Sunday, April 30, 2006

1 John 1:5-10 - “If/Then Statements”

3rd Sunday of Easter (Year B - LCMS Readings)
Saturday, April 29, and Sunday, April 30, 2006

Choose Your Own Adventure
I learned about if/then statements from Choose Your Own Adventure books—which I was glad to see are still around. They were kind of the pre-video game adventure game. You read the beginning of a story, and then at the bottom of the page, you have to choose what the character does. For instance, “if . . . ., turn to page.”

There are adventure video games that do this know where you have choices between doors and paths, and really the game is just a series of if/then statements: if I go down this hallway, the bad guy might get me, but if I go this way, I might find the treasure. While these video games are exciting, I’m still glad that the books are still around, because reading is so important. So before you play your next video game, go to the library, find a Choose Your Own Adventure book and read! (OK, that’s the end of my public service announcement about reading and supporting libraries).

The reason I bring up if/then statements is because the reading today from the first letter of John is really just a series of if/then statements.

“6If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. 7But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. 8If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

We can bring what we’ve learned about if/then statements to this Bible passage. Maybe you learned about if/then statements from Choose Your Own Adventure books or video games—learning that you have to make choices and those choices lead to different directions, outcomes, conclusions. Maybe you learned about if/then statements in English grammar class, and way back when, you learned how to diagram an if/then statement, making a flowchart out of the choices. Maybe you learned about if/then statements when you were learning computer programming language, getting the computer to do different things depending on what gets entered on the keyboard.

Wherever you learned about if/then statements, you’ve got to bring that knowledge to this passage from 1 John today. If we’re going to understand what John is teaching us, we’ve got to see that really he’s laid out a flowchart, a map of choices, and different choices lead in different directions. And the time that you are faced with that decision, those choices, is when you come before God, when you approach God, such as at the beginning of a worship service during the Confession and Absolution.

There’s no mistake about using this passage from 1 John as part of the Confession of Sins in today’s service and many others. Even before you confess, you admit your sins to God, the service takes you on the if/then adventure. You have to decide whether you believe that you’re a sinner or not. You have to decide whether you’ll agree with God’s truth or whether you’ll say God is lying. You have to decide whether to approach God’s altar or whether to leave and go out the door.

So let’s see really just what are these choices that John gives us in these if/then statements. Let’s see just what kind of choice we make when we decide to stay here, confess our sins, and approach God.

And it’s important to remember that John isn’t assuming that his readers are making the choice to go against God or call God a liar. In fact, it’s probably better to translate the if/then statements to say something like: “If we actually claimed to be without sin, we would be deceiving ourselves, fooling ourselves, and the truth wouldn’t be in us.” John is trying to get his readers to imagine both sides of the if/then statements, trying to help them to imagine the other side, but he doesn’t actually assume that his readers have rejected God’s forgiveness for sins.

So as we look at the if/then statements, the if/then adventure that faces you each time you approach God, I’m not assuming you’re rejecting God’s truth. However, I do want us to see what it would mean to make that choice.

(In middle aisle outside of the chancel)

So think about the if/then statements from 1 John as the choices we face when we approach God. Now we couldn’t all be up here together and walk up to the altar together, but the idea is that when Pastor Miller or I am leading the worship service, you imagine yourself, you imagine everyone here as approaching God’s altar like we do. What we do up here is symbolic of what we are all doing.

So then you can all imagine that you’re standing here, and as John kind of shows us, you’ve got two choices: approach God and go towards His altar or leave God and go out that door. Those are the two choices, but how we make that choice is related to how we answer the other if/then statements.

So John says, “If we actually claimed to have fellowship with God yet were still walking in the darkness, we would be lying and not living by the truth.” In other words, if we actually said we could be close with God but then still do whatever we wanted, we’d be walking away from God and going out the door. The first if/then statement leads out the door, away from a relationship with God.

Of course, that’s not what John wants us to choose, and it’s not even what he thinks we will choose. John is writing to Christian believers. He wanted us to see what it would mean to make that choice, but now he gives us another if/then statement that leads to God. “But if we walk in the light, as God is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” In other words, if we walk in the light as I know that you are doing through faith, then you will be with God and have forgiveness for your sins. If we walk in the light, we approach God’s altar and receive forgiveness through Jesus.

Let’s try this again with the next if/then statement. “If we actually claimed to be without sin, we would be deceiving ourselves, fooling ourselves, and the truth wouldn’t be in us.” Again, if we agreed with the statement that we were without sin, then that leads right out the door away from a relationship with God.

However, that’s not what John thinks that his readers have chosen, and that’s not what I think you have chosen. You’re still here after hearing that you’re sinful; you’re still here in the service after hearing that you need Jesus Christ for salvation. So I think we’ve followed the other if/then statement in this pair: “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” This already happened in today’s service: we admitted our sins, approached God saying that yeah, we’re sinful and blind and turned away from God, and that choice led right to God’s altar where His offers His forgiveness and salvation.

Every time that you come to worship, every time that you pray to God, every time that you read the Bible, every time that you think about believing in Jesus you’re faced with this if/then adventure, these if/then statements. Every time you could fool yourself into thinking that you’re perfect, that you don’t sin, and that choice always leads out the door away from God. But every time you could also agree with God, admit that you’re sinful, and that choice leads to approaching God and receiving forgiveness for your sins.

