Watching and Waiting for the Lord (Luke 21:29-36)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

26th Sunday after Pentecost + November 13, 2016

Text: Luke 21:29-36

 

Trying to stay awake is hard sometimes.  Parents of newborns know what it’s like to have to run on fumes, not getting the sleep they need but still needing to press on with daily life.  Sometimes they’re caught falling asleep at work or worse on the road.  But it’s all they can do to stay awake.

 

But many of us can relate to burning the candle at both ends.  Sometimes it’s self-inflicted, other times it’s dropped in our lap.  Either way, there are many times that it’s a battle to stay conscious.

 

Jesus says here in the Gospel that we should “stay awake at all times.”  Visions of toothpicks propping open our eyes come to mind.  What could He possibly mean?

 

Our Lord is talking about staying awake spiritually.  What does it mean to stay spiritually awake?

  • Spiritually awake is what we are when we see today as the end times.
  • All the things that Jesus predicted about the destruction of Jerusalem foreshadow the end of the world. “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. 30 As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”
  • Many recognize that the world is falling apart, but those who are spiritually awake are looking to the end that Jesus will return with the comfort, “Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (v. 28)
  • So, to be spiritually awake is to have a living, active faith.

 

What’s the opposite of this?

  • “Hearts weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of life.”
  • That’s when we live in denial that Jesus is going to return. Things have been going along the same way forever, so what could possibly change?  If he hasn’t come by now, He must not be coming, so I’ll just fall in line with those around me.[1]
  • The material, day-to-day living becomes greater than the spiritual. You get up one day and decide that it’s too much work to get to church, and during the week you’re just too busy to read the Bible.  Before you know it, what’s right in front of you has become as important as your faith once was.  These words of Jesus become a faded memory of a season in your life.
  • Yet as awake as you might be to the cares of life, you have fallen asleep to your spiritual condition, your need to live by every Word that comes from the mouth of the Lord, your need for His grace and forgiveness, and that His return will spring upon us suddenly.

 

So, how do we “stay awake at all times, praying that [we] may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man”?

 

Our Lord uses the very troubles and trials of life to jolt us awake and keep us watchful for His return.  What we might think is an out-of-control mess is actually the very instrument God uses to strengthen and confirm our faith.

 

So often, we want things to be easy and smooth.  It’s just one thing after another, and all we want is to have some time of rest when things aren’t crazy.  Sorry to say, but it’s not God’s will for things to be carefree.  That’s because He knows when things are carefree, we become complacent.  We dream of a time free from crisis and tribulation, but that’s actually dreaming of a time without dependence on God, taking care of things for ourselves.

 

It’s in those very times of struggle that we are watchful and reliant on Him.

 

But Lord! Let me catch a snooze!  I’m tired!  I’m worn out from all that you’ve put me through!  This is not yet a faithful approach, because it’s relying on our own strength.  This is the spiritual equivalent to energy drinks, doing all we can to survive.  But just like energy drinks run your body ragged, so does trying to face the trials of life without relying on your God.

 

If you want to “stay awake at all times” through struggles in your life and upset in the world, you really do need a rest, but not in the form of a nap.  You need a Sabbath rest.  “Come to Me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”[2]  You need the renewal that only God can give.  You can’t find it in a vacation or out in the woods.  A Sabbath rest only comes through the Word of God.

 

So, come and confess your sins and have them taken off your shoulders and laid on Jesus’.  Come and have your spirit refreshed by the One who created you and supports you through your whole life.  Come in prayer and give your burdens and your praises to the God who works all things for good for the sake of His elect.[3]  Come and take the Body and Blood of the God who strengthens you in body and soul in the one true faith unto life everlasting.

 

Instead of missing church because life is crazy, run here all the more because you need to stop all that you’re doing and let God do what He does.  That is where you will find the energy to face every trial, to endure every sign of the end times.

 

Then, when the Lord comes suddenly, it won’t be like a trap or a terrible surprise.  It will be a joy because this is what we have been longing, hoping, praying for.  Amen.

[1] 2 Peter 3:3-10

[2] Matthew 11:28

[3] Romans 8:28-30

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

26th Sunday after Pentecost + November 13, 2016

Text: Luke 21:29-36

 

Trying to stay awake is hard sometimes.  Parents of newborns know what it’s like to have to run on fumes, not getting the sleep they need but still needing to press on with daily life.  Sometimes they’re caught falling asleep at work or worse on the road.  But it’s all they can do to stay awake.

 

But many of us can relate to burning the candle at both ends.  Sometimes it’s self-inflicted, other times it’s dropped in our lap.  Either way, there are many times that it’s a battle to stay conscious.

 

Jesus says here in the Gospel that we should “stay awake at all times.”  Visions of toothpicks propping open our eyes come to mind.  What could He possibly mean?

 

Our Lord is talking about staying awake spiritually.  What does it mean to stay spiritually awake?

  • Spiritually awake is what we are when we see today as the end times.
  • All the things that Jesus predicted about the destruction of Jerusalem foreshadow the end of the world. “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. 30 As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”
  • Many recognize that the world is falling apart, but those who are spiritually awake are looking to the end that Jesus will return with the comfort, “Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (v. 28)
  • So, to be spiritually awake is to have a living, active faith.

 

What’s the opposite of this?

  • “Hearts weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of life.”
  • That’s when we live in denial that Jesus is going to return. Things have been going along the same way forever, so what could possibly change?  If he hasn’t come by now, He must not be coming, so I’ll just fall in line with those around me.[1]
  • The material, day-to-day living becomes greater than the spiritual. You get up one day and decide that it’s too much work to get to church, and during the week you’re just too busy to read the Bible.  Before you know it, what’s right in front of you has become as important as your faith once was.  These words of Jesus become a faded memory of a season in your life.
  • Yet as awake as you might be to the cares of life, you have fallen asleep to your spiritual condition, your need to live by every Word that comes from the mouth of the Lord, your need for His grace and forgiveness, and that His return will spring upon us suddenly.

 

So, how do we “stay awake at all times, praying that [we] may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man”?

 

Our Lord uses the very troubles and trials of life to jolt us awake and keep us watchful for His return.  What we might think is an out-of-control mess is actually the very instrument God uses to strengthen and confirm our faith.

 

So often, we want things to be easy and smooth.  It’s just one thing after another, and all we want is to have some time of rest when things aren’t crazy.  Sorry to say, but it’s not God’s will for things to be carefree.  That’s because He knows when things are carefree, we become complacent.  We dream of a time free from crisis and tribulation, but that’s actually dreaming of a time without dependence on God, taking care of things for ourselves.

 

It’s in those very times of struggle that we are watchful and reliant on Him.

