The Word of God Disrupts Our Sin and Shame
Fourth in a series, “The Disruptive Word”
Grace, mercy and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our sermon text for this midweek Advent is Isaiah 40, very famous Advent words, “Comfort, Comfort my people says your God. A voice crying in the wilderness make straight his paths.” Our text thus far.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
In the days of waiting and preparing for Christmas, in the season that we call Advent, we consider the disruptive Word of God. We consider how the Word of God does not leave us alone. It does not let us be, but instead that every advent is another calling for you to consider and reflect on your own lives, a time when you get to long again for Jesus Christ to come back and make all things right, a time when you pray for hope and ask God to remind you what hope is, pray for peace and ask God to remind you what peace is.
Today, we consider how the disruptive Word of God disrupts our sin and shame, and we consider that as we read Isaiah chapter 40.
Isaiah begins, with God talking: “‘Comfort, Comfort, my people,’ says your God.” Then he says, “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that her warfare is ended.”
So, what is comfort? It comes from the Latin, cum forte, which means “With Strength.” I think of my son, Amos Stanley. He’s a big three year old these days, big enough to get into some real bonkers, but little enough that he runs to us for comfort. It was just the other day that had bonked his head. He ran up the stairs. He cried in my arms, and I asked him what he needed. He said, “A hug.” I gave him the hug, and he ran away. He needed comfort. He needed my strength. He needed my presence.
Why is Isaiah supposed to cry “Comfort” to God’s people? We get the answer in the last three verses of chapter 39. The people were going to be carried off to Babylon. They were staring down the barrel of 70 years of servitude to yet another monstrous empire, and all the way from chapter one to chapter thirty-nine, Isaiah has been saying that this is a result of their sin and their shame. He is crying, “Comfort” to a people that feel trapped.
Have you ever felt trapped? One of my very favorite Poppa day games is all about this idea. We play a game called Blanket of Doom. It started out just as wrestling, but then I did my Pastor Muther thing to it, and now I run around with the blanket of doom in my hands until I catch one of the boys. I trap them in the blanket, and I always say the same. Ha ha! No one has gotten out of the blanket of doom for a thousand years.....” and then they escape. And eventually they start wrapping me up in the blanket of doom.
But, have you ever felt trapped? Trapped by your own choices? Trapped by what someone else is doing? Trapped by your circumstances? Unable to do what my boys did? Unable break free?
In the middle of that, Isaiah cries, “Comfort.” What should we take comfort from? Comfort, he says because your warfare is ended, your iniquity is pardoned.
He goes on. A voice cries, Comfort, because God has pardoned your iniquity, he has won your salvation, and in the wilderness, he is preparing a way. When Isaiah says, “Wilderness,” he doesn’t mean a picturesque walk in the Walden Woods. He means, in the harshest of environments, in the place where there is no straight path, no way forward, in the exact places of our lives where we feel most trapped, God has prepared a way.
God has made a level path. God has torn down the mountains so that he can make a straight way. He has filled up every valley so that he would not stop, he would not turn to the right, he would not turn to the left, but that he would make a straight path for his salvation to be yours.
You see, in this life, it seems like most days are anything but a straight path forward. We get side-tracked on a side path. We get distracted from what we thought we were supposed to do. Sometimes we spend hours doing something that we realize later was a waste of time. We feel like we’re not even moving at all. We’re just stuck in place.
But the mouth of the Lord has spoken. Your salvation is a path straight to the cross. Your salvation straightens out all the hills and valleys before God in your life. Your salvation makes your path, with all of its twists and turns, so that when you look back on your life, in Christ, you find that the miracle is he used it all so that he might be glorified.
A voice says, Cry. Comfort my people. Cry to them that their warfare is ended. Cry, in the wilderness, make straight the path of our God. Cry. Isaiah asks, “What shall I cry?” Then he has an aside.
All flesh is like grass. It springs up and withers. All flesh is like the flowers; they bloom and fade. He says, we can feel trapped, but the word of God reveals something deeper. Whether we feel trapped or not, the Word of God reveals that we are. Whether we see it or not, we are hemmed in. Whether we want to think about it today or not, we are trapped in this mortal coil. We are in a cycle of birth and death. Our sin leads to our death. Our sin leads to our eternal death.
The grass withers and the flower fades but the Word of our God will stand forever. Trapped in sin and shame, we are set free by God’s salvation. Trapped by our own short mortality, we are set free by the eternal Son of God to live forever. We are set free....
