Ninth Sunday after Trinity (Luke 16:1-13)

Bethlehem Lutheran & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR

Ninth Sunday after Trinity + July 29, 2018

Text: Luke 16:1-13

Our Lord says, “The one who is faithful over little is also faithful over much.”  The concept of firstfruits is found throughout the Bible, but it’s not something we often hear much about.  If we are to be faithful over what we have, it’s timely to think about what our Lord asks of us.

 

The features of firstfruit offerings is spelled out in the Law of Moses, especially in Number 18 with the laws of firstborn, firstfruits, and tithes.  The firstborn of all who open the womb, man or beast, are holy to the Lord and redeemed by sacrifice (10th plague) (Numbers 18:13-17).  The firstfruits are to be the “best of the wine and of the grain” (Num. 18:12) and animal offerings were to be “without blemish” (Leviticus 3:1).  The tithe, the first tenth off the top of all income was to be given to the Lord via the Levites (Num. 18:21).  They, in turn offered a tenth of all they received by sacrifice to the Lord—“from each its best part is to be dedicated” (Num. 18:29).  All of these offerings were sacrificial, meaning your hand gave them up and commended them to the Lord.

 

These things were commanded under Moses, and all who failed to keep them were under a curse.  But, our forerunners in the faith taught us the same about firstfruits sacrificial offerings by their example.  Abel offered the best of his flock to the Lord (Gen. 4:4).  Abraham and Jacob freely gave a tenth of their goods to the Lord without ever being commanded (Gen. 14;20, 28:22).  Hannah devoted her firstborn son, Samuel, to the Lord out of joyful response to answered prayer (1 Samuel 1:27-28).

 

So it is the example handed down to us by our forefathers in the New Testament.  We worship on Sunday, not only because it is the day of the Resurrection, but also because in it we give the first of our week to the Lord.  He blesses you in that time, giving you treasures that neither sleep nor work nor family time could offer—peace with God in the forgiveness of sins, renewal of body and soul in Holy Communion, fellowship with angels and archangels and all the saints in the Body of Christ.

 

When doing midweek devotions it’s best to do them first thing in the morning, because that’s the firstfruit of your time—before kids, doctor appointments, and work demand your time.  If you wait until the middle or end of the day, you likely won’t have anything time left to dedicate to the Lord.

 

The same is true of our offerings.  St. Paul teaches us in 1 Corinthians 16:2: “On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper.”  We give of the firstfruits of our paycheck, or pension, or social security deposit, or whatever irregular income we might receive.  We do this because if we don’t, experience shows that there will be nothing left by the time bills, family, shopping, and recreation have had their way with it.

 

The point of firstfruits is to teach us that everything we do is spiritual in nature.  For those who bear the Holy Name of God given in baptism, our whole lives are a confession of the One who created and still preserves us.  So, our use of time, food, or money is an expression of our faith, however strong or weak it is.

 

One place this confession comes out in particular is with regard to sacrifices of money.  There’s a reason that Jesus so often uses financial metaphors to teach about faith and the Kingdom of God.  He knows that mammon, the stuff of this life, is a particular weakness among men.  The parable before us is just one more example.

 

Consider the fact that, as Christians, we have an obligation from the Lord to support the Church, specifically the support of the pastor, missions outside our walls, educational material, the bread and wine of Holy Communion, and so forth.  God blesses this money that is sacrificially offered.  This is what Jesus’ saying means: “Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.”  The money you put in the offering plate, God blesses, and puts it to work bearing fruit that last even to eternity.  He makes its use more noble than anything you could have spent it on.

 

But when it comes to questions of how much is needed and how much to give, our sinful flesh rears its ugly head.  How much is needed?  We take our cues primarily from the “sons of this world, who are more shrewd than the sons of light.”  Certainly we use our God-given, sanctified reason to carry out the practical details of how the Gospel ministry is executed.  But if we draw too deeply on our reason, business acumen takes the lead to calculate how much we think each thing ought to cost, and how to get the biggest “bang for the buck”.  Save money. Live better. as one retailer has indoctrinated us.

 

Once we’ve done all that formulating, how do we find out if we’ll have enough to cover expenses?  Well, how much “income” can we expect?  In the business world, you have earnings forecasts.  That’s when we start answering the question in terms of how much each person “ought to” give.  The accountant, doing his job, will divide the total by how many givers there are and arrive at a “goal” for each family.

