Sunday, September 16, 2012

LSB Proper 19B Sermon -- Mark 9:14-29

September 16, 2012 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“And Jesus said to him, ‘If you can! All things are possible for one who believes.’ Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’”

Doubt and despair are pitfalls in the way of discipleship. As we who have been called to follow Jesus as Lord do so, we encounter the questions that cause us to rethink what we have been led to believe. Are the promises made to us really true? Can the Lord in whom we put our trust actually deliver? Is it possible for me to receive any benefits from this discipleship thing? These are the questions that rattle around our minds.

What sparks this doubt and despair? Primarily, it is seeing what takes place around us, but not having that line up with what we expect to experience. We have an idea of what should be. When that does not come to pass, then the doubt enters in. Enough doubting leads to despair. Then comes the resulting action of throwing in the towel or pulling the ripcord.

Doubt and despair are seen in the Gospel Reading for this day. You heard about what took place: “When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them.” Jesus and His Inner Circle—Peter, James, and John—had been away. Jesus had been transfigured on the mountain. But as they descend from that mountain, there is a major mess in front of them. Major discord is seen: the other nine disciples are arguing with teachers of the Divine Law, those who were not believers in Jesus. And what sparked this argument? The inability of Jesus’ disciples to help a man’s afflicted son: “Jesus asked them, ‘What are you arguing about with them?’ And someone from the crowd answered him, ‘Teacher, I brought my son to You, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked Your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.’”

Note well what the father says. He had brought his son to Jesus for aid. He thought that Jesus could remove the spirit that afflicted his boy. But when he brought his boy to where Jesus was supposed to be found, Jesus is absent. And His disciples could not do anything to deal with the spirit that harmed the boy. You can imagine just what the scribes were saying at that moment: “See, we told you that Jesus and His disciples were frauds. They really haven’t been healing anyone. What you heard about them was untrue and made up. You should have stuck with us and the way of faith that we’ve been teaching. Your coming here was a waste of time. There wasn’t any help for you or your boy.”

So what has entered this man? Doubt and despair. Jesus alludes to it in His initial response: “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” It is seen in the dialogue that he has with Jesus: “And Jesus asked [the boy’s] father, ‘How long has this been happening to him?’ And he said, ‘From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.’” The father’s words reveal his doubt and despair. He relates the seriousness of his son’s affliction. He describes the length of his son’s suffering. He knows just how problematic the situation is. And the words of resignation flow from his lips: “But if You can do anything….”

Here the doubt and despair come tumbling out in front of Jesus. The father’s statement tells so much: “My son’s entire childhood has been full of harmful episodes. I know full well that I could not do anything to help him. If I could have done so, I would have tried. So when I heard that You, Jesus, had helped others like my boy, I came to You. But when I came, You weren’t there. I knew that Your disciples had also dealt with similar situations, but they could do nothing for my son. Obviously this wasn’t meant for us. So if You can do anything, then do so. But it sure doesn’t look like anything is going to come for us. Leave us alone; let us go away. We’ll seek help somewhere else.”

The father’s plight is evident. He is about to walk away without receiving anything good. So how does Jesus respond to this? “And Jesus said to him, ‘If You can! All things are possible for one who believes.’” Jesus’ words challenge the father’s doubt and despair. His words confront the man’s thinking. His response tells the man: “There’s no ‘if’ about it. What you desire to receive, I can give. The spirit that afflicts the boy is subject to Me. Turn around and receive the help that I bring. Leave now, and there will be no help given. But if you stay, your son will benefit from My goodness. It is possible.”

Seen in Jesus’ words is the fulfillment of what Isaiah prophesied concerning Him: “The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary.” Jesus’ statement—“If you can! All things are possible for one who believes.”—restores the faith of that doubting and despairing father. For what is the father’s reaction? “Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’” He knows the doubt and despair in him. He knows that Jesus must overcome it. But at that moment, he also knows that what he had believed concerning Jesus is true: his son can indeed be helped by Jesus; it was no mistake to come seeking Jesus’ aid. Jesus delivers the benefit sought: “And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, He rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, ‘You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.’ And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out….”

Sustained by Jesus’ word, the father stays and receives what was needed for his son. This is the same pattern that frames Jesus’ actions for you who have been called to follow Him. You are no different than the father in the Gospel Reading. You desire to receive good things from Jesus. You believe that He is the Redeemer, the One who brings deliverance from sin, death, and Satan. You want the forgiveness, life, and salvation that He offers. But there are so many incidents and events that challenge that belief.

