I’m always impressed on snowy days by the members who go above and beyond to make it to church. I remember one day years ago, snow drifts had almost blocked the parking lot. A saintly old member was just grinding the tires on her Ford Taurus through the drift. I cheered her on from the front of the church as she finally broke through and managed to park and walk in without incident. Today, we had members from Glendo (30 miles to the north) and Hartville (up a small mountain past the purview of snowplows) make it through the ice and snow to hear the Word of God. And a rancher dug out of the drifts down by the river to arrive only a few minutes late. I really thought no one would hear my sermon, but attendance was pretty good, all things considered. Of course, snow meant a number of older members stayed in – as it should be. I’d rather see them in church next Sunday than in the hospital today. Here is the sermon from today, for those who couldn’t get out of the house, despite their good intentions.
Text is after the jump, but the audio is here:
Luther writes: For, thank God, today a child seven years old knows what the Church is, namely, the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd.
Elsewhere he writes: I believe that there is upon earth a little holy flock and congregation of pure saints, under one head, Christ, called together by the Holy Ghost in one faith, one mind, and understanding, with manifold gifts, yet agreeing in love, without sects or schisms. I am also a part and member of the same, a sharer and joint owner of all the goods it possesses, brought to it and incorporated into it by the Holy Ghost by having heard and continuing to hear the Word of God, which is the beginning of entering it.
Luther often compared the church to a little flock – of course that’s how scripture describes it as well. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Jesus says:
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them…
A little flock, but a flock under siege. The Good Shepherd is one of the most comforting images in Scripture. If it ended with the words “snatched and scattered”, we would be terrified. That’s why Jesus immediately adds: I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me… and I lay down my life for the sheep.
Jesus protects us from the wolf – even at the cost of his life. But the flock is small, the sheep easily frightened and scattered by the wolf. If not for the Shepherd taking care of us, we would have no hope at all.
That’s how it looks to the world – the church has no hope at all. How often does the church hear, “If you want to make it in this world, you need to…” and then advice that we need to be more like the world. Pastors hear that all the time. And we are tempted to believe it. If you change your teaching on worship were told for years, loosen up on closed communion, now, it’s abandon male and female. The world always has some advice – and it’s advice that would make us no longer church. We would sell out the word of God for a mess a the world’s pottage. That’s why we have the reading from Exodus to remind us. Success in the world does not mean faithfulness to God and His Word. Our task is to remain faithful. In the Old Testament reading, the people see that Moses doesn’t return, so they go after the idols of their own age. The Golden Calf saved them from Egypt. Who knows what happened to Moses. Golden images – certainly that is a mark of success.
Moses pleads with God on behalf of the people, and God relents of the judgment he had planned. It would be so nice if we could just say, “And Israel learned their lesson…” but the Old Testament is one backslide after another. Saint Paul says it is written down for our instruction – so that we would know that the heart of man is turned away from God and His Holy Word. It is only by the grace of God working through the Spirit that we can even hear and receive the word of God itself. Unless the Spirit opens our hearts – scripture says takes our heart of stone and gives us a heart of flesh – we need a transplant because we are dead – unless God does this – we are without fear love and trust in him. Not to say we don’t have gods. We invent all sorts of strange gods. The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play. The cult that Israel formed around the golden calf was not too much different than what people go after today – good times, good friends, good food. Not enough time left to spend it in worship of the true God. Just too busy with all the other things.
And the church – the place where God’s word is taught in its truth and purity – continues to look less and less like the triumph over the resurrection, and more and more like a fight against time and attrition. Even the children of the church want nothing to do with her. The world’s temptations are too great. Parent’s are overwhelmed. The church is too insignificant. Once upon a time a church was part of your standing in the community. Today, you have to explain away why you still bother with all that foolishness. Moses has been gone too long. We have other gods for you to worship. And so the idol altars are prepared. The people offer their sacrifices – oh not burnt offerings. But they give their time and attention to those things that are important, which crowd God into the background.
And the church looks ever weaker. And the people in it are not the sort we think of as saints. It’s a scandal really. How often does someone get offended by the weakness and failings of members of the church, or her pastor. “Just not what I think of as Christian” we are told. “I can’t believe God wants us to act that way…” We see something we don’t like, the weakness of the sinful nature working it’s way into the life of a Christian, and Satan magnifies it until we only see sin in the church. Satan distracts us from what’s really happening, he wants us to spend our time looking around at others in the church – and then deciding that those sort of people are the wrong sort of people. They can’t be saints. Hypocrites! We call out. And then wander off into our own desires and thoughts. Forgetting that God does not promise to be in our own thoughts and desires. As weak and simple as the church seems, it is the place where God promises to bring salvation. It’s a scandal we say. The church can’t be that weak, that powerless. If this is the place where the things of God are given, then there must be some sign for us to hang onto, some great thing for us to see. But the church seems so very ordinary.
