Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27A)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Text: Matthew 25:1-13

What a mess the world is.  Thank God that we have the Church.  Thank God that we can confess, “I believe…in the holy Christian Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.”  Thank God for that sanctuary in the everlasting Word of God and the assurance of eternal rest and joy!

This is what the Parable of the Ten Virgins is about: Promised rest for the faithful of God in being separated from the multitude of unbelievers.  It’s comfort and assurance that the Lord knows those who are His through faith, and that the faithful will enjoy the fulness of God’s salvation.

Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept.

Five were foolish and five were wise, but it wasn’t totally apparent until the Bridegroom’s final summons.  Here God is giving His people assurance from above, because who the foolish and who the wise are isn’t clear on earth.  All you can find on earth is doubt.  The church appears to be a mess.  False teachers are successful, true teachers are scorned. Despite ample Bibles, hardly anyone endeavors to learn God’s Word.  Immorality is flaunted under the banner of grace and acceptance.  The big churches are those which feed people a diet of inch-deep Gospel and lots of sanctified law, while those that teach the Word of God purely are in small and struggle. 

Another problem is when we look for assurance that we’re wise virgins, the faithful children of God, in the wrong place.  This is the danger of self-absolution and self-assurance.  It’s ultimately self-delusion.  I feel comfortable, one might say, no pangs of conscience, so I must be good with God.  That’s the error of looking for God’s judgment in your feelings or circumstances.  Another person might say, I trust that God is merciful. I believe [vaguely] in Him…isn’t that enough for Him to be pleased with me? This is the delusion of doing good will get you in God’s favor. It’s companion is, I haven’t done anything too awful…I mean not like other people have done to me.  God doesn’t judge by comparing one to another, as if the wise virgins are let in because of their prudence.  Lastly, there’s the delusion that because I belong to and am active in church, I am therefore a Christian and heir of eternal life.  The very thing this Parable exposes is the foolish idea that outward membership or participation with the Church saves.

What kind of surprise would it be to get to the Day of the Lord, and find out you had it all wrong?  You had not been truly repentant, just frustrated, angry at God for not helping you more.  Your faith was not in a merciful God who has compassion on helpless people, but in a deep-seated desire that one way or another you deserve God’s rest after all you’ve endured and done.  God forbid that this should happen to any of us!

Our Lord teaches in this Parable that a genuine, living faith is what makes the difference:

But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ 10 And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. 11 Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’

In those days, the wedding day stared with the bridegroom leaving his house to pick up his bride from her family’s place. Then they took the longest possible route around town to see everyone they could. Only when that was finished did everyone go to the wedding feast. However, no one knew how long it would take. The ten virgins, part of the wedding party, waited along the route. They all knew it would likely be after dark when the bride and groom arrived, so they had brought lamps. But only five were prepared for it to be very late indeed. They brought just enough extra oil to finish the circuit. The other five did not.

The foolish were so because they imagined that waiting for the Bridegroom was a quick, easy task, well within their own ability.  They may have even started out with plenty of zeal.  But faith is not conjured up from inside us; “it is the gift of God,” Paul says, “not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2:9).  But then the years drag on, you’re tempted and hurt.  Life brings you low, and you flounder because you’re God’s child and shouldn’t it be easier if you’re doing the right thing?

But their faith flickers out. They still go to church regularly next to the wise virgins.  Yet, something has happened in their soul—a hardening of heart.  Their purpose consists in walking the walk of a virgin, hoping that will save them.

The words of Amos hit home to those who are without oil when the Lord returns: “Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord! Why would you have the day of the Lord? It is darkness, and not light, as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him, or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall, and a serpent bit him. Is not the day of the Lord darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?” (Amos 5:18-20)

If this describes you or has described you, repent and flee from a Christianity that is strained by idolatry.  Do not let your devotion, knowledge, attendance record or anything else but Jesus Christ be your Savior.  Only trust in His holy life, His innocent suffering and death, and His glorious resurrection can assure you of entering the marriage feast.  And only trust that He is able to keep you steadfast and ready for His return and the time in between!

Every time we pray, “Thy Kingdom come,” we are praying for the steadfastness of the wise virgins and the rousing of the foolish before that Day.  We pray for hearts that hear the whole counsel of God with faith.  Our Lord tells us in the last days that love will grow cold and we will become so absorbed with our own problems we are oblivious to the cries of others, that our itching ears will want teachers who tell us what we want to hear rather than need, that we will be deceived by the fearmongering and divisions in which worldly people delight.  That is to say, we will all like Peter, James, and John, fall asleep when they ought to be watching.  The Spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

Yet even in your weakness, the Lord does not fail you.  “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out…40 For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:37-40)

His final message in this Parable is, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”  Keep watch by resting in Him, not in self-security and self-delusion, but by being on guard for your weakness, for temptations, and the devil’s lies.  We do not know the day nor the hour of His return, but we’re not running on our own steam.  He daily supports His own through His Word and the consolation and power of Absolution and His Supper.  We know neither the day nor the hour, but for as long as it is, with Him upholding us, we will wait with faithful hearts for our summons from this life and the call into His marriage feast which has no end.

Where Amos warned the unprepared, Paul’s message in 1 Thessalonians encourages us in our wait for Christ’s coming: “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” (1 Thess. 4:16-18)

Even today, He gives us who wait for Him, a foretaste of that Day and that Feast.  He invites us to a foretaste of that supper as we kneel at table with Him.  And in His Supper, He renews our watch and strengthens our hands.  We do not wait for Him alone, because we are already united in His one Body, the Church.  Therefore as we come to the Feast He has prepared for us, we join “with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify His glorious Name.” (LSB 194, Proper Preface)

Behold, beloved of the Lord, the Bridegroom has come and earnestly desires [Luke 22:15] to eat this feast with you here, and for all eternity.  Amen.

Feast of St. Luke the Evangelist

“The winged bull (or ox), recognized as the animal of sacrifice, was applied to St. Luke because his Gospel emphasizes the atonement made by Christ’s sacrifice of himself on the Cross. The bull (ox) is also synonymous with service and strength, which reminds us as Christians that we should be prepared to sacrifice ourselves in following Christ.”

Reading – Luke 10:1–9

1After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go. 2And he said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. 3Go your way; behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. 4Carry no moneybag, no knapsack, no sandals, and greet no one on the road. 5Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!’ 6And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest upon him. But if not, it will return to you. 7And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages. Do not go from house to house. 8Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you. 9Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’

Hymn of the Day – O Christ, Who Called the Twelve (LSB 856)

1 O Christ, who called the Twelve
    To rise and follow You,
Forsaking old, familiar ways
    For ventures bold and new:
Grant us to hear Your call
    To risk security
And, bound in heart and will to You,
    Find perfect liberty.

2 O Christ, who taught the Twelve
    The truth for ages sealed,
Whose words and works awakened faith,
    The ways of God revealed:
Instruct us now, we pray,
    By Your empow’ring Word.
True teacher, be for all who seek
    Their light, their life, their Lord.