(return to the pulpit)

The church father Caesarius put it this way: “Not to know your sin is the worst kind of sin.” In other words, the worst sin you could commit is to fool yourself into not seeing your own sinfulness.

Let’s go back to the Choose Your Own Adventure books for a moment. As you make choices about what the character should do in the story, some of those choices lead to dead ends, problems, or danger. The only way to find a happier ending to the story is to go back and figure out which choice was the mistake. In other words, go back and find your sin.

It’s the same with God. We could plug on, we could just keep doing what we thought was right, we could keep making up our own teachings and our own truths, but that’s going to keep leading us to dead ends, problems, or danger. That’s eventually going to lead to spiritual, eternal death.

Instead of trying to pretend that we didn’t make any mistakes, when we find ourselves in trouble, we’ve got to look back and see where we made a mistake, a bad choice in this if/then adventure. We’ve got to look back and see where we sinned.

Then unlike the Choose Your Own Adventure books where you just have to find your mistake and keep going from there, unlike that, with Jesus, when you go back and find your sin and admit your sin, you immediately find that you’re with God, you have His forgiveness and salvation.

Notice that, when you choose your own thoughts about your spiritual life, you end up getting yourself out the door, away from God. However, if you choose to admit that you’re sinful, wrong, lost, and helpless, then God brings you right up to the altar, right up into fellowship with Him, right into His family, right into the forgiveness of Jesus Christ.

That’s probably the most important thing to remember about this if/then adventure: if you walk away from God and go out the door, if you reject His truth, that’s your fault. That’s our sinfulness, and sometimes we’ve all been there, sometimes we’re going to fool ourselves into thinking we can do without God. It leads out the door, and we are the ones to blame.

However, for those times when we choose to believe God’s truth, those times that we choose to approach God’s altar and receive His forgiveness, that’s all God’s doing. The Holy Spirit is the One who helps us to follow that if/then statement. The Holy Spirit is the One that helps us to confess our sins and receive forgiveness. The Holy Spirit is the One that gives us the strength and confidence to approach God’s altar. In other words, if I admit that I am sinful and receive forgiveness through Jesus, then God gets all of the credit.

If I walk away from God, that’s my fault, my sinfulness, but if I believe and trust in God, then God gets all of the credit for my faith.

I said that John wrote this letter in such a way as to say that he just wanted his readers to imagine what it would mean if they chose to reject God’s truth, imagine what would happen if they said they weren’t sinful. He didn’t actually think that his readers had rejected the Christian faith, and I don’t think you have either.

However, in seeing what it would mean if we did reject God really helps us to rejoice and give thanks for how God gives us faith. Knowing that on our own we’d chose the wrong if/then statement, knowing that our own choice would lead us right out the door away from God, knowing that helps us to see how incredible it is that we approach God today, approach God, admit our sins, and receive His forgiveness.

Today and every time that we gather for worship is a celebration of God’s work in our lives. It’s a celebration of God leading us to His altar, leading us to Jesus, leading us to find forgiveness and salvation. We’re not congratulating ourselves on a job well done, on choosing the right path, as if we did this on our own. We’re congratulating God for saving us, we’re praising God, honoring God, giving God all of the glory for the faith that we have.

Faith, then, is an if/then statement, an if/then adventure, but when it comes to making that choice, we’d be walking out that door away from God towards a dead end, problems, danger, or spiritual death, that’s where we’d be headed if it wasn’t for God. Faith is an if/then statement, an if/then adventure, it’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, but God turns the pages for us, leads us in the right direction, leads us toward the treasure of heaven, the forgiveness and salvation of Jesus Christ. God is the page turner in this adventure, and He has turned the pages in your life, showing you the Book of Life, leading you to faith in Jesus who forgives and gives us life after death.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Mark 14:12-26 - “Was Judas There?”

Maundy Thursday
Thursday, April 13, 2006

Two months ago, I picked the topic for this Maundy Thursday sermon: was Judas there at the Last Supper? Did Jesus institute, begin, establish the Lord’s Supper with Judas still at the table? Did Judas eat the body and drink the blood of the Lord?

Little did I know two months ago that the media buzz this week would be all about Judas and how the National Geographic Society has published the long-lost Gospel of Judas. While it is called The Gospel of Judas as if Judas wrote it, most scholars agree that it was actually written in the year 180, which is around 150 years after Judas committed suicide. This long-lost text says that Judas received secret knowledge from Jesus, Judas was the only disciple qualified to receive such knowledge, and that Jesus actually asked Judas to help the Romans arrest Him.

Well, in case you’ve been hearing about this in the media, thankfully even a news magazine like Newsweek (April 17, 2006) went back to see that the early Church father, Irenaeus, said the Gospel of Judas was fiction. Irenaeus is a trusted Christian writer, and if he called the Gospel of Judas fiction, we should listen to what he said. Newsweek also quotes James Robinson, an expert on the Gospel of Judas. Robinson says, “[The Gospel of Judas] tells us nothing about the historical Jesus, nothing about the historical Judas. It only tells what, 100 years later, Gnostics were doing with the story in the Gospels.” Robinson thinks it’s an important document for scholars, but it doesn’t change what true Christian teaching is. The Gospel of Judas tells us about Gnostics, a heresy, a false teaching based on Christianity but one which stresses the importance of receiving a secret, mystical knowledge of God through the spirit.

