Ash Wednesday – 2020 LSB #543
Text – Exodus 2:6
When she opened it, she saw the child, and behold, the baby was crying. She took pity on him and said, “This is one of the Hebrews’ children.”
BIG THINGS WITH SMALL STUFF
Howard Rutledge was an American fighter pilot. He was shot down and captured by the North Vietnamese in 1965. His captures threw him into a prison in Hanoi, North Vietnam. What was the prison called? Heartbreak Hotel. Howard Rutledge writes:
“When the door slammed shut a feeling of utter loneliness swept over me. I was locked in a six by six cell. It’s hard to describe what solitary confinement can do to defeat a person. There are no books, no magazines and no newspapers. The only colors you see are drab gray and dirt brown. You’re locked in your filthy cell, trying to keep your sanity.”
You and I know what it feels like to be locked up in Heartbreak Hotel. The problem though, is that at first it didn’t look like Heartbreak Hotel. It looked like the Promised Land! It even was the Promised Land for a while. That moral indiscretion? “No big deal!” That financial dishonesty? “No big deal!” That small, little lie? “No big deal!”
Sooner or later, though, “no big deal” becomes a really big deal! What we thought was the Promised Land becomes the death of a job, the death of a marriage, the death of our hope, the death of our joy. Satan slams the door shut and says, “Welcome to Heartbreak Hotel! You can check out anytime you like, but you will never leave!”
Tonight, we begin a new series on Moses’s book called Exodus: “Let my people go!” God sees His people Israel in the Egyptian Heartbreak Hotel and orders Pharaoh – seven times – “Let my people go!” You remember the story. Because of a famine in 1,847 BC Jacob and his family (70 people in all) traveled from Canaan to Egypt. That’s Exodus 1:1–7. Fast forward 300 years and we arrive at Exodus 1:8: “Then a new king, who did not know Joseph, came to power in Egypt.” This king, or Pharaoh, saw that the Israelites were becoming too numerous and too powerful. So what did Pharaoh do? He created his own version of Heartbreak Hotel!
Stage One: State Slavery. Exodus 1:11 says: “So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom & Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh.” Every Israelite slave was required to produce 3,000 bricks a day – That’s 3,000 bricks a day!
You think you have a tough job! Try this. Get water from a canal. Pour it into a mud pit. Step up and down in the mud pit. Add straw to the mud. Let it dry in the sun. Presto! You’ve got a brick! Now make 3,000 of those a day – every day – with no time off – Ever!
Stage Two: Private Infanticide. Exodus 1:15–16 describes it this way: “The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, ‘When you help the Hebrew women in childbirth and observe them on the delivery stool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.’”
God sees two women – Shiphrah and Puah – who obey him and disobey Pharaoh’s command. So, God puts their names in the Bible. But this Pharaoh, the most powerful man on the earth, his name is not in the Bible! Why is that? God does big things with small stuff!
Stage Three: Open Genocide. Exodus 1:22 describes Pharaoh’s decree: “Every boy that is born you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.” It’s against this backdrop of Pharaoh’s Heartbreak Hotel that Moses is born.
“Now a man of the house of Levi [Amram] married a Levite woman [Jochebed], and she became pregnant and gave birth to a son” (Ex 2:1–2). This son is Moses. He’s the couple’s 3rd child. There’s an older sister, named Miriam, and an older brother, whose name is Aaron. “When [Jochebed] saw that he was a fine child, she hid him for three months. But when she could hide him no longer, she got a papyrus basket for him and coated it with tar and pitch” (Ex 2:2–3). This word translated “basket,” is the same word translated “ark” – as in Noah’s Ark – in Genesis. The ark in Exodus, just like Noah’s in Genesis is coated with tar and pitch. But you say, “Noah’s ark was so much bigger!” So, I say, in the book of Exodus, God does big things with small stuff!
This baby boy is placed in the Nile River and Miriam runs along the river’s edge. She watches as Pharaoh’s daughter bathes with her servants in the Nile River.
“She [the servant of Pharaoh’s daughter] opened it and saw the baby. He was crying and she felt sorry for him” (Exodus 2:6). Moses is crying. This changes everything! In the book of Exodus, a baby’s cry changes everything? Of course! God does big things with small stuff!
“When the child grew older, [Jochebed] took him to Pharaoh’s daughter and he became her son. She named him Moses, saying, ‘I brought him out of the water’” (Exodus 2:10). Moses! Moses is an Egyptian word that means “bring out of water!” Finally! Someone who will bring Israel out of Pharaoh’s Heartbreak Hotel! And Moses will do that through what? Water!
