Sin, Righteousness and Judgement

And when He comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgement. – John 16:8

Sometimes there are phrases that just jump off the page and grab the imagination.  I think the one above is one of those phrases. Today is the Feast of Pentecost, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the church. And that phrase is what Jesus says the Holy Spirit will accomplish.  In a world where standards seem to be up for grabs the idea of the Holy Spirit convicting the world about anything seems doubtful. Convicting this world concerning sin and righteousness and judgement is quite the boast.  It is worth pondering those three words and two others in that phrase – convict and world.  What do they mean?

We think of convict purely in a negative legal sense – convicted.  The word used here does have that meaning, but it might be better to remember an older sense of a trial.  The purpose of a trial is to bring to light, to force what was hidden or in the darkness out into the open.  The Holy Spirit will bring to light.  And what will the Holy Spirit force into the open?  The world.  The entire cosmos. John likes that word cosmos. God so loves the cosmos. The Holy Spirit will expose how the world works.

How specifically will the Holy Spirit do this?  The first thing will be concerning sin.  And what is the sin of the world brought into the light? “That they do not believe in me (John 16:9).” The Holy Spirit will expose the fact that the World does not fear, love or trust in God above all things.  That the World fears the mighty.  It loves money and pleasure. It trusts in its own strength.  All of which are temporal.  The day the mighty dies, his plans die with him (Psalm 146:4).  The fool thinks I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones (Luke 12:28), yet tonight my soul is required of me.  The Holy Spirit will bring to light our foolish belief, our disbelief in God.

The Holy Spirit will bring to light righteousness. Jesus’ explanation here might be a little less immediate. “Because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer. (John 16:10)”  It is not immediately apparent why the ascended LORD is the Spirit revealing righteousness. I think this is something of an answer to Psalm 24.  That Psalm asserts that the earth is the LORD’s and the fullness of it.  And then it asks “Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD?…He who has clean hands and a pure heart. (Paslm 24:3-4).” Paul ponders this in Romans 10.  “The righteousness based on faith says, ‘Do Not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend?’”  According to the law we are always worried who could stand before the throne, and the answer is not a single person is righteous.  But Christ the Lamb was worthy to ascend and take the seat at the right hand.  The Holy Spirit bringing to light righteousness is the testimony that Christ sits at the right hand of God, and that our righteousness is dependent not upon our ability to ascend, but upon faith in the one who has ascended.

The Holy Spirit brings to light judgement? Should this place us back into the fear of not ascending? No, because what the Holy Spirit reveals is that “the ruler of this world is judged (John 16:11).” The important judgement is not ours, but Satan’s. He’s judged, the deed is done, one little word can fell him.  The sin that is brought to light and confessed has no power over us.  Because the one who sits on the Throne has had mercy, and brings to naught the plans of the evil one, who has been cast out of heaven and can no longer accuse us.

He will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgement. He will testify to the light that shines in the darkness.  A light that the world cannot overcome. In this light is the life of all who receive it.

Water, Blood and Spirit

Biblical Text: Mark 1:4-11

The text for the Sunday after Epiphany is almost always the Baptism of Jesus. This episode in the bible has always caused me some wonder. It doesn’t immediately make sense for me. And there are multiple ways that I credit things in the Bible as making sense. There is always just historical sense. I have no problem that Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan. But the bare historical is always the least. What is the theological import, and why was it done this way? You might call these things poetical sense. Things in the bible make poetical sense. Or at least to me they usually do. It had to be that way because that is the only way the story makes sense. That is the only way it rhymes and keeps meter. But the Baptism of Jesus doesn’t immediately strike me that way. And being a pastor, especially a Lutheran pastor, where Baptism is such an important thing, understanding this episode felt necessary. This sermon is my attempt to wrestle with why this baptism is important.

Made to Grow

For as the earth brings forth its sprouts, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to sprout up before all the nations. – Isaiah 61:11

My parents had a minor garden emergency the other day. The roots of one of their shrubs had grown under the PVC water line, lifted it and caused a restriction. All the water was squirting out onto the neighbor’s house.  Dad was out splicing in a new section of pipe and removing the root.  I commented how different it was in late December dealing with growing things.  The oranges and grapefruit were far along and looking good.  The flower bush that mom had cut down to nothing because it was covering the window was back to the bottom of the window.  In Illinois and New York, this is fallow time, everything under a blanket of snow. Things never really stop growing here as long as they get water.  I even had to send Ethan out to spray the yard for weeds.

