Reformation Series 2: The Word of God

Reformation 2: The Word of God, October 1, 2017

Deuteronomy 6:1-9, Psalm 1, John 1:1-5, 10-14

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

When I was on internship, I had dinner with a member of the congregation.  He had a question, and he wanted to know the answer.  More specifically, he wanted to have a cut-and-dried simple answer to what was actually a very complicated question.  And he wanted to know what the Bible said about it.  But the problem was, it was a complicated issue, and the Bible said a lot of things about it, some of which contradicted or argued with other things the Bible said about it.  There was no way to give a simple, cut-and-dried answer to his question without either twisting or ignoring some of the things the Bible had to say on that particular topic.  And because of that, it was one of those issues where faithful, believing Christians can prayerfully read the Bible and come up with different answers—all of which are really and truly based in the word of God.  So, I explained, it came down to interpretation, and point of view, and what weight we give to the different parts of Scripture.  I told him how I interpreted those passages, and why, but I also told him how other Christians interpret it.

Now, I’ve had conversations like this a lot.  The world is a big, complicated, messy place, and the Bible is a big, complicated, messy collection of books, and God is bigger and greater than anything we can imagine, and that means that there are a lot of places where you just can’t boil God’s Word down into a simple slogan or a verse or two to memorize and regurgitate.  Personally, I find this comforting.  No matter what happens, some other person of faith somewhere has had something like it happen to them, and chances are their story is recorded in the Bible.  And no matter how messed-up the situation is, no matter how closely good and evil are intertwined, no matter what is at stake, we as Christians don’t have to try and force the situation into some sort of one-size-fits-all platitude that ignores a lot of the reality of the situation.

I remember this conversation in particular because by the end of it, we were going around in circles.  See, he really wanted the one-size-fits-all platitude.  More than that, he sort of assumed that the Bible was a textbook for life and faith, and that we as Christians would be graded on how well we knew it.  Just like a textbook in school, where you memorize the right answers and then regurgitate them on the test, and if you have enough right answers memorized you pass and if you don’t you fail.  Except that in this case, “passing” means going to heaven and “failing” means going to hell.  So the idea that things were more complicated than just memorizing the right Bible verse was a problem to him.  It yanked the carpet right out from under his feet.

“But how do you know?” he kept asking.  “How do you know if you’re right?”

“You trust in the grace and mercy of God,” I replied.  “You trust that the God who inspired the people who wrote the Bible, and who inspired the people who collected it and edited it and copied it and translated will still be with us today as we read it and talk about it and figure out what it means for us today.”

“But what if you’re wrong?” he asked.  “What if you get the wrong answer?”

“You trust in the grace and mercy of God,” I said.  “God isn’t standing there with a clipboard looking for reasons to send people to hell.  God is full of grace and mercy and forgiveness, and if you’re genuinely and honestly trying to be faithful, he will be faithful to you, even if you do mess up.  Everybody messes up, sometimes, and God loves us anyway.”

“But how can you be certain?” he said.

“You can’t,” I said.  “You just have to trust in the grace and mercy of God.”  And on, and on, it went.  He could not accept anything other than a simple, easy, one-size-fits-all answer to his question, because he wanted a simple, easy, one-size-fits-all view of the Bible.  And he put his trust in the Bible so deeply that he had trouble trusting in God.  He thought that if he didn’t have the right answer, if he couldn’t figure it out and know for certain what he was supposed to think and believe, he was in danger.

Ironic, isn’t it?  The Bible is the Word of God!  It’s supposed to point us to God, and help our faith grow!  And yet, paradoxically, sometimes when we put our trust in the Bible, that actually prevents us from trusting in God, because what we’re trusting in is our own ability to figure out the right answer.  (Remember how last week I talked about the temptation to put things other than Jesus Christ at the heart of our faith?  This is another one of them.)

The Word of God is important.  It’s the most important thing there is … but what exactly is the Word of God?  Well, according to John 1, Jesus Christ is the living Word of God.  Jesus Christ is God’s Word become flesh, living among us, full of grace and truth.  Jesus Christ is the Word that God spoke in the beginning, separating out light from darkness and ordering the primordial chaos.  That Word is part of God, together with the Father and the Spirit.  Jesus Christ is the Word through which all things were made, and without Jesus there is neither light nor life.  (As Christians, we believe that Jesus is at the heart of everything.)

