Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Promises of God: Forgiveness (1 of 6)

Pentecost 13 2014a
Trinity Lutheran Church (NALC)
Special Sermon Series: “The Promises of God: Forgiveness”
Jeremiah 33:4-9; I John 1:5-10; Luke 12:29-34

Hundreds of years ago Christian missionaries first stepped ashore on the cold, windy coast of what we know today as Labrador in Canada.  The conditions in that frozen wilderness were pretty harsh, but the missionaries came anyway and tried to convert the native Eskimos to Christianity.  They organized a meeting of several villages, and they engaged an interpreter to translate their English into the native language, and they set about telling the Eskimos about God’s plan for salvation: how Jesus Christ had come into the world to suffer and die so that their sins could be forgiven.  But all of a sudden the interpreter stopped talking; just stood there with a blank look on her face.   The missionary saw that and he said, “What’s the matter?”  And the interpreter said, “In our language there are many words for snow; we have even more words for ice: but we have no word for what you call ‘forgiveness’.”
Over these next few weeks during our sermon time together we’re going to explore some of the promises that God gives us in Scripture.  And one of the greatest promises is FORGIVENESS. We use that word a lot.  “Forgive us our trespasses” we pray; but even though we use that word a lot, the meaning can still be kind of ‘foggy’ sometimes; sometimes we seem to be like those Eskimos, not really understanding what the forgiveness of God really is.  And perhaps that’s because another word has fallen out of popular usage in contemporary language: the word “SIN”.  Without understanding sin, we can’t really understand forgiveness.
SIN… IS AN ACT OF DISOBEDIENCE AGAINST GOD’S WILL.  Sin may be something we do, it may be something we say, it may be something we just think.  Whatever it is, sin is a disruption of God’s intended order for our lives.  And the hard and fast fact of our human condition is that we all sin; everyone does.
But people don’t like to talk about sin; not even in some churches.  Because if we talk about sin as God uses the word, than we’re forced to recognize that sin has consequences. Sin separates us from God.
God is wholeness (shalom in Hebrew), separated from God we live lives that are not whole; God is love, but separated from God we never experience real love; God is light, separated from God we live in the shadows. Sin separates us from our Father in Heaven; and when we live separated from God… life just isn’t much fun – it isn’t all that it was intended to be.
We don’t want to live that way, and neither does God. So the Lord works to remove our sin from the equation of our relationship with God.
 Verse 9 of our reading from 1st John, “But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 
God cleans up our messes, even the messes that we think can’t be cleaned up.
A while back I spilled some wine on a table cloth at home.  Not a lot, but it was red wine, and those few deep purple drops looked to me like they would mark that tablecloth forever. I thought maybe we could just cover it up and pretend it wasn’t there at all.  Maybe whenever we used that tablecloth ever after we could arrange it so that stain was under a vase or a bowl or something. In my mind: I had ruined that linen and nothing could ever fix it.
 But, my wife told me it was okay… and she pre-spotted the stain with detergent of some kind, and she washed the tablecloth… and it came out crisp and clean and as good as new.  The stain was gone… because two things had happened.  First, I had acknowledged the stain I had made.  And secondly, I allowed one who had the ability… to take away the stain that I had made.
God wants to remove the stain of our sin.  That’s what we read in verse 8 of our reading from Jeremiah this morning.  The Lord speaks through the prophet and says, “I will cleanse them from the guilt of their sin.”  Now, the people of Judah had a lot of sin to account for.  The nation had given itself over to political leaders who turned away from the Lord and led the people to turn away, too.  And pagan gods began to appear among the Hebrews.  Ishtar and Venus were popular among the Jewish woman, and they would pray to the statues and even make sacrifices for fertility. What did it hurt? After all, it really didn’t mean anything! And throughout the land, shrines and worship of the old Canaanite gods of Molech and Baal were reappearing; this time it was the Hebrews who were worshipping them. But, what did it hurt?  After all, it was really just a cultural thing.  Couldn’t they be both Jews AND give some attention to the pagan gods.  Besides, it was more fun to worship the pagans: worship Baal and you got to get drunk and have orgys.  Try doing THAT in the synagogues.  The people were turning their backs on God and were intentionally disobeying His will for them; they were intentionally sinning.
And seeing their willful blasphemy, what does God do?   He offers them forgiveness. Folks, this is the nature of the Lord.  God offers to wipe away the stain of their sin, IF the people confess and repent.  Verse 3 (just before our reading for this morning) “Call to me and I will answer you.”  All the people had to do was admit that they were sinning and turn away from their sin.  But they didn’t.  And the Lord allowed the nation to be conquered and the people carried off in exile to Babylon.  They suffered… because they refused to accept the mercy that God offered them; they refused to acknowledge their sin.
People have always been that way.  We want to cover up the stain on the tablecloth rather than admit that it exists as a result of our actions.  Our sin becomes a barrier between our Father in Heaven and us.  God wants to get rid of the barrier, he doesn’t want anything to separate us from him because he loves us.  This is what Jesus means when he tells us in verse 32 of our reading from Luke: “…it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
