Longing for the Riches of Heaven (Luke 16:19-31)

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost + September 25, 2016
Text: Luke 16:19-31
When you’re a kid you can’t wait until your birthday—when I’m 7, I’ll get to…   For adults that still happens, except that we’re not looking forward to being another year older.  We look forward to vacations, getting a raise, or buying a house.  This sense of anticipation, of longing for something better, is what drives people through life.
Anticipation is also a prominent feature in lives of God’s children.  We live in anticipation of something better, more glorious, and perfect.  As St. Paul says, “In this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”[1]
It’s wonderful to meditate on the hope of eternal life, where we will be with the Lord and never have to leave Him.  But while we’re here in this life, the flip side of our anticipation is longing.   It’s a longing that we’re filled with every time there’s a reminder of how far off heaven is.  Chronic illness, poverty, temptation, and children being drawn away from the faith.  Doubt and affliction assail us and fill us with a hunger that cannot be satisfied here in this life.
The story of Lazarus[2] and the Rich Man is a picture of this longing to be satisfied.
19 “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores.”
We’re told very little about Lazarus, but what we are, we can assume that this is how his life was.  He was constantly hungry, perhaps he never had good health, and what little housing he had was barely adequate.  He lived in destitution.  In stark contrast, we see the rich man, who is the exact opposite—filled to the point of being gorged, dressed luxuriously, and having no pangs of want except when it’s time for the next meal.
Then comes that great equalizer: “The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried.”  And now there’s a great reversal between the two men: the rich man is in agony, while Lazarus is comforted.   But this isn’t to say Lazarus is being rewarded for his years of poverty, or that the rich man is being punished for having it easy.  While Jesus goes on to stress the importance of hearing the Word while we’re living, this is what the Word of God tells us: This is a broken and corrupt world because of sin—human sin, and we are all contributors.  Poverty, disease, injustice, hatred, and even death are the fallout of sin.  Some of the things we’re personally responsible for, but others like natural disasters and freak accidents no party can be blamed.
The hope for healing this sick world came when God sent His Son into it.  Of Him, John the Baptist says, “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”[3]  Through the Christ, God will right what is wrong and bring about a new creation out of this one.  He began it in Jesus’ birth, completed it on the cross and in His resurrection and ascension, and He will fulfill it completely when Jesus comes again in glory on the Last Day.
As God’s children, we live in between those two monumental events: the Ascension and Last Day.  Our way to Abraham’s bosom has been secured by Christ and received by faith.  Our share in His eternal, perfect Kingdom will mean an end to all suffering, as the angel tells John in Revelation: “He who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”[4]  That is our sure and certain hope.
But today we wait, and next week, and next year…until whenever He gathers us to Himself or comes like a thief in the night.  As life wears on, though, it becomes more difficult to feel at home in this world.  As we age, lose our health, see friends and family members die, and maybe even end up stuck in a nursing home, we can identify with Lazarus more and more.  We long to be satisfied because we’ve had it with the sin and trouble of this place.
But even while we wait on the Lord to deliver us, we have the comfort and strength we’ll need.  Just because we’re in anticipation doesn’t mean that God has abandoned His people.  The sons of Israel waited 40 years before they were brought across the Jordan, but His presence went with them in the Pillar of cloud and fire.[5]  The exiles in Babylon waited 70 years before He brought them back to Zion.[6]  The point is that He has been faithful to His people in anticipation in generations past, and He’s no different to each of us in His Church today.
Lazarus was poor in every earthly respect you can think of, destitute of the “good things” of this world.  Yet even though he was poor and needy in these ways, Lazarus was rich through his faith.  God had showered upon Him the riches of being a son of God, a citizen of His Kingdom.   As a man of faith, Lazarus also realized that he was a sojourner on the earth.  His stay in this body riddled by disease and pangs of hunger was passing away with each day.  But because God had an inheritance overflowing with goodness, Lazarus departed this life for his permanent home with the Lord.
