Sunday, February 28, 2010

Unconditional Faith

Reminiscere – The Second Sunday in Lent

Matthew 15:21-28; Genesis 32:22-32    (Audio)

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.

If we are to get straight to the point of what this day’s theme would teach us, then we must learn about faith. Now, faith can be a difficult thing to pin down. Thankfully, however, we do not need to turn to Webster’s or even Haley’s dictionaries, for Holy Scripture interprets itself and defines faith for us: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the certainty of things unseen,” proclaims the preacher to his congregation of Hebrews. Now, in our common usage, I suspect few would include the words “assurance” and “certainty” in their definition of faith, and yet that is precisely the point the Scripture makes. Faith is neither blind nor irrational, as many suppose, even though it does not require verification according to the senses. Neither is faith weak, for it is not a thing in itself, but faith is unconditional trust in that which is absolutely and unswervingly true, the incarnate Word of God, Jesus Christ, who is Truth.

Moreover, faith is not choice that you make, nor is it a work that you do. You do not choose to believe, though you can refuse to believe. Neither do you make yourself to believe, though you can do things contrary to what you believe that will eventually lead you to unbelief. For faith is a gift of God’s grace so that, if you have faith, then thanks be to God for this precious gift, and, if you do not have faith, then there is something that you can do, stop thinking, saying, and doing the things that you are doing and repent, that is, be turned from the path that leads to death back to the God who desires to give you His life.

Further, faith is not quantifiable – you cannot measure it. If you have faith, then you have it, and if you do not, then you do not. Nevertheless, we can see faith in the words and the deeds of others, in their confession of faith. We can see those who have great faith, and perhaps surprisingly, quite often they are the ones suffering great affliction, tribulation, and distress. We marvel at them saying, “I don’t know how she does it!” “He’s a fighter, he just won’t give up.” And yet, we are not to attempt to measure the faith of others; we are not given to judge who has faith and who does not, or how much.

Faith is kind of like what they keep saying about gold in this recession that we’re in, “It’s never worth nothing.” However, while your $1,000 dollar investment in gold may at some time be worth only $100, your faith, no matter how small, is always worth eternal life and sonship in the kingdom of heaven. And so, the lesson is not about how much faith you have, but it is about what faith looks like and what faith believes, what your faith is in.

It is for this reason that Jacob is presented to us. Jacob was fleeing from his brother Esau who was coming after him with 400 men. Jacob sent his wives and his children, his servants, and all his possessions across the river to safety and he remained utterly alone, stripped of all comfort and support, to face his brother, whom Jacob believed sought to kill him.

Then, to make matters worse, the Scriptures tell us that a man wrestled with Jacob through the night until dawn. Jacob confesses that this man was none other than God Himself. Unable to overcome Jacob, the man who is God puts Jacob’s hip out of socket, but still Jacob will not let this God-man go until He blesses him.

And so, there is Jacob, standing alone in faithful trust that God will help him even as Esau approaches with his 400 men, only to have God Himself wrestle with him all night, exhausting his strength, and then causing him excruciating, crippling pain by putting his hip out of socket. What do you do when God Himself seems to be your enemy? What did Jacob do? Did he curse God? Did he accuse God of being unfair or evil? No, Jacob held onto God all the tighter, he refused to release Him until God blessed him. And God did bless him. God changed Jacob’s name to Israel, which means, “he who wrestles with God and prevails”.

For, such is faith – to wrestle with God and prevail – to not let go in unbelief, but to cling to Him no matter what, trusting that He is good and that He keeps His promises. Jacob surely thought that he would die, alone there in the wilderness with his brother and 400 men coming after him, then being exhausted and crippled by the God-man who wrestled with him all night long. Yet even in the face of near certain death, Jacob held on to God in faith. And, as it turns out, God being the master story-teller that He is, when Esau finally arrives with his 400 men, he embraces Jacob and has mercy on him, and the two brothers are reconciled. Even Esau’s anger against Jacob was an instrument of God’s testing of Jacob’s faith that Jacob’s faith might persevere and produce in him character and hope. For, the greatest blessing is God’s mercy shown to those who refuse to let go of Him in faith.

