LWML Sunday

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

LWML Sunday (Proper 22C) – October 13, 2019

Text: Luke 17:1-10

Today is LWML Sunday. The theme of the day is from the Gospel reading, where Jesus says, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”  It is that gift of faith in people’s hearts which is so precious in the Lord’s sight.  Today, we recognize and celebrate the support which dedicated women from all across the country give to spreading the Gospel, so that He, through the means of His Word and Sacraments, increase faith in people’s hearts and bring unworthy servants into His household.

To understand what Jesus is saying about faith and mustard seeds, we’re going to have to dig into the Greek a bit.  Our Lord uses some pretty powerful language to make His message clear to us.

First, He says some things which sound familiar and pretty basic:

And he said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin. Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”

You know what the most difficult part of living on earth is?  People.  You’ve often heard it said and probably thought it yourself, This world would be great if it weren’t for all the people.  Well, the same goes for the Church too.  Being in the Church and following Jesus would be great, if it weren’t for all the other people!  Think about it: The thing that is our biggest source of frustration is the people we live with (sometimes even other Christians!).  It’s hard not to take the perspective of one popular song: “I’ve got one less problem without you!”

Jesus says something shocking though, not just that “temptations are sure to come”, but “It is impossible that temptations should not come.”  It can’t be any other way, which means that all the things we hate—the deadbeats who lure our children away from what they know is right, the abuses and injustices we suffer—are unavoidable.  It also means those people you get annoyed by the most, the people who tick you off, those who you loathe to speak their name because of the memories it brings up…Yeah, God put them in your life.  It can’t be any other way.

Now that’s no free ride for the creeps, because God pronounces “Woe!” to them who cause one of these little ones to stumble, who scandalize faith.  But don’t underestimate the almighty power of God to bring good even out of the evil of others. (Genesis 50:20)

But the Lord doesn’t support us just denouncing the world and bemoaning how corrupt it is.  He says, “Pay attention to yourselves!”  He is speaking to each of us personally, not just that guy we really think needs to hear it.  Listen up, dear Christian, He is talking to you and applying this to you as you follow Him.

If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”

This series of statements use a special construction in Greek called a conditional statement.  The gloss is, “Whenever this happens, this is what the result will be.”  So it reads not “if” but “When your brother sins, rebuke him”  It’s not a matter of if he sins, because he will.  (The same message is being preached to him about you, by the way.)  So, whenever your fellow Christian sins, you are to rebuke him.  This is unpopular, especially because we would rather make people happy and like us than have to be the bearer of “negativity.”  But, this isn’t an optional thing for the Christian.  It’s a basic part of being part of God’s family, that we actually speak to our brother or sister about their sin.  It’s not judgmental; it’s loving:  “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Gal. 6:1-2).

“Pay attention to yourselves!”  When you rebuke your brother for his sins, you don’t do it from a high horse. You do it, realizing you are just as dirty. He may have this sin that needs to be called out, but you have your own. The motivation for rebuking another Christian has to be because God loves them, and you love them enough to tell them when they are mixed up with sin.

The next part is also crucial: “If he repents, forgive him.”  Without Peter even having to ask (as he does in Matthew 18:21) Jesus drives home how important this is, saying, “If he sins against you seven times in a single day [emphasizing the Greek], and turns to you seven times saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”  If you claim the name of Christ, this is absolutely how you are to conduct yourself.  Anything less profanes God’s Name—even the name of Jesus which means “He saves His people from their sins.” (Matt. 1:21)  The Christian Church is a community of repentance and forgiveness.

That’s not the way we like to operate, though.  It’s much more satisfying to see people have some sort of consequences.  We figure they need something to teach them a lesson and keep them from doing it again.  But doling out consequences is not a vocation that God gives us with respect to our brother or sister (unless we hold a civil office).  Truth be told, we often find ourselves avoiding the person who has sinned against us, rather than to do what the Lord commands here.

That’s when the disciples, like us, realize how spiritually bankrupt we’ve been, and cry out, “Increase our faith!” or literally “Add to our faith!”  That’s when Jesus throws them another humbling reply: “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” He says this because it’s not that things would magically be better if we just tipped the scales on the “right amount” of faith.  He points to the mustard seed, and says if you had even the tiniest speck of faith, you could command a tree to be uprooted and planted in the sea.

Here is another place, where the Greek tells us more: This is what’s called a contrary-to-fact statement, like, “If you had blue hair, you would look like Marge Simpson.”  But you don’t have blue hair, so neither is the other part true.  “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed (which you don’t), you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted.’…”  But the point is you don’t.

Boy, what a downer, Lord.  I thought you wanted everyone to have greater, bigger, stronger faith?  I mean, your prophet, Habakkuk even said, “The righteous shall live by his faith.” (Hab. 2:4)  It sounds pretty important.  But Jesus isn’t diminishing our faith; He’s diminishing us.  He’s humbling us, so that we realize this immense work of living reconciled with God and those around us isn’t our work.  Having faith is being humbled to realize all that dwells within us is desires to see the wrongdoer have their comeuppance and for God to vindicate our worthy case.  But those are not God’s ways, because they are higher than our ways and thoughts (Isa. 55:9).

Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’ ”

The final humbling statement comes with the illustration of a house servant.  This doesn’t make much sense to us today, as I don’t know any of us rich enough to have domestic servants.  But we can still understand it from the employer—employee relationship.  If you have an employee, would thank him for doing what was already his job?  I’m so glad you came in on time today, and answered the phone! Splendid! I think we’ll make you employee of the month! Well, what this means is that it is our basic duty as Christians to rebuke our fellow sinners with God’s Word, and when they recognize their sin, forgive them with God’s forgiveness.

This is the work which the LWML supports.  But it’s not just about the money they raise for missions; it’s about the way these women dedicate their lives to living out their faith.  But that is really nothing over the top: “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”  All Christians, from the least to the greatest, are called to this amazing-and-humanly-impossible work of steadfast reconciliation.  That is our witness to those who don’t know Christ—not just that we get walked all over by people who never understand, but that our lives witness to the grace of God in Christ to fellow broken people who need God’s grace.

But it’s not about us; it’s God’s work through us.  So, when we find ourselves loving those who have wronged us, thanks be to God!  This is what our Lord has commanded us: Love one another; forgive your enemies (Matt. 5:46-48, Luke 6:27-31).  This is what faith does: it puts God’s love into us so that we love as He does.

So today is really about Jesus who has loved us while we were still sinners, whose love sends His Holy Spirit to add to our faith, to put into our cold hearts a divine love which witnesses that in Christ, there is peace with God and peace with our fellow man.  And we thank God for the support of the LWML both in sharing and living this Gospel.  To God alone be the glory, forever and ever! Amen.

Feast of St. Michael and All Angels (Rev. 12:7-12)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Feast of St. Michael and All Angels – September 29, 2019

Text: Revelation 12:7-12

We often thank God for the dedicated service of the members of the armed forces.  We thank Him for giving these men and women such dedication to their country and its citizens.  That peace we enjoy in our nation as a result of their service is something we should rightly be thankful for and never take for granted.

While as Americans, we do enjoy liberty day to day, there is another nation with which we are familiar because we are also citizens of it.  That nation is the Christian Church.  God calls us a holy nation, a people for His own possession [1 Pet. 2:9].  This nation also has an army—although its service is mostly unseen.  There are those dedicated soldiers who work tirelessly to defend the citizens of God’s nation—the army of God’s angels.  Today, on this Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, we remember the faithful service of these angels to us.

But we might ask, What does the God of Peace need with an army?  The very fact that the angels are God’s army means that there is an enemy to be fought and defeated.  This is what we learned from the 2nd reading, from Revelation 12:

“Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.” (vv. 7-9)

This war is between powers in the heavens, between the angels of God and the angels who follow Satan, who we know as the demons.  Satan and his demons are determined to destroy God’s people, as they have been since the beginning of creation.  This is the true battle between good and evil: It isn’t between warring political parties, social ideologies, or nuclear powers.  It is a war between the Creator of heaven and earth, and a rebellious faction of His servants who threaten the crown of His creation—mankind.  The stakes are not merely the rise and fall of an earthly nation, but the difference between an eternity in hell for us or God’s goal of bringing us into eternal fellowship with Him.

The battle lines are drawn upon the salvation of sinful men and women.  For this, immortal creatures clash as Satan and his army vies for dominance.  As the prophet Isaiah alluded to, “How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low! You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’” (Isaiah 14:12-14).  Satan desired the glory that belongs only to God Himself.  He wants man to worship and serve him.  He wants the majesty of God to be his own, though he is not God.  Then, he planted that same deceit in the heart of Eve, and then Adam.  How he rejoiced when we became convinced of our own ability to become like God, judging for ourselves what was good and what was evil.

But God would not let such a victory be had.  He would not let His glory be given to another [Isa. 48:11].  So, He swore to trample that serpent, to crush his uplifted head, and to unravel the corruption Satan had incited in man.  And because God swears to do it, no creature—not even the most powerful of angels—can overturn God plans. 

That plan of God was carried out with the birth of a “male child” (Rev. 12:5).  Yet this male child was no ordinary son of Adam.  He was not simply another human, conceived in sin and ripe for deception and accusation.  No, this was the One who would turn the battle in favor of God and the salvation of man.  From the beginning, the angels of God have had a heavenly, eternal commander-in-chief: known as the Angel of the Lord and the Lord of Sabaoth.  “Sabaoth” is Hebrew for armies, as we sing in the Sanctus—“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God of Sabaoth.”  He is the Lord of God’s Army.  This One entered the battle Himself when He became man and was born that male child.

In this way the battle was swayed in our favor, because the commander of the Lord’s Army, God’s Son Himself, fought for us by taking up our cause in the flesh.  He entered the fray with His almighty power, at which the demons cried out: “I know who you are!  You are the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24) and they cringed at His presence.  No enemy can withstand His power, because He commands even the angels who have rebelled against Him.

Yet it wasn’t only with His might that He fought for us.  His most effective weapon against Satan and the demonic host is His human flesh.  Satan and his army had brought corruption and death to the sons of Adam.  All their flesh had followed in the image of Satan, so that there was none righteous, no not one and all had turned aside to this angel posing as God [Ps. 14:1].  Then came the Lord of Hosts in the same flesh—yet without sin.  The Accuser had nothing to accuse, and try as he might, he could not tempt and deceive this Second Adam [Matt. 4:1-11].  Yet Jesus bore these accusations on behalf of man.  He bore the punishments in our place.  The Lord of Sabaoth died in lowly grief and shame.  And on the Third Day, this same Lord rose victorious over Satan’s greatest weapons against man—sin and death.