It’s the same way for you and me in Christ.  Whether we’re rich or poor in daily bread, God showers us with spiritual, eternal riches.  In popular culture we’re bombarded with dreams of eating out all the time, driving a new car, having a vibrant retirement where you travel the world.  But don’t feel that God is depriving you if you shop at Grocery Outlet, nurse a beater with 190,000 miles, and are too riddled with arthritis to make it down the stairs (much less to Tahiti).  God is not depriving you because you are His child.  The gifts He promises, He abundantly fulfills.  You have His Word and the gift of the Holy Spirit living in you!  You have His full forgiveness and victory over death itself!  You have a God Who neither slumbers nor sleeps and Who commands His angels to guard you against dangers physical and spiritual![7]
We live in anticipation as God’s beloved children, never alone and never forsaken.  “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” the Lord says, “for they shall be satisfied.”  At long last, the day will come for us to leave this valley of sorrow and be gathered to Abraham’s bosom.   In full assurance that God will grant this, let’s pray the last stanza of one of our hymns:
Lord, let at last Thine angels come,
To Abr’ham’s bosom bear me home,
    That I may die unfearing;
And in its narrow chamber keep
My body safe in peaceful sleep
    Until Thy reappearing.
And then from death awaken me,
That these mine eyes with joy may see,
    O Son of God, Thy glorious face,
    My Savior and my fount of grace.
Lord Jesus Christ, my prayer attend, my prayer attend,
And I will praise Thee without end.[8]  Amen.
[1] Romans 8:24-25
[2] Different person from Lazarus of Bethany.  Lazarus is the Greek form of Eleazar, “one whom God helps.” (Eerdman’s Bible Dictionary)
[3] Luke 3:5
[4] Revelation 7:15-17
[5] Exodus 33:14
[6] Jeremiah 25:12
[7] Acts 2:38-39, Job 19:25-27, Psalm 121 and 90.
[8] “Lord Thee I Love With All My Heart” (Lutheran Service Book 708:3)

Freed to Serve with Eternal Riches (Luke 16:1-15)

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost + September 18, 2016
Text: Luke 16:1-9
Some parables which our Lord tells are easier to understand than others.  Take last Sunday’s about the Shepherd looking for His lost sheep.  It’s easy to identify as the sheep who Jesus takes up on His shoulders and carries home rejoicing.  Then there’s today’s story, which isn’t so much a parable about the Kingdom of God, but rather a lesson for those in the Kingdom.  At first blush, it seems like the Lord is advocating that we break the Seventh Commandment, “You shall not steal.”  The manager cooks the books at the expense of his master and for his own benefit.  At the end, he’s commended by the master “for his shrewdness.”  Is our Lord encouraging a “goals justify the means” method for the Gospel?  It’s as if He said, “It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as it results in ‘winning people’ for the kingdom.”
However, that’s not the right lesson to take from this parable.  In verse 8, the manager is called more than “dishonest”; he’s called “unjust.”  That’s not an example for Christians to follow.  His master commends his shrewdness, not his actions.  In terms of mammon, this unrighteous manager is a pro: He cleverly used earthly goods to reach an earthly goal.  His brilliance is right up there with Charles Ponzi, Bernie Madoff, and corporations that shelter themselves from tax by locating in Ireland.
As I said, this is a parable for the sons of light.  This is a lesson for the unjust who have been declared just through faith in Jesus Christ.  Our hopes are for more than peace and security in this world.  In this life, people cheat and wrong each other left and right.  A person who succeeds at swindling is kept up at night worrying the same will happen to him.  But as for us, we have been redeemed from futile pursuits by the Creator who poured out the priceless blood of His Son for us.  What’s more, if he’s secured “eternal dwellings” for us, how much more will He provide for the needs of this present life![1]
Now, here’s the lesson from this unjust manager: “For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.”  Does that mean that we can buy our  way or someone else’s way into heaven?  Absolutely not.  It’s another way that Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”[2]
Whether it’s for Christians or unbelievers, it’s true that money goes to what we love.  The sons of this world know how to spend their money on what matters most to them.  They stay up at night wondering how they can make just a few more dollars, make their lives just that much easier, and help the people they love most.
