Thursday, February 23, 2023

The Sermon of the Ashes

[Below is the live stream video of the Ash Wednesday worship service of Living Water Lutheran Church, Centerville, Ohio, along with the message shared during the service.]

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Tonight, friends, Jesus tells us not to engage in religious activity that calls attention to us.

Also tonight, we have received the mark of the cross on our foreheads which, if we stop by a store or a filling station on the way home, will be noticed by everyone who sees us.

Are we violating the very commands Jesus gives us in tonight’s Gospel lesson? Let’s talk about that.

The Imposition of Ashes isn’t you being a religious show-off. It’s something else altogether.

As good Lutherans, you know that every sermon, in order for it to be faithful to God, must include both Law and Gospel.

Law and Gospel are the two ways speaks to us in His Word.

It’s God’s Law that convicts us of our sin, showing us that, from the moment we’re conceived, despite God’s good will for us, we are in rebellion against God and we are indifferent to others. This means that we deserve death, condemnation, and everlasting separation from God and from others.

It’s God’s Gospel that comes to us through the crucified and risen Jesus assuring us that, despite our sins, we are justified, made eternally right with God, because, by the power of God’s Spirit-borne Word, we believe Jesus Christ gave His sinless life to cover even our sins on a cross for us.

Paul summarizes the Gospel about Jesus Christ when he says in Romans: “For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” (Romans 3:28)

Because on this side of our own death and resurrection, when Jesus will call believers in Him from the dead to live with Him forever, we who have been made saints by God’s grace through faith in Christ will keep needing to hear God’s Law and Gospel again and again. As Martin Luther noted, “We need to hear the Gospel all the time because we forget it all the time.” And, as we forget that Gospel, we slip back into a reliance on our good deeds or personal goodness to save us. That course is the way to death.

We don’t receive ashes on our foreheads tonight in order to impress people.

Given current attitudes toward Christian faith, people who see us are more likely to think we’re weirdos than to be impressed with our spirituality or our devotion to Christ.

The ashes are meant to be a sermon to and for those of us who receive them and not for anyone who may see us wearing them.

But what is the content of this sermon in ashes?

After Adam had fallen into sin in the garden of Eden, God told him, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19, ESV)

This is the Law and God spoke it to us again tonight. Like Adam, we have failed to keep God’s Law or live with righteousness. We know this because of the Ten Commandments, the distillation of all of God’s moral law for us, which we constantly fail to obey.

And you never get so old or so advanced in the faith as to not need to be catechized again. So, let me do it for you once again tonight.

God says, “You shall have no other gods before Me.” Yet, we’re constantly worshiping other things: youth, health, success, and so on, chasing after them as though they were the end-all and be-all, as they could justify our existences.

God says, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” Yet, even while using God’s name to pray for our needs and the needs of others, as well as to praise and thank God, we use His name as a punchline or to curse or swear or mislead others.

God says, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy,” a command all about gladly receiving the Word of God. But our Bibles often grow dusty. And we look at our watches on Super Bowl Sundays, wanting to be sure that the service won’t eat into our pre-pre-pre-game viewing.

God says, “Honor your father and your mother,” meaning to honor those in authority, yet we tend to believe that anyone in authority over us is a liar, a thief, an incompetent, or all of the above. Because we want to be God, we’re always sure we could do better than anyone else that God places in authority over us.

God says, “You shall not kill (or murder),” which Jesus says includes not just killing people physically, but also not killing them in psyche or spirit by denigrating them, berating them, or labeling them. We violate this command all the time, it seems!

God says, “You shall not commit adultery,” yet our brains are often a maelstrom of lustful thoughts.

God says, “You shall not steal,” yet we justify conniving to get something for nothing because, after all, “it’s a dog-eat-dog world.”

God says, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” yet gossip is our favorite indoor sport.

God says, “You shall not covet,” yet our envy of others’ success, possessions, status, or achievements ruins our moods and our relationships with them and with God. I’ve seen more families destroyed by greed and resentment than by dishonoring parents, adultery, and theft combined!

When the world preaches a cheap gospel, telling us that God doesn’t really care if we heed His commands to love God or love our neighbor or to honor the will of God, the ash on our foreheads is a sermon from God telling us: This is who you are, a dust-bound sinner who can’t keep My Law and because you cannot keep My Law, you deserve damnation.

But there is Gospel–good news–in these ashes too!

The mark on your foreheads is meant to be in the form of the cross.

This is the part of the sermon meant to tell you that while there is nothing you can do to set yourself free of the death sentence you deserve for sin, Jesus Christ, God the Son, has already acted to set you free from that condemnation. Now and for all eternity!

As you’ve heard me say a zillion times before and I will keep saying it as long as I have breath in my body, when Jesus Christ said, “It is finished,” He meant it!

And He meant it for you.

Jesus took the punishment He didn’t deserve to spare us the punishment we do deserve.

