Monday, April 23, 2012

A canvas being painted with the image of Christ...

Sermon for Easter 3B, preached on Sunday, April 22, 2012 (and, humbly submitted in the Concordia Pulpit Resources for this year by this author).

    How familiar is the ritual of relatives parading by the face of the child to suggest who he or she looks like.  The shape of the head, the color of the eyes or hair, the shape of the nose, the ears, the chin – they all hold forth hints to what this child will look like when he or she grows up.  Time does not always follow a predictable pattern.  Things change.  Faces change.  Sometimes it is easy to see the face of the future in our children and other times it is hidden, with only glimpses of what will be revealed.  That is also true of us as Christians.  Scripture often reminds us that here on earth we have but a vague glimpse of what will be made plain only when Christ comes again.  St. Paul describes how for now we look through the mirror dimly (1 Co 13:12).  The surprise is not that this future will be different than what we have been told but that our imagination is not up to the task of seeing all that God is revealing (1 Co 2:9). 
    As much as we want to know and predict the future God is unfolding in Christ, we are limited by the fact that we live in an earthly world with a mortal frame.  We see through eyes that have the blinders of this present moment, of sin, and of death upon them.  We look for what will be and see only vague images.  What sustains Christians is not a clear picture of the future but the promise and presence of God who is with us now.  We are God's children  now says John in today’s Epistle.  He has restored us as His own in Christ, marked us as His own in baptism, declared us righteous and holy in Christ (though we see more clearly our sin and failures).  That said, we are not without a pattern of what is to come and that pattern is Christ.  What He is, we shall be, in the glorious flesh and blood that death cannot touch, without tear or regret to diminish our joy.
    For too many of us this is not only a puzzle but a problem.  We tend to demand that God reveal all before we believe any of it.  Like Thomas who refused to believe what he did not see or touch for himself.  When troubles touch our lives, we become like Job who demands to know why these afflictions have befallen him.  God does not explain Himself to us or give in to our stubborn demands.  Instead He points us to Jesus.  It is enough to see Jesus for in Jesus, we see our own future.  Remember when Philip asks to see the Father and Jesus insists that if he has seen Jesus, Philip has seen the Father as much as the Father can be seen and known until our condition changes (Jn 14:8).  The Epistle today says that our future is seen only in Christ.  If we see Christ, we see enough.  Our hope is based not upon seeing or knowing all but trusting Him who is our future.  If you have Jesus, you have enough. He is the author or pioneer who cuts the path through dead.  He is the first born of the dead to wear the glorious body that never wears out.  If you have Jesus you have enough.
    In Habakkuk 2:1-4 we read: "I will take my stand at my watchpost and station myself on the tower, looking to see what he will say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint.  And the Lord answered me: ‘Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it.  For the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay... the righteous shall live by faith.'"
    The vision is the future God is preparing for us.  But the vision awaits its time – God's time.  Our lives never follow a straight path yet we trust in the goal and outcome of our lives, the promise of the Father fulfilled in Jesus.  Like the painter facing a canvas, God is at work painting His future on our lives.  Because we are not the painter, we cannot always see or make out what is on the canvas of our lives.  God calls us to patience and bids us trust.
    At the last few National Youth Gatherings, there has been a guy there they call the Jesus Painter.  In jeans and a tee shirt he comes to do his thing.  With housepaint, a huge canvas, and a 4 inch brush he slaps the paint on in what seemed a willy nilly, random fashion.  It does not take forever but the time passes slowly as he paints with brush and hand on the canvas.  Just when it seems the image is nothing, it becomes clear.  It is the face of Jesus.  No matter what he paints, it is always the face of Jesus.
    Like the Jesus painter whose picture was a mystery, our lives are mystery -- hidden and discernable only by God and His Spirit at work in us,  among us, and through us.  We get glimpses but seldom more.  But all we need we see in crucified and risen Jesus.  We trust in Him because He is our future.  The vision is not given by Jesus, it IS Jesus!
    What God is painting upon the canvas of our lives is not some reflection of our hopes, dreams, priorities, or desires.  Our hopes, dreams, and desires are pale and shallow reflections of the greater glory God has in mind for us.  What God is painting upon the canvas of our lives is nothing less than Jesus Christ.  The old "me" is going and the new "me" arises by the grace of God flowing from my baptism.  The new me looks like Jesus – I shine with His righteousness and I reflect His holiness.  This is God's work, painting upon the canvas of our hearts, identities and lives the saving work of Jesus. 
    God is at work in the lives of all the baptized.  But we share one goal in common.  Remember John the Baptist, saying, "He must increase, I must decrease."  God paints the old person away so that the new person we are in Christ may arise from the ruins of what was.  It is all the work of grace.
    All creation groans in expectation of this future, the completion of all things, and the final revelation of all that will be.  But for now we live in this tension of waiting and trusting.  I know you want it all.  So do I.  But we can't.  We wait upon the painter Jesus to finish what He has begun in us.  You know, the words we pray after the absolution every Sunday.  May He who began this good work within you bring it to completion on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
    The brush of God is His Word – the written Word of Scripture and the visible Word of the Sacraments.  Through these means of grace God is at work in me and on me, painting Christ into my mind, heart, and life.  But all too often we see only are the individual brush strokes – the twists and turns of life – instead of the completed and final picture which God alone sees.
    This is also true of us as a congregation.  God is painting us as well.  We are not yet what we shall be, not what we were, but always becoming – as the painter's canvas slowly unfolds the image of what the picture will be.  The picture never changes – it always looks like Jesus.
    When they lay that child in your arms for the first time, no parent can see the future.  Now how the child will look or what the child will become.  But the parent joyfully waits in expectation of that grand day of revelation.  For now rejoicing in each day lest those days of our children’s lives pass by us without memory.  So it is with us.  We have joy in this moment because we are confident of what God is doing, because we have confidence in His grace and His purpose, and because we know the power of His grace.  So we do not fix our minds on what we cannot see or know but on what we know in the crucified and risen Lord.  He will bring it to pass.  That is enough for God’s children now and that is enough for the future waiting to be unveiled in God/s time.
    If you are lost, confused, weary or dismayed, remember who the painter is.  We endure not because we see or understand what God is doing but because we trust in Him to keep His promise.  We are all works in progress.  We are saved in Christ – we add nothing to what His death has accomplished.  We are even now being saved as through Word and Sacrament God give us this grace, working out our salvation.  We will be saved on that day when this life is no more, when heaven and earth pass away and the new He's promised comes into its fullness and we see as God sees without any distractions or doubts.  Amen.


