Ash Wednesday (Mark 14:1-9)

Passion Reading: Mark 14:1–9

1It was now two days before the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him, 2for they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar from the people.” 3And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. 4There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that? 5For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they scolded her. 6But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. 8She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. 9And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”

If you were to get ashes in your eyes, you wouldn’t be able to see clearly. Similarly, what sin has done to us is damage our vision of what is good in God’s sight. We look at what is good and distort its purpose, or we look upon what is beautiful and misjudge its value. As Isaiah says, we are those who “call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness” (Isa. 5:20).

Jesus says in the Gospel, “When you give to the needy” (Matthew 6:2). He assumes that Christians will do this and that giving to the needy must be a good thing to do. Jesus also says in the Passion Reading, “You always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them” (Mark 14:7). But sinners misjudge the purpose of such good deeds.

Jesus criticized the hypocrites “in the synagogues and in the streets” for conspicuously giving to the needy in order to “be praised by others” (Matthew 6:2). Likewise, they prayed long-winded prayers and made a show of fasting in order to “be seen by others” (Matthew 6:5, 16). In being praised and seen by others, they received the rewards they were seeking: to be thought of as good people by others. This is an entirely self-serving and evil approach to good works, because it only uses God’s Name for selfish gain.

On the other hand, those who come to the Father through faith in His Son view good works as opportunities to serve the neighbor and please God [2 Corinthians 5:9]. In fact, these works pleasing in God’s sight aren’t even done seeking a reward. Jesus never says that rewards are why Christians do what they do. He promises that the Father will reward the almsgiving, prayer, and fasting of His children, but reward is not their motivation.

But our old Adam misjudges this point. Sin’s deep delusion is that our work must have a commensurate reward. That is the worst misjudgment we can make, and it’s the tragic error of all man-made attempts at religion. Thanks be to God that His Word, echoed in the liturgy and hymns, makes it painfully clear our utter wretchedness and desperate need for the forgiveness of our sins. What we need of first importance is the Lamb of God who takes away our sins. And St. Mark takes us to Him in our Passion Reading when he begins, “It was now two days before the Passover. . .” (Mark 14:1).

The Passover and Passion were just a couple of days away. Jesus knew this and had repeatedly told His disciples that His death was drawing near. But unlike Jesus, the guests at Simon the Leper’s house didn’t have their mind on the cross when an uninvited woman came in. She cracked open an expensive jar of pure nard, which was a luxury item, and anointed Jesus. It was no small thing, because her act, no matter how out of place it seemed to the guests, proclaimed that Jesus was the anointed offering, a pleasing aroma about to be presented to God.

Then there’s the value of the nard itself. If it really could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, that would have been nearly a year’s wages for a day laborer. Before the Feeding of the Five Thousand, the disciples estimated that two hundred denarii worth of bread would fill the crowd’s bellies (Mark 6:37). Just imagine how many people you could feed with three hundred denarii! That’s what the guests at Simon’s dinner were saying among themselves, outraged at the woman’s wastefulness, indignant that so many would go hungry because of her impulsiveness. “What’s wrong with you, woman? Are you out of your mind? You should have sold that perfume and given the money to the poor!” But they had misjudging eyes. It’s worth noting that John’s Gospel, chapter 12, comments that Judas raised this objection, “not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it.” (John 12:6)

Jesus, however, sees clearly and He comes to the woman’s defense and tells her critics to back off. Jesus recognizes her action as a beautiful work, as preparation for the most beautiful, noble, good deed in human history: His own suffering, death, and burial.

As Jesus Himself says, it’s good to give to the needy, to do good to the poor. But when the incarnate Son of God is sitting at your dinner table preparing to suffer and die for the sin of the world, then be hastily entombed without proper anointing at His burial, then even three hundred denarii worth of ointment is no waste, but is rightly devoted to His service. What the dinner guests could not see was the sheer uniqueness, the tremendous weight, of the moment they were witnessing. For God’s Anointed One was soon to give His body and shed His blood, to give His life as a ransom for the world, to be the once-for-all Passover Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). This moment was not business as usual. As the generous provider for all Creation, it’s certain that God the Father gave what was necessary to feed the poor of Bethany and Jerusalem on that day, even as He was about to pour out the priceless blood of His Son as a saving balm for sinners. St. Paul echoes the anointed Jesus, “Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2). The smell of Christ’s holy life and atoning work turned away the wrath of God against us, with our misjudgment and evil thoughts and selfish plans, once and for all.