 

But Lord! Let me catch a snooze!  I’m tired!  I’m worn out from all that you’ve put me through!  This is not yet a faithful approach, because it’s relying on our own strength.  This is the spiritual equivalent to energy drinks, doing all we can to survive.  But just like energy drinks run your body ragged, so does trying to face the trials of life without relying on your God.

 

If you want to “stay awake at all times” through struggles in your life and upset in the world, you really do need a rest, but not in the form of a nap.  You need a Sabbath rest.  “Come to Me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”[2]  You need the renewal that only God can give.  You can’t find it in a vacation or out in the woods.  A Sabbath rest only comes through the Word of God.

 

So, come and confess your sins and have them taken off your shoulders and laid on Jesus’.  Come and have your spirit refreshed by the One who created you and supports you through your whole life.  Come in prayer and give your burdens and your praises to the God who works all things for good for the sake of His elect.[3]  Come and take the Body and Blood of the God who strengthens you in body and soul in the one true faith unto life everlasting.

 

Instead of missing church because life is crazy, run here all the more because you need to stop all that you’re doing and let God do what He does.  That is where you will find the energy to face every trial, to endure every sign of the end times.

 

Then, when the Lord comes suddenly, it won’t be like a trap or a terrible surprise.  It will be a joy because this is what we have been longing, hoping, praying for.  Amen.

[1] 2 Peter 3:3-10

[2] Matthew 11:28

[3] Romans 8:28-30

God’s Every Promise Does Not Fail (Matt. 5:1-12)

All Saints Day (observed) + November 6, 2016

Text: Matthew 5:1-12

 

We live in a world that disappoints because it can never truly satisfy—no matter how much it might promise.

 

Infomercials are notorious for making great promises about products, only to be told later “results may vary.”

 

“Read my lips: No new taxes.”  No matter how Tuesday turns out, our elected officials will not fulfill all their campaign promises.

 

Drug commercials depict the idyllic lives of people who have been freed from the burden of arthritis, depression, and other life-altering conditions.  But as you watch the actor-portrayals, they say the drug can lower the ability of your immune system to fight infections, cause rashes, bleeding, and in some cases even death.

 

Men and women know the pain when vows are broken: “I take you, to have and to hold from this day forward…till death us do part.”

 

But in this world of disappointments and broken promises, there is One who never breaks His Word.  Hear His Words:

 

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

 

These are the words of the living and true God, who has redeemed us from sin and death by His holy precious blood, and who fills us with the hope of eternal life!

 

Yet even in our faith, we can become disillusioned.  The Apostle John tells us that “we are children of God; and so we are!”[1]  But we see in our lives a different story—lives marked by lying, gossiping, hating one another, and indifference toward our family and neighbors.  We look at the Church and see a real mess—divisions, infighting, and false teaching.  Jesus prayed that we might all be one,[2] but it looks like we’re failing.

 

But the Lord knows all the pains of our heart and how we see how things are and long for His deliverance.  He knows how it is for us now, and describes it in all the first half of each Beatitude.  No one would envy the situation we find ourselves in, being children of God in a world dominated by the devil and wicked men.

 

“What we will be has not yet appeared,” John tells us.[3]  It’s sometimes said that Christians on earth belong to the Church militant, shielded by faith and armed with the Word of God.[4]  The Church militant presses on, longing and striving to join that great throng pictured in Revelation 7, whose weapons of warfare have been replaced by palm branches of eternal peace.

 

So often, like wearied soldiers in an extended battle, our sin wants to doubt if this is all even true.  Experience from this world tells us that if it’s too good to be true, it probably is.  But against that diabolical lie, we must remember that He who speaks these promises is not another man setting us up for disappointment.  It is God who speaks, and He never lies nor do any of His Words fall to the ground.

 

Take heart!  That snapshot from Revelation 7:9-14 is a future picture of us who believe in Christ.  After all that we know in this life has passed away, we will be part of the countless multitude who have been preserved in this true faith.

 

Even now we enjoy glimpses of that heavenly vision.  Have we not heard the voice of God who speaks to us from heaven in His holy Word?  Doesn’t He speak from heaven in Baptism and say in Christ, “You are my beloved son, with you I am well-pleased.”[5]?  On this altar, doesn’t the Lord, victorious over death and the grave, give us His very Body and blood to eat and drink?  These are windows into heaven, opened by God with promises delivered to you.  Though they may be partial, they are by no means imperfect.  As the Apostle says, “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.”[6]

 

When the Lord comes again in glory,  every single promise will be manifest.  1 John 3 said that we are children of God even now.  What we believe now by faith, we will see come to pass in sight. Amen.

[1] 1 John 3:1

[2] John 17:21

[3] 1 John 3:2

[4] 2 Corinthians 10:4

[5] Matthew 3:17

[6] 1 Corinthians 13:12

Christians Abide in His Word (John 8:31-36)

Reformation Sunday + October 30, 2016

Text: John 8:31-36

Celebrating the Reformation is an exciting time in the Lutheran Church.  Next year for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we really get to go all out.  But it’s important to double check that our excitement is more about being “Church” than it is about being “Lutheran.”  Our Synod has a handy phrase to remind us: “Reformation 2017: It’s Still All About Jesus”  And because it’s all about Jesus, let’s hear from Him:

 

“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples.”

Jesus makes this the defining characteristic of those who follow Him.  Those who bear the title Christian abide in His Word.  You can’t have Jesus without His Word.  If someone says they’re a Christian and they love Jesus but they don’t listen to His Word, that person is deceived.

 

What the Lord says is not anything new.  It was the same way for Israel—a true Israelite hears the Word of the Lord.  The statutes of God and the people of God are inseparable.  “If you walk in my statutes and observe my commandments and do them…I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people.”[1]  Whenever the people called by God’s Name tried to strike out on their own, God no longer called them His people.

 

The reformers made the same point as Jesus: God’s Word is the defining mark of Christians.  They said so, against powerful opponents who argued that the church was founded on Scripture and traditions, that it supposedly had divine authority to appoint and depose kings, and sentence men to death on the charge of false doctrine.  By God’s faithful deliverance, however, the truth and clarity of God’s Word prevailed over the enemies of Christ’s cross.  By God’s continued grace, the truth and clarity of His Word is proclaimed and believed today.

 

But in our day, 500 years after the Reformation, we see something tragic happening in all the descendants of this blessed awakening.  There is a pull away from abiding in the Word.  No corner of Christianity is immune to this—even our own Missouri Synod.

Excitement for what God’s Word has been replaced with pop psychology, parading as Christian teaching.  People flock to hear sermons on 10 things you can do to improve your marriage, your job, or live with more “joy.”  They want to be told what they should be doing to succeed, rather than what God works in you through His Word.

What we look to as blessing in the Church is no longer in being persecuted for proclaiming the truth (as Jesus says in Matthew 5:11).  Churches are chase after social trends so they can “bless” themselves with greater attendance and more programs.

