Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Readings: Exodus 24:1–11 | 2 Corinthians 12:1–10 | Mark 6:1–13

Text: Exodus 24:1-11

In his day, Jesus of Nazareth made quite a name for himself. As being the one who healed those who were sick and afflicted, and casting out demons. At the very worst there were those like in Nazareth, who didn’t receive him, and he could do no many. Not many mighty works were done among them. But crowds were drawn to where He was, and they did follow. They came in great hope and expectation.

Well, as these crowds were gathered around Jesus at the beginning of his ministry in Matthew’s gospel, the beginning of Chapter 5, it says

“Seeing the crowds, Jesus went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him, and he opened his mouth and taught them.”

Well, this is the picture of Jesus that we’re more accustomed to. Jesus, the man who is also the Lord God, may be somewhere in the background. But I’m afraid that something is lost If we start our journey with Jesus with a modern caricature of him: Jesus, the man as our role model, or Jesus the man our life coach.  When you struggle to run the race, it’s this Jesus who Pats you on the back and gives you a glass of water and encourages you that it’s OK. You’ve got this.

You can see how absurd this can get when we go in that direction.  Well, thank God we actually read our Bibles and we have a clearer picture of Jesus, don’t we? We know that Jesus was no mere equal among men. He wasn’t just the brother of James and Joses and Judas.

We’ve read Exodus, haven’t we?  And we’ve seen God from a very different angle.

“Then he said to Moses, come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and 70 of the Elders of Israel, and worship from afar. Moses alone shall come near to the Lord, but the others shall not come near, and the people shall not come up with him.”

This is clearly different from the Jesus who is surrounded by crowds who were thronging about him and who at sometimes he even had to get in the boat to avoid being crushed. Instead, here on Mount Sinai, God is not to be approached, certainly not touched.  The Lord establishes these boundaries around his holy presence. The people could not even touch the mountain lest they die.

The priests could come a little closer. They could handle the holy things of God, but only according to God’s explicit command.  Yet, even Nadab and Abihu, who were there that day, later perished when they offered strange incense before the Lord. (Numbers 10) Only Moses was permitted to see God face to face, and even in that, Moses exposure to God and his presence had to be mitigated, as it says in Exodus 33:

“Moses said, please show me your glory. And he said, I will make all my goodness passed before you, and will proclaim before you my name. The Lord and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy, on whom I will show mercy. But, he said, you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.

And the Lord said, behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock. And while my glory passes by, I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand, until I have passed. By then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”

But why was this?

God’s presence is deadly. To sinners, as we’ll sing a little later in Holy, Holy, Holy (LSB 507). The Lord also says in Ezekiel 18, “the soul who sins shall die.”

And part of us knows this in our conscience. But there’s also a part of us that has greater say because of our sinful nature. That doesn’t really believe that we’ll die in God’s presence.  When we’re faced with something that we know is wrong, we put this unbelief into practice. God doesn’t really mind if I fudge the numbers a little bit on my taxes. After all, they’ll only waste it! Right?  How could he care if I made way too much food and had to throw out the rest? It can’t be too important to God.  And what does it matter if I go to a church with a little false doctrine? Maybe it won’t hurt me, or I know better than that.

The things which happened to Israel were written down, so we would know how real this is. From 1 Corinthians 10: “do not be idolaters, as some of them were as it is written. The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play. We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and 23,000 fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the destroyer. Now these things happen to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction on whom the end of the ages has come.”

God gave all of these very clear warnings about sin and the deadliness of sin. And it didn’t seem to reform the people.

But what God did do is he established sacrifice so that he could dwell in the midst of his people. The covenant that he established through Moses. There was a covenant established through death of a substitute: “Behold, the blood of the covenant, that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.”

These sacrifices that are described in Exodus and Leviticus, in gory detail, show this. These poor innocent animals, having their throats cut their blood drained out their bowels taken out, their fat burn on the altar. And what did they ever do to deserve that? we might ask. Well, it wasn’t preparation for your 4th of July barbecue!

It was the Lord giving this picture of what it takes for sin to be atoned for. We think in our conscience that we can somehow make up for the bad that we’ve done that we can silence that guilty voice in the back of our head by doing more good or just ignoring it.  Or maybe following someone who says that we’re good who maybe wears a collar and looks official and seems to act for God.

But the truth is, and the truth that our conscience tells us, is that sin demands a just retribution, and that’s what you see in the animals that are offered on God’s altar.

The difference came though when Christ did. John the Baptist looked to Jesus and said, “behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” And Jesus himself said later in the beginning of his sermon on the Mount. “I have not come to abolish the law given by Moses or the prophets But to fulfill them.”

So, behold, Jesus Christ. The righteous one. Who was Scourged, who was made to bear his own cross, bleeding, scorn, suffocating and dying. This isn’t some grotesque Netflix movie; this is what your sin and my sin justly deserve.

The Covenant under Moses was established by the blood—blood that was thrown on the altar and blood which was thrown on the people—and the blood, that of God sacrifice sanctifies what it touches. You have been sanctified by the sacrifice of God’s own son, the Lamb of God, who willingly went to the cross and suffered these things for your sake, so that you would not suffer them for yourself.

And his blood has been poured out on you. You have been baptized into his death and resurrection, and so all of that scourging and flogging, and rejection of Christ of Christ, calling from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” was for you.

All of those punishments have already been poured out upon the son of God for your sins. And that is how God wants to receive you through faith in this Christ who was offered up as your lamb as the one who was offered for the sins of the world. And that we may approach him believing and trusting in that Word.

God put all of it on him so that we could receive that piece so that we could stand in his presence in the presence that is even greater than what the children of Israel that day saw, it says in our reading that they saw God, “they saw the God of Israel. There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone like the very heaven for clearness.”

