Reformation Sunday

Readings: Revelation 14:6-7 | Romans 3:19-28 | Matthew 11:12-19

Text: Matthew 11:12-19

Theme: The Reformation is about the natural beauty of hearing the Word of Christ in faith.

They’re on the side of your head, but they don’t often get much attention (unless something is wrong with them). But on this commemoration of the Reformation, let us focus on the human ear.

I. Different human ears:

a. The ear with the kind of piercings that would shock your grandmother. This is the Reformation understood as breaking away from the powers that be. Luther is the epitome of the “little guy” who stands up against the mighty and he triumphs. He is the German national hero who broke the chains of the Roman papacy and the Holy Roman Empire.

The “freedom” of the Reformation means that no one can stand in the way between me and God. This is the way I am, and God better accept me. No one can tell me how I am to worship, with all the anarchy that invites.

b. The ear with ear buds in. This is the freedom of the Reformation, to interpret the Bible on my own terms. You choose what comes in and cancel out any “noise.”  The Bible becomes a private, self-chosen book of belief. One of the sad outcomes was the magisterium was replaced with each individual Christian being his or her own “pope.” 

c. The ear with beautiful, tasteful gold earrings. Consider the impact of the Reformation on art. One can take pleasure in the music, visual arts, and architecture. J.S. Bach, one of the greatest musicians of the baroque period. Beautiful and colorful stained glass that glisten in the sun and fill the sanctuary with rich colors, depicting beautiful scenes. Grand sanctuaries that have beautiful chancels and high altars which fill one with awe. But while these all have pleasing aesthetics, if the focus is on the human achievement, the Gospel is missing.

This persists in our own day when church music is judged on the basis of how it makes you feel, more than what is being prayed or confessed in the words.

II. The ear, unadorned, unobstructed, in the beauty which God gave.

a. Our Lord says, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”  This is what the ear was made for: to receive the Word of God, and the heart to receive it in faith.

b. John & Elijah are evoked because they were instruments of the Lord directing His people back to the hearing of His Word in obedience and faith. Contrast Ahab and the Pharisee’s response to Elijah/John: “When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, ‘Is it you, you troubler of Israel?’” and “When all the people heard this, and the tax collectors too, they declared God just, having been baptized with the baptism of John, 30 but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.” (1 Kings 18:17; Luke 7:29-30)

c. The Reformation was about this: The beauty of hearing the Word of God in faith. True freedom is given by this, not breaking earthly bonds. True understanding is given by the Holy Spirit on God’s terms, that we may repent and believe in Jesus, clinging to Him through all. True beauty springs from this Gospel, not the other way around.

III. The necessity for ear care.

a. Lest it be clogged with wax. Discernment is good just as ear wax keeps out foreign objects, but an excess can cause hearing loss. Dr. David Scaer: “I hate Lutheranism!”  A few examples:

i. The idolizing of Martin Luther and imitating him and quoting him excessively.

ii. The devotion to all things labelled Lutheran tradition, as in “This is the way we’ve always done it and how dare you question if the tradition is edifying or the interpretation is faithful to Scripture.”

III. Finally, “I learned that once upon a time in Catechism, and now I never need to learn again.”

IV. Lest the ear be neglected and dirty.

a. Magnifying the freedom of the Gospel can lead to trivializing the Word of God and treating the holy as profane. We must watch out for this in an age where all kinds of other traditions are criticized (especially since Christianity is in a villainized category today). Here, we do well to look to our fathers and mothers in the faith, who revered the Word of God as holy, saw the benefit of piety, and handed these rich practices to us in our own fleeting age.

~ The Reformation reminds us how all things depend on the faithful hearing of God’s Word. This is His gift to sinners, that with ears that hear, we may rejoice with tongues that confess, throats that sing, and lives that profess His grace and riches given to us. May the Lord who opens deaf ears, clothes us with pure garments, and renews our hearts so bless us in this true faith. In the Name + of Jesus.


The Feast of St. James of Jerusalem

Readings: Acts 15:12–22a | James 1:1-12 | Matthew 13:54–58

Text: James 1:1-12

Theme: The Lord rescued James from relying on his own understanding, and gave him heavenly wisdom to lead the Church after the Ascension.