The Gospel of Judas is not the truth of God’s Word; this is not something that will come along and radically change our teaching. Even if the media continue to talk about the Gospel of Judas, don’t worry. Judas didn’t get special knowledge, and Jesus didn’t help plan His own betrayal.

But that’s the thing: Judas betraying Jesus—it’s an intriguing story, a mystery, something that confuses us. How could Judas betray Jesus? And how could Jesus let Himself be betrayed by His own disciple? And with those questions we have about Judas, then we again come to the question I started with: was Judas there? When Jesus gave the disciples the bread saying, “This is My body,” and when He gave them the wine saying, “This is My blood,” was Judas there? Did He eat and drink the body and blood of our Lord?

Both the Gospel of Mark which we read tonight and the Gospel of Matthew show Jesus at the table in the Upper Room with His disciples, saying that one of the Twelve will betray Him. However, that conversation flows right into the institution of the Lord’s Supper. There’s no mention of Judas leaving the table before Jesus gives the disciples the bread and cup.

But it’s bothersome if you think about it. It seems so strange to think that Jesus would share this wonderful gift, this incredibly intimate meal with Judas who was going to betray Him just a few hours later. Would Jesus really allow Judas to eat His body and drink His blood, this gift that brings forgiveness for sins? Wouldn’t that be wasted on Judas? If Jesus knew what Judas was planning on doing, Jesus wasn’t going to offer Judas forgiveness, was He?

Of course, just like with the Gospel of Judas, we could just let this be a question for the scholars, just an academic discussion, an interesting research project, something to ponder. However, if you look at the questions surrounding that idea that Judas was there and did participate in the Last Supper, if you look at those questions honestly, you realize this question very quickly turns personal.

It seems strange tonight to think that Jesus would share the wonderful gift of the Lord’s Supper, this incredibly intimate meal with us, you and me, who will betray Him with our actions, our words, our lack of words, our lack of action. Will Jesus really allow us to eat His body and drink His blood, this gift that brings forgiveness for our sins? Won’t that be wasted on us who will continue to sin? If Jesus knows what I am planning on doing later tonight or tomorrow, if Jesus knows that I will sin against Him and others, Jesus isn’t going to offer me forgiveness for my sins, is He?

If we’re going to be disturbed to think that Jesus shared the Lord’s Supper with Judas, then I think we need to honestly realize we should be disturbed that Jesus would share the Lord’s Supper with us—poor, miserable sinners.

I think somewhere in my Seminary training a professor once said to be really careful about saying that the congregation is like Judas. However, if we never think about how similar we are to Judas, then it’s easy to just think of Judas as completely evil, as someone who was so selfish, Satanic, and blind that we couldn’t possibly ever be as bad as him.

It’s not that simple. We need to remember that Judas was no slouch. He wasn’t a disciple who only showed up for some of the meetings, only got part of the teaching, never had any duties. Judas was there with Jesus the whole time. Judas was sent out with the rest of the Twelve to preach, teach, and perform miracles. Judas heard the public sermons and shared in those private talks Jesus had with the Twelve.

We can’t think of Judas as being like a Christian who barely shows up for church, never reads the Bible, and just shows up to mess things up. No, Judas was an extremely dedicated disciple.

And in that way, seeing Judas as an extremely dedicated disciple, we realize how we’re like Judas. We’re here, we’re worshipping the Lord, we’re learning the Bible, we’ve serving God with our lives, and yet, like Judas, our own ideas can get the best of us, our own sinfulness can trump what we know about Jesus. Like Judas, we’re close to Jesus, but left to our own sinfulness, we could quickly turn away.

So again, if we’re disturbed with the thought that Judas was at the Last Supper, we’ve got to be equally disturbed that we are allowed to be at the Lord’s Supper. We’re just as likely to sin and speak false teachings and turn against Jesus in our actions. We’re just as likely to think we know better than Jesus, that we’ve got it all figured out. And if we can sin against God in terrible ways—both big and small, if we can sin against God by denying Him, speaking against Him, then we shouldn’t be at the Lord’s Supper eating and drinking the body and blood of the Lord.

But that’s when we have to go back to the Gospel of Mark and see how Jesus handled the situation. How did Jesus handle the fact that His betrayer was sitting and eating at the table? Jesus handles it with more patience than we can imagine.

The early Church father, Cyprian, explains it this way: “[The Lord’s] wonderful patience is seen in the way He dealt with His disciples. He was even able to tolerate Judas to the end with enduring patience. He could eat calmly with His betrayer. He could patiently be aware of His enemy at His own table and not let on. He did not even refuse the kiss of the traitor,” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT Vol. II, 203).

If Jesus showed that patience with Judas, then certainly He also shows this kind of patience with us. Jesus knows that we have sinned against Him, that we will sin against Him even more later tonight. Jesus knows what kind of poor, miserable sinners we are, but He still invites us to His table to eat His body and drink His blood for the forgiveness of our sins. Jesus shows extreme patience with us in our sins, inviting us over and over again to His table to receive His wonderful gift.

Jesus is patient with Judas for the same reason that He’s patient with us: He wants to give us time to repent, to turn away from our sins, to receive forgiveness, to continue in faith. Jesus was patient with Judas at the Last Supper. The words of Jesus might have convicted Judas and turned Him away from the plot. Jesus was patient, giving Judas a chance to repent.

