Friday, January 25, 2013

Luke 4 -- Jesus Preaches in Nazareth -- Rebuilding, Restoration, and Renewal

Grace, Mercy, and Peace to you from God our Father and Christ Jesus the Lord,
       It was customary in our Lord’s time for every grown-up to go to the local synagogue on the Sabbath, which was our Saturday. The people expected to hear Psalms and prayers, readings from Scripture, and some preaching. Preachers in those days had different styles, just as they do today. There were learned rabbis who put a lot of thought and scholarship into their sermons, but most people preferred to hear preachers who had the gift of putting insights from Scripture into everyday language. They liked sermons that were easy to listen to. Some things never change. Just like today, preachers who had the common touch and gift for words can often expect an appreciative following.
       Things were different, of course, on the Sabbath when Jesus spoke at the synagogue in his home town. There were usually two readings from Scripture before the message. Jesus gave the second reading and then sat down to preach, for it was the custom in those days for preachers to sit while they spoke. Many of the people present didn’t like what Jesus said. They flew into a rage and brought our Lord to the edge of town to throw him from the top of a hill. Jesus knew that even though the folks of Nazareth didn’t want to hear him, others would listen, and with faith and gratitude, for as Isaiah foretold, his message was full of healing, the hope of freedom, and the promise of God’s everlasting favor.
       The full version of the passage from Isaiah that our Lord read contains many gospel ideas: binding up, release, gladness, praise, righteousness – all blessings that come from Jesus. Also freedom from despair and steady strength of spirit. God offers these to every believer.
       Isaiah wrote about the bad side of life, too – brokenness, grief, sadness. He breaks through the propaganda that tries to teach us that everything that happens is all right. He says that God knows the truth about broken hearts and troubled minds and the pain of mourning. God knows the troubles we face. He knows our concerns. What will happen to our families? Will we be safe? How can we cope with the pain or the loss of a loved one? Our concerns are real. God knows them and he works to bring healing.
We often try to solve problems on our own, thinking that our strength of character will save us or our earthly heritage or the good luck that seems to follow people in North America. Human cures and human strength are often not enough. The best healing and strength come from Christ. He turns ashes into beauty and despair into praise.
       Consider the forgiveness of sins. The wrongs life inflicts on us can hurt deeply, but a tortured conscience can be the sharpest wound of all. It can drag us down and bring us exaggerated fears. The people who led Jesus from his own synagogue must have suffered afterwards. But had they listened to him when he spoke to them, they would have gained a fresh new outlook on the problem of guilt. Instead of rising to anger at the Lord, they would have rejoiced. Instead of being frightened and drawn to despair, they would have been sturdy oaks of righteousness, as Isaiah put it, for complete forgiveness is the great miracle Christ works in the lives of all his people. God heals through his mercy; the cleansing by his blood brings life. Forgiveness and salvation always go together. Gladness, freedom, and a spirit of praise come through God’s forgiveness.
Living with God day after day, washed clean in Jesus’ blood, Christian people grow skilled at the art of renewal. God uses us to extend his kingdom. Isaiah mentioned rebuilding ancient ruins and renewing devastated cities. After they returned home from seventy years exile, God’s Old Testament people worked to rebuild Jerusalem.
       Rebuilding, restoration, and renewal include an unseen dimension that starts with forgiveness. We forgive people who cause us to worry about our earthly futures; we forgive people who deprive us of the love we need and those who stand between us and the good things of life.
