Sermons, Uncategorized

Jesus Comes to Divide

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[Jesus said:] “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division” (Luke 12:51).

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

“This is the Gospel of the Lord,” we say each week after reading the Gospel, but there is no good news in these words from Jesus this week. It’s a hard text to preach on. The difficulty stems from a dominant (and often unquestioned) cultural assumption about God and His relationship to us. As a rule, Americans tend to believe life is primarily about the pursuit of happiness. They also believe that God, if and when they consider Him, exists to help them in their pursuit. This is why most prayers are for good things—like healing, favorable weather, economic growth, reconciliation, wisdom, strength, and … peace.

But here is the rub. Jesus is clear in this text: “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division” (Luke 12:51). That’s not quite what we would expect Jesus to say. And I must admit it would be easy to pass on the Gospel reading this week and go with a different text. But I would suggest that our difficulty with this text means we need to hear it and take Jesus’ words to heart and ponder them all the more closely. This text confronts some of our deeply held views about God and our desire for peace.

As a pastor, I see more than enough division—divided families, divided congregations, divided denominations, a divided nation—and I work hard to bring peace. I’ve counseled families who are divided. I’ve met with couples who are in deep conflict, even contemplating divorce. I’ve seen firsthand what division can do to a congregation. Sadly, our own synod is divided—some calling themselves confessional, others missional. Some conservative, others moderate. And in our nation? The politics of personal destruction and partisan division rule the day.

Yet, Jesus states clearly that He is in the business of dividing. Jesus comes to divide—houses and families. Father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.

This needs to be unpacked, of course. God’s ultimate purpose is not to divide spouses or separate parents from their children. His chief goal is to separate us from our selfishness and our sin, and in doing so, to unite us with Himself and all believers. His words in the reading today describe what happens when that division does not take place. To use a theological term, Jesus’ dividing work is His alien work. It is, indeed, His will and His work, but it is not His primary will and work. This division serves to accomplish Jesus’ ultimate will and proper work, which is the redemption and salvation of mankind.

For those who were originally there to hear Jesus say these things, His words would not have been as jarring. Luke 12 falls in the middle of the travel narrative in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem, teaching the crowds. His message was not soft and flowery. Much like Jeremiah in the Old Testament reading for today, Jesus was calling them to turn from their sins and repent.

Jesus came to save us from sin. That is why He became flesh. That is why He lived a perfectly holy life. That is why He submitted Himself to endure His death on a cross. That is why He rose again three days later and ascended into heaven. All of this was for you and all the world—to open the gates of heaven once more, that “whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”

However, this grace is—by definition—a gift. Jesus offers it to all by means of His Word, but He forces it upon nobody. Not everyone will hold onto the gift of life He gives. Many in their sinfulness will reject it, throw it away. There will be those who repent and those who do not. There will be believers and unbelievers. That is the division that Jesus brings, that Jesus gives.

It is a blessed division. Apart from Christ, all would be lost. Because of Christ, many are saved.

But you know how it often goes: When division arises, it’s the Gospel that gets the blame.

It doesn’t make sense to blame the Gospel. Picture the aftermath of a shipwreck with survivors flailing around in the water trying to escape drowning. A rescue ship has arrived on scene, with rescuers pulling survivors aboard so that they’re safe. The rescuers are dividing the drowning from death to life. But instead of rejoicing to join those on-board ship, imagine some in the water screaming that it’s wrong that those on board are different. Imagine them declaring that the rescue ship should be scuttled so that everyone is united in sinking once again.

That’s the position in which the Church finds itself today, and always, in the world. You’re safe aboard the ark of the Church, saved by Christ from death to life. As the Church, we proclaim that there’s plenty of room on board; but the world will declare that Christianity is divisive for proclaiming life in Christ.

“Jesus Christ is Lord” is a statement that divides between those who believe it and those who do not, and there will always be pressure exerted on the Church to change that confession to something like “Jesus is one lord among many.” But that says that every false god is as worthy of honor as Jesus. That leaves everyone without hope, united in hopelessness: everyone’s sinking, and there’s no true Savior to rescue. No, it’s far better to rejoice in the dividing Savior, to declare, “Jesus is the one true Lord and Savior—and He has died to save you, too!

