The Burned Over Place

This is an illustration I used in a recent sermon that describes a Christian’s relationship to the Law in Christ Jesus. I first read this illustration in the book One Way Love by Tullian Tchividjian.

We are a little like the duck hunter who was hunting with his friend in a wide-open barren of land in southeastern Georgia. Far away on the horizon he noticed a cloud of smoke. Soon he could hear the sound of crackling. A wind came up and he realized the terrible truth: a brush fire was advancing his way. It was moving so fast that he and his friend could not outrun it. The hunter began to rifle through his pockets. Then he emptied all the contents of his knapsack. He finally found what he was looking for – a book of matches. To his friend’s amazement, he pulled out a match and struck it. He lit a small fire around the two of them. Soon they were standing in a circle of blackened earth, waiting for the brush fire to come. They did not have to wait long. They covered their mouths with their handkerchiefs and braced themselves. The fire came near- and swept over them. But they were completely unhurt. They weren’t even touched. Fire would not burn the place where fire had already burned.

The point here is that the Law is like a brush fire that takes no prisoners. It cannot be escaped or extinguished. But if we stand in the burned-over place, where the Law has already done its worst, we will not get hurt. The Law’s power has not been nullified. Yet because of where we are standing, not a hair on our heads will be singed. The death of Christ is the burned-over place. The Law did its worst on Jesus. And so there we huddle, at the foot of the cross, barely believing, yet relieved. Christ’s death has disarmed the Law, and where there was once guilt, now all that remains is gratitude.

Thanks be to God!

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Why is Christmas Good News?

The Christmas Eve sermon based on Luke 2:10-11 that I preached to St. John Lutheran Church in Defiance, Ohio

Luke 2:10-11 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

good newsLet me start with a question: What is the best thing that has happened to you over the past year?

It doesn’t have to be about faith or spirituality, though it might have felt close to a religious experience for you! It could be a promotion you received at work that finally validated your efforts. Or maybe it was the chance to relax on a tropical beach, reading the latest page-turner form your favorite author. Or maybe your granddaughter introduced herself to the world with health and vigor. I know what it was for me. The best thing that happened to me this past year was my son, Owen, being born.

Now after you have an answer in mind, move on to the more important question. Did you tell anyone about it?

Odds are you did. An old marketing adage says you tell three other people when you have a great experience with a brand. A more recent study put it higher- 7.44 people to be exact. The study summarizes, “people enjoy speaking of positive news and remember good news clearly.” We love sharing good news. In the retelling, we not only re-experience these wonderful moments, but we also spread those good vibrations around, allowing others to step into the same kind of wonder.

In fact, we are all wired to share good news. God designed us in his image, so we have taken on, at least on our better days, some of his characteristics. And God Himself loves to share good news. From the beginning of time, when he proclaimed that all of creation was “very good,” to the days he came to earth in the person of Jesus to launch the kingdom of God, our God has always been a bearer of good news. (Much of this introduction I owe to an article in Outreach magazine, the author and title of which I do not have access to. I do want to give credit where it is due however. I don’t want to go all Mark Driscoll over here.)

Tonight we are celebrating the good news that the angels announced to the shepherds. Tonight millions of people around the world are gathering to celebrate the good news of Christmas. But do you really believe that Christmas is good news? Many people recognize that tonight is a special night when perhaps the greatest news of all time took place. So how many of you are telling someone, anyone about it? If we are actually wired to share good news, why do many of us, no, why do all of us find ourselves hesitant, insecure, or just plain resistant when it comes to talking about the thing we say is the best hope for all of mankind, the greatest expression of love in the universe, and the very climax upon which all of history hinges? What keeps us from sharing the good news that the angels announced to the shepherds- Christ, the Savior is born?

Perhaps tonight, you and I need a reminder on what makes Christmas such good news of great joy. Why is Christmas Good News?

I came up with two answers for this question. The first answer to why Christmas is good news is because of the bad news. Without the bad news, Christmas is not good news.

DefinanceCrescentNewsThere is plenty of bad news in this world. I decided to take a look at the Defiance Crescent, our wonderful local newspaper. I looked at just the front page headlines, scanning them for bad news. I needed to bag all the newspapers up and take them to recycling anyway. While Defiance certainly is a friendly place to live, we are not immune to our share of bad news. (Here I read several headlines from the newspaper)

The bad news is not limited to the front page either. Each and every day, when many of you get the paper, the first thing you do is check the obituary section, hoping that you don’t find your own name, I guess. But seriously, the obituary section brings us the bad news of death- the death of long time friends, the death of influential people in our community, the death of people taken much too soon for our liking.

And if the local newspaper does not remind you that we are living in a bad news world, the national and international news certainly will do the job. Just this past year, we have been hammered by bad news of school shootings, marathon bombings, destructive tsunamis, brutal civil wars, and countless other worldwide catastrophes. The bad news flies in our faces constantly and mercilessly. Many people avoid watching and reading the news as much as they can because it is just so darn depressing. There is too much bad news.