3 O Christ, who led the Twelve
    Among the desolate
And broke as bread of life for all
    Your love compassionate:
Lead us along the ways
    Where hope has nearly died
And help us climb the lonely hills
    Where love is crucified.

4 O Christ, who sent the Twelve
    On roads they’d never trod
To serve, to suffer, teach, proclaim
    The nearer reign of God:
Send us on ways where faith
    Transcends timidity,
Where love informs and hope sustains
    Both life and ministry.

5 O Christ, the_apostles’ Lord,
    The martyrs’ strength and song,
The crucified and risen King
    To whom the saints belong:
Though generations pass,
    Our tribute still we bring,
Our hymns a sacrifice of praise,
    Our lives an offering.

Text: © 1993 GIA Publications, Inc. Used by permission: LSB Hymn License no. 110004659

Sermon

“After this,” St. Luke writes.  After what?  After a section titled “The Cost of Following Jesus,” at the end of chapter 9, which reads:

57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 60 And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

One seems to be willing, unless it means he will lose his home.  Another is called, but not if it means losing his family.  A third pledges his faithfulness, but hopes to keep one foot in his old life.  It would be entrapment if the Lord didn’t disclose this to us: What it will cost to follow Him.  Dreams we have of believing in God and He in turn making our life run smooth are a fantasy.  They are called Christians because they belong to Christ.

And how did it go for Christ?  As meanly as it can for a human being.  Yet in that life of perfect obedience, perfect self-sacrifice, perfect suffering, He opened the barred gates of Eden.  But Christ’s life is also a template for those who are adopted by God as children through Him.  It is a life of eternal peace with God, but often not in the outward sense we think of.

After this, He appointed seventy-two others, men who would be conformed to the template of Christ.  He sent them on ahead of Him to do the same thing as Him: Labor in the Lord’s harvest, be His lambs in the midst of wolves, entrust their life to Him, and bear His peace to those they met.

These 72 are first and foremost an example for pastors, who are publicly sent to preach and teach, administer the mysteries of Christ, and to embody the Lord Jesus in their lives.  Yet it’s also true for everyone who follows Him, and so let’s take a look at each of those activities for which Christ sent out the 72.

We pray—no, beg[1]—the Lord to send out laborers into His harvest.  It is always His harvest, never one’s own labor.  We default to think that the Church is the sum of its parts.  After all, it’s true for every other human institution. You get in what you put in. Therefore, the Church must depend on having the right quantity of pastors, volunteers, friendly people, donors, sturdy buildings, and so on.  But the Lord doesn’t let us be deluded into thinking the harvest is ours.  He bids us ask Him to grant success to the harvest, even if in our calculations, things look scarcely possible.  Just as was mentioned a few weeks ago, all that the Church possesses belongs to the Lord.  So it is with the increase or decrease in a particular time or place.  His Word always accomplishes His purpose.

He sent these disciples out without any promise of personal glory.  In fact, it was nothing of the sort: “Go your way; behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves.”  This is something we could all stand to be reminded of.  The world is uncomfortable and painful because of the evils that happen to us and our own foolishness.  But the world is also enemy territory.  Little Christs as we are, we need to take to heart how Jesus was received.  The demons writhed against His reclaiming of men from the devil’s kingdom (Luke 4:33-36, 8:26-35; 9:37-43a), and those who refused to believe irrationally sought Jesus’ destruction (Luke 4:16-30; 19:45-48).

The warfare may not be intense all the time, but we should always expect it.  It may be that the wolves have had a meal lately and it keeps them at bay.  But also know that you could be their next meal.  See how Jesus rebuffed the temptations of the devil in the wilderness: “The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “Man shall not live by bread alone.”’”

Luther wrote in the preface to his Large Catechism,

“Nothing is so effectual against the devil, the world, the flesh, and all evil thoughts as to occupy oneself with the Word of God, talk about it, and meditate on it. Psalm 1 calls those blessed who “meditate on God’s law day and night.” You will never offer up any incense or other savor more potent against the devil than to occupy yourself with God’s commandments and words and to speak, sing, and meditate on them. This, indeed, is the true holy water, the sign which routs the devil and puts him to flight.”

And speaking of that time that our Lord faced off with the devil in the wilderness, His next instruction to the 72 is, “Carry no moneybag, no knapsack, no sandals, and greet no one on the road.”  Just as Jesus faced the devil in the wilderness, we daily need the lesson of how God provided for His ancient people for 40 years in the desert.  That Scripture Jesus used against the devil, “Man shall not live by bread alone” comes from a larger lesson God gives through Moses in Deuteronomy 8:

“And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know…that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Your clothing did not wear out on you and your foot did not swell these forty years. Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the Lord your God disciplines you.”

There are times when it’s easy to believe God provides all we need…because we can see it.  Then, there are times when each day seems like a miracle how it all comes together.  But unlike those around us who don’t know God, we have learned from Him that He can and will provide no matter how dire the circumstance.  Desolate wasteland and thousands of people? He’s got that.  Providing for a family, kids in college, and the furnace goes out?  He’s got that too.  Bills coming due before the paycheck, and then a medical emergency?  He does not lie when He says, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5-6)

Moses zeroes in on it when he says that God put them in the wilderness to humble them and to test what was in their heart.  When our material life—especially our money or our health—goes out the window, these are moments when God is treating us as children, teaching us to rely on Him for every need.  No, it doesn’t mean we should overspend and waste His gifts, because that would be putting the Lord to the test.  But it does mean that we go out like the 72, with the promise that God will provide it when we get there.  He will give us today our daily bread.

Last, He tells His disciples, “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!’ And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest upon him. But if not, it will return to you.”

It’s the job of the pastor to publicly proclaim His peace, as these seventy-two did and I’m doing now.  But His peace rests upon every believer, and it is shared in our lives, through the vocations we have toward one another.  The “sons of peace” are those recipients of God’s kingdom.

But what exactly is this peace?  It’s the announcement of the angels to shepherds: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14)  It’s the result of knowing God through Jesus Christ: that though we rightly deserve His wrath for all that the human race has done and what we ourselves are guilty of, He made the once-for-all atonement.  That being reconciled with our Creator, we also have the sure hope of following where Jesus has gone in eternal life on the other side of the grave. 

Like we heard St. Paul say last week in the Epistle, “The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:7)  The sons of peace have this gift, guarding their hearts and minds even as the world reels and rages.  As political ideologies clash and anarchists plot, we are heirs of an unshakeable, eternal Kingdom and today have hope in the God who rules over all the earth.  As pandemic orders wear on and people are at each other’s throats, we are filled with the love of Christ for every person.

Truly, the Kingdom of God has come near to you, here as we share in those gifts unique to the Church, but also as each of us go out into the world.  He sends us out, and is always with us on the way.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.


[1] Δέομαι – ask, request, beg

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Reading – Matthew 22:1-14

And again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, “See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.” ’

But they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.’ And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests.

