Palm Sunday (Palmarum) (John 12:12-19)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Palm Sunday (Palmarum) + April 14, 2019

Text: John 12:12-19

The anticipation was great.  This wasn’t something just thrown together at the last minute.  The people of Israel had been waiting for literally centuries for this day to arrive.  The Son of David had finally come.  How could they know?  The signs pointed to this: The water into wine, the healings, the feeding of the 5,000, walking on the water, and raising the dead.[1]  Now it’s nearing the culmination of the Son of David coming to accomplish what was foretold: “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 Samuel 7:12-13).

That is why they gave Jesus a king’s welcome, laying palm branches on the ground before Him, and crying out, “Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!”  They were anticipating great things from Jesus, that He would bring an everlasting Kingdom of perfect righteousness and justice.  They were ecstatic about His arrival.

In contrast, you know who people aren’t excited to see arrive?  A representative from the government.  In our lives today, take for instance the county sheriff.  Far different from joyful anticipation, there’s a dread as he (or she) parks in your driveway, gets his things in order, and then walks up to your door.  What could it be for?  This visit usually isn’t just dropping by; there’s something behind it.  What could it be?  The good thing would be a welfare check (although that usually means your neighbors are worried about you).  But it could also mean someone is serving you with a lawsuit or divorce papers.  Oh great!  I guarantee nobody who gets a surprise visit like this says, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the law.

But, “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord” because of what had been foretold about His coming: “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming to you” and from the original Zechariah 9 adds: “Righteous and having salvation is he.”  The reason Jesus arrives is to bring something not found anywhere else in the world.  The sheriff brings notice of wrongdoing, impending condemnation, of failures and troubles.  Your conscience brings up the ways you’ve failed family and friends, how you’ve hurt others with your words and actions, and how people have put their confidence in you and you’ve let them down…again.

Blessed is Jesus, who comes in the Name of the Lord because He has righteousness and salvation with Him.  The prophecy from Zechariah goes on to say, “Humble and mounted on a donkey.” (Zechariah 9:9) He comes not only as a King, but as a servant for your good.  Even though He is very God in flesh, He humbled Himself to take your place under condemnation.  Jesus came to carry the sins of the world—your wrongs, your failings, your hurts, all the putrid stuff that weighs you down.  He humbly carried all of it to the cross so that you might be free before God.  All of His passion that you heard today was in service to you.

The people that day, expected a very different fulfillment of the promise to King David.  Most expected Jesus to reign from Jerusalem in an earthly kingdom.  But that wasn’t the plan.  Just a few days later, the crowds were incited to shout, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” (John 19:6)  He would reign, but His enthronement was nailed to the cross.  His Kingdom would not be visible, but hidden and received by faith.

That’s where we find ourselves.  God’s promise has been fulfilled.  The Son of David did come to reign, and the Kingdom He established will last for everlasting ages.  But we have not reached the end of the age, the consummation.  So, we who believe in our King receive what He brings us: His righteousness and true salvation.

That’s what lifts the weight of what we continue to face in life—the unexpected bad turns, being cheated out of money, our health declining.  Because a Christian has the righteousness and salvation of Jesus, these troubles—though painful—are temporary.  They literally are not the end of the world.  Our sufferings should be of no surprise to us, for He says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)  So, if we follow in His train, singing Hosannas to Himn, this teaches us that God is not taken offguard by the things we suffer.  His sinless Son suffered all these things that were not His sins, so that through His righteousness and salvation, we would have peace.  Because Jesus has served us, the end of the world will unveil our hopes to be true. Amen.


[1] The seven signs in John include: Changing water into wine at Cana in John 2:1-11; Healing the royal official’s son in Capernaum in John 4:46-54; Healing the paralytic at Bethesda in John 5:1-15; Feeding the 5000 in John 6:5-14; Jesus walking on water in John 6:16-24; Healing the man blind from birth in John 9:1-7; The raising of Lazarus in John 11:1-45

Fifth Sunday in Lent (Genesis 22:1-14)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Fifth Sunday in Lent + April 7, 2019

Text: Genesis 22:1-14

Genesis 22:2: “[God] said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.’”

We should be horrified at this

1) Because of what is being asked, and

2) Who is asking.

This is disgusting! An outrage!  And for God to ask for it?!  But over against the wrenching feelings in his gut that told him this was wrong, Abraham obeyed because of Who was asking.

