Sermon


Sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fareham, on Easter morning, 24 April 2011.
Text: Mark 16:1–8
To listen to the sermon, click here.

We know very little about the evangelist Mark. But of one thing we can be fairly certain: he never did go on a creative writing course. What an awful way to end a book:

“Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Said nothing? ! Nothing? !

Were afraid? !

What started as the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God—Mark’s famous opening line—ends up with this crushing anti-climax. Jesus is risen, but no one hears about it, because the women said nothing to anyone because they were afraid.

In fact, it’s such an awful way to end the Gospel, that some time after Mark had finished writing his, some people came along and tried to make amends for his seeming incompetence by writing better conclusions. If you look up Mark 16 in your Bibles, you will find at least two different endings after verse 8, which break the women’s silence and end the story as it should end. And in more recent times, since it has become obvious that those longer endings aren’t original, well-meaning scholars have suggested all sorts of theories as to why Mark didn’t actually get to finish the gospel, or how his real ending got lost somewhere.

But is it really so bad? Do we need to be embarrassed or even puzzled? Closer examination of the gospel suggests that the opposite may be the case.

One of the really distinctive things about Mark’s account of Jesus’ life and teaching is that he deliberately portrays all the people in the Gospel, from Jesus down, in their full humanity. There are no caricatures, not polished or stylised characters. When the disciples are being thick and slow on the uptake, Mark doesn’t hide that. When they stick their feet firmly in their mouths, Mark makes sure that we know about it. And when Jesus is in agony, suffering first in Gethsemane and then on the cross, Mark gives to us a portrait of a man genuinely suffering: in the Garden, prostrate on the ground, begging for the cup of suffering to be taken away; and on the cross, crying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me! ”

There is a great comfort in this. When we struggle with the weakness of our faith, or when our own agenda takes over God’s will, Mark kindly reminds us that we are not alone. The great apostles were just the same, and yet Jesus chose them to be His ambassadors to the world, bringing about His kingdom by proclaiming His word. He bears with our weaknesses as He bore with theirs, and it is by His calling that we are made into God’s children, just as they were called not because of their excellence but simply because He chose them. And as He equipped the apostles for their ministry, so will He also equip us for our place in His kingdom, whatever that place may be. As the apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians: His power is made perfect in our weakness, because His grace is sufficient.

More than that, when He took on human flesh, it wasn’t just a bit of play acting, only pretending to be one of us. No, He suffered fear and anguish and temptation as we do. Therefore, He is able to sympathise with our weakness—not only in principle, or because He is all-knowing, but because He has experienced weakness, yet without sin.

And so it is most appropriate that Mark’s Gospel should end the way it does. The women fled the tomb and said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. Jesus was alive, but they had not encountered the risen Jesus, and so the news of His resurrection was not a comfort but a source of trembling and astonishment. It made no sense, they couldn’t believe really believe it, so they said nothing.

How typical—not only of them, but of every disciple in Mark’s Gospel: seeing yet not believing, missing what should be obvious. I mean, what more did they need? An empty tomb, and an angel explaining exactly what it all meant. The meaning should have been obvious. They should have rejoiced and told everyone, not trembled and told no one.

But, again Mark is doing us a great favour in drawing attention to the women’s unbelief. Because it shows that we are not alone with our doubts and struggles, our fears and our fearfulness. The facts are evident, and we are reminded of them week after week, year after year, as we hear the Scriptures read and proclaimed. There may be no angel from heaven, but angels of God, His messengers, have faithfully pointed to the empty tomb again and again, proclaiming that Jesus is alive and has gone ahead of us.

But where joy and courage should follow, there is trembling and astonishment. Where we should be quick of feet to tell everyone that the Lord has risen, we say nothing to anyone, because we are afraid.

And yet, we know how the story ends. Mark had no need to give the Gospel a neat ending, because everyone knew what happened next. Within a few short hours, the astonishment and fear had been replaced by rejoicing, and the silence had turned into breathless proclamation: He is risen! By the time Mark put pen to papyrus, the news of Christ’s resurrection had travelled thousands of miles all around the Roman empire and beyond, and it is still spreading.

Because it is His Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ. Death could not hold Him down, and the weakness of the women at the tomb could not hold back the life-giving news of His rising. When they encountered the risen Christ, His voice and His touch melted away their fear and turned their silence into joyful words.

