Sunday, September 12, 2021

Help My Unbelief!

Jesu Juva

St. Mark 9:14-29                                                         

 September 12, 2021

Proper 19B                         

 Dear saints of our Savior~

          It may be the sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, but for all intents and purposes it’s “Christian Education Sunday,” the day when we rally our resources, and resume the time-tested traditions of Sunday school and Bible classes.  It’s the children who are most excited about this; and rightly so.  For them today means new classes, new teachers, new Bible stories and new hymns to learn—with a potluck meal to top it all off.

          This day makes me think of Jesus and the little children.  It’s not hard to picture the Savior with the children of our congregation—with their smiling faces and the joy they have in Jesus.  It’s no wonder Jesus said that the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.  We have a painting of Jesus and the little children that hangs in the church library.  It’s vintage 1970 with Jesus and the children sitting in a dewy meadow, full of wildflowers, with hills in the background which are alive (no doubt) with the sound of music.  That’s one way of picturing it.

          But then there’s also Jesus and the little boy in today’s Holy Gospel.  Quite a different picture.  This poor boy isn’t skipping through any dewy meadows.  He’s demonized.  An unclean spirit has taken control of the child.  It makes the boy mute.  It causes seizures in which he foams at the mouth, grinds his teeth, and becomes rigid.  And for the love of God, keep the kid away from fire and water because it loves to throw the boy in—in order to kill him.

          See what Satan does.  See how he sets his sights on all people of all ages—children included.  He is a shameless predator who delights in victimizing even children.  This is serious, scary stuff.  If, in fact, the kingdom of God belongs to such as these, then “these” little ones have targets on their backs.  And since the evil one delights in hurting and harming little ones, can there be any doubt about who is really driving the abortion industry? Can there be any doubt about who is really behind the push to prevent the unborn from taking their first breath?  As we heard from Ephesians a few weeks ago, “Our battle is not against flesh and blood.”  Our battle is not against Planned Parenthood or politicians who bow the knee to the abortion industry.  Our battle ultimately is not against them—not against flesh and blood—but “against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places,” against Satan and the evil angels. 

          Of course, whenever the devil attacks children, he gets the parents, as well.  Imagine the life of the demonized boy’s father.  For years, this unclean spirit had been harassing, attacking, and trying to kill his son.  How could you as a father even fall asleep at night?  There is no worse feeling for a father than the feeling of helplessness—being unable to protect and help the child that God has given you! 

          This father is desperately trying to help his boy.  He even brings the boy to the disciples of Jesus—and Jesus’ disciples had failed—failed to cast out the demon.  What must that have done to the father’s faith?  You better believe that he’s prayed and prayed.  He’s done everything—doctors, drugs, therapies, rabbis, healers.  And now there’s little left in his heart but doubt and despair.  He tells Jesus, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”  “IF you can.”  There it is—that doubt planted and cultivated by the evil one.  Jesus calls him on it:  What do you mean IF?  All things are possible for one who believes.

          All things are possible for one who believes.  That statement really brings us to the heart of the matter.  This isn’t so much a story about a nasty demon, or even the miraculous power of Jesus, as it is about what happens to our faith when our “religion” doesn’t seem to work.  What happens to our faith when something tragic pushes you to the crossroads of doubt and despair?  It doesn’t have to be demon possession.  Substitute whatever suits you:  the accident that ruined your life, the cancer that killed the child, the marriage that unraveled, the friend who betrayed you, the child or grandchild who abandoned the faith.  Whatever it is, it seems like your religion is powerless to fix it.  Things aren’t working like they’re supposed to!  Like the father of the demonized boy, you did the very thing you should do.  You brought your problems to church; and the church couldn’t fix them.  You prayed for healing; and new complications developed.  You prayed for patience; and got more suffering.  You know how it is; I know you do.

          At this point, what a lot of people do is trade in your “god” for another model.  You swap your religion (or at least change churches) until you find something that works.  We Americans are particularly prone to the “whatever works must be true” way of looking at things.  We’re pragmatic.  We admire efficiency—whatever it takes to get the job done.  But when it comes to faith, the whole “go with whatever works” mentality is a deeply flawed strategy.  And it’s got the devil’s fingerprints all over it.

