Tuesday, December 21, 2010
Monday, December 13, 2010
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Tuesday, September 21, 2010
Monday, September 13, 2010
Monday, July 26, 2010
A pastor told this story about a church picnic his congregation put on: One of the senior member of his church had been out of town when the plans were being made and she hadn't been informed about the festivities. Only the night before did the pastor realize the oversight and he quickly gave the lade an apologetic call. Brushing aside his regrets with a cold reception, the lady replied, “Don't say you're sorry to me, Reverend. It won't do any good. I've already prayed for rain.” The confidence that this old lady showed in her prayers, though slightly misguided is the same confidence that God would have us show in our prayers. It is a confidence that when we pray we are not talking to a brick wall. I think the wives might understand what I'm talking about. Don't you Kristin? We do not need to feel that we are talking aimlessly on the phone with no one to hear us or answer us. Rather we can be confident our heavenly Father has
promised to hear us when we pray, that He will give us what we ask for and that He will take care of us.
In our Gospel reading today, Jesus reveals to us the love that God has for us by pointing us to God the Father, who, unlike the friend in the parable, wants us to come to Him persistently. Jesus shows us a God who wants to come to Him at all times, being persistent in what we ask for in prayer.
Jesus tells us a parable in which a man finds himself in need of food when an unexpected friend comes to visit him. In the middle of the night he's desperate, all the stores are closed and the only option left to him is to seek the help of a friend. He says, “Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of min has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him” (v. 5-6). Now in a society where all the food must be baked in the home from scratch and where the entire household slept in one room, this was a gigantic, almost unrealistic request. It would be like a friend of yours asking for $3000 in the middle of the night, it is practically impossible to fulfil. But Jesus tells us that because of the man's persistence in asking, his friend “will rise and give him whatever he needs” (v. 8).
Through this parable, Jesus reveals to us a loving heavenly Father who wants us to come to Him continually. We are the man seeking aid, and He is the friend whom we seek, and who has promised to help. As Jesus says later, “ask, and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you” (v. 9). Yet the uncertainty of this world can lead us to doubt that God truly does want to be persistent in our prayers. Because after all, common experience says that asking for something time after time after time gets very annoying and can be very irritating. And if their's one guy that I don't want to get irritated it's God! After all, God's a busy man! I don't want to bother Him with the same thing over and over again. And there are time when we do come to God in prayer consistently over the same problem and we have yet to see any proof that God is listening, so what's the point? Why should I keep coming to God in prayer when He doesn't seem to be doing anything for me?
Last week we hear how God will keep His promises and answers prayers in His time, and sometimes that can be a long period of time. And during that time, we might begin to wonder if, maybe, we're doing something wrong! Perhaps I'm not praying enough, perhaps I'm not saying the right things, or perhaps my prayer just aren't good enough. Instead of trusting in God's promise to always hear our prayers, we ask what we must do so that we can earn God's favour and make Him give us what we want. But if it's a matter of doing things just perfectly, then you can totally forget trying to pray, because in our sinful flesh we will never be able to do it absolutely perfectly. If it depended on us, our prayers would never be good enough, they would never even deserve God's attention. In our sinful flesh, there is nothing that we could do to earn or deserve the grace that God has given us.
Thanks be to God that it does not depend on us. For through the sacrifice of God's Son, Jesus Christ, our sins are covered over by His righteousness and we are made perfect in God's eyes. Through God's Word, the news of Jesus Christ given for you, you have received the Holy Spirit, who works in you so that you might trust and cling to the promise that your heavenly Father gave to you. There is a movie about C.S. Lewis and his struggles over his wife's battle with cancer, and at one point Lewis is talking to no one in particular and says, “I don't pray so that I might change God. Prayer changes me.” That is why we are invited to pray constantly and persistently. For through our prayers God works in us to grow and strengthen our faith in Him and His promise. God's promise is more than just a promise that He will hear you whenever you pray, but that “whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive” (Matt 21:22). In First John we hear that “this is the confidence that we have toward Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we asked of Him” (5:14-15).
Does this mean that absolutely anything that you ask God for, you are going to get it? Not necessarily. In the verse from 1 John, which I quoted earlier, we hear “that if we ask anything according to His will He hears us.” But what does that mean?
In the parable, the man asked his friend for the three loaves that he needed to feed his travelling visitor. It was something that was absolutely essential. Later on, Jesus compares the care that our heavenly Father gives to us to the care that fathers among us give to their very own children. “What fathers among you, if your son asks for a fish, will instead give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?” (v. 11-12) No father, or mother, here would ever refuse to give their child something that they needed everyday of their life. Those things that we need each day are the things that God would have us ask for in prayer. We can be confident that God will give us what we need each and every day of our lives so that “all things work together for good” (Rom 8:28).
Yet it is so hard to distinguish what we need for daily living, from the things that we want. Our sinful flesh constantly drives us toward wanting more stuff and away from God's will and being content in that blessings that He has given us. It has been the problem ever since Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden of Eden, our sin has driven us to reject God's will and put our own will in His place. When you go down to the shopping centre, it doesn't take you very long until you hear and find a child wailing and screaming, maybe even kicking, in an attempt to force his parents to get him some flashy new toy or candy that has caught his eye. Despite the love and care that that child has received from his parents, he will be absolutely set on getting his way and satisfying his own selfish wants. We are exactly like that child, demanding that it be my way or the highway. We will set up an idol in our own wants and desires and kick and scream when we find that they are out of our reach. The child with a temper will blame his parents for not getting him what he wants, and we blame God for not getting what we think we need. Rather than make our mantra in prayer, “Not my will, but Your will be done” we will want to go on our own way and leave God behind.
Yet even though our sinful flesh constantly rejects Him and follows its own evil desires, God still sends His great gifts to us. “If you then, who are evil,” Jesus says, “know how to give good gifts to your children (such as daily needs), how much more will the heavenly Father (who is perfect) give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him” (v. 13). Through His gift of the Holy Spirit, God works in you so that you are led to know God's will and are empowered to reject your own sinful, selfish ways. St. Paul writes in Romans that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Holy Spirit intercedes for us with groaning too deep for words!” (Rom 8:26) By the work Holy Spirit we are made to see and praise God for all the ways that He provides for our daily needs. But more importantly we are shown how our Father has provided for our forgiveness. For when we do fail and follow the lusts of our flesh, the Holy Spirit brings us back to the cross of Christ, where we receive the forgiveness that He won for us. It is in the cross that we receive the guarantee of eternal life in heaven, given to us by our loving Lord and Saviour.
At times it can be hard to trust that God will always hear our prayers, or that He will give to us what we need for this daily life and for the good of all those who love Him. At times this world can seem so uncertain and our selfish desires so powerful that we might begin to doubt if someone is really on the other end of that conversation. I must confess, that for the longest time my prayer life was not as strong as it should have been. It was rather weak, and it was not until about a year ago that I developed a stronger, healthier prayer life. But God worked through one person in particular whose faith and devotion to her Lord would often humble me and put me to shame. She would admonish me and encourage me to strengthen my prayer life through daily prayer. That one person would be my wife, Kristin. I offer her as an example, not because she should be praised, she is after all a damnable sinner. I'm sorry honey but you're not perfect. But just as we are to imitate the faith of all those saints who have gone before us, I mention Kristin so that her faith and devotion can be imitated. For it is a faith that trust, a faith that clings to the promise of her heavenly Father: that He will take of her, and all of us, from this forth, and even forevermore.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Friday, July 2, 2010
I'm sure you've all heard the phrase, “If the world had a little more love, it would be a much better place.” If not then perhaps you've heard of John's Lennon's song which exclaims, “All you need is love!” Or there's also the more generic and much more recent phrase, “Where's the love?” We spend so much time looking for love, we want to be loved, we need to be loved, which might be why so many songs are about love and finding love. But no matter how much love we seem to find in our lives, we can turn around and find that the world is just as hard, ruthless and loveless as it was before. I think we can all agree that the world could do with a little more love, but love is not the only problem. In the Epistle reading today, Paul is writing to the churches in Galatia and points to a different problem that affects the world as our selfish flesh is more concerned with my needs, wants and desires, rather loving and serving my neighbour. Instead, Paul describes a love that we only find in our loving Father God and His Son Jesus Christ. And it is a love that only He can give to us.
