Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Lent 3 Midweek Sermon -- Psalm 136:1-16 (LSB Lent 3H)

March 30, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“Give thanks to the God of heaven, for His steadfast love endures forever. Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever.”

The “finger of God” is at work in the readings for tonight. It is used to aid and deliver people. The “God of heaven” acts to confound and thwart those who oppose His order and will. So it was for the Hebrew people enslaved in Egypt. The Lord desired them to be free. That is why He appointed Moses, giving him the task to say to Pharaoh: “Let My people go!” His divine will was to have the descendants of Abraham possess the land promised to their forefather, the land of Canaan.

But when Pharaoh refuses, when he will not release his enslaving grasp over the Hebrew people, the Lord takes up the cause. The “finger of God” acts: Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Say to Aaron “Stretch out your staff and strike the dust of the earth, so that it may become gnats in all the land of Egypt.”’ And they did so. Aaron stretched out his hand with his staff and struck the dust of the earth, and there were gnats on man and beast. All the dust of the earth became gnats in all the land of Egypt.” A message is sent: “Let My people go,” or worse will happen to you. There is no messing around here; the “God of heaven” is serious about His demand.

The truth of the situation was understood by the wise men of Pharaoh’s court. It became obvious to them what was happening: “The magicians tried by their secret arts to produce gnats, but they could not. So there were gnats on man and beast. Then the magicians said to Pharaoh, ‘This is the finger of God.’” They could not do what the Lord accomplished through Aaron’s staff. They recognized the greater power, even when Pharaoh did not: “But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said.”

Pharaoh’s refusal led to the “or else” of the Lord’s demand: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Rise up early in the morning and present yourself to Pharaoh, as he goes out to the water, and say to him, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Let My people go, that they may serve Me. Or else, if you will not let My people go, behold, I will send swarms of flies on you and your servants and your people, and into your houses. And the houses of the Egyptians shall be filled with swarms of flies, and also the ground on which they stand. But on that day I will set apart the land of Goshen, where My people dwell, so that no swarms of flies shall be there, that you may know that I am the Lord in the midst of the earth.’”’” The plagues continued, until Pharaoh finally released the Hebrew people, leading to the great Red Sea Crossing. Divine action was done, the “finger of God” at work for His people.

Centuries later, the “finger of God” was not exercised through Aaron’s staff, but literally was on a Man’s hand. This is what you heard: “Now [Jesus] was casting out a demon that was mute. When the demon had gone out, the mute man spoke, and the people marveled.” Witnessing Jesus’ act, many were amazed at what they had seen. There was recognition of divine power happening in their midst. But just like in Pharaoh’s court, there were some who did not believe, whose hearts were hardened: “But some of them said, ‘He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the prince of demons,’ while others, to test Him, kept seeking from Him a sign from heaven.” They would not believe in Jesus’ identity despite His casting out of the demon for the mute man’s benefit.

So Jesus responds to the critique from the hard-hearted people: “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household falls. And if Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? For you say that I cast out demons by Beelzebul. And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” Look at the signs and see! How can Satan work against himself? How can the prince of demons be invoked to cast out other demons? Jesus’ words are spoken to turn the people away from their ignorance, from their lack of belief.

But Jesus’ words include an “or else” similar to what was spoken against Pharaoh. He gives the people a warning: “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are safe; but when one stronger than he attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil. Whoever is not with Me is against Me, and whoever does not gather with Me scatters.” That is a statement of judgment. Jesus’ words and deeds show Him to be the Stronger One, the Lord come to His people to bring deliverance. But those who will not receive Him have no part of Him. His closing statement shows that: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”

The Word of God testifies to what He has done. It gives the record of the actions performed by the “finger of God.” It also presents great promises to those who hear and believe. When that happens, then there isn’t the hard-hearted scoffing found in Pharaoh or those who mocked Jesus. Instead, there is praise that flows from the heart through the mouth. You speak the refrain of the Psalm: “His steadfast love endures forever!” The believing soul confesses what the Lord has done for it, repeating the record of accomplishments. That is what the Psalmist did in his song of praise and thanksgiving: “to Him who alone does great wonders . . . to Him who by understanding made the heavens . . . to Him who made the great lights . . . to Him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt . . . to Him who divided the Red Sea in two . . . to Him who led His people through the wilderness. . . .” Each phrase repeats what the Lord has done, declaring it to be how “His steadfast love endures forever!”

