Sunday, March 29, 2020

Jesus comforts Martha on the Long Road to Resurrection - John 11:1-44

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The text is John 11.

If your house is like mine the last two weeks, you’ve spent some time on a favorite streaming service watching movies and programs. Amazon has a unique feature that you can pause a program so you can get the details of that scene. It shows you the characters names, and the actors who play those characters. You can then chose which actor and get a full pedigree of what movies or TV shows that actor has been in. You know how you’ll see a person on the screen and think, “Where have I seen him before? What movie was he in that we liked so much?” You can figure all that out with just a few pushes of a button. You get to dig into the program and the people in it.

We’re going to do that this morning with this reading from John 11. You probably know this with a title something like “Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead,” or “the raising of Lazarus.” There’s nothing wrong with that, because that death-and-resurrection story is the whole center action of the narrative. That is most certainly worthy of focusing on especially this 5th Sunday in Lent as we draw nearer our Lord’s own death and resurrection.

But this morning, I want to hit the pause button before Lazarus is raised. In fact, I want to hit the pause button before Jesus even arrives at the graveside. I want to stop when Jesus first encounters Martha and she speaks to him. Instead of this scene being about Lazarus, this scene is about Martha. We might call it, “Jesus comforts Martha on the long road to Resurrection.” That’s an important scene for us, because we see ourselves standing along side Martha. We spend the vast majority of our lives on that very same long road to our own resurrection. The words Jesus speaks to Martha, how He comforts her, those words remain as comfort for us today – perhaps today, in the midst of this pandemic of illness and separation (you notice I am joining those two things together), those words are more important than ever.

You know the back-story. Lazarus is the brother of Martha and Mary. When he became ill with some unknown but life-threatening illness, Martha quickly sent word to the Great Physician that He was needed. She utters the church’s prayer: Come quickly, Lord Jesus. And, she knows the church’s wait. Jesus delays in answering and appearing and, when He finally appears on the outskirts of Bethany, Lazarus was dead, Martha’s heart was broken, her spirit crushed with disappointment that Jesus did not arrive.

Hit your pause button at this scene. Martha and Jesus, standing face to face on the road leading into Bethany. If you could, imagine Martha looking to the past, when her brother was well, or at least to the point where there was hope Jesus would arrive in time. She knows what could have been. “Lord, if you had been here,” she says, “my brother would not have died.” She knows Jesus has power and authority over all of creation, even creation that has gone sideways in illness. But, even as she looks to the past, there is a sense of Martha looking forward as well. She confesses the sure and certain hope – remember, hope is confidence! – that this is not the end for her brother. “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” So, Martha is looking to the past, and she is looking to the future.

But, in this frozen frame, what is missing is the present, the right now. Right then, in the moment, even as she looks backwards into what could have been and ahead to what will be, in that right-now-moment, her brother is dead. Her Lord wasn’t even close in his arrival – He is three days late.  A dead brother; a late Jesus; a broken heart and terrible sorrow.

You know that moment. That right now moment, looking to the past and looking ahead to the future, that in-between time…you know it, because you spend most of your life right there, standing on the road to resurrection. The past is a story of what might have been, what could have been. The future is also assured – you know and confess that you believe in the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come. But the coulda been and the gonna be are bookends to the right now, present moment that is your life today. I hardly need to tell you about all that surrounds us: the concern for jobs, the worry of income lost, the fear of a virus that is invisible and seemingly unstoppable, the loneliness of our own homes.

And, in that moment, Jesus speaks. “I am the resurrection and the life.” You’ve heard me say this before, but notice the verb: it’s present-tense. “I am.” Not, “I was the resurrection,” not “I will be the resurrection.” I am. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Present tense, right now, at this moment: I am the resurrection and the life.

Jesus takes the power of the resurrection and the promise of life and He buries it in His own life, death and resurrection. This Jesus – the One who is speaking to you, right now – in your living room, at your dining room table, in your hospital bed – He is the resurrection and the life for you, now.

Here’s what that means: remember, we freeze-framed this scene. It’s  before Lazarus is raised from the dead. It’s before Jesus’ own Easter resurrection. In that moment, even before there was a bodily resurrection, Jesus is already the resurrection and the life for Martha, standing on that Bethany road. Jesus has come to be resurrection, to be life for her even in her sorrow.

So, what does that mean, in that moment, before Lazarus is raised? What does it mean that Jesus is the resurrection and the life? What does it mean for us, in 2020, confined to our homes, our apartments, our places of exile, separate from family and brothers and sisters in Christ? What does it mean when this dual pandemic of virus and isolation raises fears and worry and insecurity? What does it mean that Jesus is the resurrection and the life? It means this: Jesus, the resurrection and the life, is a hand that can be touched, a voice that is heard, a tear that is shed, and a holy conversation that happens with Jesus in the midst of this journey.

You do not need to wait until Christ’s return to participate in the resurrection. Remember: Jesus is the resurrection and the life, right now. Don’t try to silence the suffering, hurry past the hurt, pacify the pain, wash away the worry. Instead, remembering that God is using all this for good – even though we cannot yet begin to see or understand how – and receive this as holy because, stripped away of all pretense, in the midst of death, we turn back to Him who is the resurrection and the life. And, in that moment, He has a  holy conversation with us on this life-long road to resurrection.

So, today, in the midst of this long pause of your ordinary lives, pause for a moment in this story of Martha. Jesus has come to be with you, just as He was with Martha. He is the resurrection and the life, even now, in the midst of this uncertain time. He fills this time with His love, grace and mercy.

And then press play. Because you live in the resurrection and the life of Jesus. In His name. Amen.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Preaching to an Empty Room That's Filled By Jesus - John 9:1-40

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

We all have dates in our memory that will stick with us forever. Many are joyful: the day you got that bike you wanted, when you were married, when each child was born, when you went on that special vacation, when your held your first grandchild. Other days are filled with hurt and pain: the day your mom died, the day your spouse said she didn’t love you anymore, the day you got laid off, the day the officer stood on your doorstep, hat in hand, and said, “There’s no easy to say this, but…” As a nation, we remember Pearl Harbor, when the space shuttles didn’t come home; and watching the towers fall on 9/11. You have your personal dates.

I added a new date to my list last week: March 18, 2020. I will always remember it as the day I recommended we suspend public worship as the people of Zion-Mission Valley, in this house of God. In almost twenty years of ministry, I’ve had to cancel a service or two over the years because of icy road conditions and hurricanes, but there was always the knowledge and certainty that the next week or two we would gather together as a congregation. However, in the meantime, in those storms, we were able to gather in small groups to encourage and support one another. But this…this is different. A big part of the difference is that we’ve been asked to self-isolate, self-quarantine, and separate ourselves – first by 6 feet, then no touching, then in groups of no larger than 50, and then no more than 10, with some states now calling for each and every citizen stay at home.

