Sermon 1 Lent Yr C

You can read my sermon for Feb 17, 2013 here: 1 Lent Yr C

Sermon 3 Lent Year A

You can read my sermon for March 27 here: 3 Lent Yr A

Sermon 1 Lent Yr A

You can read my sermon for March 13, 2011 here: 1 Lent Yr A

Sermon 5 Lent, Yr C

5 Lent Yr C, 21/03/2010

Phil 3:4b-14

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

“Paul’s loss and gain”

If an employer is hiring a worker, they rely a lot on the worker’s past training, knowledge and experience. The employer depends on information stating the worker’s credentials in a resume. If a university hires a professor, they rely on a potential professor’s academic pedigree as presented in curriculum vitae. And when a country asks who is a legitimate heir to the present king or queen? they rely on the history of a royal family to determine who shall be the new monarch.

In the same way, the apostle Paul speaks of his pedigree, highlighting his impressive credentials in today’s second lesson. Paul we might say, was a spiritual superstar. He was the ideal opponent within Judaism to resist Christianity.

Paul tells us that he was: “circumcised on the eighth day.” Going back to the days of Abraham, in Genesis seventeen, God makes a covenant with Abraham and the Jewish people; and as an outward sign of this covenant, God gave the command to Abraham that all male babies must be circumcised when they were eight days old. So as an Israelite, Paul is a legitimate one, having been circumcised in obedience to God’s command and covenant.

Paul goes on to state that he was: “a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin.” In other words, his parents were Jewish and they descended from the tribe of Benjamin. The tribes of Benjamin and Judah were the two faithful tribes when all of the others had abandoned God, and fallen away from the covenant. And Benjamin was considered to be one of the most aristocratic tribes of Israel. The first king of Israel, Saul, was from the tribe of Benjamin, and perhaps Paul, prior to his Damascus road encounter with Christ, was named after King Saul.

Paul continues to state his credentials, saying that he was: “a Hebrew born of Hebrews.” The Jewish people did not all speak Hebrew, read or write in that language at the time of Paul. Many Jews could not speak, read or write in the Hebrew because of the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles; as well as their taking up residence in several Gentile lands. Over time, the Hebrew language was lost among some of the Jews because the land in which they lived had another official language. Here in Canada the same thing often happens. The first generation of immigrants usually preserve their mother tongue. However, by the second or third generation, their offspring may have abandoned the language of their ancestors—favouring English or French, the two official languages of Canada. Paul tells us that he and his parents retained the Hebrew language.

Paul adds another important credential to his list, saying: “as to the law, a Pharisee.” In the book of Acts, Paul says at least three times that he was educated as a Pharisee (Acts 22:3; 23:6; 26:5). Moreover, he was trained under one of Jerusalem’s best Pharisaic teachers, Gamaliel. Gamaliel, you may recall, was the wise and respected teacher who cautioned other Jewish leaders not to persecute or kill the apostles after they had been teaching in the Jerusalem temple. Gamaliel gave the Jewish leaders the following wise counsel: “I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” (Acts 5:38-39) So Paul was trained as a Pharisee by this highly respected and wise teacher, Gamaliel. As a Pharisee, Paul meticulously knew the Bible, and followed all of the rules and regulations of the law.

Paul then states: “as to zeal, a persecutor of the church.” We recall that before his Damascus road experience, Paul was a man with a single-minded mission—to persecute and even sentence to death Christians. Paul had been a witness to the earliest Christian martyr, Stephen, when he was stoned to death. He was on his way to Damascus to seek out, persecute and possibly put to death other Christians there when Jesus appeared to him and changed his life mission. However, in his days as a zealous persecutor of the church, an enemy of the church, Paul was likely a respected leader among the Jews because of his zealous persecution of Christians. Such behaviour may likely have convinced some of his fellow Jews of his loyalty to the Jewish faith.

In his final credential, Paul states that he was: “as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” In Paul’s heart and mind, there was no question or doubt that he had not violated the Jewish law in any way, shape of form. Paul had kept Torah; he had observed the Jewish law in spirit and letter. He was, before the law, innocent, clean, righteous, so he thought and believed. On the outside at least, all indications seemed to point to a perfectly righteous Jewish leader.

Yet, the law goes deeper than mere externals, and righteousness in God’s eyes is not based on what we do to earn it. Now if one was judged on the basis of his credentials and his ability to observe the law outwardly, then yes, he had reason to boast and be confident within himself. However, after, if not before the Damascus road experience, Paul knew and learned otherwise. He had read and studied Isaiah 64:6, which told him: “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.”

So the best pedigree and the finest credentials; the noblest accomplishments; one’s birthright and training or membership within an organization cannot ultimately satisfy, save or make a person righteous. We are all sinners. The law demands perfection, we are imperfect—therefore, try as we do; our final effort shall always result in not perfectly keeping the law. If we are to be satisfied, saved and righteous what needs to happen then?

The story is told of a pastor and his wife who spent a month in Zermatt, Switzerland. It is one of the loveliest places on the face of the earth. Zermatt is a village you reach by a cogwheel railroad, and there are no cars there. It is right at the foot of the Matterhorn, and snow-covered mountains tower all around that lovely little village in the valley. But the residents once had a typhoid scare. Some people in the village got typhoid fever, and they tried to hush it up. They didn’t want to tell anybody about it. They wondered how any water could be more pure than the water running off the mountains from the melting snows. But they found out that a sewer was located close by the source of the water, and the sewer had bled through and was polluting the water supply. The water was fine as it first ran off the mountains, but by the time it reached the people, it had been polluted.

In a similar fashion, even the good things we do are often shot through with selfish interest, the seeking to advance ourselves in one way or another. So the Scripture says that even our righteousnesses in God’s sight are as filthy rags. Jesus said that when we have done our very best, we must consider ourselves unworthy servants in God’s sight (Luke 17:10). It is not possible for us to strike up a bargain whereby we gain God’s favour.1

In contrast to all of Paul’s gains from his birthright, faith in Judaism and achievements; Paul, is given a new revelation concerning what truly satisfies, saves and makes him righteous. He writes: “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.”

