Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Trinity 15 - Isaiah 35

(Audio update to come when savefile gets back up and running.)

We always like to think that we're special. Especially as modern humans living in the grand era of technology, we all want to believe we're of a very privileged set of minds. "Enlightened," I think, is the general term the theorize how great western civilization is. We suppose that somehow our amassing of technology, democratic beauracracy, and every conceivable bit of useless knowledge known to man, has made us so culturally and individually wise, that nothing that has come before us can really compare. And, if we should fade or change, what on earth could come after us that could be of any real good.

So what on earth, then do we stand to learn from a few words scribbled by a prophet 2700 years ago? Why gather together on a perfectly good Sunday morning to listen to the words of a barbarian hebrew long dead? Are we trying to learn just a little bit more useless knowledge in the hopes we can pick out some little point we might apply to our opinions? Or is this simply a nice routine which keeps us pious?

But then, strange indeed it is to think that we can learn even a little practical application or be kept truly pious by the words from a people who had so little in common with us. Everything is different now. The world has changed and man has been set free from the superstitions of old. Concepts like sin, death and the devil have met their match in science, philosophy and Netflix. Surely, the old testament people of Israel and their prophets can hardly be expected to speak to our immediate context without at least a little spinning of the text or some creative, suggestive interpretation. Surely, the ancients were so obscure that we could hardly understand them, even if we tried. And being so modern and intelligent as we are, why should we want to try?

And that IS the question for our day. "Why should I?” Like the obedient, consumer-capitalists that we are, each a professional at finding the best return for our time and money, each skilled at discerning what will bring me the most pleasure for my buck, "why should I?" is our mantra. "Prove to me that it's worth my while." "Sell the pitch, if you want me to really buy that."

It's kind of arrogant really, setting ourselves up to be the judges of all value, scanning and assessing, accepting and discarding ideas and opinions like a successful diamond merchant swiftly looking over
his wares.

So great is our arrogance that even our children no longer need to learn anymore. "Why do I have to go to school? Why do I have to learn math and English?" "Um, how about because if you don't our civilization will collapse and we'll all die of starvation and rotting diseases." "Can that really happen?" "Uh-huh." "No mom, you're pulling my string. The TV would never tell us that?" "No, the TV will only try to sell you more stuff.” BUt if we all know so much that we don't need to learn anymore, one day soon we will wake up and find that what we thought we knew has been swept away, and what we didn't know is a very very scary thing.

Yet, fear is exactly what we have lost. Fear of life. Fear of death. Fear of the devil. Fear of God. Why fear when you've got an ipod, health insurance and no end to the supply of java, cigarettes and fresh veges at the market? The closest we come is fearing we won't be able to consume enough fast enough to satisfy our fleshy desires. We don’t have time to “do it all” and this is a source of great stress and consternation to us, like a child who steals candy from the pantry yet is so afraid of being caught that he must shove it all in his mouth at once, so that his jaw becomes sore and he is sick of the flavor by the time he gets it down his gullet. Yes, that’s exactly what we are.

Of course, the biggest problem with being in a civilization that is eating itself to death is that such civilizations are blind to their obesity. When the blind lead the blind, it's impossible to avoid the pits. Ah. But right there is where that prophet from 2700 years ago isn't so very removed from us after all. Isaiah, son of Amoz, also lived in a time of a civilization’s decline and decadence. He watched as a golden era passed away into the horror which awaits the generations who come "After."

To be sure, there were a few differences. The need for petroleum and well-trained anesthesiologists wasn't there, and, unlike us, his nation truly had been a Christian nation at one point, but those things don’t matter so much for the results in the end were quite the same. A nation had grown so callous and fat in its pride and success, that pride and success became heavy chains around the neck, chains which pulled the head so low to the ground of daily cares and pleasures that the future impending devestation was completely lost to sight.

But does America truly have a future impending devastation. Yes. Now I don't know how and I don’t know when, but America will fall. Like all nations, the US of A will be dashed to pieces as pottery upon the iron rod of the Son of God. And in the day of judgment, which is only around the corner, all of our triumphs and greatness will be like the broken head of a stone statue lying in the middle of a barren wasteland.

Do you remember 911. 911 was only a precursor, the beginnings of a birth pain, n hint of the destruction to come upon the entire world when Jesus Christ returns with his myriads of armies and hosts. This is the way of all things which stand in rebellion before God. It happened 2700 years ago even to the chosen people of God. It can happen any time to any nation then or since. And it will happen to the whole world. For those who are asleep and hypnotized, chasing after the fleeting shadows of material wealth and constant entertainment, it will be an utter and terrifying surprise, like a thief in the night, when it comes, but just because they won’t expect the thief doesn’t mean they won’t be stolen from.