 

The problem with this is that the New Testament does not dictate how much each person should give.  As we heard before, St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 16:2: “On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper” and in 2 Corinthian 9:7: “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”  Giving is personal and private, it’s according to how God prospers you, and giving is to be cheerful or merry.[1]

 

Saints of old like Abraham and Jacob gave a tithe, a tenth.  Maybe you give 1%, 2%, 5%, maybe 15 or 20.  But the danger with assigning a number is self-righteousness, like the proud Pharisee who prayed, “I give tithes of all that I get.” (Luke 18:12)  Self-righteousness with money is a two-edged sword.  For us, if we’re able to meet our vowed amount, we can think our duty to God stops there—I’ve given God his share, now the rest is mine, mine, all mine.  It can also become a means by which we judge our brother or sister, either by saying everyone should give a certain amount or by being indignant that you do so much for the church while others are freeloaders.

 

But if this is how you’ve come to think of your offerings, Repent.  If you’re proud of how much you give, repent!  If you’re ashamed that you don’t give anything, repent.  If you think the church is “just after your money,” perhaps that says more about your own spiritual condition.

 

In the Catechism, we confess that we believe that God

“has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them. He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have. He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life…For all this it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.” (Small Catechism, Creed, 1st Article)

If we want to talk about sacrificial offerings to the Lord, none of us can equally repay God for all His benefits.  The poor widow gave all that she had to live on, and Jesus commended her offering, but it still wasn’t everything.  Only God Himself can truly satisfy our due.  Consider the freewill offerings mentioned earlier—Abel offered the blood of His best livestock, Abraham offered his whole son Isaac, and Hannah offered her whole son Samuel to the Lord.  These are arrows in the Bible which point us forward to the sacrificial offering which God Himself made, a bloodguilt offering wholly devoted to the Lord.  “The Son of man came to give His life as a ransom for many.” (Matt. 20:28)

 

Why do you think Jesus commended the dishonest manager in His parable?  It wasn’t for his dishonesty, but his shrewdness based on the mercy of His master.  The unrighteous servant had faith in his master’s mercy, a mercy that forgave those who were indebted to Him.  In the same way, Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we have forgiven those who are indebted to us.” (Matt. 6:12)  Jesus made the sacrifice which all of us owe to God, but none of us could pay, and on account of Him, this is what happens:

 

We confess our debts to God: “I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto You all my sins and iniquities by which I have ever offended You, and justly deserve Your temporal and eternal punishment, but I am heartily sorry for them and sincerely repent of them…”  We are drowning in debt to God—sins known and unknown—but the wages are the same: death.  But then in the absolution: “As a called and ordained servant of the Word, I announce the grace of God unto you.  In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins…”  There the pastor acts as the dishonest manager.  How much do you owe God?  Look to the cross, and do not write fifty or eighty; write zero.  Your debt has been paid by the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of God’s beloved Son, Jesus Christ.  On account of that, God the Master is gracious and merciful to you, a poor sinful being.  Go in peace, you are free.

As to how much of your time, skills, or money to give to God, you are not under compulsion.  Consider what the Lord has done for you, and pray for guidance and an increase of faith.  I’ll let St. Paul say the rest; “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. As it is written,

                        “He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor;

his righteousness endures forever.”

10 He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.” (2 Corinthians 9:8-11) Amen.

[1] ἱλαρός, Henry George Liddell. Robert Scott. A Greek-English Lexicon. revised and augmented throughout by. Sir Henry Stuart Jones. (Oxford. Clarendon Press. 1940)

Eighth Sunday after Trinity (Acts 20:27-38)

Bethlehem Lutheran & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR

Eighth Sunday after Trinity + July 22, 2018

Text: Acts 20:27-38

It’s a virtue to find the best in everyone’s intentions.  Indeed even the catechism, when teaching us about our neighbor’s reputation says that we should “put the best construction on everything.”

