Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Away With Excuses; Come, All Things Are Now Ready

Text: Luke 14:15-24

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

The master of that Great Banquet invited people not one time but two times! First, he told everyone that they were invited. Second, on the day of the Great Banquet, He sent a special messenger to announce that everything was ready – "Come on in; the food's on the table!"  

Now, what this teaches you and me is that this Christian faith is about a great invitation. It is about coming. Keep in mind, though, that this invitation is not so much a command, "Get in here and sit down right now!" Instead, it is an offer. It is a gift. It is an invitation to share in the gifts of the kingdom of God. In other words, come, God is expecting you! He is ready for you. He invites you. Everything is ready; you do not need to bring anything, prepare anything, or do anything. All is ready for you to simply receive.   

As a shepherd seeks for the lost sheep, as a woman gets down on her knees to look for a lost coin, and, yes, as a father looks down the road, waiting for his lost son to come home again, the Lord is the same for His humanity. God is always seeking, calling, and inviting us unto Himself.  

About 1,600 years ago, a Christian Pastor said it this way in his sermon: 

"Come you all; enter into the joy of your Lord. The table is richly loaded: enjoy its royal banquet. The calf is a fatted one; let no one go away hungry. All of you enjoy the banquet of faith; all of you receive the riches of his goodness. Let none grieve over their poverty, for the … kingdom has been revealed; let no weep over their sins, for pardon has shone forth from the grave; let none fear death, for the death of the Savior, has set us free." (John Chrysostom - Easter homily)

Dear friends, it is important to understand that Christianity is not, first and foremost, a "should" religion. It is first and foremost a "come" religion. In other words, what builds and sustains the church is not Jesus' "Thou shalts and thou shalt nots" but rather, His "Come to me" invitations. Now, please do not misunderstand. The Law of God is very important as it reveals our sin to us. But it is only the Gospel that creates faith, forgives, and sustains. That is why we are so often invited to come unto the Lord - come, be filled with the Holy Spirit; come receive the forgiveness of sins! 

That Pastor from long ago also told his parishioners in ancient Turkey this:

"[The Lord's] invitation is one of kindness, His goodness is beyond description. 'Come to me, all' not only rulers but also their subjects, not only the rich, but also the poor, not only the free, but also the slaves, not only men but also women, not only the youth but also the old, not only those of sound body but also the [crippled]. All of you, He says, come! For such are the Master's gifts. He knows no distinction of slave and free, nor of rich and poor, but all such inequality is cast aside. 'Come,' He says, 'all you who labor and are burdened!' And see whom He calls! Those who have spent their strength in breaking the law, those who are burdened with their sins, those who can no longer lift up their heads, those who are filled with shame, those who can no longer speak out. Why does He call them? Not to demand an accounting, nor to hold court. But why? To relieve them of their pain, to take away their heavy burdens." (John Chrysostom - Easter homily)

We should also pause a moment and understand that when Jesus says, "Come!" He does not stand on the top of a high ladder in heaven, waving us upward to start climbing. Jesus is also not running away from us, calling us to "Come!" as if we have to run and pursue Him – we better keep up, or we will lose Him! No, Jesus, Himself has climbed all the way down the ladder to come right before you and me. He came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made man. He came by being born in a manger. He came and died on the cross. He came to prepare the banquet of salvation for us. And now – today - He sends His servants to extend us His invitation again: 

"Come, for all things are now ready. There is nothing you can add to this feast. He has done it all. He has prepared the feast of salvation for you."

But this is where the hiccup comes. As you and I know from the parable, mankind often has better things to do than come and receive. "I have bought a field...I have bought five yokes of oxen...I have married a wife...I cannot come. Have me excused..." This was the response. Is it not the same response today? 

Dear friends, the great tragedy is that we end up accepting the wrong invitations in life. The world dangles all sorts of promises before us that we would rather attend to, and so, we miss the banquet of Christ and settle for the lesser things – empty things that do not last. This is why Jesus laments, 

"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem! How often I've ached to embrace you, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would not let me!"

