Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

Readings: Ecclesiastes 5:10–20 | Hebrews 4:1–13 | Mark 10:23–31

Text: Mark 10:23-31

Covering points from Formula of Concord – Article II on Free Will

Last week, we heard the rich man go away from Jesus disheartened by His invitation, “Follow me.”  It was quite sad, and actually remarkable that this is the only time in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus’ invitation is refused.

There is good reason why the Holy Spirit included this in the Gospel.  Imagine if every time Jesus spoke to people, they believed, and every time He went to heal someone they were instantly made well [see Mark 8:22-26].  If this were the case, later generations of Jesus’ followers, like us, would get the idea something was wrong with us.  We share the Gospel with others today, don’t we?

(And we must share the Gospel, because we can’t assume that anyone will crack a Bible for themselves.  We also can’t even assume if they go to a church that claims to be Christian that they will hear the Gospel and not some Jesus-ified moralistic motivational speech.)

When we share the Gospel, the thing that causes us to wonder the most is why people don’t respond to God’s gracious invitation. 

This is a good occasion to review what God teaches us in His Word about the freedom of the human will and the power of sin over our will.  In other words, to answer questions like, “What powers in spiritual matters does a person have after the fall of our first parents and before regeneration? Can a person by his own powers—prior to and before his regeneration by God’s Spirit—get ready and prepare himself for God’s grace? Can a person accept and apprehend or reject the grace offered through the Holy Spirit in the Word?” (FC Epitome II 1)

23 And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”

Listen to the three things Jesus is saying here: 1) It is exceedingly difficult for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God, 2) how difficult for anyone to enter the Kingdom of God, and 3) it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom.  Note these carefully, that in no case does Jesus say people will not enter the Kingdom.  Wealth in this life—“the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life” (1 John 2:16)—is something that easily snares people and gives them an excuse to reject God’s call to repent and believe.  But in reality, the second thing Jesus says is the umbrella which covers the other two: “Children, how difficult it is to enter the Kingdom of God!”

So, let me get this right, Jesus.  You want us to go and preach the Gospel to the whole creation, and yet the task is difficult and even as likely as getting a camel to pass through the eye of a needle?!  That is to say, it’s not happening if it’s up to us.  Well, we’re not the first to balk at this:

26 And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”

This is the answer to those questions I mentioned earlier from the Formula of Concord, as to how “free” our will is to hear God’s call to repent and believe the Gospel.  And we need to get this right to understand what happens when we share our faith in Christ.

Our Lord Jesus, who has given us His Word of life, says, “As far as man is concerned, it is impossible; but not as far as God is concerned.” (alternate translation of verse 27)

The rich man ended up with his eyes downcast because he was approaching the kingdom on human terms.  Remember how he asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mk. 10:17)  Dr. James Voelz explains it this way:

“As far as man is concerned, the key to entry into [the kingdom] of God lies with demands, and, as a result, everything is understood as demand, even Jesus’ kindly/gracious invitation. Furthermore, as far as man is concerned, these demands cannot be fulfilled. It is for this reason that the rich man reacts the way he does.

“As far as God is concerned, however, the key to people entering His [kingdom] lies in Himself. He understands, not only that He is the Creator of all things [Gen. 1:1], not only that He is the one who chooses people to be His own [Deut. 7:6], but also that He alone is the one who saves and brings deliverance [Isa. 63:5].”[1]

To our natural human ears, God’s Word rings with demands and requirements, with untenable burdens.  Surely you’ve heard someone comment how restrictive Christianity is, and often they’ll complain about all they would have to give up.  But we should also be careful to share our faith in such a way that it doesn’t sound like a “you have to do this to please God” life. 

