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the sermon for

the Fifth Sunday in Lent

18 March 2018

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Faith is rooted not in our obeying,
but in god's forgiving!

03182018Jeremiah was the prophet. And to him, the future was crystal clear. Not because he saw it in the stars. Or because he read it in tea leaves. He, simply, remembered the past and saw it repeating itself. The future he saw was as bleak as the past he remembered. And so, the word he spoke, sounded a lot like that billboard just north of town. "REPENT | RETURN TO GOD NOW | JUDGMENT IS AT THE DOOR" In big, black capital letters!

True, one threat – that from Assyria – was over. And for a while – a generation or two or three – the future was bright. But that was coming quickly to an end. The storm clouds were already gathering on the horizon. Babylon was on the rise. So Jeremiah warned the people. Warned and cautioned and alerted...

Thus says the Lord:
I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride,
how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown.
Israel was holy to the Lord, the first fruits of his harvest.
All who ate of it were held guilty; disaster came upon them,
says the Lord.

But now? Now! Look at you!

Therefore once more I accuse you, says the Lord,
and I accuse your children and your children's children.

"Repent," Jeremiah begged! "Change your ways," he pleaded, "Change your ways... or else!" Change your ways or god's people will surely be destroyed! After all, it happened, once. And it could happen, again!

In the end, Jerusalem would lay in ruins. And the Temple – god's dwelling place – was in ruins. Rubble. Ashes. The high and mighty led away in chains; trophies of war paraded through the streets of Babylon itself! And the powerless and poor exiles in Egypt; just as they had been back in the beginning, before thy became pharaoh's slaves! Jeremiah had tried to change the end. But when all was said and when everything was done, Judah didn't and wouldn't and couldn't! And for that, the nation paid a price for their stubbornness, for their obstinacy. And the prophet was shocked. Jeremiah was shaken, stunned. After five-and-a-half centuries, after twenty-five generations, god's eternal – everlasting – covenant had ended. And Jeremiah grieved, mourned...

Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude;
she lives now among the nations, and finds no resting-place;
her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress.

The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals;
all her gates are desolate, her priests groan;
her young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter.

The lament goes on, pitiful, pathetic. Jeremiah had spoken. Loudly. Clearly. Passionately. Without hesitation. But the people didn't listen. The people didn't heed. It was, then, Jeremiah realized it wasn't that Judah would not, it was that Judah could not! No matter how long the prophet spoke. No matter how loudly. The people just couldn't do what he asked! They couldn't be faithful! They couldn't be obedient! They were captive to sin! In bondage! And they couldn't free themselves! No matter how hard they tried! And all of Jeremiah's ranting and all of Jeremiah's raving accomplished absolutely nothing! Even when their lives hung in the balance! Their lives and the lives of their children and of their children after them! They, simply, couldn't do it!

Even with judgment at the door, they couldn't repent! Even with judgment at the door, they couldn't return to god! And so the nation and the city fell. Cracking, crumbling under the weight of self-righteousness and sin. Past, one more time, was prologue. By their own understanding, by their own strength, they couldn't. And if they were to be redeemed... if they were to be saved... if they were to be delivered... god and god alone would have to do it!

In the end, it was Jeremiah who changed his mind, changed his way of thinking! It was Jeremiah who repented! Repented of everything he had, once, believed in! Repented of everything he had spoken! And it was he who returned to the LORD! Returned to god's grace and mercy! Returned to god's forgiveness and love!

I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts;
and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, 'Know the Lord',
for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord;
for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

That is the new covenant! Israel doesn't change. Judah won't become different. But god... GOD will forgive and GOD will forget! In joy and in sorrow, god forgives and forgets! In plenty and in want, god forgives and forgets! In sickness and in health, god forgives and forgets! God loves! God cherishes! No matter what!

It isn't that Israel becomes better! Or that Judah becomes more! Goats don't become sheep! Chaff doesn't become grain! Weeds don't become wheat! They remain goats and chaff and weeds! But god forgives and god forgets! Our life with god isn't determined by our dedication or our devotion. It depends on god's commitment and god's persistence! It's not our faith, but god's faithfulness! When we fall short, when we miss the mark, god's doesn't threaten, god doesn't bully! God forgives and god forgets! And if there's a price that must be paid, it's god! It's god who pays it!

"The days are surely coming, says the LORD! Truth is, my friends, those days are already here! They've already come! But it's not the law god has written on our hearts, but the gospel! It's the love, shaped just like a bold black cross on a red heart! "In the mercy of almighty God, Jess Christ was given to die for us!" God forgives! Forgives AND forgets!

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the sermon for

the Fourth Sunday in Lent

11 March 2018

Numbers 21:4-9
Love carries a cross not our own!

03112018The World's Fair, that year, was in Knoxville, Tennessee. And since I was right next door, finishing up a year of internship in North Carolina, I figured I'd take a few days off and stop by. And I'm glad I did. It turned out that except for the Fair held in New Orleans the next year, it was the last one hosted by a city here in the United States since. To be honest, though, I don't remember a whole lot about the trip. But I did get this. An olive wood carving from the Holy Land. Jesus crucified not on a cross, but on a tree. It was different. Unique. It's been in my office, since then.

