Believing in a Pagan World

February 20, 2018 Leave a comment

A Sermon on 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 – First in a Lenten Sermon Series on Pauls First Letter to the Thessalonians

Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Thessalonica was a very different place than what we’re used to hearing about in Scripture. The Old Testament community was shaped by the tabernacle, and later the temple. We’re used to hearing about how the people of Israel lived. How their lives revolved around the sacrificial system that highlighted God’s mercy. And how the Law influenced their interactions with each other and the world around them. They were set apart, and even though the rest of the world thought they were pretty weird, we actually find them rather familiar.

The New Testament community in the Gospels was shaped by how the Jews interacted with Rome. It was an antagonistic relationship. And the people supported the religious leaders strongly. The same temple practices were front and center, perhaps even more clearly than for many in the Old Testament. The arrival of Jesus did throw a wrench into everything. But their relationship back and forth paint the familiar picture of Jerusalem that we know as well as we do.

Thessalonica was not at all like either of those. In fact, it was pretty much like all the other pagan cities of the day. That meant there were all kinds of temples around. Each to a different god or goddess. Inside, great idols were carved and worshipped. And depending on what you needed, you worshipped the deity that would help you out. There were Jews in Thessalonica, but living there as one was extraordinarily difficult. If you wanted meat, too bad. The meat in town came from one of the local pagan temples. If you wanted to do business in town, too bad, the guild hall was a temple dedicated to another deity. Even the markets were tied to these false gods.

It’s not as though many people actually believed in these multiple gods. If you did, you dedicated your life to service in one of the temples. But keeping the system intact was what kept the economy moving. Jews believed in Yahweh too seriously, according to the Romans. They wouldn’t let their God be seen as one of many. They gave up social, economic, and religious freedom because they would not see God as equal to all the rest. Come on already. Even the Egyptians had let Osiris and Apis be brought in as a god. And the cult of the renamed Serapis was huge in Thessalonica, giving all the locals a taste of Egypt.

Of course, there was always the imperial cult that worshipped Caesar. But by far the most prominent temple in town was dedicated to Dionysus. The cult dedicated to that god focused on fertility, making it quite a popular place. Nearly everyone in town took part. And those who didn’t were looked at with suspicion. It wasn’t important whether you believed in the gods or not. It was the civic duty of all people to participate. To show unity, camaraderie, and love to your neighbor. Everyone benefitted, so why be such sticks in the mud? But the Jews held their ground, and remained separated in their synagogues.

Acts, chapter 17 gives us the account of Paul and Silas entering Thessalonica with the Gospel. Whenever they entered a new town, they always went to the synagogue first. Because there were the people who were waiting to hear that the promised Christ had come at last. From Acts 17: “And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.” And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women.”

The good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection is powerful. Some of the Jews in the synagogue believed and became Christian. Most of the Greeks who followed Judaism as closely as they could as non-Jews believed and became Christian. Even a good number of the women of wealth in Thessalonica believed in Jesus. The Word of God created faith in them all. The Holy Spirit delivered Jesus to them all.

However, the synagogues in these major cities were not very big. The loss of a few would hurt. The loss of many was unacceptable. And so those who did not believe riled up the whole city against the new Christians. They warned the pagans that this new group was dangerous. They would not be united in civic duty. They would not participate in the polytheistic religion. They would not be a part of the cultic marketplace. In essence, the Jews got the Thessalonicans angry at the Christians for doing the same thing that the devout Jews had been doing all this time.

The one who housed Paul and Silas, a guy by the name of Jason, was hauled before the magistrates and accused of housing rebellious traitors. Paul and Silas were snuck out of the city. But when they later went to Berea, the Thessalonican jews who did not believe, followed them, and accused them there as well.

Despite all the trouble that was stirred up, the Church was indeed planted in Thessalonica. It was hard work being a Christian in such a hostile environment. And it involved a great deal of self sacrifice. One gave up almost everything in order to be a Christian in that place. And that fact adds a great deal of strength to Paul’s greeting.

“We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Their faith had to be strong. The love was a great deal of work. And their hope needed to be steadfast if they were to continue to believe. But those things didn’t come from themselves. Such faith, and love, and hope all come from Jesus. “For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” Or as we learn it from the Small Catechism, “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”

Paul goes on, “You received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything.” They became an example, not by their own works. But because the Gospel proclaimed had done such powerful work in them. We don’t look at them today and say, “We need to be more like the Thessalonians.” We look at them today and marvel at the power of the Gospel. That the news of Jesus dying for our sins, and rising from the dead would impact the whole world on the scale it has. And that it has impacted us so much that our lives are changed forever.

We don’t have the same temples that the Greco-Roman world did. We don’t carve out idols to go and worship. We do not have an official pantheon of approved gods to follow. And yet we do. We build stadium sized temples, and worship our favorite sports team. We build colossal governments, are devoted to political parties, and worship at the feet of having the right policy chosen by which to rule. We make idols of our loved ones. Believe that only they can make things right for us. But the biggest idol has always been our own selves. As long as I get what I want, then nothing else matters.

But if the Word of God can turn the Thessalonians in their day, then the Word of God can do the same to us. Paul reminds them, “You turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” The wrath that they faced today was bad enough. Who had time to worry about the future? And yet Jesus was there for them then, and now. Jesus is here for us now, and in the future.