 

On the other hand, we can’t deny that there are those whose intentions are harmful, and in a spiritual sense, even evil intentions.  When St. Paul was preparing to leave the church at Ephesus, he called together all the pastors of the churches (the New Testament uses the term elder or presbyter, not in the sense of laymen who assist the pastor, but as one who is called and ordained by the Holy Spirit to “keep watch over God’s flock”).  His message to them seems very foreboding:

 

28Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. 29I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31Therefore be alert…” (Acts 20:28–31)

 

What of peace and joy in the Holy Spirit?  What about love and showing hospitality?  Yes, there is definitely need for that, and that belongs to the “whole counsel of God.”  But this message is also quite necessary.

 

In East Oakland, California, there are many neighborhoods that are plagued by crime.  One of the most effective deterrents is having a dog.  But the people there want a dog that’s going to be imposing.  So, behind chain link fences, you see pit bulls, mastiffs, and German shepherds.  If you live in the ghetto, and you wanted your home safe, you wouldn’t get a Chihuahua or a Bichon Frise.

 

It would be wonderful if the Christian Church lived in a good neighborhood.  But if you believe what the Scriptures say, it sounds like there are a lot of enemies set on robbing us of our faith: 15“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” (Matthew 7:15) 6Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.” (Mark 13:6)  8Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8)

 

It’s dangerous out there, and how much more so if Christians cover their eyes and pretend the danger doesn’t exist.  The reason we must be so vigilant is because those who belong to Christ are under attack by the devil and his hordes. Christ who saved us was threatened with death, tempted, lied about, and mocked.  Since none of those attacks prevented Him from ransoming us with His death and resurrection, now Satan goes after the Church.  This is how Revelation 12 depicts this: “Woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!” (v. 12)

 

To defend His flock against these constant assaults, God appoints pastors to keep watch over your souls.  “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” (John 20:21)  A major part of their charge from the Lord is to keep on guard against false teaching and teachers, some of whom “from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things.”

 

What a priceless and holy work pastors have!  They are appointed as stewards of the mysteries of God (1 Cor. 4:1), they feed the Lord’s sheep, bringing insight, correction, and divine comfort!  It’s the aspiration to do this which draws men to the seminary to be formed as pastors.

 

Yet even in this, the devil doesn’t leave us alone.  All three readings today deal with the problem of false prophets.   Through Jeremiah, a true prophet, the Lord said: 16Thus says the Lord of hosts: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. 17They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.’ ”” (Jeremiah 23:16–17)  Still, in the Gospel, the Lord Jesus warns us, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” (Matt. 7:15)

 

One of the biggest headaches of this work actually isn’t ministering to broken, sinful people.  It’s cleaning up the mess made by false prophets.  The trouble is that the false prophets have all the trappings of true prophets.  They use convincing-sounding words, they dress like any other teacher of the Church, and the worst ones even use a Bible and get some things right.  Underneath their veneer of truth are the lies of Satan, who seeks to rob you of your confidence, spiritual peace, concord, and ultimately your saving faith.  We shouldn’t be surprised at this, however.  St. Paul explains to the Corinthians:

 

13For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. 14And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.” (2 Corinthians 11:13–15)

 

These false prophets give the true prophets a bad reputation.  A true prophet admits some but keeps back others from Communion.  Closed communion is our Lord’s will because it means exercising careful spiritual care of the congregation. But then false prophets allow everyone on the basis of their affirmation of a bulletin statement, or sometimes without any examination at all.  Then, someone comes to a congregation where a true prophet is exercising this authority, and they get in a tizzy and call that man unloving and too dogmatic.

 

True prophets pay careful attention to the worship service, and make sure that nothing contrary to good doctrine enters the sanctuary of God.  That is why the pastor picks the hymns and songs, going over them to ensure that they will build up and not confuse.  Although he does his best with the musical elements of musicality, his primary concern is that the words which we are singing confess and give voice to the Christian faith.  Even if a song might be popular, and people like to sing it, it’s ultimately the pastor’s job to exercise oversight.

 

In these ways, the pastor is a spiritual father.  Fathers want what is best for their household, and it’s a joy to do that.  However, there are times when there’s a strong craving for too much of an unhealthy thing like chocolate cake.  Other times, it’s a matter of correcting error or reforming bad practice.  But it’s best when the people of God recognize this and receive their good things from the Lord through their pastor, as Hebrews 13:17 admonishes us: 17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”

 

God the Holy Spirit helps us in the Church, because we always have His Holy Word to guide us in all truth.  In Jeremiah, the problem was that false prophets stood up next to the true prophets and said a counterfeit message.  In our day, however, we are blessed because we have God’s inspired, infallible Word recorded for our learning.  St. John instructs us, “Beloved, test the spirits to see whether they are from God.” (1 John 4:1)  Our way of testing the prophets is the pure teaching of Scripture.

