Monday, June 25, 2012

Biblical Apologetics, Part 1

Logical, philosophically reasonable arguments can – and indeed, must – be used in the defense of the Christian faith. But are Christians able to claim Biblical precedent for apologetics? Is it right for Christians to understand that apologetics is taught and used (widely) within the text of Holy Writ as opposed to something merely read into the text? And does a Lutheran apologetic entail more (but certainly not less) than arguments and intellectual understanding? The answer is yes, unequivocally.  Biblical examples of apologetics are both prescriptive and descriptive. This list below is the beginning of an annotated collection of Biblical apologetics passages.

This is why, when it comes to developing and inculcating ourselves in a Biblical apologetic approach, two things are vital:

1)      A lucid, robust, steadfast, Christ-centered Biblical confession of the Christian faith and,

2)     An objectively Christ-centered, winsome, well-reasoned, bold defense of the faith once and for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).

Anything less than would mean certain ecclesial and evangelistic suicide. Both gospel proclamation and the defense of the historical Christian faith must be given.

“In a secular world where numerous religious options are vying for attention, it is never sufficient just to proclaim the message of the gospel. That message must be offered together with the reasons why it is true, as contrasted with the many false solutions to the human dilemma that are inconsistent with it. This is exactly what the apostles did–think of Paul on the Areopagus” (John W. Montgomery).

The Church must sacrifice neither gospel proclamation nor its defense; a failure to do either one results in the loss of both. To paraphrase LCMS president Al Barry, “Get the message straight and get the message out, Missouri; and defend that message when necessary.” For we see that in the New Testament, gospel proclamation is never alone. It is always accompanied with evidence: healing, miracles, the tangible and physical, etc. This should come as no surprise to hearers of the Word. After all, as Lewis reminds us, “God likes matter; He created it” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity).
This is why, among the myriad of tools we can use to defend the Christian faith the best singular approach which captures the Christo-centric thrust of Lutheran proclamation is evidential apologetics.

1.       St. Paul used evidential methods in 1 Corinthians 15:3-6 when delivering to the Corinthians what he received from others, namely, the proclamation of the historical facts of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Paul makes a particular point to mention specific people by name who had seen the risen Lord: James, Cephas, the apostles and five hundred others, most of whom were still living. In other words, Paul is telling people: “Don’t want to take my word for it, fine; go talk to these guys. They saw him dead on Friday and alive on Sunday or soon after.”

2.      Jesus also used this method repeatedly. In Matthew 11:4-5, Jesus responded to the messengers of John the Baptizer who had inquired about whether or not He was the Messiah by saying, “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them” (emphasis added).

 “In short, Jesus pointed to the empirical evidence of His miraculous work from which John could conclude He was indeed the Messiah. Jesus did not tell John’s disciples simply to have “faith” that He was the Promised One, apart from pointing them to empirical evidence.”[1]

3.      Mark 2:1-12 and the healing of the paralytic is also empirical. “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Arise, take up your bed and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins”—He said to the paralytic, 11 “I say to you, arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.”  

 The man went away healed in body and soul. And it is precisely through an empirical, evidential method – healing the man – that Jesus demonstrates his claim to have the authority to forgive sin. Once again, gospel proclamation is accompanied by miracles. (i.e. evidence). For our subjective faith must always be grounded in the objective reality of the gospel. This is why evidence matters.

4.      Now of course, a miracle – or any other piece of evidence for that matter – does not automatically mean the person witnessing the miracle will come to faith. Lutheran apologetics does not claim to create faith ex opera operato for faith is created by the Holy Spirit where and when He pleases (AC V). And no one can say that Jesus Christ is Lord, unless it is by the Holy Spirit. In fact, many who saw the miracles of Jesus rejected him all the more because his teaching and miracles.

 Jesus says as much in Luke 16:29-31:“They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.”

 Apologetics has its benefits to be sure, but it also has its limits. Evidence can only go so far. Proclamation is the primary task, but when called for, a defense is necessary. The book of Acts is full of apologetics. “Using the categories of the period of Lutheran orthodox, saving faith involves (1) notitia, (2) assensus and (3) fiducia. Any apologist worth his salt knows that the highest level his work can reach is (2) assensus– no more. Fiducia is beyond his reach, is God’s business” (Rod Rosenbladt).