Easter morning will not have been the last experience of fear and doubt for these first witnesses of the resurrection. Even though the encounter with the risen Lord dispelled their anxiety and replaced it with joy, after His ascension there will have been many anxious moments. Anxieties about daily bread, about health, anxieties in the face of persecution, anxiety in the face of approaching and impending death. Anxiety in the face of sin and doubt. The feelings of joy will have been a memory than a reality.

How would they recover the joy and the confidence? How do we gain, and regain the same joy and confidence that was theirs then?

True Christian joy comes from the encounter with the risen Jesus. That was true on Easter morning, and it is true now. The very joy of heaven will be the joy of the presence of the risen Jesus. When fear and anxiety threaten to take over our lives, we need to seek the presence of the risen Jesus. Even as we suffer, we can share Job’s confident hope: I know that my Redeemer lives: my life is no longer defined by my present circumstances but by the future hope made present now.

There is nothing airy-fairy or abstract about this encounter. Jesus is not your imaginary friend. No, the risen Lord is present here and now. He it is that is speaking to you, as He spoke to the startled disciples on the first Easter Sunday. His crucified and risen body is about to enter this room, as it entered through locked doors on the evening of the first Easter. You can touch His body as Thomas touched it and was transformed from doubting Thomas to believing Thomas. And as you encounter Him in the Divine Service, and through faith recognise that it is indeed He and that He is indeed living and present here for you, your doubts, fears and anxieties will go the same way that the doubts, fears and anxieties of the three women at the tomb.

Jesus is risen, and you too shall rise. Whatever havoc death is playing with your life now, Christ has overcome death—and so you, too, who are in Christ, will be victorious over death. It can only inflict temporary wounds, cast temporary shadows, provoke temporary fears. In Christ, you can stare all the failures and successes of this present life full in the face and declare with faithful Job:

I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.”

Alleluia, He is risen!
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

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A sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fareham, on Good Friday
22 April 2011
Text: John 19:26-27

In all the gruesome gore of the crucifixion, amidst the injustice and cruelty, and the terrible suffering and pain, John relates to us a most incongruous scene of touching affection:

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home. (John 19:26f.)

What a beautiful example of a son’s love for his mother. Even as He hangs on that cross dying, pushing His feet against the nails in an agonising, desperate and ultimately futile struggle for breath, He manages to show concern for the woman who brought Him into the world, ensuring that she has a home after His death.

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A sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on Maundy Thursday
21 April 2011
Text: John 13:1-15

The more you think about it, the stranger this Gospel reading is. We are very used to it, and we have learned what it means, which is a very good thing. But it is also a good thing to step back from the familiar and try to recover the strangeness of what John writes concerning the Last Supper.

The most obvious thing in this passage is that Jesus washed His disciples’ feet, and that this was not a natural thing for Him to do. In that culture, where people travelled on foot, wearing sandals, by dinner-time, most people’s feet would be in serious need of washing. A wealthy and hospitable host at a dinner would have the guests’ feet washed for them. You may remember Jesus’ rebuke to Simon the Pharisee, when the sinful woman washed the Lord’s feet with her tears and wiped them dry with her hair: “I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.” (Luke 7:44). Not having the facilities for washing His feet put Jesus in His place, as less than an honoured guest.

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A sermon preached on Quinquagesima Sunday, 6 March 2011 at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fareham. (Typos and all)
[Click here for audio]

1 Samuel 16:1–13
1 Corinthians 13:1–13
Luke 18:31–43

If you have read John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress, you may recall the trial of Mr. Faithful at Vanity Fair. The trial is a travesty of justice, because the sinful inhabitants are intent on getting rid of the godly voice that has appeared among them. The jury consists of Mr Blindman, Mr No-good, Mr Malice, Mr Love-lust, Mr Live-loose, Mr Heady, Mr High-mind, Mr Enmity, Mr Lyar, Mr Cruelty, Mr Hate-light, and Mr Implacable. To emphasise the injustice, and perhaps to get a few laughs to boot, Bunyan is unable to resist the obvious pun. The jury’s deliberation opens thus: “Mr Blind-man the Foreman, said, I see clearly that this man is an Heretick.”