Because of this victory, the song rings out in heaven, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (Rev. 12:10-11).  This is the victory which guarantees the success of every battle fought until the Last Day.  The commander of the Lord’s army Himself has won in the fight, laying down His life for man and taking it up again [Jn. 10:18].

This battle continues, as it says, “Woe to you, O earth and see, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath because he knows that his time is short!” (12:12).  For this reason, the angels of God still fight the devil and his angels.    The battle is far greater than any human being could win.  The proud devil has been thrown out of heaven, and instead, we have been promised a place there.  But he will not rest until he is cast into hell on the Last Day.

We have heard it in so many Gospel accounts of demon possession, yet we see it in our own day how the devil has deceived a whole generation into only watching out for visible dangers.  The Prince of Lies has convinced the masses that stories of angels and demons were invented by primitive people who had no better way to explain the world around them.  But this plays into his power over us.  As true as the rest of God’s Word, Satan and his demons are a very real threat.  But even more so, the angels of God are a very real help against these enemies!

Satan’s wrath is great against God and against those who belong to Him.  Ever wonder why unbelievers have it so easy?  It’s because Satan and his demons aren’t fighting against them.  They are right where Satan wants them—lost in unbelief.  But we belong to God.  He redeemed us out of the devil’s house with the blood of His only-begotten Son.  Through the waters of Holy Baptism, God brought us into His Kingdom.  But Satan always wants us back.  He fights to regain us as hard as he can, and he’s got a third of the angels fighting with him.

All armies seek the defeat of their enemies, but the devil’s army fights for the damnation of every human being.  It is against this kind of army that God and His holy angels fight.  And, unlike earthly battles, what’s at stake isn’t land or power over people.  As I said before, the outcome here is the difference between eternal life or eternal death. In the Gospel, Jesus says, Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (v. 20).  This shows us what the Lord and His hosts fight for.  He isn’t out to defeat Satan just to show that he’s more powerful.  It’s not a war for the sake of bragging rights.  The Lord is seeking the salvation of all people.  Our boast is in the Lord, not only because He is mighty, but because He is mighty to save us in body and soul forever.

So, it’s for you and me that God’s angels fight.  The Lord Jesus Himself commands these forces to defend us against the devil’s attacks, whether these attacks come to our bodies or our souls.  Satan tries to destroy our souls by fillings us with doubts and telling us lies about God.  Demons cannot dwell alongside the Holy Spirit in believers, but they certainly come pounding on the door.  But God sends His angels to defend us against these attacks.  As Psalm 91 says, “He will command His angels concerning you, to guard you in all your ways.  On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone” (Ps. 91:11-12).  They guard your path, so that you can stay on the narrow path which leads to life [Mt. 7:14].

But the devil also seeks the harm of our bodies because he wants to catch us off-guard.  In one of the ancient prayers of the Church, God’s people pray for deliverance from “sudden and evil death.”  A sudden and evil death is one where we are caught at a time when we’ve been lazy in defending against satanic attacks and perhaps we’ve even hung the Armor of God up in the closet.  But even in these times of blindsided attacks, the Lord sends His angels to watch out for us.  We may or may not know what’s happening, but the help is still there.

The Lord of Hosts and His angels are a great army, always watching out for us.  They fight for us, against an enemy far stronger than any human being.  They fight for God’s people, always keeping vigil for our safety.  They carry out God’s commands with swiftness, accuracy, and without question.  All this they do because of the incredible love of God in Christ Jesus.  Though they already see God face-to-face, they gladly leave His presence to come to our aid.  This they do for us, so that we too can behold Him face-to-face when we will arise in the glorious resurrection.  Through the labors of the holy angels, you and I will enjoy that peace which never ends.  Thank our God and Savior for the faithful service of His holy angels!  Amen.

St. Matthew the Evangelist (Matt. 9:9-13)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Feast of St. Matthew (observed) + September 22, 2019

Text: St. Matthew 9:9-13

Jesus says, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”  The Lord said this about Matthew, the Apostle and Evangelist.  Really it’s one of the main themes of the Gospel that Matthew wrote.  From the very opening verses, it’s a Gospel for sinners—law-breakers like Tamar, prostitutes like Rahab, outcasts like Ruth, adulterers like David and Bathsheba (1:1-17).  Jesus receives John’s baptism for sinners in the Jordan (3:13-17).  He invites good and bad alike to eat with Him (22:1-14).  He goes up to Jerusalem not to be hailed and adored, but to suffer at the hands of evil men and give His life as ransom (16:21, 20:28).  At the end of the Gospel, before He ascends to the Father, He commands that all nations be made disciples, being baptized into Him and being taught His Word that saves sinners (28:16-20).

And all along the way, we think God must have it wrong.  John the Baptizer said, “I need to be baptized by you and do you come to me?”[1]  The Pharisees said, “Why does He eat with tax collectors and sinners?”[2]  Peter said, “[Suffer and be killed?] Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you!”[3]  There must be some mistake with the Christ, the Son of the living God!

Everyone expects God to call the righteous and to keep company with the good people.  Businesses open close to their clientele.  There’s a reason all the pawn shops spring up by Walmart.  So also, if you were in 1st century Jerusalem, looking for the Messiah, you would think to watch for Him in the Temple or with the most devout Jews.  That’s where any self-respecting Messiah would spend time.

