Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Matthew 13:44-52)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Bethel Lutheran Church, Sweet Home, OR
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost + July 30, 2017
Text: Matthew 13:44-52

In the Gospel today, there are two familiar parables, the one about the treasure hidden in the field and the pearl of great price.  Both of these parables, Jesus tells us, are descriptive of the Kingdom of heaven.
These parables introduce us to two men, one a man who finds a treasure in a field, the other a merchant looking for pearls.  At first read, these parables are thought to mean that the Kingdom of heaven is a treasure worth giving everything and a pearl worth sacrificing for.  And that is true, but we ought to take a step back and see how this transaction really begins.
In the first parable, the man finds a hidden treasure, and He sells all that He has.  This is our clue about what the treasure is.
First we should consider what his joy is in light of other passages about joy:
Matthew 25:21: “His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’”
Hebrews 12:2: “Looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
The Lord’s joy is the salvation of men and women, passing through the cross, passing through many trials, and reaching the promise of eternal life through faith.
Second we look at the price paid for the treasure.
Matthew 20:28: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Philippians 2:6-8: “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
There are things we would shell out a lot for, but how many of us would completely empty our checking, savings, and any cash hiding under the mattress to obtain one single thing?  Even more than that, what single thing would be worth even giving up our life to obtain?  If this were describing a person, he would be a fool.
But this is in fact the price that the Lord paid: he sold everything He had, He gave His life as a ransom, and He emptied Himself to obtain this treasure.
The treasure He sought was you—that you would be with Him by faith in this life and by sight for eternity.  This is was the goal which He looked ahead to through His whole passion that would make it all worth it.  It’s for this reason that there is also joy before the angels of God over every sinner who repents.[1]
But this treasure and its value is covered up so that none of us would find it on our own.  It is a gift to be given by God, who opens our blind eyes so that we would not boast that we found God, but rejoice that He has found us.
It’s revealed to us when we come to know what our life means to God, what our place in His eternal kingdom cost and to what length He was willing to go to gain us.  That’s when He becomes our greatest treasure—the thing we prize above all other things.  This is what the Apostle Paul describes in Philippians 3:
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
The surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ is the source of Christian sacrifice.  I offer just two examples, but there are many.
First, we sacrifice our time because God has given us all of eternity.  So, we spend time reading His Word, because in those minutes and hours He refreshes our souls.  We give the firstfruits of our week to him.  While others see the weekend as precious time for recreation, we are here because God is making His new creation in us.  We dedicate our free time to the needs of others, caring for our community in volunteer work, devoting time to things in the congregation like going to evening council meetings.
Second, our money also becomes a sacrifice to God.  What is it that supports this pastor, this church building, and the missions we give to if not the money which God’s children put in the offering plate?  Because of Christians sacrificing their earthly treasures, the Gospel is preached and we have a place to gather for that sacred, holy thing.  You don’t receive a statement that you’re obligated to pay, neither are you taxed on it.  The money you give is borne out of a thankful heart for the treasures of the Gospel.  As St. Paul says, The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”[2]
All of this comes into being because of Christ our heavenly Savior, who “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”[3]  May we have hearts to bless God for His abundant grace, and free spirits to offer our sacrifices in light of His own.  Amen.
[1] Luke 15:10
[2] 2 Corinthians 9:6-7
[3] 2 Corinthians 8:9

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Romans 8:18-27)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR
Bethel Lutheran Church, Sweet Home, OR
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost + July 23, 2017
Text: Romans 8:18-27

