Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Proper 17A Sermon -- Matthew 16:21-28 (LSB Proper 17A)

August 28, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, ‘Far be it from You, Lord! This shall never happen to You!”

Rebuking the Lord puts one in a precarious position. This morning, you have heard the accounts of two individuals who have done so: Jeremiah and Peter. The Old Testament prophet suffered affliction, active persecution from those who were opposed to him and his message. You heard Jeremiah’s statement to the Lord: “Your words were found, and I ate them, and Your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart, for I am called by Your name, O Lord, God of hosts. I did not sit in the company of revelers, nor did I rejoice; I sat alone, because Your hand was upon me, for You had filled me with indignation. Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Will You be to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail?” The prophet’s statement puts the blame for his affliction on the Lord. He is saying: “You put the words in my mouth that have everyone upset at me; You gave me the way of life that made me alone. Now when I am suffering all this, You won’t attend to me. You are nowhere to be found, but are a failing help.”

So how does the Lord respond to Jeremiah? What is His answer to such rebuking? He calls Jeremiah to repentance: “If you return, I will restore you, and you shall stand before me. If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall be as my mouth. They shall turn to you, but you shall not turn to them.” The Lord calls out Jeremiah’s sin of unbelief in order for him to turn and be forgiven. He points out the problem with Jeremiah’s thoughts: he has made the vain and worthless things of humanity his delight. The prophet has turned to the people, instead of abiding in the way that the Lord had laid out for him, given him, called him to. Jeremiah’s mind had turned to the flesh and blood, not what the Father in heaven has revealed.

Fast forward six centuries or so, and another man does the same thing. Jesus speaks of what the Father in heaven has laid out for Him. He makes known His fate to His disciples, those who were to be the witnesses of His death and resurrection: “From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” The fate of Jesus was to be similar to Jeremiah: He would be opposed by the civil leaders, the worship leaders, and the teachers of the people. He would suffer many things at their hands, even to the point of death. But to Peter, one of those called to be Jesus’ witnesses, this is too much; it cannot be: “And Peter took [Jesus] aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, ‘Far be it from You, Lord! This shall never happen to You!”

So how does the Lord respond to Peter? What is His answer to such rebuking? He calls Peter to repentance: “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a hindrance to Me. For you are not setting your mind on the thing of God, but on the things of man.” Jesus calls out Peter’s sin of unbelief in order for him to turn and be forgiven. He points out the problem with Peter’s thoughts: he has made the vain and worthless things of humanity his delight. Peter has turned from what the Father in heaven had revealed to him, now rejecting Jesus’ identity as the Christ. Instead, Peter has set his mind on what flesh and blood considers good, right, and salutary, even when they stand in opposition to the Lord’s will. Peter the rock has now become Peter the stumbling block.

For both Jeremiah and Peter, restoration is the goal. What they find offensive, what they reject, what they rebuke the Lord for is actually what brings them salvation. But that salvation will not be theirs should they continue in their unbelief. So the uncomfortable rebuking words need to be spoken to the prophet and the apostle. But when they hear and turn, the Lord presents the way of salvation to them again.

Note what the Lord says after correcting Jeremiah, after bringing the prophet back to fear, love, and trust in Him: “And I will make you to this people a fortified wall of bronze; they will fight against you, but they shall not prevail over you, for I am with you to save you and deliver you, declares the Lord. I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked, and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless.” This is the promise to the restored prophet, to him who is moved from unbelief back to faith. It is the gospel for Jeremiah. He is not abandoned by the Lord. The Lord is not “a deceitful brook, like waters that fail.” Just the opposite: the Lord is the source of salvation for Jeremiah, even if the prophet must suffer persecution and opposition.

