Third to Last Sunday of the Church Year (Exodus 32:1-20)

Lucas Cranach - The Law and the Gospel

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Third to Last Sunday of the Church Year (Trinity 25) + November 10, 2018

Text: Exodus 32:1-20

The congregation got impatient when Moses was gone for 40 days and nights.  We are coming on 2000 years since our Lord’s ascension. It doesn’t take long to find some of the foolish things people have done hoping for or trying to hasten the Lord’s return.  

We’re more impatient than we’ve ever been as a race.  Two or one-day shipping, broadband Internet, text messaging, Skype calls to the International Space Station—it’s amazing what can be done and how small it’s made the world.  But the side effect is that we get impatient even waiting at a 40-second-long traffic light or balk when our first-world comforts are out-of-stock.

But this isn’t a new problem.  Impatience is borne in the heart, and it was just as much a problem for people thousands of years ago.  The lesson is the Lord says, “Wait on Me” and we do stupid stuff thinking we can help God along. We get impatient and want our own solutions to help the time pass.  In that delusion, it’s easy enough to sweep God’s will under the rug and turn “the Bible says” into a stamp of approval on whatever we want to do.

The people pressured Aaron into doing something which made them feel better about the wait.  Make us gods like the rest of the nations. Come on, Aaron, that’s what will let people know we’re really the chosen people of Abraham.  And the people we all behind this plan, so much so that they let go of the wealth which hung around their necks and on their ears (which God had given them as a gift in Egypt) and poured money into this project.

There’s much to learn from the parallels between this story of Moses going up the mountain and leaving Aaron to lead the people.  Several times, the Lord compares the Kingdom of God to a man going away and returning after a long time. He leaves stewards in charge who are to keep things running.

I mentioned earlier that it’s been far more than 40 days, nearly 2,000 years actually.  But where the Spirit is willing, the flesh is weak. When our Lord gives us the account of Moses on Sinai and tells us parables about a long journey, He’s helping us to understand our own place as the people of God.

Forty days after His resurrection (hey, there’s a significant number), Jesus ascended—not just a mountain—but into heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.  Before He left, He gave instructions, appointed stewards of the mysteries, and promised, “Lo! I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:20)

It is our place, as the children of God on earth, to live by faith in and through faith in His Word.  There’s a distinction: 

  • We live by faith in His Word, meaning we hold to it and trust it as the living Word of God which He inspired to be written for our learning (2 Tim. 3:16).  Whenever the children of God add to or subtract from this Holy Word, they fall into grave errors. If we add to it and try to bolster it with talk of history, church councils, and precedent, we minimize the sufficiency of the Word alone to sustain the Church until Christ’s return.  If we take away from it, to gloss over the parts which offend people who are proud of their self-made religion, then we let people go merrily to perdition. We live by faith in His Word.
  • We also live through faith in His Word.  As cute as the acronym is, “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth,” the Bible is not like other instruction books, like assembling a chair from Ikea.  One of the ways sin has infected our hearts is with the idea that we can do something that can get us in good with God. We see God’s command to jump (so-to-speak) and we say, “How high?”  When in fact our legs are broken and our muscles have atrophied on account of sin. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength.” And after all that we can do, the judgment is still “By works of the law shall no human being be justified in His sight. For through the Law comes knowledge of sin.” (Rom. 3:20)  Instead, our life is given to us as complete gift.  “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Rom. 1:17) The reason we are able to sit here today having peace with God is because of the life of faith that continually comes from God.

And this is possible because Jesus far exceeds what Moses could ever do. 

Moses went up on the mountain and was no longer with the people.  As a man, he could only be in one place at a time, and God had called up to Sinai to receive the Law.  Jesus, on the other hand, ascends into heaven, and by personal union of God and Man, He can truly say that He is with us until His return (Eph. 4:9).  He is with us through His Word being spoken, through forgiveness being shared (“where two or three are gathered, there I am among them” Matt. 18:20), in His very Body and Blood given for us to eat and drink, and with His Spirit who comforts and preserves us.

Like Moses, our Lord appoints men to keep watch over His congregation.  It’s true they can err and fall. But that’s no reason to write off all clergy as if they were a manmade after-thought.  Think of it this way: The Lord has also preserved faithful preachers and members of His flock through the millennia. You don’t have to look anywhere further than where the pure Gospel is preached and the Sacraments are administered according to the Lord’s command.  Where you see that, you can be confident that you have found His chosen people.