Two people can look at exactly the same thing and come to vastly different conclusions, because of the assumptions they have.  Anybody can look at the world we live in and realize that it’s messed up.  Violence in the streets, increasing dissension and alienation, dangerous weather, etc.  One person will say, it’s all up to us to scramble to protect ourselves or strive to fix this human life, or else we will wipe out our species and cease to exist.
Another would sees the very same tumult, and acknowledges the possible dire consequences.  Yet this person isn’t afraid of all these things or the end result of them.  Why? Because their hope is in God who created heaven and earth, who redeemed humanity through His Son, and when He comes again will eternally renew creation.
It’s that second person which is pictured in this reading:
19 For the creation waits with eager longing for othe revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation pwas subjected to futility, not willingly, but qbecause of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that rthe creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that sthe whole creation thas been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.
It’s the sons of God who can look at the writhing pain of creation and not tremble.  That doesn’t mean they are naïve about what our world is like or how serious social, political, and health crises are.  That’s because God has called us in the midst of this longing, enslaved, groaning creation into a living hope.
23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have uthe firstfruits of the Spirit, vgroan inwardly as wwe wait eagerly for adoption as sons, xthe redemption of our bodies. 24 For yin this hope we were saved.
There’s where the difference lies: The Spirit, whom God pours out richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.  He has called us to this living hope—that not only do we have a clean conscience toward God, but we also look forward to the restoration of creation and the redemption of our own bodies.  Even as we groan with the rest of creation to be delivered, God has revealed His good news.  In the dying and rising of Jesus Christ, He is making all things new (Rev. 21:5)  In Christ, we have the hope that sin which came into the world will be no more, neither shall death plague us because Jesus lives.  Our hope is that God will bring about what He promised so many years ago through Isaiah:
“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain.”[1]
But haven’t we been waiting long enough?  Isn’t creation worn out from groaning and longing?
St. Paul continues, “In this hope we were saved. Now zhope 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 await for it with patience.”
First of all, it matters what you hope in.  We are wont to put our hope in certain conditions—when I get the job I want, when I can only get my strength back, if the church grows, or when I retire.  Yet this is not the hope to which the Holy Spirit has called us.  Our hope isn’t in a what, but in a Who—in the Lord our God.  “Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God, who made heaven and earth…who keeps faith forever.”[2]  If your hope is in the Lord, you will never be put to shame, left high and dry.
Now, it’s plain to see that God helps us on a cosmic level, uniting heaven and earth, making peace with sinners.  That same hope touches our everyday lives, too.  I read a little from Psalm 146, but let me read more: “who keeps faith forever, who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free, the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless.”
Our hope is in this God, who has compassion on His children in need.  You heard how many calamities were listed, and God has mercy on one and all.  So think of what troubles or scares you, and let your heavenly Father handle it.  What a mess we make when we take our lives in our own hands, trying to master our own circumstances and secure our own future.
That’s why so many times in Scripture, we are exhorted to hope in the Lord and wait patiently for Him—“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.”[3]  What’s often translated as “wait” and “hope” are the same in Hebrew (יחל and קוה).  So, to hope in God is also to wait on the Lord.  That’s Paul’s point when he says, “Who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”  It means trusting that He will lift you up out of your distress at the right time—no matter how bad it is and no matter how long its lasted.  Don’t put your trust in your own hand to deliver you.
Sometimes it’s easier said than done.  One of those Hebrew words originates from stretching something out and having it hold under tension.[4]  With hoping in the Lord there is tension, between what we now experience, and what we believe He will do in our future.  It’s not easy.  In fact, it’s humanly impossible to wait under this tension.  That’s why the Spirit is given to us.  He helps us in our weakness as we live in God’s mercy and promises, in the space in time between the Word God speaks and its fulfillment.
Nevertheless, we are filled with hope and that gives us a heavenly outlook on our whole life.  Our heavenly Father will provide for us in all our immediate and passing needs, just as surely as He has salvation and an eternal hope to the whole creation.  So we are able to say, without sugar-coating it or ignoring the struggle, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”  In the Spirit’s strength, we press on toward this glory! Amen.
[1] Isaiah 11:6-9
[2] Psalm 146:5-9
[3] Psalm 42:5-6a
[4] קָוָה – “wait for (prob. orig. twist, stretch, then of tension of enduring, waiting)” – Brown Driver Briggs

Christian Funeral of Walferd G. Delzer (Romans 8:28-39)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR
Christian Funeral of Walferd G. Delzer – July 20, 2017
Text: Romans 8:28-39