The incidents and events that spark doubt and despair are all around you. There are the challenges of physical illness. Trials in life arise. Households fall apart. Then the questions flow out of your mouths: “Is the Giver of Life actually with me who has been crippled or stricken with terminal disease? Where’s the daily bread going to come from when I haven’t had a paycheck in months? How is losing a spouse or not having my children around a good thing?” Then there is the other more spiritual incidents and events: the guilt that burdens your conscience; the habitual sin that always seems to beset you; the instructions and commands that are unbearable. These elicit the same statements of doubt and despair: “Where is the forgiveness that was promised? Why can’t I overcome this desire? Who is able to follow what Jesus demands?”

You may turn to Jesus’ disciples for help and they seem incompetent and unhelpful. What you believed that your Lord would supply and support appears to be lacking. So was it worth placing trust in Him and His promises? Were all the scribes of this world right all along? The confident statements of certainty and faith crumble; they are replaced by the words spoken by that father so many years ago: “If You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus’ response is the same: “If You can! All things are possible for one who believes.” You come to the same realization of the problem as the father did: “I believe; help my unbelief!”

The issue of your doubt and despair is not unknown to your Lord. But in the midst of it, Jesus reminds you again of what He has done for your sake: “I gave My back to those who strike, and My cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not My face from disgrace and spitting. But the Lord God helps Me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set My face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame.” Jesus tells you: “I suffered this for your sake. I encountered the same incidents and events. But where you doubt, I have full confidence. Where you think about turning back, I press on. It was for your benefit in times like this. Place your doubt and despair on Me, so that I carry it. Replace it with the certainty of hope in My death and resurrection.” Jesus speaks with His authority: “Believe and do not be fearful. I am present with you always. I command that your sins are forgiven. I give you My life.” You are given the invitation again to follow: “Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the voice of His Servant? Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God.”

These are the words that sustain you when you are weary. They are what Jesus speaks to you in the midst of your doubt and despair. With a taught tongue, Jesus addresses these sustaining statements to you. With ears opened to your plight, Jesus knows how to attend to you. It is His role for you: He is the Suffering Servant of the Lord who was victorious, so that He could aid His servants who suffer the same. This is what He desires you to know and trust. It is how He answers your plaintive words: “If You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” There is no “if” about it: your Lord has shown His mercy to you; He has given you aid.

Jesus is present now to deal graciously with your unbelief. Hear again how your Lord Jesus has suffered and died for you. Know again how He has risen from death, while His opponents have worn out and been devoured. This is how salvation has been won for you. Do not walk away despondent and empty-handed. Instead, receive His benefits again here at His altar. Deliverance is possible for you who believe. It is meant for you. You are saved by the authority that Jesus bears over your adversaries. So in the midst of your doubt and despair, you can truly say: “The Lord preserves the simple; when I was brought low, He saved me. Return, O my soul, to your rest; for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you. For You have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling; I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.”

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

Sunday, September 9, 2012

LSB Proper 18B Sermon -- Mark 7:31-37

September 9, 2012 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“And looking up to heaven, [Jesus] sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’ And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.”

The companions of the deaf-mute knew his problems well. The man was vulnerable to being a victim of all sorts of malfeasance. It was not without reason that the Lord issued instructions concerning such an individual: “You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.” His companions witnessed his inability to hear the conversations around him. They heard his stammering attempts to speak, sounds that came that made no sense. The man’s interaction with the world was limited. He could see, but tell no one what he saw. But despite the assistance that the deaf-mute’s companions could give or the protection that the Divine Law may have offered, there was no help that would restore his hearing or put speech in his mouth.

But to such people a promise had been made. Centuries before, it had been told of what the Lord would do about those with such inabilities. It began with a promise of the Lord’s appearance: “Say to those with an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.’” And some of the actions that the Lord would perform were made known: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.” A divine agenda was declared with those words.

So when Jesus appears, enacting what was foretold in that divine agenda, His actions are noted. They are seen as the remedy to afflictions that no one else can give. The people of Galilee witnessed Jesus’ acts and brought all manner of the ill and infirm to Him for aid. Then the same began to happen in other regions: “Then [Jesus] returned from the region of Tyre and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. And they brought to Him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged Him to lay His hand on him.” The companions of the deaf-mute want his anxious heart to be put at rest. They want him to have his ears unstopped. They desire to hear his tongue sing for joy. So they bring him to Jesus to receive the healing that He brings.

