Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity

Readings: 2 Chronicles 28:8–15 | Galatians 3:15–22 | Luke 10:23-37

Text: Luke 10:23-37

It may surprise you that Martin Luther did not invent the question, “What does this mean?”  Teaching the faith by asking questions is as old the Exodus, “And when in time to come your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘By a strong hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery.” (Exodus 13:14)

That’s the pattern which the Israelites continued to use (which is still preserved to this day in the Passover Seder).  Asking questions is what Jesus was doing in the Temple at 12 years old (Luke 2:46) and in His ministry, He was often met with questions.

Now, this parable of the Good Samaritan usually gets the take-away, “If you want to be saved, be good like the Samaritan.”  But that horribly misses the point, and even preaches the opposite of what our Lord is saying.  To sort this out, we’re going to be like good Lutheran and Jewish learners and follow the questions and their answers.

Jesus has told His disciples that they are seeing what the prophets and kings of old have longed to see and hear, but were not able.  They are witnesses to the fulfillment of what God had begun doing since the Creation and sin and death coming into the world.  Now, they had front-row seats.  We, too, on this side of Pentecost, have even better seats, and from this vantage, Jesus will teach us by conversation:

“Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” This man is asking life’s biggest question: When all of life is said and done, how can I be sure of God’s favor and an eternal home?  This lawyer may have been asking it to put Jesus to the test, but it’s actually a fundamental question for him.  He’s dedicated his life to Torah; he’s a teacher of Israel [see John 3:9]. Not only his career, but also his hope as a son of Israel depends on having the right answer.

“What must I do to be saved?”  It’s been asked in various ways down to our own day.  I was once asked in college by another student, “If you died tonight, would you go to heaven?”  It was meant to get me, a 19-year-old, thinking beyond homework, my job, and girls.  At that time, I decided that, while the question was important, I wasn’t ready to answer it.

Saving that question for the end of life is what most people do.  Sparked by a funeral of someone close, or a grave diagnosis, that’s when it’s time to cancel your recreation and get serious about facing this God question.

To answer this question, we tend to take an approach like winning something at a silent auction: Here’s my bid. I hope it’s good enough.  We tell ourselves, I’ve lived a pretty good life, held a job, raised a family, loved my children, made a positive impact in the world.  That’s good enough, isn’t it?

Well, instead of just giving this student of the Law exactly the answer he’s expecting, the Lord asks him a question:

“What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” Jesus points him to something he knows very well: the Law of Moses (that’s why he’s called a lawyer).  What has God given in the Law?  How do you read it, is like asking a pastor, What do you teach in Bible study?  It has the sense, “How do you read it publicly in the congregation?”Effectively, Jesus is asking him something he knows by heart.  It’s part of the Shema, or the Israelite creed from Deuteronomy 6.  To this, Jesus then says:

“You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” This is what the Law of Moses says, isn’t it?  “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the Lord.” (Lev. 18:5). There’s the answer in black and white. 

But that answer doesn’t satisfy this man’s conscience.  “Do this, and you will live” directs him back to his own performance. So, you preach that, but can you do it?  Why does it give you no assurance?

God made it very clear what must be done to live.  So, examine yourself to see if you can be assured of eternal life: Love God with…All your heart? All your soul?  All your strength?  All your mind?  Is your every waking moment devoted to God, so that you can say you’ve never thought or done evil?  Even the Psalmist, King David, prayed, “Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you.” (Ps. 143:2)

How are you doing on loving your neighbor as yourself?  Exodus and Deuteronomy made it pretty clear how demanding loving your neighbor was.  Have you never, even in childhood, despised or angered your parents? Never hated your brother so that you wished he wasn’t around?  Never glanced a fantasy about one who was not your spouse? Always acted to defend your neighbor from losing his property? Not only refrained from slander, but defended your neighbor against unjust judgement? And have you never, ever, not even once, been envious of another?

The lawyer has painted himself into a corner.  He came to Jesus asking what one must do to inherit eternal life, expecting an answer that involves his success at doing the perfect Law of God.

Everyone understands this, even if they don’t give credit to God for the Law.  At the end of this life, there is a judgment for all people—whether you think that it’s in the eyes of others or in the eyes of a higher being, the sum total of your life ought to be more than null.  Famously, this is behind the system of karma, which purports to determine your status in the “next life” based on the good you did in this life.  It’s also this certainty of judgment but uncertainty in one’s merits that drives Islamic terrorists to sacrifice their own life, because they’re promised this is great proof of you fighting in the cause of Allah.

But if you prefer to avoid the concept of the divine there’s always “the judgment of history” and the opinions of others.  They will credit you for raising up minority voices, giving power to the disenfranchised, treating the planet with respect.

For all things there must be some justification.  That’s a technical word for, How do you make up for those you hurt, those you failed to help, the natural resources you wasted, and how you fell short of the judgment—whether it was from other people or from God?  That’s where the lawyer finds himself, when he asks, “And who is my neighbor?”

This is when we hear people say, “Nobody’s perfect; Who is God to demand so much?; Let’s relax some commands, because God would understand.”  Even, “God helps those who help themselves” is a way of saying, they weren’t really worth helping.  This we do to absolve ourselves with a gospel of excuses.

So, the Lord Jesus tells this Parable:

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’” (vv. 30-35)

The lawyer would revere the priest and the Levite for their adherence to the Law, but the Samaritan would be the villain of the story.  The priest and the Levite had godly excuses: I have to stay clean to perform my duty to God.  After all, the Law tells us not to associate with the dead, so it’s only out of faithfulness to God that we steer clear of the man in the ditch.

But who is this Samaritan?  He comes as the despised outsider, and sees to the man in his need.  At his own expense, he is encumbered with the man’s condition.  It doesn’t matter what the man did which got him into this situation.  Although this man in the ditch is a stranger, the Samaritan comes and loves him truly.  He cares for him in sickness, brings him to a place of safety.  He pays what is required: two denarii equals two days stay, implying that He will return on the third day.

“Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”

With such hints as this, Jesus is demonstrating that He is the Samaritan.  The Law could bring us no assurance, no peace, because it demands of people what they cannot give: perfect obedience unto life.  The generations before Christ longed to see and hear these things and were not able.  But in Christ, there is a Man who has done the Law perfectly.  There is a Man who has redeemed us from our weakness and failure.  He has taken the just accusation against us and made it His own. He has borne the cost, written the check that pays the debt you and I incurred.

This is the Gospel of the Lord, and it is the only message which has the power to save.  No Law, whether from God or man, can give life to those who are born in sin.  Our Confessions explain,

“Paul says (Rom. 4:15), “The law brings wrath.” He does not say that by the law men merit the forgiveness of sins. For the law always accuses and terrifies consciences. It does not justify, because a conscience terrified by the law flees before God’s judgment.” (Ap. IV 38)

Lex semper accusat: The Law always accuses.  Christ is telling this man that the Law will not give him the eternal life he seeks, unless he seeks his hope in the Samaritan, God’s own Son, despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief (Isa. 53).

Jesus asked these questions to lead him to the conclusion: If you want eternal life, you won’t get it by your effort.  God will find you dead in sin, and He will do what is required.  He will be your righteousness, your justification, and so He will be your peace.

Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
And that is the true fulfillment of the Law.  It was never meant to bring us to God: “For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.” (Gal. 3:21-22). Salvation and eternal life are off the table when it has to do with our works.  They are to be a gift, given in Christ.

Nevertheless, there is the receipt of this mercy! Consider how God has received you when you had nothing to offer him, only filthy rags (Isa. 64:6).  He had mercy on you, even in your disobedience, and saved you from death, wrath, and the eternal agony of hell.

Out of that mercy received, flows the mercy that sees others in the same dreadful condition.  It’s more than just a medical situation, but a spiritual one.  “Go and do likewise” isn’t a more demanding calling of the Law, but an outgrowth of the Gospel.  You have received love so boundless that it must flow to others—a love which sacrifices, which doesn’t count a person’s worthiness against them, which is free to give generously as God has richly blessed you with the storehouse of heaven in Christ.

This is the mercy which God has showered upon you, so see Him as your Samaritan, your Savior.  In Him alone do you have eternal life.  Now go to your life with that mercy, and freely give as it has been freely given to you. In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.

Twelfth Sunday after Trinity

Readings: Isaiah 29:17–24 | 2 Corinthians 3:4-11 | Mark 7:31-37

Text: Mark 7:31-37

How are you doing? How have you been feeling?  This is how we greet people we care about.  But how do we answer this question?  We probably have an ideal that we’d judge by, kind of like if a medical professional told us, on a scale of 1 to 10, where you do you think you are?  So, what is the ideal? The 10?  Is that finally overcoming cancer or being pain-free?  How about paying off the credit card?  Is it having a healthy frame and a sound mind?

This ideal is what we arrive at from our own experience, and what we’ve been told by others we should expect.  But God would have us look for more.  In this section of Mark’s Gospel (as I mentioned on the last Sunday in July (Trinity 7)), the Holy Spirit is demonstrating Jesus to be the King of Creation, come to restore—to overcome the evil powers which oppress it, to free those in bondage to decay, and to properly rule as God over His people.  This particular healing takes place in a Gentile area—“the region of Tyre and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis.”  Pagan influences abound, and that’s important to keep in mind as we see what happens there:

32 And they brought to him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 And taking him aside from the crowd privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue. 34 And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.