Teachers of the Church are also under attack.  At many mainline seminaries, the Bible commentaries students use are written by unbelievers who dissect the motives of the authors.  The result is pastors and professors who consider the Bible no more than a religious manifesto by a bunch of backward, sexist, homophobic men.

Nevertheless, the Lord keeps a remnant for Himself—those who have not bowed before Baal and kissed him.[2]  That which is born of Spirit is spirit, and they still abide in His Word today.  These are truly His disciples.

 

 

Then Jesus says, “and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

The picture of Christianity today is sometimes an exercise in nostalgia for what Church has been in the past.  People gather together, sing some songs about God, listen to someone talk about God.  Yet, all of this is to “do church” without Jesus or His Word.  Without Jesus, the gathering is just social.  The songs could replace the name Jesus with your boyfriend and make just as much sense.  The sermon could be a motivational speech given at a convention.  All the while people think they are being Christians, experiencing freedom, they haven’t actually been free because they haven’t heard the Truth.

 

See, when Jesus says that the Truth makes you free, He’s saying something about us.  We’re not free.  The people He’s speaking to pick up on that, too.  They respond, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone.”  But Jesus isn’t talking about slavery you can see.  The bondage that Jesus speaks of is bondage to sin, and that’s something which—despite our best efforts to act free—we are powerless to free ourselves from.

 

The scary thing about Christians losing God’s Word is that people will never hear of their soul’s true condition.  Instead of seeing that they are “slaves to sin,” they’ll imagine there’s some glimmer of hope to help themselves (this delusion really helps book sales, by the way).  Maybe they’ll think of themselves as religious free agents, who can choose whichever way to God speaks to them the most.  They may imagine that God looks down from heaven and smiles because there are some people who are really trying hard to be good.[3]  They might go to church just because it’s the social or family thing to do, but never have a passing thought of repentance.

 

But the Truth sets us free because He sheds His light from heaven on our sinful squalor, the deadly mess that we are in.  He wakes us up from our complacency of downplaying sin and its effects.  So, He shows us that we are truly slaves to sin, but that He truly is our Redeemer.

 

When we know the Truth, we find that we can only look to Him for hope.  It comes down to simple math: 100% Jesus, 0% us.  If we claim any worthiness we for ourselves, we take it away from Christ.   However free we think we are from sin’s dominion, we take that much power away from Christ.  With our Savior Jesus Christ, it really is all or nothing—either He is the one who has all the power to save, all the power to free us, or we land somewhere else without a Savior.

 

In the freedom which Jesus gives, there is blessed assurance: “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”  Because it’s 100% God’s work, your life is secure, anchored to solid rock.   That’s something only the Lord can deliver, because it won’t be found in pop Christian trends which are only the work of human hands.

 

If you want certainty in life’s trials, abide in the Word of your Baptism.  God has freed you from the power of sin and even death.  In your weakness, God has given you a continuous fountain of life in which to wash you and present you without spot or blemish.[4]

In your mortal body, abide in the Word of Christ’s Body and Blood given in, with, and under bread and wine.  This is His Body, risen victorious from the grave.  This is His blood, shed for the full remission of all our sins.

Abide in the Word of God, in your ear, on your forehead, and on your tongue.  The Word He speaks is the Truth which sets you free today from your sins and on the last day from the bonds of death!  Amen.

 

[1] Leviticus 26:3, 12

[2] 1 Kings 19:18

[3] Psalm 53:2-3

[4] Ephesians 5:26-27

Naked Sinners Clothed by a Gracious God (Luke 18:9-17)

Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost + October 23, 2016

Text: Luke 18:9-17

In the age of social media, exhibitionism is at an all-time high.  People are sharing everything from their child’s first steps to what they had for dinner.  This has invited friends and acquaintances to “like” and comment their way into previously private moments.

 

Even though he didn’t have a Facebook page, the Pharisee in today’s parable wanted to be seen, like a child who hungers for attention.  He wanted God to “like” what he had done and give His divine approval: “The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men…”

 

On the other hand, with social media and the ability to spread information, there are things that you would rather not have shared.  What destruction has been wreaked in people’s lives by private comments and pictures being opened to the wrong parties or for the sake of revenge.  It has even driven some to the point of suicide.

 

The tax collector is not at all interested in sharing what he has done, especially what he has done against God.  He sneaks in the back of the temple, too ashamed to come any closer into the Divine Presence.  But if you think about it, who wants an audience when you sin?   Who would want their uncensored thoughts and intents to be broadcast to others?  Who would want their indiscretions and foolishness to be known?

 

But that’s what God’s Word does. It exposes us before Him.  It strips us naked of even those things we manage to hide from other people.  As the Apostle says, “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”[1] God’s Law leaves sinners so vulnerable that it’s unthinkable that they would point out another person’s faults while all theirs are clear in God’s sight: “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.” (Rom. 2:1)

 

Sin is something to be ashamed of, which is fully what God intends when His Law is preached.  If we are not ashamed (or worse even proud of our actions), then a grave spiritual hardness has taken root.  “If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” (1 John 1:10)

 

But God in His mercy doesn’t broadcast our shame abroad, like bullies and jilted ex-lovers so often do.  When Adam and Eve had sinned and their nakedness became a shame and reminder of broken relationship with God, God provided covering for their shame: “the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.”[2]

 

That’s because God has a loving way of dealing with each of our shames—public and private.  His way was to make a public spectacle of them.  His Son, Jesus was made a public display of human sin on the cross.  We know that “God made Him to be sin for us,”[3] but realize that He did this openly.  Jesus was stripped naked before God and man, and they cast lots for His clothing.  He was nailed to a cross and lifted up like a banner for all to see.  Though Rome meant this to be a spectacle for any would-be insurgents, God used the cross to testify that He was reconciling the world to Himself and making peace.  Now this open display of God’s justice and love is preached the world over.

 

Through Christ, just as He foreshadowed with Adam and Eve, He makes clothes for us—clothes wrought by the death of His Son—and He covers our nakedness.  He answers our cry for Him to have mercy upon us: “As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ.”[4]  Your sin and nakedness has been covered completely by the perfect righteousness of Your Savior.  God has had mercy on you and you go down to your house justified.

 

The Pharisee stood boldly before God and waved all his supposed goodness in God’s face, wearing it proudly: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.”  Yet those who exalt themselves and hold their best work up before God will be humbled.

 

Those who have been humbled by God’s Law despair even of their proudest achievements, and say, “We are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags.”[5]  This turns our thinking upside down because it means that even humanity’s finest achievements are nothing to brag about before God.  They are unclean in His sight.