We’ve all sinned; we all need forgiveness.  God promises to give us forgiveness.  But something within people often keeps them from experiencing this promise of forgiveness.  The most common thing that blocks God’s mercy is denying that something is a sin at all.
This is perhaps the most insidious obstruction to forgiveness: they simply pretend that what they like to do isn’t a sin at all.  We hear this denial in a lot of forms; maybe we’ve even used this ourselves.  ‘Well, that part of the Bible only applied back in the olden days. Those old ‘dos and don’ts’ are quaint now; they don’t really apply today.’  Or maybe they get creative and simply reinterpret Scripture. Revisionist theologians love to do this.  ‘Well, you know, this old Greek verb seems to say this is wrong; yeah, it says that kind of lust was wrong, but it probably only meant if you were forcing a slave to do it.  If both people were okay with it, then this passage didn’t really say it was wrong.’ Really?  As if the Word of God came to us with asterisks: ‘This applies here but it doesn’t apply there.’
Or, my personal favorite form of denial: ‘Well, Jesus never talked about that, so it must be okay.’  This is the most ridiculous argument.  First, many of the sins that people use this argument for are addressed in the Old Testament, and Jesus said in Matthew 5:18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law…”  If the Son of God Himself tells us that we need to pay attention to the Old Testament, then maybe we’d better listen.  And secondly, we need to consider the ethics of a lot of things that Jesus never mentioned: genetic cloning, biological or chemical warfare, ending human life for personal convenience… Jesus never talked specifically about brainwashing or heroin addiction, either, but I’ll wager he has some pretty strong feelings about them!
In James 4:17 God tells us “Whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”  The Holy Spirit reveals God’s will in all situations through the Word of God, whether Jesus explicitly spoke about it or not.
When we deny something we’ve done or are still doing is a sin, we’re like the salesman who went to the doctor for an ear infection, and while he was examining him the doctor noticed a rash all over his hands.  The doctor said, “Do you want me to do something about that rash on your hands, too?  It looks kind of bad.” And the salesman said, “Oh, that’s perfectly normal.  Half the customers I shake hands with have the same rash.”
Unless we admit that we’re sick, how can we be healed?  Unless we admit that something is a sin, how can we experience forgiveness for it?
God wants to forgive us.  …it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  When we come to God seeking forgiveness… we experience something wonderful.  We are set free from all that has been.
          In our adoption system, teenagers who have had life problems are deemed ‘special needs’ children.  When the adoptive family accepts a special needs child for placement, the social services agency gives the potential adoptive parents a folder of the child’s history; often it contains the good, the bad, and the very, very ugly things that the child has endured.
          Another pastor writes about a family who was considering adopting a special needs teen-aged girl.  She was only 15, but her life had been a little piece of hell on earth: all chronicled in the folder that the adoptive family received when she was placed with them for a trial period.  When she was 9 the abuse began from her mother’s boyfriend.  When she was 11 her mother was imprisoned and the girl was placed with foster families.  It didn’t work.  Time and again she got into trouble from stealing or fighting… drugs.  Time and again she ran away.   For a while she managed to live on the streets.  That ended when police arrested her for prostitution.  She was 13 years old when that happened.
          Now she’d been placed with a family who was considering adopting her. But the girl couldn’t believe that they were serious; that they wouldn’t reject her like all the others had. So… she stole a necklace from the mother’s dresser one day.  And when it was discovered, the mother and father called her down to the living room.  She said, “I suppose you’re going to send me back now.  Why would you want someone who steals from you  living here.”  And the mother shook her head.  She said, “No, we want you to know that we forgive you, and we want you to stay.”  And the girl got up and began to pace.  She said, “How could you want me to stay knowing all the things that I’ve done?”  She pointed to her case folder that was on the coffee table.  She said, “How can you want me after you’ve seen all the stuff in that folder?”  And the father picked up, the folder… the record of all of her misdeeds… and he carried it over to the fireplace and carefully set it in the flames.  Then he turned and said to the crying girl, “What folder?”
The great poet Alexander Pope once wrote, “To err is human, to forgive divine.”  And that is  our condition in a nutshell.  We are human and humans sin.  God is divine and God forgives.  He promises that is how it is; and we can experience that promise fulfilled for ourselves over and over – every time we humble ourselves and confess and repent.  And the stains we have made… well, it’s like they never even happened.
Years ago up in frigid Labrador, missionaries discovered that the native people had no word for forgiveness; it was a new and foreign concept to those tribes.  So the missionaries set out to find words in that Eskimo language that could convey just what God’s forgiveness was all about.  It took awhile, but finally they settled on this phrase: “not being able to think about it anymore.”  Forgiveness, you see, is a promise that it will be like it never even happened.
          It is God’s good pleasure to forgive us through his Son, Jesus Christ.  Let us confess our sins, and God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins; he promises.  AMEN