However, the lesson continues, and we are presented with another example of tenacious faith. This time the subject is not a patriarch of Israel, but a lowly and despised Canaanite woman. She cries out to Jesus for mercy upon her and her demon-possessed daughter, and Jesus ignores her. Still, she continues to cry out to Jesus. First, Jesus chides her saying that He was not sent to help people like her, but then He insults her, comparing her to a dog. Still, she will not let go of Him. What do you do when God seems to ignore your pleas and your prayers? You pray and you pray, still the cancer spreads, the miscarriage occurs, your loved one dies. Do you curse God? Do you rail at Him, “Where are you?!” Or do you cling to Him like this Canaanite woman, like Jacob, in faith, trusting that God is good and merciful and will work all things for the good of those who love Him?

The woman pleads with Jesus saying, “Yes, I am a dog. I am not worthy of the gift that I ask. But I know You; I know that You are good and merciful, gracious and kind, that You give to those who trust in You what they do not deserve. I will eat the crumbs of Your grace that fall from Your children’s’ table. For, even a crumb of Your mercy and grace, Your forgiveness and life, will satisfy me and make me whole.” Jesus replied to this woman, “Great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. What does faith look like? This is what faith looks like, says Jesus.

Today’s lesson is about holding on to God in faith – no matter what – to plead with Him continually, incessantly, even when He seems not to be listening, even when He seems to reject your prayers. Even then you are to without ceasing. Because faith is a struggle. Faith is like Jacob who wrestled with God all night saying, “I won’t let you go until you bless me.” Faith is like the Canaanite woman who, even though she confessed that she was not worthy, would not let Jesus go without blessing her.” Faith is tenacious and resilient, and God will bless those who hold on to Him in faith no matter what the result might be. He will give you what you need to persevere, and, ultimately, to overcome. But God knows what we need, which is often quite different than what we think we need, and He supplies us all that we need to support our bodies and lives now, and into eternity.

Even now He provides for His children, hearing with ears of faith, seeing with eyes of faith, precious and holy crumbs fallen from the festal board of the Lamb in heaven. Faith is the certainty that this is the real and true body and blood of the God-man Jesus Christ given and shed for you; faith is the assurance that, in eating and drinking, your sins are forgiven just as Truth Incarnate has said. And when it seems like God has forgotten you, cry out to Him in faith, “Remember Your mercy, O Lord, and Your steadfast love… Let not my enemies exult over me. Redeem Israel (Your one who struggles), O God, out of all his troubles.”

In the Name of the Faithful One + Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Christian Funeral for Jean Bieber

St. John 3:16-21


Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

You’ve heard it said that it is better to give than to receive. But it’s not always easy to give, is it? It goes against our nature, which we have to admit, tends to be more than a little self-serving. And let’s face it, we like to receive. We like to get stuff. We crave attention, admiration, and respect.

It’s somewhat easier to give to people that are nice to us, that like us, people that might give to us in return. But what about giving to people who don’t like us, people that hate us, and hurt us, and speak evil of us?

And yet, that is exactly how we are in relation to God. We disobey His commandments. We disrespect His honor. We curse His Name. We blame Him for our problems. We accuse Him of not being there for us. We take for granted the gifts that He gives us and still we complain that we don’t have enough. And still He loves us, still He gives to us.

Nine weeks ago we celebrated Christmas. What we celebrated was the precious, holy gift that God in His love gave to the world – His only begotten son, born as a man, Emmanuel, God with us. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.

God gave to us this most precious gift because He loves us, poor, miserable sinners that we are. He loves us, rebellious, prodigal sons and daughters who treat Him with contempt and squander His grace. He loves us, stubborn, near-sighted sheep who love to wander. He loves us with the gift of His Son, the gift of Himself, laid down in death that we might not perish but have eternal life.

