Archive for September, 2012

Equal Footing

Sunday, September 23rd, 2012

17th Sunday in Pentecost B, September 23, 2012
Pastor Brian Henderson-Trinity Lutheran Church, San Diego, CA

Click here for audio of this message

If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all. [Mark 9:35b]

These words are hard to receive because they are hard to understand; they are hard to understand because they frighten us by  demanding that we put the needs of others above our own needs.  We are afraid to do this because it requires us to die to ourselves and  live for Christ; they demand that we allow Christ to live within us and teach us.

These words are hard to receive because in them Jesus gives us wisdom from above; a wisdom that is completely opposite to the  wisdom of the world.  This morning Jesus is teaching us that the way to make it big, the way to be first is by receiving those who are  smaller than us.

How do we receive those who are little?  Well, in our gospel reading (Mark 9:30-37),what example did Jesus use to teach His disciples?  That’s right a little child.  He scooped up a small child and placed it smack dab in the middle of the room so that all eyes would be  focused on that little one.  And then, He simply said that “Whoever receives one (such as this child) in My name receives Me, and  whoever receives Me, receives not Me but Him who sent Me.” [vs. 37]

So, look at the least and discover your way to be first.  To receive the most, take the smallest.

Why did Jesus use a child to illustrate His teaching?  Well, because children were not given much attention back then.  You know the saying, “Children are to be seen and not heard!”  So by elevating small children and their small understanding of the world around them, Jesus is making a point that we must always be ready to receive people who may indeed be below us in not just age but also maturity and status.  But this receiving business isn’t simply opening your arms and taking an infant so you can admire and coddle them.  No, it is more than just a receiving blanket; Jesus wants you to take responsibility for the nurturing and mentoring of that one who is beneath you.

Think of the young couple who has just received their infant.  The father says, “We just had a baby,” even though it was the mother who gave birth.  The father gladly receives the baby from the nurse and coddles him and beams with pride.  But soon he gives the baby back to the nurse so he can make the necessary phone calls and hand out the obligatory cigars.

When mother and child come home, the proud daddy learns the art of diapering and feeding and promises his wife that they are in this together.  But after a few days, maybe even after a few hours, as B.B. King sang, “The Thrill is Gone!”  When the baby cries at 2:00 a.m. the father lies in bed pretending to be asleep and waits for his wife to get up.  Or, When the diaper contains a surprise that is obvious by the smell, he yells “Dear can you…?”

What happened?  Why is it only the mother who must bear the burden?  Because only the mother has taken to heart the words that to receive the child, that is to care for the child no matter the cost, is to receive Jesus!

In our world today, there are many who do not know Jesus.  When God brings them to us as individuals or as a congregation, they come with all kinds of selfish and sinful habits and ambitions.  They will be demanding of your time to the point of bitter jealousy.  They will exhibit selfish ambition and all kinds of vile practices; in essence, they bring with them the wisdom of this world; a wisdom that says only the strong and the best will survive.  If this worldly wisdom is allowed to remain within them they will bring disorder both to your individual lives and to our congregation.  So what are we to do?  Are we to send them away packing?  Are we to chastise them and demand conformity?  Well what did Jesus say?  We are to receive them as you receive a child; you are to receive them as a parent receives their infant.  You are to nurture and teach them; you are to take responsibility and serve them.  By this type of receiving you are receiving Jesus Himself.  Receive others as you would have others do unto you.  This is what James calls the “meekness of wisdom” in our Epistle reading. [James 3:13-4:10]

We are afraid of this teaching because its wisdom is the very opposite of what we learn in this sinful world we live in.  Here, in God’s Word, we learn that trying to be the greatest, that is to be first through selfish ambition, is to live outside of Jesus name; it is to be an enemy of God’s truth and an opponent to God’s wisdom from above.  That dear friends is not only wrong and sinful, “but it is earthly, unspiritual, (and) demonic.”

But we are afraid to hear this teaching, to receive it for another reason; it demands that we take up our cross and follow Jesus.

This morning, Jesus teaches us that as we “receive one” (such as a child in His name, we can expect to be treated as Jesus was treated; we can expect to be “delivered up into the hands of men.”

This was the second time that Jesus proclaimed to His disciples that He would soon suffer and die by the hands of sinful men so that He could save them.  While it was true that the disciples did not understand how that was a good thing, they also knew that it did not sound like the gospel.  They did not understand because they were still thinking with worldly wisdom and not with wisdom from above.   In their minds, suffering equals bad and comfort equals good!