And yet, Jesus still invites. The invitation continues to go out in season and out of season. People will reject, neglect, and scorn the church as old-fashioned or out of touch; nonetheless, the invitation will continue to go out to everyone. It goes out to all those who are on the back streets, to those who live in dirty little places, as well as to those who live in fine houses. Come! The good news is that you don't have to be perfect to come. Come as you are -- with all of your sins and sorrows, weaknesses and failures, problems and anxieties. Come to the only One who can forgive you and heal you. Come to the One who on His cross opened His arms wide to you. "Come, for all is now ready." 

Keep in mind, though, that coming to Jesus isn't a one-time thing. No one can say: "Oh, I did that years ago." Or, "I came one time to a Christmas Service." No, coming to Jesus is a way of life. It begins with baptism. It continues as we live in our baptisms daily with repentance and faith. It continues as we come to this sanctuary to receive the Holy Absolution and the Holy Supper. You see, He who came down from heaven to meet us on our level meets us on our level still.

Baptized Saints, Jesus does not stand at the top of a ladder and calls us home. He comes below us at the bottom and lifts us up on His strong shoulders, and carries us up the ladder Himself. 

And so, let us be bold this day to admit our lame excuses for not coming to the great banquet regularly. Let us not play old Adam games with silly justifications for neglecting the great invitation. But instead, let us lay aside the excuses – may our sinful excuses be crucified unto Christ as we simply receive with empty hands all that has already been done for us. Yes, come to Him today and tomorrow and the next day and the next.  Come, for all is now ready! Come, you who are puzzled and seek meaning for life. Come, you who are confused and want an identity.  Come, you who have failed marriages. Come, you who stumble and fall in life because of laziness. Come, you who want to pull the covers over your head from past sexual guilt. Come, you who are anxious and fearful of life.  Come, you who mourn and weep with sorrow over an abortion. Come, you who struggle with anger and a gossiping tongue. Come, one and all. Everything is ready for you. 

Baptized Saints, never stop coming because the Lord never stops inviting and never stops forgiving you. "Come, those of you blessed … take what's coming to you in this kingdom. It's been ready for you since the world's foundation." 

In the name of Jesus. Amen

Portions of this sermon are indebted to William Weedon's Trinity 2 Sermon (June 14th of 2007).

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Sunday, June 12, 2022

Religious Pecking Orders Are Useless, You Need To Be Born Again

Text: John 3:1-17

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Nicodemus was no worthless bum. He was no slacker by any means. After all, he was a member of what was called the Sanhedrin. 

Now, to fully understand the prestige and importance of the Jewish Sanhedrin, we must understand that it was a great council of the nation, consisting of 71 men. And to be a part of this elite group, one had to have judicial experience, as well as an extensive knowledge of many languages, science, law, and history. Not only did they have to be well educated and wise, but they also had to be modest and popular with all the people. And so, it was no small task to be on the high Jewish Sanhedrin. 

Perhaps we could think of this great Sanhedrin as on the same level as our United States Supreme Court. Yes, they were much like our Supreme Court but actually had a bit more power. For example, besides making laws for the whole Jewish nation, the Sanhedrin could crown a king, authorize war, and appoint lesser court judges. So, the point being, Nicodemus was a big dog; he was a heavyweight. Or, loosely stated, he was a big cheese. You get the picture. 

Now, the reason why we must take the time to understand that Nicodemus was no common slacker is that it is essential for the context of our reading from the Gospel of John. 

In the reading from the Gospel of John, it would appear that both Jesus and Nicodemus were two people that were close to the Kingdom of God. Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin, as we have already established. And Jesus was called “Rabbi” by Nicodemus, which is like calling him a “Doctor” of the church. And so, it would appear that this was a mutual conversation among two established religious leaders who were in the Kingdom of God.

However, things are often not as they appear. In other words, you would think that Nicodemus would’ve been one of the few who could have seen the Kingdom of God. You would think that out of all the religious people in Jerusalem that Nicodemus would have been one of the few who could have experienced the Kingdom of God. Unfortunately, though, things are not as they appear. 