 And yet our Lord and his apostles always proclaim the gospel and provide an objective, factual basis for their claims. Done faithfully, apologetics is evangelism; both proclamation and defense go hand in hand. What we believe is always allied with why we believe it. The subjective gift of faith is grounded in the objective historical, theological reality of the person and work of Jesus on our behalf.

5.      This is why we are commanded in 1 Peter 3:15 to “always be ready to give a reasoned defense to anyone who asks you for a reason of the hope that is within you.” That little Greek word translated , defense, is the where we get the word apologia – and apologetics from.

6.      This word apologia also shows up in Philippians 1:17 as well as St. Paul tells the Christians in Philippi that he has been “appointed for the defense (apologia) of the gospel.

Stay tuned for more in Biblical Apologetics, Part 2 as Steadfast in Defense continues to add to the growing list of Scriptural examples as we pray, “O Lord, open my lips and my mouth will declare your praise.” And by all means, submit further examples.

[1] Alvin Schmidt, Christianity Needs More Lutheran Apologetes, p.500. Tough Minded Christianity: Honoring the Legacy of John Warwick Montgomery, ed. William Dembski and Thomas Schirrmacher, B&H Publishing Group, Nashville, TN, 2008.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Sermon for Trinity 2: Beggars and Banquets

+ Trinity 2 – June 17th, 2012 +
Guest preaching: St. Paul’s, Long Beach
Luke 14:15-24

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

“Come, for all is now ready.”
            You’d think the people would be piling through the doors, like a bunch of LA Kings’ hockey players trying to get their hands on the Stanley Cup. The table is set. The feast is prepared. The dinner bell rings. You know the food’s going be good. One man declares: “Blessed is everyone who will eat the bread in the kingdom of God.”

            He’s right, of course. Everyone who eats the Bread of God is blessed. Problem is, everyone invited isn’t coming. So Jesus tells them a parable exposing the Pharisees’ rejection in the process.
            The whole scenario is rather unexpected. A sumptuous feast. The finest of wines. The richest of foods. The good stuff your doctor says to stay away from. And if that wasn’t enough, Jesus, God in human flesh is there teaching and eating with them. What more could you ask for?! And yet, they all make excuses.
            How unexpected. You don’t sit down at the dinner table after a long day at work, famished only to say, “No thanks. I’d rather go to bed with my stomach gurgling.” That’s crazy.

            In fact, this whole parable is full of unexpected things. But the most unexpected thing about this parable is that God is the biggest beggar. No one’s clamoring to get in, pounding on the door or shoving their way to the table like you’d expect. Rather, it is God who begs in order that He might give. The Lord is the Giver. He begs to give that others may have. He gives and you receive. That’s the grammar of the Gospel.
            For the Lord loves a banquet. He is the happiest when his people are gathered around him at the table. The Lord delights in giving out good things – ordinary, everyday things, and things far beyond the ordinary. It has always been that way. When God created the world, He was so pleased with it that He couldn’t keep it for himself and simply had to share it with those who would delight in it with him.

            There’s always more than we could ever imagine. Just go to the Long Beach aquarium sometime and see how many varieties of fish there are. God could have made only 12 of each species, but there’s an absurd amount of fish: one fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish, Nemos, trigger fish, dog fish (which is funny because dog=fish in Hebrew, only spelled differently of course) and my favorite, the humbug fish; it looks like a referee.
            God is an abundant, ridiculous Giver; and His abundant, unexpected mercy doesn’t stop with the 1st article; He lays it all out in the 2nd and 3rd too. That was the whole point of Jesus’ dinner parable.  And yet, his grace, his eating and drinking with sinners, his teaching, and his presence – the very things that bring life – are met by the Pharisees with heartrending rejection, one excuse after another, each one more insulting and fabricated than the last.

            First, there was the real estate expert. “I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please have me excused.”
            It’s a boldfaced lie and everyone knows it. No one in Jesus’ day – or today – goes out and buys a piece of land sight unseen; that’s asking for trouble. The buyer investigates every rock, tree and soil type on the land. Walk the property, learn its history and get an inspection report before buying the place. It’s an obvious insult and a farce. For this man, his field is more important than the banquet.