But the Messiah says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”[4]  So Jesus should keep company with those who have never used the Lord’s name as a curse, who have never despised God’s Word and worship, who haven’t angered their parents and civil authorities, who have never had a hateful or unchaste thought, and so forth.

And Jesus would be entirely alone: “There is none who is righteous, no not one.”[5]

Jesus wasn’t born for godly people.  His very Name says it all, “He saves His people from their sins.”[6]  If He had wanted to avoid the ungodly, He would have stayed in heaven like the god of Islam.  But He didn’t.  He came to the very creation filled with sin, and to the very sinners who fill it.  The surprise of God’s Messiah is that He walks right into the tax collector’s booth and says to Matthew, “Follow me.”

But what about the Law?  We know our unholiness and what we deserve from God. “My punishment is more than I can bear,” cried Cain the murderer.  “Woe is me! For I am lost,” cried Isaiah before God’s throne.  “Our hope is lost,”[7] cried the sons of Israel.  And this is all the devil wants us to believe.  There couldn’t be hope for someone as miserable as you.  You’ve gone too far down, wandered to far from the fold.  You’ve messed up one too many times for Jesus.  You’re not good enough to come to church—maybe a biker church, but not a formal one.

But the true Jesus, the real Messiah, “preaches peace to you who are far off and peace to those who are near.”[8]  It is impossible to be too bad for Jesus.  He “came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”  He came to call sinners, no matter how guilty, depraved, wretched, and naked.  No matter how long you’ve denied Him, what you’ve done years ago or this morning, Jesus is your Savior.

The problem isn’t being too sinful to have a Savior, but rather of thinking you’re good enough.  Jesus also says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.”  The question for each of us is, when have we thought ourselves healthy enough to get by without Jesus?

Nobody goes to the doctor if they’re feeling fine.  We’re practical and busy people, and if there aren’t any symptoms, then why be bothered?  This is so much the case that some insurance companies use incentives to convince people to have preventive checks.  But if we’re feeling fine, there must be no problem, right?  Enough of us have had experiences that have showed that can be a false sense of security.

So also with our spiritual health.  Everything seems alright from our viewpoint.  Sure, I’m a Christian because I was baptized and confirmed.  I’m a member of that church…or I was one time.  But then our Lord, the Great Physician, starts asking diagnostic questions:

Have you loved everyone with whom you’ve crossed paths, always honoring, protecting, and doing everything you can to build them up? (4th-10th commandments)

Do you love God’s Word and are grieved to miss church? (3rd)

Do you always tell the truth, letting your yes be yes and your no be no?[9] (2nd)

Have you feared or loved in something on earth as if it were a god? (1st)

As you sit in the exam chair of the pew, things aren’t as fine as you think.  Then He orders lab results.  The results of that are even bleaker: “the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth”…“God looks down from heaven on the children of man to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all fallen away.”… “You must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”[10]  We may not have the symptoms of someone who is terminally ill, but the test results are there in black and white.  Truly we are all sick to the point of death.

               But what treatment is there for such ill patients?  Some will try home remedies.  After all, it’s so much hassle to go to church and the people can be overwhelming.  The pastor might say something that hits too close to home.  Better just to stay at home and watch a church service on TV, or read the Bible in the privacy of your own home.  If you have a question about something, just ask an Internet forum and there’s sure to be an answer that makes sense to you.

               Another option is to get a second opinion.  Take your illness to another pastor and church and see if they give you a different answer.  Maybe you’ll find one that silences your guilty conscience and lets you live the life you want.  Even better, you could find a church where nobody knows you, and  you can fly under the radar.

               But if neither of those options sounds good, you can always just ignore the diagnosis until really bad symptoms manifest.  The Great Physician hasn’t given you a prognosis on how long you’ll live, but wouldn’t it be better to live out your days enjoying the time you have left?  Check off your bucket list!

               There is only one Physician who can treat and heal this sin-sickness.  If you recognize your terminal condition, He is always ready to heal.  Here’s what the treatment will be like: You may see some immediate results, but don’t be discouraged if you can’t see them.  There are no side effects from the medicine, but your disease will definitely respond adversely to it—like the raised bumps on your arm after a TB vaccination, only worse.  In the pamphlet called the Book of Romans, St. Paul teaches us what signs to watch for: “For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness.” (Rom. 7:7-8)

               The medicine that Jesus gives to sin-sick people is His Word. “He sent out His Word and healed them,” says Psalm 107[:20], “and delivered them from their destruction.”  His Word kills and brings to life because its active ingredient is the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.  The Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, is in that Word to raise sinners up from spiritual (and one Day also bodily) death.

               What’s more, the Great Physician has more than one way to administer this saving Word.  He applies it with water: “I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  With water and the Word He washes our hearts and gives us a good conscience before God.[11]  He gives us the Holy Spirit to confirm and strengthen us in faith.  It is vital for everyone who desires salvation to receive the medicine in Baptism—“for the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to Himself.”[12]

               The Lord also applies His Word in Confession and Absolution.  He puts His Word on His people’s lips with the amazing reality: “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”[13]

He also gives His medicine in, with, and under the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper.  He “earnestly desires” to share His Body and Blood with us,[14] because of how He heals and strengthens us.  Taking bread, “…he gave it to them saying, ‘This is my Body, which is given for you.’”[15]  Taking a cup, “he gave it to them saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is sacrificially poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’”[16]

               And in this congregation, we have the profound opportunity to receive these treatments weekly—well not the last one, but if anyone wants to help out on altar guild, we can look at that.