This is not how things are supposed to be. Humans are, by nature, designed to be together. Even in the Garden of Eden, when God declared everything to be good, He saw it was not good for man to be alone and created Eve for Adam to be a help-meet and companion. This is still true after the fall, and you see it as people desire to gather together.

If this is true of humanity in general, it is doubly true of the church who is called to unity under Christ. In the adult Sunday school class a few weeks ago, we read in Ephesians chapter 5 how Paul uses the analogy of the human body to the body of Christ: there are many unique parts, each working together with varying tasks of service for the wholeness and wellbeing of the body. But all parts of the body are under Christ as our head. Where the head goes, the body goes.

Yet today, we are not together. We are separated: some of you by six feet, others by sixty feet from your home to your neighbor’s, still others by the six tenths of a mile to the next home of a member of Zion, or even the 16 miles from where I sit to the center of town. We are isolated – or, to use a Biblical image – we are exiled, not to foreign lands, but to our living rooms, our couches, and our six feet of social space, separated from each other.

And, as you sit in front of your computer this morning watching this, as I sit alone in my office instead of in front of the congregation of Zion, we are all painfully, eye-open aware that this is not the way it should be.

In times of crisis – especially when so much is out of our understanding and knowledge and experience, let alone control – it is very tempting to turn our eyes to the heavens and shout a mighty “why?” Why is this happening? What have we done to deserve this, as a family, as a community, as a nation, even as a world?

I suspect we, as Lutheran Christians, know the answer. I began this morning’s service with the old rite of confession from The Lutheran Hymnal – it may or may not have been familiar to you. In it, we declared “we poor miserable sinners confess unto Thee all my sins and inequities with which I have ever offended Thee…” Those words say that we are sinners who live in a sin-stained and sin-broken world. In times like this, the brokenness of creation becomes painfully evident. In this morning's Gospel reading from John, the question was asked, why the man was born blind? Whose fault is it? The assumption was the man or his parents were guilty of some secret, hidden sin and God was punishing them for it with blindness. They want someone to blame, someone that assignment of guilt can be directed to. Instead, Jesus directs the inquiring and accusing minds elsewhere, away from the individual to the fallenness of the world. It's not his fault or the mother or the father. Stop trying to lay blame, as if it is a this-for-that punishment from God. Rather, see it for what it is: the reality that in this world is great trouble, hurt, grief and loss.

Too often, we suffer in silence, alone, even in the midst of a crowd. Difficult marriages, health problems, family struggles, unemployment, financial woes, wondering how to feed the family today let alone tomorrow. But, for the sake of a good show we pretend all is well and good while we are, figuratively at least, dying inside. This virus has stripped all pretense away. None of us can pretend we are not touched by it. Some are touched by it literally: the doctors and nurses and medical vocations are facing a very real yet unseen enemy in the form of a virus. Others of us face secondary effects with job insecurity, financial worry, and loneliness. These things are real, as are our concerns.

You've seen the cliches, the bumper-sticker theology. “Let go and let God,” “Just believe,” “Be strong,” and other such seemingly pithy comments. Some even cite Bible verses: “I can do all things through Christ.” Almost all point to you, like the old Uncle Sam posters. You notice, Jesus doesn’t ask anything of the blind man. He had nothing to give. Just as the blind man could not make himself see, and his parents couldn’t restore his vision no matter how hard they might wish, we know we cannot save ourselves from our situation either. No, those bumper-sticker theologies have it backwards. I'll tell you the exact opposite. This morning, you are not called to be strong. You are not called to be brave. You are not called do a single thing. You are, however, baptized, and as a baptized child of God, you are able to be faithful by the Spirit of God. 

You do believe, don’t you! You know that Jesus intervenes. He steps in and redeems the man’s sight. He restores that which was broken. He makes whole that which was broken apart. He does it for the man; He does it for all of creation; He does it for us. And, He does it in a remarkably backwards way, not through strength but through weakness. Christ's weakness is greater than your strength. Yes, I said that on purpose. If you think you are strong, I assure you, you are not. Christ's weakness is greater than anything you have. His weakness let Him be nailed to the cross to overcome the world with all of its fallenness. In His deepest of humility and out of the depths of His love for this fallen creation, Jesus was subject to the fallen world so He could die. But, more than that, Jesus rose from death’s grave. He stood, Easter morning, alive, victorious, with death conquered.

This, friends, is called the Gospel: Christ redeems the fallen creation. His healing the blind man shows His strength. Jesus says the blindness was to show the glory of God. Don't think this was only the man's eyes. Yes, vision was restored but there is something even greater to see here. This is a microcosm of the restoration that takes place in all creation. In His death, Jesus makes broken creation unbroken. He makes things right and true, whole and holy. It's already trued and holy and righted and whole, even now in the midst of this pandemic, creation is being restored. But we're not there, all-the-way, just yet.

I imagine some may be saying, that’s great and all…thanks…but what about everything going on right now? Nice little talk, preacher, but that doesn’t heal anyone, hire anyone, help anyone. “Jesus, then… What about me, now?” Ok, fair enough question.

When there was a recession or a depression, Jesus was there.  When there was a plague, or a small pox, or a cholera, or polio, or a famine, Jesus was with each person who was sick.  When there was a persecution of Christians or others, Jesus was there too. Through every terrible scene of the fallenness of creation was the Good News of the Saving work of Jesus Christ.  

Christ's power is made perfect in our weakness. This virus has stripped us of any pretense that we can control creation, that we can play the part of creator. God is creator; we are creation. Yes, He gifts us with wisdom and intelligence, and by His grace and mercy, those gifts will be used by scientists and doctors to help in this time of great need. But He gifts us – the non-scientists, the non-medical folks – with something as well.

I said earlier that we are joined together, as one body, under Christ. Where the head goes, the body goes. Christ, our head, has gone to the cross. We follow with life under the cross. This side of heaven, there is suffering. But, as the body of Christ we are never alone – ironically, even during this time of separation. So, this is the perfect time to not only be reminded of our oneness under Christ, but to reconnect with parts of the body of Christ as well. But, remember: Christ's power was shown chiefly in His love on the cross. In this time of cross-bearing, share the love of Jesus.  And, in loving one another, Christ's powerful, self-giving love is shown in actions and in the words you share. We are created to be together. So be together, even if it is from afar.