In Holy Baptism, you have been washed in the blood of the Lamb and anointed with the Holy Spirit to sanctify you and make you pleasing to the Father. The beautiful robe of Christ’s righteousness has become yours, so that you need no longer fear eternal damnation in hell. The power of sin, death, and Satan has been shattered like that broken alabaster flask, and you have been liberated from the realm of darkness to live forever in the Kingdom of Life, and for the rest of your earthly lives to love God with all your heart and to love your neighbor as yourself.

There was another time Jesus was anointed by a woman, earlier in His ministry, at the house of a different Simon, a Pharisee (Luke 7:36–50). St. Luke reports that that woman was known around town as a sinner, and she anointed and wiped the feet of Jesus with her hair. Jesus concludes the story by saying that her loving action toward Him was evidence that she had been forgiven much, for the one who has been forgiven much, loves much.

Why doesn’t Mark give us this woman’s name? Because at that moment, she was not the point; Jesus and His saving work were. Her anonymity also teaches us how to approach good works. Our good works are marred with our own vanity when we make them about us. Beautiful works do not come as a result of human cleverness or guilt-tripping. They cannot be forced from the outside, or quantified so that they match a certain expectation. What happens when sinners do this, is they turn the Christian faith into a human enterprise, the result of our planning and our doing. The measure of success is in the eyes of men, and the rewards are not in heaven. They’re right here on earth where we can see how much or how little we’ve “gotten done.”

This is the pitfall of dictating acts of devotion, too. It’s hard to get away from the idea that you’re supposed to “give up something for Lent.” Where this tradition started may have been commendable, but what it’s become is a practice of righteousness before men and a pointless burden. Whether it’s fasting, praying, or giving alms, it needs to all be about Jesus. Whatever is about you needs to decrease until it’s nothing. That’s what the Lord means when He says, “Rend your hearts and not your garments.” (Joel 2:13) Squeeze out all that is you, all that is full of uncleanness, malice, and evil; so that you can be filled with Christ’s righteousness, His holiness, His life.

The works which Jesus calls beautiful are those that magnify Him. Those proclaimed in the Gospel, are the ones which were spontaneous, borne out of a heart that knows God’s grace in Christ, and responds to it. “She has done what she could,” Jesus says. That is, she simply lived out her vocation, and on that day, she was called to do the beautiful work of anointing Jesus before His burial. She did not do it to be praised or seen by others, nor was she seeking a reward, but she had eyes only on Jesus. And now, even though as a sinner she was not worthy of anything from the Father, she has gone on to receive her eternal reward, all for the sake of the Jesus whom she anointed.

You also are called to do what you can in your vocations, in whatever situation the Lord puts you each day. You are set free from the enslaving misjudgment that you should do good works either to be praised by men or to ward off guilty feelings. In Christ, you are free to care for the poor; free to bring to God your sins, your cares and that of others, and your praises; free to offer your acts of devotion in secret—not to bring glory to yourself, but because of the glory that God has made known to you in His Son. Repent and believe the Gospel, which declares your sins are forgiven by the Passover Lamb. Then you are truly freed for good works offered to Him, to give glory to Your Savior and Your God. Amen.

The Transfiguration of Our Lord (2 Peter 1:16-21)


“While I was thus in the act of calling upon God, I discovered a light appearing in my room, which continued to increase until the room was lighter than at noonday, when immediately a personage appeared at my bedside, standing in the air, for his feet did not touch the floor.

“He had on a loose robe of most exquisite whiteness. It was a whiteness beyond anything earthly I had ever seen; nor do I believe that any earthly thing could be made to appear so exceedingly white and brilliant…

“Not only was his robe exceedingly white, but his whole person was glorious beyond description, and his countenance truly like lightning. The room was exceedingly light, but not so very bright as immediately around his person. When I first looked upon him, I was afraid; but the fear soon left me.