               It is a mysterious treatment that our divine Physician gives because it doesn’t work a full cure until the resurrection on the Last Day.  You may see improvements in symptoms here and there, but you will still see yourself moving toward the grave.  Fear not and don’t stop His treatment.  His Word is effective, for by it the heavens were created.  And, as St. Paul writes in Romans 8, “If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies.”[17]

               Fellow sinners, you are all beloved by God.  He came down from heaven with you in mind.  He sought out Matthew in the tax collector’s booth and He is seeking you now.  “Follow Me,” is His call, for He is fully able to absolve you and bring you to His eternal Kingdom.  Amen.


[1] Matthew 3:14

[2] Matthew 9:11

[3] Matthew 16:22

[4] Matthew 5:20

[5] Psalm 14:1-3

[6] Matthew 1:21

[7] Genesis 4:13; Isaiah 6:5; Ezekiel 37:11

[8] Ephesians 2:17

[9] Matthew 5:37

[10] Genesis 8:21, Psalm 53:2-3, Matthew 5:48

[11] Ephesians 5:26, 1 Peter 3:21

[12] Acts 2:39

[13] Matthew 18:18

[14] Luke 22:15

[15] Luke 22:19

[16] Matthew 26:28

[17] Romans 8:11

Holy Cross Day (observed) (John 12:20-33)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Holy Cross Day (obs.) + September 15, 2019

Text: John 12:20-33

“Lift high the cross,” the Church sings, “the love of Christ proclaim, till all the world adore His sacred Name.”

The cross has been a symbol of Christianity for countless generations.  At a glance you can recognize a Christian or the church they belong to because it has a cross on it.  (You can also learn something when a group purposely doesn’t put a cross on anything.)  But I’m afraid that if enough crosses are stamped on things to identify us as Christians, it’s possible for us not to feel its full weight.

While Lift High the Cross, prominently featured in the Mission and Witness section of the hymnal, evokes images of military formation and victory in battle, that is not yet what we experience in our daily life. It is what we know from God’s Word and we hold to by faith, but the cross, this side of Christ’s return, is more often associated with pain.

The cross is a stumbling block.  Early Christians were ridiculed for such a stupid religion that we glorified an executed criminal: “Alexamenos worships his god,” one graffito teased as it depicted a man with a donkey’s head hung upon a cross.  The cross is an instrument of brutal torture and asphyxiation.  When Jesus breathed His last, it was after hours of agony bearing the sins of the world and just rejection of God.

But even if it is a stumbling block to those who are perishing, the crucified Son of God is the One in whom we glory.  By the grace of the Holy Spirit, we poor sinners know that through that shameful execution of Jesus, God the Father was offering up His Son as a ransom in our place, to save our lives from both death and hell.

Here in St. John’s Gospel, Jesus foretells His death and resurrection.  Yet, here He foretells it, not with echoes from the Prophets, but as a proclamation of the Father’s glory and His will for all men:

27 “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

When the Son of Man is lifted up from the earth, suspended between earth and heaven—putting Himself in that breach between God and man made by sin—there He draws us to Himself with the almighty and renewing power of the Holy Spirit.

The occasion for Jesus saying this is some Greeks coming to see Jesus.  When these people come to see Him, He begins to teach them about what it means to follow and serve this Crucified Lord:

25 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. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.”

As we contemplate and celebrate the Holy Cross, this is a refresher for us as to its true significance in our lives:

  • When we are drawn to the cross, it is necessary that we die.  It’s an easy thing to wear a cross pendant around your neck, but when the cross is put upon us in Holy Baptism, “All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death.” (Romans 6:3) We die to the old man with his corrupt desires, for “How can we who died still live in [sin]?” (6:2)  [Colossians 3:5-9] We die to sexual intimacy and desire except in  God’s institution of marriage. We die to the on-demand attitude of the world that imposes our personal preference on others and demands that everything—including corporate worship be to our liking.  We die to lusting after other’s lives.  We die to using our tongue as a weapon to wield against others, either with aggression and rage, or subtly as the snake [Gen. 3] with slander.  When we are drawn to the cross, all of those things must perish from us, and be nailed to the cross. And all who will not die to them endanger their salvation.
  • When we are drawn to the cross, we remove sins as far as the east is from the west.  “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  Many think the central mark of Christians is their social ministry activities.  But when Jesus draws us to Himself, He says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12) That means a far more difficult thing than handing out a warm blanket and a bowl of soup.  “As I have loved you” comes from the One who laid down His life for His enemies.  True Christian love is that which forgives from the heart and will remember those wrongs no more.
    • I commend to you a practice that I’ve found helpful.  During the Lord’s Prayer, pause after the Fifth Petition, and say the names of your offenders out loud.  Say it and picture their sins being nailed to the cross.
    • If you don’t pray the Lord’s Prayer at home, start now—by yourself, with your family.  Jesus taught us this prayer so that we would know the blessings which flow through the cross, and so the cross would daily be a part of a Christian’s life.

There is no room for grudges—any—because God has forgiven the debt which would send us to present death and eternal suffering.  So, if we do what our Lord commands, let Him give us new hearts, contrite and humble, which “forgive as God in Christ forgave [us]” (Eph. 4:28). 

