Sunday, April 24, 2011

1st Sunday of Easter - 04/24/11

And so we come to this day of triumph, Easter Sunday.  For six long weeks we have been moving through Lent.  For the past seven days we have been in the darkness of Holy Week.  Finally, blessedly, we have come to Easter morning when we can celebrate with Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, when we can cry out, “Alleluia, Christ is Risen!”  (He is risen indeed.)  But it is worth noting that the first Easter morning did not begin with “Alleluia, Christ is risen.”  The first Easter morning did not start with joy.  Quite to the contrary.  So this morning, I would like to move through our gospel lesson with these two women of faith, spending some time in the moments that they experienced on the way from sorrow to joy. 

I. “After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.” 

When the two Marys awoke that first Easter morning, joy was the furthest thing from their minds.  Jesus was dead; they knew this.  They had spent Friday watching him die.  The suddenness and the cruelty of it all made them sick.  How could darkness and evil win?  How could Jesus die?  It didn’t make any sense.

His ministry was dead too.  The healing of the sick, the mercy for the outcasts, the teachings, the hope for God’s kingdom.  It was all over.  Had it all been a lie?  Or had it just gone terribly wrong?  It was difficult to say.  One way or the other, hope had died along with Jesus on that cross. 

After he had breathed his last they had to get back indoors to observe the Sabbath.  You couldn’t work on the Sabbath and so they were condemned to think about the horror that they had just experienced all day long with nothing to distract their minds.  At least there was that mercy this morning.  They could at least go to the tomb and try to prepare his body for burial.  Better late than never.  And so they went. 

II. “And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.  His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.  For fear of him the guards shook and became as dead men.” 

From our perspective after the fact, this might seem like good news.  This was not good news.  The appearance of an angel is reason for fear, pure and simple.  Have you ever noticed how in the Bible, angels are always saying, “Do not fear?”  There is a reason for that.  The appearance of an angel is not a comforting sight. 

When we talk about angels we might call to mind a so-called “guardian angel.”  This is a comforting thought.  We might call to mind those little figurines, Precious Moments angels.  These are cute, darling little angels that wouldn’t harm a fly.  We might also call to mind the way we use the word angel as a metaphor.  When we traveled on the plane with our son last month, he was such an angel.  That is to say, he was well-behaved. 

Bible angels, real angels, are nothing of the sort.  Bible angels scare people to death.  You can see that with the guards, who fall over as if they were dead.  You can be certain that Mary and Mary were frightened too.  The appearance of an angel is not good news; it is reason to be afraid.

III. “But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.  He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.  Come, see the place where he lay.”

This is starting to sound like it might be good news; the angel says, “Don’t be afraid.”  Better yet, “He isn’t here.”  But wait a second......  What happened to him?  Why isn’t he here?  Has someone stolen him? 

When we look at the empty tomb, we think that this is good news, but it isn’t necessarily the case.  An empty tomb could mean any number of things.  It might mean grave robbers.  It might mean that they had gotten confused and had come to the wrong tomb.  It might mean that Jesus body has been destroyed somehow.  An empty tomb isn’t good news.

“’For he has been raised.’  Raised?  Does that mean that he isn’t dead?  Yes, that means he isn’t dead!  Hadn’t Jesus said something about this?  Yes, yes he had!”......  Now hope is beginning to dawn. 

III. “Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’  This is my message for you.  So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.”

Now this is getting better.  Not only is Jesus not in the tomb.  Not only is he alive.  They are going to be able to see him!  The women might have been thinking, “Jesus has come back from the dead for me!  He is going to come and see me!”  Can it possibly be true that death hasn’t won?  Can it be true that there is still hope?  Will there be light instead of darkness?”  They run from the tomb with great joy because of the word of promise that has been spoken to them, but also with fear, “Can this be true?”

IV. “Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’  And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.”

“Oh my God, it is true.  You are alive.  It’s real.” 

Defeat, sorrow, darkness, death.  These dark forces were powerfully present in the lives of Mary and Mary as they went to the tomb that morning.  What they discovered is that defeat, sorrow, darkness and death do not win.  They do not win.  Jesus Christ wins.  Jesus Christ takes defeat, and he defeats it.  He takes sorrow and infuses it with joy.  Darkness flees before Jesus who is the true light of the world.  And death?  On Easter morning, it is death that lies dead in the tomb.  The two women whose morning had begun with hope in tatters and sorrow like a heavy garment upon their hearts,...... these women had been set free. 

