Sunday, October 23, 2016

Sermon for the Feast of St. James of Jerusalem - Mt 13:54-58

                                                                                                    St. James of Jerusalem
                                                                                                    Mt 13:54-58

“You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family.” This is a truth about life that you really begin to understand as you get older, and then as you have your own children. It is remarkable that children born to same two parents and raised in the exact same setting can turn out to be so different.

That alone could keep things interesting. But then on top of this the birth order of children influences the relationship between one another and also with their parents. Sibling rivalries exist and children feel that one sibling is favored by parents over another. Then when they get older the kids leave home and as they lead their own lives they are shaped by the different experiences and environments they encounter. A critical piece in this is the spouse they marry. The addition of sons and daughters in law changes the dynamic of the relationship between parents and children, and of the family as a whole.

You get to choose your friends. That is a decision you make often based on common interests and beliefs. We end up being friends with people that we enjoy being around – people with whom we feel comfortable. But family … well, your family members are who they are and you have no choice in that. You may be very different from them. They may drive you crazy. But they never cease to be your family.

Today is the Feast of St. James of Jerusalem. There are two notable James in the New Testament. First, there is the apostle James, who was the brother of John the apostle. However, today we remember and give thanks to God for the other James – James the brother of our Lord Jesus.

And that brings me to the question: Can you imagine what it was like to be part of Jesus’ family? Jesus was part of a family. And that fact caused offense to some. We learn in our text that Jesus went to Nazareth. No doubt you remember how pleased people were to hear Seminarian James Peterson preach for the first time here at Good Shepherd. A son of the congregation whom many of us had seen grow up returned to preach the Word of God to us.

Certainly the people in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth were excited to hear him teach in their synagogue. After all, the report about Jesus’ ministry of teaching and miracles was going all around Judea and Galilee. We learn that it was quite an experience. They were astonished, and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter's son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?”

The people in Nazareth were astonished at the wisdom and power of Jesus. But rather than receiving him in faith, they took offense at him. Their familiarity with Jesus bred contempt.

After all, this was the son of Joseph the carpenter; this was the son of Mary; this was brother of James and Joseph and Simon and Judas. They knew his family. They knew where he came from. They had known him as a boy. Who did he think he was, to be acting this way?!?

James is described here as Jesus’ “brother.” Although people in the history of the Church have often attempted to explain away this reference to Jesus’ brothers and sisters, there really is no good reason to deny what the text plainly says. Apparently, after Jesus had been conceived and born from the virgin Mary through the work of the Holy Spirit, Mary and Joseph went on to have more children in the normal way this happens. The striking thing about James and the other siblings of Jesus is that they are not described as being followers of the Lord in the Gospels. In the previous chapter instead they are depicted as outsiders when we read, “While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him.” And in fact in the Gospel of Mark we are told that when Jesus was so busy teaching and healing that he didn’t have time to eat, his family wanted to seize him for they were saying, “He is out of his mind.”

Today we remember and give thanks for James of Jerusalem, the brother of Jesus. Now there is absolutely no evidence that James believed in Jesus during his ministry. In fact, what we do hear about James and his siblings seems to indicate quite the opposite.
And yet everything changes when we turn to the book of Acts. For there in the first chapter we learn that after the ascension of Jesus the believers returned to Jerusalem. And Luke tells us, “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.”

James and the other brothers of Jesus are now clearly believers in the Lord. What is more, James quickly becomes an important leader of the Church in Jerusalem. In Acts 15 the first church council meeting is held in Jerusalem as the Church seeks to decided her stance toward the Gentiles that are now becoming Christians. First, Peter reminds them about how the Spirit had acted through his encounter with the Gentile Cornelius to show God’s acceptance of the Gentiles. Next, Paul and Barnabas describe how God had blessed their first missionary journey among the Gentiles. But the final word that settles the matter is spoken by James.

What had changed James? What had led him to faith in his brother Jesus? The answer could not be any more clear. Paul told the Corinthians, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James.”