 

The humble realize that the only thing you can wear proudly in God’s sight are the clothes which He Himself gives in Jesus Christ.  Paul, a former Pharisee, was stripped of every reason to boast before God and he confessed, “Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”[6]

 

So may God’s Law expose all of our nakedness and shame, so that we would have nothing left except to be graciously clothed by Him.  In the words of the hymn, Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness/My beauty art, my glorious dress/Midst flaming worlds in these arrayed/With joy shall I lift up my head.[7]  Amen.

[1] Hebrew 4:12

[2] Genesis 3:21

[3] 2 Corinthians 5:21

[4] Galatians 3:27: ἐνδύω (enduo) means to cloth oneself

[5] Isaiah 64:6 (NKJV)

[6] Galatians 6:14

[7] LSB 563:1

Praying in God’s Faithfulness (Luke 18:1-8)

Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost + October 16, 2016

Text: Luke 18:1-8

 

There’s a lot of material out there about prayer.  And most of it is misguided.   In much of what we hear about prayer, we’re led to believe that if we get down on our knees enough, or with just the right heart, or we catch God on a good day, we can change the world.  But instead of getting lost in the woods when it comes to prayer, let’s hear what our Lord Himself has to teach us.

 

He tells us this parable today because it is necessary[1] for us “always to pray and not lose heart.”  Right off the bat, it’s important to realize what Jesus is saying about prayer: It is not something you can take or leave.  It is an integral part of being a disciple, and if you willfully choose not to pray, you’ll have to answer to God why you despised His command.

 

Yet unlike other things God commands, like not stealing or committing adultery, prayer is not an action that can be forced out of us.  Prayer can only come from faith.  And faith is what this parable is about, or rather how to not lose faith when our eyes are met with many evil things (see what immediately precedes this parable in Luke 17:22-37).

 

So what is it that makes prayer falter for us?  Why do we lose heart?  There are a couple reasons for that.  First is our weak faith.  We might have too human an idea of prayer, that like country songs, prayer is nothing more than “talkin’ to the man upstairs.”  While that’s a simple picture to understand, we’re liable to think God is like a man[2] and subject to the shortcomings of men.  If that’s true, there might be times God simply isn’t listening, or that He’s too busy to be bothered with our lowly problems.

 

The second thing that discourages us in prayer is what we expect God to do in answer.  The widow in the parable was seeking justice against her adversary.  She had a specific request and it was answered in kind.  Jesus says, 8 I tell you, he will give justice to [His elect] speedily.”  Often we expect an exact answer for what we pray for—for this disease to be healed, this trouble to end, or this injustice or immoral course to change about the world.  Then, when we don’t get the way we think is best, God has somehow failed us.[3]

 

So, we shuffle prayer down to the bottom of our list of things to be done each day.  I can get by without it, or I’ll just pray while I’m doing other stuff.  It’s not that important, since God will do whatever He wants anyways.  But the only thing that gets hurt is our faith in God.  By having the wrong expectations of prayer, our view of God and His power and willingness to help is diminished.

 

Because our God is neither cryptic, nor corrupt, He gently rebukes us as His children and teaches us what prayer really is.  Listen to how Jesus begins to teach us how to pray: “Our Father…”  With those words, He throws out any notion of God being like the unrighteous judge, or a powerful-but-fallible man in charge of the world.   He is our Father in heaven, and we are His children on earth.  Though we are apart for the time being, nothing in all creation shall separate us from His fatherly love.[4]  As a good Father, He wants nothing but the wellbeing of His children.

 

But what about those unanswered prayers we’ve raised to Him?  Why haven’t we seen results?   The problem isn’t that He’s ignoring His children.  It’s that we need to learn what He actually promises and have eyes to look for that.  In the seven petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, we learn what to pray for and what we can rest assured God will do.

  • We pray that His Name be kept holy—the Name we were baptized into—and that we lead holy lives before Him. God will help Christians to be Christ-like in their Baptism—dying with Christ to sin and rising to walk in newness of life with the gift of the Holy Spirit.
  • We pray that Kingdom will come among us and to those who don’t yet know Him. This happens when His Word goes out and His Holy Spirit creates and strengthens faith in the ears of those who ear. When it comes to those outside the Church, there’s no need for us to bend over backwards to engineer church growth; our part is to pray to the Lord of the Harvest and trust that His Word will cause the growth.[5]
  • We pray that His Will is done over against the will of man or of the devil. That means it’s quite fitting to pray against the apostasy we witness in the church and world, and ask that God exert His authority for our common welfare.  It doesn’t mean the apostasy will go away completely, but that God will defend His elect who cry to Him.
  • We pray for daily bread, but this is often confused by what our selfish appetites desire. Here, God promises that He will support our life in this body as long as He grants it.  This also means that no matter what trials we endure, “He knows our frame and remembers that we are dust.”[6] He will uphold us no matter how severe things are or long it lasts.  God doesn’t promise perfect health, flawless finances, or that things will be easy.  Yet until we are brought to our heavenly home, God will certainly support us.
  • When we pray for forgiveness it’s especially important to be sure that we truly are forgiven by God. That’s what Jesus’ death and resurrection was all about.  Yet God didn’t just give Him for our sins, but the sins of the whole world.[7]  Because that’s true, we can follow our Savior’s example (“Father forgive them, for they know not what they do”[8]) and pray for and trust in God’s forgiveness for our enemies.
  • When we pray not to be led into temptation, we ask for two things. One is that God would keep us from becoming indifferent toward sin and its seriousness, even if something is now socially acceptable.  The other is that we pray for victory over the devil who deceives us.  “With might of ours naught can be done,” but our Savior will fight against the Evil Foe for us,[9] because He has already won the final victory.
  • The final petition, “Deliver us from evil,” reminds us that everything we’ve so far seen is but a passing shadow. Our faith is founded on the blessed assurance of immortality.  If God were not able to give full justice to His elect, He would be an impotent Savior.  But the Day of the Lord is coming when His children will see their victory over every adversary—sin, devil, and even death itself.  So we pray for an end to life as it is today and for God to usher in eternity, which He surely will do.

 

The Lord commands us always to pray and not to lose heart, and the question He asks is crucial: “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”  God gives His children the gift of the Holy Spirit, and that is how the Lord will find faith.  Our life as God’s children is no human undertaking.  God the Holy Spirit gave us faith in our Savior and new birth in Baptism, and He also preserves us in this faith despite those things which war against us.

 

When it comes to prayer, it is truly God’s work.  We approach Him not as strangers barging in, but as beloved children.  We ask Him not for outrageous signs to prove to us He exists, but for what He has promised to give.  Then, resting upon His Word, we wait on Him to answer us in the wisdom of His timing.  Amen.

[1] The Greek word dei marks divine necessity, along the lines of “it is necessary for the Son of Man to suffer many things” (Lk. 9:22).  That is to say, prayer is not a matter of indifference to God.