Anonymous said...

Dear Rev. Peters:

I was joyfully with you, until I came to these words, “’…If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay... the righteous shall live by faith.'
The vision is the future God is preparing for us. But the vision awaits its time – God's time.”

Habakkuk is not speaking of the hereafter, just as our Lord was not preaching about the hereafter when He was proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom. Habakkuk prophesied about the same thing as our Lord, Who spoke of the Kingdom that began with His resurrection and became full-blown on Pentecost. “We are God’s children now”, you wrote earlier and those who are God’s children live by faith NOW. Somehow I think we trivialize the work of God if we think He is constantly arranging every tiny detail of our lives for some future grand future purpose in our lives. He did His work in His Son; as for the rest of it, He has prepared our future before the foundation of the world, Matthew 25:34, "’Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world…”

The difference between who we will be at the last moment of our lives and the first moment in Paradise is so vast that our petty little problems or our pitiful progress in becoming more sanctified are not worth being mentioned in the same context. St. Paul wrote that, and he did not write about trivialities, but the kind of suffering he had experienced which none of us are likely to even come close to.

We often think that the purpose of our lives is to become as sanctified as possible, and sometimes we even suggest that if we do not reach a certain level of sanctification, our salvation is questionable. But our Lord taught us in words and example that the whole point is not in making sure our salvation is secure. He took care of that! Even on the cross His concerns were not for Himself but for others. How can we follow His command to love one another if we are constantly concerned about what is becoming of us? Faith, the faith in which we live now, convinces us that His Word is true, “we are God’s children now,“ and “we will be like Him.”

It’s not about us, it’s about Him. The secret is not in agonizing about our faults or about what we will be like at the end or our lives, but in forgetting about ourselves, and living for others. Even then, that will not save us, because we are God’s children now. That is our joy without which we cannot let go of ourselves.

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart

Pastor Peters said...

Quote: Somehow I think we trivialize the work of God if we think He is constantly arranging every tiny detail of our lives for some future grand future purpose in our lives.

