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The Battle between Two Kingdoms July 15, 2012

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Mark 6:14-29

Proper 10

July 14-15, 2012

Focus: God has restored His kingdom among us.

Function: That the hearers live out their lives as a part of the Kingdom of God.

Structure: This is the historical situation in the text…these are the meanings for us now.

 

The Battle between Two Kingdoms

            Growing up, my first job was working at a Subway restaurant back in high school.  And my official job title: Sandwich Artist.  This was before Quizno’s and their toasted subs caught on or Jimmy John’s freaky fast delivery.  Subway was the go-to sandwich place, and we were hoppin’.  The line was always out the door for lunch and dinner.  Sandwiches are quick, simple meals, with plenty of variety.  You’ve got the standard ham and cheese to something stranger like peanut butter and banana.

You may not have realized it, but the Apostle Mark liked his sandwiches, too.  Alright, so it’s a different kind of sandwich.  We saw an example two weekends ago, when he sandwiched the bleeding woman in between the account of Jesus healing Jairus’ daughter.  And we see it again today.  Our gospel lesson is the meat, cheese, and veggies in between.  Or better it’s the liverwurst, because it grosses everyone out.

Last week, we read through Mark’s account of Jesus sending out the twelve.  And next week, we’ll see them return.  So that’s our sandwich.  It’s a literary technique that Mark employs multiple times in his gospel, one that critics seem to miss when they argue that Mark wasn’t a good writer.

So what’s he doing?  Where’s he going with this sandwich?  It’s all tied in to one of his key themes throughout his gospel.  It’s about spiritual warfare.  It’s the battle between two kingdoms.  It pits the kingdom of God up against the kingdom of Satan.

When I preached on Mark’s gospel last week, I tried to pick up on the kingdom concept.  You could summarize that sermon’s central focus into this:  Jesus Christ came into this world to bring the kingdom of God, or to restore the kingdom of God.  But I took the kingdom for granted, and didn’t really explain what that meant or looks like.  Thankfully, someone asked me about it after church, and thankfully Mark gives me another chance.

Six-thousand years ago, God chose to create.  He decided to design a universe and to fill it with planets and stars and all kinds of wonders.  And on one of those planets, He decided to create life.  We see not just water and trees around us, but animals and people.  God created Adam and Eve and placed them in the Garden.  Creation was wonderful, awesome, perfect.  It was very good.  God created it, He cared for it, and it was His kingdom.  He was God, He was king.  Everyone and everything looked to Him.  Adam and Eve could talk to Him, ask Him anything they wanted.  It was indeed very good.

But it didn’t last.  Some six-thousand years ago, a fallen angel, who tried to fight God in the heavens, tried to become god, decided to bring that battle to us.  We were on God’s side after all, we were enemies of Satan.  So he came, he attacked.  Satan tempted Adam and Eve to not believe what God had told them, to not respect God’s authority.  And when they took that first bite, everything changed.  God’s kingdom was corrupted, damaged goods.

Satan may well have thought that he had won, that he had beaten God, or at least dealt a strong blow.  He became known as the prince of this world.  Together with his fellow fallen angels, we know as demons, Satan torments this world.  He’s been up to no good for the last six-thousand years.

God had choices of how to respond.  Choices that included wiping out creation and starting over.  But He chose instead to fight.  He chose to continue to care for this creation.  He chose instead to reclaim it.

That’s Jesus’ mission.  He came to restore the rule of God over His creation.  To restore things to the way they once were.  To crush Satan and give back all authority to the one true God.  And we are part of this plan.  Humans, from the very beginning, are the crown of God’s creative work.  And God has continued to care for us.  He has continued to call us His people.  And He has done it through His Son.

So what does the kingdom of God look like?  What did Jesus sacrifice to give?  The kingdom includes any and everywhere the gospel is preached, the good news of God’s love and salvation is shared.  It includes any place that comes together in Word and sacrament, trusting in God’s promises.  It includes as we see in the book of Acts, the early church, and even now, the building of a community, the building of a church.  God’s holy people, whom He loves.

This is what Mark writes about.  This is what our sandwich is about.  We see Jesus give His authority to His disciples, the authority to cast out demons and heal the sick.  Things normal people can’t do.  And then He sends them out.  He sends them out and they preach the gospel.  They preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins.  And they cast out demons and heal the sick.  And then they return from their journey, report the success to Jesus, and He leads them to a quiet place so they can rest and recover.