Here is what I hope we, the people of Zion might live out the love of Christ this week, and every week, until we return together as the body of Christ.

One: Every day, pray for different specific groups of people:

·        Healthcare workers: doctors, nurses, techs, support staff, EMT’s

·        Government officials: on the national, state, and local levels

·        Families sheltering at home: there is a whole lot of togetherness right now, and fear and frustration can fuel words and actions we might not say or do under less stressful times;

·        Displaced Workers: everyone who is working from home, furloughed; or now out of work

·        Infected by the Disease:  that they would be ok and have a full recovery

·        Business Owners: who potentially may have to cut employees, scale back, or worse close altogether

·        God’s peace and healing: with anxiety levels and stress levels at a heightened sense we need the peace that passes all understanding

Two: Every day, call – not text, call – three people. Call at least one person from church you don't regularly talk to, a member of your family, and a friend or coworker. Ask them how are they doing?  Ask them is everything ok?  Ask them if they need anything?  But most of all just be a compassionate ear. 

Three: Be a good neighbor. There is no better time than now to check in on them. You many even find-out something you didn’t know.  Use that fence for distance, and ask them how they are holding up, if they need help with anything, like running an errand especially if you are young and they are older (they may ask you the same thing). Then, ask them if you can pray with them.

And then remind them of the good news: Jesus has been with us through every trial and calamity. He is restoring a fallen world. His open grave promises that we, too, shall be raised and that in that resurrection a new heavens and new earth will be ours.

I realize we are in the season of Lent and, according to our calendar, it's not yet Easter. But remember, Easter has happened. Christ is still risen. He is still the victor. This does not change. Christ, the risen one, has endured everything and keeps us connected to Himself as His body... even through the valley of the shadow.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Hope in the Midst of Chaos - Romans 5:1-5

Grace to you and peace…

Peace. Doesn't that sound good this morning? Not so much absence of war, but absence of fear, anxiety, worry, wonder…wondering what is going to happen, wondering if you have enough food, water cash, or toilet paper, wondering if your family will be ok, wondering if you will be ok. Anxiety fuels fear and fear fuels anxiety. Hard to believe a week ago this was all a big hypothetical question. Now, here it is. Peace…something so simple, now so taken for granted.

I want you to know this morning, every morning, noon and night, you have peace inspite – despite! – what the world, your mind, and even Satan Himself tries to tell you. But to understand this, I need you to rethink peace. Peace, by definition, is not absence of war. It isn’t absence of conflict or lack of fear. Peace means unity, harmony, wholeness through restoration. In Christ, you do have peace, beyond worldly understanding. In Christ, God has been pacified and you have been restored in Christ's death and resurrection. You are justified – declared holy – by God’s merciful gift of Jesus and this is delivered to you by the Holy Spirit from faith.

Faith. That is always an important word, but it will be particularly important in these difficult days. The book of Hebrews defines faith as “the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen,” Heb 11:1. Your faith is from God. You do not trust your faith itself; that ebbs and flows. Your faith rests in Christ Jesus, your Lord and Savior.

Through Christ, you have access by faith into the grace of God. I want you to have a picture here of a room, a large room, that is warm and inviting. "Access" means entrance. By faith we have entrance into this grace in which we stand. By faith I walk into that room and the name of the room is grace. The ceiling, walls, floor—all grace. You live inside God’s grace, his love, his forgiveness, completely surrounded by it. That means you’re always forgiven. You must not think of forgiveness as something that takes place in your life every once in awhile, that you pile up sins for a time and then you get forgiven. You’re forgiven all the time.

People say, "I hope I don’t die while I’m sinning." People like that don’t know what sin is. Of course you’re going to die while you’re sinning. You sin because you’re a sinner; you aren’t a sinner because you sin. All of us are far short of what we ought to be all the time (Romans 3, 23). See, the law tells us how we are to be and not to be, and what we ought to do and not to do. Not being what we ought to be is also a sin. The Law demands perfection (Lev. 19,2). If you’re not perfect you’ve living in sin. But even if you’re sinning all the time, you’re forgiven all the time. You’re living inside the forgiveness of sin. If you die when you’re not thinking about Jesus, you still die as a believer.

People say, "I hope that I have a chance to repent before I die." That’s not right. The whole life of a believer ought to be one of repentance. See, believing doesn’t mean that you feel good all the time, and repenting doesn’t mean that you feel bad all the time. Repenting just means knowing that you’re a sinner who deserves to go to hell. Being scared to die without Jesus, that’s contrition. And faith is knowing that Jesus forgives you all the time, every minute of the day you are forgiven. When you die without having a chance to repent consciously, you still die as a person who knows that he’s a sinner and that Jesus died for him. How many times during the day do you think of the fact that 2 + 2 = 4? Did you know that last night when you were sound asleep? You sure did. Did you know that this morning? Certainly. And so I know that all the time that Jesus is my Savior, whatever happens to me.

Living in Christ’s forgiveness, "we rejoice in hope of the glory of God" (Rom. 5,2). Here "the glory of God" is the praise that God gives us. Someday when we stand before God, what’s He going to say? "Well done, thou good and faithful servant" (Matt. 5,21). You will say, "But when did I ever do anything good?? He will say, "That’s alright, Jesus did it all for you. Well done, you kept all my commandments." So we look forward to Judgment Day when God will say, "You’re not guilty." We "rejoice in hope" that that’s the way it’s going to be. We know it’s true now, by faith. Then we’ll hear it with our own ears from the mouth of God Himself. Now we hear it from human preachers, but then Jesus Himself will say it. "Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" (Matt. 25, 34).

This is the source of the hope we have in God: the grace given you by Jesus. I’ve said it before, it begs to be said again. When I use the word hope, I don’t mean the false one-in-a-billion hope of winning the lottery, or I hope the IRS doesn’t audit me, or something like that. Christian hope is one giant exclamation point. Some of you remember Victor Borge – he would do a schtick where he would read a section of a book and actually vocalize the punctuation. YouTube him and watch some of his routine – you have time, now. If Victor Borge were here, he would read every word “hope” in the Bible with the sound of an exclamation point. Christian hope is certain, not maybe; it is confident, not wishy-washy; it is definite, not a mere possibility. Hope is in Christ. Christ does not change, He does not schwaffle. Therefore you hope does not change, either.