“He called me by name, and said unto me that he was a messenger sent from the presence of God to me, and that his name was Moroni; that God had a work for me to do; and that my name should be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues, or that it should be both good and evil spoken of among all people.” -Book of Mormon, Testimony of Joseph Smith

Fantastical stories abound, like this encounter of Joseph Smith in the Book of Mormon.  But how do we respond to such a testimony? We could guard against all spurious things, as if they were sighting of Sasquatch.  We could just write them off as the stuff of legend, because seeing is believing, after all, right? On the other hand, what’s to say we shouldn’t believe Joseph Smith?  After all, we weren’t there, so we can neither confirm nor deny what he wrote. Maybe even take the approach of some theologians and say, it doesn’t really matter if it’s true, but it sure brings hope to many people.

Imagine what it was like for the Apostles first sharing the news of crucified Jesus rising from the dead.  It must have seemed a far-fetched tale to some, if not many. Part of that Gospel includes the story of the Transfiguration.  Peter, James, and John are taken up a high mountain by themselves, and they see this incredible sight. Jesus’ clothing becomes like light.  Like ecstatic visions of prophets before them, they were given a view which even Moses was not privy to.

But what’s to say that it’s true or false?  Yes, there were three witnesses (as Deuteronomy 19:15 commanded).  Yet, as the Book of Mormon demonstrates, you can even get three and eight people to agree with you (about the golden plates).

The key to the testimony of Peter, James, and John is in verse 19: “And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place.”  What the three Apostles saw was in accord with what God had said about His Son.  As opposed to Joseph Smith’s testimony, where the message of the alleged angel Moroni told him very different things about God the Father, His Son, and the Holy Spirit.  

In fact, on the holy mountain, it wasn’t just Peter, James, and John who were witnesses, Moses and Elijah were two witnesses confirming what God had said beforehand.  Moses had said, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. 19 And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him.” (Deuteronomy 18:18-19)  Likewise, Elijah, representing all the prophets leading up to (and including) John the Baptist (Matt. 17:10-13), encompassed God’s call to His people to return and hope in the Son of David (2 Samuel 7), the Righteous Branch (Jerimiah 23), the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 52-53), and even the one who overturned death’s reign (1 Kings 17:20-24).

Just like today, people had various ideas about who Jesus was.  Six days prior to the Transfiguration, Jesus had been asking His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” and Peter had answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” (Matthew 16:13-16) The vision up on the mountain is the visible confirmation of that.

But what good is that for our lives today?  How does this 2,000-year-old Transfiguration story have any bearing on your life?  It has to do with what you think of the prophetic Word. What I mean is what is the Bible?  Is it merely information about God and His Son? If so, then we can absorb it like the classes we took in high school.  When all is said and done, you graduate and move on to the rest of life. Nobody needs to go back to high school once they graduate.  So, if the Bible is information about Jesus, then we graduate from studying it, graduate from our need to sit in church and hear it spoken to us. After all, it’s just the same thing again and again.  It’s reasonable to think if you wanted to be an expert in Jesus, you could study quicker on your own.

But what if it’s more than information?  If it is, as St. Peter says, that “to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, 20 knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. 21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit,” then we’re not just dealing with one more factoid or subject to have expertise in.  It is more than literature to be familiar with; it is the voice of the Living God, the Words of Eternal Life (John 6:68).  More than that, it is the Word by which those who believe have life, and apart from it we have no life in us [John 6:53].

Jesus tells a parable in Matthew 7:

24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. 27 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”

For those who hold to the Word of God, they have a foundation which the inevitable chance and change of life cannot move.  Everything else will pass away—your job, your family, your school sports, your vacations, your health. God has given us with incredibly rich gifts to enjoy in our time and land.  The Lord has given, but what happens when the Lord takes away? [Job 1:21] You can’t guarantee you’ll live into your nineties. Even if you do, what will be the effect if you’ve neglected the life you have from God’s Word?