How absurd: a man’s fate hanging on what the blind man sees. Bunyan, in none-too-subtle tones, describes the blindness of sin. How sinful people, blinded by their own sin, think that what they can perceive is all that there is, that the truth is that which lies before their darkened eyes, and who refuse to see anything other than the darkness which they mistake for light. As at Vanity Fair, so in the real world it’s an absurd, perhaps even offensive, notion: that the blind should instruct the seeing on what can be seen clearly.
Yet this morning, the evangelist presents just such a situation before us. As usual when Jesus went about His earthly life, He was surrounded by a crowd, so much so that as He approached Jericho, it brought about a small commotion. At the very least, the sensitive ears of the blind beggar of Jericho, could tell that something out of the ordinary was going on. But, being blind, he could needed others to fill in the details, namely that Jesus was coming to town. Up to this point, the story seems to confirm what I have just said: blindness is impotence, blindness brings about ignorance. Of all the people at the gates of Jericho that day, everyone knew what was going on, except the blind man. Had it not been for his curiosity and the kindness of the other bystanders, Jesus may well have passed by this unseeing beggar, unnoticed, never to return―since Jesus was already on His way to Jerusalem and the cross.

Apart from the word spoken to him, identifying Jesus as the cause of the strange stir, Bartimaeus―although Luke doesn’t mention it, the Gospel of Mark names the man as Bartimaeus, meaning the son of Timaeus―without the word, Bartimaeus would have remained in the ignorance of his blindness. But the moment he asks for an explanation and the word is spoken to him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by”, Bartimaeus springs into action, crying at the top of his voice, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me! ”
What a beautiful illustration of the power of the Word of God to break in on the ignorance of the blind. From birth, Bartimaeus’ world had been restricted to his four functioning senses. He was able to live, and to get about, but only just; safe in the familiar terrain of Jericho but ever to leave. Incapable of working, he was reduced to begging, a miserable and often short-lived existence at the mercy of others, in extreme hardship and extreme humiliation. It’s not for nothing that Scripture speaks of life lived in sin as darkness and of unbelievers as those blinded by sin. For such a life is just like that of blind Bartimaeus: people are able to live and get about, but only just: always one illness or accident away from death, capable of navigating the familiar terrain of this earth but unable ever to leave. Incapable of doing real work, loving God and the neighbour, work that sustains one eternally, they are reduced to scraping an existence that is sufficient in happy cases for some decades, before being snuffed out. As some anonymous realist put it: life is hard and then you die.

But when the Holy Spirit stirs such darkened lives with God’s word, blessed are those who, like Bartimaeus, have neighbours and by-standers at hand to declare the cause of these stirrings: Jesus of Nazareth is passing by. And blessed are those who, like Bartimaeus leap up and cry out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me! ” For Jesus never passes by anyone crying for mercy: there is nothing He delights in more than stopping to help such helpless beggars, showing mercy and giving impossibly rich gifts. Restoring sight to the blind, He literally gives them the life they could otherwise never have had. And how tragic it is when the blind have none to point them to Jesus, no one that will take them to that fountain of mercy, so that they are left in their dark ignorance. And how tragic it is when the blind are contented with their blindness and never cry out for mercy, allowing Jesus to pass by, ignoring the call of God’s word and turning their backs on the mercy and life He desires to give to all.

And so, it turns out that, though blind in his physical eyes, Bartimaeus wasn’t the blind man of Jericho at all. Like Mr. Blind-man of Bunyan’s creation, he was able to say―but he without a hint of sarcasm or irony―, “I see clearly where my hope lies.” Everyone else that day could see Jesus with their physical eyes, but the eyes of their souls looked right through Him. They could see His form and recognise Him―without ever seeing who He really was and what it meant that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by. Even the twelve, when Jesus reminded them, not for the first time, of what was about to happen to Him, of the fate which was the whole purpose of His earthly life―Luke tells us that they “understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.” They knew Him better than anyone else, they were His closest companions, yet they were blind. Jesus’ death, His sacrifice for them and for the whole world, took them completely by surprise because they failed to perceive the purpose for which He was sent by the Father.

The crowd outside Jericho recognised Him and were excited enough to create a small scene. And yet when Bartimaeus began to cry out for mercy, they showed themselves to be blind to who Jesus is by trying to silence Him. As if Jesus would be annoyed by the temerity of the beggar of Jericho, as if it was somehow an indignity that someone as important as Jesus should be disturbed or interrupted by someone as insignificant and miserable as a blind beggar. Even today, it’s not uncommon in many parts of the world that when something important happens in a city―a state visit, or some sporting event or an international summit―the potholes are filled, an extra lick of paint is splashed along the main streets … and the beggars are bussed out of town so as not to embarrass the hosts or to hassle the guests.

