anyone or anything else. On Pirate Christian Radio one of their bumpers is “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of Rick Warren, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” Now many people probably take offense at this. And yes they are taking a swipe at Warren and his false teaching. But those who take offense are missing an essential point. The statement is true. In fact the statement would be true no matter what name you plugged into the blurb. Unless your righteousness exceeds that of George W. Bush, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. Unless your righteousness exceeds that of Billy Graham, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. Unless your righteousness exceeds that of Martin Luther you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. Unless your righteousness exceeds that of President Harrison you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. Unless your righteousness exceeds that of Pastor Walter you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.

Our text is a continuation of the Sermon on the Mount. You might recall that this was a teaching given privately to the disciples. It is the New Testament version of Mount Sinai and the giving of the stone tablets. Christ speaks from the mountain top to His disciples, just as He had spoken to Moses. In this section, Christ is discussing the nature of God’s law.
The law is what we are to do and not to do. The law is the way that God expresses His will for our lives. The law is not a bad thing in and of itself. The old hymn writer teaches us; “The law of God is good and wise.” And certainly we can use the law as a guide for Godly living. The problem is that we cannot keep the law. We are born corrupt. We are born as rebels, as ones already in violation of the law. We inherit sin from our father Adam. And because we are born sinners, we sin. We violate that good and wise law of God. Thus, if we have any sense at all, we live in terror of the law. As a side note, it is truly amazing how many people have no sense of this at all. They go about their lives deluding themselves with their own goodness. Christ does have something to say about that in this text, as we shall see.

Christ speaks of the law as fixed and unmoving. Even He will not change it. Even He is under it. Now we must here speak of different kinds of law. The Mosaic code, that is the law of Moses, consisted of three kinds of law. There was civil law. This was no longer in force in Jesus’ day. It had passed away. It was abolished. Why? Because Israel didn’t rule its own affairs. Mosaic civil law had been replaced by Roman law. Second was the ceremonial law or Levitical law. This has to do with the cultus, the worship life of Israel. This is what governed the temple. Levitical law specified what animals were to be sacrificed when and so forth. Those sacrifices had sacramental function. They gave the forgiveness of sin, much like the Lord’s Supper does for us. They did this, not because they had any value in themselves, but because God had promised this and they pointed forward to something that did have value and power. These laws would morph into something else when that greater thing came to be. The third kind of law was the moral law. This is written into the very fabric of the universe. If you were able to look into the spiritual nature of a rock, you would find God’s moral law. It is written in our hearts. But here we must be careful, because sin corrupts our hearts. Because of sin, our hearts and consciences are no longer reliable witnesses to the law. You get the sense, and C. S. Lewis asserts this in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, that if this law were changed, the very universe itself would be unmade.

So which of these later two types of law is Christ speaking of in our text? Both. He comes to fulfill both the moral and ceremonial law. He fulfills the moral law by being sinless. He fulfills the ceremonial law when he died on the cross as the perfect Lamb of God. He becomes the perfect sacrifice that makes all other sacrifices meaningless. This then morphs into the new ceremonial law, which has three components, Baptism, Holy Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper. So Christ is fulfilling the moral law, and replacing the ceremonial law, which was based on the shadows of future events, with the real thing. The moral law never goes away. The ceremonial law only passes away when it is perfectly fulfill by Christ Himself.

Only someone who has perfectly fulfilled the law is righteous. That counts me out. I can’t go a minute without sinning in some way. I sometimes wonder if I sin in my sleep. Some of my dreams make me wonder. It also counts Rick Warren out. For he teaches that we can by our works make ourselves blessable by God. The only thing the works of men can earn from God is damnation - eternity in hell. This counts Pastor Harrison and Billy Graham out as well. They are sinners. It even counts all of you out. If you have any doubts go through the Ten Commandments in Luther’s Large Catechism. Only one human being is righteous - Jesus Christ. He fulfilled law. And then He does something really strange. He transfers this righteous to us and takes our unrighteousness upon Himself. So when you and I stand before God, we have perfect righteousness. I can boast that I have a righteousness greater than that of Pastor Walter’s. I have the righteousness of Jesus Christ. That’s why Christ died - so that He could give to each and every one of us His righteousness. He died so that in the last judgement, we will be judged according to His righteousness.

Many people look to themselves and their works for their salvation. That’s what the Scribes and the Pharisees were doing. They were looking to themselves for their salvation. In this sense they were making themselves god. Sadly, today, many American Christians are doing the same thing. Works righteousness has so completely saturated American Evangelicalism, its hard to even call many of these congregations churches. The problem is that within ourselves we only find sin and death. There is no life within us. Rather than our own righteousness, we need an alien righteousness. We need a righteousness that is not our own given to us. Jesus Christ does that. Unless we have a righteousness that exceeds our righteousness, we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. And indeed we have such righteousness. We have the righteousness of Jesus Christ.

