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

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Sixth Sunday after Trinity + July 28, 2019

Text: Matthew 5:20-26

How different Judaism was from Christianity!  Of course, there’s the main difference: believing that Jesus is the promised Messiah (Christ).  But when you accept Christ, all of Scripture suddenly must be reexamined through the cross.  Jesus says to the Jews of His day, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.” (John 5:39)

To give you an example from our Vacation Bible School this past week, we first talked about God’s way with Adam and Eve in the Garden.  There were two trees in the Garden—the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  They were free to eat of any tree—including the Tree of Life—but not the other tree.  We know what happened, that they turned their hearts away from God’s Word and disobeyed that one simple prohibition.  When God is shoving them out the door, He says, “Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” (Genesis 3:22)  That living tree with its life-giving fruit was barred for man, so that he would not avoid the consequence of his sin—death.

But when we read this as Christians, we see the promised deliverance.  The Son of the Living God was lifted up on the cross—an instrument of death penalty, made from dead wood—and by that He gave life to the world.  1 Peter 2:24 explains, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.”  Death was borne by the Living God, and the very instrument of His dying brought life to dying men and women.  So in John’s Revelation at the end, the Tree reappears in full leaf, bearing constant fruit, “The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” (Rev. 22:2)

I have to say, however, one of the most difficult things to resolve between the Old and New Testament is what to do about the Law once the Gospel has been revealed.  Jesus takes up this question in His debut sermon:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

There are two extreme approaches to the Law that Christians have taken:

  • First, there’s no more need for the Law because Jesus fulfilled it all.  The Lamb of God has taken away the sin of the world, and we are new creations in Christ, so what good are the Ten Commandments to us?

“This one party taught and held that the regenerated do not learn the new obedience (that is, in what good works they should walk) from the law; nor should this doctrine in any way be urged on the basis of the law, since they have been liberated by the Son of God, have become his Spirit’s temple, and hence are free, so that just as the sun spontaneously completes its regular course without any outside impulse, they, too, through the inspiration and impulse of the Holy Spirit spontaneously do what God requires of them.” (Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, VI 2)

That would be great, if it weren’t for the sinful flesh we still live with.  But it’s that flesh and the devil around us that—even for genuine believers—causes us to disobey and despise God’s Word.  We still need the Law to show us our sin, because we still need our sin to be put to death.

This is what you see in many progressive churches that embrace immoral behavior in the name of “love.”  They will say the Law (and most of the Old Testament) is obsolete. A favorite verse of this approach is Galatians 3:25-28: “But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian [the Law], for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  With this “liberation” from the Law in mind, this passage is used to justify everything from women’s ordination to transgenderism.

There’s a milder (but no less dangerous) version of this that considers the Gospel a watered-down Law.  Sure, God was serious when He commanded these things, but Jesus has given us a pass to make mistakes.  “All you have to do is believe in Jesus, and then you’re good!” The way this shows is when we tell ourselves, “Ah, I live a pretty good life.  I’ve done enough.”  When your walk with the Lord is about doing the minimum to “get into heaven”—I come to church now and then, I take communion when I really need it so it feels more special, I read my Bible when I have time (aka rarely).

  • Second, the other extreme is when the words of Jesus, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” are taken as a call to action, a personal challenge.  You could call this works righteousness, or a holiness movement.

The fallout from this approach is people despairing that they’re “not good enough” to be a Christian because they struggle with sins and have a messy past.  If Jesus is commanding us to obey the Law even stricter, then what hope is there for those who have been divorced?  What of those whose criminal records remind them daily of their unworthiness?  If you take it to extremes, can those who smoke and drink even be saved?

  • But neither of these extremes is correct, because both of them have no need for Christ.  If Christ negated the Law for us, then maybe God was unjust for putting people to death before?  If Christ came to ramp up the requirements for personal holiness, then what good was His all-atoning sacrifice on the cross?
  • “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”  The Law and the Prophets expose our sin, our uncleanness, the reason we die, and most of all our need for them to be fulfilled for us.  They lead us right to the manger, the preaching of the Kingdom of God, Calvary, and the empty tomb.  Our sins do alienate us from God and from one another, but Jesus Christ, the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets brings reconciliation.
  • In Him, our errors—which are many—are not overlooked, but atoned for.  That’s why we are baptized into His death and resurrection.  It’s life for every sinner who believes!  Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
  • How does this change our lives?  Jesus uses several Commandments as an example, starting with the Fifth:
  • “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But 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.”
  • God is not very interested in outward appearances because He looks at the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  The sinful man looks at the command, “You shall not murder” and thinks he’s avoided it because he doesn’t have criminal penalties.  But God goes deeper to the place where murder starts—in a cold heart toward a fellow human being.  This is where we need the real work.
  • So, God doesn’t just work an outward, civil righteousness, but works change in the heart.  If you are prone to angry outbursts, God works to give you a forgiving, reconciling heart toward those who offend you.  If you’re an alcoholic, God gives you a heart that leans on Him rather than the escape of a buzz.  If you delight in checking out fine women in summer clothing or fantasize about how another man would treat you, God is at work to give you eyes and a devotion only for your spouse.

