Monday, 17 June 2019

Friday after Pentecost [John 15:1-11] (14-Jun-2019)

This sermon was preached at the Australian Lutheran College Chapel, North Adelaide, 9am.

Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ.

I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.

Prayer: May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

At this time of the church year, we have been celebrating the festival of Pentecost, which is really such a wonderful time of the year to be alive, and such a wonderful time to be part of God’s church. We hear of this absolutely event, where the disciples were gathered together 50 days after Easter, and the place where they were was filled with a mighty rushing wind, the disciples had tongues of fire appear on their heads, and they began speak in other tongues. We read that the people there were amazed and said: We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God. We are also gathered here today to declare these mighty works, and to confess the mighty works of God, and even to partake of the mighty works of God, as he enters here with his Holy Spirit even today. We might be a little bit less amazed by it than those people were on the day of Pentecost, but nevertheless what we are doing today happens with no less power.

Our reading today comes from another wonderful occasion, and one of those incredible occasions where it would have been such an honour and a joy to be just a fly on the wall. Our reading today comes from John 15, where Jesus speaks about himself as a vine. And this passage comes from the middle of quite a long sermon which Jesus gives to his disciples on Maundy Thursday. Maundy Thursday, of course, is that incredible night on which Jesus was betrayed, that night which is the only day specifically mentioned in the Divine Service every Sunday, when the pastor says: Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night he was betrayed, took bread. Our reading from John 15 comes after Jesus has celebrated the Passover, that amazing event in history where the angel of death passed over the people of Israel and they were rescued from Egypt and from Pharaoh. Jesus had transformed this Passover meal into something completely new—he gave them new food and new drink, not just a feast of lamb, and bread and wine, but of his holy and precious body and blood, given and shed for them for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, and he also sends Judas out to go and organise his arrest. This is the occasion where Jesus spoke the words we are reading today. So why are reading them today after Pentecost? Because Jesus gave his disciples some of his most powerful teaching on the Holy Spirit on that night, on which he was betrayed. Only a few verses earlier than our reading in chapter 14, we read where Jesus says: But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. So what a wonderful privilege it is then to learn and remember these words of Jesus, knowing that it is not us who is doing this, it is not our work, but it is the Holy Spirit who has gathered us here, who has orchestrated this whole event, and who teaches us all things and brings to our remembrance all that Jesus said to his disciples.

So Jesus says: I am the true vine, and my Father in the vinedresser. Why does Jesus say here: I am the true vine? For example, is there a false vine? Well, actually, if we go back to the Old Testament, to Isaiah chapter 5, we read there about God planting a vineyard. He is talking here of his chosen people, the people of Israel. It must be quite an effort to go and plant a whole vineyard. And as we read in Isaiah 5 about the Lord’s vineyard, we read that this vineyard was an incredible disappointment. It was a failure of a vineyard. We read: When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? This is not the story of the Barossa Valley, with multiple award-winning wineries. This is the story of cheap plonk. We read: For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry!

Jesus, on the other hand, is no cheap plonk. He is the choicest vintage of grape-vine. He is the true vine… the vine which is the only vine in the vineyard, which grows in such an abundant way that only one vine is needed to fill the whole vineyard. We human beings, we Jews or Gentiles, or whoever we happen to be, have been planted here on this earth by God, who has created us. But unfortunately, we are all cheap plonk. We have all sinned, and fallen short of God’s glory. If people were grapevines, every human who has ever lived on this earth would be a rotten, sour disappointment, except Jesus Christ, the true vine. And if we are to be saved, and be fruitful in his kingdom, we must be connected and grafted into him, and him alone.

When we read this text, from John 15, we see that Jesus presents to us an incredibly sharp picture of God’s judgment. Actually, on the day of Pentecost, we see a kind of judgment occur there: some people received the apostles’ words and miracles gladly, but some others thought they were drunk. Jesus teaches about a separation between those who believe in him and those who don’t, even within what we might call the outward, external fellowship of the church. For example, in 1 Timothy, the church is called God’s household. But in 2 Timothy 2, St Paul writes: In a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver and also of wood and clay, some for honourable use, some for dishonourable. Jesus teaches that the kingdom of heaven is like a field, where both wheat and weeds grow. He teaches that it is like a dragnet in the ocean, which draws in good fish and bad fish, which will then be separated on the sea-shore. John the Baptist speaks about a threshing of people, between wheat and chaff. Jesus speaks about a wedding banquet, where the one without a garment is thrown outside. He also speaks about a wedding where there are 10 virgins, 5 who are wise and prepared, 5 who are foolish and unprepared, and who cannot come into the wedding banquet. In Matthew 25, Jesus speaks of the final judgment where the sheep will be placed on his right, and the goats on his left. In our reading today, Jesus also speaks in a similar way: Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away… If anyone does not abide in me, he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. Now, why does Jesus say this? He teaches us that there is no universalism, no purgatory, but rather there will be judgment, and there is a heaven and a hell. Your life matters, what you believe matters, how you live matters—and after you die, there will be a judgment, a judgment that will be based on this life. So, it’s as if Jesus wants to say to his disciples, and to you, the words from Psalm 95: Today, if you hear God’s voice, do not harden your heart.  

Now, Jesus speaks to us an incredible mystery in this text. He says: Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Actually, the word for prune, is the word for “clean”. Every branch that does not bear fruit he cleans. Pruning here is cleaning. He takes the branch, and he scrapes all the dead bits off so that it is clean. And so then, Jesus says: Already you are clean, because of the word that I have spoken to you.

This is just such a wonderful comfort to us. When Jesus has spoken his word to us, we are clean. It’s no wonder that the means by which we are saved and brought into God’s kingdom is Holy Baptism. Jesus cleans us with his word, and just to make sure we understand this, he wants us to be cleaned with water too. And Jesus cleans us through and through from every single speck, every single thought, word and deed, every single sin, fault, transgression, you name it, everything that we didn’t even realise was sin. It has all been placed on him, he has shed his blood for all of it, and died on the cross for it, and now this word is spoken to us, and we are clean. Jesus says: Already you are clean, because of the word that I have spoken to you. Jesus says: Your sins are forgiven. I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Now, here’s a question. Jesus says: Every branch that does bear fruit he prunes (or cleanses), that it may bear more fruit. Why does God, the vinedresser, need to keep cleaning the branches, and pruning the branches, if Jesus has already made us a clean through his word? If we’re already clean, why does God need to keep cleaning us?

The reason is that Jesus wants us to live by faith. Jesus says: Already you are clean, not because you can see it, or not because you experience it, or not because you in the deluded prideful world in your mind said so, but because of the word that I have spoken to you. You still carry your sin around with you, you still sin, you still fail, but there’s a difference. Jesus has covered your sin, your failings, your whole heart, your whole self, with his blood. And you know this because of his word. And he wants you to believe this word.