The people’s belief in what Jesus had done in other places leads them to bring the deaf-mute man to Him. Their actions reveal their faith. We do not know what came out of the people’s mouths as they begged Jesus to lay His hand on the man. But their actions speak clearly to Jesus: “What You did in Galilee, we want You to do here in the Decapolis. The healing that You gave there can be present here. Grant it to this man.” So Jesus answers their request in the way that the divine agenda spelled out: “And taking him aside from the crowd privately, [Jesus] put His fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue. And looking up to heaven, He sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is ‘Be opened.’ And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.”

The paradigm of how the Lord works is seen in Jesus’ healing of the deaf-mute man. Through that act, the divine agenda declared moves to being the divine agenda fulfilled. The Lord does what He says. And that divine agenda is chock full with promised actions of restoration, renewal, and redemption. The Lord establishes a program of granting benefit to people. He speaks to the world: “You have a problem, but I have a solution to it. The problem is sin, the rebellion against the order that I have established and the subsequent chaos. That unrighteousness and ungodliness manifest themselves in so many ways. You display its presence in you by your sinful desires, harmful speech, and evil acts. The chaos that sin has wrought is revealed in the afflictions and ailments that you suffer. But the solution is in what I will do. I will bring judgment and punishment against those who wantonly rebel against My will. But I will also deliver you from your guilt. I know your worries and anxieties in this life. Your burdens and suffering will not go unnoticed or unaddressed. Rather, I will bring a restoration that begins with miraculous deeds in ancient times and culminates with My making all things new.”

This is the agenda that Jesus’ work in healing the deaf-mute began to accomplish. But His work goes beyond giving hearing and speech to one man in the Decapolis. He came with vengeance and recompense against the forces of evil, casting out demons and visiting justice against Satan and his usurpation of rule. Then Jesus goes and submits Himself as a sin-offering for the guilt of the world, taking upon Himself the sin of the world. He dies, but rises from death, so that He can be a remedy even for that affliction which will affect us all. This is all part of the divine agenda—the promised solution to the problem that you face.

Jesus’ actions of restoration, renewal, and redemption are done for you. How you receive them is in the same way that the deaf-mute man in the Decapolis did. He speaks and you are healed; Jesus’ words accomplish what they say. And what is it that Jesus speaks to you? First, He speaks His word to open your ears. This is what the calling of the Gospel does for you. Jesus says to your hearts and souls that were corrupted by sin: “Be opened.” He says to you: “Hear the record of what I have said and the narrative of what I have done to fulfill the divine agenda for you. Hear it and believe it.” Then Jesus speaks His word to loose your tongues: “Be opened.” He says to you: “Now that you have heard and believe, you have become My people. My people have a particular way of speaking: praise and thanksgiving for what has been done for their benefit; confession and proclamation of Me, their Redeemer, and of My accomplishments for them; pardon and peace to those who have harmed them; instruction and handing down the way of life to the next generation. This is what you will now speak.”

So what happens to you? You experience the same as the deaf-mute man in the Decapolis. Someone who desired you to receive the restoration, renewal, and redemption that Jesus offers brought you to hear His words. For most of you, it was your parents. For others, it was another companion—a spouse, a friend, maybe a co-worker. By hearing Jesus’ words, your ears are opened and your tongue is released. Now you know of Jesus’ identity and work: Jesus is your God who has come with vengeance and recompense but has come to save you. Now you speak plainly about who Jesus is and what He has accomplished for you: Jesus has atoned for your sin and has prepared a place in His Father’s house for you. That is your witness and testimony about the divine agenda fulfilled for you.

With that restoration, renewal, and redemption that Jesus has brought to you comes a new way of life, a new purpose, a new agenda for your life. It includes your desire for the same restoration, renewal, and redemption to be given to others that you know. You want their anxious heart to be put at rest. You want their ears unstopped. You want their tongue to sing for joy. That will not be accomplished by just your thinking about it. Nor will just any type of action help. No, the restoration, renewal, and redemption come only with divine aid. So you bring those whom you know to Jesus, so that they can receive the healing that He brings. You bring them to this place, so they can hear Jesus’ speak His command: “Be opened.”

