Eighth Sunday after Trinity

Commemoration of Robert Barnes, Confessor and Martyr

Readings: Jeremiah 23:16-29 | Romans 8:12-17 | Matthew 7:15-23

Text: Matthew 7:15-23

This exhortation to beware of false prophets is interestingly placed in the Sermon on the Mount. People often quote Matthew 7:1 “Don’t judge lest you be judged” as a way to stop theological discussion when they don’t like to be confronted with their sins. They say only God can judge, even when it’s pointed out clearly that God has already judged.  Sometimes we hear, “Who am I to judge?” when we don’t want to confront people in their sin. It’s a means to look the other way when you have the responsibility to address sin in your vocation.

Yet just a handful of verses after this oft-misused verse, Matthew records Jesus telling every Christian to beware. “Judge!” “Be discerning.” “Watch out!” It’s not just something pastors should do; it’s something every Christian is called upon to do. You are to beware of false prophets. You are to beware of false teachings. So, you are to be discerning about what you hear pastors and theologians saying. You are to beware of anyone who presumes to speak in the place of Jesus, but whose teaching is not consistent with the Words of Holy Scripture. Jesus calls those false prophets wolves (a demonic name) and rotten trees with bad fruit, which should be cut down and thrown into the fire (a designation for hell). This sounds harsh to our easy-going, live-and-let-live ears, but our Lord is trying to impress upon us the seriousness of bad doctrine. People who claim to stand in the stead of Christ and preach or teach false doctrine are demonic and are fit only for the fires of hell. Theology is that serious. It’s not just a playful pastime, or hobby, or something we can “agree to disagree on.”

Today, July 30th, the Lutheran Church remembers Robert Barnes as a confessor and martyr. He lived in England during the time of the Reformation. “Born in 1495, Barnes became the prior of the Augustinian monastery at Cambridge, England. Converted to Lutheran teaching, he shared his insights with many English scholars through writings and personal contacts. During a time of exile to Germany, he became friends with Luther and later wrote a Latin summary of the main doctrines of the Augsburg Confession… Upon his return to England, Barnes shared his Lutheran doctrines and views in person with King Henry VIII and initially had a positive reception. In 1529, Barnes was named royal chaplain. The changing political and ecclesiastical climate in his native country, however, claimed him as a victim; he was burned at the stake in Smithfield in 1540.” (Treasury of Daily Prayer)

Martin Luther remembered him this way, “Now, since this holy martyr, St. Robert Barnes, heard at the time that his King Henry VIII of England was opposed to the pope, he came back to England with the hope of planting the Gospel in his homeland and finally brought it about that it began. To cut a long story short, Henry of England was pleased with him, as is his way, until he sent him to us at Wittenberg in the marriage matter.

Dr. Robert Barnes himself often said to me: “My king does not care about religion, but he is…” Yet he loved his king and homeland so keenly that he willingly endured everything like that and always thought to help England. And it is indeed true that one who would not be optimistic toward his homeland and would not wish everything good for his prince must be a shameful rogue, as not only the Scriptures but also all our laws teach. He always had these words in his mouth: “my king, my king,” as his confession indeed indicates that even until his death he was loyal toward his king with all love and faithfulness, which was repaid by Henry with evil. Hope betrayed him. For he always hoped his king would become good in the end.”[1]

Robert Barnes is the life lived of a true prophet, when all King Henry VIII wanted was a false prophet. The King cared about a male heir and having his pleasure more than he cared about the God who said, “What God has brought together, let no man [even the King] rent asunder.” (Mark 10:9)

It’s popular today, however, to find reasons to be lazy about this. Christian is Christian. Why can’t we get together with other Christians in worship? After all, so many different churches participate in Transform Lebanon. To be honest, I would love to be able to do that. The problem is false doctrine. False teaching is poison to faith. It’s dangerous, and so much is let in by churches that don’t realize this or actively teach falsely.