The word scandal means a stumbling stone – a rock you trip over. BAM. Down you go. And we look around and see what the church is really like, and we are tempted to join our friends that have given up on the whole mess. These people? This place? That pastor? It’s all so common. So… nothing. The church itself becomes a scandal – a stumbling stone. We can’t believe that’s what it’s all about, and the temptation is to go off on our own to find something more to our liking.
Jesus talks about the abomination that causes desolation in the holy place. Do not let it cause you to stumble and fall away, says Jesus. This comes immediately after Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple. Historians have argued say Jesus is predicting the time the Romans built a temple to Zeus on the ruins of the temple in Jerusalem. Or maybe the time Caligula wanted to desecrate the temple with an idol. But why? Jesus isn’t saying “The temple will be destroyed and then terrible idolatries will occur”. He’s saying “The temple will be destroyed because it has ceased to have any significance. The true sacrifice is me. Don’t be frightened when this whole Messiah thing ends in my bloodied body hanging from a tree.”
Jesus will be the sacrifice. He is the one who goes into the most holy place with his own blood to make atonement. That’s the stumbling block – the abomination. A common criminal is the savior of the world. And his death is what redeems you in the sight of God. Jesus ends the sacrificial system, not the Romans. The sins of the world are placed on him, and he becomes the abomination in the sight of his Father. What you should have suffered, Jesus did suffer. Even the disciples couldn’t believe it at first. THIS was how things were supposed to end? It wasn’t until after the resurrection that they understood – and even then Jesus had to explain it to them verse by verse. The cross wasn’t a victory symbol, it was a noose, an electric chair. Every other person that claimed they were the Messiah ended up the same way – dead. These guys come, they make claims, they are killed, and their disciples fade away. Dead is the end. It means NOT really God. Unless you don’t stay dead. Jesus doesn’t stay dead. But that doesn’t make the cross any less of a scandal. The world doesn’t want that sort of thing. A God who shuns and mocks the power of the world, who speaks the Word of God against sin? Who dares call people – especially the wealthy and powerful – to repent? That’s the sort of thing we don’t need. And so, we just ignore this Jesus fellow. Dead is weak. He died, the church is dying. Ignore that message. Instead try spiritual but not Religious. That way, you can behave exactly the way the world does, and don’t need to worry about the scandal of the cross. Because if Jesus is really God, dead on the cross, and also man bodily raised from the dead, that is going to change some things.
Jesus death and resurrection is a scandal. Because it means we must take what he says seriously. We can’t just ignore him and continue on our merry way, whistling past the graveyard – whistling past our own grave.
The response of faith to this miracle of deliverance is to come in humility to receive the gifts of God, and then to respond in love toward our neighbor. The world sees that as weakness. We don’t build empires. We preach people through death into life. Babies taken from Satan’s grasp, so young and helpless they can’t even speak for themselves. The aged carried out of this world to Abraham’s bosom. And in between, teaching, patiently returning to that Word of God. It isn’t glorious. It’s what God has given us. A pastor and professor from the mid 20 century Hermann Sasse, puts it this way – the heresies he mentions all fit in quite nicely with the latest wisdom of the day.
“When the church declined the temptations of Gnosticism, of Marcionite dualism, and of Montanism with its claims of new revelations, it became the apostolic church. That meant, seen from the perspective of religious and cultural history, an extraordinary impoverishment. Perhaps it also meant that a great many Christians, deeply disappointed, left the church and sank back into heathenism. The ‘apostolic church’ is a poor church. It has no marvelous new revelations, no knowledge of higher worlds, no possibility of proving its faith by reason. It lives from the witness of a few men who were neither religious geniuses, nor ethical heroes, nor original thinkers. The only authority for the unverifiable things they said was that Jesus Christ had sent them and that they were witnesses of His resurrection.”
We have the death and resurrection of Jesus. That’s what we have. The world sees it as a scandal. They think the church is not going to last. We don’t need to worry about whether the church will win the culture war, or will win over the next generation. Christ has already won the victory over death hell and the devil. The world’s glory and power have been brought to nothing. We have the gift of salvation. The victory is already ours in Jesus Christ.
Let the world rage against it. We have won – or rather, he has won for us – an eternal kingdom. Not a kingdom we see with our eyes, but a kingdom we see by faith – faith in Jesus who won it for us on the cross. Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.