God gave the world the gift of His Son that by His perishing we might have eternal life. And that’s what Lent and Holy Week are all about , the pilgrimage of Jesus to the cross of Good Friday, for us. For this is how God loved the world, with selfless, self-sacrificial love. The Father sent His Son to die. The Son willingly laid aside His life so that sinners could live. The Holy Spirit delivers that gift to sinful men, turning their hearts in repentance, creating faith that clings to the precious life-giving gift of Jesus, won for us in His death and resurrection.

And this is how God loved Jean. He sent His Son to die for her sins. He purchased her in Jesus’ blood. He made her new. And this was a gift, a pure, holy, and perfect gift. For God so loved the world, God so loved Jean, that He gave… He gave His only begotten Son.

Now, what do you say when you receive a gift? You say “Thank you.” If there was anyone I have been privileged to know who was thankful for the gift of forgiveness, life, and salvation she had received in Christ Jesus, it was Jean Bieber. When we would pray together she would softly say “Thank You, Jesus.” When she received communion she would softly say “Thank You, Jesus.” When people were less than kind to her and spoke evil things about her she would softly say “Thank You, Jesus.” And even when her feet were swollen and sore and she couldn’t walk she would softly say “Thank You, Jesus.”

Jean’s life was one of thankfulness and praise to God the Father for the gift of God the Son given to her by God the Holy Spirit. Jean waited for the LORD all her life and she rejoiced in His salvation. She has passed through the valley of the shadow of death and dwells in the house of the LORD forever. For the dwelling place of God is now and forever with man. He wipes every tear from her eyes, there is no more death, no more mourning, no more crying, no more pain – these former things are what has passed away. For Jean, and for all who receive the free gift of Jesus’ death and resurrection, all things are new.

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

To the Victor Go the Spoils

Invocabit – The First Sunday in Lent – St. Matthew 4:1-11


In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.

There’s really only one temptation, only one sin, and that is to place something or someone in the place of God – to put your fear, your love, and your trust in something or someone instead of God. And most of the time, what you put in the place of God is yourself. It is a transgression, a sin, against the first and the greatest commandment, “You shall have no other gods” – not even yourself.

But it’s not a new temptation. It’s not a new sin. In fact, it was the first temptation and the first sin known to mankind. The serpent tempted. Eve doubted God’s Word and ate. Adam allowed this to happen and even joined in. Adam and Eve desired for themselves what belonged only to God, the knowledge of good and evil. They desired to be gods unto themselves. They did not fear, love, and trust in God above all things, but they placed themselves above God and His Word. And so death entered the world just as God had said. They were cast from the garden of paradise out into the wilderness desert. Adam lived 930 years and then he died. The wages of sin is death.

And you are still there. You are still there in the wilderness desert, continually being tempted and succumbing to the sins of selfishness, religiosity, and idol worship. Who among you have not been tempted to put your own needs above others? Who among you has not come to church, read the Bible, prayed, or done all the right things because you believe doing religious things will save you? Who among you have not put other things before God, like hobbies, work, friends, or even your family? You have fallen prey to all of these temptations and far more.

But God did not create you to die, so He sent a second Adam to do battle with the devil, not in a lush garden paradise, but in a barren and desolate desert. This Adam was not a creature of dust but God’s only begotten Son. Immediately after He is Baptized, the Holy Spirit drives Jesus into the desert to be tempted by the devil. This isn’t even the devil’s idea. Jesus submits to His Father’s will and hands Himself over to be tempted by selfishness, by religiosity, and by idol worship. Jesus is tempted to leave the path of righteousness, the path that leads to our salvation, by the very one who started us on the wrong path in the first place.

As we begin this holy season of Lent, it is important for you to recognize that it is God’s plan for Jesus to be tempted, to suffer, and to die for you. “Even the Devil is God’s Devil,” said Martin Luther. You must know that your battle against the devil, that even Jesus’ battle against the devil, is less about you than it is about God. The devil is God’s enemy before he is your enemy. The devil was the first to sin against God as he desired to be god himself. The devil hates God with all that he is, and the devil hates you because God loves you so much.

