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

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Ninth Sunday after Trinity + August 18, 2019

Text: Luke 16:1-13

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

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

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

What’s this that Jesus says next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lord’s Supper

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

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

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

Baptizing and Teaching

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20, p. 835)

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

Supporting the pastor

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

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

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

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

Support for the wider church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

[3] Hebrews 11:10

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

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

Text: Matthew 7:15-23

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

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

The Gospel for today also uses gardening for a lesson:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Seventh Sunday after Trinity + August 4, 2019

Text: Mark 8:1-9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the future.

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

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

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

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

Feed Thy children, God most holy;

      Comfort sinners poor and lowly.

O Thou Bread of Life from heaven,

      Bless the food Thou here hast given!

As these gifts the body nourish,

      May our souls in graces flourish

Till with saints in heavenly splendor

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


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

Sixth Sunday after Trinity (Matthew 5:20-26)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Sixth Sunday after Trinity + July 28, 2019

Text: Matthew 5:20-26

How different Judaism was from Christianity!  Of course, there’s the main difference: believing that Jesus is the promised Messiah (Christ).  But when you accept Christ, all of Scripture suddenly must be reexamined through the cross.  Jesus says to the Jews of His day, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.” (John 5:39)

To give you an example from our Vacation Bible School this past week, we first talked about God’s way with Adam and Eve in the Garden.  There were two trees in the Garden—the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  They were free to eat of any tree—including the Tree of Life—but not the other tree.  We know what happened, that they turned their hearts away from God’s Word and disobeyed that one simple prohibition.  When God is shoving them out the door, He says, “Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” (Genesis 3:22)  That living tree with its life-giving fruit was barred for man, so that he would not avoid the consequence of his sin—death.

But when we read this as Christians, we see the promised deliverance.  The Son of the Living God was lifted up on the cross—an instrument of death penalty, made from dead wood—and by that He gave life to the world.  1 Peter 2:24 explains, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.”  Death was borne by the Living God, and the very instrument of His dying brought life to dying men and women.  So in John’s Revelation at the end, the Tree reappears in full leaf, bearing constant fruit, “The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” (Rev. 22:2)

I have to say, however, one of the most difficult things to resolve between the Old and New Testament is what to do about the Law once the Gospel has been revealed.  Jesus takes up this question in His debut sermon:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

There are two extreme approaches to the Law that Christians have taken:

  • First, there’s no more need for the Law because Jesus fulfilled it all.  The Lamb of God has taken away the sin of the world, and we are new creations in Christ, so what good are the Ten Commandments to us?

“This one party taught and held that the regenerated do not learn the new obedience (that is, in what good works they should walk) from the law; nor should this doctrine in any way be urged on the basis of the law, since they have been liberated by the Son of God, have become his Spirit’s temple, and hence are free, so that just as the sun spontaneously completes its regular course without any outside impulse, they, too, through the inspiration and impulse of the Holy Spirit spontaneously do what God requires of them.” (Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, VI 2)

That would be great, if it weren’t for the sinful flesh we still live with.  But it’s that flesh and the devil around us that—even for genuine believers—causes us to disobey and despise God’s Word.  We still need the Law to show us our sin, because we still need our sin to be put to death.

This is what you see in many progressive churches that embrace immoral behavior in the name of “love.”  They will say the Law (and most of the Old Testament) is obsolete. A favorite verse of this approach is Galatians 3:25-28: “But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian [the Law], for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  With this “liberation” from the Law in mind, this passage is used to justify everything from women’s ordination to transgenderism.

There’s a milder (but no less dangerous) version of this that considers the Gospel a watered-down Law.  Sure, God was serious when He commanded these things, but Jesus has given us a pass to make mistakes.  “All you have to do is believe in Jesus, and then you’re good!” The way this shows is when we tell ourselves, “Ah, I live a pretty good life.  I’ve done enough.”  When your walk with the Lord is about doing the minimum to “get into heaven”—I come to church now and then, I take communion when I really need it so it feels more special, I read my Bible when I have time (aka rarely).

  • Second, the other extreme is when the words of Jesus, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” are taken as a call to action, a personal challenge.  You could call this works righteousness, or a holiness movement.

The fallout from this approach is people despairing that they’re “not good enough” to be a Christian because they struggle with sins and have a messy past.  If Jesus is commanding us to obey the Law even stricter, then what hope is there for those who have been divorced?  What of those whose criminal records remind them daily of their unworthiness?  If you take it to extremes, can those who smoke and drink even be saved?