And Jesus says Christians should do the same thing!  Our money should go to what we love.  Our eyes have been opened to see that all we have, is provided by God: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”[3]  Our hearts have been renewed with love toward God and our neighbor, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”[4]  So, our money goes to what we love: the spread of the Gospel and helping our neighbor.  That’s what stewardship is.
And we do love God, don’t we?  We love Him because “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”[5]  He willingly bled and died to take the wrath of God away from us.  We love that He rose from the dead so that that we can know for sure if we die later today or Jesus comes back tomorrow, we can stand before Him without fear.  We love that He has called us to believe this Gospel!  Here especially at Bethlehem, we love that He calls men to serve Him as pastors to preach this Gospel.  We love that He equips pastors, missionaries, deaconesses, and charities to spread His love all over the world.  And finally, we love that we’re here right now and have a beautiful place to gather and receive eternal gifts from our Lord each week.
And because we love all of this, the sons of light—you and me—give our money so that it continues.  It’s important to us—more so than groceries, mortgages, bills, hobbies, and vacations—so we give the first of what we have to support it.  “On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper,”[6] St. Paul writes to the Corinthians.  And we do this gladly, because “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”[7] We do it out of love for every one of them!
Now, the sermon could end there, if we were completely renewed and without sin, but we also need to hear the rest of the text:
10 “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? 13 No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”
Remember where we came from: we are the unjust who have been declared just through faith, but we come from unjust stock—we are by nature sinful and unclean.[8]  It’s always a short step for us to say, “Lord, Lord” to our bank account or the job that funds it.  So the Lord tests our hearts to know what’s in them and to make sure that our faith is in Him.[9]  Each of us ought to examine our own heart regularly to see whom we have been serving.
“No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”  In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:19), Jesus says this just after, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal.”  Don’t put your hope in earthly treasure, because it is passing away.  That’s like building a sand castle and calling it your “forever home.”  Put your hope in God and the heavenly home He has waiting for you in Christ.
It’s sound advice.  But when it comes to money, we are not always sound thinkers.  Even Job faltered on this.  Job was left destitute so he said, “God has cast me into the mire, and I have become like dust and ashes. 20 I cry to you for help and you do not answer me; I stand, and you only look at me. 21 You have turned cruel to me; with the might of your hand you persecute me.”[10]  Because he lost his earthly treasure, he was sure he had lost his God.
And who of us can’t relate?  But our Lord challenges our attachment to the things of this life.  He exposes our love of money and calls us to repent.  He puts our sinful self to death by saying, “You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve.”[11]
You are baptized into Christ; your sins are forgiven.  Your unfaithfulness and idolatry have been forgiven.   He renews your heart and mind so that you love and serve only Him.  He takes you from being a son of this world, “seeking all that mammon proffers”[12] and makes you a son of light.  You are freed from serving wealth and chasing it into destruction because you have an inheritance which will never fade or pass away.   So, we let the money He’s given us serve others.  We give our “unrighteous wealth” to spread the Lord’s righteousness, so that we and all who believe may share in the true riches which have no end.  Amen.
[1] Matthew 6:33
[2] Matthew 6:21
[3] Psalm 24:1
[4] Romans 5:5
[5] Romans 5:8
[6] 1 Corinthians 16:2
[7] Romans 10:13-17
[8] Lutheran Service Book, 151
[9] Deuteronomy 8:2
[10] Job 30:19-21
[11] Deuteronomy 6:13
[12] “What is the World to Me?” LSB 730:3

Only God Can Judge and Save (Luke 15:1-10)

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost + September 11, 2016
Text: Luke 15:1-10
Most people think that Christians condemn sins like abortion, fornication, homosexuality, and divorce.  After all, it’s people who identify as Christians who hold the picket signs outside Planned Parenthood, and it’s people who call themselves Christians who shun a woman after a divorce or avoid teenage mothers.  It must be that Christians condemn sin.
This actually isn’t true.  Christians do not condemn sin.  That right belongs entirely to God.