What an incredible statement! Paul, a first class Pharisee, proud of his Jewish birthright, faith, traditions, culture and personal accomplishments tells us that he’s willing to give all of this up, regard it as loss in order to gain Christ and the righteousness of God that comes through Christ. The righteousness of God in Christ is exchanged, traded for our sin. Martin Luther called this “the happy exchange.” Paul puts it like this in I Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Paul’s sense of gaining true satisfaction, righteousness and salvation in Christ is what two hymn writers might have based their hymns on that we sing during the Lenten season. The words to the first hymn, “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me,” highlight the sufficiency of Christ righteousness and ability to save us in contrast with our works: “Not the labours of my hands can fulfill thy law’s demands…Thou must save, and thou alone. Nothing in my hand I bring; simply to thy cross I cling.” And in the words of the hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” Paul’s theme of gain and loss is highlighted, along with the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross: “When I survey the wondrous cross on which the prince of glory died, my richest gain I count but loss and pour contempt on all my pride. Forbid it Lord that I should boast save in the death of Christ my God; all the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to his blood.”

May we too, like Paul and the hymn writers of these two Lenten hymns, count as gain the righteousness of Christ, freely given as a result of his saving work through his suffering and death on the cross. May we rejoice in the relationship with have with our Lord, as more precious than anyone or anything in the world. Amen.

1 Cited from: Everett L. Fullam, “Profit and Loss,” in: Richard Allen Bodey, Editor, Good News for All Seasons: Twenty-six Sermons for Special Days (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Company, 1987), p. 46.  

Sermon 3 Lent Yr C

3 Lent Yr C, 7/03/2010

Isa 55:1-9

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

“Feasting with God”

Do any of you remember the 1987 movie, Babbette’s Feast? I think that it still ranks as one of my all-time favourites. The movie is based on a short story by Karen Blixen, and set in nineteenth century Jutland, Denmark. Babbette, a French chef, is a Christ-figure in the movie. She comes to this stoic, pietistic, backwoods Lutheran community to work as a housekeeper for the two daughters of a now-deceased pastor. Babbette, out of the blue, is informed that she has won a generous lottery. Now you’d think that she would return back to Paris and live a sophisticated life of privilege there. Nope. Rather, she pulls out all of the stops so-to-speak and puts her whole body, mind, and spirit into preparing and serving a lovely chef’s banquet feast.

The movie is a heart-warming, humorous, yet serious tale full of biblical motifs. As the local village residents sit down together, surprisingly they stop their bickering and begin to enjoy each other’s company, along with the excellent quality and quantity of food and drink.

Now it has been several years since I’ve seen the movie, however what I remember of it is three significant theological and biblical themes. The most obvious theme for me was that of the sacrament of Holy Communion. The meal in the movie feeds the guests not only physically, but also in a sacramental-like way, uniting them as a faith community. In communing with each other, they are also communing with Christ vis-à-vis the Christ-like figure of Babbette who sacrificially prepares and serves this banquet feast.

Another theme that stood out for me was that of stewardship. As Christians we are called to be stewards/managers of what God has given us. Everything that we have, are and own is a gift from our generous Creator. God’s generosity is freely given to us as Christ gave his all, even sacrificing his life for the life of you and me and the whole world. Babbette does precisely the same thing by generously preparing and providing her feast of a lifetime. The generosity of Babbette is a stark contrast with the stoic and frugal Danish Lutheran community in which she finds herself. Life there was difficult and one had to take on stoic and frugal values in order to survive—so the community believed. Babbette offers them another option by her generous giving of herself, her time, her talents, and her material resources. She does so willingly and lovingly, like Christ.

Yet another theme I remember from the movie is that this generous banquet feast is a sign of God’s coming kingdom; where there shall be an abundant supply of food and drink as well as love and joy in all of its fullness. A chap in the movie epitomises this when, throughout the banquet and time of sharing each other’s company, he bursts out with joyful speech by shouting “Hallelujah!” Another sign of the coming kingdom is that the pietistic austerity is transformed into smiles and laughter as the banquet progresses. Everyone is discovering, almost as if it were for the first time, the joy of life together in God’s coming kingdom as the communion and community of sinner-saints. God’s kingdom coming as a sheer gift of grace.

In our first lesson today, the prophet also speaks of drinking and eating. The way it is described by the prophet, we learn that here, like in Babbette’s Feast, there is a generous supply of food and drink. A biblical scholar, commenting on today’s passage, has this to say: In the ancient world, when a new king would assume the throne he would often issue a mišarum edict, declaring a release from all debts. As part of this edict, the king would also call for a great banquet to be enjoyed by the people of that kingdom. Both events, the edict and the banquet, signaled a new day under a new king. The opening lines of chapter 55 remind the hearer of such a banquet and more importantly, the signaling of a new day.1

Yes, it is a prophecy of hope pointing in the direction of a future new day; however, I believe that the food provided in abundance describes God’s provision, not some new earthly king. The reason I believe that it is God here in the prophecy who takes the initiative is the strange irony of it all.

Listen again to the text: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!” Notice here the all inclusive invitation of the LORD, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters. Now who doesn’t thirst, both physically and spiritually? Don’t you, I and every human being thirst? The promise of water in a hot land, on a scorching day quenches the physical thirst better than any other drink. Moreover, as human beings, we cannot survive without water. God provides us with water; water is a symbol of life; and God is our Life-Giver. Spiritually this is also true. As Christians, we believe that the sacrament of baptism is a symbol of life, spiritual, eternal life. In baptism we are given new life through the water and the word of God; promising us forgiveness of sins, adoption into God’s family as sons and daughters of God; and the promise of eternal life in the future. In baptism God comes down to us and takes the initiative to name us and claim us as his own precious children. He is also busy and active in baptism by killing the old Adam and Eve within us and placing within our bodies the gift of his ever-present Holy Spirit to enlighten us in the wisdom of his word and keep the channel of communication and communion with God open, healthy and lively throughout our journey in this life. So in the waters of baptism, God is working hard to quench our spiritual thirst.