Peter, a man who knew what it meant to be caught by God dead-to-rights in his sin and unrighteousness, declares, “Christ…suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.” (1 Peter 3:18)

And the apostle Paul who knew the power of the crucified Christ to save enemies of God and to save sinners from condemnation and to make them righteous in the eyes of God, says: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.” (Romans 5:8-9)

And Jesus, Who would soon be going to His cross to win everlasting life for us, told His grieving friend Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die…” (John 11:25-26) That is what the cross means for us!

That smudgy cross on your forehead is the Gospel Word–the Good News Word–from God to you.

The psalmist wrote centuries before Jesus’ birth: “As a father has compassion on his children…[God] remembers that we are dust.” (Psalm 103:13-14)

What a promise! God grades us on a curve…the Christ curve…the grace curve.

There’s a great scene in the movie, Jesus of Nazareth. Simon Peter is portrayed of being very critical of Levi, Matthew, the tax collector. And in this telling of Jesus’ story, Jesus tells the parable of the prodigal son, the tale of the notorious sinner who comes back to the father. After telling it, Jesus looks at Peter, who begins to weep. Peter says, “Forgive me, Master. I’m just a stupid man.” He may as well have said, “I’m just dust.”

God never forgets that about us. He was the One Who formed you from dust. He is the One Who chose to give you life. And He’s the One Who chose to take on dust for Himself and go to a cross to save you from yourself. The cross on your forehead is a proclamation of the Gospel from Jesus’ cross for you!

Jesus Christ, God the Son, died and rose to set sinners free from condemnation and separation from God. We don’t have to do it with our little religious works that we try to tout during Lent. Things like, “I’m going to give up chocolate.” God doesn’t care if you give up chocolate!

God wants you! He wants you! And He saved you! The call of Lent is to turn as He calls you to follow Him and receive life from Him.

So, when the world, the devil, and our sinful selves want to preach only Law to us, damning us, discouraging us, miring us in hopelessness and futility, setting us off on some spiritual self-improvement program designed to prove ourselves worthy of God’s favor, an effort that will always fail, we can say with confidence and hope, “But Jesus Christ died for me. Jesus has done everything needed to make me righteous, to give me life, to make me commendable in the eyes of God. Because of Jesus and because I take refuge in Him alone as my God and Savior, when God looks at me, He doesn’t see my sins, failings, and unrighteousness; He sees only the sinless Jesus Who graciously covers me in His righteousness!”

This dust will live forever with God not because of anything I do or ever will do, but solely, completely, totally because of what Jesus has already done for me at the cross and the empty tomb! I have been saved by grace through faith in Christ alone. And I will be made holy, righteous, and acceptable to God by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone!

The ashes preach Law and Gospel to us. And the Gospel of salvation of new and everlasting life in Christ will have the final word over the lives and eternal destinies of all who acknowledge their sin and take trusting refuge in Jesus Christ! 

Ann and I bought our gravesites a few years ago. Our ashes will be buried at Sunset Cemetery, just west of Columbus. The thing I love about that is that the day I am raised, I am going to see all the people from the west side of Columbus I knew and loved and shared faith in Jesus with. And then I’m going to look you all up. And we will party for all eternity.

I pray that the sermon preached by the ashes on your forehead is one you hear tonight and always! Amen

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

The Greatest Glory on the Mountaintop

[Below are the live stream videos of this past Sunday's worship services from Living Water Lutheran Church, Centerville, Ohio, along with the message prepared for them.]

Matthew 17:1-9

This is the last Sunday of the Epiphany Season. Throughout this season, we’ve looked at incidents and words from Jesus’ earthly ministry that show us the truth that the Man Jesus is also truly God, the Savior of the whole cosmos. This truth is announced to us again today in the Gospel lesson, but maybe not entirely in the way we imagine.

Six days before the incidents recounted in today’s gospel lesson, Jesus foretold it all. Then, Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, told Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16) While Peter didn’t understand all the implications of his confession, he did understand that in calling Jesus the Son of the living God, he wasn’t calling Jesus a descendant of God the Father. When a Jew like Peter used this phrase, he meant what another Jewish believer, the preacher in the New Testament book of Hebrews, meant when he said of Jesus, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word…” (Hebrews 1:3)

Peter said that Jesus was God. But Peter didn’t really understand what that meant. His lack of understanding showed when Peter was shocked as Jesus said that He, God in the flesh, was going to Jerusalem to be rejected by the religious and political leaders and by the people. There He would also suffer, be murdered on a Friday, and be raised by God the Father on a Sunday. Peter rebuked Jesus. Peter couldn’t imagine God suffering or dying. But Jesus called Peter “Satan” for standing in the way of God’s will that God the Son should take the punishment of death for sin that you and I deserve. Jesus said that all who would have life with God need to take up our crosses–that is, confess our sin and our need of God’s forgiveness–and follow Jesus. Then Jesus made this promise: “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (Matthew 16:28)

Matthew tells us this morning that six days after this exchange between Jesus and Peter, Jesus took the same Peter, along with James and John to the top of a nearby mountain. Why did Jesus take these three guys with Him? Well, they were the inner circle of the inner circle of disciples. But another reason might be this: Peter, James, and John, by outward appearances, seemed to have the hardest time with their sin, wanting to be like God rather than following and worshiping God. Peter had tried to tell Jesus how to be the Messiah, as we’ve seen. And James and John, forgetting that the exorcisms and healings they’d done were the results of Jesus’ power working in them and not of their own power, once asked Jesus if He wanted them to call fire from heaven down on a Samaritan village that hadn’t welcomed Jesus. These men needed to be reminded that Jesus was God, not them. They also needed the forgiveness of God which comes only from Jesus.