James knew that Jesus had died on a Roman cross. On Holy Saturday as Jesus was buried in a tomb he must have thought that his crazy brother finally had gotten himself killed. But then after the resurrection of Easter, the risen Lord appeared to James! James came to understand who Jesus really is, and what he had done. No doubt he was among the disciples to whom Jesus presented himself alive by many proofs during the forty days before his ascension as the Lord spoke about the kingdom of God. James saw the risen Lord Jesus ascend into heaven.

And this changed everything for James. As he says in the our first reading from Acts 15, James now knew that Jesus was the Christ – he was the fulfillment of all of God’s promises in the Old Testament. He knew that Jesus had died as the sacrifice for every sin – for every one of your sins – and that in his resurrection he had defeated death. In the first chapter of his epistle James wrote that of God’s “own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” He urged his readers to “receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.”

James left no doubt about what Jesus’ death and resurrection now mean for our lives – for how we live. In the second chapter of his letter he wrote, “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” Or as Martin Luther put is, faith is a living, busy, active thing. It acts in love and service toward others because that is what the Spirit of Jesus leads and enables us to do.

James said it. And he also lived it. James led the church in Jerusalem until 62 A.D. In that year the Roman procurator Festus died. It was four months before the new procurator arrived. And during that period, Ananus II, the son of Annas the high priest, used the absence of a Roman leader to arrange the execution of James as he was thrown from a roof of the temple, and then stoned before being clubbed in the head. James showed his faith in the work of martyrdom. His death was a witness to the resurrection of his brother Jesus. It was a witness to the salvation Jesus has given to you.

The Gospels provide a picture of tension that existed in Jesus’ family because of his ministry. We do not see James and the other brothers of Jesus as disciples before his death. They are outsiders who at times wonder even about the sanity of Jesus.
This is important for us to remember. Jesus brings tension to families. That is because as true God and true man, he has redeemed every person. He has laid claim to every person. His is, after all, the Lord. 

And this means that he comes before any other person – even before family. Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person's enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

Where family members reject Jesus as Lord there will be tension because for the Christian Jesus comes first. Where family members reject Jesus’ word there will be tension because for the Christian Jesus comes first. Brothers and sister in Christ, this is only going to get worse. In a culture that is carrying people away from Jesus and toward sin, we will have family members who go along with the world. 

They will reject Jesus as the only Lord and Savior from sin. In particular we are going to have people reject what Jesus and his apostles have to say about sexuality – about the Sixth Commandment. Family members will live together outside of marriage. They will declare acceptance of homosexuality. They will live in same sex relationships and even claim marriage for this.

These are painful situations that wound us deeply. They are some of the most profound ways that sin harms us. But the conversion of James and his martyrdom remind us that Jesus died on the cross and rose on the third day. They remind us that the earliest Christian confession is true: “Jesus is Lord.” Not only that, as the explanation to the Second Article of the Creed says, “I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the virgin Mary is my Lord.” He is the One “who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil.”

The temptation will always be to cave; to accept the sin; to put family ahead of Jesus instead of speaking the truth in love. But the response of faith active in love – the response of faith which is known by what it does – will be instead to put Jesus and his word first. We do so because, like James, we know that Jesus Christ is the crucified and risen Lord. He is our Lord. We belong to him, the One who sacrificed himself for us. And because he rose from the dead, we know that this way of faith brings salvation and eternal life with God.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Mark's thoughts: A myth of "contemporary worship"

We are frequently told that the rite of the Divine Service and the hymns of the Lutheran hymnal are not welcoming to visitors.  Instead, if the Lutheran church is to be “missional,” something different is needed.  Almost always this something turns out to be some form of “contemporary worship” in which the texts and even the basic ordering of the Lutheran church’s rite are abandoned for an order of service that has been created by the worship planner and contains little connection to the catholic character of worship in the Lutheran church.  Lutheran hymns are cast aside for various praise songs which, like the order of service, are projected onto large screens.  Leading all of this is the ubiquitous “worship team” displayed prominently in the chancel/stage area in front of the congregation.

