Thursday, May 17, 2007

A Sacred Trust

The blessings of our ascended Savior be on you! Here is a sermon I preached on Ascension Day during my first year as a pastor.

Mark 16:14-20
And afterward He appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at the table; and He reproached them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who had seen Him after He had risen. And He said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it shall not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover." So then, when the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them, and confirmed the word by the signs that followed.
It’s a pity modern scholars take such a dim view of these last verses in Mark, which many consider less than authentic. I assure you, this passage is God’s Word. They are troublesome words, though, as you may know if you follow the news. For every so often, someone in a charimatic sect in Kentucky or West Virginia dies as a result of picking up serpents or drinking poison, to test whether they are as Jesus says, “those who have believed.” Such are the disastrous effects of taking a figure of speech as word-for-word literal. Too bad they aren’t as keen on what Jesus said when the devil tempted him to jump off the temple spire and test God’s promise that the angels would catch him. Jesus responded with a quote from Deuteronomy: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”

It is not faith, but unbelief that seeks to test the Lord’s promises in such a reckless way. Imagine what it would be like if your child threw himself in front of a speeding car, to test if you loved him enough to push him out of the way. Would you be flattered or horrified? Would you be impressed by your child’s faith in your love, or deeply hurt to be forced to prove it? Sadly, some holy-roller Christians can’t be sure they are saved unless they prove their faith. They don’t think you have the Holy Spirit unless you speak in tongues, cast out demons, and heal the sick as Jesus said here. So they gamble with their lives, and often lose, to find out whether they are saved—not at all trusting in the Lord’s promises. They are very impressed when someone demonstrates the kind of “faith” they look for—and so they are vulnerable to shysters who know how to fake it. Trust needs no proof.

Jesus’ words at the end of Mark are not a prescription for what we must do to be saved, or to demonstrate true faith. They are a description of the mighty things Jesus’ disciples were going to do, and still do. They depict the cosmic combat between good and evil, between the forces of God and the legions of the devil. This battle takes place at the point where God’s Word meets the world. This battle takes place in the life and witness of Christians.

Jesus has ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God. From there he rules with heavenly power over all things, and inspires the Church with His Holy Spirit. But on earth, he has left the proclamation of his Word to us. That is a sacred trust, dear friends. “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature,” Jesus commands. “He that believes and is baptized shall be saved; he that disbelieves shall be damned.” What an awesome trust: the salvation of sinners is at stake. The church preaches the Gospel and baptizes; those who believe are saved. So as we carry out the mission Christ has given his church, he brings his saving power to bear on men’s hearts. He who died on the cross for our sins, and rose again for our justification, now sits on high and doles out forgiveness and salvation through his Church and his Means of Grace. By these means Christ gives faith, life, and victory to those who are dead in sins; but he has given them to us in trust. Our hands serve, our feet travel, our mouths speak these things; but through us, Christ is the one doing them.

So preaching, teaching, and baptizing are a sacred stewardship from God. As long as we belong to Christ, we are called to do them. As long as we are God’s people, we have no choice. And conversely, wherever these things are done, that is where the church is. Whatever other fine things an organization may do, if it does not proclaim the Gospel and wash away sins, it is not Christ’s Church. And whatever seemingly important or enjoyable things our congregation may not do, as long as Word and Sacrament are here, we remain Jesus’ witnesses in the world.

It is a daunting task, for the word of God does not often please men, and secondary things can be mistaken for the main deal. Helping the needy, caring for the environment, entertaining performances, exciting testimonials, day-care, twelve-step groups, and bingo, are no more of the essence of the church than speaking in tongues, miraculous healings, or handling poisonous snakes. They may be more or less good things for Christians to do; but the “one thing needed” is Jesus’ saving Word. Those other things may make you feel more sincerely Christian, but only God’s Word and Sacraments are backed up by the express commands and promises of our Lord Jesus Christ.