But even if you try to insulate yourself from the bad news happening to other people around the world, my guess is that you have had your share of personal bad news this year. I’m willing to bet that your year was not a constant barrage of sunshine and rainbows and puppies. Many of you have lost a dear loved one, or maybe more than one, to death recently. Perhaps you or a loved one has gotten news that a lump or a spot has been detected, and that it is, in fact, cancer. Maybe you’ve been battling a different disease or injury for a long time. You have been in and out of the hospital. Many of you have faced your share of struggles dealing with other people. Your marriage is on the rocks, or it’s simply over. Your relationship with your children or grandchildren has been a struggle all year long. You just can’t seem to get through to them. Maybe you have lost a job or can’t find one. I could go and on, but you probably just want me to stop. You know the reality of bad news in your own life. For many, it just seems to keep going from bad to worse.

bad-newsBad news is all around us, and the sad part is, we have no one but ourselves to blame. The bad news that takes place in this world is because of our sin, our rebellion, our disobedience against God, the Creator of all things. We infected his world with bad news, starting with our parents, Adam and Eve. They disobeyed God, and the bad news just started rolling in- pain, suffering, struggle, death. And you and I have followed in our parent’s footsteps. You break God’s commandments left and right, preferring to do things your way. You create your own gods to worship. You do not love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind. You do not love your neighbor as much as you love yourself. The bad news is that you are a poor, miserable sinner. The bad news is that because of your sin, you are destined for death and for an eternity of pain and suffering.

Boy, we sure could use some good news, couldn’t we? Well, fear not, for like the angels, I do bring you good news of great joy. Christ, the Savior, is born! And we cannot appreciate what good news this truly is until we grasp the totality of the bad news. And it is bad. Christmas is good news because of the bad news. Christmas is good news because God sent His Son into this world of bad news to save us from our sin, from death and from an eternity of bad news.

Jesus is no stranger to bad news. He encountered bad news wherever he went. He experienced bad news in his own life. He suffered like no one else on this earth has suffered. He was betrayed, forsaken, mocked, beaten and crucified. On the cross, all the bad news from the beginning of time to its end was on the shoulders of Jesus. He bore it all on the cross, and he died. Jesus, the Son of God, our Savior, died. When the Saturday morning edition of the Jerusalem Times was delivered after Good Friday, you could have flipped to the obituary section and seen this entry: Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.

That brings us to the second reason why Christmas is such good news. Christmas is only good news because of the cross.

It might seem strange to talk about the cross, an object of death and shame, as good news. It might also seem strange to talk about Good Friday on Christmas Eve. “Come on, Pastor, just stick to Christmas and remind us of the nativity story.” But without Good Friday, Christmas is incomplete. Without Jesus dead on a cross, the baby born in a manger is pointless. If Jesus had not died and rose again, we would not be celebrating today. If someone told you that God became a human being one time, that he was born as a baby but that he really didn’t do anything else, you would think, “Who cares? A lot of good that did us! What exactly did he accomplish?”

Christmas is only good news of great joy because of the cross. In his death, Jesus did accomplish something. He won for you forgiveness and salvation. He brought about peace on earth and goodwill toward men- God and sinner are reconciled.

manger and crossI want to share with you one of my favorite paintings of all time. (See Above) It is a painting entitled “Manger and Cross,” and it captures perfectly how Christmas and Good Friday are tied together. In the foreground you can see a rock cave with the newborn Child Jesus – but if you look closely, the bed in which the Christ Child lays is not a wooden manger, rather it looks more like a coffin. From the manger a path starts through a blooming garden. Along the way the trees become more and more bare, the colors more gloomy. At the rear edge of the image a hill with three crosses can be perceived. The way is winding upwards; it is steep. Nothing is growing there anymore. There is no green, only grey. It is not a place of life, but of death. We know the name of the hill: … Golgotha. The way is leading from the Manger to the Cross.

Jesus had to go this way. It was the way of his life. It is why he came. The painter showed it with her picture quite clearly: the Manger and the Cross belong together. It is not possible to accept only a part of the life of Jesus – for everything is connected, everything is woven together. The ultimate consequence of the Incarnation of Christ is his passion and death on the Cross.  The ultimate consequence of Bethlehem is Golgotha.  The ultimate consequence of the love of God is our redemption! This is truly Good News of Great Joy for all people! Christ the Savior is born!

This is Good News for you. This is Good News which conquers all the bad news. I should probably also mention that Good Friday is only Good News because of Easter. I can’t leave Easter out on Christmas Eve either! Without Easter, Good Friday is a defeat. Easter is the victory. Easter is the triumph. Easter is the end of the journey for Jesus and it is the end of the journey for us as well. For we too will one day be resurrected from the dead and will be given new life. So really, Easter is merely the beginning once again. It is the beginning of new life that will never end. You will have a new life in which there will be no more pain, no more suffering or sickness or death anymore.  From manger to cross to open grave. From birth to death to resurrection to everlasting life. That is Jesus’ journey. It is your journey as well.

Why is Christmas Good News? The news of our Savior being born is the greatest news of all is because of the bad news caused by our own sin and disobedience. The good news of Christmas is the greatest news of all because Jesus destroyed the power of bad news through his own death on the cross. May you be inspired once again by the good news of Christmas, and like those shepherds, may you glorify and praise God for all that you have heard and seen. For unto you is born this day, in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. Glory to God in the highest! Amen.

Let us pray: Lord God, we praise you this day for the good news of Christmas in this bad news world. Thank you for sending your Son, Jesus, to be born into this world, to die for our salvation, and to rise again for our own resurrection and eternal life. Send us your Holy Spirit that we would spread this good news of great joy to the entire world. In Jesus’ name, Amen. nativity 3

Which Version of Jesus Do You Prefer?

John the Baptist in Prison

John the Baptist in Prison

Matthew 11:2-3 Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

Should we look for another Messiah? That’s what John the Baptist wanted to know. Is Jesus really the One? John had heard about everything that Jesus was doing, and he was confused.