But you are going to have incredible temptations as a Christian. The devil doesn’t like the fact that you belong to Jesus, and he wants you back. Unbelievers don’t want you to be different to them, and they will be happy not to feel judged by you simply because you are you. You have a sinful nature, a writhing and restless evil continually at work in your heart, which would rather you just curse God and give him the finger.

God on the other hand wants you to bear fruit for him, so in order to do this, he will scrape off the dead stuff, and clean you. But this is incredibly painful for us, because our sinful flesh is so corrupt that it likes death rather than life. Our sinful heart cries out: hey, don’t cut that bit off! In fact, so often, we think that when we’re going through these times of cleansing, and scraping, we think that this is a time when God is showing us that he really hates us. And we accuse him: God, what have I done to deserve this? God, why don’t you love me? God, why have you forsaken me? God, I understand. Why do I have to go through this? Why do I feel no joy? Why do I only see darkness? Why do I experience no happy days? Jesus says: Every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.

It’s the same as when Job says: Behold, I go forward, but [God] is not there, and backward, but I do not perceive him; on the left hand when he is working, I do not behold him; he turns to the right hand, but I do not see him. But he knows the way that I take; when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold.

Do you see? He wants to boil you in his smelter, not because he wants to see you burn, but because he wants to impurities to bubble and rise to the surface, so that they can be scraped off. You remember on the day of Pentecost, those who heard Peter’s sermon were cut to the heart. We are also continually cut to the heart by the work of the Holy Spirit through the word, throughout our whole lives, so that we may bear more fruit.

Now, Jesus knows full well the pain that we are going to experience in all of this, simply because he knows just how idolatrous, how corrupt, how twisted our hearts really are. He knows, and so he wants to encourage us, just as David was encouraged so many years ago, when he said: Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.

And so Jesus wants to say to you: Don’t run away, even though life will seem painful sometimes. Don’t be put off by it, don’t be offended by the cutting, don’t be disgusted by the pruning. So he says: Abide with me, and I in you. A the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. Stick with me, says Jesus, you can trust me. Many times you will want to run away from me, and you will run away sometimes, just like Peter ran away, and denied Jesus three times. Jesus still says: Abide with me, and I in you. Draw your strength from me. Everything is forgiven in me. Jesus says: for the joy that was set before me, I despised the shame, I endured the cross, and now am seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

This is the encouragement that Jesus extends to you, and to which he calls you, and exhorts you, and pleads with you. He says: I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me, you can do nothing.

Now, Jesus here reveals two things. Firstly, He reveals our complete and total helpless. Apart from me, you can do nothing. He doesn’t say: apart from me, you can only just get the ball rolling, and get the thing started, or get half-way there. He says: Apart from me, you can do nothing. But the second thing is, He reveals his Divinity, and his total and incredible power in everything. He says: You can do nothing apart from me. When you have me, you can’t imagine how fruitful you can possibly be. He says: If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. Jesus shows us his true Divinity here, because everything will be done, if we abide in him. He also says: and my words abide in you. My words are the living and active words of God, because I am God. And whatever you ask will be done, because when you ask me, you are asking God, because I am God, who listens to your prayers, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

So when we go through difficulties and trials and temptations, Jesus calls us to stick with him, but specifically, to stick with his word, and to run from it if it seems difficult to us. And when things are difficult, we should ask him for what we need. And this is exactly the kind of fruit that Jesus wants us to produce. He says: By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.

So let these wonderful words of Jesus today be your encouragement. You were a useless vine producing sour grapes, but you have been grafted on to Jesus, the true vine, who speaks to you a living and life-giving word. You have been baptised in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. You have been made clean by the word which Jesus has spoken to you. I forgive you all your sins. Let him strengthen you and encourage you with his special heavenly food which he gives you for your journey: his body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. He imparts to you his forgiveness, but also his strength, his power, his energy—not necessarily as you think you need it, but as he knows better than you how and when you need it—just like the juice which flows from a vine into its branches. He is your God, your Saviour, your strength, your Rock, your faithful friend, who feeds you, who strengthens you, who forgives you. As Jesus says: These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. Amen.

Dear Jesus, you know how much help we need every minute of every day. We thank you for speaking to us your word and for making us clean. Help us each step of the way as we follow you as your Christians. Come and abide in us, and help us, and you have promised, dear Jesus, our Lord and our God. Amen.

Sunday, 6 January 2019

Epiphany / Farewell Sermon [Matthew 2:1-11] (6-Jan-2019)

This sermon was preached at St Matthew's Lutheran Church, Maryborough, 8.15am, and Grace Lutheran Church, Childers, 10.30am.

Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ.

And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him.

Prayer: May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Today we are celebrating a wonderful festival on the church calendar called “Epiphany”. Epiphany is exactly 12 days after Christmas, and it marks the occasion where the wise men—or sometimes we call them, the “Magi”—came from the east to Bethlehem to worship the baby Jesus.

There are a number of things that happen in this reading. Firstly, we read about the wise men coming to Jerusalem, and they ask Herod about the king of the Jews, who has been born. We don’t really know much about these men, or exactly where they were from. Secondly, they tell Herod how it happened that they came to Jerusalem. They said, We saw his star. And thirdly, they tell Herod why they have come: we have come to worship him.

Next, we read that Herod and the whole city of Jerusalem became troubled when they heard the news. The reason for this, of course, is that they didn’t know about the birth—it wasn’t public news. But Herod then summons the Jewish priests, and they consult the Scripture, as to where such a king would be born. The answer they find is: Bethlehem. This is a very important point. The wise men weren’t simply lead by a star to Bethlehem—somewhere along their journey, not far from where Jesus was actually born, they had to consult the Scripture. The star only led them as far as Jerusalem, but the Scripture pointed them to Bethlehem.

Next, we read about Herod’s jealousy—he didn’t want another Jewish king around the place. So he asked the wise men all about it, and tricked them by giving them the false impression that he wanted to worship Jesus too—in actual fact, he wanted to kill him. This is almost a bit like Judas—Judas gives the impression that he is a friend of Jesus by greeting him with a kiss, as men used to do in those days. But in actual fact, he meant to give Jesus away to the soldiers, so that they would know which one Jesus was and arrest him.

Then, we read about how the wise men leave Herod and continue to follow the star which miraculously rests right above the place where Jesus was. We get the impression that the star pointed the wise men not just to the town, but to the exact address. We read that the wise men rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. They didn’t just rejoice, and they didn’t just rejoice exceedingly, but they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy! And we also read about how they bowed down before the baby Jesus and worshipped him.

And then of course, we read about the wonderful gifts that the wise men brought: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Now, many of our Christmas carols mention the meaning of these gifts. Gold was given to Jesus in recognition of the fact that he was a king. Frankincense seems like a very strange thing to us—frankincense is a product which comes from resin in trees, and was famously grown in the south part of Arabia, which is modern-day Yemen. Frankincense was burned on coals and made a sweet-smelling perfume—the Jews also used it in worship, as a reminder of the people’s prayers ascending to heaven. So this frankincense was given to Jesus in recognition of the fact that he was God. And lastly, myrrh was given to Jesus. Myrrh was another resin, but was often made into an oil. It was also used as a burial spice. Even today, people can by myrrh from a health-shop as a mouth-wash, because it hinders decay. So also people used myrrh for embalming a dead body, because it hinders decay. So this gift was given to Jesus in recognition of the fact that one day Jesus would die.