This is something of mystery to me. I have no idea how anything grows in this clay almost rock.  But it does.  I suppose that is akin to looking at the fallow snow cover and thinking about the Spring.  It is that sense of mystery that the prophet is evoking. “As the earth brings for its sprouts, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up.”  How does it do that?  Yes, we can go back to High School biology class and give some type of explanation.  But really, how does it know when to start? That line of questioning always ends in invoking something like “the seed senses the change in temperature” or “the change in light.” Really, the seed senses? I suppose we should be talking about the mind of the plant?  I think Jesus is a little more honest, “He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. (Mk. 4:27 ESV)” When you put seeds in the earth, they grow.  That is what they were made to do.

Now all Hebrew poetry is parallel; what comes before is meant to illuminate what comes after.  Seeds are placed in the soil and they do what they are made to do.  All nations and peoples and individuals are found within God.  In Him we live and move and have our being. And like the seeds in the earth, people produce what they were made to do.  “The Lord God will cause righteousness and praise.”  The sanctified life is the life we were meant to lead.  That is what it means to be fruitful.  And we were meant to return that fruit to the LORD in praise.  Not every seed grows.  Not every person is fruitful.  Sometimes wild grapes come up.  But we were made for righteousness and praise.

And that fruitfulness is not only a private thing, nor is it only for one people.  It will “sprout up before all the nations.” Just as this Arizona rock produces plants appropriate to it and the Iowa loam likewise, peoples of various times and places produce the righteousness and praise appropriate. No nation is left without a witness. And those witnesses do not grow in hothouses or under specialized grow lights.  They sprout up before all the nations.

In its larger context the one who grew before all the nations is Jesus Christ. Isaiah 61:1ff is what Jesus cites to Nazareth at the start of his ministry. The LORD has caused righteousness in the form of his son to sprout up before all the nations.  As long as we are connected to that vine we also bear fruit.  How does this happen?  This is the purpose of Christ, that we might have life and have it abundantly. That is what the incarnation was made to do.

The Best Laid Plans

Do you ever start something not really sure where it is going to go?

That usually isn’t me.  I want to have “the plan”.  I want to work “the plan”.  “The plan” might even have multiple paths and checkpoints.  Now I’ve never been crazy about this.  I’ve always known full well in the wise words of Iron Mike Tyson that “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”  But when you get punched in the mouth is when you hope your plan is more like a Bach fugue.  The melody is solid, you just have to shift to a different mouth.

Something like that might be the secret to a successful and happy existence on earth.  Can you roll with the punches?  Do you have enough grit such that you don’t have a glass jaw? Are you limber enough to play the rope-a-dope occasionally, or at least get your head out of the way of the haymaker?  If you are good at it, or never come up against Mike Tyson at least, you might even think you can go the full 15 rounds and grab the belt. Define “the belt” however you want to. 

You can file all of that under what Luther called civil righteousness.  The world works a certain way.  Some of those ways are not very Christian, using that word in the sense of nice or meeting a certain decorum.  But that starts to point out the problems with Civil Righteousness. Everyone around you might think you are the best person on earth, a living saint.  But, none of them get a vote that counts.  And even if they absolve you of great crimes because you have donated enough money to get your name on a building, their absolution lasts until you leave the building.  If you plan for civil righteousness you have received your reward.  Enjoy the belt.

The other type of righteousness Luther calls the righteousness before God.  And the brutal truth about this type is you can’t plan for it.  In fact, the more you plan and scheme and try to earn it, the more it punches you in the mouth. Eventually, bloody and bruised and knocked out, you might conclude that it’s a funny game, the only way to win is not to play. Because you can’t win the righteousness of God.  It only comes as a free gift. It only comes to broken sinners. It only comes to those who are flat on the mat admitting they are not going to beat the 10 count.  That is the stink of desperation in the civil realm, but before God that is when He can start to do something.  That is when we put down our plans and seek out God’s plans.  When we are raised by the Spirit.

Part of the good news is that God has told us where this goes.  This conforms us to his son, Jesus. He has also told us what to expect.  The punches of the world will keep coming.  But the plan of God is your eternal salvation. Your reward will be great in heaven.  

Part of the good news also is that it is good, not nice. Nice is always defined socially.  Nice is always changing. What is good? Conan the Barbarian’s answer isn’t it.  What is good doesn’t really change. “Keep justice, do righteousness (Isa 56:1), and walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).”  For soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance will be revealed.  With our plans we never really know where they are going; with God’s plan we know.    

The Trial of Pontius Pilate

Biblical Text: Matthew 27:11-26

Capturing this sermon in a simple paragraph is hard. The driving question is why would the Christians remember Pontius Pilate in the creed? And it is a question that has some maybe surprising contemporary impact. It has been one of those weeks where I feel that years have passed. This sermon directly addresses some of those things, because with Pilate as the source, they are appropriate.