Why was John confused? Jesus was doing good things. He was healing people. He was teaching about the kingdom of God. He was being compassionate and loving to the crowds, especially to the poor, the marginalized, the sinners. So why was John confused? Because this was not the Messiah that John expected.

Remember what John proclaimed about the Messiah when he was preaching in the wilderness in Matthew 3?  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand… He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

So…Where was the judgment?  Where was the power? Where was the unquenchable fire? And why, oh why, was John in prison? You see, that is one detail that we cannot lose sight of. John is in prison. He was the forerunner of Christ, the Christ that John thought was coming to rule, to bring down those who were in charge and to raise up the lowly. John expected a different kind of Messiah, and now he was in prison because of King Herod. The Jesus that John expected didn’t match up with the Jesus that was being reported to him. Naturally, John began to doubt. Is this Jesus really the one who was to come or should I be looking for another?

Unmet expectations is a theme that follows Jesus throughout his own ministry. Even his closest followers, the 12 disciples, expected a different Jesus than the one they ended up with. That is why they were continually surprised by what Jesus said and did. Wow! I didn’t see that coming! That’s why Jesus continually had to teach them and correct them. No, no. I did not come to establish my kingdom here on earth. (At least, not in the way you think). I did not come to start a Jewish revolution and overthrow the Romans. I did not choose you so that you could have positions of power and authority. The disciples had different expectations of Jesus. They had a vision of the Messiah which didn’t always match up with the real Jesus. That is why they all abandoned Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and hid themselves in the Upper Room. No doubt they were wondering, “Is Jesus really the one who was to come or should we look for another?”

BurgerKing-Have-It-Your-Way.gifJesus doesn’t always match human expectations. This confusion over who Jesus really is continues to you and me today. You and I are often very much like John the Baptist in Matthew 11 and like the 12 disciples. We turn Jesus into whoever we want him to be. We get a picture of who Jesus should be to us and then get disappointed and even angry when Jesus doesn’t come through. Like Burger King, we want to have Jesus our way. We want the Jesus who suits us best.

Because of this human tendency to turn Jesus into something he is not, history has given us several versions of Jesus.

Emperor Jesus– a creation of the early Christian Church in which the human leaders tried to force people into acknowledging Jesus as their King. Christianity became the official religion of the state and empire. This is what led to the absolute control that the Pope had up to the time of the Reformation in the Holy Roman Empire. This version of Jesus is used by the rich and powerful to control the masses.

jesus-gunGeneral Jesus– This Jesus is the leader of Holy Wars and Crusades. This Jesus is convenient for any leader or country to use when they decide that their way is the divine, God-given way to do things. There is a lot of General Jesus evident, as I already mentioned, in the Crusades, in the settlement of the New World, and in the United States for its entire existence. General Jesus can be used to start and enter wars and commit all kinds of atrocities against other people.

Nice Guy Jesus– This Jesus is very popular today. This Jesus never judges. His whole message is defending the idea of tolerance at the expense of truth. This Jesus would never condemn anyone for anything. This Jesus accepts all views and lifestyles as valid. This Jesus is all about love- but even the definition of love is subject to your own interpretation. (Other names- Fuzzy-wuzzy Jesus or Chicken Soup for the Soul Jesus)

Angry Jesus– other end of the spectrum- This Jesus cast judgment on anybody and everybody. This Jesus can’t wait to send other people to hell.

jesus-genie1Genie Jesus– I might start getting a little closer to home for many of you with these next couple. Genie Jesus is the great wish-fulfiller. He exists to answer your prayers, your desires and wants. This Jesus just wants you to have whatever you want in life and can be manipulated to do just that. Just say and do the right thin, and poof! Your wish is granted! Considering the season we are in, this Jesus could also be called Santa Claus Jesus.

Good Teacher Jesus or Moral Jesus– another popular one today. This Jesus came to earth to show us and teach how to live a better life and how to follow God’s commandments. Those of you who follow this version of Jesus take very seriously the words of Jesus. Some even call themselves Red-Letter Christians. Jesus’ words and teachings are what are most important, not whether he was God or whether he actually died and rose again. This Jesus can be boiled down to the Sermon on the Mount and the Golden Rule. Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.

american jesusAmerican Jesus– I saved the best for last. This Jesus is rampant in American Christianity. This Jesus is the fulfiller of the American dream. This Jesus is all about the life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness- whatever happiness means to you. This Jesus wants you to live your best life now. He wants you to be healthy and wealthy and happy all the time. This Jesus will never challenge you or make you uncomfortable. This Jesus is going to heal all your diseases in this life if you just pray hard enough. If you believe enough and keep a positive attitude, you can overcome whatever hardships come your way. This Jesus blesses the United States above all, because, you know, it’s a “Christian” nation. American Jesus elevates capitalism as the greatest good, hates anybody who says anything negative about the U.S., actually signed the Declaration of Independence, and loves baseball and apple pie. Do you know this Jesus?

All of these versions of Jesus that you and I create for ourselves are based on incomplete or just flat out false expectations of the true Jesus. They are unrealistic expectations. They may have an element of truth, but they do not capture the whole picture. And when your version of who Jesus is doesn’t actually meet your expectations, you are going to be angry and disappointed. When that friend or loved one dies of cancer despite all of your fervent prayers, when you’re barely scraping by, living paycheck to paycheck, despite your positive attitude, when the supremacy of the United States starts to look like its crumbling, or when you are simply unhappy with your life- These things get you start doubting Jesus. Like the John the Baptist in prison, you wonder, “Is Jesus really the Savior, the One? Why isn’t he doing what I expect him to do? Maybe Jesus isn’t who I thought he was?”