God is the One who condemns sin by His holy Law.  He condemns abortion when He says, “You shall not murder.”  He condemns sex outside marriage by saying, “You shall not commit adultery.”  And He condemns homosexual relations and divorce by saying, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and cling to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.”[1]
God is the Judge, just like we confessed in the Creed.  But His Law goes further than we would.  He also condemns those things we think are minor.  He condemns gossipers, busybodies, and those who show favoritism when He says, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.”  He condemns the miserly and those greedy for gain by saying, “You shall not steal and you shall not covet.”[2]
Really, Christians have no grounds for condemning others.  “Judge not,” Jesus says, “that you be not judged.  For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.”  Who are we to accuse others of sin, when we are chalk full of sins ourselves?  The Apostle writes, “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges.  For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.”  Before the angry mob that had gathered to accuse an adulteress, Jesus says, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”[3]
Christians do not condemn; each Christian must repent of his or her own sins.  Now let’s understand that from the Gospel for today:
1Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear [Jesus].  2And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’”
The truth is that everybody wants to go to heaven.  Heaven is for Real and Love Wins.[4]  Nobody would knowingly choose to suffer in hell for eternity.  Everyone wants to be chosen by God to be with Him in heaven.  Trouble comes when we look for God’s choice in the wrong place.   It’s all too common for us to look for God’s choice in the mirror.  But we don’t hold that mirror right up to our face (especially when we don’t like what we see).  Instead, we tilt it slightly so we can compare ourselves to others.  Ah!  Now we can see how much better we are than those other people.
Last week, Pope Francis made Mother Teresa a full-fledged saint.  She was chosen for this posthumous honor because of her life of good deeds.  Her good deeds are so widely known that she’s become the gold standard for someone who’s got what it takes to go to heaven.  In Roman Catholic teaching, by her being made a saint, she is so good that people are encouraged to pray and look to her for blessings.  Basically, she worked her way to the same plane as Jesus—according to Roman teaching.
But if this is true, I’m certainly no Mother Teresa, and I’m guessing you’d say the same thing about yourself.   Praise the Lord that we are not where God looks for His choice of who goes to heaven.  The decision on who’s good enough to go to heaven was made long before any of us was born, even “before the foundation of the world.”[5]   It’s God’s Son, Jesus, who alone makes the cut.   He is the righteous Man who is free from sin.  The only one who “shall ascend the hill of the Lord and stand in His Holy Place”[6] is Jesus—not the pope, not even the Apostles, not Mother Teresa, and certainly not you or me!
Left to ourselves, there is no distinction between so-called good and bad people.  Every one of us is a lost sheep or a lost coin apart from Jesus.  But just as everyone is lost and condemned, the Lord Jesus Christ took the condemnation for everyone and seeks to find those who are lost.[7]  So, every single person who repents and believes in Jesus is found and there is joy in heaven over this!  “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” and again, “Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”    What a reason to rejoice!  It isn’t about some people’s fervent search for God, or burning desire to please Him.  The reason to rejoice is in God’s diligent search for us.
And just what does that rejoicing look like?  St. John was given a glimpse in Revelation 5:
And they sang a new song, saying,
“Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.”[8]
In heaven, the courts are filled with choirs of angels and people belting out the praise of Jesus, who took us from being very nearly lost in hell.  He snatched us from the grasp of death and sets us in heaven.
With this in mind, there’s no way we can climb into God’s throne and judge another sinner.  We ourselves were lost, but Jesus sought us out.   Now we see that it’s His desire for every lost person to be found because their life is precious in His sight too!  So, when we another lost person, our hope for them is that they will be found by the Lord and come to repentance and faith.  But just as little as we can sit and condemn, we also have no power to turn their hearts.  That too belongs to God.  Knowing this, I would question the effectiveness of picket lines in front of Planned Parenthood, and churchly people shunning someone who’s living in sin.  Wouldn’t it be better to pray to the God who seeks sinners to intercede?  Wouldn’t it be better for us to show mercy to a fellow sinner, knowing that it could just as easily be us who were wandering from the Lord?  Let God with His Word be the power to turn their hearts, because that’s how He saved us.
May God make us so heavenly minded that our focus and our joy is like that of the angels: Praising the Lord for His mercy and rejoicing every time it’s received by one such as us.  Amen.