85 years: that’s how long Wally lived (actually just a month ago today).  65 years: that’s how long Wally and Lucille were married.  38 years is how long he worked for CalPortland Cement Company.  24 years is how long Wally was a part of our congregation.  That’s a lot of time for us.  Lots of memories, lots of warm words and love, and yes, lots of hard times too.
Wally was baptized as an infant in Menno, South Dakota.  His parents later moved to Tehachapi and he was raised in the faith at a congregation in Bakersfield.  He and Lucille have spent their entire life together in the Church, loving and serving.  That’s a lot of years to live in God’s grace.
Yet for all of those years, God invites His children to see their lives from a bigger perspective.  For us, we count days, months, and years.  For God, He sees our lives from eternity:
28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”
God’s perspective on Wally’s life started before he was even born.  From before the world was ever made, God established His eternal plans for Wally in Christ.[1]  His plans—His good purpose—were for Wally to be called by the Gospel to faith in Jesus.
In that call to Wally came the clear words of God’s grace.  Wally was a fallen descendent of Adam and Eve, for whom no amount of good works could make him right with God.  Yet out of His divine love, God made peace for Wally and declared to him that his sins were forgiven on account of Jesus’ death on the cross.  The familiar words of Jeremiah 29:11 ring out, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for peace and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”[2]  God gave that peace to Wally in the forgiveness of his sins.
But there’s more to God’s plans: “those whom he justified, he also glorified.”  These 85 years on life are not the total of God’s plans for Wally or any Christian.  God’s eternal purpose was fulfilled when Wally finished his course in faith.  The end of this life is only an end from where we stand.  God has prepared eternal life for all who are called by the Gospel and have peace with God through faith in Jesus Christ.
If we see our lives as God’s children from His perspective, it changes our outlook on everything in life as we know it.  When things are going well in our lives, we can thank God for what He’s provided, but also realize none of it is meant to last—even the dream houses, cars, jobs, and vacations will come to an end.  Money comes to us and goes out again, and it would be foolish to look for security in something that’s so easily lost.
God’s perspective on our lives is also tremendous comfort in times of need.  In those seasons where things are falling apart all around you—you’ve lost your job, house, maybe even spouse and children.  When your health is failing and all the tests come back with inconclusive or bad news, God’s promise stands.  He has called you from eternity into eternity, and He never breaks His Word.
What a comfort it is!  We can endure in time of pain and struggle because God holds our life in His hands.  We entrust our days and years into God’s care because His plans are eternal.  Jesus rose from the dead and our life belongs to Him, so the power is taken away from even the most dreadful disease or unexpected death.  Because God’s purpose for us is for good and life, we can know for certain that whatever evil befalls us God will overcome it for us and give us the perseverance and peace we need when we need it.  We hear the rest of Romans 8:
31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,
            “For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
God’s purpose for Wally is the same purpose He has for each one of you—even for every man and woman who has ever lived—that you hear His call to repent and believe the Gospel.  Hear it straight from the Son of God, who gave His life for you:
16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
By the power of His Holy Spirit, may this peace and this life be yours in Jesus Christ! Amen.
[1] Ephesians 1:3-5
[2] Many translations say “welfare” but the Hebrew is shalom which the King James correctly translates

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost + July 16, 2017
Text: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

