Pentecost Service at Holy Cross Lutheran Church of Rocklin, California
Rev. Todd A. Peperkorn,
Officiant Rev. Charles E. Froh, Preacher
Renata Peperkorn, Organist
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen. Our text for today is the Gospel just read from St. Luke, chapter thirteen.
Why do bad things happen to good people? That’s the question that is asked of Jesus in our text. What did these Galileans do to deserve having their blood mingled with their sacrifices? Or why, as Jesus then asks, did a tower fall upon those 18 people in Siloam, outside Jerusalem?
Our questions today are often not that different. Sandy Hook Elementary School. The theatre in Aurora, Colorado. A tsunami in Japan. A meteorite in Siberia. Our stories can go back even farther. I remember preaching on this very text after 9-11. The Twin Towers. With each passing generation we have our Federal Building bombings, our Kent State or Berkley riots, our own Hiroshima or Pearl Harbor.
Each one of these disasters, either natural or man made, asks the question of why. Why this person and not that person? Who, we might ask, is at fault? Was it the person or the nation? Or perhaps it is more serious than that. What if it isn’t our fault at all? What if it is God’s fault? Could God really do such things? Those are the questions of the day.
These questions, as serious as they are, cannot be asked apart from one more thing: the cross of Jesus Christ.
It’s like this: The only way you and I really know anything about God is through Jesus Christ, his birth, death and life again for us. That’s it. If we look for God anywhere else, we will be seriously disappointed and even misled.
So what happens if we look for God apart from or out outside of the cross? It starts, so often, with finding God in beauty, the sunset, the love of family, flowers, and the like.
But it can’t stop there. Sooner or later we end up at the tsunami. And there we find the God of disaster. This God, so it seems, is arbitrary and, well, just plain mean. This God doesn’t stop with beauty. For this God, things get ugly pretty quick.
In all honesty, this is the God that we see and feel and know, or think we know. With this God it is dog eat dog. With this God it is survival of the fittest. With this God we live and die the divine “if/then” statements. If you do this, then you will live. This is the covenant of the Law we talked about Wednesday night. If that is all you think God is about, then your God is pretty tough.
So this is what the people were asking Jesus about that they didn’t get or understand.
Jesus answer is both disturbing and comforting. His answer for them is that no one sinned more than another. As St. Paul would later put it, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and a little later “the wages of sin is death”.
This is why Jesus answer to the question of why bad things happen is repentance. Repent, Jesus says! Jesus calls you to not think so highly of yourself, and to recognize that you live by the mercy of God. This is not a bad thing, because frankly, God’s mercy is far more reliable that our own ability to do well at anything.
Let me say that again, because it needs to sink in. God’s mercy is far, far more reliable than anything we say or feel or do. That’s what makes it God’s mercy, and not our own works. That is why we need the cross of Christ.
So teach us how God uses these disasters and hardships of our life, like the Tower of Siloam in our text, Jesus tells the parable of the fig tree.
This fig tree story, we have to admit, is as disturbing as the Tower and all the repentance talk. First, there is a warning. The warning is that trees that don’t bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. The second disturbing thing is the fertilizer. Let’s talk about the warning first.
The warning and the fire at its simplest is judgment. Each tree of the vineyard must produce good fruit. At first glance, this sure sounds like good works, doesn’t it? If you don’t do good works, God is going to judge you. There is a warning here to recognize that we never do enough, and to recognize this all the time. But the problem is as long as I am focused on the fruit, things will never change.
It’s like this. When a tree isn’t bearing fruit like it should, you don’t start yelling at the fruit: “Get better! Grow more! Be more fruity!” How well would that work? Not very well.
No, if a tree isn’t bearing fruit, it is because it isn’t getting enough sun, or water, or nutrients in the soil. It may need pruning or some other kind of care. The fruit is the end product, and when the fruit isn’t growing, you look to the tree, not the fruit.