For the first part, it’s done in ignorance, following traditions that insist that Baptism is merely a symbol; that there’s nothing more special about the Lord’s Supper than a personal remembrance. How do you become a Christian? Well certainly it’s by praying the Sinner’s Prayer and getting baptized. How do you know you’re really a Christian? You must have manifestations of the Holy Spirit’s gifts, like speaking in tongues. Most people in such churches have just been taught these things, and their teachers were taught these things before them. If only they would open the Bible without commentary by teachers who had a vitriol toward all things that appeared Roman Catholic, or who were desperate to find the distinguishing line between the “wheat and the tares” (the true believers from the hypocrites).

But there’s also those who actively teach contrary to Scripture. The false prophets are those who encourage the devil’s lies supposedly under the banner of the Triune God. “All are welcome here” is a moniker to say you will not be called out for your sins against God and your neighbor. Such teachers insist that Jesus is not the only way to the Father, because our sins are not that bad—at least when compared to others. For example, they say that the sin of Sodom was failing to show hospitality,[2] not the fact that the men were inflamed with lust for each other [Romans 1:26-27, Jude 6-7]. This is deadly error! Would you rather have peace at the Thanksgiving dinner table while for eternity your relatives are suffering in hell?

It’s a cross to bear to hold to true doctrine, and to watch out for false teaching. The Missouri Synod is troubled by this in what’s euphemistically called the “worship wars.” It’s argued that many other churches have praise bands, and many other Christians sing songs that we don’t in our church. And the crudest weapon in this war is, “Well, it ‘works’ for these other churches because they attract so many people.” Other arguments have been made that there’s no divine command to only sing by the organ or piano. But these are a distraction from the real problem: if we’re being faithful to the words of God, we are obligated to care about what is being taught—even by what we sing and how the worship service is ordered. “Here I am to worship, here I am to bow down” has appealing, sentimental chord progressions, but it fails to confess the God who, while we were still sinners and His enemies, gave His Son for us and that only His Holy Spirit has the power to create and keep us in this saving faith. Your beloved country singers may have sung, “On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross, the emblem of suffering and shame” and it’s beautiful to marvel in the cross. But what’s missing from that song is that the cross is brought right here to us in Holy Baptism, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?… [and] if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Rom. 6:3-5) and the Eucharist: 19 And [Jesus] took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ 20 And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22:19-20)

Theology matters because truth matters. Our God is a God of truth. And if “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4), then every Word that comes from our Lord is precious to us and to be held in the highest regard. We hear our Lord’s teaching today because not one of us is immune to the false spirits. The devil seeks to focus us on the moment, changing the truth into what we want it to be for our own gain and pleasure. But Jesus says: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.” It is the way of evil to dress itself up in what looks good and salutary, to appear as though it is honorable. The Bible says that the devil himself comes not as the wicked destroyer that he is, but as an angel of light, appearing to be holy and good [2 Corinthians 11:14]. So also, false prophets come looking like sheep of the Good Shepherd. They may even firmly believe they are sheep of the Shepherd, not knowing that their fruit is bad, but you can recognize by their teaching and doctrines that they are not. Falsehood is much more dangerous when it is wrapped up in what appears to be the truth.

Jesus says beware, and He does not leave you without a guide and means to judge false prophets. The apostle Paul teaches clearly of the armor that is for the children of God–the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit guards you against false prophets and false teachings in concrete ways.  He caused the Holy Scriptures to be written for our protection. In the Bible, the very Word of God is your shield against spiritual wolves.

But you might be tempted to say, “I’m no theologian; I’m not a Bible expert. How do I distinguish a false teacher from a genuine teacher, when both appeal to the Scripture? How can I tell whether or not someone is preaching the truth of Christ’s Word?” The simplest answer is the most profound. Recount the words of your Christian instruction from the Small Catechism.

Review the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17 or Deuteronomy 5:6-21), the Creeds (Nicene, Apostles’, & Athanasian), and the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:5–13 or Luke 11:1-4). You memorized these portions of Holy Scripture for ongoing protection throughout life.

  • How do you know that living together outside of marriage is a sin?—the sixth commandment. (Exodus 20:14 or Deuteronomy 5:18)
  • How do you know that the same-sex and transgenderism is sinful?—the sixth commandment (and your Sunday School instruction on Genesis 1-2 and Matthew 19).
  • How do you know that talking poorly about your neighbor behind his back is a sin?—The eighth commandment.
  • How do you know that Jesus is the only Lord and Savior worthy of our worship? He says you shall have no other gods.
  • The Creed shows you who your Savior is.
  • How do you know that God wants you in Church to hear His Word and receive His Supper? He commands you to do so and then promises blessings on account of Jesus.