  1. We also are told to believe God and trust what He says because of Who is speaking, even if it seems outrageous to our ears.
  2. In the world, when we are told that immoral things are acceptable and even good.
  3. We are flooded with examples of same-sex relationships that are supposed to validate them from Doc McStuffins[1] (a show for preschoolers which featured a “two mom” family in 2017) to Star Trek Discovery, which glorifies an intimate relationship between two men.
  4. Lawmakers harden their hearts against God and lead astray the ignorant by legalizing and encouraging murder under the guise of healthcare and destruction of gender distinctions and family structure under the banner of civil rights.
  5. We are told to believe and embrace some disgusting things, things contrary to nature, which even a healthy conscience says are wrong.  But who is telling us this?  Should we obey people, or God?
  6. Lest we become proud of how we haven’t been fooled by the world, we in our lives have made excuses for why it’s not so bad when we sin.
    1. The Lord condemns gossip, but we think He doesn’t mind our gossip, like when we get together and badmouth people who aren’t there to speak for themselves.  After all, we have their best interests at heart because we’re “good Christian” people.  But no matter how good our intentions are, we are going about it a sinful way, and we need to repent.
    1. There’s a lot in this world to be angry about—about what we hear on the news, corruption, the way people treat each other, and how people have treated us.  But the Lord says in Psalm 4:4, “Be angry and do not sin.”  When we feel anger over these things, we may be getting angry over genuinely bad things, but in our sin we go beyond our place.  We plot ways to make them see their error, ways that we can get an advantage over them.  But really what we need to do is get down on our knees and confess our pride and let God be right.  God will have His righteous anger, and act in the way that He knows is best.
  • But most of all in believing God over our understanding, we are to believe the Word of God that’s spoke in Confession and Absolution
    • Matthew 18:18-20: “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.””  – The Lord says an incredible thing here.  The keys are given to the Church, to be shared between each other.  And when we share that forgiveness, it isn’t just a human act—“whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven”—that forgiveness is valid before God.
    • John 20:22-23: “The Lord Jesus breathed on His disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” – The keys of the Kingdom are exercised publicly.
    • Reason would say, “Why should I believe that this word of forgiveness has any power beyond the person speaking it?”  “Who is the pastor to forgive sins?” But faith answers, Amen even when our reason says we don’t deserve it, or others don’t deserve it.  We believe this because of Who has spoken this Word.
  1. A faith that lives by God’s Word is called complete.
    1. James later says, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’” Abraham’s faith was completed by this work, as a matter of proof that his faith was living and active.
    1. Abraham’s faith was completed by his works.  How is our faith completed?  What sort of works does the absolution result in?  If we are absolved and immediately go out and condemn another, how have we taken grace to heart?  If we are absolved of our wretched thoughts, words, and deeds, and go out and freely do it again, are we actually letting the Holy Spirit sanctify us?  If our Christianity is only good on Sunday morning, but doesn’t change the rest of how we raise our families or live as citizens, are we really being salt and light as the Lord calls us?
    1. Abraham is an example for us, the man of faith.  The point is that faith in God and His Word changes who we are—how we think, how we speak, how we act.
      1. Biblical examples of this: Abraham went from being a pagan to a forefather of faith.  Peter started as a timid fisherman but God made him into a bold apostle.  Paul went from being a zealous enemy to a humble and powerful witness.
      1. God works these changes in your life as well, according to His own plan.  These are the fruits of faith. It isn’t going to be the same for everyone, because God has specific callings and situations for each of us.

[1] https://www.huffpost.com/entry/doc-mcstuffins-two-mom-family_n_59888da3e4b0ca8b1d49d483

Third Sunday in Lent (Oculi) (Exodus 8:16-24)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Third Sunday in Lent (Oculi) + March 24, 2019

Text: Exodus 8:16-24

While God was executing His judgment against the Pharaoh, the Egyptians, and their gods, God made a distinction between His people and His enemies.  Sure, at the start, the Egyptian magicians were able to turn water into blood (Ex. 7:22), and brought frogs on the land (Ex. 8:7).  But the time came where God displayed His mighty power that Moses wasn’t just a wizard, and the Deity Moses served was no impressive demon or demiurge.  The Lord God did not permit the magicians to counterfeit His work any longer (v. 8).  Furthermore, in the fourth plague of flies, He set a distinction between the lands.

The Exodus was, and to an extent still is, the quintessential act of deliverance for God’s people.  The Ten Commandments are prefaced with the identification: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Ex. 20:2)  The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of that act, for in it the Lamb of God and Firstborn Son shed His blood and became a whole burnt offering for the forgiveness of sins.  Not to mention, all of these things took place against the backdrop of the Passover (Mark 14:1, Luke 22:7, John 19:14).

It should not be a surprise that the same God who caused His people to walk through the Red Sea on dry ground, who crushed the Serpent’s head at the cross, and broke the unchallenged reign of death, would also mightily act for His people today.  The accounts of old were written for our learning (Rom. 15:4), and are a visible manifestation of what He still does for those who are His sons through faith in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:26).  In the Exodus, He restrained those who mocked Him and despised His people, and He still does.  They harden their hearts against God, and eventually “He gives them over to the evil lusts of their hearts.” (Rom. 1:24)  When it came to the flies, the Lord set apart His land and shielded it from the judgments against the hard-hearted Egyptians.  In the same way, He shields us from the wrath which is waiting to be revealed (Rom. 2:5) by the blood of the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world.

The Exodus was one example where God made a visible distinction between His people and those not His people.  Often the Psalmists complain that the wicked seem to have an advantage over the righteous (Ps. 73:1-12, Psalm 37:7-9).  In Psalm 73, Asaph confesses:

1Truly God is good to Israel,

to those who are pure in heart.

2But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled,

my steps had nearly slipped.

3For I was envious of the arrogant

when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

4For they have no pangs until death;

their bodies are fat and sleek.

9They set their mouths against the heavens,

and their tongue struts through the earth.

10Therefore his people turn back to them,

and find no fault in them.

We also wish that God would draw the lines thicker so we could see who’s in, and who’s out?  Are we in or are we out?  That’s what the Jews did when it came to Samaritans—a whole nationality of unbelievers.  Fantastic!  Now we know who God is going to rain fire and brimstone on, and who He’s going to shelter. 

But God doesn’t make it that simple for us, because the division isn’t a visible boundary.  Exodus 8:23 is translated, “I will make a difference between my people and your people.”  Well, in Hebrew it literally says, “I will set redemption between my people and your people.”  There’s the difference—who has the redemption?  Those who believe in Jesus Christ, the Redeemer.  The boundary between the people of God and hypocrites is found in human hearts—which only God knows.

As the Redeemed, we have a special status before God.  We have an access to Him that far exceeds anything money can buy or the right connections can get you.  We have the heart and ear of the Almighty: “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Heb. 4:16)  As a matter of fact, God does not hear and answer the prayers of unbelievers, no matter how pious their “thoughts and prayers” might be.