That is what we can learn from the prophet Isaiah this morning. For the people of Judah and Israel had been living in ways not so different from our own. They were casual about religion, treating their relationship with the Lord like a relaxed friendship, more a practice in philosophy and superstition than the subjection of a people to their King. And even as the priests and many so called prophets were saying to them, "Peace, peace. God is love," the soldiers of Assyria, sent by God, came in and swept half of their nation completely away. Then they marched onward, straight to the gates of Jerusalem, burning fields and looting homes, taking away the people as captives and slaves, dragging off nobles attached behind their carts by chain connected to a ring pierced through the nose, with their eyes gorged out and unable to even clean themselves from their own excrements as the caravan traveled.

They were utterly overrun in a day of destruction, in a foretaste of the wrath that is to come upon
all men. And they never saw it coming, in spite of a faithful prophet’s constant cry that they must repent. And yet, even as Isaiah so constantly foretells the impending doom, and even as the civilization corrupted itself so completely as to burn their babies in the fires of pagan gods rather than listen to him - even then, the Word of God in grace was active creating a remnant, giving faith to the chosen people amongst the falling chosen people, making a people for himself who not only felt a tinge of remorse over the decline of their culture, but who ever increasingly grieved for the they knew would surely come upon them and their brethren. They were grieved because they knew they too deserved such wrath simply for being associated with their increasingly pagan nation. They grieved because they stood in the way of the hordes of Assyria, and there was no promise that they would each be spared the sword.

It was to these people, these repentant, those who heard the condemnation of the Law of God spoken by his mouthpiece, people who cried out, "O Lord, we are judged and you have judged rightly.,' - it was to these convicted people that the Words of our text from Isaiah today were spoken.

But can we, now, learn from these 2700 year old words? Should I, the mouthpiece of God speak comforting words to you? What would such words do? Would they only serve to settle you back in complacency and unrepentance?

You see, I am called to a very strenuous task. I must do a prophet's job, and rightly distinguish your current need as a people. Do you need more Law? Do I need to keep trying to shake you out of blindness and deathly sleep of busy barn and home building? Have you no fear of the Lord yet? Is this religion just superstition, and your pastor just a zealous young man who will learn with time?

Or have you been convicted of the charges? Have you sat there silently forced to admit, "yes, yes. His words are true. Woe to us," And, mind you, have you said not just "woe to us" but "woe to me"? Because it is only those who believe “woe to me,” (and only you can read if that is in your heart,) – it is only those who believe that in this world there is truly only “woe to me” that this Word of God is written. It is to the hopeless, that a prophet can rightly give words of hope.

And dear friends, we are hopeless here. We may have built a building with our blood and sweat, but it’s empty now. We may have had glorious times full of families and fun, but family in Church has gone the way of family in America – fragmented, fractured and too busy for each other. We may have done any number of services to the Church and world – but all these services pass away and guarantee us no mercy from the hand of God. Yes. We sit here this morning, hopeless, hopeless in the face of the future. Hopeless of having all of us gather faithfully to enact a congregational strategy through Wednesdays at 6. Hopeless of being of one mind when that strategy is proposed in the next two weeks. Hopeless of converting the hard-hearted of our this weird New Jersey west. Hopeless of defending ourselves against the many threats of pagan and heretical religion. I won’t go on, though I could.

It is to that situation, to those of us who have seen that that is what we are, a meager, defeated gathering of broken people, pilgrims living in tents as we sojourn through this barren world, foreign to our own culture, disunited within our own congregation, and futilly pounding out mile after mile on the treadmills of our personal lives – it is to this Christianity which cannot possibly survive on its own - it is to that hopelessness that Isaiah preaches today.

For, the Lord says, "Say to those who have an anxious heart," Say to those who see the danger and the lack of certainty, say to those who face the insurmountable wall of the survival, say to the people I have
crushed, "Be strong," and "Fear not."

Fear not, not because you were never wrong, not because its not so bad out there. Be strong and fear not because "Your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you….And when he does, 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.

Did you listen as the Gospel lesson was read today, where Jesus came with the vengeance and recompense of God, where he came to open the ears of man born deaf, and to release his mute tongue so that he might sing for joy. Jesus Christ came to initiate the completion of all the promises of old. And the world encountered his very presence, the unthinkable begans. The words of an ancient prophets about a paradise of a new earth started happened before even the old earth had passed away. And the people were amazed an astounded because these were no parlor tricks or magic. This was Isaiah’s ancient promises taking place before their eyes. In the midst of that which was and is passing away, at the fullness of its time, Jesus Christ came with the vengeance and wrath of God, in order to save.