So you are given the Word of God to hear. You listen to what has been done by the Lord in the past for you, as well as what He promises to do in the present and future. The “finger of God” is active for you now. It inscribes His Name upon your hearts and head. It creates faith in your souls. It cast out the deathly and demonic from you. It writes the credit of righteousness in your spiritual ledger, while canceling out the debts of your sins. It delivers forgiveness, life, and salvation to you. It points to the Promised Land that awaits you.

But like Pharaoh and the scoffers around Jesus, there are those who will not believe. Let them be just as Jesus declared: “Whoever is not with Me is against Me, and whoever does not gather with Me scatters.” Let the “finger of God” point to them with His statement of judgment, the great “or else” that is found in the Lord’s Word. As for you, hear the record of what has been done for you. Satan cannot be turned against himself, but he must yield to the Stronger One, the Lord. That Stronger One, Jesus Christ has acted on your behalf, taking away the Deceiver’s armor of lies, hatred, and death by speaking truth, loving sacrificially, and overcoming the grave. Blessed are you when you hear the Word of God and keep it—believing it, cherishing it, treasuring it, obeying it, trusting it. The Kingdom of God has come to you and you are part of it. So you will take part in the refrain of praise to the Lord: “His steadfast love endures forever!” Thanks be to God, that steadfast love shown to me, as the “finger of God” acted for my benefit!

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

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Lent 3A Sermon -- John 4:5-30, 39-42 (LSB Lent 3A)

March 27, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“Jesus said to [the Samaritan woman]: ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty forever. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.’”

Moses had led the Exodus People toward the Promised Land of Canaan, following the directions given by the Lord. He had taken them from slavery in Egypt through the Red Sea; now they were headed to their destination: “All the congregation of the people of Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin by stages, according to the commandment of the Lord, and camped at Rephidim. . . .” Yet, the recorder of the Exodus tells us: “But there was no water for the people to drink. Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’”

The people’s thirst drove them to quarrel with Moses: “But the people thirsted there for water, and the people grumbled against Moses and said, ‘Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?’” But the Lord was with Moses, the one whom He chose to lead the Exodus People. He would answer their thirst, giving them the water that they need: “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.’ And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel.” The rock brought forth water, just as the Lord had ordered it to do.

But the issue at Massah and Meribah was more than just thirst. The Exodus People were rebelling against the Lord and His appointed leader. It was driven more so by a lack of faith. This is seen in what the people asked: “Is the Lord among us or not?” They doubted that they were being well guided and led by the Lord. So the Psalmist would record the Lord’s words about the people’s lack of faith: “Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your fathers put Me to the test and put Me to the proof, though they had seen My work. For forty years I loathed that generation and said: ‘They are a people who go astray in their heart, and they have not known My ways.’” Not knowing His ways, going astray, being loathed by the Lord: these are all indictments against the Exodus People for their rebellion and sinful lack of faith. The Lord must provide for these greater needs.

Moving forward in time, there is another incident where thirst drives actions, as you heard in the Gospel Reading: “So [Jesus] came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s Well was there; so Jesus, wearied as He was from His journey, was sitting beside the well. It was about the sixth hour. There came a woman of Samaria to draw water. Jesus said to her, ‘Give Me a drink.’” Jesus needed water to live, but this action of asking the Samaritan woman for a drink would lead to a greater end. For she is also driven to act out of thirst—a thirst of multiple natures that Jesus will quench.

Approached by Jesus, the woman acts in surprise: “The Samaritan woman said to Him, ‘How is it that You, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?’” She knew the cultural, ethnic, and religious differences between them. Jesus’ request is out-of-bounds, as far as society was concerned. But this is how He acts for the woman’s benefit: “Jesus said to her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give Me a drink,” you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.’” Jesus has something that the woman needs, even if she doesn’t know exactly what it is: “The woman said to Him, ‘Sir, You have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are You greater than our father Jacob? He gave us this well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.’”

His words will show her sin and her lack of faith, and then give her what she truly thirsts for. Jesus has “living water” that is more than a running stream: “Jesus said to her: ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty forever. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.’” The thought of having water that never runs out, that quenches every thirst, intrigues the woman: “The woman said to Him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.’” But what Jesus gives does not end earthly thirst. No, He will give to this woman water greater than Jacob’s Well held or what sprung up at the Rock of Meribah. What Jesus gives is faith created by hearing His words and receiving the Holy Spirit that brings forth eternal life in sinful human beings.