We understand that also.  We seldom take risks for strangers because we all know that it can come back to bite us in the butt.  No good deed goes unpunished.  But in our Old Testament lesson (Jeremiah 11:18-20), Jeremiah understood this feeling.  He knew that by receiving and teaching sinful strangers he was opening himself up to a world of trouble.  The very ones that he was sent to save with the Word of God were the ones that would plot against him; they devised schemes saying “Let us destroy the tree with its fruit, let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name be remembered no more.” [vs. 20]

Jeremiah understood that it wasn’t really him who they were attacking but the Word of God.  It was the Word that they wanted silenced; a Word that pointed out their sin and their love of more sin.  Jeremiah understood, and if he could be here this morning, he would point you to one greater than he; one who is the true Suffering Servant that the sinners then and sinners today want to silence.

This morning, Jesus shows us that He is the greater Jeremiah, as He turns the prophets prayer of, “O Lord of hosts, who judges righteously, who tests the heart and the mind, let me see your vengeance upon (my enemies) for to you have I committed my cause [vs. 20], into “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  And Jesus shows us how to be greatest by being least as He shows us how to trust God even in death with these Words, “Father, into Your hand I commend my spirit.”

Do you want to be great in the eyes of God even as the world thinks you are the least?  Then trust in and protect the truth of the gospel.  We trust in the truth of a gospel that points us to a Suffering Savior.  We trust in the truth which declares, that His suffering and death for our sins is the only way to please a righteous God.  We trust in the truth, which proclaims that His death upon the cross for a world of sinners was truly our own death when God’s forgiving love washed us and recreated us in the waters of our baptism.

And when we trust in this truth for us we are moved by the Spirit of God within us and our new baptismal nature to share that same message with others.  We share the message with others, because Jesus loves those little ones who are lost in sin.  He loves them however we find them; even if they are infants or elderly.  He loves them and calls all of them into the washing of the water and the Word.  He wants all of them to be washed clean and be received in the blanket of God’s forgiving love.

This is the message that calls each of us to die to sin and turn to Jesus for life.  It is a message of least and greatest.  It is a message that teaches each of us every day to die to ourselves and live for Christ.  It teaches that the way to be the greatest is to serve others so that Christ can be great among us.

This is the equal footing that we all stand upon.  We equally can’t understand this message of suffering and death, but we trust it and we let it come alive within us.  Each of us are equally afraid of this message, but we draw strength and courage from it as we gather around God’s Word and Sacraments.  Together, we equally see ourselves in a lowly and humble way; as empty vessels that God wants to fill with His divine grace and forgiving love.  And when God fills us equally, something interesting happens as we stand upon the equal footing with both young and old, mature and immature Christians; each of us discovers that our equal footing is really our true and solid foundation… Jesus Christ!  In Christ, or on Christ each of us are elevated high above this sinful world and the punishment that awaits it.  May God continue to give each of you more grace as you oppose the devil and your own sinful flesh; may God give each of you more grace as you cleanse your hands and your hearts.  May God give you more grace as you humble yourselves before the Lord, and then may your mourning be turned to joy as He alone exalts you unto eternal life… in Jesus name… AMEN!

Who is this Suffering Servant?

Sunday, September 16th, 2012

16th Sunday in Pentecost B, September 16, 2012
Pastor Brian Henderson-Trinity Lutheran Church, San Diego, CA

Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, I believe; help my unbelief!””[Mark 9:24]

For a Christian, these are perhaps the most emotional words we could ever speak.  They are emotional because they are words of truth.  We believe, yet we know that on our own we cannot believe.  We are found yet we are lost.  We see, yet we are blind!  These words are truth and they are words of both hope and desperation.

Each one of you here this morning are here by faith; you believe that God loves you and cares for you, yet you also know that you are completely  dependent on God to sustain your faith; you know that if left on your own for even a moment, you would abandon your hope of God’s love and be  completely consumed by the hopelessness that defines this generation that we live in!

In our Gospel reading Jesus speaks this very truth when He is confronted by a mob led by some of His enemies, the scribes, who are the  professional interpreters of the law.  They are delighted that Jesus apostles cannot drive out the demon that possesses a little boy.  But Jesus is  also met by a father; a father who feels desperate, afraid, and alone, but yet he is not hopeless.  This father could care a less about the animosity  between the scribes and the disciples of Jesus; He wants only two things… he wants to get to Jesus and he wants to ask for mercy and deliverance  for his son.