There are times when His people make a mess of His Church on earth and profane His holy Name.  Sometimes we may wish that God would open the earth or strike down all false teachers. He doesn’t squelch Korah’s rebellion, or kill Uzzah for mishandling the holy things (Numbers 16, 2 Samuel 6:5-9).  Instead of destroying heretics, what He does is pray for them, that they turn from their error and save both themselves and whoever listens to them. And this is what we should to, because it could just as quickly be one of us who is deluded and has a corrupt view of the Word.

The day is coming when our Jesus will come down out of heaven.  He will not come down with tablets of stone that will be smashed in anger.  That’s because all the wrath against our disobedience has already been poured out on Calvary.  He—the Son of God Himself—was forsaken, not you or me (Matt. 27:46). He will come again to gather the faithful—those who waited for Him and live in and through His Word.  

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.

Ninth Sunday after Trinity (Luke 16:1-13)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Ninth Sunday after Trinity + August 18, 2019

Text: Luke 16:1-13

 “For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.”

They say, “where there’s a will, there’s a way.” This was the manager’s tactic: that through tipping the scales in favor of his master’s servants, he would have a fallback plan.  He used worldly goods to secure a worldly benefit.  We see this all the time—laying on the charm could get you a promotion faster than others, or having a carefully timed conversation that you can claim as a business expense.  The manager is called shrewd because he knows how to play his cards to meet his own priorities.

But as Jesus preaches about the Kingdom of God, He is talking not only about worldly things, but also eternal things—things that do not pass away or are stolen or destroyed.  In fact, the eternal inheritance He won for us didn’t hinge on money because we “were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:18-19)—something of far more value than any treasure or luxury found on earth.

What’s this that Jesus says next?

“And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.”

Living as people on earth requires the use of unrighteous wealth—money and possessions.  Living as the Church on earth requires the use of these because the Church is made up of people—people who live in houses, eat food, pay taxes, and meet together in buildings.  This fact should not surprise us as Christians, because it’s a fact of our daily life that every one of us deals with.

Yet, if Jesus says the sons of this world can use their money to obtain the worldly things they want, what stops the sons of light from using the very same unrighteous wealth to make friends and welcome them into the eternal dwellings?

Perhaps we as the people of God, don’t know what we want or need.  What is the mission of the Church after all?  What is the mission of this congregation?  Isn’t it to proclaim, study, and grow in God’s Word; to gather together for worship; to rejoice in Baptism, Absolution, and Lord’s Supper; and collectively to reflect the light of Christ and serve our neighbors?  We’re not here to be a landmark on Grant Street or a storehouse of people’s fond childhood memories.  If we are, that’s well and good, but that’s not at the heart of why this congregation exists.

Knowing this about who God has called us to be and what we’re to do in this specific place and time, that’s what the sons of light do—they aim their possessions at God’s ministry. God’s people of old knew this, too. The Lord says in Psalm 50, “Every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills…the world and its fullness are mine.” (vv. 10, 12b) And yet, God commanded the people to make offerings of those cattle because through them, He delivered forgiveness to His worshippers.  In this and other examples, the Lord teaches us what our offerings are for.  Of course, God personally doesn’t need our money (except while He dwelt on earth), but in God’s hands, temporal earthly stuff serves as a vessel for eternal riches.

So what are those vessels?  Let’s focus on the key ones:

The Lord’s Supper

26 Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ 27 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, 28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:26-28, p. 832)

The bread and wine of Holy Communion, which are the Body and Blood of Christ—are ordinary things which are bought from the store or made in-house.  But through these earthly elements, eternal treasure is bestowed.  This is illustrated by the practice of the Offering in the ancient church, where those in the congregation would bring the bread and wine up to the altar.  Justin Martyr (died AD 165), describes it this way:

Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the president of the brethren [presiding clergy] bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands…And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine…over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.”[1]

Baptizing and Teaching

“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.” (Matthew 28:18-20, p. 835)

With divine authority and the promise for His continued presence, the Lord sends out His Church to baptize and teach—water and Word.  We don’t think that much of clean water where we live, but God puts great blessings in it.  Teaching materials, too, are of this earth.  And any teacher knows how important it is to have materials and supplies to teach effectively—reference books, workbooks, curriculums, paper, whiteboards, and whatnot.  A projector can be used for your private Mario Kart party, or it can be used to edify in Bible study.  Using those material things, the lessons bestowed in Sunday school, adult Bible study, and catechism classes are everlasting.

