Monday, October 31, 2011

Confirmation Sunday - October 30, 2011

Tyler, Ellie, Andrew and Lane.  Today I want to talk to you about what Confirmation isn’t.  And then I’ll say just a bit about what it is.   

First, Confirmation isn’t something that is a good deed or something that makes you holy.  Being confirmed today does not mean that you have pleased God any more than you did yesterday or four years ago.  Getting confirmed isn’t going to change anything about you.  It isn’t making you into a better Christian.  It isn’t adding points to your score or any of that kind of business. 

Second, Confirmation isn’t the end of something.  For many, confirmation is understood as the finish line, as the goal.  After Confirmation, many think, “Now I can take some time off.  I’ve fulfilled my duty.  I’ve done what I had to do.”  Hogwash.  When you prepare the field in the spring, and plant the seed, and spray during the summer, and then when you harvest in October, is farming over?  Of course it isn’t.  You keep working.  And soon enough, there will be manure trucks on the road in the springtime and seeds will be going in again.  Farming does not end just because there comes a moment to reflect on the season just past.  Confirmation isn’t the end. 

On the other hand, Confirmation isn’t the beginning either.  Sometimes we can think of Confirmation as a rite of passage.  And all of a sudden, so the story goes, you are starting something new.  I’m afraid I don’t really agree with this.  Your life of faith isn’t beginning with confirmation.  Faith was given to you long before this day.  Later, I will pronounce a blessing over you, asking that the Holy Spirit be stirred up in you.  Is this a new gift?  No.  The Holy Spirit was given to you long before this day.  Confirmation isn’t the beginning of something new.

So what is it?  If it isn’t something that is changing you, if it isn’t a good deed, if it isn’t the end of something, nor the beginning either.......  What is Confirmation and what is happening today?

The three years of confirmation exist for this reason.  They are to teach you the basics of the faith.  Confirmation exists so that you will learn the nuts and bolts of the church teaching.  You were required to come on Wednesday night for three years to learn these things.  You were required to take sermon notes in order to learn these things. 

Now in the past months, I have often been talking about Law and Gospel, and how important it is to distinguish between the two.  And today is a good day to do it again.  Your three years of Confirmation have been about the Law.  You were required to do certain things.  You were fulfilling a duty.  You were doing the action.  And this is good and right.  God certainly calls on us to study his Word.  He definitely calls on us to come to church to hear his Word spoken.  Without question he calls on us to serve others in and outside of the church.  These are all examples of what the Law has required of you.

These are also examples of what the Law will continue to require of you.  The Law does not cease making demands of you because you are confirmed.  In fact, it demands all the more.  You have learned, but you have not learned enough.  You have served, but you have not served enough.  In a scripture lesson next month, we will hear God say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.  You have been faithful in little.  I will put you in charge of much.”  And so I tell you, you have been faithful in a little.  And so God will demand all the more from you.  This service will only end when you die.  It is the work of a lifetime,...... an entire lifetime. 

Now, I have been speaking of your duty and what is required of you.  I have said that Confirmation has been the Law makings demands of you.  This is true.  But it isn’t the whole story.  Aside from the Law, we must hear God’s gospel.  The gospel is different from the Law.  It doesn’t have anything to do with what you have done.  It has only to do with what God has done.  So let us hear the gospel. 

I said that Confirmation was not a beginning.  In fact, your beginning was your baptism.  For it was on that day that God gave you a promise.  These were the words that the Pastor spoke that day, “God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we give you thanks for freeing your sons and daughters from the power of sin and for raising them up to a new life through this holy sacrament.”  This is what we call the gospel, the forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life.  This is the good news that was delivered to you as you lay helpless in your mother’s and father’s arms.  It was on that day that you were changed.  It was on that day that God made you a new creation and gave you a new beginning.

So what is happening today?  Well, I suppose it’s a bit like harvest time.  You are taking a moment to look back on this season just past.  You are taking a moment to remember how God has blessed you so far.  And you are looking to the future, confident in his blessing and resolved to work hard through many seasons to come. “Yes,” you are saying, “I have heard the promises that God has declared to me.  I have heard that he has forgiven my sin.  I have heard that he has promised me eternal life.  Because he has done these things, therefore I renounce sin.  I renounce the devil.  I renounce all in the world that rebels against God.  He has chosen me and so I am his.”  This is what you are saying today.  Amen.  

