Thursday, February 17, 2005

Sermon: Thursday of Lent 1 (Invocavit)

17 February 2005 at Chapel of Lutheran High School, Metairie, LA

Text: Matthew 4:1-11

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Today’s text is the assigned Gospel reading for the first Sunday in Lent – the forty day period of fasting and struggling against the Devil that Christians have observed since the earliest days of the church. There are 40 days in Lent, because our Lord likewise fasted and struggled against temptation for forty days. And while Lent can be an uncomfortable time of being reminded of our sins, it is also comforting to know that Jesus, our “Great High Priest,” is also one of us: a human being who struggled with temptation, and with being uncomfortable.

We sometimes forget that Jesus is 100% human. Being God at the same time did not make his body hurt any less when he fasted – or when he was being beaten and crucified, for that matter. Our Lord suffers, struggles, and endures temptation at the hand of the devil. And if God Himself had to struggle, can we expect any less?

Notice that it is God who leads him into the desert to confront Satan. Our text tells us “Jesus was led by the Spirit.” It was God’s will that Jesus be tempted, for without a confrontation, there couldn’t be a battle. Without a battle, there can be no victory. Without a cross, there can be no resurrection. And Lent, dear Christian brothers and sisters, is a time in which we are encouraged to take up our arms, put on our helmets, grab our shields, and prepare for war. We are all soldiers in the faith, and the enemy is the Evil One. We are to follow our General into the minefield, we are to engage the enemy amid the bombs and screams, and we are to look the devil in the eye and be willing to die in this war rather than surrender.

The Christian life is not for sissies. For Scripture describes our Enemy in many ways, as a clever serpent, as the father of lies, and as a lion looking to eat us. Engaging the devil in battle is no child’s play. And this is why Lent is such a serious time. Our churches become more plain, like Spartan military camps. Our words become more precise and focused – the way soldiers communicate in the heat of battle. And we look death in the face as our pastors somberly smear ashes on our heads: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

And where is this battlefield? It is inside of us. Each Christian is a self-contained civil war, a battle between the sinful lusts of the flesh, and the godly impulses of the spirit. And as in any war, shots are fired back and forth. Ground is exchanged back and forth. Sometimes God wins the skirmish, but sometimes Satan wins the fire-fight. There are times when we turn our backs to sin, and thus deliver Satan a mighty blow, but other times, when we when we cave in to temptation, the devil gains ground on us.

But let’s face it, dear friends, in this war, we are out-manned and outgunned. We carry around our sinful nature like a hundred-pound backpack. We are not as clever or as knowledgeable as Satan. And there is a very real part of every soldier in this war that secretly cheers for the enemy. Let’s face it, we like to sin. It’s fun. It makes the ugly part of us happy. We sabotage our own efforts in the battle. We betray our own army, and our General. In fact, our own efforts are so tainted with sin, there are times when we think we’re going good and fighting evil, when the reality is, we’re sinning and advancing the kingdom of darkness without even realizing it.

All the while we put on a happy, holy face for the world, we are all rotten inside. We gossip so often we don’t even know we do it. We cheat a little here, a little there. Everyone does it. We dishonor our parents, we break the laws, we defy godly authority. We laugh when those we consider to be our enemies slip up, or make mistakes, or get caught doing something wrong. We are daily given opportunities to be compassionate, or kind, or caring – but we think about ourselves instead. Instead of helping others up, we push them down at laugh at them. There is a very good reason we confess our sins at the beginning of the Sunday liturgy – “we poor miserable sinners” who sin against God in “thought, word, and deed” are a disgrace to our Lord who died for us. No matter how much we polish our halos for everyone in public, we are sinful to the core. Like St. Paul, we must cry out in misery: “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” We are miserable soldiers, ineffective and weak.

But let’s not forget, our God pulls for the underdog. He has a soft spot in his heart for the weak. It was the little boy with the slingshot that killed the might giant in battle. It was the former slaves who had no weapons at all that triumphed over mighty Pharaoh and his army. And it was not an angel, but a flesh-and-blood Man, a helpless baby, a human being who suffered hunger and temptation, a condemned criminal who endured a gruesome execution – who single-handedly conquered sin, death, Satan, hell, and all of the forces of evil. While we are out-gunned, we have a secret weapon on our side – the Blood of Jesus who has already won the battle for us.

And notice in our text how Jesus wages cosmic warfare against Evil. Three times, the devil did his worst, offering temptations to Jesus that each one of us, (if we’re honest with ourselves) would snap up in a New York minute. How many of us would jump at the opportunity to do anything, absolutely anything, if we were offered a million bucks. We would take the money, and justify ourselves for the sake of our greed. There’s a reason why reality shows are so popular right now. We love money, and we would gladly turn against Jesus for a price – whether it be thirty pieces of silver, or thirty million dollars. Anyone who says otherwise is a liar. Every one of Jesus’ disciples abandoned him when it got scary – and we all do the same thing.