You see, it’s a timeless truth that beggars make us uncomfortable, especially the ones in genuine need. They are insistent, out of necessity, and get in our way. Their disabilities and hardships―the mangled limbs, the clouded eyes, the crying babies―intrude into our comfort zone, unwelcome reminders of the injustice of their suffering compared to our good fortune, producing guilt, resentment and, eventually, the necessary hardness that puts up the hand and says, “Sorry. I won’t help you.” And isn’t it true, that the more insistent the beggar, the harder it is to remain sympathetic?  The longer he goes on, the less likely he is to get a sympathetic hearing, until we stop our ears―or give something, not out of love to help the needy in his need, but out of frustration, just to shut him up. “Love is patient and kind; it is not … rude. Love is not irritable or resentful … it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” Who loves like this?

Well, clearly the people of Jericho didn’t seem to think that Jesus did. They assumed that Jesus was like them, and like us, finding beggars an embarrassment, a nuisance. They were blind to His love, to its nature and its depth. In the crowd that day, only the blind Bartimaeus saw clearly, saw that Jesus of Nazareth is neither embarrassed nor hassled by Bartimaeus. Jesus does not get riled by the insistence of those who beg of Him, but the very contrary is true. Jesus longs for us to beg, he desires our begging. To Him, it’s not a nuisance but a joy and a delight. Notice how impudent and insistent Bartimaeus was: the more they tried to shut him up, the more he cried. And notice Jesus’ reaction: unlike about everybody else, He wasn’t repelled by Bartimaeus’ begging, but drawn to it. Bartimaeus threw himself at the mercy of Jesus―and Jesus never turns away such beggars. That day, his eyes were opened. He found healing for his physical eyes because he had already been given the eyes of faith that recognised in Jesus his only hope. And so he not only received sight and a radical improvement in his quality of life, but through faith he received an eternal gift of sight and life. That’s why we know his name: Mark referred to him by name, because when Mark wrote his Gospel, Bartimaeus’ name was still recognised among the Christians for whom the Gospel was originally written.

And so, on that day in Jericho, Bartimaeus alone gave Jesus the royal welcome that was due to Him. In the ancient world, it was customary when the king visited a town for the populace to line the streets, and they would cry out, “Lord, have mercy”, in the hope that the king would hear their petitions for justice, a water supply, new roads, or whatever their immediate needs were. When the King of Kings entered Jericho, many were impressed, but only Bartimaeus gave Him His royal title, Son of David, and the royal welcome, “Lord, have mercy.”

And that cry still rings throughout the Christian church. In every Divine Service, we too cry out, “Lord, have mercy!  Christ, have mercy!  Lord, have mercy! ” It isn’t a cry for forgiveness―after all, the Kyrie comes almost immediately after we have been absolved of our sins. Rather, in the Kyrie, we come to Almighty God, as Bartimaeus once came to Jesus, with our petitions, for ourselves, for our loved ones, for the Church, and the world, entrusting our needs to the mercy of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The longer form of the Kyrie we sang this morning with its petitions, make this particularly clear. Likewise, this is why the petitions of the Prayer of the Church always conclude with an appeal to God’s mercy: ‘Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer’; ‘for this and that, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy’.

And like Bartimaeus, we are invited to beg openly, boldly and insistently―because Jesus does not pass by beggars in need, beggars who recognise their dire need and their only hope in Him. He sees all our needs, He delights in our asking for His help, and He delights in satisfying our needs―even though that sometimes means that He doesn’t give us what we ask when we would like it.

May God give us His grace that we will never tire of begging for His mercy, that at the last we may inherit the one thing that is needful, eternal life through the merits of His Son, our King and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on Septuagesima Sunday, 20 February 2011.
Text: Matthew 20:1–16

www.jesusmafa.comIt’s not fair! It isn’t even nearly fair.

A group of men had been working in the same vineyard. Some had worked the full day, probably nearly 12 hours; some for 9 hours, some for six, some three, and some just about an hour. And at the end of their respective shifts, everyone got paid the same, a denarius. That means that the last workers to join the working party in the vineyard got paid twelve times the hourly rate of the ones who worked the whole day—even though they got to do their bit in the cool of the day, while the others had laboured in the heat of the Mediterranean sun. Even though the fact that they had not been employed by anyone all day suggested that they were the dregs of the local labour market, like the one-legged footballer who always gets picked last by the team captain.

