Saturday, February 1, 2020

We Preach Christ Crucified

1 Corinthians 1:18-25 Not too long after I began my ministry, the father of one of my members passed away.  He was a fairly well-known man in the community and along with a many members of my congregation I attended his funeral in another Christian church in town.
As I listened to the service and the prayers and the hymns—and especially as I listened to the sermon—it occurred to me that I had not heard about Jesus.  I had not even heard his name mentioned—to say nothing of his death and resurrection. 
The “sermon” was well-delivered—there were witty illustrations.  There was lots of generic “god-talk”—lots of “Father God” in the prayers—but not a word about how it is that we can call God our Father in the first place by trusting in Jesus.  That funeral was one of the saddest things I had ever witnessed in a Christian church.
As we exited the building, one of my members came up to me and said, “Pastor, wasn’t that a wonderful message?”  And I took a deep breath and counted to ten and said, “Well no, it wasn’t” and I asked her if she had heard anything about Jesus—anything about forgiveness through his shed blood on the cross—anything about our hope in his resurrection. 
Well, she was kind of taken aback—and she thought for a minute—and had to admit that she hadn’t heard about Jesus either.  I said, “Let’s talk about it on Sunday”.
Because so many of my members had been at that service, we did talk about it in our Bible class—a great teaching moment about what we ought to be hearing preached in the church—that if a sermon could just as easily be preached in a synagogue or mosque—we haven’t actually heard a Christian sermon no matter where it is preached. 
I don’t know how many folks I convinced—but I convinced her.  From then on, whenever we were at another Christian church for a wedding or a funeral—whenever we heard a prayer at some public function-she always sought me out afterward and said, “Pastor, I heard it!”  Or “Pastor I didn’t hear it!” 
That whole experience made a profound impact on me and I’ll never forget that lesson:  that what we almost take for granted as members of the Lutheran Church (that Christ and his saving works will be preached whenever we assemble for worship) that very thing that is missing in so many parts of the world and even within the church.
That is one reason why we support Lutheran Hour Ministries—so that as many people as possible can hear the word of the cross and be saved.  The Bible says that:
The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
That the living God of the universe has taken on human flesh in the person of a peasant baby, was crucified on a cross, and raised from the dead—thus accomplishing the redemption of the world from sin, death, and the power of the devil—this word of the cross is folly—foolishness—to everyone—by nature.
And yet here we are --sitting here in Church today-- believing this very thing.  Our lives are built on this foundation of Jesus’ blood and righteousness.  His cross and resurrection is our hope for time and eternity.  And so we want everyone in the world to know “the word of the cross”. 
How did this come to be—that we believe the folly of the cross?  It is because the foolishness of the cross is the POWER of God.  And there is the greatest possible comfort in that promise:  that there is life-changing power in the Gospel.
It is so easy to become discouraged in our witness to Jesus.  We miss opportunities.  We say the wrong thing.  We don’t know what to say.  All of this besides the fact that we live in a world that not only does not want to hear us—but is more and more outright antagonistic to the Gospel. 
But the message of the cross IS the power of God that converted Paul—that converted the Roman Empire—that converted the German tribes—that converted you and me—from enemies of God who knew nothing of his goodness and mercy-- to children of God whose hope and peace and life are based upon the word of the cross.
That is why it is so important that the powerful, life-changing message of the cross goes out to as many people as possible, in as many ways as possible because we know that message is the only message that saves sinners and that even the gates of hell cannot stand against it.  The Bible says that:
It is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”  Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 
            Mankind’s unregenerate intellect and reason cannot be reformed—it has to be destroyed-- and that is exactly what God promised to do --and did. 
But it was not an act of divine violence that destroyed its hold on us—it was an act of love in the birth of a child who was the wisdom of God personified.  This virgin-born life is how God broke into human history to destroy the hold that so-called wisdom and intellect has on us whose minds are-by nature-are hostile to God.
The greatest intellects of human history—the most powerful men who have ever lived—the greatest leaders the world has ever seen—stand in the shadow of God’s wisdom found in a baby lying in a manger—a man nailed to a cross. 
Jesus what mankind, in our wisdom and intellect and strength, could not—our salvation—and he continues to accomplish salvation in those who hear the Gospel preached—be it through a Lutheran Hours Ministries radio broadcast or Internet program or a Sunday morning service.  The Bible says:
Since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what WE preach to save those who believe. 