“But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Hymn of the Day – At the Lamb’s High Feast We Sing

Sermon – Sacrificial Invitation

Today, Jesus gives us another parable about the kingdom of heaven. This time, He compares it to a king who was holding a wedding feast for his son. Throughout the course of the parable, two different problems arise. The first is that those whom the king invited refused the invitation. The second is that some who came refused to wear to wedding clothes provided for the celebration. Both had consequences. And both let us know what just what it is that sin does to us.

Now some background is helpful: wedding feasts in those days had a time limit. In fact, every feast did. Because in order to have meat for the feast, the animal needed to be offered at the Temple. Or if you were far from the Temple, exceptions were made. But the animal was offered as a thank offering to the Lord. The fat and internal organs were burned upon the bronze altar. The priests were given a portion to eat. But the bulk of the meat was them given back to the one who offered it to share with family and friends. It was a holy meal unto the Lord. [Lev. 7:12-18] Which is why it mattered who you invited and who you ate with. Because not only were you eating with your guests in celebratory thanksgiving, you were eating with God Himself as well.

But the meat could only be eaten on the first day, and the second day. And any not eaten was then to be burned. On the third day, if there were any left, it was a blasphemy against God who had given the meal in the first place. Because apparently, you care more about saving leftovers than the Lord. Therefore when we hear the king say to the guests a second time in our text, “See, I have prepared my tdinner, umy oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.”  Time is short. The clock’s ticking. Only two days remain.

But they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. And the first day ends with the king sending out his troops to avenge the deaths of his servants. The first day ends with no one at the holy feast.

Do we realize just what our sin does? Or do we tend to think of our sin as no big deal? Nobody’s perfect, right? We’ve all been there. You’re doing the best that you can. Don’t be so hard of yourself. Don’t sweat the small stuff. It’ll all turn out okay in the end. All because your sin isn’t really that big a problem. Just a little forgiveness from Jesus, and it all gets swept under the rug and forgotten.

But that’s not the way sin works. Not even the small ones. Anytime we try to make our sin manageable, We’re telling God that we don’t need Jesus. We don’t need the death and resurrection of the Christ. We don’t need the forgiveness that won, nor Him giving that gift to us. We can handle it all on our own just fine. All by pretending that we’re actually good, worthy of eternal life on our own merits. When we pretend that our sin is manageable, we achieve a staggering arrogance. An arrogance that it is the same as ignoring the king’s time sensitive, once in a lifetime invitation in order to go do what we do every day. Or worse, to harm and destroy His messengers who come with the King’s message.

If that were the end of the parable, it would not be good news for us. Still true. Still showing just how bad our sin is. But then what? What hope would we have? However, in the parable, there is still one more day. The king sends the servants out once again. But this time, they are to invite everyone they meet, wherever they find them. And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests.

All whom they found, both bad and good. The original guests were not worthy, as the king says. But if we compare them to who actually arrives, they were the most worthy of all. For they had actually received the first invitation. Now the invitation has nothing to do with worthiness. Because “no one is righteous, no not one. No one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” (Ps. 53:1-3) And yet, the feast must be eaten.

We could compare this to the promise coming through the Jewish people, but now it goes out to everyone. That’s certainly how the Pharisees in that day took it, which they did not like one bit. But I think we do better to apply it to ourselves. If we’re to be worthy, to be righteous on our own, then we will never be at the wedding feast of the Lamb in His kingdom that has no end. But the invitation is not reserved for the worthy. The invitation and command to enter comes instead to all.

In this way, sin does still hold all its seriousness. But that is not what determines entrance. Rather it is the king’s generosity, the king’s sacrifice that invites. And make no mistake, it is a sacrifice by the king in the parable to invite all. After all, this is a holy feast. A thank offering. And it both needs eaten, and eaten by those who are ritually clean. But when both are impossible, the king chooses one. And it is the choice of compassion. The choice of generosity. The choice of gift. The king sacrifices his own righteousness for the sake of His new guests.

Which is what Jesus does. He sacrifices His own holiness. Sacrifices His own perfection. Sacrifices His own kingship. All to save you. All to pay for your sins. Even the ones that you think shouldn’t be that big a deal. Because that’s the price your every sin demands. And it’s a price you can’t pay, not even for a single one. But Jesus has indeed paid it on your behalf. And that payment for your sin happened at the cross, nearly two thousand years ago. And that payment comes to you personally when you were clothed in the baptism that He gave you.

That’s in today’s parable too. Every guest was dressed in wedding clothes. They didn’t dress themselves. They were dressed when they entered the feast. Dressed by the king’s gift. But not everyone who was invited to the feast wore the clothes. There was one who refused. One who thought that he was just fine the way he was. That his sin didn’t need to be covered. That he did not need to be washed by Christ’s baptism. It’s a different description of the same problem. True, this one was willing to go to the feast, unlike the first invited guests. But only if he was worthy all on his own. And in that self-justification, in that rejection of the forgiveness that Christ gives, the man was thrown out.

Likewise, it doesn’t matter if you’re outside a congregation, or in one: if you think that your sin is any different than everyone else’s.  Only by the forgiveness of sins does one have a place in the kingdom of heaven. And that forgiveness is given out without cost. Without your work. Without your worthiness. It comes solely from Christ Jesus. He has invited you to the feast. He has dressed you in the wedding garments of your baptism. He has sacrificed His own body and blood for you to eat and drink for the forgiveness of sins. And it is still today.

As is written in the epistle to the Hebrews, “Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, again he appoints a certain day, “Today,” saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.””

Invited by God the King, and coming in faith, you eat His body given for you at the cross. Drink His blood, shed for your forgiveness. Your sin has been paid for. Your debt is covered. And so we enter to celebrate the wedding feast of the Lamb in His Kingdom, which has no end. Amen.

Feast of the Holy Trinity (Matthew 28:16-20)

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It is impossible to fully comprehend the mystery of the Trinity.  It isn’t a math problem to be solved—three in one and one in three, or a puzzle to be unlocked.  It’s an article of faith—something we believe because that’s what God has told us in His Word.

In the first several centuries of the Church, many false and dangerous confusions arose about one God in three Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  There was the Patripassian controversy associated with a priest named Sabellius in the 200’s.  He confused the suffering of the Son with that of the Father.  Then, there were the Arians who said the Son was a creature and not true God from eternity, Eutychus who said Jesus Christ wasn’t simultaneously God and Man but some blend, and Nestorius who went the opposite way and said you couldn’t say that God was born and died, but only Christ did those things.  And not to be left out, the Pneumatomachians contended that the Holy Spirit was of lesser rank, perhaps an angel or an impersonal energy.[1]

Confusions like these were the occasion for the Athanasian Creed, named after the 4th century champion for the Trinity, Athanasius.  While these debates rage among theologians and philosophers, if you’re not skilled in that, you might wonder why it all matters to lay people?