Because of that, you are able to rejoice today, even in the midst of the chaos that is swirling around us. You don’t rejoice because of it, but in it. In this time of Our translation says “we rejoice in our sufferings.” A better, and little-less wooden translation is “we rejoice in the face of external pressure.” I think that today’s climate counts as external pressure, don’t you, and it opens this up a little more for us. Suffering has a deep and dark connotation. I don’t know any of us are really suffering. But all of us are facing some level of external pressure. Concerns about the economy, your job, your health, your loved ones, what to do with the kids if spring break is extended, trying to get to the stores – and find things you need…I could go on. These are present-tense struggles and pressures. Yet, in the midst of them, we as children of God have hope. Hope that enables us to speak and act in love in the midst of this; hope that looks forward in faith; hope that God desires to move us ahead in His grace.

Pressure is accompanied by patient endurance. Again, this is more than our civic leaders trying to calm the public down. This is God standing us up in His grace. That room of grace? He holds us in His grace, and keeps us standing firm. Where God sustains faith, He also uses pressure to produce endurance of faith.

Patient endurance is accomplished by tested character. Here is a good picture of how this works. Do you know how gold and silver is made pure? By melting it down. It’s put into high heat and melted into a pool of metal. But, what is remarkable is that because these metals are so dense, the garbage – the dirt and undesired other metals – float to the surface where it is skimmed off. That’s called the dross; it’s garbage. This happens many times, as heat continues to be applied and the gunk skimmed away. When the gold and silver is finally taken off the heat, it is left pure – just gold, just silver, nothing else. In the midst of patient endurance in the crucible, God is defining and refining our character. He is stripping away from us in these days anything that we have made as a god, something other than Him that we fear love and trust. What we are left with is Jesus. Life is hard right now, and our Lord strips away layer after layer away that would want to compete with faith in Him. Life narrows down and crisis comes. Suddenly, there is only one thing that matters. And, there in the narrow place, stands Jesus.

And in Jesus is our hope.

This is a process that Paul describes. It’s a process of maturing, growing in faith. But the faith in the love of God poured into our hearts – that faith does not change. This is God’s intention: to accomplish patient endurance, which leads to approved character, which returns to hope that trusts in the mercy of God in Christ from faith.

As you leave here today, you get to live in that faith-filled hope. Live – that’s the key word. Luther was once asked what he would do if he knew the end of the world was tomorrow. He simply answered, "Plant a tree." In other words, even as we will follow our civil leaders and do what they say - quarantine if necessary, limit distances, avoid travel, etc. - live today in the sure and certain hope of tomorrow as a child of God. Plant a tree. Play catch with your son or granddaughter. Bake some bread. Make love with your spouse. Talk with your neighbor over the backyard fence. Call an older member of the church and check on them. Before you go to the store, call your elderly neighbor and ask if they need anything and pick it up for them. Walk your dog. Laugh. Smile. Give thanks for God's goodness.

 And others around you will see it. They will ask you about it – how can you rejoice in times like this? How can you be so hopeful? Be prepared to give an answer. Tell them about the hope (!) that is yours in Christ. Amen.  

Sunday, March 8, 2020

More Than a Sign at a Football Game - John 3:16

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

You’ve seen signs that say, simply, John 3:16. It’s written on single pieces of paper, spray painted onto bedsheets and hung from the sides of football fields, printed on bumper stickers, worn on T-shirts and even on signs and knick-knacks on our own walls and shelves. For most of us, we can automatically recite those 25 words from the King James Version of the Bible without even having to think about it. I bet I could wake you at 2am and, after you got over the shock of me being in your bedroom at 2am, you could say it without missing a word. That’s part of the issue, isn’t it? John 3:16 is memorized, minimized, commercialized, and economized down to simply “The Gospel in a nutshell.”

Don’t forget, John 3:16 begins with a story, a narrative, of a man who comes to Jesus in the middle of the night. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, an expert in the Law. He can measure out one’s standing over and against God’s Law, and he can meter out judgement against those who miss the mark of God – or, at least, who miss the standards of self-righteousness set by the Pharisees.

Nicodemus calls Jesus, “Rabbi.” Rabbi means, simply, teacher, but it indicates a nod of respect to Jesus for His ability and wisdom as a scholar. Further, Nicodemus admits that Jesus must be from God – not as much because of His wisdom, although that is probably part of it, but because of the signs Jesus does. In the Gospel of John, “signs” means “miracles.” Nicodemus’ night-time visit to Jesus is early in Jesus ministry. John has only recorded one sign, one miracle, by this time: changing water to wine. Nicodemus recognizes that there are plenty of rabbis who teach, some better than others, but no one can do miracles, like the water-to-wine at Cana, unless He is of God.

Nicodemus is a man filled with questions. I take him with full sincerity, that this visit to Jesus is done with a search for the truth. On the one hand, there is what the Pharisees teach and believe about the necessity of maintaining and keeping the Law, but on the other hand is this new teaching Jesus offers and, if He is from God, what does that mean for him and the rest of the people of Israel? Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cover of night, of darkness, so he is able to sneak in, unnoticed by others – including other Pharisees who might wonder what he is doing entering Jesus’ presence. He is a juxtaposition of two beliefs, two theologies – one of Law and one of Gospel – standing at a crossroad where one or the other must give.

Sign? You need a sign, Nicodemus? I’ll give you a sign, but not one that you are expecting. If you, like Nicodemus, need a sign, a miracle from God, nook no further than your Baptism. With water and Word, there is new birth, a new life of faith conceived by the Spirit of God. This is not your doing anymore than a newborn baby has anything to do with his conception or her birth. In fact, the baby is content to remain right where he or she is: in the mother’s womb, warm, safe, nourished. The mother’s body does all the work, delivering a new life into the world by way of water and blood. Likewise, the spirit of God does all of the work bringing a person to faith through water and Word. As life is a gift of God delivered through the mother, so new life, the baptized life, is a gift of God delivered by the Spirit. God does the work, God does the saving, God does the new-birthing. I don’t remember being born, but here I am. Likewise, you don’t have to remember when you were baptized or recognize the moment that faith was created in you. It’s not your doing. You are simply the recipient of the gift of God.

It’s as if Jesus asks his nighttime guest, “Do you still need another sign, Nicodemus?  I’ll give you a sign – but not the sign, not the miracle, you are expecting tonight. You’re an expert in the Law of Moses, so I’ll give you a sign from Moses instead. When the people rebelled and complained against God, God sent fiery serpents as punishment for their sins. When they repented and cried out to Moses to intercede to God to help, God responds in mercy. But, God does not remove the snakes. Instead, He tells Moses to construct a bronze serpent – a type of the very instrument of God’s punishment – and suspend it on a pole. When an Israelite was bitten by a snake, they were to look to the bronze serpent. It wasn’t the bronze serpent that would save – it was just a sculpture. It was the promise of God that saved.