Yet we do need to understand the natural condition of ourselves and the people we talk to.  Here’s an illustration from the Formula of Concord, which you can think of when you see the ghoulish Halloween décor:

“As little as a corpse can quicken itself to bodily, earthly life, so little can man who through sin is spiritually dead raise himself to spiritual life, as it is written, ‘When we were dead through our trespasses, he made us alive together with Christ.’ [Eph. 2:5]” (Epitome II 3)  It’s not a matter of convincing them, selling them on Jesus, or cajoling them to make the right choice.  This is something that is tragically missed in modern American Christianity, which turns Jesus into a commodity.  Smart people choose Jesus.  Come to our church because we have social activities, a cheap coffee stand, free babysitting during worship, and music that you like.  “As far as man is concerned, it is impossible.”  No human wisdom or cunning will actually bring anyone into the Kingdom of God.  It may get them to participate in the group for a while, but only God is able to actually save them.

And God does do what is impossible with man, when and where it pleases Him when people hear the Gospel.  “God the Holy Spirit, however, does not bring about conversion without means. For this purpose He uses the preaching and hearing of God’s Word, as it is written in Romans 1:16, the Gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” Also Romans 10:17 says, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” It is God’s will that His Word should be heard and that a person’s ears should not be closed (Psalm 95:8). With this Word the Holy Spirit is present and opens hearts, so that people (like Lydia in Acts 16:14) pay attention to it and are converted only through the Holy Spirit’s grace and power, who alone does the work of converting a person.” (Ep. II 4-5)

“The rich man failed because he looked only to the sacrifice he would have to make.” (Byrne, 164)  But what God the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to see is the greatest sacrifice, which God made to win us helpless sinners.

Second only to the question of why some believe and others don’t is…why me?  Why was God’s call to follow Jesus effective for me?  Please rest assured that it was not because of anything in you.  This is why it is called grace, and why your faith is called “ a gift of God, not the result of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:9).

28 Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

Like us, Peter notices that they did follow him, and for the twelve in particular, they did leave everything without hesitation.  So what about them, and for that matter, what about us?  Jesus has already hinted at how precious faith in the grace of God is.  He calls them “Children” which reminds them and us to keep our eyes on our Heavenly Father for all these things.  And because God is our Father, He will certainly take care of us, no matter what may be lost for the sake of knowing Him.  Whether it means being cut off from our family because we belong to Christ, or losing our goods or job because we refuse to deny Him.  God our Father is readily able to give us our eternal family—brothers and sisters in Christ—houses if we have been forsaken, goods for what we’ve lost.  Yes, also persecutions, but those last for a time and then pass.  Whatever you may have had to leave in order to heed Jesus’ call, “Follow me,” your Father will provide, and forever you will have eternal life.  Confident of this, and by the Holy Spirit, we can say,  “I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:38-39)

The rich and popular may be honored and considered first now, but it actually depends on God who works all this, who makes the dead in sin alive in Christ, and who keeps His children through many trials. When Christ comes again in glory and for judgement, God will display them first of all as His priceless treasures—even His beloved children.  Amen.

[1] Voelz, James, “Concordia Commentary: Mark.” pp. 754-755

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Readings: Amos 5:6–7, 10–15 | Hebrews 3:12–19 | Mark 10:17–22

Text: Mark 10:17-22

Covering Points From: Formula of Concord, Article VI – The Third Use of the Law

You may or may not remember this from Catechism class, but there are three uses for the Law of God, and in this encounter that Jesus has with this young man, all three are at work.

The man comes to Jesus and asks the right kind of question—one which few ask today—“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  He is actually desiring to have eternal life, as opposed to eternal death.  Jesus engages him in conversation about this, because it is such an important topic.  First, with a mild rebuke about calling Him a good teacher, because it misses His divinity.  Then, “You know the commandments.”  He calls this young Israelite back to his catechism days and asks him to recall the Commandments of God.  Specifically, he names the second table of the Law, those Commandments which govern our life before our neighbor.

The dialog starts with the first use of the Law, the Curb.  The Curb is that aspect of the Ten Commandments that wisely stood before courthouses in our land.  It’s what God wrote into the hearts of all people, and any who have not seared their conscience will acknowledge the truth of God’s commands.  C.S. Lewis in his work, Abolition of Man, even provided a catalog of testimonies from cultures all over the world called Illustrations of the Tao.  In it, you find examples of prohibiting murder, adultery, theft, false witness, fraud, and dishonoring father and mother.  This is written so deep in our conscience that when you see people today defending their violation of these truths, you can hear how loudly they speak to silence the voice of conscience.