Moses will part the water of the Red Sea with a wooden staff. A wooden staff? Yeah, God does big things with small stuff! God sees us in our prison, our self-made Heartbreak Hotel. He sees us trying to get out. He sees us putting on our Superman or Superwoman cape, thinking that we are superheroes who can save ourselves.
I’ve got really bad news for you. You are not a superhero. Neither am I. We can’t fight our way out of the prison of sin. We can’t think our way out, buy our way out, educate our way out, vacation our way out, or blast our way out. We are all stuck in sin – Heartbreak Hotel! But the news does not end there.
We have to begin there because it’s true, and only the truth will help us to appreciate the good news. And there is really, really good news for you! God does big things with small stuff! Jesus brings us out of our prison of sin and death. And, just like in the book of Exodus, Jesus does it all with small stuff, with the tokens of His Passion – a chalice, torch, lantern, 30 pieces of silver, sword, whip, whipping post, clothing, dice, spear, the hand which struck Christ, the pitcher of gall and vinegar.
Jesus does not recoil, run, or retreat at the sight of our ugly prison. Jesus comes to us right where we are. To do what? To do really big things – to set us free – with really small stuff.
After his report on life in solitary confinement, Howard Rutledge had more to say about Heartbreak Hotel. He wrote, “I prayed for strength to make it through the ongoing night. Then, one day, a glimmer of light dawned through the bottom of my prison door. I knew that God would set me free. And he did!”
In this sinful world life gets dark – sometimes really dark. What we thought or hoped was the Promised Land turns out to be Heartbreak Hotel. “You can check out anytime you like but you will never leave!”
Yet, because Yahweh is our Creator, there’s a glimmer of light dawning. Can you see it? It’s connected to the end of death in the light of Easter. It’s the new creation Jesus inaugurated as He rose from the dead. And it is here, for you, right now! How can we be so sure?
God still does really big things – sets us free – with really small stuff, like the bread of wine of Holy Communion, in, with and under which is the true body and blood of God’s Son! In the name of Jesus, that is God’s gift to you. Amen.
What wondrous love is this, O my soul! What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss to bear the dreadful curse for my soul? When I was sinking down, sinking down; when I was sinking down beneath God’s righteous frown, Christ laid aside His crown for my soul! To God & to the Lamb I will sing, I will sing; to God and to the Lamb I will sing; to God & to the Lamb, who is the great I AM, while millions join in the theme, I will sing. And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on. And when from death I’m free I’ll sing on. I’ll sing His love for me, and through eternity I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on. Amen. Excerpts from LSB 543:1-4.
Transfiguration – A LSB #’s 414, 707, 394
Text – Matthew 17:1-2b (NIV)
After six days Jesus took with Him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There He was transfigured before them.
CHANGE AND TRANSITION
There Jesus was transfigured before them. How’s that for some theological language? For those brought up in the church, if you’ve been paying attention over the years, you might have an understanding of what that sentence means. However, to most people, outside and inside of the church, the Transfiguration is a concept much like Epiphany.
They are two very obscure and seldom noticed celebrations. The average church member couldn’t explain the significance of either one, to save their life. After all, there’s no secular counterpart to draw attention to them, like with Christmas and Easter. Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny we can relate to. They bring gifts. But what do we get out of the Transfiguration?
From the title of this sermon, if you’re alert, you might guess that it has something to do with change and transition, but that isn’t enough to help you explain it to someone if they should ask. Then again, you might not care at all what the Transfiguration means, and that wouldn’t surprise me. Even as a pastor I’m aware of how the sinful nature in each one of us operates.
It cares nothing for God. It rejects & despises Him, and that hatred is played out in each of us. If we think better of ourselves, then how do we explain our apathy towards things Godly, an apathy made obvious by our lack of interest in the Transfiguration of Christ?
“What, no presents? No Easter candy? Then why should I care? There’s nothing that I want. Pastor, why don’t you preach on something relevant? The Transfiguration doesn’t get it.” Those are just a few examples of how our sinful nature cares nothing for God!
Our English word “transfigured” comes from Latin. If we remember anything about the
Transfiguration it’s likely that we’ve concentrated upon the report that His face shone like the sun and His clothes became as white as the light. But the Greek word used in the NT means to be changed in essence. In other words, it is not just the appearance of Jesus that was changed.
Most of the time Christ spent here on earth was in what we call His state of humiliation. Basically, that means that Jesus voluntarily set aside His Godly powers. He chose not to use them. He appeared as any other man. At His Transfiguration, however, the three disciples see Jesus in His glory. But that’s not because God was shining some heavenly spotlight upon Him.