This is God’s will and God’s work for you in Christ, to daily drown your old sinful nature, and to rise to live to God not just with your outward actions, but from a heart that is being renewed after the image of your Creator (Col. 3:10) Amen.

Fifth Sunday after Trinity (1 Kings 19:11-21, 1 Cor. 1:18-25; Luke 5:1-11)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Fifth Sunday after Trinity + July 21, 2019

Text: 1 Kings 19:11-21, 1 Cor. 1:18-25; Luke 5:1-11

I think we would all agree that God is higher and greater than us. (After all, we wouldn’t be here if we were convinced otherwise.)  As He explains in Isaiah 55:8-9, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”  But sometimes it’s hard to remember that in our daily lives.  We’re going to take a closer look at each of the three readings and focus on how this truth comforts and guides us in our lives.

Before we do, I’d like to turn our attention to the Collect of the Day (which we will pray in a little bit).  The purpose of the Collect is to collect the common lessons from the Scripture assigned for the day, and then put it in the form of a prayer.  So, we pray:

O God, You have prepared for those who love You good things that surpass all understanding.  Pour into our hearts such love toward You that we, loving You above all things, may obtain Your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Old Testament: Putting God above our observations.

Now, turn over your bulletin and follow along with the lessons.  First, in the Old Testament lesson from 1 Kings 19, a little background: Elijah is a faithful prophet.  But there isn’t much market for a faithful prophet, because Israel is being ruled by Ahab and Jezebel, who have embraced pagan worship and tried to supplant or at best synchronize worship of the Lord with the Baals (manmade deities).  In the previous chapter, Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to a contest of offerings, to see whose was the true God.  The Lord vindicated His might before Israel and Elijah had the false prophets put to death.  But that got him in hot water with Queen Jezebel, and she wanted him gone.  Elijah fled from her into the wilderness, and even asked that God take his life, “saying, ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.’”  So, Elijah had gone from a great, visible success in his ministry to the depths of loneliness and despair.  He was to be no better than the prophets who were rejected before him—Moses, Samuel, or the company of brothers who had preached in vain to wicked kings before him.

This is the background for the Lord’s lesson in our text (1 Kings 19:11-21).  Elijah is struggling with his jealousy for the Lord, and the rejection and persecution he’s gotten in return for it. He’s weary from fighting.  His conscience won’t allow him to just go along with the crowd and take the broad and easy path, because that would be unfaithful to His Redeemer, the Lord.  But all that remaining true to God has seemed to have gotten him is scorn and alienation.

But God teaches Elijah by four illustrations: a great wind, a great earthquake, a fire, and finally a whisper—a “still, small voice.” (NKJV)  The impressive and powerful things it says, “the Lord was not in” them.  But He was in the seemingly weak and ineffectual—a whisper.  Here, God is teaching Elijah that His ways are not to be judged by human observation and reason, but by His Word and faith.

This had been a continual lesson for God’s people, in their battles—Pharaoh’s army drown in the Red Sea (Exodus 14), the walls of Jericho falling at the sound of the trumpet and a mere shout (Joshua 6), and the 120,000 Midianites defeated by Gideon’s 300 men (Judges 7-8).  God is at work even when the visible and immediate seems to be just the opposite.

Can’t you relate?  The immediate seems impossible and hopeless.  How could there be any reconciling after months or years of wrongs?  What hope is there for that wayward grandson to ever know the Lord?  Who could survive when the doctors say the chances are so low?

When we witness the world around us, and see how degraded it’s getting, it can wear us down.  Living as a faithful (not nominal) Christian is only getting harder and more unpopular.  When we are convinced from God’s Word of right and wrong, we run contrary to hordes of people who are caught up in the times.  Masses of people could care less what Scripture says, and the plethora of churches that were planted 60 years ago now struggle to be self-supporting.  Visibly, outwardly weak.

But God is greater than our observations, and He is still at work.  Sinners do hear the word of God and turn from their wickedness.  Parents do make worship and Bible study a priority for their family and make the time.  And He even gives us eyes to see the signs that this world is passing away, and the Great Day is surely drawing near.  As the hymn says, “Though hidden yet from mortal eyes, His Gideon shall for you arise.  Uphold you and His Word.” (LSB 666:2)

Epistle: Putting God above our expectations of Him.

Next, we turn to the Epistle lesson from 1 Corinthians 1:18-25.  Jesus is not the Savior people want Him to be.  He doesn’t fit into our human reason.  He also doesn’t open the ground to swallow His enemies or make manna appear on the ground anymore.  Not that He doesn’t reveal Himself through these things.

