Thursday, April 26, 2012

John 10 -- Good Shepherd Sunday

Grace, Mercy, and Peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ,
            I know that we’re all familiar with leadership contests.  Politics, business, and sports are partly made up of rivalries for the number one position.  The Bible tells us about a more important leadership contest in the spiritual realm between Jesus and the devil.  In this morning’s gospel, our Savior is looking ahead to his death and his resurrection, which will mean the permanent defeat of Satan.  Even though he’s involved in a battle with the forces of evil for the souls of mankind, Jesus speaks in a calm and authoritative voice; he has no doubt who the victor will be.  He knows who offers the only trustworthy leadership.
            Jesus describes his leadership for us.  Whenever he speaks, he says, his followers hear his voice and recognize it.  They don’t follow strangers.  He brings salvation and plenty of pleasant moments now for his people.  He offers life in abundance.  Where a hireling flees the people for whom he’s responsible in times of danger, Jesus stuck with his flock. He lay down his own life and took it up again.
            His victory over Satan the hireling was assured from the very start.  The devil is greedy; he reaches out beyond his boundaries to claim all God’s creatures and even Christ himself, but the Lord escaped his clutches not only for his own good but for the benefit of his followers and then punishes the devil by depriving him of any claim over God’s children.  The devil may tempt, but we have a refuge in Jesus.  Satan may accuse, but the ascended Lord intercedes for us so that the devil’s condemnation has no influence on the heavenly Father.
            The 23rd Psalm helps us picture in our minds what Jesus victory over Satan means for us.  King David was poised and confident, even more so was Jesus – confident that he would want for nothing, that he would rest in pleasant places, confident that His Heavenly Father would quiet for him the temporary turmoil of earthly life.  Jesus was confident that his soul would be protected and that he would follow the paths that were best for him, the ways of right thinking and godly conduct.  Neither would Jesus fear death nor any other evil, because His Father and the Spirit would guide and comfort him.  He rejoiced at the abundance of life; he trusted that heaven’s goodness would accompany him, even into eternity.
            The gifts of God that Jesus and David affirmed also come to us.  Peace, God’s care, the forgiveness of sins, rescue from death and evil – these fruits of salvation bring us rest and confidence and the hope to go on living.  Earthly problems such as the economy, the state of public morality, and international politics have the capacity to vex us greatly.  Christians are aware of these troubles and work to overcome their influence on us, not with a spirit of anxiety but with the joyful assurance that Jesus who died on the cross and rose again has already won the victory over his enemy and ours.
            We overcome by taking hold of the fruits of Jesus’ victory with the faith heaven gives us – such fruits as peace, the forgiveness of sins, and rescue from the devil with the faith that heaven gives us.  As we’ve said a few times, the life of faith isn’t easy.  For one thing, when we’re away from the church a variety of earthly leaders compete for our attention and we may be tempted to take them more seriously than they deserve.  Most folks pass through times when confusion surrounds us and we crave a leader who promises immediate relief.  If we’re starting out in life or even well along and needing to make adjustments, it’s tempting to attach ourselves to well-established folks and model our thoughts and behavior on their examples.  We can aspire to be as witty as our next-door neighbor or as vivacious as someone down the street or as in command of things as a boss we once thought highly of.  It can take us a long time to outgrow the spirit of imitation and find our independence and the path that is right for us in Christ.  It’s common to admire the rich and talented and beautiful; it’s also natural to pattern our aspirations after them.  Some lost souls change their appearance and their personalities to copy prominent people like the man I saw at the Eaton Centre dressed up to look like Elvis Presley.  An extreme case that doesn’t apply to anyone here. Even so, the world holds out many temptations, and our hearts may wander.  We need reminds of what our Heavenly Father expects of us and also that he is forgiving and patient. As we stick to his Word, he draws us back to the leader he sent us, his Son who will never desert us.
            The world challenges our faith in another way.  Most of us try to keep as busy as we can – going to work or shopping, taking part in community events, spending time with family and friends.  If we are with people who don’t welcome Jesus as their leader, we may temporarily forget that we are God’s children.  We may even meet people who are bitter toward the church because of an incident from years ago that still has power or through a misunderstanding on their part.  They may try to influence us and we may find their arguments a burden.   We trust, however, that the good shepherd will stand by us, nourish us, keep us safe in his flock, and give us the will to withstand secular influences and offer our testimony to him.    As we grow in strength, experience, and wisdom, we learn that the Lord will help us find wise, faithful leaders even in a culture ruled by money, possessions, and hunger for the new and glittery.  At the same time, he will make us leaders on his behalf in the part of the world that’s close to us.     