Supporting the pastor

“For it is written in the Law of Moses, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.’ Is it for oxen that God is concerned? 10 Does he not certainly speak for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. 11 If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you?… 13 Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? 14 In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.” (1 Cor. 9:9-11, 13-14, p. 957)

It is the Church’s responsibility to provide for the man who devotes His life to laboring to keep watch over your souls, interceding for you, praying with you, administering the Sacraments, teaching and equipping you to follow Christ.  This is something the Church has done even since the time of Moses.  The offerings brought into the temple weren’t just for the building; they were to support the Priests and Levites, the temple workers, who had no inheritance among the tribes (Deut. 18:1-8).  It was the practice during our Lord’s earthly ministry as faithful women and sons of peace provided for Him and the Twelve (Luke 8:1-3, Luke 10:2-8). The Apostles lived and traveled by love offerings made by congregations (Phil. 4:17-19, 2 Cor. 11:7-9).  Through the centuries, the saints have continued to do this with practices like in-kind gifts, parsonages, or the use of a glebe (a portion of land given to the pastor or the proceeds from the crop given to support the priest).[2]

This is really nothing new, even though it’s taken different forms over the years.  So, today’s pastors receive a salary, book stipends, mileage reimbursement, health insurance, and retirement.  Yes, he receives a paycheck like anyone else, and the bank doesn’t know the difference.  Yes, he has need of health insurance just like anyone else does these days, and the doctor’s office doesn’t know the difference.  His retirement pension works the same as any other career worker, for when he no longer has the vigor for full-time service.

But this duty to the pastor is given in gratitude because through the pastor’s labors, you are receiving the Kingdom’s eternal treasures.  By providing a living for the pastor, you free him to be available to serve you when you are in need, to devote his days to prayer and meditation, study, and visits, as it says in Acts 6: “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute…But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:2-4)

Support for the wider church

I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness 14 your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. 15 As it is written, ‘Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack’…You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God…Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!” (2 Cor. 8:13-15, 9:11, 15, p. 968)

While it was a monetary gift, what St. Paul is describing something far more important and lasting.  Yes, the saints support each other in their temporal times of need.  But God is behind that action, filling the people with increased faith and thanksgiving to God who provides far more abundantly than we imagined possible.  This is what is happening when we send a portion of our offerings to support to seminary students, ministries like Bethesda, and district and Synod.

These are things which are essential to being the Church on earth: gathering together around the Word, receiving the Sacraments, providing a living for the pastor, and being generous toward the wider body of saints.  They should be erected like four walls in which the Kingdom of God is found and the children of God carry out their calling to be light and life in a dying world.  Anything above and beyond that may be tradition or what was possible in the past, but it is non-essential to being Church.  Remember, the faithful worshipped in people’s homes without dedicated buildings for almost 300 years until the Edict of Milan (AD 313) established tolerance.

10“One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. 11If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? 13 No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”

What makes a congregation pleasing in God’s eyes?  Some would say their apparent successes—upticks in attendance, the budget being in the black, the building measuring up to aesthetic standards.  But that’s actually not true.  God judges His servants by our faithfulness.  That is, to do what our Master has commanded, and trusting Him to bless it. 

Faith takes God at His Word, and His Word teaches His people what to do.  Faith doesn’t say it’s impossible, for all things are possible with God.  Faith doesn’t hold tight-fisted onto anything in this life, but is ready to lose it all.  The Church is not to save money, but to use money to save souls.

And what will be the lasting legacy of it, even if it should end?  That Christ’s disciples have baptized and taught, have received forgiveness in the Body and Blood of Christ, that the Word of God has been gladly heard and learned, that a little slice of the Body of Christ was able to gather in a temple made with hands as we “look forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.”[3]  That is no failure, and that is no shame upon us, so long as we have trusted in Him.

But if God does will for His Church to gather together, for the ministry to continue in this place, He will provide the necessary means.  All He asks of us is to seek and serve Him.  Let us not fear, love, or trust in unrighteous wealth, but in God who calls us.  May He help us so to do.  Amen.


[1] The First Apology, Chapter 65 – Administration of the Sacraments

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glebe

[3] Hebrews 11:10

Eighth Sunday after Trinity (Matthew 7:15-23)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR
Eighth Sunday after Trinity + August 11, 2019

Text: Matthew 7:15-23

You can tell a garden that is kept and tended from a garden that has been neglected.  The tended garden shows careful attention, addresses weeds before they get out of hand and hurt the good plants preventing them from bearing fruit.

The Lord relates to gardening, because He put Adam and Eve on the earth (and in the Garden of Eden) to tend and care for it.  He gave them responsibilities, and didn’t give them a creation that can just take care of itself.

The Gospel for today also uses gardening for a lesson:

“Beware of false prophets…You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?  So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.”