So, Nicodemus, if you want a sign, look not at a serpent but at the Son of Man for the Son of Man must be lifted up, not on a bronze pole, but on rough-hewn wooden cross where He will die for the sins of the world. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Did you play the game with your children when they were babies where you would raise their arms while slowly saying “soooooooo big” and then bring their arms down? Or, maybe you would do this, spread your arms out while saying, “I love you sooooooooo much.” If I asked you, “How great is the Father’s love for us?” I suspect many of you would answer like that: God loves us sooooo much. That’s not what Jesus means. It’s not a quantitative description of the breadth or depth or width of God’s love. If you want a quantitative description, here it is: it is boundless, without end or limit. Instead, Jesus is describing the quality of God’s love. God loved us in this way: He sent His Son, His only Son, His holy, sinless Son to die for His sin-stained, unholy children who rebelled against Him. “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly... But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom 5:6-8)

Remember, Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. Through the course of John’s Gospel, he continues to reappear, slowly emerging from the darkness, then from the shadows, then into the open. Later, he will question his own Pharisees and Saducees, inquiring whether they have given Jesus a fair hearing (7:50). Finally, when Jesus dies after being suspended like Moses’ serpent, Nicodemus dares to ask permission to take Jesus’ body and bury it with the 75 pounds of expensive spices he purchased (19:39). Nicodemus, by the power of the Holy Spirit who moved like the wind, creating, growing, and sustaining faith in Nicodemus, was able to move from private, nighttime discussion to public witness. It took time, and the gracious working of God. 

That is the picture I want you to remember as you leave this house of God and head to your own homes, your places of work, your schools, and your places of rest.

It is more difficult to have a faithful and faith-filled conversation today with people around us – especially people we don’t know, and people with whom we have disagreements. Some have disagreements with the church’s social positions. Others cannot grasp the church’s teaching on life, or grace, or marriage, or love. Some simply hold disdain that the church has been a voice in the darkness.

That means that this most public of verses may need to be examined and encountered in private ways. It will be in personal relationships where God will work through His Word. There may be late night, or early morning, or lunchtime conversations. Some simply think the Bible is a list of things they have to do to please God, as if John 3:16 read, “So that God loves me, I must…” As Spirit-filled people of God, you instead get to tell them, “No… God so loved you that you may have eternal life.” And you point them, not to a serpent on a pole, but to the Savior of the world on the cross.

 And, some will not be easy. I began by asking you to remember the signs you’ve seen with John 3:16 printed on it. If you want easy, go print a sign on your computer, buy a T-shirt, or slap a bumper sticker on your Dodge. To enter into private conversation, however, is to boldly follow the spirit of God. It takes trust – not just in the Spirit providing what to say, but also a relationship of trust where you trust the other person and he or she is able to trust you to listen to their words and their thoughts before demanding they listen to you.

In you, through you, the Spirit of God blowing through you like the gentle wind, Jesus delivers His gifts. He has come, not to condemn the world, but to save it. His death was public for all to see. His resurrection was public for all to believe. He choses to save the world, one soul at a time, in ways that are public, yes, but also in ways that are intimate and private. He chooses to be found in your private and personal conversations. In you, through you, in the Word you speak, through the Word you speak, He changes lives to change the world.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Being Tempted to Death - Matthew 4:1-11

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

As modern, North Americans Christians, we live in a culture that has often lost sight of the holy and the sacred. God’s name and the name of Jesus are tossed around like any other word of exclamation. The church is often seen as a bunch of restrictionist thinkers who aren’t open to new ideas and stand in the way of personal freedom and choice. God and His Word is dismissed as just one interpretation of sacred truths. Theology as God’s plan of salvation has been replaced with therapeutic moralistic deism – where God is basically a feel-good deliverer of attaboys who can be called by whatever name you want him (or her) to be.

The flip side is also true, our culture has also lost sight of what is unholy and sinful. Things are no longer spoken of as being against the will of God, as sins, as being evil and wicked. Instead, we hear of mistakes, accidents, and choices which are all judged over and against the sliding spectrum of conventional wisdom instead of the unchanging and unshifting Word of God.

As a result, we no longer hear of temptation as being anything serious. Just consider how the word is used in our culture and society. Unless you are in the Lord’s house, “temptation” has lost the connection with sins and dangerous, damning choices. Instead, it seems more like a fun, flirty choice: “I’m tempted to try a piece of that chocolate cake with fudge icing and caramel sauce…”  “I don’t really need a new cell phone, but that new one is just so tempting…” “The company made me an offer for a new position and I’m tempted to say yes…”  And, it’s not that using the word in these contexts is bad, necessarily, but because that’s all we hear in our daily lives, we become inoculated against what it really means and the significance of temptation.

So, when we face real temptation, temptation by the world in which we live, temptation by our own sinful nature, or even by satan himself, we are caught with our defenses lowered. For example, we are so inundated with pictures of scantily clad underwear models that our minds wander into lustful thoughts and we hardly slow down. A few years ago, I saw a flyer for a woman’s underwear company that was marketing directly to teenagers with a product line called “the date collection,” the assumption being – apparently – that her date will be seeing it, sooner or later. We are bombarded with advertisements for the newest tech and when we see friends who have those devices while ours are adequate but old, and we become covetous, trying to figure out how to get one ourselves. Conventional wisdom says everyone is hooking up these days and living together without marriage, so what’s the big deal?

So when we hear this morning’s readings from Genesis and Matthew, the temptation of Adam and Eve, and the temptation of Jesus, it is tempting – please pardon my use of the word in this manner – to misunderstand and misapply these readings for ourselves. I suppose we would be tempted to read the narrative of Adam and Eve and dismiss it as they should have known better. After all, they had a perfect, intimate relationship with God, walking and talking with Him in the cool of the day. Shame on her and him for listening to that cunning and crafty serpent who misled them. It is tempting for us to sit back in our modern, sophisticated 21st century milieu and think we would have know better. Likewise, it would be tempting for us to misunderstand Jesus’ temptation at the hands of the devil, and either think it was  a set-up – that the devil coulnd’t possibly tempt Jesus – or that it’s nothing more than a how-to-defeat-the-devil demonstration, that if you just have enough Bible verses in your hip pocket, so to speak, you can beat up the devil, too.  