The warning Jesus gives to you and me is that if we aren’t bearing fruit in our lives, it is a faith problem, not a good works or fruit problem. That’s the warning God gives you and me. Examine your life and conduct and ask yourself if you are bearing fruit in your life. Fruits of love, patience, kindness, mercy and long-suffering. You know the fruits. If you aren’t bearing the fruit you ought to bear, then it is time to repent and trust in the mercy of God once again.
But guess what. You never bear enough fruit! Not by yourself, that’s for sure. The only way you bear enough fruit is by being connected to the tree, and that tree is Christ. Not bearing fruit, therefore, is a faith and trust problem. It isn’t a good works problem.
That’s the warning. Now let’s talk about fertilizer.
What is the fertilizer that God piles upon you so that you might grow and bear fruit? What is it that will show you your need for your Savior? The fertilizer is the trials and suffering you endure in your life. Faith rarely grows from success and victories in life. Faith thrives and grows when there is lots of, uh, fertilizer piled on it. These trials force us to examine our lives, repent and trust that God will take care of us, because we cannot take care of ourselves. St. Paul helps us out with this in Romans chapter five:
“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” (Romans 5:1–6 ESV)
God uses the Towers of Siloam in our lives, the fertilizer that piles up all around us. He uses these things for you and for your benefit. The towers hurt when they fall. The fertilizer, truth be told, the fertilizer stinks. We should never pretend it doesn’t. As St. Paul said, while we were weak, Christ died for the ungodly.
This is what happens, beloved. God uses these trials and hardships for you. He feeds you and waters you. The trials show us our great need for God, and God longs to serve you and care for you.
Today God longs to be with you, to be your God so that you may be His child. It is easy to get stuck in the why questions. It is easy to get distracted by the fertilizer in our lives. Why did this happen to me and not someone else? You can’t answer those questions, because they are unanswerable. Our Heavenly Father, however, longs to feed you and care for you, to water you with His Word and Spirit as only He can do. The fruits of Christ’s work in you for for you rise up to heaven, where God says, “Ah yes, that is my tree, my beloved. That is just the way things ought to be.”
Believe it for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Rev. Todd Peperkorn
Advent 3C (December 16, 2012)
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord, Jesus Christ. Our text for today is from the Gospel just read from St. Luke chapter 7. We will also be looking at the words of St. Paul from Philippians chapter four.
Hear again the words of Paul in Philippians four:
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:4–7 ESV)
Always. Rejoice in the Lord, always. Really, Paul? Really? Always is such a big word. You are calling me to rejoice while I am in prison, waiting to have my head chopped off for speaking the truth to King Herod? Paul, I think you’ve lost it.
Always. Rejoice in the Lord, always. Really, Paul? Always is such a big word. You are calling me to rejoice when my child has just been killed in Newtown, Connecticut? Paul, I think you’ve lost it.
Always. Rejoice in the Lord, always. Really, Paul? Always is such a big word. You are calling me to rejoice with so much death all around us, so much heartache and fear. Fiscal cliffs and frightened children. There are more problems in this world now than there ever were. Paul, I think you’ve lost it.
You have to admit that Paul’s words sound a little delusional sometimes. I think this is why I like John the Baptist more than Paul. John asks Jesus the question, “Are you the coming one, or shall we look for another?” That’s John’s question. John sends the question to Jesus through his disciples. John, is currently stuck in prison, awaiting his execution because he spoke the truth to King Herod. Telling the truth to people in power is dangerous business, if the truth isn’t something they want to hear.
John, you remember, is Jesus’ cousin. He has gone into the wilderness to preach the Gospel. His whole life has been spent leading up to Jesus’ day. Jesus has been baptized, and has begun His ministry of proclaiming release and forgiveness to a lost and dying world. John was the one, when he saw our Lord, who pointed to Him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
At this stage in Jesus’ ministry, by all accounts, things are going well. Jesus has forgiven sins. He has cast out demons. He has healed the sick. He’s even raised the dead! All in all, things are looking up for our Lord.