The imagine itself is an old one, going back into the early days of the church. We changed it in the latest hymnal, the cranberry one. But before that, this was the image in the preface for the Sunday of the Passion, for Palm Sunday. In the old Red hymnal and the older Blue one before that, this was the image in the preface for Lent itself...

It is indeed right and salutary that we should at all times and in all places offer thanks and praise to you, O Lord, holy Father, through Christ our Lord; who on the tree of the cross gave salvation to all...

The image comes from a passage in Deuteronomy [21.23]. "... anyone hung on a tree is under God's curse..." An image that echoes across the New Testament. And this was the first time I'd seen it in flesh-and-blood. But the Preface goes on...

... who on the tree of the cross gave salvation to all, that, where death began, there life might be restored, and that he, who by a tree once overcame, might by a tree be overcome...

The words pull together Eden, on the one hand, and Golgotha, on the other. Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained touch! Just as he – the serpent – at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil overcame, so he – the serpent – will be overcome! At this tree! At the cross!

It's what could be called as "poetic justice." What my mom used to call being "hoisted on your own petard!" And it's here, today, in the first reading. The people are in the wilderness, grumbling against God and Moses. So god sends poisonous serpents to punish them. The serpents bit them; the people die. The people repent. Moses prays for the people. "And the Lord says to Moses, 'Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.'"

...that, where death began, there life might be restored,
and that he, who by a tree once overcame, might by a tree be overcome...

Evil defeated by evil! Hatred conquered by being hated! Death vanquished by dying! That's what this sculpture – what this passage – is about! Death itself is death's undoing! It isn't that god brings into play some equal, opposite. To overwhelm. To overpower. God, simply, allows death to go too far! God permits death to overplay its hand, to overstep its bounds! God dying on a tree ends it all!

The cross overflows with paradoxes! Wounds that heal! Suffering that sets free! And it's all like that bronze snake atop a pole! The very thing that kills makes alive! It's like Luther writes in the Small Catechism. We are redeemed with his holy, precious blood! Purchased and freed with innocent suffering and dying!

Like "they" say, "No pain, no gain! No harm, no foul! No cross, no crown!" But here's the rub... The pain Jesus endures isn't Jesus' pain. It's ours! And the gain Jesus realizes? Well, that gain is ours, as well! The pain? The gain? None of it is for Jesus alone; all is for us! But then, that's what carrying a cross, here in the church, means! No pain, no gain! Not for Jesus, but for us! All for us!

That's what carrying a cross does, here in the church. The cross that was placed on Jesus' back was the cross upon which we were meant to hang! The suffering he bore was our suffering! It wasn't just something he experienced because he was human. The usual aches and pains of life, the normal agonies and anguish of living that comes to us all. Naturally. Automatically. These were his, because he enters into our world! These were his, only because he intervenes in the name of love, of charity, of grace! It's because of that, he does something he never would have to face. How does Isaiah put it? Wounded for our transgressions! Crushed for our iniquities! His punishment made us whole! His bruises heal us! And it's just like that bronze serpent on top of the pole! The one that looked just like all the others, but wasn't! "Who by a tree once overcame, might by a tree be overcome!" It looks the same, but the effect is completely opposite! . .

God so loved that god gave Jesus! And Jesus experienced! Jesus endured! Not because he had no other choice, not because he had to, but because that's what loves does. Love hears the sighs! Love sees the tears! And love does! Does, no matter what the cost! Love is conceived by the Spirit and born of a virgin! Love suffers under Pilate! Love is crucified and dies and is buried! Love descends and, three days later, love rises! And we rise with him! This is what love looks like! What tough love really, truly looks like!

It's not the suffering in and of itself that rescues! It's not the pain that redeems! Any more than it's that serpent at the end of the pole! But it's the love! It's the love! The love that submits! The love that contends! The love that endures! For no other reason than it cares for another! Cares with all its heart! Cares with all its mind! With all its strength and being!

... where death began, there life might be restored;
who by a tree once overcame, might by a tree be overcome...

And it's not the tree that does it. That accomplishes! That achieves! But it's the love, as well! Love that denies itself, that takes up our cross, that goes to the grave, just for us! All that we, too, can go and do the same! Denying ourselves! Carry our neighbors' cross! So that through our sacrifice and because of our suffering, they, like us, might be saved!

So, you may not have a reminder like this sitting on shelf in your office or at your home. And we may no longer say the words before communion. But this statue, for us, is salvation! This, for us, is how faith appears!

It is indeed right and salutary that we should at all times and in all places offer thanks and praise to you, O Lord, holy Father, through Christ our Lord; who on the tree of the cross gave salvation to all, that, where death began, there life might be restored, and that he, who by a tree once overcame, might by a tree be overcome... .

So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze...

... and live!

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