That way of salvation is narrow because it doesn’t let in any of the opinions or the qualifications of men. Rather, it admits only the merits of Christ and His righteousness. He alone is the one through whom we gain entrance into heaven. Our Lord alone is the way which leads to everlasting life, for He said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” His is a difficult and unpopular way, because it flows from His cross and through His cross. He has blazed that trail by way of Calvary. It is into this way that you have been baptized, and now you share in the life He has won. Through the cross you have been entirely forgiven of all your sins. Through His suffering and death, He has provided a shield for you against your flesh, the world, and the devil. And through His resurrection, you have been raised to new life in Him. “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs–heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:16-17).

In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.

[1] Martin Luther, “Preface to Robert Barnes Confessio Fidei (1540).” Translated by Mark DeGarmeaux

[2] https://www.gaychristian101.com/Inhospitality.html

Seventh Sunday after Trinity

Readings: Genesis 2:7-17 | Romans 6:19-23 | Mark 8:1-9

Text: Mark 8:1-9

The Feeding of the 5,000 usually gets all the attention.  It’s recorded in all four Gospels.  It’s a spectacular miracle, feeding over 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish.  John’s account even ties it to the Lord’s Supper. But why is there also the feeding of the 4,000? 

Since Jesus has already fed 5,000, why is a lesser miracle necessary?

  • Was it to give another sign from heaven of who Jesus is? Immediately after this, the Pharisees are demanding such a sign, but the request doesn’t come from faith. There are plenty of signs that emphatically prove Jesus is the Messiah and Savior. (Matthew 12:1-42)
  • Was it just to “wow” the disciples and crowds with overwhelming numbers? Headlines are aimed to wow people with numbers: “A single Powerball ticket sold in Los Angeles matched all 6 numbers for the $1.08 billion jackpot.” (CNN) “New York City to pay $13M to Black Lives Matter protesters in historic class action.” (Syracuse NY). Magnitude speaks to people, but that’s not why Jesus feeds these 4,000.

He feeds them because they were people in need.  It’s because they’re hungry and Jesus has compassion on them and the ability to help them! He doesn’t close His heart against them and let them “faint on the way.”

And He is a God who has compassion in an amazing way: He shares our flesh.

Jesus is greater than us because He is God.  Our ability to help has limits: there’s only so much we can hand out, only so much in the charity fund at church. It’s frustrating, and crippling!

But as God, Jesus doesn’t just have head knowledge of hunger, thirst, weariness, or pain. He doesn’t impassively read the newspaper and click his tongue at the problem.  He experiences those very things in His own person as well.  “After fasting forty days and forty nights, He was hungry.”  In Gethsemane, “being in a great agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.”  As He hung on the cross close to the end, He said, “I thirst”[1] 

The Apostle puts it, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”[2] God knows our weakness in His very Flesh and for that He has compassion on us.

Martin Luther’s counsel to us is: “It is also useful that we form the habit of daily commending ourselves to God, with soul and body, wife, children, servants, and all that we have, against every need that may arise. So also the blessing and thanksgiving at meals and other prayers, morning and evening, have begun and remained in use.” Large Catechism, 2nd Commandment 73

This brings up a question for us as Christians today: Why do we pray for the things that we need?  It’s because God sympathizes with our weakness and neediness. (He doesn’t sympathize with our sins, but He atones for them).  And we go to Him because only He can deliver us. Truth be told, we daily find ourselves in a overwhelming situations, more than we can handle or answer. Our own futures are unknown, the stability of the economy unknown, our own safety is also unknown (if we’re honest). So, where can we truly look for confidence and peace? Nowhere, but the Lord!

Yet, Jesus is a God who desires more than to fill our bellies and dole out goodies.  He desires us to know Him.  That’s why the unbelief of the disciples is especially poignant.  Jesus has compassion on the crowd, but only in a way that God can do.  He wants the disciples and us to see that.