This is why Jesus discusses the woman’s marital status. By discussing her disordered state of matrimony, Jesus shows the sin that He will forgive: “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband.” But Jesus points out an even worse condition about this woman, what actually causes her thirst of the soul: she has no true knowledge of the Lord and His ways. That is why Jesus answers her question about worship: “Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”

Jesus’ statement applies to the condition of the Samaritan people. Once they had known the Lord and His ways. But through their rebellion against His institutions, by intermarrying with Gentile nations, by adopting a syncretic religion, they had gone astray. They lacked the faith that saves. They tried the Lord’s patience by establishing their own temple on Mount Gerezim with their own priesthood and canon of Scripture. They are well described as an adulterous people, hooking up with many and various gods.

But now, Jesus addresses the Samaritans’ sinful condition. They receive the “living water” that Jesus grants, the gift of God that flows from His words. The woman knew a shadow of the truth: “I know that Messiah is coming. When He comes, He will tell us all things.” That is what Jesus will do, for that is His identity: “I who speak to you am He.” As faith is created by Jesus’ words, the woman and the people of Sychar believe in Him, having that spiritual spring established in their hearts: “They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.’”

Jesus provides salvation for these Samaritans. They are born from above by what He does for them. They become people of the Spirit, not simply earthly beings. Born of water and the Spirit, they now know who the Lord is and believe in Him. Now they can meet the requirement that Jesus declared: “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” What enlivens their souls is granted to them. Their deep thirst is met, so that they may have life in the world to come.

What Jesus does in Sychar of Samaria stands as a paradigm of His entire ministry. It is what He continues to do through those whom He has appointed. Even today, Jesus gives “living water” to people. It is found just like it was in Samaria: in hearing His word and believing it. So He appoints apostles to go out and proclaim it, to make known what He said and to speak about what He did. Through the receiving of Jesus’ words, the Holy Spirit is given. He causes the well springing up to eternal life to appear in the hearts of individuals.

This is what He has done for you. You are like the Samaritans of Sychar. For you were rebellious people, people who strayed from the Lord’s ways, people who worshiped what you did not know. But Jesus’ words have been spoken to you, giving you the “living water”—a source of everlasting life. He bridges the gap between you and the Father in heaven. He has overcome the separation that exists because of your sin, your failure to abide by the Lord’s ways, to love Him with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. That living water was given in Jesus’ words attached to water, the life-giving act of Holy Baptism that brought you into fellowship with Him.

This is what the apostle describes about Jesus’ work: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. . . . God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” But not only has Christ died, God has acted so that you may receive the benefit of that work: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” That is the “living water” that Jesus provides for you through the ways He has instituted. The living water given to you overcomes your spiritual thirst. It turns your heart from being a dry, dead place full of unbelief and rebellion like Massah and Meribah to a well that has the living water springing up to eternal life for you. You may draw from “Jesus’ Well” whenever you say: “Lord, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty.”

You are given to know the Lord, to be born of Him, and to worship Him in spirit and truth, so that you can rightly say: “Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! For He is our God, and we are the people of His pasture, and the sheep of His hand.” By faith, you have entry into the rest that He gives: the condition of His forgiving your sin, His granting righteousness to you, His peace comforting your troubled souls. The question of doubt spoken by the Exodus People—“Is the Lord among us or not?”—is answered: Yes, He is, with His good gifts and Spirit. For you have heard for yourselves and believe that Jesus is indeed the Savior of the world, even of you. And so the Lord has become the Rock of your salvation that produces living water for you, a source greater than Jacob’s Well.

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

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Lent 2 Midweek Sermon -- Psalm 121 (LSB Lent 2H)

March 23, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”

Where do you turn for help? It is a question that we teach our young to answer, when we discuss the roles of people in society. An injured person goes to a doctor for help. A crime victim turns to the justice system for help. A lost person looks for security or guides for help. This our preschool students learn. But there are other times of need. Those times include economic downturns that cost jobs. Or political turmoil, like now in Northern Africa. Or facing a terminal disease. Who helps then? Who do you turn to? Whose aid do you seek?

In the two readings for tonight, you heard of two individuals who desperately needed aid. The first was Jacob. You were told: “The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. And Jacob was left alone.” Why was this done? Because of who was coming near to Jacob: his brother Esau, the one whom Jacob had cheated, was approaching Jacob’s clan. Earlier his messengers told him: “We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him.” Then Jacob was greatly afraid and divided his clan into two groups, so that at least some would escape.