It’s the in-breaking, the breaking in, of the kingdom of God.  The Word being preached; people hearing and believing; and Satan getting scared.  His demons are being cast out.  His temptations and crippling diseases are being thwarted.  He’s scared that he’s starting to lose his touch; afraid that he’s losing ground in this war.  And so he lashes back.  He digs in his heels and keeps fighting.

King Herod, not a believer in Jesus, hears of these disciples and the things they were doing.  Herod’s scared, that’s the message of this text.  He doesn’t understand the things of God, he doesn’t understand who Jesus is.  He thinks that Jesus is John the Baptist.  And this scares him all the more, because he killed John.  So we get the account of a weak and pathetic king who couldn’t even stand up for himself, but bowed to the wishes of a child.

Herod feared John the Baptist.  He feared that he really was a prophet of God.  For an unknown amount of time, Herod defended John, kept him alive. In prison, but alive.  For Herod’s wife, Herodias, wanted John dead.  You heard the account.  A little girl gets King Herod to make a stupid promise.  A promise peer pressure forces him to keep.  And so he does what she asks, he kills the man he fears.  And now his nightmares are coming true, he thinks John’s back!

As a king, as part of the kingdom of Satan, Herod wanted power, just like so many today.  Power motivated his life.  John threatened that power.  And this Jesus, also a threat.  There will be attempts on Christ’s life.  Satan and Herod aren’t going down without a fight.

This is the message we see in Mark’s gospel.  The message that there is a war being fought.  The question from our worldly point of view, and the view of people in Mark’s day, is this: is God still at work?  Is He still fighting, or has He been defeated?  And that’s what Mark ultimately is answering in his gospel writing.  God is not defeated, instead the fight goes on.  Even though John the Baptist was imprisoned for speaking against Herod and Herodias’ corrupt marriage, he kept preaching.  He kept fighting.  And oddly enough, Herod was listening, which is why Herodias had John killed.  She feared Herod might truly listen and believe.  That he’d repent, divorce her, and she’d lose all her power as queen.  John kept fighting until he died.

The same goes for Christ.  Satan constantly attacked Him, constantly tried to undermine His ministry and put an end to it all.  But Christ kept pushing forward.  He kept preaching and teaching.  He continued to form disciples who would carry on the preaching of the gospel, who would carry on the fight.  Christ’s ministry still reached its goal.  His death served as the ultimate in victory.  Because in His death, the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are offered to all mankind.  Satan loses everything.  It’s a strange victory cry, to celebrate a death.  But without death, Christ would not have conquered death.  Without dying, He couldn’t have been raised.  But He has conquered death; He has been raised from the grave.  And because Christ lives, we live.  Christ is risen!  (He is risen indeed, alleluia!) That is our battle cry.  We are part of God’s kingdom.

This all applies to us still today.  This life is tough.  We suffer, we bleed, we hurt, and unless Christ returns first, we die.  Things don’t go well all the time; the ball doesn’t always bounce our way.  We spend time in the hospital, get sick, disasters happen, unforeseen events empty our bank accounts.  People ask how a good God can let bad things happen to good people, how can a good God let suffering and evil exist.  But the question is flawed.  We’re not inherently good people.  We’re sinners.  God doesn’t simply let everything happen as though He doesn’t care.  We chose to live this way.  We chose sin as far back as six thousand years ago.  And mankind still chooses sin today.  Bad things happen; but it’s not God’s fault.  It’s all a result of sin; it’s all a result of Satan fighting against us.

In all of this, Mark offers great comfort.  We see it with John, that he keeps going until the end.  But we see it all the more in Christ.  Jesus kept fighting, God keeps fighting.  No matter what obstacles were in Jesus’ way, he pushed forward.  He achieved the goal of His mission.  He brought the kingdom of God.  And He brought it to you and me.  Through baptism, we are children of God.  We go from being His enemies, to being His beloved children.  We switch sides, from Satan’s kingdom, to God’s.  And we can rest assured through all the hardships in our lives that everything is still moving toward God’s goal, His outcome.  Through Jesus Christ, we will be saved.  We will live in Him.

In a sense, Mark’s gospel leaves the spiritual war going on.  The battle still raging.  And that’s fitting, because the battle between two kingdoms is still being fought.  We are part of that fight each and every day.  But I also know there are a few of you out there who like to spoil a good book by flipping to the end and reading the last page or chapter.  If you flip to the end of God’s true and holy Word, it doesn’t spoil it.  Revelation provides all the comfort we need.  Because it tells us how everything ends.  And God wins.