“Be opened,” is not the only word from Jesus that they hear; it is just one of the first. They also hear Jesus speak His other words of promise and command, those words that Mark’s Gospel Account recorded, just as you hear and trust: “Your sins are forgiven you. Follow Me. Arise from death. Go your way; your faith has made you well. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.” These words are what your and their ears hear. These words are what your and their tongues now speak.

But the words of Jesus go further. They also empower and give strength, so that your and their lame legs can walk in the way of discipleship that He has given to you. This is the faith with works that James spoke of: “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead…. I will show you my faith by my works.” You not only have knowledge of your Redeemer’s identity and accomplishments, but also a motivation to follow His instructions. Jesus’ words also open your eyes, so that you no longer only consider what is right in front of you. Now you see Jesus and His power hidden in the earthly things, the jars of clay: water in a font; bread and wine on an altar; imperfect men who speak from a pulpit. You also see individual Christians as the brothers and sisters of Jesus, those who have been honored by Him and have been bound to you.

All of this is the restoration, renewal, and redemption that the Lord promised to bring. It has come through what Jesus has accomplished. Jesus’ words deliver that benefits of His work to you. It is yours, as you have heard what He has been done for your salvation. It is yours, as your tongues have been loosed, so that you can rightly confess faith in Him. You have received the healing that Jesus brings and share the benefits brought by placing trust in Him, the Lord who has come to save, the one who said to you: “Be opened.”

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

Sunday, September 2, 2012

LSB Proper 17B Sermon -- Mark 7:14-23

September 2, 2012 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“And [Jesus] said, ‘What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil thing come from within, and they defile a person.’”

“Garbage in; garbage out” is a familiar phrase. I learned it back when first using computers back in junior high and high school. The phrase refers to data and commands when programming and running programs. If the data is wrong, the computations based on them will be “correct” but not what is intended. If the commands are incorrect, the program will not function as desired. The “garbage”—the incorrect things—that is put in will lead to the “garbage”—the incorrect results—that is put out.

The “garbage in; garbage out” concept has been expanded beyond computer science or information technology. Any field that involves analysis or manipulation of data can use it. But the concept even comes into thoughts about sin. This is seen in Jesus’ confrontation with the Pharisees that we have heard last Sunday and this morning. The issue of defilement was the point of contention. What makes a person unclean or defiled before the Lord? Last Sunday, the question focused on what was done or not done prior to eating. Today, the question focuses on the eating itself.

So is the defilement of man a matter of “garbage in; garbage out”? That appears to be the general concept among the people that Jesus addresses. Eat an unclean food, and you will become unclean. But Jesus’ statement counters that: “And He called the people to Him again and said to them, ‘Hear Me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.’” Nothing outside a person that goes into them defiles the person. Instead, things that are already inside the person are what make him unclean.

This was a complete adjustment in thinking that Jesus gives the people. In fact, it confused His own disciples: “And when [Jesus] had entered the house and left the people, His disciples asked Him about the parable.” You can see what the Twelve were thinking: “Wait a minute! How is it possible that a person can eat something unclean but not have it make him unclean? What are you saying here, Jesus?” What their Master said ran against what the disciples had been taught for years. It stood against what the scribes and Pharisees had been handing down to the people for generations. It even seemed to contradict what Moses had spoken in the Law.

But Jesus’ explanation of His statement starts to show the truth about it: “Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” Jesus is saying here: “Think about it. You all eat food. And where does that food go? It goes in your belly, but it doesn’t stay there. No, it leaves the belly and enters the latrine. However, the defilement of man is something much more deeper than that. Defilement has to do with lack of holiness or righteousness.”

The deeper issue of defilement is what Jesus addresses with His explanation: “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil thing come from within, and they defile a person.” Jesus deals with the matter of man’s nature, what is in people’s hearts and souls. With His words, Jesus is saying: “Take a look at your own heart. Look closely. What’s in there? All sorts of problematic thoughts, all sorts of desires that are unrighteous. Deep down in there you have the craving and yearning for doing what the Lord has declared to be vices. But what the Lord declares to be virtuous are not naturally found.”