Jesus’ face shone like the sun because for those moments He had picked up at least some of His Godly powers. His clothes became white as light because the glory of God was shining through them. No, it wasn’t just that the appearance of Jesus had changed. He was revealing much more of His Godly essence than the disciples normally saw.
If you remember, the season of Epiphany is about the revelation, to people, that the man Jesus Christ is also true God. Transfiguration Sunday is the culmination of the Epiphany. It’s the glorious revelation of Jesus Christ as something more than can be seen with the naked eye. The Transfiguration is a glimpse of how Jesus will appear when we’re with Him in heaven.
As Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus, they were carrying on a conversation, and that discussion was not about the perfect life to come. The Gospel of Luke tells us they were talking about Jesus’ death, His resurrection, and His ascension. Jesus was on His final trip to Jerusalem. It is a time of dreadful change and transition for His disciples.
You see, Transfiguration Sunday also marks the transition from Epiphany to Lent. Ash Wednesday is only three days off, and the season of Lent is here to help us prepare for the death of our Savior. It’s a death that we are guilty of, a death that you and I should have died. It’s also a death that we don’t feel particularly sorry for. Do you remember the last time you meditated upon the crucifixion of Christ? That kind of sorrow doesn’t come from our sinful nature, but only from the new man created in us at our Baptism.
Yes, true sorrow over the death of God’s Son comes only from the work of God’s Spirit as He lives and breathes within us. Yet we certainly do feel sorrow as our lives undergo change and transition, because that sorrow is about me, myself and I. It’s our nature to be self-centered. Repentance over Christ’s death for our sins does not come naturally.
Repentance is something the coming season of Lent focuses upon, but we cannot do it without the power of the Holy Spirit. Our sinful nature is far too strong to be overcome by our own willpower. That is where Baptism ties in with the Transfiguration.
The Baptismal liturgy we use is a reminder of the change and the transition that our Lord works in us through the power of His Word. Anyone who is baptized has been transfigured in that they’ve been changed from being purely sinner, to that of being sinner and saint. That change and transition has occurred because God has declared it.
Through the Word of God, and the water empowered by that Word, a child is transfigured from the kingdom of death to the Kingdom of Life. Though his outward appearance has not changed, his status in the sight of God has. On the final day of this world, then even the appearance of all of God’s children will be forever magnificent.
Therefore, when our Lord is behind the changes and transitions in our lives we should not fear them. None of us wants to remain entirely a sinner for the rest of eternity, and yet becoming something different requires change and that transition will always be painful, because our sinful nature does not want to let go. It fights the transition tooth and nail.
Over the years, this congregation has gone through major change and transition. In our personal lives, probably all of us have been through major changes and transitions. It’s natural for us to be afraid, but we should remember that it’s our sinful nature which is at the root of that fear. As we’re sitting around in heaven a million years from now all of this will appear so minor as to be laughable. In the verses prior to today’s Gospel reading, Jesus had been speaking to His disciples of His suffering and death. They were afraid. So He takes the three leaders with Him and shows them that His suffering is followed by glory. Through having Moses and Elijah there, He reveals that mankind will also share in this heavenly transfiguration and glory.
In the end, all the mistakes we make in this life will be erased. On the last day of time, each of us will be raised from the dead with a body transfigured by the Creative and Almighty Word of God. He will speak, and our bodies will be changed in the twinkling of an eye. But our Lord doesn’t leave us hanging until that day. We return to the Gospel lesson from Matthew:
“[Peter] was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him.’ When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Rise, and have no fear.’” (Matthew 17:5-7 ESV)
In the Sacraments that Jesus instituted, in Baptism and in Holy Communion, He is still coming to us. And there He touches us also, through the bread, the wine, the water and through the power of His Word: “Do not be afraid.” He says. “Never will I forsake you. Never will I leave you, for I am with you always.”
Though our old man, that sinner still living within, hates this change, fears it, and fights it at all costs, the new man, which God’s Spirit created at your Baptism, welcomes this change and this touch of Jesus. It’s through the means of grace that God’s never failing promises are kept. Through them He gives you strength to meet each new day of life that He blesses you with. Nevertheless, we constantly forget where it is from that our help comes. Today’s sermon hymn reminds us:
“Oh, that the Lord would guide my ways to keep His statutes still! Oh that my God would grant me grace to know and do His will! Order my footsteps by Thy Word and make my heart sincere; let no sin have dominion Lord, but keep my conscience clear. Assist my soul, too apt to stray, a stricter watch to keep; and should I e’re forget Thy way, restore Thy wandering sheep.” LSB 707:1-3.