And while we might want some heavenly vision, we actually have something better because Jesus says in John Chapter 20, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed,” and that’s us.

God calls us out of our own imaginations to behold the Lamb of God, Who walked in Nazareth, Who ascended into heaven, and Who will come again in glory. We see a greater glory of God there in the flesh of Jesus Christ.

And even better than the presence of the Moses and the priests and the Elders of Israel. They ate and drank in God’s presence, and he didn’t lay his hand on them.

But we have something even greater than that. When Jesus our high priest, “On the night in which he was betrayed took bread, He broke it and gave it to his disciples and said, take eat this is my body which is given for you. And in the same way also he took the cup after supper, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, drink of it all of you. This cup is the New Testament, the new covenant, in my blood, which is poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins. This do as often as you drink it in remembrance of me.”

In remembrance of the Lamb of God, who has offered up for your sins. The Lamb of God, who was raised for your justification, who gives you hope when your life is about to end. When the lives of your loved ones end, you know that it’s not actually over, because Jesus says, “whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” And we believe this.

We believe that God has made his dwelling among us in his son, Jesus Christ. And that dwelling place is forever. It will not pass away.

And today we have the privilege of eating and drinking with God in his peace. And receiving that strength that he gives through this blessed sacrament.

And now the peace of God, which passes all understanding. Keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, Amen.

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost + July 16, 2017
Text: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

In the Old Testament reading, we heard these words from the Prophet Isaiah:
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”[1]
The Parable of the Sower is the Lord’s explanation of how that plays out in the Church.  First, we learn about the Word that it does not return to God empty or void.  You could say that the Word of God is performative, meaning that it does what He says.  Think of Creation: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,” and there was light.’”[2] God speaks, and it happens.  We might think, That’s all well and good for the universe.  After all, when has an asteroid or a tree ever talked back to God?  When sin came into the world, that was the first time it seemed that the creation went against the will of the Creator.
But this Word of the Lord through Isaiah was spoken in the midst of a rebellious universe.  In spite of that, the Word of God still accomplishes what He sends it for.  This we can see in the Parable:
19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, 21 yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. 23 As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
In the first case, even when the evil one snatches away the Word, the Lord still says the Word was sown in a person’s heart.  In the second and third cases, the Word begins to grow, but other things cause that Word not to mature.  It’s only in the fourth case that the Word seems to reach its intended goal.
We know this parable to be true in our lives, because we see and feel the effects, don’t we?  We feel the absence of our children who grew up in church but are no longer here.  We see the empty places in pews where our brothers and sisters no longer walk with us.  Through the grapevine, we hear about them going to other churches or not at all.  We see discouraging statistics about church membership in today’s world.
Since we can only see these external effects, we look for explanations.  Was it something I didn’t tell my child as he was growing up?  Can we pin the blame on who our children married?  Did we participate in enough church activities?  In the face of statistics, we wonder about all the failings of pastors and evangelism efforts, and bemoan the secularism of our society and universities.  When someone leaves the congregation, we ask if something more could have been done?  Was it hurt feelings or something else?
The funny thing is if you ask people who have left the faith or changed congregations, they’ll also give you human explanations.  Those people were a bunch of hypocrites.  So-and-so hurt my feelings.  There weren’t enough activities.  I just didn’t feel inspired by the music and sermon.  My wife and I just couldn’t decide on whose church to go to.  It seems to make sense to answer these felt needs—change who we are and what we believe, teach, and confess so that we can somehow “close the back door” and prevent people from leaving.
In this Parable, the Lord teaches us what’s working behind the scenes.  The truth is, we don’t even know ourselves well enough to fully understand why we act the way we do when it comes to the Lord and His Church.  However, from His perspective, Jesus sees the devil at work and our weak and deceitful hearts.
The devil is always around with his lying and murdering day and night.  He won’t be satisfied until there is not a single God-fearing person left on earth.  So, he twists the Word and blinds people to its Christ-filled, spiritual meaning.  Faith springs up in people’s hearts, but it becomes a self-generated, deluded kind of faith, that withers when it is tested with fire.  Other times the Word is growing, but suddenly the cares of this life become overwhelming, so that instead of setting one’s mind on things above, they’re consumed by things below like jobs, vacations, and sleep.
Yet, in spite of all that works against the Word, it remains the living, active Word of God, which goes to work in our hearts and reaches its intended goal.  Your faith is evidence of this!  The fact that you are here today, hearing the Word, receiving the Lord’s Supper, is the fruit of the Word planted in your hearts.  Defying the devil, who wants to rob you of heaven, you are here today.  Against your own self-righteousness that only comes to church to feel like a good person, you are here.  Even though you have mountains of things to do when you go home which all demand your attention at once, you are here.
God’s Word is always effective, whenever and wherever it is proclaimed.  We often complain that today is more secular and the church is declining.  It seems like the Word is less effective than it used to be.  Yet, it always been this way, even when unbelief was masked by people going to church merely as a social norm.  It will continue to be this way until the Last Day.  “Who has believed what he has heard from us?”[3]  How little effect it seems to have.  But all this is no surprise to God, and it’s not too much for Him.  He calls us to trust His Word, that He will accomplish His good purpose among us.
That’s why we pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done.”  In those petitions, we are praying first that God would send His Holy Spirit so that everyone who hears believe the Word, and second that in spite of the devil’s lies and our corrupt hearts that we would hold fast to this Word through our whole life.  That means clinging to Christ in times of grief as well as joy, in poverty as much as prosperity, and in the hour of death just as when we were young and active.  This is God’s good and gracious will for you, and it shall be done.  Amen.
[1] Isaiah 55:10-11
[2] Genesis 1:3
[3] Isaiah 53:1