In Christ Alone

Intern Pastor Scott Adkins
Holy Cross Day A, 9/14/14
1 Corinthians 1:18-25, John 3:13-18, Numbers 21: 7-9

 

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Hello everyone! It is great to be here with all of you on this Holy Cross Sunday, a day where we take a break from the Pentecost Season to reflect on the cross, and what it has meant for us and what it cost for Jesus.

In our first reading for the day, St. Paul said that the message of cross was “foolishness” to those that are “perishing.” That is, those that do not have life in Christ. To human understanding, what Christ did makes absolutely no sense. So I ask you instead. Why did Jesus have to die on the cross?

While we think about that, I heard a story about our predicament from Peanuts, when Charlie Brown went to see Lucy for her “psychiatric advice” for five cents.

Lucy said to Charlie Brown, “Discouraged again, eh, Charlie Brown?” “You know what your whole trouble is? The whole trouble with you is that you’re you!” Charlie asks, “Well, what in the world can I do about that?” Lucy answers, “I don’t pretend to be able to give advice…I merely point out the trouble!” Lucy speaks up, “You know what the whole trouble with you is, Charlie Brown?” Charlie answers, “No, and I don’t want to know! Leave me alone!” He walks away. Lucy shouts after him, “The whole trouble with you is you won’t listen to what the whole trouble with you is!”

As funny as Charlie Brown and Lucy can be, however, it is true for us. The problem is not what our sin is; how much we lie, cheat, lust, or steal. The problem is us. The problem is the sin itself that is ingrained within us at the deepest levels. In order for us to understand the work of the cross we have to understand ourselves and our sinful nature.

In his letter to the Church in Rome St. Paul reminded us (Romans 3:12) that in multiple places in Scripture (Psalm 14:3, 53:3, Ecclesiastes 7:20) we are told that everyone is a sinner. Everyone is guilty; there is no one who is good on their own. It’s a huge problem that all people have. The question is, how do we solve it?

The problem with us human beings is, that we want to solve our problems ourselves. The prideful streak in our sinful human nature says to us that we need to take care of all of our problems. After all, a real responsible adult cleans up their messes and fulfills their responsibilities. We can’t take away our sins, so what do we do instead? We try to make sure that the scale of good deeds vs bad deeds stays in our favor. How often have you heard something like that? “I suppose I’m a good person. I give to charity and I haven’t killed anyone.” We hope that will be enough for God when we stand before him one day. This is the “wisdom of the world” that St. Paul is talking about.

However, that doesn’t work with God. In the Old Testament the Prophet Isaiah says that our good deeds are like “filthy rags” before God. The good deeds that we are trying to rely on, our own human acts, mean nothing, and our sins are still there. There is no way for us to handle it on our own. The “wisdom of this world,” our determination that we must take care of the problem of sin on our own, does nothing for us. Heck, we can’t even choose to believe in God or Jesus! He even has to send the Holy Spirit to take care of that for us!

Like St. Paul said, no one is exempt from this. From the youngest baby to the Mother Theresa’s of the world, all of us are sinful enough to

warrant God’s judgment and both the heavenly and earthly consequences for our actions. Don’t believe me? Look at the baby? Has any parent here seen a young child, the most innocent of human life, throw a temper tantrum or not listen to the rules that Mom or Dad has set for them? Yeah, even babies are sinful too.

Thankfully for us, however, God does not leave high and dry. Jesus tells Nicodemus, the high ranking Jewish Pharisee that he is talking to in our Gospel lesson for today what God’s plan is. He says Jesus brings up a familiar story to Nicodemus, a rabbi who studied the Old Testament. He brings up a story about Moses, about how God saved the Israelites during their disobedience and sinfulness.

The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived. (Numbers 21:7-9)

This was the story that Jesus was referring to. Yes, it, may seem a little weird, but it’s Israel’s history. In fact, it is because of this story that the symbol of the medical profession is a snake wrapped around a pole. In this story though,  Jesus is comparing himself to the snake and the Israelites to the people of his day. The Israelites, like the Jews ad Romans of the first century A.D., were disobedient to God. Even the Pharisees, those that were most devoted to following God’s Law, were only interested in the letter of the Law, not what God really wanted.

What happened in this story is what Jesus is really interested in. He tells Nicodemus that he, like the snake, must be lifted up for all to see. The result is that all who see the Lamb of God on the cross and believe will live, just like all of the Israelites who saw the snake being lifted up on Moses’s pole.