When it takes a special event to get you to reorder your schedule to come to divine service, that’s not good.  And for parents, what do your children learn when your family only goes to church for Christmas and Easter, or a funeral?   It communicates that there’s a divide between God’s Word and “real life” and most of the time “real life” takes priority. Great will be the fall of such a house.

If this hits close to your house, repent.  Repent before the floods come. Do not deceive yourself by saying “God understands that I’m busy.”  Stop it! God sees right through your excuses. Believe God, that He understands better what we need than our dim self-evaluation.  He earnestly wants for us to have “something more sure,” the firm foundation that will withstand the next election, cancer, poverty, and even the terrors which precede the Last Day.  “Return to the Lord, your God, for He is gracious and merciful.” (Joel 2:13)

At this point in other places, the piano music would start and there would be an invitation for you to ask Jesus back into your heart, and to make Him the Lord of your life.  And it’s true for all who believe in Him, that He does become Lord and center of your life. Yet returning to Him isn’t based on our commitment. What we learn from the mount of Transfiguration is this: “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased. Listen to Him.”  It doesn’t take an emotional, extraordinary experience to return to the Lord, and you really should stop putting it off because you want a sign that it’s the “right” time.  The power to be saved is in God’s Word—“listen to Him”:

Even though your commitment is flaky at best, His Word to you in Baptism is unbroken: “If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself.” (2 Tim. 2:11b-12)  His Word of absolution has the power to loose you from your sins: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (John 20:23)  His Word is powerful enough to get through to even the densest among us: “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.” (Isa. 55:11)

We don’t need a mountain top to come to Jesus.  He has already come to you here today, and every time we take Sabbath rest.  Do not refuse Him, for He brings you treasures eternal. Amen.

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany (Matthew 5:21-37)

Jesus cuts to the chase.  He doesn’t sugar coat His message to lure people in with fluffy words, only to hook them.  Right away, He gets to what His work is about by confronting us our failures by the Ten Commandments.

But He doesn’t quite follow the order given on Sinai (Exodus 20:1-20)—first our duty toward God, and then our duty to our neighbor.  He starts with the fifth, and He applies it in terms of the greatest amount of damage we can cause by breaking them.

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’” This was the very one committed by Cain when the world was newly infected with sin.  But the murder of Abel didn’t just come out of nowhere. As James says, “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” (James 1:14-15)  Jealousy over Abel’s offering sprouted into hatred for his brother, and blossomed into Cain raising his hand against him.

The commandment forbids more than ending someone’s life.  It always begins with a devaluing of the other person and a justification for wrath.  That anger could be well-deserved (being cheated out of money, betrayed by family, etc.)  Yet in our anger, we rise up to the position of God and execute judgment: First of the person (“You fool!”) and then carry out sentence (“You must die!”)  Now, it doesn’t always get to the severity of shedding blood, but it is the same root sin in the heart. And this should scare us, that we have this vile potential within us—that we would remove the dignity given by God to other human beings.  It should also humble us because that very person we would write off as an idiot, God valued them so much that He gave the price of His only Son’s blood to save them.

Next, Jesus addresses sins against our nearest neighbor—our spouse (or future spouse): “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” This is about breaking or cheapening the one-flesh union.  If you thought it was just about deed, then there are plenty of couples who have stayed faithful for years.  But the Sixth Commandment includes breaking that union in the heart.

If you think Jesus isn’t wise to our modern technology, you’d be dead wrong.  More than ever, this application of the sixth commandment is relevant because of the prevalence of pornography.  Several surveys document how rampant this is in a digital age where provocative images can be subtly viewed on handheld screens.  Many people talk about porn in terms of addiction, but Jesus doesn’t give that latitude. He says very clearly that every instance of being enticed by someone who is not your wife or husband is indeed adultery.  And despite the excuses we make, the damage caused by inviting erotic content into our lives or our marriage does real damage to our spouse.

