Sermon Proper 16 2019
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
This morning we meditate on the Epistle Lesson from Hebrews, previously read.
In the history of Lutheranism, it’s often been said that the doctrine of justification is the doctrine, the teaching—after all, that’s all that the word doctrine means, is teaching—but that the teaching of justification is the one upon which the church stands or falls. And as I say that on the one hand I can imagine you’re thinking, “Wow, that’s one way to start a sermon,” or maybe you’re thinking “I’ve heard of this, but what does it even mean? What does it mean when we talk about justification?” Well, when we speak of it as Lutherans, it means we are so sinful that the only way we can be made right with God is through the forgiveness of sins which Jesus won for us on the cross. In more common parlance, we can’t get to heaven by doing good things, instead we get there because Jesus died for all of our sins, and the benefit of what He’s done is given to us through faith in Him. And as the Church, if we don’t teach that correctly, we’ll fall.
Now, as I say that, this is one of those things that you hear week in and week out. Perhaps to the point where you wonder if we have to hear it again. And if you feel that way, it proves the point. We are so sinful that we forget just how sinful we are and how desperately we need that forgiveness. Like I’ve said a lot recently, we always, always, always underestimate the effect of the fall into sin. And because of that, we don’t realize how much that sin is showing when react in that way. And what does that show? It shows that just like with the rest of the world, we don’t like this teaching.
To this point, a couple of weeks ago, I was in Indianapolis for my brother’s wedding. While I was there I ran into some friends from High School. As we were bemoaning our aging bodies, one of them said to me, “You’ve got connections in your job, can you figure out what this is about?” And I said, “Well, from a theological perspective, I can tell you: our sin has cut us off from God who is the source of our life, and so we die.” And her response was, “I’d like to think my sin isn’t so bad.” That’s us, isn’t it? We’d like to think our sin isn’t so bad. We think that just like in the world, where we pick ourselves up by the bootstraps and we can succeed, the same must be true before God.
And on the flip side of that, if it’s not the case, that’s scary. If God isn’t happy with me because I’m so good, then He’s angry with me, and that’s terrifying. Of course, that’s what the author for the letter to the Hebrews is referring to. He’s referring to the terror at Mt. Sinai. If you remember that, you remember that the Israelites were brought out of their slavery in Egypt, they were carried through the wilderness, and at a point, God gave them the Law, and in particular, He gave them the Ten Commandments, and when He did that, they were scared. The author even says that Moses himself was terrified. This was an extremely scary experience. Think about it. The voice of God speaking from the mountain. The threat that should an animal even touch that mountain, it should die. There is something jarring in that, isn’t there?
And so that weighs on us. It weighs on us to always try to be good enough. Which we see manifest in so many fashions. I was listening to a podcast making the point that our trying to prove our own worth can even be seen in how we treat food. “Oh I was so bad this week. I ate terribly.” “Oh I was really good this week, I had salad every day for lunch.” You can hear it, there’s a moral quality to it. Or it also pointed out parenting things, like vaccines. “You vaccinate your children, oh that’s terrible.” “You don’t vaccinate your children, oh that’s terrible.” We’re all looking at the world and justifying ourselves, making ourselves out to be right that we can feel good over and against the jabs we take constantly; over and against what we as Lutherans call the Law—the Law spoken by God in the Commandments, but even the law as it manifests in our interactions with the world and others in the world. It all weighs on us.
And this is where this justification comes in. This is where we need justification from God, where we need the forgiveness of Christ. Listen again to what the author to the Hebrews says about that. Here he’s just been talking about Mount Sinai, like I said, and then he comes to a shift. He says, you haven’t been to Mount Sinai. No, where have you been? But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
Do you hear justification there? You’ve come to Mount Zion, and who’s there? Well there’s God, there’s the heavenly Jerusalem, there’s the angels, the assembly, the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and there’s Jesus. There’s Jesus. There’s the One whose blood speaks a better word than that of Abel. I’m guessing you remember the story of Cain and Abel, how Cain and Abel offer their sacrifices and God is pleased with Abel’s which is the first fruits, the best stuff because He trusts that God will give Him enough, then there’s Cain’s which is there but not the best. And so God isn’t as pleased, and Cain gets jealous and he kills Abel. But what does God say? “Where’s Abel? I know something happened to him. Where is he? His blood cries out to me from the ground.” Abel’s blood cried out. And to what end? For justice. But there’s this blood of Jesus. This blood poured out to satisfy the justice our sin deserves. The blood that was poured out to fulfill all sacrifices. The blood that was poured out crying out for you before God saying, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.” There’s that blood and it’s where these Hebrews have been, it’s at Mount Zion.