 

The Church has also found it useful to explain doctrinal controversies from God’s Word.  The shorthand name for these is symbols, which reflect what the Holy Scriptures say on a particular question.  That’s where the Creeds come from, because they answer questions about how God reveals Himself in Scripture in the face of those who oppose the truth.  At other points, faithful Christians have written down other confessions, as the Lutheran churches did.  The Augsburg Confession gives a clear explanation about God, Christ’s work, the pastoral office, Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and many more.  The Small Catechism is another example of this, because instead of plopping a Bible in front of someone, it highlights the most important things which the Bible teaches us that we might know our Savior.

 

God has truly blessed His Church, preserving her against the assaults of the devil and giving us the truth when so many claim to have it.  May God the Holy Spirit, who has entrusted your souls to the care of a pastor, bless this work.  May He give us receptive hears to His Word and strength and dedication to His servants.  To that end, we now sing and pray, “Send, O Lord, Your Holy Spirit.”  Amen.

Seventh Sunday after Trinity (Mark 8:1-6)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Seventh Sunday after Trinity + July 15, 2018

Baptism of Jerimiah & Natasha (Jenks) Hodson, Giovanni, Roen, and Noah

Text: Mark 8:1-6

 

There aren’t many dogs or cats that like to go to the vet. Nevertheless, compassionate owners knows when it’s the needed thing.  So, in compassion, they pack them up against their will and force them to endure it.

There are many things we can learn from the Feeding of the Four Thousand. The most significant thing is simply that the Lord had compassion on the hungry crowd that come out to hear Him, and He acted on it. The Lord also has compassion on us. He has not sent His Son to die in vain, nor merely for our future spiritual good. The Father sent Him to redeem us, to make us His children, now. He who was crucified is risen from the dead for us, in order to be with us, to keep on feeding us. And He is concerned with all of us, our bodies and souls, our spiritual lives and our family lives, our churches and our cities.

He has compassion on us and He acts on it, delivered to us in real time in Word and Sacrament. Often He makes us hungry first.  Being driven to the vet can feel like betrayal. Yet faith learns to see that the Lord acts all times in compassion and mercy, that He works all things work together for good those who are in Christ. (Rom. 8:28)

 

If we look closely at the scene in the Gospel, we notice that it looks a lot like the Church’s Divine Service. The people have come to hear Jesus, to listen to His Word, to be in His presence. They have been so caught up in this that they have forgotten their physical needs.

The Lord does not exaggerate when He says, “if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way” (v. 3). If He sends them away without feeding them some of them will likely die. They do not have the strength for the walk back to the green places. So also do the disciples answer correctly in their question, “How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?” There is no way to feed that crowd in that desolate place. Even if there were a bakery, a field of wheat, or a Walmart, it wouldn’t be enough to feed this number of people. Go now to Costco or Walmart and buy 1,000 loaves of bread at once. It can’t be done.

The Lord has done this to them on purpose. It is an act of compassion. He exposes their need. They have come to hear Him and that is good. Man lives not by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. [Deut. 8:3] They have no bread but they do have what they came for: His Word. They live, but they are dying. They cannot help themselves, but He is their Help and their Food.

In this, they are the perfect congregation, perfect Christians. They come hungry and needy, and they are in just the right place.  They are not chastised for foolishly forgetting a sack lunch. Rather, the Lord responds with compassion. They have come for His Word and He loves them in their need. He does not put them to work, organizing them into committees and work parties, assigning leaders and tasks. He simply has them all sit down. He doesn’t form a bread line. He doesn’t create a buffet. Instead, He treats them as though they’ve come to a restaurant. Though the place is desolate, and they are the poor and weak, they prepare to partake of a banquet as though they were kings and the apostles wait on them.

The Lord takes bread, gives thanks, breaks it, and gives it to them. They eat in luxury, as much as they want, and are satisfied. They receive from His bounty without merit or worthiness, in perfect passivity and trust, likely less than fully aware of the danger they were in and unable at the same time to fully appreciate the gift they were given. So is the life of faith on this side of glory. We are gladly the lapdogs that eat the crumbs that fall from our Master’s table even if He sends us now and then to the vet.