In the Old Testament reading, we heard these words from the Prophet Isaiah:
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”[1]
The Parable of the Sower is the Lord’s explanation of how that plays out in the Church.  First, we learn about the Word that it does not return to God empty or void.  You could say that the Word of God is performative, meaning that it does what He says.  Think of Creation: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,” and there was light.’”[2] God speaks, and it happens.  We might think, That’s all well and good for the universe.  After all, when has an asteroid or a tree ever talked back to God?  When sin came into the world, that was the first time it seemed that the creation went against the will of the Creator.
But this Word of the Lord through Isaiah was spoken in the midst of a rebellious universe.  In spite of that, the Word of God still accomplishes what He sends it for.  This we can see in the Parable:
19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, 21 yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. 23 As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
In the first case, even when the evil one snatches away the Word, the Lord still says the Word was sown in a person’s heart.  In the second and third cases, the Word begins to grow, but other things cause that Word not to mature.  It’s only in the fourth case that the Word seems to reach its intended goal.
We know this parable to be true in our lives, because we see and feel the effects, don’t we?  We feel the absence of our children who grew up in church but are no longer here.  We see the empty places in pews where our brothers and sisters no longer walk with us.  Through the grapevine, we hear about them going to other churches or not at all.  We see discouraging statistics about church membership in today’s world.
Since we can only see these external effects, we look for explanations.  Was it something I didn’t tell my child as he was growing up?  Can we pin the blame on who our children married?  Did we participate in enough church activities?  In the face of statistics, we wonder about all the failings of pastors and evangelism efforts, and bemoan the secularism of our society and universities.  When someone leaves the congregation, we ask if something more could have been done?  Was it hurt feelings or something else?
The funny thing is if you ask people who have left the faith or changed congregations, they’ll also give you human explanations.  Those people were a bunch of hypocrites.  So-and-so hurt my feelings.  There weren’t enough activities.  I just didn’t feel inspired by the music and sermon.  My wife and I just couldn’t decide on whose church to go to.  It seems to make sense to answer these felt needs—change who we are and what we believe, teach, and confess so that we can somehow “close the back door” and prevent people from leaving.
In this Parable, the Lord teaches us what’s working behind the scenes.  The truth is, we don’t even know ourselves well enough to fully understand why we act the way we do when it comes to the Lord and His Church.  However, from His perspective, Jesus sees the devil at work and our weak and deceitful hearts.
The devil is always around with his lying and murdering day and night.  He won’t be satisfied until there is not a single God-fearing person left on earth.  So, he twists the Word and blinds people to its Christ-filled, spiritual meaning.  Faith springs up in people’s hearts, but it becomes a self-generated, deluded kind of faith, that withers when it is tested with fire.  Other times the Word is growing, but suddenly the cares of this life become overwhelming, so that instead of setting one’s mind on things above, they’re consumed by things below like jobs, vacations, and sleep.
Yet, in spite of all that works against the Word, it remains the living, active Word of God, which goes to work in our hearts and reaches its intended goal.  Your faith is evidence of this!  The fact that you are here today, hearing the Word, receiving the Lord’s Supper, is the fruit of the Word planted in your hearts.  Defying the devil, who wants to rob you of heaven, you are here today.  Against your own self-righteousness that only comes to church to feel like a good person, you are here.  Even though you have mountains of things to do when you go home which all demand your attention at once, you are here.
God’s Word is always effective, whenever and wherever it is proclaimed.  We often complain that today is more secular and the church is declining.  It seems like the Word is less effective than it used to be.  Yet, it always been this way, even when unbelief was masked by people going to church merely as a social norm.  It will continue to be this way until the Last Day.  “Who has believed what he has heard from us?”[3]  How little effect it seems to have.  But all this is no surprise to God, and it’s not too much for Him.  He calls us to trust His Word, that He will accomplish His good purpose among us.
That’s why we pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done.”  In those petitions, we are praying first that God would send His Holy Spirit so that everyone who hears believe the Word, and second that in spite of the devil’s lies and our corrupt hearts that we would hold fast to this Word through our whole life.  That means clinging to Christ in times of grief as well as joy, in poverty as much as prosperity, and in the hour of death just as when we were young and active.  This is God’s good and gracious will for you, and it shall be done.  Amen.
[1] Isaiah 55:10-11
[2] Genesis 1:3
[3] Isaiah 53:1

Christian Funeral of Rachel Fannie Vogel (John 14:25-27)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR
Christian Funeral of Rachel Fannie Vogel – July 15, 2017
Text: John 14:25-27