[2] Numbers 23:19

[3] See James 4:1-3

[4] Romans 8:39

[5] Matthew 9:37-38, Isaiah 55:10-11

[6] Psalm 103:14

[7] 1 John 2:2

[8] Luke 23:34

[9] “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” (LSB 657)

God’s Blessings Come Through the Cross (Luke 17:11-19)

Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost + October 9, 2016

Text: Luke 17:11-19

 

Today’s Gospel tells us of one of the many healings which Jesus did.  The recipients were ten men of Jewish descent.  We know this because Jesus directs them to show themselves to the priest in Jerusalem.[1]   As people with a Jewish background, they were familiar with the spiritual significance of leprosy—that it made them unclean and therefore unfit to participate in the life of God’s people, much less be at the temple.[2]

 

But what if the ten men whom Jesus healed had been Greeks or Assyrians, who knew nothing about the God of Abraham?  Certainly we see healings happen today for those who know nothing or care nothing about the God who made heaven and earth.  Unbelievers receive the same kinds of bodily healing that Christians receive, at the hands of the same medical professionals.

 

Yet if you were to ask someone who’s not a Christian where their healing came from, they might credit the doctor, or medicine, or a breakthrough procedure.  The point is that God, who created them and preserved their life, gave them healing and they didn’t return in thanks to Him.

 

On the other hand, there are many who do see God’s hand in the good things we have on earth.  In America, our national motto is, “In God We Trust,”[3] and when our leaders address the nation after troubling times, they end with “God bless America!”  Speaking of that phrase, during World War II, Irving Berlin’s song, “God Bless America” became famous.

 

“God bless America, land that I love/ Stand beside her and guide her/ Through the night with the light from above”

 

Berlin praised God for watching over and guiding this country.  What’s interesting though, is that Irving Berlin was a Russian Jewish immigrant.  Yet, he penned a song that Jews, Christians, and even Muslims can sing without reservation.

 

Even the spiritual but not religious can give thanks to God for His temporal blessings.  But what we should look at is what makes the Samaritan unique so that Jesus praises His faith?

 

It’s a matter of knowing where the blessings really come from.  Ten lepers received the gift of cleansing, but on their way, one of them was given the understanding of faith.  Nine of them continued to the temple and the priest, but one turned around because the Holy Spirit gave Him insight to see something more.  He was given the bigger picture of why God showed him mercy.  It was because the One who healed Him was on His way to Jerusalem.

 

In Psalm 121, the people of God would sing, “I lift up my eyes to the hills, from where does my help come?  My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”  For God’s people of old, this meant the place where the Passover Lamb was sacrificed and where prayers and sin offerings were daily made for the people of Israel.  But the Holy Spirit has opened our eyes to see that when Jesus climbed the hill of Golgotha, bearing His cross and carrying the sins of the world, He was the true Passover Lamb and all-sufficient sin offering which God made for sake of all people.

 

In the Law, it was commanded of lepers, “He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.”[4]  So it was for the ten lepers, but the Holy Spirit opened the one’s eyes to see that God accomplishing a more perfect cleansing in Jesus.   As the Apostle to the Hebrews wrote, “Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood.”[5]  When God brought this to fulfillment it was the High Priest Himself who went outside the camp, whom God made to be sin who knew no sin—so that all who believe in Him might become clean, even the righteousness of God.[6]

 

So it is through Jesus Christ that God made peace with this sinful world.  It’s through the peace of the cross that God deals graciously with humanity.  The Lord says that His Father “makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.”[7]  It isn’t because we’re such faithful folks that God blesses America.  It isn’t because we deserve better medical care that He gave us skilled doctors.  It isn’t because one couple did something right that they have kids while another is barren.

 

God gives His blessings through the cross, so that all would come to know what sort of love He has for His creatures—every single person.  “God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  “It was not because you were more in number than any other people…but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath He swore.” [8]  For those enlightened by Holy Spirit to know Christ, we are able to see how God gives His blessings even to the unthankful and the wicked.

 

That is also our source of comfort when the apparent blessings don’t come.  There were certainly more than ten lepers in all of Israel at that time, but Jesus didn’t relieve all of them.[9]  There were many who died on the same day as Lazarus of Bethany, but only he was restored to his family.  If we could only praise God at the times when it’s going well, we would have many silent hours, wondering what God is thinking.

 

Without the cross, we can’t be sure that we have a gracious God.  That’s because the only information we would have to go on is whether things are good or bad.  Unless we hear from the Word that the Lord loves us and that He is faithful to His promises, we might just fall into despair.  But Christ crucified and risen is the guarantee from God that not only gives us reason to glorify him for undeserved blessings today, and also a certain hope for all eternity.  As St. Paul writes, “He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things?”[10]   When our eyes are fixed on the One who went up to Jerusalem, we’re confident of God’s fatherly love and trust that He will provide and support us whatever this passing life brings.

 

So with our Samaritan brother in the faith, we give glory to God not just for the gifts He gives today, but even more for His beloved Son who offered up His life for the world.  In Christ, we will glorify God even beyond the grave.  Amen.

[1] Leviticus 13 details this under the Law of Moses.

[2] Leviticus 13:45-46

[3] Adopted in 1956, possibly in response to the political threat of Communism which had ties to atheism.

[4] Leviticus 13:46

[5] Hebrews 13:12

[6] See 2 Corinthians 5:21

[7] Matthew 5:45

[8] Romans 5:8, Deuteronomy 7:7-8

[9] See Luke 4:16-30

[10] Romans 8:32

Protecting the Faith of Little Ones (Luke 17:1-10)

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost + October 2, 2016

Text: Luke 17:1-6 (p. 876 in pew Bible)

 

When you first hear this passage in Luke 17, it may seem like a cobbling together of different teachings of Jesus.  In fact, this is the capstone of Jesus’ teaching from the beginning of chapter 15, alternating between teaching his disciples and his enemies.  First Jesus addressed His opponents with the parables of the Lost Sheep, Coin, and Son.  Then in chapter 16, Jesus turned to His disciples to teach them about the difference between what God values and what we value.  Lastly, Jesus rebukes His enemies with the true teaching of the Law of Moses and the Prophets.

 

Given that background, the beginning of chapter 17 ties together all that Jesus has been teaching.  So here, Jesus is answering the question, What is the Kingdom of God really about, if not these human ideas?

 

As we work through this summary teaching, we need to dig deeper, so please open your pew Bibles to page 876.

 

“And he said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin [stumbling blocks] are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin [stumble].”

When we hear about temptations to sin, we often think about those things which lure our already-perverse desires toward what is evil.  It’s like the old cartoons with a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, and the devil’s telling us to do what we know is wrong.

If you look at the footnote on “temptations to sin,” you’ll see that the Greek literally says “stumbling blocks.”  Skandalon (think of scandal) is a snare used by hunters, so that their prey will stumble and be caught.  Think of how traps are made: they are built to entice by appearing genuine.  Food is laid out for a hungry rodent—only that when the cheese is taken, the snap comes down.