But in the midst of this danger, Jacob recalls what the Lord had spoken to him: “And Jacob said: ‘O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me: 'Return to your country and to your kindred, that I may do you good,' I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that You have shown to Your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children. But You said: ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.’” Jacob’s cleverness might protect some of his people, but only the Lord’s aid would truly deliver him.

So Jacob turned to the Lord for aid. That night, his plea was answered: “And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When that man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said: ‘Let me go, for the day has broken.’ But Jacob said: ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’” But that man was not Esau sneaking into Jacob’s camp. For we are told: “Then he said: ‘Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.’” The identity of that man was made clear by Jacob’s actions afterward: “So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying: ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.’” Struggling with the Lord, grabbing hold of His divine promises and not letting go, Jacob receives the aid that he needs.

A similar act takes place in the second reading for this evening. Another individual needs help for a dire situation: “Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying: ‘Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.’” There was nothing that the woman could do. She could not prevail over such an enemy. But she knew what was foretold about this Messiah that the Hebrew people were waiting for. The Lord could help.

But note what takes place between this Canaanite woman and Jesus: “But He did not answer her a word. And His disciples came and begged Him, saying: ‘Send her away, for she is crying out after us.’ He answered: ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’” Jesus’ statements show a lack of help would be forthcoming. He refers to the promises made to Israel, not to the Gentiles, to the Canaanites. Yet the woman is not dissuaded: “But she came and knelt before Him, saying: ‘Lord, help me.’”

Again, it seems like help will not come: “And He answered: ‘It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.’ She said: ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’” The Canaanite woman knows the exclusive promises to Israel. But she also knows something else: that Jesus is the Lord, that He has powers and abilities, and that there were people beyond the descendants of Jacob who had benefited from the Lord throughout the past history. She trusts that Jesus can give that sort of aid, and her daughter will benefit from it. That belief, trust, and reliance is recognized by Jesus: “Then Jesus answered her: ‘O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.” Like Jacob, this woman clung to what she knew to be true about Jesus. She struggled with the Lord and she received the aid that she needs.

So it is with you. You have heard of who the Lord is and what He does. You have also heard promises that the Lord has made. This has been spoken to you, so that you may believe it. Faith is created by hearing this testimony about the Lord; that faith grabs hold of the promises that He makes and clings to them. Where do you turn for aid? How do you answer the question that the Psalmist asks: “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?” The answer should be same as his: “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”

Think of where people turn for help—banks with great wealth for loans, nations with great armies for military assistance, medical groups with great knowledge and skill for health. These are all impressive. The Psalmist’s statement answer identifies your source of aid. That identity surpasses all the others. The One who has the power and ability to create the cosmos has become your Helper, your Keeper. He condescends to you, coming down to your level, even becoming a Person like you, to bring you aid. And He promises to continue to come near to you to bring you forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.

So we answer the question about help: “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” That help comes to us wherever His promises are attached. We cling to Holy Baptism and the promises made that we are His children, constantly reminding Him of that identity and His blessing that comes with it. We cling to Holy Absolution and the promises made that our sins are forgiven, constantly reminding Him of that pardon and His blessing that comes with it. We cling to Holy Communion and the promises made that blood has been shed for our salvation, constantly reminding Him of that sacrifice and His blessing that comes with it. In these ways, we struggle with God, not letting go, and we receive His aid, the aid we need that no one else can give.

But that belief, trust, and reliance all depends on the identity of who the Lord is. The One who made heaven and earth can bring that help. We turn to the One who has the ability to help and who has promised to do so. We can express our faith, just as the Psalmist did: “The Lord will keep you from all evil; He will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.” So He will do until we come into His eternal presence in His celestial sanctuary, the place promised for us, His redeemed people.

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

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Lent 2A Sermon -- John 3:1-17 (LSB Lent 2A)

March 20, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“Jesus said: ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to Him: ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?’”

Who you are born to can affect your entire life. Your parents give you a name. They also can give you a place in society. Depending upon who your parents are, you may have access to privileges and perks that others do not have. But the opposite can be true, too. Disease and ill health can be the result of poor genetics. Those who are born to impoverished households may lack what is considered essential to life. Coming from the wrong side of town, from the wrong clan can seal your destiny for the worse. For good or evil, much is wrapped up in ancestry.