            Still another challenge is the one that hirelings of our own day present, church leaders who stray outside the bounds of their callings.  Not too long ago, we heard about leaders in other Christian communities who abused young people or mistreated natives or who stole church money.  The bad behavior of hirelings in the church slows down the spread of the gospel and harms people in their care.  The Lord takes the sinful conduct of hirelings seriously, as these words from Jeremiah affirm: “‘Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture,’ says the Lord.  ‘You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them.  Behold, I will attend to you for your evil doings,’ says the Lord.”  The Lord punishes shepherds who shirk the responsibilities he has given them.
            He knows the situation in the church better than we do and provides a remedy for the failings of earthly leaders.  He says, also in Jeremiah: “I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to the fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply.  I will set shepherds over them who care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, says the Lord.”     
            As a result, the church is never corrupt to the core.  Leaders and people in our day have taken strong steps to discipline wrongdoers and correct abuses.  Moreover, there are always many dedicated, faithful shepherds, and the Lutheran church has its share of them.  I once heard a president of our district say that there was no scandal in the Lutheran Church-Canada, a condition for which we give thanks to the Lord in hopes he will keep us on the right track.
            Good things happen when the church and her people focus on Christ, her good shepherd, who promises that none of his beloved sheep will be missing from his flock. Jesus calls you and me and all believers out of what a Christian centuries ago called a mass of perdition to live in faith with him in his flock, to live abundantly, to enjoy the good things of life, to grow wise under his guidance, to accept the forgiveness of sins, and to rejoice that we fear no evil, even the evil of death.
            So – to conclude – leadership is a big question in every phase of our lives.  Good leaders are a blessing, bad ones weigh on us like a stone around our necks.  Jesus our good shepherd shows us the kind of leadership our souls need and that he promises to provide.  We find in him a loving care for us that even the best of earthly leaders cannot aspire to.  We thank him for revealing to us his perfect love and never-ending concern and giving us the hope that one day we will live with him face to face, far away from our own sins, the imperfections of human life, and the failings of human leaders.  We rejoice that he leads us now.  We ask him to keep us in his flock and use us to lead others to knowledge of his loving goodness.  In his name we give thanks.  AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus.  AMEN.                                           

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

John 24:13-27 Faith in the Resurrection

Grace and peace to you from Him who is and who was and who is to come,
            Today is the third Sunday of Easter, so we’ll begin by reviewing some of Jesus’ resurrection appearances.  He revealed himself to Mary Magdalene and to other women on Easter morning at the empty tomb.  This mornings’ gospel is part of a description of his meeting with two disciples on the road to a suburb of Jerusalem at mid-day.  He later appeared to Peter and in the evening he met with ten of his disciples, when he showed them his hands and his feet and ate some broiled fish with them so they’d know he’d come back to life with a real body.  How quickly events developed – all in one day.  That’s the way sometimes.  The Internet caught on rapidly, as did the automobile and the movies at the start of the last century.  How quickly big cities were built after industry replaced agriculture as the most important source of wealth in North America and Europe.
            Jesus’ resurrection was more important than any of that.  The good news began to spread as soon as he rose from the grave and people have been talking about the Risen Lord ever since.  It must be that every minute of every day somebody somewhere in the world is telling someone else about Jesus’ return to life.  Gossip about the gospel will go on into eternity.
            Our text from Luke brings us back to the beginning.  We may wonder why he made himself known to these two disciples.
            First, he wanted them to be sure that the resurrection actually took place.  Besides that, he taught them from the Scriptures that God had planned it a long time before.  It wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment desperate decision.
            Faith in the resurrection is very important for every Christian.  When John wrote about walking in the light, he meant a clear understanding in our heads and a strong trust in our hearts that Jesus rose from the dead with a transformed human body.  We will also rise again.  Some folks have different thoughts about the end of earthly life – that everything finishes at the grave or that we are born over and over till we get things right or that the soul rises to new life but not the body – and so on.  The resurrected Jesus showed his two disciples what will happen: our souls and our bodies will rise together on the last day.  Because we believe in Jesus’ victory over death, we are walking in the light.
            At the same time, John used the word “light” to refer to what is good.  There is no evil in Jesus at all.  All power is his; he knows everything; he exists everywhere at the same time.  He is with us when we go about our tasks.  He guards us when we lie down and when we rise up.  He rejoices with us when we are happy.  He comforts us in moments of sadness.  He is present with us this morning at St. Peter’s. He never fails to bring about what is good.  He is wise, merciful, and compassionate, as we will experience face to face in the life to come we cannot see now.  Again, we are walking in the light because we trust what the Bible tells us about Jesus and His resurrection. 