Jesus is talking about those things which ensnare people in their faith and cause them to doubt or fall away entirely.  This happens when Christians don’t practice what they preach—when they live contrary to God’s Word.

(This is what we pray to be protected from in the Lord’s Prayer when we pray, “Hallowed be Thy Name”: “But anyone who teaches or lives contrary to God’s Word profanes the Name of God among us. Protect us from this, heavenly Father!”[1])

The point is that unchristian behavior doesn’t just put your own soul in peril through unbelief.  It endangers the souls of those who are young or weak in faith.

 

This point is so important that our Lord provides a gruesome illustration: Having a stone tied around your neck and being drown in the sea.  Surely it would be better to be executed this way than for another believer to perish in hell because you failed to “walk in a manner worthy of your calling,”[2] a manner worthy of the Name God placed on you in Baptism.

 

Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”

Now Jesus teaches us how to avoid this terrible outcome.  How can we, the children of God, sinful as we are, avoid being stumbling blocks to the faith of others?  It’s done by calling sinners to repentance and forgiving them.

This is something we far too easily take for granted: Confession and absolution.  Oh yeah, that thing we do at the beginning of service.  But it’s so much more!  While you have your Bibles open, turn to Matthew 18 on page 823

 

18 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. 19 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. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

 

For Christians, being sorry for sin and extending forgiveness is no trifling matter.  This is the heart of the Christian Church because in confessing our sins and forgiving one another is to exercise the Keys of the Kingdom.  By forgiving your repentant brother or sister, you open the gates of heaven to them.  On the other hand, if you fail to forgive them when they are sorry, you shut heaven in their face and endanger them being lost for eternity!

 

Now turn back to Luke 17 (page 876):

 

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

 

With all that’s at stake, and all the potential damage we can wreak, this is our prayer too!  Lord, increase our faith, because if it were left up to us, we all too often become stumbling blocks to those around us.  We have pointed the finger at our brothers and accused them on causing division in the congregation.  A cry has gone up to heaven because the people who are called Christian have behaved in an unchristian manner.  Lord, have mercy on us because we have sinned against you and against each other!

 

Our Lord’s response is good news for us: “If you have[3] faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”  It doesn’t depend on the amount of faith we have, but in Whom we believe.  “If you have faith like a grain of mustard”—Even if your faith is weak and you struggle to believe that God is able to do as much as He says—“you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted’…”  It’s possible because, in the words of one commentator, “It is not so much great faith in God that is required as faith in a great God.” (Grantley Morris)

 

God is the one who makes such a monumental thing possible as sinners like us being forgiven—not only for what we have done against the God who called us, but also for what we have done to hurt our brothers and sisters.

 

By His great power, our Lord is also able to make this Christian Church, here in this congregation, a place where repentance and forgiveness are abundantly practiced.  He gives us hearts to confess our sins to each other, and yes, to forgive each other even seven times in a day if that’s what’s needed.

 

This is what the Christian Church looks like: a place where the lost have been gathered together by the Lord, where we have been given ears to heed the Word of God, where our sins have been forgiven by the Lord, and we also must forgive one another their trespasses against us.   Truly, He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”[4]  Amen.

[1] Small Catechism, 3rd Part

[2] Ephesians 4:1-3

[3] Often mistranslated, the first part of this is not contrary to fact.  The NIV gets the first part right: “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed…” then the NASB captures the rest: “you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and be planted in the sea’; and it would obey you.”

[4] Philippians 1:6

Longing for the Riches of Heaven (Luke 16:19-31)

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost + September 25, 2016

Text: Luke 16:19-31

 

When you’re a kid you can’t wait until your birthday—when I’m 7, I’ll get to…   For adults that still happens, except that we’re not looking forward to being another year older.  We look forward to vacations, getting a raise, or buying a house.  This sense of anticipation, of longing for something better, is what drives people through life.

 

Anticipation is also a prominent feature in lives of God’s children.  We live in anticipation of something better, more glorious, and perfect.  As St. Paul says, “In this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”[1]

 

It’s wonderful to meditate on the hope of eternal life, where we will be with the Lord and never have to leave Him.  But while we’re here in this life, the flip side of our anticipation is longing.   It’s a longing that we’re filled with every time there’s a reminder of how far off heaven is.  Chronic illness, poverty, temptation, and children being drawn away from the faith.  Doubt and affliction assail us and fill us with a hunger that cannot be satisfied here in this life.

 

The story of Lazarus[2] and the Rich Man is a picture of this longing to be satisfied.

 

19 “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores.”

 

We’re told very little about Lazarus, but what we are, we can assume that this is how his life was.  He was constantly hungry, perhaps he never had good health, and what little housing he had was barely adequate.  He lived in destitution.  In stark contrast, we see the rich man, who is the exact opposite—filled to the point of being gorged, dressed luxuriously, and having no pangs of want except when it’s time for the next meal.

 

Then comes that great equalizer: “The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried.”  And now there’s a great reversal between the two men: the rich man is in agony, while Lazarus is comforted.   But this isn’t to say Lazarus is being rewarded for his years of poverty, or that the rich man is being punished for having it easy.  While Jesus goes on to stress the importance of hearing the Word while we’re living, this is what the Word of God tells us: This is a broken and corrupt world because of sin—human sin, and we are all contributors.  Poverty, disease, injustice, hatred, and even death are the fallout of sin.  Some of the things we’re personally responsible for, but others like natural disasters and freak accidents no party can be blamed.

 

The hope for healing this sick world came when God sent His Son into it.  Of Him, John the Baptist says, “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”[3]  Through the Christ, God will right what is wrong and bring about a new creation out of this one.  He began it in Jesus’ birth, completed it on the cross and in His resurrection and ascension, and He will fulfill it completely when Jesus comes again in glory on the Last Day.

 

As God’s children, we live in between those two monumental events: the Ascension and Last Day.  Our way to Abraham’s bosom has been secured by Christ and received by faith.  Our share in His eternal, perfect Kingdom will mean an end to all suffering, as the angel tells John in Revelation: “He who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”[4]  That is our sure and certain hope.

 

But today we wait, and next week, and next year…until whenever He gathers us to Himself or comes like a thief in the night.  As life wears on, though, it becomes more difficult to feel at home in this world.  As we age, lose our health, see friends and family members die, and maybe even end up stuck in a nursing home, we can identify with Lazarus more and more.  We long to be satisfied because we’ve had it with the sin and trouble of this place.