In this morning’s readings, the topic of parentage and given identity was clearly heard. Starting with the Old Testament Reading, you heard of Abram. He was called to a new identity, one disconnected from his native land, clan, and household: “Now the Lord said to Abram: ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’” Abram was to leave behind what his ancestors had passed down to him, in order to have a new beginning. Instead of only having the heritage of Terah, his father, Abram would be the source of a great benefit to his descendants: “And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Called by the Lord, Abram acted: “So Abram went as the Lord had told him, and Lot went with him. . . . And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan.” From the moment of his call by the Lord, Abram’s fate was wrapped up in the promise given to him. His identity was being the believer of the Lord and the recipient of His blessing. This identity was confirmed by what Abram did when he reached Canaan: “And there he built and altar to the Lord and called upon the name of the Lord.” Abram was now the Lord’s person, not the son of Terah. Abram’s clan now the Lord’s clan, not the Semites. Abram’s land was the Lord’s gift of Canaan, not Haran or Ur of the Chaldeans.

Abram’s clan grew as the Lord had promised. It started slowly, having Isaac at an old age. Isaac begot Jacob. Jacob begot his twelve sons. And so the nation of Israel, the descendants of Abram’s flesh, arose. The Lord made good on what He said: “I will make of you a great nation.” But that promise included something much more important: “And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” The heritage given to Abram would extend to people who were not of his bloodlines. Instead, it would be given to those who shared his true identity: being called by the Lord, being incorporated into His household, and being given to believe His promises.

This is what the Apostle Paul described in this morning’s Epistle Reading. When writing about Abraham, Paul recites the great statement about him: “For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’” Paul discusses the implications of this: “For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. . . . That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, as it is written: ‘I have made you the father of many nations.’” Abraham’s clan was not limited to those who shared his bloodlines. Instead, all who shared the faith of Abraham are connected to him. And how is that faith given? By being called by the Lord, “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”

Birth is spoken of, but not an earthly birth. A household is described, but not an earthly household. Citizenship is mentioned, but not an earthly citizenship. A heritage is promised, but not an earthly heritage. No, Paul’s writing explains the Lord’s actions that began back in Haran, when Abram was called to faith and given a new identity: “And I will make of you a great nation. . . . And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” All would come true because of Abram’s Descendant according to the flesh, but God’s Son according to His divinity. He would fulfill all the promises made and that Abram believed.

This is what today’s Gospel Reading described: “[Nicodemus] came to Jesus by night and said to Him: ‘Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with Him.’” Nicodemus’ statement was true. Jesus is that descendant of Abram, a teacher come from God. But He is even more. He is the One who fulfills the promise made to Abram, the agent through which Abram becomes “the father of many nations.” What Jesus would accomplish was for more than just one clan, one set of bloodlines: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.”

But access to this great deed comes in the same way that it came to Abram: the Lord calls people to Himself, makes promises to them, and grants them faith to believe it. That is why Jesus speaks about having a new identity given to you, a birth not from earthly parents, but from the Lord: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God. . . . Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Jesus says that earthly ancestry does not matter. If one would receive the promise made to Abram, he need not share in the bloodline, being “born of the flesh.” No, a birth from above must be given, as it was to Abram, being “born of the Spirit.” In this way, “the promise rests on grace and is guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham.”

Your earthly parentage may have given you great privilege or it may have dealt you a lousy hand in life. But no matter who your mother and father were, they passed down to you a terrible heritage: separation from God and the lack of righteousness. It is given to all who are the children of Adam, the one through whom sin and death entered the world. When it comes down to it, there is nothing truly good that you have received through your bloodlines. Instead, there is a great curse—the curse of death, the wages of your sin. Receiving only that birth, none are right before God, none have a place in His household. That is the upshot of Jesus’ teaching: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God. . . . Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

But a new birth, a second birth, a birth from above is possible. Nicodemus’ question shows that it is not of this earth: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” No, of course not. It is a silly thought. But even if a second earthly birth could take place, it would benefit no one. For what is promised about the kingdom of God is not given by human parentage. Instead, it is bestowed when one is born “not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”

So Jesus speaks of a birth that He brings to this world: a birth of “water and the Spirit.” It is what you have been given in Holy Baptism, where water and the Holy Spirit were present. This birth from above, a second birth, brought you into a new household, a new clan. You were dead, but the One “who gives life to the dead” granted you new life. You had no good in you, but the One “who calls into existence the things that do not exist” gave you His righteousness. This is the promise and heritage of your second birth, a birth in Holy Baptism that connects you to the Son of God who was given for the life of the world.