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Hometown Preaching July 8, 2012

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Mark 6:1-13

Proper 9

July 7-8, 2012

Focus: God brought about His kingdom through His Son.

Function: That the hearers take down any obstacles to their faith.

Structure: .

Hometown Preaching

            We all have things that make us uncomfortable.  Sometimes, we can weasel our way out of doing them, but other times you just have to confront them head on.  One of the things I imagine would make me uncomfortable involves preaching.  I’ve certainly enjoyed my time with you here at Immanuel, and I believe that my skills in the pulpit are better now than when I first started, but public speaking still isn’t my strong suit.  It’s still a bit nerve-wracking for me.

Right now, the idea of being invited to preach at my home congregation feels uncomfortable.  And who knows, maybe it wouldn’t actually be.  But the idea of getting up in front of the people who watched you grow up, who know all about the stupid things you did and said when you were little, I just think it would be difficult for me.  I’d be nervous, wondering what they were thinking about me.

I’m not the only one in that boat.  I read online this week about a preacher reflecting on his past.  When he graduated from the seminary, his home congregation invited him to preach there before he headed off to his first call.  He was nervous about it, and spent days preparing his sermon, trying to really make it perfect.

Sunday finally came, and he stepped into the pulpit.  He looked out into the crowd filled with old friends, mentors, acquaintances and relatives.  And he began to preach.  Not long after he started, he noticed his little six-year old niece get up out of her pew and walk into the aisle.  Before anyone had the chance to stop her, she shouted out, “Uncle Michael, you don’t know what you’re talking about!”

Embarrassment.  Awkwardness.  Feeling like you just want to hide under a rock for awhile.  We all have moments like these in our lives at some point or another.  For Uncle Michael and myself, these feelings come from what we think the people remember about us.

But this wasn’t the case for Jesus.  He, too, struggled with hometown preaching.  But for Him, there weren’t any of these bad moments to look back on.  Nobody could recall when He was mean to His sibling, or when He hurt another boy at school, or any of those awkward moments of puberty.  Those things never happened.  Was He a kid? Sure.  And yeah, He probably went through puberty.  But the plague of sin never impacted Him.  He had no childhood memories to be afraid of.

And yet, we learn from Mark, hometown preaching failed for Him, too.  In the context of Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ return to Nazareth is paired together with our gospel from last week, the end of chapter five.  Mark is setting up a contrast between people like Jairus and the bleeding woman over against the people of Jesus’ hometown.

In chapter five, Jesus does His thing, He comes preaching, teaching, and healing, and the people listen.  Jairus, a synagogue ruler, a man high in religious rank, believed in Jesus, and knew that He could make his little girl healthy again.  Even after his friends came and told him that his daughter had died, he didn’t give up.  Jesus encouraged him, “Do not fear, only believe.”  Jairus kept believing.  Together with Jesus, he rushed back to his daughter’s side.

The story is much the same with the bleeding woman.  It seemed hopeless.  Twelve years she’d suffered from bleeding.  Doctors couldn’t help her, and she’d gone broke trying.   But when she saw Jesus, she believed.  “If I touch even His garments, I will be made well.”  She forced her way through the crowd and got close enough that she could reach out her hand and just touch his cloak.  Immediately, the bleeding was over.  Jesus looked at her and said, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

God sent His Son Jesus Christ into this world.  And from the very beginning of His life, we see glimpses of who He is and why He came.  But as soon as His ministry began, we get it full blast.  Jesus came preaching and teaching that the kingdom of God has indeed come.  He preached “Repent” and He forgave sins.  He healed the sick and cast out demons.  He called disciples, and they followed Him.  Faith was the response.  Jesus proclaimed God’s kingdom, and God’s people listened.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t always the result.  And that’s why Mark makes the contrast.  He needs to show the opposite in his gospel as a warning to everyone who hears it.  Jesus went to His hometown, to the region of Nazareth to proclaim that God’s kingdom has come.  He came, just as He did elsewhere, preaching and teaching.  But the result was different.

The people heard the words He preached, and they saw the wonders He did.  “Where did this Man get these things? What’s this wisdom that has been given Him? What are these remarkable miracles He is performing?”  They even recognized Jesus.  “Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph,Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” But they didn’t believe.