But where is the vengeance in the healing of the deaf? Where is the wrath of God in the releasing of the mute? (laugh), it is just here that these words are not just of old, but also of right now. It is here that our very hope lies! For here is the greatness of our God’s unfathomable mercy and grace. Jesus came with wrath, but he did not come to be the one who wields the wrath. He came to be the one who would shield others from it.

And so, on Calvary, on that green hill far away, outside a city wall, the words of the prophet Isaiah found their paradoxical fullness. There the Law and Gospel of God were juxtaposed in completion. What did I just say? What does that mean? There on that cross, in a man bleeding and bruised, God in three persons came
with complete vengeance, and the total recompense of God upon the sins of the whole world, in order save ...you.

Oh. How the waters break forth in the wilderness of our hopeless hearts when we hear and believe that good news. How streams in the desert of this hopeless situation flow with that “Enlightenment.” How the burning sand which we see around us as we sojourn becomes nothing beside the pooling springs of water which the Yes of God given in Jesus Christ.

And the prophet goes on, for a highway has been raised, it is called the Way of Holiness. It is called the Truth of Resurrection promises. It is called the Life of the World to come. And even to us, who are fools, because we have been given to walk on that Way, we shall not go astray. The ransomed of the Lord shall return to Zion with singing. We shall come to paradise with praise. Everlasting joy will be upon your head, and sighing and sorrow shall flee away

That being said, I’m kind of glad we're no so different from the Old Testament people of Israel. I’m glad that God still loves us enough to warn us of the devastation to come. I’m glad that His Spirit is still working to convict us of our need. I’m glad that we have seen the fullness of the promises come to pass in the man Jesus Christ. And I am even more glad that this Jesus Christ has said, “Behold, I am coming again.” “Watch therefore!” For the grass withers and the flowers fade, but the Word of the Lord endures forever. Amen.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Trinity 14 - Mark 7

(Audio Link)

Do you gossip? “Of course not.” That’s the easy answer. That’s the answer we’d prefer to give. Do you speak rudely to people when you disagree with them. “Never.” That’s what we’d all like to believe. Do you color the truth in order to make yourself look better when you complain to friends and family about the things you don’t like? “Not really.” Mm-hmm.

So would you say to me, the messenger of God in this place, that at the bottom of your heart you are not really a liar and a blasphemer, that from your heart comes mostly good things, charity, tenderness, mercy? Do you think this snot-nosed kid is so young and inexperienced to as not understand the heart of man? What do you actually know about me? What do you know of my wisdom? More so, what have you said about me and my wisdom in the last few days and weeks of your life? Have you spoken only well of me? Have you spoken only well of all those who sit in the pews around you, those who you shall soon kneel beside in order to receive together the body and blood of God?

Do you gossip? How bridled is you tongue? How freely do you bend and compromise the truth in order to satisfy the desire of your heart to see yourself as a bed of rose petals? How hard are you willing to work to ignore the thorns? Are you willing to suffer for the sake of defending your lying tongue? Are you willing to bleed for it? Are you willing to burn for it?

Such is the fate of all hypocrites. Especially the pietous, religious men and women whom the prophet Isaiah spoke well of, People who honor God with their lips, but whose hearts are far from him. People who worship God in vain, clinging to their traditions and the structures of man’s devising while ignoring the commands of God – while most especially ignoring how much they have ignored the commands of God, such as the command to only speak well of every neighbor, to put the best construction upon the name and actions of others, so as to preserve their honor and integrity in the world and the congregation.

Ah, but don’t you see pastor? You are so young, and you will learn with time. We have striven for so long to wash our hands ourselves, to show that our fingernails are clean and trimmed, to make certain that the external things of religion appear neat and tidy and in order, and if we but keep these appearances up, then we can at the very least say to ourselves that we are good, devout, upright, godly people, even if the church falls apart around us, even if the pews get emptier ever year, even if we cannot convince any of those who visit us that we are more friendly than they realize, even if those who are members with us, disappear without our ever knowing why. Don’t you see pastor? You are so young. You will understand with time.

Children, I see. I see all too well. Do you think I come to you teaching my own ideas? Do you think the Seminary is a bunch of snot-nosed kids talking about what they think the Bible means? Do you suppose I have such confidence in myself? No. I come bearing the Word of God. I come taught by my fathers, who were taught by your fathers, who themselves were taught by the fathers.