So if Jesus Christ is the Living Word of God, what does that mean for the Bible?  Well, the Bible is not the living Word of God.  The Bible is a collection of words about God.  God inspired those words when they were being told and re-told by the ancient Jewish people.  God inspired those words when they were first written down, and when they were gathered together, and when they were edited over the centuries, and when they were copied and handed down, and when they were translated.  At each step of the way, God has been inspiring them and using them to speak to people.  And every time we come together to hear these words and preach and teach using them, God is still here, inspiring us and speaking through those words.  The Bible is special because there is no other collection of writings anywhere in the world that God has spoken through as reliably and as often as God has spoken through the Bible.  But we always have to remember that we don’t worship the Bible.  We worship the God who speaks to us through the Bible, and who also speaks to us through many other ways.  We worship Jesus Christ our Lord, the Living Word of God.

In ancient times, after God rescued the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt and before leading them into the Promised Land, God gave them the first part of what would come to be the Bible—the laws, commandments, and teachings, that, along with stories of their ancestors in the faith, form the first five books of the Bible.  But while God was giving them all of these words to remember, God gave them something very simple, something that they should always remember, no matter what.  “Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”  That’s the core of all those teachings.  That’s the center.  That’s what they were to remember every minute of every day, in everything that they did.  If you remember that, then all the rest of the commandments and teachings and stories are meaningful and life-giving, and lead us to God.  If you forget that, they’re just words on a page.

Martin Luther used to put it this way: Jesus Christ is the Word of God, and the Bible is the manger in which the infant Christ is laid.  We worship God.  And where do we find stories about God?  Where do we find a record of what God has done in, with, and through God’s people?  Where do we find stories of our ancestors in the faith?  Where do we find stories about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord?  We find them in many places, but the Bible is the best.  God speaks to us through many things: through nature, through works of literature and art, through the community of believers, through many other ways—even science, sometimes.  But the Bible is the way that God has most often and consistently spoken to believers.

Jesus Christ is the Word of God that transforms our lives, saves us from sin and death and all the powers of this world, and raises us from the power of the grave.  God’s Word is the means of grace through which God transforms our lives. Jesus himself is the living Word made flesh. The Bible is the living water through which God nourishes us, so that like trees that can withstand crisis and yet bear fruit, we live lives of faithfulness and love.  Scripture itself doesn’t give life, because life can only come from God.  But scripture is a necessary part of the conditions for a life of faith to grow.  It’s like rain.  Rain is not what makes a seed alive.  But without enough of it at the right times, that seed isn’t going to amount to much.

May the living Word of God, Jesus Christ our Lord, live in our hearts and minds.  And may the

Amen.

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Reformation 1: Salvation by Grace Through Faith

Reformation 1: Salvation by Grace through Faith, September 24, 2017

Galatians 2:16-21, Psalm 103, Luke 24:44-48

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Have you ever noticed that for a lot of people—even for good, deeply faithful Christians—a lot of faith ends up being more about us than about God?  I mean, we start with the question “what must I do to be saved?” and focus our attention from there.  On how we are doing things to earn our salvation.  So that then, salvation depends on our actions, and not God’s actions.  It’s about what we deserve—or don’t deserve—and not about what God is doing to break the power of sin and death.  Some people focus on the good deeds they have done, and what a moral and upright person they are.  Others focus on how strong their faith is, what a good Christian they are, or in the fact that they believe the right things and say the right prayers and other people don’t.  In either case, we end up focusing on ourselves, instead of on God.  Our faith turns into faith in our own ability to be a good person, do the right thing, and believe the right thing, rather than in God’s ability to forgive and in the saving power of the death and resurrection of our lord and savior Jesus Christ.

This is not a new problem.  This is an old, old trap that Christians have fallen into since the very first followers of Jesus gathered after his resurrection.  And it comes from very understandable places!  We don’t like being helpless.  We want to know what we can do!  And, certainly, we are supposed to respond to God’s gift of salvation by living in the light of his love.  But that’s a response to what God does, not a precondition for God to act.  The more we focus on our own actions, the less room we have to see what God has done and is doing in our lives.  The easier it is to take credit for God’s work, instead of celebrating what God has done in us and gives us the strength and will to do in the world.