“Jesus please hear my request I beg you!  I brought my son to you because he is possessed by an evil spirit.  When I arrived here to meet you they  said you weren’t here but away with some of your disciples.  Your other disciples heard my plea for mercy and deliverance for my boy and they  tried to help him, but they could not; it seemed that they just weren’t strong enough to defeat the demon.”

And to this report, Jesus looks out at the crowd, first to the scribes then to His disciples and He says in complete honesty with pain and disappointment soaked into every Word, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” [Mark 9:19]

So what went wrong?  Why weren’t the apostles able to cast out the demon?  They believed yet they did not!  They had faith in Jesus; they still recalled the time when they returned from a missionary trip and were able to cast out many demons in Jesus name, and yet this time they could not.  They could not because they believed not!  They believed not because they asked not, but now Jesus would teach them the one thing missing; the one thing needful that they neglected to include was prayer.  And now Jesus will illustrate that one thing needful as it is found in the plea of a desperate and loving father!

Jesus looked at the father and asked him, “How long has this been happening to your son?” Now let me point out, that Jesus asked this not because he was gathering information like a physician who seeks a diagnosis so that he can prescribe treatment, but rather he asked so the father would realize along with the disciples how desperate the situation really was; he asks so that all of us will understand that only God could free this young boy; so that you will understand that only God can save you.

The father answered Jesus and said, “He’s been like this since childhood. Since he has been a small boy, the demon has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him, “ ‘If you can’!   Listen to your own words and think about them.  All things are possible for one who believes.  For a person who calls out to God in prayer and believes that the same God who created this boy can deliver this boy!”

“Immediately, the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe (Lord); help my unbelief!”  And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose.”

Why couldn’t the disciples drive out that filthy demon?  Because they lacked faith; they could not because they asked not.  They had no faith because they did not call out to the author and perfecter of their faith.  Jesus latter told apostles in private that the specific demon that possessed the boy could only be driven out by prayer; in other words it could only be driven out by directly asking God in prayer to remove it.  The father of the boy did that very thing when He came to Jesus; he simply made his request and waited for Jesus to help.

You see, the father knew that he was one of those that Jesus called the unbelieving generation, but he saw what the scribes, the sinful crowd, and the disciples would not see; he saw that without Jesus and his mercy he was lost and without hope.  But he also knew because of the small faith that he had, that if he could get to Jesus, all would be well.  So he made his petition and he rested in that hope alone.

Do you see yourself as part of this unbelieving generation?  Do you see how fragile and dangerous the condition of your faith is?  If so, then what are you to do?  You are to call out to Jesus so that God can fight for you.

In our Old Testament reading, the prophet Isaiah writes, “The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary.  Morning by morning he awakes me; he awakens my ear to hear as those who are taught.”

Do you also have the tongue of someone who is intimate with God?  Do you study His Word and allow it to change and sustain you?  And are you able to lead others to this same source of hope and salvation?  You can if you call out to God as the father of the demon possessed boy did; “I believe Lord; help me with my unbelief.”  I know that your Word alone is truth; I know that in it is my only hope, but I also know that on my own I can never desire it or trust it.  On my own I am truly part of this faithless generation.”

And how does God answer your confession of faithless sin and your plea for faith?  He speaks to you the Words of His suffering Servant.  Listen: “The Lord God opened my ear, and I was not rebellious; I turned not backward.  I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting. But the Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame.” [Isaiah 35:4]

God answers your prayer by showing you His Suffering Servant; He shows you His Son, Jesus Christ!  God shows you His Son who is the author and perfecter of your faith.  He shows you His Son’s passion; His suffering and death for you, for your sins, and as the only solution to your faithlessness.

In the cross God shows you just how much He loves you.  The Father loves you enough to allow His Son to be beaten, humiliated, and executed so that you would know that you will never suffer the same punishment from Him on account of your sins.  At the cross you see God’s love, you see Jesus suffering and death for you, and you call out, “I believe Lord; help me with my unbelief.”  At the cross, God opens your ears and your heart so that you will see Jesus and know that He loves you; so that you will see Jesus and you will be given faith; faith that opens your ears and your hearts to hear and believe!

But something else happens at the cross; something wonderful and mysterious.  At the cross, God also shows you that you too have been called to be a suffering servant.  As you look to the cross you see Jesus and you hear Him calling you to follow Him.  He calls you to follow Him into the middle of enemy territory; you follow into the valley of the shadow of death.  And there in that dark valley Jesus calls you to speak; to pray and rebuke the darkness around you.  He has empowered you to speak Words of hope in a valley of fear.  And when we are afraid or begin to think we have lost our way, He reminds us to call out to Him, “I believe Lord; help my unbelief!”