  • But neither of these extremes is correct, because both of them have no need for Christ.  If Christ negated the Law for us, then maybe God was unjust for putting people to death before?  If Christ came to ramp up the requirements for personal holiness, then what good was His all-atoning sacrifice on the cross?
  • “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”  The Law and the Prophets expose our sin, our uncleanness, the reason we die, and most of all our need for them to be fulfilled for us.  They lead us right to the manger, the preaching of the Kingdom of God, Calvary, and the empty tomb.  Our sins do alienate us from God and from one another, but Jesus Christ, the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets brings reconciliation.
  • In Him, our errors—which are many—are not overlooked, but atoned for.  That’s why we are baptized into His death and resurrection.  It’s life for every sinner who believes!  Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
  • How does this change our lives?  Jesus uses several Commandments as an example, starting with the Fifth:
  • “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But 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.”
  • God is not very interested in outward appearances because He looks at the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  The sinful man looks at the command, “You shall not murder” and thinks he’s avoided it because he doesn’t have criminal penalties.  But God goes deeper to the place where murder starts—in a cold heart toward a fellow human being.  This is where we need the real work.
  • So, God doesn’t just work an outward, civil righteousness, but works change in the heart.  If you are prone to angry outbursts, God works to give you a forgiving, reconciling heart toward those who offend you.  If you’re an alcoholic, God gives you a heart that leans on Him rather than the escape of a buzz.  If you delight in checking out fine women in summer clothing or fantasize about how another man would treat you, God is at work to give you eyes and a devotion only for your spouse.

This is God’s will and God’s work for you in Christ, to daily drown your old sinful nature, and to rise to live to God not just with your outward actions, but from a heart that is being renewed after the image of your Creator (Col. 3:10) Amen.

Fifth Sunday after Trinity (1 Kings 19:11-21, 1 Cor. 1:18-25; Luke 5:1-11)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Fifth Sunday after Trinity + July 21, 2019

Text: 1 Kings 19:11-21, 1 Cor. 1:18-25; Luke 5:1-11

I think we would all agree that God is higher and greater than us. (After all, we wouldn’t be here if we were convinced otherwise.)  As He explains in Isaiah 55:8-9, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”  But sometimes it’s hard to remember that in our daily lives.  We’re going to take a closer look at each of the three readings and focus on how this truth comforts and guides us in our lives.

Before we do, I’d like to turn our attention to the Collect of the Day (which we will pray in a little bit).  The purpose of the Collect is to collect the common lessons from the Scripture assigned for the day, and then put it in the form of a prayer.  So, we pray:

O God, You have prepared for those who love You good things that surpass all understanding.  Pour into our hearts such love toward You that we, loving You above all things, may obtain Your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Old Testament: Putting God above our observations.

Now, turn over your bulletin and follow along with the lessons.  First, in the Old Testament lesson from 1 Kings 19, a little background: Elijah is a faithful prophet.  But there isn’t much market for a faithful prophet, because Israel is being ruled by Ahab and Jezebel, who have embraced pagan worship and tried to supplant or at best synchronize worship of the Lord with the Baals (manmade deities).  In the previous chapter, Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to a contest of offerings, to see whose was the true God.  The Lord vindicated His might before Israel and Elijah had the false prophets put to death.  But that got him in hot water with Queen Jezebel, and she wanted him gone.  Elijah fled from her into the wilderness, and even asked that God take his life, “saying, ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.’”  So, Elijah had gone from a great, visible success in his ministry to the depths of loneliness and despair.  He was to be no better than the prophets who were rejected before him—Moses, Samuel, or the company of brothers who had preached in vain to wicked kings before him.

This is the background for the Lord’s lesson in our text (1 Kings 19:11-21).  Elijah is struggling with his jealousy for the Lord, and the rejection and persecution he’s gotten in return for it. He’s weary from fighting.  His conscience won’t allow him to just go along with the crowd and take the broad and easy path, because that would be unfaithful to His Redeemer, the Lord.  But all that remaining true to God has seemed to have gotten him is scorn and alienation.

But God teaches Elijah by four illustrations: a great wind, a great earthquake, a fire, and finally a whisper—a “still, small voice.” (NKJV)  The impressive and powerful things it says, “the Lord was not in” them.  But He was in the seemingly weak and ineffectual—a whisper.  Here, God is teaching Elijah that His ways are not to be judged by human observation and reason, but by His Word and faith.

This had been a continual lesson for God’s people, in their battles—Pharaoh’s army drown in the Red Sea (Exodus 14), the walls of Jericho falling at the sound of the trumpet and a mere shout (Joshua 6), and the 120,000 Midianites defeated by Gideon’s 300 men (Judges 7-8).  God is at work even when the visible and immediate seems to be just the opposite.