Where did I say that? I cannot see that I said that at all. The grand future is the completion of the good work begun in us. That is about the God who is at work in us every day by grace.

Quote: We often think that the purpose of our lives is to become as sanctified as possible, and sometimes we even suggest that if we do not reach a certain level of sanctification, our salvation is questionable.

Who said that this was about our increasing holiness or reaching a certain level of sanctification? George, either I am not communicating to you or you are reading into my words something I do not think is there.

We look through the mirror dimly... we are God's children now but the work of God is not complete in us until we die. So we do not grow weary or lose heart or fret the slowness of God's work. It awaits its time, the time, when Christ shall be fully formed in us. Period. Not about increasing holiness or achieving some nirvana here on earth but trust in the God who is at work in us now but that work is not yet complete in us. We shall be most like Christ when finally we exchange this frail flesh for the glorified flesh and blood of His promise, which He wears already, as the One who has gone before us to prepare the way.

Did I not say this?

Anonymous said...

Dear Rev. Peters: To your first, “where did I say that?” I have to respond with “where did I say that you said that?”

My question deals simply with whether Habakkuk’s vision refers to the end time or to the beginning of the Kingdom our Lord proclaimed. My assertion is that it refers to a specific point in time from which all of Christianity takes its starting point. The righteous live by faith now. The rest is simply commentary (nowhere attributed to you) on what we see and hear when the fulfillment of this vision is placed at some time in the future.

With regard to the completion of God’s work in us, my point is that if we think that the degree of sanctification achieved by even the greatest saints in this life is more than an infinitely small fraction of what God will achieve in us in our first moment in Paradise, then we are mistaken.

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart

Pastor Peters said...

The beginning of the Kingdom includes its end and fulfillment. For the promise is not the beginning but the beginning that leads to its fullness and fulfillment.

George, I am not so sure that I would call God painting Christ in us "sanctification" because that word has become synonymous with the very thing you mention -- personal holiness and good works. My point here is that sanctification is not me becoming holy but Christ living in me -- He must increase, I must decrease -- not in some regretful sense of me sacrificing my own identity but that my identity is dead, killed in baptism, and the one who lives now is Christ in me. It is our growing awareness of this and our joyous response to this that is the work of the Spirit in our daily lives.

Anonymous said...

Dear Rev. Peters: There are countless passages in the New Testament that show without a shadow of a doubt that the Holy Spirit, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity lives in each one of God’s children. And He is not increasing or decreasing, because He is fully God and cannot be quantified. He is either in a person or not – no other possibilities. I know of no other passage besides Galatians 2:20 where it is said that “it is Christ who lives in me” (if you do, please let me know). But you have to take into account that just before that St. Paul writes, v 19, “I have been crucified with Christ,” which obviously is not true, unless St. Paul is speaking metaphorically. So Christ also dwells in him metaphorically; in fact what St. Paul means is that to have faith is to have “Christ live in you.”

When John the Baptist said that “He must increase, but I must decrease,” he obviously did not mean this in any spiritual way, and certainly he did not imply anything about Christ living in him. So, I think we have to be careful when we put together different forms of discourse and try to come up with something inspiring. The worst example of this that I know is, “Sed tantum dic verbum et sanabitur anima mea.” It sounds pious and so beautiful, but it is a denial of the Gospel which states that God has, in fact, healed our souls in Baptism, which was made possible by the atoning death of His Son, so that we should not come to Him again and again as if He had not done it. As I am sure you know, this is part of the Agnus Dei sung in the Roman Catholic mass, but we cheerfully take it over into our liturgy without thought of its implication. It adds theological content to a historical event in the tradition of allegorical interpretation, which obscured the Gospel for over ten centuries.

I know what sanctification is, and I can read about it in the Scriptures and the Confessions. But when I want to get some more details on “painting Christ in us” I run into a dead end. I suspect when all is said and done, it is good old “sanctification” or “growing in Christ”, but expressed just a little differently. Which is fine, as long as it does not end up in unfamiliar territory.

And let us not sadden the Holy Spirit. He really lives in us just as the Body and Blood of our Lord really are in the bread and wine of Communion. It seems we are always saying, “We don’t want You, we want Jesus.” Please no arguments based on concomitance.

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart

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