We struggle in our own unbelief of this truth.  Later in the Sermon on the Mount (which we heard the first part of last week), Jesus tells us not to worry about what we will eat, drink, or wear…but we do!  He tells us not to fear those who can kill the body but afterward can do nothing more, but we do fear them (Matt. 10:28).  He tells us that if we had faith like a grain of mustard seed, we could command mountains to move,[3] but our faith is weak.  Therefore, we cry out, “I believe, help my unbelief!”[4] and He gladly answers our prayer.

That way, when we are in need, what choice do we have but to call upon our God and Savior who is united in one-flesh with us? There is no want or pain which your Lord doesn’t empathize with.

  • Are you are tortured in your flesh with temptation?
  • Are you are in agony from a body broken by disease—arthritis, diabetes, or COPD?
  • Are you hurt for lack of work and poverty?
  • Jesus is the One who can truly say, “I know your pain.” He is your God and Savior!

Whatever the need, this miracle shows us that He is ready and willing to help with all His divine power. If you are in need, look to Jesus.  He is your God and Savior for all things from daily necessities to freedom from the grave.

If you have prayed again and again for relief, wait on Him.  He knows what He is doing.  “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”[5]This He truly does. Whatever need you are in, look to Him and His compassion will be near to you. In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.

[1] Matthew 4:2; Luke 22:44; John 19:28;

[2] Hebrews 4:15

[3] Matthew 6:25-34; Luke 12:4-5; Matthew 17:19-21

[4] Mark 9:24

[5] Romans 8:32

Sixth Sunday after Trinity

Readings: Exodus 20:1-17 | Romans 6:1-11 | Matthew 5:17-26

Text: Matthew 5:21-37

Our Lord 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 the heart of what needs to be said to the crowds, and it happens also needs to be said to us. He starts with the Ten Commandments, the same way the Lord spoke to His people who were gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai (Exodus 19-20).

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 what we’re familiar with as the Fifth Commandment—“You shall not murder.”  But so that we wouldn’t miss how devastating our sin is, 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 of husband and wife.  If you thought it was just about deed, then there are plenty of couples who have stayed together for years.  The Sixth Commandment takes aim at 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—the objectifying of people (usually women) for selfish enjoyment.  The unchurched world talks about this plague only when it reaches the level of addiction—when its negative consequences get out of control—but Jesus doesn’t give it such latitude.  He says very clearly that every instance of enticement by someone who is not your wife or husband is really adultery. Certainly there used to be more shame of this, but by force these evil behaviors are being inculcated into young and old—through school libraries, online media, and envelope-pushing streaming services. And despite the excuses we make, the damage caused by inviting and permitting erotic content into our lives or our marriage does real damage to us and 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.  The whole transgender fad is no more than a monetized version of this.[1]

But it’s even worse for the Christian who indulges in this supposedly 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 same condemnation, “neither the sexually immoral…will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-10).

Just as not all anger necessarily 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 assaulted 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: 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 to our faith and for our neighbor.  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 it’s disturbing how comfortable we’ve been with that.  We have zero merit to bring to God. Yet, 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 (or mediocre) job obeying we’ve done, or keeping ourselves free from public shame.  Our hope is 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.  This is what’s so powerful about Baptism: He actually puts His Name on sinners, making former 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 all guilt.  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. Our help in the Name of the Lord, in the death and resurrection of Christ is even more powerful than death: “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.  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.” (Rom. 6:4-5)

“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 out loud 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. So, He purposely tells us, “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” (James 5:16)

One thing different about Lutheran Christianity from others is the practice of Confession and Absolution. It’s different both from those who insist on the act at least once a year; and different from those who say a person doesn’t need any mediator with God besides Christ and their private prayer for forgiveness is enough. Both of these extremes miss the soul-healing benefit of confession. Christ gave Absolution to the Church for the special comfort of troubled sinners. The closer we come to the reality of our sins, the more we thirst for the comfort which only our real Savior can give through His atoning blood.

The Absolution is really the point of Confession. It’s the unexpected part, because if you exposed yourself any other place in life, you would be looked at differently and possibly ostracized—You sicko! You degenerate!  How could you!  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.  “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And He has forgiven you! Alleluia! Praise the Lord! 

