High Anxiety

Biblical Text: Luke 24:36-49

There are lots of things that can cause anxiety or fear or doubt. WW3 might be up there this week. This sermon addresses that, but not in the way everyone that will get attention would do so. The gospel text for the weeks addresses 4 big things:

  1. The Resurrection of the body
  2. The Role of the OT and Scripture
  3. The call to witness
  4. These things are spiritually discerned

Those 4 things should go a long way to helping our anxiety. And turn our hearts toward the proper requests of God.

Men of Israel (Acts 3)

In Wednesday Bible study we are going to be starting the Book of Acts.  I’ve been calling the study Necessary Stories since we started.  Most of what we studied has been the narrative drive of the Old Testament.  We looked at 47 stories in the Old Testament.  We have just completed an extended reading of the Gospel of Matthew with some peeks at the other gospels.  The book of Acts is something of the end of that narrative. And Peter’s preaching in this week’s first reading (Acts 3:11-21) captures why.

The story is one of Peter and John going to the Temple to pray. You might remember the old VBS song standard – Peter and John went to pray, they met a lame man on the way…silver and gold have I none, but such as I have give I thee, in the name of Jesus Christ, stand up and walk!  And that episode, as such healings so often worked for Jesus, gathered a crowd to which then Jesus and now Peter would preach. The miracle was never about the miracle itself.  The miracles were always about the one they pointed towards and His testimony.  And the testimony of Peter is pure law and gospel.  And it remains the proclamation of the church to this day.

Who is he preaching to?  “Men of Israel. (Acts 3:12).”  It is interesting that Peter explicitly calls out the men here, but he does.   And what does he fault those men of Israel with? Their lack of spiritual discernment.   “Why do you marvel at [the lame man walking]?” You have all seen exactly this for three years.  We are no different than you.  It is not our power or piety that does this. It is the God you know.  “The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the God of our Fathers.”  And maybe this is why he addresses the men alone.  The women of Jerusalem wept along the path of the cross. They anointed him before.  Unlike Adam and Eve where Eve did not discern the snakes plot.  It was the men who did not discern that the God of their Fathers was at work in Jesus in their midst.

And because of their poor discernment, what did they do?  “You delivered him over and denied him in the presence of Pilate (Acts 3:13)” when even that gentile had decided to let him go.  You asked for a murderer instead of the “Holy and Righteous One.” Because you did not discern the time of your visitation, “you killed the Author of Life (Acts 3:14).”

“God raised HIM from the dead. To this we are witnesses.”

That proclamation is the two edged sword, the law and the gospel together. Because it forces a decision. Do you believe the testimony?  And that is ultimately what the narrative of the church is about to this day.  The church testifies to the resurrection.  “by faith in His name, he made this man strong (Acts 3:16).”  By faith in his name are all men made strong and able to stand.  “Repent, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out (Acts 3:19).”

That proclamation of Peter has two specific parts to those men of Israel.  “You acted in ignorance, as did your rulers, but God foretold [all of this] (Acts 3:17-18).” Part of the repentance, part of being able to stand, is to come out of your ignorance. God has given you everything necessary right there in his word, “everything to make you wise unto salvation (2 Timothy 3:15-17).”  We can’t trust our own discernment which would ask for a murderer over the Author of Life. But we can be made wise by the Word of God. We’ve been given glasses to correct our poor eyesight.

The second part of that proclamation is the one thing that has not yet happened.  “That he may send the Christ appointed for you, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all things. (Acts 3:21).” Today, Jesus is not raised to condemn you.  Today is not the day of vengeance or judgement.  Today is the day of grace. Today is the day we can correct our errors and believe. But the day is coming.  The day for which we have been warned by those same prophets.  The day when this narrative we live reaches its end.  The day when a new narrative starts and all things are restored.

Shakespeare’s plays had 5 acts. All the high drama took place in Acts 3 and 4.  But the effects of those acts took time to ripple out.  There was always an Act 5.  The Book of Acts is the start of Act 5.  We are all in act 5.  As the cosmic divine drama of passion and resurrection reaches to all eternity – Today, we are witnesses. Today is the day of grace when we are made to stand. Tomorrow is a new play.