And how does He help your unbelief?  In the promise of His Word and in the hope of His presence within the sacraments.  Jesus has been with you since your baptism and His Word promises that He will never leave you.  He is with you in His Supper where He sustains you with His body and blood which are the very essence of His promise.

Jesus your Savior, God’s Suffering Servant has found you and restored you, but He found you on His terms, according to His means.  Through others who once were part of the unbelieving generation He has brought you out of the darkness of unbelief and into His glorious light of faith.  Just as it took the small faith of a worried father to bring his possessed son to Jesus and call out for faith, Jesus now asks you to do the same.  Just as the boy could not come to or call out to Jesus alone, there are many today in our community, even in our own families that are just as lost.  They are in the valley of death, the darkness of unbelief.  What can you do?  Rebuke the darkness; call out to Jesus in prayer and ask Him to drive away the evil from your neighbors and friends.  If you won’t do this who then will?  You can do it, because morning by morning He awakens your ear to hear His Word.  Each day he lives in you and works in you.

So speak to your neighbors.  Tell them about the Suffering Servant who alone can give faith and hope and sustain it!  Invite them to come with you to God’s house and experience His Divine Service within them and among them, and then watch as those who walk in darkness also trust in the name of the LORD and rely on their true God, Jesus Christ!  Amen!

Who Is Welcome Here?

Sunday, September 9th, 2012

15th Sunday in Pentecost B, September 9, 2012
Pastor Brian Henderson-Trinity Lutheran Church, San Diego, CA
Click here for audio of this message

“”Say to those who have an anxious heart, “Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.”” [Isaiah 35:4]

Can you remember a time in your life when you had an anxious heart; when you were separated from God and you knew it?  What is it  that separated you from God’s love; wasn’t it your sin?  Didn’t that make you afraid of thinking about eternal things; about judgment?    And yet here you are this morning; listening to God’s Word and experiencing a new and abundant life!  True, it isn’t always and easy  life, but it is a lot better than the other option of living a life of fear and worry.

So how did you get here, living this life of faith?  How did you become a Christian?  Was it your decision to simply turn away from a life  of sin, or was there more to it?  What I mean is, if you simply decided to turn to faith and away from sin, then why are you still sinning;  why are you still struggling with living a life that is pleasing to God?

Ok, I know that is making you a little uncomfortable, so I’ll try another approach; perhaps you are here living this Christian life of faith  because someone invited you at just the right time to come to church, and your life has not been the same since?  Well then, if that’s  the truth, I would say that you owe that person who invited you to church your very life.  I would say that there is no limit to how much you can and should do to repay that person for the kindness they’ve shown you!

I know, I know… that reason doesn’t seem practical either, so let me try something else; something different and outside of you.  Perhaps, just maybe you are here because Jesus saw inside of you, knew the real you and still saw someone worth saving; worth touching and worth speaking to!  Maybe in a way that only God could touch or speak, He simply said, “Ephphatha!  Be opened” and it was at that point your ears were opened to hear the truth; God’s truth.”

In our gospel reading we see two examples of healing and both were done to people you and I would probably have over looked.  One, was a strange foreign woman and the other was a deaf and babbling foreigner who could only mumble and point.

The foreign woman was the insistent type; she insisted on having a one on one talk with Jesus!  She wouldn’t settle for His helpers or friends; it had to be with Jesus alone!  Now she was a strange one; she was different.  Today, you might call her needy and clingy; you might even say she was downright rude.  You know the type I’m talking about; the type that won’t take no for an answer.  Now the apostles I am sure tried to send her away, after all she was a dirty, no good gentile woman, but she refused to leave.  Finally, when Jesus came out of the home he was in, she pushed her way past the crowd and through the apostles, fell down at Jesus feet and worshiped Him.  She worshiped Him and called out for mercy; she called out for the one thing only Jesus could do… drive a demon out of her daughter.

Now, I am going to ask you a tricky question; the answer isn’t what you think it should be, so take your time before you answer.  Did Jesus heal her daughter right away?  Wait, don’t answer yet… really meditate on the question.  Here let me help you.  After Jesus received her worship and heard her speak out loud her question, he immediately responded with a statement of facts, He said,  “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”  Now that is a strange thing for Jesus to say; why would he call that desperate woman a dog?  Does that sound like the Jesus you have come to know?  Did he really call her a dog… someone less than human?  No!  He called her something more than a dirty wild dog and something less than a Jew; He called her what she was, a gentile sinner, in need of a Savior.