Likewise, Peter is presented again the way of salvation after being corrected by Jesus. The blunt words of Jesus stick in the apostle’s ears. But then his Lord says: “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” There is the way of salvation for Peter. Jesus does not exclude him, but makes him a part of it. Being a disciple of Jesus will mean denial of self and taking up the way of life that He has laid out for Peter, James, John, the rest of the Twelve and even you. Attempting to save one’s life, to be in full control of it, to be truly autonomous and self-governing is a path to losing what is truly life, what Jesus has to give. But being under the direction of Jesus, abiding by His will, losing control over oneself to be ruled by Him, that is the way to gaining one’s life—for this world and the next.

That is the message that both Jeremiah and Peter needed to receive. It is the same message given to you. Fulfillment of the Lord’s will is what brings life. Faith in Him brings life. Receiving what He gives brings life. It is not what you accomplish. Rather, it is done for you. The Lord acts for you, calling you, giving you a new identity, making you His people. The source of that life is found in what Jesus does, in the fate that He endures: “He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

The problem that faces Jeremiah and Peter and you is their refusal of that. That is the ditch into which they fell and into which you fall. Jeremiah did not believe that the Lord was giving life to him, that the Lord was a failure—unable to heal, a deceitful brook, waters that fail. Peter demands that Jesus never go to Jerusalem to suffer and die and be raised: he would prevent Jesus’ actions that will bring him and all sinful humanity life. Then there are the issues that drag you away from faith in the Lord, His actions that benefit you, and the way of life He has established for you. Like Jeremiah, you turn to the people. Like Peter, you set your mind on the things of man.

What does that look like? It varies from person to person. But some common traits can be seen. Think again about what Paul wrote to the Roman Christians, the practical directives of leading the life that belongs to the Lord’s people. Look at the exhortations in the first verses. Now take the opposite of them: being hypocritical in discipleship; loving what is evil; loosing the grip on what is good; hating one another; showing no honor; being slothful; having an apathetic in spirit; serving oneself; losing hope; being impatient; irregularly praying; closing your pocketbooks to fellow believers in need; refusing to show hospitality. All these are the actions of those opposed to the Lord’s will, of those who have no faith in Him, of those who are on their own direction. It is what you are by nature. It is the way of flesh and blood. It is the way that leads to death: “Whoever would save his life will lose it. . . .”

As you fall into that way of life, which is actually the way of death, you are called back. Like Jeremiah and Peter, you receive the corrective statements from the Lord. He says: “If you return, I will restore you, and you shall stand before me.” He says: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me.” The shocking and jarring words must be said. But as it was for Jeremiah and Peter, the Lord then speaks the words of promise to you: “I am with you to save you and deliver you. I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked, and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless. . . . Whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” These are the promises of salvation, promises rooted in the Lord’s steadfastness and trustworthiness. The promises are established in what He does: He suffers, dies, and is raised to life again. Jesus’ fate of taking up the cross leads to everlasting life for Himself and for you: “The Son of Man is going to come with His angels in the glory of His Father, and then He will repay each person according to what he has done.”

Salvation for Jeremiah and Peter and you will never be found in rebuking and refusing the Lord. But it is given in receiving His actions and will for you. The Lord reveals this to you. He allows you to see the necessity in what Jesus had to undergo, so that you don’t say: “This shall never happen to you.” He allows you to know what Jesus’ resurrection has accomplished, so that you don’t call Him “a deceitful brook, waters that fail.” And He renews your hearts and minds, so that you are no longer “wise in your own sight,” but rather see the wisdom in taking up your cross and following Jesus. That is what will give you the courage to walk in faith wherever Jesus leads.

Hearing and turning like Jeremiah and Peter, you follow the way of life that the Lord establishes for you. You shall no longer rebuke and refuse the Lord, but receive His actions and His will for you instead. Sharing in the way of life that He gives, you shall speak the words of faith, the words that flow from the mouths of people who have been restored like Jeremiah and Peter: “But as for me, I shall walk in my integrity; redeem me, and be gracious to me. My foot stands on level ground; in the great assembly I will bless the Lord.” That is your fate, as you lose your life and receive again for eternity as disciples of the Crucified and Risen Christ.