So, when it comes to the Lord’s Prayer, it’s not a magic formula to secure God’s blessing.  Instead, it’s a list of promises God the Father gives through His Son.  It’s promises as powerful and sure as the plagues poured out against Egypt, and the voice which commands the unclean spirits and they obey.

Now, as we pray the Our Father—or really any time we come to God in faith—we are asking for Him to prevail.  Let God be victorious and let His enemies perish.  This is what we ask as we pray: Hallowed be Thy Name, Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done.  We’re praying that other names would be profaned and shown to be as weak as their owners. We pray that God’s Kingdom of grace and glory would conquer the devil’s kingdom so that men might be saved.  We pray that everything on earth opposed to God’s will would fail, and that God have His good and gracious way in spite of everything else.

Luther says that we pray against the “world, the devil, and our sinful nature which do not want to hallow God’s Name or let His Kingdom come.” We’d all agree that those three are enemies of God.  Yet when we pray, we’re also asking God in spite of even our best plans and intentions.  As dear children asking their dear Father, we must submit our plans to Him.  “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” (Proverbs 3:5)

When we pray, we must acknowledge that only God is 100% right. Everything in us is always subject to misunderstanding at best and corruption at worst.  It’s not only calling on God when problems are bigger than we can handle; it’s calling on Him every moment because we can’t live without His direction.  We need to let God be right when we’re embroiled in disagreements, when husbands and wives are facing divorce, when we’re uncertain about the future.  Only God is right and only His motives are pure.  Only He knows the best solution for our future.  So we bow our knees before Him and ask for Him to lead the way.  Let God be God, and let us be His humble and obedient children.  If we won’t do this, and live without the assurance from Him, we might as well not pray and live like secular humanists.

In spite of our weak faith, and even before we had lifted a finger toward God, He reconciled us through the blood of His true, only-begotten Son.  It’s in Christ and through Christ that we have the access and blessing to call on God as our Father.  Even when we falter in our prayers, may God continue to work His good purpose for us and for all who hold to Christ.

Today, during the Prayer of the Church, we are going to take some much-needed time with each petition of the Our Father.  Luther called this prayer the greatest martyr of the Church because of how it’s rattled off.  Lord, forgive us our many trespasses, especially for treating your Word as something to be “gotten through.”  And just as surely as He set redemption between His people and all others, He is ready and willing to answer the prayer of faith.  Amen.

Second Sunday in Lent (Reminiscere) (Genesis 32:23-33)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Second Sunday in Lent (Reminiscere) + March 17, 2019

Text: Genesis 32:23-33

In Hebrews 11, the Apostle defines what faith is: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation.” (Hebrews 11:1-2).  We don’t see God, but we believe on account of His Word.  We see the world as it is, not as God first made it, and not as it will be.

But that’s a hard road to walk, because while we believe the world belongs to God, and so do our own lives, we see so much evidence to the contrary. 

Take for instance Jacob in the Old Testament lesson.  Jacob wrestled with the God who had made great promises to Him, but at the moment, he was going into tremendous danger, toward his brother Esau.  He lived between the reality of what he knew and what God had told him.  Earlier in chapter 32, Jacob prays,

“O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, that I may do you good,’ 10 I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. 11 Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children. 12 But you said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.’” (Genesis 32:9-12)

That’s how it is for us as well, because our faith is often in conflict with the observable facts (and our perception of those facts).

In the First Article of the Creed, we confess God to be the one who has gifted us with life and limb, and He is the provider for all that we need in this body and life.  However, isn’t it a major occupation of ours to second guess that truth?  When we see someone who lacks in these first article gifts, we think, Hey God, what about them?  As when we see the riches of food and medical care for us, but people in other corners who barely scrape by or have to go without.

When things aren’t given to us (and maybe to someone else instead)—or worse what we have is taken from us—then we can be indignant toward God and doubt His sovereign rule and boundless love. 

But living by faith is not first about what our eyes see, but what we believe from the Word of God: “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food at the proper time; You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing.” (Psalm 145:16-17) In light of this truth, when we see people who have been robbed or cheated of what they need to live, that’s when Christians are called upon to intervene with acts of charity.  Yes, the world is full of examples which preach against the truth that God provides. That’s why Jesus says, “that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven,” (Matt. 5:16) because in providing for those in need and those abandoned, you’re setting right the Father’s provision and mercy, in spite of the evil that’s befallen them.

The Second Article is even more about faith.  We’re taught by Scripture to believe that we are lost and condemned persons, that sin and death are blights upon creation and ourselves.  But day after day, we’re indoctrinated with the idea that people are sophisticated animals.  If there is morality, it’s only because people before us have taught us to think that way.  And if that’s the case, we can live however we want—do what we want as long as it’s not illegal (and we don’t get caught), think whatever we want (unless our own quest for personal improvement tells us otherwise), say whatever comes to mind (unless we care how it would affect others).  This narrative considers religious people to be an oddity, surely not the work of anything supernatural.  They must just be infatuated with tradition and mystic thought.  This existence without objective sin and accountability, without a solid answer to the meaning of death, leaves people empty.

Whenever we come together as the Church in such a world, it is for sanctuary, for refreshment in what is true.  We gather around the Word of the Lord because only He can see us and the world we live in without the fog of human and demonic deceit.  So, enter sanctuary with Him and say, “I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto You all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended You and justly deserved Your temporal and eternal punishment. But I am heartily sorry for them and sincerely repent of them, and I pray You of Your boundless mercy and for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of Your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to be gracious and merciful to me, a poor, sinful being.”