God is Almighty and unknowable. His judgments are beyond our ability to fathom.  Solomon confesses, “Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27)  So, how can we claim to know God, understand His will, or be sure that we are worshipping Him in a fitting manner?  If this point gets pushed too far, we could find ourselves in serious, existential doubt about our faith.

But the reason we know God isn’t false confidence or ignorant bravado.  God reveals Himself to us.  The Holy, Triune God wants to be known by His creatures, who are made in His image. So, He reveals Himself to us in weakness—in words, in water, in the flesh, in bread and wine.

In the age of information, our lives are filled with words.  Sometimes we become overwhelmed with the volume or a perceived irrelevance of what people are saying.  But has always used words to relate to His creatures—“by the word of the Lord the heavens were made,” (Ps. 33:6) the first words He spoke to Adam in the garden, “Your Word is a lamp to my feet and light to my path” (Ps. 119:105), “As the rain and snow come down form heaven…making it bring forth and sprout…so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty” (Isa. 55:10), “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we have seen His glory” (John 1:14).  Human words only carry so much power—the power other people give them.  But God’s Word, received those who have ears to hear, accomplishes faith, forgives sins, heals broken spirits, casts out demons, and on the last day will even raise the dead (John 5:28-29).

God also attaches His Word to otherwise ordinary, humble things.

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

The teaching of His disciples, the word of forgiveness they speak are not their own, but God’s.  The water of Baptism goes through the same treatment plant and pipes as the water with which you drink and take a shower, but when it is combined with God’s Word, according to His command here, it is a life-giving water, rich in grace and a washing of new birth in the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5-8, Small Catechism).  In the same way, there are countless types of bread, some quite exotic and delicious.  There are many kinds of wine with flavors so subtle only connoisseurs can appreciate them.  But only the bread and wine set apart by the Lord’s Word, according to His institution, has the promise, “This is my Body given for you; This is my blood shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.”

At the same time, these gifts which we call Sacraments are not meant to take on a life of their own.  We do not baptize because we believe it to be a magic formula that makes us bulletproof from harm, or free to live a godless life.  We do not confess our sins to the pastor so that we can get a clean slate to go out and sin some more.  And the Lord’s Supper is not a ritual to make us feel more pious. Neither are the elements themselves the focus, but Christ Himself and the forgiveness of our sins.

While the Athanasian Creed makes it very clear how careful you have to be with the doctrine of the Trinity, what this actually looks like is when people despise the way God comes into our life, and neglect those very plain ways the Infinite God wants to dwell with us finite creatures.

In the blindness of sin, we neglect these simple means, not simply by ignoring them but by making other things more of a priority.  When we think we’re wise and spiritual, we only sense God’s presence when we have an emotionally-moving experience.  The music has to be just so, the congregation has to show signs of having the Holy Spirit, and the pastor has to be dynamic and relevant.  But Almighty God does not promise, “Behold, I am with you always to the end of the age, except when you’re bored by the liturgy and think you’ll lose your kids if there isn’t an exciting youth program.”

No, He says He is with us always in very concrete ways that are so simple a child can understand and accept them.  Therefore Jesus says, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. 15 Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”  With simple trust in what our Father has said, we find that in these simple means, the fulness of deity is pleased to dwell.  That is what Christ our Lord commands before ascending back into heaven: That believing this, we follow His instructions and don’t think ourselves wiser than Him—make disciples of all nations by baptizing them in the Name of the Triune God, and teaching them His Word continually.  It is in these that He promises to be with us always to the Day of His return.

In them—the Words, the water, the absolution, the bread and wine—God lays out His heart for you.  In them is His power to loose you from sin and hell and open eternal life.  With these, He adopts you and your children as sons, and gives the perseverance you need for every trial, temptation, disappointment, and sorrow of this world.

All who despise His Word reject the true and Holy God.  But all who hold fast in faith will be blessed for ages to come. God keep you all in the promise and power of His gifts! Amen.


[1] For more information, see Leo Donald Davis, “The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787)”

Matins Devotion for June 7

Sunday after Ascension (Psalm 68:1–10)

We long for the end, for God to display His victory over His enemies. The Psalm we spoke earlier brings to mind pictures of God triumphantly establishing His Kingdom, driving out the Devil more and more, and bringing the righteous to shine and become stronger each day.

  God shall arise, his enemies shall be scattered;
and those who hate him shall flee before him!

 As smoke is driven away, so you shall drive them away;
as wax melts before fire,
so the wicked shall perish before God!

But the righteous shall be glad;
they shall exult before God;
they shall be jubilant with joy!

But what we experience right now is more like what Peter describes: 12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.”…insult…suffering…being humbled and anxious.

It’s not what we want, but what we find is weakness.  So what does that say about Christ’s triumph and His ascension?  What now, while Jesus has left the world, and we are still in the world?  It means that though we wish God would display more of His victory, show more of His triumph in His saints, what we see now is not what will be.

In the Epistle on Ascension Day, St. Paul prayed that the “Father of Glory may give you the Spirit of wisdom…having the eyes of your hearts enlightened.” (Eph 1:17-18)  What do the eyes in our head tell us right now?  The country’s in a terrible position and sliding downhill, people are scared to be around each other, there’s anger, disappointment, and fear about what’s being billed as a “new normal” all over one virus.  There’s a tug of war between churches and governments, with people picking sides and congregation members torn between a concern for safety and their desire to come together again, grateful for worship over distance but realizing it’s a thin substitute.  Pastors trying their best to minister to whole congregations of shut-ins, but finding that there aren’t enough hours in the day to give them the care he wants.

But what do the eyes of our enlightened hearts see?  St. Peter brings it into focus through the cross of Christ:

12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.

This is not a “new normal”; it’s the way it always has been and will be until the Last.  The trials and sufferings only take on different outward forms, but they are always with us.  These are not strange disasters that beckon us to throw everything we’ve learned aside and react to this latest shock.  But, that’s the way our natural eyes see trials, and we want to rid ourselves of the discomfort as quickly as possible.

The eyes of faith, on the other hand, see that Jesus never really left His Church when He ascended into heaven.  He shares in our sufferings, and we share in His.  He is no stranger to our suffering, and we are most certainly heirs of His resurrection.  In this world of pain and weakness is God Himself is caring for us:

I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them. 11 And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.

Our comfort is that Jesus prays for us.  And when He prays, it happens.  Just as when all things were made through Him, when He speaks, it comes to pass.  When we look naturally at how things are, we see impossibilities, failures, and no way through.  That’s humanly speaking—and where there might be a lot we can do—that’s not the heart of belonging to Jesus.  Jesus is glorified in His people, even as we are in the world.  God does not promise to keep us from trouble and pain, but to keep us in His Name; to keep us in the bedrock gifts of our Baptism.

So while being in His Name doesn’t mean the overt victory we wish it would sometimes, no matter what may pass, we have the sure power of God our Savior upon which to rest.  Rejoice in trials, blessing in insult, glory in suffering for Christ—this is what life with the Name of God looks like.  This is what your life is regardless of what’s happening in the world this moment, because inheritance God gives you with His Name is eternal.