The Reverend M. A. Greenauer 2014
Permission is granted to reproduce this work in whole or in part if the glory for its content is given to the Lord

Sunday, August 24, 2014

11th Sunday after Pentecost

Pentecost 11 2014a

Trinity Lutheran Church (NALC)

Isaiah 51:1-6 & Matthew 16:13-20

                When I was a boy, I thought that I had a pretty unique name: Michael…  Micha-el… it means “He who is like God.”  Awesome!  And I noticed that there were a couple of other boys in school who also had the name Michael. But I didn’t realize that when I was born: Michael was the most popular name for male children.  Today we live in a neighborhood where the man in the house next door is named Michael, and the man in the house across the street if named Michael.  When one of our wives calls us by name, it seems like half the neighborhood turns to see who is calling.  It turns out Michael isn’t as unique a name as I thought!  We can become confused by the names we use, even the names we use for God.
If you read the entire Bible cover to cover, some scholars claim we can find over 7000 terms for God.  Jesus alone is called by over 200 names. We know many of them, don’t we?  Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace, Lord of Lords, King of Kings…
Over 200 different descriptive names for Christ alone.  Yet, even though we have all those names for the Messiah, we can still get confused sometimes; even in church…
A woman named Julie Loomis writes that her church has a very elaborate Christmas program every year that features a live nativity scene right there in the chancel.  One year she was sitting in the balcony with her 5-year old nephew, Curtis, on her lap, and they were watching the procession enter the church below them. The boy was fascinated by the sheep and the goats and especially the camel.  But when it was just the people coming in he quickly lost interest.  Julie tried to spark some excitement. As one of the Wise Men began walking down the aisle she whispered, “Curtis, look!  Here comes the king!”  And the little boy leaned over the balcony railing and he said, “That’s Elvis?!”
All of the descriptive names we have for Jesus can be confusing sometimes. But if we are going to be followers of Christ, how we call Christ is very important.  Because the titles that we have for the Messiah define our relationship with God through Him.   This is what the disciples discovered in our Gospel reading this morning.
In this passage, Jesus is traveling with his disciples through the region of Caesarea Philippi.  Once again (like in last week’s Gospel) he is ‘out of bounds’ for the Jewish people.  Caesarea Philippi was about 25 miles northeast of the Sea of Galilee, and it was a region loaded with negative religious implications.  The area was littered with old temples to the pagan Syrian gods, including the one the Yazidi people under attack in Iraq still worship today.  A newer, marble temple was also located there: it was the temple built by the evil King Herod the Great… the same king who tried to murder the infant Jesus and instead wound up killing all of the infant boys in Bethlehem.  Caesarea Philippi also had a lot influence by the Greek and Roman gods; in fact, some of the people there worshipped the Roman Emperor as a living god.  Frankly, Caesarea Philippi was probably a pretty unlikely place for Christ to make Himself known.  But one of the messages we have to hear in this Gospel reading is that the Lord makes His presence known in both the holy temple and the profane world.  There is no area of earth or of our lives that are beyond his touch… or His authority.
As he walks along, Jesus turns to his disciples and he asks them a question.  “Who do people say that I am?”  Now, He’s not taking a poll like the president or the politicians do.  If 51 percent of the people get it wrong, He’s not going to change His public image to gain their approval.  Jesus KNOWS who He is, but He knows it is important for those who follow Him to know who He is.  So He asks them, “Who do people say that I am?”
The disciples begin sharing the rumors that they’ve heard along the way. “Well, some say that you’re John the Baptist reincarnated.  And others say that you’re Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the other prophets brought back to life!”  The rumors, apparently, are rampant. But Jesus cuts off the recounting of rumors.  He has something important to ask.