 

While no man could feed 4,000 people in the desert, the Lord can and the Lord does. So also, what is less obvious, is that no man can feed even one person, even himself, in the city or in fertile land without the Lord. Our parents are right to teach us to pray before eating for this very reason. It’s not commanded by God in the Bible, but it is very good custom. To neglect it is foolish and arrogant. The Lord gave thanks before He fed the crowd. He gave thanks also at the institution of His Supper before He fed them with His Body and Blood. Christians say grace because it is necessary for us to confess and give thanks to God that He provides what we need for this body and life and that without Him we would have nothing.  Indeed, if He were to withdraw His hand for a second, we would be destroyed. This goes right along with our confession that if Jesus had not redeemed us by His sacrifice on the cross none of it would matter, no matter how much or little we had. So, we pause before we eat. We recognize that the food we need, He gives, and we thank Him for it.

 

There are those who question or even deny the Lord’s miracles. Some have thought that the point of this miracle was sharing. They don’t think the Lord actually multiplied bread and fish. Instead, they say the crowd was inspired by the boy who had five barley loaves and two fish (John 6:9), and they were moved to pull out and share from their own stashes. They had just been selfish and Jesus taught them to be nice.

This is a deadly error because it not only denies the plain words of Scripture, but it also turns the Gospel on its head and makes the Lord’s primary purpose not to redeem us and forgive us, but simply to guide into us into a higher morality. It’s not that the idea of sharing is bad in itself, it is that the Lord’s compassion is greater than that. His compassion doesn’t help those who can help themselves; it helps the helpless. Thus the Lord had them sit down and be waited upon.

Part of the problem is that many don’t believe that the Bible is inspired and inerrant. Some think that Christ is a great man but only a man and not true God.  They don’t think that He has the power to perform miracles and He is nothing more than an inspiring moral teacher like Ghandi. Those errors need to be confronted. The Bible is inspired and without error. Our Lord Jesus Christ is true God and true Man who has redeemed us by His death and resurrection and has ascended, as Man and God, to the right hand of God the Father Almighty. All authority in heaven and earth has been given to Him.

But, the purpose of the miracles also needs to be clarified. Many Christians have thought that the primary purpose of the miracles was to prove that Jesus is true God. To be sure, the miracles do demonstrate this. He is the Lord of creation who created the world and is still active in it. It bends to His will. But the Lord isn’t trying to prove anything in the feeding of the 4,000. His purpose isn’t even to try and get the crowd to worship Him or be nicer to one another.  Even though those things happen, His purpose is to provide for their need. He has compassion on them and He acts on it.

The miracles do show us His Divinity. Through His Word, the Spirit does cause us to believe and worship, and to live out our faith. There’s no doubt about that. The miracles, however, do more than that. They show us the character of the Christ: “His mercy endures forever,” He has come in peace to restore creation and us to His Father, and He has overcome death and devil for us. The miracles show us the kind of God who lays down His life to make us His: the kind who has compassion on the hungry, the lame, and the downtrodden.

 

The Lord is compassionate and kind. He looks upon us with His mercy. Our crosses and hardships, our pain and sorrow, are not signs of His wrath and distance. They are His loving chastisements, like a trip to the vet which is always followed by extra attention and treats. Let the injustices you suffer cause you to long for the goodness and mercy of God. Let this world’s pain and disappointments send you running to the God who is constant in His love and keeps His promises. Let this world’s many harsh judgments and the Law’s accusations make you eager—desperate even—for the Good News of God’s forgiveness in Christ and the promise of the Last Day.

May our daily hunger make us long for what the Lord gives, for righteousness, and for what He has promised, life with Him, so that we never become satisfied and want to stay in our cities but are always ready and willing to follow Him in His death even if it is to our death.

All that to say, may we ever be unsatisfied by this life, aware that it is a desolate place, and be ready to give it up. Until the final summons, may we find constant solace and comfort in the Divine Service where Christ Himself is present for us, where He causes us to sit down and be waited upon. Here, He speaks words of chastisement and accusation and instruction. He also speaks the life-giving words of the Gospel, His compassion for us, forgiving us anew and bringing us back to Himself, making us alive with Him. May the crowd which gathers here find nourishment and satisfaction, a green place in the midst of desolation, where the Lord Himself takes bread, gives thanks, breaks it, and give it us as His own risen Body and Blood for the forgiveness of sins.  “O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good and His mercy endureth forever.” (Psalm 136:1) Amen.