In the Name + of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Rachel was a beloved mother, grandmother, and even great grandmother.  One of the things many people have noticed is that she was also a woman of great faith.  In her life, she made it clear how important her Lord Jesus Christ was to her.  Even lately, with her hearing gone and her eyesight failing, she would still faithfully read her Lord’s Word.  The Word was planted in her heart and grew, watered by Pastor Ted Vogel when he instructed and confirmed her in the Christian faith.  She passed that Word of God down to her children, so that they too might know Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God.
Because of the faith Rachel had, she also had a peace about her.  It was a peace that supported her through many ups and downs in her life.  Her faith anchored her wherever she lived, whether in Alaska, Hawaii, or back in Sweet Home.  Her faith bound her to the Lord she loved, and He supported her as she and Evan raised their children.  The Lord of her life was her strength as she worked in different fields, and even as she served Him in retirement.  In later years, as her health declined, Rachel continued to have peace, as she mourned Evan’s passing and later Ted’s.  She saw her health decline slowly, and the ability to hear music, which she loved so much, was taken away.  But that peace which her Lord had given her remained.
Was it because Rachel lived such a faithful life that God blessed her with such peace?  No, it was definitely the other way around.  God blessed her out of His fatherly grace and mercy.  For even though she was the matriarch of her family and attained 100 years, she was also sinner.  She said so every time I met with her, and it amazed her that the Lord was so good to her.  All that she had was a gift from God, even the very faith that anchored her.  What a gift that was, because she was able to praise Him in the bad times just as well as the good.
Listen to the words of Rachel’s Lord and yours:
25 “These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. 26 But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.
It was the Holy Spirit who taught Rachel to know Jesus Christ, and the Spirit who gave her the faith to cling to Him.  In all the words that the Lord speaks, He bestows peace.  Even now that sin has done its worst and taken her earthly life from her, Rachel still has peace.
It’s not peace the way the world gives peace.  The world’s peace requires everything to be going well on the outside—health, finances, and no conflict.  But the peace which the Lord gives is the peace of sins forgiven, the peace of removing the fear of death, and the peace that Jesus has done all things so that she now rests in the Lord’s presence now.
With that peace, a believer need not worry nor be afraid because the precious Lord has taken away the weight of sin and the sting of death.  He went before us and already bore that weight—all that Rachel and you and I justly deserved. In exchange, Rachel and you and I receive all the merits of Jesus as a gift through faith.
Rachel still has that peace, but we must continue on until we’ve attained the promised eternal life.  If you want that faith and peace which Rachel had, stay near to the Lord.  Hear His Word and trust in it.  Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the Name of the Lord Jesus and you will have that Spirit-worked peace in your hearts.  That’s a peace that will sustain you through everything in this passing life and continue to be yours eternally.
God grant you this peace, in the Name + of Jesus. Amen.

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Matthew 11:25-30)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost + July 9, 2017
Text: Matthew 11:25-30