I. Paul describes this love in verse 13 when he says, “For you were called to freedom, brothers, only do not use your freedom for incentive to the flesh, but through love serve one another.”
A. Love and service, these two things go together, but its also much stronger than that. The Greek word that is translated as serve has a much stronger meaning, that being “slave.” Through love be slaves to one another. Now, what does it mean to be a slave? A slave is one who, either by force or of his/her own will (though usually by force) gives everything she has over to her master. All that belongs to the slave, even their rights, belong to their master, in order to serve him. Paul describes this love again in his letter to the Ephesians when He says, “Submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21). Because of our faith in Christ, who gave Himself over for us, we submit ourselves to one another, so that we may “bear one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2).
II. Yet we can not help but recoil when we hear about such a “sacrificial” love. “For the desires of the the flesh are against the Spirit,” Paul says. Our very own flesh is held captive to sin so that, “nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. . . . For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Rom 7:18,19). But rather, this is a love that God works in us through the workings of the Holy Spirit.
A. We in our sinful natures are selfish beings, caring nothing for anyone else but only caring for what we want, when we want it. If you want to see some of the most selfish and demanding human beings on earth look no further than a newborn baby. Just three weeks ago, my sister gave birth to a baby boy named Noah, and if he begins to feel uncomfortable, he demands that the problem be fixed right now! It does not matter what time of day it is, what Mom is doing or what is happening around him, if he wants it, he must get it. Mom, I'm hungry! Mom, I'm cold! Mom, I'm gassy! Mom, I have a poopy diaper, change me! Night or day, it doesn't matter, Noah is going to get what he wants. This is not a learned behaviour, but started the very day he was born, and it is a behaviour that you and I have practised ever since we were born. The Bible says, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). We have all been infected with this fault, what is called original sin, ever since the day Adam and Eve fell into sin and separated us from God.
B. But it is in Christ that we have been set free from our sinful condition. Out of His love for us, Christ came to earth, wrapping Himself in flesh and giving up all that He had for you. The letter to the Philippians states that Christ, “though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant” (Phil 2:6-7). In His suffering and death on the cross, Christ gave up all that He had and allowed Himself to suffer and die for you, so that you might be set free from sin. Through Christ's sacrifice for us on the cross, God shows us the love that He has for us, a love that lowers Himself to die on the cross. We hear again from Philippians that “He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). It is this kind of love that we should show to others, a sacrificial love of putting others first. Christ saved us by this love and now teaches us to serve other with that same love as we bring our families and children, our neighbours and friends to hear His Word so that faith may be created in their heart and they too may be saved from their sin.
III. Christ has set us free from sin, and by His sacrifice there is no sin that is too great that it can't be forgiven. Yet Paul warns the churches in Galatia, and us as well, that this freedom does not allow us to indulge in every sinful desire we have, but to devote ourselves to the love and service of one another.
A. And yet so often, we do not live in loving service of one another, but rather engaging in behaviour that is described in the text, “But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another” (v. 15). Though forgiven, we still live in this sinful flesh and ignore God's command to love and serve one another, and instead we begin to look out for ourselves. When I see a friend of mine who has more wealth and possessions than I do, I won't want to help him maintain his wealth and protect his possessions, but instead I'll get jealous. I want what he has for myself, I might get a little angry knowing that he's been blessed far more than I have, I'll set up an idol in my friends wealth, working day and night to get that wealth rather than being content in what God has already given me. My jealousy and anger might cause a rivalry between me and my friend and bring about a division that can not be healed. Some of the best storylines in Star Trek, is for the adventuring heroes to come across a society that has destroyed itself in war over their own lust for wealth, status and possessions. Our sin works in much the same way. We can be so selfish that we hurt others and cause our relationships to break down, rather than doing what is best for each other and perhaps foregoing what we might want.
B. Through faith in God, and trusting in His promise, we receive forgiveness of our sins and the righteousness of Christ that reconciles us to God. In this, we are made His children and are now free to reject the works of the flesh and serve one another. For we are told that “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (v. 24) and again “our old self was crucified with Him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (Rom 6:6). And now, having been freed from sin, God works in us and cares for us so that this love, which we can not show on our own, can grow in our hearts and show through our actions. When we were visiting my sister, there came a time when Noah got fussy, he had grown hungry and demanded the attention of his mother, who had gone out for a short time. So my father, whom the grandkids call “Papa,” took Noah in His arms and began to bounce him. Noah settled down almost immediately and fell back asleep, but as Papa bounced his grandson I noticed that it looked as though Noah was nodding. As if to say, “Yes, Papa, I'll go to sleep now. Yes, Papa, even though I'm hungry I'll settle down and wait for Mom.” In much the same way, God has us in His arms, caring for us and nodding our heads so that we might say, “Yes, Father, I will love my neighbour. Yes, Father, I will serve my neighbour and reject my own selfish desires.”
C. In this way, God works in us to bring forth love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—the fruits of the Spirit. Jesus describes this work of our heavenly Father as a vinedresser when He says, “Every branch in Me that does not take fruit He takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit” (John 15:2). Through His Word and the sacraments, God works in us to strengthen our faith and to care for us, so that we may show these fruits to one another. God works through others around us, our families and friends, to support us in love and to provide us with all that we need each day of our life. God works in us so that as we show the love that He has fostered and grown in our hearts, we might confess to the world of His love and grace in the freedom offered to them in His Son, Jesus Christ.
In Jesus Christ's suffering, death and resurrection God has shown the world the love that He had for us, so that we might be freed from the sin that dwells in our flesh. In our text today, Paul commends us to show that same love to one another so that we might give ourselves over in loving service of our neighbour. Yet our sinful nature often gets in the way with its selfish desires that are constantly trying to pull us away from God and His plan for us. But Christ has freed us from the bondage of sin and has made us new creations, no longer bound by sin and the Law, but under His grace, which carries us and cares for us. And through His work in us, we are empowered to show that love to one another, and to all the world. Through our love and service to one another, God works through us to show His gracious mercy and the freedom that we received through the cross.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
In my first year of university, I volunteered to go on the Concordia Mission Trip during Reading Week. Some of you might remember me trying to raise funds for the travel costs of the trip, oh so many years ago. There were many times during that trip that I was taken out from where I was comfortable to be around people that I never would have chosen to be around on my own. At times the smell of alcohol was hard not to notice, and other times it was clear that their head was not working as well as it should have been. Despite attempts to show that I cared, I found myself wanting nothing more than being allowed to go so that I could move on to something that I was sure that I could be a little more comfortable with.
The events that we hear about in the Gospel reading for today, must have made the disciples uncomfortable to say the least. They had joined Jesus on his sailing trip across the Sea of Galilee, they had even witnessed Him rebuke the waves and calm the storm that threatened their lives. They were there, yet the fact that they are absolutely invisible throughout the telling of these events is a testament to their discomfort throughout this whole ordeal. Jesus has brought them out of their home in Israel, where they were quite happy to stay, and into completely foreign and Gentile land. These were not God's chosen people, certainly Jesus hadn't come for them! And then, Jesus begins to talk to this dirty, naked, absolutely disgusting man. This man is the lowest of the low, the social reject, the scum of the earth. If you don't want to touch the Grinch with a nine and a half foot pole, the disciples wouldn't want to touch this guy with a twenty foot pole. We've all felt that way at one time or another, and not just around those less fortunate in society. But also around those who just seem to look awkward, maybe lack some of the social graces that we take for granted and just can't help but feel uncomfortable around. The disciples probably wanted Jesus to rebuke this man just as He had rebuked the waves and let them move on, or maybe even turn around and get back into the boat for more familiar territory. Yet this is the man that Jesus has mercy on, this is the one who garners His loving and healing attention. Christ comes to the unclean and cleanses.
I. When the disciples would have nothing to do with this man, Christ has mercy on Him. This man is one of the most deserving of being destroyed. He is outside of God's chosen people, he is possessed by demons and does all manner of gross and despicable things. Yet Jesus uses this incident to show the disciples, and us as well, how their ministry would continue in the world after He left them.