       In these and other acts of forgiveness, we not only help to preserve our own peace of mind, we also help to restore our neighbors’ consciences and heal hearts that may be broken. We act toward others as God acts. As Isaiah put it, we are called to be priests of the Lord. I don’t suppose we think about our special status in God’s eyes as often as we should, but our savior does place us in a unique category. He builds us up and expresses his confidence in us by giving us his work to do. He is the one high priest, of course, but we are deputy priests, so to speak. Peter put it this way in his first letter. “You also, as living stones, are built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God...You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people, that you should show forth the praises of him who has called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
       These are not just nice-sounding words to fill a few minutes before lunch. God restores us through forgiveness and gives us a spirit of rejoicing instead of despair so that we may act as priests for Christ in a fallen world. Like all Christian priests, we represent God to others by speaking about what he has done and by helping others find deliverance from the bad side of life through faith in Christ. We also represent other people before God, praying for them, asking for mercy, and bringing their needs before the throne of grace. Jesus equips his priests to help bring about the revived world of which Isaiah wrote, not by taking Jesus’ place but by following his example and by calling others to faith in salvation through faith in God’s grace.
If the folks in the synagogue at Nazareth had allowed themselves to absorb what the Lord was telling them, they’d have found what they’d been looking for from their religion: renewal and restoration together with a mission to the world outside God’s house. We’re well-positioned not to make the same mistake as they, for Christ is with us through his Word and rather than reject him, we do our best to welcome him. This welcome brings rewards for God then pours into minds and hearts that he has opened the good news about freedom, gladness, and a spirit of praise.
       I hope we’ll take these words seriously. They’re not words we hear on the news or at work or when we discuss the current scene. But they describe for us the reality God has in mind, partly now through the gift of pardon, but fully realized later on in the next life, which we now dimly imagine as we cling to our savior by faith.
       We can sympathize with the people in the synagogue at Nazareth because it takes courage to let go of the world and take hold of concepts from God like binding up, comfort, release, and strength of spirit. But priests of Christ like ourselves are well-equipped to receive the renewed life that Jesus holds out to us, both for ourselves and the benefit of the world around us that the Lord sends us to help restore. It’s a high calling to take part in heaven’s comfort and praise; it’s a great honor that the Lord displays his splendor through us.                 If we need a lift during the week or a word of encouragement, we do well to spend a moment with God’s Word and to recall our special status in his eyes. He gives us his best so as to bring out our best. To paraphrase Isaiah, he feeds us with the wealth of the gospel and the riches of his love. He will continue to comfort us and fill us with gladness and train us in enthusiasm for the tasks he sends us. In Jesus’ Name. AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus. AMEN.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Matthew 3:13 - 17 Jesus Baptism and Ours -- What do They Mean?

Grace to you and peace from Him who is and who was and who is to come,
       The church year is divided in two halves. We’re now in the half where our Sunday Gospel texts focus on the earthly life of Jesus. We’ve thought again about his conception and birth. Last Sunday was Epiphany, when the gospel text reminded us of the wise men who followed a star to the manger in Bethlehem to worship the infant Jesus.
       This morning, we come to his baptism. We may wonder why he wanted to be baptized in the first place. Even John the Baptist didn’t understand right away, for he believed that he needed to be baptized by Jesus, yet Jesus was coming to him.
       First of all, Jesus began his public ministry with his baptism. Immediately after that, he spent 40 days and nights in the wilderness in a conflict with Satan, then he began to preach and call his first disciples. He soon started healing sick people and becoming known in Israel.
       All three persons of the Trinity appeared at his baptism. His Heavenly Father identified him as his Son. The Holy Spirit came in the form of a dove. Jesus’ baptism shows everyone that he has dedicated his life as a man to God: his Father is pleased with him. The Father loves righteousness and holiness and here he proclaims that Jesus brings these qualities into the world in full and that he will be able to carry out his important, saving work.
       John the Baptist acts as a witness, our representative. He said at the beginning of John’s Gospel: “I myself did not know him.” But now, after hearing the Heavenly Father’s voice and seeing the Spirit in the form of a dove and remain on Jesus, he says: “I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God.”
At Jesus’ baptism, God puts his seal of approval on the ministry his Son is about to begin.