I. The followers of Jesus after the Ascension have become a mess. Conflict over circumcision (Acts 15:1-5), being driven away from worship in the synagogue (Acts 13:44-50), uneven distribution to the poor (Acts 6:1-2), and persecution from the Jewish authorities that got so bad they scattering out from Jerusalem (Acts 8:1-3).

II. What have you done, Lord?  You left the Church in the hands of men—not the wise and capable, but fishermen and family members.  What kind of basis is that for a movement with a commission like, “Go and make disciples of all nations”?!  How will that ever make it from “Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”? (Acts 1:8)  They’re having trouble keeping it together just in a 100 mile radius!

III. But in the middle of this chaos, on the heels of the death of John’s brother, another James arises from a most unlikely place—the Lord’s formerly unbelieving family.  This James is the one who thought Jesus was out of his mind (Mark 3:21), who thought Jesus simply Joseph’s son (Matt. 13:55).  But now, who is this to whom Peter says to tell after his angelic release from prison? (Acts 12:7)

Remember what the Lord does powerfully through weakness.  The very pinnacle of this is how God was at work in suffering, death, and rejection of the Christ.  Yet in that very act, it was the salvation of the world. As St. Paul also highlights, “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (1 Cor. 1:24-25)

IV. Now, James is not just a man turned believer, but God raised him up as a fair and wise leader (Acts 15:12-14). 

After they finished speaking, James replied, “Men and brothers,[1] listen to me. 14 Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. 15 And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written,
            16         “ ‘After this I will return,
                        and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen;
                        I will rebuild its ruins,
                   and I will restore it,
            17         that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord,
and all the Gentiles who are called by my name,
says the Lord, who makes these things 18 known from of old.’

He diplomatically navigates this contention which could have divided the Church, able to see clearly to God’s intention drawn from the Scriptures (vv. 15-18)

James continues to reflect the divine wisdom and true fear of the Lord as he writes to the scattered believers (James 1:1-12). By his inspired epistle, he reminds them of the words of Jesus (Matt. 5:12), of Peter (1 Pet. 5:7), of Solomon (1 Kings 3:9-12), and even of Jeremiah (Jer. 9:23-24).

James takes these and applies it to their present situation, because above the present circumstance are the Lord’s promises, “Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” and “You will be My witnesses.” (Matt. 28:20; Luke 24:48)

V. We often look to the past and nostalgically dream about “the good old days” of the Church and our congregation.  Times when there were “enough” people, there was money, things were easy.  (We do the same thing with our own youth and wish we could relive that.)  This is vanity, a chasing after wind.  There never has been a time when the Church has been at ease in this world (at least as long as the Church is being faithful to her Lord and His Word). James learned this early on: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” Without the testing of faith, such a faith mutates into pride and complacency.  But the testing is the very way by which we are made perfect and complete.

Carefully consider the Church even during the time of the Apostles.  Even though there was confusion and division, the Lord saw to it that His Church would not lose sight of Him, that His Word and His gifts would not be neglected or maligned.

So, what is it that we lack now?  Do we lack heavenly wisdom? Follow the example of Solomon, who saw that he was in way over his head and asked God to equip him for the task.

Do we need a strong leader to stand at the helm and ground the flock in God’s Word?  By His grace, He provides for that—not just in pastors, but also in laypeople. Those who can say, “Brothers and sisters, this is the way we need to go.”

Are there concerns about money?  Yes, the congregation, according to our reason and our misplaced trust in money doesn’t measure up. Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, 10 and the rich in his humiliation”  This is no reason to cry that the sky is falling.  If there isn’t enough money for everything we used to do, we recount where true riches are: in the priceless Word of God preached and taught, the treasures of heaven given to us in Christ, the Body and Blood of God’s Son on the altar for you.

  • The Lord brought James from unbelief to faith, and soon into a position where he was needed to provide direction to the fledgling Church.  He was given the wisdom needed, the tested faith, the steadfastness for his task which the Lord had laid before him.  James addressed the church, “To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” because they were separated from one another, weak and incapable in the world’s eyes, but the Lord had given them a common destination—a true home.  This reminds us that the Lord doesn’t expect us to set up long-term here. There’s no promise of leaving a building to the next generation.  Rather, His promise, spoken by James is: 12 Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.”  In the Name + of Jesus.