The young man in the Gospel responds, “All these I have kept from my youth.”  He has been a God-fearing, moral man.  He’s the kind of guy you would want your daughter to marry, if morals and money were all you were looking for.  It’s not that he’s claiming to be without sin, but that He has treasured God’s Word, which reveals the truth of how His human creatures are to live.

Then comes the second use of the Law, the Mirror: “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”  This is where the Law gets personal, and shows us where we have fallen short and sinned against God and our neighbor.  “Through the Law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20)  Jesus looks at him and loves Him.  He desires more for this man than that he be a good, moral individual, the kind of person people eulogize after their death, but yet someone who is lost in the fires of hell.  God does not desire of the death of the sinner, but that He repent—turn from his sin—and live.  Jesus looks at this man, and loves Him enough to show him his own sin.

Even though He has kept all the moral commands, and before others appears to be a righteous and upstanding man, his sin is getting in the way of that goal of eternal life.  This is where the Commandments are more than a bronze dedication in front of a court, but rather a Word from God that speaks to each person individually.  That’s why the advice in the hymnal for individual Confession says, “You may prepare yourself by meditating on the Ten Commandments.” (LSB 292)  The rich young man had kept the Commandments as a curb against gross sin, but God loved him and digs deeper into his heart, and desires life for Him.  He prepares him for confession by showing him his sin, with the desire that he might see that he has run to the right place and that he is standing right in front of his Savior!

The same is true for you.  God desires your life beyond just the here and now, your health, your family being happy, your daily existence being comfortable.  He wants you to live eternally and, by all means, be saved from the fiery and eternal punishments of hell, “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48, citing Isaiah 66:24)  Every time you come to Him, whether it be at church or in your daily devotions, you are running to the right place: Where the God who treasures your salvation speaks to you.  He will speak something in His Law that your sinful flesh doesn’t want to hear.  It may be earthly wealth getting in the way of your honest hearing of God’s Word.  It is wherever you say to yourself, “Yeah, that’s true, but not for me.”  For others, it’s the other commandments that snare them, and call out those places where we have set up our trust and hope in created things, rather than our Creator and Savior [Rom. 1:25].

But when that second use of the Law shows us our sin, God leads us to His Son, who was rejected, nailed to the cross, died, and was buried.  There, the wrath your sin deserves has already been punished.  The wrath of God is finished on the cross of His Son, in order that you would hear His peace and pardon.  The mirror of the Law is what brings us to the foot of the cross, and pray, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13).

Even though the pericope (the section of Scripture that is “cut out” for today) ends there, God has yet one more way that He uses His Law: As a guide for the lives of His redeemed and forgiven Christians.  This is what follows all the “buts” in the explanation that Luther wrote for the Commandments.  For example, in the second, “We should fear and love God so that we do not lie or deceive by His Name, but call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.”  This is what God is teaching He does want His reconciled children to be doing.  And this is what we do, as new creations in Christ’s death and resurrection.

In Holy Baptism, you were crucified with Christ and raised to new life with Him (Romans 6:1-11).  For you, the Third Use of the Law is where God is explaining to us what the new Us should do. This is the instruction and admonition of the Lord for His children [Eph. 6:4]. 

The rich young man cut out of the scene before he reached this confession of faith, that Jesus is the Savior of sinners like him.  But you have not.  You are here, confessing Jesus to be your Savior, who has ransomed you from the futile ways inherited from your father, and his father before him [1 Peter 1:18].  You are the beginning of that new creation, and you have heard the Lord’s admonition to you.  He has looked at you and loved you, so what is contrary to His will in your heart?  What do you need to surrender in order that you may inherit eternal life?

The answer to this question is personal, and comes in answer to a heartfelt prayer.  You may struggle with the answer, but remember the Lord who looks at each of us and loves you.  He calls out whatever may stand in the way of you receiving eternal life.  Is it to honor your father and mother and other authorities? Is it for the life God has given to others?  Is it for the holy estate of marriage?  Is it for protecting and improving your neighbors possessions?  Is it to use your tongue to speak well of others?  Is it your proclivity to covet what God has given others?