A. Jesus doesn't destroy this man, but rather has mercy on him. Not only does Jesus save the man, He even has mercy on the demons. Rather than punishing them for corrupting what He has created good, Jesus relents from the punishment that they are destined to endure when Jesus returns and rather allows their wish to enter the herd of pigs. But in this cleansing act, Jesus also frees this man from the affliction that the demons had placed upon him. Not only is he clothed once more, and back in his right mind, restored to what he once was, he is also made a disciple. Through the cleansing and healing that this man has received from Christ, faith is created in his heart and he becomes one of Christ's followers. This man becomes a new avenue for the Gospel to be proclaimed to the world, showing the disciples that salvation is not just for a select few but for all the world.
II. “For God so loved the world” (John 3:16) Jesus says. It's not just a select few, or those that we think deserve it or “fit the bill,” but all the world. Yet so often we have our own notions of who should hear the message that God has given us to share. Usually they should look like us, dress like us, talk like us or even something so vain as make as much money as we do. At the very least they should make us feel comfortable to be around. We focus so much on the visual part of things that we forget that we too are just as dirty and disgusting with sin as the man that Jesus met. We forget that in our sinful flesh daily need God's mercy and are just as doomed to torment and death. Rather than defend my neighbour, “speak well of them and interpret everything they do in the best possible light,” as I'm told to do in Luther's explanation to the eighth commandment, I might start to spread lies and gossip. “You know what will happen if they get in here don't you?” The Old Testament reading for today pulls no punches as Isaiah describes Israel's sins when he quotes Yahweh, saying “I spread out my hands all the day to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices; a people who provoke me to my face continually” (65:2-3). Our sinful natures turn us away from God and direct us on our own path. God tells us to preach to all the world, despite race, gender or status, but I don't really like that, so that must not be what it means and I'm not going to do it! We're like teenagers, ignoring everything that our parents, teachers or anyone in authority teach us, because we know what's best for us and no one is going to tell us otherwise. Jesus says that, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself,” and yet we decide that what's best is for them to stay far, far, away over there and me and my friends, those I'm comfortable with will stay over here. We set up our own twenty foot pole, to separate from those that we would rather not have to deal with. “Keep to yourself,” we shout to those who we deem to be unfit, unclean and unworthy, “do not come near me, for I am too holy for you” (Isaiah 65:5). Yet what we don't realize is that we too have been separated from God in our sin, so much so that God would not touch with any pole, not matter how long, but would rather destroy us.
B. And yet despite all our fighting and our rejection, Christ still comes to us, to those who are unclean, and He cleanses. Much like he did for the demon-possessed man in our text, Christ came to this sinful world to cleanse us from our sin through His death on the cross. Just like that man we are filthy with sin and God comes even to us who deserve nothing from him to give us His saving Grace and the eternal life that only he can give. St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans that “God shows His love for us that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:1). It is why we sang in our service today, “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy!” For it is only in Jesus Christ our Lord where we receive cleansing, healing and salvation. Through Christ you receive these gifts. Through His Word every time you hear His promise that your sins are forgiven. Through the body and blood at his table, which cleanses you from all sin strengthens you in the one true faith until life everlasting. Through the waters of baptism, where each of you have been made His very own child and the righteousness that Christ earned for you is given directly to you. You heard St. Paul write in our Epistle reading that “As many of you as were baptized have put on Christ” (Gal 3:27). In His mercy, Christ has given you these means, what we call the means of grace, so that through them you might be restored and be enabled to show that mercy to those around you. But He doesn't even stop with these outside means, but goes with you, dwelling in your heart. Working through the means of grace, and working through the Holy Spirit, Christ works in your heart to restore you, just as He restored the man in our text, to be holy and righteous. He works through you to show His mercy to others as Paul writes that “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20).
C. And then, having received the mercy that Christ has made available for us, He then sends us out, just as He sent the man saying, “Return to your home and declare how much God has done for you” (8:39). Dear friends it starts at home, as we show the same loving mercy that we have received to those who are closest to us, who sit across from us at the table, our next door neighbours, those who work beside us or those who sit beside us in school. God sends you to declare, to narrate from beginning to end, to tell everything that He has done for you, to share the mercy that He shown you to all those around you. But we do not just share God's mercy through words, as some have been blessed to do powerfully, but also through our actions. In the 1800s, a crippled boy was hurrying to catch a train. Carrying gifts under his arm, he struggled with his crutches. A man bumped into him. Parcels flew every which way. The man paused to scold the boy for getting in his way. That's when another gentleman, seeing the boy upset, picked up the gifts, gave him a few coins, and said, “I'm sorry! I hope this helps.” The boy, unused to such kindness, called out, “Mister, thank you! And sir, are you Jesus?” “No,” replied the man, “but I am one of His followers.” Christ works in our hearts to bring forth the works that show His mercy to all those around us in so many diverse and vibrant ways, whether it be helping in special programs here at church, helping out at home or helping our neighbour. God works in us so that through our actions we might confess boldly and confidently to the world that even they are dirty and cast away from God by their sin, He still loves them and in His mercy sent His only Son so that they might be cleansed. We go out to let the world know that Christ comes to the unclean and cleanses.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Thursday, June 3, 2010
Mission work can be hard sometimes. We left Phnom Penh, once again aboard Bangkok Air the boutique airline, and after a night's rest in Bangkok we travelled down south to one of the resort cities, Khok Kloi. While we were there we stayed at one of the resorts located on the beach next to the Indian Ocean. I had the pleasure of swimming in this water, enjoying the warmth that I would only expect from an indoor heated pool and larger waves than what you get at a wave pool. It was a great day to finish the day, especially after a dinner at the resort's Italian restaurant. Each morning would then begin with a breakfast buffet with made to order omelets, ham, eggs, an assortment of fruit, cereal and juice. Yes, mission work can be a sacrifice sometimes.
The area we stayed in was the same area that was hit by the tsunami about five and half years ago, yet now it is hard to tell that it was completely wiped out. The physical scars of that disaster have pretty well disappeared now, with even some of the poorer areas cleaned up and looking normal once again. To commemorate the tsunami, several monuments have been constructed, including this one that shows one of the nation's police boats. This boat was about a mile out to sea when it was washed by the tsunami about a kilometre inland, where it sits today as a testament to the strength that this wave had as it crashed onto land.
The destruction that that wave brought also provided several opportunities. As a consequence of the rebuilding effort that began in the area the government to build a paved road to the area in order to make the transportation of supplies as quick and easy as possible. It also provided avenues for the two Lutheran Churches in that area to provide help in the community, helping to take care of the orphans and widows that were left after the wave struck. So significant was their work that when the fifth anniversary of the wave came and a service was planned for those who had died, one of our Lutheran pastors participated in the service. This also shows that growing tolerance of Christianity in the region, being included in this service when Christianity is looked down on in the culture as being foreign and not “Thai.” For more information, this story was published in a Canadian Lutheran for last Christmas.
Since we were in the area on a Sunday, we went to two of the Lutheran Churches in the area for worship. After the first service, the ladies of the Church treated us to a wonderful feast. There were twelve of us there and these women had cooked up six separate entrees for us to enjoy. The generosity of these people was simply amazing. Their generosity is further displayed in another story recently run by the Canadian Lutheran in which this Church gave 1000 Baht (about $300 Can.) for the CLWR work in Haiti after their disastrous earthquake. Keep in mind that this is still a developing area, where the people live at a subsistence level. After visiting the second church and attending their worship service, we discovered that this Church actually owns a field of rubber trees. Every seven years these trees produce a sap that can be turned into rubber. Each day this field of about 30 trees produces enough rubber to make a bath mat sized piece of rubber that can be sold for about 100 Baht. The Church can then use this money to maintain their building, pay their pastor, support their mission work in the community and get that much closer to being self sufficient and not have to rely on the funding from the LCC.
After staying in Southern Thailand for three days we returned to Bangkok for one day to visit the King's Palace. The King did not pinch any pennies when building this place as many of the buildings are decorated with gold. The fact that this gold may just be gold leaves does not settle the shock of just how much gold was used in the decoration of these buildings. After saying good bye to our hosts for the trip, Dr. Leonard Harms and his wife, Carol, we went for dinner and then prepared to jump on the plane home at five in the morning. I really enjoyed this trip and it gave me a greater look into another culture, as well as a little perspective on Canadian culture and the richness that comes with it that is often overlooked and glazed over.