 

But even while we wait on the Lord to deliver us, we have the comfort and strength we’ll need.  Just because we’re in anticipation doesn’t mean that God has abandoned His people.  The sons of Israel waited 40 years before they were brought across the Jordan, but His presence went with them in the Pillar of cloud and fire.[5]  The exiles in Babylon waited 70 years before He brought them back to Zion.[6]  The point is that He has been faithful to His people in anticipation in generations past, and He’s no different to each of us in His Church today.

 

Lazarus was poor in every earthly respect you can think of, destitute of the “good things” of this world.  Yet even though he was poor and needy in these ways, Lazarus was rich through his faith.  God had showered upon Him the riches of being a son of God, a citizen of His Kingdom.   As a man of faith, Lazarus also realized that he was a sojourner on the earth.  His stay in this body riddled by disease and pangs of hunger was passing away with each day.  But because God had an inheritance overflowing with goodness, Lazarus departed this life for his permanent home with the Lord.

 

It’s the same way for you and me in Christ.  Whether we’re rich or poor in daily bread, God showers us with spiritual, eternal riches.  In popular culture we’re bombarded with dreams of eating out all the time, driving a new car, having a vibrant retirement where you travel the world.  But don’t feel that God is depriving you if you shop at Grocery Outlet, nurse a beater with 190,000 miles, and are too riddled with arthritis to make it down the stairs (much less to Tahiti).  God is not depriving you because you are His child.  The gifts He promises, He abundantly fulfills.  You have His Word and the gift of the Holy Spirit living in you!  You have His full forgiveness and victory over death itself!  You have a God Who neither slumbers nor sleeps and Who commands His angels to guard you against dangers physical and spiritual![7]

 

We live in anticipation as God’s beloved children, never alone and never forsaken.  “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” the Lord says, “for they shall be satisfied.”  At long last, the day will come for us to leave this valley of sorrow and be gathered to Abraham’s bosom.   In full assurance that God will grant this, let’s pray the last stanza of one of our hymns:

 

Lord, let at last Thine angels come,

To Abr’ham’s bosom bear me home,

    That I may die unfearing;

And in its narrow chamber keep

My body safe in peaceful sleep

    Until Thy reappearing.

And then from death awaken me,

That these mine eyes with joy may see,

    O Son of God, Thy glorious face,

    My Savior and my fount of grace.

Lord Jesus Christ, my prayer attend, my prayer attend,

And I will praise Thee without end.[8]  Amen.

 

 

 

[1] Romans 8:24-25

[2] Different person from Lazarus of Bethany.  Lazarus is the Greek form of Eleazar, “one whom God helps.” (Eerdman’s Bible Dictionary)

[3] Luke 3:5

[4] Revelation 7:15-17

[5] Exodus 33:14

[6] Jeremiah 25:12

[7] Acts 2:38-39, Job 19:25-27, Psalm 121 and 90.

[8] “Lord Thee I Love With All My Heart” (Lutheran Service Book 708:3)

Freed to Serve with Eternal Riches (Luke 16:1-15)

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost + September 18, 2016

Text: Luke 16:1-9

 

Some parables which our Lord tells are easier to understand than others.  Take last Sunday’s about the Shepherd looking for His lost sheep.  It’s easy to identify as the sheep who Jesus takes up on His shoulders and carries home rejoicing.  Then there’s today’s story, which isn’t so much a parable about the Kingdom of God, but rather a lesson for those in the Kingdom.  At first blush, it seems like the Lord is advocating that we break the Seventh Commandment, “You shall not steal.”  The manager cooks the books at the expense of his master and for his own benefit.  At the end, he’s commended by the master “for his shrewdness.”  Is our Lord encouraging a “goals justify the means” method for the Gospel?  It’s as if He said, “It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as it results in ‘winning people’ for the kingdom.”

However, that’s not the right lesson to take from this parable.  In verse 8, the manager is called more than “dishonest”; he’s called “unjust.”  That’s not an example for Christians to follow.  His master commends his shrewdness, not his actions.  In terms of mammon, this unrighteous manager is a pro: He cleverly used earthly goods to reach an earthly goal.  His brilliance is right up there with Charles Ponzi, Bernie Madoff, and corporations that shelter themselves from tax by locating in Ireland.

As I said, this is a parable for the sons of light.  This is a lesson for the unjust who have been declared just through faith in Jesus Christ.  Our hopes are for more than peace and security in this world.  In this life, people cheat and wrong each other left and right.  A person who succeeds at swindling is kept up at night worrying the same will happen to him.  But as for us, we have been redeemed from futile pursuits by the Creator who poured out the priceless blood of His Son for us.  What’s more, if he’s secured “eternal dwellings” for us, how much more will He provide for the needs of this present life![1]

Now, here’s the lesson from this unjust manager: “For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.”  Does that mean that we can buy our  way or someone else’s way into heaven?  Absolutely not.  It’s another way that Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”[2]

Whether it’s for Christians or unbelievers, it’s true that money goes to what we love.  The sons of this world know how to spend their money on what matters most to them.  They stay up at night wondering how they can make just a few more dollars, make their lives just that much easier, and help the people they love most.

And Jesus says Christians should do the same thing!  Our money should go to what we love.  Our eyes have been opened to see that all we have, is provided by God: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”[3]  Our hearts have been renewed with love toward God and our neighbor, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”[4]  So, our money goes to what we love: the spread of the Gospel and helping our neighbor.  That’s what stewardship is.

And we do love God, don’t we?  We love Him because “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”[5]  He willingly bled and died to take the wrath of God away from us.  We love that He rose from the dead so that that we can know for sure if we die later today or Jesus comes back tomorrow, we can stand before Him without fear.  We love that He has called us to believe this Gospel!  Here especially at Bethlehem, we love that He calls men to serve Him as pastors to preach this Gospel.  We love that He equips pastors, missionaries, deaconesses, and charities to spread His love all over the world.  And finally, we love that we’re here right now and have a beautiful place to gather and receive eternal gifts from our Lord each week.

And because we love all of this, the sons of light—you and me—give our money so that it continues.  It’s important to us—more so than groceries, mortgages, bills, hobbies, and vacations—so we give the first of what we have to support it.  “On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper,”[6] St. Paul writes to the Corinthians.  And we do this gladly, because “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”[7] We do it out of love for every one of them!

Now, the sermon could end there, if we were completely renewed and without sin, but we also need to hear the rest of the text:

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

Remember where we came from: we are the unjust who have been declared just through faith, but we come from unjust stock—we are by nature sinful and unclean.[8]  It’s always a short step for us to say, “Lord, Lord” to our bank account or the job that funds it.  So the Lord tests our hearts to know what’s in them and to make sure that our faith is in Him.[9]  Each of us ought to examine our own heart regularly to see whom we have been serving.

“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.”  In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:19), Jesus says this just after, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal.”  Don’t put your hope in earthly treasure, because it is passing away.  That’s like building a sand castle and calling it your “forever home.”  Put your hope in God and the heavenly home He has waiting for you in Christ.