          If you equate what’s right and true with what works, then what happens when it stops working?  What happens when the disciples can’t cast out the demon?  What happens when you take your troubles to church and lay them at the feet of Jesus and things only get worse?  Well, you’ve got a handy excuse to move on—to chase after what works.  OR . . . you can stick with Jesus and see how He blesses us in the long run through our suffering—how He carries us through every trial and tragedy—how His grace is always sufficient, how His power is made perfect in our weakness.  Jesus does His best work in our lives precisely when nothing is working right—when nothing makes sense—when nothing is proceeding according to plan.

          The best thing we can do is learn to pray like that desperate father:  Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.  That’s not double-talk; that’s honesty.  That man didn’t try to hide his weakness.  He didn’t try to appear more polished and pious than he was.  He wasn’t afraid to be real.  I believe; help my unbelief.  That’s actually a

very Lutheran way of explaining who we are.  And who are we?  Saint and sinner, at the same time.  A believer and an unbeliever.  That’s you; that’s me.  And that reality shapes our prayers:  I believe; help my unbelief.  Lord, teach me to trust You when You appear weak.  Teach me to trust your Word when it seems powerless.  Teach me to lean on Your promises instead of my own reason and strength.

          You can pray with that kind of honesty because Jesus is here for you—for the helpless, the weak, the scared, and even the demonized.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re an “innocent” victim like the little boy with the unclean spirit, or whether you’ve made your bed of shame and now you have to lay in it.  All things are possible for Jesus—and for the one who believes in Jesus!  All things are possible . . . including the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. 

          How can I be so sure?  How can you be confident that Jesus will help you?  Beloved in the Lord, Jesus has a history of helping.  He has a track record of deliverance—a record written in blood.  His crucifixion and resurrection—His dying and rising—are the indisputable proof that with God all things are possible—that He is always, ready, willing and able to help those who wait for Him in faith.  You can trust this Jesus.

          In fact, today’s gospel reading points us directly to Jesus’ death and resurrection.   For when Jesus finally got around to exorcising the demon, it appeared that things had gone from bad to worse.  It looked like the boy was dead.  He looked like a corpse and most of the crowd quickly concluded, “He is dead.”  (And, for all we know, maybe he was dead.)  But Jesus took the boy by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose.  He arose.  (In Greek, anes’tay—the resurrection word) It’s a little preview of the resurrection—corpses rising to new life. 

          This little detail is why we can trust Jesus.  For He truly died.  As our sin-bearing substitute, He died like a common criminal.  He became a corpse on a cross.  And on the third day He rose again.  Jesus lives.  And in Jesus you also will live.  When it seems like your religion isn’t working—that your faith is failing—remember the resurrection.  For on that day death and sin will be undone.  Everything will work again.  Everything will work perfectly—including you.

          But for now, today, Jesus is here to help you.  Now, the Savior’s help may not be exactly what you were hoping for.  It may not come according to your timetable.  It may not materialize according to your exact design and plan.  And if you find that to be discouraging or troubling, then pray.  Pray.  Go to Jesus with your trouble.  Lay it on the line:  Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.  He will answer.  He will help.  Trust Him.  Believe His promises.

          His nail-scarred hands declare that your sins, no matter what they are, cannot separate you from God.  Jesus has done away with them as surely as He dispatched the demon in today’s reading.  That means that your troubles, your weakness, your sorrows, your demons—they have only a short season to live.  They will not last.  They do not reign; Jesus reigns!  And He is Our Savior.  Nothing is impossible with Him. 

          In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


Monday, September 6, 2021

Be Opened!

Jesu Juva

St. Mark 7:31-37                                                            

September 5, 2021

Proper 18B                  

 Dear saints of our Savior~

          The Prophet Isaiah wrote this concerning the Messiah:  Then 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.  And seven centuries later the crowds declared concerning Jesus:  He has done all things well.  He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.  Prophecy given; prophecy fulfilled.

          They brought to Jesus a man who could neither hear nor speak.  And the people begged Jesus to lay His hands on him.  After all, that’s what healers were supposed to do.  That was the prescribed protocol for those with gifts of healing in Jesus’ day.  The healer was supposed to lay his hands on the person in need of healing.  The people, it seems, had a plan.  They had a preconceived notion about how Jesus was supposed to do His thing.  He was supposed to do what every other healer did—lay hands on the sick person and pray. 