Let the narrative of Adam and Eve show you the truth of the dire consequences of being tempted to go against the will and Word of God. Let Adam and Eve tell you want it is to lose the perfect relationship with God. Let Adam and Eve speak to you about what it is to stand and attempt to do battle with the devil, daring to go one-on-one against the father of lies. Let Adam and Eve tell you the sheer sorrow of knowing that because of their moment of weakness, all of creation ever since that forbidden moment has had to suffer. Let Adam and Eve tell you what it is to have no need to know what “evil” is, only to find out first-hand; to have only joy in hearing the Lord’s drawing near, and to suddenly be afraid.

Let Adam and Eve tell you about what it was to only know their bodies as beautiful, and to suddenly be ashamed of their nakedness; let them tell you about seeing God’s compassion for them – even after their sinful weakness - demonstrated by clothing them and protecting them from the weather that, suddenly, was going to no longer be friendly; let Adam and Eve tell you what it was to watch God slaughter animals that they had named, to hear their cry of death, and then be wrapped with their skin, the animal’s skin constantly touching their skin, reminding them of what they had done. Ask them what it was to watch a life taken so that they might survive; let Adam and Eve tell you what it is to watch death for the first time. Suddenly, temptation becomes very real; giving into temptation is no longer blasé; the burden of surrendering to satan’s tempting lie is grasped; and the reality of the wages of sin is death is clearly understood.

Temptation is very real, with very real consequences.

When Jesus stands in the wilderness, He does so as a second Adam, fully susceptible to the devil’s temptations. And, don’t be misled by the seeming simplicity of these temptations, either. This is about more than food, or a flying leap, or bowing the knee. Names mean things; devil is Greek and satan is Hebrew but both mean “accuser” – think of the prosecutorial district attorney, and you have the idea. Put this temptation in context: it happens immediately after Jesus baptism, where the Father’s voice spoke over Him declaring Jesus to be His beloved Son. Satan is accusing the Father of not being very Fatherly. The evidence he offers is the Father seemingly leaving His Son to starve to death, leaving Him alone with the devil, letting Him fend for Himself. The charge: He’s not Fathering you at all, Jesus. Take matters into your own hands. Feed yourself; oh, you trust the Father to feed you? Let’s see that trust - demonstrate it by jumping off the top of the temple. Oh, and your Father’s plan of glorifying you at the cross? How about the glory of the world instead…so much less painful, so easy to do. Do you really trust your Father with your life at the cross, Jesus?

Each temptation, Jesus, as the Son of Man, turns to the same Word of God that you and I have. This is not to model for us how we are to do battle, but to stand in our place. Fully God, yes; but more than that, also fully man Jesus faces the Devil’s temptations without using His Divine glory and power. He uses the same gift you and I have: the Word of God and His baptism.

Immediately prior to His temptation, Jesus is baptized. As water drips off of Him, the Spirit descends in the form of a dove and the voice of the Father is heard: this is My beloved Son. In this baptism, done to fulfill all righteousness, His holiness is washed into Baptismal water and the sins of the world are poured onto Him. But, so that He can be a high priest to understands our weaknesses of the flesh, He is also truly tempted in His human flesh.

Even though Jesus perfectly resists and defeats satan’s temptations, Jesus must pay the consequences of our failure to resist, our submission to that which allures us. There must be a cross. There must be suffering and death. There must be blood-payment. Someone – a Lamb, a perfect, holy, spotless Lamb, the very Lamb of God - must die. His death cry, “It is finished!” rattled from his throat. The sacrifice was complete.  

So, when you fall into temptation and you confess that which tempted and lured you into sinful thoughts, words, and actions, you have a Savior who stands in your stead, who perfectly resisted those very same temptations for you, who faced Satan’s lies that your sinful status might somehow disqualify you from sonship. That Savior stands as your advocate before the Father. Where the devil is the accusatory prosecutor against you, arguing your sins deserve to spend eternity with him in hell, Christ – the living, breathing, resurrected and holy Savior stands as your defense, your advocate, and places Himself in the mercy seat before the Father where His blood was shed for you. He takes you and wraps you, not in His skin, but in His holiness and covers you so fully and so completely via your Baptism that all the Father can see is innocence. Your sins, your surrender to the temptations of this world, your own flesh, and the accuser, are all covered. You, through the merits of your brother and your Savior, who stood in your place, are declared holy, sinless, and righteous.

There’s a word for that. It’s called “Justified.” It is a legal declaration that you are innocent of all charges. In theological language, it means God sees you just-as-if-you-never sinned.

This changes our perspective. We no longer see temptation as something of a punchline. It’s a serious luring of the child of God into sin, something which we seek to avoid, something we try to flee from – averting eyes, ears, and all our senses from those things that would lure us away from God in His grace. We resist, by the power of the Holy Spirit, given us in our Baptism. Yet, we do so knowing that when we fall, when we fail, when we do surrender into satan’s lies, we do so still as children of God. And, when the father of lies tries to condemn us, “if you are a child of God, you wouldn’t have done that,” you respond in faith, “Because I am a child of God, I am sorry for what I have done and I trust as God’s child, for the sake of Christ, even this is forgiven.”

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Jesus' Transfiguration - Matthew 17:1-9

Peggy Noonan, a regular contributor to the wall Street Journal, reflected on a book written by former Secretary of State Dean Acheson who served under President Harry Truman at the end of World War 2. The war was over; now what? No one knew. “Everyone is in the dark, looking for a switch. When you’re in the middle of history, the meaning of things is frightfully unclear. In real time, most things are obscure. ‘Only slowly did it dawn upon us that the whole world structure and order that we had inherited from the 19th Century was gone’. World War 2, Cold War, post-Cold War, and now today – a new normal has emerged and continues to emerge…we just don’t know yet what it is.” (Concordia Seminary Magazine, Spring 2017, p. 5).

In the dark, looking for a switch. That’s a good image, isn’t it, for how it feels some days? We want to be better Christians, we want to read our Bibles more, we want to pray more faithfully, we want to be better husbands, wives, kids, we want to be more faithful in worship. Noble desires, but they lead us to think we gotta do something about it, we gotta fix it, we gotta make ourselves into better children of God. It’s as if you are trying to earn God’s attaboys and attagirls for what you’re doing.  

There’s a term for this idea that you gotta do something. It’s called “functional atheism.” Now, don’t mis-understand me. I’m not calling anyone here an atheist. I said functional atheism. Let me explain.

Functional atheism – as best as I can determine, this was coined by social observer Parker Palmer (ibid) -  is the misunderstanding that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us. It’s the unconscious, unexamined conviction that if anything good is going to happen, we are the ones who are going to be making it happen. If, by definition, an atheist is a person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods, a functional atheist is a Christian who acts as if they are greater than God. Either He isn’t doing what needs to be done, or He’s taking such a long time going at it that I can speed things up by doing it for Him. It’s the equivalent of putting God in a retirement home and telling Him He’s no longer needed. Not literally, of course – just functionally.