When we are drawn to Him who hung on the cross, we receive the Life of the World.  It is true that the Lord Jesus draws all people to Himself, but only some heed the call.  Not by your own reason or strength, but because the Holy Spirit has called you by the Gospel are you here (or reading this) today.  And because you have ears to hear, you are blessed.  The Lord who has drawn you to His cross, forgiven you all your sins, now also invites you to taste of the fruit of His cross: His very Body and Blood given and shed for you.  You are drawn not only to follow Him, but to have Communion with Him.

The holy cross of Jesus became yours when you were baptized into his death and resurrection.  The holy cross is yours every time you pray to God your Father in the Name He gave you.  The fruits of the holy cross are in you as you eat His Body and drink His blood.  So, you see the cross is far more than a symbol to quickly identify Christians—it is a Christians very death, and eternal life.  Glory be to God forever. Amen.

12th Sunday after Trinity (Mark 7:31-37)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Twelfth Sunday after Trinity + September 8, 2019

Text: Mark 7:31-37

Jesus performed many healings in His ministry.  He raised Peter’s mother-in-law when she was sick with a fever, He healed lepers, cured lame and swollen limbs, and made the blind to see.  What the people say is true: “He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”  But among the healings He did, this is one of the strangest: He puts his fingers in the man’s ears, spits and touches his tongue, and speaks a word in Aramaic (which the Evangelist does the favor of translating for Christians of following generations).

We can relate with the desire for miraculous healing.  We often expect that from the doctors, with mixed results.  Sometimes they get it right and a new medicine will really alleviate your rheumatoid arthritis.  But as many of you know, there are times when the doctors either can’t do anything, or make mistakes.  Test after test, scan after scan, but no relief.  Like the woman with the flow of blood in Mark 5, “who had had a discharge of blood for twelve years, 26 and who had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse.” (Mark 5:25-26)

I’m sure somewhere in history there has been someone crazy enough to emulate what Jesus did here, as if it were a magic formula.  How gross that would be, and I suspect the only result was copious amounts of ear wax and sprayed spittle.  But the key is not found in what Jesus did, as if He were a wonderworker.  The key lies in who this man has been brought to.

Jesus says, “Ephatha! Be opened!”  He is the Creator, of Whom “all things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3).  He speaks, and it happens.  He who formed the ear and the tongue [Ps. 94:9] has the ability to reform what was malformed by sin and death.

But how He restores His broken creation is not just with a word (although He does say to the leper in Mark 1:41, “Be clean,” this is not all it takes).  It takes the Creator Himself coming in the flesh of man, into the wretched and sin-filled world.  As Matthew mentions, “This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.’” (Matt. 8:17)  He not only took them, but He took our trespasses and shed His blood as the one sacrifice for the sins of the world.  The Creator Himself lay in the grave, and thereby overcame the sway that sin and death have over each of us.

We wish that God would enable doctors to take away our cancer, give us relief from our chronic aches, and undo our foolish mistake that landed us in physical therapy.  And sometimes He does, but our hope must not be in healing in this life.  Jesus says in the next chapter of Mark, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:34-36)  If we follow Him, let us deny ourselves the physical healing we would wish, and accept each cross that He has laid upon us—the cross of memory loss, of arthritis, of seizures, of physical pain—and follow Him.  He is able if He wills to give us relief at the proper time.

We live in hope, because this is the same One who stood at Lazarus’ tomb:

32 Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”…38 Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” 44 The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” (John 11:32, 38-44)

This is what He is going to do for the bodies of us all, when we are nothing but breathless dust.  He will say to us at our tombs, “Come out,” and the dead will be raised imperishable, immortal—no aches, no aging, no wrinkles, no defects—for eternity.

But even while we live in hope of the Last Day, our hope is in the Word He speaks now, for He does speak powerful Words of life to us.  He speaks in the words, “I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Together with the water, these are the words of rebirth, birth from above.

He speaks in the words of the absolution on His servant, the pastor’s, lips: “Peace be with you, I forgive you all your sins.”

He speaks in His Word to you, which His Spirit carries into your heart, “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12-14)  It convicts you and puts your sinful flesh and all its desires to death, and raises you with Christ to new and eternal life.

Even if He doesn’t take away the ailments in this life, He has healed you with a healing that will last through death.  That is the Christian’s hope, in which we are saved. Amen.

Lenten Worship – “Remember”

Lenten Midweek Worship on Wednesdays

1:00pm – Midday Vespers (Pastor Miller) with coffee hour after

6:00pm – Soup Supper downstairs in fellowship hall

7:00pm – Evening Vespers (guest pastor)

March 6 – Ash Wednesday: Remember Dust

Pastor Michael Miller – Psalm 103:13-14

March 13 – Lent I: Remember Wondrous Works

Pastor Eric Bolhmann (Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran, Corvallis) – Psalm 111:4

March 17 – Lent II: Remember Jesus’ Words

Pastor Ted Schaefer (Zion Lutheran, Corvallis) – Luke 22:61-62

March 24 – Lent III: Remember the Covenant

Pastor Larry Oliver (Immanuel Lutheran, Albany)– Psalm 105:8

April 3 – Lent IV: Remember Sins No More

Pastor John Westhafer (Our Savior Lutheran, Waldport) – Jeremiah 31:34

April 10 – Lent V: Remember Steadfast Love

Pastor Jeremy Lucke (Peace Lutheran, Philomath) – Psalm 98:3

Ash Wednesday: Remember Dust (Psalm 103:13-14)

Pastor Michael A. Miller

The Man from Heaven Remembers the Man of Dust

Psalm 103:13-14

13         As a father shows compassion to his children,

so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear Him.