At the end of our reading, we read about how an angel of God came and communicated with the wise men in a dream and warned them about Herod’s evil motives, so instead of going back and reporting to him, they went back home on a different route, without Herod’s knowledge.

So we can see that this reading, and this occasion, so many years ago, when the wise men came to visit Jesus was a quite an amazing event—we have these exotic people from foreign countries, with their exotic gifts—we read about stars, and prophecies, and dreams. All of these things come together and demonstrate to us the great richness of God’s kingdom, and just what an unexpected and glorious and wonderful thing it is to be in this kingdom. When we consider all the times we’ve come to this place, or in other places throughout our lives, and bowed our knees and our hearts in worship before our Lord Jesus, we should remember all the other weird and wonderful people who have done the same thing over many centuries, and also the amazing way in which God orchestrated everything and brought everything together in such a way that they got to that point. Just imagine if we’d all shown up at the house of Mary and Joseph 2000 years ago with our Queensland rubber thongs and shorts, and bright shirts and sun-glasses. Who would have seemed more exotic? The wise men from the East or us?!

And yet, if we think about how each of us got here this morning—and where we were born, there are many stories to be told—not necessarily involving stars and dreams and prophecies, but still amazing nevertheless. Maybe your ancestors migrated to this region on a ship over a hundred years ago. Maybe you’re a lady who came from a foreign country to marry some local fellow. Maybe you came on holiday from another state, and bought a house here on a whim, and the rest is history. Maybe you don’t really know how you ended up here. But if we stand back and look at everything, we realise that none of us would have ever planned to have these particular people in any Christian congregation. The Holy Spirit is the one who has gathered us together. The book of Proverbs says: Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Listen to those words: In all your ways acknowledge him. We look back on our lives, and it’s often only in hindsight that we can see the steady hand of the Lord guiding us through everything, even though sometimes at a particular time, we had no idea what was going on. In all your ways acknowledge him.

There’s a wonderful verse in Psalm 119, that is also very well-known. Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path. I remember a couple of years ago, when we drove up here to Maryborough, I was driving on the “Hay Plain” in New South Wales at night. I don’t know if many of you know that road but it’s a very long and boring road. Something that I did to pass the time was that I would take notice on my speed-o how many kilometres it was from when I would first see the lights of truck on the horizon to when they passed me. I remember seeing one truck from over 10kms away. But often in our life, we don’t have the benefit of seeing things from that kind of distance. Often the reality is that God only lights our path with his word one step in front of us at a time. On one hand, we see heaven in the distance like a shining light, but often, we don’t know what God’s doing in the next 100 metres, 10 metres, or even one step ahead. The wise men would have had a journey like this—they get to Jerusalem. No-one knows where to send them. The priests tell them about Jerusalem. The star leads them directly to Bethlehem. They are warned in a dream—only one step at a time. And it was not simply a star that led them, but God’s word which led them to Bethlehem, since it was prophesied many years beforehand. It was God’s word which was a lamp to their feet and a light to their path.

Now today also marks another occasion, which is much less significant than the visit of the wise men to Bethlehem—which is that today is my final service among you as your pastor. It is often said that the wise men came from Persia—it’s strange that the distance from Persia to Jerusalem, is about the same distance as Maryborough to Adelaide!

At the beginning of December, I celebrated my 10th anniversary of my ordination as a pastor. It was a strange occasion, because I was on sick-leave at the time. I always wanted to be a pastor from about the time I was 14-years-old. Over the last 20 years, I’ve grown up a lot, I’ve met many people, and done many different things. I also remember when I was about 17, there was a Catholic priest that I knew in Adelaide that I liked a lot. But he died suddenly, and it turned out that on his way to a medical appointment he had doused himself in petrol and set himself alight. This event had a profound effect on me, because it hit me: how is it that a priest, and such a jovial, happy one at that, could be plagued by such darkness?

I remember when I was at the end of my first year of seminary, there was an old pastor, Pastor Noel Weiss, who came up to me, and said: So, Stephen, did you have a good first year in seminary? I said, “Yes, I did”. He said, “Did you meet the devil?” I thought about it, and I said, “Yes”. He said, “Then it was a good year!”

I want to tell you that being a pastor is a wonderful thing—it is a great joy. But it has its darkness—but the darkness is not a punishment, or some victory of the evil one—but it is a training. It’s the same for every Christian—being a Christian is the best thing in the world, but we also have sufferings as Christians. St Paul says in Acts that it is through many tribulations that we must enter the kingdom of God.

Now, I’ve spoken a bit about myself just now, and I don’t often like to do that. Sometimes we pastors can end up talking too much about ourselves if we don’t watch out, instead of talking about Jesus who has saved us. But I want to tell you something: I always talk about myself in sermons. I don’t often tell you that I’m doing it. But there is a wonderful passage about the ministry in 1 Timothy 4, where St Paul writes: Keep watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by doing so you will save both yourself and your hearers. When I first became a pastor, I realised that I wasn’t hearing anyone else’s sermons anymore. All the sermons I heard were mine! Paul says to Timothy that he doesn’t just give sermons for other people’s benefit, but also for his own. Keep watch on yourself, says Paul, and on the teaching. Because you will save both yourself and your hearers.

So often as a pastor, I have often tried to preach to myself, because actually, I’m the sinner that I actually know the best. So when I preach, I’ve always tried to apply the texts to myself. But over the years, I’ve noticed something very strange. When I preach to myself most strongly, it’s often those weeks when someone comes to me at the door and says, “Pastor, you hit the nail on the head today. It was as if you were speaking just to me.” And here I am thinking, “I wasn’t talking about you, I was talking about me!”

But then this shows to us that the sufferings that we pastors go through aren’t for us pastors. They’re for you, and for your benefit. The Holy Spirit shapes and forms us so that we can bring the exact message that he wants to be preached into your ears at a particular time, just when you need it. You might not have noticed the stars, the prophesies, the dreams, the frankincense, the myrrh, but there were all kinds of things that the Holy Spirit orchestrated so that this church, this service, this sermon, and whatever, would be just as it is. St Paul wrote about this as an apostle: We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.

As I’ve been preparing for today, one thing that has hit me is an overwhelming sense of failure. But whatever sense of failure has been at work in me, I pray that it would serve to your encouragement, just as Paul say: Death is at work in us, but life in you. I remember when I was in confirmation, and my pastor told me about how he had failed Greek at the seminary, and he thought, “Oh no! I’m never going to be a pastor now!” But his old grandmother said to him, “Don’t worry. Failure isn’t always what it seems. Look at Jesus on the cross.”