Here is a man who’s bondage to the decay of this world shows up in ears that cannot do what they were made to do—hear.  More than that (and perhaps related), his tongue isn’t able to properly do what the mouth is for.  The exhortation at the end of the Psalms shows this: “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!” (Ps. 150:6)  This goes beyond the borders of Israel, because this world’s decay is worldwide.  In mercy, the Lord has also come to this man.

The Lord, recall who formed this man in his mother’s womb (Ps. 139), now takes him anew to set right what sin and death had corrupted.  The Lord Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears, touched his tongue with His spit, and the Son of God looked up to heaven from where all good comes, and commanded this divine creative word (in plain human language): Ephatha, that is, “Be opened.”

When God set out to redeem this world, He did it by the very place through which corruption had come into the world: mankind.  Like we confess weekly in the Creed, “For us men, and for our salvation, He came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, and was made man” (Nicene Creed).  And in His holy body, Jesus touched this man’s ears that He might take deafness on Himself.  By the water of His saliva and at His Word, He touched the man’s tongue to restore his ability to speak.”  And, “Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.” (Ps. 51:14)

And once the man was healed, it resulted in his praise, but also that of the crowd:

36 And Jesus charged them to tell no one. But the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, “He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”

This charge not to tell others about the healings is often given by Jesus.  It means nothing more than that the Lord did not want the healing to be seen in isolation, a personal miracle for one victim of sin, another there.  (If so, the “Healed by Jesus” club would be pretty small and eventually die out!)  All of His mighty works were aimed forward toward His cross and resurrection, where He gained for us a healing that is far more expansive than repairing this jalopy of a body we now know.

This is where we must look into the greater salvific meaning behind this healing.  This isn’t to allegorize and thereby diminish the miracle which Jesus did, but to show that it means so much more than “Jesus healed this man; He will heal your body too.”

And this salvific meaning is all over the Scriptures, especially highlighted by the inspired poetry of the Psalms and Prophets.  One such example is the Old Testament lesson,

17Is it not yet a very little while until Lebanon shall be turned into a fruitful field, and the fruitful field shall be regarded as a forest? 18In that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see…23For when he sees his children, the work of my hands, in his midst, they will sanctify my name; they will sanctify the Holy One of Jacob and will stand in awe of the God of Israel. 24And those who go astray in spirit will come to understanding, and those who murmur will accept instruction.”” (Isaiah 29:17-18, 23–24)

It’s not just the deafness that audiologists treat, but the deafness to God’s Word of sin which silences the voice of the Creator in the hearts of His human creatures.  That takes a far greater restoration, which will be demonstrated in the days of Messiah.  This is what the Lord is demonstrating here in Mark 7.  And this hearing of the words of a book—the Word of God—sets right what was crooked.  In ears that did not hear the Word of God, hearts that were indifferent both to the call to turn from wickedness and slow to trust in the Lord as Savior, the Word has done its work: “They will sanctify My Name…and stand in awe of the God of Israel.”  Even those who go astray will come to understanding and those who murmur will be catechized.

And this transformation St. Paul marvels at in the Epistle, when he discusses the veil that is over those hearers of Moses.  The very Words of the Book of the Law are read in their hearing, but a covering is over their hearts.  Though they have the powerful Word of God in their midst, that by itself isn’t enough to accomplish the renewal.  Christ and His Holy Spirit must be added, or all is in vain.  That is its own reaching of Christ into our ears to open them to rightly hear, and Him touching our tongue to declare His praise. “O Lord, open my lips; and my mouth will declare Your praise.” (Ps. 51:15)

Something also to note about this spiritual restoration is that it does not first take place in the body.  It takes place in the soul—where the hearing in faith is, of keeping the Name of God holy, of melting the opposition to God’s instruction.  And that is where God is most concerned, because “man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (1 Sam. 16:7)  This is why faith-healers are hacks, because they confuse this.  They say God gives sudden bodily healing, but then if the healing doesn’t “work,” they blame the person’s insufficient faith.

Christ has come to reverse the course of the world as we experience it.  When we are asked about how we are doing, we usually answer according to our earthly conditions, those things which are subject to chance and change.  Our God, however, is working salvation on our hearts, the inner life of the soul, with the promise that the physical will follow—perhaps here in time, but for certain in the resurrection.

This healing begins on the soul, but it, mysteriously, it takes place here in our bodies.  This is why the Lord chose to deliver this healing in Baptism.  With water made holy in accord with His saving Word, He does all things well.  Water washes the body, but it purifies the soul (1 Pet. 3:21-22).  The old, dying flesh is touched by water infused with the words and promises of God.  “I baptize you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” [Matt. 28:19]  This washing, because it has the Word of Jesus, is effective at what it does:

”he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:5-7)

Ears restored to hear the Word of God, tongues loosed to sing of His salvation, hearts that submit to His rebuke and accept His instruction.  These mighty works and more He accomplishes in Holy Baptism.  The mighty Lord of Creation came to declare His victory over the devil and the breaking of the unchallenged rule of sin and death.  He has come into your life with this same mighty Word, to rescue and restore you from all that His enemies have done to you.  He has sent His Spirit to you, who opens your ears, who looses your tongue to sing His praise.

So, ponder how the Lord has healed you by your Baptism in His Name.  See how He continues to heal you from your soul outward.  In this present life, you and I know the weakness of our bodies, the smallness of our faith.  But there is peace for us in the life-giving Words of Jesus.  Our faith is renewed by hearing His Word [Rom. 10:17]; our bodies and souls are fed by His Body and Blood for us with His authoritative word: “for the forgiveness of [your] sins.”  He who speaks to us is truly God and truly faithful [1 Thess. 5:24].

His praise will ring out from you not just here, but before the nations, before those who are disobedient, who murmur against God, for He is able to reach them and save them, too.  Alleluia! Praise the Lord!  In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.

Eleventh Sunday after Trinity

Readings: Genesis 4:1-15 | Ephesians 2:1-10 | Luke 18:9-14

Text: Ephesians 2:1-10

This reading from Ephesians 2 is often a go-to passage for us as Reformation Christians. It beautifully covers the doctrines of original sin, election, God’s grace, faith, and even good works. It’s like the Swiss Army knife of Lutherans.

Original Roman Swiss Army Knife

These words, so often repeated, can become numb on the ears and lose their impact with us. But today, I’m going to get back to the basics of our study of who God is and what He does (a theology) and of who we are and what we are capable of (an anthropology). Paul writes,

“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world…”

If you were to share this passage with most people today, they’d think this was bogus. After all, to say someone is dead is to say they’re not alive. Ask any biologist, and they’ll give you the seven characteristics of life: You have cells which are organized, you metabolize food into energy, you respond to your environment, your body is able to self-regulate its temperature (homeostasis), you are growing and developing, you (or at least your parents) can reproduce, and your cells evolve (that is, change over time). How can you say (to someone who has ears, a functioning brain, and a beating heart) that they are dead?

First, understand we’re not talking biologically—“You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked”; we’re talking about a person spiritually. And this is one of the first places that an unbeliever probably has a different understanding of what makes up a human being. The most common view today simply sees as the sum of their material parts—skin, bones, muscles, blood, other organs, neurons, and so forth. But something which we learn from God’s Word is that a human person is more than just the material stuff which can be seen and measured. Human beings also have a soul or spirit. (I often teach the catechism class to distinguish between animals, angels, and human beings in that animals have a body but no spirit, angels have a spirit but no body, and only humans are body and spirit.)  And the soul, although it can’t be detected by our instruments, it very much impacts one’s life.

The soul is where the desire for transcendence is—”he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” (Eccl. 3:11)  It’s also the major part of what the Bible calls man’s “heart” or “inner being.”  Neuroscience has tried to figure out the source of consciousness and sentience, but so far have only been able to offer the energy that is picked up by MRI’s. The Word of God tells us the whole story about the human makeup. Body and soul belong together, and you can’t “just do something” with your body without your soul, any more than you can just “spiritually” do something apart from the body. This is also why death is such an awkward state, because it’s unnatural for body and soul to be divided, for “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” (Eccl. 12:7) 

With this anthropology, this understanding of a human being, now we’re able to move forward: “following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”

While there are the seven characteristics of biological life, there are some characteristics that help us determine if a person is spiritually alive. The living soul assents to the Word of God, saying things like “The just decrees of the Lord are true…More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold” and “Let it be to me according to your Word” (Psalm 19:9-10; Luke 1:38)  The living soul feeds on the Word of God and growth comes from it, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” and “Like newborn infants [who] long for the pure spiritual milk [of God’s Word], that by it you may grow up into salvation” (Deut. 8:3; 1 Pet. 2:2)  Lastly, the living soul gives heed and obeys what its Creator commands: “I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart” and “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. (James 2:26)

The absence of these things is what one looks for to know if they have spiritual life or not. This is what happened when sin came into the world. The Lord God had warned that “in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17). It wasn’t that Adam and Eve dropped physically dead there on the spot. In their quest to know good and evil, they became intimately acquainted with spiritual death (which preceded physical death). And spiritual death was handed down to all their descendants by natural birth. Since then, all fathers, who are sons of Adam himself, procreate children with sin and death. As Gregory Schulz explains in “The Problem of Suffering” about the death of his old children: “There is nothing more terrifying than seeing the wages of sin present in your own child. The terror lies in knowing…that I as a father am the medium for the sin that brings my child’s death.”[1]

This spiritual death which we each have from our fathers, requires the Word of God to diagnose. That’s because every self-evaluation tool—whether religious or philosophical—misses the full scope of the damage. It may touch on symptoms, but it can’t diagnose the root cause. There are three main effects of what’s called original sin (not that Adam and Eve’s guilt is charged against us, but it refers to the spiritual state we naturally are in). They are concupiscence, blindness, and rebellion.

