Father’s Day, 2016
Galatians 4: But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. 6 And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” 7 So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.
Dear friends in Christ,
This past Wednesday, I posted on the church and my personal FB a request for help in writing my sermon for Father’s Day. As I did that, I imagine dozens and perhaps hundreds of people thinking to themselves, “well I’ve listened to his sermons before and he could sure use some help.” I posted one of my dad’s favorite saying, a Law kind of a statement, “Quit your complaining, or I’ll give you something to complain about.” In the next 24 hours, I received over 140 responses to my request for favorite sayings, and as I looked through them into four categories –
• Bits of wisdom /law statements / no fewer than 108 of them / “do as I say, not as I do”, “shape up or ship out”, “if you can’t say anything nice, say nothing at all”, “life isn’t fair”, “you have to use people up the way they are”, “you’re cruising for a bruising”, “go ahead and make my day”, “promise me you won’t pick up hitchhikers”, “do I need to come back there and knock together some heads”, “all I want for Father’s Day is for my kids to be alive and out of jail”, “throw the last punch, not the first”, “don’t spend it all in one place”, “always do your best”, Debi’s dad said “if you want it done right, you’re gonna have to do it yourself”, one of mine – “only boring people get bored”, and one of my favorites, “get your butt out of bed, people die in their sleep.”
• 15 were what I call feel good kinds of favorite memories, “the dad who would see a child crying and say, “what’s that tune you’re singing,”, every night we had ice cream together, dad saying in a calm and relaxed way, “just go slow”, a dad reading “The Night Before Christmas” to 8 kids every Christmas Eve, the dad singing “roll out the barrel” early in the morning, the dad singing “put another log on the fire” at campfire time, “life is good”,
• 11 favorite sayings were what I would say are just kind of funny ones, “see you in the movies”, “as dumb as I ever was is as smart as you’ll ever be” or “I’m the only normal person I know”, this dad / me who would get my kids to stop fighting by threatening to sing all the way through The Lutheran Hymnal 1941 edition, “Open now the gates of beauty, Zion let me enter there, where my soul is joyful duty …..the father urging kids to eat something would say “that will put hair on your chest”, “always eat your dessert first in case you run out of room.”
• 2 were what I would call Gospel kinds of sayings, “God loves you and so do I”, another one who talked about her dad as the best dad in the world and focused on how he dealt with people with kindness and grace, always looking for the best in people.
In fairness to those who responded, they were answering the question I asked, which is what were your dad’s favorite sayings. Better questions would have been, how did your dad help you know the love of Jesus? Or how did your earthly father help you to understand the grace and mercy of your God? Or how did your father model the forgiveness of sins? Or how did your dad help you to know that you were loved no matter what?
I read this past week an article that said Hallmark has givenfree cards to inmates on Mother’s and Father’s Day. Whereas they always ran out on Mother’s Day, only a small percentage of cards were actually used by inmates for Father’s Day.
I also read this anonymous quote that says it pretty well, “A dad is someone who wants to catch you before you fall, but instead picks you up, brushes you off, and lets you try again. A dad is someone who wants to keep you from making mistakes, but instead lets you find your own way, even though his heart breaks in silence when you get hurt. A dad is someone who holds you when you cry, scolds you when you break the rules, shines with pride when you succeed, and has faith in you even when you fail.”
Our sermon theme today is “The Favored Child”, and my simple goal is to help you that no matter how terrific or not so terrific your earthly father was and is, your Father in heaven invites you to live every one of your days believing with all your heart that you are one of his favorites. To live every one of your days believing that in Holy Baptism, the sign of the cross has been placed on your forehead and on your heart and you have been claimed as precious and valuable. To live believing in the crucifixion, believing in resurrection, believing your names are written in the book of life, believing your sins are forgiven and forgotten in the courtroom of God, believing that your good works will be remembered on that glorious day when our Savior come back again, believing as good and as honest and as kind and as strong and as caring as your earthly father may have been or are today, your Father in heaven is perfectly good, perfectly honest, perfectly kind, perfectly strong, perfectly caring, with no exceptions and with no room for improvement.
With that in mind, I’d like to offer you a top ten list of favorite sayings of your Father in heaven in conversation with His own Son Jesus and the Spirit of God who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
Favorite saying #10 – Father to Son – I’m going to have to send you (down there). Son, you’re going to be a fertilized egg, then an embryo, then a fetus, and then you’re going to be born of a woman so you can learn what it means to be cared for and nourished. You’re going to be a toddler so you can learn how to share….a school age child so you can learn how to study and learn and respect authority…..you’re going to be a teenager so you can learn what it means to fight off feelings of lust and flee fornication….you’re going to live into your 20’s so you can work alongside of your dad and learn a trade….you’re going to spend three years training 12 pretty average kind of guys so they can turn this world upside down in your memory…..I’m going to have to send you down there, Son, so you can do face to face battle with Satan himself, so you can suffer everything sinful people should have to suffer, so you can taste what it feels like to be crucified and then to die.