[1] The Greek specifically mentions that the assembly which was deliberating this theological issue was all men.  This is distinct from the use of “brothers” elsewhere in the New Testament that refers to both men and women. (cf. verse 23, ESV footnote)

Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity

Readings: Deuteronomy 10:12-21 | 1 Corinthians 1:1-9 | Matthew 22:34-46

Text: Matthew 22:34-46

Theme: Knowing the Lord our God, Jesus Christ, is a gift which He gives, not the fruit of our efforts to know Him.

I. I remember trying to explain the Trinity to my friend, who was a young Christian. It wasn’t an easy thing to explain, because it defies our reason and any earthly analogies. More recently, I’ve been confounded by trying to debunk Dispensationalism, because it’s supposedly backed up by biblical passages., and it can deceive even someone who is knowledgeable in the Bible.

Sometimes I share in the frustration of someone who is trying to explain the mysteries of the faith or confess the truth to someone who is being led astray by error. I want there to be a “simple” or understandable answer.

II. Maybe you’ve had a similar experience. Awkward conversations like, Why doesn’t your church let women be pastors? Someone saying, Oh, you go to that church that didn’t give my husband communion. Someone of you have tried to explain to you children or grandchildren why it matters that they don’t live together before marriage. It’s painful when you can’t seem to get through, especially when it comes to fellow Christians.

III. In the Gospel today, Jesus is on common ground with his opponents insofar as they accept Scripture to be God’s Word. They well-acquainted with the Law. They think they are clever enough to test Him. So far, so good, it seems.

Yet their supposed fellowship is strained. What do you think of the Christ? They have the right answer to this, but they cannot explain King David’s own inspired words in Psalm 110:1.  The mystery of the Trinity is hidden from them. Although they have a scholarly and religious knowledge of the Scriptures, they are unable to know the Christ on whom the Law and Prophets hang.

They’ve applied themselves so much to the holy Word of God, but it’s not by this that they know God or His Christ. You become a better musician through practice. Your long resume testifies to your experience in your field. But without the Holy Spirit, no one can confess Jesus as Lord. I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says, ‘Jesus is accursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.” (1 Cor. 12:3)

The Pharisees set out to trap him by their cleverness, but they were silenced by their inability to know the Lord’s Christ. In contrast to this, Mark’s Gospel notes that “the crowds heard Him gladly” (Mark 12:37)—those who didn’t have the education and credentials to boast of. God granted to the unlearned the coveted wisdom from above, so that they could rejoice in His Christ as Savior.

IV. This teaches us how each of us needs to approach the Holy Scriptures. When we sit down to read the Bible or hear it gathered together, we are not studying for a midterm (as the medical college students do, memorizing and quizzing each other on vocab). Rather, we humbly begin with prayer for the Holy Spirit:

a. That He would grant us faith and understanding.

b. That He would teach us the lessons we need for right now in our walk (against the Internet “wealth of knowledge” attitude).

c. That He would daily renew us to love our God with all our heart, strength, and mind.

d. That He would fill us with love for our neighbor and the words to speak truth to them.

e. That He would grant to us all the measure of His grace to receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

V. For us together as the Jesus’ Church, this delivers us from the allure of the church growth gurus, who tell us the reason our churches are not full is because we haven’t found the right way to “advertise” Jesus and make Him appealing to people today. In contrast to that, God teaches us through Moses:

12 “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I am commanding you today for your good? 14 Behold, to the Lord your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. (Deut. 10:12-14, Old Testament lesson)
  • Do not lose sight of who the Lord our God is. He who is with us is more than our bodily ability, lest we should think it will fail because of our age, or our numbers, or our skill at explaining profound mysteries.
  • It’s not just an idea or a tradition that we bring to the world. We bear the living God and His Son, Jesus Christ, who declares, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:18-20)


Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity

Readings: Proverbs 25:6-14 | Ephesians 4:1-6 | Luke 14:1-14

Text: Luke 14:1-14

Theme: We exalt ourselves and our works, so God humbles us, so that He would exalt us through His Son.

Intro: It all takes place in the Pharisee’s house.  In formality, banquets had a protocol of where was proper to recline.  The host reclined in the center, and his guests around him. 