Listening to our text further, we notice the ironic invitation of having no money, yet the LORD bids his people to “come, buy and eat!” Wow. Now that doesn’t make a lot of sense in the economy of this world, does it? We’re all familiar with the old adage: “There is no such thing as a free lunch.” Yet, that’s precisely what God invites his people to here in this passage. In case anyone failed to hear this message, the prophet repeats this train of thought, quoting the LORD again in the form of invitation: “Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” The invitation has the sound of sheer grace—a generous gift, freely given by God.

In verse two, the prophet changes from invitational statements to a pressing question from the LORD: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy?” Bread, of course, is a staple food. Again it can be physical and spiritual. Bread in the physical sense can be an inclusive symbol referring to all of our basic needs in life—food, clothing, shelter, and so on. Bread is also a spiritual symbol. For Jews, bread reminds them of God’s provision of daily manna in their wilderness wanderings; and unleavened bread reminds them of their exodus out of Egyptian slavery and the institution of their Passover Meal as a remembrance of God’s deliverance. For Christians, bread reminds us of Jesus himself who said: “I am the bread of life.” Bread also reminds us of Christ’s institution of the Lord’s Supper, the sacrament of Holy Communion; which is our spiritual food keeping us in the risen presence of Christ.

So the question comes as a challenge to people who fritter away their money on non-essentials and labour for/work for stuff that fails to satisfy the deepest needs—things like new monster houses in the suburbs, new SUVs, the latest fashion clothing, and then having no money left for food. The question challenges our materialistic, consumer-oriented society; you can gain the whole world but lose your soul because material possession shall never satisfy our deepest needs.

The prophet goes on to quote the LORD, now in the form of a command: “Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” Such a command fits in with the promises we receive in the sacrament of Holy Communion. We eat what is good, delighting in rich food—the bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ. The food, along with God’s words of promise, gives us: forgiveness of sins, communion with the risen Christ, and community-building with our sisters and brothers in the faith.

After the first exhortation, the prophet quotes the LORD in another form of command and invitation: “Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.” God’s word is life-giving. From Genesis through to Revelation the life-giving power of God’s word moves through human history; you and me; all peoples to create, sustain, and redeem us. Listening to God’s word creates and deepens our faith and communication with our God. The act of listening gives life and is the work of God’s Spirit in us. Listening helps us to cling to the life-giving promises of God’s word.

In the final verse of our passage, we learn of the divine logic behind the whole passage: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.” During Lent with our focus on the life-giving nature of Christ’s suffering and death; we remember that the foolishness of the cross is God’s wisdom and the weakness of the cross is God’s strength. So, along with the exiled ancient Israelites, those Danish Lutherans in Babbette’s Feast, and our brothers and sisters present here today, we eat and drink without buying at our LORD’s banquet feast—partaking of his grace-filled, generosity, which knows no boundaries, celebrating his presence in his coming kingdom among us here and now. Amen.

1 Cited from: Professor W. Dennis Tucker, Jr., Commentary on Lectionary for March 7, 2010 at the WorkingPreacher.org website: <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?tab=1&gt;.  

 

 

Sermon 2 Lent Yr C

2 Lent Yr C, 28/2/2010

Lk 13:31-35

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

“Christ’s lament”

What would you do if you knew that your friend’s life was in danger? Wouldn’t you want what was best for your friend, try your best to protect them and warn them of the life-threatening danger? Most of us, I believe, would want our friend to escape the life-threatening danger and do what we could to try and help them.

Well, in today’s gospel, we learn that “some Pharisees” were friends of Jesus by trying to protect him from a life-threatening danger. These Pharisees came to Jesus and spoke the following words of warning: “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” Now I think this is a rather instructive story for us concerning the Pharisees. Perhaps the most common picture or view of the Pharisees in the four Gospels is that they are the enemies of Jesus, not his friends. Moreover, ever since the beginning of the Christian faith, there have been Christians who tried to justify anti-Judaism and antisemitism. Over the centuries—particularly during Lent and Holy Week—Christian preachers and theologians ramped up their rhetorical hatred of the Jews and incited parishioners to persecute and commit crimes against the Jewish people. The Jews were labelled as “Christ killers” and became the scapegoats for all of society’s problems. One could go on at length about the horrendous crimes Christians committed against the Jews, all in the name of Christ and Christianity. However, that is not my purpose today.

Coming back to our passage, I say this is an instructive text for us because it gives us a more positive picture and description of “some Pharisees.” In other words, not all Pharisees hated Jesus, or considered him an enemy of theirs deserving death. Today some biblical scholars who have read and studied all four Gospels carefully have observed that there are three major categories of the Jewish people in the Gospels. Some of the Gospel passages refer to the Jews in a negative way as enemies. Other Gospel passages refer to the Jews in a neutral way—neither as enemies or friends. Yet other passages refer to the Jews in a positive way as friends or even family. So, when we read our Gospel today, we discover Jesus’ fellow Jews, “some Pharisees” as his friends or even family. We notice too that the word “some” is employed in front of “Pharisees.”

During our Lenten journey with Jesus to Jerusalem and his suffering and death there; we need to remember that not all Jews or their leaders plotted the death of Jesus or were collaborators with the Roman authorities in the arrest, trial and execution of Jesus. Again we must employ the word “some” Jewish leaders and people were involved in Jesus’ death. As Christians we should never blame all of the Jewish people and leaders in Jesus’ time—or in any other time—for his death. So, then, Lenten gospels like the one today open up the door for us Christians to continue to work for a better understanding of the Jewish people, which results in a deeper love for them and desire to live in peace with them. The season of Lent then affords us Christians with the opportunity to resist and condemn rather than promote or justify anti-Judaism and antisemitism.