            A life of faith is never easy.  Our minds can close in on us so that it seems that earthly cares are much stronger than the promises of God.  The Risen Lord who breathed faith into the confused and unbelieving disciples also builds faith in us.  The joy of his physical presence was not the main thing.  What really convinced them was that he proved to them that his resurrection fulfilled Old Testament prophecies. 
            He meant such prophecies as the promise of a Savior that the Heavenly Father made to Adam and Eve, the prophecy of Moses that a greater than he would come, the writings of Isaiah and Jeremiah, and the Psalms that describe the Messiah’s life and ministry.  After listening to him, his disciples agreed that Jesus had been at the center of God’s plan from the beginning.  He took part in the creation of the universe.  He guided the Israelites from slavery to freedom; he sent them King David and the prophets and the people who wrote the wisdom books. Now he rose from the grave and claimed his disciples for the kingdom of light.
            Jesus’ light shines for each of us – in our baptisms, our confirmations, our worship, and our everyday lives.  He blesses our prayers, our families, our service to him, and our passing from this life to the next.  The light that shines in the Bible and the sacraments and that will never go out creates trust in him.  Jesus gives us the same proofs he gave the disciples in Emmaus because he wants us to keep on believing, not only that he rose to new life, but also that he calls us his brothers and sisters and claims us for immortality, too.
            Now, another reason Jesus appeared to the two disciples is that he wanted to bring them into a new community – a fellowship first with him and then with other believers.  “Our fellowship is with the Father and the Son,” John wrote.  Everyone needs the blessings of community life that we receive from our families and our neighbors, our work and recreation, but we all need fellowship with God more than we need our earthly communities.  The curious thing is that by nature we humans don’t look for him.  Our instinct is to run in the other direction.  He must take the initiative and come looking for us, as he looked for the disciples on the road, so that he will be able to give us what we need – knowledge of him and of ourselves.  We are sinners, for whom He died.  He casts our sins thousands of miles away, where not even he can see them again.  “I declare you to be sinless for my Son’s sake,” our Heavenly Father says to us.  “We welcome you into our fellowship.”
            It’s human nature to claim that we’re not sinners or that sin is a minor matter that we can mostly ignore.  John called this way of thinking deception, the same as calling God a liar.  If we claim we have no sin, we are solitary, and God’s word is not alive in our hearts.  When we admit that we’ve fallen, though, we’re walking in the light.  We take hold of God’s pardon in faith and he declares that we’re righteous in his sight – just the way he wants us to be.  When we confess in the deep places of our souls that we need him, he welcomes us into fellowship with him.  He lifts us up and gives us a higher status than we could earn on our own.
            Jesus is the friend of us sinners.  He looks for fellowship with the broken-hearted and the contrite with the intention of giving us joy and new life.  An uneasy conscience is a terrible burden for anyone to carry.  Some folks relive bad moments over and over in their minds.  Self-criticism is good, but it’s not God’s will that we aim never-ending arrows of judgment at ourselves.  Jesus breaks through layers of inner noise with the comfort of his friendship.  He calls us to be his companions in his everlasting kingdom.
            As a result, we act toward our neighbors as Jesus acts toward us.  We pardon offenses.  We offer love and troubled friends and family members and give them our shoulders to lean on.  We remind them of Jesus and the fellowship of the kingdom.
            So we find a third reason that Jesus looked for the disciples on the road to Emmaus.  He brought them together with other believers and sent them out as witnesses to him.  He wants to give everyone in the world a chance to repent – to think again – and to receive forgiveness in his name.  He intends the gospel of salvation through faith in him to be common knowledge in every country.  He stirs us up to serve the gospel in our families and other communities we belong to. 
            What’s the greatest thing a person can be?  Rich?  Powerful?  A wise man I once read said that the greatest thing anyone can be is a witness, a spokesperson for his or her faith.  We offer a witness to Jesus in different ways, at different times – by inviting someone to church, by sharing favorite parts of the Bible, be setting an example of steady perseverance in a crisis when others are losing their heads, and in many other ways.  There are times when Jesus and the gospel shine through us when we aren’t even aware of it. 
            So, to sum up – Because Jesus claims us as his brothers and sisters, we are permanently changed and also protected from everlasting harm.  We want to be comfortable, with a chance to enjoy a few of the good things of life that Jesus is pleased to bless us with, but the desire for earthly things does not overwhelm us.  We also want truth and light and fellowship.  We trust that our Savior will bless us with knowledge and vibrant faith so that we give a witness to his bountiful goodness.