Favorite saying #9- Tell them this hurts me more than it (hurts them). When I make them suffer in slavery for 450 years and wander in the wilderness for 40 years and go into captivity for 70 and then 120 years, tell them it hurts me more than it hurts them. When I permit little children and teenagers and young parents to die and be buried, it hurts me more than it hurts them. When the nations of this world live in such a way that their people die by mass starvation or horrendous poverty, it hurts me more than it hurts them. Son, when I forsake you on a little hill outside of Jerusalem, it’s going to hurt me more than it hurts you.
Favorite saying #8 - Tell them they are saved by faith alone and not (by works). Son, there’s going to be a lot of confusion on this one. All kinds of well meaning folks are going to get this one wrong, and a few are going to get it right. Just tell their preachers to keep holding out this beautiful invitation to call on the name of Jesus Christ, to be saved by that name, to be saved by faith alone.
Favorite saying #7 – Tell them faith never comes (alone). True faith is always going to be alive with the good works I have prepared for them to do. Tell them husbands to spend their days laying down their lives for their brides. Encourage the brides to appreciate their men. Keep telling the parents to be faithful, even when it seems like life is going against them. Son, I want everyone to know how valuable each person is, how I have created them marvelously and with purpose. Please son, help them to understand that they are loved, their sins have been forgotten, their good works are being remembered.
Favorite saying #6 – Tell them that life isn’t fair, it’s actually (more than fair). Son, I know these people mean well, and there is some truth in what they say, there are folks who seem to be getting a bum deal in life. But in the overall scheme of things, they will be so much better off begging for mercy from a loving God than asking for fairness.
Saying #5 – Say to them, (“Seriously?”) Seriously, you can receive all of that daily bread and so much more and then spend your days discontented? Seriously, you can see so many hurting and broken people at the side of the road or maybe even in the middle of the road and you can just walk right on past them. Seriously, yo u Seriously, you can memorize the Ten Commandments and get to the point of life where you see them as suggestions? Seriously, you can know the stories of Christmas and Good Friday and Easter Sunday morning and wonder if I love you?
Favorite saying #4 – Tell them that it may not seem like it, but (my timing is perfect”). This may be the most difficult truth of all to understand, but please, Son, just ask them to trust us. Invite them to believe that we have been around for a long long time and we know what we are doing, that we love them with all of our heart and all of our soul and all of our mind.
Favorite saying # 3- Tell them it’s going to get worse and then (way better). There’s so much about this world that’s messed up, in the days to come, it’s going to be more messed up than ever, and then one day, there’s going to be a resurrection of all those bodies they have laid to rest in their cemeteries, and there’s going to be everlasting life. Son, invite them to spend their days not dreading, but looking forward to that day.
Favorite saying #2 – Tell them they can ask me (for whatever they want). Son, why don’t you say this to them, Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? 11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
Favorite saying #1 – Tell them I love them (no matter what). When they are straying and going their own ways, I will love them with a sad heart. When they are staying close and paying attention, I will love them with a joyful heart. When they are full of themselves, I will love them with a disappointed heart, and when they sit still long enough for me to fill them my Spirit, I will love them with a satisfied heart. If they can’t remember anything else we say to them, Son, just tell them I love them no matter what. Amen.
Focus: God forgives our debt on the cross.
Function: that the hearers rejoice to forgive the debts of others.
Grace which manifests itself in peace, to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Do I live my days as if the forgiveness of sins is the best thing ever? That’s a question that Pastor Griffin’s posed to our congregation and to me personally a number of times. Do I live my days as if the forgiveness of sins is the best thing ever?
And that’s the question that I thought about a few weeks ago, after I was done teaching my 5th and 6th graders. I asked one of the kids out into the hall to talk about their behavior. I ask, “Do you know what you did?” Yeah… “Do you know why it was wrong?” Well… “How was it disruptive or disrespectful?” Ummm. “What do you have to say?” I’m… sorry?
Clearly, that young one didn’t get it, Clearly, if I said that he was forgiven, he wouldn’t “learn his lesson.” It was easy to look at forgiveness as a burden, as an easy out, as that kid cutting the fuse on my rant seconds before I was really going to let him have it…. It was easy to think that the forgiveness of sins was a stumbling block, a hindrance. It wouldn’t have helped him in the way he needed.
But that’s not the only issue. When we think about forgiveness, we have to go to the battered woman who thinks about forgiving her husband. We have to go to the much-publicized rape cases in the news these days. We think about the convicted felon that asks for forgiveness from his victims, and then it becomes tough to see forgiveness of sins as the best thing ever.