This is God’s solution to our problem. In the scale that we were thinking about earlier, this is God tipping it in our favor when we never could. This solution is that God sent his one and only Son so that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.

If you think about it, God’s solution to the problem of sin makes absolutely no sense to our human understanding. Think about it. In a world preoccupied with selfish gain, whose ultimate desire is for each person to save themselves, what sense does it make to save someone else at the cost of their own lives? It doesn’t make sense at all. We admire it. That is why when people risk their lives to save others we honor them with awards and medals. But when God does it for us? That sounds like foolishness to our human wisdom.

The irony is that it is not foolish. It works. That is how God destroyed the “wisdom of the wise.” He destroyed it on the cross. That what St. Paul means by “we preach Christ crucified.” We preach to the world that you cannot make up for your evil on your own. We preach Jesus Christ died for your sins. And when that seems like a laughable prospect, we show that it worked. That Jesus did create us into something new. Even though we are still sinners, Just like Pastor Ed told us a few weeks ago, we are “Simul Iustus et Peccator” Simultaneously a saint and a sinner. Even though we have life in Christ, we still are sinners. Because of that, in the words of Martin Luther, our namesake Reformer, “we have to drown the Old Adam, that is, our sinful selves, in the waters of our baptism daily.” The problem is, as one of my seminary professors once told me, that Old Adam is a heck of a swimmer!

This reality, of Jesus Christ being crucified and lifted up on a cross for all to see to put that Old Adam to death really seems like something foolish of Jesus to do. But however, the fact that it worked according to God’s will proves what St. Paul said, that the foolishness of God surpasses the wisdom of man. This fact is a stumbling block to all of those who don’t yet believe. As St. Paul said, it is a “stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.” The Jews couldn’t accept that God would save us on a cross personally like the snake that their ancestors saw, and the Gentiles could not believe God’s logic, so they called it foolishness. But to those who believe, both Jew and Gentile, we recognize it as the power of God which saves us from all sin and evil in the world and in ourselves.

The lifting of Jesus Christ on the pole of the cross is what saved us. In that act of sacrifice for us, God proved His love for us and took up all of the sin, all of the evil in the world that we can never erase on our own into himself and destroyed it forever. God did all of this without us even asking him to or expecting anything in return. None of it had anything to do with us and what we did or what we chose or what we decided. It was all up to Christ, who chose to love us by choosing the cross. Praise be to God for that Holy Cross that Christ chose for us. Amen.

Sower or the Seed

Intern Pastor Scott
5th Sunday After Pentecost A, July 13, 2014
Isaiah 55:8-13, Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

 

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ!

Where I grew up in North Dakota was pretty similar to here in Stacy. Do we have any farmers here or anyone that grew up on a farm? (wait for responses) Well, I grew up outside of Minot, North Dakota. At the time, before the oil in North Dakota was found, it was a farming community. Everyone there made a living either by farming or by working in a business that supported farmers or their families. Add to that, we lived far out of town in the country, so there were farm fields in every direction from my childhood home. I remember every summer from May to September the farmers would be out in the fields working to get the wheat or canola or whatever they were growing in so that there was enough time for the seed to grow before the harvest. My dad would be out there too, making his deliveries for the agricultural chemical company that he worked for after he retired from the fire department. Everything just revolved around farming.

It was this sort of agrarian mindset that Jesus worked with in our Gospel reading for today. In our reading, Jesus tells us a story about farming, since that was something that the people of Galilee understood. Like most of his stories, though, this story has a meaning to it other than simply farming.

This parable is different from some of the others that Jesus tells us in the Gospels because Jesus comes out and tells his disciples the parable’s meaning. Granted, he tells only his disciples the meaning, rather than the crowd that came to see him. In each instance though, Jesus implores his listeners to listen to him, whether they were his disciples or the Galilean crowds.

I think there are two ways to look at this parable. The first is the way that Jesus outlines, where the seeds represent us, hearers of the Word. In this way of understanding the parable, the sower plants the seeds, but they fall on different types of ground. In the end, only one of the four seeds sown produces fruit. This seed produces not just the seven or eight times that Judean farmers of the era could expect, but the seed produced a hundred times more!