We need, daily, to look to the Lord for guidance, especially when the way we travel seems uncertain, like in times of change and transition. Satan easily tempts us with thoughts of, “But Lord, we have it so good here!! It’s safe and comfortable. Let us stay!!!” Like Peter, we’d rather pitch our tents and stay put, because it’s our selfish nature to do so.
Too often we use only our physical sight and we see the mere appearance of ourselves, the fearful and corrupted sinful nature. We don’t use faith to see the transfigured self that God created on the day of our spiritual birth, the day of our Baptism. That self can move mountains, because faith in Christ has the power of the Almighty God behind it.
Fortunately, Jesus doesn’t allow us to remain where we would in our selfish ignorance. We’d preserve our faith in the museum of selfishness where it only becomes sterile and useless. But Christ reaches out and touches you personally. He gives you blessings far greater than anything you could ever comprehend when you look only at the physical world around you.
What we get out of the Transfiguration is a picture of things to come, of things already now, and of things as they have been ever since the man named Jesus walked the face of this earth. Christ has given us a picture in which we are shown to be forgiven, holy and everlastingly alive. Without the Transfiguration, all that we learn from life in the school of hard knocks is that we cannot stay on the mountaintop forever. Certainly the disappointments and the suffering of our lives teach us that lesson well. We’d be foolish to deny it. However, Satan would have us focus entirely upon our suffering. God gave us the Transfiguration to teach us that there’s another view, or another dimension, to our lives.
In that dimension our heavenly Father sees you as innocent and holy because of the perfect life that His Son lived in your place. We too are blessed to see that view by faith, and God’s Spirit creates not only that view, but also the faith we see it by in the waters of Baptism. The Transfiguration was given for our encouragement.
We live many of our days in the valleys of struggle or the flat plains of dull routine. In another sense though, we stay on the Mount of Transfiguration every moment on into eternity. In Jesus, the sacred has come down to us, from the mountain of Calvary, to dwell in our hearts. Christ has come & has touched our lives with His love.
He walks with us even in the valley of the shadow of death. He comes to us, He touches us and He calms our fears. We have a sacred mountain within; where Christ is still lying in the manger of our heart, however crude and bear that heart may be. And indeed, it is most holy ground, because of whom it is that rests there. Amen.
Order my footsteps by Thy Word & make my heart sincere; let no sin have dominion Lord, but keep my conscience clear. Assist my soul, too apt to stray, a stricter watch to keep; and should I e’re forget Thy way, restore Thy wandering sheep.” Amen. LSB 707:2-3.
6th Sunday after Epiphany – A LSB #511
Text – Matthew 5:21
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; & whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’”
LIABLE TO JUDGMENT
In gift giving, you may have heard, or been taught, “It’s the thought that counts!” Did you realize that the saying also applies to sin? In the Gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus calls for a righteousness that involves our inner thoughts, desires & intentions as well as our deeds. The point is clear that even with sin, “It’s the thought that counts!”
Hear Jesus’ teaching about murder: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; & whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment…” (Matthew 5:21-22 ESV) Do you get the drift? If you get angry with your brother, Jesus is saying that you have committed murder.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27-28 ESV) There too, Jesus is teaching – it is the thought that counts.
In their day, adultery was punishable by death. Men ruled their society & women were taken advantage of in many respects. The men in charge thought of themselves as innocent. Yet the words of Jesus – explaining the application of the Law to the men – apply to you & me as well. It’s the thought that counts, & all of us in this room are therefore liable to judgment.
If you consider that seriously, it should be disturbing to your heart & soul. Hearing the strict application of the Law, have you noticed your excuse making machinery shifting into overdrive? “When it comes to sin it can’t possibly be ‘It’s the thought that counts,’ otherwise no one is righteous or safe from damnation.” That’s what our sinful nature tempts us to think. We are uncomfortable with admitting our guilt. The opening line of the sermon hymn is meant to turn your thoughts from the uncomfortable nature of Jesus’ words to the ultimate purpose for which Jesus spoke them. Listen carefully: “Herald, sound the note of judgment, warning us of right & wrong, turning us from sin & sadness till once more we sing the song.” (LSB 511:1)
The lyrics are about John the Baptist who sounded the warning by preaching a baptism of repentance. Yet he did so to turn us away from the sadness of our sins so that once more we might sing the song of gladness. John’s message, as recorded by Matthew in 3:2, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Even if that rubs you the wrong way it is good news!
Jesus had arrived to take away our sins, so give them up, turn them over, spit them out through repentance. Your sins are hurting you, & your family & your neighbor. Your refusal to repent is poisoning your relationship with your Creator. Yet, people we know don’t see that anymore. They don’t believe in judgment, & that unbelief puts them in grave danger.