“Yes, but who do YOU say that I am?”  The text doesn’t state it explicitly, but we can suspect that there was a moment of embarrassed silence.  Suddenly, perhaps, the men all looked anywhere but at Jesus.  Staring at the ground or the clouds above; all at once working on a hangnail… ANYTHING but confront this question, this question of all questions.  Because this is the question that defines everything.  It is the question that calls for unequivocal commitment, because if they answer that Jesus is just a nice carpenter-turned-teacher then they are saying he is really nothing special.  But if they admit that he is divine, then they are taking an irreversible step of commitment. Jesus cannot be divine and not have authority in their lives.   The disciples hesitate for a moment.
But one of them speaks.  Simon, the rugged fisherman, answers.  He does not answer from his confused human mind, he answers as that still, small voice in his heart tells him to answer: plainly, directly, without embellishment or apology – “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Verse 16). And Jesus, the Son of God, seems to rejoice.  Verse 17:  “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah, because flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” 
The cat is out of the bag, now.  Humankind has come to understand the truth: that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son to come into the world to save all believers from their sins.  Simon has been led by God to proclaim the truth.  And Jesus goes on and he does a kind of odd thing: he gives Simon a new name; and not just any name, a rather odd name…
Verse 18: “…you are [now] Peter, [which means “rock”], and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
Peter had over 200 names to choose from:  Prince of Peace, King of Kings, Lord of Lords…  But God led him to choose the right one – Son of God.  Because only the Son of God could bring the presence of the Father into the world.  In John 10:30 Jesus tells us “I and the Father are one.”  Only the Living God in the world can save the world, and only if he is known by his true identity: the one and only Son of God who has the power to heal and forgive, who has the power to give eternal life… to those who submit to him as Lord.
“You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” Simon says.  And Jesus gives him a new name… because in confessing Jesus as God we are made into a new creation.  But… he picks a pretty odd name, if we think about it.  Jesus doesn’t seem to do a very good job with this naming thing.  He could have said, ‘From now on, we’ll call you Brilliant One because you figured out who I am.’  Or he could have said, ‘Way to go, Simon! From now on we’ll call you Brainiac because you’re obviously a genius.’  Jesus could have come up with a thousand glowing appellations that would have designated Simon as something really, really special.  But instead… he named him “Rock”. And we have to ask ourselves, what’s up with that?  Jesus doesn’t do anything without a purpose. What’s the purpose of calling this faithful believer a “Rock”?  And the answer, perhaps, is in our first reading this morning; this passage from Isaiah the 51st chapter.
God speaks through the prophet.  Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the Lord: look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. (Verse 1)” And hearing these words, we have to ask ourselves: who is the rock from which we were hewn?  And the answer is, God; God is our rock and our strength.  The rock where we turn in hope and are always find that hope that we seek.
The hope that we find in God through Christ is a “rocky” hope; not in a bad way, but in a good way that is in contrast with the world.   Because the world leads us into insubstantial hope: false hope that leads us into danger instead of toward salvation.  False hope is dangerous…
You know, over the years I’ve worked with eight different fire companies; I’ve trained with them, gone to a lot of fires with them… Firefighters live to rescue others, and that’s what they train for.  Every firefighter goes through a simulator that is a specially built building that can be filled with smoke.  What they do is they put a mannequin somewhere in the simulator building, then they fill the entire structure with smoke, and they tell the firefighters “Go find it!”
It’s a lot harder than it sounds.  Fire gear weighs so much it’s hard to move, and the air pack you wear has a mask with limited visibility; and even if you weren’t wearing a mask, you couldn’t see anyway – because the smoke is so thick and dark… you can’t even see your hand in front of your face.
So, firefighters are trained to search in smoke filled buildings by touch.  Crawling on the floor, they sweep their hands back and forth in front of them, FEELING for a trapped person.
But experienced firefighters know that when people are panicking, they look for hope in different places.  If you’re searching for an adult, the first place you search is near the doors and windows, because adults know that their best hope is getting outside, so that’s where they often are when smoke overcomes them.  But children… If you’re searching for a child, you feel under the bed, and you feel inside the closets, because children in their fear look for hope in all the wrong places.  Children don’t know where real hope can be found.   People are an awful lot like children when it comes to hope.