Monday, October 24, 2011

19th Sunday after Pentecost - October 23, 2011

I saw something kind of funny on the computer recently.  It was a picture of an elderly woman with a caption above and below.  Above her head the caption read, “Let’s eat grandma.”  Not a very nice sentiment.  Underneath the picture, however, the words read, “Let’s eat, grandma.”  The same words meant something very, very different!  The only difference between the two sentences was a little old comma.  The whole picture carried the explanation, “Punctuation saves lives!”

When reading the Bible, similar things can happen to us if we aren’t careful.  That is why I have been teaching the idea of Law and Gospel.  Just to review: The Law is what we are supposed to do; the Law is accusation; the Law is perfect and unforgiving.  The Law is a good thing, but it isn’t a life-giving kind of thing.  The Gospel, on the other hand, is God’s word of promise to us.  The gospel is his choosing us.  It is his mercy towards us.  It does give us life.  Now, if we confuse the two, bad things can happen.  For example, we might embrace the Law as God’s promise to us and his mercy towards us.  That would be like hugging a cactus.  A cactus is a fine plant, very beautiful and all that, but it isn’t made for hugging.  The Law isn’t made to give us life.  That’s not it’s job.  So we need to recognize the difference between the two, then we can know how Bible passages apply to us. 

Today’s Old Testament lesson gives us a good opportunity to listen for these things.  I’m going to read it again, along with the verses that got cut out.  Listen hard for the Law.  And also listen for the gospel.

[read Leviticus 19:1-18]

It isn’t too hard to hear the Law in there, is it?  It starts right at the beginning and it goes the whole we through.  The whole passage is a list of commandments, rules.  When I listen to this passage I hear God telling his people what his expectations are.  “This is the way you are supposed to be!  “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”  “You shall revere your mother and father; you shall keep my Sabbaths; you shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not defraud; you shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge.”  The list goes on and on.  Rule after rule after rule.  Command after command. 

What is all of this?  This is the Law.  God has very high expectations of us.  Following all these commands, obeying all of these rules, they are what we must do.  These are the kinds of things that make us moral.  They are important.

Alright.  Now to switch gears.  I asked you to listen for the gospel too, for the promises of God, for his mercy.  Did you hear the gospel in what I read?  I think the gospel is harder for us to hear in this passage.  I think it is harder for us to hear in general.  Whether we are good at following them or not, rules make sense to us.  But God choosing us and making promises to us, that doesn’t make as much sense.

So here’s the promise.  “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”  Do you hear that?  “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” 

There are two promises there, actually.  The first one is this, “I am your Lord.  I am your God.”  In this day and age, in our society where there are so many different religious options: Catholic, Methodist, Bible Church, Islam, Buddhism, Atheism, etc......, in our day and age we can think that it is we who choose God.  “God, I have decided to follow you.”  But no, here God is saying something that is just the opposite.  He says, “I am the Lord your God. I choose you!”  This is certainly the gospel.

The second promise is this: “You shall be holy.”  What does holy mean?  To be holy means to be set apart.  To be holy means to not be common, but to be chosen for something special.  God is declaring something about you, promising something to you.  You are going to be holy.  What is he choosing you to do?  What is he setting you apart for?  He is setting you apart for two reasons. 

The first reason is to bring himself glory.  God sets you apart and works in you so that others can see what God can do.  It brings God pleasure to see his handiwork. 

The second reason God sets you apart is so that he can work in you for the sake of the world.  God chooses to help people through other people.  When we follow God’s commands with hearts full of faith, we serve our neighbors and help them.  God has chosen us to do that.  Jesus talks about us being salt for the earth.  That means God wants us to make life better tasting for other people.  And Jesus talks about us being light.  That means that God wants us to make life brighter for other people.  God has chosen us, set us apart, for this work.  So to be holy means God working in us to bring himself glory and it means helping our neighbor.

