Sunday, July 21, 2024

The Feeding of the 5013...5014....5015...and Counting - Mark 6: 30-44

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The text is the Gospel lesson, the feeding of the 5000 from Mark 6.

You’ve probably heard this miraculous narrative 5000 times, with twelve baskets full of sermons left over from it. It was important enough in Jesus’ ministry that the Holy Spirit inspired Matthew, Mark, Luke and John to all record it, so as a result, we hear it every year in the middle of the summer, post-Pentecost season.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The text is the Gospel lesson, the feeding of the 5000 from Mark 6.

You’ve probably heard this miraculous narrative 5000 times, with twelve baskets full of sermons left over from it. It was important enough in Jesus’ ministry that the Holy Spirit inspired Matthew, Mark, Luke and John to all record it, so as a result, we hear it every year in the middle of the summer, post-Pentecost season.

But there is one detail, and a major one, that sets Mark apart from the other evangelists because he is the only one to mention this. If you recall from two weeks ago, Jesus was rejected in His hometown of Nazareth and He then calls the Twelve and sends them out, two by two, in mission and in ministry to preach, teach, cast out demons and perform miracles all in His name. Last week we had a brief interjection about the death of John the Baptist, and then we return to the story of the ministry adventures of the Twelve. Mark writes, “The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves.”

The disciples had been “out there,” doing the work of Jesus in mission. They had met the devil at work sowing chaos among God’s people and they spoke words of peace and restoration; they faced illness and demons in the Lord’s name and they spoke ordered into the chaos; they faced troubled hearts and consciences and proclaimed sins forgiven in Him; they performed miracles, demonstrating creation is always subservient to the Creator’s Name. And, they returned to Jesus telling Him of all that had happened.

Who among us has volunteered for Vacation Bible School? It’s a fast and furious five days of laughing, teaching, preparing, and watching the plans all fall into place. By the end of VBS, almost every volunteer is happy that the week has been a success, no one was badly injured, the crafts were complete, the kids liked the music, and the kids got to hear of the power of Jesus at work in the world and in their lives. But, by the end of the last night, when the kids are all gone, and the decorations are knocked down, and the floor has gotten a once-over, what you hear is a collective “whew” because, as good as it has been, a week of VBS is exhausting.

That was the disciples. They were tired from ministry, tired from combatting satan, tired from following in the footsteps of their Master. Jesus recognizes that they are tired, they didn’t even have time to eat!, and has compassion on them and takes them to a desolate place to rest.

This is going to sound a little hokey, but bear with me for a moment.  Do you know how, when you get to the end of something, you find yourself arriving at the beginning of seeing something new? Our first summer here, we went to Cuero for the 4th of July fireworks show. We were following someone who took us down Thomaston River Road, between 236 and the Cuero highway. If you’ve never done this before, just this side of the river, you crest what I discovered was called “End of the World Hill” because when you crest this side of the hill, it looks like you have come to the end of the road and the rest of it falls away. But as you top the hill, and relax your grip on the wheel, you see a new sight of the river bottom below. You have come to the end and begin to see something new. So, we come to the end of our strength, the end of our day, the end of our resources, the end of our effort, the end of our “our,” when we cannot do any more, that is the beginning of realizing that God is the one who is doing it, who is in charge, who is there.

Jesus takes them into the wilderness to rest, but their rest is quickly interrupted. The crowds that had followed along and meet the tired, exhausted disciples and Jesus as they come ashore. It’s a powerful contrast, isn’t it: the need of the disciples for rest over and against the need of the people for their ministry, for help, for healing, for restoration, for His Word. Their desperate hope rests in the One who can help. So Jesus, filled with compassion, cares for these people as well, tending them as a shepherd cares for his sheep, giving them spiritual food and living water and letting them sit down in peaceful rest under His loving care.

Then, there is the end of the day. Now, the people are weary and need food. The disciples turn to Jesus. They are tired, the people are tired. Jesus: send the people away so they can go buy food. I can imagine Jesus doing a slow turn, looking at the twelve with the thousands as a backdrop behind them, and with a bit of a smile turning their request into His own instruction: No – you feed them. He’s bringing them to their very end of their strength, their ability – even their imagination. Even if we had two hundred denarii, seven months’ wages, we couldn’t feed them all! They are at their end.

You understand this. You know what it’s like to be at your end, overburdened, where you have hit your limit and can’t do anymore, but then someone knocks, calls, texts and expects, demands, begs, pleads for just a little more. The boss wants one more report, the teacher wants one more assignment, the IRS wants one more dollar, the spouse wants one more hour spent alone, the child wants one more story before bed even as your own eyes are crossing with fatigue. What do you do when you can’t do?

So, Jesus begins. At the end of the disciple’s exhaustion, their physical, mental and spiritual limits, Jesus begins. He takes a boy’s lunch – five street taco sized pieces of flatbread and two hot-dog sized fish – and prays, giving thanks, blessing the food, and begins to break and share.  The work of God in Christ is not bound by the disciples limitations, or our limits, but by the overwhelming and overflowing compassion, mercy and grace of God in Christ Jesus. And there is plenty. And there is abundance. And there is nothing that the disciples had to do except gather the blessings that runneth over.

I began this by saying we’ve heard this 5000 times, with a dozen sermons left over. I’ve preached it probably five loaves times two fish, myself, and yet I’ve never thought of this until this week: we call this the miraculous feeding of the 5000. That’s a misnomer; that’s incorrect. I don’t mean that Mark says there were 5000 men, excluding women and children. No – that’s not it. Think again: Jesus doesn’t feed merely 5000 men; He feeds 5012. He feeds the disciples also, because He still has compassion and grace and mercy for those men as well. Those men, who have nothing left in the tank, those who are empty, those who have nothing left in themselves, Jesus fills them to full and overflowing so that they, too, were satisfied.

And, come to think of it, we shouldn’t even call it the miraculous feeding of 5012. It should be the feeding of the 5013…5014….5015…and on and on and on. He continues to feed you, when you’re at your end. When life is hard, and family life is anything but Brady-bunch esque; when relationships are a challenge and work is a burden; when health fails and when alone or frightened, and you just don’t know how you can take one more step, Jesus summons you to His side, to the green, grassy hillside of His church, and he invites you to sit and be fed, to hear His voice, the voice of the Shepherd who cares and has compassion for His beloved. When you’ve hit your limit and can’t do it anymore, Jesus comes to you and feeds you His body and His blood for the forgiveness of sins, the strengthening of faith in Him as your Savior, and the grace to lead a sanctified life of discipleship this side of heaven.

This isn’t just a miracle from 2000 years ago. It’s the miracle that continues to give.

5025...5026...5027...and on and on. 

In the name of Jesus. Amen.



Sunday, July 7, 2024

"I have called you by name, _______, and you are Mine!" - A Devotion for the arrival of Hurr. Beryl based on Is. 43: 1-2

If you cannot make it to church this morning because of Beryl, or if you are getting verklempt (if you aren't an old-school fan of SNL, this is Yiddish for "overwhelmed") I humbly offer this as a devotion this evening or tomorrow morning.