Often, God likens the Church to a garden.  Isaiah 5 uses the image of a vineyard: “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting.” (v. 7) John 15 further illustrates who’s Who, when Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” (vv. 1-2) The Parable of the Tenants in Matthew 21 further clarifies that, just as God does the planting, growing, and pruning, He uses human servants to carry out his work: “There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country.  When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit.” (vv. 33-34)

And finally, St. Paul applies this to a situation where the Church started picking favorites among those human servants:

“What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field” (5-9a)

You are God’s field.  Pastors are fellow workers of God, like God’s gardeners.  Jesus says it’s possible to know a false prophet by their fruits.  Of course, there’s a negative lesson from Jesus’ words: Watch out for false prophets, watch for bad fruit.  But what that tells us is the fruit is the best rule the Church on earth has for evaluating its servants.  To put it another way, If you want to know if you have a good gardener, you ask, how does their garden grow?  What sort of fruits are being produced?

Those of us who have gardens enjoy seeing them flourish.  We can relate to God’s garden metaphors—His desire for grapes, His work of pruning to remove what is dead and strengthen what is fruitful, His watering and daily attention to what He’s planted.  All of it is a labor of love.  But sometimes, even though we put all the right effort in, it still fails. Plants get diseased and whither, deer help themselves to our roses and crops, and the weather doesn’t cooperate.  Nobody would fault a gardener for this.

These sorts of things happen in the Church too.  But when they do, we need to remember the words of the Apostle, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”  But what does that growth look like?

It’s important that we don’t equate growth with increase, or increase with growth.  God’s work for His Church is growth, not just increase in numbers.  There are lots of ways to attract people under the guise of religion. False prophets are excellent at this, but they create a deception. They give the appearance of church, but devoid of the genuine fruits which God is seeking.

There is only one way to make growth: Planting, watering, and tending the good Word of God.  That is the gardening which God blesses.  Yes, it might go through brown times or lean times, but let us trust our heavenly Vinedresser and be faithful to His instructions for care: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”

When we get growth and increase confused, it can lead to problems.  This especially comes up when we’re looking for “more people” to come into the Church.  Let’s be honest, in gardening terms, we have a very large plot in this sanctuary, but it’s not densely populated.  Maybe that leads to the thought that we should be able to fill those empty pews, and that we’re doing something wrong if they’re not.  Maybe it leads us to envy other churches around town that seem to be increasing.

But just like having a garden that’s way too much for you to manage, it’s a strain on appreciating what we do have.  It makes us have ulterior motives for wanting to see new faces arrive.  But all we need to be is God’s field, tended by a faithful gardener (pastor), growing with a growth that comes through the Word of God. 

The Lord does not bid His Church to “bring people in” or “keep the doors open.”  He’s in charge of that.  What matters to Him is what we do with those He has given us, and how do His servants tend the garden that is there?  In order to grow the Church God’s way, this is what to do:

  • Planting His Word: Live as witnesses of His forgiveness and firm foundation in a world of shifting sand.  Invite your friends and family when, after praying, the time seems right.
  • Watering that Word by recognizing that your need for Sabbath rest is greater than the grind of the week, and when it all passes away, you will still have God, your rock and fortress.  Come to Bible study, or if you can’t, invest in a Lutheran Study Bible and use that during the week.
  • Tending that Word: Yes, of course it’s the pastor’s duty to tend God’s garden, weeding and fertilizing, etc.  But we also do that for one another: “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.” (Galatians 6:1-2)  The Church is the Communion of saints, of brothers and sisters who lovingly watch out for each other not just in temporal things but more importantly in our spiritual welfare!

Seventh Sunday after Trinity(Mark 8:1-9)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Seventh Sunday after Trinity + August 4, 2019

Text: Mark 8:1-9

Recently in the news, there has been a story about a USDA rule change that would render 3.1 million people ineligible for food stamp benefits.  Of course, an outcry ensues, because food is important for people to have.  Every sane human being would agree that it’s vital to have enough to eat.  In fact, as those who know the Lord, we know a bit more about this.  Hunger is part of the curse of sin on this creation—“cursed is the ground because of you…by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground.” (Genesis 3:17-19)

It’s also true that hunger and lacking in the things needed for life is unpleasant, and we try hard to avoid it.  If given the choice, we’d much rather have our choice of what and how much we could have, than to be restricted.  But that’s not always possible because of finite resources.

People are right to be concerned with making sure everyone has enough to eat, especially children who rely on adults to provide for them.  Speaking of fathers and children, hunger is important to God as well:

In those days, when again a great crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat, he called his disciples to him and said to them, “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way. And some of them have come from far away.”

It’s true. Hunger is a problem, but the curse of sin did more than make food harder to come by.  It changed the way we think about food—and really all the things we need.  Bigger than the problem of world hunger is the problem of covetousness in your heart and mine.