To do exactly what Isaiah does here. A voice tells him, cry. Cry, Comfort, comfort my people. Raise your voice and cry that their warfare is ended, their iniquity is pardoned. Raise your voice and cry that God makes straight the path of his salvation. Raise your voice and cry that we never ever have to be afraid because we behold our God. We never ever have to be afraid because we are led like sheep by a shepherd.
The Gospel for you today is this, that in Christ, you are set free, and in Christ you never ever have to be afraid again. You do not have to be afraid because you are set free to love your neighbor as yourself. You do not have to be afraid of death because you are set free to eternal life. You never have to be afraid of hate because love incarnate comes down at Christmas. You never have to be afraid because when you suffer, you know you have a God who suffered all for you. You never ever have to be afraid because you live in a reality where the path of salvation is straight. Life ends not in death but in life. Iniquity is pardoned. And comfort is yours.
Amen and amen.
The Word of God disrupts our lives
Second in a series, “The Disruptive Word”
Mark 1:1-8 // 2 Peter 3:8-14 // Isaiah 40:1-11
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our sermon text for today is Mark 1:1-8, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord”
Last Sunday, we considered how God’s Word disrupts our fear and fatalism. Last Wednesday, we considered how God’s Word disrupts us to our very core.
Today, we consider how, when the Word of God is fulfilled, it disrupts our lives. It doesn’t leave us the same. It changes things.
The biggest events of life are never convenient. The biggest events of life don’t let you schedule them around other stuff. The biggest events of life force you to move all of your other little plans so that the biggest thing can be the biggest thing. As a pastor, I know this all too well. You can’t schedule how long your loved one has left on earth. You can’ tell your daughter that she better schedule her wedding on a day you don’t have golf. You can’t tell your wife to have the baby on a Tuesday and not during the big meeting I have. It just doesn’t work that way. The biggest events of life are never convenient, because the biggest events of life disrupt everything else, and force you to move all of your other little plans so that the biggest thing can be the biggest thing.
With that, we go to our text. The Word of God disrupted the lives of the people in John the Baptizer’s day. Isaiah the prophet’s words in Chapter 40 are fulfilled in the coming of John the Baptizer. Something was happening in the world that had not happened before even from the beginning of all time until now.
From the time of the prophet Malachi until John’s day, for 400 years, there had been no prophets, but now a prophet was among the people of Israel, and more than that, THE prophet, the one who was to be a second Elijah, who was the fulfillment of prophecy walked among them, whom Jesus called the greatest man to ever walk the earth, John the Baptizer.
This was one of the greatest events of all time. What would it feel like to live at a time like that? So, what did people do? It changed their lives. Like the phenomenon that he was, John the Baptizer drew them out from their homes to hear him preach in the desert by the River Jordan. It disrupted their day to day lives to go out into the wilderness and see John. It took them out of their normal pattern to set aside time and see him.
And more than that. It wasn’t just the disruption of their day to day life. The message of John went deeper. He proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. They came to repent.
And what is repentance if not to change your ways, to go a different way, to see the harmful, sinful patterns you have fallen into and to walk a different direction.
And more than that. We find that John, the greatest prophet to live, the one who was foretold by Isaiah, the second Elijah, says that there is one who comes who is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. (This was the lowest job on the job chart). John says, I’m just the hors d’oeuvre; there’s a main course coming up. I’m just the warm up. The main act is on the way. I may be washing you with the pinnacle of Old Testament rituals, but the one who comes, Jesus Christ, will command you to go and baptize all nations with the Holy Spirit.
Now, you might be thinking, “Well, Pastor, if I had lived in days like that, it certainly would be easier to live out my faith.” “If I could have been one to go and see John the Baptizer or follow Jesus as one of his disciples, life would definitely be different.” In response to that, I would say, “Perhaps.” But even if you lived on that mountaintop of an experience, still at some point, you’d have to descend to the plain. You’d have to go back to the city. Still you’d begin to have a day-to-day pattern again.
What day-to-day patterns have you fallen into that need to be disrupted by God’s Word? What not-so-healthy ways have you fallen into that have turned from a choice into a pattern, from a pattern into a habit? Or, what do you need to repent of?
Perhaps it’s your consumption of alcohol during this pandemic. It started because you felt like you needed it to cope. It’s gotten worse and worse and it has to stop. Perhaps it’s your anger, especially toward your spouse. You know in your heart that they aren’t the problem, but you’re taking it out on them. Perhaps it's a pattern of hopelessness. You can’t see the light. You can’t find a bright spot in all of this. You don’t know how to get out. You need something to break up the pattern.