So, another point of Jesus’ sermon on the mount is this: a person who claims to follow Jesus cannot pretend that the relationships he carries on with his neighbors & family are independent of his relationship with God. Our vertical relationship with the Lord of the universe must affect our horizontal relationships with our fellow human beings.
If we refuse to allow that to happen, we are refusing the will of God. Sometimes His will means we reconcile with people in our lives because they too are followers of Christ. Sometimes that means we break off our relationship with another person because they refuse to acknowledge Jesus as Lord. And there as many variations in between as there are relationships in the world.
Our Creator does not offer one size fits all solutions because He has created billions of completely unique individuals, no two of us alike, & no two of our relationships are the same. Jesus told us that in this world we will have trouble. A lot of that comes from our relationships with all the other sinful people in this world. Trying to find the loopholes in God’s commands is the kind of task the devil assigns. How to avoid being liable to judgment is what Satan wants us to worry about. That does not come from the life which the Holy Spirit pours into us. From the cross of Calvary Jesus told us, concerning the punishment for sin, “It is finished.”
In the Gospel reading, Jesus’ words about being liable to judgment are meant for the person who feels secure & comfortable even in their sin. The words are meant for the person who, apart from Christ, believes they’re innocent & guilty of no wrong. That is who should be disturbed in their heart & soul, for they are refusing the will & mercy of their loving Creator.
The life which Yahweh’s Spirit gives is always seeking to shine the light & the love of Christ into the darkness of sin. God’s Spirit always seeks to bring reconciliation into the broken relationships of this world.
The life which Yahweh’s Spirit gives does not worry about being liable to judgment, because that life, that faith, already knows, trusts & believes that repentant sinners are forgiven. Being repentant & forgiven is what it means to be spiritually alive. Being “born again” is not defined by what you do or say. It’s defined by whom God says you are!
Yahweh says, “I created you & you are mine.” Unbelief denies that reality & thus brings upon itself the curse of sin. In the Garden of Eden, Adam & Eve belonged to God & were holy, until they decided not to be. After that, they needed to be rescued from death. After sin entered the world, people are now born apart from God, & they too need to be rescued from death.
Anger & bitter insults partake of the same poisonous root as murder itself; & there’s no essential difference in the sight of God. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s not healthy to have that root thriving within. Even the youngest child knows how to demonstrate anger when it doesn’t get what it wants. As adults, we’re simply capable of expressing that anger in ways that are much more harmful to others. Though it hurts to hear it, our sins of anger, murder, lust & adultery do actual harm to us & to those around us. So Jesus reached into the Law to reveal its true objective: the valuing & the protection of others. Love wishes the other person well, & seeks to effect their welfare.
Anything less than that with regard to another’s physical well-being is a sin against the 5th commandment. Human personalities & relationships grounded in anger & hatred are like poison, they seek to steal, kill & destroy as Satan does. Grounded in anger we are prevented from receiving what we need most – love. So anger & hatred are ultimately self-destructive.
Coming from that weakened condition, to be reconciled is difficult, & to forgive is troubling. It requires humility & the enduring of insults, but it is the way of Christ’s righteousness. In the Gospel reading, Jesus is revealing that way to us. He knows we cannot live it out perfectly, but He wants us to know that sinning wantonly is extremely harmful.
As we see that, then the love of Christ is able to lift us out of it. As we see our failures & that Jesus came to overcome them, love for what He does enables us to keep returning to Him through repentance. That is done, not by our power, but by the power of God’s Spirit, so as long we trust Him, we will not be lost. His power never fails, never grows weak, & never sleeps.
In gift giving, “It’s the thought that counts” is a way of explaining that it is the motive of love behind the gift that really matters. Likewise with our sinful actions, the motive behind them also matters. It is also harmful to others as well as to our relationship with God.
Jesus is Lord. He is Lord & Master over all things – Heaven & Earth, sin & death, all that was & all that is yet to come. Because He is gracious, He exercises His lordship, not to destroy us, but by restoring us to life & by forgiving everything which has gone before. Jesus speaks a lot about justice in the Sermon on the Mount, but Yahweh is both just & merciful. The divine preacher of this text did not come to condemn the world but to redeem it by His suffering & death. The One who crushes us with this Law message is the same One who wants to say to us, as He said to the paralytic, “Take heart... your sins are forgiven” (Matthew 9:2).
Both Law & Gospel are part of the equation in God’s plan of redemption. The Law is explicitly stated so that the Gospel, implicit in the person of Christ who is speaking the text in Matthew’s account, may console the sinner convicted of his sins.