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. In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.

[1] https://www.theepochtimes.com/transgender-movement-has-corporate-profit-based-origins-activist-says_5378655.html

Fifth Sunday after Trinity

Readings: 1 Kings 19:11-21 | 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 | Luke 5:1-11

Text: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

Persecution was a daily reality for third-century Christians in Rome. And in 258, the Emperor Valerian began another massive round. He issued an edict commanding that all bishops, priests, and deacons should be put to death, and he gave the Imperial treasury power to confiscate all money and possessions from Christians.

In light of the news, Pope Sixtus II quickly ordained a young Spanish theologian, Lawrence, to become archdeacon of Rome. The important position put Lawrence in charge of the Church’s riches, and it gave him responsibility for the Church’s outreach to the poor. The pope sensed his own days were numbered and therefore commissioned Lawrence to protect the Church’s treasure.

On August 6, 258, [Emperor] Valerian captured Pope Sixtus while he celebrated the liturgy, and had him beheaded. Afterwards, he set his sights on the pope’s young protégé, Lawrence. But before killing him, the Emperor demanded the archdeacon turn over all the riches of the Church. He gave Lawrence three days to round it up.

Lawrence worked swiftly. He sold the Church’s vessels and gave the money to widows and the sick. He distributed all the Church’s property to the poor. On the third day, the Emperor summoned Lawrence to his palace and asked for the treasure. With great aplomb [poise], Lawrence entered the palace, stopped, and then gestured back to the door where, streaming in behind him, poured crowds of poor, crippled, blind, and suffering people. “These are the true treasures of the Church,” he boldly proclaimed. One early account even has him adding, “The Church is truly rich, far richer than the Emperor.”

Unsurprisingly, Lawrence’s act of defiance infuriated the Emperor. Valerian ordered his death that same day via grilling on a rack.[1]

            To the unbelieving ear, it would sound as though Lawrence, featured on our bulletin cover today, was mocking the great Emperor. When he had demanded treasures, he was expecting to find gobs of money swindled from unsuspecting people in service to their foolish deity. But St. Lawrence made a “fool” out of Valerian by showing him that the foolishness of God is wiser than him.

            Who in our world have been the biggest fools for the longest time? Is there anyone else as foolish as a Christian who takes their faith seriously? We’re a punchline because of what we confess. We’re a bad joke that the world has long since gotten sick of, because we hold onto our Scripture. Our faith is a scandal of the highest order. And it always has been because of Jesus’ cross. “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

            When St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, the fact that Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, died on a cross was absolutely crazy. He called that fact a stumbling block to the Jews. We actually might understand it better from the Greek word Paul used, σκάνδαλον (skandalon). It was scandalous that the most holy and perfect God, Creator of all things, would ever be found on a cross, because to be crucified meant that you had obviously done something so bad that you had been cursed by the Lord. After all, it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.” (Gal. 3:13) Even if it wasn’t what the Romans you were accused of, God still let it happen to you. So obviously, you must have done something terrible. To say that this was God hanging here? That was unthinkably scandalous. Blasphemous, in the worst of ways!

            Likewise, it was absolute foolishness to the Greeks. The Greeks had grown up with all the stories about Zeus and the like. And it wouldn’t be a big deal at all for a god to come down looking like a man, and do all kinds of amazing miracles. And it wasn’t even surprising that such a god could get into trouble as well. Those weren’t the problems they had with Jesus. The problem was that Jesus died. Our God died. Silly Christians! Gods can’t die! Whoever heard of something so foolish in all their life? At the point of death, the gods would pull the mask back and show who they really were. And their immorality and power would be on full display. If your God dies, then He can’t be much of a God now, can He?

            If you’re going to put the Messiah on the tree, then He’d better give a powerful sign, like coming down off of it, if you wants us to believe in him [Matt. 27:42]. If you’re going argue that God dies, then you’d better get some wisdom, and argue for something else. Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block [scandal] to Jews and folly to Gentiles.