            Then there’s the rancher, an alleged livestock expert. “I have bought 5 yokes of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused.”
            What a pile of oxen manure. His excuse is as transparent as the last guy’s. You should expect a buyer to examine his livestock – or like you would a vehicle - make sure they pull together as a team, run a straight row in your field, otherwise they’re worthless. It’s good to take the oxen out for a test drive before you buy them, but not afterwards. This guy’s fooling no one either. Now we see where the invitation really stands. Even the unclean oxen are more important than the banquet.

            And lastly there’s the passionate bridegroom: “I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.”  
            How rude. How insulting. Why not bring his new bride along? The wedding feast is clearly over. But rather than celebrate a great banquet, rivaling any marriage feast, this last man gives no excuse; He is brutally honest: “I cannot come.” His bride and his feast are more important than the banquet. Ironically this bridegroom is too busy to celebrate the real wedding with the real bridegroom at a real banquet.

             They all refuse the invitation. It is a gift, which means it can be rejected. And though Jesus is rejected, angry even, his response is utterly unexpected. Where we would lash out in anger and vengeance, Jesus weeps and mourns: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you would not!
            God takes out his anger over sin and rejection on himself; the Father rejects His own Son so that you would not be rejected forever.
            Where we would point a judgmental finger at the self-righteous, He calls out to the servants of the house: “Go out quickly to the streets and bring the poor and crippled and blind and lame.”
            God points the finger of judgment upon his own Son, and you go free with an invitation to the Table of our Lord: “Come, for all is now ready.”
            Where we would join Jonah in waiting for fire to rain down upon Nineveh, the Lord delights in pouring out His unconditional, unmerited, outrageous, abundant mercy upon you. That is Christ’s greatest delight: to suffer for you on the cross. To become the fool, the sinner, the unholy, the cursed, the outcast, the beggar…all for you.

            Our Lord loves to give. He invites, pleads, gives and begs to save you – he doesn’t get on his hands and knees - but rather sticks his own body on the tree, a gracious invitation: “Come, for all is now ready.” So, what can I bring to the party? Just this: Your sickness, suffering, sin and death and he gives you forgiveness, life, healing – even a feast in return. “Open your mouth wide,” our Lord says, “and I will fill it.”
            In place of our foolishness, Christ is our wisdom; In place of our sins, Christ is our righteousness; In place of our weakness, Christ is our sanctification; In place of our bondage to sin, Christ is our redemption. The Crucified One gives you nothing but the best he has to offer: His hands, his head, his body, his blood; he gives you himself. What an unexpected and joyous party.

            God may be the biggest beggar, but he is not alone. He is a beggar who welcomes beggars into the Kingdom. “Go, out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled.”
            Notice Jesus doesn’t say: “Go out and let them decide if they want a seat at the table; let them work for their supper, or make sure they’re cleaned up enough.” No, we come to the Lord’s feast on his terms, not ours. It is the Lord’s feast, the Lord’s invitation, the Lord’s compelling, and the Lord’s doing from start to finish and everything in between. This feast is pure gift.
             The best way to come to this feast is to heed the Divine Beggar’s call and come as a beggar yourself. We are beggars, this is true. We are undeserving, unworthy, unfit. And yet our Lord gives. Unexpectedly. Unconditionally. Unreservedly. For He loves nothing more than to roll out a banquet for beggars.

            So, come, with all of your sin and your sullied hands, your filthy garments and self-righteous rags and receive the wedding garments made white in the blood of the Lamb. Come with your empty sacks ready to be filled with good things. Come with your ashes and repentance ready to be washed in mercy. Come with your bellies aching ready to receive the Bread of God; the Bread of Life is here to feed you, sustain you and give you his own body and blood to eat and drink. Come here to the banquet table of our Lord; it extends all the way back to our Lord’s dinner-table in Luke 14 and all the way forward to the marriage supper of the Lamb. Our Lord just keeps adding leafs to the table, like a big family Sunday dinner. There’s plenty of room. Let the house be filled. This is one feast you don’t want to miss.
            “Come, for all is now ready.”        