If you think about it: Even a worship service creates division. Everyone is invited and all are welcome to attend, but a worship service is designed foremost to feed the people of God. It is the family meal, where the Lord feeds His beloved children. Some will visit a worship service and not like what they hear—I’m not so much speaking of style as I am of content. Apart from faith, people will not like the Gospel. This creates a division—some believe the Gospel and some do not.

As long as sinners remain, the division Jesus brings will be apparent. This is an important truth to accept, because many will argue that division is proof that Jesus isn’t there. Many will argue that peace and quiet is the proof of God’s presence. Look at the Old Testament lesson, the time of Jeremiah. God complains about the false prophets who proclaim “peace, peace,” where there is no peace. That’s the very sort of peace that Jesus comes to destroy, because it’s a false peace that denies the need for grace.

So it’s left to Jeremiah to be the bearer of bad news, to declare that the sin of the people has divided them from God, that judgment is about to fall with a heavy hand. And, who does everybody blame for causing division? Jeremiah, for telling the truth. But while he received the blame of man then, he now rests from his labors in heaven.

So there is such a thing as “bad peace” even as there is “good division.” But even “good division” is not without pain and cross, conflict and loss.

There are two places where this division becomes especially acute and painful. Jesus mentions one explicitly in our text: it is within families where some believe in Christ and some do not. This division may manifest itself in a subtle tension when some leave for church and some do not; or an underlying worry for the souls of those who don’t believe; or it may be open warfare when a non-Christian makes moral choices that contradict Scripture. This is a difficult cross for believers to bear, and the temptation will be to blame Jesus for the division, to decide that your loyalty to family is more important than your faith in Christ.

If you are in this position, you are in my prayers: and I pray that you would be delivered from the temptation of blaming the Lord. And I give thanks to God that He has divided you to life so that you might be His instrument in your own home and among close friends, that you might with love and patience speak His saving Word to them. There may be distress, but God will grant you the grace and faith to be His blessed instrument there.

The other place is within the family of the Church. The “problem” with the Church, of course, is that it is full of sinners; and where you’ve got a group of sinners gathered around the holy things of God, divisions are bound to develop along the way. I’m thankful that, at present, we have no great divisions within this congregation—it doesn’t mean that we’ve strayed from the Gospel, but rather that the devil’s attacks at present are of a far more personal nature on different members in order to harm the body of Christ here.

So when trouble arises, we first ask the question: is the disagreement over doctrine or over some other debatable matter? If it is over a matter of Christian freedom, then we respond by making sure that the strong in faith care for the weak. None of us is to try to get his way, but to look out for everybody else. This love for one another goes a long way in preventing people from being divided from the flock. And where it is a matter of clear, biblical doctrine, we firmly hold fast to it without compromise. We do so because we do not want to be divided from God for the sake of a manmade peace. We want to remain divided from death and united in Christ.

Because Jesus comes to give division, He divides you from death to life, from sin to holiness. Why, the word “sanctify” means “to set apart,” to divide away from that which is common or unholy. By His grace, He has set you apart from sin to righteousness, from death to life, from grave to heaven, from “enslaved to the devil” to “child of God.” He has done so by enduring the cross, that baptism of fire which damned Him so that you might be purified for His sake.

Blessed are you! For Jesus has come to divide you from death and give you true peace. He does so with these words: You are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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Sermons, Uncategorized

My Eyes Have Seen Your Salvation

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“Simeon in the Temple” by Rembrandt

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“Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation” (Luke 2:29–30).

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

For many, it’s over for another year—the celebration of Christmas. After the parties, the food, the gifts, and the services, the days after Christmas are characterized by leftovers, crumpled wrapping paper, and a distinct lack of energy. The holidays are winding down; now comes the rest of a long, cold winter.

Where do you go from here? What do you have planned? Plans aside, what will happen to you as 2019 begins and continues? There may be lots of good in store: Grandchildren, a promotion, true love, stability, graduation. There may be unwanted troubles: strife at work or unemployment, family disagreements, a call from the doctor because he wants to run some more tests, a death in the family—maybe even yours.

What will happen to you from here? You have some plans, but you don’t know much for sure. Really, what can you be certain of? So much is out of your hands and beyond your control. So much of life is a mystery.