            In two thousand years, some things have changed. And yet, nothing has changed. It may no longer be a scandal that Jesus was found in the place of sinners when He hung on a tree. But there is not much that is more scandalous than the Cross. The scandal now is that God would glorify such violence, and let His people celebrate it. If us Christians were truly good, we’d hide that cross away where no one would have to see it again.  Is that cross you wear around your neck beautiful because of the artist’s design or because it is where God shows His wisdom and love?

It may no longer be foolish to believe that God dies (after, think of Friedrich Nietzsche words, “God is dead…and we have killed him,” which have been used as a soundbite to justify and describe secular philosophy[2]) But the cross is still the height of folly. For only a great fool would believe that a man killed on such a cross could ever rise from the dead on the third day. The dead stay dead. Death is permanent. Everyone who knows anything knows that. And so, the world laughs at us. And when they’ve had their fill of it, they then get angry with us. Our belief, our confession, our faith in such a cross has gotten old. And it’s time to grow up.

            And you know what? We want to follow the wise. We want to be written about by their scribes. We want the debater of this age to debate on our behalf instead of against us. We want to be where they are. We crave their approval. And to get that approval, we must stop with the scandal and the folly. We must stop with this Cross. Only then will the world finally recognize us. Only then will the world finally pay attention. Only then will we get the world to come through our doors and hear us.

            The cruel irony is that those who gave up that cross in order to get the world’s approval, never actually got it. Instead, they lost their very reason for even existing. It turns out you don’t actually need to go to Church to be a nice person. You don’t need to go to Church in order to help people in your community. You don’t need to go to Church to sing your favorite music. You don’t need to go to Church to feel good about yourself. And you certainly don’t need to go to Church to be spiritual.

            However, there is only one place on the whole earth that preaches Christ crucified for you. And that is the Church, wherever she is found. And to us who are being saved [that Word of the cross] is the power of God. In fact, that’s how you know where the Church is. We confess that “The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered.” (Augsburg Confession, Article VII) It’s the Gospel itself which delivers to us that immense foolishness of God that is His cross.

Listen to how the Church father, Origen, explains it:

The name of the cross is thought to be a stumbling block. But if someone opens his ears to the word of God and to grace, he will see that this too is a great mystery [Eph. 5:32]. Even the Gentiles hand on traditions that severe plagues or heavy rains or droughts often ceased when a person sacrificed himself for the sake of the community. Why, then, does it cause amazement that, when the whole world was suffering a plague of error, it was necessary for one man to die [John 18:14] in order to end this plague of ignorance, darkness and destruction? But who could undergo this sacrifice? Not a prophet, not an apostle, not any other righteous person. It was necessary for a divine power to descend from heaven, a power capable of taking upon itself to die on behalf of all [2 Cor. 5:15] in a way that involved public shame, so that through that death a victory over the devil might be won. And in fact, worldly victors who lead their enemies in triumphal procession (see Col. 2:14-18) are accustomed to set up trophies of victory over the defeated in the form of a cross. The cross, then, is a sign of victory over Satan.[3]

            There is no other worldly way to describe the actions of Christ except as utter folly. Who would ever leave a perfect heaven in order to take part in my suffering? Who would surrender perfect holiness in order to bear my sin? Who would think that taking nails in His spotless hands and feet would ever rescue me from the hell I’ve earned for myself? Who would ever exchange His eternal life for my death? Who would ever believe that the sheer proclamation of these events to me could ever save me from my fate? Jesus has indeed come down from heaven. Incarnate by the Holy Spirit. Born of the Virgin Mary. Was made man. All for you. Jesus has indeed left His holiness behind in order to become sin on your behalf—to become your sin. And as such, He endured hell itself on that cross for you. Jesus has indeed taken those nails in His hands and feet for you. And by them, He has pulled you out of the depths of hell itself.

            And even though those scars will remain on him forever, so you will remain forever with Him. Jesus has indeed sacrificed His life in order to put an end to death forever. Death is beaten. It cannot hold anyone for long, even though it does its very worst. Yet, it cannot stop the resurrection on the Last Day from coming. And He is indeed on His way with it soon. But here is the most foolish promise of all: That simply by speaking the report of these events to you, you actually receive them in their fulness.

            And in this way, God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. The foolishness of a cross. God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. the weakness of a man nailed to a tree. God chose what is low and despised in the world. A man condemned to death. Even things that are not, like a dead God, to bring to nothing things that are. Sin brought to nothing. Death brought to nothing. Hell brought to nothing. All througph the utter folly of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus…. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.