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

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Stallings Wedding Sermon: "A Pair of Three"

+ Wedding of James and Amanda Stallings. June 16th, 2012 +

Ecc. 4:9-12; Philippians 4:4-13; John 15:1-13

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

             Ever noticed how many good things come in pairs? Coffee and donuts, bacon and…well, just about anything, Lutherans and potlucks. You get the point. However good these things are separately, they are better together than alone and separate.

            Solomon was right; two are better than one.

            That’s the way it was in the beginning before the Fall into sin. God and man united in perfect communion. But when Adam searched the garden he found no suitable companion. And though God’s creation was “very good” it was very not-good for Adam to be alone. He was incomplete. Something – or rather someone – was missing.

            So, God made Eve, built a bride for Adam out of flesh and bone. All while Adam was sleeping. This is how God works in marriage and salvation. God gives and you receive. Unmerited. Undeserving. Unconditionally.

            No wonder Adam’s cries out in exclamation: “This is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” Adam was no longer alone. The lovely creature standing before Adam was made from his very flesh. Different, but the same; a perfect complement. And they were better together than they were alone.

            So it is for James and Amanda. They are as incomplete without each other as someone walking around without their own head. Amanda said as much in pre-marriage counseling one day. “He gives me my left-brain and I give him my right brain.”

            What a marvelous image. A perfect pair. Giving what the other lacks and needs. As wonderful as these two people are separately, they are far better together than alone. For it not just your brains that you give to one another today – although both of you have plenty of brains to share – but your entire life.

            James, God gives you Amanda, your Eve, your life and your very own flesh. Different from you, but a perfect complement. A perfect pair. And greater love has no husband than this, that he lay down his life, as well as live, for his wife. That is the way husbands love – laying down their life and living for their bride as Christ laid down his life for the Church.

            Amanda, abide in this love like a branch to a vine. Receive and respond with this love. For the love that James gives to you was first given to him by Christ. Amanda, God gives you James, your Adam. He is different from you, but a perfect companion. There’s no need to command Amanda to love James in return. She does it freely, joyfully, as easily as breathing.

            And yet it is not good for James and Amanda to be alone.

            For there will be days when you will not think about whatever is honorable, just, pure or lovely. There will be days when you will fail to do what is commendable, excellent and worthy of praise as St. Paul encourages us to do. You will sin against each other, it’s inevitable.

            And that is why it is not good for James and Amanda to be alone. Because if James and Amanda are one flesh, they too are in need of a helper. Someone to complete the pair.

            That someone is Jesus. For as many things as you do for each other, there is nothing better than what Christ has done for you on the cross.

            For all the times you will fail to live up to your marriage vows, Christ never fails to live up to His promises for you. For all the times you fail to be the perfect spouse, Christ’s perfection will cover up your sins and failures. He forgives you without fail. James and Amanda love each other because Christ first loved them.

            Although you make your vows today, it is Christ who has and holds you from this day forward, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health; He will never leave you, never abandon you. He has pledged you his faithfulness.        

            As the Father has loved me,” Jesus says, “so have I loved you.” And greater love has no one than this, that Christ lay down his life in behalf of his friends. Jesus is the Vine to your branch. We, together with James and Amanda, abide in the love of Christ Crucified. And united together in Christ we are better than we ever could be alone.

             In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.


Thursday, June 14, 2012

Enemy Occupied Territory

One of the many difficulties in preaching is choosing which illustrations or examples to use and which ones to toss aside. I often keep some of these notes from the cutting room floor for posts here, future sermons or salient points worth diving into deeper during a Bible study. Last week's Gospel reading - at least in the three-year lectionary - was from Mark 3, Jesus' parable of the strong man. The second stanza of All the Earth with Joy is Sounding captures the text brilliantly,

Christ, the devil's might unwinding,
Leaves behind His borrowed tomb.
Stronger He, the strong man binding,
Takes, disarms his house of doom;
In the rout 
Casting out
Pow'rs of darkness, sin and doubt.
(LSB 462:2)