       Why didn’t he make the announcement another way? After all, baptism cleanses sinners and Jesus didn’t sin at all, not even once. Why would he ask for a ritual that didn’t seem to apply to him? The answer involves one of the deep mysteries of the Christian faith. Everything we are and everything we have and everything we know about ourselves comes from God. Every person on earth has a relationship with him. God intends our bond with him to be harmonious and fruitful, but all men and women are sinners. We know this from Scripture and our minds tell us. God wishes to deliver us from sin, however, so that that we may live fruitful lives, with joy in him and in harmony with each other. He wishes us to live creatively, without the terrible burdens of guilt and lack of self-confidence. He intends to continue the abundant life he wants to give us throughout all eternity. Our new lives can’t take place, however, until sin has been wiped out, so he sent his Son to earth to solve the problem of sin. Since he brought healing and salvation to the human race, Jesus needed to identify with us in every way. He took on our cloak of sin, so to speak, so that we wouldn’t have to wear it any more, at least in the eyes of God. Also, Jesus submitted himself to the baptism of sinners partly because every good leader sets an example; he doesn’t ask his followers to do something that he himself wouldn’t do.
       So Jesus asked John to baptize him so that he could take part in full in the mystery of God’s complete union with mankind. Paul described the mystery this way in 2nd Corinthians: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
       This is what happened, then. God demands righteousness of all people. He knows we can’t fulfil his demand because sin has deeply corrupted our natures, so God became sin for us so that he could forgive our sinful natures completely and so that we might become the righteousness he’s looking for. We don’t need to understand how it works. We need to know only the effect of the mystery: the work Jesus began when he took on our flesh and that he continued in his baptism and finished on Calvary. He brought our envy and anger, our pride and backbiting, the sins that ruin lives and separate people from God, to Calvary to enliven our relationship with God and rebuild our lives.
       So Jesus’ baptism benefits us. The 6th chapter of Romans helps us understand our connection with it. Paul wrote that believers – you and I – have died to sin because Jesus died for all sinners. Christians have the power and freedom to die every day to sin by subduing our sinful natures with God’s help. God pledges that in our baptisms the blessings of Christ come to each of us. Christ’s death for sin is also our death. Paul said that everyone who is baptized into Christ is baptized into his death. His resurrection life is our life. Jesus died for us so that the separation of the body from the soul isn’t the end of everything but the beginning of a new life. Baptism is God’s way of bringing us into a personal relationship with Jesus’ life – his power and his love. God claims us in baptism just as he expressed his relationship with his Son at Jesus’ baptism. “This is my beloved Son,” he said, “with whom I am well-pleased.” God claims you and me to participate in every blessing that comes to the human race as a result of Jesus’ life and death.
       I looked into Luther’s large catechism to understand better what baptism means for us. Luther wrote that baptism is God’s work, not a human institution. He said that the purpose of baptism is to save. Jesus said: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved.” People don’t receive baptism, Luther wrote, so as to become princes, but to be delivered from sin, death, and the devil, and to become members of the kingdom of Christ and to live with him forever.
       Luther also said that faith alone enables a person to receive the benefits of baptism. Faith helps us understand what baptism means. There’s enough in baptism for every Christian to study, Luther said, to keep us busy for a lifetime. Christians have enough to do to believe the promises and blessings of our baptisms – victory over death and the devil, the forgiveness of sin, God’s grace, the person of Christ, and the Holy Spirit with all his gifts.
       Luther tells us that to appreciate baptism and to use it correctly, we need to draw strength and comfort from it, especially when memories of our sins or guilty consciences distress us. At such times we say, “But I am baptized. And since I’m baptized, I have the promise that I’ll be saved and have eternal life, both in soul and body.” Reminders of baptism reassure us of God’s loving disposition toward us.
       Luther described the effect of baptism in another way as well. He said that baptism means slaying the old Adam and the resurrection of a new man or woman. Two actions take place every day throughout our lives – the slaying of our desire for sin and the birth of new life. Luther said the Christian life is a daily baptism that began once and continues throughout our lives. We drown whatever is born in us from Adam – irascibility, spitefulness, envy, lack of chastity, greed, laziness, pride, and unbelief and enter Christ’s kingdom. The longer we live there the more we become gentle, patient, and meek, and free of vices that corrupt the soul.