I have chunk of concrete in my office, on my shelf. It’s from right in front of the church, the old sidewalk right in front where the old doors were. The sidewalk was in good shape at the time, but we had to break it up. It looked good... except. Deep blow the surface of the concrete, we had a problem with water. Below the surface, in a place not readily seen, there was a problem, and the only way to get to the problem? Break up the concrete.
And I tell you that to tell you this. Often, the Word of God disrupts things in our lives that seem to be going well. It disrupts what appear to be good things, because of deep issues it will bring to light.
What good things in your life need to submit to Jesus Christ and his gospel? What needs to be broken up so that the gospel is brought to bear?
Advent is the changing of the season, a time of repentance and reflection, a time to change our ways, a time to let the Word of God disrupt the pattern of our lives once again.
Because the pure and simple Gospel is that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has died for your sins; he has been raised for your life; he has sealed you with his Holy Spirit in your baptism, and his Gospel orders your whole life around him.
The pure and simple Gospel is preached in its purity right here, in our Sanctuary. It’s taught right here in our Bible studies. It never changes, but it comes fresh to us every time that it disrupts the patterns that we fall into. It comes fresh every time we have ears to hear it again.
Jesus Christ died, and more than that, was raised from the dead so that the sin-filled patterns of this world have no power of you. His word of forgiveness sets you free from every sin which clings so closely and temptation that would entangle. His body and his blood give strength like none other, so that you might meet the days ahead in hope.
Amen and amen.
First in a series, “Irony in the Endtimes”
Matthew 25:1–13 // Amos 5 // 1 Thessalonians 4
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our sermon text is the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, especially the final words of Jesus, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Today we consider the parable of the wise virgins and foolish virgins. What does it mean that the wise virgins were wise and how is it different from being foolish? What is wisdom? What is foolishness?
Wisdom is not only having knowledge. Wisdom is applying the right knowledge to the situation. Applying the right knowledge to the situation.
Even the foolish man knows that you need to put on shoes and socks. But the wise man puts his socks on before he puts on his shoes.
A wise mechanic knows which tool to use and when to use it. When to put on neverseize and when to put on threadlock. When to apply force to the rusty part and when to be gentle.
A wise leader is one who looks at the strengths and weakness of his people and places their strengths where his organization has need.
A wise pastor knows when to speak a word of warning and when to speak a word of comfort. When to challenge with a word of Law and when to console with a word of Gospel.
Wisdom is not only having knowledge. It is about applying the right knowledge to the situation. It’s about seeing how things fit together.
That’s why, in Proverbs, in the book of Wisdom, it says, “The fear of the lord is the beginning of Wisdom.” It’s saying, when you keep the broad perspective. When you remember how all the earth and all of humanity and all the universe fits underneath God almighty, When you acknowledge that the Lord is God and all belongs to him. When you fear the lord, it is the beginning of acting rightly. You are beginning to fit things together. You are beginning to get wise.
With that distinction, between wise and foolish, we go to our text. What you need to know about the wedding process in Jewish culture is that the legally binding agreement happened in the betrothal, a time like our engagement period. From the point of the betrothal, the bridegroom and bride separated and the bridegroom would begin constructing a room in his family's house, a room for the bride and the bridegroom to call their own. This construction project could take a month; it could take a year. But after he was done, he would take his friends and go over to the bride's house, and then they would have the wedding feast, a feast that would take a week or more.
The parable speaks of those who are waiting for an indeterminate amount of time, those waiting with the bride, the wise virgins and foolish virgins whose actions are much the same. Both are waiting for the bridegroom. Both have lamps that are snuffed out. Both fall asleep. Both are interested in getting more oil for their lamps. But the wise virgins are those who have acted appropriately. They have prioritized the oil in their lamp, they have done the first things first, and when the hour came, they were ready.
To be wise for us means being ready in the things that matter. Be ready. The foundation of your faith gets set when you are young, and throughout your life it is built upon. The basic beliefs of the Christian are learned in peaceful times, so that we can recall them in the trying times of our life. We keep the oil in our lamps because we never know when the world might go dark.
Consider the church of the medieval period. With the collapse of the Roman Empire, with the barbarians invading their borders, it easily felt like their country was falling apart, because it was. They were about to enter into a five hundred and more year period where their civilization’s achievements would not surpass their ancestors. It would’ve felt in some ways like the world was getting darker.
Stanley Hauerwas writes it like this: “The foolish bridesmaids failed to understand that [...] when you are unsure of the time you are in, it is all the more important to do what you have been taught to do. In the dark [especially in the dark] you must keep the lamps ready even if they are not able to overcome the darkness.”