Certainly, it can destroy you on a psychological and emotional level, because men objectify women’s bodies and women dream of the man who can satisfy them in ways their husband cannot.  But it’s even worse for the Christian who indulges in this private adultery because of the damage it does to their soul. Their conscience is at odds with the Word of God. The weak and wicked flesh tries to justify itself, tries to make excuses.  And the danger is real: if you are lured into living by the flesh, you will fall under the condemnation, “neither the sexually immoral…will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-10). 

Just as not all anger leads to murder, not all adultery of the heart leads to divorce, but the immorality is all too real.  The one-flesh bond which God made man and woman for is tugged at and—if left unchecked—rent asunder. ““It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”  Here is another place where our modern way of thinking is at odds with God’s ways.  Whether we are looking for loopholes to get rid of a troublesome spouse, or trying to quiet our conscience after the papers are signed, we can’t deny God’s intent for marriage: That He desires husband and wife to live in lifelong commitment, loving and honoring each other.  Divorce is the consequence of our hardness of heart—his and hers. And here even the “innocent” party can come guilty of adultery.

The Lord chose these sins to open up His preaching because they are the ones which have the most collateral damage.  Their consequences can be felt. Some can’t be taken back. Others take years to rebuild trust. These are the things which hold our sins up before our eyes, and we cannot make excuses for ourselves.  We can’t pay God back for what we’ve done.

Where does that leave us?  All of us are found to be sinners, and we’ve been all-too comfortable with that.  We have zero merit to bring to God, but as we are emptied of our own righteousness, our faith brings us to the Lord.

At the beginning of service, we confessed that in two verses from the Psalms:

“Our help is in the Name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” (Ps. 124:8) and

“I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord, and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.” (Ps. 32:5)

Where is our help?  Not in what a good job or terrible job of obeying we’ve done, or keeping ourselves free from public shame.  It’s not in getting it right next time. Our help is in the Name of the Lord—in who He is as the Savior of sinners.  That is the Name which He put on you in your Baptism. He puts His Name on sinners, making enemies and wicked people into children of God.  What could possibly make up for the sins which we’ve done? Only the blood of Christ can pay so high a price to God. Only being crucified with Christ can free our conscience from the guilt we bear.  Only being raised with Him to newness of life and the help of the Holy Spirit can transform our desires away from dead works, into love for God and love for our neighbor.

“I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.”  Jesus puts real healing in confessing your sins.  Not just in the privacy of your own heart. After all, you can see where privacy can lead you in gross sins and excuses for them.  He’s talking about confessing your sins to another Christian. Three places in the Gospels, Jesus attaches this promise to confessing your sins to another, usually your pastor: “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound on heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” and “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven him” (Matt. 16:19, 18:18; John 20:21-23)  This isn’t about power on the part of any man; it’s about you speaking the truth of your sin, exposing yourself before the Lord, and hearing His words of grace and peace. Truth be told, we’re more nervous about exposing our wickedness to another person, and we’d rather “deal with it” ourselves.  But the Lord knows this, and also knows what we need to truly heal our souls and bodies.

For several months, I’ve put it in the bulletin that private confession and absolution is available, but I want to show you what exactly it is.  Turn to page 292 in the hymnal. There are several suggestions for preparing your heart to make the most out of it—reading the Ten Commandments, praying penitential psalms.  It’s not that these make the forgiveness any more or less effective, but they sharpen the focus of what this is about and who God is for you. Then, you see a dialog between you and the pastor, along with a general confession.  Then, there’s a space where you may (and please do take advantage of this) verbalize your sins.  Then, without excuse for them, you simply say, “I am sorry for all this and I ask for grace. I want to do better.”

Then comes the best part, the unexpected part, because if you exposed yourself any other place in life, you would be looked at differently and possibly ostracized.  But before the Lord and His minister, you hear, “God be merciful to you and strengthen your faith.” Can you believe this?! Then you hear a forgiveness that’s better than another person can give; it’s the Lord’s forgiveness—talking directly to you, who have just laid it all out there knowing that you only deserve temporal death and eternal punishment.  And He has forgiven you! Alleluia! Praise the Lord! So, consider this your personal invitation to call me and set up a time for confession, so you can have the Lord’s help to turn from your sin and grow in faith.