Today, we think about what it means to forgive, where forgiveness leads, and what it does. You have two passages before you today. Two men, caught in two sins, told two parables. You see David and you know that the story which started in adultery and lies, continued with murder, but finds its end in repentance. You hear Simon’s story that begins with a meal, continues with a thought – Simon never says what he’s thinking, he only thinks it – and a parable, and then just… ends. The camera loses Simon, focuses on Jesus and away we go, off to the races.
And we’ve been walking through Luke 7 now for a few weeks. Two weeks ago, we listened in as Jesus healed a centurion’s servant from afar, without even pronouncing it out loud. Last week, we followed as Jesus took a dead young man, told him to stand up again, and gave him back to his mother. If you look through the rest of the material between last week and this week, you see John the Baptizer’s disciples come up to Jesus and ask him, “Are you the Christ?” He responds by healing what could’ve been hundreds and says this: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”
These weeks have been building up to something. If this were a movie, there would’ve been dramatic music playing the background. Somewhere after verse 10, the low woodwinds would’ve come in. Somewhere after verse 17, you could’ve heard the timpani drumroll. Snare drums popping, trumpets blaring, after hundreds of miracles, thousands of lives changed, do you know what it’s all been building toward?
Toward this story. Toward the forgiveness of sins.
There’s a reason why Luke lists it last – listen to verse 22. The blind receive sight. The lame walk. The lepers cleansed. The deaf hear. The dead are raised up, but the greatest fulfillment of the Messiah is coming. And, as beautiful as it is that Jesus heals hurting folks, as beautiful as it is that Jesus helps all kinds of people along, as beautiful as it is that lives were changed in this way, the real answer to the question of John’s disciples, “Are you the Messiah or should we look for another?” is that Jesus. Forgives. Sins.
All the rest serves this fact, that Jesus forgives sins. Without this, it would be meaningless for Jesus even to raise the dead, because without forgiveness, the dead would just live another life to die another death and go the same way they went before.
Jesus says it a different way a couple of chapters ago in Luke 5 – the crowds are around Jesus so thick that some men drop their paralytic friend through the roof, because they wanted Jesus to heal him. And do you know the first thing that Jesus does? He says, “Friend, your sins are forgiven… But, so that you know the son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins, I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.”
All Christ’s miracles, all his healings, all the dead who were raised, all these miracles were undone in their time. They lasted as a sign for a time, but in the end they were like manna in the desert; they perished in the night. They were like dew of the morning; their beauty burns away in the coming sun.
But the cross of Christ and the forgiveness of sins, this is a miracle on a different level. It grants forgiveness to all sinners and guards and protects us from every evil. It seals our souls for eternity, even if the signs of our day are full of decay. It looses our bonds of hell and gives us the guarantee of the Holy Spirit.
Forgiveness costs something. Jesus’ parable tells us as much. Two men had debts, and both were significant. As far as the size of their loans, it’s comparable to one man halfway through a car loan and the other halfway through a mortgage. Both are significant, but one is way more significant than the other. And the moneylender – the word in the Greek is related to Charis, grace – he graces their debts.
Especially in these days, there are government programs for teachers, that, after a certain number of years, they will “forgive” your loan. But, when your obligation to pay a debt gets cancelled, it means that another is eating the cost. “He paid the debt of canceled sin; he sets the prisoners free; his blood can make the foulest clean; his blood avails for me.” Your sin doesn’t just go away. It has been bought and paid for by your savior. Your slate gets wiped clean because it’s given your savior has a dirty sleeve.
Three thoughts on how forgiveness works in our lives. First, when Christ forgives you, and when you forgive, it costs you something too. Now, I’m not saying that you participate in your salvation. I’m not telling you that you have to do good enough to get the rest of the way. No, the cross of Christ is sufficient. What I am saying is that forgiveness costs you all of the sin that so easily entangles. It costs you your anger. It costs you your guilt. It costs you your shame. It costs you the burdens that weigh you down. It costs you the deep desire for revenge. It costs you every little bitterness that would keep your heart hard. The paradox of the victims of crimes is that those who move forward are those who forgive. You’ve heard me say it before and I’ll say it again and again: on the cross, Jesus takes it all of that from you and he will not give it back.
Second, forgiveness looks toward resolution rather than punishment. Look through the Gospels and you will find a Jesus that immediately turns from judgment to mercy at the repentance of his people. Just take a look at him working through Paul. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul sees a congregation that followed his instructions. There was a family that wasn’t living right, and he told them to follow their policies and with tears in their eyes to treat them like outsiders, and they did that. But here, the family had repented and yet the punishment continued. I don’t know if they thought they needed more, or if they thought that the apology was insincere, if they thought it was just too large a sin to forgive, or what…. But I do know that Paul himself when he writes to the Corinthians begs them once again with tears in his eyes that they would look toward resolution rather than punishment. A question for you to ask, in my relationships, am I moving toward resolution? Resolution for the battered woman does not start by staying in the ring. It begins with getting out of there – by not allowing your partner to sin more, even while keeping your wedding vows to help him make the choices he should.