14         For He knows our frame;

He remembers that we are dust.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” we heard earlier tonight.  But dust?  Any intelligent person knows that people are carbon-based lifeforms, comprised of complex amino acid chains, DNA, and that we are capable of tremendous intellectual power and creativity.  Dust seems far too insignificant a substance for such a noble creature as man.

But that goes to the question of origins.  Where does man come from? Where is He going, and what is significant about his existence?  “Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” (Genesis 2:7) Our origin is from God.  Our existence is from God.  We are self-aware, moral, intelligent, and creative because God made us in His likeness.  All of human life exists and depends on God. 

God remembers that people are dust, but do people often remember that?  They go about their daily routines, make plans for what they’re going to do, undertake projects, worry about how other people think of them, plan and fret about the future.  Most of the time, they live without a need for God (a 2018 study found 36% of religious “nones” agreed that religion was irrelevant to their life[1]). But how quickly all that comes unraveled!

On August 17, 1999, a 7.6 magnitude earthquake hit Izmit, Turkey, 100 kilometers east of Istanbul.  In 37 seconds, 17,000 people were killed and 500,000 were rendered homeless as 20,000 buildings were destroyed or heavily damaged.

We forget how we are dust, but God has His way of reminding us.  Sometimes it’s evil that happens to us or our loved ones, other times a sudden illness, still other times a natural disaster like in Turkey.  The bottom drops out of our plans for the future and we’re left scrambling.  We’re found to have taken the whole thing for granted, and we wish we could go back and do it over.

The Lord, however, never forgot that we are dust, and in His fatherly compassion, He was moved to act.  His Son came down and entered our world through the womb of a young Virgin named Mary.  The Man of heaven became a Man of dust with us.  Jesus has compassion on us as He humbled Himself with us to live by every word that comes from the mouth of God.  He faced evil done to him as he fled into Egypt, as lies were told about him, as He was condemned on false charges.  He lost family and friends to death, and He wept over the curse we are under.  He bore anguish and pain in His own body as He was scourged, compelled here and there by soldiers, crucified, and the life ebbed out of Him.  He was made dust, and to the dust He returned, buried in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb.

But unlike our dust, which stays in the ground, His Spirit returned to Him and He rose to be a living creature once more.  Like no other, He rose so that He might restore life to our dying and dead dust.  “The first Adam became a living being; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.” (1 Corinthians 15:45)  Jesus rose from the dust, never to die again, so that He could break the power of sin and death, and so raise up the sons of Adam, the man of dust, of you and me.  St. Paul continues: 48 As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.” (1 Corinthians 15:48-49) 

It takes a reminder from God to remember that we are dust.  As painful as this discipline is, God is doing it for our eternal good, because if we forget that we are dust, the danger is that we will return to the dust, never to rise again (Psalm 140:10).   Unless we remember that we are dust, the Man from Heaven does us no good.

Yet, “The Lord shows compassion to those who fear Him.”  He comes to you when you are bowed down, trembling as your frame of dust threatens to crumble.  The Man of Heaven comes again and breathes His life into your dust.  When you were baptized, in the water and the Word, God took your lifeless dust and made you into clay (Isaiah 64:8).  Day by day, even with dust upon our heads and under the shadow of death, He is shaping us into the image of His Son (Romans 8:29).  Every time you confess your sins and the Absolution is spoken, it says “He breathed on them and said ‘Receive the Holy Spirit; if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness, it is withheld.’” (John 20:22-23)  The Absolution truly has the power to restore your life, even as you sit in dust and ashes.  If you live try to live apart from it or without it, how can your dust be revived?

He has still one more way that He remembers you in your dust.  Recall His Word through St. Paul: “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.”  The Son of God’s lifeless clay rose to new, eternal life, and that is what He gives you in His Supper.  Each time you receive His Body and Blood, united to Him with faith, He is strengthening you with the power of His resurrected flesh.  It’s the unfortunate state of the Church in our generation that we minimize the Supper’s importance and think we can make it by without this.  Someone has told you (and now it’s become entrenched as tradition) that Communion only needs to be offered every other Lord’s Day. 

But this teaching does not come from your Lord who says, “Do this as often as you drink it in remembrance of me”[2] and who says in John 6: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (John 6:53)  It is only hubris that says we can have life apart from our incarnate, crucified, and risen Savior—His Body and His Blood and His Holy Spirit breathed on us in the Absolution.

See all the ways that the Lord shows compassion to you, O man of dust!  As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. 14 For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.”  And on the Last Day, He will raise you from the ash heap to be with Him forever.  Persevere in this hope, beloved.  Amen.


[1] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/08/08/why-americas-nones-dont-identify-with-a-religion (accessed 2/25/19)

[2] Some argue that “often” does not necessarily mean weekly, but if we stay in the way of the Law and look only to satisfy the minimum requirement, we can also go without having midweek Lenten services because the Old Covenant only required corporate worship once per week.  Christians are privileged to receive it “as often” as we gather.