Concupiscence is a term coined by Aurelius Augustine, the 5th century bishop of Hippo (who for his part had quite the tour of philosophies and smorgasbord of worldly delights). The Lutheran confessions explain, “Concupiscence is not only a corruption of physical qualities, but also, in the higher powers, a vicious turning to fleshly things” (Apology II 25). Augustine’s own words are quite vivid about it: “Out of the dark concupiscence of the flesh and the effervescence of youth exhalations came forth which obscured and overcast my heart, so that I was unable to discern pure affection from unholy desire. Both boiled confusedly within me, and dragged away my unstable youth into the rough places of unchaste desires, and plunged me into a gulf of infamy.” (Confessions, Book II, 2)   That’s how it manifests itself for sexual desire, but concupiscence is a bent which all people naturally have away from the will of their Creator: “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot” (Rom. 8:7) and as Cain experienced in the Old Testament lesson, in spite of the clear and reasonable warning from the Lord, he was unable to rule over sin (Gen. 4:5-7)

Original sin also manifests in a lack of senses when it comes to the things of God. It’s a blindness that can look at the clear Word of God or the proof of that Word, and not perceive, which was exhibited in the Pharisees in John 9:35-41 who claimed to see God’s will clearly when Jesus healed the blind man. It’s a deafness to the hearing the truth which condemns man’s sin and offers salvation only through Jesus Christ, shown when the mob stopped their ears and rushed forward to stone Stephen in Acts 7:54-60. It also makes a dulled conscience that can’t feel the pricking it ought to:

“God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” (Rom. 1:28-32)

Finally, and maybe most familiar, is that original sin shows its ugliness in rebellion against God’s will and insists on its own way. That’s the fruit of original sin that often plagues Christians. Yes, it’s a weakness against the temptation to do the wrong thing, but it’s sin in us that actually likes doing it. It’s fun; it’s exciting; and to be honest I’m kind of glad to get away with it. Thankfully the Holy Spirit wrote this insight for us in Romans 7: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” (Rom. 7:15-19)

Now, to be clear, even with original sin and all the damage it does to human spiritual life, this does not mean human beings are completely dysfunctional. There is a lot of moral good we do, believer or not. And that helps to show the distinction (not disconnection) between our powers of reason, strength, and compassion, and the part of us which is created for a right knowledge and fellowship with our Creator. God made people in His image and likeness (Gen. 1:26-27)—with intellect, emotions, reasoning, and words. People still know how to live together, to love, to heal diseases, to be curious about the universe, and so on. Even if those things are marred, and only partly understood from their original potential, God still allows us to enjoy them.

But it’s not on the basis of this moral good that a sinful human being can be restored to fellowship with God. This God, who is known to varying degrees by each person, truly exists and comes to our rescue:  But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved”  This is what God is saving us from. It’s more than moral deficiencies, more than a weak mortal body, more than the abuses and divisions we see among people. In Twelve Step recovery, I learned to “Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of [myself]” and to “have God remove all these defects of character”[2]  It wasn’t until I heard the Word of God in March 2006, that I realized I had a far bigger problem that character defects and sketchy morals. This is what God does: He doesn’t just pick us up and rehab us a bit; He takes us and resuscitates us from death. That’s why it’s called His “rich mercy” and “great love.”  It’s the very model of what those things are, and it goes beyond anything we’ve ever seen demonstrated among men.

and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Sadly, the Christian religion is often reduced to “I get to go to heaven when I die.”  If Christ is no more than a cheerleader urging us on from the fictitious “pearly gates,” then we are in a sorry state. It’s true, because God has saved us, dead in sin as we were, and made us alive with Christ, that we do have a heavenly hope. In the coming ages, we will see and be filled with joy at what God has prepared for His children by grace through faith. Yet, for His children, God is very present. Each day of this life, a Christian can rejoice in what God has done, plus how He continues to be gracious and full of mercy as we navigate darkened understanding, temptation, and the pangs of death.

As redeemed children of God, we are already experiencing that restoration. With the renewal of our hearts by the Holy Spirit, we gladly hear His Word and see there’s more to life than “being saved.”  God created our first parents to work, to have dominion over creation, and to serve one another in various callings. With the blindness and rebellion of sin held at bay, we can glimpse what our Creator has made us to truly be. A far cry from following the course of this world, satisfying its selfish appetites, we can learn from the Commandments just what it means to love the Lord our God with all our heart and our neighbor as ourselves. We are created for service to others, for us in body and soul to minister to them, body and soul. And this is where we will find the truest fulfillment and satisfaction this side of eternity. The “prince of the power of the air,” the Devil, and the sinful flesh will make this difficult at times, but we know the God who created, redeems us, and grants us to share in the resurrection spiritually now and bodily at the Last. If He has the power to save us from the depravity of sin and death, should we doubt that He can save us through the years of this life? In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.

[1] Rev. Dr. Gregory Schulz, “The Problem of Suffering” Chapter 2 section, “The Cause of Death”

[2] “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions” pp. 6-7

Tenth Sunday after Trinity

Readings: Jeremiah 7:1-11 | Romans 9:30-10:4 | Luke 19:41–48

Text: Luke 19:41-48

Zeal can be a beautiful thing.  I have to say it is exhilarating being at Higher Things in the worship services with hundreds of voices exultantly singing beautiful, poetic meditations on the Word of God.  With our voices declaring the mighty works of God, and singing with joy from the heart what our own experience of the Gospel has been.

Zeal is an inspiration.  Although I haven’t had the chance to experience it personally, I believe it would be electrifying to be part of a march in support of life.  How inspiring and encouraging it is to see so many Christians gathered together to advocate for the unwanted lives, the outpouring of love there must be to bring open hearts and arms for pregnant women in perilous circumstances, to shine the light of God when the rest of the world would tell them that it’s no more than a medical condition which can be solved by a bloody procedure.  And what a joy to see fifty years of labors bear fruit in having the Supreme Court overturn its previous decisions.

Zeal is invigorating.  As we often ask God in the Divine Service to “strengthen newly established congregations, and support them in challenging times. Make them steadfast, abounding in the work of the Lord, and let their faith and zeal for the Gospel refresh and renew the witness of Your people everywhere.”  What a joy it is to see mission congregations planted in new or changing communities here in our country.  How awesome it is to hear of the Church abroad where droves of people leave the religions of their fathers—animism, Islam, Hinduism—and come to believe in the True God and line up to be baptized.

But like everything our sin touches, zeal can be used selfishly without a thought for God.  This is what our Lord is confronting with His people Israel in today’s texts.  In Jeremiah’s time, they boasted of lineage, of temple, of blood descendance from David and the sons of Levi.  In the time our Lord came in the flesh, it was of the strict devotion of the Pharisees, the temple observances of the Sadducees, the perseverance of the Essenes, the temple rebuilt under Zerubbabel.  Even after Jesus came and accomplished His saving work—not just for Israel, but for all the families of the earth—and you hear in the Epistle how the Jews stubbornly rejected the God in which they boasted.

But as the Apostle to the Hebrews puts it succinctly: “Without faith it is impossible to please [God].” (Heb. 11:6).  All the zeal one can muster, apart from the Lord cannot please Him, no matter how much it might be right in our own eyes or the eyes of those around us.

So, one of the first things Jesus does after coming into Jerusalem (the city in which the Jews took so much pride as the city of David) was to lament over the Jews’ lack of faith.  It’s hard for us to draw the lines simply by looking at their works.  After all, the Pharisees were the most observant to the Law of Moses that any Israelites had been since the days of Joshua.  The Sanhedrin saw to enforcing the strictest of purity requirements.  The Temple had enough income to keep it in spotless repair and the priests carrying out their many responsibilities.  So, by all appearances, it was a golden age for Judaism.

But the Lord Himself has this against them: “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace!”  Peace, or any Hebrew speaker, Shalom.  Aren’t they in the city of peace itself?[1]  Do not the sons of Aaron put God’s Name on the sons of Israel saying, “The Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you shalom?” (Num 6:26)  If anyone should know the Lord’s shalom, it should be them! 

But their religion has become unhinged from the Lord who gave it to them.  They came up to Jerusalem yearly for the Passover, singing:

  Peace be within your walls
and security within your towers!”
  For my brothers and companions’ sake
I will say, “Peace be within you!”
  For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your good. (Ps. 122:7-9)

But to them, those words meant the city itself, its walls, the temple buildings.  The peace is not to be found in absence of enemies, but in the one who stands there—the Messiah, Jesus.  It’s only through Him that true shalom comes from God, a shalom that flows from the cross where Abraham’s offspring was offered up for all people.

Where Jesus goes next is their other source of pride: the Temple.  Starting with David, there was a pious desire to build a permanent house in which the Lord would be (2 Samuel 7).  In some Christological double-speak, the Lord told David, “I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.” (2 Sam. 7:12-13)  And it was fulfilled in the time by Solomon, who constructed a tremendously ornate building, a hint at a return to the Garden of Eden, nearly everything inside the Temple of Solomon was plated with gold.  After falling into disrepair that corresponded to their unbelief, this temple was utterly destroyed in 587 BC.  They returned, according to God’s promise after 70 years, and were allowed to rebuild the Temple.  Yet, Zerubbabel’s temple was a poor substitute.  Herod the Great strove to make the Temple magnificent again, and it was a belief held, even by Jesus’ disciples, that they were approaching the former splendor.