Back to our gospel today, Jesus answers the Pharisees in a prophetic way, first of all justifying his public ministry of bringing in God’s kingdom through the exorcism of demons and performing cures or healings, and then by predicting his work being finished with his resurrection “on the third day.” The irony of Jesus’ answer is also in his calling Herod “that fox,” which could have been taken as an offensive way of addressing Herod. Foxes are often viewed as crafty creatures and certainly predators of chickens. Ironically, Jesus speaks of himself as being like a mother hen. Herod the fox and Jesus the mother hen—what chance of survival does a mother hen have against a hungry fox? Ultimately, in the natural world the way it exists right now, put a fox with a mother hen and the fox will 99.9% of the time, kill and eat chicken for dinner.

Herod’s malevolent desire “to kill” Jesus and Jesus’ courageous determination to face rather than flee from Herod represents the clash of two kingdoms. Herod’s earthly kingdom is temporal, rooted in sin, based on the coercive use of power to rule by an iron Roman fist, and the fear of punishment if one disobeyed Roman laws. Herod’s power existed by enforced slavery, oppression and injustice. In stark contrast, the kingdom of God that Jesus was ushering in is, in part temporal, but in its completeness eternal. The kingdom that Jesus was bringing into existence was rooted in love and forgiveness, based on the freedom to follow God’s will by serving others and making the ultimate sacrifice for them—of laying down one’s own life on a cross. God’s kingdom attracted many people because of the levelling of all people as brothers and sisters in God’s family as equals, living under the power of forgiveness, mercy and the gentle rule of peace.

Yes, the collision course is in Christ’s mind and heart inevitable. Christ knows what he has to do, saying: ‘I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ No other option is available for him but to go to Jerusalem and die if he was to be faithful and freely accept his heavenly Father’s will. Here we have an example of Christ’s courage and single-mindedness towards his mission—nothing; nobody can stop him from going up to his death on a cross in Jerusalem. Do we face hardships as willingly and freely as Jesus did in order to do God will by choosing the way of the cross? A question that we may wish to ask ourselves during Lent is: what things do we need to die of in order to gain abundant, eternal life? Do we, like Jesus, need to follow his way of the cross by dying to the temptations of power, wealth, wisdom, and popularity? Or are there other gods that we need to renounce if we are to be faithful to God’s will and purposes?

As our gospel continues to unfold, Jesus goes into a lament over the city of Jerusalem. In my chaplain’s office hangs a picture of Jesus sitting on a mountainside and looking over at Jerusalem in the distance. The picture depicts Jesus in a thoughtful, yet sorrowful way. He looks to be all alone, no one is with him. He must face his final earthly destiny alone, despised and rejected by sinful people of his day and of every time and place, including you and me.

Jesus, lamenting over Jerusalem, like the prophet Jeremiah who once cried out: “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!” (Jer 9:1) And the lament of the prophet Ezekiel, quoting the LORD’s words: “As I live, says the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezek 3311) In the tradition of prophets like this before him, Jesus speaks a prophetic word of judgement upon Jerusalem. The words are not easy to speak, nor does Jesus rejoice in speaking them. He does not desire the punishment and destruction of his people and the city of Jerusalem. In the midst of this lament, Jesus gives us the most beautiful picture of his love towards his own people and the sadness and pain of his love being spurned. He sees himself as being like a mother hen who wants to protect her chicks by placing them under her wings. Here Jesus gives us a feminine image of gentle love, yet courageous protection. Jesus sees himself in this way and his own people as chicks that are not willing to be gathered under the protective wings of a mother hen. The gentle love and protective courage of a mother hen towards her chicks is true to real life. Listen to the following story:

Somehow one spring a hatch of chickens was born behind the barn. The children of the family had never seen range chickens before. They wondered how they’d keep warm without a heater. They were thrilled to discover that the mother hen sheltered them under her wings. They wondered how they’d be safe from the cat and were amazed to see the mother hen fly at the cat and scare it away with her loud noises and her beak.1

Jesus is like the gentle, loving, courageous, protecting mother hen who is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice of laying down his life for his people, including you and me. His sacrificial death on a cross means that we are given life—abundant life now, and eternal life beyond the grave. For that, thanks be to God! Amen.

1 Cited from: Emphasis, Vol. 24, No. 6, March-April 1995 (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co., Inc.), p. 23.

 

 

Sermon Palm/Passion Sunday Yr B

Palm/Passion Sunday Yr B, 5/04/2009

Mk 11:1-11

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“The donkey owner’s story-a narrative sermon”

 

Hello everyone, or as we say in the Promised Land, shalom! I want you to put your imagination to work today. Imagine that you have travelled in a time machine back to the first Palm Sunday. My name is Eli ben Judah. The Gospels do not mention me by name. I’m the owner of that donkey colt Jesus road into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. I’ll be your host and tour guide. Here is my story.

I remember it well, the day I met Jesus. What a day that was! He came to my stable at Bethphage, near Jerusalem, several weeks before Palm Sunday. The day started out with its usual routines, as any other day. You know: get up at four, dress, pray the morning prayer thanking God for another day, the gift of life, and every other blessing, start the fire, fry some fish, warm up the bread, give thanks to the LORD for our food, eat breakfast, go out into the stable to feed and water the donkeys, and open the stable doors for business—hoping and praying for customers to rent my donkeys.