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

Monday, August 22, 2011

Proper 16A Sermon -- Matthew 16:13-20 (LSB Proper 16A)

August 21, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“[Jesus] said to [His disciples], ‘Who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.’”

Who is Jesus? That is the question posed to the twelve disciples in Galilee. Who is Jesus? That is a question that can be asked on the streets of South Central Pennsylvania, just as it was asked in Caesarea Philippi. Who is Jesus? That question has been asked through the centuries, answered in many different ways. It has been the source of great controversy and contention. But it is a question that Jesus’ followers have answered correctly, as they have had His identity revealed to them through the people whom the Lord has authorized to speak.

Jesus asks the question about His identity: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” The question is asked first of the general population. Jesus asks His disciples to report what the people in Galilee were thinking. He had done great works in their midst—healing the sick, feeding crowds, casting out demons, making the paralyzed walk, even raising the dead. He had preached many times in their hearing, speaking about the kingdom of heaven with such vigor and authority that people wondered where He had received such wisdom. So what did people think about Jesus?

The disciples answer Jesus’ first question: “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” It’s an interesting answer. The people were thinking that Jesus was unique, special, sent from God. The people had witnessed what Jesus said and did. His words and actions were different than the ordinary Israelite; they even surpassed what the religious leaders had been doing. So they come to the conclusion: Jesus must be some sort of prophet, a person sent from God to His people. But not only that—the people’s thoughts about Jesus’ identity had even caused them to think that He was a dead prophet who had come back to life. That’s how extraordinary Jesus must be.

But as amazing as the people’s thoughts about Jesus were, they were not quite right. And Jesus isn’t as concerned about their ideas as He is about what His disciples were thinking. They were the chosen ones, the Twelve selected by Jesus to be His students, His followers who would take up the way of life He was teaching. They had seen and heard what the people witnessed, but they had been audience to more. Jesus had told them: “I will make you fishers of men.” The Twelve had witnessed Jesus calm a storm, causing them to ask: “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey Him?” He had sent them out to the cities of Israel to proclaim that the kingdom of heaven was at hand. Jesus had taken them aside and told them other parables about the kingdom of heaven. They had seen Jesus walk on water, leading them to worship Him and say: “Truly You are the Son of God.”

So after all that, Jesus poses the question to the Twelve: “But who do you say that I am?” The question is asked to elicit the public confession of faith. Jesus knows what is in His disciples’ hearts and minds. But the opportunity is given for them to spit it out, to make plain what their belief, their faith, their thinking about Jesus is. And so Simon Peter gives the answer: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” That is the conclusion reached through the witness of what Jesus said and did. It is the answer drawn from the witness of Jesus’ words and works. For these are the means through which knowledge and faith are given, as Jesus says in response to Simon Peter: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.”

But Jesus mentions something else connected to the confession that Simon Peter makes. Jesus says that it is not only for him, but will have effect and results for others. Following His approval of Simon Peter’s confession of faith, Jesus makes the statement: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Jesus’ being “the Christ, the Son of the living God” is the foundation for the Church that He establishes. His identity is to bring salvation to sinful humanity, including the Twelve and you. He is the One promised from of old, who fulfills the statements that His Father in heaven made about Him—the Redeemer who will deliver from sin, the Living One who will remove the curse of death, the Conqueror who will defeat mankind’s great enemies. And those who are brought to belief in who Jesus is become part of His Church, part of the entity that even hell cannot withstand or defeat.

Simon Peter speaks the truth about Jesus’ identity. Jesus declares that He establishes His Church on that identity. But then He speaks one more thing; Jesus promises to give to Simon Peter, the one who rightly spoke about His identity, an authority that will benefit others: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” What Simon Peter confessed about Jesus will unlock the kingdom of heaven. Sin and imperfection broke the fellowship that God and mankind had at the beginning. The gates of heaven were shut closed. But Jesus’ actions—what He accomplishes as “the Christ, the Son of the living God”—opens Paradise. Through death and resurrection, the sin and imperfection of mankind are atoned for. That is what the Lord promised about His Christ. As people are brought to faith in Jesus’ words and works, they are given entry into the kingdom of heaven.