Yet what does the Lord think of this edifice?  “He entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold, 46 saying to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of robbers.”  There was more of a problem than not having the glory cloud, or the Ark of the Covenant.  Their practices, for as ornate and well-financed as they had been, were vain and deplorable by the Lord.  They still did point to the Lord being approached by the blood of the sacrifices, but for the Jews, they wanted the building more than the true Sacrifice which would cleanse them.  As St. Paul writes, “being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” (Rom. 10:3-4)

The Lord also says something rather unnerving: “But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side 44 and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”

“But now they are hidden from your eyes”?  You might think this is unfair of God.  If He wants to be found by all people, why would He hide such things from them?  In faith, we acknowledge that the Lord is wise in His ways, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isa. 55:9)  Is this not the humbling which He knows they need?

            Compare this to the preaching of Jonah.  Jonah came to Nineveh, and preached, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”  And how did the people, these uncircumcised, respond?  “And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.” (Jon. 3:4-5)  Yet, when the Lord in the flesh preaches the same kind of sermon, what do the people of Jerusalem do but “seek to destroy Him.” Where the Word of God has its proper effect, it works repentance in sinners. It lets God in His words and blameless in His judgments (Ps. 51:4).  It also lets God entirely be the One who can save, the One by whom we live, and the One by whom we pass through judgement by the merits of Jesus Christ.

We may not be Jews or live in Jerusalem, but these warnings continue to be apt for God’s people of the New Testament.  Often, we find ourselves believing that our walk before God is simply a matter of our effort.  We need to be thoroughly debased of that notion, lest the Christian Church become a thing without Christ.  You see this in churches that are so focused on what they’re doing, pressuring each person to “get involved” and “commit.”  Soon, it’s not so important what a person believes about Jesus and their life of repentance and faith, so long as they’re doing things “for the Lord.”  And you can be sure this kind of religion gets results—it brings people out (for a time), gathers the money (by holy guilt trips), and it claims to glimpse what the church “really should be like.”

But like the Jews of Israel, we need that humbling from the Lord that it isn’t about us and what we can do.  The people of God forever rely on what He can and does do.

Personally, we might believe that our life could go better, simply if we made the right choices.  In our faith, we think if we just drummed up more zeal to read our Bible, spent more time on our knees in prayer, if we gave a certain percentage more…  We also sometimes believe this about our day-to-day lives.  If we just adopt the smartest financial plan, then we’ll really be in charge of our destiny.  If we find just the right diet, we’ll avoid disease and live longer.  If we change our parenting in the right way, our children will be obedient and never run into trouble.

It’s not that these aren’t all good things.  Zeal for your walk with God is good, just as zeal for caring for the life God has given you.  It’s that our sinful hearts insert pride, and (like the Jews) think we’ve gotten more control than we really have.

What really counts is the foundation of all of it: hearing the Word of God in faith.  Let the Lord Jesus be what His title says, and let His Word do to you what it needs to do.  As He said to the church in Laodicea, “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.” (Rev. 3:19)  And let Him grant the success and increase, firmly believing that “you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’” (1 Cor. 1:30-31)

47 And he was teaching daily in the temple. The chief priests and the scribes and the principal men of the people were seeking to destroy him, 48 but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were hanging on his words.

For the Jews, the Lord showed His love by continuing to preach to them, knowing that it will accomplish that for which He sent it.  It’s the same for us in the Church today.  His Word has the power it needs to bring the straying to repentance, to ignite those who are cold, and to empower a right zeal for the Word of God and the Gospel of salvation.

We thank God for His steadfast love.  His steadfast love [see Psalm 136] is His faithfulness to the covenant He made with the Blood of His Son, on the day when He visited the world and offered up the sacrifice no sinful priest could: Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!  Behold, Christ, your paschal lamb has been sacrificed.  And He has continued to preach that Word which kills our sinful flesh and makes us alive before God.  It is a Word which makes us dead to the fleshly ideas of Shalom, of Sanctuary, of Church.  It enlivens us to find peace in the pierced hands of the risen Jesus, sent to us, who says: “Shalom! Peace be with you!” (Luke 24:, John 20:19); to find the house of the Lord “where two or three are gathered in His Name” (Matt. 18:20) where His Word is preached and taught with joy, and His mysteries are honored.

Thanks and praise be to the Lord our God!  In the Name + of Jesus.  Amen.

[1] Jerusalem roughly translates to mean “Where peace has been cast” (See also Heb. 7:1-2)

Ninth Sunday after Trinity

Readings: 2 Samuel 22:26–34 | 1 Corinthians 10:6–13 | Luke 16:1–9

Text: Luke 16:1-13

Luke 15 is one of the most popular chapters in this Gospel.  It’s refreshing to hear the parables of the Shepherd who seeks out the lost sheep, “And on His shoulder gently laid, And home rejoicing brought me.” (LSB 709:3).  We love to hear about the coin because we rejoice that God values us so highly: “Never grudging for the lost ones That tremendous sacrifice; And with that have freely given Blessings countless as the sand.” (LSB 851:1).  And of course, countless generations of those who have erred and returned with contrite hearts to a gracious heavenly Father: “I once was lost but now am found; was blind, but now I see” (LSB 744:1).

But no such pious hymns ring out about the parable which follows, which is before us today: The Parable of the Unrighteous Steward.  Nevertheless, it too has a comforting message of salvation for the lost.  It just that it usually cuts us in a way that too close to home.


“There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’

This steward is facing a danger common to us all: unemployment—aggravated by the fact that he has not been trustworthy with his master’s possessions.  He’s afraid for his livelihood and future, and that brings out our deepest fears in this life.  It’s the root of looting during disasters, hoarding before the you-know-what hits the fan, of servers who slip just a little more from the tip jar telling themselves they need it to make ends meet.

And what the manager does benefits him, and only temporarily makes his master look good:

So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’  The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. (φρονίμως)

Notice that it says the master commended the manager for his shrewdness—his aptitude at working the system to his own advantage.  The master in this particular is not God.  It is a kind of wisdom the unrighteous manager displays, but it is not the kind which God commends, noted by the same Greek word: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise (φρόνιμος) man who built his house on the rock.” (Matt. 7:24)

That brings us to the point of the parable:

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

Worldly, self-serving cunning can be found the world over.  It can be found in us, as even Christians and church leaders fall to embezzlement.  But it’s not much benefit to just dwell on the outward behavior, without getting to the problem in the heart.  Yes, the problem is sin.  It is unbelief in God as Creator and provider.  But we make more of it than that.  It’s what God is shining His holy light on when He says: “You shall not covet your neighbors house… his ox or donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” (9th and 10th Commandments, Exodus 20:17)  That craving for the stuff, by which our sinful mind thinks we live, is a spiritual problem which the Apostle identifies: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you:…covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God comes.” (Col. 3:5-6)

It is transgression against the commandment of God, but it is also idolatry: to fear, love, and trust in Mammon.  So, our Lord drives the point home to our hearts, where it needs to land and do its work of repentance:

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. 11 If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And 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 [Mammon].”

Martin Luther understood this, as he wrote in the Large Catechism about the First Commandment:

6 Surely such a man also has a god—mammon by name, that is, money and possessions—on which he fixes his whole heart. It is the most common idol on earth. 7 He who has money and property feels secure, happy, fearless, as if he were sitting in the midst of paradise. 8 On the other hand, he who has nothing doubts and despairs as if he never heard of God. 9 Very few there are who are cheerful, who do not fret and complain, if they do not have mammon. This desire for wealth clings and cleaves to our nature all the way to the grave.
10 So, too, if anyone boasts of great learning, wisdom, power, prestige, family, and honor, and trusts in them, he also has a god, but not the one, true God. Notice, again, how presumptuous, secure, and proud people become because of such possessions, and how despondent when they lack them or are deprived of them. Therefore, I repeat, to have a God properly means to have something in which the heart trusts completely. (Large Catechism, I 6-10)

If we worship and serve Mammon—the things of this life—then we will suffer tyranny under this false god.  Mammon is ruthless and cruel.  His favor is as fickle as a mad king.  Who can save us from this slavery and tyranny?  Only the one, true God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

This is a persistent sin for us, and also one for which the Lord of Glory was nailed to the cross.  All idols, mute and helpless to save, fall down before the one true God, and His Son, Jesus Christ.  The light of Christ shines in the darkness of our hearts, and the blood of Jesus was shed in love to save us from this false worship, that we may serve the living God!  “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you,” the Lord’s Apostle writes, and Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” (Col. 3:2-4)

You have a different God than the unbelieving world imagines.  So the way of Christ is not the way of the world, even if we use the very same money, food, and institutions as those who abuse God’s gifts.  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.  With renewed hearts from God, our goals are different, and so it’s apparent in how we use the things of this life—this “Mammon.”

Here, I think we can learn a great deal from the Christians who came before us.  In the early 4th century, there were several wealthy Christians who heeded the Lord’s word to the Ring Young Man, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Matt. 19:21)  This was the start of the ascetic movement in Christianity, and contributed a great deal to the growth of the Church.  Our brothers and sisters recognized something that we today are often dull to hear: The things of this life, the Mammon, is given to us by God for a time, and we are obligated to put our faith into practice with how we use our earthly treasures.