Can’t you relate?  The immediate seems impossible and hopeless.  How could there be any reconciling after months or years of wrongs?  What hope is there for that wayward grandson to ever know the Lord?  Who could survive when the doctors say the chances are so low?

When we witness the world around us, and see how degraded it’s getting, it can wear us down.  Living as a faithful (not nominal) Christian is only getting harder and more unpopular.  When we are convinced from God’s Word of right and wrong, we run contrary to hordes of people who are caught up in the times.  Masses of people could care less what Scripture says, and the plethora of churches that were planted 60 years ago now struggle to be self-supporting.  Visibly, outwardly weak.

But God is greater than our observations, and He is still at work.  Sinners do hear the word of God and turn from their wickedness.  Parents do make worship and Bible study a priority for their family and make the time.  And He even gives us eyes to see the signs that this world is passing away, and the Great Day is surely drawing near.  As the hymn says, “Though hidden yet from mortal eyes, His Gideon shall for you arise.  Uphold you and His Word.” (LSB 666:2)

Epistle: Putting God above our expectations of Him.

Next, we turn to the Epistle lesson from 1 Corinthians 1:18-25.  Jesus is not the Savior people want Him to be.  He doesn’t fit into our human reason.  He also doesn’t open the ground to swallow His enemies or make manna appear on the ground anymore.  Not that He doesn’t reveal Himself through these things.

He gave us reason and language so that He could relate and interact with His creatures.  He is a God of the Word, and He inspired the very words and language syntax so that we might know Him.  His Word reveals clear truths that can be communicated and placed in categories.  But on the other hand, there are things that we cannot know about Him through reason—how His Son can be the sacrifice for the sins of the world, and yet many are not saved, how He created the world and sustains it by His Word, how He is one God in three Persons, how Jesus Christ is able to be bodily present everywhere His Body and Blood are eaten and drunk.  These things defy our love of reason.  We want to have everything figured out and understood.  The first temptation into sin came with the promise that we would become wise, but it was in fact filled with evil and actually blinded us to God’s truth.

He also used to reveal Himself in signs and wonders.  We ought to be fully convinced from His Word that He did turn the water of the Nile into blood (and it was no red algae bloom), that He did truly part the waters of the Red Sea and Israel passed through on dry ground.  We should not doubt that Jesus healed the sick with a touch, cast out ferocious demons, and raised the dead.  We can further believe that the apostles spontaneously spoke in other languages, that they were able to heal the sick, and on one occasion raise the dead.  But we should also be content that the time for those supernatural, visible signs has passed for the most part.  It’s not like God isn’t capable of doing them, and in cases where it’s needed He does.  But to seek and demand these signs is to despise the places where He has promised to be for all people in every generation: in the preaching of repentance and forgiveness of sins, the holy and saving signs of Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper.  The sign that He is living and active, upon which the rock of the Church is built, is the confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God (Matthew 16:15-19).

The lesson here is that our expectations of God should not come from our darkened hearts, but from His own revealing of Himself on His terms.  Be sure that He does reveal Himself when and how He knows best!  A religion that “makes sense” in every point might be appealing, but it’s also the sign of manmade snake oil.  A blinding sign from heaven might be frightful to unbelievers and encouraging to believers, but the true work of God is what Jesus says in John 6: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”  It is His work that we give up our expectations of a reasonable faith and a God of signs and wonders.  “The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”  It is through Christ crucified that we sinners are put in our right mind and see heaven open before us.

Gospel: Putting God above our unworthiness and weakness.

Finally, in the Gospel, Luke 5:1-11, we hear of the first disciples meeting Jesus.  By virtue of hearing these stories many times, and through the fog of history, it’s hard to understand why Peter reacts the way he does.  Though the sign that Jesus does, it’s revealed to Peter that he is standing in the presence of the living God.  His reaction is not unlike Isaiah, who cries, “Woe is me!” when he is suddenly up-close and personal with Holy God.  There’s nothing that Peter can hide, as he finds himself veritably naked before God.

We’re often not aware how true this is.  God is omniscient, knowing our thoughts, words, and actions truly and completely.  Nobody is able to hide from His gaze, no matter how well we cover it from others.  So Peter, like us, cry out, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!”