[1] Brandon Vogt, “St. Lawrence and the True Treasures of the Church.” Word on Fire, August 10, 2016. https://www.wordonfire.org/articles/st-lawrence-and-the-true-treasures-of-the-church/ (accessed 5 Jul 2023)

[2] The context of the quote is a lament where Nietzsche is reflecting on our common denial of God, on the lips of a man who is dubbed mad for calling people to account for this: “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?” (The Parable of the Madman, 1882)

[3] Claude Jenkins. “Origen on I Corinthians.” Journal of Theological Studies 9 (Jan 1908): 235.

The Feast of the Visitation

Readings: Isaiah 11:1-5 | Romans 12:9-16 | Luke 1:39-56

Text: Luke 1:35-46

God has created each of us in His Image and Likeness to live by His grace through faith in His incarnate Son, Jesus Christ. He was conceived and born of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Because of this, your entire life in body and soul—both now and forever—depends entirely on Him, on His Word and Holy Spirit. This is what you and I were created for.

But our sin at its root is a matter of self-worship and selfishness, whereby we make a god out of ourselves, we rely upon ourselves, and we love and serve the Unholy Trinity: Me, Myself, and I above all.  All of your sinful thoughts, words, and actions flow out of that underlying cesspool of self-worship.

And the consequence of that is: the more we try to make a life for ourselves and to “live for yourself,” the more you are actually killing yourself.  This is what our Lord is warning about in John 12: “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also.” Your sin is deadly and damnable, not so much because it is “naughty,” but because it turns you away from the only True and Living God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It cuts you off from Him who is your Life and your Salvation.  When you reject and disobey the Word of God, you reject and spurn the Holy Spirit, the Author and Giver of Life.  And the more you persist in your sin, the more dead you become, and the further removed from Life.

How, then, shall we be saved and live?  How shall you receive and bear the Spirit of God in your fallen and perishing flesh, in your hostile mind and hardened heart? 

Everything depends entirely on God.  It is not for you to save yourself from sin and death.  Indeed, left to yourself, apart from the Word and Spirit of God, you are at the heart of the problem and your own worst enemy.  But the Lord who loves you, who created you in love, has taken every initiative to save you and redeem you.  He seeks you out and comes to you, heals you from the inside out, and gives you His own Life.

God the Father bestows the Holy Spirit upon you by the preaching of the Gospel.  He calls and brings you to repentance by and with His Word, and He breathes the Spirit into your heart, mind, body, and soul by the forgiving of your sins.  He recreates you in the Image and Likeness of Jesus Christ [Colossians 3:10], and raises you up from death to Life in His Body.

By this work of God, the Lord turns you away from yourself, away from your self-idolatry, and away from your helpless captivity to sin and death, and He brings you to Himself, to the true worship of faith, and to eternal Life with Jesus.

This Way of repentance, faith, and Life with God has been opened to you and to all in Christ Jesus, your Savior, conceived and born of St. Mary, condemned and crucified under Pontius Pilate, put to death and buried, risen and ascended, now given and poured out for you and for all.

He has fought sin, death, and devil, and He has won for you!  He bears your sins in His Body to take them away from you; He is the true Scapegoat who takes your sins away [Lev. 16:7-10].  He also bears the Holy Spirit in His Body in order to bestow the Spirit upon you.  He has not been ashamed to become your Brother, in order to not just save you from your sin, but also to share His divine Life with you.

That is the very thing we celebrate with joy and thanksgiving at the Feast of the Visitation.  His visitation in the womb of the Blessed Virgin is a pattern for how He comes to His Church even to this day and to this place.  The Lord Himself comes to visit you here with His Word and Spirit, Flesh and Blood.

St. Mary is a living icon of the Lord’s Church, because she hears the Word of God, she is anointed by the Spirit of God, and she receives the very Son of God in the Flesh.  He is received within His Holy Church on earth by the same Word and Holy Spirit, so that each of us, with faith created in us by the Spirit say, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be to me according to Your Word.” (Luke 1:38).  Through this powerful Word, Mary became the Mother of God in the Flesh. That flesh was conceived and born for you and is now “for you” in the Sacrament of the Altar.