Sixth Sunday after Trinity (Matthew 5:20-26)

Bethlehem Lutheran & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR

Sixth Sunday after Trinity + July 8, 2018

Text; Matthew 5:20-26

This week, our Vacation Bible School will center around the Ten Commandments.

 

For centuries, the first thing those learning the Christian faith encountered has been the Ten Commandments.  We think they are elementary, and therefore easy to do.  After all, they sound so simple:

  1. You shall have no other gods.
  2. You shall not misuse the Name of the Lord your God.
  • Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
  1. Honor your father and your mother.
  2. You shall not murder.
  3. You shall not commit adultery.
  • You shall not steal.
  • You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
  1. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.
  2. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

We would like the Commandments to be tame, manageable.  As easy as following the civil laws like where to park and the proper way to conduct business.

 

The Gospel reading for today is part of what’s called the Sermon on the Mount (page 809-811 in the pew Bibles).  The very first part, most of us are familiar with, the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.”  Then Jesus compares Christians to the light of the world and salt of the earth.  In the part read today, He begins to explain the Law and its relation to the Kingdom of Heaven.  He takes the Ten Commandments, and ramps up the holiness.  If you thought the thunder and lightning of Mount Sinai were scary, listen to how the Lord explains the Fifth Commandment:

21“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. 23So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. 26Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.” (Matthew 5:20–26)

 

“Thou shalt not kill,” we heard Moses say, and we feel pretty good if we haven’t actually ended anyone’s life.  (It’ s harder for the soldier or peace officer to acquit himself.)  A commentator writes, “Jesus says that the commandment extends to…resentment and anger against someone. Such anger is itself a violation on man made in the image of God. God cannot accept our offering if we are angry with our brother (vv. 23–24)”[1]

 

The Law of God is like juggling plates.  You’re handed one, and that’s ok.  Two is a little harder, three a little more difficult. Then, four, five, six, all the way to ten.  You are going to drop and break them.

 

Just like this incident at Mount Sinai where the Law was first given:

15Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand, tablets that were written on both sides; on the front and on the back they were written. 16The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets…19And as soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the [golden] calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. 20He took the calf that they had made and burned it with fire and ground it to powder and scattered it on the water and made the people of Israel drink it.” (Exodus 32:15–20)

 

If the Commandments are so elementary, then it should be easy to keep them.  You work hard to keep them diligently.  So what’s the problem?  It’s the reality of your sin.  David says, “Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you” (Psalm 143:2)  None of us has the ability to keep ourselves together and avoid breaking the commandments.  They speak not just to our actions, but also the thoughts and intents of our heart.  We are going to break the Law, and when it does—as often as it does—our confidence can’t be in our obedience to the Law.

 

The Law of God is also like charming a snake.  You think you’ve got it under control and suddenly it lashes out and bites you.

 

Just like this:

4From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. 5And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” 6Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.” (Numbers 21:4–6)

 

You know better than trying to master all Ten Commandments.  Maybe you’d be content to conquer one or two that you really struggle with.  You want to be more loving and patient toward people, and you’re doing well for a while.   You’ve got a problem with internet porn, and you think you’re finally stronger than you used to be.  You try really hard to be content with what God has given you, and for a while you have a time of clarity.  You think you’ve gotten the upper hand on your weakness.

 

But then it happens again.  The old worry takes over your heart and you make hasty plans without prayer.  Your weak flesh is led away by the faintest reminder and those old evil fires are kindled again.  A friend of yours makes a big ticket purchase and you curse God because it isn’t you who gets something new and shiny.

 

The Law cannot and will not be mastered by any of us sinners.  It will always exercise its power over our members.  Remember the experience of even St. Paul:

 

18For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing…21So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:18–24)

 

When you run up against the holy Ten Commandments, your only hope is this: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (v. 25)  It is this glorious Gospel that Jesus brings you to after you have been broken by the Law.