Judas didn’t repent until after the fact. In the Gospel of Matthew, we learn that after Judas realized what he had done, he returns the money to the chief priests and elders and says, “I have sinned for I have betrayed innocent blood.” It’s clear that Judas was convicted by the patient words of Jesus from the Last Supper. Judas was like us, because many times we don’t even realize that we’ve sinned until after we do it. Even if someone points out the sin in our plan, still we don’t always get it until after, until we see just what our sin has caused. After Judas betrays Jesus and sees Him arrested, then Judas repents, tells the chief priests and elders that this was a sin.

That’s the other reason we have trouble thinking that we’re similar to Judas: we forget that Judas repented. We remember that Judas betrayed Jesus, but we forget that Judas was an extremely committed disciple. We remember that Judas hanged himself, but we forget that Judas repented, was sorry for his sin, tried to return the money, was looking for forgiveness, may have even hoped that the chief priests and elders would change their plan. We don’t like to think of ourselves as being like Judas, because we think of Judas as all evil, all the time.

Yet, there’s a band called Gooding with a song that uses the phrase “angel/devil” to describe Judas. What an accurate description of Judas—angelic in his devotion to Jesus, but devilish in his sinful betrayal. Judas acts as both angel and devil, as both saint and sinner.

We’re all angel/devils, angelic in our faith and devilish in our sins. We act like the angels when we raise our voices to praise God, but we act like devils when we turn against God.

However, if we are angel/devils like Judas, if we are like Judas in our ability to sin against Jesus, then we’re also like Judas—receiving the Lord’s patience, with the Lord hoping that we will turn away from our sins. If Jesus spoke about being betrayed in the hope that Judas would repent—as Judas later did—then tonight God’s Word points out our sin in the hope that we will also repent, turn away from our sins. I am not asking you to think of how you’re like Judas just so that you can feel condemned. I am asking you to see how you’re like Judas so that you will see your sins, repent, and believe in the forgiveness offered by Jesus.

But there’s an important difference between you and Judas—your ability to hear the forgiveness of Jesus. You are here tonight, and forgiveness is being offered to you for all of your sins. Stay here, and you will hear those words spoken to you in the Lord’s Supper—“This is my blood shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” You have sinned in many ways, but now you can hear the forgiveness that comes through Jesus.

After Judas sinned, he had trouble hearing the words of forgiveness. When Judas repented, he went to the chief priests and elders; they didn’t offer forgiveness. Then in his remorse and anguish and guilt over his sin, Judas apparently forgot the words of Jesus that promised forgiveness of sins through His death. Judas forgot those words, and couldn’t go to Jesus to ask for forgiveness because Jesus was on trial. Judas forgot about forgiveness and hope in those moments and so Judas despaired and committed suicide.

Notice that we don’t necessarily know that Judas died without faith. In that moment of despair and lack of faith, Judas killed himself. We don’t know what was in his heart, but the last recorded words of Judas sound like the words of a man who is repenting, turning away from his sin, “I have sinned for I have betrayed innocent blood.”

If you have seen how you are like Judas, if you have seen how you have betrayed Jesus with your words or actions, if you are a saint/sinner, an angel/devil like Judas, if you can see how you are committed to Jesus but still sometimes go against His Word, then you can see how the words of Judas can be your words: “I have sinned for I have betrayed innocent blood.” We have betrayed Jesus with our lives of sin.

Yet, unlike Judas, please don’t walk away in despair. If you walk away, you won’t hear the words of forgiveness that are spoken in the Lord’s Supper. Yes, like Judas, we have betrayed Jesus. Yes, like Judas, we are guilty of condemning Jesus to death.

But yes, the death of Jesus brings forgiveness for our sins. Yes, the Lord’s Supper offers us that forgiveness, connecting us to the death and resurrection through the eating and drinking of the body and blood of Jesus. Yes, we have all sinned against the Lord, but yes, we are all forgiven through faith in Jesus Christ.

Judas didn’t wait long enough to hear that reassurance of forgiveness; Judas gave up and hanged himself. Please don’t walk away, don’t give up, don’t close your ears, don’t feel hopeless because of your sins. Listen tonight! Hear the words of Jesus as they reveal to us that we have caused His death by our sins, but that His death also gives us forgiveness for those sins. Listen tonight as you receive the body and the blood. Listen to hear how He died for you, He died in your place, He died to offer you life, He died to forgive you.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Mark 14:1-11 - “Standing Room Only”

Written with the help of the Confirmands
Palm Sunday (Year B - LCMS Readings) (Confirmation Day)
Saturday, April 8, and Sunday, April 9, 2006

Stand up. (motion for congregation to stand up)

There you go, it’s standing room only for Confirmation Day, and today’s sermon written with the help of the confirmands is called “Standing Room Only.”

You can be seated.

There’s a lot of standing up going on in the Gospel reading for today from Mark chapter 14. The woman who pours perfume on Jesus, she stands up for her faith, stands up, stands out from the crowd and praises Jesus. Then Jesus stands up for the woman when everyone is yelling at her for wasting the perfume. All of this standing up made our Confirmation students think of a song from Veggie Tales:Rack, Shack & Benny that they’d like you to hear. Watch.

I remember stand (Stand up, stand up)
For what you believe in, believe in,
Believe in God (He's the one to back you up)
We'll stand with you!