We face the fiery trials with a God-given peace, and remember the instructions of Peter:

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. 10 And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. 11 To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.

The Ascension of Our Lord (Luke 24:44-53; Acts 1:1-11)

In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.

Times of uncertainty, fear, and disappointment leave us grasping for something sure.  Dr. Bruce Hartung highlighted this at a pastor’s meeting on Tuesday where he was addressing the effects of the pandemic on mental health.  These kinds of situations leave people vulnerable to clinging to any confident sounding voice, or anyone who has a radical interpretation to offer.

That’s because as human beings we need something sure and certain.  We’re not able to sustain in a constant state of flux, not knowing what to expect the next day.  So if someone comes along saying they’ve got it all figured out, that’s what we want (and in a way, need) to hear.

The Ascension of Jesus was a turning point in the life of the fledgling Church.  He had spoken about it many times in His upper room discourse. He said, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live” (John 14:18-19) And, “A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me.” (John 16:16) And finally praying to His Father, “And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name…now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves.” (John 17:11, 13)  Now here it was, 40 days after His resurrection and time for Him to depart from their sight.

How would His followers know what to expect in the future?  With such a fundamental change in their discipleship, how would Jesus continue His work among them and in the world?  It would be by a sure and certain word from the One to whom “all authority in heaven and on earth” had been given (Matt. 28:18).  So, He says,

“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things.”

Everything that has happened thus far has been God’s eternal purpose, right down into the grave in which Christ laid, and from which God had raised Him.  Now going forward, the Scripture with the preaching of His death and resurrection will bring forth the repentance and forgiveness of sins to its hearers.  Yes, His Ascension means “a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9), but it did not leave them alone and without confidence.  His words which He spoke to them would continue His ministry, not only for those who stood on the Mount of Olives that day, but for generations to come.

That’s what’s in mind as Luke begins the Acts of the Apostles,

In the first book [the Gospel of Luke], O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. (Acts 1:1-3)

Jesus gave many proofs of His resurrection, and continued to teach His disciples, and that witness was to be recorded and handed down, from the Apostles and Evangelists, so that we would have an authoritative Word in ever more uncertain times.  It’s no wonder that the Church has suffered false teachers through the centuries, who came claiming to have some special certainty previously unknown.  But what has rescued the Lord’s flock from these wolves has always been the Scriptures.

It is that foundation that we still have in these days where our grasp on stability ebbs and flows.  One of the lessons of this time is how fragile our lives and livelihoods are, yet even with that stark reminder, our Lord has given us something more sure.  Think about where Jesus has been in this worldwide disaster?  He is very present even if unseen, strengthening His disciples with His Word, using these circumstances to awaken the call for repentance, and continuing the forgive all of our sins—the ones which come ordinarily and the ones which flare up under pressure.  His word of “Peace be with you” continues to sound in our ears throughout the Church this day.  He is with us in that word of the absolution, and in His Body and Blood given and shed for you.

Unseen for now, Christ sits at God’s right hand, ruling over this creation and all that happens in it.  He has the power to keep us through whatever comes in the future, because He has built a foundation for our life that nothing in this creation can overturn.  But most of all, He is ruling there from God’s right hand for His people.  He is present with us to forgive our sins, help us bear the cross, and navigate through the future to bring us to share in the Kingdom prepared for us from the foundation of the world.  Christ, the Almighty, ascended Lord guard you always!

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

Sixth Sunday of Easter (Acts 17:16-31)

In the Name of Jesus. Amen.

Paul had entered a context in Athens that was not entirely foreign to us today.  It was a very diverse city, with metropolitan people of diverse opinions and philosophies.  Athens had a reputation as being the seat of many great thinkers: Socrates and Antisthenes, Plato and Epicurus.  These were their hometown philosophic heroes, but that didn’t necessarily mean they were adverse to debating other views.  As Luke comments, “All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.”

Now, even the message which Paul brought was not entirely outlandish.  For the past 500 years, the cult of Dionysus had been a regular part of society.  According to legend, Dionysus, the god of wine and madness, crops and fertility, was killed by the Titans who ate all but his heart.  Athena took the heart back to Zeus, who gave it to his lover Semele.  She ate it and gave birth again to Dionysus.  So, death and resurrection was not the strange part of Paul’s message.  There was something else about it—that there was only one true God and that His Son had been born, executed by people who were still living, and that He had risen from the dead.

Gods who had origins of long ago, who lived atop high mountains they could handle.  Those gods had influence over their lives, and any who chose could appeal by sacrifice to the god whose help was needed.  Hera for family, Poseidon for sea and storm, Demeter for the earth, Athena for wisdom, and so on.  Some of the great philosophers like Socrates had challenged the gods of Athens and paid dearly for impiety. But for the most part you could live peacefully whether you devoted yourself to the gods or not.

The divinity which Paul was preaching about didn’t fit into Athenian way of life.  Not that he was preaching about living as a hermit in a clay pot on the street (Diogenes, a cynic philosopher), but One who to know would change a person’s outlook on every facet of life.  One who exposed the darkness of idol worship, the degrading reality of debauchery, the God who justly consigned all to disobedience that He might have mercy on all. 

But Paul preached to them from within their understanding of the world.  He complimented their devotion to deities, the virtues they praised, and their quest for a good life.  Someone, likely not officially sanctioned, had set up an altar, “To the unknown god”—the “Agnosis god,” the god of which we do not know.  What they sought from this unknown god can’t be clear, but it was in this opening that Paul explained of Whom he was speaking.

He corrected their errors, commended them for the glances of truth they had, and then preached the call for personal devotion of every person.  The true God made heaven and earth, and is not limited to temples, statues, or objects that fell from the sky.  They served their deities with offerings which brings the god down to a human level. Instead, it is God who not only created all, but gives life and breath to us.

They still had a glimpse of what their Creator was like, but learning more fully what He is like, they ought not to continue in ignorant (agnostic) ways.  The hour has come for all people to acknowledge not gods of their own imagination, but their Creator who lovingly gave them life and still preserves it, who out of sheer grace gave the sacrifice which answers for the sins of all, and who is coming again to judge on the basis of the righteousness of faith.

It was not Paul’s eloquent speech upon the Areopagus which reached their hearts.  It was God doing it with His Word.  Just as Jesus the Lord had promised, Paul preached repentance unto forgiveness of sins—and some believed (v. 34). This is a wonderful example of the witness a Christian makes in the company of those who are grasping in darkness.

We believe in God who raised Jesus from the dead, and who gives life to our mortal bodies. No matter what cancer or a virus might do to them, God will raise us with Christ at the last.  This fills us with hope because no matter what calamity happens to us now, we have eternal life and resurrection guaranteed by God.