[1] Exodus 20:13, 14; Genesis 2:24
[2] Exodus 20:15-17
[3] Matthew 7:1, Romans 2:1-2, John 8:7
[4] The titles of two popular, but unbiblical views of salvation.
[5] Ephesians 1:4-5
[6] Psalm 24:3
[7] Romans 5:12-21
[8] Revelation 5:9-10

Onesimus: A Portrait (Philemon 1-21)

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost + September 4, 2016
Text: Philemon 1-21
The story of Philemon and his slave, Onesimus is one of redemption.  Cultural background: slavery is integral to households in the Roman world.  Masters, even though they owned their household servants, were responsible for their wellbeing.  In turn, slaves served their masters in a variety of ways and kept busy households functioning.  Onesimus, however, was a wicked slave who run away for his own selfish reasons, having lied to and probably stolen from Philemon, his master.
Philemon may have been a believer when it happened.  Perhaps that’s why Onesimus gets away.  Whatever the case was, Philemon has become a leader in the Church because a congregation gathers at his house (v. 2).
But while he’s away, Onesimus meets Paul of Tarsus.  After hearing Paul preach about the Lord Jesus Christ, Onesimus is brought to faith and baptized.  As Paul would write to the church in Corinth, “he who is called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:22).  But having died with Christ and risen, Onesimus begins to realize there’s unfinished business with his former master.  Paul, who has become like a father in the faith to Onesimus, writes a letter of appeal to Philemon.  In it, he addresses Philemon, not just as Onesimus’ owner, but as a brother in the Lord.  So we have as part of the God-breathed Scriptures, the Book of Philemon.
It’s funny that Onesimus never really caught on as a name, considering how much biblical names are in our society.  But what you and I should realize is that this is our story too—after all the Holy Spirit inspired this Epistle to be written for our learning.
God has appointed us to be His servants, from the moment He created our human race.  But, in our vocation as servants of God, we have acted wickedly.  When it was His will for us to lead a pleasing life, we chose our own path.  When He has called out to us, we have fled (Gen. 3:8-9).  Think about all the times we’ve lied to Him—promising to do better after we’re caught but then going right back to our evil.
In our flight from Him, we’ve also broken ties of friendship and household, too proud to admit our selfish ambition.  Like Onesimus, we have left a wake of destruction behind us by our sin.
But Jesus found us in our flight from God.  His Word came to us through a pastor, a parent, or a friend.  We were baptized, joined to our Savior’s death and resurrection.  He redeemed us from the slavery of sin that we foolishly mistook for freedom.
Out of households broken by our sin, He has made us each to be members of a new household: God is our Father and Jesus our Brother and Lord.  In His household, we are a new kind of slave: “Thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the doctrine to which you were committed, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness(Rom. 6:17-18).
With the gift of God’s Holy Spirit, our service to our heavenly Master is not merely with our lips or our hands.  It is a service from the heart we love our Master.  “Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into His presence with singing!” (Ps. 100:2)  This could only be possible because of the peace which God made with us through Jesus and our union with Him!
Think about those whom you have hurt in your own sinful wake of destruction.  Would you willingly stand in front of them?  Like Onesimus before his betrayed master, Philemon, would we be able to approach those we have wronged?   But like Onesimus, you have been baptized into Christ.  Your guilt and shame has been nailed to the cross (Col. 2:14).  The debt you owed to God has been canceled because Christ said to His Father, “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account” (Phm. 18).
God has given you a new heart along with washing away your sin and canceling your debt.  He has given you confidence to stand before God, forgiven with all your misdeeds covered.  It’s out of this that Onesimus approached his former master, and it’s out of that which we are able to approach those we have wronged in the past to make peace—to ask forgiveness for hurtful words, to restore what we stole, and to heal the rifts which can only be closed by the blood shed by Jesus.  This is what it looks like to fulfill what St. Paul writes to all of us, “As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10).
Even though very few are named Onesimus, we can see that his story of redemption is also our story.  Slave or free, Greek or American, man or woman—we all have one Lord who has redeemed us from the prison house of sin and death and made us servants of a gracious Master.  Truly we too can say, “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Ps. 23:6).