Let me say that last part again. “In the dark, you must keep the lamps ready, even if they are not able to overcome the darkness.”
The foolish virgins were foolish because they did not hope in the greater story that the bridegroom was indeed coming and act upon that hope. They may have believed it with their words, but they certainly didn’t with their actions. The foolish virgins were foolish because they set their eyes on things below rather than the things that were to come.
We too, can be foolish. We can be foolish when we let darkness and despair wash over us when the nights get long. We too can be foolish, when we long for renewal and relief in this world without bringing to mind how Christ has won for us eternal life and everlasting forgiveness.
When you curse those who curse you, you are being foolish.
When you do not hunger or thirst for righteousness, you are being foolish.
When you are inhospitable to the stranger among you, you are being foolish.
When you cannot cry with the sorrowful or laugh with the rejoicing, you are being foolish.
When your success points you to something else than Christ... when your suffering doesn’t cause you to cling a little closer to Christ, there and then wisdom needs to replace foolishness.
On the other hand, when you find yourself first thanking God in prayer for every good thing, you are becoming wise.
When you find yourself first crying out to God in every trial and tragedy, you are becoming wise.
When you find yourself longing to gather around God’s Word and study it deeply, you are becoming wise.
When you find yourself longing to come to the Lord’s Supper and eat and drink his body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins, you are becoming wise.
To be wise is to be like the wise virgins. To be wise is to be watchful. Watchful to bring extra oil. Watchful because you know neither the day nor the hour when Christ will come back, but still you know that he will come at the perfect time. Watchful, because you are watching for the ways that God works, even in this sin-filled world, not letting the cynicism of this world taint the hope that remains pure in Jesus Christ. Watchful because it is through your hands and your feet, through your life and through the life of the church (and remember, the church is the body of Christ), it is through you that the kingdom of God comes.
Watchful because we know in the body and blood of Christ, the foretaste of a really, really good wedding feast, one that will have no ending, one that will be worth the wait, and we long for it in faith toward God, and we long for it in fervent love toward our neighbor. We long for the best feast ever, one where the bridegroom who laid down his life for his bride will return to make all things in the world right.
Today, and for the next three weeks, we are looking at Jesus’s teachings on the end times. There’s a lot that’s scary in it. There’s a lot that’s flashy in it. But the thing that matters most comes at the very end.
Christ who was dead has been raised from the dead. Even now he lives and reigns. And there will be a day when he comes back to make all things right.
Amen and amen.
John 8:31–36 // Romans 3:19–28 // Rev. 14:6–7
Reformation Day Observed
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our sermon text for today is John 8, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Our text thus far.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Today, it is the truth that sets you free. And we’re not just taking about finally being confirmed after months of pandemic and planning.
It is the truth that sets you free. What is truth? What is the kind of truth that Christ talks about? How can the truth set you free? What does it mean to be free indeed?
Not too far away from here there’s a family that’s gathered around their mom. She’s in her last days, and it feels too soon. Even if she’s in her 70’s, even if she’s had a long fight, even if she says she’s ready, it feels too soon for her grandkids. What does it mean that the truth will set her free?
There’s a man, only 28 years old, no reason to think that anything is wrong except that, at a routine doctor visit, they pull him aside and tell him he has cancer. He has weeks to live. There might be an experimental procedure, but he has to get his house in order. He’s confronted with something he’d really rather not think about. What does it mean that the truth will set him free?
Jesus doesn’t use a lot of words to speak in our Gospel text for today, but he says a lot. He speaks the truth about ourselves, and he speaks the truth about our God.
First, the truth about ourselves. If you went to a doctor, you would want the truth. You don’t want them to sugarcoat any conditions you might have. You don’t want them to lie and tell you your arm isn’t broken. You want the truth.
The Bible gives us the spiritual truth about ourselves. None of our good works can save us. Salvation doesn’t come to good people because they do what is right. No, the point of doing the right thing—what Paul calls the works of the law—has never ever been that they justify. Following the Ten Commandments from One to Ten was and is never about how to earn heaven.
The truth about ourselves is that we are in need of amazing grace. The truth about ourselves is that we regularly get it wrong, miss the mark, mar smudge and twist God’s word. The truth about ourselves is that we can’t often handle the truth and often don’t understand the truth about ourselves.
I remember Becky Cardarelle in eighth grade. I remember not wanting to square dance with her because she had a mole on her arm, and it took me a decade and a half to realize that that wasn’t very nice. It took me a long time to realize my sin and failure. It took me a long time to figure out my fault. It took me, in this small and silly little case, a long time to figure out the truth about myself.