Because Jesus sustained their faith. Even when their own families had turned against them. Even when their community hated them. Even when it felt like the whole world had rejected them. Jesus continued to deliver faith to them. Deliver love to them. Deliver hope to them. Always pointing to His own cross. There’s where we find Him. In the midst of suffering and dying. In the midst of being crucified for all and for you. There is no promise to be found looking anywhere else. But the promises given at His cross cover everything. Jesus covers our sin. Jesus covers our death. Jesus covers the worst of what the world can, and has done to us. There is nothing in all creation that is bigger than Jesus on the cross, in the tomb, and risen on the third day. And He did it all for you. or you. That’s the good news that changed the Thessalonians’ lives forever. And it does the same for you and me as well. Thanks be to God.

Categories: Sermon

Driven into the Wilderness as the Scapegoat

February 17, 2018 Leave a comment

A Sermon on Mark 1:9-15, the Temptation of Jesus

Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. If today’s Gospel lesson sounds familiar to you, it probably should. The first Sunday in January we read Mark chapter one, verses four through eleven as we heard about the baptism of Jesus. The third Sunday in January we read through Mark chapter one, verses fourteen through twenty, when Jesus began His ministry and called His disciples. Today’s text only has two verses we did not cover before.

The First Sunday in Lent is always the temptation of Jesus. And Mark does cover it. In those two verses. But two verses is really short. So to pad it out, we get a little of Jesus’ baptism before, and a little of Jesus starting His ministry after. Because just how much do two verses tell us? “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.”

It seems to us, and it looks like to the lectionary committee that put together the three year series that we use, that this text really doesn’t say all that much. But since it’s the Sunday for the temptation, and Mark has a temptation account, I guess we have to put it in. Even though there’s no verbal debate with Satan. Even though there’s no temptation of stones to bread, or angels catching, or bowing down to gain the world. Even though Jesus does not withstand all by the Word of God alone. All the parts we remember so well.

However, what we consider to be small actually tells us a great deal about why Jesus went to be tempted. Yes, so that He could face the same temptations we do. But Matthew and Luke get that point across. Mark adds a just a few words we didn’t have in the other two,  and suddenly we have a whole new angle by which to view this account. Matthew and Luke say that Jesus was led into the desert by the Holy Spirit. Mark say that the Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert. The first two look at Jesus from the perspective of Moses. Mark looks at Jesus from the perspective of the Day of Atonement.

If you don’t know a whole lot about the Day of Atonement, I can’t say that I blame you. The New Testament tells us about the feasts of Passover, Weeks–also known as Pentecost–and Booths. Passover is the biggest of the festivals in the life of Jesus. But that wasn’t the most important day of the Old Testament year. Up there, to be sure, but not the most holy. That belongs to the Day of Atonement. But that day is only mentioned once all in the New Testament. And then, only in Hebrews, not the Gospels.

But It doesn’t have to be. Because the Day of Atonement is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. That’s the day that the high priest sacrifices a bull on the ash heap outside of camp, or later, outside Jerusalem in order to purify himself. And once purified, he can enter the holy of holies. Before he goes in, he takes two goats or lambs. The Hebrew is literally hairy things, and can mean either. They cast lots for them. One is sacrificed. Then half its blood is brought into the holy of holies by the high priest. The other half is sprinkled on the people. After this, the other sheep or goat has the sins of the people spoken over it, and is driven out into the wilderness. If you’ve ever heard the term scapegoat, this is exactly where it comes from.

Jesus’ entire life is the model upon which the Day of Atonement was given. Especially maundy Thursday, Good Friday, His Sabbath rest in the tomb, and Easter Sunday. Jesus is the one who is sacrificed outside the camp, outside Jerusalem. Jesus enters the holy of holies with the one sacrifice that forgives all sin. The crowds themselves call out, “Let His blood be upon us and upon our children.” And it is. He bears our sins, and is sent to die.

But being driven into the wilderness tends to be allegorical when we focus exclusively on Holy Week. Mark lets us know that it is also literal. The Holy Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness in order that He would carry our sins with him. Jesus is our scapegoat. Our hairy one. Our Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.

So why is Mark given the scapegoat part of the Day of Atonement here at the beginning of his Gospel instead of at the end with the passion account? It’s here so that you can know that the temptations that overcome you have already been placed on Jesus instead. Because we fall to our temptations. We give in. We aren’t strong enough to withstand them. And we need to know that even though we have failed, Jesus bears them on His shoulders anyways.

The temptation to be jealous of the relationships of others. The temptation to want what is not ours. The temptation to lie, when it fits our purpose. The temptation to believe the worst about others. Especially those we disagree with. The temptation to take what is not ours, because we think we somehow deserve it anyways. The temptation of pornography. The temptation to follow my heart, even though out of it comes only evil continuously. The temptation to say it doesn’t matter what people do, even though what they do hurts others, and themselves. The temptation to hate someone because they are different.