The only justice that could possibly come out of this strange story is what Jesus doesn’t tell us: what happened the next day. I’m pretty sure that the vineyard owner had a great deal of trouble getting anyone to work for him, at least not without some firm guarantees about fair rates of pay. In short, this is no way to run a business.

Now, we might sympathise with the vineyard owner’s reply when the first men complain about the wages of the late-comers—“Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? … Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity? ” After all, technically, he is quite within his rights and is allowed to pay people as he wishes. But he is being unfair, effectively penalising those who have worked hardest and rewarding those who have been idle all day. What would the union rep have to say about that?

More to the point, what would the church have to say about it? According to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, published by the Vatican, a just wage is the legitimate fruit of work and therefore “They commit grave injustice who refuse to pay a just wage or who do not give it in due time and in proportion to the work done.”

In other words, the vineyard owner’s defence is no defence at all. It certainly wouldn’t wash in an employment tribunal. Yes, technically he may be within his rights to pay whatever he pleases to whomever he pleases, but that doesn’t excuse the injustice.

A fair employer pays a fair wage, in proportion to the work done.

Which begs the question: what precisely is Jesus trying to teach us in this parable? That God is arbitrary and, ultimately, unjust in His dealings with us, blessing some in greater proportion than others?

It may certainly seem so, and, let’s be honest, it often feels so. Like the disgruntled workers, we are quick to envy the fortune of others. Some people just sail through life upon calm waters and under constant sunshine, while others leap from struggle to struggle. If the blessings were given in proportion to godliness and piety, perhaps it would be more acceptable. But as the Psalmist points out so frequently, just as often it’s the wicked who prosper while the godly struggle. It seems so unfair. And, if we are being more honest still, we sometimes find it hard to accept that while we may have laboured for years, perhaps all our lives, in the heat of the sun, bearing Christ’s cross, others sneak in to God’s kingdom at the last minute with a deathbed conversion, perhaps after a life life of great wickedness or even as enemies of the very cross for which we have suffered. It’s not fair.

However, let’s think a bit more about what the nature of the injustice in this parable is. In what way has the vineyard owner wronged the disgruntled workers? After all, they received their contractual pay. Moreover, the pay that had been agreed was a fair one. One denarius was the common daily rate of pay for casual labourers such as the workers in the parable. It was indeed a just wage, given in due time and in proportion to the work done.

No, their problem wasn’t with their wages. Their problem was with the wages of the other workers. It wasn’t that they were being paid too little for the work done—it was what they could expect from any employer. They grumbled because the others were being paid more than the just wage. They hadn’t minded being paid a denarius for 12 hours’ work—until someone else got paid a denarius for an hour’s work. Their reward was just fine by itself, but it suddenly seemed pitiful when compared to the reward of others.

In just the same way, it’s much easier to bear our own burdens when others are having a hard time, too. It’s when we feel that our lot is harder than that of others that we begin to grumble. How often have you consoled yourself with the thought that at least you know that there’s someone even worse off than you? If that is your hope, then what will you cling to when you run out of people who are worse off than you? When you lose everything—when life itself is taken away? After all, if not before, the moment you die, no one will be worse off than you, because at that moment you will get to the point from which there is no way out and no way up.

You see, the real problem is the attitude that says that what I have isn’t good enough unless I can be convinced that things couldn’t be better. It’s the old heresy that infected Adam and Eve when the serpent hissed in their ear: “You will be like God”—He is holding you back, He could be giving you more, but you won’t get it unless you take it. It’s the same heresy that poisoned Cain’s mind, so that he murdered his brother because he felt that God hadn’t given Him the recognition he deserved. It’s the same heresy that infected the people of Israel when, dissatisfied with God’s promise of salvation and all the mighty works He had done to save them, they yearned for the flesh pots of Egypt. It’s the heresy that had infected many Jewish people of Jesus’ time who were jealously guarding God’s word as their exclusive possession, so that no Gentiles would sneak in on their promised reward. The same heresy that still infects us today—us, who are quite happy with our denarius, provided no one else gets more, or no one less deserving gets the same.

But can you see what’s behind this attitude? What is the assumption made by everyone in this sorry saga: Adam, Eve, Cain, the Israelites, first-century Jews, you and me? We all assume that we are the 12-hour shift, the ones who actually deserve the denarius, and that no one deserves more, and that a great many people deserve less.

Even those of us who have begun to learn the meaning of the last words Luther wrote before he died—“We are beggars, this is true”—are still hard-wired to assume that there is a direct correlation between effort and reward; that there should be a just wage in proportion to the work done.