A few minutes after I opened the stable doors, along came Jesus. I still remember seeing him walking towards me. I’ve never met a person like him before. He walked with dignity and confidence. His body and face were so radiant that I was almost blinded by such an intense light. His light poured into me, as if it were healing and cleansing me completely. The light seemed to be burning away all that was hurtful and destructive in me. His eyes were so loving and penetrating—I felt he could see right into my whole being and that he knew everything about me. He knew all of the details of my life, from birth right up to the present. I thought of our ancestor Moses, before the burning bush, and Elijah, when God spoke to him with the sound of sheer silence. The holiness of Jesus’ presence before me was so intense that I fell to my knees and lowered my face to the dust. Who was I, a humble, ordinary donkey owner to be worthy enough to be in the presence of Jesus?

Even though I had never met him before, I knew, as he came closer, that he was the most perfect, holy person that I’d ever encountered in my life. Like Moses after the burning bush, and Elijah after hearing God’s still small voice, I was never the same again. The day I met Jesus, my whole life has changed. Before that time, I went to synagogue on the festival days, and prayed the daily prayers without expecting much from the LORD. Life was pretty humdrum, and I liked it that way. After that day everything changed. Since then, I have found a new purpose for living. Now I want to tell everyone about Jesus and follow his way and his teachings.

Back to that day, when I was down on my knees, face to the earth, Jesus spoke. He called me by my name, and said: “Shalom, Eli ben Judah, donkey owner. Please rise, I have something to ask of you.”

So, I jumped up on my feet and was full of curiosity, wondering what he wanted from me. Before I was able to speak he addressed me again, saying: “I am going to need your help in a few weeks’ time. I’ll be entering Jerusalem then, and I need one of your colt donkeys—they have to be strong enough for me to sit on and ride into the city. I shall do this in fulfillment of the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Listen up now Eli, here’s what will happen. Two of my disciples, James and John, will come here and untie the colt standing by your door. You and a few of your neighbours will see them, and will ask the following question: “What are you doing, untying the colt?” James and John will provide you with this password answer: ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’ Do you think you can remember all of that?”

I was, at first breathless, so surprised, I didn’t know what to say. The prophecy from Zechariah finally sunk in, I realised it was referring to the Messiah. Could this Jesus be our Messiah? After a few moments of silence to collect my thoughts, I blurted out: “You mean to say that you’re, um, the Messiah?!” I asked with excitement and expectation.

Jesus answered with certainty in his voice, “I am he.” Then he commanded me to keep it a secret, saying: “Don’t you dare tell a soul till after my crucifixion and resurrection—then you can go out and tell the whole world.”

Rather confused I asked him: “What do you mean crucifixion and resurrection? You aren’t going to die like a criminal and then rise from death. I mean, if you’re the Messiah and all, aren’t you supposed to deliver us Jews from the tyranny of the Roman occupation and govern our nation with perfect peace and justice?”

Jesus answered me, “No Eli, that’s not my destiny. I’m the Messiah not only of the Jewish people, but of all nations and peoples. My destiny, in fulfillment of our scriptures, is to suffer and die on the cross to atone, once and for all, for the sins of humankind. Three days later God our heavenly Father shall raise me from the dead. Do you believe me?”

I struggled to understand these hard and sorrowful words, and then replied, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief. Please stay with me for lunch, you can tell me more.”

However, Jesus told me, “No, Eli, I must keep going to the next village, and the next, and the next after that. I’ve got plenty of work to do before I enter Jerusalem in a few weeks. Remember; keep this conversation a secret until after my crucifixion and resurrection. Don’t forget what I told you about James and John. Shalom Eli, see you in a few weeks.”

What a day! me, Eli ben Judah of all people, a humble donkey owner, meeting the Messiah! I believed Jesus, and yet, I struggled with what I had been taught by the rabbis. How could Jesus be the Messiah riding on a donkey? How could he be a suffering Messiah? Would God our Father really raise him from the dead three days after his crucifixion? Would his death on a cross truly atone for my sins and your sins, and everyone else’s sins, once and for all time? Questions, questions, questions. Yet, Jesus’ presence was so holy, so pure, so enlightening. How could I keep such an encounter with the Messiah to myself? I had to tell everyone, I couldn’t help it! So, that’s what I did. I told every single person in our village: “I’ve met the Messiah, his name is Jesus!” Most of them didn’t believe me, they thought I ate too many nuts and became one. J

The days and weeks passed. Finally the day came. True to Jesus’ words, James and John showed up when I was speaking with a few neighbours outside the house. They untied the colt. Folks asked them what they were doing and they provided the password answer—exactly as Jesus had planned it all. The neighbours who were with me then realised that I had been telling the truth. So, all of us followed along with James and John, because we love parades and this one was very special. Jesus our Messiah entered triumphantly, riding on a colt donkey with the crowd cheering him on, crying, “Hosanna!” which means “save us, save us soon.” Hosanna is a shout of praise, as well as a plea for help. We praised our Messiah Jesus, shared fully in the joy, waving our palm branches as he rode that little donkey, the animal symbolizing humility and peace—and that day shall come when he rules us all in perfect peace.

Well, that’s my story folks. You can time travel back now to Grace Lutheran Church in Medicine Hat. Go in Christ’s peace. And, like me, tell everyone you meet the Good News of Jesus our Messiah. Shalom! Amen.

 

Sermon 5 Lent Yr B

5 Lent Yr B, 29/03/2009

Heb 5:5-10

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“Jesus’ obedience and suffering and ours”

 

The Letter to the Hebrews is a mysterious and bit strange. We don’t know for certain who wrote it, a few scholars have even speculated that it was written by a woman. Another thing mysterious and strange about it is that it’s called a letter, yet when we read carefully and analyse it’s genre, we discover that in content and mood, Hebrews is closer to a theological treatise or sermon or series of sermons than it is a letter. What the author sets out to do is make the point that Jesus, his sacrifice, and the new covenant is better than the old covenant, the Levitical priesthood and its sacrificial system. Another concern the writer addresses, quite bluntly, is that of a growing inertia within the faith community to whom he or she is writing. The faith community most likely consisted primarily of Jewish Christians because of the author’s familiarity with and frequent references to the Hebrew Bible. We cannot be certain of the exact situation in the faith community. However, it seems there are two compelling possibilities. The faith community is under persecution and is tempted to give up the Christian faith because they may falsely believe that it should prevent them from facing such sufferings. Or the faith community is feeling hurt and rejected by their families after they became Christians and this is tempting them to give up on Christ and their new faith and return to their Jewish faith.