Isaiah 43: 1-3: But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.

When I began writing my sermon last week, Hurricane Beryl was still in the Carribbean. It’s now knocking on the front door of our coastline. Like many of you, I vacillate between “It’s gonna be OK,” and “I’m on the north side of concerned heading towards the south end of worried.” (For the record, this is mostly due to the 1st world problems, like potential of loss of electricity and AC, although I am concerned for my peach tree and how Reese, my wonder dog, will manage going to the bathroom. She hates doing her business when it's raining. But, I digress...) It’s a very humbling thing, isn’t it, to hear the predictions and see the video of the devastation it has already caused, and to know it’s heading this way.

In the Catechism, in reference to the forgiveness of sins, the pledge of the resurrection, and the connection with Christ as children of God, we ask the question of Baptism, “How can water do such great things?” As we look southward and watch our weather apps, the tone behind question is different: how can water do such great things? In the hurricane, we see the awesome and awful beauty of God’s creation that has been corrupted by sin. God did not create the wind to tear asunder; He did not create rains to flood; He did not create the seas to roar and foam. He does not desire that creation or mankind should suffer such effects. Yet, here we are – yet one more example, a powerful and frightening one – of how fallen the world is and how much we really do suffer this side of heaven.

I have told you before that I am a hand-wringer and a chin-scratcher. It’s easy for me to focus on the coast to the point of almost being overwhelmed. Perhaps you are like me – if not because of a storm, then something else.

To you, to me, Isaiah speaks: “But now.” Regardless what Israel faced, regardless what we face, the “But now,” of Isaiah cuts into all of that.  It snaps us out of our inward focus and turns our eyes to the Lord.

But now, says the Lord, He who created you, O Jacob, He who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are Mine. (Is. 43:1)

This short verse has three expressions about going through very difficult times: passing through waters, passing through the rivers, and walking through fire. For the people who heard Isaiah preach, it would have suggested their forefather’s journey through the Red Sea, the Jordan River, and the battles against God’s enemies. They would have recalled how God, in His great mercy, preserved Israel even in their greatest of distress. They would have remembered but also understood how it applied to their own suffering under the hands of the Babylonians and Assyrians: that God was with them, also, while they went through their own waters, rivers and fires.

For you, those words of Isaiah also stand as His promise for you, that in this time of uncertainty, God is with you, He will not let you be overwhelmed, He will not let you be consumed. “For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel,” he says, “Your Savior.”

Those last two words amaze me: Isaiah was preaching roughly 700 years before the Savior was born, but the promise of God was already as sure and certain as though Jesus was standing there with Isaish. That’s how certain God’s Word is: when He says it, you can believe it, even if the fulfillment is far, far away. God’s salvation of the world would be accomplished in the death and resurrection of Jesus, still seven centuries in the future for Isaiah, but it is already certain for Isaiah as if it had already happened.

When God gives His promise, it is never just a past-tense moment. God’s promises, given in the past, are always past, present, and future tense active and powerful.  And, because this is true, the promises of God, given to His people of old, still hold true for His people of every age – including today. So His promises, given to Ancient Israel some 2700 years ago, still ring true for you. But now, says the Lord, He who created you, O Zion, He who formed you, O Zion: Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine.” The difference is that Israel was waiting for their redeemer. We know He did come. His name is Jesus. His perfect life, ministry of word, death and resurrection are the seal that we are redeemed, rescued and saved. 

We had our own flooding moment when we were baptized in His name, the waters overwhelming satan’s curse, washing away our sins and Christ’s death and resurrection flowing over us.

I think that memorizing Bible verses is an important practice. Isaiah 43:1 and 2 are two of my favorites. Perhaps I am biased – let me tell you why. Isaiah 43:1 was my Dad’s confirmation verse back in 1957. Someone – I think my grandma - made my Dad a small banner with the words of the verse on it. But, they included Dad’s name in the verse, so it took the powerful truth of the verse and made it even more personal. It read this way: “Feat not, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, Walter, and you are mine.”

I tell you this because if you are feeling a little overwhelmed in the next 48 hours, or at any time in life, having those words in your mind will let you do this simple exercise for yourself.

Do this: read the first three verses again, out loud, and then say your name and tap your chest at the blank (to help you out, I have it printed like this, below). I know: if you’re a typical Lutheran, this is embarrassing. Don’t be embarrassed - that's the devil's work. But, if you simply can’t say it out loud, then mumble it or at least say it in your head. This is to demonstrate to you that the these perfect promises of God are perfectly delivered for you.

Fear not, _______, for I have redeemed you, _______; I have called you by name, _______; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you_______; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you, _______; when you walk through fire, you shall not be burned _______ and the flames shall not consume you, _______.  For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.

Think on these words in the hours and days ahead. As the storm rages, wind blows, and waters roar and foam, the Lord, your God is with you for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.

In the name of Jesus.


Our Suffering Leads to Jesus - 2 Cor. 12: 1-10

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The text is the Epistle lesson from 2 Cor. 12.

If you’ve been with us the last few weeks, we have been exploring the human condition as we suffer this side of heaven. We spoke of suffering from a guilty conscience and the healing power of absolution, the forgiveness of sins in Christ Jesus. We learned the power of sitting in prayer-filled silence. We wrestled with the question of “why does such suffering happen?” We spoke of how to lament, to express our suffering, in faith that the Lord hears our prayers and will answer in His own perfect way – even if it is not in our time or according to our desires.

If the last few weeks wrestled with the questions of why God allows suffering, congruent with why it seems God is sometimes silent in our cries for His help, today’s Epistle lesson speaks to how to live while struggling in this lifetime.

Before I get to that, I want to speak to two rather strange things that Paul mentions, things that you may have picked up on and want an answer to. The first is when Paul speaks of a man caught up in the third heaven. Frankly, we really don’t know. There is a lot of speculation that runs quite the spectrum. Personally, I think the man was none other than St. Paul and he is speaking of a heavenly vision that he had experienced, something akin to what John saw in the Revelation. The second brief point is Paul’s “thorn in the flesh.” Again, theologians are all over the place: some suggest physical ailments, like bad eyesight or some kind of body pain from what he physically endured as a disciple of Christ. Personally, I wonder if it wasn’t the memories of the Christians that he hunted down, prosecuted and murdered before his Damascus conversion. Paul knew he was forgiven, but perhaps he could not forget the names and faces. Again – we don’t know.

What we do know is that whatever this thorn in the flesh may have been, it was sent by Satan to keep Paul humble. Remember: God controls satan and God uses even the most heinous of evil for his purpose. This satan-delivered but God-allowed thorn in the flesh was so that the heavenly, beatific vision would not go to Paul’s head.

