Friday, April 3, 2009

Palm Sunday 2009

Palmarum / Palm Sunday

Matthew 21:1-9; 26:36-27:66

April 4 – 5, 2009

In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, Lowly and riding on a donkey, A colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zechariah 9:9)

Today is Palm Sunday. Jesus rides into His own city as the Son of David and the Son of God—the Son of David by the substance and flesh of His mother, and the Son of God, begotten before the worlds, of the substance of His Father. Today we celebrate Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem and so we embark on the holiest journey in the holiest week of the Church year—the week of our Lord’s Passion. The Prince of Peace rides into the City of Peace, for that is what Jerusalem means, “City of Peace.” But there, Jesus will find no peace, only death. And there, in His death, is found our only peace.

On the face of it, it seems Jesus is making an insane attempt to commit suicide. He is riding into Jerusalem to die. That is His plan. He announced His upcoming demise no less than three times before riding into Jerusalem. He spoke of His exodus with Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration. And even after entering Jerusalem He continued to talk about His coming death, and He even said that He would be delivered up to be crucified. (Matthew 26:2)

So what was Jesus doing? What possibly could He have been thinking? The answer to that question may surprise you just a little bit. He was thinking of you. Yes, He was thinking of you and every sinner that ever has been, or ever will be. Jesus rides into Jerusalem where they kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to her, because He knows what it will take to free you from yourself, and from Satan, and from the grave. He knows that He must die. It is not the desire to die, which drives Jesus on into Jerusalem and certain death, it is love. More specifically, it is His love for you.

This is the week of Jesus’ Passion. But, in this context the word passion does not hold the same meaning that it has come to hold in our contemporary, worldly, context. It is not the sweaty, pornographic, lust of Hollywood and TV, or cheap magazines and novels. It is not boundless enthusiasm for a pastime, hobby, or food. Jesus didn’t have a passion to be crucified like I have a passion for hunting and travel, or you have a passion for ice cream or chocolate. Nor, in this context, does the word passion, imply the emotions we might feel as we contemplate the events of Holy Week. Jesus’ suffering and death are called His “Passion” because it is His overwhelming love and His obsession to save you that drove Him to His Cross. So, it is that, when we Christians use the word, “Passion,” in reference to Christ, we are not simply referring to Jesus’ suffering and death alone, but we also refer to that which drove Him to the Cross: a love so intense that it would not let go of you at any cost. Jesus’ “Passion” is a love so great that He gave up everything, even life, to make you His brother or sister, a fellow child of God. That is the Passion of the Christ.

So Jesus rides into His own city to pay the price you cannot. He rides into Jerusalem to set the captives free, captives who hate and revile Him. He comes to the Passover to be your Blood Sacrifice, once, for all. He is the Lamb who was slain, whose Blood sets you free to be people of God. He is roasted in God’s fiery wrath. His flesh is to be eaten by all in the house. His Blood is painted on the doorposts and lintels of your heart by way of your tongue and death passes over you.

Jesus rides into His own city to place His finger on your dumb tongue, His gentle hand upon your deaf ears, to speak His absolution and cure you of your leprous sin. He rides to save those who betray Him, to save those who cannot stay awake with Him, even one hour. Therefore, cast your dirty garment at His feet that He might trample it in His Passion. Give to Him your robe of indifference and apathy, the robe that binds you with bands of excuses and enfolds you in selfishness, the robe that veils, muffles, and suffocates your love for your neighbor, your Church, and your God. Throw down before Him your greed, your lust, your hate, your suffering, your pain, your loneliness, your despair. Place before Him your filthy works and receive from Him His garment of righteousness washed white in the Blood of His Passion.

Jesus rides into His own city to die your death, not because you deserve it; you are not somehow worthy of His love. But He loves you nonetheless. He rides to give you the name Barabbas, which means, “Son of the Father.” For your are to be set free. Jesus is to die in Your place. You are to be pardoned though you are guilty, while the innocent Christ suffers your shame, your pain, your guilt, your death. Jesus rides to restore that which has been broken by the sin of one man, Adam, and through whom sin and death entered the world. “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive.” (1 Corinthians 15:22)

Jesus still rides, even this day. He rides into this very nave on the most noble of steeds hidden in humble Word, water, bread, and wine. This is His gift of life for you, because in these, we receive the forgiveness of sin and the bestowing and strengthening of our faith in Him. In these, He bequeaths to us His last will and testament, established in His innocent suffering and death, written in His Blood, and made firm in His resurrection. With these gifts, He sustains us in this life, making us ready for the eternal life with Him to come.