I come thus instructed and approved by the entire Church, and I have see all too well a people who are fanatically washing their own hands, scrubbing the skin till it is raw and red, and then holding them up to the light and saying, “See, I have got the dirt and filth off.” But the hands are bloodied with the blood of your neighbor’s good name and integrity, and all of your structures and experience and self-claimed wisdom cannot make that go away.

This is just the fact of Scripture’s testimony. The words from lips which claiming the name of Christian while mouthing liturgy and creed and song, - such words cannot undo the pollution which comes spewing forth the moment you have walked away, into your preferred dark corner, where you know you can poison the wells of others’ lives, by tearing down those who are not present in order to boast all the more of how clean your scabby hands and whitewashed metal building are.

Is such a thing really your preferred decision? Do you want to leave the commandment of God behind while holding to the tradition of men with your every last venomous word?

It is our Lord who said, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: The things that come out of a person are what make him unclean. From within, out of the heart …come evil thoughts…coveting, …deceit, …envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

No matter what you have done otherwise. No matter how lofty your service or suffering or giving, no matter the past glories, dreams or accomplishments, nothing you have done or ever will do can undo your unbridled and decadent tongue. For it was the Apostle James who wrote, “we all stumble…. we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us…. And ships …are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is small…, yet it boasts of great things.

I speak now only James: How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire, and the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set …., staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and [the tongue will be] set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by man, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. I speak only James, My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.”

Is anyone here wise? Then show your good conduct by the meekness of your wisdom. Learn silence, contemplation, a hesitancy to speak, and a hatred of your own anger. But do not expect this pastor to believe that the bitter jealousy and selfish ambitions which I have seen can be overcome by the boasts I have heard about what loving and good people we are. Such boasting, as St. James says, is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, and demonic. For wherever jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. The wisdom from above is pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.

And such wisdom is the wisdom of our Lord, which we have just heard him practice in the words of the Evangelist Mark. For while the Pharisees and hypocritical religious people of his day, those who thought they knew their religion, nonetheless fought and grumbled and slandered and politicked, clawing like immature children to each be seen as the most pure and the most right in the eyes of all the rest, Jesus paid little heed to such men. In the great wisdom of his Godhead, he saw that it was better, since he was able, to care for those who ate without having washed their hands in just the right way, to ignore the unwashed hands on unwashed men in order to focus on the real problem – the unwashed hearts. And He had come, sent from God, to do what man could not do with his hands, no matter how ardently he scrub them. He came to wash the hearts that simple water alone could never reach. He came to cleanse hypocrisy and evil tongues with the fire of rebuke. He came to set up in the place of hypocrisy and jealousy not an empty void for more of man’s wicked words and thoughts, but place for his own Words. His pure, perfect, peace-making words, words which flowed from his heart, which is not evil, but the very ultimate good.

It is Jesus’ Words, Jesus tongue, which is the hope of the man who has unwashed hands. It is Jesus’ Words, Jesus tongue, which must cleanse and pluck out from within each man the evil which there resides. It is Jesus’ Words, Jesus tongue which is given to make peace, to release us from the bondage of gossip and jealousy, to let each of us release the memory of even our very best works, even our best insights, into the dung pile where they belong, that we can be free to cease comparing ourselves with each other. We can stop scrubbing our hands and keeping lists and looking askance as we whisper in dark corners, or speak in anger, or complain out of turn, or fail our God and our neighbors in any number of the other ways we all know that we have.

The beauty of the Lord is that we are free to speak with honest tongues the confession that our hearts and tongues are too often fire and evil. We can confess that we have failed to bridle them. We can confess that our highest performance of service is only the duty of slave, nothing to be boasted of.

It is then, as we mouth this testimony of the Word of God back to Him, confessing who we are, admitting who we have made our selves, ignoring the praise of man’s lips and instead seeking the praise of a broken and contrite heart – of a heart which knows full well that left alone it has no true praise to offer God - it is then that, together, we will see that our unclean hands, though they still remain flecked with dirt, can nonetheless pick up the brother who has fallen besides us, rather than kick him when he is down. Our unclean tongues, which only speak from unclean hearts, can nonetheless strive to protect the dignity of our neighbor, defending him against all words spoken in dark corners. It is when we no longer look at ourselves, but instead cry out to see Jesus, that we no longer will be ashamed of what we see. And when are no longer ashamed of what we see, we will find there is little need to waste our words by boasting of ourselves and deriding the failures of others.