Without being trite, it must have been a terrific burden for Paul to have had this thing harass and bother him. You understand this, even if we don’t know exactly what it was. You, with your own struggles of life – physical, mental, emotional, spiritual – that you carry to the Lord in prayer. The family struggles, the dying marriage, the endless poking and prodding by needles, the creaking knees, the knife in the hip, the burning pain that won’t let you rest, the checking account that constantly runs low, the frustration you have with your child, the irritation at a friend who has become a ghost, the constant memory of that thing you did - you, like Paul, knowing you are forgiven but the memory remains, unedited, unchanged, unchanging.

These things, you daily, sometimes hourly, carry to the Lord in prayer, once, twice, thrice with Paul; lamenting with Jeremiah; asking “why” with Job; even seventy-times-seven, imploring God that your suffering might be eased and you might be released for the sake of Jesus Christ, that peace might be restored in your body, mind and spirit.

And, each time, instead of Job’s silence, you seem to hear the Lord saying “no.”

No. Why does the Lord, who is good and gracious, merciful and kind, loving and compassionate, why does He say no to this prayer – your prayer! – offered in faith that expresses your hurt, pain, concern and, yes, fear?

In this morning’s Gospel lesson, there is an interesting detail. Jesus goes to His hometown but, Mark notes, He could not perform any miracles. Why was that? Was it because the people of Nazareth lacked faith and the absence of faith prevented Jesus from doing miracles? Or was it that miracles are a reward for faith and with faith lacking, He found no reason to reward them?

Bring that back to your suffering for a moment and why God answers “no.” Is it because you lack faith? Is it because you are unworthy of such a reward? No. Neither is the case. First, Christ does not need you faith, or the faith of the people in Nazareth, to perform a miracle. He is God: a lack of faith does not stop Him. It did not stop Him on the Sea of Galilee, at Cana, or in His own Easter resurrection appearances. Likewise, while He calls doubters to stop being unbelieving and believe, they receive miracles as well. Remember: Thomas was not denied an Easter appearance!

So, if the answer isn’t somehow connected to our level of faith, if it isn’t a reward, then what is it?

Paul teaches that God’s no is used to demonstrate the all-sufficiency of God’s grace and power absent any power, strength or might we could possibly have.

We live in an anthropocentric time. We think the world revolves around us. Listen to how people talk and reference the unholy trinity of me, myself and I. “I’m offended, therefore you must change.” “You must listen to me.” “It’s my right to do, say or think whatever I want.”

His “no” pulls us away from ourselves, our perceived strength, our supposed abilities and recenters on Christ and Christ alone. It was true for St. Paul, whose strength was humbled by the thorn in the flesh. It was true for Job, whose wealth and power was humbled by wind, marauders, and illness. It was true for Jeremiah, whose very people were destroyed or taken captive. It is true for you who, made weak and humble, cling to Christ all the more dearly. And, when your strength gives out and you are not able to cling, Christ holds you, his beloved, near and dear to Him. 

He holds you in His nail-pierced hands. He, who had divine might, set aside His full divinity so that He could suffer at the hands of sinful men, becoming weak, even to the point of the most miserable death the world has ever seen. We use the word “excruciating,” some times to describe terrible suffering. Excruciating comes from the Latin, “ex crucis,” literally, “from the cross.” Those hands know suffering that is ex crucis. He, who was eternal, died in His flesh, was bured in a borrowed tomb, and whose temporal and spiritual enemy rejoiced in his death. It’s the strangest kind of victory, a victory that is earned by dying, but that is God’s way. He hides his power under weakness. But, those are the hands that redeemed the world in His death and resurrection, putting in place the beginning of making all things new. The day is coming when His power will be seen by every eye, a day when sorrows and sighing, tears and suffering will be laid to rest.

When I began writing this sermon, Hurricane Beryl was still in the Carribbean. It’s now knocking on the front door of our coastline, projected for Matagorda Bay. Like many of you, I vacillate between “It’s gonna be OK,” and “I’m on the north side of concerned heading towards the south end of worried.” [1]It’s a very humbling thing, isn’t it, to hear the predictions and see the video of the devastation it has already caused, and to know it’s heading this way. In the hurricane, we see the beauty of God’s creation that has been corrupted by sin. God did not create the wind to tear asunder; He did not create rains to flood; He did not create the seas to roar and foam. He does not desire that creation or mankind should suffer such effects. Yet, here we are – yet one more example, a powerful and frightening one – of how fallen the world is and how much we really do suffer this side of heaven.

I don’t know what the next 48 hours will bring for our area. Part of me wishes I did, because that’s the human nature: we want to know the unknown – what Gen. Chuck Yeager often referred to as the “ugh-known.” So, we, as God’s people, watch and wait. There will be various degrees of suffering, probably, from relatively minor inconvenience to much weightier losses and struggles. What I do know is that God promises that His power is made perfect in weakness and that in our suffering, His grace is sufficient. In the days ahead - and by this I don’t just mean the immediate days post-Beryl, but every day that is ahead – look to the grace of God. In His mercy, he does not give us what we deserve. Instead, we receive His grace, His compassion, love, and forgiveness. This is enough.

If the wind comes, and with it other kinds of devastation, loss and suffering, Christ is with you. His greatness covers your weakness.


[1] Dear reader: If I’m honest, I’m not really scared, just bothered by the pending inconvenience of loss of electricity, AC, etc. First world problems, right?

Sunday, June 30, 2024

Lamenting as Faithful People of God - Lamentations 3: 22-33

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

Last week’s Old Testament lesson placed us in the dust with Job as he argued his innocence and cried out to God, “Why?” We spoke about the challenge of sitting with someone who is hurting, grieving, struggling, and being silent while waiting for the Lord’s timing to speak, and then to speak with what we know of God’s grace and mercy, even in spite of what we see.

If last week we were taught how to sit with someone in their grief and sadness, today’s Old Testament reading from Lamentations teaches us how to lament.

I suspect most are not terribly familiar with the book of Lamentations. If you’ve ever read the book, you might understand why. If you’ve not read the book, the name itself, Lamentations, gives you a clue to its content with its root word, lament. A lament is a verbal description of suffering, affliction, and humiliation. It’s not whining, complaining just for the sake of complaining. It’s stating what is true. Lamentations describes that pain, no matter when or where it strikes. Simple examples are, “I am hurting,” “I am sad,” “This situation is causing me terrible anxiety.” A lament is not always a request for its removal; sometimes it’s a catharsis, an emotional dump, pouring out the pain of the soul.  

Lamentations is a tough, tough book to read and preach because it’s a book of lament. We don't like laments. We don't deal well with laments. We don’t like hearing them, we don’t like reading them, we might like watching them on TV, but only if the actors are attractive. But then, sometimes the movies get it right. In the movie The Princess Bride, when questioned by the mysterious Man in Black about the death of her fiancĂ©e, the Princess exclaimed, “You mock my pain!” Immediately, the Man in Black snapped, “Life is pain, highness.”[1] We would rather do almost anything than have to sit with someone who laments. I think that was the biggest part of Job’s three friends. And, if we’re honest, the same is true for us, at times, as well.