Second, we remember the truth about our God. He knows all of this already. Have you ever wondered that? God knows who you are even more than you know. He knows more about what you are like than you can know. He knows more about your sin, your faults, your failings, than you will ever know.
Do you remember Becky Cardarelle in eighth grade? Know this, that as long as it took me to realize my sin and failure, my God knew it first. As deep as I have seen my mistake go, as silly and nonsensical as it was, God knows it deeper.
But the truth is that God knows, and here’s the further truth. God knows and he loves you in a way that ends in perfection. He knows and his grace doesn’t ignore your sin; it goes even deeper than your sin. He knows and he forgives every portion. He knows and he does more than we can ever imagine in order to do all that is needful to bring to you amazing grace, unfailing love, to take our place, to bear our cross.
Dear confirmands, you are going to be speaking words, taking oaths today that few teenagers could understand the full import of. You are swearing upon your own honor to uphold the faith that you have been taught, throughout a whole life full of everything that you haven’t gone through yet.
You are saying before God and this congregation that you look to God’s word for guidance in your life.
You are taking an oath to come regularly to this Lord’s Supper and to be faithful in listening to your pastor and remembering the truth of God’s word.
You are pledging to be faithful to this particular way of life for the rest of your life.
You are pledging to hold fast to your faith even when it means your own death.
These are words that matter. You are taking up your Christian faith as adults in the faith. There are only a few days in your life when your words matter like they do today.
I remember another day in my life like that. It was I love you. Those are the words that I said to my wife, May 27, 2012, eight years and four months (minus two days). And it was good to say them that day. But they couldn’t possibly mean then what they mean now. After eight years of caring and loving, of crying and laughing, of three boys, of three trips to the NICU after they were born, of all the ups and the downs, those words mean far more now than they did then, because we’ve said them often and well.
And I tell you that to tell you this. The truth of the words you say today will mean more very time you journey back to this sanctuary, every week that you hear of God’s forgiveness in this particular chapter of your life, every time you hear again what God has spent in order to purchase and win you not with gold or silver but with his holy and precious blood, with his innocent sufferings and death.
To say it the way that Jesus says it in our Gospel reading, if you abide in me, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.
The kingdom of heaven is like a family gathered around their grandma to hear her last words, and her last words are they she gets to go home. They say the truth of the Gospel at the funeral, they say it every week, and every time they take the Lord’s Supper, they hear the dismissal blessing to be what it is, In Christ’s body and Blood, we live in the truth, and we depart in peace.
The kingdom of heaven is like a young man diagnosed with a terminal cancer. His days on earth are numbered. But as he continues through life, the words of Jesus ring in his ears, The Truth will set you free. And as his restrictions increase, still he knows the truth will set him free. As he is tied down by more and more machines, even as he prays for a cure, he knows, the truth sets him free.
Amen and Amen.
Here's a newspaper particle that I wrote for the local paper. It's also on Facebook too.
“Teach us to number our days, so that we may get a heart of wisdom.” --- Psalm 90:12
Numbering our days. This phrase comes up throughout our English language.
“Your days are numbered!”
“Enjoy these days because they grow up quick.”
“He’s in his last days.”
In this little chapter of my life as a pastor, I’ve had the opportunity to pray the words of Psalm 90 with all kinds of people—the young, the old, the married, the single, mothers and fathers, grandparents and great grandparents, the sick and the healthy, the joyful and the sorrowful—asking that the Lord would teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom. But what does that mean?
It’s a reminder that all your days string together. From Day 1 to Day 36,501, each day is full of its own possibilities, yes, and it follows on the heels of the day before it.
It’s a challenge to value every day. When our loved ones pass suddenly, we value that they did not suffer long. When our loved ones decline slowly, we value that we get the grace of time with them.
It’s an honest admission that your days will one day end. Psalm 90:12 declares, it is wise to admit one’s own mortality. It’s foolish to avoid our mortality. It’s wise to admit it.
More than all that, for the Christian, we find that an honest admission of our mortality turns us once again toward Jesus Christ who died to redeem our mortal bodies and was raised to life and immortality in order to raise us to new life.
And how is this done?
Just like the Psalmist would remind us, we cannot merely catch this thought and move on. Instead, we gain wisdom from this thought as it comes back to us in every chapter of life, as we move through the life that we are numbering. As we number our days, then and there wisdom comes, not in one grand gesture, but instead in bits and pieces along the way.
Pastor Paul Muther, Trinity Lutheran Janesville
Worship Sermons & Letters