In today’s second lesson, the writer focuses on Christ’s high priesthood. The author emphasises a couple of things: that Christ was chosen by God to be a high priest and it is a permanent-eternal high priesthood according to the order of Melchizedek. The writer quotes two Psalms, 2:7 and 110:4, to underscore Christ’s high priesthood. Both Psalms are interpreted to refer to the Messiah and emphasise the divine, permanent nature of Christ’s high priesthood.

The author does not stop with Christ’s divinity. Christ’s humanity is also very important. The writer says: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” The author, although not specific, likely is remembering the Gospel accounts that record those times when Jesus wept over Jerusalem, wept over Lazarus’ death, and prayed with much agony in Gethsemane asking his heavenly Father to remove the cup of suffering from him. In Gethsemane, even though Jesus prayed, it is not true that God saved him from death, nor was his prayer heard to remove the cup of suffering from him. The author may have in mind here God giving Christ the strength to endure his suffering and death on the cross and God’s power at work through Christ’s resurrection, which vindicated his suffering and death.

This makes sense in light of what the writer says in verses eight and nine: “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” In the human life of Jesus, we discover that obedience is learned from his suffering. The more Jesus suffers, the more he turns to his heavenly Father for help and guidance. In Gethsemane he prays: “not what I want but what you want,” accepting the suffering and agonizing death on the cross that he is about to face. The writer of Hebrews wants to encourage his or her faith community in their sufferings, so learning obedience from suffering is the example of Christ that the community of faith can draw on. The community of faith can, like Jesus, learn obedience from their sufferings. We too can learn obedience from our sufferings.

Here is the story of one Christian, who learned obedience from his suffering, and we, like countless others are still inspired by his life and work as a faithful follower of Christ.

After various moves and prominent jobs, [classical composer Johann Sebastian Bach] finally settled down in Leipzig in 1723, where he remained for the rest of his life….Bach’s stay in Leipzig, as musical director and choirmaster of Saint Thomas’s church and school, wasn’t always happy. He squabbled continually with the town council, and neither the council nor the populace appreciated his musical genius. They said he was a stuffy old man who clung stubbornly to obsolete forms of music. Consequently, they paid him a miserable salary, and when he died even contrived to defraud his widow of her meager inheritance.

Ironically, in this setting Bach wrote his most enduring music. For a time he wrote a cantata each week (today, a composer who writes a cantata a year is highly praised), 202 of which survive. Most conclude with a chorale based on a simple Lutheran hymn, and the music is at all times closely bound to biblical texts. Among these works are the “Ascension Cantata” and the “Christmas Oratorio.”

In Leipzig he also composed his epic “Mass in B Minor,” “The Passion of St. John,” and “The Passion of St. Matthew”–all for use as worship services. The latter piece has sometimes been called “the supreme cultural achievement of all Western civilization,” and even the radical skeptic Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) admitted upon hearing it, “One who has completely forgotten Christianity truly hears it here as gospel.”

After Bach’s death, people seemed glad to wipe their ears of his music. He was remembered less as a composer than as an organist and harpsichordist. Some of his music was sold, and some was reportedly used to wrap garbage. For the next 80 years his music was neglected by the public, although a few musicians (Mozart and Beethoven, for example) admired it. Not until 1829, when German composer Felix Mendelssohn arranged a performance of “The Passion of St. Matthew,” did a larger audience appreciate Bach the composer.1

In the midst of Bach’s suffering and hardships, he learned obedience. Before he started his compositions, Bach would pray: “Jesus help me,” and at the end of his compositions he would write the letters: “SDG,” shorthand for the Latin words Soli Deo Gloria, “to God alone be the glory.” Christ’s learning of obedience through his suffering inspired Bach to learn obedience through his suffering too by trusting in his suffering Saviour for inspiration to compose his beautiful musical works.

I know the same is true for me in my life too. In times of suffering I have learned how important it is to be obedient to Christ. Thanks to him, I have overcome those times of suffering. I’m sure you too have stories you can tell about how Christ his helped you and been with you so that you too have learned to be obedient to Christ and overcome your times of suffering.

In today’s world, the words obey and obedience are not very popular. I know, as some feminist theologians have correctly pointed out, that the reason for the negative press is how obey and obedience were employed by men in the past to justify the abuse, misuse and control over women and children. As people of faith we need to acknowledge the truth of this observation by the feminist theologians and repent of the sins committed under the pretext of obey and obedience in the biblical sense. However, this does not necessarily mean that we must drop the words obey and obedience from our vocabulary. Rather, it is our task to rediscover the positive and hopeful biblical meanings of these words. In the biblical sense of obey and obedience, we emphasise accepting the will and authority of God and Christ over us as we endeavour to live a life of faith by loving God and loving neighbour. In a positive, hopeful way, the apostle Paul spoke of sufferings teaching us obedience insofar as “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Rom 5:3-5) And he later goes on to say in chapter five that thanks to Christ’s perfect obedience to God, all people of faith are made righteous.

So during this season of Lent, we live under the shadow of Christ’s cross, which is the epitome of God’s saving love for us through perfect obedience. A perfect obedience that completes and brings to full maturity the love of God for us today and forever. Amen.

 

 

1 Cited from: Perfect Illustrations For Every Topic And Occasion (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2002), pp. 262-263.