If you didn’t read Job last week, then tackle Lamentations this week. It’s much shorter – just five chapters. Read these Spirit-inspired words for God’s people and you discover this truth: suffering, and the Christian’s cries and prayers to God in the midst of that suffering, have no time constraints, because pain – emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual pain; pain for the self, pain for family, pain for the world in which we live – has no limit in breadth, width, depth or time. God’s people hurt – you hurt, often in secret, often alone because you don’t want to trouble anyone, because you don’t want to appear weak, because you are afraid to be that vulnerable to others. Others lament loudly and openly, both to those around us and to God.  

You hear it in the voice of Jeremiah, the Lamenter, as he returns to Jerusalem. “How lonely sits the city that was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she who was great among the nations! She who was a princess among the provinces has become a slave,” (1:1). The beauty of the city, the majesty of the city of David, the glory of the Temple of God was all gone and the people – God’s people, the people of Israel, the sons and daughters of Abraham – exiled into servitude. And Jeremiah laments.

But it’s not a mystery as to why this all happened. Jeremiah knows – even the people know! This has happened because of Israel’s unfaithfulness to God. “Jerusalem sinned grievously; therefore she became filthy…” (1:8a). The Lord had been gracious, holding back His own anger against His people, patiently calling them to repentance again and again through the mouths of the prophets. There were times of repentance and renewal, times of faithfulness, but then the pendulum would swing back, a little further each time, until the Lord declared it was enough.

And, make no mistake, it was the Lord who did this. “The Lord has afflicted her,” (1:5) Jeremiah said. We might not be comfortable with such language, that God caused an affliction, a punishment upon His people; we prefer to say God is passive in punishment, that He allowed it to happen. He makes no bones about it, that the Lord has brought about this suffering, chaos and destruction. The fire, the destruction, the death – He caused it all, giving Israel what was deserved for her sins.

You can almost imagine Jeremiah wandering through the city, walking through the once-proud walls, stepping over rubble, strewn pieces of pottery and long-dead fires, passing by skeletons left to be buried by the dust of the air because no one was there to cover them. He personifies the city: “Zion stretches out her hand,” he laments, “but there is none there to comfort her,” (1:17). And, then he comes to the high point of Jerusalem, to the pinnacle of Mount Zion where the Temple stood, the sacred Holy of Holies stands, ripped open and desecrated, the presence of God long since departed. “The Lord has become like an enemy; he has swallowed up Israel; he has swallowed up all its palaces; he has laid in ruins its strongholds, and he has multiplied in the daughter of Judah mourning and lamentation. He has laid waste his booth like a garden, laid in ruins his meeting place; the Lord has made Zion forget festival and Sabbath, and in his fierce indignation has spurned king and priest. The Lord has scorned his altar, disowned his sanctuary…” (2:5-6).

And, as Jeremiah turns and looks down the streets, and as he smells and hears and touches and even tastes the destruction in the air, Jeremiah laments, “Look, O Lord, and see!... In the dust of the streets lie the young and the old; my young women and my young men have fallen by the sword; you have killed them in the day of your anger, slaughtered them without pity,” (2:20a, 21b).

Most of us are of Germanic or Czech roots. We are notoriously stoic with upper lips that have been stiffened by generations of European and American stoicism. So, do yourself a favor. When you read Lamentations – and, again, I encourage you to do so; it’s so important that the Holy Spirit saw fit to include it’s brief 5 chapters in the Sacred Scriptures – when you read Lamentations, do it slowly. Do it deliberately. In fact, read it out loud, mumble it if you have to, without worrying what others might think, because that’s how ancient Hebrew poetry was meant to be utilized: out loud, so the words could be fully experienced, the feelings emoted, the pain and the grief they carry delivered to the soul.

I used to tell people who were struggling and suffering to NOT read Lamentations – they needed to read something more joyful, like the Gospel of John, or the book of Phillippians. I don’t do that anymore. I tell people who are wrestling with the hardness of life to read Lamentations, because it teaches us how to lament faithfully, as people of God. Wait, you say, we know how to lament; we do it all the time. But, do we? Conventional wisdom teaches us that lamenting is all about woe is me.  We’re good at wailing, whining, hollering, carrying on and pitching a fit to gain attention. But the object of this is often the unholy trinity of me, myself and I. The world’s idea of lamenting turns us inward, to try to find answers to our grief from within. But, if we look to ourselves in the depths of despair, our strength is about like sand in the water or dandelion puffballs in the wind: worthless, meaningless, hope-less. If my faith is based on my faith, and my faith is fading fast, that is not of much value. Even Jeremiah agrees: “My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the Lord.”

So, Jeremiah, with his Lamentations, he teaches us how to have hope in the midst of our afflictions, our suffering, our humility. Instead of pointing at me, myself and I for the answers to our sorrows, Jeremiah the Lamenter points us to God and to His promises. He laments to God, “Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall. My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me, but this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope…” (3:19-21), and then he speaks the words of our text.

Open your bulletin; look at these words with me, look where hope is placed.  Look at the words: steadfast love – whose love? The Lord’s! - it never ceases; mercies – whose mercies? The Lord’s - that never end; His mercies are renewed every morning; great is your faithfulness. Our translation next reads, “The Lord is my portion.” A better way to understand that is “The Lord is my everything.” The Lord is good to those who wait for Him, to the soul who seeks Him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. Over and over, Jeremiah points to God, turning, returning to God and what He knows of God and His goodness. The Lord may have caused this to happen to Israel, yet Israel’s hope is in none other than God and His love for His people.

Again, St. Paul will say that suffering produces character, and character produces hope. God uses suffering to purify His people, to restore His people, for His purpose. In suffering, everything else is stripped away, except Jesus. Christ is brought into sharp focus. Christ gives hope. That is the only hope. To have that hope in the midst of that kind of loss, when you’re wandering through the rubble, stepping over corpses, remembering what was and seeing what is, to have that hope takes faith of incredible proportions.

For Jeremiah, and the ones returning from Exile, it would be faith in the promises of God to come, even while standing among a destroyed city. Israel would have to wait, raising their lamentations for the salvation of the Lord. You and I, we sit, too: in our homes, in hospitals; sometimes in the office of a banker, or lawyer, or doctor; sometimes in a crowd but often in solitude; at the grave of a dearly departed, and we offer our laments. Don’t just cry out “woe is me,” and focus on your misery. Ground your lament in the hope of the One who not only hears, but who bore the laments of the world upon Himself. Jesus would sit alone in near silence, speaking only seven times from the cross, as the sins which caused the laments of the world were placed upon Him. He was whipped, beaten, and insulted, and exiled, He bore the wormwood on His shoulders and sipped gall from a raised hyssop branch while separated from His own Father. We hear our Lord’s own lament beginning in the Garden, “Father, if it is possible, take this cup from me,” culminating with “Ali, Ali, lamma sabacthani – My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

And, the Lord, “The Lord will not cast off forever,” (3:31). “It is finished,” remember? On the third day, the One who was cast off, cast down, and cast away was raised to life by the Father who once rejected Him. And, in accepting that sacrifice, and in giving His only begotten Son life again, we have hope, hope for life – life now, even in our laments, and life into eternity when we will lament no more. Jeremiah teaches us to lament, in hope, through faith in Christ Jesus who lamented for us and in whom we rejoice.