But that wasn’t enough.  Good news is only good news if you hear it, if it is given to you.  And that is why the gospel account continues.  Why it MUST continue.  For only two have heard the good news.......

V. “Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

This good news must be told.  People must hear that Jesus has overcome the defeat of the cross, that he has turned sorrow into joy, that he has vanquished darkness with light, that he has put death to death in order to give life. 

We really aren’t so different than the two Marys.  We all come here this morning with some measure of defeat, sorrow, darkness and death in our lives.  Sometimes we’re aware of exactly what afflicts us and sometimes we don’t know exactly what it is.  Some of us struggle against it mightily and others have made their peace.  One way or the other, we come here needing to hear the promise of good news.  And so I tell you, Hear the Good News: Jesus Christ has been raised.  He has been raised for you.  He has been raised to set you free.  He has been raised to give you life.    

Alleluia, Christ is risen!  (He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Maundy Thursday - 04/21/11

Holy Communion is important to us because it is one of the ways that God has established to give us this forgiveness.  And it is a particularly special way because we have the story of its institution, of how it began.

On this night that it begins, Jesus gathers his disciples together in a room in Jerusalem.   This is the last meal that they will all have together:
·        For it is tonight that Judas will betray him.
·        Jesus will be arrested in a few hours and convicted by the religious authorities.
·        It is in the wee hours of the morning that Peter will deny him.  
·        The others will slink away into the shadows out of fear.  
·        Tomorrow morning he will be brought before the Roman authorities and convicted there too.
·        He will be beaten, then crucified.
By the time the sun goes down the tomorrow, Jesus will be lying dead in a tomb. 
So, as Jesus and his disciples gather together tonight, Jesus has less than 24 hours to live.  Time grows short and so he shares something very important with them.  
  • He shares with them a simple meal.
  • He shares with them a way by which they will know his forgiveness, even when he is gone. 
  • He shares with them a way by which they can give this forgiveness to others. 
  • He shares with them his last will and testament.

So what exactly is a last will and testament?  And how is this meal a last will and testament?  Martin Luther explains it.
A testament, as everyone knows, is a promise made by one about to die, in which he designates his bequest and appoints his heirs.  A testament, therefore, involves first, the death of the testator, and second, the promise of an inheritance and the naming of the heir....... Christ testifies concerning his death when he says: “This is my body, which is given, this is my blood, which is poured out.”  He names and designates the bequest when he says, “for the forgiveness of sins.”  But he appoints heirs when he says, “for you and for many,” that is, for those who accept and believe the promise of the testator.  For here it is faith that makes men heirs, as we shall see.

You see, therefore, that what we call [Holy Communion] is a promise of the forgiveness of sins made to us by God, and such a promise as has been confirmed by the death of the Son of God.  For the only difference between a promise and a testament is that the testament involves the death of the one who makes it.  A testator is a promiser who is about to die, while a promiser (if I may put it thus) is a testator who is not about to die.  The testament of Christ is foreshadowed in all the promises of God from the beginning of the world; indeed, whatever these ancient promises possessed was altogether derived from this new promise that was to come in Christ.  Hence the words “compact,” “covenant,” and “testament of the Lord” occur so frequently in the Scriptures.  These words signified that God would one day die.  “For where there is a testament, the death of the testator must of necessity occur” (Hebrews 9).  Now God made a testament; therefore, it was necessary that he should die.  But God could not die unless he became man.  Thus the incarnation and death of Christ are both comprehended most concisely in this one word, “testament.”  (Luther’s Works 36, p38)

Jesus Christ is forgiving his disciples and appointing them as his heirs.  That is to say, he is telling them what they will receive upon his death.  When he dies, they will receive forgiveness.  This promise of forgiveness will be delivered to them in his body and blood, in the form of bread and wine.  Given what is about to happen and the shame and the guilt that they will be carrying for letting their teacher die unjustly, they will need this.  They will need this desperately.