One final word to close. About a week ago I received news from our sister Church in Cambodia. After several years of seminary training, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Cambodia (ELCC) ordained its first bishop and gave diplomas to about 25 pastors and deaconesses. Look for this story in the coming Canadian Lutheran.
The Canadian Lutheran magazine can be found here.
Peace is such a difficult thing for us to achieve. We always seem to be seeking it, yet it always seems to be that one thing the lies just over the next hurdle. In 1938, Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister of Britain hailed the Munich Agreement with Germany as a document ensuring “peace for our time.” Yet less than a year later, the world was once again embroiled in a war that rivalled the Great War in bloodiness, but far eclipsed that war in terms of scope. Peace never seems to last. Yet in our reading from the Gospel of St. John, Jesus promises His disciples, and you and I, a different kind of peace. His peace. Christ gives His disciples, and each one of us, a completely different kind of peace than the world offers to us. Today on Pentecost, we celebrate that peace coming to the disciples and being spread by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Church to the entire world.
I. In the Gospel reading, Christ and His disciples are in the Upper Room where Christ instituted the Lord's Supper and is teaching the disciples one last time before He goes to His suffering and death. Jesus knows the persecution and hardships that the disciples will have to endure on account of their faith, so He gives them this promise:
A. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (v. 27). The peace that Christ gives does not pass away, precisely because it is not enforced by political or military means, nor is it acquired through money and the acquisition of worldly possessions. Rather, this peace is as Paul describes in the book of Philippians, “the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, [and] will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:7). The peace that God gives us focuses in on Christ and the gift of salvation that He gives to us, a gift that is absolutely sure and can never be taken away from us despite all the conflict that swirls around us, both out there in the world and even right at home, all too often, in our closest relationships.
B. Yet despite the peace that we are given knowing that our salvation is guaranteed through the Christ's death on the cross and glorious resurrection, it can actually be quite surprising how little we depend on it. Think about it. Think about how, rather than depending on the peace that Christ gives to us, through His Word and sacraments and the entrance into His heavenly kingdom that is guaranteed for us, we instead focus on what is happening in the world around us. Now I'm not talking about persecutions and suffering, God has blessed us with a nation where we can worship freely and don't have to face persecution. But the fear that the world attacks us with here is more insidious for its ability to slip under the radar. What's going to happen to me tomorrow? What will I do tomorrow? Rather than relying on the peace of God, and trusting in His promise to provide for us and save us from sin and death, we neglect His promises and become captivated by this fear. Many times already, I have found myself afraid of what will happen in the summer. How will it work out to move to Campbell River? What's going to happen? This kind of fear will then seep into our relationships, as our mistrust of God and our own sinful natures sow discord in our relationships. There are times when discussing the future will cause me to snap at my wife and drive a wedge between us. Our own fears and our sinful nature lead us to look out for ourselves first and separates us from each other, and, even worse, separating us from the peace that God has given us.
C. But Christ came down to earth to make atonement between us and God, He came to pay the price that our sins demanded. And lets think about that word “atonement” for a second. If you break the word down, what you come out with are the words “at one ment.” Ok, so “ment” isn't really a word, but that still leaves us with “at one.” Through the death of Jesus Christ, in whom both God and man are united, all mankind, you and I, are made one with God. No longer are we separated from God, but through Christ, through the cross, we are reconciled with God and no longer deserve His wrath, but instead are given His peace. The Apostle Paul writes in Romans that, “since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:1). And in our baptism, where that faith was given to us, Christ also enters into our hearts and makes His permanent dwelling, His mansion, within us—as He tells us here through John (v. 23). He lives in our hearts and works within us so that we, by the power of His dwelling in us and the gift of forgiveness, we may keep His word, which He spoke earlier in John: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (13:34). Not because we have to, but because that is what faith does as Christ works in us, as John records again, “I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do.”
II. Yet this faith, does not come from us. We can't make that choice, like some would have us believe. It is like trying to push two magnets of the same polarity together: even though we're made in His image we repel God, we push Him away, we run away, and we fight against God. But the Holy Spirit turns us and works faith in our hearts so that we might receive the peace that He too gives us.
A. The Holy Spirit is often called the shy guy of the Holy Trinity, never speaking of Himself, but always pointing back to Christ and pushing Him to the foreground, while sneaking back to the background. Christ speaks of the Holy Spirit when He says that, “He will bear witness about me” (John 15:26) and again, “He will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). Jesus says in the Gospel reading for today that, “He will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (v. 26). That is the work of the Holy Spirit, leading us back to Christ, teaching us and reminding of His Word. He is working in us to sanctify us through the peace given to us on the cross. And then, having given that us that peace for ourselves He also keeps working through us to proclaim that Gospel to all the world, so that everyone who's bothered and burdened by conflict can come to know this same “deep peace.”
B. The Holy Spirit has made His permanent home in our hearts with Jesus Christ, and we have the promise in Scripture, that we should “not be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say” (Luke 12:11-12). But, we don't trust Him. Nah, y'know what, after all, He is the shy guy of the Trinity, He's probably quiet and doesn't want to speak very much, so I'll just stay here at home. I mean, I've got everything I need right here: good Christian friends, safety, what more could I need? We want to stay in our comfort zones, we like it, because after all, there are other people out there! People who will put us on the spot, ask questions we might not want to answer, maybe make fun of us, or perhaps, just perhaps, get angry. Yet these are the very people that God loves and died on the cross to save. So, we rebel. We ignore God's will. Or, we, in our sinful flesh, try to fight God, or maybe even run away. It happens to all of us, it happens even to the best of us, because we are all sinners.
C. Yet when we fail to trust in the peace the Holy Spirit gives us, and boy do we fail, the Holy Spirit is there then too. He is there to forgive us our sin and to bring us back to the cross where we receive this new peace. In our Epistle reading today, we see the disciples who messed up a lot, who didn't get it a lot and didn't always do what God wanted them to do. Yet the peace the disciples received from the Holy Spirit, who testified of what Christ had done for them, motivated them to reach out of their comfort zones to preach the Gospel to all the nations. Throughout this season of Easter, we have heard how the Holy Spirit worked through the Apostles to share the peace that God had given them to all people. To face suffering, persecution, even death without fear, trusting in the victory earned for them by Christ. In your very own baptism, each of you have experienced your very own Pentecost, as the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in your heart. He dwells in your heart to sanctify you and to aid you in your witness, giving you the peace that Christ gave to His disciples when He said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21). Luther describes the work of the Holy Spirit in this way when he says, “He baptized me; He proclaimed the Gospel of Christ to me; and He awakened my heart to believe. Baptism is not of my making; nor is the Gospel; nor is faith. He gave these to me. For the fingers that baptized me are not those of a man; they are the fingers of the Holy Spirit. And the preacher’s mouth and the words that I heard are not his; they are the words and message of the Holy Spirit. By these outward means He works faith within me and thus He makes me holy.”
D. Like the disciples, we too, who have received this gift of peace and have both the Son of God and the Holy Spirit working within us, are motivated to step out of our comfort zones to spread the Gospel, God's peace, to all the world. Not just because we have to, not because we're obligated to, but because that is what faith, created and sustained by the Holy Spirit in us, wants to do. Faith moves us to share that peace to others—it's the best motivator in the world! And so we share it through our love, as the Holy Spirit works in us and brings forth the fruit of love that faith bears. The Holy Spirit works in us and through us as we put others before ourselves, whether we do it by helping our neighbour, helping out with the Sunday School or Out of School Care or helping out with the community. And of course we also share God's peace through our words as the Holy Spirit aids us, and gives us the words to confess our faith boldly and confidently to a world that otherwise only ever seems to hear about conflict, fighting and war.