          We sometimes approach Jesus in the same way.  We not only present the problem, we also present the solution.  “Here’s what I want, Lord, and here’s how I think you should do it.”  We’re kind of like those kids who send out their Christmas list via e-mail, complete with links to the websites that sell the desired items.  “Here’s what I want, now just click and purchase.”  But here’s the thing:  the more you specify a gift, the less of a “gift” it becomes.  It turns into more of a transaction—a bargain, really—which is precisely how our Old Adam loves to deal with God.  Lord, give me patience, but don’t let me suffer.  Lord, give me wisdom, but spare me the pain of experience.  Lord, help my teenagers to turn out okay, but don’t expect me to teach them the faith at home.  Make no mistake, God wants to hear our problems and needs.  But the solutions to those problems should be left entirely up to Him.  Faith trusts that God will always give what is needed, according to His limitless wisdom and love.

          Jesus didn’t deal with the deaf and mute man according to the people’s preconceived notions.  Jesus took him aside privately, away from the crowd.  That poor man’s plight would not become entertainment for the crowd (or a TicToc video).  The man had likely lived his entire life on the fringes of society.  Unable to speak, unable to hear, he lived in a terrible isolation.  Most people probably simply ignored him.  That’s what often happens in our world with people who can’t process language and communication.  To our shame, we ignore them.  Because they can’t offer us anything in terms of praise or instruction or companionship, we ignore them.  We de-value them.  We leave them to their terrible isolation—and leave it up to government programs to keep them going.

          Stroke victims are often forced to deal with the frustration and futility of not being able to speak.  I once called on a widow who had just suffered a terrible stroke.  Although I had never met her before, it was obvious that she could understand every word I was saying.  And it was equally obvious that she couldn’t speak a single syllable of what she desperately wanted to say to me.  A few days earlier you would have said that she was sharp as a tack.  But no more; for her language had left her.  As she struggled to speak, the fear and frustration on her face were almost unbearable; and after a while, all she could do was weep in silence.  It was heart-breaking.  It happened 28 years ago; and I’ll never forget the terrible helplessness of that moment.

          That woman’s helplessness wasn’t so different from our helplessness before God.  We are born deaf—deaf to the Word of God.  Ears that can hear are a great gift from God.  But what do we do?  We close our ears to God’s Word and God’s will for our lives.  His commandments routinely fall on our “deaf” ears.  We’re equally deaf to the cries of those around us—those whom God has given us to love and care for.  We just don’t want to be bothered with the pain of others; and our ears are exceptionally good at tuning it out.   

          Likewise, we are born mute—unable to sing the pure praises of God, unwilling to declare the goodness of God.  Voices that speak and sing and pray are a great gift from God.  But by nature we prefer to use our voices for careless complaining, for angry words, for shifting the blame, and, sometimes, to inflict more pain than any weapon ever could.  We can hear, but we don’t hear what we need to hear.  We can talk, but we don’t say what needs to be spoken.

          God must act.  If our ears are ever going to hear God’s Word and believe it and take it to heart—if our voices will ever truly sing God’s praises and support the people we’re supposed to love—then God must act.  He must do for us—He must do for you—what He did for the man in today’s text.

          Jesus refused to ignore that man in his isolation and desperation.  Jesus took him to a private place.  And Jesus did a strange thing.  He put His fingers into the

deaf man’s ears.  He spit and touched the man’s tongue.  He looked up to heaven.  And as Jesus did all this, He was communicating a message that couldn’t be missed:  I know what’s wrong with you, brother!  I know the pain of your isolation.  You’ve got ears that don’t hear and a tongue that doesn’t work and I am going to do something about that.  I’m lifting my eyes to heaven; because that’s where I came from to be here, now, with you. 

          And then Jesus spoke one simple word:  Ephphatha!  “Be opened!”  Did the deaf man hear this “ephphatha?”  Were these the first sound waves to enter his newly opened ears?  Or did he read the Savior’s lips as the word was spoken?  We don’t know.  But what we do know is that one word from Jesus gets results.  The Word of Jesus gets results in human ears and hearts—even in ears shut tight by sin.