Third, forgiveness does not divorce truth from love. So easily do we divorce truth and love. We think that either we can live apart from the world, or we can live as part of the world. Either Jesus condemned sin or he loved sinners. Either we forgive them and let them skate or we hold them accountable and end up hating it. Either we can preach the Law or we can preach the Gospel. But Lutherans aren’t really “Either/Or” people. We’re more “Both/And.” It’s our task to live apart and as part. It’s our calling to call others out and love them. It’s our life to forgive and hold accountable. It’s our job to speak Law and Gospel. And to that end, I’ll tell you something that’s been sticking in my head in these days: It’s the way that our 7th and 8th grade teacher talks. Especially when she’s bringing a student along into better behavior, she winds up and says, -- and this is a pastor Muther impression, so take that with a grain of salt -- “Honey, I love you and that’s why I’m not going to let you do this. Honey, I love you and that’s why I’ve got to hold you to this. Honey and I love you and that’s why.”
The question we asked at the beginning of this sermon was, “Do I live my days as if forgiveness of sins is the best thing ever?” And to that end, my concluding thought is that it seems as though there’s a tendency that we all have to be like my bouncing baby boy, itty bitty Benjamin, when he wakes up in the morning and I set him on the bed, and his first toy is my ring. It’s a bright spot on my hand. It makes funny noises when it knocks against something. He loves my ring, but he doesn’t understand why he should really love it; he doesn’t yet love it for the reason he should. No, the reason he should love it is that it’s a symbol of the faithfulness that ties me to his mom. It a symbol of the faithfulness that brought his life into the world. It’s a symbol of the stable, faithful marriage that leaves him to be him.
And I tell you that to tell you this: We can love forgiveness for all the social benefits, for the relationship help. We can love it for its many great qualities. But let’s set our minds to that which is just beyond our ken: how the greatest miracle of all is that our God loves us more than we can imagine and when he forgives us, he pays more than we can understand to deliver us from sin in a way that we know only now in part, even as he leads us in the sure, Christian hope that in his time we will know it in full. Amen and Amen.
Luke 7:11-17 and John 5:24-29
Dear Friends in Christ,
This past Saturday morning, when I checked my cell phone and saw that I had a message from Lauren Combellick, our funeral director, my first thought was that Sue had passed away. As I listened to her message and heard that in fact, she had crossed over from this life into the next, my first thought was “good for her.” I was as happy for her as I could be, that there would be no more pain and no more tumors and no more nausea and no more chemotherapy and no more wondering how she would pay her bills and no more just sitting there and lying there and suffering and then sleeping and then suffering some more. While it is true that death is the final enemy all of us must face, it is also true that for many Christians like Sue, death becomes at the same time a friend for which we pray, a gateway for which we yearn.
Our sermon theme today is taken out of John chapter 5, where Jesus talks about what it means to cross over from death to life. Our sermon theme is “Crossing from Death to Life,” and four brief points, at least as brief as I can be, on this theme. The good news included in all four truths is that God keeps His promises to His people every time, without exception. He shows up every time He promises to show up, and He does everything He says He will do, according to His perfect timetable.
Truth #1 is that already in the waters of Holy Baptism, the Triune God showed up, He did what He promised to do, and as a result Sue Arndt crossed from death into life. In this very sanctuary, the name of the Triune God was placed both upon her forehead and her heart, marking her as a redeemed daughter of her Father in heaven. Her parents, her Godparents, and her local church promised to help her to spend her days renouncing the devil and all of his evil works and ways, to help her fight the good fight of faith, to help her know in every one of her days how much Jesus Christ loved her, to help her know that her sins had been washed away by the blood of the Lamb, to help her know that no matter what curves life threw her way that her name was written in the book of life and that unlike her earthly home, her heavenly home was a fully completed mansion on reserve for her, courtesy of Jesus Christ. In this place we believe with all our hearts that in Baptism, Sue was united with Christ in both his death and resurrection and that no matter how seriously she sinned and no matter how far she strayed, that Christ was with her, He was inside of her, He went on before her, He would never ever leave her nor forsake her, it was His great desire to have mercy on her and to walk alongside of her one day at a time.
Truth #2 is that Sue’s Good Shepherd has been following her around with goodness and mercy in every season of her life. As often as Sue heard the Word of God and kept it, the Holy Spirit was showing up and working faith in her from the inside out. As often as she heard the Word of God and held onto His promises, she was able to enjoy in ever increasing measure the fullness of that life she had already received in Baptism. The Bible says that faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the Word of God. Jesus said that he came that we might have life and not just a little bit of life, but that we might have it abundantly. This was our Lord’s great desire for Sue, that she have not just a little bit of joy and peace and strength once in awhile, but that she would have all kinds of Christian joy and peace and strength in every one of her days.