People often spend years looking for peace, yet never do seem to find it in what the world has to offer. Like sand, the peace of the world seems to fall through our fingers so that we are once again left afraid of what is to come. Yet today, on this Pentecost, we celebrate the day that God sent the Holy Spirit so that His peace might be made known to us. So that through God's Word, the Holy Spirit might proclaim to us the news that Christ died for our sins and reconciled us to God, “making peace by the blood of His cross” (Colossians 1:20). And so that through this church, where we hear the news of that forgiveness proclaimed and where the sacraments are given to us, that we might be enriched by the peace that we now have with God. The peace of God, given for you.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Tuesday, April 27, 2010
Greetings dear friends at LCGS,
This is the second part of the article that I began in the last issue of the Wool Gatherings newsletter. The first part concentrated on my experiences in Thailand, specifically Bangkok, and the culture that is present in that area and windows for the Gospel to be heard. In this article I will discuss my experiences in Cambodia. We entered into Cambodia after a 40-minute flight into the city of Siem Reap. Our flight was on Bangkok Air, which advertises itself as a “boutique” airline. After receiving a hot, wet towlette before the flight took off we were given a full meal once we got in the air. Now, this was indeed a full meal, with a main course, vegetables or fruit, water, dessert and you had another complimentary beverage: juice, pop, wine or beer. No sooner than we had finished the main course of our meal, that we heard the pilot go over the intercom, “Flight Attendants, please prepare for arrival.” We then had about one minute to scarf down whatever food we might have or get it off the tray that was about to be picked up so we could hold it and finish what was left during the descent.
The reason that we went into Siem Reap was so that we could visit Angkor Wat, which was the royal temple built by the Angkor Empire around 1200 AD. The site covers a large area of land with several temples and building dotting the landscape. Each building was built separately with the latest structure being built around 1500, close to the time the Martin Luther was reforming the Church. The main temple site was built around 1200 and is built like a fortress, with a moat surrounding it and a large wall protecting the temple at the centre of the complex. The temples were all originally built in accordance with the Hindu religion, but were defaced somewhat when a new emperor sympathetic to Buddhism came to power. Both of these religions still figure prominently in Cambodia and the religious landscape has the same flavour as that of Thailand. The history of the Angkor Empire would figure prominently more recently in Cambodia's history, which I will discuss later on. Visiting Angkor Wat gave us a glimpse into the religious and historical background of the people of Cambodia and also gave us an idea of their current culture.
Cambodians are not as laid back and easy going as the Thai are, and are in fact much more pushy. When we arrived at Angkor Wat, the second we got off the tuk-tuk, the principle mode of transportation in Cambodia, we were swarmed by vendors trying to sell us wooden bracelets, post cards, or necklaces. They weren’t very old either, some of them not much older than eight years old. Yet they know every salesman trick in the book and every capital of any country you tell them. On Sunday morning we left Siem Reap and took an eight hour bus ride to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city. Upon arriving at Phnom Penh, we got swarmed by tuk-tuk drivers offering us rich looking foreigners a ride to a hotel or wherever we needed to go, something that would not happen in Thailand. At times it was almost smothering and annoying, yet the differences between Cambodia and Thailand were apparent almost immediately. The people certainly have more need here, and the country in general is a little less developed. Often when having to choose between school and work, parents will have to send their children to work so that their family can make a buck or two and pay for a plate of food.
On Monday morning we visited a Church near a village about three hours outside of Phnom Penh. After travelling about ten minutes down a poorly maintained dirt road we came upon a rice farm where the congregation gathers for their worship service. They don’t have a building or any of the trappings that we associate with Church (altar, communion ware, paraments, vestments) yet they still gather in Christ’s name and worship their Lord and Saviour. They meet on the field that the pastor owns and works with his family (in the rainy season they meet on the road) and have service and a Sunday School. When we arrived, several of the children were singing songs and playing out Bible stories, such as the Prodigal Son, for us and then a worship service. The Lutheran Church in Cambodia is currently learning the liturgy and have begun to learn Responsive Prayer 2 in LSB. Though most Cambodians are illiterate, and those who are educated have about a fourth grade education, the pastor and the deaconesses of the Church help the people learn it. Because of the problem of drunkenness and violence among men in the area, the Church usually makes inroads first to the women, who then talk to their husbands and start to bring them to church as well. But this is a slow process and as a result some of the churches in Cambodia are completely made of women, which makes the work of the deaconesses so important. Usually they are called on to be the shepherds for these congregations of women and will preach and lead worship until men start coming in to the church, at which point they will select one as their pastor and he will begin training and leading worship for the community.
Much of the educational problems that occur in Cambodia stem from an era in the mid to late 1970s, during a period when a communistic ruler named Pol Pot came to power. One of the objectives of Pol Pot was to turn the clock back and remake Cambodia into the Angkor Empire, what was perceived as the golden age for Cambodia. This meant forcing the people out of the cities onto the farms to create a completely agrarian society. Like most totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century there was a constant suspicion of revolt, thus the educated and intelligent class of Cambodia were persecuted as enemies of the state. This meant that all those who were educated, and those who wore glasses because that’s a sign of intelligence, were put into prison and were tortured until they confessed to plotting against the government. Once they confessed they were then sentenced to death and would be executed in a field that became known as the Killing Fields where they would be buried in mass graves. Our group visited both one of these prisons as well as the Killing Fields. It was a sobering experience that gave all of us a deep look into the sinfulness of man and cruelty our sinful nature is capable of doing. The result of this genocide is seen today in the lack of education that the people have in Cambodia.
Once again, there is so much that I could tell you about my experiences in Cambodia, but I have tried to stick with the highlights and give you glimpse into this foreign culture. We did not get to spend as much time out on the town at night, but we did get to enjoy the Russian market in downtown Phnom Penh, where one of my classmates bought a copy of the movie Avatar months before it came out on DVD. We enjoyed a dinner at the Foreign Correspondents Club, where foreign correspondents used to stay when visiting Cambodia, and a dinner at a fancy restaurant with one of the missionaries from the LCMS and his family. It was a wonderful time and I enjoyed my experience, though at this time I was starting to get ready to come home and missing the familiar food of home. The next article will give a summary of the trip and look at what I was able to get from the whole experience.
Have you ever heard the phrase, a little taste of heaven? Usually this phrase refers to something that we consider to be perfectly made, whether it be a piece of chocolate cake, a perfectly done steak or a ride in the lap of luxury. These experiences make us feel so good that we think that this must be a glimpse of what heaven is like. But because no one here knows what heaven will be like completely, we have to say that our experiences are just a little taste of heaven.
In our reading from Revelation today that is exactly what St. John gives us, a little taste of heaven. We catch a glimpse of all the saints in heaven praising God with the angels right before the throne of God. It is in this heavenly scene that we see a restoration of the relationship that God intended to have with us. God and man enjoy a direct fellowship with no veil between them to cover the complete glory of God. Just as God walked with Adam in the Garden of Eden God will walk with us in heaven. Yet as vivid as this description of heaven is, it still gives us just a little taste of what heaven will be like. But even still, we are given enough for our faith to rejoice in what God has done for us and to cling to the promise of this heavenly reality guaranteed for us.
Within this book as a whole, John is taken up to this heavenly reality by God in order to bring some comfort to the churches of his time. The purpose of this comfort is to show Christians that while life may be difficult now, God is leading us to a far better reality in heaven with Himself.
St. John is writing this vision down to show that this is where God is leading us and where all this trouble is going to end. In the Gospel reading today, which also comes from the pen of St. John, Jesus is quoted as saying, “My sheep hear my voice and they follow me” (John 10:27). St. John is showing the Christians that they will participate in the heavenly scene that he has witnessed. He wants them to know that they are included in those people dressed in white and singing praises to God with the angels. It is a comfort that we can take home too. This is where God is leading all of us, gathered here today. We will also be gathered among that great throng, clothed in white and dwelling with our God in paradise.
St. John shows readers that reaching this heavenly reward does not depend upon them, but upon God, and His work alone. That is the greatest comfort that we could ever receive. And yet we have such a problem with it. We don't like thinking that we can do nothing to earn it, and I doubt that the people that John was writing to liked it very much either. Why? Because we all want to be worth something and what's more, we want to earn it. I want to get there on my own because that means that I am better, I did it all by myself. I earned it. It was the problem then, and it's the problem now. We want to earn it. Well, okay, but we're not going to earn those bright, white robes. Do you know what I am wearing underneath this white robe? Black. Do you want to know what's underneath Pastor's and Mark's white robes? Black. Why? Because that's what we've earned. Our sinful flesh has earned these black clothes, or as the prophet Zechariah describes it, we've earned nothing but horrible, filthy rags. In his own vision Zechariah describes Joshua, representing all Israel, standing before the angel of Lord in heaven wearing nothing but shameful rags (Zechariah 3:3). That is all we've earned. Unfortunately we don't fit heaven's dress code.