But you must remember that this is not your doing. Like your first birth, you don’t have anything to do with your second birth, the birth from above. It is the activity of your Father in heaven that brings your new identity to you. Paul’s statement about Abraham is true for you: “If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about.” But he doesn’t and neither do you. Instead, you have the graciousness of the Lord only to praise: “To the one who does not work but trusts Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness. . . . ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.’” You may extol and laud what God has accomplished for you: “the Son of Man must be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.”

Born from above, born a second time, you are given to believe in what the Lord has done for you, what His Son has achieved by descending from heaven and being lifted up in crucifixion. He was humbled, so that you may be exalted. He forsook privilege, so that you may have all the perks of being the children of God, members of His household along with Abraham and all believers. It is the great truth about the second birth that we often confess at the beginning of our Divine Service: “In the mercy of Almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for us, and for His sake God forgives us all our sins. To those who believe in Jesus Christ He gives the power to become the children of God and bestows on them the Holy Spirit. May the Lord, who has begun this good work in us, bring it to completion in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” It will be so for you who are “born of water and the Spirit,” Abraham’s offspring, and the children of God, “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”

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

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Lent 1 Midweek Sermon -- Psalm 118:1-13 (LSB 1H)

March 16, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“The Lord is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me? The Lord is on my side as a helper; I shall look in triumph on those who hate me.”

In tonight’s readings, we were presented with two contests. One serves as a type, a pattern, for the other. The first was between David and Goliath. It is a narrative familiar to nearly all of us. We tell the account to our children, the story of a youth who takes on an adversary of greater skill. The shepherd boy goes out to meet the warrior with little arsenal: “Then [David] took his staff in his hand and chose five smooth stones from the brook and put them in his shepherd’s pouch. His sling was in his hand, and he approached the Philistine.”

Such an opponent receives taunting from the Champion of the Philistines: “And then the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was but a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance. And the Philistine said to David, ‘Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?’ And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. The Philistine said to David, ‘Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the field.’” The mismatch is evident. David’s fate should be dire; the Philistine’s sword should strike him down with ease.

But how does David respond to the taunting and curse that come from Goliath’s mouth? “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head. And I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Philistines this day to the birds of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord saves not with sword and spear. For the battle is the Lord’s, and He will give you into our hand.” The youth’s great statement shows that his trust is not in his own skill or weaponry. No, it is in the Lord who has decreed victory for David and the rest of His people. The stones will be enough, for the Lord has ordained it to be so.

What the Lord decreed comes to pass: “David put his hand in his bag and took out a stone and slung it and struck the Philistine on his forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell on his face to the ground. So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and with a stone, and struck the Philistine and killed him.” David is given victory over Goliath. The event takes place consonantly with the Great Hallel psalm that we prayed this evening: “The Lord is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me? The Lord is on my side as a helper; I shall look in triumph on those who hate me.”

David’s conquest over Goliath is similar to the confrontation between Jesus and Satan. Centuries later, David’s Descendant takes on the Champion of those aligned against the Lord and His will. He goes forth not with any armor of bronze or steel. Instead, Jesus strives against Satan with an arsenal that looks meager. But the words of the Lord can be used as skillfully as David’s stones. It is just as the Apostle John would see in the Risen Jesus: “In His right hand He held seven stars, from His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and His face was like the sun shining in full strength.” The two-edged sword that comes from Jesus’ mouth is the Lord’s word. And He wields it effectively against His enemy, Satan.

So is recorded in the Temptation Narrative. Satan’s deception and lies are ineffective. But Jesus is victorious when He says over and over: “It is written. . . . It is written. . . . It is written. . . .” The weapon in which He trusts is not of this world. No, its origin is much greater. Its use is as effective and greater than the stones of David’s sling. The Tempter may speak taunts and curses, but when faced with what comes from the Lord’s mouth, he must yield. Jesus’ command: “Be gone, Satan!” must be heeded. For what Jesus says is true: “For it is written: ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve.’” Even the fallen angel Satan must obey the Lord. For he is a creature, and his Creator dismisses him with His decree.