But why couldn’t they just remember his forgiveness?  That’s not the way human beings work and God knows this perfectly well.  As I explained to the First Communion class last Sunday, on the day that I married my wife I told her that I loved her.  Imagine that I left it at that, never again telling her, “I love you.”  Never again giving her those words.  Never making them real by delivering them with a kiss, something tangible and real.  Imagine that I just left it up to her to remember this love that I had once professed.  Do you think that she will continue to believe that I love her?  No, she would begin to doubt.  Without hearing the words again she would begin to doubt.  Without feeling a kiss upon her lips she would begin to doubt. 

The disciples will need to hear this word of forgiveness.  They will need to hear it and taste it over and over and over again in order for them to believe.  In Holy Communion, in his last will and testament, Jesus is giving a way for his words of promise, his inheritance to be given over and over again, reinforced by something tangible, something that they can taste, bread and wine.

Later on, after his death and after his resurrection, the disciples, these heirs of Jesus Christ, will begin to give away his inheritance.  They will teach about Jesus.  They will preach.  They will baptize.  They will share Holy Communion with people who desperately need the forgiveness of their sins, who desperately need to be reconciled with God. 

This inheritance of Jesus Christ, this forgiveness of sins in the form of a promise given with wine and bread, has been passed down all the way to us.  From those sinful disciples who ate the body and blood of Jesus and heard his promise, all the way to us, who still hear his promise and who still eat and drink his body and blood.  And tonight, this inheritance is passed along to nine more heirs.  Nine more sinners who need to hear the promise of forgiveness and to taste it on their tongue and to believe.  And because we have the last will and testament of Jesus, such a promise can be given.  Amen.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

6th Sunday of Lent - April 17, 2011

“It is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.”  What we say reveals a lot about who we are.  During his trial and crucifixion those around Jesus say quite a bit.  Their words paint an ugly picture.  ........

Let’s start with Pilate.  He was the governor of the region, the most powerful man around.  He is aware that Jesus isn’t guilty and he is aware that those who accuse him are motivated by envy.  This is what he says,  “I am innocent of this man’s blood.  See to it yourselves.” 

The first thing we can learn from his words is that he is aware of the standards of justice.  He knows right from wrong.  For instance, he knows that it is wrong to execute an innocent man.  It is not from ignorance that he acts.  We can also know from his words that he is willing to pass the buck.  That is to say, he is willing to let someone else take responsibility for what is rightfully his decision.  Through his words, the picture that we get of Pilate is of a weak man who, though he knows the right, is unwilling to do it.

Then there is the crowd to which Pilate is speaking.  These are the people of Jerusalem and also people visiting the city for the Jewish Passover festival.  Obviously we don’t have a list of the names in the crowd, but likely these contain many of the same people whom we heard in our initial gospel reading this morning, people who were praising Jesus and waving palm branches as he entered the city only days before this trial.  These are their words, “Let him be crucified!” and “His blood be on us and on our children.” 

The first thing we can learn from their words is that they are fickle.  One minute they are giving praise, looking to Jesus as a prophet and a savior, the next moment they have completely changed their minds and are seeking to have him killed.  Fickle people are easily manipulated and can have huge swings of opinion and behavior as we can see here.

The second thing we learn from their words is that they are bloodthirsty.  The governor has told them that he doesn’t think Jesus is guilty of anything, “what evil has he done?” but they are calling not just for punishment, not just for the death penalty, but for the worst form of the death penalty.  There is a bloodthirstiness here that is shocking. 

The third thing we learn from their words is that they are selfish.  They drag their own children into this mob scene by invoking a curse upon them, “his blood be on us and our children.”  They have so little regard for their children that they are willing to put them in harm’s way just to prove how much they want Jesus to die.  Their words show how selfish they are.

Then there is the group of Roman soldiers who are responsible for beating Jesus before the crucifixion.  It is their job to do such things, not to determine guilt themselves, but their words betray something ugly indeed.  “Hail, King of the Jews” is what they say.  They are not satisfied to simply comply with their orders.  With their words they add derision and mockery to the punishment.  That is the first thing we learn.  The second thing is that they are ignorant.  They are actually speaking true words, Jesus is the King of the Jews, but they don’t know it, and so the truth is only a joke to them.