What this teaching of Jesus also shows us is that the Church and this congregation need to be a place where we’re not surprised to see ourselves and others as sinners with broken lives.  Your pastor doesn’t talk down to you; these words of Jesus hit home. I also don’t avail myself of confession as often as I need to. Life gets in the way and I make excuses.

Here in this place, what unites us is our common help in the Name of the Lord, so we support each other, looking not for how trouble-free our lives and others’ should be, but how Jesus, who saves us from our sins, is at work to restore fellowship with God and healing from our past (or present).  We’re here to support one another in the aftermath of sins we can’t erase from our past—murders, adulteries, divorces, oath-breaking—but we know that the Lord has taken the record of debt that stood against us and nailed it to Jesus’ cross. So, with the help of God and His power to bring good out of evil, we care for each other and bind up each other’s wounds.

Just as Jesus knows how real our sins are, may we all also know how real a Savior He is for us. Amen.

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany (Matthew 5:13-20)

There are two errors that we can fall into with good works:

One error is that we can prove to God and others by our actions that we are good.  The proof that we are right with God is that we are busy doing the things God apparently wants.  This happens in many Christian churches that don’t understand the connection between the Sacraments and God’s election of people to salvation.  Every day is the pressure to prove to yourself and others that you are part of the elect because you are busy doing so much for the Kingdom.

The other error happens when we react to that and say that “saved by grace” is a pass to do nothing. Thinking we can be “good with God” and not worry about doing what’s important to Him.  This is the error the Book of James addresses in very clear terms: 14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead…24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (James 2:14-17, 24)

The Church has wrestled the topic of works that are pleasing in God’s sight since before Jesus even spoke these words in the Gospel:

13 “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. 

14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. 

But a little later Jesus tells us, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of God.”  How can we avoid thinking our good works contribute to our salvation?  Martin Luther made a helpful distinction called “two kinds of righteousness.”  That is, the righteousness before God—the one which saves us from sin, death, and hell—is received as a gift.  “This is an infinite righteousness, and one that swallows up all sins in a moment, for it is impossible that sin should exist in Christ.”  The other kind of righteousness is the good works that are done on earth, and those most definitely need to be active, yet it never exists without the first: “This righteousness goes on to complete the first for it ever strives to do away with the old Adam and to destroy the body of sin. Therefore it hates itself and loves its neighbor; it does not seek its own good, but that of another, and in this its whole way of living consists.”

Another way to look at this is to determine where good works come from.  Do they come from you, or is it the result of God’s work in you? It’s very easy for us to think of the things we do as Christians as our choices, our labor, our words.  After all, the work is done by us, so why wouldn’t there be an element of personal credit in it?  

This is where the Epistle reading is helpful, because it makes clear that following Christ and belonging to the Christian religion is not the work of our hands:

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)

When Paul preached to the Corinthians, it wasn’t a motivational speech.  He wasn’t revving them up to live their best life now, and he didn’t sway anyone with his perfect actions or white smile.  If he had, then there would have been a church of Paul. Rather, Paul was serving Christ, the risen-and-yet-unseen Lord of All.  They believed not because he preached a message that “made enough sense” but as a demonstration of God’s power in our hearts. If it were a message that “made sense” more people should accept it, but it’s a message that confesses that we are of no account before God.  Our choices cannot save us. Our works apart from faith are nothing but “filthy rags.” (Isaiah 64:6 NKJV)

Because the foundation of why we’re Christians is not our work, neither is what we do as new creations in Christ  As soon as living a Christian life becomes a kind of self-help routine, you might as well leave God out of the picture.  You don’t need Him. He just left us instructions on how to be good and now we can plow forward. And you can see where that leaves the Church..  The groups that have left God and His Word in the dust are the ones which have nothing but good-looking works to cling to. It’s the church bodies that bend God’s word that stress social gospel the most, and all they can pat each other on the back that they agree this is what they ought to be doing.  