I submit that Peter is acting as a functional atheist.

When you go home today, read Matthew 16 and you’ll see what I mean. In the middle of chapter 16, Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God (16:16) and Jesus praises this confession as being heaven-sent. But when Jesus speaks clearly and plainly that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer and die at the hands of the Jewish leaders, Peter stands, and with the same mouth that confessed Jesus as the Son of God, rebukes Jesus. “This shall never happen to you, Lord!” he said. Peter doesn’t want Jesus to die, I can understand and sympathize with that emotion, but he has forgotten that this is what Jesus has come to do: be the once for all sacrifice for the world’s sins.

That was a week earlier. And, now here they are on the mountaintop. Just moments before, Peter – along with James and John - had seen Jesus transfigured, where His appearance became brighter and whiter than sunshine on fresh snow white. Where Jesus’ divinity had been hidden since His Bethlehem birth, on the mountain, His glory shone with all of its radiant brightness. If that’s not enough to stun Peter, James and John, Jesus is joined on the mountaintop with two of the Old Testament’s great heroes of faith: Moses, the great lawgiver, and Elijah, the great prophet. Jesus fulfills the law given through Moses, and is the one foretold by Elijah.

Matthew simply states that Moses and Elijah were talking with Jesus. Luke, however, gives us the fuller report. Elijah and Moses “spoke of Jesus’ departure, which He was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.” In other words, they were speaking about His Passion, that He must suffer at the hands of the chief priests and scribes, be crucified, and with his death pay the full wages of sin with his own death.

No, no, no…not that crucifixion talk again, not that death talk, not that dying at the hands of the leaders. Peter was not ready for Jesus to go down to the valley of the shadow. If he could delay Jesus, if He could impede His descent from the holy mountain down to where Jesus’ enemies would be waiting, then all would be well. Peter has the chance to do something, to step in, to stop – or at least stall – Jesus from going back down the mountain. Peter’s not an atheist – he has just confessed Jesus as the Christ, remember? – but he has go to do something! Our translation says Peter offers to make tents, but the better translation is tabernacles – think Old Testament tent of worship. Surely that will be acceptable and pleasing to Jesus. Peter can be a first century Solomon who builds a tabernacle in which Jesus might dwell along with Moses and Elijah so that they can all stay up on the mountain and live happily ever after. No death…no dying…none of that stuff we don’t want to talk about.

The group is suddenly swallowed by a cloud. Throughout the Scriptures, clouds are symbols of and even manifestations of the glory of God. Where moments earlier, Jesus face shown with the radiance of His glory, they are now overwhelmed by an even greater glory. If there is any doubt of what is taking place, the voice of the Father in heaven shatters the moment. “This is my beloved son. Listen to Him.”

Those words echo Jesus’ baptism where the Father spoke to Jesus, “You are my beloved Son.” The Father’s words re-focus the entire purpose of Jesus life and ministry. Jesus did not come to dwell in a tent built on top of a mountaintop. His purpose in ministry wasn’t to hide up in the clouds with two heroes of old and three disciples in training and live in blissful abandon. Jesus must go down the Mount of Transfiguration and then up the mountain of Zion, where Jerusalem sits, where the cross is waiting for Him; He will be arrested; He will be convicted; He will die abandoned and forsaken by everyone.

We are entering the season of Lent. It is a somber season, intended to be one of penitential reflection as we consider our own mortality and our own sinfulness. We will hear Jesus speak of His coming passion. We will see tensions rise between Him and His enemies and they will plot to kill him. We will ponder this incredible story of love once again, the perfectly sinless Son of God who becomes our substitute. The hymns become heavier, both in tone and in the theology they carry, and we will set aside the use of the word alleluia. Alleluia is a word of praise and celebration; Lent is not a time for that word, so we will “bury” it until Easter morning when we will mark it’s own resurrection with the Easter cry “Christ is risen, He is risen indeed, Alleluia!”

But we are not there, yet. First, we must listen to Him, and He says He must go down the mountain into the valley of the shadow. With Jesus we will descend the Mount of Transfiguration. We will journey with Jesus to the cross. But more than that, know that Jesus journeys with you as you carry your own cross this Lententide.

I am always amazed at Jesus’ action. He doesn't rub their faces in the dirt for dismissing Him and not listening to Him. He touches Peter and James and John. I imagine it as a firm, but gentle, grip on the arm, the kind of touch that says both “I love you,” but also gives direction. "Get up and don't be afraid." He doesn't leave them in their fear to teach them a lesson. No, He says, "Get up and leave your fears down there."  When the disciples lift up their eyes, Luke says, they saw no one but Jesus only.

Look to Jesus. It’s not as if He’s in a glass case labeled “Break Glass In Case of Emergency.” He is Christ is the Son of the Living God who has come into the world to rescue and redeem sinners like you, and like me, and Peter. He Look to Jesus  who stood on the Mount of Transfiguration and prepared to go to the cross for you.

Get up my friends. We're going down from this mountain with Jesus alone, and Jesus is enough. We're going with Him to dark Gethsemane, darker Calvary, and brighter Easter. When your sins burden you, look up and see Jesus only. Amen.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Blessed are the Poor in Spirit - Matthew 5:1-4

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

What does it look like to be poor in spirit? Good question. We are well aware with the poor – or, perhaps I should say, we have an idea of what the poor might entail. The government and academics have their criteria of what it takes to be classified as “poor,” but all it takes is a little observation to see. It’s been quite the topic in Victoria the last few months, with the controversy regarding people who are homeless and, presumably, poor. The poor are the people who live over on that side of town, or who live in those apartments, or who sit at the bus stop waiting for a ride to the dollar value shop to pick up a few things for a meager meal with their Lone Star Card. The poor line up for a weekly free meal at Christ’s Kitchen, for a bag of groceries at the food pantry, and for a utility voucher at VCAM. We look at  people standing at the loop and on street corners, signs begging for food or a few dollars, sometimes chuckling at a WAG’s sarcasm or wit -  “This sign is all my wife’s attorney left me” – or raw honesty – “Who are we kidding? A buck buys a Natty Lite.” Then, of course, there are those who are considered the working poor – there’s actually a fascinating book by David Shipler by that title - the ones who work minimum wage or so-called “dead-end” jobs with no possibility of ever getting ahead in life. But more often, we either stare straight ahead while pretending those folks – those people! – don’t exist, or we give them dirty looks that say, “Get a job, get an education, figure it out.”  These people are usually easy to identify and we generally keep them at at least a window’s distance from us.

