Good Friday (John 18-19)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Good Friday + April 19, 2019

Text: John 18-19

In the Name of Jesus. Amen.

Jesus is dead.  This was everything His enemies wanted.  This is everything that God wanted.  “It is finished.”  This is what Lent has been leading up to—the Son of God, hanging lifeless on the tree of the cross.

Another tree brought this all about—the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Our ancestors brought sin and death into the world by disobeying God’s one simple command.  Along with their disobedience, they passed this evil down to their descendants so that every single last human being is well-acquainted with evil and only knows a fleeting shadow of good.

We have every right to be angry with Adam and Eve for what they did.  It’s your fault things are this way.  It’s your fault that wars break out.  It’s your fault that children die.  It’s your fault that injustice and corruption are rampant.  But even as we judge and condemn them, our own sin gets in the way.  Even the wildest rage of anger is just despair dressed up in different clothes.  Both of them are a confession of hopelessness, a resignation that even the highest powers of heaven can’t repair what was broken.  This will not do.

As we hear the Passion of Our Lord—the heartlessness of Judas, the sleepiness and the cowardice of the disciples, the mockery and condemnation of an innocent man—it’s maddening to hear that they got away with it.  But we are no better.  If we had been there, we would have done evil too.  We would have rejected the Christ, because “it was the will of the Lord to crush him.” (Isa. 53:10)

            None of us is able to master and conquer our sinful, dying condition.  Adam died, along with all his descendants—Seth, Enosh, Kenan, Mahalel, Jared—all died.  Your ancestors have all died, or will die soon.  One day soon, you will die, too.

But, Jesus died, and that was the thing that turned everything around.  It is He who “accomplished the salvation of mankind by the tree of the cross that, where death arose, there life also might rise again and that the serpent who overcame by the tree of the garden might likewise by the tree of the cross be overcome.”  “It is finished” He said as He bowed His head and gave up His Spirit: All that needed to be done to overturn the reign of sin and the power of death.

The evangelist points out that these things were done to fulfill the Scriptures.  Jesus died that the Scriptures might be fulfilled which say: “He will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; It will be said on that day, “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.” (Isaiah 25:6-9) and “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!” (Job 19:25-27) and “He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3:15).

Jesus died and now death is finished.  Sin is atoned for.  You who believe in Him have overcome sin and death.  Jesus died, but you will live eternally.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Maundy Thursday (John 13:1-15, 34-35)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Maundy Thursday + April 18, 2019

Text: John 13:1-15, 34-35

When we think about the Lord’s Supper as Christians of the Lutheran confession, we talk a great deal about the nature of the Sacrament (what it is), and how it benefits us personally.  And it is necessary for us to know that, but as they say, there’s more to the story.  The setting for the institution of the Lord’s Supper is the discourse Jesus has with His disciples on the night in which He was betrayed.  Here’s how the story continues after the assigned pericope:[1]

16Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. 18I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But the Scripture will be fulfilled, ‘He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’ 19I am telling you this now, before it takes place, that when it does take place you may believe that I am he. 20Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.”

21After saying these things, Jesus was troubled in his spirit, and testified, “Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” 22The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he spoke. 23One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was reclining at table at Jesus’ side, 24so Simon Peter motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. 25So that disciple, leaning back against Jesus, said to him, “Lord, who is it?” 26Jesus answered, “It is he to whom I will give this morsel of bread when I have dipped it.” So when he had dipped the morsel, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. 27Then after he had taken the morsel, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “What you are going to do, do quickly.” 28Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. 29Some thought that, because Judas had the moneybag, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the feast,” or that he should give something to the poor. 30So, after receiving the morsel of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.

31When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. 32If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and glorify him at once. 33Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me, and just as I said to the Jews, so now I also say to you, ‘Where I am going you cannot come.’ 34A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.

Love is essential to understanding what Jesus was doing for the disciples that night.  It’s also essential to what He expects them and us to continue to do in our continued life together.

Contrary to popular thought, the most insidious thing in God’s sight is not gross immorality; it’s people who call themselves Christians but have no need for a Savior. They may be able to recognize true from false doctrine; they may love conservative practices over clever innovations.  But if you truly desire to be a Christian, you must confess yourself a sinner.

Peter says to Jesus, “Lord, you shall never wash my feet!”  This is like saying, Thanks for the teaching Rabbi, thanks for giving me a religion to follow on my way to heaven.  But you can’t come already clean to Jesus. “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.”  You must know that you are “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, naked,” (Rev. 3:17) and dirty.

This empty-handed sinner’s confession is central to the Lord’s Supper.  As the Lord says in another place, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” (Luke 5:32) One who has no need of this medicine and antidote to the poison of their sin has no place at the feet of Jesus.  And at His feet, Jesus washes us where we are the filthiest—in our innermost being, in our heart. 

But what about love? On the night in which He was betrayed, Jesus says: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  This is a commandment that cannot be fulfilled merely by outward action.  It must begin in the heart.  An evil heart, a heart that has not been broken by the weight of sin and healed by the Lord cannot achieve this commandment.

What kind of love is this? It says, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”  The example that Jesus gave was that He, their Teacher and Lord, humbled Himself as a servant and washed His disciples feet.  But that also included loving the very one who would betray Him.  The kind of love which our Lord commands us to do is that you give of yourself, even if the only payback you get is betrayal.

But how can we be capable of such love?  That brings us back to the Sacrament of the Altar.  In Luke 7, Jesus enters the house of a Pharisee, where besides the invited guests, a sinful woman comes and dotes on Jesus in a really embarrassing way: “When she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, 38 and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment.”  What could have inspired this unabashed love?  Jesus says of the woman, “I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little loves little.” (7:47).  It’s the forgiveness of sins.  When we recognize and appreciate what our Lord has saved us from, we love Him and others that much more.

This is what the Lord’s Body and Blood is capable of doing within us.  In it, Jesus releases us from our sins and raises us up with new hearts for loving service.  That’s why we often pray after receiving this gift: “We give thanks to You, almighty God, that You have refreshed us through this salutary gift, and we implore You that of Your mercy You would strengthen us through the same in faith toward You and in fervent love toward one another.” (LSB 201)


[1] Periscope means “to cut around” and describes the complete thoughts into which the Bible readings are divided. Many Bibles use subheadings to indicate this.

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.