Now we get to the cross.  As Jesus hangs on the cross there are passersby, people who have gone out of their way to exit the city and come to a place of execution in order to speak.  This is what they say, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself!  If you are the son of God, come down from the cross.” 

The first thing they reveal by their words are their expectations.  They were expecting Jesus to be a man of power.  This is the meaning of all of that cheering and praising as he entered the city.  A man of power, a true messiah, a true savior, would not just hang there dying.  The Son of God would never suffer the indignity of just hanging there.  At the very least, he would come down off of the cross and prove his power.

The second thing is related to the first.  The words of the passersby reveal that they despise the weak.  Here they are, in the presence of a man who is in agony and who will soon die, and they don’t have the decency to keep silent or offer words of kindness.  No, they despise him because they think that he cannot get down from the cross.  He is weak, and therefore pathetic

And then there is another group of people who come to Jesus as he is on the cross: the chief priests, the scribes and the elders:  They do not speak to him, they just speak about him as he hangs there.  This is what they say, “He saved others; he cannot save himself.  He is the King of Israel; let God deliver him now, if he desires him.  For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’”

Their words reveal many things and they are ugly indeed.  First, they show contempt for humanity.  They admit that Jesus has saved others, that he has healed the sick, cast out demons, cured the lame and so on.  They have seen it for themselves.  But they don’t care.  These acts of mercy are of no concern to them, the good is of no consequence.  What ultimately matters is power, not goodness.

Also by their words, these leaders of the Jews show their contempt for God.  “Let God deliver him now, if he desires him.”  Where is the humility that should be shown before an almighty God?  These religious leaders should surely fear God and be in awe at a moment of death like this.  But they are not.  For them, it seems God is nothing but a reflection of their own attitudes.  “What would God want with this weak and dirty man who is nailed to a cross?”  In spite of abundant scripture to the contrary, they can’t imagine God having mercy, because they have mercy. 

And finally there were the centurion and his guards, the ones who cast lots for the condemned man’s clothing and perhaps even the ones who had beaten and mocked him before.  They seem like a lone bright spot on this terrible day of cruel words, saying, “Truly this was the Son of God.”  But their words don’t mean quite as much as we’d like.  More than anything they reveal superstition.  At the moment of Jesus’ death they felt the earth tremble and saw some rocks split.  They saw power revealed in the natural world and were therefore moved to confess his divinity.  But the Jesus who had been dying before their eyes for hours on end, this weak and pitiful man?  He had meant nothing to them. 

So what is the sum of all of these words?  What does it all add up to?  I hear two things that come through louder than anything else.  First, these people were looking for power and they hated weakness.  They glorified Jesus when he seemed to come in power and they turned on him in anger when he showed weakness.  As he hung on the cross they despised him all the more because he could not come down.  What good can come from weakness?  The messiah must be strong.

The second conclusion is that though they hated weakness, the people themselves were weak.  Pilate is the most powerful man in the region and he’s too weak to stand up for justice in the face of an angry crowd.  The crowd is weak minded, letting frustration dictate their actions.  What is to be done with the one who disappoints?  Kill him of course.  Exerting such power over those who do not resist makes the weak feel more powerful.  What’s even better is for those same weaklings to go taunt the dying man, the man who isn’t interested in fighting back, the man who couldn’t fight back anyway because his hands and feet were nailed in place.  Instead of saying that “though they hated weakness, the people themselves were weak” perhaps it would be better to say, “because they were weak, these weak people despised those who were weaker than themselves.”  They wanted to be strong.  They yearned for strength and power, if not for themselves, then at least in their leader, in their savior.

At the end of the day, all they are left with is a dead man on a cross and the transient satisfaction of having killed him.  It is a terrible disappointment.  They’ve gone and killed the one who could have saved them because they didn’t recognize him.  What a terrible waste.

Except for one thing.  God is not like them.  And God is not like us.  God chooses to work through weakness.  God chooses to work through what is despised.  God chooses to work through that which disappoints us.  God chooses to work through this dead man on a cross.  This man......

“who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.

THEREFORE God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,  to the glory of God the Father.”