By faith, we don’t only believe that we are sinners, failures, condemned to die.  We believe in Jesus Christ, true God and true Man, who has redeemed us from the slavery of sin and the hopeless march toward the grave.  With His holy, precious blood, He has purchased us to belong to God—out of this rotting world—and given us a hope and a future.  The Father does not condone the evils we have done, yet He has mercy on us by counting the righteous life of Jesus for us, so before the unseen God, we are counted innocent and blessed.

We also believe that this salvation isn’t just at work in us, but all over the world.  Now, granted, the world is a big place to imagine, so when we hear St. John say, “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2), it’s a little hazy.  But this matters to us because of the part of the world God has put us in—our family, our friends, the community we live in.  When we see apathy toward God’s Word, ungodly living, people missing from the pews, it’s a painful challenge to us.  When we hear discouraging news from around the country—that all the major protestant churches are seeing declines in membership[1]—we can start to doubt the effectiveness of God’s Word in people’s hearts.

But hoping against temporal facts and experience is what faith does.  When Jesus says that not even the gates of hell shall prevail against the Church and the confession of His Name, that’s the truth that endures in spite of people’s fickle hearts and membership trends.  “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel…in the same way, He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.”  And this is why the Church in every place does well to pin their hope and trust firmly in the means of grace—the Word of God, Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper.  This is how God has promised His Spirit is at work and His Kingdom will come, so this is where our faith relies on Him to accomplish it.

“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Faith is the assurance and conviction in what God has spoken, and His Word endures forever.[2]  But faith does one more thing: It holds God to His Word.  That’s what Jacob was doing as he wrestled with God, and that’s what the Canaanite woman was doing with Jesus.  In spite the immediate facts, these examples of faith held God accountable to His Word.

So, as we move though this temporal life, this world that is not as God made it and not what it will one Day be, we cling to God and keep on Him to do what He says He will, today and to eternity.  That’s the basis for prayer, which we will hear more about next Lord’s Day.  Amen.


[1] https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/protestants-decline-religion-sharply-shifting-religious-landscape-poll/story?id=54995663

[2] Isaiah 40:8

First Sunday in Lent (Invocabit) (Matthew 4:1-11)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

First Sunday in Lent (Invocabit) + March 10, 2019

Text: Matthew 4:1-11

In Martin Luther’s Large Catechism, he explained the First Commandment this way:

What is to have a god? What is God?

2 Answer: A god is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need. To have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe him with our whole heart. As I have often said, the trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol.

3 If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true God. On the other hand, if your trust is false and wrong, then you have not the true God. For these two belong together, faith and God. That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your God.[1]

So when the First Commandment says, “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things,” it’s true.  When we give our fear, love, and trust to the Triune God, the God who revealed Himself in the Bible, we keep this Commandment.  However, whatever we give our fear, love, and trust to other than God is an idol, the work of human hands and a sinful heart.

Of course, it would be nice to think we’ve avoided this if we don’t have a little golden statue, and we haven’t set up an altar dedicated to our 1968 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500.  Perhaps we’d like to excuse ourselves by using the Reformed numbering of the Commandments, which spells out the command about idols: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.” (Exodus 20:4 KJV)

But God sees through our veneers, right to our heart.  He sees the honest truth better than we know ourselves.  Our fear has not been in Him alone, but rather in what other people would think if we didn’t go along with them.  Our love has been to make “sacrifices” to so that we could fulfill our own passions, rather than being devoted to our Heavenly Bridegroom.  Our trust has not been in Him alone, but in the daily bread which His hand gives at times or takes away at others.  We’ve felt safe when the account balance is high, but freaked out when we saw a downward trend.

Whatever those things are that we fear, love, and trust in—and they are many and varied—those are our idols.  And God jealously desires to topple every single one of them, so that He alone is your God.  He is the only God you need, and the only one who will never fail you.

Yet, the Commandments don’t end with the First.  There are nine others which more accurately strike at our hearts and—when reconciled—lead us in a God-pleasing life.  Each of the Commandments stems from this First, because when our fellowship with God is broken, it ripples to all the rest of our life.  This is the point the Small Catechism makes by beginning each by saying, “We should fear and love God so that…”  Now, Luther wrote that whatever you put your trust in is truly your God, but it works the other way too: how to we live in regard to the other commandments shows what sort of god we have.

Let me give a few examples:

The Fourth Commandment says to “Honor your father and your mother”  This, we know applies not only to parents, but also other authorities: “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution” (1 Peter 2:13)—in the government, in school, and in the Church.  But say you have a beef with one of those authorities.  Should a child trample his mother’s flowerbed because she didn’t let him watch a movie?  The Lord commands us to pray for and honor government authorities, but can’t there be an exception for Kate Brown or Donald Trump?  The Lord says we should obey our pastors and submit to them as to the Lord, but can’t we vote with our offering dollars or our feet if we think he’s a flake?

In this case, you are picking and choosing who is a gift from God for your good, and who you can just live without.  You raise yourself up and make yourself wiser than God.  If this is how you treat the commandments, then your god is liable to make mistakes.  Maybe he will also forget to care for you some day.

One of the most popular uses of the Law is to point fingers at others.  Take the Sixth Commandment for instance.  “You shall not commit adultery” is more often turned into “They shall not commit adultery” rather than examine and discipline our own sexually purity and how we love and honor our spouse.  If you’re quick to point out how other people are fornicating or perverted in their desires, maybe the reason behind it is personal.  Have you examined your own impure desires that you hide from others.  Have you considered that you’re actually more concerned about a loved one, but strangers are an easy target?