 

 

Sermon 4 Lent Yr B

4 Lent Yr B, 22/03/2009

Jn 3:14-21

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“Whoever believes in Jesus”

 

The man who was bishop of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris during the early part of the last century, was a great evangelizer. He tried to reach out to unbelievers, scoffers, and cynics. He liked to tell the story of a young man who would stand outside the cathedral and shout derogatory slogans at the people entering to worship. He would call them fools and all kinds of names. The people tried to ignore him but it was difficult.

One day the parish priest went outside to confront the young man, much to the distress of the parishioners. The young man ranted and raved against everything the priest told him. Finally, he addressed the young scoffer by saying, “Look, let’s get this over with once and for all. I’m going to dare you to do something and I bet you can’t do it.” And of course the young man shot back, “I can do anything you propose, you white-robed wimp!”

“Fine,” said the priest. “All I ask you to do is to come into the sanctuary with me. I want you to stare at the figure of Christ, and I want you to scream at the very top of your lungs, as loudly as you can, ‘Christ died on the cross for me and I don’t care one bit.’”

So the young man went into the sanctuary, and screamed as loud as he could, looking at the figure, “Christ died on the cross for me and I don’t care one bit.” The priest said, “Very good. Now do it again.” And again the young man screamed, with a little more hesitancy, “Christ died on the cross for me and I don’t care one bit.” You’re almost done now,” said the priest. “One more time.”

The young man raised his fist, kept looking at the statue, but the words wouldn’t come. He just could not look at the face of Christ and say that any more.

The real punch line came when, after he told the story, the bishop said, “I was that young man. That young man, that defiant young man was me. I thought I didn’t need God, but found out that I did.”1

You, like the young man who became bishop, may have a similar story concerning your crisis of doubt and belief in Christ. What I find interesting in this story is the irresistible drawing power of believing in Christ on the cross.

Having faith in God, believing in Christ, trusting the Holy Spirit—that’s a central theme in our gospel today. I don’t know if you noticed it or were even counting, but the words believe, believes, and believed occur five times. In this conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus emphasises the importance of believing in him as the “lifted up” Saviour of the world. The Gospel of John is very fond of the word believe, it appears over one hundred times. Of course, there are many different ways that we employ the word believe. The word believe has many different meanings. What did it mean for the gospel writer John who was so fond of this word? What does it mean for us today?

I like the following way that a medical doctor speaks of beliefs: A label is a mask life wears.

We put labels on life all the time. “Right,” “wrong,” “success,” “failure,” “lucky,” “unlucky,” may be as limiting a way of seeing things as “diabetic,” “epileptic,” “manic-depressive,” or even “invalid.” Labelling sets up an expectation of life that is often so compelling we can no longer see things as they really are. This expectation often gives us a false sense of familiarity toward something that is really new and unprecedented. We are in relationship with our expectations and not with life itself.

Which brings up the idea that we may become as wounded by the way in which we see an illness as by the illness itself. Belief traps or frees us. Labels may become self-fulfilling prophecies. Studies of voodoo death suggest that in certain circumstances belief may even kill.

We may need to take our labels and even our experts far more lightly. Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen tells the story of a gentlemen who was diagnosed with cancer. He did not deny that he had cancer. He had just taken the same attitude toward his physician’s prognosis that he took toward the words of the government soil experts who analyzed his fields. As they were educated men, he respected them and listened carefully as they showed him the findings of their tests and told him that the corn would not grow in this field. He valued their opinions. But, he said, “A lot of time the corn grows anyway.”

In my experience, a diagnosis is an opinion and not a prediction. What would it be like if more people allowed for the presence of the unknown, and accepted the words of their medical experts in this same way? The diagnosis is cancer. What that will mean remains to be seen.

Like a diagnosis, a label is an attempt to assert control and manage uncertainty. It may allow us the security and comfort of a mental closure and encourage us not to think about things again. But life never comes to a closure, life is process, even mystery. Life is known only by those who have found a way to be comfortable with change and the unknown. Given the nature of life, there may be no security, but only adventure.2

As followers of Jesus, believing in him involves being open to change and the unknown. Our life with Jesus may not be secure by worldly standards. Believing in Jesus means living life as one adventure after another—not necessarily knowing for certain what the future holds. We do however know who holds the future and whom we are adventuring with—Jesus, the Saviour who is lifted up and who draws us to himself through his being lifted up onto the cross and three days later being lifted up on the day of resurrection.

So, looking back at today’s gospel again, here’s what it means for us to believe, to trust in Jesus as the lifted up Saviour, we: “may have eternal life; may not perish but may have eternal life. Those who believe in him are not condemned.”

Now the act of believing, the act of trusting in Jesus more than anyone or anything in life is also a gift given to us from God. We cannot do this by ourselves. We cannot save ourselves. God in Christ, through the work of the Holy Spirit, the word and the sacraments, the death and resurrection of Jesus save us. We believe this is true only because God gives us the gift of belief. Now that we’ve been given this gift of believing in Jesus we respond first by praising and thanking him for the gift; then by serving him with our lives.

As we celebrate the gift of believing in Jesus; in thanking, praising and serving him with our lives; we discover that what the gospel writer meant by eternal life is a life that begins right now. Eternal life in the Fourth Gospel does not only mean life after death; life in the world to come; heaven. No, eternal life in this Gospel means life right now. Life right now in all of its richness. Eternal life means we live under the power and influence of faith, hope and love; the greatest gifts of the Holy Spirit. Faith means we believe in Jesus more than anyone or anything else in life. Hope means our future is not our own. Rather, we place our lives in Christ’s hands who holds and determines the future. Love means that we can take risks to care for others in unselfish ways the same way Jesus did in his public ministry. He is our perfect example of how we can love one another. The words of one of my favourite Lenten hymns comes to mind: “Love to the loveless shown, That they might lovely be.”3 We don’t deserve Christ’s love, yet he loves us unconditionally and makes us “lovely” in God’s eyes, thanks to his death on the cross. We may think that our neighbour doesn’t deserve our love, yet Christ calls us to follow his example and love our neighbour unconditionally; and in so doing they too “might lovely be.” Love is an adventure in living for Jesus and for others; giving of ourselves sacrificially. In so doing we discover how Christ’s being lifted up saves us and our neighbour as our believing, our faith is active, becomes real in love. Amen.