Covetousness looks at what we have and doesn’t think it’s enough.  It wants to reach wide and gather as much as it can and still have enough for what we fearfully assume the future will bring.  Covetousness looks at the things we do have and says they’re not good enough and not the “right” things.  We look at our car and find all of its flaws, our spouse and see nothing but negative, one crack in the screen and suddenly we need to have a new cell phone.  In Colossians 3, the Apostle Paul admonishes us to “Put to death what is earth in you” and two of the examples he mentions are “evil desire and covetousness, which is idolatry” (3:5)  Those evil desires (evil lusts) combined with turning our eyes to things we aren’t given, constitute idolatry.  Why?  Because it’s a denial of who the true God is and what He is always doing.  Whenever you blame God for not giving enough or taking away what you have, you’ve set up in incompetent fool for a god who wishes you evil.

The Feeding of the Four Thousand shows us that scarcity is not a problem for God—never has been and never will be.  He is the God who created out of nothing, so why are we such materialist fools to think our lives are limited to what we see at this very moment?  No, it’s not scarcity that’s the problem; it’s our weak faith in Him and contentment with what He actually has provided each of us.

It says in the Explanation to the 4th petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “God certainly gives daily bread to everyone without our prayers, even to all evil people, but we pray in this petition that God would lead us to realize this and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.”  Daily bread means a whole lot more than just flour, water, oil, sugar, and yeast; it “includes everything needed for this body and life.”[1]  The lack is less in the daily bread, than in the faith and thankfulness. 

This is one of our biggest weaknesses as people, trusting like the birds of the air or the lilies of the field that God really is a faithful provider.  It’s more than we can comprehend that God is able and willing to provide for all of His creation. The Lord teaches man in Proverbs 3:5, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.”  And, yes, this applies to our daily bread, too.  While we’re busy fretting about our lives by the smallness of our vision and vastness of the future, God is at work from eternity.  Understanding has its part in planning that belongs to us, but faith leans on God to do the actual provision. 

In Psalm 104, after listing a series of activities God actively does to care for His creation, the psalmist summarizes: “These all look to you, to give them their food in due season. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things. When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.” (Psalm 104:27-28) God even provides for those whose hearts are far from Him, because He still has a Fatherly goodness and mercy toward them.  But for us who do believe, it’s still a lifelong battle of putting to death what is earthly and letting the Spirit renew our hearts.

The fear of not having enough is serious.  When your job or your living situation are on the rocks and the future of your family is in limbo, that anxiety can do some real harm.  If you’re one of those people whose Oregon Trail benefits are in question, you’re wondering how you’ll meet your needs on an even thinner shoestring.  And none of us is in a place to judge another for their lack of faith, because we all struggle with doubt, especially if it was happening to us.

Repent, all of us, before God gives us a scarcity both of daily bread and of His mercy.  Open your eyes and take a fresh look at what you do have, and if there is scarcity, learn how to make faithful priorities.  God will provide what we need for this body and life.  Take that as a constant, because it is His solid promise.  Jesus was not commanding us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” in vain.  But then pray God for a trusting and thankful heart, that doesn’t measure His infinite power by finite quantities and our own inability to foretell

the future.

And his disciples answered him, “How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?” And he asked them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven.” And he directed the crowd to sit down on the ground. And he took the seven loaves, and having given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and they set them before the crowd. And they had a few small fish. And having blessed them, he said that these also should be set before them. And they ate and were satisfied. And they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. And there were about four thousand people.

As much as God is gracious to provide for our bodily needs, His mercy gushes out to care for our souls.  Through Jesus, He has satisfied our true hunger—the one we often don’t identify correctly—the forgiveness of our sins, the need for our hearts to be cleansed and made anew, so that our minds think of Him and what He has provided rightly, and our appetites are content with the daily bread He gives.

But now, come, receive the food and drink which feeds your souls and strengthens your mortal body.  It is Jesus’ own Body and Blood, given and shed for you.  It is no coincidence that the Lord uses bread, the food of the curse made by the sweat of your face.  But this is not your daily bread, liable to lost tomorrow; it is the Bread of Life, and even though a small quantity, its benefits never expire.  Eat and drink, for in this you have life and salvation.

To conclude today, I’d like to end with a sung prayer from hymn 774 – Feed Thy Children, God Most Holy:

Feed Thy children, God most holy;

      Comfort sinners poor and lowly.

O Thou Bread of Life from heaven,

      Bless the food Thou here hast given!

As these gifts the body nourish,

      May our souls in graces flourish

Till with saints in heavenly splendor

      At Thy feast due thanks we render. Amen. (LSB 774)


[1] Explanation to the 1st Article of the Creed