The temptation to hate someone because they have sinned. The temptation to walk away from someone in need. The temptation to say fighting for what is right isn’t my battle. The temptation to say I don’t believe it’s right, but I’m not going to tell anyone else they shouldn’t. The temptation to say that death is a friend, and it makes us happy. The temptation to ignore the authority that we dislike. The temptation to blame others for what I have done wrong. The temptation to find my rest in feeding my desires. The temptation of using drugs or alcohol to cope with life. The temptation to put leisure above receiving the fruits of Jesus’ cross. The temptation of harming myself just to feel a different kind of pain for once. The temptation to try and find God in the places He has not promised to be found with His forgiveness. The temptation to believe that I am beyond hope. The temptation treat the Lord without reverence or respect. The temptation to think my despair is bigger than what Jesus has already taken care of. The temptation to put my trust in my bank account. Or to put my trust in my family. Or to put my trust in the right kind of government. Or to put my trust in my own abilities. Or to put my trust in anything instead of Christ.

We have failed when faced with some, or even all of these temptations. And they still keep arriving at our doorstep day after day. They are more than we can bear. And we have not escaped them without falling into sin. But in the midst of that wilderness of sin, there is Jesus. And He’s here for you. And do you know what He has to say to you? He says, “My shoulders are strong enough to bear your sin. Yours aren’t. So I’m taking them away from you, and carrying them Myself. I am your scapegoat. I am the sacrificial Lamb. My blood has been shed for you. Sprinkled on you. And I will go out into the desolate wilderness in your place. See My cross? I willingly go there for you.”

“There is one Day of Atonement. A Friday. Where your sin is put to rest forever. I die with it on My cross for you. It is sealed away forever, and no longer your own. I have done it already. It is finished. And that’s why that Friday is good.”

Two little verses. That’s all Mark had on the temptation of Jesus. But in those two verses, He pointed us to Jesus’ greatest gift. Jesus’ greatest work, finished on your behalf. Because every Word of Scripture is always about what Jesus has done for you. The sin of every temptation failed has been taken away. You are forgiven. Because Jesus has died and risen from you. Our great scapegoat. Our Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Thanks be to God.

Categories: Sermon

Lent Is Not About What You’re Feeling

February 14, 2018 Comments off

An Ash Wednesday sermon on Joel 2:12-17, 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10, and Matthew 6:1-21

Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. There is one problem that I’ve never encountered as a pastor. I have never had someone come up to me during Easter and say to me, “Pastor, why is this time of year have to be so happy? We get the resurrection of Jesus all the time. And to focus this much on it just seems too much. Why can’t we concentrate on something else instead? Something with maybe a little less joy?” Not one person has ever told me that. Can you believe it?

Lent, however, everyone seems to have an opinion about. And for good reason. The hymns slow down. There are more minor keys. We hear a lot more about our sin. A lot more about Jesus having to die. And a whole lot about the need for repentance. Sometimes we even dim the lights to make it feel even more intense. And today we put ashes on our foreheads. A reminder that one day we will die. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.

So when Jesus speaks in our Gospel lesson tonight, we feel just a little bit vindicated. I know I do. “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.” “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others.” “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others.” “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.”

And here we sit, publicly wearing the mark of our repentance with the ash on our foreheads. See? We should do all this privately, where the only one who sees us is God Himself. We say that. But do any of us have any intention of actually repenting before the Lord like this privately? Or was the last time that you put ash on your forehead in repentace, done one year ago on last Ash Wednesday? I know I haven’t been wearing sackcloth and ashes when I’m alone. In fact, this week, I’ll probably go home, turn on the Olympics, and not think one lick about repentance.

The Lord tells us in our Old Testament lesson that He would much rather the we rend our hearts, and not our garments. Unfortunately, we have even less intention of ever rending our hearts than we do rending our garments. We will at least wear ashes once a year. But we won’t ever let those hearts be even slightly uncomfortable. If given a choice, we would never face the truth of our condition before God, especially alone. That’s why we don’t like the Lenten season. That’s why we think it’s so sad. Not because it is, but because it tells us the truth about who we are. It shows us the reality that we are sinners who don’t want to repent of our sins. And we resent anyone or anything that tells us we should.

So now what? If we feel bad enough over our sin, will that win us anything from God? If we’re sad enough, does that sadness earn God’s mercy? No. Not at all. Our feelings do nothing to save us. But if that’s the case, what does it matter? Why feel bad over my sin if I don’t have to? And with that question, our hearts betray who our master really is. Lent is about seeing reality.

Out of the heart comes only evil continuously. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We are dead in our trespasses and sins. Desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. The wages of sin is death. Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

We don’t feel bad over our sin because we get something out of it. We lament our sin because it kills us dead. Just like it kills our loved ones. Like it killed our forefathers. Like it will kill our children. All die. And only the willfully ignorant won’t be rocked to their very core by that fact. On average, over 150,000 people die every day throughout the world. And sin has caused each and every one of those deaths. Including your sin and mine. It’s not Lent that makes us sad, it’s reality. And Lent makes us face that reality.

But Lent doesn’t make us face that reality alone. Our Lord Jesus Christ is right here with us. And He is here with His mercy. From our Old Testament lesson, “The LORD your God… is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.” Our Gospel lesson is broken up into two parts. And in between them are words we speak every time we come together. Jesus gives us the very prayer we pray. And He is the one who has us say “Our Father, who art in heaven.” Likewise, forgive us our trespasses, forgive us our debts, forgive us our sins. Jesus is here to have mercy on you and me. And He’s here to take our sins away.