Dear friends, we have this problem with how we perceive the Kingdom of God. For example, we have this tendency to place nuns, monks, bishops, deacons, elders, District Presidents, Circuit Visitors, pastors, and so forth, at the top – closest to God. Whereas plumbers, retail workers, moms, farmers, lawyers, and obnoxious children, well… they are not as close to God. They are further down. We even do this with good works. Keep in mind, all good works are good when they are done by faith and for one’s neighbor. However, we have unfortunately made some works better than others. Tragically, we have made changing a diaper for a child, shoveling the snow for a neighbor, and taking out the trash lesser good works than going on a mission trip or doing a religious deed for the church. Mark this; God is equally pleased with the nun running an orphanage as He is with a dad changing a dirty diaper.  Good works happen inside and outside of the church walls.

Dear friends, the point being, the idea that some Christians are closer to God than others is a foolish idea that needs to be eradicated from our minds. This is how the world thinks. This is how the world operates, not the Kingdom of God. 

This is why Jesus tells Nicodemus that he needed to be ‘born again.’  In other words, to see the Kingdom of God, all the scrambling up the religious pecking order is useless. Sure the world insists on ranking, grouping, and positioning, but not the Kingdom of God. 

And so, with one swift assertion, Jesus basically tells Nicodemus that if he wants the Kingdom of God that he has to do it all over. All that Nicodemus had accomplished means nothing and contributes nothing to the Kingdom of God. Nicodemus needed to be born anew and born from above; he needed to be reborn and made entirely into a new creature. 

You see, this is why the church really only cares about things such as Baptism, Absolution, and the Holy Supper. In Christ’s church, there is no such thing as ranking, grouping, and positioning for power. Paul says it best,

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

In other words, status, sex, and ability do nothing to get you and me closer to the Kingdom of God. You and I cannot climb to the Kingdom of God, for if we climb, we will never find the Kingdom of God. Bluntly stated, we do not find the Kingdom of God in the heights of our accomplishments, the clouds of our glory, or the peaks of our popularity, for the Kingdom of God is not above us but below us. 

Dear friends, Jesus flips everything upside down for Nicodemus, and He does the same for you and me.

Listen up! The greatest in the kingdom of God are not the religious elites but little children – babies. The greatest in the kingdom of God, well… it is not those who are first but those who are last. If you want the kingdom of God, you are not to take up a list of goals and accomplishments but take up a cross and die. 

But there is a problem, our sinful nature does not like to hear this, though. Your sinful nature, and mine as well, likes to climb. Our sinful nature is so easily seduced into trying to go up the pecking order to obtain the Kingdom of God. And once our sinful nature has climbed a little bit, the sinful nature demands that God and His church applaud for the heights it has achieved.

Lord, have mercy on you and me! 

Dear friends, listen up! We must be born again - not once and not twice - but every single week and every single day. And to be born again or born from above is not something that we must accomplish again and again. But instead, like Nicodemus, to be born again is for us to be brought out of the heights of our glory, all the way down to the reality that we are poor miserable sinners. And there, right there, with empty beggarly hands, we are shoved back into the reality of our baptisms. Right there at the end of the line and at the bottom of the pecking order, we are forgiven in Absolution. And then, we are invited to the Lord’s Table for the strengthening of faith and love. 

Baptized Saints, quite simply, you do not do something for Christ to earn the Kingdom of God, but instead, Christ does something for you to give you the Kingdom of God. That is why you need to be born again – born from above every single day. And this happens as you are returned to the reality of your baptisms in repentance and faith. This happens as the Lord forgives you through His Word of Absolution. This happens as you are invited to receive at the Lord’s altar. You are constantly being born again when the Lord snatches you out of your lofty sinful nature and drags you back down to the waters of your baptism, and makes you anew again and again and again. 

And so, because there is only one baptism, one Absolution, and one Holy Supper, you are one with Nicodemus. Yes, that is the reason why there is no boasting in the church; why there is no comparing in the church. This is why there is no pecking order in the church. The ranks we have in life, the jobs we maintain, and the skills that we have been given are to bless those around us. They are not for power but for service, for they cannot contribute to our eternal salvation. How can they earn the Kingdom of God when we have already been born again in Christ and Christ alone? 

Baptized Saints, you have been born again – born from above – through Christ, by Christ, and for Christ.   You are brought into the Kingdom of God through the Word and Sacraments; therefore, you cannot get any closer to the kingdom than you are right now, for Christ is your way, your truth, and your life.  He is the kingdom that is brought to you.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

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