This is a great way for reminding us what we’re learning from this event in Gospel of Mark. The woman stands up for what she believes in, and Jesus backs her up, stands up for her against all of the people who were threatening her. Like the song, the woman stands for what she believes in, and Jesus is the one to back her up, He stands with the woman. It makes a perfect connection with that song from the Veggie Tales which is why our confirmands wanted to share it with you.

By now, though, I suppose you’re wondering why there’s a picture of a prairie dog on the cover of the bulletin. Well, if I let one of the confirmands, Ian, explain it, he’d say we put a picture of a prairie dog on the cover because their Sunday School teacher, Mr. Hafeman, likes animals. While I don’t doubt that Mr. Hafeman likes animals, and maybe even likes prairie dogs, but there’s more to it than that. The prairie dog is on the cover because it’s standing up.

Like I said, there’s a lot of standing up going on in the Gospel reading from Mark, and as I worked with the confirmation students on this sermon, we decided we wanted a lot of standing up going on around here. If the Veggies didn’t convince you that you can stand up for what you believe because Jesus stands up for you, if that song wasn’t catchy enough, well, then maybe the prairie dog will inspire you.

The prairie dog there stands up as if standing up in praise to God just like the woman who stood up for her faith, stood out from the crowd, poured perfume on Jesus, and worshipped Jesus. So then we’re encouraging you to be like the prairie dog. Stand up for your faith, stand for what you believe, stand and worship the Lord with your life.

That prairie dog standing there on the cover, he’s kind of a little worship mascot. You know how mascots work. You see the mascot of your school or favorite sports team, and you instantly think, “Go team!” For you, maybe it’s when Bernie slides down the slide at Miller Park, and you think, “Go Brewers!”

Well, in that same way, we want the prairie dog to be a little worship mascot, and every time you see a picture of a prairie dog or maybe when you go to the Lincoln Park Zoo here in Manitowoc and see the prairie dogs, we’re hoping you’ll be thinking, “Worship the Lord! Praise the Lord! Stand up for my faith in Jesus and celebrate Him!”

Of course, that prairie dog isn’t usually alone. Prairie dogs live in communities. One prairie dog might be a worship mascot, but another one of the prairie dogs can be a symbol for Jesus.

A lot of times there’s a prairie dog standing near his hole, watching for trouble, and meanwhile there’s another prairie dog ducked down just inside the hole, peeking out, wondering if things are safe. Well, you and I are the prairie dogs just inside the hole. We want to get out of the hole, find some food, enjoy the sunshine, but we’re afraid. We’re afraid of the coyotes out there that might cause trouble, the hunters that might be aiming at us with guns. We’re afraid to come out of the hole, and so that brave, protector prairie dog that goes to check things out and stand guard, that prairie dog is like Jesus.

Jesus stands up for us when we’re trying to stand up for our faith. When the woman stood up for her faith and showed her devotion to Jesus, the people there got mad at her, told her she was wrong, started to attack what she had done. Then just like a guard prairie dog, Jesus stood up for her and says, “Leave her alone.” Maybe the woman was ready to dive back down in that hole, ready to hide her faith, ready to think that she had made a mistake by worshipping Jesus with all of that expensive perfume, but before she can dive back in the hole, before she can get scared away, Jesus stands up for her.

And that’s why there’s a prairie dog on the cover of today’s bulletin, because there’s two ways to think about that prairie dog. The prairie dog reminds us that we need to stand up for our faith, to worship Jesus, but the only way we can feel confident about standing up for our faith is if we remember that Jesus is also a prairie dog, a guard prairie dog, a prairie dog who stands up for us, protecting us when we’re telling people about our faith.

The confirmands didn’t think you were that much different than them when it comes to trying to stand up for your faith. You want to tell other people about your faith in Jesus, you want to tell people that Jesus loves us and forgives us and gives us eternal life, but you’re afraid that they’ll make fun of you or tell you that you can’t talk about that here or they’ll stop being friends with you or they’ll ignore you, not understand you, mistreat you, or simply not care. You’re afraid to poke your head out of the burrow, and so Jesus stands up like that big guard prairie dog that he is. He stands up for you, backs you up, gives you strength and confidence through the Holy Spirit.

You see, that’s why today’s there’s standing room only. We’re trying to stand up for Jesus, stand up and praise Him. There’s a lot of standing going here today, but it starts with Jesus. Jesus is already on His feet, standing up for us, ready to defend us against sin, the devil, and the world.

There’s a lot of standing going on here today. You might have only thought about how the confirmands will stand up to take the confirmation pledge. But Jesus is the first one to stand up here. He stood up, left His place in the eternal throne room of heaven, came to Earth as a man, stood up when they came to arrest Him, stood up when they took Him away to crucify Him, stood up when He died and went to proclaim victory to Satan in hell, stood up on the third day when He rose again, stood up when He ascended into heaven, stood up and stands up everyday when He works in our lives, works in our world, works to bring His Good News to the people.

So, yeah, the confirmands are being like prairie dogs today; they’re standing up to praise God. They’re being like the woman and showing their devotion to Jesus. And yeah, you’re all being like prairie dogs today as you stand up for your faith and worship God. But let’s remember who the true prairie dog is today: Jesus.