But notice how Jesus fought back against Satan. He did not rely on his own power (though he could have). He did not play the “God card” (though it was in his power). Instead, he showed us how we could fight the devil. Jesus clearly showed us what the weapon of choice is against Satan: and that is the Word of God. For in each of the three temptations, our Lord hurled the Scriptures against the devil. And, dear friends, the Word of God is our only sword to keep the mighty devil at bay.

And Scripture tells us the Word of God is a two edged blade. One side is the Law, and the other side is the Gospel. In waging war against Satan, we need both edges. For the Law cuts down our hypocrisy, our lies, our self-delusion that we are righteous. It exposes the Enemy lurking inside each of us. And the Gospel slices back the other way, cutting our Enemy down, by forgiving our sins, and turning the devil’s powerful attacks into empty, hollow threats. For we can look the growling lion in the face, and smile at him with the words “I am baptized.” For it is written: “He who is baptized and believes will be saved.”

And when the devil perverts the flesh, that which God designed to be good, and uses it as a temptation for evil, we Christians can point to the Flesh that the devil can’t corrupt: the Flesh of Christ. For it is written: “Take eat, this is my Body. Take drink, this is my Blood. Shed for the forgiveness of sins.” The Blood of Jesus is the Atomic Bomb dropped on the devil’s head, and we have the opportunity to make use of that weapon every Sunday.

And when the devil uses our tongues to do his work of evil, perverting our words (which mocks the fact that Jesus is himself “The” Word), it is the tongue of the pastor who pronounces our sins forgiven. He uses not his own words, but God’s Word, for it is written: “If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven.” This Word of God sends the demons of hell scurrying for cover.

So dear brothers and sisters, let us make use of the Word of God in this Lenten season. It is the Word of the Gospel, the Word of Scripture, the Word of Absolution, the Word of Baptism, and the Word of Holy Communion. For the Word is truly the weapon that destroys our enemy. And alongside of our Lord, we are empowered to boldly say: “Away with you, Satan, for it is written…” Amen.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Sermon: Thursday of Sexagesima

3 February 2005 at Chapel of Lutheran High School, Metairie, LA

Text: Luke 8:4-15

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

In out text, Jesus explains how the Kingdom of God works.

He not only tells the parable, but gives us the exact meaning – lest anyone should say: “Well, that’s just YOUR interpretation – I see it differently.” No, Jesus is quite clear. Faith is created by the Word of God. This Word is represented by a seed. And we, dear Christians and dear non-believers alike, are dirt. Just as Adam was created from the dust of the earth, we human beings are like soil waiting to be made alive by a seed. Some soil is ideal for growth, some soil allows for temporary growth – but later fails, and some soil is so hard that no growth happens at all. And how does the dirt get the seeds? A farmer, that is, a preacher tosses them out.

This is a rather unappealing description of God’s kingdom: farmers tossing seeds on soil. A preacher as a sower, his listeners as piles of dirt, and the very word of God as a little seed. Jesus does many things well, but most experts today would find him to be pretty weak in the area of marketing. I mean, what could be more boring than a seed. They’re little, usually some plain color of brown or green. They’re quiet. You have to wait on them. Let’s face it: seeds are not “sexy.” They don’t grab our attention. And describing the people sitting in the pews as “dirt” is no way to treat a customer. And farmers? Most people don’t get too excited by agriculture. In today’s fast-paced, technological, buy-and-sell world, Jesus really blew it. Or did he?

Preachers and churches today often trade Jesus’s “farmer” model of ministry for something they think works better. They know better than Jesus, they know better than God, right? Instead of a preacher tossing seeds, they see the Kingdom of God as motivated salesmen marketing a product. Instead of wasting most of the seed on bad soil, the true salesman identifies a clientele, that is, a specific customer base, and aggressively tries to close the sale. Whereas a farmer scatters the seed everywhere and quietly waits for the soil, water, and light to make plants, a salesman makes things happen himself. He is a hustler with the gift of gab, a go-getter with a spiffy suit, flashy jewelry, and a blinding smile. And the modern sales model is more “successful” than Jesus’s “farmer” model. Churches that sell Jesus pack people in. Farmers get just what Jesus promises – maybe one in four people who are considered “good soil” – with most people turning away uninterested.

For example, a so-called church in Tampa, Florida is raffling off a $50,000 car. And all you have to do to be entered is to visit their church. Of course, the attendance numbers have gone through the roof since the promotion started. Some so-called preachers refer to what they do as a “show” and describe it in theatrical terms. They pack stadiums and really entertain. They don’t preach sermons, but rather give “uplifting and inspirational messages.” They don’t talk about sin, Jesus, and the Gospel of his atoning death for us (that’s such a “downer”), rather they fill their listeners heads with pop-psychology and appeals for money (you know, exciting stuff – “as seen on TV!”).