You’ve got two options when you get to this point, when you are disappointed and angry at Jesus. The first is to just reject him, to get angry, and to walk away. We see this happening in churches all the time. People are leaving the church because they are disappointed and angry. But that isn’t always their fault. Maybe the church has been giving them the wrong version of Jesus. The church is certainly guilty of giving people a false version of Jesus, the American version or the genie Jesus or the moral Jesus. They give people the Jesus that they think will attract more people and increase attendance. They tell people that they can have Jesus their way, however they want him. It’s no wonder that people are leaving the church, angry and disappointed.

But  other option when you are disappointed with Jesus, when you have unfulfilled expectations of Jesus, is to ask the question, “Do I have the right Jesus?” Maybe you have unrealistic expectations of Jesus. Maybe you have bought into the false version that has been sold to you. Maybe you need to rediscover who Jesus truly is and what he is all about. The only way to know is look at what the Word of God says. To his credit, that’s what John the Baptist does. He goes to the source. He asks Jesus Himself.

This is what Jesus says to John the Baptist’s disciples. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

duck 1There’s an old saying that goes: “If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, then…it’s a duck.” This tongue-in-cheek phrase is used to illustrate that a lot can be learned about an individual’s identity by his or her words and actions. When John the Baptist questions Jesus’ identity, Jesus simply reminds him of what he has said and done.

But he is also reminding John what the Old Testament actually says about the Messiah. He is correcting John’s false expectations. If a person thinks that a duck has a snout instead of a bill, then they are never going to find a duck. So Jesus points out to John that he is fulfilling Scripture. Psalm 146 prophesies what the Messiah is going to do. He executes justice for the oppressed. He sets the prisoner free. He opens the eyes of the blind and gives food to the hungry. Isaiah 35 also gives evidence that Jesus is who he says he is. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.

These are all signs that point to Jesus as the Messiah. If someone makes the blind see like the Messiah, and causes the lame to walk like the Messiah, and raises the dead like the Messiah, then it’s the Messiah.

Yet the doubts about who Jesus truly is continued to follow him throughout his whole ministry. People still had different expectations and visions of the Messiah despite Jesus doing all those signs. The climax of all the doubts that people had about Jesus came at the cross.

No one expected the cross. When people looked at Jesus hanging on the cross, they knew, “This cannot be the Messiah.” In fact, they challenged him to prove himself. “If you really are the Son of God, prove it! Come down from the cross. Then we will believe. Look at him- weak, bloody, beaten, dead. That’s not the Messiah. He’s just like so many so-called messiahs before him- a liar and a failure.”

Because of their false expectations, the people of Jesus’ day could not see the cross as the greatest proof, the clearest sign, that Jesus truly was the Messiah, the Savior. Jesus tried to tell them. Over and over again to his followers, Jesus said, “I came to seek and save the lost. I came not to be served but to serve and to give my life as a ransom for many.” Three times in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus told his disciples that he was going to be given over to sinful men, and that he was going to suffer and die and rise again. They just didn’t believe him. It didn’t match their expectations. Interestingly enough, the greatest example of faith in Jesus in the book of Matthew doesn’t come from someone you would expect. It’s not John the Baptist or the 12 disciples. The only person who recognized Jesus as the Messiah and Savior because of his death on the cross was the Roman centurion who remarked after Jesus’ death: “Truly this man was the Son of God!”

jesus centurion crossOh, that we would all have the faith of that centurion who saw Jesus dead on the cross and concluded that he was in fact, God. Oh that John would have believed his own words when he saw Jesus and cried out “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” You see, by his suffering and death, Jesus actually proves that he is the Messiah. The evidence is in Isaiah 53, where are introduced to a suffering Messiah, a dying Messiah. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.

A suffering and dying Jesus is not always the Jesus we want today either. This Jesus does not promise you your best life now. He does not promise you happiness in this life. This Jesus does not fulfill all of your wishes and desires. He doesn’t lead wars and revolutions. That’s why some of you might prefer your American Jesus or your Moral Jesus. Paul tells us that the message of the cross is a stumbling block to belief in Jesus as Lord and Savior. It goes against all of our expectations of an almighty God. It goes against all of our sinful desires. The world thinks it is foolish to believe in a God who is willing to be weak and to suffer and to die.

A suffering and dying Jesus is not always the version of Jesus that you want. But Jesus on the cross, a dead Jesus, is exactly the Jesus that you need. Only a crucified, dead, buried and risen Jesus is the true Jesus. This Jesus is the only one who gives you hope and healing in this life. This Jesus was pierced for your transgressions; he was crushed for your iniquities; upon this Jesus was the chastisement that brought you peace, and by his wounds you are healed.

Following this Jesus might land you in prison. You might even get your head chopped off like John the Baptist. But that’s OK, because the real Jesus has defeated the power of death through his own death and resurrection. The real Jesus sets the prisoners free and raises the dead. The real Jesus gives you the promise of everlasting life to come. This is the Jesus you need! May you look to the cross and see your Savior and Messiah and along with the centurion confess: “Truly this man was the Son of God!”

 

Guilty

Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.  I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. Psalm 32:1-5

I immediately thought of these verses when I read the story about the Ohio man who confesses via video to drunk driving and to hitting and killing a man. Below is his confession:

This is a powerful video. It is also a great demonstration of the crushing nature of the Law, not the law of the land, but God’s eternal Law. I am not claiming that Matthew Cordle is a Christian. I have no idea. But I do know that Paul says in Romans that every single human being has a natural knowledge of God’s Law. It is written on our hearts. In other words, every human being is born with a sense of right and wrong. And we humans spend our entire time trying to deal with God’s Law or as the late theologian Gerhard Forde puts it, we spend our entire lives trying to “get God off our backs.”

You see, God’s Law crushes us. It enslaves us. It tells us over and over again that we are not good enough. God’s Law demands perfection. And we fall short of those demands. So we try to deal with the Law in different ways.

1. We get angry with God because of his impossible demands, and so we do our best to simply ignore the Law that is written on our hearts. We rebel against the Law, and we do our best to ignore it when it rises up in our conscience to accuse us. We become our own Lawmakers.

2. We try to justify ourselves. We point out the areas where we are following the Law and try to sweep under the rug those times that we fall short. We point out other people who we think our worse Lawbreakers than we are. We attempt to present our best selves to other people and to God.

3. We despair. This is the intended effect of the Law. This is what happened to King David in Psalm 32 and to Matthew Cordle. Guilt overwhelmed them until they could not keep silent about their transgressions any longer. David described it as his bones wasting away all day long. He felt God’s hand heavy upon him. Matthew Cordle certainly felt the heavy hand of the Law upon him too. He didn’t want to lie about it or cover it up. He couldn’t ignore it any longer. It was crushing him. So he confessed his sin and is apparently willing to accept his punishment.

“I can’t erase what I’ve done,” Cordle says. And in our human justice system, Cordle will pay the price for his crime, as he should. But I hope that somebody has an opportunity to share with Matthew Cordle that his sin can be erased. I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.

Matthew Cordle can try to right his wrong by accepting his punishment here on earth. He can reconcile with his conscience. But the only way to achieve peace with God is to confess his sins to Him. But if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

The only way to “get God off your back” is to confess your sins and turn to Jesus. On the cross, Jesus took all your sins and the sins of the whole world upon his back. He took your eternal punishment. Through Jesus’ blood shed on the cross, your sins are erased. You can have peace with God because Jesus died in your place.

I noticed that the YouTube user that uploaded Matthew Cordle’s confession goes by the name “becauseisaidiwould.” Matthew Cordle even holds up a piece of paper with that tagline on it. I don’t know anything about this tagline. I assume it encourages people to follow through on their words which is, of course, a good idea. But people, as I have already pointed out, are not perfect and often go back on their word.

But God does not. No matter what he says, we can trust. How do you know God will forgive your sins? Because he said he would. How do you know that he will grant you eternal life? Because he said he would. God always keeps his word and promises.

When you are crushed by the Law, do not ignore it. Do not angry with God. Do not try to justify yourself. Despair of yourself, confess your sins and receive healing and forgiveness through Jesus. He came and died for sinners like Matthew Cordle, like you, and like me. In Christ, you are declared, “Not guilty!”

east westThe Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does  he remove our transgressions from us. Psalm 103:8-12

What Are You Giving Up for Lent?

A sermon for the Transfiguration of our Lord from Luke 9:28-36

I saw this yesterday and had to add it!

I saw this yesterday and had to add it!

Well, in case you missed the announcement this morning or have failed to check your calendar, this is your friendly reminder that Ash Wednesday is this week- February 13th.  Ash Wednesday, of course, marks the beginning of the season of Lent in the church year. So my question for you today is: What are you giving up this year for Lent?

Some of you might be wondering what in the world I am talking about. Why would I give something up for Lent? And that’s ok. Perhaps you do not come from a background where giving something up for Lent was ever mentioned or practiced. This could be a foreign concept to you. And again, that’s ok. Don’t worry, you’ll learn all about it today.

In my family growing up, my parents encouraged us children to give something up for the season of Lent. Of course, right away they would shoot down our brilliantly conceived ideas of giving up school, or homework, or piano lessons. No, no, we were supposed to give up something that we liked or enjoyed for the 40 days of Lent. So our self-denial usually came down to giving up some sort of food- ice cream, chocolate, desserts in general, potato chips, soda. Something like that. Giving up vegetables never worked either.

HungryAnd for those of you who have at some point given something up for Lent, I am willing to bet that your sacrifice almost always is some sort of food as well. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with that. Giving up a certain food that you enjoy is like a mini-fast, and fasting is a practice often talked about in the Bible.

So should you fast? Some of you might raise an objection that fasting is a Roman Catholic thing. We don’t do that. We’re Lutherans. We don’t want to be associated with those Catholics. And it is true that the Roman Catholic Church has a long history of fasting, especially during Lent. Roman Catholics are told that they should fast during Lent, specifically that they should give up meat on Fridays- except for fish of course. You can eat all the fish you want. Captain D must have been a smart Roman Catholic. But the Catholics are not the only ones who have a long history of fasting.

Another objection to fasting might be: Well, that’s just an Old Testament thing. Certainly, fasting is a topic well-covered in the Old Testament. God gave his people Israel very detailed instructions on when they were to fast, for how long, what they were allowed to eat at certain times, and what the consequences were if you broke your fast. On the Sabbath Day, you were not supposed to eat from sunup to sundown. It was commanded. But fasting doesn’t go away with the New Testament and the arrival of Jesus. Rather, it seems that Jesus almost assumes that his disciples will fast.  He says in Matthew 6: “And when you pray, don’t do it like the Pharisees…and when you fast, don’t do it like them either.” Jesus doesn’t say, “If you pray…” or “If you fast…” When you pray and when you fast.