These same words about where your heart is, there your treasure will be also, are said in Luke 12:

32 “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Luke 12:32-34)

You and an unbeliever have the very same green in your wallet.  You have the same 24 hours, 7 days in the week.  The difference is who is your God: He who made heaven and earth, who redeemed you from the slavery to sin and the futility of a heart that loves money rather than the true God.

And that is what we see in the Church still today.  Look at how Christians are generous with their money and possessions in service to God’s Church, showing mercy to those in need.  When the world legalizes and promotes the killing of babies, notice how many crisis pregnancy centers were opened!  Notice how, in our own town, Christians and congregations donate to make a ministry like Obria thrive and grow.  When the early church lived in a culture of abandoning unwanted children, it was Christians who made the sacrifice to adopt them and raise them to know the God who made them and does not reject them.

When the world embraces the cult of transgenderism and seeks to indoctrinate the young and vulnerable, the Church doubles down on studying the theology of gender, investing in youth conferences and education for parents.

When the world tells you that you can privatize your faith and don’t need the congregation or pastor to minister to your soul, Christians instead confess their faith in the means God established and they build up the congregation, support the pastor, repair the facilities for those things.

This is the Lord’s Word to every one of us, and to us as a congregation.  It calls for continual reflection about who our god is and what service we are rendering.  When we are more interested in our own comforts, thinking of it as my money, thinking “other people will give to the congregation,” or the government will take care of the poor, or if I tell someone that their lifestyle is wrong I might lose their friendship—repent, because this is your heart serving Mammon.

Where our congregation has only been interested in the things inside these four walls, fretting over how much is saved in the bank, and failing to give to District or Synod or any other mission—these are signs that our service has not wholly been to our Father who delights to give men the Kingdom.  We need to repent of that, and ask Him to forgive us, and give us a new heart that desires to use what He has given us to do the things He command us to do.

The world will say we’re crazy.  The devil will tempt us to think and act like everyone else.  We won’t be able to keep up with the world’s standards of opulence.  Our treasures will not be the things of this life, but the souls of sinners who, who like us, were saved by our telling them repentance and forgiveness in Jesus alone.  Although we will not look successful in the world or Mammon’s judgment, we will receive the commendation that truly counts—and lasts for eternity: “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.” (Matt. 25:23)  In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.

Seventh Sunday after Trinity

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

Text: Mark 8:1-6

What do you think about food?  You like it?  I do, too.  I’m sure we could share some enthusiastic stories about our favorite meals.

What would you do to get it?  When we’re children, it’s given to us.  But when we get older and move out of the nest, suddenly food means work.  Either you have to work more and afford the restaurant bill or the groceries and time to make food yourself.  On a rare occasion, you may be invited to something where they just feed you for being there.

A less comfortable question, How long could you go without it? and What would happen to you if you had to go without it?  These are unpleasant things to consider, and it’s this situation that the crowd in the Gospel finds themselves.  Jesus gathers a crowd around Himself, into a wilderness place, knowing full well that they have nothing to eat, not just for several hours but “now three days.” 

It’s in this privation that our Lord is unveiling just who He is and what kind of God and Savior He is.  Though their hungering and isolation, God is showing that


  1. God certainly gives daily bread to everyone without our prayers, even to all evil people.

In the Lord’s Prayer, we beseech our Father, “give us this day our daily bread,” which seems like a very mundane request.  Didn’t Jesus also teach, “your heavenly Father knows you need all these.” (Matt. 6:32)  Of course He knows it.  The Old Testament lesson (Genesis 2:7-17) brings us back to our origin and gives us insight about why we desire and need food: God made this world, and us in it.  He created us to be dependent on Him.

Do you know what is most successful at attracting people to an event? Food.  That’s because even in our sinful state, all people recognize that food is necessary and most of the time, eating is enjoyable.  But because of what happened in Genesis 3, we don’t recognize that this desire is the result of our created nature.  Yet all people, from the moment they are born, know the urge.

Lutherans, after the humor of Garrison Keillor, are teased for always having food close at hand.  Rightly understood, good food can be enjoyed with thanksgiving to God (as I hope we will do after service today).  But when that is taken away, what happens?  Our sinful nature lashes out in complaint, forgetting all ways God has supported us undeservedly these many years.

Similarly, because Martin Luther lived in a time of much beer, many followers of his theology also enjoy what some affectionately call “cold Lutheran beverages.”  But like the full belly resulting from fellowship meals, we are prone to gluttonously crave the enjoyment of the gift and despise the giver of that gift. 

  1. But we pray in this petition that God would lead us to realize this and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.

So, what is Jesus up to with this feeding miracle?  The answer to that is found in looking back through the last couple chapters before this in Mark, beginning with the Feeding of the 5,000 in Mark 6.  In a string of encounters, each of them contribute to the understanding of just who Jesus is, so that we creatures don’t worship gifts apart from the Giver of them.

In the feeding of the 5,000, in a desolate place, Jesus provides food for a great crowd, thus showing Himself as the originator of divine Providence.  When Jesus walks on the water, He shows His disciples that He is the Creator Himself, come with human feet.  Across the lake in Gennesaret, the incarnate Creator visits man under the shadow of death and rolls back for a time the curse of death.

When He debates with the Pharisees He begins to take up the topic of the body, food, and worship of the one, true God.  Here, He shows them that worship does not happen through the food, but by a heart cleansed from the true defilement of hardness and sin. 

The reverse of hardness of heart is displayed in the Syrophoenician woman, an alien to Israel, but who acknowledges her unworthiness and faith in Jesus, whereby Jesus commands the unclean spirit and her daughter is freed of the devil’s tyranny.

That brings one to this text.  Again a crowd, again no food in a desolate place.  But, the Lord of creation is present, and it says He is moved with compassion for this mass of trembling sons and daughters of Adam and Eve.  This same God of Providence, the Lord of all Creation, who “took our illnesses and bore our diseases” (Matt. 8:17, Isa. 53:4), who desires to rescue all mankind from sin, death, and the devil—has come to this crowd.   Even though sin may have blinded many of them to what was happening in their midst, we have been given the Holy Spirit to see and worship Jesus for who He is for us.

This portion of the Holy Gospel is catechesis meant to bring us back to the Garden.  There, Adam and his wife were provided for so richly that they truly had “not a care in the world.”  So, for us who are to be heirs of the world to come, whom God has “ransomed from the futile ways inherited from our fathers” (1 Pet. 1:18), this is how He sanctifies and restores us to a right knowledge of us as creatures, He as our Creator.  Who is the one who is the giver of food and drink, clothing and shoes, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all we have?  And if we recognize Him for that—and that none of us deserve even one crumb because of our disobedience—then how much we ought to thank and praise Him for every earthly gift!

  1. Even more needed than the things for this body and life, are the things for our soul.

The lesson of the Feeding miracles is not merely that Jesus is a wonderworker or a divine vending machine.  It’s meant to awaken our faith that God cares for our souls through our bodies.  By faith, we understand that every piece of “daily bread” which He provides is a reason to worship and adore Him for His goodness and faithful care.  The list of things meant by daily bread in the Catechism—”food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, land, animals, money, goods, a devout husband or wife, devout children, devout workers, devout and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, self-control, good reputation, good friends, faithful neighbors”—are an intentional exercise in seeing our God compassion for us in our bodily life.  By faith, we see ourselves as more than material, more than just sentient hunks of flesh.  We are creatures of God—and beloved creatures at that!

This little word, “compassion,” in the Gospel speaks to just what an intimate act the incarnation.  As I’ve mentioned before, it means to have your guts wrenched.  It’s a word which doesn’t appear anywhere in the Greek Old Testament,[1] because something monumental happened—“the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.” (John 1:14)  The Creator took on our created nature.  He is intimately involved, intimately invested in our existence.  This cannot be said of any other creature in the universe! (This is how I respond to questions about intelligent life on other planets. If there is, they aren’t as important to God as mankind, nor is their redemption for them.)

And you can take this compassion to its fullest, even to the cross: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32)  For these ungrateful, slow of heart, rebels, God gave His only-begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.  Not perish in the sense of starvation, but in the true worst fate: being cut off from God eternally.

Just as God’s mercy is enacted bodily in His Son, so our spiritual life is lived out in the body.  Your faith and your creaturely life are bound up together.  With your ears, you hear the Word of God and the Holy Spirit creates and renews faith.  With your mouth, you pray and sing and proclaim the saving work of God to others.  With your possessions and income, you support the ministry of the Gospel and show mercy to those in need.  And, contrary to the unbelieving flesh, we see that the whole foundation of our lives is not the created stuff we can measure and handle; it is in the Creator who declares to us, “Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Deut. 8:3)  Whenever we start believing this lie, our Father is gracious to correct us, even making us hunger if necessary, that we might repent and learn this truth once more.

So finally, I’d like to ask the questions I did at the beginning, but not about food.  I want to ask them about the Word of God:

What do you think about the Word of God?  Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” (Ps. 1:1)  God has given you a spirit to delight in God’s Word, to crave it, to be nourished by it as true satisfaction.

What would you do to get it?  If you knew of a place where the Word of God was being proclaimed, would you come out in droves as the crowd did to listen to Jesus?  How far would you drive in order to have this imperishable portion for yourself and your family? Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live.” (Isa. 55:2-3a)

And now, How long could you go without God’s Word?  Here, this calls for somber self-reflection.  If you have ever deprived yourself of God’s Word, you’re playing with a deadly kind of anorexia.  There is great danger in “learning to do without” when it comes to the Word of God.  Man does not live without every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.  Yet away from the Word, your dull senses, the world, and the devil are overjoyed to tell you that you actually live by the things of this life.  But He who purchased and won you knows better, and regenerates you with this kind of appetite: As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?” (Ps. 42:1-2)

So now come, creatures of the living God, redeemed and forgiven by the precious blood of Christ, washed and renewed each day by the Holy Spirit, and taste and see that the Lord is good, and He is here for you both in body and soul.  In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.