I guess you could say the same thing about our text. There are a lot of details about which we can only speculate. A man of mystery is walking in the temple. I say this because we don’t know much about him. We know his name is Simeon, but that’s about it. Traditionally, he’s pictured as an elderly man who has led a good life of many years; but we really don’t know. He could be a nineteen-year-old, still working on a full beard. Is he married? Widowed? Healthy? Ailing? Does he have kids? Grandkids? A good life? Bad?

We don’t know. The Bible doesn’t tell us. It does tell us his name is Simeon. The Bible also says that Simeon “was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the Consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.”  That’s why he’s at the temple—he’s going to see the Messiah.

Suddenly, He appears. The long-awaited Messiah is there; not just a human being, but the Lord has suddenly come to His temple. The Son of God has become flesh to be the Savior of the world, and He is making His first incarnate visit to His Father’s house. The prophecy is fulfilled! The Messiah is on the temple grounds. And nobody notices. Nobody cares.

Except for Simeon. He cares. He knows, because the Holy Spirit has told him. He confidently walks up to the Messiah and His entourage. He boldly takes hold of the Savior. And there, out in the middle of all the temple activity, he sings so that everyone who hears will know: “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy Word; For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people, a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel.” The Lord Himself has come to His temple with salvation. He has come to redeem His people. It is a glorious, divine truth; so Simeon sings the song of praise.

Uninformed by the Holy Spirit, it’s quite likely that others think he’s nuts. Nuts or blasphemous, take your pick. Temple-goers have come here to worship the almighty Lord who made the heavens and the earth. There on the grounds, this Simeon is holding a 40-day-old baby in his arms, guarded by the formidable entourage of, well, a poor-looking husband and wife. But, Simeon isn’t concerned with the Holy of Holies, where the Lord dwells in His glory. He’s peering at the Baby in his arms, and singing the strangest of lullabies: “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy Word; For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation.” Like the Baby has words. Like the Baby is in a position to send Simeon along with His blessing. As if the Baby is the Lord.

We talked about this at Christmas, too. If you go by your eyes alone, you’re likely to miss the Savior. Go by what the Holy Spirit says into your ears, and there He is. People who are looking for some glorious display of power to prove the presence of God will hustle by the Baby and keep on looking.

But by faith, Simeon knows. The flesh and blood he cradles in his arms is the Son of God incarnate. He is Immanuel, “God with us,” present with His people as God and man. He is with His people to bring peace, salvation, light, revelation, and glory. Don’t let the hairless head and the tiny toes fool you. This is the Lord of heaven and earth. And though that toothless mouth can’t form words yet, He has been speaking from eternity. He is there. By faith, Simeon acknowledges His Savior and rejoices in His salvation. He embraces the Word made flesh, and he is forgiven for all of his sins by the Baby Jesus. That’s why he can depart in peace.

He departs in peace, and what happens to Simeon then? We’re back to, “We don’t know,” for he disappears from Scripture. It’s a mystery.

Traditionally, we assume he’s an old man who dies and is called to glory soon after. On the other hand, he could have forty years of life left before he dies. Maybe a good life, maybe a terrible one by human standards. But Simeon departs in peace because God is faithful. He has kept His promises made through the prophets. The Virgin has conceived and borne a Son, and His name is Immanuel. That Lord has come to His temple, where Simeon has held and beheld Him.

The prophecies will continue to be fulfilled. The Messiah will make the blind see and the deaf hear, the mute sing and the lame leap for joy. He will be stricken, smitten, and afflicted for our iniquities. He will be the cursed man on the tree, betrayed by a friend, His bones out of joint and His robe gambled away. All this will take place so that other promises of God will be kept: Promises of pardon and peace, double helpings of grace for the penitent people of God.

God is faithful, and the promises will be kept. That is why Simeon departs in peace. He doesn’t depart to peace. It is not that he faces a rosy, sublime sort of life because he has held the Savior. Whatever other trials lie ahead, he still faces death. He’s still in this fallen, sinful world. But he departs in peace.