And that’s exactly what Jesus does. From our Epistle lesson, “For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we would become the righteousness of God.” And, “Behold, now is the day of salvation.” We trust the mercy of God because it is already here. We wear the ashes to remind us the cost of that mercy. So that we never forget the price Jesus paid for you and me. Because as horrific as our sin is, Jesus has bled and died for it all. He became the very sin that must die. And die He did indeed. That death is not easy to look at. But it is reality. Jesus actually died for you about 2,000 years ago. And He rose again from the dead as well.

Jesus doesn’t die on our behalf because we repented hard enough. Jesus doesn’t forgive us because we made ourselves sad enough. No, He does that because of our great need for His mercy. Rather we repent of our sin precisely because Jesus died for us. We are sad over our sin precisely because it has been so freely forgiven. We wear ash as a symbol. We wear a representation of how we feel about our sin. And symbols are great reminders.

But we should not then forget about the promise Jesus has given to us that is far bigger than a symbol. Because symbols cannot save. They can only point us to where Jesus saves. But a sacrament is far more than a symbol. A sacrament is where Jesus does His actual work for you personally. It’s where Jesus connects you directly to His cross. Delivers His forgiveness. And tonight, while we wear the symbol of our repentance, let us not forget the reality that is the baptism Jesus baptized us with.

Because, tonight, that symbol is the marking of our forehead with the sign of the cross. But in baptism, the cross itself is actually placed on our foreheads and upon our hearts to mark us as ones redeemed by Christ the crucified. As St. Peter told the crowds on Pentecost, Be baptized, every one of you for the forgiveness of sins. Or as is written elsewhere, “Baptism now saves you.” Baptism does this great work, because Jesus baptizes us directly into His death. Our sins are really placed into His tomb. And they have been sealed away forever. While Jesus rises right there with us from the dead. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return. But do not forget that you will not as dust remain. Because you will be raised from the dead on that last day. Free from sin forever. And have eternal life with Jesus.

See, Lent isn’t about being sad. It’s about seeing reality. Both the reality of our sin, and the reality of Christ’s great sacrifice on our behalf. Delivered to you through water an the Word. That’s why Lent has room for both solemn repentance, and forgiven joy. Because Jesus has gone to that cross, He died, He was buried, and He rose again on the third day, all for you. Thanks be to God.


You might also check out Pr. Goodman’s post from a couple years back on the same topic: 

Categories: Sermon

Veiling the Glory, Veiling the Cross

February 8, 2018 Comments off

A Transfiguration Sermon on Mark 9:2-9 and 2 Corinthians 3:12-13, 4:1-6

Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Today we see Jesus transfigured. And Here He shows His glory. And when that happened, Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” For He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.

Usually, fear doesn’t make you come up with incoherent ideas. I don’t nearly get hit by a car, and blurt out a soup recipe. You aren’t woken up in the middle of the night by sounds downstairs and decide that standing on your head sounds like the best idea. Usually, what we think to do when we’re afraid are very immediate answers to what we’re specifically afraid of. Though sometimes without a thought to the consequences of those actions. If I’m about to be hit by a car, I’m moving, whether or not where I move to is any safer. If there’s a noise downstairs, my first instinct is finding out what that noise is, with a way to protect myself. Even if though I would have thought for a second, I would have remembered that company was staying the night. Fear acts on what it’s afraid of, even if that action turns out to be wrong.

Peter was afraid. He’s afraid because Jesus is revealing His glory. And that glory is reflected in the faces of Moses and Elijah. But why would Peter, James, and John be afraid of glory? Isn’t the glory of Jesus a good thing? Actually, that’s the whole problem right there. Glory is good. Jesus is good. Like the ultimate good. He’s perfect, righteous, and holy. Peter, James, and John aren’t. And for good to be good, it must stand against all evil. Even the evil in us. Even the reflection of that good is terrifying to sinners like them. Sinners like you and me. That’s why whenever an angel from the presence of God shows up, people are terrified. And why the people of Israel were afraid of Moses.

Our Epistle lesson reminds us of when Moses came down the mountain, and the glory of God was reflected in his face. But it’s even clearer in Exodus. “When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses and behold the skin of his face shone and they were afraid to come near him…. [Therefore] he put a veil over his face.”

The same thing was happening here. Moses reflected Jesus. Elijah reflected Jesus. And it was terrifying. The glory of God condemned all sin, even in reflection. That was why in the Old Testament, the glory of God resided in the Holy of Holies, where no one was allowed to enter. Except once a year, on the day of atonement, and even then, only by the high priest. The glory of God was too great, and needed to be covered. That was why the glory was inside the cloud by day. And was covered by a burning fire by night. The goodness of our Lord is too great for us sinners to look upon and feel safe. That much good must destroy all evil. And sin is the evil within us.

Peter saw that glory, and out of fear, said the most reasonable thing he could think of. It wasn’t a good idea. It wasn’t a well thought through idea. All it did was escape the fear as quickly as possible. “Let us make three tents, three tabernacles, three veils of covering up the glory. One for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” At which point the cloud appears. The same cloud that was in the wilderness with Israel. And that cloud covers up the glory of the Lord. From there, the Father speaks to them. “This is my beloved Son, listen to Him.”