But how is that faith given? Remember Jesus’ statement to Simon Peter: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is heaven.” The faith is given through the word of Christ. He has the words of eternal life. He speaks and things happen. This is the power and authority that Jesus carries as “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” It is what the psalmist extolled: “I bow down toward Your holy temple and give thanks to Your name for Your steadfast love and Your faithfulness, for You have exalted above all things Your name and Your word.”

Yet, Jesus did not keep that authority and power for Himself. No, He bestowed it to Simon Peter and the Twelve. That is what is wrapped up in the statement: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Jesus sends out His apostles with the authority that He possessed, so that they could speak those same words of eternal life. That is what happened when the Crucified and Risen Jesus said: “All authority in heaven and earth have been given to Me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to keep everything that I have commanded you.” It took place when the Crucified and Risen Jesus said: “As the Father sent Me, so I am sending you. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you bind the sins of anyone, they are bound.” This is the binding and loosing power that Jesus grants to His apostles, His sent ones, those who were brought to faith in the truth about His identity and delegated to carry that truth to others.

Handed down from generation to generation in the Church built on the foundation of Jesus’ identity, words, and work, the same confession of Simon Peter has been delivered to you. You also have come to know that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” You believe that He has fulfilled the promises made by His Father in the Old Testament. You believe that His Church built on that foundation endures forever and that nothing can overpower it. You believe that what Jesus’ words and works bring to you is the eternal salvation that the Lord described: “the heavens vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and they who dwell in it will die like gnats; but My salvation will be forever, and My righteousness will never be dismayed.” These are not ideas that come from flesh and blood, human intellect and logic. No, this is what the Father in heaven has revealed to you about His Son. But through this, the kingdom of heaven is unlocked for you and your sin and guilt are removed.

So you can answer the question: Who is Jesus? Your answer will not be based on what other people say—that He is a prophet or a great teacher or a very moral man. No, your answer will be what the Scriptures declare about Him, what the Lord has spoken, what flesh and blood has not revealed. Who is Jesus? Jesus is God who became man to reconcile me to His Father. Jesus is the revealer in word and deed of the Father’s good and gracious will toward me. Jesus is my Redeemer. Jesus is my Savior. Jesus is the source of my life. Jesus is my Lord. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life. Ultimately, your answer is the same as Simon Peter’s answer, the rock on which Jesus built His Church. Who is Jesus? He is “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And to you who confess that truth about Him, He says now and forever: “Blessed are you. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is heaven.”

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

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Proper 15A Sermon -- Matthew 15:21-28

August 14, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“And 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.’”

“It’s not meant for you.” You have heard that statement before. Many of you have spoken it to others. What does it mean? The words declare that an individual does not have a claim to something. The item and audience may differ, but the statement remains the same. They have no right to it. It is not to be theirs. What is desired is assigned for someone else, and the one who assigned it will ensure that they get it.

“It’s not meant for you,” appears to be the message that Jesus gives to the Canaanite Woman in the Gospel Reading for this morning. You were told about Jesus’ withdrawal to the region of Tyre and Sidon. He had left Galilee after performing some great miracles and after refuting the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus had ventured into the land of the Gentiles. And as He was there, what happened? “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.’”

The Canaanite Woman’s presence and actions bring forward an interesting situation. She asks Jesus for help: “Have mercy on me.” She addresses Jesus with a Messianic title: “O Lord, Son of David.” She wants Jesus to use His authority over the supernatural: “my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” Everything that the Canaanite woman says is based on truth: Jesus desires to give aid, He is the Messiah, and He has power over the evil forces in the universe. But does this Gentile have a claim to what Jesus can bring? Is it meant for her?

Jesus’ immediate response to the Canaanite Woman is nothing: “But He did not answer her a word.” Jesus’ disciples notice her presence: “And His disciples came and begged Him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she is crying out after us.’” But their wish is not met; instead, Jesus replies with a cryptic statement: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” And when the woman persists, saying again: “Lord, help me,” Jesus tells her: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Silence, a description of finding Israelites, a proverb about the injustice of throwing children’s food to the floor: these all scream out the message: “It’s not meant for you.”