But Zechariah's vision does not end there. Joshua's rags are removed, and a new set of pure and clean robes are put on him. Not because of anything he's done, or that he has earned, but because of the work and promise of God (Zechariah 3:4-5).
And here in this text, just like Joshua, we too are given the white robes that St. John describes. The black clothes that your sin has earned you are washed clean in the blood of the Lamb, Jesus Christ and become white. The blood of Christ, spilt for you on the cross on that one Friday afternoon, cleanses you from all sin (1 John 1:7). The prophet Isaiah puts it this way: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson they shall become like wool” (Isaiah 1:18). It why I wear this white robe, that even though I am black with sin, through the blood of Christ that sinfulness is washed away and I wear the white robe of righteousness. And this is also why we come to this very altar, to receive the very body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Where you take and drink the blood of Christ, and you are washed white in the forgiveness of sins. It is at this altar that we receive a little taste of heaven as we are renewed in the washing of His blood.
Through this vision of the saints gathered together, who have received white robes through the washing of the blood of the Lamb, St. John gives his hearers yet another source of comfort that they can hold on to. And that is that even though we all suffer in this world, we will be absolutely free of all suffering in heaven with our God.
When Christ returns to earth on the Last Day or when we ourselves die and rise before that Day arrives God has promised that He will deliver us from all evil. In heaven, there will be no suffering or hunger, for we will be with God and He will be our shepherd and our protector. Jesus' warns His disciples in many places that they will experience trouble, that people will be persecuted for their faith and that there will be suffering in life. Yet even in that suffering, He invites us to look to Him and trust in Him as the one who owns the victory for us. It is not a victory that God has not won by hurting our enemies, but by allowing Himself to be hurt and die for us.
Unfortunately, this world, which has been corrupted by sin, is so full of suffering that we might begin to doubt the victory that God has won for us. St. John had written the book of Revelation to churches who were being persecuted and suffering, and many of the people might have been questioning why God would allow such suffering to come upon them. Some of them were even on the verge of rejecting their faith just so their life could be just a little bit easier. We too join in the wonder about this sometimes—why God would allow such bad things to happen. We might begin to suffer and doubt God's will for our lives and so we ask why a loving God would do this? If God loves me why am I in such a bad spot right now? Suffering touches all of us at one time or another in all kinds of different ways, whether it be illness, or pain, or stress, or depression we all feel it. At times the world seems so full of suffering that we might join with my favourite golden boy and say, “We seem to be made to suffer. It's our lot in life.” This world is not perfect, everything God created to be good and without suffering, has been corrupted ever since the sin of Adam that continues in our own flesh. When we suffer we are driven to hopelessness, to despair. We feel isolated and alone.
Perhaps you are one of those who are suffering right now, or you know of someone who is suffering; comfort them, and be comforted, with the promise of God that suffering will not last forever. John records His promise later in chapter 21: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God Himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” We have been claimed by God through baptism and have been brought to faith through the work of the Holy Spirit and when we join that heavenly host we will experience this everlasting joy that is ours now through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord. Jesus Christ is our good shepherd (John 10:11). As we heard from the Gospel of John earlier, “I give them eternal life and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28). “The Lord is my shepherd,” David writes, “I shall not want, He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters” (Psalm 23:1-2). Just as Christ is your shepherd now and leads you here to feed you with His Word and the news of your sins forgiven, He will personally lead you to “springs of living water.” This living water is described in the Psalms as the “fountain of life” (Psalm 36:9). As Jesus Himself said to the Samaritan woman at the well “whoever drinks of the water that I give him will never be thirsty again” (John 4:14). Just as Jesus gives us His body and blood so that we might be fed and nourished and strengthened to life everlasting, so also will Christ give us this feast in heaven so that we may celebrate with Him and all the saints the complete fulfilment of the hope given to us by God. Even though this world is full of suffering, we take comfort and we are joyful, in the hope and promise that we have in our shepherd Jesus Christ, that He will lead us to heaven where we will never feel the sufferings of sin and death.
At times this world to offers us small glimpses of heaven, the problem is that they are all too fleeting, and can never match up to the glory that is described in Scripture and are too soon replaced by hardship, stress and pain. But through the promise of Christ we will be a part of this heavenly scene, walking with God and singing praises to God with all the faithful. It is in the Sacrament of the Altar that we are given a true and real glimpse of heaven as we participate in a foretaste of this heavenly joy and are strengthened by God to endure our sufferings and be brought into our heavenly home. In our struggles during this life we can be comforted by the promise that through the death and resurrection of Christ we will be brought to this heavenly throne room. So receive this comfort that God will bring you to His heavenly throne room where all suffering will cease and the relationship that Adam and Eve enjoyed with the Lord in the Garden will once again be restored. Comfort others, too, with the hope that you have in Christ that when He returns your body will be restored and perfect. Clinging to this, our hope and our joy, we go out to bring this promise to all the world so that everyone might know and believe, so that all people might also cling to the hope that is found in Christ.
Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Text: Deuteronomy 32:36-39
Our Old Testament lesson for today comes from the conclusion of what is called the Song of Moses. It is one of the last things that Moses would speak to the Israelites, whom he had led through the desert for the last forty years. Moses tells the people that even though they continually turned away from God, and will continue to turn away from God, He will have compassion on them. Moses declares to them that God is the one who will save them and deliver them from their sins.
I. “For the LORD will vindicate His people,” Moses says, “ and have compassion on His servants, when He sees that their power is gone and there is none remaining, bond or free.” (v. 36) Moses proclaims the mercy of God as loudly as he possibly can to a people whom he knows all too well.
A. Moses knows the tendency of the Israelites to turn away from God and what He has commanded them in the covenant. He knows that Israel will try to find the newest, most popular way to get what they want, that they will follow after the latest trend in Canaan so that they might have power, and so they walk away from God and His covenant and His promise of grace and mercy. But Moses also knows that the Israelites will be left powerless in their sin, trapped in their own wayward habits and unable to free themselves from their sins. He knows that there is no way that they can free themselves from the death that their sin has earned them. He knows that rather than trust in God and His promise of salvation and life, the Israelites will look elsewhere for their comfort and their salvation.
B. How little things have changed! We are not that much different from Israel, looking outside of what God has given us for the latest craze and popular trend. “Just be a good person,” we're told, “and God will reward you.” Or another one of my favourites, “Think only good thoughts, and you can be a good person that God will bless.” We like these mottos because they put us in the driver seat and make us think that we have the power over our destiny. And we do love power. In the end, though, we find ourselves exhausted because we know that we never quite make the cut. St. Paul declares in Romans 3, verses 10-11 “There is none who is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks God.” Like the Israelites, we in our sinful flesh are constantly being pulled away from God. Rather than turn to God and the hope and salvation that He offers to me, I turn away for what feels good now and in return, I am left empty and powerless. Despite our best efforts to find our own way to toward life, we will find that sin still grips at us and that there is no one left alive. As Paul says: “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).
C. Yet Moses also knew that God sees that the Israelites are powerless in their sins. Despite the fact they have rejected Him, Moses knows that the Lord will still come and have compassion on them. Much like the parent who has compassion on their child who knows that they have done wrong, God has compassion on them and frees them from their enemies of sin and death. God still has compassion on us too. God sees you powerless, dead in your sin, but rather than give you the punishment that you deserve, God takes that punishment upon Himself on the cross. In God's compassion, He sent His perfect servant, Christ, to the cross to suffer and die to “vindicate His people.” But what does this mean? I confess that I did not know what this word meant and had to look it up. Sometimes “vindicated,” is translated as “judge,” yet this word carries with it more the sense of being declared innocent in court of any wrongdoing. In other words the Israelites will be declared righteous. And this is true for us too! For the sake of Christ, who offered Himself up to death and suffered and died, as you heard in the Gospel this morning, you are declared righteous in His sight. By Christ's death on the cross you are freed from sin and death and by His resurrection you are given new life and the promise of salvation.