In that, Peter, James, and John are no different from you and me. Like them, we can fall to the temptation of thinking that we are essentially good people who deserve the blessings of God. Like them, we can become upset when the plans of God don’t conform to the plans we make for ourselves. Like them, we forget that we have no right to enter the kingdom of heaven; that is a gift God gives to those who repent and believe in Jesus Christ. It is only God in Jesus Christ who makes sinners clean, justifying us, counting us innocent by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone.

You know what happened at the mount of Transfiguration. Matthew says, “There [Jesus] was transfigured [meaning His appearance was in some way altered] before [Peter, James, and John]. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.” (Matthew 17:2) Soon, Moses, dead and buried centuries before, and Elijah, the prophet once transmitted to heaven by a chariot of fire, are there talking with Jesus. If the light that radiated from Jesus hadn’t reminded Peter, James, and John that Jesus really is God, the fact that these two Old Testament figures who talked with God on mountaintops are now talking with Jesus should have convinced them.

James would be martyred not long after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. So, we don’t have any record of what he thought about the Transfiguration. But John would say in the prologue to his gospel, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) And Peter would write: “...we were eyewitnesses of [Jesus’] majesty. He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.” (2 Peter 1:16-18)

But Peter and his companions didn’t mainly see the glory of God in Jesus’ transfiguration that day. On seeing Moses and Elijah, Peter in essence asks Jesus for permission to break the First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods before Me.” He wants to build three shelters to honor Jesus, Moses, and Elijah equally, as though the Light of God that day came from anyone other than Jesus, as though Moses and Elijah needed to be worshiped along with Jesus. The moment this seemingly pious suggestion leaves his mouth, God the Father shuts Peter off. “​​This is my Son, whom I love,” the Father says, “with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (Matthew 17:5)

Friends, life with God will not be ours if we worship any god other than the One revealed to us in Jesus Christ. To those inclined to say, “My family is the most important thing,” or personal fulfillment, or health, or happiness, or lower taxes, or leading a good life, God says, “This is My Son…Listen to Him.” We human beings are intrinsically religious creatures. Anthropologists tell us that in every culture ever studied, people have had all sorts of gods they’ve worshiped: sex, fertility, money, possessions, the sun, the moon, the stars, animal, vegetable, and mineral. Our sinful human nature makes us want to worship something, anything that we think will give the god we’re born worshiping from birth–ourselves–what we want when we want it. We’ll glorify anyone and anything that will glorify us, explaining why we make the terrible choices we sometimes make in life, from the cars we buy to the political lies we fall for. 

You can imagine how guilty and small Peter (and the others) must have felt at that moment, prostrating in fear in the face of this condemnation of sinful idolatry. But this is the moment when the glory of God was fully revealed to Peter, James, and John. Matthew 17:7 says, “Jesus came and touched them. ‘Get up,’ he said. ‘Don’t be afraid.’”

That is Jesus’ message for you today too. You and I have been idolaters and sinners. We’ve been prone to go our own way, to ignore god, to glorify the shiny objects this world dangles before us. Our idolatrous natures cause us to metaphorically erect booths to what we deem to be holy things, godly values. But forgiveness of sin, freedom from death, and life with God, the things we most need for this life and the next, come from Jesus Christ alone. It was in seeing Jesus as the forgiving, saving God of all that Peter, James, and John saw the true glory of God at the Transfiguration.

This is the glory of God: Jesus, the way and the truth and the life, through whom we have life with God. He’s the Savior Who overcomes the sin, suffering, and death we all experience in this life to give us everlasting life with God. Along the way, He allows us to be touched by His glory and His glorious love for us. He’s doing it again today in His Word, in the fellowship of the saints, and in the gift of His body and blood. He does it when water is splashed on her head in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. By these means, Jesus assures us that beyond the days of our Lents, the horrors of our Good Fridays, and the griefs of our silent, Holy Saturdays, glory, eternal glory, with God awaits all who daily turn to Christ in repentance and faith. Our Savior Jesus comes to forgive our sins and give us life in God’s glorious kingdom. Dear friends in Christ, you can trust in Him!

Monday, February 20, 2023

Law and Gospel, Part 2

This is the second part of the adult Sunday School class study of Law and Gospel, happening at Living Water Lutheran Church. We're using the Concordia Publishing House resource written by Richard Kapfer.