Of course, what’s actually being said here? Did these Hebrews get to have a special trip? Did the golden chariot that took Elijah up to heaven swoop down and carry them up? What’s the author talking about? He’s talking about worship. He’s talking about the Divine Service. I’ve made this point before, but it’s worth repeating. When you’re here in the Divine Service, when you gather around this Word of Jesus, when you gather around His body and blood, He’s here. Heaven opens up and Jesus is here. You’re with the angels, with archangels, and all of the company of heaven—that’s why we say that in the prayer. And you’re around the throne of Jesus in a particular way. In fact, I make this point in the Narrative Service where I explain the parts of the liturgy, but that’s why we sing what we sing in the service. These are songs given in Scripture, some of them in glimpses we see in heaven. The Gloria, “Glory be to God on High,” the words sung by the angels at the birth of Jesus. “Holy, Holy, Holy,” the words sung by the angels around the throne of God. God, there, with the whole company of heaven. That’s why the Church picked the songs so long ago.
Now of course, this isn’t something we grasp easily in our sin, is it? We can’t see, and so it’s not true. And this is all the more influenced by the Enlightenment, isn’t it? By the philosophies that have become so prevalent since the 1600’s or so? If you can’t see it, it’s not so. Heaven can have no bearing on earth. That’s the underlying assumption of so much of science—and as I say that, I’m not against the study of science or the world around us, but the academic world of science says it is required to interpret the world solely naturally. So in view of that, there’s no awe.
But what do we see in the Scriptures when they talk about being in God’s presence? We see reverence, awe, we see, “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” Think about what that means. Reverence, awe. God is a consuming fire. Think about it, when it comes to our worship, how should we gather? In that reverence. In that awe, in that fear. This should affect our attitude—the joy with which we should come to church. We get to come in the presence of God!!! The manner of how we come. Think about coming in that fear, in that reverence. Not just like you’re meeting your buddy, but the almighty God. Think about how you approach the service, the altar. How you carry yourself, how you dress even. Think about this. And think about what we come for.
What do I mean by that? Well, I started this whole thing talking about justification, and I alluded to it, but to hone the point with worship a bit, first ask yourself why you’re here. Why are you in that pew today? Just because it’s the right thing to do? Just because God commands it? Are you here to give something to God? You know that’s all common stuff. Does God just want you to do this because it’s right? Does God need you to come? But does God need your gifts? These are a start, but are they the end? I will not accept a bull from your house or goats from your folds. For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine. “If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats? Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving. Do you hear it there? God has all that He needs. He doesn’t need your gifts. So what’s the point of coming here? Well, He speaks of offering thanksgiving. But thanksgiving for what? For forgiveness. You see, you’re here, and God brought you here to meet with you, to give you His forgiveness. To absolve you, give you Jesus’ body and blood. He’s dwelling with you that you might be His people. He did all of this first. It’s only after all that that you can give Him thanks. And you need all of that stuff first. You need it constantly. You need it week in and week out. Does that mean if you miss a Sunday you’re going to hell? That’s the wrong question!! Why would you be anywhere else? Why would you want to put yourself somewhere where you’re not meeting with this God, not hearing the joy and the promise that He has justified you?!
And in that, then you hopefully see why the Church stands or falls on justification. The Church is the only institution that has this justification, and justification is the only unique gift the Church has for the world. You can get classes on self-improvement, on being a better person, on picking yourself up by the bootstraps anywhere, but it’s only here that you can meet with God and He’ll tell you “it’s done. It’s forgiven. I have baptized you and made you my own.” That’s what the Church stands and falls on, and as we live in such a mess of a world, that’s what we stand and fall on too. Amen.
Sermon Proper 15 2019
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. This morning we meditate on the Old Testament Lesson from the Prophet Jeremiah, previously read.
Jeremiah is often called the weeping prophet. As you read him, sometimes you could think it’s because he sounds like he’s whining about his calling from God to be His mouthpiece. And to be fair, Jeremiah was beaten and left for dead, abused in horrible fashion, such that we would likely whine as much or more. But the reason he’s called that is because of the sadness he conveys in view of what’s coming to Jerusalem. You see the Lord had revealed to Jeremiah that the people were unrepentant. He revealed that they would not repent, and because of that Babylon was going to come and the Babylonians were going to destroy Israel. They were going to come and take the Israelites from their homes and lead them into this captivity in a foreign land. There they would be captives, there they would be slaves, and worst of all, there they would have no access to the Temple. You see, as a whole, the people had rejected the Lord and His Word, so He gave them what they wanted, and Jeremiah knew all of this was coming.
He also knew that plenty of “prophets” weren’t warning the people of the truth of what was to come. He knew, as we can see in the lesson, that people were telling them all would be OK. They were telling them that Israel was strong and wouldn’t fall to Babylon, couldn’t fall to Babylon. They said that God would never let that happen. In other words they made promises that they hadn’t gotten from God saying that it was going to be OK. But it wasn’t going to be OK. God was going to let them fall. God was strong enough to save them, but they had rejected God and His Word, and so He was angry with Israel. You can hear it in our reading. Behold, the storm of the Lord! Wrath has gone forth, a whirling tempest; it will burst upon the head of the wicked. The anger of the Lord will not turn back until he has executed and accomplished the intents of his heart.