Thrown into the drink or delivered, God is faithful to accomplish His good purpose! (Jonah 1:1-17, Matthew 8:23-27)

Bethlehem Lutheran & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany + February 3, 2019

Text: Jonah 1:1-17, Matthew 8:23-27

One of the great myths about our life is that we’re safer at some times than at others.  The disciples were under the impression that they were safer on land than when they were on the stormy sea.  It’s only when the waves are crashing into the boat that they realize how fragile their existence is.

Jonah thought that he was free and clear if he just fled to Tarshish, in the opposite direction from where God would have him be.  But on the way, God intervened and caused a great storm. And Jonah, even though he was resting secure in disobedience to God, was awakened and called to account.

On the other hand, the disciples in Matthew 8 were doing the Lord’s will, and they still suffered near disaster.  What gives, God?

This is the great question of Christians: I did everything right, so why am I suffering?  I know that Jonah fled from the will of the Lord, and he was driven back by the will of God to preach to the Ninivites. But what had the disciples done that this terrible storm came upon them?

The answer is, we don’t know.  If we look for God in the chances and changes of this life, all we will find is uncertainty and doubt, “Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish” (Jon. 1:6)

But let’s explore this in what we might say to either Jonah or the disciples.  Jonah, though a professed Hebrew “who fears the Lord who made the sea and dry land” (Jon. 1:9) did a very foolish thing by disobeying the Lord’s call.  If you read on through chapter 4, you find out that Jonah did it because God doesn’t give people what they deserve. He relents over disaster for those who fear Him. (4:2)  He demonstrated this not only for the mariners but also for the people of Nineveh.  So, Jonah, if you believe God should give people what they deserve, what would happen if that judgment were applied to you?  Do you believe that suicide at the hands of the sailors is the last word God has for you?  What is your faith, Jonah?

Jonah, the God you fear and serve is indeed “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” (Jon. 4:2)  You did a foolish thing fleeing the presence of the Lord because you disagreed with His ways.  But repent of your evil and believe that He is a God gracious and merciful to you also, and His intent has always been to save you from disaster. “He will not always chide, nor will he keep His anger forever.  He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high and the heavens are above the earth, so great is His steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does He remove our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103:9-12)

What would we say to the disciples?  Remember, they are following the will of the Lord; they got on the boat in the right direction.  Yet, disaster still visited them.  The fishing boat is being swamped by the waves, and even worse, Jesus is the one sleeping this time.  They wake him with a prayer: “Save us, Lord; we are perishing!”

Peter, James, John, and the rest, who do you have in the boat with you?  Jesus awakens with a question, “Why are you afraid; O you of little faith?”  You rightly fear the God who made the sea and dry land. You are right to call on Him to save you.  But why are you afraid?  Won’t He will care for and protect you as much on the sea as on the dry land?  Why do you fear this circumstance more than the God who made heaven and earth?

What is your faith and where is your faith?  They’re both important questions to ask, especially, if like Jonah, we’re called to be witnesses of this God and Savior.  We learn what our faith is when we are exposed as sinners and have to learn anew who God reveals Himself to be.  True knowledge of the Gospel is not learned by memorizing doctrines and Bible passages in confirmation class—no matter how demanding your pastor was; it’s “taught by the Holy Spirit and the school of experience”[1] as one pastor put it.  That means you need to be made a real sinner before you can know a God, gracious and merciful.

The other question is, once we poor sinners know a gracious and merciful God, what does that look like in the dangers and disasters we face in life?  What did we confess in the Creed? “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.”  It does no good to compartmentalize where God works—whether sea or dry land, on Sunday morning or five minutes before closing when your supervisor tells you you’re being laid off.  The God who made both visible and invisible is also our strong defense against all spiritual dangers.  “The waves and winds still know His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below”[2] as much as the demons obeyed when He commanded them.  This is the God who holds your life at every moment!  Repent of your little faith and the fruit of fear it bears!

What damage can be done to our calling as disciples by little faith.  Through fear of temporal things—the church running out of money, the lies of the devil and the narrative of the world gaining ground, the future of the nation in which we live.  All of these things are temporal, and we believe in theory that they’re all going to pass away.  But God help us to believe His holy Word, that He cares for us and gives us and the whole world our daily bread.

In the boat, it was not time for Jesus or His disciples to die.  But the time came when this same Jesus, fully man and fully God, was offered up on account of your sins and those of the whole world, that whoever believes in Him should not cry, “We are perishing,” but have forgiveness and eternal life.

Take a moment to let these words soak into your heart again: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (Matt. 10:28-31)

God revealed His will to Jonah—go and preach to these pagans so that they might be saved.  And they were.  So was Jonah, perhaps the biggest unbeliever of the book until the end.  He revealed His power to the disciples in calming the stormy sea.  But the lesson for both is that God’s saving purpose will be done, even if for the moment it looks like He’s changed His mind.  Every person who believes in Him, He chose from before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:3-6), and as God does not lie, we can be sure that “nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.” (Rom. 8:39)  This is not a license to put our faith to the test, but a reason to fear the God who made the sea and dry land, who is a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from disaster; through Jesus Christ. Amen.


[1] C.F.W. Walther, “Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel” Thesis III. http://lutherantheology.com/uploads/works/walther/LG

[2] “Be Still, My Soul” (LSB 752, st. 2)