 

As you stand amid the proverbial rubble of the stone tablets, the plates which you could not juggle, hear the Word of the Lord from Colossians 2:

 

13And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Colossians 2:13–14)

 

The Lord has taken your sin away from you.  He took it to the cross and died your justly-deserved sentence.  You are forgiven and free.

 

To you in your pitiful, frustrating weakness, bitten by the snakes of sins you thought you could master, this is the Gospel of the Lord to you:

 

14And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14–15)

 

Those bitten by the serpents in the wilderness were commanded to look up to the bronze serpent and live.  Look up to Jesus hanging on the cross, naked and shameful, yet clothing you with His holiness; weak, and yet giving you strength; defeated, giving you a share in His victory over sin and Satan and the grave.

 

Beloved of God, Christ says, “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  He has done it all for you to give you the righteousness though which you may enter the Kingdom of heaven.  This is how our Lord explains the Law in light of the Kingdom of heaven, so that “no human being may boast in the presence of God”[2] and as many as believe may rejoice in the gift of salvation which Jesus alone gained for us.  As St. Paul writes in Philippians 3:9, this is what it means to “be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ.”  Amen.

[1] Iain Campbell, “Opening Up Matthew”

[2] 1 Corinthians 1:29

The Visitation (observed) (Luke 1:39–56)

Bethlehem Lutheran & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR

The Visitation (observed) + July 1, 2018

Text: Luke 1:39–56

When Mary visited her, Elizabeth exclaimed, “Why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43).

 

The visit had been Mary’s idea, conceived suddenly, arranged quickly, and executed with haste. She hadn’t wanted to stay in her hometown for long, not with the news starting to spread. She was only a young woman after all. She was pregnant, and her fiancé was not the father. How could she explain that? Who could she turn to for support?  The angel had told her of her older relative, Elizabeth, who had conceived in old age.  Yes, she would go there.

 

The story of an unwed woman facing a crisis pregnancy could take place anywhere, any time. It happens with variations every day, all across the world. It could’ve been Ancient Greece, the Mongol Empire, or twenty-first century Oregon. So it appears that St. Luke records yet another account of a teenage pregnancy and a young woman’s search for help: “In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth” (Luke 1:39–40).

 

But that’s not what this story’s about, is it?

 

Mary would be just another teenage pregnancy statistic if the child she carried were not the Christ. Like every pregnancy before and after hers, she conceived and a baby grew in her womb. But hers was different. She was truly a virgin. And the child she carried would “be called holy—the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). That’s what the angel Gabriel had told her, and she’d believed it. The Lord was in her womb. The God who created the heavens and the earth had entered his creation. The One who formed Adam and Eve from the dust of the ground grew day-by-day in the womb of Eve’s daughter. Within and behind Mary’s visit to Elizabeth is the visit of God to humanity.

 

So it’s like St. Paul said: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:27–29). God chose Mary, though she didn’t deserve it and she hadn’t earned it. She had nothing to boast about except the great mercy of God her Savior.

 

But you aren’t be forced to believe any of this. You can doubt the virgin birth, call it a myth and foolishness, despise and scorn the ways of God. Many do. The word on Nazareth’s streets was that Jesus was actually the son of Joseph. More sophisticated stories say that His father was a Roman soldier who had forced himself on Mary. They say that it’s impossible for a virgin to bear a child, that it’s completely unknown and unheard of. Their boast proves that they don’t know and haven’t heard of our God. Impossible? The angel Gabriel said, “Nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). God has done it. Reject Mary and her virgin birth and you reject the foolishness of God by which He saves sinners. But believe this glorious “impossible” news and you’ll find God doing the impossible work of saving you.

 

In contrast to the world’s rejection of the God in Mary’s womb, we have the example of Elizabeth. “When Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb” (Luke 1:41). That little leap was John the Baptist’s first sermon—an in utero announcement that the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world had entered the house with Mary. So much for those who believe that the Word doesn’t work on little ones or that babies can’t believe. John did! Inside the womb, He heard the voice of the mother of God and leapt with joy. Elizabeth felt it, and she too believed the impossible story of the virgin mother: God had truly visited His people to redeem them.  Redeem us at every age, for “I was brought forth in iniquity and in sin did my mother conceive me.” (Psalm 51:5)  From our very conception we need a Redeemer.  We need a Redeemer all the way through life till our hair is gray and our eyes are dim, because even if we were able to avoid it until now, death looms.  Who will save us from this body of death? (Rom. 7:24)  He who was conceived in Mary’s womb.