The truth couldn’t be more different. None of us is a 12-hour labourer. The work of the vineyard has been going on for a long time. Since creation was perverted by the sin of our forebears, God has been calling labourers into His vineyard, through whom He has been setting it right. When the Son of God became incarnate, died and rose again, the world entered that final hour that is traditionally called the end times. When the curtain of the temple was torn in two, and the full, final sacrifice was complete, the eleventh hour began, at the end of which the workers will be gathered and given their wages. It is 2000 years into this final hour that we have been called into the work of the vineyard. Those who began the work perished long ago; we labour but a few moments in God’s great project of restoring the garden out of which man was ejected for his own disobedience.

What should your reward be for your few moments? What have you deserved? Not even the meagre wage of the casual day labourer, the minimum wage of the denarius that will scarcely suffice to keep body and soul together.

And what is the reward that God has prepared for you? It is something that that no eye has seen and no ear has heard—a reward beyond your wildest dreams, far beyond your imagination. Not the fraction of a denarius that you may have earned, but the infinite riches that Christ has earned and now gifts to you. Already, we are enjoying the advance payment: the gifts of grace in the word of forgiveness, in the washing of new birth, in the medicine of immortality being offered at this altar.

What, then, are the troubles and trials of this life, compared to what God has pledged to give to us? What are the hardships in comparison with the joys that await us? Certainly they are far less than we deserve. Even when our lives turn into a living hell, we can be assured that, having been washed in the blood of the Son of God, this life is the only hell we will ever have to endure.

For Christ on His cross has endured all the torments of hell in your place so that you may enjoy His reward—and so your wages are being paid in proportion to the work He has done.

And so it is true: It really isn’t fair, thank God!

Sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fareham on 23 January 2011, Epiphany 4 [typos and all]

Naaman is one of those characters in the Bible whose story is familiar to almost everyone who has been to Sunday School for any length of time. Every time I read or hear the story myself, images of the fuzzy felt storyboard from my own Sunday School in the early ‘70s and ‘80s come flooding back.

And like so many of the biblical characters we encounter through Sunday School, Naaman gets a bit of a rough deal. He comes across as something of an anti-hero: he is the enemy general who has vanquished God’s people in battle, killed their king, kidnapped a poor Israelite girl as a slave, who shows no faith in the promise God makes through His prophet, and who is saved only after his servants persuade him to listen to the prophet. However, even a brief moment of self-scrutiny should make us realise that this is hardly fair on Naaman: he is certainly no worse than us. At every turn his reactions are just what you would expect from any normal, rational person. This passage is not a story about Naaman’s foolishness—it is a story about God’s foolishness, about how God saves us through wonderfully foolish means.

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A sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on the feast of the Holy Innocents, 2 January 2011, by Pastor Charles Varsogea.

Text: Matthew 2: 13-23

I’m not from here. Which means that I need you to answer the following question for yourselves. Do you think of yourself as a country at war? You’re shrinking the Ministry of Defense and your Navy has given up fixed wing aviation for now, which aren’t the kinds of things warring nations do, yet Herrick 14 is about to begin. In a few months Royal Marines, young Englishmen, people, are going to begin dying. At home the death toll is a constant presence. The names of the dead are solemnly read on the news at the end of each week and yet we Americans still need to be reminded that ours is a nation at war.

This has been such a long war and so unusually fought that we’ve begun to get used to it. My youngest children have never known even a day during which their country was not at war. They have no idea whether peace is any different. They have to take it on faith that there is something other than war, some other way to exist. The same is true for many children in the world and for most of those children it is a much more personal and terrible experience. The war is waged in and around their homes and they are far too often casualties themselves. Once you get used to waging war though it is easy to forget what your goals are. It can be difficult to remember what victory is. All you want to do is get through the current misery and find some comfort before the next wave of fighting starts.

We’ve gathered here this morning, a bunch of nice people with kind hearts, to encourage one another and to worship God. This hall belongs to the Boy Scout, the very epitome of neighborliness and helpfulness. We’re all busy trying to stay well and pay our bills and keep our families together. It doesn’t feel like were at war. But even if the Taliban were to suddenly blink out of existence and all of our soldiers and sailors and airmen and Marines could home we’d still be at war. Today’s Scripture lessons all serve to remind us of the endless war that the devil, the world and our flesh wages against God , His Word and, alas, His people.

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