In this text Christ lets no one escape the brunt of the Law, but He does this so that the heart, crying out in spiritual desperation, may be prepared for the blessed message of the Good News, namely, that we have been redeemed by Christ. This is an epiphany, a manifestation of God’s grace & mercy to our world.
Do we sin & fall short of God’s expectation for His children? Yes.
Confronted with our sin & shortcomings, we repent & confess our sins of thought & attitude, word & deed. Asking forgiveness for Jesus’s sake & for the strength of God’s Spirit to turn us away from these sins, we live at peace with one another, loving & serving each other, as Christ Jesus continues to love & forgive us. Amen.
“Herald, sound the note of judgment, warning us of right & wrong, turning us from sin & sadness till once more we sing the song.” Herald, sound the note of gladness; tell the news that Christ is here; make a pathway through the desert for the one who brings God near. Herald, sound the note of pardon – those repenting are forgiven; God receives His wayward children, & to them new life is given. Sound the trumpet! Tell the message: Christ, the Savior king, is come! Amen. (LSB 511:1-3)
5th Sunday after Epiphany – A LSB #729
Text – 1 Corinthians 2:3 & 5
And I was with you in weakness & in fear & much trembling, …that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
WEAKNESS, FEAR & TREMBLING
“If you hear the dogs, keep going. If you see the torches in the woods, keep going. If there’s shouting after you, keep going. Don’t ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.” Since the 1970’s, those words have been attributed to Harriet Tubman, although there’s no record prior to it that she ever said them. She died in 1913.
Yet, those powerful & compelling words could certainly be considered as a philosophy that Harriet followed while she was alive. She was a black woman who had been enslaved from birth, somewhere around the year 1822. About the year 1849 she escaped from her slave master’s plantation through the underground railroad.
It was only a ninety-mile journey from Maryland to Philadelphia, but it was travelled entirely on foot across rivers & through forests, often in the dark of the night. And her slave master had put out the word to arrest her & bring her back. So, she travelled with a good deal of weakness, fear & trembling. Still, because she wanted a taste of freedom, she kept going.
Though Harriet found work as a free woman in Philadelphia, she did not desire that freedom only for herself. At tremendous risk, she went back to Maryland in order to rescue her niece & her niece’s children. Having made it safely to Philadelphia again, Harriet returned about 12 more times to successfully rescue other family & friends, including her parents.
Like Harriet Tubman, once the apostle Paul tasted freedom, he could not rest unless he was sharing it with others. Also, like Harriet Tubman, the apostle Paul learned to lean upon Jesus for everything needed to accomplish his mission. Paul had always been a free man in the sense that he was not enslaved to other human beings. Yet, prior to his conversion on the road to Damascus, Paul had been a slave to the law. He was a highly educated man, & still, when Paul became a Christian, he considered his former religious beliefs as manure (Philippians 3:2-11). That’s how strongly Paul viewed his former beliefs as a form of slavery.
Once Jesus set him free, as a result, Paul “…decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ & Him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2 ESV) Once Paul had tasted freedom, he had to go back & try to rescue others from the slavery he himself had left behind.
Like Harriet & Paul, us preachers face formidable challenges in helping you to be set free. Harriet’s own brothers, out of fear, refused to escape with her. Many of Paul’s fellow Jews refused to accept the way to freedom that Jesus offered them. People that you & I know still want their efforts & their decisions to count for something, & thus remain in those chains.
As we share with people what Jesus has done in our lives it’s not easy to make Christ’s presence plausible & practical in a world in which our heavenly Father works through the cross. People in our culture are appalled by capital punishment even as it’s carried out in much more humane ways than crucifixion on a cross. That the cross offers life to them is unfathomable.
The world does not want the cross. If we’re honest, neither do we! That’s why we have what’s referred to as a consumer culture. All of us are constantly buying things to make our lives easier, more pleasant & more beautiful. The cross brings hardship & self-denial. The cross brings weakness, fear & trembling.
Yet, Harriet Tubman’s harsh childhood & experiences in captivity strengthened her resolve to free her people, especially her family. Her journeys were sometimes delayed because she needed to hide from slave catchers. To minimize the risk of being seen & caught, she usually traveled during fall & winter. So Harriet learned, through hardship, to pray: “...and I prayed to God to make me strong & able to fight, & that’s what I’ve always prayed for ever since.” What are your prayers like? Do you prayer for healing & for ease & for comfort? Maybe you should pray to be strong & able to fight, because the devil is attacking you & your family every single day.
You may not be enslaved to a plantation owner, but sin does have its hooks into you. Your sinful nature is not from God, but from the devil. So the preacher & you as well, face formidable challenges in making Christ’s presence plausible & practical in the lives of your friends & family.