          And as that mute man began to speak plainly, eloquently, and with great articulation, the people in that place were amazed beyond all measure, declaring of Jesus, “He has done all things well.”  That word, “well,” goes all the way back to creation—back to Genesis chapter one where God surveyed all that He had created and declared it to be “very good.”  God’s “very good” creation was ruined and destroyed by sin and its wages.  But now God has come among us in the flesh of Jesus Christ to make all things new—to make deaf ears hear and mute tongues sing for joy.  He has indeed done all things well, wonderfully, beautifully, perfectly.  And He’s done them all for you.

          I’m sure there were plenty of other deaf people in the city where this man was healed—more with speech disabilities, more with head injuries and strokes, more with what we today call dyslexia, autism, and other communication disorders.  Jesus didn’t heal them all.  And they are still among us today—people whose hearing and speaking is impaired.  So what do we do about all of them?  We love them.  We thank God for them.  We join with them to ease their isolation just as Jesus joined His life to ours.  And we pray for them—not dictating when or how the healing may come—but trusting that these dear souls who live in isolation today will one day rejoice to be surrounded by angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, cheering them onward and upward as they finish their course in faith.

          Jesus came to do more than open the ears of one afflicted man.  Jesus came to open the kingdom of heaven—and to do it for all believers—for sinners who could never make it there on their own.  But this grand opening would require His very life to be sacrificed for sinners.  Jesus groaned as He healed the man in today’s text, and He would groan again on Good Friday, as He bore the curse of our sinful ears and tongues.  He surrendered to it all as your substitute.  But from the cross of Christ rings out that wonderful word:  Ephphatha, be opened.  For the death of Jesus has opened heaven for you.  There God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting your sins against you.

          We haven’t heard the last of this word, Ephphatha.  It will echo on until that glorious day when Jesus will call you from your grave.  Ephphatha,” He will say.  “Be opened.”  And then, miracle of miracles, we will all be gathered around the throne of God in robes washed white in the blood of the Lamb.  And wonder of wonders, we poor sinners will hear Jesus declaring that through faith in Him we have done all things well.  On that day none of us will ever be alone again.  The autistic, the dyslexic, the deaf and mute:  all will hear.  All will be heard, and known, and loved.  All will surely say:  Worthy is the Lamb who was slain!  He has done all things well. 

          In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


Sunday, August 29, 2021

The Heart of the Matter

Jesu Juva

St. Mark 7:14-23                                                                

August 29, 2021

Proper 17B                                 

 Dear saints of our Savior~

          It’s tough to find a religion that doesn’t have a use for food.  Food and religion go together, it seems.  Even the ancient pagans had their feasts and festivals.  There was the annual Passover meal in the Old Testament—along with numerous other sacrifices of grain and animals (which would usually end up being eaten by someone).  In the New Testament we have the Lord’s Supper—a sacramental meal at the very heart of our faith.  And, it’s also true, that we can’t overlook all the potlucks, Easter breakfasts, and Lenten suppers which are synonymous with church basements and fellowship halls everywhere.  Food and religion go together.

          In fact, a lot of people can get downright religious about their food.  Foodies and dieticians can be rabidly religious, blessing every delectable morsel as if it were manna from heaven.  Some people see a cosmic struggle between good and evil playing out on the plate in front of them three times a day.  There are good carbs and evil carbs.  Good fats and evil fats.  Gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free, sugar-free.  It can become a kind of religion that says, if you put the right kinds of good food in your mouth, you will be pure, holy, and healthy.

          Today’s holy gospel plays out in the shadow of the Old Testament, which placed strict regulations on what you could not eat.  To put this in a way that you Wisconsinites can understand, OT dietary laws boiled down to this:  no Neuske bacon, no Usingers bratwurst.  Your Friday fish-fry was okay as long as the fish you were frying had fins and scales.  But Red Lobster would be off-limits, along with shrimp, scallops and crab.  The reason for these rules is debatable.  But this was part of what made Israel distinct and set apart as God’s holy people.  And the purpose of this distinct, holy people was to bring forth the Messiah.  And once that happened, all those dietary laws had served their purpose.  Israel’s fast was over; and the feast of salvation had begun in the person of Jesus Christ.

          And that brings us to this morning’s holy gospel.  Last week Jesus took on the misguided notion of the Pharisees that hand washing was the way to make your heart clean and to purify your soul.  This week Jesus takes on those who believed

that food could do that—that eating the right foods could make you clean and holy and pure; and that eating unclean food like shrimp and bacon made you unclean and unholy.