“It’s not meant for you.” That was the message of Old Testament prophecies and promises—or at least that was the way it seemed. The promises were made to those who came from the line of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They were the ones identified by the Lord as His Covenant People. The promises were passed down as an entitlement and birthright. By being in the family, you had it made. But this Canaanite Woman had none of this. She was of the wrong group. She was not in the bloodline. Her ancestors had long been enemies of the Lord’s Covenant People. They even had prophecies of judgment spoken against them.

The Canaanite Woman’s response to Jesus acknowledges this. Jesus told her what was unjust, what was not right: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Faced with that, what does she say? “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Grabbing the children’s food and throwing it on the floor is not right, but the Canaanite Woman does not seek that outcome. She knows what is accepted as perfectly good: the masters at table do not catch every crumb that falls from their hands; when the dogs happily eat the crumbs, no one begrudges them. The woman’s response displays no disagreement with Jesus over what is right. Instead, she waits for what might come from Jesus’ generosity.

And that generosity comes! Jesus says to her: “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” Her desire for what Jesus can give is answered: “And her daughter was healed immediately.” But in this way, she actually gets what is meant for her. The Canaanite Woman’s actions are the fulfillment of what the Lord desires. In fact, it was promised centuries before in the Old Testament prophecies, including those spoken through Isaiah: “And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to Him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be His servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast My covenant—these I will bring to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on My altar; for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” The Lord’s will was to bring people of all nations, all ethnic groups, into fellowship with Himself.

The Canaanite Woman receives the Lord’s promise in the way that He intends to give it. The Lord speaks of people who join themselves to Him and love His name. That is what she did: acknowledging Jesus as Lord, calling Him by His Messianic title. The Lord speaks of people who become His servants. That is what she did: she knelt before Him and asked for mercy, not for entitlement. The Lord’s promise of foreigners being brought to Him was a matter of faith. And what does Jesus say about the Canaanite Woman? “O woman, great is your faith!” In the region of Tyre and Sidon, Jesus was bringing about the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises. Jesus’ words and works actually tell the Cannanite Woman: “It is meant for you.”

That same message is brought to you who live centuries later. The Lord’s promise declares: “I will gather yet others to Him besides those already gathered.” That is what has taken place for you. As the Lord has fulfilled His promise, bringing people of all tribes, nations, and languages into fellowship with Himself, you have been gathered in. You have been made to share in the salvation that Jesus has accomplished. You have been included in the covenant that the Lord has made and executed. Like the Canaanite Woman, you have been given to know Jesus’ will, identity, and works—including His death for your sake and His conquest of sin, death, and Satan. That is what the Gospel, the Word of Christ, has brought to you.

But like the Canaanite Woman, you are not given what is right and just—and many thanks for that! What is right and just is not to have the divine actions done for depraved, sinful people. What is right and just would be having divine retribution and punishment brought against you. That is not what Jesus brings. Instead, He gives out of His superabundant mercy. St. Paul puts it this way: “God has consigned all to disobedience, that He may have mercy on all.” Jesus’ entire salvation enterprise was going to a location to bring to its people what should not have been theirs. But He came to earth and has brought forgiveness, life, and salvation.

The Gospel that you have received allows you to act like that Canaanite Woman did. Jesus has deliberately come to the region of Harrisburg and Hershey and Carlisle with His Gospel—Proclamation, Baptism, Absolution, Lord’s Supper. He is here, and you cry out: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David.” You kneel and pray: “Lord, help me.” You ask for what you do not deserve. You ask for what only Jesus can give. And you know that it isn’t right for you to get it. But you ask for it, knowing that Jesus is not present to dole out the wages of sin, but to distribute the merits of His sacrifice. You who should be outcasts because of your sin and your sinful ancestry are gathered to be part of the Lord’s household instead. Seeing your actions, your coming in humility, trusting not your goodness but His, Jesus says: “Great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” He says: “It is meant for you.”