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him” (3:22-24). Those words, once spoken by a prophet in lament over a destroyed city, are now spoken by us. Those words and promises ground our life in times of lament, they form our worship with joy, they locate our witness to a world that does not understand, and they direct our hope, through faith, in Christ. And they remind us how good it is to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. Amen. 

[1] From The Princess Bride, c. 1987

Sunday, June 23, 2024

When "Why?" Has No Good Answer: Job 38: 1-11

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.  The text is the Old Testament lesson from Job 38.

A couple weeks ago, I told you that my favorite part of my job as a pastor is to help the Christian conscience be in a good relationship with God, to see him- or her-self as God sees them: holy and blameless in the death and resurrection of Christ, as baptized children of God.

If that’s my favorite part, one of the hardest parts of my job is to sit with the suffering child of God, the person wrestling with the hard things of life in this world. There is almost no end to the possibilities: physical, mental, economic, social, relational, spiritual, emotional; troubles for the self, troubles for a loved one, troubles about friends, family, neighbors, the world all around. How do you encourage someone whose life has been turned upside down by a test, a phone call, an ugly word, an “I do” that became an “I don’t”?

In times like this, the Christian often, and rightly, seeks answers, guidance, and help from the Scriptures. This is good; as God’s people, His Word is where we turn when we need His voice. One of those places often turned to in the Scripture in times of suffering is the book of Job, because suffering is the undercurrent that runs through the entire 38 chapters. It’s a long read, but it would be worth your time to spend a few hours and make that your Bible reading for the next week or so.

If you’re not familiar with Job, it’s a long narrative of a faithful man of God who had it all – large family, nice house, land, livestock, and great wealth – and then loses everything. We, the readers, are given insight in the first chapter of a cosmic, heavenly battle between Satan and God. Satan argues Job is faithful only because of the Divine protection around his material blessings, “Does Job fear God for no reason?” (1:9). God gives Satan permission to take everything from Job but his life, and satan proceeds to do just that. Mauraders kill the servants and run off with the livestock. His children are killed by a tornado that destroys the house they were in. His health is ruined by boils and rashes. Even though he argues his innocence and doesn’t deserve such a thing, Job’s existence becomes so miserable that very quickly Mrs. Job begs that her husband curse God and just die, already.

Along come three friends: Bildad, Eldad and Zophar. Job was in such terrible shape that when they first arrived, they didn’t even recognize their friend. What do you say to your friend who is in that kind of agony, misery and grief – so bad, you’re not sure who they are; so bad, they’re more dead than alive? They wept and raised their hands to heaven – presumably in prayer – and then covered themselves in sack cloth and ash, signs of empathetic grief and humility for their friend, and sat with him for seven days in silence.

Bildad, Eldad, and Zophar get full credit for sitting with Job for seven long and heavy days. It takes a lot of intestinal fortitude to sit with someone like Job who has lost so much, looks so miserable, and who doesn’t understand the “why,” and who cries out to God for help, for relief, for mercy. It’s hard, heavy, work to lament for them and to bear their lamentations with them. It’s hard to sit with someone you love, and it’s even harder and more humbling to admit that you have no answers, that there is no Easy Button, and that other than support and love, you cannot do the impossible and fix the problem, make it better.

But then, I guess the empathy started to grow thin, the novelty of camping outside in the dust got old, the sack cloth and ash started to chafe, and all of Job’s complaining and demanding his innocence – particularly in the face of such seeming evidence of guilt - finally got to them, because the three friends, who started off so well, became Job’s enemies. I suspect it was a combination of frustration at their friend’s situation, their inability to make it better, and his righteous indignation of innocence that the friends made the mistake of putting themselves in the place of God. They accused Job of secret sins and demanded Job repent. Because God punishes the wicked, they said, and Job was being punished, ergo: Job had to be guilty, he was getting what he deserved and, actually, he should be thankful because he probably deserved worse!  Elihu goes so far as to dare to speak for God, when he said, “Bear with me a little and I will show you, for I have something to say on God’s behalf. I will get my knowledge from afar and ascribe righteousness to my Maker, for my words are not false,” (36:2-3).

And, that’s where the friends sinned against both God and Job. While the child of God can speak certain things in God’s name and on His behalf, it is only what He gives us to speak. To the repentant, we can speak mercy, grace, and forgiveness. To the broken, we can speak of His love and certainty in the promises to care for those who are broken and beaten down. To the impenitent, we speak to call them to repentance, not under our judgement, but under the Word of God. What we cannot do, what we must not do, is speak where God is silent, no matter how uncomfortable this might be.

Job wants to know God’s “why?” This is the human condition. Why the wildfires in the Panhandle this spring, why a hurricane along the coast, why flooding in the Midwest, why did she get sick, why did he lose his job, why the world in conflict. In those infamous words, why can’t we all just get along? Zthese are fair questions. The Psalms often implore of God those great interrogatories: why this? When will you help? How long, O Lord? This is important for you to know, that in your Job-like moment, when the physical, mental, emotional, economic, social, personal, familial crisis comes, you – the baptized child of God – can, in good conscience, call out, cry out, yell to God with those questions. “I don’t know…I don’t understand…why?” It’s the interrogatory that goes with the supplication of faith, “Lord, have mercy.” It is not a sin to ask God for answers. The question acknowledges our plight and place in a fallen world and, looking in faith to God, trusting that He will hear our prayers for the sake of Jesus Christ and, in His own good, Fatherly way, answer our prayers for the sake of His glory and our temporal and eternal well-being.

Often, Christians speak of someone who is long-suffering as “having the patience of Job.” The irony is that when you sit with Job and read his narrative, you discover he is anything but patient. He demands of God that he is owed answers, that God should explain Himself to Job, and – most of all – he does not deserve anything of what has happened. No: don’t see Job as a mild mannered, well-behaved man who takes it all on the chin with quiet faithfulness. See him as a fiery, passionate soul whose open palms become fists raised to heaven demanding an audience with God. And that is where he overstepped. One can ask of God, but one cannot demand of God. One can plead with God, but one cannot base that plea on his or her innocence. One can look to the Lord for redemption, but one cannot argue that redemption is deserved because he or she hasn’t done anything wrong.

And, finally, after 37 chapters of Job’s demanding, God answers from a whirlwind. I wonder if this wasn’t the same kind of stormy wind that Ezekiel saw with swirling, fire-laden clouds, roaring with thunder and lightening, almost beyond human description. Job’s children were killed by a tornadic wind under satan’s control to tempt Job to surrender his faith. This whirlwind was the presence of God, and if the question in chapter one was “Does Job fear God?” this manifestation as about to put that question to the test as the voice of God calls out. “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you and you make it known to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding.” Over the next two chapters, God identifies Himself as the God of creation, Job as part of that creation. From the highest of mountains to the bottom of the sea, God knows all things and places each piece in its place, and cares for it as part of His creation – including Job.  Finally, God concludes, “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it.”