If you’re quick to find fault with other people’s walk with the Lord, you have a god who is vengeful before he is ever merciful.  But conveniently enough for you, this god only condemns other people.  Be careful with such a god, because with the True God, there is no partiality.[2]

Lastly, consider the temptations which we see unfold in the wilderness for our Lord: “Command these stones to become loaves of bread…throw yourself down…All these [kingdoms] I will give you if you worship me.”  Here, the desire is to take advantage of one’s status before God and use it as license for disobedience.  “If you are the son of God” surely it wouldn’t be too bad for you to indulge in a little anger, a little keeping money for yourself, a little gossip.  God won’t be too harsh with me, because after all, I’m His beloved child!  Push the envelope and see if God do something to stop you.

When we presume on kindness and forbearance, our god is no more than a capricious rule-giver who wants to squelch our fun.  We are found to lack a fear of God’s righteous wrath and anger. “Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?” (1 Corinthians 10:22)

Your God—the true One, who gave you these Commandments—calls you to repent, and live a life of repentance for all your sins…all your idolatrous caricatures of the true God.  He alone has the power to kill and make you alive.  Your sin justly deserves what Jesus endured—punishment and death, forsaken by God.  Jesus, who is the Son of God, never wavered in His fear, love, or trust in God.  And you, with all your idols, have been crucified with Christ.  Your sins are washed from you. Your idols are thrown down.

Now rise with Christ to live a new life.  In this new life, the Commandments become your treasured instruction, more precious than gold (Psalm 19).  “We should fear and love God so that we do not…but” instead do what is pleasing to our heavenly Father: call on His Name in prayer and praise, hold His Word sacred and gladly hear and learn it, love and cherish our parents and other authorities, help and support our neighbor’s health and life, lead a chaste life and love our spouse, help others to improve their possessions and income, stand up for the reputation of others and put the best construction on their actions, and support and build up our neighbors’ property and household.

Through Jesus Christ, your God has done good to you, saving you from justly deserved wrath and lavished upon you the blessing of a thousand generations to those who fear Him.  Now, we pray for a heart that gladly does what He commands (we sing the Offertory). Amen.


[1] Large Catechism, I, 1-3 (Tappert edition)

[2] James 2:1-13

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

Pastor Michael A. Miller

The Man from Heaven Remembers the Man of Dust

Psalm 103:13-14

13         As a father shows compassion to his children,

so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear Him.

14         For He knows our frame;

He remembers that we are dust.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Quinquagesima (Luke 18:31-43)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Quinquagesima + March 3, 2019

Text: Luke 18:31-43

The Lord often confounds our understanding—He chooses the least, the lowly, and here in today’s Gospel it is a blind man that sees while the disciples are dumbfounded.

But on the cusp of the holy 40 days leading to the crucifixion of our Savior, is it any wonder that God confounds our thinking and teaches us that all our thoughts and desires are dust and ashes?  We do not know how deeply sin has corrupted our innermost thoughts and degraded our will so that, as it is quoted in Matthew 13, “This people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.” (Matthew 13:15)

And sometimes it makes us angry.  Though we are dust, we presume to talk back to God about His ways.  How dare you hold out on us!  We demand that you release your secrets to us, God!  Tell us what’s going to happen in the future, tell us why you let evil prosper, tell us why parents must bury their children!

This Gospel falls in a long succession of humbling and contrary teachings in Luke 18: After the story of the persistent widow, the Lord asks, “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?”  Then the sinful tax collector goes down to his house justified, “for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”  Then even infants are blessed by the Lord, because “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”  Lastly, someone who is successful in the world with money and power is denied the Kingdom, for “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”  He kicks out every prop we would by which we would hold ourselves up.  The last of them is our intellect.  We are so convinced that our perception of things is correct!  But, we can’t even trust our eyes or our mind when it comes to the things of God.

Jesus plainly tells His disciples what must happen to Him: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. 32 For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. 33 And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise.”  From this side of the resurrection, I think we give ourselves too much credit.  We know the end of the story, so a part of us looks down on the disciples here and at Emmaus who are blind and deaf to what Jesus is saying.  But even though we see it with our eyes and hear it with our ears? Do we see as we ought?

It’s not that the disciples don’t get it because they’re unintelligent.  They don’t understand because “This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.”  There were words coming out of Jesus’ mouth, but they were clueless, and this was the Lord’s doing, a kind of small-scale Babel.  The words had been encrypted (Greek for hidden) so that they wouldn’t understand it.

These past weeks leading up to Lent, we’ve learned that grace is undeserved and grace is passively received.  Now is the hardest lesson to receive, because, as the prophet Daniel said, “There is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries.” (Daniel 2:28)  God’s ways, especially His grace, is a mystery which He must reveal on His terms.  No matter how much we think we know, no matter what power we think we have over our heart (or another person’s heart), God is the gatekeeper of grace.

As he drew near to Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. 36 And hearing a crowd going by, he inquired what this meant. 37 They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” 38 And he cried out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 39 And those who were in front rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 40 And Jesus stopped and commanded him to be brought to him. And when he came near, he asked him, 41 “What do you want me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, let me recover my sight.” 42 And Jesus said to him, “Recover your sight; your faith has made you well.”

In this story, nobody envies the blind man until after he’s received his sight.  But eyesight aside, this man is actually our role model.  Would that we were aware of our blindness and our desperate need to cry out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” asking the Lord to heal us!  The man is blessed because God has given him a sense not worked on earth.  In fact, that might be a good prayer for all of us to ask of God: Restore my sight, so that I might see you, see myself, and see those around me as I should.

Last week in the Epistle reading from 2 Corinthians 11 and 12, we heard St. Paul talk at length about his weakness and eventually reached the point where he boasted in his weakness “so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)  I wish I could tell you this is an easy process, but we’re not in control of that, and it’s often painful.  This process of sanctification, being made holy, is compared to purifying silver from impurities: “Take away the dross from the silver, and the smith has material for a vessel.” (Proverbs 25:4; also Isaiah 1:25)  There’s good reason for this, because silver is extracted from ores that are mixed with other metals like copper, zinc, gold, and lead.  Separating out the silver requires either extreme heat or acid baths, depending on the source.