Now I do want to address a question, a question which relates to that picture of grandma that I talked about at the beginning of the sermon.  How do we know that we can say it like this [You shall be holy because I the Lord your God am holy] and not just like this [You shall be holy because I the Lord your God am holy]?  How do we know that this is actually a gospel promise and not just us changing the way we are saying the words?  We know this because God trains our ears to hear it.  This is exactly what we are promised over and over again in scripture!  I took a minute or two and looked for some examples of where God promises this.  Here are three examples.

This is what Peter says, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.”

This is what Paul says, “You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God......”

This is what Jesus says, “You will be my witnesses......”

Over and over again in scripture, God makes this promise to us; he promises that we are his chosen.  This is what the gospel is. 

But it can be strange to hear the gospel in the midst of all of those commandments.  And that is why we need to train our ears to hear the difference between the Law and the Gospel.  We need to hear the Law so that we will know what to do.  For we certainly must do what is right, what God teaches us to do.  But even more importantly, we must listen for those words of Gospel.  Perk up your ears to hear the promises of God which are for you.  “You shall be holy.  Because I the Lord your God am holy.” God chooses to make you holy, to set you apart, to be his people.  And that is good news.  Amen.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

18th Sunday after Pentecost - October 16, 2011

Many, many years ago, God’s people were second class citizens in a place called Babylon They had been brought there as slaves by evil King Nebuchadnezzar who had taken over their country, burned their homes, looted their temple and destroyed their way of life.  There was a time when God’s people lived in Babylon against their will and were desperately unhappy.  Psalm 137 describes it like this, "By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion."  God’s people wept because they did not know if they would ever return home.  They did not know if they would ever worship God again in his temple.  They did not know if they would ever again be free.  Surely they called out to God, praying for freedom, praying to have their own country and their own king, praying for a future.  But two generations passed and they were still far from home.  This dark time was known as the Babylonian Captivity. 

But there was a word.  There was a word from the prophet Isaiah.  It was a word addressed to a man named Cyrus.  Now you might ask, “who in the world is Cyrus?”  History tells us that Cyrus was the king of a people named the Persians who lived to the east of Babylon.  History tells us that the Persians came up against Babylon , took the city by force and destroyed the Babylonian Empire.  History tells us that for centuries the Persians were a very powerful empire. They are perhaps best known to us as the mighty army who attacked the Greece of Socrates, who battled the Spartans at Thermopylae and were defeated, in part thanks to the sacrifice of 300 foot soldiers, a story that is told in a film from a few years back called “300.”  What we know about these Persians from history would lead us to believe that they were bad news, bad news for God’s people.  History would seem to say that Cyrus was much like Nebuchadnezzar, just another brutal king of just another brutal empire. 

But let us return to the word from Isaiah, for in it, God says something unexpected, something contrary to all that we might expect.  God reveals that he has chosen Cyrus, anointed him and blessed him to do something special.  King Cyrus, it seems, is going to serve God's people by liberating them from their captivity.  In this word from Isaiah, God is revealing that the slavery imposed by evil King Nebuchadnezzar will be undone by King Cyrus.  It is actually for the sake of God's people, that God will bless Cyrus, open doors for him, make his path level.  It is for the sake of God’s people that Cyrus will be made mighty. 

Now for the people who were captive in Babylon, this wasn’t entirely good news.  Certainly it was great that they would soon be free to return home.  But it wasn’t exactly what they had been hoping for.  They had lost their freedom at the hands of a brutal foreign king.  And now they were to regain their freedom from the hands of a brutal foreign king.  Their weakness and inability to control their own world, these things weren’t changing.  Their dearest desire was to regain the days of their own powerful kingdom, when David and Solomon had been mighty kings, kings anointed by God.  But God was not giving them that.  God was not giving them what they wanted.  Instead, he was anointing a foreign king who would be strong and powerful, while they would remain weak and dependent. 

I guess you could say that God answered their prayers.  But God didn’t answer their prayers in quite the way that they had hoped.  And we might find that this touches a nerve in us.  God answered their prayers.  But God didn’t answer their prayers in quite the way that they had hoped.  Here is the basic fact of the matter, God does not always act like we would like him to act.  He does things differently than we would do them.  God is beyond our control.