          But Jesus said, “Not so.”  There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.  In other words, it’s not about food, it’s not about what goes in, but what comes out.  This must have left everyone scratching their heads.  This wasn’t what they learned from their parents.  This wasn’t what the rabbis taught. Jesus was giving them a new and radical way of understanding how a person becomes clean or unclean—pure or defiled.

          Jesus then gave the disciples a bit of a biology lesson—a rather sophisticated biology lesson for first century ears.  What goes into a person from the outside can’t defile him because it never touches the heart.  Food doesn’t affect the will.  Food doesn’t shape our thoughts, words, and deeds.  The food we put in doesn’t affect that.

          It turns out, there’s something already inside of you that defiles you.  There’s something already inside of you that does corrupt and taint your thoughts, words, and deeds.  It’s not what goes in, it’s what comes out of your heart.  It’s what’s already there.  We call it original sin.  And it manifests itself in all kinds of actual sins. Jesus goes to the trouble to make a list, just to be sure we understand:  Evil thoughts.  Ever have one of those?  Sexual immorality.  Dare I ask?  Theft, murder, adultery, coveting.  Ever been an issue in your life?  But wait, there’s more: Wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness.  It’s quite a list.  And can anyone dare say that this list doesn’t hit close to home in some way?  And if you did dare to distance yourself from that list, well, you would be a liar and the truth would not be in you.

          Where does all the evil in the world come from?  Not from foods, but from the human heart, corrupted to the core by sin.  Original sin is the total corruption of our human nature that we inherited from our first parents.  For me, original sin used to be just an abstract concept—just a theoretical, hypothetical doctrine.  I accepted original sin the way a person might accept the theory of relativity, E=MC2—sure, sounds good to me.  But then I became a parent.  Nothing pounds home the universal truth of original sin better than having children.  For you don’t have to teach your children how to lie.  You don’t have to teach them how to covet.  You don’t have to supply them with evil thoughts.  All that sinful stuff—it just comes naturally.  Children have to learn how to sit up and roll over and say “please” and “thank you.”  But no child needs a lesson in sinning.  Every child has a limitless supply of sin in their very own hearts—which they inherited from their parents.  That’s the sad reality of original sin.

          What we all need is a new heart.  And food has nothing to do with it.  Fast all you want.  Follow the strictest diet.  Food won’t touch the heart.  Food can’t fix an unbelieving heart.  Only God can fix it.  Only God can give you a new and clean heart—a heart that beats in sync with the Holy Spirit—a heart set free from sin and death—a heart turned not toward evil but toward God—a heart not centered on self, but on God and your neighbor.  That’s the heart that Jesus Christ died to give to you.  The purity our hearts don’t have, the holiness our hearts don’t have—that purity and holiness can only come from Jesus, God’s pure and holy Lamb who takes away the sin of the world.  He became defiled with your sin.  He became unclean with your unrighteousness.  He bears it all away so that you don’t have to bear it.

          When you were baptized God the Holy Trinity gave you a new heart, a clean heart, a contrite heart that confesses the mess of sin and receives the gift of Jesus’ blood-bought forgiveness.  This new heart draws strength from the Word and promises of God.  This new heart is sustained and strengthened by the body and blood of Jesus.

          But as you well know, the old heart is still there.  God hasn’t yet completed the transplant; instead, the old heart and new heart are right there together.  We are at the same time saints . . . and sinners—clean and unclean—holy and defiled—good and evil.  This means that we live in a terrible tension.  But we also live beneath the cross of Christ’s forgiveness.  This means there’s never a time when we don’t have sin that needs forgiving; it means there’s never a sin that our Savior cannot forgive.

          Food set the Israelites apart in the Old Testament.  But there is also a food that sets you apart today.  There is a food that goes into you and sustains the believing heart.  There is a food that makes you holy.  It’s the food that Jesus gives you.  The bread that is His body.  The wine that is His blood.  This meal actually makes you holy, in a way that all the OT rules and regulations never could.

          For those who believe, all foods are clean.  All foods are a gift from God—given to be enjoyed and to strengthen us for service in our daily vocations.  Go ahead and eat healthy (or not).  Count your calories and carbs (or not).  But do not forget that though faith in Jesus, you have a place at the feast of feasts—at the marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom, which has no end. 


     In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.