In Jesus, we need not defend ourselves, for in Jesus we see the God who defends us. In Jesus, we need not worry that our lips offer empty praise, for in Jesus we have the Word of God who speaks that praise for us. In Jesus, life ceases to be about trying to make ourselves look clean, for in Jesus we are clean, by the blood he shed on the cross. In Jesus, nothing else matters but Jesus because it is Jesus whose lips and mouth are the Word of God.

And it is Jesus’ clean lips and mouth that will only moments from now smile upon you and say, “Take and eat. Take and drink. This is the forgiveness of sins. This is why you are a gossip and this is why your gossiping will be put to an end. This is why you are a liar, and this is why your lying will be put to an end. This is why your evil heart bursts forth in jealousy, dissensions, envy and pride, and this is why your jealousy, dissensions, envy and pride will be put to an end. This is why you deserve to be the one who dies on a cross and yet this is the cross died upon for your sake in your place, not as the final ending which wrath demands, but as the miraculous beginning which grace bestows. Oh, sweet mouth of Jesus which speaks such words to such people as us. I tell you, congregation, that if this snot-nosed kid isn’t preaching the Gospel to you now, then you will never hear it, for there is no Gospel like “Take and eat. Take and drink.” There is no mouth like the mouth of Jesus. There is no heart so good as our God’s.

There is an old practice in the Church, an ancient practice. Spoken of even in the Scriptures, it is known as the sharing of the peace. If you look carefully in your hymnal, new or old, you will find that the instructions for this bit of liturgy is there, generally following the prayer of the Church. It is the passing point from the service of the Word to the service of the Sacrament, and it is with very good reason that it is there. For none of us should ever come to this table unless we can look into the eye of every other person who joins us there and wish them true salvation in Christ and peace with God and man from the bottom of our hearts. You will find that, as good as we are at lying to ourselves and others when we lurk in dark corners, it is nearly impossible to lie in such a way straight into the face of one against whom you hold a grudge.

Therefore, today, as a gesture our repentance and of our desire that we all together be made right with God and with each other according to the promises given in this meal which we shall eat, we will reinstitute the practice of the sharing of the peace. It is simple and harmless. One merely walks up to another, extends the hand and says, “Peace be with you,” or “God’s peace to you.” And yet, we may in fact find this simple action quite difficult. We may be quite afraid of it, because it quite likely that it will reveal to you the deep and bitter grudges you have hidden in your heart for longer than would behoove a pious Christian. That is precisely why it is good for us. If you can not reconcile with your brother in a fellowship so small as this, then I as your Pastor have no business welcoming you to a table of forgiveness.

So then, let us each swallow our pride crucified for us in the food which now is given. I myself shall meet and greet every one of you in the room, and I deeply encourage you to do the same, not forgetting to greet our children as well. You will find, I believe, that the case truly is as CS Lewis once wrote, “A repentant heart is not a cup which one may sit and sip. To barely taste repentance is to refuse to drink it at all. No. You must drain the cup all the way down to the dregs. And then you will find, bitter though it is, commingled in it is joy beyond your wildest dreams."

This is the joy set before our Lord for which he died on the cross. It is the joy of reconciliation. It is the joy of quietness and peace. It is the joy of hearts washed in a better blood than our own, the joy which comes from the right hand of God, the Gospel itself, which is, after all, why we have come here this evening to begin with. For though our tongues wag and our hearts deny, though our flesh rage and our minds insist that boasting is the only justification, though the grass withers and the flowers fade, this Gospel which is our salvation, even now, the Word of the Lord, endures forever….In the name…

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Trinity 13

(Audio Link)

Ephesians 5:22-33

I’m going to do something kind of crazy this morning. I’m going to preach on Ephesians, chapter five, verses 22-33. And I have got to tell you, if there is any one passage of Scripture that is more maligned and disparaged in our day and age than this little section, then I’m not sure what it is. Maybe Jonah and the whale or the texts about Jesus miracles have come under a lot of historical critical fire, that is, people have questioned whether or not they are really true. But I’m not sure even they are rejected with such outright, egocentric certainty as these few words from the Apostle Paul. And the only thing that might be more outrightly rejected than these words, is those who dare to believe that these words are true.

Yet, it is only fair to tell you this: it is in many ways the loss of this practical, all too obvious truth that is at the core of the havoc that has been wreaked in our country upon the institution of marriage, from divorce, to abortion, to the fact that the majority of our kids are growing up as angst-driven, punk-gothic reprobates. Now, that’s saying quite a lot. But rather then try to prove all those connections, today it is better simply that we look at the text of Holy Scripture closely.