So now we embark upon our holiest week, our most solemn celebration. We remember the Passion of the Christ. We remember that His Passion was His love for us and we remember all that He was willing to endure for us. This is a celebration, solemn yes, but a celebration nonetheless. No one took Jesus’ life from Him, He died willing, and then took up His life again to save you and me and all creation. This week we commemorate the institution of the New Testament in Jesus’ Blood, the destruction of Hell and all its power over us in Jesus holy death, and the vindication of His Kingship on the day of His resurrection.

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation.” (Zechariah 9:9) “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord. The King of Israel” (John 12:13) Yes, rejoice greatly, because Jesus, your King, is coming to tell you, “I forgive you all your sins.”

In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Midweek 5 Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Midweek 5
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
“Frequently Asked Questions about an Infrequently Used Practice”

Often when you go to a website or read a pamphlet about an organization, a company, a product, or a service, you will find a page called, “FAQs.” “FAQs” are “Frequently Asked Questions,” questions people usually have when they start to consider whatever it is that’s being talked about. The FAQ format is a helpful way to introduce a new or unfamiliar organization, product, etc.

Tonight I’m going to use the FAQ format for this message, because tonight I’m going to introduce you to a church practice that may be unfamiliar to you. It is the practice of Confession. Confession is unfamiliar to most Lutherans these days, even though it has been around for centuries. It is a church practice that the church doesn’t practice much anymore. So the first step is to re-introduce it, get people familiar with it again, and for that we’ll do some “Frequently Asked Questions about an Infrequently Used Practice.”

We just read some questions and answers on Confession from the Small Catechism, and so now we’ll go on from there and raise some other questions as well. I’ll start by anticipating what may be your first question:

Pastor, how can you say that Confession is “unfamiliar” or “Infrequently Used”?
Don’t we do Confession and Absolution at the start of the Divine Service?
Yes, we do. But the Confession at the start of the service is not the form or setting of Confession that we just read about in the Small Catechism. What we do at the start of the service is a group or “corporate” form of Confession and Absolution. What we read about in the Catechism and throughout the Lutheran writings is Individual Confession and Absolution, or, for short, “Private Confession.” What we do at the start of the service is a general confession of sins, not specifying any particular sins, and there is a general absolution, directed to the group as a whole. What we do in Private Confession usually involves confessing specific sins, and the pastor directs the absolution to that particular individual. It is this private, individual form of confession that the Catechism has in mind when it talks about “Confession.” With that, I will now anticipate your second question:

Pastor, I thought Lutherans got rid of Private Confession. Isn’t going to the pastor for Confession just a Catholic thing?
No, it’s not. Private Confession is a Christian / Lutheran thing, too. Luther did not get rid of Private Confession, he just reformed it, cleaned it up of its abuses. There were three abuses in particular that needed to be corrected. One was that Confession was forced, mandatory, done requirement. The second abuse was the listing of all sins, you had to come up with a complete listing of your sins, in detail, or else you could not be sure that you had confessed adequately. The third, and perhaps the worst, abuse was that, instead of putting the emphasis on the absolution, God’s free gift of forgiveness, the priest would give the repentant works of satisfaction to perform, works of penance, to offset his sins. These “three oppressive things,” as Luther called them, had corrupted the practice of Confession, had turned it from a gift into a torture. And so, these were the abuses that the Lutherans corrected and reformed.

But Luther never got rid of Private Confession. Far from it. He strongly encouraged people to go to Confession. He even wrote “A Brief Exhortation to Confession,” in which he says such things as the following: “If you are poor and miserable, then go to Confession and make use of its healing medicine.” Or, “So we teach what a splendid, precious, and comforting thing Confession is.” Or again, “When I urge you to go to Confession, I am doing nothing else than urging you to be a Christian.”

Likewise, our Lutheran Confessions say the same thing. From the Augsburg Confession, Article XI: “Our churches teach that private Absolution should be kept in the churches.” Or from the Smalcald Articles, Article VIII: “Confession and Absolution should by no means be abolished in the Church.” Again, this is talking about Private Confession.

But Pastor, do I have to go to Private Confession to get forgiveness?
No, you don’t. You don’t “have to.” This is not a “hafta” question. This is a matter of “get to.” You “get to” go to Individual Confession and Absolution. It’s a gift! It’s the gospel! To be sure, God is rich in his grace, and he gives us his forgiveness in other ways as well. In Holy Baptism all your sins were washed away, and Baptism is a gift that keeps on giving. Your sins are forgiven also when the pastor preaches the gospel to you in the sermon, proclaiming the good news that Christ Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the whole world, taking them away, and that includes you and your sins. Of course you get forgiveness in the Sacrament of the Altar, when you receive the body and blood of Christ, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. No doubt.