Closed Doors to Open Hearts

Biblical Text: John 20:19-31

I tend to think the best titles are intuitive. The more time you spend thinking about them, the worse they are. The title I put on this sermon is not something that appears in the sermon proper, but it popped into my head as encompassing the entire scope. The Gospel reading takes us from Easter Evening through the following Sunday with Thomas and ends with a note that sure sounds like an ending to book. To me there are three scenes. The first scene is a picture of personal spiritual life. The second scene (Thomas) is a picture of how the church works in this world, or how individuals are brought to that point of being born again. The final scene is a reminder of all the ways the church might fail, but where she always finds renewal. It is a text that takes us from Closed Doors due to fear to open hearts living the Christian life even at great risk.

Recording note: In service we had a member of the congregation who had a health issue. He was being taken care of by a couple members of the congregation and as long as it doesn’t seem like a life threatening emergency I tend to continue on. Let people who know what they are doing have the space. But at one point when it started to look worse, I did pause before picking back up.

Changes in Thinking.

An inside joke in the Brown house is going “Spatula City, Spatula City (fade out)…” anytime someone asks for the spatula.  If you know, you might already be chuckling, if not, I’ll ruin the joke by explaining it. It’s a line from the 1989 Weird Al movie UHF. And even the name of the movie has to be explained these days.  As I sit watching TV alone most nights, everyone else in their own private sphere doing their own thing, I remember what 1989 (my Junior year) was like. We did not have cable.  That meant that we got 4 channels on VHF (low numbers on the “top dial” – 2, 5, 8, and 13 for us representing CBS/NBC/ABC/PBS). You also occasionally, if the weather and the antenna were just right, got a couple on the UHF (high numbers on the “bottom dial”.) We got WGN on 53 on a repeater out of Chicago and something like 26 which was pure Weird Al UHF local. Full of game shows like “Wheel of Fish” sponsored by the local fish market and recasts of the area High School Football games captured by one stationary camera at the top of bleachers. And that might be what people agreed to watch at 9PM because you had to negotiate, unless Dad just said “I’m watching 8.” It’s a lost world that was occasionally very funny.  Something Weird Al captured perfectly and lovingly.  And it is completely lost on my kids although not the wife.

Sharing that memory is part narcissism, but not completely. In those days the topics of general discussion were set by that limited number of outlets along with the big city daily newspapers. There might be highbrow, midbrow and lowbrow takes, but the subject was the same. Whatever was on the front page of the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and the LA Times would be the day’s subjects.  Time Magazine (or Newsweek or US News) would come along end of the week with the solid midbrow summary. And then there were fortnightly and monthly magazines that would do the highbrow thinking.  The idea that today you could get everyone in the country talking about the same thing is a dream.  Even the Superbowl only gets about 1/3rd of TVs, something that a normal episode of MASH used to pull. Today, everything is narrow cast. Just by the outlet you know who people are trying to talk to.

Which is why a couple of things have caught my eye recently.  Stories in places that would signal a change in thinking. The recent regrets of one of the “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheist apocalypse, Richard Dawkins, kicked it off. He proclaimed himself a Cultural Christian. Looking at the direction of the civilization that is downstream of him, he somewhat realized himself in the cartoon posted nearby.  But it was an article in The Atlantic that nailed it.  The Atlantic is something aimed at aspiring-highbrow-money-to-spend-in-the-know-want-to-be-with-it people. And for The Atlantic to publish “The True Cost of the Churchgoing Bust” thinking must be changing. And some of that re-thinking is grounded in the reality that those who seem to be managing their way around a cell phone virtual world best, are those who have deep attachments to things like ritual, like liturgy and the Lord’s Supper. Things that make meaning in a world bereft of it.  That give solidity. That touch the real.  Having The Atlantic audience open to such thoughts is something new.

And that kicked off several chats of the form “How much do I have to believe to be a part of your church?”