Simeon is at peace because God is faithful. He has sent the Savior. He has not forsaken Simeon, but has come to redeem him. Whatever Simeon faces, he is at peace with God. The Lord has kept His promises, and Simeon knows the end of the story. The end of the story is life everlasting, because the Son has come.

So, taking stock right now, this is what you know about you. You’ve made it this far. And you have no idea what is going to happen to you tomorrow. Even with all the careful planning, January 1st is still up for grabs. You just don’t know.

Not knowing leads to all sorts of temptations. You’re tempted to worry. And while a godly concern is good, worry too often turns into doubt of God’s will and faithfulness. You’re tempted to disappointment when things don’t go as you desire. The greater sin here is that you vastly prefer your will over that of the Lord’s who truly works all things for your good.

We don’t like not knowing, because not knowing means we have to live by trusting. We like to think we’re in control. Faith isn’t natural. In fact, it’s impossible unless it is given by God. But God gives you faith, faith by and in a blessed truth that you do know. Today, you stand with Simeon because you behold your Savior. The Holy Spirit has revealed this to you—not through some mystical vision or writing in the sky, but by His holy, inspired Word.

His Word announces to you that the Baby in Simeon’s arms grows up and bears your sins to the cross. That same body is pierced and that blood is shed before He is placed in the tomb. That same Savior, with the same body and blood, is risen again on the third day. And before Jesus ascends into heaven, He speaks of Word and Sacrament, and promises, “I am with you always to the end of the age.”

He is with you in His Word and Sacraments. It was He who washed you clean of sin in the waters of Holy Baptism. It is He, the Word made flesh, who is present in His Word when it is proclaimed. It is He who says to you, “Take and eat, this is My body…take and drink, this is My blood, for the forgiveness of sins.”  The same body and blood that Simeon held and beheld. And that went to the cross. And rose again. And ascended into heaven.

Like Simeon, you behold your Savior today. No, you don’t see tiny toes and a hairless head; you observe a man preaching and then see bread and wine. But faith tells you this. God keeps His promises. His Son has come, died and risen, as promised. His Son is here, in these means, to forgive, as promised. You know this by faith, not by sight.

It is little wonder, then, that you sing Simeon’s hymn near the end of each communion service. You have heard the Word, and there the Holy Spirit has revealed to you your Savior. You have just received the Lord’s body and blood for the forgiveness of sins, just like Simeon. And just like Simeon, you sing: “Lord now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy Word. For Mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people. A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel.”

You sing with Simeon because the Savior has come to you, too; your eyes of faith have seen your salvation, and thus then you depart in peace. You depart in peace, though not necessarily to peace. You stand to face some ridicule along the way. If Simeon looks strange as he sings to the Baby, you’ll draw some strange looks for looking for Jesus in, with, and under bread and wine, water and Word. Some will tell you that you’ve lost your religious sanity, if not your salvation.

But you know better. Christ is here because He promises, and He always keeps His promises. You have His Word on it, so you depart in peace. Not that life will be peaceful. No, don’t leave here expecting that the devil, the world, and your own sinful flesh will go easy on you because you’ve been in the presence of God. This visit of your Savior only enrages them all the more. Don’t hold the Lord to promises He hasn’t made, expecting an easy life in this world as His child. His only-begotten Son suffered.

You can expect your share of trouble, then. This unholy trinity (the devil, world and sinful flesh) will work their hardest to convince you that the Savior’s presence at best does you no good, at worst only leads to trouble for you. They will wield their weapons of worry, guilt, anxiety, sickness, grief, and death. They will do their best to crush you.

But the truth is that they have been crushed already; crushed by the Son of God whom you behold today. They can make you miserable for a bit, but their days are numbered. In Christ, yours are not. No, you don’t know what chapters life still holds; but in Christ, you know the end of the story. And the end of the story is life everlasting. This is why you depart in peace. The One who suffered, died and rose again is with you, to raise you from your sufferings and death to life everlasting.

What does the New Year hold? What does tomorrow hold? You cannot know. We commend tomorrow to the Lord, trusting that He will indeed work all things for our good. He has promised to do so for His servants, even as He promises that His Son has died for you. You don’t know much about what lies ahead, but you do know that you are His—and so you know the end of the story.

Therefore, even now, you depart in peace: For you are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.