This is how God works.  This is how He comes to you—in this humble and hidden way. Recall the ways that the presence of the Almighty was visible for people before the Incarnation—in a pillar of fire and cloud, in glory so bright and so holy that no one can see His face and live [Exodus 33:20], as the Commander of the Lord’s army [Josh. 5:13-15]. Now this same Almighty Lord has humbled Himself to come to you, not in terrors, but in grace, mercy, and peace.

You cannot see Him, any more than Elizabeth could see Him when Mary, barely in her first trimester, came to visit her elderly cousin.  But Elizabeth saw Mary and heard her greeting, and by this Word of the servant of God, she believed.  Indeed, not only Elizabeth, but the babe in her womb believed.  She and her unborn son rejoiced in the Gospel and gave thanks to God for Mary, and with Mary.  And Elizabeth praised God for the Fruit of Mary’s womb, for the Child in her body, “How has it been given to me, that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?”

We shouldn’t be jealous of the disciples and Apostles, that they got to see Jesus with their own eyes.  They were given no better Jesus than we are given!  Rejoice with Saints Mary and Elizabeth, that one and the same Lord Jesus Christ — in the same Flesh and Blood — is also here with you and given to you!  He visits you in hiddenness and humbleness within His Holy Church on earth.

Do not be ashamed of, or despise, the simple Means of Grace by which He visits you.  Do not be scandalized that He comes through the Cross [Rom. 6:3-4] and with the Fruits of His Cross.  Do not turn up your nose at His sacred Flesh and Blood.  Do not dismiss this Liturgy of the Gospel for its apparent foolishness.  It is never boring, unless we come in unbelief.  Rejoice because the Lord Himself comes to you within His Church to bless you with His Peace!

The Lord comes to you and deals with you in this way, that you should learn to live as a child of God the Father and as a member of the Bride of Christ.  God the Father trains you, not only to love and serve and care for others (as you are called and given to do within your own vocations) but He trains you first of all to be and to live as His own dear child, living by grace through faith within His own household and family. Likewise, He also teaches us each how to be living and thriving members of the Bride of Christ, hearing His Word and receiving the Holy Spirit.

The Lord your God thus catechizes you to live, not by your own works and efforts, as though you were your own god, but by His gracious providence, by the hearing and receiving of His Gifts.

Yet even in emphasizing this hearing and receiving is far from saying that we are not given anything to do. As you receive the Lord in His meekness and mercy, who comes in such humble and hidden ways within His Church, so welcome and receive Him and care for Him in His lowly ones.

Recognize and serve Him in the poor, despised, and afflicted, and in your brethren, who are the brothers and sisters of the same Lord Jesus Christ.  Receive Jesus in their needs and serve Him in their needs.  Provide for Him and love Him by providing for and loving His family, as Mary and Elizabeth loved and served each other and their infant sons.

Do unto others as Jesus does for you.  Do so for them, not because they have earned it or deserved it (they haven’t, any more than you have!).  Do it by the grace of God.  Do it for Jesus’ sake.  And know that, in loving your brother or sister, you are loving the Lord who is your very Life. And if your whole life is spent in doing so, yet shall you live.  You serve in the confidence of that great Salvation which God has gained for you and all people.

He will not send you away empty-handed.  He will not leave you unclothed or naked in the street.  He will not allow you to go hungry forever.  If you are despised by the world, you are honored and exalted by God in Christ Jesus, your crucified, risen, and ascended Lord.  If you are hated by others, you are loved by God.  If others do not forgive you, nevertheless, God has forgiven you all your sins and trespasses at the cost of His own Body and Life upon the Cross.  If others take your life, even so, God gives you Life.

Receive the Lord Jesus, who is here with you and for you with His Word and Holy Spirit.  Truly, He is here present in and with His very Flesh and Blood like your own, conceived and born of St. Mary, given and shed out for you, for the forgiveness of all your sins, unto the Life everlasting for you—body, soul, and spirit.

In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.

Original sermon by Pastor Richard Stuckwisch, edited by Pastor Michael Miller.