But thanks be to God, He doesn’t listen to that request.  Jesus, the Crucified One, the physician of sinners, instead forgives Peter: “Do not be afraid” because where God removes fear, He has removed the guilt and condemnation.  These are words of the Absolution.  The God who fully knows your sin has brought it to your attention and yet His divine judgement is: Not guilty because the Lamb of God has been sacrificed in your place.

And here the lesson is that we put God’s Word above our own unworthiness and weakness.  It truly is His desire to come and dine with you, in a house of sinners like this.  He earnestly desires to receive you.  When we think about worthiness, we must put His judgement above our own.  In preparation for the Lord’s Supper today, the Catechism asks, “Who receives this sacrament worthily?  Answer: Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training. But that person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’ But anyone who does not believe these words or doubts them is unworthy and unprepared, for the words ‘for you’ require all hearts to believe.”  What makes us worthy is a true and faithful confession, as John writes,

If we say we have fellowship [communion] with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:6-10)

It’s true that God’s ways are higher than our ways, and thanks be to God for that, because it’s in those ways that we believe His Word and through His Son we are saved.  Amen.

Third Sunday after Trinity (Luke 15:1-10)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Third Sunday after Trinity + July 7, 2019

Text: Luke 15:1-10

Sometimes, Jesus is offensive.  No, not like Howard Stern or Alex Jones.  Jesus is offensive because He sheds His holy light on what is ungodly in us.  When Jesus brings that light to men, one of two things happens:

  1. We cover up our evil with pride and make excuses for it (and hate the messenger). God says you should speak the truth in love, love covers a multitude of sins, and (as the Catechism says) put the best construction on everything.  But we just had to get it off our chest, and we just had to share those extra details which put the other guy in a bad light, and make us look either like a hero or a victim.
  • Or, we acknowledge our sins and do not cover our iniquities, as the Psalmist says.  When God calls us out on our sins of thought, word, and deed, we are ashamed of them.  We realize that we aren’t just in theory sinners, like it’s a blanket statement we can use to excuse ourselves from consequences.  None of the good things we’ve done can be used as justification. We grieve the ways our actions have offended God and hurt other people.  And as Psalm 32 continues, “I said I will confess my transgressions to the Lord, and You forgave the iniquity of my sin.” (Ps. 32:5)

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

The Pharisees and Scribes, and the tax collectors and sinners represent these two different reactions to the Word of God.  Now, it’s not hard and fast who’s in one “camp” or the other.  The two parables Jesus tells explain how God deals with sinners when they lose sight of their sin.

The parable of the lost sheep begins with a member of the fold, and through whatever circumstances—whether they were drawn away or thought they were strong enough to strike out on their own—gets in danger.  And God knows best of all that when someone gets in that place, they need to be sought out. They’ve separated themselves from the oversight and safety which the Shepherd provides.  The goal is on them being “found,” which means they’re restored to the company of the flock, of fellow sinners.

The next parable, of the lost coin, again shows the earnestness of God in searching for the lost with the picture of a woman who has lost 10% of her drachmas.  The focus isn’t so much on how the coin got lost (As people, we know we lose things all the time, usually by being distracted or absent-minded.  But, God is not this way.).  The focus is on the thorough search because of the imputed value of what was lost.  This is how the Lord feels about every human soul, as Ezekiel and St. Paul teach: “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live” and “God desires all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” (Ezek. 18:32, 1 Tim. 2:4).  He seeks their life because they are precious to Him—as precious as the holy blood of His Son, Jesus Christ. 

So not only do sinners gather around the preaching of God’s gracious Kingdom, but He actually seeks exactly these people.

In our Epistle lesson, Paul writes, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”  Paul is a prime example of both of these groups in the Gospel—the offended Pharisee and the humble sinner.  He details His former life, and how God’s good purpose was fulfilled in it.  This saying is trustworthy, and should be received by all: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.  Yes, the proud who say they have not sinned, so that He might humble them and show His grace.  Yes, those bowed down and already crushed, that He might raise them up and bid their broken bones to rejoice [Ps. 51:8]. 

This is a trustworthy saying not only because it’s true about everyone in the world whom God loves, but it also tells us what to expect in Jesus’ church.  I wish we would remember this more often, and not just give it lip service.  The Church of Jesus is comprised of broken people who are longing for God’s grace.  Last week, we heard Jesus picture them as the “poor and crippled and blind and lame.” (Luke 14:21)  They’re not your friends, the people you would choose to associate with (although you might find kindred spirits among them).