The Bible says that “faith comes from hearing and hearing through the Word of Christ”.  The Augsburg Confession days that faith is obtained though the Ministry of Teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments…
No one comes to faith in any other way than by hearing the Good News of Jesus, crucified and raised for the sons of the world.  Faith comes by hearing the Gospel!
In these latter days Almighty God has allowed technology to have a place in this critical work of proclaiming the Good News of Jesus so that preaching is not confined to one man in one place like we are experiencing with now, but through technology the Gospel can be heard throughout the world--for the sake of the world’s salvation. 
St. Paul says that this way that God has of saving the world—through the preaching of the cross—PLEASES him.  It has PLEASED God, through the folly of what we preach, to save those who believe. 
Never forget that!  God himself has placed his seal of approval on the preaching of the Gospel and so when we support preaching here in this place and throughout the world in ministries like the Lutheran Hour, God himself is pleased. 
We need to be reminded of that divine blessing and promise that rests upon the preaching of the cross again and again because the opposition of the world to the Gospel- is still a painful reality.  The Bible says that:
Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
It is remarkable how little things have changed over the last two thousand years when it comes to the enemies of the cross.  No longer is it Jews and Greeks—but the challenges are the same from those who oppose the work of the church in preaching the Gospel.   
There is incredible pressure on the church to accommodate herself and her message to the prevailing culture as a sign that we really do love all people.  There are those who insist that the church would serve the world better by being nothing more than another human care agency. 
These challenges to the preaching of the cross are constant- and opposition to the word of the cross will only grow more virulent.  But Christ is the power and wisdom of God and for the sake of the world’s salvation he must be preached.
That is why it is such an incredible comfort to hear the promise of God that concludes our text today.  The Bible says that:
The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
The “foolishness of God” that is wiser than men and the “weakness of God” that is stronger than men is none other than our Lord Jesus Christ, crucified on the cross for the sins of the world—risen from the grave to give life to all—the living source of our own spiritual life and the sustaining strength of our mission as the Church. 
He is with us—and his saving purpose will prevail through us and our support of the preaching of the cross.  In his strength and wisdom, let us resolve here today that we will always be counted among those whose prayers and gifts support those who preach Christ crucified!

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Repent and Follow Me!

Matthew 4:12-25 Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee.  And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali,   so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:  "The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned." 
            Despite being promised by God, it is difficult to convey how absolutely unexpected these events were for the Jews of that day who were looking for the Messiah (that he would come to Galilee) because Jewish tradition promised something else. 
The Jewish tradition was that the Messiah would conduct his ministry in Jerusalem.  That is where the temple was!  That was the heart of the Israelite religion!  It was the center of the universe for God’s people. 
Why on earth would the Messiah go out to the boondocks of Zebulun and Naphtali?!  Why would he go to the hinterlands of Galilee?  These were the people he had destroyed at the hands of the Assyrians 700 years before.  The place was now overrun with pagan Gentiles-- and the Jews that remained there had long since “given up and given in” to the ways of the unbelieving world around them.
But God had made a promise—that in the midst of great darkness-- an even greater light would shine on those who dwelt there.  And so at the arrest of John the Baptist, Jesus Christ, the light of the word, went to Zebulun and Naphtali, Galilee of the Gentiles—to a people living in the darkness of sin and unbelief and false worship. 
Now maybe this all seems like ancient and even more ancient history—after all, Jesus went to Galilee two thousand years ago and the Assyrians conquered Galilee 700 years before that.  But it’s not just ancient history at all!  It is the story of God’s love!
We live in a time and place very much like the residents of Zebulun and Naphtali did.  Whether scholars ever come to a consensus about whether or not the United States was, at some point in its history, a Christian nation, we can all look back with longing to a day when sexual immorality and violence and materialism and vulgarity were not central to our national identity as they are today. 
We know that something is wrong in our nation when mindless consumerism brings us to the point of economic collapse; when millions of babies are killed on the altar of convenience; when billions of dollars are spent on filth that is called entertainment; when so many of our leaders are the worst kind of people.
And if the truth is known, all of us, to one degree or the other, like the Galileans of Zebulun and Naphtali, have made our own uneasy peace with it.  We accommodate ourselves to the current, pressing realities of the culture-- all the time assuring ourselves that we are still faithful to the Lord—and yet, living, to one degree or the other, in the spiritual darkness of the world around us. 
I think we want it to be different—but the tide of history seems so strong and the forces of the culture so insurmountable that there seems to be little hope in these dark days of returning to the Lord and walking with him in faithfulness as his disciples.