So let’s start. Ephesians chapter 5, vs. 22. “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.”

Woah. Just wait right there. What’s that doing in the Bible? In a sense, that’s not an unreasonable a question to ask, though it is an Biblically ignorant question to ask. But before I answer it – in fact, before I go on one bit further - it is imperative that I make something else clear first.

Even though Ephesians chapter five most certainly has a few commands for us Christians to believe and obey, we must understand from the outset that Ephesians chapter five is not first and foremost about our obedience to certain commands. Now certainly, our obedience is a part of it. But we can’t much believe or obey these words unless we first realize that Ephesians chapter five is not primarily about commands or obedience, but about Jesus Christ. Paul says it himself in vs 32. This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.

Ephesians chapter five is about our Savior, Jesus Christ. The Jesus who is risen from the dead and ruling over all creation even as I speak. This Christ alone has triumphed over sin and the devil, not as a pious myth or religious ideal, but as cold, hard fact. This Christ triumphed alone, but he did not triumph in order to stand alone. Rather, he triumphed on behalf of someone else. He triumphed on behalf of his bride. And who is his bride? The Church, none other than you and me, as the Scriptures testify.

Now, Paul said it, there is a great mystery involved here, for we who are many are the bride of He Who is one. And we who are both male and female are the bride of He Who is certainly male, and perhaps even something even more than male, or should I say, something more male than the average, run of the mill human man. But this is where we need to start rethinking everything they taught to us in school about gender not being anything beyond a physical reality.

Far from the being just about ph balance and the way your jeans fit, masculine and feminine are much bigger words than the male and female of sexuality that we have generally limited them to. Sex is not in itself gender, but something which has gender. Think of a mountain and then think of a tree. Or imagine a neuter figure holding a spear, and then imagine a neuter figure holding a child. There is a difference, and that difference is the true meaning of what it is to be masculine…or feminine. Our sex is only a physical reflection of our gender, and it is gender first which our God has given to each and every one of us.

What is masculine is like a rock, enduring, stubborn and strong. What is the feminine is like the flower which lives in the rock’s shade, fertile, fragile and tender even to its roots. And this is a cosmic reality which goes far beyond being human male or female. This is about the creation as God our Father has created it and called it good. Now granted, today the devil’s world has utterly condemned this created wonder. Little boys are told to stop rough housing to the point where their only outlets are video games where they steal cars and pick up prostitutes. And little girls are given C.E.O. Barbies instead of baby dolls, to the point where our young women are so driven by the need to succeed in a career that many of them don’t even realize that working for the rest of their lives in a dead end job is really the last thing they actually want.

We live in world that wants to have all rhythm and no melody, but which then tries to make melody sing without any rhythm. And, you need to know, the media, the government and the higher educational system is completely geared toward promoting this genderless, sterilized world. In fact, in their minds, it is the great saving “progress” and heritage of the age of Enlightenment.

But I ask you, how many marriages must end in divorce, or, at best, empty nights of watching television without ever really talking to each other, before at least a few Christians will start believing that the Bible’s assertion of gender has so much more to offer us than a brute description of our anatomy? There is something beautiful about smooth, cold marble. And there is another beauty altogether about the soft light in a garden in the morning. Personally, I would loathe to live in a world that was missing either one.

Of course, there is always the reasonable protest that a woman can appreciate fine marble and a man can tend to a garden. Duh. But, such a protest really is missing the main point. It is not that the human male has nothing about him which is feminine, nor that the human female has no masculine traits. In fact, as I have said, there is a masculine center beyond our universe who is our God, and compared to Him every single one of us is feminine. But that doesn’t stop us from being who we were created to be.

I mean, who wants a hamburger with more ketchup than bun? What use is a mother who has so purged herself of soft warmth in order to succeed in her career that she can no longer nurture her infant child, nor even maintain the desire to, but instead pawns the three week old off to be cared for by another? And, for that matter, what good is a father who has become so in touch with his feminine side that he no longer has the backbone to discipline or protect, much less to teach his children the value of honor and integrity? In these ways, masculine and feminine are infinitely complementary, and exceedingly valuable realities in our world, realities which our world his hell bent on losing. Our world is hell bent on stealing from you the identity given you by God inherent in your gender.

You have an identity engendered in you, which God has created you to be. If the relationships in the world around you don’t seem to be functioning properly, which is what happens when we reject the way we were created to be, then maybe this tidbit from Ephesians five has something to offer you, especially if your first thought towards it is that it can’t be right.