Yet, despite these challenges, preaching has the Spirit-given, Spirit-driven power to create a bridge that carries us into a new reality. The Word of God carries us from darkness to light, from death to life from slavery to freedom. Our true future is inhabited by God & resounds with His Word.
Preaching moves us forward into God’s planned future by assuring us of Christ’s presence in our lives. Christ’s presence is the antidote to our weakness, fear & trembling. For Black History month this year, V.P. Pence spoke at the Holy City Church of God in Memphis, TN, & he quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who said during his famous march in 1963:
“This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to work together, pray together, struggle together, go to jail together, stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.” Dr. King knew “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”
What are your prayers like? Are they driven by weakness, fear & trembling, or driven by what your sinful nature desires? There’s a fine line between the two. Thus St. Paul wrote: “And I was with you in weakness & in fear & much trembling, …that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” Amen.
I am trusting Thee, Lord Jesus, trusting only Thee; trusting Thee for full salvation, great & free. I am trusting Thee for pardon; at Thy feet I bow, for Thy grace & tender mercy trusting now. I am trusting Thee for cleansing; in the crimson flood; trusting Thee to make me holy by Thy blood. I am trusting Thee to guide me; Thou alone shalt lead, every day & hour supplying all my need. Amen. LSB #729:1-4.
4th Sunday after the Epiphany – A Just A Closer Walk With Thee
Text – 1 Corinthians 1:28-29
God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before Him.
THE THINGS THAT ARE NOT
There was a philosopher in the 2nd century who was not real fond of Christians. In his writings he summarized what he viewed as the Christian message: “Let no one educated, no one wise, no one sensible draw near. These abilities are thought by us to be evil. But as for anyone ignorant, anyone stupid, anyone uneducated, anyone who is a child, let him come boldly.”
The philosopher then makes this comment: “By the fact that Christians themselves admit that these people are worthy of their God, they show that they want and are able to convince only the foolish, dishonorable and stupid, only slaves, women and children.” This man had a rather low opinion of the Christian religion, didn’t he?
In more recent times, Ted Turner and the former governor of Minnesota – Jesse Ventura – have made similar comments. Their general opinion is that Christianity is for those who are too weak to fend for themselves. It’s for people who need a crutch to get through life.
If you care about your faith it stings to hear words like that. Few of us enjoy being exposed as the fool, or being publicly accused of associating with them. And even Christians like to think that they are able to take care of themselves, at least in all the normal matters.
The average person doesn’t willingly join the team of losers, walking around with their finger and their thumb in the shape of an L on their forehead. And yet, reading the very 1st chapter of Paul’s letter to Corinth we get the impression that Christians are meant, by God, to be losers. We read:
“God chose the foolish things of the world, the weak things, the lowly things and the
despised things – the things that are not.” That doesn’t sound much more flattering than the comments of that 2nd century philosopher, or Misters Turner and Ventura. What’s ironic is that Jesse Ventura was a member of a Missouri Synod congregation. I don’t suppose he’s a very “active” member though, not if religion is simply a crutch for losers.
So how do we as Christians react to Paul’s message in 1st Corinthians? It’s one thing to be offended by an unbeliever like Ted Turner, but how about being offended by the Apostle Paul? He was a very active member of his church. And for that matter, how do we react to Jesus’ words in the so-called beatitudes?
I remember as a child I wasn’t real impressed with the concept of receiving blessings for being poor, meek, hungry, insulted and persecuted. Those sounded like bad things to me, like being a loser. I preferred the summer of 1968 when the Detroit Tigers won the World Series in my very 1st season of being one of their fans. Winning is a lot more fun than losing.
So even if our personal opinion of Christianity is much higher than the philosopher quoted above, are we willing to accept the part of the fool, the weak, the hungry or the mourning, if that is God’s will for us? It can be flattering to hear that God chose us to be His children, as long as we think of it in terms of how good or how respectable we are.
But the Word of God that we read earlier tears that theory apart. If you want to take comfort in the fact that God chose you, then we must also accept the fact that God chose you because you are foolish, because you are weak, because you are lowly and despised, in summary, because you are the things that are not! God chose us because we are nothing.
Once we accept, once we believe that truth, then, we’re on our way to growing in faith. Until we accept that truth, our wisdom, our self-sufficiency, our pride in our accomplishments, even our wealth, will always get in the way of our spiritual growth. That isn’t to say you can’t be a Christian as such, but you’ll always be a weak one whenever you depend even the least bit upon yourself and your own abilities. For good reason the Apostle Paul wrote, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” It’s normally when we’re too weak to fend for ourselves that we finally turn to Yahweh, and when He takes over tremendous things happen and strength appears.