We believe in the forgiveness of Christ upon the cross, given for the whole world.  Outside of Christ all people can see is cries for justice and revenge.  We hold grudges, and try to let go of them for pragmatic reasons, it’s only in the blood of Jesus that there is peace and forgiveness.  Covered with the blood of Christ, we pray for those who abuse us (Luke 6:28).

We love our neighbors not just for “the good feels” it gives or because we’ve been threatened into performing well, but because we have been born anew and are being restored in the image of our Creator. This same Creator is the one who loves even His enemies and seeks their good to the end.

We have joy and perseverance whether the country is wealthy or poor because we have a Father in heaven who cares for us.  For so many happiness depends solely on whether they can keep their standard of living comfortable, or have enough sedatives on hand to numb the pain.  But we “know how to be brought low, and how to abound. In any and every circumstance, [we] have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:12-13)

The future does not terrify us, because we await from heaven our Savior who said that these very things would happen.  While the rest of the world may be crippled with fear over pestilence, weather patterns, famine, and so forth. we continue steadfast because it means our Lord’s return grows close.  We know that the One who commanded wind and waves to still, demons and death to depart, will give command to the angels and gather us in and remove every cause of sin and all lawless people (Matt. 13:41).

Our faith which we’ve received from God, delivered in the Scriptures, changes the way Christians live in the world. It transforms the way we think, for with the Holy Spirit, we are “transformed by the renewal of [our] minds” (Rom. 12:2).

As Christians in a pandemic, God has put us in a critical place to witness.  We can see the idols of our age—science and medicine, and the almighty dollar and we know their weakness.  It is a human weakness which is fallible and can only save so far.

Of course, we can commend the good things of our country—charity, dedication, honor, self-sacrifice.  But as servants of God, we know that all those virtues which do our country so much good come from the true God.  Former times He has overlooked our ignorance, but if we hear this call to repentance and this eternal gospel and cling to our idols, it would be better for Sodom and Gomorrah than for us.  With all confidence, we can confess that God  has appointed a day when He will judge each person—not as people judge each other with outward worth—but how they received this Word of life.

And like Paul standing in that pagan forum, God’s Word will go out and accomplish that for which He sends it.  This same Word has the power to overcome unbelief and quell rebellion.  As Paul later wrote to Corinthian believers, “The weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.” (2 Cor. 10:4-5) 

Our calling is merely to live out our faith in the grace He gives, and pray for those opportunities where our life will be a witness of the hope that is within us.  May God grant that hope to be theirs too.

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

Fifth Sunday of Easter (John 14:1-14)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

 Jesus says, “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out…they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers” (vv. 1-5).

            Let’s test that out.  I’m going to read an excerpt from a sermon, and you tell me if it is the voice of the Shepherd, or of a stranger.  Here goes:

That’s the way it is with God. What we can accomplish on our own is hardly noteworthy. We try our best, but the results aren’t exactly graceful flowing music. However, with the hand of the Master, our life’s work truly can be beautiful…

Next time you set out to accomplish great feats, or small feats, listen carefully. You can hear the voice of the Master—the voice of our Mother/Father God—and feel God’s loving arms around you.  Know and trust that those strong hands are there helping you, helping us all, to turn our feeble attempts into true masterpieces. [1]

Was that the voice of the Shepherd?  I hope not! Unless you were baptized in the name of the some androgynous god.  The Good Shepherd does not call Himself a conductor, tuning and polishing what is beautiful in us.  The true Shepherd does not direct you to your best efforts, because even your best efforts are sin in the sight of God [Isa. 64:6]. This impostor preaches a so-called gospel of ‘you’re good enough and God accepts you as you are.’  She does not enter through the Door, which is Christ.  Instead, she speaks platitudes about a god (whatever “he” or “she” is), rather than giving Christ’s sheep what they need: the healing that comes only by His wounds [1 Peter 2:24].

Here’s another one, and this is going to be harder:

The Gospel that proclaims that we are, like it or not, let off scot-free… You’re washed. You’re forgiven. You’re free. No law condemns you. No celestial finger is wagging at you. You walk in the liberation of the Spirit, Who lives in you, is active in you, and works relentlessly to mute the voices of guilt that still growl inside you…

The Good News has nothing to do with us, but everything of the Gospel is given to us. We are like beggars on the street corner. Jesus pulls us and drops a million dollars in our outstretched hands. Just like that. Not because we’re excellent panhandlers but because he’s got the money and wants to give it away to those who would never have it otherwise.

All we have is His love. And that’s all we need. Because His love is who He is. When we have Him, we have everything.[2]

            This one is harder because it’s gushing with all the right-sounding stuff.  But unlike the first example, a not a matter of using the right words.  It’s in the application of the Gospel.  What this message says is that you should just mute the guilt that nags in the back of your head.  Write it off as the devil.  Why? Because you have been forgiven.  But it’s in that subtly that our weak and wicked flesh wants to plug its ears to the Law’s accusations, even when it’s right.  This is the creeping error of antinomianism, of the Gospel replacing the Law for a Christian. Where it gains the most traction is among Christians who have a checkered past, and whose on-going weakness—thorns in the flesh [2 Cor. 12:7]—haunt them.  They earnestly want to lead a godly life, but they keep finding nothing but sin and death in the mirror.  The answer, though, is not to silence the accusation of the Law, but to confess that God is right [Ps. 51:4] and seek the Lord’s forgiveness and the Spirit’s continued work in confession and absolution and the Body and Blood of Christ.

As children, we learn to be afraid of strangers, because we don’t know their intentions for us.  This is a good warning, because there are many strangers in this world who mean us harm.  False shepherds are no exception.  What they preach is not the voice of the Good Shepherd.  Instead, they speak in the voice of that ancient serpent, the Devil.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber.”

Our Lord calls them thieves and robbers.  Thieves, because they come craftily, sometimes doing such a good job that it fools the sheep.  It’s easy to spot messages of empty platitudes, but Gospely-messages that are laced with cyanide are harder to spot. The thief, like the Devil, quotes Scripture, but through a theological funhouse mirror so that the original intent or full meaning is corrupted.  By a sham gospel, you are led to trust in a different shepherd—one who minimizes the seriousness of sin, or praises you for how much you “do for the Lord,” or who focuses you on how spotless your life is.  But all the time, he steals confidence in Christ’s work from you and replaces it with doubt in your own.  The more that Satan can turn your focus away from the cross of Christ, the better he has set you on the road to hell with him.

There are also the robbers, who like Barabbas [John 18:40], are brazen in stealing sheep away from the Lord.  The robbers work within the bounds of the Church on earth.  Here you find open attempts to undermine the trustworthiness of God’s Word, and being told that we all worship the same “god.”  Here it’s easier for the well-catechized sheep to spot something destructive going on, but the weak are tossed to and fro by these suggestions.