And that answer comes in layers.  The doors are always open.  Always have been.  Anyone can attend a worship service.  Most things that take place in the church are open to participation. A specific question I got was “I maybe believe in God 30%, but I don’t believe in a divine Jesus.  Would I be welcome.”   My answer was “Yes.  Most of us don’t have Road to Damascus conversions.  But if you hear the Word of God consistently, are baptized, one of these days you’ll find yourself saying the 2nd article of the creed – because that is what churches do – and actually believing it.”  The word of God does not return empty, but accomplishes its purpose (Isaiah 55:11). My answer also included the question, “are your doubts private, or would you intend to demand the pulpit to spread them?” As I explained, private doubts are things people of faith wrestle with all the time.  Although as one matures in faith the wrestling is less about the creedal basics and more about the often unfathomable will of God. But public confrontation would require protection of the flock.  The church contains a multitude of sinners, but it proclaims one message. Jesus Christ is LORD and savior of sinners.

My answer also included the distinction between membership and participation. Membership ultimately includes the willingness to stand up and publicly confess what the church does. Does that mean the end of all doubts.  No. What it does mean is the good faith to struggle and maybe to occasionally accept that 2000 – 4000 years of people interacting with this revealed God know more than one 21st century man.   Finding yourself in that third square of the comic is often the start of repentance.  And Repentance is always the first step of faith.

Confronting Fears at the Tomb

Biblical Text: Mark 16:1-8

So much of Easter is the Hymns. I hate chopping them out, but the truth is they just don’t record as well. The place is not mic’ed up for that. But when the text of the day is Mark’s Easter account, you get to preach on something unique. Mark has the two Mary’s and Salome running from the tomb in fear. And that is where the gospel ends. (The early sermon examines that.) But that ending has a deep existential meaning to all of us. We are all confronted with a couple of fears. The obvious one is fear of death. But without dismissing the dread that creep up, you get to a certain age, you’ve made your peace. But the other one is fear of not being in control. Coming face to face with a man who controls death and who has something for you to do is running right into our lack of control. It is also running into the answer to that. That is the fear Easter addresses in Mark, but we all have to make a decision about that. The sermon expands on that.

Good Friday 2024

The service has its bit of theater – the candles are snuffed one at a time after each reading. But what it really it is a reading of the passion story woven together with the great hymns of the day and short meditations. The theme of the meditations this year was “The Way of the Cross”. The recording is the full service. If you want the service bulletin this link contains that

Where is Christ for Us?

This is the Maundy Thursday service which commemorates and spotlights the Lord’s Supper, because it was on this night the Supper was instituted. These sermon ponders for a bit Bonhoeffer’s question from his last days in prison: “Where is Christ for Us?” His answer only really comes to us in outline for from letters. And it includes a few phrases that I think cloud the picture for those who picked them up and ran with them. What he was talking about in those letters was the cross. Christ for us is always found at the cross. And Lord’s Supper – the body and blood of Christ – is one place we always find the cross. The sermon meditates on this.

Behold Your King

Biblical Texts: Palms – John 12:12-19 Passion – Mark 15:1-47

This sermon has two “movements” (man that is a pretentious term). The first is a bit of history about Passion Sunday and Palm Sunday and how we got to them being together. The second is a meditation upon the two crowds: the one that sang Jesus into Jerusalem with Palms, and the one that cried crucify. The second movement is really the preaching for the day and takes up most of the sermon. And the really interesting thing from these two texts is the interplay of who calls Jesus “The King of Israel” and who calls him “the King of the Jews”. Israel and “The Jews” are always distinct things. And Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday confirms the difference. Israel is the people of God by faith. They accept this King who comes on colt and cross. “The Jews” are the people from every nation that reject this king, who have no king but Caesar. And that is the crisis of the Kingdom. The King has come, but is this Jesus your King?