He gave us reason and language so that He could relate and interact with His creatures.  He is a God of the Word, and He inspired the very words and language syntax so that we might know Him.  His Word reveals clear truths that can be communicated and placed in categories.  But on the other hand, there are things that we cannot know about Him through reason—how His Son can be the sacrifice for the sins of the world, and yet many are not saved, how He created the world and sustains it by His Word, how He is one God in three Persons, how Jesus Christ is able to be bodily present everywhere His Body and Blood are eaten and drunk.  These things defy our love of reason.  We want to have everything figured out and understood.  The first temptation into sin came with the promise that we would become wise, but it was in fact filled with evil and actually blinded us to God’s truth.

He also used to reveal Himself in signs and wonders.  We ought to be fully convinced from His Word that He did turn the water of the Nile into blood (and it was no red algae bloom), that He did truly part the waters of the Red Sea and Israel passed through on dry ground.  We should not doubt that Jesus healed the sick with a touch, cast out ferocious demons, and raised the dead.  We can further believe that the apostles spontaneously spoke in other languages, that they were able to heal the sick, and on one occasion raise the dead.  But we should also be content that the time for those supernatural, visible signs has passed for the most part.  It’s not like God isn’t capable of doing them, and in cases where it’s needed He does.  But to seek and demand these signs is to despise the places where He has promised to be for all people in every generation: in the preaching of repentance and forgiveness of sins, the holy and saving signs of Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper.  The sign that He is living and active, upon which the rock of the Church is built, is the confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God (Matthew 16:15-19).

The lesson here is that our expectations of God should not come from our darkened hearts, but from His own revealing of Himself on His terms.  Be sure that He does reveal Himself when and how He knows best!  A religion that “makes sense” in every point might be appealing, but it’s also the sign of manmade snake oil.  A blinding sign from heaven might be frightful to unbelievers and encouraging to believers, but the true work of God is what Jesus says in John 6: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”  It is His work that we give up our expectations of a reasonable faith and a God of signs and wonders.  “The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”  It is through Christ crucified that we sinners are put in our right mind and see heaven open before us.

Gospel: Putting God above our unworthiness and weakness.

Finally, in the Gospel, Luke 5:1-11, we hear of the first disciples meeting Jesus.  By virtue of hearing these stories many times, and through the fog of history, it’s hard to understand why Peter reacts the way he does.  Though the sign that Jesus does, it’s revealed to Peter that he is standing in the presence of the living God.  His reaction is not unlike Isaiah, who cries, “Woe is me!” when he is suddenly up-close and personal with Holy God.  There’s nothing that Peter can hide, as he finds himself veritably naked before God.

We’re often not aware how true this is.  God is omniscient, knowing our thoughts, words, and actions truly and completely.  Nobody is able to hide from His gaze, no matter how well we cover it from others.  So Peter, like us, cry out, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!”

But thanks be to God, He doesn’t listen to that request.  Jesus, the Crucified One, the physician of sinners, instead forgives Peter: “Do not be afraid” because where God removes fear, He has removed the guilt and condemnation.  These are words of the Absolution.  The God who fully knows your sin has brought it to your attention and yet His divine judgement is: Not guilty because the Lamb of God has been sacrificed in your place.

And here the lesson is that we put God’s Word above our own unworthiness and weakness.  It truly is His desire to come and dine with you, in a house of sinners like this.  He earnestly desires to receive you.  When we think about worthiness, we must put His judgement above our own.  In preparation for the Lord’s Supper today, the Catechism asks, “Who receives this sacrament worthily?  Answer: Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training. But that person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’ But anyone who does not believe these words or doubts them is unworthy and unprepared, for the words ‘for you’ require all hearts to believe.”  What makes us worthy is a true and faithful confession, as John writes,

If we say we have fellowship [communion] with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:6-10)

It’s true that God’s ways are higher than our ways, and thanks be to God for that, because it’s in those ways that we believe His Word and through His Son we are saved.  Amen.

Third Sunday after Trinity (Luke 15:1-10)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Third Sunday after Trinity + July 7, 2019

Text: Luke 15:1-10

Sometimes, Jesus is offensive.  No, not like Howard Stern or Alex Jones.  Jesus is offensive because He sheds His holy light on what is ungodly in us.  When Jesus brings that light to men, one of two things happens:

  1. We cover up our evil with pride and make excuses for it (and hate the messenger). God says you should speak the truth in love, love covers a multitude of sins, and (as the Catechism says) put the best construction on everything.  But we just had to get it off our chest, and we just had to share those extra details which put the other guy in a bad light, and make us look either like a hero or a victim.
  • Or, we acknowledge our sins and do not cover our iniquities, as the Psalmist says.  When God calls us out on our sins of thought, word, and deed, we are ashamed of them.  We realize that we aren’t just in theory sinners, like it’s a blanket statement we can use to excuse ourselves from consequences.  None of the good things we’ve done can be used as justification. We grieve the ways our actions have offended God and hurt other people.  And as Psalm 32 continues, “I said I will confess my transgressions to the Lord, and You forgave the iniquity of my sin.” (Ps. 32:5)

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

The Pharisees and Scribes, and the tax collectors and sinners represent these two different reactions to the Word of God.  Now, it’s not hard and fast who’s in one “camp” or the other.  The two parables Jesus tells explain how God deals with sinners when they lose sight of their sin.