He’s just the boy we saw grow up.  He may have been a good kid, but what’s with all this?  We know His family; none of them are any different than the rest of us.  Where does He get off saying these things?  What’s He gotten Himself mixed up with that He can do some of these things?

The people of Nazareth refused Jesus and His message.  They blinded themselves with their own idea of how things work.  But that doesn’t make it the reality.  Just because they didn’t believe the kingdom of God has come, doesn’t mean Jesus didn’t bring it.

For centuries people believed that Aristotle was right when he said that the heavier an object is, the faster it would fall to the earth. After all, Aristotle was regarded as the greatest thinker of his time, so surely he couldn’t be wrong.

Anyone, at any time, could have taken two objects, one heavy and one light, and dropped them from high up to see whether or not the heavier object landed first. But no one did until nearly 2,000 years after Aristotle’s death. In 1589, Galileo summoned learned professors to the base of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Then he went to the top and pushed off a ten-pound and a one-pound weight. Both landed at the same instant. The power of belief was so strong, however, that the professors denied their eyesight. They continued to say Aristotle was right.

Just because the people of Nazareth, of Jesus’ hometown, had one view of who He was and how the world worked, didn’t make it right.  Even in spite of their belief, Jesus still brings the reign of God.  You can’t stop Jesus, you can’t stop God.  Not by unbelief, not by brute force, and not by nailing Him to a cross.  Jesus came with a mission, the mission of bringing the kingdom of God into this world once again, crushing the rule of Satan.  The time of sin and evil is out, and God’s power and mercy is in.

The kingdom of God comes no matter what.  We say it together every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer.  “Thy kingdom come.”  But as Martin Luther described it, we’re not asking that God’s kingdom would come, that’s already happened and is still happening.  Instead we pray that like Jairus and the woman, His kingdom may come about in us.  That we, unlike Jesus’ hometown, might believe and be a part of His kingdom and His family.

Mark, in this text, encourages us to stop being like the Nazarenes.  He encourages us to take off the blinders, to stop putting things in the way of listening to Jesus and seeing Him for who He really is.  Essentially, to stop doubting and believe.  Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, has indeed brought about the kingdom of God among us.  We then, are forgiven, free from sin, and children of God.  And in this way, like Jairus, we simply believe.

Yahweh’s Covenant Faithfulness July 1, 2012

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Lamentations 3.22-33

Proper 8

June 30-July 1, 2012

Focus: God is faithful to His covenant.

Function: That the hearers place their hope in Yahweh.

Structure: This is the historical situation in the text…these are the meanings for us now.

Yahweh’s Covenant Faithfulness

Have you ever felt like your life was unlucky, or that you had run into a string of bad events? No matter what, the human spirit can be an amazing thing. Take for example the case of Larry Hanratty, who was named by the Los Angeles Times in 2007 as the most unlucky man in California.

This poor man was nearly killed in a construction site accident. For weeks he lay in a coma with his lawyers fighting for his liability claim — until one of his lawyers was disbarred, two of them died suddenly and his last lawyer ran off with his wife!

Then after his recovery in June, he was in a terrible car accident and before the police arrived on the scene, he was robbed of $55. On July 4th, his insurance company tried to stop his worker’s comp claim; he came within 2 days of being evicted from his home. By the end of July of 2007, he was suffering from lupus and the start of a lung condition that required him to carry a canister of oxygen with him; Larry was taking 42 pills a day for his heart condition and his liver ailments.

Finally the City Council came to his aid and then his friends rallied around him. After all that had happened to Larry that year, he said to the Mayor of Whittier, “There’s always hope”!  Even though he was stricken in one year with very bad circumstances, that never stopped him from doing what he did best. You see he was a Deacon in his church and was constantly helping others in their time of need. Everywhere he went in his town he was known as “HOPE” because he always told everyone… “There’s always hope.”

We won’t be talking about luck today.  Instead, we are focusing on men like Job.  Men who suffered so much in their days in this world.  Larry fits that bill.  And yet, like Job, he kept his eyes focused on the bigger picture.  He continued to believe that there is hope; he continued to believe in a faithful God who sent His Son to die for us.

The prophet Jeremiah, in this way, had much to share with Larry.  Jeremiah was called upon by God Himself to be a prophet, to be God’s mouthpiece to His people.  And while Jeremiah had his good days, much of his service was filled with the groanings of a faithless people.