On a more selfish level, focusing on our own actions and goodness gives us a lot more room to be self-righteous.  A lot more room to judge other people.  To draw lines about who’s in and who’s out, who’s good and who’s bad, instead of really accepting that every human being is a child of God whom God is working to save.  Do you remember the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector?  The Pharisee and the Tax collector both come to the house of God to pray on the same day.  And the Pharisee thanks God that he isn’t a sinner like the tax collector, and goes on and on about what a wonderful person he is.  And sure, he’s giving lip service to the fact that God made him who he is, but he’s still pretty arrogant about it.  You can tell that under everything, he believes it’s his own abilities and actions that just make him better than other people.  The tax collector, on the other hand, has no such illusions.  He knows he’s a sinner; he knows he is utterly dependent on the grace and mercy and forgiveness of God.  And he goes home forgiven and redeemed, while the Pharisee doesn’t.  Not because he’s a better person than the Pharisee—in fact, he’s a much worse person than the Pharisee—but because he put his faith in God, rather than on his own ability to be good.

Then there’s the social aspects of salvation.  By which I mean, the ways we Christians tend to use the threat of hell and the lure of heaven to try and motivate people to be nice and moral.  The idea is, people won’t do the right thing unless they’re either afraid of punishment or looking for a reward, and so you can use heaven and hell to motivate people.  You literally try to scare the hell out of them, and then dangle the carrot of heaven in front of their nose if they shape up.  It can, in some circumstances, be effective in shaping behavior, although not in others.  Use it too often, and some people get turned into neurotic wrecks angsting over whether they’ve done enough to be saved, while other people start rolling their eyes and tuning out.  And even where this use of heaven and hell are done well and people do listen … you’re still putting the emphasis on humans, what we’re doing, and not on what God is doing.

All of this is true today, it was true in the time of Jesus and the Apostles, and it was most certainly true in the time of Martin Luther.    See, in those days, Christianity was all about earning your salvation.  They had a motto: Do your best, and God will do the rest.  Basically, if you are as good as you possibly can be, go to church every Sunday and every holy day and pray a lot and do lots of good deeds, you will mostly be good enough to go to heaven, and then God will just sort of fill in the gap between your own effort and what’s necessary to get into heaven.

Of course there are several problems with this idea.  One of them is that we’re putting humans at the center and not God, but the other problem with that is, if we’re mostly good enough to earn our own salvation … what in the name of all that’s holy did Jesus die for?  If all we’re talking about is a small gap between what we can do and where we need to be, then why couldn’t God have found some way of filling that gap that was less dramatic, less painful, less gory and gruesome than dying on a cross?  And of course, if humans were capable of earning salvation, Jesus would never have had to die in the first place.  The whole reason for Jesus’ death is that human beings are too broken by sin and death to earn our way into God’s good books by our own merit.  Not just human beings, either.  The whole cosmos is broken by sin and death.  And God loves us and all the world despite the fact that we are so broken, and is willing to do anything—literally anything—to save us and heal us and re-create us and all the cosmos as we were meant to be.  And that anything includes coming to earth and dying on a cross.

This is what Paul is talking about in our reading from Galatians.  “Justification,” is, in this context, a fancy way of saying “made right with God.”  Or “forgiven.”  Or being acquitted, like in a trial.  And the law isn’t just the formal legal rules, but also the traditions and customs and teachings.  If we can make ourselves right with God, if we can justify ourselves, through being “good enough” and following the right teachings and rules, then Christ died for nothing.  That’s the problem with putting ourselves and our abilities at the center.  When the truth is, it was necessary for Jesus Christ to die for us.  He wouldn’t have done it if it weren’t!  We can’t earn our salvation.  We can’t justify ourselves.  We can’t do and say and believe the right things hard enough to make up for all the brokenness inside us.  We can’t make ourselves, through our own efforts, worthy of salvation.  We depend on God’s grace and mercy.

And thank God that grace and mercy are at the core of God’s very being!  The most common description of God in the Bible is that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”  Grace, in this context, means all the love God gives us that we don’t deserve.  The gifts that God gives that we can never pay back.  Grace is joy, delight, happiness, good fortune—all undeserved.  Grace is light in dark places, and grace is a lifeline to people who are drowning.  Grace is the boundless generosity of God, which gives without limit.  Grace is like winning the lottery when we didn’t even buy a ticket.  It’s something God does that transforms us, saves us, gives us all the love and mercy and hope and joy that can only come from God.