For the child of God who is suffering, as was Job, God’s speech is almost as hard as His silence. The rhetorical comments remind Job that He owes Job no answer to the questions asked. It would be very easy for Job, or for today’s Christian for that matter, to again raise angry fists at God and demand, again, that He just answer the question.

If God were to explain Himself to us – and He’s not going to – but if He were, we would not understand it, anyway. You want interrogatories? How would it be possible for creation to grasp the mind of the Creator? How could sinful man comprehend the holiness of God? How could mere mortals fathom that which is without beginning or end?

A moment ago, I said Job’s friends got in trouble when they dared to speak for a silent God. But, I also asked you the question, “what do you say to the child of God who is suffering terribly?” How do you answer when God Himself doesn’t answer the “why?”

Remember, the friends started out well. They showed up. That’s a great start. And, sometimes, silence is a good thing. You do not have to fill silence with words. In the silence, pray for wisdom, pray for knowing when to speak and what to say. Don’t offer cute, pithy sayings that sound good but aren’t. “God never gives you more than you can handle” is neither helpful nor Biblical. “He brought you to it, He’ll see you through it,” likewise isn’t great. Ask Job. Other things, while Biblical, may not be the right time or place. “All things work for good for those who endure,” might be true, but again, in the moment it may not be the best of timing. I’ll tell you this: rarely is there a silver word that makes everything OK. It often takes a lot of conversation to help.

So, if you can’t say those things, then what can you say? You humbly say, “I have no idea why God has done this, or allowed this to happen.” You don’t need to explain God or defend Him in that moment. It’s not your place. You speak of Jesus. You do so, something like this:

How could we begin to fathom the God who loved sinful man and fallen creation enough that He would surrender His only-begotten Son to redeem the world and all that is in it, restoring it to the holiness and perfection that He created it to be? Our “whys” aren’t the only one unanswered: That sinless Son of God, who was baptized to fulfill all righteousness, who lived in our fallen world, who remained holy and blameless, hung on the cross and cried out the most pure “why” of all time: “Why have you forsaken me?” That remained unanswered as well, as the full weight of God’s silence weighed down on Jesus, the one who was truly righteous. Our question of “why is this happening” is answered by the answer to another question: “How are we rescued?” Through Jesus.

You can say: God promises you again and again that because He is your Father in Heaven, He’ll be with you.  You weren’t there when God created the world, yet you can be sure that the One who created and sustains the world also holds you, His beloved child, in His hands.  You weren’t there when the oceans were set into place, but God promises you that spiritual and emotional oceans will never overwhelm you.  In the middle of the darkness of Sin and sorrow, Jesus stands as the light of the world.  He’s the one who promises us that the darkness will never overcome us because He endured it for us.

If you’re asked “How?” turn back to that wonderful mystery of the majesty of God. He knows things we don’t.  He knows the future like He knows the past and He knows how He’s going to work all the unanswered questions for our good.  We may not ever see it, it may not come to completion until the resurrection of all flesh, but He promises it.  He can create so certainly He can use evil for good and pain for pleasure.

You know this through faith.  It’s hard to take things on faith, we like answers and evidence, so God gives us answers and evidence in His Son Jesus Christ.  You can look to Jesus as the answer to all your questions.  He embraced pain and suffering for you.  Jesus’ lonely question, “Why have you forsaken me?” assures you that God will never forsake you as you walk through the valley of the shadow.  Christ walked there first, into it and through it, and now He’s there walking with you. 

And, then you tell your friend, “And, I’ll walk with you too. We’ll walk together, pray together, and cry together, and we’ll trust, together, that one day, God will our answer our “why” with His own voice.


Sunday, June 9, 2024

My Favorite Part of Being a Pastor Is... - Mark 3: 20-35

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

People will occasionally ask me what my favorite part of being a pastor is. Easy: it’s only working three hours a week on a Sunday morning and goofing off the other six and a half days in my shop. In all seriousness, my favorite part of being a pastor is the unseen part: helping soothe a troubled conscience so the Christian can rightly see him- or her-self before God. Sometimes, a conscience is burdened by the fallenness of the world, and I get to remind them of the peace we have as children of God, knowing all things are in His hands - even in the midst of the craziness of all the things going on around us - and finding joy in God’s working in the small things in life. Sometimes the conscience is burdened when someone who sinned against them, and I get to speak of what it looks like to deliver mercy, living as forgiven in Christ, while also trusting God’s justice will be done perfectly, even if it is not in our timeline or lifetime.

But, sometimes the conscience is terrified by what he or she has done in a moment of passion, of not thinking as a baptized child of God, surrendering to the old Adam or old Eve –  what the world might call “a moment of stupidity” – that they find themselves lost in despair. The spouse who had an emotional affair with a coworker, the student who lied to get another student in trouble just to get even, the alcoholic’s realization of how much their choices ruined relationships. All, confessing their sin, seeking a word – just a word – of grace, compassion and mercy.  This is my favorite part of being a pastor: to be able to speak that word of grace, hope and mercy that is theirs in Christ Jesus, to declare sins forgiven at the cross, and they are redeemed and beloved by the Father through the death of His Son.

This came up recently as I correspond with a person who is an inmate in prison. This person is from a different part of the country and has no connection to this congregation or community. This person, a faithful and baptized child of God, did a crime that has resulted in decades of imprisonment. This person’s life has been destroyed, family relationships shattered, work and social relationships gone, career wasted. This person feels totally alone, separated from loved ones and terrified that these sins are so terrible, so heinous that even God has turned His back. This person’s conscience is so burdened, so overwhelmed, so broken and beaten, that its as if Christ is invisible through the fog of their sins. What do you say to this person, who remains a child of God even behind bars, who thinks they have done the unforgiveable?

Strictly speaking, there is only one sin that is unforgiveable. Jesus speaks of it in this morning’s reading from Mark 3: “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness but is guilty of the eternal sin.” Much ink has been spilled and many words thundered about this terrible, terrifying possibility, with preachers placing an undue burden on the conscience of the child of God, leaving them to wonder if they are somehow damned. So, what is this sin? Simply, it is denying that one is a sinner who needs Jesus, the Savior of the World. It’s called blaspheming against the Holy Spirit because it is the Holy Spirit who enables the soul to believe in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. The Spirit calls and gathers people into the church to receive God’s grace and mercy, to be restored and made whole with God. The Holy Spirit sanctifies us, making us holy through Christ’s death and resurrection, by instilling in us the faith to confess Christ as Lord and trust that death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins. Sinning against the Holy Spirit is resisting against His calling, denying His holy work through stubbornness, arrogance, or plain foolishness of the unregenerate mind. It’s the unrepentant equivalent of the three monkeys, refusing to see their sins, refusing to hear they are sinners, refusing to confess they are sinners who need a Savior.