 

Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!’” (Luke 1:42). Elizabeth did more than receive pregnant Mary into her home, for in receiving Mary, she also received Mary’s Son. Months before the shepherds knelt by the manger and a year or two before the wise men offered their gifts to the infant Jesus, Elizabeth became the first to welcome and worship the Christ Child. She confessed her faith and praised God for the infant blessing given to Mary. Jesus is the giver of every blessing in the church, and He was the reason Mary is called blessed. From Elizabeth, then, learn how to receive and rejoice over the visitation of the virgin’s Son. She helps us recognize as our Savior the One who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, hidden in the virgin’s womb, wrapped in swaddling cloths, and laid in a manger.

 

Young Mary is the vessel through whom the Savior came to Elizabeth and to us. Elizabeth calls her “the mother of my Lord” (Luke 1:43). That’s a profound confession. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has a mother. The Lord who appeared to Moses in a burning bush and who led the people out of slavery in Egypt was contained within Mary’s womb. “In Him, the fullness of deity dwells bodily.” (Col. 2:9)  He followed the same path as you and me: He experienced life in the womb, as an infant, a toddler, a preschooler, a young child, a preteen, a teenager, and then adulthood.

 

God became man in this way so that He could be the Savior of all, from the tiniest baby in the womb to the fully mature adult. He embraced and sanctified our entire human nature and so proclaimed the value of every human life, including yours. From God’s perspective, there’s no such thing as a disposable clump of cells. There are no “unwanted” children or “leftover” embryos. There’s no “life unworthy of life.” God cares about every child lost by miscarriage or stillbirth. He came to redeem them, too. We know this from the nine months God spent in Mary’s womb. From Him, we learn to care for all life, including the unborn from the day of conception, and to show mercy and compassion to all pregnant women, including those with “crisis” pregnancies. Such pregnancies may be common in this fallen creation, but Jesus knows them all. And each pregnancy is a reminder of our Lord’s incarnation and visitation. What we do unto these “little ones” we do unto our Lord.

 

This Lord whom Elizabeth praised while still in the womb is the same one who lived and walked this earth for thirty years, performing miracles and proclaiming the kingdom of God. He was born true man. His sinless life and innocent suffering and death stand in for you.  He has endured the wrath you and I have deserved and rescued you from death. Even now He remains the Incarnate One, truly God and truly man, that He might be our Advocate and Savior. The Lord has not abandoned His people or forgotten His promises. He still visits them with salvation.

 

The blessing that came to Elizabeth comes to us as well, in a way that looks just as foolish and weak and despised as pregnant teenage Mary knocking on her relative’s door. He who once visited Elizabeth while hidden in the womb of Mary now comes to visit us today, hidden in the lowliness of human words, simple water, bread and wine. My Lord is there, for no Word which God speaks will be impossible.[1]

 

The prophecy given to Elizabeth concerning Mary is that she is blessed for believing that the Word of God is true. That is also true for us: Blessed are those who believe what God says, who trust God’s Word. Blessed is he who believes that what the Lord has said to him will be accomplished. Of course, that is easier said than done.

 

Consider what the Lord has said to you. He says: “You are Mine. I gave you My Name when you were baptized in My Name.” (Isa. 43:1; Matt. 28:19) He has said: “I forgive you all your sins” (John 20:23) A little later this morning, He will say: “Take, eat this is My Body. Take, drink, this is My Blood shed for you, for the forgiveness of your sins. I am in you and you are in Me. I am with you always.” (Matt. 26:26-28; John 17:21; Matt. 28:20)

 

The question remains the same as that which faced Elizabeth: How do I receive this visitation? Do I listen to the leap of John the Baptist as He proclaims the Incarnate God? Do I rejoice in Jesus Christ, my Lord, born of the virgin Mary? Do I wonder at why this great gift is granted to me? Do I bless Mary for her faith, saying with Elizabeth: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Luke 1:45)? Do I believe that God does exactly what He says, that He gives me the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation for the sake of His Son?

 

Blessed are you, like Mary and Elizabeth, for you also are filled with the Holy Spirit and you believe God, who visits you this day according to His Word. Amen.

[1] Alternate and more literal translation of Luke 1:37