We are still afraid to look upon the glory of the Lord. Because that glory convicts us of our sin. Reminds us that He is good, and you and me are not. So, where is the glory of the Lord found? Christ’s highest glory isn’t the transfiguration. His highest glory is seen exclusively at the cross. That’s the place where Jesus does His greatest work. That’s where who God is has been revealed to the world. We look upon the cross of Jesus and we are afraid. Afraid because Christ Jesus is good. And we are not. It’s there that He dies because of my sin. It’s there that He dies and I killed Him. Oh, that we could cover up that sight. If only we could take the body of Jesus off the cross, and hide it behind a veil. That’s what our fear desires more than anything. But we cannot. We dare not. Because that cross is also the very place where Jesus has taken our sin away.

Jesus didn’t go to the cross in order to have Himself hidden. Jesus didn’t take the nails in His hands and His feet in order to be kept behind a veil. Jesus didn’t suffer, and bleed, and die in order that we would never look upon His glory there. Jesus meant for that cross to be seen. The Gospel, the good news of Jesus always includes Him there for you and me. And without that, it’s not the Gospel. Jesus is hanging here on this cross for you. Here is where the evil in you that makes you afraid is taken away. Here is where your every sin is forgiven. And there is nothing more glorious to see in all of creation than Jesus here.

That’s why, as Paul says in our Epistle lesson, that we refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s Word. We don’t need to bait and switch with the Gospel. We don’t need to trick people with one thing in order to sneak God in somewhere else. WE are to be bold with the Gospell. Don’t shy away from the hard parts. Don’t downplay the cross, and instead focus on making our lives better. Don’t take your eyes off of Jesus. Off of His death and resurrection. Because we do not veil the Gospel like Moses was veiled. We look is the very place that takes our fear away. For there is the Father’s beloved Son. And if the Father puts His Son there for you and me, how loved then are we? We’re loved with a love beyond measure. A love that sacrifices all for you. And who would ever want to veil that?

Now, the truth is that there are many who don’t want to look at Jesus on the cross. And we fall into that category too. We need forgiveness. The very forgiveness won for us at the height of Jesus’ glory. And so even though we do not want to, we still look, and find comfort, and hope, and peace. But for others, it is as St. Paul said today: “If our Gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said “Let light shine out of the darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

Just as Peter, and James, and John, and Moses, and Elijah did in our Gospel lesson, we too look upon the glorious face of Jesus Christ. And we look where He has revealed Himself for us–Jesus on His cross. The veil has been taken away. The evil that made us afraid has been taken away. Our sin has been taken away. And there is Christ Jesus our Lord. Giving everything for you. Thanks be to God.

Categories: Sermon

Misunderstanding All Things To All People – A Sermon on Mark 1:29-39 and 1 Corinthians 9:16-27

February 3, 2018 1 comment

The Gospel doesn’t need contextualized. The Gospel IS the context.

Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus ends up healing a bunch of people. He started with Peter’s mother-in-law, and by that evening, there was a line outside the house. The diseased, the demon-possessed, anyone who had anything wrong had those ills taken away. This turned out to be so popular, that everyone was looking for Jesus the next morning.

Don’t we wish here at St. Paul’s, we could be just a popular today? That people were just lining up at the door to get in? The pews would be full. They would be standing in the back just so that they could be a part of it all. Wouldn’t Jesus be proud of us for being such a great church?

We are told by those who know how to make churches big, that the answer lies in our epistle lesson for today. Paul writes, “To the Jews I became a Jew in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law, I became as outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” We’re told that this means that we become like the world in order to reach the world. Give people what they want, and they’ll come in the doors. Just like when Jesus gives people what they want by healing them of all their ills, they line up outside the doors. Because it works. That’s what the biggest of mega churches do, and they can fill stadiums.

There’s only one problem with that. What does Jesus do the next morning? Rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus departed and went out to a desolate place, and there He prayed. And Simon and those who were with Him searched for Him, and they found Him and said to Him, “Everyone is looking for you.” And He said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came.”

In other words, forget giving the crowds what they want. Forget the numbers. Forget the praise and glory you get when things go that well. Because that’s not what Jesus came to do. Jesus came to preach the Gospel. Likewise Paul didn’t become all things to all people just to make them happy. “I have become all things to all people that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the Gospel.”

Why is it that we do things the way we do in Church here? Why do we sing old hymns with a bunch of verses instead of newer ones with tunes we like? Why do we use a liturgy out of a book instead of making it up ourselves? Why is the message each week about our own sin, and our need for the death and resurrection of Jesus? The world doesn’t want any of those things. Most of us don’t want them either, if we’ve got a choice. It’s exhausting to go back to them week after week. It would be so much better to come to church and sing catchy tunes, enjoy a new program, and leave with a pep in our step, right? People want that. And Paul says to be all things to all people. However, if we use the music we find catchy, we’re putting the Gospel second at best. A service based on being uplifting conforms the Gospel to our desires. A message without the depressing death and resurrection of Jesus is a message completely devoid of the Gospel.