As God’s children, they were to follow Him.  They were to believe in Yahweh and be His people.  But so often they went astray.  In fact, there were large periods in their history that they didn’t even remember who Yahweh was, let alone follow Him.  To this, Jeremiah prophesied.  It was his role to warn them of the errors of their ways.  To warn them that everything they knew and held dear was coming to an end.

That doesn’t mean Jeremiah delighted in his work.  The book of Lamentations is Jeremiah’s groaning.  In the course of the five chapters, he composed four poems and a conclusion.  They may not look like much in English, but in the Hebrew language, they were strong.  Chapters 1, 2 and 4 are each 22 verses, the first verse beginning with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and continuing until the final, 22nd letter.  And chapter three contains three verses for each letter, for a total of 66.

Jeremiah’s poems weren’t happy or mushy; they weren’t written in joy or in love; they were sorrowful, poems of mourning and loss.  The writings of a man in grief.  Jeremiah had lived and seen the sinful glory of a prideful people, much like the kinds of happiness and lifestyles we see in our own culture today.

And then he watched it all get destroyed.  Villages and cities toppled.  The holy ground of God Himself, the temple in Jerusalem, lost to savages.  People dying from murder and sickness alike.  I’ll refrain from details, as there are many other things going on that would make for an R rating, or worse.  And yes, that’s in the Bible.

But as is good Jeremiahan prophecy, right in the midst of all the gloom and doom, he puts a ray of light.  If we start our Old Testament lesson one verse earlier, with verse 21, we read: “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:” Jeremiah proclaims hope for the people.  Hope, as in the words of our text today.  It’s probably not a coincidence either that this is the only snippet of Lamentations that we use in our worship services throughout the year.

Hebrew grammar works differently than English.  The typical, normal order of a sentence has the verb first, then the subject, and then the object or predicate.  If the word order is changed in any way from that formula, the writer is emphasizing something.  Here, the very first word of verse 22, the first word following that hope, is ds,x, (hesed).  This word is translated any number of ways in English, and in fact shows up twice in this reading.  In verse 22 it’s “great love.”  In verse 32 it’s “unfailing love.”  Other definitions can include steadfast love, mercy, and grace.  But my favorite of them all is “covenant faithfulness.”

Unless you’re a visitor, you’ve likely heard me talking about God’s covenant before.  He came to Abraham and made the covenant with him and his descendants after him.  A covenant that He would be their God and they would be His people.  A covenant that included the blessing of all nations through His seed.  It included the rescuing of his offspring, the nation of Israel, from 400 years of bondage.  It included the promise of land that the Israelites would indeed possess.

But perhaps even greater than all these things about the covenant is how it was made.  Covenants were blood pacts.  Animals were sacrificed, cut in half and laid out so that the makers of the covenant could walk between them, signally their approval and ratification of the covenant.  Because a covenant is made in blood, if it is broken, bloodshed is the result.

Now I say that this covenant is greater because God alone did it.  He walked through the blood of the sacrifices, but Abram did not.  So the covenant is truly God’s covenant for us.  He is our God and He has made us His people.

So translating ds,x, (hesed) as covenant faithfulness brings out a much deeper meaning.  When you view it as God’s covenant faithfulness, it actually defines what you mean when you say love.  There is no greater depiction of God’s love for us than that He kept the covenant.  Because of Yahweh’s covenant faithfulness, we’re not consumed or destroyed.  Despite all our sin, despite our breaking the covenant bond, He is faithful and His compassions never fail.

Because God is faithful, He is our portion, and we can hope in Him.  For we hope and wait for the One who gives salvation, and that One is Yahweh, through His faithfulness, through His Son.

Though He brings grief, whether by the deserved punishment and consequences of our sin, or by allowing evil and sin to remain for the time being, God will show compassion, for so great is His covenant faithfulness.

God is forever faithful to His covenant that He made to us, for us, and with us, that He would be our God, and we would be His people.  Throughout the ages of man, through the plagues of our sin, God remained faithful, He remained our God, and we His people, when He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, into this world.  Jesus is the fulfillment of the covenant.  He is the seed of Abraham through whom all of the nations of this world are blessed.  He is the One whose death grants us forgiveness, and as we are forgiven, we are restored to our God and Father, Yahweh.  So it is that through Christ, through Yahweh’s covenant faithfulness, we can join together with the prophet Jeremiah, with Job, with unlucky Larry, and all the rest of God’s people, in placing our hope in Yahweh and the salvation that He gives through His faithfulness and through His Son.