He’s the one at the top of the hole protecting us from coyote and hunter. He’s the one standing there to encourage us to come out of hiding. He’s the one who will stay by our side even when trouble comes. He’s the one who already died when that trouble came for Him, died on that cross when our trouble caught up with Him, died in punishment for our sins. If Jesus stood up knowing that this was going to happen to Him, if Jesus decided that He would suffer for us back then, you can know that He’s standing by your side even now as people make fun of your faith, as people ignore you, hurt you, are mean to you because you believe in God. Jesus stands up and protects you by His Holy Spirit.

There’s standing room only in here today, and it all starts with that divine prairie dog, Jesus.

But just why were the people mad at the woman in the first place? They thought that instead of wasting this perfume on Jesus that she should’ve sold it and given the money to the poor. In other words, the woman’s act was extravagant, wasteful, unnecessary, selfish.

Practically speaking, I suppose they might be right. Jesus would’ve risen from the dead with or without that perfume. And the perfume did cost a year’s wages, that’s a lot of money, and that certainly could’ve helped a lot of poor people. It seems strange to use that on Jesus, especially if Jesus didn’t really need it.

However, by that same way of thinking, we’re surrounded by waste. This whole building—the beauty and art inside here, the time and money spent on building it and remodeling it—I suppose you could say that it is all a waste. Jesus doesn’t need this building. We could worship Jesus in an empty field, and that would still be worship. Maybe we’re just as wasteful and selfish as that woman since we’ve made this nice building for our congregation.

Yet, the woman poured out that perfume to show her heart’s devotion to Jesus. She did it in honor of Jesus, and He accepted her devotion and honor (Jermoe, Against Vigilantius). Jesus saw more than the money being spent; Jesus saw what was being spent in the woman’s heart. She was paying Him honor and respect and praise and devotion. She wasn’t being wasteful or selfish. She was giving all that she had to show just how much devotion she had for Him. She was standing up for Him, stretching as high to the sky as she could. When she pours out the perfume, Jesus doesn’t really need the perfume, but she does it to show her joy, the joy of her faith.

That’s the same reason we’ve got this beautiful building for worship. It is our way of pouring out our heart’s devotion and honor for Jesus. We’ve reached into the sky; we’ve stood up for our faith; we’ve given up things we want for ourselves in order to give something to God. We have this building, we keep this building, we devote ourselves to God in this building to show the joy that we have in God. It’s another way of standing up for our faith.

I mean, you think about it, it’d be a lot easier to be quiet about our faith and not make such a big deal about it. We could worship in someone’s basement or barn or something. No one would have to know.

As it is, though, as soon as you say you go to Redeemer Lutheran Church, if people have been up this way, they know that it’s the big A-frame church, the one near the airport, the cross the pilots use to find the airport in foggy weather, the church across the Jackson Elementary. When you tell people where you go to church, and they’ve seen the building, they’ve seen that the congregation has spent money on a building and spent money doing ministry and having staff and putting together worship services and sending students on Confirmation retreats and developing missions in Thailand, when they see all of that, they realize you’re standing up for your faith. They see you as a prairie dog, standing there, worshipping Jesus.

And then they might just say that you’re wasting your money or that having such a nice building is selfish or that really you should keep your faith to yourself or that churches should have to pay property taxes or that the church owns too much land or that the congregation isn’t helping enough poor people. When they see us standing up for our faith, even if they just see our building, they’re realizing that our faith is important to us. . .and that’s when they might attack our faith.

And when they do, you might be tempted to duck back down into your hole. You might be tempted to get scared and sit down and stop standing up for your faith in Jesus. You might start thinking that this building is a waste.

But when the people attack you for your faith, when they make fun of or threaten you or ignore you or tell you that you’re wrong, we want you to remember you’re not the only prairie dog in this community. You’ve got that big guard prairie dog on your hill, standing by the hole, watching for trouble. Jesus is that prairie dog, standing up for you.

Jesus stood up for the woman who poured the perfume on Him, and He’ll stand up for you who built this church building and this ministry. Jesus stood up for that woman who showed that she believed He was going to die but that He is also the Savior of the world. He stood up for that woman, and He will stand up for you who believe that He will forgive us and save us and give us eternal life.

So it all starts with Jesus the prairie dog, and we’re the prairie dogs in his community. It’s standing room only as Jesus stands up for us and gives us the confidence to stand up for Him. When the confirmands stand up in just a little while to say their confirmation pledge, I want you to think of them as prairie dogs. Yet, they’re not standing there alone. . .are they? They’ve got that big guard prairie dog Jesus standing up for them first. And Jesus is also standing up for you.

Prairie Dog photo courtesy of Randy Hopfer, Natural Highlight Photography, © 2006.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Isaiah 60:21 - “The Feast of St. Vincent Ferrer And/Or the Feast of St. Every Believer”

Lenten Midweek
Wednesday, April 5, 2006

Today is the Feast of St. Vincent Ferrer. As you can see on the insert, St. Vincent is celebrated today, because he died on April 5, 1419. He was from Spain, and was a missionary to Aragon, Castile, Switzerland, France, Italy, England, Ireland, and Scotland, often converting many Jews along the way.

Why is he called a saint? Well, first of all, he was said to have been miraculously healed by God after which he spent 21 years as a missionary. Along the way, he supposedly had the power to heal people by miracles. Because of this, in 1455, Pope Calixtus III declared him to be a saint. So St. Vincent Ferrer is a saint, because of his actions, his good works, and because of the word of a pope.