Just as we don’t receive credit for becoming Christians, neither do we receive credit for remaining in this Christian Church.  This is the Holy Spirit’s work. In the Old Testament reading from Isaiah 58, the Lord rebukes His people because while their outward works are many, it has become a godless exercise in patting themselves on the back.

“‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’ Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord?” (Isaiah 58:3-5)

When we try to take our Christianity and mold it into our own exercise, then we immediately run into problems. If Christianity is a human invention, then why didn’t people think of it sooner?  What makes Christianity better than Buddhism or Mormonism? Both of those seem to be a good set of rules for “right” living. And if it were just a matter of getting God’s attention with our works, they’d be a good effort.  But those good works which truly please God are His work through us.

I often wonder what God is calling our congregation to, because of what I see other churches doing: hosting a soup kitchen, a clothing bank, giving out gas vouchers.  It gives me the feeling that we’re not “doing enough” not being busy in what the Lord’s task is for all of us who gather around this altar.

But it would be wrong to label us as unfruitful Christians because our works are not something we can show to others.  The fruits are there, because the Word is there and clung to.  The Sacraments are there and believed in for our benefit.  The fruits may not be something passers-by will see and praise us for, but what does Jesus say about our works? “Beware of practicing your righteousness before others in order to be seen by them…and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matt. 6:1-4)

The works that I’m privileged to see as your pastor are happening all the time—in families that pray together and teach their children the catechism, who bring themselves and their children to church in spite of hectic schedules when it would be easier to stay home, in sharing their faith with family members and inviting them to hear the Word of eternal life (John 6:68). In coming to Bible studies and desiring to deepen their understanding.

Works are happening in acts of generosity shared with those you meet in need, being generous with the earthly abundance God has given.  Prayers ascend abundantly for one another. It’s a beautiful thing to see brothers and sisters showing love and compassion—even toward those who haven’t been able to worship among us because of long-term illness.

But is it these works that will make us right with God?  Of course not. These are works that come from God making us salt and light—people who both preserve the world by God’s work through us, and who guide others out of darkness (like the lighthouse on the cover).  The confidence that we are in Christ and do good works, is that His Word is preached among us and He promises that His Word will not return to Him void. The one who preaches is not just talking into the air, but God takes that Word and changes your hearts.  He makes stronger, more loving, sanctified people out of each of us.

Is there more we can do? Yes, of course, and it’s right for us to pursue that.  Is there some way we can better serve Lebanon and the surrounding area? God grant that we’re open to His guidance!  Can we grow more in His Word, so that we are equipped to serve our neighbors better? Yes, there are plenty of opportunities.  And where we fail, we come back to that perfect righteousness of Christ, which alone has made us right with God and heirs of His Kingdom.  As Jesus says, He makes us to be the salt of the earth and light of the world. So it is our prayer that His will is done among us, and we gladly follow where He leads.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, look with favor upon each of us in our vocation—pastor and hearer, citizens, husbands and wives, parents and children, and workers. Give us wisdom, courage, and patience to serve in sacrificial love, and strengthen us each in our callings. And as You have blessed us with various and unique gifts. Grant us the grace and wisdom to use these gifts always to Your honor and glory; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. 

Purification of Mary and Presentation of Our Lord (Luke 2:22-32)

The Gnostics of the first century imported many strange ideas into the Christian Church.  Named after their chief aim: knowledge/gnosis, they believed the story of salvation was that the stuff of this world was evil and foreign.  Our true selves were meant to dwell in spiritual forms. They taught that Jesus came to impart this hidden gnosis to free us from the bonds of evil, creaturely life.  The Gnostics are the ones being described by the Apostle John, 1 John 2:19-20: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.  But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you know all things.”  They separated themselves from the rest of the church because they came to believe they were more gifted than other believers, and they didn’t need to occupy themselves with lowly earthly things like worshipping together in a building, continuing the learn from words preached by a mere man, and eating and drinking body and blood which—in their view—Christ had shunned.