We too need to be purified from our sinful heart.  Purging the alloys of sin from our lives is lengthy process in which the Holy Spirit leads us through fiery trials, intense temptations, and painful and humbling failures.  Sanctification doesn’t happen on our timetable, but the Lord’s.  St. Paul pleaded with the Lord to take a thorn from His flesh, but the Lord’s reply was “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  How can it be that God’s will is actually to leave us in weakness?  Take for instance a persistent sin—a destructive tongue, a hot temper, lust, greed, jealousy, or gluttony.  You know from the Word of God that these things are evil, but try and pray as you might, you can’t seem to be rid of it.   What could possibly be the problem?  Am I not trying hard enough?  Am I not praying right?  What a failure of a child of God I must be!

The life story of John Newton, who wrote Amazing Grace is like that.  He was shaken out of his proud, libertine life through the humbling experiences in West Africa and nearly dying at sea.  He was converted to God, but his life wasn’t immediately made pure.  He still continued in the slave trade for another 7 years. He continued in studies for the ministry, and was eventually ordained in 1764.  Not until 1788, 40 years after his initial conversion, did he publicly renounce slavery and speak out as an abolitionist.

Though it may not happen on the schedule we think, God’s will for you is your sanctification (1 Thessalonians 4:3)—on His schedule.  If you cannot see it right now, continue in His grace.  You will sin, you will be humbled—but do not despair or give in!  As often as you realize your sin, seek His grace where He gives it—in your Baptism, in the Absolution, and in His Body and Blood.  The disciples were kept from understanding the crucifixion before it happened, but that was part of His plan.  He revealed to them when the time was right, and on Pentecost, their eyes were opened to truly see, understand, and preach what this suffering, death, and resurrection mean.  He will open your eyes and give you relief from your blindness in His timing.

Though these are unpleasant in the moment, the end result can only be credited to God: a stronger faith, a heart that seeks Him alone, and a more steadfast hope while living in this temporal life.

And all these teachings put together—grace undeserved, grace passively received, grace revealed—give all the credit to God.  As St. Paul writes in Ephesians 2: “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. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”  Rejoice, you saints of God, because He is accomplishing His work in you, a people who praise and acknowledge Him, and who humbly live by His every Word, and who prove the mighty works of God in the weak and lowly. Amen.

Sexagesima (Luke 8:4-15)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Sexagesima (60 Days to Easter) + February 24, 2019

Text: Luke 8:4-15

In America, it’s fairly easy to “do” the Christian lifestyle.  It goes long back in Western history, but especially in our land.  Here, even the staunchest hubs of progressivism are dotted with numerous churches.  We’re proud of our beautiful houses of worship, so much so that people look to get married in a church, even if it’s the last time they step foot in it afterward.  If you do want a church to worship at, a Google search (“church Lebanon, OR”) or a look in the phone book will yield 47 different ones!  It would take you just shy of a year if you went to a different one each Sunday!

There’s no shortage of media for the Christian lifestyle.  You can go to Christian bookstores and fill up on Bibles, daily devotionals, topical books.  You can find a coffee klatch and talk Christian things with them.  You can find a book by a popular author and delve into a Christian self-help program.  In the car, you can listen to no less than 7 Christian music/talk stations.

To accessorize your Christian life, you can go to Hobby Lobby or TJ Maxx, and find all kinds of wall crosses, decals, iron work, and other faith-based knickknacks.  You can wear crosses on your neck, on your purse, even in studs on the butt pocket of your jeans.

These are all things you can do.  Of those 47 churches, you could bring your spouse, invite your friends, and if you really feel it offers something, bring your whole family.  But so far, these are all things man does toward God.  But none of them promises to actually make a Christian.

And when a great crowd was gathering and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable, “A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trampled underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.” As he said these things, he called out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

Despite all of the evidence that seems to say being a Christian is merely lifestyle choice, the Word of God teaches that it is actually something that happens to us, because it is God’s work.  It’s very important to understand why the Lord tells the parable like this: The seed is the Word of God—preached, shared between people, taught, delivered in the Sacraments—He is the sower (or His servant).  But what are you?  You are the ground, the dirt.  What does dirt do?  There is no action dirt can do; it’s always acted upon—the dirt is moved, tilled, seeded, watered.  By whom?  The Sower of course.

That tells us that being a Christian has more to do with being the plant which grows from a seed than being the gardener who built the raised bed, laid neat lines, selected the seeds, planted, watered, and weeded.  All those things are necessary, but understanding when and how God does His work has to be something we leave in the Lord’s hands.

But this is terribly frustrating.  We bring our kids to church their whole lives, encourage them toward confirmation, we drag them out of bed in high school when they were up late on Saturday night, we pray for them to meet a nice Lutheran girl.  And yet for all that doing, it’s ultimately not up to us to see if the Word which was planted in them will bear abundant fruit, or—God forbid—they lose their faith.

The other place this is frustrating is apologetics.  How can we convince unbelievers that we follow the one true God, who created heaven and earth and gave up His Son as the only Savior of this sinful race?  Throughout the centuries, Christians who were gifted and so inclined have gone to great extremes to evangelize the pagans.  Today we’re gifted with information that supports the Bible’s claims—archeological evidence, hostile witnesses that confirm the historical facts, and manuscript evidence of the reliability of the Old and New Testament.  So why won’t the unbeliever be convinced?

This week of Sexagesima, we learn that grace is passively received, like the rain coming down and watering the earth.  Last week, we learned how undeserved this grace is, and this week, we hear how God makes His grace effective in a person’s life: It is received like water poured into the earth.