So the Lord fulfills His promises, bringing benefit and blessing to you. You are people who receive His favor. But you know that it is a gift and that the Lord who shows you favor desires to show it to others. The Lord’s benefits are not just crumbs that fall from His table: they are what He wishes to bestow to those whom He makes His children. So the ancient prayer of the Lord’s people flows from your lips, as it did today: “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make His face to shine upon us, that Your way may be known on earth, Your saving power among all nations.” There are many other “Tyres and Sidons” where Jesus’ Gospel is meant to go. What He has to give is meant for all people who are like that Canaanite Woman. He desires to say to them: “It is meant for you, too.” Giving of what you have received from the Lord helps to bring that Gospel to them, so they can be gathered with you and all believers.

All that is what this episode in Jesus’ life reveals. You see His generosity. You see His fulfillment of promises. You see what brings you the Lord’s favor is not any earthly identity; rather, it is belief in who He is, what He does, and what He wills. So hear His promises and believe them. Join yourself to the Lord. Serve Him. Love His name. Hold fast to His covenant. Follow His exhortation: “Keep justice, and do righteousness, for soon My salvation will come, and My deliverance will be revealed.” Then when Jesus returns to gather all His people from the ends of the earth, you will have the promised place in His eternal kingdom. It is meant for you.

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

Monday, August 8, 2011

Proper 14A Sermon -- Matthew 14:22-23 (LSB Proper 14A)

August 7, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“When the disciples saw [Jesus] walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, ‘It is a ghost!’ and they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.’”

What causes fear? There are many answers to that question. People are afraid of the unknown, being faced with a future without knowing what will happen. Others are afraid of people, animals, or things that are more powerful than they are: think of the fear of tyrants, sharks, or severe storms. Still others are afraid of what they cannot control. A line of thought connects these fears: people are afraid, and rightly so, of what can harm them. The idea, rational or not, that a negative fate will be visited upon them sparks fear.

Fear is seen in the disciples that St. Matthew writes about in the Gospel Reading. Continuing the narrative of events surrounding the Feeding of the Five Thousand, the Gospel Writer tells us what took place as evening fell over the Galilean countryside: “Immediately [Jesus] made the disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, while He dismissed the crowds. And after He had dismissed the crowds, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray. When evening came, He was there alone, but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them.” The crowds had been satisfied by Jesus, receiving healing for their illnesses and food for their stomachs. Now, they are sent back to their villages. Jesus now gets to withdraw by Himself after sending His disciples away from Him.

But the disciples’ boat ride is no pleasure cruise! The boat is afflicted, battered by the winds and waves on the Sea of Galilee. Away from land, the disciples are at the mercy of the weather. Struggling on the oars, the Twelve attempt to reach the safety of the other side. The hard effort goes on all night. Even for seasoned fishermen, a bit of fear creeping into the hearts and minds would not be irrational. But then the supernatural takes place: “And in the fourth watch of the night [Jesus] came to them, walking on the sea.”

So what is the disciples’ reaction to this sight of a man striding across the waves towards their boat? “But when the disciples saw [Jesus] walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, ‘It is a ghost!’ and they cried out in fear.” Fear completely grips the Twelve! Why? Because of what they are experiencing. Men can’t walk on water. It is the witching hour, the time when nothing good takes place. The figure must be a ghost, a spectre, maybe even a demon. Harm is going to be visited upon them. Into the water they will go, doomed to drown in the waters that they had known from youth.

But Jesus steps right into the disciples’ fear to relieve it: “But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.’” Jesus identifies Himself. He tells the Twelve that they are seeing Him. Knowing that it is Jesus, the disciples will have no reason to fear. So Jesus says: “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” Jesus’ words give courage to His disciples. His presence will give them help. He had already calmed a storm for them on a previous sea journey, demonstrating His care for them. Now the same Jesus is present in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, coming to them in a supernatural way to bring His aid. The disciples’ fear is removed.

The presence of Jesus even causes great courage in the disciples, at least one of them: “And Peter answered [Jesus], ‘Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus.” What an amazing act! Jesus’ word goes out to Peter, and he immediately he gets out of the boat. Jesus’ word goes out to Peter, and he can do what is supernatural. Jesus’ word goes out to Peter, and he comes to Jesus on the water. No fear is found in Peter as he acts according to Jesus’ will.

But the situation changes when Peter sets his heart on something other than Jesus: “But when [Peter] saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, ‘Lord, save me.’” Yet even then, Jesus shows that Peter need not fear: “Jesus immediately reached out His hand and took hold of him, saying to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’ And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased.” Jesus’ middle-of-the-night appearance on the Sea of Galilee and His command for Peter to get out of the boat was not going to bring harm. No, He was there to bring aid, to bring deliverance, to bring salvation. That is the truth that Jesus reveals through these actions. And receiving that truth, the disciples are brought to right faith in Jesus: “And those in the boat worshiped Him, saying, ‘Truly You are the Son of God!’” That is the purpose of Jesus’ actions, a purpose that He achieves for them. Once again, Jesus’ works reveal His identity, character, and will. And they are all wrapped up in bringing deliverance, not harm.

This is what you are given to know about Jesus for your benefit, so that you can call on Him and receive salvation. In this event, your Deliverer, your Redeemer is made known. Jesus is the Son of God. His presence in the world was to bring about your salvation. This is the One who offered His life in exchange for yours. This is the One who answers your cries for help. This is the One who brings forgiveness, life, and salvation to you.

Who is it that walked on the waves? It is the One who says, as He did to Job: “Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep?” Who hung on the cross, lay in the tomb, and rose from the dead? It is the One who says, as He did to Job: “Have the gates of death been revealed to you, or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?” Who now sits enthroned in heaven, ascended to the right hand of God the Father? It is the One who says, as He did to Job: “Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?” Your Redeemer, the same Jesus who told the disciples, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid,” is the One who asks those questions to you and all other people. Your answer and theirs is “No.” But for Jesus, the Lord incarnate, the answer to those questions is “I have done so, and I did it for you.”

This is the portrait of your Redeemer that you are given to know. This is “the word of faith that we proclaim.” That word of faith tells about the identity, character, will, and work of Jesus. That word of faith is spoken to you, so that you can know and believe in Jesus. It is how salvation comes to you: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in Him will not be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing His riches on all who call on Him.”

Faith in Jesus is given to you: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ.” The word of Christ, the word of faith, testifies about Jesus’ identity, character, will, and work—all these that bring you benefit and aid. Knowing Jesus’ identity, character, will, and work, you can take heart and not be afraid. Why can courage be given? Why is there no reason to fear? Because there is nothing that can bring true harm you. Jesus has mastery over the Law of God, fulfilling it for you; no accusation can override His forgiveness from you. Jesus has mastery over creation, bringing it into existence; the winds and waves cannot take away His salvation from you. Jesus has mastery over death, rising from it; the grave cannot keep you from entering His eternal life.

That faith created by the Word of Christ is what removes fear and brings you courage, just as it did for the Twelve in the boat on the Sea of Galilee. That faith in Jesus is what drives you to call on Him in times of need, for you believe the promise: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” You would not call on someone whom you did not believe could bring you aid. If they could not help, then your call would be in vain. But you know that Jesus can and does deliver. Your faith in Him is like the faith that David had: “The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.”

Faith in Jesus drives your actions. What you believe motivates what you do. So you act like David spoke of in today’s psalm: “I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised, and I am saved from my enemies. . . . In my distress I called upon the Lord; to my God I cried for help. From His temple He heard my voice, and my cry to Him reached His ears.” David’s song vividly describes how the Lord comes to the aid of His people. That “word of faith” shows you how your Redeemer acts for your benefit. Jesus hears your cries and answers them. He knows your struggles with sins, so He forgives them. He knows how death haunts you, so He gives you life. He knows how you suffer the assaults from Satan, so He works to accomplish His will for you.

Amid the many causes of fear, Jesus acts for you. Knowing His identity, character, will, and work, you know that your eternal future is secure. It is made so by Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is ensured by His supremacy over all things in heaven and on earth. Though you do not have control over everything in your lives, your Lord does have such power and uses it for you. He uses it not for your harm, but for your good. That is what the word of faith makes known to you. Hearing the word of Christ, you believe in Him. Believing that He truly is the Son of God, you call on Him. Calling on Him, you receive action from Him. And that will lead you to fulfill His command: “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”

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

Monday, August 1, 2011

August 2011 Parish Letter

“You shall have no other gods. You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God. Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.”

The first three commandments of the Decalogue address the Lord’s person, identity, and word. The Lord introduces these commandments with a statement about Himself: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”(Ex 20:2) Something was done by the Lord for His people. He had liberated them. He had turned them from a group of slaves into a nation. Now the Lord was giving them a way of life that would depend upon His favor.

The Lord gives the commandment: “You shall have no other gods.” Whom should the Israelites fear? Whom should they love? Whom should they trust, rely on, turn to in times of need, look to for preservation? The answer was not the gods of Egypt or the gods of Canaan. No, those deities were shown to be of no power when the Lord acted. The Israelites are to have no other gods, except the Lord, the One who had given them life and liberty, not just freedom from Egyptian slavemasters, but deliverance to eternal life. The Lord promises action: “For the Lord will vindicate His people and have compassion on His servants, when He sees that their power is gone and there is none remaining, bond or free. Then He will say, ‘Where are their gods, the rock in which they took refuge, who ate the fat of their sacrifices and drank the wine of their drink offering? Let them rise up and help you; let them be your protection! See now that I, even I, am He, and there is no god beside Me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of My hand.’”(Dt 32:36-39)

Part of the way of life that the Lord gave included the use of His name. That name was to be used for purposes that would bring forgiveness, life, and salvation. Pray with that name. Praise that name. Give thanks to the One who bears that name. But that name, the identity of the Lord, was not to be used wrongly: “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.” The Lord had sworn an oath by His name to benefit His people, to give life to those who believed in Him. So His name was not to be used to curse, swear, lie, or deceive others: “You shall not swear by My name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord.”(Lv 19:12) The Lord’s identity is full of truth, not falsehood. His name was not to be brought into matters that are antithetical to His character or will. So the Lord’s people are to use His name in matters of truth, abiding by His will that He has revealed.

The Lord’s will is revealed in what He speaks, what He declares directly or through His chosen spokesmen such as prophets and apostles. He gives the instruction: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” The way that this day would be kept holy was by resting. But as the people rested, they also listened to the words that the Lord spoke, remembering what He had done: Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.”(Dt 5:13-15) Through that action, the Lord worked in His people.

Like the Lord’s people of old, you are called to this way of life. You are to look to Him for salvation, trusting in Him alone. He has made you His people: “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption of sons, by whom we cry: ‘Abba! Father!’”(Rm 8:15) His name has been used for your benefit: “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”(1Cor 6:11) The Lord has given you rest for your souls, completing the work of salvation, so that you can receive it: “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from His.”(Hb 4:9-10)

These commandments show a way of life for you. That life is not achieved by your perfect obedience to them. But it is given by the Lord who has brought you out of slavery to sin, death, and Satan. It is given you are made the people of the Lord’s Name: He baptizes you in His Name, swears an oath to give salvation in His Name, and instructs you to call on His Name. Life is given as you benefit from what the Lord has done for you—even suffering in your place and rising again to open the way of everlasting life to you. The commandments direct you to the God whom you can trust. You know who He is, you know His name, you know what He has done. As you live as the Lord’s people, trust in Him alone, use His name as He graciously permits you to, and receive the rest that He has achieved for you through His work.