[1] 2 Macc. 6:8 uses the pagan sacrificial sense of the word: “Moreover there went out a decree to the neighbour cities of the heathen, by the suggestion of Ptolemee, against the Jews, that they should observe the same fashions, and be partakers of their sacrifices”

Sixth Sunday after Trinity

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

Text: Matthew 5:20-26

For centuries, the first thing those learning the Christian faith encounter is the Ten Commandments. We may think they are elementary, and therefore easy to do. After all, they sound so simple:

  1. You shall have no other gods.
  2. You shall not misuse the Name of the Lord your God.
  3. Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
  4. Honor your father and your mother.
  5. You shall not murder.
  6. You shall not commit adultery.
  7. You shall not steal.
  8. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
  9. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.
  10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

We would like the Commandments to be tame, manageable. As easy as following the civil laws, such as where to park and the proper way to conduct business. But as we will find out, God our Father gave them to us, knowing they are exactly what we need to hear.

The Gospel reading for today is part of what’s called the Sermon on the Mount. Most of us are familiar with the very beginning, the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven,” and so on. Then Jesus compares Christians to the light of the world and salt of the earth, as I mentioned a couple weeks ago: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.” (Matt. 5:14) In the part read today, He begins to explain God’s Law and its relation to the Kingdom of Heaven. Just as if we were learning the faith all over again, He takes us to the Ten Commandments. If you thought the thunder and lightning of Mount Sinai were scary, listen to how the Lord explains the Fifth Commandment:

21“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. 23So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. 26Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.” (Matthew 5:20–26)

“You shall not murder,” we heard Moses say, and we feel pretty good if we haven’t actually ended anyone’s life. This commandment however, might plague someone whose work might include ending another’s life, as with soldiers and peace officers.  Here it is extremely important for one’s conscience to remember the distinction between office and person. Being an agent of the state, it is part of the job description: “He is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Rom. 13:4)  A Christian, according to their duty in the police force or in the armed forces, can serve blamelessly in being the one who carries out God’s justice in this world.

This is also applies to what is called the Castle Doctrine, the right to defend one’s own home with deadly force. Without getting into legal nuance, as Christians we see this as the duty of the office of a head of household protecting the lives of spouse and children. The fifth commandment forbids vigilantism and private revenge, because outside of the office, the Lord says, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (see Rom. 12:19-20, citing Deut. 32:35)

Here in Matthew 5, our Lord is applying the Commandment to how it impacts each of us every day. One commentator explains, “Jesus says that the commandment extends to…resentment and anger against someone. Such anger is itself a violation on man made in the image of God. God cannot accept our offering if we are angry with our brother (vv. 23–24)”[1]  So, while this Commandment does not apply to the full extent every day, it shows us what lies behind sinful murder: resentment and hatred, casting other people off without thought of their Creator.

This is how it is with all of the commandments: they do not just speak to outward actions, where we can put on a good show before others. Rather, the Law of God exposes the sinful motives. It shows us how, from our hearts, we have “lived as if God did not matter, and as if I mattered most.” (LSB 292, Individual Confession).

In a sense, the Law of God can be compared to juggling plates. You’re handed one, and that’s okay. Two is a little harder, three a little more difficult. Then, four, five, six, all the way to ten. You are going to drop and break them, because our sin is more than we can manage, and God wants us to recognize that.

Consider this incident at Mount Sinai where the Law was first given:

15Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand, tablets that were written on both sides; on the front and on the back they were written. 16The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets…19And as soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the [golden] calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. 20He took the calf that they had made and burned it with fire and ground it to powder and scattered it on the water and made the people of Israel drink it.” (Exodus 32:15–20)

If the Commandments are so elementary, then it should be easy to keep them. You work hard to keep them diligently. So what’s the problem? It’s the reality of your sin. David says, “Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you” (Psalm 143:2)  None of us has the ability to keep ourselves together and avoid breaking the commandments. They speak not just to our actions, but also the thoughts and intents of our heart. We are going to break the Law, and when it does—as often as it does—our confidence can’t be in our obedience to the Law.

The Law of God is also like charming a snake. You think you’ve got it under control and suddenly it lashes out and bites you.

Just like this:

4From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. 5And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” 6Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.” (Numbers 21:4–6)

You know better than trying to master all Ten Commandments. Maybe you’d be content to conquer one or two that you really struggle with. You want to be more loving and patient toward people, and you’re doing well for a while. You’ve got a problem with internet porn, and you think you’re finally stronger than you used to be. You try really hard to be content with what God has given you, and for a while you have a time of clarity. You think you’ve gotten the upper hand on your weakness.

But then it happens again. The old worry takes over your heart and you make hasty plans without prayer. Your weak flesh is led away by the faintest reminder and those old evil fires are kindled again. A friend of yours makes a big ticket purchase and you curse God because it isn’t you who gets something new and shiny.

The Law cannot and will not be mastered by any of us sinners. It will always exercise its power over our members. Remember the experience of even St. Paul:

18For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing…21So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:18–24)

When you run up against the holy Ten Commandments, your only hope is this: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (v. 25)  It is this glorious Gospel that Jesus brings you to after you have been broken by the Law.

As you stand amid the proverbial rubble of the stone tablets, hear the Word of the Lord from Colossians 2:

13And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Colossians 2:13–14)

The Lord has taken your sin away from you. He took it to the cross and died your justly-deserved sentence. You are forgiven and free.

To you in your pitiful, frustrating weakness, bitten by the snakes of sins you thought you could master, this is the Gospel of the Lord to you:

14And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14–15)

Those bitten by the serpents in the wilderness were commanded to look up to the bronze serpent and live. Look up to Jesus hanging on the cross, naked and shameful, receiving the wrath you and I have deserved. Now look at your Baptism: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom. 6:3-4)   Here, your God has clothed you with the holiness of His Son; weak, and yet giving you strength; defeated, giving you a share in His victory over sin and Satan and the grave.

Beloved of God, Christ says, “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  He has done it all for you to give you the righteousness though which you may enter the Kingdom of heaven. This is how our Lord explains the Law in light of the Kingdom of heaven, so that “no human being may boast in the presence of God”[2] and as many as believe may rejoice in the gift of salvation which Jesus alone gained for us. As St. Paul writes in Philippians 3:9, this is what it means to “be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ.”  Amen.

[1] Iain Campbell, “Opening Up Matthew”

[2] 1 Corinthians 1:29

Fifth Sunday after Trinity

Confirmation of Landon Carter & Gwendolyn Zorko

Readings: Genesis 50:15–21 | Romans 8:18–23 | Luke 6:36–42

Text: 1 Peter 3:8-15

St. Peter’s first epistle to the Church is beautifully appropriate and informative for the Church today.  It was first written to the Christians who were scattered after persecution grew more severe, and it was clear just how at-odds the Christian Gospel was with, not just the Jews, but the world in which they lived.

In our day, we are still recovering from the generations when it was okay to be a Christian in public, and actually meant that you were a respectable member of society.  Sometimes today, it feels like being a confessing Christian is swimming upstream against a waterfall.  Holding a biblical worldview is increasingly rare.  It’s a rare thing to belong to a Church body that publicly confesses God’s supernatural work in six days of creation, the God-given sanctity of human life, the good creation and distinction between male and female.  How uncommon it is to see people live out this Psalm verse: “I will also speak of your testimonies before kings and shall not be put to shame, for I find my delight in your commandments, which I love.” (Ps. 119:46-47)  We hold to these truths not because we are traditionalists, but because we belong to the true God.

This Epistle in particular comforts us by teaching that the suffering and rejection that we experience in the world is actually not surprising.  After addressing matters of how a child of God will find themselves living as strangers in society, how those who are married are to live together, St. Peter turns to every Christian—how appropriate on a day where two young Christians are confirming the faith God has given them!

They are nervous because today is being treated differently from other days.  But please allow me to take the spotlight off of them, and shine it on all of us equally:

Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.

Alienation is not something that stops after you graduate from high school.  For Christians, our alienation begins at our Baptism: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born [from above] he cannot see the kingdom of God.”…That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (John 3:3, 6)  There in the waters of Baptism, we receive a new birth that marks us as different, set apart, “holy to the Lord.” [Exod. 39:30]  And wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Lord would just take us home, or at the very least, give us a nice colony where we could be around just other believers?  But that isn’t how it works.  He leaves us as we are in the world, with this birth from above and the vestiges of our unspiritual flesh.  We don’t fit in with the world—we can’t fit in—but we still have our flesh that wants to fit in and does what the rest of the world does.

Our birth from above gives us the light and power to walk in the Spirit, and not follow after the way of the flesh.  The way of God’s child is to have unity of mind, not division by earthly distinctions—skin color, ethnicity, language, social group, or wealth.  The way of God’s child is to sympathize with one another, not close our hearts to cancel others and say I’ve got one less problem without you.  The way of God’s child is love for our brothers, not a thin tolerance that gives each other only the bare minimum.  The heart of God’s child is the work of God Himself: Compassion and humility—both qualities our Lord Jesus Himself displayed: “When He saw the crowds, He had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless” and “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart.” (Matt. 9:36, 11:29)  He has a heart that is vulnerable for others.  Compassion means to be moved in your guts—to grieve with those who grieve, rejoice with those who rejoice, and share the burdens of those in need.  Lowly means to abase yourself, choosing to consider the needs of others before your own.  It’s no easy task when the messages around us encourage us to take care of ourselves first, and isolate from those who are different or cause us pain.  Rather than “everyone for himself,” our lives as God’s children are for the purpose of blessing others.