Please rise and we will confess that Jesus is Lord in the words of the Apostle’s Creed:
I believe in God the father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only son, our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
Born of the virgin Mary
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, died, and was buried;
He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
He ascended into heaven,
He is seated at the right hand of the Father,
And he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
The holy catholic church,
The communion of saints,
The forgiveness of sins,
The resurrection of the body,
And the life everlasting.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

5th Sunday of Lent - April 10, 2011

Imagine walking out of the church and over to the cemetery.  But instead of looking at the gravestones that neatly kept and cared for, imagine instead look off to the East, over the plain and over the rolling hills towards Highway 75.   Instead of dried up grass and unplanted fields, imagine a sea of bones, corpses picked dry by the vultures and baked white by the sun.  This is the scene that God presents to the prophet Ezekiel in our reading this morning, a field of death. 

Now of course, the point of the vision is not death, but life.  We read the lesson today to hear not about dead bones, but resurrection.  Nevertheless, we must attend to death for awhile.  We must take a closer look at the bones as they lie. 

We need some context for all of these bones.  Why are there so many bones?  Why are they lying out in a field and not properly buried?  This isn’t a normal scene for us to be seeing.  It must have some explanation.  And so it does.

The story all begins like this.  Back in Genesis, God chose Abraham.  He told him, “I will give you descendants more numerous than the stars in the sky.”  This was the first indication that God was going to choose a people and give them a promise.  Beyond that, God also promised Abraham his own country, the Promised Land.  And he also promised that through him and his descendents other nations would be blessed.  For a childless man who was 75 years old at the time it sounded like a pretty good promise indeed.  The ball got rolling pretty slowly, but finally at the age of one hundred, the first descendent, the heir of the promise, Isaac, is born. 

In Exodus, we meet a large group of Abraham’s descendents who are slaves of Pharoah down in Egypt.  God uses Moses to bring his people out of Egypt, across the Red Sea and into the wilderness.  It turns out they don’t have much faith in God, so instead of getting into the Promised Land, they stay in that wilderness for 40 years until a new generation is born and grows up to replace the unfaithful ones.  And so then they finally get into the Promised Land. 

As the years go by, the people go through cycles of faithfulness and unfaithfulness.  When they screw things badly enough, God punishes them.  Then they call out to God for his help.  God has mercy on them.  And then they forget and they screw things up badly again.  God punishes them.  Then they call out to God for his help.  God has mercy on them.  And then they forget and they screw things up badly again.  This goes on for centuries.  During this time we meet people like Samson, King David, King Solomon, Elijah, and Isaiah.  During this time the Temple is built and becomes the center of worship.  These are the glory years of Israel.

Finally, there comes a point when God says, “I am going to raise up a people called the Babylonians and they will destroy Jerusalem and take you prisoner and lead you OUT of the Promised Land.”  This does indeed happen.  The Babylonians come with a huge army.  They conquer all the towns in the countryside and then finally lay siege to Jerusalem.  It is a horrible time.  Many, many people die; Jerusalem gets leveled; the Temple gets leveled; the people are carted off to Babylon as slaves. 

At this point, everything has fallen apart.  There is no hope.  They have no homeland.  No temple.  No King.  No nothing.  The promise has been squandered and the fat lady is singing for Israel

It is at this point that the prophet Ezekiel has his vision.  The bones in the field are the descendents of Abraham, the Israelites, the people who have been unfaithful.  They have been  killed and left out in the field by the Babylonians, because God has pronounced a judgment against them for their unfaithfulness.  These are not random bones nor are they merely bones in a vision.  These are the bones of the people who have squandered the promise and rejected their God.

God comes to Ezekiel and he shows him this vision and he asks him an extraordinary question, “Can these bones live?”  God was asking Ezekiel, “Will I have mercy on my people?  Can I give them the promise again, even though they squandered it and reviled it?  Must the dead stay dead?  Or can the dead be brought back to life?  Can I have mercy on such a people?”  Ezekiel replies noncommittally, “You know Lord.”  He may as well have said, “I have no idea what kind of God you are.  I don’t know if you are going to have mercy or not.  I’ve seen what happened to Jerusalem.  It was terrible.  Here we are in Babylon and we are slaves.  It’s terrible.  I don’t know what you are going to do.  Life is tough; we’ve messed it badly; and I don’t know what you are going to do.”

 “Prophecy to the bones!” God says.  “Use your mouth Ezekiel.  Preach to these bones and tell them that they are going to live!” 