No wonder Abraham Lincoln used this text for his famous "house divided" speech in 1858. Jesus is talking about civil war, rebellion. And thus, we find ourselves, as quoted by Lewis below, in enemy occupied territory. We're stuck in the house of doom. Captive in the strong man's coffers. That is until the stronger man comes along, kicks in the door, breaches the devil's treasure keep to pillage death and hell. Jesus the divine Pirate comes for you, his plunder. Or, as Lewis mentions, depicts, Jesus is the rightful King who comes to quell the rebellion led by Satan in the garden. His cross is your victory. His resurrection is your guarantee. In Baptism He has conscripted you into his army of saints, placed the mark of His crucifixion on your forehead and your heart, placed His very Name upon you in order to bless you, save you, forgive you and bring you out of Satan's house into His own, from death to life, from curse to blessing, out of the wilderness back into paradise restored. And He even arms you with the whole panoply of God. For he calls us to take part in the great sabotage campaign, known as the Christian life in the one, holy, apostolic, catholic church. When you go to Divine Service, Christ continues to kick down the door of the strong man's house, binding him and rescuing you from sin, death and hell. When you receive the absolution, the strong man is bound when God's loosing words bring you forgiveness. When you are baptized and daily drown and rise in your Baptism, his cogs and gears are halted. When you kneel and eat Jesus' body and blood, the bread once declared a curse of the fall now comes to bless you, heal you and rescue you. When you declare the Good News - Jesus died for your sins - to your neighbor, the devil's ranks are confused like the Midianites before Gideon. When you sing a hymn of praise and join in the liturgy the devil flees from the battle field for he cannot bear to be in the presence of the Word of God.

Christianity agrees with Dualism that this universe is at war. But it does not think this is a war between independent powers. It thinks it is a civil war, a rebellion, and that we are living in a part of the universe occupied by the rebel. Enemy occupied territory - that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage. When you go to church you are really listening-in to the secret wireless from our friends: that is why the enemy is so anxious to prevent us from going. (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Book II, chapter 2).

Monday, June 11, 2012

Sermon for Pentecost 2: Jesus the Burglar

+ Second Sunday after Pentecost – June 10th, 2012 +
Series B, proper 5 - Gen. 3:8-15; Mark 3:20-35

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

            The enemy advanced. The other side scrambled to cover their flanks. Retreat! Run away! As quickly as the fight began, it was over. The white flag appeared. The enemy triumphed. The deception worked. No, this was not the civil war predicted by Lincoln’s famous “house divided” speech of 1858. Although Lincoln got the idea from today's Gospel reading.
            It was the temptation heard ‘round the world: “Did God really say?” Satan led the revolt that brought enmity, pain in child birth, sweat, suffering, thistles, sin and the curse of death. And Adam and Eve defected, joined the rebellion bringing us down with them. Dust you are and to dust you shall return. God’s creation once proclaimed: “Very good” was turned upside down: Brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor, creatures against their Creator – a cosmic house divided. Now all of history bears the scars of our civil war (GNR).
            Jesus’ own house was divided. The healing, teaching, casting out demons. “He’s out of his mind,” they said, “a few books short of the Torah.”  In a way they’re right. The way Jesus spoke; the things he did; he was either a lunatic or the Yahweh in human flesh. And if it weren’t for His resurrection from the dead, we’d probably think Jesus wasn’t playing with a full deck either. It’s crazy to call God your Father, except in the most symbolic sense, unless, of course, it’s true.

            And that’s when the Scribes joined the battle cry: “He is possessed by Beelzebul and by the prince of demons he casts out demons.” It’s the ultimate OT insult: you don’t like what someone says, call ‘em the devil. In the OT Beelzebul was a Caananite god, the lord of the flies, the god of dung. A crass euphemism for the ruler of death. Eventually it became another name for Satan.   
            That’s what the Scribes are accusing Jesus of – not that he’s crazy; he’s in league with the devil, sold his soul like some country song. Might make for great television but it’s most illogical.  “How can Satan drive out Satan?” Divided kingdoms don’t stand. Divided houses fall. If Satan is actually opposed to himself, then his days are over.”