If there are any skeptics in our midst today, you might be asking, well if Jesus Christ wanted her to have all of this fullness and abundance, why did she have to suffer for so long and in such a painful fashion? If her God was and is so full of compassion, why did these last 13 years seem as though God were so far away? If Jesus Christ loved her so dearly, why would he allow such a brutal and disfiguring form of cancer to take her down in such a nasty fashion? Good and fair questions, to be sure.
In yesterday’s sermon, we found one good answer to those questions. The answer is that our God’s reaction to the tragedies in our lives is delayed compassion at its worst, and perfect deliverance at its best. What I mean by that is though God may seem far away in the stormy chapters of our life, He is not. He is as near as Holy Scripture, He is as near as the preaching and remembering of His Word, He is as near as the bread and the wine of the Holy Supper. God delivers us from every evil in body and soul in one of three ways . Let’s just think back on the last 13 years and think about how God has delivered Sue from the various forms of cancer which attacked her. First He delivered her at times by healing her body and giving her weeks and even months of good reports and resumption of normal living. Secondly He delivered her by giving her the strength to endure, and finally just a couple of days ago, He delivered her out of this vale of tears and received her soul into His very presence. From our perspective, God’s compassion for her seemed far away and even non existent, but today, we would see clearly that God is who He says He is, He shows up wherever He says He will show up, He does all that He says He will do, not in a haphazard kind of a way but in a way that is according to His perfect and often mysterious plan. And in a way that is meant to draw every one of us closer to Him, in a way meant to help every one of us grow up into Jesus Christ, in a way that is meant to help us enjoy the riches of His grace and mercy in ever increasing fullness.
Truth #3 is good news as well. The good news is that in the moment her body fell asleep, in that moment the angels of God showed up and carried her soul into the very bosom of Jesus Christ. The Good News is that even though her body died, her soul lives on in paradise! The Good News is that even as your family is bent low in grief, the spirit of Sue Lopez has been lifted up into heaven. Even though you cry all kinds of tears, you do not cry as those who have no hope. Even though you are separated from yet one more loved one, your separation is temporary. Even though the wages of sin for Sue is death, the gift of God is eternal life. Even though her cancer was nasty and even though her suffering was the kind that would make you shake your head and wonder what kind of God we have, even though death seems to have won the day, there was more happening than met the eye – Sue Lopez was in fact crossing over from death into life. In fact, she was departing and entering into a life far better.
Which brings us to our fourth and final truth this afternoon- a really glorious day is on the way! It’s a day when the dead are going to hear the voice of the Son of God, the trumpet is going to blow, the archangel is going to shout, there’s going to be a rattling sound in hundreds of thousands of cemeteries across the world, bones are going to be coming together, dead bodies are going to be rising up, bodies and souls are going to be reunited, Jesus is going to be judging in a public kind of a way, unbelievers are going to be getting what they have deserved, and believers including Sue and George are going to be receiving what Jesus Christ has earned on their behalf. Their sins will be forgotten, their good works will be remembered, they will be crossing over from death into life in final and ultimate fashion. Thanks be to God, or as George used to say, Pastor Griffin, I just want to praise Jesus with you!
Two stories in closing. 1) Pastor Muther delivering our Lord’s Supper to Sue one last time, about two weeks ago. 2) George worshiping on Christmas Eve a few years ago and being moved to come on forward and prostate himself in this chancel and weep tears of joy. Friends in Christ, here on earth our Lord’s Supper is as close as we can get to tasting paradise. Here is where we are reminded that God is who he says he is, that He does all that He promises to do, and that He shows up every time He promises to show up. As often as we eat this bread and drink this cup, we do proclaim the Lord’s death till he comes again. As often as we eat this bread and drink this cup, our sins are forgiven, our faith is strengthened, heaven is ours. As often as we eat this bread and drink this cup, we pass over from death into life, we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and we lean forward together in anticipation of a really glorious day that is to come. In Jesus Name. Amen.
Third Sunday After Pentecost
I Kings 17:17-24 - And the Lord listened to the voice of Elijah. And the life of the child came into him again, and he revived.
Luke 7: 11-17 – And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came up and touched the coffin, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.
Dear Friends in Christ,
One of my not so fond memories from serving as Pastor to our first congregation near Lewiston, MN was of one particular marriage that was struggling. I remember one visit in my office that included him storming off red faced and angry and her sitting there stunned and sobbing. I remember their marriage deteriorating and at one point driving to their residence at her request so that I could be there when the law enforcement delivered to him a court ordered restraining order. I remember leaving Lewiston in the summer of 1990 and coming to Janesville thinking to myself their marriage was doomed and chalking it up in my mind as yet one more of my ministry failures. Fast forward about 15 years, and imagine my surprise one Sunday afternoon as I began to preach at the installation of a pastor in a town near Lewiston when I looked out and saw this couple sitting together, cuddled up, in church, and living happily ever after. Their marriage was dead, and then it was alive, thanks be to God!