In this, the Psalmist’s statement is confirmed: “The Lord is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me? The Lord is on my side as a helper; I shall look in triumph on those who hate me.” The triumph is not given because of the Psalmist’s strength or skill. No, it is given because of whom he is allied with. Like David and Jesus, the Psalmist is not left alone to face a superior enemy. He is supported by a Helper greater than all earthly aides: “The Lord is on my side.” The Psalmist declares the truth about this ally: “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes.”

The Lord’s steadfast love is shown to be trustworthy in both contests that we heard this evening. But this steadfast love is not an item of the past; it is what the Lord shows to you, as He has called you to be His people. It is shown in the greatest way by what Jesus accomplishes for you in His earthly ministry. His redemptive work delivers you from Satan’s grasp. It frees you from sin’s bondage. He acts to make the grave no more than a stop that you will pass through. The Psalmist’s statement becomes your own confession of the truth: “Out of my distress I called on the Lord; the Lord answered me and set me free.”

Now as you travel on your pilgrimage in the wilderness of this world to the promise of a Paradise restored, you are faced with enemies. Satan still lingers. He has many allied with him, those who are like Goliath, taunting and cursing you. Your own hearts and minds are faced with doubt. But in this life, the Lord’s steadfast love is still with you. Assaulted by Satan, you say: “The Lord is on my side as a helper; I shall look in triumph on those who hate me.” When the majority in this world opposes you and your identity as Christ’s people, you say: “They surrounded me, surrounded me on every side; in the name of the Lord I cut them off!” In the times you are tempted to forsake the faith and your calling, you say: “I was pushed hard, so that I was falling, but the Lord helped me.”

This is what the Lord brings you, as you do not trust in your own ability or your own arsenal. Trusting in the Lord’s decrees—that you are His people, that your sins have been forgiven, that your great enemy has been vanquished, that you have the inheritance of everlasting life—you will prevail in your life’s contest. His Word of Promise has become your two-edged sword.

The struggle will not be easy. Defeat may appear likely. You may feel like one feebly armed with stones. But precisely in those moments, you have an ally in the Lord and what He has promised to you. Know that with Him as your Champion you ultimately will prevail, so that you may “give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; for His steadfast love endures forever!”

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

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Lent 1A Sermon -- Matthew 4:1-11 (LSB Lent 1A)

March 13, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”

Life in Paradise was good. In fact, it was “very good” according to its Creator. All had been established to bring forth life in abundance. Light and darkness divided the days; the heavenly bodies provided sunshine by day and moonlight by night. Dry ground and the seas had been separated, with the earth covered in lush grass and majestic trees, each reproducing according to its own kind. The skies and the deep were full of living, swooping animals; the land had its own menagerie, as well. At the pinnacle of Creation, was Man: Adam by name, since he had been taken from the ground. And the Lord made him a partner, a companion, suitable to him—woman. All was “very good.”

In that Paradise, there were few commands. Man was given authority over the area, an authority with responsibilities to work and keep Paradise. But what Adam oversaw also provided all that he needed. He could eat freely from all the trees of the garden, save for one. The Lord, Adam’s Creator, had given the instruction not to eat from the tree in the middle of the garden, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. That instruction Adam passed on to Woman, so that she knew what was prohibited. And all was “very good.”

That knowledge would be tested. All was “very good” in Paradise, but not everywhere. For evil did exist. It was found in Satan who had rebelled against the Lord’s good order in heaven. And now he desired to take the rebellion to earth, to “very good” Eden: “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God actually say, “You shall not eat of any tree in the garden”?’” But Woman knew the answer: “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” All was still “very good.”

But the Serpent is relentless. He tests whether Woman thinks this order was “very good”: “But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’” The temptation leads Woman to reject the Lord’s order, to say it is not “very good” that she could not be like God. She wants to have what is not meant for her. She covets God: “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.” With that act, all is not good on earth. The Lord’s order is overturned. Even Adam who had the Lord’s instruction spoken directly to him sins. He had been given the authority to be God’s representative on earth, but he abdicates it to take what was not to be his.

The effect of Adam’s sin is total chaos and disorder. He brings sin and death into the world, marring the Creation that had been “very good”. The Lord speaks curse against Adam’s rebellion: “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Creation is cursed because of its manager’s sin. Creation is found in rebellion against the Lord and will die because of it: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.”

But in the curses spoken, a promise is given. The Lord promises war, a battle between the individuals involved in the actions that led to Man’s rebellion: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” In that statement, the Lord declares that the Serpent and mankind will ever be opponents. A descendant of Woman will arise who will bring vengeance and justice against the Serpent. He will be a Champion to act on behalf of mankind. What was lost will be regained.