It’s sound advice.  But when it comes to money, we are not always sound thinkers.  Even Job faltered on this.  Job was left destitute so he said, “God has cast me into the mire, and I have become like dust and ashes. 20 I cry to you for help and you do not answer me; I stand, and you only look at me. 21 You have turned cruel to me; with the might of your hand you persecute me.”[10]  Because he lost his earthly treasure, he was sure he had lost his God.

And who of us can’t relate?  But our Lord challenges our attachment to the things of this life.  He exposes our love of money and calls us to repent.  He puts our sinful self to death by saying, “You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve.”[11]

You are baptized into Christ; your sins are forgiven.  Your unfaithfulness and idolatry have been forgiven.   He renews your heart and mind so that you love and serve only Him.  He takes you from being a son of this world, “seeking all that mammon proffers”[12] and makes you a son of light.  You are freed from serving wealth and chasing it into destruction because you have an inheritance which will never fade or pass away.   So, we let the money He’s given us serve others.  We give our “unrighteous wealth” to spread the Lord’s righteousness, so that we and all who believe may share in the true riches which have no end.  Amen.

[1] Matthew 6:33

[2] Matthew 6:21

[3] Psalm 24:1

[4] Romans 5:5

[5] Romans 5:8

[6] 1 Corinthians 16:2

[7] Romans 10:13-17

[8] Lutheran Service Book, 151

[9] Deuteronomy 8:2

[10] Job 30:19-21

[11] Deuteronomy 6:13

[12] “What is the World to Me?” LSB 730:3

Only God Can Judge and Save (Luke 15:1-10)

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost + September 11, 2016

Text: Luke 15:1-10

 

Most people think that Christians condemn sins like abortion, fornication, homosexuality, and divorce.  After all, it’s people who identify as Christians who hold the picket signs outside Planned Parenthood, and it’s people who call themselves Christians who shun a woman after a divorce or avoid teenage mothers.  It must be that Christians condemn sin.

This actually isn’t true.  Christians do not condemn sin.  That right belongs entirely to God.

God is the One who condemns sin by His holy Law.  He condemns abortion when He says, “You shall not murder.”  He condemns sex outside marriage by saying, “You shall not commit adultery.”  And He condemns homosexual relations and divorce by saying, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and cling to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.”[1]

God is the Judge, just like we confessed in the Creed.  But His Law goes further than we would.  He also condemns those things we think are minor.  He condemns gossipers, busybodies, and those who show favoritism when He says, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.”  He condemns the miserly and those greedy for gain by saying, “You shall not steal and you shall not covet.”[2]

Really, Christians have no grounds for condemning others.  “Judge not,” Jesus says, “that you be not judged.  For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.”  Who are we to accuse others of sin, when we are chalk full of sins ourselves?  The Apostle writes, “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges.  For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.”  Before the angry mob that had gathered to accuse an adulteress, Jesus says, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”[3]

Christians do not condemn; each Christian must repent of his or her own sins.  Now let’s understand that from the Gospel for today:

1Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear [Jesus].  2And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’”

The truth is that everybody wants to go to heaven.  Heaven is for Real and Love Wins.[4]  Nobody would knowingly choose to suffer in hell for eternity.  Everyone wants to be chosen by God to be with Him in heaven.  Trouble comes when we look for God’s choice in the wrong place.   It’s all too common for us to look for God’s choice in the mirror.  But we don’t hold that mirror right up to our face (especially when we don’t like what we see).  Instead, we tilt it slightly so we can compare ourselves to others.  Ah!  Now we can see how much better we are than those other people.

Last week, Pope Francis made Mother Teresa a full-fledged saint.  She was chosen for this posthumous honor because of her life of good deeds.  Her good deeds are so widely known that she’s become the gold standard for someone who’s got what it takes to go to heaven.  In Roman Catholic teaching, by her being made a saint, she is so good that people are encouraged to pray and look to her for blessings.  Basically, she worked her way to the same plane as Jesus—according to Roman teaching.

But if this is true, I’m certainly no Mother Teresa, and I’m guessing you’d say the same thing about yourself.   Praise the Lord that we are not where God looks for His choice of who goes to heaven.  The decision on who’s good enough to go to heaven was made long before any of us was born, even “before the foundation of the world.”[5]   It’s God’s Son, Jesus, who alone makes the cut.   He is the righteous Man who is free from sin.  The only one who “shall ascend the hill of the Lord and stand in His Holy Place”[6] is Jesus—not the pope, not even the Apostles, not Mother Teresa, and certainly not you or me!

 

Left to ourselves, there is no distinction between so-called good and bad people.  Every one of us is a lost sheep or a lost coin apart from Jesus.  But just as everyone is lost and condemned, the Lord Jesus Christ took the condemnation for everyone and seeks to find those who are lost.[7]  So, every single person who repents and believes in Jesus is found and there is joy in heaven over this!  “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” and again, “Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”    What a reason to rejoice!  It isn’t about some people’s fervent search for God, or burning desire to please Him.  The reason to rejoice is in God’s diligent search for us.

And just what does that rejoicing look like?  St. John was given a glimpse in Revelation 5:

And they sang a new song, saying,

“Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals,

for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God

from every tribe and language and people and nation,

and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,

and they shall reign on the earth.”[8]

In heaven, the courts are filled with choirs of angels and people belting out the praise of Jesus, who took us from being very nearly lost in hell.  He snatched us from the grasp of death and sets us in heaven.

With this in mind, there’s no way we can climb into God’s throne and judge another sinner.  We ourselves were lost, but Jesus sought us out.   Now we see that it’s His desire for every lost person to be found because their life is precious in His sight too!  So, when we another lost person, our hope for them is that they will be found by the Lord and come to repentance and faith.  But just as little as we can sit and condemn, we also have no power to turn their hearts.  That too belongs to God.  Knowing this, I would question the effectiveness of picket lines in front of Planned Parenthood, and churchly people shunning someone who’s living in sin.  Wouldn’t it be better to pray to the God who seeks sinners to intercede?  Wouldn’t it be better for us to show mercy to a fellow sinner, knowing that it could just as easily be us who were wandering from the Lord?  Let God with His Word be the power to turn their hearts, because that’s how He saved us.

May God make us so heavenly minded that our focus and our joy is like that of the angels: Praising the Lord for His mercy and rejoicing every time it’s received by one such as us.  Amen.

[1] Exodus 20:13, 14; Genesis 2:24

[2] Exodus 20:15-17

[3] Matthew 7:1, Romans 2:1-2, John 8:7

[4] The titles of two popular, but unbiblical views of salvation.

[5] Ephesians 1:4-5

[6] Psalm 24:3

[7] Romans 5:12-21

[8] Revelation 5:9-10