And that is what this passage from Isaiah is really all about.  There is good news here.  God is answering their prayers.  God is appointing a king so that they might go home.  But God isn’t answering prayer on their terms.  God is just a little wild.  He has plans that they can’t quite understand.  God is unapologetically doing what he wants to do, and the result seems like it is good and bad at the same time.

God is saying words to Cyrus, but it seems like it is really his own people that he is addressing:  “I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god.  I arm you, though you do not know me, so that you may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the Lord and there is no other.  I form light and create darkness; I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things.”  “Look here,” God is saying, “You are going home soon.  I am responsible for this.  These things aren’t accidents or coincidences.” 

So what are they to make of this?  Their fate is beyond their control, but it isn’t random.  The events that swirl around them aren’t meaningless chaos.  It isn’t a matter of “Que sera, sera.  Whatever will be, will be.”  No, God is claiming responsibility for all of it.

These are God’s words to us too.  God is saying, “I make the good and I make the bad.”  God is claiming responsibility for all of it.  And that means that we don’t control our lives as much as we’d like to think.  We don’t control God.  Good and bad will arrive.  God will work in ways that confuse us and even hurt us.  And I don’t have to tell you that.  You know it perfectly well.  I was riding in the combine this week, talking with one of you, and what was the topic of conversation?  How little we can control.  The market goes up and it goes down.  The rain falls or it doesn’t.  The tornado rips up our field or it passes us by.  You all know this better than I do.  And God says, “I make weal and create woe.  I make the good and the bad.”  God is telling trying to tell us something here.  Life isn’t random; it has purpose.  We’re not the pawns of fate; we are in the hands of the living God.

Now this can make for an awfully uncomfortable life.  When we can’t control what happens, when we don’t know what is around the next corner, when we don’t know how God is going to work, that can be tough.  But as it has pointed out to me, it can also be very reassuring.  I don’t know exactly what is going to happen.  I can’t control it.  All I can do is trust.  All I can do is trust.

I want to make one more connection.  Those ancient Jews who were captives in Babylon, they wanted God to give them back their own king, their own anointed one.  But God anointed another, he anointed Cyrus.  He chose Cyrus to give them back their freedom.  But this was really only a temporary thing, a half-measure.  For God had decided to give them another anointed one altogether.  You see, “anointed one” means Messiah; it means Christ.  Those ancient Jews wanted a king.  Well, God gave them a king of sorts, a foreign king and he let them go back to their home.  But then God did something completely different.  He did something much different than we would have done, something that we couldn’t have seen coming.  He did something absolutely out of our control.  He sent his son to be our anointed one, our Messiah, our Christ.  We couldn’t control that.  It has just burst into our lives.  And all we can do is trust.  All we can do is trust.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

17th Sunday after Pentecost - October 9, 2011

The sermon this morning is going to be just a little bit different.  I’d like to talk about prayer.  Now prayer is one of those things that just about everyone agrees is a good thing; it’s something we should do; it’s something that’s important.  So you’d think it would be something that was familiar and easy for us.  But that just isn’t so.  Many of us don’t find prayer easy at all.  In fact, it can be downright difficult.  We have things on our heart; we want to share them with God; we want to ask; we want to pray.  But we don’t know where to start or the words to say.  Especially if we have to say it out loud and in front of people. 

In our second lesson this morning, the Apostle Paul says some things that I think are really helpful for us and I’d like to share them with you.  Now this isn’t some kind of comprehensive sermon on prayer.  Far from it.  It’s just a few thoughts on how to make praying easier, using the lesson from Paul’s letter to the Philippians as our guide.

The first thing Paul says is, “Rejoice in the Lord always!”  And he thinks that this is so important that he says it again, “Rejoice!”  So this is the first thing that I think makes praying easier.  You start with rejoicing.  My pastoral mentor once told me something helpful.  He said, “We praise God for his attributes and we give thanksgiving because of what he has done.”  So praise, rejoicing, talks about what God is like.  It might sound like this:

“Heavenly Father, you are merciful.  You are loving.  You are just.”