Ezekiel isn’t about to disobey the living God and so he prophesies, he uses his mouth, he preaches to the dry bones.  And then the remarkable thing begins to happen.  That which was dead starts to rattle about, bone meets bone, sinews tie them together, flesh grows over the top of them all......  But there is something missing.

“Prophecy to the breath!”  God says, “Tell the bones that I am putting my life into them!”  And so Ezekiel speaks.  He uses words.  He preaches to these bones.  And the Spirit of God responds to this speech and comes blowing into these bodies and they come to life.

The vision of Ezekiel is saying loudly and clearly that, though they have been faithless, God will not leave his people in exile.  He will restore them to their own country, their own land, their own homes.  It’s not that they deserve to be restored.  No, they are ever the faithless people.  But God is declaring to Ezekiel that he has made a decision about them.  He has decided to have mercy.  He has decided to bring them back from the dead.

Now this is all well and good.  It’s nice to hear a story about restoration.  But how does this relate to us?  I think there are all kinds of connections that you could make to your own lives, about the cycle of faith and faithlessness, about being a slave to sin, about receiving mercy.  This could be a very long sermon.  But I just want to talk about one particular thing.  It has to do with how God works.  Think for a moment about how God worked to raise those bones from the dead. 

God sent them a preacher, Ezekiel, who spoke his word.  This spoken word had actual power in it, power to bring the dead back to life.

This is the heart of the matter.  If you are taking sermon notes, here is something for you to write down. 

God sends preachers who speak his word.  This spoken word has actual power in it, power to bring the dead back to life.

Now when I hear that, my mind immediately goes to the idea of finding someone who has died and bringing them back to life.  It can happen.  It has happened.  But that is a lesser power than what we are talking about.  What we are talking about is this.  Every Sunday morning, piles of bones drive here in their cars and their trucks.  Bones like those old Israelites, bones who have heard the promise, but have been picked over and dried up by a long week out in the world.  Maybe your faithlessness has been dramatic and flagrant.  Or maybe it’s just been steady and consistent.  Or maybe it’s been so subtle that you hardly even know it’s there.  However it is that you have squandered the promise and rejected your God.  No matter.  The point is that it has dried up your bones.  That’s what sin does.  It kills us. 

And then we assemble in this place, a big pile of bones, a bunch of dead people.  And God sends a preacher to prophecy.  Not to prophecy any old thing, mind you.  No, God sends a preacher to say something very particular.  God sends a preacher to give you a promise.  God sends a preacher to tell this assembly of dry bones, “I therefore declare unto you the entire forgiveness of all of your sins.”  God sends a preacher to tell this assembly of dry bones, “After supper Jesus took the cup and gave thanks, blessed it and gave it for all to drink saying, ‘this cup is the testament in my blood, shed for you.’”  God sends a preacher to tell this assembly of dry bones, “You are dead.  Your sins have killed you.  Nevertheless God has a promise for you.  You are going to live.  Whatever it is that has been happening to you or that you have been doing.  Whatever your faithlessness has been.  It is over.  You are going to live.”  That is the decision that God has made for you.  And he sends a preacher to give it to you.  Amen.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

4th Sunday of Lent - April 3, 2011

For years I have heard that sheep aren’t the brightest bulbs in the animal kingdom.  But recently I have heard from someone who raises sheep and I am told that this isn’t quite true.  In fact, sheep are dumb as a box of rocks.  They are absolutely dependent, but hopelessly incapable of knowing what is best for them.  Now I know that you didn’t come here this morning to be insulted, but......  we’re all sheep.  We think we understand everything quite well.  We make our decisions and go about our business and so on.  Left to our own devises, we are in all kinds of trouble even though we might not ever realize it.  Far from being bad news, however, this is actually great news, because we are sheep who have a shepherd.  Our shepherd is the Lord and he gives us promises.  Let us lie down in the pasture this morning and listen to the words of promise from our shepherd in Psalm 23.