There’s a very interesting passage in 2 Corinthians 2, where Paul writes: When I came to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ, even through a door was opened for me in the Lord, my spirit was not at rest because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I took leave of them and went on to Macedonia. It’s a strange thing. St Paul says that the Lord opened the door for him to go to Troas, but because his spirit was not at rest, he left and went to Macedonia instead. It’s strange—I would think that maybe Paul would feel quite some sense of failure too, since he says that he turned his back on a door which the Lord opened for him.

But in actual fact, he says in the next verse: But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. Doesn’t this take you by surprise? St Paul says, that even though he turned his back on a door which the Lord had opened for him, he didn’t fail Jesus at all, but instead Christ continues to lead him in triumphal procession. It isn’t a failure at all, but we are clothed in gold, and frankincense and myrrh, and led in a procession with music and camels to worship the baby Jesus on bended knee, not only in Maryborough or Childers, but wherever we happen to be in life. It’s just as that pastor’s old grandmother said: “Failure isn’t always what it seems. Look to Jesus on the cross.” When Jesus gave up his spirit and said, “It is finished”, it wasn’t his failure, but it was his glorious atonement, his wonderful payment, where he lay down his life for the sin of the world, and he burst from the empty tomb on Easter Sunday. And for us, even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil, for Jesus is with us, his rod and his staff, they comfort us.

And so, as Jesus comforts us, and brings us into his presence to worship him on bended knee, he shapes us and forms us through whatever experiences he led us through to get us there, so that when he sends us back home, we can also help and strengthen those we meet who need it. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in his comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.

And so, as we come here today to celebrate Epiphany, we remember the wonderful and miraculous way in which God brought all of us unlikely people here together to worship the Lord Jesus. You might remember the story of Jacob, when he woke up from his dream about the angels and the ladder, he said: Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it! It’s just like the wise men must have said when they saw the humble home that Mary and Joseph lived in! Jesus didn’t live in Herod’s palace, but in a humble house in Bethlehem, even having been born in a humble stable.

We have a humble Saviour, who is pleased to meet unlikely sinners like us, and is pleased to forgive us, to meet us, to baptise us, to encourage us, and even to feed us with his body and blood! And so, as we remember these things today, let’s also remember what it was said of the wise men all those many years ago: When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him.


Dear Jesus, you have drawn us too to meet you today, and what a great joy it is to be with you here in your house. Bless us and our congregation both now and into the future, and lead and guide us through the light of your holy and pure word. Amen.

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Pentecost XXII (Proper 24 B) [Mark 10:35-45] (21-Oct-2018)

This sermon was preached at St Matthew's Lutheran Church, Maryborough, 8.15am, and Grace Lutheran Church, Childers, 10.30am.

Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ.

For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Prayer: May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Today we read that James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to [Jesus] and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Imagine someone comes to you and says, “Could you do me a really big favour?” You would probably be a bit suspicious, and say, “Well, it depends what it is!” You might remember how King Herod really put himself in a corner when he promised his wife’s daughter whatever she wanted—she ended up asking for John the Baptist’s head to be cut off!

This is what happens in our reading, with James and John coming to Jesus. They ask him: Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you. Was it wrong of them to come to Jesus and say this? I think they are also embarrassed about what they are asking too. They ask him: Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left in your glory. They want a promotion, they want honour, they want esteem, they want something special, something glorious. And maybe they know that what they are asking for is a bit rude or presumptuous.

But also, isn’t this often how we want to pray to Jesus? We go to him, and we say: Jesus, I want you to do for me whatever I ask of you. And after all, Jesus says: Whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith. Whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.

Don’t you wish that you had such a strong and firm faith that just goes to Jesus whenever you need something and tells him exactly what you need or want? 

Let’s read what happens. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptised with the baptism with which I am baptised?” And they said to him, “We are able.”

When we read about Jesus and his disciples, we notice that the 12 apostles were given a particularly privileged position. Also, on a number of occasions, Jesus singles out Peter, James and John: for example, when he went up on the mountain and was transfigured and started shining with heavenly light. Also, sometimes Peter was singled out, and often stepped forward and spoke on behalf of the other apostles. Peter also preached the first Christian sermon on the day of Pentecost. And so, here are these two others, James and John, two brothers, and know that Jesus has given them special privileges. They are two of the twelve apostles. They have often been invited by Jesus to be part of his inner circle together with Peter. But perhaps they are also a little bit jealous of Peter, and don’t want to be outdone by him.

And so they ask Jesus for a special privilege of their own choosing. They ask him: Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory. There are a few things that they don’t really understand. They haven’t gone up to Jerusalem yet. Palm Sunday hasn’t happened yet. Jesus hasn’t sweat blood in the Garden of Gethsemane yet. He hasn’t been betrayed by Judas yet. He hasn’t been crucified yet. And so perhaps James and John think that Jesus is going to take his throne in Jerusalem as a political figure, as the rightful king of the Jews, and overthrow Herod and the Roman—just like we have seen our Australian prime-ministers continually overthrown. And when it all happens in this glorious way, as they imagine it, they would like a special part in it. They want to be part of Jesus’ cabinet—they want to walk down the red carpet with him, and to flank him on either side at all his press conferences. But that’s not the way it’s going to be.

This passage also teaches us something very special about prayer. We see in the Gospels that Jesus often teaches his disciples to ask for whatever they want. And here, we see an exact example of two disciples going to Jesus and asking him for whatever they want. But what we have to realise is that when we do this, we should also be prepared for Jesus to teach us something that we never expected and that we didn’t know before. You see, Jesus is not a genie in a magic lamp, who just pops out and gives us three wishes. We are not his masters, and he is not our slave. The kingdom of God is a wonderful, glorious thing, and Jesus is the king, but this kingdom and this king work in ways that are often completely beyond our expectations or comprehension.

And so, later on when the other ten disciples hear about what James and John asked of Jesus, we read: When the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. They were angry, and thought: Who do they think they are, asking such a thing? But Jesus doesn’t go about things like that. He doesn’t get angry with them, but he gently explains things to them, and shows them their mistake. He says to them: You do not know what you are asking. So often when we pray to Jesus and ask him for things, we don’t really know what we’re asking. We make all kinds of mistakes in prayer, and we blubber and stammer around. But when we pray, remember that we always pray in the name of Jesus. This means that when we speak to our heavenly Father, everything goes through Jesus, like a master newspaper editor. He’s like a school-teacher who takes out his red pen, a red pen that is filled with his blood, and he edits everything, so that all our prayers are cleaned up and tidied up like rough drafts, and washed completely clean by Jesus. Jesus always knows what he is asking, he always knows what we need, even if we don’t know what we’re asking. When Jesus teaches his disciples the Lord’s Prayer, he says: Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

And so Jesus says to James and John: You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptised with the baptism with which I am baptised? And they said, “We are able”. What is Jesus talking about here? In the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus prays in bitter agony just before he is arrested, he prays a prayer: Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will. Jesus prays: Remove this cup from me. Here in our reading today, Jesus asks James and John: Are you able to drink the cup that I drink? What do you think Jesus is talking about when he talks about this cup? He’s talking about his cross, his bitter suffering, his death, his floggings, his whippings, his outward suffering, his internal suffering, everything that Jesus undergoes on Good Friday. That’s the glory of Jesus—that’s the wonderful glory that Jesus undergoes and makes atonement for every single sin that ever even been imagined for even a split second in the entire history of the world. James and John want to sit at his right hand and at his left. But when Jesus goes to the cross, who is at his right and at his left? Two criminals who are also being crucified. Is this what the two disciples are prepared for? Jesus says: Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?

Jesus also says: Or are you able to be baptised with the baptism with which I am baptised? Jesus, we know, was baptised in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. And when he went to John, John wanted to be baptised by Jesus instead. But Jesus said to him: Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness. John was baptising sinners, and the only people who are sinners can be baptised. So why was Jesus being baptised? He was baptised not because he was a sinner, but because in all of his sinlessness, he took upon himself all of our sin so that he could die for it. And at that very moment, where Jesus was baptised, the Holy Spirit came upon him in the form of a dove and God the Father spoke from heaven: This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. And so what Jesus begins at his baptism, is finished on the cross. Before Jesus died, he said: It is finished. It’s as if he said, “my baptism is finished”. My anointing by the Holy Spirit in the Jordan was all for this purpose. In Luke 12, we read: I have a baptism to be baptised with, and how great is my distressed until it is accomplished! Jesus once again is speaking of his cross, and his suffering. And so Jesus says to James and John: Are you able to be baptised with the baptism with which I am baptised?

Yes, it’s true. James and John didn’t really know what they were asking. We often don’t know what we’re asking, and so we don’t often understand the answers to our prayers when Jesus actually does answer them. When Jesus washes his disciples’ feet he says to them: What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand. This is such a wonderful word of comfort when we don’t understand why Jesus doesn’t answer our prayers the way we want. But also, we read in Romans: The Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. Just as Jesus edits our prayers with the red pen of his blood, so also the Holy Spirit takes over in our prayers, and asks the prayers through our groans and sighs of which God alone understands the meaning, even if we don’t. All this shows us what a great mystery prayer is—St Paul says: For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. Our heavenly Father knows what is best for us so much better than we could ever imagine. It’s the same as when Jesus says in John 16: You have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. There’s a wonderful hymn on prayer which says: More is lavished by Thy bounteous hand That I can ask or seek or understand.

And so, back to our reading: Jesus asks the disciples this profound question. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink? Are you able to be baptised with the baptism with which I am baptised? And they say: We are able. Wow! What a thing to say? Do they even understand what they are committing themselves to?

But Jesus then says: The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptised, you will be baptised, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared. Jesus says to James and John that they will drink the cup and they will receive his baptism. We also receive the wonderful gift of Holy Baptism as Christians, and in the Lord’s Supper, we drink the wonderful cup of blessing, the blood of Christ. The baptism of Jesus and the cup of Jesus are wonderful blessings that are given to us from heaven. All our sins have been poured out on Jesus in baptism, and when he drank that cup of the cross right down to the dregs. But all of his righteousness and purity and forgiveness is given back to us in baptism, and in the cup of the Lord’s Supper. He takes what didn’t belong to him, and he gives to us what didn’t belong to us. And so we have this wonderful exchange—he takes our sin, and he gives us his forgiveness and righteousness. All Christians receive this baptism and this cup. But these gifts also point us to a reality that we Christians are citizens of heaven in such a way that the world doesn’t recognise us anymore. And so just as Jesus was spat out by the world, we Christians are also spat out. Each of us have a special measure of suffering that Jesus puts upon us, not to curse us, but for our blessing, to take us away from the things of this world, and to point us to the kingdom of heaven. James was beheaded in Jerusalem, and John was tortured in Rome and then exiled to one of the Greek islands, called Patmos. This was the cross they were called to bear for the sake of Jesus’ kingdom. We should also not be afraid to bear whatever Jesus would have us bear. Sometimes, we pray that Jesus would take some suffering away from us. St Paul writes: To keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” So be encouraged, be strengthened by Jesus, our Lord, and let him make his power perfect in you, even if you are struggling, and feel so weak. Remember Jesus’ words: What I am doing now you do not understand, but afterwards you will understand.

Jesus says: The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptised, you will be baptised, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared. What does Jesus mean here, when he says, “it is not mine to grant”? Can’t Jesus do anything he wants? Well, yes and no. We say: Nothing is impossible with God. But is it possible for God to sin? No, because it would be completely against his nature and his character. Can God make 1 + 1 = 3? No, because 1 + 1 = 2. That’s the way it is. Jesus is not saying that he can’t do something—it’s just that what they ask for is not for them.

And so, we read: When the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

In some sense, James and John wanted to establish a kind of hierarchy. They weren’t content with being apostles, they wanted to be super-apostles. And this then begs the question? Should we have any order or hierarchy in the church? Should we have pastors, for example? Well, of course, we should have pastors, because the bible actually speaks about them. In 1 Peter, Peter speaks about all Christians as being members of a royal priesthood. But also, in the same letter, he tells pastors to shepherd the flock of God that is among you. But pastors are not to rule like a king. They are to serve people, and not simply to serve people’s whims, but to serve them with the word of God. But there is no place in the church for the kind of leadership that says: I’m in charge, therefore you need to shut up and do what I say. Peter says: Exercise oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.

Sometimes, in the church, some people think that all the problems would be solved if we had more people to exercise authority, more bishops, or even a pope. But this isn’t the way Jesus rules. He says: But it shall not be so among you. He rules through his word alone, not through human authority. He rules, not by setting himself up on an earthly throne, but by sacrificing his life. He says: Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. And this wonderful way in which Jesus gave his life as a priceless ransom, and continually serves his people as our Good Shepherd with his word and sacraments is the heart and centre of Christianity. So let’s thank him for this! Amen.

Dear Jesus, we thank you for coming to serve your people as our wonderful host today, and for giving your life as a ransom for many. Send us the Holy Spirit, and teach us to be bold in prayer, and not to be afraid to learn from you whatever you would teach us. Amen.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Pentecost XXI (Proper 23 B) [Mark 10:17-31] (14-Oct-2018)

This sermon was preached at St Matthew's Lutheran Church, Maryborough, 8.15am (lay-reading), and Grace Lutheran Church, Childers, 9am.

Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ.

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

Prayer: May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Today in our reading, we have a young man, a ruler, who comes up to Jesus to ask him a question. We read: And as Jesus was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

This is a very interesting question. In the bible, we know that everything can be divided up into two main teachings—the Law and the Gospel. We often talk about this in the Lutheran Church, and the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is a very important distinction. The Law teaches us what we should and shouldn’t do, and it also shows us that we don’t do what we should and we do do what we shouldn’t. The Law teaches us that God punishes wrong and rewards right, but we are all doing wrong all the time. However, the Gospel teaches people who realise their sin that they are saved, not because they have earned it, but because of what Jesus has done for them. The Gospel teaches us what Jesus has done for us, and gives to us his wonderful promises.

When the thief on the cross was about to die, and was receiving the normal punishment that the Romans would give to people who had committed crimes like he had committed, he asked Jesus to remember him. And Jesus spoke to him a wonderful promise of the Gospel: Today, you will be with me in Paradise. There is nothing that this man can do anymore to inherit eternal life. There is nothing that he could ever have done. Even if he weren’t a criminal, all of his righteous deeds would still have been filthy rags. Even if he weren’t on a cross, he would still be worthy of death. Even if he had never hurt a fly, it still would have been true what it says in Genesis: Every intention of the thoughts of their hearts were only evil continually.

And yet, it is precisely for a man like him that Jesus speaks a wonderful word of the Gospel. Today, you will be with me in Paradise. Jesus receives him completely and totally freely, without any merit or worthiness in this man whatsoever. The thief did nothing, but Jesus did everything. Jesus is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. He is the way, the truth and the life.

And so, what a strange question it is that this rich young man asks of Jesus: Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?

In the Book of Acts, we read about another event, where someone asks a very similar question. Paul and Silas are in prison, and they are singing hymns, and at midnight there is an earthquake, and the prison doors are opened, and the chains of the prisoners become undone. Now in those days, in ancient Roman times, if a prison guard was on duty and the prisoners escaped, he would have been killed. And so, when he sees the prison doors opened, he thinks to kill himself, but Paul and Silas stop him. Then the jailer says to Paul and Silas: Sirs, what must I do to be saved? This is almost the same question that the young ruler asks Jesus in our reading today: Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? But what do Paul and Silas say to the jailer? They say: Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your whole household. And then the man and his family were baptised. So in this situation, the man is told: You don’t have to do anything—just believe in Jesus. Jesus has done everything for you—there is nothing that you need to do. And so the man believes and is baptised—all the blessings of Jesus are given to him in baptism and he believes in him. The man and his family are saved completely freely, by grace, without any works, without needing to do anything, except to receive Jesus and his gifts.

Now, in our reading today, the man asks almost the same question, but Jesus responds to him in a completely different way. The man says: Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honour your father and your mother. So here’s a question: why is it that when the jailer asks this question, the apostles offer him salvation for free, but when this man asks Jesus this question, Jesus starts reciting the Ten Commandments and telling him a list of rules?

This has to do with the distinction between the Law and the Gospel. And one of the ways in which Law and Gospel are distinct is which people either the Law or the Gospel should be spoken to. You see, not everyone should hear the preaching of the Gospel, and not everyone should hear the preaching of the Law. If a person is troubled and worried about their sins and is anxious about their salvation or about going to hell or being bothered by the devil, then we shouldn’t speak the law to them at all. These people already feel God’s judgment upon them, they are already bitten by the knowledge of their sin, they are already crushed by the law. And so they need to hear the Gospel—that Jesus has died for them, that he has risen from the dead, that he forgives them, that he promises them eternal life, that he is their Good Shepherd that will never let them be snatched out of his hand.

But on the other hand, if a person is not worried or troubled by anything, and they think that everything’s fine, that they haven’t done anything wrong, that they’re quite happy living as they are, that they don’t care much for changing their life for the better, that they don’t give a brass razoo what the bible says, then the Gospel shouldn’t be spoken to them. Instead, they need to hear the Law. They need to be told to wake up from their sleep, to be called to repent, to change their life, to abandon their evil ways. You can’t preach forgiveness of sins to someone who doesn’t acknowledge their sin. If they don’t recognise their sin, they can’t hear the Gospel – it’s no use to them. So instead, they need to be shown their sin, and have it exposed to them.

It’s a bit like going to the doctor. Two people can have the same symptoms—but if one person recognises their symptoms, they’ll go to the doctor to receive a treatment. But if someone lives in denial, and pretends like they haven’t got any symptoms, they won’t go to the doctor, and so they can’t get the help they need. It’s the same thing with the Law and the Gospel. People who know their sin will gladly receiver the message of forgiveness through Jesus. But people who don’t know their sin won’t care at all. And so, as Christians, it takes a lot of experience when we talk with people to work out what we should say to people. Is this person someone who needs comfort, or do they need a wake-up call?

And so, in the Book of Acts, we see a jailer, who realises that he has just had his life saved. And he was stopped just short of killing himself, and he realised just what a fool he was. And so, for him, all Paul and Silas needed to say to him was the Gospel: Believe in the Lord Jesus.

But in our reading from Mark, Jesus deals with this rich man differently. This man has the appearance of being someone important, someone respectable. He comes to Jesus and says: Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. Jesus wants to say to him: Listen, do you think that I’m just one of many good teachers? There are plenty of people who think that Jesus is a good teacher. They line him up with Buddha and the Dalai Lama and Confucius, or they line him up next to Mystic Meg, or Mystic Energy this or that, or the Angel Gabriel or the Angel Michael, or they line him up next to Pope John Paul or Mother Teresa, or even Martin Luther himself. No—Jesus is not just one of many good teachers. He says: No one is good except God alone. Jesus is not denying that he is a good teacher, by the way. He knows that he is a good teacher, but he is also humble and refuses to give the glory to himself. So he points back to God the Father. But we also know from other passages that Jesus is true God, just as Thomas said after the resurrection: My Lord and my God! Jesus and his Father are in perfect unity. Jesus said to Philip: Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. And so also, whoever learns from Jesus as their teacher, learns from God the Father as their teacher. Jesus points the man to a higher reality: if you want a good teacher, then learn from God himself, not from people. And since I and the Father are one, since I am equal with God the Father, since I have equality with God, then you know that when I teach you, I am not teaching you some earthly teaching that you can just sample from anywhere, but I am teaching you directly out of heaven itself, from the other side of the grave, from eternity—I am shining pure light from heaven which makes everything on this earth, and every earthly teacher, complete and total darkness by comparison. So he says: Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.

Then Jesus says to him: You know the commandments: Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honour your father and mother. Jesus preaches to this man the law. He recognises in this man a person who is not ready to hear the Gospel, who doesn’t really need Jesus. So he points him to the Law. And the man, like many a person who is self-righteous and doesn’t need Jesus, says: Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth. There is no-one so far away from Jesus and his grace and his forgiveness who thinks that he has done everything that needs to be done. There is no-one so close to hell than a person who thinks he is perfect and sinless. As St John says in his first letter: If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.

Jesus has tremendous compassion on this man, though. We read: And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When Jesus cuts this man’s heart with the law, he doesn’t do it because he hates him, but because he loves him. It says: Jesus, looking at him, loved him. But it’s as if Jesus says: OK. Let’s be serious now. Let me tell you what your problem is. Let me show you your false god. He says: You lack one thing: Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me. And we read: Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

Jesus doesn’t tell everyone to sell everything and give to the poor—just to this man. Jesus exposes that this man has a false god. He only wants Jesus as long as he can keep all his shiny things. And Jesus says: No—I won’t compete. I want you, and I want you completely. I, the Lord, your God, am a jealous God. I will not share you with some silly money, with your knick-knacks, with your great possessions.

And so, then we read: Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”

Money is not the problem here. It’s our human heart that is the problem. People often misquote the bible and say that money is the root of all evil. That’s not what the bible says. It says: The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. Money is a gift of God. If you have money, thank God for it. People often make the mistake of saying that poor people go to heaven and rich people go to hell. After all, in the story of Lazarus and the rich man, the rich man goes to hell and the Lazarus, the poor man, goes to heaven. But Lazarus goes to meet Abraham. If all rich people go to hell, what was the rich man Abraham doing in heaven?

So we have to be careful what we say. It’s OK to have money, it’s a blessing of God to have money, but so long as you are the master of your money and your money is not master over you. Many poor people are much more money hungry than many rich people. How many people in this town buy scratchy tickets, for example? When you are ruled by your money, then your money becomes your master and your god. If you are ruled by your money, then you need to start giving some of it away, like Jesus says to this rich man.

When Jesus says how difficult it is for rich people to enter the kingdom of God, this is bad news for Australia. We are “the lucky country”, and we have everything we need. Once I met a Sudanese lady who was pregnant with her sixth child, and was told by her doctor to have an abortion because otherwise the child would starve. She said, “Starve? In Australia? I know what it’s like to live in a country where my children would starve. And I’d much rather live in a country where my children would starve, than in a country where nobody prays.” Yes, Australia is a lucky country, but a godless country. We are a rich country, we have everything, we are comfortable, and so we don’t need God, and we don’t pray like we should.

We read: And [the disciples] were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” Here we are pointed back to the Gospel. The man walks away sorrowful—he doesn’t want to part with his possessions. But when Jesus starts to talk about camels and needles and the dangers of wealth, then the disciples start to despair. It’s almost like they want to fling their wallets straight to the ground before their weight drag them into hell. They think: We need to live on something, don’t we? They say: Then who can be saved? Now Jesus recognises: now I am talking to repentant hearts, now I am dealing with people who are face to face with the reality of their sin. Jesus says: With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God. There is not one person who is able to save themselves, no matter how rich or how poor, no matter how much they keep the law. An honest person will realise just how easily their sinful hearts clings to the earth’s filth. We realise that it is impossible for us to save ourselves. God must do everything. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.

Here at the end, Peter says: See, we have left everything and followed you. Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, house and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

The teachings of Jesus are incredible. They are so simple on paper, but then when we think it through, we might think: but if I went about saying that, my mum would completely freak out! I’d lose her—she’d never speak to me again. Or maybe, you think your husband or wife, or children would think you were mad. “Oh dear, old Grandpa’s become senile in his old age! He’s become a Christian!” Sometimes in the church, we can easily compromise the sharpness of the truth, because we worry what other people might think of us. And so, we end up with half-truths, or falsehoods.

But where Jesus calls us to sacrifice something, he always promises to repay. Our old friends and family who now reject us for our faith or our convictions, are repaid with new friends, new mothers, and fathers, or whatever. But when it comes to the truth of God’s word and the purity of the Gospel, we must sacrifice everything for it, because there is nothing in the world so precious. No sacrifice can be made in vain—because God’s church, the Gospel, Jesus Christ himself, are priceless. If we give him everything, Jesus will repay everything. If we give too little, we are then in danger of losing everything, and being lost.

With us it is impossible. For us to save ourselves is like a camel trying to squeeze through the eye of a needle. Jesus is the one who saves us completely. He has done it, he has accomplished it, he has paid the price and won the victory. And everything that we have ever needed, that we need today, and that we will ever need in the future belongs to him. As St Paul says in 2 Corinthians: He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. Amen.

Dear Jesus, we thank you for saving us. Search us, and continue to show us the idols of our hearts, so that we may abandon them, and follow only and wholeheartedly after you. Amen.

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Pentecost XX (Proper 22 B) [Mark 10:2-9] (7-Oct-2018)

This sermon was preached at St Matthew's Lutheran Church, Maryborough, 8.15am, and Grace Lutheran Church, Childers, 10.30am.

Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ.

From the beginning of creation, God made them male and female.

Prayer: May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

It’s a very interesting thing that the reading for this Sunday in the lectionary has to do with marriage. We also have a very significant Old Testament reading which has to do with the creation of Eve.

Now, as a pastor, it’s an easy thing to go along week after week, and preach and teach on topics that are really not all that controversial. However, Jesus didn’t just call us to go into all the world and to teach a few things of what he had commanded us, but he said, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. In the Book of Acts, when St Paul was speaking to the elders from Ephesus, he said: I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. If only we had more pastors in our church like Paul who would not shrink from saying everything that needs to be said. I confess that I have many times “shrinked”, and have not said what needs to be said. It would be an easy thing to avoid controversial topics, and then you don’t upset anyone, right?

Well, today’s readings give us controversial topics. Particularly, Jesus teaches about marriage and divorce, and the relationship between men and women in marriage. I think it’s fair to say that marriage is an absolutely terrible state in our world today. It’s almost been forgotten what marriage is. We play down marriage, and we play up sex. Sometimes I have heard people say that in the past, the church singled out sexual sin too much. I don’t know—I wasn’t there in those days. But what we have to realise is that what God calls the sixth commandment—You shall not commit adultery—has for a long time been promoted at the highest levels of our culture and society as a human right.

A long time ago, there was an old Christian man called Saint Anthony, who lived in the Egyptian desert, who said: A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, “You are mad, you are not like us.”  This prophecy from over 1500 years ago has most certainly come true, and it has been true for many years.

Now, in the Lutheran Church, we always want to make a very careful distinction between the law of God and the Gospel. The Law is those things which God commands us to do and not to do. Even though the law upholds the beautiful way in which God created and made the world and the universe, because we do not keep the law, the law then condemns us. It finds us out, and shoots us dead. But then God has another word for dead sinners—this is the Gospel. This is a word which points to our dead Saviour, who died in our place, who is no longer dead, but rose from the dead, and walked out of the grave, and won the victory over sin, death, hell, the devil, and who greets us with peace and with joy and says: I forgive you all your sins. In my father’s house are many rooms, and I go to prepare a place for you.

When we are talking about marriage and the sixth commandment, You shall not commit adultery, we are talking about the law. This is about what we should do and what we shouldn’t do. There’s something particular about this commandment which hits us very deeply. St Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6, where he says: Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Notice here that Paul says that the answer to sexual immorality is not to fight it, not to combat it, but to flee it. Run to the hills! But we feel the condemnation against sexual sin very deeply because it is very personal, it is sin which we commit against our own bodies.

Now Jesus talks particularly in our Gospel reading about divorce. We read: And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” [Jesus] answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.”  And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment.”