In Jesus’ temptation, He does not show us how to fight against the devil, nor does He teach us how to properly use the Word of God. Jesus stands in your place and is tempted. He uses God’s Word to defeat the devil so that you will be blameless and free before God. Jesus is tempted to show that God is righteous and that He is the victor over Satan for us.

We do not, we cannot fight against the devil. Our God-given armor is defensive. But for us fights the Valiant One whom God Himself elected. Ask ye who is this? Jesus Christ it is of Sabaoth Lord. And there’s none other God. He holds the field forever. If God Himself fights for us, who can be against us?

Because Christ has won the victory for you over sin, death and the power of Satan, you are free, just as Christ is free by the resurrection of the dead. You are free to serve your neighbor in love. You are free to receive the blessings of God by faith. You are free to worship God alone, because He alone can save you.

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Because There Is Someone To Return To

Ash Wednesday – Joel 2:12-19


Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The penitential season of Lent is about returning. You are called to return to your baptism. You are called to return the faithful reception of God’s gifts in Jesus Christ. You are called to return to your family of faith which is the body of Christ, the Church. You are called to return to the Lord and giver of your life. You are called to return to your Lord.

Of course, all this returning means that there is something you are called to return from. You are called to return from your self-centeredness. You are called to return from your selfishness. You are called to return from your self-righteousness. You are called to return from your being lost. You are called to return from your sin. You are called to return from your path of death upon which you are walking, running, slipping and sliding.

Hence the ashes. Ashes are what is left when all is spent, when all is burned up, when all is wasted away. Ashes are the end for all living things. Uniquely for men, however, ashes are also the beginning. God uniquely made man from the dust of the earth and breathed into the dirt man’s nostrils His own living breath, and the man became a living creature. When our pilgrimage upon this trodden soil is complete, when our life is spent and burned up, we waste away, we return to the dust from whence we came. It is good for you to remember – to remember that you are dust and that to dust you shall return. It is good for you to remember that it is only by God’s gracious creative activity that you live at all. It is good for you to remember that it is because of your sin that you die. For, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and the wages of sin is death.

When you submit yourself to be marked with ashes, you are confessing this truth. You are confessing that you are a poor, miserable sinner deserving only punishment, both now in time and in eternity. You are confessing that a return to the dust and ashes from whence you came is a just and deserved wage for your sin. You are confessing that you have nothing to bring to God to bargain with Him for something better. You are confessing that you came into this world, apart from your choosing, with nothing at all – that all you are and all you have, even your life, is an undeserved gift of God’s grace – and that God is justified to take it all back should He so choose.

But why? Why do you submit yourself in such humility and lowliness? Why do you receive such harsh words against you and suffer to be branded with dust and ashes? Why do you repent and return?

Because there is something, because there is someone to return to. For the LORD is gracious, giving us good things that we do not deserve, forgiveness, life, and salvation. For the LORD is merciful, not giving us those bad things that we do deserve, eternal suffering and death. For the LORD is slow to anger, in fact He is long-suffering, patient, and kind, and He is abounding in steadfast, self-sacrificing love.

Then the LORD became jealous for His land and had pity on His people. He calls to His prodigal children in His love, “return.” His eyes search ceaselessly, His embrace is wide and waiting to receive would-be strangers as sons. Return and receive and be restored. He made man once from dust and ash, He is ready to do it again! He has slaughtered His choice, unblemished Lamb. There will be a feast – grain, wine, and oil – you will be satisfied. This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Extra-Ordinary Love

Quinquagesima – Luke 18:31-43

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Just eight weeks ago it was Christmas. All the hopeful expectation and thoughtful meditation reached a glorious pinnacle as we joined with angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven in the song of praise first sung by the angels to some frightened shepherds outside of Bethlehem announcing that God had become man and was born in the House of Bread to restore peace between God and man.

In three days it will be Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the penitential season of Lent, and we will consider the wages our sins have earned, the terrible price that we must, but cannot, pay – the price that Immanuel, God with us, was born to pay for us by His death on the cross.