Waiting for Consolation

Biblical Text: Luke 2:22-40

This sermon is some ways continues the contemplation between fortune and blessing started last Sunday, but it stands by itself, that continuation is just the pattern of the Chistian life. One person’s praise becomes the next person’s blessing and promise. This sermon focuses on the characters of Simeon and Anna, and specifically how they receive the blessings of God. There are three different ways we might respond. The pattern of Simeon is for us. He is “righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel.” If we receive the blessing, this is the pattern. (I’ve also left in a couple verses of a couple of the hymns sung. You forget how good “See Amid the Winter’s Snow” is.)

Binding the Broken Hearted

Biblical Text: Isaiah 61:1-11

The text from Isaiah is one of promise, the anointed one (i.e. the messiah, the royal child) is also the sent one (the suffering servant). The anointed one is sent with one purpose, “to proclaim good news to the poor”. What that means is then accomplished through the purposes of his sending. This sermon walks through that promise. That is the good news which deserves the longest time which answers how Christ binds the broken hearted.

But promises always rest on something. You get the promise from Whimpy and you know you will never see that dime tomorrow. The promises of the messiah rest upon the Character of God who “loves justice…and has made an everlasting covenant.” And attached to this promise and the reassertion of the character of God are a couple of proof points. Israel shall be known by the nations and Israel shall be known as blessed of God. We spend a bit thinking about the promises to physical Israel, and also spiritual Israel, and how these are proofs for us today.

The final bit of the text is the reply of Israel – praise and exaltation.

How are you Righteous/Just?

Biblical Text: Romans 3:19-28
Full Sermon Draft

This is a reformation sermon reflecting on the divisions and questions of our day. My central contention is that in Luther’s Day people assumed the Justness of the collective: the unity of the church and her pronouncements, the majesty of the mass and the sacraments, the divine right of Kings and the entire sacred order. And if the society was just, then it should produce righteous members. That was Luther’s conflict. He didn’t see or feel righteous. I think ours is somewhat the inverse. We assume that at least my tribe is righteous. And if we have righteous members, we should be able to build the just society. Both of these quests are quests for righteousness/justice (the same word in the biblical languages) are pursued through the law.

But we hold that no one is justified by works of the law. One is righteous by the blood of Christ given by his grace and received in by faith. The just society is not found or made with human laws or efforts, but is see from a distance – the New Jerusalem. One day we will get there. Now, we do not seek our justice in the law, because we will be forever angry as it slips away. Now, we live by faith. And only if we life by faith are we truly free.

What Are You Seeking?

Biblical Text: John 1:29-42
Full Sermon Text

With the change of the church year and getting out of the festival season we will start to notice the new Gospel reading. Luke is left behind and Matthew and John have the year. It may seem like overkill, but when you’ve read through each enough you can have a epiphany. Each gospel wants to be read on its terms. John’s terms are meditative. They are like an icon through which we see the reality. What this sermon does is attempt to ponder the diptych. The first scene is John the Baptist’s proclamation of the Lamb of God. The second scene is he response of two of his disciples. John the Baptist, the authoritative prophet, gives us the valid answers to Jesus’ question – “what are you seeking?” The sermon examines the uniqueness of that answer. It then looks at the second scene as an image of our response.

Worship note: I left in our opening hymn, an Epiphany season staple, LSB 409, Hail, O Source of Every Blessing.

Not when, or where , or who…but How, How does the Kingdom Come?

Full Text

The sermon text was Luke 18:1-8, but if you want the very important context you need to read Luke 17:20 – 18:8.

The Pharisees ask when. When is the Kingdom coming? The disciples ask where literally, but are really asking who, who is in the kingdom? Jesus responds now and you. The kingdom is within you. (Luke 17:21) The real question is how. How does that one to whom the Kingdom has come act? They act like this widow.

This widow is under an unrighteous judge. She has no reason to expect justice, but still she pursues it. We as residents of the kingdom in this unrighteous world have no reason to expect justice here and now, but still we work for it. We work for it here, because we know the perfect is coming.

This sermon was a little longer, and I’m pretty sure that reading it isn’t the same as hearing it. My proof reader, my sainted mother, thought it was nuts. She just didn’t get it. Then I preached it over the phone. And she liked it much better. A reminder that the Word of God is primarily oral. The Word comes by hearing. It also makes a difference that we as a congregation had a baptism. Reading this you would not see or be part of that. And Baptism is an important visible sign of the kingdom and part of the How answer.