That sounds great if you happen to be the seed that falls on the good soil. But what if you are a seed that falls on the rocky ground, or on the path, or there just happened to be a couple of thorns around you? I mean, it doesn’t seem fair, does it? The seed was thrown! You didn’t get a choice where you landed! Why is it that this seed over here lands on the nice plowed piece of good soil seems to have everything going for him. Why is it that I landed here on this rocky ground? It just doesn’t seem fair.

Yes, some of the circumstances in life are not our choices. Like the seed scattered around the field, you have no choice in what happens. The seed that fell around the rocky ground didn’t choose to be planted among rocks. The seed that fell on the path didn’t ask to be eaten by birds. It seems like there is no good end for these seeds that didn’t just happen to fall on the good soil. Or is there?

Has anyone seen some of the plants that grow through the rocks in our parking lot? These seeds definitely landed on rocky soil, however, they persevered. When we look at the seed that fell on the path and was eaten by birds, I think about the different fruits that spread their seed by being eaten and passing through the various animals that the plants feed. The point is, even though these plants went through some tough times that would choke the life out of others, they persevered and are able to produce fruit too. It is the same way with people. Even though the Word planted in them may fade away for a time due to circumstances in their lives, don’t give up on them quite yet. You never know what God will be able to do.

But what if we look at this whole story that Jesus tells from a different perspective? Instead of the seed, think of yourself as the sower. You are given a bag of seeds and you want to get the greatest yield possible. Of course, you want to spread the seeds on the good soil, that’s where most of the yield will happen, but what about the other plots of your field? We have this area with thorns and weeds, a patch with lots of rocks, and we have the path that we are walking on. Don’t we want these parts of the soil to be productive too?

One solution is to simply scatter the seeds around and let what happens happen. Some folks will do this when they try to evangelize. They will simply hand out Bibles or say “Jesus loves you” or the like. Sometimes you get good soil and the Word sprouts in their hearts, but more often than not it withers and dies there.

A better solution, like any gardener could tell you, would be to put some work into these plots to make them good soil. Weed the ground, plow it, pick out the rocks. Do what you need to do to make this patch of soil productive again. Doesn’t this work with people too? Most of the time people will need some living evidence of Christ in you before they will accept what you have to say about Jesus. This means living life with others as “little Christs,” as Luther would say. Help those who need it. Be there for those in tough times. Laugh with them in the joyful times. St. Francis of Assisi once said: “Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.” This means that your words will be meaningless without the work behind it.

However, the sower won’t get any fruit at all without sowing any seeds. Too often Christians don’t like talking about spiritual matters. They are afraid of being looked down on or of being rejected. Remember though, the sower is expected to sow, just as the seed is expected to produce a fruit. A farmer that doesn’t plant crops probably will not be a farmer for long. It may seem daunting, but really what it takes is people seeing Christ at work within you. Once they see that, you may get an opening to explain why you are the way you are. If you help someone, you could explain that you did it because Jesus wants you too.

It can be frustrating being a sower. You put all of this time and effort into scattering the Word. We want to do our part to make the Word grow into people’s hearts, so that we can produce our hundredfold crop that Jesus wants us to make for him. Even with all of this effort though, sometimes the seeds wither and die in bad ground. Sometimes the parable works out the exact same way that Jesus says. Sometimes people will not believe for whatever reason, and we may be tempted to get discouraged. Remember what the Apostle Paul said to the Christians in Corinthians: “I planted the seed in your hearts, and Apollos watered it, but it was God who made it grow (1 Corinthians 3:6, New Living Translation).”

We may be the sowers, even the waterers, but God is the one who makes the Word grow in our hearts. The Holy Spirit is the one who takes care of that. It is not our job to try to force it to grow. If we do that we would be trying to be God. Just like God said in our Old Testament reading for today, “my thoughts are not your thoughts.” Just because things don’t work out the way we think it should, it does not mean that it failed. God also said in our first reading that he sends His Word out from his mouth, and it will not return to Him empty. It will accomplish what God wants it to do.

Remember to do what Jesus told us to do in our Gospel reading though. Jesus told us to listen. Listen to his message behind the parable. Be a seed that produces good fruit in good times and perseveres in the bad. Be a sower that does his or her best to create good soil to sow the seeds in, but leave the growing to God. God will do with His Word what he wills. And just like he said to Isaiah, when we do, we will “go out in joy and be led forth in peace.” Amen.