Yes God was angry. In fact, that word for anger there has connections to the word for nostrils. You can get the picture then. God is so angry at their sin, at their rejection, at the rebellion that, His nostrils are flaring, and like when we get angry, or even more so like when a bull gets angry, He’s expressing that anger in the air that’s coming out of those nostrils. God was angry. And Jeremiah was one of the few who understood this and was telling the people so.
But how did the people respond? Who did they listen to? Did they listen to Jeremiah? No. They didn’t like his negative attitude. He was too much of a downer, so they beat him. They cast him down in a cistern. They threw him out of the city. They didn’t like what he had to say and so they kicked him out. And instead who did they listen to? They listened to the other “prophets.” They listened to those about whom God said, ““I did not send the prophets, yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied. But if they had stood in my council, then they would have proclaimed my words to my people, and they would have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their deeds…. I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, ‘I have dreamed, I have dreamed!’ How long shall there be lies in the heart of the prophets who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart.’”
No the people listened to those false prophets because it didn’t rile them up so much. It didn’t make them cringe or hurt their feelings.
And there’s nothing new under the sun, is there? Look at today. Turn on the television and what do you see? When you have people talking about God what are they saying? Look at us. Look at our people with spiritual notoriety, the people on TV who are the experts. We have our Oprahs, and we have our fads. We have those who speak about how we can all find God in our own way, that no matter our spirituality it all points to the same thing. We have the notoriety and reverence that someone like the Dalai Lama receives. Or closer to the Church, we have our Joel Osteens, who makes sure to tell us that if we just trust in God enough we can have our best life now. We can actualize all of the potential that’s in us, and bring a slice of heaven into our lives. Did Jeremiah not believe enough? Where was his heaven?
Or look at what we have in the people on what I call “Jesus TV.” Maybe they’re not saying it’s just going to be OK, but they profess to be giving words, prophecies, and visions from God. But are they? Watch someone on there, and if they give some kind of prophesy “from the Lord,” look up their name and false prophecy on the internet. Usually you can find someone who has recorded a word that person has spoken “from the Lord” that was shown to be false—something contradictory to the Scriptures, or a promise that something was going to happen that came to be proven untrue. And do you know what Scripture tells us to do with false prophets? With one who presupposes to speak a word from the Lord yet is proven false? Well in short we to utterly ignore them. In the Old Testament, the call was to stone them, but that’s something given for Israel as a theocracy, not for us as individual Christians. With that in mind we can hear the severity. Don’t listen to those who claim to be speaking for God, but aren’t. Don’t listen to those who don’t speak what His Word does.
Instead listen to His Word. Listen to the call to repentance. Hear what He says to you. For example in the epistle reading, the call that Moses lived by: By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. Hear that call. In fact know what Jesus said, that as you choose to be mistreated with the people of God rather than enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin, this will sadly even divide you within your families: “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three.”
Hear that Word. Hear the Word that tells you of the anger of God at sin: Am I a God at hand, declares the Lord, and not a God far away? Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the Lord. Yes, Christians, hear that Word. And know it.
As I was reading this week, I read something that made the point about this anger, that God’s anger requires satisfaction. That’s a terrifying thought, isn’t it? If God is angry at sin, and His Word tells me of my sin that I should repent, and that Word tells me that His anger requires satisfaction, where should that satisfaction lie? Upon me, right? I’m the sinner. I’m the guilty one. I am the one who should bear that punishment.
When you think about that, when you think about all of this, you can see why The Lord in Jeremiah says that His Word is like fire, like a hammer that breaks rocks into pieces.
Let that Word, that hammer crush you. Why? So that once you have been crushed, once you have been brought to nothing, you may see the refuge given to the lowly in the One who bore that satisfaction. In the Gospel Lesson, Jesus speaks of His own anxiety with regard to the baptism with which He was to be baptized. Yet He had already been baptized? Why this fear? Because the completion of His baptism was His death. His death on the cross where all of the anger of God was poured out. All of the sins of the Israelites, all of your sin, your rejection, your rebellion, all of it poured out on Him.
And now He has been raised, and as the completion of His baptism was His death, the completion of His death is His resurrection so that the completion of your baptism might be your resurrection in Him. But your resurrection comes in the burial of your sin in His tomb. In view of that, repentance brings to your realization just how terrible your sin is. It brings to your realization that the wretchedness of that sin shows the depth of His love, and that in that love, you can see the joy of the God whose anger is now satisfied, whose nose no longer flares and fumes at you. You can see the joy of the fulfillment of the One who is faithful.
Continue, then to hear that Word. Continue to hear that Word where you know it will be: in the Holy Scriptures. Don’t seek for it in fancy places, in TV spirituality experts, in the sinfulness of your own heart, seek it there, and know what it promises. It doesn’t promise it will be OK. Sometimes it won’t. Often it won. But in the end, there will be the fulfillment of all it. The eternal joy and freedom of the eschatological kingdom of our Lord Jesus, where everything will be way better than OK, it will be all right. Amen.