Sunday, June 05, 2011

Sermon: Exaudi – 2011

5 June 2011 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: John 15:26-16:4 (Ezek 36:22-28, 1 Pet 4:7-14)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

“The hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor Me.”

In the eyes of the world, the recently deceased Dr. Jack Kevorkian was a hero. He helped people to avoid suffering. For in the eyes of the world, helping people to die rather than to suffer pain is a high act of moral compassion. And of course, compassion is a great virtue, as is trying to alleviate suffering. But at what cost? Should we “put people out of their misery” like we do animals – or does human life hold value even in suffering?

Martin Luther went so far as to consider suffering to be a “mark of the Church.” In other words, a church that is too comfortable is no church at all. For the Church is always attacked by the devil, and so suffering is always something that goes along with the Christian faith. Didn’t our Lord invite us to follow Him by also inviting us to take up our own cross?

And yet by contrast, the world mocks any suggestion that suffering may actually be noble. The world cannot understand our Lord’s teaching to turn the other cheek, to pray for our enemies, to forgive those who hurt us, and to count ourselves blessed when we are slandered and persecuted for the sake of the kingdom. Nor does the world understand one of the last words our Lord uttered in excruciating suffering on the cross: “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.” In fact, the word “excruciating” means literally the pain of the cross. And it is this cross we Christians take up, embrace, sign upon ourselves in remembrance of baptism, and look to with repentant joy – counting it a privilege to suffer for the sake of the Lord and His service, knowing that the Lord’s suffering was not in vain; that we are forgiven by means of His excruciating passion and death. And this is too much for the world to stomach.

Which is why there are those who count killing Christians to be a service to God – even as our Lord promised. In St. Paul’s day, the Jews persecuted the Christians. Later, Paul would himself be executed by the Romans. Roman Christians would one day suffer at the hands of Pagans. Christians would later suffer at the hands of other Christians, then at the hands of Muslims, Fascists, and Communists – all of whom count it a benefit to the human race to torture and kill Christians. Indeed, today marks the 716th day of captivity of Pakistani wife and mother Asia Bibi, who is also facing execution by hanging for the crime of being a follower of Jesus. Today is also the 3,718th day of imprisonment for a young Chinese woman named Li Ying – the niece of a pastor. She is not allowed to have a Bible, and instead works 15 hours a day making cheap exports that make their way to us here in America. Pastor Vahik Abrahamian has been imprisoned in Iran since last September, and spent his first 40 days in prison in solitary confinement and torture – all for following Christ. “Whoever kills you,” says our Lord, “will think he is offering service to God.”

The only way our brothers and sisters can suffer so courageously, still carrying forgiveness and peace in their hearts, is because of the Lord’s promise: “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness about Me.”

No one will suffer for a cause he doesn’t believe in. And while many will suffer for an evil cause, our brothers and sisters suffer for the sake of love, for the sake of the Gospel, for the sake of forgiving their enemies and praying for their captors, for the sake of Him who suffered and died and walked out of His own tomb. No suicide bomber or fanatical cult member can make the same claim. We Christians can suffer for the Lord because the Lord has suffered for us. We can love our enemies, because our Lord loved us even when we were His enemies. And yet, we are now reconciled with the Father. We are now at peace through the cruciform ministry of the Son. We are now made whole in the truth of the Spirit – who bears witness about the Christ whom the Church also confesses.

St. Peter teaches us that our faith is so radical, so countercultural, so at odds with the reasonable people of this world, that we should consider persecution to be business as usual: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you, as though something strange were happening to you,” says the apostle. He teaches us that what we should consider not being persecuted as weird. We should expect to be attacked, mocked, marginalized, lied about, or even imprisoned or put to death – as followers of Him who was Himself attacked, mocked, marginalized, lied about, imprisoned, and indeed put to death – even the excruciating death of the cross.

St. Peter counsels us: “Rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rest upon you.”

Sabina Wurmbrand, the wife of Pastor Richard Wurmbrand (both of whom were imprisoned and tortured for many years by Communists for no reason than that they were Christians) wrote about her time in prison with women of every walk of life – from prostitutes to nuns. On one occasion, she asked the nuns if they were permitted to sing hymns in prison. Sister Veronica said: “We are allowed to sing, and they are allowed to beat us” as Sister Sophia showed Sabina her many bruises and scars. They counted it a privilege to suffer for, and with, their Lord who suffered for them and gave His own life as a ransom for them and for many in order to reconcile us to the Father.

And so why should we count it odd to suffer far less than these for our own confession of faith? Certainly we share Luther’s confession that bearing the cross is one of the marks of the Christian. For even if we can make friends with the world to an extent for the sake of the Gospel, ultimately, the world still hates us, and it will turn on us like a rabid animal. For the world hated Him who came before us, who died for the sins of the world, who has called us to take up our cross and follow Him.

Dear friends, we make the sign of the cross not to remember the suffering of the cross, but to confess the benefit of the cross as delivered in our Holy Baptism. For the Lord Himself speaks through the prophet: “I will sprinkle clean water on you and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My Spirit within you.” This is repentance! This is regeneration and rebirth!

This, dear friends, is more than the world can stand, more than the devil can stomach, more than our sinful flesh can bear. And this promise is the very essence of faith, and it is something we Christians hold onto, come what may: even the “fiery trial” of suffering and persecution. For we know what the cross means: not merely pain to be avoided, but rather reconciliation to be effected. In His cross we find our Savior, and in His death we find our life.

The world doesn’t approve of this any more than it approves of Him. For this is the way of the cross. It is the way of forgiveness, life, salvation, reconciliation, love, hope, joy, and peace – even in times of suffering. For even in our crosses, this is our refrain, this is the Church’s confession, this is our answer to all the pain and suffering of this fallen world: “God… be glorified through Jesus Christ. To Him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.”

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

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

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