Love & Money

In Wednesday morning Bible Study this week we studied Matthew 19 which I like to call the love and money chapter. Jesus’ teaching on both motives for murder compressed into one chapter.  Even Jesus on these topics gives a little wiggle room saying things like “not everyone can receive this saying” and “let the one who is able to receive this receive it” and “with God all things are possible.” Jesus doesn’t lie.  He is asked legal questions.  “Is it lawful to divorce?” and “What good works must I do?”  And He does give the legal answers. It is just that these legal answers are typically beyond us.  The law is good and wise, and our lives would be better if we followed them. But as Jesus says to one of the questions “because of the hardness of your hearts…”.  The ultimate answer is not to be found in the law.  The ultimate answer is sandwiched in the middle of those two great motives.  The Kingdom belongs to the little children.  Which is not so much a literal statement as a picture written on the heart. The Kingdom belongs to those humble enough to accept the touch of Jesus.  We break the world.  We find ourselves in the ditch.  And we need the touch of God to save us and give us hope.

To me that is the law and gospel of love and money.  But thinking about it further there is something more that needs to be said in our day.  Author Tom Holland, an excellent popular historian of the ancient world, wrote a book recently called Dominion.  And his thesis of this book is true, but dramatically unpopular in academic haunts. He captured it perfectly in the subtitle: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World. The Historian of the ancient would, against what he wanted to believe as he was enamored with glory that was Rome and the grandeur that was Greece, detailed how a crucified Jew in a backwater of the empire changed the entire world. And because of that change, even today the world is much more “Christian” than we might think. Let me explain.

In the ancient world, you got what you deserved. If you were crucified you were obviously guilty. The idea that an innocent man could be on the tree was just not possible.  But that thinking is really derived from a deeper pagan idea. Fortune, the Gods, had their favorites. And those the gods favored were rewarded with money, power, fame, glory.  And the reward of the gods was righteousness. The acts of the powerful, because they were powerful, were righteous and ordained by God. The desires of money were always just. If you had enough money to bribe enough people that wasn’t corruption.  That was simply the outworking of the right.  For Jesus to say, “Only with difficulty will a rich person enter the Kingdom of heaven.  It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle” was earth changing even to his Jewish disciples.  When the gospel says “when they heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying ‘who then can be saved?’” It is because this is a direct refutation of everything they thought about God.  Even the Jews.  Yes, the prophets warned about taking care of the widowed and the fatherless, but even that could find gentile parallels in Stoic thought about fortune.  The wheel turns.  If you are generous when you are up, karma will help you when you are down.  God still rewarded the righteous with power, money, fame, glory.

Our civilization, apparently at the end of this Dominion, is at an interesting point. It is still “Christian” is the sense that we know the innocent can suffer and that we think it is incumbent on a just society to rectify. It is still “Christian” to the extent that it doesn’t equate power with righteousness.  But to the extent that it has rejected both the gospel – let’s put it here as the meek shall inherit the earth – and the law – that the 10 commandments represent how we should live, how long does that Dominion’s conclusions which were built on the proclamation of the law and gospel hold? We already see the secular replacements (“human rights”, “rule of law”, “philanthropy”) breaking and the demands of power and money returning stronger. How long until those demands are again simply asserted at the righteous judgements of god? There are already such assertions in the cults of many current figures in the papers everyday.

If we will not hear the law.  I’m not saying live it perfectly, but merely hear it. Neither do we get the world it orders. That harsher pagan false law returns. And we should not be as surprised as the disciples this time. We know the difference the gospel made. When presented with the King like on Palm Sunday, if we ultimately reject his rule, we should not be surprised when other lords return.

Lenten Midweek 5- Lord’s Prayer

This is the final sermon in the Lenten Midweek series. We reviewed the first portion of the Catechism with emphasis on the creed (MW 2,3 & 4). The Law was MW1 and this MW5 is the Lord’s Prayer. We used the third petition as the text. The arrangement of Luther’s catechism in the Word section drops leaves you at prayer, which is part of Luther’s teaching. The Christian life is a life of prayer. This sermon reflects on what prayer accomplishes and how which are the two questions Luther asks in the catechism: What does this mean? and How is this done?