II. Yet despite the promises of God that the Israelites have in the promise of the Messiah, and that we have in the promises of Christ, we both continue in our foolishness.
A. “Then He will say, 'Where are their gods, the rock in which they took refuge, who ate the fat of their sacrifices and drank the wine of their drink offering? Let them rise up and help you; let them be your protection.'” God uses the situation that the Israelites constantly find themselves in to show them the foolishness in chasing after these idols. God shows them that there is no safety in them, there is no comfort or life that can be found in them. Often times people would call a fortress a rock, meaning that it seemed to so strong that it could never fall. The people could take comfort in this fortress, that whenever they were attacked they could gather inside its walls and be protected. The people would take refuge in these fortresses for their own protection and be saved from their enemies outside. Moses tries to make it clear that the “rock” of their neighbours is nothing like the “Rock” that they have in God. The protection that these idols seem to offer from sin and death turn out to a complete sham and leave the people on their own and powerless before God. Jeremiah shows these idols for what they really are: blocks of wood taken from the forest, decorated with gold and silver, maybe polished up to make it look nice and shiny, and then set on the mantle to be worshipped and adored. Jeremiah shows the Israelites that this thing, is just a block of wood and can not speak, walk or do anything, let alone do good or evil.
B. Once again, things haven't changed very much and we still search for those shiny things which the world has to offer us. I am naturally inclined toward those shiny things that offer me pleasure right now: money, cars, sports, gadgets, and these are the things that get the most of my attention, time and money. Like Israel with their idols, though, I am never content with these things, but am always striving to have more. Is it bad to have these things? No, they are blessings from God for which give thanks. We are told in the Ninth and Tenth Commandments that we are not to scheme or deceive our way into getting these nice toys. Instead we are to be content with what God has given us. Israel was blessed in abundance in the promised land, but always wanted to have more. And when it became clear that God might not bring it to them, they offered up the best that they had to these blocks of wood. Once more we see that things are not any different for us. Instead of giving the best of what I have first to God, He'll get the scraps that are left over after I get all these nice, shiny toys. If there's nothing left for Him, “Oops! Sorry! It's all gone!” We place our trust in these idols, spending our time, talents and treasures, hoping that life will be better if we get the new car, or computer, or get more active, or earn more money. But once we have these things we are always left looking for more. Yet these rocks turn out to be no rock at all and can not offer us refuge from death and can not save us from the judgement that will come upon us.
III. It is only after Moses has laid bare the weakness of the Israelites, the foolishness that plagues them, that God comes to them directly and declares to them that He is the one, the only one, who can save them. In another place, God declares loudly in Isaiah 43, “I, I am He who blots out transgressions for My own sake, and I will not remember sins.” And again “Be still,” we are told in Psalm 46, “and know that I am God.” These texts confirm what we hear here; namely that God is the Rock, the only one in whom the Israelites can find refuge and take comfort in His promises of forgiveness, life and salvation.
A. Thanks be to God that things have not changed. God is still the one who is able to make you alive. Christ's death on the cross is the ransom paid for you (Mark 10:45). He is a ransom that springs you free from your sins and gives you the free gift of eternal life (Romans 6:23b). We have all been given this free gift in our baptism, where our old sinful nature was drowned and killed and we were brought to life as a new creation in Christ Jesus. Through the ongoing gift of the Holy Spirit, that we received in baptism, we now cling to the cross of Christ where we receive forgiveness for our sins and are brought to everlasting life. It is in the suffering and death of Christ that our sins are washed away “and by His wounds, we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).
B. The last phrase in our text states that, “There is none that can deliver out of my hand.” There is a story about a ship sailing in the middle of the night, when the call goes out throughout the ship, “Man overboard!” Now this ship is in the middle of the ocean in the dark of night, it's pitch black out there, so there is not much chance of finding their lost crewmate, let alone rescue him. Nevertheless, the crew rallies together and throws a rope over one side of the boat. Miraculously, the rope lands just in front of the overboard sailor and he is saved just before he gets sucked into the blades of ship's propellers. The crew carefully pulls the man back onto the ship, but when they try to pry the rope out of his hands, they find that the hope has been embedded in his hands. The sailor had become one with the object that saved his life. Faith grabs hold of the suffering and death of Christ on the cross and this same promise. It is a promise that Jesus repeats in John 10, “I give [my sheep] eternal life, and they will never parish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” Dear friends in Christ you have been placed in His hand through your baptism and even though the temptations and assaults of this world threaten to pull your faith away from Him, Christ also has His grip on you. He is your rock and your fortress that will protect you from all the threats that would pull you away from the cross and the gifts Christ earned for you upon that cross.
In Christ Jesus, God has had compassion on us, His children, who are so deserving of death and judgement. Through the suffering and death of Christ on the cross we are freed from our enemies of sin and death. Through our baptism we join in the resurrection of Christ Jesus and are made alive, new creations in Christ. The compassion and work of God empowers us to remain firm in our faith, placing our trust solely in Him as our rock and fortress that protects from sin, death and the temptations that constantly assail us. God giving us His best to suffer and die on the cross, empowers us to give Him our best each day of our lives. By the suffering and death of Christ on the cross we are healed and made alive and He now grips us tightly as His dear children.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Friday, March 12, 2010
At the beginning of the year one of my professors, Dr. Kettner, took my class of five young men to Thailand and Cambodia as part of the Parish Immersion course. As part of this course we get placed in a ministry setting setting outside of anything that we might experience here in Edmonton during our studies. Not much further outside of our experience in Edmonton than going to South East Asia. This was the furthest away from home that I've travelled and the first time that I have left the continent. After arriving in Thailand at midnight after an approximate 24 hour flight, we then took a half hour ride to our hotel. The next morning, Saturday January 2, we stopped by the Luther Institute of South East Asia (LISA) and met our host, Dr. Leonard Harms who gave a quick introduction to Thai culture.
The first thing you would notice upon entering Thailand is the reverence that they hold for their king. King Rama IX is the longest reigning king in history, now hitting 60 years, and as king he is the most revered person in Thai society. There is no one in Thai culture that is allowed to be above the King. His pictures are placed high up on the walls, forcing you to look up at them and ensuring that no picture can be hung above it. When the king is travelling on the road and goes under a bridge, all traffic on the bridge is cleared and stopped since no one can be above the king. If a coin should be dropped and roll across the floor you do not stomp on it to stop it from rolling for two reasons: 1. You are placing the dirtiest piece of your body onto the printed image of the king's head 2. This is tantamount to stomping on the king's head. It is also a felony to deface any image of the king or to say anything bad about the king and you will be charged even if you are just a tourist.
The religion in Thailand and Cambodia is based on Buddhism and Hinduism with a very heavy emphasis on animism and spirits. The people will set up shrines of varying sizes in every building and site, shrines can be found in shops, hotels, houses, and cars, anywhere where the spirits might be able to get at the people. These shrines will never torn down and often you will find a site where the building has been completely torn down and the earth all chewed up but you will find a shrine still standing on one corner of the land that is not even touched. These shrines commemorate the spirits of the ancestors and will be prayed to and will be given sacrifices of food and drink for the spirits to eat and to keep them in good disposition toward you for your care of them. Since the spirits are naturally opposed to them if the people do not take care of them by offering these sacrifices, the people live terrified of the spirits and their power over them. This opens a window for Christian proclamation and rather than tell the people that these spirits don't exist, to tell them that Christ has defeated all these spirits and we no longer need to fear them.
The city of Bangkok was not what I was expecting. I was expecting a more run down place without many of the luxuries that we see around our streets here in Canada. What I found was a thriving city with well maintained streets and street lights, with a Seven-Eleven on every corner. Western fast food restaurants were as abundant as the native Thai and Asian restaurants, though the Thai restaurants sell their food for a tenth of the price. For 30 Baht, about one dollar, you could get a full plate of food that left you feeling satisfied and full without the heavy greasy feeling that you often feel eating North American restaurant food. And it is good food too! But I digress. Anyway, you do see a lot of developed areas in Bangkok, but you also see slum areas throughout the city too. Some are big, some are not. There was one not too far away from our hotel, near the river. The shacks are built next to a small waste water river that was built to keep the dirty water (which was black) away from the fresh water in the river across the street. The people who built the shacks are able to draw off the city electricity supply and then are able to work and try to earn enough to move a better home. Labour in Thailand, as well as in Cambodia, is often the lowest cost of running a business, for some perspective, labour is often the highest cost in North America, so it usually cheaper to hire a person to cut the grass with gardening sheers than buy the lawn mower and have someone maintain and run it.