Sermon for February 12-13, 2011

The Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany
February 12-13, 2011
Text: Matthew 5:1-12

Dear Friends in Christ,
In the rare book collection owned by Yale University is a very fancy leather bound book called the Voynich Manuscript. The book is in good condition and even has metal clasps to hold the book shut when not in use. It has been dated to about 1400-1450 - just before the introduction of movable type and books produced by the printing press. The book was sold, along with whole trunk of other old books, to an Italian used book dealer by the Jesuits in 1912. None of this makes the book of special interest. What is inside is most curious. The pages are covered with drawings, letters and symbols. The symbols are not from any known language. It is believed to have been written in some form of cipher or code. But no one has been able to decode it. Even powerful decryption computers have been stumped. It is thought that perhaps the original author had a template and that only the letters that were in the holes of the template had meaning. This would have been a common code device of the time. Before copyrights and patents, many scholars wrote their work down in code. So the Voynich manuscript was probably just the journal of a renaissance scholar. It is likely that we will never know.

For many Christians, the Beatitudes are as obscure as some ancient manuscript written in an obscure code. Part of this is that it is a difficult section of the Scriptures to translate. You can’t quite get the right accent to the ideas Christ is discussing in English. But secondly, many people lose site of the key to all of Scripture. What is this key you might ask? The Cross of Jesus Christ. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the sins of the world. This becomes like that templet sheet with certain spots cut out, so that we can decode the text. Secondly, another templet is needed. That templet is the Old Testament. There is some very deliberate imagery that ties into the Old Testament.

Verse 1 is a bit curious, but important for us to picture the setting. Jesus sees the crowds, but then goes up the mountain. This was not some little hill that He could use as a pulpit. He is moving away from the crowds and speaking only to His disciples. This may have been more than the twelve, but this is a sermon not given to the general public. So what does this have to do with the Old Testament? Who went up mountains in the Old Testament? Moses, Elijah, Abraham, and numerous others. But who spoke from the mountain top? Who particularly spoke from the top of Mount Sinai? How many of you think it was Moses? Wrong. It was God. It was Christ who spoke to both Moses and Elijah from the top of Mount Sinai. So Christ is not pulling a Moses. He’s speaking from the mountain top as He did before. The disciples play the role of Moses receiving the mountain top revelation from God. This is the New Testament version of the giving of the stone tablets. And just like in Exodus where the people are kept back from the mountain and God speaks to His prophet, so now He speaks to His disciples.

If we get the first of the Beatitudes correct, the rest will likely fall into place. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Christ here is talking about the spiritually poor. He is talking about those who understand that they are beggars before God. He talking about those who can do nothing for themselves to change their status before God. He’s talking about those who see that they are hopelessly trapped in their sins. Theirs in the kingdom of heaven. This turns everything on its head, from the Pharisees of Christ’s day to the prosperity preachers of today. The Pharisees, like the prosperity preachers today, taught that you can have your best life now. They taught that if you just follow the law and do all the right rituals, you can call down blessings from heaven. The power is within you. Christ stands that on its head. There is no power within us. We are poor in spirit. We have no spiritual power, no spiritual discernment. What happens when a person realizes their spiritual poverty? What happens when a person realizes that they can do nothing to help themselves? Then they must rely upon another to save them. And what does Christ say? Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. They have abject spiritual poverty, but yet they have the deed to heaven. Why? Because Christ gives it to Him. He does that when He dies on the cross for our salvation.

This is a key concept to understanding the Beatitudes. The word that we translate as “blessed” carries a lot of freight. First, these blessings come from outside ourselves. Someone has to bless us for us to be blessed. We don’t make ourselves blessed. So here Christ is defining the blessings that He is giving His disciples, including us. Second, this word carries with it the idea of being saved. The blessings that Christ is talking about are not temporal. They are eternal. To be blessed is to be saved. Again, it is the idea of someone else saving us. The blessings, the salvation, the eternal life, come to us from outside of ourselves. Christ blesses us, saves us, and gives us eternal life. All this weight of meaning is included in that one word, “blessed.”

The other eight statements of blessing follow after the first. Mourning is our sorrow over our spiritual poverty. The meekness follows from this as well. A beggar does not boast or claim anything by right. The beggar meekly holds out his hand to be filled. Those who know the poverty of sin, hunger for righteousness. Those who claim nothing by right, impose nothing upon others. They do not condemn the sins of others. They give mercy as God gives mercy to them. The pure in heart are those made pure by Christ. For if we are spiritually blind and dead, only Christ can make us pure in heart. Having received the peace of God, we share God’s peace with others. This is not talking about earthly peacemakers, but heavenly peacemakers. That peace can only come through faith in Christ.

In the end, having received all these blessings from Christ, the world hates us. No one hates us more than those who think themselves spiritually rich and powerful. They lash out against Christ’s blessed ones. But even this is a blessing. For if they lash out against us, it is because of what Christ has done for us and in us.

Christ sat down on the mountain top and taught His disciples, just as He had taught Moses, some fourteen hundred years earlier. The Beatitudes are often quoted, but rarely understood. Many would make them into a set of laws for us to follow. But that would not be a blessing, would it? If we’ve earned these things, it is a wage not a blessing. But here Christ assures us that He has come to bless us. He has blessed us who have nothing to offer Him, but the empty hands of beggars. Christ gives us His gifts of forgiveness and life. He makes us to be His blessed ones.