10 For “Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit; 11 let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it. 12 For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” [cited from Psalm 34:12-16]

These are not empty human words, a motivational speech to spur us into better living.  This is God with us, who has given us the “washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” (Titus 3:5)  God is with us as we walk through this world, bringing His blessing to our friends and enemies alike.

But, as God well knows, His blessing often not well-received:

13 Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? 14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.

Blessing those who curse us, but in that suffering, we are actually blessed by God.  Fear is removed, because we do not live by the acceptance of others; we live by the acceptance of God through His Son.  Our identity in Baptism—where God knew us before we were born and here in time named us with His own Name, bestowing faith, peace, and an eternal future on us—is firmer than the fickle favor of society.  It endures even when the closest of family ties are strained.  The bond we have in the Spirit is closer than we have with even our friends who we’ve known the longest and the most.  This is the rock upon which your life is founded—your ground of being.

Christ the Lord is holy to us, even as He has set us apart to be holy to Him.  He is our highest good here in time and there in eternity, because He has loved us and blessed us with the gifts of forgiveness, joy, peace, and hope that outlast this world and its trouble.

Christ our Lord desires this life for every human.  People not a discardable entity, an accident, a hot mess, or a dumpster fire; each person is a sacred creation of God the Father, whom He values so much that He shed the blood of His own Son to save from the devil, rebellion, and eternal destruction.  He blesses our fellow human creatures by putting His Word on our lips.

So, I’d like to come back to what we’re doing today with this rite of Confirmation.  In the words echoing from Luther’s Small Catechism, “Was ist das?” / or as we know it, “What does this mean?”

There are several misunderstandings about Confirmation that should be cleared up first.  In case you didn’t know, Confirmation as a rite was never specifically commanded by the Lord.  The result of confirmation certainly happened: Peter and the other apostles were beaten for preaching Jesus, but they were “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.” (Acts 5:41)  Paul suffered for the sake of Christ’s Name, nevertheless “as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities… purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; by truthful speech… through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise…10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.” (2 Cor. 6:4-10) (Acts 9:16).  And Timothy, who “fought to food fight of the faith, [taking] hold of the eternal life to which [he] was called and about which [he] made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” (1 Tim. 6:12)

But in practice Confirmation often takes its cues from our own imagination.  For some, it’s nothing more than a coming-of-age ceremony, since it happens usually in middle or high school.  Then it becomes little more than a reason to have cake and receive unexpected gifts, and now you’re free to either come to church or forget everything and live like everyone else.  This is the rationalist side of it, that just sees the outward, the material.  This is also where the graduation analogy haunts pastors and members of the congregation, as they see these confirmands today, but rarely ever again, as if the pews and parish hall were as inappropriate to revisit as your high school once you had diploma in hand.

Confirmation can also be misunderstood in the other direction: That it gives you some additional grace which you did not previously have.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, “By Conformation, Christians, that is, those who are anointed, share more completely in the mission of Jesus Christ and the fullness of the Holy Spirit…By this anointing the confirmand receives the ‘mark,’ the seal of the Holy Spirit” (CCC, 1295).  But to this, I ask, where is the Scripture which backs this up?  Where does Scripture teach a specific grace given beyond what is already bestowed in Baptism, besides the various gifts of the Spirit which manifest themselves as we serve God and our neighbor?

It also might be misunderstood that after today, these two young people become “full” members of the congregation, where before they were some kind of 2nd class passengers, because today they are welcomed to the Lord’s altar.  It’s understandable, if we see the Lord’s Supper as a privilege we earn by our studies.  I’ll save this topic for another sermon, but suffice to say now, confirmation is not a prerequisite for beneficially receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus in the fellowship of this altar. But more on that another day.

But what is confirmation to be?  It is the point where you have been called by the Gospel in your Baptism, matured in your own faith and study, and are able to articulate your faith and understand why you are a Christian and why you make this confession.  Confirmation is where you assume the responsibility of being a public Christian.  And how great this responsibility is in these last days!

For such a great task, we need, first of all the Holy Spirit’s grace, who our Lord promises to send in our need: “The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” (John 14:26) and “Do not be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say, 12 for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.” (Luke 12:11-12)

You need support in the Body of Christ, because from here on it will only get more complicated and difficult.  “Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love and in steadfastness.  Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine.  They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and subordinate to their own husbands” (Titus 2:2-5)   This congregation is not a club, but one piece of the Body of Christ here in Lebanon, and if we are to endure the blessed sufferings of belonging to Christ, we need to do so together, caring about and caring for one another.

And finally, we continually need to pray for one another.  We already do, every time we beseech our Father as His Son taught us. But I would urge you to pause in your praying of the Our Father, and put a name to your brothers and sisters that they would hallow God’s Name in their lives, or that His Kingdom would come to more people in this world, or for whatever trials we bear that God’s will is done, that He forgive us when we sin, that He aid each other against temptation, and when His purpose is fulfilled for each of us, that He take us to Himself in eternity.

Landon and Gwen, and all the saints gathered here, “May the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” (1 Thess. 5:23-24) In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Fourth Sunday after Trinity

Readings: Genesis 50:15-21 | Romans 8:18-23 | Luke 6:36-42

Text: Luke 6:36-42

We are living in what could possibly be the most judgmental period in human history.  Despite the efforts of previous generations to teach us not to be judgmental, the pendulum has swung back sharply and made us and the society we live in into critical monsters.  Judging makes small men feel big, gives us a feeling of control in a chaotic world. We vainly imagine that we sit above it all, objective, fair, and wise, ready to weigh in with wit and insight that will garner the approval of others on and offline.

This is an age of great delusion, a time of chauvinism where we believe we can look with superiority over the actions and motives of others.  Not only do we think that we’re competent to judge every decision which our supervisor makes, but even the public policies of nations and the way the neighbor cuts his grass. We think that we’re competent to understand complicated scientific and societal problems.  After all, didn’t we read that 900-word article on the topic that our friend shared on Facebook?  Didn’t we skim what Google has carefully curated for us?  Ask anyone their opinion of masks, vaccines, and health policy, and you’re sure to bring the expert out in each of us. 

Repent. These are all vanities. They do some harm, but we do worse. Technology has enabled and encouraged us toward judgment. We have laughed at compilations of America’s Dumbest Criminals. From the safety of the screen, we have been self-righteously disgusted with what media outlets and YouTube has showed us. Still, we have been worse. We have looked at our own family and friends, our brothers and sisters in Christ, and silently, or quietly behind their backs, labelled them idiots because they dared to have an opinion different than ours — as though we were all-wise and perfectly educated and reasonable and had the right to judge them. According to Jesus if you call a man a fool—even that man can’t hear you, even if he is only an image on a screen—then you are in danger of Hellfire. Don’t brush off the words of Jesus. That is what He says, and He means it. Repent.

Judging in these ways is unbefitting of our calling. It is condemned by the 8th commandment. Even if the judgments were accurate or fair, even of your brother-in-law is a fool, these judgements would damn us. They hurt people. They damage our faith.

The golden rule exposes us:

“Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven 38 give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”

We hate to be judged with the judgment with which we have judged. Who has never been bullied out of fear of judgment into silence or into towing the party line? In our day, a single misstep, the repetition of a thoughtless cliche, or even failure to praise and pander to the right group with the right words can end a career or incite violence. And if that can happen when the one being judged is actually innocent, imagine what happens when we actually deserve judgment, that is when we say something wrong or ignorant or mean out of stress or pain. You could be the next “Karen”—a called out white woman, that the world feels superior to and you could lose your job and your family and friends because of it.

We would be fools to not be careful in this social climate, but even so we are weak. We sometimes lash out in that weakness, from pain or fear or exhaustion. We sometimes cave to our baser desires. And if we weren’t enough of a problem in ourselves, the world’s standards are ever changing. We cannot appease them for the prince of this world is the father of lies. He loves the judging, the plotting, the putting on of appearances. If we think that we must win his approval through the world’s judgment we will be driven either to self-righteous delusion or to despair.

Instead, turn to Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith. He is more ready and eager to forgive than Joseph, of whom we heard in the Old Testament lesson. He has plans for us beyond this groaning world, adoption into His home and the redemption of our bodies. He has been the victim of slander, false accusations, and racism. He has suffered terrible injustice and cruelty. He has been tortured and betrayed and killed. He has borne all this in our place. His sorrow and suffering is our bride price. He has won and paid for us with His own life to free us not only of the punishment that our sins deserve, but also to free us also from judgment. For Christ’s sake we are spared our Father’s wrath and the judgment of the world is moot. He presents us as His immaculate Bride, clean and without blemish, free of the past, of guilt and regret, with eyes only for Him.

That is both a present and a future reality. Our guilt is removed. We are declared righteous by Christ now. And yet, we do not yet fully know this righteousness in our bodies or our minds. We must contend still with our own fallen flesh and the broken world all around us. This is not our home. We do bad things here, failing to live up to God’s Law, and bad things are done to us, some of which we deserve and should expect and some of which we shouldn’t. Thus, we are ever more eager to depart from this world, for us to die is gain.