This is what separates the Church from every other club or association you belong to.  In those, you choose to be a member of the group.  And yes, humanly speaking, people choose to belong to this congregation or that, or whether or not to attend the Divine Service.  But I think explaining the word “church” is helpful.  In Greek it is ekklesia, from the words ek (out of) and kaleo (call).  The Church is those who are called out of the world by the Lord to belong to Him.  The Church has this one thing in common: we believe that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners including me!  That’s why we are all here.  Well, for the most part. 

The Church on earth, like those gathered around Jesus that day, is comprised of both humble sinners and hypocrites.  These sinners are less of sinners than others (so they think).  But remember the parables Jesus tells: He will seek out those who are lost that they might not perish eternally, and He highly values each person’s soul.  So if you are a hypocrite today, may God break your hard heart and give your faith, so that you would be ready to be sinners with the rest of us.

The experiences we have sometimes make us wonder if we’re on the right path as humble sinners, or if we’re hypocrites.  One part of life in particular is the pain and griefs we have.  How could a good and loving God let these things happen to those who are supposed to be His children?  With Job, we wonder if there is something we did to deserve a worse or harder life than people we’re pretty sure don’t know the Lord.  This is God’s answer to us is in Hebrews 12:

Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?

                  “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,

nor be weary when reproved by him.

                For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,

and chastises every son whom he receives.”

First consider the One whom we know for certain was God’s Son, because He it was declared loud and clear at His Baptism and on the Mount of Transfiguration: “This is my beloved Son.”  How did it go for Jesus?  Worst of all, because His life’s work was that of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  He knew no sin, He was like an innocent lamb led to the slaughter, and yet He was a man of sorrows, well-acquainted with grief.  But obviously, it’s not our course to bear the sins of the world, yet this is how God the Father raises His children through faith:

7 It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. 11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

His love isn’t to be sought in the discipline itself, but in His eternal purpose for His children: to train us in righteousness, to put our sins to death on Jesus’ cross, and galvanize our faith through the discipline we endure for a time.

This is how God seeks and saves the lost, gathers and guides those who our found, and brings eternal life to all who believe these words and promises of God.  Glory be to the God who saves sinners such as us! Amen.

Second Sunday after Trinity (1 John 3:13-18)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Second Sunday after Trinity + June 30, 2019

Text: 1 John 3:13-18

The word “love” has taken on a life of its own.  It’s as if everyone has their own private dictionary of what they want it to mean.  So many interpret it simply as an emotion, and a shallow emotion at that.  The word “love” is the same as strong affection—I have good feelings toward you because you put butterflies in my stomach, but as soon as that euphoria wears off, then I can just as easily despise you and cast you off.  Love is a strong emotion, but that’s only a narrow slice of what love encompasses.

It all starts with God, who loves.  Man’s love is fickle, man’s love is finite, and soured by bad history. Man’s love is fallible, no matter how strong or devoted.  The Christian band, Third Day, showed this in their song (appropriately named) “Love Song.” Written first person from the Lord:

“I’ve heard it said that a man would climb a mountain
Just to be with the one he loves
How many times has he broken that promise
It has never been done
I’ve never climbed the highest mountain
But I walked the hill of Calvary

“Just to be with you, I’d do anything
There’s not price I would not pay
Just to be with you, I’d give anything
I would give my life away.”

No matter our experiences or our feelings, God teaches us what love truly is: “By this we know love, that He laid down His life for us.”  Here is the gold standard for love: our Lord Jesus Christ.  He is Almighty, and yet He washed His disciples’ feet.  He is a King, and yet wore the form of a servant and was beaten for others’ crimes.  He was immortal and infinite, and yet to seek us He entered this world.  God became flesh.  While we were yet sinners, God died for us.

That’s what love is.  Not just a feeling, although the emotions are involved.  Not just a word, although the Word of God is living and active.  Love is not a passive thing, but a movement of the heart that pours out self-sacrificing action. John 3:16 gives us a definition of love: “God loved the world, namely that He gave up His only-begotten Son that whoever believes in Him may not perish.” (John 3:16, alt. translation) Call this not just love, but divine love.

But there’s a problem when it comes to us and divine love.  It’s problem we run into when we see the difference between God’s perfect love and man’s flighty love.  God made us for love, and even commands, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  Yet, it’s easy to find examples contrary to that.

We could sit here all day, talking about what love truly is.  But, it’s not good enough to just have a head knowledge of divine love, looking down on the ignorance of others.  We aren’t just to receive divine love and go on our merry way.  John says, “…And we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.”  How important is this?

Verse 14: “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death.”  The presence of divine love for our fellow human being is the evidence that God’s love has had its intended result in us.  When God talks about our loving as He has loved, He’s really talking about a living faith that abides in Him.