 

1 Wm. J. Bausch, A World Of Stories for Preachers and Teachers and all who love stories that move and challenge (New London, CT: Twenty-Third Publications & Blackrock, Co Dublin: The Columba Press, Eighth Printing, 2007), pp. 244-245.

2 Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D., Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996), pp. 66-67.

3 Hymn #94, in LBW, “My Song Is Love Unknown,” by Samuel Crossman.

 

 

Sermon 1 Lent Yr B

1 Lent Yr B, 1/03/2009

I Pet 3:18

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“Confessing our faith”

 

I don’t know about you, but when I hear the words of today’s second lesson, I think that this is an early creed. The words remind me a lot of our Apostles’ Creed. Originally, these words, confessing the faith of the early Church, may have been used in public worship; and, in particular, at baptisms. As we consider today’s second lesson, we may find helpful the following question: What is the purpose of a creed?

Well, I think in part, that a creed is born out of the context of the need to clarify our Christian faith. A creed is necessary to confess our Christian faith over against misconceptions and false teachings. In every age, including our own, there have been no shortages of false and even harmful teachings, beliefs and practices—so our creeds address such concerns by communicating clear statements of faith. Our creeds also serve as a unifying force and witness when facing persecution. Many a faithful Christian and Jew has died a martyr’s death with the creedal-confessional words of faith on their lips. People witnessing such deaths have been deeply touched and they have turned to God.

If this is true, then what is it about such confessions of faith that turn people to God? Well, I believe that it is the work of the Holy Spirit, combined with the content, the message of these creedal-confessional words, along with those willing to die for such beliefs that draw people to God.

So, if that is the case, then let’s unpack the words of verse 18 in particular of this second lesson a little now, because they affirm our present season of Lent, when we focus on the meaning of Christ’s suffering and death on the cross. In verse 18, we read: “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.”

The words, “For Christ also suffered for sins,” highlight the truth that Jesus was a human being and so he suffered like every other human being. However, the words “for sins” indicate that his suffering on the cross was not due to him being a sinner or sinning. Rather, it is a reference to Jesus’ willingness to suffer on the cross for the sins of humankind.

The next three words, “once for all,” lift up the point that Jesus made the perfect sacrifice of atonement for our sins. He did not have to repeat it over and over again, since he was perfect, without sin, and satisfied God’s requirements for the atonement of humankind’s sins. Other sacrifices atoning for sins were imperfect because they were offered by imperfect, sinful humans and only lasted for a certain time, and applied to a very limited group of people, usually for only specific sins—unlike Jesus’ sacrifice of atonement. Jesus’ “once for all” sacrifice of atonement was perfect, covered all times and places, and applies to all people for all sins. In other words, we’re completely covered, thanks to Jesus!

The words, “for all,” indicate that Jesus’ sacrifice is intended for all people, everyone, at all times and places, including us—you and me here today. The words, “the righteous for the unrighteous,” have often been interpreted by biblical scholars and theologians to refer to what is called the “substitutionary” theory or doctrine of atonement. We, being guilty before God for our sins, deserve to be punished for them. However, God in his love and mercy sent Jesus, his own Son, to be our substitute, to take the punishment that we deserve for our sins.

The apostle Paul made this point most clear more than any other New Testament author, when he wrote in Romans 5:8: “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Martin Luther, picking up on this biblical truth, also provided a corrective in his day, by emphasising that it is precisely when we are farthest away from Christ that he comes close to us and claims us as his own—over against the medieval theology of good works that falsely taught only when you reached your highest good deed would Christ reward you with his grace. Luther rightly said that we can never know for sure when we’ve reached our highest good deed, since we are always at one and the same time saints and sinners. Our motives shall always be tainted and mixed, never without sin—hence we need to stand under the cross of Christ and trust in his saving grace through his sacrifice of atonement and be forgiven.

Mary Ann Bird is a short story writer. She wrote a short story about her own life titled “The Whispering Test.” She said she grew up knowing that she was different and she hated it. She told how she was born with a cleft palate, and when she started school her classmates made it clear to her how she looked to others. She was a little girl with a misshapen lip, crooked nose, lopsided teeth, and garbled speech. When schoolmates would ask, “What happened to your lip?” she would tell them that she had fallen and cut it on a piece of glass. She said, “Somehow it seemed more acceptable to have suffered an accident than to have been born different. I was convinced that no one outside of my family could love me.” There was a teacher in the second grade whom she adored. Mrs. Leonard was a short, round, happy, and sparkling lady. Annually in her class she would conduct a hearing test which she gave to every student. Students would go to the wall and cover one ear and listen for her to whisper a sentence, and the student would have to repeat it back to her. The teacher would say such sentences as, “The sky is blue,” or “Do you have new shoes?” Mary Ann said she went to the far wall and waited for those words that God must have put in her teacher’s mouth. Mrs. Leonard whispered to her, “I wish you were my little girl.” She said that those seven words changed her life.

You do not need to worry whether you are acceptable to God or not. Regardless of what, who, where you are — God has already made that choice.1 In response, we are called to share the message of Christ’s saving power.

So, with Peter and Paul; with all the company of sinner-saints down through the ages and even today; let us stand firm in our confession of faith; bearing witness to the world and all of its peoples who need a Saviour as much today as ever. In the following creedal-confessional words, let us reassure every troubled soul: “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” Amen.

 

1 Cited from: <sermonsuite.com>.