Now, to be fair, some of these showmen argue that they only engage in the marketing and salesmanship to get the customers in the door – at which time they can try to sell them Jesus in a classic “bait-and-switch” sales operation. “We must keep the customer happy,” they argue “so they will stay and hear the Gospel.” And indeed, in a sales model, there’s an old saying: “The customer is always right.” You have to tell the customer just what he wants to hear – otherwise the salesman hears the dreaded word “no!” So such preachers have to modify God’s Word to not talk about sin and repentance. They have to go light on the law, lest a sinner be offended. Sometimes, they will go heavy on the law, and ignore the Gospel – if that’s what the customer wants.

But what does Jesus say about “the customer is always right”? In his own preaching, he often offended his “customers” by calling them sons of the devil and telling them prostitutes would go to heaven before they would. Jesus is never going to make middle-management with that kind of pitch! Jesus raised the controversial issue of eating his flesh and drinking his blood – after which a third of his disciples left him. As any good modern salesman knows, you must avoid anything that causes division or offense. Let’s face it, Jesus is a lousy salesman. A good salesman doesn’t die on a cross.

Another bit of sales wisdom is: “It’s not about the steak, it’s about the sizzle.” In other words, the perception is more important than the reality when it comes to closing the deal. Marketing is about selling an image – and the truth of that image isn’t really important. But our Lord calls us to a higher calling – to proclaim the truth, for he said “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Preachers are to preach the same Gospel, in season and out of season. According to Jesus, it’s all about the steak, not about the sizzle.

I once heard a pastor actually suggest that seminary students be required to work a summer as a door-to-door salesman. He said this would help, since we pastors are actually “selling Jesus.” I thought: “How said.” This retired pastor who had spent half a century in the ministry never got it. It isn’t about salemanship, marketing, gimmicks, putting one’s foot in the door, and saying “Now how much would you pay?” It isn’t about saying “I won’t take no for an answer.” The Christian life isn’t like Amway and Ginsu knives. The preacher isn’t the guy on late-night TV trying to sell pocket-fishermen and George Foreman grills. It’s not about the preacher at all. To describe the preacher as a salesman is to deny the power of the Holy Spirit.

For the Spirit himself works through the Word of God to bring people to faith. When someone hears the Law of God, repents, and receives the forgiveness of the Gospel – it is a true miracle – just as surely as if a person in a wheelchair gets up and dances around. The preacher isn’t there to provide sizzle, but rather to be faithful. The church isn’t there to raffle off cars, but rather to give away eternal life. Sunday worship isn’t about putting on a show, but rather about taking the focus off of ourselves – our sinful, egotistical selves - and putting it on Jesus, where it belongs.

You see, Jesus’s parable is true. The seed of the Word of God looks weak, and even at times silly. The preacher appears foolish as he simply throws pellets at the dirt. But look at what happens. Seeds that hit good soil germinate. And spurred on by water and sunshine, they grow rapidly. The most mighty redwood trees come from a single little seed. All of the fruits and vegetables you eat come from seeds. The creative power of God Almighty is packed into the tiny sliver that the farmer flings about. It’s a true miracle – and no amount of science and can salesmanship duplicate what the humble seed does every day.

And the Word of God – though rather weak and silly looking to the senses – is likewise packed with God’s re-creative power – eternal life, victory over sin, death, and the devil. And it is all there, all in the tiny seed. The soil does nothing. It simply gets wet through holy baptism, and allows the sun of Word and Sacrament to nourish it, and within the soil, the Word of God grows. It becomes a little stem with a single leaf. But given time, it becomes a mighty tree that produces seeds itself, further spreading the Kingdom of God.

So dear Christian friends, please don’t be deceived by smooth-talking, slick salesmen who try to market “religion” to you, who try to sell Jesus like laundry soap and vacuum cleaners. For this is a false Christ. And our Lord promised we would have false Christs before his return. Look to that which is genuine: a preacher who doesn’t call attention to himself, but rather to his master, a church that isn’t in the game of entertainment or gimmicks, but rather struggles to be faithful to that Word, and a preached word that isn’t simply telling you what you want to hear, but rather is the true Word of God, the Gospel of the forgiveness won for the whole world through the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Don’t settle for the sizzle when you can have the steak. Don’t be content with a trinket when you can have everlasting life. Remember the power of the lowly seed, and may our Lord use his sowers to bombard you with the life-giving Word of God, that you may be good soil for the true growth of God’s Kingdom – within you, and in the world.

And may the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.