Any teacher who comes to you apart from Jesus can do nothing but thieve and rob.  Recognizing them isn’t a matter of choosing the right name.  Sometimes those who turn out to be thieves have the very best of intentions, be well-educated, and loving people.  They may have even been faithful shepherds in the past.  “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.” (Ps. 146:3)  Put your trust your Good Shepherd and hearing His voice.  Even St. Paul put himself under this same strict judgment: “even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” (Gal. 1:8)  The message for the flock is to endeavor to hear only His voice through regular meditation and study of His Word and faithful witnesses to it throughout the centuries.  This is how we can be certain of hearing the voice of our Shepherd, and being cared for by Him.

Why is this important?  Because Satan cannot offer what the Good Shepherd gives.  Thanks be to the true God that He has sent us His Son, because in Him, we are not stolen away, killed, and destroyed.  To us, who have been smothered by evil and death, we bask in what our Good Shepherd gives His sheep:

“The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out… Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep… If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture…I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

It is true, we can be confident of hearing our Shepherd’s voice, because He has called His Church with His voice.  He seeks us out, gathers us into His fold.  His rod defends us against our enemies and His staff guides us through this treacherous world.  And He will lead us out, calling us by name as He gave us His own in the waters of Baptism.  He is with us in the valley of the shadow of death, all the days of our life.  And in Him we have life that abounds beyond present sin and death, endures forever.

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


[1] http://www.newcastleucc.org/Sermons/20110213ReceiveTheSpirit-Womens%20Sunday-SusieCraig.pdf

[2] “Gospel Phobia” by Chad Bird. https://www.1517.org/articles/gospel-phobia (accessed 5/2/20)

Fourth Sunday of Easter (John 10:1-10)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

 Jesus says, “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out…they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers” (vv. 1-5).

            Let’s test that out.  I’m going to read an excerpt from a sermon, and you tell me if it is the voice of the Shepherd, or of a stranger.  Here goes:

That’s the way it is with God. What we can accomplish on our own is hardly noteworthy. We try our best, but the results aren’t exactly graceful flowing music. However, with the hand of the Master, our life’s work truly can be beautiful…

Next time you set out to accomplish great feats, or small feats, listen carefully. You can hear the voice of the Master—the voice of our Mother/Father God—and feel God’s loving arms around you.  Know and trust that those strong hands are there helping you, helping us all, to turn our feeble attempts into true masterpieces. [1]

Was that the voice of the Shepherd?  I hope not! Unless you were baptized in the name of the some androgynous god.  The Good Shepherd does not call Himself a conductor, tuning and polishing what is beautiful in us.  The true Shepherd does not direct you to your best efforts, because even your best efforts are sin in the sight of God [Isa. 64:6]. This impostor preaches a so-called gospel of ‘you’re good enough and God accepts you as you are.’  She does not enter through the Door, which is Christ.  Instead, she speaks platitudes about a god (whatever “he” or “she” is), rather than giving Christ’s sheep what they need: the healing that comes only by His wounds [1 Peter 2:24].

Here’s another one, and this is going to be harder:

The Gospel that proclaims that we are, like it or not, let off scot-free… You’re washed. You’re forgiven. You’re free. No law condemns you. No celestial finger is wagging at you. You walk in the liberation of the Spirit, Who lives in you, is active in you, and works relentlessly to mute the voices of guilt that still growl inside you…

The Good News has nothing to do with us, but everything of the Gospel is given to us. We are like beggars on the street corner. Jesus pulls us and drops a million dollars in our outstretched hands. Just like that. Not because we’re excellent panhandlers but because he’s got the money and wants to give it away to those who would never have it otherwise.

All we have is His love. And that’s all we need. Because His love is who He is. When we have Him, we have everything.[2]

            This one is harder because it’s gushing with all the right-sounding stuff.  But unlike the first example, a not a matter of using the right words.  It’s in the application of the Gospel.  What this message says is that you should just mute the guilt that nags in the back of your head.  Write it off as the devil.  Why? Because you have been forgiven.  But it’s in that subtly that our weak and wicked flesh wants to plug its ears to the Law’s accusations, even when it’s right.  This is the creeping error of antinomianism, of the Gospel replacing the Law for a Christian. Where it gains the most traction is among Christians who have a checkered past, and whose on-going weakness—thorns in the flesh [2 Cor. 12:7]—haunt them.  They earnestly want to lead a godly life, but they keep finding nothing but sin and death in the mirror.  The answer, though, is not to silence the accusation of the Law, but to confess that God is right [Ps. 51:4] and seek the Lord’s forgiveness and the Spirit’s continued work in confession and absolution and the Body and Blood of Christ.

As children, we learn to be afraid of strangers, because we don’t know their intentions for us.  This is a good warning, because there are many strangers in this world who mean us harm.  False shepherds are no exception.  What they preach is not the voice of the Good Shepherd.  Instead, they speak in the voice of that ancient serpent, the Devil.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber.”

Our Lord calls them thieves and robbers.  Thieves, because they come craftily, sometimes doing such a good job that it fools the sheep.  It’s easy to spot messages of empty platitudes, but Gospely-messages that are laced with cyanide are harder to spot. The thief, like the Devil, quotes Scripture, but through a theological funhouse mirror so that the original intent or full meaning is corrupted.  By a sham gospel, you are led to trust in a different shepherd—one who minimizes the seriousness of sin, or praises you for how much you “do for the Lord,” or who focuses you on how spotless your life is.  But all the time, he steals confidence in Christ’s work from you and replaces it with doubt in your own.  The more that Satan can turn your focus away from the cross of Christ, the better he has set you on the road to hell with him.

There are also the robbers, who like Barabbas [John 18:40], are brazen in stealing sheep away from the Lord.  The robbers work within the bounds of the Church on earth.  Here you find open attempts to undermine the trustworthiness of God’s Word, and being told that we all worship the same “god.”  Here it’s easier for the well-catechized sheep to spot something destructive going on, but the weak are tossed to and fro by these suggestions.

Any teacher who comes to you apart from Jesus can do nothing but thieve and rob.  Recognizing them isn’t a matter of choosing the right name.  Sometimes those who turn out to be thieves have the very best of intentions, be well-educated, and loving people.  They may have even been faithful shepherds in the past.  “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.” (Ps. 146:3)  Put your trust your Good Shepherd and hearing His voice.  Even St. Paul put himself under this same strict judgment: “even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” (Gal. 1:8)  The message for the flock is to endeavor to hear only His voice through regular meditation and study of His Word and faithful witnesses to it throughout the centuries.  This is how we can be certain of hearing the voice of our Shepherd, and being cared for by Him.

Why is this important?  Because Satan cannot offer what the Good Shepherd gives.  Thanks be to the true God that He has sent us His Son, because in Him, we are not stolen away, killed, and destroyed.  To us, who have been smothered by evil and death, we bask in what our Good Shepherd gives His sheep:

“The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out… Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep… If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture…I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

It is true, we can be confident of hearing our Shepherd’s voice, because He has called His Church with His voice.  He seeks us out, gathers us into His fold.  His rod defends us against our enemies and His staff guides us through this treacherous world.  And He will lead us out, calling us by name as He gave us His own in the waters of Baptism.  He is with us in the valley of the shadow of death, all the days of our life.  And in Him we have life that abounds beyond present sin and death, endures forever.