That’s fine, we say, give them what they want first. Get them in the door first. Then give them the Gospel when everyone’s here. Easy peasy. There’s only one problem with that. The Gospel itself is the one thing keeping people away. No one wants to hear that they are forgiven, because that means they must have done something wrong. No one wants to hear Jesus died for them on a cross, because that means they need saved. Being all things to all people should not mean that we sacrifice the truth of who we are. But to bring them in in the numbers we dream of, the numbers the experts say is possible, we must sacrifice the Gospel itself. And along with it, the truth that we are in need of a Savior in the first place.

All it does is call us to line up and ask for neat things from Jesus without listening to what He says. And do you know what Jesus did when He came across people like that? People like us? “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach.” Leave them behind, because they do not want what I have to give. If you and I do not want the Gospel above all else, Jesus will leave. Jesus will go instead to those who will hear. And a church without Jesus is dead, no matter how many people come in the door.

Paul did not say to become all things to all people so that we could appeal to what we want. Just the opposite. We come to church to do and to become what we normally do not want for the sake of the Gospel. Those hymns with difficult tunes and many verses? They’re loaded with Gospel. That liturgy that we’ve done so many times, that we’re tired of it? It delivers the Gospel. That message that is sometimes so tough that we leave relieved rather than smiling? In it is the Gospel. Being all things to all people is not what we do based on what we like. Being all things to all people is what the Gospel does, whether anyone likes it or not. Because the Gospel is for all people.

But that means it takes some self-discipline on our part. If you’ve been to a physical therapist, you know that they have you do things that you don’t want to do. But when you do, your body is strengthened right where it needs to be strengthened. That’s the same example that Paul gives. “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” So also we bear with things that we would normally not chose for ourselves. So that our faith would be strengthened by the Gospel that we receive in them.

However, so far we have only talked about the Gospel. Talking about the Gospel is not the Gospel. It’s all Law. Yet, if we take that Law seriously, our desires clearly show our sin, yours and mine both. We should love the Gospel, but our actions and reactions show that we don’t. We still have the old sinful flesh in us. And no matter how holy we make the veneer, it’s still the same underneath. That’s why Jesus doesn’t just tell us about the Gospel. Jesus actually proclaims the Gospel.

Because Jesus sees our condition, and cannot help but do something about it. Simon’s mother-in-law was ill, and Jesus went to her. Everyone that came to Jesus to be healed, Jesus was there for every last one of them. The people in the next towns, and all throughout Galilee, He went to them too. Giving them what they needed to live. And Jesus has seen you in your sin, and has not forgotten about you. You are in just as much need. In fact, more. And Jesus has already taken away the root of the problem. He has taken your sin away. In Jesus’ own words from today’s lesson, “That is why I came.

God Himself became a man named Jesus. He took on our humanity, took on our mortality, took on our every sin. And even though He was without sin, He became sin for us. And so our sin was crucified with Him on the cross and buried forever in His tomb. But He himself did not stay. Jesus rose from the dead on the third day so that perishable would become imperishable. And so Jesus’ resurrection is also our resurrection. That news doesn’t need contextualized. The Gospel IS the context.

Our hymns today are filled with that good news that Jesus came to proclaim to us. We have already sung, “Of long ago; yet living still. Who died for us on Calv’ry’s hill. Who triumphed over cross and grave. His healing hands stretched forth to save.” We will sing of Christ’s covenant making us “reconciled, redeemed, made one.” We will also soon partake in that new covenant, that new testament in His body and blood at communion. Where Jesus delivers the fruits of His cross directly to our lips. WE’ve been reminded of our baptism in the liturgy. We’ve had Jesus proclaim to us the forgiveness of sins. We have turned to the mercy of God, and have given thanks that He has indeed had mercy on us through His Son. Even at the end of the service, the Lord will put His name on us again, just as He promised Aaron when he gave him the words by which to bless God’s people. And all throughout, the Word of God is proclaimed. The Word which the Holy Spirit delivers Jesus to us with.

Was it all what we wanted to hear? Was it what we wanted to do? No, it wasn’t. But Christ is here in it for you. Right where He has promised to be. This is why Jesus came. This is what all things to all people looks like. Christ Jesus has died to take your sins away. And has risen from the dead in order that you too would live forever. That message may not fill the pews today, but it has already filled eternity. Thanks be to God.

Categories: Sermon

The Astounding Christ – A Sermon on Mark 1:21-28

January 27, 2018 Comments off

Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our Gospel lesson this morning opens with these words: “They went into Capernaum, and immediately, on the Sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and was teaching. And they were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one who had authority and not as the scribes.” And when I hear that, I tend to think that the people were astonished in a good way. That they were thinking, “Wow, this guy is really great!” The only problem with that is that there is another meaning for astonished, and the original Greek implies the other one.

The people in the synagogue were certainly astonished. But in the overwhelmed, shocked beyond belief, stricken with panic kind of astonished. What Jesus was doing was not okay. He was teaching in such a way that He made the people supremely uncomfortable. It sounded like He thought He knew more than all the great teachers that had gone before. Usually, they heard that Rabbi so-and-so agreed with this older notable rabbi about what this text means. Which, to be fair, is a pretty sensible way to go. Who doesn’t give an idea a little more weight when it’s from someone we respect?