How quickly our joy turns to sorrow, our rejoicing to grieving; but the Church does not have bi-polar disorder, She is not manic-depressive. For the Church, as for Her Lord, the joy and the sorrow, the rejoicing and the grieving, go together as do the sweet and the bitter, and often at the same time.

And in that way, the experience of the Church is very much like our experience of love – sweet and bitter, and often at the same time. Our Lord Himself teaches us, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone should lay down his life for his friends.” Now, I’m guessing you won’t find that on too many Valentine’s Day cards. The greatest love possible is a selfless and self-sacrificing love; we might say a love that is patient and kind; a love that does not envy or boast; a love that is not arrogant or rude, does not insist on its own way, is not irritable or resentful, does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth; a love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things; a love that never ends. A selfless and self-sacrificing love that is both bitter and sweet, and often at the same time.

I don’t know about you, but shopping for a Valentine’s Day card is a frustrating experience. I can never find a sentiment that reflects how I feel about my wife or our marriage, that describes love as we experience it. The worst types of these cards romanticize and idealize love, making it an unrealistic and impossible fantasy which our all too real marriage necessarily falls short of. While the best of these cards, though acknowledging the disappointments and the unfulfilled expectations that are common to our relationships, and even credit love as that ‘thing’ that will make everything work out all right, still never seem to get at what exactly love is, or means, or where love comes from, or how it’s even possible to love.

What Hollywood romanticizes, what Hallmark just doesn’t understand, and what Oprah hopelessly confuses, is that love is not infatuation or carnal lust, love is not a tired sentiment or cliché, and love is not a mysterious force or even an emotion – love is a person, Jesus Christ, the incarnate love of the Father who suffers long and is kind, who is not puffed up, who never fails us.

It is because of our sin that we are blind to see love for who He is. And so we grope around in our blindness seeking love in temporary things and fleeting emotions while we fail to see that love is present with us always and yet we would allow Him to pass on by. We are like the disciples who were too blind to see that love is selfless and self-sacrificing, who turn away from God’s love in misunderstanding and unbelief because in our blindness we think it foolishness. We think it foolishness that the Love of God incarnate must go up to Jerusalem as was prophesied and be mocked and spat upon and flogged and killed, and on the third day rise again. The disciples could not see it, we do not and cannot see it because we are blind in our sin. We have eyes that see, yet we do not see. We have ears that hear, yet we do not hear. Who then will save us in our blindness? Who then will have mercy on us in our deafness?

The Prophet Isaiah wrote: Behold, your God will come and save you. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. It was a blind man on the side of the road who could not see Jesus but had to take it upon the word of others that He was present who believed this Word of God. In his blindness he could see more clearly than the disciples that in this Jesus from lowly Nazareth, Isaiah’s prophecy was being fulfilled. The plea that falls from the blind man’s lips is the only plea that falls from the lips of a repentant sinner, “Kyrie eleison. Have mercy on me.”

The cry for mercy is not the cry to receive something, rather it is the cry to not receive something that we should – eternal suffering and death. Jesus is merciful, He does not give us what we deserve, rather He takes what we deserve upon Himself, He suffers and dies in our place upon the cross, because He is love, and no greater love is possible than to lay down one’s life for another. And yet, not only does Jesus not give us what we deserve, sacrificing Himself instead in love, but He also gives us what we do not deserve, grace, forgiveness, and eternal life. And this is the fullest expression of love – mercy and grace. Because love never takes, but always gives; love never binds, but always forgives. To have everything else, but this love, St. Paul teaches, is to have nothing in the end. But to have this love is to have everything.

Jesus restored the blind man’s sight, but this day He gives you a gift far greater than mere physical sight. Today he gives you His love, which will sustain you and hold you together in this life unto the next. The love of the Father incarnate pours into your heart and soul. It is a gift like no other. No-one who cries out in faith and hope “Lord, have mercy” will go away empty handed. And the gifts we receive are not of this world, but are flung from heaven in the Words and wounds of Jesus through His holy Word and precious Sacraments. By this we know what love is, that He laid down his life for us; in the same way ought we to lay down our lives for others.

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.