Maybe an illustration is best: “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?”  Like with love, heart is another word that gets boiled down to simply mean emotions.  But the Greek word, often translated “have compassion,” means the guts, the place where you feel your deepest affection and your deepest unease.  If you close your guts, cut off affection for your brother in need, how does God’s love abide in you?  It’s not a jab, or a religious trump card to manipulate someone; it’s a question of fact. 

The difference between God’s love and our love is important, and where it exists, it is a call for us to repent.  Yes, Lord, I have closed my heart to my brother’s need.  I’ve passed him by; I haven’t picked up the phone; I’ve resented that he never seemed to learn his lesson.  And yet that is exactly what God did for you! In His love for you, in spite of your sin, He did not close His heart.  “And out of compassion, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.” (Matt. 18:27)   This is what our heart (our guts) should do when we see others in pain and grief.  Rather than push them away, make excuses why it’s not our problem, we are to live in that love which we so highly prize for ourselves.  It’s the love that won for us eternal life.

How do we get there?  This is the Lord’s doing, to make His people those who know His love in their inner being.  Trust what God is able to do with you, because He is the one who removes your heart of stone and gives you a heart of flesh (Ezek. 36:26).  First of all, trust that He is able and willing to forgive all those times when you closed your heart to your brother, for the sake of Christ. 

Then, with the gift of the Holy Spirit in you, pray for Him to continue making you a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17)  Think of this when we sing and pray the Offertory in a minute: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”  You are confessing to God that it’s not good enough that you have a cold or lukewarm heart toward others.  Don’t let us be Cain, who was so blinded by his own jealousy that he raised a hand against his brother.  Don’t let us fail to raise our hands in help like the priest and the Levite who passed by the man in the ditch whom the Samaritan helped (Luke 10:29-37).  Give us a heart to recognize that all that we have is a trust from You for supporting the ministry of the word, caring for ourselves and our family who depend on us, and being willing to share our abundance when the need arises. “Cast me not away from your presence and take not your Holy Spirit from me.”  Give us a true fear of you, never to become complacent in our place in your Kingdom.  Keep us also from despairing of your mercy and believing that you have called us to be your children.

And remember our Lord’s promise: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another.” (John 15:16-17) God grant it for you, for the sake of Jesus.  Amen.

The Nativity of St. John the Baptist (observed) (Isaiah 40:1-5)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

The Nativity of St. John the Baptist (observed) + June 23, 2019

Text: Isaiah 40:1-5

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her   that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned,  that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.  And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

Comfort, comfort.  We love to get here.  But first has to come the discomfort.  The humbling.

This is described in picture language for us.  First, in terms of geological changes, akin to some of the changes necessary for I-90 to traverse the Cascades and Rockies.  The mountains and hills must be made low, the uneven ground become level, and the rough places a plain.  These describe some of the various effects the Word of God has on us during our lives.  There are times our mountains must be brought low—those things were are most proud of and unwilling to move.  How dare God tell us that we have to obey the authorities when we don’t agree with their decisions.  Who’s the county to tell me what I can do on my land?  This government is messing with the definition of marriage, so we’ll just be married in God’s eyes and forget the state.  But unless those authorities are forcing us to go against God’s Word, He says, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God…for he is God’s servant for your good.”  Mountain, be humbled.


Other times the Word must correct what is mostly right, but still needing refinement.  This is the uneven ground that needs to be levelled.  This is what happens when someone learns they must make a decision to ask Jesus into their heart to be saved, but then later learn to appreciate the magnitude of God’s grace, when He says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.”  Or when someone’s life completely falls apart, and they grow to appreciate the power of our Lord in the Sacraments—of the forgiveness declared on human lips and the very Body and Blood of Christ given us to have ongoing union with Him.

There are different ways that we react to that humbling word.  Some will say that word doesn’t apply to me and it’s out of line.  Recently, Roman bishop Thomas Tobin sent out the message on Twitter:  

Bishop Thomas Tobin‏ @ThomasJTobin1 Jun 1

A reminder that Catholics should not support or attend LGBTQ “Pride Month” events held in June. They promote a culture and encourage activities that are contrary to Catholic faith and morals. They are especially harmful for children.

One person[1] responded by saying, “Catholic #LGBTQ people know Christ loves us and lives in us. Pray for forgiveness.”  It sounds like the Bishop got schooled on knowing the love of Christ, but we need to think about this.  Yes, of course God loves all people, including those who sin sexually.  But Jesus does say, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word…Whoever does not love me does not keep my words.” (John 14:23-24)  Jesus loves us by saving us from sin and death, and a living faith will keep His word by living according to it.