But, as we dive into that reality a bit deeper this morning, we must keep in mind that this reality of masculine and feminine, of authority and submission, is first and foremost not about us in our marriages at all, but about us in our marriage to our Lord Jesus Christ. That is what Paul is driving at in Ephesians five. The language of Headship there is not some remnant of a less informed, more barbarian culture. It is the language of chivalry. It is the language our King’s and his Kingdom.

Jesus Christ is a fearsome and powerful monarch and the very essence of eternal, protective, love. He is a warrior, a champion, and a martyr. Meanwhile, the Church is His Bride, is gloriously feminine in all the quiet splendor that femininity was created to be. She is a haven, a refuge, a care-giving mother to the oppressed, an exquisite lady arrayed in the white bridal garment of holiness which was purchased for her by the blood of her own triumphant Husband.

What a mystery. Such talk is all but foreign language to we who are trapped in a world that rejects gender, that has sought to destroy altogether the image of the bride and groom, which seeks to replace that image with the image of a man and a man desecrating each other in the name of mutual love, or, just as bad, the image of a business committee, signing prenuptials and looking at the marriage bed as a place of physical prostitution coupled with financial planning for domestic efficiency.

How horridly the movements of the twentieth century have ruined the image of gender and sex. Do you dare to doubt it? Have you not noticed that the average style of clothing being sold to teenage girls is the same clothing that was worn by hookers as recently as the 1980’s? And this is to say nothing of the way this genderless world has torn limb from limb the way we view Christ and the Church. It is that most intimate of all relationships, the relationship that our Savior has with sinners like you and me, which has become the most outdated and irrelevant version of man and wife. For just as man and wife have become irrelevant and outdated, so also outdated and irrelevant has become the cross and empty tomb of Jesus Christ.

Now, if all this was not enough to persuade you to look with an open heart upon the text of Ephesians 5, then I’m afraid you’ll have to walk away from Church today as an unbeliever.

For the rest of us who want to come before the Word to learn, even if it means we learn first of our own failures and sins, we will now briefly engage Ephesians chapter five, and simply hear what it has to say.

First, “Wives, submits to your own husbands as to the Lord.” Wives, submit to your husband even as you would submit to Christ himself. This is no loosy goosy “spiritual” submission. This is no “whenever I feel like it” submission. This isn’t even a “when he deserves it” submission. Even as Christ always deserves and demands our submission, so your submission to your husband is not because of your husband in and of himself, but because Christ Jesus your Lord has put this man over you to be your head. By submitting to him, you submit to Christ. Thus, Paul says, “For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the Church.”

Wives, you are the image of the Church, the image of submission to God. Does the Church sass back to Christ? Does the Church tell Christ how he should rule the world? Then wives, because you are the image of the Church, you must take a similar view of your husbands, for this is the purpose for which God crafted you. God designed you and raised you up to be the right hand of the man who stands beside you. Even as his own finger obeys his every command, so too you must respond in kind to the one who is your head.

Now, you are held to a hard account this, and no doubt right now this law is accusing you mightily of failure. I hold no ignorant presumptions that everyone in this room likes what I am saying or is willing to accept it. Frankly, when I first met this passage of Scripture, I hated it too. But though the grass withers and the flowers fade, the Word of the Lord stands. And, yes, as it stands it often accuses us of our failure to be the perfect people we were created to be.

But being imperfect is no reason to reject the image of perfection. Have you ever burned dinner? Did it stop you from cooking? Have you ever lost a game? Did you never play again? Then remember this - remember that no matter how often you have failed in this role which God’s good creation has proscribed for you, you are still the image of the Church, and your true husband, Jesus Christ, has never once failed in his role, in spite of all your worst offenses. I’m going to come back to that in a minute, because it is the main point. So please hold on with me till then, because, we must remember, it is that reality, the reality of who Jesus Christ is, that this text and this sermon are really all about.

But before we come to that Gospel, we must face with good courage this true, irrevocable ordering of the universe. Wives, submit to your husbands. It is the feminine thing to do. It will not be easy. Often, it will not be fun. But those things don’t change the reality that disobedience to your husband is disobedience to God. For, the Scriptures testify, “As the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

Phew. Now that we got that out of the way, we men can go home and finally have things our way, right? Well, not exactly. Paul has something more to say to us.

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.