Jesus points out that the defilement of man is already there. It’s not a matter of “garbage in; garbage out.” No, the junk, the scum, the vileness are already in the heart. It’s not like you have a clean vessel that you tarnish. No, it is as Bo Giertz so vividly put it in his Hammer of God book: “The heart is a rusty old can on a junk heap.” Your heart is full of sludge from the moment you live. You’ve got all those evil desires latent in you. So it should be no surprise that actions based on those thoughts flow out of you. Hearing and receiving Jesus’ teaching leads to the statement that you make in the Confession of Sins: “We poor sinners confess unto You that we are by nature sinful and unclean and that we have sinned against You by thought, word, and deed.” Sinful and unclean—it is the admission that you are defiled. You are defiled in the Lord’s presence because of what you naturally are, because of how your heart is.

So what is to be done about this matter of defilement? Because Jesus says that what comes out of the heart of man defiles an individual, the problem can’t be remedied by adjustment of behavior or adjustment of diet. It’s not the external actions that really make a person unrighteous. And it’s not what you ingest that defiles you. No, the problem is what to do with the cesspool of your hearts, the cesspool that has been there since your first days. What is the bleach or detergent that can work on that?

What you need is something that enters you but doesn’t go into your belly, but into your heart. It has to be something holy and undefiled. It must have the ability to give life where nothing but death is found, to bring into existence righteousness where there is none found. This is what the Lord offers to you in His Gospel. You need the forgiveness that it brings because the Holy One offered Himself in sacrifice for you.

Your defiled hearts need a cleansing, and that is what the Lord gives you. Think again on the words of Scripture connected to Holy Baptism that you learned from the catechism: “God saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” A washing of rebirth and renewal is precisely what your defiled hearts have received. You are cleansed as you heard in last Sunday’s Epistle Reading: “[Christ] cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that He might present the church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”

You have taken in the divine words of the gospel. They have been ingested into your hearts. And what are those words of the gospel? They are the descriptions of who Jesus is and what He has done. They are what you have heard concerning Jesus’ nature: that He did not have a defiled heart, but a heart that always desired to do the Father’s will. They are what you have heard concerning Jesus’ work: that He marked His life with everything opposite of that list of evil thoughts that flow out of the heart of man. Out of your hearts flow “sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.” But out of Jesus’ heart come purity, generosity, the giving of life, complete devotion, the wanting others to have what possesses, goodness, truth, spirituality, joy, speaking well, humility, and wisdom. They are given to be your own. That is what the gospel words apply to you.

But this taking in the gospel words is not just a one-time deal. It is a repeated action. Over and over the cleansing of your defiled hearts happens. The cleansing begun in Holy Baptism is renewed in Holy Absolution and your hearing of the preaching of the gospel. It happens through your eating—not by eating an earthly food, but by eating the bread that came down from heaven, Christ’s flesh that He gave for the life of the world. Washing and repeating over and over again, you receive the cleansing that your defiled hearts need. This is what brings you holiness. Through them a divine action is done for you, as Bo Giertz also vividly described in his novel: “But a wonderful Lord passes by, and has mercy on the wretched tin can, sticks His walking cane through it, and rescues it from the junk pile and takes it home with Him.” Or as Moses spoke about the Lord’s people, even you: “For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon Him?” He is near, when you call upon Him to perform His cleansing acts for your benefit.

Then the change happens to your nature. Yes, you are by nature sinful and unclean. But now you have another nature, a new and holy nature given to you. You are a new person who daily emerges and arises to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. There are new thoughts, clean thoughts, righteous thoughts. There are even actions that you perform that flow from that new nature. You have the desire to follow the way of life that the Lord has established for you, so that you can say with the psalmist: “Your testimonies are wonderful; therefore my soul keeps them.” It is a statement true for you as the Lord has brought cleansing to your hearts. You want what the Lord provides, so you have prayed: “O God, the source of all that is just and good, nourish in us every virtue and bring to completion every good intent that we may grow in grace and bring forth the fruit of good works.” Your hearts and souls now have a “righteousness in; righteousness out” status.

So as you have heard Jesus’ words today, recognize that your guilt is great and that your hearts were nothing but defiled. But also know that His righteousness is greater than your guilt and that His cleansing has made them holy. This is the extent of His generosity, even daring to pick up the wretched tin cans and making them His prized possessions. You have generously received the washing of rebirth and renewal. Treasure it. Remember it. Trust it. For from outside yourselves, you have received righteousness from Jesus, the Holy One of God. And He has cleansed you to be His own.

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