So also in our Old Testament lesson for today, we find the son of a widow from Zarephath dead, and then by the power of God he was alive. In our Epistle Lesson, Paul recalls how as a persecutor of the church he was dead in his own trespasses and sins, but as soon as Jesus Christ got ahold of him, he was alive and absolutely on fire for the very cause he had been trying to destroy. And in our Gospel lesson, yet one more story of a young man who was dead and on his way to getting buried until Jesus brought his funeral procession to a halt, and the crowds even knew what hit them, the dead man was sitting up and beginning to speak! Dead, Then Alive is our sermon theme today.
Lesson #1 today is that human reaction to the calamities of life is sinful at its worst and mixed at best. Sinful at its worst and mixed at best. First of all, we have the story of the prophet Elijah coming to live in the home of a widow from a small town named Zarephath. Israel was in the midst of a three and a half year drought God had sent. A drought which brought suffering to believers and unbelievers alike. Zarephath was outside Israel and was the hometown of Queen Jezebel. God tested the faith of Elijah by sending him to a woman in that idolatrous land, and Elijah had passed the test of faith by doing exactly as God had said.
There in Zarephath, God would also test the faith of the widow he had chosen. God’s promise to her was clear – the bowl of flour and the jar of oil would not be exhausted until the famine was over. The widow also passed God’s test. By preparing bread for Elijah, the widow acted as though the flour and oil would last forever. This, in fact, is the very essence of faith. Faith is being certain of what we do not see.
In spite of her poverty, this widow kept bringing cakes of bread to God’s prophet. And so when her son dies, her reaction was mixed. She was angry with God. She was angry with God’s prophet. She was angry with the world. She was angry with herself. No doubt God was punishing her for a particular sin from her past. As is often the case with so many of us in our days of trouble and uncertainty, her mind was racing. A thousand and one thoughts and feelings came one right after another, and so she did what many of us do when under pressure. She blurted. She blurted once, and she blurted twice. What do you have against me, you man of God? I know why you’re here. You’re here to bring up my past, and you’re here to cause the death of my sin. I knew I shouldn’t trust you. I knew it.” On the one hand, she thought she deserved better than she was getting, and on the other hand, she had this nagging suspicion she was reaping what she had sown.
So also did Elijah have a mixed reaction. Towards the woman he was gentle, and towards God, he shook his puny little fist and said, “God, is this really what you had in mind?” To the woman, he said with tears in his eyes, “give me your son”, and to God he cried out for a resurrection, he threw himself body and soul at God’s mercy and pleaded for a miracle. And a miracle they received. The Bible says that God listened to the voice of Elijah, and in that very moment, the child began to live again. Thanks be to God, said Elijah. Thanks be to God said the woman. And although the boy’s reaction isn’t really recorded, one could imagine that thanks be to God, said the little boy!
So also in our Gospel lesson for today does calamity strike one more time, yet more woman. It’s bad enough that she has already buried her husband, leaving her in that day at the mercy of her family. To make matters worse, her son dies, and to make matters even worse than that, he’s the only son she had. We don’t really have her specific reaction recorded, but we do know that in that day, the women would usually lead the funeral procession, and that there would be all kinds of wailing and weeping. This widow may have been too poor to hire professional mourners, to poor to hire professional flutists who would play dreary funeral music, to poor to hire professional clergy and serve the customary scalloped potatoes and ham meal. The body would have been wrapped in a burial shroud, the dead man’s face would be exposed. No doubt this young man had been caring for his mom, doing the hard work of farming, but now he was gone. He was dead and would be silent forever. No doubt a thousand and one thoughts and feelings were racing around inside of her, perhaps she was a blurter who kept spitting out words of loneliness and despair, or perhaps she was a brooder who kept it all inside of her. We don’t know. What we do know is that human reaction to the calamities of life is sinful at its worst and mixed at its best.(Lesson #1)
Lesson #2 is that divine reaction to calamity is delayed, at its worst, and compassionate at its best. Our Lord’s reaction to this woman’s plight is not at all mixed. He had compassion on her. He suffered right alongside of her. Her tears were his tears. His desire first of all was to help her stop crying, and secondly for this death and resurrection to point people towards his death and resurrection. Step #1 was to help this woman to stop crying, which is really a guy thing, isn’t it. Most of us guys, me included, can’t stand to see our ladies cry, and we’ll do just about anything / within reason / to help you be happy. But I digress.
Step #1 for Jesus was to do what his heart told him to do. With tears in his own eyes, he tells her to stop her sobbing. With a quiet joy in his soul, and I’d like to think a smile on his face, Jesus steps up to what we would call a stretcher, He touches that stretcher, he invites the dead man to be alive, and so he is alive, in the full view of not one but two large crowds, the dead man sits up, he speaks, and Jesus does what has to be one of his favorite all time things to do – he does what Elijah did back in another little Gentile town- he reunites mother and son.