But Jesus was teaching as though He were the one who wrote it. Well, He did, through the prophets. But who was going to believe Him? He was claiming to be an authority greater than the rabbis. Greater than the sons of the prophets. He was claiming to be on the same level as God Almighty. Which means that either Jesus is God, or He is being as disrespectful as possible to God. And it was a lot more likely in people’s minds in that moment that it was the latter.

Jesus was about to have an angry crowd on His hands if this kept up. Which is why it doesn’t make any sense that this was the moment the demon in the demon-possessed man spoke up. Because even though the people didn’t know who He was, the demon did. And the demon spoke the truth. That’s incredible. You just don’t give your enemy the means of victory when they’re on the brink of defeat. However, that’s exactly what it looks like happened here.

“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.” Jesus might have been thought of as a blasphemer if only the demon could have kept its mouth shut. But no, the proclamation goes out. And Jesus is revealed to actually have the authority He’s claiming. But then what does Jesus do? He rebukes the demon and says, “Be Silent!” In fact, Jesus is going to be saying that a lot throughout Mark’s Gospel. Don’t tell anyone who I am, Jesus will repeat again and again.

So how do the people respond to Jesus in our text? They were all amazed. Or another possible translation is terrified. “What is this?” they asked each other. And we are still asking the same question today. Because as sinners, we are exactly like the people in the synagogue that day. We too sit and listen to Jesus speak to us. And what He has to say, when we truly listen to it, is astonishing. Just like the people coming up out of Egypt in our Old Testament lesson who to a man said, “Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.” We do not want to hear Jesus speak to us, unless it is filtered through something, or someone. Because straight up Jesus is astonishing, terrifying, and the last thing we want to hear. And yet, Jesus will say again and again, “He who has ears, let him hear.

After all, who wants to hear that we have sinned against God? Who wants to be told that we have sinned against our neighbors? We have. And we still are. It’s not terrifying to hear that the wages of sin is death until we hear that we’ve earned those wages by our thoughts, words, and deeds every day. Because we’re not letting ourselves hear such news. Not while we have excuses for our actions that we think are totally valid. We think God is mean to us when He stands against our evil deeds. We think God isn’t fair when He protects people from you and me. How dare He keep on accusing me of sin. Doesn’t He know that I’m a Christian? That I go to Church? That I worship Him? The people in the synagogue could rightly say the same thing. And yet God’s Law astounds us all.

Because when the Law is preached, our demons step forth. Not to cover our ears. Not to shut Jesus up. But to join in with Him. See, God is right about you, they say. God can’t love someone like you, they say. God could never forgive you, they say. And it sounds like they’re agreeing with Jesus.

But do you know what Jesus says to those demons in us? He says, “Shut up!” “Be silent! Come out!” You don’t get to use the truth of the Law to lie about how God feels about His child. Because even though it is true that we have indeed sinned, and sinned grievously, God still loves you more than anything else in all creation. He loves you so much that before you were born He was already prepared to take your sins away, no matter how much it cost. While we were still sinners, Christ died for you. Even though we turned against Him, He never once turned against us. Every word we thought was mean, or unfair, or astounding in all the worst ways, is spoken in love.

Jesus spoke the Law, which terrified us, not in order simply to scare us, but to show us just where we have made our home. Just what our sin has done. Just how much we need Him to save us. Because He already has saved us. It is finished. Jesus was not astonished at the cross He had to bear on our behalf. That was the price of our sin. And if we paid that price ourselves, we would be lost forever. So to stop that from happening, He went there instead. He went there on our behalf. Jesus died for your sin. It has all been forgiven.

It is all forgiven. And that is astounding, in both senses of the word. Because we look at the cross, and it does not feel good to be responsible for Jesus needing to be there. But at the same time, the weight of that burden being taken away is wonderful! It is amazing! It is the greatest gift in the entire universe! There is nothing in the world that can compare. That why the news of Jesus’ death and resurrection has spread not just to the whole region surrounding Galilee, but to the entire world. It is news too good not to share.

But the news is only that good when we hear the words Jesus speaks that we don’t want to hear. Law and Gospel go together. The whole Word of God is what we receive. To pick the part we like is to lose it all, and to run away from it in fear. But with all Jesus speaks in our ears, we receive the greatest gift the world could ever imagine. The very sins we didn’t want to acknowledge, lest we die, have been covered completely by the blood of Christ. So that by His death, he destroys the death we have earned as our wages. And by His resurrection, we too look forward to that day when we are raised with that sin removed forever. That day is coming soon. And it will be astounding. Thanks be to God.

Categories: Sermon

Defenseless? – A Sermon on Mark 1:14-20

January 21, 2018 Comments off

Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. There is always a cost when proclaiming the Word of God. All three of our texts this morning come with those costs. Andrew and Peter gave up their boats. James and John gave up time with their dad. Jonah gave up trying to run away. And Paul talks about what we might have to give up when facing persecution. Because one day, due to that persecution, you might have to live as if you had no spouse, had nothing to mourn, had nothing to rejoice in. As if the world did not matter. Because they might make you choose between the promises of Christ and those things that are so dear. But the saving truth of Jesus is worth more than all of those things, no matter how much value we put on them.