A second aspect of our sacred trust comes to mind. Jesus, after all, sits at the right hand of God. He is not here in the flesh to do this work; we do it in his name, so that it is just as if he does it himself. It is like being an ambassador, it is what it means to be an “apostle”—the sent one acts on behalf of the sender. All that the sent one does, is lawfully considered the work of the sender. “Just as the Father has sent me,” Jesus said, “so I send you.” So in a manner of speaking, we are an incarnation of our Lord in our time; or, perhaps a better way of putting it, he is sacramentally present in all that we do in his name. You are Christ to your neighbor; your Pastor is Christ to you. Your witness as a Christian is what God has to say to the unbelievers or unchurched in your life, just as my proclamation as your Pastor is God’s Word for you. Now consider: is the message you get across a message of invitation and hope? A message of grace and life? Aha! You see how serious this sacred trust is.

And then again, this stewardship involves suffering. The one who reigns for you at God’s right hand, has carried a cross for you and died on it for you. That is how he accomplished your salvation: he suffered in exchange for your sins, he died to undo the bonds of death. By the death of one, life has come to us all. As you live and work under him, carrying on his work in trust, you must expect nothing else than a cross and a sword. As the master is, so is the slave. And so Jesus says: “These signs will accompany those who have believed: in my name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it shall not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” These words contain a number of sober truths.

Number one, you will encounter ugliness, hatred, and opposition; you will meet pain, horror, and sin; you will see the sticky residue of all that is evil in human nature. For you live for a Gospel that does battle with these things, both in yourself and, if God gives you strength, in others. You wouldn’t want to be “the Exorcist,” because that would be pretty scary. The real-life demons you encounter may not spew pea-soup, but they do make a mess. You will wrestle with guilt, you will struggle with unbelief, you will feel inadequate in the hour of trial, you will be at a loss for words when your faith is challenged. Your loved ones, even your superiors, may give you a painful choice between speaking a risky truth or becoming a silent co-conspirator in wrongdoing. Remember then your sacred trust.

Number two, you will be given words to say in times of need, words welling up from the Spirit of God that is planted in you. Don’t be afraid to speak, whatever the consequences may be; and don’t worry about what you will say, if you have learned God’s Word well. I hope and pray that you will see to that, and keep building on the foundation the Lord has already laid. For that, too, is part of your stewardship.

Number three: you will be seared by experience. You will undergo trials in body, soul, and spirit—trials by sickness, trials by unfaithful loved ones, trials perhaps by disaster, accident, conflict, or poverty. These too are common ground that Christians share with their Lord. But if I say once more, remember your sacred trust and just gut it out, you might ask, “What more will you demand of us now?” But remember that in none of this are you alone. Christ has gone through it before, and not only that, he is with you. And as you abide in him, he abides in you. His strength will be perfected in your weakness. His purpose will be done, not only in spite of your failures and troubles, but through them.

And here is the final bit of comfort from Jesus’ words: though you wrestle with the serpent, it will not hurt you; and when you touch the sick, they will get well. In other words, with Christ at your side, you will prevail. With the power of God’s Word in our hands, all things are possible. When sinners seek forgiveness, they can find it in the word entrusted to the church. When mourners look for consolation, they can find it in the Gospel we proclaim. And when our dead bodies are laid down in the dust, we know they will rise again because of the power of Christ that works on us in Word and Sacrament. When you are tempted, you will prevail. Though you are beaten down, God will raise you up. Though you do battle with the forces of evil, though you look into the very jaws of hell, you are already victorious in Jesus Christ. And though this congregation struggles even to survive, we know that wherever the Gospel is, it does what God intended it to do. We are conquerors, and more than conquerors, in Him who has been raised to God’s right hand. That is our sacred trust.

If it were all on us to accomplish this work, we could only fail and bring down ruin and destruction. But with the Lord working with us, and confirming his word with mighty signs, we labor not in vain. With the Sacraments and the Scriptures testifying to us, and through us, of our hope in Jesus Christ, our final victory is guaranteed. And therefore, come fat years or thin, the church that is here and wherever the Means of Grace are, will stand before the Lord and his eternal throne of grace.

IMAGES: Paintings of the ascension by Niccolo da Foligno (d. 1502); anonymous (reproduction of medieval work); Pietro di Francesco Orioli (1458-1496); anonymous (stained glass); Jean Fouquet; Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506); James Tissot (1886-1894).

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