The parable of the lost sheep begins with a member of the fold, and through whatever circumstances—whether they were drawn away or thought they were strong enough to strike out on their own—gets in danger.  And God knows best of all that when someone gets in that place, they need to be sought out. They’ve separated themselves from the oversight and safety which the Shepherd provides.  The goal is on them being “found,” which means they’re restored to the company of the flock, of fellow sinners.

The next parable, of the lost coin, again shows the earnestness of God in searching for the lost with the picture of a woman who has lost 10% of her drachmas.  The focus isn’t so much on how the coin got lost (As people, we know we lose things all the time, usually by being distracted or absent-minded.  But, God is not this way.).  The focus is on the thorough search because of the imputed value of what was lost.  This is how the Lord feels about every human soul, as Ezekiel and St. Paul teach: “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live” and “God desires all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” (Ezek. 18:32, 1 Tim. 2:4).  He seeks their life because they are precious to Him—as precious as the holy blood of His Son, Jesus Christ. 

So not only do sinners gather around the preaching of God’s gracious Kingdom, but He actually seeks exactly these people.

In our Epistle lesson, Paul writes, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”  Paul is a prime example of both of these groups in the Gospel—the offended Pharisee and the humble sinner.  He details His former life, and how God’s good purpose was fulfilled in it.  This saying is trustworthy, and should be received by all: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.  Yes, the proud who say they have not sinned, so that He might humble them and show His grace.  Yes, those bowed down and already crushed, that He might raise them up and bid their broken bones to rejoice [Ps. 51:8]. 

This is a trustworthy saying not only because it’s true about everyone in the world whom God loves, but it also tells us what to expect in Jesus’ church.  I wish we would remember this more often, and not just give it lip service.  The Church of Jesus is comprised of broken people who are longing for God’s grace.  Last week, we heard Jesus picture them as the “poor and crippled and blind and lame.” (Luke 14:21)  They’re not your friends, the people you would choose to associate with (although you might find kindred spirits among them).

This is what separates the Church from every other club or association you belong to.  In those, you choose to be a member of the group.  And yes, humanly speaking, people choose to belong to this congregation or that, or whether or not to attend the Divine Service.  But I think explaining the word “church” is helpful.  In Greek it is ekklesia, from the words ek (out of) and kaleo (call).  The Church is those who are called out of the world by the Lord to belong to Him.  The Church has this one thing in common: we believe that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners including me!  That’s why we are all here.  Well, for the most part. 

The Church on earth, like those gathered around Jesus that day, is comprised of both humble sinners and hypocrites.  These sinners are less of sinners than others (so they think).  But remember the parables Jesus tells: He will seek out those who are lost that they might not perish eternally, and He highly values each person’s soul.  So if you are a hypocrite today, may God break your hard heart and give your faith, so that you would be ready to be sinners with the rest of us.

The experiences we have sometimes make us wonder if we’re on the right path as humble sinners, or if we’re hypocrites.  One part of life in particular is the pain and griefs we have.  How could a good and loving God let these things happen to those who are supposed to be His children?  With Job, we wonder if there is something we did to deserve a worse or harder life than people we’re pretty sure don’t know the Lord.  This is God’s answer to us is in Hebrews 12:

Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?

                  “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,

nor be weary when reproved by him.

                For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,

and chastises every son whom he receives.”

First consider the One whom we know for certain was God’s Son, because He it was declared loud and clear at His Baptism and on the Mount of Transfiguration: “This is my beloved Son.”  How did it go for Jesus?  Worst of all, because His life’s work was that of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  He knew no sin, He was like an innocent lamb led to the slaughter, and yet He was a man of sorrows, well-acquainted with grief.  But obviously, it’s not our course to bear the sins of the world, yet this is how God the Father raises His children through faith:

7 It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. 11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

His love isn’t to be sought in the discipline itself, but in His eternal purpose for His children: to train us in righteousness, to put our sins to death on Jesus’ cross, and galvanize our faith through the discipline we endure for a time.

This is how God seeks and saves the lost, gathers and guides those who our found, and brings eternal life to all who believe these words and promises of God.  Glory be to the God who saves sinners such as us! Amen.