I. Men flaunt religion in their own house but leave God out in the cold night.

A. Is it possible that there is a worship of God without God?  Yes, when our own “devotion” forgets the God it claims. Like Cain who makes his offering to God and then is mad when God doesn’t accept it.

B. The Pharisees were so devoted to their “right” way, but they forgot the heart of God for this poor, sick man. Unfit for the temple meant unworthy of compassion—“am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9)

C. Do we, as post-Reformation Christians use grace to as an excuse to ignore the people who are made in God’s image? There are droves of people in need, but we would rather leave the sick to the hospital, the mentally ill to their own delusions, the poor to handout programs.  Image of seeing the accident on the road and driving by because the police and ambulance could handle everything.

II. God’s Son entered the house—uninvited—and humbled Himself by taking the lowest place.

A. It’s a shameful thing when one’s devotion is shown to be a farce. So much zeal, so much effort. I’ve kept myself on the right path? I haven’t gotten my carpets dirty! Was the swollen man even allowed in the Pharisee’s house, or did Jesus go outside to him?

B. Jesus did for us what none of us were willing to do.  He took the lowest place. He bore the humiliation:

Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Phil. 2:5-8)

He even the taunts of the proud

“39 And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads 40 and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” 41 So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, 42 “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’ ” 44 And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way.” (Matt. 27:39-44)

C. By taking that humble place, He bore the fall that our pride deserves.

“Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Prov. 16:18)  How great the fall into destruction would be, if it were not for Jesus, our Savior!

III. Our houses are full of hypocrisy, but through His humiliation, God has welcomed us into His own house.

A. The truth is that our “house” is full of hypocrisy toward God and lies we tell ourselves.  Our house is “full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matt. 23:27)

B. But by humbling us, showing us our sin, God actually exalts us.11 For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

C. He snatches us from the “outer darkness” through His Son, and welcomes us into His own house forever. 7But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house. I will bow down toward your holy temple in the fear of you.” (Psalm 5:7)

The setting of His house is quite different: “Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. 27 For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.” (Luke 22:26-27) Now come, as your gracious Host continues to exalt the humble by feeding them His own Body and Blood.

God’s Peace to You. Amen.

Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity

Readings: 1 Kings 17:17–24 | Ephesians 3:13–21 | Luke 7:11-17

Text: Luke 7:11-17

In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.

The name for the town of Nain probably comes from the Hebrew word, na`im, which means “lovely.”  It’s familiar to us in English as the woman’s name, Naomi (Ruth 1:2).  In God’s wisdom, there’s probably a connection between the widow, Naomi, and what transpired in this town.  The city of Nain was set on a hillside, and it was probably a name given by people who considered the scenic view of the Plain of Esdraelon below.[1]  In spite of this, there was nothing lovely about the events which dominated the town.

11 Soon afterward [Jesus] went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a great crowd went with him. 12 As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her.

Here comes a woman, twice touched by the finger of death—first her husband, and now her only son.  With her is a throng of people, completely powerless to do anything but weep with her.

For as long as anyone can remember, this is how life has been.  Over every moment, death broods silently.  The most joyous occasions can be dashed by its visitation. Even our sorrows can have still more grief added to them.  That is the way of the world under the power of death.

            But One is coming who has compassion on us.  He alone can help!  He is the Lord God, whom Psalm 68[:5] proclaims as a “father to the fatherless and protector of widows.”  Widows like the woman of Zarephath and like the one in Nain.

            Now why is the Lord called a protector of widows?  Certainly, it is because they are without support.  The ancient world was devoid of social security nets.  So, unless widows and orphans had someone to take them in, they were forsaken.  For this reason, God commanded Israel not to glean their harvest up to the edges and leave some for the fatherless and widow.[2]

            But here, Jesus reveals, in the flesh, even more about why He has compassion on widows.  They have been touched by the curse of death.  Their very flesh aches from the place where death wrenched away their spouse.  From the moment of the Fall, the Lord has had compassion for His creation under the reign of death.  “Dust you are and to dust you shall return”[3] but One is coming who will crush the Serpent’s head and loose the pangs of death. [Gen. 3:15-19]

            In this way, we have all been touched by death and share in the widow’s loss.  We too belong in that considerable crowd around the widow, because none of us have been spared, or likely will be spared, from death’s visitation. 