Because the saints celebrated with feast days in the Catholic Church seem to have gotten to be saints by their good works, well, that’s maybe why many of us have gotten confused along the way on just what it means to be a saint. We say to someone, “Oh, you’re such a saint,” after they do something nice for us, and again, it seems that the only way we could be saints is if we can prove it by our actions. We say, “Oh, I’m no saint,” meaning that we’re not perfect, we make mistakes, meaning that by our actions, we couldn’t possibly be saints.

So whether you grew up Catholic or in this very Catholic town or just because of the popularity in our culture of the Catholic teaching of the saints, maybe you got confused, thinking that you could only be a saint through good works.

For me, it wasn’t so much of the Catholic Church’s teachings that got me confused. Rather, it was the radio. The song “Sanctify Yourself” by the Simple Minds was hit song during the time I was in Confirmation. If you were paying attention to the music of the 80’s, maybe you remember this song. (play clip)

The song says “sanctify yourself, set yourself free.” As you can see on your insert, “sanctify” means “to make holy.” The word “saint” comes from this same word and means “holy ones.” So Simple Minds are saying, “Sanctify yourself, make yourself holy.”

While I knew what my pastor was saying in Confirmation about the Holy Spirit is the One who makes us holy, while I knew this, still it was all confused in my head. The Simple Minds song was saying that I needed to make myself holy. I had to take control, take charge, change my life, work to make myself righteous.

Then you can add to the confusion if you search the Internet for the phrase “sanctify yourself,” besides just the lyrics to the Simple Minds song, you’ll also find a quote that supposedly comes from St. Francis of Assisi. The quote, as you have it on your insert, says, “Sanctify yourself, and you will sanctify society.” If I make myself holy, I will transform society around me, making my community more holy. Again, it comes back to making ourselves into saints by our good works.

All of this can give you quite a head trip. All of this can make you feel unworthy, because you look at your life and you know no one is ever going to think that you’ve done enough good works to be considered a saint. You hear about the saints of Catholic Church, and they seem so much holier than you. You hear Simple Minds sing “Sanctify Yourself,” and you doubt you could ever make yourself holy. You hear that St. Francis quote, and you realize you’re not good enough to transform society with your holiness. This can all do a number on you—and then you come to a Midweek Lenten service where the pastor declares that today isn’t just the Feast Day of St. Vincent Ferrer, but it is the Feast of St. Every Believer. St. Every Believer. Everyone who believes is a saint and is celebrated.

You are all saints, and I’m declaring today is your feast day. Try it on for size. Put “saint” in front of your name—St. Mitch, St. Layton, St. Carlee, St. Megan, St. Amanda.

Why can I say that you’re all saints? Because God said you are saints. As you see on the insert, the prophet Isaiah shows that God will declare us to be saints. Isaiah chapter 60, verse 21 says, “Your people shall all be righteous.” God will say that we are all righteous, without sin, holy, innocent, free. God Himself says you are saints, and I’m not going to argue with Him. As Martin Luther explains,

Martin Luther, Lectures on Isaiah, Luther’s Works, Vol. 17
Apart from Christ there is no righteousness before God, even if there is righteousness before the world. But apart from this Light there is no righteousness before God. . . When we speak of ourselves as baptized and enlightened by the Word, we are not sinners but saints and spotless through Christ, so that we can gratefully boast that we are saints. Thus all godly believers are righteous and saints. In ourselves we are sinners and ungodly, but by the illumination of Christ we are righteous and saints.

Just based on ourselves, based on our actions and lives, we are sinners, completely turned away from God. But through faith in Christ, we are saints—spotless, holy, righteous, innocent. If we try to say that we’re not saints, we’re denying what Christ has done for us. When I call you a saint, or when you call yourself a saint, it’s not about your good works. It’s not saying that you’re better than other people. No, when I call you a saint, or when you call yourself a saint, you are recognizing what Jesus has made you. Jesus has made you a saint in God’s eyes. Celebrate that today, because through faith in Jesus, we are all saints—every single person who believes.

Going onto the back of insert, though, if we’re all saints, then why do some people pray to the saints? The teaching of Scripture is clear: we are the saints of the Lord through faith in Jesus Christ. Yet, as I said before, the other teachings you hear will try to mess with your mind, will try to throw you off of the true teaching of Christ.

On the backside of the insert there’s a quote from a magazine published by the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows, a shrine to the Virgin Mary near St. Louis, Missouri. In explaining why they encourage people to pray to the saints, the magazine says,

From Oblates, a publication of National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows
Why do we—and why should we—pray to the saints now? First, we believe that their search for holiness—for oneness with God—in their earthly life has brought the saints close to God now in death. Second, we believe that the humanness of the saints—their great virtue, and their sinfulness—makes them accessible to us.

This sounds logical and kind of sounds comforting. God is big, scary, distant, holy, and the ultimate judge, so if we could find a way to talk to God through someone else, maybe that would be better. Maybe the saints have a more direct line to God and they would be more likely to understand me in my humanness. This all sounds logical. . .except what is said about the saints has already come true in Jesus Christ.

We don’t need the saints to be our human connection to God; we have this connection in Jesus—the true Son of God who also became truly human. The Augsburg Confession reminds us of this when it says,

The Augsburg Confession, Article XXI: Worship of the Saints
The Scriptures do not teach that we are to call on the saints or to ask the saints for help. Scripture sets before us the one Christ as the Mediator, Atoning Sacrifice, High Priest, and Intecessor. He is to be prayed to. He has promised that He will hear our prayers.