By definition, only a Christian is concerned about this sin, because only a Christian cares whether or not they are guilty of it! A non-Christian, like those three monkeys, does not care that they are sinning by such a denial. This was true of the scribes and pharisees who denied Jesus. They were too busy branding Him as being demon-possessed to believe He could save them. Its true of anyone today, including Muslims, Jehovah’s Witness, Mormons, Buddhists, and even Jews who deny Jesus as the Son of God, Savior of the World and regardless how hard they try, they cannot save themselves from their sins.  

In the 6th Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, we pray “Lead us not into temptation.” At first glance, that seems as if we are praying God preserves us from breaking, for example, the Ten Commandments. Yes, but I think it is a deeper temptation than that. In his Small Catechism, Luther teaches that the petition means, “that God would guard and keep us so the devil, the world, or our sinful nature would not deceive us nor mislead us into false belief, despair or other shame and vice…” Now, remember: satan means “father of all lies,” and his greatest deception is that we cannot be forgiven, the worst despair is that we are outside God’s grace, and the worst shame of all is to think that we have lost God’s love and we now belong to the evil one. This leans back into the 5th petition, “forgive us our trespasses.” Notice: not “forgive us some, many, or a few” – there are no qualifiers at all – but forgive us all our trespasses. Don’t fall into the deception that this means the socially acceptable sins, the polite sins, the little ‘uns that, relatively speaking, wouldn’t make the front page of the Mission Valley gossip section. When we pray, “forgive us,” we also mean the nasty stuff, the things that are so embarrassing that the devil dances with glee, the stuff that you can only hope never sees the light of day, the things you try not to even think of, the sins that satan twists the conscience to say, “forgive us out trespasses, but not this one.” Those are the sins we speak of in the Lord’s Prayer.  Forgive me for those sins, Father, for the sake of Christ Jesus and His death on the cross for my salvation, and let me not be tempted to think anything else than that they are fully and completely washed away from me in His blood. And, as the same time, it leans forward into the 6th petition, “deliver us from evil,” where, Luther says, we pray the Lord rescues us from every evil of body and soul, and to which I would add “and mind,” preserving in us the baptismal promise that we are, indeed, His beloved children.

And, you want to know what’s funny – when the penitent soul recognizes that he or she has sinned against the Holy Spirit, that until that moment he or she had been denying His work of creating faith, of believing Jesus as Savior, of trusting Jesus forgives completely without his or her merit or worth outside of Christ, and when that soul repents, confessing and trusting solely in the merits of Christ’s death on the cross, in that moment, even that unforgiveable sin is forgiven. Christ died for sinners, remember, without qualification of quantity of quality. That man who was crucified next to Jesus had cursed the Savior all day, but in his 11th hour, turned and confessed the innocence of Christ, pleading to be remembered by the Lord. “Today –“ not when you get yourself squared away, when you prove yourself worthy, when you show me just how sorry your are – “today, when you can’t do anything about it except trust I will forgive you, today, you will be with me in paradise.”

Faith is a remarkable thing. Because it is a gift of God, it does not rely on our strength at all. In fact, in some ways, a weak faith, a quantitively small faith, a faith that is empty of anything and everything except the hope (capital H!) of Jesus is the greatest faith, because everything else is stripped away. “Life narrows down, and crisis comes. Suddenly, only one thing matters, and there, in the narrow place, stands Jesus.”[1] This faith, the small faith, the weak faith, the crushed and bruised faith, that clings to Christ alone is great because its strength rests in the strength of Christ’s faithfulness in the redemption of the world. “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling,” we sing. King David, when confronted with his adulterous and murderous sin against Bathsheba and Uriah, her husband, confessed how terrible his sins were against both God and man. Yet, he was able to pray, “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps. 51:17) Isaiah, speaking of the Servant (whom we know to be Jesus), writes “a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench” (Is 42:3).

So, back to the question: what do you say to the child of God who is despairing, convinced that he or she has committed this terrible sin against the Holy Spirit? To the point, what do I say to this person, this child of God who is free in Christ even while imprisoned behind walls and bars?

Here’s what I wrote:

“You are a great sinner; Jesus is a greater Savior. You are guilty, yet Christ has set you free. Your sins deserve punishment; you are paying the price temporally, but Christ paid the eternal price. You may be abandoned by those whom you love but God will not abandon you. Jesus suffered that on the cross for you. Your faith may be small and it may be weak, but it rests in the nail-pierced hands of Jesus who will neither crush nor break you; instead, in your weakness, His strength is made perfect. If you feel you can’t hang on, He clings to you, His beloved lamb, and holds you close.

Then, I closed my letter with this: And, the same promise that was delivered to you in your baptism, is delivered to you today. As a called and ordained servant of the Word, I announce the grace of God to you. In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Depart in peace: your sins are forgiven. Do you believe this?”

My prayer is, that when I receive this person’s next letter, it begins with the prayer, “Yes, I believe…help my unbelief.”

[1] Arnold Kuntz in Devotions for the Chronologically Gifted, St. Louis: CPH, © 1999; p. 46

Sunday, June 2, 2024

Keeping the Holy Day Holy - Deuteronomy 5: 12-15

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

The Third Commandment: “Observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you.”

When the Church gathers to hear the Word of God and receive His gifts on a Sunday morning, in the strictest sense, we break the Third Commandment. When the Church gathers to hear the Word of God and receive His gifts on a Sunday morning, in the fullest sense we keep the Third Commandment. We break it on Sunday; we keep it on Sunday. That, my friends, is the Third Commandment paradox.

In Deuteronomy, Moses delivers God’s Word that sets apart the Sabbath – what we call Saturday, the 7th day of the week – as a day of rest to “remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God brought out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.”  Sabbath wasn’t about resting, per se, it was about resting from work so they could intentionally remember God’s redemptive work of rescuing Israel from the hands of the Egyptians, sanctifying and setting them apart from all the other peoples of the ancient world of Canaan to be His and for Him to be theirs.

The release from Egyptian slavery resulted in rest from slave labor for the entire nation – Israelites, slaves, resident aliens, even animals all received the benefit of rest from their labors. No other people had such a day of rest. Throughout Canaan, every other nation worked seven days. This Sabbath-rest further distinguished God’s people, even in their pattern of work and worship, from other peoples. Surely the Canaanites, Jebusites, Hivites, and others noticed the Sabbath rest of Israel and probably were envious that the God of the Israelites blessed them even in their rest.