Whatever your sin may be, the Lord Jesus looks upon you and loves you.  He desires you to have that eternal life you seek, despite the weakness of your sin.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, give your sin to Him.  Let it be nailed to the cross [Col. 2:14], that your life may be saved and you may have that free gift of eternal life.  In Jesus, your Savior your sins are taken away, and you are given a new birth, a new heart, and an eternal future where you will receive a treasure that makes everything else pale in comparison!  Praise be to God through Jesus our Savior! Amen.

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Text: Mark 12:28-37

I think all of us would agree that idolatry is foolish.  The idea of manmade gods is a ridiculous notion.  The Lord, through Isaiah gives this illustration in chapter 44:

He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. 15 Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. 16 Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” 17 And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!” (Isaiah 44:14-17)

It’s a good thing we modern people are smarter than all that.  God said not to make any graven image and bow down to it, and these days it seems pretty easy to avoid that, right?  Or is it?

Martin Luther writes in the Large Catechism about the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods before Me”:

“A god is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need. To have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe him with our whole heart. As I have often said, the trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol.

If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true God. On the other hand, if your trust is false and wrong, then you have not the true God. For these two belong together, faith and God. That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your God.” (Large Catechism, First Commandment 2-3)

Jesus responds, quoting Deuteronomy 6: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.”  Originally, this was spoken to Israel as they came out of polytheistic Egypt.  As Mark writes this Gospel for the Christians at Rome, they too are stepped in pantheism. There are gods for every aspect of life, and they weren’t shy at offering prayers to them. Even their Caesar claims to be a son of the gods.

We’re more sophisticated in the things we put our trust in.  We don’t call them gods necessarily; but you can identify them by the way people talk about and react.  Science will surely do us good, and studies have proven it to be true and effective.  Equality is the noble virtue of our day and woe to the person who stands in its way.  Inclusion is revered among many, but often applied contrary to Biblical teaching. Health and wellness is such a goal in life that we are willing to sink thousands, if not in some cases, millions of dollars, to achieve and extend the length and “quality of life” before we breathe our last.

Against this backdrop, we are called to confess, “The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”

The God we worship, who has claimed us, is an exclusive God.  The gods of today are okay working together, and in fact, the more of them you embrace whole-heartedly, the smarter they say you’ll be.  But the Lord your God is one Lord.  You shall have no other gods before Him.  Luther explains this by saying, “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” (Small Catechism explanation)  What does this mean?

Fear – I acknowledge that there is only this one God.  All other candidates are unacceptable.  Fear does not mean if we misstep, we face His wrath, because we also believe in what He did on the cross where Christ bore the wrath of God and was truly forsaken (Matt. 27:45-46)

Love – I give my whole being to God.  There is no part way, and God is not just a pastime to be interested in when things aren’t hectic. He is the object of our devotion and because of Who He is and what He has done for us, we would gladly do what He tells us.

Trust – This is because of God’s character.  He is worthy of trust, because He keeps His Word: When He says He saves, He does (Matt. 1:23); when He says He is good and works all things—even evil things—for good, He does (Gen. 50:20).  It is God’s trustworthiness that our heart clings to when our road is dark and we cannot see, in the night of terrible loss, in disaster, or in times of war.

So the Lord Jesus says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”

Heart – The total devotion of the individual to God. “God is not the only option, but He is the only possibility.” (David Scaer)  Here our affections are tempted and drawn away by trust in those “other options” because they provide some level of security and good.

Soul – The soul (psyche) is the part of us that has to do with the things of this world.  To love God with all one’s soul is to do away with attachment to the things of this world and put God there.  Moth, rust, thieves, and death may take everything else. He is the only One who will not fail you. 

Mind – This is your inner dialog, your reasoning.  Your mind is what keeps you up at 3 A.M. worrying about what might happen or mulling over regrets and frustrations.  It’s your mind that runs the narrative that decides how you will act, what you will say. But this is what the psalmist means when He says, “On His instruction he meditates day and night.” (Psalm 1:2)

Strength (unique to Mark) – To love the Lord with all your strength means devoting your ability to the Lord—whether you are healthy and can help others with projects, older but still driving and giving rides, or homebound and able to pray for one another and if you can call or write. It is the strength God gives you, however small or great.