To trust in any saint for help as if trusting in Christ wasn’t enough is to commit idolatry. We are to trust in God alone. Jesus promises to hear our prayers. Jesus taught us to pray to God the Father and ask for our needs in His Name. Jesus never tells us to pray to the saints, to those who are dead.

More than just idolatry, when we hear that people pray to the saints, we again are being led to believe that those saints are somehow more holy than we are because of their good works. But remember: you are all saints of the Lord. Today is the Feast of St. Every Believer. You are saints, you are holy, innocent, righteous, and free through faith in Jesus Christ.

So tonight I’m standing here as your pastor reminding you that based on Scripture, we are a congregation that upholds the Lutheran Confessions. In the Lutheran Confessions, we reject the idea that we can be holy by our good works. And we reject the idea that we should pray to the saints.

We reject these things, but not just so we can tell your Roman Catholic friends that we think they’re wrong. The reason to reject these teachings is because they threaten our faith. We reject any teaching which makes us doubt that we are forgiven, innocent, holy, perfect, free, righteous, and saints in Jesus Christ. We reject any teaching which starts to put our focus on our actions as a way to bring us closer to God rather than seeing that it is God’s action which brings us closer to Himself.

I’m standing here rejecting these false teachings about the saints, because I want you to celebrate tonight that you are a saint of the Lord. God’s Holy Spirit has worked faith in your heart, and so now when God looks at you, He sees the holiness of Jesus in you.

Of course, sometimes we don’t feel very saintly. We look at our lives, and we think: “Yeah, right, I’m a saint. Look at me. I don’t do what God wants me to. I’m sinning all of the time. God couldn’t possibly think that I’m a saint.” We doubt what God has said about us, because we forget that there’s two things going on in our lives: there’s what God has said about us and there’s what our lives are still like.

Look on the insert at the quote from Romans 7:25: “I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.” On the one hand, we believe in God and serve Him in our faith. Yet, despite our faith, we still sin. We’ve got both saint and sinner going on at the same time. Of course, we don’t feel very saintly—not everything in our lives is very saintly.

It’s like Luther said, “In a word, there is no need to quarrel about the way we live, for we gladly and freely admit that we are not as holy as we ought to be” (Church and Ministry III, Luther’s Works, Vol. 41). In other words, just because we say we are saints doesn’t mean we think we’re perfect. No, as Christians, we realize that we’re far from perfect. We sin all of the time; we fall short of God’s goal for our lives. But it’s not in our actions that we’re saints; it’s in how God decides to view us. He decides to see Jesus in us instead of our sin.

So if you don’t feel very saintly, Luther says,

Lectures on Isaiah, Luther’s Works, Vol. 17
Just hold tight, even if you are oppressed and persecuted and your thoughts and conscience trouble you. You may know for certain: “The Lord is my light”; you may know for certain that all who have this Light are righteous, even though we are sinners.

Knowing that you are saint doesn’t come from looking at what your life looks like. Yes, if you have good works, that might show that you’re following God’s Word, but knowing you are a saint, knowing you are sanctified, holy, righteous, innocent, perfect, pure, and free, that comes from faith in Jesus Christ. He is your light, and His light shines through your faith.

Hopefully by now you could already answer this last question: would I be more saintly if I was in full-time church work? NO! It makes me so uncomfortable when people imply that I must be more godly, more holy, more saintly, more connected to God because I’m a pastor. In fact, just the opposite, I often think God put me in the ministry, because He was afraid if I was doing something else with my life, if I wasn’t having to do Bible study everyday for my job, that I’d be likely to drift away.

Look at what the Augsburg Confession says about Monastic Vows, the vows of monks and nuns:

The Augsburg Confession, Article XXVII: Monastic Vows
It was claimed that monastic vows were equal to Baptism, and that by monastic life one could earn forgiveness of sin and justification before God. . . .They also claimed that more merit could be obtained by monastic life than by all other states of life instituted by God — whether the office of pastor and preacher, of ruler, prince, lord, or the like, all of whom serve in their appointed calling according to God’s Word and command without invented spirituality. None of these things can be denied, for they are found in their own books.

The Lutherans are clear: they reject the idea that by being in full-time church work that someone is more holy, getting extra forgiveness from God. And they are clear in saying that all vocations, all jobs, all kinds of work can be ways to serve God.

We don’t get our saintliness from our actions; we bring our saintliness with us to our actions.

I am not a saint at the end of the day, because I spent the day being a pastor. Instead, I am a saint at the beginning of the day through faith in Jesus, and then I take my saintliness with me as I work as a pastor.

You aren’t a saint at the end of the day depending on your actions. You are a saint in the morning because of your faith in Jesus, and you bring your saintliness with you in whatever you do: waitress, banker, student, homemaker, retired, unemployed, laborer, factory worker, management, boss, CEO.

Because of this, then, you and I are no different. We wake up in the morning, and we are saints of the Lord. We are saints in Jesus Christ, and we take our saintliness with us, serving God through whatever vocations we have.

In everything we teach, we celebrate the Feast Day of St. Every Believer, we celebrate that we are saints, holy, innocent, perfect, forgiven, righteous, and pure through faith in Jesus Christ. You are all saints of the Lord.