1st promise- “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

The Lord our shepherd takes care of everything we need for life.  Martin Luther, the founder of our church, writes in the Small Catechism, “He provides me with food and clothing, home and family, daily work, and all I need from day to day.”  The devil, on the other hand, would love to convince us that, ultimately, we don’t really have any help in this world except for ourselves.  Now he’s not so foolish as to be obvious about it.  He doesn’t say, “Work yourself to the bone and neglect your family.”  Instead he’ll say, “You need more money in order to be secure.” Harumph. I tell you today that the Lord is your shepherd and that you have everything you need.
2nd promise- “He restores my soul.”

What does this mean? God takes care of our emotional needs.  You have all experienced at least some of the following: heartbreak and loss, hatred and anger, boredom and a sense of being lost.  Life burdens us with more cares than it seems that we can carry sometimes.  These days we call it stress.  Like foolish sheep we might seek to get rid of it elsewhere, but I tell you today that the Lord is your shepherd and it is only he who takes your stress away.

3rd promise- “He leads me in paths of righteousness...”

What does this mean?  God gives us direction.  One of my first weeks here Wayne and Julie picked me up and we were driving down one of the gravel roads that was such a mystery to me.  They told me that until recently there weren’t even signs to tell you which road was which.  You just had to know.  I thought to myself at the time, “Boy would I be in trouble if there were no signs!  I wouldn’t know Juniper from Hickory without a sign.”  But on that day it wouldn’t have mattered, because Wayne and Julie were giving me direction by driving me to the place I needed to go. 

Knowing what choices to make in this life is often hard.  Sometimes it doesn’t even seem like there are any good choices available.  But I tell you today that the Lord is your shepherd and that he will give you direction.

4th promise- “......for his name’s sake.”

What does this mean?  God takes away our selfishness.  When I was single I was mainly concerned with myself.  I could do what I wanted with myself.  All my time was my own.  With marriage and then with a baby I find that it doesn’t work that way anymore.  Often enough I’m not doing what I would have chosen to do because I’ve got responsibilities towards other people.  And this has made my life much better.  I’d be willing to bet that most of you have had a similar experience.

I tell you today that the Lord is your shepherd and he takes away your selfishness and directs you towards others for his name’s sake.

5th promise- “Even when I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you are with me......”

What does this mean?  Death is all around us and we won’t be able to escape it in this life.  The presence of God when death is near is a comfort because God is Lord over death.  By ourselves we are subject to death; we will die.  But God has decided that death has no power over us.  This is to say that we will die, but we will not stay dead.

I tell you today that the Lord is your shepherd and that you need not fear death.

6th promise- “You prepare a meal for me in the presence of my enemies......”

What does this mean?  Well, first of all, you’ve got enemies.  I don’t think that’s the way we prefer to think about things these days, but it is foolish to deny reality.  At the very least the Devil is your enemy.  And so is anyone who opposes the well-being and safety of your family.  But God will provide for us in spite of these foes.  The enemies will not disappear, mind you, not in this world, but God will provide for us even though these enemies oppose it.

I tell you today that the Lord is your shepherd and that your enemies cannot stop God from blessing you.

7th promise- “You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”

What does this mean?  Anointing the head with oil is a royal metaphor.  The ceremony to declare the new king always involved anointing his head with oil.  There is another important meaning for anointing as well.  The word for it in Hebrew is messiah.  Jesus was the Messiah, that is to say, the anointed one.  The Jews at the time of Jesus were waiting for God’s chosen one to save them.  It turns out that God became a man in order to be the chosen one.

I tell you today that the Lord is your shepherd and that he has anointed you; he has chosen you.

8th promise- “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”  [length of days]

What does this mean?  This means that we are a part of God’s household both now, in this life, and in the life to come.  Being in the household of the earthly king means protection and provision, special advantage, even when times are tough.  Being in the household of the heavenly king means all the benefits of Christ, including most especially the forgiveness of sins and life eternal. 

I tell you today that the Lord is your shepherd and that you will live with him and know his benefits from this time forth and forevermore.

To be a sheep is not what any right thinking human would aspire to.  Sheep are foolish and stupid.  They don’t know what they need.  They often work against their own best interests.  To the world, being a sheep is nothing to write home about.  But we can rejoice that we are sheep.  We do not know how it has happened to us or what has happened to make us deserve it, but we have a shepherd and we have his promises to us. 

I tell you today that the Lord is your shepherd and that it is wonderful to be a sheep.  Amen.