Now it is true that the rite of the Divine Service is often new and foreign to people who visit.  This is not surprising.  In fact, it is a good thing.  Christ has called the Church out of the world and made her his own.  Lutherans confess that we know the Church is present when the Means of Grace are being administered.  The Church is most herself when she is in worship, and therefore she looks very different from the world when this is occurring.

The Church has her own catholic culture – her own ways of speaking and acting – that separates the Church from the world and marks her off as God’s people. In the rite of the Divine Service these ways are made up of verses and phrases taken from Holy Scripture. The rite of the Divine Service is made up of Scripture and it has been built around the reading and proclamation of God's Word and the celebration of the Sacrament of the Altar.  It highlights and emphasizes the sacramental ways in which God comes to us and is therefore the best and most natural setting for these Gospel gifts.  The rite of the Divine Service is a very important part of this culture that marks off the Church as God’s own people who have been called out of the world and continue to receive his gifts.  As visitors encounter the rite of the Divine Service, they will often experience something that they find to be different and foreign to them.  This is not surprising because they are encountering a different way of doing the world – God’s Gospel way.  However in this recognition there is an invitation to learn more about God’s way of doing the world and to join the culture of God’s people.

Setting this point aside, the assertion remains that Lutheran worship using rite and hymns from the hymnal is less user friendly than “contemporary worship.”  Yet this is a myth that does not correspond to reality.  I was struck by this again recently when I was present at a service that incorporated elements of contemporary worship.  There was a song that the congregation was to sing in alternation with the worship team.  I immediately recognized that this was not something I had ever sung or even heard before.  All I had before me were the words of the text.  There was no musical notation of any kind.

The worship team performed their part in a manner that was done flawlessly.  The expressions on their faces clearly indicated that they were deeply involved in the music.  Yet when it was time for the congregation to sing, I realized that I had no idea how to sing it. I flailed uncomfortably in my attempt.  The bare words provided no assistance in how the piece was to be sung. There was nothing “user friendly” about it.

The music for the the rite of the Divine Service and hymns in the Lutheran hymnal may be new to a visitor.  But the hymnal carries a distinct advantage over contemporary worship: It provides music that helps guide the user.  Proponents of contemporary worship will argue that in the twenty-first century this is no longer really a factor.  They will claim that declining music literacy in our culture means that neither the presence nor the absence of music is a significant feature.

But this argument is overplayed.  True, music literacy has declined.  But if you add up all of the individuals who are or have been in grade school, middle school and high school band, orchestra and choir programs the result is a very large body of people with at least a rudimentary knowledge of music. At the very least you have people who know that the dots go up and down in ways that tell them the tune is getting higher and lower.  It may be new and different to them.  But the presence of musical notation makes the settings and hymns of the Lutheran hymnal easier for the visitor to use.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Feast of St. Luke, Evangelist

Today is the Feast of St. Luke, Evangelist. According to Colossians 4:14, Luke was a physician.  He joined Paul during his second missionary journey (Acts 16:9-11) and accompanied him during several portions of his travels.  He traveled with Paul to Jerusalem and was with him during the two years that he was imprisoned in Caesarea (Acts 21-26).  It is likely that Luke used this time to gather material he used in writing the Gospel of Luke.  Luke wrote the Book of Acts as the second volume that accompanies the Gospel of Luke (Acts 1:1-2).  More than one-third of the New Testament was written by Luke.