But if we are to be compared to plain old dirt, then we must be curious why that same Word has vastly different effects on the hearers.

11 Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. 12 The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. 13 And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away. 14 And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. 15 As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.

Anyone who’s raised plants knows there’s more to it than just seeds, dirt, water, and sunlight.  There are external, often harmful factors that inhibit the seed from becoming a mature plant.  Here, the birds correspond to the devil, whose foremost desire is to blaspheme God and make people despise His Word in their hearts.  But we can’t blame everything on the devil, because there are also those who receive the Word with joy for a time, but when the troubles of life come or when they are unpopular for being associated with Christ, they depart.  Others become enamored with this life, so that earthly life glitters more than a God who they cannot see.

Yet, in spite of all that stands against the Word, there are those in whom it bears fruit.  It accomplishes the purpose for which God sends it—to save and to keep us in His grace.  “God’s will is done when He breaks and hinders every evil plan and purpose of the devil, the world, and our sinful nature, and when He keeps us firm in His Word and faith until we die.” (SC, Lord’s Prayer, 3rd Petition)  The one who has ears that hear—in spite of the devil, the world, and their own sinful heart—has those ears because God’s will is done.

But is the whole Christian life passive?  Didn’t God created us with not only ears to receive His Word, but also with a heart and will that are meant to be conformed to it?  Often Lutheran Christians are accused to focusing too much on being justified by grace through faith and neglecting what it means to live as a Christian.  This parable shows that the ones whose faith proved unfruitful were actually the inactive ones, or rather the ones who “let life happen” to them.

The ones who spring up with joy experience a temporary high.  But as we all know about great times, they can also be followed by great sorrow.  Because they thought Christianity was a cakewalk or an easy one-and-done solution to life’s problems, they never delved deeper into their faith.  They thought the purpose of worship was to get them juiced for the week, they neglected any Bible study once Pastor’s class was done, they neglected daily prayers and Scripture readings.  So, when a time of trial came (as it always does), their faith proved to be a fad, a passing season in their life.

Those in whom the Word was choked, took the Word seriously enough.  But as they go on their daily life, they neglected Christ’s call to renounce the world and divorce ourselves from it. When a person is saved by grace through faith in Christ, they cannot hold affection for the ways and the things in the world.  The Apostle John writes to us, 15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. 17 And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” (1 John 2:15-17)  Faithless anxieties, riches, and pleasure are all dangerous to the Christian’s heart because our flesh is still weak.  We must be ready to leave all of this whenever He takes it from us or takes us from it to His eternal dwellings.

Yet the Word does mature in the good soil—in the heart where the Word has its proper effect.  But even in this heart, the emphasis never becomes what this one has done better than the others.  This one continues to hear the Word and receive it gladly, thanking the Holy Spirit that He has called me by the Gospel and enlightened me with His gifts. This one by the power of the same Spirit holds that Word in his heart through thick and thin, riches or poverty, popularity or insult.  They hold it with a heart that God has begun His good work in, and they gladly comply.  They don’t do it perfectly, and their life may be filled with as much trouble as someone who has lost their faith, but in spite of that, they are convinced that God is at work in their life.  They acknowledge that He has redeemed them, that He promises to be with them, and that He has called them to a life of free service.

“I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”  This part of the Small Catechism speaks volumes against our sinful nature which wants credit for getting where we are with God.  But it also speaks amazing power and comfort when we realize that God undergirds our life with His Word and Sacraments to keep us in the faith no matter what happens to us.  God is at work in every kind of soil, and His desire for us is to be strengthened in His Word, not stumble or be stolen by the devil. By His grace, may we persevere in this true faith throughout our days.  Amen.

Septuagesima (70 Days to Easter) (Matthew 20:1-16 NKJV)

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

Septuagesima (70 Days to Easter) + February 17, 2019

Text: Matthew 20:1-16 NKJV

As you’ve already probably noticed from the bulletin, there’s something different about this season in between Epiphany and Lent.  Easter is still over two months away, but already we begin our countdown to it.  For starters, these next three weeks, we will meditate on God’s grace in Jesus Christ.  Every Sunday of the Church year is centered around the themes in the Gospel reading.  As the saints who went before us chose the readings, these next three Sundays form a sermon series on grace.  First, we hear from the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard that Grace is undeserved.  Next week, in the Parable of the Sower (Luke 8:4-15), we will learn that Grace is received passively.  Finally, and right before we intensify our focus on the cross of Christ, we learn from the story of a blind beggar (Luke 18:31-43) that Grace is spiritually discerned. All of these teachings, put together will better prepare our hearts for our devotion to our Savior, who in great love, willingly offered up His life that sinners might live eternally through Him.

There’s the way of the world, of daily life, the way things should be.  We are so deeply inculcated with those things.  And we should be, when it comes to our dealings in the world.  Workers should get fair payment for their time and labors.  The story of Jacob working for Laban is true: It was unjust for Laban to renege on what he had promised Jacob, forcing him to work another 7 years for Rachel and repeatedly changing his wages after that (Genesis 29:1-30, 30:25—31:9).

But the Kingdom of Heaven is an altogether different matter.  Yet, couched in the terms of wages, Jesus explains: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a landowner…”  Notice how our Lord does not say the Kingdom of Heaven is like an organization—a non-profit or a corporation; it is like a man who owns land, and that’s the first clue that this is going to shift the way we think of how God deals with men in His Kingdom.

This landowner goes out to hire laborers for his vineyard, and with the first, he agrees with them for a set wage (a denarius was a standard pay for a day’s work).  These work 12 hours.  Next, he goes out at the third hour and hires others, promising more vaguely, “whatever is right I will give you.”  These work 9 hours, but their pay isn’t explicitly stated.  Next, he goes out at the sixth and ninth hours, and sends them into the vineyard without a promise of payment at all.  They work 6 and 3 hours respectively.  Finally at the eleventh hour, 1 hour before the end of the work day, he hires those who have been idle all day and sends them.