The Thai culture is one that is very status based, with the king at the top, again no one can be above the king, with administrators for the government below him and the educated below them and so on until you reach the servants at the bottom. This comes into play very much with the Thai traditional greeting, called the Wai, bringing your hands together, palm-to-palm, and bowing. The spot where you put your hands shows your status, the lower your hands, the more status you have. Some people will even Wai from their forehead, especially if they are serving the king. The challenge comes in when you have Pastors, who are considered to be among the educated class bring that status mentality into the church. We visited one Lutheran day care that used to be run out of a church. The pastors who served the congregation had this status mentality that said that they should go up to their office and stay there and let the people come to them. Now due to the status mentality Goi, who is pictured here and ran the day care, could not suggest in any way that the pastor should come down to visit parents as they dropped off their children. It was not allowed because of Goi's status, being lower than the pastor, and because she is a female. In the end, this congregation ended up dying and merging with the Concordia Lutheran Church located across from the LISA office. The challenge that they have is how to introduce pastors who feel that they are educated and near the top of the status order, to the more Scriptural understanding of being a servant to God's people. It is a challenge that they are still struggling with today.
There is much more that I could tell you about my experience in Thailand, but I have tried to stick with the culture and the opportunities and challenges that the Gospel has within this culture. We spent a lot of time meeting wonderful people and seeing some of the best things that Bangkok has to offer, like a seven story Western style mall with Lamborghini, Porsche, and Bugati stores at the top floor. There was one night visiting a roof top bar, 64 stories above the city of Bangkok, with fifteen dollar martinis. The next article will focus on my experience in Cambodia with a concluding article focusing on a summary of my experience and what I learned during the trip, both about Thai and Cambodian culture and also Canadian culture.
Tuesday, March 2, 2010
This sermon was preached at All Saints Lutheran Church, Edmonton, Alberta. The text was Luke 13:31-35.
In our Gospel reading today Jesus compares His love to that which I think most of us can relate to. That is the love of a mother. It is one of the most primal urges a woman has, to take care of her children no matter what the cost may be. In our Gospel reading today, Christ compares Himself to a mother hen, who will gather and protect her brood when she senses danger. We can see this kind of love all around us. In 1996, when a building in Brooklyn, New York caught fire, a mother cat named Scarlett felt the same urge to protect her young ones and worked to save her kittens, who were unable to save themselves. The act required several trips into the building as the blaze worsened, fire licked at her fur and singed her almost entire body. The fire and smoke would do considerable damage, practically blinding this mother feline. Yet despite the pain and suffering that she knew would be in the building each time she entered, Scarlett gathered her litter of kittens across the street where it was safer. In the reading, God in the flesh is travelling toward Jerusalem, aware of the pain and anguish that awaits Him in His endeavour to save His creatures. Yet this kind of sacrificial love that we see in Scarlett is amplified in our Lord, Christ Jesus, who laments over how often He would have loved to have gathered His people Israel in much the same way as Scarlett gathered her kittens. The people of Israel refused God's care and would rather be left alone, away from God and His promise of forgiveness and salvation, and would rather be left in their very own sins. Yet even so, God continues to love His children and comes to gather all people under His care.
In verse 31 of our reading today we see Jesus on the road toward Jerusalem, walking with His disciples and teaching them as they go.
They begin to get close to Jerusalem and as they are walking, some of the Pharisees, who are part of the priestly class in Judaism, walk up to Jesus and stop Him on the road. “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you,” they warn Jesus. No one is quite sure why they want to warn Jesus, if they want to save Him from a plot by Herod to kill Him or if they just don't want Jesus to be in their city at all. What we do know is that Jesus is not scared at all by the news that the Pharisees bring, “Go and tell that fox,” Jesus answers them, “'Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course.'” Jesus stands undaunted by their warnings, even though He knows what will happen when He enters Jerusalem one final time, He is resolute. He is adamant that He will go where God has appointed Him to go.
If only we could be so courageous in our following where Christ leads us, to go on the course that God is sending us on. We are afraid of the possible suffering and pain that we might experience as God's messengers trying to gather all people under his care and sheltering wings. That fear strangles me to inaction and stops my proclamation that should be loud and exuberant. Instead I am stopped in my tracks by the voice of the devil calling down on me, telling me that it's going to hurt, it's going to be difficult and I'm not strong enough. At one time or another, we have all refused God's call to go where He leads us, I know I have. We refused to spread His message to the world because we are afraid of what might come after us and the suffering that we might encounter on the way there.
Jesus continues on the path that God appointed for Him, motivated by the strength given to Him by God and love for you. Jesus continued on the path into the Jerusalem despite the knowledge that doing so would mean that He would have to suffer and die, but did all that just so He could pull you out of the snares and traps of sin and death. As the author of Hebrews writes in chapter 2 of his epistle “For it was fitting that He, for Whom and by Whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.” It is in His suffering and death that Christ pulls you out of your sin and brings you into His holiness and righteousness. Christ faced the flames of this world so that you would not have to fear its power. Christ faced the flames of hell so that you would not feel its burn and fear its power. You no longer need to be afraid to go where God sends you, to proclaim His news of salvation because He goes with you. You no longer need to be afraid because the gift that Christ has given you that can never be taken away or undone.
The story continues in verse thirty-four with a lament over Jerusalem: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often I would have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under wings and you would not!” Could you imagine the pain that Scarlett would have felt if her kittens had refused to be allowed to be picked up by the scruff of their neck and carried out of the fire? If Scarlett's kittens would rather have stayed in the fire to their death so much that they were willing to attack her? Yet her love for her kittens would compel her to continue trying to save them and bring them out to safety. This is the same pain that Jesus cries out with as His own chosen people have refused His call to grace. Israel has attacked and killed those prophets and messengers that God had sent to them to make them wise to the salvation that He offered to them.
In our sinful natures we too turn away and reject the message that God proclaims to us through His Word and through our friends and family. Even though God holds out life which we receive through faith in His Son, we still refuse Him and turn aside that gift. The writer of Proverbs puts it the best: “I have called and you refused to listen, have stretched out my hand and no one has heeded.” For the past two weeks we have heard the theme song for the Olympics proclaim: “I believe in the power of you and I!” We would rather put our faith in our own works, sleep an extra hour, stay at home and get ready for that gold medal game, go golfing, skating, skiing, anything but come to receive God's gifts. Where does the power of you and I get us? Luther answers quite bluntly in the Small Catechism where he says: “I believe that I can not by my own reason or strength believe in my Lord or come to Him.” These last two weeks have shown us that the power of you and I is anything but perfect, but instead leads us away from God and His life saving work.
But the power and love of God is greater than the power of you and I and draws us together into His Church, where the gifts won for us by Christ are given to us freely. Through the work of the Holy Spirit in your heart you are brought to faith in your Lord Jesus Christ and brought to this Church where you hear your sins are forgiven. The power of God rescues you from your sin and brings you into His Church where you are fed His Word and strengthened in His sacraments. By the power of you and I, none of this would be possible and we would be left in our sins, but with the power of God, all things are possible and we are called into the saving faith. By the power of God we gathered around the foot of the cross and receive mercy and forgiveness won for us by the suffering and death of Jesus Christ.
The care that God gives to us as He feeds through His Word and the message that we have been saved for the sake of Christ empowers us. The care that we receive in the sacraments given to us by Christ, empowers us. We are empowered to follow where God leads us to go, to confess without fear and to stand strong in the face scrutiny. Through God's work in us we become one of His messengers to gather the rest of those still trapped in sin to the grace and mercy of our Lord.
Just like Scarlett who braved the fire and smoke of the burning building to save her kittens, God has braved the whips, nails and spears of this world to save us from our sin and gather us under the cross. Even when we don't want to be gathered under His care, and fight violently to refuse Him, God still comes to us and brings us to receive the forgiveness won for us by Christ. Through our words and actions, God works through us to gather all the world to Him, to rescue them from death and bring us to life everlasting.