That’s a sermon for another day.

Jesus speaks here, not of the poor but of the poor in spirit. Poverty of spirit is sometimes harder to see; it’s easier to hide spiritual poverty because a person’s conscience cannot be seen. But just like fancy clothes and a nice car can hide a business person’s bankruptcy – at least for a while – a person can put up a façade to make everyone think they are spiritually filled when, in reality, they are spiritually broke, broken, and busted.

So, what does the poor in spirit look like? Let me tell you about a man who I will call Peter. I’ve known Peter for a while, now, and we’ve had many interesting conversations. We have talked about our families, cooking, caring for others, and our churches. He’s a faithful Christian man, and he’s asked me Bible questions and requested prayers for himself and family. We saw each other, across the room, at the HEB Feast of Caring but we didn’t talk – he was busy hustling plates of food to hungry people. I know him as a faithful man of God.

Last week, I saw him in a new way. I saw him as a former king bee drug dealer of Victoria county. Since he was 10 years old, he and his sister were major coke and marijuana movers. They did it to survive because their parents were drug dealers, too, and between one thing and another – sometimes including run-ins with the law – the kids were often left at home and hungry. They sold drugs to buy food, at first, and clothes, but as the business grew to be more and more lucrative, their spending grew. It was nothing, he said, to drop two, three thousand dollars before lunch time because they knew they would make it all back and then some before they went to bed that night. They didn’t use – they were smart enough for that – but they still got in trouble. A deal went bad and he had a loaded shotgun waved in his face. He watched customers and a few friends die. He got picked up the first time by the police in a raid when he was a young teenager; a few years later, he got popped a second time. Lesson learned, right? He swore this time it would be different, and he would go straight, but the siren song of wealth from the old life and the financial need of the new life would rise up again and he would sell. All the while, he was going to church on Sunday mornings to hear the Word being read and preached, looking for a word of hope, comfort, help. “You know what, Pastor,” he told me. “I was tithing my drug money. The preacher probably knew it was from drugs, but he never took it out of the collection plate.”

Last week, as we visited, he told me he had long left that lifestyle behind. He and his wife work hard, each day, to make ends meet. He has a good job, and she works for kind and understanding people. They are attentive parents and are vigilant to make sure their kids don’t go down the road he journeyed down twenty years ago. They watch out for the kids friends, too, and they know where their kids are after school. They go to church, are active in the church caring ministry, and he reads his Bible every day. But there were days, he said, when the bills were mounting and the car breaks and the kids need clothes and the doctor’s bills are adding up that he and his wife think about the old lifestyle and how easy it would be, how tempting it is, to do it again, to make money, to be physically comfortable again. It’s not what he wants to do, but it seems like he needs to – just to take care of his family.

But as he talked, I could see him physically deflate. He was filled with sorrow and remorse at what he had done: to himself, to his family, to those he sold drugs to. He was filled with sadness at being tempted by the love of money, the desire for wealth and an easier life. He was absolutely crushed by the shame and guilt of what he had done, and was terrified at how strong the temptations are to go back to that life. He began weeping. “And, pastor, what does God think of me? I am so ashamed…”

Sometimes a sermon comes to life, not behind a desk with theological books nearby and an open study Bible. Sometimes it is preached, not from a pulpit, but across a coffee room, with two people sharing a Word of comfort and hope from Jesus.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” I said. He looked at me. I repeated it again: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”

I explained that the poor in spirit are those who know, without any doubt, just how desperately they need Jesus. The poor in spirit are spiritually bankrupt. They aren’t bad people. The poor in spirit come from all walks of life, from both sides of the tracks, regardless of the thickness of their wallet or the heft of the bank account, whether they have a 5000 acre spread or can’t afford the dirt stuck to the bottom of their shoes . The poor in spirit are children of God who realize just how sinful and sin-filled they are. They realize they can’t fix it, they can’t stop it, they can’t make it right. They are spiritually destitute and have no resources of their own. All they have is Jesus.

“The fact is, I told him, that everyone is poor in spirit. No one has enough of a spiritual portfolio to offer to the Lord in exchange for their freedom. No one has enough credit to pay off sin’s debt. No one has enough capitol to free themselves. The difference is that the poor in spirit who turn to Jesus are made whole.

“What the poor in spirit do have is to hear, receive and believe the Lord’s call to repent for the kingdom is at hand. In repentance, they admit it: they are poor in spirit. They repent: they are lost. They confess: they are sinners who are spiritually bankrupt with nothing to offer, hands that are empty and open like a beggar’s sack. And, in faith, they hold out those open hands to Jesus, who for our sakes, became poor, taking on the very nature of a servant. Not just any servant, but a suffering servant, a substitutionary servant who takes the place of the poor in spirit, dying the sinner’s death and declaring the debt paid in full with His blood.

Jesus calls the poor in spirit “blessed.” Some translations try to make this read “happy,” but that’s not good at all. Happiness is a feeling. A cup of coffee makes me happy; watching my dog race around the yard makes me happy, finishing a sermon on Thursday makes me happy. A blessing is a gift of God, a declaration, a statement that announces to the world, “This is true.” In the Beatitudes, Jesus declares His children are blessed in the situation, not from the situation.  In fact, when Jesus uses the word in Matthew’s Gospel, it almost always means “Saved” or “Redeemed.” It’s as if Jesus is saying, “The poor in spirit are saved, therefore the kingdom of heaven is theirs!”

I leaned back, finished with the impromptu sermon. As I told him this, it was as if a tremendous weight being lifted from his shoulders: he began to sit up, his face began to rest easy. I had one more thing to do: I said, “For the last hour you have been confessing to me all that you have done wrong in the past life of drugs. You told me about how it has broken your heart time and time again, the guilt and shame you continue to carry around to this day. You spoke of the sorrow you have as a child of God for all you did against God and against others. Now, it is my privilege as a servant of Christ to share a blessing of God with you.

I said, “Where once, a crown may have been a symbol of your sin-stained trade, you are now given a new crown – the crown of Christ crucified, who wore a crown of thorns for you. He took your poverty of spirit and He fills you with the riches of His grace. And, so you know this - I leaned forward, put my hands on his head - and I spoke the full words of absolution over him. As I pronounced the triune name of God, I made the sign of the cross on his head declaring sins forgiven in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit.

In that moment, the poor in spirit became wealthy in Christ, and all the riches of heaven – given to Peter in his baptism - were again refreshed in his eyes. Peter and his wife will probably still will struggle, but he does so knowing that their sins are forgiven for the sake of Jesus. Amen.