This is a good way to start prayer.  You don’t have to know the words for what you are going to ask, you just start telling God what he is like.  Now, there is an important point to be made here.  The Bible is God’s revelation to us.  It tells us an enormous amount about our God.  And so when we tell God what he is like, it is good to use his own words.  So when we are praying we start off by reminding God what he is like according to his Word.  It might sound like this:

“Father, in Psalm 23 you tell us how you are our shepherd, and you tell us how you provide for us all the days of our life.”

This, incidentally, is one of the reasons it is important to read the Bible and to underline things and make notes.  We want to be able to use God’s word to help us pray.  We want to be able to use God’s word to tell him what he is like.

Now Paul tells us something more.  He says this, “The Lord is near.”  This is also important to know.  God is listening.  He’s got his ears perked up when you speak to him.  In Paul’s time, and even in our own, people think about God being far away.  They think about God being up in the clouds, up in heaven, somewhere other than here.  “No,” Paul says, “God is near.  He is listening.  Speak to him and he will hear you.”  It might sound like this:

“Father, in your word you tell us that you are our shepherd, and you tell us how you provide for us all the days of our life.  And I am speaking up, I am coming to you in prayer because I know that you hear me.  Your servant Paul assures me of this.....”

Then Paul tells us, “Do not worry about anything.”  Now this is great advice, but it isn’t necessarily so easy to follow sometimes.  How are we supposed to not worry?  There are so many cares and troubles that can weigh on our minds.  Here’s the thing, prayer is something that God has given us for this very thing.  Prayer is the gift that God has given us so that we don’t need to be consumed with worry.  So if we notice that we are, in fact, worrying about something, we know what to do.  We are to pray about it.  It might sound like this:

“Father, in your word you tell us that you are our shepherd, and you tell us how you provide for us all the days of our life.  And I am speaking up, I am coming to you in prayer because I know that you hear me.  Your servant Paul tells me this.  Father, I have been worried.  I am having trouble sleeping because I don’t know what I should do at work.....”

And then Paul continues, “but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving......”  As I mentioned, we give God thanksgiving for what he has done.  Knowing God’s word comes in handy here again because we can use it to tell God what he has done.  It might sound like this:

“When your people Israel were in the wilderness, after they came out of Egypt, you led them with a pillar of cloud in the day and a pillar of fire in the night.  You led them when they didn’t know what to do.  And I thank you that you are a God who leads his children.”

Now that was an example using God’s word, and I think it is important to use God’s word when we pray.  But we can also use our own experience.  We can tell God what he has done in our lives and thank him for it. 

And then Paul says, “let your requests be made known to God.”  This is pretty straightforward.  This is the part where we ask for something.  Now sometimes I think we can get the idea that we’re not supposed to do this.  Or that we’re supposed to be apologetic about it .  Some might say, “Don’t ask for full healing for your loved one, just ask for God’s will to be done.”  Nonsense.  You don’t need to be apologetic.  You can ask.  The Apostle Paul is telling you that it’s okay for you to ask.  And some people might say, “But make sure you don’t ask for too much or for something greedy.”  The way I look at it, which is worse, a Christian who asks God for too much?  Or a Christian who is afraid to ask God for anything at all?  I think it is worse to be afraid to ask.  So go ahead and ask.  Don’t be afraid.  It might sound like this.

“Lord, show me what I need to do.  Make it clear to me so that I can make the right decision.”

Now so far, all of what Paul has said are instructions.  He’s telling us what we should do.  Rejoice.  Don’t worry.  Give thanksgiving.  Make your requests be made known.  These are all commands.  But now he gives us a promise.  Now he gives us a promise, “And the peace of God which surpasses understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”  This is one of the important reasons for praying.  We have a promise that by praying and by making known our petitions to God, we will receive peace.  This isn’t the only reason that we pray, of course what we ask for is important too, but this peace that God gives us is an important promise that we shouldn’t forget.