You see, Jesus spoke correctly when He said that it wasn’t right to take the food out of the mouths of His children.  What parent here would feed anyone or anything before their children were fed?  No one would, and that is Jesus point.  You see, the Jews were the children of God by default, because they were the children of Abraham; descendants of that man of great faith.  It was to Abraham who God promised that one of His descendants would be the promised Messiah, who would come to save the Jews first and then the gentiles from their sins.  And now before the very eyes of this woman stands that Messiah; Jesus, the Son of God and the son of Mary.  And He is telling her that His first mission to the Jews is not yet complete; her time, the time of the gentiles has not yet come.  But that doesn’t explain why Jesus called her a dog.  Well, let’s see if we can shed a little light onto that one.

The Jews, who were supposed to be a light to the gentiles, a light that showed them the way to God’s forgiving love, instead mostly drove the gentiles away; they acted hatefully and superior.  They looked down on the gentiles and even called them dogs; the kind of dogs that were homeless and unclean; they called then “ka-leeb”.  Ka-leeb was the Hebrew word used to describe the dogs found in the junkyards or roaming the streets at night.  But Jesus did not use that word, instead he used a Greek word that referred to the woman and other gentiles as Kynariois, or family house doges.  That kind of canine was the beloved and cherished family pet.  But as much as you love your pets, you certainly would not feed them first and then feed your children.

Now the gentile woman picked up on that word that Jesus used to describe her, and she spoke it right back to Him; “Yes, Lord; yet even the kynariois (pet dogs) under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  And to this Jesus smiles and sends the woman home; home to a daughter who is already healed.  So the answer to the question is yes, Jesus did heal her daughter immediately, perhaps even before they spoke.  He healed her because the request that came from her mother was completely covered and surrounded in faith.

So my next question is this: Why did this woman have faith in Jesus?  Why did she trust Jesus?  She trusted Him because Jesus opened her heart to trust Him.  Like the man who had been deaf and unable to speak for such a long time, she was helpless to hear about and believe in Jesus unless God opened her ears and her heart to hear and believe.  Just as Jesus spoke the Word “Ephphatha” to the deaf mute, He spoke the same Word of opening and believing to the woman.  The Word of God speaks the will of God.  And what is God’s will?  That none should perish but have everlasting life!

Eternal life is a gift; it is never earned nor a birth right.  You are not a Christian because your parents were Christians; you are a Christian because God has spoken the Word Ephphatha to you.  He spoke it to you in your baptism and he speaks it to you when you gather around His Word and at His table to receive His Supper.  We believe because He has spoken, and when He speaks to us Ephphatha He speaks new life.  It is a Word that is spoken to dirty no good sinners and holy and righteous saints alike.  It is a Word full of power and it both kills and brings back to life.

Are you listening?  Do you hear Jesus speaking Words of death and life?  He is asking you to be open and listen; perhaps He is even asking you to speak Words of life to someone you would not usually speak to?  Maybe He is asking you to step outside of your comfort zone and associate with people who are not like you; people you would normally not give a second thought to.  If you are rich or at least well off, maybe He is asking you to share the gospel, or invite someone who is poor to church.  Or if you are poor, maybe He is asking you to speak openly and sincerely with someone who appears rich or above your economic status; you know rich people need Jesus too!  Or maybe He is asking you to speak to someone who is obviously living a life far removed from God and the church; maybe it is someone or a group of someones who intimidate you or even infuriates you?

Will you speak; do you dare go that far outside of your comfort zone?  Yes, and you will do it if you allow God to open your heart along with your ears.  You will do it because you know that God is no respecter of persons or status.  If He was, He never would have chosen you.  And yet, He did!  Jesus died for you.  On the cross He had you on His heart and His mind, and in your baptism He called you God’s own child!  You are God’s own child because the Word of the cross opened your heart and your ears.  You are God’s own child because the waters of your baptism washed you clean and recreated you.  You have been transformed from a sinner to a saint.  From a dog to a child of God, and now God asks you to watch Him do the same thing again and again through His Word that you carry in your heart.  “Say to those who have an anxious heart, “Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.”  Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.”

So sing for joy.  Tell everyone who will listen, because everyone really is welcome in God’s house.  Tell whoever God puts in your path, about what Jesus has done for you.  Invite them here to this place to hear the very words that save you… Ephphatha… be opened!