So the Catholics don’t hold a monopoly on fasting and Jesus didn’t do away with it either. So let’s ask another important question: What is fasting? Fasting is an ancient Christian discipline that has always been used as part and parcel of a life of prayer and meditation of God’s Word. Fasting is denying your body food for a certain period of time. Why would you want to do this? It is to train and subdue yourself with bodily restraints or bodily exercises.  Fasting is a discipline meant to help you reflect on your own sinfulness and on Christ’s sacrifice for you.

So even in the Lutheran Church, fasting is a commendable practice. However, and this is the key, we must reject and condemn any attempt to make laws, regulations and rules about it. In other words, while fasting is a good practice, it is not required or commanded. Fasting is a good practice, but it does not earn you any special favor with God or make you a better Christian than everybody else. That’s what Jesus was getting at in Matthew 6:

Hey everyone! Come and see how good I look!

Hey everyone! Come and see how good I look!

And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others.” The Pharisees, when they fasted, made a show of it. “Look at me! Come and see how good I am! God surely loves me!” That isn’t the point. Fasting doesn’t earn you extra points with God.

But now you might be thinking to yourself, “Pastor Schmidt, if fasting is not required or commanded and if it doesn’t earn me any special favor with God, what is the point? Why are you then wasting an entire sermon on this subject?” A fair question- but stick with me. I promise that I am going somewhere with this.

Let’s go back to what fasting is good for. It is a practice which helps you to reflect on your own sinfulness and on Christ’s sacrifice for you. That is why fasting is typically connected with the season of Lent and that is why I asked what you are giving up for Lent. Lent is the season of the church year where we especially focus on our own sinfulness and on Jesus’ journey to the cross. Lent is a time of repentance and is well summed up by Joel 2: 14: Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.

Lent is not primarily about fasting or giving something up. Denying ourselves something during Lent is a way to help us concentrate on the  true purpose of Lent: to fix our eyes on Jesus and to ponder the purpose, reasons, and necessity of our Lord’s suffering and death for us.

transfiguration 2That brings us to our Gospel reading for today which is Luke’s account of the Transfiguration of our Lord. Now when Jesus is transfigured and glorified on the mountain, it certainly does not bring up images of Jesus’ suffering and death for us. Rather, it tends to do just the opposite. On the mount of Transfiguration, the 3 disciples with Jesus finally see his true glory and power. Moses and Elijah are talking to him. God the Father actually speaks: “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” It is an amazing and frightening experience for them. There is no hint of suffering or shame or sacrifice. There is no hint of Lent.

Yet, the story of the Transfiguration is always the Gospel reading for the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. Maybe you didn’t know that, but it is true. Every year, we read about the Transfiguration right before Lent starts.  Why is that? On the mountain of Transfiguration, we get a glimpse of Jesus’ glory, a glory that will not be revealed again until Jesus rises from the dead and ascends into heaven. But before we get to the glory of the resurrection, we have to go to the cross.

You see, Luke continues his Gospel right after the Transfiguration in this way: On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. The key words in that verse are: when they had come down from the mountain. Jesus didn’t stay on the mountain in all his power and glory. That’s what Peter wanted to do. He thought it was great up there. Let’s set up some tents for you and Moses and Elijah and just stay up here. But Jesus couldn’t stay. He had work to do. Even when he was with Moses and Elijah, they were talking about his future in Jerusalem. They weren’t just catching up on the latest heavenly gossip. God affirmed His Son Jesus and his mission on the mountain, but he had to come down. Later again in chapter 9, Luke says this about Jesus: When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem. What was waiting for him in Jerusalem? The cross. He was to be taken up and crucified. Jesus was getting ready for what he came to do. He was heading to the cross.

And he invites you to go with him. In Luke 9, before the Transfiguration, Jesus tells his disciples: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” That’s what the season of Lent is all about. It is a time for the church to journey with Jesus to the cross. It is a time of self-denial because, let’s face it, in our consumer culture, we are not used to denying ourselves anything. We are selfish and self-centered. We are used to getting whatever we want. And if we don’t get it, we covet it or whine about it. But Jesus has a different idea for our lives. Deny yourself. Take up your cross. Follow him. Now Jesus’ call to deny ourselves certainly isn’t limited to Lent- it’s a 24-7 proposition. But we do tend to concentrate on it especially during Lent.

You see, the 40 days of Lent help prepare us for the Holiest of Holies of the church year: Holy Week.

Stations of the Cross

Stations of the Cross

During Holy Week, we walk the steps of Jesus: from his entrance into Jerusalem, to his clearing out of the temple, to his teaching about the Last Days, to his Last Supper in the upper room, to his anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane, to his betrayal and arrest, his trial, his floggings, his crown of thorns, his walk through Jerusalem carrying his own cross, to his crucifixion and death and burial. We journey that whole way with Jesus every year so that we can truly appreciate the miracle and wonder of Easter where Jesus is glorified once again as he rises from the dead and declares victory over sin, death and Satan.

Giving up something for Lent is a way for you to reflect even more upon your own sinfulness and upon the magnitude of Christ’s sacrifice for you. When you fast or simply cut back on the food you eat, and you feel that twinge, or even sharp stab of hunger, you can be reminded: Oh yes, hunger. Yes, Lent. Yes, Jesus suffered for me. He felt the deep sharp stab of thorn and nail, for me. When you give up something you enjoy like chocolate or potato chips, and you find yourself craving those things, you can be reminded: Jesus gave up his life for me, a poor, miserable, and selfish sinner. When you discipline yourself, you can be reminded of Jesus’ discipline for you. As he was suffering and being accused falsely or being mocked on the cross, he could have used his glory and power to come down from the cross. But he didn’t. He stayed on the cross, enduring its shame, for you.

But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.

Lenten Poster 2013These words from Isaiah 53 describe the sacrifice and self-denial that Jesus made for you. The words of Isaiah 53 are also the theme of our Wednesday Lenten series this year. The series is entitled “Behold, my Servant,” and each week we will focus on another aspect of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant whom we know to be Jesus Christ.  So I have a suggestion for you as a response to the question “What are you giving up for Lent?” Now this is just a suggestion, not a command. You can give up a certain food. You could give up eating until a certain time of the day. But I encourage you to give up an hour. I want you to give up an hour of your time every Wednesday either from 1:00-2:00 in the afternoon or 7:30-8:30 at night to come to our Lenten worship services here at St. John. This really would be self-denial. There are probably a hundred other things you would rather do with that hour on Wednesday.

Remember, giving something up for Lent isn’t something that you do for God to earn his favor. It’s something that you do for yourself so that you can better focus on your own sin and fix your eyes on Jesus and his journey to the cross to earn God’s favor for you. It is a way to read and reflect on God’s Word and be filled up with the Bread of Life. It is a way to return to the Lord in repentance for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. So what better way to observe Lent and deny yourself than to give up your time and come to God’s house and hear once again of his great love for you? Come and hear about how Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem, toward the cross, knowing the suffering he would face, yet going anyway for you for your sin and selfishness.  Come and hear God the Father say to you “This is my son or daughter; my chosen one!” What an opportunity to be blessed by God and by His Word of Good News for your life!

What are you giving up for Lent? That’s up to you. But I do hope and pray that every day you will listen to Jesus calling for you to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow him. For He will lead you to glory everlasting. Amen.

Let us pray: On my heart imprint your image, Blessed Jesus, king of grace, That life’s riches, cares, and pleasures Never may your work erase; Let the clear inscription be: Jesus, crucified for me, Is my life, my hope’s foundation, And my glory and salvation!

HT to Paul McCain of CPH for much of the information on fasting and on a good summary of the Lenten season.

Stop it!

In my sermon this past weekend, I mentioned a comedy sketch starring Bob Newhart as a psychiatrist who only charges patients for the first 5 minutes. As is usually the case, you get what you paid for. Bob has only 2 words of advice for his patient. Watch the skit below.

A psychiatrist telling his patient to just stop whatever they are doing is just as effective as a pastor telling his people to stop sinning. Just stop it! And yet this is what many preachers do from the pulpit when they only give tips for righteous living. Many pastors will use the law to tame the sinful nature. They will give you a step by step process in order to conquer sin in your life so you can stop sinning and “grow in your faith.” According to many, growth in faith comes from greater obedience. Many Christians are tricked into believing this as well, and they see the Bible as an instruction book, and they see their pastor as a therapist, helping them correct their sin problem.

If only we could just stop sinning

But any good therapist and any good pastor knows that simply telling you to “stop it!” will not be effective. You have to get at the root of the problem. And as Christians, we know that the root of our problem is our sinful nature. There is nothing that we can do to tame or improve our sinful nature. We can’t just stop sinning. Following the law can do nothing to improve our Christian status. The law shows us our sin. It shows us how bad our sinful nature really is. It takes away any hope of just stopping sin. It’s impossible. You have to get to the root issue, the sin that dwells in you, that has dwelt in you since your birth, and you have to kill it. There’s no taming. There’s no getting better. There is only confessing your sin, laying your sinful nature at the foot of the cross and letting Jesus take care of it. For he has taken your sin and your sinful nature upon himself and died for it, so that you might have His righteousness.

Christian growth isn’t about taming your sinful flesh or getting better at obedience. It is not about seeing the Bible as a code for moral living. Your pastor is not your therapist. Christian growth comes not from following the law. It comes from clinging to the Gospel. It means returning to the cross and to your baptism day after day, confessing your inability to stop sinning and simply turning back to Jesus and the cross where he forgives your sins. Your pastor isn’t your therapist or your motivational speaker to give you tips for living a better life. He is your “Absolution Man” as one of my seminary professors used to say. He is there to speak God’s Word of law and gospel. He stands in the place of Christ on Sunday morning to forgive your sins, not on his own authority, but with the authority of Christ.

Telling sinners to stop it does not bring about lasting change. Only the Gospel can transform lives. As a Christian, your growth comes not from your obedience but from your ever increasing reliance on God’s forgiveness and grace through Jesus.

The Gospel of Mark

One of the greatest gifts that God has given to His church is not just one but four different accounts of Jesus’ life. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all tell the story of Jesus, but each Gospel has unique characteristics. They were all originally written to different audiences. They all have different emphases, moods, and even purposes. This is not to say that the four Gospels are opposed to each other. Rather, each writer of the Gospel decided to tell the story of Jesus in a different style so as to benefit their respective hearers. The Jesus of Matthew is different than the Jesus of Luke. But they are both Jesus. What this gives us is a broad, dynamic picture of Jesus, of the disciples, and of all the characters present in these Gospels.

In our worship services, we Lutherans typically read a section of the Scriptures from the Old Testament, from an Epistle and from one of the Gospels. You may not know that these are not just randomly selected every Sunday. We follow what is called a lectionary which is simply a collection of Scripture readings. We at St. John follow what is called the 3-year lectionary which means that we every three years we will “recycle” the same readings. To learn more about the lectionary and its history, click here.

At the beginning of the church year, which is the first Sunday in Advent, we start a new lectionary series, either A, B or C. This year, we are in Series B. In Series A, which was last year, most of the Gospel readings were from Matthew. Series B includes mostly Mark. Series C follows Luke. The Gospel of John is interspersed throughout all three series.

Since we are in Series B and will have many Gospel readings from Mark, I thought it might be helpful to teach a little primer on Mark. As I said, each Gospel is unique, and Mark is no exception. Mark gives us a Jesus who is the true Son of God and acts as a man of great authority but whose ultimate purpose was to serve and to offer himself as a ransom for many, a purpose that is ultimately fulfilled at the cross.

Mark is the shortest Gospel consisting of only 16 chapters. Mark does not waste any words with his account of Jesus’ life. Mark doesn’t even give an account of Jesus’ birth or early life. He simply begins his gospel with: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” He then launches into the ministry of John the Baptist. One of Mark’s favorite words is immediately. He whisks along, building up to the climax of the story. Mark’s gospel is all about action. Mark includes some teachings and parables of Jesus to be sure, but he does not have long discourse sections like the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew.

Who is Jesus in Matthew? Jesus is the Son of God, first and foremost. (See Mark 1:1) Jesus is portrayed as a man with great authority. He is a man of power over disease, over nature, and over demons. Jesus is the main character in Mark which seems silly to say. Isn’t Jesus the main character in all the gospels? Well, yes, but in Mark, Jesus plays an especially central role, almost like a character in a Greek tragedy. Jesus is beset by constant opposition during his “quest.” Throughout Mark, Jesus is opposed by one thing after the other. Mark is a gospel full of conflict that builds and builds. The whole world is out to get him. It’s Jesus versus the evil spirits. Jesus versus his hometown of Nazareth. Jesus versus his own family. Jesus versus the religious leaders. Even Jesus versus his disciples! Hardly anyone in Mark is able to understand who Jesus truly is.

That is another theme in the Gospel of Mark. There is a sense of of secrecy, of concealment around Jesus. Jesus silences the demons so they cannot say who He is. He tells people that He has healed not to tell anyone what happened. He tells His disciples after the Transfiguration not to say anything about it. You won’t find a cuddly, friendly Jesus in Mark either. Jesus is portrayed as angry, even annoyed at times. He chooses who He wants to explain His parables to. He does odd things like cursing a fig tree for not producing figs when it was not fig season.

The gospel of Mark is not kind to the disciples. In the other gospels, the disciples certainly have their downfalls, but they kind of get who Jesus is at times. In Mark, the disciples are completely clueless. They follow Jesus obediently, but they don’t seem to know why. Even after the Transfiguration when God the Father says, “This is my Son; listen to Him!” they don’t listen or understand. They are fearful, non-insightful, and Mark takes special care to mention that when Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane “they all left him and fled.”

Mark is building the conflict, creating suspense, keeping everyone in the dark for the climax. That climax is hinted at in Mark 8:31, “And Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.” The climax of Mark is at the cross. The purpose of Jesus is revealed at the cross. The conflict is ended at the cross. Jesus’ true identity is discovered at the cross, not by the disciples, not by the religious leaders or by a member of Jesus’ family, but by a Roman centurion, who confessed, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” And right there Mark connects his opening verse to the climax of his gospel.

Mark is saying that you cannot understand Jesus fully until you stand at the foot of the cross. The Jesus who taught and told parables, the Jesus who did miracles and showed authority is not the complete picture of Jesus. Mark 10:45 “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

The Gospel of Mark was written in Rome to those undergoing persecution. Mark wants to encourage them to be strong and faithful. So Mark emphasizes that kingdom of God has come, but it has come in humility and lowliness through the cross. Mark stresses that in spite of your failures (or the failures of the disciples, his family, the religious leaders, the general populous) Jesus never fails. He is faithful. We have his word and his word is always true. The angel at the empty tomb says, “You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” Mark also wants his readers to know that believing does not come from seeing. Those under persecution might often hope “If only we could see Jesus, it would be easier to believe.” Mark says “No, it wouldn’t. You believe in order to see.”

To conclude, I will use the “Blessings for Readers” section from the Lutheran Study Bible on Mark. The Gospel of Mark truly is a blessing that shows Jesus to be true God and true Man, ransomed for our sake that we might hear and believe.I hope you enjoy our journey through Mark this year and grow in your understanding of who Jesus is and what He has done for you.

As you read the Mark’s account of Jesus’ ministry and Passion, take special note of the emphasis on discipleship and faith. Jesus tells His followers that He will suffer and will ransom them (8:31-33, 9:30-31, 10:32-34,45). They, too, will face suffering on account of Him and the Gospel (8:34-9:1, 10:29-30). Yet, through repentance and faith, they will inherit eternal life.

When you face difficulty, cry out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (9:24). The Son of God, who ransomed you from the bondage of sin and death (10:45, 15:22-25), will hear you in compassion and have mercy (9:22, 10:47-49).