So this is what the whole thing might sound like when we follow Paul’s advice for prayer:

“Father, in your word you tell us that you are our shepherd, and you tell us how you provide for us all the days of our life.  And I am speaking up, I am coming to you in prayer because I know that you hear me.  Your servant Paul tells me this.  Father, I have been worried.  I am having trouble sleeping because I don’t know what I should do at work.  When your people Israel were in the wilderness, after they came out of Egypt, you led them with a pillar of cloud in the day and a pillar of fire in the night.  You led them when they didn’t know what to do.  And I thank you that you are a God who leads his children.  You led me when I had that rough time when I was at school.  Well, right now I don’t know what to do.  I feel lost.  Lord, show me what I need to do.  Make it clear to me so that I can make the right decision.  Thank you Father.  And thank you for the peace that you give me.  Amen”

Each little part, by itself, isn’t that intimidating.  And we just piece the parts together and there we are, praying.  It doesn’t have to be fancy.  The main things are to remind God what his word says about what he is like and about what he has done, (he likes us to do this, by the way, because it means that we are trying to learn about our Father) and then the other main thing is to make our petitions.  This isn’t the only way to pray, of course, but it is one way.  And if you have trouble praying, I hope this will help.  Amen.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Funeral of Earl Lubben

We gather together to mourn the death of Earl William Lubben.  And we gather together to hear the good news of Jesus Christ for sinners.

When reading the Bible, it is helpful to know something about the context.  This is particularly true when it comes to the prophets.  What is happening as they give their prophecy?  Into what situation do they deliver God’s word?  In our lesson from Isaiah, there has been war in the land.  Instead of doing the work of sowing and reaping, the farmers have been involved in fighting off their enemies to the North.  Instead of working in their fields to bring forth a harvest, they have seen their fields become a place of battle and death.  Instead of life, there has been dying.  What they dearly loved, their way of life, farming and providing for their families, this has been swallowed up by circumstance.  The joyful anticipation of sowing seeds in the Spring has been overshadowed by worry, worry that the tramping feet of soldiers would bring their work to ruin.  The joy of taking in the harvest has been darkened by the painful knowledge that the crops have been destroyed; there is no harvest to gather.  The people have been walking in darkness.  A darkness where what they love has been taken from them by death.

Into this darkness, the prophet Isaiah shines a bright light of promise.  The farmers in the land of Zebulun and in the land of Naphtali will not always be burdened by this darkness, but light will shine again.  Light will shine again on their fields and on their crops and there will be peace and there will be a future.  This is the message that the prophet Isaiah is proclaiming, “There is hope!  And you will rejoice again ‘as with joy at the harvest.’”  

Isaiah proclaims, “For you will break the yoke of their slavery and lift the heavy burden from their shoulders. You will break the oppressor's rod,...... The boots of the warrior and the uniforms bloodstained by war will all be burned.”  The war will be over, Isaiah proclaims, and peace will come.  The yoke of slavery will be lifted off.  The oppressor’s rod will be broken.  The boots and uniforms, they will be burned up.  No more war.  No more fighting.  Back to the fields to plant seed and to bring forth a harvest.

How is this going to happen?  What will bring this about?  Here Isaiah says the strangest thing.  Who is it that is going to overcome all this darkness, this fighting, this death?  “For unto us a child is born, a son is given.”  It is a child.  It is a child who will do this.  This is the promise that Isaiah gives to the farmers of the land of Zebulun and Naphtali.

Earl Lubben was a lifelong farmer just like those ancient men of Zebulun and Naphtali, which we call Galilee.  He farmed the fields just south of here his whole life long.  It was his life’s work and it was a joy to him.  He farmed next to his brother Ray.  He farmed with his wife and kids.  He farmed and he raised cattle and hogs.  Now Earl’s situation was different of course.  There were no bloody battles on his fields.  There was no time when hope grew so dim that he was walking in darkness.  Certainly there were some tough years, but nothing like what those ancient farmers of Galilee faced.  Not until these last days.  Because in these last days, Earl began to battle with death.  Complications from surgery arose and he found himself battling against death.  And he fought.  And he fought hard.  But death overcame him.  Darkness overcame him. 

But we must remember today, that like those ancient farmers of Galilee, Earl had been given a promise from God.  Through the prophet Isaiah, God delivered words of promise to Earl.  Let us hear these words again, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.”  Yes, death has taken Earl, but it cannot have him.  Yes, darkness has cast its shadow on Earl’s life, but it cannot have him.  For he has been given the promise just as the farmers of Zebulun and Naphtali were given the promise, “For unto us a child is born, unto us a child is given.”  