            The truth, however, is just the opposite. Jesus did not join the devil’s ranks. His arrival answers that warning flare fired in Genesis 3:15; Jesus fulfills the promise God gave in a curse to Satan, “I will make enmity between you and the woman, between your seed and hers. He will crush your head and you will crush His heel .”
            Gen. 3:15 is the great “I shall return” of the OT. God promises to do what fallen man could not do. Jesus is not the one in league with the devil; Adam and Eve were; and we so are we.  The devil may have made victims of us, held us hostage. But we’re guilty of treason too; In Adam we have spiritual Stockholm syndrome – so blinded by the devil’s enticing offers that we forget who he really is and what he’s done. “Fast bound in Satan’s chains we lay.”

             And that’s why Jesus, the rightful King, lands in enemy occupied territory.  Jesus comes for you. To your rescue. To save you.  A great invasion. Bethlehem is the beachhead. The wilderness temptation is a key battleground; and skirmishes break out all over: casting out demons in Capernaum, Galilee and Gerasene. Jesus is on the move, headed toward Jerusalem to the cross, the last battle.
            Jesus dies the same way he is born: in humility and utter helplessness. “What a kook! He must be crazy. So weak; how foolish,” the world cries out. But the foolishness of God is wiser than men. And the weakness of God is stronger than men and the devil. So, this is Jesus’ battle plan: “bind the strong man” and plunder his goods.
             Jesus does what we are unable and unwilling to do. Jesus the Burglar comes in human flesh, ties up the devil, storms the dragon’s lair and reclaims you, his rightful treasure. We’re the plunder the divine Thief carries off after He’s tied up the strong man. We who were once dogs, rebels, and sinners are now Jesus’ greatest treasure in the cross.
            Salvation is a hostage rescue effort. We were held captive to sin and death. Christ breaks into our world, overpowers our captors, and takes us along with Him in His death and resurrection to live in freedom. We’ve been pulled out of an eternal hostage crisis by the stronger man, the rescuing hands of Jesus, who reaches out to you from the cross, grabs hold of you in the water of Baptism, in the preached Word of Christ, at the table of His Body and Blood, and he tosses out the lifeline of faith, embracing you in His death.

            Death, sin, the Law, Satan – all did their worst. But on the cross, Jesus was doing his best. For there on Good Friday God’s house was divided against itself. Father against Son. God against God: “Father, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus innocently assumed all our sin and was repelled by the Father’s holiness. Jesus was forsaken and abandoned in our damnation. His hands still bear the scars of our civil war.
           And here’s the blessed irony. This civil war did not bring God’s house to ruin. It made His house stand. Restored the Kingdom. Jesus has robbed hell of its power, Satan of his accusations, sin of its guilt and death of its sting. For this division of Father and Son on the cross removed the division between God and us; our sinful sedition was quelled by the blood of Jesus. And because Jesus was forsaken on the cross, you are now members of his family. The death of Jesus is the exorcism of the world. Satan is cast out. Death lost its grip. Jesus is loosed from the tomb and you are free, loosed from the chains of sin and death.

            Speaking of loosing, the word Mark uses here for forgiveness means loosing; whenever sins are forgiven, sinners are loosed, your chains are broken, and you are freed.
            “All the sins and blasphemies of man will be forgiven…All is forgiven. I died for it all,” Jesus says.” How many sins? All. How many people did Jesus die for? All. Which one of your sins isn’t paid? None. What a kook! That's outrageous. Crazy. Throw your worst at Jesus, and He says, “Forgiven.”
             Why does Jesus say this? “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness; he is guilty of an eternal sin.”
            We’ve probably all asked ourselves at some point: Did I do it? How will I know if I did? You’ve probably heard both pastors say this before, but it’s worth repeating: If you’re worried about it, you haven’t done it.
            What’s Jesus saying then? Remember that the religious types were saying that He had an unclean spirit. They were calling both Jesus and the Holy Spirit unclean and rejecting His work. They refused to receive what Jesus was giving them. That’s the sin against the Holy Spirit – knowing the work of Jesus and refusing to be forgiven anyway, refusing to receive what the Spirit wants to deliver to you from Jesus.
            The unforgivable sin isn’t unforgivable because it’s so big and bad. Jesus can deal with big and bad sin, and big, bad sinners. The unforgivable sin is unforgivable because it wants no part of forgiveness. And that’s just downright crazy, foolish even.