This is the Good News of God: that no matter how broken we are, no matter how far we fall, God loves us.  We don’t have to make ourselves right—and we can’t justify ourselves, no matter how hard we try.  God’s grace is as vast as the universe, and it is given through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus.  When we say “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son,” we are saying that Jesus Christ “has purchased and freed me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver but with his holy, precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death.”  God loves us so much that he will never let us go, stop at nothing to save and redeem us, to justify us, to mend our broken relationships with him and with each other.  That’s what Jesus died for.  That’s what all of scripture is trying to point us to.  That great truth—that God’s salvation comes through Christ Jesus, freely given for all people—is the heart of the Gospel.  That’s the good news.

And from that good news flows faith.  Faith is something that God plants in us with his word, that he waters and weeds and is always working to help grow.  Faithfulness is how we respond to God’s wonderful gift.  But there’s more.  When Paul says in Galatians that we are justified by faith, he means two things.  In Greek, he’s saying two distinct things at the same time; there’s no way to do that in English, so translators pick one or the other.  The NRSV and NIV and most modern translations choose to say we are justified by faith in Christ, that is, by our belief in Jesus.  The Common English Bible chooses the other translation, that we are saved through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, that is, through Christ’s faithfulness to us.  Paul meant both of those.  We are justified both by our faith and by Christ’s faithfulness.  We can’t be so focused on our faith in Jesus that we forget Jesus’ faithfulness to us.  His absolute dedication to our salvation.

That’s the truth on which the church stands or falls.  When we remember that God’s grace and mercy are at the center of everything, we stand firm and our faith blossoms.  When we forget—when we try to put our own efforts and abilities in the center—when we trust in our own righteousness or hard work or faithfulness—we start to lose our way, and our faith becomes dry and legalistic.  Even when all the rest of our beliefs are perfectly right, if our core is wrong, we’re going to be going in the wrong direction.  God’s grace and saving actions are the compass that guides our path.

The fancy Reformation theological slogan to describe this is “Justification by grace through faith.”  We are made right with God by God’s free gift of salvation in Jesus Christ, in which our faith is rooted.  Our faith is a response to that salvation, planted in us by God, who is always faithful to us.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

The Soil and the Sower

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 15), Year A, July 13, 2014

Genesis 25:19-34, Psalm 65, Romans 8:1-11, Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Parable of the Sower is one of the great parables, a classic. In the cycle of readings for the church year that Lutherans follow, we hear it in worship once every three years. Most of the sermons I’ve heard on this point go something like this: the good soil, the one without rocks and weeds and thorns, will receive the seed which is God’s Word and God’s Word will grow abundantly in that good soil. So be the good soil!

There’s just one problem with that. I know we have a lot of farmers and gardeners here, so this is my question: have you ever seen soil get rid of rocks and thorns on its own? Raise your hand if you’ve ever seen soil turn itself from bad, rocky soil, to good soil. Yeah, that’s about what I thought. I’ve spent many hours working in my mother’s garden, pulling weeds and killing encroaching blackberry vines and digging out rocks and preparing the soil and tending it, and I have never seen the soil change itself. I’ve seen rocks work their way up from beneath when I didn’t think there were any rocks there, and I’ve seen thorny blackberry vines sprout where I thought I’d gotten them all, but I’ve never seen it go the other way. Not, at least, without a lot of hard work on the gardener’s part. You will notice that while Jesus calls his listeners the soil, he never once says that we should try and make ourselves into better soil.

No, Jesus’ focus is on the action of the sower. And, if you think about it, the actions of the sower are pretty weird. They’re supposed to be. They’re supposed to make you think. We sometimes think parables are easy to understand, because we’ve had them explained to us so many times. But that’s not what parables are. Even when they seem simple on the surface, there’s a lot of depth to them. They’re designed to make us think, to break in to our normal way of looking at the world and show us a different possibility. They’re designed to make us go “wait, what?” so that our understanding of God and God’s kingdom will not be confined to our understanding of the way the world works now.