While we are here, groaning with creation in eager expectation of our revelation to the world as the church, and ourselves as God’s own sons, we fight within ourselves. The old man is daily drowned by the Law. We hear Jesus’ command: “Judge not; condemn not; forgive” and we repent. We recommit and set our wills to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in what is good, in what He gives, in what He says, even if what He says accuses us. And we trust that our salvation is secure in Him, by His grace, not by our keeping of the Law, but by His keeping of the Law and facing judgment for us. We are saved by grace through faith.

When it comes to our own temptation to judge in the ways of the world and our failures to resist it, our repentance and amending our lives means that we must do the work of reconciliation. While the unbelieving world has a loud group of spectators ever ready to judge and criticize all actions by their own fickle standards, our homes and our families and our church do not. We must not. We cannot. We are not spectators, waiting to sweep in on those who make a mistake or who cave in to lust or anger or greed.

We are brothers and sisters in Christ. We are bound by forgiveness and compassion. We kneel together in humility and joy. We pray therefore for courage and compassion, that we would act as true friends and companions. We ask that the Spirit would increase our love for one another and give us wisdom so that we would actually care for one another in word and deed and thought.

We are not interested in party slogans or posing as Christians, while we hold bitterness in our hearts. We do not care for code language meant to show that we are in the right tribe or on the right side. We love one another. We, the children of God, always have – even we have acted as though we did.

41 Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 42 How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.

Forgiveness and tolerance are not novel ideals for us in this new, exceedingly judgmental environment. Forgiveness and tolerance are the hallmark of what Christ has done for us, how He sustains us, and who He makes us to be. Our prayer is that God honor us by allowing us to care for one another where it hurts and where we differ. We do not ignore the specks in one another’s eyes, nor do we seek to profit from them or to show our superiority in any way. Let there be no delight in the failure of our enemies or our friends—”20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Rom. 12:20-21) We continue, by grace, in what God has begun, in what we learned in the Catechism. We strive to speak and act and even think in love at all times and places, to put the best construction on why specks exist, and to see one another as Christ sees us, in compassion and mercy, and not as competition.

This, the measure that Christ has used with us, even though we have no right to it. In Him, we ask, that we might share His abundant patience and love also with one another and be His Church.  In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.

Original sermon by Pastor David Petersen of Redeemer Lutheran Church, Fort Wayne, IN, adapted by Pastor Michael Miller.

Third Sunday after Trinity

Readings: Micah 7:18–20 | 1 Peter 5:6–11 | Luke 15:1-10

Text: Luke 15:1-10

There are times in Scripture where we can see the truth of God’s work on the lips of His enemies.  Consider how Caiaphas spoke of the Sanhedrin’s plot to kill Jesus in John 11:

Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. 50 Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” 51 He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, 52 and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. (John 11:49-52)

God used this significant statement for His praise in spite of the desires of speakers.  And a great example of this is here in Luke 15:

“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

The Pharisees and scribes were grumbling against Jesus because, of all things, He was receiving sinners and eating with them.  What was offensive to them came to be that very thing which Christians have rejoiced in!  It is such glory for us, that we joyfully sing, “Jesus sinners doth receive!  Oh, may all this saying ponder!” (LSB 609:1)

The Pharisees had the wrong idea about Jesus’ person and work—and in that they also despised the very work of the Lord God among the sons of the promise made to Abraham. They refused to believe that Jesus was the Promised Seed of Abraham, the Son of David, sent from the heavenly Father. They refused to believe that one Man is able to make atonement for the sins of many.  Even more troubling, they failed to understand the depravity of human nature. A pious Pharisee would never dream of calling himself a “sinner.” Such religious people behave like the chief of sinners—that is, those who consider themselves the exception to God’s rules and choose their own way—but they would never dream of calling himself chief of sinners.

But it’s not just a problem for the Pharisees, as much as we might like to distance ourselves from their practices.  Pastor Scott Murray recently wrote,

“Some years ago while doing door-to-door evangelism, I met a woman who claimed that she hadn’t sinned in the previous two years. To my Lutheran years such a claim itself seemed to be a sin: the sin of pride. However, I had the wisdom (or the cowardice) to keep my opinion to myself. This woman’s self-view contradicted Scripture. St. John puts this claim to moral purity to flight in 1 John 1:8: ‘If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.’ Note we remain sinners. John includes himself with his readers. Christians remain sinners. This is why the church constantly prays, ‘Forgive us our trespasses.’” (Memorial Moment, June 27, 2022)

Thinking reasonably, who would want to be a sinner, much less spend extended time in their company?  Aren’t they the cause of all the trouble in the world?  When we dream of a utopia in the world, we imagine how much better society would be without creeps, cheats, unfaithful, and the disobedient.  Wouldn’t the world be better off without such people?  Oh wait, where do you stop?

The other scandalous thing about Jesus is that He actually seeks out sinners in order to eat with them.  A Holy God and Savior who seeks sinners is ridiculous! Sinners should seek salvation, shouldn’t they?  They should recognize the wrong they’ve done, the hurt they’ve caused!  Isn’t that what we wish about the people who have hurt us?

But that is not God’s way.  Instead, our Lord teaches us about God’s heart with these parables:

“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’…
“Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’

If we follow the logic of the parable, it would be easy to fault the sheep for wandering off, or in the parable that follows, fault the son for his foolishness.  But what about the lost coin?  These parables are all together because the point isn’t the will of the sinner.  The heart and will of every sinner is hopelessly lost until God our Savior comes and seeks us out.  Rather than find fault in the thing lost, it’s to show just how powerful sin is over a person.  It can distort everything like a funhouse mirror—a twisted version of God and a twisted version of ourselves.

Sin makes people wise in their own sight, which is precisely why they don’t see their need for a Savior.  In fact, those without faith look at repentant sinners found by Jesus Christ and taunt them. Secular therapists just can’t understand why Christians would be so obsessed with things like sexual purity, duty, or forgiveness toward those who mistreat us.  Just as the Pharisees looked down on Jesus and the company He kept, they see God’s mercy in Jesus Christ as foolishness.  

Jesus indeed receives sinners. God works in the lowly to shame the wise. God uses the folly of the cross in place of the ways the world expects Him to work. The world expects God to break into our world to work some sort of showy, flashy event. Even in our estimate, those repentant sinners ought to get it together and stop sinning by sheer willpower.  But Jesus is not the sort of Savior who just gives us the “buy-in” to salvation.  He is with us to take us the whole way through this life, there with His grace and goodness, His power to save us even in the continued struggle against the weakness of our sinful flesh.

From our perspective, it’s a mess.  Jesus seems to pick lousy company, this lot of people with messed up pasts, failures day to day, hurting each other and being hurt.  But yet, He receives them.  He receives us.  Foolishness, the world says.  Foolishness, the pious Pharisee says.

By these parables, Jesus invites all of us to a view from above.  It’s a view that’s so far above none of us could ever dream it if He hadn’t told us about it:

Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance…10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Joy in heaven? Angels rejoicing?  Can it be that the halls of heaven ring out in celebration over sinners?  Yes!  For every sinner whom Jesus finds—washing  them in His precious blood, covering them with His spotless robe of righteousness, rescuing them from a thousand perils (including pride) that would send them to destruction—there is joy before the Father’s throne.

What brings joy to angels, like we see in the cover picture from ceiling of the Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome?  It’s not the room being filled with thousands of skilled singers, the most beautiful adornments, or even the number of people who were in attendance.  It’s the person on his or her knees saying, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

That is not at all what we on earth expect to be the theme in heaven.  As it is in heaven, so is God’s desire on earth.  What do we expect to find in the Church?  Who are these people who are sitting next to us, behind and in front of us?  They are sinners, just like you.  They have hurts and shames, faults and flaws, just like you.  It is Jesus, the friend of sinners who has brought us together in this congregation.  We have come to the right place—the only place—for relief from our burdens and to be healed from our sin.  So, as the angels rejoice at sinners who have come to Jesus, God teaches us to rejoice in every brother and sister we see here.  This is not a congregation of perfect saints (save that hope for the Last Day), but a bunch of misfits who have been called by the Gospel to know God’s mercy found in Jesus.  And with that vision of the Church, our merciful Father is teaching us to have mercy for one another.

Not only does Jesus receive sinners; He eats with them too.  And that is what the Lord’s Supper is which we receive this day.  Our Lord is inviting us once again to His table, where it’s no potluck.  He is the host, and He will serve the meal, for all we bring are empty hands, fainting hearts, and the faith which God the Holy Spirit has put in us.  What does He say to us?  No matter how many times we have failed, He says to our repentant heart:

“Take; eat.  This is My Body given for you.  Take; drink. This is My Blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of our sins.  This do as often as you drink it in remembrance of Me.” 

Jesus receives you, and dismisses you with heavenly joy.

This is also why it’s so important that the Lord eat with us at least every week.  Each time, we come with our burdens and griefs, our longings and hopes.  All of these things are very real: the pit in our stomach, the ache in our heart, the strife we are in the midst.  They are all we see and feel and touch through the week.  But then we come here, and the Lord gives us a perfect cure which we can see, feel, and touch: a tangible proof that Jesus receives sinners and eats with us.

Even though the unbelieving world may scoff at it, and our sinful flesh fight against it, it the truth by which we live: Jesus sinners doth receive.  Do not disbelieve, but believe [John 20:27].  In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.