These things are so important that they are echoed by this scribe: “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. 33 And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”   In response to this, Jesus tells this man that He is not far from the Kingdom of God.  So close, in fact, that he is looking it in the face.

“How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? 36 David himself, in the Holy Spirit, declared, “ ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.” ’”

We do not meet this one, true God apart from the Man born of Mary. In Him, “the whole fullness of God dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9). There is no other god and no other name under heaven by which men might be saved (Acts 4:12). We meet Him in His Word and in His risen Body hidden under bread and even in our neighbor. We are not meeting a mere man, we are meeting David’s Lord, our Creator and Savior.

This mystery that God has become Man and has humbled Himself as a Man to bear our burdens, to take our punishment, and to be killed while never ceasing to be God Almighty is the central reality of our Theology. The mystery of the Incarnation is inseparable from all other topics of theology or from any possible theological question. “All Theology is Christology” because there is no God but Christ. The Lord our God is One. His Name is Jesus for He saves His people.

And it is this one Lord, fully Man and fully God, who gives us His risen Body and Blood, which alone have the power to take away sin, strengthen us in our weakness, and give us a foretaste of the world to come.  After we receive this, we usually pray, “We give thanks to You, almighty God, that You have refreshed us through this salutary gift, and we implore You that of Your mercy You would strengthen us through the same in faith toward You and in fervent love toward one another…”

And that brings us back to the Second great Commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  We are a people who have been blessed with this knowledge of the one, true God, who created us, redeems us, and sanctifies us.  But as can be seen in the world in which we live, how few people know this.  They are the victims of pantheism, of the degrading practices with which men and women abuse each other and numb the pain.

Something that struck me in the presentations from Dr. Phil Brandt this past week on Christian evangelism in the first few centuries is how they saw the people around them as first of all human beings, created in God’s image.  Having been enlightened by the Word of God, they could see in the accepted culture all kinds of idolatry, abuse, and no dignity for certain people.

Most of the time when we see the state of the world and society, it’s because we are comparing it to Christendom. We are outraged over witnessing the people of the world abandon the biblical ethics which endured for centuries. And yes, grieving the loss is natural, but we also need to move past that.

It doesn’t help that the Church is one of those “institutions” that society is rebelling against.  In reprehension toward those whose morals fell short of Christian morals, the “Church” (meaning Christians) has protested, yelled, and used the condemnation of the Law to bring back these erring. But how can they return to what they were never taught?

The landscape of Christian witness, in western society today, is far different than when the LWML started in 1942.  The truth of the Bible means virtually nothing, so if we were to quote what we regard as Sacred Scripture, they might find other Bible passages to throw back in our face and shout that we have no right to judge.  Their authorities are their peers, the law of the land, and feelings.

When we are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves, our Lord is teaching us to love them as human beings.  See that person undergoing gender transition and try to discern what inner torture or abuse drove them to mutilate their body.  When we see a young woman dressed in revealing clothing, to understand the sway of pornography that objectifies a woman’s body and the message she hears that she is only worthy if she can tease and please the opposite sex.  When you see hillsides adorned with tent communities, consider the needs of those people for clean water and sanitation, and that many of them have untreated diseases of mind and body.

Then may the Church be the sanctuary to the lies and death in the world.  Remember what the Lord our God who is one Lord has done and is doing: through the incarnation, suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, God has made His Church the outpost of the new creation in this dying world.  The Kingdom of God is where the image of God is being restored, where loving your neighbor is not the flighty emotion, and where those who are poor in the world are made rich in faith and heirs of eternity [James 2:5].

We thank God this day, and every month when we collect our mites, for the ways that these funds are able to support grants to many outreaches here and around the world.  We also thank the Lord our God, who puts His mission directly in our lives. And we pray that through our humble lives of loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves, that they too may rejoice in God’s Christ.  Amen.