Now, before we get to the time for them to “pick up their checks,” notice who he has hired: The diligent who were out there first thing, the less fortunate who were late to the marketplace, and the total slackers who—if they had mom’s basements then—would have been crashed in them, playing video games until 4 in the afternoon.

“So when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, ‘Call the laborers and give them their wages, beginning with the last to the first.’ And when those came who were hired about the eleventh hour, they each received a denarius. 10 But when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise received each a denarius. 11 And when they had received it, they complained against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the heat of the day.’

When it comes time for the payout, every one of these gets the same wage—a denarius.  This is where your blue collar grandfather—who worked his whole life from nothing, who went without the finer things when he couldn’t afford it, but loved his family enough to work 12 hour days—wants to spit on the ground in disgust.  How can it be that the undeserving slobs get the same as those who toiled and sweated for the long haul?

But hear the Master’s response: “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. 15 Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things?”

What he speaks of isn’t a wage gap or unfair practices.  He exposes a fundamental error in the complainer’s heart: You think your work entitled you to a greater share than others.  The Master has every right to pay generously and even at His own expense, without partiality.  But the next part of verse 15 gets to the heart: “Or is your eye evil because I am good?”

I chose to use the New King James version over the ESV because of this direct translation from the Greek.  Where does the problem really lie with the Master paying the slacker the same as the hard worker?  The evil is in the eye of the beholder, because it’s the hard worker who thinks God owes him more.  It’s the sin of covetousness, not being content with how God distributes His goodness.  With our evil eye, we look in judgment on our neighbor say, they’re getting far more than they deserve.  But the truth is that if any of us got what we truly deserved, then “this poor wretched soul of mine, in hell eternally would pine.”[1]  Or as the Apostle Paul writes, “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)

What is God’s goodness?  With evil clouding our hearts, we can scarcely understand it, but suffice to say, God only loves unworthy people.  As the Proverbs say, “Surely He scorns the scornful, but gives grace to the humble.” (Prov. 3:34)  To those who boast in themselves, God will be intolerably foolish, wasteful, and extravagant.  Is your eye evil because God is good?

The latest issue of the Lutheran Witness has an article about mercy in the early church.  One particular sermon by John Chrysostom in the late 300’s AD is cited:

“Today, I stand before you to make a just, useful and suitable intercession. I come from no one else; only the beggars who live in our city elected me for this purpose, not with words, votes, and the resolve of a common council, but rather with their pitiful and most bitter spectacles. In other words, just as I was passing through the marketplace and the narrow lanes, hastening to your assembly, I saw in the middle of the streets may outcasts, some with severed hands, others with gouged-out eyes, others filled with festering ulcers and incurable wounds…

I thought it the worst inhumanity not to appeal to your love on their behalf, especially now that the season [of winter] forces us to return to this topic…During the season of winter, the battle against [the poor] is mighty from all quarters…Therefore they need more nourishment, a heavier garment, a shelter, a bed, shoes, and many other things…their need of the bare necessities is much greater, and besides, work passes them by, because no one hires the wretched, or summons them to service.”

The article’s author continues: “If his congregation didn’t step up, he told them, they would be guilty of dereliction of duty towards their neighbor. And there was to be no investigating whether or not a poor person was worthy of the generosity he received. Jesus’ own words encapsulated the motivation for this generosity: ‘Freely you have received. Freely give.’ (Matt. 10:8).”

The very grace we have received is the reason Christians show grace toward others, and grace doesn’t ask questions of worthiness.  But, the evil eye presumes, “They’ll just waste it; we’re enabling them; or what are we going to get in return?”  If you don’t understand grace, you will find soup kitchens abhorrent, you will want homeless shelters nowhere near your house, and you will hoard your hard-earned income with a tight fist and only dole it out to those who can demonstrate they’ll use it to your standards.

Is your eye evil because God is good?  If so, the early Christians should rise up at the judgment and condemn us proud, wealthy Americans because we have outsourced charity to the government—and what a wasteful and impassionate job they do of it—and we outsource to other Christians the job of showing mercy that middle-class Christians don’t want to do themselves, because it might get them dirty and infringe on their worldly luxuries. 

If you are humbled by this, now you’re ready to learn (or re-learn) what grace is.  You are evil, but God remains good. “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  In His goodness, He has delivered up His Son for you to be received as a gift.  Do you now see that none of us has a reason to boast in the presence of God?  It is in fact part of God’s essence that He shows His goodness to the evil like you and me.  Yes, we take it for granted, we turn His Word into a weapon to use against others and feel better about ourselves, we presume on His kindness.  Yet that doesn’t stop Him from giving to us a goodness we are unworthy of.

That’s what this parable teaches us: Grace is shown without partiality.  When Jesus goes to the cross, He goes there without doing the math to make sure it’s worth it.  His love impelled Him to do it.  He did it long before any of us took our first breath, so that we might receive not the wages for our sins, but the free gift of eternal life in Him.  What is a denarius or any earthly treasure in comparison with that?

I pray that God increases the effects of that grace in His Church, in you and me.  May what we have freely received also inspire us to freely give.  Like the example of Christians who have come before us, may the grace shown to us overflow in grace toward others, so that our lives are a testimony to what He has done. May it be that our congregation is a place not known for its looks or its history, but for its works.  I hope that each of you who have received grace with your hearts will pray this with me. Amen.


[1] “If Your Beloved Son, O God” (LSB 568:1)

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

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

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany + February 3, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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