It’s natural to think that those who strive are the ones who achieve their goals.  After all, that’s what we experience in our lives.  Initiative, determination, and dedication are all qualities that benefit you in daily life.
Yet, when it comes to the Kingdom of Heaven, all that works in the world of man must be thrown out.  “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.”
We naturally love to build ladders to God.  For example, the idea is popular that if you live an upright life—you never curse, cheat, steal, or laugh at an off-color joke; but always talk about God and give Him credit, show your dedication by volunteering and going on mission trips—then you will be closer to God.  This is the ladder of moralism, which believes God is with those who seem to be the top caliber of religious people.
Sometimes we build a ladder to God with our emotions.  We feel the Word of God sweeping over us, transforming, kindling us—and insist that everyone must feel God’s “presence” like so.  We pray, but don’t lift a finger until we have felt that God has given us direction.  On this ladder, we insist that worship take us to a higher plane of reality, experiencing an out-of-this world lifting up.  This is the ladder of mysticism, which believes that God is an “experience” to be sought after.
Sometimes we build a ladder to God with our minds.  It stands to reason that your level of knowing God is directly related to how much you read the Bible.  If you meditate who God is enough, attend enough Bible studies, memorize enough passages of Scripture, then you too will know God better.  This is the ladder of speculation, in which salvation comes by having a better knowledge about God than others have, and makes God a subject for analysis.[1]
As natural achievers, we imagine that God is someone to be sought out, and our faith something to be achieved.  This shows up in the life of the congregation, too.  It’s believed that the people who put the most are the ones who get the most out.  If you read your Bible daily, show up for every Bible study, participate in all the activities and life of the congregation, that makes you a “better” Christian than those who “just” come to the Divine Service.
“I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding.”  God hides himself from the wise and understanding, those who are proud of the initiative they’ve taken to deepen their relationship with God.  God cannot, and will not be found by us.  He always reveals Himself to man.
27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
So what do the “wise and understanding” people find when they seek for God?  They find exactly what they want to find: a god who is so very pleased with them.  It’s a god created in their own image who rewards their hard work and dedication.  But this is no god at all; it is an idol.  To those who persist in this delusion, this is what they will hear from the Lord on the Last Day: 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’[2]  If we find any other God besides the One who graciously makes Himself known to sinners, we haven’t really found God at all.
The Father reveals His Son to little children (nepios, a child who can’t even talk yet).  Think about what this means.  God makes Himself known to who can’t even form a coherent sentence, much less a lengthy and pious prayer.  He reveals Himself to those who have absolutely no spiritual credentials to claim.  God draws near to those who are entirely dependent and need instruction, guidance, and discipline; not those who stand on their own and have their stuff together.
28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
This is His gracious invitation to the undeserving and unqualified: “Come to me!”  His call goes out to all who have been broken by the weight of meeting the hidden God—the one who makes strict demands and threatens hell for all who are disobedient, yet no one could find a way to appease God’s anger and a guilty conscience.  It’s when our ladders come crashing down that we see God cannot be sought for by anything within us—a presumed moral superiority, shifting emotions, or a darkened mind.
Come to Christ, the Father reveals His Son.  He only is the Holy One who is worthy before God.  Only His moral perfection, His pure heart, and His pure mind count before God.  He is the one who is worthy to ascend the hill of the Lord and stand in His holy place.  Yet, He gives that holiness as a gift to all who, by the Holy Spirit, accept His invitation.
This is why the Church of God is made up of people of such varying backgrounds, spiritual strengths and weaknesses.  The Son of God is the one constant among us all, and the Father has called us by the Gospel to be adopted as His children.  As beloved children, He has removed the labor and heavy burden of our salvation.  In its place, the Son places His yoke upon us for true service of God.
In this family of God, there are no distinctions, but just as we are baptized into the one Christ, we receive the same Spirit of service.  That’s where you see Christians otherwise so vastly different in age, maturity, and ability active in the Kingdom of heaven.  They do it from a free heart, a clean heart which their heavenly Father has bestowed on them by His Holy Spirit—not because of their decision to seek Him, but out of His wondrous grace that called us to Christ.  Amen.
[1] These three ladders are described in Adolf Köberle’s book, “The Quest for Holiness” (1936)
[2] Matthew 7:22-23

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost(Matthew 10:34-42)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR
Bethel Lutheran Church, Sweet Home, OR
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost + July 2, 2017
Text: Matthew 10:34-42