God therefore comforts the afflicted, the humbled, those who have been brought low by sin and death—by their failures, by cancer, by losing friends and family.  This is where we see our Savior most clearly.  But those who refuse to be humbled will not know the true comfort that comes from God.  They’ll have to settle for the fleeting comforts that this world offers.

Now, it’s important to know that comfort is not to be confused with happiness.  God desires to comfort the humble, but this is so much more than “God wants you to be happy.” You can be comforted, even while you grieve a loved one.  You may not be happy about it, but because of the Lord’s Word and work, you have comfort stronger than the grief.  You can be comforted even when you lose your job and you’re forced on welfare, because you have a Father in heaven who will neither leave nor forsake you (Heb. 13:5-6).  You don’t have to be happy through it, but you do have a comfort that comes from the peace which passes all understanding, which is yours in Christ Jesus.

Today, we observe the nativity (birth) of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ.  That actually falls on June 24, a date picked because it’s about six months ahead of Christmas, the nativity of the Lord, because Luke tells us that Jesus was conceived when Elizabeth was in her sixth month (Luke 1:26, 36).  But another commemoration follows the day after: June 25th.  A couple years ago, we honored this event on a Sunday: The presentation of the Augsburg Confession. It was the first statement of faith of those who would later be called Lutherans.  Anyway, we’re not here for a history lesson, but one of the articles of the Augsburg Confession speaks to John’s ministry:

AC XII – Repentance

It is taught among us that those who sin after Baptism receive forgiveness of sin whenever they come to repentance, and absolution should not be denied them by the church. Properly speaking, true repentance is nothing else than to have contrition and sorrow, or terror, on account of sin, and yet at the same time to believe the Gospel and absolution (namely, that sin has been forgiven and grace has been obtained through Christ), and this faith will comfort the heart and again set it at rest. Amendment of life and the forsaking of sin would then follow, for these must be the fruits of repentance, as John says, “Bear fruit that befits repentance” (Matt. 3:8).

That’s the other part of John’s ministry.  He is always pointing sinners like us to Jesus for grace for our sins, but he also preached a genuine repentance that that shows in holy lives.  When God says to His people in Isaiah 40, embodied in Jerusalem, “she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins,” the proper result is that we want to turn away from sin and live lives of service to those around us.

It’s unfortunate that when Christians speak of living holy lives, people will react by saying that they preach works righteousness.  This is actually an example of our old flesh throwing up walls, not wanting to hear anything God has to say.  This is where we make excuses to say, it’s okay if we slack on our duty toward the poor because others will take care of them.  It’s alright if we don’t visit those who are sick or in prison because they should know we care about them, even if we don’t lift a finger to help them.

But then the voice of John the Baptist comes ringing through history and exposes our evil laziness: “Bear fruits that befit repentance!”  Don’t presume on the Lord’s kindness, that just because He doesn’t thunder from heaven about what we ought to do, think that He doesn’t really care how we live our lives.  His will for us is still the same—for us to do what He takes pleasure in—visiting the poor, caring for the needy, bringing relief to the suffering.  He wants us to serve our neighbor whenever we see them in need, and we have a way to bring relief.  The difference Christ made between the earth swallowing people up for their wickedness is that the punishment for our failure has been taken away.  It has been fully laid upon God’s Son, so that we are free.  We receive a double portion of good in place of what our sins deserved.

And in all of this, the glory of the Lord is seen.  This is the witness of who God is, and the

way He shows Himself to people who do not know Him.  From Zechariah’s song:

 76  And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;

for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,

      77         to give knowledge of salvation to his people

in the forgiveness of their sins,

      78         because of the tender mercy of our God,

whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high

      79         to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,

to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

God has prepared His way in you, and in all who hear His Word.  He has brought you to humility, to become like a child and receive His kingdom.  Now, having received His tender mercy, having been taken from the darkness of your own guesses about God, He guides you into the way of peace.  He leads you in living a life that follows that peace which comforts you in every affliction, which calms your heart in the face of disasters, and gives you that peace which this world cannot give.  He gives you that comfort, so that you are equipped to comfort others, as St. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”  So rejoice, beloved, that God continues His tender mercies to you, and He is your God and Savior today and into eternity.