            Jesus gives us a steady hope that the hard parts of life cannot crush us.  Even if we’re passing through a low spell with lots of troubles bearing down on us, we know they won’t break us because Jesus is carrying them for us, so we set good examples of endurance.  Our witness is often most eloquent when God puts us to the test.  Each day brings its trial.  The strength of Jesus shines through us every day.
            Like our Lord, we do not give up.  If some of our neighbors reject God’s Word, others will come our way for us to share it with. We are like the travelers on the road to Emmaus.  It may be we need to be reawakened to Jesus’ presence in our lives and his promises and the importance of making our witness.  So we ask him to revive us and send us away from worship with plenty of spirit to offer our testimony to the faith he has given us.  In his name we pray.  AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus. AMEN                                                                                                          

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Mark 16:1 - 8 -- The Quiet Strength of Christ's Resurrection

Grace to you and peace from Him who is and who was and who is to come,
            We Christians live in the world and by faith in God’s Word at the same time. We’ll say something about both in the next few minutes but first God’s message to us and to all people.
            As Mark tells the story, the quietness of Christ’s resurrection is very impressive. There were no cameras or fanfares, no dignitaries, no limousines to bring the Savior and his entourage back to the center of town. The fact is that no one but the Lord actually saw the resurrection or his emergence from the tomb. The angels the women met – Luke mentions two – rolled back the stone. By his marvelous power, the Risen Christ passed through the boulder before the angels moved it. It is by the same power that the Lord is present with us in the sacrament this morning. Though we don’t see him, the Risen Lord is everywhere at once, a part of everything. His presence is quiet. We take hold of him by faith.
            It’s appropriate that the resurrection be quiet.  Christ does not depend on flashy displays to make himself known. He is confident and secure. He offers his confidence to everyone who believes in him. It’s right that a God who brings rest to an anxious world should begin his return from the grave in a modest way..
            The quietness of the resurrection is fitting as well because of the events that came before it – public humiliation and a bloody crucifixion. The Lord knows that the evil that caused his death, though defeated, is still active. His enemies are busy. We, too, don’t celebrate with extravagant displays. But we do rejoice, because even though the troubles of the world don’t go away, we have God’s promise that for believers the outcome of troubles will be glorious. The resurrection power that worked for Christ will also transform us. the art of Christian living includes quiet rejoicing in the midst of a world that can be puzzling and frantic.
            Then, too, Jesus has a different understanding of life that doesn’t invite ordinary human clamor.  For us, life is activity, achievement, bustling about. We like to hold on to things that are fading, and the tighter our grip the more life we think we have. But for Christ, life is compassion, forgiveness, letting go, living for others. Life in Christ is never-ending contact with the Creator, the source. God sustains this life. He supports it. “I was pushed back and about to fall,” our introit Psalmist wrote, “but the Lord helped me.” The more we understand the kind of life Christ brings, the less we crave worldly life. We don’t escape the earth just yet, not do we try to. We trust that the Risen Lord is carrying us. Our souls respond to the words of the Psalm-writer. “I will give you thanks, for you answer me. You have become my salvation.”  Not fireworks, but the kind of joy that lasts.   
            Now for the world around us. A few years ago, just before Easter, 39 members of a cult in California took their own lives. These lost souls thought they could pass through the gates of heaven to paradise on Sirius, the dog star, the brightest star in the sky. They were waiting for a spaceship to come to get them and when it did not, they fell into despair and took the situation into their own hands. Everybody knows that life has its miserable side. Some folks can’t endure and let their daydreams run away with them. Human nature under pressure can give way to almost any folly. The past 100 years have proved this again and again. People have performed unspeakable cruelties in their quest for better lives.
            The conditions of life challenge Christians just as they do cult members, but they do not crush us because our Lord strengthens us to cling by faith to resurrection life. Christ and not our own efforts will bring us to the next world when he is ready. Meanwhile, he gives us through his Word all the strength and understanding we need to endure.
            Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians partly to settle a dispute in the congregation. Nobody denied that the resurrection took place. Some, though, didn’t believe that they, too, would rise from the dead. People in the first century were more attuned to the supernatural than we are, and so the resurrection was easy for them to accept. Plenty of folks today ask how they can believe in the resurrection as well as what it might mean for them. Both are very good questions.