But there’s one thing Jesus hasn’t done. He hasn’t released John from prison. There’s John, the forerunner. He is the greatest of those born among women. Surely he deserves to be at Jesus’ side, ruling alongside our Lord as He comes into His kingdom! But no. He’s stuck in prison, wondering if this whole Messiah thing is really that great of an idea.
I don’t think we can blame John a whole lot for this question, “Are You the coming one or should we look for another?” John, I think, might have asked that same question to St. Paul. Really, Paul?
Christianity is, perhaps as much as anything else, all about waiting. Faith is about anticipation. Faith is about looking to what we cannot see. Faith is about recognizing that things don’t make sense, that they may never make sense, but that God will carry us through to the end.
It is impossible to think about John waiting in prison to die this week without thinking of the parents of these poor children who were murdered in Newtown, Connecticut. What are those parents thinking right now, as they look to Christmas? One of the little girls killed in was a member of the local Missouri Synod congregation. They had just joined the church.
So if you put yourselves in the position of those parents, we have to admit that it is hard to recognize the good in the world. That’s John the Baptist right there. That is John saying to Jesus, “Lord, I know your promises. I’ve read my bible. I know all the words. But get on with it, for heavens sake! We’re dying here left and right. We’re broken. We need you.”
John is you and I, here. But truth be told, so is St. Paul. Remember that when Paul wrote those words from before, the “Rejoice in the Lord always”, remember that Paul was in prison in Rome at the time. He was waiting to see if his head would be chopped off just like John the Baptist’s was. So when Paul writes these words, He is not doing so as a Pollyanna. He is not just being the eternal optimist, always finding good even if there isn’t any to be found. No, what Paul is saying is NOT “be happy,” but “rejoice.”
Rejoice in the midst of hardships. Rejoice in the midst of trials. Rejoice even, yes, even in the midst of death itself. How can this be? How can there be true joy in the midst of such things? Perhaps Zephaniah can help us here, from our Old Testament reading,
“The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.” (Zephaniah 3:17 ESV)
Rejoicing, both here, for John the Baptist, for St. Paul, and for you and I, rejoicing doesn’t mean being happy. It means recognizing that what you see and experience now isn’t the whole story. Let me say that again, because it’s important. Rejoicing means recognizing that what you see and experience now isn’t the whole story. Only God has the whole story. What’s more, the story ends not with John’s head, or St. Paul’s, or the little ones who died in Bethlehem, or the little ones who died Newtown, or anywhere else. The story doesn’t end with death. Or sorrow. Or suffering. Or heartache and hardship. The story ends with resurrection.
Resurrection, you say? That’s an Easter word! We can’t talk about that during Advent. Well, we can and we will. Advent is about our Lord’s coming, after all. It is about His coming in lowliness as a little child. It is about His coming hidden under Word and Meal, Water and Forgiveness. And Advent is about His coming again in glory on the Last Day to raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ. That means on the Last Day He will raise John the Baptist, with his head. And St. Paul. And the little ones of Bethlehem and of Newtown. And your loved ones and me. And it means He will raise me and you.. And on that day there will be no more sorrow, no more tears.
There will only be a joy completed, fulfilled by communion with Him forever. It is no accident that Saint Paul says we are to lay our requests before our Lord with Thanksgiving. That’s Eucharist, friends. That’s the Lord’s Supper. For wherever that Eucharist, that Great Thanksgiving is, there we have a glimpse of angels and archangels, sinners and saints redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. Today we receive a foretaste of the great Rejoicing to coming.
But until that day of ultimate joy, dearly baptized, until that day we rejoice in the Lord always. We do this because He rejoices over you. He will quiet you with His love. We rejoice today because God holds all things in His hands. And beloved, that is a very good place for everything to be.
Believe it for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
And now the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in true faith, to life everlasting. Amen.
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