Dear friends, I don’t know exactly what is making you cry these days, but I do know that Jesus wants to help you stop crying. He wants you and me to learn what two widows in two different generations in two different Gentile small towns learned – that God’s reaction to the calamities, to the troubles, to the heartaches in your life is delayed at its worst, but compassionate at its best. Delayed at its worst, compassionate ultimately and at its best.
It is true that God delayed 4000 years or so before He sent His one and only and beloved Son into this world to reverse the fall of Adam and Eve into sin, but when the Son came, He suffered right alongside of us, He was dead, and then He was alive, thanks be to God. It is true that God delayed by 450 years before He delivered Israel out of Egyptian slavery, but when he deliver them, he did so in such a way that they would never forget how the blood of the lambs made all the difference in the world. It is true that God delayed by 70 years and then by 120 years to bring back Israel from Babylonian captivity and then Assyrian captivity, but when he did bring them back, the people of God had learned their lessons, they knew above all that their God loved them with an everlasting love, they knew collectively that they were the people of God, that He was their covenant God who had a definite plan to prosper them and to heal them, in other words, to have compassion on them.
The kingdom of God is like a pretty decent kind of a guy whose wife decided she didn’t love him anymore, she moved out and as time moved on and took up with another man. His loneliness some days is unbearable, his temptation is to be perpetually angry, the death of his marriage makes him feel as though life isn’t really worth living, he imagines that he is suffering alone, but then He is reminded that His Savior has gone on before Him, is walking alongside of Him, and has a great desire to help him stop crying. More and more his conscience begins to bother him. He remembers how often and how seriously he had sinned against his ex wife in their marriage, he confesses that sin to God and to her, and as he does so, the forgiveness of sins sweeps over his soul like it has never before. He was dead, and now he is alive.
The kingdom of God is like a large church in a small town full of people who are more and more considering themselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. They do a lot of funerals in their small town, and they do them well. They know that if they can lay their loved ones to rest with the sure confidence that these dead bodies will one day soon be alive, well then what calamity is there that they cannot face. They know that if God spared not His only Son on their behalf, well then what good gift won’t He give them. They know that on the one hand their reactions to calamities will be sinful at worst and mixed at best, but on the other hand divine reaction to their calamities will be delayed at worst, compassionate at best. Thanks be to God!
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
There’s a dating app out there – not that I’m looking, I just watched a satirical video on it – but there’s a dating website out there called “The League” and it was built as a place where high-powered, successful young people can form relationships with other high-powered, successful young people, and to do that, they screen their clientele closely. Hiding behind words like “well-balanced community” and “high quality content” they weed out people that aren’t pretty, don’t have the education, or don’t make the money that fits their profile. You have to apply for membership and then they’ll rate your profile photos, your interests and hobbies, your lifestyle by their standards, whether that sits well with us or not. And then they can invite some in and exclude others out.
Today we honor graduates of our high school for what they’ve done. They’ve taken the tests. They’ve written their papers and completed a four-year long journey. But we also honor them for their future. For some that includes applications to schools, for others that includes taking the ACT’s, others the SAT’s, and for many it includes writing essays promoting yourself – which is a very awkward thing to have to do – or putting on a shirt and tie for an interview, or generally learning how to talk yourself up.
And for the biggest universities, they have a set of profile characteristics they’re looking for. They hide behind words like “well-balanced community” and “high quality education” so that you apply and they rate your interests and hobbies, your lifestyle by their standards, whether that sits well with us or not. And then they can invite some in and exclude others out.
During vicarage, I happened to be part of a men’s basketball night on Mondays from 7-9:30 or so and through the year more guys started coming until we would play full-court, then two 4 on 4 half-court games, then even more. But the problem was, the growth we had was mostly high schoolers, and they were fast. The more that joined us, the faster the game went and the more the older guys weren’t able to play. So, the men took a look at their growth and had a choice – either they minister to the younger ones that were already coming or they could exclude them and keep their exercise. And whether or not it sat well with me, they used their standards to invite some in and exclude others out.
The point of our meditation today is to think on the subject of worthiness. What makes a man worthy? Or, in other words, when do you deserve something? Three places of meditation from the three pieces of dialog from our text.
The Jews had their own thoughts in our text. In Luke they come up to Jesus looking to do some good for a man who did some good for them. They come up to Jesus and say, “Look at this good man. He underwrote our synagogue. He loves our people. He cares for the health of his servant, and more than that he loves his servant. By our standards, he passes muster. By our standards, he’s worthy to be helped. He’s helped us and now we should help him.”
One commentator notes the language they use – it’s used in other ancient documents – the formula “He is worthy for he loves our nation” is the language of the Roman system of patrons. Unlike previous empires, Roman governors and centurions built goodwill with the peoples they conquered by funding projects and encouraging city life. They would befriend and reinforce local systems of governance. The centurion sent for the Jewish leaders and the Jewish leaders were obligated to their patron to go to Jesus. They worked through the system. They worked in ways appropriate to their social and political system to help the person who, by their standards, was worthy of help.