These are all glorious, wonderful means of grace, by which God delivers the forgiveness won by Christ on the cross to us. Holy Baptism, Holy Gospel, Holy Communion--all gifts of God, all means of grace, and each one has its own distinctive value and benefit and place in the life of the Christian. But then so does Holy Absolution. And we don’t want to set one gift of God against another. In other words, just because I get forgiveness in the Word doesn’t mean I shouldn’t go to Communion. Just because I get forgiveness in Baptism doesn’t mean I shouldn’t go to Confession. No, God gives us all of these gifts, each one of them, for us to use and benefit from.

So what’s so special about Private Confession, Pastor?
For one thing, it helps us to be honest about ourselves. We readily say we are “poor miserable sinners,” but if we just keep it at that general level, we may try to excuse or rationalize sins we should be repenting of. The truth is, poor miserable sinners do poor miserable sins. So examining our lives according to the Ten Commandments and coming to grips with our actual sins helps to keep us honest and accountable and to realize the depths of our sinfulness and our ongoing need for Christ’s forgiveness.

Now that leads us to the most important benefit of Confession, and that is, the Absolution, the word of forgiveness. To realize that, yes, God knows my sins, how lousy of a sinner I am, and yet he forgives me--yes, me! I hear the forgiveness spoken into my ears, with my name on it! I feel the pastor’s hands on my head, Christ’s authorized representative loosing me from the burden of my sin and my guilt! That is what is so distinctive and refreshing about Individual Confession and Absolution: precisely that it is individual, dealing with my sins and directing God’s cleansing and forgiveness and care to me.

Luther puts it this way in his Brief Exhortation: “So any heart that feels its sinfulness and desires consolation has here a sure refuge when he hears God’s Word and makes the discovery that God through a human being looses and absolves him from his sins.” “[It] is a work that God does when he declares me free of my sin through His Word placed in the mouth of a man. It is this splendid, noble thing that makes Confession so lovely, so comforting.” Yes, the great treasure in Private Confession is the Absolution, spoken to you in particular.

But Pastor, I’ve never gone to Private Confession before. I’m scared.
What can you say to reassure me?
Let me guess what’s scary or intimidating about it. Maybe you think you have to come up with some huge, awful sin--like robbing a bank or murdering someone--in order to go to Private Confession. No, ordinary, garden-variety sins are welcome any time. Maybe you can think of one or two that weigh on your mind. Lustful thoughts, harsh words, not treating your husband or wife with the love and care you know you should--that sort of thing. But even if you can’t come up with any sins in particular, or you’re not quite ready to speak about them, then just make a more general confession and the pastor will still speak God’s word of forgiveness to you.

But Pastor, if I told you my sins, my dirty awful sins, wouldn’t you think less of me? Wouldn’t it change our dynamic, our relationship, and you wouldn’t be my friend anymore?
No, I wouldn’t think less of you. If anything, I might be tempted to think more of you, that you took advantage of the opportunity to come to Confession. But then, don’t go and get a big head about it and say, “Hey, look at me! I went to Confession!” That would be pride, and then you’d have to come back to Confession for that!

No, nothing you say would shock me. I believe what the Bible says about our sinful nature, how the old Adam keeps on having evil desires and thoughts. And hey, your pastor knows what a sinner he is! So I won’t be shocked by your sins. In fact, I’m here to give you God’s forgiveness for them.

That is exactly what Private Confession is: Private. The sins you confess go nowhere else. I am under oath, solemn oath, never to divulge the sins confessed to me. I never have, and I never will. I don’t even divulge them to myself, in a sense. What I mean is, when you confess your sins to me, my ears become a graveyard. The sins die there. I don’t carry them around with me in my head and hold them against you. I can still be your friend. But the more important thing for you is that I be your pastor. God has assigned me here to take care of your soul. And that includes hearing the sins you confess, the sins that trouble your soul, and then forgiving them in the name of Christ.

So like I say, Pastor, I’ve never done Private Confession before.
What would it look like? How would I go about it?
For that now, let’s turn in the Lutheran Worship to pages 310–311, and I’ll walk you through a form we can use for “Individual Confession and Absolution”. . . .

Pastor, when can I go to Private Confession?
I am available anytime you want to make confession and receive the absolution. Just let me know.

Pastor, tell me once again: Why should I go to Confession?
For the gospel. For the forgiveness of your sins. To receive the gift Jesus has for you: Holy Absolution, with your name on it!