This child is Jesus.  And he came, just as Isaiah promised.  He came from the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, called Galilee.  He came into the darkness; and he was the light.  He was the light shining in the darkness.  Jesus came and he did battle with the forces of darkness.  Jesus Christ broke the cruel oppressor’s rod and he removed the yoke of slavery.  He came and won the victory over them.  This is what it means when the women came to the tomb on that Easter morning and found it empty.  Death could not contain him.  Jesus had conquered death itself. .......And so the death that has claimed Earl cannot keep him.  Jesus Christ is Lord over death and Jesus Christ has claimed Earl for his own.  And he has increased his joy, so that Earl, with all of the saints in light, will rejoice before God as with joy at the harvest.

And what of us?  What of us who sit in the darkness of grief?  What of us who feel the yoke of sorrow?  Hear again the promise; it is for all who believe:  “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.”

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

16th Sunday after Pentecost - October 2, 2011

Let’s get right at this.  What is this parable about?  What’s the interpretation?  Quite simply, it is a basic history lesson of God’s relationship to his people and how the leaders of the people behaved over the years. 

The vineyard is an Old Testament symbol meaning God’s chosen people, we heard that image used in the First Lesson from Isaiah.  God builds up this vineyard in order for it to bear good fruit.  God chose his people Israel in order for them to bear good fruit.  In other words, to do what was good and right.  God told Abraham, the father of the nation, that his offspring would be a blessing to the rest of the nations.  That was the purpose of the chosen people.  The purpose wasn’t for them to have special privileges, but to fulfill a particular purpose, to bring forth fruit.  So the vineyard means God’s people and they have a purpose, to do the right thing and to bless other people with their actions.

The tenants in Jesus’ parable are the leaders of God’s people; these include both political and religious leaders since there wasn’t a clear distinction between church and state in ancient Israel.  God entrusted the leaders with caring for his people and bringing forth fruit.  The leaders were supposed to teach and lead the people so that the whole nation was doing the right things, living the right way, honoring God with their lives and blessing the other nations with their actions.  The leaders were the ones God entrusted with this responsibility. 

What happened instead is that the leaders were more interested in their own power and privileges than they were with caring for the people.  The Old Testament is full of examples of this.  King Solomon was terrible on this score.  He burdened the people with heavy taxes so that he could live in luxury.  He imported the foreign gods of his many wives and set up temples for them.  Solomon was supposed to be tending the vines, but he was just using them for his own pleasure.  The history of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel also shows this very clearly.  They murdered and stole a man’s land, contrary to the law, just so that they could have a nicer estate for themselves.  They were not good tenants.  They did not care for the people.  They did not teach the people to do right. 

So what did God do?  He sent his servants to the vineyard, to collect what was due to him.  The servants represent the prophets. Prophets, like Isaiah, Elijah and Amos, confronted the leaders, and called on them to do the right thing.  But the prophets were not treated well and their warnings were only rarely heeded.  The prophet Jeremiah was thrown down a well when the king didn’t like his message.  Others were killed or persecuted.  Instead of listening to these prophets sent by God, the leaders kept right on doing what they wanted to do.  In other words, they refused to give God what was his, the fruit of the harvest.  They were using the vineyard for their own selfish ends.

Finally, the owner of the vineyard sends his son.  This means that God sent his son Jesus.  And here Jesus switches from history to prophecy.  God sent his son to call these leaders to repentance and to demand of them the harvest.  “Where is the harvest?  Where is the righteousness of the people?  How have you blessed the nations?”  The leaders of the people, the Chief Priests and the Pharisees, mistreat Jesus, and kill him, so that God won’t interfere with their privileges.  They would rather defend their comfortable lifestyles than obediently do God’s will.  The Pharisees and the Chief Priests are the wicked tenants in the parable.