            The answer to the first question is easy to express. The church believes in Christ’s resurrection because the Bible tells us about it. God’s word has the power to build faith. The Holy Spirit works through words printed on a page to bring us to faith. God’s Word doesn’t lie. It cannot fail. Isaiah said that God’s Word never leaves him without producing fruit. What’s more, God never works without his Word. It’s only through his Word that he lets himself be known and taken hold of. The cult members had no command from the Bible to take their own lives. The Bible tells us to be on the side of life, not against it. “Thou shalt not kill.” The cult people acted on a stupid guess because they trusted the ravings of a false prophet. They took matters into their own hands and created a disaster.
            When Christians hear about such tragedies we’re naturally concerned but not alarmed, because God’s Word breaks through distress of every kind and strengthens us and makes us grateful for our faith. We pay attention to the message from God that the world needs to hear. His Word builds believers. It assures us that despite appearances, God is in control. Jesus’ resurrection demonstrates God’s ability to bring good out of evil.
            Again, relying on God’s Word, we ask the second question, what does the resurrection mean for us? Paul says that Christ is the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep. First-fruits is an agricultural term that refers to offerings to God in thanks for a plentiful harvest. Jesus is the first-fruits of eternal life. We believers are the plentiful harvest that will follow later.
            In other words, the resurrection applies to us because Jesus established a connection between ourselves and him. The Lord himself calls us his sisters and brothers. This is not our own doing but a gift from him. We couldn’t possibly earn such a high standing on our own. We depend on God's grace and his generous heart. it often happens, however, that folks don't stick with him by faith.
            You will remember that even his disciples ran away from him during his ordeal. Peter denied him three times. The Risen Lord might have called them traitors or deserters. Instead, he went out to them and from his loving heart he made them his brothers and sisters. He pardoned their lack of faith and gave them a better, permanent relationship with him.
            By calling himself our brother, Christ claims us as very dear to him. He gives us love and honor. A Christian who lived a long time ago said that if Christ is our brother, what do we lack? We have common possessions with him, one father, and an inheritance that won't grow less when it is divided.
            The sovereign Lord has authority over heaven and earth. He is the master of truth, power, wisdom, and righteousness. As someone put it, he governs and rules everything: hunger and thirst, good fortune and bad, even death and life, and yet he claims us as his sisters and brothers. He shares his abundance with you and me. “I come that you may have life and have it to the full,” he said. What’s more, we share in all his possessions, not just a part: righteousness, wisdom, strength. We become rulers by faith. Hunger will not afflict us, sins will not weigh us down, we will not fear death and the devil. While we do not live in palaces, we will not be in want.
            The resurrected Lord offers freedom from worry and fear; he makes us confident, both for our present lives and the life to come. Many folks are burdened with heavy cares. We ask big questions. Will things work out for us? Will the weight of our sins crush us? The answer from God is that our brother who lived for us and died on our behalf and rose again claims us for eternal life. Everything will go well for the sisters and brothers of our Lord, who demonstrated in the quiet of the first Easter morning that he was the power to turn the worst evil into good, that he has defeated even the coldness of the grave.
            If the ups and downs of life bring us grief, if the jangle of the world wears us down, if guilt troubles us, we remember that God became just like us. Or brother was subject to the same difficulties as we; he was tempted as we are; he knows what it means to be jostled about. Like us, he knew what it means to depend on God. Though sinless, he took all our sins upon him and died on the cross. Then in the quiet of the first Easter morning, he rose from the dead. His resurrection confirms the promises he made during his ministry. It proves that the Heavenly Father accepted his death as payment for all of humanity’s sins, a sign to us that a time is coming when storms will pass and fogs will lift and we will see God face to face. Our brother will share his rest with us in ways that our limited minds now only vaguely imagine. If turbulence shakes us, we remember the great difference between our present circumstances and the life to come. Christ shares his victory over death with us. His Father is our Heavenly Father. His God is our God. Nothing stands between us and him. The Son of God, who is God himself, is our brother.
            Many things occupy us – raising families, making money, the state of our health, the welfare of others, troubles in the news. Jesus assures us that he will provide for our needs. We may safely turn our concerns over to him. The resurrected Lord will end our anxieties as he did those of the women who went to the tomb and will also do for the rest of the world so long as we pay attention.
            God wants the joy of Easter to brighten all our hearts. He sends the Risen Lord to bring us an abundance of life and spiritual good health. The resurrection took place quietly, as we said, but news of Christ’s return to life has spread throughout the world. The power of the resurrection spreads and grows. It will never wear out. May it keep you and me safe into eternity. AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. AMEN.