What began as a day set apart to remember God’s rescuing them from Egypt, slowly began to evolve into a day to show how well Israel was keeping the commandment, Instead of a Sabbath day of rest for remembrance of receiving God’s grace and mercy, Sabbath Law became a measure of bragging about obedience in Sabbath-keeping. Instead of celebrating God’s redeeming work, the people of Israel reveled in their own keeping of the law. The 3rd and 4th Commandment, “Honor your father and mother,” are the only commandments given in the positive with “you shall” instead of “you shall not,” it was “You shall.” But the human rules turned the positive into the negative, creating thirty-nine main actions, each having hundreds of subsidiary sections. It was no longer about observing the Sabbath in remembrance and holiness; it was about how successful Israel was in not breaking the commandment in minutia.

This conflict with man-made rules often put Jesus at odds with the religious leaders of His day. In this morning’s Gospel reading, the Pharisees were quick to point out the letter of the law, that Jesus and his disciples were “harvesting grain” by picking some grain to munch on while walking. Harvesting was banned, and according to the expanded rules, picking a few grains to eat was breaking Sabbath Law. Jesus cites King David, who ate the Bread of Presence from the Tabernacle because that was the only food available for he and his warriors. Then, He silences their claims by reminding them of what Sabbath was for: rest in the presence of God and His promises. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

It was a foretaste of what was to come. When Jesus would enter into the Synagogue on Sabbath, He would do so to teach and proclaim the Word of God in that place. His preaching was fulfilling the Law, and it was allowing the people present to join in sanctifying the holy day with worship, prayer, and hearing the Word. Jesus made the day holy by healing, destroying and undoing the fallenness of the world, and in His own Exodus moment, setting the physically, medically captive free from that which bound them. Jesus fulfilled the Law and the Prophets perfectly by being the liberty-giving Messiah whom the Law and prophets proclaim. He kept God’s Law perfectly while shattering the foolishness of man’s rules. This was called Jesus’ active obedience. Jesus also kept God’s Law passively. When the Jewish leaders finally had enough of Him and His rebelling to their rules and regulations, they set Him up, arrested Him and killed Him. The irony was, they had to hurry everything up because Sabbath was quickly approaching. We can’t be caught killing a man on Sabbath, now can we – that might be work, making us guilty of our own rules. After He breathed His last, a Pharisee named Nicodemus, along with Joseph of Aramathea, both who were convinced Jesus really was Messiah and not just a rebel, took Jesus from the cross and buried Him.

And, on the Sabbath, to complete and fulfill the Law, Jesus rested in the grave from all His labor of fulfilling God’s plan of salvation for us.

At the beginning of this sermon, I said when the Church gathers to hear the Word of God and receive His gifts on a Sunday morning, in the strictest sense, we break the Third Commandment. We break it because we worship on Sunday, not Sabbath (Saturday). But when the Church gathers to hear the Word of God and receive His gifts on a Sunday morning, in the fullest sense we keep the Third Commandment. With the commandment completed in Christ’s rest, we are freed in Christ’s resurrection to gather, worship, remember Christ’s saving work for us in His perfect keeping of the Law and in His perfect death; to receive His gifts in Word and Sacrament, and to join together as the body of Christ in loving care and support of each other. We are now free, in Christ, to worship any day; we are free in Christ to worship every day. Early on, the Church chose Sunday for the day of corporate worship because it was the day the Lord rose from the grave – Easter Sunday. It was also the beginning of the week – what better day to begin the week than in the Lord’s house? It was the day of Pentecost, the birth of the Christian church, and the early church gathered each Sunday in celebratory remembrance. We follow that pattern, worshipping on Sunday, and in doing so, gathered around Word and Sacrament, we keep the Third Commandment in the fullest sense of the term.

We keep it on Sundays, not to avoid work, but to remember the promises of God fulfilled in Christ Jesus. We gather, on Sundays, not to get out of vocational responsibilities, but to be enlivened in Christ to do our vocations faithfully. We gather on Sundays, not to escape the world outside these walls, but to be encouraged as we engage the world outside these walls. WE celebrate on Sundays, not to pretend we are better than anyone else, but we recognize that we are sinners for whom Jesus died, both now and into eternity.

Today’s temptation is the 180 degree opposite of the ancient Israelites. They kept the Sabbath to show themselves as worthy law-keepers. Today, we dismiss the Sunday-Sabbath for worship entirely. We go to the Lord's house, disengaged and not listening to what is being preached, read, prayed, and sung. We fail to keep the Commandment when we don't believe the Word of God as powerful words for today, dismissing it as irrelevant, for "someone else at another time," and no longer necessary. So, people say, “Why should I go to church – I can worship God on the golf course, or in the Bay, or at the ballfield.” Absolutely! You are freed in Christ to worship wherever and whenever you choose…but, do you? Do you worship God with other brothers and sisters in Christ, with Scripture and song and prayer (and by prayer, I don’t mean “please let me sink this put,” or “let me catch the big one,” or “let my kid strike this batter out.” I mean prayer grounded in the Word, praying as Christ prayed for the church)? Or are these dismissive excuses for not going to church? Let’s be honest: a reason is a fact; an excuse is an emotional justification. Reasons are slim; excuses are plentiful, abundant and easy – and satan loves to fill our ear with his lies. It’s funny…I’ve never had a person who is elderly or shut-in offer a single excuse for missing church, but I have had them weep at the reasons they are not able to attend.

If you’re too busy to remember the Sunday-sabbath, push back against the excuses. Push back against the ball games and practices. Push back against the “to do” list. Push back against Sunday morning lazies. Push back against the notion that sitting on the couch in PJs and Cap’n Crunch is the same thing as being among the saints receiving the Body and Blood of Christ. (NB: I’m speaking of the excuse to not be at church, not the reason that keeps you away. If you’re sick, stay home. If you don’t want to put on your Sunday best, whatever that might be, that’s an excuse.) Repent of listening to the excuses. Repent and get yourself up, out the door, and make haste to the Lord’s House. It’s His house. He’s the host. He’s present in Word and Sacrament for you. He welcomes you with open arms. Don’t refuse His invitation.

A word for those who work on Sundays: I get it – remember, I work on Sundays, too. Make another day your Sabbath day for resting and remembering the work of God in Christ Jesus – not just to rest, but to rest in Christ. Perhaps it’s a Tuesday evening or a Thursday morning. Set aside a block of time for deliberate and intentional interaction with the Lord in the Scripture, with prayer, and with hymns. Load up Sunday’s service on Facebook and listen to the readings and sermon, sing with the hymns if you know them. Come to Wednesday evening Bible study for time in the Word and time with brothers and sisters in Christ. IF you find yourself missing multiple Sundays and you are hungry for the Lord’s Supper, give me a call – I’ll meet you at your home, in my office, or here in the Sanctuary, just the two of us (or bring your family!), and we’ll have the Sacrament together. I treasure my Sundays off when I get to sit in the pew with my family and to be fed and nourished together. I can only assume the same for you.

And, when you arrive to remember the Sunday-Sabbath, or the Thursday-Sabbath, or the Wednesday-Sabbath, or whenever your Holy Day may be, remember that you were a slave sin, death and the devil, and the Lord your God brought out from there with His mighty hand and an outstretched arm that had been nailed to the cross.