This disdain for earthly things is a perennial problem that the Christian Church wrestles with.  In the law of Moses, God commanded a temple, an altar, sacrifices, priests, and the like. You couldn’t claim to be worshipping God without honoring these institutions.  In fact, by Jesus’ time, this had become a point of contention between Jews and their northern Samaritan relatives. We catch it in Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well:

[The woman said,] 20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father…the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:20-24)

What Jesus seems to be saying is that the hour is here where earthly things like locations

and temples don’t matter, because God is spirit.  Another group around the time of the Reformation latched onto this idea.  They were called the Enthusiasts.  They reacted so strongly against the Roman claim that the church was only where the pope, bishops, and cathedrals were, that they said God touched people directly, without means.  Their proof text was good example of why you should never accept a verse out of context: “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing.” (John 6:63)

But is this really true?  Jesus is being presented in the temple, fulfilling the law of the Lord.  If Jesus truly were above these things, wouldn’t he be telling people to forget about all that obsolete stuff and go find Him out on the hillside?  But no, we find Him here in the Temple today, and later teaching in the synagogue and Temple. Actually by Mary and Jesus coming to the Temple, this confirms that everything God commanded under Moses had a purpose—the pair of turtledoves, the temple, the altar, the priesthood—and most of all the 40-day old Child who first opened Mary’s womb.  These things were all ordained by God to accomplish His purpose.  

Devout Simeon declares that he has seen God’s salvation when he holds the infant Jesus.  The Holy Spirit led Simeon to the Temple and that is where he found the peace to depart this life.  

Today the errors of Gnosticism and Enthusiasm are still a temptation.  Whether it was someone who said, “You can’t put God in a box” or it was an excuse you came up with, it’s not a good thing when we despise the institutions God has given and invent our own worship.

The most widespread one is telling yourself you can be a Christian, yet never or rarely worship with other Christians.  “I don’t need to come to church to be forgiven.” “Life is really busy…but I pray.” Once the devil gets ahold of someone with lies like this, not even the pastor can help, because then he’s thought to be self-serving  It wasn’t a pastor or pope who gave the Third Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.”  It was the Lord who gave this command for your spiritual good.  You can’t have spiritual wellbeing without stopping your work and resting in His.  You wouldn’t go weeks or months without eating, but God is patient with us when we overlook that “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every Word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matt. 4:4)

Another example is the practice of infant dedication.  They point to the example of Samuel being “lent to the Lord” (in the Old Testament lesson, 1 Sam. 1:21-28).  A big deal is made out of the parent’s promise to raise their child in a Christian home—which, don’t get me wrong—is a beautiful thing.  But dedication replaces the rock-solid promise and dedication that Christ gives in Holy Baptism. “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit””Repent and be baptized, every one of you…this promise is for you and for your children”…[it is a] “circumcision  made without hands” (Matthew 28:19, Acts 2:38-39, Colossians 2:11-12).  Call it an ordinance if you must, but by all means believe that it has power to do what the Lord promises.

These earthly things God gives for our good, because they are rich with His promises and have His saving, consoling, and strengthening power.  We’re acting foolish when we put our own reason above the Lord’s wisdom. But we are here, in the midst of these gifts today. We have stopped what we do with the rest of the week, and that’s good because here the Lord gives His peace.  Here, you are brought back to your Baptism, where your doubts, your failings, your being wise in your own eyes, and all your sins, were nailed to Jesus’ cross, and where you were raised with Him to new life.

And here, you share with Simeon in the blessing of the bodily presence of your Lord.  Because it’s here that the Lord is among us, gathered in His Name. It’s here on the altar where bread and wine have been prepared, that the Lord gives us His own Body and Blood.  The power isn’t in how noble the building or altar are, whether it’s in a glass or a chalice, what kind of bread or wine. The power is in His Word: “Take eat, this is My Body, given for you…Take drink, this is My Blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”  And because we trust His Word, we acknowledge what the Holy Spirit put on the lips of Simeon:

29  “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, 

according to your word; 

30  for my eyes have seen your salvation 

31  that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 

32  a light for revelation to the Gentiles, 

and for glory to your people Israel.” 

Not only have our ears heard, but our eyes have seen it in the earthly things to which God has located His salvation.  Thanks be to God! Amen.