But there is hope for us in Jesus, the Light of the World, who comes to shine the light of his life upon all of the dark places of our hearts and souls and lives.  And he comes to us today with the same message of hope that he brought to the Galileans:  "Repent."   Now maybe you say to yourselves:  that sure doesn’t sound like a message of hope.  Oh but dear friends in Christ, it is!
That message of repentance means that there is still time for us to shake off the tentacles of a godless culture that threaten to strangle our faith.  It means that there is still time for us to see the world around us as God sees it—that despite its prosperity and despite its technological marvels and despites its artistic achievements, where the Lord does not reign supreme-- it is a place of darkness.  That message of repentance means that there is still time for us to take a good hard look at our own lives and honestly evaluate how many comprises we have made with the ways and thinking of the world—how often we have gone along to get along—and then to repent of the whole sorry mess. 
There was no hope for those left on the outside of the ark when the door went up who had not heeded Noah’s message of repentance and there will be no hope for those who have not come to repentance and faith in the Lord at his return—but for us here today—in this moment-- there is hope. 
And the message of hope is:  repent!  Repent of our sin--our compromises with the world—our lack of faithfulness—to repent of it all and be done with it and then to turn Jesus for forgiveness and new life.  That was the second part of Jesus’ message that brings light and hope to those living in darkness and despair:  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  
To repent, not only means to turn away from something, but to turn to something and that “something” is the Good News of Jesus and life in his kingdom--a life of discipleship, walking in his footsteps and learning from him to live a life that is pleasing to the Father--just like that day in Galilee.  The Bible says that:
While walking by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen.  And he said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men."  Immediately they left their nets and followed him.  And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them.  Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him. 
            When Jesus called the disciples that day by the Sea of Galilee to come and follow him, he was offering them nothing less than a new life.  They were leaving behind an old way of life and an old way of thinking and an old way of looking at the world-- for the light of the Gospel and life in the Kingdom.
The Lord still calls some into the full-time ministry, but he calls every person who follows him into full-time discipleship.  There are no part-time disciples of the Lord!  Following the Lord involves every facet of our life, every hour of the day. 
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, commenting on these verses in his book “The Cost of Discipleship” wrote that when Christ bids a man come to him, he bids him come and die—to turn over our entire life to Christ.
And that’s true.  When we become Christ’s disciples our old way of life does come to an end.  I just wish that Bonhoeffer had gone on to say, “When Christ bids a man comes to him, he bids him come and die—and live again” for that is whole truth of the Christian life. 
Not only does our old way of life come to an end when we follow Jesus Christ as his disciples, but a brand-new way of life in the Spirit takes its place—in fact, the only life worthy of the name “life” becomes our own-- through faith in Jesus.
That dying and rising that is the heart of Christian discipleship is ultimately rooted in Christ’s own dying and rising for us.  It is his death on the cross that forgives our sins and it is his glorious resurrection that gives eternal life in the kingdom and it is only because of his dying and rising into which we have been baptized that we can die to sin and rise to newness of life.
When we answer Jesus’ call to discipleship with the Spirit-given “yes” of faith, we are lifted up above our circumstances.  Yes, we are still affected by the same hardships and difficulties as the unbelievers around us—just like the disciples still had to live in Galilee along-side those who opposed and oppressed them. 
But walking in Christ’s life and living out his kingdom’s values, we see our struggles in a brand new way:  not as darkness and despair-- but as moments to trust God.  We see them as the Father’s chastening and discipline that make us stronger.  We see them as opportunities to serve others in their needs and especially do we see them as opportunities to call them to trust in Christ and receive the blessings of life in his kingdom--just like the people of Galilee did.  The Bible tells us that:
Jesus went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.   So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them.  And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.
            God’s promise through the prophet Isaiah was that, upon those living in darkness, a great light would shine—and that’s exactly what happened. 
For those living in the darkness of disease and demonic possession the powerful, healing Light of the World shone into their lives bringing them healing and hope.  Each victory over the devil and his angels was an unmistakable sign that in Jesus Christ the kingdom of heaven had come to that place.  Each healing miracle was an unmistakable sign of a new day when Christ will come again with the fullness of a kingdom in which there will be no more sorrow or suffering.
            That day is a day of hope for us-- but it is just as certain as that day in Galilee-- for it has been promised by the God of kept promises.  And even though we live in a dark world until that day-- we do not live in darkness, for the light and the life of Jesus Christ has shown into our lives.  Amen.