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


[1] https://twitter.com/VABVOX?lang=en

The Holy Trinity (Isaiah 6:1-8; John 3:1-17)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

The Holy Trinity + June 16, 2019

Text: Isaiah 6:1-8; John 3:1-17

In the course of our lives, there are people we come across who are worthy of respect, who we look up to.  One that comes to mind for me is the technical director at my community college.  As I was just getting started in theater, he was an influential mentor.  He taught me the value of teamwork, dedication, and attention to detail.  He handled the logistics of getting performances in motion, and he was a teacher at heart.  I looked up to him and even aspired to the same work when I was done with school.

You have your own examples of role models—teachers, supervisors, or commanders whom you have respected and have inspired you.  It’s a privilege to learn from them and work for them.  Sometimes their influence can even change the course of your life.

While we all have different examples of those respectable leaders, there is One whom all of us “work for” and who inspires and teaches us: He is the Lord of Hosts.  Here’s how the prophet Isaiah met Him:

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:

                      “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;

                      the whole earth is full of his glory!”

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Isaiah got immediately dropped in the boss’ office (so to speak)—and he was rightly terrified at the sight!  Even the holy angels who serve in the Lord’s presence cover their faces!  How much less does a impure man of dust belong!  But in response to Isaiah’s terrified, true confession, the Mighty One made peace with Him and declared Him worthy to be in the presence of the Most High:

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”

The fear of condemnation and destruction is removed, so that this man can stand in the presence of the Holy, Triune God.  But then there’s an amazing turn!  And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.”  Isaiah—who just moments before feared eternal destruction—now eagerly volunteers to serve the Lord!  And that, even before he finds out what the job is!

This is the same awesome, holy God we worship here.  He is Thrice Holy, and He dwells in unapproachable light.[1]  Yet, He has cleansed us by His Word and washed us in body and soul.  This is the God who has come down to us in the flesh and said, “You are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you.”[2]  Not only be safe in His presence, but abide in him, the Holy One of Israel!

Having been cleansed, this is the same God we serve in our various vocations—husbands and wives, children and siblings, employees and managers, citizens, hearers of the Word.  All that we do is in service to our Lord, as St. Paul explains in Colossians: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality.”[3]  Where ever and whatever He calls us to, the one on whom His peace rests replies, “Here am I! Send me!” 

Yet, we serve a God who is beyond our understanding.  Being in His service, we may begin to think we understand Him better than others.  As the saying goes, “Familiarity breeds contempt.”  Maybe not always contempt, but a lack of fear.  In the Gospel for today, we hear of Nicodemus, who was a Pharisee and teacher of Israel: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”  He was sure he knew the things of God.  After all, he was a Pharisee who studied the Law of God day and night.  He knew the Torah and the Psalms by heart!

However, he was humbled by the Lord to learn he didn’t know as much as he imagined.  Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”  So much for being an expert on the things of God!  Not only did he have to go back to school—he had to go back to the womb and be born again!

It’s ironic that they issue pastors a “Master of Divinity” degree.  One lesson we should take from Nicodemus, the teacher of Israel, is that God has no Master and He cannot be studied and dissected.  He cannot be fit into nicely organized categories or domesticated for our fulfillment.  Whenever we, the creatures, think we have a leg up on Him, we find that we are the ones who are under His gaze: “The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord’s throne is in heaven; his eyes see, his eyelids test the children of man.”[4]

It’s true for every Christian when we find ourselves thinking we have a handle on “our religion.”  It’s about going to church, living a good life.  You support the good causes and oppose the bad.  Basically, we learn how to talk the Jesus talk and walk the Jesus walk.  We know more about God than unbelievers.

But do we really?  If we think we’re so wise, why don’t we explain the Trinity to someone?  Go and explain God’s justice to people who have lost everything in a tornado.  Try to argue exact dates for the age of creation, when the flood is, where the dinosaurs are, and how the Grand Canyon was formed.  When we try to tackle things like that, we run into the fact that God is infinite, immortal, omnipotent, and we are dust.

And that’s just the way it should be, because we are His creatures: “He is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, the sheep of his hand.”[5]  There’s nothing greater that we can be!  This great and awesome Triune God we serve has all knowledge and upholds the universe by His powerful Word.[6]  But this same God who has spoken to us by His Son.  And of all majestic and sublime things He could tell us of, this is what He says: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  God speaks and the world is created; He speaks and you are forgiven and given victory over death and eternal life with Him; His Spirit brings you to believe this good news and will raise you on the Last Day.  We truly serve an awesome God, here in time and hereafter for eternity.  Amen.


[1] 1 Timothy 6:16

[2] John 15:3, see also John 13:7-10

[3] Colossians 3:23-25

[4] Psalm 11:4

[5] Psalm 95:7

[6] Hebrews 1:3