The descendant of Woman spoken of is the Christ. It is Jesus, who was born of Woman, but not of Man. He will have the heavy foot to trample down the head of Satan, including the mouth that speaks lies and deceit which lure people to death. The beginning of the promised conflict is seen in the Temptation Narrative that was read in today’s Gospel Reading: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” The promised Champion is led into the arena of the wilderness. Here the ground suffers its greatest curse. In the wilderness, man works the hardest to eat of it. Usually the descendants of Adam go there and die, returning to the ground from which they came.

In that wilderness, the Tempter acts as he always does. He tries to get this Man to doubt what the Lord has said. He puts in Jesus’ mind the doubt and covetousness that lead to rebellion: “It isn’t right that you lack anything. Take what the Lord hasn’t given to you. Be assertive. Determine your own destiny. I will help you.” So Satan puts the matter to Jesus: “If you are the Son of God. . . .” He wants Jesus to doubt His identity. Does Jesus believe the statement that the Father had spoken at His Baptism: “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”? The temptations put the wisdom of God on trial: Is the Son of God really meant to be wandering in the wilderness without food? “Command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Satan’s lures poke at Jesus’ destiny: Is the Son of God really meant to die? “Throw Yourself down. . . .” See if the angels will help You. The devil questions the humiliation of Jesus: Is the Son of God really meant to be without honor on earth? “All these I will give You, if You will fall down and worship me.”

But where the Serpent succeeded in Paradise, he fails in the wilderness. The thoughts of doubt, covetousness, and rebellion confront the heart and mind of Jesus. But the Man does not act upon them. He does not follow the Tempter’s deceptive advice. In each of the cases, Jesus responds with statements of what He knows to be the Lord’s will. “It is written. . . . It is written. . . . It is written. . . .” So Jesus speaks each time. He knows what the Lord, His Father, desires for Him. And He trusts that what the Lord has ordered is “very good”—both for Him and for the Creation which He will restore through His actions.

“Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” That is especially true concerning the word of forgiveness spoken by the Lord. “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” The Lord establishes the way of life: it is what Jesus achieves through His work, including His sacrificial death and glorious resurrection. Mankind should not test the Lord by seeking to find that way of life in anything other than what He has instituted. “You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve.” Man’s rebellion started by wanting to be like God, to be out from under any authority. But self-aggrandizement leads to death, as does idolatry. The proper role of mankind is to serve the Lord alone, the Lord who provides for your temporal and eternal life.

Jesus’ response to Satan begins His conquest over mankind’s Great Enemy. Each time Jesus does not fall, it is a bruising of the Serpent’s head. “It is written. . . . It is written. . . . It is written. . . .” The cadence is Jesus’ foot stamping down the Tempter’s deceiving tongue, causing him to have nothing to say in reply. “Be gone, Satan!” Jesus commands. “Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to Him.” But the trampling has just begun. For Jesus will leave that wilderness and begin His work of forgiving sins, restoring health, casting out demons, and raising the dead. It is a mission that leads Jesus to the cross, to the grave, and out again. And in that action, the Serpent’s head is crushed for good, bruised on your behalf.

This is the joyous word that the Lord speaks to you. The promise made in Fallen Paradise has been fulfilled. Your Champion has come. Though you have fallen victim to Satan, you have salvation in Christ. “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” That statement is true. But so is the other statement: “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” That is what the obedience of Jesus in the Temple, in the wilderness, in Galilee, in Judea, in the Garden of Gethsemane, on Mount Calvary, and everywhere He went has achieved for you.

So you who know the weakness of mankind, your own weakness, your own futility, can have joy. It is found in what Jesus has accomplished, as you believe that what He has done is the Lord’s good and gracious will for you. Taking your proper place as subservient recipients of the Lord’s actions, all is made well for you. Trusting the promises made in Eden, the promises repeated by Jesus, the apostles’ proclamation of the promises fulfilled, you have forgiveness, life, and salvation. The Serpent’s head has been crushed for you; the curse of eternal death has been overcome. You will go into the ground, back to the dust, but you will rise out of it again. So you can rejoice as the Psalmist exhorts: “Many are the sorrows of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds the one who trusts in the Lord. Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!” Rejoice and be glad, because what the one Man Jesus Christ did for you means that the Lord really says that you are “very good.”

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