So think about this sower, for a minute. You farmers, especially. Think about how you put the seed in the ground. This sower is sowing on everything. He’s throwing good seed after bad, putting it in places where he knows it’s not going to flourish. He’s throwing it on the good soil, but also in the thorns, in the rocky places, and even on the road. Now, during spring planting this year I spent a while riding in Gene Wirtz’s tractor watching him seed a field. He has a fancy GPS system with a map of the field, to control where the tractor goes and where the seed is put in the ground. That computer knows exactly where the right place to put seed is. The good soil, where the seed will not be wasted. The expensive computer is worth it because seed and fertilizer are expensive, so a good farmer tries to figure out how to get the best crop with the least amount of seed. Gene would certainly never try to seed the road bed, and I bet none of you other farmers would, either.

I like to imagine that first crowd that heard this parable. “So this guy did what? He tried to seed the road? He threw seed in the rocky areas and among the thorns? Wow, you can tell that Jesus isn’t a farmer!” I bet they grumbled about this town kid—this carpenter’s son—trying to tell them their business. What a waste, to throw seed where you know you’re not going to get a good crop!

That’s part of the point. God is not like a regular farmer. God does not count the cost. God does not do a cost-benefit analysis before figure out the right place to put his Word. God’s gifts are extravagant, abundant, meant for everyone, and given to all people, whether they listen or not. Whether they are good soil or not. God the extravagant sower gives the seed of his Word to the whole world. God’s gifts are not for the chosen few, they’re for everyone. Whether or not we want them, whether or not we value them, whether we respond for a lifetime or even just a moment, the gift is given.

God’s Word is like that. Given to all without counting the cost. But Jesus wasn’t just talking about the stories of the Bible, when he talks about the gift of God’s Word. He wasn’t just talking about the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that helps us tell stories about what we have seen God do in our lives. He was also talking about himself. Remember that Jesus, too, is sometimes called the living Word of God.

God’s Word is given to all, extravagantly and abundantly, without counting the cost. Jesus poured out his life, first in ministry and then on the cross, a gift for a world that he knew would reject him and ignore him and turn away from him. A gift given not just to the chosen and faithful few, but to all people, everywhere, whether they were willing to listen or not. And where that gift finds good soil it takes root and springs up, yielding a harvest greater than we can imagine or understand. Just like the seed in the poem, that springs up with thirty-fold yields, or sixty, or even a hundred.

We are the soil, not the sower. But God tends us as patiently and as carefully as any farmer could. We can’t make ourselves into good soil, but God can. God can and does come into our lives to pull out the rocks and tear out the thorns. I have seen people’s hearts fill with rocks just as stone works its way up through the soil. I have seen people’s hearts fill with thorns and brambles, just as weeds take over a garden. But I have also seen God grace and love work in peoples’ lives to prepare break up and remove the stones and the thorns, so that the seed can take root in us. And no matter how rocky or thorny we get, no matter how hard we get, God keeps giving us the abundant gift of his Word.

Abundance: that’s not something we see much of. We tend to want things that are efficient, that are cost-effective, that give a lot of bang for the buck. If something doesn’t produce good results, forget about it and try something else. Don’t waste your time and effort and money on it. Don’t waste your love on it, either. Our lives are all about how to do the minimum and get the maximum. Do the numbers and figure out the logical way, and write off anything that doesn’t work. Only invest in something that’s worth it. That’s our way. But that’s not God’s way. God doesn’t care what the cost is; God doesn’t care what the response is. God will keep on giving, and giving, and giving, to all people, good and bad. Any response, any response at all, is worth it to God. And God never writes anyone off. To God, no one is beyond saving; no one is beyond reach; no one is a bad investment. No one is so hard, or rocky, or thorny that God’s Word is a waste. God rejoices when the Word bears abundant fruit in us. But whether it does or not, God will not give up on us.

We are the soil. We don’t get to choose whether we are good soil or bad, but we can love and honor what God does for us. We can appreciate the rocks he removes and the thorns he pulls. And we can see the abundance of the Word, given for all people, whether good soil or bad. God’s love, and God’s Word: given out for all, whether we deserve it or not; whether we’re a good investment or not; whether we’re good soil or not. God keeps on giving everything to us, no matter what. Thanks be to God.