So that’s the basic interpretation of the parable.  But why has Jesus told it?  What is the purpose of it?  Clearly he is telling it in order to accuse the Chief Priests and the Pharisees.  Jesus is using the Law against them.  “This is what you were supposed to have done...... You were supposed to care for the people.  You were supposed to teach them to do right.  You were supposed to bless the other nations.  But you have neglected your duties.  You have cared more about yourselves and your own privileges than you have with doing the job God gave you.  Shame on you!!!”  Jesus is accusing them to wake them up, so that they will do what is right.  But he has told it to them in a parable, so they don’t immediately understand that they are the wicked ones.

So Jesus asks them, “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”  As I said, the Chief Priests and the Pharisees have not yet recognized themselves in the parable, and so they answer, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”  In saying this, they have condemned themselves.  In the parable, they recognize that the behavior of the tenants is terrible.  The problem is that they don’t recognize that their own behavior, in real life, is terrible.  They are willing to condemn others, but they have not held themselves to the same standard.

Now Jesus is going to identify the particular matter where the Chief Priests and the Pharisees have failed in their duties.  Yes, they have failed to tend the vineyard, they have failed to bring forth right conduct from the people.  But there is something worse that they have done.  They have failed to recognize God’s son.  They have failed to recognize that Jesus has been sent to them from God almighty.  They have rejected him.  Jesus uses an architectural image to show this.  He talks about a cornerstone or a capstone, both of which are stones used in building that tie the walls or the arch together.  He says that the builders have rejected the very stone that holds everything together.  Which is to say, the leaders have rejected Jesus, the very one who holds everything together, the one who is the center of faith and life.  The leaders of the people have failed to do the most important thing.  They have failed to recognize the owner’s son.  And for this there is a consequence.  The vineyard will be taken away from them and given to someone else.

Jesus has used the parable and the architectural image to drive home the Law, to show what was required and to condemn those who did not do it.  But what is the purpose of this condemnation?

The purpose is to show them specifically what their error is so that there can be repentance.  This is the function of the law, to show us sin so that we can repent.  The heart of their error is that they have failed to recognize God’s son. 

Now let us shift gears, for this parable is told not only to the Chief Priests and the Pharisees, but to us.  What does this parable do to us?  I think the first question to ask is who we are in the parable.  Are we the people who have been ill served by our leaders?  Or are we the ones who stand accused because we have not given God his due?  Do we stand accused because we have not recognized Jesus for who he is, the one who deserves our complete obedience and devotion?   

Perhaps we won’t all have the same answer.  After all, who is it here this morning that most resembles a chief priest?  That would be me, I suppose.  And so I ask myself, have I testified to you that Jesus is the Christ?  Have I been caring for you and trying to bring forth a harvest for God?  Have I done everything that I am supposed to do?  That is the Law being applied to me.

But what about you?  Am I the only one who has been called to be a religious leader?  No, I’m not.  Each one of you parents has been called.  The people that you are called to lead are your children.  Do you testify to them that Jesus is the Son of God, the cornerstone, the one who holds everything together?  Are you tending them and teaching them to do what is right so that they will produce a harvest for God?  This is the Law which is being applied to you parents. 

And what about you kids......  Do you give God his due?  Do you recognize that your life is not your own to do with as you please?  Do you understand that God demands good fruit from you?  He demands that you do what is moral and right, that you help those in need, that you honor your parents in all that you do.  Do you do this?  This is the Law which is being applied to you.

Now you could rightly ask at this point, “Is there any gospel here?  Is there any good news?”  Yes.  Yes, there is.  But the good news might sound a little strange today.  Here’s what our lesson says, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”  Jesus was rejected, killed, and cast aside.  But he came back.  He’s unstoppable.  You can’t stop him.  Your sins can’t stop him.  Your doubts can’t stop him. 

And to go one step further our lesson says this, “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”  Now this doesn’t sound like good news either, but it is.  Here’s why.  Jesus isn’t subject to your whims and doubts and questions.  He isn’t the one who is on trial; he isn’t the one who has to measure up; he isn’t the one who has to pass the test.  He isn’t some delicate flower who risks being destroyed if we don’t tend him just right.  No, the leaders tossed him out of the vineyard and killed him, but he didn’t stay dead.  The builders rejected him, but now he’s anchoring the whole world and nothing can stop him.  God is going to get those whom he has chosen and no one is going to stand in his way.