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


[1] http://www.newcastleucc.org/Sermons/20110213ReceiveTheSpirit-Womens%20Sunday-SusieCraig.pdf

[2] “Gospel Phobia” by Chad Bird. https://www.1517.org/articles/gospel-phobia (accessed 5/2/20)

Third Sunday of Easter (Luke 24:13-35)

At the outset of the day, Jesus’ disciples were in sorrow and grief.  Their present circumstances were weighing them down, because in their estimation, “the chief priests and rulers delivered him up to death and crucified him.”  End of story.  The world had won, in spite of all that Jesus had said.  Their hopes were shattered, and they were burdened with uncertainty.

This stranger they had met was odd, because he had somehow missed all the goings on of the past four days.  But what of it?  It was just another moment to rehash the painful details.  Where were you when the Redeemer of Israel came to nothing?

To their uncertainty and affliction, this stranger brought clarity.  “‘Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”  Somehow, out of the terrible events, He brought direction and brought to light God’s sovereign plan.

That’s what worship and daily devotions are like for Christians right now.  Who can see through all the fear, the uncertainty about the future, what will see us through the months to come?  Definitely not the politicians, the news outlets, or even the CDC.  Like all of us, they’re human and they are grasping for answers and trying to judge what’s best to do.  But when we hear the Lord’s Word, then our heart burn within us.  Here, Lord, you enlighten us to know that this is not some strange thing, an out-of-control circumstance, a global disaster beyond Your mighty hand.

Here in the Scriptures we are reminded of all of God’s mighty deeds, from the moment He created heaven and earth, how all of it was once destroyed on account of wickedness, and how God was still able to safeguard His faithful in the ark.  In the Scriptures, we hear how the world’s Savior from sin and death was foretold, how through centuries of twists and turns even the cut-off stump of Jesse sprung forth in the womb of Mary and God’s saving work was carried out.  Still, even in these days that are darker and more grotesque than any period of history prior, it our Lord’s Word which gives us an unmovable truth upon which to stand: “Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21:25-28)

After this traveler had opened the Scriptures to them, it seemed that they were about to lose him, they impressed upon Him to stay longer: “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.”  Then at the proper time, it was revealed to them that this was no stranger, but the Lord Jesus Himself who abided with them.  “He was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”

Especially at a time like this, we want the Lord to abide with us, to give us something sure which cannot be taken away by the changes of this world.  Yet right now it seems that even the sanctuary of public worship has been trampled upon.  “I was glad when they said to me let us go to the house of the Lord!” (Ps. 122:1) but the governor told me not to, and the real threat of illness deters me.  If even corporate worship can be taken from us (for a short time, God willing), then what cannot?  These Scriptures are opened to us when Christ is preached, Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, Christ who destroyed the power of death and left an empty shadow, Christ who did overcome the world.

One thing many of us are longing for is the Lord’s Supper.  When everything has been forced into the virtual realm, we long for the Lord’s presence which we can see and touch, taste and smell.  And as your pastor, there’s nothing I’d rather do than be able to minister to you in the proper way, face to face.  What this longing for the Lord’s Supper has led to in some places is the practice of Communion in a person’s home via a live broadcast.  This has caused no small debate in the Missouri Synod over what constitutes the Sacrament of the Altar.  What are the requirements, the essential elements (bread, wine, word of Jesus, pastor) in order to know that a practice of the Lord’s Supper is efficacious or valid. 

You could derive a proof that the Christian Church is always scattered throughout the world—why not in individual homes, and why not even if the service is watched later.  You could argue that the Word of God is what makes this bread and this cup the Body and Blood of Christ for us to eat and drink (cf. 1 Cor. 10:16).  You could argue that the pastor is only a mouthpiece but the so-called real power is in the believer holding to the Words of Christ.

This could go on and on, and the most unsettling thing is the uncertainty.  You have to go through so many mental hoops that this verges on no longer being faith like a child.  The Emmaus disciples were not “with Jesus” virtually, or on the other side of a curtain (as in the temple).  In the simplest, most obvious sense of the word, they were together and He was revealed to them in the breaking of the bread—the Eucharist.

What this whole question recalls is something that sets Christians of the Lutheran Reformation apart from others.  How do you explain the presence of Christ in His Supper?  Using philosophy, the Roman church had developed the theory of transubstantiation, that upon the Words of Institution being spoken, the substance of the bread and wine ceased to be, and they became the Body and Blood of Christ, and happened to still look and taste like the bread and wine (accidens).  Those of the Reformed movement were convinced that the finite could not contain the infinite (a philosophical tenant), therefore the bread and wine only symbolized an absent Christ, or transported the true believer by the Holy Spirit to feast on Christ in heaven.

Out of the Reformation, only the Lutherans clung to the simple Word of Christ without any philosophical gymnastics: “Take; eat. This is My Body, given for you…Take; drink. This is my Blood shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”  “Whoever believes these words has exactly what they say: ‘forgiveness of sins.’  But whoever does not believe these words or doubts them is unworthy and unprepared, for the words ‘for you’ require all hearts to believe.” (Small Catechism, VI, questions 4 & 5)

Of course, these are unusual times, and very few Lutherans can remember a time in their lives when the practice of the Lord’s Supper was affected by events in the world (even during Prohibition, Lutheran churches were granted exceptions to use sacramental wine).  But it is not safe for the present circumstance in the world to make us modify our theology.

It’s good for Christians to highly prize the comfort of forgiveness and strength in the Lord’s Supper.  In many sister congregations, they have continued to gather in the simplest explanation of the word using workarounds (small, spaced groups; through the car window), respectful of the health directives.  We do this because we honor the commands of our Lord—to do this in remembrance of Him as often as we can, and also to honor and obey our rulers, and not hurt our neighbor by spreading disease.  I’m not opposed to gathering in small groups, but I would also like as much of the Body of Christ—young and old, healthy and infirm—here at Bethlehem to be able to be present together, which is why we elected for the parking lot method.

The Sacraments are something that require certainty.  In Baptism, we return daily to the promise that we and all our sins have been crucified with Christ and He raises us to newness of life (Gal. 2:20, Rom. 6:4).  In Absolution, we need to know when our sins trouble us that the forgiveness Christ’s servant speaks is not just a man talking, but the voice of the Lord Himself.  So also, in His Supper, the Lord earnestly desires to eat this Passover of the New Testament, this meal in which He is made known to us in the “breaking of the bread.” Because of this, we can have confidence that we receive His blessings of forgiveness, life, and salvation.

Continue to cling to God’s Word.  It is the lamp He gives to our feet to lead us through every perplexing time.  When this season ends, we earnestly look forward to gathering again.  May the Lord cause your heart to burn with a confidence and comfort that He will care for and support you as His child through this present, passing distress.  Amen.