            Here at Nain, however, the Lord demonstrates in clearest terms what He has come to achieve: “When the Lord saw [the widow], he had compassion on her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ 14 Then he came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, arise.’ 15 And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.”  Having compassion on us, He reaches down into the grave and brings the dead out from their tombs.  He restores what death has taken.

            Just as it was for the residents of Nain, so it is for us today.   Death looms over our daily existence.  It humbles the proud and threatens the weak.  It sets a limit on all our endeavors and gnaws away at the branches of our family tree behind us.  In our bodies, we are in slavery to death, but concerning the Lord Jesus, the Apostle writes, “He too shares in our humanity so that by His death, He might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”[4]  Though our bodies are held fast by the pangs of death, we are also free of death by the resurrection of Jesus: For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his… 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 6:5, 11)

            Throughout our days, we’re told to think of death as natural.  With the overwhelming body of evidence, how could any reasonable person conclude otherwise?  But this is a lie that people contrived for themselves long ago, a kind of fatalism that can’t see any other choice.  They tell it to each other as shallow comfort when the biopsy results are malignant and a wife’s mind is too addled by Alzheimer’s to grieve her husband’s death.  Our conscience inside us screams out the contrary: Death is not natural!  It’s wrong and horrid and cruel!

And God must clarify what our hearts feel: Death is not natural because death belongs to sin.  It’s the sin of our first parents and our own sin. Scripture tells us, “All die because all have sinned.”[5]  Doubtful you will ever see that on the death certificate as the cause, but it is what Scripture teaches.  No, we rarely know the hidden wisdom of God and we certainly will not venture to say someone died because of a specific sin.  But because of our inherited sin, we are dying from the moment of our conception, and time only proves that more and more true.  Together with every other human being—are powerless to save ourselves.

But the Lord has compassion on us.  He came down from heaven and “has visited His people.”  He journeyed the way to the cross and there He offered Himself as the atonement for the world’s sins—even for your sins and mine.  Jesus was placed in the tomb and hallowed your grave.  He made it a place of sleep, not of abandonment.  God Himself has entered death, was buried, and rose on the third day—“never to die again” (Rom. 6:9).  By His death, the Lord Jesus broke the power of death over us.  The risen Jesus is our guarantee from the Father that this is true.

People still concern themselves that the world is too far corrupted.  Unless we take immediate action, all is lost.  Rather, it is God who will restore all that sin and death have destroyed.  At His return, the full magnitude of His redemption will be there for all to see.  Everyone who believes in Him will praise Him and live, raised in glorious bodies, in this new creation.

Therefore, we do not just walk hopelessly with the crowd around the widow.  We also walk with the Lord by faith.  He has raised us by faith to a living hope and He will raise us from our graves for all eternity.  Being part of the throng, the Church, which surrounds the Lord, we see our present world with a God-given hope.

We consider what death has done in our own lives: how death has taken spouses, parents, cousins, and friends.  We consider how death has touched our lives with debilitating diseases that no doctor can cure, and how death draws near as we age.

We consider what death looks like in our own city: how crime and drugs have ruined a once tight-knit community.  The abandoned buildings all around remind us of generations past and economic hardship.  We see funerals daily for people of all ages.

We also consider the toll death has taken on the world: wars and violent protests rise to the point that militaries must intervene.  Dreadful diseases rip through national borders.  Volcanoes and earthquakes take countless lives.

But as we consider all that death has done, rest assured that Jesus Christ has come.  From the cross He preaches repentance and forgiveness of sins.[6]  And to borrow a phrase from the Catechism, where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation[7].  Where sins are forgiven, the power of death is broken.

The Lord will come once more—once and for all—to raise up everything that is now destroyed and rotting.  Our grieving is not in vain.  The Lord still has compassion on us, and He will truly fulfill His Word—not just to a widow here and there—but to all who groan under death’s power.

In the Name of the Father and of + the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Brand, Chad, Charles Draper, Archie England, Steve Bond, E. Ray Clendenen, and Trent C. Butler, eds. “Nain.” Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003.

[2] Deuteronomy 24:19

[3] Genesis 3:15-19

[4] Hebrews 2:14-15 NIV 1984

[5] Romans 5:12

[6] Luke 24:46-47

[7] Small Catechism VI, “What is the benefit of this eating and drinking?”