            So, if you’re worried about that sin or any other sin; there’s no better place to be than the house that Jesus built, his Church. Here the binding and loosing of sins continues in the Office of the Keys. Here the devil is cast out in Holy Baptism. Here the will of God is done for you in His Word and at His Table where all yours sins are forgiven.
            You won’t get any help from the world out there.  Your neighbors might say you’re a few onions short of an animal style burger or maybe you have a demon too. Invite them to church anyway; they just might say yes. Share the Gospel with your neighbor. There’s always room in Jesus’ house for more family members. Love your enemies. Pray for them. Pray for unbelievers. Care enough to share the Good News with them.
            No surprise, you won’t get any help from Satan. Coming to church is like listening to a Pirate Radio station; you’ve snuck behind the enemy’s lines to hear God’s Word and you’re taking part in the King’s great campaign of sabotage (C.S. Lewis, MC). No wonder he works so hard to keep you away.
            And your old sinful nature certainly isn’t any help either. The best thing to do with your Old Adam is to drown him. That little brat in us needs to die, daily in Baptism. What better way to do that than to receive forgiveness, read the Word, pray with your family, receive the Lord’s Supper weekly.
            Here with your family in God’s house. It’s like one big, weekly family reunion. Who are Jesus’ brothers and sisters and mother? You are.

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.   

Monday, June 4, 2012

Sermon for Holy Trinity: "Made and Declared Holy by the Holy Trinity”

+ Trinity Sunday – June 3, 2012 +
Series B: Isaiah 6:1-8; Acts 2:22—36; John 3:1-17

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

             Trinity Sunday is a strange day, a festival without a narrative. All the others: Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost – they all have rich historical accounts, vibrant characters and theological plots and sub-plots. Today the Church celebrates not an event, but a doctrine. Not the play, but the play-write. Not the movie but the director and lead actor. The whole earth and the whole church year are full of his saving glory.
            There’s great joy to be sure. But there’s also great mystery in the Scripture’s teaching of this Triune God who made the heavens and the earth, the God who revealed Himself to Moses in a burning bush, the God who led Israel out of captivity into freedom; the God made Himself concretely known and knowable in the incarnation of His Son Jesus Christ, the God who blows His Spirit-breath through His Church and raises the dead to life. While we don’t fully understand this mystery, we confess what Scripture reveals and gives us.
            On this day the Holy Trinity reveals and gives us His holiness, just as He did for Isaiah in the year that King Uzziah died.

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
The whole earth is full of His glory!”

            Or to say it the Athanasian way: The Father is holy, the Son holy, the Spirit holy; and yet there are not three holies but one holy.
            But while the angels sing in heavenly bliss, Isaiah cries out in terror: “Woe is me! For I am undone, lost, silenced; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.”
            That old cliché is wrong: it’s not your eyes that are the window to your soul; it’s your lips. The lips confess and reveal what your heart believes. Before our neighbor we dishonor, hate, lust, lie, gossip, and covet without even moving our lips.  And the same is true before God: we have not kept His Sabbath or his Name holy among us any more than we have feared loved and trusted in him above all things. Our lips reveal the real trinity we worship: me, myself and I.
            And so Isaiah confesses the truth not only about himself, but about us. I am a man of unclean lips. Not a little smear of iniquity easily wiped away with a napkin, but the leprosy of sin. The curse of death. Like Isaiah, we are unclean. Dead to sin. And we live among a people – in the pew next to you and in the pulpit, in your house and neighborhood; sinners everywhere  - all of us unclean before Yahweh’s holiness.
             No wonder Isaiah was terrified. Sin and the Law do that to a man – break us and bring us to our knees. Woe is me!  Isaiah read Exodus and Leviticus. He knew what happened when unholy sinners came into contact with a holy God: dead, purged in holy fire. What are we sinners to do before this holy God?

            Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”

             Here a resurrection from the dead takes place.  The seraph is sent to set the prophet to free him from sin bearing a Word and a Sign from the Lord himself. The Word: Isaiah, your iniquity is taken away. It’s accompanied with a sign: a sacred, live coal. But this was no ordinary coal. For where there’s a burning coal, there’s a sacrifice; where there’s a sacrifice, there’s atonement; where there’s atonement there’s forgiveness;  where there’s forgiveness there’s holiness; and where there’s holiness, there’s Yahweh himself, to reveal and give his holiness. He did for Isaiah and he does it for you.
            The seraph brought Isaiah a sacrament – a Word and a Sign from Yahweh himself. The same holy fire that is death to sinners also purifies. Isaiah was Cleansed. Purified. Made holy and set apart by Yahweh. And appointed as a prophet: “Here I am, send me!” Now those unclean lips will declare God’s Word.

            “That’s great for Isaiah,” you say. “But what about us?” Isaiah had the vision and the coal. And you have something just as sure: a Word and a Sign. You have a messenger sent from God who is God. The God who has flesh and bones like you do, yet without sin the stain of sin. The one who stands upon the royal throne of heaven and declares to you, “Behold I am a man of clean lips and I will become unclean for Isaiah and for you and the whole world.” Before the Father, he lives to plead for you and before his neighbor he loves as he is loved.
            This morning you probably won’t see any visions of the heavenly throne room or have seraphim flying fire-berries to our lips. Because Trinity Sunday is not simply a day to stand in awe of God’s total almighty awesomeness. The whole point of today’s festival isn’t that God is big and mysterious. That’s true, but it doesn’t do you any good. Trinity Sunday is the celebration that the big, mysterious, all powerful God has come and revealed himself to us in the flesh and blood of the God-man Jesus.
            What’s really awesome about Trinity Sunday is that He who could condemn us redeems us instead. That He who should have consumed us in holy fire instead calls down the flames of His wrath upon His own Son on the cross. That He who is everywhere comes for you in particular places: a manger, cross, the font, altar, pulpit. This Jesus, whose glorious robes billow throughout the heavenly throne room, whose holiness shakes the foundations and thresholds of heaven also became man.
            The Holy One of Israel became unholy, defiled and unclean so that you might become holy, pure and righteous in his sight. This Jesus reveals and gives you His holiness just as He reveals and gives you His Name. And wherever you have Jesus, there you have the Father and the Spirit. “Truly I say to you, whoever has seen me has seen the Father. And when I go away I will send you the Comforter who will glorify me and give everything that is mine and declare it to you.”

            This mystery of the Godhead – Father, Son and Holy Spirit - must be revealed in the Word and by Jesus, the Word made flesh. This is one mystery our own reason or senses cannot solve. After all, if we were going to invent a god and a religion, we wouldn’t start with the paradox that God was three in Person yet one in Essence. It just doesn’t make sense. Or as the writer/apologist Dorothy Sayers put it: “The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, the Spirit incomprehensible, the whole thing incomprehensible.” And that’s how it should be. Any god that fits neatly inside of your head is not God.
            You may not comprehend the doctrine of the Trinity. But know this. You have the God of the manger. The God who bled and suffered and died on the cross and ate breakfast with his disciples after his resurrection. “We saw him, ate with him, touched and heard him,” the eyewitnesses declare.
            Look for God in the manger and on the cross, in Baptism, in the Supper, the voice of Absolution, in the Word of Scripture. Look to the God revealed in His Son Jesus, who touches us by His human nature. For it is through Jesus, and Him alone, that we come to the Father and receive the Spirit and His gifts.
            You may feel unclean, sinful, and dirty before God like Isaiah, but you are clean. You have been washed and absolved. And every time the Body and Blood of Jesus touch your lips, you are once again made and declared to be clean in God's sight. There we sing “Holy, holy, holy” as we approach the Lord’s Table. Here the Holy Trinity who is holy in himself grants our prayer – hallowed be thy name. For in the holiness of Jesus’ body and blood, his name and salvation are kept holy among us also.
            These are the words to sing when God shows up. Isaiah had the coal. You have the Lord’s Supper, the live coals of Jesus; body and blood. The best thing for unclean lips like ours is holy food. And once again, a messenger of Yahweh stoops down to touch your lips with a Word and a Sign. Your iniquity is taken away. Your guilt is purged. Your sin is atoned for. You are clean. Forgiven. Holy.  Blessed be the Holy Trinity and the undivided unity; let us give glory to him because he has shown his mercy to us. A blessed Trinity Sunday to you all.

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