Now, if you miss this point, you will miss the entire point. And, ladies, if from what’s been said so far, you think you have gotten the short end of this text, think again. Men, it is you to whom the burden of true pain and suffering in marriage has been given. It is you on whom a crown of thorns has been placed. You have not been created man and put over your wife in order to dominate her, nor to have her run at your every beck and call, nor to establish your desires as the one rule and law in your home. No. Like a true King, like Jesus Christ himself, you have been given power only in order to be a servant with it. You have received the staff of authority only in order to wield it, not for your own good, but for the good of others. The ultimate priority of your reign as king is the good of your subject, the good of your wife.

This means that even as Jesus Christ himself laid down his life, was beaten, scourged, spit upon, dragged through the mud, pierced with a spear, and nailed hand and foot to a rugged, killing cross, so too must you, at every chance and moment, sacrifice yourself, your desires, you preferences and your will, for the good of your wife and her children. And, notice, I have not said sacrifice in order to meet all your wife’s and children’s desires, but sacrifice for their good.

This is no easy task. The text goes on. In loving your wife, you must sanctify her. You must…must present [her] to [Christ] in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any blemish in his sight. On the last day, when you stand before the judgment seat of Christ, he will hold you personally responsible for the use of this authority that he has given to you for the sake of your wife’s faith and life. And, should it be found that your wife has lost her faith in Christ through any neglect of your own, not to mention suffered in bodily need, her blood will be upon your head.

This is no joke. And ladies, you’ve got it easy.

Men, I hope I’m making myself clear. When I say love your wife, I am in no way referring to that liberal jargon of ambiguous, gushy, self-centered “feeling” that is so often passed off as love. That our God could care less about. Your task is to give yourself wholly to your wife in order to save her from everything. This is not bad at all. Just insanely hard. At every turn of the road you must protect your wife (and, I might add, daughters,) from all harm, both physical and spiritual. You must cleanse them of sin, calling them to account and keeping them focused on their true Husband of whom you are but only a steward. You must wash them with the Word of God daily, pointing them to their baptisms so that when Christ comes to claim them He shall find them holy and blameless as he has made them.

And this is, actually, for your own good as much as for theirs, for, as Paul says, He who loves his wife loves himself. No one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church.
So, you must love your wife more than your own body, for you together are one flesh. As your finger is under your dominion, even so what harm would you ever let come to it? Much less, what harm would you do it yourself? The man who cuts off his own hand is a fool, and a fool you will be if ever you forget to cherish and nourish this beautifully fragile creature who is given into your possession as your bride.

Now, should you choose to put these words from Paul into practice, I cannot promise you perfection in this life. In fact, I can only promise that you will see just what a failure you really are. But I can also promise you that, gradually, you will discover the diverse beauty of masculine and feminine, which, far from being the coarse evolution of nature, is the miraculous handiwork of God Himself, made by Him in order to point us back to Him, to point us to the humble and quiet submissive goodness of being the Church, and to point to the enduring and selfless love of Christ, who is our Husband and God over all, the cornerstone of all authority and protection in which all the universe lives and moves and has its being.

And, just as I am certain that the women of the congregation could not help but feel accused by Paul’s words, there is little doubt that you men too accused of your own shortcomings. We have all failed to keep this image of God’s love for us, both in our individual marriages and, even more so, as the Church. We have, as the Scriptures say, played the harlot.

But remember, this mystery is profound, and it is not primarily about us and our failures. No matter what the dismal circumstances our present day, earthly marriages may currently find themselves in, no matter the state of the Church visible on earth, we each who are baptized are nonetheless in the one true marriage which is and will be eternally a success. No matter how much we wander or fail, our husband is faithful. He has even given himself up, dying upon the cross in order to wash us, purify us and sanctify us in his sight. Even though all too often we wear the red dress of the harlot, ripped and ragged and revealing too much of our immodesty, we also each wear a white gown, made of water and the Word. And soon, we will see that gift in clarity, when our long awaited Bridegroom comes calling for us.

So, ladies and gentlemen, I leave you this mystery that is Christ and His Church, with the same exortation we receive from Paul at the end of his words: Husbands, love your wives. Wives, submit to your husbands. Wives, respect your husbands. Husbands, cherish, sacrifice, die for, and redeem your wives. For God has made you two that are one, intended for balance, like rhythm and melody, like speech and language, like thought and action. This mystery is profound! I am and ever have been speaking about Christ and His Church, about which it is written that we are his bride, purchased and redeemed from sin, and He is our Head, husband and King of all glory and dominion.

Though progress and enlightenment claim all knowledge, though marriages fail for the fault of both husbands and wives, though the grass withers and the flowers fade, the Word of the Lord endures forever. Amen.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Trinity 12 - John 6


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