We work within our systems. We work within our policies. We work within the standards that we’ve made in this world in order to do what the standards allow us to do to the best of our abilities. We live in a democratic republic where you can voice your opinion by exercising your right to vote. You can voice your opinion through protest. You can voice your opinion through the system. That’s what the Jewish elders are doing. They’re trusting the system to work in the way it was designed to work. He scratched our back, we’ll scratch his.
And Jesus goes along with them. In this particular story, it’s surprising – now pick this up – it’s surprising to think that Jesus doesn’t have one of his funny prickly little conversations with these folk. You think of how he answers the rich young ruler’s question, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? – Who do you call good? God alone is good!” But he doesn’t do that here… he goes along with them.
But notice the second thing that happens. As Jesus goes with them, it isn’t the centurion that comes to meet them on the road – we NEVER see him in this story -- , nor is it his servants. It’s his friends. Now, we don’t know if his friends were Jewish or not but what we do know is that they came bearing a message from the man himself.
And he says pretty much the opposite of what the Jewish elders said. I am not worthy for you to come under my roof. I am not even worthy to meet with you. I am definitely not worthy to ask you to heal my servant.
What that means is, I have no claim to get you to come. I know that I look worthy by the world’s standards, but I am absolutely unworthy. I have no ace-in-the-hole to force you to do anything. I have no chips coming up to the poker table. I’m asking only out of the bottom of my desperate need.
But, he says, nevertheless, you have the power to do what you will do. I am a man who has authority, therefore I know if you use your authority, it will be done.
And then Jesus answers. But he doesn’t answer the friends. He turns and addresses the crowd. You can picture him in your mind turning his back on the messengers and looking to the crowd before saying, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” In this phrase, he says two things: First he says that the centurion is right – that he isn’t worthy. Second, he says that the centurion is wrong – that Jesus has declared him worthy. What kinds of words are these?
Well, they are words that follow the pattern of our Christ. You see there are two truths that come evident in our text for today and the first is that God has standards and they are incredibly high. Matthew chapter 5: Jesus did not come to abolish the law. He came to reveal it fully. He laid out the policies and procedures of God in the electronic drop-box of the 1st century. Our God is a god of order, and that order stands even when we don’t stack up. God knows, and he knows even better than you, all your failures, all your regrets, every time you fall short and don’t live up to his standards. It’s not a secret to him, and it never was.
And his laws are absolute. They stand apart as the way that any human who is a human is supposed to live. There are no exceptions. Every time we fall short, we fall short of being human.
But at the same time, Jesus has come to redeem sinners. He didn’t come to redeem the righteous; he came to redeem sinners. Only the sick need a doctor, and we’ve got the best doctor around. Only those who acknowledge their own unworthiness can see how incredible the gift of God in the courtroom of justice is. You don’t get what you deserve. You hear the gavel come down and the judge says “Not guilty.” You walk out of the courtroom saved by grace given to you in your desperate need.
Or to say it in another way, to paraphrase John Piper for our lives, there are two ways to live without the naked shame of Adam and Eve. First is to be absolutely perfect in every way – to have nothing to be ashamed about – and that way left us ever since the Garden of Eden. But the second is to let forgiveness and mercy flow over all shame and imperfection.
The unworthy are declared worthy and so they become worthy.
Two lessons from our text today: the first is to know the rules, the policies, the procedures and the standards of the world. The second is to remember that Jesus crossed those lines whenever it was for the good of the kingdom of God. Look through the Gospels and you’ll see a Jesus that sometimes followed social convention, sometimes didn’t. Sometimes he showed up where and when custom would allow him and sometimes he didn’t. Sometimes he honored the Sabbath customs because they glorified God, and sometimes he spoke as the Lord of the Sabbath, healing the lame and making them take up their mats and walk.
The Gospel not only saves our sorry souls by declaring us forgiven children of God; it redeems the physical, the social, the business, and the political realities of our everyday lives. As one commentator puts it, “Jesus… has the authority to heal, even from a distance, and even when that distance is measured as much in [religious and cultural] terms as in meters or yards… the healing power of Jesus overcome[s social and religious] barriers.” It privileges our fellow human’s walk of faith above social niceties.
It calls us to love when society would challenge us to hate. It calls us to speak strongly when society would beg us to whisper. It calls us to call people out for their sin even as we keep on loving them.
The kingdom of God is like a man who after years of marriage, is just starting to realize how unworthy of his wife he really is. He comes to the Lord’s Supper and remembers how unworthy of his Lord’s Body and blood he really is. He hears the words of forgiveness and realizes just how much he needed to hear those words. And yet, it doesn’t paralyze him or shame him, because it allows him to rest all the more in the incredible grace that takes the unworthy and makes them worthy in Christ himself. Amen and Amen.
Worship Sermons & Letters
Pastor Paul Muther