       Baptism remains forever, Luther said. Even though we fall into sin, we have access to our baptisms so that we subdue our sinful side again and again and abide in faith every day with its fruits and blessings. We have God’s forgiveness each day for as long as we live on this earth.
       Jesus lived by the promises his Heavenly Father gave him at his baptism. He imparts a share of his staying power to us. Our baptisms tie us to Christ, in whom we find forgiveness, freedom, and strength. The effects of the baptism he received in the Jordan reach us today. May we continue to receive the blessings of the wonderful gift of baptism – his and ours – today and all our tomorrows. In Jesus’ Name. AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus. AMEN.          

Friday, January 4, 2013

Isaiah 60:1 - 11 Epiphany: Why Should We Rise and Shine?

Grace, Mercy, and Peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ
       Arise!  Shine!  Rise and shine.  Something a parent might say to a youngster on the first day of school.  Don’t just crawl out of bed, be ready to take hold of the day with joy and spirit.  Some folks do that well.  Others need to push themselves, especially during the let-down that often follows the holidays.  And to shine all day long with cheerfulness and zest for life, to take up our tasks without worrying, to address the various situations that come our way and without fretting – that takes willpower for most everyone.  Fortunately for us, we are Christians.  The Lord passes on to us from his abundant strength the ability to rise and shine.  And so we do shine – like stars, even when we fear that the grumpiness of the world has got the best of us.  Somebody once said to me that we are twinkles in the eye of eternity.  Jesus sees our shining when we ourselves do not.
       Let’s have a look at two or three reasons for our shining.
       First is the resilience that is common to human nature, but strengthened and sustained by our faith in the Lord. We don’t let the bad parts of life break us.  We fight back – from accidents, illness, setbacks.  Very few give up.  I remember the vitality of Christian people I’v  known. Some have set examples for me. They did not quit in times of adversity.  We all have down times, of course, but the Lord empowers us to rise up and keep on battling.  We cast off sluggishness.  It’s true that death and the grave come for us, but while our bodies wither, our spirits, thanks to Christ, move toward the gates that lead to the new, perfect life that Jesus has prepared for us.
       We rise and shine, in the second place, because there are people we love who depend on us and who love us in return.  We shine for the sake of the communities we belong to – family, work, friends, and especially the church. Some years ago, after the dreadful terrorist attacks in New York, the Queen spoke in her annual Christmas message about the troubles that had come upon us.  She said that our communities nourish us and we should pay attention to them and work to build them up.  How important it is to have encouraging people nearby and how much it means to our neighbors when we take time to offer moral support and lift them up.    Jesus blesses us greatly through his community – the church, which brings us his strength and his comfort – and numerous Christian friends.  Rising and shining, we lift each other up by the strength that God imparts to us.
       We shine out side the church, too, or to say it better, we bring the spirit of church with us wherever we go.  Jesus commands us to offer to others the rest and peace and fellowship of his kingdom.  How many of our neighbors struggle for faith?  How many of the young people we know crave courage, hope, and strength?  The Lord uses us and the community at St. Peter’s to help them.
       We have many failings, we’re shy to move out with our beliefs, we don’t like to try new things unless we see an immediate benefit. God is patient, though. He and his church think and act for the long term.  We may be too quiet, but we don’t give up and aren’t easily discouraged.  One project each of us might take on is to pick someone we know who doesn’t come to church now or appear to have a saving relationship with Jesus, an acquaintance or family member, befriend this person, listen to his or her joys and sorrows, pray, help carry the burden, and speak about the gospel in as winning a way as we can when the right moment comes.  God’s kingdom grows by face-to-face contact at the grassroots.  Maybe this person will even come with you to worship. Rise and shine for that person.  The point is to persist and not lose heart if we don’t see results right away.  The Lord gives us quiet but effective ways to pass on the good news about our walk with him: prayer, conversation, offering a shoulder to lean on, forgiveness, patience, strength in uncertain times.