As a result, we should not resent being stereotyped as weak, foolish and nothing. In fact, we should welcome such a classification because those are the people whom God chooses.
So, how do we measure if we are weak, foolish and nothing? What standard do we use to make comparisons? Who do we measure ourselves up against? We’re commonly tempted to measure ourselves against friends and family, the people we associate with most frequently. However, that tends to cause friction in those relationships.
Another way we’re tempted to measure ourselves is against those who are less fortunate than we are, but that makes the standard too easy. The last sentence of today’s Epistle reading hints at whom we are to measure ourselves against:
“Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.” Jesus Christ is our true and only standard. If you struggle with seeing yourself as ignorant, stupid, uneducated, then compare yourself to the Son of God. And remember, He’s a human being just like you are.
Measured against that standard, all of us fall so far short as to be entirely equal in our failure. There are no second-class people of God. Neither are there any 1st class people. There are only people “in Christ.” In Jesus all believers are radically equal: black, white, rich, poor, educated or uneducated, Democrat or Republican.
Our heavenly Father shows zero favoritism and He cuts off any attempt to attach our self-worth to our own accomplishments or status. We read about Zebulun and Naphtali last Sunday. They were two tribes that had been cut off for 700 years. They were a perfect example of the things that are not, but finally God blessed them by having Jesus spend His childhood in their region and conducting the majority of His earthly ministry there.
And didn’t Jesus appear on earth as one of the things that are not? He was born as a mere baby and cradled in a feeding stall for cattle on the night of that birth. To normal human eyesight He looked to be nothing: lowly, uneducated; a mere infant. Yet which of us would not gladly be numbered with the One risen from the dead on Easter morning?
It is by the preaching of the cross that people come to regard themselves as ignorant, stupid, uneducated, and childlike. For all God’s children recognize that none of us can measure up to the sacrifice that Jesus Christ made on Mt. Calvary. It’s in His only begotten Son that God reverses the standards and the expectations of this world, and of our own sinful hearts.
The Epistle lesson shares the simple truth that the ways of the world are not God’s ways. He chooses weakness when we would not. He chooses ways that seem powerless and foolish to accomplish His mission. We have to admit sometimes we get angry at God for choosing such weakness.
In our congregations, we’d rather have strong, motivated, faithful pastors and members, Peters and Pauls storming the gates of hell in the name of Christ Jesus. Instead, our Lord sends us people who are foolish, weak, lowly and despised. He sends us members who are mourning and poor in spirit; members who are hungry, meek, insulted and persecuted.
Then, Yahweh tells us that we are blessed. That can be a difficult word to accept. Our sinful nature and our pride rebel against such weakness. To our sinful nature the cross is merely another example of foolishness and death. No wonder His disciples couldn’t understand any of His death predictions until after the resurrection was accomplished.
It’s in the resurrection that we finally see how Jesus has achieved His mission. From
death the true God brings life. From weakness the true God brings strength. From foolishness the true God brings wisdom. Whenever you have reason to doubt God’s love or His Wisdom, the cross and the empty tomb are the sure and certain signs of His love and His power.
No matter what else does not make sense to our feeble and foolish minds, the cross and the empty tomb demonstrate a love that knows no limits, no weaknesses and no failures. Christ did not stop until His mission was completed, and now by faith, it makes sense even to us. By His grace we are saved, by His gift, not by our doing, not even by our strength or wisdom.
What the cross and the empty tomb so powerfully represent is that our weakness does not matter. Yes, we do need a crutch to get through life, but the sooner we learn that, the sooner we appreciate the good news that we have been set free to be fools for Christ, because it is through His Wisdom and His Power that we are saved unto life everlasting.
We once were the things that are not, like a bag of dust, but our heavenly Father delights in creating out of nothing. He speaks His Word and then there is light. God said, “Let the dry land appear,” and it was so. Out of that which was foolish, weak, lowly and despised, the God of all creation makes that which is wise, strong, honorable and blessed. Declares the Lord:
“Let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight.” (Jeremiah 9:24) But as for anyone who is called ignorant, stupid, uneducated, or a child, let him “Rejoice and be glad, because great is his reward in heaven…” (Matthew 5:12) Amen.
I am weak but Thou art strong Jesus, keep me from all wrong; I’ll be satisfied as long as I walk, dear Lord, close to Thee. Thru this world of toil and snares, if I falter, Lord, who cares? Who with me my burden shares? None but Thee, dear Lord, none but Thee. When my feeble life is o’er, time for me will be no more; on that bright eternal shore I will walk, dear Lord, close to Thee. Amen.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet