Monday, 9 December 2019

Advent I (Year A) [Matthew 24:36-44] (1-Dec-2019)

This sermon was preached at St Paul's Lutheran Church, Ferryden Park, 10.30am.

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

But concerning that day and hour no one knows.

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 begin a new church year, and we’re celebrating the first Sunday of the season of Advent. And the season of Advent has a particular focus on Jesus “coming”. We especially look to Jesus coming as a tiny baby in Bethlehem at Christmas, all those many years ago. But our Gospel reading today has a different focus. In this reading, Jesus is talking not about when he came as a baby, or when he comes to us constantly in the church, but when he will come at the end of the world to bring the whole of world history to a close, to a finish—and when he will judge the living and the dead, and those who believe in him will share eternal life with him.

Now, before we get to our reading—it’s very important for us to have a think about what this means: that the end will end. Many people in our country and in our world today don’t really think too much about this. I think it’s also the case that they never really think that the world ever began in some way.

Now, if we go back to many ancient peoples, like the Ancient Egyptians, or the Ancient Greeks, they were people who essentially believed that the world was eternal. They believed that it never really had a beginning, and it’s never really going to have an end. I think many people today believe this, even many of us Christians in the church. But I don’t think it’s necessarily that a lot of people have any serious convictions about it – it’s just that they don’t think about it too much. For example, people might think that life as we know it as evolved over millions and billions of years, all the way back to some kind of primeval blobs, some single-celled organisms. But you know, those things were supposed to have happened so long ago, that I don’t think people really care or bother to think about whether the earth had some kind of beginning, because it something that happened so long ago. So I think that it’s fair to say, that many people in our world today, don’t really believe that world had any kind of beginning.

But also, I think there are many people who don’t really think the world is ever going to end. People think that things are going to carry on as we know it for ever and ever, and people are just going to keep getting better and better. Some people, though, who have very strong views about climate change, think that the world very well might end soon, and that the way to stop it ending is to confront the problem of pollution on a national and world-world scale. But apart from these people, I think there are many people who just go along on their every day life, and don’t really think about what it might mean that the world could have an end.

Now, if we go to the Scripture, to the Bible, this matter is dealt with very clearly. If we open to the first page of the bible, we find it speaking about the beginning of the world. If we open to the last page of the bible, we find it speaking about the end of the world. And these two events, these two facts—the creation of the world which happened in the past, and the end of world which will happen in the future—have always been a part of the church’s confession of faith. So, when we come to church and say together the Apostles’ Creed, we start by saying: I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth. We start by saying that God existed before the world, and that he made it—the earth had a beginning. And we also say in the Apostles’ Creed, that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Now, if the world didn’t have a beginning, and if the world will have no end, then people have no choice but to believe that the world is eternal. But here’s the problem: the world isn’t God, only God is God, and only God is eternal. Mother earth isn’t the eternal God, only God is God. So we are also told in the Scripture that there is only one thing that had no beginning, and that has always existed: and that is the God who made us, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And over the whole course of the history of the world, God has been calling people into his kingdom. And so, when the world has ended, those who have been saved, who have trusted in God, and believed in his promises, will live with him in his kingdom. And what do we say about Jesus’ kingdom? We say: His kingdom will have no end.

In the verse before our Gospel reading today, Jesus says: Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. He is talking about the signs of his coming: He says: Then will appear in the heaven the sign of the Son of Man. We know from what Jesus is saying here, that the world will have an end, and that when the world ends, Jesus will appear.

So Jesus says in our Gospel reading today: But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.

Now, this is a very important principle for our Christian faith. There have been many people throughout history, and many people still around today, who think that they know when the end of the world is going to be. So far, all of them have been wrong! How do we know this? Well, the world is still here! And Jesus doesn’t say that the when the world ends he’s going to come quietly, and we might miss it—he says, he will appear on the clouds, with power and great glory. There are some groups—like the Seventh Day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses—who have made prophecies about the end of the world, which didn’t then happen. When I was the pastor in Gippsland, I heard about a group of people who had moved to far-east Gippsland, at a place called “Noorinbee North”—way out in the middle of pretty much nowhere. They had thought that when the year 2000 struck, that it was going to be the end of world, so they went out there, bought property, built underground bunkers, to prepare for the end. They even built a church out there. But of course, since that time, many people have moved away, and the church has now closed, and been sold.

The thing that we must know about all these things, is that if we know someone who says to us that they know when the end of the world is going to be, we can immediately know for certain in our own minds that they are wrong, and that they are not telling the truth. How can be so sure of ourselves? Because, in our reading today, Jesus says: Concerning that day and hour no one knows. So if someone says that they do know, we know that they can’t be telling the truth, because Jesus says: no one knows.

But perhaps, someone might be particularly spiritual—you know, a real guru, a real holy person, someone with great spiritual insights. And this person says, “Listen, I had a very significant dream the other night, and an angel said to me that the world is going to end on such-and-such a day.” What do we made about this? The person claims that an angel spoke to them about it! Well, Jesus says: Concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven. If an angel did speak to the person, it can’t have been an angel of heaven, but an angel of hell instead, an evil spirit trying to trick the person with lies. Remember, St Paul says that even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.

Perhaps, someone around the time of the apostles went around saying that they had met Jesus personally, and that Jesus himself had told him personally, that the end of the world was such-and-such. Maybe, someone claims to have met Jesus himself on the side of the road one day, just like Paul had met Jesus on the road to Damascus. Well, Jesus says: Concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.

Now, why am I making such a big point of this? Throughout my ministry as a pastor, I’ve often come across people who think that the world is going to end on such-and-such a day. Often people come to these conclusions from astrology—from trying to predict the future from looking at the stars. They think, there’s a strange moon on this day, Mars or Jupiter is going to be in a special position in Aquarius, or something like that. It takes up so much of people’s energy and time, and it’s such an embarrassment to them when nothing happens. There is such a simple answer to this: it’s all rubbish, because Jesus has told us ahead of time, that it’s all rubbish. No-one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.

Now, there’s a little question that comes to our mind when we hear these words, which says: “Hang on, I thought Jesus was true God, and I thought God knows everything. If Jesus is true God, how come he doesn’t know?”

This is a very good question. In many passages, Jesus is said to know all things. For example, Jesus says: All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. In John, it says that Jesus knew what was in the heart of man. Well, also remember, that Jesus is alive, and is the giver of life, and he is the Resurrection and the Life! But then he also dies. He is the King of King and the Lord of Lords, and yet, in the wilderness, he experiences hunger and thirst and weariness and temptation. So also, Jesus really does know everything, but he also during his earthly life is limited in his knowledge.

You see, Jesus came from heaven as true God, to become a human being. And even though he knew everything, he chose, by becoming a man, not to know some things. For example, he didn’t know how to talk, until Mary and Joseph taught him, and yet he was still God, and knew all things. As he grew up, he only spoke his mother tongue—he didn’t know or speak English, and yet he was still God, and knew all things. In stooping down to our human level, and becoming a human just like us, he also chose to put away certain knowledge from himself.

So for example, let’s say, a father buys some chocolate for his kids, and the children say: “Dad, dad, give us some chocolate.” The dad puts the chocolate away at the back of a shelf, and hides it. Then he says, “I don’t know where it is.” If the dad tells the children, “I’m not telling you where it is”, then the children would just keep pestering him, and say, “Come on, dad! Tell us!” until he gives in and tells them.

Now, in a similar way, Jesus says: No one knows…not even the Son. He has every right to know, but when he became a man, he chose to put certain knowledge away from himself. It’s a bit different from the dad with the chocolate, because the dad would be telling a little white lie. But Jesus is not telling a lie, he is telling the truth—he has chosen not to know this, by virtue of having become a man. And also, imagine if Jesus had said, “I do know, but I’m not telling you.” This would either make the apostles and the disciples sad, as if Jesus didn’t think they were any good, or they would think to pester him. Remember the Canaanite woman who asks for a healing for her daughter, and Jesus says: It’s not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs. Here Jesus is treating her almost a bit mean, but not because he doesn’t want to heal the woman’s daughter, but because he wants to draw out from this lady her great faith for the benefit of everyone, so that we can all learn how to pray like her. But when it comes to the end of the world, it’s as if Jesus says that this is an issue that you’re not going to know, if you ask me, I won’t tell you. If you ask me, and you think that I did tell you, then you know it wasn’t me, but the devil pretending to be me. No one knows.

Even though no-one knows the day or the hour, there are certain things that Jesus does let us know. He says: For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and the one left.

What is Jesus teaching us here? He that before he comes, things will be like the days of Noah. Well, have a think—why did the flood happen, and why did Noah and his family have to go on the ark? Was it because everything was going so well in the world? No—absolutely not! Everything was going terribly. The world was corrupt, it was evil, and people were doing terrible things to themselves and to others. Now, in the same way, as the world gets older, and we get closer to the time when Jesus will return, do you think the world is going to get better or to get worse? Many people think that the human race is always evolving and getting better. It’s not the case at all! The human race is only getting worse and worse. The world is only getting worse. And as the world gets worse, we are called upon to ask ourselves: who are our friends? Do we want to be friends with Jesus, or the world around us? Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever, but the world is corrupt, and decaying, and is just getting worse and worse. There will come a day when there will people next to each other—one will be taken and the other left. Perhaps it means that one will be taken up to heaven to be with Jesus. Or perhaps it means the one will be swept away, just like the evil people at the time of Noah.

Also, at the time of Noah, people scoffed at him, and mocked him. They thought he was an idiot. So also, as the world gets older, and we come closer to time of Jesus’ return, people will scoff at Christians, and mock them, and call us idiots for believing in that old-fashioned stuff. They will say: we are so much more enlightened than they are! We know better, we are not so stupid! One will be taken, and one will be left.

So, if you see around you and feel that the world is getting worse, then don’t be discouraged, but it means that you are coming closer to seeing Jesus with your own eyes—either when you die, or if you live long enough, to see Jesus when he returns. Jesus says: Straighten up, and lift up your heads, for your redemption is drawing near. If you see around you a constant pressure from people not to be a Christian anymore, and to give up on Jesus, because people are mocking you, or scoffing at your beliefs, or calling you an idiot, also, don’t be discouraged, because again it means that you are coming closer to seeing Jesus with your own eyes. Jesus says: Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.

In the last part of our reading, Jesus says: Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.

So, what do you think it means when Jesus says, “stay awake”, or when he says, “you must be ready”? What does it mean to be awake and ready?

Sometimes, I think people often think about this as being busy. We can’t rest, and we must always be active. We must always be doing good works, and working really hard. It’s like, if a mum says to her child, “sweep the floor before I come home”. Then the child forgets about it, and when they hear mum driving up the driveway, they get the broom, and pretend as though they’ve been working for hours!

Well, actually, we Christians should be busy with good works without even really thinking about it! If there’s someone in need, we should help them—and all that kind of thing. But actually, to be awake and ready for Jesus, simply means to trust in him for eternal life. It means to completely despair of our own actions, our own thoughts and words, and to completely despair of ourselves and all of our efforts, and to trust completely in him for everything, because he is the one who has taken the burden of every single one of our sins upon his shoulders, and has died for it all on the cross, and has risen again on the third day. We can trust in him for everything, and we are awake and completely ready when we have the total forgiveness of our sins. And we can be sure of this, because Jesus has said it, and has promised it.  He says: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him may not die but have eternal life. Or as Peter says it in his letter: Whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.

So, be encouraged, friends. Don’t worry about when the end will come, because no-one knows. It could come at any time, like a thief in the night. Therefore, we should always be ready to meet Jesus. Don’t be discouraged by the world getting worse in which we live, or by people mocking or scoffing at you. Stay awake and be ready to meet your Lord, and trust in his wonderful mercy and forgiveness which he won for you, and which he pours out into your lap even today. Amen.

Dear Jesus, we thank you for coming to this dark world as a tiny baby so many years ago. We thank you for the way in which you still come to us today—speaking to us in the church through your word, through preaching, through the absolution and forgiveness—coming to meet us and save us through baptism, coming to encourage and strengthen us with your body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. And we also look forward to wonderful and joyful day when you will bring this world to an end, and bring us to be with you in your kingdom. Amen.

Sunday, 29 September 2019

Pentecost XVI (Proper 21 C) [Luke 16:19-31] (29-Sep-2019)

This sermon was preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Semaphore, 8.45am, and Good News Lutheran Church, Albert Park, 10.30am. 

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

The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom.

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.

This passage from the Gospel of Luke that we have as our Gospel reading today is just such an incredible reading, and it is such an amazing story that Jesus tells us. It has so many amazing things and incredible lessons for us to learn – it puts eternity before us in a very stark way which, actually, for our sinful hearts, for our sinful flesh, is very unpleasant. But it also puts before us an incredibly powerful comfort about what it means to be a Christian and to be saved.

So in our sermon today, I’m going to pick out of this text a few different topics. Firstly, let’s talk about poverty and wealth, and what it means as a Christian to be rich or to be poor.

In our Gospel reading, we read: There was a rich man who was clothed with purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. Later, we read that this particular rich man went to hell, but this particular poor man, Lazarus, went to heaven. And Abraham says to the rich man: Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.

Now, we can sometimes make the wrong conclusion from the passage, as if Jesus is teaching us that rich people are bad, poor people are good, rich people are all going to hell, poor people are all going to heaven. But that’s not quite true. When Lazarus went to heaven, we are told that he went to be with Abraham. Now, in this earthly life, was Abraham rich or poor? Let me read you from the beginning of Genesis 13: Abram went up from Egypt, he and his wife and all that he had, and Lot with him, into the Negeb. Now Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold. Interesting—it turns out that not all rich people automatically go to hell. If all rich people were in hell, why is Abraham in heaven?

So let’s read about the good things that this rich man had. We read first of all, that he was a rich man—he had lots of money and possessions. We would assume—as well—that he had a very nice house. But what he also had was earthly comforts—he had nice clothes, and he was able to eat nice food every day. We often think about wealth simply in terms of a person’s money—but Jesus wants to draw our attention especially to his clothes and food: He was clothed in purple and fine linen and he feasted sumptuously every day.

Now, let’s read about the bad things that Lazarus had. We don’t read at all about Lazarus’s clothes. We read that he was poor—he didn’t have any money, or a home, because he was laid at the rich man’s gate. We read that, instead of being clothed with fine linen and purple cloth, he was covered in sores. He was sick, and infected with some kind of terrible skin disease, that must have caused him no end of itching and annoyance. The only comfort he received was the dogs who came and licked his sores. And what did he eat? Well, not much—but we read that he desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table.

Now, what is Jesus trying to teach us here? Well, first of all, we should realise that in this life, money, a home, good health, clothes and food are all good things, good gifts from God. Actually, Jesus even teaches us to pray for these things, when he says: Give us today our daily bread. When we have these things, we should thank God for it—because they are good things.

And when we see someone—and especially one of our fellow believers, our fellow Christians—who is particularly in need, and doesn’t have the things that they need, and is going hungry, or is sick, or homeless, or doesn’t have enough clothes to wear, our hearts should go out them in compassion, and we should do what we can to help them. Think here about the parable of the Good Samaritan, where he comes and sees the half-dead man on the street, and helps him. And Jesus says: Go and do likewise.

Now, I often think that sometimes (maybe, particularly in our country) in the church, we don’t see enough of this Christian charity at work. Now why is this? Sometimes, I think there are many of us who think we’re a lot poorer than we really are, and so we don’t thank God for what we have, and we don’t think to share it, because we think someone else should be sharing with us. Or, maybe we think because of Centrelink and government welfare, that there really isn’t anyone who really needs our help. If someone needs something, people think, they’ve probably brought it on themselves. Sometimes, we know, it isn’t easy to help people—for example, you can’t just give a drug addict money, if you know they’re just going to go and buy more drugs. They need a different kind of help, and sometimes the kind of help they don’t want. But the fact is with Lazarus: he was in need, and the rich man who was able to help him, didn’t help him. And so, Jesus teaches us here, very simply, if we see someone in need, we should help them.

In fact, this is how Jesus views us—he saw us from heaven in our need, and in all our sin, and in all our helplessness, and he came down from heaven, to share his riches with us. Now, these are heavenly riches—the forgiveness of sins, the promise of everlasting life—but he shares them with us, like a rich man, and let’s us not just eat the scraps off his table, but to feast with him. And so, Jesus wants to create in us a compassionate heart, a heart which reaches out to other people, to share what we have with them. When someone is burdened by guilt and has sinned, we can share the forgiveness of sins with them, and the message of everlasting life with them. And also, when we see someone in some kind of physical need of the body—if they are poor, sick, homeless, hungry—we can also reach out to them and share with them what we have.

Now, let’s leave this topic about being poor or rich, and what it means to be charitable, and let’s come to another topic that this reading talks about, which is the Scripture. When the rich man is in hell, he asks Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to warn his brothers. Instead, Abraham says: They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them. And he said, “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”

So we learn that on the one hand, we have a rich man and a poor man—from our earthly point of view, from the point of view of physical eyes, it looks like the rich man is blessed, and the poor man Lazarus is cursed. The rich man has money, health, house, expensive clothes and expensive food. The poor man has nothing. But there is something much more important that the poor man has, that the rich man doesn’t have. The poor man heard the Scripture—he listened to the words of Moses and the Prophets—and when he heard this message, and he trusted that there was going a Saviour who would die for his sins, the Holy Spirit went into his ears and created a living faith in him. And as he sat at the rich man’s gate, he knew that even though he had nothing in the eyes of the world, he had a God and a Saviour who loved him.

The rich man, on the other hand, also had the Scripture—he had Moses and the Prophets—but he didn’t listen to them. Why would he need to listen to them, when he already has everything that he needs? Instead, the rich man pushed the voice of God away from his heart, and hardened his heart to God, so much so that he couldn’t even have compassion on the man covered with sores at his gate.

And so, it’s just like what God said to the prophet Samuel when he went to choose the young King David to anoint him as the king. He said: The Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.

So, in the end, Lazarus has nothing except the word of God. The rich man has everything except the word of God. In eternity, what this means, is that is Lazarus who has everything, and the rich man who has nothing.

Now, why did the Word of God—why did Moses and the Prophets—give so much to Lazarus? Because, this is the same Word of God that brought the entire universe out of nothing—and so it is more powerful than any money, houses, clothes and food in the entire world. This is simply the most important thing that we could learn in this life—it is so simple, and yet so many people—like this rich man—miss it, and harden their hearts to it, because it doesn’t look like much. It doesn’t look like the wealth, the spectacle, the glamour, that the rich man has. And so just as the rich man treated it all like nothing, so many people treat it like nothing.

Even in the church, this can also be the case. The Lutheran Church is here not simply because of Martin Luther, but because we claim to be a church of the word. Now, many churches can claim to have all kinds of things, but if they don’t have the word of God, they have nothing, and they are leading people on the wrong path. And it’s not like we Lutherans are immune—in fact, the devil is constantly at work trying to take the word of God away from us. And replace it with what? Well, sometimes the word of God can be replaced by traditions, by wealth, by spectacle. Sometimes, the word of God can be replaced by our own reason, our own intellect, our own thinking. Sometimes, the word of God can be replaced by experiences, visions, miracles, ghosts, spirits, and feelings.

Even this happens in our reading. Abraham tells the rich man in hell that if his five brothers have Moses and the Prophets, they have everything they need. What does the rich man say? He says: No—father Abraham—but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent. The rich man knows full well that his brothers are all a bit bored with the word of God. It would really shake them up if the ghost of Lazarus gave them a talking to. No—it doesn’t work like that. And so, we have an incredible warning in this reading. When we have the word of God, we have everything. When we don’t have it, we have nothing. So—don’t be bored with it. Savour every opportunity to hear it, and to read it, and to think about it. We have Moses and the Prophets, and we have the apostles, and we actually do have Jesus physically risen from the dead. What excuse do we have? The day of salvation is now, and Jesus is calling you. Don’t reject him when he walks by.

Now, I’d like come to another topic in our reading—and that is the whole question of salvation, about heaven and hell. Now, a lot of us pastors don’t like to preach too much about hell, and there’s probably a good reason for it. Sometimes, people talk about the old days, like the only thing any pastor every talked about was “hellfire and brimstone”! You can go and read books of sermons from all kinds of times and you can see that that isn’t true.

However, when topics comes up in our readings, we should talk about them. And this passage today is one of the most vivid descriptions that Jesus gives about hell. The rich man lifts up his eyes and sees Lazarus far away and out of his reach. He says: I am in anguish in this flame. He wants his tongue to be cooled by a drop of water. He calls it a place of torment. Abraham says: Now, you are in anguish.

If there’s one thing that seems to be destroying the Christian faith everywhere today, is this whole idea that at the end of the day, “everyone’s going to be alright, Jack.” Many Christians today think that there really isn’t a hell, and that there’s nothing really wrong with anyone, and so, we’re all going to be saved anyway. We might think this for good reasons—we might see other people we know and love who care nothing for Jesus and his word, and we don’t want to have to think about them in eternal torment. It’s a thing that should make us incredibly sad and worried for them. So people sometimes fall into a trap, called “universalism”. “Universalism” means that in the end, everyone is going to be saved anyway, no matter what.