Now, as a pastor, I’ve often been asked if divorce is a sin. Of course, it’s a sin. Everyone knows that it’s a sin—tremendous damage is done. People are hurt very deeply. Everyone knows that. If we’re divorced and it’s still possible to reconcile, then we should try our best to bring the marriage back together. But many times, it’s not possible. One of the worst things that happens far too often is that many people who have been abandoned in marriage, who didn’t break up the marriage, who didn’t cause the divorce, are often left with a guilty conscience, with a stigma hanging over them, and with a kind of public shame of now being a divorced person. That’s very sad. Jesus met a woman like this once, the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus said: You have had five husbands and the man you have now is not your husband. What shame that she must have had, with people thinking that she can’t be any good, because no man could live with her. Jesus knows this kind of shame—people thought he was no good, because even his own people rejected him. Jesus knows the deep pain that so many people suffer all throughout our country—people who have been abandoned, people who have had their families torn apart, and he calls us to repent and receive his pure forgiveness from him.

Jesus is often spoken of as a groom for his bride. He is a faithful husband, just as he is a faithful shepherd, and he will never abandon his sheep. We read in Ephesians that the mystery of marriage points to Christ and his bride the church. He loves us more than any husband has ever loved any wife –  St Paul says: He gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Listen to those words that Christ presents the church to himself in splendour. He covers his bride, his church, with a wonderful robe of righteousness, a robe which is not made or bought by us, but which is bought and made by him with the price of his holy and precious blood. What a wonderful gift it is to have the forgiveness of our sins, and to be clothed in the robe of Christ’s righteousness.

Now, in our reading, Jesus teaches us about marriage. He says: From the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female’. ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.

Here we see a very important part of the Christian teaching of marriage. First of all, Jesus says: God made them male and female. Now, when we’re talking about marriage, it’s very simple—a marriage is between a man and a woman. It’s not between a man and a man, and it’s not between a woman and a woman, and—I never thought I’d say this in a sermon!—but it’s not between an x and an x. I say this, because now that Australia has changed it’s marriage laws last year, the marriage registers ask us to tick one of three boxes: M, F, or X.

Now in Australia—and in a minority of countries around the world—we don’t know what marriage is anymore. The reality is that marriage is instituted by God amongst other things to be the place where children are nurtured and raised—and this is the only reason why the government should have an interest in protecting marriage, because it should protect children. The people who will suffer now are going to be children, most of all. The marriage of a man and a woman was created to be fertile and to receive children—some people can’t have children, but that’s a different issue. Gay couples are not fertile, and can never be, and that’s the fundamental difference. To make the two things the same and call both situations “marriage” is not honest and it’s not true.

We might also think the “horse and bolted”. Yes, the horse has bolted, but it bolted off a plank and into the sea. As Christians, we have to remain firm on this, not because we should hate gay people, but because when people in our society wake up to themselves and the madness, they need to be able to find the truth taught somewhere. We shouldn’t hate gay people either—they are created by God and Jesus died for them too. They need to hear the message of repentance and forgiveness just like everyone else. We’re no better than them, and we’re all sinners. The real lonely ones are the ones who come out as gay and then decide later on that they don’t want that lifestyle anymore. But if we’re ever going to have any hope as Christians of helping anyone with anything, we can’t shift what’s right and wrong, but we need to be very clear about things. An archer who uses a bow and an arrow needs to have a strong grip on his bow, a sharp eye, and a strong hand on the bow, otherwise the arrow won’t go in the right direction. So also, the church needs to have a strong hand, a sharp eye, a firm grip on reality, on truth and error, on right and wrong, otherwise we’ll shoot arrows in the wrong direction. But as Christians, we don’t have a true understanding of sin if all we can do is respond to people with judgment and condemnation. We have a true understanding of sin when we respond to people with sympathy and compassion. This is the way that Jesus responds to us, who are so wayward, and must be so unbelievably painful to him. He leaves the ninety-nine sheep in the field, and he goes after the lost one, and when he has found us, he carried us home on his shoulders.

Now, at this point, I could go on and explain and preach about all kinds of things to do with marriage. I’d like to, but there’s so much that the bible says about it, that it would take too long to do that. But what I will say is this—the Christian teaching about marriage is a beautiful, beautiful thing. God created marriage and he is the only one who knows completely how a man and a woman can live together in harmony. But what is more important than this is the fact that everything we teach about marriage in the church is just a reflection of the wonderful relationship that Jesus has with his church. He is the bridegroom, and we are his bride. Our human, earthly marriages are only a pitiful taste of the wonderful marriage that we have with our Lord Jesus, who has baptised us in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and has joined us to himself. This wonderful marriage feast in heaven is what we receive a little foretaste of when we come to the Lord’s Supper week after week to eat and drink his body and blood. Jesus says: This is my body for you, in a similar way as a married couple promise to give their bodies for each other, their lives, their whole selves. In the book of Revelation, we read: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.

Now, I’m going to mention something that has happened in the last week. Our church body, the Lutheran Church of Australia, met together as a synod this week in Sydney. One of the issues that was discussed was whether women should be ordained—this is the fourth time it has been put to a vote. A few weeks ago, I preached a sermon where I explained that I believe that having women serve as pastors is against the clear teaching of the bible. Now this doesn’t make sense to our culture—there are lots of things in the bible that don’t make sense to all kinds of cultures. This one doesn’t make sense to us, because it sounds to us like its misogynistic, as if the church hates women, and doesn’t value women. It’s got nothing to do with this—we know very well that Jesus treated women with great dignity and respect. But this issue is connected to the way in which Jesus relates to his church as a groom relates to his bride. The wonderful way in which Christ speaks to us as our husband, as our bridegroom, who loves us far beyond what we could possibly expect or deserve or imagine, is reflected in the relationship between a pastor and a congregation.

Fortunately, the LCA synod did not achieve the required number of votes to pass this change. I believe that God has graciously allowed us to dodge a bullet. In the meantime, our church, which was once known as the church of the word, with the conviction and the boldness of Martin Luther, is no longer what it used to be. Repentance is the only way the church can be renewed—when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517, the first sentence said: When our Lord Jesus told his disciples to “repent”, he meant that the whole of our lives should be one of repentance. In the meantime, let’s continue to pray to our Saviour to preserve the unity of our church, and steer us clearly through these troubled waters. It’s not easy when people in the church don’t agree. As St Paul says: I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.

In the meantime, we have a faithful Saviour, a faithful shepherd, a faithful bridegroom, who loves us and cares for us much more than we deserve. He has died for us, he has risen again, he has baptised us into his kingdom, and he has forgiven us all our sins. God has joined his Son and the church together in a holy, perfect marriage, and what God has joined together, no-one can separate. He will never let us down, and he says to his church: Behold, I am with you always to the end of the age.


Dear Jesus, our heavenly bridegroom, bless us. Bless our homes, bless our marriages, bless our church. Amen.