We live in a world of false hope, and a world filled with false hope-givers.  The world is becoming a frightening place these days; especially for Christians.  Social structures and cultures are changing, and not always for the better.  People feel like they aren’t controlling their lives, and that always scares people.  And for Christians there are even more threats.  Every day we hear about social persecutions of Christians for their faith; and now – in the 21st century – we hear of a return to Islamic barbarism… cutting the heads off of people… because they won’t deny Jesus Christ as the Son of the Living God.  We live in a world where hope is desperately needed.
Yet, false-hope givers try to get us to hide under our beds like children do.  Are you afraid of what’s happening in the world, they say? Then just shift to this political party or to this political perspective; that will give you hope.  Are you feeling out of control in your life?  Then give up your superstitious religion and put your faith in science; science can answer everything.  Are you looking for hope?  Then wear this crystal necklace, or study astrology, or chant this Hindu phrase… if you do that, then everything will be okay. 
But… those are false hopes. Since the dawn of time neither politics or philosophy, nor science, nor pagan religions have ever fulfilled their promise of hope.  But someone has.  He is the Lord our God, the Creator of Heaven and earth, and He alone is the source of our true hope.  His truth is not just carved in stone, He is the Abiding Rock itself to whom we can cling.
If you’ve ever visited New York City, you know that on 5th Avenue there is the RCA Building.  Near the entrance of that building there is a gigantic statue of Atlas, a beautifully proportioned man who, with all of his bulging muscles, is holding the entire world upon his shoulders.  The artist captured the strain of it all perfectly.  If you look at that statue, it seems like at any moment Atlas will break under the strain. 
Bruce Larson says that sometimes people will come to his Manhattan office, and they’ll tell him that they’re having trouble submitting their lives to God; they want to be in control and they’re having trouble letting go and letting God.  Larson says he takes them to see that statue, and he says, “Well, that’s one way to live, trying to carry the weight of the world on your own shoulders.”
Then he takes them across the street; just a little way’s up is St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  There behind the high altar is another statue – it’s Jesus as a little boy, perhaps 8 or 9 years old, and in one hand (with no effort at all) he’s holding the entire world.
Larson says he tells those people, “We have a choice.  We can try to carry the whole world on our own shoulders, or we can say, ‘I give up, Lord.  Here is my life… here is my world… I give them to you. You are God and I am not.”
Folks, we can cling to false hopes, or we can cling to the Lord and find our hope in Him.  The first will fail us every time; but the second will never fail us.
When Jesus re-names Simon, he names him for the One who is speaking within him and through him.  He is not naming Simon because he has a good mind or because he won some sort of pop quiz about who Jesus is.  Peter bears the one within him, and it is the presence of the Abiding Rock within that makes it possible for Christ’s Church to form and function in the world… it is because he bears the Abiding Rock of God that Jesus re-names him Rock… a chip off the old block.
And we share that name.  Because each of us, when we stop trying to find hope in ourselves and  proclaim Jesus as the Son of God and Lord of our lives, then we too bear the Abiding Rock within us, and God can use us to do his work if he is present in us.   Martin Luther said that it is only when we allow the Holy Spirit to move within us that we are sanctified; that we are empowered to BE the Church in the world.
There are a lot of names for Jesus in the Bible: Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace, King of Kings, Lord of Lords.  And, of course, the Son of God. That’s the important one.  And being one with God, he is the Rock to which we can cling. In him we will find our strength, our forgiveness,  our salvation, and our hope… our rocky hope, that stands up against the storms of our lives, and enfolds us in His protective love; now and forever.  AMEN

The Reverend M. A. Greenauer 2014
Permission is granted to reproduce this work in whole or in part if the glory for its content is given to the Lord