Jesus tells us in the Gospel today that He brings three things to those who follow Him: a sword, a cross, and a life.  This is in the context of what Jesus told his apostles before sending them out, and those instructions and warnings have lasting significance, so that we know what to expect as Jesus’ disciples in the world.  We should expect opposition and division, suffering and grief, and eternal life—all on account of belonging to Jesus.
34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”  What’s this sword all about?  Wasn’t it the angels who proclaimed at Jesus’ birth, “Glory to God in the highest and peace on the earth”?[1]  Didn’t the prophets foretell that Jesus would be “Prince of Peace” and that “of the increase of his government and of peace there would be no end”?[2]  The right question to ask is, What kind of peace are you looking for?  Is it a worldly, outward peace, where nobody has any disputes or disagreements, where they beat their swords into ploughshares?  When it comes to this world, this is not the peace that Jesus promises.  His peace is of another kind: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”  Jesus gives peace to everyone who believes in Him, but it’s a “peace that surpasses all human understanding and guards” not gates and borders, but “hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”[3]
In Christ Jesus, there is peace, but with the world, there is division.  You will have the sword and conflict.  It cuts so deep that it even threatens to divide the closest of kin: “35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. 36 And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. 37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”
Thank God when this isn’t the case, when husbands and wives, children, and even grand children and great grandchildren follow Christ together.  Would that God would bless our families with this precious gift of unity!
However, there are many families where this unity isn’t the case—when one spouse or the other turns their nose up at Christ and His Church.  There are many children who have grown up following the Lord, but have gone another way.  Their absence is felt, and it creates division.  Sometimes, it even creates hostility.  In Malaysia, a Muslim country, it was a landmark case that a son was actually permitted to convert to Christianity from Islam and not face legal and potentially life-threatening consequences for his conversion.[4]
But why is there this division?  Why would this animosity spill over on you?  Because, as a Christian, you are a living example of a sinner who depends on Jesus as Savior.  Many people don’t want to hear such uncomfortable things.  For them, life is no more than your health, your job, and your family.  If those things are going alright, then everything must be just fine.  But if you go to Church, confess that you “cannot save yourself from your sinful condition”[5] and believe that sin actually condemns and there is a real hell from which Jesus rescued you, this makes the self-righteous soul nervous.  Even angry!  They don’t want to hear from God that their deep-felt desires are sin in God’s sight, or that their noblest attempts at living a good life will still land them in hell.  Because you belong to Christ, they will take out their spiritual animosity on you.
That brings us to the next thing Jesus brings: a cross.  38 And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”  The cross means the suffering we endure because we are a Christian.  We were marked with it in Holy Baptism as a symbol of our salvation, but in this world it is an instrument of suffering and death.  Following Christ will inevitably bring persecution and suffering.
This Tuesday, we will celebrate our nation’s independence and the many freedoms we enjoy.  Among those freedoms is supposed to be the First Amendment right to freedom of religion.  In spite of what the Bill of Rights says, America is becoming increasingly anti-Christian and in favor of “everything but.”  It’s one thing when the moral fiber of our society is degrading beyond recognition, but quite another when confessing Christian business owners are slandered and sued because of their beliefs based in God’s Word.  Followers of Christ are labeled as bigoted and homophobic when they refuse to celebrate abominable practices, and even have the gall to use their same First Amendment legal right to speak out against such things.  A cross is what Jesus gives, and a cross we shall take up if we wish to follow Him.
It might be more convenient to change our beliefs to avoid strained friendships, awkward conversations, lost business, or the threat of our pastor and congregation being sued.  Yet if we should do that, if we should set down the cross laid upon us, we would cease to be disciples of the Crucified One.
Yet, just as the cross is an instrument of suffering in the world, it’s also an instrument of death.  Namely, death to your sinful flesh.  Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death…”  To receive the cross is to die to your sins and evil desires, and to do this on a daily basis because we find in our hearts a bottomless well of evil.
Yet with that cross, Romans 6:4 continues, “…baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”  That’s the third thing that Jesus gives us: a life.  “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”  You will lose your old life, but Christ will give you a new one.  There are plenty of options out there to have your best life now—one that is filled with comfort and happiness, where you never have to crack a Bible, and you are the master of your own weekend including sleeping in on Sunday.  But for all your toils to gain this life, you will lose it.  It will be taken from you, and your good-enough self-evaluation will have to stand up to the test of God’s perfect righteousness on the Last Day.  You will have to answer God why you chose school sports over your children’s faith, why you chose to believe to your spouse’s repeated excuses for not going to church, and why it’s “good enough” to confess that you’re a sinner only on Christmas and Easter.
Yet, when you lose your life through the cross of Christ, you find it for eternity.  That’s because there is salvation in no one else and found nowhere else.  This is the Jesus whose own family was divided by the sword, for His own mother and brothers thought he was out of His mind.[6]  He took up His own cross—the cross of the sins of the world—and bore it even unto death.  Then, He rose from the dead, never to die again.  This is the life which He has to give to you!  It’s this life which you received in Baptism, and which you receive today at the Lord’s altar.
Even as you walk with swords and bear the cross, it’s in this life which Jesus has given you that you will have strength to endure all things.  No one can take this life from you—not strife, and not the sufferings you experience for the sake of Christ—because your Lord has ordained life for you.  Amen.
[1] Luke 2:14
[2] Isaiah 9:6-7
[3] Philippians 4:7
[4] http://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2016/march/malaysia-rules-muslim-can-convert-to-christianity.html
[5] Lutheran Service Book, p. 203
[6] Mark 3:21