       A third reason to rise and shine is Jesus himself, the light Isaiah foresaw would come, bringing God’s glory, the gospel of salvation, to rise upon us.
       Jesus rescued us from the nighttime of sin, death, and the devil.  He wipes away our sins and brings peace to our consciences.  Nothing can stand between us and his love.  He comforts us in days of loss and affliction.  He blesses us with hope.  This moment we live in is only a small segment of time, and one day all of time will be swallowed up in eternity and we will shine forever in the presence of our Lord.  The separated will be united.  There will be no struggle for material things, for God will shower his riches upon us.  Anguish and suffering will not exist.  All heaven will proclaim the name of the Lord.
        Jesus empowers us to rise and shine.  He blesses us with a spirit of endurance so that we may cope with gloomy mornings and freezing rain.  He comforts us if we lose a job or our health or a loved one.  He consoles us when we grieve for our sins, and he turns shame into rejoicing.  He frees us from bondage to things of earth.
       But there is a catch,  our human natures love to set up road blocks.  God works in a way that offends mortal flesh and that even you and struggle with from time to time.  Where our human minds prefer great and powerful and flashy things, he came to the earth in lowliness and humility.  When he was born in the manger, he didn’t attract the people who counted, only some shepherds and a few traveling wise men from an alien culture that most people looked down on.  The ones in power, the great and rich, wanted him out of the way.
       We can imagine that.  We know how people act. We know what goes on in our own thoughts.  How, then, can you and I expect to rise and shine in Christ more often than once or twice a year?   By the mercy and power of God, who makes it possible.  “I became a servant of the Gospel,” Paul wrote, “by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power.”  We take hold of God’s treasure through the actions of the Holy Spirit, who enlivens our hearts with faith.  The Spirit draws us to the Gospel and we rise and shine at God’s offer of life, salvation, and strength.
       The Holy Spirit, not our own desires or thoughts, convinces us that Jesus is the light who enlightens everyone.  “Permit this light to lead and enlighten you,” Paul wrote.  Let Jesus be our guide.  He transforms people like ourselves, who don’t like change, in the most delightful way.  He turns us into light ourselves.  “You were formerly in darkness,” Paul said, “but now you are light in the Lord.  Walk as children of light.  In other words, we receive and believe the Holy Spirit.
       The great power God gives us is hard to understand.  We can scarcely grasp even the basic principles.  Even so, the Spirit lead us to trust by faith that Jesus sets us free from sin and death and strengthens us for life now.  Our understanding grows as we learn and study God’s Word.  The light of his glory fills us.  Earthly kinds of glory and the pride of our flesh and showy things that bedazzle for a while and then fade away – these do not deceive us.  By the power of the Spirit, we follow our Savior along the path of lowliness and humility.
       Our ability to rise and shine in Christ is one of faith’s many miracles – the action of God on our hearts, not our own doing. 
       Isaiah wrote his prophecies almost 3000 years ago to comfort the faithful people of Israel as they faced a rough passage in their history.  Whatever difficulties lay ahead for them, they were to remember that God was preparing a time of great rejoicing for them.  “No longer will you have the sun for light by day,” Isaiah wrote, “nor will the brightness of the moon give you light, but you will have the Lord for an everlasting light, and your God for your glory.  Your sun will no longer set nor will your moon wane....the days of your mourning will be over.”
       Isaiah’s words also apply to the church, to St. Peter’s, to you and me.  Our faithful Lord gives us promises to hold onto.  We cling to him and cope with any spiritual trial.  The key is to walk humbly in faith, not in a hurry but patient.  I suspect that Jesus has made the people of St. Peter’s, not perfect, but still pretty good at these qualities, and how much your neighbors benefit.  It pleases the Lord that we do not weaken but keep on rising and shining.  The point is not to quit.  In the spirit of New Year’s resolutions, which I almost never make, we can promise with God’s help to make improvements, because his light has come in Christ, and his glory rises upon us.  In his name we rejoice.  AMEN.
The peace of God...