Now, this is not what the bible teaches, it’s not what Jesus taught, and it’s not what he says in our reading today. And it’s a teaching which dries up our love for people, and which makes our zeal for mission dry up—it even makes our thirst and our love for Jesus himself dry up.

At the time of Martin Luther, this was a very important issue, because many Christians believed in purgatory. Purgatory was basically half-way between heaven and hell, and if you paid off your sins in purgatory, or if your loved ones on earth helped pay them off for you, you could eventually go to heaven. But this reading today, teaches us that purgatory doesn’t exist. Abraham says to the rich man: Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner, bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.

Do you see this? Once our life is ended—we either go to heaven or to hell. There’s no half-way. Either we are saved by the blood of Jesus, or we’re not. Now, when Jesus teaches us this, it might grate at us a bit, it makes us very uncomfortable. But you see, Jesus wants us totally for himself. He doesn’t want us to be half-hearted, or half-baked in our trust and love for him. And when we die, he wants to welcome us into his kingdom, with Abraham and Lazarus, and all those who have died believing in him. And so, when we think about eternity, we shouldn’t be lazy in our thinking, we shouldn’t be apathetic or blasé about it. We should be black and white about it—and set very clearly before our eyes only two options: heaven and hell. And Jesus promises that all who believe in him have eternal life. And we set our eyes and our hearts and our minds very clearly in the direction of heaven.

Now, the last thing to talk about today is the Gospel. In the Scripture, we have two teachings—the law and the Gospel. The Law shows us our sin, and shows us the threat of God’s judgment. There are many things in our reading today that put God’s law and his judgment very seriously before our eyes—and some of what Jesus teaches here is quite frightening.

However, at the same time, we also have the Scripture a completely different teaching, which doesn’t show us our sin, but which shows to troubled sinners their wonderful Saviour. This teaching is what we call the Gospel. Now, we know that Jesus entered into this world to take upon himself all of our sin, and he died for it on the cross, made a perfect sacrifice and atonement for you, and he rose again from the dead on Easter day. And now, he gives to you the forgiveness of sins here in the church, through your baptism, through the absolution spoken by the pastor, through the preaching, and through the body and blood of Christ given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. And these things are then given to you as a kind of down-payment of the wonderful promise of everlasting life, eternal salvation, and at the end of this world, a resurrection from the dead, where your body and soul will be so completely transformed and transfigured, that you will be glorified to be like the angels and even Jesus himself.

Now, what’s this got to do with our reading? Who was saved? It was Lazarus who was saved. It didn’t look like he had anything, but in the end, the angels themselves carried him to Abraham’s bosom, placed him on Abraham’s lap, and he was received into eternal life. Why Abraham? Because Abraham believed the Lord, and it was counted to him as righteous. Abraham is the father of faith—Jesus says, that even God can raise up stones to be children of Abraham. And if we believe in Jesus, and trust in his blood and his death, we also are children of Abraham, and will be carried from this life by the angels.

But then the devil wants to tempt us. He wants to say: But look: that rich guy doesn’t believe in Jesus—look at the house he’s living in compared to you, look at the food he’s eating compared to you, look at the happiness he has compared to you. You’re not a real Christian.

Well, it’s at times like this, you can tell the devil to “tick off”, because you have the word of God, you have Jesus risen from the dead, therefore you have everything. You might not have the perfect house, you might not have lots of money, you might be sick all the time, you might have lots of troubles and worries, you might have lots of sadness, you might be lonely, you might be cold, you might be hungry. When we’re struggling like this, we start to think God has abandoned us, and there’s something wrong with our faith. Rubbish! What do you have? You have a Jesus who died for you, a heavenly Father who loves you, and a Holy Spirit who encourages you. You have the word of God—you have Moses and the Prophets, the apostles, you have Jesus. And if you have these things, then you have everything, and you have more than all the gold and the treasures in the whole world. So be like Lazarus—sit at God’s gate, and trust in him. Jesus will never let you down, and finally he will raise you up from the dead to be like him. Amen.

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

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.