Scripture reading:
After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go. And he said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go your way; behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. Carry no moneybag, no knapsack, no sandals, and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!’ And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest upon him. But if not, it will return to you. And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages. Do not go from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you. Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ (Luke 10:1-9 ESV)

Collect of the Day:
Almighty God, our Father, Your blessed Son called Luke the physician to be an evangelist and physician of the soul.  Grant that the healing medicine of the Gospel and the Sacraments may put to flight the diseases of our souls that with willing hearts we may ever love and serve You; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Commemoration of Ignatius of Antioch, Pastor and Martyr

Today we remember and give thanks for Ignatius of Antioch, Pastor and Martyr.  Ignatius was the bishop of Antioch in Syria at the beginning of the second century A.D. and an early Christian martyr. Near the end of the reign of the Roman emperor Trajan (98–117), Ignatius was arrested, taken in chains to Rome, and eventually thrown to the wild beasts in the arena. On the way to Rome, he wrote letters to the Christians at Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Rome, Philadelphia, and Smyrna, and also to Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. In the letters, which are beautifully pastoral in tone, Ignatius warned against certain heresies (false teachings). He also repeatedly stressed the full humanity and deity of Christ, the reality of Christ’s bodily presence in the Lord’s Supper, the authority of the bishop, and the unity of the Church found in her bishops. Ignatius was the first to use the word catholic to describe the universality of the Church. His Christ-centeredness, his courage in the face of martyrdom, and his zeal for the truth over against false doctrine are a lasting legacy to the Church.

Collect of the  Day:
Almighty God, we praise Your name for Ignatius of Antioch, pastor and martyr.  He offered himself as grain to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts so that he might present to You the pure bread of sacrifice.  Accept the willing tribute of all that we are and all that we have, and give us a portion in the pure and unspotted offering of Your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity - Isa 55:1-9

                                                                                                  Trinity 20
                                                                                                   Isa 55:1-10

Recently, I received an email that said the following, “I am Private Adviser to former Minister of Petroleum (Diezani Alison-Madueke). I want you to help my boss receive [US$70.5Million US Dollars] for investment. NB: This became imperative so we can avoid total lost to the on going onslaught against my boss by the present government in my country. Your share shall be 25% of the total value upon the completion. Please kindly send email below and your data so that I can send you more details. Respectfully yours, Deribo Agidigan.”

Now of course, as soon as I received this email, I wanted to help. After all, how could I not be concerned about the ongoing onslaught against the former Minister of Petroleum of this unnamed country? The present government simply could not be allowed to get away with this!

And in this case being helpful actually had a great reward. I could receive $17.5 million dollars just for helping to overturn this injustice! This was a clear win – win situation. All I would have to do is contact Mr. Agidigan, and probably give him some personal information like my Social Security number and maybe my bank account information so that he could send me millions of dollars.

Of course, as you have already correctly surmised, I never responded to this email that showed up in my junk email box – the place where spam emails are deposited. I deleted it because it is obviously a fraud. If it sounds too good to be true, it certainly is. Emails like this have been sent for almost as long as there has been email, and at this point we just laugh at the absurdity of the story.

We quickly learn in life that if it sounds too good to be true, it almost certainly is. You don’t get something for nothing. That’s just not how life works. And that is why the Gospel words of the beginning of this morning’s text are so striking. God exhorts the people of Israel to receive from him food and drink that truly satisfy – and he declares that this is free and without cost.

The prophet Isaiah wrote in the eighth century B.C. But the thing that is interesting about this part of Isaiah’s prophecy is that while he is writing in the eighth century, he is actually speaking to events that won’t happen for nearly two hundred years in the sixth century B.C. He speaks about how the southern kingdom of Judah will be taken into exile by the Babylonians. This will happen because of Judah’s sin and rejection of Yahweh. But God’s love for his people will not come to an end. Instead, he will graciously act to return them from exile to the land he had promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Isaiah speaks about the return from exile that God’s people will experience in the future. Yet when Isaiah does so, he is not only talking about this event. In the Old Testament, the great Gospel event was the exodus from Egypt as Yahweh rescued Israel from slavery. He redeemed them. And this rescue from slavery – this redemption – becomes an important way that the New Testament talks about what God did in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In Christ, God redeemed us in an even greater way – he freed us from slavery to Satan, sin and death. 