However, there is one thing that Jesus asks of us that might just be too high a cost to pay. One thing that might be more than we can bear. From our Gospel lesson today, “After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the Gospel of God and saying, “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”” And we heard almost every word of that. We definitely heard that John was arrested. We assuredly heard that Jesus came into Galilee. We certainly heard that Jesus proclaimed the Gospel. And we for sure heard that He told us to believe the Gospel. The word we missed, however, or at least were hoping to miss, is the one word we didn’t want to hear. Repent.

That word makes us uncomfortable. Because that one word costs too much. It costs more than the boats that Andrew and Peter gave up. It costs more than time with family, which James and John gave up. It costs more than the sacrifices due to persecution that Paul talks about in our epistle lesson. To repent means to take down our greatest source of safety. To take away the one thing that keeps us sane.

You see, everyone starts with a conscience. It’s the Law written on our hearts from the beginning. It lets us know what the right thing to do is. And it lets us know when we have done something wrong. At least it’s supposed to. However, human beings are sinful. The conscience has a lot to do. And if we let our consciences do their job unrestrained, they do it too well. We begin to live in fear. We lose our sanity. We begin to believe that we really are bad people. And it’s really hard to fix ourselves, or make ourselves normal after that happens. Therefore every human being must have a way to silence their conscience against the accusations of the Law.

So we create buffers, walls. And they can really be almost anything. It’s how we tell our conscience that things are actually okay. We might do that through unbridled optimist, or a thoroughgoing pessimism. We might be overflowing with joy, or filled with anger. We might convince ourselves that we’ve done as well as we possibly can through our works. Or seared our conscience into believing there is no such thing as wrong anymore. We might wrap ourselves in Church, or Eastern spirituality, or atheism. Or we might simply believe that we’re alright, simply because we’re better than that guy. Whatever it takes to silence the conscience, we’ll do it. Because we simply cannot live with the alternative.

Though sometimes, our conscience is stronger than our defenses. Sometimes we simply can’t believe the lies we would tell about ourselves any more. And because the conscience does its job so well, depression, or anxiety, or fear take root. Which only fuels the conscience’s voice to be heard all the louder. That voice speaks more than any of us can bear alone.

That’s why when Jesus says to repent, that’s asking something of us that costs an enormous amount. Because when He does, the conscience gets to speak clearly. When He does, it affirms that maybe my conscience was right about me after all. When He does, the buffers, the walls, the defenses all must come down. The only things we have ever relied on to protect us. We’re left vulnerable, exposed, and subject to being hurt. Who would ever want that? And yet that is exactly what Jesus says to do. Repent. Confess your sin. Acknowledge it as yours. And then believe the Gospel.

Now, Jesus doesn’t ask in order to hurt you. Though repentance isn’t painless either. But Jesus say to repent, because your defenses that you put up don’t actually defend you the way you think they do. Silencing your conscience is the spiritual equivalent of putting electrical tape over your check engine light, so you don’t have to see it. Or taking the battery out of your smoke detector, so you don’t have to hear it. Or sailing for Tarshish, and away from Nineveh, so you don’t have to say it. The wages of sin is still death. And we are still sinners in need of our Savior. And your conscience is there to tell you that truth. But it’s not supposed just to leave you there. And yet, alone, that’s all it can do.

The conscience needs more. Because the conscience is all Law. Jesus says one more thing along with the word repent. He says believe the Gospel. What is the Gospel? It is the proclamation that Jesus has forgiven all your sin. He has taken it away. He has died with it, and left it in His grave. And He rose from the dead so that you would know that this is true. And know that His resurrection is also your resurrection. Which is what we say every week. Because it’s true.

But it’s also that good news that relieves the conscience. Because if your sin is taken away, then a properly functioning conscience has nothing left to accuse you with. Because instead of your sin, there stands Jesus, the sinless Son of God. Your conscience can no longer put it’s pressure on you, because it instead puts all the pressure on Jesus. Accuses Jesus. Kills Jesus. But that’s where Jesus willingly goes on your behalf. To take away your fear. To give you His peace. To make you right. Not by your own works, or deeds. Your conscience wouldn’t let that stand. Instead you have Christ’s works given to you. And your conscience can’t tear those down.

As long as it’s working properly. But after being silenced for so long, or being allowed to roam free, and destroy us from the inside, I don’t know if anyone’s conscience is actually working properly. That’s why we need to hear the Gospel again and again. That’s why we need to be told that our sins are forgiven by Jesus all the time. Because that conscience, when broken, will tell us the wrong things. Half truths, that sound plausible enough. But still lead us away from Christ’s work to save us, and back to our own defenses that don’t actually work.

It was in times like these that Luther would say, “So when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: “I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!”” And when Satan wants to use your conscience against you, you can do the same thing. Because you have Christ with you. Right where He has promised to be.

It might seem to be the most costly thing in the world to risk the defenses that you yourself have built. More costly than anything else Jesus might ask, which could be a lot, as we have seen already. But your own defenses cannot stand against what your conscience is telling you, and what your sin has done to you. Only Christ can take your sin away. Only Christ can pay for it. Only Christ can make things right. And He already has, through His death and resurrection. It is yours. It is all yours. Thanks be to God.

Categories: Sermon