Isaiah describes the return from exile as a kind of second exodus. And this alerts us to the fact that here too, a saving action by God points forward to the ultimate rescued that God has provided in Jesus Christ. And so Isaiah is also talking about the salvation that we now know God has provided in Christ to all people. In the case of our text, Isaiah’s language speaks directly to us as God’s people today. He says, “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.”

God exhorts people who are thirsty and hungry to come to him because he offers drink and food. He offers it without cost. It’s free! And this is not just water or bargain off-brand stuff – instead he offers milk, wine and rich food. He offers the good stuff. He gives it away without cost. It all sounds too good to be true. It sounds like it is foolish to believe these words.

But through Isaiah, God says that all too often, what we do is in fact really foolish. He asks, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” Of course, in the poetic language of the prophet, Isaiah is not talking about what we put in our stomach. Instead this is a metaphor that describes the things that we strive after in life. It describes those things that become our focus; the things to which we look for security, worth and value; the things we look to for enjoyment and satisfaction.

If you are honest, you know what they are in your life. They are the things for which you apply more attention, effort and energy than you do to God and the life lived by faith in Jesus Christ. They are the things that seem to promise peace, happiness and satisfaction. 

But God warns us that in spite of the great cost we expend in order to obtain them, they do not satisfy. They cannot satisfy. They cannot satisfy because we were created for something more. We were created in the image of God to live in fellowship with God. As St. Augustine expressed it, “Man remains restless until he finds his rest in God.” All of the other things are a mirage. They tantalize, but they cannot provide the contentment and peace for which we were created.

When we seek all of these other things; when we put them ahead of God, we sin. We break the First Commandment. It was the same for Israel. In spite of the covenant God had established with them as he made the nation his unique possession and gave them the Torah to guide their life, they had rejected Yahweh. They had worshipped other gods. They had put the things of the creation ahead of the Creator.

Sin is the problem for all people. But just two chapters earlier in his prophecy, Isaiah had described how God would do something completely unexpected in order to provide the answer to sin. He would act in his Servant, the Servant of the Lord. Isaiah wrote about him: “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.”

This Servant of the Lord would bear the sins of all in order to give us forgiveness and peace. And because of what has happened in the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ we now understand a shocking truth. We understand that Servant of the Lord is also the Christ – the Messiah – descended from King David. The suffering Servant of the Lord is the same one about whom Isaiah says in our text, “Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.  Behold, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples.” The Messiah who is described in the Old Testament as a figure of might and power is also the humble Servant of the Lord who bears the sin of all in suffering and death.

God the Father sent his Son into the world as he was incarnate by the work of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He was born in Bethlehem, the city of David, and because Joseph claimed this virgin born son as his own, Jesus was the son of David. Anointed, not with olive oil, but with the Holy Spirit at his baptism Jesus was the Messiah – the Christ – described by Isaiah. Yet at this same baptism he stepped into our shoes as he took on the role of the suffering Servant and began his journey to the cross. There he offered himself on the cross for your sins in order to give you forgiveness. But on the third day he rose from dead as he defeated death – a victory that guarantees you the same resurrection of the body on the Last Day.

This is what God has done for us in Christ. And so, when we stumble in sin, we know that we can trust in God’s call to repentance. Isaiah says in our text, “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” 

We turn in faith to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We do so in confidence we because we have seen in Jesus that God wants to have compassion on us. He wants to abundantly pardon. He wants to give us what we don’t deserve. He wants to give us the riches of forgiveness, resurrection and eternal life with him for free.

Does it sound too good to be true? Does it sound like it makes no sense? That is precisely the joy of the Gospel that we have seen in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ! In his grace and love God does what makes no sense to us. But he does it in order to give us forgiveness and salvation with him. In the end, the amazing grace of God’s salvation in Christ really shouldn’t surprise us. After all, he tells us in our text, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth,so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”